videoINDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts' decision to give quarterback Andrew Luck a cortisone shot and to shut him down from practicing isn't surprising, according to ESPN's medical analyst.

Players returning from shoulder surgery sometimes hit a point when they have to scale things back momentarily, Stephania Bell said. That's the case with Luck. General manager Chris Ballard said Wednesday that Luck, who had right shoulder surgery in January, would not continue his practice schedule this week and that the team doesn't have a timetable for when he'll return.

"In the normal course of rehabbing you see this and it's not tragic," Bell said. "Sometimes these things happen. Guys go all the way through the entire process and everything is fine and then they get to one of the last and highest levels and there's a problem, and it may not even be a big problem. It just comes at a time for Andrew where things are amplified and people wonder if he's going to play at all this season. Of course the more you deal with it, the more you start to wonder that. It's too soon to say that, it's only Week 7."

The cortisone shot, according to Bell, is to help with the inflammation and discomfort in Luck's shoulder. Luck practiced for the first time since the surgery twice during the week of Oct. 4. He increased his workload, including making throws up to 35 yards away during the media portion of practice and running the scout team, during his two days of practice the week of Oct. 11. Ballard said they'll pick up where they left at in Luck's rehab process once he returns to practicing.

"The cortisone shot is a short-term management thing," Bell said. "When you come back from surgery and start throwing, you anticipate things are going to be a little bit sore. There's no timetable on when the soreness will go away after receiving the shot. It varies, but if it's going to help, it usually helps within a couple of days. You don't want them to move their arm a lot after getting the shot. You want them to kind be still, not do too much so it kind of stays there."

Week 7 NFL predictions: Scores for every game

October, 20, 2017
Oct 20

NFL Nation reporters predict the outcomes and scores for Sunday's and Monday's Week 7 games.

Buccaneers at Bills


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said it best. "We’re up and down like a freaking yo-yo in terms of between series [and] between games. ... We've got to be a consistent defense." In Week 5, Tampa Bay held the New England Patriots to a season-low 19 points. In Week 6, the Bucs surrendered 38 to the Arizona Cardinals, with 24 coming in the first half. If they don't shore up their run fits, it'll be another long flight home. Regardless of who starts at quarterback and regardless of the Bills having an extra week to prepare, the Bucs end this two-game skid. Buccaneers 24, Bills 20 -- Jenna Laine

Buffalo Bills

The Bills are playing their first home game in 28 days, good news for a team that has the fourth-highest point margin per game (9.5) at home this season. With TE Charles Clay (knee) out and WR Jordan Matthews potentially playing in his first game since breaking his thumb Oct. 1, Buffalo will need its running game to finally get going after averaging 3.4 yards per rush over the first five games (29th in the NFL). The Bills are 16-8 since 2015 when gaining more than 115 rushing yards and 2-11 when they gain 115 yards or less. Bills 21, Buccaneers 17 -- Mike Rodak

Panthers at Bears


Carolina Panthers

The Panthers are 3-0 on the road and have averaged 27.7 points away from Bank of America Stadium; they're scoring 15 points per game at home, where they are 1-2. The expected return of Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil should shore up some communication issues on the offensive line and help a struggling running game. If Cam Newton can continue to put up good road numbers -- eight of his nine touchdowns on the road, with only two of his eight interceptions away from home -- the Bears will have a tough time scoring enough to keep pace behind a rookie quarterback. Panthers 28, Bears 13 -- David Newton

Chicago Bears

The Bears have won consecutive games only twice in the John Fox era, both times in 2015. Aside from Chicago’s inconsistencies under Fox, Carolina’s fifth-ranked rushing defense (83.3 yards per game) is a real problem. The Bears must dominate on the ground to be successful. It’s too soon to ask rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky to win a game by throwing the ball 35 times. The Bears don't have enough weapons at wide receiver for that to happen. Panthers 21, Bears 17 -- Jeff Dickerson

Titans at Browns


Tennessee Titans

The Titans are playing the winless Browns just six days after an emotional victory over division-rival Indianapolis. But the Titans know the potential dangers if they sleepwalk into Cleveland. They already have circled the Browns' run game and talented rookie pass-rusher Myles Garrett as elements they would like to limit Sunday. This seems like a game where the Titans finally can get ahead early, then lean on their run game to lead the rest of the way. Titans 27, Browns 13 -- Cameron Wolfe

Cleveland Browns

Anyone who picked the Browns a week ago (me) probably should never pick them, or any games, again. However, it's impossible to believe this team is built is as bad as it has been playing. That might be depending on smoke and mirrors, but the one thing the Browns have done this season is stop the run. The Browns are sixth in the league against the run and are facing a team that is third in the league in rushing. The difference: It's tough to travel after a Monday night game. The Browns end the skein. Browns 19, Titans 17 -- Pat McManamon

Saints at Packers


New Orleans Saints

This has “trap game” written all over it since the line in Las Vegas swung 10 points over the weekend. But that’s what happens when a team loses an all-world quarterback such as the Packers did with Aaron Rodgers to a broken collarbone, and the Saints suddenly have the hottest defense in the NFL (a shutout against Miami in Week 4 and a franchise-record three defensive TDs in the Week 6 win over Detroit). Saints QB Drew Brees will be making his 238th career start, while Green Bay’s Brett Hundley will make his first. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the second-biggest disparity in NFL history behind Matt Cassel making his debut against Brett Favre in 2008. Saints 23, Packers 20 -- Mike Triplett

Green Bay Packers

The Packers are 3-5-1 since 2008 when Aaron Rodgers doesn’t start. Matt Flynn won all three of those games, and he isn’t quarterbacking the Packers on Sunday. What’s more, the offensive line in front of new starter Brett Hundley is a mess. No five-man group has played more than 89 snaps together for the Packers this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That won’t help settle the offense. Saints 33, Packers 20 -- Rob Demovsky

Jaguars at Colts


Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars haven't beaten the Colts in Indianapolis since 2012, but this is by far the best Jaguars team to play in Lucas Oil Stadium in that span. They lead the NFL in rushing (165.8 yards per game), but maybe this is the game when QB Blake Bortles gets things rolling. Defenses have ganged up on Leonard Fournette (the Rams used goal-line formations in Week 6), and the Jaguars expect the Colts to do the same. That should leave opportunities for downfield plays against a Colts defense that is giving up 295.8 yards passing per game (30th in the NFL). The Jaguars also have the No. 3 pass defense behind CBs Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and have picked off a league-high 10 passes. That's a good matchup against QB Jacoby Brissett, who is still adjusting to his role as starter. Jaguars 24, Colts 21 -- Mike DiRocco

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have won four consecutive games over the Jaguars in Indianapolis. It should be noted, though, that their two most recent home victories over their AFC South counterparts have been by a total of seven points. So much of Jacksonville’s fortunes this weekend will depend on the availability of rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who is averaging 99.3 yards per game rushing. The No. 4 overall pick in this year’s draft didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday because of an ankle injury suffered Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. The Jags need Fournette in some capacity to help ease the workload of quarterback Blake Bortles, who already has thrown five interceptions this season. Jacksonville’s defense is third in the NFL against the pass (166 yards) but 31st in the league in stopping the run (145.7 yards). This will be a low-scoring affair, but the Colts improve to 10-2 in their past 12 games after a loss. Colts 17, Jaguars 13 -- Mike Wells

Cardinals at Rams


Arizona Cardinals

Everyone saw Adrian Peterson run for 134 yards and two touchdowns in Arizona's Week 6 victory over Tampa Bay. The question this week is whether he can do it again. But regardless of how Arizona's offense plays, the way the Cardinals win in London is by stopping Jared Goff. The Rams are the highest-scoring team in the league and have a top-10 passing game. But with Patrick Peterson nursing a quadriceps injury and questions about Justin Bethel's status as a starter, Arizona could need others to step up on defense. Rams 27, Cardinals 24 -- Josh Weinfuss

