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NFL morning after: A great time for great quarterbacks

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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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Junior Hemingway undergoes concussion evaluation, ruled out

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Already thinned by injury entering Thursday night’s game at Oakland, the Chiefs’ receiving corps is down another member.

Wide receiver Junior Hemingway has been checked for a concussion, the Chiefs announced on Twitter. He has been declared out of the contest, as has reserve offensive tackle Donald Stephenson, the club said.

With Hemingway out, the Chiefs are down to just four wide receivers: Dwayne Bowe, Frankie Hammond, Albert Wilson and De’Anthony Thomas. (A rookie from Oregon, Thomas is listed as a running back on the Chiefs’ roster but as a wide receiver and tailback on the club’s offensive depth chart.)

The Chiefs were already without two receivers entering Thursday night, with A.J. Jenkins and Donnie Avery both ruled out with injuries.

The Chiefs trail 14-3 early in the third quarter.

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Latavius Murray exits with possible concussion, ruled out

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On Thursday night, Raiders running back Latavius Murray joined Bo Jackson and Terrelle Pryor as the only players in franchise history with 90-yard runs.  With 112 yards on only four carries, Murray has exited the game with a possible concussion.

Murray took a helmet to the jaw from a Chiefs defender in the second quarter of Thursday night’s game.  It was a legal hit.

After sitting on the bench for a bit, Murray left for the locker room to be fully evaluated.

Murray had 10 yards for 54 yards in the first 10 games of the season.  The Raiders lead, 14-3.

UPDATE 10:15 p.m. ET: Murray has officially been ruled out for the remainder of the game due to a concussion.

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Jets-Bills game will be on CBS locally, no word on national TV

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With this week’s Jets-Bills game moving from Sunday in Buffalo to Monday in Detroit, one question has not been answered: How can Jets and Bills fans outside New York City and Buffalo watch the game?

The NFL has announced that the local CBS affiliates in New York and Buffalo will televise the game, but the NFL has not said whether there will be any way for fans in the rest of the country to see it.

The league is in an awkward situation because this affects three of its television partners: CBS, ESPN and DirecTV. CBS would surely love to be able to show Jets-Bills to a wider audience than just the two local affiliates, but ESPN would cry foul because that could siphon fans away from the regularly scheduled Saints-Ravens game on ESPN Monday night. DirecTV could also make Jets-Bills available to Sunday Ticket subscribers, but that could also siphon viewers away from Monday Night Football. ESPN would love to be able to show the Jets-Bills game on ESPN2 while Saints-Ravens is on ESPN, but CBS would cry foul because that’s taking a game from CBS and giving it to a competitor.

The fairest solution for fans would be to make the game available to DirecTV Sunday Ticket subscribers: If you pay for NFL Sunday Ticket, you’re paying for every game. If you’re a Jets or Bills fan who lives outside New York or Buffalo and you purchased Sunday Ticket specifically to watch your team, you’re getting a raw deal if that game isn’t available on the Sunday Ticket package.

In 2010, when the NFL had to move a Giants-Vikings game to Detroit because snow damaged the Metrodome, that game was available to the local affiliates and on Sunday Ticket.

At the moment the only thing we know is that viewers in New York and Buffalo can watch the game on CBS. The NFL is expected to announce on Friday whether viewers anywhere else can see the game.

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Bills will host Jets on Monday at Ford Field

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For the second time since December 2010, a snowstorm has resulted in Ford Field hosting two teams who don’t play in Detroit.

Per multiple reports, and as widely expected, the Jets and Bills will play there on Monday night at 7:00 p.m. ET.

When Ford Field staged the Giants-Vikings game after the roof of the Metrodome collapsed, tickets were free.  Presumably, they’ll be free this time, too.

Also, the Giants-Vikings game was televised regionally by FOX and available via the DirecTV Sunday Ticket package.  Jets-Bills presumably will be televised regionally by CBS, with Ravens-Saints on ESPN shown nationally.

The Lions host the Bears at Ford Field on Thursday.

Darren Rovell of ESPN.com reports that Bills season-ticket holders will receive credit for the game toward their 2015 season tickets.  (Hello, interest-free loan.)  Customers who purchased seats for the Jets game only will receive a full refund to their credit cards.  (Hello, possibly free money if folks who purchased the tickets on the secondary market fail to turn in the tickets.)

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Bills hope to get to game site on Friday

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The NFL possibly will announce a new location for the Jets-Bills game as early as Thursday night.  The Bills hope by Friday to be able to travel from Buffalo to the place where the game will be played.

“It would be optimal to fly out and practice at the potential location if we can,” Brandon told reporters on Thursday, via the team’s official website.  “We’re not in a situation where we could hold practice here at this time. The Fieldhouse and the lots and everyone who is here working we’re sort of buried in here.  It would be very difficult to practice here.

“We’d like to get to the airport which is in a much better situation in the Northtowns and try to get to that location if possible.  But again we’ve got so many different scenarios in play right now that we’re just trying to be nimble and work through whatever is presented to us.”

The challenge primarily arises from the fact that portions of the Buffalo area remain squarely buried under seven feet of snow.

