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  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Jekyll & Hyde Dolphins seek consistency vs. Jags<
    By The Sports Xchange

    DAVIE, Fla. -- It was only a year ago when the Miami Dolphins lost to winless Tampa Bay, so the team isn't taking the 1-6 Jacksonville Jaguars lightly this week.

    • "As we all know, Sunday at 1 o'clock it really doesn't matter what your record is," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. "It matters how well you perform and you execute as a football team."

      The Dolphins (3-3) are mixed in the areas of performance and execution. They are fourth defensive yards per game allowed (313.7), fourth in rushing yards per game (136.3), 12th in offensive yards per game (359.8) and plus-two in giveaway/takeaway margin. Those are good things.

      On the other hand, the Dolphins are 23rd in third-down efficiency.

      "That's one area of our football team that we've really got to coach better, play better, execute better all the way around," Philbin said.

      They're also last in last in net punting (32.7 yards), their quarterback, despite completing his first 14 passes last week, is 25th in passer rating (87.8), and they're 15th in points allowed per game (23). Those aren't so good.

      Still, there's a growing feeling the Dolphins are getting things together.

      They've tailor-made the offense to fit quarterback Ryan Tannehill's skills, meaning he doesn't throw deep very often (he's not adept at that) and has more rollouts and read-options plays because he's good at using his legs.

      The offensive line and running game have both shown improvement, and the defense has become more of a playmaking unit.

      "As the season progresses, you want to see improvement and development out of everybody at all positions," Philbin said. "You want the units to improve. Again, I think that's the encouraging thing about our football team the last few weeks is I think we improved in a lot of different areas."

      One of the biggest area's Miami needs improvement is handling prosperity.

      Last season the Dolphins not only lost to winless Tampa Bay a week after beating Cincinnati in overtime, they also lost to a below-average Buffalo team a week after a big victory over New England.

      Now Miami finds itself coming off a big victory over Chicago.

      The Dolphins can't afford to squander the opportunity to get above .500 by losing to an inferior opponent in the Jaguars.

      In fact, Philbin has shied away from calling this a trap game. He doesn't want his players viewing Jacksonville as an underdog. Philbin is trying to make his players think this is another NFL game against a team that could beat Miami.

      "There's a lot of indications that coach (Gus) Bradley and his staff are doing a great job up there," Philbin said of the Jaguars. "Their team is getting better, there's no doubt about it.

      "I haven't really brought up the record. What I talked about was watch the tape. There's enough there on tape that we have to get ready and we have to play well."

      MEDICAL WATCH: TE Charles Clay (knee) had full participation in practice after sitting out Tuesday. Clay (21 receptions, 204 yards, 1 TD) is showing signs he might be regaining his health, but the right knee injury that has been dogging him since training camp is still slowing him a bit. .. S Jimmy Wilson (hamstring), who missed the Chicago game, practiced fully Wednesday after missing Tuesday's practice.

      SERIES HISTORY: 6th regular-season meeting. Miami leads series, 3-2. Miami won the last meeting, 24-3, in 2012. But when you talk about Dolphins-Jaguars it begins and ends with that ugly 62-7 shellacking Jacksonville put on Miami in the January 2000 in the playoffs. Sure, the Dolphins have won the past two regular-season meetings, but the Jaguars always have that playoff memory.

      GAMEPLAN: Expect Miami to favor the run for a few reasons. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is coming off a career-best 123.6 passer rating, is still a bit shaky throwing the ball; the Dolphins are fourth in rushing yards per game (136.3); and Jacksonville lost LB Paul Posluszny (pectoral) for the season.

      Both defenses will have to be alert for the read-option. Jacksonville rookie quarterback Blake Bortles is fifth (143 yards/28.6 yards per game) among quarterbacks in rushing yards, one spot behind Tannehill. Miami's defensive ends have been much better at playing the run this season, and its linebackers have been tackling better recently, so that works in the Dolphins' favor.

      As usual, Miami will rely on its defensive line to get everything going on that side of the ball. If the defensive line controls the line of scrimmage it should be a good day for Miami.

      MATCHUPS TO WATCH

      Miami RDE Olivier Vernon, who has 3.0 sacks, vs. Jacksonville LT Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 pick of the 2013 draft. Vernon, who had 11.5 sacks last season, could be very disruptive, and Joeckel has struggled at times this season having allowed two sacks, six quarterback hits and 12 hurries.

      Miami OL, which has stabilized with the addition of RG Mike Pouncey, vs. Jacksonville pass rush, which is second in the NFL with 22 sacks. The Dolphins have allowed 14 sacks, which is 10th-best in the NFL. It's a vast improvement from last year when they allowed a NFL-worst 58 sacks. But the Dolphins allowed Chicago four sacks in the first half last week, showing there's still work to be done.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    No time for Patriots to get fat and happy
    By The Sports Xchange

    FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots (5-2) are riding pretty high thanks to a three-game winning streak that has pushed the team to the top of the AFC East and made questions about early season struggles a distant memory.

    • But heading into a six-game stretch against Chicago, Denver, at Indianapolis, Detroit, at Green Bay and at San Diego that is circled on the schedule as having the potential to define New England's season, all is not necessarily smooth sailing.

      Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo landed on injured reserve a week ago, the same day the Patriots were barely able to get by a New York Jets team that churned out 218 yards on the ground.

      A front seven that was already built with questionable depth and overall experience has added another issue given that Chandler Jones will reportedly miss a month because of a hip injury suffered last Thursday night against New York.

      Likely in reaction to the injuries and inability to stop the run -- New England has allowed 191 yards or more in three of seven games this fall -- coach Bill Belichick made a couple moves to bolster his front-seven this week.

      The team traded a sixth-round pick to the Tennessee Titans in exchange for linebacker Akeem Ayers and a seventh-round selection in return.

      Ayers is a former 2011 second-round pick who had 100 tackles and six sacks in his best season in Tennessee in 2012. He recently dealt with knee injuries and a failure to fit into Ken Whisenhunt's shift to the 3-4, playing in only two games and on 10 defensive snaps this season.

      Ayers might be a long shot to be an impact guy in New England, but he certainly has more experience than undrafted rookie Deontae Skinner and practice squad call-up Ja'Gared Davis, both of whom have served as a depth and fill-ins for the Patriots this season.

      "We'll start working with (Ayers) today," Belichick said. "He's played linebacker, he's played defensive end in sub situations. We'll start working with him."

      The coach wasn't ready to put any expectations on what Ayers might be able to offer his new team.

      "I don't know, we'll see," Belichick said. "I'd say he's got some versatility, but we'll see."

      New England also is reportedly set to add another former second-round pick, 6-foot-6, 325-pound defensive tackle Alan Branch.

      Branch spent the first four years of his career in Arizona, two years in Seattle and 2013 in Buffalo. He was released this offseason after a DUI and has been out of football.

      Branch is a career underachiever, but certainly would bring size and experience to the defensive line, something New England is lacking after putting Sealver Siliga on injured reserve with a designation to return and parting ways with veteran Tommy Kelly in August.

      The Patriots are winning games. They're also struggling to deal with injuries on defense that has left the unit more dubious unit than many had expected.

      But don't expect Belichick to lament the personnel losses or even acknowledge the toll they take on team.

      "That's the NFL," he said. "That's the way it is every week usually somewhere along the line, some positions, some situation. That's something you deal with weekly. Look at every team we've played, they've had something. Look at us; we've had something to deal with every week. I'd say that's the National Football League.

      "We're not talking about some breaking story here, are we? It's been like that for 40 years for me. You hate to see it happen. You hate to be without any player, there's no question about that. But every week, there's something like that that you have to deal with."

      Belichick and the Patriots are dealing with it by adding whatever personnel that's available to a defense that suddenly looks once again like it will go only as far as its Tom Brady-led offense can take it.

      NOTES: CB Darrelle Revis missed New England's practice on Tuesday. According to the Boston Globe, Revis arrived late for a morning meeting that day, with players returning from a three-day weekend after the previous week's victory on Thursday Night Football, and was sent home by Bill Belichick as punishment for his tardiness. One of Revis' business managers sent out a Tweet saying the Globe story was "not true." Revis, answering questions before the Globe story became public on Wednesday, had little to say about his absence from the practice field. "Between me and coach," Revis said. "Talk to him about it." ... DL Chris Jones was named the AFC special teams player of the week. Jones blocked Jets kicker Nick Folk's 58-yard potential game-winning field goal last Thursday night to maintain New England's 27-25 win as time expired. "I wasn't the only guy in there in the middle pushing," Jones said. "I just happened to be the one that got my hand up there and blocked the field goal. It's an honor to win it." ... QB Tom Brady will never been known for his running ability. But his touchdown throw to Danny Amendola, which ended up providing the winning points, came with Brady on the run to his left. Moving around and throwing on the run is something Brady has worked hard on this year, an area that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels targeted for improvement.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    NFL roundup: Chiefs test Charles for concussion
    By The Sports Xchange

    Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, who was involved in a violent collision with San Diego Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers while scoring a touchdown but stayed in Sunday's game, now admits that maybe he had symptoms of a concussion.

    • "It definitely hurt," Charles said during an interview with ESPN Radio on Tuesday. "It's like, I woke up -- I mean, like, a couple plays later I was seeing light bulbs, like, light bulbs around my eyes, and I was trying to catch them. But I was in the game so I was like, 'All right, let's get the ball and run again.'"

      After Sunday's game at San Diego, Charles passed off the helmet-to-helmet hit in the second quarter as no big deal. Flowers left the game with a concussion, but Charles finished the game. According to ESPN, Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder said Wednesday that Charles was placed in the protocol Tuesday and passed all the tests, but the team will continue to monitor his symptoms.

      ---New England Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis showed up late for work on Tuesday and coach Bill Belichick promptly sent him home, The Boston Globe reported.

      When Revis did not arrive on time for a 7:30 a.m. meeting, Belichick wouldn't allow him to participate in practice. A day later, Revis was back at practice but wouldn't discuss the reason for his absence.

      "Between me and coach," Revis told reporters on Wednesday. "Talk to him about it."

      ---The Patriots officially acquired linebacker Akeem Ayers on Wednesday in a trade with the Tennessee Titans.

      Trade terms were not disclosed, but it was reported Tuesday that the trade includes the Patriots giving up a sixth-round draft choice to the Titans for Ayers and Tennessee's seventh-round pick.

      The Patriots also released linebacker Ja'Gared Davis, who was signed from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Oct. 4.

