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PFT’s Super Bowl pick

Super Bowl Football AP

MDS already has clinched the postseason contest, after winning the regular-season version fairly easily.

But there’s still one game left, and we agreed on the outcome.  With almost the exact same predicted score.So here it is, our respective takes and picks for the 48th Super Bowl, featuring the Broncos against the Seahawks.

MDS’s take: There are a lot of reasons to pick the Broncos. For starters, Peyton Manning is on the verge of completing the greatest year a football player has ever had. If Manning were to follow up his record-breaking regular season with a Super Bowl MVP, it would be not just his best year yet, but in my book the best year ever, for any NFL player. Sometimes you get a feeling that a player is just playing at a level that no one can touch.

There’s also the nagging feeling I have that Russell Wilson isn’t ready to have a huge game on a huge stage. Wilson is one of the brightest young players in the NFL, but he still has moments when he tries to do too much with his feet, and moments when he fails to make the throws the Seahawks need him to make. He hasn’t been great in the playoffs, and I’m not convinced he’s going to be great in the Super Bowl, either.

And yet I’m picking Seattle, basically for two reasons. The first is that if there’s ever been a defense that’s perfectly constructed to stop what Denver does on offense, it’s this Seattle defense. The Seahawks’ secondary is so good that even with Peyton Manning and all the Broncos’ weapons, I think Denver will struggle to sustain long drives. The second reason is that Seattle is a lot better than Denver on special teams. This feels like the kind of close game that could turn on a few big plays in the kicking game, and I expect Seattle to make those plays.

So in the end, I’m looking at a close, hard-fought game that the Seahawks find a way to win.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 23, Broncos 20.

Florio’s take:  With all the focus on whether the Seahawks defense can stop Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and whether Manning can find the weak spot before he runs out of time to do so, it’s easy to overlook the question of whether Denver can hold Seattle’s offense to fewer points.

It can’t.

Not with receiver Percy Harvin ready to give running back Marshawn Lynch and quarterback Russell Wilson the ultimate complement.

The Broncos were able to shut down the New England rushing attack, in part because the Patriots abandoned it too early.  The Seahawks won’t.  Lynch will keep pounding the ball until he gets his inevitable long run, likely for a touchdown.  And Wilson will be able to get outside the pocket, since the Broncos edge rushes are neither Aldon Smith nor Ahmad Brooks.  And Harvin will do just enough to force the Broncos to pay enough attention to him that they end up flat footed just enough times for Seattle’s purposes.

Yes, there’s a chance the Seahawks aren’t properly preparing to face Manning, with portions of the first-team defensive reps used not against a scout team but against the Seattle starting offense — and with defensive players not spending every waking moment in the days preceding the ultimate final exam cramming for it by trying to crack the code of Peyton’s pre-snap histrionics.

There’s an even better chance they’re already good enough to do enough to give the Seattle offense enough of a chance to outscore Peyton.

Ultimately, that’s the only stat that ever matters.  And in Super Bowl XLVIII, Seattle wins by scoring half that many points — 24 — and by holding Peyton and company to four fewer than that.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 24, Broncos 20.

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Team Mainland could compete with Team Sanders and Team Rice

jerryrice AP

When the NFL announced the 2014 Pro Bowlers last month, we knew there would be plenty of dropouts: The players in the Super Bowl don’t play in the Pro Bowl, some players get injured and some players just don’t feel like going to Hawaii.

But now that the two Pro Bowl teams have been announced (Team Rice and Team Sanders, for their Hall of Fame honorary captains), we can look back and see that a team made up of the original Pro Bowlers who won’t be in Hawaii on Sunday (which I’ve dubbed Team Mainland) would be competitive with either Team Sanders or Team Rice.

Here’s the breakdown of how many of the original Pro Bowlers ended up on Team Rice, Team Sanders and Team Mainland.

Team Mainland (27)

Patriots QB Tom Brady, Broncos QB Peyton Manning, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, 49ers RB Frank Gore, Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch, Vikings RB Adrian Peterson, Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas, Texans WR Andre Johnson, Lions WR Calvin Johnson, 49ers OT Joe Staley, Eagles OT Jason Peters, 49ers OG Mike Iupati, Broncos OG Louis Vasquez, Seahawks C Max Unger, 49ers TE Vernon Davis, Broncos TE Julius Thomas, 49ers DT Justin Smith, Ravens DT Haloti Ngata, 49ers OLB Ahmad Brooks, 49ers ILB Navorro Bowman, 49ers ILB Patrick Willis, Seahawks CB Richard Sherman, Patriots CB Aqib Talib, Seahawks FS Earl Thomas, Seahawks SS Kam Chancellor, Steelers SS Troy Polamalu, Broncos PK Matt Prater

Team Rice (28)

Saints QB Drew Brees, Chargers QB Philip Rivers, Bears RB Matt Forte, Eagles RB LeSean McCoy, Bears WR Brandon Marshall, Browns WR Josh Gordon, Cowboys OT Tyron Smith, Browns OT Joe Thomas, Saints OG Jahri Evans, Saints OG Ben Grubbs, Panther C Ryan Kalil, Saints TE Jimmy Graham, Panthers FB Mike Tolbert, Saints DE Cameron Jordan, Rams DE Robert Quinn, Dolphins DE Cameron Wake, Bills DT Kyle Williams, Cardinals OLB John Abraham, Chiefs OLB Justin Houston, Colts OLB Robert Mathis, Bengals WLB Vontaze Burfict, Chiefs CB Brandon Flowers, Browns CB Joe Haden, Titans CB Alterraun Verner, Bills FS Jairus Byrd, Rams P Johnny Hekker, Chiefs PR Dexter McCluster, Cardinals ST Justin Bethel.

