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Twelve intriguing regular-season games

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Schedule-release day! It’s one of the sneaky-good pro football events of the year.

When I ponder the schedule, I look for clues for where a team may soar, wobble or plummet. The following 12 games all look like they could teach us something important about the teams on the field. I generally focused on games earlier in the season than later; it’s tough enough to speculate on how a team could play in September, but projecting a team’s late-December form is even more challenging.

Here are 12 games that particularly interest me:

49ers at Seahawks (Sept. 15) — Appointment viewing. End of story. To paraphrase Mike Mayock, put on the tape of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick from the postseason. Just do it. I’ll be watching for many reasons, but mainly to see whether either West power looks significantly better than the other.

Giants at Panthers (Sept. 22) — This is the sort of game the upstart Panthers will win if they are going anywhere. And it’s precisely the sort of game Tom Coughlin’s team pulls out when in top form.

Lions at Packers (Oct. 6) — The Lions have the offensive might to give any defense fits and were a legitimate playoff entrant two years ago. Can they bounce back after a disappointing 2012 performance? This looks like a big class test for them.

Seahawks at Colts (Oct. 6) — I love out-of-conference battles between two talented clubs. A win for either team is a real nice item to have on the résumé. The Seahawks are capable of winning in a tough venue, but the Colts were very, very tough at home a season go.

Redskins at Cowboys (Oct. 13) — Dallas did not fare well in its first two tries against Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris.

Eagles at Buccaneers (Oct. 13) — The Buccaneers had a strong run defense a season ago, and the Eagles’ Chip Kelly-designed offense is talent- and potential-laden. This should be fun.

Ravens at Steelers (Oct. 20) — For years, this has been one of the NFL’s compelling rivalries, and doesn’t figure to change in 2013, not with Baltimore the depending champion and Pittsburgh trying to regain its footing among the AFC elite. The Steelers won in Baltimore last season, one of the highlights of a disappointing campaign.

Dolphins at Patriots (Oct. 27) — Last year, the Bills were the chic pick to make a run at New England’s AFC East supremacy. This year, the Dolphins are the East sleeper. Can Miami live up to the hype? The Dolphins are likely to be underdogs in Foxborough; if that’s the case, how the Dolphins play may trump whether they win or lose, in my view. If the Dolphins give a strong Patriots team a game, it’s a good sign for Miami.

Colts at Texans (Nov. 3) — For the Texans, getting to the playoffs doesn’t constitute great success anymore. For the Colts, a step backwards after a surprising 2012 season would be a big disappointment.

Chiefs at Broncos (Nov. 17) — Who’s going to push Denver in the AFC West? Kansas City might have the best shot. Let’s see how the Chiefs measure up.

Saints at Falcons (Nov. 21) — A weakened Saints team managed to split the season series in 2012. Now, Sean Payton is back, and New Orleans could be ready to seriously contend once again in the NFC South. With both teams again likely to field strong offenses, the play of the defenses could tell the tale.

Broncos at Patriots (Nov. 24) — Including the playoffs, this is the fourth meeting between the teams in the last three seasons — and Denver has had no good answers for New England’s powerful offense. The Patriots have won all three meetings, averaging 39 points in the victories. The Broncos have the ability to be strong contenders, but their problems with the Patriots can’t be overlooked.

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Colts sign linebacker Justin Shirk, waive Camaron Beard

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The Indianapolis Colts signed linebacker Justin Shirk and waived defensive end Camaron Beard on Thursday.

Shirk, an undrafted free agent out of Division II Bloomsburg, spent time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their rookie mini-camp in May. A transfer from the University of Oklahoma, Shirk was named as a first-team D2 All-American in each of his last two seasons at Bloomsburg.

He appeared in 45 games and racked up 392 tackles during his college career.

Beard, an undrafted free agent from Cincinnati, signed with the Colts after a tryout in their rookie mini-camp in May.

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Russell Wilson would “definitely consider” playing baseball if traded to the Mariners

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On Monday night, Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show, where he dropped an “F” bomb and talked about “grabbing my ding-ding.” (And he also grabbed his ding-ding several times.) On Thursday night, teammate Russell Wilson appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. While there was no “ding-ding” talk, Wilson stepped way out of his carefully-manicured character by using a word that had to be bleeped.

