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Andrew Luck goes out, RG3 goes down and Russell Wilson arrives

Wild Card Playoffs - Seattle Seahawks v Washington Redskins Getty Images

We’d never seen this before, a playoff Sunday with three rookie quarterbacks starting, and if you were hoping for one of them to put up spectacular passing numbers, you turned off your TV feeling disappointed. But one of those three rookie quarterbacks, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, was anything but a disappointment.

It really is amazing, thinking back over the last year, to consider that Wilson now stands head and shoulders above the rest of this year’s fantastic class of rookie quarterbacks. Andrew Luck, the can’t-miss prospect drafted first overall by the Colts, had a phenomenal rookie season that came to an end with a tough loss to the Ravens. Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy winner drafted second overall by the Redskins, hobbled around on a bad knee against the Seahawks until it buckled underneath him and he limped off the field, ending his own phenomenal rookie season.

But there’s Wilson, the allegedly too-short quarterback drafted 75th overall by the Seahawks, still alive heading into the divisional round, where he’ll lead the Seahawks against the Falcons next weekend. And Wilson was better than either of his fellow rookies on Sunday, completing 15 of 26 passes for 187 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, and adding 67 rushing yards on eight carries.

Wilson was good all season, but he really arrived on Sunday. It’s not just that he’s got the arm and the feet to threaten any NFL defense, it’s the way he commands an offense and leads a football team. It’s the way he runs out in front to throw blocks to spring Marshawn Lynch for big gains. It’s the way he knows when to tuck the ball under his arm and take off running, and when to stay in the pocket and scan the field for an open receiver. It’s also the way he knows — and this is important — when to take a sack and when to throw the ball away when there are no plays to make, as he wisely did a few times on Sunday.

I don’t know how Wilson will compare to Luck and Griffin when we’ve had several years to compare their careers, but I do know this: Russell Wilson has arrived as a legitimate NFL star. Not bad for a rookie who was supposed to be too short.

Wilson was my favorite player on the field Sunday. Here are some other observations:

Line judge Mark Perlman made the call of the playoffs. Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice made a sensational 27-yard catch along the sideline in the second quarter, but the first official on the play ruled that Rice didn’t get his feet down inbounds. Perlman was the official who correctly came in and overruled his colleague, calling it a catch. The NFL uses all-star officiating crews during the playoffs, meaning these officials haven’t been working together all season, and sometimes postseason officiating is criticized because the officials don’t work well together as a unit. But Perlman did his job perfectly on that play.

We narrowly missed one of the all-time great playoff moments. When Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage in the second quarter, it bounced right into the arms of Ray Lewis, playing in Baltimore for the last time. It would have been an easy interception, and given how much daylight he had in front of him, Lewis might have taken it back for a touchdown. That would have been an amazing way for Lewis to go out in style in Baltimore, but unfortunately he dropped the pass. “I’ll never live that down,” Lewis said after the game. Actually, everyone in Baltimore will gladly overlook it. But it would have been some great moment.

The Colts need to revamp their offensive line. It was amazing how often Luck would take the snap, drop back and have three Ravens in his face before he could set his feet in the pocket. The offensive line has been a major problem for the Colts all season, and it’s a testament to Luck’s toughness that he managed to stay healthy the entire year. Luck is going to be a great quarterback for a long time, but the Colts can’t let him get killed back there.

Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton had my favorite play of the day. With the Colts facing third-and-26 with 12 seconds left in the first half, Luck found Hilton open about 20 yards downfield. Luck’s throw was too high, but Hilton leapt up and caught it, then raced past three Ravens defenders (picking up a nice block from tight end Coby Fleener) to get the first down and then get out of bounds with three seconds left, setting up Adam Vinatieri’s 52-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.

Who says fullbacks are dead? The fullback position isn’t used as often in NFL offenses as it once was, but all four teams that won this weekend got key plays from fullbacks. Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson and Ravens fullback Vontae Leach both scored touchdowns on Sunday. Packers fullback John Kuhn scored two touchdowns on Saturday. And Texans fullback James Casey had a 20-yard catch and also did an outstanding job as a lead blocker for Arian Foster in the weekend’s first playoff game.

Reggie Wayne is building his Hall of Fame resume. It should come as a surprise to no one that the NFL record for all-time postseason catches is owned by Jerry Rice. But I bet a lot of people will be surprised to learn that Colts receiver Reggie Wayne is No. 2. Rice had 151 catches in his 29 career playoff games, a record that may never be broken. But on Sunday Wayne played his 18th career postseason game, and his nine catches against the Ravens moved him ahead of Michael Irvin and Hines Ward, into second place on the all-time playoff receiving list, with 92.

