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NFL morning after: The four best teams advance

marshawn AP

Let’s be honest: That wasn’t a very good weekend of football.

Now let’s look on the bright side: That’s because the four teams we’ll watch in the conference championships on Sunday — San Francisco at Seattle in the NFC and New England at Denver in the AFC — are the four best teams in the NFL. By a lot.

The 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos were all considered strong Super Bowl contenders heading into the season, they all went 13-3 or 12-4 during the season, they were all favored to win this weekend and they all won in convincing fashion. What we have are four superior football teams advancing to the conference championships.

That doesn’t happen every year. The Ravens were 10-6 in their Super Bowl-winning season last year. The Giants were 9-7 the year before that and the Packers 10-6 the year before that. In the NFL in the last few years, the Super Bowl hasn’t featured the best teams. It has featured the teams that got hot in the playoffs.

I like it better this way. The Seahawks and 49ers are great teams with a great rivalry. The Broncos and Patriots are great teams with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have battled each other for more than a decade. The combined record of the four teams still in the title hunt is 50-14, the best combined record of the final four teams in the playoffs in the last 15 years. This is what championship football should be like.

Here are my notes from the weekend:

For three quarters, the Broncos looked like the most complete team in the NFL. We all know Denver’s Peyton Manning-led passing game is great, but the Broncos were good all over the place for the first three quarters against the Chargers. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball were a very strong 1-2 punch running the ball. Denver’s defense held a very good San Diego offense in check for most of the game. Early in the game, even the Broncos’ bad plays looked like flukes, not like major problems. But the Broncos’ fourth-quarter letdown may be a concern: A comfortable 17-0 lead turned into a closer-than-it-should-have-been 24-17 win. The Broncos will need to play well for four quarters to beat the Patriots.

LeGarrette Blount is something special. The Patriots made Blount the focal point of their offense on Saturday, and he rewarded them in a major way, carrying 24 times for 166 yards and four touchdowns. (Blount has only played in one postseason game, and he has more career postseason rushing touchdowns than Barry Sanders and Walter Payton combined.) Blount has always had a phenomenal combination of speed and power, but after a great rookie season in Tampa Bay in 2010, he was largely a forgotten man with the Bucs. Now the Patriots are getting the most out of his talents. One of the primary differences between a bad coach like Greg Schiano and a great coach like Bill Belichick is that Schiano saw Blount as a problem to get rid of, while Belichick saw Blount as an opportunity to make the most of.

Marshawn Lynch is a beast in the playoffs. Lynch has only played in five postseason games in his career, and he has topped 130 rushing yards in three of them: He had 140 yards in Sunday’s win over New Orleans, 132 yards in last year’s win over Washington, and 131 yards in Seattle’s playoff win three years ago over New Orleans, the game in which Lynch reeled off one of the greatest runs in NFL history. Only two players in NFL history — Terrell Davis with five and Thurman Thomas with four — have more 130-yard games in the playoffs than Lynch’s three.

Dan Skuta got the weakest flag of the weekend. Skuta, a 49ers linebacker, made a great play to fight through a block, hit Cam Newton and wrap him up for a sack in the fourth quarter. But the referee somehow claimed that Skuta had committed “roughing the quarterback” by hitting Newton in the head. I’m all for player safety, but the idea that a linebacker can’t tackle a quarterback the way Skuta tackled Newton is ridiculous.

The Panthers needed more from their running backs. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, who just finished the third season of a five-year, $43 million contract, gained 13 yards on five carries on Sunday. Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert, who just finished the second year of a four-year, $8.2 million contract, gained 20 yards on eight carries. (Running back Jonathan Stewart, who just finished the second year of a five-year, $36.5 million contract, was inactive with a knee injury.) A team that’s devoting as much salary cap space to running backs needs a lot more production from them than that. Cam Newton, who had 54 yards on 10 carries, was the only Panther who was a consistent threat on the ground.

The Trent Richardson trade was terrible. There are no two ways about it, the Colts made a huge mistake when they gave up their 2014 first-round draft pick to acquire Richardson from the Browns. Richardson ended the playoffs with four carries for a grand total of one yard, with one fumble. That’s horrific. In the regular season Richardson gave the Colts 157 carries for 458 yards, a pathetic average of 2.9 yards a carry. If Richardson can’t show significant improvement in the offseason and the 2014 preseason, can he even make the Colts’ 53-man roster next year?

