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NFL morning after: Return of Rodgers a magical moment

aaronrodgers AP

You couldn’t have scripted it any better.

The great thing about sport is that it’s the ultimate drama because even the players don’t know the ending. But sometimes a football season gives us that perfect ending that would have seemed contrived if it came from a Hollywood screenwriter. And that’s what happened with the Green Bay Packers this year.

After the Packers’ star quarterback got hurt against the rival Bears, after the Packers went to their second-string quarterback and then their third-string quarterback and their fourth-string quarterback in an effort to save the season, the star came back and — after shaking off some rust — threw the incredible touchdown pass in the game’s final minute to deliver his team the division title.

Aaron Rodgers‘ return to the Packers wasn’t perfect. He had two early interceptions and the Packers’ offense struggled to get into a rhythm. But the best moments in an athlete’s career are the ones in which he overcomes adversity, and when Rodgers shook off the rust of missing two months with a broken collarbone and made his biggest play at the biggest time, that’s what made this one of the great moments in NFL history.

It was heartbreaking for Bears fans, exhilarating for Packers fans, and a perfect culmination of a wonderful NFL season.

Now we bring on the playoffs. But first, some final thoughts on the final Sunday of the regular season:

Nice touch. The Falcons sent Tony Gonzalez to midfield alone, as the only captain representing the team for the pregame coin toss. It was a great way to give Gonzalez a moment of recognition before the final game of his Hall of Fame career. Gonzalez finished his career with 1,325 catches for 15,127 yards and 111 touchdowns.

Sheldon Richardson joins Refrigerator Perry. Richardson, the Jets’ rookie defensive tackle, ran for a one-yard touchdown on Sunday against the Dolphins. Richardson and Perry, the former Bears defensive tackle, are the only players in NFL history to have three sacks and two rushing touchdowns in the same season. Perry played under Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan when he did it in 1985, and perhaps Jets coach Rex Ryan is paying tribute to his dad by using Richardson on offense.

Eli Manning concluded a miserable season. Manning completed 10 of 24 passes for 152 yards, a touchdown and an interception before leaving Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. That gave Manning a whopping 27 interceptions on the season. Only Brett Favre, who threw 29 interceptions in 2005, had more interceptions in any season in the 21st Century. In the same year that his big brother Peyton clinched his fifth MVP award, Eli had a year to forget.

Cordarrelle Patterson is something special. Patterson had a two-touchdown game in Sunday’s win over the Lions and became the first player in NFL history to have four receiving touchdowns, three rushing touchdowns and two kickoff-return touchdowns in NFL history. Patterson also became the first player in NFL history to have a 100-yard kickoff-return touchdown, 75-yard receiving touchdown and 50-yard rushing touchdown in a season. Patterson had a whopping 2,020 all-purpose yards in his rookie year. What a weapon this guy is going to be in Minnesota for years to come.

Anquan Boldin will have a major impact on the playoffs. Boldin had an outstanding game in the 49ers’ win over the Cardinals on Sunday, catching nine passes for 149 yards and a touchdown. And Boldin also had a huge game in the 49ers’ Week One win over the Packers. Now that the 49ers are preparing for a playoff rematch against the Packers, I fully expect Boldin to have another big game. Even though there were salary-cap issues, if the Ravens had it to do all over again, I think they would have made the necessary roster moves elsewhere to keep Boldin under the cap, rather than ship him to San Francisco. That trade made the 49ers better and the Ravens worse.

Drew Brees had a great game to cap a brilliant season. Brees threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns as the Saints clinched a playoff berth on Sunday, and I can’t help but think that Brees didn’t get enough credit for his great season simply because everyone was so in awe of the season Peyton Manning was having. This was Brees’s third straight year with more than 5,000 yards passing. Overall, there have been eight 5,000-yard seasons in NFL history, and Brees has four of them. That’s incredible.

Robert Mathis wraps up his best year. The 32-year-old Mathis spent most of his career as the “other” pass rusher in Indianapolis, generally overshadowed by Dwight Freeney. But this year Mathis led the league with 19.5 sacks and played the best he’s ever played. I actually think Mathis is an even better fit in the 3-4 scheme of Colts coach Chuck Pagano than he was in the 4-3 scheme when he played for Tony Dungy — and Mathis was plenty good in that scheme, too. Mathis is my choice for defensive player of the year.