      ---It was bound to happen. After one bad performance by Brian Hoyer, the Johnny Manziel quarterback watch is officially on at the Cleveland Browns headquarters.

      Hoyer was just 16 of 41 for 215 yards with an interception and a strip sack in the 24-6 loss to Jacksonville last week. Coach Mike Pettine said he toyed with the idea of inserting the rookie Manziel -- not to replace Hoyer, but to provide a spark -- then decided not to do it. He might not be as patient if Hoyer struggles against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

      "Nothing has changed," Pettine said. "If the situation this week maybe calls for (Manziel) to play some, then that will be the case. We're not going to hit the panic button after one loss."

      ---Amid the New York Giants rocky season, one bright spot has been the quiet re-emergence of quarterback Eli Manning.

      Through seven games, Manning has completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 1,573 yards. He has also thrown 14 touchdowns and has drastically cut down his interceptions from 15 at this point in the season last year to just five in 2014.

      What's been the biggest reason for Manning's increased efficiency?

      "Probably his footwork," quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf said. "We teach it a little bit differently. I think that is probably the biggest area in how fast he has been playing is his footwork."

      ---The first-ever contributor's committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday named former NFL general managers Bill Polian and Ron Wolf as finalists for induction at the pre-Super Bowl meeting that will take place Jan. 31, the day before Super Bowl XLIX.

      Since the Hall of Fame was established in 1963, there have been 19 contributors elected to the Hall. However, 10 were elected in the first five years and only nine in the ensuing 47 years. To that end, the Hall's Board of Trustees voted in August to create a contributor's committee, similar to the senior's committee, in which those nominated are voted on individually and not in competition with players and coaches.

      Polian and Wolf, along with senior's nominee center Mick Tingelhoff, will have to get 80.4 percent of the entire committee's vote at the selection meeting, which means 37 yes votes from the 46 selectors.

      ---NFL offensive linemen Mike and Maurkice Pouncey will not face prosecution from a July altercation at a Miami Beach nightclub.

      The twin brothers have been sued by a trio of plaintiffs who claim they suffered injuries as a result of a brawl that occurred while the Pounceys were celebrating their birthday.

      Mike Pouncey plays center and guard for the Miami Dolphins and Maurkice Pouncey plays center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both played at the University of Florida.

      ---Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who broke Brett Favre's career touchdown record and added to his own mark in a four-touchdown night, was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for the 27th time in his career.

      Manning completed 22 of 26 passes (84.6 percent) for 318 yards with a passer rating of 157.2 in Denver's 42-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night. His third touchdown of the game gave him 509 for his career, breaking Favre's all-time record.

      Fellow MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers took NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

      Rodgers completed 19 of 22 passes (86.5 percent) for 255 yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 154.5 in a 38-17 win over the floundering Carolina Panthers.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Cutler, Bears giving away their takeaways
    By The Sports Xchange

    LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Turnovers have put the Chicago Bears into a dire position in the NFC North, two games behind Detroit and Green Bay.

    • Playing the New England Patriots in a road game this week is not exactly an ideal situation for a team with a quarterback prone to turnovers, like Jay Cutler has been.

      Cutler's penchant for turnovers long has been his downfall, and in a season when the Bears thought he would get past this because he had finally be in the same offense for successive years, the problems remain.

      It's threatening to turn the Bears' entire season sour.

      "I've just got to lead this group and try to find a way to make sure we play clean football for four quarters," Cutler said.

      Only four teams have taken the ball away more times than the Bears have, yet they have squandered their defense's takeaways by giving it away 13 times.

      In each of their four losses, they lost the turnover battle, and usually it's Cutler giving it away.

      "We've got to protect the ball, we've got to convert on third down, we've got to get a rhythm going," Cutler said.

      Eight Bears turnovers occurred at home, but playing in New England is unlikely to generate any confidence. The Patriots are second in the league in takeaways with 14.

      "It's frustrating," coach Marc Trestman said. "It's frustrating because we don't practice that way. We work very hard at ball security. Certainly with any team it's going to be a priority. It's not just a priority with us.

      "When it doesn't happen, it just makes everything more difficult, when you turn the ball over. It makes everything much easier when you take care of it and you're able to take it away, and certainly that's what the Patriots are feeling right now."

      Normally dependable running back Matt Forte even had a big turnover that cost the Bears a loss in Carolina.

      "It's one of the main things we talk about, is taking care of the football, protecting the quarterback and establishing the run game," Forte said. "In the games that we've won, we've done that. In the games that we've lost, we haven't done it.

      "It's not a secret formula to winning games or how we play well. We just have to play consistently, like when we've won the games that we have won."

      It has been Cutler, though, whose play has dragged the offense down the most, despite a career-best passer rating of 94.4. Trestman remains firmly behind Cutler, pointing to his 67.3 completion percentage as another indication he is getting the offense.

      "You can see the numbers, where Jay is with his rating, where Jay is with his completion percentage," Trestman said. "There's a lot of movement in the right direction.

      "The change and the improvement is certainly not over. We're continuing to work on that, he is. What people need to know about Jay is he's tremendously invested in this football team. He's highly intelligent. His work ethic is second to none in the organization, like it is with most quarterbacks. We're just looking to push to the next level."

      After giving Cutler a seven-year contract, with $54 million in guaranteed money, the number the Bears wanted to see improve was the win total.

      Now there are questions whether he's actually reading defenses correctly. In the loss to Miami, Trestman at halftime took away Cutler's option to check out of running plays and into pass plays after the Bears ran it only four times in the first half, including only two carries by Forte.

      "That's no different than making a halftime adjustment," Trestman said. "We have some runs that are attached to throws and others that are just called runs, so at halftime we said regardless of the front we're getting (from the defense), we think we can run the ball this half, so that's what we decided to do.

      "It wasn't as if we were handcuffing anybody or taking things out of the quarterback hands; that wasn't the intent at all."

      Except, it sure sounds that way.

      "To be very specific, the intent was we wanted to make sure when we called a run, we felt that we had the advantage and the advantage was to run it," Trestman said.

      "Jay didn't make any wrong decisions. They did a good job of defending those decisions and so we made an adjustment to attack them a different way in the second half."

      Regardless of how it's sliced, it sounded like another problem area for Cutler and something else the Bears can't afford to have if they hope to climb back to .500 by beating New England.

      NOTES: The Patriots have an 8-4 lead in the series against the Bears. New England has won the last three -- and six of the last seven, including a 17-13 victory when the last game was played in Foxborough in 2006. ... Rookie S Brock Vereen may or may not start, depending on the status of S Chris Conte. On Wednesday, Conte seemed over his shoulder issues and went through a full practice, but Vereen will play in a safety rotation regardless. ... Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker found himself answering questions about why DE Jared Allen sat on the bench for a long drive in the third quarter against Miami. Allen, himself, seemed a bit at a loss to explain it. "Going forward, obviously we want him in the game," Tucker said. "He's been a highly productive player for us. It was an unusual series; we had a lot of short-yardage situations. We didn't really get into third-and-long. We visited with him about it and we're ready to move on. We'll be fine." ... With Tom Brady perceived as a less mobile quarterback than the Bears have been used to facing, a pass rush up the middle will be key. Last week, Jeremiah Ratliff gave an indication he can provide it with a career-best 3 1/2 sacks. "He was just relentless," Tucker said. "He's just very impressive. He plays very, very hard and he's very strong in the run game and also in the pass game. He's a guy that you know what you're going to get day in and day out."

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Harvin trade may be key in two legacies
    By The Sports Xchange

    FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets general manager John Idzik insisted Monday that last week's acquisition of wide receiver Percy Harvin wasn't a reaction to the increasing criticism against questionable personnel moves he made in 22 months with the team.

    • "Pure and simple, this movie is like any other move," Idzik said during a rare press conference at the Jets' training complex in Florham Park, N.J. "It's a move to improve the Jets."

      Whether he intended to or not, Idzik also improved his own image by making the splashy trade. Idzik has been thrifty and conservative throughout his tenure, during which he has hoarded draft picks and signed only one free agent -- wide receiver Eric Decker -- to a deal that guarantees him at least $10 million and lasts for longer than three years.

      The Jets began this season with more than $21 million in cap space, a surplus for which Idzik was mocked when the Jets' threadbare secondary fell apart and quarterback Geno Smith had no game-breaking weaponry to throw to during a 1-6 start that has the Jets in contention for the No. 1 pick next May instead of a playoff berth.

      But Idzik dipped into what owner Woody Johnson would call a "rainy day fund" by acquiring Harvin, who will cost the Jets $6.48 million the rest of the season as well as a conditional sixth-round pick. Trading a late-round pick might not sound like much, except this is Idzik, who didn't deal any of the Jets' 12 picks in May's draft.

      "If there is a chance for us to improve our team, no matter what time of year it is, whether it be early to mid October or early to mid April, we are going to do it," Idzik said. "When this chance presented itself, we felt like we wanted to take advantage of it. Percy can come in here and help our squad."

      Of that there seems little doubt. Harvin has 30 all-purpose touchdowns -- 20 receiving and five apiece rushing and returning -- in just 60 NFL games. He will immediately become the Jets' kick returner, solidifying a spot that has been a revolving door since Joe McKnight was released before the 2013 season, and should also be used in a variety of ways on offense as the Jets try to bring some life to an anemic unit.

      But rest assured people will be watching to see if Harvin hurts the Jets as much or more than he helps them. The Seahawks dumped Harvin just 20 months after acquiring him from the Minnesota Vikings in exchange for three draft picks and immediately signing him to a six-year, $67 million contract.

      Stories of Harvin's disruptiveness in Seattle began sprouting up immediately after the trade was announced. He fought ex-teammate Golden Tate and left Tate with a black eye in the week leading up to the Super Bowl in February. He also got into an altercation this summer with fellow wide receiver Doug Baldwin.

      ESPN reported Sunday that the Seahawks were so eager to move Harvin that they would have released him if they didn't find a trade partner.

      Harvin also rankled teammates and coaches at the University of Florida, where he played for the renegade Gators under Urban Meyer, and with the Vikings.

      Idzik, who signed two players who eventually went AWOL on the Jets in running back Mike Goodson and cornerback Dimitri Patterson, said he did his due diligence on Harvin and that he benefited from knowing the staff in Seattle, where Idzik was an assistant general manager for six seasons before joining the Jets.

      "We did a ton of background," Idzik said. "No different in this case. I just so happen to know a lot of people in Seattle very closely. So I guess I had that advantage too. We had very forthright conversations about Percy and what happened there. I decided it was prudent to move forward."