“I’ve gotta tell you a story,” Wilson said as soon as he took a seat between Kimmel and Andy Samberg, who was in a plastic bubble because he was pretending to have the flu.  “So I’m backstage, before the show, obviously. And all of a sudden I run into this guy with a bubble. And he sticks out his hand. I shake his hand. Next thing I know, he sh-ts in his pants.” (It’s possible Wilson said “jizzes,” in reference to Samberg’s “Jizz in My Pants” video from Saturday Night Live. Either way, it was bleeped. Either way, it didn’t mesh with the Wilson ordinarily projects.)

The discussion quickly turned to Wilson’s contractual status, with Kimmel asking Wilson if he’s more tired of talking about the Super Bowl loss or his contract.

“Both,” Wilson said.

Kimmel then  pointed out how underpaid Wilson is, suggesting that he’s making only $37,000 per year. (The audience didn’t get the joke.)

“So you’re ready for the next contract?” Kimmel said.

“That sounds exciting,” Wilson replied.

“I would love to help you with this contract, I really would,” Kimmel said. “Do you have an agent?”

“I do have an agent,” Wilson said.

“Well, that’s a bummer.”

“Maybe you can be his consultant,” Wilson said.

“How much money do you want, because we can probably hash this out right now?”

“Can we take a collection plate, maybe?” Wilson said, laughing.

“No, you get it from the team,” Kimmel responded, with a little bit of force in his voice. “You made enough money for them. I think it’s OK for them to pay you. You want to be the highest paid player in football, correct?”

“I just want to be paid based off my play,” Wilson said. “It’ll work out in the end, and we’ll figure it out.”

Wilson then reiterated that he wants to stay in Seattle, but it’s still not clear exactly what he wants financially — because he continues to avoid the question.

Wilson also said he’s seriously interested in playing both football and baseball professionally, calling it a dream he had growing up.

“It’d be tough to play [both],” Wilson said. “But, you know, there’s always a way.”

Kimmel then asked if Wilson would play both if his baseball rights were traded from the Texas Rangers to the Seattle Mariners.

“I’d definitely consider it,” Wilson said.

Kimmel did a great job of asking the right questions and drawing Wilson out on some touchy subjects, even though it’s a comedy show with low expectations for anything newsworthy.

And there was still some comedy (or at least attempts at comedy), including a quick jab by Wilson at coach Pete Carroll for paying players at USC. But it came out so fast that it sailed over the heads of the studio audience.

“He’s gonna love that comment,” Kimmel said.

Carroll won’t mind that comment if they can get a contract worked out. For now, it’s still unclear what it will take and when it will get done. However, it is clear that Wilson remains serious about baseball — and that he’d be even more serious if he were playing for the baseball team in the same town as his football team.

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NFL starts Fourth of July weekend with four-item bad-news dump

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When the dust settled for what was for many the last work day before the long Fourth of July weekend, the NFL had announced four suspensions in the span of roughly two hours. Starting at approximately 2:00 p.m. ET and ending at approximately 4:00 p.m. ET, the NFL had announced suspensions of Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain, Packers defensive lineman Datone Jones, and Chargers tight end Antonio Gates,

There are two possible explanations for this cluster of suspensions. Either all four cases happened to be resolved coincidentally in the same 120-minute window, or someone decided to hold them all until this afternoon, unveiling one after another at a time when media and fan attention will be diminished.

The latter explanation makes far more sense, but here’s the catch. Some in the league office insist that the NFL doesn’t engage in bad-news dumps, and that embarrassing or unfavorable information is disclosed when it’s disclosed, whether that’s at 5:00 p.m. ET on a Friday or 9:00 a.m. ET on a Monday.

From a P.R. standpoint, it makes sense to drop bad news into days and/or hours that will result in reduced attention. It also makes sense to not do it all the time, because then it becomes too obvious.

On Thursday, it became too obvious. On Friday, it’ll be interesting whether more obvious bad news will be unveiled.

