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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Whenever John Elway talks about a deal, contract, player or most anything that crosses his desk for the Denver Broncos, two words almost always sum up how he goes about making the decision.

It comes down to what “makes sense.”

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For the second time in his tenure as the Broncos’ top football executive, Elway has decided to make sense of the quarterback dilemma by securing a former Super Bowl MVP with some health questions.

In 2012, Elway signed Peyton Manning, whose playing future was decidedly uncertain at the time after four neck surgeries. The rest is part of Broncos lore: four consecutive division titles in Manning’s four seasons, two Super Bowl trips and a Super Bowl 50 win in Manning’s final game.

Joe Flacco missed seven games this season. AP Photo/Nick Wass
And now, after three years of wandering the quarterback wilderness, three playoff misses and back-to-back seasons of double-digit losses, Elway has a trade in place for Joe Flacco. The Broncos are expected, when everything becomes official, to send a midround pick to the Ravens (expected to be one of their two fourth-round picks) for the Super Bowl XLVII MVP.

But now comes four weeks’ worth of public dissection and no public comment from Elway, coach Vic Fangio or anyone else in the organization. The trade cannot become official until March 13, so by league rules, the Broncos cannot talk about the move until then.

And there are plenty of questions still to answer.

Start with: What happens to Case Keenum? A year ago, Elway signed Keenum to a two-year, $36 million deal and said Keenum had a better year in 2017 than Kirk Cousins, whom the Broncos had also looked at in free agency. Keenum might not have been as good as the Broncos had hoped, but he also played behind an injured offensive line, saw wide receiver Demaryius Thomas traded in November and lost wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a season-ending torn Achilles in December.

Keenum, who had hoped to be the Broncos starter long-term, carries a salary-cap charge of $21 million if he’s on the roster for the coming season and would have a bigger cap charge than Flacco’s $18.5 million.

Team sources said Elway spoke with Keenum on Wednesday morning about what has transpired this week, just after the Broncos and Ravens narrowed the terms on a Flacco trade. And in the coming weeks and months, the Broncos could try to trade Keenum, release him or, yes, keep him.

The Broncos have used four different starting quarterbacks over the last two seasons, missed the playoffs for the last three seasons and have no QB prospect they drafted on the roster. And Flacco has had back and hip troubles in recent seasons, so keeping Keenum is not off the table.

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The Broncos must pay Keenum $7 million of his $18 million base salary whether he’s on the roster or not. Also, the salary-cap savings if Keenum is released ($11 million) and the “dead money” hit — salary-cap charge for a player no longer on the roster — of $10 million are roughly the same.

The Broncos also have the No. 10 pick of the draft, with picks in the upper third of the second and third rounds as well. So quarterback should, and will, get a long look from the team in the buildup to April.

In short, Flacco’s arrival, just like Keenum’s a year ago, is not a long-term solution for the Broncos. Flacco turned 34 last month and lost his starting job after an injury this past season. Despite Elway’s continued resistance to saying he is rebuilding, the Broncos eventually have to have a plan that goes beyond the upcoming season at their most important position.

“We always talk about rebuilding, but if I say we’re ‘rebuilding,’ that sounds like an excuse,” Elway said last month. “That’s why I don’t like to use that word, because it sounds like an excuse. Our standards are still the same. We’re still going to come in, we’re going to go into this offseason and do the best we can to try to get better football players and try to get to where next year we can go into training camp and we’re ready to compete for a playoff spot. … To me, a rebuild sounds like an excuse, and I’m not going to make any excuses.”

Elway is always in what he calls win “from now on” mode, and Flacco’s arrival is more proof of that. And while it might be the fix the Broncos want in 2019, quarterback remains their biggest question mark beyond that.

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Marquez Valdes-Scantling pegged the exact moment when he realized he would be able to make an impact as a Green Bay Packers rookie receiver.

“Day 1,” he said recently.

Which might explain why he sees no reason Year 2 should be a difficult transition, even though the Packers will install a new offense under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.

The ultra-confident Valdes-Scantling is like the rest of the Packers’ offense; he doesn’t know exactly what LaFleur’s offense will entail or how it will vary from what previous coach Mike McCarthy employed.

But he’s not concerned about the transition.

In fact, in at least one way he’s relishing it.

“I don’t know anything about the offense we’re going to be running; I don’t know what to expect when we walk in there,” Valdes-Scantling said last week in an interview from the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and Panini Trading Card rookie appreciation event.