Team Sanders (30)

Panthers QB Cam Newton, Chiefs RB Jamaal Charles, Steelers WR Antonio Brown, Cowboys WR Dez Bryant, Bengals WR A.J. Green, Chiefs OT Branden Albert, Redskins OT Trent Williams, Pariots OG Logan Mankins, Ravens OG Marshal Yanda, Browns C Alex Mack, Dolphins C Mike Pouncey, Browns TE Jordan Cameron, Raiders FB Marcel Reece, Texans DE J.J. Watt, Bills DE Mario Williams, Panthers DE Greg Hardy, Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, Chiefs NT Dontari Poe, Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy, Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali, Ravens OLB Terrell Suggs, Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly, Dolphins CB Brent Grimes, Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson, Buccaneers CB Darrelle Revis, Chargers FS Eric Weddle, Chiefs SS Eric Berry, Dolphins P Brandon Fields, Ravens PK Justin Tucker, Patriots ST Matthew Slater.

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NFL morning after: Peyton Manning’s masterpiece

peyton AP

Football isn’t played any better than Peyton Manning played on Sunday.

In a masterful performance to get his Broncos to the Super Bowl, Manning threw for 400 yards, didn’t turn the ball over and was in complete control of a Broncos offense that New England simply couldn’t stop. He was just about flawless throwing the football.

Manning’s entire career is a testament to hard work, and he said after the game that it was the hard work he put in the week before that made Sunday go so well.

“I prepared hard. We were playing a good football team that was well coached, and I thought we executed our game plan, and that’s what I was focused on all week,” Manning said afterward.

That preparation is the reason that Manning is, in my opinion, the best play caller in the NFL — better even than masters like Saints head coach Sean Payton. Although the Broncos have an offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, the reality is that the offense is run by Manning, who makes the calls at the line of scrimmage. And Manning was a step ahead of Bill Belichick’s defense all day. My favorite call by Manning was actually a handoff: He saw room to run in the middle of the Patriots’ defense on a third-and-10 in the first quarter so he handed off to Knowshon Moreno, who ran through a huge hole for a first down. I also loved the pass Manning called to Jacob Tamme with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, while the Broncos were trying to conserve their lead. Some people would have played it safe and handed off there, but Manning picked up a big first down through the air.

“As always, he did an excellent job reading the defenses and he got us in some situations that were less than ideal with his astute play calling and recognition,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “They’re obviously a good football team, a good offensive system, a good quarterback.”

The talk that Manning is a playoff choker should go away now, but that talk has always been overstated. Yes, there have been some playoff games when Manning under-performed, but he’s also had some outstanding playoff outings. Sunday was Manning’s third career playoff game with at least 400 yards, his fifth career playoff game with at least 350 yards and his ninth career playoff game with at least 300 yards. Manning is currently second all-time with 6,309 career postseason passing yards, and if he throws for at least 116 yards in the Super Bowl, he’ll pass Tom Brady for first all time.

Manning was better than Brady on Sunday, but too much is made of the head-to-head competition between those two, mostly because it isn’t a competition at all. Manning wasn’t playing against Brady on Sunday. The competition for Manning is the opposing defense. And this season, from Week One through the AFC Championship Game, Manning has riddled opposing defenses like no other quarterback in NFL history.

Manning was the best player on the field in either game on Sunday. Here are my other thoughts:

Seattle has the best pass defense Manning has faced. This Super Bowl is such a great matchup. Manning is coming off the best season for a quarterback in NFL history, but the Seahawks have by far the best pass defense in the NFL. This year’s Seahawks were just the second team ever in a 16-game season to lead the league in both passing yards allowed and interceptions. The only other team to do it was Tampa Bay in 2002, and those Buccaneers won the Super Bowl. Manning has a tall order against Seattle.

Champ Bailey finally gets to the Super Bowl. Bailey was (along with Tony Gonzalez) perhaps the greatest of all the active players who haven’t been to a Super Bowl. It’s good to see an old pro like Bailey make it at last.

Welker’s hit was legal, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Broncos receiver Wes Welker knocked Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib out of the game by drilling him on a crossing route over the middle. Welker wasn’t flagged, but the NFL should do more to protect players in the position Talib was in: A rule that protects defensive backs who are trailing one receiver from getting hit by another receiver while the ball is in the air would only be fair, after all the rules the NFL has implemented preventing defensive players from hitting receivers.

Aldon Smith is incredible. Smith, the 49ers outside linebacker who started the NFC Championship Game with a strip-sack of Russell Wilson, is one of the most talented pass rushers the NFL has ever seen. I hope he gets his personal issues straightened out, because he should have about a decade of being a great, great football player ahead of him.

Kaepernick is running like no other quarterback, ever. Colin Kaepernick has now rushed for 95 or more yards three times in six career playoff games. All other quarterbacks in NFL history, combined, have rushed for 95 or more yards in the playoffs twice. (Michael Vick did it once and Donovan McNabb did it once.) And how’s this for an amazing stat: Kaepernick and Barry Sanders have each played in six postseason games. Kaepernick has 507 career playoff rushing yards. Sanders had 386 career playoff rushing yards.

The Broncos out-played the Patriots in the trenches. Give Denver’s offensive line a lot of credit for keeping Manning upright (the Patriots barely touched him), and even more credit for opening huge holes on running plays: This was a dominant performance by the offensive line. And give Denver’s defensive line a lot of credit, too. Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, who had been so good the last couple games, had just six yards on five carries thanks to a great effort by Denver up front. For all the talk that we’ll hear over the next two weeks about Manning and Russell Wilson, the team that plays better on the line of scrimmage will probably be the team that wins the Super Bowl.

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Full list of 102 early entries in 2014 draft

[Editor's note:  On Sunday, the NFL announced that 102 college football players have been certified for early entry to the draft.  The full list, organized by school, appears below.]