Joe Flacco was this season’s biggest disappointment. After his outstanding postseason run that culminated in a Super Bowl MVP 11 months ago, the Ravens rewarded Flacco with a six-year, $120 million contract. And Flacco did not reward the Ravens with a year worthy of that kind of money. Flacco finished his season completing just 59.0 percent of his passes, with 19 touchdowns, 22 interceptions and eight fumbles, and the Ravens missed the playoffs. If Flacco isn’t a whole lot better next year, that contract is going to start to look like a millstone around the Ravens’ necks.

It felt like the postseason started a week early. Wasn’t that a thrilling NFL Sunday? Packers-Bears and Eagles-Cowboys were essentially playoff games, and several more games had a playoff feel to them. It’s been a great NFL season. Let the playoffs begin.

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Jason Worilds leaves with knee injury

Jason Worilds AP

Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds has been ruled out for the remainder of Thursday’s preseason game at Philadelphia with a right knee injury, the club said.

Worilds was credited with a sack of Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez early in the third quarter, but the play was nullified by a penalty. On the next play, Worilds appeared to be no longer in the game, and the Eagles scored a touchdown. The Steelers then ruled him out the rest of the way.

The 26-year-old Worilds had a breakout 2013 season, recording a career-high eight sacks. He’s playing under the one-year transition tender.

The Steelers have not played well in their third exhibition game of the summer, and starters have played well into the third quarer on both sides of the ball.

UPDATE 9:56 p.m. ET: Ken Laird of TribLive Radio in Pittsburgh reports Worilds was icing his knee.

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X-rays negative on LeSean McCoy’s thumb

McCoy AP

A sprain, not a break.

That’s the word on tailback LeSean McCoy’s right thumb.

According to the Eagles, X-rays on McCoy’s thumb came back negative, and he has been ruled out of the rest of Thursday’s exhibition against Pittsburgh.

Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports the injury is a sprain.

McCoy racked up 24 yards rushing on just four carries and caught a 22-yard TD pass in the first quarter before departing to get his thumb examined. He does not figure to play much, if at all, in the team’s final preseason game next Thursday.

The Eagles begin the regular season on Sunday, September 7 vs. Jacksonville.

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After scary moment, Jeremy Maclin returns to game

Jeremy Maclin AP

In what looks to be a good turn of luck for a player who’s coming back from a right knee injury that sidelined him last season, Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin stayed in Thursday’s exhibition vs. Pittsburgh after momentarily looking to have injured the leg again.

With about 10 minutes left in the second quarter, Maclin went down trying to make a sharp cut, and he grabbed his knee as he lay on the ground. However, Maclin reportedly was able to get up and walk off the field, and he was then seen walking on the sideline.

Then — happily — Maclin was back on the field on the Eagles’ next series. And he even started the drive with a nine-yard catch. In the end, it appeared to be just a brief scare for Maclin, one of the club’s key passing game players.

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Adrian Peterson misses a pair of practices

Peterson AP

The Vikings don’t plan to use running back Adrian Peterson much, if at all, during the preseason.  For the past two days, they haven’t used him at all during practice.

According to Matt Vensel of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Peterson has missed practice the last two days due to an undisclosed personal matter.  He is expected to travel to Kansas City with the Vikings for the team’s third preseason game of 2014.

Peterson hasn’t touched the football during the preseason since 2011, when he had 14 carries for 81 yards during the third preseason game, against the Cowboys.

This year, the Vikings have their first new offense since 2011.  It could take some time for Peterson to get comfortable in the attack, given the absence of preseason reps.

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LeSean McCoy returns to sideline after having right thumb X-rayed

LeSean McCoy AP

Eagles tailback LeSean McCoy left the club’s sideline in the first quarter of Thursday’s exhibition vs. Pittsburgh to get X-rays on his right thumb, the club’s official Twitter feed said.

The club said McCoy’s return was “unknown.” He was not on the field when the Eagles got the ball back late in the first quarter.

Before going inside to get checked out, McCoy showed no ill-effects from a toe injury that’s bothered him, racking up 50 yards on six touches. On his final play before departing, McCoy turned a short reception into a 22-yard TD.

Now, the focus turns to whether he’s suffered a hand injury. Perhaps of note: he was able to palm the ball with his right hand as he celebrated in the endzone right after the touchdown.

UPDATE 8:25 p.m. ET: Here’s some promising news for Eagles fans: Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports McCoy is having his hand taped on the Eagles’ sideline. And according to Jeff Darlington of NFL Media, McCoy still is wearing his pads.

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Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount both see action early for Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

As expected, the Steelers didn’t bench Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount for Thursday’s exhibition at Philadelphia after both were cited for marijuana possession.

