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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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Florida State dumps DeAndre Johnson

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Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has developed plenty of quarterbacks into NFL prospects. De’Andre Johnson won’t be one of them.

Johnson has been dismissed from the school. The move was announced tonight.

Florida State previously suspended Johnson indefinitely. After Monday’s footage surfaced of Johnson punching a female at a Tallahassee bar, Johnson was kicked out.

Named Florida’s Mr. Football as a senior in Jacksonville, Johnson now will have to look for another school to give him a second chance. But second chances in sports have become far less easy to obtain for men who commit violence against women — especially when the violence is preserved via video.

If no major college gives Johnson a second chance, it becomes easier for the NFL to avoid giving him a first chance. But even if Johnson goes the Randy Moss route, transferring from Florida State to an FCS school, playing right away, and becoming a superstar, Johnson will still have a very hard time getting an NFL team to roll the dice on a guy who punched a member of the opposite sex while a camera was rolling.

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Report: Packers plan to keep Andrew Quarless

Quarless Getty Images

With Packers tight end Andrew Quarless likely headed for leave with pay, the Packers apparently don’t intend to ask him to leave without pay.

Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com, citing two unnamed sources, reports that the Packers have no plans to release Quarless after a July 4 arrest including allegations that he fired a gun twice during a dispute with a car full of females.

Per Demovsky, the gun was legally registered to Quarless. This doesn’t change the fact that Quarless used the gun in an illegal way, allegedly or actually.

The Packers have issued the perfunctory no-comment comment about Quarless, and the NFL has said nothing about the situation.

It’s unclear when Packers G.M. Ted Thompson will say something about the situation, or whether a member of the Green Bay media will appropriately ask him what happens if Quarless fires his gun into the air in Wisconsin and kills someone?

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Rivers hopes PED suspension doesn’t hurt Gates’ reputation

Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers believes Antonio Gates when he says that his four-game suspension was the result of accidentally taking a banned substance.

Rivers says that although he can’t be positive that Gates wouldn’t cheat by taking performance-enhancing drugs, he thinks he knows Gates well enough to know that’s not the kind of person Gates is.

“Can I 100 percent say that? I don’t know that I can, but I feel like our relationship is such that if it was intentional, he would say, ‘I messed up. I’ve been doing this, I made a mistake, I just couldn’t do it anymore the way I was doing it.’ You know what I mean? I feel like he would say that to me. So that’s why I say I know, and that’s the only reason I say it. Could I be wrong? I guess. But I don’t think so. I don’t think so. The trust and relationship and the friendship that we’ve built over 12 years, he’d have no reason to tell me anything but the truth,” Rivers said on The Mighty 1090 AM.

Rivers said Gates told him before the suspension was announced on Thursday. Rivers said he and the Chargers will have a tough time with the loss of their longtime starting tight end.

“I knew it was coming, I had talked to him beforehand. It’s really tough,” Rivers said. “Any time you lose one of the top tight ends to ever play, and one of our best players, for four games, it’s certainly going to have an effect.”

Rivers said he hopes Gates’s reputation isn’t tarnished.

“As a friend you just hate it for him. I feel for him as a friend. I really do,” Rivers said. “You hate it for him because of what perception and what thoughts people are going to have that you can’t really change their minds on. And me, knowing him, the kind of guy he is, I know it was without knowing that he was doing that. He’s first class in every way. So it’s tough knowing that he’s going to have that tied to him in some way and some people will always think something about it.”

Whether or not Gates’s reputation around the NFL has taken a hit, it’s clear that Rivers remains a big believer in his longtime tight end.

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Fireworks injury could force Jason Pierre-Paul to miss start of season

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Getty Images

Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul suffered serious hand injuries while setting off fireworks over Fourth of July weekend, 10 weeks before the season opener. And it’s looking like those injuries might take more than 10 weeks to heal.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, there’s concern that Pierre-Paul could miss the start of the regular season. At this point the team is still awaiting more medical information, but his availability for Week One against the Cowboys is in doubt.

If Pierre-Paul’s injury keeps him off the field, the Giants can put him on the non-football injury list and decline to pay him for any games he misses. Pierre-Paul is currently not under contract, and the Giants have placed the $14.8 million franchise tag on him. If he plays the 2015 season under the franchise tag but misses some games because of the fireworks injury, each game he misses will cost him more than $870,000 in lost salary.

Pierre-Paul led the Giants with 12.5 sacks last season and was expected to be their top pass rusher this year as well. He’ll be hard to replace, but it’s looking likely that the Giants will have to replace him, at least at the start of the season.

