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NFL morning after: Filling in the playoff picture

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Getty Images

Ten NFL Sundays down and seven to go, and I know who’s making the playoffs.

OK, I might be wrong about a few, and in seven weeks you might remind me of this column and point out all the places where I was wrong and make me eat my words. But I actually think that as you go through the NFL standings right now, you can get a pretty accurate picture of how the final standings are going to look seven weeks from now. Let’s go through it:

NFC East: Dallas. Despite Sunday night’s massacre in New Orleans, I still favor the 5-5 Cowboys over the 5-5 Eagles, largely because the Cowboys have already won at Philadelphia. The Cowboys and Eagles meet in Week 17 in Dallas, and I think the Cowboys will complete the season sweep and seal the division title on the last day of the season.

NFC North: Detroit. The Lions’ win over the Bears gives Detroit a one-game lead, and considering how easy the Lions’ schedule is, plus the fact that the Packers are down to Scott Tolzien at quarterback, we can pencil in the Lions to win the North.

NFC South: New Orleans. The 7-2 Saints, whose offense looked amazing on Sunday night in Dallas, will hold off the 6-3 Panthers.

NFC West: Seattle. After San Francisco lost to Carolina on Sunday, the Seahawks have a two-game lead over the 49ers, and Seattle has a head-to-head win over San Francisco as well. This is Seattle’s division.

NFC wild cards: Carolina and San Francisco. The 49ers and Panthers are currently a game ahead of the pack at 6-3, and I’ll be shocked if they don’t end up as the two NFC wild card teams. The 5-4 Bears, Packers and Cardinals are all in the mix, as are the 5-5 Eagles, but the Panthers and 49ers are pretty clearly the two best in the wild card chase.

AFC East: New England. The Patriots lead the Jets by two games in the standings and will win this division for an amazing 11th time in Tom Brady’s 12 years as their starting quarterback.

AFC North: Cincinnati. The Bengals missed a golden opportunity to put the division away on Sunday in Baltimore, but they’re still a game and a half ahead, and they’re going to win this division.

AFC South: Indianapolis. The Colts looked terrible against the Rams on Sunday, but Indianapolis is still two games ahead of Tennessee, and Houston and Jacksonville have no shot. It’s the Colts by default.

AFC West: Denver. This is the only division that I don’t think the current first-place team will win. I expect the 8-1 Broncos to sweep the 9-0 Chiefs, winning this week in Denver and then winning in Kansas City in Week 13, and Denver will win this division.

AFC wild cards: Kansas City and New York Jets. The second-place team in the AFC West will be the top wild card team, so let’s pencil the Chiefs in for that spot. The biggest question mark on the board is the sixth and final AFC playoff spot: As of right now the Jets would get it, and I think they’ll hold onto it holding off the Dolphins, Chargers, Browns, Ravens and Titans.

A lot can change in the next seven weeks, especially if a key player is injured. (It’s worth noting that before Aaron Rodgers went down, I thought the Packers had a very good chance of getting to the Super Bowl, and now I’m picking them to miss the playoffs.) But I’m feeling pretty confident that I’ve got this whole playoff picture figured out. Here are the rest of my observations from Sunday:

Another terrible game for Trent Richardson. With five carries for two yards in Sunday’s loss to the Rams, Richardson now has 88 carries for 250 yards, an average of 2.8 yards a carry, in seven games as a Colt. It’s looking more and more like the Browns fleeced the Colts when Indianapolis shipped a first-round draft pick to Cleveland in the Richardson trade.

Another terrible game for Ray Rice, too. Rice had 18 carries for 30 yards in the Ravens’ win over the Bengals on Sunday. He’s now averaging 2.5 yards a carry this season. That’s a stunningly bad average for a three-time Pro Bowler who had never averaged less than 4.0 yards a carry in any season of his career before. Rice has no room to run behind a terrible Baltimore offensive line.

