NFL football analysis

Hub Arkush: Rashaan Salaam was one of the special ones, gone too soon

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Hub Arkush: Rashaan Salaam was one of the special ones, gone too soon

When you spend 20 years as part of one team’s radio broadcast crew, you meet an awful lot of players who come and go.

Relationships are formed and some even become friends after football.

One of the special ones was Rashaan Salaam, and the news of his passing early Tuesday hit like a sledgehammer.

The cynical and disappointed Bears fans of the 90's will probably remember him as another failed No. 1 draft choice and that is a true shame.

Salaam was one of the great running backs, a Heisman Trophy winner in 1994 and the NFC’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1995 after the Bears tabbed him with the 21st pick in the draft.

He rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns that rookie season, moving into the starter’s role after Raymont Harris broke his collarbone in the season opener versus Minnesota, and head coach Dave Wannstedt promoted Salaam over Lewis Tillman into the top spot in Week Four against the Cardinals.

He responded with five 100-plus yard rushing efforts, and the hope was that a healthy Harris would rejoin him in the backfield as the fullback in a two-back or what we used to call a “Pro-Set” backfield.

There was, however, one negative in that rookie campaign that developed into an epidemic: Salaam couldn’t hold onto the ball and would fumble it nine times, losing eight during that first season.

Things went downhill quickly from there. He battled ankle injuries and fumbles throughout the 1996 season, and early in 1997 he broke his leg, not only ending his season but also signaling the end of his NFL career.

The Bears attempted to trade him to the Dolphins in 1998, but a failed physical, presumably because of his leg and ankle issues, nixed the deal.

In addition to his problems holding onto the football, Salaam had an affinity for pot, a problem he at times referred to as an addiction.

After failed comeback attempts with Cleveland and Green Bay, he went public with his marijuana issues, a move that was met with mixed reviews by a public and league that was not as ready to embrace the issue as it might be today.

Salaam wondered at times if it may have even been his pot use that caused issues with his focus and concentration, exacerbating his fumbling problems.

Through it all though, Rashaan Salaam remained one of the sweetest and warmest young men you could ever meet.

I think he took to me because he was just a few years older than my oldest son and I understood his pot problem didn’t make him a villain, it made him a kid struggling to find his way in an adult world.

When I called Salaam's first NFL coach, Dave Wannstedt, to break the news to him, Dave told me, “Rashaan was a pleasure to coach and be around, always a smile and wanting to learn. All the coaches, staff and players were so excited to have him be part of our team.”

We talked for about 15 minutes and his failed career never came up – from his coach! Mention Rashaan Salaam to anyone who knew him and the overwhelming response is always about the sweet young man, rarely the football player.

Salaam would often become despondent around Heisman time, beating himself up all too often about what he didn’t accomplish on an NFL football field.

He had his demons and was a bit of a lost soul this past decade-and-a-half or so, unable to let go of the past and unwilling to grasp the future, but he was one of the kindest and sweetest souls I’ve ever known.

In most ways, Rashaan Salaam was just a big kid who never fully grew up, and if that eventually was his undoing, it was also in many ways his most endearing trait.

With all my heart I hope he will now find the peace at rest he could never quite grasp on the field.

9 route: Top 9 fantasy football waiver targets in Week 14

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9 route: Top 9 fantasy football waiver targets in Week 14

Every Tuesday, Arthur Arkush shares his top nine waiver wire targets for fantasy football players. This will focus exclusively on players owned in less than 50 percent of all Yahoo! leagues.

A note of caution: just because a player is on this list, it doesn't mean readers should exhaust their claim priority and/or waiver budget. Those decisions should be based on individual roster makeup, injuries and other outside forces.

Have specific roster questions for your fantasy team? Tweet @ArthurArkush

Just missed the cut: Bucs RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Colts TE Dwayne Allen, Ravens TE Dennis Pitta, Bears WR Cameron Meredith, Packers RB Christine Michael, Browns QB Robert Griffin III, Bears QB Matt Barkley

9. Broncos RB Justin Forsett: Denver desperately wants to replace Devontae Booker, who hasn't gotten the job done in C.J. Anderson's absence, and with Kapri Bibbs out of the equation and Forsett already in the know on Gary Kubiak's system, crazier things have happened. Like, Forsett going from journeyman to fantasy stud under Kubiak before. As good as the AFC West is, run defense seemingly is optional, and Denver's trip to Kansas City during fantasy championship week could bear fruit for Forsett, if not sooner.

