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Manny Ramirez: We never heard snap count on game-opening safety

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Super Bowl XLVIII gave a pretty big hint about the way it was going to play out on the opening snap of the game for the Broncos.

Center Manny Ramirez airmailed a snap to quarterback Peyton Manning, who was neither expecting it nor able to corral it before it skittered into the end zone. Running back Knowshon Moreno fell on it, the Seahawks had a safety and the rout was on.

Ramirez said after the game that no one on the team heard the snap count on the play, but he thought he did and he thought it was late so he let the ball fly as Manning was moving toward the line of scrimmage. Manning said the same thing, calling it a “cadence issue” caused by the noise from the crowd. That difficulty and the resulting mistake called to mind a decision coach John Fox made during the week.

The Broncos turned down the volume on the speakers they use to simulate crowd noise at practice this week because Fox said that his experience has been that Super Bowl crowds were quieter than usual crowds. The Seahawks fans at MetLife Stadium definitely made their voices heard on Sunday, though, and it may have helped lead to the first big play in a night filled with them for Seattle.

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Broncos defeat Raiders, clinch first-round bye

C.J. Anderson, Cody Latimer AP

The Broncos are getting a well-deserved and much-needed week of rest.

Led by three TD runs by tailback C.J. Anderson, the Broncos powered away to a 47-14 victory vs. the Raiders on Sunday afternoon in Denver. With the win, the Broncos clinched the No. 2 seed in the AFC and get a bye into the divisional playoffs.

The Broncos never trailed against the Raiders, who finished their season at 3-13. Denver led by at least 10 points for the final 43 minutes of regulation.

Anderson racked up 87 yards on 13 carries for Denver (12-4), scoring on rushes of 25, 1 and 11 yards. Ronnie Hillman added 56 yards on 15 carries.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, meanwhile, connected on 21-of-37 passes for 273 yards with no TDs and no picks. Receivers Demaryius Thomas (eight catches, 115 yards) and Emmanuel Sanders (6-73) had productive days.

Manning’s counterpart, Oakland rookie Derek Carr, connected on 18-of-36 passes for 158 yards with one TD (a two-yard third-quarter toss to Jamize Olawale) and two turnovers, including a fumble returned for a score by the Broncos’ Tony Carter late in the fourth quarter. By then, though, the game was just about out of Oakland’s reach.

Now, the Broncos and Raiders will go their separate ways. The Raiders, for their part, have a decision to make at head coach. Tony Sparano finished the season in the role after the firing of Dennis Allen, leading Oakland to its only three wins of the campaign.

The Broncos? They will look ahead to the divisional round. And they will surely appreciate the weekend off. They had a long injury list entering Week 17, and they lost left guard Orlando Franklin and safety David Bruton to concussions against Oakland.

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Marrone has a three-day out clause, but is expected to stay with Bills

Marrone AP

With the Bills ending the season on a 9-7 note, the current thinking is that new ownership will keep coach Doug Marrone for 2015.  For a change, however, it’s a two-way street.

Per multiple league sources, Marrone has a clause in his contract that gives him a three-day window upon the conclusion of the season to terminate his contract with the Bills.  However, it’s not believed that Marrone will take advantage of his ability to leave.

One factor will be whether a market exists for his services elsewhere as a head coach.  Though he’s done well enough in two years to stay for a third, he probably hasn’t done well enough to spark a land rush for his services.

But it’s nevertheless an unusual clause that shows Marrone and his agent planned for the possible sale of the franchise upon the demise of founder Ralph Wilson, who passed away in March.

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Hobbled Aaron Rodgers leads Packers to NFC North title

rodgers AP

Shaking off a calf injury to deliver an MVP performance, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers led his team to a win over the Lions, an NFC North title, and a first-round playoff bye today at Lambeau Field.

Rodgers, who has been nursing the injury for a week, briefly had to leave the game and struggled even to walk. But after returning in the third quarter, Rodgers took control and took the Packers to a 30-20 victory.

The performance made Rodgers the favorite to win the league’s Most Valuable Player award, and made the Packers the division champs once again. Green Bay has earned a first-round playoff bye, which will be some extra time for Rodgers to rest that calf and get ready for a playoff game at Lambeau.

For the Lions, the disappointing showing continues a decades-long losing streak at Lambeau and means they’ll start the playoffs on the road at Dallas next weekend. It’s been a good season for the Lions, but a season in which they’ll now be expected to get bounced out of the playoffs in the first round.