The Seahawks’ secondary is sensational against tight ends. One of the things that really stands out when you watch Seattle is the way strong safety Kam Chancellor and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner cover tight ends. On Sunday Seattle played one of the best tight ends in the league, Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, and totally kept him in check: Gonzalez didn’t catch his first pass until it was basically garbage time, with the score 26-3 Seattle in the third quarter, and Gonzalez finished the day with just three catches for 29 yards.

Clay Matthews looked like Art Jimmerson at UFC 1. Matthews is playing with a massive club on his broken right hand. He’s a tough guy for wanting to be out there, but he looked like he was struggling and had a quiet day in the Packers’ loss.

That’s the Tavon Austin the Rams thought they were drafting. Through the first nine weeks of the season, Austin looked like one of the NFL’s more disappointing rookies, averaging just 6.7 yards a catch. On Sunday, Austin had touchdown catches of 81 and 57 yards and threw in a 98-yard touchdown on a punt return as well. I still have my doubts that Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is the right guy to find ways to get Austin the ball in space consistently, and it’s worth pointing out that Schottenheimer only called four plays for Austin (three passes, one run) all game on Sunday. But there’s no doubt that Austin has game-breaking talent.

Welcome back, Jake Ballard. It was nice to see Ballard catch a pass for the Cardinals on Sunday in his first live game action since the Super Bowl almost two years ago. As the Giants’ starting tight end in that Super Bowl, Ballard suffered a major knee injury in the game and hadn’t been able to get all the way back to 100 percent healthy for more than a year. Both the Giants and the Patriots released Ballard, but he signed with the Cardinals last week and is already contributing to the offense.

Giovani Bernard has some learning to do. Bernard, the Bengals’ rookie running back, is a superb young talent who’s a threat to break off a long gain every time he touches the ball. But he needs to learn that there are times when you just need to lower your shoulders and run straight ahead, and one of those times is when you get the ball on fourth-and-2 in overtime. Bernard tried to dance around after catching a swing pass from Andy Dalton, and he ended up losing 11 yards. Those 11 yards helped the Ravens greatly when they won the game with a 46-yard field goal on the next possession.

What happened to Colin Kaepernick? The 49ers’ quarterback was awful against the Panthers on Sunday. Since throwing for 412 yards in Week One, he’s only reached 200 passing yards once. On Sunday he completed 11 of 22 passes for 91 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception.

Did the Jaguars just cost themselves the No. 1 pick? It’s nice that Jacksonville won a game and assured itself of avoiding the fate of the 0-16 Lions of 2008. But did the Jags cost themselves the chance to draft their franchise quarterback of the future (maybe Oregon’s Marcus Mariota or Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater) with the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft? Actually, I don’t think so. Looking at the rest of the schedule, I think there’s still a good chance the Jags will finish 1-15. And while the Buccaneers are currently winless, they have a few winnable games the rest of the way and should finish more like 2-14 or 3-13. The Jaguars are so far out of the playoff race that they can’t even see the leaders, but they’re still in the pole position in the race for the No. 1 overall pick.

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Aaron Hernandez investigation leads to an arrest in Florida

Aaron Hernandez AP

Two of Aaron Hernandez’s alleged accomplices have been indicted in connection to Odin Lloyd’s murder in Massachusetts last year and now an arrest connected to the case has been made in Florida as well.

Oscar Hernandez Jr., who is not related to Aaron Hernandez, has been arrested on federal charges of lying to a grand jury, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering. The U.S. attorney’s office in Boston released a statement saying that the arrest was related to gun trafficking between Florida and Massachusetts and that the case is “related” to a June 17, 2013 murder in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. 

The Boston Globe reports that a source briefed on the investigation confirms that Lloyd was the victim of that murder and that the case against Hernandez Jr. is part of the ongoing effort to find the murder weapon. Hernandez Jr. is accused of lying to a grand jury and obstructing justice when he said he didn’t have anything to do with purchasing and shipping a Toyota Camry to Hernandez’s North Attleboro home. A gun was found inside the Camry, which was parked in Hernandez’s garage, when police searched the former Patriots tight end’s home.

