Christian Wilkins (vs. Louisville)Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty ImagesClemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins has the position versatility that the Cowboys look for.


FRISCO, Texas -- At 7-6, the Dallas Cowboys are in the playoff chase, albeit barely, but it’s never too soon to think about next spring’s NFL draft.

ESPN Insider Todd McShay released his first mock draft on Wednesday and he had the Cowboys selecting defensive tackle Christian Wilkins.

Wilkins is 6-foot-4, 300 pounds. He has 47 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups and 10 pressures. He has filled just about every defensive stat line.

In McShay’s write up he mentions the Cowboys have to bolster the interior of their defensive line. He mentions Wilkins would be more of a 3-technique than a nose tackle. The Cowboys have played David Irving at the 3 technique with some success but he is probably more suited to play defensive end. If Stephen Paea had not been lost for the season with a knee injury, then Maliek Collins would have handled the 3-technique spot this year after a productive rookie season.

So do the Cowboys need another under tackle? That can be debated. They have clearly not valued the need for a nose tackle, getting by with guys like Nick Hayden, Terrell McClain and Paea over the last few years.

But a quote in this terrific feature on Wilkins stood out to me about how he would fit in the Cowboys’ scheme, provided the Cowboys are actually running the same defense in 2018, from Clemson coach Dabo Swinney:

"It's like a switch-hitter in baseball, a guy that can hit 25 home runs right-handed and left-handed," Swinney said. "There's nobody else that can go and play 3-technique, shade and end, and not miss a beat. Plus, you've got to have the mentality for it. I've been around some ends who could go play D-tackle, but they didn't really have the mentality for it. I've been around a lot of really good D-tackles but maybe not quite athletic enough to go play D-end. He is a rare guy."

Ah, the great position flexibility asset the Cowboys almost always rave about.

The Cowboys have committed high draft assets over the years on the defensive line. Tyrone Crawford was a third-round pick in 2012. DeMarcus Lawrence was a second-rounder in 2014. They took Randy Gregory in the second round in 2015. They took Collins in the third round in 2016. Taco Charlton was a first-round pick in 2017.

There will be a lot of questions to be answered in the future, like the contracts for Lawrence (unrestricted free agent) and Irving (restricted free agent), but for now selecting Wilkins would make sense for the Cowboys.

videoPHILADELPHIA -- If there's a silver lining with the Carson Wentz injury, it's that he leaves the Philadelphia Eagles in excellent shape when it comes to playoff positioning.

The Eagles own the best record in the NFC (11-2) with three regular-season games remaining. They can clinch a first-round bye with a win at the New York Giants on Sunday, and would capture home field throughout the playoffs if the Minnesota Vikings (10-3) also lose at home to the Cincinnati Bengals.

There have been 54 No. 1 seeds in either conference since 1990. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 28 of those teams reached the Super Bowl (including seven of the last eight) and 13 won the Super Bowl.

Even if the Vikings don't help them, all the Eagles have to do is win two of their final three games to ensure the NFC postseason runs through Philly. After the Giants game, the Eagles close out the regular season with home games against the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys. ESPN FPI has the Eagles as significant favorites in each of their remaining games despite the quarterback change from Wentz to Nick Foles.

The Eagles' Super Bowl odds were impacted by the Wentz injury, as you might expect. Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas had them as 6-1 favorites to win it all entering Week 14. Those odds are now at 12-1. Meanwhile, the Vikings have emerged as the favorites to win the conference.

The NFC playoffs are shaping up to be very competitive. Here's what the seeding would look like if the season ended today:

1. Eagles
2. Vikings
3. Rams
4. Saints
5. Panthers
6. Falcons

The Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers -- now with Aaron Rodgers back in the fold -- are in the hunt, and the same goes for the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys, who get running back Ezekiel Elliott back for the final two games.

There are some quality quarterbacks in this group of potential playoff tteams. Given how well Case Keenum has played for Minnesota this year, it's hard to find a matchup in which the Eagles would have the advantage at quarterback. But Foles has some experience going for him -- he's actually the last Eagles QB to start a playoff game (2013) -- and has a quality team around him.

Just as important, he wouldn't have to leave the friendly confines of Lincoln Financial Field until the Super Bowl if the team can take care of business in the next week or two. The Eagles are a perfect 6-0 at home so far this year.

 

 

videoFormer Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III doesn’t want to live in the past; he does want to provide his side to the narrative in Washington, however. Nor has he abandoned his desire to play again in the NFL.

Griffin also said on ESPN’s SC6 that he rejected offers from Arizona and Baltimore to sign in the offseason.

Griffin was on several ESPN shows on Wednesday, including First Take and NFL Live. During his appearances he stressed again what he told 106.7 The Fan earlier this fall, that he did not tell then-coach Mike Shanahan before the 2013 season that he wanted only to be a dropback passer and didn’t want to run the zone-read option anymore (multiple sources have said the opposite).

“At the end of the year, every single quarterback in the quarterback room meets with their coach: offensive coordinator, [the] head coach if he’s an offensive head coach,” Griffin said on First Take. “You meet with him, you talk about what you did the previous year, what you did well, what you didn’t do, what you needed to improve on. We had that meeting. Never once did I tell Mike Shanahan I didn’t want to run the zone-read, all those things that were said. That was false. We had that meeting. We definitely had that meeting. But that was not what was said.”

Robert Griffin III (John McDonnell/The Washington Post/Getty ImagesRobert Griffin III denies telling Mike Shanahan he didn't want to run the zone-read option.

He also said the Redskins would have had a chance to win the Super Bowl had he not torn his ACL in the opening round playoff loss to Seattle. By 2015, Griffin’s time as a starter was done; by 2016 he was in Cleveland.

“The bottom line is, we didn’t win enough games in D.C.,” he said. “I wish I had more than two-and-a-half years. The amount of picks that they gave, you would think I would get more than two-and-a-half years, but I didn’t. So I’ve been able to swallow that pill, move forward and try to better myself and continue to grow as a player, as a person and as a father.”

