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NFL morning after: Filling in the playoff picture

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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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Texans cut 2011 second-round pick Brandon Harris

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Another recent Texans draft pick has been sent packing.

Cornerback Brandon Harris, a 2011 second-round draft pick, was cut by the Texans today, according to James Palmer of CSN Houston.

Bad draft picks have plagued the Texans in recent years, and Harris is a prime example: When you draft a player in the second round, you expect him to be a starter. Harris is released having never started a game in Houston.

Harris, who played his college football at the University of Miami, is a talented enough athlete that some team may decide to give him a second chance in the NFL. But his first chance, in Houston, has ended as a major disappointment.

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Report: Kyle Orton reaches deal with Bills

Kyle Orton AP

He’s back.

Veteran quarterback Kyle Orton has reached a one-year deal with the Bills, ESPN.com’s James Walker reported Friday night.

In July, the Cowboys released Orton, who was said to be considering retirement. At the time, Dallas owner Jerry Jones indicated the 31-year-old quarterback wasn’t done playing just yet.

Jones was apparently right.

With 70 NFL starts to his credit, Orton is likely to displace Jeff Tuel as the top backup to Bills starter EJ Manuel. The more interesting discussion point, though, is whether Orton could eventually push Manuel, who had an up-and-down summer.

Before joining Dallas in 2012, Orton had stints with Chicago (2005-2008), Denver (2009-2011) and Kansas City (2011). He has completed 1,326-of-2,265 passes for 15,019 yards with 83 TDs and 59 interceptions in his NFL career.

The Bills’ reported addition of Orton is their latest attempt to solidify their depth behind Manuel, who missed six games a season ago as a rookie. Tuel, Dennis Dixon and Thad Lewis were the backups to begin the summer, but only Tuel remains of that trio. The Bills also parted ways with ex-Bears quarterback Jordan Palmer on Friday.

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Jack Crawford indicates he will be released by Raiders

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The Raiders are reportedly set to release one of their 2012 draft picks.

Via Instagram, defensive end Jack Crawford indicated Friday night that the club had parted ways with him.

“Wish the best for all my teammates I went to battle with and will always have a place in my heart for the #RaiderNation for giving two of the best years of my life,” Crawford wrote.

The 25-year-old Crawford was a fifth-round pick out of Penn State. He appeared in 19 games in his first two seasons with Oakland, notching 18 tackles. He recorded one tackle in Oakland’s preseason finale vs. Seattle on Thursday. Crawford was listed as the Raiders’ third-string left defensive end.

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Seahawks to release Terrelle Pryor

Pryor AP

The Rams’ patience may have paid off.

Per a league source, the Seahawks will release quarterback Terrelle Pryor.  A 2011 third-round supplemental pick of the Raiders, Pryor will hit the waiver wire, since he doesn’t yet have four years of experience.

The Rams could very well be interested in Pryor, who has shown flashes of potential at the position.  He was unable, however, to beat out Tarvaris Jackson as the backup to Russell Wilson.

Pryor appeared in 11 games with nine starts last year for the Raiders, who traded him to Seattle in the offseason.

If Pryor clears waivers, he will become a free agent.

Whether by waivers or free agency, the Rams could use a veteran presence behind Shaun Hill.  The only other quarterback currently on the active roster, Austin Davis, has no NFL regular-season experience.

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Packers lose lineman Aaron Adams for the year with ACL/MCL

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The Packers are going to be in the market for more offensive line help.

According to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, the Packers have lost tackle Aaron Adams to a torn ACL and MCL.

Adams, who spent last year on their practice squad, had a chance to make the team as a backup. But he blew out his knee on the second play from scrimmage Thursday night, and will be placed on injured reserve.

They’ll be without projected starting center J.C. Tretter for the first month of the season with a knee injury, so they’re short on depth at the moment.

That makes some degree of move likely, whether it’s a waiver claim, a trade or a signing.

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Derek Carr or Matt Schaub? Dennis Allen not ready to say

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Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr played well in the preseason finale on Thursday night. But did he play well enough to unseat Matt Schaub as the starter? Coach Dennis Allen isn’t saying.

Allen said today that Schaub was not at the facility because of “a personal issue,” and Allen doesn’t know whether Schaub’s sore elbow is feeling any better. As a result, Allen isn’t prepared to say whether Schaub will be ready to go for Week One.

