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PFT’s Week 16 picks

Titans AP

I entered the week eight games behind MDS.  I exited the week eight games behind MDS.

And now I have only 32 games left to make up an eight-game gap.

But it’s not time to surrender.  A sweep this week gets me halfway to a tie, since we disagree on four games.

We each went 9-7 in Week 15.  For the year, he’s 147-77.  I’m 139-85.

All picks appear below.  As they always do.

Dolphins at Bills

MDS’s take: Going to Buffalo in December won’t be an easy road trip for Miami, as the Bills’ defense is playing well. But it’s hard to pick a team with nothing to play for against a team that just needs to win out to make the playoffs.

MDS’s pick: Dolphins 24, Bills 20.

Florio’s take:  Buffalo already beat the Dolphins in Miami.  With Thad Lewis at quarterback.  Lewis is back at quarterback, and the rematch occurs in Buffalo.  But the weather won’t be all that frightful, and the Dolphins have come a long way since losing to the Bills in October.

Florio’s pick:  Dolphins 27, Bills 17.

Saints at Panthers

MDS’s take: The Saints looked lousy away from home last week, and I expect them to look lousy away from home again this week. That’s bad news in New Orleans, because losing this game likely means losing the division, which in turn means the Saints will spend the postseason on the road.

MDS’s pick: Panthers 23, Saints 17.

Florio’s take:  New Orleans squandered a chance to nail down the division and secure a bye by losing badly to the Rams.  The Panthers now get them outside in Charlotte for the biggest game at Bank of America Stadium in a long time.  A win puts Carolina in the driver’s seat that the Saints squandered, and the Panthers have the defense to disrupt Drew Brees’ timing.

Florio’s pick:  Panthers 27, Saints 20.

Vikings at Bengals

MDS’s take: The Vikings are actually looking like a decent team with Matt Cassel at quarterback, while the Bengals turned in a lousy effort last week against the Steelers. But with the Bengals suddenly in danger of missing the playoffs, Marvin Lewis will have his team ready for a big game.

MDS’s pick: Bengals 34, Vikings 21.

Florio’s take:  Relegated to spoiler, the Vikings have played that role well, tying the Packers, beating the Bears, and upending the Eagles.  But Cincinnati hasn’t lost at home this year, and they are one of the best teams in the league when properly focused.  They’ll be focused on Sunday.

Florio’s pick:  Bengals 24, Vikings 13.

Broncos at Texans

MDS’s take: The Broncos are two wins away from clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Texans are two losses away from clinching the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Both teams will get halfway there on Sunday.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 35, Texans 10.

Florio’s take:  In 2012, Peyton Manning wanted to come to Houston.  But the Texans didn’t want him.  On Sunday, Houstonians will get to see what they’ve been missing.  A lot.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 42, Texans 20.

Titans at Jaguars

MDS’s take: This game is utterly meaningless unless you care who comes in second place in the AFC South. I’ll take the Titans to win a close one.

MDS’s pick: Titans 24, Jaguars 21.

Florio’s take:  The Titans aren’t in the losing business.  In Jacksonville, they’ll be in the not winning business.  If they’re really lucky, they’ll be in the tying business.

Florio’s pick:  Jaguars 30, Titans 27.

Colts at Chiefs

MDS’s take: In this likely preview of a wild card playoff game in two weeks, the surging Chiefs will prove that they’re a whole lot better than the slumping Colts.

MDS’s pick: Chiefs 35, Colts 17.

Florio’s take:   They seem to be locked in as the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, but the Chiefs still have some incentive to play hard.  If they win and the Broncos stumble only once, the No. 1 seed remains within reach for a team that won only two games in 2012.

Florio’s pick:  Chiefs 28, Colts 20.

Browns at Jets

MDS’s take: Neither of these teams is any good on offense, but the Jets are decidedly better on defense and special teams, and I’ll pick them on the strength of that.

MDS’s pick: Jets 17, Browns 13.

Florio’s take:  The 2014 preseason has begun for both teams.  Flip a coin.  Throw a dart.  Light a match.

Florio’s pick:  Browns 17, Jets 10.

