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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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Miles Burris says farewell to Oakland

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Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie added a new crop of rookies to the roster in the draft and those arrivals have helped ease one of McKenzie’s first picks in Oakland off the team.

Linebacker Miles Burris took to Instagram on Monday to say farewell to the Raiders and said he got to live his dream by playing for the same team that he rooted for as a kid. Burris was a fourth-round pick of the team in 2012, which made him McKenzie’s second pick (offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom was the first) as the man in charge of personnel in Oakland because the team didn’t have first- or second-round picks that year.

The Raiders haven’t made an official announcement yet, but the addition of linebackers Neiron Ball and Ben Heeney in the draft meant that there was some overcrowding at the position. Burris started every game for the Raiders last year, recording 109 tackles, but signing Curtis Lofton as a free agent was a clear sign the Raiders wanted another answer in the middle of their defense.

The team is also parting ways with wide receiver James Jones as they reset their roster after the draft.

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Two local products among Panthers undrafted free agent signings

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The Panthers brought in five players from around the country during the draft, but they looked a little closer to home when it came time to sign undrafted rookies to round out their roster.

Carolina announced 10 signings on Monday, including Clemson cornerback Garry Peters and South Carolina wide receiver Damiere Byrd.

Peters has decent size at 6-feet and was an All-ACC selection during his final year with the Tigers. The Panthers didn’t draft a cornerback to go with Bene’ Benwikere, Charles Tillman and Josh Norman. Byrd has a track background and showed it off at the Gamecocks’ pro day when he ran a 4.28 40 and performed well in the other drills as well.

They also signed running back Brandon Wegher, who ran for 113 yards in Iowa’s 2010 Orange Bowl victory. Wegher completed his college career at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa after leaving the Hawkeyes before his eligibility was up.

Utah linebacker Brian Blechen, Florida defensive tackle Darious Cummings, James Madison safety Dean Marlowe, Ohio State defensive end Steve Miller, Southern defensive end Arthur Miley, Memphis defensive tackle Terry Redden and Michigan punter Matt Wile.

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Former Bill Alex Carrington returns for free agent visit

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The Bills didn’t select any defensive linemen to provide depth for their talented starters during the NFL draft, but they may fill one of the roles on the depth chart with a player they drafted several years ago.

The Bills announced that defensive lineman Alex Carrington is visiting with the team. It probably won’t take him long to feel at home.

Carrington was a third-round pick by the Bills in 2010 and spent the first four years of his career in Buffalo before departing for St. Louis as a free agent last year. He had one tackle in eight games for the Rams and saw action in 44 games for the Bills in his time with the team. Carrington started his final three games with the team in 2013, but a torn quad ended his season and helped push him to another club as a free agent.

Carrington also showed a knack for blocking kicks during his time with the Bills and earned the nickname “Megahand” as a result. That skill could help him earn another shot at a roster spot in Buffalo.

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Cowboys decline to pick up fifth-year option on Morris Claiborne

Morris Claiborne AP

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in January that cornerback Morris Claiborne had done enough to justify picking up his fifth-year option.

But the Cowboys apparently did enough in the draft to make Jones change his mind.

According to Todd Archer of, the Cowboys declined to pick up the fifth-year option on the injured cornerback.

It makes sense, since Claiborne hasn’t played to a level to justify an $11.08 million deal for 2016. He’s also coming off a torn patellar tendon that limited him to four games last year, and he missed six games in 2013 because of hamstring problems.

They also invested their first-round pick in cornerback Byron Jones, another solid indicator of the direction they’re going.

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Eagles make changes, fire some Howie Roseman guys

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With the 2015 NFL Draft in the books, it’s the time for teams with new General Managers to clear out the old scouting staff so they can bring in their own guys.

But while the Eagles didn’t technically bring in a new G.M., they’re shuffling out some of the leftovers from when Howie Roseman was in charge anyway.

According to Les Bowen of the Philadelphia Daily News, the Eagles have fired director of college scouting Anthony Patch, pro personnel director Rick Mueller and area scout Brad Obee.