“I think the biggest thing is I want to be able to check on Matt and see where Matt is health-wise,” Allen said. “Like I said, he was making some progress last week, threw on the side with the trainers. I feel like he’ll be ready to go, but I think we need to see how he’s doing Monday when he gets in here.”

So before Allen can say whether Schaub will start, Allen needs to see whether Schaub is healthy. And that won’t happen until Monday at the earliest.

But if preseason performance is any indication, Carr should start over Schaub regardless of Schaub’s health: Carr completed 66.7 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and one interception in the preseason, while Schaub completed just 51.1 percent of his passes with no touchdowns and one interception. (For that matter, based on the preseason, third-string quarterback Matt McGloin should move ahead of Schaub on the depth chart, too.) Allen acknowledged that he was happy with the way Carr played in the preseason finale.

“There’s a lot of things that factor into the decision making process, but I will say that I was very pleased with what I saw out of Derek Carr last night,” Allen said.

The quarterback play in Oakland hasn’t been pleasing very often in recent years. Carr has shown promise, and that might be enough to give him the Week One nod.

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Report: Bills sign long-snapper Sanborn to three-year extension

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The Bills have signed one of their core special teams players to a new contract.

The club announced Friday it had signed long-snapper Garrison Sanborn to a contract extension. According to Aaron Wilson of National Football Post, Sanborn received a three-year deal averaging $1.1 million per season. Sanborn is now under contract for the next four seasons, Wilson reported.

A Florida State product, the 29-year-old Sanborn has appeared in every game in the last five seasons for Buffalo. According to NFLPA data, Sanborn is slated to make $895,000 in salary in 2014.

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Rex Ryan would make the Clemson trip again

Rex Ryan AP

A year ago, Jets coach Rex Ryan took some criticism when he left town on the day of final roster cuts to attend the Clemson-Georgia game and see his son, a walk-on receiver at Clemson. This year, Clemson again plays Georgia on the day that final roster cuts are due, and Ryan won’t be making the trip.

But that’s not because Ryan has any regrets. In fact, Ryan told reporters today that he would make the Clemson trip over again, and the only reason he’s not going to the game this year is that his son isn’t going to the game either. Seth Ryan is nursing a broken collarbone and isn’t traveling with his teammates to Georgia, but if he were playing, his dad would be there.

“I am not going to discuss my situation and things like that,” Rex Ryan said. “But, it’s safe to say if my son was playing in the game I probably would have been there again. But he, unfortunately, is not on the travel team right now. He is still injured, so I am not going to go watch.”

On this call, Ryan is right: A quick trip to see his son isn’t dereliction of duty, it’s the right thing to do.

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Eagles trying to trade receiver Damaris Johnson

New York Jets v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

Some guys you know are going to be gone, so you can go ahead and cut them on Friday.

But if a team thinks a guy they don’t need might have value, you can bet they’re going to wait until the last minute.

According to Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com, the Eagles are trying to trade wide receiver Damaris Johnson.

The Eagles are deep enough at receiver they probably wouldn’t be able to/want to keep Johnson.

He’s undersized, but he’s also shown enough as a special teamer and a wideout that he might interest someone. He caught 19 passes for 256 yards for the Eagles last year, and might be worth the obligatory conditional late round pick to someone.

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Report: James Harrison not likely to sign with Cardinals

James Harrison AP

A notable ex-Steeler doesn’t appear to be headed to Pittsburgh West.

Free agent outside linebacker James Harrison isn’t likely to sign with the Arizona Cardinals at this time, Harrison’s agent, Bill Parise, told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Parise told Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic the two sides couldn’t reach agreement on a deal.

“Couldn’t make the numbers work,” Parise said, according to the Republic.

The 36-year-old Harrison appeared in 15 games (10 starts) for Cincinnati in 2013, notching 30 tackles. His best seasons came with the Steelers, for whom he was a five-time Pro Bowler.

Current Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians was a Pittsburgh assistant for much of Harrison’s tenure with the club, and Arizona has been a landing spot for other ex-Steelers in recent years. But for now, Harrison won’t be added to that list.

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Redskins cut eight players

Andre Roberts, Richard Crawford AP

The Redskins began cutting their way to 53 players on Friday by parting ways with eight members of the roster.

