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PFT’s Super Bowl picks

Richard Sherman, Tom Brady AP

It’s finally here. And I still have no clear idea who will win. Even though a blowout could be brewing (especially if the Patriots can duplicate what the Packers did in the NFC title game before opting not to play to win but playing not to lose), I don’t have a really strong feeling.

But enough of that. This is the part where I write a few paragraphs to set up the picks.

And then I say the MDS and I were both accurate with our conference title picks, and that he’s 9-1 for the postseason, and I’m 7-3.

MDS’s take: Moving past #Deflategate and Marshawn Lynch sparring with reporters and all of the off-field issues of the last two weeks, I keep thinking it comes down to this: Seattle’s defense is just too good.

Last year the Seahawks’ defense made Peyton Manning look bad in the Super Bowl, and this year I think the Seahawks’ defense is going to make Tom Brady look bad in the Super Bowl. Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are about as good as it gets in the NFL, and I don’t think Brady is going to find many open receivers on Sunday. If there’s one weakness to Seattle’s defense it’s that a good tight end can beat them, and as a result I can see Rob Gronkowski having a big day. But even if Gronk gets 100 yards and a touchdown, that won’t be enough on a day when I don’t expect any of the Patriots’ wide receivers to play well.

The reason this game will be a lot closer than last year’s Super Bowl is that I don’t see Seattle putting a lot of points on the board. Bill Belichick will have a good game plan to neutralize Russell Wilson’s running, and the Patriots’ secondary should be able to shut down Seattle’s wide receivers. This looks like a fairly low-scoring game.

But in the end, it’s a game that sees Seattle coming out on top. The Seahawks will repeat.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 21, Patriots 17.

Florio’s take: Back in September, I picked the Seahawks and Patriots to make it to the Super Bowl. And I picked the Seahawks to win. And I can’t in good conscience abandon that selection.

I could be wrong. Very wrong. The Patriots may finish the job the Packers started. The Patriots may give Russell Wilson the Tim Tebow treatment, blowing the Seahawks out in the first half so that there’s no chance for a rabbit-from-hat finish. Or maybe it will be a close, down-to-the-wire, three-point margin with Stephen Gotskowski playing the role of Adam Vinatieri.

Coach Bill Belichick has the uncanny ability to develop a game plan that is unique to each opponent, figuring out how to move the ball against any defense he faces — and how to take away what any offense does best. Throw in the #DeflateGate disrespect, and Belichick may be able to press enough buttons to overcome the Seahawks.

But it’s the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, not Cincinnati in Week Five. Sometimes, no amount of Xs and Os and “us against them” and “win one for the Gipper” matters. G.M. John Schneider has put together an excellent roster, and Pete Carroll has coached them up to the point where they believe they can beat anyone.

This year, they didn’t beat everyone, but all that matters on Sunday is whether the can score more points than the Patriots. I believed they could in September, so I’ve got no choice but to stick with that now.

Florio’s pick: Seahawks 27, Patriots 24.

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Statement from Patriots owner Robert Kraft on NFL’s inflation investigation

Robert Kraft AP

On Monday night, Patriots owner Robert Kraft addressed the NFL’s investigation into allegations the club used under-inflated footballs in the AFC title game. Here are his remarks, which were provided by the NFL:

“On the plane ride out to here, I prepared a few remarks which I would like to read to you.

“On behalf of the entire organization, I want to express what an honor it is to be here and represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. I know how difficult it is to get to this game and I appreciate the work of everyone who helps host the event. We are anticipating a great game against the defending Super Bowl champs, Seattle Seahawks.

“Given the events of the last week, I want to take a minute to address the air pressure matter before we kickoff this week’s media availabilities. I have spoken with Coach (Bill) Belichick. I have spoken with Tom Brady. I have taken the time to understand to the best of my abilities what goes on in the preparation of gameday footballs. And I want to make it clear that I believe, unconditionally, that the New England Patriots have done nothing inappropriate in this process or in violation of NFL rules.

“Tom, Bill, and I have been together for 15 years. They are my guys, they are part of my family. And Bill, Tom, and I have had many difficult discussions over the years, and I have never known them to lie to me. That is why I am confident in saying what I just said. And it bothers me greatly that their reputations and integrity, and by association that of our team, has been called into question this past week.

“As I said on Friday in my prepared statement, we welcome the League’s investigation and the involvement of Attorney (Ted) Wells. I am confident that this investigation will uncover whatever the facts were that took place last Sunday and the science of how game balls react to changes in the environment. This would be in direct contrast to the public discourse, which has been driven by media leaks as opposed to actual data and facts. Because of this, many jumped to conclusions and made scarring accusations against our coach, quarterback and staff questioning the integrity of all involved.

“If the Wells investigation is not able to definitively determine that our organization tampered with the air pressure in the footballs, I would expect and hope that the League would apologize to our entire team and in particular, Coach Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure this past week. I am disappointed in the way this entire matter has been handled and reported upon. We expect hard facts as opposed to circumstantial leaked evidence to drive the conclusion of this investigation.

“In closing, I would like to say to all the fans of the National Football League, and especially the amazing fans of the New England Patriots, that I and our entire organization believe strongly in the integrity of the game and the rules of fair play properly, equitably and fairly enforced. Thank you.”

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Transcript of Bill Belichick’s January 24 press conference

Belichick AP

[Editor’s note: On Saturday, January 24, Patriots coach Bill Belichick conducted a press conference to provide further information about the ball-inflation investigation the NFL currently is conducting. The full transcript as provided by the team appears below.]

BB: I want to take this opportunity to share some information. I spent a significant amount of time this past week learning as much as I could learn, more than I could ever imagine to tell you the truth, about bladders, air gauges, stitching, pressure, game day football preparation, rubdowns and so forth. [I’m] trying to be as helpful as I can here and share with you what I’ve learned. Having coached for 40 years in the National Football League, played for several years, growing up in a football family, being around this game my entire life, it’s clear that I don’t know very much about this area. Over the last few days I’ve learned a lot more than I ever knew — like, exponentially more.

I feel like this is important because there have been questions raised and I believe now 100 percent that I have personally, and we as an organization, have absolutely followed every rule to the letter. I just feel that on behalf of everyone in the organization, everyone that’s involved in this organization, that we need to say something.

I’ve talked to and gathered a lot of information from members of our staff, I have talked to other people familiar with this subject in other organizations and we have performed an internal study of the process and I think there are certainly other things that I can do and there’s maybe other research that can be done, but I say at this time, I definitely have enough information to share with you. So, based on the events of today, I feel like now’s the time to do it, rather than wait. I know this is kind of an impromptu thing, but that’s just the way it worked out.

First of all, let me start with the process. As Tom [Brady] explained on Thursday, the most important part of the football for the quarterback is the feel of the football. I don’t think there’s any question about that. The exterior feel of the football is not only critical, but it’s also very easily identifiable. When I feel a football, I can feel a difference between slippery and tacky. I can feel the difference between the texture of the football to what degree it is broken in. If you put five footballs out there, which football is broken in the most, which football is broken in the least, that’s easy to identify. That’s the essence of the preparation. We prepare our footballs over time and we use them in practice. That preparation process continues right up until the footballs are given to the officials prior to the game. That’s when they are finalized, if I could use that word. I would say that in that process I’ve handled dozens of footballs over the past week. The texture of the footballs is very easy to identify. The pressure of the footballs is a whole different story. It’s much more difficult to feel or identify. So, the focus of our pregame preparation for the footballs is based on texture and feel. I think Tom went into that extensively on Thursday and he obviously could go through it a lot better than I can because he’s the one that touched them. But that’s the heart of the process.

We simulated a game day situation in terms of the preparation of the football and where the footballs were at various points in time during the day, or night, as the case was Sunday. I would say that our preparation process for the footballs is what we do. I can’t speak for anybody else. It’s what we do. That process, we have found raises the PSI [pounds per square inch] approximately one pound. That process of creating a tackiness, a texture — the right feel, whatever that feel is, it’s just a sensation for the quarterback, what’s the right feel. That process elevates the PSI approximately one pound based on what our study showed, which was multiple footballs, multiple examples in the process, as we would do for a game. It’s not one football.

When the footballs are delivered to the officials locker room, the officials were asked to inflate them to 12.5 PSI. What exactly they did, I don’t know. But for the purposes of our study, that’s what we did. We set them at 12.5. That’s at the discretion of the official, though. Regardless of what we ask for, it’s the official’s discretion to put them where he wants. Again, that’s done in a controlled climate. The footballs are prepared in our locker room, they’re delivered to the officials locker room, which is a controlled environment. Whatever we have here is what we have there. When the footballs go out on to the field into game conditions, whatever those conditions are, whether it’s hot and humid, whether it’s cold and damp, whether it’s cold and dry, whether it’s whatever it is, that’s where the footballs are played with, and that’s where the measurements would be different than what they are, possibly different, than what they are in a controlled environment. That’s what we found.

