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Knee soreness returns for Hakeem Nicks

Cedric Griffin, Hakeem Nicks AP

The Giants have been waiting most of the season for wide receiver Hakeem Nicks to get back to full health and resume his role as one of the more productive receivers in the NFL.

The wait has been a frustrating one and it might have hit another snag on Thursday. Nicks did not practice as a result of knee soreness, something that has been bothering him most of the season. It’s contributed to his absence from three games and been part of the reason why he’s been a less potent weapon than anticipated this season.

“It’s always a concern,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said, via ESPNNewYork.com. “But hopefully it will subside and he’ll be ready to go.”

Nicks has played in the last seven games despite not being 100 percent so he certainly is still in play for this weekend. Given how little he’s been able to give the team in some of those seven games, however, it isn’t a great sign for the Giants offense that his knee has flared up again.

Safety Kenny Phillips also missed practice Thursday because of a sore knee. Phillips returned from an MCL sprain in Week 12 against the Packers, aggravated the injury and played only 20 snaps last week against Washington. He also missed practice on Wednesday, so he may be a game-time decision again this week.

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Achilles injury doesn’t keep Joique Bell from practicing

Jared Allen, Joique Bell AP

The Lions give playing time to several different running backs, but Joique Bell is clearly at the top of the pecking order with 210 of the team’s 373 rushing attempts this season.

No other back has more than 71 carries, so the Lions would have to seriously boost someone’s role in the event that Bell isn’t able to play against the Packers on Sunday. Coach Jim Caldwell left that possibility open on Thursday.

Bell was a participant in practice after being listed as limited by an Achilles injury on Wednesday’s injury report, but Caldwell only said, via Tim Twentyman of the team’s website, that “we’ll see” when asked if Bell would be able to be in the lineup on Sunday. Bell missed one game earlier this year with a concussion and George Winn saw the most carries, although Reggie Bush and Theo Riddick would also be options for bigger roles if Bell were to miss another game.

Bell’s the only big injury concern for the Lions this week. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley was the only player to miss practice and it seems unlikely that he’ll be returning after missing the last seven games with a knee injury.

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Julio Jones, Steven Jackson remain out of Falcons practice

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The Falcons held a practice on Christmas Day, but wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Steven Jackson could have spent the session warming themselves in front of the Yule Log.

Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com reports that both players were held out of practice for the second straight day as the Falcons make their way toward Sunday’s NFC South championship game against the Panthers.

Jones missed Week 15 with what was originally called a hip injury, but has been clarified as being a strained oblique. Jones returned for seven catches and 107 yards last week, however, and is expected to play again this week despite being short of 100 percent physically.

Jackson’s outlook is less clear. He hurt his quad against New Orleans and the team hasn’t given much in the way of an update about his condition during the week, so Friday’s listing on the final injury report of the week should give us our best insight into the team’s plan for Jackson on Sunday.

Kicker Matt Bryant (illness), wide receiver Harry Douglas (foot) and Roddy White (ankle) all returned to practice after missing Wednesday’s workout.

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Report: Logan Thomas won’t start for Cardinals, Ryan Lindley will

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Cardinals rookie Logan Thomas had a rough opening to his first practice since being named the team’s Week 17 starter, but both he and coach Bruce Arians said that things got better as the session went along on Wednesday.

It appears that they didn’t get good enough for Thomas to hold onto the starting job until Sunday, however. Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic reports that the Cardinals have decided to go back to Week 16 starter Ryan Lindley for their regular season finale against the 49ers.

When Arians made the call to go with Thomas earlier this week, he said that he wouldn’t hesitate to pull the rookie if things weren’t going well and that Thomas’s practice performance could lead him to change his mind before Sunday. That makes Thursday’s report less surprising, if not particularly positive for an Arizona team that was likely hoping Thomas would prove to be a better option than Lindley in the event that Drew Stanton doesn’t heal in time to play in their postseason opener.

The Cardinals practice on Thursday, although Arians isn’t expected to meet with the media to discuss the latest twist at quarterback for the Cardinals until Friday.

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Thirty years ago today, Jerry Rice was Blue-Gray Game MVP

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On many Christmases past, football fans and NFL draftniks had an excuse to duck away from unwrapping gifts for a few minutes. The old, reliable Blue-Gray Game was on, delivering a nice little needed dose of football in-between heaping plates of holiday cheer.

An annual game for college stars hoping to turn pro, the Blue-Gray Game was one of the primary talent showcases of its time. And on Christmas 1984, those who tuned into the Blue-Gray Game saw a prolific wide receiver from a Division I-AA school star against major-college standouts.

