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Team-by-team look at who would/could/should be tagged

Clady AP

On Monday, the two-week window for using the franchise tag opens.  Every team can use the franchise tag (or the rarely-used transition tag) on one player.

Last year, 21 teams took advantage of the franchise tag, which no longer is based on the five highest-paid players at the position but on a far more convoluted (and club friendly) formula.

It’s not a coincidence.  The new formula makes it much cheaper to keep a player off the open market than it would to pay him a multi-year market contract.

Here’s a look at the team-by-team candidates for the 2013 tag, in alphabetical order.

Arizona Cardinals:  The Cardinals need to keep hard-nosed cover corner Greg Toler, but not at anything close to the eight-figure franchise number.  No other pending free agents have the talent or potential to justify franchise money.  Last year, the Cardinals used the tag on defensive end Calais Campbell; they eventually signed him to a long-term deal.

Atlanta Falcons:  Left tackle Sam Baker, drafted in round one the same year as the man whose blind side he protects, has had good years and bad years.  After starting 16 games in 2012, Baker hits the market on a high note.  Still, the glut of tackles in free agency and the draft will make it hard to justify tagging Baker; if he leaves, the Falcons can find a capable replacement after the market softens.  In 2012, the Falcons used the tag on cornerback Brent Grimes, who tore an Achilles tendon in Week One.  Tagging him would cost $12.48 million for 2013.  It would cost nearly half that amount to tag safety William Moore.

Baltimore Ravens:  It’s not a question of if the Ravens will tag quarterback Joe Flacco.  The only remaining unknown is the level of the tag.  And while a lazy look at the situation would lead to conclusively presuming that there’s no way Flacco leaves Baltimore, there’s a chance (slim, but a chance) that the player and the team could be destined for a game of chicken that would result in both cars flying off the cliff.  The Ravens could opt to go non-exclusive, daring Flacco to sign an offer sheet with another team — and assuming that he never would.  Another team with plenty of cap space could easily craft a front-loaded offer sheet that the Ravens wouldn’t be able to match.  It’s not likely, but anyone who thinks there’s no way Flacco leaves the Ravens hasn’t been paying close enough attention to the far crazier things the NFL has seen in recent years.

Buffalo BillsJairus Byrd has become one on the best free safeties in the league.  With George Wilson gone in a cap move, the Bills need to keep Byrd.  Absent a long-term deal, the tag is the only way to make it happen.  If a long-term deal can be negotiated, guard Andy Levitre becomes a candidate for the tag.  The only impediment would be the fact that interior offensive linemen get the same franchise tender as tackles.

Carolina Panthers:  Their list of potential free agents contains no names that cry out for use of the tag, especially since the Panthers are still dealing with the sins of salary caps past.

Chicago Bears:  The Bears need to keep defensive tackle Henry Melton, but they’ve already got plenty of cap space tied up with defensive players like sackmaster Julius Peppers, cornerback Charles Tillman, and linebacker Lance Briggs.  With Melton regarding himself as the best defensive tackle in the league, a long-term deal could be hard to come by.  Despite his name recognition, linebacker Brian Urlacher isn’t a serious candidate for the tag.

Cincinnati Bengals:  The Bengals are extremely careful with money.  On defense, lineman Michael Johnson is the most obvious candidate to be tagged.  It’s just as likely that the Bengals will be content to go bargain shopping (again) for defensive players to replace their bevy of free agents on that side of the ball, and then hope that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer can whip up another batch of chicken salad.  On offense, the tag could be used to keep Andre Smith, who quietly has overcome his notorious Jello run to develop into an elite right tackle.  Last year, the tag was used on kicker Mike Nugent; tagging him again would cost only $3.48 million.  Which could make him the most likely candidate.

Cleveland Browns:  Kicker Phil Dawson was tagged in 2011 and 2012.  Using it a third time would entitle him to quarterback money.  So if it’s used, it won’t be used on him.  Punter Reggie Hodges is hitting the market after three years with the team.  Though his performance doesn’t cry out “franchise tag,” it could be cheaper to squat on him for a year than to sign a replacement on the open market; that’s why so many punters and kickers have been tagged in recent years.

