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NFL morning after: Peyton’s place in history

peytonwave AP

The list of players who have won at least five MVP awards in the major sports reads like a who’s who of the greatest athletes in history. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan in the NBA. Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky in the NHL. Barry Bonds (perhaps with an asterisk) in Major League Baseball. And that’s it.

Peyton Manning, who almost certainly clinched the fifth Most Valuable Player award of his stellar NFL career, is about to join that list.

We could debate where Manning ranks among the all-time great quarterbacks in football history, but I almost think that’s too narrow a debate. Perhaps the discussion needs to be where Manning ranks among the great competitors in the history of sports.

Think about all Manning has accomplished. He’s already the only NFL player who has ever won four MVP awards. He already owns several NFL records and will most likely own every significant career passing record before he’s finished. In addition to his fifth MVP award this year, he’s also going to get his 13th Pro Bowl selection and his seventh first-team All-Pro selection and perhaps his eighth offensive player of the year award. Last year he added a comeback player of the year award to his trophy case. In college he was a first-team All-American and winner of the Sullivan Award as America’s greatest amateur athlete. In high school he was the national player of the year.

Manning broke the NFL record for touchdown passes in a season in Sunday’s win over the Texans, with his 51st touchdown pass of the year giving the Broncos their final score in an easy win. Next week he’s likely to break the NFL record for passing yards in a season, as the Broncos just need to beat the Raiders to secure home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. They’re one win away from heading into the postseason as the favorites to come out of the AFC and go to the Super Bowl. But as I was watching that unfold on Sunday, I was thinking two somewhat contradictory things.

First, I was thinking that it’s undeniable how great Peyton Manning is. He’s been an American sports star since he was a teenager, and he’s the best player in the NFL today at age 37. He’s about to get his fifth MVP, and there are another few seasons when he had a good case for the award (including last year, when he came in second). He’s just consistently amazing.

But the second thing I was thinking is that, no matter how much he does individually, he won’t be remembered as the greatest ever if he doesn’t get a second Super Bowl ring. That’s not right — football is the ultimate team sport, and no one wins or loses alone — but that’s the way it is. If any team other than the Broncos is hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy on the first Sunday in February, this will be remembered as another year when Peyton Manning didn’t get it done.

To me, though, Manning’s place in history is secure. He’s the best quarterback who ever lived.

Manning was the player who impressed me most on Sunday. Below are some other thoughts:

Dallas has a badly coached defense. We’ve been talking all season about what a bad job Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is doing, and there are many examples of that, but I was particularly struck by how ill-prepared the Dallas defense was when Washington showed a new formation on Sunday. With Washington’s offense lining up four receivers to the left side early in the second half, the Dallas secondary didn’t know how to line up in coverage, and so they blew a timeout — and then Dallas gave up a touchdown pass two plays after that timeout. If your defense is wasting timeouts because you can’t figure out what the other team’s offense is doing, and if you can’t get your coverage straightened out even after you’ve called timeout, you’ve got serious problems. Firing Rob Ryan and hiring Kiffin was a huge mistake for the Cowboys.

Weird call that I liked: Longtime Jaguars center Brad Meester had never caught a pass in his NFL career, but because he was playing his last home game after announcing that he’ll retire at the end of the season, the Jags decided to call a trick play with Meester as an eligible receiver. Sure enough, Meester caught the pass and then made a nifty little move to run for a first down. The Jaguars have had a rough season, but they haven’t quit on coach Gus Bradley, and plays like that pass to Meester show why: Players enjoy playing for a coach who makes football fun, and what’s more fun than letting a 300-pound 36-year-old catch a pass?

Weird call that I disliked, Part 1: With the Broncos facing fourth-and-3 in Houston, the offense stayed on the field, and I liked that decision — Denver’s offense should be able to pick up three yards on Houston’s defense. But I hated the play they ran, with Peyton Manning throwing a short pass to tight end Julius Thomas, who was tackled for a two-yard gain. If you’re throwing on fourth down, throw past the line to gain.

Weird call that I disliked, Part 2: With the Titans facing fourth-and-goal in Jacksonville, the offense stayed on the field, and I liked that decision — you’ve got nothing to lose, why not go for it? But I hated the play they ran, with Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing it out the back of the end zone. If you’re throwing on fourth down, don’t throw it away.