We found that once the footballs were on the field over an extended period of time, in other words, they were adjusted to the climatic conditions and also the fact that the footballs reached an equilibrium without the rubbing process, that after that had run its course and the footballs had reached an equilibrium, that they were down approximately one-and-a-half pounds per square inch. When we brought the footballs back in after that process and re-tested them in a controlled environment as we have here, then those measurements rose approximately one half pound per square inch. So the net of one and a half, back to a half, is approximately one pound per square inch, to one and a half.

Now, we all know that air pressure is a function of the atmospheric conditions. It’s a function of that. If there’s activity in the football relative to the rubbing process, I think that explains why when we gave them to the officials and the officials put it at, let’s say 12.5, if that’s in fact what they did, that once the football reached its equilibrium state, it probably was closer to 11.5. But again, that’s just our measurements. We can’t speak specifically to what happened because we have no way of touching the footballs other than once the officials have them we don’t touch them except for when we play with them in the game. But it’s similar to the concept of when you get into your car and the light comes on and it says, ‘Low tire pressure,’ because the car has been sitting in the driveway outside overnight and you start it up and you start driving it and the light goes off. It’s a similar concept to that.

The atmospheric conditions, as well as the true equilibrium of the football is critical to the measurement. At no time were any of our footballs prepared anywhere other than in the locker room or in an area very close to that — never in a heated room or heated condition. That has absolutely never taken place to anyone’s knowledge or anyone’s recollection. That just didn’t happen.

When you measure a football, there are a number of different issues that come up. Number one, gauges. There are multiple types of gauges. The accuracy of one gauge relative to another, there’s variance there. We’re talking about air pressure. There’s some variance there. Clearly all footballs are different. So, footballs that come out of a similar pack, a similar box, a similar preparation, each football has its own unique, individual characteristics because it’s not a man-made piece of equipment. It’s an animal skin, it’s a bladder, it’s stitching, it’s laces. Each one has its own unique characteristics. Whatever you do with that football, if you do the same thing with another one, it might be close, but there’s a variance between each individual football.

Footballs do not get measured during the game. We have no way of knowing until we went through this exercise, that this is really taking place. When we hand the footballs to the officials, the officials put them at whatever they put them at, but let’s just say it’s 12.5, that’s where they put them, then the air pressure at that point from then on until the end of the game, we have no knowledge of. Honestly, it’s never been a concern. What is a concern is the texture of the footballs and again, that’s the point that Tom hit on hard on Thursday.

We had our quarterbacks look at a number of footballs. They were unable to differentiate a one-pound per square inch difference in those footballs. They were unable to do it. On a two-pound differential, there was some degree of differentiation, but certainly not a consistent one. A couple ones they could pick out, but they were also wrong on some of the other ones that they had. You’re welcome to do that yourself. I can tell you from all the footballs that I’ve handled over the last week, I can’t tell a difference if there’s a one-pound difference or half a pound difference in any of the footballs.

Again, anyone who has seen us practice knows that we make it harder, not easier, to handle the football. Our players train in conditions that a lot of people would recommend that we not drive in. That’s what they do. They’re a physically and mentally tough team that works hard, that trains hard, that prepares hard and have met every challenge that I put in front of them. And I know that because I work them every day.

This team was the best team in the AFC in the regular season. We won two games in the playoffs against two good football teams. The best team in the postseason, that’s what this team is. I know that because I’ve been with them every day and I’m proud of this team.

I just want to share with you what I’ve learned over the past week. I’m embarrassed to talk about the amount of time that I put into this relative to the other important challenge in front of us. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an expert in footballs; I’m not an expert in football measurements. I’m just telling you what I know. I would not say that I’m Mona Lisa Vito of the football world, as she was in the car expertise area, alright?

At no time was there any intent whatsoever to try to compromise the integrity of the game or to gain an advantage. Quite the opposite, we feel like we followed the rules of the game to the letter in our preparations, in our procedures, alright, and in the way that we handled every game that we competitively played in as it relates to this matter. We try to do everything right. We err on the side of caution. It’s been that way now for many years. Anything that’s close, we stay as far away from the line as we can. In this case, I can say that we are, as far as I know and everything that I can do, we did everything as right as we could do it. We welcome the league’s investigation into this matter. I think there are a number of things that need to be looked into on a number of levels, but that’s not for this conversation. I’m sure it will be taken up at another point in time.

This is the end of this subject for me for a long time, OK? We have a huge game, a huge challenge for our football team and that’s where that focus is going to go. I’ve spent more than enough time on this and I’m happy to share this information with you to try to tell you some of the things that I have learned over the last week, which I’ve learned way more than I ever thought I would learn. The process, the whole thing is much more complex – there are a lot of variables that I was unaware of. It sounds simple, and I’m not trying to say that we’re trying to land a guy on the moon, but there are a lot of things here that are a little hard to get a handle on. Again, there’s a variance in so many of these things, alright? So, I’ll take a couple questions and then I’m moving on.

Q: Did the NFL share with you the pregame documented PSI?

BB: You would have to talk to the NFL about anything they did or didn’t do.

Q: You don’t know if they documented it?

BB: Look, we could sit here and talk about some of this stuff for two hours, alright? If you want to ask the league any questions about what they do or don’t do you should ask the league. I’m just telling you what I’ve learned and the study that we’ve done and the experience that I’ve had over the last few days in looking into this matter. That’s all I can tell you. I’m not a scientist and I’m not a league official.

Q: Do you feel like after the amount of work and research you’ve put into this this week you’ll be exonerated from all this?

BB: I just told you what I think. That’s what I think right there.

Q: Has your game preparation been compromised at all? I know you usually spend this week in game planning.

BB: Well, I’ve spent a lot of the week in game planning — a lot of this week, yeah.

Q: Do you feel like any of it has been compromised?

BB: Look, I told you: I thought this was an important issue and we addressed it, so we did.

Q: It sounds like according to your simulation, it’s a combination of atmospheric or weather conditions and then trusting that the officials did inflate the footballs to 12.5 PSI. Is that correct?

BB: Well, look, you can take the atmospheric conditions out of it because if the footballs are measured in the same atmospheric conditions then it’s a non-factor. But if you measure a football in a controlled condition like this and you measure a football on, let’s say, the night we played Baltimore, there’s no way they’re the same. You take that football and you set it outside and the football becomes accustomed to those climatic conditions and those temperatures, there’s no way it’s the same. Now if you take it out and bring it back in and let it sit for X amount of time, then it probably is the same. So no, that’s not the issue. But depending on where footballs were measured and how they were measured, that’s a whole other discussion. No, the situation is the preparation of the football caused the football to, I would say, be artificially high in PSI when it was set to the regulation, regulated level. And then it reached its equilibrium at some point later on, an hour, two hours into the game into the pregame, whatever it was — and that level was below what was set in this climatic condition. I think that’s exactly what happened. And I think that anybody who wants to do those experiments should go ahead and do them themselves. Don’t take my word for it. But I’m telling you, we’re trying to get an answer to this and that’s what we have.

Q: You said you always try to err on the side of caution and stay on the right side of the rules, but with the videotaping it was clear that you were pushing the envelope on that. Is that something that changed that?

BB: I mean, look, that’s a whole other discussion. The guy’s giving signals out in front of 80,000 people, OK? So we filmed him taking signals out in front of 80,000 people, like there were a lot of other teams doing at that time, too. Forget about that. If we were wrong then we’ve been disciplined for that.

Q: That’s clearly not doing everything you can to stay on the side —

BB: The guy’s in front of 80,000 people. 80,000 people saw it. Everybody [on the] sideline saw it. Everybody sees our guy in front of the 80,000 people. I mean, there he is. So, it was wrong, we were disciplined for it. That’s it. We never did it again. We’re never going to do it again and anything else that’s close, we’re not going to do either.

Q: So is that a change? I’m talking about what you said a few minutes ago about always trying to stay on the right side.

BB: We always do. We always have. I mean, anything that’s even remotely close, we’re on the side of caution.

Q: You talked a lot about science today. Did you have any science people help with your investigation?

BB: We talked to a lot of people.

Q: How much time did you spend on it?

BB: I don’t know; I didn’t log it.

Q: Are you relieved by what you’ve found in your investigation?

BB: I didn’t — look, I came in here Thursday and I told you that I didn’t have any answers. I just — and I’m very confident in the things that we’ve talked about, the study that we did, going through with a fine-tooth comb, everything. I’m 100 percent confident in everything I’ve told you. That’s what I believe. That’s what I know. That’s what it is. I’m as transparent as I can be on this one, period.

Q: Is that a yes that you feel relieved?

