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Steelers look to Lawrence Timmons to step into larger role

Lawrence Timmons AP

There’s been a lot of discussion this offseason about the need for young players and reserves to carve out big roles on a Steelers defense that’s lost veteran leaders like linebacker James Harrison and defensive tackle Casey Hampton.

Such needs go beyond those groups of players, however. There’s also a need for some of the team’s established starters to move into more prominent spots, with linebacker Lawrence Timmons near the top of that list. Timmons is coming off a strong season — 106 tackles, three interceptions and six sacks — and Ralph N. Paulk of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that “it’s clear” the team is expecting him to fill some of the leadership void on defense this season. It’s a role Timmons is happy to fill with both words and actions.

“I look at myself as a game-changer, and I try to make that a facet of my game,” Timmons said. “I look forward to those opportunities, because I want to live up to those expectations. … I have to assert myself in a certain way. I don’t feel as if I have to force anything. I just have to play my game.”

At 27 with a contract that runs through 2016 and plenty of experience in the Steelers’ way of playing defense, Timmons is positioned to become a cornerstone as the team transitions away from the previous generation of defensive stars. If the team turns up a few more players like him, that transition should be one that continues the tradition of strong defenses in Pittsburgh.

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No playoff spot, but Eagles get 10th victory

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Getty Images

Winning 10 games is usually a source of pride for an NFL team, but it will be a bittersweet pill for the Eagles to swallow.

They beat the Giants 34-26 at MetLife Stadium on Sunday to improve their record to 10-6, the same record that was enough for them to win the NFC East last year, but the three losses that preceded the Week 17 win were enough to keep them from making it back to the playoffs. One of the leading reasons why they fell short was on display against the Giants.

Eli Manning was erratic all day, completing 28-of-53 passes, but he hit big when he did hit. Manning threw for 429 yards, making big plays to both Odell Beckham and Rueben Randle over the course of the afternoon against an Eagles secondary that never figured out how to stop opponents from making big plays down the field. Beckham completed his rookie season with an 185-yard effort and tied Michael Irvin with an NFL-record ninth straight game with more than 90 receiving yards.

It was all for naught, however, and one of Philly’s bright spots all year had a lot to do with the Giants loss. Steve Weatherford had a punt blocked by James Casey and Trey Burton returned it for a touchdown that put the Eagles up 24-16 early in the third quarter. It’s the fourth blocked punt of the year by the Eagles, who also excelled in the return game as the team won nine of their first 12 games this year.

The teams went back and forth from there until Nate Allen picked off Manning late in the fourth quarter to bring things to their conclusion. Mark Sanchez heads for free agency off a 23-of-36, 292-yard effort and LeSean McCoy had 99 rushing yards to put a disappointing season to bed for him as well as his team.

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Justin Houston makes strong case in last game of contract

Rivers AP

Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston has completed the last game of the final year of his rookie contract.  Entering the game with 18 sacks, Houston notched four more against the Chargers, giving him 22 for the year.

Entering free agency, he now has plenty of leverage.  With the negotiating gap between the team and player now likely to get even bigger and with the injury risk gone until next September, look for the Chiefs to use the franchise tag on Houston.

And then look for Houston to instantly sign it.

With the Chiefs reluctant to make a market-value offer to Houston, Houston will go year to year, with the eight-figure guaranteed salary (it was $11.455 million for linebackers in 2014) going up by 20 percent for 2015.  Come 2016, the Chiefs would have to give Houston a 44-percent raise over his 2016 pay, pushing the guaranteed salary toward $20 million.

Look for Houston to also consider a grievance challenging his designation as a linebacker, with the argument being that he’s actually a defensive end, which carried a 2014 franchise tag of $13.1 million.

Either way, Houston will be very inclined to take the franchise tag and the cash that goes along with it.  After all, he made $2.786 million in four full NFL seasons.

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Cowboys stay perfect on the road with 44-17 win

DeMarco Murray AP

The Cowboys didn’t have a lot to play for, but they played it out with style.