As for interest other teams showed him in the offseason, Griffin said “it just wasn’t the right fit.”

“I had to make that decision for myself to say, ‘Look, if I don’t accept this offer, there’s a chance I won’t play football this year,’” Griffin said, “and I would talk to my family, and I was OK with that, OK with the fact that it might happen.”

But he said he has been working out in Florida, still hoping a team might sign him for this season.

“I feel I can still go out and help a team, some of these teams in playoff hunt that may have quarterback issues,” Griffin said, “or need a guy with experience to back up a guy that’s going to be playing. I can still do that.”

And he made it clear that playing again remains his goal. Griffin has begun doing more interviews in recent months, letting his desires be known.

“I purposely had been out of the spotlight this year,” he said. “I needed time to make sure everything in my life was settled and had to make sure I had that drive and that desire to continue to play. When you’re away from something for so long like I have been it can bring into question your determination. The fact I stayed determined and continued to work out, continued to throw the ball, showed me I truly love the game and I miss the game. I’m not going to come up here and say, ‘No, I don’t miss it, I don’t need it.’ I love the game. I love football. That’s why I’m here.”

Mike Zimmer must put friendship with Marvin Lewis aside this week

December, 14, 2017
Dec 14
10:10
AM ET

Mike Zimmer sees numbers, not faces.

It’s a strategy he’s built from his 23 years as a coach in the NFL. It helps the game not get too personal when he squares off against the people he used to share a sideline with, people who have become close friends and part of his football family.

Before becoming the Minnesota Vikings coach in 2014, Zimmer spent six seasons as the Bengals' defensive coordinator under Marvin Lewis. This Sunday, the two face off for the first time in the regular season.

Cincinnati’s defensive scheme is still very much the same as Zimmer left it. It’s the place where he and Paul Guenther, the Bengals' defensive coordinator who was then Zimmer’s defensive line coach, concocted a scheme that dismantled teams via double A-gap blitz packages. A bulk of the Bengals' defensive starters are players Zimmer coached when he was there from 2008 to 13.

“We really haven’t changed as much,” Lewis said. “Now a different person calls the game. I thought Mike was excellent at calling the game as well.”

Marvin Lewis, Mike ZimmerJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesMarvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer coached together in Cincinnati from 2008 to 2013.

The assumption is that knowledge gives Zimmer the upper hand. That’s not necessarily the way he views it.

“It’s probably a disadvantage because they’ve heard everything I’ve ever said in a defensive meeting to the coaches and the players,” Zimmer said. “They probably know me a lot better than I know them.”

Cincinnati is the place where Zimmer built his resume to earn his first head coaching gig at age 58, a move he wasn’t sure would happen. Five teams passed on hiring Zimmer, who leaned on Lewis for support.

“He was discouraged by it but I told him, 'You know what? It’s not you,'” Lewis said. “'Somebody’s going to make the right decision here, so just keep doing it.' At times it can be discouraging, but I encouraged him to continue, and it’s worked out well. They obviously made a great decision and those that haven’t wish they had.”

Lewis might soon be looking to Zimmer for support. Despite compiling a 123-111-3 record with Cincinnati since 2003 and winning four AFC North titles, Lewis’ teams are 0-7 in the playoffs. At 5-8 with three games remaining against the Vikings, Lions and Ravens, there is speculation about Lewis’ future in Cincinnati, something Zimmer doesn’t believe should be in question.

“Well, he’s had success,” Zimmer said. “When he first started, they weren’t very good. He got them to a place where they got to six playoff games in a row. I think he’s a heck of a coach. He does unbelievable things in the community. I learned a lot for him. I’m happy for him. In my opinion, he should be able to stay there as long as he wants.”

Lewis and Zimmer formed a bond over 35 years in the business, a friendship that started in coaching and has extended to life outside of football.

“We have a lot of [favorite] Zimmer moments, but this is a PG call,” Lewis said on a conference call with Vikings media. “We have a lot of coaching stories and memories together. I consider him not only a great friend, but he’s a tremendous coach.”

Given their deep history, Zimmer’s task this week is compartmentalizing the adoration he has for Lewis and his former staff. With a victory over Cincinnati, the Vikings would lock up the NFC North and punch their ticket to the playoffs.”

“I love Marvin Lewis,” Zimmer said. “He’s an unbelievable person, great guy. Heck of a football coach. He’s done tremendous things there in Cincinnati. It happens. You get a chance to play your friends and people who you used to work with. This is a game of 'I see numbers, not faces.'”

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Paul Posluszny isn’t thinking about personal history, only the Houston Texans.

What he and the rest of the Jacksonville Jaguars (9-4) have to do to beat Sunday’s opponent is much more important to him than last week’s victory over Seattle, which allowed him to accomplish something he’s never done before in his 11-year NFL career: Play for a winning team.

“I haven't really thought about it that much,” Posluszny said Wednesday. “Now, years from now, when I'm not playing anymore, it will be exciting to know that, yeah, I had the opportunity to experience that as opposed to, 'Yeah, I played in the NFL for a long time, but I never won.'

“I know I'll be very appreciative of that.”

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Posluszny was one of only two current players in the NFL who had played 11 or more years and had not played for a winning team. The Jaguars’ 30-24 victory over Seattle last Sunday, in which he had four tackles (two for loss), now leaves only one: Buffalo guard Richie Incognito.

Paul PoslusznyPhelan M. Ebenhack/APPaul Posluszny hadn't played for a team with a winning record since his senior season at Penn State in 2006.

Posluszny never won more than seven games in four seasons in Buffalo and went 4-12 in his final season. He signed with the Jaguars in 2011 and though he played at a high level (he’s second in franchise history in tackles, has 11 interceptions and went to the Pro Bowl in 2013) the Jaguars never won more than five games until this season.

“How many times have we walked into a training camp and we said, 'Man, we're really excited,' and then for whatever reason it didn't work out?” Posluszny said. “Now, going through the offseason we did and the training camp we did, well, now you know what it truly takes, what hard work really is, so when it comes to that, it was a great learning experience.”