The Saints’ clock management was abysmal. There will be plenty of blame to go around in New Orleans this week after the Saints’ loss at Seattle. But a big share of the blame should go to coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, both of whom were responsible for some atrocious clock management. Twice in the fourth quarter Payton and Brees wasted timeouts because they couldn’t get the play called and the offense set in time to avoid a delay of game penalty. And Payton wasted the Saints’ final timeout challenging a Seahawks catch that was clearly ruled correctly on the field. You simply can’t waste all three of your timeouts when you’re trying to come from behind in the fourth quarter, but that’s what the Saints did.

The trumpet national anthem was awesome. Instead of famous singers who try way too hard to put their own spin on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Carolina Panthers got trumpeter Jesse McGuire to play the national anthem, and he was outstanding. How about bringing him back for the Super Bowl, NFL? That was an anthem fit for a great game, which this year’s Super Bowl — whether it’s the 49ers or Seahawks, Broncos or Patriots — is virtually guaranteed to be.

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Agent: Report of Marshawn Lynch not boarding bus following Harvin trade is “absurd”

Seattle Seahawks v St. Louis Rams Getty Images

The trade of Percy Harvin to the New York Jets on Friday caught many members of the Seattle Seahawks by surprise.

Harvin’s teammates were finding out about the trade as the Seahawks were preparing to board buses to head to the airport for their flight to St. Louis Friday afternoon.

One player that appeared to take the news heavily was running back Marshawn Lynch.

Lynch expressed his surprise at the move on Twitter and reportedly refused to board the team bus upon finding out about the news. However, Lynch’s agent, Doug Hendrickson, vehemently refuted that notion Tuesday night.

“These reports of (Lynch) going off and not wanting to get on bus are absurd. Please report accurate stories and not bogus ones,” Hendrickson wrote via his Twitter account.

A league source said over the weekend that Lynch had boarded the bus and was ready to depart long before several Seahawks staff members and players. The source added that they were not aware of any incident regarding Lynch threatening to not make the trip in the trade aftermath.

Lynch appeared to be his normal self on the field against the Rams on Sunday in carrying 18 times for 53 yards.

If anything, the trade of Harvin should allow the Seahawks to turn back to Lynch as their primary option on offense without needing to find a way to get Harvin involved in the game. After having just six carries against San Diego and 10 against Dallas, Lynch should once again become the focal point for Seattle’s attack.

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Jeremy Lane returns to practice from injured reserve for Seahawks

Jeremy Lane AP

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane was designated Tuesday as having returned to practice after spending the last six weeks on the injured reserve/designated to return list.

Lane nursed a groin injury into Seattle’s season opener against the Green Bay Packers. He further aggravated the injury in the game and was placed on injured reserve following the game.

Head coach Pete Carroll said Lane is on track to return to the lineup for Seattle’s Week 10 game against the New York Giants when he is eligible to come off injured reserve. With the Seahawks having Tuesday off, Lane will practice for the first time since his injury on Wednesday.

Lane’s injury has forced Marcus Burley into the majority of duty as Seattle’s nickel cornerback this season. Lane has appeared in 19 games with four starts over the last three seasons. He has 44 tackles and four passes defended in his career.

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Steelers ILB Ryan Shazier could return Sunday

Ryan Shazier, Fozzy Whittaker AP

After a four-game absence because of a sprained MCL, Steelers inside linebacker Ryan Shazier could be set to return to the lineup Sunday vs. Indianapolis.

Shazier and reserve safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) have a “pretty good chance of playing this week,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said at his Tuesday press conference, according to the club.

The Steelers’ starting left inside linebacker, the 22-year-old Shazier has notched 20 tackles in three games this season. Sean Spence has filled in for Shazier.

While Shazier and Thomas appear on their way back, right tackle Marcus Gilbert’s status for Week Eight is up in the air. Gilbert, who suffered a concussion in Monday night’s victory vs. Houston, is going through the league’s concussion testing, Tomlin said. Mike Adams is the top backup to Gilbert.