Los Angeles Rams

Against the Jaguars in Week 6, the Rams consistently placed six players on the line of scrimmage in what looked a lot like a goal-line defense in hopes of stopping Leonard Fournette on the ground. They can't do that against the Cardinals, even though Adrian Peterson is coming off a 134-yard game against the Buccaneers. The Rams have to account for Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald too. Not to worry. The Rams, 3.5-point favorites, have a front seven that should make life difficult on the Cardinals' offensive line. Offensively, the Rams are far better than anything the Cardinals have seen from them in the recent past. Rams 27, Cardinals 24 -- Alden Gonzalez

Jets at Dolphins


New York Jets

The Jets have won four of their past five road games against the Dolphins. More important, their offense will be at full strength for the first time in a month, with the return of RB Bilal Powell. This will be an ugly, low-scoring game between two pedestrian offenses (a kind description), as neither has scored more than two touchdowns in a game. The Jets believe they can rattle Jay Cutler into a couple of turnovers, and that will be the difference. Jets 17, Dolphins 16 -- Rich Cimini

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins were embarrassed by the Jets in Week 3, and that revenge and motivation should have Miami focused at home Sunday. The Dolphins have won a franchise-record 11 consecutive games decided by seven points or fewer, and this should be another close one. Look for Miami's defense to force a pair of turnovers in an ugly game. Dolphins 17, Jets 14 -- James Walker

Ravens at Vikings


Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore has been limited to four offensive touchdowns in its past four games (going 1-3 during that stretch) and now will face a Vikings defense that yields the fifth-fewest points in the NFL. To make matters worse, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer repeatedly frustrated Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco when he was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati. Unless the Baltimore defense can force turnovers, it will be difficult for the Ravens to move the ball against Minnesota. Vikings 23, Ravens 9 -- Jamison Hensley

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings ride a two-game win streak into Week 7, including Sunday's 23-10 victory over the Packers and are 3-1 at home this season. What’s more? None of Minnesota’s victories inside U.S. Bank Stadium have been by fewer than 10 points. This top-tier defense is rolling, while Case Keenum and the offense have found a groove, even when not at full strength. Vikings 24, Ravens 14 -- Courtney Cronin

Bengals at Steelers


Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals have lost seven of their past eight games to the Steelers. However, the Bengals' defense is playing better than it has in several years and pressures quarterbacks at a league-leading rate of 34 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information. If the Bengals can pressure Ben Roethlisberger into making some errant throws, as he did in a loss to the Jaguars, they might be able to squeak out just enough points to win. Bengals 17, Steelers 14 -- Katherine Terrell

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are 4-2 despite not playing their best, and Ben Roethlisberger is eager to show his five-interception performance in his previous game at Heinz Field -- where he has 175 touchdown passes for his career -- was an aberration. The Bengals' second-ranked defense has 18 sacks in five games and will be a problem for Pittsburgh. But on the other side, quarterback Andy Dalton has two touchdowns to four interceptions in his most recent 3 games against the Steelers. The matchup favors the home team. Steelers 24, Bengals 20 -- Jeremy Fowler

Cowboys at 49ers


Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys have a 20-9 record after a bye week but are just 12-7 on the road in their first game back from a one-week break. Their two previous opponents, the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers, used 10-day breaks to their advantage in beating the Cowboys. For the 10th time since Jerry Jones purchased the team in 1989, the Cowboys are 2-3 after five games. They have made the playoffs just once after such a start. A loss to the winless Niners would not end the Cowboys’ season, but it would be debilitating, particularly if running back Ezekiel Elliott has to serve his six-game suspension at some point this season. Quarterback Dak Prescott has not been two games under .500 in his short career. Cowboys 31, 49ers 26 -- Todd Archer

San Francisco 49ers

On the day the Niners are honoring Dwight Clark, and with Joe Montana set to be in the building as well, this sets up as a game in which San Francisco could spring a surprise. However, this isn't a great matchup for the Niners, who have struggled defensively against offensive lines that don't rank near the bottom of the league. Dallas' group hasn't been its dominant self so far but has plenty of talent. If the Niners can't get a pass rush going, Dak Prescott could throw three touchdowns passes for the third consecutive game and give the Cowboys their fifth win in six games against the 49ers. Cowboys 27, 49ers 23 -- Nick Wagoner

Broncos at Chargers


Denver Broncos

The Broncos do have some injuries of concern on offense: Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is out with an ankle injury, right tackle Menelik Watson won't play unless his calf injury improves drastically into the weekend, and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was limited in practice this week. So the Broncos' chances on offense hinge on their run game -- 140 yards rushing in the season opener against the Chargers -- and whether players who wanted more opportunities to catch the ball make the most of those. Defense usually travels, as the adage goes, and there figure to be plenty of Broncos fans in the seats in a stadium where the Chargers are 0-3 this season. Broncos 24, Chargers 23 -- Jeff Legwold

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers are the pick here to make it three wins in a row. Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian is dealing with an injured left shoulder and has experienced a dip in play after his hot start, throwing four interceptions and just two touchdown passes in the Broncos' past three games. Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa will force Siemian into some mistakes Sunday, and Philip Rivers finally will get the Chargers’ offense going early. Chargers 24, Broncos 20 -- Eric Williams

Seahawks at Giants


Seattle Seahawks

Even with the Giants notching their first victory of the season in impressive fashion in Week 6, this matchup still heavily favors the Seahawks. They're coming off a bye, and their defense has started to hit its stride, allowing only 26 points over the past two games while forcing six turnovers. And the Seahawks are returning to a place where they've had nothing but success. They're 4-0 at MetLife Stadium, including their blowout win in Super Bowl XLVIII and a 23-0 shutout of the Giants that same 2013 season, when they picked off Eli Manning five times. A surging Seattle defense with a week of rest against a Giants offense without Odell Beckham Jr. is a recipe for a drama-free victory. Seahawks 27, Giants 14 -- Brady Henderson

New York Giants

The Giants dominated in Denver, but it still took three forced turnovers and a defensive touchdown for them to reach 23 points with their revamped offense, which only produced 266 total yards with its new run-first approach. The Seahawks appear primed to play a complete game for the first time this season coming off their bye week. Pete Carroll's teams have won three of their past four games after a bye. This is another tough spot for the beat-up Giants, who won't catch Seattle off guard. Seahawks 26, Giants 13 -- Jordan Raanan

Falcons at Patriots


Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are fresh off coughing up a 17-0 lead in their Week 6 loss to the Dolphins and still hear talk of them blowing a 28-3 advantage in a 34-28 overtime loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. Sunday night, they'll have a chance to exorcise those demons by winning the rematch. The Falcons and Matt Ryan need to utilize all their offensive weapons against a Patriots defense that has struggled to stop anybody while surrendering 26.5 points per game. But the Falcons won't win if they keep up a trend that has seen them outscored 72-40 this season after halftime. Look for offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to stick with the running game, with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman both averaging at least 4.5 yards per rush. And look for Sarkisian to get Julio Jones involved in the red zone, where the All-Pro receiver has been targeted just once this season, with no catches. Falcons 28, Patriots 24 -- Vaughn McClure

New England Patriots

This is the eighth time in NFL history the two Super Bowl teams meet the following regular season; the Super Bowl winner has been victorious in five of the previous seven matchups. The key will be turnovers, as the Falcons are a surprising minus-4 this season, while the Patriots -- who are allowing 325 passing yards per game, fourth-most through six games by any team in NFL history -- are plus-3. That was a stat that Falcons coach Dan Quinn pointed out, saying, "Being plus-3 in the turnover margin gives you a helluva chance to play at your best." Patriots 41, Falcons 27 -- Mike Reiss

Redskins at Eagles


Washington Redskins

Kirk Cousins can't win on Monday nights; he's 0-5. However, the Redskins quarterback has fared well in his second meeting of a season against a division opponent (4-2 record; 14 touchdowns, 3 interceptions; total QBR of 75.0). So what does all that mean? Well, the Redskins definitely have a chance to help Cousins go 1-5 on Monday nights. The problem? Injuries. Washington lost defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, and there's still uncertainty over injured starting corners Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland. If those two play, the Redskins have an excellent chance. Then it'll come down to third downs; the Redskins were 3-of-11 in the opening loss to Philly while the Eagles were 8-of-14. But the health issues are concerning. Eagles 23, Redskins 20 -- John Keim

Philadelphia Eagles

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins noted Washington’s offense looks much different from when these two teams played in the opener, with zone reads and jet sweeps added to the attack. It appears Kirk Cousins has developed more of a rhythm with his new receivers as well. The Eagles also have evolved, particularly when it comes to the ground game. They averaged 21 rushes for 78 yards over the first two games; those numbers have soared to 35 rushes for 158 yards over their four most recent outings. Washington needs this game more than Philly, but the Eagles should continue to roll on offense against a banged-up Redskins defense. Eagles 31, Redskins 27 -- Tim McManusvideo

videoCINCINNATI -- Wide receivers A.J. Green and Antonio Brown couldn’t be more different in terms of personality, but their importance to the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers is undeniable.

