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NFL morning after: Statement Sunday — or was it?

Falcons tight end Gonzalez celebrates after a touchdown against the New York Giants in the first half at their NFL football game in Atlanta Reuters

With six different games matching up teams with winning records, yesterday was hyped by the NFL as “Statement Sunday.” And while it didn’t deliver a lot of particularly competitive games, it certainly did deliver a lot of statements: Statements about the strengths of the Falcons, Packers, Broncos, Texans, Cowboys and 49ers, and statements about the weaknesses of the Giants, Bears, Ravens, Colts, Steelers and Patriots.

But the thing about statements made in the NFL in December is that they often don’t hold up in January. And I’m not so sure that the teams that made statements on Sunday are going to be the teams that continue to make statements in the playoffs. So let me go through a few of the statements that were made on Sunday, and explain which ones are true and which ones are false.

1. The Falcons are the best team in the NFC. FALSE: Yes, the Falcons can make the statement that they’re the best team in the conference, both on the strength of their 34-0 win over the Giants and on their status as the team with the best record in the NFC. But the Falcons don’t play that well consistently — let’s not forget that a week earlier, they lost by 10 to a bad Carolina team. I’d pick either the Packers or the 49ers to win at Atlanta in January.

2. The Giants are in danger. TRUE: The flip side of the Falcons’ blowout over the Giants is that it really did expose some serious problems with the Giants, namely that Eli Manning has been painfully inconsistent, and that injuries in the secondary have done major damage to the defense. Early in the season it looked like the NFC East would belong to the Giants, but now it’s a three-team race, and the Redskins and Cowboys actually appear to be in better shape. The good news for the Giants is that they’ll make the playoffs if they win their final two. The bad news is that the way they played on Sunday, I don’t have a lot of confidence that they’ll win their final two.

3. The Bears are in free fall and will miss the playoffs. FALSE: It’s easy to see why Bears fans are panicking, having lost five of their last six games. But Chicago’s schedule is about to get a lot easier, with trips to Arizona and Detroit. I see the Bears winning both games, finishing 10-6, and sneaking into the playoffs.

4. The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC goes through Houston. TRUE: After the Texans’ disastrous loss in New England on Monday night, it would have been easy to disregard the Texans as legitimate title contenders. But the Texans clinched the AFC South with Sunday’s win over the Colts, and they’re now a win away from clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I think they’ll get that win against the Vikings on Sunday and ensure that if they rematch the Patriots, it will be in Houston.

5. The Broncos are the best team Peyton Manning has ever played on. TRUE: Does it sound premature to say that this year’s Broncos are better than Manning’s Super Bowl-winning 2006 team in Indianapolis? Maybe. But that team — like many of Manning’s teams in Indianapolis — had major holes on both defense and special teams that the Manning-led offense had to overcome. This Broncos team is winning every bit as much because of its defense as because of the Manning-led offense. If we could stuff these 2012 Broncos into a DeLorean and send them back in time to play any of Manning’s Indianapolis playoff teams, I’d pick these Broncos to win.

6. The Steelers blew it in overtime in Dallas and blew their postseason hopes. FALSE: The Steelers’ final two games are both at home, against the Bengals and the Browns, and if they win both they’re in the playoffs. I think Pittsburgh is going to do it.

7. New England’s Super Bowl hopes were dealt a big blow on Sunday night. FALSE: The Patriots’ loss to the 49ers probably means they’ll have to host a wild card team in the first playoff weekend, then win a couple of road games after that to get to the Super Bowl. But you know what? As much as I like the Broncos and Texans, I like the Patriots’ chances of winning at Denver and at Houston in back-to-back weeks. New England is still a formidable Super Bowl contender.

That’s where I stand on the statements NFL teams made on Sunday. And now here are my statements about the rest of Sunday’s action:

Adrian Peterson is making Eric Dickerson nervous. After his 212-yard effort on Sunday, Peterson needs to total 293 yards over the final two games of the season to break Dickerson’s NFL record of 2,105 rushing yards in a season. Gaining 293 yards in two weeks isn’t easy, but it’s certainly doable for Peterson, considering that he has 366 in the last two games. In the last eight games, Peterson has rushed for 1,313 yards, a stunning yardage total that no NFL player has ever matched over an eight-game stretch of a season.