Plenty of people won’t be working on Friday, but PFT will be on the clock — and yours truly plus producer Rob “Stats” Guerrera will be monitoring and reacting in real time from 12:00 p.m. ET to 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Radio’s PFT Live.

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Offsets are indeed the issue for Mariota, Titans

Marcus Mariota AP

No, a surfing clause isn’t keeping the Titans from signing quarterback Marcus Mariota, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. The real reason is far less interesting.

As expected, it’s the question of whether Mariota’s contract will include offset language for the fully-guaranteed payments to be made from 2015 through 2018. The Titans want to have the ability to get credit for any money Mariota owns elsewhere, if Mariota is cut at any point during his first four NFL seasons. Mariota wants to have the ability to keep his guaranteed money from the Titans, and to keep whatever he earns from another team.

And so the two sides are staring at each other, waiting for one of them to blink. The Titans think/assume/hope that Mariota will cave before missing a training-camp practice, or possibly after missing a handful of them. Mariota thinks/assumes/hopes that the Titans will cave, given that they need their potential franchise quarterback to become a franchise quarterback as quickly as possible.

It’s odd that it’s even a fight. But it’s a fight because the first overall pick, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, has offset language in his contract and the third overall pick, Jaguars linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., does not have offset language in his contract.

If Mariota performs so poorly that he’s cut before he finishes his contract, the Titans will have problems far bigger than whether they can get credit for whatever Mariota earns elsewhere.

So why fight it? Maybe the Titans are simply trying to be tough. Maybe the Titans think the league wants teams to include offset language in rookie deals. (If so, the Jaguars and Rams didn’t get the memo.)

Regardless, a very minimal issue threatens to become a very major problem, if neither Mariota nor the Titans blink by the start of training camp, or at the latest not long after it opens.

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NASCAR returns to NBC this weekend

NASCAR Getty Images

On Saturday, the U.S.A. celebrates its 239th birthday. And NBC celebrates the return of NASCAR.

The auto-racing juggernaut comes back to NBC after a nine-year absence, with Saturday night’s Subway Firecracker 250 on NBCSN (7:30 p.m. ET) and Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 on NBC (7:45 p.m. ET). Both races come from the Daytona International Speedway.

For details about the coverage, click here. To watch the races, click the appropriate buttons on your TV device, or check out the live stream via NBC Sports Live Extra.

So enjoy your cookout and your beverage of choice and your fireworks, and participate in the ultimate American non-football-season experience of watching people drives cars really fast without fear of being pulled over by the fuzz.

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Mendenhall’s Roethlisberger story wasn’t completely accurate

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The story told by former Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sticking a rookie with a $25,000 tab was interesting. It would have been even more interesting if it were, you know, accurate.

Per a source with knowledge of the situation, it started as a dinner for offensive linemen at a steakhouse, not a club. The offensive linemen determined that former Steelers offensive lineman Tony Hills, a rookie at the time, would pay. (Hills, who currently plays for the Cowboys, was a fourth-round pick of the Steelers in 2008.)

The quarterbacks showed up as well, the linemen ran up a huge bill, and Hills wasn’t able to pay it.

Roethlisberger actually paid roughly half of the amount on the spot, with Hills reimbursing him later.

The practice of sticking rookies with huge bar and club tabs, which was one of the issues raised in the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal, has ended in Pittsburgh. It’s probably ended with most NFL teams.

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Ivory release continues new NFL trend

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Before the Ray Rice debacle, NFL teams would react to a player getting arrested by issuing the same kind of perfunctory statement that the Texans issued on Thursday about defensive lineman Brandon Ivory — and then waiting for the legal process to play out before taking any further action.

After the Ray Rice debacle, the Texans followed the perfunctory statement issued on Thursday with decisive action, cutting the undrafted rookie free agent who faces charges in Alabama of first-degree burglary.

Who care if he’s innocent until proven guilty or if Ivory’s agent claims he’s innocent? Ivory is destined to be placed on the Commissioner-Exempt list, which means that any NFL team that employs Ivory will have to pay him to not play until the charges are resolved, after which point they’ll quite possibly be not paying him to not play.