BB: Look, I did what I did. No, I’m not using those adjectives. I told you what I did. That’s what it is.

Q: Is there one thing that you did that caused it to raise 1.5 PSI? Did you put it in front of the heater? Did you put it in dryers? Do you know what it was?

BB: No, it was never put in front of a heater. I just said that.

Q: No, I’m talking about whatever you do to get the texture right that causes it to rise.

BB: You rub it. You try to get the texture the way the quarterback wants it.

Q: I’m just trying to establish what it was that made it rise.

BB: I just said that and I said that at no time was the football ever put in any type of heated environment.

Q: So you rub it vigorously?

BB: We rub it to get the football to the proper texture. Yes, it’s — I mean, I don’t know what’s vigorous or what isn’t not vigorous. We’re not polishing fine china here; we’re trying to get a football to the proper texture the quarterback wants it to grip it. Does that stimulate something inside the football to raise the PSI? I would say yes, it does.

Q: Based on all this research, then what do you do differently in the future to err on the side of caution?

BB: Well that’s another — you’re getting into another whole area here. You’re getting into another whole area as it relates to the next game. Yes, that’s exactly right. I couldn’t. That’s exactly why this whole process was done: for that very reason. I don’t know the answer to that question, but that’s a very important question.

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NFL issues statement on Deflategate investigation

deflated-football Getty Images

The NFL issued the following statement on Friday afternoon in response to inquiries about “Deflategate”:

“Our office has been conducting an investigation as to whether the footballs used in last Sunday’s AFC Championship Game complied with the specifications that are set forth in the playing rules. The investigation began based on information that suggested that the game balls used by the New England Patriots were not properly inflated to levels required by the playing rules, specifically Playing Rule 2, Section 1, which requires that the ball be inflated to between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. Prior to the game, the game officials inspect the footballs to be used by each team and confirm that this standard is satisfied, which was done before last Sunday’s game.

“The investigation is being led jointly by NFL Executive Vice President Jeff Pash and Ted Wells of the law firm of Paul Weiss. Mr. Wells and his firm bring additional expertise and a valuable independent perspective. The investigation began promptly on Sunday night. Over the past several days, nearly 40 interviews have been conducted, including of Patriots personnel, game officials, and third parties with relevant information and expertise. We have obtained and are continuing to obtain additional information, including video and other electronic information and physical evidence. We have retained Renaissance Associates, an investigatory firm with sophisticated forensic expertise to assist in reviewing electronic and video information.

“The playing rules are intended to protect the fairness and integrity of our games. We take seriously claims that those rules have been violated and will fully investigate this matter without compromise or delay. The investigation is ongoing, will be thorough and objective, and is being pursued expeditiously. In the coming days, we expect to conduct numerous additional interviews, examine video and other forensic evidence, as well as relevant physical evidence. While the evidence thus far supports the conclusion that footballs that were under-inflated were used by the Patriots in the first half, the footballs were properly inflated for the second half and confirmed at the conclusion of the game to have remained properly inflated. The goals of the investigation will be to determine the explanation for why footballs used in the game were not in compliance with the playing rules and specifically whether any noncompliance was the result of deliberate action. We have not made any judgments on these points and will not do so until we have concluded our investigation and considered all of the relevant evidence.

“Upon being advised of the investigation, the Patriots promptly pledged their full cooperation and have made their personnel and other information available to us upon request. Our investigation will seek information from any and all relevant sources and we expect full cooperation from other clubs as well. As we develop more information and are in a position to reach conclusions, we will share them publicly.”

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Belichick: I had no knowledge whatsoever about deflated balls

belichick AP

Patriots coach Bill Belichick gave the media a lengthy statement about the accusations that his team deflated the footballs used in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Colts.

Belichick declined to answer any questions from reporters, but he did give this statement, which we’ve transcribed in full:

“When I came in Monday morning I was shocked to learn of the news reports about the footballs. I had no knowledge whatsoever of this situation until Monday morning. I’ve learned a lot more about this process in the last three days than I knew — or had talked about — in the last 40 years that I’ve coached in this league. I had no knowledge of the various steps involved in the game balls, the process that happened between when they were prepared and went to the officials and went to the game, so I’ve learned a lot about that. Obviously, I understand that each team has the opportunity to prepare the balls the way they want, give them to the officials, and the game officials either approve or disapprove the balls, and that really was the end of it for me, until I learned a little bit more about it the last couple days.

“Let me just say that my personal coaching philosophy, my mentality, has always been to make things as difficult as possible for players in practice, and so with regard to footballs, I’m sure that any current or past player of mine would tell you that the balls we practice with are as bad as they can be. Wet, sticky, cold, slippery, whatever. However bad we can make them, I make them. And any time that players complain about the quality of the footballs, I make them worse, and that stops the complaining. So we never use the condition of the footballs as an excuse. We play with whatever, or kick with whatever we have to use, and that’s the way it is. That has never been a priority for me, and I want the players to deal with a harder situation in practice than they’ll ever have to deal with in a game. And maybe that’s part of our whole ball security philosophy.

“I’m trying to coach the team and that’s what I want to do. I think we all know that quarterbacks, kickers, specialists have certain preferences on the footballs. They know a lot more than I do. They’re a lot more sensitive to it than I am. I hear them comment on it from time to time, but I can tell you and they will tell you that there’s never any sympathy whatsoever from me on that subject. Zero. Tom’s personal preferences on his footballs are something that he can talk about in much better detail and information than I could possibly provide.

“I can tell you that in my entire coaching career I have never talked to any player, staff member about football air pressure. That is not a subject that I have ever brought up. To me, the footballs are approved by the league and game officials pre-game, and we play with what’s out there. And that’s the only way that I have ever thought about that.

“I’ve learned about the inflation range situation, obviously, with our footballs being inflated to the twelve and a half pound range, any deflation would then take us under that specification limit. Knowing that now, in the future we will certainly inflate the footballs above that low level to account for any possible change during the game. So as an example, if a ball deflated from 13.2 to 12.9, it wouldn’t matter, but if it deflated from 12.5 to 12.3, it would — as an example. So we will take steps in the future to make sure that we don’t put ourselves in that type of potential situation again.

“The National Football League is investigating the situation. We have cooperated fully, quickly and completely with every request that they have made, continue to be cooperative in any way that we can. I have no explanation for what happened, and that’s what they’re looking into, so I can’t comment on what they’re doing. That’s something that you should talk to them about. Again, my overall knowledge of football specifications, the overall process that happens on game day with the footballs, is very limited. I would say that during the course of the game, I honestly never — it probably has happened on an incomplete pass or something, but I’ve never touched a game ball. That’s not something that I have any familiarity with on that. And again, I was completely and totally unaware of any of this that we’re talking about in the last couple days, until Monday morning. Based on what I knew Sunday night, thinking back on this, which I’ve done several times, I can’t think of anything that I would have done differently, based on what I knew then, based on what I know now. I’ve told you the one change we would make on the initial start level of the football pressure, but that’s really about it.

“It’s unfortunate that this is a story coming off two great playoff victories by our football team and our players, but again we’ve been cooperative with the NFL investigation. We’ll continue to do so, and we’ll turn all our attention, focus on the Seattle Seahawks, a very well-coached, talented, tough football team. We’ve spent the last four days, three days, with our preparations and so forth for the trip. Those are coming to a conclusion, we’re wrapping that up, and we’re starting our preparations today for the Seahawks and practicing through the weekend so we’ll have a good, solid opportunity to get ourselves ready to go before we head down there.

“Again, I have no further comment on the NFL investigation, and I’ve told you all I know about the subject from my perspective. So that’s where we are.”

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2015 Pro Bowl rosters

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After a two-day draft, the 2015 Pro Bowl teams are set. Here are the clubs, which were selected without regard to conference. Most players were drafted on Wednesday, with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck the No. 1 overall pick:

TEAM IRVIN

Captain: Michael Irvin.

Coach: Jason Garrett, Dallas.

Offense

Quarterbacks: Tony Romo, Dallas; Matt Ryan, Atlanta; Matthew Stafford, Detroit.

Running backs: C.J. Anderson, Denver; Mark Ingram, New Orleans, DeMarco Murray, Dallas (captain).

Wide receivers: Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants; Golden Tate, Detroit; Emmanuel Sanders, Denver; Randall Cobb, Green Bay.

Tight ends: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans; Jason Witten, Dallas.

Fullback: Marcel Reece, Oakland.

Tackles: Joe Thomas, Cleveland; Tyron Smith, Dallas; Trent Wiliams, Washington.

Guards: Kyle Long, Chicago; Zach Martin, Dallas; Marshall Yanda, Baltimore.

Centers: Travis Frederick, Dallas; Nick Mangold, New York Jets.

Defense

Defensive ends: Robert Quinn, St. Louis; Cameron Wake, Miami; DeMarcus Ware, Denver.