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Chiefs release DE Jerel Worthy from practice squad

Green Bay Packers Mini Camp Getty Images

Defensive end Jerel Worthy, a 2012 second-round pick of the Packers, was released from Kansas City’s practice squad on Tuesday, according to the NFL’s transactions.

A Michigan State product, Worthy (6-2, 308) appeared in 14 games for Green Bay as a rookie, recording 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks. However, injuries have hindered his NFL career. He suffered a left ACL tear late in the 2012 season and spent most of 2013 on the PUP list. He also underwent back surgery earlier this year.

The 24-year-old Worthy had signed with the Chiefs’ practice squad in September after a brief stint with the Patriots. The Packers dealt Worthy to New England in August.

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Rice has filed grievance against Ravens

Rice Getty Images

The Ray Rice litigation tree officially has sprouted another branch.

Per multiple sources, Rice has filed a grievance against the Ravens challenging the team’s decision to terminate his contract on September 8.  The Ravens cut Rice within hours after the video emerged of Rice striking his then-fiancée (now wife) in the head in an Atlantic City elevator.

Rice’s position is that the Collective Bargaining Agreement permits one punishment for infraction.  In July, the NFL suspended Rice two games for the assault.  Then, immediately after the video surfaced, the Ravens cut Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely.

If successful on both grievances, Rice would be eligible to receive $3.52 million from the Ravens.  That’s the amount he would have earned if reinstated as of Week Three of the regular season.

Rice’s grievance against the NFL has been set for November 5 and 6.  It’s unknown when the grievance against the Ravens will be resolved.

Regardless of Rice’s infraction, he has rights.  The Ravens and/or the NFL knew or should have known exactly what he did when he was suspended by the league for two games.  The move to cut him (by the team) and to suspend him indefinitely (by the league) obviously was driven by the intense public reaction to the elevator video.  And while the moves may have won the Ravens and the NFL points in the court of public opinion, the team and the league arguably (or actually) screwed this up by not getting all of the pertinent evidence before suspending Rice in July.

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Broncos PK Brandon McManus sits out Tuesday, expected to play

Britton Colquitt, Mitch McManus AP

The Broncos’ kicker was among four players sitting out practice on Tuesday, but he appears set to play Thursday night vs. San Diego.

Rookie Brandon McManus missed a second straight workout with a right groin injury, but coach John Fox indicated he should be able to suit up against the Chargers, according to Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post.

The 23-year-old McManus has hit all 23 extra points and 6-of-7 field goals this season for Denver. He has also forced 28 touchbacks in 37 kickoffs. He has been on the injury report with the groin ailment since Week Three.

Tailback Montee Ball (groin), cornerback Omar Bolden (concussion) and linebacker Steven Johnson (ankle) also did not participate in practice on Tuesday. Bell, the Broncos’ starting tailback, has missed the last two games with his injury.

Cornerback Chris Harris (knee), safety T.J. Ward (knee), tailback Juwan Thompson (knee) and safety Quinton Carter (hamstring) were full participants in Tuesday’s workout, according to the injury report.

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Report: Chandler Jones out for “about a month”

Jones AP

Well, now we know why the Patriots traded for linebacker Akeem Ayers.  The Pats won’t have Chandler Jones for a while.

According to Shalise Manza Young of the Boston Globe, Jones suffered a hip injury against the Jets on Thursday night.  He’s expected to miss “about a month.”

A first-round pick in 2012, Jones has 4.5 sacks in his third NFL season.  He had 6.0 sacks as a rookie and 11.5 in 2013.

Per multiple reports, the Patriots also are expected to sign defensive lineman Alan Branch.  He was cut by the Bills after a DUI arrest in the preseason.

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Early exit on Sunday night could help Broncos starters in short week

Manning AP

As the Broncos prepare to host the Chargers only four nights after hosting the 49ers, Peyton Manning and other members of the starting offense picked up some extra rest by making an early exit from the blowout win over San Francisco.

Manning thinks that could help the Broncos be better prepared to face the Chargers on a short week.

