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Preseason Power Rankings No. 5: Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers AP

Forget about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or anyone else not named Aaron Rodgers.  The best quarterback in the NFL currently plays in Green Bay.  And that’s good enough to get the Packers in the top five as the 2014 season approaches.

They’d be even higher if Rodgers had the help that other franchise quarterbacks enjoy.  Specifically on defense.  And everyone knows it.  Maybe that’s why recent remarks from Rodgers that easily could have been interpreted as a slap at the front office and/or the locker room didn’t ruffle many feathers.

“We haven’t had the kind of physical talent as far as size here in a while,” Rodgers said last month.  “I think there’s been times — I think back to playing Jacksonville in ’08 in Jacksonville, some of the battles we’ve had with our division teams at times — where you walk on the field and feel like you’re kind of a JV team.”

Beyond Rodgers, the Packers have been a JV team, mainly on defense.  But the Packers may have improved just enough that they’ll be good enough to have a chance to get back to the Super Bowl.

Strengths.

On offense, it begins (and arguably ends) with Rodgers.  A high-precision passer who can run the ball, too, Rodgers knows how to gain yardage on the ground without putting himself at undue risk.  Last year’s broken collarbone happened not while he was being reckless but while trying to step up in the pocket.  Shea McLellin of the Bears shed a block and spotted Rodgers and closed ground and pulled him down before Rodgers knew what happened.  If he can stay healthy throughout 2014, the Packers will likely win the NFC North.  The real question becomes whether he’ll have enough help in the postseason to advance past the divisional round, or whether it’ll be another JV-level showing at single-elimination time, particularly from the defense.

The Packers rolled the dice last season on a pair of tailbacks, stopping Eddie Lacy’s round-two free-fall and snagging Johnathan Franklin, who appeared to be a perfect fit for the Green Bay offense.  A neck injury ended Franklin’s career before it could get started, but the gamble on Lacy ended up being a good one — especially since he eventually was able to pound out some strong performances even when the Packers were forced to implement a crappy backup plan for Rodgers.  If Lacy can match the quarterback when it comes to avoiding injury, the Packers could have the best one-two offensive punch in the NFL.

A bad defense would be a lot worse without linebacker Clay Matthews, who continues to be one of the better pass rushers in the NFL, but who has missed nine games over the past two seasons combined.  The arrival of Julius Peppers could make Matthews even better, even though the jury is still out on whether Peppers still has it like he used to.

The secondary has the potential to be very good, with highly-paid cornerback Sam Shields and first-round rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix potentially leading the way.  As a unit, however, the defense doesn’t belong in the “strength” category.

Weaknesses.

The tight end position holds little promise after the departure of Jermichael Finley.  He seems to want to return to Green Bay after neck surgery, but it seems highly unlikely that that Packers will clear him to play — or pay him what it would take to get him to walk away from his probably-too-good-to-be-true $10 million tax-free insurance policy.  The depth chart is so uncertain that the Packers have taken a chance on undrafted rookie Colt Lyerla, whose talent has been overshadowed by a litany of off-field concerns.

The offensive line continues to shuffle and rotate and generally underperform.  Bryan Bulaga moves back to the right side after a short-lived experiment at left tackle, which ended when his ACL gave out during an intrasquad scrimmage.  David Bakhtiari played well enough as a fourth-round rookie to keep the job, holding former Viking (new Bear) Jared Allen without a sack in two games and generally not being nearly as bad as some feared Bakhtiari would be.  Center Evan Dietrich-Smith bolted for Tampa Bay (to the chagrin of Rodgers), leaving the Packers to hope JC Tretter is ready.  Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang provide quality at guard, but the five-man operation as a whole allowed 45 sacks, ninth worst in the league.

Despite a few bright spots, the defense continues to be a liability, finishing in the bottom fourth of the league last year in yards allowed (372.2 per game) and points (26.8 per game).  Most of the blame lands on the poorly-toupeed head of coordinator Dom Capers, who should have been given a ticket out of Titletown after a playoff meltdown against the 49ers in January 2013.  Coach Mike McCarthy has opted for loyalty to a fault; that could end after the coming campaign.

Changes.

G.M. Ted Thompson stepped out of character in free agency, adding veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers.  Whether he plays linebacker or defensive end (he’s listed as both), Peppers could wreak havoc, if his play in 2012 was more about not being in the right frame of mind and less about diminishing physical skills.

