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Harbaugh mum on Justin Smith MRI

Justin Smith Getty Images

49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith has undergone an MRI on his injured arm.  And coach Jim Harbaugh is saying nothing about what it revealed.

“It’s really going to be how he is today, tomorrow, Wednesday, before we know anything,” Harbaugh told reporters on Monday.

The 49ers are obligated to provide no information about Smith’s availability until Wednesday.  Then, they’ll be required only to say whether and to what extent he was prevented from practicing.  On Friday, the 49ers will apply one of the various labels to Smith — doubtful, questionable, probable, etc.

The Niners need Smith, if they hope to nail down the No. 2 seed in the NFC and the bye that goes along with it.  On Sunday night, the San Fran defense wasn’t the same without Smith.

They’ll need the defense to be the same and then some if the Niners hope to win in Seattle.

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Doug Marrone: Blame me, not Nathaniel Hackett, for offensive struggles

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The Bills have eight wins and one of the best defenses in the league, which makes it pretty obvious where the blame will lie should they fail to find a door into the playoffs over the next two weeks.

It’s the offense, obviously, and head coach Doug Marrone tried to head off criticism of offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett for that unit’s shortcomings on Thursday. Marrone said that blame should be on him for “anything that happens” with the football team and said that Hackett has been dealt a tough hand when asked about what he’d discuss with Hackett after the season.

“Those are things that I would talk with Nathaniel about,” Marrone said, via “[When] we go through a process after the season, like everybody knows, we’ll sit down and talk. It’s been two years now. We’ve gone through, I don’t know, how many quarterbacks that we’ve played. We’re playing with a quarterback that wasn’t in our training camp. I think all of those things are pretty big challenges when you’re trying to get things going from an offensive standpoint.”

The quarterback issues have been a challenge, although it’s hard to completely separate EJ Manuel’s failure to develop in his second season from the job done by the person in charge of the offense. Even with C.J. Spiller’s injury, it’s also hard to explain how one of the league’s best rushing attacks from last season is now averaging a toothless 97.5 yards per game.

None of that appears to have Hackett on thin ice in Buffalo, but it’s hard to come up with explanations other than the offense for why the Bills’ playoff drought could extend another season.

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Tough to say what Jaguars have in Blake Bortles

bortles AP

Blake Bortles’s rookie season has not gone according to plan.

When Jacksonville took Bortles with the third overall pick in the NFL draft, the plan was to sit him for the entire year. But the Jaguars were so bad early this season with Chad Henne as the starter that the coaches decided at halftime of Week Three that they had no choice but to bench Henne and see what Bortles could do.

It’s never a good sign when a team has to abandon its plans for developing the franchise quarterback after only 10 quarters, but the good news for Jacksonville should be that it has almost an entire season of tape on which to evaluate Bortles. The problem, however, is that from watching Bortles play, it’s tough to say what the Jaguars have in him.

In last night’s win over the Titans, Bortles showed some progress: He led two 11-play drives that ended in touchdowns, he didn’t have any turnovers, and he used his feet effectively, running for 50 yards and generally doing a good job of avoiding the pass rush despite not getting much protection.

However, Bortles also had a season-low 115 passing yards, a season-low 4.4 yards a pass and a season-low completion rate of 50 percent last night. As his rookie season wears on, Bortles seems to be throwing shorter passes and throwing the ball away more often. The result is that his interceptions are way down (he has just two picks in the last four games after having 12 picks in his first six games), but his yardage is down too, and we’re not seeing him throw downfield successfully. And Bortles’s big arm was one of the main reasons he was viewed as a strong prospect.

The Jaguars’ entire offense has been a mess this season, with a bad line and injuries at running back and wide receiver. As a result, you can hardly blame Bortles for the way he’s become a safe and at times overly cautious quarterback down the stretch. But you also can’t really evaluate Bortles. He’ll be the Jaguars’ starting quarterback next year, but the Jaguars really don’t know if he’s a franchise quarterback they can rely on for years to come.

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Gary Kubiak expects emotional return to Houston

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The Ravens will be in Houston Sunday, which means offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will be back in town for a game for the first time since being relieved of his duties as Texans head coach last season.

Kubiak said Thursday that he has nothing but “great feelings” for the team and owner Bob McNair after spending eight years as the team’s coach. Things got ugly at the end, but Kubiak took the Texans to their first playoff appearance and victory during a run that left Kubiak “very proud” of the work that was done. As a result of those feelings, Kubiak thinks there will be some emotion come Sunday even though he’s spending the week focused on other matters.

