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Fitzgerald, Thomas, Witten named finalists for Walter Payton Man of the Year award

Fitzgerald Getty Images

Among the various awards to be distributed the night before the Super Bowl will be the one that combines on-field performance with off-field service.

This year, the finalists for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award are Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, and Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.

The award, renamed for Hall of Famer Walter Payton in 1999, was first given in 1970, to John Unitas.  Payton won the award in 1977.  Last year’s winner was Ravens center Matt Birk.

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Report: Hakeem Nicks needs TD catch for $250,000 bonus

Hakeem Nicks AP

After catching no touchdowns in 56 receptions for the Giants in 2013, wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has four TDs in just 35 catches for the Colts this season.

And should Nicks haul in a fifth TD in Sunday’s game at Tennessee, Nicks will have ample reason to savor the moment.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Nicks will earn a $250,000 bonus if he reaches five TD catches this season.

The Colts are locked into the No. 4 seed in the AFC. However, Nicks is not a starter for Indianapolis, and it’s possible he could see his usual playing time at the least. Per Pro Football Focus, Nicks has averaged about 38 snaps per game. He is fourth on the Colts in targets (62).

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Report: Kenny Vaccaro’s actually injured, not healthy scratch

Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

So maybe Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro isn’t a healthy scratch.

But if he isn’t, then the Saints aren’t filling out injury reports accurately.

According to Nick Underhill of the Baton Rouge Advocate, Vaccaro is actually bothered by a quad injury.

Of course, it hasn’t bothered him enough to keep him from practicing, or for him to ever be included on the team’s injury report.

I’m certain it’s a coincidence, or maybe the quad started bugging him at some point after he was benched/or maybe not.

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Protesters show up in Washington over team name

Washington

It’s been largely dormant for most of the season, but the challenge to the Washington team name has found new life on the last weekend of the regular season.

Mike Wise of the Washington Post reports from the scene that one of the largest protests against the team name has unfolded at FedEx Field.  Typically, protests occur when the team plays on the road.

It’s a processing, per Wise, roughly 75 yards in length — with a large banner opposing “racist names or imagery.”

“To the guy who didn’t have decency not to sing team’s fight song in [the] face of an 8-year-old Native American as he marched past, God help you,” Wise tweeted.

The opposition to the name bubbles up from time to time, coming close to reaching critical mass but still not making a change seem inevitable.

[Photo credit:  Mike Wise]

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Raiders not giving up on Harbaugh yet

Harbaugh Getty Images

The latest Yogi Berra/Dr. Seuss-style saying from 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh could be something like, “Nothing is done until it’s done.  And nothing is done, so nothing is done.”

Jay Glazer of FOX Sports echoes the report from Adam Schefter of ESPN that Harbaugh to Michigan is not a done deal.  Both also report that the Raiders have not given up on Harbaugh as the team’s next head coach.

Ultimately, the final decision will be influenced largely by money.  With the top of the NFL head-coaching market not growing much over the last 10 years, Harbaugh has a chance to push the bar higher.

Regardless, it will be impossible to know where Harbaugh is going next until he signs his name on the dotted line.

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Jets manage to Jets up a coaching search that hasn’t started

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

To date, the Jets have not told coach Rex Ryan he’s going to be fired.

But his agent might have a pretty good idea as to how it’s going to come down.

According to Jay Glazer of FOX Sports, the Jets contacted Ryan’s agent (Jimmy Sexton) to gauge the interest of another one of his clients for the Jets job.

So yeah, there’s probably a reason Ryan’s thinking he’s gone, with reports that he’s already cleaned out his office.

ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported this morning that a potential new General Manager could make the decision on Ryan’s fate. But the fact someone involved in the process is vetting coaching candidates is probably a good indication.

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Ayrault says he’s not joining Bills

Bills Getty Images

Amid plenty of rumors and speculation that NFL agent Brian Ayrault soon will be joining long-time family friend Terry Pegula with the Bills, Ayrault tells PFT that won’t be happening.

Ayrault explained by phone that he’s not taking a job with the Bills.  On his Twitter page, Ayrault suggested that the rumors are aimed at hindering his recruiting efforts.  Currently, agents are lining up their next class of incoming draft picks.

Whether Ayrault is or isn’t (or was or wasn’t) a candidate to join the team, momentum is building toward major changes in the organization, with CEO Russ Brandon, G.M. Doug Whaley, and Senior V.P. of Football Administration Jim Overdorf believed to be in the most danger of being released.

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Bears take out ad thanking fans, says club “won’t make excuses”

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On the final day of a most disappointing season, the Bears took out a full-page advertisement in the Chicago Tribune to thank their fans for their loyalty.

“We Won’t Make Excuses,” the team wrote. On the next line, the team said: “We Will Thank You For Your Support.”

The ad copy concluded: “We’ve got the best fans around, thank you Chicagoland.”

The Bears (5-10) play at Minnesota at 1 p.m. Eastern. Speculation has centered on the future of head coach Marc Trestman, and G.M. Phil Emery has also come under criticism as the team has faltered.