Alabama:  defensive back Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, tackle Cyrus Kouandijo, defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan, defensive back Vinnie Sunseri, linebacker Adrian Hubbard (graduated).

Alabama-Birmingham:  running back Darrin Reaves.

Alabama State:  running back Isaiah Crowell, receiver Jamel Johnson.

Arizona:  running back Ka’Deem Carey.

Arizona State:  defensive end Carl Bradford (graduated).

Auburn:  running back Tre Mason, tackle Greg Robinson.

Ball State:  receiver Willie Snead.

Baylor:  running back Lache Seastrunk.

Bethune-Cookman:  defensive back Nick Addison, tackle Terrance Hackney.

Boise State:  defensive end Demarcus Lawrence.

Boston College:  defensive back Albert Louis-Jean.

Brown:  running back John Spooney.

California:  running back Brendan Bigelow, linebacker Khairi Fortt, defensive back Kameron Jackson, defensive end Chris McCain, defensive tackle Viliami Moala, tight end Richard Rodgers.

Central Florida:  quarterback Blake Bortles, running back Storm Johnson.

Clemson:  defensive back Bashaud Breeland, receiver Martavis Bryant, receiver Sammy Watkins.

Colorado:  receiver Paul Richardson.

Colorado State:  running back Kapri Bibbs.

Connecticut:  linebacker Yawin Smallwood.

Florida:  defensive end Ronald Powell, defensive back Louchez Purifoy, defensive back Marcus Roberson.

Florida State:  receiver Kelvin Benjamin, running back Devonta Freeman, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, running back James Wilder.

Fresno State:  receiver Davante Adams.

Indiana:  receiver Cody Latimer.

Jacksonville State:  defensive back Pierre Warren.

Louisiana State:  receiver Odell Beckham, running back Alfred Blue, defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, running back Jeremy Hill, defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, receiver Jarvis Landry, guard Trai Turner.

Louisville:  defensive back Calvin Pryor, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (graduated).

McNeese State:  tight end Nic Jacobs.

Mississippi:  receiver Donte Moncrief.

Missouri:  defensive end Kony Ealy, running back Henry Josey.

New Mexico State:  receiver Austin Franklin.

North Carolina:  center Russell Bodine, tight end Eric Ebron.

North Carolina State:  defensive tackle Carlos Gray.

Notre Dame:  running back George Atkinson, tight end Troy Niklas, defensive tackle Louis Nix, defensive end Stephon Truitt.

Ohio State:  defensive back Bradley Roby, linebacker Ryan Shazier.

Oklahoma State:  receiver Josh Stewart.

Oregon:  tight end Colt Lyeria, defensive back Terrance Mitchell, running back De’Anthony Thomas.

Oregon State:  receiver Brandon Cooks, defensive end Scott Crichton.

Penn State:  receiver Allen Robinson.

Rutgers:  receiver Brandon Coleman.

San Diego State:  running back Adam Muema.

South Carolina:  defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, receiver Bruce Ellington, defensive back Victor Hampton, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles.

South Florida:  defensive end Aaron Lynch.

Southern California:  tight end Xavier Grimble, receiver Marqise Lee, center Marcus Martin, defensive end George Uko, defensive back Dion Bailey (graduated).

Stanford:  tackle Cameron Fleming, defensive back Ed Reynolds, tackle David Yankey.

Syracuse:  running back Jerome Smith.

Texas A&M:  receiver Mike Evans, quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Texas Tech:  tight end Jace Amaro.

Tennessee:  tackle Antonio Richardson.

Tennessee State:  tight end A.C. Leonard.

Towson:  running back Terrance West.

Utah:  tight end Jake Murphy.

UCLA:  Guard Xavier Su’a-Filo.

Vanderbilt:  receiver Chris Boyd.

Washington:  running back Bishop Sankey, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

Western Kentucky:  defensive back Jonathan Dowling.

Wyoming:  quarterback Brett Smith.

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PFT’s conference championship game picks

Peyton AP

It was another 2-2 week for yours truly in the divisional round, picking correctly the Seahawks and Broncos and incorrectly the Colts and Panthers.  MDS swapped out the Pats for the Colts, and he’s picked up a one-game lead with three games left.

But there’s still hope.  A week after picking the Pats, MDS has shunned them.  I haven’t.

As to our pick in the NFC title game, we both agree.  Which could be bad news for MDS.  And for the team we both picked.

Patriots at Broncos

MDS’s take: There are a lot of reasons to think the Patriots can put a lot of points up on the Broncos. Key Denver defenders including Chris Harris, Von Miller, Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson are injured and out. LeGarrette Blount’s emergence gives the Patriots a running threat that the Broncos will have a very tough time stopping. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are a good pair of targets for Tom Brady. I fully expect the Patriots to score four touchdowns. And yet I’m picking the Broncos because Peyton Manning has played the quarterback position better this season than anyone has ever played it before, and I expect him to have a very big game against New England’s defense. In a high-scoring game, the Broncos punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 37, Patriots 35.

Florio’s take:  The easy narrative for this one, based on recent and more extended history, is that the Broncos will find a way to lose and the Patriots will find a way to win.  Sometimes, the smart move is to stick with the easy narrative.  (I otherwise don’t know much about smart moves.)  Throw in the fact that Tom Brady believes no one will pick the Patriots, I’ll also partially pick them out of spite to win a game that could end up being an all-time epic.  (Yes, I know I predicted a Broncos-Pats AFC title game in early September and at the time picked the Broncos to win.  So basically I’m covered either way.)

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 30, Broncos 27 (OT).