Offensively, Matt Flynn officially is back as the Week One backup to Aaron Rodgers, which is a much better plan that to have no plan for fear of jinxing Rodgers.  While not able to lead an offense, Flynn has shown that he can get it done when pressed into service.  The Packers wisely have decided to make sure he’s available to do what needs to be done, if Rodgers gets banged up again.

The receiving corps continues to be in a state of transition.  A year after losing Greg Jennings to the Vikings, James Jones signed with the Raiders.  Jordy Nelson and/or Randall Cobb could be joining them a year from now, which perhaps suggests that the Packers realize a quarterback like Rodgers can make most receivers look good.

The biggest free-agency defection occurred when safety M.D. Jennings left for the Bears.  Rookie Clinton-Dix will be expected to fill the void right away, if he can.

Position battles.

Barring the unlikely return of Jermichael Finley, it’s time to find a new tight end.  Andrew Quarless is expected to get the first crack at the starting job, with others in place (like Richard Rodgers) to challenge Quarless for the top spot on the depth chart and playing time.  Colt Lyerla provides the most intriguing option.  If he can stay out of trouble and get the most out of his skills, Lyerla could be the next Finley.

Before we assume that Eddie Lacy will become the unquestioned workhorse, consider these words from coach Mike McCarthy about the tailback position:  “My depth chart looks nothing like your depth chart.”  James Starks and DuJuan Harris provide plenty of talent, when healthy.  If Lacy stumbles or gets injured, one or both of them could step up.

JC Tretter gets the first crack at replacing center Evan Dietrich-Smith.  Corey Linsley provides Plan B.  Plan C could be a lot of shotgun formation and plenty of roll-out passes.

At safety, converted cornerback Micah Hyde could delay the ascension of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the starting lineup, if the rookie struggles to make the transition to the next level.

Prospects.

Since winning Super Bowl XLV, the Packers have had three straight playoff appearances that resulted in disappointment, with a home loss to the Giants, a road loss to the 49ers, and a home loss to the 49ers.  The defense has primarily been responsible for the inability to progress beyond the divisional round, and if that happens again in 2014, it’ll be time for a new coordinator, at a minimum.

Chances are the Packers will be good enough on both sides of the ball to let Rodgers carry them back to the round of eight again.  It’ll take more than a mild improvement to get to the NFC title game, or beyond.  The Packers could be poised to do just that, and they’ll get a chance to show where they are when traveling to Seattle for the first game of the regular season.

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Bills strike first at “home” in Detroit

billsfans AP

The strange scene of an NFL game on a neutral field with a quiet crowd is unfolding in Detroit tonight. But while the Bills don’t have a home-field advantage thanks to the snowstorm that forced them from Buffalo, they did get off to a good start.

Buffalo’s defense held the Jets to a three-and-out after the opening kickoff, and when Buffalo’s offense took over, the Bills marched down the field deep into Jets territory. Buffalo’s nine-play, 44-yard opening drive ended with a sensational touchdown catch by wide receiver Robert Woods on a throw from Kyle Orton.

The Bills lead 7-0 and are showing no signs of their rough week in Buffalo affecting their preparation. Now the Jets need to answer.

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Fred Jackson active for Bills vs. Jets

Fred Jackson, Kyle Orton AP

After missing two of the Bills’ last three games, running back Fred Jackson is ready to go tonight.

Jackson, who was listed as questionable with a groin injury, is active for tonight’s Jets-Bills game at Ford Field in Detroit.

The Bills’ inactives are FB Frank Summers, TE MarQuies Gray, LB Randell Johnson, NT Bryan Johnson, OT Cyrus Kouandjio, WR Marquise Goodwin and DE Jarius Wynn.

The Jets’ inactives are QB Matt Simms, WR Walter Powell, RB Bilal Powell, CB Josh Thomas, LB IK Enemkpali, OL Dakota Dozier and OL Wesley Johnson.

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Eric Berry headed to non-football illness list due to mass in chest

Seattle Seahawks v Kansas City Chiefs Getty Images

Mondays are always full of injury news, but most of them aren’t as serious as what Chiefs safety Eric Berry may be facing.

The Chiefs are putting Berry on the non-football illness list, which ends his season. There may be bigger issues for Berry to deal with in the immediate future, however.

Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder announced, via Terez Paylor of the Kansas City Star, that Berry reported discomfort in his chest after the team’s game last week and doctors found a mass in the right side of his chest. Burkholder said that the “leading consideration” for what Berry has is lymphoma and that he’s heading to Atlanta for further evaluation.

“Right now, he needs to be a beast. He’ll attack this,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.

Berry released a statement via the team.

“I am truly thankful for all of the support from family, friends, coaches, teammates and the entire Chiefs kingdom. At first I was in shock with the diagnosis on Saturday and did not even want to miss a game, but I understand that right now I have to concentrate on a new opponent. I have great confidence in the doctors and the plan they are going to put in place for me to win this fight. I believe that I am in God’s hands and I have great peace in that. I know my coaches and teammates will hold things down here the rest of the season and until I am back running out of the tunnel at Arrowhead. I am so thankful and appreciative of being a part of this franchise and playing in front of the best fans in the NFL. I will be back!”

We’re hopeful that further evaluation finds Berry cancer-free and share Reid’s hope that he attacks it with all his might in the event that things go the other way.

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Hugh Thornton dealing with a sprained MCL

Indianapolis Colts v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

There was good news and bad news about the health of the offensive line in Colts coach Chuck Pagano’s Monday meeting with the media.

The bad news is that right guard Hugh Thornton sprained his MCL during Sunday’s victory over the Jaguars and Pagano described him, via Kevin Bowen of the team’s website, as week-to-week. That makes it all but certain that Thornton will miss at least this week’s game, although Pagano didn’t specify who would replace him in the lineup.

The good news is that the Colts expect to have right tackle Gosder Cherilus back in the lineup after he missed the Jaguars game with a shoulder injury. That will avoid being forced to start backups at both spots on the right side of the line, although whoever is in the lineup needs to do a better job than the Colts managed to do in the first half against Jacksonville.

Pagano also said that tight end Dwayne Allen is “trending in the right direction” after missing Sunday with an ankle injury, but that he didn’t know if he’d be able to practice on Wednesday.

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Browns “never considered” going to Manziel

Picks AP

It may take only three licks to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, but it apparently takes more than three picks to get Brian Hoyer benched.

On Monday, a day after the Browns stuck with Hoyer for the game-winning drive after his third interception nearly lost the game for Cleveland, coach Mike Pettine told reporters that the team “never considered” sitting Hoyer for rookie Johnny Manziel, via Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

After a sluggish loss to the Jaguars several weeks ago, Pettine admitted that a brief conversation occurred regarding the possibility of benching Hoyer for Manziel.  It didn’t happen then, and it sounds like it won’t be happening any time soon.

“I think the guys realize that we certainly wouldn’t be where we are without Brian,” Pettine said Monday.

Where the Browns are is at 7-4 through 11 games, their best record this late in the season since 2007, when 10-6 eventually wasn’t good enough to get a seat at the postseason table with Derek Anderson playing quarterback and then-rookie Brady Quinn on the bench.

The Browns easily could have been 6-5 after Sunday, thanks to Hoyer’s mistakes.  As Pettine told Peter King of TheMMQB.com after Sunday’s win, “This is a game [Hoyer] kept both teams in.”

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Bennie Logan: I don’t know what’s so great about Cowboys offensive line

Zack Martin, Doug Free, Andre Hal AP

The Eagles and Cowboys will meet for the first time this season on Thanksgiving, which means that the Eagles Defense will get their first in-person look at Dallas’s much-praised offensive line.

They’ve taken a look at them on film, however, and one member of the Eagles defense hasn’t been impressed by what he’s seen. Defensive tackle Bennie Logan had some praise for DeMarco Murray, but he isn’t buying that this year’s group is any better than the one he faced as a rookie last season.

“Yeah, they’re OK. I don’t really know what’s great about them,” Logan said, via CSNPhilly.com. “The running back’s having a good year running, but I don’t see anything spectacular about them. Same offensive line we faced last year and they have one new guy. We faced them [before]. They’re OK linemen.”

Sunday night’s game-winning drive against the Giants the latest illustration of how well the Cowboys linemen are playing. Tony Romo had time to do his taxes before delivering passes that moved Dallas quickly down the field. Were that an aberration, you couldn’t read much into it but the fact that the Cowboys have done it all year suggests they’re better than OK.