The star receivers could be the key to winning the game at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Green is quiet, mostly stays out of the spotlight and rarely shows emotion. Eventually, defenders "just stop talking" to him on the field because he never bothers to respond.

“That’s who I am,” Green said. “I am here to play football. I am not here to get in an arguing match and fight on the field. No need. I need all the energy I can to go out and make plays.”

One of the few times Green made a scene after scoring was in 2015, when Andy Dalton went down for the season with a broken thumb. Green caught a touchdown pass from backup AJ McCarron and proceeded to punt the football into the stands. Green is still embarrassed about it.

“Oh yeah, that was terrible. That was terrible,” he said sheepishly. “I don’t know what was going through my mind on that one.”

Brown, on the other hand, has a flair for the dramatic. He routinely comes up with touchdown dances and embraces the attention that comes with the position. His teammate Vince Williams joked on his Twitter account this week that he doesn’t even know what Brown is like away from cameras.

Green and Brown different styles have helped make them into the receivers they are today. Coming into this week, Brown was leading the NFL with 700 receiving yards, and Green was second with 504. Green has three receiving touchdowns to Brown’s two touchdowns.

“Great receiver, guy I really respect,” Green said. “He’s a hell of a player…

“Big Ben [Roethlisberger] and Antonio have a great relationship, they know each other very well. When plays break down, I feel they are the best with the scramble drill and getting open. That’s it. Ben is a Hall of Fame quarterback and Antonio is going to be a Hall of Fame receiver. They have a great relationship and great chemistry.”

A.J. GreenMark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsA.J. Green has 71 career catches and six touchdowns against the Steelers, but the Bengals are 3-8 in those 11 games.

For as good as Brown has been -- he already has four 100-yard receiving games this season -- that success hasn’t come easily against the Bengals. Brown has two regular-season 100-yard games against the Bengals in 13 tries, both of which came in 2014.

Brown’s teams are 10-3 against Cincinnati in the regular season, but the Bengals have done a relatively sound job over the years of keeping him contained. That’s not as simple as simple bracketing him in coverage.

“They've got other guys that can hurt you,” said Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther. “They're all good receivers. [Le’Veon Bell] is a good receiver out of the backfield, so you try to plan for a couple different things. But obviously he's their main targeted guy, so we understand that.”

Brown has 69 career catches for 972 yards and four touchdowns against the Bengals, but has only 97 combined yards and no touchdowns in their last two meetings.

“That’s the only number I like,” said Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who is friends with Brown off the field and respects him immensely. “I tip my hat off to my safeties because as a corner, I don’t feel like you can slow down those guys without your safeties playing great. He’s good, man. You can man up on him all day and at some point he’s going to beat you. You’ve got to have somebody like George [Iloka], Shawn [Williams] that plays the position pretty well.”

Added Steelers coach Mike Tomlin: “People are continually evolving in the way they work to minimize [Brown's] game. The older he gets, I think that’s one of the interesting things about his growth and development. He’s really become cognizant of the things that people to do minimize him, how people play him differently, and he’s trying to grow and evolve to combat some of those things.”

Antonio BrownPhoto by Mark Goldman/Icon SportswireAntonio Brown is on pace for his fifth consecutive 100-catch season for the Steelers.

Green has 71 catches for 975 yards and six touchdowns in 11 regular-season games against the Steelers.

Green doesn’t expect he’ll have a particular cornerback shadowing him this game, as the Steelers tend to stay on their sides.

“They’ve got two great corners. They play a lot of zone,” Green said. “Cover 3. They don’t need to.”

But he’s ready for the Steelers to roll extra coverage his way. The Steelers will be keying in on Green as the usually do, especially with Bengals receivers Tyler Boyd and John Ross likely out.

It’s not a coincidence that the Bengals have shown a marked improvement this season when Green has caught a touchdown pass after he went scoreless the first two weeks. If a team can take Green out of the game, their chances of winning go up dramatically.

He’s ready for it.

“Every defense's game plan is to take me away,” he said. “It's nothing I've never seen before.”

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This version of Derrick Henry finally sees the blessings of his situation. He's now getting what any running back wants -- a healthy dose of touches and opportunities to hit the end zone -- and he's found a perfect role to suit him: Titans closer.

With DeMarco Murray hampered by a right hamstring strain that leaves his status for Sunday against the Browns uncertain, Henry is likely to see his workload increase even more. He's taking advantage of it, and his success has proven to the Titans coaching staff that establishing the run sometimes feels like letting a caterpillar go through its cocoon stage, but the butterfly result is worth it.

"You got to get the tough yards first, then eventually they'll crack open," Henry said with a smile. "When that play is there, you just got to make it."

That's why Titans offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie is so adamant about sticking with the run game, sometimes stubbornly, even if it's not working. Murray and Henry are the Titans' "bread and butter" and sometimes those tough yards are required to receive the final reward.

"I feel like as the game goes on, carry after carry, I get better and better," said Henry, who averages 7.8 yards per carry in the fourth quarter where 195 of his 318 rushing yards have come. Henry also has 25 fourth-quarter carries to Murray's eight.

Derrick HenryDavid Rosenblum/Icon SportswireDerrick Henry is likely to see his workload increase this week with DeMarco Murray hampered by a hamstring strain.

Henry's 72-yard touchdown run against the Colts, which came on his favorite play called "Bounce," probably doesn't happen without Henry and Murray pounding the defense in the first half for one- or two-yard gains.

It's also worth noting that Henry's skill set causes defenses to play him differently than Murray, so he often has to balance trying to run through multiple defenders up the middle or using his instincts to try to make a higher-risk splash play. Henry sees eight-plus men in the box on 43.6-percent of his rushes, per NFL Next Gen stats, which is sixth most in the NFL. Murray faces that type of run-heavy defense on 33.8-percent of his rushes.

But the combination of the two allows them to take some pounding early and be ready to give it back late.

"DeMarco can pound them and force them to chase him. By the time Henry is at his peak, he's still fresh," Robiskie said. "Derrick says, 'Y'all tired? I'm fresh. Let's go play.'"

"He's a big man. He's a big-bodied man. He's a big-boned guy. He can run. I think he gets stronger when a lot of us get tired. In the end, that's what it is."

That may explain why 64 percent of Henry's 318 rushing yards have come after contact. His physicality comes in clutch as he's breaking through fatigued tackle attempts and delivering stiff arms and jukes to chasing defenders.

As for Sunday, Murray's status will be dependent on if he can do more than work on the treadmill as he has done during Wednesday and Thursday's practices. Coach Mike Mularkey said Murray's recovery is "very similar" to what he faced in Week 3 leading up to the Seattle game. Murray missed Wednesday and Thursday practices after tweaking his hamstring the week before and returned on a limited basis Friday before having a big game on Sunday.

Still, the Titans have contingency plans if Murray can't go -- which would include a lot of Henry. Practice-squad running back Khalfani Muhammad would also likely be called up to provide more depth behind third-string running back David Fluellen.

FRISCO, Texas -- Try as they might, the Dallas Cowboys could not win a game without Tony Romo from 2013 to '15.

They lost their winner-take-all season finale in 2013 two days after Romo had back surgery. They lost to the Arizona Cardinals in 2014 with Romo out because of two transverse process fractures. They won only one of 12 games without Romo in 2015 after he broke his collarbone twice.

Sean Lee is turning into the Romo of the Cowboys' defense.

Without Lee, the defense can't get the job done.

