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Joe Flacco’s checkdown passes aren’t benefitting him or the Baltimore Ravens’ offense.

Checkdowns have become a regular part of watching Baltimore Ravens football. The attempt to run the West Coast offense has been a frustrating spectacle to watch since the departure of Gary Kubiak in 2014. From Marc Trestman to  Marty Mornhinweg, the passing offense has largely revolved around these short throws, with no success.

We know the Ravens’ passing offense was horrendous last season. They averaged just 189.4 yards per game and failed to provide any threat in that area of the game. But whether the Ravens have had a top 10 or bottom five passing game, checkdowns have always been an integral part of the offense.

Scott Kacsmar and the folks over Football Outsiders took a look at exactly what the Ravens have relied on in recent years. They’re called failed completions. Football Outsiders defines the stat as “any completed pass that fails to gain 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third or fourth down.”
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Of the 35 qualified quarterbacks on the list, Joe Flacco had the second highest failed completion percentage last season (36.1%). He finished only in front of rookie Mitchell Trubisky. The bottom five quarterbacks consisted of Brett Hundley, Brian Hoyer, Deshone Kizer, Trubisky and Flacco himself. Two were rookies, two were backups and one was a 10-year veteran. Can you guess who the outlier is?

Joe Flacco has struggled but the blame doesn’t fall solely on him. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg loves the dink-and-dunk passing offense. That may have worked in his previous stints but the Ravens are a completely different team. The reality is, they don’t have the personnel to fit the checkdown system. Flacco is a big-armed quarterback who’s past his mobile stage. At receiver, Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman, and Jeremy Maclin are all vertical threats. There’s a reason they don’t benefit from short-intermediate passes.

This doesn’t mean short throws and checkdown passes can’t be part of the offense, they just shouldn’t be the primary mode of production. A softspoken Flacco has even publicly advocated for more deep shots. When you have a quarterback who can unleash the football 60-70 yards, you want to play to his strengths. Aside from Week 5 win over the Raiders, the Ravens rarely incorporated deep throws into the passing game last season.

Since 2014, Flacco’s has posted career highs in completion percentage. It seems positive on the surface until you look further.  Flacco’s yards gained per pass attempt was a career low in 2017 (5.7). It’s gradually declined since the 2014 season, arguably Flacco’s best year. Completing passes is great but when they’re gaining minimal yards with no points on the board, that’s a problem. The checkdown passes aren’t benefitting Flacco or the Ravens offense right now and that’s a major problem.

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Kelvin Benjamin will take the field far from 100 percent again in Week 17 as the Buffalo Bills fight for a wild card spot in the AFC. The former Carolina Panthers wideout played well despite his injured knee Sunday. He caught five passes on seven targets for 70 yards in the loss to the New England Patriots. Benjamin should have had a touchdown in the contest, but the play was called back on a questionable replay review. Benjamin’s health has been a concern since he joined the Bills in Week 10. He will have surgery on his knee in the offseason.

The Bills still have a shot to make the playoffs, but they will need a win against the Miami Dolphins and some help. Benjamin is expected to play through his injury again Sunday. He has a tough matchup against a Dolphins defense that gives up the sixth-fewest receiving yards to wideouts in the league. Benjamin was held in check against Miami in Week 15, catching two passes for 20 yards in the contest.
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Fantasy impact: Benjamin plays well against New England. In Week 4 as a Panther, he had a season-high 104 yards against the Patriots. Sunday, therefore, was not shocking. Benjamin has not been great this season otherwise. He was held to 42 yards or fewer since Week 8 prior to the meeting with the Patriots Sunday. He is also hurt. This is a must-win game for Buffalo, so Benjamin should be heavily involved. Still, It is hard to trust him in the final game of the season.

If you would have told a Buffalo Bills fan that Kelvin Benjamin would be talking about the team’s “urgency to get to the Super Bowl” after a wild-card round loss back in August, they likely would have laughed in your face. Well, they would have laughed, then they would have felt your forehead to make sure you didn’t have a fever.

