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Eric Berry driving the Chiefs; Antonio Brown vs. Odell Beckham
With Week 13 of the NFL season upon us, NFL.com's network of reporters gets you up to speed with the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
» Why did Logan Thomas suddenly become such a hot name around the league?
» How Adam Gase has turned around the Dolphins' season.
» Big Ben almost a Giant?
But first, a look at how a Chiefs leader is making the most of what he has ...
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Until recently, to say All-Pro safety Eric Berry has a fear of horses would have been a gross understatement. But as Berry sat on the Chiefs' bench last Sunday night in Denver, the four-time Pro Bowler couldn't have cared less when the Broncos' mascot -- Thunder, a purebred Arabian that storms the field after Broncos touchdowns -- strutted just feet away from him. Perhaps he's learned to contain his fear after playing seven seasons with a team that has its own horse for a mascot. Perhaps he's overcome something much more frightening, with the result being that nothing scares him anymore.
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Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphomaduring the 2014 season. He relentlessly fought the toughest opponent of his life and shocked his doctors when he not only returned to the field in 2015 but went to the Pro Bowl and won the most deserving Comeback Player of the Year award in recent memory.
"The heartbeat of Eric Berry was in all of us," Chiefshead coach Andy Reid said in his opening statement following the epic overtime win over the Broncos last Sunday night. "Eric's on the back end getting everybody going and motivating. That's why I tip my hat off to him for the job that he's done."
It goes deeper than just saying as Berry goes, so go the Chiefs. Immediately following the win, Reid addressed the team with a few words. Then he turned it over to Berry. And by the time the media was allowed in the locker room some 20 minutes after the game, you wouldn't have known if the Chiefs had won or lost, or if it was a Wednesday during Week 2 of training camp. The vibe was that of a group of men who had just finished a successful business trip and were on to the next one. Because that's what Berry preaches.
"It just shows that we know how to win when the game is on the line," Berry said in the far back corner of the visiting locker room dressed in black from head to toe. "That's it, though. I'm looking down the road. That's just how I rock, period."
It's not just another cliché answer when Berry says it, either. His actions coincide with what he says to the media and his teammates. On the plane ride back to Kansas City -- takeoff came well past midnight -- Berry spent the flight studying film in an effort to correct the defensive mistakes that sent the game to overtime in the first place. Berry would already have a head start on the Falcons -- the Chiefs' opponent this Sunday -- before the wheels touched the ground. Hours later, he'd meet with coaches to game plan for Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.
For much of the season, Berry had been leading a defense that was playing without one of the best -- if not the best -- edge pass rushers in the league. Because of offseason ACL surgery, Justin Houstondidn't play his first game of 2016 until Week 11. Last Sunday, in his second game back, Houston recorded 10 tackles, three sacks, four quarterback hits and four tackles for loss; he also caused a fumble in the end zone that led to a safety.
"You haven't seen anything yet," Berry told me. "He's just getting his feet wet."
Just getting his feet wet? OK.
"I'm biased when it comes to Justin, but that's the best pass rusher in the league," Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali told me after the game. "He comes out, he proves it. He dominated that first half. Hats off to him. He worked so hard, came back from two surgeries. People don't really know what he went through, and I'm really proud to see what he's done."
Reid had an idea Houston would break out against the Broncos. Houston told his head coach that in the fourth quarter against the Buccaneers the week prior, he had mentally adjusted back to the speed of the game after missing so much time. The scary part is, Kansas City hasn't had Houston and Dee Ford -- who, before sitting out the game against Denver with a hamstring injury suffered in Week 11, was tied for the NFL lead in sacks -- on the field together and healthy for a full game yet this season.
On Sunday, Berry will be lined up on the back end of a Chiefs defense that leads the NFL in takeaways heading into the week, trying to tame the league's highest-scoring offense. Reid said he saw Berry play with an added purpose against Denver last Sunday. That might be nothing compared to this week. For the first time in his career, the Georgia native will be playing in front of his hometown crowd.
But he's won in Atlanta before. Fittingly, in the city where he received his treatment, he'll take the field wearing purple cleats in honor of all those fighting cancer.
