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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers has been “medically cleared to return” to action after missing seven games with a broken right collarbone, the Green Bay Packers quarterback announced on Instagram Tuesday night.

Rodgers was hurt Oct. 15 during a loss to Minnesota. He returned to practice Dec. 2 and is eligible to rejoin the 53-man roster Friday, which means the two-time MVP could suit up for Green Bay’s game Sunday at Carolina.

“It’s been a long road … but I’m happy to say I’ve been medically cleared to return,” Rodgers wrote Tuesday night. “Thanks for all the love, support, prayers and well wishes over the past 8 weeks and a big thank you to Dr. (Pat) McKenzie and our incredible training staff.”

The Packers (7-6) likely need to win their final three games to make the playoffs.

Rodgers had his collarbone scanned Monday morning. That afternoon, with the team in the middle of game-planning for Carolina, coach Mike McCarthy wasn’t sure whether Rodgers or backup Brett Hundley would be his quarterback.

“I’d like to know as soon as possible,” McCarthy said. “Frankly, it’s best for Aaron to know as soon as possible. He’s the one that has to get ready and, obviously, in his mind he’s ready to go if you watch him practice and the conversations with him. But this is a medical decision and Dr. McKenzie is in touch with a number of different medical experts and they’re evaluating the information.”

Those meetings ran deep into Tuesday before a conclusion was reached.

The Packers were 4-2 in Rodgers’ six starts, including the Minnesota game, where he was hurt on the second possession on a hit by Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr. In the three prior games, he threw 10 touchdown passes with only one interception in in consecutive victories over Cincinnati, Chicago and Dallas.

After playing the Panthers, who at 9-4 are in position for the top NFC wild card, the Packers have a rematch against NFC North-leading Minnesota before finishing the season at Detroit. Green Bay’s final three opponents have a combined record of 26-13.

The Packers went 3-4 in Hundley’s seven starts, including back-to-back overtime wins over Tampa Bay and Cleveland that kept their playoff hopes alive and made Rodgers’ return a tantalizing possibility.

“We’ve got a chance,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said after Sunday’s victory at Cleveland. “We know what the magic number is. We still have everything in front of us. It’s go time.”

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Jameis Winston

Jameis Winston

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers continued to self-destruct on Sunday. Their offense was wildly inconsistent, and it started with quarterback Jameis Winston, who accounted for three turnovers in a 24-21 loss to the Detroit Lions that dropped them to 4-9.

In Winston’s second game back from injury, he threw two interceptions and had a lost fumble, setting up 14 points for the Lions. A franchise quarterback should not turn the ball over this much in a game at home when he’s fully-healthy.

The first interception came on second-and-9 in the second quarter. Rolling out of the pocket, Winston underthrew wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and cornerback Darius Slay cut in to take it. The takeaway set up a Lions touchdown by Golden Tate. While Winston’s pass was poorly thrown, Jackson didn’t appear to put much effort into the route.

“Twenty-three (Slay) made a great play,” Winston said. “I have to make a better throw or not throw it at all. Mike [Evans] was coming over late from the backside. I need to make a better decision there.”

Winston’s second pick came on the opening drive of the third quarter. Trying to hit tight end O.J. Howard on a seam route. He instead saw his pass land in the hands of cornerback Quandre Diggs, whom Winston and Koetter both believe got away with pass interference. Howard would have been in position to make the catch otherwise.

“I’m confident in saying that Jameis thought [O.J.] was going to be able to run by,” Koetter said. “Jameis thought [O.J.] was going to be able to get through the corner and safety there — that’s what it looked like to me, but I [was] looking at it from the side view.”

Winston might have been charged with a third interception when a pass intended for Jackson bounced out of the receiver’s hands and was recovered by Diggs, but the call was reversed and the play ruled an incomplete pass. Later, Winston fumbled as he was sacked at the Detroit 45-yard line, setting up another Lions touchdown.

“Listen, I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. They have a defense that plays too,” Winston said. “I know it’s a big thing of me ‘doing too much to try to make a play’ but that happens in the NFL. Obviously I have to do a better job of taking care of the football. The other turnovers — I can’t control those but I can definitely control mine and those three were very bad on me.”

Winston has now turned the ball over 53 times in 42 career games — second only to Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles since 2015. Last week against the Green Bay Packers, Winston’s fumble was returned by Dean Lowry for a touchdown that proved the difference-maker in a game that went into overtime.

He was able to deliver two touchdowns in the second half against the Lions: a 2-yard pass at the beginning of the fourth quarter on third-and-goal, with Howard selling the block and out-running a defensive end to the corner of the end zone; and then, off play-action, Winston found offensive tackle Leonard Wester (who had checked in as an eligible receiver) for another 2-yard touchdown, tying the game at 21-21.

