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Brian Cushing gets full clearance

Dolphins Texans Football AP

Of the various high-profile players recovering from torn ACLs, Texans linebacker Brian Cushing has had the lowest profile.

His profile should increase, given that he’s the first of the bunch to receive full clearance to return to practice.

Per a league source, Dr. James Andrews has given Cushing the green light.  He’ll be ready to go when training camp opens.

That said, the team is expected to ease Cushing back into action.  At this point, however, there’s no reason to think he won’t be ready and available come Week One.

Cushing suffered the knee injury on a low hit from former Jets guard Matt Slauson.  Though not flagged, Slauson later was fined for an illegal peel-back block.

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Belichick is “proud” of team, but otherwise doesn’t have much to say

Bill Belichick AP

On Thursday, Patriots coach Bill Belichick had plenty to say. On Sunday night, he did at first.

“I was really proud of the way our team fought tonight,” Belichick said after New England’s 30-24 overtime loss in Denver. “I thought we gave tremendous effort and played really hard. Obviously there were some things that we could have done better, could have coached better, could have played better, but guys really played hard and I have all the respect in the world for this football team, the way they competed so proud of what — the way they went at battle tonight, disappointed in the end result, but have to get back to work this week for Philadelphia.”

Beyond that, Belichick pretty much shut it down.

Asked about the offensive pass interference penalties being called this season (tight end Rob Gronkowski now has five), Belichick said this: “I think you should talk to them. Talk to the League. I’m sure they have all the answers on that, so talk to them.”

Regarding how the team will move forward with all of the injuries sustained on offense: “I don’t know. I’ll work on that this week.”

On the low hit that injured Gronkowski: “Look, I’m not going to talk about the play.”

As to the suspect clock error that really wasn’t a clock error at the end of regulation: “About what? Yeah.”

It’s understandable that Belichick was feeling a little frustrated and, in turn, not inclined to say much. The Patriots blew a 14-point lead, losing to a team whose quarterback was making his second career start. Typically, Belichick confuses and confounds an inexperienced signal-caller.

Instead, Brock Osweiler and the Broncos put together the kind of memorable night that both ended New England’s quest for perfection and launched what could be a new era for the franchise, with Brock Osweiler becoming the latest successor to the position once held by current Broncos G.M. John Elway.

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Odell Beckham: We need to have more fight

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 29: Wide receiver Odell Beckham #13 of the New York Giants scores a fourth quarter touchdown past cornerback Will Blackmon #41 of the Washington Redskins at FedExField on November 29, 2015 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) Getty Images

Odell Beckham made another deposit on his highlight reel Sunday with a diving touchdown catch in the fourth quarter against the Redskins.

It left the opposition marveling at Beckham’s ability. Tackle Trent Williams said Beckham’s catch “wasn’t human” and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher called Beckham a “special player,” although it was easier for those players to be generous with compliments since Beckham’s amazing catch and his other eight grabs on the way to 142 total yards came in a 20-14 Redskins victory.

Beckham shrugged off opportunities to discuss his own accomplishments after the game and focused on his team’s failure to show up for a game that could have put the division firmly in their back pocket. Beckham said there was “no explanation” for why the team would be flat for a big game after having a bye week off to get ready for the contest and laid out what needs to happen to avoid a repeat.

“We need to come out with more fight,” Beckham said, via the New York Post. “It’s a team thing. We win as a team and we lose as a team. I’m going to come into work tomorrow, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and for the rest of the week and this year and give it my all. Each and every single day. There is no time to slack off or to do anything like that — it’s actually time to take it to another notch. We will be on track.”

Next week brings a home game against the Jets, which offers plenty of motivation on top of the playoff race. We’ll see if that’s enough to interest the Giants since just the playoff implications weren’t enough to spark them in Week 12.

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Panthers, last undefeated team, haven’t lost in a year

Cam Newton AP

Last night, the Panthers became the only undefeated team in the NFL when the Patriots lost to the Broncos.

Today, they get to celebrate their anniversary.

As pointed out by Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review, it was one year ago today, Nov.30, 2014, when the Panthers last lost a regular season game.

That was an ugly 31-13 defeat at Minnesota, a result which dropped them to 3-8-1.

While that might have ended many seasons, the Panthers kept going, winning their last four games to finish 7-8-1 and go to the playoffs as NFC South division champions.

Coupled with this year’s 11-0 start, that’s 15 straight regular season wins.

That leaves them five games clear of Atlanta for the NFC South title with five to play, and two games up on Arizona in the chase for home field advantage in the playoffs.

