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NFL morning after: The best day of the NFL year, and then the worst

John Fox, Romeo Crennel AP

Is there a better day of the year than the final Sunday of the NFL season?

If you love football, I don’t know if there is. The season’s final Sunday is the only day of the year in which all 32 NFL teams are playing, and it’s a day when so much is happening, all at once. The Bears are holding on to win narrowly at Detroit, briefly keeping their playoff hopes alive, while the Giants are blowing out the Eagles but getting eliminated anyway. The Colts are making a statement that they’re for real in the AFC, while the Texans are reeling and limping into the playoffs. The Vikings are furiously battling the Packers to reach the playoffs, while the Broncos are clinching home-field advantage by beating the Chiefs. The 49ers are clinching the NFC West by beating the Cardinals, while the Seahawks are facing a surprisingly stiff challenge from the Rams.

And to top it off, the night ended up with the Redskins reaching the playoffs by winning the NFC East championship game in Washington.

You might prefer Super Bowl Sunday, but that’s a day when the hype to actual football ratio is about 50:1. Or you might prefer Conference Championship Sunday, but if you’re a fan of one of the 28 teams that have already been eliminated, that day isn’t quite as fun. Or maybe you love NFL draft day, or the first Sunday of the season. If that’s your preference, I won’t tell you you’re wrong. But for my money, it doesn’t get any better than the Sunday of Week 17.

And then comes the Monday after Week 17, which is the worst day of the NFL year. Some people call it Black Monday. The day when a handful of head coaches, dozens of assistant coaches and quite a few team executives find out they’re fired.

Eagles coach Andy Reid, Chargers coach Norv Turner, Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel and Browns coach Pat Shurmur are almost certain to get fired today, and several other head coaches are in danger of losing their jobs. When you’re an assistant on a team whose head coach gets fired you’re almost always fired along with him, and there are plenty of assistants on other teams who get fired as well. General managers get fired, too. And although most of them don’t know it yet, there are hundreds of NFL players who were on active rosters yesterday and will never play in an NFL game again. It’s part of the business, but it’s depressing thinking about all these people going into a year in which they won’t have jobs.

At this time of year I’m always reminded of the end of the 1998 season, when then-Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson addressed the media on Black Monday. Johnson’s job was safe, and he was preparing to coach in a playoff game, but he could hardly contain his fury for the carnage in the coaching profession that took place that year, when five coaches were fired on the morning after the end of the season.

“I think it’s disgusting. Some of the better coaches in the NFL got fired today,” Johnson said on the Monday after the ’98 season ended. “I know we’re highly paid, but it’s a shame when coaches’ jobs are dependent on injuries, skyboxes, people in the stands and officiating calls. It doesn’t give me a good feeling about our profession when I see things like I saw this morning.”

These coaches are human beings, after all. They’re men with wives who relocated for their husbands’ jobs — usually men with wives who have already relocated several times, and know they’ll have to do it several more times. They’re men with kids who will go to school and hear taunts about their dads getting fired — kids who will wonder which city they’ll live in, which school they’ll go to, which taunts they’ll hear next year.

Yes, they all make a lot of money, and they’re living their dreams. I’m not playing a violin, taking up a collection or telling a sob story. But I do think that, as we reflect on how much we’ve enjoyed this 2012 season, we ought to reflect a little bit on how many of the men we watched on Sundays this year are losing their job on Monday. This game we love is a cruel, unforgiving business.

All those people losing their jobs are the ones I’m thinking about today. Here’s what else is on my mind:

Calvin Johnson is great — and so is Charles Tillman. I want to say a bit about what an amazing season Johnson had, but first this about Tillman, the Bears cornerback who deserves some consideration for Defensive Player of the Year: Tillman faced Johnson twice this season, and in those two games Johnson had 34 yards (his season-low, in October) and 72 yards (on Sunday). So in the two games when he was covered by Tillman, Johnson averaged 53 yards a game. In his other 14 games, Johnson averaged 133 yards a game.

Johnson fell short of 2,000 receiving yards this season, but he still finished the season with 1,964 yards, blowing away Jerry Rice’s old single-season record of 1,848. And Johnson outdistanced the rest of the NFL by a margin unseen in more than 60 years: Johnson ended up leading the league by a whopping 366 yards; the No. 2 receiver in the NFL, Houston’s Andre Johnson, had 1,598. The last time a player led the league by more yards than Johnson this year, it was Hall of Famer Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch in 1951, gaining 1,495 receiving yards in a year when the No. 2 spot was held by San Francisco’s Gordie Soltau, who gained 826 receiving yards. Johnson is nothing short of amazing.