Dallas Cowboys:  Tagged last year at $10.5 million, linebacker Anthony Spencer still hasn’t had the kind of impact that he should, given that he plays across from DeMarcus Ware.  Spencer isn’t worth $12.4 million for one more year.

Denver Broncos:  V.P. of football operations John Elway has said that the tag will be used on left tackle Ryan Clady, and for good reason.  Last year, Clady turned down a five-year, $50 million deal.

Detroit Lions:  It’ll take $12.4 million to use the tag for a second straight year on defensive end Cliff Avril, and it won’t be easy for the Lions to round up the kind of cap space necessary to keep him around.  Safety Louis Delmas doesn’t like being labeled as injury prone, but he is.  And the Lions will have to decide whether they want to make a long-term or short-term (via the tag) investment in the guy who could be this decade’s Bob Sanders.  Tackle Gosder Cherilus also could be tagged, but in a buyer’s market for tackles it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to do it.

Green Bay Packers:  Receiver Greg Jennings turns 30 in September.  In other words, the Packers won’t be using the tag on Greg Jennings.  The Packers learned while he was injured in 2012 that they can live without him, and they won’t be inclined to invest $10 million in cap space to a guy who plays a position that, with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, is virtually interchangeable.  If the Packers wanted to keep Jennings, they’d be trying to sign him.  They’re not, which likely means he won’t be tagged.

Houston Texans:  Last year, the Texans passed on tagging linebacker Mario Williams because of the exorbitant tender that the final year of his first-overall rookie contract would have generated.  With linebacker Connor Barwin, much less cap space would be consumed.  After seeing former Texans receiver Jacoby Jones deliver an MVP-caliber performance in the Super Bowl, G.M. Rick Smith may be a little less willing to let quality players walk away in 2013.  Another possible (and cheaper) candidate for the tag is punter Donnie Jones.

Indianapolis Colts:  The man with the self-styled boomstick can be kept off the market for the low, low price of the punter/kicker franchise tag ($2.9 million).  Absent a long-term deal, it’s hard to envision the Colts moving forward without punter Pat McAfee.

Jacksonville Jaguars:  A roster thin on star power naturally doesn’t create many franchise-tag candidates, especially with a new G.M. and (another) new coaching staff.  If linebacker Daryl Smith didn’t miss most of the season, he’d be a potential candidate.  Fullback Greg Jones would be a candidate, if fullbacks weren’t lumped in with running backs for franchise tag purposes.

Kansas City Chiefs:  The Chiefs are trying to work out a long-term deal with receiver Dwayne Bowe; if they don’t, it would cost $11.4 million to keep him around for a second season via the tag.  But receivers are more plentiful than competent offensive linemen, and new Chiefs coach Andy Reid witnessed the hard way in 2012 the consequences of not having competent blockers.  This reality makes tackle Branden Albert a more likely candidate to be tagged.  Then there’s punter Dustin Colquitt, who like most punters and kickers could be cheaper to keep via the one-year franchise tag.

Miami Dolphins:  Tackle Jake Long’s rookie deal makes the cap number for tagging him way too high to justify, especially in light of the gradual decline in his play.  With cornerback Sean Smith looking for big money, the best move could be to tag him instead of Long.

Minnesota Vikings:  G.M. Rick Spielman wants to keep road-grading right tackle Phil Loadholt.  With left tackle Matt Kalil tied up via an affordable rookie deal, the Vikings can afford to pay Loadholt a large chunk of money for at least the next two seasons, before Kalil will be looking for his second contract.  Whether that large chunk of money equates to the franchise tag for Loadholt is a decision the Vikings have to make in light of the realities of the tackle market — and within the context of the impact of the use of the tag on the expectations of receiver Percy Harvin.  They’d also like to keep fullback Jerome Felton, but there’s no fullback franchise tag; they’d have to tender him at the running back level.