“Certainly we had fewer plays offensively on Sunday night than we did last year on Sunday night,” Manning said.  “I think we were coming off a 90-play offensive game against the Titans.  So you would hope physically that would make a difference in how guys feel.  If you don’t throw the ball accurately or know who to block it doesn’t matter how you feel but I think this week is a physical challenge and a mental challenge, getting to know a team and also getting physically rested and ready to play so hopefully we can do that this week.”

On Sunday night, Manning took 50 snaps.  That should leave him feeling a lot fresher than he did after the 51-28 win over the Titans last December, which featured 91 snaps.

The extra rest could help the Broncos avoid what happened last year on Thursday night against their AFC West rivals.

“The Chargers flat outplayed us,” Manning said.  “It’s a reminder that there aren’t many secrets.  If you go out, don’t execute and make mistakes and have self-inflicted wounds, it’s going to be tough to beat any team, much less a good football team like the Chargers.  So we’re still into our preparation in the short week and hopefully we can play better this Thursday than we did last year on Thursday.”

The Broncos need to.  At stake is a two-game swing in the division, with the Broncos also trying to maintain its current lead for the top seed in the conference.

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Giants try out 15 on Tuesday

Pryor AP

As the New York Giants try improve on a record that Brandon Marshall would deem to be unacceptable, they’ve brought in a large cluster of guys for a Tryout Tuesday tire kicking.

Per a league source, 15 players worked out for the Giants today.

The eclectic group included a receiver, three tight ends, three running backs, a quarterback, two guards, a long snapper, two punters, and two kickers.

Specifically, those working out included receiver Jon Baldwin, tight ends Ted Bolser, Tony Moeaki, and D.J. Williams, running backs Alex Green, Felix Jones, and Dion Lewis, quarterback Terrelle Pryor, guards Jack Cornell and Antoine McClain, long snapper Tyler Ott, punters Jacob Dombrowski and Robert Malone, and kickers Travis Coons and Nate Freese.

Pryor’s workout may have been less about evaluating him for a contract and more about having a quarterback present to throw passes to the seven skill-position players who worked out.

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Colts add Olympian Jeff Demps to practice squad

London Olympics Athletics Men AP

The Colts are adding some speed to their practice squad.

Jeff Demps, who won a silver medal as a member of the U.S. Olympic 4×100-meter relay team, has signed with the Colts’ practice squad.

Alternating between track and football for years, Demps has spent time with the Patriots and Buccaneers but played in just two games in his NFL career, carrying one time for 14 yards, catching three passes for 21 yards and returning four kickoffs for 93 yards. As a running back at Florida, Demps ran for 2,470 yards on 367 carries, added 57 catches for 481 yards, and averaged 28.8 yards per kickoff return.

The Colts also added tight end Konrad Reuland to the practice squad and released quarterback Dominique Davis and wide receiver Chandler Jones from the practice squad.

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Eli Manning says Giants still have time to turn things around

Eli Manning AP

Giants quarterback Eli Manning says seven games into the season is far too early to get worried about the future, even after back-to-back losses to division rivals Philadelphia and Dallas.

Manning said that at 3-4, the Giants still have plenty of time to turn their season around and make a run for the playoffs.

“There is a ton of football,” Manning said, via Newsday. “If we handle our business and start winning games, we have a shot to be OK and in good shape.”

Teammates said Manning gave a similar pep talk in the locker room before players got some time off for their bye week. Manning has twice been part of a Giants team that struggled at times in the regular season but ended up winning the Super Bowl, and he says he knows this team is good enough to overcome its early season struggles.

“I think we have the talent, yes,” he said. “Some of it is developing just because we have some new guys playing at positions . . . There are still some young aspects to it, but there is definitely talent there. When you get through the growing pains of these young guys, they’re doing a lot of good things, there are just little mistakes that are keeping us from being very, very good. The more playing experience they get, the more practices, all of a sudden these young guys start making those plays and things start coming together. That’s when we’ll be at our best.”

With the Eagles and the Cowboys both playing very well, the Giants need to get to their best in a hurry, or else by the time they turn things around, they’ll already be out of contention.

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Brandon Marshall has no regrets about his Sunday outburst

Brandon Getty Images

There’s a recent trend for frustrated NFL players.  Blow up on Sunday, express no regrets about it during the week.

