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After three great games, Patriots make a statement

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass during the second quarter of their NFL AFC Divisional playoff football game against the Houston Texans in Foxborough Reuters

We saw three great football games this weekend. And then we saw one great football team.

After a tremendous Saturday in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, Sunday got started with another phenomenal game as the Falcons jumped out to a big lead, squandered that lead, and then came back to win 30-28. Through three games, this was as good a weekend of football as I can ever remember.

And then came the Patriots against the Texans, which was not a great game, or even a good one. It was just the Patriots beat the Texans 41-28 on the strength of a huge game from Tom Brady, while making a statement that they’re the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

The way the Patriots’ offense is playing right now, I don’t see anyone slowing them down. Brady can spread the ball around to so many different receivers — even with Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead both exiting the game early with injuries, he completed 25 of 40 passes for 344 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions — that the Ravens aren’t going to have much of a chance in the AFC Championship Game.

And at the moment I’d definitely favor the Patriots over the Falcons in the Super Bowl, and I’d probably favor them over the 49ers too. Yes, the 49ers won at New England in December, but I think Bill Belichick with two weeks to game plan would make life very difficult for the young San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

So many crazy things have already happened in these playoffs that it’s way too early to make any definitive declarations about what we’re going to see in the final three games of this NFL season. And Gronkowski being knocked out of the rest of the playoffs is a significant blow. But after watching the divisional round of the playoffs, my best bet is that we’re going to see the Patriots win the AFC Championship Game, and then win the Super Bowl.

Here are my other observations from Sunday’s games:

Icing the kicker didn’t work. As Falcons kicker Matt Bryant was about to try his game-winning field goal, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called timeout. But the Falcons went ahead and snapped it, held it and kicked it anyway — and Bryant missed. That practice kick apparently helped Bryant, because he made it when it counted. Carroll may make other coaches think twice about icing the kicker.

Why is Tony Gonzalez retiring? I know the soon-to-be 37-year-old Gonzalez says he’s done after the playoffs, but I don’t see why he should be. He caught six of the seven passes thrown to him, for 51 yards, and his one-yard touchdown catch in the back of the end zone was a thing of beauty. He has plenty of football left in him.

Live by Richard Sherman, die by Richard Sherman. Sherman was the best cornerback in the NFL all season and one of the biggest reasons the Seahawks made the playoffs, and he got off to a great start against the Falcons, knocking away two passes on Atlanta’s first drive. Unfortunately, he also got torched on a 47-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Roddy White. Sherman is an outstanding cornerback, but the Falcons weren’t afraid to go after him.

The Seahawks missed Chris Clemons. Clemons was the Seahawks’ best defensive lineman during the season, but he was out after suffering a torn ACL last week against the Redskins. It was easy to see how much Seattle missed him. Not only did Matt Ryan throw 35 passes without ever getting sacked, but the Falcons often ran directly at Clemons’ replacement, Bruce Irvin, who’s a good young pass rusher but still a liability against the run.

That’s a penalty? Patriots receiver Brandon Lloyd got flagged for something I’ve never seen before: Throwing the ball too hard at the official. I’m all for the players treating the officials with respect, but I think this official was oversensitive. Lloyd didn’t chuck it at the guy’s head or anything, he just threw it quickly and the official didn’t see it coming. I agree with former NFL official Jim Daopoulos, who said it looked like the official who threw the flag had a short fuse.

Matt Schaub has a long way to go. Schaub has his moments when he looks like an elite NFL quarterback, but those moments don’t come consistently enough. Most of the time, Schaub is too skittish in the pocket and too prone to bad decisions. I think my least favorite of all was a third down on which he was pressured, rolled out of the pocket and then just threw the ball out of bounds, giving up on the play. Great quarterbacks don’t give up on plays like that.

