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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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Acho active for Eagles

Acho Getty Images

As the Eagles prefer to face a pick-your-poison offense, they’ll have a defensive player who was injured on Sunday in uniform.

Linebacker Emmanuel Acho is active and will play after injuring a groin against the Titans.  He has been splitting time with Casey Matthews at inside linebacker in place of DeMeco Ryans, who tore an Achilles tendon several weeks ago.

Inactive for the Eagles are quarterback Nick Foles, cornerback Roc Carmichael, safety Jaylen Watkins, offensive lineman Julian Vandervelde, offensive lineman Dennis Kelly, receiver Jeff Maehl, and Taylor Hart.

The Cowboys’ inactives include quarterback Dustin Vaughan, cornerback Tyler Patmon, safety Jeff Heath, linebacker Dekoda Watson, offensive tackle Tony Hills, offensive tackle Donald Hawkins, and defensive tackle Josh Brent.

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Megatron scores twice, tops 10,000 career receiving yards

calvinjohnson AP

Calvin Johnson has topped 100 yards in the first half today, and 10,000 yards in his NFL career.

Johnson scored two touchdown in the second quarter against the Bears to help give the Lions a 24-14 lead, and he caught nine passes for 109 receiving yards in the first half, making him the fastest player in NFL history to reach the 10,000-yard mark.

The NFL has changed enormously in the last couple of decades, and so it’s no surprise that 27 of the 43 players with 10,000 yards started their careers in 1990 or later. A 10,000-yard career is not what it used to be, but Johnson still has many more good seasons left in him. Jerry Rice’s record of 22,895 receiving yards may be beyond reach for anyone, but Megatron may move into second place before he’s all done. The No. 2 spot on the all-time receiving yards list is currently occupied by Terrell Owens, with 15,934 receiving yards.

Now we’ll see if the Lions can keep it going in the second half, and re-establish themselves as contenders in the NFC playoff race.

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Bears banged up on defense, Detroit takes advantage

megatron AP

The Bears’ defense has suffered a couple of first-half injuries today at Detroit, and the Lions are taking advantage.

Bears defensive end Cornelius Washington has been ruled out for the rest of the game with a chest injury, and safety Chris Conte left for what was first termed a concussion evaluation but later termed an eye injury. The Bears were already without linebacker Lance Briggs and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, so they’re really hurting.

And the Lions are really taking advantage: After going 25 drives over three games without a single touchdown, Detroit scored on back-to-back drives. The first was a nine-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson. The second was a 10-play, 86-yard drive that ended with a one-yard touchdown run from Joique Bell.

That gave the Lions a 17-14 lead. The Bears started fast, with two Alshon Jeffery touchdown passes, but the Lions have turned this game around in a hurry.

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New stadium isn’t giving the 49ers a true home-field advantage

49ers Getty Images

The 49ers christened a new home stadium this year, but they’re still waiting for a new home-field advantage.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News takes a look at the relatively tranquil” atmosphere at Levi’s Stadium.  And Kawakami makes a great point — if a home-field advantage doesn’t emerge tonight against the Seahawks, it never will.

The 49ers are 3-2 at home this season, with no convincing victories.  Most recently, San Francisco barely beat Washington.

The toughest test comes against the Seahawks.  As Kawakami said, if it’s not loud and raucous in Santa Clara tonight, perhaps it never will be.

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More than half of the 2012 top 10 may not have options exercised

Luck Getty Images

Once the 2014 regular season ends, players drafted in 2012 will become eligible for new contracts.  By May 3, teams holding the rights of first-round picks must decide whether to extend their rookie deals for a fifth year.

Based on the performance of the first 10 players taken in 2012, there’s a good chance more than half of them won’t have their contracts extended.  Here’s a look at each of them.

1.  Andrew Luck, Colts:  The option definitely will be exercised.  Based on how the Colts dealt with Peyton Manning, Luck presumably won’t get a long-term deal until he completes his rookie contract and has the franchise tag applied.

