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Is a reunion at the Big House going to get in the way of the Oakland Raiders' big plans?

ESPN's Adam Schefter is reporting that Michigan is making a push for San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who played quarterback at the school. Harbaugh is not expected back with the 49ers and is expected to be the target of the Oakland Raiders after the season.

Schefter reported Harbaugh is “considering” the Michigan job. There are reports that the school is offering Harbaugh a six-year, $49 million deal.

Here are some thoughts on how it affects the Raiders:

It’s not over yet: This is high speculation season. Lots of rumors are floated. The key is leverage. Harbaugh has plenty of it and it's being played. Let’s see what happens.

Raiders can match that deal: If Mark Davis really wants Harbaugh, he knows he has to pay big. I believe he’s prepared. So, if Harbaugh is patient, more cash could be had in the Bay Area and in the NFL.

What if Harbaugh goes to Michigan? Well, the Raiders will be bummed. Gruden is staying at ESPN. Harbaugh was the big fish. If not, the Raiders will have to lower their expectations. There will still be plenty of good candidates. But no Harbaughs left.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The best player of the Rex Ryan era is coming to town this weekend for what probably will be the final home game of the coach's tenure. If life were a storybook, Ryan and Darrelle Revis still would be together, the mad-scientist coach and the shutdown corner combining their unique talents to disarm opposing offenses.

As we all know, Revis was ripped from Ryan's arms two years ago and now, given the sad state of the New York Jets, it's fashionable to play the blame game: Who ran Revis out of town?

[+] EnlargeDarrelle Revis
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesThe New York Jets defense was never the same after Darrelle Revis left the team.
Was it owner Woody Johnson? How about Johnson's general manager? John Idzik, the human pinata, gets blamed for everything, so it's easy to throw him under the bus -- except he's not the reason. The person most responsible for the Revis divorce is Revis.

Revis was all about the money, and his refusal to bend in contract negotiations left the Jets with little choice but to trade him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013. He was adamant about a $16 million-a-year deal, and he ended up getting what he wanted from the Bucs, if only for a season. Revis is a terrific businessman, but let's not paint him as the victim in the break-up. For six years, he squeezed as much money out of the Jets as humanly possible -- which is his right -- but it got to a point where the organization got tired of being an ATM.

Johnson, fed up with the contract squabbles, went into the 2013 offseason with a desire to trade his most valuable asset, and he found a GM willing to carry it out. One candidate who interviewed for the GM job, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Johnson made it clear his preference was to deal Revis to the highest bidder. It was a sound business decision. Revis was coming off major knee surgery and wasn't interested in giving the Jets a hometown discount. The Jets, after a 6-10 season, saw him as a bargaining chip to accelerate the rebuilding process.

Truth be told, Idzik did a good job, extracting a first-round pick for an injured player and using the pick to select Sheldon Richardson -- the GM's one shining moment. Where Idzik may have dropped the ball was last offseason, spurning a potential Revis reunion when the player's people reached out as soon as he was released by the Bucs. I didn't criticize Idzik at the time, assuming he had a legitimate fallback plan to restock the cornerback position. Who knew the plan was Dimitri Patterson?

Naturally, Revis ended up with the New England Patriots, making it worse. Still, the Jets felt they made the right call, saying privately they wanted to stay away from one-year rentals and build with long-term players. It sounded reasonable at the time. Now, of course, they look like fools. They're playing with third-string corners, finishing out one of the worst seasons in franchise history, and Revis could be on his way to the Super Bowl.

"I’m over here, that ship has sailed," Revis said Wednesday, responding to a question about whether he could've helped the Jets. "I missed that boat. I caught the New England Patriots boat"

The real loser is Ryan, who hasn't been the same without his best player. He has coached the same number of games with Revis as without him, and the results aren't close.

From 2009 to 2012, Revis played 47 games with the Jets. They went 27-20 with a defense that ranked fifth in points allowed. In the 47 games without Revis, counting games he missed due to pre-trade injuries, Ryan is 18-29 and the defense is 22nd in points allowed.