The story of the day is the injury suffered by Robert Griffin III. A day that started with a report that the Redskins had disregarded medical advice to rush Griffin onto the field ended with Griffin exiting with a knee injury. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has to be regretting his decision to let Griffin play on a bad knee. Here’s hoping bad knees don’t slow Griffin’s progress. We should be seeing him square off with Wilson in the NFC playoffs for years to come.

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Jimmy Clausen unimpressive early in Chicago

clausencutler AP

Early on in Chicago, Bears quarterback Jimmy Clausen is looking about the way you’d expect a backup to look against a good defense like Detroit’s.

The Bears have gone three-and-out on each of their first two offensive drives. Coach Marc Trestman is playing it very safe on the play-calling, not asking Clausen to do anything fancy and not accomplishing much. The Bears even ran the ball on third-and-9 on their first possession, suggesting that they don’t have a lot of faith in Clausen’s ability to make plays.

The good news is that Clausen doesn’t have any turnovers, and the Bears’ defense forced the Lions to punt on their first drive. Perhaps the Bears can at least keep this close with Clausen at the helm.

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Saints grab quick lead on Falcons in NFC South slugfest

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The Saints didn’t need long to grab the lead.

Twenty seconds in, they’re already up 7-0 on the Falcons, in a game crucial to their playoff hopes.

A 99-yard kickoff return by Jalen Saunders set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram, putting them up in a hurry on Atlanta.

Saunders, replacing an injured Travaris Cadet, joined the Saints on waivers earlier this year after the Jets cut the fourth-round pick.

The Falcons answered with a field goal, though the way the NFC South has gone this year, you fully expect futility to the finish.

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Menelik Watson donates game check to four-year-old fan

Watson AP

From our buddy Jay Glazer of FOX Sports comes a great story for the holidays.

Glazer arranged through his Touchdown Dreams program for Ava Urrea, a four-year-old fan with hypoplastic left heart syndrome to visit the Raiders this week.  The team pulled out all the stops for Ava, who was born with half a heart and has had 14 surgeries.  (It’s the same condition that TJ Olsen, the son of Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, has been dealing with since birth.)

Ava received a signed helmet, signed footballs, and making her the captain for the day.  Then came the unexpected twist.  Raiders offensive lineman Menelik Watson donated his game check for the week to Ava’s family.

According to NFLPA records, Watson’s base salary for 2014 is $622,948.  That makes his weekly gross salary $36,944.

With federal and California taxes consuming roughly half of that amount, the net check would have been in the range of $18,000.

It’s a great gesture by Watson, coming at the end of a season that has been focused all too often on all the bad things a small handful of NFL players do.

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Oddsmakers set season’s lowest total on Seahawks-Cardinals

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

Expecting Sunday night’s Seahawks-Cardinals matchup to be a grinder?

You aren’t alone.

Oddsmakers have set the lowest Over-Under of the season on Seattle-Arizona (8:30 p.m Eastern, NBC), with some sports books setting the number as low as 35.5 points.

The Over-Under is a proposition setting a combined point total for both clubs in a given game. If bettors believe the game will exceed the total, they take the OVER. If they believe the game won’t reach the total, they bet UNDER.

If the consensus total for Seahawks-Cardinals closes at 37 or less, it will be the first time since 2012 the Over-Under has reached such depths. According to data from Spreadapedia.com, every regular-season or postseason game in 2013 and 2014 has had a total of at least 37.5 points.

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Will Revis have “something special” for the Jets this time around?

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Before the Patriots hosted the Jets back in October, former Jets and current Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis reportedly planned “something special” for his old team.

That “something special” ended up being “something nothing.”

Lost in the likely last game between the two franchises featuring Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan as the respective head coaches is the possibility that the “something special” will happen today.

Ryan could have something special for the Pats.  With nothing to lose and the ability to derail home-field advantage of the Patriots to gain, Rex could be doing all sorts of crazy things in the hopes of forcing the Pats to go on the road for the AFC title game.

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Jay Cutler active vs. Lions, will back up Jimmy Clausen

Jay Cutler AP

While Jay Cutler has lost his starting job for at least the time being, he hasn’t lost his spot on the Bears’ game day roster.