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Michael Irvin Jr. heading to The U

Miami Hurricanes v Florida State Seminoles Getty Images

Michael Irvin is one of the greatest players in the history of the University of Miami football program before going on to a Hall of Fame career with the Cowboys.

His son is going to try to follow in his father’s early footsteps. Michael Irvin Jr. announced on Monday that he will attend his father’s alma mater after finishing high school next year.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Irvin Jr. said, via 247Sports.com. “I like the coaches. They told me I would play all over for them. In the backfield, at tight end and at receiver. [My father] was proud of me when I told him of my decision and he thinks it will work out for me just like it did for him going there.”

Irvin Sr. is the Hurricanes’ all-time leader in touchdown catches and finished his career as their all-time leader in catches and receiving yards, although Reggie Wayne and Santana Moss later topped Irvin’s numbers in those categories.

Irvin Jr. is ranked as the No. 80 wideout in his class by Rivals.com and the No. 27 tight end prospect by 247Sports.

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Russell Wilson says God spoke to him right after Super Bowl interception

Wilson Getty Images

That new Russell Wilson interview, nearly a full hour in all, contains plenty of interesting things. Along with multiple examples of Wilson hearing the voice of God, directly and audibly.

The one that surely will get the most media attention comes from Wilson’s claim that God told Wilson not to have premarital relations with his new girlfriend, Ciara. But Wilson also says God spoke to him after that fateful interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX.

“The play happens, and they pick the ball off. And I take three steps,” Wilson said. “And on the third step God says to me, ‘I’m using you. . . . I want to see how you respond. But most importantly I want them to see how you respond.”

Plenty of athletes and non-athletes over the years have claimed to have a direct pipeline to God. For those of us who believe in God but haven’t heard Him speak in an audible voice but have felt His nudge at a more vague and visceral level, a claim that He uses actual words with others can be both confusing and a bit off-putting. For those who believe that God doesn’t care about the outcome of sporting events, a claim that He is preparing an athlete for similar situations in the future can be both confusing and off-putting.

Regardless, Wilson seems to be saying that, above the din and the chaos of the moment, he heard God say, “I want to see how you respond. But most importantly I want them to see how you respond.”

I’m not sure I want to see how some of you will respond in the comments.

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Rob Konrad rejects chance to make movie out of odyssey at sea

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Former Dolphins fullback Rob Konrad’s story seemed like it was something out of a movie, which is why a lot of people thought it would be one.

But Konrad told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald he had turned down a movie offer and several book deals, refusing to cash in on the tale of his 27-mile swim to safety after he fell off his boat six months ago.

“There were some big name folks involved,” Konrad said. “But I made the decision I wasn’t going to go that route. It’s nothing I want to capitalize on. I don’t have the time and desire. I’m running three [financial] companies in Florida and one in Chicago.”

Konrad said he’s writing a long “memo” to detail the incident, since he wants his children and grandchildren to read about it. But he said his plan right now is to not turn it into a book.

And even though being adrift at sea for 16 hours would be enough to make most people move to Oklahoma, Konrad said last week he was taking his boat to Cape Cod for the Fourth of July weekend.

“I’ve been on a boat a bunch since then,” he said. “My wife has made me upgrade the technology and promise to always bring someone with me.”

And if he’s in the Atlantic right now, hopefully he takes the shark repellent as well.

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Russell Wilson’s preference between football and baseball? “Both”

Rangers vs. Phillies Getty Images

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson continues to do a lot of talking, and he’s talking more and more about baseball.

Following last week’s admission to Jimmy Kimmel that Wilson would consider playing football and baseball at the same time if his baseball rights were traded to the Seattle Mariners, Wilson spent the better part of an hour at The Rock Church in the San Diego area on Sunday, and he once again talked about playing baseball.

So which does he prefer? “Both,” Wilson said.

Will he ever play both?

“I have no idea,” Wilson said. “I believe if anybody could do it, I could. And I believe God’s put me — gave me the ability to do it. I’ve done it my whole life.”

Wilson also pointed out that he turned down the opportunity to make a million dollars when first drafted to play baseball, opting to play football and baseball at the same time in college. Given that things worked out fairly well with that million-dollar gamble, perhaps Wilson will be even more inclined to make a $1.5 million gamble this year, turning down whatever the Seahawks offer him before the season, realizing that if he plays for $1.5 million this year, he’ll make a lot more on the back end.

And for those of you who ask why we keep writing about Wilson’s situation, here’s the answer: Unlike the vast majority of quarterbacks in similar situations, Wilson keeps talking about it.

This time around, the discussion about baseball came fairly early in the interview. So there may be more to come from this one.

