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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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Broncos’ offense faltering in Cincinnati

Denver Broncos vs the San Diego Chargers Getty Images

It wasn’t long ago that the Broncos were regarded as having one of the best offenses in NFL history. But it sure feels like a long time ago.

The Broncos’ offense has been stagnating for weeks, and tonight in Cincinnati might be the worst performance yet.

Denver’s three drives have ended in three punts and an interception. On those four drives Peyton Manning is a very un-Peyton Manning-like 5-for-10 for 41 yards, with no touchdowns, one interception and a 21.2 passer rating.

The Bengals have scored 17 points in a row after Andy Dalton threw an early pick-six and are now up 17-7.

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Andy Dalton throws pick-six as prime time nightmare continues

Andy Dalton, Billy Winn AP

Andy Dalton in prime time is a disaster. Again.

On the Bengals’ second possession today against the Broncos, Dalton threw a bad pass that A.J. Green leapt into the air to try to bring down. Green couldn’t catch it, but Aqib Talib made a great diving catch and got the interception.

Then Talib got up, untouched, and raced to the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown. That gave the Broncos a 7-0 lead.

Even worse for the Bengals, when Green had to reach up for Dalton’s bad pass, he exposed himself to a hard hit from Broncos safety T.J. Ward. That hit appeared to injure Green, and he didn’t return to the field when the Bengals’ offense came back out on the next possession.

But Bengals running back Jeremy Hill made a spectacular 85-yard run on the first play of that next possession, allowing the Bengals to tie the score at 7-7.

It’s been a great start to tonight’s game. Even if Dalton in prime time is anything but great.

UPDATE 9:09 p.m. ET: Green has returned to the game.

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Blandino: No way to say if Graham scored a touchdown

graham AP

The Saints had a crucial call go against them on Sunday when tight end Jimmy Graham thought he scored a touchdown, only to have the officials rule that he had fumbled just before the ball crossed the goal line.

A day later, NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino says he still doesn’t know whether they got that call right or wrong.

“This was very difficult,” Blandino said on NFL Network. “We really struggled with this one because it’s so close.”

Blandino said no replay angle conclusively showed whether the ball crossed the goal line before Graham lost possession.

“Where is the ball in relation to the goal line?” Blandino said. “You really can’t tell exactly where that ball is in relation to the gaol line. The ruling on the field is it did not break the plane. Do you see indisputable evidence that it did break the plane? We even had a closeup look that the network gave us and it just wasn’t clear cut, it wasn’t obvious that the ball broke the plane, so the ruling on the field stood.”

Ultimately, Blandino said, when there’s no conclusive angle, the replay just has to stick with what the officials called on the field.

“Had they ruled touchdown, there was no evidence to overturn. Basically, the ruling on the field would have stood either way,” Blandino said.

Maybe some day we’ll have microchips in footballs that can tell us the instant a ball crosses the goal line. But with the replay system we have now, there was no way to say whether Graham scored or not.

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Reggie McKenzie talks up the Raiders’ rookie class

Reggie McKenzie AP

Amid speculation that the Raiders could make sweeping changes and General Manager Reggie McKenzie could be on the chopping block, McKenzie would like to point out that he drafted some pretty good players this year.

McKenzie told the San Francisco Chronicle that first-round pick Khalil Mack and second-round pick Derek Carr have proven themselves to be the kind of players a franchise can be built around.

“Derek and Khalil stopped being rookies a little while back,” McKenzie said. “Now they are veteran players. They can carry this into next season and help build this team into winners. They’ve shown their teammates who they are as players and men off the field, and they’re definitely guys everybody can count on.”

McKenzie believes he has done the heavy lifting to get the Raiders into the right place, and they’re heading in the right direction.

“The foundation has been built,” McKenzie said. “That’s what it’s all about. The more young guys play, the more comfortable they get . . . and now they’re making plays. And we continue to grow that.”

McKenzie has every right to be proud of the players he’s drafted. But that doesn’t necessarily mean his job is safe. If a new coach (like, say, Jim Harbaugh) is willing to come to Oakland only on the condition that he gets final say over the roster, owner Mark Davis might push McKenzie aside. But McKenzie has made a good case for himself with this year’s draft.