“It’s a big game for our team and it is the next game,” Kubiak said, via the Baltimore Sun. “I’m sure it will be somewhat emotional for me. Come Sunday, it will be a little bit different, but right now, I’ve got my hands full trying to figure out how to block [J.J. Watt] and for us to move the ball.”

If the Ravens score 24 points on Sunday, they’ll set a new franchise record for points in a season. That speaks well of the job that Kubiak has done this season and could help him make his way into consideration for head coaching openings again in the future. Any thoughts of that will also have to wait until after he faces Watt, but there’s little doubt that landing on his feet makes it easier for Kubiak to return to Houston without much bitterness for the way things ended.

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Jimmy Clausen as surprised as anyone he’s starting

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Some Bears players were miffed at learning of Jay Cutler’s benching via social media.

But no one could have been more surprised than the guy who’s starting in his spot.

Former backup Jimmy Clausen said he was stunned at being named starter in this week’s bombshell move by coach Marc Trestman.

I didn’t see it coming at all,” Clausen said, via John Mullin of “It was quite a surprise to me that they wanted to go with me this week. But it’s a great opportunity for me and the team to go out there on Sunday and put our best effort out there and hopefully get a ‘W.’”

Of course, why would Clausen see it coming. He’s the owner of one NFL win, and hasn’t started a game since 2010.

That might be why guard Kyle Long said he was stunned to read about the decision on Twitter.

“I was surprised,” Long said. “But it’s the NFL.”

Almost, anyway.

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Philip Rivers ready to go after “outstanding” day in practice

Philip Rivers AP

Quarterback Philip Rivers doesn’t miss practices often, so his absence from the field earlier this week and reports of a severe back injury led some to wonder if he might actually miss Saturday night’s game against the 49ers.

Rivers’s return to practice on Thursday quieted much of that concern. Coach Mike McCoy’s assessment of Rivers’s work in practice likely put any lingering worry to bed.

“Philip had an outstanding day,” McCoy said, via the team’s website. “A ball did not hit the ground in all of the throws he made today, so Philip was Philip.  He’ll be ready to roll.”

Neither McCoy nor Rivers provided a lot of insight into the nature of Rivers’s injury, although Rivers said that sitting out practice was “the only choice to make” to get him ready to play in a game the Chargers have to win if they’re going to continue pushing for the playoffs through the final week of the regular season. It won’t be easy without wide receiver Keenan Allen while facing a strong defense after two down weeks on offense, but  it’s a better prospect than playing with Kellen Clemens by a pretty wide margin.

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Titans coach complains about calls against Jaguars

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When you’re one of the worst teams in the league, and you lose to one of the teams you were tied with for that honor, there has to be a reason.

Naturally, it was the officials who doomed the Titans last night, as they lost to the mighty Jaguars.

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said it was no coincidence that Jags quarterback Blake Bortles was able to scramble and continue drives, finishing the night with 50 rushing yards.

They were holding the crap out of us on our defensive lineman when the quarterback got out of the pocket and we didn’t get a call,” Whisenhunt said, via Jim Wyatt of the Tennesseean. “That was very frustrating.”

Defensive lineman Jurrell Casey took a more responsible approach.

“There were a couple of times I got held,” Casey said, “but at the end of the day you have to get off the blocks and keep him contained. You have to collapse the pocket and not let him escape.”

When you’re 2-13 and playing out the string with Clipboard Jesus, I suppose it’s the kind of thing you latch onto.

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Sheldon Richardson: I’m on same level as top defensive linemen

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Positives for the Jets have been few and far between this season, but defensive end Sheldon Richardson is at the top of that very short list.

Richardson won the defensive rookie of the year award last season and has continued to be a force up front for the Jets this season with 6.5 sacks and stout play against the run. That’s left him feeling like he deserves Pro Bowl consideration and a place alongside the best defensive linemen in the league, including the only defensive lineman in years to get his name mentioned in MVP talk.

J.J. Watt, he’s got a few more sacks than me, but it’s the same type of disruption,” Richardson said, via “He’s a little more active, I’ll give you that, but we have the same type of determination, same heart, same skills. He scores touchdowns, I score touchdowns.”

Richardson scored two touchdowns as a goal-line back last season, but hasn’t had any this season. That’s not the only place a comparison to Watt goes awry this season as he’s pretty far beyond comparison this season. Once you get past him, though, Richardson’s belief that he’s on the same level with the best linemen in the game gets a little bit easier to swallow.