8. Buccaneers RB Charles Sims: Tampa's talented No. 2 will be moved from I.R. back to the active roster this week, just in time for a date with the Saints. Now we're not suggesting plugging Sims into your lineup, not with Tampa's crowded backfield including struggling Doug Martin, reborn Jacquizz Rodgers and intriguing Peyton Barber. But the Bucs get the Saints again in fantasy championship week and Sims could be squarely in the mix by then. Tampa is fighting for its postseason lives and Sims' pass-catching ability in an offense with Mike Evans and not much else is intriguing.

7. Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett: Here we go again. Accuse me of refusing to let go if you wish, but Lockett had easily his best game of the season to force his way back on the list. Unlike Allen or Pitta, Lockett's 138-yard outing, including a razzle-dazzle 75-yard scoring burst off a jet sweep, showcased his limitless upside. Seattle's offense is heading in the right direction and Lockett's increased health and, in turn, involvement could be fantasy lightning in a bottle. The Packers — Seattle's Week 14 opponent — haven't suddenly fixed their still-undermanned 'D.'

6. Chargers WR Dontrelle Inman: Apologies in advance if the rest of this column sounds like a broken record, but we're a lot prouder to have had all these guys on previous '9 routes' than, say, Colin Kaepernick. Inman again won a long footrace to the end zone Sunday, his second consecutive week doing so, and gets Carolina's secondary next. The Panthers are fighting mental hurdles now, Ron Rivera says, so apparently it can get even worse (or better for the Chargers and Inman owners).

5. Bills RB Mike Gillislee: Six touchdowns and a 5.9-yard average is gaudy stuff, and Gillislee hasn't seen an opportunity he's yet to run with in his short NFL tenure. LeSean McCoy continues to dazzle, and when he does it on long runs down to the red zone, enter the short-yardage specialist and touchdown siphon. The Bills play Cleveland and Miami after a date with Pittsburgh's improved 'D' Sunday. What if McCoy gets nicked and/or shut down?

4. Packers "WR" Ty Montgomery: First, an apology to the Christine Michael truthers — I'm one of them! — preparing to play up the revenge game narrative. It's hardly a lock Montgomery, not Michael, will be the primary back down the stretch drive. What seems more assured is it won't be James Starks, who was twice benched Sunday while Michael led the backfield in carries (9), including a key fourth-down conversion, and Montgomery settled into an every-down role late for Green Bay's two biggest drives of the season.

3. Patriots WR Malcolm Mitchell: His targets and catches have increased in four consecutive games, including 8-82 receiving on 10 looks Sunday. Mitchell can stretch the field, but he also has more in his repertoire, as evidenced by a pair of short chain-movers on third down. If you're reading this for advice, you're in the playoffs. We don't have to tell you why getting Patriots stock, particularly with Gronk out of the equation, is wise.

2. Ravens RB Kenneth Dixon: The rook only took six of Baltimore's 17 carries (sigh) but that translated into 56 yards, plus 4-21 receiving for a modest 7.5 points despite little work. He took a backseat to Terrance West, but the Ravens likely will need all hands on deck to avoid engaging in a Foxborough shootout in Week 14. We can't explain why Joe Flacco has attempted the second-most passes in the NFL, but it's the only reasonable explanation why Dixon remains 46 percent owned.

1. Steelers TE Ladarius Green: Green's 18.8-yard catch average is flat-out Gronk-esque. Sure, he has only 11 catches, but three of those have gone for more than 30 yards, plus he scored his first touchdown as a Steeler last week. If you've heeded this column's advice in the past, you're all set because Green has appeared in this space about five times now. He also resides in the NFL's premier big-strike offense, which previously lacked a gamebreaker (without a broken hand) not named Brown or Bell. That's right, "previously." Green has arrived. Lucky for you there's one more opportunity to welcome him on board your roster as Pittsburgh keeps expanding his role.

NFL Power Rankings: Week 14

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NFL Power Rankings: Week 14

Welcome to our ProFootballWeekly.com NFL Power Rankings. These rankings are based on each team’s performance in the first 13 weeks of the season. The Falcons dropped after their loss to the Chiefs while the Ravens and Lions are on the rise.