“I haven’t spoken with our head coach yet, so I don’t know what we should be expecting and what will be changing, if anything. But it’s just going to be like learning a new system all over again, if it is that way, and we’ll all be on an equal playing field now. You won’t have vets who’ve been in the system for four, five or 10, 11 years. We’ll all be at the same level learning at the same time.”

It was the way Valdes-Scantling was able to learn McCarthy’s offense that gave him the first chance to make an impact ahead of fellow rookie receivers Equanimeous St. Brown and J’Mon Moore. It led to early opportunities after injuries to Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison. The fifth-round pick became the first Packers receiver since Max McGee in 1959 to post two 100-yard receiving games in the same season with three or fewer catches in each games.

A year ago at this time, he was trying to woo scouts at that all-star game. This year, he was back there to mentor draft prospects and to autograph trading cards from his rookie year, when he became Aaron Rodgers’ most reliable deep threat, averaging 15.3 yards per catch, the highest average by a Packers rookie (with at least 25 catches) since James Lofton’s 17.8-yard average in 1978. Overall, his average was fourth best among all NFL rookies last season. He ranked seventh among all 2018 rookies in yards (581) and ninth in catches (38). He caught at least four catches for 40-plus yards, tied for the most among rookies last season with Atlanta’s Calvin Ridley and Buffalo’s Robert Foster.

That’s in contrast to Moore, a fourth-round pick who was the highest selection among the three receivers the Packers drafted last season. Moore couldn’t get on the field and admitted it was because he failed to grasp the offense. It also took St. Brown, a sixth-round pick, longer than Valdes-Scantling to make an impact.

“I was able to produce with a steep learning curve, probably steeper last time, because guys had been in the system for many years, and I’m coming in having to learn like eight years of a system in three months,” Valdes-Scantling said. “So now, if we do have to learn a completely different system, it won’t just be for the rookies this time.”

While Valdes-Scantling won’t technically get his hands on LaFleur’s playbook until the offseason program starts in April, he plans to refine his mental game between and now then while he works out in Florida.

“I have all the physical traits,” said the 6-foot-4, 206-pounder. “You can always get better, but physicality doesn’t get you a long way in this league playing wide receiver. If I was an O-lineman, it would be a little bit different, but going in the weight room and lifting 500 pounds is not going to make me a better receiver. Mentally is the next step for my game. Obviously you have to keep in shape, but I think mentally preparing myself to be able to battle a full NFL season again.”

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LOS ANGELES — In case it wasn’t obvious enough by the situation — fourth-and-1, one-score game, start of the fourth quarter, ball near field goal range — Mark Barron confirmed it right before the snap. The veteran inside linebacker saw Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Noah Brown go in motion and set up right behind tight end Rico Gathers, a dead giveaway that an inside run was coming. The Los Angeles Rams’ defense had spent the entire week focused almost exclusively on containing Ezekiel Elliott, simultaneously fighting the incessant notion that their star-studded unit was generally inept against the run.

When the biggest moment presented itself at 7:40 p.m. PT on Saturday, they were ready.

Ndamukong Suh was the first to get free.

“I saw what they wanted to do, played off the center and tried to close up the gap,” Suh said. “My hands were tied, so I just went in head first.”

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Suh’s helmet was the first object to make contact with Elliott, right before a mob of his teammates swarmed in to help, taking possession away from the Cowboys and changing the complexion of an eventual 30-22 victory that saw the Rams advance to the NFC Championship Game and flip an entire narrative on its head.

The Cowboys were supposed to dominate the run on both sides, with the NFL’s leading rusher in their backfield and a stout defense that had allowed only 3.8 yards per carry. But it was the Rams’ offense, suddenly a two-back system with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, that amassed 273 yards on the ground. And it was the Rams’ defense, fresh off surrendering an NFL-worst 5.1 yards per carry in 2018, that limited the Cowboys to a mere 50 rushing yards, their lowest output all season.

“We knew we could stop the run — it was just a matter of doing it,” Barron said. “It really wasn’t that hard. It was everybody being where they’re supposed to be and doing what they’re supposed to be doing. It was really simple.”

The Rams are going to need a lot more of that on Sunday (3:05 p.m. ET, Fox) when they face a New Orleans Saints offense that features the devastating two-prong attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram.

The Rams are going to need more performances like these from Suh.

On Saturday night, in what became the Rams’ first playoff victory at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in more than 40 years, Suh jumped off the film in a way he rarely had all season. The numbers — two quarterback hits, one tackle for loss — weren’t gaudy. But Suh displayed the quintessential balance of ferocity and discipline, consistently winning at the point of attack and constantly clogging holes to help keep Elliott at 2.3 yards per carry.

