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Ravens, 49ers win to set up Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh Super Bowl

Baltimore Ravens head coach Harbaugh argues that New England Patriots' Brady kicked his player as he slid to the turf on a first half run during the NFL AFC Championship football game in Foxborough Reuters

Jack Harbaugh played one year of professional football, with the AFL’s New York Titans in 1961. He began a long career as a high school and college coach in 1964. But Jack Harbaugh’s lasting impact on the game of football will be the fact that he had two sons in the two years between ending his playing career and beginning his coaching career.

On Super Bowl Sunday, John Harbaugh (born in 1962) will coach his Ravens against Jim Harbaugh (born in 1963) and the 49ers. Jack Harbaugh surely had high hopes for his two sons half a century ago, but even the proudest of fathers probably couldn’t have had such high hopes for what his two sons could accomplish in the family business.

Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh will be the dominant storyline in the two-week run-up to the Super Bowl. It will be the storyline you’re sick of hearing about long before kickoff. But it’s also a storyline we all should appreciate: This really is something special, to see two brothers coaching against each other on the biggest stage in American sports.

When the Ravens met the 49ers on Thanksgiving in 2011, it marked the first time two head-coach brothers faced each other in the NFL. John Harbaugh said at the time, “I think it’s an amazing thing. It’s an historic thing. It’s very special.”

To meet in the Super Bowl will be even more special. Perhaps most of all to Jack Harbaugh.

Here are my other thoughts on Sunday’s action:

Colin Kaepernick is the player I’m most excited to see on Super Bowl Sunday. The 25-year-old Kaepernick is in only his second NFL season and will be starting only his 10th NFL game when the 49ers play the Ravens in two weeks. And if he leads the 49ers to a win, he’s going to change the way people think about the quarterback position. Kaepernick is an amazing runner, but he doesn’t have to run to beat you. In last week’s win over the Packers, Kaepernick set an NFL record with 181 rushing yards. So this week, the 49ers would surely make Kaepernick’s running a major part of the game plan, right? Wrong. Kaepernick had just two runs for 21 yards. But the threat of Kaepernick running to the outside helped open up Frank Gore running up the middle. Gore interrupted Kaepernick’s postgame press conference to hug Kaepernick and tell reporters how great his teammate is: “He can do whatever — throw the ball, run the ball,” Gore said. “He’s a different quarterback, man.”

Was Tom Brady trying to kick Ed Reed? With 20 seconds left before halftime, Brady foolishly slid feet-first and then failed to call timeout, running the clock all the way down to four seconds and costing the Patriots a chance to take a shot into the end zone. But he did something else on that play that raised some eyebrows as well: He lifted up his foot with Ravens safety Ed Reed approaching, as if he was trying to kick Reed. Just like with Ndamukong Suh on Thanksgiving, I don’t know if it was an intentional kick. But it sure looked suspicious.

For a first-team All-Pro, Dashon Goldson sure can be a liability in coverage. Goldson is the 49ers safety who got burned on Julio Jones’s first-quarter 46-yard touchdown, and as good as Goldson is at delivering big hits, he struggles staying with fast receivers on deep routes. Look for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who loves to throw deep, to test Goldson in the Super Bowl.

No one knows what constitutes a catch in the NFL anymore. When Atlanta’s Harry Douglas caught a big pass late in the fourth quarter, Jim Harbaugh challenged it and was sure he was going to win, and he went nuts on the sideline when he lost the challenge and the catch was upheld. I thought he was going to win the challenge, too, but I didn’t know for sure because no one ever knows for sure what a catch is in the NFL anymore. It’s simply impossible to accurately predict how a replay review of a close catch is going to be ruled.

Don’t go, Tony. Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez says he plans to retire, but for my own selfish reasons I hope he changes his mind. Gonzalez is one of the most fun players to watch in the NFL, a player who always goes about his business the right way and is still among the game’s best tight ends at age 36. Plus, he’s five months older than me, and I’m not ready to concede that that means he’s at the right age to retire. I hope Gonzalez is in the playoffs with the Falcons again a year from now.

The 49ers need Aldon Smith to get his groove back in the Super Bowl. In the first 13 games of the regular season, Smith had 19.5 sacks. In the last three games of the regular season and two games of the playoffs, Smith has zero sacks. Whatever is wrong with Smith, San Francisco is going to have a tough time winning the Super Bowl without its best pass rusher stepping up.

David Akers is a liability for the 49ers. Akers led the league in missed field goals during the regular season, and he missed his only attempt in Atlanta on Sunday. If the Super Bowl comes down to a last-second 49ers field goal attempt, no one in San Francisco will feel confident as Akers takes the field.