Tight end Marcedes Lewis is the only player on the current roster who was with the Jaguars the last time the franchise had a winning record (2007). That was his second season, so he understands just how significant last Sunday’s victory to get to 9-4 will be to Posluszny.

"It's amazing,” Lewis said. “It's whack because I know that it [the team not winning] hasn't been because of him. You get what I'm saying? It sucks that a really good player like that -- who does everything right, has never been fined, never complains, unselfish -- has never had a winning season. You've got guys that don't even care about the game as much as he does riding the wave on some teams.

“It's good that he's experiencing this and is a pivotal piece of our team. That's one of the most important parts. He's not just a guy happy to be on a team with a jersey, barely making the team, on the bubble. No, he's a contributor and doing his thing. That's dope.”

The Jaguars decided in the offseason that second-year player Myles Jack would take over as the Jaguars’ starting middle linebacker, which drastically reduced Posluszny’s snaps. He’s playing on special teams for the first time in his seven years with the Jaguars and was getting spot duty on defense, but started the last two games in place of Telvin Smith (concussion).

Now that Posluszny is finally guaranteed to play for a team that finishes with a winning record, there’s one more thing he wants to cross off his list: Making the playoffs. That can happen Sunday with a victory over the Texans (4-9).

"When I got here in 2011, I thought we were going to the playoffs because David Garrard was going to be our quarterback and we were going to have a great defense and it just didn't unfold the way you thought,” Posluszny said. “We did play well defensively. To be at the bottom and to finally fight our way, work our way and get back up, just to be in the position that we're at now, it's great and it shows you that we've finally started to earn the right to win.

“Now we want more.”

George Walker/Icon SportswireOn Sunday, J.P. Ladouceur returns to Oakland, California, where his odyssey with the Cowboys started in 2005 -- 1,840 successful snaps ago.

A French-Canadian, an Australian, an Arkansas-bred owner and a bullish New Jersey tough guy head coach are in a van ...

No, it's not the start of some joke. It's how L.P. Ladouceur began his life with the Dallas Cowboys in 2005.

The Montreal native was in the van on his way to San Jose State for a workout. Sitting next to him was Mat McBriar, the Cowboys' Australian-born punter. With him were Jerry Jones and Bill Parcells. The Cowboys had remained in Northern California to practice between back-to-back games against the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders early in that 2005 campaign, but they needed a snapper, since rookie Jon Condo was struggling.

On the ride from the team's hotel in Fremont, California, to San Jose State, Ladouceur couldn't believe his surroundings.

"I'm like, 'Oh, my God, don't screw it up,'" Ladouceur said.

The workout wasn't very long, maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Coach Parcells stood next to McBriar for every snap, arms folded, trying to intimidate. Ladouceur did not know this at the time, but the Cowboys were going to sign him with just a couple of good snaps.

His snaps on that day were good enough to get signed. He has been the Cowboys' snapper ever since.

On Sunday, Ladouceur returns to Oakland for a regular-season game for the first time since signing with the Cowboys in 2005. He has been perfect on 1,840 career snaps -- 887 punts, 559 PAT attempts and 394 field goal tries.

"He's been doing it for a long time," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "It's Year 13 and he doesn't miss a day of practice, doesn't miss a game and doesn't miss a snap. The operation is critical for the success of the specialists, and our specialists are as good as they get. But he's such an anchor on our special-teams unit. He's one of those guys who's kind of a quiet leader, goes about it the right way, really well respected by his teammates with the way he works and certainly the way he produces with the job we ask him to do."

Earlier this season, Ladouceur became just the seventh player in team history to compete in 200 regular-season games, along with Jason Witten, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Bill Bates, Randy White, Tom Rafferty and Emmitt Smith. Sunday will be the 203rd game of his career.

All of this because he just so happened to be close to San Jose when the Cowboys were in need. Ladouceur played collegiately at Cal. He was living in Davis, California, at the time, wondering if he would get on an NFL roster after he was among the New Orleans Saints' final cuts.

"I was in San Francisco that day when [the Cowboys] played the 49ers and watching the game on TV with some friends, and the next thing you know, I'm calling my agent: 'Hey, someone's struggling in Dallas,'" Ladouceur said.

Ladouceur went to training camp that summer with the Saints. He actually recorded a sack/fumble in a preseason game while playing defensive end. He had a workout with the Buffalo Bills, which was followed by one for the Miami Dolphins.

Because the Cowboys were in California, his agent, Gil Scott, struggled to get a hold of any personnel people. Scott represented a kicker, Shaun Suisham, on the practice squad and was able to talk to special-teams coach Bruce DeHaven, who set up the workout.

"It was probably like 10 o'clock in the morning and practice started at like 10:30 or 11," Ladouceur said. "Just put my pads on and went to practice. Kind of a weird deal."

Five days later, he was at his first game. Ladouceur had about 10 friends in the stands watching him play a week after he was watching a Cowboys game on television. Because the Athletics were still playing at that time of the season, he had to snap on the infield dirt at the Oakland Coliseum, which is never an easy thing for a snapper.

"I remember the first play," Ladouceur said. "It was Warren Sapp to my left and Langston Walker to my right with double A gap pushes. That's when they used to truck us."

The Cowboys lost 19-13, but Ladouceur had the job. However, he had one problem. He did not have any clothes with him to fly back to Dallas with the team. He asked Parcells if he could fly back on Monday after he went back to his apartment to get some belongings.

After the game, Ladouceur, with a Cal backpack and duffle bag, walked with his friends to the Bay Area Rapid Transit station outside the Coliseum, took the train to Berkeley and then went to his apartment in Davis.

"Nobody recognizes anybody unless you're a Drew Bledsoe or one of those kind of guys," Ladouceur said. "I didn't have any Cowboys stuff; I just had jeans and a shirt. I was just a tall, 6-5, 260-pound guy back then. Just one of those guys."

Ladouceur is signed through this season but hopes he can land a three-year deal to remain with the Cowboys. He is 36 and wants to play until he is 40, maybe longer.

