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Week Nine “Three and Out”

Belichick Getty Images

It’s the 13th anniversary of PFT.  What better way to celebrate than to bang out three questions and answers for each of the 11 games to be played on Sunday?

OK, there are probably better ways to celebrate.  If West Virginia beats TCU today, the celebration may or may not include the deliberate ignition of an elongated piece of stuffed rec room furniture.

So before I’m charged with arson, I should probably publish what could be the last “Three and Out” feature for 3-5 years.

Jaguars at Bengals

1.  How much will A.J. Green play?

The smart play would be to take it easy.  For starters, the Bengals are playing the Jaguars, a team with one win.  Also, Mohamed Sanu continues to develop nicely, becoming much more than a complement to Green.  Then there’s the fact that the Bengals face the Browns on a short week.  Cincinnati will need Green to be ready to play the whole game on Thursday night.

But Green isn’t wired to hold himself back.  If he’s able to go, he’s going to go, fully and completely.

Regardless, don’t expect Green to be as dominant as he’s been in past years.  He has said he won’t be 100 percent all year long, due to the sprained toe that caused him to miss three games.

2.  What happened to Toby Gerhart?

He started the first five games of the season, averaging 2.3, 1.1, 3.6, 3.2, and 2.3 yards per carry.  An injury knocked Gerhart out for two weeks, which first gave Storm Johnson and then gave Denard Robinson a chance to take over the job.

Robinson made a very strong case in Week Seven.  But then, with Gerhart healthy and the Jaguars supposedly planning to split reps between Robinson and Gerhart, Gerhart got only four carries for 10 yards.  Robinson gained more than 100 again.

To date, Gerhart has 52 carries for 133 yards, which averages out to 2.6 yards per carry.  In contrast, Robinson has 88 carries for 395 yards, an average of 4.5 yards per attempt.

3.  Can Cincy afford to keep their weapons?

Eventually, probably not.  Green remains eligible for a new contract, and he’ll make $10.176 million in 2015.  After next season, Green, Sanu, and Marvin Jones will each become free agents.  Also in the pipeline will be tight end Tyler Eifert (a first-round pick in 2013) and running back Gio Bernard (a second-round pick in 2013).

The Bengals will have some tough decisions to make — and former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden may be in position to lure one or more of those guys to Washington.

Buccaneers at Browns

1.  Are Manziel’s frustrations hurting the team?

If he’s freelancing on the scout team and not running the plays that the defense will be facing, that potentially hurts the Browns.  The goal of the scout team is to help prepare the defense for the coming week’s offense; unless the opposing quarterback plays like Manziel, Manziel isn’t helping the cause by playing like Manziel when he should be playing like the next quarterback the defense will face.

2.  Why have the Bucs dumped half of the secondary?

Coach Lovie Smith wants personnel who will run his defense the way he wants it to be run.  Darrelle Revis plays cover corner; Smith’s defense needs corners who’ll play a lot of zone — and who’ll provide support when it comes to stopping the run.  Mark Barron prefers to play more aggressively; the Tampa Two defense requires safeties who’ll keep things in front of them, forcing defenses to methodically move down the field without making mistakes or otherwise stalling.

So both had to go.  And both will eventually be replaced with guys who better fit the system, through free agency or the draft.

3.  Can Ben Tate turn things around?

He believes he can.  However, Tate doesn’t remember having back-to-back bad games since he was eight years old.  Against the Jaguars, Tate had 36 yards on 16 carries.  Facing the Raiders, it was 10 fewer yards on only one fewer try.

The struggles come in large part from the lack of running lanes, due to a determination by opposing defenses to take away the rushing attack.  Tate thinks that can be overcome.

It’s all in how we play,” Tate said this week. “Teams can come in with the mindset of stopping the run and you can still run for 200 yards on them. It’s Xs and Os but it still comes down to beating that man in front of you. That’s just what I believe.”

Cardinals at Cowboys

1.  What can DeMarco Murray do about his fumbling?

For starters, he can — as Emmitt Smith says — know when the journey is over.  Fighting for that extra yard exposes the player to another defender who will inevitably try to extricate the ball from the running back’s grasp.  So it’s not about being lucky; it’s about being smart enough to know when to hit the deck.

Over the years, plenty of players with fumbling issues have learned how to cure them.  Murray needs to realize that it’s fixable, and then he needs to fix it.  Until he does, he’ll be even more of a target.

2.  Should Cowboys fans panic if Brandon Weeden starts?

Probably, but not as much as they think.  Tony Romo hasn’t practiced on any Wednesday this season, and he had a pitch count in training camp and the preseason.  That meant extra work for Weeden, who’ll be better prepared than he otherwise would have been if Romo had been 100 percent all year.

It’s not clear how much that will matters once the Cardinals begin to swarm around a first-round pick who washed out of Cleveland in only two seasons, but it definitely puts Weeden in a better position than he would have been in if Romo had been getting as much work as he did in past years.

Regardless, the signs currently point to Romo not playing.  So regardless of whether Weeden is ready, he’ll likely be the guy who goes on Sunday.

3.  Does Fitzgerald’s big play mean he’s staying next year?

Um, no.  While Fitzgerald’s long catch and run against the Eagles conjured memories of his performance in Super Bowl XLIII, that $23.8 million cap number for 2015 remains, and it won’t be shrinking unless Fitzgerald takes less money.  If he won’t, he’ll be elsewhere next year.  Regardless of what he does for the rest of this one.

Eagles at Texans

1.  Will Todd Herremans play with a torn biceps?

Apparently, yes.  He’s listed as probable, which means it’s a virtual certainty he’ll play.

For some, a torn biceps becomes a season-ending situation, because without fairly prompt surgery the muscle may never get back to where it was.  For others, it’s another bit of adversity that needs to be overcome during an NFL season full of challenges and obstacles.

With Herremans intent on trying to play and center Jason Kelce ready to return from a sports hernia, the Eagles’ offensive line could be in great position to provide the kind of blocking they’ll need to keep J.J. Watt and company away from Nick Foles.

2.  Will it be a homecoming for an Eagles defensive player?

No.  It’ll be a homecoming for two of them.  Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and linebacker Connor Barwin previously played in Houston, and it’ll be their first game against their former team.

“I don’t know exactly what it means but I’m excited to go back and play against a lot of my former teammates, see a lot of my good friends in that organization,” Barwin said this week.

Ryans knows it means a challenge for the offense, given the presence of J.J. Watt.

“It hasn’t surprised me the career J.J. is having now because when he first came in as a rookie I could just tell from his work ethic and some of the things that he did at practice — like you just step back and are like, wow, this guy is really special,” Ryan said. “It hasn’t surprised me the way he’s played.”

3.  Which former Texans player is Arian Foster looking forward to facing?

Definitely DeMeco Ryans.

“Meco, man, he was one of my first welcome-to-the-NFL hits,” Foster said this week. “He smacked me. He smacked me in pregame warmups, too. Maybe I get to pay him back.”

Ryans will have his hands full with Foster.  Though he’s not getting the same kind of national buzz as his Texas counterpart, Foster ranks second in the league in rushing, with 766 yards.  He’s also averaging 5.2 yards per carry.

Not bad for a guy who missed a game and who didn’t do much in one other game.  If Ryans and the Eagles can’t slow him down, the Eagles could see that 5-1 start disintegrate to 5-3.

Jets at Chiefs

1.  Is G.M. John Idzik on the hot seat?

Only owner Woody Johnson knows for sure, but Idzik’s Hail-Mary play for Percy Harvin, coupled with surprisingly strong support for coach Rex Ryan and agreement with the decision to bench Geno Smith for Mike Vick suggest that Idzik knows he needs to win a few more games to avoid being run out the door.

With only one victory with through eight games, a final record of 2-14 or 3-13 could get Idzik fired without the opportunity to hire his own head coach.  All because Johnson fired G.M. Mike Tannenbaum and didn’t fire Rex Ryan.

This time, Johnson’s best play could be a clean sweep and a fresh start.  Some Jets fans would suggest that the clean sweep include a new owner.

2.  Can the pupils beat their teacher?

Doubtful.  When Jets quarterback Mike Vick and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg square off against Chiefs coach Andy Reid, it’ll be a reunion of three guys who had a decent amount of success together in Philly.  But the edge clearly goes to Reid, in large part because he has the better talent — and because he’s smart enough to know what will work in response to plays called by Mornhinweg and run by Vick.

3.  Will Brad Childress and Percy Harvin hug it out?

Highly unlikely.  Childress and Harvin repeatedly were at odds in Minnesota, with the two reportedly having to be separated in 2010 after Childress suggested Harvin was embellishing an ankle injury to avoid practicing.  While it was Childress who took a chance on Harvin in the first round of the 2009 draft, Harvin’s talent ultimately was outweighed by his temperament.  If Childress hadn’t been fired late in the 2010 season, Harvin surely wouldn’t have lasted in Minnesota.

So when they’re in the same building on Sunday, don’t expect any interactions involving anything but middle fingers and/or four-letter words.

Chargers at Dolphins

1.  Why is Mike Wallace upset?

Last week, the Dolphins beat the Jaguars fairly easily.  But receiver Mike Wallace wasn’t happy, claiming that “our offense was [expletive].”

The problem is that he wants to catch more deep balls — and that quarterback Ryan Tannehill isn’t comfortable throwing them.  It was, for example, a big deal when Tannehill threw long passes on consecutive plays at Jacksonville, one of which was completed to Wallace for a 50-yard gain.

It’s become a common theme for Wallace, who seems to be more concerned about his own numbers than winning games.  If that doesn’t change, the team eventually will need to find a new No. 1 receiver.

2.  Is Dan Marino making a difference?

The Hall of Fame quarterback’s first stint in the team’s front office didn’t go well, with Marino clearly not suited for or interested in grinding away like a scout.  His return better fits his skill set, because in part he’s helping tutor the team’s quarterbacks.

Dan has been great,” starter Ryan Tannehill said this week.  “He’s been around a lot as of recent. Watched tape with him. He’s been in the QB room.  He’s a great resource to have around, just his knowledge of the game [and] obviously the success that he had during his career.”

Hopefully, his influence will rub off on the current team.  Perennial contenders during Marino’s time in Miami, the Dolphins have missed the playoffs in 11 of the last 12 seasons.

3.  Will Donald Brown finally return to action?

Most likely.  Barring a return of concussion symptoms, the free-agent acquisition who suffered a head injury four weeks ago will play.  He contends it was his first concussion; if so, it was a doozy.

Given the position he plays, concerns regarding another will be enhanced.  But the running back rotation will benefit from Brown’s return to action, especially since the Broncos may have exposed undrafted rookie Branden Oliver a bit in Week Eight.

Washington at Vikings

1.  Who has the edge in this Bengals assistants reunion?

When former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer faces former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden on Sunday as the coaches in Minnesota and Washington, respectively, the edge arguably goes to Zimmer.  Older and more experienced, Zimmer also did more with less overall talent with the Bengals.

Zimmer also seems to have more talent on his current defense than Gruden has on his current offense, especially with Robert Griffin III coming back from a dislocated ankle rusty and still learning Gruden’s attack.  Ultimately, it may have been better for Griffin to wait until after the bye.

Colt McCoy probably is in better position to win this one, given the confidence boost he carried away from Dallas on Monday night.  Of course, the added confidence from beating Minnesota could make it even harder for Griffin to re-establish himself as the starter after the bye.

2.  Does Anthony Barr feel the rookie wall coming?

Nope.  He told PFT Live earlier this week that he feels great after eight starts.  Of course, that may change after a few more.  But the converted running back and defensive end said that the NFL hasn’t seemed much faster than the college level, so the transition has gone very smoothly.  As the total games played match and exceed anything he experienced at the college level, maybe it will go just as smoothly for one of the top rookies on a team that has experienced plenty of bumps and bruises.

3.  Why is it important to play Robert Griffin III?

Washington has made a huge investment in Griffin, giving up three first-round picks and a second-round pick to get him in 2012.  They need to know what they have before his third NFL season ends, since he becomes eligible for a new contract in 2015.

Even if Washington decides to wait on a new deal, a decision must be made on his $15 million-plus fifth-year option.  While it would be a surprise if they pass, Griffin playing in as many games as possible this year gives Washington the greatest amount of information before the May 3 deadline rolls around.

Rams at 49ers

1.  When could we finally see Marcus Lattimore?

Possibly soon.  Lattimore has been activated to practice, two years removed from a torn ACL in college that knocked him out of the first round of the draft.  The Niners took a flier on Lattimore, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman recently praised him.

The 49ers are now in the 21-day up-or-out window for putting Lattimore on the roster.  With Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde struggling to churn up yards on the ground, the Niners could use the help.

2.  Is Vernon Davis‘ stock falling, literally?

Yes, literally.  His shares through Fantex, which opened at $10 each, have plummeted to $6.60.

Ankle and back issues have hampered his effectiveness this year, which in turn will make it harder to get that new contract Vernon Davis covets.

But there’s hope as the Niners emerge from the bye week.  Davis is healthy and ready to have the kind of impact he has had in the past.

“He’s gutted his way through it,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “I think he’s got a very focused glare when it comes to what he wants to accomplish from here on out.”

Folks who bought his stock at $10 per share probably have a glare right now, too.

3.  How will Mark Barron be used by the Rams?

His new coach knows, but he’s not saying.

“I’m not going to speculate the roles and things like that,” Fisher said. “We got a good player. I’m gonna spend some time with him, and talk about where and how he fits at some other point.”

So strong or free, no one will know until the Rams line up against the 49ers on Sunday.

Broncos at Patriots

1.  Is this really about Brady vs. Manning?

No, it’s not.  It’s about Peyton Manning vs. Bill Belichick.  The best ever combination of quarterback and on-field coach facing one of the great defensive masterminds in the history of the game.

Playing in New England, Belichick has won seven of nine of these full-contact chess matches against Manning.  Even though Manning once again has the better team on paper, only one stat matters on Sunday:  Points scored versus points allowed.

Last year at Gillette Stadium, Belichick found a way to outscore Peyton.  It won’t be a surprise if it happens again.

2.  Are Belichick and Welker still mad, bro?

They claim they’re not, but how can there not be lingering ill will after Belichick’s harsh, unsolicited criticism of Welker for applying a hit to former New England (now Denver) cornerback Aqib Talib that wasn’t dirty or illegal?

Whether it came from residual hostility toward Welker for leaving the Patriots or an effort to curry favor with Talib, who was approaching free agency, Belichick went over the line in insisting that Welker went over the line.  Both are presumably treading lightly with their words; that probably will change when it’s time to play.

3.  Who’ll cover all of the Denver weapons?

Now that the Pats have committed to putting Darrelle Revis on the opponent’s best receiver, who precisely will that be?  Receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, receiver Emmannuel Sanders?

Each is dangerous.  Revis can take only one of them away.  One of the other two can be doubled.  The third will face single coverage.

The best approach for Belichick would be to mix it up and confuse Peyton with pre-snap looks that conceal the manner in which the play will develop.  For Manning, inducing the defensive backs to begin to move toward their post-snap position with hard counts and Omahas could be the key to cracking the code, one play at a time.

Raiders at Seahawks

1. Should the Seahawks be concerned about Derek Carr?

Based on what he did to their first-string defense in the preseason, probably.

“He hit everything,” coach Pete Carroll told reporters this week.  “He tore us up, came in boldly and they didn’t just kind of dink it around; they showed that they had some belief that he could be a down the field guy.  They certainly have gone that way.  Their receivers have been on fire. We saw him move, we saw him throw the deep ball, we saw him throw some timing.  Quick stuff underneath, and he just show a lot of poise. He’s demonstrated that now.  He’s got good numbers right now.”

Cornerback Richard Sherman, who throws compliments even more reluctantly than Ryan Tannehill throws long passes, has called Carr a “gunslinger.”

Safety Kam Chancellor wasn’t as effusive.  Asked what he remembered about the preseason game against the Raiders and Carr, Chancellor said, “I remember it was preseason.”

2. Didn’t Pete Carroll learn from the Earl Thomas Punt Return Experiment?

Nope.  With regular punt returner Bryan Walters injured last week, Carroll tabbed Richard Sherman over Doug Baldwin.  Carroll has said that Sherman may end up doing it again.

The good news for those concerned about Sherman being exposed unnecessarily to injury?  Walters (concussion) is probable for Sunday’s visit from the Raiders.

3.  How well is Khalil Mack doing as a rookie?

Pretty well.  While the sacks aren’t yet piling up, he has 8.5 tackles for loss this season.

Regardless of any stats, he’s making an impact.