Their remaining schedule is favorable, too, with this week’s trip to 4-7 New Orleans followed by a home game against the 6-5 Falcons, trips to the 5-6 Giants and Falcons before their finale against the 5-6 Buccaneers.

So while the possibility of going 16-0 is tantalizing, the Panthers and their fans should also stop to enjoy the fact that any disappointment being felt in Boston today (or half the NFL) is something they haven’t had to endure in a year.

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Mike Tomlin on late field goal: Those are the calculated risks you take

SEATTLE, WA - NOVEMBER 29: Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looks at the scorebaord during the first half of a football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at CenturyLink Field on November 29, 2015 in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks won the game 39-30. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images) Getty Images

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin faced questions about a couple of fourth down calls after losing 39-30 to the Seahawks on Sunday, including his decision to kick a field goal that cut Seattle’s lead to 32-30 with three minutes left to play in the game.

The Steelers were inside the five-yard-line without the ability to get a first down when Tomlin sent kicker Chris Boswell into the game and pulled his offense off the field. The Seahawks would score on an 80-yard catch and run by Doug Baldwin and the Steelers’ last-ditch efforts were commanded by Landry Jones, who entered the game when Ben Roethlisberger exited for the concussion protocol.

Some wondered after the game if Roethlisberger’s injury factored into Tomlin’s decision. It hadn’t been reported at that point, though, and Tomlin confirmed his decision to kick a field goal wasn’t fueled by the chance to have Jones try to lead a game-winning drive.

“No it did not.  We needed to get a stop,” Tomlin said. “I felt confident in our ability to do it. Obviously we didn’t. But those are calculated risks you take during football games. It was a five-point game. Just wanted the lead, and give those guys an opportunity to take the points and maybe win.”

Given the play of the defense all game, banking on them in that spot was sure to be second-guessed when they predictably broke down. So was Tomlin’s decision to open the second quarter with a fake field goal that had Jones take the place of usual holder Jordan Berry and saw the Steelers shift into an offensive formation on fourth-and-two.

The Seahawks weren’t fooled, but the Steelers ran the play anyway and Jones was picked off. That meant no points for them and Jeremy Lane’s long return set up the first Seattle touchdown of the afternoon, a turn of events that Tomlin said he owned and took responsibility for without delving into what he saw that made the play seem so much more appealing than kicking a field goal or leaving the offense on the field.

All the second guessing in the world won’t change the fact that the Steelers defense gave up 19 points in the fourth quarter in a performance that likely would have made any Tomlin decisions moot as long as Seattle got a chance with the ball before time expired.

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Patriots DE Chandler Jones is on to Philadelphia

Chandler Jones AP

Maybe because the Patriots hadn’t lost prior to last night against the Broncos, they don’t know how to act.

Or maybe, Chandler Jones is just taking his coach’s words to heart.

Via Jimmy Toscano of, the Patriots defensive end would only talk about next week’s game against Philadelphia, rather than say anything about this overtime loss to the Broncos in the moments imediately thereafter.

I’m only answering questions about Philadelphia,” Jones said when asked about the just-completed game. “I’m not talking about the game. If you guys have questions about Philadelphia go ahead.”

Upon another question, he replied: “Because Philadelphia is a great team and we have to prepare for them. Mark Sanchez is a great quarterback. Chip Kelly runs some good schemes and we have to prepare for them.”

Another attempt yielded: “Chip Kelly does a lot of different things. He does stretch zone runs, he passes the ball vertically, so we have to prepare for that.”

While the focus is admirable, there’s something to be said for identifying the causes of why you’re 10-1 instead of 11-0, and learning from them. And sticking your head in the sand and saying you’re onto Philadelphia won’t help that.

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NFL morning after: J.J. Watt remains the NFL’s best defensive player

J.J. Watt AP

In the 1996-97 NBA season, Michael Jordan averaged an NBA-high 29.6 points a game and played in all 82 games as the Chicago Bulls went a league-best 69-13, and everyone knew he was the best basketball player in the world. But Jordan didn’t win the MVP that year. The award went instead to Karl Malone, mostly because Jordan had just won his fourth MVP the year before and the voters figured it was time to give the award to someone else.

I have a feeling the same thing is going to happen to Texans defensive end J.J. Watt with the defensive player of the year award this season. I’m not sure if Watt is going to win the trophy for the third time this season, but I am sure Watt is the NFL’s best defensive player. If Watt doesn’t win the award this year, it’s mostly because the voters think it would be nice to see a little variety rather than giving it to Watt for the third time in the last four years. It’s not because there’s actually a better defensive player than Watt.