They thrashed Washington 44-17, getting big performances from their new triplets to go into the postseason with a bit of momentum.

Tony Romo threw for 299 yards, Dez Bryant caught his 15th and 16th touchdowns of the year and DeMarco Murray ran for 100 yards and a touchdown as the Cowboys cruised.

The win moved them to 12-4, as they had already secured the NFC East title. More impressively, they finished 8-0 on the road this year, showing mettle they hadn’t previously.

For Washington, it was a chance for Robert Griffin III to make one more statement about his ability to be the quarterback of the future, but he didn’t really make it.

He was 27-of-41 for 336 yards, but he threw two interceptions and fumbled.

Washington finished 4-12, and has plenty of issues to address this offseason, none bigger than finding a way to get a quarterback and a coach on the same page.

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Geno Smith throws for 358 yards as Jets top Dolphins

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Getty Images

A report from Chris Mortensen of ESPN indicated that the Jets could delay a decision on coach Rex Ryan’s future until after they hire a new general manager and Ryan’s players did their best to make the case for that new G.M. to think about if that’s how the Jets do wind up plotting their course.

Geno Smith threw for a career-high 358 yards and three touchdowns and Eric Decker caught 10 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown as both players had their best days in Jets uniforms during a 37-24 win. The two players hooked up for a 74-yard score in the third quarter just after Lamar Miller ran 97 yards for a Miami score and the game was all Jets from that point.

The Dolphins were stopped on a fourth down, missed a field goal and punted twice after Miller’s touchdown as the Jets Defense put its best effort forward for the defensive-minded Ryan. They sacked Ryan Tannehill seven times and hit him often while holding the Dolphins quarterback to a 8-of-19 outing in the final 30 minutes. Wide receiver Mike Wallace didn’t play much in the second half of the game, although there was no report of an injury from the team.

The loss comes a week after Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said coach Joe Philbin would be back for the 2015 season, a decision that some in South Florida will likely be grumbling about after seeing Smith and Decker look like one of the league’s best passing tandems on Sunday afternoon.

It’s hard to imagine Ross switching gears because of the loss, though, and it’s just as hard to say that the Jets’ performance in Week 17 should change the team’s decision about Ryan’s fate. If there was a belief that a coaching change was needed before Sunday, it should have been with enough conviction that the result of the game was immaterial. If that decision is going to be someone else’s to make,  though, it’s hard to know what criteria will be used to make the call.

Whatever happens, Ryan gets to go out with a winning Gatorade bath in 2014 and Smith will have a day full of Pro Bowl flashes to motivate him during the offseason.

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Matt Forte sets single-season catch record in Bears’ loss to Vikings

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings Getty Images

This was one for the kickers.

And for the record books, too.

In a game without playoff ramifications, the Vikings edged the Bears 13-9 Sunday in Minneapolis, with Teddy Bridgewater’s 44-yard third-quarter TD pass to Adam Thielen the game-winner for host Minnesota (7-9). The score was the game’s only touchdown, with five field goals accounting for most of the scoring.

However, the game did feature a bit of NFL history. With a fourth-quarter catch, Bears tailback Matt Forte set a single-season record for catches by a halfback (102). The old mark was formerly held by Cardinals tailback Larry Centers, who hauled in 101 passes in 1995.

The defeat was the fifth in a row for the Bears (5-11), who could be in for some major offseason changes, with coach Marc Trestman’s future a source of much speculation.

In his return to the starting lineup, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler completed 23-of-36 passes for 172 yards with no TDs and no picks. Bridgewater, the Vikings’ promising rookie passer, was 17-of-25 for 209 yards with the scoring pass and an interception.

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Texans close strong, just miss the AFC playoffs

Andre Johnson AP

A guy who wasn’t sure he wanted to be a Texans player anymore nearly lifted the Texans to the postseason.

With veteran wide receiver Andre Johnson leading the way, the Texans grabbed a 21-17 win over the Jaguars, and were close to a playoff berth before the Ravens came back to beat the Browns.