      Harvin acknowledged the tussles with Tate and Baldwin on Monday but said he didn't believe he had anger management issues. He also said the Jets encouraged him to view the trade as a fresh start by wiping the slate clean.

      "The coaching staff, the management, on to the owner, they're not worried about (his past)," Harvin said. "I even tried to explain a couple of things. They told me to be quiet and not to worry about it. It's been all smiles here."

      Now will it stay that way? Even if Harvin manages to stay out of trouble in the locker room, there's no guarantee he'll stay on the field. He has played all 16 games in just one of his first five NFL seasons and missed all but one regular-season game last year because of hip surgery. He came back for the playoffs and returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the Seahawks' 43-8 rout of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl.

      Harvin played in each of the Seahawks' first five games this year but had just 22 catches for 133 yards and no touchdowns. He also rushed 11 times for 92 yards and a touchdown while averaging 23.6 yards per return on 12 kickoffs -- more than 12 yards less than his league-leading average in 2012.

      Harvin was used mostly out of the slot in Seattle, a role he said he didn't enjoy. The Jets already have an effective slot receiver in Jeremy Kerley, so it is likely Harvin will get a chance to prove he can still be a game-changing deep threat. Smith has just three completions of 30 yards or more this season.

      Given all the questions surrounding Harvin, his acquisition amounts to a nine-game audition for all involved. If he fits in well, the Jets can either retain him or renegotiate his contract, which calls for him to be paid $10.5 million next year. And if not, there is no guaranteed money left on his deal, so the Jets can cut him without penalty.

      "Bringing a player like Percy in is to help our offense," Idzik said. "He is an explosive player, he is a dynamic player. I think he can help our offense.

      "As we have seen, our offense has had its moments where we can move the ball, we can sustain drives. I think you bring a player like Percy in, he can help everybody that way."

      NOTES: WR David Nelson was released by the Jets on Saturday. ... WR Jeremy Kerley signed a four-year, $16 million extension with the Jets on Tuesday. Kerley, who is in the final season of his rookie deal, is reportedly guaranteed $5.4 million under the terms of the new contract.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Vikings' ship would sail with loss to lowly Bucs
    By The Sports Xchange

    EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked the dreaded "must-win" question Wednesday - four days before traveling to Tampa Bay to play a Buccaneers team that has the league's worst defense and the NFC's worst record (1-5).

    • Typically, when a coach is asked to declare a "must-win" situation, his team is falling rapidly behind in its division and has recently experienced some blown opportunities.

      Check and check. The Vikings are 2-5, three games behind the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers in the NFC North, and have lost to both division leaders. They also are coming off a stunning defensive collapse that handed the Buffalo Bills a 17-16 win in the closing seconds of last Sunday's game.

      So, what does the coach believe? Must win?

      "I hate getting into the 'must win' things, but it's important for our football team that we win," Zimmer said. "It's probably more important the process of playing well, doing things right, eliminating penalties, the things we did last week that didn't allow us to win the football game."

      A year ago, the Vikings were 1-6. So not much has changed record-wise since Zimmer replaced the fired Leslie Frazier, who's now the Bucs' defensive coordinator. The Vikings are still struggling in three key areas: Getting off the field on third - and, heck, fourth - down, turning the ball over at the quarterback position and protecting the quarterback.

      The area that is most concerning would be the latter. The Vikings are last in the league in sacks allowed per pass play. They've given up 19 sacks the past three weeks and, overall on the season, left tackle Matt Kalil is tied for last in sacks allowed (eight) and pressures (27).

      "Some of it is we are getting beat (on the line) physically," Zimmer said. "It's not so much the stunts and the games, I don't believe. It's sometimes the protection breaks down because of other factors, if that makes sense.

      "I mean sometimes guys get beat, that happens all of the time. Sometimes the protection might be turned the way and a guy turned too far, wasn't necessarily that he got beat but he went further than he was supposed to go. I can go through a ton of them. One time a guy a stepped on another guy's foot and it caused him, so there are a multitude of things that happen and to try to pin it on one thing is not, I don't believe, the right way."

      The Bucs' defense ranks 25th in sacks per pass play while no defender has more than two sacks. Overall, the Bucs rank last in the league in yards allowed (422.8) and points allowed (34.0) per game.

      So while it's not yet "must-win" time, another loss on this particular weekend certainly will increase the field of those questioning the direction the team is heading.

      --TE Kyle Rudolph, who has missed the past four games because of hernia surgery, did not practice Wednesday and is still a few weeks from returning to practice.

      --OLB Gerald Hodges, who missed last week's game because of a hamstring injury, did not practice. Hodges played most of the Lions game on the damaged hamstring two weeks ago, so his recovery has been slow. His exit coincided with starter Chad Greenway re-entering the starting lineup after missing three games because of broken ribs and a broken hand.

      --C John Sullivan, who left Sunday's game with a concussion late in the first quarter, did not practice. He passed the first stage of the NFL's concussion protocol and is expected to play on Sunday. If he doesn't play, the Vikings have a capable backup in Joe Berger, a 10-year veteran.

      --DE Corey Wootton, who missed Sunday's game because of a lower back injury, was limited in practice. With him sidelined last week, rookie third-round pick Scott Crichton got eight snaps, his first action since the opener.

      --DT Sharrif Floyd, who played Sunday despite being listed as questionable because of an elbow injury, now has an ankle injury that caused him to be limited in practice. If Floyd can't play, the Vikings have a viable option in Tom Johnson, who has been a head-turner in limited action in the nickel rush packages.

      --G Vladimir Ducasse, who left Sunday's game with a knee injury in the first quarter, was limited in practice. He's expected to play.

      --CB Jabari Price was limited because of a hamstring injury. He played one snap at corner and saw time on special teams a week ago.

      --S Antone Exum, one of the team's busier special teams players, was limited because of an ankle injury.

      SERIES HISTORY: 54th regular-season meeting. Vikings lead series, 31-22. The Buccaneers have won the past six meetings, going back to the 2001, the last year the teams were together in the NFC Central. The series is tied 13-13 in games played Tampa.

      GAME PLAN: The Vikings' main priority is protecting rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who has been sacked 13 times the past two weeks. They'll start by trying to duplicate their running performance against Buffalo's then-No. 1-ranked run defense (29 carries, 158 yards, 5.4-yard average). If they can do that while protecting Bridgewater and winning the turnover battle like they did last week (4-2), they should be able to beat a weak Bucs team even on the road.

      MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

      Bucs DE Michael Johnson, who is tied for the team lead in sacks with only two, vs. Vikings LT Matt Kalil, who has struggled for most of the season, particularly the past two games. Kalil was punished for 1.5 sacks against the Lions' Ziggy Ansah two weeks ago and 1.5 more sacks by Jerry Hughes last week in Buffalo.

      Bucs WR Vincent Jackson, who has a team-high 25 catches for 344 yards and two touchdowns, vs. Vikings CB Xavier Rhodes, who has played well with a team-high seven passes defensed but was beaten for two critical completions in Buffalo's game-winning, 80-yard drive in the final three minutes. Poor technique cost Rhodes from making a better play on the ball on a deep ball to the 2-yard line and also the game-winning 2-yard touchdown to Sammy Watkins with 1 second left. Jackson is a veteran who will test Rhodes' relative inexperience.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    49ers lag at bye with tough schedule ahead
    By The Sports Xchange

    SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh instructed his players to relax and enjoy the time off during the team's bye this week. But the fact is: There is reason for concern.

    • After all, if the 49ers spent their vacation lying on their backs, they did so looking up at six teams in the NFC standings. That would put them on the outside looking in if the postseason started today.

      Alas, a 4-3 record doesn't sound so bad when you consider the 49ers, according to the calculations of nationally respected analyst Jeff Sagarin, played the NFL's second-hardest schedule (behind Kansas City) in the first seven weeks of the season.

      Ahead lies seven consecutive non-winning teams before a tough two-week conclusion.

      Maybe that's why Harbaugh's final instructions to his guys Monday morning were: "Enjoy their families, enjoy their children if they have them, play with their kids."

      Be forewarned, however: The upcoming schedule isn't as cushy as it sounds. Included in the next seven games are two matchups with Seattle (3-3) and long trips to New Orleans (3-4) and New York (Giants, 3-4).

      The regular season ends at home against San Diego (5-2) and Arizona (5-1). If it takes 10-6 to make the playoffs in the NFC, the 49ers would need to win at least two games in that Seahawks-Saints-Giants sequence in order to have the luxury of splitting the two season-enders and still get in.

      Rounding out the remaining schedule is St. Louis (2-4), Washington (2-5) and Oakland (0-6).

      Statistically speaking, the 49ers wouldn't seem like a team that hasn't played playoff-caliber football this season. Entering their bye, they rank ninth in total offense and sixth in total defense.

      Breaking those numbers down, one area of concern can be identified on each side of the ball.

      The 49ers are barely average (14th of 32) in passing offense. They've allowed the fifth-most sacks (19) and have just the 20th-best completion percentage (62.9).

      Defensively, they are average (16th of 32) against the pass. They've allowed the fifth-most touchdown passes (13) and have just the 21st-most sacks (12).

      Progress report on 49ers who missed all or part of Sunday's 42-17 debacle at Denver:

      --Expected to return for next game (Nov. 2 vs. Rams) -- guard Mike Iupati (concussion), inside linebacker Patrick Willis (toe), cornerback Chris Culliver (hamstring), cornerback Chris Cook (hamstring) and safety Jimmie Ward (quad).

      --Scheduled to practice for first time this season next week -- Running back Marcus Lattimore (knee).

      --Slated to return Nov. 16 (at Giants) -- Outside linebacker Aldon Smith (suspension).

      --Hopeful of returning on or around Dec. 1 -- Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey (biceps) and inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (knee).

      The 49ers lost starting center Daniel Kilgore to season-ending leg surgery in the Denver game. Rookie Marcus Martin is expected to start in his place.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Steelers hope home cooking will turn around season
    By The Sports Xchange

    PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have an opportunity with two home games to finally make a statement in the AFC North when they play Indianapolis and Baltimore, two 5-2 teams, at Heinz Field in the next two weeks.

    • At 4-3, the Steelers need at the very least a split. A sweep, though, would put them right up there among teams with the better records in the AFC.

      But quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts would seem to be everything the Steelers cannot stop. The Steelers have major issues on defense, particularly in their secondary, and Luck may find it easy pickings in Sunday's 4:25 p.m. ET matchup.

