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Chris Long ejected, but Rams climbing back into it

Zac Stacy, Thomas Davis AP

The Panthers and Rams are playing something more closely resembling a good roller derby at the moment.

Tempers are flaring on both sides, as the Panthers lead 20-12 in the third quarter.

Rams defensive end Chris Long was ejected after a major scrum that began with Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross and Rans defensive end Robert Quinn. Long appeared to throw a punch during the scrum in the middle of the field, after some jawing with with receiver Steve Smith (who was pulling people out of the pile at one point).

On the next possession, the Panthers had to settle for a field goal, when fullback Mike Tolbert was called for a personal foul after being stopped on a third-and-goal at the 1.

When the Rams got the ball back, they didn’t wait to punch back, with a 73-yard completion to Brian Quick setting up Zac Stacy’s 4-yard touchdown catch.

For two teams very much trying to establish identities, the fourth quarter is going to be an interesting one.

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Chiefs nabbing defensive lineman off Steelers practice squad

Carolina at Pittsburgh Getty Images

The Steelers practice squad is becoming the place to go for contenders looking for defensive line depth.

According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, the Chiefs are signing 2013 seventh-rounder Nick Williams away from the Steelers today.

The former Samford product spent last year on injured reserve, and was on the practice squad this season.

The Cardinals plucked Josh Mauro off the Steelers practice squad two weeks ago, and he played significant snaps for them in yesterday’s loss to the Seahawks.

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Colin Kaepernick’s a better leader than pre-game speaker

Colin Kaepernick AP

The 49ers are used to listening to Patrick Willis get them ready for games.

But with Willis on injured reserve after toe surgery, somebody else had to talk to the team. Even if the guy in question speaks slightly more than Marshawn Lynch.

“Pat wasn’t here today and everyone told me to step up, so I did,” 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said, via Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com. “To me it’s a big honor that your teammates want to hear from you before the game.”

So what did he tell them? What eloquent words of wisdom inspired them to grind out a win over Washington?

Let’s win,” he said.

Of course, they’re not paying Kaepernick to talk, which is good for all of us. But his coach had plenty to say about his performance, after he led them to an opening-drive touchdown and a late clincher in a 17-13 win.

“I love to see the quarterback play the way he plays, the way he competes,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That speaks volumes to me and is the most important thing. He’s a tremendous competitor at the highest level. Made just so many good throws today over and over again. He played a great game. Had one ill-advised throw the entire game. Bought time in the pocket. Was excellent at the line of scrimmage in the checks.

“He’s a great player. I don’t know how everybody else doesn’t see it that way. Great with a capital ‘G’ — at the highest level of great.”

As an orator, perhaps not so much.

Asked afterward if he’d be speaking again, Kaepernick replied: “That’ll be up to my teammates.”

As long as he keeps playing great with a captital G, I’m guessing they won’t mind.

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Josh Gordon knocks the rust off in Browns win

Josh Gordon ,Kroy Biermann AP

Wide receiver Josh Gordon got thrown back into the fire in his first game back from a 10-game suspension on Sunday afternoon and there were ups and downs for him and quarterback Brian Hoyer on the way to a 26-24 victory over the Falcons.

On the down side were a pair of fourth quarter interceptions, one of which came in the end zone, that came when Hoyer was targeting Gordon and a few other missed connections that made it clear that these two have only worked together for a few days in the last few months. The good came on eight catches for 120 yards that helped set up a few of the Cleveland scores over the course of the afternoon.

“I think it we just had to knock the rust off and that’s all it was,” Gordon said, via the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “It’s kind of crazy to knock the rust off in the middle of a game, especially a big game like this. That’s not what we were hoping for, but I think we’re exactly where we need to be. Moving forward, we’re going to get better.”

Whatever rust Gordon had wasn’t easy to find while watching him play. He played a full role, didn’t look out of sync with the offense and was the same physical presence he was while lighting up the league last season.

The Browns threw Gordon’s way 16 times overall and you’d expect the hit rate to improve the more that Hoyer and Gordon get to work together in the coming weeks. That would make for a major boost to a team that saw another key defensive player — safety Tashaun Gipson — hurt on Sunday as they try to navigate their way to the postseason.