After all, acquiring a dominant wide receiver like Benjamin would have seemed like a ludicrous idea in August of 2017. In fact, before the start of the 2017 season, it looked as though the Bills were gearing up for a run at the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. They traded wide receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby, players deemed crucial to the team’s success, in exchange for draft picks and players on expiring contracts after their first preseason game.

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Success seemingly wasn’t at the top of Buffalo’s priority list.

However, that changed after the blue and red got out to a 5-2 start in the 2017 season. Realizing that the team had a legitimate shot at ending their 17-year playoff drought, first-year general manager Brandon Beane made a blockbuster move. Beane traded draft picks to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for Benjamin, a player who Beane, who spent the first two decades of his career with the Panthers, had a hand in selecting in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Benjamin played well for the Bills down the stretch, catching 16 passes for 217 yards and helping the team clinch a wild-card playoff spot. Unfortunately, Buffalo was not able to advance any further than the wild-card round, losing their first playoff game since the turn of the century to the Jacksonville Jaguars by a score of 10-3.

However, Benjamin feels as though the team’s recent playoff game is just the first of many to come. While speaking to the media on Monday, Benjamin was asked whether or not he feels as though the team is heading in the right direction.

“Oh, definitely man,” Benjamin said. “Definitely. You could just tell the urgency to get to the Super Bowl and that’s the number one goal. That’s supposed to be every team’s number one goal. That’s where they’re trying to go so I think next year will be a big year for us.”

“The fan base is going crazy. They’re still going crazy even though we lost. We wanted to pull that one out for them but, it was a tough one. It was a tough one for me. That’s my second time in the playoffs and I definitely wanted to make that push. The first time I went, I made it to the second round. We played Seattle and lost. But it is what it is, you know? Bite the bullet. Like I said, just move on [and] go and get ready for OTA’s.”

As Benjamin said, next year will be a big one for Buffalo. The drought is no longer lingering over the team’s head. Perhaps their urgency to get to the Super Bowl will pay off.

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While remarkable, no one should be surprised the New England Patriots are heading to the Super Bowl for the eighth time in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.

What is strange is James Harrison will be joining the Patriots in their quest to win a sixth Super Bowl title since the 2001 season. While it might seem remarkable how quickly things have evolved over the last month for the one-time Patriot hunter, the goal always remains the same for Harrison no matter whose colors he’s wearing.

“It feels good,” Harrison told NFL Network’s Kimberly Jones after the Patriots’ 24-20 victory over the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday. “That’s the goal every year — to go to the Super Bowl and win it. We’re one step away.”

Harrison made an impact against the Jaguars, particularly against the running game. He recorded three tackles and continued to prove he can still be a worthwhile contributor even at age 39. Harrison said the team got better against the Jaguars as the game progressed.

“I don’t think we [played] too well in the first half,” Harrison said. “We did a better job in the second half. The offense came alive, the defense came alive and we were able to work together and get it done.”

As for Brady, Harrison isn’t surprised that the man who he has made a career out of chasing during his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers overcame a hand injury to wreak havoc on the Jaguars.

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“You expect that,” Harrison said. “I mean, he hasn’t missed a game with any sort of injury except for the ACL when he missed a season. That’s what you expect from him.”

If Brady and Harrison continue to live up to their reputations as game-changers in Minneapolis on Feb. 4, the veteran linebacker could add a third Super Bowl ring to his impressive list of accomplishments.
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The Harrison boys, James (10) and Henry (8), wedged themselves into their dad’s locker at Gillette Stadium about an hour after the AFC championship game on Sunday evening. They slugged energy drinks, donned stiff-brimmed AFC champions hats and chatted up New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. They examined their dad’s gear, holding up Under Armour cleats the size of their forearms and soaked in the scene around him.

When Harrison’s locker neighbor, Johnson Bademosi, leaned in and asked where they were going, the enthusiastic response came immediately: “SUPER BOWL!”