Suh was given the highest grade on the Rams’ defense by Pro Football Focus, which had him with four pressures in 30 pass-rush snaps and a run-stop percentage of 11.8.

After a mostly quiet regular season, Ndamukong Suh led a Rams defense that limited Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys to just 50 rushing yards. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
When it mattered most, he might have been the best player on the field.

“It’s a great compliment,” Suh said late Saturday night. “At the end of the day, how I look at it is I’m still going to play at an elite level. Given opportunities, which I was given today, I’m going to make plays. This atmosphere, being at home, great fans, and it’s the playoffs — you bring it all or you go home. And I’m not trying to go home anytime soon.”

The Rams stacked the box, as expected, against the Cowboys. They played in their base set (four defensive backs, two interior defenders and two edge rushers) on 35.3 percent of the snaps in which the Cowboys ran “11″ personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). During the regular season, the Rams were in base sets on only 8.2 percent of opponents’ “11″ personnel snaps.

“We knew that they were going to run, try to get Zeke loose,” Rams outside linebacker Samson Ebukam said. “And we knew that if we could contain Zeke, the game was basically over.”

At the nine-minute mark of the first quarter, Suh sprinted from the hash marks to the numbers to stop Elliott for no gain. At the 10-minute mark of the third quarter, Ebukam set the edge to help Suh slam Elliott for a 2-yard loss. Nine minutes later, Aaron Donald went basically unblocked into the backfield and stuffed Elliott for a loss of 4. And in the final minutes of regulation, inside linebacker Cory Littleton sniffed out a shovel pass in the flat and tackled Elliott for another 2-yard loss.

The Rams outgained the Cowboys 459 yards to 308, accumulating 11 more first downs and running 21 more offensive plays.

But it was their defense, agonizingly inconsistent throughout the year, that finally made its presence felt.

“We arrived,” Rams coach Sean McVay said, “and you could feel our guys at the point of contact.”

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The Rams face an entirely different challenge against the Saints.

Their run game is just as lethal, but their passing attack, led by future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, commands respect. The Rams can’t load the box against the Saints like they did against the Cowboys. They’ll need more coverage in their backfield, which means their interior players must stay disciplined in their gap assignments.

“It’s going to be a huge point of emphasis this week,” McVay said. “They can beat you both ways — they can run it or they can throw it — and that’s what really presents such a great challenge.”

Suh came over on a one-year, $14 million contract and has been overlooked with the Rams, mostly because his teammate, Donald, put together a historically great regular season with 20.5 sacks. But Suh still compiled 4.5 sacks and the metrics say he defended the run well, even while adjusting to operating as a nose tackle.

On Saturday, Barron felt Suh played his best game of the season.

“To me he did,” Barron said. “He was just dominant.”

“You definitely felt his presence,” McVay added. “I thought he pursued the football outstanding. I thought he was able to get [into the backfield] all night, and I thought that affected some of the different things that they were talking about, so I think he was outstanding in those early downs. When he’s able to do that, it makes a huge difference. I thought he really came with a great focus and concentration this week, and I think it showed up with the way that he was able to play.”

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PHILADELPHIA — A 48-7 loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 11 was the low point of the season for the Philadelphia Eagles, but quarterback Nick Foles says it was also the turning point.

“That game has helped us become the team we are today,” Foles said Wednesday as the Eagles began preparations for this weekend’s divisional playoff against New Orleans. “Going through that, that’s not easy as a team to lose like that. But there was never a pointing of the finger. It actually brought us closer. It can separate a team or it can bring us closer, and it brought us closer.”

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That loss dropped the Eagles to 4-6 and put their postseason hopes in peril. They responded by winning five of six to capture the sixth and final playoff seed.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins, stinging from what he described as an embarrassing loss to his former team, took issue with the Eagles’ demeanor during that game and suggested some players lacked fight.

“At that point in time, obviously, that’s the low point of our season. But at no point did we doubt that we have the locker room,” Jenkins said. “We just knew that we had to put it together. Since then, I think we responded and earned our opportunity to go back down there.”

Late in that game, Jenkins made an obscene gesture, extending his middle finger toward Sean Payton following a Saints touchdown because he believed his former coach was running up the score — a sentiment others in the Eagles locker room, including tackle Jason Peters, have shared.

Coach Doug Pederson, however, did not play into that angle when addressing the media Wednesday.