1. Dallas Cowboys

First team to clinch a playoff spot                 

2. New England Patriots

Even without Gronk, they’re still a load                 

3. Kansas City Chiefs

Club you to death with 'D,' find a way to win

4. Oakland Raiders

Not a team you want to see in a shootout             

5. Seattle Seahawks

No one wants to go to Seattle in the playoffs

6. Denver Broncos

Offense is an issue, defense is an answer 

7. Pittsburgh Steelers

Don’t look now but Big Ben building big 'mo'       

8. Baltimore Ravens

Drubbing of Dolphins was awfully impressive

9. Detroit Lions

'D' shutting down Brees a big surprise           

10. Atlanta Falcons

Injuries vs. Chiefs may be tougher than loss        

11. N.Y. Giants

No shame in losing at Pitt but no run game either          

12. Miami Dolphins

Next test: how they bounce back from Ravens loss

13. Green Bay Packers

Can they run the table and catch the Lions, too?

14. Indianapolis Colts

Looked like a contender Monday night at Jets

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Not sure if Bucs Dangerfields or playing in clover

16. Washington

Not quite good enough on 'D' or running the ball                

17. Minnesota Vikings

Close vs. Cowboys but this isn’t horseshoes

18. Buffalo Bills

Not enough weapons on either side of ball    

19. San Diego Chargers

Those fourth quarter picks absolutely kill you     

20. Houston Texans

How far is the floor? Nothing working right now

21. Tennessee Titans

Caught the Texans but couldn’t handle Colts

22. Arizona Cardinals

If they win out, back door could be open

23. New Orleans Saints

No defense in sight; can’t lose to Lions at home

24. Cincinnati Bengals

Explosion over Eagles too little, too late    

25. Philadelphia Eagles

63 passes, 16 runs at Cincy – can’t win that way

26. Carolina Panthers

What’s real message Rivera wants Newton to get?          

27. Los Angeles Rams

Hard to understand why Fisher will be back

28. Chicago Bears

Howard, a few other youngsters looking special

29. N.Y. Jets

Sure looked like they quit vs. Colts                        

30. Jacksonville Jaguars

It’s almost hard to believe they can be this bad

31. San Francisco 49ers

Forget Kelly leaving, do Niners want him to stay?

32. Cleveland Browns

At least they couldn't lose during the bye       

Week 13 Film Review: Breaking down Eric Berry's interceptions of Falcons QB Matt Ryan

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Week 13 Film Review: Breaking down Eric Berry's interceptions of Falcons QB Matt Ryan

Eric Berry must have a cloaking device.

It’s the only way the Kansas City safety could have come out of nowhere on two plays to pick off Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, right?

Fun as the thought is, the real answer is a little more straightforward.

In both cases, Berry appeared to have no particular assignment — playing what is often referred to as the “robber” position, one which allows the player to freelance and pick his spot to make a play.

And boy did Berry make a play or two.

Pick-Six

Ryan actually does a nice job scanning the field, clearly moving through his progressions and looking for an open man. He just misses Berry hanging out behind Tayler Gabriel.

Which is understandable because, other than Berry, Gabriel is wide open in the middle of the field. No linebacker tracks him and the corners are looking elsewhere. The only two players anywhere near him are two safeties and it looks like Gabriel has plenty of room to make a play.

Berry reads that too quickly, though, and jumps the route. It helps that the throw isn’t a good one, high and behind the receiver, but Berry moves very fast to make the play.

While it is understandable that Ryan thought he had the room to make the throw, he can’t make one that badly and he has to put his receiver in the best place to make a play. The pass should have been in front of Gabriel — where the chances Berry makes a play are small. At worst, the pass should have been directly at Gabriel so the only thing Berry can do is bat it down.

Throwing it behind Gabriel allowed Berry to pick it off, and while Ryan can’t take the blame for the lack of tackling by his fellow offensive players, if the pass isn’t a poor one, the ball isn’t run back for a touchdown.

Pick Two

The second interception didn’t count against Ryan’s stats, as it was during a two-point conversion, but it was worse in almost every way possible.

Berry is again free-floating, not assigned to any one route or position, which allows him to read the quarterback and make a play. On the pick-six, Berry mostly read the receiver and made a great play but on this occasion, all he has to do is watch Ryan.

Ryan does an awful job of staring down his receiver, tight end Austin Hooper. He picks him up immediately and it is very clear during Hooper’s route. Naturally, Ryan doesn’t see Berry.

