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Percy Harvin: I’ve found gears I didn’t know I had

Percy Harvin AP

At the top of the very short list of things that went wrong for the Seahawks last year was the hip injury that kept wide receiver Percy Harvin out of all but one regular season game and two postseason contests.

The Seahawks traded for Harvin and gave him a new contract in hopes that he would be a major player in their passing attack, but things didn’t turn out that way because of his hip. Listening to Harvin discuss his condition heading into this season should give the team some optimism that the desired impact has just been delayed by a year.

Harvin, who the team’s website calls the most impressive player at training camp, says he’s feeling great, practicing every day when the plan was for him to be on a more limited schedule and finding new parts of his game.

“You have no idea,” Harvin said. “My body is feeling tremendously good. I’ve actually reached some gears that I didn’t know I had. I’m feeling very, very fast right now.”

Harvin showed what his speed brings to the table in the Super Bowl with a kickoff return touchdown and a pair of big gains as a runner, a group of plays that has to whet appetites in Seattle about what an increased Harvin presence can provide them in 2014 at any gear.

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Sunday Night wrap-up: Ben Roethlisberger on the spot now

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With Marshawn Lynch last week and Ben Roethlisberger this week, stomach bugs might become a fad before prime time games.

While the Steelers quarterback wasn’t his most prolific, he did enough to boost the Steelers to the AFC North title with a 27-17 win over the Bengals.

He overcame an upset stomach that limited him in pregame — and sent him to the locker room in the first quarter — to throw for 317 yards and two touchdowns.

The Steelers will now host Baltimore Saturday night, while the Bengals will go to Indianapolis Sunday afternoon.

And with running back Le’Veon Bell’s status up in the air with a knee injury, Roethlisberger’s going to have more of a burden on him than ever when he sees the Ravens. Bell left with a hyperextended right knee, and didn’t return.

The Steelers Offense has been clicking, thanks to the balance a multi-purpose threat like Bell provides. But Roethlisberger has been successful moving the ball around all season, and showed after Bell left he can still make plays.

He’s going to have to be prepared to carry more of the load next week, depending on Bell’s condition.

He’s proven he can do it before.

Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:

1. Remember back when the Steelers had the looming Mike Wallace contract situation, and Antonio Brown got a spite contract out of it?

Yeah, that’s worked out pretty well for the Steelers.

For that $60 million deal, Wallace has gone out to be good-not-great for the Dolphins, catching an average of 70 passes per year. He also was benched during Sunday’s finale under some shady circumstances.

Brown has turned into the league’s leading receiver, and delivered the dagger to win a division title.

The Steelers have been able to take hard lines on contract negotiations because they’ve been able to draft and develop young receiving talent like Brown and Martavis Bryant.

Brown should probably remember that, and his own windfall, when his contract numbers grow unwieldy in the future.

2. Speaking of the reasons the Steelers offense has clicked, the work of line coach Mike Munchak deserves some mention.

Roethlisberger had plenty of time to stand around and look for open targets because the Bengals weren’t getting any pressure.

Munchak has taken over a unit that has underperformed in recent years (at least in terms of the draft-round investment in blockers) and turned it into a solid group.

The Bengals aren’t exactly a great pass-rushing team (actually they’re really bad at it), but the Steelers line stopped them cold.

3. While the Steelers are playing well on offense this year, they clearly don’t have a trustworthy defense.

That’s the only rational explanation for the fake punt-interception in the fourth quarter.

Rather than play field position and trust their stop-side with a three-point lead late, they let punter Brad Wing throw a pass.

Dane Sanzenbacher was there to intercept the pass, one which never should have been designed, much less thrown.

4. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green has been playing hurt.

But Sunday night, he wasn’t playing well.

Green at least shared the blame for Andy Dalton’s first-half interceptions, and his fourth-quarter fumble might have cost his team a home game in the playoffs.

After cutting a route off leading to the first pick, he and Dalton had a conversation on the sidelines about what should have happened. The second pick was high but off Green’s fingertips.

The fumble was followed by a hard shot from Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, leaving Green dazed on the sidelines.

But cornerback Antwon Blake had raked the ball out previously, adding injury to insult.

5.The Bengals were willing to let Michael Johnson walk in free agency last year.

And while he might not have necessarily earned his payday with the Buccaneers, the Bengals haven’t replaced him.

Other than Carlos Dunlap, there’s not a consistent source of pressure up front, something they’ve been able to count on in the past.

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Steelers holding their breath over Le’Veon Bell knee injury

Le'Veon Bell AP

The Steelers are looking good at the moment, but they’re also holding their breath.

Running back and legitimate MVP candidate Le’Veon Bell just went down clutching his right knee. He got up and jogged off the field under his own power, but was limping.

Safety Reggie Nelson hit Bell squarely on the knee, though it didn’t appear maliciously low.

If Bell — who entered the game with over 2,100 yards from scrimmage — is out any amount of time, the Steelers are going to be hurting.

After letting LeGarrette Blount talk his way out of town, they’re thin at the position, making Bell’s condition crucial.