“We still fought back and [had] a chance at this game,” Winston said. “If we score on those drives and don’t turn it over, it’s a different story. I have to do a better job of taking care of the football.”

It wasn’t just on Winston. At the end of the first quarter, Howard fumbled a 21-yard catch at the Detroit 17-yard line that was recovered by Diggs. Running back Doug Martin, who had a 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, fumbled on third-and-1 late in the second quarter when the Bucs were at the Lions’ 23-yard line with a chance to tie it up just before halftime.

“It’s definitely frustrating, it’s definitely frustrating,” said Martin, who said that he needed to have the ball closer to his body on the play. “We’ve talked about protecting the ball all year and we’ve done a decent job of it, but this game, definitely not so.”

After Sunday’s loss, coupled with what happened in Green Bay last week, however, the Bucs now have 20 turnovers for the season, tied for fifth-most in the league.

They also have 83 penalties — 17th in the league — although no number can speak to the untimeliness of an illegal use of hands by Caleb Benenoch wiping out a 15-yard catch by Evans on a two-minute drive. Or the false start penalty with the game tied late in the fourth quarter. Or what happened last week when Evan Smith’s penalty killed the Bucs’ two-minute drill, instead sending them into overtime. Those penalties can’t happen, especially with the defense so short-handed.

Five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, their best pass-rusher, left the game in the second quarter with a right shoulder/biceps injury. Already struggling to get pressure even with a healthy McCoy, the defense had to rely on a back end that arguably has been even more inconsistent than the offense this year.

It was, however, able to generate three takeaways, with interceptions from cornerback Brent Grimes and Robert McClain and a fumble recovery from linebacker Lavonte David — holding the Lions to 10 points in the second half. A 46-yard field goal by Matt Prater won the game.

The Bucs were gifted by the schedule gods to play three of their four final games at home. A strong finish to a very rocky Year 3 could go a long way toward helping stoke confidence in Winston that has been waning. For Koetter, he needs all the help he can get to stick around for another year, and he didn’t get that Sunday.

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Kansas City Chiefs

Kansas City Chiefs

The Oakland Raiders will hit the road this weekend to begin the final quarter of the regular season against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 10 at 10:00 a.m. PT. Sunday’s game will conclude the season series between these two longtime AFC West rivals, as the Raiders won their first matchup in Oakland back in October.

DEPTH CHART | WATCH ONLINE ON DEMAND WITH GAME PASS

Here is the Game Preview, presented by 95.7 The GAME.

This week’s game starts a stretch of three road games in the final four weeks of the regular season for the Raiders, with the team also traveling to Philadelphia to play the Eagles (Week 16) and Los Angeles to play the Chargers (Week 17) after a home game next week against the Dallas Cowboys.

Last Sunday, the Raiders won their matchup with the New York Giants by a final score of 24-17. For the second straight week, the defense held the opponent under 300 yards of total offense, allowing just 265 yards to the Giants. The unit posted three sacks on the day with LB Bruce Irvin and DE Khalil Mack leading the charge as they each posted one sack-fumble that resulted in a turnover. DL Denico Autry also got in on the action, posting his third sack in two games. RB Marshawn Lynch paced the offense, tallying his first 100-yard game as a Raider, rushing for 101 yards on 17 carries and one touchdown, a 51-yarder to open the scoring in the first quarter. WR Cordarrelle Patterson led the team’s receivers, totaling 97 yards on four receptions, including a 59-yard catch and run late in the game, helping Oakland seal the victory. WR Johnny Holton hauled in his third touchdown of the season and RB DeAndré Washington also rushed for a 9-yard score. P Marquette King was once again effective throughout the contest, averaging 50.0 yards per punt and pinning the Giants inside their own 20-yard line twice.

Next week, the Raiders will host their final home game of the regular season with a matchup against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football. The Chiefs will host the Chargers at Arrowhead next Saturday night.

CORDARRELLE PATTERSON

WR Cordarrelle Patterson ranks first among wide receivers in the NFL over the last two weeks in yards after catch, totaling 128 yards on just seven receptions and eight targets. Making the most of his opportunities, Patterson has recorded a 50-plus-yard reception in the fourth quarter in each of the last two games to help seal the victory for the Raiders.

Additionally, C.P. has averaged a staggering 18.3 yards after the catch per reception since Week 12, the most among qualifying receivers. The next closest is Sterling Shepard with an 11.3 average.

CHIEFS SNAPSHOT

Overview: After starting off the season with a 5-0 record, Kansas City enters Week 14 in the midst of a four-game skid. Under direction of fifth-year Head Coach Andy Reid, the Chiefs are in a three-way tie with the Raiders and the Chargers for first place in the AFC West with a record of 6-6. The Raiders won the first matchup in Week 7, a 31-30 victory on Thursday Night Football in Oakland. Kansas City enters Week 14 following a 38-31 loss to the New York Jets.