“No, I did not [think they ran up the score]. Listen, we get paid to play, just like they do. We just didn’t make enough plays,” Pederson said. “We have to keep them out of the end zone and we have to score. We didn’t do either one very well.”

Foles has been a key part of the Eagles’ turnaround since that loss. He has won four straight in place of the injured Carson Wentz, including a 16-15 thriller over the Chicago Bears in the wild-card round last weekend.

As Bears kicker Cody Parkey lined up for the potential game-winner at the end of the game, center Jason Kelce found Foles on the sideline to let him know that he was going to miss him if this was in fact the end. Then came the Treyvon Hester tip and the double doink, extending Foles’ time in Philly and setting up a rematch with a Saints team that sparked the turnaround.

“”It means the world,” Foles said. “I’m not worried about the future, but at the same time, I understand where I stand. And every time I wear that jersey is special and to play with guys like Jason, that’s special. I’ve been fortunate to play with the best center in the game.

“I’ll never forget that. Fortunately, we tipped the field goal and it didn’t go in, which was a huge play by Hester. But we get one more week together, at least.”

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CINCINNATI — Marvin Lewis was composed and smiling when he sat at his usual spot at the podium in Paul Brown Stadium on Monday morning. He cracked a few jokes and seemed as relaxed as he could be considering the circumstances.

If it weren’t for the tears visible in his eyes at times, it would’ve seemed like any postseason news conference he has given over the past 16 years.

Lewis was officially out as head coach of the Bengals. It was a decision both the Bengals and Lewis said was mutual, although it is unclear who proposed the split.

“Mike [Brown] and I both decided that it’s time. It was a tough moment for both of us, but I think we both realized … ” Lewis said.

Things happened quickly in the hours after the Bengals concluded their season with a loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. While the Bengals have dragged their feet in previous years about Lewis’ future, they already had a clean break by 10 o’clock Monday morning.

As Lewis sat down to talk to the media, players were already packing their things and heading out. Lewis had just addressed the team in what he said was one of the toughest moments of the morning. Players said he stayed composed during the talk and spent most of it telling them that he believed in a bright future for them.

Lewis won’t be around to see that future realized. The Bengals had a young roster this season that became even younger due to injuries. Lewis recalled how he walked off the practice field last weekend and remarked how young everyone seemed.

Throughout the season, Lewis seemed equal parts invigorated and exhausted by the youthfulness of the team.

“Our players got younger this year, as we know, and you enjoy that part of them,” Lewis said. “I told [public relations director Emily Parker] as we were walking off the field Friday or Saturday, ‘It’s the same thing, they’re kids.’ I wish they were more hardened veteran kids, but they’re kids. They ran around yesterday and played their tails off.”

Lewis also addressed many of the players individually that morning.

“He said he was proud of me and I had a good season and take care of myself, my body. And he said I’m a good player. That’s good to hear from him,” linebacker Nick Vigil said. “He’s been here for so long. He gave all of us a chance. He’s the one who picked us. He’s the one that wanted us to be here. Bummer deal.”

Said linebacker Preston Brown: “He just told us that they mutually decided that he wasn’t going to be the coach anymore, and that we have a lot of talent in the room, and whoever comes in is going to get us over that hump. … He told us all to just stay safe and continue to get better. He had a good message for us and … whoever comes in is going to get a good team.”

Over the past few weeks, the reactions of players have ranged from defense of Lewis to shrugging and saying it was out of their control. But the overwhelming reaction from the locker room was that the team would be OK no matter who was in charge. Running back Joe Mixon went so far as to confidently proclaim Sunday night the Bengals would be in the playoffs next year.

Marvin Lewis shares a moment with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin after Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh. Joe Sargent/Getty Images
“This definitely is going to sting for seven or eight months, but I know one thing,” Mixon said. “Next year, our team is definitely going to the playoffs, and you can put whatever you want on that. I know that.”

Lewis also sent an email to the Bengals’ staff telling them to keep chasing the Super Bowl dream he couldn’t achieve in Cincinnati.

“They have to keep chasing that, you want to chase that. The gleam in their eye for everybody that does all the hard work in this building, to have that opportunity,” Lewis said.

And in an unusual move, Lewis chose to address the media one last time even though he was no longer obligated to, declining to wax nostalgic or talk about his hopes for the future. He conceded that he never delivered on his goal to win the Super Bowl, and that was bittersweet.

The Bengals certainly stuck by Lewis through the difficult years, long past the point that most front offices would have given up. And on the other side, there were times Lewis stuck by the Bengals as well, even when it seemed he might want out.