Rob Ninkovich was outstanding. I started by praising the player on the Patriots who always gets praise, Tom Brady. So I’ll close by praising a player who doesn’t get nearly enough attention: Ninkovich, the starting linebacker who was all over the field on defense, with an interception, three tackles behind the line of scrimmage, a hit on Matt Schaub that hurried a throw on third down, a very athletic play on which he caught Foster from behind at the end of a 28-yard catch and run, and a recovery of an onside kick. Players like that are the players who help teams win Super Bowls.

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Adrian Peterson suggests concerns linger after Wednesday meeting

Peterson Getty Images

In the wake of his four-hour meeting with Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and G.M. Rick Spielman, running back Adrian Peterson has issued a statement that suggests his concerns were not resolved during the get-together.

“I appreciate Rick [Spielman] and Coach [Mike] Zimmer coming down to see me today,” Peterson said in a statement issued to Josina Anderson of ESPN.  “We had a great dialogue and they were able to understand where I was coming from and concerns my family and I still have.  We respect each other and hopefully the situation can pan out so that everyone involved is content.”

By using the phrase “still have,” Peterson’s statement suggests that Wednesday’s meeting failed to resolve them.

Zimmer has twice told PFT Live that, if Peterson is dead set on leaving the Vikings, Zimmer would accommodate the player.

Peterson’s father, Nelson, has confirmed that Adrian believes Vikings COO Kevin Warren worked with the NFL to keep Adrian off the field for the balance of the 2014 season.  The truth may be that the NFL was determined to keep Peterson from playing, with or without the team’s consent.  If so, the team’s best play would have been to cooperate with the league office.  Resistance wouldn’t have changed the outcome, and may have simply angered the powers-that-be.

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Robert Griffith joins NFLPA executive director fray

Griffith Getty Images

With one day remaining for securing the three player representative nominations necessary for placement on the ballot for the NFLPA executive director position, another candidate has emerged.

PFT has confirmed that former NFL safety Robert Griffith has obtained the requisite nominations from player representatives holding votes in the upcoming election.

Griffith played for the Vikings, Browns, and Cardinals in a career that began in 1994 and ended in 2006.

Griffith joins Sean Gilbert, Andrew Smith, John Stufflebeam, and Arthur McAfee as the five challengers to NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith.  The deadline for submitting three nominations is Thursday, March 5 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

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Peyton’s incentives are tied to winning AFC title, Super Bowl

Peyton Getty Images

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is betting on himself while in return giving the Broncos cap relief.

Chris Mortensen and Jeff Legwold of ESPN reports that the $4 million in incentives that Manning can earn in lieu of $4 million in salary are tied to getting to the Super Bowl and winning it.  Specifically, Manning gets $2 million if the Broncos get to the Super Bowl, and another $2 million if the Broncos win it.

The move means that Manning’s cap number will drop by $4 million this year.  Any money earned under the incentive package will count against the 2016 salary cap.

The report mentions no specific playing-time minimum to qualify for the money.  If there is none, it means that Manning could earn the money even if he gets injured and unproven fourth-year backup Brock Osweiler leads the team to the Super Bowl.

Sandler, Eli — you can stop laughing now.

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Adrian Peterson says meeting with Vikings went well

Vikings AP

On Wednesday, Vikings G.M. Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer traveled to Houston to meet with running back Adrian Peterson.  After the four-hour sit-down between the three men, Peterson said the session went well, according to ESPN.com.

How well or why it went well isn’t known; Peterson opted not to share any of the details.

By agreeing to meet face-to-face with his head coach and by not cutting it off before four hours passed, that’s a very good sign for the continuation of Peterson’s career in Minnesota.  Coupled with the Vikings’ apparently willingness to pay Peterson the full $12.75 million he’s due to earn in 2015, it could be that Peterson will let bygones be bygones and return to the franchise with which he has spent his entire career.

One source with knowledge of the team’s thinking believes that’s exactly what will happen.  While it’s too early to call it a done deal, there’s suddenly some reason for optimism that Peterson will be wearing purple come Week One.

