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NFL morning after: Playoff races reach the home stretch


With 15 NFL Sundays down and two to go, the NFL playoff race is in the home stretch. And it basically consists of seven teams competing for three playoff spots.

Nine teams have either clinched a playoff berth or would only miss the playoffs under the most unlikely of scenarios: Denver will win the AFC West. Cincinnati will win the AFC North. New England will win the AFC East. Indianapolis has won the AFC South. Kansas City will win one of the AFC wild cards. Seattle will win the NFC West. Carolina or New Orleans will win the NFC South, and the other one will win an NFC wild card. San Francisco will get the other NFC wild card.

That leaves us with three playoff spots to fill: The NFC East, NFC North and the final AFC wild card.

The NFC East will come down to the Eagles and Cowboys. Philadelphia gave away the division lead on Sunday with a surprising loss at Minnesota, and then the Cowboys handed the lead right back to the Eagles with a meltdown against the Packers. But this division has looked for months like it will come down to the Week 17 Eagles-Cowboys game, and it still looks that way. I think the Eagles will win that game and win the division.

The NFC North is the NFL’s only three-team race, with the Lions, Bears and Packers all alive. Chicago improved to 8-6 and took a half-game lead by beating Cleveland on Sunday, but the Lions can get to 8-6 with a Monday night win over Baltimore, and the Lions own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bears. The Packers’ comeback at Dallas kept their playoff hopes alive. If the Lions win out, they win the NFC North. If the Lions slip up and the Packers and Bears both win next week, the NFC North will come down to the Week 17 Packers-Bears game. I expect Detroit to win out and win the division, but this one is very, very close.

And the AFC wild card will come down to Miami and Baltimore. Miami improved to 8-6 and took the lead by beating New England, but Baltimore can also get to 8-6 and even things up with a win in Detroit tonight. (The 7-7 Chargers are still alive, but they’re an extreme long shot.) I expect the Ravens to lose to the Lions tonight while the Dolphins continue to take care of business, and Miami will get the final playoff spot.

So there you have it: Our 12 playoff teams are Denver, Cincinnati, New England, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Miami, Seattle, Carolina, Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans and San Francisco. I’m pretty confident in that prediction, but you might want to go ahead and watch the last two weeks of the season, just in case.

Here are my observations from Sunday:

Maybe Washington’s whole team needs to be shut down for the season. Washington is an absolute mess. Kirk Cousins, the starting quarterback now that Robert Griffin III has been shut down for the season, played reasonably well in Sunday’s loss to the Falcons. But Washington has problems everywhere. The special teams are maybe the worst in the history of the NFL, and they lost a costly fumble on a muffed punt on Sunday. The defense can’t stop anyone. Even running back Alfred Morris, one of the few players in Washington who’s having a decent season, lost two fumbles against the Falcons. This team has a long rebuilding effort ahead, and the first-round draft pick (which will most likely be No. 2 overall) won’t be part of that rebuilding effort: That pick went to St. Louis in the trade to acquire Griffin.

Eli Manning is an elite interception thrower. The only major statistical category Manning has ever led the league in is interceptions, and he’s now well on his way to leading the league in that category for the third time. With his pathetic five-interception game on Sunday, Manning has now thrown a whopping 25 interceptions this season. Manning gets cut a lot of slack because he has two Super Bowl rings, but he throws some absolutely dreadful passes. Interceptions have always been a problem for Manning, and the way Manning has played this season is inexcusable.

Have you ever seen a stat line like Matt Asiata’s? No, you haven’t, because it has never happened before: Asiata’s stat line was 30 carries for 51 yards and three touchdowns. No player in NFL history had ever had 30 carries and three touchdowns while averaging less than two yards a carry, until Asiata did it on Sunday against the Eagles.

Rashad Johnson was flagged for playing football. Johnson, the Cardinals’ free safety, put a good, hard, clean, physical football hit on Titans receiver Kenny Britt on Sunday. Johnson put his shoulder into Britt’s chest, exactly the way NFL defensive backs are told to hit receivers. Inexplicably, Johnson was flagged for unnecessary roughness. The NFL simply can’t allow this to happen. It needs to find officials who can tell the difference between a helmet-to-helmet hit and a shoulder-to-chest hit, because it’s not fair to players like Johnson to have great plays taken away by bad flags.