As expected, Cutler is active and will back up Jimmy Clausen on Sunday against Detroit.

The Bears’ other quarterback, David Fales, is among the club’s seven inactives, leaving Cutler as the only quarterback behind Clausen.

The 31-year-old Cutler was removed as the Bears’ starter on Wednesday. He has not been a clear-cut backup since serving as Jake Plummer’s understudy for the first 11 games of 2006.

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Kyle Long inactive for Sunday’s game vs. Detroit

Kyle Long AP

The Bears will be without one of their standout offensive linemen against Detroit’s stout defense on Sunday.

Right guard Kyle Long (hip) is among the inactives announced by the club this morning. Long was added to the injury report Friday and was questionable to face the Lions.

With Long out, backup Ryan Groy will get the start, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago.com.

The Bears are already without starting left guard Matt Slauson, who suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in October. Michael Ola has filled in for Slauson.

The 26-year-old Long had played and started 30 straight games since joining Chicago. The Bears’ first-round pick in 2013, Long made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

The Lions have one of the NFL’s top defenses, with defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh an elite disruptive threat along the interior.

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Joe Haden inactive for the Browns against Panthers

Indianapolis Colts v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

As expected, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is back today, a week and a half after breaking two bones in his back in a car wreck.

And his job will be made a bit easier by the fact the Browns Defense will be without a key part.

Cornerback Joe Haden (shoulder) is inactive for the Browns today, and will be replaced in the starting lineup by Jordan Poyer.

There were no real surprises among the Panthers inactives, though running back DeAngelo Williams remains out with his broken hand.

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Week 16 early inactives

New Orleans Saints v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

Every week we’ll bring you all the inactives from the early games in one post, constantly updated with the latest information. So check back often to see the full list as it becomes available.

Browns at Panthers

Browns: CB K’Waun Williams, WR Rodney Smith, CB Joe Haden, RB Glenn Winston, OL Vinston Painter, OL Andrew McDonald, TE Gary Barnidge

Panthers: RB DeAngelo Williams, CB Carrington Byndom, S Robert Lester, LB A.J. Klein, DT Kyle Love, OL David Foucault, G Amini Silatolu

Lions at Bears

Lions: DT Nick Fairley, QB Kellen Moore, DE Larry Webster, WR Ryan Broyles, CB Mohammed Seisay, DT Caraun Reid, OL Rodney Austin

Bears: S Chris Conte, K Robbie Gould, QB David Fales, CB Terrance Mitchell, G Kyle Long, DE Trevor Scott, DT Will Sutton

Ravens at Texans

Ravens: WR Michael Campanaro, CB Chris Greenwood, LB Arthur Brown, DT Terrence Cody, G/C Gino Gradkowski, OL Ryan Jensen, DT Casey Walker

Texans: TE Garrett Graham, QB Tom Savage, G Xavier Su’a-Filo, LB Mike Mohamed, WR DeVier Posey, S Josh Aubrey, LB Jason Ankrah

Vikings at Dolphins

Vikings: G Charlie Johnson, LB Anthony Barr, S Ahmad Dixon, CB Shaun Prater, RB Zach Line, TE Kyle Rudolph, T Carter Bykowski

Dolphins: T Nate Garner, WR Rishard Matthews, RB Daniel Thomas, S Don Jones, LB Chris McCain, OL Dallas Thomas, WR Matt Hazel

Falcons at Saints

Falcons: QB Sean Renfree, S Charles Godfrey, CB Ricardo Allen, LB Tyler Starr, G Jon Asamoah, DE Stansly Maponga, LB James Anderson

Saints: WR Seantavius Jones, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, S Jamarca Sanford, RB Travaris Cadet, LB Moises Fokou, DL Lawrence Virgil, T Terron Armstead

Patriots at Jets

Patriots: WR Julian Edelman, CB Kyle Arrington, RB LeGarrette Blount, G Dan Connolly, RB James White, OL Jordan Devey, CB Alfonzo Dennard

Jets: S Rontez Miles, QB Matt Simms, DL T.J. Barnes, G Dakota Dozier, OL Wesley Johnson, DB Jaiquawn Jarrett, WR Walter Powell

Chiefs at Steelers

Chiefs: C Eric Kush, QB Aaron Murray, WR Donnie Avery, CB Marcus Cooper, RB Charcandrick West, OL Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, DL Nick Williams

