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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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No date yet for Tom Brady appeal hearing

Fans Attend "Free Tom Brady" Rally Getty Images

Under Article 46 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL and the NFL Players Association must pick a date for the appeal of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension within 10 days after the filing of the appeal. The deadline is today. And it hasn’t happened yet, per a source with knowledge of the situation.

It could still happen today. If it doesn’t, the two sides can agree to postpone the deadline to selecting a date for the hearing.

The NFLPA hopes to get the hearing completed in June, with the goal of leaving enough time to challenge via legal action a decision by Commissioner Roger Goodell to uphold all or part of the suspension.

Look for a date to be selected fairly soon. Especially since the month of June begins fairly soon.

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Shane Ray sitting out, but Broncos think he’ll be ready soon

shaneray AP

Broncos first-round pick Shane Ray fell on some draft boards because of a toe injury that some teams thought would require surgery. And that injury is, in fact, keeping Ray sidelined at the start of Organized Team Activities.

That doesn’t mean the Broncos are worried. Head coach Gary Kubiak said today that he expects to see Ray doing pass-rush work soon.

He’s close,” Kubiak told the Denver Post. “I think next week you’ll see him do some individual (work) and those types of things. We fitted him with some orthotics. He’s feeling good. He’s done some work. He’s done a lot of treatment.”

Ray thinks he might take the field as soon as Thursday or Friday.

“But it’s a process and it’s not something we want to rush. We want to make sure that when I do come back, I can be me,” Ray said.

The Broncos will take it slow in May, in the hopes that Ray can be the player they drafted by September.

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Matt Forte: All I can do is play football

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers Getty Images

Running back Matt Forte is back with the Bears after skipping the early phases of the team’s voluntary offseason work while working out on his own.

Those workouts, described as “rigorous speed training,” came as Forte enters the final year of his contract and that led to speculation that Forte’s absence was designed to get the Bears to extend his contract. Forte said he does want a new contract, but that he wasn’t staying away as leverage to get it and that he wouldn’t hold himself out of mandatory practices.

Forte stuck to that script Wednesday.

“All I can do is play football. I’ve come to the realization that any run or catch I have could be my last in a Bears uniform. If they don’t want to re-sign me, I’ll have to play football somewhere else,” Forte said, via CBS Chicago. “Nobody wants to play on a one-year deal, especially with the uncertainty of how football is. You just figure, a guy who’s been there since day one, has put in hard work and continues to produce, that guy should be rewarded. But it’s a business, and that doesn’t always happen.”

It rarely happens for running backs who have turned 30 and Forte will hit that milestone in December, which will likely make 2015 a season-long audition for Forte to show the Bears and the rest of the league his worth.

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Report: Michael Campanaro sustains quad injury

Michael Campanaro AP

One of the Ravens’ young wide receivers is reportedly on the mend.

Second-year pro Michael Campanaro sustained a quadriceps injury in Wednesday’s organized team practice activities, Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun reports. The degree of the injury is not yet known, the Sun said.

The 24-year-old Campanaro caught seven passes for 102 yards and one touchdown in four games as a rookie in 2014 for Baltimore, which traded a 2015 sixth-round pick to Cleveland to take Campanaro in Round Seven. He’s likely to at least be one of the Ravens’ top five wide receivers in 2015.

The Ravens’ OTAs this week run through Thursday.

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Which NFL team is best poised to end its city’s championship drought?

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With the Cavaliers qualifying for the NBA Finals, the city of Cleveland could finally shed most of its Factory of Sadness sports vibe.

Which brings me to Wednesday’s PFT Planet poll question: Which NFL team is best positioned to end a drought of 20 years or more in its current city?

Pick an answer, and then tune in to Pro Football Talk on NBCSN at 5:30 p.m. ET to see the answer. And to hear more about the latest NFL news, with Paul Burmeister, Ross Tucker, Jason Taylor, and yours truly.

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Marcell Dareus on contract: We’ll wait and see what Bills do

Marcell Dareus AP

Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus said Wednesday that he is happy to be able to move forward after the announcement of his one-game suspension because he can prepare for the season without something that was “hanging over my head for a while.”

Dareus’s attention won’t be limited to on-field matters, however. He’s entering the final year of his contract and admitted that thoughts about his future in Buffalo or elsewhere are on his mind as a result.

“We’ll wait and see what the Bills do,” Dareus said, via the team’s website. “It weighs on me heavily. Heavily. I’ve got to go out there and really perform and do what I have to do, which I always do — really have fun with it. Whatever the outcome is, is the outcome. However they want to play it is how they play it. I’m excited. I’m excited for the upcoming year.”

Bills General Manager Doug Whaley has said that an extension for Dareus is the team’s top priority at this point in the offseason and he told the Associated Press that he planned to speak with senior vice president of football administration Jim Overdorf on Wednesday about talks with Dareus’ camp.

