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NFL playoff picture taking shape after Week 12

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With 12 weeks down and five to go in the NFL season, the playoff race is taking shape. The Bears’ win and the Packers’ loss changed the top of the NFC North, while the Bengals’ win and the Steelers’ loss tightened the battle for the final AFC wild card spot.

Below we provide the state of the playoff race through Week 12, with the six playoff teams that would be in the postseason in each conference if the playoffs started today.

NFC

1. Falcons (10-1): Beating the Buccaneers makes the Falcons the overwhelming favorites to win the NFC South, and the heavy favorites to win home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

2. 49ers (8-2-1): A big win in New Orleans strengthens the 49ers’ hold on the No. 2 seed and a first-round playoff bye.

3. Bears (8-3): They lead the NFC North for now, but a big three-week stretch looms with the Seahawks, Vikings and Packers coming.

4. Giants (7-4): Their big Sunday night win over the Packers, combined with the Redskins beating the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, gives the Giants some breathing room in the NFC East.

5. Packers (7-4): Green Bay’s five-game winning streak came to a screeching halt in New Jersey. Now the Packers need to bounce back against the Vikings next week.

6. Seahawks (6-5): Despite Sunday’s disappointing loss in Miami, Seattle’s head-to-head tiebreaker edge over Minnesota and conference record tiebreaker edge over Tampa Bay still gives the Seahawks the inside track for the final wild-card berth.

In the mix: The 6-5 Buccaneers and 6-5 Vikings both missed golden opportunities to capitalize on Seattle’s loss, but they remain right in the thick of the playoff race. The 5-6 Redskins own the head-to-head tiebreaker edge over both the 5-6 Cowboys and the 5-6 Saints. No other NFC teams have realistic playoff hopes.

AFC

1. Texans (10-1): The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through Houston.

2. Ravens (9-2): Baltimore’s overtime win in San Diego keeps the Ravens in prime position to earn a first-round playoff bye.

3. Patriots (8-3): New England owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Denver.

4. Broncos (8-3): Denver clinches the AFC West with either a win or a Chargers loss next week.

5. Indianapolis (7-4): With the Colts in the wild card lead, a showdown between Peyton Manning and his former team looks likely in the first round of the playoffs.

6. Pittsburgh (6-5): The Steelers currently own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bengals for the final wild-card spot.

In the mix: The 6-5 Bengals control their playoff destiny, as they still have a Week 16 rematch with the Steelers. The rest of the AFC — including the 5-6 Dolphins, 4-7 Chargers, 4-7 Titans, 4-7 Bills and 4-7 Jets — will all need something approaching a miracle to reach the playoffs.

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Titans’ Sebastian Tretola suffers minor injury in shooting

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Titans guard Sebastian Tretola suffered a minor injury early this morning when he was shot in the leg.

The Titans released a statement saying Tretola was grazed by a bullet.

“We are aware of the reports that [Tretola] received treatment for a wound when he was grazed by a bullet,” the statement said, via Paul Kuharsky. “He has been released from the hospital and is thankful for only a minor injury.”

The shooting took place in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Tretola played his college football for the Razorbacks. Tretola was a 2016 sixth-round pick of the Titans who played in one game as a rookie.

Tretola has recently been in the news because he and Titans receiver Tajae Sharpe were accused of assaulting a man outside a Nashville bar. Tretola and Sharpe say they defended themselves after the man attacked them, and they have filed a lawsuit against the man alleging that he falsely accused them.

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Eagles make moves as camp opens

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The Eagles commence the process of digging out of the NFC East basement, where they landed with a respectable 7-9 record, by making some moves before the opening of camp.

Gone is cornerback Dwayne Gratz, who joined the team last December. His roster spot was taken by quarterback Dane Evans, who has now officially signed with the team, several weeks after agreeing to terms.

Also, the Eagles have placed cornerback Sidney Jones and defensive tackle Beau Allen on the active/non-football injury list. Jones was drafted in April while recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered at his Pro Day workout. Allen suffered a torn pectoral muscle while working out on his own in April.

The overriding question for both players will be whether they move to the active roster before Week One. If not, they’ll be required to spend at least six weeks of the regular season on the NFI list.

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DeAndre Hopkins expected to report to Texans camp unlike Duane Brown

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While the impasse between the Texans and left tackle Duane Brown likely will continue into training camp, receiver DeAndre Hopkins will report, according to Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle.

Hopkins held out one day last year as he seeks a new contract.

Negotiations on a long-term deal for the Pro Bowl receiver have been quiet as the Texans head to camp, according to Wilson, but both sides are highly motivated to reach an agreement.