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Kenny Vaccaro’s definitely benched this week, inactive

New Orleans Saints v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

Saints coach Sean Payton said this week he wasn’t handling things differently this week, with his team eliminated from the playoffs.

Previously, he said Kenny Vaccaro was not benched.

In perhaps a departure from both statements, Vaccaro is among the Saints inactives today, despite not appearing on the injury report this week and practicing throughout.

Vaccaro has had a rough season, and the 2013 first-rounder was merely one of the reasons the Saints underwhelmed this season.

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Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman inactive for Patriots

Detroit Lions v New England Patriots Getty Images

With homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs in hand, the Patriots will rest multiple starters in Sunday’s game vs. Buffalo, including two of their top pass catchers.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receiver Julian Edelman are among the inactives announced by the club this morning. Edelman was questionable with a thigh injury and a concussion, while Gronkowski was not on the injury report. However, Gronkowski is about a year removed from ACL and MCL tears, so an extra week of rest is certainly prudent.

Cornerback Brandon Browner (groin), left guard Dan Connolly (knee), tailback Jonas Gray (ankle), linebacker Donta Hightower (shoulder), tailback Shane Vereen (ankle) are also inactive for the Patriots, who get a wild-card round bye and will have next weekend off.

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Week 17 early inactives

New England Patriots v Green Bay Packers 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 Ravens

Browns: QB Brian Hoyer, DB Justin Gilbert, LS Charley Hughlett, OL Ryan Seymour, DL Ahtyba Rubin, OL Andrew McDonald, WR Phil Bates

Ravens: T Eugene Monroe, DE Chris Canty, S Brynden Trawick, CB Chris Greenwood, DE Steven Means, NT Terrance Cody, TE Phillip Supernaw

Jaguars at Texans

Jaguars: DT Roy Miller, QB Stephen Morris, WR Rod Streeter, CB Jeremy Harris, S Matt Daniels, G Tyler Shatley, DE Chris Smith

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

Chargers at Chiefs

Chargers: WR Keenan Allen, C Chris Watt, RB Ryan Mathews, CB Greg Ducre, DL Damion Square, DL Ryan Carrethers, LB Cordarro Law

Chiefs: QB Alex Smith, WR Donnie Avery, CB Phillip Gaines, CB Marucs Cooper, C Eric Kush, OL Duvernay-Tardif, DL Nick Williams

Jets at Dolphins

Jets: C Nick Mangold, WR Percy Harvin, DL T.J. Barnes, DB Jaiquawn Jarrett, OL Wesley Johnson, QB Matt Simms, WR Walter Powell

Dolphins: WR Rishard Matthews, RB LaMichael James, CB Walt Aikens, DT Deandre Coleman, T Dallas Thomas, C Sam Brenner, WR Matt Hazel

Bears at Vikings

Bears: QB Jimmy Clausen, K Robbie Gould, CB Al Louis-Jean, S Chris Conte, OT Charles Leno, DE Austen Lane, DT Brandon Dunn

Vikings: S Ahmad Dixon, CB Shaun Prater, RB Henry Josey, LB Chad Greenway, LB Brandon Watts, T Carter Bykowski, G David Yankey

Bills at Patriots

Bills: DT Marcell Dareus, CB Stephon Gilmore, TE Chris Gragg, RB Bryce Brown, LB Randell Johnson, T Cyrus Kouandjio, WR Marquise Goodson

Patriots: TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Julian Edelman, RB Jonas Gray, T Sebastian Vollmer, G Dan Connolly, CB Brandon Browner, LB Donta’ Hightower

Eagles at Giants

Eagles: QB Nick Foles, S Jerome Couplin, CB Bradley Fletcher, OL Julian Vandervelde, OL Dennis Kelly, WR Jeff Maehl, DE Taylor Hart

Giants: CB Jayron Hosley, LB Devon Kennard, G Eric Herman, OL Adam Gettis, TE Jerome Cunningham, DT Dominique Hamilton, WR Corey Washington

Saints at Buccaneers

Saints: WR Seantavius Jones, WR Brandon Coleman, S Kenny Vaccaro, CB Stanley Jean Baptiste, LB Moise Fokou, LB Jerry Franklin, T Terron Armstead

Buccaneers: WR Robert Herron, WR Solomon Patton, RB Mike James, CB Isaiah Frey, DT George Uko, LB Mason Foster, T Anthony Collins

Colts at Titans

Colts: CB Sheldon Price, LB Jerrell Freeman, OL Joe Reitz, OL Gosder Cherilus, TE Dwayne Allen, LB Bjoern Werner, DL Zach Kerr

Titans: QB Zach Mettenberger, T Taylor Lewan, DL Ropati Pitoitua, LB Dontay Moch, DB Jemea Thomas, T Terren Jones, WR Rico Richardson

Cowboys at Redskins

Cowboys: QB Dustin Vaughan, S Jakar Hamilton, LB Rolando McClain, LB Dekoda Watson, T Doug Free, T Donald Hawkins, DT Josh Brent.