49ers at Seahawks

MDS’s take: The 49ers are playing better football now than they were back in Week Two, when the Seahawks blew them out in Seattle, and the 49ers beat the Seahawks in Week 14. And yet I can’t get past the fact that the 49ers have looked absolutely terrible in Seattle, losing there 29-3 in 2013 and 42-13 in 2012. The combination of a great Seahawks pass defense and a loud crowd in Seattle is going to make life miserable for Colin Kaepernick, which means San Francisco’s best chance is to win a low-scoring game. The 49ers’ defense is tough and physical, and they may be able to keep the score down. But not down far enough. With Marshawn Lynch leading the way, the Seahawks’ running game will sustain a couple of long drives, and that will be enough to secure a trip to the Super Bowl.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 14, 49ers 6.

Florio’s take:  Destiny awaits one of these teams.  And I’m destined to get make the wrong pick.  Family members know it; my kid suggested last night that I pick the 49ers, because he wants the Seahawks to win.  Even though the Seahawks have blown out, sir the Niners during their last two games in Seattle, the 49ers have the feel of a team that understands the difference between the regular season and the postseason — and that can rise to the occasion.  So I’m very, very, very tempted to pick San Francisco to return to the Super Bowl, and possibly to become the first team since the 1972 Dolphins to win the Super Bowl a year after losing it.

But the Seahawks have the offense and the defense and the motivation to qualify for a cross-country trip for a shot at their first-ever NFL title.  Marshawn Lynch moves the chains, the 12th Man moves the earth, and Russell Wilson’s steady hand doesn’t move at all no matter the pressure or attention.  Throw in a defense that can neutralize the 49ers’ weapons, and I’m picking the home team to hold serve.

Which should be good news for 49ers fans.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 27, 49ers 17.

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PFT’s 2013 executive of the year

Keim Getty Images

The last of the postseason awards is a category that the official Associated Press voting doesn’t include.

Which makes us wonder about the wisdom of their executives.  Which was the only way we could transition to the topic at hand:  the NFL’s executive of the year.

Even more subjective and harder to quantify than coach of the year, the executive of the year combines short-term success with laying the foundation for long-term prosperity.

Based on the regular season — and the regular season only — this year’s winner is Cardinals G.M. Steve Keim.

In his first year of running the show, the former N.C. State offensive lineman expertly blended the desire to win now with the importance of building for the future.  The acquisition of quarterback Carson Palmer helped make the team a postseason contender, and late offseason moves for tackle Eric Winston and pass rusher John Abraham gave the team enhanced veteran leadership and an affordable infusion of talent.

Keim also got the steal of the 2013 draft by landing Tyrann Mathieu in round three.  (Running back Andre Ellington in the sixth round wasn’t bad, either.)

With the 49ers and Seahawks ruling the division (and the conference for that matter), the Cardinals will have a hard time keeping up.  Keim has done his part to at least keep them within striking distance for 2014 and beyond.

Other finalists for the prize were Seahawks G.M. John Schneider, Chiefs G.M. John Dorsey, 49ers G.M. Trent Baalke, Broncos executive V.P. of football operations John Elway, and Chargers G.M. Tom Telesco.

Cast your own ballot below.  Argue it out in the comments.

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NFL morning after: The four best teams advance

marshawn AP

Let’s be honest: That wasn’t a very good weekend of football.

Now let’s look on the bright side: That’s because the four teams we’ll watch in the conference championships on Sunday — San Francisco at Seattle in the NFC and New England at Denver in the AFC — are the four best teams in the NFL. By a lot.

The 49ers, Seahawks, Patriots and Broncos were all considered strong Super Bowl contenders heading into the season, they all went 13-3 or 12-4 during the season, they were all favored to win this weekend and they all won in convincing fashion. What we have are four superior football teams advancing to the conference championships.

That doesn’t happen every year. The Ravens were 10-6 in their Super Bowl-winning season last year. The Giants were 9-7 the year before that and the Packers 10-6 the year before that. In the NFL in the last few years, the Super Bowl hasn’t featured the best teams. It has featured the teams that got hot in the playoffs.

I like it better this way. The Seahawks and 49ers are great teams with a great rivalry. The Broncos and Patriots are great teams with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks who have battled each other for more than a decade. The combined record of the four teams still in the title hunt is 50-14, the best combined record of the final four teams in the playoffs in the last 15 years. This is what championship football should be like.

Here are my notes from the weekend:

For three quarters, the Broncos looked like the most complete team in the NFL. We all know Denver’s Peyton Manning-led passing game is great, but the Broncos were good all over the place for the first three quarters against the Chargers. Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball were a very strong 1-2 punch running the ball. Denver’s defense held a very good San Diego offense in check for most of the game. Early in the game, even the Broncos’ bad plays looked like flukes, not like major problems. But the Broncos’ fourth-quarter letdown may be a concern: A comfortable 17-0 lead turned into a closer-than-it-should-have-been 24-17 win. The Broncos will need to play well for four quarters to beat the Patriots.

LeGarrette Blount is something special. The Patriots made Blount the focal point of their offense on Saturday, and he rewarded them in a major way, carrying 24 times for 166 yards and four touchdowns. (Blount has only played in one postseason game, and he has more career postseason rushing touchdowns than Barry Sanders and Walter Payton combined.) Blount has always had a phenomenal combination of speed and power, but after a great rookie season in Tampa Bay in 2010, he was largely a forgotten man with the Bucs. Now the Patriots are getting the most out of his talents. One of the primary differences between a bad coach like Greg Schiano and a great coach like Bill Belichick is that Schiano saw Blount as a problem to get rid of, while Belichick saw Blount as an opportunity to make the most of.

Marshawn Lynch is a beast in the playoffs. Lynch has only played in five postseason games in his career, and he has topped 130 rushing yards in three of them: He had 140 yards in Sunday’s win over New Orleans, 132 yards in last year’s win over Washington, and 131 yards in Seattle’s playoff win three years ago over New Orleans, the game in which Lynch reeled off one of the greatest runs in NFL history. Only two players in NFL history — Terrell Davis with five and Thurman Thomas with four — have more 130-yard games in the playoffs than Lynch’s three.

