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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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John Brown unfazed by climb from Pittsburg State to NFL

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If Cardinals receiver John Brown were currently where he was a year ago, he’d be preparing to play Fort Hays State.  Instead, Brown’s next game will come against the Denver Broncos.  And he doesn’t seem to be freaked out by that.

“It’s not too much of a big transition,” Brown tells Paul Burmeister of NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk in an interview that will be televised on today’s edition of the show.  “At the end of the day it’s just football to me I just have to do a lot more studying and learn guys.”

One thing he’s learning is to forget about his blunders.

“Just learning from those guys every time I make a mistake they just tell me to forget about it,” Brown said regarding teammates Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.  “They don’t remember the time they made a mistake, they make me have a short-term memory and just extra work putting it in after practice to be where those guys are.”

Brown already is where those guys are, after only three career regular-season games.  Averaging only three catches per week, he’s already got three touchdowns.

So join us at 5:30 p.m. ET for more from John Brown, along with more from Burmeister, Tony Dungy, Jason Taylor, Ross Tucker, and yours truly.

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Vernon Davis “feeling great” so 49ers cut a tight end

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Late last week, the 49ers promoted tight end Asante Cleveland from the practice squad to give them a healthy body in the event that Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald weren’t able to play against the Cardinals because of injury.

Neither player could go, but things are looking up for Davis this week. Coach Jim Harbaugh said on Monday that he was “optimistic” that Davis would return to the lineup against the Eagles this week and Davis provided more reason for optimism on Tuesday.

“I’m feeling great,” Davis said, via the Sacramento Bee. “This is going to be a good week for me.”

If Davis is back in action, there’s not much need for Cleveland on the roster and the 49ers made a move Tuesday that showed their confidence in Davis’s condition. They waived Cleveland and re-signed quarterback Josh Johnson, who was dropped to make room for Cleveland on the roster.

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Cary Williams apologizing about his practice gripe

Cary Williams AP

Eagles cornerback Cary Williams apologized for causing a flap by complaining about the length of practices.

Sort of.

Williams said he should have kept the critiques of coach Chip Kelly’s methods in-house.

“I did that out of anger and frustration. I could have been better in that situation,” Williams said, via Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I spoke to the team today. I addressed each man in there. Told them that I was sorry for what I said and put them in a difficult situation. I told them it won’t happen again.

“I told them I won’t talk negatively about the team or where we’re going. We are 3-0. That’s something to be proud of. I am happy that we are 3-0 because things could have gone otherwise.”

At the same time, he didn’t exactly walk back his criticism, saying “I try not to lie. In that situation I don’t think I did.”

Kelly declared it a non-issue yesterday, and the facts in the case seem to bear him out.

As the league noted earlier today, the Eagles have scored 74 second half points this season, more than 21 teams have scored all season.

 

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Aaron Rodgers: Offense will be fine

Aaron Rodgers AP

The Packers offense has not gotten off to the fast start to the season that the team would have liked.

The unit has not looked particularly good outside of scoring 28 points in the second and third quarters of the victory over the Jets in Week Two and last Sunday’s outing against the Lions wasn’t good enough in any respect. The run game never got going, quarterback Aaron Rodgers wasn’t his sharpest and the offensive line didn’t serve either part of the attack all that well.

On his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee, Rodgers copped to some poor throws and said that running 51 plays means the offense didn’t play fast enough in the loss to Detroit. He also said that it wasn’t time to panic or look for deeper reasons for the slow start to the season.

“Five letters. R-E-L-A-X. Relax. We’re going to be fine,” Rodgers said, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com.

Rodgers called the Packers a “resilient bunch” and the fact they went from 1-2 to NFC North champs the last two years suggests that there’s something to be said for the patient approach after three weeks of the season.

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Jay Gruden on Cousins keeping job: Crazy things have happened in the NFL

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Quarterback Kirk Cousins provided plenty of support for arguments that he’s a good fit for head coach Jay Gruden’s offensive scheme in Sunday’s start against the Eagles.

