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Buffalo at a crossroads; Broncos' Bradley Roby breaking out
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills are 4-4, a record that suggests mediocrity and is exactly what folks at One Bills Drive would tell you they deserve.
The Bills have lost two games in a row, turning the glow of a four-game winning streak into a grim reminder that nothing comes easily here.
In Sunday's postgame, after his team fell to the Patriots, coach Rex Ryan raised eyebrows (mine, at least) by essentially conceding the AFC East to New England. (Though a look at the standings andTom Brady's surgical precision tells us Rex was stating the obvious.) Still, a wild-card berth for the Billsis not impossible -- and it would be welcomed in Western New York like winning Powerball and Mega Millions with the same ticket. (Going 16 years without a playoff appearance leaves scars.) There is, however, much work to do, and the head coach walked a dangerous plank in labeling Monday night's upcoming game in Seattle a must-win. (A must-win in front of the highly caffeinated 12s? Yikes.)
In Ryan's second season in Buffalo, players say the transition is complete, the buy-in universal. "We didn't adjust as fast as we wanted to last year," outside linebacker Jerry Hughes told me.
Unexpected contributions have helped. Journeyman Lorenzo Alexander -- a special teams stalwart -- has emerged as a star in his 10th season and on his fifth different roster. Even after not completing Sunday's loss to the Patriots because of a hamstring injury, Alexander leads the league with nine sacks and was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Month for October.
"Now I'm getting the opportunity to play," Alexander told me. "The scheme fits my skillset very well. I have great players around me. When you have guys moving quarterbacks off the spot, playing fast and playing hard, you can get some sacks."
(That he became the first Buffalo Billsdefender to win the award since defensive end Mario Williams in November 2014 is ironic; the unwillingness of Williams, who was released in March and ended up with the Dolphins, to adjust to Rex's defense last season gave the entire franchise a season-long migraine.)
"He's such a pro," Ryan said of Alexander, "and such a great person in the locker room and everywhere else."
"What a success story," defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman raved during our conversation.
There are, of course, issues. Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets somehow put together their one sound outing of the season against the Bills on a Thursday night in early September at New Era Field. "Beyond embarrassing," Rex recently said of that loss to the team he once coached.
In their Week 7 win, the Dolphins gashed Buffalo for 256 rushing yards. "An aberration," Thurman said. "We can't let it happen again."
And Brady led the Patriots to a comfortable 41-25 win in Orchard Park on Sunday. On third down, Brady was a ridiculous 8 for 8 for 149 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
"That kills you," defensive lineman Leger Douzable told me.
In the past couple of weeks, the Bills have welcomed back to their defense veteran Marcell Dareus(who missed four games because of a suspension and three with a hamstring injury) and rookie Shaq Lawson (who missed six games after undergoing shoulder surgery in March), though Dareus is dealing with a groin injury this week. The Bills believe they may have to curtail Alexander's snaps; when not pursuing quarterbacks, he's on the kickoff, punt and punt return teams.
They can cross their fingers that receiver Sammy Watkins (foot), who has missed six games and counting, could return from injured reserve. They'll have to wait 'til next year for rookie linebackerReggie Ragland (who suffered a torn ACL in training camp) to make his debut.
In Seattle, Ryan sees a defense whose "temperament" he admires -- "Love the way they play," he said -- one that will challenge his offense, which has been decimated in terms of playmakers.
On Tuesday, the Bills signed former receiver Percy Harvin, who ended his short retirement, in hopes that he can still catch and run -- and help immediately.
The Bills' best playmaker, running backLeSean McCoy, has been limited to 11 rushing yards the past two weeks. He left the Miami game with a hamstring injury and was inactive against thePatriots.
In some seasons, McCoy would rest this week and come back after the Bills' bye in Week 10. Not this season. If McCoy can play Monday, he will. The Bills need him. Check that. They really need him.
McCoy practiced on a limited basis Thursday and told reporters: "I feel a lot better than I have."
These days, it's not easy to be patient in Orchard Park. McCoy feeling better? That ranks as really good news.
-- Kimberly Jones
And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL Media's reporters:
NFL: Puzzled by penalties. If there is a subject that amuses and confuses players, it is the sharp uptick in penalties for excessive celebrations -- which last Sunday included an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who hugged an official while celebrating a fumble return for a touchdown against the Saints, and which has also ensnared players for everything from shooting a pretend jump shot to twerking. The NFL has made excessive celebrations a point of officiating emphasis this season, and the results are obvious in the numbers. Nineteen such penalties have been called so far this season, up from 11 last season. But some players wonder if the crackdown is hurting the league as much as it is helping.