Bears at Eagles

MDS’s take: The NFC North leaders visit the NFC East leaders in a game that figures to showcase the weaknesses of Chicago’s defense. I expect Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy to have a huge game as the Eagles roll to a big win.

MDS’s pick: Eagles 28, Bears 17.

Florio’s take:  Even with linebacker Lance Briggs expected to be back for the Bears, Chicago doesn’t have the defense to slow down LeSean McCoy and the rest of the Philly offense.

Florio’s pick:  Eagles 31, Bears 24.

Buccaneers at Rams

MDS’s take: Both of these teams have shown more fight late in the season than I expected, so this game may be interesting to watch even though it doesn’t mean anything to the playoff race. I like the Rams, who are a last place team in the NFC West but would be contenders in the NFC North.

MDS’s pick: Rams 27, Buccaneers 20.

Florio’s take:  The consistently inconsistent Rams stunned the Saints last week.  And so it would be fitting for the Rams to stumble against the Bucs, especially with a trip to Seattle looming.

Florio’s pick:  Buccaneers 24, Rams 21.

Cowboys at Redskins

MDS’s take: Dallas’s D is terrible, but Washington is terrible on offense, defense, and special teams. Advantage: Cowboys.

MDS’s pick: Cowboys 34, Redskins 20.

Florio’s take:   The Cowboys are coming apart, and the Redskins have nothing to lose.  Especially since they’ve already lost their first-round draft, which pick belongs to the Rams.  Kirk Cousins riddles the Dallas defense and London Fletcher lifts the Washington defense in his final home game.

Florio’s pick:  Redskins 35, Cowboys 31.

Giants at Lions

MDS’s take: The Lions have choked away their NFC North lead, but they at least have a slight chance to get to the playoffs. The Giants, on the other hand, are playing like a team that just wants this bad season to be over with already.

MDS’s pick: Lions 34, Giants 20.

Florio’s take:  It would be fitting for the Lions to blow another game they need to win.  But they play the Giants.  And the Giants aren’t good.

Florio’s pick:  Lions 30, Giants 20.

Cardinals at Seahawks

MDS’s take: Give Arizona a lot of credit for staying in the NFC playoff race a lot later into the season than most people expected, but the Seahawks will crush the Cardinals’ hopes on Sunday and ensure that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC goes through Seattle.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 35, Cardinals 14.

Florio’s take:  The best team to not make the playoffs will give the Seahawks a great tuneup for their coming playoffs games.  While the Cardinals have done great things this year, no one will be beating Seattle in its own building.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 24, Cardinals 10.

Steelers at Packers

MDS’s take: With the Packers now having a clear path to the NFC North title, they’ll take care of business against an inconsistent Steelers team.

MDS’s pick: Packers 24, Steelers 20.

Florio’s take:  The last time the Packers rallied for a playoff spot, they beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl.  While the Super Bowl is a long way away, a win over the Steelers could at least propel the Pack toward a fifth straight postseason berth.

Florio’s pick:  Packers 34, Steelers 31.

Raiders at Chargers

MDS’s take: The Chargers still have an outside shot at a wild card, and if they somehow get into the playoffs I think they’d be a dangerous team. It probably won’t happen, but they will take care of business against a Raiders team that has nothing left to play for.

MDS’s pick: Chargers 38, Raiders 20.

Florio’s take:  Even if the Chargers don’t make it to the playoffs (and they likely won’t), they’re laying the foundation for future competitiveness.  The Raiders aren’t.

Florio’s pick:  Chargers 30, Raiders 17.

Patriots at Ravens

MDS’s take: The Patriots have been the better team for most of this season, but the Ravens are playing their best football at the right time, while New England is struggling. I like the Ravens to win a tough, physical, low-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Ravens 14, Patriots 13.

Florio’s take:  The Ravens have won four in a row.  The Patriots have suffered one too many injuries to remain highly competitive.  Baltimore moves another big step closer to a sixth straight playoff appearance.

Florio’s pick:  Ravens 22, Patriots 17.