Bowen referred to all three as “Howie guys,” which meant their fates were largely sealed when Roseman was kicked upstairs and coach Chip Kelly got all the personnel power in the building.

Kelly promoted Ed Marynowitz to vice president of player personnel this offseason, and he’ll have a hand in putting together a new staff, though we all know who’s in charge.

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Jets part ways with director of pro personnel, five scouts

Mike Maccagnan AP

The Jets got good marks for coming away from the draft with players like defensive lineman Leonard Williams and wide receiver Devin Smith, but they still decided to make changes to their scouting department when the three days of picks came to an end.

The Jets announced that they have fired director of pro personnel Brendan Prophett and college scouts Rick Courtright, David Hinson, Cole Hufnagel, Chris Prescott and Seth Turner.

“I appreciate their contributions to the organization and wish them the best in the future,” General Manager Mike Maccagnan said in a statement.

All six of the men were holdovers from previous regimes and Maccagnan, hired this offseason, will be restocking the organization with his choices for the jobs. The Jets previously parted ways with former General Manager Terry Bradway and Jeff Bauer, two senior members of the scouting department, but teams often hold onto scouts they plan to let go through the draft to keep their own plans from leaking to other teams.

The Jets have hired Brian Heimerdinger and Rex Hogan for prominent roles under Maccagnan and there will likely be other additions in the near future as they restaff their front office ahead of the 2015 season.

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Greg Hardy’s farewell to Twitter wasn’t final

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Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy said farewell to Twitter last night, apparently at the behest of the team after making a decidedly unfunny reference to the 9/11 attacks.

But the farewell wasn’t really a farewell.  After posting a “Goodbye 4ever” tweet that prompted Tim MacMahon of to point out that the “Cowboys sure hope so,” Hardy retweeted various hostile fan responses to MacMahon, including one that called MacMahon an “asshat” and one that dubbed MacMahon a “d–krider.”

Right or wrong, love him or hate him, Hardy is being Hardy.  But if the Cowboys indeed suggested that Hardy pull the plug on Twitter, the plug has yet to be pulled.

At some point, it’s hard not to wonder whether the Cowboys will pull the plug on Hardy.  With $1.3 million committed to Hardy in workout bonuses, calling it quits in the wake of a 10-game suspension for domestic violence and subsequent behavior that suggests he doesn’t really get it would save the Cowboys some money and potentially win them some major style points.

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Colts waive RB Jeff Demps, three others

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The Colts have parted ways with a player known best for his rare speed.

Running back Jeff Demps, an Olympic medalist as a sprinter, was one of four players waived by Indianapolis on Monday, the club said.

The Colts had signed the 25-year-old Demps to a reserve/future contract in January. He also had a stint on the Colts’ practice squad last season. Demps had previously spent time with Tampa Bay and New England.

Demps was a member of the U.S. 4×100 relay squad that won a silver medal in London in 2012.

In addition to Demps, the Colts waived wide receiver Kadron Boone, defensive end Gannon Conway and offensive tackle Matt Hall. Boone, Conway and Hall all entered the NFL as undrafted free agents in 2014.

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Report: Vikings pick up 2016 contract options on Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith

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The Vikings had a pair of first-round picks in 2012 and they’ve reportedly moved to hold onto both of them for a fifth season.

Alex Marvez of FOX Sports reports that the team has exercised their fifth-year options on the contracts of left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith.

The Smith decision probably didn’t take the Vikings a long time to figure out. He’s coming off an excellent 2014 season and has been a starter when healthy since joining the team. Smith, who was the 29th pick, will be in line to make $5.278 million, although there’s a good chance they’ll work on a multi-year extension between now and the start of the 2016 season.

Kalil wasn’t as clear cut since he struggled in 2014 and the salary for the fourth pick will be above $11 million in 2016. The Vikings can withdraw the option if he doesn’t rebound in his fourth NFL season as the option is guaranteed against injury only.