Cousins went 30-of-48 for 417 yards in the 37-34 loss with only a slight downgrade for an interception to mar his record for the day. It’s the kind of performance that explains why some believe Cousins should be the team’s starter even when Robert Griffin III is healthy. It also leads to questions for Gruden about whether Griffin could wind up playing the role of Wally Pipp this season. Gruden didn’t rule it out before and he isn’t ruling it out now.

“Crazy things have happened in NFL,” Gruden said, via Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News. “I’m not going to discount anything.”

Cousins has looked very good since replacing Griffin in Week Two and more of the same in the coming weeks would make it very hard for the Redskins to pull the plug even if Griffin hadn’t looked uncomfortable in the offense during the Week One and the preseason. Since there are going to be several games between now and Griffin’s return, there’s not much reason for Washington to make a call either way at this point in the season but the stage is certainly set for Cousins to extend his run.

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Michigan could be moving closer to making a run at Harbaugh

Harbaugh AP

With the University of Michigan struggling to such a bad start that the program has been forced to give tickets away to anyone who purchased a bottle of Coca-Cola (unless it didn’t), the speculation already has begun regarding the next coach of the Wolverines.

Coincidentally, the speculation has been ongoing regarding the future of 49ers coach (and former Michigan quarterback) Jim Harbaugh for a while.  Mired in a contractual impasse that has been tabled until after the season, any college or program now knows that Harbaugh is in play for a jump to a new job come 2015.  With the 49ers already mired in a disappointing, stressful year, that jump could be more likely.

And while other NFL programs technically must wait to openly pursue Harbaugh until after the NFL season ends, Michigan can get a jump on everyone by dumping Brady Hoke and beginning the discussions with a man who has had great success at every stop of his coaching career.

Could Harbaugh be tempted to leave?  If he’d leave the NFL for any job, it surely would be the Michigan job.  And the Michigan job likely won’t be open every few years.  This could be the only time the planets line up just right, allowing Harbaugh to exit the 49ers after four seasons and return to the college game.

Where he can run the show.  And run the town.  And run to the bank with more money than the 49ers will pay him.

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Brian Orakpo has torn ligament, will play with cast

Washington Redskins v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

Brian Orakpo might not be able to tackle anybody.

But he still plans to play.

The Washington outside linebacker said he has a torn ligament in his hand, but plans to get a big cast to try to stay on the field.

Via Tarik El-Bashir of CSNWashington.com, Orakpo met with a hand specialist this week. X-rays were negative, but he has a torn ligament which needs to be kept straight. He had a splint on his left middle finger.

Orakpo only missed a few plays against the Eagles

“I don’t feel as bad this week as I did in the game so I can still play my normal right side,” Orakpo said. “I’ll be fine. . . .

“I don’t know how it will affect me because I haven’t been in that situation yet. We’ll see. I should be fine. I’m on the edge. I can hold the edge. I only need to grab [when I] tackle.”

If he can stand the pain and get somebody to the ground, playing with a club should be manageable.

His only limitation will be his inability to fly the Double Bud Adams, limiting him to the Manziel.

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Jaguars sign Sherrod Martin amid flurry of moves

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The Jaguars are 0-3 and they brought in three players on Tuesday they hope will help them get rid of that zero in the win column.

The team announced that they have signed safety Sherrod Martin, tight end Nic Jacobs and linebacker Jeremiah George to their 53-man roster. Martin is the only member of the trio with professional experience.

Martin was a second-round pick in Carolina in 2009 and made 36 starts for them before tearing his ACL in December 2012. He didn’t play in the league at all last season and was with the Jaguars this summer. The need for Martin’s help arose when Chris Prosinski hurt his triceps. He was waived/injured on Tuesday and his departure leaves the Jags with only wide receiver Cecil Shorts and defensive tackle Tyson Alualu to show from the 2010 and 2011 drafts.

Jacobs was signed off of the Saints practice squad, where he landed after failing to make the team as an undrafted free agent. George was a Jets fifth-round pick this year and joins the Jaguars front heir practice squad.

The Jags also announced that they waived wide receiver Kerry Taylor and tight end Marcel Jensen and that defensive tackle DeAndre Coleman has left their practice squad for a job on Miami’s 53-man roster.

