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PFT’s divisional round picks

Schaub Getty Images

I’ve been fighting the flu for a week.  Which is my officially unofficial excuse for getting three of last weekend’s games incorrect.

My other unofficial excuses are:  (1) Andy Dalton overthrew A.J. Green on what would have been a game-winning touchdown; (2) Joe Webb isn’t as good as I thought he was; (3) Christian Ponder is better than I thought he was; and (4) the Colts were far more charitable to Baltimore than they were in 1984.

So MDS went 4-0 and I went 1-3 and now that we agree on every game this weekend all I can hope for is a tie, at best, in the postseason edition of the picks contest.

Did I mention I won the regular-season contest by 11 games?

Ravens at Broncos

MDS’s take: Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis, the best offensive and defensive players of their generation, will meet one last time in Denver. I don’t think it’s going to go well for Lewis and his team. The Ravens have struggled all year against good quarterbacks and good wide receivers, and I see this game looking a lot like their December meeting, when Manning’s passing got the Broncos a big lead, and Knowshon Moreno’s running ran out the clock in the second half. In fact, I’ll go ahead and predict the same score as last time.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 34, Ravens 17.

Florio’s take:  Peyton Manning has beaten the Ravens nine straight times, including earlier this year in Baltimore.  While Ray Lewis missed that game, he could be more of a liability than an asset in the rematch.  Noticeably larger than he was when he reported to training camp with a lean frame intended to help chase tight ends, Manning could have Lewis running ragged in the thin air of Colorado.  Along with the rest of the defense.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 31, Ravens 17.

Packers at 49ers

MDS’s take: This, to me, is the toughest game to pick. The 49ers won at Green Bay in Week One. The 49ers had a better record during the regular season. The 49ers are at home. The 49ers got a week to rest while the Packers had to play last week. For all those reasons, the 49ers would seem to be the logical pick. But two factors have me leaning toward the Packers: The way Aaron Rodgers is playing lately, with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the last four games. And the question mark about 49ers defensive end Justin Smith, who in my opinion is their single most important player, but who won’t be at full strength with a torn triceps. I like the Packers to win a close, high-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Packers 35, 49ers 31.

Florio’s take:  In what could end up being the best postseason game of the year, the Niners will try to beat the Packers for the second time since September — and the first without Alex Smith at quarterback.  Even though Colin Kaepernick has the ability to move the ball on the Green Bay defense, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be determined to prove to the Niners that they should have picked him with the first selection in the 2005 draft.

Florio’s pick:  Packers 28, 49ers 24.

Seahawks at Falcons

MDS’s take: I was all set to take the wild-card Seahawks to win on the road against the No. 1 seed Falcons, but the injury to Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons made me reconsider. Clemons started every game and led the Seahawks in sacks, and I believe Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan can take advantage of an opposing defense with a depleted pass rush. If Seattle cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner can lock down Atlanta receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, and if rookie Bruce Irvin can step up his play in place of Clemons and make life difficult for Ryan, the Seahawks’ defense can still play well enough to win this game. But I’m going to go with the Falcons in a close one.

MDS’s pick: Falcons 27, Seahawks 24.

Florio’s take:  I’ve said all year that the Falcons won’t get respect until they earn it by winning in the postseason.  And it won’t be easy against a Seahawks team that has demonstrated it can beat anyone, anywhere.  But with two weeks to prepare and five seasons of pent-up frustration, Matt Ryan and company will finally find a way.  Most likely.  Probably.  Possibly.  Maybe.

Florio’s pick:  Falcons 24, Seahawks 21.

Texans at Patriots

MDS’s take: This game won’t go as badly for the Texans as their previous meeting, but it won’t go particularly well for the Texans, either. Tom Brady can pick apart Houston’s secondary, and while there are some big holes in the Patriots’ secondary, too, I’m not convinced that Matt Schaub is playing well enough right now to take advantage. The Patriots will beat the Texans convincingly again and earn an AFC Championship trip to Denver.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 31, Texans 17.