“Logistics are very difficult,” Brandon said.  “We’re trying to target all our guys that are in very difficult situations.  Some of our guys have been in apartment complexes where there is no plowing and it’s very difficult to get out.  We’re trying to assess each player and the difficulty in getting to the facility and the airport.  Not an easy task.  Hopefully we can get out sometime [Friday].  It may not be feasibly possible.  It’s an ever changing and evolving process.”

The game between the Jets and Bills likely will be played in Detroit, possibly on Monday night.  The extra day would help the Bills be better prepared.

“We played a Thursday night game,” Brandon said. “We had very little time in the building on Friday. The players were off on Saturday and Sunday and had a light work day on Monday. Tuesday was their normal off day and then not being able to practice on Wednesday or Thursday there certainly is a disadvantage.”

The advantage comes from playing the 2-8 Jets.  Earlier this month, the Bills hammered the Jets at MetLife Stadium.

UPDATE 8:56 p.m. ET:  Per multiple reports, the game will indeed be played at Ford Field in Detroit.

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Could tonight be the night? Raiders take early lead

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The Oakland Raiders haven’t won a game in more than a year. Could tonight be the night?

It can be if the Raiders can play for 60 minutes like they did for the first 10.

Oakland jumped out to an early 7-0 lead over Kansas City thanks to an 11-yard touchdown run by Latavius Murray that came at the end of an eight-play, 60-yard drive. It was the first rushing touchdown the Chiefs’ defense has allowed all season.

The Chiefs’ offense went three-and-out on each of their first two possessions. This doesn’t look like it’s going to be an easy night for the Chiefs.

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Gabe Jackson among Oakland’s inactives

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As expected, the Raiders will be without their starting left guard on Thursday night vs. Kansas City.

Rookie Gabe Jackson (knee) is among the seven inactives announced by the Raiders for Week 12. Head coach Tony Sparano had indicated Jackson, who is missing his third straight game, would be held out on Thursday night.

With Jackson sidelined, veteran Khalif Barnes would seem likely to get another start at left guard.

Also inactive for the Raiders are tight end David Ausberry (foot), offensive guard Tony Bergstrom, cornerback T.J. Carrie (ankle), safety Jonathan Dowling (back), quarterback Matt McGloin and cornerback Carlos Rogers (knee). Ausberry, Carrie, Dowling and Rogers had been ruled out.

The other players listed on the Raiders’ injury report — quarterback Derek Carr and middle linebacker Miles Burris — are active for Oakland (0-10).

The Chiefs’ inactives are wide receiver Donnie Avery (groin), offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, cornerback Jamell Fleming (hamstring), wide receiver A.J. Jenkins (shoulder), center Eric Kush, quarterback Aaron Murray and cornerback Chris Owens (knee). Avery, Jenkins and Owens had been declared from the game on Wednesday, while Fleming was questionable.

Every other player on the Chiefs’ injury report is active, including tight end Anthony Fasano, who was questionable.

The Chiefs (7-3) will move into first place in the AFC West with a victory on Thursday night.

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Titans to wear white jerseys for rest of season

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If you like the Titans’ white uniform tops . . . well, here’s another reason to perhaps tune in as 2-8 Tennessee plays out the string.

The Titans will wear their white jerseys for their final six regular season games, Jim Wyatt of the Nashville Tennessean reported on Thursday. Paul Lukas of Uni-Watch.com reported Wednesday that the Titans would go with the white shirts the rest of the way.

The Titans are also planning to declare their navy uniforms as their “primary” jerseys in 2015, according to Wyatt. Via Lukas, Paul Kuharsky of ESPN.com has also noted the team will be making the navy jerseys one of their regular uniforms next season.

The Titans have largely had the same uniforms since 1999. They wore blue in Super Bowl XXXIV.

And finally, since we’re on the subject of uniforms — the Oilers, now they had outstanding white uniform tops.

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Fitzgerald still optimistic he’ll play

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Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald has a Grade 2 sprain of the MCL.  That will make it difficult for Fitzgerald, who played on Sunday after suffering the injury, to suit up and play at Seattle in three days.

According to John Weinfuss of ESPN.com, Fitzgerald remains “optimistic” that he’ll be able to play.  Fitzgerald also said that the knee is feeling better as the week unfolds.

On Wednesday, coach Bruce Arians described Fitzgerald as “iffy” for the NFC West showdown with the Seahawks.  A more formal label will be applied to Fitzgerald in Friday’s injury report.

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Bills add TE MarQueis Gray on waivers

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On a day in which the NFL announced Sunday’s Bills-Jets game would not be played at Ralph Wilson Stadium because of heavy snow, the Bills still went about the business of tweaking their roster.

According to the league’s transactions, the Bills were awarded tight end MarQueis Gray on waivers from Minnesota on Thursday.

A collegiate quarterback at the University of Minnesota, the 25-year-old Gray has played tight end in the pros, appearing in 12 games with the Browns in 2013 and eight games with the Vikings this season. The addition of Gray (6-4, 242) gives the Bills four tight ends on the roster.

To make room for Gray, the Bills waived backup tailback Phillip Tanner.