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Kaepernick, Houston dispute quarterback’s use of slur

CK AP

The NFL’s letter informing 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick that he’s been fined for using abusive language doesn’t specific what he said.

Bears defensive end Lamarr Houston now says that Kaepernick used the “N” word.  Kaepernick contends he didn’t.

Via Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, Houston said Monday night that he heard Kaepernick utter the slur.  After the Week Two game, however, Houston had said he heard nothing.

Ultimately, the available audio tape may resolve this one.  Especially since receiver Michael Crabtree wore a microphone during the game and seemed to be close enough to Kaepernick to pick up whatever he said.

Maybe Kaepernick simply said, “Bobby, give me my money.”

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Odell Beckham gets in a limited practice

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The Giants offense leapt to life in Sunday’s win over the Texans and the good news continued for the team on Tuesday.

Wide receiver Odell Beckham was a limited participant in practice, which usually isn’t a cause for smiles unless the player has only taken part in two practices since being drafted in the first round four months ago. That’s the case for Beckham, who has been out with a hamstring injury for almost all of his brief Giants career.

The Giants are playing Thursday, so Beckham is not going to be making his debut in Week Four. Getting in a little practice time now and ramping things up next week could put him in play for the game against the Falcons, but it’s wait and see for a player who has yet to practice two days in a row as a professional.

Linebacker Jon Beason was also listed as a limited participant after missing the win over Houston. Beason aggravated the foot injury that hampered him in the offseason, but an extended absence may not be in the cards for the Giants starter.

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Witnesses say Rob Bironas was enraged moments before his death

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We still don’t know exactly what transpired just before former Titans kicker Rob Bironas died in a single-car accident on Saturday night. But new information gleaned from 911 calls and witness statements raise questions about what was going on with Bironas in the hours before he died.

The Tennessean has obtained 911 calls and statements from witnesses that suggest that Bironas was involved in some kind of road-rage incident with multiple other cars.

A student named Connor Fraley says he was a passenger in a truck that Bironas nearly hit. Fraley says he and the others in the truck smelled something burning coming from Bironas’s SUV and pulled up next to him to alert him to it, and that Bironas replied with an angry threat.

“His window was down, and we pulled up and I said, ‘Hey man, just a heads up, something’s burning from your exhaust. Your exhaust smells horrible, just wanted to let you know,”’ Fraley told the Tennessean. “He looked over at me and said ‘I’m going to kill everybody in your [expletive] vehicle. It was so random, so bizarre I was like, ‘What?’ And he said the exact same thing again.”

In a separate incident, a woman told a 911 dispatcher that another driver — later identified as Bironas — tried to run the vehicle in which she and her and her husband were traveling off the road. That woman thought Bironas might have been drunk, although police say there is no evidence that alcohol played a role in the crash.

He is dangerous, he is drunk or something. He tried to start a fight with us,” the woman said of Bironas on the 911 call. “My husband ran down there to see what is going on. I just want to tell the police there is something wrong with him. He is dangerous, he is drunk or he is on drugs. There is something wrong with him. He gave us a mean look. We don’t even know him, and he tried to run us off the road.”

Bironas died after his SUV hit several trees at around 11 p.m. on Saturday. It is unclear where Bironas was going, but his wife had called police to report him missing. Rachel Bradshaw, the wife of Bironas and daughter of Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, said she assumed her husband was in bed asleep at around 10:30 p.m. but called police when she went to their bedroom and found him missing. She said there had been nothing wrong, the couple had not been arguing and it was unusual for him to leave home without saying anything.

The Titans released Bironas this offseason after nine seasons with the team. There had been no reports of anything wrong in Bironas’s life, and he was reportedly eager to continue his NFL career. He had a tryout with the Lions last week.

Bironas, the NFL’s all-time record holder for field goals in a game, was 36.

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Ray Lewis isn’t on the Ravens payroll

Lewis Getty Images

The combination of Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti’s offer to give former running back Ray Rice a job and the awkward, clumsy, and ironic commentary from former linebacker Ray Lewis regarding the lingering controversy has caused some to wonder whether the Ravens are still paying Lewis, either as consultant or in some other capacity.