Redskins: RB Chris Thompson, G Josh LeRibeus, OL Rishaw Johnson, DL Travian Robinson, WR Leonard Hankerson, LB Steve Beauharnais

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Justin Gilbert expected to be inactive after showing late to Saturday night meeting

Justin Gilbert

We’re starting to wonder if anyone on the Browns made it to any team activities on time on Saturday.

Wide receiver Josh Gordon has been suspended for the final game of the season and quarterback Johnny Manziel has been disciplined after being tardy for work on Saturday morning and now cornerback Justin Gilbert is expected to miss Sunday’s regular season finale as well.

Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that Gilbert was late to a team meeting on Saturday night and that the team will make him inactive as a result. Gilbert’s work ethic has been questioned by some of his veteran teammates recently, leading coach Mike Pettine to say that he didn’t think Gilbert was a bust. For his part, Gilbert said he brought such criticism upon himself and that he would make things right.

That effort got off to just as bad a start as Manziel’s plan to be more professional heading into his second NFL season. The two first-round picks hit Cleveland with a lot of hope about the better days they’d bring with them for the perpetually forlorn franchise, but their first years are ending with the feeling that it’s the same old song for the Browns.

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Report: Patriots extend Nick Caserio through 2020

Nick Caserio AP

When the Dolphins were looking for a general manager to replace Jeff Ireland in the offseason, they interviewed Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio more than once before Caserio ultimately decided to remain in New England.

The next round of front office shuffling is about to begin and the Patriots have reportedly moved to secure Caserio’s services. Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the team has extended Caserio through the 2020 season.

Caserio has worked with the Patriots since 2001 and has been in his current job since 2008. Under the Patriots’ operating structure, coach Bill Belichick has final say over the roster and Caserio works with Belichick on personnel matters.

According to Schefter, the move takes Caserio off the market for any general manager openings. That might not be the case if another team were to offer Caserio the total control he lacks in New England, but Caserio’s willingness to sign an extension that runs until Belichick will be 68 years old may be a signal that he plans to be with the Patriots long enough to eventually get that control without ever leaving town.

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No deal yet between Michigan and Harbaugh

Harbaugh Getty Images

What will happen, will happen. What will not happen, won’t happen.

It’s one of 49ers (for now) coach Jim Harbaugh’s current catch phrases. And it’s an accurate summary of the current status of his flirtation with his alma mater.

Amid multiple reports that Harbaugh will return to the college ranks and become the next Michigan coach, Michigan alum Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that there’s no deal yet between Michigan and Harbaugh.

It could be a formality, given that Harbaugh still has a job — at least until 7:30 p.m. ET or so tonight. Or it could be that Harbaugh is still waiting for the Raiders or some other NFL team to come to the table with a competitive offer, the kind of offer that finally moves the top of the NFL coaching market upward, after a decade of stagnation.

Regardless, what will happen, will happen. According to Schefter, nothing has happened yet.

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Report: Falcons retain search firm to help with possible coaching change

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

The Falcons can make the playoffs if they beat the Panthers on Sunday afternoon.

If they don’t win that game, however, the team could be making a change at head coach. Mike Smith doesn’t believe he’s coaching for his job against Carolina, but owner Arthur Blank may be feeling differently.

Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen of ESPN report that the Falcons have retained search firm Korn Ferry to help identify coaching candidates in the event that the team does part ways with Smith. Korn Ferry has been involved with several job searches around the league and in college football, including the University of Michigan’s search for a new head coach that appears to have settled on Jim Harbaugh.

The report doesn’t indicate that a coaching change will be made if the Falcons lose on Sunday, but it’s hard not to see that when reading between the lines.

There’s also no word on General Manager Thomas Dimitroff’s standing. The Falcons are also working with former Eagles and Browns exec Joe Banner as a consultant basis on stadium and business issues, although that role could take on a new shape in the event Banner decides that wholesale changes are needed.

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Ted Phillips, Chris Ballard team could be future of Bears

Phillips Getty Images

Major changes could be coming for the Bears; it’s still unclear how high up the organization chart the pinks slips will fly.

At a time when even long-time team president Ted Phillips couldn’t escape the scuttlebutt of a potential termination, the current thinking is that Phillips won’t be fired — and that his Hail Mary pass will consist of bringing back Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard as the team’s new General Manager.

Last year, the Chiefs denied Tampa Bay’s request for permission to interview Ballard for the G.M. job, at Ballard’s request. Ballard, as of a year ago, wanted to stay in Kansas City.

This time around, Ballard could choose to return to Chicago, where he spent 12 years under former G.M. Jerry Angelo and (for one year) current and apparently-soon-to-be-former G.M. Phil Emery.

The biggest question — and the greatest current unknown — will be the new coach in Chicago. If the team is determined to keep quarterback Jay Cutler, the guy that makes the most sense is former Raiders, Broncos, and Washington coach Mike Shanahan, who traded up in the 2006 draft to get Cutler.

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