One more game for Ray Lewis. The best defensive player of his generation — maybe the best defensive player in NFL history — will play his last game in two weeks in New Orleans. Lewis already has a Super Bowl MVP to his credit. Now he’ll try to give his career a storybook ending.

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Pot precedent creates dilemma for Steelers

Bell Getty Images

The Steelers haven’t had a player face marijuana possession charges since 2008.  They now have two.  The way they handled that six-year-old incident could create an awkward situation for the 2014 Steelers.

The last time it happened, the Steelers deactivated receiver Santonio Holmes with pay for the next regular-season game.  Technically, any discipline imposed by the team infringes on the league’s exclusive jurisdiction under the substance-abuse policy.  And while a suspension of up to four games without pay is available for conduct detrimental to the team, the labor deal doesn’t contemplate a paid suspension.

So what will the Steelers do about running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, who were simultaneously charged with marijuana possession after being stopped by a police officer in the Pittsburgh suburb of Ross Township?  If the Steelers deactivate both for Week One against the Browns, the Steelers will have a harder time holding serve against a division rival.  If they do nothing, they’ll contradict the precedent created by the Holmes situation.

Don’t be shocked if the Steelers let this one play out, since neither Bell (who also was charged with DUI) nor Blount will face discipline from the NFL until the legal case is resolved in a way that reflects responsibility of some sort for the charges they face.  With a third person in the car who possibly will contend that the 20 grams of marijuana were hers and not theirs, it’s possible that Blount eventually will escape liability.  While a DUI would remain an issue for Bell, a first offense usually results in a two-game fine; marijuana possession routinely triggers a one-game suspension.

Meanwhile, the police officers in and around Pittsburgh have a reputation for not being overly aggressive when it comes to Steelers players — unless those players were overly aggressive when dealing with the cops.  It’ll be interesting to see any dashboard video or audio generated by the traffic stop for evidence of cooperation or lack thereof by Bell and Blount.

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Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount both arrested

bellblount AP

The Steelers’ top two running backs were arrested together today.

Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, Pittsburgh’s first- and second-string running backs, were in a car together and stopped by Ross Township Police this afternoon. Detective Brian Kohlhepp of the Ross Police Department tells PFT that a motorcycle officer smelled marijuana smoke coming from the car and pulled it over. Police found a baggy containing about 20 grams of marijuana in the car.

Both Bell and Blount are expected to be charged with possession of marijuana. Bell is also expected to be charged with driving under the influence. An unidentified female in the car is also expected to be charged with possession of marijuana. According to police, all three people in the car admitted that the marijuana belonged to all of them.

The Steelers took Bell in the second round of last year’s draft, and he won the starting job as a rookie. He carried 244 times for 860 yards and eight touchdowns last year.

Blount signed with the Steelers this offseason after spending last year in New England, where he had 772 yards and seven touchdowns on 153 carries.

Bell and Blount could both now be subject to league discipline, but likely not until the case is resolved.

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RGIII calls out the “doubters”

Griffin AP

As Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III prepares for his third NFL season, some think he won’t be the player he was in 2012.  Others think he can’t keep himself healthy, especially after a couple of unnecessarily reckless and risky plays on Monday night against Cleveland.  Some think both.

Griffin has taken to Twitter to call out any and all of the so-called doubters.

“They doubted in High School,” Griffin said.  “They doubted a turnaround at Baylor.  They doubted a Heisman was possible.  Keep doubting.  It’s nothing New.”

Many of the “they” who are doubting Griffin now didn’t know who he was in high school.  Or at Baylor.  Or in the early stages of his chase for a Heisman.  Regardless, it’s fair for “they” to think that Griffin won’t be able to find the right balance between effectiveness and safety, and that if he plays at the highest possible level he won’t be able to keep himself healthy.

While Griffin has proved the doubters wrong before, it doesn’t mean he’ll prove them wrong now.  But if the doubters motivate him to find that delicate balance between playing well and playing safely, then it’s good that he’s concerned about the “they.”

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Andre Johnson doesn’t like the increase in penalties

Johnson AP

The renewed emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding penalties benefits NFL offenses.  That doesn’t mean all NFL offensive players appreciate the move.

Specifically, Texans receiver Andre Johnson doesn’t like the increased throwing of flags in the 2014 preseason.

“Watching the game last week against Atlanta, it kind of makes the game longer.” Johnson said Wednesday, via 610 Sports Radio in Houston.  “It actually makes you hate it a little bit because every time you look around there’s a flag on the ground.”

