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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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Dominic Raiola says he has no fine and no regrets

Dominic Raiola AP

Lions center Dominic Raiola took a cheap shot at Patriots defensive tackle Zach Moore on Sunday, but Raiola says he hasn’t been fined and doesn’t have any regrets.

There’s no fine,” Raiola said, via Josh Katzenstein of the Detroit News. “It’s during the game. I don’t know about regrets, I don’t live life with regrets. I didn’t intentionally try to hurt anybody. I didn’t try to do anything out of the ordinary. I would’ve gotten a FedEx letter [from the league office regarding a fine]. So, just play the game. I didn’t make it a big deal, everybody else did.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick ripped Raiola the day after the cheap shot, pointing out that Raiola was probably sore at the Patriots because he’s been in the NFL for 14 years and has never beaten the Patriots. Raiola declined to get into a war of words with Belichick.

“I don’t really care what he said,” Raiola said. “Not a lot of people beat those guys. I didn’t make it an issue. I just finished the game.”

Raiola may say he was just finishing the game, but he was also taking a cheap shot at an opponent. Just because the NFL says he didn’t technically break the rules, that doesn’t change the fact that what he did was dirty.

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Vikings look at Webb, Winston

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With right tackle Phil Loadholt done for the season due to a torn pec, the Vikings need help at tackle.

They explored getting that help by bringing in veterans J’Marcus Webb and Eric Winston for tryouts on Tuesday, per a league source.

Webb appeared in eight games for the Vikings last year, with one start.  He’s perhaps best known for getting bumped by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler on national television when Webb was Cutler’s left tackle.

Winston, the current NFLPA president, started 16 regular-season games from 2007 through 2013 with the Texans, Chiefs, and Cardinals.  He spent some of training camp with the Seahawks, and he has gotten periodic look-sees throughout the season.

Neither Webb nor Winston have been signed by the Vikings, yet.

Loadholt will be replaced in the starting lineup by Mike Harris, who arrived to the NFL undrafted in 2012 and spent two years with the Chargers.  Harris has 27 regular-season appearances and 12 starts.  Sunday will be his first as a Viking.

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“Without question” Marshawn Lynch plays Thursday night

Lynch Getty Images

Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch has been dealing with a back injury.  But that back injury won’t keep the 49ers from having to deal with Lynch on Thursday night.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Lynch “without question” will play in Santa Clara on Thanksgiving night.

If Lynch can get through the short-week game, he’ll have a chance to get some extra rest before the Seahawks head to Philly for a showdown with the 8-3 Eagles.

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Titans release Shaun Phillips, place Brian Schwenke on injured reserve

Brian Schwenke AP

Reports on Tuesday morning indicated that the Titans were going to part ways with veteran linebacker Shaun Phillips and they came to fruition in the afternoon.

Phillips has been waived, which makes him available to any of the league’s 31 other teams if they choose to make a claim. Phillips wasn’t overly productive in Tennessee this year, but he had 10 sacks for the Broncos in 2013 and there’s not a lot of available players with Phillips’s history as a pass rusher at this point in the season.

The Titans also announced that they have placed center Brian Schwenke on injured reserve. Schwenke hurt his knee during last Sunday’s loss to the Eagles, which also saw him catch a deflected pass and then fumble it as his career as a center didn’t set him up well for the role of ballcarrier.

Tennessee signed offensive lineman Eric Olsen to help fill the void left by Schwenke. Left tackle Taylor Lewan also suffered a sprained ankle against Philly, so there might be multiple starters missing when the Titans face the Texans this week.

Linebacker Dontay Moch was promoted from the practice squad to round out the set of moves for the day.

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Matt Ryan on Mike Smith: We’ve got to make him right

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

Falcons coach Mike Smith said Monday that he felt he didn’t give his team the best chance to win based on the way he handled the clock during the team’s final offensive drive in a 26-24 loss to the Browns, echoing criticism from many corners that didn’t do anything to help Smith’s job security.

Quarterback Matt Ryan said Tuesday that he thought Falcons players were angry at themselves in the wake of the loss, but that their anger didn’t extend to Smith. He also said that the players’ job is to make Smith’s decisions the right ones on the field.

“There’s nobody that takes more responsibility than Mike,” Ryan said on 680 The Fan, via ESPN.com. “And that’s one of the reasons, as a player, you love him. He is the first to say, ‘Listen, I wish we would have done that one differently.’ So from a player’s perspective, we’ve got to make him right. We can’t worry about anything else other than we’ve got to convert that third down, we’ve got to get a first, we’ve got to be able to make them burn their timeouts and then kick it in the uprights and win that game. I feel for [Smith] because he’s ‘the man’ when it comes to that. He will stick his neck out there for us and take the brunt of the responsibility. But, from a player’s standpoint, we’ve got to make him right.”

Ryan’s loyalty to his coach is clear, but it’s less clear how much loyalty owner Arthur Blank will show Smith once the season comes to a close. Finding a way to finish atop the NFC South would help and Ryan correctly points out that the Falcons control their own destiny in that regard. So would Ryan finding a way to cut down on interceptions against the Cardinals, who visit Atlanta this week, after throwing nine of them in two games against Arizona the last two years.

