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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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Derek Carr won’t play this week

Derek Carr, George Johnson, Andre Fluellen AP

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr made a quick return to practice after suffering a concussion and rib injury during last weekend’s game against the Lions, but he hasn’t recovered enough for the team to play him against the Packers.

Steve Wyche of NFL Media reports that coach Dennis Allen said that Carr won’t play on Friday night because his bruised ribs are still sore. Allen added that Carr has been cleared after his concussion.

The injury likely eliminates what little chance Carr had of starting for the Raiders when they face the Jets in Week One. Barring an injury of his own, you can put Matt Schaub’s name into the lineup for that game.

His performance there and in the following weeks will determine how long it is before Carr gets his chance to lead the Raiders offense. If Schaub looks anything like he did with the Texans last season, it probably won’t be long.

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Report: Steelers want to sign Cortez Allen to new contract

Cortez Allen AP

The Steelers are reportedly efforting to sign one of their starting defensive backs to a contract extension.

According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the team wants to sign cornerback Cortez Allen to a new deal.

The 25-year-old Allen is in the final year of his contract. He has appeared in 44 games in three seasons with Pittsburgh, notching 121 tackles, defending 23 passes and recording four interceptions.

As a general rule, the Steelers don’t negotiate contracts during the regular season, so if Allen and Pittsburgh are to finalize a deal this year, it will have to be soon. Earlier this week, the club signed offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert to a five-year, $30 million contract.

The Steelers have long had a knack for signing their core players before they hit unrestricted free agency. Allen, who’s entering his prime, could draw quite a bit of interest next offseason, given his age and the demand for his position. But it appears Pittsburgh is working to strike a deal now.

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Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount officially charged with marijuana possession

Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount AP

Steelers running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount are in Philadelphia to play the Eagles on Thursday, but they were in Pittsburgh on Wednesday when police found marijuana in a car the two men were in.

They were arrested and, on Thursday, formally charged with crimes. Ross Township Police detective Brian Kohlhepp informed PFT that Blount and Bell are both charged with marijuana possession, as was Mercedes Dollson, a 21-year-old woman who was also in the car at the time of the stop.

Bell, who was driving, has also been charged with driving under the influence of marijuana.

There’s no word on court dates at this point and the cases should take some time to make their way through the legal system. Until they do, it is unlikely that either player will face league discipline that could threaten their availability for games this season.

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Patriots cut TE D.J. Williams, DL Marcus Forston

D.J. Williams AP

The Patriots have made yet another roster move at the tight end position, announcing the release of D.J. Williams on Thursday.

A fourth-year pro from Arkansas, Williams appeared in two games for New England in the 2013 regular season. He has also played for Jacksonville (2013) and Green Bay (2011-2012).

The Packers selected the 25-year-old Williams in the fifth round in 2011. He reportedly has dealt with a leg injury of late.

The move leaves the Patriots with four tight ends.

The Patriots also announced the release of defensive lineman Marcus Forston, a second-year pro who played in three games for New England a season ago.

The Pats have three open roster spots.

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Ron Rivera wants Cam Newton to run, except he doesn’t

Cam Newton AP

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was able to survive his first game on a rebuilt left ankle, and even ran around a bit.

But as much as Panthers coach Ron Rivera holds his breath when Newton takes off, he also knows that that’s who Newton is, and when Newton’s at his best.

“I’m going to yell at him because I want him to get rid of the ball. But if he runs, he runs,” Rivera said, via Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review. “He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to protect himself. He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to make plays. So if he runs, then I think it’s a great sign.”

Newton grinned and said he wasn’t much of a slider, but Rivera said his quarterback will need to adapt

“[Hornets owner] Michael Jordan used to go to the hole all the time and dunk,” Rivera said. “But if you ask Michael, he realized that later in his career, he had to develop that jumper. So he went work at it. Cam’s the same way. He needs to develop as a passer.

“In an interesting way, this may have been the best thing that happened to him in terms of his pure quarterbacking development. He’s had to stay in the pocket, he’s had to have good footwork, he’s had to step into his throws. I think this has been a plus for him.”

That and a suspect offensive line will keep Newton on the move this year, and time will tell if he’s ready to.

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Jamaal Charles returns to practice

Jamaal Charles AP

Running back Jamaal Charles missed last Sunday’s preseason game against the Panthers after suffering a foot injury while moving himself out of the dorm that the Chiefs were staying in during training camp and missed the first couple of practices this week as well, but his absence from the field came to an end on Thursday.

The only difference between his return to work and the days before his injury was that Charles was running the plays of the Vikings as a member of the scout team. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton explained that the team didn’t want to take snaps away from players who would definitely be in the lineup on Saturday night, a group that doesn’t include Charles at the moment.