      "We have to work to minimize Andrew Luck and what he is able to do with his legs and with his arm, and how he administers the offense," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

      That would seem to be too much to ask a defense that has only 10 sacks, four interceptions and cornerbacks in disarray. Neither of the two starting corners to open the season will start Sunday. Ike Taylor has been out with a broken forearm and Cortez Allen was demoted from starter to making appearances only in the nickel defense last Sunday.

      Safety Troy Polamalu has become so poor at covering receivers that they try to minimize what he does in that area by keeping him in the linebackers' zone near the line of scrimmage.

      Luck has a bevy of receivers -- wide, tight and running backs -- to throw to and the Steelers have not seen the likes of him yet. Baltimore's Joe Flacco is the only top 20-rated quarterback they faced so far.

      They also are without starting nose tackle Steve McLendon. Because of that, they played 36-year-old defensive end Brett Keisel nearly the entire game last Sunday, and he was one of their best defenders, swiping a pass and pressuring the quarterback.

      They will need to force a few turnovers -- Luck has thrown seven interceptions -- and not give any up in order to pull this one off.

      "They are a formidable group on offense with a variety of weapons with a guy under center that has proven that he is capable of doing it at a high level," Tomlin said.

      "They are up in the 40s in terms of some of the points that they have scored in recent weeks. They average 37 minutes in terms of time of possession. We have to work to minimize that. Obviously, it's going to require a great effort by us."

      In news off the field, wide receiver Antonio Brown cursed officials on Twitter, where he included a photo of him with both feet inbounds on a catch that was ruled a touchdown Monday night but overturned by officials at NFL headquarters. He backed up what he said.

      "When you're passionate about something, you speak your mind," Brown said.

      However, vice president of officiating Dean Blandino used the league's television appendage, NFL Network, to show why Brown's single frame representation of the play was inaccurate. Blandino stood by the official call.

      "When you look at these plays, it's hard to take a still shot and have that be definitive evidence," Blandino said during an interview on Tuesday night's NFL Total Access on NFL Network and in a video that is posted on NFL.com.

      "When we look at this play, I can freeze it on the video at that point, and it looks like the foot is in, but the foot's not down yet.

      "Now when we take it a couple of frames forward, you can see the foot up against the white. So you gotta be really careful with still frames and photos and making calls like this. I'll show you one other look from behind the play where you can watch the foot being out of bounds there, and then when it comes up, you'll see clearly, in the white, that's an incomplete pass."

      NOTES: OT Marcus Gilbert (concussion) will have to pass all of his tests this week before he is cleared to play again. He did not practice Wednesday. ... LB Ryan Shazier (MCL sprain) has not played since the third game of the season. He was supposed to practice Wednesday but left early and it does not appear he will be ready to return to the lineup. ... SS Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) went through a limited practice Wednesday and he has a chance to play after missing the past two games. ... CB Ike Taylor, who broke his forearm in the third game of the season, went through a limited practice for the first time on Wednesday, but will not play in the game. ... NT Steve McLendon (shoulder) did not practice.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Countering Cards: Eagles insert wrinkle to spring McCoy
    By The Sports Xchange

    PHILADELPHIA -- LeSean McCoy is coming off his most productive game of the season - a 149-yard rushing performance in a 27-0 win over the New York Giants in Week 6.

    • If he can come close to duplicating that performance Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals in the desert, there's a pretty good chance the Philadelphia Eagles will improve their record to 6-1.

      But it won't be easy. The Cardinals own the NFL's best run defense, holding opponents to an average of 72.5 rushing yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry.

      "We just want to go in there and win the game," said McCoy, who rushed for a league-best 1,607 yards last season, but was averaging just 2.9 yards per carry this season before the Giants game.

      "I'm sure they'll key out and try to take the run away. But we just have to go play ball. They're a good defense. They play well together. They lost a lot of guys who were very good. For other guys to step in and make plays just shows you a lot about that defense."

      The Eagles still are missing two of their best offensive linemen - All-Pro left guard Evan Mathis and invaluable center Jason Kelce. That's a big reason McCoy has struggled running the ball.

      But coach Chip Kelly did two things against the Giants that kick-started the ground game. He inserted a counter play into the game plan. And he had his quarterback, Nick Foles, line up more under center and less in shotgun.

      "(The counter) was something to get me to the open edge," McCoy said. "To give me some one-on-one opportunities. A lot of teams have been bringing a safety down (in the box). This was something coach came up with to get me some space to work."

      "We've had (the counter plays) for a few weeks," center David Molk said. "But it's the first time we really used it. It's really to take the pressure off the front side of our zone. Because if they're going to heavily weigh (their defense to one side), you go the other way, right? Common sense."

      In their first five games, the Eagles never ran more than seven plays with Foles under center. Against the Giants, he was under center for 22 of 71 offensive plays.

      Thirteen of those 22 plays were McCoy runs. He gained 75 yards on those runs.

      McCoy said he prefers having Foles under center rather than in shotgun.

      "That really helped out," he said. "Just because, sometimes, (when the quarterback is under center), you can see it better. You can see the cuts better, the lanes better. If there is some pressure, you can adjust to it and kind of move the way you want to move.

      "Whereas in the gun, you're already kind of going sideways. And if there is a little pressure, it knocks you back off your course. Under center, you can get back to it.

      "I like under center. I like 'em both. But I would take under center more."

      Molk said the main reason the Eagles decided to run more plays under center was because "we didn't want them to know where we were going. If we were in the gun, they had a key on which way we were going to run the ball and how we were going to run the ball. With Nick under center, there's a little more indecision (by the defense). Which is good for us."

      --The Eagles are hopeful of getting linebacker Mychal Kendricks back for Sunday's road game in Arizona. Kendricks, who has missed four games with a calf injury, is their best defensive player.

      "If you get a starter back and a starter with his athleticism, it will help," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "Especially in the dime packages, the nickel packages. (The Cardinals) go to four- and five-wide receiver sets more than most teams we faced. So it will be a game that we've got a matchup on five wide receivers sometimes."

      --RB Darren Sproles, who suffered an MCL knee sprain against the Giants in Week 6, practiced on a limited basis Wednesday. He is hopeful he'll be able to play Sunday against the Cardinals. If he does play, it's uncertain whether he would return punts.

      --C Jason Kelce, who has missed the last three games after having surgery to repair a sports hernia, practiced on a limited basis Wednesday, but he will not play this week against the Cardinals and probably not next week against Houston. He is shooting for a Week 10 return against Carolina.

      --RB/KR Chris Polk practiced fully Wednesday and appears to be a go for Sunday's game against Arizona. Polk, who had a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown earlier this season, has been hampered by a hamstring injury since the beginning of training camp.

      --G Evan Mathis returned to practice Wednesday on a limited basis. Mathis is recovering from an MCL knee sprain. He is on injured reserve-designated for return. Wednesday was the first day he could resume practicing. He can be activated in Week 10 and likely will be.

      SERIES HISTORY: 115th meeting. The Cardinals lead the series, 57-55-2. The Eagles have won just two of the past six meetings. One of them was the most recent meeting - last December in Philadelphia. The Eagles won that game, 24-21. It helped them make the playoffs and ended up killing the Cardinals' postseason hopes.

      GAMEPLAN: The Eagles' rushing attack has been inconsistent this season, mainly because of injuries to their offensive line. But they rushed for 203 yards in their 27-0 Week 6 win over the Giants, and will come out and try to establish the run early Sunday against an Arizona defense that is No. 1 against the run. On defense, the Eagles will try to get pressure on quarterback Carson Palmer and force him into some mistakes.

      MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

      --Eagles nickel CB Brandon Boykin vs. Cardinals slot WR Larry Fitzgerald. Boykin is one of the league's top inside corners. Fitzgerald has 10 touchdown catches in six career games against the Eagles.

      --Eagles RB LeSean McCoy vs. Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Stopping McCoy will be Bowles' No. 1 priority. His defense is ranked first in the league against the run.

      --Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin vs. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson. Maclin is on pace for his first 1,000-yard receiving season. Peterson is one of the league's best corners.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Jones still believes in injury-riddled Falcons offense
    By The Sports Xchange

    LONDON -- Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is not throwing in the towel after the team's porous 2-5 start.

    • Jones has 49 catches for 676 yards and three touchdowns as he's coming back from a broken foot that ended his 2013 season after five games.

      However, the team's offensive woes - beginning with five offensive linemen on injured reserve - have slowed their efforts again.

      "It comes with it," Jones said. "We can't control injuries. We had a lot of them on our offensive line this year. We just have to stay positive and find ways to get the ball out of Matt's hands early."

      Jones believes he can be available early against a lot of man-to-man coverage.

      "Even though we can't take those deep throws down the field, those shot plays, including myself, we just have to catch the ball on slants, hitches," Jones said. "Just routine catches. We just have to catch those balls and beat man-to-man."

      With such leaky pass protection, Jones believes the offense can make defenses pay.

      "The corners are kind of sitting on us because they feel like they're getting a lot of pressure on (quarterback) Matt (Ryan) right now, and everybody's just sitting on us," Jones said. "So they're like, 'ok, just make this tackle.' We just have to catch the ball, break a tackle and we can make them pay."

      Jones, for whom the Falcons traded five draft picks to move up from 27th to sixth overall in 2011 to draft, doesn't shy away from his burden.

      "I just got to continue to do my job. I can't go out there and be Superman," Jones said. "I want to, but as long as I'm doing my job and all my other teammates are doing their jobs we'll be successful. We've just been so inconsistent early on. It's a play here, a play there. Like I said, we've just got to be consistent."

      The Falcons were nearly shut out for the first time in 10 seasons last week. They put together a late touchdown drive to avert a shutout on a 4-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White.

      There were some keys to the late drive.

      "We blocked them up, and Matt had a little bit more time to get the ball out of his hands," Jones said. "We kind of knew where he was going early on. One high safety, I kind of have a double move, kind of quick, and it was like 34 yards or so, but we just got to be consistent. The plays are there, we're just not making them as an offensive unit. We're missing them by inches. We're missing them."

      The Falcons are about to start their third center and fifth different offensive line combination against stingy Detroit, which ranks No. 1 in overall defense while giving up an average of 290.3 yards per game.

      "We definitely have to get off to a fast start," Jones said. "We have so many play makers on our team. We can't go out there and get three-and-outs. I mean that's unacceptable.

      "We hear from everybody else, 'Aw, y'all not good. Y'all not this.' We're harder on ourselves than anyone is hard on us. We're just too good to be doing that. Like I said, we're missing by inches every time, or somebody's missing their block, or the receivers we're not picking up the right guy, we're dropping balls, routine catches."