Hernandez Jr. is also accused of trying to influence the testimony of the person he allegedly bought the Camry from in Florida and will be brought to Massachusetts to face the charges at a later date.

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LaMichael James hints that he sees a trade coming

LaMichael James AP

When news broke that the 49ers are shopping running back LaMichael James, it may have come as a surprise to some. But not to James.

Shortly after the reports surfaced of the 49ers trying to trade him, James hinted in a series of messages on Twitter that he saw it coming. His first tweet after the news broke was, “When old news become new news.” He then retweeted a series of tweets from fans saying that James would benefit from a fresh start.

So it sure sounds like James will spend 2014 somewhere other than San Francisco. That’s not a big surprise, as the 49ers gave James just 12 carries last year behind Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, and this year they’re adding Marcus Lattimore to the mix.

The only question is where James will end up. Philadelphia is an obvious connection because Chip Kelly was James’s college coach at Oregon, but the Eagles don’t much need James, considering that they already have LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles and Bryce Brown at running back.

Perhaps some team will like James enough as a return man to give up a late-round pick for him, but it’s also possible that the 49ers won’t be able to find anyone willing to give up anything for James.

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PFT Live: Patriots talk with Tom Curran, PFT Planet calls and tweets

Bill Belichick AP

We’re inching ever closer to the draft, which kicks off three weeks from today with the first round from New York City.

The Patriots won’t be selecting until late in the first round, assuming, of course, that they don’t trade out of the 29th spot. Tom Curran of CSN New England will join Mike Florio on Thursday’s edition of PFT Live to discuss the possibility of Bill Belichick doing that and what the Patriots might do if they wind up staying put in the spot they earned with their latest AFC East title.

Florio will ask the questions during that segment, but he’ll also be answering questions about the Patriots, the draft or anything else on your mind right now. PFT Planet can send their questions in via Twitter — @ProFootballTalk — or by giving a call to 888-237-5269 during the show. 

It all gets started at noon ET and you can watch it all live by clicking right here.

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Stephen Ross likely to be once again shutout by Florida legislature

Ross Getty Images

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has been having a hard time in the Florida legislature.

Last year, his effort to procure legislation that would allow Miami-Dade County residents to vote on a potential tax increase for stadium renovations died in the Sunshine State’s lawmaking body.  This year, Ross submitted an anti-bullying bill.  As explained by Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald, it’s headed for the same fate.

The Dolphins don’t seem to be as upset about this year’s developments as they were last year, when the team claimed that Speaker of the House Will Weatherford reneged on a promise to bring the stadium proposal to the floor for a vote.

“There were some concerns that were raised to us about some aspects of the implementation,” Dolphins lobbyist Ron Book said.  “By the time we reworked it, time had just really run out.  With all the meaningful changes in law, it sometimes takes more than one year to get there. In this case, it was exactly that situation.”

The bill incorporated suggestions from researchers at NYU aimed at stopping bullying.  Ross championed the cause in the wake of the 2013 bullying scandal that rocked the franchise and the rest of the NFL.

As to the stadium situation, Ross has decided to proceed on his own.  As to the bullying proposal, there’s no viable alternative to patience.

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Falcons bringing Anthony Barr in for a visit

Anthony Barr AP

Depending on who drafts him, Anthony Barr figures to play multiple roles.

So it makes sense that a defense that won’t commit to any one style is looking closely at the UCLA linebacker.

According to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Barr will visit the Falcons next Tuesday.

Barr’s most natural fit is as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and he’s shown enough in his two-year conversion from running back (23.5 sacks) to suggest he’ll be good at it as a pro. But on a recent trip to Dallas, he said they viewed him as a 4-3 defensive end.

Either way, the moves the Falcons have made this offseason suggest a lean toward more 3-4 looks under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, with the early additions of Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson the strongest hints. But they insist they aren’t necessarily a 3-4 defense, for whatever reason.

