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Three playoff spots clinched, nine to go

Miami Dolphins v New England Patriots Getty Images

The Colts have clinched the AFC South, while the Broncos and Seahawks have each clinched playoff berths. With three teams in and nine playoff spots to go, here’s a look at the state of the playoff race:

AFC East: The Patriots clinch if they win one more game, or if the Dolphins lose one more game. Suffice to say, New England will win the division, and the Patriots will likely be the AFC No. 2 seed.

AFC North: The Bengals have a two-game lead over the Ravens and will likely be the AFC No. 3 seed.

AFC South: The Colts have clinched the division and will likely be the AFC No. 4 seed.

AFC West: The Broncos have a one-game lead over the Chiefs and own the tiebreaker advantage. Denver just needs to win two of its remaining three to clinch the division. If Denver wins all three, it clinches home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

AFC wild card: Kansas City will almost certainly be the AFC No. 5 seed and likely play at Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs. The final wild card will likely go to 7-6 Baltimore or 7-6 Miami, with the 6-7 Chargers and Jets still clinging to playoff hopes.

NFC East: The Eagles lead the Cowboys by half a game, pending Monday night. Dallas and Philadelphia meet in a Week 17 game that will likely determine the division winner.

NFC North: The first-place Lions will win the division if they win their final three games. If they lose a game, either the Bears or Packers (who meet in Week 17) can win the division by winning out.

NFC South: The Saints have a one-game lead over the Panthers, and the winner of the NFC South will likely be the NFC No. 2 seed.

NFC West: The Seahawks need to win just two of their final three games to clinch the division and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

NFC wild card: The 9-4 Panthers and the 9-4 49ers look like the NFC wild card teams, while the 8-5 Cardinals are still in the playoff hunt.

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Patriots will have Dion Lewis back before Week One

Dion Lewis, Tre Jackson AP

A torn ACL ended the season of Patriots running back Dion Lewis in November, but it’s not expected to affect him this year.

Mike Reiss of ESPN reports that people close to Lewis say he’s about a month away from being able to play in a game, which means that he should be ready for training camp and the preseason, and certainly before the start of the regular season.

Lewis suffered the torn ACL on November 8 and had surgery on November 18, so he has been rehabbing for about six months. The Patriots will likely take it slow with him in Organized Team Activities and training camp, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get some preseason carries, and he looks like a lock to play in the Sunday Night Football opener against the Cardinals.

Lewis was playing well before he got hurt last season, averaging 4.8 yards a carry and catching 36 passes. He and LeGarrette Blount will likely split first-team reps in the Patriots’ backfield this season.

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Super Bowl LIII is heading to Atlanta

Roger Goodell, Arthur Blank AP

New buildings get Super Bowls, and Atlanta is the latest beneficiary.

NFL owners just voted at their meeting in Charlotte to award Super Bowl LIII to the new Falcons stadium, the latest example of new facility being rewarded with the biggest game of the year.

Atlanta and New Orleans were the finalists for the game, with Miami and Tampa eliminated from the process on earlier ballots.

New Orleans had limited its bid to just the 2019 game (other cities were also bidding for 2020 and 2021), meaning it will be at least 2022 before they’re back in the mix for the game.

Atlanta previously hosted Super Bowl XXXIII, which featured an incredible game between the Titans and Rams, but also an ice storm that crippled the area in advance.

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Doug Whaley doesn’t think humans should play football

ORCHARD PARK, NY - JANUARY 14:  Buffalo Bills General Manager Doug Whaley addresses the media following a press conference announcing Rex Ryan's arrival as head coach of the Buffalo Bills on January 14, 2015 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images) Getty Images

In many respects, the NFL has become its own worst enemy in the so-called War on Football. Typically, that happens when the league and people connected to it unreasonably downplay the risks associated with the sport. One team executive has potentially harmed the league’s interests by going to the other extreme.

Asked during an appearance on WGR 550 whether Bills G.M. Doug Whaley believes receiver Sammy Watkins is injury prone, Whaley painted with the broadest possible brush.

“This is the game of football,” Whaley said, via Harry Scull Jr. of the Buffalo News. “Injuries are part of it. It’s a violent game that I personally don’t think humans are supposed to play.”

That’s the kind of statement that could prompt plenty of humans to prevent their offspring from playing football. Making the words even more jarring is that Whaley drove directly into a ditch under the guise of trying to justify his faith in Watkins, for whom Whaley gave up the ninth overall pick in 2014, a first-round pick in 2015, and a fourth-round pick in 2015 to acquire.