Since he missed the 2014 season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Cowboys have lost five in a row without Lee, dating to 2015 and including their past two games.

The good news for the Cowboys is he should return for Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers.

Sean LeeRich Kane/Icon SportswireSince 2015, the Cowboys have lost five games in a row when Sean Lee sits out, including their past two.

In the three games with Lee, the defense has given up 20.6 points per game and 4.7 yards per play. In the two games without him, it has given up 31.5 points per game (not including an interception return for a score) and 6 yards per play.

"He's our best player on defense," linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. "And everyone knows that. Whenever you don't have your best player out there, I mean there's no excuses for us, but it would help if we had Sean out there playing. That's just being real. He's our best player on defense and he makes our defense better."

Lee's value goes beyond just his ability to make plays. He gets players lined up in the correct spots if there is confusion. He is a calming influence in chaotic situations. And if Lee can't get everybody lined up in time or make sure everybody is on the same page, he can invariably make the play.

"Obviously a very, very productive player for us, very good against the run, very good against the pass. He's always around the ball," coach Jason Garrett said. "I think another area where he contributes is he's just a natural leader. Guys respond to him emotionally but also just technically when you're out on the field getting guys lined up. He's got great command of our defensive system. He's got great recognition of what opposing offenses are doing. So again, just his force when the play starts, but his presence in and around that is also significant to our team."

Lee missed two games in 2015, one because of a concussion (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and another because of a hamstring injury (Washington Redskins). The Cowboys lost both games. He was held out of last year's season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles as a precaution, similar to the decision with running back Ezekiel Elliott, and the Cowboys lost, 27-13.

The Cowboys have given up 30 or more points in back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 14 and 15 of the 2013 season. Lee suffered a neck injury in the 45-28 loss to the Chicago Bears that season, and he did not play the next week against the Green Bay Packers in which Matt Flynn lit up the defense in a 37-36 win.

The most notable area where Lee has been missed is in the run game. With Lee, the Cowboys are giving up 87.3 yards per game, and that includes a 118-yard effort by the Denver Broncos' C.J. Anderson, which Lee called the worst tackling effort he has had in his career.

In the two games without Lee, they are givnng up 164 yards per game on the ground with Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams and Aaron Jones of the Packers each going for more than 100 yards. With Lee, the Cowboys have given up four runs of 10 yards or more. Without Lee, they have given up 14 runs of 10 yards or more.

"He's a captain and he's an All-Pro player," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "But it's not just the plays he makes. It's his presence and his preparation. I think it brings a ton to us."

Lee appears ready. While working a tackling technique drill during the individual drills in Wednesday's open portion of practice to the media, Lee hit Justin March-Lillard so hard the new linebacker went to the ground.

Lee immediately apologized.

"Sean gets one of those a week," Hitchens said. "That's why he's good. He plays everything like game speed, so in order to get a game rep you've got to simulate practice as close as you can. Sometimes guys jump when you tackle them or you just finish them. But we're all just trying to get ready for a game. It's all respect. It's not him being an a--h--- or nothing. He's just ready. He's anxious. I can't wait to get back out there with him."

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When the Green Bay Packers signed Jahri Evans this offseason, they thought they were getting a dependable veteran to fill the void left by right guard T.J. Lang in free agency.

They never imagined he’d be one of only two Packers offensive linemen who hasn’t had to miss time because of an injury. How bad would things be if Evans and center Corey Linsey had been unable to play every snap, as they’ve done through six games this season?

Evans, 34 and in his 12th NFL season, has been a stabilizing force in an unstable situation. The Packers have started a different offensive line combination in each of their six games this season, and they haven’t had one group play together for even 90 plays this season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, no five-man unit for the Packers has played more than 89 snaps together this season. That group, from left tackle to right tackle, was Kyle Murphy, Lane Taylor Linsley, Evans and Justin McCray. Murphy went on injured reserve on Sept. 26 and subsequently underwent foot surgery.

Jim Matthews/Green Bay Press Gazette via USA Today SportsOne of the few dependable pieces on the Packers' injury-ravaged offensive line, Jahri Evans will help protect Brett Hundley in his first start at QB.

There are a total of 44 O-line units league-wide with more snaps than the Packers’ most-used group.

“Jahri, he’s been excellent for us. He’s been a good fit from Day 1,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “[He] brings a lot of experience, a lot of professionalism, excellent football player, so as you look at the offensive line, the cohesiveness of those guys playing together, it’s so important. The moving parts we’ve had due to injury, I think Jahri and Corey being steadfast in there, there’s a lot of stable production.”

This week, three of the Packers’ five offensive line starters are on the injury report. One of them, Taylor, hasn’t practiced yet this week because of an ankle injury. The other two, left tackle David Bakhtiari (hamstring) and right tackle Bryan Bulaga (concussion), have been limited practice participants.

And yet there’s Evans, cast off by the Saints after last season, ready to show his old team that he still can play when New Orleans comes to Lambeau Field on Sunday.

“I guess I do definitely want to show them that I can still play, [that] I'm still an elite player,” Evans said.

“Obviously there's people in that building that don't think I'm the same player that I was, and that's fine. It comes with age. I feel like I'm still an elite player in this game and I prepare like that. I try to show that in every play. It's going to be fun.”

Evans’ experience could be especially valuable now without quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the Packers huddle. With Brett Hundley to make his first NFL start on Sunday, he’ll have a right guard with 175 regular-season starts to his credit.

“Jahri’s a stud, love Jahri,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees told reporters this week. “Every guy in this locker room does. He was such a big part of our success in the past 11 years. Wish him nothing but the best. It will be funny to see him in a Green Bay uniform after being here his whole career. But he’s the best.”

The Packers will need the line to play even better for Hundley. Through six games, Rodgers and Hundley have been pressured on 32 percent of their dropbacks, sixth-highest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Hundley was pressured on 45 percent of his dropbacks last Sunday against the Vikings after Rodgers broke his

videoTAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick vacated his locker and took a few steps toward a refrigerator in the Arizona visitors locker room, giving starting quarterback Jameis Winston some room and a moment to breathe, away from reporters.

Winston had suffered a shoulder injury in the game and Fitzpatrick had stepped in to throw three touchdowns, and leading a fourth scoring drive, helping the Bucs erase a 31-0 deficit to nearly pull off an upset.

"He's one of the toughest guys I've ever played with," Fitzpatrick said of Winston. "For him to have to come out of the game, that was killing him. I just wanted to do him right. I wanted to go out there and play well for him because I know how much he loves this game and how much this team means to him. I'm upset we didn't pull off the win. I'm upset for him."

Winston was surprised by Fitzpatrick's remark.

"He played his tail off for me. I’m kind of surprised to hear that he felt like he disappointed me. He didn’t. He played his balls off," Winston said. "He fought. He fought very hard. He gave us a chance to win."

In some aspects, the two are an unlikely pairing. Winston is 23. He was the first overall draft pick and is in his third year in the league with the same team. So much of his life is still beginning. The extent of his parental responsibilities are taking care of a labradoodle named "Tootsie," whom he shares with his longtime girlfriend Breion Allen and affectionately calls his "daughter."

Fitzpatrick is 34 and is a former seventh-round draft pick now in his 13th NFL season. He's married to his college sweetheart Liza and they have five children. He just achieved a rare feat against the Cardinals, throwing a touchdown pass for seven different NFL teams, something that's only been done by three other players.

Winston is more likely to say exactly what's on his mind and is more animated; Fitzpatrick is more calculated and reserved. You don't know exactly what he's thinking until he says it. But the two share a mutual fondness, a desire to be consistent and a bond that's grown quickly. There's also a selflessness that you'll hear teammates talk about in the locker room. Both players are adamant about deflecting praise in victories.

“Jameis is always the same. He’s in here early and smiling and happy," Fitzpatrick said. "He’s really the heartbeat of this team and he knows that. For him, it’s genuine. That’s who he is.”

Jameis Winston and Ryan FitzpatrickMatt Kartozian/USA TODAY SportsRyan Fitzpatrick says Jameis Winston is one of the toughest guys he's ever played with.

Fitzpatrick takes the same pride in his own consistency.