Florio’s take:  Sure, the Jets were blown out by the Pats in December 2010 before beating New England in the postseason.  But that makes it even more likely that the Patriots won’t fall into a trap, barely a month after trouncing the Texans, 42-14.  Indeed, last year the Patriots blew out the Broncos in December before blowing them out even worse in the playoffs.  Coach Bill Belichick will have his guys ready to charge out of their foxholes and attack — in slightly more organized and effective fashion than the way the guys in Stripes attacked the obstacle course.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 38, Texans 17.

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Tampa-Dallas moves to prime time in Week 15

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 1:  Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys hands the ball off to Ezekiel Elliott #21in the first half of the game agains the Minnesota Vikings on December 1, 2016 at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) Getty Images

The NFL needs more Cowboy. And it’s getting it.

The league has flexed the Week 15 game between Tampa Bay and Dallas to Sunday Night Football, pitting the 7-5 Buccaneers against the 11-1 Cowboys.

The Cowboys could have the NFC East wrapped up by then, but the No. 1 seed in the conference likely will still be in doubt. Even if the Cowboys aren’t playing for anything by then, they’re still the Cowboys. And they draw in stand-alone games like no other team in sports.

The Buccaneers are tied with the Falcons at the top of the NFC South, and Tampa has now won four games in a row, including victories over the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Chargers.

The decision relegates Bengals-Steelers out of prime time and all the way back to 1:00 p.m. ET.

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Unusual Earl Thomas tweet violates league policy, but he apparently has bigger concerns

SEATTLE, WA - DECEMBER 04:  Free safety Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks leaves the field after getting injured against the Carolina Panthers at CenturyLink Field on December 4, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images) Getty Images

Players aren’t permitted to use social media during games. But when a guy is creating the impression that he may never play another game, compliance with league policy likely isn’t a major concern.

A lot is running through my mind including retirement,” Thomas said on Twitter during Sunday night’s game against the Panthers.

While Thomas may simply be tweeting out of the sense of gloom that comes from a negative diagnosis and prognosis, it’s an eye opener. And it suggests that Thomas won’t be back for a while, at a minimum.

The 2010 first-round pick hadn’t missed a single game at the NFL level until last weekend at Tampa. He was carted off on Sunday night with a leg injury, and he was on crutches after leaving the X-ray room.

According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, Thomas has a broken leg.

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Julius Peppers moves into Top 5 on NFL career sack list

Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler is sacked by Green Bay Packers' Julius Peppers during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer) AP

Packers linebacker Julius Peppers will turn 37 next month, but he’s still adding to his Hall of Fame résumé.

Peppers sacked Brock Osweiler in today’s win over the Texans, giving him 142.5 sacks in his career. That moves him ahead of Michael Strahan and gives Peppers sole possession of the fifth-most sacks in the NFL since the league began keeping sacks as an official statistic in 1982.

Everyone ahead of Peppers on the all-time list is in the Hall of Fame: Bruce Smith is first with 200 sacks, Reggie White is second with 198, Kevin Greene is third with 160 and Chris Doleman is fourth with 150.5.

Peppers isn’t getting quite as much playing time this year as he did last year: In 2015 he was in on about two-thirds of the Packers’ defensive snaps, while in 2016 he’s playing about half of the Packers’ defensive snaps. But despite the reduction in playing time, Peppers has 6.5 sacks this season. He’s still a big part of the Green Bay defense, and he isn’t giving any indication that he’ll have to retire any time soon.

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Thomas Rawls checked for a concussion, Earl Thomas seems worried

Seattle Seahawks' Thomas Rawls breaks free on a touchdown run against the Carolina Panthers in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear) AP

The Seahawks and Panthers have played plenty of hard-hitting games over the years.

This one is going to leave a mark on both teams.

Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls is being evaluated for a concussion, the latest in a string of high-profile players who aren’t leaving this game intact.

His absence leaves an already thin backfield in tatters, though the Seahawks are out to a 20-7 lead just before halftime.

NBC’s Michele Tafoya just reported that Seahawks safety Earl Thomas left the X-ray room on crutches, though his status for a return to the game has remained questionable with a left lower leg injury.

But Thomas just sent a tweet that certainly makes it seem like he’s not coming back tonight.