"I understand the spirit of the rule," said Geoff Schwartz, the veteran offensive lineman who was released before the start of the season by the Lions. "It's all about protecting the image of the league. However, I think we can distinguish between a planned celebration, i.e., a Sharpie in the sock, and a benign celebration because a guy just out ran a whole pack of men trying to violently tackle him. People watch to be entertained, and fans enjoy when guys show passion, excitement and let loose. We should be able to find a happy medium."
-- Judy Battista
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2016 Awards Predictions & Playoff Forecast
Midseason All-Pro Team
Quarterback Rankings: From No. 1 to 32
Next Three GMs, Head Coaches
Top 25 Rookies
The Debrief: Midseason Roundup
Nine Biggest Statements at Midpoint
Bubble Teams Poised for Playoff Run
ATLANTA FALCONS: Surviving sloppiness ... so far. The Falcons' victory last Sunday over thePackers eased some concerns that the team was going to embark on another tailspin after a hot start. But the win after two straight close losses did not erase one alarming trend.
Among members of the organization is the acknowledgement that the team is undisciplined in the form of penalties -- a problem that contributed to those two consecutive losses, and which did not abate even against the Packers. The Falcons were penalized seven times against Green Bay (there were nine against the Chargers in Week 7 and eightagainst the Seahawks in Week 6), including consecutive illegal formation penalties on the first drive of the game. On Thursday night, though, the Falcons' penalty tally slightly decreased to six in their 43-28 win over the Bucs.
The worry is that late-game penalties put more pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan, who then felt pressed to make a play -- and instead threw late interceptions in both of the losses. The good news for the Falcons is that the scenario did not repeat itself against the Packers. Yes, Atlanta drew a penalty for having 12 men on the field on a play in which Green Bay failed to pick up the first down on third-and-4 from the Falcons' 18-yard line. Three plays later, the Packers scored to take the lead -- setting up Ryan's interception-free game-winning drive.
-- Judy Battista
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BALTIMORE RAVENS: Pitta impressing peers. Steelers safety Mike Mitchell offered about the highest praise of Dennis Pitta the Ravens tight end could hope for when he said, "I can't tell."
As in, he can't tell that Pitta didn't play for nearly two full years. And he can't tell that Pitta twice fractured and dislocated his hip, or that he's just two months removed from a broken finger.
"He looks really good. He IS really good," Mitchell said. Pitta has 38 catches for 335 yards through seven games in 2016, and he hasn't appeared to have lost any of the chemistry he so notably shared with quarterback Joe Flacco. Which doesn't surprise Mitchell: "That's because he has an elite above-the-neck game."
-- Aditi Kinkhabwala
Rivalry short on spice? Absurdly close games. (Twelve of the last 19 meetings have been decided by a field goal or less.) Unpredictable outcomes. (In December 2015, a 4-10 Ravens team on a three-game losing streak faced a 9-5 Steelers squad fighting for playoff berth and ... the Ravens won.) Genuine animosity. (Steelers left guard Ramon Foster: "This is the game you want to kick somebody's ass.") And respect. (Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs: "You had to become a different kind of player when you played them.")
The Ravens-Steelers rivalry still ticks off all the boxes -- and yet, some of the sexiness to the matchup seems dulled ahead of the next installment Sunday. Players in both cities this week freely speculated as to why. Some said the Ravens' lack of recent success was part of it. Some said it's the NFL's move toward high scores and away from smashmouth defensive battles. Some said it's because there's no identifiable villains. (Like the Steelers' Joey Porter, who once climbed on the Ravens' team bus, challenging Ray Lewis to a fight. Or the Ravens' James Trapp, who stomped on Plaxico Burress' head.)
That last one got the most traction, as Suggs talked about "absolutely" missing former Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward (whose crack-blocks prompted annual charges of dirty play from former Ravenssafety Ed Reed) and how he feels a responsibility to teach younger Ravens that "this game has the potential to define you."
Foster agreed with Suggs that the game needs a few more nasty characters. But Foster's teammate, defensive end Cam Heyward, said it's too early to lament the loss of them. As he put it, "Sunday is still a few days away. We'll see if there are a few new ones out there."
-- Aditi Kinkhabwala
Mike Wallace ready to reckon with Pittsburgh past. The Steelers drafted Mike Wallace. It was with the Steelers that Wallace became a star. And it was the Steelers who ultimately decided they didn't want to award Wallace a fat, new contract, instead inking Antonio Brown to one during Wallace's 2012 training camp holdout.
All that history, and Wallace, now a Raven, said it's hard to fully feel the disgust expected in this rivalry.
"It's kind of hard for me to just sit up here and tell you I hate them, because I really don't," he said. "I don't know if I could ever just hate them because of all the stuff I've been through in that organization."
