Tom Brady reportedly will start on Sunday

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Relax, Patriots fans. Sort of.

To no surprise, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will start on Sunday, according to Dianna Russini of ESPN.

Brady gashed his hand when it struck the helmet of running back Rex Burkhead, requiring stitches. Brady didn’t practice on Thursday, and he practiced on a limited basis on Friday.

Whether he’ll play is one thing; whether he’ll play as well as he normally does is another. Brady wore gloves all week after the injury, but he said late last month that he’s more comfortable throwing a football without a glove. Thus, if he’s wearing a glove on Sunday, there’s reason to believe he’s less than 100 percent.

NFL determined Jon Gruden’s Christmas Eve consensus with Raiders wasn’t an “offer”

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The NFL has said that the Raiders didn’t violate the Rooney Rule in connection with the hiring of coach Jon Gruden. That’s the easy part; the hard part is reconciling the league’s conclusion with things owner Mark Davis publicly said.

Elaborating on Friday’s announcement of a finding of compliance, the league providing the following quote to PFT via email on Saturday: “The club conducted bona fide interviews with minority candidates as part of its search process. The Rooney Rule requires NFL clubs consider at least one minority candidate for the head coach position as part of the hiring process before extending an offer to any coach. We concluded that happened in this case.”

The quote, standing alone, was eye-opening. Davis essentially admitted on January 9 that he had a deal with Gruden before firing Del Rio, and that Del Rio wouldn’t have been fired if Gruden wasn’t “all-in.”

So how can teams essentially line up the next coach without running afoul of the Rooney Rule? Apparently, it’s the absence of formality that saved the Raiders — and that creates the template for all other franchises moving forward.

As a source with knowledge of the situation explained it to PFT, the league determined via its investigation that the Christmas Eve discussion between Davis and Gruden did not amount to a contract offer, given the absence of lawyers or agents and/or the discussion or negotiation of a formal offer.

Of course, this cries out for further investigation as to what happened in the ensuing days, before Del Rio was fired. If, after all, Del Rio were fired before Gruden were essentially hired, the leverage would have swung dramatically to Gruden. Surely, Davis realized the risks of letting the bird in the hand go without knowing with certainty that he’d be capturing the two in the bush.

It appears that the investigation focused only on ruling out that a done deal happened as of Christmas Eve (despite what Davis said) and not on determining whether an informal handshake became something more official before Del Rio received a pink slip. Which provides a clear Rooney Rule avoidances roadmap to any other team: It’s OK to pick the next coach before firing the current one, it’s OK to make sure he wants to be the next coach, and it’s OK to discuss the terms in the absence of lawyers or contractual formalities. Then, after all winking and nodding has ended, it’s OK  to fire the current coach, interview at least one minority candidate, and make the informal arrangement with the pre-selected coach final and official.

And thus the NFL will continue to have it both ways when it comes to the Rooney Rule, proudly waving a flag of diversity and inclusion while privately allowing teams to navigate around the letter and spirit of the rule at will. Frankly, it would be better to have no Rooney Rule at all than to have one that isn’t real.

Titans hire Mike Vrabel as head coach

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When the Titans fired Mike Mularkey as their head coach, some pointed to Josh McDaniels as their target because of his shared Patriots history with Tennessee General Manager Jon Robinson.

The new Titans head coach does have history in New England, but it isn’t McDaniels. The Titans announced on Saturday that they have hired Mike Vrabel to fill the opening.

“I am excited to get to work and that work starts now,” Vrabel said in a statement. “We want to build a culture around winning, competitiveness and toughness. Everything we do is going to be geared towards winning and being physical. We want to prepare our players so they know what to do, which will allow them to play fast and aggressive.”

Vrabel spent last season as the defensive coordinator of the Texans after being promoted from linebackers coach. He also coached at Ohio State after spending 14 years playing in the league. He was a member of the Patriots from 2001-2008, winning three Super Bowls while Robinson was working as a scout for the Patriots.

“I have always had a great deal of respect for Mike as a player and as a coach,” Robinson said. “I saw him up close as a player for the Patriots and saw how he prepared himself to be successful on a daily basis. He was the ultimate team-first player and he embodies that same mindset as a coach. He is intelligent, energetic, detailed and a leader whose deep passion for this game will resonate with our players. As a coach, I have seen him develop talent at both the college and NFL level, and put players in position for them to be successful. I am excited to get him in front of our team and watch us grow together as a team.”