The Panthers are without veteran defensive end Charles Johnson, who left with a hamstring injury.

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Rams won’t comment on details of Jeff Fisher’s contract

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 04:  Head coach Jeff Fisher of the Los Angeles Rams walks on the field before the game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) Getty Images

It took the Rams months to leak (and then to confirm) the news that coach Jeff Fisher has a new contract. More months and weeks likely will go by before the team leaks and/or confirms any details about the deal.

Asked specifically about the question of whether Fisher’s new deal contains a one-year escape clause for the team, Rams COO Kevin Demoff declined to address any aspect of the contract.

Some league insiders who had been saying that Fisher has had a new contract in place for months also believe that the deal (reported as a two-year extension) gives the Rams the ability to pull the plug after one year, technically making it a one-year extension with a one-year option held by the team.

Regardless of whether it’s a one-year or two-year extension, the fact that Fisher got the contract before the season began makes it possible that owner Stan Kroenke will decide to move on after 2016, if for example the team finishes with a 4-12 or 5-11 record.

Asked by reporters on Sunday whether Fisher expects to be the coach in 2017, he didn’t dismiss the question as ridiculous in light of his newly-disclosed extension.

“Yes, I do,” Fisher said. “I’ve got some work to do here to finish up strong. You know, we have some personnel issues to deal with and get better. And we have some issues to deal with from an offensive side of the ball.”

This response implies that if the team doesn’t “finish up strong” Kroenke could decide to make a change. If the new contract has only one year guaranteed, the buyout would necessarily be lower.

And with the Rams becoming able to sell premium products at their new stadium no later than February 15, 2017, a buyout for Fisher could become a loss leader for Kroenke.

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Trading injuries, then big plays, Seahawks go up 17-7

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 23:  Free safety Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks reacts during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Getty Images

This Panthers-Seahawks game certainly doesn’t lack for subplots.

But there’s a pretty insane game going on at the same time.

Immediately after Seahawks safety Earl Thomas was carted off with an apparent lower leg injury, the Panthers cut the Seahawks lead to 10-7 when previously benched Cam Newton aired out a 55-yard touchdown to Ted Ginn Jr., who caught it.

Roll that around in your head for a minute.

And then the Seahawks went back up 17-7 when Thomas Rawls popped a 45-yard touchdown run.

The plays have been coming as quickly as the injuries and the storylines, as Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson has also hobbled off with a hamstring. Like Thomas, he’s questionable to return.

No matter who’s left or who wins, this game is certainly going to be exciting the rest of the night.

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Seahawks take advantage, up 10-0 on Panthers

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton throws before an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear) AP

Well, Cam Newton is back on the field. But he’s in a hole, already.

The reigning MVP has returned to the field after his one-play benching, but he’s in a 10-0 hole at Seattle.

The Panthers started Derek Anderson for what was termed a coaches decision, but after he threw an interception that led to a quick field goal, the Seahawks have stretched their lead to 10-0 on Thomas Rawls‘ touchdown run.

Whether or not we get a clear explanation for what Newton did to get benched for a down remains to be seen, but the Panthers generally struggle offensively when they can’t play from ahead, which could make this one fascinating for a number of reasons.

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Blake Bortles: This season is “the biggest nightmare possible”

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 04:   Blake Bortles #5 of the Jacksonville Jaguars passes against the Denver Broncos at EverBank Field on December 4, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images) Getty Images

Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles‘ bad 2016 season may have hit a new low on Sunday.

Bortles was intercepted twice by the Broncos and lost a fumble in a 20-10 loss that saw him complete 19-of-42 passes to register the lowest quarterback rating of his career. One of the interceptions was returned for a touchdown, making it three times in the last four weeks that a defense has done that against the Jags.

Bortles has now thrown 15 interceptions and lost four fumbles for the 2-10 Jaguars in a season fit for a horror movie.

“It’s the biggest nightmare possible,” Bortles said after Sunday’s 20-10 loss to Denver in which he committed three turnovers. “But what are you going to do about it? You can’t sit there in a corner and pout. You can’t blame people. You can’t feel sorry for yourself because I think all that’s going to do is affect the way I play.”