New England Patriots:  The Patriots have a trio of players who are potential candidates for the tag.  Whether it’s receiver Wes Welker, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, cornerback Aqib Talib, or no one, it won’t be an easy decision.  Welker would command $11.4 million, given that he was tagged in 2012.  It would be a shock if they tag him.  Vollmer has Marcus Cannon behind him on the depth chart, plus plenty of other tackles available in free agency.  The Pats could be inclined to let Vollmer leave if someone else is willing to overpay him.  Talib presents the biggest conundrum, given his positive impact on the team’s so-so defense.  They need him, but he present plenty of risk given his history of off-field incidents.

New Orleans Saints:  Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is the most obvious candidate for the tag.  But the Saints don’t have the cap space to spare.  They easily replaced guard Carl Nicks with Ben Grubbs last year, and the tackle market is far more plentiful in 2013 than the market was for guards last season.  Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis doesn’t project to nose tackle in the team’s new 3-4 defense, but he could be a candidate to play defensive end in Rob Ryan’s defense, if the Saints want to fork over the money necessary to keep him around.  Things would get interesting if the Saints tag Ellis as a tackle despite a desire to move him to end, since there’s a $2.6 million gap between the two tenders.

New York Giants:  But for the likely existence of collusion in the restricted free agency market, the Giants should be thinking about tagging receiver Victor Cruz.  Since teams have abandoned in recent years the pursuit of RFAs, there’s no reason for the Giants to double the compensation they’d get if someone else swipes Cruz.  Left tackle Will Beatty becomes a candidate for the tag, along with safety Kenny Phillips.  The cheapest of all would be tight end Martellus Bennett, who didn’t get the long-term deal he wanted a year ago in free agency, opting instead for a one-year stay in New York and another shot at the market.

New York Jets:  Safety LaRon Landry is the only guy who merits the tag, but his one-year deal from last year expressly prevents the team from using it.  No one else who is due to become a free agent deserves it.

Oakland Raiders:  There’s a major problem with using the franchise tag on punter Shane Lechler, apart from the fact that the Raiders have landed in a salary cap black hole.  While the franchise tag for punters and kickers will be an affordable $2.9 million in 2013, Lechler’s cap number last year was $4.9 million.  Under the CBA, he’s entitled to a 120 percent raise over that number, which translates to a cap number of $5.88 million.  It could be time for the much cheaper Marquette King, a converted receiver who has drawn comparisons to the monster-legged Reggie Roby.  Either way, it’s hard to imagine that the cap-strapped Raiders would pay a punter twice the amount of the base franchise tag for punters.

Philadelphia Eagles:  The Eagles don’t have many looming free agents, which means that they don’t have many candidates for the franchise tag.  Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie would be one, if he was, you know, better.

Pittsburgh Steelers:  The Steelers have said they won’t use the franchise tag.  Which means that receiver Mike Wallace will hit the open market.  Which means that someone will overpay him on the first day of free agency.

San Diego ChargersLook at their free agents.  Though cornerback Quentin Jammer has been a mainstay in San Diego since 2002, he’s not worth what it would cost to keep him via the franchise tag.  No one else with an expiring contract justifies the tag, which is one of the reasons why there’s a new G.M. and head coach.

San Francisco 49ers:  Safety Dashon Goldson doesn’t want to be tagged again, but what he wants and what he gets could be two different things.  Absent a long-term deal, the Niners have to keep Goldson around — even if using the tag for a second time virtually guarantees he’ll hit the market in 2014.  If Goldson gets a new deal, it’ll be interesting to see whether the Niners would use the tag on their second-string but highly versatile tight end, Delanie Walker.

Seattle Seahawks:  The ultra-low kicker tag of $2.9 million could be used to keep the strong-legged Steven Hauschka.

St. Louis Rams:  Receiver Danny Amendola has become one of the best slot receivers in the NFL, but his injury history and the eight-figure franchise tender for wideouts likely will scare the Rams away.  Still, if Amendola hits the market, he won’t be there long.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers:  The Bucs plans to spend on keeping their own guys.  When it comes to using the tag, it’s a toss-up between tackle Jeremy Trueblood and defensive end Michael Bennett, or neither.