2.  Robert Griffin III, Washington:  As of right now, it’s not looking good.  To say the least.

3.  Trent Richardson, Colts:  Traded from the Browns after one season and still disappointing in his second year in Indy, the Colts most likely won’t extend Richardon’s deal.

4.  Matt Kalil, Vikings:  Solid at times and spectacularly bad in big moments, there’s a strong belief that the Vikings won’t extend Kalil’s contract.  Just like they didn’t extend Christian Ponder’s.

5.  Justin Blackmon, Jaguars:  His option won’t come due in May because his rookie deal has been tolled by a suspension that has lasted more than a calendar year.

6.  Morris Claiborne, Cowboys:  He had fallen out of favor — and out of the starting lineup — before suffering a season-ending injury.  Dallas undoubtedly will pass.

7.  Mark Barron, Rams:  Traded from Tampa at the October deadline, the Rams most likely won’t be inclined to make the investment necessary to keep him from the open market after four seasons.

8.  Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins:  This could be the toughest decision for any team in the top 10.  Tannehill has been good but not great.  Productive but erratic.  Still, if they let him go after four seasons, who will the quarterback be?  That’s probably enough to swing the pendulum to yes.

9.  Luke Kuechly, Panthers:  Yes, without question.

10.  Stephon Gilmore, Bills:  A solid contributor but not yet a star player, it could be more of an investment than the team wants to make.  Especially if there’s a new coach or G.M. after the season.

To summarize, Luck and Kuechly are locks.  Tannehill is likely to get the option.  Beyond that, who knows?

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Bears strike first in Detroit

stafford AP

In the early moments in Detroit, the Bears have done everything right and the Lions have done everything wrong.

Detroit received the opening kickoff and Jeremy Ross took it out of the end zone, only to get tackled at the 14-yard line. The Lions’ offense then took the field and went three-and-out, with two Joique Bell runs for minus-1 yard, followed by Matthew Stafford badly missing a wide-open Calvin Johnson on third down.

After the Lions’ punt, the Bears methodically marched the ball down the field on a six-play, 55-yard drive that ended with Alshon Jeffery catching a short pass from Jay Cutler and running in for a 10-yard touchdown.

This is a must-win game for the Lions, who are on a two-game losing streak. If they keep playing like this, we’ll be able to cross them off the list of playoff contenders in the NFC.

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NFL: Rams-Raiders will remain in St. Louis

Shaun Hill AP

On Wednesday, there was a report in the Indianapolis Star about the “remote possibility” that Sunday’s game between the Raiders and Rams would be moved from St. Louis to a Monday start in Indianapolis because of the ongoing tension in Ferguson, Missouri.

The report said that Lucas Oil Stadium was ready to serve as a site for the game in the event that a decision was made that it wasn’t safe enough to play as scheduled, but that won’t be necessary. While we don’t know when that tension in Ferguson will ease, we do know that the remote possibility is no longer a possibility at all.

Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com passes along word from a league spokesman that the game will be played as scheduled at the Edward Jones Dome with a 1 p.m. ET kickoff on Sunday. That avoids a second straight week with two Monday night games after the Jets and Bills were shifted to Detroit in Week 12 after the mammoth blizzard that buried Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.

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Will any Thanksgiving records fall today?

OJ Getty Images

As the first of three Thanksgiving games approaches, let’s take a quick look at the history of the best of the best performances on the fourth Thursday in November.

Courtesy of the 2014 Official NFL Record & Fact Book, here are the single-game records from the league’s annual Thanksgiving game.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1929, Ernie Nevers scored six touchdowns for the Cardinals in a game against the Bears.  On three other Thanksgiving occasions, players have scored four times.  Most recently, NBCSN’s Brian Westbrook racked up a quartet of touchdowns for the Eagles against the Cardinals in 2008.

Another record could be a little easier to beat today, but not much.  On Thanksgiving in 1976, Bills running back O.J. Simpson (pictured) gained 273 yards on the ground against the Lions.  There hasn’t even been another 200-yard Thanksgiving rushing performance, with Bob Hoernschemeyer gaining 198 for the Lions in 1950 against the New York Yankees, and Earl Campbell grinding out 195 for the Oilers against the Cowboys in 1979.

