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PFT’s 2013 executive of the year

Keim Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NFL morning after: The four best teams advance

marshawn AP

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my notes from the weekend:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coaching/G.M. search update for January 12

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

Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PFT’s 2013 coach of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PFT’s divisional round picks

Luck AP

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

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

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

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

Saints at Seahawks

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

MDS’s pick: Seahawks 31, Saints 14.

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

Florio’s pick:  Seahawks 28, Saints 24.

Colts at Patriots

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

MDS’s pick: Patriots 24, Colts 14.

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

Florio’s pick:  Colts 23, Patriots 20.

49ers at Panthers

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

MDS’s pick: Panthers 16, 49ers 9.

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

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

Chargers at Broncos

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

MDS’s pick: Broncos 27, Chargers 24.

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

Florio’s pick:  Broncos 41, Chargers 24.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PFT’s 2013 league MVP

Manning AP

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

The 2013 PFT NFL MVP is PFM.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NFL morning after: A great time for great quarterbacks

kaepernick AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PFT’s defensive player of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Manning, Sherman and Mathis among AP first team All-Pros

Peyton Manning AP

We’ll have to wait a while for the NFL’s individual awards to be handed out, but the wait for the unveiling of this year’s Associated Press All-Pro team has come to an end.

The organization released the results of voting for the first and second teams on Friday and the identity of the first-team quarterback likely comes as no surprise. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning set new single-season records for passing yards and touchdowns in 2013, making him an easy choice for the league’s top quarterback during the regular season. It is the seventh time Manning has been named a first team All-Pro.

The AP did not name a second-team quarterback, the only position left unfilled on that unit, because Manning was a unanimous selection by the 50 voters.

The entire teams are:

First Team Offense

Quarterback: Peyton Manning, Denver

Running Backs: LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia; Jamaal Charles, Kansas City

Fullback: Mike Tolbert, Carolina

Tight End: Jimmy Graham, New Orleans

Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson, Detroit; Josh Gordon, Cleveland

Tackles: Joe Thomas, Cleveland; Jason Peters, Philadelphia

Guards: Louis Vasquez, Denver; Evan Mathis, Philadelphia

Center: Ryan Kalil, Carolina

Kicker: Justin Tucker, Baltimore.

Kick Returner: Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota

First Team Defense

Defensive Ends: J.J. Watt, Houston; Robert Quinn, St. Louis

Defensive Tackles: Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay; Ndamukong Suh, Detroit

Outside Linebackers: Robert Mathis, Indianapolis; Lavonte David, Tampa Bay

Inside Linebackers: Luke Kuechly, Carolina; NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco

Cornerbacks: Richard Sherman, Seattle; Patrick Peterson, Arizona

Safeties: Earl Thomas, Seattle; Eric Berry, Kansas City

Punter: Johnny Hekker, St. Louis

Second Team Offense

Quarterback: None

Running Backs: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota; Eddie Lacy, Green Bay

Fullback: Marcel Reece, Oakland

Tight End: Vernon Davis, San Francisco

Wide Receivers: A.J. Green, Cincinnati; Demaryius Thomas, Denver, and Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh

Tackles: Tyron Smith, Dallas; Joe Staley, San Francisco

Guards: Jahri Evans, New Orleans; Logan Mankins, New England, and Josh Sitton, Green Bay

Center: Alex Mack, Cleveland

Placekicker: Matt Prater, Denver

Kick Returner: Dexter McCluster, Kansas City

Second Team Defense

Defensive Ends: Mario Williams, Buffalo; Greg Hardy, Carolina

Defensive Tackles: Dontari Poe, Kansas City; Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets, Jurrell Casey, Tennessee, and Justin Smith, San Francisco

Outside Linebackers: Tamba Hali, Kansas City; Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco

Inside Linebackers: Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati; Karlos Dansby, Arizona

Cornerbacks: Aqib Talib, New England; Joe Haden, Cleveland, and Alterraun Verner, Tennessee

Safeties: Eric Weddle, San Diego; Kam Chancellor, Seattle, Jairus Byrd, Buffalo, T.J. Ward, Cleveland, Devin McCourty, New England, and Antrel Rolle, New York Giants

Punter: Brandon Fields, Miami

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The daily coaching/G.M. search update

Bowles Getty Images

With the interviews happening and new names emerging constantly, we’ll keep you updated on a daily (or close to it) basis on all the candidates for all the coaching (still four) and G.M. (still one) openings throughout the NFL.