Harrison, 39, clearly and deliberately relished the moment after the Patriots completed their 24-20 comeback victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

He put on his championship shirt before taking a shower to take a professional picture with his boys and the AFC championship trophy. He later did an interview with both of them on his lap, a trio of halogen grins lighting up the locker room.

In less than a month after being removed from the mothballs in Pittsburgh, Harrison has emerged as the fulcrum of this Patriots defense. He showed that again Sunday, setting the edge on the run defense and making a pair of critical fourth-quarter pass rushes to help the Patriots complete their improbable comeback.

“It feels good,” he said. “Like I said before, this is all part of God’s plan.”

Whether it’s spiritual, cosmic or karmic, the manner in which the Patriots have cobbled together victories have taken on an almost predictable script. If filling in the Mad Libs of the quintessential Patriots comeback, there were plenty of easy answers to fill in on Sunday.

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There was drama to overcome:

Overarching concern? Tom Brady’s injury.

Traumatic injury to overcome? Rob Gronkowski’s concussion.

Huge lead by an opponent? The Jaguars led by 10 in the fourth quarter.

There were cunning plot twists:

Opponent blunder inviting them back in game? Delay of game penalty that negated a first-down throw and helped allow the Patriots to score at the end of the first half.

Obscure hero? Phillip Dorsett catching a high-degree-of-difficulty 31-yard catch to key a touchdown drive.

Maligned player with a big moment? Patriots defensive back Stephon Gilmore’s circus deflection to essentially seal the game.

Harrison’s role in the Patriots script is as well-worn as your favorite Do Your Job hoodie. He came in as veteran player overlooked in his old job who came here to embrace his role and thrive. The Patriots have become a depot for veterans seeking championships, as players like Darrelle Revis, Chris Long, Brandon Browner and Martellus Bennett have swung through in recent seasons and been able to claim a Super Bowl. Others have stopped here for productive late-career pit stops when others wondered how much they had in the tank – Junior Seau, Randy Moss and LeGarrette Blount.

Few have adopted the Patriot Way of unselfishness and role-playing as quickly as Harrison. One week after giving some engaging comments following the Tennessee Titans game where he claimed he’d be watching the Cartoon Network instead of his former team’s playoff game, he even managed to set a record for Patriots cliches in one interview on Sunday night. “It is what it is,” he said when asked a question about the mentality of coming from behind. “If you don’t go out there and play and do your job, then you’re going to lose the game.” That’s the Bill Belichick rhetoric of a 10-year Patriots veteran.

Harrison did his job Sunday. With just over two minutes remaining, he rushed in from the edge and helped force a Blake Bortles fumble when he and linebacker Kyle Van Noy sandwiched the Jacksonville quarterback. That turned second-and-10 into third-and-19 and set the stage for Gilmore breaking up the Bortles pass two plays later.

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Well, well, what do we have here?

So much for that Steelers-Patriots rematch. Jacksonville rolled into Pittsburgh, punched the Steeelers in the mouth and managed to dance around the ring long enough to emerge victorious. The method wasn’t surprising, but the outcome was. The Jaguars opened the contest with an emphatic touchdown drive, forced a turnover and scored again, and even returned a strip-sack fumble for a touchdown. Pittsburgh — both the Steelers and their fans — barely knew what hit them by halftime.

Two key contributors from that upset find themselves in this space this week, and for the first time in a long time, we also welcome a player who’s currently trying to wash the bitter taste of defeat out of his mouth. Divisional Weekend was just as wonderful as we expected (except for Patriots-Titans).

Here are your greatest on the road from Divisional Weekend.

Greatest on the Road

Telvin Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars

Where do we start with Telvin Smith? The linebacker has shown massive improvement all season long as part of an incredibly talented Jaguars defense, but Sunday might have been his best game yet.

Smith racked up 14 tackles, flying all over the field for a Jaguars defense that was forced to stand tall despite spending much of the second half on the field. His most important play came early, though, with the Jaguars leading 21-7 and attempting to maintain control of the game’s early momentum after giving up a quick touchdown.