Compared to the first interception by Berry, this one is a solid pass — out in front of Hooper and away from the trailing defender. Berry is right there, though, and he easily steps in front of the receiver for the interception.

Kudos to Berry as well to have the notion to run it all the way back to the other end zone, for two points. It hadn’t been done before, and it was the difference in the game.

The Falcons have defensive problems, which means that there is little to no margin for error on the offensive side of the ball. If the offense has an off day, or even a bad beat as they did here, the defense isn’t bailing them out.

When the defense allows an average of 27.6 points per game, an offensive blunder can lose them a game. That’s just what a pair of them did against the Chiefs.

New York Jets waive RB C.J. Spiller, KR Jeremy Ross

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New York Jets waive RB C.J. Spiller, KR Jeremy Ross

After C.J. Spiller spent just four games with the Jets, the club has decided to end the experiment, announcing Wednedsay Spiller has been waived.

NFL Network was first to report the news.

Spiller will now be looking for his fourth team this season after starting with the Saints, before making short stints with the Seahawks and Jets. Spiller, the 2010 first-round pick of the Bills, was signed by New York in early November after the Seahawks became healthier with the return of C.J. Prosise at the time.

The 29-year-old lasted four games with 'Gang Green', receiving two rushes for five yards last night versus the Colts on 'Monday Night Football'. Spiller's lone remaining carry came two weeks ago, as he finishes his Jets stint with three total carries for nine yards and no touchdowns.

Spiller spent his first five seasons in Buffalo and then signed as a free agent with New Orleans last offseason. Only lasting 13 total games, he was released and later signed by the Seahawks. In 89 career games, the former Clemson product has 3,451 yards on 710 carries for 12 touchdowns.

The Jets also waived kick returner Jeremy Ross and signed wideout Darius Jennings to the practice squad. Ross had 11 kickoff returns for 224 yards, plus one punt return for 10 yards in four games.

Former Heisman Trophy winner, Chicago Bears RB Rashaan Salaam dead at 42

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Former Heisman Trophy winner, Chicago Bears RB Rashaan Salaam dead at 42

Former Heisman trophy winner and Bears first-round running back Rashaan Salaam was found dead in Boulder, Colorado on Monday night. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, the cause of death is suspected to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 42.

Salaam, who won the Heisman after setting the University of Colorado rushing record as a junior 1994 with 2,055 yards, was selected No. 21 overall by the Bears in 1995. He rushed for 1,074 yards in addition to 10 touchdowns as a rookie, but would play just two more seasons in Chicago prior to being released. Salaam split time during the 1999 season with the Browns and Packers before playing in the Canadian Football League.

Salaam was outspoken about the off-field trappings that cut short his playing career, after which he returned to Boulder, where he started the SPIN (supporting people in need) foundation. He said he wasn't focused enough during his playing career and spent his time trying to teach children to avoid making his mistakes.

"Just realizing the kind of life I’ve had,” Salaam told PFW in October 2014, “it can be very inspirational to people, but I have to be honest with them too.

“On one hand, I did have a great life, but on the other, I was a big disappointment. So I try and tie those two stories in, telling the kids you can be great, but not without discipline in your life. You have to have a strong work ethic. The better you get at something, the harder you have to work at it – that’s just how this thing works.

"The one thing about being young – you have the power of youth – and if you really put this thing together, get organized and really committed to the right things, you can change your life."

In three-plus seasons in the NFL, Salaam logged 1,684 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 471 carries.

Help for anyone feeling depressed is available, 24 hours a day, by calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Report: Dallas Cowboys' Randy Gregory to practice Wednesday with latest suspension hanging in balance

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Report: Dallas Cowboys' Randy Gregory to practice Wednesday with latest suspension hanging in balance

While Cowboys defensive end Randy Gregory appeals his latest reported suspension for substance abuse, he'll resume practicing Wednesday, per multiple reports.

MMQB's Albert Breer and the Dallas Morning News were among the first outlets to report, although the Cowboys have yet to confirm the news.

Gregory, who has been suspended for 14 total games as a result of two suspensions this season, reportedly failed another drug test last month, meaning his next punishment will be for one year. Gregory was initially suspended for four games, then an additional 10 after dropping his appeal. Assuming he isn't suspended further, he is eligible to return in Week 16 versus the Lions.

Gregory has a long-standing history of failed drug tests, dating back to his time at Nebraska. The talented but troubled pass rusher failed a drug test at the Combine, before falling to the second round in 2015. Gregory spent some time in rehab during the offseason.