Falcons at 49ers

MDS’s take: In the most lopsided game of the week, the 49ers will roll to an easy win, while the Falcons will wish this disaster of a season could end already.

MDS’s pick: 49ers 45, Falcons 7.

Florio’s take:  The last game at Candlestick Park comes against an opponent that is neither nimble nor quick.

Florio’s pick:  49ers 35, Falcons 21.

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Jets sending six to work out Mariota

Playoff Championship Ohio St Oregon Football AP

Back from Arizona after the league meetings, the Jets will now be heading west for a workout with quarterback Marcus Mariota.  And they may need a bigger plane to get there.

Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reports that six key decision makers will be heading to Oregon to work out Mariota, including G.M. Mike Maccagnan, coach Todd Bowles, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, quarterbacks coach Kevin Patullo, director of college scouting Rex Hogan, and director of player personnel Brian Heimerdinger.

The Jets currently sit at No. 6 in round one, and there’s a chance Mariota will slide to them.  There’s also a chance the Jets will become sufficiently enthralled with Mariota to trade up with the team bearing the nickname the Jets once had:  The Titans.

Three years ago, Washington gave up the No. 6 pick, two additional first-round picks, and a second round pick to jump to No. 2, where they selected quarterback Robert Griffin III.

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Titans bring back CB Brandon Harris

Brandon Harris, T.Y. Hilton AP

The Titans have re-signed a secondary reserve, reaching a one-year deal with cornerback Brandon Harris, the club said Friday.

Harris (5-10, 189) made 11 tackles in 11 games with Tennessee in 2014. A Miami (Fla.) product, Harris had played the previous three seasons with Houston, which took him in Round Two in 2011. Overall, Harris has recorded 48 tackles and 10 passes defensed in regular season play.

Harris will again vie for a backup role with the Titans, who are likely to start Perrish Cox and Jason McCourty at the cornerback spots next season. One factor working in Harris’s favor in the near future? He is just 25 years old, and his combination of experience and relative youth would enhance his value were he to have a breakout season at some point.

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Caldwell says things “didn’t work out” with Reggie Bush

Buffalo Bills v Detroit Lions Getty Images

Reggie Bush led the Lions in rushing in 2014, but they cut Bush before free agency.  At the league meetings in Arizona, coach Jim Caldwell didn’t have much to say about why Bush is no longer in Detroit.

“I think oftentimes you’ll find that there are going to be some adjustments here and there that you make that when you look at your team and make a determination on your personnel, what you think is best,” Caldwell said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.  “Sometimes you got to let some guys go, and sometimes you try to make certain you keep certain guys if you can.  But it’s not always the case, and in that particular case it didn’t work out.  So we look to do other things.”

Those “other things” don’t mean finding another running back.  Instead, Bush’s absence will mean more opportunities for Joique Bell and Theo Riddick.

“I think [Riddick is] going to be one of those guys that’s going to force us to get him that ball a little bit more because I think you’re really going to see him come,” Caldwell said.

While the Lions decided to move on from Bush, the 49ers stepped in with a bottom-of-the-market contract but major expectations that he’ll be an every down back, as they search for a Frank Gore replacement.

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Panthers claim Jonathan Martin off waivers from 49ers

Jonathan Martin AP

The Panthers just added some more offensive line depth, and have now employed both players offended by Richie Incognito.

The Panthers announced they claimed tackle Jonathan Martin off waivers from the 49ers, a day after he was cut loose there.

Martin has shown at times to have NFL talent, though the abuse he took in Miami made some question how he’d fit into a locker room in the future. The 49ers, with his old college coach Jim Harbaugh, were a good place for him to reestablish himself.

The Panthers could use all the tackle depth they can get their hands on, so Martin has an opportunity for playing time. For a team that opened last year with Byron Bell and a converted defensive tackle (Nate Chandler) as their starting tackles, they’ve now added two cheap upgrades in Michael Oher and Martin.

“Our goal is to build the strongest roster possible and add competition at every position,” Panthers General Manager Dave Gettleman said in a statement from the team. “Jonathan brings quality experience to our offensive line, having started 32 games in his career at both tackle spots.”