"To think it all started there and going back this week, it'll be great," Ladouceur said. "It'll be fun to be there."

video
Winners of four straight, the surging Los Angeles Chargers hit the road to face the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday with postseason aspirations and a losing streak on the line.

The Chiefs have won seven straight games against the Chargers, one shy of matching the team’s longest win streak over the Chargers franchise (eight in a row from 1990-93).

The last time the Chargers beat the Chiefs was Dec. 29, 2013 -- a Week 17 contest at Qualcomm Stadium that the Chargers won in overtime, 27-24.

That victory clinched a postseason berth for the Chargers.

With both teams at 7-6, the winner of this game on Saturday at 8:25 p.m. ET at Arrowhead Stadium will grab control of the AFC West.

The Chargers are currently a one-point favorite over the Chiefs. Per ESPN Stats & Information, the last time the Bolts were favored in Kansas City was Week 4 of the 2012 campaign, a 37-20 win over the Chiefs.

Melvin GordonAP Photo/Jae C. HongMelvin Gordon is the Chargers' leading rusher, averaging 3.7 yards a game on 227 carries through 13 games.

“It certainly gives you a heck of a lot better chance of winning it if you win this game,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers told reporters this week. “But if you win this game, it’s not over yet.

“It’s a big game. I think it’s important to know what’s at stake -- which I think we all do -- but at the same time to keep the same approach we’ve had that’s been working.”

The Chargers are seeking their first five-game winning streak since 2014. That winning approach Rivers alluded to is creating turnovers on defense and winning on third down on offense.

Since Week 5, the Chargers have forced a league-leading 20 turnovers and turned it over just six times during that stretch -- also tops in the NFL.

The Rivers-led offense also has been much more successful on third down, with a 42-percent efficiency rate on the money down since Week 5, which ranks No. 7 in the NFL.

One matchup to watch on Saturday will be the Chargers' run defense against Kansas City rookie running back Kareem Hunt.

Hunt ran wild in a Week 3, 24-20 victory against the Chargers earlier this season, finishing with 172 rushing yards, including a 69-yard jaunt for a score.

“I could see them running him more this last quarter of the season, especially in the type of weather that we’re going to be in,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn told reporters this week. “We’re going to definitely have to have hats to the ball to stop him, because he’s a good runner and he’s also a good receiver.”

The Chargers had been awful against the run this season until starting middle linebacker Denzel Perryman returned to the lineup after rehabbing from ankle surgery in August.

Before Perryman returned, the Chargers were allowing a league-worst 135 rushing yards per game.

However, since Perryman returned in Week 10, the Chargers are allowing 108 rushing yards per game, No. 16 in the NFL.

As much as the Atlanta Falcons don't want to compare this year to last, they certainly would love to duplicate how they finished the 2016 regular season.

Not only did the Falcons end '16 on a four-game winning streak to earn the No. 2 playoff seed, they also racked up plenty of points in the process -- 154, to be exact. That's an average of 38.5 points per game, which was even higher than the league-leading 33.8 points they averaged all of last season.

Matt Ryan and Julio JonesDustin Bradford/Getty ImagesTo make the playoffs, the Falcons need Julio Jones and Matt Ryan to find their mojo down the stretch.

Fast forward to now and the Falcons have three games remaining following last Thursday's 20-17 win against the rival New Orleans Saints. They're averaging just 22.6 points per game and are 0-5 when they fail to score 20 points. In contrast, the Falcons are 8-0 when they score 20 or more points and are one of four teams to be undefeated in such a scenario, according to ESPN Stats and Info. The other three are the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0), Tennessee Titans (7-0), and Oakland Raiders (6-0) -- teams not on the Falcons' schedule to end the season.

It's no secret the offense hasn't flowed as smoothly under first year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Some regression was expected following the transition from last season's coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who now coaches the San Francisco 49ers. And reigning MVP Matt Ryan would be the first to say he hasn't played at an MVP level. But the 8-5 Falcons can put those woes behind and continue their playoff push with a strong offensive finish at Tampa Bay, at New Orleans, and in the home finale against Carolina.

Scoring against the Buccaneers wasn't much of a problem a few weeks ago in the Falcons' 34-20 home triumph. They converted two of their three trips to the red zone and Julio Jones had his only multi-touchdown game of the season, exploding for a season-high 253 receiving yards. The Bucs didn't make many adjustments, if any, to slow down Jones, so one would expect a different approach come Monday night. However, the Falcons could benefit from the Buccaneers likely being without menacing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who suffered a biceps injury. The Buccaneers, on a three-game losing streak that has seen them allow 28 points per game, have allowed an average of 24 points per game.

Can Ryan and the offense put up 30 on the Saints and Panthers? They did in the final two games of last season with 33-16 win at Carolina and a 38-32 home win against New Orleans. This season, the Falcons managed just 17 points in a loss to the Panthers and those aforementioned 20 points in last week's win against the Saints. Carolina and New Orleans both surrender 20.2 points per game, which is tied for 10th in the league and right behind the Falcons' defense, which is ninth in surrendering 20.1 points per game.

Of course, there are factors to consider such as health, with running back Tevin Coleman and his team-leading seven touchdowns possibly not being available against the Buccaneers because of a concussion, and starting left guard Andy Levitre's status still uncertain because of a triceps injury. But the Falcons have enough weapons to put up points, if they execute.

"As always, I want to score every time we get the ball to put us in the best position to win games," Sarkisian said recently. "We've been an explosive offense, but I think the biggest thing here for us closing this season out with some big games ahead of us is our ability to score touchdowns. I think that's going to be a real difference in how this season closes out offensively for us."

videoWhen the Baltimore Ravens signed Jeremy Maclin in June, there were hopes that he would become the team’s No. 1 receiver.

Now, with three games remaining in the regular season, Maclin has been one of the Ravens’ biggest disappointments. Maclin has 39 catches for 418 yards and three touchdowns, putting him on pace for career low in receiving yards and yards per catch (10.7).