      Jones senses that the Falcons can pull it all together.

      "We have to change that," Jones said. "We're a scoring team; we're a high-temp team. We practice that way. We just have to keep going. We just have to stay positive and keep working and get this thing turned around."

      --During the Falcons' open portion of practice Wednesday, offensive lineman Harland Gunn was working on his snaps at center with starting quarterback Matt Ryan at the Arsenal Football Club training ground.

      Gunn was inactive last week against Baltimore.

      With Konz out, Gunn gives the Falcons a veteran option to play center. Stone finished the Baltimore game, playing 56 of the 66 offensive snaps.

      "I think James is a very good young football player that understands the game," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "He impressed us early on with his ability to identify fronts and change protections. He's an intelligent young guy, but he just doesn't have any experience."

      Ryan said he's glad the team is away and in a hotel because he has had extra time to watch film with Stone make sure they are on the same page.

      "James has done a great job since the first day he walked into the building," Ryan said. "He's a smart guy and has picked up our offense very quickly. I think (line coach) Mike Tice and (assistant line coach) Wade (Harman) have done a good job of working with our young guys."

      MEDICAL WATCH: WR Harry Douglas (foot) did not practice on Wednesday. Douglas, who has 12 catches for 121 yards and one touchdown, was injured in the third game of the season against Tampa Bay and has been inactive for the past four games. ... DT Jonathan Babineaux did not practice on Wednesday with a foot injury. ... Jones (ankle), LG Justin Blalock (back) and LB Prince Shembo were limited in practice.

      SERIES HISTORY: The Lions lead the series 23-12, but the Falcons have won the past three games including a 34-21 win in 2008, 23-16 in 2011 and 31-18 in 2012. In the previous meeting, Ryan completed 25 of 32 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns.

      GAME PLAN: Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are both expecting the Lions to attack the line of scrimmage and leave the wide receivers in one-on-one situations.

      "We're going to make the adjustments," Ryan said. "That's a big part of what we've been in the past as an explosive offense. We've got to find ways to create more explosive plays."

      Since the injuries started to mount in the Minnesota game, the Falcons have scored 28, 20, 13 and 7 points. The team's net yards have similarly decreased from 411 yards, 397, 287 to 254.

      Ryan passed for a season-low 228 yards last week against the Ravens.

      We need to score points early," Ryan said. "We need to be in games as opposed to playing from behind. We've had to do that a little bit the last couple of weeks."

      Ryan has a few other things to jumpstart the offense.

      "The other thing I think we need to do is that we have to stay ahead of the chains," Ryan said. "I think on first down and second downs, we need to be more efficient. We have to get into more situations where it's conducive to running the football."

      MATCHUPS TO WATCH:

      Lions RB Joique Bell, who ran strong as the lead back against the Saints, vs. Falcons LB Paul Worrilow, who's second in the league with 54 tackles: Bell, who had 48 yards rushing and scored on a 1-yard run, played 52 of a possible 70 offensive snaps (74 percent) against the Saints. Lions coach Jim Caldwell insisted that Bush's limited role was due to injury, not lack of production. Worrilow posted his 11th career game with double-digit tackles, notching 10 tackles (three solo) at Baltimore. He has recorded double-digit tackles in four games this season.

      Lions WR Golden Tate, who's stepping up with Calvin Johnson out with an ankle injury, vs. Falcons CB Robert Alford, who had two interceptions: Tate helped lead the comeback against New Orleans with a 73-yard touchdown catch. He has 48 catches for 649 yards and two touchdowns. Both of Alford's interceptions came in the end zone to stop scoring threats. He is the first Falcon to post multiple interceptions in a game since safety William Moore picked off Saints quarterback Drew Brees twice on Nov. 29, 2012.

      Lions DT Nick Fairley vs. Falcons LG Justin Blalock, who's having a tough time with a back injury: Fairley was demoted during training camp. He hired a personal chef to help him keep his weight down and he has been able to elevate his play with 14 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. Blalock will be left in a one-on-one matchup with Fairley as the Falcons will have to double-team Ndamukong Suh with the center.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Bills' Marrone mulls how to rotate remaining running backs
    By The Sports Xchange

    ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone was vague Wednesday on how he would utilize running backs Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown on Sunday against the New York Jets.

    • They will be taking over for injured C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.

      "You know, I don't really know that yet," Marrone said. "It's not like we sit down and we say that. We're going to look at practice and set the plan and see where it goes.

      "A lot of times that's dictated by the things that go on in the game also, depending on what your plan is. I really can't say how we want to do it right now. Hopefully, whatever way we do it is productive."

      It would seem that Dixon will get the start and probably get the bulk of the work since he has been active all seven games to date. Brown will be active for the first time Sunday. Of course, Brown is probably the more explosive player -- he has three 100-yard games to his credit in two years with Philadelphia -- and he'll have fresh legs.

      "I ran out there first today, but me and Bryce are gonna kinda do it together, as a combination," Dixon said. "That's pretty much how we're going to get it down. We're gonna compete this week and see who's got the feel for the plays that coach wants to run, and then on Sunday we're gonna go with it."

      The Bills have turned to Chris Hogan to be their slot receiver, and Hogan made one of the biggest plays in Buffalo's victory over Minnesota last week.

      His leaping 28-yard reception at the 2-yard-line set up Sammy Watkins' winning TD with one second remaining. Hogan, who lost a fumble early in the game in the red zone, finished with five catches for 63 yards.

      "I give Chris a lot of credit," Marrone said. "Now the question is do you keep improving and keep being consistent throughout the year, because that's the case with all of these players that are just getting their opportunities and being able to play."

      It's no surprise that Hogan has begun to emerge since Kyle Orton was elevated to starting quarterback. All 12 of Hogan's receptions (for 162 yards with one touchdown) have been delivered by Orton, who became the starter three weeks ago in Detroit.

      When Orton arrived in late August, Hogan was deeper on the depth chart, and they formed a connection working on the scout team as Orton learned the offense.

      "Between me and him, when he first got here, he was doing some scout team stuff with me, and that gave us a little more time to get more associated with each other; how he throws the ball, how I run routes, so that's definitely helped," Hogan said.

      "Kyle and I have a pretty good chemistry. He trusts me on the field to know what I'm supposed to do. I'm getting pretty good separation from the DBs and catching a few passes here and there, so that has a lot to do with the playing time I'm getting now."

      The player Hogan has supplanted is veteran Mike Williams, who was inactive for the Week 6 game against New England, then played only five offensive snaps against Minnesota.

      "I'm actually behind a lot of guys," Williams said. "I think Chris Hogan is just one of the guys. I'm just out there doing what they tell me to do. If they put me ninth string again, I guess that's where I'm gonna be at."

      Williams has just eight catches for 142 yards and a touchdown this season, his first with the Bills.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Beleaguered Bills try a changing of the guard
    By The Sports Xchange

    ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone made a much-needed move that many anticipated Wednesday when he inserted veteran Kraig Urbik back into the starting lineup in place of rookie Cyril Richardson at left guard.

    • Urbik, a starter the previous three years at right guard, apparently did not impress Marrone much in 2013, his first year with the team. Urbick was relegated to the bench this season after the acquisition of free-agent Chris Williams and the drafting of three offensive linemen, including Richardson, who was the lone true guard in that group.

      Urbik has been limited to 55 offensive snaps while serving as the backup swing guard and center.

      "We brought Chris in, he played two games and we won both, and we liked what we saw in him, and the other guys were playing better," Marrone said. "(Urbik) made the team and he has to be ready to step up and go if he gets the call on Sunday."

      When Williams went down during the third game with a season-ending back injury, Urbik took his place and that's when he amassed all 55 of his snaps. He hasn't played an offensive down in any of the other six games.

      Richardson, a fifth-round pick from Baylor who was inactive the first three games, became the starter in Week 4 at Houston, but in the past four games, he has been one of Buffalo's worst players.

      After the offensive line gave up six sacks last week to Minnesota, Marrone said he'd be looking at everything, and this is the move he's making, bringing in Urbik.

      "Is it a game where they could play better? It's the inconsistency that gets you upset," Marrone said of the offensive line, which is particularly galling for him since he's an old offensive lineman and offensive line coach.

      "There are times out there where there's a great pocket and no one around (Orton) and there are times where there's not a great pocket around him. That's what gets you frustrated; that type of inconsistency."

      Urbik has been asked on a few occasions why he fell out of favor. Asked again Wednesday, he said, "I'm not going to get into that. I'm very fortunate to be in there right now and I'm looking forward to the next game."

      Asked if the coaching staff ever told him why, he said they hadn't provided an explanation.

      His attitude is that now he has a chance to prove himself, so he has to do it.

      "I'm definitely ready every week, preparing like I'm the starter," he said. "Being the backup who dresses on game day, you're always one play away from starting. So I prepare every week like I'm starting, and I'll be ready."

      It's a big week for the line as it must deal with the talented front of the New York Jets, led by Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, and augmented by the likes of Calvin Pace, Quinton Coples, Jason Babin, and Demario Davis.

      "Great against the run, very good against the pass, they're a very good bunch, every one of those guys can flat out play, even the backups, the guys we don't talk about it," Marrone said. "It's going to take our best to play well; it's going to be a big challenge for us."

      According to the analytics site ProFootballFocus.com, the Bills have the worst guard play in the NFL. Of 78 players graded at the two spots, right guard Erik Pears is dead last and Richardson is 75th. When Williams was healthy, he was also near the bottom of the list.

      Interestingly, PFF's grades revealed a severe problem at left guard last season for the Bills. The two guys who played, Doug Legursky and Colin Brown, ranked 63rd and 78th, respectively, out of the 81 graded players. Urbik was the right guard last year and he graded out as the 20th-best guard.

      NOTES: RB C.J. Spiller was put on the injured reserve/designated to return list after undergoing surgery to repair his broken collarbone. The earliest he could return is Week 16, but it seems like a long shot that it could happen. ... RB Fred Jackson will be inactive against the New York Jets because of a groin injury. ... WR Sammy Watkins leads all NFL receivers with a 77.1 percent success rate converting first downs. In all, 27 of his 35 receptions have gone for first downs. ... RB Phillip Tanner was signed off Dallas' practice squad and added to the Bills' 53-man roster to serve as a third running back and to play special teams. He will probably fill some of the kicking game duties of Anthony Dixon, who figures to have more time on offense.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Late-arriving Revis told to go home
    By The Sports Xchange

    New England Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis showed up late for work on Tuesday and coach Bill Belichick promptly sent him home, The Boston Globe reported.