Tennessee Titans:  The Titans reportedly are expected to use the tag on tight end Jared Cook, absent a multi-year deal.  Kicker Rob Bironas also is a possibility, but he had a cap number of $3.675 million in 2012.  Which means that the tag would cost the Titans $4.41 million in 2013, $1.5 million more than the base tag for kickers and punters.

Washington Redskins:  With $18 million in missing cap space, the Redskins can’t afford to use the tag.  Especially since tagging tight end Fred Davis again would bump his 2012 tender by 20 percent — a year after he suffered a torn Achilles tendon.  Punter Sav Rocca is a slim possibility, but even the $2.9 million will be more than the Redskins can justify with their cap situation.

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NFC playoff picture: Lions clinch thanks to Eagles’ loss

Miami Dolphins v Detroit Lions Getty Images

The big winners in Washington on Saturday were the Lions, who clinched a playoff berth with the Eagles’ loss.

And the big losers were, of course, the Eagles: They’re not eliminated from playoff contention yet, but they’re precariously close and now have to have a whole lot of games go their way.

Here’s how the NFC playoff picture looks after the Eagles’ surprise loss.

THE BIG SIX

1. Arizona Cardinals (11-3). NFC West leader. Has clinched playoff spot. Would clinch NFC West and No. 1 overall seed with victory Sunday vs. Seattle.

2. Detroit Lions (10-4). NFC North leader. Would clinch NFC North with a win and a Packers loss.

3. Dallas Cowboys (10-4). NFC East leader. Would clinch NFC East with a win vs. Indianapolis on Sunday.

4. New Orleans Saints (6-8). NFC South leader. Would clinch NFC South with a win vs. Atlanta and a Panthers loss.

5. Seattle Seahawks (10-4). Wild card No. 1. Would clinch a playoff berth with a win vs. Arizona on Sunday.

6. Green Bay Packers (10-4). Wild card No. 2. Would clinch a playoff berth with a win vs. Tampa Bay on Sunday.

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Philadelphia Eagles (9-6). Can still win the NFC East but only if they beat the Giants next week while the Cowboys lose both Sunday against Indianapolis and next week against Washington.

OTHER NFC SOUTH CONTENDERS

Carolina Panthers (5-8-1). Will win the NFC South if they win out and the Saints lose once.

Atlanta Falcons (5-9). Will win the NFC South if they win out.

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Eagles choke in Washington

zachertz AP

Philadelphia had everything to play for. Washington had nothing to play for. Everyone figured the Eagles would win easily.

It didn’t work out that way.

Instead, the Eagles went into Washington badly needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, and instead choked the game away, losing 27-24 on a Kai Forbath field goal with five seconds left. Mark Sanchez was good for much of the game, but his one interception was what set up Washington’s game-winner.

Adding insult to injury for the Eagles, the best player on the field for Washington was DeSean Jackson, the wide receiver whom Eagles coach Chip Kelly released this offseason. Eagles tight end Zach Ertz was excellent catching short passes, with 15 receptions for 115 yards. But the Eagles could have used a receiver who can stretch the field — that’s what they had last year with Jackson, and that’s what they lacked today.

The loss doesn’t completely eliminate the Eagles from playoff contention, but it does mean their playoff hopes are slim. Eagles fans are now desperately hoping the Cowboys lose tomorrow against the Colts.

Washington won’t be going to the playoffs, but it will go into the offseason with a tough decision about the quarterback position. Robert Griffin III helped the team win today, but he was far from spectacular as a passer, completing just 16 of 23 passes for 220 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception. (In fact, the best thing he did was draw repeated roughing the passer penalties against the Eagles.) Has Griffin done enough to get the starting job next year? Has Jay Gruden done enough to keep the coaching job next year?

Those questions remain to be answered. But today, Washington fans can celebrate. They just earned a hard-fought win, and likely knocked the rival Eagles out of the playoffs in the process.

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Vick praises Jameis Winston as the “future of the NFL”

Winston Getty Images

A vague sense has emerged in recent weeks that a draft-stock gap exists between 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston.  There indeed may be a gap by the time the 2015 draft begins, and it may be Winston who’s the better player.