In his rookie season, the 24-year-old finished with 11 tackles in 12 games.

Coming off historically poor start, 49ers stick with QB Colin Kaepernick as starter

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Coming off historically poor start, 49ers stick with QB Colin Kaepernick as starter

Two days after 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was benched for the fourth quarter following his 1-for-5, 5-yard effort in Chicago, Chip Kelly announced he will regain his starting job when San Francisco hosts the Jets on Sunday.

Kaepernick was replaced by Blaine Gabbert in the fourth quarter after the Niners were outscored 20-0 following an early 6-0 lead in the first quarter. Gabbert generated a little movement on offense, but not enough to overcome the big deficit in snowy conditions. Gabbert, the starter for five games, finished 4-for-10 for 35 yards.

"It wasn't my permanent decision or anything like that," Kelly said Sunday, stopping short of saying Kaepernick will start vs. the Jets in Week 14. "... I was just watching how the ball was coming off his hands and what our chances were completing it. It didn't look like we were doing much in the passing game. You got to get it out a little quicker when you have a rushing coming."

Yet, offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins affirmed Kaepernick, who didn't confirm or deny an NFL Network report he will opt out of his restructured deal at season's end, will start versus a Jets team that recently made the switch to Bryce Petty for the remaining four games of the season after benching Ryan Fitzpatrick for the third time this season on 'Monday Night Football'.

Prior to playing Chicago, it appeared the 49ers offense was trending upward. On the arm of Kaepernick and his 8:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio, they nearly upset the Dolphins on the road in Week 12. Now, questions persist whether Chip Kelly will bolt from the 49ers after one season amid an 11-game losing streak. Kelly has long maintained he doesn't intend to leave.

NFL Playoff Scenarios: Week 14

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NFL Playoff Scenarios: Week 14

Week 14

AFC

NEW ENGLAND (10-2) vs. Baltimore (7-5), Monday night

Clinches AFC East with:

— Win and Miami loss or tie, OR

— Tie and Miami loss

Clinches first-round bye with:

— Win and Miami loss or tie and Pittsburgh loss or tie

OAKLAND (10-2) at Kansas City (9-3), Thursday night

Clinches playoff berth with:

— Win and Miami loss or tie, OR

— Win and Denver loss, OR

— Tie and Miami loss and Baltimore loss or tie, OR

— Tie and Miami loss and Pittsburgh loss or tie

NFC

CLINCHED: Dallas, playoff berth

DALLAS (11-1) at N.Y. Giants (8-4), Sunday night

Clinches NFC East with:

— Win

Clinches first-round bye with:

— Win and Detroit loss or tie, OR

— Win and Seattle loss

Clinches home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs with:

— Win and Detroit loss or tie and Seattle loss

SEATTLE (8-3-1) at Green Bay (6-6), Sunday

Clinches NFC West with:

— Win and Arizona loss or tie, OR

— Tie and Arizona loss

Man who shot ex-NFL player Joe McKnight charged with manslaughter

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Man who shot ex-NFL player Joe McKnight charged with manslaughter

HARVEY, La. – The man who fatally shot ex-NFL player Joe McKnight has been arrested and jailed on a charge of manslaughter.

Jail records show 54-year-old Ronald Gasser was arrested late Monday.

Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand has called a news conference for 10 a.m. Tuesday to discuss the case.

Gasser was released last week without charges pending further investigation of McKnight's death.

Normand said Thursday's shooting was the result of an apparent road-rage incident.

When deputies arrived, the sheriff said Gasser handed them his gun and confessed to killing McKnight.

Way We See It: After 'Statement Day' in Week 13, 11 postseason contenders have emerged from the crowd

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Way We See It: After 'Statement Day' in Week 13, 11 postseason contenders have emerged from the crowd

If Saturdays are regularly moving days at PGA tournaments, Sunday of Week 13 of this season was statement day in the National Football League.

Of course every team in the league except the Browns, 49ers, Jaguars, Bears, Jets, Bengals, Panthers and Rams has a plausible path to the playoffs. But what we think we saw Sunday was 11 teams in the NFL clearly still possessing a reasonable chance of actually winning a playoff game this year, and a whole lot of wannabes who might still claim a playoff spot but it won’t really matter if they get there.

Obviously, the “The Magnificent 11” includes a few clubs we’ve known about all along.

