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NFL morning after: A great time for great quarterbacks

kaepernick AP

The NFL is, more than ever before, a quarterback league. And we’ve got some great ones playing in these playoffs.

If the wild card weekend taught us anything, it’s that the NFL in 2014 is dominated by quarterbacks. When quarterbacks are playing great football, like Andrew Luck and Alex Smith played in Indianapolis on Saturday, the results are spectacular. When quarterbacks are playing badly, like Andy Dalton played in Cincinnati on Sunday, the result is a team with no chance to win, even when its defense plays well.

The good news for fans who like offense is that next weekend’s four games have what may be the best quarterback matchups in NFL history. Just think about how good the quarterbacks are in the four divisional round games:

Philip Rivers vs. Peyton Manning: Manning will win the fifth Most Valuable Player award of his career for his record-breaking 2013 season, and he’s the best passer in football. But after Manning, the next-best passer in the NFL over the course of the 2013 season was Rivers. Rivers completed a league-leading 69.5 percent of his passes in the regular season, had 32 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and took a team that looked before the season like one of the worst in the NFL to the playoffs. This will be a great matchup of great passers.

Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady: Luck threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns as he got the first postseason win of his career on Saturday, and now he’ll travel to New England and face Brady, who has 17 career postseason wins. If the Colts can pull the upset, this could be a changing of the guard: The quarterback who has three Super Bowl rings giving way to a much younger quarterback who’s probably going to win multiple Super Bowl rings before his career is over.

Drew Brees vs. Russell Wilson: Brees topped 5,000 passing yards for the fourth time in his career this season; no one else has reached 5,000 yards more than once. Wilson, who grew up idolizing Brees, may be the most exciting player to enter the NFL in recent years: He scrambles like Fran Tarkenton and has a gun like John Elway.

Colin Kaepernick vs. Cam Newton: This is the one that has me the most excited because it’s the one that has the greatest potential to show us what the future of football will be. Running quarterbacks are here to stay, and in Kaepernick and Newton we have the two best running quarterbacks in football facing off. Kaepernick has two of the three best rushing performances by a quarterback in NFL postseason history, with his 181-yard game against Green Bay last year and his 98-yard game against Green Bay on Sunday. Newton led all quarterbacks in rushing in the regular season, with 585 yards, and he’s the all-time quarterback record holder for rushing touchdowns in a season.

Quarterback matchups don’t get any better than that, and that’s what I’m most excited about heading into the divisional weekend. Here are my observations from wild card weekend:

There were no 100-yard rushers. The flip side of the NFL being a league of great quarterbacks is that the running game has been de-emphasized. There wasn’t a single 100-yard runner in the NFL this weekend. In fact, it was a quarterback, Kaepernick, who led all runners in the wild card round with his 98-yard game against the Packers. Running backs just aren’t the NFL’s marquee players anymore.

Smith had a game like no other. Until Saturday, no player in NFL history had ever passed for 350 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and added 50 yards on the ground in any game, regular season or postseason. But Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith became the first player to do it on Saturday when he passed for 378 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, and added 57 rushing yards. Quarterbacks shouldn’t be judged on wins and losses: When a quarterback plays the way Smith played on Saturday and leads his team to 44 points, he shouldn’t be judged harshly just because his team’s defense gave up 45 points. But the reality is that quarterbacks are judged on wins and losses, and so a lot of people will choose to remember that Smith overthrew an open Cyrus Gray on what could have been a touchdown pass, that Smith lost a fumble and that Smith’s intentional grounding penalty took the Chiefs out of field goal range late in the game. Me, I’ll remember that Smith turned in the game of his life.

Hilton stepped up in a big way. T.Y. Hilton, who became the Colts’ No. 1 receiver by default after Reggie Wayne suffered a season-ending injury, had the best game of his career and one of the best games anyone has ever had in the playoffs on Saturday. Hilton’s 13 catches were tied for the second most in NFL postseason history, and his 224 receiving yards were tied for the third most in NFL postseason history. The Colts were very wise to take Hilton in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, the same draft in which they selected Andrew Luck. Those two are going to be a great combination for many years to come.

Two big changes for the Saints panned out. After the Saints’ Week 15 loss to the Rams, New Orleans coach Sean Payton decided he had seen enough of struggling kicker Garrett Hartley and left tackle Charles Brown. And so the Saints cut Hartley and signed Shayne Graham to take his place, and benched Brown and promoted rookie left tackle Terron Armstead to the starting lineup. Both moves looked very good in Saturday’s playoff win over the Eagles. Graham went 4-for-4 on field goals, while Armstead held his own against the Eagles’ pass rush and helped keep Drew Brees upright. Give Payton credit for recognizing two spots on his team that needed to get better, and making the necessary changes.