"I try to be the same guy every day, no matter the situation, no matter the adversity," Fitzpatrick said, large in part because he knows his sons are watching. "Just in terms of the demeanor and the approach and just making sure that I’m consistent in the way I do things -- that is the biggest thing for me.”

Fitzpatrick was a starter with the New York Jets the last two seasons and in 116 out of his last 129 games, and he had wanted to continue being a starter. But he came to Tampa knowing full well that his job would be to serve as a backup and help Winston. He wouldn't get many practice reps, and that was something he had to be OK with. On game days, his job would be to hold a clipboard and to be a sounding board. He's embraced the role.

“When I signed on here, [I knew] this is Jameis’ team -- 100 percent, always," Fitzpatrick said. "For me, the biggest thing when I am out there is almost not letting him down. I know how much this means to him. I know how much him being out there means to him, so when he came out last week, that was one of the biggest things in my head. ‘All right, what can I do to not let him down?’ I’ve probably felt that way about other guys before when I’ve had to go in, but with him especially. He is a special guy. That was just kind of the overwhelming feeling I had when I was in there.”

It's the first time Winston has ever had a true veteran presence at his side. Former No. 2 QB Mike Glennon had started some games, but was still figuring out the NFL game himself. The Bucs' third quarterback the last two seasons, Ryan Griffin, hasn't played in a regular-season game.

“We probably spend more time in that quarterback room together than a lot of people spend their whole year together," Winston said of Fitzpatrick. "We definitely developed a great relationship. With him being here and doing everything that I can possibly dream of in this league, I just think it’s great to have a guy like that to look up to, to go to for guidance and to be able to lean on. He knows that I’m there for him as well."

Added head coach Dirk Koetter: "I think Ryan has said in the past, as a guy who has been on seven teams ... he’s been impressed with Jameis’ work ethic, Jameis’ passion for football [and] Jameis’ competitiveness. I think that works both ways.”

Fitzpatrick’s college coach at Harvard, Tim Murphy, believes he has the right mindset for the job.

“While I still believe Fitzy’s is one of the 15 best quarterbacks on the planet, he understands and embraces his role to be the understudy for one of the great young quarterbacks on the planet,” Murphy said. “Jameis Winston will know, ‘Fitzy’s got my back.’”

Winston's and Fitzpatrick's roles may be reversed this weekend when the Bucs travel to Buffalo to take on the Bills. Winston’s sprained AC joint may prove too painful. He may not have the velocity he needs to make to the necessary throws.

“My thought process is to play – that’s my thought process," said Winston, who's never missed a game at any level due to injury. It won't be solely up to him, however. It'll be a collective decision with input from him, the coaching staff and the training staff.

If they determine that Winston can't go? It'll be his turn to step aside and let Fitzpatrick have his moment.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In what they hope will be an improved pursuit of touchdowns, the Denver Broncos will be required to play a little "mix and match" on offense Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy consistently has said he’s comfortable using any player in uniform to put together groupings that will help the Broncos put points on the board. This weekend, because of the team’s injuries at wide receiver and right tackle, McCoy will get the chance to test those words at a time when the Broncos are just 2-of-11 in their past three games at converting trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line into touchdowns.

“We have a lot of talented players, so we’re going to try to spread the wealth as much as we can,” McCoy said.

Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders (right ankle) and Isaiah McKenzie (right ankle) both will miss the game, while Cody Latimer hasn’t practiced in several weeks because of a knee injury. Demaryius Thomas, who had X-rays taken on a lower right leg injury during the third quarter of Sunday night’s loss to the Giants before returning to the game, was held out of Wednesday’s practice and was limited on Thursday.

Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesWith the Broncos' wide receiver depth chart depleted, more will be asked of Bennie Fowler, who hasn't caught a touchdown since Week 1.

And while Broncos coach Vance Joseph has said he believes Thomas will play Sunday, the Broncos will need players such as wide receivers Bennie Fowler and Jordan Taylor, tight end A.J. Derby and their three running backs -- C.J. Anderson, Jamaal Charles and Devontae Booker -- to figure more prominently in the passing game.

Sanders is second on the team in targets (42), catches (25) and receiving yards (266), and he is tied for the team lead in touchdown catches with two. That’s a lot to replace at least in the short term.

Most of that will fall to Fowler, who had both of his touchdown catches this season in the season opener against the Chargers. Fowler has played as the No. 3 receiver, but he figures to get an increase in his workload as long as Sanders is out of the lineup.

“Bennie’s a smart guy. He knows what to do and that’s half the battle,’’ Joseph said. Asked if Fowler is ready for something closer to a leading role, Joseph added, “He has no choice.’’

“I feel like I’m prepared to play,’’ Fowler said. “Every day, you have to prepare like it’s going to be your turn. You can’t wait to be ready.’’

The Broncos also are expected to have to fill in for an injured Menelik Watson at right tackle. Watson, who left Sunday’s game with a calf injury, has yet to practice this week. Donald Stephenson has worked with the starters this week, but Joseph has said Allen Barbre could play at right tackle as well if needed.

“We have a lot of confidence in the guys we have,’’ McCoy said. “You always ask through the training camp and through the preseason games, do you rotate guys during games in certain positions? This is why, to get those guys ready. We have a lot of confidence in the guys that we have.’’video

Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

PITTSBURGH -- The NFL’s most relentless pursuers are not hard-hitting safeties, but mild-mannered dudes in khakis handing out drug tests.

Pittsburgh Steelers punter Jordan Berry found this out the uncomfortable way. Berry was in the dorm-room bathroom during training camp at St. Vincent College when the NFL drug test supervisor came calling.

Sort of.

“He knocks on the door, Boz [kicker Chris Boswell] is answering and I’m like, ‘Well, I have to wait now,’” Berry said. “They came looking for me and I’m already on the toilet. You’ve got three hours to do it, so I chugged some fluids.”

The untold secret in NFL locker rooms is the process of getting drug-tested can be weirdly invasive, especially in the offseason, when players can be randomly tested up to six times.

Testers are always lurking, and not just at your front door. They will track you on vacation, and to the ends of the earth.

“They don’t care where you are,” Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats said.

Interviews with several Steelers affirm growing suspicions over the timing of performance-enhancing drug tests -- say, after a good performance or a killer workout documented on social media -- and define what work-life balance really means for NFL players.

Party at grammy's

Don’t mess with Peggy Thomas.

Moats was visiting his grandmother in rural Virginia one offseason when the league informed him of his next-day test at around 6 a.m.

“She was like, ‘Who is this man pulling up to our house?’” Moats said. “He got the look.”

The man in khakis and a polo shirt walked into the home carrying a black box and directed Moats to the bathroom. The test supervisor usually breaks up the urine into "A" and "B" samples, which was a clumsy task in grammy’s house.

“Dealing with piss right on the [living room] table,” Moats said. “It was weird.”

This is normalcy for NFL players, who draw random tests from the league’s computer-generated system.

In season, a player gets a notice hanging from his locker that it's testing day. Out of season, the player gets a call and is expected to respond promptly. Or, as guard Ramon Foster recalls, the dialogue basically starts and stops with: “You’ve got a drug test tomorrow. Where you at?”

The NFL has testers positioned all over the country.

Kicker Chris Boswell found this out when he got a call for a morning test while on vacation in Hawaii.

Turns out Boswell made a new friend.

“He was actually a Hawaiian firefighter who does it as a side job when athletes come on vacation,” Boswell said. “Nice guy.”

A test supervisor, whom Berry said is typically a mild-mannered male, hands the player a cup to do his business. Once business is done, he labels the samples, asks the player to sign something and is on his way.

After that, silence is good.

“You don’t want to hear back,” said wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who served a yearlong suspension for substance-abuse violations.

Shelley Lipton/Icon SportswireMartavis Bryant has gotten to know the NFL's drug-testing proxies all too well.

Linebacker Vince Williams almost expects a call from the league whenever he takes his family on vacation.

“You say, ‘Well, I’m in Orlando. They say, ‘Well, we’re going to contact the Orlando [supervisor] and they’ll come to you.’ It happens like that,” Williams said. “They kill you, too, because let’s say you’re not where you think you’re going to be at, or you’re on a boat fishing and you have a certain amount of hours to take this test, now you’re screwed.”