The Patriots? For a change, they have a real defense.

"He's had a great season," Ryan said of his former star. "He's playing well, there's no question about that."

He'll never say it because he's a good company man, but Ryan wanted a Revis reunion. In his introductory news conference, Ryan called Revis the best corner in football at a time when no one else was making that claim. Ryan knew what he had, a once-in-a-generation talent. Everything changed on that fateful day in Miami, September, 2012, when Revis wrecked his knee in what became his final game as a Jet.

He could've returned, of course, but this is a business. No one knows that better than Revis.
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ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter dropped a stunner Wednesday night when he reported the Chicago Bears' plan to bench $126.7 million quarterback Jay Cutler in favor of backup Jimmy Clausen on Sunday when the club hosts the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field.

The situation brings to mind one that transpired in 2008 in Jacksonville, Florida, when former head coach Jack Del Rio made the decision to bench and eventually cut former No. 7 overall pick Byron Leftwich in favor of David Garrard.

When Del Rio informed people inside the organization of the decision he’d long been wrestling with, the team’s assistants agreed -- at least publicly -- while folks on the personnel side, including former front-office boss James “Shack” Harris, vehemently disagreed. The situation became so heated it forced a meeting with then team owner Wayne Weaver involving Del Rio and those on the personnel side against the move.

Del Rio swayed Weaver to give him final say in that decision by making the argument that, ultimately, ownership holds the coach accountable whether the team is successful or not. So if Del Rio was going down, he wanted to do it with the man he preferred under center.

That’s not to say that’s exactly what’s going on behind closed doors at Halas Hall. But with questions concerning Marc Trestman’s job security, if he is going to go down in flames, he'd likely prefer to do so with a quarterback he knows will execute the system the way he asks. As opposed to someone doing his own thing, which is what Cutler has done for the better part of the season -- based on observations from NFL experts such as Trent Dilfer -- leading to serious struggles and the quarterback leading the league in turnovers (24).

Former Bears backup Josh McCown played within the confines of Trestman’s scheme last season, filling in for an injured Cutler and finishing with 13 touchdown passes and one interception while setting the single-season franchise record for passer rating (109.0). While it would be foolish to expect similar success from Clausen against the Lions on Sunday, what Trestman is likely counting on from the backup is for him to simply execute the offense the way he’s asked to, as opposed to freestyling and making the types of game-changing mistakes seen from Cutler.

It may be far-fetched to believe at this point that Trestman can save his job, but if he can find a way to defeat Detroit and the Lions’ vaunted defense with Clausen at the controls, the coach might be able to prove to ownership that he’s not the issue pulling down the team; that it was actually Cutler.

A quarterback whisperer if you will, Trestman made an admission Wednesday regarding Cutler that was telling.

Asked if he’d been able to coax the best from Cutler, Trestman admitted, “I think that’s evident I haven’t up to this point. Am I working on it? Yes. We’ve seen moments, but we haven’t done it on a consistent basis. I can’t hide from that.”

During a nationally televised loss Monday night to the New Orleans Saints, Cutler tossed three interceptions and generated a season-low passer rating of 55.8. He also produced a total QBR of 6.8 against the Saints, which registered as his second-worst performance of the season in that category (6.0 QBR in Week 10).

The highest-paid offensive player in the NFL this season, Cutler has averaged a turnover every 33.3 snaps, which ranks as third worst among all qualified players in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Trestman doesn’t need Clausen to flash Cutler’s immense physical skills: that rifle arm, that sneaky mobility. The coach just needs Clausen to execute within the system the way McCown did in 2013, and the way the team believed Cutler would when the club signed him last January to a seven-year contract extension.

It’s unlikely starting Clausen will save Trestman’s job. But at the very least, it allows him to go down his way as opposed to being forced to play a quarterback who has demonstrated time and time again a maddening inability to lead the team and consistently execute the scheme.
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. – It was a "pattern of poor decision-making" by Ray McDonald that ultimately led to the defensive lineman being "terminated" by the San Francisco 49ers on Wednesday in the wake of his being investigated on suspicion of sexual assault.