McCoy couldn’t get loose. During the regular season, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, averaged 5.1 yards a run and 10.4 yards a catch, and had 17 different plays of 20 yards or more. Against the Saints on Saturday, McCoy averaged just 3.7 yards a run and 3.8 yards a catch, and his longest play of the day was 11 yards. The ability of Rob Ryan’s New Orleans defense to keep McCoy in check was a huge part of the Eagles’ season ending on Saturday.

Lewis can build a defense, but he can’t build a quarterback. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has a well-earned reputation as a great defensive mind, and his defense was strong on Sunday, holding a good San Diego offense in check for most of the game. Unfortunately, Lewis has Andy Dalton as his quarterback, and Dalton was beyond terrible on Sunday, with three turnovers that pretty much handed the game to the Chargers. Lewis may need to sign or draft another quarterback this offseason because Dalton simply isn’t up to the task.

Keenan Allen plays the game the way it’s meant to be played. Allen, the rookie receiver who led the Chargers with 1,046 receiving yards, only had two catches for 21 yards on Sunday. So why am I singling Allen out for praise? Because I love the way this young man plays the game, even when he’s not getting the ball. Allen’s brutal but legal block to spring teammate Eddie Royal on a nine-yard run was my single favorite play of the weekend.

TV is better than being there. Three of the four teams that hosted games over the weekend had trouble selling out their stadiums, and no one should be surprised by that. The truth is, if you have an HD TV and a comfortable couch, sitting at home and watching the games for free is a lot better than paying a small fortune to sit in an uncomfortable stadium, often in terrible weather, surrounded by loudmouth drunks. I don’t blame the fans in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Green Bay who were slow to sell out their stadiums last week, and if anything surprises me, it’s that Philadelphia fans sold out their stadium within minutes of the Eagles putting playoff tickets for sale. If I lived in Philadelphia, I would have much rather been at home on Saturday afternoon, watching that great Chiefs-Colts second half, than in my car fighting traffic on my way to the game. And I would have rather been at home to watch my team lose to the Saints than sit in the cold on Saturday night. The best place to watch football is at home.

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Cowboys player allegedly involved in a sexual assault

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Despite unprecedented sensitivity to the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault in the NFL, incidents involving NFL players continue.

The latest allegedly happened on the evening of September 20.

According to the New York Daily News, defensive back C.J. Spillman has been accused of sexually assaulting a female at the team’s hotel.

“We have a sexual assault report we are investigating at this time, and it does involve C.J. Spillman,” a police spokesman told the Daily News.  “He is involved in the investigation.  We are looking into the matter.”

Spillman played on September 21 at St. Louis, and again on September 28 against the Saints.  On September 26, the alleged victim’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, alerted Commissioner Roger Goodell to the allegations.

It’s unclear whether the team or the league previously knew about it.  It’s also unclear why Spillman has not yet been placed on the rabbit-from-a-hat Commissioner’s Permission list.

Now that the situation has become publicly known, chances are that Spillman will land on paid suspension until the charges are resolved.  Or maybe the Cowboys will simply cut him, since he’s not a key player.

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Alexander says suspension arises from violation “many months ago”

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The four-game suspension imposed on Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander has become a 10-game suspension.  Alexander has issued a statement expressing regret for the incident that, according to Alexander, happened a long time ago.

“I’m very sorry to the Panthers organization, my teammates, and Panthers fans that my mistakes from many months ago will prevent me from contributing for several more weeks,” Alexander said in a statement.  “This discipline arose from a violation that occurred many months ago.  Since that violation, I have continued to grow, and I will continue to work hard, as I have been doing, to stay in shape and be a major contributor upon my return.   Through God’s favor, I will continue to show through my behavior that I have learned some valuable life lessons.”

While the violation triggering the 10-game suspension may have happened many months ago, it wasn’t only one violation that resulted in the suspension.  But for the revision to the substance-abuse policy, the latest violation would have resulted in Alexander missing an entire year, at a minimum.

A fourth-round pick in 2012, Alexander will be eligible to return after Week 15, barring another violation.

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Report: Aaron Dobson benched after he “mouthed off” to McDaniels

Aaron Dobson AP

The Patriots scratched wide receiver Aaron Dobson in each of the last two games.

We now reportedly have an idea why.