Johnson, who stayed away all offseason amid reports he was disgruntled with the direction of the franchise, was able to carry the weight for a team down to its third quarterback. He finished with 10 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown.

Coupled with another dominant performance by defensive end J.J. Watt (3.0 sacks, giving him 20. this season, a forced fumble and a safety), it was enough.

Quarterback Case Keenum was 25-of-35 for 250 yards, a capable performance in relief of the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Mallett.

That was enough to get them to 9-7, a surprising finish for the team that picked first in this year’s NFL Draft.

Arian Foster wasn’t able to finish the game with a hamstring injury, but the Texans made just enough plays to get by a Jaguars team that played more competitively than their 3-13 record would indicate.

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Chiefs end Chargers’ playoff hopes

chasedaniel AP

The Chargers will not be going to the playoffs.

San Diego needed only to win today at Kansas City to earn the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot, but the Chiefs beat the Chargers 19-7, jumping out to an early lead and never looking back.

The Chiefs were led by their pass rush, which battered Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers all day. Kansas City’s Justin Houston had a particularly big game: Houston entered today’s game leading the league with 18 sacks on the season, and he had four more today. Houston’s total of 22.0 sacks this season leads the NFL this year and is just half a sack short of Michael Strahan’s NFL record.

Kansas City was playing without injured quarterback Alex Smith, but backup Chase Daniel filled in nicely. Daniel didn’t make many big plays, but he didn’t make any big mistakes, either. The Chiefs wanted him to play turnover-free football, and that’s exactly what Daniel did.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, to make the playoffs they would have needed not only to win, but to have the Texans and Ravens both lose as well. That didn’t happen, so the Chiefs’ season has come to an end as well. The Ravens will be the AFC’s sixth and final playoff team.

So at the end of this hard-fought game in Kansas City, both teams are done.

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Ravens on doorstep of postseason

Billy Winn, Joe Flacco AP

The Ravens are in control vs. the Browns.

Two fourth-quarter Joe Flacco TD passes have given the Ravens a 20-10 lead over the Browns in Baltimore. The latest score was a two-yard Flacco-to-Kamar Aiken connection.

Earlier, the Ravens surged back into the lead on Flacco’s 16-yard TD pass to Torrey Smith. On the previous play, Flacco hit Smith for 53 yards.

With a victory vs. the Browns and a Chargers loss at Kansas City, the Ravens will win the final wild-card spot in the AFC. The Chargers trail 19-7 with 2:23 left.

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Bucs secure top pick in 2015 NFL Draft with loss to Saints

Josh McCown, Cameron Jordan, Brandon Deaderick AP

The Buccaneers were too good at losing to stop this week.

So it’s only fitting they blew a lead when it mattered the most.

The Bucs allowed the Saints to come back for a 23-20 lead, which secured the top pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

They were able to hold off the Titans on strength of schedule, and now will have the opportunity to draft Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, or whomever else they want.

The Saints came back from a 20-7 deficit, with Drew Brees overcoming three picks to hit Marques Colston with a game-winner with 1:58 left.

The Saints finished 7-9, but would lose tiebreakers to either the Panthers or Falcons, who are playing for the NFC South title this afternoon.

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Bills get to 9-7 with win over coasting Patriots

orton AP

In a game that didn’t mean much of anything to either team, the Bills emerged victorious over the Patriots today and can take pride in this: For the first time in a decade, Buffalo has finished a season with a winning record.

The Bills’ 17-9 victory puts them at 9-7 on the season, their first winning record since another 9-7 finish in 2004. The Bills had nine straight losing seasons until this year.

That represents progress, but today’s game didn’t mean much of anything. The Patriots, who had already clinched home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, coasted through the game. Tom Brady exited early after going 8-for-16 for 80 yards. Brady was replaced by rookie Jimmy Garoppolo, who made a few good throws but didn’t do anything special.

The Bills got decent games from quarterback Kyle Orton and receiver Sammy Watkins, but the big question facing Buffalo going forward is whether it has the quarterback who can finally get the Bills back to the playoffs. Buffalo has plenty of talent on defense and some good young skill position players on offense, but it seems unlikely that either the veteran Orton or the 2013 first-round draft pick he replaced, EJ Manuel, is the long-term answer.