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Come for Yannick Ngakoue’s incredibly effective pass rush. Stick around for Smith’s scoop and score.
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Ngakoue — one of the biggest Pro Bowl snubs of the year — rushed upfield before squeezing back inside to hit Ben Roethlisberger from behind as he stepped up into the pocket and knock the ball loose. Smith was there to pick it up, but he wasn’t content with a simple recovery. He was determined to take it to the crib.

Smith’s defensive score gave Jacksonville a three-score lead that was enough to help the Jaguars upset the Steelers and head back to Florida confident with a week of preparation before their meeting with the Patriots for the AFC crown. It’s another impressive performance for a linebacker who’s quickly rising to the league’s best.
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Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Thanks to a miraculous, game-ending touchdown completion, Brees didn’t come away with a win. But the quarterback did everything in his power to push the Saints toward an appearance in the NFC title game.

Brees was excellent in the second half Sunday, especially after Minnesota lost safety Andrew Sendejo to a concussion. The veteran quarterback led the Saints on a 21-point comeback, erasing Minnesota’s 17-0 and 20-14 lead with a flurry of points in the third and fourth quarters. His 50-yard drive in just 1:04 appeared to leave the Vikings with only a prayer’s chance in the final 30 seconds.

Then the prayer was answered with Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard touchdown catch and run. Tough break for one of the league’s best quarterbacks, even on the eve of his 39th birthday.

Talk about a bittersweet celebration of life.

Brees’ final line — 25-of-40 passing, 294 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions — was enough to put the Saints in position to win another playoff game and keep their excellent season going. It just wasn’t enough to help Marcus Williams tackle Diggs. Sometimes, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

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After last season, the Ravens knew a huge key to 2017 success would be the man under center. Franchise quarterback Joe Flacco had to play well – really well – for the Ravens to get back into the playoffs.

Now, as the Ravens sit on the outside of jerseys from china the postseason looking in for a third straight year, Head Coach John Harbaugh was asked Thursday for his evaluation of Flacco’s 10th NFL season.

There was no over-arching quote, but Harbaugh’s main point was that Flacco performed as well as he could given the circumstances and showed considerable progress in the second half of the year when healthy.

“As far as numbers and things like that, the first half of the season to the second half of the season was dramatic,” Harbaugh said. “The number of interceptions, the touchdown passes, those kind of things, it’s a dramatic turnaround. And it speaks to his health.”

Here are the numbers Harbaugh is referring to:

For a 16-game season, Flacco posted career-lows in passing yards (3,141), touchdowns (18) and quarterback rating (80.4) since his rookie year. He completed 64.1 percent of his passes, which is the third-highest mark of his career, but his 5.72 yards per attempt was the lowest in the league.

However, when focusing on Flacco’s performance once he was healthy, it’s a different story. Over the final seven games, his quarterback rating was 89.5. He tossed 10 touchdowns to three interceptions.

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Flacco didn’t put up eye-popping passing yards, but he was highly efficient and led the league’s second-highest scoring offense from Week 8 on. There was nationwide chatter about the emergence of “January Joe.”

A more accurate evaluation of his ability going forward is probably best done looking at the two halves of the year separately.
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Harbaugh pointed out that Flacco dealt with injuries the past two years. He was coming off a torn ACL last year and injured his back before training camp this year. The back injury knocked Flacco out of training camp and the preseason and lingered into the regular season.

Flacco has never been one to give excuses, and he often downplayed his back issues when talking to the media, but it had a major impact early on.

“To say that wasn’t a factor in our passing game early, combined with our personnel issues we had there, it wouldn’t be fair to Joe,” Harbaugh said. “I think Joe did a great job of fighting through that.”

Even once he returned from the back injury to begin practicing one week ahead of the regular-season opener, Flacco wasn’t 100 percent healthy in practice and had to make up ground in terms of chemistry with his wide receivers.

It affected the Ravens’ game plans early on as well. Baltimore took a more conservative offensive approach at the start of the season, opting to get the ball out of Flacco’s hands quickly to expose his exposure to hits. That became even more of a priority after the Ravens lost All-Pro guard Marshal Yanda in Week 2.