The Panthers had “Player A” from the Ted Wells report, guard Andrew McDonaldin camp last summer.

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Pagano, Grigson could have a hard time staying on same page this year

Pagano AP

2015 began as the year of the mutual parting, with a pair of successful coaches who were unable to achieve ultimate success leaving their teams.  That trend could continue in 2016, if the Colts don’t extend the contract of coach Chuck Pagano, and if he moves on after the season ends.

Complicating matters is the identical status of G.M. Ryan Grigson.  Both he and Pagano will be commencing contract years, which means that either Grigson or Pagano may bear the ultimate blame for the failure of the Colts to get beyond (or at least stay within 38 points of) the Patriots.

It also means that Grigson and Pagano could be tempted to blame each other, in the event that the 2015 season at any point unravels.  If, for example, the team’s run defense — its “Achilles heel,” per Pagano — continues to fail to slow down New England, Pagano could be tempted to blame it on the personnel, and Grigson could be tempted to blame it on the coaching.

Bob Kravitz of WTHR.com suspects, as he explained during Friday’s PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio, that a disconnect already exists between Pagano and Grigson.  The leak that Pagano (but not Grigson) won’t be getting a new contract before the season at a minimum raises a question about whether Pagano already is being set up to take the fall.

Regardless of their current relationship, it becomes critical for Pagano and Grigson to band together, setting aside a desire to survive something less than a full-blown purge and accepting the notion that both will stay or both will go.  Three years ago, owner Jim Irsay opted to press the reset button, firing both coach Jim Caldwell and G.M. Bill Polian.  This time around, Irsay may be inclined to fire only one or the other; after the 2001 season, Polian stayed and coach Jim Mora was let go.

To be as successful as they possible can be, Pagano and Grigson need to commit to cooperation and mutual support.  That’s definitely easier said than done, especially since one of them sits in a box with the owner during games and the other one is down on the sidelines, wondering what they may be talking about up there.

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Mike Westhoff thinks kickers are so good, special teams are boring

Jets coaches Ryan and Westhoff react while they played the 49ers in NFL game in East Rutherford Reuters

There was a time when kickers missed extra points regularly, went whole seasons without hitting a 50-yard field goal and struggled to boot kickoffs into the end zone. But that time is in the distant past.

That’s why Mike Westhoff, long one of the NFL’s most colorful special teams coaches, now thinks the kicking game is downright boring.

“The job I did doesn’t exist today,” Westhoff told ESPN. “What do you want me to coach, touchbacks? Not interested.”

Westhoff thinks the NFL needs to move extra points back, narrow the goal posts and make the hashmarks closer to the sidelines so that there are more field goals from difficult angles.

“Kicking has become easier today,” Westhoff said. “The kickers are bigger, stronger and better athletes than before.”

So much better that special teams just aren’t as fun as they used to be.

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Panthers add former Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin

Green Bay Packers v St Louis Rams Getty Images

On a day when another of their targets spurned them, the Panthers signed a guy they had in for a recent visit.

The team announced they had signed former Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin to a one-year contract.

Boykin spent three years with the Packers, but became a free agent when they didn’t tender him an offer this offseason.

He caught 49 passes in 2013, but fell down the pecking order when the regulars got well and caught just three passes last year.

Boykin grew up in Charlotte, attending Butler High, and has a chance to latch on in a much shallower depth chart than the one he was stuck on in Green Bay.

Earlier this afternoon, cornerback Alan Ball signed with the Bears after his visit to the Panthers.

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Foles may just be a stopgap in St. Louis

folesfisher AP

The Rams like Nick Foles enough that they turned down at least one offer of a first-round draft pick for Sam Bradford, and traded for Foles instead. But the Rams may not like Foles enough to keep him around beyond this year.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher says the Rams plan to draft a quarterback this year, and the presence of Foles doesn’t change that.

It’s our intention to draft one,” Fisher said, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The Nick trade has no bearing over what we do in the draft.”

But which quarterback will they draft? Florida State’s Jameis Winston seems to be going to Tampa Bay with the first overall pick, and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota will almost certainly be off the board when the Rams pick at No. 10. Would the Rams move up for Mariota? To hear Fisher talk about Winston and Mariota, they’re two players who are worth trading up to draft.