Bortles has been dealing with a shoulder injury, but said that wasn’t the cause of his problems. The issues have appeared more mechanical and Bortles has brought in outside help during the season in an attempt to get back on track. It hasn’t worked and it feels like there’s a pretty good chance that it’s going to be up to a new coaching staff to correct them come 2017.

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Jay Gruden not happy after latest loss

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 04:  Head coach Jay Gruden of the Washington Redskins watches warm ups prior to a game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) Getty Images

Two weeks ago tonight, Washington obliterated Green Bay to move to 6-3-1. Since then, Washington has lost at Dallas and now at Arizona and coach Jay Gruden isn’t happy about it.

Via Mike Jones of the Washington Post, Gruden could be heard yelling at the team after the 31-23 loss to the Cardinals. Gruden specifically was complaining that the team hadn’t given its all during the week.

The loss, which has dropped Washington to 6-5-1, will make it harder to get back to the postseason. Paraphrasing Jim Mora’s epic rant from 15 years ago, Gruden told reporters, “There’s no talk about the playoffs. We’re just trying to win the next game.”

The next game will be at Philadelphia, followed by a home game againt the Panthers, a trip to Chicago, and a regular-season finale vs. the Giants.

 

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Derek Anderson starts instead of Cam Newton

Carolina Panthers v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

The first surprise for the Panthers Sunday night came on the first snap.

Derek Anderson started at quarterback in place of reigning MVP Cam Newton, and promptly threw an interception on the first play of the game.

According to Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review, Newton is healthy and it was a coaches decision.

That may have to do with their ability to protect him, as their offensive line has been scrambled by injuries, and they have a center making his first NFL start among the other switches.

Still, it’s a surprise, as Newton is ostensibly healthy.

UPDATE 8:45 p.m. ET: Newton returned to the field for the second series, which makes this an apparent benching.

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Chip Kelly doesn’t commit to Colin Kaepernick next week

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 04:  Mitch Unrein #98 of the Chicago Bears attempts to sack Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers, but is held back by  Daniel Kilgore #67 in the third quarter at Soldier Field on December 4, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) Getty Images

The 49ers benched quarterback Colin Kaepernick on Sunday. It’s unclear whether he’ll remain on the bench next Sunday against the Jets.

“We haven’t had any discussions about it,” coach Chip Kelly told reporters after the loss in Chicago regarding whether Kaepernick will return in Week 14. “It was my decision to make and made a move to see if we can get a spark and to see where we were. At that point of time of the game we were down a couple of scores and obviously we got throw it to see if we can get a spark for the team. There are no permanent decisions.”

Still, it sounds as if Kaepernick will be back, given Kelly’s explanation for making the change.

“I thought we needed a spark on offense and needed to get something going, give Blaine [Gabbert] a shot at throwing,” Kelly said. “Knew we were going to be throwing every down, so give Blaine a shot. That was it, nothing more.”

Kaepernick said he was “surprised” to be benched, and he sidestepped the question of whether he believes he’ll play next week.

“That’s not my decision,” Kaepernick said. “My feelings on it really don’t matter at this point. I’m just going to do everything I can to make sure I’m prepared.”

The 49ers have now lost 11 games in a row, following a Week One win over the Rams. The visit from the Jets, who’ll be crossing the country on a short week, could be their best chance to avoid matching the 2001 Panthers, who won in Week One and then lost 15 in a row.

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Apparently overdue for a decision on his status, Aldon Smith is ready to go

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 13:  Aldon Smith #99 of the Oakland Raiders looks on during the second half of their NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals at O.co Coliseum on September 13, 2015 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Raiders and defensive end Aldon Smith continue to be at the mercy of Commissioner Roger Goodell, even at a time when Goodell seems to be in violation of the relevant terms of the substance-abuse policy.

For a player who is banished from the league with the ability to apply for reinstatement after one year, the policy itself says nothing about the timetable for making a decision. However, Appendix B to the policy provides in part as follows: “All individuals involved in the process will take steps to enable the Commissioner to render a decision within 60 days of the receipt of the application [for reinstatement].”