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Aaron Rodgers swears he wasn’t squeezing Vikings with grape soda

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In these cynical and sarcastic times we live in, many folks saw Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers drinking a Grape Crush soda after beating the Vikings and thought there was a message.

As it turns out, he just really likes grape soda.

Rodgers cleared up the social media-generated flap during his weekly radio show with Jason Wilde of ESPNWisconsin.com, insisting he wasn’t trolling the Vikings.

He apparently eats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and drinks the same soda after every game, which makes seem like he’s a 9-year-old even if he’s not going for juvenile humor.

Seven years. To all the idiot trolls out there, seven years,” Rodgers said. “PBJ and Grape or Orange Crush. It’s been grape for the last five, the first couple years it was orange or grape. Seven years.”

While it’s hardly a controversial topic, he seemed offended at the perceived lack of respect for opponents.

“Anybody who knows, any of the local media or anybody who’s seen me after a game, I’m always carrying that around with me. That’s probably the only soda that I ever drink – right after the game, when you’ve got to get those nutrients back with you,” Rodgers said. “So that’s my post-game [snack] – PBJ and the Grape Crush. I do like it, contrary to anybody who thinks I was trolling anything. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s comical.

“I don’t do those kind of things.”

Now, if he beats the Patriots this week and walks to the podium with a Sam Adams, we will be able to call shenanigans on him.

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D.C. dysfunction looks to be continuing

Griffin AP

Jay Gruden has said he has “every intention” to start Robert Griffin III at quarterback this weekend, for what would have been one of the best games of the year.  In the year 2012.

It’s Washington and Indy.  Griffin and Luck.  The top two picks in the 2012 draft.  Now, Griffin could be having a hard time keeping one of the top two spots on his team’s depth chart.

Diana Russini of NBC 4 in Washington reported earlier today that the quarterbacks will meet at the team’s facility on Tuesday “to find out who is starting.”  And that hardly represents a clear indication Griffin remains entrenched as the starter.

In an organization seemingly bereft of strong leadership, the man who served for years as one of the true leaders in the locker room has addressed the situation in blunt, candid terms.

“It’s not an environment that’s really conducive to winning for a sustained period of time, from top to bottom,” former linebacker London Fletcher said Monday on 106.7 The Fan in D.C.  “You have to have a plan in place and say, ‘You know what?  This is what we’re gonna do, this is a winning formula,’ and then stick to the formula.  From my seven years, prior to [when] I got there, even now — and I count myself as being a part of it because I didn’t help get it as good as I wanted it to be once I left — you have to have a plan, that, ‘You know what?  This is going to be a winning plan, let’s stick to this plan, let’s stick to the script,’ so to speak, and do it the right way.  And that hasn’t been done before I got there, while I was there, since I’ve left, and I don’t know if they know what they’re doing, in terms of saying, ‘Hey, this is what we’re gonna do to be a winning franchise for the next decade.’ I like Jay Gruden as a head coach.  I think from a play-calling standpoint, I like some of the things he’s done. Maybe he can be that guy, but there needs to be some more changes that take place.”

It’s a strong indictment of the entire organization, from a guy who was in the middle of it for seven years.  And Fletcher has the perspective that comes from being with winning teams; he won a Super Bowl with the Rams.

Whatever Washington is doing, it’s clear that, currently, the plan is there is no plan.  The next five weeks could be more about figuring out who’ll be there to put a plan (or to not put a plan) in place in 2015 and less about laying the foundation for sustained success.

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Broncos cut kicker Brandon McManus, sign Connor Barth

Connor+Barth+Carolina+Panthers+v+Tampa+Bay+amA1CE9Y95Gl Getty Images

The Broncos have made a change at kicker.

Brandon McManus, who was acquired in a trade before the season, has been released. Connor Barth, a free agent who spent the last four years in Tampa Bay, has signed.

The Broncos had high enough hopes for McManus this season that they cut Matt Prater, a Pro Bowler last year, to hand McManus the job. But McManus has struggled and made Broncos fans miss Prater, who has since returned from a drug suspension and signed with the Lions.

McManus missed a 33-yard field goal attempt on Sunday against the Dolphins. That turned out to be his last chance in Denver.

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Michael Bush signs with Cardinals

Michael Bush AP

The Cardinals have added a veteran running back to their roster for the final five weeks of the season.

The team announced on Tuesday afternoon that they have signed former Raiders and Bears tailback Michael Bush. They released Kerwynn Williams to open up a spot on the roster.

Bush has not played for anyone since the Bears released him in March after two years with the team. He ran for 608 yards and eight touchdowns on 177 carries during his time in Chicago. His best season came in 2011 with the Raiders, who drafted him in the fourth round of the 2007 draft, when he ran for 977 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Cardinals haven’t found a reliable No. 2 back behind Andre Ellington this season and Ellington’s production has sharply declined over the last few weeks. He’s run 47 times for 89 yards in the last three weeks to go with 14 receptions, which makes the interest in a productive backup an easy one to understand. Bush’s work the last two years wasn’t overly impressive, but it wasn’t any worse than what Arizona’s gotten this season.