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Flacco clearly didn’t move as well within or outside the pocket, making it difficult to escape pressure and set up big chuck plays. Often, Flacco was left dumping the ball to his check-down receivers, which explains his low yards per attempt.

“Maybe sometimes he got the ball out quick, but I think he was under duress a lot of times early in the year when we lost both of our guards,” Harbaugh said.

“He did a good job managing that situation, and I feel like toward the second half of the season, we were completing some more balls down the field. The fact that he was protecting the ball in the pocket and didn’t take very many sacks speaks very well to the kind of season he had.”

Flacco helped the Ravens overcome some of their biggest deficiencies. A patchwork offensive line gelled throughout the year, but Flacco helped the unit by getting rid of the ball and avoiding sacks. The Ravens gave up the seventh-fewest sacks in the league. Flacco didn’t lose a fumble all year.

The Ravens didn’t get much production from their wide receivers outside of Mike Wallace, and Flacco’s targets dwindled in the stretch run with the injury to Jeremy Maclin (knee) and Breshad Perriman’s unproductivity and resulting deactivation.

Drops were also an issue, as a couple led to critical interceptions in key losses. They proved to be especially costly in the season-ending loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Still, Flacco can be even better moving forward. Harbaugh was asked about whether the team would consider adding a quarterbacks coach to work on Flacco’s footwork. Harbaugh said if he finds one that fits the team and what Flacco wants, it could happen.

“If we can do that, we’ll do that,” Harbaugh said. “As far as his mechanics and all that, when you miss training camp and you’re working with a back tweak, all being considered, I think Joe’s mechanics were pretty good.”

Harbaugh said Flacco made some impressive throws off his back foot and conceded that he missed some too, just like any quarterback would.

But with potentially more weapons and better health next year, Harbaugh seemed confident Flacco can pick up where he left off in 2017, or better.

“He needs a healthy training camp and a healthy OTAs and all that to be his best, just like any player does,” Harbaugh said. “And I’m excited about that going into next year.”

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The Philadelphia Eagles have plenty to fix during their bye week.

A slumping offense missing NFL MVP candidate Carson Wentz scored only 13 points in the last five quarters with Nick Foles and the starters playing.

That won’t cut it when the Eagles (13-3) host the Saints (11-5), Panthers (11-5) or Falcons (10-6) to kick off the divisional round of playoff games on Jan. 13.

Fans are panicking and many media members are predicting an early exit, but the team is confident the offense will get back on track.

“There’s no reason not to be confident,” Foles said. “We have an amazing group of guys, an amazing group of athletes that you know we can do some special stuff.”

It was only two weeks ago Foles tossed four touchdown passes and led Philadelphia to a 34-29 win at the Giants. Since then, he’s 23 for 49 for 202 yards with one TD and two interceptions against the Raiders and Cowboys.

“I think there is a lot of positive because you can build off the Giants game and some of the success we have had in the last couple weeks and find that continuity again,” coach Doug Pederson said. “We just have to get back to the same rhythm.”

The mood surrounding the Eagles could be different if Torrey Smith hadn’t dropped a pass on the opening drive in Sunday’s 6-0 loss to Dallas.
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Foles hit Smith in stride going across the middle on third-and-7 from the Cowboys 39. Smith had a chance to outrun the defenders into the end zone, but let the ball slip through his hands.

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“If I caught it, I probably would have housed it,” Smith said. “That messed our momentum up and then we only played a short time after that and we kept getting penalties and shooting ourselves in the foot.

“I’m confident that if we stayed in the game we would have gotten it back on track, but we have two weeks of practice and I’m very confident we’ll be ready to roll.”

Pederson went for it on fourth down after Smith’s drop and Foles had to rush an incomplete pass . The next three drives included two three-and-outs and one interception.

“I know who I am as a player and I also know that throughout my career and my life, I haven’t always played great games,” Foles said.