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Jay Gruden: This wasn’t a good day in the passing game

Robert Griffin III AP

The fate of quarterback Robert Griffin III was on minds everywhere on Sunday afternoon as the Redskins took on the 49ers hours after reports indicated that coach Jay Gruden wouldn’t hesitate to pull the plug on the quarterback that the organization moved heaven and earth to get in 2012.

Neither Griffin nor anyone else involved in the Washington passing offense played well in a 17-13 loss, but Colt McCoy remained on the bench for the entire game. After the game, Gruden didn’t sugarcoat the performance and didn’t assign much blame, but did indicate that the offensive line’s inability to block pass rushers impacted both the game plan and the performance.

“He’s made strides ya know, but there’s a lot of other things that go into the passing game. We’ve got a rookie left tackle playing his first game with significant time on the road. So we didn’t air it out, wanted to try to get the running game going. We had positive field position and didn’t want to take any chances down the field. This wasn’t a good day in the passing game,” Gruden said, via the Washington Post. “No question, we had some opportunities. I’ll check out the film, I’m not going to lay any blame to anybody just offensively. We just didn’t play good enough on third downs. Obviously didn’t convert any, and left some plays out there.”

The Redskins ran the ball a lot with Alfred Morris on Sunday and Morris ran well, leaving Griffin to be pretty much a game manager when he wasn’t being sacked by a member of the 49ers. That’s not as bad as being benched, but it’s also not really what anyone envisioned Griffin looking like in his third season when he was in the playoffs as a rookie.

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Tom Benson makes record donation to Hall of Fame

Benson Getty Images

The Pro Football Hall of Fame has embarked on an ambitious plan to construct a Hall of Fame Village.  Saints owner Tom Benson has given the project an enormous chunk of seed money.

As reported last night by Peter King of TheMMQB.com on NBC’s Football Night in America, Benson has made an historic donation to the Hall of Fame.

A statement released confirming the $11 million gift reveals that the Hall of Fame will rename the venue that hosts the annual Hall of Fame game and enshrinement ceremony as the “Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.”  Of Benson’s gift, $10 million will be used to upgrade the facility that also serves as the home for two high school teams and two college teams.

The other $1 million from Benson will be devoted to the Hall of Fame’s Legends Landing Program, which is intended to provide assistance and housing for Hall of Famers and former NFL players who are in grave financial need.

“My donation to the Hall of Fame was an easy decision,” Mr. Benson said in a statement.  “It was a right decision and it was a decision that I believe will have great impact on the current game and help foster a better game in the future while also having direct and tangible impacts on the Legends of our game with the Legends Landing.”

Mr. Benson, who purchased the Saints in 1985, also sent a letter to his fellow owners requesting that they match his $1 million gift to the Legends Landing Program.

“While recognition for a gift like this is nice, it is not the point,” Benson said.  “The point is understanding what is behind the plans for the Hall of Fame Village. . . .  Once I learned them I wanted to play a role. . . .  I feel this small part I am playing here is my way of saying thank you to the great game of football.”

It’s a great gesture, and here’s hoping that others who have benefited from the game of football will follow Mr. Benson’s lead.

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Eddie Lacy runs through illness to push the Packers

Eddie Lacy AP

Eddie Lacy was too sick to talk to reporters after the game.

Which makes what he did during the game that much more impressive.

Lacy pushed through an illness to run for 125 yards on 25 carries, a season high and the only time he’s topped 17 carries on the year. That, more than the passing of Aaron Rodgers, propelled them to a grind-it-out road win at Minnesota.

That’s what we get paid for, man,” Packers right guard T.J. Lang said, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. “That’s what we take a lot of pride in, is being able to run the ball when everybody in the damned stadium knows you’re going to run it.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy. Of Lacy’s 125 yards, 70 came after contact, showing the kind of determination he was playing with. And on a day when Aaron Rodgers passed for just 209 yards, it’s the kind of performance that caused him to trust his back with a late audible which gave them a game-clinching first down.

“The way that Eddie was running the football, and the line, you have to give the line a voice,” Rodgers said. “Those guys know the pulse of the game there, especially late in the game there. They felt like a run was something we could get. Came to the sidelines and kind of had the choice there, but I liked the play to Eddie, the inside handoff, and he did a good job of getting the necessary yards.”