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Report: Cowboys agree with LB Keith Rivers

Keith Rivers, Matt Forte AP

With three key linebackers slated to be unrestricted free agents, the Cowboys have added some depth at the position.

Dallas has reached agreement on a one-year contract with ex-Bills linebacker Keith Rivers, Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas reported Wednesday.

The 28-year-old Rivers has been an outside linebacker in 4-3 schemes throughout his pro career. He recorded 16 tackles in 12 games (three starts) for Buffalo in 2014.

The No. 9 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Rivers (6-2, 235) played his first four seasons with the Bengals, then had a two-season stint with the Giants (2012-2013) before joining Buffalo, which released him in February.

Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain can test the market next week, as can outside linebackers Justin Durant and Bruce Carter.

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Report: Broncos initially sought a bigger pay cut for Manning

Peyton Manning AP

Peyton Manning didn’t want to say much about his pay cut, which could have been even bigger than $4 million he gave back.

According to Mike Klis of the Denver Post, the Broncos actually asked for more of a concession than the $4 million, before settling on the figure with Manning today.

It’s the first pay cut of Manning’s career, so you can imagine it wasn’t anything he wanted to discuss at length.

“I don’t talk about my contract. I never have in 18 years and I’m not going to start now,”Manning said. “I’ve been working real hard and I’m excited to be back with the Denver Broncos. Can’t wait for April 13 to get here when the team can finally come together. I’m excited to get to work and get to know the new coaches and looking forward to trying to make 2015 a special year.”

Manning will have a chance to earn the money back, but the next order of business will be his physical tomorrow at Broncos headquarters, of which he said: “I see that as being pretty routine.”

Once that’s taken care of, he’ll sign the new deal, and then split until team conditioning begins on April 13.

And having just gone through this process, you can imagine how he responded when asked about finishing out his contract in 2016.

“I’m tired of talking about the past and the future,” Manning said. “I’m excited to talk about now.”

Now, the question is whether the savings will help the Broncos keep any of their free agent targets, or whether this was just a pay cut they forced on Manning because they could.

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Report: 49ers offering LB Michael Wilhoite in trade

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

The 49ers are reportedly open to dealing one of their reserve inside linebackers.

According to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, the club has placed fourth-year pro Michael Wilhoite on the trading block.

With Navorro Bowman (knee) missing the entire season and Patrick Willis (toe) sitting out the final 10 games, the 28-year-old Wilhoite was a 16-game starter for San Francisco in 2014, notching 87 tackles, six passes defended and two picks.

However, Wilhoite figures as a backup this season, and the 49ers are willing to move the exclusive-rights free agent, the Bee reports. The club seeks a sixth- or seventh-round pick, the newspaper said.

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Peyton can earn back his $4 million

Buffalo Bills v Denver Broncos Getty Images

The Broncos taketh away, and the Broncos potentially giveth back.

Per multiple reports, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning can earn as incentives the money he agreed to sacrifice in 2015 base salary.  In other words, his $19 million base salary has become a $15 million base salary plus up to $4 million in incentives.

The triggers aren’t yet known.  It’s also not known whether Manning took a portion of his 2015 base salary as a signing bonus, creating even more 2015 cap room (but pushing extra cap room into 2016).

The type of incentives also becomes important.  So-called “likely to be earned” incentives count as 2015 cap dollars, with a credit in 2016 if not earned.  “Not likely to be earned” incentives count as 2016 cap dollars, if earned.

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Chris Canty expected to visit Jets Friday and Saturday

Baltimore Ravens v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Getty Images

Defensive end Chris Canty played his home games in MetLife Stadium before moving to the Ravens in 2013 and he could be headed back there, although he’d be headed for a different locker room.

Canty played for the Giants in his previous New Jersey stint, but the Jets are reportedly showing interest in him after his release from Baltimore. Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun reports that Canty is scheduled to visit the Jets on Friday and Saturday.