“I’ve been in games where execution hasn’t gone like we wanted it to. And the key is you remain confident because you know who you are. You know that you’re going to prepare every day to do everything to the best of your ability. I’m confident in myself and I’m confident in my teammates because I know what we’re capable of doing and that’s great things.”

Nate Sudfeld played the final three quarters against the Cowboys and was 19 of 23 for 134 yards in his first career game. But Sudfeld isn’t replacing Foles unless he gets hurt.

Pederson might want to rely on the NFL’s third-ranked rushing attack in the playoffs. Jay Ajayi (408 yards), LeGarrette Blount (766 yards) and Corey Clement (321) had a lot of success running behind an offensive line that features two Pro Bowl picks on the right side: tackle Lane Johnson and guard Brandon Brooks.

“You get into the postseason and have to play great defense and be able to run the football,” Pederson said.

“That’s been our formula pretty much all season long. We have to get back to that, and I’ve got a lot of confidence moving forward.”

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You can always count on Pat McAfee when it comes to hilarious analysis of NFL games on Sunday.

The former Colts punter took to Twitter Sunday afternoon like he does every Sunday to provide analysis of the days best special teams action. In what he called the “Snow Globe of Buffalo”, McAfee watched on as the Colts special teams unit repeatedly put the team in position to possibly win the game. Safe to say that he approved of what he saw.

Late in the second quarter Rigoberto Sanchez, with the wind blowing and snow falling hard, punted from the Colts 29. While very unconventional, it didn’t seem to bother Sanchez as he promptly sent a punt that landed in a snow bank on the one-yard line.

McAfee promptly lost his mind.

“Back in the snow globe of Buffalo with Rigobert Sanchez punting from the 29-yard line,” McAfee said. “Little checkup cuzzo. Buried it in the soft green downed at the one. What a (expletive) ball Rigoberto!”

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Things got even crazier late in the game. Down one after a controversial penalty wiped out a two-point conversion that put the Colts ahead, Adam Vinatieri took the field to attempt a 43-yard extra point. In the driving wind in almost impossible conditions, Vinatieri sent a knuckle ball that curved in and tied the game with just over a minute left. McAfee couldn’t have been happier for his friend and long-time teammate.

While McAfee’s commentary of the entire situation is hilarious as a whole his statement, “That thing started at Geico, ended up in heaven and we’re going to overtime in Buffalo!” is one for the ages.
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Since retiring from the NFL, Pat McAfee has been delivering hilarious commentary on various things around the league, and it seems to go viral each time he does it.

Little known Bob Menery, who has been dubbed “the guy with the golden voice,” has been doing voice-overs and commentating on games for a few months now. He is beginning to make a name for himself as he continues to impress with his hilarious takes.

It’s only right that the former Indianapolis Colts punter and the golden voice commentator hook up and do a video together, which they did on Sunday.

Following the Broncos-Raiders fight earlier in the day, the two paired up and delivered the video of the year when they called the violent action between the two teams.

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Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson believes an extra official on the field would prevent receivers from pushing off as much as he claims they currently do.

Peterson made the claim after the Cardinals’ 12-7 win against the Tennessee Titans, standing in front of his locker. While the topic clearly had been on his mind for some time, a third-quarter play sparked his words.

With 4 minutes, 16 seconds left in the third quarter, Peterson felt Titans receiver Eric Decker pushed off at the top of his route after using his hands to “manipulate” Peterson near the line of scrimmage. Decker went on to make a 29-yard catch, and no penalty flag was thrown. After Peterson felt Decker pushed off, he turned to field judge Eugene Hall while still in pursuit of Decker to complain about the perceived push-off.

“I said, ‘Why didn’t you call it?'” Peterson said. “He said, ‘I didn’t see it.'”

And that was the tipping point for Peterson.

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“I’m tired of hearing that same response: ‘I didn’t see it,'” Peterson said. “Why are you on the field then if you didn’t see it? I’m not criticizing the ref at all. I’m just saying, if he didn’t see it, we need to have somebody else out there seeing both sides.”