Barr’s ability to rush the passer will suit him wherever he lands, and the Falcons clearly need someone who can do that from any angle.

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T.J. Ward: We’re trying to be one of the best defenses in the world

T.J. Ward AP

On Wednesday, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said that the team needed to reestablish its identity for the 2014 season after shuffling their roster in the wake of their Super Bowl loss against the Seahawks.

One of those new arrivals has a suggestion of what that new identity should look like. Safety T.J. Ward said that everybody on the defensive side of the ball is looking to “make a statement from point go, from the first preseason game” so that opponents no longer go into games against Denver worried only about the Manning-led offense.

“As good as the Broncos offense was last year, you see what happens when you get put up against a stout defense and an offense that can pretty much manage and make some plays here and there,” Ward said, via Tom Pelissero of USA Today. “We’re sending a message right now that we’re coming in not only trying to be one of the top offenses in the league, but one of the top defenses in the world and get that Super Bowl ring.”

The additions of Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib were designed to make the Broncos defense a more formidable unit in the coming season and a healthy return for linebacker Von Miller is another reason to think that better days are ahead on that side of the ball. Whether that changes the identity of the team from the offense-centric one of 2013 remains to be seen, but it should make the Broncos a more balanced team when they next take the field.

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Jairus Byrd looks forward to getting inside Rob Ryan’s head

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Jairus Byrd joined the Saints for several reasons, including the fact they paid him a lot of money.

But the former Bills safety said he was looking forward to bringing his ability to create turnovers to the creative defenses of coordinator Rob Ryan.

“To have that ability with an offense that’s gonna put up points and a stingy defense like that and exotic in the way Coach Ryan calls things, it’s unorthodox, it’s gonna keep people guessing,” Byrd said, via Mike Triplett of ESPN.com. “That combination right there was enough.”

His conversations with Ryan have been limited about his role so far, but Byrd said he could tell it’s going to be exciting.

“Yeah, definitely,” Byrd said. “Look, he has some stuff in his head that he’s gonna get out one way or the other.”

Putting Byrd next to last year’s first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro should allow Ryan to get even more creative, as he has two established playmakers in the back of his defense.

Along with a unit that outperformed every expectation a year ago, that gives Byrd plenty to look forward to.

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Dominique Easley will work out today at Florida

Tennessee v Florida Getty Images

One of the more intriguing players in this year’s draft will be in the spotlight this morning, trying to convince NFL scouts he deserves a shot.

According to Jeff Barlis of ESPN.com, Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley will work out this morning, hoping to prove himself recovered from last year’s torn ACL.

Easley tore his right ACL in practice last September, giving him a matching set after tearing the left one in 2011.

While the medical issues will force him well down draft boards, he’s been a productive and explosive player in the past.

A three-year starter at Florida, the 6-foot-2, 288-pounder can be a disruptive pass-rusher, and teams will take a chance on his recovery based in part on how he looks today.

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Brandin Cooks, Odell Beckham scheduled for visits with Jets

Odell Beckham Jr. AP

The Jets have added running back Chris Johnson and wide receiver Eric Decker to the team this offseason, but few expect that they’re done addressing the offensive skill positions.

The Jets will add some fuel to that school of thought next week when they host wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Odell Beckham for pre-draft visits. Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reports that both players will spend time with the team.

Cooks has been on the Jets’ radar for some time as offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg checked out his pro day at Oregon State last month. The Jets were thought to be very interested in wide receiver Tavon Austin last season and Cooks, the fastest wideout at the combine, would offer them some of the same skills.

The same is true of Beckham, who is a bit bigger than Cooks but still under six feet. Beckham was also a standout returner at LSU, which would broaden his potential contributions to the team beyond playing opposite Decker in the team’s offense. Throw in USC’s Marqise Lee and there are three receivers cut from a similar cloth that the Jets will be considering for the next few weeks.