Johnson believes that the officials won’t call illegal contact and defensive holding as tightly once the regular season begins.  The NFL has said that the emphasis on illegal contact and defensive holding will continue.  We’ll begin to find out whether the NFL means what it says when the Packers travel to Seattle to start the 2014 regular season in only 15 days.

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Five Questions: St. Louis Rams

San Francisco 49ers v St. Louis Rams Getty Images

In a loaded NFC West, the St. Louis Rams have been quietly going about their business. The Rams have watched their division rivals deal with season-ending injuries (Darnell Dockett, Kendall Hunter), contract disputes (Marshawn Lynch, Alex Boone) and off-field issues (Aldon Smith, Daryl Washington).

Outside of the loss of reserve running back Isaiah Pead, the Rams have been steadily preparing for the start of the season without many bumps in the road.

St. Louis has won seven games in each of the last two seasons under head coach Jeff Fisher. Here are five questions that will determine if the Rams will improve that total this year.

1. Can Sam Bradford finally put it all together?

Sam Bradford is entering his fifth NFL season and last under his rookie contract with the Rams. He’s healthy once again after a knee injury last season. The Rams receiving corps appears to be the most talented group of Bradford’s tenure and the offensive line no longer appears to be a significant liability.

It’s now time to see if Bradford can live up to the lofty expectations of a former No. 1 overall draft pick and guide the Rams to the postseason for the first time since 2004.

Bradford had completed 61 percent of his passes last season with a 14-4 touchdown to interception ratio in seven games before going down with a torn ACL. It was a promising sign that Bradford may still have it in him.

2. Just how good can the Rams front seven be?

Robert Quinn and Chris Long combined for 27.5 sacks last season for St. Louis. Michael Brockers added 5.5 sacks from the defensive tackle position and the team went out and added Aaron Donald with second of two first-round draft picks. With William Hayes, Eugene Sims and Kendall Langford still as rotational players, the Rams defensive line could be one of the league’s most formidable units.

Add in James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree at linebacker and the front seven for St. Louis looks like the strength of the team. Is it enough to vault the Rams defense into the conversation of the league’s best? That will rely on the answer to our next question.

3. Will secondary play be St. Louis’ Achilles heel?

As strong as the front seven is for the Rams, the secondary has its question marks. With Cortland Finnegan gone, the Rams are relying on Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson to take hold of the starting jobs at cornerback. At safety, Rodney McLeod and T.J. McDonald were shaky at times last year too.

Rookies Lamarcus Joyner at cornerback and Mo Alexander at safety could help stabilize the back-end of the defense. The dominant pass rush should give the secondary a hand as well by putting repeated pressure on opposing quarterbacks. However, the Rams defense will likely only reach its ceiling if the play from the secondary can be adequate.

4. Do the Rams finally have a competent receiving corps?

The Rams have thrown draft pick, after draft pick, after draft pick at the receiver position in hopes of improving a group that has been perpetually lacking in St. Louis. Five receivers have been selected in the first four rounds in the last three years: Tavon Austin (1st round, 2013), Stedman Bailey (3rd round, 2013) Austin Pettis (3rd round, 2011), Brian Quick (2nd round, 2012) and Chris Givens (4th round, 2012). They also signed former Tennessee first round pick Kenny Britt this offseason.

Finally, the group may be good enough to give Sam Bradford the weapons he needs offensively. Austin caught 40 passes as a rookie to lead the Rams receivers. Britt looks to restart his career after a disappointing season where he fell out of favor in Tennessee. Quick, Givens, Pettis and Bailey give St. Louis capable depth.

A strong year from the receiving corps could help get the Rams over the hump.

5. Can Michael Sam make the roster and can he contribute if he does?

As detailed earlier, the Rams defensive line is loaded with star talent and quality depth. It makes it a difficult task for Michael Sam, a seventh-round pick out of Missouri attempting to become the first openly gay player to make an active NFL roster, to earn his way onto the squad.

Sam has held his own and picked up a sack last week against the Green Bay Packers. The battle for the final roster spot along the defensive line appears to be between Sam, Sammy Brown, Matt Conrath and Ethan Westbrooks. If he doesn’t make the final 53-man roster, the Rams could put Sam on their practice squad to develop.

If he does make the roster, Sam will likely be a deep reserve option only at the outset unless he can find his way onto the field in a special teams role.

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Bengals reach a new deal with Vontaze Burfict

Vontaze Burfict, Paul Guenther AP

With Andy Dalton taken care of, the Bengals are moving on to other business.