Terron Armstead wasn’t ready. Armstead, the rookie left tackle inserted into the Saints’ starting lineup for the first time on Sunday, looked pretty much the way you’d expect a rookie from a small school like Arkansas-Pine Bluff to look in his first NFL start. The Saints have had problems on their offensive line all year, and I understand why Sean Payton wanted to see if Armstead could help protect Drew Brees’s blind side, but Armstead simply wasn’t up to the task. The Panthers’ pass rush terrorized Brees all day.

Luke Kuechly is amazing. The flip side of the Saints’ offense struggling is that the Panthers’ defense was incredible in Sunday’s win over New Orleans. Kuechly, the second-year linebacker, had an unbelievable day: His 24 tackles were tied for the most the NFL has ever recorded by one player in a game, since tackles began being tracked as a statistic in 1994. Kuechly also became the first player since Derrick Brooks to record 20 tackles and an interception in the same game.

How can teams play so badly, with so much on the line? The Bears entered Sunday night knowing a win would clinch the NFC North. They lost 54-11. The Ravens entered Sunday knowing that if they won out they’d make the playoffs. They lost 41-7. The Lions entered Sunday knowing they needed to win to stay alive. They lost at home to the woeful Giants. The Dolphins entered Sunday knowing that if they won out they’d make the playoffs. They were destroyed by the hapless Bills.

We have an exciting Week 17 ahead of us. Some years all of the top teams are locked into their playoff spots before the season’s final Sunday. But not this year. Only one team, the Chiefs, knows its playoff seed (No. 5 in the AFC). Every other contender still has something to play for. We’re going to see some great football on Sunday. Including, I expect, Peyton Manning to set a new NFL record for passing yards in a season while leading the Broncos to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

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Aldon Smith apologizes for his suspension

Smith Getty Images

On Friday, the NFL announced the nine-game suspension that has been imposed on 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith, for multiple violations of the personal-conduct policy and substance-abuse policy.  On Saturday, the NFLPA issued a statement on Smith’s behalf.

“I apologize to my teammates, coaches, the entire 49ers organization and 49ers fans for not being able to contribute on the field for the next several weeks,” Smith said.  “Over the last year, I have learned a lot and I’’m working hard to grow from my experiences. I want to thank my family and friends, my teammates, my union and the 49ers for supporting me during this process. I will be at work daily to participate in all permitted work activities, and to support my teammates, just as they have supported me.””

Smith largely has stayed out of trouble since his September 2013 DUI incident, but for that whole fake bomb threat thing at LAX.  He’ll need to stay out of trouble going forward, or he’ll get suspended again — possibly even longer than nine games.

Speaking of nine games, we (or at least I) continue to believe that, with good behavior and given that Smith apparently waived his appeal rights under both policies, he possibly will be reinstated in fewer than nine games, if he can stay out of trouble and otherwise do what is expected of him.

It’ll be much easier for Smith to do that, given that he’s permitted to be around the team.  The outcome remains confusing, since if he’d been suspended only under the personal-conduct policy, he would have been frozen out.  Again, the apparent waiver of his appeal rights may have had something to do with that decision.

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Report: Packers expected to keep just one backup for Rodgers

Scott Tolzien, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn AP

The Packers are looking likely to enter the season with just one backup for Aaron Rodgers.

The club isn’t expected to keep both Scott Tolzien or Matt Flynn on the 53-player roster, Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com reported Saturday. In short, the Packers are likely to decide between Flynn and Tolzien.

The 26-year-old Tolzien would be subject to waivers. He has practice squad eligibility. Flynn, 29, would be free to immediately sign elsewhere if released.

Tolzien had a strong preseason, completing 38-of-56 passes for 477 yards and three TDs with no interceptions. However, Flynn has risen to the occasion in relief of Rodgers throughout his career. What’s more, Flynn outplayed Tolzien in the 2013 regular season.

In all, both quarterbacks could very well end up on NFL rosters this season. But both won’t be on Green Bay’s 53-player roster, it appears.

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Panthers cut guard Chris Scott

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The Panthers’ offensive line has gone several changes in the offseason due to retirement.  On Saturday, the Panthers opted to make a change via termination of employment.

Per a league source, guard Chris Scott has been released.

In 2013, his first year with the team, Scott appeared in 10 regular-season games, with eight starts.  Rookie Trai Turner is expected to start at right guard for the Panthers in 2014.