Jets quarterback Mike Vick, the first overall pick in the draft nearly 14 years ago, recently heaped praise on Winston.

“He may make some poor decisions, but he gets on that football field and he plays his ass off,” Vick said, via Darryl Slater of NJ.com.  “Yeah, he can mature.  He’ll mature.  I see him maturing as time goes on.  Like, this year hasn’t been as bad of a year as the first year was for Jameis.  I think the kid will continue to improve.  I think he’s the future of the NFL.”

This year hasn’t been perfect, though.  The offseason featured the crab-leg caper.  Then, Winston was suspended for a game after yelling an obscene phrase on campus.  He nevertheless dressed for the game and entered the field in full uniform before being sent back inside.  More recently, Winston placed his hands on and physically moved an official who was delaying the snap.

As a result, Winston will attract plenty of attention, wherever he goes.  And that could make it difficult for him to thrive with a team like the Jets.

“I think it’s hard,” Vick said.  “I think his support cast just has to be around him.  You can’t put him in a room with a group of young guys. . . .  The more veterans around, the more he’ll pick up on things and he’ll mature quickly.  That’s the trend I’ve been around since I’ve been in the league.”

For Winston, the trend at the college level has been to win, each and every week.  He’s 29-0.  A win over Mariota and Oregon will move him to 30-0 and commence talk that, despite Mariota’s accomplishments, perhaps Winston is the better NFL prospect.

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Questionable roughing the passer calls help Washington take the lead

rg3 AP

Two roughing the passer penalties have helped Washington take a surprising lead in the third quarter today.

A 12-play, 76-yard drive that resulted in a one-yard touchdown run by Darrel Young was helped along when the Eagles were twice flagged for hits on Robert Griffin III.

Both of the calls were questionable. Neither was particularly late, neither was a direct shot to Griffin’s head and neither drove Griffin into the ground at the end of the hit. Plenty of worse hits go uncalled every week.

But these two were called, and they went against the Eagles, who now trail 17-14.

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Eagles fans show up in big numbers at FedEx Field

Sanchez Getty Images

In a development that’s not really surprising given that one team has something to play for and the other team is hoping to simply get this thing over with already, plenty of Eagles fans have shown up at FedEx Field for Saturday’s game against Washington.

Via JP Finlay of CSNWashington.com, receiver DeSean Jackson was booed when his image appeared on video screens to wish fans happy holidays.

Still, Eagles fans may not actually be outnumbering Washington fans.  That’s the assessment made by Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post.  Steinberg points out that there may indeed be more Eagles fans than home-team fans in the stadium’s standing room-only area.

For now, Eagles fans should be happy.  Through two quarters, Philly leads 14-10.

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LeSean McCoy touchdown gives Eagles an early lead

sanchez AP

In a must-win game in Washington, the Eagles came out looking sloppy but quickly turned things around.

On Philadelphia’s first drive, Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez was sacked by Ryan Kerrigan, forcing a fumble that Kerrigan recovered. Washington’s offense then managed to pick up 40 yards on a 12-play drive before settling for a Kai Forbath 25-yard field goal.

But on Philadelphia’s second drive, things went more according to plan. The Eagles marched down the field covering 79 yards on 10 plays, culminating in a LeSean McCoy touchdown run that gave the Eagles a 7-3 lead.

This is a big game for Philadelphia and a game in which Washington has nothing to play for. We’ll see if Washington will keep fighting hard anyway.

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Trent Williams good to go vs. Eagles

Washington Redskins v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

Washington left tackle Trent Williams is ready to play today against Philadelphia.

Although he was listed as questionable with a shoulder injury, Williams is active and will start. That’s good news for starting quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Washington’s inactives are LB Keenan Robinson, LB Gabe Miller, DE Jason Hatcher, G Josh LeRibeus, WR Leonard Hankerson, RB Roy Helu and DB Kenny Okoro.

Philadelphia’s inactives are QB Nick Foles, S Jerome Couplin, LB Trent Cole, OL Julian Vandervelde, OL Dennis Kelly, WR Jeff Maehl and DE Taylor Hart.