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Lovie Smith on high draft pick: If you’re down here, you have to get something from it

Green Bay Packers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

The Buccaneers are closing in on the top pick in the draft for the fifth time in franchise history, which gives the team something to look forward to as they put the finishing touches on an abysmal season.

Coach Lovie Smith said Monday that adding a good player at the top of the draft next year is something to be excited about, especially since he likes what he’s seen from this year’s rookie class.

“From a 2-13 record right now, I think that we’ve found out our draft class, we’ve played them and we like some things we’ve seen from the draft class,” Smith said, via the Tampa Bay Times. “Of course, Mike Evans, it goes without saying, Charles Sims, we’re seeing flashes from him, Austin Seferian-Jenkins — you know, our top three picks, amongst others. So that part is good. And if you have to be down here, you need to get something from it. We are going to get from our position — wherever it might be — we are going to get to add some more, we have a full allotment of draft picks, we have an excellent staff that evaluates guys. We are going to add some more players to the mix. We need some more players added to the mix. I am excited about that part. And again, if you have to be down where we are, why not get your choice of a few of the best players in the draft.”

If the Buccaneers were to find a quarterback with that top pick, it would probably help others join Smith in getting excited about what’s to come for the Bucs. That won’t fix things on its own as the Bucs need to sort out their offensive line and offensive coordinator as well, but Smith’s right about the need to make your pick count if you’re handing it in during the first hour of the draft.

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Report: Aldon Smith was drinking at scene of alleged assault

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The 49ers have already dealt with Ray McDonald for his part in a new sexual assault investigation.

But now they may have a bigger problem to deal with.

Part of an affidavit outlining allegations against McDonald includes a section in which the victim said she spent the day drinking with McDonald and outside linebacker Aldon Smith.

That’s only a problem as it pertains to Smith’s suspension for a 2013 DUI, for which he’s still on probation.

According to Tracey Kaplan of the San Jose Mercury News, the woman claimed McDonald sexually assaulted her at his home after she passed out by his pool. But she them claimed to have stayed at the house, drinking with Smith and McDonald.

Police have also seized home surveillance cameras and McDonald’s cell phone as part of their investigation.

While the 49ers finally had a moment of clarity and cut McDonald (shortly after being eliminated from the playoffs), they’ve stood firm by Smith throughout a series of transgressions.

There was some dispute at the time of Smith’s reinstatement that he hadn’t fulfilled his counseling requirements.

But if police place him at the scene of a crime drinking, it will put the 49ers in the uncomfortable position of making more excuses for a star after making an example of McDonald.

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Brandon Marshall on Dominic Raiola: Dirty player, worse person

Chicago Bears Brandon Marshall Addresses The Media After Accusations Of Domestic Violence In His Past Getty Images

Bears receiver Brandon Marshall and Lions center Dominic Raiola will not be exchanging Christmas cards this year.

Marshall said after Raiola was suspended for stomping on the leg of Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson that cheap shots are par for the course from Raiola.

“This guy is a dirty player, and he’s a worse human being. He has no respect for himself,” Marshall said, via Michael C. Wright of ESPN.

Marshall said his issues with Raiola go far beyond just one incident. According to Marshall, who has long been open about seeking treatment for mental illness, Raiola has approached Marshall on the field to insult him about his mental health issues. Marshall says that before a game two years ago, Raiola walked up to Marshall and made jokes about Marshall taking medication.

“I’m just warming up, just standing there. He’s like, ‘Go take your medicine. You freaking weirdo, you freaking crazy guy,’” Marshall said of an encounter with Raiola.

Raiola has a laundry list of incidents that have gotten him in hot water over the course of his NFL career, and the NFL noted in announcing his suspension that stepping on Ferguson was far from his first offense. Marshall thinks it’s past time that the NFL does something about Raiola.

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Johnny Manziel ruled out for Week 17

Cleveland Browns v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

Johnny Manziel’s rookie season is officially over.