The Packers, however, have a real shot at being a Super Bowl team. With Rodgers at the helm, the Packers have to like their chances.

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49ers send Jim Harbaugh out with a win

Bruce Miller, Jim Harbaugh, Alfonso Smith AP

By all accounts, Jim Harbaugh is done as the head coach with the 49ers but he got a Gatorade shower and a game ball before he left.

Harbaugh’s players drenched him at the end of a 20-17 win over the Cardinals and defensive back Craig Dahl gave the coach the ball after he picked off Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley to ice the victory in a moment that looked like the 49ers players were well aware that their coach was moving on to another job. There’s been a lot of talk that the University of Michigan will be hiring Harbaugh, but word on that will have to wait for at least a little while.

For now, the 49ers can savor a return to the victory formation after four straight losses that sank their season. Frank Gore ran for 144 yards in what might have been his final game with the 49ers, moving him past the 1,000-yard mark for the fourth straight year and eighth time overall in his career. Colin Kaepernick threw two touchdowns and ran for 63 yards of his own, but the offensive work probably wouldn’t have been enough without the work of the defense.

The 49ers intercepted Lindley three times and the Cardinals quarterback couldn’t replicate his production from a successful first half. He did finish with 313 yards, but just 53 came after the break and the Cardinals Offense didn’t put any points on the board in the final 30 minutes. That’s obviously a concern for the team as they head toward next weekend’s date with the Panthers, but they may not have a choice other than rolling with Lindley thanks to Drew Stanton’s knee and Logan Thomas’s lack of readiness to step into a starting role as a rookie.

That doesn’t set up well for Arizona, but at least they have a shot. The 49ers just have the memories of Harbaugh’s first three seasons and the hope that the next coach can win at the same rate come 2015.

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Seahawks force three second half turnovers on way to top seed in the NFC playoffs

Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright AP

The Seahawks went to the Super Bowl last season behind an overwhelming defense that played at home during the postseason.

A repeat performance is hardly out of the question in 2014. The Seahawks scored all 20 of their points in the second half and forced three turnovers after giving the ball away twice in the first half of a 20-6 victory over the Rams. The win clinches the NFC West and the top seed in the NFC playoffs for the defending champs and their defense looks primed to make the most of that defense.

Seattle allowed 39 points over the final six games of the season, all of which were victories, and the defense helped provide 14 of the points in Week 17. A Jordan Hill interception set up a Marshawn Lynch touchdown run and Bruce Irvin returned a pass he yanked away from Rams tight end Lance Kendricks 49 yards for another score that all but sealed the deal on another division title. The Rams made one last effort to get back in the game in the fourth quarter, but safety Earl Thomas knocked the ball from Benny Cunningham’s hands and the ball bounced through the end zone for a touchback.

The Seahawks Offense never caught fire, but they didn’t turn it over in the second half and strung together a pair of drives in the third quarter for field goals that tied the game. Russell Wilson was 17-of-25 for 239 yards and Lynch had 99 total yards of offense, which is the kind of effort (absent each man’s first half giveaway) that they want to have their defense lead to victory.

There will be stiffer offensive tests ahead than the Rams, but the Seahawks haven’t had much trouble with any level of offensive competition of late. That’s trouble for the NFC, which will go through Seattle for the second straight year.

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Panthers blast Falcons to earn NFC South title at 7-8-1

Panthers Falcons Football AP

Sure, the Panthers went eight weeks without winning a game earlier this season.

But they went the last four without losing one, and now they’re headed to the playoffs.

With no apologies for their 7-8-1 record, the Panthers are headed to the postseason after a dominating 34-3 win over the Falcons.

They outgained the Falcons 306-288, with Cam Newton only throwing 16 passes all day. They outrushed the Falcons 194-63, and played dominant defense all afternoon.

The Panthers closed the season by sweeping through the division (with an ugly win over the Browns mixed in). But like their 41-10 win over the Saints which started this run, the beating they put on the Falcons was thorough.

The Panthers sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan six times, and goaded him into a pair of pick-sixes (by safeties Roman Harper and Tre Boston). They did it with a simple game plan, getting the pressure with their front four and not having to rely on blitzing. It should also be noted they did it without franchise-tagged defensive end Greg Hardy, who made $13.1 million this year for one sack before going on the commissioner’s exempt list because of a domestic violence arrest.