Thirty years ago Thursday, Mississippi Valley State’s Jerry Rice was the Blue-Gray Game MVP as the South rolled to a 33-6 victory over the North.

Rice caught a pair of TDs, including a 60-yarder, according to The Associated Press‘s account of the game.

“I wanted to make a point for small college players everywhere,” Rice said afterwards, per the AP.  “I wanted to play well for them.”

The Blue-Gray Game hasn’t been played as a college football all-star contest since 2003. Perhaps because of its placement on Christmas — and perhaps because it was that nice little shot of holiday football — the game still inspires some nostalgia. We wouldn’t mind its return. And we really wouldn’t mind seeing some highlights of the ’84 game, when Rice — soon to be an NFL star — made a big splash.

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Kenny Vaccaro fined $10,000 for late hit

Kenny Vaccaro, Corey White AP

Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro’s second NFL season hasn’t gone particularly well as he’s struggled to provide reminders of the promise he showed during his rookie season.

Vaccaro’s season got worse last Sunday when the Saints were eliminated from the playoffs and again this week when he learned he’d been fined by the league for a late hit during the game. Vaccaro was not penalized for the play, but was dinged $10,000 by the league for hitting Falcons running back Steven Jackson late. Vaccaro plans to appeal and says he was making a legal hit while trying to stop Jackson’s progress.

“I’d never try to hurt anybody, but at the same time, if I don’t do that, I’m not hustling, I’m not finishing the play,” Vaccaro said, via the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “So you’ve got to pick your poison. I’m just trying to get the guy down. … You’ve got to defend every blade of grass on the field.”

Vaccaro drew a fine for roughing the passer in his first NFL game last season, but has otherwise avoided league discipline in his first two seasons.

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Gary Kubiak: Running game has become “a concern”

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Justin Forsett has run the ball well enough this season to be named a Pro Bowl alternate, but the last two weeks have been rough sledding for him.

Forsett has run the ball 26 times for 67 yards in the last two games, including a 10-carry, 19-yard effort in last weekend’s 25-13 loss to the Texans. The Ravens were as bad or worse throwing the ball against Houston and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak chalked up some of those troubles to the running game’s inability to get unshackled.

“The last two weeks, we’ve struggled to run the ball,” Kubiak said, via the Baltimore Sun. “Us running the ball makes everything else go for us, so it’s pretty obvious when we run the ball 19 times last week for [36] yards, we’re not going to throw it good, probably, too. It has been a concern. It’s something we’re working extremely hard on. If we’re going to win, we’re usually going to run the ball well. I’d like us to get back to it real quick.”

The Ravens get the league’s worst run defense in this weekend’s game against the Browns, although they’ll have to find their way behind a remade offensive line with right tackle Rick Wagner going on injured reserve this week. Left tackle Eugene Monroe has missed both days of practice this week with an ankle injury, which could further complicate the quick return to form of a run game that slowed down at the wrong time for the Ravens.

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Lance Briggs “happy” with Robbie Gould’s comments

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Earlier this week, Bears kicker Robbie Gould took issue with coach Marc Trestman’s decision to bench quarterback Jay Cutler in Week 16 and said it was a sign that “this whole season’s not the Bear way” in terms of dealing with the issues facing the team.

One of Gould’s longtime teammates agrees with him. Linebacker Lance Briggs said on his weekly CSN Chicago show this week that he was “happy with what Robbie had to say” about the way the Bears have conducted their business this season.

“I certainly know what the ‘Bear way’ is, I lived it for many years. We always did a really good job of protecting what’s in our house, that locker room. If we had any issues, we handled it within that locker room and we protected ourselves from the outside,” Briggs said, via the Chicago Tribune. “There were a number of things that ended up slipping out that shouldn’t have. There was a lot of drama and there was more of a focus on what was happening off the field than what there was on the field and everything just kind of mounted and mounted on top of each other.”

Briggs closed the show by saying farewell to Bears fans and it continues to look like he’ll be learning the way of another team if he continues his career in 2015. With cornerback Charles Tillman also possibly leaving, the Bears will move further away from the players most associated with the Lovie Smith era, leaving responsibility for shaping “the Bear way” to a new group. We’ll know whether Trestman will continue to lead that group soon, but plenty of other questions remain about the Bears’ ability to get back on track next season.

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Drew Brees remains confident in Saints’ direction

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

A lot of people thought that the Saints would be playing into January, but their season will come to an end before the end of 2014 after losing five of their last seven games to crash out of the playoff picture.