For the Patriots, the purpose of this game was to get out of it without any major injuries, and it appears that they succeeded, with one possible exception: Starting left tackle Nate Solder left the game with a knee injury. There was no immediate word on the severity of that injury.

Now the Patriots will get a week off and host a playoff game in two weeks. And the Bills will get to work on trying to put together another winning season next year — and perhaps threaten the Patriots in the AFC East.

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Sheldon Richardson complains on Twitter about being yanked from game

Richardson Getty Images

The Jets have ruled out defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson with a head injury suffered in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Miami.  And Richardson isn’t happy about that.

“Jets nation I’m fine thanks for your concern/support they won’t let me back on the field to support my guys !!!! JET UP!!!!” Richardson tweeted after being yanked from the game.

Richardson also may think the NFL’s social media policy sucks.  It prohibits players from using Twitter during a game.

Maybe Richardson ultimately will blame it on the concussion he doesn’t believe he has.

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Max Unger out for Seahawks

New York Giants v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

The Seahawks are trying to sew up home field advantage in the NFC playoffs against the Rams on Sunday afternoon, but they won’t have center Max Unger back for the effort.

Unger will miss his sixth straight game with a high ankle sprain. There was some hope that Unger could return this week and he was listed as questionable on Friday’s injury, but it a full return to action will have to wait until the playoffs get underway. It’s the 10th game that Unger has missed overall this season.

Defensive end Demarcus Dobbs, wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, cornerback Tharold Simon, tight end Cooper Helfet and guard Keavon Martin are also inactive for Seattle.

The Rams will play without cornerback E.J. Gaines, tight end Justice Cunningham, offensive lineman Barrett Jones, guard Brandon Washington, tight end Alex Bayer, defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks and defensive tackle Alex Carrington.

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Ravens have their work cut out for them vs. Browns

DeAngelo Tyson, Connor Shaw AP


Terrance West’s two-yard third-quarter TD run has given the underdog Browns a 10-3 lead as the final period begins in Baltimore.

West’s score was set up by rookie quarterback Connor Shaw’s 49-yard pass to first-year wideout Taylor Gabriel. One play later, West, a rookie from Towson, was in the end zone.

The Ravens’ offense has struggled for a second consecutive game, racking up just 181 yards on 44 plays.

Shaw, meanwhile, has acquitted himself well, connecting on 10-of-15 passes for 152 yards with one lost fumble.

UPDATE: The Ravens have drawn to within 10-6 with 8:23 left in regulation.

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NRG Stadium not displaying out-of-town scores

Texans Getty Images

With the Chargers trailing by 12 in Kansas City and the Ravens down by seven at home to the Browns, the Texans could finagle a playoff spot with a win over the Jaguars.

And the Texans may not realize that.  Based on how they’re playing, they apparently don’t.

Via Garrett Heinrich of CBS Houston, NRG Stadium isn’t displaying out-of-town scores during the Jaguars-Texans game.

If the Chargers lose to the Chiefs and the Ravens lose to the Browns, the Texans will make it to the playoffs with a win over the Jaguars.  If the Jaguars win and the Chargers and Ravens lose, the Chiefs get in.

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Drew Brees has three picks, as Saints trail 20-7

Drew Brees, Clinton McDonald AP

When discussing the downfall of the 2014 Saints, it’s easy to point to the defense.

Primarily, because it’s been really bad.

But quarterback Drew Brees isn’t doing them any favors today, saving one of his worst performances of the year for last.

Brees has been picked off three times, and the Saints trail the Buccaneers 20-7 in the third quarter.

Six of his 17 picks this year are against the Bucs.

He’s 17-of-28 passing for 188 yards, for a clean 41.1 passer rating, and this is not exactly a vintage Bucs defense.

The Saints look like they’re ready for this one to be over, but they need to spend some time looking at their offensive issues this offseason as well.

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