Browns coach Mike Pettine announced Monday that the quarterback has been ruled out of the team’s season finale against the Ravens because of the hamstring injury he suffered against the Panthers on Sunday. Pettine called it a “pretty significant” injury that would have kept Manziel out for several weeks if the Browns season had several weeks left in it.

Pettine also said that Brian Hoyer’s shoulder injury would continue to be evaluated over the course of the week and that Connor Shaw would get first-team reps to prepare him for the possible start.

“If he does [play], I wouldn’t be surprised he plays well,” Pettine said, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Pettine added that the team was considering other quarterback options in the event they need to add another player to the roster before Week 17.

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Jim Harbaugh works hard to keep it on the high road

San Diego Chargers v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Jim Harbaugh seemed to the heading for the curb, but managed to steer back onto the high road.

The soon-to-be-former 49ers coach seemed to come close to talking about his own status with the team, something he’s avoided so far.

Via Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, Harbaugh was asked if it was hard to resist responding to the anonymous reports about him.

“Yeah, that’s a good question,” Harbaugh said, before laughing. “That’s a good question. . . .

The high road’s the only road I know. I’ll keep on that.”

When reporters tried to follow up, Harbaugh replied: “I think we’ve covered the ground pretty well.”

Sadly, we have not.

Harbaugh also declined to elaborate on a report from Jay Glazer of FOX Sports, who said Harbaugh’s status would be known within 48 hours of the end of the season.

“Well, as you know, I’ve not participated in any of these speculations and unnamed sources, the rumors, I would ask you to have Jay Glazer go back and ask his sources for more clarification,” Harbaugh said. … “I haven’t participated and I don’t intend to now. And this has been a good 12 months of this kind of thing. No reason to start now.”

Oh, there’s plenty of reason, Jim. The truth shall set you free. It’ll be cathartic for you.

You do get the feeling (or maybe it’s hope for a Festivus miracle) that at some point the tightly wound Harbaugh is going to snap, and a stream of truth so torrential will be unleashed, that we’ll all be drenched.

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Cowboys won’t rest starters this week

Tony Romo, Jason Garrett AP

The Cowboys have clinched the NFC East and they still have a shot at grabbing a first-round bye.

They’ll need to get some help from the 49ers and Rams (or a Lions-Packers tie) to make that happen, but even getting those results in the NFC West won’t help if they don’t beat Washington. If they were to win and get all three games to break their way, they’d wind up as the top seed in the conference.

On Monday, coach Jason Garrett said that the Cowboys will do their best to take care of what they control. With all three other games with bearing on their possible slot in the playoffs kicking off later in the day, the Cowboys won’t have the option of altering their lineup based on scoreboard watching and Garrett said, via Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News, that the Cowboys would play their starters their usual amount in Week 17.

We’ll see if that holds come Sunday for running back DeMarco Murray and other players with current injury concerns, but the Cowboys have every reason to play anyone without such worries because of the benefits that would come with getting the bye.

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NFL to suspend Raiola for one game

Raiola Getty Images

Lions center Dominic Raiola said his stomp on the leg of Bears defensive tackle Ego Ferguson was inadvertent. There will be nothing inadvertent about the NFL’s reaction.

Per a league source, Raiola will indeed be suspended one game for the infraction. Raiola will get the official word later this afternoon.

Raiola was fined $10,000 last month for striking Patriots defensive tackle Zach Moore in the back of the head. In that same game, Raiola escaped punishment for deliberately diving at Moore’s legs during a kneel-down play.

Raiola will have immediate appeal rights, with the hearing held quickly and a ruling coming as soon as Wednesday.

If the suspension is upheld, the Lions won’t have their starting center for Sunday’s NFC North championship game against the Packers. But they will have him for the first game of the postseason.

Three years ago, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was suspended two games for a post-play stomp on the arm of former Packers offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith.

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Steven Jackson undergoing further testing on quad

Pittsburgh Steelers v Atlanta Falcons Getty Images

The Falcons didn’t need much from running back Steven Jackson to knock off the Saints on Sunday and it’s not clear yet whether they’ll have him in the lineup at all when they try to do the same to the Panthers in Week 17.