According to Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe, the Patriots benched Dobson for the Sept. 21 win vs. Oakland and the Sept. 29 loss at Kansas City after the second-year wide receiver “mouthed off” to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

A second-round pick in the 2013 draft, the 23-year-old Dobson showed potential as a rookie, hauling in 37 passes for 519 yards and four touchdowns. He’s appeared in one game this season, catching one pass for 13 yards.

The question now is whether Dobson can earn his way back onto the active roster for Sunday’s matchup vs. Cincinnati. This much is certain: team and player figure to be asked about the subject this week.

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Derek Carr could be the key to luring Gruden

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As the 2014 draft approached, Raiders owner Mark Davis developed a strong desire to draft quarterback Derek Carr.  On the afternoon before the draft began, chatter emerged that Davis was pushing for Carr to be taken with the fifth overall pick in round one.

The Raiders passed, as did each of the next 32 teams.  Then, with the fifth pick in round two, the Raiders pounced on Carr.

With a front office and coaching staff in win-now mode and a roster laden with veterans, it didn’t make sense.  With coach Dennis Allen already gone and Davis apparently interested in bringing Jon Gruden back to the Bay Area, it suddenly does.

The current thinking is that Davis wanted Carr because Davis believes Carr’s presence will help lure Gruden back to town.  For any coach with options (and it’s still not clear how many options Gruden really has had or will have), the quarterback position becomes nearly as important as the salary.  Davis thinks that Gruden’s favorite quarterback in the 2014 class was Carr.  Which could help Gruden choose to return to the Black Hole at a time when the roster otherwise contains plenty of red flags.

Other terms will be compensation and power.  Or, at a minimum, the power to hire someone Gruden trusts to set the table from a personnel standpoint.

It’s not clear whether Gruden has any interest in leaving the friendly confines of the broadcast booth, but if he’s ready to jump and if Davis is ready to pay, Carr could be the guy who helps seal the deal.

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Geno gets testy over Vick questions

Smith AP

Well, at least he didn’t tell anyone to go f–k himself.

Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who lost his cool and yelled a pair of “F” bombs into the stands at the end of Sunday’s loss to the Lions, was in no mood on Wednesday to take questions about a guy who once shot a pair of middle fingers to hecklers in Atlanta.

Asked whether Smith sees the value in using Mike Vick to provide the offense with a spark when needed, the current starter bristled.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to lead to with that question,” Smith said, via Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. “Maybe that’s your opinion.  What do you mean a spark?  We’ve already put him in.”

Asked if it would make sense to have Vick come in not for a cameo appearance but to jump-start the offense, Smith got even more testy.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Smith said.  “What team do you see doing that? . . .  That’s not a question. Next question.”

Actually, the Cardinals did that, seven years ago.  Coach Ken Whisenhunt routinely yanked second-year quarterback Matt Leinart for veteran backup Kurt Warner when the team fell behind, re-inserting Leinart once Warner evened things up again.  That continued until Leinart, who was getting frustrated with the technique, broke a collarbone.  The next year, Warner was the starter and the Cardinals were in the Super Bowl.

For his part, Vick opted to navigate around the topic far more diplomatically.

“[W]e don’t need any more distractions right now even though I don’t think I would be a distraction if I went in and played temporarily,” Vick said.  “We just need to focus on beating San Diego.”

Or, as coach Rex Ryan put it with a reference to Bill Belichick’s bizarre Cincinnati presser, the Jets are “on to San Diego.”

For Smith, the best news coming from the road game in California is that any heckling will come from fans who are supposed to be heckling him.

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Reche Caldwell faces prison time after guilty plea on drug charge

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Former NFL receiver Reche Caldwell could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to a federal drug conspiracy.

Caldwell admitted to a scheme to distribute the drug “Molly,” prosecutors say.

According to the Tampa Tribune, Caldwell admits that he signed for and accepted a parcel from China containing 1.5 kilograms of Molly. A week later, investigators intercepted a package mailed by Caldwell that contained the drug.

A second-round pick of the Chargers in 2002, Caldwell spent seven years in the NFL in San Diego, New England, Washington and St. Louis.

Caldwell has been arrested three times this year. In addition to the arrest in connection with this case, he also was arrested in January on an accusation that he was running an illegal gambling operation, and in August on a charge of possession of marijuana and driving with a suspended license.

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Kaepernick avoids topic of locker-room turmoil

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After non-reporter Deion Sanders reported that 49ers players want coach Jim Harbaugh to coach someone other than the 49ers, the team trotted out several players to debunk the report from the non-reporter.

But where were the team leaders?  Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin, Colin Kaepernick were all silent on the topic in the aftermath of the report.