Dan Skuta got the weakest flag of the weekend. Skuta, a 49ers linebacker, made a great play to fight through a block, hit Cam Newton and wrap him up for a sack in the fourth quarter. But the referee somehow claimed that Skuta had committed “roughing the quarterback” by hitting Newton in the head. I’m all for player safety, but the idea that a linebacker can’t tackle a quarterback the way Skuta tackled Newton is ridiculous.

The Panthers needed more from their running backs. Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, who just finished the third season of a five-year, $43 million contract, gained 13 yards on five carries on Sunday. Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert, who just finished the second year of a four-year, $8.2 million contract, gained 20 yards on eight carries. (Running back Jonathan Stewart, who just finished the second year of a five-year, $36.5 million contract, was inactive with a knee injury.) A team that’s devoting as much salary cap space to running backs needs a lot more production from them than that. Cam Newton, who had 54 yards on 10 carries, was the only Panther who was a consistent threat on the ground.

The Trent Richardson trade was terrible. There are no two ways about it, the Colts made a huge mistake when they gave up their 2014 first-round draft pick to acquire Richardson from the Browns. Richardson ended the playoffs with four carries for a grand total of one yard, with one fumble. That’s horrific. In the regular season Richardson gave the Colts 157 carries for 458 yards, a pathetic average of 2.9 yards a carry. If Richardson can’t show significant improvement in the offseason and the 2014 preseason, can he even make the Colts’ 53-man roster next year?

The Saints’ clock management was abysmal. There will be plenty of blame to go around in New Orleans this week after the Saints’ loss at Seattle. But a big share of the blame should go to coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, both of whom were responsible for some atrocious clock management. Twice in the fourth quarter Payton and Brees wasted timeouts because they couldn’t get the play called and the offense set in time to avoid a delay of game penalty. And Payton wasted the Saints’ final timeout challenging a Seahawks catch that was clearly ruled correctly on the field. You simply can’t waste all three of your timeouts when you’re trying to come from behind in the fourth quarter, but that’s what the Saints did.

The trumpet national anthem was awesome. Instead of famous singers who try way too hard to put their own spin on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the Carolina Panthers got trumpeter Jesse McGuire to play the national anthem, and he was outstanding. How about bringing him back for the Super Bowl, NFL? That was an anthem fit for a great game, which this year’s Super Bowl — whether it’s the 49ers or Seahawks, Broncos or Patriots — is virtually guaranteed to be.

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Coaching/G.M. search update for January 12

GregRoman Getty Images

Another day, another update of the various coaching and G.M. vacancies.

Sort of.

With three coaching jobs filled and four remaining along with a pair of G.M. gigs, here are the latest developments since the last time we updated the status of the various search processes.

Browns:  Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt reportedly was due to be interviewed on Saturday.  Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, and Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn have been interviewed.  Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase won’t interview until the team’s season is over.  Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott reportedly could be interviewed.  The Browns reportedly have interest in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.

Vikings:  49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman (pictured) and 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula were interviewed on Saturday.  Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn have been interviewed. Interviews reportedly have been requested with Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase.

Lions: Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, former Titans coach Mike Munchak, former Texans coach Gary Kubiak, and former Colts coach (and current Ravens offensive coordinator) Jim Caldwell have been interviewed.

Titans:  Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell have been interviewed.  Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and Cowboys special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia could be interviewed.

Buccaneers: Candidates include Falcons director of player personnel Lionel Vital, Giants V.P. of player evaluation Marc Ross, Redskins director of pro personnel Morocco Brown, and Titans V.P. of player personnel Lake Dawson.

Dolphins: Browns assistant G.M. Ray Farmer, Dolphins assistant G.M. Brian Gaine, Steelers director of football and business administration Omar Khan, and Cardinals V.P. of player personnel Jason Licht have been interviewed.  Other candidates include Eagles V.P. of player personnel Tom Gamble and Titans V.P. of player personnel Lake Dawson, and possibly Packers senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith.  The Dolphins requested permission to interview Ravens assistant G.M. Eric DeCosta, but it’s believed DeCosta has no interest in the job.

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PFT’s 2013 coach of the year

Rivera Getty Images

Of all the postseason awards for the recently-completed NFL regular season, coach of the year became the toughest one to decide.

Typically, the prize goes to the man whose team most significantly exceeded preseason expectations, with extra consideration given to any adversity overcome in the process.

This year, the PFT coach of the year is Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

Entering the season on a hot seat that got a lot hotter after an ugly loss to the Cardinals dropped the team to 1-3, Rivera led the Panthers to a mark of 11-1 over the final 12 weeks of the season, securing the No. 2 seed in the NFC.  In hindsight, all that keep Carolina from the top spot was a 12-7 Week One loss to Seattle.

The performance should be enough to persuade new G.M. Dave Gettleman to keep Rivera around for at least a few more years, if not longer.  The pieces are in place for the Panthers to contend for the next several years.  If not longer.

The other finalists for the prize (which doesn’t entail an actual prize beyond, you know, public recognition) were Chiefs coach Andy Reid, Saints coach Sean Payton, Eagles coach Chip Kelly, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, and Chargers coach Mike McCoy.

Vote for your own coach of the year, and then make your case in the comments.  Or do what coaches do and complain about the official ruling.

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PFT’s divisional round picks

Luck AP

It’s the second week of the PFT postseason picks contest, and the wild-card round resulted in a push.

I correctly picked the Saints (MDS had the Eagles), and I foolishly had faith in the Packers (MDS took the 49ers).  We both correctly picked the Colts, and we both incorrectly selected the Bengals.