The Falcons had played well down the stretch themselves, but had no answer for the Panthers pressure all day.

While people are going to mock them for the next week and say they have no chance in the postseason (and maybe they don’t), it’s hard to argue with the job Panthers coach Ron Rivera has done with this mishmash of a roster.

His teams are 15-3 in December during his stint as head coach. Even though the first two years of his career those were meaningless December games, he’s now gotten the Panthers to the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history.

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Brandon, Whaley have no meetings scheduled with ownership

Brandon Getty Images

Amid rumors that CEO Russ Brandon, G.M. Doug Whaley, and Senior V.P. of Football Administration will soon be former employees of the Bills, Brandon and Whaley told reporters after Sunday’s season-ending win over the Patriots that no meetings have been scheduled with ownership regarding their respective futures.

“I’m sure at some point we’ll get into some more in-depth meetings,” Brandon told reporters, via Mike Rodak of ESPN.com.  “There’s nothing scheduled at this point.  I talk to Terry [Pegula] all the time, and I have nothing on the books right now for any meetings.”

Brandon also seemed to be annoyed by the chatter that his long-time tenure with the team could be ending.

“I don’t know where all this speculation comes from,”  Brandon said.  “It’s agent-on-agent crime, basically, listening to all the nonsense that’s out there.  It’s hard in our business not to get caught up in the noise, but it’s just that:  It’s noise.”

If it’s noise, then the Pegulas need to say so, quickly.  The longer they wait, the louder the noise will be.

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Broncos holding Raiders at bay

C.J. Anderson AP

The Broncos’ final postseason tune-up has largely gone smoothly.

Though the visiting Raiders have been persistent, the Broncos have been in control throughout Sunday’s matchup, and Denver holds a 33-14 lead with 10:18 left in regulation.

Tailback C.J. Anderson has tallied the Broncos’ first three TDs, with kicker Connor Barth’s four field goals producing Denver’s other points.

The Raiders drew within 27-14 midway through the third quarter on quarterback Derek Carr’s one-yard TD pass to running back Jamize Olawale. But Denver (11-4) has padded its lead since, with two Barth field goals pushing its edge to 19 points.

The Broncos will clinch a first-round bye with a victory.

Denver has lost one starter to injury on Sunday, with left guard Orlando Franklin (concussion) ruled out for the rest of the game.

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Seahawks take lead after intercepting Shaun Hill

Marshawn Lynch, Alec Ogletree, Lamarcus Joyner AP

The Seahawks Defense kept the team alive while the offense was turning the ball over and scoring no points in the first half against the Rams and they turned in a play that led to the first touchdown of the afternoon in the second half.

Rams quarterback Shaun Hill tried to throw away a pass on a screen gone awry, but his toss toward the turf never made it. Seahawks defensive tackle Jordan Hill continued his strong second half by making a quick play to pick the ball off and give the Seahawks possession near midfield.

Quarterback Russell Wilson, who has looked better in the second half, hit Kevin Norwood for 31 yards and Marshawn Lynch sprinted nine yards for a touchdown on the next play to give Seattle a 13-6 lead with just over 12 minutes left in the game. Lynch didn’t punctuate this score with a reprise of last Sunday’s crotch grab, so he should avoid a fine on that front this week.

The Seahawks are the top seed in the NFC if they can close out the Rams from here. With just 119 yards allowed, it’s hard not to like their chances.

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Clock is ticking on Falcons, Mike Smith

MikeSmith AP

It’s not a good sign for current Falcons coach Mike Smith that the franchise has retained a firm to help find a new head coach.  It’s an even worse sign that Smith currently is losing 27-3 at home in a playoff play-in game.

It adds up to Smith being fired as soon as Monday.  Which makes the Falcons arguably the most attractive available option for coaching candidates.

Most vacancies arise in part because the team doesn’t have a competent quarterback.  The Falcons do, in Matt Ryan.  Throw in receiver Julio Jones, and the glass is more than half full for the offense.

Throw in the presence of G.M. Thomas Dimitroff (who drafted Ryan and traded up for Jones) and assistant G.M. Scott Pioli (who helped set the table in New England for years and drafted Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston during his time in Kansas City), and there’s a system in place for upgrading the talent.

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Tommy Smith reiterates that Ken Whisenhunt, Ruston Webster are safe

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans AP

In early November, Titans CEO Tommy Smith said that he wasn’t considering making a change at either coach or general manager.