Are there other candidates? Sure. Josh Norman and Luke Kuechly have both had good years for the Panthers. Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones has had a good year. If you’re looking for a dark horse candidate, Ziggy Ansah of the Lions has really come on of late.

But none are as good as Watt. In yesterday’s win over the Saints, Watt logged two sacks and two tackles for loss and was hitting Drew Brees as he passed all day. The Texans’ 24-6 win was the first time the Saints have ever failed to score a touchdown in any game with Brees as their quarterback. Watt now leads the league with 13.5 sacks, and he has 70.5 sacks in his 75 career games. Since sacks became an official statistic in 1982, only Reggie White has reached 70 sacks faster.

It’s entirely possible, however, that Watt won’t win the defensive player of the year. It’s an award that the voters like to spread around. White — who played 15 NFL seasons and is regarded by many as the best defensive player ever — only won it twice. But whether Watt gets another trophy to put on the mantel in his luxury log cabin is unimportant. We all know who the NFL’s best defensive player is.

Watt was the most impressive player on the field on Sunday. Here are my other thoughts:

What, exactly, has Jeff Fisher done in St. Louis? When you look at where the Rams were before Fisher became their head coach in 2012, where they’ve been over the last four years and where they are now, what has Fisher accomplished? Following yesterday’s 31-7 loss to the Bengals, the Rams are 4-7 on the season and 24-34-1 overall with Fisher as their coach. In his 21 seasons as a head coach in the NFL, Fisher has finished with a winning record six times. Fisher got testy with reporters after yesterday’s game, but Fisher really should look in the mirror. It’s completely reasonable to ask why his job should be safe.

Adrian Peterson continues to amaze. If you can’t root for Peterson anymore because he was convicted of abusing his son last year, I can’t blame you. Being a great player and being a great person are two unreleated things, and Peterson is a great player despite his personal flaws. Yesterday he gained 158 yards on 29 carries, giving him six 100-yard games this season, a league high, and 48 100-yard games in his career, the most among active players. Peterson’s Hall of Fame career is going strong, and the Vikings are heading toward the playoffs.

Tevin Coleman’s problems with fumbling continue. Coleman, the Falcons’ rookie running back, fumbled four times last year at Indiana, which was a concern heading into the draft. Now he has lost three fumbles this season in just 78 touches. If Coleman can’t hold onto the ball, he’s not going to last long in the NFL.

I love Mike Tomlin’s two-point conversion strategy. There are 31 NFL coaches who only go for two when they need it, and then there’s Tomlin, who goes for two any time he thinks there’s a matchup advantage. That’s the smart strategy, and the Steelers tied an NFL record yesterday with their sixth two-point conversion of the season.

The NFL’s catch rules had me feeling sorry for Mike Carey. Carey, the former Super Bowl referee who quit his job as a ref to work as an analyst for CBS, was thoroughly confused by close calls during the Steelers-Seahawks game. The NFL’s catch rules are confounding, and Carey couldn’t figure out the calls, and it was a little rough having to watch him be so wrong before such a large audience.

Washington showed everyone. Heading into this season, we all thought the NFC East was a three-team race among the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys, and that Washington was a distant fourth. Instead, it’s Washington in first place after Week 12. Jay Gruden said after yesterday’s win over the Giants that he knew what kind of team he had: “I’ve had a good idea,” Gruden said, “it’s just a matter of showing everyone else how far they’ve come.” They showed everyone, alright. The NFC East is a bad division, but someone has to make the playoffs, and it’s looking like that “someone” will be Washington.

The AFC playoff race just got more interesting. The Patriots appeared poised to walk away with home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. But the Broncos’ win last night dropped New England to 10-1 and improved the Broncos to 9-2. With the Bengals also at 9-2, the race for home-field advantage in the AFC may go down to Week 17.

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Osweiler called an audible into game-winning run in overtime

Brock Osweiler AP

Peyton Manning was always excellent at changing plays at the line of scrimmage. It appears that his successor as the Broncos’ quarterback is as well.

Brock Osweiler said after the Broncos beat the Patriots on Sunday night that he called an audible to check into C.J. Anderson’s 48-yard game-winning run in overtime.

“It was a check that we had worked on all week in practice,” Osweiler said. “We were trying to run the ball [to the] weak [side]. They gave us a specific defensive front that we can’t run that ball into, so I checked to our second play that we called in our huddle. The line did a hell of a job and C.J. did the rest.”