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Offense: Veteran QB Alex Smith continues to lead the offense in his fifth season in Kansas City while ranking in the top five in almost every passing category. Smith has completed 67.9 percent of his passes, good for third in the league, while tossing 23 touchdowns against just four interceptions for a passer rating of 107.2, the second best in the NFL. Rookie RB Kareem Hunt has been explosive in the backfield, and ranks third in the NFL with 930 rushing yards on 193 carries with four touchdowns. Additionally, Hunt has recorded 39 receptions for 367 yards with two touchdowns. TE Travis Kelce leads the team in both receptions (66) and touchdowns (seven). After a successful rooking campaign, WR Tyreek Hill has recorded 60 receptions and a team-high 911 receiving yards with six touchdowns.

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Defense: The Chiefs’ defense has allowed 382.2 yards per game and rank 15th in the league with 22.8 points allowed. The secondary is led by Oakland native CB Marcus Peters, who has three interceptions with 63 return yards. DB Terrance Mitchell has also added two interceptions this season. Veteran LB Justin Houston is still pestering opposing quarterbacks in his seventh year, posting a team-high 8.5 sacks on the year, which is tied for eighth in the AFC.

NOTABLE CONNECTIONS

Pro Connections

• Raiders Head Coach Jack Del Rio played for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1987-88 and earned a degree in political science from the University of Kansas while playing for the Chiefs.

• Raiders running backs coach Bernie Parmalee coached tight ends for three seasons (2010-2012) for Kansas City.

• Raiders C Rodney Hudson was originally drafted by Kansas City in the second round (55th overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft and spent four years with the Chiefs from 2011-2014, playing in 51 games with 35 starts.

• Raiders CB Sean Smith spent three seasons with the Chiefs from 2013-15, appearing in 45 games with 44 starts and recording 129 tackles with five interceptions.

• Chiefs DB Ron Parker played in three games for the Raiders in 2011.

• Raiders General Manager Reggie McKenzie was in the scouting department of the Green Bay Packers when Chiefs Head Coach Andy Reid coached the tight ends/offensive line (1992-1996) and quarterbacks (1997-1998).

• Chiefs offensive line coach Andy Heck worked on Raiders Head Coach Jack Del Rio’s staff with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2004-2011.

College Connections

• Chiefs Head Coach Andy Reid coached at San Francisco State as the offensive coordinator/offensive line coach from 1983-85. Chiefs tight ends coach Tom Melvin, who played on the offensive line under Reid, went on to begin his coaching career as a graduate assistant at San Francisco State from 1984-85.

• Chiefs wide receivers coach Greg Lewis held the same position at San Jose State in 2013.

• Raiders CB Dexter McDonald played collegiately at the University of Kansas and grew up in Kansas City, Mo.

• Chiefs T Mitchell Schwartz started all 51 games he played in at Cal, starting 35 games at left tackle and 16 at right tackle.

• Chiefs OL Cameron Erving was part of a line that protected Raiders QB EJ Manuel at Florida State in 2012 after practicing against him in 2011 as part of the defensive line. Erving was also teammates with Raiders DE Mario Edwards Jr. from 2012-14, facing each other in practice on opposing lines.

Hometown Connections

• Chiefs tight ends coach Tom Melvin is a native of Redwood City, Calif., and attended Cubberley High School in Palo Alto. His cousin, Bob Melvin, is the current manager of the Oakland Athletics.

• Chiefs CB Marcus Peters is a native of Oakland, Calif., and he attended McClymonds High School.

• Raiders DE Khalil Mack and Chiefs WR Albert Wilson played their high school football in the St. Lucie County District Florida. Mack attended Westwood High School in Fort Pierce, Fla. (class of ’09) and Wilson attended Port St. Lucie High School (class of ’10).

• Chiefs CB Terrance Mitchell is a native of Sacramento, Calif., where he attended Luther Burbank High School and earned Metro League Offensive MVP honors in 2009.

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Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan

ATLANTA — Every week, Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn emphasizes the importance of winning on third down and in the red zone. Sunday’s loss showed exactly why Quinn harps on it all the time.

The Falcons felt good about themselves entering the matchup with the Minnesota Vikings as they had the league’s top third-down offense, converting 48.1 percent of those opportunities. Plus, the defense made some big stops in last week’s win over Tampa Bay.

But it all went for naught, as third-down struggles on both sides and settling for field goals on offense eventually led to the Falcons’ demise in a 14-9 loss.

Not only did the Falcons’ three-game winning streak come to an end, but now the playoff picture becomes a little fuzzier. The Falcons are 7-5 and among the group of teams trying to hold on to a wild-card spot right next to the Seattle Seahawks, whom they beat in Week 11. It won’t be easy for the Falcons to secure a postseason berth with the league’s toughest schedule to finish, which includes two games against the rival New Orleans Saints and a rematch with a defense just as tough and physical as the Vikings’ in the Carolina Panthers.