"While this organization has a strong belief in due process, and has demonstrated that over time, Ray has demonstrated a pattern of poor decision-making that has led to multiple distractions for this organization and this football team that really can no longer be tolerated," Niners general manager Trent Baalke said in a hastily-called news conference. "And that's the reason for the decision that we made today.

"This isn't about this one incident; this is about a pattern. If this was one incident, we would be standing up here talking about due process, like we have multiple times, in multiple other situations. But this is just a pattern of decision-making that Ray has demonstrated over a period of time that once again, it's no longer going to be tolerated."

McDonald, a third-round pick of the 49ers in 2007, also has a DUI on his record from 2010.

But this season began under a dark cloud for the Niners when McDonald was arrested and booked into Santa Clara County Jail after officers responded to a domestic violence incident on Aug. 31. Negativity enveloped the organization as he was allowed to play with the team standing behind the banner of due process.

The Santa Clara County district attorney's office declined to press charges against McDonald last month, citing a lack of evidence.

This latest alleged assault occurred Monday, a day after the 49ers were eliminated from the NFL playoff race with their 17-7 loss at the Seattle Seahawks.

"Not a situation you want to hear about," quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. "Very unfortunate.

"It's tough. He was a good friend to a lot of people on this team. No one around him ever thought bad of him. He was always a good person to everyone around here, so hopefully it's just a misunderstanding."

By cutting McDonald, the Niners will take a $4.6 million hit against the salary cap in 2015. He was due to make $4.1 million in base salary next season.

The Niners will also have to find a replacement for McDonald, who had 39 tackles and three sacks this season. Tony Jerod-Eddie is behind him on the depth chart, with Tank Carradine likely to join the rotation for these last two games.

At 7-7, the Niners are left to play out the string in meaningless games for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh Era. It has been a season of lost promise.

And adding to it, CEO Jed York who said in September, "Ray McDonald is not Ray Rice," spoke to the team two weeks ago during a meeting on domestic violence to stress how important the subject matter is to the organization.

"[I am] not angry," Kaepernick said. "I understand the situation. I understand why the team did what they did. Outside of that, it's really not my business."

Linebacker Aldon Smith, who has had his own legal issues for the 49ers to deal with over the years, declined to talk about McDonald, in any fashion.

Baalke, though, said he had "numerous" conversations with McDonald after his August arrest and had set forth "critera" for the player to "stay in good standing" with the franchise.

He obviously failed to meet that bar.

Baalke also said the Niners notified the league office about the allegation.

"This is a team decision," he said. "This is not a league decision.

"I was extremely disappointed, as all of us were, to hear about the latest allegations. Once again, this isn't about guilt or innocence in this specific situation. Because we still do believe in due process. This is going back to my original statement that this is about a pattern of poor decision-making. Not this matter in and of itself."
RENTON, Wash. – Three offensive line starters did not practice for the Seattle Seahawks on Wednesday, which could be a big concern heading into the NFC West game Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals with the division title on the line.

Starting center Max Unger, left tackle Russell Okung and right guard J.R. Sweezy all were out.

Sweezy was the surprise on the injury report with what was listed as ankle injury. Okung has a bruised lung from the game last Sunday against San Francisco.

“But he’s still in the mix,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Okung’s status for Sunday. “He’s going to have some stuff done [Thursday] that will let us know where he sits and all that. He’s not out of the plan yet.”

Unger has missed the last four games with knee and ankle injuries. He practiced last Friday, which was believed to be an encouraging sign about his chances of playing this week.

“Max had a tough recovery from last Friday’s practice, so we’ll see how he is [Thursday],” Carroll said. “We’re taking it one day at a time now. It’s close enough where we have a chance.”