He jumps off the film,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said this week. “Every one of our coaches, when they break up and start looking at the Raiders and taking seriously what they’re doing well, everybody comes back talking about him. He’s almost unblockable and he’s got a great motor. He’s fast, he’s tough, he’s instinctive. We think he’s an obvious factor.”

The coach of the team the Raiders most recently played agrees.

“Khalil Mack, I think, is a special player,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “We knew that in the draft process, and he’s shown that he was very deserving of being picked when he was picked. You’re just looking for the respect you don’t have to take it from me. Just ask our guys that went against him.  I think he’s a future star in this league, if not one right now.”

So, basically, that black cloud threatening to deliver an 0-16 storm in Oakland has at least one thin silver lining.

Ravens at Steelers

1.  Could this one end up being a shootout?

Possibly.  Despite the 13-10s and the 19-16s and the 13-10s of recent years, an explosion could be coming.  For starters, the Steelers Offense has embarked on a Snoop Dogg-approved run of success, with 522 passing yards and 51 points last week.  And with the Steelers giving up more than 400 yards against the Colts a week ago, there’s a chance Sunday night’s game will be something other than a black-and-blue, clock-draining, low-scoring encounter.

2.  How is Martavis Bryant progressing?

Very well, which means that Ben Roethlisberger finally has that tall receiver for which he’s been lobbying.  (To the chagrin of Hines Ward.)

Inactive for the first six games of the season, Bryant exploded with a pair of touchdowns last week against the Colts. He added another one in his Week Seven debut against the Texans.

With Antonio Brown getting so much attention, the big receiver has an opening to continue to pile up big numbers.

3.  What will the Ravens do on defense without Jimmy Smith?

On the surface, the absence of Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot) should make it easier to attack the Ravens Defense.  The problem for the Steelers is that, without Smith available, it’s not clear how they’ll defend the Pittsburgh passing attack.

We don’t know what they’re going to do, whether [Smith being out] means more zones, more pressures, more man-to-man [coverage],” Ben Roethlisberger said this week.

The best advice for the Ravens?  Don’t do whatever the Colts did.

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Week Nine injury report roundup

New Orleans Saints v St. Louis Rams Getty Images

Over the course of the week, there are a lot of posts about the most prominent injured players but we know that you might not see all of them and that some others may fall through the cracks. As a result, we’ll comb through all the injury reports every Friday afternoon so that there’s one stop for all the news from every team playing on Sunday. So, without further delay, the injury report roundup for Week Nine of the 2014 season.

Jaguars at Bengals

The Jaguars ruled out cornerback Will Blackmon (finger) and defensive end Andre Branch (groin) and linebacker Dekoda Watson (hamstring) is questionable. Cincinnati expects to have wide receiver A.J. Green (toe, questionable) back in the lineup, but they won’t have running back Giovani Bernard (hip) or linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee). Cornerback Darqueze Dennard (hamstring), linebacker Rey Maualuga (hamstring) and guard Kevin Zeitler (calf) all drew the doubtful tag, which is actually a step forward for Maualuga after he missed multiple games.

Buccaneers at Browns

The Buccaneers don’t expect to have tackle Anthony Collins (foot, doubtful) and running back Doug Martin (ankle, doubtful). They definitely won’t have kick returner Trindon Holliday (hamstring) or linebacker Brandon Magee (knee), but it could go either way with defensive end Michael Johnson (hand, questionable). The Browns ruled out tight end Jordan Cameron (concussion) and defensive end Phil Taylor (knee) will miss another game. Wide receiver Rodney Smith (hamstring) is questionable.

Cardinals at Cowboys

Safety Tony Jefferson (concussion) is questionable for the Cardinals, while cornerback Patrick Peterson (concussion) is probable. Running back Stepfan Taylor (calf) has been ruled out and tight end Troy Niklas (ankle) is questionable. The Cowboys will let us know if quarterback Tony Romo (back, questionable) is playing on Sunday behind an offensive line that could be without guard Ronald Leary (groin, questionable). Tackle Doug Free (foot) will miss another week.

Eagles at Texans

The Eagles expect center Jason Kelce (sports hernia surgery, probable), running back Darren Sproles (knee, probable) and guard Todd Herremans (biceps, probable) to be in the lineup. Safety Nate Allen (hamstring, questionable) will wait to have his fate determined over the weekend. The Texans listed linebacker Jadeveon Clowney (illness) as questionable, although coach Bill O’Brien’s tone was doubtful while discussing Clowney’s availability. Linebacker Brian Cushing (knee) is also questionable after missing last week’s game.

Jets at Chiefs

The already skeletal Jets cornerback corps should be without Darrin Walls (calf, knee) after the team listed him as doubtful. Quarterback Geno Smith (shoulder) is questionable on the injury report, but the team has moved on to Michael Vick either way. Chiefs coach Andy Reid said safety Eric Berry (ankle, probable) will play for the first time since Week Two. So will quarterback Alex Smith (shoulder, probable), but wide receiver Donnie Avery (groin), cornerback Jamell Fleming (hamstring), linebacker Josh Martin (hamstring, knee) and cornerback Christopher Owens (knee) are all out.

Chargers at Dolphins

Linebacker Manti Te’o (foot), cornerback Jason Verrett (shoulder) and running back Ryan Mathews (knee) are all out, although Mathews did practice on Friday. Safety Jahleel Addae (concussion) is doubtful and linebacker Jerry Attaochu (hamstring) is questionable after missing the last two games. The Dolphins are holding out hope for guard Daryn Colledge (illness, back) and linebacker Koa Misi (ankle) after listing each of them as questionable, but tight end Dion Sims (toe) won’t play.

Redskins at Vikings

As you’ve likely heard, Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III (ankle, probable) is expected to return to the starting lineup. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland (knee) is questionable after getting hurt at Friday’s practice. Tight end Kyle Rudolph (sports hernia surgery) remains out for the Vikings, cornerback Jabari Price (hamstring) is questionable and everyone else on the 53-man roster is healthy enough to play.

Rams at 49ers

The Rams won’t be taking defensive tackle Aaron Donald (shoulder), linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar (toe), cornerback Janoris Jenkins (knee) or safety Rodney McLeod (knee) with them to St. Louis. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson (knee, probable) is expected to play for the first time this year. Toe injuries have left 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and cornerback Tramaine Brock questionable to play in the NFC West matchup.

Broncos at Patriots

Safety Quinton Carter (hamstring), tight end Virgil Green (calf) and linebacker Steven Johnson (ankle) are all questionable for the Broncos, who will play without running back Montee Ball (groin) again this week. Running back Ronnie Hillman (shoulder, probable) looks good to go, however. Defensive end Chandler Jones (hip) is out for New England. Defensive lineman Dominique Easley (knee), safety Nate Ebner (finger), tackle Cameron Fleming (finger) and wide receiver Matt Slater (shoulder) have been listed as questionable.

Raiders at Seahawks

The Raiders don’t expect cornerback Carlos Rogers (knee, doubtful) to play. If he doesn’t, he’ll join tight end David Ausberry (foot), wide receiver Vincent Brown (hamstring), cornerback Chimdi Chekwa (hamstring) and cornerback Keith McGill (groin) on the sideline. The Seahawks ruled out defensive tackle Jordan Hill (ankle), safety Jeron Johnson (concussion), cornerback Byron Maxwell (calf), tight end Zach Miller (ankle), linebacker Malcolm Smith (groin) and linebacker Bobby Wagner (toe). Questionable tags were placed on safety Kam Chancellor (groin), tackle Russell Okung (calf), center Stephen Schilling (knee) and center Max Unger (foot), which could make for a lot of street clothes if game-time calls go the wrong way.

Ravens at Steelers

Baltimore will roll into Pittsburgh without wide receiver Michael Campanaro (thigh) and cornerback Jimmy Smith (foot). They’ll hold off on decisions about defensive end Chris Canty (wrist), tight end Owen Daniels (knee) and guard Marshal Yanda (knee) after listing them as questionable. Cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) and safety Ross Ventrone (hamstring) were ruled out by the Steelers, whose injury report is otherwise comprised of probable players.

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PFT’s Week Nine picks

Brady AP

Last week was a good week.  For me.  Not for MDS.

We disagreed on two games, and my faith in the Steelers and Saints finally paid off.

So that five-game lead MDS enjoyed has shrinked/shrunk/shrunken/whatever to three.  And we disagree on three games this week.  They also happen to be the biggest three games of the week.

Last week, I went 10-5 and MDS finished 8-7.  For the year, he’s now at 78-43 (64.4 percent) and I’m at 75-46 (61.9 percent).

Saints at Panthers

MDS’s take: Someone has to win the NFC South, and it will probably be this game’s winners, who will be the only team in the division with a .500 record. I think the Saints’ offense will move the ball well in Carolina and make a big statement that New Orleans is the team to beat in the South.

MDS’s pick: Saints 31, Panthers 17.

Florio’s take:  The Saints can’t lose at home, can’t win on the road.  This could be the moment where the latter trend ends (at least for now), with New Orleans chasing a big win over the Packers with a trip to face a so-so team with an offensive line rattled by injuries.

Florio’s pick:  Saints 27, Panthers 23.

Jaguars at Bengals

MDS’s take: Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles just makes far too many mistakes. He’s not ready, and the Jaguars’ coaches know he’s not ready, but they felt they had no choice but to play him because Chad Henne got off to such a bad start this year. Look for Bortles to continue to struggle and the Jaguars to continue to lose.

MDS’s pick: Bengals 30, Jaguars 10.

Florio’s takeA.J. Green is back, a week after the Bengals found a way to win without him.  It will be even easier against a team with only one win.

Florio’s pick:  Bengals 27, Jaguars 10.

Buccaneers at Browns

MDS’s take: The Browns may not be as good as their 4-3 record suggests, but the Bucs are every bit as bad as their 1-6 record suggests. Cleveland will get to five wins at the halfway point, which represents major progress considering the mess new coach Mike Pettine inherited.

MDS’s pick: Browns 22, Buccaneers 17.

Florio’s take:  The Browns avoided a second-straight loss to a winless team.  They now have to guard against a loss to a one-win team.  It won’t be easy, but the Browns are starting to learn how to win the games they’re supposed to.

Florio’s pick:  Browns 24, Buccaneers 16.

Cardinals at Cowboys

MDS’s take: I wish I knew for sure when picking this game whether or not Tony Romo will play, but even if Romo can’t play I lean toward the Cowboys controlling things offensively thanks to their great offensive line and MVP candidate DeMarco Murray.

MDS’s pick: Cowboys 21, Cardinals 20.

Florio’s take:  The Cardinals haven’t gotten nearly the respect they deserve.  That ends here.  Despite the injuries, the suspension, the defections, and the Super Bowl hosting jinx, the Cardinals keep winning.  With or without Tony Romo, the Cardinals will be ready to do something they haven’t done since the 1998 playoffs — outscore the Cowboys in Dallas.

Florio’s pick:  Cardinals 21, Cowboys 17.

Eagles at Texans

MDS’s take: Interceptions are piling up for Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, which is a major concern in Philadelphia considering that the Texans have a strong pass defense. But I’m not sold on the Texans’ offense putting many points on the board, and I’ll pick the Eagles to win a close, low-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Eagles 14, Texans 13.

Florio’s take:  The Philly offensive line is getting a little healthier, just in time for J.J. Watt and company.  After nearly toppling the Cardinals in Arizona, the Eagles go to Houston and drag the Texans under .500, where based on the overall talent of the team they belong.

Florio’s pick:  Eagles 27, Texans 17.

Jets at Chiefs

MDS’s take: At this point I’m not sure that it much matters whether Michael Vick or Geno Smith is the Jets’ starter. The Jets aren’t going to win with either quarterback, especially on the road against a solid team like the Chiefs.

MDS’s pick: Chiefs 31, Jets 20.

Florio’s take:  How did the Chiefs lose the Titans in Week One?  Eventually, we also may be asking how the Jets beat the Raiders that same day.

Florio’s pick:  Chiefs 30, Jets 13.

Chargers at Dolphins

MDS’s take: The Dolphins’ defense is a lot better than most people realize, but I still like Philip Rivers to play well enough to earn a hard-fought road win in a game that will have significant implications for the AFC wild card race.

MDS’s pick: Chargers 21, Dolphins 20.

Florio’s take:  The Chargers are due to win.  The Dolphins are due to lose.  Sometimes, it’s just that easy.

Florio’s pick:  Chargers 28, Dolphins 21.

Washington at Vikings

MDS’s take: Neither of these teams is very good, but both of them are coming off overtime wins and will be motivated to show that they’re not dead yet in the NFC playoff race. I’m going with the Vikings, who are starting to play defense the way Mike Zimmer wants to see.

MDS’s pick: Vikings 17, Washington 7.

Florio’s take:  RGIII returns, but is that a good thing?  He looked mediocre before dislocating his ankle, and now he’s rusty.  He’ll also be pressing to make fans forget about a couple of critical wins from Colt McCoy.  Meanwhile, the Vikings have some winnable games down the stretch; if they can get to 4-5, things can get interesting in December.

Florio’s pick:  Vikings 20, Washington 17.

Rams at 49ers

MDS’s take: Looking ahead at the 49ers’ schedule, their path to the playoffs is not an easy one. These are the games the 49ers need to win if they’re going to be a playoff team. They’ll win this one.

MDS’s pick: 49ers 24, Rams 20.

Florio’s take:  The 49ers are rested and motivated to keep up with the Cardinals, who are close to running away with the NFC West.  The Rams won’t be pushovers, but San Fran needs this one too badly to blow it.

Florio’s pick:  49ers 27, Rams 20.

Broncos at Patriots

MDS’s take: The Patriots have really turned things around recently and are probably the second-best team in the AFC right now. Unfortunately, the best team in the AFC is coming to town. Denver’s offense will put up big numbers and win more easily than most people are expecting.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 34, Patriots 20.

Florio’s take:  In fifteen prior Brady-Manning contests, the home team is 10-5.  The Broncos would win easily in Denver.  The Pats find a way to prevail in Foxboro.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 27, Broncos 24.

Raiders at Seahawks

MDS’s take: I still think there are some questions about the Seahawks on both sides of the ball, but they’ll cruise to an easy win at home over the worst team in the league.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 33, Raiders 20.

Florio’s take:  Nothing helps a dysfunctional team get back on track than facing a way more dysfunctional opponent.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 34, Raiders 13.

Ravens at Steelers

MDS’s take: This game will be closer than their Week Two meeting, but the Ravens will complete the season sweep of the Steelers.

MDS’s pick: Ravens 24, Steelers 17.

Florio’s take:  The Steelers cap a three-game home stand with a win that keeps them very much alive for the division title.  A loss would put them, as a practical matter, three games behind the Ravens with seven to play.

Florio’s pick:  Steelers 13, Ravens 10.

Colts at Giants

MDS’s take: Ahmad Bradshaw returns to face his old team and should have a big game against a Giants run defense that hasn’t been particularly good this year. The Colts will bounce back from last week’s ugly loss.

MDS’s pick: Colts 30, Giants 20.

Florio’s take:  The Giants fully intend to make a run.  It’ll have to wait at least a week.  After giving up 51 in Pittsburgh, the Colts will be ready to go back to New York (sort of) 56 years after the greatest game ever played and edge the Giants, again.

Florio’s pick:  Colts 23, Giants 17.

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Week Eight power rankings

Patriots Big Test Football AP

1. Denver Broncos (Last week No. 2; 6-1):  Good news — they can handle the best the NFC has to offer.  Bad news — they may not be able to handle the Patriots.

2. Arizona Cardinals (No. 3; 6-1):  How good would this team be if it had Dansby, Dockett, and Darryl Washington?

3.  Dallas Cowboys (No. 1; 6-2):  Tony Romo says he’s fine.  Which means that the announcement of season-ending surgery should be coming any minute now.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (No. 4; 5-2):  Last year, Nick Foles carried the Eagles.  This year, he could be holding them back.

5. New England Patriots (No. 9; 6-2):  To get a full measure of revenge against the Bears for Super Bowl XX, the Pats should have let Vince Wilfork score a touchdown.

6. Detroit Lions (No. 10; 6-2):  In a year with plenty of viable candidates for coach of the year, Jim Caldwell deserves serious consideration.

7. San Diego Chargers (No. 5; 5-3):  Philip Rivers is an MVP candidate, but the Chargers may not have enough other VPs to get them where they want to be.

8. Green Bay Packers (No. 6; 5-3):  Aaron Rodgers will spend the next two weeks telling his hamstring to R-E-L-A-X.

9. Indianapolis Colts (No. 7; 5-3):  As they prepare for the latest installment of the Greatest Game Ever Played, maybe the surviving members of the ’58 Colts would do a better job of playing defense.