Defensive tackles: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati; Aaron Donald, St. Louis; Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets.

Outside linebackers: Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore; Clay Matthews, Green Bay; Von Miller, Denver.

Inside linebackers: Luke Kuechly, Carolina; D’Qwell Jackson, Indianapolis.

Cornerbacks: Vontae Davis, Indianapolis; Brent Grimes, Miami; Joe Haden, Cleveland; Chris Harris Jr., Denver.

Safeties: Eric Weddle, San Diego, Mike Adams, Indianapolis; T.J. Ward, Denver.

Special teams

Punter: Kevin Huber, Cincinnati.

Placekicker: Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis.

Return specialist: Darren Sproles, Philadelphia.

Special-teamer: Darrell Stuckey, San Diego.

Long-snapper: L.P. Ladouceur, Dallas or Jon Dorenbos, Philadelphia.

TEAM CARTER

Captain: Cris Carter.

Coach: John Harbaugh, Baltimore.

Offense

Quarterbacks: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis; Drew Brees, New Orleans; Andy Dalton, Cincinnati.

Running backs: Jamaal Charles, Kansas City; Justin Forsett, Baltimore; Alfred Morris, Washington.

Wide receivers: A.J. Green, Cincinnati; T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis; Jordy Nelson, Green Bay; Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh (captain).

Tight ends: Martellus Bennett, Chicago; Greg Olsen, Carolina.

Fullback: John Kuhn, Green Bay.

Tackles: Joe Staley, San Francisco; Duane Brown, Houston; Ryan Clady, Denver.

Guards: Evan Mathis, Philadelphia; Mike Pouncey, Miami; Josh Sitton, Green Bay.

Centers: Jason Kelce, Philadelphia; Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh.

Defense

Defensive ends: J.J. Watt, Houston (captain); Mario Williams, Buffalo; Calais Campbell, Arizona.

Interior defensive linemen: Marcell Dareus, Buffalo; Dontari Poe, Kansas City; Kyle Williams, Buffalo.

Outside linebackers: Justin Houston, Kansas City; Connor Barwin, Philadelphia; Tamba Hali, Kansas City.

Inside linebackers: C.J. Mosley, Baltimore; Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh.

Cornerbacks: Patrick Peterson, Arizona; Aqib Talib, Denver; Antonio Cromartie, Arizona; Sam Shields, Green Bay.

Safeties: Antoine Bethea, San Francisco; Glover Quin, Detroit; Donte Whitner, Cleveland.

Special teams

Punter: Pat McAfee, Indianapolis.

Placekicker: Cody Parkey, Philadelphia.

Return specialist: Devin Hester, Atlanta.

Special-teamer: Justin Bethel, Arizona.

Long-snapper: L.P. Ladouceur, Dallas or Jon Dorenbos, Philadelphia.

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2015 NFL Draft early entries

Landon Collins AP

The following 74 players have forgone their remaining college eligibility and entered the 2015 NFL Draft, the league announced January 19:

Nelson Agholor, WR, Southern California

Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State

Kwon Alexander, LB, Louisiana State

Javorius Allen, RB, Southern California

Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon

Malcom Brown, DT, Texas

Alex Carter, DB, Stanford

B.J. Catalon, RB, Texas Christian

Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana

Jalen Collins, DB, Louisiana State

Landon Collins, DB, Alabama

Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama

Xavier Cooper, DT, Washington State

Christian Covington, DT, Rice

DaVaris Daniels, WR, Notre Dame

Ronald Darby, DB, Florida State

Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina

Stefon Diggs, WR, Maryland

Lorenzo Doss, DB, Tulane

Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State

Durell Eskridge, DB, Syracuse

George Farmer, WR, USC

Max Flores, LB, Northern Colorado

Ereck Flowers, T, Miami

Dante Fowler, DE, Florida

Devin Funchess, WR, Michigan

Jacoby Glenn, DB, Central Florida

Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State

Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri

Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston

Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska

Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia

Chris Hackett, DB, Texas Christian

Eli Harold, DE, Virginia

Chris Harper, WR, California

Braylon Heard, RB, Kentucky

Gerod Holliman, DB, Louisville

D.J. Humphries, T, Florida

Danielle Hunter, DE, Louisiana State

David Irving, DT, Iowa State

Jesse James, TE, Penn State

Duke Johnson, RB, Miami

Matt Jones, RB, Florida

Tyler Kroft, TE, Rutgers

Ellis McCarthy, DT, UCLA

Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State

Patrick Miller, T, Auburn

Tyler Moore, G, Florida

Rakeem Nunez-Roches, DT, Southern Mississippi

Andrus Peat, T, Stanford

Breshad Perriman, WR, Central Florida

Marcus Peters, DB, Washington

Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma

Darius Philon, DT, Arkansas

Bradley Pinion, P, Clemson

Jaquel Pitts, WR, Trinity International

Jeremiah Poutasi, T, Utah

Darien Rankin, LB, North Carolina

Shane Ray, DE, Missouri

Josh Robinson, RB, Mississippi State

James Sample, DB, Louisville

Jean Sifrin, TE, Massachusetts

Jaelen Strong, WR, Arizona State

Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington

Max Valles, LB, Virginia

Easton Wahlstrom, LS, Arizona State

Trae Waynes, DB, Michigan State

Leonard Williams, DE, Southern California

Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota

P.J. Williams, DB, Florida State

Trey Williams, RB, Texas A&M

Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State

T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama

Ten other players graduated with eligibility remaining and have declared for the draft:

Deion Barnes, DE, Penn State

Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn

Zach D’Orazio, WR, Akron

Charles Gaines, DB, Louisville

Dee Hart, RB, Colorado State

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

Nigel King, WR, Kansas

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

Donovan Smith, T, Penn State

Tacoi Sumler, WR, Appalachian State

Note: All information furnished by the NFL.

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NFL morning after: Mike McCarthy blew it

mccarthy AP

You could call the NFC Championship Game a great comeback by the Seahawks, or you could call it a horrendous collapse by the Packers. But this was something different.

The Packers didn’t so much cost themselves Sunday’s game by playing badly in the fourth quarter, and the Seahawks can’t just credit their comeback to great play in the fourth quarter. What really cost the Packers this game is that when they had a chance to finish the Seahawks, put them away, step on their throats, they didn’t do it.

As great as it seemed like the Packers were playing when they built their 16-0 lead in the first half, the reality is that they were keeping the Seahawks in the game with overly cautious play calling and poor strategic decisions, particularly on fourth downs. Here are the four fourth downs that ought to have Packers coach Mike McCarthy kicking himself this morning:

1. With the Packers facing fourth-and-goal at the six-inch line in the first quarter, McCarthy decided to send in kicker Mason Crosby for a field goal. Just so you know I’m not just second-guessing after the fact, here’s what I tweeted immediately following that field goal:

2. With the Packers facing fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line on the very next possession, McCarthy did it again: He decided to kick the field goal. That made it 6-0, when the Packers easily could have led 14-0. And McCarthy wasn’t done.

3. In the second quarter, with the Packers facing fourth-and-1 at the Seahawks’ 22-yard line, McCarthy decided to kick yet another field goal. That made it 16-0. And it was about as disappointing a 16-0 lead as a team could have. The Packers were dominating the Seahawks. They could have been up 28-0. They have Eddie Lacy. They have John Kuhn. They have a team set up to run for short yardage effectively. And McCarthy didn’t give them the chance.

At halftime, McCarthy told FOX’s sideline reporter Chris Myers that you have to take the points when you can against a good defense like Seattle’s. McCarthy was looking at it exactly the wrong way. When you’re playing a great team like Seattle, you have to score all the points you can, not just settle for three when you’re inches away from seven.

4. Early in the third quarter, with the Packers still leading 16-0, they had a fourth-and-1 at midfield. Go for it and pick up a first down, and you’re closing in on starting the second half with a score that probably breaks the Seahawks’ backs and sends the Packers to the Super Bowl. So what did Mike McCarthy do? He punted. On the ensuing drive, the Seahawks scored their first touchdown to cut the deficit to 16-7.

If the Packers had gone for it and gained the necessary yard on just one of those fourth-and-1 plays, they likely would have won in regulation. Instead, they lost in overtime.

I don’t want to suggest that McCarthy’s fourth-down decisions were the only thing that cost the Packers this game. Any time you melt down like the Packers did on Sunday, there are any number of things that went wrong: Failing to recover an onside kick. A defense that played great for 56 minutes allowing more than 200 yards and three touchdowns in the last four minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. Morgan Burnett sliding after an interception when he appeared to have room for a big runback. A lot of things went wrong for the Packers late in the game.

But my contention is that even early in the game, when it appeared that everything was going right, McCarthy was getting a lot of things wrong. That cost McCarthy and his team a trip to the Super Bowl.