Some of those linemen have earned big contracts, but Richardson is going to wait a while for that payday. The 2013 first-round pick will be heading into his third season, which means that the Jets have at least three more years with Richardson under their control. That gives them time before they’ll have to pony up with a big extension and it gives Richardson time to make comparisons with the likes of Watt a little less of stretch.

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Stop the presses: Rob Gronkowski is growing up

New England Patriots Practice Getty Images

For a guy who was on a television cooking show making sausage jokes this week, it’s odd to hear people talk about the “mature” Rob Gronkowski.

But teammates and coaches say the fun-loving Gronk might actually be turning into an adult.

He’s grown up a lot over the last five years,” Brady said, via Tom Curran of “It’s been a lot of fun to see it. His football IQ and understanding of what it takes to be a professional and consistently and dependably be that type of player for our offense that he’s become, has been fun to see.”

Fun Gronk we get. Mature Gronk is going to take some getting used to, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick said it takes time to realize.

“If you meet Rob for 10 or 15 minutes, you might get an impression that may or may not be what it’s like to have him in your office, in a classroom and on the field for six, seven hours a day,” Belichick said. “It might be a little bit different potentially.”

Gronkowski said back issues that plagued him in college and injuries at the pro level have taught him perspective.

“Without a doubt,” he said. “It could be taken away anytime. I’ve seen players come in at a young age and leave at a young age. You just gotta be prepared and perform to your best and be ready every day and don’t take anything for granted.”

Yeah, this is going to take some getting used to.

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Frank Gore puts in limited practice Thursday

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The 49ers appear set to have at least one of their top two tailbacks in the lineup Saturday night against San Diego.

Veteran Frank Gore (concussion) went through a limited practice on Thursday, according to the injury report. Furthermore, head coach Jim Harbaugh indicated Gore was on schedule to play against the Chargers.

The 49ers’ all-time leading rusher, the 31-year-old Gore needs 229 yards to reach 11,000 for his career. He is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Gore paces the Niners (7-7) with 804 rushing yards on 204 carries.

While Gore appears to be progressing, rookie tailback Carlos Hyde (ankle) sat out a second straight practice Thursday. If Hyde were out, Alfonso Smith would be in line to back up Gore, with Phillip Tanner also in reserve.

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With win, Jaguars currently fourth in draft order

Kris Durham, Dwayne Gratz AP

The Titans’ 21-13 loss at Jacksonville puts Tennessee in the lead for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. The outcome also moves the Jaguars down the board to No. 4 overall. Both Jacksonville and Tennessee are guaranteed no worse than a top-six pick in Round One, which will be held April 30 in Chicago.

Here’s how the top 10 picks would look if the season ended today. All non-playoff teams are ordered by record, with each club’s strength of schedule (in parentheses) the first tiebreaker. The 12 playoff teams are seeded based on postseason results and their records.

1. Tennessee (2-13, .483).

2. Tampa Bay (2-12, .467).

3. Oakland (2-12, .571).

4. Jacksonville (3-12, .507).

5. Washington (3-11, .470).

6. N.Y. Jets (3-11, .533).

7. Atlanta (5-9, .495). ***

8. N.Y. Giants (5-9, .505).

9. Chicago (5-9, .513).

10. Carolina (5-8-1, .503). ***

*** — Atlanta and Carolina are still alive in the NFC South race. Neither would pick higher than 21st if the division winner.

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Jaguars players wear “I can’t breathe” shirts in pregame warm ups

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Several members of the Jacksonville Jaguars joined the growing numbers of athletes making statements with their attire in pregame warm ups prior to Thursday night’s game against the Tennessee Titans.

According to Mike DiRocco of, defensive end Ryan Davis and receivers Cecil Shorts III, Marqise Lee, Ace Sanders and Allen Hurns all donned T-shirts with “I can’t breathe” written on them.

The message was in support of Eric Garner, a New Yorker who died after being put in a chokehold by police officers than attempted to subdue him in July.

Similar gestures have been made by Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and others in recent weeks.

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Underclassmen requests for evaluation down 42 percent

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There could be fewer underclassmen entering the 2015 draft than last year’s record throng of 102 who exited college football early.

A sharp drop in players seeking evaluations for early entry hints at an eventual drop in players choosing to enter early.  NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent points out on Twitter that requests for early evaluation have dropped from 214 last year to 147 this year, a reduction of 42 percent.

If the eventual class of early entries drops by 42 percent, 59 players will choose to enter the draft with eligibility remaining.