The other reason some thought McDaniels, who is expected to take the Colts head coaching job, might be the pick in Tennessee was the need to further the development of quarterback Marcus Mariota. That will now likely fall to the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach that Vrabel picks to head things up on that side of the ball. That decision and Mariota’s progress will likely have a lot to do with how well Vrabel does in his first head coaching job.

Schwartz could still end up the coach in Arizona

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No one seems to know why the Giants never interviewed Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz for the head-coaching job. In Arizona, no one seems to know who the Cardinals will hire to be the team’s next head coach.

It still could be Jim Schwartz.

Schwartz was interviewed once for the job, and after Sunday’s game against the Vikings, he can be interviewed again, win or lose. Others who are still coaching and who have been interviewed once and can be interviewed, win or lose, after Sunday include Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and Patriots linebackers coach Brian Flores.

DeFilippo’s contract is expiring; he can take any job with any team for 2018. Flores is expected to become the next defensive coordinator in New England, unless he gets the job in Arizona.

Five years ago, the Cardinals were the last team to hire a new coach, settling on Bruce Arians. The Cardinals seem to be in no hurry this time, opting to make the best hire instead of the quickest.

Troops with access to USO Centers will be able to see Sunday’s games

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With the American Forces Network off the air due to the federal government shutdown, the easiest way for U.S. troops deployed overseas to watch the AFC and NFC title games has evaporated. But some will still be able to see it.

Via NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, troops can watch tomorrow’s games at USO Centers overseas through NFL GamePass for free.

That doesn’t cover troops without access to USO Centers. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the league has been working on finding ways for those members of the armed forces to watch the games.

That’s good, and hopefully that will be effective. Deep ties exist between football and the military, and it would be a shame for men and women who are thousands of miles from family and friends and who have been looking forward to six hours of semi-normalcy to not be able to watch the AFC and NFC Championship games.

Keenum keeps making plays on the move

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Russell Wilson, not Case Keenum, consistently draws comparisons to Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton. But as Vikings quarterbacks in the four decades since Tarkenton go, however, Keenum is the closest thing the team has had.

Daunte Culpepper possessed mobility, but he used it vertically far more often than horizontally. (And Culpepper ultimately paid for it, with a serious knee injury in 2005 from which he never really rebounded.) Keenum consistently uses his legs behind the line of scrimmage to buy time, instinctively moving in whatever direction is needed to give his receivers more time to get open, all the while keeping his eyes down the field, inevitably finding an open man.

It’s a dynamic that’s not easy for a defense to plan for; if the opponent sends four linemen, Keenum can elude them even longer. If extra players come, he can more quickly locate someone who has beaten single coverage (or no coverage at all).

The only way to keep him from doing it is to keep him from getting started at all by sealing off his escape route from the pocket, essentially surrounding and swallowing him up before he can commence what ultimately is a much more controlled version of the Wilson/Tarkenton chicken-with-head-its-cut-off routine.

Indeed, the turning point in last week’s game for the Saints came when the rush devoured Keenum, who got the ball in shotgun formation, on third and four from the New Orleans 30. The play knocked the Vikings out of field-goal range, forcing a punt that became the first seven points of the comeback from a 17-0 deficit.

That’s what the Eagles need to do on a regular basis on Sunday — collapse the protection from the snap and prevent Keenum from commencing a low-key Houdini routine that happens so smoothly that it’s not nearly as impressive as it should be.

Government shutdown takes NFL off American Forces Network

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Members of the American military serving overseas won’t be able to watch the NFC and AFC Championship Games on American Forces Network, thanks to the government shutdown.

American Forces Network, which had been scheduled to show both games, has confirmed that its programming is not available while the government is shut down.

Some members of the military will surely be able to find online streams of the game, but high-speed Internet access isn’t available everywhere. So many members of the military will be out of luck.

Stars and Stripes reported that American Forces Network has already received complaints from members of the military who were looking forward to watching Sunday’s games. There was also confusion as to why AFN had to go off the air, as it stayed on during the last government shutdown, in 2013.

If the government remains shut down in two weeks, we would hope that a solution could be found to allow American Forces Network to show the Super Bowl.

UPDATE 5:27 p.m. ET: Per the NFL, troops with access to USO Centers will be able to see the games through the NFL’s Game Pass feature. The league is working on finding ways for troops without access to USO Centers to see the games.

Are Titans locked onto Mike Vrabel?

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The New England connection could be connecting Houston with the team that moved from Houston two decades ago.