“It’s just a way for (Charles) to get work and not take away from guys that are definitely playing in this game,” Sutton said, via ESPN.com. “He gives us a good look in there. I’m glad to see him out there, period.”

Running back De’Anthony Thomas also returned to practice on Thursday, but safety Eric Berry and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe remained out and are unlikely to be in the lineup against Minnesota.

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Eric Weems returns to the Falcons

Eric+Weems+Minnesota+Vikings+v+Chicago+Bears+1iFgZQFXrA7l Getty Images

On the next Hard Knocks: A veteran receiver and special teams ace returns, and a youngster gets cut for the fifth time in his NFL career.

Eric Weems, a wide receiver and return man who played for the Falcons from 2007 to 2011, re-signed with Atlanta today. Weems was a Pro Bowl kick returner for the Falcons in 2010 and is also a solid player on kick coverage.

Weems spent the last two seasons with the Bears and wasn’t as much of a contributor, either on offense or special teams, in Chicago as he had been in Atlanta. The Falcons know what they’re getting in Weems, and they like what they’re getting.

To make room for Weems on the 90-man roster, the Falcons waived wide receiver Jabin Sambrano. Although Sambrano has never played in a regular-season game, he has bounced around the league long enough to get cut by the Buccaneers and Jaguars, and get cut by the Colts twice. Now he can add the Falcons to his list.

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Steelers finally will make heavy use of no-huddle, supposedly

Steelers AP

In recent years, the Steelers have been talking about using the no-huddle more frequently.  This year, perhaps they mean it.

In 2013, the Steelers indeed found the gas pedal after an 0-4 start, increasing the use of the no-huddle attack from (per Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) 6.5 percent of the time to 25 percent of the time.

We practice it all the time,” center Maurkice Pouncey said, via Robinson.  “When we’re in the no-huddle, guys are locked in and communicating at a high level. It’s been very, very good for us, and we’ve got to keep building on it.”

“It’s big for us,” receiver Antonio Brown said. “[It's] going to be a key for us this year to get things going fast and catch defenses off-balance and let Ben pick and read his reads, and it gives us the opportunity to play fast.”

In Thursday night’s dress rehearsal against the Eagles (a team that used the no-huddle extensively in 2013), the Steelers have a chance to experiment with the placement of the proverbial pedal to the metal.

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Jimmy Smith, Asa Jackson ruled out for Ravens

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Getty Images

The Ravens are going to be light on cornerbacks when they play the Redskins on Saturday.

Coach John Harbaugh said Thursday that neither Jimmy Smith nor Asa Jackson would play, although he said that Smith, who injured his chest against the Cowboys last week, could probably play if it were a regular season contest. He and Jackson, who is battling an ankle injury, join Lardarius Webb on the inactive list.

Chykie Brown and Dominique Franks will get the start for the Ravens with Terrence Brooks handling slot duties with the first team. Harbaugh sees an upside to the situation for the players and the team.

“It’s going to be an opportunity for those guys to go against the best for a long period of time,” Harbaugh said, via ESPN.com. “It’s going to be a good chance to evaluate where we’re at and give those guys an opportunity to prove they can play with the best.”

All three of the injured corners are expected to be healthy in time for the start of the regular season, although they may be a bit rusty if the injuries keep them off the field much longer.

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Bill O’Brien: Randy Bullock has edge to keep Texans’ kicker job

Shane Lechler, Randy Bullock AP

If Chris Boswell is going to win the Texans’ kicking job, he is going to have to catch incumbent Randy Bullock.

Texans coach Bill O’Brien indicated Thursday that Bullock is “in the lead” in the kicking battle, according to Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com.

A third-year pro from Texas A&M, Bullock connected on 26-of-35 field goals in 2013 for Houston, forcing touchbacks on 29-of-67 kickoffs. All nine of Bullock’s misses were from 40 yards and out.

Both Boswell and Bullock have hit each hit one field goal try this preseason. However, Boswell, an undrafted rookie from Rice, missed a pair of extra points in Houston’s 32-7 win vs. Atlanta on August 16.

The NFL’s longer extra point experiment has ended, leaving the customary chip shots for the rest of the exhibition season. But those one-point misses couldn’t have helped Boswell’s cause. That said, he’s still in the competition with Bullock, which gives him a chance to show Houston (and other clubs) what he can do.

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Pete Carroll: It’s time to get Marshawn Lynch some carries

Marshawn Lynch, Dan Quinn AP

The Seahawks started training camp without running back Marshawn Lynch because of Lynch’s holdout and they started working him back into the lineup during last week’s game against the Chargers.

Lynch played a handful of snaps, but never touched the ball before turning things over to Robert Turbin. Coach Pete Carroll said that Lynch will do more when the Seahawks face the Bears on Friday night.