The Falcons should have rested their starters. Atlanta had home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs locked up, so they had nothing to play for on Sunday against the Buccaneers. But the Falcons didn’t rest their starters, instead trying to keep the momentum going with a season-ending win over the Buccaneers. That didn’t go as planned. The Falcons lost to the Bucs, looked bad doing it, and can’t feel good about themselves heading into the playoffs. I sure don’t feel good about the Falcons going into the playoffs: The road to the Super Bowl may go through Atlanta, but I’ll be very surprised if this Falcons team gets to the Super Bowl.

Michael Vick was rusty. Vick, the Eagles quarterback who had been sidelined for the last six games, returned to the Eagles’ starting lineup on Sunday for what is presumed to be his final game with the team. He looked lousy. A Vick interception ended the first Eagles drive and set up the first Giants touchdown, and Vick completed just 19 of 35 passes for 197 yards in the Eagles’ 42-7 loss. It’s widely expected that the Eagles will release Vick after the season, and if Vick was hoping to showcase himself for some other team, he didn’t do a very good job of that on Sunday.

The AFC is coming down to Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, again. Seven of the last nine seasons, the AFC leader in passer rating has been either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Eleven of the last 14 seasons, the AFC leader in passing touchdowns has been either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Ten of the last 15 seasons, the AFC leader in passing yards has been either Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. And seven of the last 11 seasons, the AFC Super Bowl team has been quarterbacked by either Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. With Manning’s Broncos having the No. 1 seed and Brady’s Patriots having the No. 2 seed, it appears that it’s going to be eight of the last 12 years with either Manning or Brady in the Super Bowl.

I’m ready for the playoffs. Today will be distasteful in the NFL, as we’ll spend most of the day talking about people losing their jobs. But tomorrow comes a New Year and a new NFL postseason. After binging on 16 NFL games yesterday, we only have 11 more games to enjoy until September. Let’s savor the playoffs.

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Harrison Smith, Trae Waynes out for Vikings on Sunday

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The Vikings will be shorthanded in their effort to keep Julio Jones under control on Sunday.

Safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Trae Waynes have been downgraded to out by the Vikings. Both had been listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report. Smith has a knee injury, and Waynes has an ankle problem.

Ben Goessling of reports that Antone Exum will make his first start in place of Smith, getting the nod over Robert Blanton.

The good news for the Vikings is that defensive end Everson Griffen, who also had been listed as questionable, has not been scratched. Griffen has both a hip and shoulder issue.

The 7-3 Vikings and the 6-4 Falcons get together in the Georgia Dome on Sunday, in a key game for NFC playoff positioning. Minnesota currently leads the NFC North by a half game over the Packers, and the Falcons are holding one of the two wild-card spots.

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Giants can take an overwhelming lead in the NFC East on Sunday

Tom Coughlin AP

We don’t often say this about a 5-5 team, but if the Giants can win on Sunday, they’ve all but locked up their division.

Two of the Giants’ NFC East division rivals had disasters on Thanksgiving, and it’s now hard to imagine either the Eagles or the Cowboys making a run at the division title. That leaves Sunday’s opponent, Washington, as the only team left to challenge the Giants.

At the moment, the Giants are a game ahead of 4-6 Washington, and the Giants already beat Washington once this season. A win for the Giants would result in a two-game lead, plus the head-to-head tiebreaker, with just five games to play. The Giants would have to totally collapse to lose the division at that point.

So it’s easy to see why Washington coach Jay Gruden is calling tomorrow a one-game season. He knows that if his team loses, the NFC East race is effectively over.

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Dolphins add Rishard Matthews to injury report

Rishard Matthews, Corey Graham AP

As the Dolphins prepare to face the Jets in New Jersey, receiver Rishard Matthews is dealing with a situation that could keep him from playing in the game.

The Dolphins have announced that Matthews has an illness. He has been added to the injury report as questionable for the game.

Matthews has started all 10 games this year, despite an offseason effort to bring in a bunch of new receivers who could have supplanted him. So far, the 2012 seventh-round pick has 43 catches for 662 yards and four touchdowns.

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Bears change long snappers

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The Bears have made a change at the most interchangeable position in football.

Long snapper Thomas Gafford is out, and long snapper Patrick Scales is in.

Gafford had served in that role for all 11 games this season, after spending six years in that role with the Chiefs. He signed a one-year deal with an $870,000 base salary and an $80,000 signing bonus. He can take the balance of his pay for 2015 with the Bears as termination pay.

Scales, who entered the NFL with the Ravens in 2011, has played for the Dolphins, Jets, and Buccaneers, too.