The fact he went to the locker room after watching a replay of the play’s not a good sign, and the team has referred to his return as doubtful.

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Teammates angry at Mike Wallace for pulling himself from game

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Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace may have some fences to mend with his teammates in the offseason.

Many players on the Dolphins are angry at Wallace because he told coach Joe Philbin he wanted out of today’s game, according to Jeff Darlington of NFL Network. Several different players told Darlington they feel that Wallace’s actions were tantamount to abandoning the team.

Wallace exited the game late in the first half and told Philbin he didn’t want to play anymore, according to the report. Wallace did not speak with the media after the game.

Wallace has not been the player the Dolphins hoped he’d be when they signed him away from Pittsburgh with a huge contract two years ago. Although Wallace has started all 32 games in Miami, he’s yet to have a 1,000-yard receiving season for the Dolphins. His 2014 season ends with 67 catches for 862 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Next year Wallace is due a base salary of $9.85 million. For that kind of money, the Dolphins would like to think Wallace could be counted on not to quit on his team.

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Wild-card weekend lineup is set

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The first four games of the 2014 postseason are set.  Sort of.

The final schedule hinges on the outcome of tonight’s game.  For now, here’s the format.

The postseason begins with the Panthers hosting the Cardinals at 4:30 p.m. ET, Saturday on ESPN.  On Saturday night, NBC will have the Steelers against someone; it’ll either be at home against the Ravens (if Pittsburgh beats the Bengals) or at Indy (if Cincinnati wins).

Sunday begins with a 1:05 p.m. ET game on CBS.  It’ll be Baltimore at Cincinnati or Cincinnati at Indianapolis.  Then, the weekend ends with the Lions visiting the Cowboys at 4:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

This incomplete (for now) schedule allows the Bengals to avoid a second straight short week, since they played on Monday night in Week 16.

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Bucs claim they didn’t tank for top pick

Smith Getty Images

By blowing a 20-7 fourth-quarter lead over the Saints, the Buccaneers secured the top pick in the draft.  Predictably, the Bucs claim that there wasn’t a whole lot of tankin’ going on.  Even though plenty of key players were removed from the contest in the second half.

I don’t think anybody tanked it,” quarterback Josh McCown said after the game, via Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.  “We played the guys we played to rotate guys in to give them a look.”

Not every player got the memo.

“The whole second half I didn’t play,” rookie receiver Mike Evans said.  “They just pulled me because I was gassed.  It was [the coach’s] decision.”

“I guess I understand why,” said linebacker Lavonte David, who also didn’t play in the second half.  “We wanted to get everybody else some playing time or whatever.  They told me I wasn’t playing the second half, so I just took it for what it was.”

Coach Lovie Smith didn’t make a very convincing case that he wasn’t trying to clinch the first pick in the draft.

“The guys you saw in the first half, the game plan was for them to be in there,” Smith said, via Stroud.  “The second half, we wanted to look at some more football players.  I think that’s not out of the realm of possibilities, to look at some other guys.  We’re not going to the playoffs and we have a comfortable lead and we’re going to run the football.

“One win wouldn’t have helped an awful lot.  We’re going to feel better when we’re winning our division.  Until then, we don’t feel good about a lot except for knowing our roster a lot better and knowing the direction we need to go.  If we had won today, we would’ve felt better about this game, but the season as a whole, that’s not where we want to be.”

While players will never tank, the coaching staff or front office can easily engineer a tanking via the decisions made about who will and won’t play.  And it makes a ton of sense for the Bucs to hold the No. 1 pick.  They’re now on the clock for the first selection, and they can stockpile draft picks and players if they eventually choose to trade the spot.

That’s why the league should have a draft lottery.  Apart from minimizing the temptation to tank, it would give the NFL another made-for-TV event.

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Cowboys, Panthers open as favorites in wild-card round

Cam Newton AP

The lone postseason entrant with a losing record is favored in the wild-card round.

The Panthers (7-8-1) have been made home favorites of 4.5 or five points over the 11-5 Cardinals at Nevada sports books.

The line speaks volumes about the form of both clubs. The Panthers have won four straight games, while the Cardinals lost four of their final six contests, including both games with third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley in the lineup. If Drew Stanton (knee) cannot play in the wild-card round, Lindley would likely get another start.

In the other NFC wild-card game, the Cowboys (12-4) are favorites of 6.5 or seven points over the visiting Lions (11-5). Detroit hasn’t won a playoff game since January 5, 1992, when it defeated Dallas in the divisional round at the Pontiac Silverdome.

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Dalton picked again, Steelers take advantage

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Getty Images

It’s not that Andy Dalton has been a total disaster tonight.

But he’s thrown two really bad passes, and they both ended up in the hands of Steelers cornerback Brice McCain.

As a result, the Steelers are up 17-10 on the Bengals in the AFC North title game.

Martavis Bryant just hauled in a 21-yard touchdown catch for the score quickly after McCain’s second pick.

Dalton’s primetime struggles are well-documented, but the second pick hit the hands of wide receiver A.J. Green, and Green appeared to cut off his route on the first one.