10. Baltimore Ravens (No. 8; 5-3):  Another game against the Bengals, another late lapse in pass defense.

11. Seattle Seahawks (No. 11; 4-3):  We’d believe that all was well in Seattle if players and coaches didn’t spend so much time trying to convince us of it.

12. Cincinnati Bengals (No. 12; 4-2-1):  Andy Dalton finally proves he can win without A.J. Green, thanks to Mohamed Sanu.

13. San Francisco 49ers (No. 13; 4-3):  The over/under of owners plotting for a run at Jim Harbaugh is currently 5.5.

14. Buffalo Bills (No. 14; 5-3):  Sammy Watkins‘ premature celebration could end up being a metaphor for his team’s 2014 season.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 18; 5-3):  It’s a good thing they didn’t listen to Snoop Dogg.  (That’s a sentence that probably has never been inaccurate.)

16. Kansas City Chiefs (No. 16; 4-3):  Maybe they should rename the battle of Missouri the Governor’s Cupcake.

17. Cleveland Browns (No. 17; 4-3):  If they’re still hovering around .500 in three weeks, it’ll be interesting to see what Josh Gordon can do for the stretch run.

18. New Orleans Saints (No. 20; 3-4):  Rob Ryan is suddenly doing a little better than Rex.

19. Miami Dolphins (No. 19; 4-3):  The next four games (Chargers, Lions, Bills, Broncos) will go a long way toward shaping the fate of the team and its coach.

20. Carolina Panthers (No. 15; 3-4-1):  And yet they somehow still have a good chance of getting to the playoffs.

21. Houston Texans (No. 22; 4-4):  Selfies are “high school.”  Letterman jackets and post-game attire exposing half of a guy’s muscle mass aren’t.

21. Chicago Bears (No. 21; 3-5):  Giving up 51 points is way more unacceptable than being 3-4.

23. New York Giants (No. 23; 3-4):  G.M. Jerry Reese thinks Eli Manning needs to be more aggressive.  Eli probably felt the same way about Reese back in March.

24. Washington (No. 27; 3-5):  See, I told you they could get a first-round pick for Colt McCoy.

25. Minnesota Vikings (No. 29; 3-5):  The combined record of the three teams they’ve beaten is 5-17.

26. St. Louis Rams (No. 24; 2-5):  The All-IR team would be dominated by Rams.

27. Atlanta Falcons (No. 25; 2-6):  If that “home” game had actually been played at home, that 21-0 lead likely wouldn’t have been blown.

28. Tennessee Titans (No. 28; 2-6):  Somewhere, Mike Munchak is cackling.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 30; 1-7):  Somewhere, Mike Mularkey is cackling.

30. New York Jets (No. 26; 1-7):  Somewhere, Rich Kotite is cackling.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 31; 1-6):  Somewhere, Greg Schiano is cackling.

32. Oakland Raiders (No. 32; 0-7):  Somewhere, Dennis Allen, Hue Jackson, Tom Cable, Lane Kiffin, Art Shell, Norv Turner, and Bill Callahan are cackling.

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Full content of John Idzik’s opening remarks from Monday

Idzik AP

[Editor’s note:  Jets G.M. John Idzik conducted a midseason press conference on Monday.  Before taking questions, he engaged in an extended monologue regarding the team’s 1-7 start.  His comments appear below, directly from the transcript provided by the Jets.]

Good afternoon and thank you for coming. I’m here to recap at the midpoint of our season what has transpired so far and our outlook going forward. Needless to say, we’re extremely disappointed in our 1-7 start. I search for words to describe how we feel, what we’re going through, knowing what we put into it and the results that we’ve achieved. It’s a struggle. I don’t know words to describe it. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s brutal. You feel like you’ve been punched in the face. It’s painful. It’s painful. It’s particularly painful for our fans because we’re in a business where our actions affect so many. Our actions affect, in our case, Jets nation. And I’ve said it before, we have generational fans. You go to the games, you go through the player walk, you see jerseys like (Joe) Namath, (Wayne) Chrebet, (Chad) Pennington, (Joe) Klecko, (Marty) Lyons, (Sheldon) Richardson (and Muhammad) Wilkerson. They span decades. We go out to camp and we invite people in here and we meet fans and I’m meeting fans from a little one wearing a green jersey, five, six years old, through their granddad or grandmom that’s 70 years their senior and everything in between. It goes back to my years here with the Jets alongside my father with the Jets. Somebody not too long ago in the media just as an aside said, “You know what, don’t take things personally.” This is very personal. This is very personal for me. The Jets are my team. The Jets are our team. By our team, I say it’s Jets Nation, and us in this building, and me, it’s very personal with us. Everything we do is very personal. So when you start out 1-7, you start out in front of our home crowd 1-4 at MetLife (and) you start out losing seven consecutive games. That’s very personal. It is. When someone you care deeply about hurts, it hurts you two-fold. I’m sure you’ve experienced that in some way. We experience that right now. It hurts us to be 1-7. But more importantly, it hurts our fan base, the people that mean so much to us. And we vow to give them what they deserve. They don’t deserve this. They don’t deserve 1-7. We vow to deliver to them.

When you talk about responsibility and where it lies, I’m the general manager of the New York Jets. I am responsible for the football operations of the New York Jets. Ultimately, I’m responsible for the performance of our team, the product that we put on the field. That lies with me. The buck stops here. I’ve been around this league a long time. I’ve grown up in this league. I know this league. The harsh reality of the National Football League is you are what your record says you are. There’s no such things as, “You know, we’ve had five single-possession games. We’ve had possession of the ball with the chance to win or tie.” In the end, did you win or did you lose? That’s what it’s about. That’s the ultimate measure in the National Football League. That’s what makes it so competitive. That’s what makes it so difficult to win. That responsibility lies with me. A 1-7 start? We own it as the Jets. I own it as our general manager. There are no excuses. My performance to date is unsatisfactory. It’s a direct reflection of our record.

With tough times, I can guarantee comes a lot of introspection. I tend to do that anyway. (There have) come a lot of days and nights when you spend every waking moment thinking and re-evaluating what you’re doing. How can you do better? What can you do to improve this team? I can assure everyone that’s been done by yours truly. And I can assure everyone that that sentiment is shared in our building for sure.

That’s another reason that our 1-7 start is disappointing, so disappointing. Because I know of the quality of people that we have in this organization and it starts right at the top. It starts with our owner, Mr. Woody Johnson. He cares deeply about the Jets. He cares deeply about our fan base. He cares deeply about our community. He knows what responsibility we have as the New York Jets. He affords us every resource that we need in order to be successful. We’re sitting in one right now. We enjoy a fantastic stadium that we experienced yesterday. And it’s not only the physical resources, it’s the human resources too, the people in this building and their commitment to the Jets. It extends to our president, Neil Glat, and the business operations side. I see what they do (and) how diligently they work in trying to bring us closer to our fan base and our fan base closer to us as a team. I see what they do for the gameday experience. I see how hard they work to make it right for our Jets Nation. It certainly extends to my side of the house in football operations. Once again, I’ve been around a lot of football teams. I’ve been involved in various aspects of football operations and I would say our football operations staff here, they’re second to none. Ask our players. They want for nothing. We have it here. The player programs, our medical and training staffs, our strength staff, our equipment staff, our security staff, we have it right here. There’s a reason for that – to elevate our players.

Certainly, our commitment certainly extends to Rex Ryan and our coaching staff. Frankly, I spend more time with Rex than I do with my wife and my family. I’ve gotten to know Rex very, very well these last 20 months or so. And the last time I checked, all the traits that make Rex Ryan our leader, our head coach, are still intact. He’s an excellent football mind. He’s a teacher. He’s a coach. He’s a motivator. He’s a mentor. He’s able to adapt. He sees both short- and long-term vision. He’s a competitor to his soul and he will never quit. It comes as no surprise that our players want to play so hard for Rex Ryan and his staff. (It is) no surprise to me. I support Rex. I continue to support Rex and our coaching staff. Our commitment extends to our players. We have a very resilient, committed (and) unbelievable group of guys. They’re very unified. You go through tough times, there are forces that want to pull you apart. That has not happened in the Jets locker room. We’re a very confident bunch. All that said, we’ve got each other’s backs. That’s easy to say, but we witness it every day. I wish our fans could see what I see every day. I wish our fans could see how Eric Decker tries to prepare himself to practice so he’s ready for the game. I wish our fans, they see on a hot day out in San Diego and we’re getting shut out 31-0, they see Damon Harrison go back in on a sprained ankle (and) play the last series like it’s the first. But do they see Sheldon Richardson taking IV’s? He’s cramping up and he plays the last as though it’s the first. David Harris takes a shot to the shoulder that would have labeled a lot of players down for a week or two. David Harris hasn’t missed a beat. Those are your Jets.

I see the commitment. I see the resolve. I see the toughness. We witness that every day. I believe in our locker room. I believe in our players. I believe in their ability. All that said, we are 1-7. We own it. I own it. We work hard. We prepare. I’ve got news for you, Kansas City is working hard and they are preparing too. It is not enough to work hard and prepare. It is essential, but it is not enough. What we do during the week, what we do in the offseason, what we do in preseason training camp must apply on game days and it must apply on a consistent basis. I believe that is what we are experiencing right now as a club. It is not a lack of ability. We have proven capable to sustain long-scoring drives. I think we may be among the league leaders in 10-plus play drives. We have proven the ability to start fast against capable opponents, scoring three touchdowns on our first three drives in Green Bay, scoring on our first five drives against New England. Two pretty good opponents. We have proven our ability to do it. We don’t do it on a consistent basis. There have been times that we can’t convert a third down with great field position and an opportunity to change the game. We don’t do it consistently. We have proven the ability to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. That is Jets football, control the line of scrimmage. We have proven to be able to run the ball. An adjunct to that is time of possession. When you control the line of scrimmage and you can run the ball, you control the clock, to the tune of 41 minutes to 19 up in New England last Thursday. We have proven the ability to do that. We don’t do it on a consistent basis. Defensively, we have proven that we can stop the run. We’re physical, and again, we will we command the line of scrimmage. We have proven that we can pressure passers. We have proven to do that. We don’t do it on a consistent basis.

The other aspect, if I can sum up two things that we need to work on, I wish it was as simple as two facets or two things, but to sum it up I think it is that lack of consistency, that we do it, but we don’t do it all the time. And our inability to finish, finish drives, our red zone efficiency, finish stops, red zone efficiency both offensively and defensively, we must improve. I am not big on stats (to) explain things. I think sometimes it can come off as excuses and we aren’t about excuses. But there is one telling stat that we all know holds true in our league and it governs or significantly effects the be-all, end-all stat and that is the score. That is turnovers, we are dead last in the league in turnover ratio. We stress it. We preach it. We study it. We practice it. We need must apply it. It is no more evident than yesterday, turning the ball over six times. We turned the ball over four times and we still got it within a score. Not good enough. We know it, we need to do it now. I guess what I am saying is, we have done these things in spurts. It is not enough to do them in spurts in the National Football League. You need to do it continuously. That is habitual. That is something that you learn on Monday, you apply it on Wednesday and (you) take it right into Sunday.

I know our guys are unified. I don’t ever doubt the desire, the effort, the competitiveness of our players. I don’t doubt that for a second. But we need to consistently finish games. As I believe in our staff and our players, I also believe in our underlying plan. I have been a part of this plan. I have experienced this plan. I know it works. I know it works. Our plan is not only to win now, it is to win into the future. Easy to say, harder to do. Those are not two mutually exclusive time periods. Now and the future are the same when it comes to our decision making. When we make decisions, we make decisions that are going to benefit the Jets now and into the future. We will draft and develop players. Developing players takes a lot of effort, it does. Sometimes you have to run through some rough patches to get to the other side. That is what it takes. We will acquire players in any manner possible. By all means, we will acquire players, draft and develop players who fit what we believe to be a Jet. By that, we will be able to mold them into a cohesive unit. Again, sounds pretty simple, sounds pretty textbook, but harder to put into place. That is what we will do.

We have been asked about our salary cap room this year, quizzed about our salary cap room and how it impacted 2014. I look at room as a plus. I look at room as our ability to be flexible and maneuver, not only in free agency, but throughout the year. Our room is really a byproduct of us being relatively young. We have young players at impact positions on their first NFL contract. It stands to reason that we will have room. We won’t always enjoy this type of room, so that room to me is not savings. Room again is a tool. It can be used now, and it can be used in the future. We can flip room if we need to. We will use our room wisely. Now, spending in this league doesn’t translate to winning, wise spending in this league translates into winning, now and in the future.

We have also been asked about particular positions, most notably (cornerback), and how we have addressed it and how it impacted 2014. I can tell you that every decision that has been made along the way has been geared to succeeding in 2014 and going forward. When we entertain players in free agency, when we entertain doing an extension, it is being done now and for the future. It must fit for us. That way we believe, I believe, that it maximizes chances for the club and the player to be successful, now and into the future. 1-7, it stings. 1-7 is disappointing to our fans, it is disappointing to us. We are disappointed, yes. We are not discouraged. We are not disheartened. There is a lot of heart in our locker room. There is a lot of heart in our locker room. There is a lot of resolve. There is a lot of confidence. You are going to see that. We have eight games to play here. We have half the season in front of us. You’re going to see that starting this week. Our focus is on Kansas City and how to beat the Chiefs. That is who we are. I believe in our people, I believe in our plan.

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NFL morning after: Keep the early kickoffs coming

lionscelebrate AP

I loved watching football first thing in the morning on Sunday. I hope this becomes a regular thing.

The NFL’s decision to have kick off Sunday’s game in London at 1:30 p.m. local time — which is 9:30 a.m. Eastern time — was brilliant. It created an NFL Sunday that lasted more than 12 hours, and gave fans a chance to have some football with their coffee (or an early-morning beer, if you prefer). I’m already on my couch non-stop from noon to night. Why not make it morning to night?

I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwest, but I lived in California for four years, and I always felt like those of us on the West Coast were in on a little secret that the rest of America didn’t realize: There’s nothing better than watching football first thing in the morning. Those 10 a.m. kickoffs every Sunday are great for viewers in the Pacific time zone, and the 9:30 a.m. kickoff this Sunday was great for viewers in the Eastern time zone.

Granted, there are probably more than a few fans on the West Coast who didn’t much like the idea that they were either getting up by 6:30 or missing the game, but you can’t please everybody. There are also plenty of East Coast viewers who don’t like the Sunday, Monday and Thursday night games going late when they have work or school early the next morning. The early-Sunday time slot won’t please every audience, but it pleases enough fans that the NFL should keep it up.

The league is serious about establishing a permanent presence in London. Some American fans don’t like the NFL’s overseas experiment, but we’re just going to have to get used to hearing both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Save the Queen” before games. That ship has sailed, and it’s docked permanently on the other side of the Atlantic.

The only question is what’s the best way to go about putting the NFL in London, and I think the best way is to keep up the early games. The NFL is always looking to maximize its TV exposure and revenue, and so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the league eventually create a separate TV package with early-morning London games. If the NFL puts four to eight games a year in London at 9:30 a.m. Eastern, you can bet every network would be interested in airing those games, and willing to pay the league a pretty penny for the privilege. American football in London is in our future. And so are early-Sunday wakeup calls. I like it.

Here are my other thoughts:

The Lions appear playoff bound. As for the London game itself, Detroit sleepwalked through the first half and fell behind 21-0, then outscored Atlanta 22-0 in the second half to pull out a last-second win. The Lions haven’t even played particularly well this year, but they’re 6-2 and should get a lot healthier after the bye week, with Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, the top three tight ends on their depth chart and rookie linebacker Kyle Van Noy all slated to return after missing Sunday’s game. Combine the improving health of the roster and a second-half schedule that includes some games they should win (including home games against the Dolphins, Buccaneers, Bears and Vikings) and it’s easy to see the Lions in the playoffs.

A silly statement from Quinton Coples. In response to the academic scandal at his alma mater, North Carolina, Coples blamed the whole controversy on “bad media.” That’s preposterous. The university’s own report, which detailed more than 3,000 students getting credit for sham classes, was far more damning than anything the media have said about the mess at North Carolina. What we need is more media scrutiny on the joke that is the state of academics at big-time football and basketball schools. Statements like that from Coples show how many athletes just don’t get it.

A gutsy, and correct, call killed the Ravens. The offensive pass interference penalty against Baltimore receiver Steve Smith that negated what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown was a gutsy call by the official: A lot of officials keep their flags in their pockets in those situations. But it was absolutely the right call. Smith pushed off to get himself open, and it deserved to be called back. The normally hot-headed Smith seemed to realize it was the right call because he was calm, cool and collected as he walked off the field, and didn’t complain about the flag.