Having that physical element will also come in handy next week against the Patriots, who are no strangers to grinding away at teams either.

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Between the touchdown and the new daughter, T.Y. Hilton had quite a Sunday

T.Y. Hilton AP

For most people, the birth of a child is enough activity for one day.

Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton did a bit more than just support his wife during the birth of their daughter, however. He was roused from sleep at 5 a.m. by a team manager at the team’s hotel and found out his little girl was on the way, went to the hospital for the birth and then returned to Lucas Oil Stadium in time for the game. He had four catches for 122 yards, including a 73-yard touchdown that he celebrated by cradling the ball like it was his second newborn of the day.

“Before I left the hospital, I told her, ‘You want a touchdown ball, or do you want the game ball?’ I wanted to just go out there and play for her and give her my all,” Hilton said, via the team’s website. “I’m tired. I didn’t have no problems with my body while I was playing. So when I got in the endzone, I just rocked the baby to sleep.”

Hilton’s emotions bubbled over during a postgame interview that reflects just how hard it is to put a day like that into words other than to say it was a very good one that Hilton and his family won’t ever forget.

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NFL morning after: Brady and Belichick seeking their fourth ring

brady AP

The Patriots are the best team in the NFL, and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are 10 weeks away from earning their fourth Super Bowl rings.

That’s what I was thinking as I watched the 34-9 beatdown the Patriots put up on a previously pretty good Lions team on Sunday. This New England team has the best offense in the NFL, an offense that, for the last seven games, hasn’t been far off from the insanely great offense of the 16-0 Patriots team in 2007.

Seven games. That’s how many the Patriots have played since that ugly meltdown against the Chiefs, the 41-14 loss in Kansas City that had people claiming Tom Brady was washed up and the New England dynasty was done. Here’s all the Patriots have done in the seven games since then:

– For starters, they’ve won seven straight games. That alone is remarkable in this NFL season, when it seems like every other week the team that we’re sure is on top of the league gets knocked off its perch. No other team is currently on a win streak of more than three games. Seven in a row in today’s NFL is extraordinarily hard to do.

– And they’re not just winning. They’re dominating. Six of the Patriots’ seven wins during their current streak are by margins of 15 points or more. The Patriots have outscored their opponents by a total score of 277-137. That’s an average score of 40-20. A three-touchdown victory is the norm.

– Tom Brady has multiple touchdown passes in each of the last seven games. He’s thrown 22 scores and only four interceptions during this winning streak.

Rob Gronkowski has gotten back to being Gronk, which means he’s emerged as a matchup nightmare, just like he always is when he’s actually healthy enough to play like himself. But perhaps more importantly, Brady has been spreading the ball around to a whole lot of different receivers. Those 22 touchdown passes in the last seven games include six to Gronk, six to Timothy Wright, four to Brandon LaFell, three to Shane Vereen, one to Danny Amendola, one to Brian Tyms and one to Julian Edelman.

– The Patriots can run the ball any way they want. LeGarrette Blount was signed last week, had a couple days of practice, and carried 12 times for 78 yards and two touchdowns against the Lions yesterday. That came a week after newcomer Jonas Gray ran for 201 yards and four touchdowns in a win over the Colts. When the Patriots started this streak, it was Stevan Ridley who had 113 rushing yards in a win over the Bengals. Shane Vereen has also taken a couple turns as the Patriots’ top rusher.

The Patriots’ defense isn’t great, but it’s good enough, and I wouldn’t bet against Belichick having his defense playing its best football in January. Belichick is just so good at what he does. If he wins his fourth Super Bowl ring, there will be a case that he’s the best coach in NFL history. And in turning this team around like he has over the last seven weeks, Belichick may be doing his best coaching job yet.