In order to make a playoff push, the Falcons can’t fall back on bad habits like they did against the Vikings. They were 1-for-10 on third down a week after going 11-of-14 against the Buccaneers. Some of the seven penalties the Falcons picked up contributed to their third-down woes.

“I thought we had too many third-and-7s,” quarterback Matt Ryan said. “I think one of the points of emphasis for us during the week was to try and be efficient on first and second down. We didn’t do a good job of that.

“They are a very good defense. We knew it was going to be tough sledding at times, but we’ve got to be more productive and put ourselves in better positions. When we get our chances on third downs, we’ve got to make some plays.”

The Falcons were 0-for-1 in the red zone and settled for three Matt Bryant field goals for the entire day — and Bryant even missed a key 45-yarder late. The players totally backed Quinn’s decision to go with that field goal with 5 minutes, 4 seconds remaining and the Falcons facing fourth-and-4 from the Vikings’ 27 rather than gamble and go for it. Besides, they needed as many points as possible with touchdowns hard to come by against a stingy Vikings defense.

The only other time the Falcons scored in single digits this season was a 23-7 loss to the New England Patriots in Week 7.

“We just have to get back in rhythm,” Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones said. “Today, we were just missing offensively. … From our standpoint, we’re way better than nine points. We just have to get it fixed.”

Defensively, the Falcons missed tackles and let the Vikings go over 100 yards rushing. The defense allowed NFC Offensive Player of the Month Case Keenum to complete 25 of 30 passes for 227 yards with two touchdowns and a 120.4 passer rating. They allowed the Vikings to convert 6 of 12 third downs, including a crucial third-and-4 in the late stages that resulted in Keenum’s 22-yard connection with Adam Thielen, a conversion that all but sealed the victory. Allowing the Vikings to convert those third downs was a reason Minnesota had the ball almost 10 minutes longer.

“That ain’t good at all,” Falcons defensive back Ricardo Allen said of the Vikings converting 50 percent on third down. “That kept a lot of their drives going. We just have to get off the field on third down.

“They didn’t really throw any challenging balls. [Keenum] took what we gave him. It wasn’t like they were out there dicing us up or anything. Whatever we gave them, they took. And if they had to punt the ball, they punted the ball.”

Back on offense, Ryan couldn’t find that connection with Jones, who had just two catches for 24 yards on six targets while matched up a lot against Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Devonta Freeman rushed for 74 yards on 12 carries in his return from a concussion, which is a positive sign for the Falcons for the remainder of the season. But it didn’t help the cause Sunday.

The Falcons’ next challenge is a quick turnaround, with not much time to prepare for Thursday night’s NFC South showdown with the rival and division-leading Saints. One aspect the Falcons do have in their favor is the game being at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the final part of a three-game homestand.

“It’s already preparation for Thursday night,” Allen said. “We’ve got to go get it.”

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Los Angeles Rams

Los Angeles Rams

Recap

After coming off of a tough loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the Los Angeles Rams rebounded at home with a dominating performance against the hottest team in football, the New Orleans Saints, winning 26-20.

The game was not at close as the final score indicates, nor are the stats. Take away Saints RB Alvin Kamara’s 74-yard run for a TD and the final drive in garbage time, and the Rams would’ve won 26-6 by holding Sean Payton’s explosive offense behind QB Drew Brees to a mere 197 yards of total offense.

The Rams came away with a solid win against a quality team, unlike last week. In this game all phases of the Rams team, offense, defense and special teams, absent occasional inexplicable lapses, played well.

Even without WR Robert Woods being inactive due to injury, the other Ram players needing big games, WR Cooper Kupp and TE Tyler Higbee, stepped up. Neither two had the dropsy’s which affected them against Minnesota. Rookie WR Josh Reynolds took advantage of his opportunity and WR Sammy Watkins came through as the “go-to guy.”

Going down the stretch with just five games left, the Rams are poised to make their improbable run to the playoffs. By winning this past weekend, the Rams proved they could bounce back from a bad game. Credit for the Rams’ resurgence as a contender goes to Head Coach Sean McVay and his entire staff who kept the team focused after the beatdown from the Vikings a week ago.

As good as this victory feels now, there were still some glaring mistakes that have plagued the Rams throughout the season that have to be corrected sooner rather then later. With only five games left, the Rams don’t have a lot of time to fix these things. If the Rams want to be a participant in Super Bowl LI rather then among the other 30 teams watching at home, these things need to be corrected.
The Defense Can’t Give Up Big Running Plays

The Rams were on the verge of breaking the game wide open in the first quarter after opening up an early 10-0 lead. After the touchback, the Saints were on their own 25-yard line to start another series. All the defense had to do was get a stop to get the ball back on offense. Having scored on their first two drives of the game, the Saints would have been forced to alter their entire game plan if the Rams scored again.