That should give Dareus a better idea of what the Bills will do, but he thinks the team already knows what it needs to know about him. He said his play “speaks for itself” and the message it’s sent in the last couple of years suggests that someone will be giving Dareus a lot of money at some point in the near future.

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Alex Mack mum on whether he plans to stay in Cleveland

Mack Getty Images

Last year, the Browns applied the transition tag to center Alex Mack, allowing the team to match any offer sheet signed with a new team. The Jaguars signed Mack to an offer sheet that gives Mack the right to void the contract after two years. Which means that Mack can get out of Cleveland after the 2015 season.

On Tuesday, Mack declined to say whether he’ll exercise his right to hit the open market.

I’m going to defer,” Mack said, via Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com. “I’ll talk about that at the end of the season.”

But Mack was willing to say he hasn’t made up his mind.

“No, absolutely not,” Mack said. “Let’s play the games, let’s see how the season goes. I’m really not interested in talking about that until after the season.”

When he does, whether and to what extent the Browns can win games apparently will be a factor in the final analysis.

“I definitely want to win games,” Mack said. “It’s very important to me. No one likes losing. Across any job, anything, at all times. It’s tough, without a doubt. . . . What you always do, you just want to come out here, play games, play well and win games. That’s what every person in this building’s goal is.”

The Browns acquired some protection against Mack leaving by using a first-round pick on offensive lineman Cameron Erving, who played some center at Florida State.  If Erving lives up to his potential, however, the far better outcome would be to keep both guys on the team.

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Blake Sims joining Toronto Argonauts

Blake Sims AP

Alabama’s starting quarterback in 2014 is said to be heading to the Canadian Football League.

Blake Sims, who went undrafted in May, has signed with the Toronto Argonauts, Everett Sports Marketing said on Wednesday. (A nod to 247Sports.com for first pointing out the announcement.) Al.com also reported Sims’ contract with Toronto.

As a senior, Sims (5-11, 218) connected on 252-of-391 passes for 3,487 yards with 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions for the Crimson Tide. He will reportedly play quarterback in Toronto.

After the draft, Sims had tryouts with Washington and Green Bay, but he did not sign a contract with either club. In Washington, Sims worked at running back.

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Matt Cassel says Tom Brady’s ball preparation not unusual

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If Matt Cassel knows The Deflator, he’s not saying.

The Bills quarterback, who spent four years with the Patriots, three of them as Tom Brady’s backup, said he was just deferring to the league on its #DeflateGate punishment.

I’m really not going to get into that,” Cassel said, via Mike Rodak of ESPN.com. “Obviously that was a league decision and it’s something that the league came down with a ruling and we’re going to go out there and play against whoever’s going to be out there on the field.”

Asked about Brady’s role in preparing game balls, Cassel chose his words carefully.

“I think it’s the same everywhere,” he said. “I think we all have a say in what balls we want and all that stuff and that’s about the extent that I’ll go into that.”

Of course, Cassel and Brady are still pals, hanging out at the Kentucky Derby despite the fact they’re division rivals now.

But as most players and coaches have, Cassel tried to hold his breath and get through this one without anybody noticing.

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Texans will debut on Hard Knocks on August 11

Bill O'Brien AP

All the signs were pointing toward the Texans being this year’s Hard Knocks participant and it became official on Wednesday.

The Texans, NFL and HBO announced that the team will be featured on the long-running series that puts NFL Films cameras all over training camp to capture everything that goes into getting ready for the season. It’s the first time that the Texans have appeared on the show, which will debut on Tuesday, August 11 at 10 p.m. ET.

“This is an opportunity to provide a behind-the-scenes look at our team as we prepare for the 2015 season,” Texans General Manager Rick Smith said in a statement. “Fans will get a chance to see the great competition that takes place day-in and day-out on the practice field, as well as get to know all the unique personalities on our roster.”

At a press conference Wednesday, owner Bob McNair said he saw the show as an opportunity to introduce the team to more people around the country. He also vowed that the show wouldn’t be a distraction to the team, particularly coach Bill O’Brien.

“We discussed it. We’re not going to give anyone a competitive advantage,” McNair said, via John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

After working for Bill Belichick in New England, O’Brien may not be thrilled about life as a reality star but, as is always the case when the boss makes up his mind, he’ll need to make his peace with it.

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LeSean McCoy limited by neck injury

LeSean McCoy,John Conner AP

The Bills got to take a look at some of their backup running backs with the first team during team drills on Wednesday because running back LeSean McCoy was limited during practice.

A neck injury was the reason for McCoy’s abbreviated schedule during the workout. Coach Rex Ryan said after practice that the injury wasn’t anything the team was worried about, but that they decided to take it easy with a player they plan to be leaning on heavily come the fall.

