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NFL morning after: Tom Brady is back

Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Getty Images

Until Sunday, Tom Brady wasn’t just having a bad year. He was having by far the worst year of his NFL career.

Heading into Sunday’s games, the list of quarterbacks who had a higher passer rating than Brady this season included Chad Henne, Matt Schaub, Mike Glennon and Thad Lewis. Brady’s passer rating was a career-low 74.9. Brady’s completion rate was a career-low 55.7 percent. Brady’s average yards per pass was a career-low 5.9. Brady was throwing touchdowns a career-low rate, with only nine in his 307 attempts through eight games. There was talk that Brady’s hand was hurting, that he was getting old, that he couldn’t adjust to all the turnover in his receiving corps. In short, Brady stunk.

And now Brady is back.

In Sunday’s 55-31 win over the Steelers, Brady completed 23 of 33 passes for 432 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Brady led the Patriots to 33 first downs and 610 yards, and the 55 points were the most ever allowed by the Steelers, in the 81-year history of the franchise. It was as good a game as Brady has ever played, and it should pretty well silence any talk that there was anything wrong with Brady over the first half of the season that won’t be fixed over the second half of the season.

“It feels good,” Brady said after the game. “They don’t always go like that. That was a fun day. It was good execution. I think for the most part, that was our best day of execution. You don’t wake up in the morning and think they’re going to be like that. That was pretty sweet.”

That was pretty great. Brady was the player who impressed me most on Sunday. Here are my other thoughts:

If workplace harassment is common in the NFL, the NFL has a problem. The odd story of Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, who left the team as a result of apparent harassment from his teammates, has some people to say hazing goes on in every locker room, and it’s just a part of the culture of being a professional football player. To which I say, so what? If Martin didn’t like the way he was being treated, it was incumbent on others to stop treating him that way. And it was incumbent on the Dolphins to see to it that their employee wasn’t mistreated. The Dolphins showed they’re taking this seriously by suspending Richie Incognito for his treatment of Martin. Now it’s incumbent on the NFL to ensure that every player and every team knows that players mistreating their teammates will not be tolerated.

The NFL’s modified sudden-death overtime is great. It used to feel like such an anticlimax when an overtime game would be decided by the team that won the coin toss driving down to the 30-yard line and winning on a 48-yard field goal. The new sudden-death, which requires the team that wins the toss to score a touchdown to win on its first possession, is so much better. On Sunday Washington ran a great game-winning drive in overtime that included five plays after they were already in field goal range. A long, sustained drive is a lot more fun to watch than a short drive and a long field goal.

Yes, the Jets are improving. I was skeptical last week, when Jets owner Woody Johnson said his team was improving rapidly — days after the Jets had lost 49-9 to the Bengals. But I’ll have to eat some crow after the Jets beat the Saints on Sunday. Rex Ryan knows how to build a defense, and Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is doing a nice job of calling plays that take advantage of rookie quarterback Geno Smith’s strengths and mask some of his weaknesses as a passer. The Jets aren’t a great team, but they’re getting better.

Good call. My favorite play call of the day came in Carolina, where the Panthers went for it on fourth-and-1, lined up as if they were going to run power to the left, then had Cam Newton roll to the right and hit a wide-open Greg Olsen for a 14-yard touchdown. A great decision by head coach Ron Rivera to go for it, and a well-designed play by offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

Bad call. With the Bills leading the Chiefs 10-3 in the third quarter and facing third-and-1 at the 1-yard line, the obviously right thing to do was to play it safe, hand it off to Fred Jackson or C.J. Spiller, and kick the field goal if you don’t score. Instead, the Bills let undrafted rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel, making his first NFL start, throw a pass. The result: Tuel throws it right into the hands of Chiefs defensive back Sean Smith, who picks off the pass and runs it back 100 yards. Instead of the Bills leading 17-3 or 13-3, they found themselves tied 10-10. It was a terrible decision by Tuel but an even worse decision by the Bills’ coaches to put the game in their third-string quarterback’s hands in that situation.

Ugly call. What on earth was that end-around the Saints ran on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter against the Jets? New Orleans coach Sean Payton has always been a creative offensive play caller, but sometimes he outsmarts himself. That was a prime example.