The game Sunday comes against an Arizona team that sacked Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson seven times in Seattle’s 19-3 victory over the Cardinals on Nov. 23 at CenturyLink Field. Unger is the only one of the three who did not play that day, but starting left guard James Carpenter was out with an ankle injury.

Also not practicing Friday were defensive end Demarcus Dobbs, who missed last Sunday's game with ankle sprain, tight end Tony Moeaki, who injured his shoulder against San Francisco, and running back Marshawn Lynch, who always takes Wednesdays off to rest his back.

Tight end Cooper Helfet, who missed the last three games with an ankle injury, was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice.
METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton said he doesn't think opponents can really glean anything valuable from seeing the zoomed-in look of his play-calling sheet during ESPN's "Monday Night Football" broadcast. But the New Orleans Saints coach clearly wasn't a fan of the network's decision to do so.

Payton
Payton
"Pretty soon they'll be in our bench area helping out with the play calls," cracked Payton, who said the access of cameras and microphones seems to increase every year. "I don't think there's much to it. There's a lot of terminology. But I am kind of surprised it showed up on the TV screen. … I wouldn't put it on if I was ESPN."

When asked if there's anything he could use from an opponents' play sheet, Payton said, "There'd be nothing to really do with it. You look at their terminology. There's nothing that it's really giving you. ... It's 50 different names of plays, they're not numbered in any particular order."

Payton said the bigger concern for all teams around the NFL is how much the quarterback's cadence gets picked up with microphones now on guards or centers for nationally-televised broadcasts.

"That's significant. That topic, we would have a database now. … Shoot Peyton Manning's doing a commercial because of it," Payton said -- referencing Manning's famous "Omaha! Omaha!" call. "That's much more significant than what we're discussing, in regards to get-offs … the tempo of a cadence, how it sounds, when a play's changed. That's different now. That's something we're adjusting with, everyone has to."

Saints quarterback Drew Brees said he thinks every quarterback "kind of has their own spin" on their cadence at the line and does something a little bit different.

"But at the end of the day, you change it up," Brees said. "You don't give ‘em the same thing every time."
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BEREA, Ohio -- Maybe defenses figured them out. Injuries proved too costly. Attrition sunk their chances. Quarterback uncertainty exhausted them.

Blame the Cleveland Browns' recent slide on many reasons, but first consider this -- did the heightened expectations of a 6-3 start warrant a mental shift that the Browns weren't able to make in time?

That's not a leap Browns players are making, but after talking with a few veterans this week, this is the sense I get: The Browns played the underdog, no-respect card to perfection to start the year, then had to readjust when winning settled in.

Most preseason projections had the 7-7 Browns winning, what, four or five games max? They surpassed those projections because they felt they had more talent than people realized.

The classic overachievers jumped to an AFC North lead after nine games, then suddenly were asked to sustain the momentum in a loaded AFC playoff push.

Everyone knew what the Browns were doing and dared them to keep doing it. That's not an easy place to be, jumping from underdog to favorite on short notice.

That's what makes this 1-4 slide so painful, considering what was on the table for this team in January. The Browns aren't mathematically out of the playoffs, but their chances are pretty much dead. The Browns would have to win their final two and hope everyone else crumbles around them.

"All I know is, as coach [Mike] Pettine says, you want to be playing your best ball in December," right guard John Greco said. "Clearly we're not doing that. We have to find a way to get back to it."

There's no better reminder of that than a 30-0 blowout at home to division rival Cincinnati, which opened the game with an eight-minute, length-of-field drive and never looked back.

Finishing .500 or better for the first time since 2007 would be a significant feat. Eight wins doubles last year's win total. Finishing 7-9 is about the worst way a credible NFL team can end it. You're just hanging there.

Somehow, the Browns must rediscover the edge that got them so far in the first two months. One problem: Pettine's been looking and can't figure out how the Bengals just raided the Dawg Pound so easily. The loss is even "more puzzling," Pettine said, after the Browns had a productive week of prep.