Here are my other thoughts from Sunday:

The Seahawks’ defense remains great. Aaron Rodgers may be the best player in the NFL right now, but Seattle made him look ordinary. Rodgers finished 19-for-34 for 178 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions, for a passer rating of 55.8. That was just the second time in the last four years that Rodgers finished a game with a passer rating under 60. If the Seahawks have another great game in the Super Bowl, they have to be considered among the handful of greatest defenses in NFL history.

The Seahawks’ medical staff has some explaining to do. Russell Wilson took a hard helmet-to-helmet hit from Clay Matthews in the second quarter, and FOX’s Erin Andrews later reported that the Seahawks’ doctors only looked at Wilson for “two seconds” after that. Richard Sherman suffered an injury later in the game, went down in obvious pain on the sideline, and then went right back in without missing a single play. The sideline medical staff needs to explain why, with the NFL’s emphasis on player safety, those two players were allowed to keep playing without being thoroughly checked.

Russell Wilson has incredible luck. After picking up a fumbled snap on Sunday, Wilson has now fumbled 13 times in the regular season and postseason combined — and the Seahawks have recovered all 13 of those fumbles. That’s remarkably good fortune; the bounce of a football is so unpredictable that when a ball is fumbled, it’s little more than a coin flip which team is going to recover. But Wilson or his teammates keep falling on his fumbles. Wilson had a generally awful game on Sunday, with four interceptions, and yet when it was all said and done he topped 200 passing yards and his team somehow won. Things just keep going Wilson’s way.

The Colts wasted two first-round picks. Colts pass rusher Bjorn Werner was inactive for the AFC Championship Game simply because he hasn’t been effective this season, and running back Trent Richardson was inactive because of a family emergency, although he was expected to be inactive anyway because he hasn’t been effective either. Werner was the Colts’ 2013 first-round draft pick, and Richardson was the player the Colts acquired by trading away their 2014 first-round draft pick. And neither of them is even good enough to be one of the 46 active players for a must-win game. That’s some terrible decision-making by Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson.

No great quarterback gets less help from his teammates than Andrew Luck. It’s painful watching the Colts sometimes: Luck throws great passes and they get dropped. Luck is forced to run for his life and takes a beating behind a patchwork offensive line. The Colts’ defense fails to get stops. The Colts’ special teams makes major mistakes. It says something about how good Luck is that the Colts made it to the AFC Championship Game, because the rest of that roster is not very good. Compare the 53-player rosters of the four teams that played yesterday, and you’ll have to agree that the Colts have by far the least talent of the four. When Luck doesn’t play well — and he didn’t play well on Sunday in New England — the Colts get blown out.

Tom Brady is in for a rough Super Bowl Sunday. Congratulations to the Patriots for getting to their sixth Super Bowl with Brady as their quarterback. Brady will join former Bills and Broncos defensive lineman Mike Lodish as the only players to appear in six Super Bowls. But Brady is in for a tough time, because the Seahawks may have the toughest defense he’s ever faced in his NFL career.

The two best coaches in football are meeting in the Super Bowl. Either Patriots coach Bill Belichick will earn his fourth Super Bowl ring, or Seahawks coach Pete Carroll will become the first coach ever to win multiple championships at both the college and professional level. These are the two best coaches in football right now. Mike McCarthy could learn a thing or two from them.

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PFT’s Conference Championship picks

Wilson AP

I knew my only shot at catching MDS in our 11-game postseason picks contest would be to take the upsets this weekend — and hope for two of the bigger conference-title-game upsets in recent history.  But then I remembered that:  (1) it’s still more important to get the picks right; and (2) I picked the Patriots and Seahawks to make it to the Super Bowl back in September.

So I stuck with the favorites, even though I knew MDS would.

Did I mention the reasoning simply for the ability to point out that I’d picked the Patriots and Seahawks to make it to the Super Bowl back in September?  Perhaps.

Last week, MDS and yours truly both went 3-1 in the divisional round, and I should get extra credit for picking the Colts to beat the Broncos.  (That mention definitely was gratuitous.)

Through two weeks of postseason play, MDS has gone 7-1, and I’m 5-3.

Packers at Seahawks

MDS’s take: The Seahawks are the best team in the NFL. They were the best team in the NFL a year ago, they were the best team in the NFL when they spanked the Packers in Week One, and they’re the best team in the NFL today.

So do the Packers have any chance? Sure. When you have the best quarterback in the NFL, as the Packers do, you always have a chance to put a lot of points on the board. I’m not going to say Aaron Rodgers can’t have a big game, I’m just saying that if there’s one defense that can shut Rodgers down, it’s Seattle’s.

And let’s not overlook Russell Wilson, who in last week’s win over Carolina had a passer rating of 149.2, the highest for any quarterback in a playoff game in the last five years. Even if Rodgers has a big game, the Seahawks’ offense might have a big game, too.

And so I’m taking Seattle, and taking Seattle comfortably. The best team in the NFL will return to the Super Bowl.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 28, Packers 17.

Florio’s take:  Way back in September, the Seahawks raised their first championship banner and then dismantled the Packers, winning by 20.  This time around, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who chased the R-E-L-A-X moment with an M-V-P season) is playing on a pogo stick, thanks to an injured calf that has limited his uncanny mobility.  While that could be balanced out by a willingness to throw at cornerback Richard Sherman’s side of the field (unlike the first time around), it can’t be enough to overcome one of the best defenses of the past generation in a place where it becomes harder and harder to win as the stakes get higher and higher.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 24, Packers 16.

Colts at Patriots

MDS’s take: Last week Andrew Luck took his first step toward establishing a changing of the guard in the AFC by dethroning Peyton Manning. Can Luck do it to Tom Brady this week?

I don’t think so. Luck is a phenomenal quarterback who may out-play Brady on Sunday, but the Colts just don’t have the personnel elsewhere to keep pace with the Patriots. The Patriots’ defense is much better than the Colts’ defense, and the Patriots’ offense can control a game on the ground if it has to, something that the Colts’ offense can’t do.

There may come a time in the near future when Luck has the Colts atop the AFC, but that time is not now. The Patriots will return to the Super Bowl.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 31, Colts 17.

Florio’s take:  Last week, the Patriots managed only 14 rushing yards against Baltimore.  It’s a stark contrast from the 200-plus gained by previously (and since) unknown tailback Jonas Gray against the Colts in November.  So what does it mean for the rematch against Indy?  Probably more running.  Probably from LeGarrette Blount, who has since the regular-season game against the Colts returned to the Patriots and who had 166 yards and four touchdowns against Indy in the postseason a year ago.  While the chess match that routinely occurs during football games could prompt the Pats to flip the game plan to a pass-heavy attack, the safer approach will be to keep running the ball and running the ball and running the ball some more, until the Colts show they can stop the Patriots.  With 367 yards and eight touchdowns from the team’s leading rushers in the last two meetings, there’s no reason for Bill Belichick and company to do anything differently.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 41, Colts 21.

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NFL morning after: Bill Belichick is a genius

belichick AP

Bill Belichick is a genius.

I know, I know, I’ve lost half of you because you don’t like Belichick personally and half of you think it’s ridiculous to call football coaches geniuses. As Joe Theismann once said, a genius is a guy like Norman Einstein. But as I look at everything that Belichick has accomplished in his coaching career, I really do think he has a genius for coaching football, to an extent that we haven’t seen in professional football since Paul Brown was coaching the Cleveland Browns in the 1940s and 1950s.

We saw that on Saturday in New England, when the Patriots, trailing the Ravens by 14 points in the second half, did something that just isn’t done in professional football: He sent out an offense featuring only four offensive linemen and one running back lined up as an ineligible receiver, confusing and infuriating the Ravens. Baltimore’s John Harbaugh is a good coach, too, but he had just been out-coached and he was so angry about it that he ran onto the field to yell at the officials, drawing a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“Nobody’s ever seen that before,” a still-angry Harbaugh said after the game.

When Harbaugh says no one had ever seen it before, what he really is saying is that no one had ever thought of it before. Harbaugh certainly hadn’t thought about it before, and neither had any of his assistants or his players, and that’s why they were completely ill-equipped to handle it. Belichick had out-smarted them.

I’m not exactly saying anything shocking when I say that Belichick is a great coach. With Saturday’s win, Belichick tied Tom Landry record for the most postseason victories in NFL history. The Patriots are favored to win the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, and Belichick is favored to break the tie with Landry and get the postseason victory record all to himself. When you own a record like that, it goes without saying that you’re a good coach.

But I know I’ll get plenty of pushback on this from those who dislike Belichick. Some people don’t like him because of his gruff demeanor, and I don’t particularly like that aspect of his personality, either. But so what? Good football coaches haven’t always been swell guys. I’m calling him a great coach, not Miss Congeniality.