A mutual parting of ways seemed entirely possible after the 2010 season, but instead Lewis signed a new contract, drafted A.J. Green and Andy Dalton and took the team to five straight playoff appearances. It almost seemed as if he would coach in Cincinnati for the rest of his career.

So why did it end now?

“’It’s been a lot — this season has been a lot,” Lewis said. “From Indianapolis [in Week 1] and the ride home on the bus, all the way through. It’s been a lot.”

The season had to take its toll on the 60-year-old Lewis, who saw a promising 4-1 start slip through his fingers. The Bengals looked like they had the makings of a promising team in September, with a defense that could force turnovers and an offense that seemed poised behind Dalton, who flourished under new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.

The Bengals forced last-minute turnovers to seal wins against the Colts and Ravens. They defeated the Falcons on the road with a game-winning drive after Tyler Eifert, John Ross and Giovani Bernard all went down. They scored 17 straight points to upend the Dolphins. It seemed they were on their way to being something special.

“Even in camp we thought this year would be different,” Bernard said. “I’m sure every team says the same thing, but we really believed that at the beginning of the season. Guys go down. Next man has to step and we just couldn’t keep up with that. But we definitely felt in the beginning of the season we had a roster full of playmakers.”

But if the Bengals were being honest, they probably would have admitted it all went south on Oct. 14 when they failed to hold off the Steelers in the final 1:18. The Steelers have always been Lewis’ albatross, and his failure to beat them will define his legacy as much as his 0-7 playoff record.

“We started out at 4-1 and then we could’ve won that Pittsburgh game and been 5-1 but after that it was just downhill from there,” Preston Brown said. “I think once we get over that Pittsburgh hump, we can beat anybody. So we’ve got to find a way to win those type of games.”

When the Bengals gave up another heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh, it was not only the beginning of the end for defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who was fired less than a month later, but it embodied the lack of change that had come to define the Lewis era.

It got worse quickly. The Bengals had no answer for the Chiefs or the Saints, who blew them off the field. They struggled against rookie quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. Their inspired performance against the Chargers was stymied by coaching decisions that seemed desperate at the time.

Although Lewis had always erred on the conservative side of two-point conversions and fourth-down tries, he flipped the script against the Chargers and failed in what ended up as a four-point loss. The Bengals didn’t seem to be able to do anything right.

Vontaze Burfict, who was once considered their best linebacker, was kept off the field due to suspensions and injuries and played poorly when he was on the field. Eighteen players ended up on injured reserve, and the Bengals lost their quarterback, two best receivers, two starting linebackers and their best tight end.

There was also Austin’s departure and a scramble to try to correct a defense that was on the path to being one of the worst in NFL history. Lewis took up the coordinator position with almost childlike enthusiasm and optimism. Lewis, who once coordinated one of the best defenses in NFL history in Baltimore, seemed positive he could turn things around.

Slowly the defense appeared to right itself toward the end of the season, but too much time had been wasted. Paul Brown Stadium was half filled to see the Bengals’ final win of the season on Dec. 16, the same day the team was eliminated from playoff contention.

And even though it was clear the remaining players were still giving it their best, the weight of the failures from the previous years and the frustration of the fan base were the final nails in the coffin. At the end of the day, the best the Bengals had to give simply wasn’t enough anymore.

“I worked my tail off. Everybody has,” Lewis said simply when asked if he was given every chance to succeed.

In his final comments on Monday morning, Lewis said he was proud of his work with the Marvin Lewis Community Fund. He thanked reporters for the coverage over the years. He told everyone he still hoped to coach but didn’t know what the future would bring.

Lewis shook hands, gave out a few hugs, then walked through the locker room in the direction of his office, perhaps to pack up his things. For the first time in 16 years, the Bengals and Lewis were looking toward a future that didn’t include each other.

“I wish I had all of you working [here] for another month [in the playoffs], as I know you want to work, and I certainly do too,” Lewis said. “That’s what I told the rookies today — imagine this is what you want. You want today to be an off day because you’re maybe playing a Saturday night home playoff game. That is what you’re training for moving forward. They’ll get there. Thank you.”

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FRISCO, Texas — Jason Garrett can only be wrong this weekend.

If he doesn’t play most of his regulars in the Dallas Cowboys’ Week 17 regular-season finale against the New York Giants and a slow start dooms the Cowboys in the wild-card round of the playoffs, it will be Garrett’s fault.