Instead on 2nd and 9 from the Saints’ own 26-yard line, Kamara broke to the right and gashed the Rams’ run defense for 74-yard touchdown run.

This has not been the first time the Rams’ defense has allowed a RB like Kamara to change the momentum of the game when the Rams were on the verge of crushing their opponent. It happened with Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette. Once into the 2nd level, a missed tackle later and Kamara was deep in the Rams’ secondary down the sidelines virtually untouched, leaping into the end zone for the score.

How does this happen?

I’m not one of those observers who give credit to the opposing team for a job well done when a run play like that is executed. That’s just bad defense. I’d rather get burned on a well-executed pass play.

Defense is about going to wherever the football goes. Follow the ball and invariably a defender will find one’s self in place to make the tackle. It’s one thing if a single defensive player whiffs with an arm tackle or gets faked out of his shoes. You still have to ask “Where are the other 10 players?”

It can’t be Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips dialing up the wrong defense since no one schemes to allow a running back to waltz into the end zone. Something is not right and most likely it has to be in the middle with LBs Alec Ogeltree and Mark Barron sliding too far the wrong way. They can’t get caught overpursuing where they think the ball is going. It puts them out of position to make the play when it goes the other way. Slide, but don’t slide that much away from the middle. In addition, the safeties and corners, upon spotting the play develop, must at the very least make a play to slow down the running back rather then engaging in a vain arm tackling attempt to bring the runner down. By actually engaging the running back, it will slow him down as help is always on the way. It may go for big gain, but at least it won’t go for a touchdown.

Some will argue that this is being picky. I’m not one of those people.

This must be priority one for a Rams defense if the team is going to make any kind of run in the next five games or the playoffs for that matter. In tight games, as most playoff games are, one score can make the difference. Worse is the fact that the Rams have been prone to giving up these types of momentum-changing runs, which will kill them in the playoffs, if they get there–it’s horrible defense and inexplicable.

In the Saints’ game, another problem the Rams had was dropping sure interceptions. Corners and safeties are wide receivers without hands; nonetheless, a lineman can catch a ball thrown right to him.

There were at least three or four instances where the football thrown by Brees looked intended moreso for a defender then a Saints target, but Rams CBs Trumaine Johnson and Kayvon Webster dropped the rock.

Make the plays that you need to make that’s what you’re paid to do.
Take Advantage of Good Field Position

The Rams have the uniqueness of having one of the best, if not the best, special teams units in the league. When PR Pharoh Cooper puts your offense at or over the 50-yard line, the Rams offense must take advantage of the opportunity of getting at least one first down and just enough yards for a PK Greg Zuerlein field goal–even better if they can score a touchdown.

With 12:34 in the 3rd quarter and the Rams leading 20-10, Cooper got the Rams to their own 49-yard line. All the offense needed to do was go 15-yards and the ball would be in field goal range for Mr. Automatic. Watching the game from the confines of the Coliseum, Rams fans thought for sure this would be the moment that offense was going to put up six, or at worst three more points. Anything at that point would’ve really would’ve put the Saints behind the ball.

Instead, the Rams choked.

They went three and out. Worse, they lost eight yards on a pass to WR Tavon Austin due to Tavon being Tavon Austin. On third down, the Rams threw in the towel and ran the ball with RB Todd Gurley for a minimal gain and in came the punt team. Rather then coming away with the minimum FG, the Rams did nothing which kept the Saints in the game.

This was a clear blown chance. The Rams must take advantage of their special teams doing their job by putting their offense in the position to score points by doing just that moving forward.

One could also complain about the red zone offense not coming away with touchdowns, bnut this was a problem for New Orleans as well. That’s a push since both teams have good defenses.
The Penalties on Special Teams

The Rams’ special teams played terrific. Cooper, Zuerlein and P Johnny Hekker played up to expectations. Yet, there are some things that can make the special teams even better—staying away for the inevitable block in the back penalty.

This penalty is so often thrown on punt returns, fans expect it. The rule of thumb is this—if you can read the name of your opponent, don’t put your hands on him. Running beside him even a shoulder push will be called a block in the back depending on the referee’s angle of vision. Stay with him and screen oneself between him and where he’s going to—the ball.

Once the player tries to go through you, at that point you can block him. There’s nothing illegal about a shoulder shove, just remember depending on the angle of the referee its more then likely interpreted as a shove in the back when the defender flops onto the ground.