Steelers receiver Antonio Brown signed a four-year, $68 million deal that included a $19 million signing bonus in the offseason. Brown’s $17 million average tops all NFL receivers, with A.J. Green making $15 million a year, Julio Jones $14.3 million a year and Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas both at $14 million a year.

Brown, though, is expected to continue to stay away after skipping the voluntary offseason program. The collective bargaining agreement allows for fines of $40,000 for each day missed.

Brown’s deal has two years remaining, including a non-guaranteed base salary of $9.65 million this season. The Texans have an unofficial policy not to renegotiate deals with two years left, with J.J. Watt and Andre Johnson being the exceptions.

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Eagles still expected to cut Ryan Mathews, but not at this moment

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The Eagles are still expected to cut Ryan Mathews, but just not yet, as they attempt to save some cash.

According to Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News, the veteran running back is expected to hang around the roster for another few weeks, even though he isn’t expected to take the field.

Rookies, quarterbacks and veterans coming off injuries reported to Eagles camp Sunday. Since Mathews is coming off neck disk surgery, he’s not going to be on the field for practice Monday, or probably not ever.

If the Eagles cut him with a failed physical designation now, they’d be on the hook for $1.1 million. If they cut him later when he’s ready to pass a physical, they’d still eat the $1 million in dead money against the cap, but wouldn’t have to pay him if he passes a physical. His doctors apparently want to reevaluate him in August, so the Eagles seem inclined to wait.

They’ve moved on already, in terms of the depth chart. They signed veteran running back LeGarrette Blount, and drafted Donnell Pumphrey in the fourth round.

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Jerry Jones reiterates support for Ezekiel Elliott

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At a time when Ezekiel Elliott is reportedly bracing for a suspension, his boss may be bracing for a fight.

Cowboys owner and G.M. Jerry Jones addressed with reporters on the first day of camp the one-year-old allegations of domestic violence against Elliott. And Jones has not wavered from his belief that Elliott is innocent.

“I have reviewed everything and there is absolutely nothing — not one thing — that had anything to do with domestic violence,” Jones said, via Todd Archer of ESPN.com.

This statement implies that Jones hasn’t truly reviewed everything, because the alleged victim’s version of the events undoubtedly has something to do with domestic violence. Otherwise, there would be nothing to investigate.

While Jones technically has no control over what happens, that won’t keep him from trying to push the outcome in a given direction. Or, more accurately, to continue to pressure the league office to exonerate Elliott.

It’s believed that he’s already made it clear that he won’t be as compliant as Patriots owner Robert Kraft was when the league suspended Tom Brady four games, and Jones’ comments from earlier this afternoon make it clear that the passage of time has put Jones in the mood for a compromise or any other outcome that entails not having Elliott available to play football for the Dallas Cowboys.

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PFT preseason power rankings No. 5: Oakland Raiders

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The biggest news of the Raiders offseason had little to do with the team they’ll be putting on the field in September.

That news was, of course, that they’ll be moving to Las Vegas after a long and fruitless attempt to find a stadium deal in Oakland. The fact that they’re on their way out hasn’t done much to damper excitement about what lies ahead for the team in 2017, however.

General Manager Reggie McKenzie’s rebuilding effort was a lengthy one, but it has resulted in a team positioned for a long run of success wherever they are playing their home games. Quarterback Derek Carr, wide receiver Amari Cooper, a talented offensive line and 2016 defensive player of the year Khalil Mack are the foundation of that promise and will be major drivers for the team again this year.

Adding running back Marshawn Lynch was an intriguing move as the prospect of putting Beast Mode behind that line is one that leads to visions of great offensive success. We’ll have to see what’s left in the tank after Lynch sat out last season, however, and the Raiders’ ultimate hopes rest heavily on a defense that remains a work in progress outside of Mack.

Biggest positive change: Carr ended last season on the sideline because of a fractured fibula, which created a painful game of “What if?” for the Raiders after a 27-14 playoff loss to the Texans with Connor Cook at quarterback. Had Carr avoided injury, the Raiders were well positioned to win the division and get a bye that would have allowed them to open the postseason on their home field.

While there’s no way to guarantee that he’ll remain that way, Carr is healthy now and his contract extension further cements him as the biggest reason to believe that the Raiders can fulfill the highest of expectations for the 2017 season.

Biggest negative change: The Raiders didn’t lose any major contributors this offseason and the biggest staff change involved bumping quarterbacks coach Todd Downing up to offensive coordinator. That move seems unlikely to lead to much of a difference for a unit with talent across the board.

As mentioned, the defense doesn’t have the same kind of talent and the Raiders added former Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano to Ken Norton’s defensive staff in hopes of maximizing what is on hand. Should the unit fail to improve and friction exist between them, it could put a cap on the team’s upside.