The other thing people don’t like about Belichick is a legitimate issue: He got caught cheating in the 2007 Spygate scandal. The NFL fined Belichick and stripped the Patriots of a first-round draft pick, and that was appropriate. He broke the rules and deserved to suffer the consequences.

But when people suggest that he was somehow exposed as a coach who only wins by cheating, well, that’s just plain silly. After the NFL put a stop to Belichick’s prohibited videotaping in Week Two of the 2007 season, Belichick won 17 consecutive games. The next year Belichick went 11-5 despite losing Tom Brady in Week One. He’s made the playoffs every year since then. Since he got caught spying he’s 99-28 in the regular season, 7-6 in the playoffs. His winning percentage of .757 post-Spygate is better than his .598 winning percentage pre-Spygate. The idea that Belichick needed to spy on other teams to win is just not borne out by the evidence.

What the evidence does show, quite clearly, is that Belichick is not just a good coach but a great coach. If his team wins its next two games, it may be time to proclaim Belichick the best coach ever.

Here are my other thoughts from this weekend in the NFL:

The Seahawks remain the best team in football. The Panthers went to Seattle and played a tough, spirited game of football, but there was never really any doubt that the Seahawks were going to win that game.

Seattle’s defense is insanely good. It was the best defense in the NFL last season in both the regular season and the playoffs, and it was the best defense in the regular season, and seems to be just as good in the playoffs again. The Seahawks forced Cam Newton into three turnovers on Saturday, and Seattle is now on a seven-game winning streak in which it has allowed a total of just 56 points. That just doesn’t happen in today’s NFL.

So can the Seahawks keep it up? I think they can. I like Seattle to beat Green Bay on Sunday, and I like Seattle to win the Super Bowl as well. If that happens, we’ll look at the 2013-14 Seahawks Defense as one of the greatest in the history of the sport.

A bad rule negated a great play. I don’t like the way the NFL defines the word “catch” because I think it too often negates the most spectacular plays made by NFL players. What Dez Bryant did on the crucial fourth down in the fourth quarter in Green Bay on Sunday was a wonderful catch — he leapt impossibly high into the air, grabbed the ball, controlled it, rolled over and then held it up to show that he still had it. But under the rules of the NFL it was technically not a catch. Although the official on the field ruled it a catch, Packers coach Mike McCarthy challenged, and the referee (in conjunction with head of officiating Dean Blandino) correctly overruled the call on the field. Dallas fans can’t complain about the officiating, because the officials got it right. But they can complain about the NFL rulebook, because it needlessly complicates the meaning of the term “catch,” and takes away some of the best football plays that football players make.

Peyton Manning is old. I hate saying this, since Peyton Manning and I were born only a few months apart, but the guy is ancient by NFL standards. He was the oldest quarterback in the NFL last season. He’ll be 39 in March. Even the greatest quarterbacks are usually done by the time they’re 38. Dan Marino was 38 in his last season. So was John Elway. So was Joe Montana. So was Steve Young. So was Kurt Warner. And plenty of great quarterbacks don’t even make it that long. Roger Staubach was 37 in his last season. Terry Bradshaw was 35. Troy Aikman was 34.

Can Manning play in the NFL in 2015? Yes. But can he play at the level he demands from himself? I’m not so sure.

Gronk is great. No player impressed me more this weekend than Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught seven passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in helping New England beat Baltimore. When it comes to creating matchup nightmares because of his physical presence, I put Gronkowski in the same category as Jimmy Graham and Calvin Johnson: They’re almost impossible to cover because it’s almost impossible to find someone who’s both fast enough to keep up with them and strong enough to tackle them. Gronkowski often hasn’t been completely healthy, but when he is, he’s among the truly elite players in the entire league.

If the 25-year-old Gronkowski can stay healthy, he may be headed for the Hall of Fame some day. His coach will be there with him.

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2015 NFL Draft early entries tracker

Marcus Mariota AP

The following players have indicated they will be early entries for the 2015 NFL Draft. Underclassmen have until January 15 to officially declare:

Alabama S Landon Collins.

Alabama WR Amari Cooper.

Alabama RB T.J. Yeldon.

Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong.

Auburn WR Sammie Coates.

California WR Chris Harper.

Colorado State RB Dee Hart.

Clemson P Bradley Pinion.

Boise State RB Jay Ajayi.

Georgia RB Todd Gurley.

Indiana RB Tevin Coleman.

Florida DE Dante Fowler Jr.

Florida OT D.J. Humphries.

Florida RB Matt Jones.

Florida State CB Ronald Darby.

Florida State DE Mario Edwards Jr.

Florida State CB P.J. Williams.

Florida State QB Jameis Winston.

Houston WR Deontay Greenberry.

Kansas WR Nigel King.

Louisville S Gerod Holliman.

Louisville S James Sample.

LSU LB Kwon Alexander.

LSU CB Jalen Collins.

Maryland WR Stefon Diggs.

Miami (Fla.) OT Ereck Flowers.

Miami (Fla.) RB Duke Johnson.

Michigan WR Devin Funchess.

Michigan State CB Trae Waynes.

Minnesota TE Maxx Williams.

Mississippi State RB Josh Robinson.

Missouri DE Shane Ray.

Mississippi State LB Benardrick McKinney.

Nebraska DE Randy Gregory.

Ohio State DE Noah Spence.

Oklahoma WR Dorial Green-Beckham.

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota.

Penn State DE Deion Barnes.

Penn State TE Jesse James.

Penn State OT Donovan Smith.

Rice DT Christian Covington.

Rutgers TE Tyler Kroft.

South Carolina RB Mike Davis.

Southern Mississippi DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches.

Stanford CB Alex Carter.

Stanford OT Andrus Peat.

Syracuse S Durell Eskridge.

Texas DT Malcom Brown.

Texas A&M RB Trey Williams.

Tulane CB Lorenzo Doss.

UCLA QB Brett Hundley.

USC WR Nelson Agholor.

USC DE Leonard Williams.

Utah OL Jeremiah Poutasi.

Virginia DE Eli Harold.

Virginia LB Max Valles.

Ex-Washington CB Marcus Peters.

Washington LB Shaq Thompson.

Washington State DE Xavier Cooper.

Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon.

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PFT’s divisional round picks

Colts AP

Last week, MDS and yours truly disagreed on both Saturday games.  He was right, I was wrong, and now I’m in a two-game hole with seven postseason games left.

This week, we agree on the Saturday games.  But we disagree on the Sunday games.  Which means that we could be tied heading into the championship round, or that he could have a four-game lead with three games left.

Maybe we’ll include the Pro Bowl this year.

For our picks in all four games to be played this weekend, keep doing what you’ve been doing to reach the point where we invite you to keep doing it.

Ravens at Patriots

MDS’s take: Patriots fans have reasons to be concerned. The Ravens have a good track record of playing well in New England in the postseason, and the Ravens played some of their best football of the year in Saturday’s win over the Steelers. Baltimore is a complete team with only one weakness, the injury-riddled secondary. And even that injured secondary held up pretty well against Pittsburgh’s passing attack. Add all those things up, and it’s tempting to pick an upset. But I think the Ravens will fall just short. New England’s defense will pressure Joe Flacco into some mistakes, and Rob Gronkowski will come up with some big plays, and the Patriots will win a close one.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 21, Ravens 20

Florio’s take:  The postseason history between these two teams suggests that the Ravens will thrive in Foxboro.  Or perhaps it puts the Patriots on greater notice of the risk of getting caught flat-footed in the divisional round and losing, as half of all No. 1 seeds have done since 2005.  While the most important pieces of the two teams are the same as they’ve been when the Ravens established a 2-1 record at New England in the playoffs, the Patriots have Darrelle Revis and a healthy Gronk.  That alone should be enough to prevent the team that rebounded dramatically from a 2-2 start to the regular season from falling to 1-3 at home against Baltimore in the postseason.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 34, Ravens 17.

Panthers at Seahawks

MDS’s take: I’ve been impressed with the Panthers the last few weeks. Winning five straight games by an average margin of 16 points per game isn’t easy against anyone in the NFL. But the reality is that playing at Seattle represents an enormous step up in competition for Carolina, and I just don’t think the Panthers are up to it. This looks like the least competitive game of the weekend, as the defending champs will cruise into the NFC Championship Game.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 28, Panthers 10.

Florio’s take:  In each of the last three years, the Panthers gave Seattle all they could handle.  From 16-12 in 2012 to 12-7 in 2013 to 13-9 earlier this year, coach Ron Rivera and company have shown that they know how to compete with one of the best teams in the league.  But each of those games was played in Charlotte; for the first time ever, the post-Fox Panthers get a taste of Seattle.  While the Panthers may be able to cover the double-digit spread, they won’t be able to advance.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 20, Panthers 10.