If he plays most of his regulars against the Giants and a player like Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott or DeMarcus Lawrence gets hurt and dooms the Cowboys in the wild-card round of the playoffs, it will be Garrett’s fault.

“The overarching theme is really anyone who is healthy is going to play in the ballgame,” Garrett said. “Again, we’re going to prepare the right way and go try to play the right way in New York on Sunday.”

The unsaid was “how much.” Speaking on KRLD-FM 105.3 The Fan in Dallas on Wednesday, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin will not play because of a knee injury, which is a benefit of clinching a postseason spot with one week to go.

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will play Sunday, but for how long? Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports
The Cowboys (9-6) are locked in as the fourth seed in the NFC, so a win would not better their standing. A win would allow the Cowboys to finish the second half of the season with a 7-1 record, making them one of the hottest teams going into the postseason.

“This idea that you have a whole other team, we’re not going to play the starters, we’re going to play the backups, logistically, you can’t do that,” Garrett said. “The numbers don’t allow you to do that. We’re going to play our football team. Anybody who is healthy is going to play in this ballgame and play to the best of their ability. Our focus is on preparing the right way and then go play the right way and hopefully that will give us the best opportunity the following week in the first round of the playoffs.”

Sensing a trend in Garrett’s thought process yet?

Immediately after Sunday’s victory against the Buccaneers, Elliott, Prescott and other veterans said they wanted to play in the finale against the Giants. Three days later, that had not changed.

Elliott has 1,434 rushing yards, which gives him a 183-yard lead over Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams in his bid to win a second NFL rushing title in three seasons. Gurley did not play in Week 16 because of a knee injury and might not play Sunday. Elliott’s next-closest competitor is Saquon Barkley of the Giants at 1,198 yards.

“I don’t think I need to go to them and say that [he wants to play],” Elliott said. “I think we’re all on the same page.”

In addition to his 304 carries, Elliott leads the Cowboys with 77 receptions. In the Dec. 9 win against the Philadelphia Eagles, he had 40 touches (28 carries, 12 catches). Would he be OK with that kind of workload?

“Whatever it takes,” he said.

The only time Amari Cooper made it to the playoffs in his career before this season was in 2016 with the Oakland Raiders. Derek Carr suffered a broken fibula in Week 16 and missed the postseason. The Raiders were still fighting for home-field advantage or a potential first-round bye when Carr got hurt.

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The Raiders lost their season finale and then fell to the Houston Texans in the wild-card round.

“It was kind of bleak after he got hurt,” Cooper said.

So wouldn’t it be wise for the Cowboys to sit Prescott or at least not overexpose him?

“I mean, it’s football. Injuries, you have a 99 percent chance of getting hurt any time you go out there on the field,” Cooper said. “It’s just a question of when are you going to get hurt. So, me going out there worried about getting hurt, that’s usually when you go out there and get hurt because you play kind of timid.”

In 2014, the Cowboys had an outside shot to claim either home-field advantage or a first-round bye with a victory in the regular-season finale. Tony Romo played all but one snap. The rest of the regulars played a normal game in a 44-17 win against the Washington Redskins.

The Cowboys claimed their only playoff win of the Garrett era, beating the Detroit Lions in the wild-card round the following weekend.

Entering the 2016 regular-season finale at Philadelphia, the Cowboys had home-field advantage wrapped up and Prescott played 16 snaps, but starting offensive linemen Doug Free, Travis Frederick and Martin played all 56 snaps. Tyron Smith was inactive. Left guard Ronald Leary was active and did not play. Elliott was active and did not play a snap. On defense, Sean Lee was active but did not play.

The Cowboys lost to the Eagles that day and two weeks later lost in the divisional round to the Green Bay Packers.

Elliott did not think the layoff affected that team.

“But I also think this is a different team. We are built a little bit different,” Elliott said. “We definitely rely more on our intensity and how hard we play and be in a groove. This is the right thing to do.”

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The first two Sundays of the NFL season have been wildly entertaining. After an oft-frustrating 2017 season saw breakout stars Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz suffer torn ACLs and future Hall of Famers Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt miss most of the campaign with injuries of their own, 2018 has delivered all kinds of drama through two weeks.

The numbers also reflect an entertaining product. In 2017, the league was criticized for a decline in scoring, supposedly reflecting a dearth of young quarterback talent. It’s difficult to reconcile that with the creativity and pass-happy attacks you see in the college game on Saturdays, and indeed, that hasn’t been the case this season. Teams are averaging 5.6 yards per play and 23.6 points per game, up considerably from the 5.2 yards per play and 20.2 points per contest they were averaging a year ago. In 2013, the highest-scoring season in league history, offenses averaged 5.4 yards per play and 22.3 points per game through two weeks. The offenses are fine.