Coach Rex Ryan was later asked about Whaley’s remarks, which apparently haven’t gathered much traction thanks to the brouhaha arising from the franchise’s goofy new media policy.

“I can say this, I love the game, I think it’s the greatest sports,” Ryan told reporters. “I know it’s the greatest sport, it’s the greatest game and we all know how I feel about it.”

Previously, it was believed that Whaley’s job may be riding on whether the team makes it to the playoffs this year. Tuesday’s gaffe may have sealed his fate, barring the team’s ability to perform what would be the superhuman task of winning a Super Bowl.

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“Long way to go” before Larry Fitzgerald will think about 2017

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 04:  Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald prepares to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the MLB opening day game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies at Chase Field on April 4, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Getty Images

Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald fulfilled a promise to his mother and received his college degree recently, which might not be necessary to his post-football employment options but certainly won’t hurt them.

Not that it’s clear when Fitzgerald might be ready to move into a different line of work. Fitzgerald’s future beyond the 2016 season has come up at points this offseason because it is the final year of his contract and the wideout said Tuesday that he “honestly” doesn’t have any idea about how long he’s going to keep playing.

“I really don’t look at it like that,” Fitzgerald said, via the team’s website. “I look at it as a day-to-day. I feel good every day, waking up and going to practice. Last year I was able to stay healthy. That puts you in a different state of mind when you are able to get up and do everything you are capable of doing. There’s a long way to go before that would even be a point of discussion. I’m just enjoying this and trying to make this the best year yet.”

Fitzgerald is coming off an excellent season punctuated by his dramatic touchdown catch to beat the Packers in overtime of their playoff matchup. If he’s healthy and continues to produce in 2016, it’s difficult to think he’ll just ride off into the sunset although it appears a final answer to that question isn’t right around the corner.

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York calls on North Carolina to repeal House Bill 2

SAN FRANCISCO - SEPTEMBER 20:  Jed York, team president and owner of the San Francisco 49ers waits to go out for a half time presentation during home opener as the San Francisco 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks at Candlestick Park September 20, 2009 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images) Getty Images

The NFL didn’t move its quarterly meeting from North Carolina to protest the controversial bathroom law known as House Bill 2. But that doesn’t stop the owners who showed up in Charlotte from making their views known while in town.

49ers CEO Jed York did so on Tuesday, strongly.

“The San Francisco 49ers are deeply concerned about North Carolina’s recently-enacted House Bill 2, which overturned protections for LGBT people and sanctioned discrimination across the state,” York said in a statement, via Matt Maiocco of “HB 2 does not reflect the values of our organization, of our country, or the majority of North Carolinians.”

York also gave $75,000 to Equality NC, a statewide organization that promotes equality and justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens.

“We firmly believe that discriminatory laws such as HB 2 are bad for our employees, bad for our fans, and bad for business,” York said. “We believe that HB 2 will make it far more challenging for businesses across the state to recruit and retain the nation’s best and brightest workers and attract the most talented students from across the country. It will also diminish the state’s draw as a destination for sporting events, tourism and conventions, and new business activity.

The law requires people to use the bathroom that reflects the gender on their birth certificate. All political views aside, we’re still waiting to hear more about how the law is going to be enforced.

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Byron Bell dislocates ankle at Titans practice

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 13: Marcus Mariota #8 of the Tennessee Titans celebrates with Byron Bell #76 after throwing for a 52-yard touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium on September 13, 2015 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Getty Images

Byron Bell re-signed with the Titans this offseason, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to be seeing any action in the regular season.

Bell needed to be helped off the field after hurting his left ankle in Tuesday’s practice and coach Mike Mularkey said later in the day that Bell dislocated his ankle. Mularkey said that Bell would likely miss the entire season as a result of his injury.

“He’s a good football player,” Mularkey said. “We’re going to miss him.”

Bell started all 16 games for the Titans last season and was a regular starter for the Panthers over the four previous seasons, although the arrival of tackle Jack Conklin in the first round of the draft likely had him headed for a role at guard or as an experienced reserve in 2016. The Titans will have to look elsewhere for those options now.

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Jim Schwartz: Eagles shouldn’t pre-determine QB competition

Quarterback Carson Wentz throws a pass during the Philadelphia Eagles' rookie minicamp at the team's NFL football training facility, Friday, May 13, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) AP

As Philadelphia’s defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz doesn’t really have any say in who wins the Eagles’ quarterback competition. But as a former head coach who was once tasked with determining when a rookie first-round draft pick, Matthew Stafford, was ready to be his starting quarterback, Schwartz has some insight.