“They’re unique; they’re rare,” Fisher said. “They’ve clearly proven they can win games. Marcus obviously is a little bit more mobile than Winston is. But Winston makes all of the throws. They’re both very impressive to watch.”

Realistically, the Rams probably aren’t going to be able to draft either Winston or Mariota. But a quarterback like Baylor’s Bryce Petty, UCLA’s Brett Hundley or Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson could make sense in the second round. And Foles could make sense as a one-year starter who holds onto the job just until a second-round quarterback is ready to take over.

Which means Foles, who is heading into the final season of his contract, may be changing teams again at this time next year.

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This might be the year the Cowboys actually draft a quarterback

Sports Day AP

Every year around this time, people wonder if the Cowboys are going to draft a quarterback to groom for the future.

And every year, it keeps not happening.

But at least this time, owner Jerry Jones is acknowledging that the time to pick one to learn from Tony Romo might have finally come.

We do have to look to the future relative to quarterback,’’ Jones said, via David Moore of the Dallas Morning News. “It’s starting a time frame where a guy could come in and be a good backup.

“Look at how Romo evolved into the guy he is today. He did a little time with the clip board.”

Romo’s turning 35 next month, and some developmental lead time for the next guy might be nice. But the Cowboys have never bothered trying to draft and develop (which might not work anyway).

Since Jones bought the team and used the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft on Troy Aikman, they’ve only drafted three other quarterbacks: 1991 fourth-rounder Bill Musgrave, 2011 second-rounder Quincy Carter and 2009 fourth-rounder Stephen McGee.

And we know Jones was eyeballing Johnny Manziel last year, before his better angels (or son Stephen) took the keys from him.

So, after looking at that list, it’s reasonable to think that maybe they shouldn’t waste any more picks. But the latest mention points to the fact that the Cowboys know the clock’s ticking on Romo, and they’ll need a plan.

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Bears sign CB Alan Ball

Alan Ball, Justin Hunter AP

The Bears have added some depth in the secondary.

Alan Ball, a veteran cornerback who has been making the free agent rounds, signed with the Bears today.

Ball, who played his college football at Illinois, was a seventh-round pick of the Cowboys in 2007. He spent five years in Dallas, one in Houston and two in Jacksonville. Last year Ball started the first seven games of the season for the Jaguars before suffering a season-ending arm injury.

The Panthers showed a lot of interest in Ball — so much that there was an erroneous report that he had signed. Ultimately Ball left Carolina without a deal, and now he’s a Bear.

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Giants have high hopes for a “dominant” offense

Atlanta Falcons v New York Giants Getty Images

The Giants had a mediocre offense last season, the first year with Ben McAdoo as the coordinator. This year, they expect much bigger things.

That’s the word from Giants running back Rashad Jennings, who said quarterback Eli Manning is going to take a big step forward in his second season playing in McAdoo’s system.

I think we’re going to have a dominant offense,” Jennings said, via NJ.com. “Eli is really comfortable in the offense now — being able to control a lot from the line of scrimmage.”

The Giants’ decision to sign running back Shane Vereen could be bad news for Jennings, who may get fewer opportunities this season with Vereen in town. But Jennings sees Vereen’s presence as a plus.

“It’s going to be big,” Jennings said. “Any time you can add depth at any position, any room, it’s valuable. He’s a guy that’s been on a team that knows the recipe of winning. We extract from that. We’ll be able to add. Also, he’s a great catcher from the backfield. So that’s going to entice the coordinator to throw to the running backs more. So I’m happy with that. He’s a good player and from everything I understand he’s a good teammate. I’m glad to have him aboard.”

The Giants’ offense did take a step forward last year — even mediocre in 2014 is better than what they were in 2013 — but they need to take another step this year. Jennings sounds very confident they’ll do just that.

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Hernandez fiancee: I asked him if he killed Odin, he said no, that was it

shayanna AP

Aaron Hernandez’s fiancee testified in court today that he told her he did not murder their friend Odin Lloyd.