Suspicions raised

Williams recalls rarely getting tested for performance-enhancing drugs while training in Central Florida for his first three NFL offseasons.

This spring, he switched it up and worked out with the NFL’s most fibrous man, James Harrison, in Arizona.

“And I got drug-tested a lot,” Williams said. “I don’t know how random that is, but it is interesting.”

Williams is inside the growing circle of players who find the timing of league tests, at the least, curious.

A league source tells ESPN that the NFLPA has sensed a spike in player complaints the past few years over random tests following big gains in the gym or on the field.

Basically, stories similar to Colts punter Pat McAfee's -- who in 2016 tweeted he received a "random" drug test the day after a booming 67-yard punt -- are becoming less of an outlier.

Requests sent to the NFL and NFLPA for further comment were not immediately returned.

Here’s how the testing process works:

* An independent arbitrator jointly selected by the NFL and NFLPA directs the program, which randomly selects players based on a computer program. That means neither the league nor the players have control over the testing.

* According to the collective bargaining agreement, up to 10 players per team are tested every week during the preseason, regular season and postseason. In the offseason, a player can be tested up to six times.

* The "reasonable cause" program can target certain players, including those who failed a drug test in college, but they must be notified that they are in it.

“Some guys go all year and don’t get a random test,” Harrison said. “Some guys get tested five, six, seven, eight, nine times.”

Harrison falls into the latter category. The man who draws millions of Instagram followers to videos displaying his amazing feats of strength said he has been tested more times than he can count.

In August 2016, Harrison was absolved by the league after its investigation of an Al-Jazeera America report (which was debunked by the source) linking Harrison and others to performance-enhancing drug use.

Players say that even a mere affiliation with Harrison can make the process feel calculated.

Safety Mike Mitchell has a similar story to Williams. He calls it “odd” that he got tested a day after publicly discussing the gains he made while working out with Harrison in Arizona. He declined to comment beyond that.

Harrison assumes testers monitor his workouts but doesn't know for sure. What he does know? More consistency would be nice.

“They can do whatever they want to,” Harrison said of the testing system. “If I pick out, say, 10 people and I say, 'You know what, I want to test these 10 people.' Well, you can’t do that. But, if I say, 'I want to randomly select nine of them,' it goes through a random selection. If you go by the letter of the law, that’s what you can do. I don’t know if that’s what they do, it’s what they can do.

“I don’t care about them testing me, I really don’t. I just want them to test everybody the same. That’s all.”

The concept of a "random" test is vague enough for Harrison to question the configuration of it, though he figures he won’t get clarity any time soon. Harrison believes anything can be made random, “All I have to do is change the process by which I do it,” he said.

A player’s only recourse is to stay clean and hope “the shield” treats you fairly, Williams said.

“Back in the day, you couldn’t really look and see how people were training,” Williams said. “Now, you have a ridiculous type of athlete in the NFL. Those people are putting those athletic feats on display via social media on Instagram and Snapchat. It piques the curiosity of people who are looking to catch people that might be taking advantage of some loopholes. It’s my understanding they can do whatever they want to do.”

The 'random deal'

This offseason, Bryant was working on his 2017 return and following his league-administered substance-abuse program when he accidentally missed a performance-enhancing drug test scheduled in Los Angeles.

That, Bryant said, placed him in the steroid program simultaneously. Bryant was in that program for about six months and is out now.

He was already undergoing two to three "weed tests" per week. Coupled with enhanced steroid testing, Bryant got to know the league's testing supervisor too well.

It’s part of the job now.

“Whatever city I go in, I have to let them know,” Bryant said. “Give them the sample and go about your day.”

Bryant said he gained 10-15 pounds of muscle this offseason and did so organically. But he has wondered if his size will prompt more steroid tests in the future.

“If you gain a certain amount of weight, they might think you’re doing something,” Bryant said. “But it doesn’t matter. It’s a random deal.”

And then there’s Foster, who as a player rep is turned off by the suspicion conversation.

After all, players facing potential drug suspensions is another example of a league that specializes in "nonsense," Foster said.

“Why have so much negativity brought upon our league?” Foster said. “Nobody else broadcasts suspensions the way we do. Nobody tells about guys getting fined the way we do. Brighten the league. That’s front-office stuff.”

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Is Mike Wallace a diva? The Baltimore Ravens wide receiver joked that it depends on the time of the day.

Does he harbor any hard feelings in going back to Minnesota on Sunday? Not according to Wallace.

"It's my second year here. That's the kind of stuff you go through like your first year you go somewhere," Wallace said. "I don't care. I don't have no problems with those guys. I had great teammates, great coaches when I was there. The situation just didn't work out. Sometimes it goes like that."

Despite a back injury that sidelined him for Thursday's practice, Wallace expects to play his first game in Minnesota since he was cut by the Vikings 19 months ago. It's a return to the low point of his nine-year career.

In 2015, his only season with the Vikings, Wallace tied a career low with 39 catches and set personal worsts in receiving yards (473) and touchdowns (two). He was considered a loyal soldier in Minnesota even as he expressed private frustrations about his role in the offense. Protection problems didn't allow for many downfield throws, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater missed Wallace on several deep shots.

The Vikings didn't get the production they expected in trading a fifth-round pick for Wallace, but it doesn't sound like this was a bitter divorce.

Mike Wallace, Reggie NelsonAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezRavens wideout Mike Wallace eludes Raiders safety Reggie Nelson during his three-catch, 133-yard outing in Week 5.

“I really loved Mike Wallace," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said this week. "He worked really hard; he was a great kid. He obviously didn’t get the catches that he wanted to get, but he worked hard every day, was a good team guy in the locker room, and he was a good guy. I mean, everything about him was good. I couldn’t say any bad words about him."

Wallace, 31, heads back to Minnesota looking to get his season back on track. Through six games, he has 15 catches for 239 yards receiving and one touchdown.

It was a few weeks ago when Wallace playfully made the point that he wanted more passes his way. He repeatedly told reporters that he "needs the rock."

Does Wallace's teammates consider him a diva?

"He is not one of those real [divas], like the ones you hear about back in the day, the Michael Irvins," cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "But he’s definitely diva-ish."

On Thursday, Wallace didn't back down from his campaign to get the ball more. He's on pace for 72 targeted passes this season, which would equal the amount of throws he saw in Minnesota.

If there's one stat that supports Wallace's vocal desire to see more passes, it's this one: There are 78 players who've been targeted more this season than Wallace.

"I play a position where that's what you do: You get the ball [and] you make plays," Wallace said. "That's anybody in the league. I don't care if you find the nicest wide receiver in the league. If he's not getting the ball, he's going to get upset and frustrated."

Quarterback Joe Flacco, whose locker is next to Wallace's, thinks it's in a wide receiver's makeup to have that mindset.

"Mike’s a great, great locker-room guy," Flacco said. "Any of that stuff, in terms of being a diva -- no, not at all. Mike’s great; he’s a ton of fun. He’s out here [at practice] catching touchdowns, throwing the ball up against the pads over there. That’s just who he is; it’s how he gets himself going. We love it. So no, I love Mike, and the opinion that I formed of him has been nothing but good."

Wallace had fun with reporters when asked if he was a diva.

"It probably depends on how I'm feeling at the time. I might feel like a diva at 2:45 [p.m.]," Wallace said while taking a glance at the clock. "Who knows? It's 2:41 [p.m.] right now. You got four minutes. I might feel differently. You never know."

Sheldon Richardson trying to find 'groove' on Seahawks defense

October, 20, 2017
Oct 20

videoRENTON, Wash. -- Sheldon Richardson popped over to the corner of the Seattle Seahawks locker room where the specialists reside. He had to ask punter Jon Ryan, kicker Blair Walsh and long-snapper Tyler Ott the burning hypothetical question that had been making the rounds Wednesday.

If you could only afford one of your electricity bill, your phone bill or your car payment, which would you pay?

Electricity bill was an easy call for Richardson, who has a young daughter at home, but he was amused by receiver Doug Baldwin’s answer, too.