The Saints need a win over the Buccaneers to avoid their first 10-loss season since 2005, the year before quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton arrived in New Orleans and ushered in the most successful period in the history of the franchise. Things have gone off track this year, but Brees doesn’t need any explanations about why he should be confident about the team’s ability to keep that run going in 2015 and beyond.

“This year did not dissuade me in any way from feeling the way I always have about this team and myself and what we have here and what we’re continuing to build here,” Brees said, via ESPN.com. “I’m very confident. I look around me at this team, and I feel like we have all the pieces in place, knowing we’re going to go out and add pieces as well. I’m very confident in our management, our general manager Mickey Loomis to do that, Sean Payton, our entire coaching staff.”

You wouldn’t expect Brees to say that the bottom had fallen out of the franchise, but a messy cap situation and the need to fix a defense that broke down this year top the list of reasons to dim expectations for the Saints’ immediate future. The former is usually manageable, but there are no guarantees on the latter and the Saints have learned in two of the last three years that ranking at the top of the league offensively isn’t enough to overcome a defense that offers token resistance to the opposition.

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League fines Lynch $11,050 for unsportsmanlike conduct

Lynch Getty Images

Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch won’t be saying “thank you” to the league office this week.  (He may instead be using a different two-word expression that ends in “you.”)

Per a league source, Lynch received a fine in the amount of $11,050 for his backward dive while grabbing his crotch into the end zone at the tail end of his career-long 79-yard touchdown run.  Lynch wasn’t flagged for the move, which was deemed to be unsportsmanlike conduct.

It’s the same finisher Lynch applied nearly four years ago, at the tail end of his “Beastquake” run against the Saints in the playoffs.  Monday’s edition of PFT on NBCSN included a split-screen of the eerily similar runs with the identical endings.

In the 2010 playoffs, Lynch was neither flagged nor fined for the move.  Last year, the NFL fined Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan $10,000 for doing the same thing.

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Geno Smith: I’m part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution

New York Jets AP

All Geno Smith wants for Christmas is another chance to be the Jets’ starting quarterback.

Smith will make his 29th start at quarterback for the Jets over the last two seasons when they close out their 2014 season against the Dolphins on Sunday and spent some time ruminating about the previous 28 on Wednesday. Smith’s belief that he “underachieved” this year will be easier for many people to swallow than his assertion that he’s improved “to the point where I can go out there and be very productive. Smith would like a chance to convince the masses of that improvement in 2015.

“I see myself being the quarterback here for a long time,” Smith said, via the New York Post. “I see myself helping this team turn things around. Obviously, I’m a part of the reason why we are in this position, so I’d love to be a part of the solution.”

Figuring out Smith’s chances of starting next year are all but impossible before knowing who will be coaching the Jets and running the front office, but the 2013 second-round pick is almost certainly going to be around when the team starts work on 2015 and there’s no guarantee that there will be a surefire starter added to the roster in the offseason. That should give him an opportunity to show he can be part of the solution, although there’s a need for further improvement before anyone will be banking on Smith for the long term.

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Lions haven’t pulled many big road upsets over the years

Detroit Lions v Phoenix Cardinals Getty Images

With a victory Sunday at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, the Lions will win the NFC North.

They will also have pulled off a major road upset, something they haven’t often done in recent years. Oddsmakers have made the Lions 7.5-point underdogs against the Packers, who have not lost at Lambeau all season.

According to the Spreadapedia database, the Lions have lost 24 road games in a row as underdogs of seven points or more. Their last win against a home favorite of seven-plus points came on December 31, 2006, when 2-13 Detroit (+14) stunned Dallas.

Digging deeper, the numbers don’t get much prettier.

Since 1978, the Lions are 8-96 as road underdogs of seven points or more (.077). Moreover, they are 2-25 in December vs. home favorites of at least seven points (.074).

The Lions’ last December road win of significance came in 1993, when Detroit (+7) knocked off the then-Phoenix Cardinals. The Lions would go on to win the NFC Central.

Alas, Detroit hasn’t won a division title since. But the Lions can end that drought in style on Sunday — and while pulling one of the most important road upsets in their history.

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Le’Veon Bell: It’s “pick your poison” against Steelers offense

Le'Veon Bell AP

Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell had a good week.