In fact, Bell started and Blount played on the Steelers’ first drive. And it was an especially eventful drive for Bell, who rushed three times for 11 yards while dishing out and taking a good deal of punishment. While he showed excellent power finishing out a seven-yard run, he later took a hit to the head/neck area from Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans on a passing play.

Ryans was penalized on the play, and Bell left for one snap, giving way to Blount, who rushed for five yards on his first carry. However, Bell then re-entered the contest. The Steelers’ drive would end in a punt.

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Griffin stands by his “doubters” tweet

Griffin AP

Some folks conjure imaginary friends.  Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III has crafted some imaginary enemies.  On Wednesday, he chastised his unidentified — and possibly non-existent — “doubters” via Twitter.  On Thursday, Griffin dug in even deeper.

“As far as I’m concerned, I said what I needed to say,” Griffin said Thursday, via the Associated Press.  “It is what I believe, and what our household deems necessary to go out every day and be successful.”

Griffin added that he’ll continue to periodically communicate through Twitter, reasoning that his followers follow him for a reason.

“There are 1.1 million people on Twitter that want to hear what [I] have to say,” Griffin said, going scoreboard on his seven-figure collection of Twitter users who receive any and all of his tweets and retweets.  “And it’s not that we tweet all the time, but anytime we tweet something it gets blown up, but it is what it is.”

If Griffin has concocted a narrative that many doubt him in order to provide extra motivation for himself and his teammates, that’s fine.  The perception that he’s thin-skinned, however, will serve as chum in the Internet shark tank, inviting plenty of real doubt, hate, and vitriol to replace the exaggerated and/or fabricated collection of criticism that prompted his tweet.

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Chris Polk out for Eagles on Thursday night; Lance Moore expected to sit for Steelers

Chris Polk AP

The Eagles and Steelers will be several players short on Thursday night in Philadelphia.

Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin (hamstring), wide receiver Josh Huff (shoulder), linebacker Jake Knott (hamstring), tailback Chris Polk (hamstring), wide receiver Brad Smith (hamstring) and center Julian Vandervelde (back) will not play, the club’s website reported.

Polk, a second-year pro from Washington, is in a competition for a roster spot in a crowded RB corps.

The Steelers have announced the following players are not expected to play: wide receiver Lance Moore (undisclosed), tight end Eric Waters (concussion), center/offensive guard Cody Wallace (finger), long-snapper Greg Warren (knee), safety Will Allen (hamstring), running back Tauren Poole (hamstring), fullback Will Johnson (hamstring), wide receiver Shaquille Richardson (knee), linebacker Jordan Zumwalt (undisclosed).

UPDATE 6:51 p.m. ET: According to Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Eagles cornerback Cary Williams will also miss tonight’s game.

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Marrone mad after Bills brawl at practice for second straight day

Marrone Getty Images

Bills coach Doug Marrone said after fights broke out at Wednesday’s that he didn’t want to see that anymore. Apparently his players weren’t listening.

More fights broke out at today’s practice, and Marrone was not pleased. Marrone yelled at players for getting into it, and when defensive end Jerry Hughes said something back to his coach, Marrone went off, spewing profanity at Hughes and asking, “Do you want to play on this team?

Marrone also told Hughes, “If you’ve got a problem with me, you need to come and tell me.” The two talked after practice, and Marrone later said Hughes wasn’t the only one he was disappointed with.

“That’s directed at anyone who doesn’t want to be part of the team,” Marrone said. “I told Jerry that I love the way he practices and I love the way he plays special teams and how he goes about it. And we’ve got to get some other guys who are starters to do that.”

Some coaches believe that fights at training camp can be a good sign of a tough team, but Marrone doesn’t see it that way.

“I’m going to say it again, and I’m not going to answer another question on it: We’re responsible for the integrity of the game,” Marrone said, via ESPN. “Can you figure it out? Figure it out. We’re responsible for the integrity of the game. There is no use for fighting in the game of football. Period. End of discussion. Move on.”

Marrone sounds ready to move on from a fight-filled training camp, which concluded with today’s practice.

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Derek Carr won’t play this week

Derek Carr, George Johnson, Andre Fluellen AP

Raiders quarterback Derek Carr made a quick return to practice after suffering a concussion and rib injury during last weekend’s game against the Lions, but he hasn’t recovered enough for the team to play him against the Packers.

Steve Wyche of NFL Media reports that coach Dennis Allen said that Carr won’t play on Friday night because his bruised ribs are still sore. Allen added that Carr has been cleared after his concussion.

The injury likely eliminates what little chance Carr had of starting for the Raiders when they face the Jets in Week One. Barring an injury of his own, you can put Matt Schaub’s name into the lineup for that game.