His lack of chemistry with quarterback Joe Flacco was evident in Sunday's 39-38 loss in Pittsburgh, where Maclin was targeted a season-high 11 times with little results. He managed three caches for 27 yards, and he failed to deliver on a couple of passes in the fourth quarter.

Patrick McDermott/USA TODAY SportsJoe Flacco and Jeremy Maclin started with a strong connection, but over the past three games they have hooked up just eight times for 74 yards and no touchdown.

Flacco, however, shot down the notion that there is something missing on the field between him and Maclin. "There are definitely some things we can work on, but I wouldn’t overreact to it,” he said.

Maclin’s struggles are surprising considering his debut. In the season opener, Maclin turned a short pass into a 48-yard touchdown in Cincinnati.

But, over the past three games, Flacco and Maclin have connected on eight passes for 74 yards and no touchdown despite 24 targeted throws. That's the worst receptions-per-target percentage (33.3 percent) in the NFL over that span.

Asked if something stands out on why Flacco and Maclin look out of sync, head coach John Harbaugh said, "No, not really."

On the final two drives in Pittsburgh, Maclin was targeted four times without a completion. The last pass was a well-thrown 27-yard pass that was caught by Maclin at the 34-yard line, which would've put Justin Tucker in position for the winning field goal. But Maclin had stepped out of bounds beforehand, then couldn't get both feet inbounds after the reception.

"For whatever reason, especially last game, it just didn’t click," Maclin said. "I’m not going to beat myself up about it. That’s what preparation is for all throughout the week. We’ll continue to go out there and get on the same page."

Maclin has been held to under 50 yards receiving in eight of his 11 games this season. His receiving yards rank 86th in the NFL, behind the likes of Deonte Thompson, Ryan Grant and Adam Humphries.

The Ravens jumped on the opportunity to add Maclin in June after he was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs. Baltimore signed Maclin to a two-year, $11 million contract that included $6 million guaranteed.

Maclin’s ineffectiveness has now cast some doubt about his future. He is scheduled to make $4 million in 2018, and Baltimore can create $5 million in cap room by cutting him.

"It is what it is,” Maclin said when asked about his frustration level. "I think at this point the one thing you worry about is trying to help your team win games. I had some opportunities to make some plays late in that game [Sunday]. I just came up short. That’s the thing I’m more worried about. Luckily for us, we’re right where we need to be. We’re all right."

Jeremy KerleyAl Bello/Getty ImagesJeremy Kerley is expected to slide back into the Jets' No. 3 receiver role.


FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Speaking to reporters for the first time since a four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, New York Jets wide receiver Jeremy Kerley provided a rather unusual answer when asked how the drugs got into his system. Previously, he denied any wrongdoing.

"I don't know," Kerley told reporters on Wednesday, according to NorthJersey.com. "There's a lot of ghosts around here. Ghost put it in there. You know, the ghost of Christmas past? ... I don't know."

Well, that's creative.

The 5-foot-9, 188-pound receiver returned to practice on Wednesday but still hasn't been returned to the 53-man roster. The Jets have a one-week roster exemption.

When he was suspended Nov. 6, Kerley released a strongly-worded statement, claiming he didn't knowingly take any performance-enhancing drugs. He vowed to "figure out what caused the positive test," saying he'd conduct his own investigation.

That didn't happen.

"I didn't have time to investigate it," Kerley said. "It is what it is. We're back now."

He added, "If I knew exactly what (the substance) was, I probably would have known the consequences behind it, so I probably wouldn't have took it. But it's in the wind now. ... It's in the past. Learn from it and move on."

Coach Todd Bowles has remained non-committal on Kerley's role. Previously, he was the No. 3 receiver, producing 22 catches, 217 yards and one touchdown in eight games. Since the suspension, the Jets have been using rookie Chad Hansen in that spot. JoJo Natson has handed punt returns, another of Kerley's old jobs. Neither Natson nor Hansen has been productive, so it seems inevitable that Kerley will return to his previous roles.

Seahawks might regret waiving Alex Collins, but it made sense at the time

December, 14, 2017
Dec 14
7:00
AM ET

Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY"I'm thrilled for him. We're thrilled for him," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Alex Collins, whom the team waived before this season only to see him star in Baltimore.

RENTON, Wash. -- Fate has not been kind to the Seattle Seahawks' backfield this season.

Eddie Lacy hasn't panned out as a free-agent addition, to put it kindly. Thomas Rawls is still searching for his 2015 form, now doing so at the bottom of the depth chart. C.J. Prosise, to no one's surprise, is on injured reserve. Chris Carson's promising start was spoiled by a broken leg and a high ankle sprain. More recently, Mike Davis has had durability issues of his own.

And in a cruel twist that adds insult to all that injury and underperformance, Seahawks castoff Alex Collins is the NFL's ninth-leading rusher. On the same day Seattle's backfield suffered its latest bit of misfortune -- a shot to the ribs that knocked Davis out of Sunday's loss at Jacksonville -- Collins set a career high with 120 rushing yards on only 18 carries for the Baltimore Ravens.

Ouch.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was asked Wednesday if he ever kicks himself over the team's decision to waive Collins before the start of the season.

“I'm thrilled for him. We're thrilled for him," Carroll said. "He was right in the middle of the competition here and other guys were ahead of him. That's just how it turned out."

Perhaps Carroll and the Seahawks regret the move in hindsight, but in their defense, it made plenty of sense at the time. No one questioned the Seahawks when they waived Collins and set their initial 53-man roster with five other tailbacks instead.

Lacy's one-year contract included nearly $3 million in guarantees, so he was going to make the team even after an underwhelming training camp and preseason. Carson was the most impressive member of the group over the summer. Rawls had a better track record in the NFL than Collins, a 2016 fifth-round pick who played sparingly as a rookie. J.D. McKissic's return ability made him a smart hedge for receiver Tyler Lockett, who was coming off a broken leg. And Collins did not show great receiving ability, which would have been needed to unseat Prosise in the third-down role.