Calvin Johnson is making Jerry Rice nervous. After his 121-yard effort on Sunday, Johnson needs to total 181 yards over the final two games of the season to break Rice’s NFL record of 1,848 receiving yards in a season. Johnson tied an NFL record with his seventh consecutive 100-yard game on Sunday, so totaling 181 yards over the next two games shouldn’t be a problem. Johnson also became the first player in NFL history to gain 1,600 receiving yards in back-to-back seasons. Unfortunately for Johnson (and unlike Peterson), he’s threatening an NFL record while playing meaningless games for a bad team.

What’s JaMarcus Russell up to these days? I ask because the Raiders chose Russell first overall in the 2007 NFL draft, leaving Johnson available for the Lions to draft second overall, and Peterson available for the Vikings to draft seventh overall. Sorry to have to bring that one up, Raiders fans.

Trent Richardson’s first touchdown run was a thing of beauty. If you love good, old-fashioned, hard-nosed football, it doesn’t get much better than Richardson taking a handoff up the middle at the six-yard line, plunging into the middle and getting stacked up just as he crossed the line of scrimmage, and then simply refusing to go down as he drove forward, churning his legs and getting help from his entire offensive line while the entire Redskins’ defensive line was trying to stop him, and finally falling forward through that massive rugby scrum and into the end zone. As a rookie Richardson hasn’t been the big-play runner the Browns were hoping they’d get when they traded up to take him with the third overall pick in the draft, but he might be the toughest runner to tackle in the league.

Randall Cobb is better than you realize. Cobb had an unreal leaping catch along the sideline in the second quarter in Chicago, picking up 31 yards on third-and-six and somehow getting both feet down in bounds despite taking a hard hit just as he was grabbing the ball. Cobb has been an excellent player for the Packers since arriving last season as a second-round draft pick, but I don’t know if most fans realize just how excellent. Cobb has 2,241 combined rushing, receiving and return yards this season, and 3,857 all-purpose yards so far in his NFL career. That’s an incredible career total for a guy who’s only 22 years old.

The Seahawks are stunning. After beating the Cardinals 58-0 last week, the Seahawks beat the Bills 50-17 this week. The last NFL team to score 50 or more points in back-to-back weeks was the 1950 New York Giants, who beat the Chicago Cardinals 51-21 and then beat the Baltimore Colts 55-20 a week later. (A note of caution for Seahawks fans: Those 1950 Giants were held to just three points in a postseason loss that year.)

I guess Cam Cameron wasn’t the only problem with the Ravens’ offense. The Ravens fired Cameron as their offensive coordinator last week. So how did the offense in Baltimore do in the first game without him? Badly: The Ravens had six three-and-outs, the most of any team in the NFL all season, as they lost 34-17. On Statement Sunday, the Ravens made a statement that they’re not contenders in the AFC, and Cameron made a major statement in his absence: Don’t blame me.

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Drew Stanton limited in practice for Cardinals

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Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton was a surprise participant in practice today.

Stanton was listed as limited on the team’s injury report. That’s better than expected; it was assumed he’d be out of practice today.

It still seems unlikely that Stanton will be able to play after suffering a knee sprain a week ago. Reports have indicated that Stanton will miss multiple weeks. It would be a major upset if he’s able to play on Sunday against the Seahawks.

But even if Arizona is stuck with Ryan Lindley on Sunday against Seattle, the fact that Stanton is on the practice field at all today is a good sign that he could be back in time for the playoffs.

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Report of Michigan offer to Harbaugh is disputed

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Just as reports that Michigan offered 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh $8 million per year had lingered long enough to be accepted as gospel truth, another report has emerged disputing those reports.

Per Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports, the reports of an offer worth $8 million annually to Harbaugh are not accurate.

It’s unclear specifically how the reports aren’t accurate.  Is the $8 million figure too high?  Was the offer a wink-nod “we’ll make this offer if you’ll accept it” kind of offer?  Has Michigan simply not made the offer but intends to?  Or is Michigan simply not interested?

The fairly obvious assumption emerging from the dueling reports is that Harbaugh’s camp leaked the initial information to NFL reporters, and that Michigan has leaked contradictory information to a college football reporter.