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Decision to delay L.A. relocation came from teams, technically

LA Reuters

Potato, potahto.  Tomato, tomahto.  Los Angeles.  Los Angeleez.

Despite the words used, the NFL won’t be returning to L.A. in 2015.  Adam Schefter of ESPN reported on Saturday that Commissioner Roger Goodell informed the three contenders to relocate — the Rams, Raiders, and Chargers — that no team will move to Los Angeles next year.  A league source tells PFT that, technically, the teams decided not to try to move next year.

It’s probably a distinction without a difference.  However, Schefter’s report creates the impression that Goodell dictated the outcome to the teams.  Given the year the league office has had, that’s not the most favorable message to send.

Even if, as we’re told, the decision was made by the teams, it’s quite possible if not likely that the teams made the decision only after it was made clear to them that an attempt to move to L.A. would not succeed in 2015.

Then there’s the reality that going against the wishes of the powers-that-be in 2015 could make it harder to secure approval to move in 2016.

Either way, L.A. won’t be getting one or more NFL teams in 2015.  But the signals are getting stronger and stronger for an L.A. relocation come 2016.

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Peyton Manning officially questionable for Monday night

Denver Broncos practice at Dove Valley Getty Images

Everyone expects Peyton Manning to start on Monday night in Cincinnati, but officially that’s no sure thing.

The Broncos listed Manning as questionable on the official injury report for Monday’s game against the Bengals. Manning has been getting treatment for a thigh injury and has also battled an illness.

If Manning can’t go, Brock Osweiler would get the nod. Osweiler played briefly — and played poorly — when Manning went to the locker room during Sunday’s win over the Chargers.

Obviously, it would be very, very bad news for the Broncos if there really is a risk that Manning can’t play. But from all indications, there really isn’t any question. Manning may be listed as questionable, but he will play.

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Browns put Tashaun Gipson on IR

Tashaun Gipson AP

The Browns will be without one of their key defensive players for the rest of the season.

The club announced Saturday it had placed free safety Tashaun Gipson on injured reserve. Gipson, whose six interceptions are tied for the NFL lead, suffered an MCL sprain in the Browns’ November 23 win at Atlanta.

A third-year pro from Wyoming, the 24-year-old Gipson has 12 interceptions for Cleveland since 2012.

Jim Leonhard has stepped into the lineup in Gipson’s absence.

To replace Gipson on the roster, the Browns promoted linebacker Scott Solomon from the practice squad. The 26-year-old Solomon has appeared in 20 regular-season games in three NFL seasons, including six with Tampa Bay earlier this year.

The 7-7 Browns are the lowest-seeded club still in playoff contention in the AFC. They play at Carolina on Sunday.

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Saturday one-liners

Miller Getty Images

The production of Dolphins RB Lamar Miller drops dramatically after his 10th carry of a game, from 5.4 average yards to 2.5.

A week after shutting down Aaron Rodgers, the Bills hope to similarly harass Oakland QB Derek Carr.

The Patriots are preparing for Percy Harvin with some of the same keys they used when preparing to face Randall Cobb.

Jets S Rontez Miles had emergency surgery on Thursday after being kicked in the shin during practice.

Ravens WR Jacoby Jones says it won’t be emotional to return to Houston and play the team that once cut him.

Former Bengals RB Corey Dillon is impressed with Bengals rookie RB Jeremy Hill.

C Alex Mack may be the only player definitely returning to the Browns in 2015.

Steelers players are lobbying for LB Lawrence Timmons to make it to the Pro Bowl.

The Texans will get a good look on Sunday at a running back they maybe shouldn’t have let get away.

Maligned in May, the Colts’ quintet of draft picks has done well.

If you’re among the many who passed on Thursday night’s game, here’s what the win revealed about the Jaguars.

Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt summarizes his first season with the team in three words:  “It’s not fun.”

Broncos WR Emmanuel Sanders has a simple approach when returning punts — get at least 10 yards, making it like a first down on offense.

Former Chiefs Pro Bowl OL John Alt is helping LT Eric Fisher.

The Raiders may be shorthanded at cornerback with Buffalo coming to town.