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PFT Live: Seahawks talk with Bob Condotta, NFL draft review

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It was a busy weekend all over the world of sports with the NFL draft ranking near the top of the list of events drawing attention around the country.

We’ll take a look back at the three days of picks during Monday’s edition of PFT Live. Mike Florio will catch us up on all the biggest developments, riskiest picks and best moves from Chicago.

Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times will join Florio to discuss the Seahawks’ selections as well as the push for a new Russell Wilson contract and linebacker Bruce Irvin’s status with the team. Bob Kravitz of WTHR will also be on the show to talk about the Colts’ moves, including the selection of wide receiver Phillip Dorsett in the first round.

Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram will check in with the latest on the Cowboys’ decision to draft Randy Gregory while Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union will bring us all we need to know about Dante Fowler and the rest of the Jaguars draft class.

We also want to hear from PFT Planet. Email questions at any time via the O’Reilly Auto Parts Ask the Pros inbox or get in touch on Twitter at @ProFootballTalk to let us know what’s on your mind.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can listen to all three hours live via the various NBC Sports Radio affiliates, through the links at PFT, or with the NBC Sports Radio app. You can also watch a simulcast of the first hour of the show by clicking right here.

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Report: Winston tapped brakes on ESPN interview

Winston AP

With Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, it’s always something.  For multiple reasons.

At times, it’s always something because there’s always something he’s doing that attracts scrutiny.  At other times, it’s always something because the media scrutinizes him more closely than other young players.  Regardless, anything Winston does that is remotely controversial will now become a headline.

Case in point:  Something Winston did on Thursday night became the top item for Richard Deitsch’s weekly sports media column.  As explained by Deitsch, Winston deliberately circumvented a ping-pong arrangement between NFL Network and ESPN regarding dibs on interviewing the first pick in the draft.

This year, it was ESPN’s turn to go first.  But Winston decided not to let ESPN go first.

According to Deitsch, Winston’s camp “was upset at the network’s overall coverage of the top pick prior to the draft.”  Winston’s agent predictably told Deitsch that “it was simply our preference that his first interview be with NFL Network”; however, there’s no reason to dispute Deitsch’s reporting that Winston and company retaliated, at least a little, against the four-letter network.

Winston’s agent downplayed the snub, explaining that ESPN got its interview a “few seconds later.”  But the damage was done.  Deitsch explains that, by the time ESPN got the interview, the draft had progressed several picks beyond Winston.  So the interview wasn’t played by ESPN until after the first round ended.

On one hand, it’s Winston’s right to choose NFL Network over ESPN.  On the other hand, why alienate a network with much greater reach and influence than NFL Network at the front end of Winston’s career?  Plenty of discretion will be exercised over the coming months and years by producers, analysts, and anchors regarding Winston.  Moving forward, will ESPN be more inclined to pull punches with Winston — or will they be more inclined to go for a knockout?

While Winston’s decision doesn’t carry the same stink of sexism as the Floyd Mayweather passive-aggressive credential stunt with Rachel Nichols and Michelle Beadle, attempting to influence coverage by declining or delaying interviews is always a bad idea, especially when doing it to a network that employs a small army of NFL reporters that can (and possibly will) hold anything Winston says or does against him.

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Falcons turning focus to Julio Jones extension

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The Falcons have wide receiver Julio Jones under contract for the 2015 season and they could make use of the franchise tag to keep Jones on hand in 2016, but General Manager Thomas Dimitroff says that the team would prefer to work something out that locks Jones up for years to come.

No contract talks have been held between the team and Jones’s camp at this point, but Dimitroff says that the end of the draft means that now is the time to turn attention toward a long-term extension for the talented wideout.

“There is no question that our focus in the future will be on Julio Jones and where we are,” Dimitroff said, via Vaughn McClure of “I don’t want to get into specifics about the timing of that, obviously. But now that the draft is over and we continue to build this football team, we understand that Julio is a very important part of our building and evolving as a championship-type team.”

Dimitroff said that Jones’s history of foot injuries wasn’t a concern after Jones rebounded from 2013’s extended absence to set a franchise record for receiving yards in a single season. A franchise tag for 2016 would be in the neighborhood of $13 million, which probably provides a pretty good jumping off point for contract talks.