The next in line is weakside linebacker, who has agreed to a multi-year extension with the team, according to Adam Caplan of ESPN. Adam Schefter says it’s a four-year, $20 million deal, with $7.6 million this year.

He was entering the final year of his contract, but would have been a restricted free agent next year.

While many were scared off of Burfict before the draft because of off-field concerns, the Bengals rolled the dice and found a consistent performer after signing him as an undrafted rookie in 2012.

Now he’s been rewarded, and they continue to lock up the core of a good, young team.

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Steven Jackson could practice soon, on track for Week One

Steven Jackson AP

The Falcons haven’t had running back Steven Jackson on the practice field in almost a month because of a hamstring injury suffered early in camp, but one of the remaining Hard Knocks episodes may feature the veteran’s return to practice.

Coach Mike Smith said Wednesday that Jackson has stepped up his rehab work with the team’s trainers and could be ready to take the next step and practice with his teammates soon. Smith even left open the possibility that Jackson could play in the team’s final preseason game.

“We are encouraged by what he has done over on that side with athletic performance,” Jackson said, via the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “It’s going to depend on the individual in terms of how he feels and once the doctor gives him the clear to go, then he will go.”

The Falcons generally haven’t played starters in the final preseason game and Smith said Jackson was on track to play in the regular season opener, so it might prove to be more risk than reward to get Jackson snaps in the preseason.

 

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Cardinals keep bolstering defensive line, add Ryan McBean

Ryan+McBean+uLTgKd5ZAn6m Getty Images

The Cardinals aren’t done trying to bolster their defensive line.

In addition to bringing in veteran defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga, the Cardinals have also agreed to terms with veteran defensive lineman Ryan McBean, a league source tells PFT.

The 30-year-old McBean hasn’t seen the field in a regular-season game since 2011, when he played all 16 games for the Broncos. In 2012 he signed with the Ravens in the offseason but didn’t play for them in the regular season.

The Cardinals have been trying to beef up their defensive line since losing Darnell Dockett to a torn ACL. Sopoaga and McBean may provide some veteran depth, but neither player will come close to making up for the loss of Dockett.

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Cardinals find some defensive line depth with Isaac Sopoaga

San Diego Chargers v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

If at first you don’t succeed, try to find a defensive tackle who played on the other end of Pennsylvania.

According to Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic, the Cardinals are signing veteran lineman Isaac Sopoaga after working him out this afternoon.

Sopoaga had a long run with the 49ers, and was an early free agent pickup by the Eagles last year. But he didn’t make it through the season, making an appearance with the Patriots as well.

The 32-year-old is more of a nose tackle, and not a comparable player to Darnell Dockett, who was lost to a torn ACL.

The Cardinals tried to bring longtime Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel in before he signed to return to the Steelers.

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Report: Broncos lose Jordan Norwood to torn ACL

Jordan Norwood, Terrell Thomas AP

Word from Denver was that wide receiver Jordan Norwood had done enough this summer to have a firm grip on a roster spot as the team’s punt returner and sixth wideout, but that status changed on Wednesday.

Norwood injured his left knee while running a pattern during the team’s joint practice with the Texans and Mike Klis of the Denver Post reports that Norwood has suffered a torn ACL. If that becomes a confirmed diagnosis, Norwood won’t play this season.

Norwood didn’t play in the NFL last season and played 16 games for the Browns in 2011 and 2012 before a foot injury knocked him out in his final year with the Browns. He caught 36 passes for 405 yards and a touchdown. He had four catches for 54 yards and two punt returns for 37 yards for the Broncos in their first two preseason games.

If Norwood’s out of the picture, undrafted rookie Isaiah Burse could have an improved chance to make the team as he’s also seen time on punt returns. The Broncos could also opt to use Wes Welker or look at other options, however, so Burse will have to impress if given more opportunities in the wake of Norwood’s injury.

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Geno Atkins is ready to make his preseason debut

Geno Atkins AP

The Bengals are about to get one of their best players back on the field.

According to Coley Harvey of ESPN.com, defensive tackle Geno Atkins is scheduled to play a few series Sunday against the Cardinals.

Atkins, who tore his ACL on Oct. 31, was activated from PUP at the start of camp but didn’t play in the first two games.

Having him back’s a huge deal for us,” defensive coordinator Paul Guenther said. “It’s good to see him back. It definitely means a big deal to us.

“I’m sure he’s ready to get back and get his confidence up. I’m sure he’s anxious to get back in there and play with the guys.”

Atkins was off to another great start last year, with 6.0 sacks before going down with the knee injury in Week Nine. Getting him back will obviously be a big boost for the Bengals defense, as few players can create the kind of interior push Atkins can when he’s well.