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Graphic De’Andre Johnson punch video likely means no NFL for him

Johnson Getty Images

As noted earlier today regarding the lingering lack of interest in running back Ray Rice, we all know what an assault looks like. But when we can see it, that changes everything.

For Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson, who in theory could have become the next NFL quarterback groomed for success by coach Jimbo Fisher (joining the likes of first-rounders JaMarcus Russell, Christian Ponder, EJ Manuel, and Jameis Winston), Johnson’s chances of ever making it to the NFL have decreased dramatically now that visual evidence has surfaced of the violent blow he delivered to the head of a woman at a bar in Tallahassee last month.

The Tallahassee Democrat has obtained surveillance video showing Johnson punching the female (fast forward to roughly 1:50 to see the full exchange), who apparently was trying to buy a drink and past whom Johnson was trying to push.

Local authorities had come under fire for releasing the victim’s name but redacting Johnson’s name from the police report that was made available to the public.

“[W]e had to release the victim’s name because she did not fall into an exemption, and we’re not allowed to just take their names out,” Tallahassee Police Department spokesman David Northway told the Democrat on Friday. “And we had to — we had — to redact the suspect’s name in the case because it’s an ongoing investigation.”

Regardless of what Florida State does with Johnson, whatever he accomplishes on a football field at FSU or elsewhere, or however the prosecution is resolved, the NFL likely will have to shun Johnson, simply because anyone can see what we already knew he did.

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Bengals DC Paul Guenther impressed by Steelers offense

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

The AFC North has generally been a strong defensive division over the years, but 2015 saw things go the other way.

None of the four teams ranked higher than 18th in total defense and the Steelers won the division thanks to their potent offense putting up enough points to overcome a lagging defense. Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther will be tasked with trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again this season and it’s a task that he believes will be difficult.

One of the lead reasons why is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who Guenther thinks became even more effective last season. Roethlisberger was sacked less frequently in 2014 than in any other year of his career, leaving him able to take full advantage of the weapons at his disposal.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for him,” Guenther said, via ESPN.com. “He’s taken a lot of shots and keeps getting up … He was getting hit a lot in the past while trying to throw some stuff downfield. The ball’s coming out a little faster, particularly on third downs. That’s probably part of it. He’s not running as much and he has enough pocket presence where he keeps a play alive. You’re talking about tight ends and wide receivers and running backs and an improved offensive line, that’s a pretty good combination. They’ve gotten better up front and run the ball effectively, which helps them. The ability for them to run the ball, mix it up and keep teams honest probably got him more looks.”

The Steelers beat the Bengals twice last season, including a Week 17 win that clinched the division for Pittsburgh and left the Bengals as a Wild Card visitor to Indianapolis. The Steelers gained 889 yards in those games, 667 of them through the air, and Guenther will need to come up with a better answer this time around to keep Cincinnati ahead of their rivals.

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Three Colts linemen pose naked to show they’re not fat slobs

Wild Card Playoffs - Cincinnati Bengals v Indianapolis Colts Getty Images

Colts offensive lineman Todd Herremans is listed at 321 pounds. Anthony Castonzo is listed at 311. And Jack Mewhort is listed at 308. But unlike most 300-pounders, they have athletic bodies that they’re happy to show off.

The three linemen appear together, naked, in the ESPN Magazine Body Issue, saying they jumped at the chance because they want the world to see that offensive linemen are athletes, not just fat guys.

“I think the view of offensive linemen from the public is that we are all just fat slobs,” Herremans said. “Which is what it used to be, kind of. But now the game has evolved into more fit, athletic offensive linemen. So I would say that Anthony is probably the leanest out of all of us, and I’m probably the chubbiest. Jack is somewhere in the middle.”

Mewhort says his body moves much more fluidly than you’d expect for a guy his size.

“I’m pretty good at yoga, actually,” he said. “I’ve been getting into it recently. Anthony got me into it. I did a back bend the other day. I had some assistance from the instructor, but I still thought it was pretty cool.”

It’s pretty cool that these three big guys are willing to show off their physiques. They may not have washboard abs, but they have bodies to be proud of.

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Teddy Bridgewater: We have high expectations, but a long way to go

Teddy Bridgewater, Cordarrelle Patterson AP

Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner was among the people impressed by the way that quarterback Teddy Bridgewater wound down his rookie season in Minnesota.

Turner said Bridgewater was “much more decisive” in his final six starts last season and complimented the rookie for making gains while playing behind a shifting offensive line and without running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson’s return from suspension, guard Brandon Fusco’s return from injury, the presence of a healthy Kyle Rudolph at tight end and the arrival of rookie T.J. Clemmings join the acquisition of wide receiver Mike Wallace as reasons for optimism that Bridgewater will continue on an upward trajectory this season.