The Jets don’t have a need for a starter at defensive end as Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are two of the best players at their position in the league, but Canty has experience playing inside in some fronts and would be a useful part of a rotation up front for the Jets in 2015.

Canty isn’t the only place the Jets are looking for help on the defensive line. Kendall Langford is slated to visit and the team announced Wednesday that they have signed defensive end Ronald Talley as a free agent. Talley last played in the regular season in 2013 when he saw action in six games for Arizona. Jets coach Todd Bowles was the Cardinals defensive coordinator at the time, which probably didn’t hurt Talley’s efforts to get back into the league.

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Chip Kelly: We wanted Cole back, but couldn’t agree on pay cut

Chip Kelly AP

The Eagles formally announced the release of linebacker Trent Cole on Wednesday afternoon and confirmed that a failure to agree on a reworked contract preceded their decision.

Cole was set to count $11.6 million against the cap and said earlier in the offseason that he was open to doing something to pare that number down, but coach Chip Kelly said in a statement announcing Cole’s departure that the Eagles wanted him to pare it down further than Cole was willing to go.

“We spoke with Trent and his agent and expressed a desire to have him back,” Kelly said. “We have been talking for a couple of weeks. However, at this point, we think it’s best to let him explore other options around the NFL.”

The phrasing suggests that the Eagles would still be open to a return if Cole’s exploration of those options gives him a different view on their offer. With free agency close to opening, that might not mean much if the Eagles find something more to their liking.

Cole would also have something to do with that possibility and his apparent response to being released after 10 years in Philly — a tweet reading “no respect” — may be a sign that he’s ready to fly the coop for good.

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Report: Saints releasing Pierre Thomas

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

The Saints are parting ways with one of the key contributors to their win in Super Bowl XLIV five years ago.

The club will release running back Pierre Thomas, Nick Underhill of the New Orleans Advocate reported Wednesday.

Known for his pass-catching prowess, Thomas hauled in 45 passes for 378 yards and one TD and rushed 45 times for 222 yards and two TDs in 2014. The Illinois product has spent his entire eight-season career with the Saints, with whom he signed as an undrafted free agent in 2007.

Overall, Thomas racked up 3,745 yards rushing and 28 TDs on 817 carries and caught 327 passes for 2,608 yards and 12 TDs in regular season play for New Orleans. In the win over the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV, Thomas caught six passes for 55 yards and a touchdown and added 30 yards rushing on nine carries.

The move will result in some salary-cap relief for the financially strapped Saints. Thomas, 30, was set to make $2.1 million in salary in 2015 and $2.2 million in 2016, according to NFLPA records.

With Thomas reportedly departing, Travaris Cadet could have a bigger role on passing downs next season for New Orleans. Cadet is set to be a restricted free agent.

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NFLPA annual meeting in Hawaii prompts baseless accusations

NFLPA

When it comes to the looming NFLPA executive director election, PFT has tried to assume a neutral and objective posture.  But that doesn’t mean we’ll ignore baseless accusations made by members of the media who may have a bias against current union leadership or a desire to see some other candidate prevail in the voting.

On Wednesday, reports emerged that the NFLPA’s annual meeting, which will include the executive director election, will be held in Hawaii, with player representatives, alternatives, and candidates for the job held by DeMaurice Smith flown first class and lodged at the Ritz-Carlton.  That has prompted some to suggest that the costs are unnecessary, that they will be covered by union dues, and/or that the decision to splurge on a trip to Hawaii for the first time since 2010 represents an effort by Smith to “buy off” at least 17 of the 32 men who’ll be voting on whether to keep Smith or to replace him.

There’s nothing wrong with having suspicions.  But to hurl uncorroborated accusations when a quick phone call or text message to the NFLPA would lead to a much different truth is irresponsible.  (Some would say it’s even despicable or reprehensible.)

NFLPA president Eric Winston tells PFT that the Executive Committee, not Smith or his staff, determined via vote the location for the annual meeting.  Also, Winston said all union operations are funded not by player dues but by revenues from Players, Inc., the for-profit arm of the NFLPA that raises money via licensing, merchandising, and revenue streams unrelated to the money paid by each player for the membership in the union.