“It’s time for him to get some carries and get involved a little bit. I really could not be more pleased with the conditioning level that he’s had, the consistency of practice and his preparation has been great. He’ll be ready to go and I know he’s looking forward to that too,” Lynch said, via Curtis Crabtree of PFT.

Lynch probably doesn’t need much preseason work to get ready for September and his body may even benefit from the lighter workload that he took as a result of his extended time away from the team this offseason. Turbin and Christine Michael have looked good in the first two games, giving the Seahawks enviable depth behind Lynch.

Carroll didn’t say whether or not Lynch and company would be running behind the team’s starting offensive line, which has yet to play together during the preseason, but they were practicing as a unit this week. That puts the Seahawks offense pretty close to ready for Week One heading into their regular season dress rehearsal.

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Jadeveon Clowney is OK, but status for Saturday undecided

Matt Ryan, Jadeveon Clowney AP

The Texans and Broncos wrapped up their joint practices on Thursday without linebacker Jadeveon Clowney.

Clowney left Wednesday’s practice early and went to the medical tent. Texans coach Bill O’Brien channelled his former boss Bill Belichick after the session by saying that he nothing about what happened to the first overall pick in May’s draft and wasn’t much more forthcoming on Thursday.

John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reports that O’Brien didn’t elaborate on what was bothering Clowney, who had sports hernia surgery during the offseason, but that the linebacker was fine. O’Brien said he hasn’t decided whether or not Clowney would play against the Broncos on Saturday yet.

That’s one of many decisions O’Brien has to make before the game. Running back Arian Foster, wide receiver Andre Johnson and linebacker Brian Cushing are all waiting to find out if they’ll get to play after wrapping up the week of practice.

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Bucs trade Kelcie McCray to Chiefs for Rishaw Johnson

Kansas City Chiefs v Tennessee Titans Getty Images

The Buccaneers have spent the summer looking for guards and they added another name to the hat in a trade with the Chiefs on Thursday.

Tampa acquired Rishaw Johnson from Kansas City in exchange for safety Kelcie McCray. Johnson had been in the mix for the right guard job with the Chiefs, but it would seem rookie Zach Fulton has taken that job and made it his own. He’ll presumably plunge into a similar competition with the Bucs, who have plugged Oniel Cousins in at left guard as they try to cobble things together on the interior of the line after Carl Nicks’s retirement.

Johnson played three games and made one start for the Chiefs last season.

McCray played 11 games for the Buccaneers and four for the Dolphins last year, recording 12 tackles during his time in Tampa. The Chiefs were in need of depth at safety after Sanders Commings was injured and Steve Gregory retired shortly after signing with the team.

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Irsay trial postponed to October 30

Irsay AP

Colts owner Jim Irsay has received a two-month reprieve in a court of law.  That may not matter much in the Court of Goodell.

Per the Associated Press, a judge has postponed from August 28 until October 30 Irsay’s trial on misdemeanor charges of driving while intoxicated and driving with a Schedule I or II controlled substance in his body.

For a player with a first offense, the NFL typically would defer the imposition of discipline until after the criminal case is resolved.  With the NFL hoping to show that owners are held to a higher standard, Commissioner Roger Goodell possibly will impose a suspension or other discipline on Irsay before the start of the 2014 regular season.  Adam Schefter of ESPN previously reported that league insiders believe a six-to-eight-game suspension will be imposed.

And while that indeed would amount to a higher standard for owners, the NFL has declined to address whether Irsay will be placed in the same substance-abuse testing program that applies to plays.  If/when that ever happens, Irsay would be subjected to the same protocol of up to 10 urine tests per month, and eventually a one-year suspension, if violations would continue.

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Jay Gruden not sure if Stephen Bowen will be available for Week One

Stephen Bowen AP

Washington defensive end Stephen Bowen remains on the active/physically unable to perform list as he returns from microfracture knee surgery.

And it’s uncertain whether he’ll be available when Washington begins the regular season in 17 days.

Head coach Jay Gruden said Thursday that “it’s hard to say” whether Bowen will be able to play in the club’s opener at Houston on Sunday, September 7, the team’s Twitter feed reported.

The 30-year-old Bowen was limited to just 10 games in 2013 for Washington. A season ago, he was the club’s starting right defensive end in Jim Haslett’s base 3-4 scheme. At present, former Cowboys defensive lineman Jason Hatcher is listed as the starter at right end, with Chris Baker the starting left end.

Per NFL rules, if Bowen remains on active/PUP by Saturday, August 30, the club will have to decide whether to place him on reserve/PUP, which would necessitate a minimum six-game absence, or make another transaction, including keeping him on the active roster.

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