Good thing Darnell Docket stomped on an opponent’s hand with NFL-approved shoes. NFL players are fined every week, but I can’t remember seeing two fines on the same day that looked as ridiculous next to each other as the fines announced on Friday for Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and Bears receiver Brandon Marshall. The NFL docked Dockett’s pay $7,875 for stomping on the hand of Rams guard Chris Williams. And the NFL docked Marshall’s pay $15,000 for wearing orange cleats. Is this really what the NFL’s discipline police think? That it’s worse to wear the wrong color shoes than to stomp on an opponent’s hand?

Why hasn’t Matt Cassel been Minnesota’s starter all along? The Vikings have alternated among Cassel, Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman as their starting quarterbacks this season, and the results speak for themselves: Minnesota is 3-2 with Cassel, 1-6-1 with Ponder and 0-1 with Freeman. Considering how bad the rest of the NFC North is, Cassel might have been able to keep the Vikings in the playoff race.

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Stephen Jones: Dak Prescott is going to be better than last year

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Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was the breakout star of the NFL last season, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

That’s the word from Cowboys Executive V.P. Stephen Jones, who said Prescott is committed to improving and will be better than he was as a rookie.

“He knows he’s got to take his game to another level,” Jones said. “The great ones get better each year. I think he expects that from himself, I know he puts in the work, I know he’s a leader, the team responds to him, the team wants to play hard for him. That’s rare. I think he’s going to answer the bell and I think he’s going to be better than he was last year.”

Jones said that while Prescott has enjoyed some of the fame and fortune of stardom, he hasn’t changed his approach to the game.

“I’m just amazed with how he handles himself,” Jones said. “Football is first. he’s got an insatiable appetite to want to get better.”

The Cowboys are putting pressure on Prescott to be the face of their franchise, and they think he’s up to the task.

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David Bruton retires after eight seasons

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Safety David Bruton’s 2016 season came to an end after four games because of a concussion and those four contests will be the final ones of his NFL career.

Bruton was released by the Redskins in December and had a workout with the Ravens, but said his heart wasn’t in it after suffering six concussions and dealing with other injuries over the course of his career. That meant it was time to follow a new path and the former Bronco has enrolled at the University of Colorado-Denver to pursue a future as a physical therapist.

“I’m burnt-out, definitely worry about my health,” Bruton said, via “Another season was cut short by a concussion [in 2016] — that’s six. I’m a guy who likes to use his brain. Especially back in school, I need as many brain cells as possible with all these science classes. It came down to health, and I’ve definitely had my time in the league. I’m ready to move on.”

Bruton was a fourth-round pick by the Broncos in 2009 and spent seven years with the team as a core member of their special teams units. He was part of their Super Bowl team after the 2015 season, but did not play in the win over the Panthers due to a fractured fibula.

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Mike Glennon trying to stay in the moment


In May, Bears quarterback Mike Glennon was asked about the team trading up to draft Mitchell Trubisky with the second overall pick of the draft and Glennon said that “this year is my year” and that he isn’t worrying about anything beyond the 2017 season.

Not worrying isn’t exactly the same as not thinking, however. Glennon signed a three-year contract in Chicago this offseason, but the presence of a highly drafted rookie at the same position is a hard thing to ignore no matter how hard you might try.

“I’m sure my mind will wander; that’s just being a human,” Glennon told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But whenever I feel that, I’m going to try to bring myself back down to the present. The biggest thing is just staying in the moment. When you worry about the future, it creates unnecessary stress. And a lot of those thoughts will be negative rather than positive.”

Glennon’s time in Chicago may have an expiration date, but he also has an opportunity to play and show he’s capable of leading an NFL offense. If he does, his future in the league will look pretty bright even if the uniform he’ll be wearing is uncertain.

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Monday morning one-liners

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What will the Bills do with DT Adolphus Washington?

Dolphins WR DeVante Parker enters the 2017 season with high expectations.

A look at the Patriots’ backfield options.

A Jets-eye view of the AFC East.

The Ravens are looking for a few good options on offense.

Which Bengals are in line for extensions?

Breaking down the Browns’ wide receivers.

A review of the football camps run by several Steelers players this offseason.

It’s shaping up to be a pivotal year for Texans WR Jaelen Strong.

Frank Gore is back for another year atop the Colts running back depth chart.

The Jaguars have questions along their offensive line.

What can the Titans expect from their defensive linemen?

The Broncos quarterback competition is heating up again.

Five things to keep an eye on as the Chiefs start training camp.

John Pagano’s impact on the Raiders defense is something to watch as the 2017 season unfolds.