Gamesmanship and misinformation are predictable in this context.  Harbaugh, who spurned Michigan and $5.2 million per year in 2011 for the 49ers and $5 million per year, wants to maximize his earnings at his next NFL stop, and to minimize the amount his new team must give the 49ers in trade.  If Harbaugh’s agent can create the impression (true or not) that Michigan is ready to pay $8 million per year at a time when plenty of wheels are surely moving behind the scenes on his next NFL opportunity, Harbaugh wins.

Michigan likewise benefits from the free publicity that news of the offer generates.  But Michigan also has a strong interest in ensuring that the eventual target to replace Brady Hoke doesn’t think Michigan is ready to blow the lid off the market.

So, basically, Michigan has offered Harbaugh $8 million per year.  Unless it hasn’t.  The details won’t matter if it helps Harbaugh get the kind of money from the Raiders that he couldn’t get from the 49ers.

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Blake Bortles gets the start for the Jaguars

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Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles is nursing a foot injury, but he’s healthy enough to start tonight against the Titans.

The Jaguars have confirmed that Bortles is active and good to go. He’ll start once again, giving many fans who rarely watch the Jaguars when there are better teams on TV on Sundays their first chance to see the rookie quarterback.

The Jaguars’ inactives are WR Tommy Streeter, CB Teddy Williams, CB Jeremy Harris, S Matt Daniels, OL Tyler Shatley, DE Andre Branch and DT Roy Miller.

The Titans’ inactives are QB Zach Mettenberger, DB Jemea Thomas, LB Zaviar Gooden, OLB Dontay Moch, T Terren Jones, T Taylor Lewan and DL Mike Martin.

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Tedford heads to the B.C. Lions

Tedford AP

Health issues kept Jeff Tedford from serving as Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator in 2014.  Now released from his contract, Tedford has found a new job, north of the border.

Per a league source, Tedford has accepted an offer to become the new head coach of the B.C. Lions of the CFL.

Tedford, who was out of football in 2013 after being fired by Cal, ultimately took a leave of absence after heart problems emerged prior to the start of the regular season.  He never returned, and his absence became a vastly underrated detriment for a team with a defensive-minded head coach (Lovie Smith) and a smattering of offensive position coaches without the experience needed to coordinate the offense in Tedford’s absence.

Tedford’s decision to return to coach suggests he could have returned to work for the Bucs in 2015.  Which invites speculation as to whether he wanted to leave Tampa, whether Tampa wanted him to go, or a little bit of both.

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Jim Harbaugh won’t answer Michigan question

Harbaugh AP

On Wednesday, multiple reports indicated that Michigan has offered the vacant head coaching job to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.  Asked about the situation on Thursday, Harbaugh opted not to dust off a Nick Saban-style answer.

Instead, Harbaugh refused to address the situation.

“As you know, I only talk about the job that I have,” Harbaugh said, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News.  “We’ve been together a long time.  Always been my policy.”

It’s unclear whether anyone asked Harbaugh on Thursday whether he’ll have in 10 days the job he currently has.  Then again, some questions don’t need to be asked.  It’s become a given that Harbaugh won’t return to the 49ers in 2015, and no one from the team’s camp or the coach’s camp has even attempted to float the idea that he’ll be back.

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DeMarco Murray says decision on playing this week will be up to him

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Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray moved up from unofficial participant in practice to limited participant in practice on Thursday and said that his surgically repaired left hand is feeling good.

That keeps hope that Murray, who is wearing a plastic protective shell over the broken bone in his hand, can play on Sunday against the Colts very much alive.

“I’m a very competitive person and I want to help this team out as much I can, so whatever that portrays me doing Sunday, then we’ll see,” Murray said, via ESPNDallas.com. “But I’ve had two good days, and we’ll see how it goes.”

Murray said that the ultimate decision about playing will be up to him, something that owner Jerry Jones confirmed when he said that doctors told him that Murray “has to tell us if he feels like playing or not” and that it is about how Murray feels rather than strategy. Barring a change in Murray’s condition in the next 24 hours, it sounds like he’s headed for a questionable tag on Friday and the words coming out of Cowboys camp have the needle pointed in the direction of playing.

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Josh Thomas says Jets didn’t coach him

Thomas Getty Images

Apparently, the Jets didn’t tell cornerback Josh Thomas, “Don’t let your playbook be stolen.”  They apparently didn’t tell him other things, too.