So what does the Chargers’ defense need to do to win some games?  Defensive coordinator John Pagano makes it as simple as possible:  “Play better.”

Cowboys WR Dez Bryant could be the key to beating Indianapolis.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin wants WR Odell Beckham to be like LeBron James.

A reduction in touches for RB LeSean McCoy is fueling speculation that he won’t be back with the Eagles in 2015.

How bad is Washington’s offensive line?  Really bad.

The decision to start Bears QB Jimmy Clausen is creating no buzz in Halas Hall.

Joique Bell quietly has become the No. 1 running back for the Lions.

Here’s a great look at how the Packers are trying to slow down great receivers at a time when the rules are helping them.

Vikings FB Jerome Felton knows he likely won’t be back next year.

Falcons DT Ra’Shede Hageman realizes that he’ll need to earn the trust of the coaching staff in order to get more playing time.

Panthers DT Star Lotulelei is struggling in his second season.

With free agency looming, Saints RB Mark Ingram has picked a good year to be on pace for his first 1,000-yard season.

The win the renewal of the Bay of Pigs rivalry, the Buccaneers will need to be able to run the ball effectively.

The Cardinals joined the NFL in 1920; Sunday night’s game is the biggest regular-season contest in franchise history.

Rams S E.J. Gaines, a sixth-round draft pick in May, has had a strong rookie season.

Saturday’s game could be the next to last in San Francisco for 49ers RB Frank Gore.

A big test is coming Sunday night for Seahawks rookie OT Justin Britt.

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Joe Thomas downplays charges of discharging manure

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

A day after he was accused of environmental violations including discharging manure into a wetland, Browns tackle Joe Thomas said it was no BS.

Actually, it was a much smaller variety of S.

“I know it sounds horrific when you see the list of violations, but in the end it’s rabbit turds here,” Thomas told Steven Verburg of the Wisconsin State Journal.

Thomas was cited by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for some irregularities on a farm he owns there. Among the violations are damming a navigable waterway, dredging a spring-fed pond, tearing down a barn without a permit and most spectacularly, the previously mentioned discharge of manure.

He could face $10,000 a day fines, but Thomas said he’s meeting with DNR officials to make sure he’s in compliance.

“When you read that list, you’d think I was the worst person in the world, like I put a two-lane bridge over the Mississippi River,” Thomas said. “In reality, it’s all kind of interrelated and very small.

“I don’t want to say anything to you that would make their side look bad,”

The property is described as a few hundred feet from the Blue River, which is apparently a Class II trout stream. While dropping a load of brown trout into that waterway would obviously disturb the ecosystem, Thomas said his intentions for the property were pure.

“My whole idea was to make it a fish and wildlife paradise like it used to be,” he said. “I don’t want to get into the specifics of every little violation. The bottom line is I hired a couple contractors to help with the cleanup project and it was just not knowing that you needed permits for certain things that resulted in the violations.”

Unless one of those contractors turns out to be Najeh Davenport, it sounds like Thomas is doing everything he can to make sure this doesn’t turn into a big stink.

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Report: Executives suggest Bears could have to attach a draft pick to move Cutler

Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions Getty Images

If the Bears want to move quarterback Jay Cutler in the offseason, would they have to swap draft picks with the acquiring club to get the deal done?

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, “several NFL executives” have indicated the Bears might have to trade draft selections to close any Cutler deal, given the guaranteed money on Cutler’s contract.

The idea of “sweetening the pot” to close a Cutler trade is something PFT’s Mike Florio suggested after the quarterback’s benching. Were this indeed required to make a deal, it would speak to Chicago’s lack of leverage.

In the scenario suggested by Schefter, an acquiring team would get Cutler and a higher pick, with the Bears getting a lower pick and salary-cap relief in return. As Schefter notes, any trade can’t be an out-and-out giveaway; the Bears would have to receive something in return, per NFL rules.

How Bears ownership proceeds with coach Mark Trestman and G.M. Phil Emery at season’s end figures to be a primary factor in any future decisions on Cutler. A new coach/G.M. combination might not have any ties to Cutler and could be able to cut the cord without anguish.