That group includes cornerback Richard Crawford, who was a 2012 seventh-round pick of the team. He played 10 games as a rookie, recording 18 tackles and an interception while also returning eight punts for an average of 19.5 yards per return. He missed all of last season with a knee injury and retains practice squad eligibility thanks to this year’s change in the rules.

Washington also waived safety Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, guard/center Tevita Stevens, tight end Ted Bolser, punter Robert Malone, center Kevin Kowalski, wide receiver Lee Doss and defensive tackle Robert Thomas.

The Redskins roster now stands at 67 players, leaving 14 more moves to make before Saturday’s deadline.

 

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Josh Gordon hasn’t ruled out litigation, yet

Gordon AP

A lawyer who apparently isn’t too busy to check out PFT (and we appreciate that) has floated an intriguing theory about the out-of-the-blue decision by Browns receiver Josh Gordon to seek permission to play in the land of Labatt Blue.

Did Gordon ask to play in Canada knowing that the request would be denied, so that he in turn could bolster an effort to seek an injunction preventing the implementation of his suspension via a lawsuit challenging the suspension?

Those facts would help show what the law calls “irreparable harm,” one of the key factors that must exist for a court tell a party who wants to do something to not do it until the case has ended.  Gordon currently is caught in a vise, unable to play for the Browns and also not permitted while suspended to play for anyone else.  While that may not win the day, it’s one of those real-world facts that could cause a judge to conclude that Josh has gotten jobbed.

Of course, none of that is relevant unless and until Gordon sues.  Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Gordon’s legal team is still exploring the possibility of filing suit.

Time is running out.  Practice in advance of the Week One game at Pittsburgh begins on Wednesday.  Courts will likely be shut down until Tuesday, given the holiday weekend.  If Gordon wants to get an order allowing him to practice and play, he needs to move a lot more quickly than, say, the NFL did in resolving his appeal.

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Tyrann Mathieu will tackle in practice this week

Tyrann Mathieu AP

The Cardinals activated safety Tyrann Mathieu from the PUP list on August 19, leaving the date of his regular season debut as the biggest question left to answer in Mathieu’s return from a torn ACL.

Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said he wanted to see Mathieu play in the preseason finale if he was going to face the Chargers on the first Monday night of the season. Mathieu didn’t play in that game, but Arians left the door open for Mathieu to play because the second-year man will take part in tackling drills during Arizona’s padded practice next week.

“I wasn’t kidding,” Arians said regarding his earlier comments about Mathieu playing in Week One. “We’ll see how he tackles, though.”

Mathieu is hopeful that Arians, General Manager Steve Keim and the medical staff will feel that he’s ready to hit the field, but Darren Urban of the team’s website marks himself down as “doubtful” that we’ll be seeing Mathieu against Philip Rivers and company. Even if he misses that game, it shouldn’t be too long before Mathieu is back in the Cardinals secondary.

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Greg Jones released by Saints

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The Saints brought veteran fullback Greg Jones aboard early in camp after Erik Lorig went down with a leg injury, but he won’t be helping to open holes or protect Drew Brees this season.

Nick Underhill of the Baton Rouge Advocate reports that Jones has been released as the team starts the process of paring the roster down to 53 players.

With Lorig’s status for the regular season still up in the air as he continues to battle his injury, the Saints opted to go with Austin Johnson over Jones at fullback. It’s a somewhat surprising development because Johnson entered the NFL as a linebacker in 2012.

Johnson had played fullback during his first two years at the University of Tennessee, but tried and failed to make the Ravens on defense. The Saints signed him last year, moved him back to offense and he spent the year on the practice squad.

Jones has played 10 seasons in the NFL, nine with the Jaguars and the 2013 campaign with the Texans, so his experience may be appealing to teams looking for a different fullback.

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Rams cut 17 players, but none of them were Michael Sam

Michael Sam AP

Michael Sam became the reality show of the NFL Draft weekend, as the nation waited to see if someone would draft an openly gay player.

It appears draft weekend could turn out the same way.

According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, the Rams have cut 17 players today, but none of them were Sam.

Among the cuts were defensive linemen Kourtnei Brown and Deantre Harlan, along with sixth-round quarterback Garrett Gilbert and seventh-round tackle Mitchell Van Dyk.

That would move them to 58, with five cuts to go to the limit.

And the world will be watching to see if Sam makes history.

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