Steelers: S Troy Polamalu, CB Ike Taylor, TE Matt Spaeth, WR Justin Brown, DE Clifton Geathers, OL Chris Hubbard, QB Landry Jones

Packers at Buccaneers

Packers: CB Davon House, QB Scott Tolzien, LB Carl Bradford, C Garth Gerhart, TE Justin Perillo, WR Jeff Janis, DT Bruce Gaston

Buccaneers: WR Robert Herron, WR Solomon Patton, RB Mike James, CB Isaiah Frey, T Anthony Collins, DL Lawrence Sidbury, TE/FB Evan Rodriguez

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Julio Jones active for Falcons on Sunday

Julio Jones AP

The Falcons need a win on Sunday to keep their division title hopes alive and they’ll have wide receiver Julio Jones active to help them in that pursuit.

Jones missed last week’s game with what the Falcons have said is a hip injury and Chris Mortensen reports is a strained oblique, and was out of practice every day this week before participating in Saturday’s walkthrough. The Falcons never ruled him out, though, and planned to let a Sunday morning workout be their guide to Jones’s availability.

Those tests went well because Jones is active and will play against the Saints on Sunday afternoon.

With Roddy White and Harry Douglas also good to go, the Falcons will have their full receiving corps available as they head into the Superdome for a game that could disprove Mike Smith’s belief that he’s not coaching for a future with Atlanta.

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Mike Shanahan doesn’t rule out a return to coaching in 2015

Carolina Panthers v Washington Redskins Getty Images

A late-season leak to ESPN in 2013 made his plans clear for 2014.  A late-season appearance on ESPN in 2014 is showing Mike Shanahan’s hand for 2015.

In a sit-down with Sunday NFL Countdown host Chris Berman, the former Raiders, Broncos, and Washington coach didn’t rule out returning to the sidelines next season.  But Shanahan, 62, made it clear that he’s not interested in taking on a fixer-upper; he wants to coach a team that’s in position to win right away.

“Well, one thing that I want to do is win,” Shanahan said in response to the question of whether he wants to coach. “So it’s not just coaching but going to the right organization that will make a strong commitment. There’s only one team that’s happy at the end of the year and that’s the team that wins the Super Bowl.”

Earlier in the interview, Shanahan talked about Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, making it clear that the man who drafted Cutler nearly nine years ago still views Cutler as a franchise quarterback.  Which continues to make Shanahan the best choice to coach the franchise that currently employs Cutler.

Benching Cutler strongly suggests that the Bears would like to trade him.  If Shanahan is interested in the job, and if the job is interested in Shanahan, he’d be one of the few coaches who could be trusted completely when he says during the interview, “No, my first order of business wouldn’t be to run Jay Cutler out of town.”

Other jobs that possibly would interest Shanahan include the Falcons and 49ers.  Atlanta has a franchise quarterback still in his prime, and Shanahan previously worked as an offensive coordinator in San Francisco, helping the team to its fifth Super Bowl win, 20 years ago.

The question becomes whether any teams will be interested in Shanahan.  Sunday’s appearance on ESPN surely was aimed at getting his name in the mix as the coaching carousel starts to spin.

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Report: Philip Rivers has bulging disk in back, may need surgery

San Diego Chargers v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Last week, the condition of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers’s back was a cause for concern in San Diego after Rivers missed some practice time and a report from Adam Schefter of ESPN that Rivers had a more severe back injury than the team had let on.

For the first half of Saturday’s game, it looked like San Diego’s confidence that Rivers could play well despite the injury might have been wrong. Rivers threw two picks to continue a recent trend of spotty play and the 49ers led 28-7 at the break, but things looked different by the end of the game. Rivers led the Chargers back for a 38-35 overtime win that saw him throw for 356 yards and four touchdowns to keep the Chargers alive and kicking in the playoff race.

That won’t put his back issues to rest, however. Schefter’s colleague Chris Mortensen reports that Rivers’s injury is a bulging disk in his lower back and that the quarterback may need to have surgery to repair the condition.

Any surgery won’t come until after the season, though, and Rivers’s performance on Sunday is the latest sign that he isn’t likely to come out of the lineup before the Chargers run out of chances to play games.

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Mike Smith insists he’s not coaching for his job

MikeSmith Getty Images

For the Falcons, the path to the postseason is clear.  Beat the Saints and the Panthers, and the Falcons are in.

Sure, they’d be 7-9.  But the Falcons would be in.