This week, we disagree on only one game.  Which means that one of us will take a one-game lead into the conference championship round.

For our takes on each of the four games, read on.

Saints at Seahawks

MDS’s take: I’d love to find a reason to be the contrarian and say the Saints have a good chance of winning this one. But I just can’t. The Seahawks were better than the Saints all season.  When these two teams met in Seattle six weeks ago, it was ugly. I don’t think the Seahawks are going to have the game wrapped up by the end of the first quarter, like they did when they destroyed the Saints in the regular season, but I do think the Seahawks are going to win handily. Seattle’s pass rush is going to make life hard for Drew Brees, and Russell Wilson will make plays with both his arm and his feet. It won’t be as lopsided as 34-7, but it won’t be close, either.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 31, Saints 14.

Florio’s take:  The Saints are doing everything they can to simulate the reality of playing in Seattle.  But there’s no way to fully simulate the most intimidating atmosphere in all of sports.  To have a chance, the Saints will need to continue to rely on a running game that helped lift the team to its first playoff road win in franchise history.   And they’ll have to hope that the Seahawks sputter like they did in Week 16 against the Cardinals, which unfortunately may have been more about keeping the Seahawks from getting complacent and less about exposing the team’s flaws.  Throw in the return of Percy Harvin, and a valiant effort by the Saints feels destined to fall short.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 28, Saints 24.

Colts at Patriots

MDS’s take: Indianapolis is a team on the rise, a franchise that I see making the playoffs consistently for as long as Andrew Luck is the quarterback, which is probably a dozen or so more years. Kind of like the Patriots have been for as long as Tom Brady has been the quarterback. If the Colts could win a playoff game in New England, it would feel like an AFC changing of the guard, but I don’t think the Colts are quite ready for that. Indianapolis doesn’t have a good enough defense to keep New England’s offense in check, and Bill Belichick’s defensive schemes will force Andrew Luck into some big mistakes.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 24, Colts 14.

Florio’s take:  It’s hard to call the Patriots overachievers with Bill Belichick as the head coach and Tom Brady as the quarterback.  But even with two of the best ever at their respective jobs, the Patriots have major flaws.  And the Colts bring a dangerous nothing-to-lose mentality to Gillette Stadium, along with a head coach who has four years of experience with the true New England nemesis in the AFC — the Ravens.  Look for Chuck Pagano to contain the New England offense just enough to give Andrew Luck and company a chance to outscore the home team.  If Luck can beat Tom Brady in their first ever postseason meeting, all those Colts fans who still wear Peyton Manning jerseys may have to buy some royal blue tape and turn the 8 into a 2.

Florio’s pick:  Colts 23, Patriots 20.

49ers at Panthers

MDS’s take: When these two teams met in San Francisco in November, the defenses dominated: Carolina’s D held San Francisco’s O to five different three-and-outs, while also recovering a Kendall Hunter fumble and intercepting Colin Kaepernick to end the game. San Francisco’s D held Carolina’s O to three different three-and-outs and intercepted Cam Newton once. Kaepernick was held to a season-low 91 passing yards, while Newton wasn’t much better, with just 169 passing yards. I expect this to be another low-scoring defensive struggle. Both defenses are good, but the Panthers’ defense is better, and I like Carolina to win a close one.

MDS’s pick: Panthers 16, 49ers 9.

Florio’s take:  The last time the 49ers played the Panthers, receiver Michael Crabtree was still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, tight end Vernon Davis left early with a concussion, and linebacker Aldon Smith participated in only 12 snaps in his first game back from rehab.  Also, quarterback Colin Kaepernick recently has rediscovered the groove that made Ron Jaworski proclaim Kaepernick could be the best ever.  The Panthers don’t care.  Tough and gritty and able to overcome adversity, it’s Cam Newton’s time to step onto the big stage and shine.  He’ll find a way, early or late or at some point in between, to make enough plays to complement a defense that will give Kaepernick a much harder time than the Green Bay defense did in the wild-card round.

Florio’s pick:  Panthers 17, 49ers 16.

Chargers at Broncos

MDS’s take: There are a lot of things to like about the Chargers. They won in Denver a month ago. They’re healthier than the Broncos right now. Philip Rivers is passing as well as anyone not named Peyton Manning. This game should be close and competitive, much more than you’d expect for a wild card team that barely made the playoffs facing the No. 1 seed in the conference. In the end, however, I just don’t think San Diego’s defense is going to be good enough — and I don’t think Manning is going to hand the game to the Chargers’ defense, the way Andy Dalton did on Sunday. The Broncos may trail for much of the game, but they’ll pull it out in the fourth quarter.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 27, Chargers 24.

Florio’s take:  One month to the day after the Chargers tiptoed into the lions den and took its zebra leg, Philip Rivers and company are trying to barge through the front door.  Good luck with that.  Keenly aware of the impact of this game on his legacy and motivated to show that the regular-season outcome in Denver was a fluke, Peyton Manning will become Peyton F. Manning for at least one day in January.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 41, Chargers 24.

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The daily (sort of) coaching/G.M. update

Zimmer Getty Images

We post plenty of stories as the news emerges regarding the current coaching and G.M. searches.  Every day (approximately), we cobble together a comprehensive roundup of the latest news and information about each vacancy.

Our last full update came on Monday.  (So much for “approximately.”)  Which means that there should be plenty of new information in the latest edition.

Which means that you should read it — especially since it has been updated in light of recent developments.

Redskins:  Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden reportedly has agreed to accept the job.  Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, and Cowboys special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia have been interviewed.  Interviews were possible with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman.  Vanderbilt coach James Franklin was reportedly scheduled to interview, but more recent reports suggest that he’ll either stay at Vanderbilt or go to Penn State.