Osweiler said it was tough matching wits with Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

“He made it very difficult for us,” Osweiler said of Belichick. “In the first quarter, he had us off balance a little bit. We saw some looks that we hadn’t seen previously on tape. The thing that I think our offensive group did was that we stuck to our rules that we’ve been coached to do and we just battled through it.”

And in the end, the Broncos won with Osweiler running the offense like Manning.

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Anderson has no explanation for game-winning play

C.J. Anderson AP

Although the quarterback will get plenty of the credit for Sunday night’s thrilling win by the Broncos over the Patriots, running back C.J. Anderson was the difference maker, with 113 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns — including the 48-yard winner in overtime.

After the game, NBC’s Michele Tafoya asked Anderson to explain what happened on the play.

“Just really to be honest, I don’t know what happened,” Anderson said. “The hole opened up and I just took off.”

Plenty of Broncos may feel the same way about the entire game. Down 14-0 and then 21-7, the Broncos somehow scratched and clawed to take the lead, saw the Patriots force overtime, and then got it done after stopping New England on the first drive of the extra session.

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Gronkowski knee injury not believed to be serious, for now

Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler AP

Patriots fans everywhere gasped when tight end Rob Gronkowski went down with a knee injury, and the look on quarterback Tom Brady’s face as Gronkowski was on the ground justified their worst fears.

So far, the news isn’t nearly quite that bad. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the injury to Gronkowski’s knee currently isn’t believed to be serious.

That assessment could change with further testing. For now, though, the Patriots and Gronkowski have avoided what appeared to be, based on Gronkowski’s demeanor after the injury, a potential season ender.

The actual injury involved no awkward twisting of the knee, and Gronkowski’s leg wasn’t planted when he was hit low. It’s entirely possible that he escaped with no ligament damage.

Via Tom Curran of CSN New England, Gronkowski seemed to be upset about something related to the game as he left the locker room, unrelated to the actual knee injury. It’s possible that Gronkowski was concerned about the perception that Broncos players were aiming low on him throughout the game.

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Sunday Night wrap-up: Patriots lose game, and maybe more

Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski AP

This Tom Brady-playing-without-his-best-targets thing is going to be put to its biggest test yet.

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was carted off late in their 30-24 overtime loss to the Broncos, after taking a hard shot to his right knee. He was immediately declared out, though that could have simply been a function of the timing.

Gronkowski was hit on the knee by safety Darian Stewart, and immediately went down clutching his leg in pain.

The Patriots were already playing without wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and running back Dion Lewis and left tackle Nate Solder (not to mention linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins), and while they have all had their moments, none come close to Gronkowski’s level of importance.

Few players do.

When Gronkowski caught his 63rd career touchdown in the first half, it moved him into sole possession of third on the all-time tight end touchdown list, trailing only Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. That means he has more touchdowns than every tight end in the Hall of Fame.

And as impressive as his accomplishments have been, he’s also dealt with plenty of injuries, which made many teams wary of him prior to the the draft.

But if this one is serious, it’s going to take every bit of magic Brady can muster to keep this offense afloat, despite the fact they’re 10-1.

Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:

1. As poignant as it was watching Peyton Manning not play tonight against Brady, it was hard to watch him limp through the pre-game in his cast and walking boot and not think about NBA star Kobe Bryant, who retired Sunday.

Bryant finally figured out his body wasn’t allowing him to play to his previous level, something everyone else figured out some time ago.

And while Manning wants to come back and play again, watching him struggle through injuries (with the exception of his rested and healthy post-bye week when he looked like Young Peyton) makes you wonder if there’s anything that could get him back to the kind of level we’d recognize, or that he’d be pleased with watching.

And the fact that replacement Brock Osweiler played as well as he has is going to complicate the process, which was already going to be awkward.

The rally to take the lead late was good work for any quarterback, but for a young player without much experience to do so against that opponent likely cemented Osweiler’s status for the near future.

2. Broncos running back C.J. Anderson helped make it a game in the fourth quarter, with a 15-yard touchdown run that showed his burst.

Then he made himself a legend in Denver, winning it in overtime with a 48-yard touchdown run.

He finished with 15 carries for 113 yards and two scores, creating one of the more memorable moments in a series full of them.

He’s actually played very well since the bye, averaging 5.8 yards per carry in the first four games after the week off, after not averaging higher than 3.9 per carry in any game before the break, and just 2.7 per carry over the first six games.

A toe injury slowed him, but seeing him in the snow just brought into relief how much different he looked.

3. The offensive stars shine brightest, but the Broncos won with a defense that proved it can stop any quarterback.

The pressure Von Miller put on Brady late in the game was such that no quarterback could make consistent plays, and the job his teammates did throughout kept Brady on his toes when he had his best target.