“He said, ‘I can Uber to work and I can stay at one of ya’ll cribs,’” Richardson said. “He’d pay his phone bill.”

Richardson, by all accounts, has had no trouble assimilating into the Seahawks’ locker room since he was acquired in a trade with the New York Jets at the end of the preseason. But as Richardson reflected on his first month and a half with his new team, he told that his adjustment to Seattle’s defense remains a work in progress.

“Still transitioning, actually,” Richardson said. “Different things every week. Just getting accustomed to playing with guys still in different situations and trying to find my groove where I can make plays. I’m just doing my job as of right now. I’m not really as productive as I’m used to being.”

That’s not to say he’s been unproductive. Richardson had a hand in two of the most impactful defensive plays of Seattle’s last game, a 16-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams before the bye week. He intercepted a tipped pass after deftly sniffing out a screen and he recovered a fumble to help the Seahawks (3-2) pitch a shutout in the second half.

But Richardson, who had 18 sacks in four seasons with the Jets, has yet to record one in five games with Seattle. Of his 12 tackles, none have been for a loss. He’s been credited with two quarterback hits while playing about 67 percent of Seattle’s defensive snaps, second only to Michael Bennett among Seahawks defensive linemen, according to Pro Football Reference.

Those are underwhelming numbers relative to what Richardson produced in New York, and to the expectations that accompanied his arrival in Seattle.

Part of the issue, it seems, is that it’s taking Richardson time to adjust to a Seattle defense that’s fundamentally different than the one in New York. Richardson played in a 3-4 front with the Jets, first under Rex Ryan and then Todd Bowles. He was often asked to do what’s called two-gap, a technique that calls for defensive linemen to control two gaps in the line, as opposed to one.

Sheldon RichardsonJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesSheldon Richardson played in a 3-4 with the Jets and is still adjusting to being a 4-3 defensive lineman in Seattle.

Generally speaking, a two-gapping defensive linemen will line up directly across from an offensive lineman, not shaded to one side. While reading the play, he’ll stay square and hold his ground as to not lose leverage on one gap or the other.

It’s a different job for a defensive tackle in Seattle’s 4-3 front.

“With 4-3, we want penetration, single-gap dominance and things like that,” defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. “The more we penetrate, the more we knock people back and create a new line of scrimmage, the faster the guys behind them can play.”

Asked about the impact that Richardson has had so far, Richard called him “awesome” and reiterated a point he’s made several times, which is that Richardson is a different caliber of athlete than what Seattle has had at that position in the last few seasons. Then he volunteered that “we've got to get the two-gap ideology out of him” and said Richardson has been progressing in that regard.

Richardson said it’s “annoying” that he hasn’t produced as much as he'd like.

“But I mean, we’re winning,” he said, “so I don’t really care.”

When the Seahawks acquired Richardson for a package that included a second-round pick and receiver Jermaine Kearse, it followed a pattern of bold trades by general manager John Schneider. He had previously swung blockbuster deals for Percy Harvin and Jimmy Graham, both of which cost Seattle first-round picks and more.

The difference: The Seahawks gave Harvin a long-term deal upon trading for him, and when they acquired Graham, they inherited a contract that still had three seasons left. Those players were under club control for a while; Richardson is not. He’s playing out the fifth and final year of his rookie deal, which means he’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season.

“Let the Lord take the wheel on that one, man,” he said about his future beyond 2017. “That’s it. That’s how I am. That’s it. Keep working.”

Richardson, who’s making a little over $8 million this season, might price himself out of Seattle, given all the money the Seahawks are spending on defense. But it’s not impossible to envision a scenario in which he’s re-signed. Schneider wouldn’t have given up a second-round pick if he didn’t think there would at least be a chance to keep Richardson beyond 2017.

There will be a number of factors in play, as always. A big one will be the status of defensive lineman Malik McDowell, who was seriously injured in a summer ATV accident. The Seahawks traded for Richardson after learning that McDowell, their first draft pick in 2017, would be sidelined for an extended time, possibly his entire rookie season, if not longer.

The Seahawks believed Richardson would have the impact they hoped McDowell would give them. Richardson's transition to Seattle’s defense is taking time, but coach Pete Carroll sees progress.

“You can see he’s much freer, much more in control of what’s going on and he understands the calls and what we’re trying to get out of him,” Carroll said. “He had a great game the last time out and hopefully we can just keep building on that.”

videoThe Atlanta Falcons have 35 players on their roster who were on the Super Bowl LI team. The New England Patriots have 36. The numbers are a good reminder of the year-to-year turnover for NFL teams, and they help explain why this isn't really a "Super Bowl rematch." That's not to say the Super Bowl doesn't have significance, as head coaches Dan Quinn and Bill Belichick acknowledged the game has been a significant part of the game-planning process. But it only goes so far because 2017 has created new challenges for both clubs, specifically the Falcons' offense and Patriots' defense, which entered Super Bowl LI as the No. 1 units in the NFL.

Patriots defense

Biggest difference since the Super Bowl: Big plays are being given up at an alarming rate, with opponents having totaled 26 passing plays of 20 yards or more. They gave up 44 all of last season. NBC studio analyst Tony Dungy said, "I've coached against a lot of Bill Belichick defenses, and I've never seen one give up this many big plays." Furthermore, the Patriots ranked first in the NFL in limiting yards after the catch (4.05 average) in 2016, but this season they are 29th with opponents averaging 5.96. Why the change? The secondary, in particular, has been wildly inconsistent. That's been somewhat puzzling because the only personnel change from last season has been top free-agent signing Stephon Gilmore taking Logan Ryan's spot, which was supposed to be an upgrade at cornerback. Malcolm Butler has also had some boom-or-bust moments. A more consistent pass rush could help out as well. Other defensive players who played in Super Bowl LI who are no longer on the roster include linebacker Shea McClellin (injured reserve), defensive end Rob Ninkovich (retired), linebacker Barkevious Mingo (Colts), defensive end Jabaal Sheard (Colts), defensive end Chris Long (Eagles) and defensive tackle Vincent Valentine (IR).

Outlook for the rest of the season: History says the Patriots generally improve as the season progresses, but there are concerning signs. Opponents are completing 66 percent of their passes, averaging 324.8 passing yards per game and 8.6 yards per attempt. The Patriots have allowed 300-yard passing games six times this season, which is double the next team in the NFL. McClellin and Valentine can still return from IR, which would help the front seven, but the real question is if the Patriots can get better play out of their top cornerbacks -- Gilmore, Butler and Eric Rowe -- to cut down on the big plays. If they don't, it's going to continue to be a bumpy ride and they will have to rely on creating turnovers and a bend-but-don't-break philosophy that tightens things up in the red zone. The formula has worked for the Patriots in the past, and it isn't like there is a team in the NFL that is a clear-cut favorite, so Super Bowl hopes remain intact despite the surprising struggles. It helps, of course, to have quarterback Tom Brady, tight end Rob Gronkowski and Co. providing more margin for error for the D. -- Mike Reiss

Falcons offense

Biggest difference since the Super Bowl: For starters, the Falcons have a new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, who took over after Kyle Shananan left. The Falcons kept the same basic principles of Shanahan's outside-zone blocking scheme, but Sarkisian put in some new wrinkles. The players seem to still be adjusting after five games. The Falcons have lacked the explosive plays -- what they define as 16-plus-yard pass plays and 12-plus-yard runs -- they grew accustomed to last season. Case in point is reigning MVP Matt Ryan being 4-of-18 (22.2 percent) for 201 yards with two touchdowns and an interception on throws 20-plus yards down the field. Through five games last season, he was 11-of-18 (61.1 percent) for 460 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions on such throws. Part of it has to do with Ryan not having a lot of time to work with speedy receivers Julio Jones (foot surgery) and Taylor Gabriel (lower leg) leading into the season because of injuries. Part of it has to do with protection breakdowns. And part of it has to do with not sticking to the ground game with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, considering how that opens up play-action passes and downfield shots. Turnovers also have been an issue, with Ryan committing seven already, although he's not at fault for all of them. He has six interceptions, one less than he had in 16 games last season. All of this has contributed to the Falcons scoring 24.2 points per game after leading the league at 33.8 points per game a year ago.