Lose either or both, and the end result will be 6-10 or 5-11 and no playoffs, for the second straight year.  Many believe that this would spell doom for coach Mike Smith.  That group doesn’t include Smith.

No.  No,” Smith told Albert Breer of NFL Media regarding whether the seventh-year skipper of the Falcons thinks he’s coaching for his job.

That could be a sign of the blindly intense optimism that fuels football coaches.  Or it could be an indication of private guarantees Smith may have received.

Ultimately, the decision will be made by owner Arthur Blank, who’s surely feeling a little humbug-ish with a second straight season of unfulfilled expectations and a new stadium that will now cost $400 million more than previously believed.  Of all the jobs that will or could be opened this year, Atlanta could be the most attractive, given the presence of quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones.

That increases the likelihood of getting a great coach.  But every time the current coach is fired, there’s a chance the next guy won’t be as good.  For Blank, that’s the dilemma; will the next coach truly be an upgrade over the man who took a franchise that previously never had back-to-back winning seasons to five in a row.

None of it matters until the Falcons’ postseason hopes are determined.  Unless Blank has told Smith that he’s definitely safe — and unless Blank actually meant it — it’s impossible to know for sure whether Smith will return for an eighth season in Atlanta.

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Week 17 prime-time playoff play-in game could be elusive this year

Panthers AP

The NFL has yet to flex a 2014 game to the prime-time slot on NBC.  Next week, a flex definitely will happen because the league pre-selects no Sunday night game for the final day of the regular season.

So who will it be?  Ideally, it’ll be a playoff play-in game, with the winner qualifying for the postseason and the loser going home.  For every year since 2010, that’s come via a de facto division championship game.  The first year, the Rams and Seahawks decided the NFC West.  In each of the last three, the Cowboys and a round robin of division rivals determined the NFC East title.

At one point, it appeared that Lions-Packers could be the obvious pick.  But Saturday’s loss by the Eagles gave Detroit a spot in the postseason field, eliminating the win-and-in-lose-and-leave vibe from the Lambeau finale.  Bengals-Steelers also seemed to be a strong candidate for winner-take-all-loser-gets-nothing-and-likes-it, but the Steelers can clinch a playoff berth with a win today, reducing the stakes considerably for Pittsburgh’s Week 17 game against Cincinnati.

A Cowboys loss today keeps the NFC East in play, but Dallas goes to Washington next week.  A partially-relevant game, if played at night, would become completely irrelevant if the Eagles lose to the Giants earlier in the day.

Ultimately, the best chance for a season-ending division title game could come from the NFC South.  If the Falcons beat the Saints and the Panthers beat the now-eliminated Browns today, next week’s game between Atlanta and Carolina would give the winner the playoff berth and the automatic home game — even though the winner would be destined to be under .500.

Other possibilities for playoff play-in games possibly will exist for wild-card berths, but as of right now it’s hard to imagine the dust settling on Week 16 in a way that would have one game that will settle a playoff berth regardless of whatever happens earlier in the day.

The good news is that, regardless of the game that’s played next Sunday night, there probably has never been a Sunday Night Football game with bigger stakes than the game to be played tonight in Arizona.  If the Cardinals win, they’ll secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs — which means that as long as they win, they won’t have to travel.  All the way through the Super Bowl.

If the Cardinals lose, they’ll likely be hitting the road in the wild-card round as the No. 5 seed, starting with a trip to the NFC South champion in two weeks.  At that point, the Seahawks would be a Week 17 home win against the Rams away from winning the division, and possibly securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

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Emmanuel Sanders questionable, too

Sanders Getty Images

The big news for the Broncos on Saturday was the placement of the 50-50 “questionable” label on quarterback Peyton Manning, who has a thigh injury.  Lost in the surprise that the not-so-mobile quarterback could be rendered entirely immobile by an injury that shouldn’t have much of an impact of his overall mobility is that one of his favorite targets is listed as questionable, too.

Receiver Emmanuel Sanders didn’t practice on Saturday due to an illness.  Via Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com, Sanders developed “flu-like symptoms.”

Flu-like symptoms (and/or the actual flu) dehydrated Manning last Sunday at San Diego, contributing to his thigh injury.  For Sanders, the key becomes overcoming the symptoms and getting properly hydrated before Monday night’s game at Cincinnati.

In his first year with the Broncos, Sanders has a career-high 89 catches for 1,261 yards.  That yardage total exceeds his prior best by more than 500 yards.

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