4. Broncos wideout Demaryius Thomas can afford a fresh pair for every play. But he made sure to change gloves in the second half, after a rash of drops.

Thomas had a rough night all the way around, only partly due to the coverage the Patriots were throwing his way. But there have been a few moments lately when Emmanuel Sanders looked like the more reliable target, and the more important part of their offense.

Granted, Sanders is able to get open in part because of the attention Thomas draws, and it’s not as if Thomas has been poor all year. He entered the game with 71 receptions for 875 yards. But his touchdown numbers are way off (two so far this season after 35 the previous three seasons), and it can’t all be the gloves.

5. It’s always kind of amusing watching Brady air out teammates when they miss a block or drop a pass, as he did with his offensive line in the third quarter.

When he does it, it’s never dubbed ego, or selfishness. No letters to the editor are written by pearl-clutching Tennessee mommas. Instead, it’s “fiery leadership,” or “attention to detail.”

He gets the benefit of the doubt because he’s won and done it for a long time. Even though sometimes he has a hard time finding people to high-five.

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Broncos and Patriots headed to overtime

Brock Osweiler, Jerod Mayo AP

Brock Osweiler made a couple of hero plays.

But he’s playing against a guy who has made more.

Even without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots just forced overtime with a 47-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski as time expired, leaving things tied 24-24.

Brady’s quick drive took some of the shine off Osweiler’s go-ahead drive, as the Broncos backup quarterback (for now) hit Andre Caldwell after an impressive drive (which made Peyton Manning’s foot feel a little worse).

The fact he did it without Gronkowski, who was carted off with a knee injury, was even more impressive.

It’s been an sparkling finish, and sets up a dramatic extra session between teams who have played their share of dramatic games over the years.

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Patriots hit big play to Brandon Bolden, of course

Tom Brady AP

It was one thing when Rob Gronkowski scored.

But when it’s Scott Chandler and Brandon Bolden, you can just tell it’s New England’s night.

Bolden just caught Tom Brady’s third touchdown pass of the night, giving the Patriots a 21-7 lead over the Broncos early in the fourth quarter.

Bolden got behind the Broncos coverage, and even though Brady didn’t hit him in stride, there was enough cushion for a 63-yard touchdown.

Bolden had caught five passes coming into the night, but it was his third for the game, as they struggle though injuries at the skill positions.

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Roethlisberger self-reported concussion symptoms

Ben Roethlisberger AP

So how did Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger end up in the locker room near the conclusion of Sunday’s loss at Seattle for a concussion evaluation? According to the team, Roethlisberger raised the issue himself.

According to the Steelers, Roethlisberger self-reported symptoms on the sideline late in the fourth quarter. The specific symptoms have not yet been identified.

It’s a significant development in the league’s effort to protect players from themselves, and it reflects tangible evidence of a culture change in the NFL. While some will scoff at Roethlisberger given his reputation for embellishing injuries, it’s a great example for players at the lower levels of the sport.

For decades, players who were having concussion-like symptoms kept their mouths shut. They shouldn’t, and maybe thanks to Roethlisberger’s example they won’t.

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Patriots-Texans Week 14 game flexed into prime time

New England Patriots v Houston Texans Getty Images

The Patriots will be back in prime time in two weeks, as the NFL has moved their date with the Texans into prime time.

The league announced today that the New England at Houston game on Sunday, December 13 that had previously been scheduled for a 1 p.m. Eastern kickoff has now been moved to NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

The decision comes as the Texans continue to turn their season around and look like playoff contenders. Today’s win moved Houston to 6-5. The Patriots remain one of the league’s two undefeated teams, so the league is always happy to showcase them in prime time.

When the schedule first came out, the prime time game in Week 14 was supposed to be Seahawks at Ravens. But with Baltimore now 3-7, the league had to get that game out of prime time. That game is now at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, and a better game is in prime time.

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Broncos get run game going to keep it close

Brock Osweiler AP

So much of the talk has been about the quarterbacks playing or not playing, but getting a running game going was the key for the Broncos.

They cut the Patriots lead to 14-7, with Ronnie Hillman’s 19-yard touchdown bringing them back to within a score.

The snow is picking up in Denver and making it a little slick, so the Broncos just muscled out a 10-play, 77-yard drive.

It might not be an accident that it came with Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower getting his leg checked by trainers on the sidelines after limping off. He’s gone to the locker room to get his knee checked, and they’ve announced he’s questionable. And with the Patriots moving well through the air, it might be just what the Broncos need to slow things down and keep it close.

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