Scott has four years of service, so he’ll instantly become a free agent.

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Browns part ways with veteran wideout Nate Burleson

Nate Burleson AP

The Browns didn’t do nearly enough to fix the wide receiver position this offseason, knowing Josh Gordon would be suspended.

But it seemed that bringing in Nate Burleson was a wise move, to lend some ballast to a young group.

But the Browns apparently thought they didn’t need him, as Burleson was cut this morning, according to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The Browns will be counting on Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins and a a number of young players, and you get the sense there will come a time when they wished they had a veteran in the locker room.

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Vikings set Fred Evans free

Evans Getty Images

An early surprise on 53 day comes from the land of 9,947 more lakes than that.

The Vikings have parted ways with veteran defensive lineman Fred Evans, per a league source.

Evans has served as a key member of the team’s defensive tackle rotation since 2007.  In 2013, he appeared in 14 games with three starts.

His departure should be regarded as good news in one respect.  If Linval Joseph wasn’t expected to be ready to return from getting shot in the leg after a preseason game, Evans probably wouldn’t have been cut.

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Idonije out in New York

Idonije AP

The Giants’ march to 53 includes a veteran defensive lineman who possibly is reaching the end of an intriguing road in professional football.

Per a league source, veteran defensive lineman Israel Idonije has been cut by the Giants.

He played at the University of Manitoba and wasn’t invited to the Scouting Combine.  So he showed up on his own, handing out tapes of his performances from a brown paper bag.

It didn’t work on draft day, but Idonije got an initial shot with the Browns before finding a nine-year home with the Bears.  Following the 2012 season, Idonije signed with the Lions for 2013.  He then re-joined the Bears earlier this year, but he was cut in June.

Idonije landed with the Giants in early August, but the Giants have moved on.  Idonije instantly becomes a free agent, able to sign with any team.  If he has the same relentlessness that earned him a spot in the NFL in the first place, Idonije may not be done yet.

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Reports: Washington cuts Zach Hocker, keeps Silas Redd

Silas Redd AP

Washington has reportedly made a decision in its kicker competition.

The club will waive rookie Zach Hocker, John Keim of ESPN.com reported Saturday morning. The seventh-round pick from Arkansas had been challenging incumbent kicker Kai Forbath.

In other Washington personnel news, undrafted rookie tailback Silas Redd is set to make the 53-player roster, Dianna Marie Russini of NBC Washington reported. The former USC and Penn State running back led Washington in rushing yards (157) and carries (34) in the preseason.

While Washington will keep Redd, it will be releasing second-year tailback Chris Thompson, Lake Lewis Jr. of SportsJourney.com reported. A Florida State product, Thompson was a fifth-round pick in 2013.

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Giants brush off Curtis Painter, keeping just two QBs

Zach Kerr, Curtis Painter AP

The Giants are working (slowly, painfully) on a new offense.

And they’re only going to keep two quarterbacks to run it.

According to NJ.com, quarterback Curtis Painter is among the early cuts for the Giants.

That leaves Ryan Nassib as Eli Manning’s only backup, and frankly, with the injury problems they had up front, a third quarterback would have been a luxury.

They’ve also released defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, defensive back Bennett Jackson, linebacker Dan Fox, fullback John Conner, offensive lineman Jamaal Johnson-Webb, tight end Kellen Davis.

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Report: Ravens release A.Q. Shipley

Keith Wenning, Dennis Pitta AP

The Ravens are reportedly releasing a veteran interior lineman with quite a bit of recent starting experience.

The club is parting ways with offensive guard A.Q. Shipley, Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun reported Saturday. A nine-game starter for Baltimore a season ago, the 28-year-old Shipley could appeal to clubs looking for veteran line help.

The club will also waive rookie quarterback Keith Wenning and second-year offensive lineman Ryan Jensen, Wilson reported. Both are recent sixth-round picks.

Jensen and Wenning have practice squad eligibility should they clear waivers. So would rookie tailback Fitzgerald Toussaint, who is also being waived by the Ravens, according to the Sun.

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Welcome to 53 day

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Some call it cutdown day, referring to the fact that up to 22 players from each team will be bounced by 4:00 p.m. ET.  But why not celebrate the guys who made it?

So, at least for now (as in, until I press “publish” on this post), I’ll call it “53 day.”  Welcome to it.