Maybe Berry is the one who is just getting started. Maybe he's the one who is just getting his feet wet.
-- James Palmer
And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL.com's reporters:
NFL: The origin of this week's cleat expression. The Broncos' Von Miller has eye charts all over the cleats he'll wear this weekend because his foundation, Von's Vision, provides low-income children with glasses. Anthony Barr, during the Vikings' game Thursday night, wore a pair with the tattoo-inspired art of "Mom" over a heart, to showcase his Raise the Barr foundation, which supports single mothers seeking higher education.
The Flint, Michigan, water crisis (Brandon Carr), the homeless (Emmanuel Sanders), awareness for sickle cell (Devin and Jason McCourty) and prostate cancer (Jaylen Watkins) -- the list of causes illustrated on game cleats this week is almost as long as that of NFL players. It's all part of the NFL's #MyCauseMyCleats initiative, which allows players to break with the league's uniform policy for this one week. And it all started with Steelers cornerback William Gay.
Two years ago, Gay began wearing a pair of purple cleats in October, a solitary effort to draw attention to the scourge of domestic violence. Gay's mother was shot and killed by her husband when he was a child, and while much of the rest of the league was wearing sanctioned pink that month (to raise awareness of breast cancer), the then-eighth-year pro felt raising awareness of domestic violence was as worthy. Ike Taylor, a teammate at the time, dared the NFL to fine Gay, offering to pay any he received.
Gay was not fined in 2014. But last October, he pulled out the cleats again and -- although he had filmed a PSA for the NFL on the issue -- he was indeed fined $5,787. He did not appeal. Gay very frankly told me then that he had broken the NFL uniform policy and so he had to pay. And then he told me his wish: that the NFL would allow players one free weekend to highlight whatever cause was closest to their hearts.
A year later, the NFL is doing exactly that. Gay said no one from the league ever called him to discuss his proposal, and he didn't want to take credit for first lobbying for this, but his teammates said the credit is his due -- especially DeAngelo Williams, who lockers a few stalls down from Gay and who is credited with being the progenitor of the league's breast cancer awareness month.
"It took them a year, but it's a step," Williams said.
Gay, his purple cleats at the ready in his locker, smiled. He agreed, calling the weekend "a good first step," and then, pointing over at his shoes, said, "I'm just glad I won't get fined for wearing them Sunday."
-- Aditi Kinkhabwala
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ATLANTA FALCONS: Immovable object, meet unstoppable force ... This will be only the second time in history that the Chiefs and Falcons both have winning records when they face each other. But this has the makings of a classic battle of styles.
The Falcons have the NFL's top scoring offense, while and the Chiefs have the best scoring defense since Week 6, allowing just 17.4 points per game in that span. They also lead the league with 24 takeaways.
The likely matchup to watch is Falconsreceiver Julio Jones against Chiefscornerback Marcus Peters. In the last two seasons, Peters has been the most productive cornerback in the NFL, with 13 interceptions and 41 passes defensed. In that same period, Jones has 3,011 receiving yards and 15 100-yard games. Peters has been highly successful when matched up on an opposing team's No. 1 receiver, allowing just one touchdown (to Houston's DeAndre Hopkins) and seven receptions (two to Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin, two to Oakland's Amari Cooper and three to Hopkins; Indianapolis' T.Y. Hilton, Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and the Jets' Brandon Marshallwere shut out). In three games when Jones has been covered by elite cornerbacks, his numbers have fallen off. Against Arizona's Patrick Peterson, Seattle's Richard Sherman and Denver's Aqib Talib, Jones had one touchdown and eight receptions on 12 targets.
-- Judy Battista
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BUFFALO BILLS: Position switch makes Thomas a prize. Within a few days of letting teams know he was switching from quarterback to tight end, Logan Thomas signed with the Lions' practice squad and then, a day later, to the Bills' active roster. Why did all of that happen so quickly? Because teams had been begging Thomas to make the switch and told the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder they'd jump at the chance to let him play tight end, according to a person who was brought in on the process when Thomas was still adamant he wanted to be a quarterback.