Matt Schaub’s debut was very Raider-like. When you’re a terrible team like the Raiders, things just seem to go against you. So it was when Schaub came on the field and promptly threw an interception as part of a weird fake field goal attempt. Schaub just doesn’t look right mentally — he looked jittery and nervous as he threw that pass, just as he often did last year in Houston. Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie traded away a draft pick for the privilege of assuming Schaub’s $8 million salary this year. I’m surprised Raiders owner Mark Davis hasn’t fired McKenzie for that.

Anthony Barr is incredible. Barr, the Vikings’ rookie outside linebacker, gave Minnesota an overtime win by forcing a fumble, picking it up and racing 27 yards for a touchdown. For all the hype Jadeveon Clowney had entering the draft, and with all due respect to Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack, I’m starting to think the Vikings got the best defensive player of the bunch when they drafted Barr.

Does anyone want to win the NFC South? It’s the worst division in the NFL by far, with no one having a winning record. My money’s on the Panthers winning the division with a 7-8-1 record.

I guess Tom Brady’s not washed up yet. Brady’s stats in the four games since that debacle in Kansas City had everyone saying New England was finished are 100-for-144 for 1,268 yards, with 14 touchdowns and no interceptions. It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Week Eight early inactives

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Getty Images

Every week we’ll bring you all the inactives from the early games in one post, constantly updated with the latest information. Thanks to the early kickoff in London, this week is a little different, but check back often to see the full list of sidelined players from the traditional early starts as it becomes available.

Seahawks at Panthers

Seahawks: LB Bobby Wagner, C Max Unger, CB Byron Maxwell, DT Jordan Hill, TE Zach Miller, WR Bryan Walters, OL Andrew McDonald

Panthers: CB Bene’ Benwikere, RB DeAngelo Williams, G Trai Turner, G Amini Silatolu, LB Chase Blackburn, RB Fozzy Whittaker, WR Corey Brown

Bills at Jets

Bills: RB Fred Jackson, LB Ty Powell, CB Ross Cockrell, RB Phillip Tanner, T Cyrus Kouandjio, WR Marcus Easley, WR Marquise Goodwin

Jets: WR Greg Salas, LB Trevor Reilly, G Dakota Dozier, DL T.J. Barnes, LB IK Enemkpali, WR Walter Powell, OL Wesley Johnson

Ravens at Bengals

Ravens: DE Chris Canty, TE Owen Daniels, CB Chyke Brown, RB Bernard Pierce, LB Arthur Brown, G/C Gino Gradkowski, G/T Jah Reid,

Bengals: WR A.J. Green, LB Rey Maualuga, RB Rex Burkhead, CB Chris Lewis-Harris, T Tanner Hawkinson, DE Will Clarke, DT Brandon Thompson

Dolphins at Jaguars

Dolphins: DB Jimmy Wilson, LB Koa Misi, G Shelley Smith, T Jason Fox, DT Anthony Johnson, G Billy Turner, TE Gator Hoskins

Jaguars: DB Alan Ball, DE Andre Branch, G Tyler Shatley, CB Mike Brown, CB Payton Thompson, RB Storm Johnson, OL Sam Young

Rams at Chiefs

Rams: C Tim Barnes, CB Janoris Jenkins, CB Trumaine Johnson, QB Case Keenum, TE Alex Bayer, DE Ethan Westbrooks, S Maurice Alexander

Chiefs: CB Chris Owens, WR Donnie Avery, S Eric Berry, QB Aaron Murray, C Eric Kush, OL Laurent Duvernat-Tardif, DL Damion Square

Bears at Patriots

Bears: S Danny McCray, T Jordan Mills, LB Jon Bostic, LB Lance Briggs, CB Terrance Mitchell, S Ahmad Dixon, OT Charles Leno

Patriots: DE Chandler Jones, CB Alfonzo Dennard, OL Jordan Devey, T Cameron Fleming, S Nate Ebner, WR Aaron Dobson, OL Chris Barker

Vikings at Buccaneers

Vikings: FB Zach Line, LB Gerald Hodges, LB Brandon Watts, G Vlad Ducasse, G David Yankey, TE Kyle Rudolph, DE Scott Crichton

Buccaneers: LB Brandon Magee, LB Jonathan Casillas, CB Brandon Dixon, G Kadeem Edwards, QB Mike Kafka, T Kevin Pamphile, S Keith Tandy

Texans at Titans

Texans: CB Darryl Morris, LB Jeff Tarpinian, LB Brian Cushing, QB Tom Savage, WR DeVier Posey, S Josh Aubrey, OL Jeff Adams

Titans: QB Charlie Whitehurst, WR Kris Durham, DL DaQuan Jones, T Will Svitek, CB Coty Sensabaugh, TE Taylor Thompson, RB Antonio Andrews

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Week Eight “Three and Out”

Hogan AP

The dilemma has been resolved.  For now.

The “Three and Out” series will continue, with three questions and answers for each of the Sunday games, every Sunday until no more Sundays remain in the 2014 regular season.

Then, the dilemma will resurface in 2015.  Assuming I — and you — don’t completely forget about this feature by then.

Lions at Falcons

1.  Why are they playing this one so early?

That’s the question ESPN and CBS will be asking, as the audiences for their pregame shows, already diluted by the Internet, become even more undermined by an actual game.  But there are only so many places on the pizzas into which cheese can be crammed, and the NFL is hoping to fill up the crust of your morning with football.

On a day that usually features a large cluster of games from 1:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. ET, the shifting of a game to 9:30 a.m. ET lets everyone focus on one game before a bunch of them get started.  And it showcases the London game, giving it a spot by itself on the Wembley Stadium stage.

Of course, Lions and Falcons fans living in California may not appreciate it.  If enough people in every time zone tune in, look for more early-morning London games in the future.

2.  Do the Lions really need Calvin Johnson?

Not at a cap number in excess of $20 million for next year; that reality continues to hover over the franchise.  The bloated Ndamukong Suh contract will result in the second overall pick in the 2010 draft leaving in free agency.  Johnson’s big-dollar deal could still prompt the Lions to cut him as early as next year.

The more they win without him and the longer his ankle injury lingers, the more likely the Lions will be to devote those cap dollars to other positions on the roster.

G.M. Martin Mayhew declined to comment on Johnson’s future this week. Mayhew also opted not to declare Johnson will retire as a Lion. At this point, it would be a surprise if he does.

3.  Is there hope for the Falcons?

Technically, yes. Despite being 2-5, the Falcons are only one win behind the first-place Panthers. And the Falcons still play Carolina twice.

But something’s wrong. The Falcons haven’t won in more than a month, a rollicking 56-14 Thursday night trouncing of the Buccaneers. Injuries on the offensive line and a subpar defense have left the Falcons searching desperately for answers — and even more desperately for a win. Against the 5-2 Lions on Sunday, that may not happen.

At least they won’t have to use the silent count in front of their “home” fans in London.

Seahawks at Panthers

1.  Are the Seahawks divided?

They’re apparently divided on the question of whether there’s a divide.  Quarterback Russell Wilson insists all is well, but what else is going to say?  Coach Pete Carroll and company managed to hide some serious dysfunction during receiver Percy Harvin’s time with the team.  Folks who know the truth continue to be programmed to say nothing, with Carroll having a Belichickian degree of influence over current and former players who won’t break ranks for fear of incurring the Wrath of Pete.

Something clearly isn’t right, or Harvin would still be there.  While Harvin reportedly was far from a model citizen, there’s no smoking gun that points a major incident that became the last straw.  Otherwise, players wouldn’t have been so shocked by the news that Harvin had been dumped onto the Jets.

While there’s cause for concern if, as it appears, some players resent Wilson, this team found a way to easily win the Super Bowl despite whatever was happening in 2013.  It shouldn’t be an issue this year, unless the losses continue to pile up.

Pile up they may.  Through six games, Seattle already has lost as many as it lost in 19 games a season ago.

2.  How much do the Panthers miss Greg Hardy?

A lot.  Ranked 27th in yardage allowed and 29th in scoring, the Panthers aren’t close to what they were defensively in 2013.  They’ve still mustered 15 sacks through seven games, but that’s a far cry from the 60-sack mark of a year ago.

As Hardy heads toward a trial date next month on domestic violence charges, an acquittal should result in immediate reinstatement, which will be very good news for a Panthers team that somehow finds itself in first place despite a sluggish 3-3-1 record.

3.  Should Russell Wilson have his head on a swivel?

With all the talk about internal strife, the Seahawks quarterback needs to be concerned about external forces that intend him harm.  The Panthers definitely do, if Wilson decides to tuck the ball and run.

“He’s pretty much like a running back back there with the way he can scramble. So we’ve just got to plaster him and, in some cases, take a shot,” Carolina defensive end Wes Horton said this week.

It’s easy to say.  It’s not easy to do.  Fast, agile, and elusive, Wilson has a knack for running away from and around guys, protecting himself by getting out of bounds or sliding or instinctively positioning himself in a way to absorb a hit without it being the kind of big hit that could cause an injury.

Ravens at Bengals

1.  What’s wrong with the Bengals?

From three straight wins to three straight games without one, the easy explanation is that the Bengals miss receiver A.J. Green, who has missed the last two with a toe injury and who was fully neutralized by Pats cornerback Darrelle Revis in Week Five.  Apart from his production, the threat of Green getting behind a defense opens up the rest of the offense.  Without that potential for a big play, it’s a lot harder to find an opening underneath.

The defense under new coordinator Paul Guenther also has been exposed.  Over the last three weeks, Cincinnati has allowed 43, 37, and 27.  That’s an average of 35.6 points allowed per game.

A loss to Baltimore will equalize the head-to-head tiebreaker (which only matters if Baltimore plays someone to a tie this year, given Cincinnati’s tie with the Panthers).  Far more importantly, it will put the Bengals two-and-a-half games behind the Ravens.

2.  Is Andy Dalton earning his contract?

The media and the fans tend to adopt narratives early in the season and then forget about them.  For the Bengals’ freshly-minted almost-franchise quarterback, conventional wisdom supported the notion that Dalton was indeed justifying the team’s investment in him.  Averaging 8.6 yards per attempt, Dalton was on his way to becoming one of the best young-ish quarterbacks in the league.

In the last three games, Dalton’s average-per-attempt has plunged to 6.2, with a paltry 3.3 yards per attempt during a shutout loss to the Colts.  While the absence of A.J. Green surely is a factor, true franchise quarterbacks generate yards and points and wins regardless of who the receivers are.  Dalton has shown that he’s still not ready for that title.

3.  Why are the Ravens more productive on offense this year?

It partially comes from an emphasis on generating points early in games.  It’s one of the specific situations on which the Ravens focus in practice each week.

“That has been something we’ve done through training camp, and we do it usually about once a week,” coach John Harbaugh said this week. “We have a first drive of the game. It’s nothing elaborate. It’s just a drill.”

The drill is working.  Quarterback Joe Flacco has six first-quarter touchdown passes in 2014.  Last season, he had a total of four.

Dolphins at Jaguars

1.  Is Peyton Manning a Dolphins fan?

At least for this week, he should be.  With 10 interceptions in five games and with nine to play, Blake Bortles is on pace to tie Peyton Manning’s rookie interception record of 28.

Manning, who is keenly aware of pretty much everything (including scoreboard operation), knows about the record — he mentioned it during a preseason visit to PFT on NBCSN.  If Bortles keeps throwing at least two per game, Manning won’t have to mention it any longer.

2.  Will Denard Robinson ever do more than be a tailback?

Quite possibly.  Appearing on Thursday’s PFT Live, Robinson said that he’s currently focusing on getting more comfortable at the running back position.  Once he does, he could be doing more in the offense, including playing a little quarterback.

Robinson is getting closer to reaching the right comfort level at running back.  He carried the ball 22 times for 127 yards on Sunday against the Browns.  In all of 2013, Robinson had a total of 20 carries.

Maybe, in time, he’ll be throwing a periodic pass or two along with it.

3.  How has Ryan Tannehill improved so quickly?

When Bill Lazor arrived as offensive coordinator, the thinking was that Tannehill would have to adapt to the new offense.  Lazor eventually decided to adapt the offense to Tannehill.

Deep throws, for example, aren’t one of Tannehill’s strengths.  So the Dolphins only dial up a pass of 20 or more yards once in ever 12 snaps.

With a 2-1 record since coach Joe Philbin bizarrely answered a different question when asked if Tannehill is still the starter, Tannehill has shown that he’s the right guy for the job — at least for now.

Rams at Chiefs

1.  What have they done with Zac Stacy?

Stacy started the year as the starting running back in St. Louis.  But with Benny Cunningham performing well and rookie Tre Mason making a bit of a splash, Stacy participated in only one play during last Sunday’s win over the Seahawks.  And he didn’t touch the ball at all.

It was just a weird situation,” Stacy said this week. “Right now, we’re doing a rotation with me, Tre, and Benny — and we’re going with the hot hand.  I’m just staying positive, I’ll keep working, and whenever my opportunity is called just take advantage of it.”

For the year, Stacy remains the leading rusher, with 240 yards.  Cunningham has 136 and Mason has 125.  But Mason had 85 against the Seahawks, which qualifies him as having the hottest hand, as of right now.

2.  Is Austin Davis the next Tom Brady or Kurt Warner?

Brady?  No.  Warner?  Probably no.

The comparison came from Brett Favre, who emerges via satellite from Mississippi with the frequency of Punxsutawney Phil to spout off a wide variety of opinions about a sport that he doesn’t follow very closely.  His point was that Davis, who became “the guy” in St. Louis after the first “the guy” looked awful in Week One while trying to replace “the guy” with the torn ACL.  The biggest comparison to Warner is that Shaun Hill was supposed to be Warner, 15 years after a preseason ACL tear for Trent Green opened the door for the former Arena League grocery-bagger.

Davis doesn’t have the same compelling back story as Warner.  Sure, Davis was a walk-on at Southern Miss and became the starter as a redshirt freshman and set 15 school game and single-season records (breaking some of Favre’s records) and eventually broke most if not all of Favre’s school records and went undrafted in 2012 and bounced around the league a little before returning to St. Louis for good (for now) when Sam Bradford tore his ACL for the first time last October.

It’s an intriguing tale, but the Rams are still 2-4.  They’ll need more than multiple special-teams tricks and gimmicks to get into the playoff hunt, and Davis has a long way to go until he’s lighting things up the way Brady and Warner did en route to Super Bowl titles in seasons they found themselves unexpectedly under center.

3.  Is Alex Smith reflecting much on his most recent game against the Rams?

He says he’s not.  But how can’t he be?  It was a concussion in November 2012 against St. Louis that opened the door for Colin Kaepernick and closed the book on Smith’s career in San Francisco.

I haven’t given it that much thought,” Smith said this week. “Certainly I recognize when we go over the personnel, some of these guys. I remember the game. I remember it well. But I haven’t really thought about the what-ifs.”

There’s no way of knowing whether Smith would still be the starter in San Francisco but for that concussion.  The 49ers presumably didn’t trade up in the second round of the 2011 draft for a guy they planned to park on the bench for four years.  Still, that Rams game from nearly two years ago provided the impetus for change, and Smith’s new surroundings have him facing the Rams for the first time with his new team.

Bears at Patriots

1.  Who will Darrelle Revis cover?

The obvious candidate is receiver Brandon Marshall.  But receiver Alshon Jeffery can be just as problematic, and tight end Martellus Bennett needs to be accounted for.  Without a clear-cut dominant option, Revis could move around and other confuse quarterback Jay Cutler and/or coach Marc Trestman, who fears the NFL has begun to catch up with his offense.  Which doesn’t bode well against a head coach who already has detected all the tendencies and trends — and who will keep the Bears from doing whatever it is that they do best.

Which as of right now isn’t all that much.

2.  Who’s the leader in Chicago?

No one, at least for now.  And the Bears desperately need someone to emerge.

They’ve got plenty of guys who lead by example; they need someone who can lead by words.

Quarterback Jay Cutler can’t or won’t or doesn’t care enough to even consider it.  Receiver Brandon Marshall has tried, but it’s unclear whether anyone will follow him.  Coach Marc Trestman possibly lacks the personality to command a locker room, which is one of the most important traits of any NFL head coach.

Adversity possibly will cause a vocal leader to emerge.  If it doesn’t, the Bears are destined to continue to float through their schedule, underachieving and unable to change it.

3.  Will Brandon Marshall continue to sound off?

Probably.  First, because that’s his way.  Second, because Trestman has given Marshall and everyone else a license to pop off after games.  Trestman says he needs to be “accepting” and “non-judgmental” when players speak in the heat of the moment.