Jackson left the win over the Saints in the first half with a quad injury and didn’t return, finishing the day with four carries and one reception. Coach Mike Smith said Monday that Jackson was having further tests done to evaluate the injury, which means we’ll be waiting until later in the week for an idea about whether or not he’ll play against Carolina.

Devonta Freeman was the most effective back in New Orleans, running five times for 36 yards and a touchdown and catching three passes for 48 more yards.

Smith said Safety William Moore is also having tests done on his injured shoulder after leaving Sunday’s game. Moore was on injured reserve with the designation to return for an injury to the same shoulder earlier this season.

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Hoyer, Manziel are both hurt, so Connor Shaw may start

Cleveland Browns v Washington Redskins Getty Images

All season we’ve been asking whether the Browns would start Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel. At the end of the season, the answer may be neither.

Undrafted rookie quarterback Connor Shaw, a member of the practice squad, may be called up to the active roster and forced to start Sunday’s season finale against the Ravens. Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com reports that Manziel’s hamstring injury, which forced him out of Sunday’s game, and an injury to Hoyer’s shoulder suffered after Manziel went out, could leave Shaw as the only option.

A three-year starter at South Carolina, Shaw was signed by the Browns in May and had some good performances in the preseason this year. Perhaps he can have another good performance in the season finale, and add a new element to the Browns’ inevitable quarterback controversy in 2015.

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Jay Cutler will start season finale for the Bears

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Getty Images

Meet the new Bears starting quarterback, same as the old Bears starting quarterback.

Jimmy Clausen suffered a concussion in Sunday’s loss to the Lions and the Bears ruled him out for Week 17 on Monday, leaving the team in need of someone to lead their offense against the Vikings. Coach Marc Trestman’s options were Jay Cutler, benched a week ago after a string of poor games that have led to plenty of questions about the future of the coach, quarterback and General Manager Phil Emery, and rookie David Fales.

Trestman has opted to go with the devil he knows.

“Jay gives us the best chance this week. So that’s why he’ll be out there,” Trestman said, via ESPNChicago.com. “Jay said ‘I’ll be ready to go.’ He empathizes with what Jimmy had gone through last night. He’s ready to go. He’ll be in this afternoon to get started.”

Going with Fales would have given the Bears a chance to see the sixth-rounder in action while also protecting Cutler from the possibility of an injury that could hamper attempts to trade him this offseason, although no one’s really sure at this point if that’s the route the Bears will go or who will be making the decisions about such moves. They went the other way, though, and the season will end with the same starting quarterback that took the field in Week One.

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Chip Kelly not miffed about playoff structure

Kelly Getty Images

The Eagles will finish with a winning record, but they won’t make it to the playoffs. The Panthers or Falcons will secure a spot with a losing record. That doesn’t bother Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly.

“Should we move to the [NFC South] so we can get in a different division?” Kelly said to reporters on Monday when asked about the situation. “No, that’s just the rules. People that complain about rules that are already in existence. . . .
We didn’t do enough. We didn’t win enough games against the right opponents to put ourselves in the playoffs. We knew the rules of engagement before the season started. To sit here after it is over and say, ‘Let’s change the rules so this can happen,’ that’s just the way it is. There may be a year where we’re in a situation where we’re not in great shape and we win our division and we get a chance to go. People said it about Seattle a couple years ago, and then Seattle won their wild-card game.

“It’s still about winning each week and doing what you’re supposed to do. We already knew the rules before the season started. That’s the way it expressed itself. We didn’t do enough to win to get ourselves in the playoffs. That’s on us. That’s not on anybody else, or what the structure of setup is.”

It’s the right attitude. The rules are the rules, and the Eagles knew the rules. Everyone knew the rules. Until they change, one team from each of the eight divisions will host a playoff game, whether they “deserve” it or not.

The Eagles may deserve it in relation to Carolina or Atlanta. But that doesn’t matter, because one of those teams will become the best in its division, regardless of the final won-loss record.

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