Logan and the rest of the Eagles will get their chance to prove otherwise on Thursday.

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Still no practice this week for NaVorro Bowman

St Louis Rams v San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have until Dec. 9 to see if linebacker NaVorro Bowman can return this season.

And they’re willing to wait another week to see if he can.

According to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Bowman won’t practice this week.

Bowman, who blew out his knee last year during the NFC Championship Game, was eligible to return to practice last week. But the 49ers have decided to wait before activating him from the physically unable to perform list.

He’s had an MRI which was declared “fine,” and spent last weekend visiting Dr. James Andrews.

As long as they have something to play for, they’re going to continue to wait, and could even put him on the 53-man roster and deactivate him each week until he’s ready.

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Jay Gruden: “Every intent” to start RGIII this week

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It was another Monday of questions for Washington coach Jay Gruden about quarterback Robert Griffin III, including whether Griffin would be in the starting lineup against the Colts this week.

Gruden said that he had “every intent” of putting Griffin in the lineup, but added that “there’s a chance” to re-evaluate things at several positions after the Redskins lost 17-13 to the 49ers in Santa Clara on Sunday. Griffin was 11-of-19 for 106 yards and battered behind an offensive line missing left tackle Trent Williams, who Gruden hopes will be back this week, in the game, leaving Gruden to sum it up as not “a good day” for the passing offense.

Gruden also said that they had to look all over the offense for ways to improve, a process that should start with the offensive line but has to include Griffin. And it should probably include Griffin continuing to start.

There’s no playoff spot coming, which means eyes should be on the future and making a decision about Griffin’s future with the team has to be a priority. He’s played just four full games since Gruden became the head coach and everyone in Washington needs to know if they’re looking for another quarterback this offseason. Unless they’ve already made that call, there’s reason to see what Griffin does the last five games before making it.

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Report: Broncos will work out kickers this week

Miami Dolphins v Denver Broncos Getty Images

The Broncos came back late in Sunday’s game with the Dolphins and escaped with a 39-36 win, but there were still plenty of things to dislike about the team’s performance.

One item on the list is kicker Brandon McManus’s continued struggles. McManus pushed a 33-yard field goal attempt into the right upright with the Broncos trailing 21-17 in the third quarter. It’s the fourth missed field goal of the year for McManus, who they acquired in a trade with the Giants before the start of the season and decided to keep when they released Matt Prater at the end of Prater’s four-game suspension at the start of the year.

Another change may be on the horizon. Adam Schefter of ESPN reports that the Broncos are planning to work out kickers this week as they evaluate what to do at the position moving into the final weeks of the regular season.

Former Cardinal Jay Feely and longtime Bill Rian Lindell are two veterans who have worked out with teams this year without landing a job, although it’s not known who might be on Denver’s list.

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Ray Farmer on Manziel: The time of the incident is concerning

Cleveland Browns v Cincinnati Bengals Getty Images

Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel and his entourage were reportedly involved in an altercation after a 33-year-old man asking Manziel for a hug outside an elevator at a Cleveland apartment and hotel complex at 2:36 a.m. on Saturday morning.

Chris Gonos, the man whose request apparently touched off the melee, spoke to CleveScene.com and confirmed much of the website’s original account of what went down. He also added that he thought someone in his group caught Manziel with a punch to the face after Manziel “sucker punched” his brother.

Browns General Manager Ray Farmer has also released a statement about the incident, which did not result in any arrests.

“We are aware of the incident and are in the process of gathering additional information in order to gain a complete understanding of what occurred. Nonetheless, the time of the incident is concerning to us. We continually stress to all of our players the importance of sound decision making in an effort to avoid putting themselves in these types of situations. We have addressed this appropriately with the player and will have no further comment at this time.”

The inclusion of a note about the time of the incident suggests the Browns weren’t thrilled to learn that one of their players was out of the house in the wee small hours of Saturday morning regardless of the circumstances that forced the police to intervene.

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Dominic Raiola won’t be suspended, but will face possible fine

Dominic Raiola AP

Dominic Raiola’s diving at the knee of an opponent on a meaningless play was unsportsmanlike, dangerous and stupid in that he bragged about it afterward.

But it’s not going to get him suspended.

According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Raiola won’t be suspended by the NFL, but will face a possible fine.