Smith said the same thing in early December, but there were still questions about the futures of coach Ken Whisenhunt and General Manager Ruston Webster after Sunday’s loss to the Colts. Smith remained consistent, however.

Terry McCormick of TitanInsider.net reports that Smith simply said “yes” when asked if Whisenhunt and Webster would remain on the job after the 2-14 season. It was Whisenhunt’s first year as the head coach in Tennessee while Webster has been in his role for three seasons.

Both men have plenty of work to do this offseason in order to avoid a repeat of the same questions this time next year. One of the pieces they’ll have to work with is the second overall pick in the draft. It looked for much of the day like they would get the first overall pick, but Tampa couldn’t hold their lead over the Saints and the Titans suffered yet another loss this season.

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Two Megatron TDs tie the score, Rodgers returns

megatron AP

The Lions’ best player has scored two touchdowns to tie the score in Green Bay. Now the Packers’ best player is about to answer.

Lions receiver Calvin Johnson caught two touchdown passes, one late in the second quarter and one early in the third, to turn a 14-0 Packers lead into a 14-14 tie game.

But now Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is getting ready to re-enter the game. Rodgers was carted to the locker room just before halftime after aggravating a calf injury, but now Rodgers is back and ready to go.

The NFC North is on the line in Green Bay, and the Lions’ offense is starting to make some plays. But with Rodgers at the helm, the Packers’ offense is ready to roll.

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Panthers up 27-3 in the third, on verge of playoffs

Cam Newton,Joe Webb , Derek Anderson AP

The Panthers have blown leads in the Georiga Dome before.

But it might be hard to blow this one.

The Panthers are leading the Falcons 27-3 midway through the third quarter, pulling away with the game for the NFC South title, and the distinction of making the playoffs with a losing record.

The Panthers are running well, but they’re also pressuring Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan heavily, with four sacks so far.

They’ve outgained the Falcons 252-116 so far, with their pass rush keeping Ryan from letting anything develop downfield.

 

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Franchise-tag fight looming for Justin Houston

Houston AP

With linebacker Justin Houston ready to hit free agency with 22 sacks, the Chiefs have to decide whether to pay Houston or to use the franchise tag.  Prior offers were deemed to be substandard by Houston; now that he has completed his rookie deal with a four-sack flourish, the leverage swings sharply in his direction.

And so the franchise tag becomes a very real possibility.  Also a real possibility is a fight between player and team over the position he actually plays.

Listed as a linebacker (but wisely not self-described as a linebacker on Twitter), Houston arguably is actually a defensive end, which carries a higher franchise-tag value.  Per a league source, Houston’s camp will now examine the 2014 game film to determine whether Houston lined up more as a defensive end than as a linebacker.

If the tape supports an argument that Houston spent more of his time playing defensive end, a grievance will be filed, identical to the grievance filed several years ago by Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.  That time, the two sides worked out a compromise.  This time, it could go all the way to an arbitration ruling.

Regardless of the amount of the tag, the two sides will have until July 15 to work out a multi-year deal.  If, however, Houston continues to not like the offers made by the Chiefs, he could choose to take it one year at a time until the Chiefs decide to let him hit the open market — or until they give him a long-term deal that reflects something close to his market value.

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Long Michael Floyd touchdown puts Cardinals up at half

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

Ryan Lindley’s first career touchdown pass put the Cardinals ahead in the first quarter and No. 2 has them ahead at halftime despite allowing the 49ers to score 13 straight points at one point in the first half.

Lindley connected with Michael Floyd for a 41-yard touchdown that Floyd punctuated by getting the ball across the goal line before going out of bounds. The score came with 36 seconds to go in the half and left the Cardinals with a 17-13 lead to protect.

If they can and if the Rams maintain their lead over the Seahawks, Arizona would be the NFC West champions and they’d have a first-round bye to use to their advantage. If either of those things doesn’t happen, they’ll open the playoffs at the NFC South winner.

Lindley is having a strong day against an injury-riddled 49ers secondary. He’s completed 16-of-25 passes for 260 yards with one interception serving as the only blemish. It’s exactly what the Cardinals would want to see from Lindley given the continued uncertainty about Drew Stanton’s health and another half of it could make for as unlikely a path to a division title as any in recent memory.

The 49ers turned that interception into a Phil Dawson field goal, but the defense has been much improved from last week outside of allowing a 76-yard Anquan Boldin touchdown.

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