Outlook for the rest of the season: What shouldn't go unnoticed about the Falcons' early-season offensive struggles is that they've faced two of the top scoring defenses -- Buffalo (first at 14.8 points per game) and Miami (third at 16.8 points per game). They should find immediate relief against a Patriots defense that yields 26.5 points per game, ranked 30th in the league. Four of the opponents remaining on the schedule -- the Patriots, Buccaneers, Saints and Cowboys -- all surrender more than 23 points per game. And all but the Cowboys of that group rank in the bottom five in pass defense. The Falcons should make significant strides if they remain healthy, especially if there's a renewed emphasis on the running game and getting Jones more touches. He leads the Falcons with 25 receptions but doesn't have a touchdown catch, which is surprising because Sarkisian emphasized getting Jones more involved in the red zone. The Falcons just have to gain more offensive possessions and more trips into the red zone to take advantage of playmakers such as Jones. Quinn moved Sarkisian from the field up to the coaching booth with hopes of faster communication and a better overall view for calling the game. -- Vaughn McClure

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery has had a rather quiet start to the 2017 season -- for a projected No. 1 wide receiver, anyway.

Jeffery ranks 41st in receptions (24), 26th in yards (317) and is tied for 25th in touchdowns (two). He is on pace to finish the season with 64 catches, 845 yards and five TDs. Those aren't far off from his totals from each of his past two seasons with the Chicago Bears, and he missed a combined 11 games over that time.

Alshon JefferyKyle Ross/Icon SportswireHis numbers aren't exactly eye-popping, but opponents and teammates alike can see that receiver Alshon Jeffery is opening things up for the Eagles offense.

The numbers don't tell the whole story, though, as Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden explained Thursday.

"I think there's too many fantasy football players in the world," Gruden said. "When you look at Alshon, he's a threat on the outside and makes people play more zone then they might want to, which opens it up for LeGarrette Blount and maybe opens it up for the underneath guys, for Zach Ertz or [Brent] Celek or [Nelson] Agholor. There's a lot of things he does when he doesn't catch the ball that's very effective, and when he does get the opportunity he makes big plays, especially down the field, high-points the ball extremely well like he did against Kansas City, like he's done throughout his career. He's always a threat to go deep, and he's got the physical hands to go across the middle. So I don't think Philadelphia or anybody is worried about his fantasy numbers."

Jeffery said he sees it the same way.

"Whatever it takes for us to win, just opening it up for another guy. But we all feel like that," the 27-year-old said. "One shine, we all shine.

"That's how I really, genuinely feel. Because if we're winning, everyone gets to shine. If one person is doing well, I mean, I don't know the stats of most people, but if you look at it, if one person is really killing it, I don't know if their team is doing too well. That's like basketball: If someone is shooting 50, 40 shots, I don't know if their team is doing well."

To Jeffery's point, quarterback Carson Wentz has been distributing the ball fairly evenly, and it's proved effective. Receivers Torrey Smith (25), Agholor (30) and Jeffery (48) have all been targeted a decent amount. Tight end Ertz (53) leads the team in that category. Collectively, they're part of an offense that ranks third in yards per game (383.2).

"I see it a lot [of unselfishness] with this team," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "Don't get me wrong, there's times where I'll walk by and pat a guy on the butt if I know he didn't get as many balls as he was wanting that week and I'll say, ‘Hey, hang in there, it's a long season. Your game is coming. You're going to catch 10 next week or have this many yards next week.’ Just trying to say things that you know are true, and I know they're true because I've seen it happen so many times. That's just the nature of the game when you have a quarterback who's just looking to run the offense, distribute the ball where it's supposed to go. We're designing things so that the ball is going to get spread out. Yes, we're trying to create certain matchups and hit certain things on big plays, so on, so forth. But that is the way it's designed and supposed to be for the time being."

Given that the offense is working well and the Eagles are 5-1 heading into Monday night's visit from the Redskins (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), it's tough to argue with the approach.

Jeffery is on a one-year, $9.5 million deal. He can make an additional $4.5 million in incentives, so there are plenty of reasons to put up good numbers beyond making fantasy football players happy. And big stats will help lead to a big payday this offseason. For now, though, Jeffery seems content in his current role.

"I'm happy, man. I feel great. I love it here in Philly," he said. "We're winning. Let's keep this thing rolling."

SUNBURY-ON-THAMES, England -- There’s horsepower.

Then there’s Adrian Peterson power.

They may not be all that different.

After Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer said he could hear Peterson’s feet as he began running behind him.

Kevin French/Icon SportswireAdrian Peterson's running style has had a dramatic effect on his new teammates.

“He’s putting so much force into the ground with every step,” Palmer said. “With a cut, when he’s going to sprint, he’s just different.

“He’s very unique. He’s one of one. He runs so differently and so angry, I guess would be describing it. He runs with so much violence, every run, inside zone, outside zone.”

While Palmer may be the closest player to Peterson on every play, the Cardinals’ offensive line knew exactly what Palmer was talking about when it came to Peterson, who ran for 134 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.

“I can feel him, too,” right guard Earl Watford said.

“I don’t know how much more force you can put into the ground and create as much explosion as he does,” left tackle D.J. Humphries said. “That dude is something special.”

Peterson has a “look in his eyes,” longtime friend and teammate Larry Fitzgerald said, when he gets into the huddle, which brings added energy.

But Peterson isn’t just all power. He has some quickness, too.

Humphries, who helped spring Peterson for his 27-yard touchdown run in the first quarter on Sunday, said he heard Peterson whiz by him.

He’s unlike anybody Humphries has seen.

“If you break down the play you could see me blocking, blocking, blocking, then like as soon as he runs by me, I do like that [turns head quickly] because I felt like somebody was about to run into me or something,” Humphries said. “He was shot out of a cannon.”

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Alex Smith did about all he could reasonably do to get the Kansas City Chiefs a victory Thursday night. He threw for 342 yards and three touchdowns, and the Chiefs led the Oakland Raiders by six points when he left the field for the last time.

But he wasn’t out there when the game was ultimately decided. The Raiders drove 85 yards in the final 2½ minutes, the touchdown that gave them a 31-30 victory coming as time had expired.

The feeling was for Smith as helpless as it might sound. The back and forth of the final five plays was extreme. The Raiders lost one TD on a video review and another on a pass interference penalty. The Chiefs lost what would have been two game-ending incomplete passes to holding penalties.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images"There's no time to reflect," Alex Smith said of the Chiefs' loss. "All of that stuff means nothing at this point. That's for after the season."

Then came Michael Crabtree's 2-yard touchdown pass from Derek Carr. No penalties, but there was a lengthy video review to determine that it was indeed a touchdown.

"Just watching, just rooting," Smith said. "You’re a fan at that point, rooting for our defense. There were so many close plays out there.

"Several times they're thinking [the Chiefs had won]. How could you not? Multiple times you were thinking, we lost it, we won. We lost it, we won it."

Like many of his teammates, Smith was frustrated by some of the officials’ calls. Oakland wide receiver Amari Cooper appeared to push Chiefs cornerback Terrance Mitchell on his 38-yard touchdown catch early in the game.

Then the Chiefs were penalized on those back-to-back plays immediately before the winning score.

"I hate seeing all the flags at the end," Smith said. "I think that’s the one thing, [that] you want to let your guys play and you don’t want the refs involved as much as possible. That second-to-last play, the ball got thrown out of the end zone and they called defensive holding and it’s not even close to the play.

"Obviously, flagrant things have to be called. There are rules. You have got to play to the rules, no question. I think there was a bunch of contact all night with balls that went downfield. If you wanted to, you could find a foul on every play."

The ending ruined an otherwise big game from Smith, who until the Chiefs lost their lead appeared only to bolster his already strong case to be NFL MVP. Smith didn't throw an interception, and two of his three touchdown passes went for more than 60 yards.

But Smith’s play Thursday night turned out to be something less than the big story.

"There’s no time to reflect," Smith said. "You’re coming off a loss. You’re in the middle of the season. All of that stuff means nothing at this point. That’s for after the season."



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