Likewise, a source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that player representatives and alternates always are flown via first-class fare to the annual meeting.

When owners travel in expensive fashion and stay in swanky hotels, some say that’s because the owners crushed the NFLPA in the last CBA.  When the NFLPA does, those inclined to say the NFLPA was crushed in the last CBA accuse the union of waste, incompetence, and/or corruption.

Whatever the motivation, it’s wrong to suggest a false narrative when the truth is so easy to discover.

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Oddsmaker moves Eagles from 15-1 to 20-1 to win Super Bowl post-trade

Las Vegas Strip Exteriors Getty Images

Believe the Eagles will win Super Bowl 50 and just so happen to be staying at the Wynn hotel in Las Vegas?

Well, the price on the Eagles is more favorable than it was Tuesday, and it has everything to do with a certain running back appearing to be on his way out of Philadelphia.

According to Micah Roberts of “The Linemakers” of Sporting News, Wynn Las Vegas oddsmaker John Avello moved the Eagles’ Super Bowl odds from 15-1 to 20-1 after news emerged of the club having a deal in place to trade tailback LeSean McCoy to Buffalo.

“Who will run the ball for them?” Avello said of the Eagles, per “The Linemakers.”

For the record, the Wynn lists the Bills at 50-1, the same as before the reports of McCoy’s acquisition, Roberts reported.

Multiple other Nevada sports books didn’t react at all to the McCoy news, with the MGM resorts among those not adjusting their odds on Buffalo or Philadelphia, Roberts reported.

Nevertheless, it’s always interesting to see what makes the odds move. In the case of the Wynn, it was word of a most surprising potential trade.

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Jaworski on Jameis: A lot of on-field flaws, I wouldn’t take him No. 1

jameis AP

Ron Jaworski has some advice for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they consider picking Jameis Winston with the first overall pick in the NFL draft: Don’t do it.

Jaworski said on Mike & Mike that he simply doesn’t think Winston is a good enough passer to make him worth going No. 1 overall.

“I’ve studied a lot of him, I think Jameis Winston has a big upside in the NFL, but there are some real flaws to his game,” Jaworski said. “Quite honestly, I would not take him at that No. 1 pick.”

Winston has had off-field troubles as serious as a rape accusation, as trivial as shoplifting and as stupid as getting suspended for screaming obscenities on the Florida State campus. But Jaworski made clear that his problems with Winston are about the way he plays the quarterback position.

“I’m not talking about the off-the-field stuff. I have no comment on that because I’m not privy to that kind of information. But there are certainly mechanical flaws in his game that are troubling to me,” Jaworski said.

From all indications, the Buccaneers are leaning toward taking Winston first overall, but their evaluations aren’t over. Jaworski thinks that the more they look at Winston’s film, the more flaws they’ll find.

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Kiko Alonso trade makes Buffalo run at David Harris more likely

New England Patriots v New York Jets Getty Images

With the Bills tentatively shipping linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Eagles for an Oregon reunion with Chip Kelly, a Jets reunion between Rex Ryan and linebacker David Harris becomes more likely.

When the Jets opted not to apply the franchise tag to Harris, the notion that the Bills will try to bring Harris to Buffalo to teach Ryan’s defense to other players became stronger.  Harris played for Ryan for six years, and it’s now likely that relationship will continue.

Look for Ryan to move quickly, if he’s going to move at all.  In 2009, he showed up at former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott’s house at midnight on the first day of free agency, prompting Scott to think his dogs were chasing deer.  Ryan got Scott, and Ryan likely will get Harris if Ryan wants him.

Even though the Buffalo defense was run in 2013 by Ryan pupil Mike Pettine, Ryan will want someone who can get the other players lined up the way Ryan has been lining them up since 2009.  If Harris isn’t that guy, it would be a major surprise.

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