Cowboys at Packers

MDS’s take: Tony Romo was outstanding on Sunday against the Lions, despite a furious Detroit pass rush beating him up all day. Green Bay’s pass rush isn’t as good as Detroit’s, and Romo should be even better on Sunday at Lambeau Field. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, Aaron Rodgers will be better still against Dallas’s defense. In a high-scoring game, the Packers will come out on top.

MDS’s pick: Packers 38, Cowboys 30.

Florio’s take:  For the first time ever, a team that was 8-0 on the road faces a team that was 8-0 at home.  But the biggest question is whether Aaron Rodgers’ torn calf muscle will hold up.  Even if it does, the Cowboys have a healthy Romo — and an oversized, orange-sweatered mojo.  It all adds up to Dallas punching a ticket to a return to Seattle, the scene of one of the best games of the regular season . . . and the site of the snap-bungling gaffe that gave Tony Romo the label of late-game choker.

Florio’s pick:  Cowboys 28, Packers 24.

Colts at Broncos

MDS’s take: All the attention will be on Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, but to me the difference in this game is the personnel on the defense. Denver has pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware and cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, and that will make life miserable for Luck. Indianapolis just doesn’t have the same kind of personnel, which means Manning can do what he does best, and exploit holes in the opposing team’s defense. The Broncos will score a lot and set up a trip to New England in the AFC Championship Game.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 30, Colts 20.

Florio’s take:  Something hasn’t been right with the Broncos over the past few weeks.  While the good news is that quarterback Peyton Manning has had extra time to allow his thigh (and whatever else may have been injured) to heal, the bad news is that Manning tends to overprepare when he has two weeks to get ready for a big game, with a 2-4 mark in the divisional round after earning a bye.  With the Colts bumping against the ceiling that separates the NFL’s second tier from its elite, this could be Indy’s chance to break through.

Florio’s pick:  Colts 24, Broncos 21.

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Dean Blandino interview transcript

Blandino Getty Images

[Editor’s note:  Monday’s first-ever episode of PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio included an interview with NFL V.P. of officiating Dean Blandino.  Many of you (OK, some of you . . . OK, one of you) has asked for the transcript to be posted.  Here it is.]
Florio: Let’s just break this down from the beginning, regardless of what was said or wasn’t said on the field, when you see that play, when you see the replay, is that pass interference on the defender?

Blandino: When I look at the play it’s a judgment call, I think it’s debatable.  I think the defender’s not playing the ball, I think that’s the first thing the official looks for and then he has to see significant contact that hinders the receiver’s ability to make the catch.  There’s contact on the shoulder with the left hand the back judge felt there was enough for pass interference, the head linesman came in from his perspective felt it wasn’t enough that it was minimal contact, the side judge as well, so they decided to pick it up. I think it’s a judgment call, it’s close.  I would have certainly supported the call had they left the flag down, but I do think it’s a very close judgment call that could have went either way.

Florio:  What do you make Dean, of the shirt grab that you can see, and it looks like that happened right before the ball was thrown, Anthony Hitchens the Cowboys linebacker, clearly grabs and tugs the shirt of Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew.  Should that have been holding, is that part of the interference? What is that?

Blandino:  That’s holding.  I mean there’s no two ways about it that that’s a jersey grab, that’s a point of emphasis, that’s a foul for holding that could have been called. a jersey grab like that before the ball is thrown it is defensive holding.

Florio:  And you say could have been.  Could have been or should have been?

Blandino: Should have been, sure.  I think had somebody seen it then they should have called it and it obviously wasn’t recognized on the field but that’s defensive holding.

Florio:  Now, the administration of the penalty was I would say not ideal.  What should have happened in that situation?  Because you have Pete Morelli, the referee, declare that it as pass interference and then Morelli said there was no foul on the play.  What should have happened ideally in that situation?

Blandino:  Yeah, ideally I think mechanically it could have been handled much better. I think we don’t want to make an announcement that there’s a penalty, start to put the football down, and then make another announcement that we’re picking up the flag.  We want to get together get all of the information before there is an official announcement, and I think had that happened it would have mitigated some of the response to this.  But the head linesman came in, he didn’t recognize that there was a foul initially, he went over to the back judge as Pete was making the announcement.  Would have preferred Pete not to make the announcement that quick and to wait get together, talk about it and then decide if we were going to pick up the flag or not.  So that part of it I think we could have handled better.

Florio:  Dean, it seems like an art form to come up with the right way to explain the things that happen, and every referee has his own style. Ed Hochuli is notoriously verbose in explaining things, but what we got from Pete Morelli was, the initial call, defensive pass inference, and then we got there is no foul for pass interference.  What should he have said at that point to better explain to everyone what was happening in real time?

Blandino:  I think we wanted to make a clear, concise, distinct, announcement as to why the flag was picked up.  That there wasn’t enough contact for pass interference and hopefully that will help explain it, clarify it, so we’d like the referee to give some type of explanation.  He did make an announcement, it was as Troy [Aikman] and Joe [Buck] were talking so it didn’t come out very clear over the broadcast, but we certainly wanted to explain concisely why the flag was picked up.

Florio:  One of the criticisms raised about this is we’ve got an all-star mash-up of officials who haven’t worked together and that makes it difficult to properly communicate.  Rock, scissors, paper, who’s right?  Who gets listened to?  How much of that is a factor in this and will this renew discussions of just using entire crews rather than instead of putting guys together who haven’t worked together all year?

Blandino:  I don’t think that was ultimately the factor that led to this situation happening.  I think when you look at the crew makeup, this crew makeup we have four officials who have worked together both the head linesman and line judge were on the same crew all year, and the back judge and umpire were on the same crew all season.  We are, right now, we have an individual-based system and that’s been negotiated in the CBA, the current CBA with the referee union.  So they bargained for that, so we can’t really do anything other than the crew-based system until after the 2015 season, but I think there’s pros and cons to both.  I think communications, most of these officials have worked together some point during their career, I think our mechanics have been standardized, we standardized all our mechanics in the last two years, put together a manual, so it’s not like a team where they have a different game plan and different terminology.  It’s pretty standard across the board so officials can move seamlessly in and out of different crews and that happens during the year as well as you have injuries, illnesses and conflict with the schedule so I don’t think that was a major contributing factor.  Something we’ll obviously continue to look at after the 2015 season because I think there’s pros and cons to both crew and individual-based assignments.

Florio:  Now, another issue that arose after the flag was initially thrown, Dez Bryant, Cowboys receiver runs out onto the field without a helmet on.  It’s not the return of the days of two-way players, he’s not coming out to play defense, he’s coming out to argue the call.  No flag thrown.  Do you agree with that decision?

Blandino:  I think we have to look at the rules.  It’s not an automatic penalty and the helmet off, I think we have to take that away because the helmet removal only applies to a player who is in the game that he takes his helmet off to either confront an official or an opponent or some kind of demonstration after a play.  The officials have discretion there.  They have discretion when a player comes off the bench, what he’s doing, is he confronting me, is he confronting an opponent. Certainly would’ve supported a call for unsportsmanlike conduct there had it been made, but it’s in the judgment of the officials and in the heat of the moment they gave the sideline some leeway and, again, it’s not an automatic call in that situation but certainly would’ve supported a call there.

Florio: Now there’s also some still frames floating around of what looks to be either offensive pass interference or grabbing the facemask by Brandon Pettigrew of Andrew Hitchens.  Anything that you saw that would suggest that the tight end did anything he shouldn’t have done on that play?

Blandino:  I didn’t see much.  There is some contact with the mask.  He didn’t grab it and pull or twist the head.  I felt that was minimal contact.  I think if you take the hold out of this hold, the jersey grab, take that out of this whole equation, I think that’s just a tight judgment call, it’s debatable and could have went either way and I didn’t see anything Pettigrew did that would have warranted a foul there.

Florio:  One last thing, because the tinfoil-hat crowd is out now because you were on the Cowboys’ party bus back in August and it’s finally come full circle.  Dean’s presence on the Cowboys’ party bus means that the Cowboys win on a controversial call.  How do you react when you hear that stuff, because obviously it’s all been kicked up again in the last 18 hours?

Blandino:  Sure, that’s something that it happened, one had nothing to do with the other.  I understand why some people might look at that and there’s a perception there and obviously I’ve been through that and my personal growth and what I need to do.  It’s just something that has nothing to do with how the game was officiated.  There are calls that go for or against the Cowboys all year.  There was a replay review that happened earlier in the game that I’m a part of that decision that went in favor of the Lions.  People can believe what they want to believe, but one had nothing to do with the other.

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NFL morning after: The NFL has a problem

morelli AP

The NFL has a problem on its hands. That problem was magnified on Sunday when a terrible call went against the Lions in a crucial moment in their playoff loss to the Cowboys. But that problem goes far beyond one play or one game.