Collins was simply the odd man out in a deep backfield that looked as though it could actually be a strength heading into the season. That seemed like the likely outcome for most of the summer. The nail in the coffin might have been when Collins, who had struggled with ball security since college, lost a fumble in the second preseason game.

Collins has fumbled three times with the Ravens but has otherwise been excellent.

He has racked up 825 rushing yards despite spending the first week of the season on Baltimore's practice squad and not starting a game until Week 4. That total nearly equals the 845 yards Seattle has gotten from six tailbacks combined this season. That group has only produced one rushing touchdown compared to five for Collins. His 5.1 yards-per-carry average is tied for third best among eligible running backs, and according to ESPN Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley, Collins is second with 14 runs of 15 yards or longer.

Collins' success, of course, could be a function of being in a better situation. It's entirely possible he wouldn't fare much better with the Seahawks than any other tailback who has tried to run behind their offensive line this season.

They probably wish they could find out.

"I’m thrilled that he’s having a good year," Carroll said. "He’s great, he works really hard, it’s really meaningful to him and he has a good spirit about him. I’m thrilled that he’s doing well.”

videoGREEN BAY, Wis. -- He has two NFL Most Valuable Player awards, a Super Bowl ring and a soothsayer’s knack for foreseeing greatness to come.

He told Green Bay Packers fans to R-E-L-A-X when the team started slowly in 2014. That team reached overtime of the NFC Championship Game.

He said last year he thought the team could “run the table” when it was 4-6 and mired in a four-game losing streak, and darned if he didn’t lead a six-game winning streak to end the regular season and get the Packers back to the brink of the Super Bowl.

Now, he’s facing something that might be even more difficult.

EPA/Larry W. SmithAfter last season's slow start, Aaron Rodgers led a Packers run into the playoffs, where they beat Dallas to make the NFC title game.

Aaron Rodgers will play Sunday for the first time since he broke his right collarbone at Minnesota on Oct. 15. The Packers, at 7-6, not only need to win at Carolina this week, they also need to win the next week against the Vikings and in the regular-season finale at Detroit to have any chance at a ninth straight postseason appearance.

It will test Rodgers’ physical ability and the strength of his surgically repaired clavicle.

But if there’s one thing the Packers don’t have to worry about, it’s the mental toughness that Rodgers will bring to such a daunting challenge. In fact, coach Mike McCarthy called that his quarterback's “greatest asset.”

“Obviously, what he does physically and his ability on the field, but just the way he not only conducts himself mentally and emotionally to get ready for a game, but you can see the same intensity, the awareness, the education ability to get into other things to enhance his opportunity to get back,” McCarthy said. “It's probably, in my opinion, his greatest asset. His mental toughness is, you'd like to say, old-school because you can refer to how things were probably in the past in this league. This guy could have played mentally in any generation in the National Football League. That's a big part of why he's ready today."

Rodgers said he is “not coming back to save this team." But if he were to lead a team with a 9.2 percent chance of making the playoffs (according to ESPN’s Football Power Index) to the postseason once again, it would rank as one of the top accomplishments in what will end up as a Hall of Fame career.

In fact, a longtime NFL personnel executive said it would rank No. 2 on Rodgers’ legacy list behind only Super Bowl XLV.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of Rodgers’ greatest accomplishments to date (and leave a spot open for Run the Table 2.0):

Super Bowl XLV: Before Rodgers won either of his two MVP awards (for the 2011 and 2014 seasons), he was the MVP of the Packers’ Super Bowl win over the Steelers. Two weeks after one of his finest performances in the NFC title game win at Atlanta, Rodgers put on another clinic, throwing for 304 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. He made one of the most impressive throws of his career late in the game, a 31-yard rocket to Greg Jennings (which will go down as one of Rodgers’ greatest plays) for a key first down to help milk the clock in the Packers’ 31-25 win.

15-1 and MVP No. 1: A year after the Super Bowl, Rodgers won his first MVP on the way to a near-perfect regular-season record. He set an NFL single-season record with a 122.5 passer rating and set franchise records for touchdown passes (45), passing yards (4,643) and completion percentage (68.3).

R-E-L-A-X and MVP No. 2: The Packers started 1-2 in 2014, and fans were in a panic. Rodgers, on his ESPN Wisconsin radio show, not only told Packers fans to relax but he spelled it out for them one letter at a time and added, "We're going to be OK." The audio clip was played over and over through a season in which Rodgers threw 38 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. The Packers won seven of their last eight games to finish 12-4. After beating the Cowboys in a divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field, the Packers had a 12-point fourth-quarter lead at Seattle only to lose the NFC title game in overtime.

Run the table: Did anyone really believe Rodgers last November when he said he thought the Packers could “run the table” when they were sitting at 4-6 and had lost four straight? It was a calculated move more than a prediction on Rodgers’ part as a way to get the team to rally at their most difficult moment. And Rodgers took the lead. In the six-game winning streak to close the regular season, he threw 15 touchdown passes without an interception. With the season on the line in December and January, he threw 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the final five regular-season games. According to Elias, the only other quarterback in NFL history with at least 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions from Dec. 1 to the end of the regular season is Tom Brady, who also had 13 and zero in 2010.

Collarbone return No. 1: One year before Rodgers’ second MVP season, he broke his left collarbone on Nov. 4, 2013, against the Bears. The Packers were 5-2 going into that game but won only twice (with one tie) after Rodgers went down. After weeks of debate over whether Rodgers would be cleared to return, he was finally given the OK the week of the regular-season finale at Chicago. Rodgers overcame a slow start with two early interceptions to throw for a pair of touchdowns, including the game-winner -- a 48-yard bomb to Randall Cobb in the final minute that clinched the NFC North title and a playoff spot despite just an 8-7-1 record.

Courtesy of the Washington RedskinsWes Phillips' stand-up desk keeps his attention sharp as the hours pile on.

ASHBURN, Va. -- The lifestyle became a badge of honor, one that Randy Jordan, then an Oakland Raiders assistant coach, wore with pride. Three days into his new gig, however, he realized he was on a pace he could not survive.