We’ll be keeping up as best we can with the dizzying array of roster moves.  Here’s how it will work.

The latest breaking news that flows into PFT headquarters will be posted on our Twitter page.  We’ll post the information here immediately thereafter, and we’ll eventually (hopefully sooner than later) add the information to the official PFT roster tracker.

One last point — before any of the bubble players pops the bubbly, keep in mind that the aftershock from the flood of available players will prompt more roster moves and potentially claim the spot of a player who had made it.

In St. Louis, for example, defensive end Michael Sam could end up winning a roster spot for now — and he then could lose that spot if the Rams sign a veteran quarterback to back up Shaun Hill.

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Mike Flacco released by Chargers

Chargers Getty Images

Tight end Mike Flacco may one day be elite.  But not yet.  Not yet.

Flacco, the younger brother of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, will be released by the Chargers, per a league source.  Mike, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in May, had put together a solid preseason.  He lost out in a numbers game.

“This is a great place to learn how to play tight end,” Flacco recently said, via ESPN.com.  “Unfortunately, there’s some good tight ends in front of me on the depth chart. But between the coaching and guys in front of you to watch, it’s a great place to learn.”

The 27-year-old rookie will now hit the waiver wire, and maybe another team with serious needs at tight end about which I just wrote a few minutes ago (scroll or look down) will be interested.

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Kellen Davis done in New York

Kellen+Davis+DOjoqPnGYGSm Getty Images

It’s still unclear who’ll emerge as the top tight end for the Giants this year.  It’s becoming more clear who won’t.

Kellen Davis is the latest to be release, joining Dickensian antagonist Xavier Grimble as former Giants tight ends.  Davis had three catches for 12 yards in five preseason games.  He previously has played for the Bears from 2008 through 2012 before winning a Super Bowl ring with the Seahawks in 2013.

The Giants list Larry Donnell and Daniel Fells as the backup.  Adrien Robinson is the third tight end, for now.

Presumably, G.M. Jerry Reese and company will be watching the wire today for potential upgrades at the position, given that the three remaining players have scant NFL experience.

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Browns cut Dion Lewis

DionLewis AP

Running back Dion Lewis emerged from Pitt in 2011, joining another former Pitt tailback (LeSean McCoy) on the roster of the Steelers.  But for Lewis, a fifth-round draft pick, the NFL thing hasn’t gone nearly as well.

Traded for the Browns for linebacker Emmanuel Acho after two seasons, 24 regular-season games, and 171 total rushing yards, Lewis broke a leg last summer, missing all of 2013.  He returned to the team determined to make a dent in the depth chart.

Per a league source, it didn’t happen.  Lewis has been cut by the Browns.

He’s got fewer than four years of service, so he’ll hit the waiver wire before becoming a free agent.

The Browns apparently will start Ben Tate at tailback, with Terrance West and Chris Ogbonnaya behind Tate.

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Texans move on from Ricardo Mathews

Mathews AP

After four years with the Colts, defensive lineman Ricardo Mathews joined the Texans, who were looking to replenish depth after the departure of Antonio Smith and Earl Mitchell.

The Texans have decided to rely on their defensive-line depth elsewhere.  Per a league source, Mathews has been released.

Mathews appeared in 16 regular-season games each of the last two years, with six starts.  Because he has four years of service, Mathews instantly becomes a free agent.

PFT also has confirmed that the Texans have released linebacker Chris McAllister.  Undrafted out of Baylor, McAllister joined the Texans in May.  He’ll first be exposed to waivers, and then he’ll be eligible to sign with any team or practice squad.

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Eagles’ Travis Long suffers torn ACL

tajhboyd AP

The Eagles have lost some linebacker depth as Travis Long has been lost for the season.

Long, who spent last year on Philadelphia’s practice squad and was expected to make the 53-man roster this year, suffered a torn ACL in Thursday’s preseason finale, according to Philly.com. Long’s injury came on the series after he sacked Jets quarterback Tajh Boyd.

The injury is to Long’s left ACL. He tore his right ACL in 2012 during his senior season at Washington State, which is one of the reasons he went undrafted last year. But the Eagles thought he was coming along well after signing as an undrafted free agent and had high hopes that he’d be a contributor this year.

Although Long was not projected to start this year, he was versatile enough to play inside linebacker, outside linebacker, defensive end and multiple special teams positions, and he’ll be tough to replace.

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