Why was Brandon Weeden ever the Browns’ starting quarterback? The Browns have now started three quarterbacks this season: Weeden had the job at the beginning of the year, then relinquished it when he hurt his thumb, then got it back after his replacement Brian Hoyer suffered a season-ending knee injury, then lost it to Jason Campbell. We’ve now seen enough of all three quarterbacks to make it clear: Weeden is by far the worst of the bunch. Hoyer played very well early in the season, and now Campbell has played two straight strong games, including leading the Browns to a victory over the Ravens on Sunday. It’s hard to imagine what the Browns were thinking putting Weeden ahead of both Hoyer and Campbell on the depth chart, when he’s clearly not as good as either of them. The Browns have a good defense, and they play in the weak AFC North. They don’t need a great quarterback to win their division, just a competent quarterback. With Campbell, they have a chance to catch the Bengals in the AFC North. Unfortunately, the Browns may not be able to overcome the four games they lost with Weeden as their quarterback.

Chip Kelly is an offensive genius again. Nick Foles tied the NFL record with seven touchdown passes in Sunday’s win over the Raiders, and Kelly’s Philadelphia offense looked outstanding. It’s hard to understand how an offense that looked so awful in losses to the Cowboys and Giants could look so good in Oakland, but when Kelly’s offense is rolling, it’s a nightmare for opposing defenses.

Gronk is great, when he’s healthy. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is such a unique offensive weapon — you just don’t find guys that big and strong who also have soft hands and run great routes. Gronkowski had nine catches for 143 yards against the Steelers on Sunday and was a big part of Brady’s big day — and a constant matchup nightmare for Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, Gronkowski’s arm and back injuries have caused him to miss 11 of the Patriots’ last 14 games. As long as the Patriots have a healthy Gronk, they can expect to have Brady at his best.

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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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Tannehill takes issue with Calvin Pryor for celebrating a Dolphins injury

Rishard Matthews AP

Sunday’s game between the Jets and Dolphins included a hit from New York safety Calvin Pryor on Miami receiver Rishard Matthews, which knocked Matthews out of the game with rib and chest injuries.

After the hit, Pryor celebrated. After the game, quarterback Ryan Tannehill took issue with Pryor’s celebration.

“I didn’t notice it honestly,” Tannehill told reporters after the game. “I was just worried about Rishard. I heard some guys talking about it on the sideline, that’s kind of classless move to celebrate while a guy’s injured. Obviously, it was a good hit, a clean hit, but to celebrate when a guy’s down it’s kind of a classless move.”

Pryor was asked only about whether his hit on Matthews set the tone for the Jets. “I would hope so,” Pryor said. “I think it’s trying to bring that energy to our defense and just [trying] to be a leader out there.”

Pryor thereafter took to Twitter to respond to Tannehill.

“I was definitely celebrating the great play I made,” Pryor said. “I would never celebrate someone getting injured during the game. C’mon now.”

Pryor also placed some of the blame for the injury on Tannehill.

Throw a better ball next time [Tannehill and your] teammate would’ve never got injured!!!” Pryor said. “Sorry if you felt I was classless at the moment.”

The real question is whether Pryor noticed Matthews was down when celebrating. Either way, the Dolphins and Tannehill have bigger problems than whether Pryor was celebrating at a time when maybe he shouldn’t have been.

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A pair of Broncos defenders carted off with injuries

T.J. Ward AP

The Broncos have a few problems at the moment, with a pair of defenders injured on the same play.

Safety T.J. Ward and defensive lineman Sylvester Williams left with apparent ankle injuries, with Ward not putting much weight on his foot as he was helped off. The team announced that both were questionable to return.

Both were carted to the locker room moments later, with Ward riding shotgun with Williams stretched out in the back.

David Bruton replaced Ward in the secondary, while Vance Williams came in for Williams.

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Quinn, Blank reiterate confidence in Matt Ryan

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Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan heard some loud boos on Sunday in the Georgia Dome. He didn’t hear them from his owner after the 20-10 loss to Minnesota.

He’s absolutely the competitor that I want,” coach Dan Quinn said after the game, per Vaughn McClure of “He’s what we look for and our team looks for the whole way. What we’ll go back and look at is, find out was there a decision that could be made that could be different. If there is in those scenarios, then we’ll find those and say, ‘Where else could you have gone with it?’ Those will be decisions that we look at. But for him, the competitor [and] the style of player that he is, we’re not backing off.”

Arthur Blank separately was asked whether he has confidence in Ryan.

“Absolutely,” Blank said, via McClure. “He’s demonstrated his abilities over eight years. He’ll be fine. He’ll be good.”

Many Falcons fans would say Ryan has been neither fine nor good in recent weeks, which has seen the Falcons go from 5-0 to 6-5.