Should the Chargers consider bringing back WR Vincent Jackson?

The Cowboys believe QB Dak Prescott is committed to raising his game.

Will Giants coach Ben McAdoo back up S Landon Collinsbig talk?

Everything to look forward to during Eagles training camp.

A projected 53-man roster for the Redskins.

Checking out the Bears’ inside linebacker options.

Who will step forward in the Lions backfield?

Breaking down the Packers’ outside linebackers.

The Vikings hope their rookies can hit the ground running this year.

Will Falcons QB Matt Ryan repeat last year’s success?

Tracking expectations for Panthers QB Cam Newton.

Running through the top Saints position battles.

There will be new murals of Buccaneers players at Raymond James Stadium this year.

The Cardinals are looking for a No. 2 cornerback.

Sean McVay is embarking on his first season as the Rams head coach.

The 49ers could use Carlos Hyde and Joe Williams as a 1-2 punch out of the backfield.

S Earl Thomas‘ return to health is expected to lift the Seahawks defense.

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Mike Zimmer expects Teddy Bridgewater to start camp on PUP list

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The Vikings have been encouraged by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s return from last year’s traumatic knee injury. But they know he’s not quite ready for a full workload as camp opens.

According to Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he expected Bridgewater would open camp on the physically unable to perform list.

“I think so, but again I haven’t seen him,” Zimmer said.

Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL and a dislocated knee in practice last August. He’s done some work with teammates during spring drills, and recently posted a workout photo without a knee brace.

He’s expected into camp Wednesday, at which point Zimmer can make a more detailed assessment, but Bridgewater not being ready at this point was fairly #asexpected.

Players can be activated from the PUP at any point during camp. If they stay on the list through the start of the regular season, it would rule him out for at least the first six weeks.

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Browns may make Duke Johnson their No. 1 slot receiver


Cleveland’s Duke Johnson is a running back, but he’s had more receiving yards than rushing yards in each of his first two NFL seasons. In his third season, he may not be a running back at all.

Johnson is the leading candidate to be the Browns’ No. 1 slot receiver, according to Mary Kay Cabot of

Last year Andrew Hawkins was the No. 1 slot receiver in Cleveland, but he left for New England in free agency.

As one of the few bright spots in Cleveland’s offense last season, Johnson caught 53 passes for 514 yards and ran 73 times for 358 yards.

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Jerrell Freeman saves fellow airline passenger with Heimlich

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It’s a good thing Jerrell Freeman decided to have one last cheat meal before training camp.

The Bears linebacker made a last-minute call for some brisket at the airport in Austin Sunday, when he encountered a man who was choking, and saved him with the Heimlich maneuver.

According to Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune, Freeman said the man initially just looked disoriented, before he realize how serious the situation was.

“Like he had forgotten something and was about to go running for it,” Freeman said. “But then he went around the table and started to look a little frantic. I’m thinking, ‘Man, this is odd. Maybe one of his kids walked off and he can’t find his kid or something?’”

Instead, the man was choking on his own brisket, and an older woman initially tried to perform the Heimlich herself, before yielding to an NFL linebacker who could put a little more force behind the move. Freeman said he’s never performed the move previously, but was taught by his mother, a nurse, how to do it.

“I grabbed him and tried to squeeze the life out of him,” Freeman said. “You’ve got to push in and up. So I did that and he started throwing up what he was choking on. I asked him if he was all right and he shook his head like ‘No!’

“I grabbed him again and hit him again with it. And when I put him down the second time, his eyes got big. He was like, ‘Oh, my god! I think you just saved my life, man!’ It was crazy.”

The choking victim, a man named Marcus Ryan, eventually introduced himself and mentioned his ribs were a little sore, when he realized an NFL player had dislodged his food in a rather forceful way.

Then both men were able to enjoy their brisket, chewing carefully.

“Crazy,” Freeman said. “Hey, I guess that was some good brisket. He wasn’t about to let that go to waste. You can’t get between a man and his brisket. I get it.”

Fortunately, Freeman was at the right place at the right time to help the victim, and the Bears can only hope he has the same kind of impact for them.

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Antonio Brown talked to Le’Veon Bell, declares: “We need him”

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While some close to Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell are pointing out that he may not show up for training camp without a new contract, others are making sure the Steelers know how important he is to the process.

According to Jeremy Fowler of, Steelers star wide receiver Antonio Brown said he spoke to Bell on the phone for two hours Saturday night, and though the conversation was “top secret,” Brown emphasized how necessary Bell was to their offense.