"How we started the year, a lot of people won't remember that," Pettine said. "We'll be remembered by our last game, our last performance or our last month or our last two months. I think that is important as you move forward ... When you have the culture of losing that's been here when it's been only four or five wins a year going back however many years, that's a difficult thing to overcome because it's a mentality. When you get stuck in a rut like we're in now it's easy to fall back into an old habit. That's what I've been saying. We need to fight our way out of it."

That's a pretty strong statement from Pettine, who is sort of speaking directly to Browns fans that can't help but feel fatalistic toward their team.

Give them a reason not to.
INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton missed practice Wednesday because of the hamstring injury he suffered in the second half of Sunday’s victory over the Houston Texans.

Hilton
Colts coach Chuck Pagano said Monday that he had hoped for Hilton to practice Wednesday or Thursday this week. “We’re going to take it day to day and I’m hopeful that he’ll be available [Sunday at Dallas],” Pagano said Wednesday.

The Colts had seven other players listed on their injury report who didn’t practice. Return specialist Joshua Cribbs (rest), cornerback Vontae Davis (groin), offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus (groin), linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (rest), offensive guard Joe Reitz (ankle), offensive guard Hugh Thornton (knee) and linebacker Erik Walden (knee).
CINCINNATI -- It would be unwise for the Cincinnati Bengals to out-think themselves this week and give up on the run.

It must be said that there is no reason to believe they will do such a thing Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos on ESPN, but you never can be so sure.

If coaches ever do entertain the thought this week of going away from what worked so well in Cincinnati's 30-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, here's some sage advice.

Don't.

This is coming from the Bengals themselves, who believe the best way to keep winning challenging games this month is by keeping the ball on the ground.

"We've been a team that, honestly, the running game has put us in the situation we've been in this year, and we need to continue to believe in it and let it be a part of who we are," veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.

There's evidence of the run game's success as well.

"As we've grown throughout the year, the running game has continued to evolve," Whitworth said. "We are getting better and better at it and more efficient at it."

Indeed, they are. The link above shows just how much more efficient the Bengals have been since Week 9, when rookie Jeremy Hill first earned starting duties at running back when Giovani Bernard missed three straight games because of injuries. Even in the recent weeks, when Bernard has been healthy, the Bengals have continued to feed the ball to Hill. This past Sunday, receiving his first start with Bernard also in the rotation, Hill gained 148 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in the Bengals' victory over the Browns.

It was the third time in six games he had gained more than 140 yards.

As the Bengals welcome the league's No. 2 rushing defense to Paul Brown Stadium on Monday, another veteran offensive tackle, Eric Winston thinks the rushing emphasis ought to carry over into this week.

"More so than anything, it has to be a mindset. It has to be a thought and the way you carry yourself," Winston said. "Knowing what we did Sunday has to be who we are and not just a week-to-week thing. It has to be the badge you wear every week. That's when we're at our best. Even when I wasn't here, you noticed that this offense is at its best when it's running the ball effectively.

Hill
"If that's who we're going to be, then that's who we need to be every week."

Part of the reason teams don't fare well on the ground against the Broncos is because Denver often is so far ahead that opposing offenses reject the run to pass their way back into games.

After three quarters, the Broncos' points margin is plus-117, third-highest in the league behind the Packers and Patriots. It's no surprise they are among the four teams that have allowed the fewest fourth-quarter rushes this season, averaging less than 5.4.

Overall, Denver has allowed 21 carries per game. The Bengals are averaging 30.4. In the Broncos' three losses, each opposing team rushed more than 25 times.

If the Bengals can run the ball early and get a lead, or at least keep it tight by halftime, they had better stay on the ground.
TEMPE, Ariz. -- During his press conference Wednesday, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was asked what the best-case scenario was for Drew Stanton's return.

"Sunday," the coach answered.

Realistically?

Stanton
"Sunday," Arians repeated. "Like I said, the brain does funny things."

While Arians' answer may have had some jest behind it, Stanton, who suffered a right knee injury on Thursday night in St. Louis, was serious when he said it's still too early to tell if he could play Sunday night against Seattle.