Wonder if he’ll feel that way when someone says, “Our coach stinks and he should go back to Canada”?

Bills at Jets

1.  What will Percy Harvin’s role be?

It won’t be extensive; coach Rex Ryan says it’s unrealistic to think Harvin will be ready to participate in 50 snaps.  But even though it will be difficult for him to absorb the Jets’ version of the West Coast offense on the fly, it will be easy for the Jets to find ways to get the ball in Harvin’s hands and allow his skills to take over.

From kickoff returns to fly/jet sweeps to bubble screens to maybe even a periodic “go” route, Harvin can tilt the field in his new team’s direction without spending much time traversing the learning curve.

2.  Who in the hell is Chris Hogan?

If you don’t know, you should.  The former Penn State lacrosse player opted to give football a try on a lark, attempted to go to Syracuse and play for current Bills coach Doug Marrone as a graduate student, and ended up at Monmouth due to NCAA transfer rules.  Hogan now plays for Marrone, and Hogan has played his way into the No. 3 receiver role in the Buffalo offense.

Hogan, you may recall, was dubbed 7-11 by Reggie Bush during Hard Knocks in 2012, when Hogan and Bush played for the Dolphins.  After landing in Buffalo last year as a special-teams contributor, Hogan has earned his playing time.

“I always tell the players that you’ve got to put yourself in a position where the coaches have to play you because that’s how well you’re playing,” Marrone said this week. “I think Chris has done that.”

He made an even stronger case for more playing time with a leaping 28-yard grab that put the ball on the Minnesota two, one play before the game-winning touchdown pass from Kyle Orton to Sammy Watkins.

3.  Can the Jets’ offensive line handle the Buffalo defensive front?

Maybe not, which will make it harder for Harvin or anyone else on the New York offense to do anything.

“The two [defensive tackles] we’re going against are the best two in the league, next to [Ndamukong] Suh and [Nick] Fairley, hands down,” Jets guard Willie Colon said this week. “They’re game-wreckers, especially Kyle Williams. He’s been doing it so long. He’s definitely a guy you’ve got to scout for.  The other guy inside [Marcel Dareus] is doing a great job. Both of them are explosive, they’re making plays. They definitely give you a little bit of nightmares at night.”

The Jets’ blockers may have some nightmares at day, too.  From about 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. ET on Sunday.  Whether the Jets can do anything positive with the ball on a consistent basis will hinge on whether the line can slow down the defensive tackles — and defensive ends — who make up perhaps the best overall defensive line in the league.

Vikings at Buccaneers

1.  Will the 1-6 Bucs have a fire sale?

Coach Lovie Smith insists they won’t.  At one level, it makes sense.  With no one seeming to want to win the NFC South, the Bucs are still alive to make it to the postseason.

But Smith needs players who fit his defense, and stockpiling some picks would make plenty of sense.  The decision to unload cornerback Darrelle Revis in the offseason shows that no one is safe.  The question is whether Smith and G.M. Jason Licht are comfortable giving up players who can help them win now in return for assets that can help them win later.

2.  How’s Teddy Bridgewater doing?

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner sees some good and some bad in the rookie.

He’s a lot like our offense,” Turner said. “He’s a work in progress, and there’s going to be things we like, things where we see he’s growing, and there’s going to be things where you shake your head a little bit.”

Bridgewater showed plenty of progress in his first start against the Falcons, but Bridgewater has lost two in a row since returning from an ankle injury.  He has plenty of time to develop, but the Vikings will want to see a lot more progress before the end of the season.

3.  Is Everson Griffen earning his money?

When the Vikings decided to let Jared Allen leave via free agency and to sign youngster Everson Griffen to a $42 million contract, plenty of league insiders and observers were shocked.  But the Vikings were steadfast in their belief that the investment would generate a significant return.  So far, so good.

Griffin is second in the league with seven sacks, thanks to three against the Bills in Week Seven.

I’m all about proving people wrong,” Griffen said. “No matter what, you’re always going to have haters. … What you want to do is prove them wrong and show them you can be the guy that they gave a huge contract to and you can live up to everything.”

He’s also living up to his billing as a pass-rush specialist with his own “Sack Daddy” dance: “I slide to the left, I slide to the right, and I do a couple of swirls of my arms and I flex.”

Texans at Titans

1.  What’s wrong with Brian Cushing?

The tape from Monday night’s loss to the Steelers shows a guy who can’t run.  And he can’t run because his surgically-repaired knee is still bothering him. So he’ll take at least a game off, maybe more.

Sure, coach Bill O’Brien denies that Cushing needs rest and lists him as questionable in order to keep the Titans guessing.

But no guesswork is needed; given Cushing’s ability to run on that balky knee, no benefit is derived from making the Titans think they may be facing him.

2.  Why switch to Zach Mettenberger now?

The Titans need to know what they have in the rookie sixth-rounder, so that they’ll know whether to look for a new quarterback in 2015.  Destined to have a top 10 (or maybe a top five) pick in the draft, the Titans could try to find a franchise quarterback in Round One, if they don’t think Mettenberger will be the answer.

With Tennessee as a practical matter out of the running for a playoff berth, it makes sense to start the process of evaluating Mettenberger now.  Waiting until December could result in only a partial look at Mettenberger’s abilities.  The Titans need to see what he does not only in those first few games when the opposing defenses don’t have much film but also after enough tape has been generated to give defensive coordinators more insight into what the rookie does well, what he doesn’t do well, and how he reacts when the things he does well are taken away.

3.  Why hasn’t Ryan Fitzpatrick been benched?

Fitzpatrick actually isn’t playing all that poorly.  He’s averaging a career-high 8.0 yards per attempt, which means he’s moving the ball well when he throws it.  But Fitzpatrick also has eight turnovers in the last five games, which makes it hard to parlayn the ability to move the ball into a movement of the scoreboard.

It’s too early to throw in the towel on the Texans’ season, and it’s also too early to assume Ryan Mallett or rookie Tom Savage are ready.  At some point, though, the Texans need to know what they have in Mallett (who’ll be a free agent after the season) and Savage.  Especially if the wheels continue the process of coming off, and if the Texans earn another position high in the draft.

Eagles at Cardinals

1.  Are the Cardinals relying too much on Andre Ellington?

Possibly.  A year ago, they handled him with care.  Now, he’s becoming the workhorse, with coach Bruce Arians believing Ellington can withstand 30 touches per game.

He’s very unique,” quarterback Carson Palmer said this week. “There isn’t another guy in the league like him. He’s got that ability in the pass game and the run game, the ability to go the distance, the ability to run between the tackles. He does a lot for us and he can do it all.”

Last week, Ellington had 30 touches, with 24 rushing attempts and six receptions.  For the year, he’s averaging 21.6 per game.

Look for that average to keep going up, as long as Ellington can stay healthy.

2.  Does the bye week help the Eagles’ chances?

Typically, having extra time to rest up and prepare for a game doesn’t hurt.  Eagles coach Chip Kelly traditionally has parlayed in-season bye weeks into victory.  Undefeated at Oregon after a regular-season bye and 1-0 at the NFL level (the Eagles but the Cardinals after a bye in 2013), the Eagles have a very real edge when it comes to self-scouting and game-planning.

3.  How will Larry Fitzgerald’s “champagne problem” resolve itself?

The veteran receiver applied that label to his relative lack of targets and catches as he further downplays the idea that he’s being phased out of the Arizona offense.  But the decreased production points directly to a looming divorce; with a cap number of $23.8 million in 2015 and an additional shell-game restructuring likely not practical, Fitzgerald will have to take less to stay.

Which means Fitzgerald likely will be cut.  Which gives him a chance to join Tom Brady in New England or Peyton Manning in Denver or to go home to Minnesota.

Raiders at Browns

1.  Is Brian Hoyer on a short leash?

It’s not yet short, but it’s definitely shorter than it would have been if the Browns hadn’t lost to the Jaguars last Sunday.  Hoyer looked sluggish and inaccurate.  Ultimately, he was ineffective, prompting coach Mike Petting to admit that he’d considered using Johnny Manziel at one point.

The Browns eventually have to decide who their starter will be in 2015.  If Hoyer performs against the Raiders the way he played against the Jaguars, the decision for next year gets a lot easier.

And the chances of the decision being implemented in 2014 become a lot greater.

2.  How big of a deal would it be to lose to the Raiders?

It would be a pretty big deal.  If the Browns follow last week’s 24-6 loss to the previously 0-6 Jaguars with a loss to the currently 0-6 Raiders, Cleveland will become the first to lose to winless teams on consecutive weekends in Week Seven or later.

And that would likely result in the donning of a Ryan Pontbriand jersey and the direction of strong words at the building that presumably had shed its prior moniker.

3.  Could the Raiders go 0-16?

The schedule gets no softer any time soon.  The only team in the final 10 currently under .500 is the Rams, who could be a lot better by the time the Raiders visit St. Louis on November 30.

After Sunday’s trip to the 3-3 Browns, it’s time to face the 3-3 Seahawks, the 6-1 Broncos, the 5-3 Chargers, the 3-3 Chiefs, the Rams, the 4-3 49ers, the Chiefs again, the 4-3 Bills, and the Broncos again.

And, yes, seven of the remaining 10 games come against teams that made it to the playoffs in 2013.

So, yes, 0-16 is more than a remote possibility.

Colts at Steelers

1.  Who steps up for Reggie Wayne?

With the veteran out due to an elbow injury, Hakeem Nicks becomes the obvious candidate to get more work.  A former first-round pick who’s in his  Second Annual Contract Year, Nicks has a very high opinion of himself.  It’s now his chance to persuade everyone else to share that view.

But Nicks has only 17 catches in seven games, generating a mere 141 yards.  As a result, he could be pushed by rookie Donte Moncrief, who actually was on the field for more snaps last week than Nicks.

2.  Are the Steelers getting any healthier?

Yes, gradually.  The best news comes from linebacker Ryan Shazier’s looming return after a Week Three knee injury.  He’s listed as probable for Sunday’s game, which means it’s virtually certain he’ll play.

While cornerback Ike Taylor isn’t ready to play, he practiced this week after suffering a broken forearm in that same game.  The Steelers need all the help they can get as they try to avoid sliding back under .500 and losing a second home game in their last three.

3.  Can the Colts’ defense pitch another shutout?

Probably not.  Although it’s tempting to assume that a team’s most recent performances will continue indefinitely, that 27-0 victory over the Bengals in Indy doesn’t mean the ’85 Bears will be rolling into Pittsburgh.  The Steelers average 28 points per game at home.  Even though their offense has been maligned by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Joe Banner, they know how to score points at home, and score points they will.

The only question is whether they’ll score enough.

Packers at Saints

1.  Will this finally be a good Sunday night game?

Hopefully.  The last two games between the Packers and Saints have entailed high scoring and excitement.  The Packers won 28-27 in 2012, and the 2011 season began with an excellent 42-34 game at Lambeau Field, which the Packers won by stuffing then-rookie Mark Ingram at the goal line.

The Saints haven’t lost at home under coach Sean Payton since 2011, and they’ve won 13 straight home prime-time games.  So this one has the potential to be a good one — regardless of whether the Saints ultimately can continue their run of success at home.

2.  Are the Saints still alive in the NFC South?

Absolutely.  Despite being only 2-4, the Saints have six home games left, and they’re only one game behind the Panthers in the loss column.  Holding serve at home coupled with a road win or two would easily win the division no one seems to want to.  And the guaranteed home game that goes with winning the division could allow the Saints to do what the 7-9 Seahawks did to the Saints in the 2010 postseason.

3.  Should Aaron Rodgers be considered for a second MVP award?

Without question.  He has led the Packers to four straight wins, and he’s thrown 18 touchdown passes against only one interception.  While his final numbers may not be as good as 2011 (the year he won the MVP award), he’s performing at a high level once again — and most importantly the Packers are having yet another special season in a year that started off looking like anything but.

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Week Eight injury report roundup

Cincinnati Bengals v Indianapolis Colts Getty Images

Over the course of the week, there are a lot of posts about the most prominent injured players but we know that you might not see all of them and that some others may fall through the cracks. As a result, we’ll comb through all the injury reports every Friday afternoon so that there’s one stop for all the news from every team playing on Sunday. So, without further delay, the injury report roundup for Week Eight of the 2014 season.

Lions vs. Falcons (in London)

The Lions listed running back Reggie Bush (ankle) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (foot) as doubtful, but there’s still a chance for wide receiver Calvin Johnson (ankle, questionable). No such chance remains for tight ends Eric Ebron (hamstring) or Joseph Fauria (ankle). The Falcons hope to get wide receiver Harry Douglas (foot, questionable) back in the lineup and also listed defensive tackle Jordan Babineaux (foot) as questionable.

Seahawks at Panthers

Seattle will cross the country without running back Derrick Coleman (foot), defensive tackle Jordan Hill (ankle), cornerback Byron Maxwell (calf), tight end Zach Miller (ankle), center Max Unger (foot), linebacker Bobby Wagner (toe) or wide receiver Bryan Walters (concussion). Everyone else on their injury report is probable. The Panthers raise the Seahawks one on the number of players ruled out. Cornerback Bene’ Benwikere (ankle), linebacker Chase Blackburn (knee), wide receiver Corey Brown (concussion), guard Amini Silatolu (calf), guard Trai Turner (knee), running back Fozzy Whittaker (thigh) and running back DeAngelo Williams (ankle) are all going to miss the game. Running back Chris Ogbonnaya (groin) and Jason Williams (hip) are both questionable.

Ravens at Bengals

Owen Daniels (knee) is out after having arthroscopic surgery, leaving the Ravens without their top two tight ends. Left tackle Eugene Monroe (knee) and left guard Kelechi Osemele (back) should return to the lineup after being listed as probable. Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) is doubtful after missing practice all week and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (knee) is questionable. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict (neck) is probable.

Dolphins at Jaguars

The Dolphins are waiting to see what linebacker Koa Misi (ankle, questionable) can do, but they don’t think defensive back Jimmy Wilson (hamstring, doubtful) will be able to play. The Jags have issues on defense with cornerback Alan Ball (biceps) and defensive end Andre Branch (groin) ruled out and cornerback Dwayne Gratz (hip, questionable). The offense should have running back Toby Gerhart (foot, probable) back.

Rams at Chiefs 

The Rams could be short at cornerback with Janoris Jenkins (knee) and Trumaine Johnson (knee) both questionable. Cornerback Brandon McGee (foot) has already been ruled out, as has center Tim Barnes (shoulder). The Chiefs hope to get safety Eric Berry (ankle, questionable) back in the lineup. Wide receiver Donnie Avery (groin) and cornerback Christopher Owens (knee) will both miss the game.

Bears at Patriots

The Bears are unlikely to have linebackers Jon Bostic (back, doubtful) and Lance Briggs (ribs, doubtful), but cornerback Kyle Fuller (hand/hip) is probable. Right tackle Jordan Mills (foot, questionable) trended in the wrong direction as the week played out. The Patriots won’t have defensive end Chandler Jones (hip) and they listed running back Shane Vereen (illness) questionable after he missed Friday’s practice. As always, several other Pats, including concussed offensive linemen Dan Connolly and Bryan Stork, are questionable.

Bills at Jets

Bills running back Fred Jackson (knee) was officially ruled out and wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (hamstring) is doubtful. The team hopes safety Aaron Williams (neck, questionable) can play and they have no worries about wide receiver Sammy Watkins (groin, probable). The Jets are 1-6, but they’re pretty healthy. Linebacker Trevor Reilly (knee) and wide receiver Greg Salas (ankle, wrist) are questionable and the only players on the injury report listed as anything but probable.

Vikings at Buccaneers

Vikings center John Sullivan (concussion) is probable, but the team will wait to make a call on guard Vlad Ducasse (knee). Linebacker Gerald Hodges (hamstring) is doubtful and tight end Kyle Rudolph (abdomen/groin) remains out. The Bucs return from their bye week with linebacker Jonathan Casillas (hamstring), tackle Anthony Collins (knee), safety Dashon Goldson (ankle), wide receiver Vincent Jackson (rib), quarterback Josh McCown (right thumb) and safety Keith Tandy (hamstring) questionable to play on Sunday.

Texans at Titans

Questionable linebackers are all the rage in Houston. Jadeveon Clowney (knee), Brian Cushing (knee), Brooks Reed (groin) and John Simon (ankle) all got that designation with Cushing looking the least likely to play come Sunday. Titans cornerback Coty Sensabaugh (knee) and tight end Taylor Thompson (knee) are doubtful and linebacker Quentin Groves (ankle) is questionable. Quarterback Jake Locker (thumb) is probable, but he’ll just be holding a clipboard if all goes well for Tennessee.