New England was the best team in the NFL on Sunday. Here are my other thoughts:

Here’s why people love Bruce Arians. ESPN aired a segment Sunday morning called “My Best Day,” in which NFL players and coaches talked about the best day of their lives. Arians chose the day that he was able to relinquish his job as the Colts’ interim head coach because his boss, Chuck Pagano, had recovered from cancer treatments and was ready to take over again. That’s the kind of man Arians is: He was in the midst of a very successful year in which he finally got to live his dream as an NFL head coach, and the day that he stepped aside to give the head-coaching job back to Pagano is the day he chose as the best of his life, because he cares so deeply about Pagano as a person that Pagano’s health means far more to him than his own personal achievements. I watched that segment and I wanted to run through a brick wall for Arians. I can’t imagine what it’s like to play for him. The Cardinals lost on Sunday, but Arians remains the leading candidate for the coach of the year.

Jim Caldwell needs to get more aggressive. As the Lions fell behind the Patriots early on Sunday, Caldwell sent the punt or field goal teams onto the field on a fourth-and-6, a fourth-and-goal from the 2, a fourth-and-3 and a fourth-and-1. Later, Caldwell wasted a timeout on fourth-and-14 because he couldn’t make a decision about whether to go for it or kick a field goal. (The Lions kicked after the timeout.) I don’t know how many opportunities Caldwell thought he was going to get, but if you want to win at New England, you’re going to need to take some chances. Caldwell wouldn’t, and his team paid for it.

Teddy’s not ready. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater may one day become a very good NFL quarterback, but he’s not there yet. Sunday’s loss to the Packers showed why Bridgewater would still be on the sideline if Matt Cassel hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury. Bridgewater’s stats don’t look terrible — he completed 21 of 37 passes for 210 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception — but he missed open receivers several times early in the game, and that cost the Vikings the game. On a day when Minnesota’s defense played well enough to win, Bridgewater couldn’t deliver.

Welcome back, Josh Gordon. In his first game of the season after serving a substance-abuse suspension, Gordon was the Browns’ best player on Sunday. Gordon, who led the NFL with an average of 117.6 receiving yards per game last year, caught eight passes for 120 yards to lead Cleveland to a win at Atlanta. Gordon is picking up right where he left off, and the Browns have a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Your weekly reminder that the NFC South is terrible. The Falcons are 4-7, and they’ll be in first place if the Ravens beat the Saints tonight. The Falcons still haven’t beaten a single team from outside their division: They’re 4-0 against their fellow NFC South teams and they’re 0-7 against the rest of the NFL after yesterday’s loss to the Browns. It’s entirely possible that a five-win team could win the NFC South.

Think Mark Sanchez likes playing for Chip Kelly? Sanchez completed 30 of 43 passes for 307 yards in the Eagles’ 43-24 win over the Titans on Sunday. Sanchez never even had two straight 300-yard games in his 68 career starts with the Jets, but he now has three straight 300-yard games after his first three starts with the Eagles.

What Dominic Raiola did was bush league. Raiola, the Lions’ center, admitted that he took a shot at the knees of Patriots defensive tackle Zach Moore because he didn’t like the Patriots running up the score. The NFL should discipline Raiola and send a message that such cheap shots are unacceptable. The Patriots are running it up on everyone because they’re better than everyone. They shouldn’t have to take cheap shots just because they’re winning big.

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Bills president says “no red flags” to prevent home game Sunday

LOCAL STORM AP

Even as they prepare to play a “home” game in Detroit tonight, the Bills are committed to playing at home next week.

Via Jason LaCanfora of CBSSports.com, Bills president Russ Brandon said there were “no red flags,” which would prevent playing next Sunday’s game against the Browns at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The biggest concern at the moment is flooding, the eventual result of seven feet of snow melting.

But Brandon said the team was planning to take a charter flight home tonight as normal for a “road” game, and practice at their facility this week.

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Falcons clock management comes into focus after loss

Smith AP

It looked like the Falcons had done just enough to win Sunday’s game against the Browns.  As it turned out, they left Cleveland just enough time to turn that victory into a defeat.

On second and nine from the Cleveland 42 with 1:03 to play, the Falcons gained seven yards on a passing play.  Coach Mike Smith promptly called for a time out, leaving 55 seconds on the clock as Atlanta faced a third and two from the Browns’ 35.

On the next play, quarterback Matt Ryan threw deep to receiver Devin Hester. The pass fell incomplete, stopping the clock with 49 seconds left.  With the down marker now showing a “4″, it was time for Matt Bryant to convert a 53-yard field goal.