With a playoff berth already clinched, the Cardinals can afford to keep Stanton off the field as he continues to recover despite home-field advantage on the line against the Seahawks. Stanton said he hasn't suffered any setbacks during his rehab, which was six days old Wednesday. He said he has started jogging with a brace on his right knee to get acclimated to wearing it during games.

"I've never had an injury like this before," Stanton said. "So (I'm) dealing with it, trying to just trust the rehab that they have in place for me every day."

He was at Wednesday's practice, watching the quarterbacks warm up during the portion open to the media. The last time Stanton threw a football, he said, was "the other day" when he played catch with his son and his Mickey Mouse football at home.

Stanton said he's tried to maintain his range of motion since going down in the third quarter against the Rams with what's been reported to be a Grade 2 ACL and MCL sprain by keeping the strength built up in his quads and keep them firing.

"It's felt good," Stanton said. "It's one of those things you just go to kinda take time and the healing process is different for everybody.

"That timetable that everybody wants to put on it, I can't put one on it nor do I want to."

Stanton is keeping his goals simple for now: progress every day. While Sunday may not be realistic for his return, Stanton agreed with Arians.

It's the best-case scenario.

"I think as a competitor and as a guy that wants to help this team win, I want to get back as soon as possible now," Stanton said. "What that means? I don't know.

"I would like to be out there as soon as I can and I'm going to do everything within my power to do that."
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Muhammad Wilkerson could return this week against the New England Patriots.

Wilkerson
Or he could be done for the season.

The New York Jets are being curiously non-committal on Wilkerson's status. He has missed three games with a turf-toe injury and, although he practiced again Wednesday on a limited basis, it's an up-in-the-air situation.

Rex Ryan objected to the notion that Wilkerson might "shut it down," claiming that phrase suggests his star defensive end might not want to play hurt. But the coach acknowledged, "Is there a chance he might not play (for the rest of the season)? I guess there's a chance, but he's not shutting it down. I don't like the way that sounds."

Wilkerson said he suffered a minor setback last week when a teammate stepped on his foot in practice. He acknowledged he's still "a little iffy about people being around me," meaning other players in the trenches. He's on his second specially designed shoe, hoping it provides enough comfort to allow him to play. With only two games left, they're proceeding with caution.

In other injury news, wide receiver Percy Harvin didn't practice because of his sprained ankle, but all signs point to him remaining in the lineup to face the New England Patriots.

That he's able to run is a minor miracle, based on the diagnosis. Ryan revealed that Harvin suffered a third-degree sprain two weeks ago. By definition, a third-degree sprain is a completely torn ligament.

Harvin earned toughness points for playing 37 snaps in last Sunday's win over the Tennessee Titans. Clearly, he wasn't 100 percent (he had no catches), but he reported the ankle feels "a lot better" than it did last week.

The official injury reports:

New York Jets

Did not practice: Harvin.

Limited: Wilkerson, G Willie Colon (knee), S Jaiquawn Jarrett (shoulder).

Full: S Antonio Allen (hand), K Nick Folk (right hip), RB Chris Johnson (knee), C Nick Mangold (finger), S Calvin Pryor (shoulder).

New England Patriots

Out: DE Dominique Easley

Limited: LS Danny Aiken (finger), CB Kyle Arrington (hamstring), RB LeGarrette Blount (shoulder), G Dan Connolly (ankle), WR Julian Edelman (thigh, concussion), T Cameron Fleming (ankle), LB Dont'a Hightower (shoulder), DE Chandler Jones (hip), WR Brandon LaFell (shoulder), DE Rob Ninkovich (heel), RB Shane Vereen (ankle), LB Chris White (ankle).

Full: QB Tom Brady (ankle).
GREEN BAY, Wis. – There were plenty of names – including some big-name players – on the Green Bay Packers injury report, but the concern level remained low about a majority of the eight players on Wednesday's list.