The person said Buffalo and Detroit were joined by a handful of teams that tried to sign Thomas this week, and that the Bills were able to quickly pry Thomas away from the Lions because they gave him a decent signing bonus ($75,000) as part of his deal. Signing bonuses for contracts signed this late in the season are rare, especially for a player who has never lined up at the position he's been signed to play.
-- Mike Garafolo
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MIAMI DOLPHINS: Gase getting tough. In the annals of player discipline, this might be a first: Dolphins coach Adam Gase released a player during practice Wednesday. Defensive tackle Leon Orrwas at practice when the team learned that he had been arrested on drug charges the day before, during the players' day off. When Gase was told of the news -- while on the practice field -- he released Orr immediately.
"We're in the middle of the season," said Gase, whose Dolphins face the Ravens in a critical AFC game Sunday. "We have priorities, and this is the No. 1 priority. If guys have other priorities, then they can go about their business somewhere else."
Oh. Gase also had some choice quotes in a conference call with Ravens reporters. When he was asked what has contributed to the Dolphins' six-game win streak, he seemed to point a finger at former Dolphins coach Joe Philbin and what might have been a tolerance for a lack of discipline that Gase was unwilling to accept.
"It starts really with we've eliminated all of the type of nonsense that most of the teams around the NFL [don't] have during the week -- guys being late, guys getting fined, having practices that really are not energetic, and you're not getting things done the way you need to," Gase said on the call. "We've really turned around as far as a maturity standpoint of our younger guys doing things right, our veterans doing a good job of showing these guys the right way to do things, day in and day out. I think that's been our biggest turnaround as far as just doing all of the things leading up to the game, and then on Sunday, that's at least giving us our best chance to know what to do and to execute our game plan."
When asked if players had been trying to take advantage of a rookie head coach, Gase was even more blunt.
"No," he said. "I think that's how it has been here for the last how many whatever years. That's just what it was."
Whatever it was, it is apparently mostly gone. The Dolphins are 7-4 and currently in the sixth AFC playoff spot.
-- Judy Battista
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NEW YORK GIANTS: Big Ben with Big Blue? Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, two quarterbacks forever intertwined by the 2004 NFL Draft, meet Sunday for only the fourth time in their 13 NFL years.
In 2004, one of them was going to be a New York Giant. If general manager Ernie Accorsi hadn't been able to swing the almost-to-the-wire trade with the Chargers, Roethlisberger would have been the Giants' pick at No. 4 overall.
"Yeah, we really thought that it was a possibility," Ben said this week. "But everything works out for a reason."
Their careers are success stories.
The two rank in the top 10 all-time in passing touchdowns; Manning is seventh with 314, Roethlisberger 10th with 295. They are the only pair of QBs selected in the first round of the same draft that both went on to win multiple Super Bowls as starters.
"Our paths haven't crossed that much," Manning said. "[But] I have a lot of respect for him and his game."
Roethlisberger said he'd be "lying if I didn't say, 'His durability,' " when asked about Manning's strengths. Manning will start his 195th consecutive regular-season game Sunday. "He's got one of the most awesome ironman streaks going in never missing a game, and that's just so impressive, to play this position for as long as he has never missing a game -- that's so awesome and a compliment to his work ethic."
This season -- Manning is 35, Roethlisberger 34 -- both veterans have benefitted from not taking many sacks. Sacked 14 times, Big Ben is tied with Kirk Cousins for the 29th-most sacks in the league. Manning has been sacked 13 times, good for 31st.
-- Kimberly Jones
OBJ + AB = Fun for everyone. It's easy to put the quarterbacks atop the marquee of Giants-Steelers, Sunday's big game. Manning and Roethlisberger both were taken in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft, they've both won two Super Bowls, they both embody the personalities of their franchises and both have acknowledged using each other, in some ways, as measuring sticks.
But perhaps equally as boldfaced names are those of each team's star wide receiver: Odell BeckhamJr. of the Giants and the Steelers' Antonio Brown. The pair is in every conversation centered on the league's best, be it in athleticism, dynamism, ability to catch the ball or even headline-grabbing antics. Beckham comes into the game with 65 catches, for 915 yards and eight touchdowns. Brown has 82 catches for 998 yards and 10 touchdowns.