His performance there and in the following weeks will determine how long it is before Carr gets his chance to lead the Raiders offense. If Schaub looks anything like he did with the Texans last season, it probably won’t be long.

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Report: Steelers want to sign Cortez Allen to new contract

Cortez Allen AP

The Steelers are reportedly efforting to sign one of their starting defensive backs to a contract extension.

According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the team wants to sign cornerback Cortez Allen to a new deal.

The 25-year-old Allen is in the final year of his contract. He has appeared in 44 games in three seasons with Pittsburgh, notching 121 tackles, defending 23 passes and recording four interceptions.

As a general rule, the Steelers don’t negotiate contracts during the regular season, so if Allen and Pittsburgh are to finalize a deal this year, it will have to be soon. Earlier this week, the club signed offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert to a five-year, $30 million contract.

The Steelers have long had a knack for signing their core players before they hit unrestricted free agency. Allen, who’s entering his prime, could draw quite a bit of interest next offseason, given his age and the demand for his position. But it appears Pittsburgh is working to strike a deal now.

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Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount officially charged with marijuana possession

Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount AP

Steelers running backs Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount are in Philadelphia to play the Eagles on Thursday, but they were in Pittsburgh on Wednesday when police found marijuana in a car the two men were in.

They were arrested and, on Thursday, formally charged with crimes. Ross Township Police detective Brian Kohlhepp informed PFT that Blount and Bell are both charged with marijuana possession, as was Mercedes Dollson, a 21-year-old woman who was also in the car at the time of the stop.

Bell, who was driving, has also been charged with driving under the influence of marijuana.

There’s no word on court dates at this point and the cases should take some time to make their way through the legal system. Until they do, it is unlikely that either player will face league discipline that could threaten their availability for games this season.

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Patriots cut TE D.J. Williams, DL Marcus Forston

D.J. Williams AP

The Patriots have made yet another roster move at the tight end position, announcing the release of D.J. Williams on Thursday.

A fourth-year pro from Arkansas, Williams appeared in two games for New England in the 2013 regular season. He has also played for Jacksonville (2013) and Green Bay (2011-2012).

The Packers selected the 25-year-old Williams in the fifth round in 2011. He reportedly has dealt with a leg injury of late.

The move leaves the Patriots with four tight ends.

The Patriots also announced the release of defensive lineman Marcus Forston, a second-year pro who played in three games for New England a season ago.

The Pats have three open roster spots.

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Ron Rivera wants Cam Newton to run, except he doesn’t

Cam Newton AP

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was able to survive his first game on a rebuilt left ankle, and even ran around a bit.

But as much as Panthers coach Ron Rivera holds his breath when Newton takes off, he also knows that that’s who Newton is, and when Newton’s at his best.

“I’m going to yell at him because I want him to get rid of the ball. But if he runs, he runs,” Rivera said, via Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review. “He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to protect himself. He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do to make plays. So if he runs, then I think it’s a great sign.”

Newton grinned and said he wasn’t much of a slider, but Rivera said his quarterback will need to adapt

“[Hornets owner] Michael Jordan used to go to the hole all the time and dunk,” Rivera said. “But if you ask Michael, he realized that later in his career, he had to develop that jumper. So he went work at it. Cam’s the same way. He needs to develop as a passer.

“In an interesting way, this may have been the best thing that happened to him in terms of his pure quarterbacking development. He’s had to stay in the pocket, he’s had to have good footwork, he’s had to step into his throws. I think this has been a plus for him.”

That and a suspect offensive line will keep Newton on the move this year, and time will tell if he’s ready to.

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Jamaal Charles returns to practice

Jamaal Charles AP

Running back Jamaal Charles missed last Sunday’s preseason game against the Panthers after suffering a foot injury while moving himself out of the dorm that the Chiefs were staying in during training camp and missed the first couple of practices this week as well, but his absence from the field came to an end on Thursday.

The only difference between his return to work and the days before his injury was that Charles was running the plays of the Vikings as a member of the scout team. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton explained that the team didn’t want to take snaps away from players who would definitely be in the lineup on Saturday night, a group that doesn’t include Charles at the moment.

“It’s just a way for (Charles) to get work and not take away from guys that are definitely playing in this game,” Sutton said, via ESPN.com. “He gives us a good look in there. I’m glad to see him out there, period.”

Running back De’Anthony Thomas also returned to practice on Thursday, but safety Eric Berry and wide receiver Dwayne Bowe remained out and are unlikely to be in the lineup against Minnesota.

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