The problem in the NFL is that too many officials are bad at their jobs, the rulebook is overly complex, and the league office stands by and does nothing about it.

In Sunday’s Lions-Cowboys game, a pass interference penalty was correctly called on Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens. Referee Pete Morelli turned on his microphone and announced the penalty. And then he inexplicably picked up the flag, decided not to enforce it, and didn’t turn his microphone back on to explain why.

This was a terrible call, and it turned out to be a season-ending call for the Lions. Detroit, to be blunt, got screwed.

Let’s get all the conspiracy theories out of the way: No, I do not believe NFL head of officiating Dean Blandino fixed the game for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones just because Blandino was seen on Jones’s party bus. No, I do not believe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ordered the officials to make sure the Cowboys win because the Cowboys bring big TV ratings. No, I do not believe one of the officials is the NFL’s version of Tim Donaghy. No, I do not believe there was any type of conspiracy against the Lions.

What I believe went against the Lions is incompetence. And incompetent officials blow calls every week in the NFL. And the league office lets it happen, week after week after week.

Players get cut every week when they screw up. Coaches’ jobs are on the line every season. When was the last time a referee got fired for a pattern of bad calls?

This isn’t a call to fire Pete Morelli because this isn’t just about Pete Morelli. In fact, I don’t think Morelli is even close to the worst referee in the NFL. That honor belongs to Jeff Triplette, whose blown calls are so legion that I’d get depressed if I listed them all here. (It says something about Triplette that he once seriously injured a player by throwing a weighted-down penalty flag in his eye, and that wasn’t even close to his biggest blunder.) Triplette is so bad that when he blew a replay review last year, the NFL responded not by firing him but by changing the entire replay review system. Now all referees have to get on the phone with Blandino while they’re reviewing a replay to make sure they’re not screwing it up. Triplette can’t be trusted to get it right on his own.

Triplette keeps his job because NFL officials aren’t held to anywhere near the same high standards that NFL players and coaches are held to. That’s a big part of the NFL’s problem. The NFL needs to fire the officials who get the lowest scores on their evaluations, just as players and coaches lose their jobs when they’re at the bottom of the league. And the NFL needs to replace those fired officials with the best officials in college football, just as the best college players push veteran NFL players out of their jobs every year. That’s the way football works.

Rather, that’s the way it should work. In the NFL, it doesn’t work. In the NFL, officials are handled with kid gloves and coddled with perks like playoff assignments even if their work is below average in the regular season. What the NFL should do is assign the four best officiating crews to the playoffs and have them each work one wild-card game and one divisional game, then have the two best officiating crews work the conference championship games and the best officiating crew work the Super Bowl. Instead, the NFL allows 10 different officials at each position to work in the playoffs, and the league mixes and matches those officials so that they’re often working with fellow officials they’ve never worked with before.

There was obviously some kind of communication breakdown that led Morelli to wave off the flag on the crucial pass interference penalty against the Cowboys. Perhaps if these officials had worked together before Sunday, they would have been better able to communicate together and get the call right.

It should be noted, in defense of the officials, that the NFL puts them in a bad spot with an overly complex rulebook that is incredibly difficult to decipher, even for the professionals. And the NFL draws some odd distinctions about which kinds of plays are reviewable on replay and which plays aren’t. If Lions coach Jim Caldwell had been permitted to challenge the pass interference non-call on replay, perhaps Morelli would have gotten the call right.

Every year the NFL tweaks the rulebook and makes changes to the way the officials do their jobs, but if you’re hoping for real improvement, don’t hold your breath. The league office knows that Americans love their football so much that they’ll keep tuning in. Even when a game gets ruined by the refs.

Here are my thoughts on the four winners from wild card weekend, and their divisional-round matchups:

Ravens at Patriots

Baltimore has a knack for playing well in New England in the playoffs. The Ravens won the AFC Championship Game at New England two years ago, and a year before that the Ravens were a missed field goal away from forcing overtime in the AFC Championship Game at New England. Six years ago the Ravens blew out the Patriots in New England in the playoffs.

I believe the Ravens present a real threat to the Patriots this time around in large part because Baltimore is a complete team: On offense, defense and special teams, it’s hard to find a weakness in the Ravens. Even their injury-riddled secondary held up very well against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Saturday.

Can the Ravens play that well again in New England this week? I believe the Ravens will play well, but actually going to New England and beating the Patriots is going to be a tall order. The Ravens are going to have a tough time stopping Rob Gronkowski, and it’s easy to see why the Patriots are favored.

Panthers at Seahawks

The Panthers have won five straight games, by an average margin of 16 points a game. Yes, it’s true that they haven’t exactly played a murderer’s row of opponents — they closed the regular season with the Saints, Buccaneers, Browns and Falcons before playing the Ryan Lindley-led Cardinals on Saturday — but winning five in a row by 16 points a game isn’t easy against anyone in the NFL.

As for beating the Cardinals on Sunday, obviously, those were not the same Cardinals teams we saw earlier in the season when they were quarterbacked by Carson Palmer, and even when Palmer went down and was replaced by backup Drew Stanton. Lindley is a bad quarterback, and the Panthers took advantage of that. There are no Ryan Lindleys left in the playoffs, and so the Panthers won’t get that lucky again. Luke Kuechly, don’t expect to have another playoff quarterback throw a pass right to you the way Lindley did.

Still, even with Lindley at the helm the Cardinals managed to rack up 397 total yards a week earlier against the 49ers. The Panthers held the Cardinals to 78 yards on Sunday. Let’s give the Panthers Defense plenty of credit.

And then, after we’ve given the Panthers credit, let’s acknowledge that it’s very unlikely they’ll beat the Seahawks. Seattle is the best team in the NFL right now, and it’s really, really hard to see them losing at home in January. The Seahawks are the team to beat in the NFL this postseason.

Cowboys at Packers

I love the way Tony Romo played against the stellar Lions Defense on Sunday. That Detroit pass rush was devastating, getting to Romo all day, and Romo said after the game that the Lions were the best defense the Cowboys faced this year, by far.

And yet Romo hung in there and completed 19 of 31 passes for 293 yards, and two touchdowns. He was sensational.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys have to expect Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be sensational in Green Bay on Sunday. And the Cowboys’ defense is going to struggle mightily both with Rodgers and with Packers running back Eddie Lacy. Beating the Lions at home was a struggle for the Cowboys. Beating the Packers in Green Bay will be a much bigger struggle.

Colts at Broncos

Andrew Luck had a good answer when asked about facing Peyton Manning in next weekend’s divisional game.

“We face the Broncos,” Luck said. “I’ve never been into the quarterback vs. quarterback thing. We’re not on the field at the same time.”

Prepare to get sick of the overplayed storyline of Manning against his old team and its new franchise quarterback this week, because you’re going to hear too much of that — and not enough about the matchups that will actually determine that game, like Broncos cornerback Chris Harris against Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton, or Colts offensive tackles Anthony Castonzo and Joe Reitz against Broncos pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.

My own feeling is that at this point, Luck just might be a better quarterback than Manning, who began to show his age late in the regular season. But the difference in the Colts-Broncos battle won’t be at quarterback. The difference will be that the Broncos’ defense is a lot better than the Colts’ defense, which means Manning won’t have to do everything himself. That’s why this game will be so tough for Luck and Co.

What we’re left with, then, is four games in which the home team appears to have the advantage. Especially if they get a hometown referee.

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2014 AP All-Pro Team

Dez Bryant, Jason Garrett AP

Via USA Today and NFL.com, here is the first-team All-Pro squad as announced by The Associated Press on Friday. Fifty national media members compose the AP‘s voting panel, according to the organization:

OFFENSE

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay.

Running back: DeMarco Murray, Dallas; Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh.

Fullback: John Kuhn, Green Bay.

Tight end: Rob Gronkowski, New England.

Wide receiver: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh; Dez Bryant, Dallas.

Offensive tackle: Tyron Smith, Dallas; Joe Thomas, Cleveland.

Offensive guard: Marshal Yanda, Baltimore; Zach Martin, Dallas.

Center: Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh.

DEFENSE

Defensive end: J.J. Watt, Houston; Mario Williams, Buffalo.

Defensive tackle: Ndamukong Suh, Detroit; Marcell Dareus, Buffalo.

Outside linebacker: Justin Houston, Kansas City; Elvis Dumervil, Baltimore.

Inside linebacker: Luke Kuechly, Carolina; Bobby Wagner, Seattle.

Cornerback: Darrelle Revis, New England; Richard Sherman, Seattle.

Safety: Earl Thomas, Seattle; Eric Weddle, San Diego.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Kicker: Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis.

Returner: Adam Jones, Cincinnati.

Punter: Pat McAfee, Indianapolis.

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