That’s not the case, according to the Ravens.

“We do not pay him and he is not an advisor to us,” the team said.

It’s not uncommon for folks paid to talk about football to have other relationships that, in theory, could undermine the credibility of their on-air remarks.  Some networks allow those relationships, without making any disclosure.  Others demand a disclosure.  Others refuse to allow on-air analysts to consult with specific teams.

In this case, it doesn’t matter, given that Lewis has no current financial relationship with the Ravens.

Of course, that’s doesn’t change the obvious bias Lewis has for the team that recently unveiled a statue of the future Hall of Famer.  Which should prompt ESPN to keep Lewis away from offering any analysis about the team’s current struggles.

Then there’s his personal history of off-field issues.  Can anyone listen to Lewis talk about the team’s response to criminal activity by a player without constantly considering the fact that the Ravens blindly and loudly supported Lewis after he pleaded guilty to obstructing justice in a murder case?

There’s some things you can cover up,” Lewis said Sunday about the Rice situation.  “And then there’s some things you can’t.  This is a sad day for me because the reputation I left in this organization, this isn’t it.”

It’s a sad day for ESPN any day that Ray Lewis is trotted out to talk about anything relating to the Ray Rice situation.  And that has happened all too often since the elevator video was released.

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Jeff Tedford given indefinite leave of absence from Bucs

Tedford AP

The Buccaneers were hoping offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford was close to a return.

Instead, there’s no way to know when he’ll be back.

Via Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, the team has given Tedford an indefinite leave of absence.

Tedford had a heart procedure before the start of the season, but had returned to work on a limited basis. He’s been around the team, but quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo had called the plays the first three games.

Coach Lovie Smith had said that Tedford hadn’t experienced any setbacks, but he clearly needs more time to get himself well.

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Panthers put Mike Tolbert on IR/designated for return

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The Panthers banged-up running game will be without its biggest part for at least eight weeks.

The team announced that fullback Mike Tolbert was placed on injured reserve/designated for return.

That will keep him out at least eight weeks, after he suffered a hairline fracture in his leg in Sunday’s loss to the Steelers.

The team signed linebacker D.J. Smith to fill his roster spot, which might actually be a good sign for their other backs.

DeAngelo Williams could return this week after missing the last two with a hamstring. Jonathan Stewart left the game last week with what coach Ron Rivera called a “severe sprain” of his knee, pending an MRI.

If they’re not signing a back now, they must think Williams will play this week, because the only other healthy back on the roster is practice squad promotion Darrin Reaves.

Tolbert was viewed as a luxury buy at the time (one of the last backs former General Manager Marty Hurney bought before he was fired), but went to the Pro Bowl last year after leading the team with seven touchdowns.

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Jerry Jones: Morris Claiborne isn’t what we hoped for

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In the 2012 NFL draft, Cowboys General Manager Jerry Jones traded both his first-round pick and his second-round pick to St. Louis to move up and draft cornerback Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick. So far that’s not looking like a great move.

Jones says he still has hopes that Claiborne is going to turn out to be a very good player in Dallas, but he admits that through two-plus seasons, Claiborne hasn’t been the player the Cowboys believed he was when they pulled the trigger on that trade.

“Is he what we had hoped for at this point when we drafted him with the sixth overall pick, giving up the [second-round] pick to go up to the sixth pick to get him? No,” Jones said on KRLD-FM, via the Dallas Morning News. “But he’s going to be a good player.”

Claiborne had a late interception on Sunday against the Rams, but St. Louis quarterback Austin Davis was also picking on Claiborne all day until that point. Claiborne has to play better than he did on Sunday.

The two picks the Cowboys traded away turned out to be Michael Brockers, who is now starting for the Rams at defensive tackle, and Alshon Jeffery, whom the Bears drafted after a trade with the Rams and who has become one of the best young receivers in the NFL. Jones probably wishes he had stayed put and used those picks on the same two players, rather than using both picks to get Claiborne.

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