Peterson’s suggestion was to add an official to help monitor both receivers and defensive backs. He likened it to how back judges and umpires watch both sides of the offensive line.
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“Why don’t we have somebody watching the receivers and the defensive backs?” Peterson said. “I just think they have to find a way to even it out for sure, because, at the end of the day, if they’re going to call tit-for-tat calls, it should be a [pass interference] every time the receiver is on a breaking route. They’re pushing off and gaining leverage.”

He continued: “I just think, for the most part, if we want to the game to be clean on both sides, we got to add another ref because I’m tired of getting the same response when you go to the ref about when someone’s pushing off [and are told], ‘Oh, we don’t see it.’ That’s not the response I’m looking for. If the game’s going to be called both ways, we need to have eyes on both defensive backs and receivers, because that was a B.S. call. But he caught the ball and got the first down, and luckily we got the interception to finish off that drive. But we got to add another ref to the field.”

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Leonard Williams is making his presence felt on opposing quarterbacks — even if his sacks total doesn’t tell the whole story.

The New York Jets defensive lineman has just two this season, but he has a whopping 26 quarterback hits. That means he’s getting passers off their spots, forcing throws and making them downright uncomfortable.

“People want to see the sacks,” Williams acknowledged Thursday. “I wouldn’t really call a QB hit a stat or anything. I just think of it as being disruptive. That’s what a defensive player wants to do, is be disruptive in any way possible.

“No matter what type of stat it is, if you’re cheap jerseys China being disruptive, that’s a good defensive play.”

Williams entered this season, his third in the NFL, with a goal of getting a sack per game. He’s way off that pace, of course, but he has gotten consistent pressure the past few games. Also, the sprained wrist that ailed him since the summer is fully healed.

“Leo has played well for us,” coach Todd Bowles said. “He’s been disruptive, even with the double teams. He’s been getting hits on the quarterback and he’s been playing across the line of scrimmage.”

Williams made his first Pro Bowl last season after getting seven sacks and emerging as one of the league’s top young pass rushers. After a slow start during which he went the first eight games without a sack, Williams is looking like his old self again.
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Against Kansas City’s Alex Smith last Sunday, Williams had a half-sack and four quarterback hits.

“We think Leonard is definitely improving,” defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said. “He’s really coming up. You sit there, and if I’m not mistaken, I think he might have had four or five quarterback hits the other day. He’s really getting to the point where we have high expectations for Leo, and he’s exceeding them.”

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Williams might have a good chance to increase his sacks total at Denver on Sunday. The Broncos have given up 39 sacks, tied for third-most in the NFL. Denver is also second-worst in the league with a minus-16 turnover ratio — something Williams and the Jets hope to capitalize on.

“We call it takeaways because if it’s a takeaway, we’re forcing it, rather than a turnover where we’re waiting for them to turn the ball over,” Williams said.

“So, we’re definitely going to try to get after the ball. We see that they had a lot of ball security issues, but at the same time, they’ve been able to recover a lot of them, so that’s on our part to make sure we do recover it when the ball does come out.”

Big things have been expected of Williams since he was selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft out of USC. He had a steady progression during his first two seasons, but it was clear early this season that something wasn’t quite right.

Williams was forced to play with a cast on his left wrist after suffering a bone bruise during the preseason. While the big lineman has refused to use it as an excuse for his early season struggles, it surely affected his performance.

“He never really said a whole lot,” Rodgers said. “We just saw his play wasn’t where Leo wanted it to be, but now it’s back to where we expect Leo to be.”

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Williams credited assistant defensive line coach La’Roi Glover for helping him progress this season. Glover, who had 83½ sacks during a 13-year career, has been working on pass-rushing drills and techniques with Williams regularly.

“I think it’s just a combination of everything,” Williams said. “I don’t want to say it’s an injury thing, I don’t want to say it’s a scheme thing, I don’t want to say that it’s anything like that.

“It’s just a matter of, as the season’s been progressing, I’ve just been getting better each game. I’ve been having a lot of help from my teammates. I’ve been doing a lot of extra work, a lot of extra studying.”