The reason this is pet peeve of mine is that the Rams’ special teams are really good. I don’t like to see great runbacks giving the offense good field position ruined by a silly block in the back which could been avoided, especially if the block is away from the play. One can easily blame the ref, but that will get you nowhere. You’re wasting your breath.

Finally, don’t block a gunner when he’s out of bounds. If you find yourself in the midst of a bunch of players, you’re out of bounds so stay away from the temptation to block in that area.

This was a quality win for the Rams and a very impressive one at that. Rams fans have to like what they saw Sunday.

Nobody’s perfect, but we’ll get there.

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Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills

Benjamin remains day to day
The Bills did not bring WR Kelvin Benjamin on their road trip to Kansas City this past weekend. His knee injury suffered the week prior in Los Angeles kept him out of practice all last week, and ultimately Sunday’s game against the Chiefs.

Head coach Sean McDermott however, said his receiver’s status is unchanged as he works to return to the lineup.

“He’s working hard and he’s going to be day to day as we move forward this week and we’ll see how the week unfolds,” said McDermott of Benjamin.

When asked if the report over the weekend that Benjamin had suffered a torn meniscus and would miss multiple weeks was true, McDermott said it was not. But the Bills head coach misunderstood the question thinking the report was about a torn ligament.

McDermott later confirmed that Benjamin does indeed have a torn meniscus, but his day-to-day status is unchanged.

Defense trending up
Buffalo’s defense had an encouraging rebound performance against the Chiefs on Sunday following a three-game stretch that set a couple of team records that no defense wants to have.

“You start with the run defense,” said McDermott. “Mindset, number one, then the run defense and gap integrity, technique, good assignment in being one-eleventh of the defense. That’s really where it starts. That’s what I’ve told you when you’ve asked me about the problems with the run defense. That’s really where it started up front.

“The guys have put in a lot of hard work. Leslie Frazier and his staff upstairs did a phenomenal job implementing a plan and the players have worked hard the last three weeks.”

The Bills held the Chiefs to the second-lowest total of net yards by an opponent this season. Only the Jets in Week 1 accumulated less total yardage than Kansas City’s 236 yards Sunday. But McDermott saw this kind of performance coming after carefully examining the game tape from the game against the Chargers.

“There were signs a week ago that it was getting better. Statistically it probably wasn’t there, but when you drill down watching the tape it had gotten better last week. This past Sunday it took another step. Are we there yet? No. Still a lot of work to do.”

Punt coverage unit dominating
Buffalo’s punt coverage unit had another strong day Sunday, against one of the elite returners in the game in Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs return man had two returns for zero yards. The lack of production by Hill helped move Buffalo’s punt coverage unit up to third in the league, its highest ranking so far this season.

“I thought they did a good job,” said McDermott. “I thought coach Crossman had a good plan with the coverage units. Colton (Schmidt) punted extremely well. That was key with that type of returner back there. Then the offense got us some favorable field position too, which enabled them to pin them deep. That helped the defense also. Really, I think what we’re talking about here is good complementary football amongst all three phases of the team. And a good plan special teams-wise as well. So well done.”

Schmidt also had four of his seven punts downed inside the 20-yard line with no touchbacks on the day.

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METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints’ resurgent defense will be put to the test Sunday in Los Angeles without both of their starting cornerbacks against the Los Angeles Rams’ resurgent offense.

Breakout rookie Marshon Lattimore (ankle) and second-year pro Ken Crawley (abdomen) have both been ruled out after not practicing all week. The Saints (8-2) also must make do without starting defensive end Alex Okafor, who was placed on injured reserve this week with a torn Achilles.

The good news is that New Orleans will get two starters back from injuries: safety Kenny Vaccaro and linebacker A.J. Klein, both of whom practiced on a limited basis all week.

“We’ll have contingency plans for whoever we have available to us. And we’ll have a good plan to go out and execute against the Rams,” Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “I think one of the good things is we’ve developed some depth here, hopefully so that we can withstand some of the injury concerns.

“You never know when you’re gonna be called on. That’s part of that, as everybody says, that ‘next man up’ philosophy. And that’s really the way that this league is.”

The Saints have survived injuries the past two months. The cornerback position is thinner than most after they also lost former starter Delvin Breaux to injured reserve with a broken fibula during the preseason.

Young backups P.J. Williams and De’Vante Harris will likely start on Sunday, with veteran Sterling Moore also in the mix after re-signing with New Orleans on Monday. Vaccaro will likely serve as the nickel cornerback, as he has done for most of the year when healthy.

Last week, after Lattimore was injured in the first quarter (while breaking up a pass in the end zone, no less) the Saints went on to give up more than 300 yards and three touchdown passes to the Washington Redskins’ Kirk Cousins in a dramatic 34-31 overtime victory.

Lattimore, just 21 years old, has been one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL this season — and one of the main reasons why New Orleans has the second-best pass defense in the league since Week 3 (167 passing yards allowed per game in that span).