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Chris Cooley, Santana Moss rave about a healthy RG3

Robert Griffin III AP

Last year, Robert Griffin III never looked like he was 100 percent back from reconstructive knee surgery. This year, people who have seen Griffin working out say he looks as good as ever.

Washington receiver Santana Moss told ESPN that now that Griffin is running without a brace on his knee, he’s running like his old self.

“He looks more comfortable, because he don’t have to worry about that brace,” Moss said, via Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post. “I think the brace was the big discomfort last year. You know, he’s a young guy with those fiery legs that want to do so much, and that brace probably gave him a little pinch in the behind, because he couldn’t do the things that he was normally accustomed to doing. You can already see, when we’re out there in conditioning and stuff, he’s running around, looking like the old Robert Griffin.”

Chris Cooley, who played with Griffin in 2012 and now works as one of the team’s radio commentators, said on ESPN 980 that he worked out with Griffin recently and was amazed by what he saw.

“It’s unbelievable,” Cooley said. “He’s another person right now. I was like, ‘you’re running unbelievably well.’ It was silly to watch. . . . When you watch him run, you’re like ‘You’re a freak. You’re seriously a freak.’”

For all the talk last year of Griffin being ready for Week One, the reality is that just because Griffin was healthy enough to play at the start of the 2013 season, that doesn’t mean he was healthy enough to do everything he had done as a rookie. This year, from all indications, he will be.

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Lions may want Rams to make the first move

Clowney Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Lions have interest in receiver Sammy Watkins.  Either they’ve been sloppy in concealing their desire to draft Watkins or they’re setting up a smokescreen.

Or maybe they want their interest to be known so that a team with a top-five pick will make the first move in possible trade talks.

The latter possibility gained some momentum on Wednesday, when the Lions brought defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to town for a visit.  The chances of Clowney still being on the board at No. 10 are even slimmer than the possibility of Watkins still lingering after nine picks are made.

Maybe the Lions aren’t being discreet about their desire to move up because they want the Rams to pick up the phone and make the first move.  Two years after the Rams finagled the No. 6 overall pick, two more first-round selections, and a second-round pick for the No. 2 spot in the draft, the Lions likely are leery about giving up as much, or maybe more.

The Rams seem to realize that the RGIII haul was based more on the player and less on the slot.  The Lions, if they would be happy with either Clowney or Watkins, may simply want to move to the No. 2 slot, regardless of which player is after the No. 1 selection has been made.

Speaking of the No. 1 selection, there’s a chance the Texans could try to trade down and draft a quarterback lower than No. 1.  Unless another team emerges as a clear contender to move up, the Lions could play the Texans against the Rams to get a better deal for the No. 1 or No. 2 pick.

Regardless, it’s clear the Lions want to move up.  The question becomes how much it will cost.  The cost could be less if the Lions aren’t the ones to make the first move.  It’ll cost even less if the Lions can get two teams to bid against each other.

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Thursday morning one-liners

DeMarcus Ware AP

Former Bills QB Kim Kelly is hoping to spend Easter weekend at home in Buffalo.

An anti-bullying bill in the Florida Legislature which is supported by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is expected to fail.

Former CB Ty Law is humbled to be nominated for the Patriots Hall of Fame.

With Chris Johnson aboard, the Jets future of RB Mike Goodson doesn’t look so bright.

More about the Ravens conditioning test which Rolando McClain couldn’t complete.

The Bengals are negotiating with local government for some stadium upgrades, in exchange for the ability to bring 2,000 new jobs to the area.

A.J. McCarron is on the list of QBs working out for and visiting the Browns.

The Steelers would be fortunate to match the success they had in the 2010 draft.

The Texans made their final cuts to their cheerleader roster (this is what happens when you move the draft back three weeks).

The Colts took a look at local prospects.

A loaded class of WRs should help the Jaguars.

Chris Johnson said he wished the Titans would have offered a pay cut.

Broncos QB Peyton Manning said adding DeMarcus Ware was a win-win for the Manning family.

The money the Chiefs spent on offensive line help last year was a benefit.