Of course, it's easy for Wallace to feel magnanimous right now. After less-than-transcendent years in Miami and Minnesota, he is having a bit of a renaissance in Baltimore. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin talked this week about how Wallace is running a much bigger route tree than he did as a Steeler, and that he's seeing the always-speedy receiver "doing some new things."
-- Aditi Kinkhabwala
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CLEVELAND BROWNS: Pryor trying to stay positive. On a conference call with reporters Wednesday, wide receiver Terrell Pryor admitted that injuries at the quarterback position have hurt the winless Browns, as six different players, including Pryor himself, have rotated under center. "It's tough when you don't have a specific guy in there every single game getting the same timing down," said Pryor.
This week, rookie wide receiver Corey Coleman, who has missed the past six games with a broken hand, returns. Pryor said he was excited to get Coleman back to relieve the pressure from opposing defenses. "These past seven weeks, it's double-team almost every play ... except last week, [Jets corner Darrelle] Revis played me pretty head-up the whole game, but now that they have to focus a little on Corey, and [tight end] Gary Barnidge is making some plays down the middle and outside ... I'm so excited, because they can't just focus on me, because Corey will burn them," said Pryor.
As for who the quarterback will be against the Cowboys on Sunday, that's still a mystery. Josh McCowngot the start last weekend in the loss to the Jets, but rookie quarterback Cody Kessler has beencleared to play after going through the league's concussion protocol. Head coach Hue Jackson is playing his cards close to the vest. "We'll go through the week a little more. You know both guys got to practice, good to have Cody back out there, and we'll know more as we get through the week," saidJackson.
-- Jane Slater
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DALLAS COWBOYS: Prescott still the man -- for now. After helping Dallas to a 6-1 record, rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has won the respect of his coaches, teammates and, this week, the thumbs-up from owner Jerry Jones.
On Sunday, NBC's Mike Tirico reported that Jones told him, "There's no urgency to make a decision. Romo is not ready to play yet. When Romo is healthy, the decision will be, 'What's best for the team.' " Jones then added, "When you have a hot hand, you have to ride it."
Tuesday, Jones took it a step further in comments to radio station 105.3 FM.
"Tony [Romo] has no issue with doing what's best for the team -- absolutely no issue with doing what's best for the team," Jones said. "If you really step back and look at it, it has everything to do with our ability to try to have more success than we've had, let's say even in Tony's career relative to this year, and how this thing might end up. When you've got it going, we know these things can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for everybody involved."
When asked about those statements from his boss Wednesday, Prescott said it wouldn't affect how he goes about his day, but he did once again maintain the primacy of No. 9. "This is Tony's team. I'll say that as long as I'm here and how this season is going. Tony does a good job of just helping me out and controlling my mindset and helping me out after the games. Hard for me to say it's Tony's team, it's my team, it's anybody's team. It's a true team, and everybody's playing a part in it," Prescott said.
-- Jane Slater
Prescott getting his feet back under him. Prescott called last Sunday's win over the Eagles his "sloppiest" game yet. He said Philly's rush affected his footwork, and that he wasn't leading with his back foot the way he should, but after looking at pictures on the sideline, he was able to take note and readjust. Footwork has been a point of emphasis in practice this week, and Prescott said backup quarterback Mark Sanchez was constantly reminding him of the importance of footwork in Wednesday's practice.
-- Jane Slater
Elliott getting the jump on defenders. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott -- who fell below the 100-yard mark for the first time since Week 2 on Sunday -- said that he liked his yards after contact and established a lot of "dirty runs." He also explained why we have been seeing him hurdle over so many defenders: He said it had to do with the physical tone he sets in games.
"I wouldn't say I look for contact, but during the game, there has to be a moment where you set the tone and let them know you're a physical player, and when you let those defensive backs know you're a physical player, they don't really want to tackle you. That's why you see me get a hurdle every game -- those guys don't want to tackle me when I get to the second level," said Elliott.
-- Jane Slater
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DENVER BRONCOS: Roby ready to break out. While many would say the Broncos have the best cornerback duo in the NFL (Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr.), the belief within Denver's locker room is that they have three elite corners.
"He's the best athlete on the entire team," Talib told me, regarding third corner Bradley Roby, who was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 8 after starting in place of an injured Talib.
"I'm definitely up there," Roby said. Then he smiled and added, "I think I'm one of the best athletes in the world."
The 2014 first-round pick, who is regularly the last player off the practice field, feels he's twice as good as the player he was his rookie year, because of the influences of Harris and Talib. Every day, Roby, who admits he didn't know how to properly watch film his rookie season, soaks in everything he can from two of the NFL's biggest film junkies.