Claimed Wednesday on waivers by the Lions after being cut by the Jets on Tuesday, Thomas met with the media and talked about the things he didn’t learn about in New York.

“I feel like I wasn’t given the attention necessary as far as being engaged from the coach-to-player standpoint and knowing the things I need to work on,” Thomas said, via Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com.  “It became where I was there as a player and wanting and desiring some feedback that wasn’t given.  So sometimes I may have been standing there with a [deer-in-headlight] look in my eyes trying to figure out what I needed to do.

“So at the same time, just from the past experiences, every organization operates differently — so it could be the way that the Jets operate.  I just want to be great.  I want to get better every day.  I look forward to enhancing something about my game every day, and [the Jets] were just more independent there.”

So what was his reaction to the first day in Detroit?

“It was refreshing, like, ‘Thanks for coaching me,'” Thomas said.

If the Lions make it to the playoffs, the message to the Jets could be, “Thanks for cutting me.”

Which could give other Jets players an idea.  An idea that could lead to a lot more playbooks being lost.

 

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Norv Turner: It’s pretty incredible to me what Teddy Bridgewater has done this season

Teddy Bridgewater AP

The Vikings won’t make the playoffs in 2014, but offensive coordinator Norv Turner feels pretty sure that they’ve found themselves a quarterback.

Turner opened up his press conference on Thursday with a long statement about how impressed he’s been by the play of rookie Teddy Bridgewater this season that seemed to be a defense against criticism of Bridgewater’s two interceptions against the Lions last Sunday.

Turner said he’s seen many quarterbacks struggle when faced with a shifting supporting cast — eight offensive linemen, three different running backs, three different tight ends and a wide receiver who was signed off the Browns practice squad, for example — and that he hasn’t seen those struggles from Bridgewater, who Turner says has been asked to handle more than any other young quarterback he’s worked with.

“It’s pretty incredible to me what he’s done, how he’s handled it, the things he’s gotten done and what he’s really done is made everyone around him better and that’s a quality that you’re looking for … the thing that excites me is he can make any throw you need to make — he does it with people around him, he does it with people hitting him, he does it when he has to slide in the pocket. He knows how to play football and that’s the starting point of the quarterback position. He’s got the intangibles you need and he’s going to continue to get better and better,” Turner said, via Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

There’s obviously room for growth from Bridgewater, but the Vikings probably feel pretty good about that taking place if his performance this season is his floor. And they almost certainly feel better about the quarterback position than they did at this point last year, which is one positive to take away from the season.

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A.J. Green out sick on Thursday

Cincinnati Bengals v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

The Bengals were without their best wide receiver in practice on Thursday.

Concern about A.J. Green missing Monday’s game against the Broncos isn’t high, however.

Green missed Thursday’s session with an illness that Geoff Hobson of the team’s website reports isn’t believed to be serious. Green is expected back at work on Friday, leaving him ample time to prepare for Denver’s visit for a game that the Bengals need to assure themselves of top position in the AFC North heading into the final week of the regular season.

Linebacker Emmanuel Lamur also missed practice with a hamstring injury, but “looked ready to rehab” according to Hobson. Assuming Lamur plays, he’ll likely play a part in the team’s plan for slowing both running back C.J. Anderson and tight end Julius Thomas come Monday night.

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McDonald case reconfirms NFL teams do whatever they want to do

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So why did the 49ers stand steadfastly behind defensive lineman Ray McDonald when he was arrested but never charged with domestic violence but summarily dump him after a search warrant was served in connection with a rape investigation?

Short answer:  NFL teams do whatever they want.

That’s the only way to reconcile the team’s loud adherence to due process in one case, and it’s lightning-fast discipline in another case.

What’s that, you say?  McDonald created multiple distractions?  So did Aldon Smith.  And he’s still employed.

He’s still employed because he’s a much better player.  If McDonald had played better this year, or if the 49ers still had a shot at getting to the postseason, McDonald would still be employed, too.

Excuses are made for the players deemed valuable to the team.  Examples are made of the scrubs.  That’s the way it will remain, even under the new personal conduct policy.

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George Iloka: We can’t do what we did last week and apply it to Peyton Manning

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Some people might worry about overconfidence on a defense that’s coming off a shutout, but it doesn’t look like it will be a problem for the Bengals this weekend.