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Bengals place Andre Smith on IR, sign Jamon Meredith

Atlanta Falcons v Cincinnati Bengals Getty Images

The Bengals expected to the worst on right tackle Andre Smith, and it was confirmed today.

The team announced Smith was going on season-ending injured reserve with a triceps injury. He’ll be replaced on the 53-man roster by free agent Jamon Meredith.

They also announced that linebacker Terrell Manning had been signed off their practice squad by the Giants.

Meredith was last with the Packers, and has also spent time with Colts, Buccaneers, Steelers, Giants, Lions and Bills.

Losing Smith is a tough blow for the first-place Bengals, who appeared to have shaken out of an earlier slump and were running the ball effectively again.

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Dolphins bring back cornerback R.J. Stanford

Cincinnati Bengals v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

The Dolphins are short-handed in the secondary at the moment, so they brought back a familiar face.

According to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, the Dolphins have signed cornerback R.J. Stanford.

He was with the Dolphins in 2012 and 2013, and has also spent time with the Panthers and Bengals.

The Dolphins are short there, with Cortland Finnegan struggling with an ankle injury and Jamar Taylor expected to miss some time with a shoulder injury.

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Bills make it official: They’ll play in Buffalo on Sunday

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Before they played the Jets in Detroit on Monday night, Bills president Russ Brandon said there were “no red flags” standing in the way of the team returning to Ralph Wilson Stadium for their Week 13 game against the Browns.

On Tuesday, Brandon made it official.

“We will play the Browns at Ralph Wilson Stadium,” Brandon said, via WGR550.com. “There’s been an enormous amount of progress over the last few days. While we had a difficult hand from Mother Nature last week, Mother Nature certainly assisted this week and with the heat wave that we somewhat had here in Buffalo, and the great efforts by [vice president of operations and guest experience] Andy Major and his staff over the last few days.”

There is some damage to the stadium, but Major said none of it is structural and that fans would not be restricted from any of the normally accessible areas of the stadium. There will be a bit less parking because of the need to pile up snow removed from the stadium and seating bowl, but it seems like it will otherwise be business as usual in Buffalo this weekend.

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Kaepernick thinks Harbaugh will be back in 2015

Harbaugh Getty Images

It’s become almost a given that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh won’t be back next year.  Many believe anything short of a Super Bowl win means he’ll be gone.  Several weeks ago, Jay Glazer of FOX Sports reported that Harbaugh won’t be back, regardless of the outcome to the season.

That perception/reality has yet to permeate the locker room.  Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose press conferences have become an exercise in saying as little as possible, was asked on Tuesday whether for a gut feeling on whether his only NFL coach will return for a fifth season.

“I think he’ll be back,” Kaepernick told reporters.

So why does Kaepernick believe that about Harbaugh?

“His resume,” Kaepernick said.

Actually, Harbaugh’s history suggests he doesn’t stay in one place for very long.  Three years at San Diego University.  Four at Stanford.  Now, four with the 49ers.

This, based on Harbaugh’s track record, should be his last season on the job.  Both he and the organization have done a nice job of putting that issue behind the question of whether the team can get back to the Super Bowl and win it, but the reality is that, as soon as the last second of the last game ticks off the clock, the clock will start ticking on what many believe will be an inevitable divorce.

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Report: Michael Vick the choice to start if he’s healthy

Michael Vick AP

After the Jets were crushed by the Bills in Detroit on Monday night, Rex Ryan said he didn’t know whether Michael Vick or Geno Smith would be the team’s starting quarterback against the Dolphins in Week 13.

A pair of reports from Jets beat writers point to Vick being the choice. Both Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News and Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com report that Vick will be Ryan’s choice if his calf is OK after injuring it on Monday. Vick did not think the injury was serious after the game.

Mehta adds the caveat that Vick will be the choice if he’s healthy and if Ryan is the one making the call about the starting quarterback. That suggests that General Manager John Idzik and/or others in the organization might want to see Smith play out the string in hopes of seeing something that Smith didn’t show in 24 consecutive starts over the last two seasons.

That might be an unlikely outcome, but so is meaningful improvement from the offense with either player at quarterback.

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Buccaneers add two tight ends

Josh Hull, D.J. Williams AP

The Buccaneers are heading toward Week 13 with injury concerns about three of their tight ends, so they decided to add some insurance in the event any or all of them are unable to play against the Bengals.

Tampa announced that they have signed D.J. Williams and promoted Cameron Brate from their practice squad to fill out the depth chart at tight end. Fullback Jorvorskie Lane was placed on injured reserve with a broken leg and kick returner Marcus Thigpen was released.

Williams was a fifth-round pick of the Packers in 2011 and caught nine passes in two seasons there before splitting last season with the Jaguars and Patriots. Brate spent the preseason with Tampa after finishing his collegiate career at Harvard and has been on the practice squad all year. Brandon Myers, Luke Stocker and Austin Seferian-Jenkins all missed time with injuries last Sunday.

Thigpen’s departure means that there’s another change coming on special teams for the Buccaneers, who have also used Solomon Patton and Trindon Holliday as their returner this season.

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