Generally speaking, the NFL wants players to remain in college as long as possible, since that ensures a high degree of cooperation from college coaches who prefer to maximize the largely free services they receive.  For players who know with a high degree of confidence that they are ready for the NFL, it’s in the players’ best interests to leave.  An education can be obtained later; cartilage and tendons and other connective tissue, muscles, and bones have a finite shelf life.  Playing for the wholesale cost of an education (plus snacks!) risks the ability of the player to eventually play for as much money as he can earn.

And so the reduction in players seeking evaluations is bad news for those players who ultimately would be deemed to be definitely ready to enter the NFL.  Then again, the early evaluation process is inexact.  A far better system would allow players to make themselves eligible for the draft and then return to school, if they choose to try to enhance their draft stock via more play-for-no-pay.

It wouldn’t be a perfect system, but it would be far more fair than the crapshoot system currently in place, giving players the best possible information before deciding whether to convert their skills into cash.  After all, isn’t that why anyone goes to college in the first place?

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Jaguars earn 21-13 victory over Titans

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Jacksonville defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks sacked Tennessee quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to prevent a game-tying Hail Mary attempt as the Jaguars held on for a 21-13 victory over the Titans on Thursday night.

The sack by Marks also triggered a $600,000 contract bonus for having eight sacks in a season.

Jacksonville rushed for 177 yards against the Titans porous rush defense on the night with Toby Gerhart and Jordan Todman each finding the end zone for the Jaguars.

Whitehurst connected with Leon Washington for an 8-yard touchdown to cap a 12-play, 89-yard scoring drive on the opening possession of the game. Tennessee extended the lead to 10-0 in the second quarter with a 50-yard field goal by Ryan Succop.

Blake Bortles connected with Marcedes Lewis on a 4-yard touchdown just before halftime to get the Jaguars on the board. Jacksonville then scored on their first possession of the second half with Gerhart finding the end zone on a 1-yard run to give the Jaguars a 14-10 lead.

Gerhart left the game in the fourth quarter with a rib injury.

Todman then broke free and scampered for a 62-yard touchdown run with just over nine minutes to play as the Jaguars took a 21-10 lead over the Tennessee Titans in the fourth quarter. Todman’s lengthy touchdown run was the longest run in four years by a Jaguars player.

Tennessee managed to respond on their ensuing possession as a 39-yard pass from Charlie Whitehurst to Kendall Wright moved the Titans into Jacksonville territory. However, the drive stalled at the 5-yard line with Tennessee forced to settle for a 23-yard Ryan Succop field goal to pull within 21-13.

However, one final chance to tie the game came up short as Chris Clemons beat Titans left tackle Jamon Meredith around the edge, forcing Whitehurst into Marks before he could send a Hail Mary try toward the end zone.

Whitehurst finished 24 of 35 for 287 yards and a touchdown for the Titans.

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Raiders now have NFL’s longest underdog streak

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With the Jaguars closing as favorites vs. the Titans on Thursday night, 31-of-32 teams have been favored by oddsmakers this season.

The lone exception is the Raiders, who have been underdogs in 22 consecutive regular-season games. They were one-point favorites vs. Philadelphia on November 3, 2013, a game they lost 49-20. The Raiders’ underdog streak is poised to extend to 23 games; the Bills are 6.5-point favorites at Oakland on Sunday.

Moreover, it’s likely the Raiders will go the entire 2014 season without being favored. They finish out the campaign at Denver (11-3) on December 28.

While the Raiders have been consistent underdogs, they haven’t been pushovers against the point spread. They are 7-7 against the number, per “The Linemakers” of Sporting News. That’s the same point spread record as Denver, which has been favored in 12-of-14 games entering Week 16.

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Jaguars holding onto lead after 62-yard Jordan Todman touchdown run

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Jacksonville running back Jordan Todman broke free and scampered for a 62-yard touchdown run as the Jaguars took a 21-10 lead over the Tennessee Titans in the fourth quarter.

The Jaguars took the lead on their first possession of the second half. Jacksonville marched 72 yards on 11 plays with Toby Gerhart scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run to take a 14-10 lead.

Todman’s lengthy touchdown run with nine minutes left to play gave the Jaguars a two-score lead. It was the longest run in four years by a Jaguars player.

Tennessee managed to respond on their ensuing possession as a 39-yard pass from Charlie Whitehurst to Kendall Wright moved the Titans into Jacksonville territory. However, the drive stalled at the 5-yard line with Tennessee forced to settle for a 23-yard Ryan Succop field goal to pull within 21-13.

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