And Schwartz’s insight is this: first-round draft pick Carson Wentz should get the chance to earn the starting job.

“Don’t judge him on something else,” Schwartz said, via “And also don’t pre-determine the result of the race. Let him go play. Don’t put extra pressure on him. I can’t speak for Carson. We have enough worries on defense right now. I think when we drafted Stafford, we just let him play. Was he our best quarterback? Was he ready? Unfortunately, he got hurt both his first and second year by holding the ball too long. I think he had the command and he would have been ready to play had it not been for those injuries.”

Schwartz’s boss, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, has decided not to follow that path. Instead, Pederson has already declared that Sam Bradford will be the starter.

At least, that’s what Pederson is saying now. If Wentz looks good in Organized Team Activities, training camp and the preseason, Pederson may change his mind. Schwartz thinks Pederson should be open to that.

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NFL tables proposal on sideline video

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 10:  Running back Adrian Peterson #28 of the Minnesota Vikings looks at a microsoft tablet surface pro with coach Kirby Wilson during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on December 10, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Vikings 23-20.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Getty Images

The NFL voted to tweak the rules governing the use of replay review on Tuesday, but they didn’t approve the use of video on the tablet computers used on sidelines.

The league tabled the issue for the 2016 season in order to devote further study to the issue. Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer reports that coaches will be allowed to look at replays on the sideline during preseason games this summer as part of that ongoing examination of the issue.

It’s hard to imagine that there will be too many coaches who would be against the idea of reviewing film of the game as it unfolds, although it seems we’ll find out soon enough exactly how much technology there will be on the sideline in the future.

A proposal from the Redskins to eliminate the cut from 90 to 75 players during preseason and just have one cut from 90 to 53 players was voted down on Tuesday.

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Le’Veon Bell thinks Bengals, other teams try to hurt him

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell was on the field doing individual drills with his Steelers teammates on Tuesday, something that hasn’t been the case since he tore his MCL in a November 1 game against the Bengals.

Bell’s injury became a talking point in the war of words between the teams after the Steelers took issue with Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s reaction to the hit that injured Bell. On Tuesday, Bell revisited that game and said he felt that members of the Bengals other than Burfict were trying to hurt him during the game.

“I don’t think it was just [Burfict]; it was like the whole team was really out there trying to like twist my ankles and do little dirty stuff in between the piles,” Bell said, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Bell added that the Bengals aren’t the only team that tries to “take me out of the game.”

“Umm, a couple, but obviously a lot of teams in our division really play that same way, so obviously I know that — I just was kind of ignorant to that at first because I didn’t think people played like that,” Bell said.

Bell said those experiences taught him to take “nothing for granted” once he returns to a full workload. He expects that to happen at training camp, which would keep him right on track for a return to the lineup in Week One.

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Bills sign second-rounder Reggie Ragland

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 09:  Linebacker Reggie Ragland #19 of the Alabama Crimson Tide addresses the media during Media Day for the College Football Playoff National Championship at Phoenix Convention Center on January 9, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Bills have yet to sign their first-round pick. But they’ve signed the second-round pick who would have been their first-round pick, if their first-round pick had already been picked when it was time for the Bills to pick.

Linebacker Reggie Ragland has put pen to paper on his rookie deal, agreeing to the standard four-year slotted deal that all players sign. The team announced the move on Tuesday.

Recently, G.M. Doug Whaley said that Ragland, the 41st pick in the draft, would have gone 22 spots higher, if Shaq Lawson had been selected.

“We look at it like we have two first-round picks this year, Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland,” Whaley told Don Banks of when discussing Lawson’s shoulder surgery. “Because we were going to pick Reggie Ragland at No. 19 if Shaq wasn’t there, and then we got them both. So for us, we’re playing with house money.”

For Ragland, he’s playing with a lot less money than he would have gotten if he’d been the 19th overall pick.

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Raiders sign two wide receivers

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 05:  Robert Herron #10 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 5, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Raiders got a bit deeper at wide receiver on Tuesday.

The team announced that they have signed Nathan Palmer and Robert Herron as free agents.

Palmer worked out for the Saints earlier this month along with Vincent Brown and Hakeem Nicks, but the Saints signed Brown. Palmer opened the offseason in Chicago, but was waived by the Bears and has spent time with six teams over the course of his time in the NFL.

Herron played eight games for the Buccaneers in 2014, catching six passes for 58 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t make the Bucs out of camp last year and spent most of the season on the practice squad in Miami. Both players will fall into the competition for roster spots behind Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper.