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Some Colts players not happy with decision to draft Dorsett

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The folks running the football operations in Indy are getting public pressure from above.  They’re also getting private pressure from below.

Per a league source, multiple Colts players aren’t happy with the team’s draft strategy, specifically with the decision to use a first-round pick on receiver Phillip Dorsett.

The thinking is that the Colts should have taken a safety like Landon Collins or a tackle (defensive or offensive) with the 29th overall pick in the draft.  A receiver could have been taken later than round one, and he would have arrived with less of a presumption that:  (1) he’ll be on the field; and (2) he’ll have the ball thrown his way plenty.

With receiver T.Y. Hilton, tight end Coby Fleener, and tight end Dwayne Allen entering contract years and 2014 rookie Donte Moncrief coming into his own and veteran Andre Johnson trying to prove the Texans wrong and the Colts intent on developing a running game, the Colts don’t currently need another pass catcher with a pedigree that implies he’ll be a contributor, right out of the gates.

Over time, the Colts could be vindicated for sticking to their draft board; Dorsett could become the next Marvin Harrison or Reggie Wayne.  For 2015, however, he won’t do much to narrow the 38-point gap between the Colts and the Patriota.

With all NFL teams looking to win now and with a head coach in a contract year, the decision to load up on a position of strength at the expense of plenty of positions of weakness seems very confusing to those on the outside — and to some of those on the inside.

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Cardinals plan same role for Andre Ellington

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During the weeks leading up to the draft, the Cardinals were often mentioned as a potential trade destination for Adrian Peterson.

It made sense as a landing spot because the Cardinals struggled to run the ball effectively last season and because they’re good enough elsewhere that they might think a big move for Peterson would put them over the top. The Cardinals didn’t discuss Peterson, but coach Bruce Arians did allow that the team was looking for a back who relished contact in the draft to complement the shiftier Andre Ellington in the backfield.

The draft has come and gone and the Cardinals have neither Peterson nor the banger that Arians talked about. David Johnson, who was drafted in the third round, brings a bigger frame with him from Northern Iowa but he wasn’t grinding yards out after breaking tackles. He’s a pretty similar back to Ellington, actually, and thrives in the passing game, which helps explain why coach Bruce Arians says Ellington’s role isn’t changing.

“I think Andre will continue his same role,” Arians said, via “We’ll keep him healthy and let him continue to develop as a player, but the nice thing David can do is he can do everything Andre does, so you don’t have to change if there was an injury.”

Arians also said that Johnson could be the team’s kickoff returner next season, which supports the notion that he’s in town to provide insurance for Ellington as opposed to an alternate option as the leader of the running game.

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Sean Payton: Joe Morgan “deserved” another chance with team

Joe Morgan AP

Saints wide receiver Joe Morgan had issues on and off the field before he was released last season, but Saints coach Sean Payton said he thought Morgan “deserved” a chance to come back.

Since the post-draft press conference was the first chance for Payton to address it since Morgan was re-signed in April, the Saints coach said Morgan “took a number of initiatives to do some things to work on getting an opportunity to come back.”

It was a handful of things that were really just between us and the player,” Payton added, via Mike Triplett of

Morgan flashed talent, but had just five touches last year (including a 67-yard rush). But he  was also a headache, as he was suspended two games early last year for undisclosed reasons, and then cut late in the season. He was arrested for suspicion of drunk driving in 2013 as well.

“We had a long visit with him, sat down and spent some time with him,” Payton said. “He’s someone that I feel like I know real well, and I know Mickey [Loomis] feels the same way. And we felt comfortable with bringing him back on the roster. He’s someone that’s really developed.

“We’ve got a lot of time on task with Joe as a receiver, and I feel like we’ve got a lot of time on task with him as a person.”

You’d think he’d have a better opportunity to hang around this year, after the Saints got rid of Kenny Stills, and didn’t make any significant adds in free agency or the draft.

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