Week 2 in the NFL
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While some are frustrated with two ties in two weeks, we’ve also seen close, competitive games. Sixteen of the 31 games played so far have been decided by seven points or fewer, which is slightly better than the average of 14.7 we’ve seen since the league went to its current structure in 2002. In 2017, there were only 10 such games, which was the leaguewide low over that time period.

Nobody would argue that the league is perfect, but we’re seeing an entertaining NFL. Let’s run through some of the players and reasons why Week 2 was enjoyable, starting with the league’s most stunning individual star right now …
Jump to a player/team: Mahomes | Rams’ D | Fitzpatrick | Davis | Bortles | Browns | Barkley | Green | Sarkisian | Rodgers
Patrick Mahomes and the NFL’s best offense
I wrote quite a bit about Mahomes’ debut last week, and after a six-touchdown day against the Steelers, he has to be the league MVP through two weeks. The historical markers are stratospheric. Mahomes is the first player to throw for six touchdown passes in one of his first five games as a pro. He’s the first quarterback in league history to throw 10 touchdown passes across his first three games, and that’s even considering Mahomes didn’t throw a TD pass in his career debut last season in Week 17.
Patrick Mahomes has 10 touchdown passes in two weeks, the most by a quarterback in NFL history through his team’s first two games of a season. Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire
The Chiefs tipped a little more of their hand in terms of concepts on Sunday, but honestly, Week 1 was more exotic than what we saw from Andy Reid & Co. in Week 2, at least before the All-22 comes out. The Steelers just don’t have the horses to keep up with the league’s best arsenal of weapons. Travis Kelce had a massive game, a sad sign that the Steelers don’t yet have a replacement for Ryan Shazier to cover top tight ends like Kelce and Rob Gronkowski. He absolutely torched inside linebackers Jon Bostic and Vince Williams and was a mismatch going deeper against Sean Davis. Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is doing a great job with formation diversity and has weapons who can play against stereotypes. The Chiefs are comfortable coming out with multiple tight ends, keeping everyone in tight, and then using the threat of the jet sweep to open up passing lanes downfield. They’re also totally capable of spreading teams out and then using Mahomes’ mobility to escape the pocket or running with Kareem Hunt against a reduced box out of shotgun.

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They had their most explosive success spreading the Steelers thin. Reid stretched the field horizontally to isolate Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins on fades and back-shoulder fades against Artie Burns, who presumably had less help than Cameron Sutton, who started on the other side for the injured Joe Haden. Burns couldn’t match up one-on-one, but to be honest, few cornerbacks in the league are going to be able to keep up with that sort of speed while also trying to maintain run integrity on the edge. There’s also intense pressure to tackle these guys in the open field, which is going to be a monumental task given the team speed up and down this receiving corps. Watkins had his first 100-yard game and could have added a 39-yard touchdown, but Mahomes had his only bad miss of the day before throwing a touchdown pass to Kelce three plays later. The Steelers had the right playcall on a third-and-goal pressure and got Mahomes to make a simple swing pass to Hunt, but the star running back simply ran over rookie Terrell Edmunds en route to the end zone.

If you’re a defensive coordinator looking to stop Mahomes and this Chiefs offense, my advice would be to lobby the NFL to make some sort of schedule change to push your matchup to 2023 or so. At the very least, try to get a November or December time slot so you’ll at least get to see everything they’re doing on tape. We still haven’t really seen the Chiefs get their running game going for big chunks of yardage with Hunt or Mahomes. When that shows up, you may just want to resign and wait for your team to hire Bieniemy to take over as coach.

In reality, there are ways teams will attack the Chiefs, although it’s going to be tough. The right defense is going to be able to drop seven in coverage and get pressure with its front four, given that pressure has greatly reduced Mahomes’ effectiveness through two games. When teams don’t bother the second-year quarterback, he has posted a league-best passer rating of 151.9 while completing 78.9 percent of his passes, averaging 11 yards per attempt, and throwing nine touchdown passes. When teams do get pressure, Mahomes’ passer rating falls to 101.6 percent, mostly because he completes only 47.1 percent of his throws. Mahomes looks incredibly smooth in the pocket, a testament to the work he has done in practice, but when teams bother him, we see a bit of the mercurial Mahomes from Texas Tech reappear.