Here’s the rundown as to the open jobs for the first Friday of 2014.

Browns:  Reportedly will interview Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (pictured) on Friday.  Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has been flagged as possibly having the “inside track” to the job by former Rams G.M. Tony Softli.  Reportedly interviewed Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn on Wednesday.  Will interview Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on Saturday.  Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase won’t interview until the Broncos’ season is over.  The Browns reportedly have interest in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, and former Lions coach Jim Schwartz.

Redskins:  Reportedly will interview Cowboys special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia.  Reportedly will interview Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.  G.M. Bruce Allen said Bill Cowher hasn’t been contacted, which makes sense since Cowher would want control over the draft and the roster, powers recently acquired by Allen.

Vikings:  Reportedly interested in Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, neither of whom can be interviewed until after Sunday’s playoff game, win or lose.  Reportedly will interview Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.  Reportedly interested in Broncos offensive coordinator Peyton Manning Adam Gase and Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

Lions: Reported will interview Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell on Monday.  Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt reportedly is a strong candidate; he can’t interview until after Sunday’s playoff game, win or lose.  (Whisenhunt and G.M. Martin Mayhew were college teammates.)  Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable reportedly is — and reportedly isn’t — a candidate. The Lions had interest in Lovie Smith and Bill O’Brien, both of whom took jobs elsewhere.

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

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PFT’s offensive player of the year

PeytonManning AP

Some of the postseason awards require a little thought.  Some require none.

Two years removed from a season lost due to multiple neck surgeries (he’s had four in all), Peyton Manning put together the greatest season for any quarterback in league history.  He set a record for touchdown passes with 55, beating the past record by 10 percent.  Manning also broke Drew Brees‘ two-year-old single-season passing yardage record, besting a mark that previously stood for 28 years.

In all, Manning completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 5,477 yards, 55 scores, and a passer rating north of 115.0.  He also ran for a touchdown on a once-per-half-decade naked bootleg against the Cowboys.

The other finalists, albeit distant, for the award included Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who became the team’s first NFL rushing champ since the days of Steve Van Buren with 1,607 yards and nine touchdowns.  McCoy added 539 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns, pushing his yards from scrimmage above 2,100.

Browns receiver Josh Gordon generated the most receiving yardage in the league with 1,646, despite missing two games due to a suspension and dealing with a revolving door at quarterback.

Other finalists were Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles (1,287 rushing yards, 693 receiving yards, 19 total touchdowns), Saints quarterback Drew Brees (5,162 passing yards, 39 touchdowns, 68.6 completion percentage), and Steelers receiver Antonio Brown (110 catches for 1,499 yards, nine total touchdowns).

Cast a ballot below for your favorite, and elaborate in the comments.

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The daily coaching/G.M. search update

Josh McDaniels AP

Now that the dust has settled (temporarily) on the array of coaches (six, so far) and General Managers (one, so far) to hear Donald Trump’s catch phrase, we’ll begin the process of keeping you updated on the candidates for the various jobs, with the goal of keeping you from shouting Arnold Drummond’s catch phrase.

Texans:  Fired coach Gary Kubiak with three games left.  Interviewed former Bears coach Lovie Smith, Texans defensive coordinator/interim head coach Wade Phillips, and Penn State coach Bill O’Brien.  Hired O’Brien.

Browns:  Fired coach Rob Chudzinski on Sunday.  Reportedly interviewed Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn on Wednesday.  Will interview Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on Saturday.  Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase won’t interview until the Broncos’ season is over.  Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles hasn’t decided whether to be interviewed.  The Browns reportedly have interest in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, and former Lions coach Jim Schwartz.

Redskins:  Fired coach Mike Shanahan on Monday.  Reportedly will interview Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, and Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.  Requested permission to interview Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.

Vikings:  Fired coach Leslie Frazier on Monday.  Reportedly will interview Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Reportedly interested in Broncos offensive coordinator Peyton Manning Adam Gase and Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

Lions:  Fired coach Jim Schwartz on Monday. Reported candidates include Ravens offensive
coordinator Jim Caldwell and Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.  Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable reportedly is — and reportedly isn’t — a candidate. The Lions had interest in Lovie Smith and Bill O’Brien, both of whom took jobs elsewhere.