Last week, it was Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin.  This week, it’s Bears receiver Brandon Marshall.

Appearing on Inside The NFL, Marshall addresses his locker-room tirade, and he said that he’d do it again.

“Absolutely my voice was heard,” Marshall said, via quotes distributed by Showtime.  “The only thing I regret is that the door wasn’t closed.  I wouldn’t change any of my reactions, because they came from my heart and that’s how I felt and that’s how I still feel.  I think we have all the coaches we need.  I think we have all the players that we need to get the job done. And 3-4 is unacceptable, but we have everything that we need to turn this ship right now.

“The problem right now is that we are not performing to our ability.  We just need to gel, we need to continue to come together, but the time is now.  We are halfway through the season and if any locker room has the guys to get it done, we do. . . .  We can get this thing turned around.”

The snippets circulated from Showtime don’t address whether Marshall was calling out quarterback Jay Cutler specifically or everyone.  It’s been reported that it was Cutler; we’ve heard it was broader than that.

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Jason Verrett practices, Brandon Flowers doesn’t

Jason Verrett, Brice Butler AP

The Chargers would presumably like to have both Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett available when trying to slow down Peyton Manning on Thursday night, but they’ll probably be happy if they have one of them.

Verrett was a limited participant in practice on Tuesday after missing last Sunday’s loss to the Chiefs with a shoulder injury. Taking part in practice is certainly better than the alternative, but Verrett was limited in all three practices last week so it’s not necessarily predictive of whether he’ll be in the lineup against Denver.

Flowers is out with a concussion and the quick turnaround doesn’t leave him much time to progress through the protocol before kickoff. Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego reports that Flowers watched practice from the field with a helmet and visor on.

Linebakcer Jerry Attaochu was a limited participant after the team said he would not have participated in a Monday practice because of a hamstring injury. Running backs Ryan Mathews and Donald Brown, linebacker Manti Te’o and center Rich Ohrnberger all remained out for the Chargers.

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49ers bring back Josh Johnson, again

Johnson Getty Images

Just like there was a fifth Beatle, there’s a 54th 49er.  And his name is Josh Johnson.

Once again, Johnson has been re-signed to the San Francisco roster the Tuesday after a game, giving the team a third quarterback for practice.  Each of the last two weeks, the 49ers have cut Johnson in advance of a game, signing another player to the 53-man roster who is more likely to contribute when it’s time to play.

This is the last time the 49ers will be able to make Johnson the unofficial 54th man on the roster.  San Fran’s next game comes after the trading deadline.  If Johnson is cut at that point, he’ll be exposed to waivers, and any team can claim his contract.

If Johnson clears waivers, he can re-sign with the 49ers the following Tuesday, giving the 49ers a third quarterback — and as a practical matter a 54th player — for yet another week.

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Phil Emery defends Jay Cutler as a “winning quarterback”

Jay Cutler AP

There’s a lot of negative feelings about Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in Chicago right now and some of the aggrieved parties got a chance to air their grievances directly to management on Tuesday.

Bears General Manager Phil Emery took part in an online chat on the team’s website and predictably faced many questions about his quarterback, who has turned the ball over 10 times this season. Among the questions Emery fielded was one asking for his take on Cutler’s performance in light of the “enormous contract” the quarterback signed in the offseason.

“Jay Cutler is a winning quarterback in this league and no matter how you analyze the history of quarterbacks in the NFL, if you have a winning record you are an elite player at that position,” Emery wrote. “I’ll say it again: Jay has enormous skills and he continues to improve in all areas as a football player. I know he has some throws he would like to have back, but all of our players have had plays that they would like to have back.”

Giving quarterbacks won-loss records ignores too much of what goes into winning and losing games, but Emery is using it as criteria so it bears mentioning that the Bears are 8-10 with Cutler at the helm over the last two years. It also seems a stretch to think that Cutler is going to morph into a dramatically different quarterback nine years into a career that has been marked by the same kinds of swings between good play and crushing mistakes.

That’s not the worst thing in the world. Cutler is completing more passes than ever and actually has a lower interception percentage than the last two seasons, but that still comes with downsides that have gotten in the way of the winning quarterback leading a team with a winning record.

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