The Dallas Cowboys have to be considered the best team in football right now, and the Pats are one of our top 11 we’ll most likely see in the AFC championship and possibly Houston for the Super Bowl after that.

Seattle has its issues, but still proved with its trip to Foxborough a couple of weeks ago it can beat anybody on any given Sunday.

The other eight either staked their claims Sunday, or at least did little to make us write them off yet.

Gase is impressive, but the Dolphins and Bills are posers

What Adam Gase has done with the Miami Dolphins after a 1-4 start is more than impressive, and with reasonable upgrades during the offseason he might have an interesting club next year, but bad Ryan Tannehill showed up Sunday in Baltimore and a team with a legit pedigree said, 'Not in our house, fellas.'

With Arizona at home this Sunday, followed by trips to the Jets and Bills and then a home finale against the Patriots — who rarely mail one in —10 wins appears like an awfully high mountain now and that is going to be the minimum for an AFC wild-card spot this season.

After throwing just six touchdowns and seven picks in the Dolphins' 1-4 start, Ryan Tannehill managed nine TDs and just one interception during their six game winning streak. But Sunday in Baltimore he was picked off three times before throwing one score, and the Fish aren’t ready to overcome that kind of hurdle yet.

2016 will be a great first step for Gase in Miami, but it’s wait-until-next-year time now.

Buffalo was never really a contender, but Rex Ryan has a way of keeping his club in the conversation.

The Bills are, for the most part, an 8-8 team talent-wise with a fascinating quarterback we change our minds about every time we see him play.

Tyrod Taylor does some things well and has some limitations. Normally he’d be the kind of guy you’d say "comes with some shortcomings but does enough to win." The problem is he only wins about half the time.

Steelers and Ravens both belong, but one won’t get a chance

We never really doubted the Pittsburgh Steelers and expect the record would be a game or two better if not for the Big Ben knee injury and Le’Veon Bell suspension.

What was impressive Sunday was a defense that had been taking slightly bigger than baby steps the past few weeks really showeing up against a better-than-average Giants offense.

We expect the Steelers will win the AFC North and at least a wild-card game but ...

The Baltimore Ravens apparently aren’t going anywhere either. With a rebuild and somewhat of a no-name defense, the Ravens were hanging around in spite of a pathetic offense until Sunday, but their 38-point, 496-yard outburst against the Dolphins changed the dialogue around them.

Miami’s defense isn’t special, but it isn’t awful either.

The AFC North will almost certainly be decided on Christmas Day when the Ravens travel to Pittsburgh.

Baltimore must also go to New England next Monday night while the Steelers have winnable contests against Buffalo, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

If either of these two runs the table, that team is in, but a 10-6 loser of the Christmas game could be the odd team out.

These two are both capable of winning a playoff game or even two, but only one is likely to get the chance.

The AFC South is awful

We really thought the Texans would be better than they are, even with the loss of J.J. Watt, because of all the other talent on defense.

But Brock Osweiler has to be one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments of the year and while he wasn’t the problem Sunday at Lambeau Field, where the Texans dropped their third straight, 21-13, it became crystal clear this team is going nowhere in January — even if they back into the playoffs.

The Titans and Colts are nice stories, but with Tennessee’s secondary and the Colts' defense in general, a playoff win is about as likely as a winning Powerball ticket.

AFC West is the best

We said before the season the Chiefs would win this division, and both the Raiders and Broncos would be wild cards, and nothing has happened to change our minds.

But what happened Sunday was both the Chiefs and Raiders staking a claim to being the club with the best chance to knock off the Patriots.

As far as we’re concerned, the Chiefs won a playoff game Sunday in Atlanta, as the Falcons are another one of our 11 with that offense capable of winning a shootout against anyone, and we’ll probably find out Thursday night whether Kansas City wins the AFC West or is a wild card after hosting the Raiders.

As the defending Super Bowl champions and still owning that super defense, the Broncos are also clearly capable of winning a first- or second-round game.

With Denver's limitations at quarterback and on offense in general, we don’t see the Broncos getting all the way to Houston, but it’s not impossible.

The biggest story in this group Sunday was the Raiders, who are clearly flawed, but with Derek Carr and Khalil Mack our front-runners right now for offensive and defensive MVPs, respectively. After watching them overcome a 24-9 deficit with 29 unanswered points in the final 20 minutes against Buffalo, we can find no reason to doubt these guys any longer.