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DeSean explains his recent social media message

DeSean AP

On Monday, Washington receiver DeSean Jackson posted the following message on social media:  “You can’t do epic sh-t with basic people.”

He has explained it by saying, essentially, “if the sh-t fits . . . .”

“Whoever feels like it’s directed at him, that’s who it’s directed at,” Jackson said Thursday, via Rich Tandler of CSNWashington.com.

Jackson opted not to elaborate.

“I’m not talking about last week, I’m not here to talk about last week,” Jackson said.  “It’s a new week, we’ve got a new team to play and that’s who the focus is on.  Whoever thought I was talking to them, they can take it how it was taken.”

So, basically, it’s still not clear who is precisely keeping Jackson from doing “epic sh-t.”  On Sunday, chances are it will be one or more members of the San Francisco defense.

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Mark Davis: Reggie McKenzie has gotten us in “really good shape” to build

Reggie McKenzie AP

The Raiders make their 11th bid for their first victory of 2014 against the Chiefs on Thursday night with an interim head coach and a 16-game losing streak that had led to plenty of speculation about the future of General Manager Reggie McKenzie.

Raiders owner Mark Davis didn’t make any concrete statements about what the future will hold for McKenzie during a conversation with Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, though he did have plenty of complimentary things to say about the job that McKenzie has done over the last three years. Those things haven’t been reflected in the team’s record, of course, but  Davis focused on the way McKenzie got the team out from under a dreadful salary cap situation.

“We are in really good shape, based on the way Reggie put all the contracts together and everything else,” Davis said. “We’re not settled with a lot of upside-down situations anymore. The situation he walked into originally was pretty tough. The deconstruction phase of that went very, very well. I think we’re a pretty desirable place for someone that wants to come in and build.”

Davis also pointed to the additions of quarterback Derek Carr and linebaker Khalil Mack as pieces that leave the Raiders “in position to start moving forward.” He feels that will appeal to someone, presumably a permanent head coach, “that might want to be a part of bringing the Raiders back to greatness.”

When Dennis Allen was fired, McKenzie said he would be the person to hire that coach. Davis’s comments make it look like he’s got a good chance of being correct, which may turn out to be better news for him than those looking for Hue Jackson’s return to Oakland.

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Bills and Jets won’t play in Buffalo Sunday

Wintry Weather AP

The league has now confirmed what anyone with two eyes (and/or a snow shovel) realized.

They’re not playing football in Buffalo Sunday.

League spokesman Michael Signora has confirmed that they’re not playing the Jets-Bills game in Buffalo Sunday, and are looking for a place to play it.

As we’ve pointed out, that’s most likely to be Detroit.  But at least now we know where it’s not going to be.

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So why didn’t the NFLPA reduce Goodell’s power in 2011?

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A common theme has emerged in recent days regarding the suspension imposed by the NFL on Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.  And it goes a little something like this:  “The NFLPA has no room to complain because the NFLPA gave the Commissioner the power to do whatever he wants.”

While it’s true that the NFLPA gave the Commissioner the power to determine discipline under the personal conduct policy and in turn to resolve the appeal, those powers must be exercised properly and responsibly.  Failure to do so arguably has contributed to the current problems the NFL faces as a result of the Peterson case and, more importantly, the Ray Rice case.

It’s also important to consider the broader context.  In 2007, the late Gene Upshaw agreed to give the Commissioner broad authority to discipline players for off-field misconduct.  The league unveiled the revamped policy in connection with the suspensions of Adam Jones and the late Chris Henry.

In 2011, the NFL and NFLPA returned to the bargaining table for the negotiation of a new labor deal.  The primary struggle at that point related to money.  While the quality of the financial package remains the subject of periodic debate, the NFLPA also achieved unprecedented limitations on offseason workouts, training camp practices, and in-season practices.

If (and that could be a big if) the Commissioner would have traded his power over the personal conduct policy for the practice limitations, should the NFLPA have done that?  Doesn’t it make far more sense to achieve protections that directly benefit all players in lieu of protections that, as a practical matter, will help only a few?

Sure, all players are subject to the arbitrary application of the personal conduct policy, where the rules are whatever the rules have to be in order to reach the predetermined outcome.  But only two or three players find themselves caught in the gears of the personal conduct policy every year.  Every player experiences the impact of reduced practice time and less intense practice sessions.

The next time the NFL and NFLPA try to hammer out a new labor deal, that same question will emerge.  How much of the protections for the many will be sacrificed to ultimately protect a few?

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Falcons sign James Anderson

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The Falcons placed running back Antone Smith on injured reserve earlier this week, but they didn’t fill his roster spot with another running back.

They announced Thursday that they have signed linebacker James Anderson, who was a member of the Titans until earlier this week. Anderson had five tackles in seven games for Tennessee before they parted ways with him.

Anderson started 16 games for the Bears last year and spent the summer with the Patriots before being a somewhat surprising cut as the Pats pared down their roster in August. Anderson spent the first seven years of his career with the Panthers, who made him a third-round pick in 2006.

Assuming Anderson sticks on the roster, he’ll get a chance to square off against his former team in Week 17 in a game that could wind up determining the winner of a rather unspired race for the NFC South division crown.

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