We need him. I need him,” Brown said. “If we’re going to do what we desire to do, we need every guy a part of the organization in a helmet to be there committed to the cause. He’s a special piece. Obviously, we know what he brings to the team, his dimension playing football, but he’s a special individual. I pray that we have him there.”

Bell hasn’t signed his $12.12 million franchise tender, which means he’s not subject to fines if he doesn’t show up for camp.

That’s not the only open question surrounding Brown. His receiving partner Martavis Bryant is back, after missing 20 games the last two seasons because of drug-related suspensions. Brown said that Bryant was “hopefully” their missing piece.

“I just encourage him, support him, push him to be the best,” Brown said.

He’s also pushing the Steelers, in his own way, to pay Bell and keep him happy.

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Who’s most responsible for Packers underachieving with Aaron Rodgers?

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PFT Live returns at 6:00 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Radio (7:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN), and with camps opening throughout the week we have a question regarding a team that last won a Super Bowl seven seasons ago.

Who’s the most responsible for the Packers underachieving with quarterback Aaron Rodgers?

It’s a poll question this time around, with several choices below (including the opportunity to say they haven’t underachieved at all). It’s a topic Chicago-centric Barstool Big Cat will surely enjoy when he joins the show for the final two hours, although he probably wishes the Bears had underachieved as much as the Packers have over the past seven years.

Make your pick in the poll, make your case in the comments, and join us for our first show back in one month and one day.

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Cowboys hope to have extension for Zack Martin before camp ends

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The Cowboys hope to have a contract extension with Zack Martin completed during training camp. Executive vice president Stephen Jones said he expects to meet with Martin’s agent, Tom Condon, while in Southern California.

“We’d love to get Zack Martin done,” Jones said, via Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “We’ve made that real clear, and we’ll be going to work on him. I think he’s an important part of our future. He represents everything we want our players to be about. He’s not only a great player on the field, he’s a great person off the field. We’ll be hard at it, trying to do it.

“At the same time, it’s important. It’s going to be a big number, as we all know, and it has to be right in terms of not only for us, but for him. I feel confident that we’ll get something worked out.”

The Cowboys signed their other two All-Pro offensive linemen — left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick — to contract extensions during recent training camps. So it’s a good bet the Cowboys will get Martin locked up before they head home Aug. 18.

Martin likely becomes the highest-paid guard in the NFL, topping Cleveland’s Kevin Zeitler, who has a five-year, $60 million deal.

Martin enters the fourth year of his four-year, $8.968 million rookie deal due to make $1.643 million in base salary this season. The Cowboys exercised their fifth-year club option on Martin, putting him in line to make $9.3 million in 2018 if the sides can’t agree on an extension.

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NFLPA message: “Save now. Fight later”

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At a time when NFL players seem to be realizing that better pay will come only through labor strife, the NFL Players Association has a message for its membership: “Save now. Fight later.

The union recently posted a video on Twitter with that message. The message to save money is a sensible one even without a potential work stoppage in four years.

But the fundamental problem continues to be this — many of the players who may be expected to go without pay in 2021 have none to save now because they’re currently playing in college or high school. So they will have saved little or nothing, or otherwise may have nothing, if/when a strike happens. Still, plenty of guys presently in the NFL will still be in the NFL in four years, and if as many of them as possible have enough money to go a year without playing, the players have a chance of winning.

It’s nevertheless a small chance, in part because the league would likely hire replacement players and continue to stage games, like the league did in 1987. And as the games go on and players who want to play are tempted to return and get paid to play football, it can all fall apart. Like 1987.

Then there’s the “fight later” aspect of the message. Frankly, players can fight now. (Or, more accurately, in about nine months.) None of them are required to show up for the voluntary portion of the annual offseason program, which is essentially a license to legally strike from every April through June. If they can’t muster the will to collectively boycott the offseason program at some point over the next three offseasons, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be able to launch and maintain a work stoppage after the next four football seasons.

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Browns sign first-round pick Jabrill Peppers


With rookies arriving in Cleveland for the start of training camp on Sunday, the Browns have finally reached an agreement with first-round pick Jabrill Peppers.

Peppers signed his contract with the Browns Sunday evening. It was first reported by the NFL Network.

The Michigan defensive back was the 25th overall pick in the NFL Draft back in April. While the Browns managed to get N0. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett and No. 29 overall pick David Njoku under contract earlier this offseason, Peppers’ deal took a bit longer to get worked out.