Eagles at Cardinals

Center Jason Kelce (hernia), linebacker Mychal Kendricks (calf) and running back Darren Sproles (knee) are all questionable. It’s a surprising positive for Kelce and a negative for Kendricks, who the team hoped would be returning this weekend. Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell (knee, questionable) has a chance to play, which is a bit of a positive surprise as well given the initial timeline for his injury.

Raiders at Browns 

The Raiders ruled out tight end David Ausberry (foot), wide receiver Vincent Brown (hamstring), cornerback Keith McGill (groin), defensive end LaMarr Woodley (biceps) and safety Usama Young (knee). Another four players — guard Khalif Barnes (quadricep), running back Marcel Reece (quadricep), cornerback Carlos Rogers (knee) and defensive end Justin Tuck (knee) — are questionable. It looks like the Browns should have defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin (ankle, probable) back in the lineup, but defensive end Phil Taylor (knee) remains out. Safety Jim Leonhard (ankle) and defensive end Billy Winn (quadricep) are both questionable.

Colts at Steelers

Wide receiver Reggie Wayne (elbow) is out for the Colts, while tight end Jack Doyle (knee) and running back Trent Richardson (hamstring) are questionable. Defensive tackle Steve McLendon (shoulder), cornerback Ike Taylor (forearm) and safety Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) are out for Pittsburgh, but it looks like linebacker Ryan Shazier (knee, probable) should return to the lineup. Tackle Marcus Gilbert (concussion) is questionable.

Packers at Saints

The Packers will be without defensive end Datone Jones (ankle) and cornerback Sam Shields (knee) is unlikely to play after being listed as doubtful. Safety Morgan Burnett (calf) is questionable and the Packers, who like to check every box) listed running back James Starks (ankle) as probable. Center Jonathan Goodwin (knee, ankle), linebacker Kyle Knox (ankle) and running backs Khiry Robinson (forearm) and Pierre Thomas (rib, shoulder) are all out for New Orleans. They have the same number of questionable players, with decisions pending on defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley (concussion), tight end Jimmy Graham (shoulder), linebacker Ramon Humber (ankle) and cornerback Keenan Lewis (knee, shoulder).

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PFT’s Week Eight picks

Brees Getty Images

Last week, as the Saints built a supposedly insurmountable lead over the Lions, I taunted MDS with a link of Homer Simpson singing When the Saints Go Over There.  And I scoffed when he suggested I was celebrating prematurely.  Which of course cemented the looming jinx.

Back came the Lions and down went the Saints and MDS prevailed in the one game of 15 on which we disagreed.

For the week, MDS was 11-4 and I was 10-5.  For the season, he’s now at 70-36 (66 percent) and I’m at 65-41 (61.3 percent).

We disagree on two games this week.  And there will be no premature celebrating from me this week.  Or ever again.

Chargers at Broncos

MDS’s take: The battle for first place in the AFC West will feature two MVP candidates at quarterback, but the difference in my view is that the Broncos’ defense is playing almost as well as their offense. This will be a lower-scoring game than most people think, and that favors Denver.

MDS’s pick: Broncos 21, Chargers 10.

Florio’s take:  Last year, the Chargers caught the Broncos napping on a Thursday night in December.  This year, the Broncos are bracing for their rivals, and the midseason stakes are considerably higher.

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 38, Chargers 20.

Lions at Falcons

MDS’s take: What does an offense with good skill-position players and a terrible line look like? Like the 2014 Falcons, whose injuries up front have been devastating. The Lions’ defensive front will take advantage of the injury-riddled Atlanta line and improve to 6-2 with a win in London.

MDS’s pick: Lions 24, Falcons 13.

Florio’s take:  At least the Falcons won’t have to use a silent snap count for this home game, since it won’t be played in the Georgia Dome.  It won’t matter; Detroit’s defense is too good and Atlanta’s offensive line is too banged up.

Florio’s pick:  Lions 27, Falcons 17.

Seahawks at Panthers

MDS’s take: The Seahawks haven’t been playing their best football lately, but they’ve been playing better than the Panthers, whose defense has fallen apart. Seattle will get things turned around.

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 28, Panthers 20.

Florio’s take:  Last year, the Panthers took the Seahawks to the limit in Week One, an outcome that became more impressive for Carolina as the season unfolded.  This year, Carolina’s defense is coming apart at the seams, and the Seahawks’ performance have been spotty enough to trigger the kind of external criticism that could put a much-needed chip back on their shoulders.

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 30, Panthers 20.

Ravens at Bengals

MDS’s take: Cincinnati dominated when these two teams met in Week One, but Baltimore has looked like the much better team recently. The Ravens are playing so well in all three phases of the game that I just can’t pick against them right now.

MDS’s pick: Ravens 21, Bengals 20.

Florio’s take:  The Bengals won in Baltimore to start the season.  But the Bengals are struggling without a deep threat to stretch the field (assuming A.J. Green remains out), and the Ravens have found their groove.

Florio’s pick:  Ravens 24, Bengals 17.

Dolphins at Jaguars

MDS’s take: The Jaguars got their first win on Sunday. Can they make it two in a row? Not against the Dolphins, who are a much better team than most people realize. Miami will win this one easily.

MDS’s pick: Dolphins 30, Jaguars 14.

Florio’s take:  This is exactly the kind of game the Dolphins could lose, a week after a thrilling road win in Chicago.  The upset is tempting, but the Dolphins presumably won’t take the Jags lightly a week after the Browns did.

Florio’s pick:  Dolphins 24, Jaguars 13.

Rams at Chiefs

MDS’s take: The two Missouri teams pulled off two surprising upsets last week, but I see the Rams’ win as more of a fluke, while the Chiefs’ win was a sign that they’ve got a good chance to go on a run in the AFC. I like Kansas City to win this one easily.

MDS’s pick: Chiefs 31, Rams 10.

Florio’s take:  More than bragging rights will be on the line in the latest edition of the Battle for Missouri.  Both teams have a chance to make a run at the postseason after being blown out at home in Week One.  The Chiefs have too much talent for the Rams, especially when the Kansas City offense faces the St. Louis defense.

Florio’s pick:  Chiefs 24, Rams 17.

Bears at Patriots

MDS’s take: The Bears are coming apart at the seams, just as the Patriots are coming together and playing their best football. This should be a big win for New England.

MDS’s pick: Patriots 27, Bears 17.

Florio’s take:  The Patriots have found the gas pedal, and the Bears are clumsily mashing their feet against the floorboard in search of it.  Yes, the Patriots are banged up defensively, but the extra time to prepare and the apparent inability of coach Marc Trestman to adjust to defenses that have a full season of offensive film gives the edge to one of the great tactical masterminds in NFL history.

Florio’s pick:  Patriots 30, Bears 21.

Bills at Jets

MDS’s take: I’ve felt all year that the Jets are a better team than they’re showing on the field, and I think we’re finally going to see them turn in a complete game on Sunday. The Bills’ offense will struggle with the Jets’ defense and the Jets will win a low-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Jets 17, Bills 13.

Florio’s take:  The Jets surely won’t finish 1-15.  What better way to get a win than against a Bills team that is rattled at the tailback position and generally not a good as its 4-3 record suggests?  While Percy Harvin isn’t good enough to turn around a lost season in New York, he’s good enough to make a difference in this one.

Florio’s pick:  Jets 24, Bills 20.

Vikings at Buccaneers

MDS’s take: In a battle of two of the worst teams in the NFL, I’ll take the home team. That’s about all I’ve got to say about this one.

MDS’s pick: Buccaneers 9, Vikings 6.

Florio’s take:  Somehow, the Bucs are still alive in the NFC South.  While a run at the division is unlikely, they’ve extra week to prepare gives them the edge in the latest reunion of a longtime NFC Central rivalry.

Florio’s pick:  Buccaneers 27, Vikings 24.

Texans at Titans

MDS’s take: The Texans have lost three straight, but all against good teams. Against a bad team with a rookie making his first start at quarterback, I like Houston to take care of business.

MDS’s pick: Texans 17, Titans 14.

Florio’s take:  The fading Texans get just what they needed — a crack at a Titans team that somehow has two wins.  It’ll stay at two wins on Sunday, with Ryan Fitzpatrick (who’s averaging a career-high 8.0 yards per attempt) getting a chance to beat his most recent former team.

Florio’s pick:  Texans 27, Titans 13.

Eagles at Cardinals

MDS’s take: Coming off a bye week that followed their most impressive win of the season, I think the Eagles should be playing their best football right now. Arizona is playing excellent football, but the Eagles will upset the Cardinals in the desert.

MDS’s pick: Eagles 21, Cardinals 17.

Florio’s take:  So much for the Cardinals wanting to rejoin the NFC East.  They face the 5-1 Eagles and 6-1 Cowboys in consecutive weeks, and it could be time for the Super Bowl jinx to begin to kick in.  Especially with Chip Kelly having two weeks to get ready for this one.

Florio’s pick:  Eagles 27, Cardinals 20.

Raiders at Browns

MDS’s take: Could the Browns make it two straight losses to previously winless opponents? I don’t see it. Cleveland’s offense should have no trouble moving the ball against Oakland.

MDS’s pick: Browns 28, Raiders 14.

Florio’s take:  Trap Game No. 2 for the Browns.  And its against a team that delivered one of the most bitter defeats in franchise postseason history.  If the Browns lose to a winless team for the second straight week, they won’t have to worry about a bitter playoff defeat this year.

Florio’s pick:  Browns 27, Raiders 17.

Colts at Steelers

MDS’s take: Andrew Luck should have a big game against a suspect Steelers secondary, and the Colts should put up plenty of points in Pittsburgh.

MDS’s pick: Colts 35, Steelers 27.

Florio’s take:  Yea, the Colts shut out the Bengals last week.  But that happened at home, not in Pittsburgh.  In Pittsburgh, the Steelers average 28 points per game.  And just when folks write off the Steelers, they find a way to win games they’re supposed to lose.

Florio’s pick:  Steelers 28, Colts 23.

Packers at Saints

MDS’s take: The Saints’ defense is a complete mess, and Aaron Rodgers is playing at a very high level. Even if the Saints get a great game from their offense, they simply won’t be able to keep up in a high-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Packers 30, Saints 20.

Florio’s take:  The Saints are still undefeated at home, and they play even better in the Superdome when America is watching.  By the way, the NFC South remains ripe for the plucking.

Florio’s pick:  Saints 34, Packers 31.

Washington at Cowboys

MDS’s take: Is Colt McCoy the answer? Of course not. Stop asking stupid questions. The Cowboys will roll.

MDS’s pick: Cowboys 31, Washington 13.

Florio’s takeKirk Cousins, Colt McCoy, it doesn’t matter.  The Cowboys may cool off by the time it really counts, but they’re the hottest team in football for now.

Florio’s pick:  Cowboys 31, Washington 16.

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A Week Eight look at the state of the playoff race

Indianapolis Colts v Denver Broncos Getty Images

Is Week Eight too early to talk about the NFL playoff race? Probably. But we’ll do it anyway.

AFC West: First place in the division is on the line Thursday night, when the 5-2 Chargers visit the 5-1 Broncos. The Broncos are currently the favorites in the division, but the Chargers could change that with a road win. Denver also owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Indianapolis, which may turn out to make a difference in home-field advantage in the playoffs.

AFC South: The 5-2 Colts already have a two-game lead and a head-to-head tiebreaker edge over the second-place 3-4 Texans. It will be a big surprise if Indianapolis doesn’t win this division.

AFC East: The 5-2 Patriots have a one-game lead over the second-place Bills, and have beaten the Bills head to head. New England will likely win this division for the 12th time in the 14 seasons since Tom Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2001.

AFC North: The 5-2 Ravens lead the 3-2-1 Bengals and 4-3 Steelers in a division that could turn out to be a three-way race. (Any thoughts that the 3-3 Browns could make it a four-way race probably went out the window with Sunday’s loss to the Jaguars.)

AFC wild card: The second-place teams in the AFC West and AFC North (currently the Chargers and Bengals) would appear to be the most likely wild-card contenders, and the third-place teams in those divisions (Chiefs and Steelers) may be contenders as well. The Bills and Dolphins are also in the mix, while the Texans may be contenders solely because they still get four games against their terrible division rivals, the Titans and Jaguars.

Best guess seeds: 1. Denver, 2. Indianapolis, 3. Patriots, 4. Ravens, 5. Chargers, 6. Bengals.

NFC West: The 5-1 Cardinals have a game and a half lead over the 4-3 49ers and a two-game lead over the 3-3 Seahawks, and the Cardinals are also the only team in the division that hasn’t lost a game within the division yet. It sounds crazy to say, but the Cardinals may now be the division favorites.

NFC East: At 6-1, the Cowboys have the best record in the NFL. Dallas meets 5-1 Philadelphia twice late in the season (on Thanksgiving in Dallas and December 14 in Philadelphia), and those look like the games that will decide the NFC East, with the team that doesn’t win the division having a good chance at a wild card.

NFC North: The 5-2 Lions and 5-2 Packers are tied atop the division, with the Lions currently owning the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to a win at Ford Field. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the Week 17 rematch in Green Bay decide the division winner, with the second-place team having a good chance at a wild card.

NFC South: Well, someone has to win this division. It might turn out to be a team with a losing record, maybe the Panthers at 7-8-1 or the Saints at 7-9, but someone will win it.

NFC wild card: You’d think that if the Cardinals end up winning the West that the Seahawks and 49ers would be wild card favorites, but the schedules for the NFC North second-place team and the NFC East second-place team may turn out to be more favorable. It wouldn’t be surprising to see both of last year’s NFC Championship Game participants on the outside looking in come playoff time.

Best guess seeds: 1. Dallas, 2. Arizona, 3. Green Bay, 4. Carolina, 5. Philadelphia, 6. Detroit.

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Week Seven power rankings

Jerry Getty Images

1. Dallas Cowboys (No. 2 last week; 6-1):  “Glory days, well they’ll pass you by.”  Maybe sooner than later.  But not yet.

2. Denver Broncos (No. 3; 5-1):  The Broncos are proving that they can play with the best the NFC West has to offer during the regular season, which bodes well for their ability to face the best the NFC has to offer come February.

3. Arizona Cardinals (No. 4; 5-1):  The next five games (Eagles, Cowboys, Rams, Lions, Seahawks) will tell us plenty about whether the Cardinals are viable Super Bowl contenders.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (No. 5; 5-1):  Philly returns to Arizona for perhaps the biggest game there since the Cardinals beat the Eagles in the 2008 NFC title game.

5. San Diego Chargers (No. 1; 5-2):  Well, at least Peyton Manning won’t set the passing touchdown record against them.

6. Green Bay Packers (No. 7; 5-2):  Either defenses still aren’t taking Jordy Nelson seriously, or they are and it doesn’t matter.

7. Indianapolis Colts (No. 8; 5-2):  Nineteen years after they nearly secured a Super Bowl berth in Pittsburgh, the Colts return with a chance to prove that they’re legitimate Super bowl contenders.

8. Baltimore Ravens (No. 10; 5-2):  It’ll be four more years until the next Flacco vs. Ryan debate.  Hopefully.

9. New England Patriots (No. 12; 5-2):  As Jason Taylor noted on last night’s PFT on NBCSN, Tom Brady apparently honed his flopping skills while attending World Cup matches in Brazil.  (Or maybe while playing Madden.)

10. Detroit Lions (No. 14; 5-2):  On that long touchdown play, Golden Tate was running like Percy Harvin was chasing him.

11. Seattle Seahawks (No. 6; 3-3):  In the same week the Vikings were faced with the 25th anniversary of the Herschel Walker trade, the Seahawks admitted that they were on the wrong end of its modern-day equivalent.

12. Cincinnati Bengals (No. 9; 3-2-1):  With three home games in 11 days, plenty of people won’t be witnessing whether the Bengals can turn things around.

13. San Francisco 49ers (No. 11; 4-3):  Good news, Colin Kaepernick outplayed Denver’s quarterback.  Bad news, the one he outplayed was Brock Osweiler.

14. Buffalo Bills (No. 16; 4-3):  The Bills will face Percy Harvin at the worst possible time — when he’s on his best behavior and without any idea how he’ll be used.

15. Carolina Panthers (No. 13; 3-3-1):  They’re up, they’re down, and somehow they’re still in first place in the NFC South.

16. Kansas City Chiefs (No. 20; 3-3):  In 16 games after the bye week, Andy Reid has broken down the wall 14 times.

17. Cleveland Browns (No. 15; 3-3):  The Browns hobble with one less appendage toward Trap Game No. 2.

18. Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 19; 4-3):  There’s nothing like three straight home games to commence the process of turning around a struggling Steelers team.