Gafford will be subject to waivers. If/when (when) he clears waivers, Gafford will be available to be signed out of nowhere when a team decides to make a change at the most interchangeable position in football.

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Erving says critics “can’t touch my fingernails”

Cameron Erving AP

In his first career start nearly two weeks ago at Pittsburgh, Browns rookie first-rounder Cameron Erving got thrown into the feet of running back Isaiah Crowell by Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward. It made Erving the butt of many online jokes, and Erving fired back at the critics on Friday.

“The play where I got bull-rushed. What about it? It’s football. . . . Man, listen, half the people that make those Vines and those judgments can’t touch my fingernails, they can’t do what I can do,” Erving said, via Scott Petrak of the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram. “And I make money doing what I love to do, so I don’t care. Those opinions are irrelevant to me.”

Of course, he won’t be making money doing what he loves to do for long if he keeps getting manhandled by opposing defenders.

“You don’t want it to happen to you,” Erving said. “But if you never got hit, you never played football.”

In all, Erving gave up a sack and a tackle for a loss in his debut as a starter. He also was called for holding, negating a touchdown run. But the coaching staff was happy with his effort, and with his willingness to fight back after getting pushed around.

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McCarthy calls out officials for OPI call

McCarthyChi14 Getty Images

Packers coach Mike McCarthy has plenty of reasons to be upset after Thursday night’s loss to the Bears. He’s specifically upset about a penalty that turned a potential touchdown drive in the first half into a field goal.

Receiver James Jones, who otherwise did nothing for the entire game, was called for offensive interference for picking Chicago cornerback Kyle Fuller on a throw inside the five to receiver Randall Cobb. After the game, McCarthy disputed the call.

“The one play on Randall’s [catch]  is just a flat poor call,” McCarthy said, via Weston Hodkiewicz of “He missed the call. You can shake that any way you want. They’re looking for it.”

They’re also looking for coaches who call out officials, which could get McCarthy fined. And fine or no fine, McCarthy’s complaint misses the mark. While not a full-blown pick, Jones jammed his left forearm into the chest of Fuller, in an apparent effort to shove Fuller into Bears cornerback Bryce Callahan, who was covering Cobb. The move also kept Fuller from peeling away from Jones and getting to Cobb.

“We had some tough breaks from the officials, but that’s all part of the game  the officials, the weather, you can’t control that,” McCarthy added.

Whether McCarthy gets a toughly-worded letter from the league office along with an invitation to make an involuntary contribution to the league’s charitable causes remains to be seen.

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Saturday one-liners

Brandon LaFell AP

WR Brandon LaFell is ready to “step up” for the Patriots (which is always better than stepping off).

With Dolphins DE Cam Wake out for the year, Olivier Vernon has stepped up.

With CB Darrelle Revis out for the Jets, one-time undrafted free agent Marcus Williams probably will start at right corner.

Bills CB Nickell Robey periodically lobbies for a chance to play offense.

Ravens LB Ray Lewis is the latest ESPN employee to make The List of all New England fans (which overlooks the fact that he already was on it).

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis says CB Darqueze Dennard (shoulder) will be ready to go next season.

The Browns will don their orange pants in prime time.

Steelers WR Markus Wheaton is content to wait his turn.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien has a simple nickname for New Orleans WR Brandin Cooks:  “V.G. maybe,” O’Brien said, “Very good.”

Get to know Colts QB Matthew Hasselbeck in a way he’s never really been known.

Jaguars QB Blake Bortles has come a long way since his first career start last season, against the same team he’ll face on Sunday.

Titans LB Brian Orakpo knows that, when his sack-happy defense faces Oakland’s sack-stingy offensive line, “Something has to give.”

Broncos CB Omar Bolden has launched what he calls the Positive Living Award.

Chiefs Hall of Famer Will Shields will receive his Ring of Excellence on Sunday.

Raiders WR Rod Streater, fifth on the depth chart and inactive most of the year, won’t be playing absent injuries at the position.

Chargers coach Mike McCoy’s inability to handle the local media could hasten his exit from the franchise.

Cowboys LB Sean Lee has a simple message for his teammates: “If you’re not motivated to find a way to win, you need to get off the team.”

WR Hakeem Nicks could be active for his first game back with the Giants.

The Eagles are bad because the players aren’t good.

Washington CB Chris Culliver’s bad week included being fined for unsportmanslike conduct due to a throat-slash gesture.

“The sky’s the limit for us, based on where we’ve come from Day One,” Bears LB Willie Young say. “[Beating the Packers] just reassures us that we can win big games. We can beat a playoff contender and a winning team.”