Even right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who remains in the concussion protocol after he dropped out of Sunday's loss at the Buffalo Bills, appears to have a good chance to play this Sunday at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Although Bulaga did not practice Wednesday, he was able to work out and attend meetings, which is a sign he has passed through the early stages of the concussion program.

"Looks great," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday of Bulaga. "Saw him in the weight room, in the meetings this morning. Making progress."

Outside linebacker Clay Matthews was added to the injury report with a biceps injury and running back Eddie Lacy, who last week had a hip injury, was listed this week with an eye issue.

"Eddie's just a situation he has going on with his eye that's not game-related," McCarthy said. "I think we'll be fine there. I don't think Clay's is of serious nature. I think we'll be OK there."

Both Lacy and Matthews finished Sunday's game against the Bills. Lacy rushed for 97 yards and Matthews had one of his best games of the season with two sacks.

Here's the full injury report:
  • T Bryan Bulaga (concussion, did not practice)
  • CB Davon House (shoulder, did not practice)
  • RB Eddie Lacy (eye, limited participant)
  • G T.J. Lang (ankle, limited participant)
  • LB Clay Matthews (biceps, limited participant)
  • OLB Mike Neal (abdomen, limited participant)
  • OLB Nick Perry (shoulder, limited participant)
  • G Josh Sitton (toe, did not practice)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Perhaps it was a hint. At least an indication.

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was adamant on Wednesday he wasn't ready to name his starting quarterback for Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns.

Newton
Newton
He still wants a few more days to evaluate if Cam Newton, eight days removed from suffering two small fractures in his lower back in a two-vehicle crash, is healthy enough to start.

He said how Newton looks on Thursday after a successful return to practice on Wednesday will be big.

So Rivera is playing his options close to the vest, knowing Derek Anderson is more than capable as the starter if called upon for a second straight week.

When asked if Newton will start if he looks ready to go, he gave one of his patented "we'll sees."

The hint might have come when Rivera said this felt like Week 2 when the Panthers were preparing for Detroit.

Newton sat out the opener against Tampa Bay, recovering from fractured ribs suffered during the preseason. He returned to practice full the following Wednesday and started against the Lions.

He was effective, too, despite not being allowed to run at will. He completed 22 of 34 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown for a passer rating of 100.2. He handled being sacked four times.

He also ran four times for 19 yards.

If this feels like Week 2, Newton will start.

The difference is, Rivera said on the Monday of the Detroit game that Newton was ready to roll, barring a setback. He hasn't been quite that bold this week.

But Newton showed no signs on Wednesday of a player who'd been through the trauma of a car accident. He sprinted arguably faster than he has all season from the field where the team stretched to the adjacent field where the first drill took place.

He made moves running the read option that looked more like a player trying to convince those watching he was ready than one showing off.

He showed no signs of being in pain.

Anderson might be the safe play at this point, but the Panthers (5-8-1) aren't in a position of needing to be safe with two games remaining and the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin said Newton's passes were "coming out with a lot of fire." Tight end Greg Olsen said Newton looked normal throwing the ball.

Rivera was impressed that Newton had a lot of zip on a couple of 60-yard passes that weren't completed.

It's been a tough season for the Panthers on and off the field. Their record isn't nearly what they had hoped.

That they have a chance to make the playoffs if they can win their final two games and New Orleans loses once is amazing.

Newton, unless he suffers a setback over the next two days, should play because he gives Carolina the best chance to turn a tough season potentially into a memorable one.
OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Of all the passer-rushers that Rick Wagner has blocked this season, the Baltimore Ravens right tackle is the most familiar with J.J. Watt. They used to go against each other during their days at Wisconsin.

Wagner, though, doesn't consider having experience against the NFL's top defensive player as much of an advantage.

Wagner
Wagner
Watt
Watt
"He's obviously gotten a lot better since college," said Wagner, who will line up against Watt on Sunday when the Ravens play at the Houston Texans. "I don't know if it will help that much."