    • When Revis did not arrive on time for a 7:30 a.m. meeting, Belichick wouldn't allow him to participate in practice. A day later, Revis wouldn't discuss the reason for his absence.

      "Between me and coach," Revis told reporters on Wednesday. "Talk to him about it."

      The report indicated that Revis acknowledged his mistake and was back at practice the next day.

      It's not the first time that Belichick sent a star player home. He has taken similar disciplinary action with others, including former wide receiver Randy Moss and linebacker Brandon Spikes.

      Revis, who is in his first season with the Patriots after seven years with the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is not expected to miss Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Chiefs' Charles tested for concussion after remarks
    By The Sports Xchange

    Kansas Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, who was involved in a violent collision with San Diego Chargers cornerback Brandon Flowers while scoring a touchdown but stayed in Sunday's game, now admits that maybe he was dealing with symptoms of a concussion.

    • "It definitely hurt," Charles said during an interview with ESPN Radio on Tuesday. "It's like, I woke up -- I mean, like, a couple plays later I was seeing light bulbs, like, light bulbs around my eyes, and I was trying to catch them. But I was in the game so I was like, 'All right, let's get the ball and run again.'"

      After Sunday's game at San Diego, Charles passed off the helmet-to-helmet hit in the second quarter as no big deal.

      "Yeah, he put a big hit on me and I'm thankful that I got up healthy," Charles said after the Chiefs' 23-20 victory.

      Flowers left the game with a concussion, but Charles finished the game.

      According to ESPN, Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder said Wednesday that Charles was placed in the protocol Tuesday and passed all the tests. Charles will practice Wednesday, but the team will continue to monitor his symptoms.

      Burkholder said Charles was placed in the protocol because of the comments he made Tuesday.

      "We're not classifying him as having a concussion. But as with all of our players, I'll monitor him as he goes and he'll go through practice today," Burkholder said.

      Burkholder said Wednesday that he checked Charles after the hit and that the running back showed no signs of a concussion, although Charles said in the ESPN Radio interview Tuesday that he wasn't checked for a concussion Sunday.

      "When he got the hit, I obviously checked with him. He was fine," Burkholder said. "I know coach (Andy Reid) talked to him a good bit there. I came back and checked with him, consulted with our team physician. He was absolutely asymptomatic, wasn't complaining about anything."

      According to ESPN, Charles on Tuesday went on to describe other symptoms that could be consistent with those of a concussion. He said he had flashbacks to scenes from his childhood. But Charles indicated he was never checked for a concussion because he said he didn't have one.

      "I didn't have a concussion,'' Charles said in the radio interview. "It was definitely a hit that shocked me. I didn't think I had to go through the concussion protocol and all that because I didn't want to go through that again. That's what happened in the playoffs. I was definitely fine. I think I came out pretty good.

      "I could definitely play through stuff like that. It wasn't a concussion. If it was a concussion I wouldn't remember the plays or remember none of my teammates' names or remember what sideline to go to. I definitely remember everything. It was just a huge hit.''

      Charles paced all rushers with 95 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries against the Chargers. Charles passed Priest Holmes (6,070) as the team's all-time leading rusher in the second quarter, finishing the day with 6,113 rushing yards.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Steelers a familiar foe to Colts' Pagano
    By The Sports Xchange

    INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano knows the Pittsburgh Steelers very well.

    • Pagano was an assistant coach with the Baltimore Ravens, serving as the team's defensive coordinator during the 2011 season. Since Baltimore and Pittsburgh both play in the AFC North, preparation for this week's game is old hat.

      The two franchises will square off Sunday in a late afternoon game at Heinz Field. Indianapolis started getting ready for the Steelers on Wednesday morning.

      "(We) had a good start in preparation for our game with the Pittsburgh Steelers," Pagano said after the workout. "The Steelers, great club, great organization. We've got our hands full in all three phases. So we're going to have a great week of preparation in order to get ready for these guys."

      Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, in particular, has been a thorn in the sides of both Indianapolis and Baltimore since he came into the NFL in 2004. Pagano expects more of the same on Sunday.

      "They're both great quarterbacks, both future Hall of Famers. I've been beat several times because of what (Roethlisberger) is capable of doing," the Colts coach said when asked to compare the abilities of the Steelers' signal caller with his own quarterback (Andrew Luck).

      "They both have been able to beat opposing defenses because they're big, they're strong and they both have great arm talent. Just when you think that you have them sacked, they have a way of getting away from them. It doesn't matter whether its a defensive lineman or linebackers."

      So how do you hope to stop, or at least slow down, the big and mobile Roethlisberger? It's certainly not easy to do.

      "You try to keep him in the pocket as best you can," Pagano said. "If you're lucky enough to come free and get a chance to get him down, you'd better wrap him up.

      "He's a hard guy to bring down. If he breaks contain, he can go ahead and extend plays. That's when they unleash a bunch of havoc on you. He's as good as there is in extending plays."

      The Colts coach also discussed running back Le'Veon Bell, who leads the Steelers with 599 rushing yards.

      "He's a beast. He's the second leading receiver on the team (36 receptions for 339 yards). He's big, he's strong. He's got great vision. He's a very, very patient runner. He's very tough when he gets to the line of scrimmage," Pagano said.

      "It's kind of like, 'Now you see me, now you don't.' He's got burst. He can take it the distance. He can run you over. Catch it out of the backfield. This guy's dynamic. He's a dynamic kind of runner. He's tough to tackle, tough to bring down."

      Overall, Pagano says that there are several reasons why Indianapolis has been able to string together five straight victories after getting off to an 0-2 start.

      "We're playing better, playing complementary football. All three phases are playing well. I think we played well in Week 1 and Week 2, we just didn't finish. We got off to a slow start the first half of that first game and finished that one OK. We didn't finish off the second one. We're trying to put together complete games, 60-minute games in all three phases," Pagano said.

      "We're getting good play out of all three phases. (But) we've got a lot of things to clean up. Even looking at the tape from (Sunday's win over the Bengals), there's a ton of things to clean up in all three phases. Confidence is good. The energy's good. They feel really good about themselves right now."

      NOTES: Despite the loss of 2013 NFL sack leader OLB Robert Mathis to an NFL-mandated suspension and a season-ending torn Achilles injury, the Colts' defense has still recorded 21 sacks. ... WR Reggie Wayne (elbow) is listed as day to day and did not practice Wednesday. ... Among other players not practicing Wednesday were OT Gosder Cherilis (veteran rest day), RB Trent Richardson (hamstring) and TE Jack Doyle (knee). ... ILB Jerrell Freeman (hip) practiced on Wednesday. ... DT Art Jones (ankle) fully practiced on Wednesday and may be cleared to play. ... CB Darius Butler (ankle) resumed limited practice Wednesday. ... S LaRon Landry (suspension, PED violation) will return to the Colts next Monday.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Manziel seems one misstep closer to Browns QB job
    By The Sports Xchange

    BEREA, Ohio -- It was bound to happen. After one bad performance by Brian Hoyer, the Johnny Manziel quarterback watch is officially on at the Cleveland Browns headquarters.

    • Hoyer was just 16 of 41 for 215 yards with an interception and a strip sack in the 24-6 loss to Jacksonville last week. Head coach Mike Pettine said he toyed with the idea of inserting the rookie Manziel -- not to replace Hoyer, but to provide a spark -- then decided not to do it. He might not be as patient if Hoyer struggles against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday in Cleveland.

      "Nothing has changed," Pettine said. "If the situation this week maybe calls for (Manziel) to play some, then that will be the case. We're not going to hit the panic button after one loss. We know that while the quarterback position needed to be more productive, it was more symptomatic of the entire offense. Brian is still firmly our starter. Like I said, each week we make the decision on if we want to include Johnny in the plan."

      The Browns have other issues they are dealing with, such as avoiding losing to winless teams on back to back weeks. The Jaguars were 0-6 before beating the Browns and now the Raiders are 0-6 as they head east.

      The AFC North is a tight race from top to bottom. Had the Browns beaten the Jaguars they would have been 4-2 and a half game behind the division-leading Baltimore Ravens. As it is, they are 3-3 and last in the division. The Bengals are 3-2-1 and the Steelers are 4-3.

      "There are 16 games in the NFL; you're not going to be perfect in every one," Hoyer said. "The biggest thing for us is we need to learn from our mistakes, bury it and move on.

      "We get two games at home. We're playing Oakland. Whether you win or lose, you've got to learn from the game that you just played and take what you've learned and apply it the next week."

      Pettine is deciding whether to stay with all three running backs -- Ben Tate plus rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West -- week to week or maybe just go with two so they can get into a groove. No back was on the field for more than two consecutive series in Jacksonville. The three were held to 62 yards on 28 carries.

      Pettine has to weigh making changes against the fact the Browns averaged 145 yards a game rushing before playing the Jaguars. However, the only game in which all three running backs played prior to Jacksonville was two weeks earlier in Tennessee. In that game Tate, West and Crowell combined for 173 yards on 36 carries.

      "We'll have discussions this week how to best rotate those guys," Pettine said. "It's a good problem to have, but you're still dealing with the word 'problem' so it's something we have to plan for."

      The Browns have scored a league-most eight rushing touchdowns. Crowell has scored four times and Tate plus West have scored two each on the ground.

      NOTES: NT Ahtyba Rubin (ankle) was limited in practice Wednesday. ... DB K'Waun Williams (concussion) has been cleared to practice. ... LT Joe Thomas was rested in practice as he normally is on Wednesdays. ... DE Billy Winn (quadriceps) did not practice, but rode a stationary bike. ... DE Phil Taylor (knee) did not practice and has not been on the field since undergoing knee surgery on Oct. 6.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Eli's fancy footwork key to resurgence
    By The Sports Xchange

    EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Amidst the New York Giants rocky season, one bright spot has been the quiet re-emergence of quarterback Eli Manning.

    • Through seven games, Manning has completed 64.9 percent of his pass attempts for 1,573 yards, an average of 7.0 yards over pass attempt.

      He has also thrown 14 touchdowns and has drastically cut down his interceptions from 15 at this point in the season last year to just five in 2014.

      What's been the biggest reason for Manning's increased efficiency?

      "Probably his footwork," said quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf. "I think he is playing at high level and I think improved footwork has really helped out. He is obviously worked hard at that part of it, and that is a little bit different than what he was used to with the other system.

      "We teach it a little bit differently. I think that is probably the biggest area in how fast he has been playing is his footwork."