This week, both locker rooms gushed with praise for the opposing receiver, from Giants corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie saying he has never seen a receiver extend a route that he hadn't won and still improvise his way to the ball as much as Brown, to Steelerssafety Mike Mitchell saying Beckham's "catching ability" might be better than any player's he's ever seen.
But it was a fellow wide receiver, the Giants' Victor Cruz, who keyed in on what makes these two on the same field so must-see: their personalities.
"When I watch Odell, it's his passion for the game that just stands out," Cruz said. Talking about how his teammate cuts or runs or leaps for a ball, he said, "You literally see how much he loves this game."
And as for Brown, Cruz said, "You have to admire his tenacity. He plays so much larger than his body frame. Nothing is not possible for him."
-- Aditi Kinkhabwala
Game recognize game. Beckham and Brown are tied for the most receiving touchdowns in the NFL since 2014 (when Beckham entered the NFL) with 33.
"This is definitely a game where I'm going to be standing up watching this guy," Beckham said. "I love him like a brother."
Beckham said he and Brown trained together in the offseason. "Work ethic is unreal," Beckham said. "Hopefully he doesn't have too many celebrations."
Asked if there are similarities in their games, Beckham said: "Yes. I think we both like to score, and we like to have fun. I definitely think there are similarities in our game, though. I watch a lot of film on him and probably stole a lot of stuff from him to make it my own."
Since entering the league in 2014, Beckham has sought out greatness, meeting and befriending Brown, LeBron James and Von Miller. He also met soccer star David Beckham.
"I feel like you are who you hang around with, in a sense," Beckham said. "If you hang around people who have the same mindset, goals and focus as you, it makes it a lot easier for you to stay on track in what you want to do and what you want to accomplish.
"The guys like Von [and] AB, we're all in the same group. We love to kill it when we get on the field, but most importantly, we like to enjoy life, have fun, dance and do all of that. It's cool to be around those guys, [being] able to learn something from them."
-- Kimberly Jones
Collins, Pierre-Paul more than holding their own. For as much attention as New York's free-agent additions have received -- and Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon have made a considerable difference -- two homegrown Giants are contributing at least their share of splash.
Landon Collins won NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for November, the first Giants safety to ever win the award. He is the first Giant to win the award since Jason Pierre-Paul in December 2011.
Collins' improvement since his rookie season, when he logged about 1,100 snaps, has been dramatic. He is tied for second in the league with five interceptions.
Besides the experience gained, what is the difference?
"To start with, Landon Collins loves football," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo told me. "When you love something, you're willing to do whatever it takes to get good at it."
Clearly, Pierre-Paul has adjusted to playing with his compromised right hand. Against the Browns on Sunday, he had three sacks, forced a fumble and recovered another fumble in midair and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown.
Pierre-Paul became the first NFL player with at least three sacks and a fumble-return touchdown of at least 40 yards in the same game since 1982, the first year individual sacks became an official statistic.
JPP 2.0 has resembled the original. He leads the Giants with seven sacks and 17 quarterback hits.
"It's funny," Spagnuolo said, "being around him all the time, we tend to forget -- I do -- what he went through. I think he wants it that way. He's here being a football player. He's not a guy who had an accident being a football player. And he's enjoying that."
-- Kimberly Jones
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PITTSBURGH STEELERS: The Deebo factor. The Steelers have produced 11 sacks in their last two games. That nearly matches their output through the season's first nine games (13).
A cynic would say that recent outpouring is a direct result of facing the Browns and Colts. Lawrence Timmons would say, no, it's a result of 38-year-old James Harrison being inserted back into the starting lineup.
"That's 'Deebo.' The name says enough," Timmons said, referring to Harrison's longtime nickname, which references the neighborhood bully of the "Friday" movie series.
It is indeed an attitude, and approach, that the Steelers were looking for in making that move, even though they'd largely kept Harrison on a snap count until now. The team's fiercest worker, and perhaps its most fearsome personality, Harrison's presence alone forces the bar up, Timmons said.
"It's his demeanor," Timmons said. "We used to be known for a certain toughness, a certain aggressiveness. He's a piece of that past, and he makes sure everyone around him plays the way Pittsburgh Steelers are supposed to play.