Coaching thermometer: Jack Del Rio took over a team that went 3-13 in 2014 and went 7-9 in his first year on the job before taking the Raiders to their first playoff appearance since 2002. That’s enough to avoid any concerns about a coaching change and the desire to keep building around a strong core of talent should keep it that way unless things go terribly wrong in the near future.

We’d like to crack a beer with … Gabe Jackson. Jackson also got a lucrative extension this offseason, which makes him part of that strong core and another example of how well Oakland’s rebuild has turned out. For these purposes, though, the right guard is the representative of a line that can sometimes get undervalued due to the other star power. We’ll give him the chance to shed some light on a big reason for the Raiders’ success.

How they can prove us wrong: Lynch having nothing in the tank would be a blow, but the biggest obstacle to the Raiders taking a spot at the top of the AFC would almost certainly be another year with a defense that forces the offense to be nearly flawless in order to win games.

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Steve Atwater rejoins Broncos, in multiple roles

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One of the greatest defensive players in Broncos history has returned to the team.

Safety Steve Atwater will become both an insider for the team-owned website and the fan development manager, via Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post.

Atwater, 50, spent 10 years with the team, winning a pair of Super Bowls and making it to the Pro Bowl eight teams. He was one of 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame earlier this year.

He also was responsible for one of the most memorable hits in league history, flattening monstrous Chiefs running back Christian Okoye.

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Sam Bradford feels more comfortable in Vikings offense this year

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Though it was hard to tell, Sam Bradford struggled to learn what was expected of him last year.

But even with a mid-season change at coordinator complicating his hi-nice-to-meet-you first season with the Vikings, Bradford still set a record for highest completion percentage (71.6) in league history.

The good news is, he feels a little more settled this year.

“Obviously last year was pretty unique, I have never been in that situation, and I don’t think many people have been in that situation,” Bradford told Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “But just to be here this offseason, to be able to go through the program, go through the meetings, the installs, really sit down and learn this offense and what we’re trying to do, it’s a much better situation than showing up here however many days, eight or nine, before the first game last year and trying to learn everything on the fly.”

While the trade from the Eagles just before the season was a shock to him, he benefited from the next change, as his background with Pat Shurmur eased the next transition after the departure of Norv Turner.

“I think the later we got in the year the better I felt with it,” Bradford said. “Obviously going through the change that we did kind of halfway through the season, having worked with Pat, I think that really helped me just because we have a really good relationship and I felt like we were able to communicate. Towards the end of the year I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on things.”

He responded with career highs in passer rating (99.3) and passing yards (3,877), but enters another season with uncertainty looming over him. Between the fact he’s entering the last year of his contract and the recovery of former starter Teddy Bridgewater from last year’s traumatic knee injury, Bradford knows there’s little beyond the immediate in his control, which makes familiar surroundings a good thing.

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OBJ visits Texas cancer patient, thanks to social media

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Say what you will about social media, but it allows for connections to be made that previously were impossible.

Case in point, via NJ.com: Through social media, Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. learned about a boy in Texas with a rare form of cancer. So Beckham visited him.

Danny Richburg, the father of Giants center Weston Richburg, got the assist, bringing to Beckham’s attention via twitter a Facebook post regarding Jayro Ponce’s wish to meet Beckham. Beckham responded almost immediately, and only a few days after it all got started, Beckham was in Amarillo to meet with the boy.

If you’re inclined to kick in a little cash to help with Jayro’s treatment, feel free. It will be a lot cheaper and take a lot less time than hopping a plane to Texas.

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Bills hoping Sammy Watkins is close to 100 percent for camp

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The Bills are bringing veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin in for a visit Monday. But the receiver they most want to see next week is one already on their roster.

One of the biggest questions for the Bills this season will be the availability of Sammy Watkins, after he underwent a second surgery on his left foot earlier this offseason. He hasn’t spoken to reporters this spring, though he did do some team drills near the end of the minicamp, creating the expectation that he should be at least close to 100 percent when camp opens later this week.

“Credit to Sammy, credit to our training staff and the way he’s attacked the rehab with them,” coach Sean McDermott said then, via Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News. “That has to continue, though. This is one step in that process of getting Sammy back to where he needs to be and where we need him to be.”

The Bills will likely keep the reins pulled back on Watkins, so as not to create any setbacks in what has been a career marked by injuries.

He played in the first two games last year before foot problems sent him to injured reserve. He came back to play the final six games of the season, but was far from the dynamic player they anticipated. Because of that, and the lingering health questions, they didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract.