Curiously, the policy doesn’t expressly state that a decision will be or shall be made within 60 days after application. Instead, it only requires the persons responsible for setting the table for the Commissioner’s decision to enable him to do so within 60 days after the application.

Aldon Smith applied for reinstatement on October 3. The 60-day deadline (if it’s really a deadline) came and went on Friday, with no decision made. As a result, a source with knowledge of the process tells PFT that a decision is expected soon.

Complicating matters for Smith and the Raiders is the fact that they play on Thursday night, in Kansas City. Smith will be ready to suit up and play, if he’s given the green light to return, a source tells PFT.

Whenever the decision is made, the Commissioner will make it in his “sole discretion.” Given the language of Appendix B, it seems that the decision should have been made already. At a minimum, the league should address whether it believes the 60-day provision requires a decision within that window.

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The Cowboys are going to the playoffs

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 24:   Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates with Gavin Escobar #89 after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Washington Redskins at AT&T Stadium on November 24, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images) Getty Images

This year’s playoff field has its first entrant.

The Cowboys didn’t play on Sunday, but they have booked a ticket to the postseason. Their win over the Vikings on Thursday night gave them routes into the playoffs with losses by either the Buccaneers or the Redskins.

Tampa rallied to win in San Diego, but the Redskins couldn’t do the same in Arizona. That makes the loss of a divisional rival even sweeter than it might have been under other circumstances.

Another divisional rival lost on Sunday when the Giants saw their six-game winning streak end in Pittsburgh. That means the Cowboys can clinch the divisional crown if they beat the Giants next Sunday night.

It would also give them payback for their only loss of the 2016 season and push them a little closer to the No. 1 seed in the conference, so there’s still plenty to play for with a playoff trip already assured.

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Bucs rally to beat Chargers, move to 7-5

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 04:  Melvin Ingram #54 of the San Diego Chargers chases Jameis Winston #3 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the pocket during the first half of a game  at Qualcomm Stadium on December 4, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Buccaneers dominated the fourth quarter Sunday and scored an important victory over the Chargers, 28-21.

After trailing 14-10 at halftime, the Buccaneers took their first lead on a Lavonte David interception return in the third quarter, then scored the only 11 points of the fourth quarter. Safety Keith Tandy had an interception in the end zone with 3:04 left, and the Bucs successfully killed the clock to lock up their fourth straight win.

At 7-5, the Bucs are now tied with the Falcons atop the AFC South. The teams split their season series.

The Bucs took the lead for good with 9:01 left when Jameis Winston hit tight end Cameron Brate on a 12-yard touchdown. Winston found Mike Evans, who otherwise had a quiet day, for a two-point conversion to make it 28-21.

The Chargers only got the ball one more time and got into Tampa Bay territory before Tandy’s interception.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers followed David’s touchdown by throwing a 40-yard pass to Tyrell Williams for a touchdown to put the Chargers back in the lead, 21-17. It seemed the stage was set for a wild finish, but the Bucs made the biggest plays from there.

The Chargers fall to 5-7 and are probably going to miss the playoffs. All of the Chargers’ games seem to come down to the final minutes, but this time the Bucs delivered in the end.

Winston threw for 280 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Rivers threw for 225 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

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Julio Jones “OK” after lower body injury

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 04:  Julio Jones #11 of the Atlanta Falcons is tackled by Derrick Johnson #56 of the Kansas City Chiefs at Georgia Dome on December 4, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones was in and out of the game during the final quarter of Sunday’s 29-28 loss to the Chiefs while getting attention from trainers for what appeared to be a leg injury.

When Jones was in the game, he wasn’t moving with his usual ease and served as a decoy after playing a major role on offense in the first three quarters of the game. Falcons coach Dan Quinn called it a lower body injury after the game and Jones said he’d be fine for their Week 14 trip to Los Angeles.

“It’s football,” Jones said, via ESPN.com. “You’re going to get banged up. You’re going to get little nagging injuries here and there from the game. I’m OK. I’ll be good to go.”

The Falcons also had left tackle Jake Matthews and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu depart with injuries during the game. Updates on Matthews’ knee and Sanu’s groin are expected when Quinn meets with the media on Monday.

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