Jason Wolf of the Tennessean pegs Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel as the “early favorite” to replace Mike Mularkey as coach of the Titans.

Once weather allowed interviews to commence, Tennessee spoke with Vrabel, Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, and Rams offensive coordinator Matt LeFleur.

If Vrabel gets the job, he’d better have a solid plan for developing quarterback Marcus Mariota, since it’s Mariota’s failure to develop that likely got Mularkey fired. (Throwing the ball to a linebacker who periodically plays offense may not be enough.) Vrabel, who played for the Patriots while Titans G.M. Jon Robinson worked in the front office there, surely has a plan — and it’s possible the Titans had a plan when moving on from Mularkey.

Vrabel and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were believed to be the two finalists for the Colts job, and Vrabel generally is regarded as a coach on the rise.

Reports about Le’Veon Bell’s behavior match those of Antonio Brown last year

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A year ago, word out of Pittsburgh was that soon-to-be free agent Antonio Brown‘s act was wearing thin with the Steelers. This year, reports are saying the same about soon-to-be free agent Le'Veon Bell.

This week’s report that the Steelers are unhappy about Bell’s tardiness comes less than two months after Bell is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency, if the Steelers don’t slap the franchise tag on him for the second consecutive year. It’s likely not a coincidence that there are sources in Pittsburgh putting out word that the player who wants to break the bank in free agency isn’t worth as much money as he’d like to think he is.

As PFT put it a year ago, “By creating the impression that they’re not happy with Brown, who remains one of the best receivers in the game, they may be able to lock him up for a lot less than he otherwise would want.”

The same could be said this year: Bell remains one of the best running backs in the game, but the Steelers would like the perception to exist that they’re not happy with him, perhaps so that he won’t get his expectations too high for how much he deserves to be paid.

In the end, the Steelers and Brown agreed to a new contract about a month after all the reports coming out of Pittsburgh that Brown’s act was wearing thin. So any reports about the Steelers growing frustrated with Bell’s behavior have to be viewed through that lens. The motivation to put out the word about Bell’s tardiness is surely related to a desire to get Bell back at an affordable price.

Bill Belichick calls Patrick Chung one of the best players in the NFL

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Most people listing the best players in the NFL would come up with a whole lot of names before they came to Patriots safety Patrick Chung. Bill Belichick would not.

Asked this week about Chung’s versatility and how his presence is helping the Patriots prepare for the Jaguars, Belichick was effusive with his praise.

“Chung, I’ve talked about Chung a lot,” Belichick said. “The guy is a really good football player. He’s one of the best players in the league, one of the best players on our team. He does a lot of things very well and has done them that way for a long time. We’re lucky we have him. He’s an outstanding player in all the things that he does. We put a lot on him, and he always comes through.”

Chung is in the second year of a three-year, $13.15 million contract and is under contract to the Patriots next season at a salary of just $2 million. If he’s one of the best players in the NFL, he may also be the best bargain in the NFL.

Eagles’ Mychal Kendricks, Vikings’ Eric Kendricks not speaking this week

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Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks and Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks are brothers, and close enough that they speak often during the season. But not this week.

Mychal said he and Eric talked a lot the week before the last regular-season meeting between their two teams. But on Sunday, when they’re meeting with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Mychal said he hasn’t talked to Eric and has no plans to, maybe not even for a post-game handshake.

“None of that has gone down this week,” Mychal Kendricks said. “I don’t see it happening before the game or after the game or Saturday night. This is the biggest game of our lives to this date and nothing else matters.”

Mychal did say that the two will eventually talk, once the adrenaline has worn off. And he added that, “whoever loses, it’s going to be messed up.”

Rex Burkhead was the Patriot who accidentally injured Tom Brady’s hand

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NFL quarterbacks are off-limits to contact in practice, so it’s unusual for a quarterback to suffer an injury on the practice field. So how did Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hurt his right hand in practice this week?

According to Mike Garafolo of NFL Network, it was running back Rex Burkhead who accidentally ran helmet-first into Brady’s throwing hand, causing a cut that required stitches. The report says there was “blood all over the place.”

Nonetheless, everyone is expecting Brady to play on Sunday against the Jaguars. The question is whether he’ll be affected by the injury, perhaps needing to wear a glove on his throwing hand, as he has said in the past he prefers not to do even in cold weather.

Burkhead himself is questionable for Sunday’s game after missing last week’s game against the Titans. He missed six games in the regular season but is a solid contributor on both offense and special teams when healthy.