Lattimore, who was drafted with the 11th overall pick, is a front-runner for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award, with two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), nine pass defenses and a forced fumble.

The Rams offense, meanwhile, has been just as surprising as the New Orleans defense, ranking fifth in the NFL this season with 375.4 yards per game and second in the league with 30.3 points per game.

Los Angles, however, will also be missing top receiver Robert Woods this week after he was ruled out with a shoulder injury.

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Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns

CLEVELAND — DeShone Kizer was a glum fellow as he strode to the podium following the Cleveland Browns’ 10th loss in 10 games this season, a 19-7 drubbing by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“It hurts,” Kizer said.

Clearly.

Because Kizer struggled badly in this loss, personally accounting for four turnovers — one that gave the Jaguars a defensive touchdown, another that set up a touchdown.

“I am trying to do whatever I can to string together some games and continue to prove my development to my teammates and to continue to earn the respect of them,” Kizer said. “This is the first game that I have come off of the field feeling as if I didn’t prove that I have developed yet.”

This was a candid admission from a proud player. But as his rookie season continues, Kizer is not approaching the level of consistency that the Browns would like to see. With the team almost assured of the first overall pick in the draft in April, the likelihood that they select a quarterback is becoming cement-like solid with each game.

Kizer’s two interceptions give him 14 for the season, a league high. He twice lost the ball while being pressured by the Jaguars’ relentless pass rush. The second gave Jacksonville a defensive touchdown.

Kizer’s second interception was a short throw to Rashard Higgins toward the sideline that sailed high.

“You get paid not to miss in this league,” Kizer said.

The first followed a run fake when Kizer did not see middle linebacker Telvin Smith slide into the throwing lane.

“It was one heck of a play by the backside linebacker for playing through his coverage into where the ball was going,” Kizer said.

“He needs to see that guy,” coach Hue Jackson said. “He knows that. It is something he has to work through.”

Kizer did come back with a nice 27-yard throw to Duke Johnson for a touchdown, but the Browns had nine possessions (and one kneel down to end the half) after they cut the deficit to 10-7. They gained a total of 124 yards and had eight first downs on those nine possessions — and 36 of those yards came when the game was out of reach and less than a minute remained.

There are contributing factors to Kizer struggling.

The Browns played the league’s top-ranked scoring defense and the group is also tops in sacks. The Jaguars have a dominant, nasty, relentless defense.

Jackson said the Browns are a young team prone to inconsistency. He’s right about that, and Kizer is one of the youngest players in the league.

And Jackson reiterated that his team needs to be “almost perfect” to win a game, which is a statement on his roster.

“That means no turnovers,” Jackson said. “Fundamentally we have to do everything right to have a chance.”

In consecutive weeks since the bye, the Browns had chances. But they lost to Detroit when they scored 24 because the defense didn’t play well. Against Jacksonville, the defense played well but they lost because the offense scored seven.

Six games remain and Jackson emphasized that Kizer will absolutely start against the Bengals on Sunday and for every game he can after that.

“Let’s let him play,” Jackson said. “Let’s let him play this thing out. As long as he is healthy, let’s keep putting him out there. I want to walk away from this season knowing exactly what DeShone Kizer is top to bottom. I think he deserves that.

“I know this is tough on him.”

Tougher, no doubt, than Kizer ever imagined.

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Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles

PHILADELPHIA — Before the suspension of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott became official, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins channeled his inner Ric Flair when asked if he would rather face the Cowboys with or without Elliott in the lineup.

“I’d rather play Zeke,” he said, “because we want to be the best. And to be the best, you’ve gotta beat the best.”

Instead, the 8-1 Eagles will face a 5-4 Cowboys team that will be without their star back and potentially their star left tackle, Tyron Smith, who missed Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons with a groin injury. Smith’s replacement, Chaz Green, was responsible for allowing four sacks. Byron Bell took over midway through the fourth and yielded two sacks of his own. Smith is a question mark for Sunday night’s game against Philly.

“Absolutely, I would say,” responded Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox when asked if Dallas missed Smith more than Elliott. “The guy[s] gave up six sacks. Obviously they’ll try to get their best O-lineman back on the field for Sunday.”

One thing the Cowboys do have going for them is quarterback Dak Prescott, who was sacked a career-high eight times versus Atlanta while dealing with the two key offensive losses but has otherwise been playing at a high level. He has 16 touchdowns to four interceptions on the season, upping his impressive career TD-INT ratio to 39-8. Whether Dallas’ offensive front is at full strength or not, the Eagles know they have their hands full in trying to contain Prescott.

“I’ve been around the NFL for a pretty long time now. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better thrower on the run than Dak Prescott,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “He can throw scrambling to his left. He can throw scrambling to his right. There are not many quarterbacks that can do that. He can threaten the whole field on the run. He doesn’t have to reset the throw, and he’s very accurate on the run.