He’s shown when he’s been well that he can be a playmaker. He just hasn’t been often enough, making this a crucial season for him.

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Richard Sherman confirms choice words in practice for Russell Wilson

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The Seahawks may dispute talk of hard feelings in the locker room toward their quarterback, but one of their most prominent players doesn’t deny using a little locker-room talk toward Russell Wilson.

In an interview with Josina Anderson of ESPN, cornerback Richard Sherman admitted that, during a June 2014 practice, he intercepted Wilson and shouted “you f–king suck!” at him.

“That’s 100% true, and I’ve said worse,” Sherman said, via TheBigLead.com. “I’ve said worse to Doug [Baldwin], I’ve said worse to [Jermaine] Kearse. Iron sharpens iron, as one man sharpens another. . . . I’m sorry that our competition, that the way we sharpen our iron, isn’t pretty and cordial. I’m sure if you went to see bad teams, they probably get along great, probably slapping high fives, but then you go 4-12.”

Sherman is right, but the whole “iron sharpens iron” thing doesn’t apply only to rough words or flared tempers. The notion that the best try to get the best out of those around the best includes the reality that if the best isn’t being generated by the best, there should be accountability.

Which gets back to one of the primary points made in the disputed story from Seth Wickersham of ESPN The Magazine that led with the “you f–king suck” quote. For the same reason Sherman would bark that at Wilson in the heat of the moment, Sherman and other teammates also would reasonably expect the coaching staff to coach Wilson as hard as the other players on the team are coached, and not to have any sacred cows or untouchable teammates who don’t get the same treatment.

Iron sharpens iron. So if a piece of iron is being sharpened with a velvet glove, it’s not going to be a sharp as it could be.

But Sherman and his teammates won’t admit that. They shouldn’t admit that. It all goes back to iron sharpening iron, and it’s a process that those who are iron believe those who aren’t iron would misunderstand, turning into something that it isn’t.

It’s not personal. It’s not mean spirited. It’s not petty. It’s about winning games, pursuing championships, and cementing legacies.

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PFT Live returns Monday, with a vengeance

My mandatory vacation is nearly over. And while four weeks of the PFT Live podcast (plus several interviews during the break, including sit-downs with Dak Prescott, Bruce Arians, Adam Gase, Rob Ninkovich, Wes Welker, and Drew Rosenhaus) helped fill the void, there was no replacement for three hours per day, five days per week, of radio and TV.

It resumes Monday morning, when I’ll be joined by Barstool Big Cat. The co-host of the wildly popular Pardon My Take podcast will be in studio for the final two hours of Monday’s and Tuesday’s show. And maybe we’ll open the phone lines at some point for a phone call from his podcast partner and my Internet son, PFT Commenter.

So join us at 6:00 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Radio, and/or at 7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN, as we all get ready for the 2017 season.

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Latavius Murray finds motivation in memory of friend

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Vikings running back Latavius Murray was believed to be the successor to Adrian Peterson, until the team drafted Dalvin Cook. With Murray’s role now vague and undetermined, especially since he was unable to participate in the offseason program, one thing is clear — he finds motivation from the memory of a friend who died last year in a shooting.

Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has the story on Murray’s tumultuous November, when his best friend, Jonathan Diaz, was shot and killed.

“You’re used to talking to somebody every day, telling him everything and you spent so much time with a person, and then they’re just not there,” Murray said last month. “It’s an unreal feeling. It still doesn’t feel real.”

Murray, then playing for the Raiders, suited up in the next game after Diaz died. He gained only 45 yards on 19 carries against Carolina.

“I went to work and was a mess,” Murray said. “I felt I had no choice. A part of me feels guilty, but what do you do in that situation? It also put it into perspective the game of football. I didn’t care for nothing that game. But I had to be out there, I guess.”

Murray now must also process the reality that the man who killed Diaz was acquitted of murder, based on self-defense. And Murray’s decision to change from No. 28 to No. 25 means he’ll be wearing Diaz’s high-school number.

The extra motivation to honor Diaz can’t hurt. But here’s the reality: Murray’s three-year, $15 million contract is actually a one-year deal worth as little as $3.4 million. Those financial realities should be more than enough reason to Murray to practice and play as well as he can.

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Ezekiel Elliott’s accuser speaks out, a year after alleged abuse

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A year after Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott allegedly engaged in domestic violence five times in a six-day period, his accuser has spoken out.

“Exactly 1 year ago today my life changed forever,” the woman accusing Elliott of domestic violence posted on social media, via TMZ. “I finally got the strength to be the strong woman I was and got myself out of a very toxic relationship. Ladies never think you’re too in love or too scared to leave because at one point that was me. There’s plenty of opportunities out there for you. Love yourself first. Speak up and stop domestic violence.”