A compilation of mock drafts offer no consensus on which way the Raiders will go.

Several LB prospects were among the Chargers recent visitors.

The Cowboys had Notre Dame OT Zach Martin in for a visit.

A look at the numbers suggests the Giants got good value in QB Josh Freeman.

Dion Jordan’s name keeps coming up in relation to the Eagles.

Think they’re a mess now? The Redskins once traded the same draft pick twice.

The Bears will take a look at Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees.

New Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin likes some of his young talent.

The Packers are “stoked” about the arrival of Julius Peppers.

The final pieces of the Metrodome are being hauled off Thursday (after they look through the rubble for a QB one last time).

BYU OLB Kyle Van Noy is visiting the Falcons.

The Panthers could still sift through what’s left at WR.

New Saints S Jairus Byrd is settling in to his new home.

Would the Buccaneers pass on Blake Bortles if he fell to seventh?

The Cardinals have made finding line help less of a need.

The Rams have been among the league’s least active teams in free agency.

The 49ers new stadium finally has grass.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is leading workouts in California for his receivers.

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Jadeveon Clowney to visit Falcons next week

Jadeveon Clowney AP

Back in February, Jadeveon Clowney said that he would love it if the Falcons traded up from the sixth pick to select him in May’s draft.

He’ll have the chance to make the case in person next week. Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com reports that Clowney will visit with the Falcons as Atlanta tries to find defensive players who can help jolt their unit back to life after a subpar 2013 season.

The Falcons are meeting with several other players who could help on that front, which is probably a good thing because their chances of landing Clowney may not be great. Plenty of people think he’ll be off the board when the Texans hand in their top selection and neither they nor the Rams, who pick second, may be willing to pass up a chance at landing a player widely regarded as the most talented player in this year’s draft.

That leaves Atlanta to try to pay the heavy price it will take to get those teams to change their mind or move in a different direction come May 8. With tackles Greg Robinson and Jake Matthews on the radar as well as their defensive needs, the Falcons should be able to fill a hole even if Clowney’s desire to wind up in Atlanta winds up unfulfilled.

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Falcons going to Auburn to see Greg Robinson

2014 NFL Combine Getty Images

As it stands, the Falcons have the sixth pick in the draft, though at this point, everyone is conditioned to expect them to move up.

Their need for impact is such on both lines, that they’re making sure they know the top players on the board, just in case.

According to Alex Marvez of FOX Sports, they’re going to Auburn today to meet with tackle Greg Robinson.

Since it’s on-campus. they can work him out, instead of the meet-and-greet that happens at a team facility.

Robinson’s athleticism would make the Falcons offense instantly better, as protecting Matt Ryan has been a challenge at times for them in the past. That would allow them to move Sam Baker either to right tackle or guard, upgrading another spot that needs it.

But it would also be a mild surprise if Robinson lasted until the time the Falcons pick, hence the constant speculation about them moving up.

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Bills stadium sessions could be subject to open meetings law

Bills Getty Images

As the powers-that-be in Western New York begin the process of potentially identifying a solution to the Buffalo Bills’ stadium needs, one politician insists that the public deserves a seat at the table.  Or at least a spot in the room.

Per the Buffalo News, New York Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns believes the state’s Open Meetings Law applies to the sessions.

Those opposed to open meetings cite the importance of discretion and strategy.

“We’ll be dealing with potential sites for a stadium, and don’t want to forecast that because it could lead to land speculation and possibly hike prices,” Deputy County Executive Richard M. Tobe told the Buffalo News.

Kearns nevertheless plans to introduce legislation aimed at ensuring the meetings are open.  If he’s right that the law already contemplates that the meetings will be open, he wouldn’t need new legislation; he’d merely need a lawyer.

Regardless, it’s another twist for a process that could go a long way toward determining whether the Bills wind up in a new city.  The local urgency could be enough to ensure that, one way or another, the meetings will proceed in secrecy so that a plan can be formed and executed in the most efficient and effective way possible.

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