“For a young player, he makes very few mistakes, and that’s impressed me also.”

According to offensive coordinator Frank Reich, the Eagles brought Prescott in for a visit and evaluated him a good bit during the pre-draft process in 2016. Though they ultimately traded up for Carson Wentz, Prescott had some pretty big fans in the building.

“You can ask anybody; I had very, very high grades on Dak in every aspect,” Reich said. “I thought his college tape was really, really good. I really liked the way he threw the ball, his timing and anticipation. When he came in here and we sat down and interviewed him — a hardcore interview as far as digging down into protections and X’s and O’s and pass concepts and what his understanding of what the pass game was and protections — it was really high in all areas. And then you could just tell he had that X factor, as far as natural leadership ability.”

Prescott fell to the Cowboys in the fourth round, 131 picks after they selected his backfield partner, Elliott. Assuming Elliott’s six-game suspension holds, Prescott will be the opposition’s primary focus for the next five games, including the Eagles’ Sunday night in Dallas.

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The Detroit Lions narrowly avoided losing a trap game against the NFL’s worst team Sunday before they mounted a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Cleveland Browns.

Then they did something even more impressive and tried to spin a narrative about how great the 0-9 Browns are. Remember, the Browns’ home is a place nicknamed “The Factory of Sadness.”

The Lions climbed a few spots in the playoff hunt. But the only national buzz they generated Monday came from Glover Quin’s statement that the Browns probably have better athletes than “25 out of the 32 teams in the league.” Coach Jim Caldwell also tried to explain that the Browns have good players.

These are the things teams tell themselves to feel better. They are justifications that excuse their own shortcomings.

Now, the Lions face another trap game this week in Chicago. Like the Browns, the Bears are an opponent the Lions should dominate. But how much confidence does anyone have that the Lions can do that?

The Lions are going to go into the spin cycle again this week. What we won’t hear from coaches and players is the obvious. That Bears coach John Fox is on the brink of being fired. That the Bears are 3-6 and so hopeless that 5,624 fans skipped Sunday’s game at Soldier Field against their most-hated rival, the Green Bay Packers.

It was just as well. Those Bears fans didn’t have to sit around and watch Mitchell Trubisky get sacked five times. Or watch their run game rack up 55 yards in a 23-16 loss. Or watch the defense allow Brett Hundley, making the third start of his career, to post a 110.8 passer rating.

The Bears stink like a Bear doing his business in the woods. So, I’m going to do the Lions a favor and preemptively offer all the excuses they’re sure to offer this week for why the Bears are good. This way, the Lions don’t have to waste any energy coming up with dumb ideas.  That’s why I’m here: dumb ideas. You’re welcome, Lions.

Excuse No. 1: Division games are always tough

That’s a myth perpetuated by the frequency of games in the division. Just because you play an opponent often and develop a certain amount of animosity toward them doesn’t mean the games are tough or that the opponents are good. The Bears, who are 0-3 against the NFC North, are going to play the nail to every division opponents’ hammer the rest of the season.
Excuse No. 2: The Bears have beaten good teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Carolina Panthers

If you want an instant headache, watch the crime against football otherwise known as the Bears’ 23-17 overtime win over Pittsburgh in September. If you want to watch someone turn in a winning lottery ticket, watch safety Eddie Jackson return two turnovers for 151 yards and touchdowns in a 17-3 win over Carolina.
Excuse No. 3: The Bears have a good defense

This one, I’m willing to give on. But just a little. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is the only thing saving the Bears’ bacon. The defense ranks ninth overall, 10th against the pass, 16th against the run and 13th in points allowed per game. They have good front-seven players in Akiem Hicks, Leonard Floyd, Nick Kwiatkoski and Pernell McPhee. But linebacker Danny Trevathan has been hurt and cornerback Kyle Fuller hasn’t lived up to his first-round draft status.
Excuse No. 4: Soldier Field is a tough place to play

Sure, when Mike Ditka was prowling the sidelines and Mike Singletary was playing linebacker. But Soldier Field is only a tough venue now because of the terrible condition of its grass, thanks to the Chicago Park District.
Excuse No. 5: John Fox is a veteran coach who has taken two teams to the Super Bowl

That’s true. It’s also true Fox is about to end his head coaching career after a three-year disaster that has made the Great Chicago Fire look like a mild flare-up by comparison. Fox and Caldwell threw two of the worst challenge flags on Sunday. I’d like to see a showdown between the coaches, who meet in the middle of the field at 20 paces to see who can initiate the dumber challenge.

There is no conceivable reason for the Lions to lose Sunday in Chicago. No reason at all. But that doesn’t mean the Lions won’t try to provide one.

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