Unless the player is a star, there’s no reason to deal with it. For that reason, more and more teams will be quickly dropping players who are accused of any crime that could result in their placement on paid leave.

That’s another problem with the NFL’s decision to use paid leave as a way to get players charged with certain crimes off the field until their legal situations are resolved. The league contends it’s not a disciplinary move because the player still gets paid. But if the trend will be to cut any non-essential player who is facing paid leave, the player won’t be allowed to play — and he won’t be getting paid.

Regardless of how anyone feels about any player who is accused of a crime, the NFL’s decision to supplement the criminal justice system in the name of public relations must be done in a way that respects labor relations. The NFL’s current approach doesn’t properly respect the rights of all players, which eventually will force the NFL Players Association to waste more money on legal fees.

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Lions great Charlie Sanders dies at 68

charliesanders AP

Charlie Sanders, a Hall of Fame tight end and one of the greatest players in Detroit Lions history, has died at the age of 68.

Sanders recently revealed that he was battling cancer.

Born and raised in North Carolina, Sanders played his college football at Minnesota, where he was an All-Big Ten tight end and helped lead the Gophers to a share of the Big Ten title during his senior season in 1967. The Lions selected Sanders with a third-round pick in the 1968 NFL draft.

In Detroit, Sanders made an immediate impact and became a seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro. When he retired after the 1977 season, Sanders had the all-time franchise record for catches, with 336 in his career.

Sanders remained with the Lions organization after retiring, working as a radio commentator, a wide receivers coach, and an assistant director of player personnel. In 2007 he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Antonio Gates suspended four games for PED violation

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Fireworks haven’t been going off at NFL headquarters just before July 4, but announcements of suspensions keep on coming Thursday.

Chargers tight end Antonio Gates is the latest to fall under discipline from the league office. The NFL announced that Gates has been suspended four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

“In my 12 years in the NFL, I have taken tremendous pride in upholding the integrity of the NFL shield and all that it entails,” Gates said in a statement. “I have taken extreme care of my body with a holistic approach and I have never knowingly ingested a substance that was banned by the NFL. In an effort to recover from this past season, I used supplements and holistic medicines, and unfortunately, I have now learned that those substances always present a risk because they may contain banned substances even if the ingredient list doesn’t reflect them. As an NFL veteran and team leader, I should have done my due diligence to ensure that what I was taking for recovery was within the NFL guidelines. I understand that I am responsible for what is in my body and I have always believed that ignorance is no excuse when it comes to these issues. I take full responsibility for my actions. I’d like to express my sincere apologies to the Chargers, my teammates, coaches, fans and the league who have always supported me and expected and gotten nothing but the highest level of integrity from me.”

Gates will miss games against the Lions, Bengals, Vikings and Browns before becoming eligible to return in Week Five against the Steelers. He’ll be able to take part in training camp practices and preseason games before the suspension goes into effect.

Gates had 69 catches for 821 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Chargers last season and that production at 34 may raise some eyebrows in light of Thursday’s suspension. Lardarius Green will be the likely replacement for Gates in San Diego’s first four games.

Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson, Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain and Packers defensive end Datone Jones have also had suspensions announced by the league on Thursday.

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Datone Jones suspended one game for substance abuse violation

Datone Jones AP

Yep, it’s officially a Friday news dump, even though it’s Thursday.

Packers defensive end Datone Jones became the third player suspended today, getting one game for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

He follows Sheldon Richardson and Rolando McClain in getting suspensions on Thursday, before the league slides out to the Hamptons for the weekend.

Jones, the Packers 2013 first-round pick, was growing into a solid player, even though he hasn’t reached the heights of other guys drafted around him. And now, he won’t start working on it until Week Two.

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McClain, Richardson both failed to choose football

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NFL teams generally don’t care about players smoking marijuana. NFL teams care greatly when players have to choose between marijuana and football.

Most players who test positive for marijuana a single time immediately choose football over marijuana, avoiding any further positive tests and all potential discipline. For Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain and Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, they repeatedly failed to choose football.