He was selected to go to the Pro Bowl and named the MVP of the Steelers by his teammates in recognition of the leap he’s taken in his second season. Bell leads the AFC in rushing and he’s set team records for yards from scrimmage and receiving yards by a running back to help the Steelers get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

Bell’s production has slowed a bit in the last two weeks as the Falcons and Chiefs have held him to 192 total yards after Bell topped 200 yards in each of Pittsburgh’s three previous outings. Bell’s not feeling down about that, though, because he’s seen the way the choice to key on him has opened up things up for the rest of the offense.

“I wouldn’t say [it’s] frustrating,” Bell said, via the Southwestern Pennsylvania Observer-Reporter. “Teams are obviously trying to slow down the run a little bit but they can’t stop the pass when they do that. Pick your poison.”

With Ben Roethlisberger second in the NFL in passing yards and Antonio Brown leading the league in receptions and receiving yards, that’s a pretty apt description of what defenses are faced with when lining up against the Steelers this season. That versatility has helped them to the top of the league’s offensive rankings while mitigating the impact of a defense that’s been leakier than we’re used to seeing from Steelers playoff teams.

If that defense can hold up, the offensive balance should make the Steelers a tough out in January whether they’re playing at Heinz Field or on the road.

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Rams, Seahawks get Christmas off

Santa

The calendar says it’s Christmas, but the work week says it’s Thursday.  And 16 NFL games will be played on Sunday.

Which makes Thursday an important day of preparation.  Which makes it a little surprising (pleasantly) to see that both the Rams and Seahawks have opted to pull the plug on practice, giving their players the day off.

Both teams have submitted estimated injury reports for practices that won’t happen today.  For Seattle, the most troubling disclosure comes from the fact that running back Marshawn Lynch, if practice had in fact occurred, would not have practiced due to a back injury.  Lynch didn’t practice Wednesday, for the same reason.

The good news is that tackle Russell Okung would have fully participated, a day after fully participating due to a chest injury that caused him to miss Sunday night’s win over the Cardinals.  Center Max Unger, who has missed the last five games with knee and ankle injuries, also would have practiced on a limited basis — as he did on Wednesday.

Also missing practice on Wednesday and the practice that didn’t happen on Thursday were defensive end Demarcus Dobbs (ankle), receiver Jermaine Kearse (hamstring), tight end Cooper Helfet (ribs), receiver Chris Matthews (hamstring), and cornerback Tharold Simon (shoulder).

Hopefully, they’ll rest, eat a few sandwiches, and be good to go on Friday.

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Richard Sherman thinks Marshawn Lynch is the NFL’s MVP

Lynch Getty Images

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson deserves consideration for the league’s MVP award.  Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman would give the honor to another member of the team.

Marshawn Lynch is playing MVP-caliber football,” Sherman said earlier this week, via the team’s official website.  “I remember the last time a running back got it — I think he had 2,000 yards and broke close to a record, but he also had 14 touchdowns, and Marshawn has 16 touchdowns. . . .

Sherman is referring to Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who had 2,097 yards in 2012.  Peterson actually had only 13 total touchdowns that year; 12 rushing and one receiving.  Still, touchdowns scored won’t influence the MVP vote unless Lynch scores four or more on Sunday and pushes his total 20 or above.

For Peterson, the 2,097 rushing yards — second in league history — got him the award.  With 1,246 rushing yards in 2014, Lynch currently is tied with 1975 Franco Harris for 243rd all time.  So Lynch would need to have a pretty big day against the Rams to move the needle in that regard.

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Logan Thomas settles down after shaky start to practice

Seattle Seahawks v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

The Cardinals will give rookie Logan Thomas his first NFL start at quarterback this weekend against the 49ers as they try to close their regular season with a win that could give them the NFC West title and that means he’s getting his first extended time with the first team at practice this week.

Things were a bit rocky out of the gate on Wednesday. Coach Bruce Arians termed Thomas’s outing “shaky” in the early portion of practice, something that Thomas agreed with while also agreeing with Arians that “it got better and better” as he took more reps. Thomas said that it is different learning the offense as the third-stringer he’s been for much of the season and actually executing it, something Arians indicated would be the rookie’s biggest challenge.

“He’s worked, fundamentally, extremely hard and gotten much better,” Arians said, via ESPN.com. “But putting those fundamentals to use in the offense, that’s two totally different things.”

The Cardinals remain hopeful that Drew Stanton will be healthy enough to start their first playoff game, which will be at the NFC South winner if they can’t win and get help from the Rams on Sunday. If Stanton can’t go, though, they’d feel a lot more comfortable with their situation if Thomas’s fundamental improvement translates to a competent performance in Week 17.

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