Vikings gobble up trademarks for the slogans of a special season

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The Vikings have been working hard this month, both on the field and off it.

As explained by Darren Rovell of ESPN.com, the Vikings have applied for various federal trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in the aftermath of Sunday’s demon-exorcising last-second win over the Saints.

They’ve filed three separate applications for trademarks based on “Minneapolis Miracle” (coined in the moment by Paul Allen of the Vikings Radio Network) and one for “Minnesota Miracle.” Earlier this month, the Vikings filed for trademark protection of the phrase “Bring It Home,” the mantra that the team unveiled for a postseason that could end with the Vikings becoming the first team to qualify for a Super Bowl played in its home stadium.

Of course, the Vikings won’t reap the full benefit of those phrases unless they find a way to beat the Eagles in Philadelphia on Sunday. Maybe that game will spark another slogan or two on which the Vikings can try to squat next week, as long as it’s not something like “sometimes you’re the steak, sometimes you’re the cheese” or “six-time NFC finalists since 1977” or “close but still no cigar” or “at least we tried” or “why go to the Super Bowl only to lose to the Patriots?”

Blake Bortles has 19 million reasons to run, run, and run some more

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The one clear truth regarding the habits of Patriots coach Bill Belichick flows from his determination to take away what the opposing offense does best. The one clear truth regarding Sunday’s opponent for a berth in the Super Bowl? The best aspect of the Jacksonville offense traces to running the ball with rookie tailback Leonard Fournette.

Let’s assume that, unlike the Steelers, the Patriots will both try to take away Fournette and succeed. That will place responsibility for moving the ball in the hands of quarterback Blake Bortles.

Maybe Bortles can make the throws into the windows the Patriots will give him. (Stop laughing.) Regardless, he also should be ready to use not only his arm but also his legs.

Bortles rushed for 323 yards in the regular season, and against the Bills in the wild-card round he fared better on the ground (88 yards) than through the air (87).

While the Patriots surely will have a plan for Bortles opting to go mobile, the door is open for doing it in a creative way. As Chris Simms suggested on PFT Live after the win over Buffalo, the Jaguars should consider a Wildcat-style offense — with Bortles, not a running back, taking the snaps.

Remember what Miami running back Ronnie Brown did to the New England defense in 2008? He rushed for four touchdowns and threw for another under the seat-of-the-pants Wildcat plan hatched by a desperate Dolphins team that secured a 38-13 win at New England. That outcome proved the benefit of the element of surprise when facing the Patriots; on Sunday, if they simply aren’t ready for a different kind of Bortles, they may not be able to deal with him.

And here’s where it gets even more interesting. Bortles has a fifth-year option for 2018 at $19 million. If he finishes the year healthy, the team could cut him before the start of the league year in March and avoid that commitment — possibly re-signing him for less. But if he has any injury that prevents him from passing a physical before the start of the league year, they can’t cut him before the salary becomes fully guaranteed. Which guarantees he’d get $19 million for next season, at a minimum.

From a business standpoint, that reality could prompt the Jaguars to not throw caution to the wind by throwing Bortles’ body to the wolves. But if they want to advance against a franchise whose top dog is walking funny on an injured paw, the best way to do it could be to let the Patriots take away a Fournette-based rushing attack — and to repeatedly run the ball with quarterback Blake Bortles via a read-option attack that induces the New England defenders to swarm Fournette, and that allows Bortles to run to where the other guys aren’t, with the kind of Elway-copter reckless abandon that the circumstances (both football and financial) will dictate.

Tom Brady’s hand injury has bettors putting money on the Jaguars

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Most people seem to agree that the hand injury Tom Brady suffered in practice this week won’t keep him from playing well on Sunday. But not everyone in Las Vegas is so sure.

The betting action in Las Vegas has mostly been on the Jaguars since the Patriots announced that Brady was getting medical attention on his throwing hand. The point spread, which opened with the Patriots as 9-point favorites and moved to 9.5 points, is now either 7 or 7.5 points at six major Vegas sports books.

That doesn’t mean bettors have inside information that Brady, who’s listed as questionable, won’t be able to play. But it does indicate that bettors think Brady might be a little less accurate than usual on Sunday, or that Patriots coach Bill Belichick will play it safe with Brady and not have him pass a lot if the Patriots take an early lead.

So if you’re one of those people who is certain Brady’s hand will be fine and he’ll play as well as ever and beat the Jaguars easily on Sunday, now is the time to put some money on the Patriots.