 

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It was Peterman’s strong performance in OTAs and June minicamp that led to my prediction in June that Peterman should be considered a serious contender to start, and Peterman’s statistics this preseason did little to slow that momentum. He finished the preseason 33-of-41 passing for 431 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, including a 9-of-10 stat line when leading the Bills’ first-team offense against the Carolina Panthers’ first-team defense.

From OTAs in May through Peterman’s final preseason appearance Aug. 26, there were no meltdowns and few errant passes that would suggest he has not recovered from what was one of the worst starting quarterback debuts in NFL history.

That steadiness made Peterman the best choice to at least begin to navigate a schedule for the Bills that includes five out of their first eight games on the road before Buffalo hosts the New England Patriots on “Monday Night Football” in Week 8.

McDermott’s mistake in starting Peterman last season on the road against the Chargers should be reason for McDermott to turn to Peterman again to start this season instead of Allen, a rookie.

While McDermott’s call to bench Taylor for Peterman might have come out of the blue to some outside of Buffalo, the idea had been hotly debated around town since Peterman showed flashes of potential last preseason and in leading the Bills on a touchdown drive late during a blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints a week prior to starting in Los Angeles.

McDermott faced pressure from some segments of the fan base in turning to Peterman last year, much like some Bills fans will be upset Allen is not the opening-day starter after he wowed fans with his arm strength and pocket presence at times this preseason.

But overall, Allen’s body of work from spring practices through the preseason was not nearly as consistent as Peterman’s. Throwing Allen into the fire during a road-heavy first-half schedule and behind an offensive line that allowed Allen to be sacked five times during his lone preseason start Aug. 26 would be a recipe for trouble and, perhaps, grumbling in the locker room.

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They have options. This isn’t 2013, when the only healthy quarterback was rookie Geno Smith. This isn’t 2009, when the only competition for rookie Mark Sanchez was the marginally talented Kellen Clemens. The Jets have two starting-caliber quarterbacks in Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater, a couple of wise heads who could hold the fort until the Darnold era commences.

Coach Todd Bowles always says he will start the quarterback who gives them the best chance to win now. That’s “the main factor,” he said. Based on that premise, Bridgewater should be the guy. He was terrific in the first two preseason games, bringing energy, poise and production to the offense. His surgically repaired knee felt so good Thursday night that he actually didn’t mind getting banged around by potential tacklers, prompting a funny remark from an incredulous Bowles.

“I told him I have a neighborhood where he can go and get hit quite a bit if he wants to get hit,” Bowles said.

Bridgewater’s candidacy is atypical because there’s a chance he could get traded. If the Jets are comfortable with Darnold and McCown, they will listen to offers, perhaps hoping to flip Bridgewater for an enticing draft pick.

Even though he’s only 25, Bridgewater can’t be the Jets’ future because they’ve invested so much in Darnold, so it’s a one-and-done situation. If they can secure a third-round pick from a quarterback-needy team, they should make the trade and open the season with McCown, who has shown no signs of slippage in limited practice and game action.

McCown and Bridgewater are here for a reason. It would be shortsighted to ignore them.

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OXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots’ decision to part ways with third-year wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell on Monday appears to be a situation where the club waited as long as it felt it could for his knee to reach a point where both were comfortable before making a roster move. Time just ran out.

Until Mitchell practiced regularly, his place on the team’s depth chart was questionable. The receiver position has been one of the top stories of training camp as the Patriots transition without Danny Amendola and Brandin Cooks, and plan for life without Julian Edelman for the first four games.
The Patriots decided to cut ties with Malcolm Mitchell, who has been unable to come back from a knee injury that kept him out all of last season. Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
Here are some of my thoughts on the way the depth chart looks:

Edelman (5-foot-10, 198 pounds): The clear-cut No. 1 option, he has been hard on himself for a few drops in practice and said this past Friday that his legs aren’t yet where they need to be as he returns from a torn ACL that cost him the 2017 season.

Chris Hogan (6-1, 210): He has usually aligned opposite Edelman in the two-receiver set and has also taken some punt returns. Given his familiarity with Tom Brady, he figures to be leaned on a bit more during Edelman’s absence.

Phillip Dorsett (5-10, 192): He’s been one of the notable performers of the first 10 practices — at times breaking off to a second field with Brady and a few others — and it’s hard to imagine him not on the initial 53-man roster at this point. His versatility to align in all the spots adds to his value and he’s clearly more comfortable in 2018 after having a full offseason with the Patriots.