Buccaneers:  Fired coach Greg Schiano and G.M. Mark Dominik on Monday.  Hired Lovie Smith.  Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard has been mentioned as a potential candidate for G.M., as has former Bucs G.M. and current Falcons president Rich McKay.

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PFT’s wild-card picks

Harbaugh Getty Images

Yes, MDS won the regular-season PFT picks contest.  But with the 256-game marathon over, the standings are reset to 0-0 for the 11-game postseason sprint.

Last year, after MDS lost the regular-season challenge and prevailed in the playoffs, he claimed that the postseason prize meant as much or more.  A month from now, I may agree with him.

Here’s a look at our picks for the four wild-card games.  We disagree on half of them.

Chiefs at Colts

MDS’s take: When I look up and down these two rosters, I think the Chiefs are the more talented team.  Kansas City has a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, while Indianapolis has lost so many key players to injuries this season that there are a lot of holes on the Colts’ depth chart.  And yet it’s impossible for me to look past the fact that these two teams just met two weeks ago in Kansas City, and the Colts took it to the Chiefs.  Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and running back Donald Brown have already shown they can have a good game against the Chiefs’ defense, and the Colts’ defense has already shown it can keep Alex Smith from doing much of anything.  The Chiefs should be more competitive this time than they were two weeks ago, but the Colts will move on to the divisional round.

MDS’s pick: Colts 24, Chiefs 21.

Florio’s take:  The Colts shrugged off a November slump to finish 4-1, including a win over the Chiefs in Kansas City.  The Chiefs started 9-0 and finished 2-5.  Throw in the home-field advantage and last year’s experience in the wild-card round against the Ravens, and the Colts are ready to take the next step — which could indeed entail a trip to face Peyton Manning in Denver.

Florio’s pick:  Colts 27, Chiefs 23.

Saints at Eagles

MDS’s take: If this game were at the Superdome I’d take New Orleans, but on the road this year the Saints’ offense has looked out of sync and their defense hasn’t been the same without the loud crowd behind them. The Eagles are coming off back-to-back strong games against the Bears and Cowboys, and on Saturday I expect Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy to have a big game against a New Orleans defense that can be beaten on the ground. Chip Kelly wins his first playoff game and extends his first NFL season for at least another week.

MDS’s pick: Eagles 27, Saints 17.

Florio’s take:  Sean Payton has plenty of NFL postseason experience.  Chip Kelly for now has none.  Coupled with the Saints being keenly aware of the perception/reality that they can’t win away from home with a forecast that calls for dry conditions, New Orleans could indeed pull off an upset, especially since the Eagles have been known to periodically lay an egg.

Florio’s pick:  Saints 24, Eagles 21.

Chargers at Bengals

MDS’s take: The Chargers’ offense is a threat to put a lot of points on the board against anyone, including even that excellent defense that Marvin Lewis has built in Cincinnati. But the Chargers’ defense is a mess, and I think that will be the difference in this game. The Bengals have so many talented offensive skill position players that I see the Chargers’ defense having fits trying to cover everyone. Cincinnati will win a high-scoring game.

MDS’s pick: Bengals 34, Chargers 24.

Florio’s take:  The Bengals have won every game at home this year.  Their road wins included a victory at San Diego.  While the weather won’t be as unforgiving as it was 32 years ago for the AFC title game between these same teams, the Bengals will break a postseason winless streak that dates back to the week before they wrecked Bo Jackson’s hip.

Florio’s pick:  Bengals 30, Chargers 20.

49ers at Packers

MDS’s take: This is the playoff game I’ve been hoping for since Week One, when these teams played a great game. The return of Aaron Rodgers last week got the Packers into the playoffs, and I expect him to have a big game on Sunday in Green Bay as well. The problem, however, is that the Packers are simply not a complete team. Frankly, Green Bay’s defense stinks. Colin Kaepernick has shredded the Packers’ defense in both of their previous meetings, and he’ll do it again.

MDS’s pick: 49ers 31, Packers 21.

Florio’s take:  An undeserved home-field advantage becomes nearly insurmountable with frigid temperatures and wind chills that will test the 49ers like never before.  The Packers, rejuvenated by the return of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb, already are living on house money.  It’ll become igloo money on Sunday, and the Packers will head to the divisional round for the fourth straight year.

Florio’s pick:  Packers 21, 49ers 17.

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