Through the air, Troy Aikman passed for 455 yards against the Vikings on the day then-rookie Randy Moss exploded for three touchdowns on three catches.  Matthew Stafford nearly matched that total for the Lions in 2012, with 441 yards passing.  And long before Scott Mitchell went for nearly four spins on the scale, he threw for 410 yards for the Lions in a 1995 Thanksgiving Day win over the Vikings.

When it comes to receiving yardage, Jim Benton of the Browns racked up 303 yards against the Lions 69 years ago on Thanksgiving.  The next highest total came in 2012, with Andre Johnson generating 188 yards for the Texans against the Lions.

Will any of those records fall today?  It’s one of the wrinkles that will fascinate fans and fantasy owners as kickoff approaches.

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Reggie Bush, Riley Reiff out for Lions against Bears

Detroit Lions v Carolina Panthers Getty Images

The Lions hoped to have running back Reggie Bush back this week, but his ankle didn’t cooperate.

Bush is inactive for Detroit’s Thanksgiving game against the Bears, making it three straight games that Bush has missed as a result of the injury. He also missed two other games earlier in the year, which may be a contributing factor to the Lions ranking 28th in points scored this season.

Compounding the issues for the Lions Offense on Thursday will be the absence of left tackle Riley Reiff. Like Bush, Reiff was listed as questionable for the game but left off the 46-man roster. Reiff is dealing with a knee injury that knocked him out of last weekend’s lopsided loss to the Patriots. Cornelius Lucas is expected to play in his place.

The Bears had one questionable player on Wednesday, but cornerback Kyle Fuller got the nod in spite of a knee injury. That keeps alive the possibility that he’ll face off with his brother, Lions wideout Corey Fuller, at some point on a day usually spent with family. Linebacker Lance Briggs, wide receiver Chris Williams, linebacker Darryl Sharpton, defensive end Trevor Scott, offensive lineman Eben Britton, defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff and cornerback Terrance Mitchell are inactive for Chicago.

Defensive tackle Nick Fairley, guard Larry Warford, quarterback Kellen Moore, receiver Ryan Broyles and defensive end Larry Webster round out Detroit’s list of inactives.

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Colts make a change at cornerback

Cassius Vaughn, Jalil Brown, Randy Bullock AP

The arrival of Shaun Phillips isn’t the only change for the Indianapolis defense this week.

The team announced that they have signed cornerback Jalil Brown and waived cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy.

Brown was released by the Dolphins earlier in the week and will be making his third tour of duty with the Colts. Brown spent time with them late last season and played two games with them earlier this year. Brown also has another spell with the Dolphins and began his career with the Chiefs after they took him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft.

He’ll likely fill the same special teams-centric role that Purifoy played for the team, although there’s a chance he could see time on defense with Vontae Davis, Josh Gordy and Greg Toler all appearing on this week’s injury report.

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Peterson materials due to be filed by Friday

Peterson Getty Images

Next Tuesday, the appeal hearing in Adrian Peterson’s case will commence at 10:00 a.m. ET.  Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Peterson has until Friday, November 28 to submit any materials that he intends to introduce at the hearing.

It’s unknown what, if anything, Peterson will introduce.  Peterson submitted nothing to the NFL before the decision was made to suspend him for the rest of the 2014 season.

What Peterson submits potentially could have a huge impact on the outcome of the appeal.  If, of course, hearing officer Harold Henderson is willing to break from his track record of siding with the NFL in these appeals.

It’s unclear how quickly a ruling will be issued.  In theory, Peterson could be back as soon as December 7, for a visit from the Jets.

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Odell Beckham gives all the love to the glove

Odell Beckham Jr. AP

Making the catch of the year was mostly Odell Beckham.

But the Giants wide receiver admitted he’s not sure if he could have made his now-famous, falling-backward, three-fingered catch without his gloves.

I have no idea,” Beckham said, via Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News.

Beckham’s gloves are Nike Vapor Jets, size XXXL (which may also explain how he catches flying things with one hand), which he’s been wearing since his college days at LSU.