19. Miami Dolphins (No. 23; 3-3):  Here’s what really unacceptable — The Bears made Ryan Tannehill look like a combination of Dan Marino and Larry Csonka.

20. New Orleans Saints (No. 17; 2-4):  How do “decoy” snaps get characterized for the purposes of the franchise tag?

21. Chicago Bears (No. 18; 3-4):  Apparently, Brandon Marshall going berserk in the locker room after a home loss to the Dolphins isn’t unacceptable to the head coach.

22. Houston Texans (No. 21; 3-4):  Can Jadeveon Clowney play quarterback?

23. New York Giants (No. 22; 3-4):  Two straight losses, three straight wins, two straight losses . . . three straight wins?  With the Colts, Seahawks, and 49ers up next, bet the under.

24. St. Louis Rams (No. 28; 2-4):  All those empty seats at the Edward Jones Dome will have a great story to tell their grandkids about the day the Rams beat the defending champs.

25. Atlanta Falcons (No. 24; 2-5):  Maybe Matt Ryan won’t have to use the silent count for their “home” game in London.

26. New York Jets (No. 25; 1-6):  Percy Harvin wasn’t traded.  He was exiled.

27. Washington (No. 30; 2-5):  Maybe they can get a first-round pick for Colt McCoy.

28. Tennessee Titans (No. 26; 2-5):  Charlie Whitehurst’s passer rating is in the 90s.  Which finally has convinced me of the worthlessness of that statistic.

29. Minnesota Vikings (No. 27; 2-5):  Isn’t it better to just get blown out than to lose a winnable game late?

30. Jacksonville Jaguars (No. 31; 1-6):  Could this be the best 1-6 team in NFL history?

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 29; 1-5):  If the Bucs can win a couple of games, they could still become contenders in a watered-down NFC South.

32.  Oakland Raiders (No. 32; 0-6):  Raiders fans no longer need to check the newspaper to see the team’s won-loss record.  Just ask Darnell Dockett.

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NFL morning after: Teams win and lose, quarterbacks don’t

coltmccoy AP

Colt McCoy is a winner. And so is Blake Bortles. Kyle Orton and Ryan Tannehill, too. And don’t forget Austin Davis, who made a loser of Russell Wilson. Drew Brees? Like Wilson, a loser. Philip Rivers is a loser, and so is Eli Manning. Cam Newton is a big loser.

That’s one way to look at yesterday’s NFL action. It’s an all too common way to look at the NFL. It’s a ridiculous way to look at the NFL.

There’s a tendency to say that a quarterback “won” a game or “lost” a game, and to diminish a great performance by a quarterback in a losing effort, or prop up a bad performance by a quarterback whose team won, by saying that all that matters is the scoreboard. That tendency should stop. Teams win and lose. Quarterbacks do not.

Colt McCoy played well yesterday in relief of Kirk Cousins as Washington beat Tennessee, but that doesn’t make McCoy a “winner.” It makes him a backup quarterback who did his job well. Blake Bortles played badly, with just 159 passing yards and three interceptions, but the rest of his team played well enough that Jacksonville beat Cleveland. We shouldn’t call Bortles a “winner” based on that performance.

There was a stat making the rounds earlier this season about how Russell Wilson was undefeated against Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. And it’s true. It’s also largely irrelevant to a question of who’s the best quarterback among that group. The quarterback who wins the most is usually the quarterback with the best teammates. Wilson is a good quarterback, but he has a Super Bowl ring more because he played for a team with a great defense last year than because of his own abilities.

And if you think Wilson’s record against Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers makes him better than those four quarterbacks, I’d love to know what you thought about Wilson “losing” to Austin Davis yesterday.

Andrew Luck, one of the winning quarterbacks yesterday, said it well after his Colts beat the Bengals: “It’s the greatest team game in the world because you rely on different phases of the game,” Luck said. “I’m just like a fan — I might as well be a fan when our defense is out there. I don’t know what the calls are or anything, but they do a heck of a job and they certainly gave us a great lift today, and I’m glad they got that shutout.”

Luck played well, and the Colts’ defense played well, and Indianapolis won 27-0. But if Luck had played well, the Colts’ defense played badly, and Indianapolis lost 35-27, would that change how good a player Luck is? Of course not.

Tony Romo has taken plenty of heat when his team loses, and now he’s getting lots of credit because the Cowboys are winning, but the reality is Romo is the same quarterback he always was. The Cowboys’ offensive line is better than ever, DeMarco Murray is playing lights out and the Cowboys’ defense is much improved, and so the perennially .500 Cowboys are 6-1. Romo, who got too much blame when the Cowboys were 8-8, will get too much credit if the Cowboys keep winning.

For 55 minutes yesterday, Drew Brees played better against a good Lions defense than Matthew Stafford did against a bad Saints defense. Does the fact that the Saints’ lousy defense finally got exposed in the last five minutes, and Stafford’s Lions beat Brees’s Saints 24-23, make Brees a “loser” and Stafford a “winner”? Of course not.

The quarterback is the most important player on the field, but he is not the singular reason a team wins or loses. The quarterback is on the field for less than half of the game and is one of 11 players on his team when he is playing. Pretending he’s even half of the reason his team wins or loses is silly. A good quarterback might cost 10 percent of his team’s salary cap, so maybe a highly paid quarterback should get 10 percent of the credit when his team wins or 10 percent of the blame when his team loses. The bulk of the reason a team wins or loses is reflected in the 90 percent or more of the salary cap that the team spends on the other players on the roster.

A free safety isn’t judged by winning and losing, and neither is a guard or a linebacker or a tight end. A quarterback shouldn’t be judged by winning and losing, either. He should be judged by the quality of his own play. If that contributes to his team winning, great. If he plays great and his team loses anyway, he’s not a loser.

Here are my other thoughts on Sunday’s action:

Hurry it up, refs. Few things are more aggravating while watching a game than waiting forever to hear the ref announce the result of a replay review. There was an absurdly long review in Dallas on Sunday to check the spot on a play that was initially ruled a first down but later overturned on replay. There’s just no good reason for the refs to delay the game any longer than the standard time it takes for a commercial break. Make the call and move the game along.

What ever happened to Michael Sam? Remember when Sam was supposed to be the dreaded “distraction” in Dallas? Now he’s totally disappeared. He’s just another anonymous guy on the practice squad, no different than any other practice squad player. I didn’t hear anyone mention him during the Giants-Cowboys game. I haven’t heard anyone mention him in weeks. It’s amazing how quickly something that’s supposed to be a big deal becomes ordinary.

DeMarco Murray could make history. The season Murray is having for the Cowboys is unbelievable. In Sunday’s win over the Giants he topped 100 yards, just as he’s done in every game this year, making him the first player in NFL history to rush for 100 yards in each of the first seven games of a season. Murray is on pace to finish this season with 2,087 yards, putting him within shouting distance of Eric Dickerson’s all-time record of 2,105 yards in a season.

Ahmad Bradshaw could make history, too. No running back in NFL history has ever had 10 receiving touchdowns in a season. Even great pass-catching running backs like Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig never did it. But Bradshaw, who caught his sixth touchdown pass of the season in Sunday’s win over the Bengals, has a real shot at it. The Colts’ passing game is excellent, and Bradshaw gets a lot of red zone targets, and I like his chances of scoring four more touchdowns in the next nine games, giving him the all-time receiving touchdown record for a running back.

Seattle’s far from done, but not in great shape either. At 3-3 after yesterday’s loss to the Rams, the Seahawks still have plenty of time to turn their season around. But this is two straight weeks in which Seattle has lost and looked bad doing it. It also hurts that the Seahawks are in a tough division (third place in the NFC West, behind both the Cardinals and the 49ers), and a conference in which the wild card race will be competitive (two good teams in the NFC North and two good teams in the NFC East). Seattle is certainly good enough to make the playoffs and to repeat as champions. But things need to get turned around soon.

One thing that can be said for the Seahawks is that Russell Wilson is playing outstanding football: On Sunday he became the first player in NFL history to rush for 100 yards and pass for 300 yards in the same game. Wilson is playing better football this year than he did last year. That’s clear to anyone who can see that assessing a quarterback is about more than just wins and losses.

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Week Seven early inactives

Alshon Jeffery, Sam Shields

Every week we’ll bring you all the inactives from the early games in one post, constantly updated with the latest information. So check back often to see the full list as it becomes available.

Falcons at Ravens

Falcons: WR Harry Douglas, QB Sean Renfree, CB Javier Arenas, LB Tyler Starr, T Cameron Bradfield, G Harland Gunn, DT Cliff Matthews

Ravens: DE Chris Canty, WR Marlon Brown, CB Chykie Brown, LB Arthur Brown, T Eugene Monroe, G Kelechi Osemele, TE Ryan Taylor

Vikings at Bills

Vikings: TE Kyle Rudolph, LB Gerald Hodges, DE Corey Wootton

Bills: WR Marcus Easley, WR Marquise Goodwin, LB Ty Powell, CB Ross Cockrell, S Kenny Ladler, RB Bryce Brown, T Cyrus Kouandjio

Dolphins at Bears

Dolphins: WR Brandon Gibson, CB Jimmy Wilson, G Shelley Smith, T Jason Fox, DT Anthony Johnson, G Billy Turner, TE Gator Hoskins

Bears: LB Lance Briggs, S Chris Conte, LB Jon Bostic, CB Terrence Mitchell, S Ahmad Dixon, OL Charles Leno, DE Trevor Scott

Saints at Lions

Saints: LB Ramon Humber, LB Kyle Knox, WR Joe Morgan, WR Nick Toon, CB Patrick Robinson, FB Erik Lorig, DT Brandon Deaderick

Lions: TE Joseph Fauria, WR Calvin Johnson, TE Eric Ebron, RB Theo Riddick, QB Kellen Moore, DE Larry Webster, T Garrett Reynolds

Panthers at Packers

Panthers: RB DeAngelo Williams, QB Joe Webb, CB Josh Norman, CB Bene Benwikere, RB Fozzy Whittaker, G Amini Silatolu, LB Chase Blackburn

Packers: CB Sam Shields, DE Datone Jones, WR Jeff Janis, C Garth Gerhart, LB Carl Bradford, CB Demetri Goodson, QB Scott Tolzien

Bengals at Colts

Bengals: LB Rey Maualuga, WR A.J. Green, CB Chris Lewis-Harris, LB Emmanuel Lamur, OT Tanner Hawkinson, DE Will Clarke, DT Brandon Thompson

Colts: CB Darius Butler, DT Arthur Jones, G Lance Louis, C Khaled Holmes, OL Jamon Meredith, DT Kelcy Quarles, LB Victor Butler

Browns at Jaguars

Browns: WR Rodney Smith, CB K’Waun Williams, DE Billy Winn, DE Phil Taylor, DL Ahtyba Rubin, RB Glenn Winston, DB Pierre Desir

Jaguars: RB Toby Gerhart, WR Mike Brown, CB Brandon Harris, LB Jeremiah George, G Tyler Shatley, T Sam Young, WR Tavarres King

Seahawks at Rams

Seahawks: LB Bobby Wagner, C Max Unger, CB Byron Maxwell, DT Jordan Hill, TE Zach Miller, OL Andrew McDonald, TE Luke Willson

Rams: QB Case Keenum, S Maurice Alexander, CB Trumaine Johnson, CB Brandon McGee, C Tim Barnes, WR Austin Pettis, DL Ethan Westbrooks

Titans at Redskins

Titans: QB Jake Locker, RB Shonn Greene, CB Coty Sensabaugh, LB Akeem Ayers, T Will Svitek, TE Taylor Thompson, DE Ropati Pitoitua.

Redskins: QB Robert Griffin III, CB Tracy Porter, LB Perry Riley, T Morgan Moses, DE Clifton Geathers, WR Aldrick Robinson, G Spencer Long

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Week Seven “Three and Out”

Peyton Getty Images

Well, I guess I’ve got no choice but to keep doing it.  More of you are reading this new feature (which is nice), and hardly anyone is complaining (which is even nicer — and incredibly rare).

And so here’s the Week Seven “Three and Out,” a contrived set of three questions and answers for each of the Sunday games.

“Where’s the Monday game?” someone invariably will ask in the comments.  It’s not there; this covers Sunday games only.

This week features another 13 Sunday games.  Which means 39 questions and answers for me to write and you to read.  I’ve taken care of my end of the bargain.  You’re up.

Falcons at Ravens

1.  How are the Falcons getting ready to face Gary Kubiak’s offense?

Glad you asked.  Kubiak coached the Texans, and Falcons backup T.J. Yates led Houston to its first ever postseason win as a rookie.  So Yates has served as the scout-team quarterback, helping the Atlanta defense prepare for an offense heavy on zone blocking, one-cut runs, and roll out passes.

Given the recent struggles of the Atlanta defense, any extra edge helps.

2.  How often are the Falcons running the ball?

Not often enough.  At 36.4 percent, only the Jaguars and Raiders have run the ball less often.

“I think any time you can be a more balanced offense [it can] get us out of a rut and put us where we feel we don’t have our backs against the wall and we are not one-dimensional,” running back Steven Jackson said this week. “Any time you can be more balanced it helps everyone out from Matt [Ryan] all the way down offensively.”

With 56 more yards, Jackson becomes the 19th player in NFL history to rush for 11,000 in his career.  With the Falcons throwing so frequently, that may take a while.

3.  Is Arthur Blank getting upset?

Yes, which could be bad news for everyone currently working for the Falcons’ coaching staff and front office.

The coaches should be more concerned, since Blank believes the Falcons have the talent to be better than 2-4.  Which likely means that he believes the coaches aren’t getting enough out of the players.  Which could result in Mike Smith getting out of Atlanta.

Bills at Vikings

1.  Are the Bills getting ready to trade C.J. Spiller?

Apparently.  The Bills aren’t using the former top-10 pick, who’s in a contract year.  Which has generated speculation that he’ll be dealt to a new team on or before the October 28 trading deadline.

The Bills perhaps would want someone in return who could help Buffalo become a postseason contender, but that could make it harder to find a suitor.  Making it easier would be the typical compensation for current players — one or more draft picks.  For G.M. Doug Whaley, it makes more sense to get a 2015 pick by trading Spiller than waiting for a potential compensatory pick in 2016, if he signs elsewhere in March.  There’s no guarantee the new owners will keep Whaley into 2016.  (Then again, there’s no guarantee they’ll keep Whaley into 2015.)

Potential destinations (speculation alert) include the Ravens, Browns, Colts, Chargers, Broncos, Giants, Eagles, Panthers, Cardinals, and maybe even the Harvin-free Seahawks, who once acquired a running back from Buffalo who has had a pretty big impact in Seattle.

2.  What’s going on with Mike Williams?

No one really knows.  Williams, who once quit on a Syracuse team coached by Bills coach Doug Marrone, was a healthy scratch on Sunday against the Patriots.  Then, G.M. Doug Whaley said Williams has asked to be traded.  The, Marrone said Williams hasn’t asked for a trade.  Then, Williams said his agent has pushed for a trade.

Then, ESPN.com reported that Williams got no practice reps on Wednesday.  Then, Marrone disputed that, sort of.

So add Williams to the list of guys who are potentially available before October 28.

3.  Who’s emerging as the top running back in Minnesota?

For now, it’s rookie Jerick McKinnon, who carried 11 times against the Lions.  Matt Asiata, the prior top option in the wake of the Adrian Peterson rabbit-out-of-the-rump paid suspension, had only one rushing attempt vs. Detroit.

Coach Mike Zimmer wants to increase Asiata’s numbers and decrease McKinnon’s on Sunday against the Bills.  Regardless, neither guy will be confused with Adrian Peterson, whose absence has in many ways derailed what could have been a promising season in Minnesota.

Dolphins at Bears

1.  How will the Dolphins replace Knowshon Moreno for the rest of the year?

They’ll largely do what they did when Moreno, who has a torn ACL, was out with a dislocated elbow.  Lamar Miller will become the starter, with Daniel Thomas and Damien Williams pitching in.

The Dolphins also have LaMichael James and Orleans Dawka on the practice squad.  Either or both eventually could be bounced up to the active roster, depending on the ability of Miller, Thomas, and Williams to stay healthy.

2.  How long until Ryan Tannehill isn’t the quarterback of the Dolphins?

Possibly not very.  The eighth overall pick has struggled more often than not.  Next May, the Dolphins have to decide whether to pick up the fifth-year option on Tannehill’s contract, pushing his 2016 salary into the $15 million range, guaranteed for injury.