The Packers’ defense did a good job on Thursday night, which only makes the performance of the offense more glaring.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is thankful for RB Adrian Peterson; “I told him today how much I appreciated him,” Zimmer said. “Just everything he does for us. His leadership, the way he comes out to practice the way he prepares. Really, everything.”

The last time the Falcons played Minnesota, TE Levine Toilolo finished the game at right tackle.

Panthers G Trai Turner will spend his team’s mini-bye in the enemy territory of New Orleans; “I enjoy the support. I encourage the hate, also,” Turner said.

TE Cameron Brate, a Harvard graduate, is making the Buccaneers look even smarter than him for having him around.

Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson and his wife had their first child on Thursday.

Rams WR Kenny Britt and WR Tavon Austin wore Stedman Bailey’s No. 12 at practice on Friday.

40-year-old 49ers K Phil Dawson says he has at least one year left in his leg.

Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger says he love Seattle; he may not feel that way after facing the Seahawks there for the first time in his career on Sunday.

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Amendola to miss Sunday’s game

Danny Amendola AP

Another week, another key offensive weapon is out for the Patriots.

Tom Curran of CSN New England, confirming a report from Steve Burton of WBZ, says that receiver Danny Amendola won’t play on Sunday night in Denver.

If, as expected, Amendola doesn’t travel to Colorado, the Patriots will be (or at least should be) issuing an updated injury report downgrading Amendola from questionable to out.

Amendola injured his knee on Monday night against the Bills. He had become the primary replacement for Julian Edelman, who had broken a bone in his foot the prior Sunday against the Giants. A week before that, the Patriots lost running back Dion Lewis for the year with a torn ACL.

The Patriots also recently put receiver Aaron Dobson on injured reserve, leaving them very thin at the position. Which means that maybe coach Bill Belichick, who once had an affinity for moving receivers to defensive back, may have to see whether any of his defensive backs can catch passes.

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Sanders, Osweiler working on chemistry

Emmanuel Sanders AP

With Peyton Manning out for at least two more games, Brock Osweiler will serve as the Broncos quarterback for at least the next two games. Which means that it will be important for Osweiler and his receivers to have good chemistry on the field.

One of those receivers has checked the box.

“The chemistry is good,” Emmanuel Sanders told reporters on Friday, in comments distributed by the team. “Peyton hasn’t been going on Wednesdays, so I’ve had an opportunity to go with Brock and it’s definitely paid off. Today we connected on a couple of deep balls that we were working on. I texted him last night about what I’m seeing and what he’s seeing, so it’s going to pay off.”

A bad ankle kept Sanders out of Sunday’s game at Chicago, so Sunday night will be his first chance at catching passes from Osweiler during a game. Which could help the Broncos become the first team this year to hand the Patriots a loss.

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Bucannon gets big fine for hit on defenseless receiver

Kyle Juszczyk, Tyrann Mathieu, Deone Bucannon AP

Deone Bucannon of the Cardinals has been fined $23,152 for a hit on a defenseless receiver in last week’s win over the Bengals.

Bucannon hit A.J. Green on a pass over the middle was not flagged.

Bucannon is questionable for this week’s game vs. the 49ers due to concussion-like symptoms that didn’t show up until a day or two after the game, so it’s unknown if he suffered a concussion on the hit that brought the fine.

A first-round pick in 2014, Bucannon is listed as a safety and wears No. 20 but generally plays linebacker for the Cardinals.

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Doug Martin doesn’t like talking about his contract year

Doug Martin AP

Buccaneers running back Doug Martin didn’t like his old nickname. He also doesn’t like inquiries about his current circumstances.

Martin, in final year of his rookie deal after the team opted not to pick up his fifth-year option for 2016, despises talking about his contract.

“You know, people say, ‘Oh, it’s a contract year, that’s why he’s playing like this,'” Martin told the team’s official website, via “I hate that. I hate contract questions. I’m healthy. Last year, I had the injury bug, it was either a knee, ankle, hamstring. This year, I made sure that I stayed healthy, doing a lot of preventive things, stretches, eating right.”

Last year wasn’t his only bad season, however. Before generating 494 rushing yards through 11 games in 2014, Martin had 456 yards in six games in 2013. As a rookie, Martin finished with 1,454 rushing yards.

There’s an obvious connection between having a big year and being on the brink of getting paid. This season, Martin has 941 yards rushing in 10 games, which puts him on pace for more than 1,500.

Martin’s distaste for questions linking his performance to his contract posture may arise from the presumption that: (1) he’s only having a good year because he’s on the brink of getting paid; and (2) after he gets paid, he won’t play well. Unofficially known as (because I just thought of the name) the DeMarco Murray Disorder, it’s a real phenomenon about which the Buccaneers and other teams could be concerned.