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Rams waive-injured Isaiah Pead after torn ACL

St Louis Rams v Dallas Cowboys Getty Images

If any of the 31 teams not in St. Louis want to stash running back Isaiah Pead on their roster while he recovers from a torn ACL, they’ll have their chance.

Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports that the Rams have waived-injured Pead on Wednesday. Should Pead clear waivers, he can revert to the Rams and go on injured reserve for the entire season or reach an injury settlement that makes him a free agent.

With 17 carries for 75 yards and 14 catches for 94 yards, Pead hasn’t lived up to what the Rams hoped they’d be getting when they made him the 58th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He was highly regarded coming out of Cincinnati, though, so there may be another team willing to roll the dice on a player who is signed to his rookie contract through next season.

With Pead out of the picture, rookie Tre Mason and Benny Cunningham are behind Zac Stacy on the running back depth chart with the Rams. Things probably wouldn’t have looked much different if Pead had remained healthy, so he may not have much of a future in St. Louis even if he does clear waivers.

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Doctor: Tuesday evaluation found “no evidence” of cancer for Jim Kelly; more tests to come

Jim Kelly AP

A medical evaluation given to Bills quarterback Jim Kelly on Tuesday found “no evidence” of cancer, a doctor at the Manhattan hospital where Kelly has been treated said Wednesday afternoon.

“The great news is that upon physical examination, there is no evidence of the cancer,” said Dr. Peter Costantino, the executive director of the New York Head and Neck Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital, in a statement issued by the hospital. (A hat tip to ESPN’s Mike Rodak for pointing this out.)

Kelly has been battling oral cancer and underwent chemotherapy earlier this year. According to the hospital, Kelly will continue to be evaluated and will undergo more tests.

“It is possible that no further treatment will be required, and the testing over the next week will define this issue,” Costantino said.

Surgery and “highly focused” radiation treatment would be options for Kelly if needed, the hospital said.

Kelly has responded well to the care he’s received, Costantino said.

“The treatments so far have completely eliminated Mr. Kelly’s pain and his level of function has essentially returned to normal,” Costantino said.

The 54-year-old Kelly was able to attend the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony for teammate Andre Reed earlier this month.

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Tim Shaw on ALS diagnosis: “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to hear

Tim Shaw, Collin Mooney AP

The sight of ice bucket challenges has become common across NFL training camps, but in Tennessee, it had a little more meaning Wednesday.

Former Titans linebacker Tim Shaw was there for it, a day after announcing he had been diagnosed with ALS in April.

“I would never say I am not afraid of anything,” Shaw said, via Jim Wyatt of the Tennesseean. “If you look at what ALS has done to people, that is a scary process. So I am not scared to die, but the process is a little daunting.”

The 30-year-old Shaw was visibly emotional while describing the process, as he said he could tell he was losing athletic ability and his muscles were twitching long before the diagnosis, which he called: “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to hear.”

“Every thought runs through your mind, but as a man you have a choice,” Shaw said. “What are you going to do? Are you going to stand up and fight for your life? Or are you going to accept what someone else tells you is reality and just fade away? As staggering as that news was and as shocking as it was to hear and to say, I made that choice to stand up and live life to the fullest like I believe I always have.”

Along with former Saints safety Steve Gleason, that’s the kind of face ALS needs, to inspire others to fight one of the most despicable diseases known to man.

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Colts, Eagles swap players they were planning to waive

Florida Atlantic v Auburn Getty Images

Well, this is interesting.

The Eagles announced Wednesday they had traded rookie tailback David Fluellen to the Colts for rookie placekicker Cody Parkey.

Earlier Wednesday, the Eagles said they were waiving Fluellen, a Toledo product. And the Colts, for their part, had announced Tuesday evening they would be parting ways with Parkey, who played collegiately at Auburn.

In the end, both clubs struck a deal rather than placing the players on waivers.

And in the end, it might be a good fit for both players, especially Parkey, who will have a chance to compete with Alex Henery, whose performance reportedly has come under some scrutiny.

On Tuesday, special teams coordinator Dave Fipp indicated the club would be evaluating both Henery and other potential kicking competitors, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“All options are available. We’ll look at everybody, and we’ll continue to watch Al. The biggest thing is we hope to get Al a bunch of work in these next two games, and we’ll find out,” Fipp said, per the Inquirer.

Fluellen joins a crowded backfield in Indianapolis, which has six healthy tailbacks on the roster. However, the Colts liked him enough to trade for him as opposed to hoping he could be landed on waivers.

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