Look for the Dolphins to keep him around for 2015, since his salary for next year fully guaranteed.  Then again, because Miami held firm to get offset language in his contract, they’d make some of that money back if he’s cut and ends up playing elsewhere.

Congratulations?

3.  Will the Bears demote their top linebackers?

Probably not, but they’re likely tempted.  In a 27-13 win over the Falcons, Khaseem Greene played well in place of Lance Briggs. Darryl Sharpton was more than competent while subbing for D.J. Williams.   Christian Jones got the job done while replacing Shea McClellin.  For now, these backups will remain backups.  But the Bears now have six proven commodities at linebacker — seven if we include Jon Bostic, who also was injured last week.

Saints at Lions

1.  Will Jimmy Graham play?

It’s not as clear that he won’t as previously believed.  Over the weekend of the team’s bye week, reports emerged that Graham, who suffered a sprained shoulder in Week Five, could miss a couple of games.  But the Saints have held out hope for Graham to play this weekend against the Lions, listing him as limited in practice on Thursday and Friday, and as questionable for Sunday’s game.

It could be a ruse aimed at making the Lions think they’ll see Graham, forcing them to spend time planning for his presence.  Which could make the Lions’ defense less prepared to face the offensive players not named Jimmy Graham.

2.  When will Calvin Johnson play?

Coach Jim Caldwell has said it will take a miracle for Johnson to play this week.  And that’s not a surprise; Johnson has made it clear that he will rest his sprained ankle until he can perform like he always has when healthy.

It’s smart for Johnson to resist playing at less than 100 percent.  If Megatron never makes an appearance this season, the Lions will be less inclined to carry a $20 million-plus cap number into 2015, and other teams would be reluctant to pay him anything close to it.

3.  How fired up is Reggie Bush to face the Saints?

Far more fired up than he’d admit.  Sure, the Saints made Bush the second overall pick in the 2006 draft, paid him a ton of money, and eventually got him a Super Bowl ring.  But the Saints never really let Bush develop the way he wanted as a running back, using a platoon that limited Bush’s touches and created the perception that he’s not able to carry the load on a regular basis.

Eventually, the Saints traded a 2012 first-round pick to select Mark Ingram in the bottom of round one, Bush tweeted out a farewell, and he later was traded to the Dolphins.

Bush will be a captain on Sunday, an external sign of the strong feelings he’ll surely keep to himself but that will nevertheless motivate all he does.  And he won’t be alone when it comes for former Saints now with the Lions.  As listed by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, running backs Joique Bell and Jed Collins, defensive backs Danny Gorrer and Isa Abdul-Quddus, special-teams coordinator John Bonamego, and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi also have spent time with the Saints.

Lombardi was there the longest, and Lombardi has been warned not to be too cozy with his former players.

“The quarterbacks told me that I get fined for every hug, so I’m going to try to keep those to a minimum,” Lombardi said this week.  “Just try to wave and shake hands.”

Panthers at Packers

1.  Will Cam Newton keep running as much as he did?

No one knows.  Including offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

“I feel like I ran him too much, and yet I didn’t run him enough,” Shula said in the aftermath of Sunday’s game at Cincinnati, in which Newton ran 17 times for 107 yards.

The good news for the Panthers (and bad news for their opponents) is that Newton may only get better.

“He’s talented and he’s still not 100 percent,” Shula said. “I think he made it through OK so I hopefully he’ll keep getting better.”

2.  Can Clay Matthews improve his sluggish sack total?

Perhaps not this week.  Matthews’ one-sack performance to date possibly results from the number of zone-read offenses the Packers have faced.

“You’re playing so much into this zone-read offense that you’re always reading the quarterback and the running back and seeing what they’re throwing,” Matthews said this week.

He’ll be doing that again against Newton and the Panthers on Sunday.  Which could mean that his season-to-date sack total will remain at 1.0.

3.  Will Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams ever play at the same time again?

Possibly not.  But with Williams still nursing a high ankle sprain, Stewart is ready to return after missing three games.

For the season, Stewart has only 88 yards rushing in three games.  Williams has 106 in two games.  Their quarterback got more than either of them in the team’s most recent game.

Bengals at Colts

1. When will A.J. Green play again?

No one seems to know. Questionable for Week Six with a sprained toe, Green is doubtful for Sunday’s game at Indianapolis — a downgrade in status even though he hasn’t practiced or played.

On Friday, coach Marvin Lewis said that the “time is up in the air” regarding a potential return from the injury.

Maybe it’s just me, but these toes injuries seem to linger longer than they used to. It’s probably the media.

2. Should Vontaze Burfict have his head on a swivel?

Probably. As NFLPA president Eric Winston said on Friday’s PFT Live, opponents will be keeping their eyes on the Bengals linebacker after he decided to treat pro football like pro wrestling twice against the Panthers.  Winston was candid regarding his reaction to Burfict trying to twist the ankles of his teammates; Winston said he would have gone after Burfict.

Players from other teams could try to do it preemptively, hoping to put Burfict on the sidelines before Burfict can do it to a player from the other team.

3. Will Colts keep trying onside kicks?

After successfully recovering three of them this year, yes they will.

Coach Chuck Pagano said in the wake of the most recent recovery — a soccer dribble onto which the man who kicked it fell after 10 yards — that the Colts won’t stop taking advantage of opportunities to keep possession.

“Based on how they lineup and how they adjust, it’s kind of just we’re going to take whatever they give us,” Pagano said. “They’ve got to make a decision on how they adjust. We’ll keep playing with it and try to find a way to steal a play here and there.”

Browns at Jaguars

1. What will the Browns do without Alex Mack?

It’s a question they’d never had to ask until Sunday. Mack had participated in every offensive snap of his career until breaking a leg against the Steelers.

With Mack now on injured reserve, the job falls to John Greco, a former third-round pick of the Rams. He was traded to Cleveland after three seasons.

“I don’t think we ended on bad terms,” Greco said this week of his time in St. Louis.  “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, this guy was a freaking bust.’ Maybe I was. I don’t know. Obviously, I was or I’d still be playing there.”

If he plays center well for the balance of the season in Cleveland, it won’t matter.

2. Are Jacksonville’s receivers finally healthy?

Amazingly, yes. Actually, the Jags had a full complement of healthy receivers last Sunday in Nashville, with Cecil Shorts, Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, and Ace Sanders available together for the first time.

Robins saw the most action, with 70 of 77 snaps. Shorts had 61, Hurns had 49. Lee was on the field for 16, and Sanders had only five.

For now, it’s unclear how much those numbers will change in Week Seven against Cleveland.

3. Can the Browns avoid a letdown?

It’s impossible to know, because the Browns haven’t been in this position in years.  A win would put them at 4-2 for the first time since 2001.

After years of being the trap in a trap game, the Browns now try to avoid a trap in Jacksonville.  Losing to the winless Jags would reverse the perception of the Browns, dramatically.  With the Raiders and Bucs coming to Cleveland for the next two games, now isn’t the time for the team to play down to the level of competition with a combined record of 1-16.

Seahawks at Rams

1. How do the Seahawks replace Percy Harvin?

It’s not a big problem because they never really saw much of him.  He played eight games since arriving in March 2013, and he contributed only 225 yards from scrimmage this year.

Against the Cowboys, Harvin had three catches and three rushing attempts for a total of minus-one yard.

Last year, the Seahawks thrived without Harvin.  While he had a major impact on the offense in the Super Bowl, most of the success came from the defense and other aspects of the offense.

Whether it’s addition by subtraction or simply a non-issue, the Seahawks must not be concerned about life without Harvin, since they embraced the opportunity to get rid of him.

2. Didn’t you used to be Chris Givens?

For years, the Rams have been trying to find a solid stable of receivers.  While they were trying to improve, Chris Givens was putting in the work, leading the team in receiving in 2012 and finishing second in 2013.  But with Brian Quick emerging and Kenny Britt in the fold and Stedman Bailey stepping up and Tavon Austin healthy, Givens has been a healthy scratch for two straight games.

“Yeah, I was surprised,” Givens recently said. “It’s a business — these things happen. It was tough to deal with. Definitely it was a humbling experience.  At the same time, it’s bigger than me.”

But not much bigger.  With Givens doing less, the Rams are still worse.

3. Is Jeff Fisher on the hot seat?

Only one person truly knows, and he never says anything. Owner Stan Kroenke keeps his cards close, doing things when he chooses to do them without much advance warning.

The Rams were respectable in Fisher’s first two years, going 7-8-1 and 7-9 in the NFL’s toughest division.  This year has been a free fall, however, with the Rams at 1-4.

Still, Fisher likely will stay, for a couple of reasons. First, he’s only in the third season of a five-year, $35 million contract.  That makes for a pricey buyout.  Second, with the team potentially moving to L.A. as soon as 2015 (another topic on which Kroenke will say nothing), who better to preside over the transition than the man who coached the Houston Oilers through their move to Tennessee a generation ago?

Titans at Washington

1.  Could there be a Colt McCoy sighting this weekend?

Defenses quickly figured out Kirk Cousins, and he hasn’t been able to adjust.  He also hasn’t been able to stop making huge mistakes.  And it eventually could result in Cousins taking a seat before starter Robert Griffin III is ready to return.

Coach Jay Gruden hasn’t ruled out benching Cousins, if the blunders continue.

“Obviously if things continue in this downward spiral, there is always a chance to see Colt,” Gruden said this week.

That’s not enough to add Colt McCoy to your fantasy team.  Apart from the fact that it’s still Colt McCoy.

2.  Did Washington blow it by using the franchise tag on Brian Orakpo?

Yes they did.  Orakpo earns $11.455 million in guaranteed money this season.  So far, he has generated 0.5 sacks, no interceptions, and no forced fumbles.

Jason Reid of the Washington Post recently argued that the blame for this mistake should land on the desk of team president/G.M. Bruce Allen.  It’s hard not to wonder, given the overall state of the franchise, how much more time Allen’s link to the late George Allen will keep him on the job.

3.  Good guys — and bad teams — wear white?

The Titans are so blah and boring that the only question I could come up with relates to their choice in uniform color.  They’ve donned white every game this season, and they’ll presumably do so again on Sunday at Washington, where a home team that once always wore white at home has gone with burgundy in recent years.

“It’s an ownership decision, and those things are put in way ahead of time,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said this week. “I know if you can catch a team in a dark jersey when it’s 90 degrees, it’s an advantage. But to be honest with you, that is one of the things that really doesn’t matter to me. Whatever we wear, we wear.”

Chiefs at Chargers

1.  Should the Chargers be concerned about facing the Chiefs after a bye?

Absolutely.  Coach Andy Reid has a record of 13-2 after a bye week, which means he knows how to make the most out of that extra time.  Jon Ritchie, who played for Reid in Philly, said this week on NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk that Reid devotes the extra time to self-scouting, spotting his own trends and tendencies and shaking things up.

A win at San Diego would definitely shake things up in the AFC West.

2.  Should the Chargers exhale at 5-1?

No way.  While the schedule to date hasn’t been crammed with cupcakes, the combined record of their last three opponents is 1-17.

Moving forward, it won’t be that easy.

It picks up,” quarterback Philip Rivers recently said.

Still looming are two games against the Broncos, a visit from the Patriots, and a Harbaugh Brothers Road Trip, with visits to Baltimore and San Francisco.  If the Chargers are going to make a run at the top of the conference this year, they definitely will have earned it.

3.  How close is Jamaal Charles to history?

Surprisingly close.  Charles need only 53 yards on the ground to become the Chiefs’ all-time rushing leader.  (Priest Holmes holds the mark currently, with 6,070 yards.)

“I don’t want to jinx myself,” Charles recently said, pointing out that linebacker Derrick Johnson blew out an Achilles tendon only 15 tackles from 1,000.  “I just want to go out and play football, and let it happen itself.”

Giants at Cowboys

1.  Can DeMarco Murray stay healthy?

That’s perhaps the biggest question facing the Cowboys.  He missed three games as a rookie, six in 2012, and two last year.  In 2014, he’s averaging 30 total touches per game.  For his career before this season, he averaged 17.7.

So he’s touching the ball nearly twice as often as he ever has.  If he stays healthy, it’ll be an upset far bigger than the victory in Seattle that rattled the Seahawks badly enough to dump Percy Harvin.

2.  How important is the offensive line to the Cowboys’ success?

Far more important than the offensive line gets credit for.  Then again, they’re finally getting some credit; left tackle Tyron Smith became the first lineman to win an offensive player of the week award in a decade.

They could get even more credit if/when injuries start to erode the unit.  Right tackle Doug Free will miss some time with a foot injury.  Smith has an ankle problem that won’t keep him out of action, for now.  If/when the offensive line begins to crumble, it’ll be just a matter of time before Murray and quarterback Tony Romo end up getting crushed.

3.  How will the Giants replace Victor Cruz?

Maybe Kevin Ogletree, if they can get him up to speed quickly.  Playing for the Cowboys in Week One of the 2012 season, Ogletree had a career night at MetLife Stadium, catching eight passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns in an upset win on the night the Giants raised their most recent title banner.  With Cruz done for the year, Ogletree joined the Giants this week.

His ability to make an impact hinges on his ability to learn the offense.  Until then, look for Preston Parker to play the slot position that Cruz had mastered.

Cardinals at Raiders

1. What happened to the Super Bowl jinx?

So far, it has yet to kick in for the Cardinals.  Oh, the jinx has tried to activate, with injuries and suspensions and a dead nerve in Carson Palmer’s shoulder threatening to scuttle the season.  But the Cardinals have recovered — and they’re keenly aware that they have an opportunity to become the first team to host a Super Bowl in its home stadium.

“That’s something that was spoke upon early in the season,” Rashad told PFT Live this week.  “The goal was to be at home, sitting in our home locker room, right here at our home facility, warming up, just making like a normal week.  So we definitely talked about it early in the year and we definitely know the Super Bowl is here and that’s definitely a goal of ours.  To be able to play in it, you know, as the home team and go out and compete and win the thing.”

For now, they’re in pretty good position, with a single loss and sole possession of first place in the NFC West.

2.  How’s Patrick Peterson doing now that he has been paid?

Unlike Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, a 2011 first-round pick who seemed to get even better after cashing in, Peterson has taken a step back.  And he knows it.

“I do believe I’m not playing to the best of my ability right now,” Peterson said this week, “but that’s definitely going to change.”

That lack of ability included getting burned by receiver DeSean Jackson.

3.  Are there any bright spots for the Raiders?

There’s at least one.  Running back Darren McFadden, who signed a bargain-basement deal after his bloated rookie contract expired, has emerged as the leading rusher.  More importantly, he has remained healthy.

“It may not show in the stats, but this is the best I’ve felt five games into the season,” McFadden said this week. “I don’t have any nagging injuries, nicks or anything slowing me down. I feel like I can go out there and let it loose 100 percent.”

That may not be enough to salvage a lost season for the Raiders, but it could help McFadden get slightly more money from someone in 2015.

49ers at Broncos

1.  How close did Peyton Manning come to playing for the 49ers?

Closer than anyone ever would admit.  Including coach Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh insisted he was merely “evaluating” Manning, obviously in order to keep Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick from realizing how close they’d come to stop being the object of Harbaugh’s affection.

It’s probably good that Manning didn’t pick the 49ers.  He and Harbaugh are too much alike; Manning needed a defensive head coach who’d let Peyton run the offense.  In San Francisco, Harbaugh and Manning would have banged heads even worse than Harbaugh and G.M. Trent Baalke do.

2.  How much will it cost for the Broncos to keep their free agents?

Plenty.  Receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas are both having great contract years, and the Broncos have only one franchise tag to use.

Throw in cornerback Chris Harris, who also is playing well as he moves toward the open market, and the Broncos won’t have the cash to spend on new additions.  It’ll be all they can do to keep their current guys.

3.  Where’s the San Fran running attack?

With a mobile quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, some yards will always be gained on the ground even if every play called was intended initially to be a pass.  Beyond Kaepernick and his 242 yards in six games, the 49ers haven’t gotten much production on the ground.

Frank Gore leads the way, as he always does.  But he’s got only 403 yards, an average of 67.6 per game.  Rookie Carlos Hyde, who was supposed to commence the process of supplanting Gore, has 146 yards and an average of 3.2 yards per carry.

Committing to the run and realizing some success from it could help the 49ers tremendously this week.  The more they control the ball, the less time Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will have to generate yards, points, and the three touchdown passes he needs to surpass Brett Favre’s career mark of 508.  Surely, Harbaugh (the quarterback in Indy before Peyton became the first overall pick in the draft) doesn’t want to be the coach against whom Manning threw No. 509.

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