Watt is not only the favorite to win his second NFL Defensive Player of the Year award but he's in the conversation for NFL Most Valuable Player.

He's the first player in NFL history with five total touchdowns and at least one fumble return for a touchdown, one interception return for a touchdown and one receiving touchdown. He's the first player in NFL history with 10 or more sacks, five fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and at least one touchdown.

"He's a big guy with smaller guy's speed," Wagner said.

Wagner said it's such a challenge to go against Watt one-on-one because he uses the swim move when you expect a bull rush, and vice versa. This is a great test to see where the Ravens' first-year starter stands.

According to Pro Football Focus, Wagner is the best right tackle in pass protection this season. He's allowed two sacks and no quarterback hits in his first year in replacing Michael Oher.

Even though he is among the most soft spoken players on the team, Wagner said he relishes a headline matchup like this one.

"Everything is just stepped up a little bit more," Wagner said. "Every step you take is even more important because it starts with your footwork. It's not that much room for error against these elite players."

Wagner and the Ravens' offensive line has done a spectacular job in protecting quarterback Joe Flacco this season.

The Ravens have allowed 16 sacks, the second-fewest in the NFL. This comes a year after Flacco was sacked a career-worst 48 times.

"We're going to have to attack him in certain ways. He's a good player," Flacco said of Watt. "But that's not necessarily on my mind or in my thoughts. I'm going out there to execute the play, and I always have confidence that my guys are going to do the same thing -- execute the play and do their job. Other than that, you can't really worry about it."

The Ravens are using practice squad player Steven Means to mimic Watt in practice. Means was a fifth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013.

"We believe our guys are ready for that challenge," coach John Harbaugh said, "but it's going to be a great challenge."

At least Wagner has an inkling of what to expect. So, who won most of those college battles between Watt and Wagner?

"It was a tie," Wagner said.

Would he be happy with a tie on Sunday?

"No, I hope to get the best of him," Wagner said.
PHILADELPHIA – The question of whether the Philadelphia Eagles made progress in Chip Kelly’s second season as head coach will be hard to answer definitively.

If they beat Washington on Saturday and the New York Giants in the season finale Dec. 28, the Eagles will finish 11-5. That will be one victory better than last season's 10-6 team. But the 2013 team won the NFC East title and earned a home playoff game. If the Dallas Cowboys win out, the Eagles could find themselves missing the playoffs all together.

Is that progress or a step back? Kelly didn’t really answer the question, but he made something of a case for the view that missing the playoffs is all that really counts.

“Right now, we’ve only got nine wins,” Kelly said Wednesday. “I mean, for us to think of questions like that, that doesn't help us beat Washington. So I don't really think about it. If we win 11 games and it's not good enough to get in, shame on us because we didn't win the right games. That’s the bottom line. That's what this whole deal is all about and we know it going in.”

That’s undeniable. The Eagles are 9-5. All five losses are to NFC teams that are, or were at the time of the game, in the NFC playoff field. In short, the Eagles lost to the teams they would have possibly faced in the postseason. That doesn’t support the argument that they should be outraged if they go 11-5 and somehow miss the postseason.

“All we can do is get to 11-5 and believe that somehow, some way, that will be enough to get us into the playoffs,” tight end Zach Ertz said.

So there is little reason to believe the Eagles will take Washington (3-11) lightly when they play Saturday. The Eagles beat their NFC rival back in September, but it was 37-34. It was not an easy victory.

“Right now, there is no such thing as struggling to get up for a game,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We need to win. Bad. So it won’t take much motivation. It’s not like we have our playoff seed locked in and we’re the No. 1 seed and we’re resting starters. We’re fighting for everything we’ve got right now.”

It sounds like Kelly’s message for the week has gotten through.

“What we can do is control how we prepare for Washington and that's what we're going to do,” Kelly said. “They [the players] were great yesterday; they came in here ready to play. That's what I know about this group. They love playing football, they love training for it and they were fantastic yesterday and they’re going to be the same today.”

If they’re fantastic Saturday, that will be even better.

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