For Richardson, it was marijuana. And the Jets, who used the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft on defensive lineman Leonard Williams, surely knew that Richardson was choosing marijuana over football enough times to worry about him missing games when they picked Williams.

For McClain, word emerged in February that he was facing a four-game fine under the substance-policy, only one violation away from a four-game suspension.

For both, they’ll have to choose football over marijuana or the next step will be a 10-game suspension. Then, a year.

For the next year, they’ll have to pass up to 10 drug tests per month to avoid further suspensions.

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Report: Sheldon Richardson suspended for marijuana use

Sheldon Richardson, Ryan Tannehill AP

The NFL announced Thursday that the Jets will open the season without defensive end Sheldon Richardson because Richardson has been suspended for four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

The league does not disclose the specific violation, but Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reports that it is for marijuana use. Richardson issued a statement through the team when the suspension was announced and went on Twitter Thursday to offer further apologies for the suspension.

“I apologize for my mistake and for disappointing the people who mean everything to me,” Richardson wrote. “I vow to you, this will not happen again. My team will continue to push forward without me to start the season. I promise I will be there for them in every way that I can until I am able to return.”

It will be interesting to see if Richardson’s suspension impacts the Jets’ decision-making on the defensive line moving forward. Muhammad Wilkerson is in the final year of his rookie deal and stayed away from voluntary work this spring while trying to get a new one. Richardson has two year and a team option left on his deal and the Jets may warm to the idea of extending Wilkerson if the suspension gives them doubts about Richardson over the long term.

Richardson said last month that he thought Wilkerson was worth “Suh money.” His suspension may wind up pushing him closer to it.

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NFL suspends Rolando McClain four games

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Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain is suspended for the first four games of the regular season.

The NFL has announced that McClain was suspended for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. McClain released a statement apologizing for the suspension.

“I apologize to my family, the Cowboys organization, my teammates and Cowboys fans for my mistake,” McClain said. “I will not break the rules of my profession in the future, and I regret my error. I look forward to returning to the field on week 5, when I hope to help my team beat the Patriots.”

McClain has had a series of off-field issues that nearly derailed his career in the past, but last year with the Cowboys he had a very productive season. Now his off-field problems are again becoming an issue.

The NFL likes to time the release of bad news so that it doesn’t generate too much attention, and the decision to announce the suspensions of McClain and Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson on the Thursday afternoon before a three-day holiday weekend is another example of that practice. We’ll see if there’s more bad news coming before the Fourth of July.

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Texans cut Brandon Ivory

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Rookie defensive tackle Brandon Ivory’s agent said that his client will be cleared of all charges related to his arrest on Wednesday.

Ivory and another man allegedly took cash and two iPads after breaking into a home in Alabama while one held an assault rifle and the other carried a knife, which resulted in first degree burglary charges for Ivory. The Texans either disagree or aren’t interested in waiting around to find out.

John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reports that the Texans have cut Ivory a day after the arrest and their statement that they were gathering facts about what happened.

Ivory was signed as an undrafted free agent after completing his career at Alabama and will likely now need to have those charges cleared in order to get a second chance at finding a job in the NFL.

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Sheldon Richardson suspended four games for substance abuse violation

New England Patriots v New York Jets Getty Images

It’s not quite 5 p.m., but the NFL has dumped some bad news just before the start of the holiday weekend.

The league has announced that Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson has been suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Richardson can attend training camp and play in the preseason, but he’ll miss the first four weeks of the regular season and will be eligible to return after the team plays the Dolphins on October 4. He’ll also miss games against the Browns, Colts and Eagles.

“I apologize for letting down my family, teammates, this organization and the fans,” Richardson said in a statement sent through the team. “However, words aren’t enough. This is something that can only be addressed by how I handle myself from this point on. I don’t want this to take away from what the team is trying to accomplish. While I won’t be there at the start of the regular season, I will do whatever I can to support my teammates until I’m able to return to the field.”

In a separate statement, coach Todd Bowles called the news “disappointing” and said that the Jets will “keep moving forward with our preparations” for the 2015 season.

Those preparations will likely include a larger role for first-round pick Leonard Williams, who will likely join Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison as the team’s top linemen until Richardson can return.

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