[UPDATE 9:20 a.m. ET:  Gruden reportedly has agreed to become the next coach of the Redskins.]

Browns:  Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt reportedly will be interviewed on Saturday.  Josh McDaniels has withdrawn his name from consideration.  Packers quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, and Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn have been interviewed.  Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase won’t interview until the team’s season is over.  Other names that have been mentioned include Auburn coach Guz Malzahn and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.

Vikings:  Permission reportedly will be sought to interview 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.  Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, and Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell have been interviewed. Interviews have been requested with Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase.  Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was scheduled to interview on Thursday, but he reportedly has agreed to become the next coach of the Redskins.

Lions: Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is expected to interview Thursday. Former Titans coach Mike Munchak, former Texans coach Gary Kubiak, and former Colts coach (and current Ravens offensive coordinator) Jim Caldwell have been interviewed.  Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was expected to interview Friday, but he reportedly has taken the Redskins job.

Titans:  Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is scheduled to interview on Thursday.  Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is scheduled to interview on Friday.  Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell and Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden have been interviewed.  Gruden reportedly has accepted the Redskins job.

Buccaneers:  Chiefs director of pro personnel Chris Ballard, Falcons director of player personnel Lionel Vital, and Giants V.P. of player evaluation Marc Ross are the known candidates, so far.

Dolphins:  Interviews will commence Friday, and the team reportedly will disclose the names of all who interview.  Giants V.P. of player evaluation Marc Ross reportedly will interview.  Various other candidates have been mentioned, but the process has not yet begun to crystallize.

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PFT’s 2013 league MVP

Manning AP

With five awards down and three to go, it’s time to unveil the biggest (albeit most anticlimactic) of them all.

The 2013 PFT NFL MVP is PFM.

Yes, Peyton F. Manning.  We don’t know whether his middle name starts with an F; for our purposes, the F stands for something else entirely.

I could elaborate on his credentials, but do I really need to?  He beat the existing record for passing touchdowns by 10 percent.  He set the record for single-season passing yards — even if it merits a fleur-de-lis shaped asterisk.  He led his team once again to the top seed in the AFC.

The other finalists, in our assessment, were Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

For the poll, vote for your top two.  Then argue it all out in the comments.

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The daily (sort of) coaching/G.M. search update

Whisenhunt Getty Images

One week since Black Monday, the list of vacancies has expanded back to five.

Here’s our daily (or thereabouts) look at the various openings and the status of each search.

For those of you who pointed out that we didn’t do one on Sunday, your partial refund checks are in the mail.  Don’t spend it all in one place.

The information below is based on the various reports that are circulating, most of which previously have appeared on the site with proper credit.

Or maybe we should just say, “NBC and media reports.”

Browns:  Interviewed Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles on Friday.  Interviewed Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on Saturday.  Reportedly have no interview scheduled with Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, and no plan to interview him.  Reportedly interviewed Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn last week.  Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase won’t interview until the Broncos’ season is over.  The Browns reportedly have interest in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, and former Lions coach Jim Schwartz.

Redskins:  Interviewed Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott on Saturday.  Interviewed Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell on Sunday.  Will interview Giants defensie coordinator Perry Fewell.  Requested permission to interview Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt (pictured), 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, and 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman.  Reportedly will interview Cowboys special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia and Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.  Reportedly will interview Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.

Vikings: Reportedly interviewed Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton.  Reportedly interested in Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, along with Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman.  Reportedly interested in Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

Lions: Interviewed Ravens offensive coordinator and former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell on Friday.  No other interviews are scheduled, but Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer are both believed to be candidates.  Per multiple reports, Whisenhunt appears to be the favorite.

Titans:  Interested in Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Cowboys special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin.

Buccaneers:  Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard reportedly is the leading candidate for the G.M. position.

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NFL morning after: A great time for great quarterbacks

kaepernick AP

The NFL is, more than ever before, a quarterback league. And we’ve got some great ones playing in these playoffs.

If the wild card weekend taught us anything, it’s that the NFL in 2014 is dominated by quarterbacks. When quarterbacks are playing great football, like Andrew Luck and Alex Smith played in Indianapolis on Saturday, the results are spectacular. When quarterbacks are playing badly, like Andy Dalton played in Cincinnati on Sunday, the result is a team with no chance to win, even when its defense plays well.

The good news for fans who like offense is that next weekend’s four games have what may be the best quarterback matchups in NFL history. Just think about how good the quarterbacks are in the four divisional round games:

Philip Rivers vs. Peyton Manning: Manning will win the fifth Most Valuable Player award of his career for his record-breaking 2013 season, and he’s the best passer in football. But after Manning, the next-best passer in the NFL over the course of the 2013 season was Rivers. Rivers completed a league-leading 69.5 percent of his passes in the regular season, had 32 touchdowns to 11 interceptions and took a team that looked before the season like one of the worst in the NFL to the playoffs. This will be a great matchup of great passers.

Andrew Luck vs. Tom Brady: Luck threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns as he got the first postseason win of his career on Saturday, and now he’ll travel to New England and face Brady, who has 17 career postseason wins. If the Colts can pull the upset, this could be a changing of the guard: The quarterback who has three Super Bowl rings giving way to a much younger quarterback who’s probably going to win multiple Super Bowl rings before his career is over.

Drew Brees vs. Russell Wilson: Brees topped 5,000 passing yards for the fourth time in his career this season; no one else has reached 5,000 yards more than once. Wilson, who grew up idolizing Brees, may be the most exciting player to enter the NFL in recent years: He scrambles like Fran Tarkenton and has a gun like John Elway.