Jordan, now the Washington Redskins running backs coach, would arrive no later than 6 a.m. He’d stay until 1:30 a.m. or later. Then he'd repeat it the next day.

"I'll never forget my first three days. I thought I was going to die. I wasn't used to it," Jordan said. "The first three days I was good, and then on the fourth day, I hit a wall and physically got sick."

He was ordered to stay home and had to find a new way to survive. That didn't mean he abandoned the insane hours completely. The days are long. But coaches aren't superhuman, which means they must discover tricks that help them get through the day, especially as the season winds down and the grind takes a toll. As they watch hours of film, sometimes the eyes get droopy.

They resort to tricks used by drivers to stay awake.

"Just not as dangerous," Redskins tight ends coach Wes Phillips said.

Redskins coach Jay Gruden's day starts around 4:45 a.m. and lasts until nearly 9 p.m. He does his film work early because as the day wears on, many visitors enter his office: players, president Bruce Allen, vice president of football operations Doug Williams. But in those quiet moments later in the day, sometimes staying awake becomes difficult -- for Gruden and others.

"That happens a lot," Gruden said of guys nodding off. "When you stay still for so long and when you're in your office with just your remote control for hours at a time."

Here's how coaches survive those difficult periods during the day:

James Taylor

Mondays test all coaches, win or lose, but Mondays after losses can be particularly draining. Jordan arrives around 7 a.m. after perhaps four hours of sleep.

"If I do get six or seven hours, I feel tired," he said. "Your body gets used to a lack of sleep, which isn't good for you."

He grades film and meets with the staff around 1 p.m. to watch more film. Then they gather to discuss personnel. Around 3:30 p.m., he moves on to the next opponent. At night, Jordan will watch the opponent's previous two games to get a feel for how the team calls defenses and focuses on short yardage and goal-line situations. He'll check out what a defense does on first and second down and what personnel groupings they use in various situations. He'll jot down running plays to recommend to offensive line coach Bill Callahan, who's in charge of the run game.

Jordan said he usually has a game going on ESPN, with the sound down, and will slip on headphones. Drake and James Taylor then get him through the lull.

"I'm a big James Taylor fan, one of the best songwriters ever," Jordan said. "Of course, 'In my mind I'm going to Carolina. Can't you see the Sunshine?' Sweet Baby James. I'm listening to all his stuff, and I'm banging out tape. I'm lit up. Sometimes it gets that way. You get four or five songs in you, and you're just like, 'Bang, oh, got that done.'"

James TaylorStan Honda/AFP/Getty ImagesJames Taylor music is something that gets Redskins running backs coach Randy Jordan going during long days.

Stand-up desk

The struggle is real for Phillips, especially on Tuesdays. He arrives at 6 a.m. and leaves around midnight. To prepare for an opponent, he watches five games and breaks them down, looking at defensive schemes and whittling it down to techniques used by certain players. He occasionally works on red zone film.

"Sometimes you get into that film mode where you're watching, and then all of a sudden, you're three or four plays farther down than you thought you were," Phillips said, "and then you snap out of it."

One solution: a stand-up desk. Three years ago, Phillips purchased one for his office for health reasons. There are other ways he tries to maintain energy -- walks, breaks in the cafeteria -- but when he knows he must grind in the office, the desk helps.

"We're in the office a lot and sitting," he said. "I find I have more energy when I stand. You can stretch a little bit."

He uses a slant board at times so he can stretch his calf muscles, or he uses a ball to roll under his feet while standing.

"All that sitting you do, and posture-wise, you get crunched over," Phillips said, "and it doesn't feel good."

Sour Patch Kids

The week before the Thanksgiving Day game against the New York Giants was particularly bad for Washington's defensive quality-control coach, Cannon Matthews. He spent a couple hours in the office after arriving back from New Orleans the Sunday before. The next day, he was there from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. On Tuesday, it was from 7 a.m. until midnight.

"You're like a zombie watching enough film to where your eyes are crisscrossing," he said. "When you hit 5 o'clock, you have to get your second wind."

His two go-to options: get up and walk around, or dig into his bag of Sour Patch Kids. Sometimes he'll drink a Diet Dr. Pepper, but for the most part, the Kids win.

"Anytime I feel myself lagging, I keep a bag of those in my desk drawer," he said.

His favorite color? Red.

"But the blue is creeping up there,” he said.

The amazing part? He has had one cavity in his life.

Dip

One coach didn't want to divulge his biggest secret: He'll sometimes dip chewing tobacco to help stay sharp and awake. He started doing it in college.

"Meetings were so long," he said. "That was the only thing that kept me awake."

Others do it as well.

"I've been trying to quit that for a long time, but that definitely helps for whatever reason," Phillips said, "whether psychologically helping you stay awake or just the act of doing something: chewing gum, spitting."

Soda

Redskins secondary coach Torrian Gray works out on a daily basis, sometimes before his day gets started and other times at lunch.

"That probably makes me more fatigued [later]," Gray said. "But you never think about the fatigue. You know you're tired, but you don't think about it because we're trying to find the riddle to the puzzle of the week. It's not what we know. It's what we get the players to know and to understand. Then we have to put it in organized fashion."

Gray's solution to sustain his energy and combat any drowsiness is a favorite of many coaches: Diet Coke. Coffee is clearly another favorite; Phillips has a machine in his office. After opening a soda, Gray will slip on headphones, listen to either country music or rap and get to work.

"Tons of Diet Coke," he said. "I probably overdo it -- five or six a day. That's me cutting it back. ... But I kind of embrace the grind, so it was never a problem. I never had a problem grinding and working hard. That's my personality."

Eating right also plays a factor. Jordan said he tries to avoid snacks, though he'll grab some trail mix in the cafeteria or some peanuts from Gray's office.

"I try to load up on Vitamin C, take supplements," Jordan said. "But it's part of the process. You just grind through it."

When the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers last parted, the last thing on anyone’s mind was that the distant rematch between the teams would carry such big stakes.