“I definitely told them they were some of my favorites that they made,” Beckham said. “It’s just the way that they fit. They’re a tight fit, they’re very light, and they feel like they’re a part of your hand.”

If the gloves were the secret, everyone would be wearing them, but we suspect Beckham’s hands deserve a little more of the credit.

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Thanks NFL for giving us three great games today

turkey-pic-getty-images-185517752 Getty Images

On Thanksgiving, the NFL enjoys a captive audience.  With a trio of games starting at 12:30 p.m. ET and lasting possibly until midnight, monitors throughout America will be bouncing from CBS to FOX to NBC.

As Costanza said when asked why anyone would watch a show about nothing, “Because it’s on TV.”  Whatever NFL games would be on TV today, we’d all be watching.

But the NFL has given us a trio of great games, involving five of the seven NFC teams vying for the five playoff spots that won’t go to the none-of-the-above NFC South.  It starts with Bears-Lions, a Thanksgiving matchup that has happened 10 prior times.  It continues with the first of two games involving what turned out to be the top two teams in the NFC East, the 8-3 Eagles and 8-3 Cowboys.

And it finishes with the first encounter between the Seahawks and 49ers since January.  That time, it was an elimination game.  This time, it could have the same effect, knocking the loser to 7-5 and making it much harder to get to the postseason.

The biggest challenge for today?  Staying awake for the whole thing after gobbling up plenty of gobble gobble gobble turkey from jive turkey gobblers.

Of course, the NFL’s goal isn’t entirely altruistic.  Bigger games ensure even bigger audiences.  Also, the sense of gratitude that comes from having compelling games broken out from the scrum of Sunday action helps strengthen the bond with customers.

Regardless, it worked.  Thank you, NFL, for choosing great games for the fourth Sunday in Thanksgiving.

The nationally-televised games on Sunday’s slate — Patriots-Packers and Broncos-Chiefs — aren’t too shabby, either.  As to Monday night and the Dolphins at the Jets, well, I guess we can’t have everything.

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Coaching staff wanted Vick, gets Geno instead

Vick AP

There’s no greater sign of dysfunction in a professional sports organization than folks who lack the qualifications to make coaching decisions making coaching decisions.

In the current chase for the title of most dysfunctional organization in the NFL, the Jets have a clear edge over Washington in this category.

In Washington, coach Jay Gruden apparently has the power to pick his quarterback.  In New York, coach Rex Ryan apparently doesn’t.

Per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, Ryan, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, and the “majority” of others in the organization wanted to stick with Mike Vick.  Instead, Geno Smith will return to the starting lineup.

Vick seems to have the same sense of resignation that prompted the coaching staff to go along with the switch back to Geno Smith.

“I don’t own this organization,” Vick said Wednesday.  “I just play for it.  Why do things happen?  I don’t know.  I don’t ask too many questions.”

The decision to return to Smith possibly arises from a desire to answer any lingering question about whether Smith has a future with the organization.  Or maybe owner Woody Johnson has realized that there are legitimate ways to improve draft position by tanking games down the stretch.  With the Jets eliminated from the playoffs, why not make it easier to climb higher in the pecking order to get the true franchise quarterback that the franchise hasn’t had since . . . since . . . Joe Namath?

Ultimately, the dysfunction that results in the front office and/or ownership overriding the coaching staff could be the only solution to a 4.5-decade failure to get back to the Super Bowl.

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Report: Indy ready for “remote possibility” of Rams game moving

St. Louis Rams vs San Diego Chargers Getty Images

While it seems unlikely at this point, the NFL has at least looked into the chance of moving Sunday’s Raiders-Rams game in St. Louis because of the tension in nearby Ferguson.

According to Gregg Doyel of the Indianapolis Star, a league source called it a “remote possibility,” though Indianapolis would be ready to host the game Monday if need be.

He cited public safety officials saying they’d be ready and concessions workers saying they were “on call,” if the game needed to be played there Monday.

While it’s likely just a contingency plan (one which frankly every team should have in a folder in a locked drawer somwhere), the fact it’s a possibility should underscore the seriousness of the situation in Missouri.

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