The more interesting question is whether Emery would be willing to make such a move. The decision to sign Cutler to a lucrative deal last January looks dubious, with Cutler’s play not coming close to expectations. Moving Cutler and a draft pick is the stuff of management nightmares, especially with the Bears in desperate need of youthful reinforcements throughout the defense. The club’s spending in the most recent free agent period produced mixed results, with defensive end Willie Young proving a bargain but defensive ends Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston not producing as much as hoped, though illness slowed Allen and a knee injury ended Houston’s season early.

In short, the Bears aren’t in a position to be giving away draft picks. And have we mentioned the franchise again might be looking for a quarterback? Oh yes, that.

If Bears fans are walking around looking like they’ve bitten down on all the world’s lemons, they cannot be blamed. Soon, the snow will come, the salt trucks will come out, the sky will be gray and the taxes will still be high. But the Cubs look like they’ve figured it out, and the Bulls are flank-steak tough. Look, Chicagoans are used to QB uncertainty.

Doesn’t mean they have to like it, though. And they really won’t like it if that draft pick goes out the door with Cutler.

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49ers could be looking for young offensive specialist to succeed Harbaugh

McDaniels Getty Images

With all the talk about Jim Harbaugh’s future, hardly any time has been spent on the question of who will replace him in San Francisco.

Chris Mortensen of ESPN reports that the team is expected to look for a young offensive specialist to take over the team.  Mort specifically mentioned Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase.

The last time the job was open, the 49ers tried the opposite approach.  As Bill Parcells discloses in his new book, the 49ers tried to hire the then-69-year-old defensive specialist to coach the team in 2011.

From 2009 to 2010, McDaniels coached the Broncos to an 11-17 record.  In a stint perhaps best known for the selection of Tim Tebow with a first-round pick, a 5-17 slide after a 6-0 start greased the skids for McDaniels’ termination with four games left in his second season.

But McDaniels has recovered nicely.  Despite coach Bill Belichick’s background as a defensive guru, it’s Belichick and not McDaniels who has gotten the credit for a masterful run of offensive game plans (with the exception of the loss at Lambeau) since the team fell to 2-2 after a Monday night blowout in Kansas City.

It has been believed that 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula has the early inside track to the job, in large part because Tomsula was pegged to take over for Harbaugh if he’d been traded to the Browns in February.  With the offensive side of the ball needing a kick in the pants, maybe the change of plans makes sense.

The 49ers also will be looking for someone who can get along well with G.M. Trent Baalke, who somehow has escaped scrutiny for the team’s collapse in 2014.  If, as it appears, Baalke will be back, a far bigger factor than X’s and O’s will be whether the new coach can work and play well with his boss.

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Arians: Seahawks have a wishbone running game and a great QB

Seattle Seahawks v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

The Seahawks lead the league in rushing but aren’t just a rushing team, which makes them a pain for opposing defenses.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians compared preparing for the Seahawks to preparing to face an old-school Oklahoma or Nebraska wishbone running offense. Except those teams couldn’t beat opponents through the air the way the Seahawks can.

“Trying to get ready for them is basically like trying to get ready for a wishbone team back in college — with a great quarterback,” Arians said.

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson isn’t mostly (or even primarily) a running quarterback, and yet he’s been by far the most effective running quarterback in the NFL this year. Wilson has 106 carries for 754 yards and five touchdowns this season, leading all quarterbacks in all three categories and putting him more than 300 yards ahead of any other quarterback in the league. Wilson also has six runs of more than 20 yards, best among all quarterbacks, and is the only quarterback in the league with more than one run longer than 40 yards. Wilson is on pace to finish this season with more than 3,300 passing yards and more than 800 rushing yards, a passing/running combination that only Randall Cunningham (who passed for 3,466 yards and ran for 942 yards in 1990) has accomplished before.

The Cardinals will have a tough time stopping Wilson. Even worse, they’re stuck with third-stringer Ryan Lindley as their own quarterback against the Seahawks’ ferocious defense. If Arians can find a way to win this one, they could cancel the coach of the year vote and hand him the award on Sunday.

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