If the Bengals want to shake their reputation for folding in big games, those two will have to play better, quickly.

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Ice Bowl rematch looms, 47 years later

IceBowl AP

Forty-seven years ago Wednesday, the Cowboys visited the Packers at Lambeau Field for the NFL Championship game.  Ultra-frigid temperature and wind chill gave the contest the unofficial label of “The Ice Bowl.”

The Packers won a thriller and would later emerge as the victors in Super Bowl II, over Oakland.  Since then, the Cowboys have never returned to Green Bay for a postseason game.  If Dallas beats Detroit next weekend, that’ll happen the following weekend, with the third-seeded Cowboys facing the second-seeded Packers.

It’ll also be the first time ever, according to our friends at Elias, that a team that went 8-0 at home will host a team that went 8-0 on the road in the playoffs.

Teams undefeated on the road and at home have faced each other twice before in a something’s-gotta-give format.  In 1972, the 7-0-at-home Steelers hosted the 7-0-on-the-road Dolphins.  (Miami won, 21-17.)  In 1948, the 6-0-at-home Eagles hosted the 6-0-away Bears, with the Eagles winning, 7-0.

Before the Cowboys will get a chance to put their 8-0 road record on the line at Lambeau, they’ll need to hold serve against the Lions.

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Antonio Brown gives the Steelers an early lead

Antonio Brown AP

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks like he needs a minute.

So Antonio Brown just gave him one.

After Roethlisberger retreated to the locker room, presumably to deal with his upset stomach, Brown gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead with a 71-yard touchdown return.

Brown’s return ability is impressive enough, considering he also happens to lead the league in receptions.

The fact he bought his quarterback some time will be appreciated as well.

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McCarthy calls Suh step on Rodgers “ridiculous”

Suh Getty Images

As Peter King of TheMMQB.com said on Football Night in America, the league will review on Monday the leg-step committed by Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy needs no time for contemplation or deliberation.

During his post-game press conference, McCarthy called the maneuver “ridiculous.”  McCarthy also said “there’s no place for that.”  Rodgers predicted that Suh will call it an accident.

The move wasn’t nearly as egregious as last Sunday’s blatant stomp by Lions center Dominic Raiola on the lower leg of Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson.  But Suh’s history could prompt the league to take a closer look at whether intent existed.  It also could make the NFL less inclined to give Suh the benefit of the doubt.

History or not, it would take a lot for Suh to be suspended for next weekend’s wild-card game at Dallas.

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49ers, Harbaugh mutually agree to part ways

Harbaugh Getty Images

As expected, the Jim Harbaugh era has ended in San Francisco.

The team has announced that Harbaugh and the franchise have mutually agreed to part ways after four years together.

“Jim and I have come to the conclusion that it is in our mutual best interest to move in different directions,” CEO Jed York said.  “We thank Jim for bringing a tremendous competitive nature and a great passion for the game to the 49ers.  He and his staff restored a winning culture that has been the standard for our franchise throughout its history.  Their commitment and hard work resulted in a period of success that should be looked back on proudly by our organization and our fans.  We wish Jim and his family all the best.”

Per a league source, the mutual parting makes Harbaugh free and clear to take any other job, including another NFL job, with no compensation to the 49ers.  So despite multiple, persistent reports that Harbaugh would be traded, the two sides ultimately decided to walk away, with no strings attached and no further obligation.  Basically, they’ve wiped out the final year of his five-year contract.

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Jim Harbaugh on 49ers tenure: It’s been the time of my life

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Getty Images

There’s been no official statement yet, but Jim Harbaugh all but admitted that he’s not going to be the 49ers coach in 2015.

After the 49ers beat the Cardinals 20-17 in their season finale, Harbaugh met the media and offered no specifics about where he’s going — “Is the NFL going somewhere?” was his response when asked if he’d miss the NFL, presumably after taking the job at the University of Michigan that he’s reportedly going to take — and said that the team would release a statement about his future soon. He left little doubt that his time with the 49ers is done, though.

“It’s been the time of my life,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh’s time with the 49ers comes to an end with a 44-19-1 record in the regular season and a 5-3 playoff record compiled while going to the Super Bowl once and the NFC Championship game three straight years. That makes for a fitting 49 wins for Harbaugh in four years with the 49ers, leaving the team in much better shape than when he found it and leaving a high bar for the next coach to reach.

UPDATE 8:09 p.m. ET: The statement from the 49ers has been released and, as Mike Florio of PFT reported on Sunday Night Football, it is a mutual parting of the ways that leaves Harbaugh clear to take any job.

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Ben Roethlisberger has upset stomach, hasn’t warmed up

Roethlisberger Getty Images

The Steelers are going to the playoffs regardless.

But there’s a reason for Steelers fans to worry.

According to NBC’s Michele Tafoya, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is struggling with an upset stomach, and hasn’t been on the field to warm up for tonight’s game against the Bengals yet.

Backup Bruce Gradkowski has taken all the snaps in the pregame. But the week after Marshawn Lynch went crazy on Sunday Night Football with a stomachache, it might just be a new motivational ploy.

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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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