Safety George Iloka was asked Thursday what the team could carry over from their 30-0 win against the Browns and scoffed at the premise of the question. Iloka said it would be “foolish” of the team to think they could “take the things we did” to shut down Johnny Manziel and apply them to stopping the Broncos.

“It’s Peyton Manning and it’s Johnny Manziel,” Iloka said, via ESPN.com. “He’ll be a good quarterback one of these days, but let’s not put him in the same type of category right now. The only thing we can take from last week is how fired up we came, how intense we were and try and come out the gate the same way.”

There’s not much to add to Iloka’s point about the two quarterbacks other than to say that he’s absolutely correct. Monday night will be miles away from Week 15 in Cleveland for the defense literally and figuratively.

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Cutler says he was “shocked” and “disappointed” to lose job

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Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said he was “shocked at first, then disappointed” to lose his job, but he didn’t lose his sense of humor.

The local media descended to today’s press conference about his benching, after most of them missed his post-game remarks Monday.

“I’m glad you guys could make it,” Cutler said as he took the podium. “I missed you after the game.”

Jokes aside, Cutler made it clear he wasn’t expecting being benched for Jimmy Clausen, but said he thought he did have a future in Chicago.

Asked directly if he could play for coach Marc Trestman again next year, Cutler replied: “Yes, . . . I think I could. I definitely could.”

A moment later, he said “I think we’d have to figure some things out in the offseason.”

He went on to call Trestman “a heck of a quarterback coach.”

But he also acknowledged that the contract he received last season made that complicated.

“There’s a lot of money in my contract,” he said. “And that comes with a lot of expectations.”

None of which he’s met this year, which is why he’s holding court in an unusual press conference. He admitted he might not have handled things well yesterday upon hearing the news, but he’s handling this press conference better than many in his career.

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Seahawks extend K.J. Wright

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The Seahawks have locked up a young starter on their stellar defense for the next four years.

K.J. Wright, the 25-year-old linebacker who has started all 14 games this season, has signed a four-year extension.

“In the offseason, we identified K.J. as one of our core players moving forward and aimed to keep him as a part of the Seahawks family for a long time,” G.M. John Schneider said in a statement. “The timing of this signing gives us the ability to keep as many of our core players together as we possibly can. Since Day One, K.J. has been a true professional in his daily approach and we are excited for K.J., his family and the 12s to keep him in the organization.”

The Seahawks drafted Wright with the 99th overall pick in 2011 and he became a starter as a rookie. He’s a big part of the Seahawks’ defensive success and would have been a big target of other teams in free agency next year, but now he’s in Seattle for the long haul.

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Murray returns to practice field

Murray AP

Unofficially, Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray practiced on Wednesday, two days after having surgery to repair a broken hand.  Officially, Murray didn’t practice.

On Thursday, Murray was back on the practice field.  It’s unclear whether that means he officially practiced.

Via ESPN.com, Murray engaged in warm-ups, caught passes, and took handoffs.  Which sounds like what he was doing Wednesday, before the Cowboys declared he did not practice.

On Friday, the Cowboys will apply a label to Murray’s availability.  The team has been optimistic, and Murray wants to show he can suit up for all 16 regular-season games — that’s something he hasn’t done in his NFL career.

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Marc Trestman thinks Jay Cutler can benefit from benching

Trestman AP

Bears coach Marc Trestman took to the podium for the first time since benching quarterback Jay Cutler, and said he discussed the switch with the players involved before going upstairs.

Trestman told reporters that he met with Cutler and Jimmy Clausen before discussing it with General Manager Phil Emery, making it clear that it was his decision.

Trestman trotted out the old “best interest of the football team,” line in discussing the swtich, and said he thinks Cutler will be better for it in the long term.

“I’ve seen careers revived from moments like this,” Trestman said. “And I really feel like Jay will do that.”

Of course, all the early speculation is that Cutler’s next start will come for another team, and that they’re protecting him to trade.

Trestman said he “changed my mind,” when asked about previous support of Cutler.

Clausen took the first reps in practice today, and Trestman said this decision only pertained to this week. He said that Cutler would be active and be Clausen’s backup.

“I think we need a lift at quarterback, we need a spark,” Trestman said. “The weight of the world should not be on Jimmy Clausen.”

Nor should the burden of a collapsing franchise.

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