Colin Kaepernick vs. Cam Newton: This is the one that has me the most excited because it’s the one that has the greatest potential to show us what the future of football will be. Running quarterbacks are here to stay, and in Kaepernick and Newton we have the two best running quarterbacks in football facing off. Kaepernick has two of the three best rushing performances by a quarterback in NFL postseason history, with his 181-yard game against Green Bay last year and his 98-yard game against Green Bay on Sunday. Newton led all quarterbacks in rushing in the regular season, with 585 yards, and he’s the all-time quarterback record holder for rushing touchdowns in a season.

Quarterback matchups don’t get any better than that, and that’s what I’m most excited about heading into the divisional weekend. Here are my observations from wild card weekend:

There were no 100-yard rushers. The flip side of the NFL being a league of great quarterbacks is that the running game has been de-emphasized. There wasn’t a single 100-yard runner in the NFL this weekend. In fact, it was a quarterback, Kaepernick, who led all runners in the wild card round with his 98-yard game against the Packers. Running backs just aren’t the NFL’s marquee players anymore.

Smith had a game like no other. Until Saturday, no player in NFL history had ever passed for 350 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and added 50 yards on the ground in any game, regular season or postseason. But Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith became the first player to do it on Saturday when he passed for 378 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions, and added 57 rushing yards. Quarterbacks shouldn’t be judged on wins and losses: When a quarterback plays the way Smith played on Saturday and leads his team to 44 points, he shouldn’t be judged harshly just because his team’s defense gave up 45 points. But the reality is that quarterbacks are judged on wins and losses, and so a lot of people will choose to remember that Smith overthrew an open Cyrus Gray on what could have been a touchdown pass, that Smith lost a fumble and that Smith’s intentional grounding penalty took the Chiefs out of field goal range late in the game. Me, I’ll remember that Smith turned in the game of his life.

Hilton stepped up in a big way. T.Y. Hilton, who became the Colts’ No. 1 receiver by default after Reggie Wayne suffered a season-ending injury, had the best game of his career and one of the best games anyone has ever had in the playoffs on Saturday. Hilton’s 13 catches were tied for the second most in NFL postseason history, and his 224 receiving yards were tied for the third most in NFL postseason history. The Colts were very wise to take Hilton in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, the same draft in which they selected Andrew Luck. Those two are going to be a great combination for many years to come.

Two big changes for the Saints panned out. After the Saints’ Week 15 loss to the Rams, New Orleans coach Sean Payton decided he had seen enough of struggling kicker Garrett Hartley and left tackle Charles Brown. And so the Saints cut Hartley and signed Shayne Graham to take his place, and benched Brown and promoted rookie left tackle Terron Armstead to the starting lineup. Both moves looked very good in Saturday’s playoff win over the Eagles. Graham went 4-for-4 on field goals, while Armstead held his own against the Eagles’ pass rush and helped keep Drew Brees upright. Give Payton credit for recognizing two spots on his team that needed to get better, and making the necessary changes.

McCoy couldn’t get loose. During the regular season, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy led the league in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage, averaged 5.1 yards a run and 10.4 yards a catch, and had 17 different plays of 20 yards or more. Against the Saints on Saturday, McCoy averaged just 3.7 yards a run and 3.8 yards a catch, and his longest play of the day was 11 yards. The ability of Rob Ryan’s New Orleans defense to keep McCoy in check was a huge part of the Eagles’ season ending on Saturday.

Lewis can build a defense, but he can’t build a quarterback. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has a well-earned reputation as a great defensive mind, and his defense was strong on Sunday, holding a good San Diego offense in check for most of the game. Unfortunately, Lewis has Andy Dalton as his quarterback, and Dalton was beyond terrible on Sunday, with three turnovers that pretty much handed the game to the Chargers. Lewis may need to sign or draft another quarterback this offseason because Dalton simply isn’t up to the task.

Keenan Allen plays the game the way it’s meant to be played. Allen, the rookie receiver who led the Chargers with 1,046 receiving yards, only had two catches for 21 yards on Sunday. So why am I singling Allen out for praise? Because I love the way this young man plays the game, even when he’s not getting the ball. Allen’s brutal but legal block to spring teammate Eddie Royal on a nine-yard run was my single favorite play of the weekend.

TV is better than being there. Three of the four teams that hosted games over the weekend had trouble selling out their stadiums, and no one should be surprised by that. The truth is, if you have an HD TV and a comfortable couch, sitting at home and watching the games for free is a lot better than paying a small fortune to sit in an uncomfortable stadium, often in terrible weather, surrounded by loudmouth drunks. I don’t blame the fans in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Green Bay who were slow to sell out their stadiums last week, and if anything surprises me, it’s that Philadelphia fans sold out their stadium within minutes of the Eagles putting playoff tickets for sale. If I lived in Philadelphia, I would have much rather been at home on Saturday afternoon, watching that great Chiefs-Colts second half, than in my car fighting traffic on my way to the game. And I would have rather been at home to watch my team lose to the Saints than sit in the cold on Saturday night. The best place to watch football is at home.

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PFT’s defensive player of the year

Mathis Getty Images

In his second season as a 3-4 linebacker and his first without Dwight Freeney to soak up the bulk of the attention, Colts linebacker Robert Mathis has a career performance.

The 11th year defender racked up a league-high 19.5 sacks, and that’s good enough to make Mathis the PFT defensive player of the year.

His previous high-water mark for any one season had been 11.5 sacks.

It would mean a lot,” Mathis recently said regarding potential recognition as the defensive player of the year.  “It’s definitely something coming in as a rookie that you couldn’t foresee, just trying to make the team.  But hard work pays off and I got a lot of teammates that I was able to lean on this year and they were able to help get to this spot right now.”

While it won’t be known for 29 days whether Mathis wins the official Associated Press version of the award, he can find some solace in securing the PFT version of the prize.

Other finalists were Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, and Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

Cast your own ballot below, and/or defend your selection in the comments.  Or criticize ours.

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