“Am I worried about Matt?” Blank said. “I’m worried about Matt, and I’m worried about the team. We’re actually 1-5 in the last six games. We were off to a great start. But this unit will figure it out.”

They Falcons are running out of chances, and they’re running out of cushion. The Seahawks have now caught the Falcons in the standings, and the Buccaneers, Bears, Giants, and Washington are only a game behind at 5-6.

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Rob Gronkowski Gronks his way to the end zone for early lead

Rob Gronkowski AP

Other mortal quarterbacks might need wide receivers.

As long as Tom Brady has Rob Gronkowski, he should be OK.

The Patriots are out to a quick 7-0 lead over the Broncos, after a 23-yard touchdown. It was his 63rd career touchdown, moving him past Shannon Sharpe for third all-time among tight ends, trailing just Tony Gozalez (111) and Antonio Gates (101) on the all-time list. Gronkowski is 26.

The Patriots are without both Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (among others), leaving them with the starting duo of Brandon LaFell and Keshawn Martin.

Despite that, the Broncos don’t (or didn’t) have multiple defenders draped all over the star tight end, who was able to slip one tackle and get to the end zone.

The Patriots have lost parts consistently over the course of the year, but there are certain constants, and Gronk doing Gronk things chief among them.

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Jimmy Graham tore his patellar tendon

Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham AP

The Seahawks outlasted the Steelers in a thriller on Sunday afternoon, but they lost tight end Jimmy Graham for the rest of the season along the way.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said in his postgame press conference that Graham tore the patellar tendon in his right knee. Graham hurt his knee while trying to catch a Russell Wilson pass in the end zone early in a wild fourth quarter in Seattle.

The severity of the injury isn’t a big surprise as the team’s medical staff immediately immobilized Graham’s knee in an aircast before loading him on a cart to head to the locker room. Graham’s season is over and his availability for training camp and the start of next season will likely be in doubt well into next summer. As we saw with Victor Cruz this year, he’ll also have to watch for other injuries as he tries to make a complete recovery and get back onto the field.

The injury came during what might have been Graham’s best game with the team. He had four catches for 75 yards and the Seahawks passing offense had its best day overall as Russell Wilson spread the ball to seven receivers on his way to a season-best 345 yards and career-best five touchdowns.

Luke Willson and Cooper Helfet are the other tight ends on Seattle’s roster at the moment and they’ll be asked to do more the rest of the way with Graham out of the picture and a playoff berth in the team’s sights.

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Roethlisberger exits Seahawks game for concussion testing

Ben Roethlisberger AP

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made an unexpectedly early exit from Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks. As it turns out, Roethlisberger was being checked for a possible concussion.

So when did he suffer the possible concussion?

Via Ryan Glasspiegel of, the head injury may have happened during the fourth-quarter drive that culminated in the Steelers, who were down by five at that point, opting for a field goal on fourth and goal.

Roethslisberger took a clear blow to the head on a third-down play earlier in the drive, drawing a roughing the passer penalty. He remained in the game for a full nine plays after that.

After absorbing the illegal hit, Roethlisberger was face down for a couple of seconds. He then rolled over onto his back for several more seconds. After he was helped up by teammates, he seemed fine.

Roethlisberger may have said or done something after the drive to prompt the team to take the situation seriously, with a preliminary assessment on the sideline resulting in a decision to conduct a closer evaluation in the locker room.

The situation will be scrutinized given last week’s mishandling of Rams quarterback Case Keenum, but there was nothing glaring about Roethlisberger’s behavior after the play. The broader question is whether the league automatically should check a player for a concussion whenever he takes a clear and potent blow to the head.

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Broncos-Patriots can be seen on NBC Sports Live Extra

DENVER - NOVEMBER 28:  Wide receiver Ashley Lelie #85 of the Denver Broncos brings in a catch against cornerback Phillip Buchanon #31 of the Oakland Raiders on November 28, 2004 at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado. The Raiders defeated the Broncos 25-24.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images) Getty Images

The excellent Dark Sky app tells me that light snow will be starting soon in Denver. And it will be great to see that on TV, during the Sunday Night Football game on NBC.

But you can still see it, even if you’re not near a TV.

The game between the 10-0 Patriots and 8-2 Broncos can be seen at NBC Sports Live Extra. You also can watch the game by downloading the NBC Sports Live Extra app.

Meanwhile, it would be another great night to check the PSI of the footballs at halftime; it’s currently 23 degrees and falling.

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