Shayanna Jenkins, who prosecutors say helped Hernandez get rid of evidence after Lloyd was shot and killed, testified in front of a judge — but not in front of the jurors — and said that Hernandez said that she asked her fiance directly whether he murdered Lloyd. He told her that he didn’t, and she didn’t press the matter.

“When Aaron got back from the police station, when I had found out that Odin was murdered, I asked him if he did it and he said no. That was the extent of our conversation,” she said.

Jenkins was also asked about a text message from Hernandez in which he wrote, “Go in back of the screen in movie room when u get home an there is the box.” Prosecutors allege that was Hernandez telling Jenkins where he had hidden the murder weapon and that she should get rid of it before police searched the house. Jenkins admits that she took a box from the home and threw it in a dumpster after that, but she says that was just a coincidence and that the text wasn’t an instruction for her to do so.

According to Michele Steele of ESPN, Jenkins mouthed “I love you” to Hernandez as she walked out of the courtroom.

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Jason Garrett: Catch rule robbed the NFL of a classic finish

Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett believes that a better-written NFL rule would have given Dez Bryant a catch at the end of the playoff game in Green Bay — and would have given the NFL an all-time playoff classic.

Garrett pointed out that the Cowboys would have had first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, setting up, potentially, a game as memorable as another Cowboys-Packers battle, the Ice Bowl.

“To have the Cowboys inside the 1-yard line at Lambeau Field with 4:45 to go 47 years after Bart Starr had a quarterback sneak is great for our game,” Garrett said, via the Star-Telegram. “To have Aaron Rodgers standing on the other sideline waiting for his opportunity to come back, that’s what we want. And Dez Bryant getting three feet and a forearm down I think should be a catch in in our league. I think we should find ways to make sure it is going forward. It has nothing to do with our game, our team, its about how to right the rule going forward.”

As it is, that game will be remembered more for a great play that didn’t count than for a great ending.

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Strange developments at Hernandez trial

Hernandez AP

On Thursday, a bomb threat interrupted the first Aaron Hernandez murder trial.  On Friday, things could get even more interesting.

The day has begun with Judge E. Susan Garsh individually questioning the jurors, in the presence of the lawyers and Hernandez.  Via Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated, the jurors were standing two feet from Hernandez while fielding and answering questions.

It’s not known what the jurors are being asked, but it’s entirely possible (if not probable) that the judge and the lawyers are ensuring that each juror will continue to serve without bias or prejudice in the aftermath of Thursday’s events, for which an arrest has been made.

Once testimony resumes, Hernandez’s fiancée, Shayanna Jenkins, is expected to testify.  Via Michele Steele of ESPN, Jenkins has arrived in court wearing her engagement ring.  Which suggests that she won’t be flipping on Hernandez today, regardless of the immunity from prosecution that she has received.

Then again, the presence of the ring will make her testimony even more credible, if she provides information that hurts Hernandez’s case.  Prosecutors believe Jenkins disposed of the murder weapon.

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Despite concussions, Troy Aikman says he feels good in retirement

2012 NFL Honors - Arrivals Getty Images

Both the book League of Denial and the PBS documentary that draws from it devote a great deal of attention to Troy Aikman, who played in a Super Bowl after suffering a serious concussion in the NFC Championship Game, and who retired in part because of concerns about concussions. But 15 years after his playing career ended, Aikman says he’s doing fine.

Aikman told Richard Deitsch of TheMMQB.com that he had a thorough neurological exam that gave him a clean bill of health. Aikman also said he has always felt that he remains mentally sharp and has never had any issues such as memory loss that would affect his ability to work as a broadcaster.

“It certainly gave me some peace of mind,” Aikman said. “But the reason I have never been concerned is that the job that I have with Fox is a mental exercise—recalling numbers and names and things of that nature. I am able to do that pretty readily. I do think broadcasting with Fox keeps my mind active, and I think it helps.”

Aikman says he would neither encourage a child to play football nor discourage a child from playing football, as he views it as an individual decision that may be right for some and wrong for others. But he’s clear that from his perspective, he’s benefited from playing the game.

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