The Chiefs beat the Chargers 24-10 then, in Week 3 in Los Angeles, to raise their record to 3-0 while the Chargers fell to 0-3. A week later, the Chiefs won and the Chargers lost again, stretching Kansas City’s lead over L.A. to four games.

The fortunes for both teams have reversed dramatically since, giving Saturday's rematch at Arrowhead Stadium (8:25 p.m. ET, NFL Network) significant implications in the AFC West race. The Chiefs and Chargers are both 7-6 overall and tied for the division lead with three regular-season games remaining.

“This is about as big as it gets for a regular-season game," quarterback Alex Smith said. “Division opponent, tied for first, only a couple games left. The ramifications are huge. It doesn’t get any bigger than this."

The AFC West standings were a topic on the agenda at the Chiefs’ first team meeting of the week.

“I mention those things every once in a while,” Reid said.

But he didn’t need to. The Chiefs’ once-commanding lead in the AFC West dwindled quickly and the Chiefs by last week were tied with both the Raiders and Chargers for first place.

"I think the players, they knew that," Reid said. “We always say if you’re in the last quarter of the season or so and you’re within shooting distance, you get to the month of December and you’re in the mix, then every game becomes very important."

The Chargers are 7-2 since their slow start. They’ve won four straight, three by at least 17 points.

Meanwhile the Chiefs broke a four-game losing streak with last week’s 26-15 win against the Raiders. They led 26-0 heading into the fourth quarter, giving them something positive to work with heading into their most important game of the season.

“The statisticians, if you talk to them, they’ll tell you there’s no such thing as momentum," Reid said. “But it doesn’t hurt to play well and come off a game like that. You also know at this level that you’ve got to bring it every week, every practice and every play you’ve got to do those things. A lot of hard work goes into it.”

This is the second straight year the Chiefs have had a December game at Arrowhead with big division implications. They beat the Raiders last season, the win allowing the Chiefs to overcome Oakland and move on to claim the AFC West championship.

“It’ll be a great environment for a game," Reid said. “Both teams have something on the line this late in the year. It’s kind of a neat deal. Our guys are well aware of that and we’re lucky we’re playing here at Arrowhead. We have the best fans in the world and we welcome the Chargers into it.”

Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsAfter Sunday's shutout of the Jets, the Broncos defense moved up to No. 1 in the NFL.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Denver Broncos defense doesn't like the pile of touchdowns it has surrendered this season -- 26 passing touchdowns alone -- but the group has still scrapped its way to the top of the league's official rankings.

"We have some times when we haven't held people to field goals after turnovers or whatever, we give up big plays for touchdowns instead," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "But I don't see a lot of defenses who can do what we do, who do what we did against [the Jets]."

The Broncos' 23-0 win against the New York Jets last Sunday gave them their first shutout since 2005. The Broncos held the Jets to 100 net yards of offense, which moved them back to No. 1 in the league's defensive rankings; the NFL uses yards allowed per game as its official measuring stick.

The Broncos lead the way, allowing 280.5 yards per game, and are No. 2 against the pass (191.1 yards) and tied for No. 3 against the run (89.5). And in the overwhelming disappointment of this 4-9 season, staying at the top matters to the Broncos, who have finished among the league's top four in total defense in four of the previous five seasons, including No. 1 in 2015.

"Missing the playoffs always hurts, but we want to play it out," cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said.

And with that in mind, here are some things to watch for in Thursday's Broncos-Colts game (8:25 p.m. ET, NBC/NFL Network):

Where it hurts: Two of the Colts' top four pass-catchers play the positions that have vexed the Broncos in pass coverage for much of the season. Tight end Jack Doyle leads the Colts in catches with 64 and running back Frank Gore is fourth on the team with 21 receptions. Repeatedly this season, opponents have isolated the Broncos' linebackers and safeties in coverage to convert third downs or to close things out in the scoring zone. Safety Justin Simmons did not practice Monday or Tuesday because of a high ankle sprain and is not expected to play against the Colts. It means if the Broncos go to their dime package, safety Will Parks and rookie safety Jamal Carter will both be in the formation as well as in the Colts' crosshairs.

Get to Brissett: If the league were to hand out some kind of on-field valor award, Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett would have to get heavy consideration. No starting quarterback has been sacked more this season than the 48 times Brissett has been taken down -- that's nine more than the next quarterbacks (Matthew Stafford and Josh McCown, each with 39 sacks). Brissett wasn't sacked during limited duty in the opener, but he was sacked 10 times by the Jacksonville Jaguars and eight times by the Tennessee Titans. The Broncos' chances of creating turnovers and manufacturing the kind of tempo they had in their win over the Jets greatly increase if they keep the heat on Brissett.

Find more in the run game: The Broncos had a season-high nine rushing attempts for no gain or negative yardage against the Jets -- four of Devontae Booker's nine carries went for no gain or for a loss. And while they were still able to create the tempo on offense they needed against the Jets with their commitment to pounding the ball -- 35 carries -- they need to carve out a little more room in Indianapolis. Offenses have had particular success on the edges in the run game against the Colts, who surrender 7.5 yards per carry on runs around the offense's left end and 4.6 yards per carry on runs around the right end. That has not been the strength of the Broncos, given they have averaged just 2.5 yards per carry around right end and 3.8 yards per carry around left end. They've been more effective working the middle of the formation, but whatever they choose to do the rushing numbers will have a lot to say about how it goes for them.

Two in a row: OK, it has been quite some time since the Broncos had two consecutive wins. As in, since they defeated the Los Angeles Chargers in the season opener and then followed that with a win against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2. And while the Broncos have vexed most folks around them with their inability to bounce back from mistakes, their inability to handle whatever slivers of prosperity to come their way has been equally puzzling. They handled their business against a struggling team last Sunday, and if they're serious about building some momentum to close out a difficult season, they have to show the same kind of attention to detail. Look for turnovers as your indicator. The Broncos didn't have a turnover against the Jets, and it was the first time they had played without one since Oct. 1 -- which, before Sunday, had been their last win.

SPONSORED HEADLINES