“He’s got a little thing like in his neck or something like that, but it’s not serious but it’s one of those things where we don’t need him out there,” Ryan said, via ESPN.com. “I don’t even think he had a helmet — he might have had a helmet out there but I’m not sure.”

Anthony Dixon and Fred Jackson worked with the first team during the 11-on-11 portion of practice while Bryce Brown and rookie Karlos Williams got their reps with the backup units. With McCoy established as the No. 1 back, the competition between that quartet should provide the only intrigue in the backfield for Buffalo between now and September.

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Colts sign Phillip Dorsett

Phillip Dorsett AP

Wide receiver Phillip Dorsett is the latest first-round pick to sign his rookie contract.

The Colts announced Wednesday that Dorsett has agreed to the standard four-year deal with the team. As a first-round pick, Dorsett’s contract also comes with a team option for a fifth season at a salary equal to the 3rd-25th best-paid players at the position.

Dorsett’s selection raised some eyebrows since the Colts’ biggest needs were perceived to be on defense and the offensive line, but General Manager Ryan Grigson said the selection was made because the team wanted to take the best available player on their board. He has a good chance to contribute immediately as a returner in the kicking game and will compete with Donte Moncrief and Duron Carter for snaps behind T.Y. Hilton and Andre Johnson on offense.

With Dorsett signed, the Colts have now agreed to deals with six of their eight draft picks. Their two third-round picks — cornerback D’Joun Smith and defensive end Henry Anderson — remain unsigned.

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Cowboys filming practice with drones

images Getty Images

At some point, the term “drone” became inherently sinister. At some point, the term “drone” became attached to all remotely-controlled devices that fly.

Which has caused plenty of people to assume that any and all drones are evil and capable of mass mayhem. Which likely has delayed many reasonable innovations relating to the use of drones.

In the NFL, one team is embracing the use of drones. Via Todd Archer of ESPN.com, the Cowboys are using drones to film practice during OTAs.

“We pride ourselves on coaching and teaching our players as well as we can and film has been a big part of the game for a long time,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Typically you have an end zone shot and a sideline shot. We use a lot of hand-held cameras on the ground. . . . One of our coaches went down to SMU for their spring practices and saw they were using it. They liked the angle. We got a chance to see it, so we decided to take a look at it.”

Last year, NFL Media considered using drones as part of the Inside Training Camp series. It’s unclear why the technology wasn’t used. Maybe it’s just the stigma of equating an innocent RC helicopter to an anonymous death machine.

Then again, maybe they are.

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George McCaskey admits second-guessing signing of Ray McDonald

George McCaskey AP

Bears owner George McCaskey said the decision to sign Ray McDonald this offseason was his.

So when he says he’s second-guessing that decision, he means he’s second-guessing his own process.

Via Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune, McCaskey told reporters that even though he initially said no and was talked into adding the troubled defensive lineman, that the decision to bring him aboard was “my decision, ultimately, alone.”

So it follows that he didn’t blame General Manager Ryan Pace for the embarrassing addition.

“Not at all. We have complete confidence in Ryan,” McCaskey said.

At the same time, he said he didn’t have any input on Monday’s decision to cut him when McDonald was again arrested for a domestic violence charge.

“I wasn’t involved because I didn’t need to be,” he said. “They knew what needed to be done and did it.”

McCaskey talked to McDonald prior to agreeing to sign him, warning him that his behavior had to improve. When it did not, McCaskey’s doubts crept in.

When asked why he didn’t talk to any of McDonald’s accusers prior to signing him, McCaskey said: “One of my concerns was the bias anybody has in that situation.”

Yet he didn’t consider that McDonald or his family might carry a bias themselves, which put him in the uncomfortable spot of answering questions today.

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Zimmer on Peterson: He can play for us or not play at all

Adrian Peterson, Rusty Hardin AP

If the Vikings are wavering from their plan to have Adrian Peterson in their backfield in 2015, they are doing a very good job of keeping it under wraps.

Peterson isn’t with the Vikings for their organized team activities this week, something that was expected as Peterson has yet to report for any work with the team since having his suspension lifted in April. Coach Mike Zimmer made it clear on Wednesday that his decision not to take part in practice hasn’t changed the team’s position, however.

“He’s got two choices. He can play for us or not play,” Zimmer said, via Ben Goessling of ESPN.com.

Not playing would keep Peterson from earning the $12.75 million that the Vikings are set to pay him this season. There have been reports that Peterson still wants to be traded and suggestions from his camp that his willingness to rejoin the team might improve with some adjustments to the amount of guaranteed money in the remaining years of his contract, but the former appears to be off the table and the latter may be unless Peterson decides to come to work.

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