It could (and should) be a sizable one, since he also threw a punch at the back of Patriots lineman Zach Moore’s head earlier in the game.

Of course, he also has to deal with the everlasting shame of being owned by Bill Belichick, which has to be worse than any financial penalty the league can impart.

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Raiola threw a punch to the head, too

Dominic Raiola AP

The misconduct of Lions center Dominic Raiola wasn’t limited to a dive at the knees of New England defensive lineman Zach Moore.  Earlier in the game, Raiola also delivered a blow to the back of Moore’s head.

While it’s unclear whether the league office will discipline Raiola for diving at Moore’s knees on a play that entailed Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford taking a knee, the punch to Moore’s head is more likely to result in a fine.

Last year, the league office initially missed a similar move by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.  Because the video of the blow to the head of former Cardinals tackle Eric Winston didn’t emerge until after the next game was played by Detroit, the incident did not result in a suspension for Suh, whose history possibly would have provoked another temporary banishment.  In the end, Suh wasn’t even fined — possibly to avoid questions as to why he wasn’t suspended and then questions as to why the blow to the head wasn’t seen soon enough to suspend Suh for the team’s next game.

For Raiola, the combination of the blow to the head and the dive at the knees could potentially trigger a one-game suspension.  At a minimum, it should result in a major fine.

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Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt out for the year

Minnesota Vikings v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

The Vikings have tackle issues at the moment — one who’s acting poorly and one who’s out for the year.

Via Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt is out for the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle in yesterday’s loss to the Packers.

He’s the second Vikings starter to go on IR this year, following guard Brandon Fusco early in the year.

He’ll be replaced in the lineup by Mike Harris, per Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Harris was previously with the Chargers, starting 12 games for them in 2012 and 2013.

That’s a much bigger problem for the Vikings than Matt Kalil being rude to a fan, as protecting Teddy Bridgewater so he can develop properly has to be their first priority the rest of the season.

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Report: Manziel entourage accused of assaulting fan

Manziel Getty Images

Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel has managed to stay out of trouble after a rocky offseason that featured inflatable swans, champagne showers, and rolled-up dollar bills.  Even as he has languished on the bench, Manziel has behaved.

The tranquility surrounding Johnny Football may have been disrupted recently, based on a report from ClevelandScene.com.   Per the report, a police report accuses Manziel’s entourage of assault.

33-year-old Chris Gonos reportedly approached Manziel at an upscale apartment complex known as “The 9″ in Cleveland on Friday night, gushing over Manziel and requesting a hug.  Instead of a hug, Gonos got a punch in the face, along with other alleged physical indignities.

The general manager of “The 9″ declined comment to ClevelandScene.com.  The Browns have not yet addressed the issue.

The blows apparently were delivered not by Manziel but by someone who described Manziel as his “client,” claiming that the alleged victim attempted to assault Manziel.

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Matt Kalil regrets knocking hat off heckling fan’s head

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Vikings tackle Matt Kalil has had a rough season and it got worse on Sunday.

Kalil, who has struggled as a blocker all year, was flagged for three penalties that knocked the team back 35 yards and then blew off reporters waiting to speak to him after the game by telling them that he was on a phone call. Kalil might have been on the same call outside the stadium later when a Vikings fan heckled him for his poor game, causing Kalil to react by knocking the fan’s hat off of his head before walking away from the crowd.

Deadspin has a video of the incident as well as the fan’s responses to Ben Goessling of ESPN.com on Twitter after Goessling asked him to explain what went down.

“We just watched Matt Kalil cost us the game, so when he came out I really didn’t want to see him, so I said to him “where do you want to be traded?” and he was on his phone, and when it finally registered with him what I said he turned and then he told me to “get the (expletive) outta here” and then I said “I’d rather have your brother than you on my team” and then he walked away like he didn’t hear what I said, but then he turned back around and asked me what I said again and then I repeated what I said again and then he proceeded to grab my hat off my head and throw it on the ground and mumble some stuff I didn’t hear, I then threw my program in his face.”

Goessling reports that Kalil apologized for refusing to talk to reporters and said he regretted his actions with the fan, whose Twitter handle is a profane reworking of late Twins great Kirby Puckett’s name. Kalil said he should have just walked away from the fan, which is certainly good advice for any player faced with a heckler even if one can understand the desire to answer back.

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