"I didn't think about none of this s---," Roby said, explaining how he viewed the mental aspect of playing cornerback before entering the NFL. "I didn't read formations; I didn't do anything. I just played man and played Cover 4. It was nothing else."
Roby said he's being patient with his development, but he feels he can be an All-Pro down the road.
"I'm a guy that came in and I got here off athletic ability," Roby said. "Now I am cultivating that whole side of it to add that onto my athletic ability. I'm a pro now."
-- James Palmer
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HOUSTON TEXANS: Johnson was a truly special player. Andre Johnson retired this week after 14 brilliant seasons with the Texans, Colts and Titans. He is the greatest player in the history of theHouston Texans franchise and, in my mind, a Hall of Famer. His rare combination of speed and size was accompanied by a tireless work ethic.
For several years in Houston, I covered Johnson on a daily basis. What I remember most was Andre Johnson the person -- always accountable, honest, accessible. Johnson's former head coach, Gary Kubiak, who is now at the helm in Denver, perhaps said it best.
"It's as fine a combination football player, person, that I've ever been around," Kubiak told me Monday, the day Johnson retired.
One story comes to mind that to me sums up who Johnson is. It was Halloween day in 2013, and just like on any other day, the locker room was open to the media. I spotted Johnson at his locker filling a trash bag with pair after pair of his receiver gloves. I was curious.
" 'Dre, you throwing all of those gloves out?" I asked the quiet yet always approachable All-Pro.
"Nah; every year with my candy, I hand out my old gloves to the kids in the neighborhood trick-or-treating," Johnson said with a half-smile.
Watching Johnson play on Sundays was an experience. But seeing first-hand the countless trips to women's shelters he supported or the Christmas shopping spree he sponsored every year for roughly a dozen kids is what I'll remember most about Andre Johnson. I'll remember the person.
-- James Palmer
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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Simple approach leads to streaking success. The Kansas City Chiefs have won 15 of their last 17 regular-season games. That's best in the NFL over that span. In 2015, they closed out the season with 10 straight wins. In 2013, they started the season with a nine-game win streak.
Why is Andy Reid so successful at stringing together wins? Eagles head coach Doug Pederson, who was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City during both of those streaks, told me this week their game plan during the streaks in 2013 and 2015 was to "simplify everything."
When opposing teams would overthink or over-analyze what was making the Chiefs' offense successful, the coaching staff in Kansas City would just backtrack and ask themselves, "What has made Alex [Smith] successful during this run?" Pederson said. "What ways have we already found to get Jeremy [Maclin] the ball? Let's just go back and do that."
The Chiefs are riding a three-game win streak, and in the next three weeks, they play the Jaguars,Panthers and Buccaneers. Kansas City could have a six-game win streak heading into the Nov. 27 showdown in Denver with the Broncos. The AFC West could be the division to watch as we head down the stretch.
-- James Palmer
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NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Starting to gain momentum? Even before they knocked off visiting Seattlelast week, Saints coaches and players told me that they felt confident that they are about to go on a run. Of course, the offense is the basis for any optimism, but players and coaches also told me that they felt the defense is coming around. Then there's this: First-round pick Sheldon Rankins, a defensive tackle who's been out all year with a fractured fibula, is set to return to help the cause for a team that has won three of its last four games.
This Sunday's game at San Francisco -- one that the Saints should seemingly win, given the state of the 49ers -- will be telling, in regards to how much optimism there should be in New Orleans, which is brimming from the overall well-played victory over theSeahawks.
A Saints coach told me that they put an inordinate amount of preparation into figuring out a game plan against theSeahawks' defense. The game was also important to a lot of people on the team, with that same coach telling me that the game "was circled" when the schedule was released. No reason was given, but it could go back to the Seahawks' victory over New Orleans in the 2013 playoffs.
After putting so much emphasis on that game, will the Saints, who are 1-2 on the road, regain similar focus against the 49ers? If they can't, they'll confirm that they are the same inconsistent team they've been. If they play well and win, New Orleans will be a team to watch as a playoff contender.
-- Steve Wyche
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SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Rawls ready to rejuvenate running game? Running back Thomas Rawls' eventual return from a leg injury can't come soon enough. Two coaches told me that he should be medically cleared to increase his workload to hard surfaces and some football-related activities soon. He could be back in the field in a few weeks, if not sooner.
Rawls sees the blocking schemes and daylight better than Seattle running backs Christine Michael and C.J. Prosise. He's also a tougher runner, which is the biggest thing, both coaches said. Seattle's running game calls for its backs to break tackles and evade defenders in tight spaces. That is not happening enough. Rawls also finishes runs with pop, something else that is not happening without him. The running game has suffered, as has Seattle's punchless offense.