Murray isn’t the first running back to regress after getting his payday; he’s just the most recent. For Martin, the real question is whether his current team believes he’ll continue to get it done even after getting a new contract. If they don’t make a competitive offer to Martin (or apply the franchise tag), the warning to everyone else will be implied.

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Panthers worked out three cornerbacks in all

Seantavius Jones, Bradley Fletcher AP

Cortland Finnegan wasn’t the only cornerback who worked out for the Panthers on Friday. Per multiple reports, which PFT has confirmed, the Panthers also gave tryouts to Bradley Fletcher and Robert McClain.

Fletcher spent two games with the Patriots this season, after two years with the Eagles and four before that with the Rams. He has eight career interceptions and four forced fumbles.

McClain broke in with the Panthers in 2010, appearing in 16 games with two starts. He spent 2011 with the Jaguars and then 2012 through 2014 with the Falcons. Like Fletcher, McClain spent time with the Patriots this year; he was cut five days before the regular-season opener.

The Panthers signed none of the three players. Carolina currently has only four cornerbacks on the roster: Josh Norman, Charles Tillman, Teddy Williams, and Bene’ Benwikere. Tillman has missed the last two games — and is expected to miss a few more — with a knee injury.

The Panthers have five other defensive backs on the roster (all safeties) and three on the practice squad: Marcus Ball, Ras-I Dowling, and Lou Young.

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Titans give Chance Warmack $50 for losing a pound on Thanksgiving

Warmack Getty Images

An NFL offensive lineman can put away a lot of food at the Thanksgiving table, but Titans guard Chance Warmack chose not to. And he’s got a $50 bonus to show for it.

Warmack got the bonus for weighing in at 326 pounds on Friday morning, after he had weighed 327 pounds on Thursday morning. Titans coach Mike Mularkey asked players not to go crazy at the Thanksgiving table, and Warmack followed instructions.

John Glennon of the Tennessean reports that Warmack disrobed for the weigh-in in front of the team, not wanting the weight of his clothing to throw off the results.

Of course, Warmack is in the third year of a four-year, $12.2 million guaranteed contract with the Titans, so a $50 bonus doesn’t mean a whole lot to him. But he did get publicly lauded by Mularkey.

Warmack also admitted that he has some Thanksgiving leftovers at home. He may weigh more than 327 before the weekend is over.

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Jerry Jones: Putting Romo back on the field was worth the risk

Tony Romo AP

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo missed seven games with a broken clavicle, then returned and re-broke the clavicle in his second game back. So does that mean the team pushed Romo back on the field too soon?

Not according to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who says Romo wasn’t pushed to play and the potential reward of Romo getting the Cowboys to the playoffs was worth the risk.

“I don’t think push is the word for it,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan. “We felt the risk was worth the potential for having him be the impact he can be and really having a fairytale turnaround and doing something that was special. And to me, that’s what we’re about, that’s what sports is about. You shouldn’t ever quit trying to do something extraordinary. The dream was if Tony could have come in and been the catalyst and had the results we had the week before in Miami against a great team, a really great team – Carolina is so impressive – if we could have done that, it could have been the beginning of something special. Now you’ve got to try for that and that’s what we’re here for, to try and do and be a part of a story like that.”

Instead, Jones admits that the season has become a nightmare.

“I had a nightmare last night and I was hoping when I woke up this morning it was just that,” Jones said.

Instead, it’s very real: Romo has been injured twice, and without him the Cowboys are one of the worst teams in the NFL.

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Romanowski: Gabbert was studying film more than Kaepernick

Blaine Gabbert AP

The 49ers haven’t been good at winning games the past two years. They’ve become very adept at leaking unflattering information about employees with whom they’re planning to part ways.

Last year, coach Jim Harbaugh was the target of the leak machine. This year, it’s been quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The latest leak came to light via former NFL (and 49ers) linebacker Bill Romanowski, via In an appearance on 95.7 The Game, Romanowski had this to say: “Let’s talk Colin preparing for games. And you know how they get iPads now. And they regulate, and they can watch how much film you watch. [Blaine] Gabbert, when he was a backup, was watching four to five times as much film as Colin was.”

Apart from the question of whether it’s true is the question of whether it’s part of a deliberate effort by the team to ensure that no tears will be shed when Kaepernick inevitably exits the roster. If it’s true, it explains Kaepernick’s struggles to develop as a quarterback, complementing his reliance on raw physical abilities with an understanding of where the opportunities will arise to carve up defenses.

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