Kaepernick broke his silence on Wednesday, via the final question at his weekly Wednesday press conference.  But Kaepernick didn’t address the substance of Sanders’ non-reporter report.

“Well, I’d like to know who the source is,” Kaepernick said.  “So, when you get a source from that, then we can talk about that. Until then, that’s the media.”

It continues the dismissive tone that the 49ers have applied to Deion’s non-reporter report.  And it overlooks the fact that information from anonymous sources can be as reliable, and perhaps in some cases even more reliable, than information from on-the-record sources.

Still, it would be easier to dismiss Deion’s non-reporter report if team leaders were sounding off — not about the fact that the source isn’t named but the reality that the source is flat-out wrong.

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The time Larry Donnell shoveled dirt on every other bad beat story

Larry Donnell, Brandon Meriweather AP

Look, fantasy football bad beat stories are generally just tedious.

Here’s an example: Last week, a fantasy owner benched Giants tight end Larry Donnell in favor of 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. Donnell outscored Davis, and the fantasy owner lost.

Yawn.

Well, what if we told you the fantasy owner was Larry Donnell himself?

This apparently actually happened.

According to NorthJersey.com, Donnell mentioned Wednesday he started Davis in his fantasy league in Week Four, leaving himself on the bench.

Donnell, of course, would go on to catch seven passes for 54 yards and three touchdowns in the Giants’ win vs. Washington. Davis, meanwhile, tallied two catches, eight yards and no scores and departed with a back injury in a win vs. Philadelphia.

In the end, the Giants were triumphant, but Donnell’s fantasy squad paid the price.

“Would’ve won if I played me,” Donnell said Wednesday, according to NorthJersey.com. “During the game, I’m like, ‘Really?’ That’s the honest truth.”

Let us propose a rule. Before telling a bad beat story, ask yourself this question: is your bad beat story as compelling as Larry Donnell’s?

We thought not.

So it’s settled. Rest in peace, bad beat stories other than Larry Donnell’s.

Rest in peace.

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Trent Williams: Seahawks aren’t unstoppable, we can beat them

TrentWilliams AP

As Washington left tackle Trent Williams studies film of Seattle’s defense in preparation for Monday night’s meeting, his conclusion is this: These guys are beatable.

Williams said he and his teammates won’t go into the game against the defending champion Seahawks intimidated, because they know they can win.

Can we beat them? Yeah,” Williams said, via the Washington Post. “At the end of the day, they’re not robots. They’re human beings and nobody’s perfect. Nobody plays perfect every Sunday. They have been beaten before. It’s not like they’re unstoppable. They’re a great team, no doubt about it, but anything is possible in the NFL.”

Williams said that after the embarrassment of Thursday’s loss to the Giants, he and his teammates are motivated.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that we need to step up,” he said. “We’re going against one of the best teams in the NFL right now on Monday night. I think guys are going to come with their best effort, and hopefully we’ll turn this thing around.”

Beating Seattle would be a very big step toward turning things around.

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Knee injury keeps Kyle Williams out of practice

Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Ryan Fitzpatrick AP

The Bills have had one of the stingiest run defenses in the league through the first four weeks of the season, but they were missing one of the major cogs in that effort when they kicked off practice for Week Five.

Defensive tackle Kyle Williams didn’t participate because of the knee injury he suffered in last Sunday’s loss to the Texans. Beyond saying that Williams’s experience meant that he didn’t have to practice in order to play, coach Doug Marrone didn’t offer much insight into Williams’s condition.

“I just heard that we’re going to see how it progresses. He’s been around, he’s walking around here,” Marrone said, via ESPN.com. “That’s the doctors. When they release him, they release him, and when they don’t … I don’t have a feel. All I know is how it progresses, I’ll know more as the week goes.”

History says that no one should expect Marrone to be more forthcoming as the week goes on, so Williams’s practice status will be the best guide to predicting whether or not he’ll be in the lineup against the Lions. Stefan Charles and Corbin Bryant are the backup options in the event Williams doesn’t play.

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NFL announces extension of DirecTV Sunday Ticket deal

SundayTicket

NFL Sunday Ticket is staying on DirecTV.

The league announced on Wednesday that it has extended its agreement with DirecTV to give the satellite provider the rights to show out-of-market games. Darren Rovell of ESPN reports that it’s an eight-year deal that will see DirecTV paying the NFL $1.5 billion a year, a 50 percent increase over the $1 billion a year DirecTV was paying under its previous deal with the league.

The NFL’s announcement also said DirecTV will continue with added features beyond the live Sunday games, including the Red Zone Channel, Game Mix with eight games on one screen and the new Fantasy Zone channel. DirecTV will also continue carrying NFL Network on satellite and make it available to subscribers to watch on mobile devices.