Bridgewater said in early June that he was excited about the team’s offseason, but cautioned that it was too soon to talk about them as a contender. The final practices of the offseason didn’t do anything to make him change his mind about avoiding overly rosy projections well before the season gets underway.

“I have high expectations for myself, and this team has high expectations also,” Bridgewater said, via USA Today. “Right now, we’re not as good as what we think. We know that the ceiling is very high and the expectation level is very high — not only for the players, but from a coaching staff also. We know what’s being asked of us, but we have a long way to go.”

It’s not the kind of pom-pom waving we often see when the regular season is still somewhere over the horizon, but that’s not a bad thing for a Vikings team that has posted losing records four of the last five years. The Vikings have to prove they’re good before they can talk about being good, even though the need to toot their own horns won’t be too great if their on-field work lives up to expectations.

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Albert Haynesworth: Washington cost him his “passion for football”

Albert Haynesworth AP

Albert Haynesworth was happy to take the money. But in hindsight, he wouldn’t have taken it from Dan Snyder.

The former defensive tackle, who was known as differently motivated during his playing career, wrote a first-person letter to his younger self for The Players Tribune in which he admits regrets over taking the $100 million contract Washington offered in 2009, saying: “You will lose your passion for football in Washington, and it will be impossible to get back.”

“If nothing else, listen to me on this, Albert: Do not leave the Tennessee Titans,” he wrote (such that players write for themselves there). “Your defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is a mastermind. No matter how much I tell you this, you’ll probably never realize it until your career is over, but it’s true. You’re like a system quarterback. You thrive in a very specific scheme.”

Haynesworth also said the Buccaneers offered him a $135 million deal, but called the contract a “huge burden,” saying: “Take less and stay in Tennessee where you belong.”

Haynesworth suggests that he was dismayed when then-coach Mike Shanahan asked him to clog up the middle of the field rather than rush the passer as he had done with the Titans.

“You’re going to look at this famous NFL head coach in total disbelief and say, “You want to pay me $100 million to grab the center?” the letter read. “And he’s going to say, with a straight face, “Albert, if you have more than one sack this season, I’m going to be pissed.”

“The last thing you’ll say before walking out of the office is, “Can’t you just pay someone $300,000 a year to do that?”

The piece also mentions the fact that much of that money was gone, blaming an unscrupulous financial advisor. But it also portrays a player who now realizes the grass isn’t always greener, years after he took all the green.

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Giants yank long-term offer Pierre-Paul wasn’t inclined to accept

JPP Getty Images

With Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul still hospitalized two days after a fireworks accident, the Giants have commenced the process of protecting the franchise from its current franchise player.

Via Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, the Giants have removed the pending offer on a long-term deal for Pierre-Paul.

And so the $60 million deal is gone; whether a five-year or four-year package, Pierre-Paul wasn’t going to accept it, not with $14.8 million for 2015 and $17.76 million for 2016 as a starting point. That’s $32.56 million over two years on the franchise tag, and quarterback money or $25.5 million for 2017. Which equates to nearly $60 million in only three years.

The question now becomes whether the Giants will make another run at signing Pierre-Paul to a contract that takes the uncertainty regarding his health into account, or whether he’ll sign the franchise tender and play for $14.8 million this year and, if they tag him again, 20 percent more than that in 2016.

The possibility that the Giants could place Pierre-Paul on NFI and not pay him a single penny for the 2015 season could prompt Pierre-Paul to stay away until he gets a clean bill of health, missing regular-season games not as a leverage play against the Giants but to ensure that, when team doctors examine his fingers, they’ll give him a thumb’s up.

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Trump compares Patriots to China, in a good way

Donald Trump

Last month’s campaign announcement from presidential hopeful Donald Trump made plenty of waves for his remarks about Mexico. He also said something about China. And the New England Patriots.

Via Boston.com, Trump favorably compared the Patriots to China.

“People say, ‘Oh, you don’t like China.’ No, I love them,” Trump said, via Steve Silva of Boston.com. “But their leaders are much smarter than our leaders, and we can’t sustain ourself with that. There’s too much — it’s like — it’s like, take the New England Patriots and Tom Brady and have them play your high school football team. That’s the difference between China’s leaders and our leaders.”

It’s an odd comparison for Trump to make, and the fact that it went largely unnoticed for so long underscores the controversial nature of his remarks about Mexico.

It remains to be seen whether Trump is a truly serious candidate, and if so whether he has a chance to win. If he wins, no one should be surprised if he runs the U.S. like China. Or the Patriots. Or both.

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