And, lately, it has all been paying off for Williams — even if the sacks still haven’t exactly come in bunches.

“That’s the way it goes sometimes, ultimately,” Rodgers said. “He’s probably kicking himself because he came free on a stunt (Sunday) that he really should have had one. He left one out there, but sometimes it happens like that.

“As long as he keeps hitting the quarterback, we’ll be OK.”

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Aaron Rodgers, who was activated off injured reserve Saturday, will go through a “trial practice week” by primarily serving as the scout team quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.

Rodgers broke his right clavicle Oct. 15 and underwent a surgical repair.

“He’s trial return,” coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “Just like everybody. I go through this every time a player comes off an injury. You either go down and you’re in the rehab group, and then once you get out of the rehab group, you’re trial return, so you’re limited reps in the practice.”

McCarthy stressed that Rodgers has not been medically cleared for a full return and won’t be this week.

“That’s why we call it trial return because he’s not cut loose for a full practice,” McCarthy said. “The medical clearance won’t be [an option] until next week.”

McCarthy said Rodgers is practicing even though he can’t play Sunday against the winless Browns.

“Obviously, scout-team work is something that he will do,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, the drill work. It’s important for him to feel the pass rush and get acclimated. We won’t be in pads on Wednesday, but it will be a padded practice on Thursday, so you have to make sure you identify exactly what you want to get done there.”

The Packers (6-6) are still alive in the NFC playoff picture and play the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, with Brett Hundley making his seventh start since Rodgers was injured in Week 6.

Rodgers is eligible under the league’s designated to return rules for the Packers’ Dec. 17 game against the Panthers. He still would need medical clearance to formally return to play, but his scout team work this week will serve as the next step before a full return to practice next week.

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The Packers’ first practice this week is Wednesday.

The future looked bleak for Green Bay when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6, raising doubts he would play again this season. The team floundered with backup quarterback Brett Hundley under center, starting with a loss to the Minnesota Vikings the day Rodgers was injured and continued to be on the wrong side of the scoreboard in four of the next five games.

Then Green Bay orchestrated a 26-20 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, and the win could not have come at a better time. Not only did the Packers improve to 6-6, they put themselves in position to become a playoff team just in time for Rodgers’ reported return in Week 15 against the Carolina Panthers. Or so it seemed.

Any and all playoff hopes for Green Bay require winning out the rest of the way and ending the season with a 10-6 record. Since 2002, the year the league expanded to 32 teams, 162 clubs have won 10 or more games; 152 (94 percent) of those made the playoffs. But it won’t be that easy. Yes, the Packers get to play the 0-12 Cleveland Browns on the road in Week 13, but then they have to face, in order: Carolina Panthers on the road, Minnesota Vikings at home and Detroit Lions on the road. Bright side: Those are also three teams that stand in their way of a playoff spot.
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Using the same win probabilities that fuel our weekly power rankings, the most likely win, other than the matchup against the Browns, is the game against the Detroit Lions in the regular season finale (40 percent win probability). Maybe the Packers’ job becomes easier if Lions quarterback Matt Stafford misses time after suffering a bone bruise in his right hand during Sunday’s 44-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, but at best that brings it to a 50/50 coin flip.

The hardest game remaining for Green Bay is against the Week 16 matchup against the Vikings (26 percent win probability), the No. 1 team in our power rankings. According to Football Outsiders, Minnesota is the fifth-best team in the NFL, with an offense that ranks No. 4 and a defense that ranks No. 6.

Perhaps you bump up the Packers’ chances in the games Rodgers could be expected to play after he returns from injury, but the boost won’t be as big as you might think. The Packers’ offense scored 9.4 points more than expected with Rodgers under center rather than Hundley, but that was including a disastrous game in Week 11 against the Baltimore Ravens, which featured five turnovers, three of which were interceptions thrown by Hundley. In the five other games started by Hundley this season, Green Bay’s offense scored 6.5 points per game more than expected. In other words, expect the Packers to be underdogs in each game following the one against the Browns no matter who lines up under center.