The defense in Oakland is suspect, there is no question about that, but the road isn’t a problem — the Raiders are 5-0 — and they seem to live for these shootouts.

A win in Kansas City Thursday night probably nets them the division, but even with a loss they’ll just need to win one of their last three against San Diego, Indy and Denver to assure their playoff spot.

We don’t see them beating the Pats, or maybe the Chiefs, but who else in the AFC can’t they handle?

The NFC is a tougher putt, but . . .

As we said at the top, the Cowboys and Seahawks have been on the list for a while and we added Atlanta a few grafs back.

The Falcons' defense continues to concern us, and now the health of Julio Jones (turf toe) is becoming an issue, but with a healthy Jones this team can run with the big dogs.

Atlanta already has wins over Oakland and Denver and would have beat the Seahawks in Seattle if the stripes hadn’t got their flags stuck in their pockets on the Falcons' final possession.

That iffy 'D' actually wasn’t responsible for nine of the Chiefs' 29 Sunday, and we’re having a hard time seeing anyone but Atlanta win the NFC South.

Yes, the Bucs are tied with the Falcons right now, but with New Orleans at home Sunday, where Tampa is 2-4, and then trips to Dallas and New Orleans before finishing at home against the Panthers, the Bucs are likely to eliminate themselves.

The Falcons will be that proverbial team that no other club wants to see in January.

Just two clubs left to add to the list and the Giants are another in spite of their uninspiring 24-14 loss at Pittsburgh Sunday.

For starters, the G-Men were looking for a seventh straight win at Pittsburgh, and that’s just really hard to do for any team, especially when you look at the Steelers' record against winning teams at home.

The Giants' defense is more improved than we expected and than most even realize after their free agency spending spree, and Eli wins big games.

We don’t love this club, but is it that difficult to imagine the Giants beating the Falcons, Bucs, Lions, Packers or Vikings?

Speaking of the Lions

Last but not least, no team impressed us more Sunday than Detroit. It was just last week in this space that we questioned whether or not Detroit is for real.

They are still a club with significant question marks at running back, offensive line and outside linebacker, but they do keep on winning, and what they did to Drew Brees in New Orleans Sunday was very impressive.

The Lions are no lock to make the playoffs with what should be a laydown against the Bears at Ford Field next Sunday – although the Bears did hand them one of their four losses, Week Four in Chicago – but then trips to the Giants and Cowboys before a finale at home against the Packers.

Assuming Detroit gets there, we see no reason any longer to doubt the Lions can win a wild-card game at home before the competition gets tougher.

Our two outliers here are the Packers and Vikings. We can’t add them to our “Magnificent 11” – making it 12 or 13 – because both seemingly must win out just to have a crack at a playoff victory. But the Packers can still win the NFC North as long as they win three of four and beat the Lions New Year's Day and Detroit loses two of three to the Bears, Giants and Cowboys.

Either could win a wild-card game at home, but getting there appears to be the problem.

Denver Broncos claim RB Justin Forsett with RB Kapri Bibbs heading to injured reserve

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Denver Broncos claim RB Justin Forsett with RB Kapri Bibbs heading to injured reserve

While the Broncos get a clearer picture of running back Kapri Bibb's left ankle injury, they claimed former Ravens and Lions running back Justin Forsett, reuniting him with coach Gary Kubiak.

Bibbs left Sunday's game with the left ankle sprain near the end of the first half and didn't return. The team announced Monday he is headed for injured reserve. The 23-year-old finished with five attempts for 49 yards on the afternoon. In 12 games this season, the former Colorado State product has 129 yards on 29 attempts and no touchdowns.

Forsett, 31, has split time between the Lions and Ravens this season. In five games, Forsett has three starts and 126 rushing yards. He will reunite with his former head coach and offensive coordinator in Kubiak. Forsett set a career-high in rushing yards with 1,266 and eight touchdowns under with Kubiak as his offensive coordinator in Baltimore in 2014.

Forsett was cut by the Ravens prior to the season, but quickly re-signed. After being released again, the Lions signed him for two games, notching 13 carries for 38 yards before he was released three days ago.

In other Broncos news, quarterback Trevor Siemian could return for Sunday's game versus Tennessee. After missing Sunday with a foot injury, the 2015 seventh-rounder got out of his walking boot on Saturday, per 9News' Mike Klis. Siemian didn't practice last week, paving the way for Paxton Lynch's 12-for-24, 104-yard afternoon in the team's 20-10 win over the Jaguars.