Andre DuBose won’t be part of that battle. The 2015 seventh-rounder was waived/injured and quarterback Garrett Gilbert was waived as the Raiders made room for their new players.

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Report: Tyler Eifert to have “minimal procedure” on ankle

Indianapolis Colts v Cincinnati Bengals Getty Images

Generally speaking, not much of lasting impact happens at the Pro Bowl.

It looks like the ankle injury suffered by tight end Tyler Eifert is the exception to that rule. Eifert was in a walking boot after the Pro Bowl, but the issue wasn’t thought to be a particularly serious one.

Eifert wasn’t practicing with his teammates on Tuesday, however, and Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports that his ankle “not responded as quickly” as initially hoped. As a result, Eifert will have a “minimal procedure” on the ankle soon.

Minimal though it may be, Eifert’s recovery is expected to take three months. That would be sometime in August, which would leave the Bengals without Eifert for much of training camp and could leave Eifert on the sideline for the preseason schedule as well.

Eifert had 13 touchdowns last season, so the Bengals will trade some lost time now for having him healthy once the regular season is underway. Tyler Kroft, Ryan Hewitt and C.J. Uzomah are in line for more time at tight end while Eifert is recovering.

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Rex Ryan claims no responsibility for team’s media policy

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 23:  Head coach Rex Ryan of the Buffalo Bills reacts during the third quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on November 23, 2015 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) Getty Images

For all NFL teams, the P.R. department serves as the conduit between the organization and the media. For most NFL teams, the P.R. staff has another important role.

They get blamed for all sorts of stuff.

If an owner, a coach, a G.M., or another high-level executive doesn’t want to do an interview, there’s no reason to decline directly. Instead, the owner, coach, G.M., or other high-level executive can simply blame it on the P.R. staff.

It happens all the time. On Tuesday, it happened in connection with the controversial media policy in Buffalo.

Asked by reporters about the new rules, coach Rex Ryan said (via Mike Rodak of, “Our media policy isn’t something that I’m involved with.” Ryan then pointed to (you guessed it) a team spokesperson.

That’s right. The new media policy came directly and exclusively from the P.R. staff, with no input of any kind from the head coach of the team. Maybe the G.M. and ownership had no say in it, either. Maybe the P.R. staff once-again has co-opted an NFL franchise, dictating policy without accountability to the various folks for whom the P.R. staff works.

That’s the lesson for today, kids. Don’t aspire to be a coach, a G.M., a team president, or an owner. The real power apparently resides in the P.R. staff.

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NFL says demand for tickets in Mexico City is high

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - MARCH 26:  People attend a match between Mexico and US as part of FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier at The Azteca stadium on March 26, 2013 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Miguel Tovar/Getty Images) Getty Images

The Texans and Raiders will play on November 21 in Mexico City, and the NFL says there’s strong interest from local fans.

According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, 100,000 people have already registered to buy up to four tickets each to the game. That would indicate that the game could top 100,000 fans at Estadio Azteca, just as the previous NFL game there, in 2005, did.

In the United States, football couldn’t be much more popular than it already is, and so as the NFL tries to continue growing, it is increasingly turning to foreign markets. This year, for the first time, four games will be played outside the United States, with three games in London in addition to the Texans-Raiders game in Mexico City.

Whether the NFL can ever become nearly as popular outside the United States as it is inside remains to be seen. But there’s little doubt that the league can sell out big stadiums in big cities abroad.

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Report: Manziel is “even more reckless” with his drug problem

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 13: Quarterback Johnny Manziel #2 of the Cleveland Browns walks off the field during the end of the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 13, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images) Getty Images

On one hand, Johnny Manziel currently isn’t in the NFL, and quite possibly never will be again. So his activities aren’t directly relevant to the NFL.

On the other hand, Manziel was a first-round draft pick who started eight games over two NFL seasons and who has washed out of the league due to off-field issues and a chronic unwillingness to fully commit to being a professional football player. His story continues to be intriguing.

It’s also sad and depressing. The latest comes from TMZ, which reports that “Manziel has become even more reckless with his drug problem recently — even blowing lines in front of people he barely knows.”

TMZ also cites unnamed sources close to Manziel who say that he “is going to die unless something changes soon.” Another source said that friends have confronted Manziel about his drinking and drug use, and that “[h]e flipped out and would not hear it.”

Manziel’s father expressed concern back in February that Manziel would not make it to his next birthday if he doesn’t get help. Since then, the situation apparently has gotten worse, not better.

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