The statement underscores the reality that, if the NFL doesn’t take action against Elliott, the alleged victim may decide to tell her full and complete story, either by doing an interview or filing a lawsuit. Which would put the league in the awkward spot of having to decide whether to leak or publish details that would refute her claims — or whether to weather the inevitable P.R. storm.

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PFT preseason power rankings No. 6: Dallas Cowboys

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Dak Prescott has proclaimed the Cowboys are going to win the NFC East again. If so, they will accomplish some things they haven’t in a long time.

The Cowboys haven’t repeated as division champions since 1996, the year after the franchise’s last Super Bowl championship; they have not posted back-to-back winning seasons since 2008-09; and it’s been since 1995-96 that the Cowboys have had back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins.

However, because of their talent on offense, the Cowboys head into 2017 as Super Bowl contenders.

Prescott won offensive rookie of the year honors with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions; Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie with 1,631 yards, earning him six MVP votes; Dez Bryant remains a big-play threat; and the Cowboys have three All-Pro offensive linemen.

It’s the lack of talent on defense that invites questions about how far the Cowboys will go this season. They lost six defensive players in free agency who combined for 64 starts last season, and the Cowboys spent seven draft picks on defensive players to replace them. The Cowboys are younger on defense than last season, but are they better?

Biggest positive change: The Cowboys lost 11 players in free agency and two more to retirement. They didn’t make any ballyhooed moves. But Tony Romo’s retirement assures two things: The Cowboys don’t have to worry about their all-time leading passer winning a Super Bowl elsewhere; and the quarterback controversy of last season is over. Dak Prescott won the job after Romo injured his back in the preseason, but even after Romo read a concession speech upon his return, a quarterback controversy remained. Romo’s departure leaves no question: This is Prescott’s team. The Cowboys veterans turned the keys over to Prescott this offseason, empowering him as their leader.

Biggest negative change: The Cowboys offensive line has earned the right to call itself the NFL’s best. Three linemen made first-team All-Pro honors last season. However, while center Travis Frederick, left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin return, the Cowboys lost the other two starters with whom they ended last season. Left guard Ron Leary signed with Denver in free agency, and right tackle Doug Free retired. The Cowboys moved left guard La’el Collins, who started the first three games last year before season-ending toe surgery, to right tackle and have often-injured Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper, a former first-round pick of the Cardinals, competing at left guard. The Cowboys might need some time to adjust to the changes.

Coaching thermometer: Jason Garrett enters the third year of a five-year deal with job security after last season’s 13-3 finish and NFL coach of the year honors. Garrett, though, has only a 58-46 record with two playoff appearances and one playoff victory in six full seasons as head coach. If he doesn’t get the Cowboys to the championship game this season, the heat will be on for next season.

We’d like to crack a beer with . . . Jason Witten. Truly one of the NFL’s all-time good guys. He is all about team on the field, and all about helping others off it. In 2012, he won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Five years after Witten’s retirement, Hall of Fame selectors will discuss his career. Witten has missed only one game in his career, sitting out a game against the Eagles his rookie season with a broken jaw, and he rarely misses practice. Who can forget his signature play from 2007 against the Eagles when Witten ran helmet-less down the field for a 53-yard gain?

How they can prove us wrong: Cowboys fans are painfully aware their team hasn’t made the NFC Championship Game since 1995, which was the last time they won the Super Bowl. They are 3-9 in the postseason since. As good as Tony Romo was, becoming the team’s all-time leading passer, he was 2-4 in the postseason. The Cowboys’ past two playoff losses – in 2014 and 2016 – came against the Packers when they couldn’t get enough consistent pressure on Aaron Rodgers. Getting to the passer continues to be a trouble spot for the Cowboys.

Dallas has not had a player with double-digit sacks since defensive tackle Jason Hatcher had 11 in 2013, and it has not had a “war daddy” pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware. The Cowboys drafted Taco Charlton in the first round, but he isn’t that. Rod Marinelli instead will rely on a rotation of pass rushers that includes Demarcus Lawrence, Charlton, Tyrone Crawford, Benson Mayowa and Charles Tapper, with hopes of wearing down offensive lines.

The Cowboys need more than 36 sacks and more than nine interceptions on defense, and they need Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott to continue to do what they did last season on offense.

The Cowboys will be hard pressed to win 13 games again, especially if Elliott misses any games because of an NFL suspension. But with a defense expected to feature four players who have yet to play a down in the NFL, the Cowboys actually could be better going into the 2017 postseason than they were in 2016 when they went four weeks between meaningful games.

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