Some fans who have cable and can’t get DirecTV will be disappointed that Sunday Ticket isn’t going to be available to cable subscribers. But DirecTV is increasingly promoting the ability of Sunday Ticket subscribers to watch games on tablets and phones, which means you no longer need a satellite dish on your roof to have Sunday Ticket. You just need to pay DirecTV for access, which millions of fans will do. Sunday Ticket is one of the most valuable properties on American television, because the NFL is the most popular programming on American television.

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Jon Gruden says the predictable thing about Raiders job

grudenx-large AP

With the Raiders already in the market for a head coach after the 2014 season and with former Raiders (and Buccaneers) coach Jon Gruden’s name the first to emerge, the elder brother of Washington coach Jay Gruden is saying all the right things about the move he potentially will make come January.

I’m not thinking about coaching,” Jon Gruden said.  “I’m thinking about heading to Washington, watching the world champions and my brother coach.”

He’s probably also thinking about the quality of the welcome he’ll get from Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who may be reluctant to invite an immediate family member of the next opponent’s head coach into practice and production meetings.  Either way, Jon Gruden isn’t thinking about coaching right now because he shouldn’t be thinking about it.  Or, more accurately, he shouldn’t be talking about thinking about it.

Playing it slow and playing it cool eventually will pay off for Gruden, either via a big offer from the Raiders or more money from ESPN.  At a time when most NFL teams with vacancies aren’t beating a path to Gruden’s door for the privilege of paying him a lot of money to return to coaching, the Raiders have become the franchise with the most interest in hiring Jon Gruden since the Buccaneers became no longer interested in employing him.

It will be a delicate balance for Gruden, who won’t want to alienate a fan base that still worships him.  But his best play would be to find a way to parlay Oakland’s interest into interest from a franchise that has much better prospects for 2015 and beyond — if there’s a franchise out there that would want to hire him.

Other than the Raiders right now, there really hasn’t been.  And the truth is that, despite the hype, there may never be.

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Frank Alexander suspended 10 games for another drug violation

Frank Alexander AP

The Panthers were hoping to get defensive end Frank Alexander back this week, after he served his four-game suspension for violating the league’s drug policy.

Instead, they’ll see him in December, if at all.

The league announced that Alexander was suspended 10 games for violating the substance abuse policy again. He’ll be eligible to return on Dec. 15, following their game against the Buccaneers.

The suspension is a double-blow for the Panthers considering they were thinned out by Greg Hardy being on the commissioner’s exempt list, and their defense has struggled mightily.

But Alexander is apparently having a different kind of struggle.

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Brandon Marshall gets in a full practice

Brandon Marshall AP

On Monday, Bears coach Marc Trestman said that the team would take a long look at wide receiver Brandon Marshall in practice this week to determine whether he would benefit from missing a game to let his injured ankle fully heal.

Based on Wednesday’s practice, the signs are pointing in the other direction. Marshall practiced in full for the first time in a few weeks, a development that Trestman appreciated.

“It was good to get him back at full speed today,” Trestman said, via Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune.

Trestman chalked up an interception in last week’s game against the Packers to poor communication between Marshall and quarterback Jay Cutler, which led to questions about whether that difficulty was because Marshall hasn’t been on the practice field all that much of late. If Marshall’s ankle holds up well after Wednesday’s practice, that issue should disappear and Marshall’s targets — 12 in the last two weeks — should rise against the Panthers this weekend.

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Jake Locker practices, says wrist feels fine

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It looks like the Titans will have quarterback Jake Locker back in the lineup this Sunday.

Locker missed last Sunday’s loss to the Colts with a right wrist injury, forcing Tennessee to turn to Charlie Whitehurst and Zach Mettenberger. Locker was back at practice on Wednesday, however, and got in a full session.

Locker said after practice that his wrist felt fine and that he’s ready to lead the offense against the Browns. Locker also said that he knows he needs to pick up his game after two dismal outings before the injury.

“When you are not winning and things are not going the way you’d like them to go, I’ve always believed the first place you have to look is at yourself, and it is no different in this situation,” Locker said, via the Tennessean. “Just the details, executing the details in a play can make a big difference. And making a tough throw. It is not always going to be wide open and you have to find ways to complete contested passes in this league, and we have to do a better job of that.”

The next 12 games will have a lot to do with more than just how the Titans fare in 2014. They should go a long way toward determining what kind of future Locker has as an NFL starter and more of what we’ve seen this season in terms of performance and health won’t be the ticket to a bright one.

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