      Langsdorf praised Manning, an 11-year veteran, for rolling up his sleeves and thrusting himself headfirst into learning a completely different offensive system with many parts being foreign to the two-time Super Bowl MVP.

      "He has really put a lot of time into learning the system," Langsdorf said. "The thing about what we are doing offensively is so much of it is tied into the footwork. That really is telling him where to go with the ball and the timing, which he needs to get it to a receiver. That has been a big part of it, not that he is learning a lot of new concepts.

      "Football, there is not a lot of new things in football these days anyway. The way we read, the progression of the way he is reading the play -- there are a lot of different factors. We just teach it a little different maybe than how he had it in the past. He has spent a ton of time, really done a great job preparing and working at learning and getting comfortable in the offense."

      NOTES: RB Rashad Jennings is making progress in his rehab of a sprained MCL in his left knee and he hopes to begin running on solid turf when the team returns from the bye week. ... DT Cullen Jenkins confirmed that he will miss at least a couple of weeks after straining his calf in the first quarter Sunday. ... CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie hopes the week off will help shake his injury issues so that he can return to more of a full-time role in the second half of the season. ... WR Rueben Randle will see more time in the slot, in place of the injured Victor Cruz, according to Giants receivers coach Sean Ryan.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Giants enter bye week with identity crises
    By The Sports Xchange

    EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- At the start of the 2014 season, New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin had very lofty goals for his team to achieve by its bye week.

    • "I was hoping we would be 7-0," he said with a straight face.

      Instead, the Giants are sitting at 3-4 in third place in the NFC East. They have suffered back-to-back losses to two division rivals, the Eagles and the Cowboys, losing by a combined 58-21 in those two games.

      Stats and record aside, perhaps the most unsettling thing about the Giants at this moment is that the team doesn't seem to have a clearly defined identity.

      "We are probably somewhere between the kind of night we had in Washington and how we were (against Dallas)," Coughlin said when asked where his team is at the bye.

      The Giants sandwiched in a three-game winning streak against Houston, Washington and Atlanta -- three teams that drafted within the top five slots of the 2014 draft and three teams that currently have losing records.

      Coughlin and his staff have been spending the bye week performing some intense self-scouting of the team, trying to identify the areas that need to be prioritized moving forward, while still allowing the team to prepare for its weekly games, including a brutal four-week stretch that begins on Nov. 3 against the Colts at home.

      Coughlin, for his part, is optimistic that they will find some answers and get things back on track.

      "We have nine games to play. Hopefully we will be able to talk about this team being a lot better than you see it right now," he said.

      It won't be easy though, as the Giants are starting to struggle with injuries to key players, some of which have left them thin at certain positions.

      On offense, the Giants have already lost receiver Victor Cruz for the year with a knee injury. They have also been without starting running back Rashad Jennings (knee) and offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, who has been on the temporary injured reserve list.

      On defense, the picture is worse. Middle linebacker Jon Beason can't see to make it through an entire game these days thanks to an on-going toe issue. Star cornerback Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie is nursing a hamstring issue, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins will miss a couple of weeks with a strained calf muscle.

      Slot cornerbacks, Walter Thurmond (pectoral) and Trumaine McBride (thumb), have been lost to season-ending injuries.

      "You have to maneuver some of the talent around, but I think the talent is there," Coughlin said. "We have to get the best out of them every time we line up. There isn't any doubt about that. You can't make up for the loss of the players we have, but every team has those issues."

      Every team might have injury issues, but at the end of the day, the Giants have yet to show they can stand up to the higher echelon of competition, which is why the upcoming four-game run against the Colts, Seahawks, 49ers and Cowboys could very well be the defining stretch of the Giants' 2014 season.

      NOTES: The Giants hosted 15 free agents for a workout during their bye week, a workout consisting of mostly offensive skill players. Among the more noticeable names were former Raiders and Seahawks QB Terrell Pryor, former Chiefs WR Jon Baldwin, former Cowboys RB Felix Jones, former Packers and Jets RB Alex Green, former Eagles RB Dion Lewis, and former Lions K Nate Freese.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Polian, Wolf named HOF finalists
    By The Sports Xchange

    WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The first-ever contributor's committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday named former NFL general managers Bill Polian and Ron Wolf as finalists for induction at the pre-Super Bowl meeting that will take place on Jan. 31, the day before Super Bowl XLIX.

    • Since the Hall of Fame was established in 1963, there have been 19 contributors elected to the Hall. However, 10 were elected in the first five years and only nine in the ensuing 47 years. To that end, the Hall's Board of Trustees voted in August to create a contributor's committee, similar to the senior's committee, in which those nominated are voted on individually and not in competition with players and coaches.

      Polian and Wolf, along with senior's nominee center Mick Tingelhoff, will have to get 80.4 percent of the entire committee's vote at the selection meeting, which means 37 yes votes from the 46 selectors. Those two were selected by the nine-person committee that also serves on the selection committee from a list of 11 candidates: former general manager Bobby Beathard, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, former Cowboys vice-president of player developement Gil Brandt, former 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., former league supervisor of officials Art McNally, for Browns and Ravens owner Art Modell, former NFL films president Steve Sabol, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former Giants general manager George Young.

      The committee considered the semifinalists during six hours of discussion and were aided by four consultants: Washington Redskins general manager Bruce Allen, Chicago Bears chairman of the board George McCaskey, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, one of only two living Hall of Fame contributors, and Abe Madkour, executive editor for the Sports Business Journal.

      Both Polian and Wolf were taken aback when given the news by Hall president/executive director David Baker.

      The first words out of both men's mouth was a simple, "Wow!"

      Wolf added, "I'm absolutely overwhelmed. This is a tremendous honor."

      The usually unflappable Polian, who currently is an analyst for ESPN and SiriusXM NFL Radio, said, "For someone in the media, I'm at a loss for words."

      Polian worked 32 years in the NFL, including two in the league office, and last was with the Indianapolis Colts as president and general manager in 2011. He helped the Colts and Buffalo Bills advance to a combined five Super Bowls, winning one with Indianapolis, and was in an NFC Championship Game with the Carolina Panthers.

      Wolf spent 39 years in the league with the Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets and was executive vice president and general manager of the Green Bay Packers from 1991 to 2001. Wolf engineered the trade that brought quarterback Brett Favre from the Falcons to the Packers. Green Bay went to two consecutive Super Bowls in 1996 and 1997, winning in '96. That year, the Packers beat Polian's Panthers to get to the Super Bowl.

      Howard Balzer is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than three decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He served on the contributor's committee that selected Polian and Wolf.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Pounceys won't be charged for brawl
    By The Sports Xchange

    NFL offensive linemen Mike and Maurkice Pouncey will not face prosecution from a July altercation at a Miami Beach nightclub.

    • The twin brothers have been sued by a trio of plaintiffs who claim they suffered injuries as a result of a brawl that occurred while the Pounceys were celebrating their birthday.

      Mike Pouncey plays center and guard for the Miami Dolphins and Maurkice Pouncey plays center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both played at the University of Florida.

      Lawyer Jeffrey Ostrow said Wednesday that Miami-Dade County prosecutors informed him the brothers won't be charged.

      "As expected, the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney has determined that the Pouncey brothers should not be charged in connection with an altercation that occurred at the Cameo Nightclub on July 12, 2014," Ostrow told Pro Football Talk. "This confirms that the previous claim that the brothers were involved was false and fabricated by individuals seeking notoriety and monetary gain."

      The lawsuit won't be affected by the decision.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Manning, Rodgers lead Players of the Week
    By The Sports Xchange

    Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who broke Brett Favre's career touchdown record and added to his own mark in a four-touchdown night, was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for the 27th time in his career.

    • Manning completed 22 of 26 passes (84.6 percent) for 318 yards with a passer rating of 157.2 in Denver's 42-17 win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night.

      Manning's third touchdown of the game gave him 509 for his career, breaking Favre's all-time record. Manning became the eighth player since 1943 to hold the NFL record, doing so in his 246th career regular-season game played and 8,659th career attempt.

      Fellow MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers took NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

      Rodgers completed 19 of 22 passes (86.5 percent) for 255 yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 154.5 in a 38-17 win over the floundering Carolina Panthers.

      In other Week 7 awards announced Wednesday:

      --Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week. He compiled four tackles, a game-sealing interception and a sack fumble in the Jags' first win of the season as they beat the Cleveland Browns 24-6.

      --New England Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones won the AFC special teams award. He blocked a potential game-winning, 58-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the fourth quarter in the Patriots' 27-25 win over the New York Jets.

      --Washington Redskins linebacker Keenan Robinson took the NFC defensive award. He had 14 tackles in the 19-17 win over the Tennessee Titans.

      --St. Louis Rams punter returner Stedman Bailey won the NFC special teams award. A wacky, trick-play, 90-yard punt return by Bailey helped the Rams pull off a 28-26 upset win over the Seattle Seahawks.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Patriots officially acquire LB Ayers
    By The Sports Xchange

    The New England Patriots officially acquired linebacker Akeem Ayers on Wednesday in a trade with the Tennessee Titans.

    • Trade terms were not disclosed, but it was reported Tuesday that the trade includes the Patriots giving up a sixth-round draft choice to the Titans for Ayers and Tennessee's seventh-round pick.

      Ayers, 25, had two knee surgeries during the offseason and was active in just two games and played only 10 snaps for the Titans this season. He also struggled in 2013, finishing the season with only 49 tackles and a sack after posting 104 tackles and six sacks in 2012.

      Ayers has been with the Titans since being drafted in the second round (39th overall) of the 2011 draft out of UCLA. He has played in 50 NFL games with 44 starts and has registered 254 total tackles, nine sacks, two interceptions 18 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

      The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Ayers earned a starting position at linebacker as a rookie in 2011, leading all team linebackers with 88 total tackles. He had a team-leading 110 total tackles with six sacks in 2012.

      The Patriots also released linebacker Ja'Gared Davis.

      Davis, 24, was signed from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Oct. 4. He was signed to the practice squad after being released at the end of training camp. Davis spent the majority of his rookie season in 2013 on the Patriots' practice squad, but did see action in one regular-season game and both postseason games after being added to the roster.

      The 6-foot, 238-pound Davis was originally signed by the Houston Texans as a rookie free agent out of Southern Methodist on May 10, 2013. He was released by Houston on Aug. 27, 2013, and claimed off waivers and awarded to the Patriots on Aug. 28, 2013.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Mistakes haunt Texans in three-game skid
    By The Sports Xchange

    HOUSTON -- The Houston Texans have a three-game losing streak. They lost by three in overtime at Dallas, by five at home to Indianapolis and by seven at Pittsburgh.