He did.  And the crowd went wild.  And owner Arthur Blank, who had migrated to the sidelines, was happy.

And then the Browns got the ball back with 44 seconds left.  And that ended up being just enough time — especially with three time outs on the board — to drive into position for the game-winning field goal.

Smith has received plenty of criticism for his mismanagement of the clock in the aftermath of the team’s seventh defeat of the year.  After the game, Smith attempted to explain his reasoning to reporters.

“Again you can definitely ask that question,” he said regarding the wisdom (or lack thereof) of burning the time out. “Fifty-three yarder was outside the range we had set prior to the game.  We wanted to get a first down.  We had a play, that’s why we called the timeout.  Came over and used it.  They would’ve used the timeout probably if we hadn’t, so . . . .”

If the Browns had used a time out, they would have had one fewer time out for their final drive — so why not make them use it?  If they didn’t use it, the clock would have ticked down to under 30 seconds before the third-down play.

Either way, calling the time out resulted in more time on the clock for the Browns and one more time out for Browns coach Mike Pettine.

While it’s challenging at times to make the right decision when in real time, especially as that real time is ticking away really loudly like the opening of 60 Minutes through a megaphone, managing the clock represents one of the primary game-day duties of a head coach.  Nothing will hasten the cessation of head-coaching duties faster than a failure to manage the clock properly.

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Jonas Gray wants to move past not playing on Sunday

Jonas Gray AP

Patriots running back Jonas Gray shot from obscurity to the cover of Sports Illustrated by running for 201 yards and four touchdowns against the Colts last week, but the elevator back down to Earth may have travelled even faster.

Gray arrived late to practice on Friday, which caused coach Bill Belichick to send him home and devise a game plan that called for Gray to get zero snaps against the Lions. Belichick said after the game that “we do what we think is best” when asked why Gray didn’t play at all in the victory and Gray just wanted to focus on the positive result for the team.

“We’re moving past that,” Gray said, via the Boston Herald. “I’m glad we got the team win. I think it would have stung more if I didn’t play and we would have lost the game, but I’m happy for these guys. I just wish I was able to contribute to the win, but I was glad we came away with the victory and these guys played great.”

The Patriots got a strong outing from LeGarrette Blount and ran for 90 yards on 20 carries overall against a good Lions defensive front. How much that will wind up impacting future plans for Gray remains to be seen, but he should definitely stock up on alarm clocks after his next opportunity in the offense.

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Team meeting brings back the “swagger” for Seahawks

DeShawn Shead AP

For a week, the Seahawks looked like themselves again, not like the team which sleepwalked to a 6-4 start.

And it might have been a team meeting last week which woke them up and reminded them who they were.

The Seahawks were reminiscent of the dominant defense which won a Super Bowl last year, in beating the Cardinals 19-3, and they said the difference was more mental than physical.

“There was something that was missing, a subtle difference,” wide receiver Doug Baldwin said, via Terry Blount of ESPN.com. “Today we found it. It’s about trusting each other and respecting each other. It was a feeling for each of us that we needed to get back.

“It’s about trusting each other and respecting each other. It was a feeling for each of us that we needed to get back.”

Baldwin said a number of players were consulted, including cornerback Richard Sherman, strong safety Kam Chancellor, free safety Earl Thomas, running back Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson.

“We’ve been talking,” Wilson said. “We had kind of a team meeting, and we were just talking about getting our swagger back. We felt like it kind of went away for a little bit, for whatever reason, but I feel like we got it back.”

The Seahawks have been dealing with distractions all year, from injuries to the trade of Percy Harvin, but last week’s $100,000 fine of Lynch for not talking seemed to galvanize them as well, and Baldwin said the players talked to coach Pete Carroll about what was said.

“We learned something this week about really playing for each other and believing in everybody,” Carroll said. “We turned our focus to trusting one another. I think there was a really strong mentality for us in this game. I’m hoping it helps us reconnect with something we were looking for.”

If they find it for more than one week, it could be an issue for the rest of the NFC, as they looked dangerous against what had been the best team in the conference.