PFT’s Mike Florio reported that disagreement regarding guarantees in the contract were the reason for the hold up on Peppers deal. But with veterans not due to report until Wednesday, the Browns still got the contract done in plenty of time.

Only four draft picks now remain unsigned: 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas (No. 3 overall), Titans receiver Corey Davis (No. 5 overall) and Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley (No. 24 overall). The Raiders’ second-rounder, Obi Melifonwu, also remains unsigned.

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Larry Fitzgerald not thinking 2017 is his last, while acknowledging it could be

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Larry Fitzgerald turns 34 next month. The Cardinals receiver reported to his 14th training camp still going strong, having caught 107 passes for 1,023 yards and six touchdowns last season.

I can still play at a high level,” Fitzgerald said Sunday, via Josh Weinfuss of ESPN. “If my number is called, I can still make a play.”

Fitzgerald made it clear he isn’t going into this season thinking it’s his last, but he acknowledged it could be. He wants to decide on his own terms when he walks away, pointing to Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and NBA player Tim Duncan as examples.

“The end is never really pretty for elite athletes,” Fitzgerald said. “It never looks good for the most time. You watch Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards uniform or see Tony Dorsett playing for the Denver Broncos or Shaquille O’Neal playing for the Boston Celtics. It’s weird because you’re used to seeing them play at their most dominant stage, or Willie Mays running around with bad knees 20 years in. It’s not pretty. But for me, I really want to be able to play and do things at a high level and be able to walk away and still be someone who can play at a high level.”

With 1,125 receptions for 14,389 yards and 104 touchdowns, Fitzgerald already has Canton numbers. What he lacks is a championship. He played in Super Bowl XLIII in 2009.

“That’s huge,” Fitzgerald said of winning a title. “That’s the only reason I’m playing at this point. From a personal standpoint and the things I’ve accomplished, they’re fine. But the thing that you will say is out of you control because you’re in a team sport, is a championship.”

Coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer’s futures after this season are uncertain, too, but Fitzgerald said that won’t play a part in whether he returns in 2018.

“I don’t really make any decisions based on anybody else,” Fitzgerald said. “I never really have. I don’t know what the future holds. That’s why this year is so much more important because we don’t have to think about what we’re doing after Feb. 4. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the day until then and how we can improve and get better and do what we need to do to give ourselves an opportunity to just get into the playoffs and possibly win the division and try to win the NFC championship game and get to the Super Bowl.

“That’s really what’s important. The long term doesn’t mean anything at this point.”

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Jerry Jones dismisses allegations from Ezekiel Elliott’s accuser

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The initial quotes that emerged from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ Sunday remarks to the media suggested that he attached no credibility to the accusations made against running back Ezekiel Elliott. Other quotes make it obvious that Jones has decided that the alleged victim simply isn’t telling the truth.

“My opinion is there’s not even an issue over he said/she said,” Jones said, via Todd Archer of “There’s not even an issue there.”

Given that the alleged victim clearly believes something happened, it’s clear Jones doesn’t believe her. More accurately, it’s clear Jones believes Elliott.

And that’s the way this one will go, truth be damned. Those who want to see Elliott on the field for the Cowboys will be inclined to believe him, those who don’t like the Cowboys will be inclined to believe the alleged victim, and whatever actually happened doesn’t matter because there’s only two people who know for sure and they’re locked in to their versions of the events.

A full-blown he said/she said hasn’t really emerged yet, because the “she” in that equation has yet to go public with specific claims and contentions against Elliott. Jones’ decision to publicly dismiss her story could potentially prompt her to react by telling her story, fully and completely.

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Titans’ Sebastian Tretola suffers minor injury in shooting

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Titans guard Sebastian Tretola suffered a minor injury early this morning when he was shot in the leg.

The Titans released a statement saying Tretola was grazed by a bullet.

“We are aware of the reports that [Tretola] received treatment for a wound when he was grazed by a bullet,” the statement said, via Paul Kuharsky. “He has been released from the hospital and is thankful for only a minor injury.”

The shooting took place in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Tretola played his college football for the Razorbacks. Tretola was a 2016 sixth-round pick of the Titans who played in one game as a rookie.

Tretola has recently been in the news because he and Titans receiver Tajae Sharpe were accused of assaulting a man outside a Nashville bar. Tretola and Sharpe say they defended themselves after the man attacked them, and they have filed a lawsuit against the man alleging that he falsely accused them.

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