    • The Texans were in position to win all three games, but they blew each one with physical mistakes and mental blunders.

      If they win at Tennessee on Sunday, they'll finish the first half of the season with a 4-4 record. That's what they are -- average.

      The Texans have enough talent to compete with the better teams, but they don't play smart enough or well enough from start to finish.

      The Texans are their worst enemy. The mistakes are being committed by players and coaches.

      For instance, the notorious slow starters scored on a 94-yard drive to lead Pittsburgh 7-0. Then they kicked two field goals to make it 13-0.

      Their defense stopped running back Le'Veon Bell, collapsed on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and ran Arian Foster well enough to force defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to make several adjustments before he found one that worked.

      That was in the first half. The Texans led 13-3 after a Pittsburgh field goal with 3:08 left in the first half.

      Then Pittsburgh scored two touchdowns and a field goal to take a 24-13 lead, and there was time still left on the clock before halftime.

      "It's frustrating," coach Bill O'Brien said. "We're all frustrated. But I have a strong belief in this team. I believe if we can get this thing headed in the right direction -- eliminate turnovers and penalties and not give up big plays on defense -- you'll see a winning team."

      The Texans should be blasted for their second-quarter meltdown but praised for rallying to come within an onside kick of possibly tying the game and forcing overtime.

      In the end, they committed three turnovers -- fumbles by Arian Foster and DeAndre Hopkins and a Ryan Fitzpatrick interception -- that Pittsburgh turned into 17 points.

      They also made mental mistakes that left them with bad field position or allowed the Steelers to score easily.

      "The two areas that we have to do a better job at?" O'Brien said. "We've got to stop turning the ball over, and we've got to eliminate the line- of-scrimmage penalties -- too many men on the field, offsides, a false start on offense. We can control that, so we have to make sure that we're correcting it."

      The Texans have been undisciplined at the worst times, but they have also shown mental toughness. It's kept them in every game but the 30-17 loss at the New York Giants, but Arian Foster didn't play in that game.

      "A team that wasn't mentally tough would really go in the tank in that situation," O'Brien said about the collapse in Pittsburgh. "The mentally tough teams that I've been around were the ones that fought back and regrouped at halftime.

      "Still, we didn't come out and play our best in the second half, but we certainly showed up in the second half, only giving up two field goals on defense. We did some good things to finally get the game within reach. That's the sign of a mentally tough team."

      REPORT CARD VS. STEELERS

      PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus -- Ryan Fitzpatrick was not the reason the Texans lost. He threw an interception that set up a touchdown. He also threw two touchdown passes to go with 262 yards. He helped the offense get off to a fast start and lead 13-0. He helped them rally from a 30-16 deficit with a touchdown pass that made it 30-23, putting them in position to get an onside kick and a possible game-tying scoring drive. But it didn't happen. The pass protection improved. He was sacked once. DeAndre Hopkins had six catches for 108 yards, but he lost a fumble that set up a field goal in the fourth quarter.

      RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Arian Foster reached triple digits for the third consecutive game, finishing with 102 yards and a 5.1-yard average. He had only 14 yards rushing in the second half. The run blocking was excellent in the first half and terrible in the second after the Steelers made adjustments. Foster lost a fumble at the Texans' 3 that set up a touchdown during the collapse in the last three minutes of the first half.

      PASS DEFENSE: D -- It was terrific early in the game, but once Ben Roethlisberger got going, he threw two touchdown passes and kept the chains moving. Whitney Mercilus recorded two sacks and a forced fumble. J.J. Watt had a sack and a fumble recovery. Even with pressure, the defensive backs were beaten often and at other times appeared confused.

      RUSH DEFENSE: A -- The Steelers were ranked fifth in rushing. Le'Veon Bell was second behind DeMarco Murray. The Texans did an outstanding job against the run, limiting the Steelers to 76 yards and 3.0 a carry. Bell carried 12 times for 57 yards, including a 20-yard run. The Texans swarmed to the ball and did their best job of tackling. Led by J.J. Watt and nose tackle Ryan Pickett, they were physical up front.

      SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- Randy Bullock kicked three field goals. Punter Shane Lechler had a 45-yard gross and a 38-yard net. They downed one of his punts at the 1. Coverage was top notch, but returns were awful. Kickoff returner Danieal Manning made a mistake in the end zone, came out, fumbled at the 1 and put the offense in terrible field position.

      COACHING: D-minus -- For the first time since the second game of the season at Oakland, the Texans started well on offense, jumping to a 7-0 lead. With superb play by the defense, they increased the lead to 13-0. They led 13-3 with 3:08 left in the first half. The coaching staff should be praised. Then they collapsed in unbelievable fashion, turning that 13-0 lead into a 24-13 halftime deficit. They fought back to make it interesting in the end, but they made too many mental blunders, not to mention physical mistakes. The coaches have to do better.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Improved Denver pass rush set to face Rivers
    By The Sports Xchange

    For most of the early season, the Broncos faced an all-star collection of mobile quarterbacks: Andrew Luck, Alex Smith, Russell Wilson, Geno Smith and Colin Kaepernick. Denver was an overtime possession away from beating them all.

    • Despite the team success, the Broncos' overhauled pass rush struggled to generate consistent pressure. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware got off to a good start, but linebacker Von Miller received respites at crucial stretches as he completed his recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that occurred Dec. 22.

      The mobile quarterbacks escaped, and the Broncos averaged one sack every 17.5 pass plays in September.

      The pass rush improved in October. Against Smith, Kaepernick and the only immobile passers Denver faced this year -- the Arizona Cardinals' Drew Stanton and Logan Thomas -- the Broncos amassed 13 sacks in the past three games, one every 10.5 pass plays, well above the league rate of one sack every 13.4 pass plays.

      Miller leads the league with eight sacks. Ware is right behind with seven. This is the "brutal nasty" of which Ware spoke when he signed with the Broncos in March. It took a few weeks into the regular season and Miller becoming further removed from the ACL injury, but now, the Broncos' pass rush is restored to the level of its 2012 peak, when Miller and linebacker Elvis Dumervil combined for 29.5 sacks.

      A six-sack performance against the 49ers represented the Broncos' highest sack output since Week 16 of the 2012 season. Denver kept Kaepernick off-balance and rarely let him escape the pocket. Much of the credit can go to the Broncos' interior pass rushers, who frequently drew double teams, leaving Miller and Ware in one-on-one matchups on the edge.

      "It's sort of having really unselfish guys in the middle that can get good pocket presence," Ware said. "Quote unquote, they're not making the plays that they want to make, but their presence is felt from their teammates and what they bring to the game."

      The pass rushers' work Thursday against the San Diego Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers could be even more crucial to the outcome. Outstanding coverage has not been enough to prevent Rivers from completing passes the last two years, as he drops the football through narrow windows.

      "They're going to make some tough throws into some tight coverages, and you've just got to line back up to the next play," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. "I remember last year, Kayvon (Webster) had some great coverage, and (Rivers) was able to just fit the ball in, so you can't be discouraged."

      At the same time, the Broncos' pass rush is miles ahead of where it was last year. On Sunday, Denver threw some more wrinkles into its pressure plan, using linebacker Brandon Marshall as a blitzer on two of its six sacks. Another sack came when Miller, working as a linebacker instead of as a pass-rushing end, followed defensive end Malik Jackson through.

      "The pass rush is going to be big," Marshall said. "(Rivers) drops it in, and if we can get Rivers off the spot, if we can get him to run and try to use his legs -- which is not his best asset -- then that will be a win for us on that down. We've just got to get him off the spot, play tight coverage as well, but if we get these coverage sacks, we'll be good."

      Coverage has not been a problem for the Broncos in recent weeks. Even so, Rivers has no hesitation about throwing downfield, and he has confidence in his receivers to make tough grabs in traffic.

      "We're definitely going to make those throws a challenge," Harris said. "He's going to have to make some perfect throws."

      Rivers did just that last year against Denver, but he didn't have Ware and Miller lining up against him, either.

      NOTES: K Brandon McManus did not practice Tuesday because of a right groin strain. McManus battled this injury in recent weeks, but it has not kept him from kicking in a game. ... RB Montee Ball did not practice Tuesday and is expected to miss a third consecutive game. He sustained a groin strain against the Cardinals on Oct. 4. ... CB Omar Bolden will go through the NFL's post-concussion protocol after being injured on a collision with 49ers WR Bruce Ellington in Sunday's game. He did not practice Tuesday. ... LB Steven Johnson missed Tuesday's practice with what coach John Fox called a mild ankle sprain that occurred Sunday. Johnson has been one of the Broncos' busiest special teamers this year.

  • Wednesday, October 22, 2014
    Chargers aim rebound Thursday against Broncos
    By The Sports Xchange

    SAN DIEGO -- When injuries arrive, the San Diego Chargers, are fond of saying, "next man up."

    • Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers simply says it's time to "stand up as men."

      Either way, the Chargers seek to rebound against the Denver Broncos in Thursday night's AFC West showdown.

      With the Chargers (5-2) losing to the Chiefs before the Broncos (5-1) beat the 49ers on Sunday, Denver leapfrogged San Diego for the AFC West lead.

      That has added significance to Thursday's game in Denver, which should feature a playoff-type atmosphere.

      But to get to the real playoffs, Rivers knows the Chargers need to bounce back -- quickly.

      "It would be nice to have two and half weeks with all we got going on," Rivers said about the brisk turnaround. "But mentally, it'll be good for us because you can't sulk."

      The Chargers can't afford to do that, not when facing a Broncos team that is humming along like an AFC defending champion should.

      Rivers is confident the team's veteran leadership and big-picture approach will come in handy on Thursday after the players digest their first loss in over a month.

      "Shoot, we should stand up as men and realize where we weren't real good, where we could get better, where are the things we did really well, and get ready," Rivers said. "We know what this thing is: this is a 16-week deal you sign up for, we're here through seven of them. We're in an OK spot; we just got to keep going."

      That works for coach Mike McCoy.

      "We've got a lot of veteran players that have played in a lot of big games," he said.

      Thursday is one of them.

      "These are the type of games," Rivers said, "that you can't wait to play in."

      NOTES: CB Brandon Flowers (concussion) didn't practice on Tuesday and isn't likely to play on Thursday in Denver. ... RB Donald Brown (concussion) has yet to be cleared to return. ... CB Jason Verrett (shoulder) and CB Steve Williams (groin) were limited in practice but should be available Thursday. ...