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Odell Beckham: I hope it’s not my greatest catch of all time

odb4

The Cowboys won the game on Sunday night and the Giants’ long-dormant hopes of doing anything meaningful this season were officially and mercifully euthanized with the loss, but those things will recede from memory over the years.

You won’t remember all those details when you catch a replay of Odell Beckham’s one-handed touchdown catch in five years or when you’re pulling it up on the web to show your grandkid one of the most remarkable individual efforts in football history. Beckham hopes it isn’t the only one that you wind up remembering.

“I hope it’s not the greatest catch of all time,” Beckham said, via ESPNNewYork.com. “I hope I can make more.”

Beckham left plenty of people impressed. His coach Tom Coughlin said that the rookie has “a gift” and safety Antrel Rolle marveled at the athletic ability that Beckham has displayed in his brief NFL career.

“For him, it’s just another day in the park,” Rolle said. “For us, it’s, ‘Wow.’”

The Cowboys were victimized by the catch, but just as blown away by its brilliance. Safety Barry Church called it, via the New York Post, “just ridiculous,” Jerry Jones went with “man among boys” and Dez Bryant referred to his fellow wideout with the term “monster” that plenty have used to describe Bryant over the years. LeBron James, Richard Sherman and others weighed in with similar takes on Beckham’s feat.

The Giants season has mostly been a disaster and they lost on Sunday night, of course, but Beckham’s arrival means that 2014 hasn’t been a total washout for the team. Now they just need to get to work on making sure that his future highlight real entries don’t come with the need to forget the outcome of the games.

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Tony Romo: It was a “calming feeling” in the fourth quarter

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Getty Images

The Cowboys fell down by 11 points twice against the Giants on Sunday night and they handed back the lead after finally grabbing it by allowing the Giants to go 93 yards for a touchdown that put them down 28-24 with three minutes to play.

With a game against the Eagles looming on Thursday, the ramifications of a loss would be immense for the Cowboys but neither that nor the prospect of leading a game-winning drive on the road in the fourth quarter was daunting for quarterback Tony Romo. Whether it was confidence in his teammates, the experience of having done it before or the fact that MetLife Stadium had a large contingent of Cowboys fans on hand, Romo said after he completed all six passes he attempted and threw a touchdown to Dez Bryant that there was no panic whatsoever.

“It’s a calming feeling. You’re almost just doing what you decided before the game, if that makes sense,” Romo said, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Once you get moving into the series, then obviously you’re going to call the plays and going to come up with the stuff that you feel best doing. But more than that, it’s just three minutes, you have two timeouts. That’s a different situation than one minute, no timeouts. You have to prepare for those situations. You just have to get yourself going. You have to get yourself started. Once you do that, it usually flows and you have to stay calm, stay in the moment and just play each play by itself.”

The book on Romo and the Cowboys in the past has featured whole chapters on their ability to find the crushing mistake late in games and seasons, but this year’s group has gone the other way in games against St. Louis, Seattle and now the Giants. They have five more weeks to finish showing that this season will have a happier ending than the last three, but the reasons to doubt that it will are getting harder and harder to find.

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Oddsmakers make Patriots underdogs at Green Bay

Tom Brady AP

During their seven-game winning streak, the AFC-leading Patriots have won outright as underdogs on several occasions.

And they will get another chance to pull an upset next Sunday.

The Packers have been made 3- to 3.5-point favorites over visiting New England next Sunday at Lambeau Field, according to multiple websites monitoring lines at Nevada sports books.

The Packers (8-3) have been outstanding at home this season, winning all five games. They have also been wonderful favorites, posting a 6-1-1 mark against the point spread when laying points, according to “The Linemakers” of Sporting News. The Packers first non-cover of 2014 as favorites came Sunday vs. Minnesota, with the Vikings beating the 7.5-point point spread in a 24-21 Green Bay victory.

On the other hand, the Patriots (9-2) have been perfect as underdogs in 2014, knocking off Cincinnati (-2.5) and Denver (-3) in Foxborough and defeating Indianapolis (-3) on the road. Some Nevada sports books also made the Patriots one-point underdogs at Buffalo on October 12; New England would win that game, too, rolling to a 37-22 victory.

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