Buffalo Bills place WR/KR Percy Harvin on non-football illness list

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Buffalo Bills place WR/KR Percy Harvin on non-football illness list

Bills wide receiver/returner Percy Harvin has been placed on the non-football illness list, effectively ending his season and potentially his career for the second time, the club announced on Monday.

Harvin, 28, was lured out of retirement back in November, appearing to be fully healthy. Though, through two games, the former first-round pick has two receptions for six yards and no touchdowns. The Bills report his migraine headaches have returned, something that has plagued his eight-year career.

"He was doing whatever he could to try to play, but I don’t know if that was in his best interest,” said head coach Rex Ryan via the official team website. “We were trying to make sure he’s well.”

The Bills signed him out of desperation when their wideout corps was depleted by injuries. The team indicates Harvin will mull retirement for a second time.

Harvin was initially thought to be a lock to return back in April. but decided to retire instead. The 5-foot-11, 184-pounder is well-traveled since arriving in the league in '09, spending his first four seasons in Minnesota. After a shocking trade sent him to Seattle in exchange for three draft choices, Harvin would last just six regular season games for the 'Hawks due to a barrage of injuries and dustups with former teammates in two seasons.

Harvin would return in time for the Seahawks' 2013-14 Super Bowl championship, taking a kickoff to the house versus the Broncos. Though, midway through the 2014 season, Harvin was traded to the Jets.

His availability on the field his whole career has been inconsistent, as he's played in just 75 regular season games during his eight-year stint in the league.

Injuries mounting: Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones has 'turf toe', not considered long-term issue

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Injuries mounting: Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones has 'turf toe', not considered long-term issue

Falcons wideout Julio Jones, who leads the NFL in receiving yards, has been diagnosed with turf toe, coach Dan Quinn announced on Monday. The team doesn't feel it's a long-term concern.

Jones hasn't missed a game this season, and is coming off a seven-reception, 113 yard-performance in a close loss versus the Chiefs. Jones has 1,253 yards on the season, which ranks above Buccaneers wideout Mike Evan's 1,058 for the NFL lead. Of Jones' 12 games, he has reached at least 100 yards seven times, but he hasn't scored a touchdown in three weeks.

Quinn also mentioned offensive tackle Jake Matthews has a knee sprain and won't practice on Wednesday. Matthews left the game Sunday, and was ruled out with the knee injury. Matthews has started all 12 games this season. And Mohamed Sanu emerged from Sunday's game with a groin injury.

With the Buccaneers earning their fourth consecutive win, 28-21 in San Diego, the Falcons find themselves in a tie for the NFC South lead. Atlanta holds the tiebreaker by way of its 3-1 division record.

LSU's Leonard Fournette declares for NFL Draft, bolstering what could be special RB class

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LSU's Leonard Fournette declares for NFL Draft, bolstering what could be special RB class

Louisiana State University junior running back Leonard Fournette has officially announced he will declare for the 2017 NFL Draft following the school's bowl game versus Louisville in the Citrus Bowl.

Fournette, one of the nation's top backs the past two years, has ascended to the school's fourth leading rusher with 2,987 yards in his first two seasons, including starting 18 of 25 career games with 32 touchdowns. The 6-foot-1, 235-pounder smashed a multitude of LSU and SEC records in 2015, including rushing yards in a single season (1,953) and rushing yards per game (162.8).

Slowed by an ankle injury causing him missed four games, the star tailback averaged 6.5 yards per carry and ran for 843 yards with eight touchdowns in 2016.

His full statement via his official Twitter account can be viewed here

NFL Playoff picture: Who's in, who's out and who's still fighting entering Week 14?

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NFL Playoff picture: Who's in, who's out and who's still fighting entering Week 14?

The countdown to the NFL postseason is on.

Congratulations to Dallas, the first club to secure its playoff berth. Who's next? Who's heading in the right and wrong directions entering Week 14? Let's take a closer look.

Current NFC playoff standings

1. Cowboys (11-1): After winning ugly in Minnesota on Thursday night, they have extra rest to prepare for the home stretch: at Giants, vs. Bucs, vs. Lions, at Eagles. Save for a complete collapse, Dallas should soon clinch the NFC East. The NFC's No. 1 seed isn't far behind, though three consecutive playoff clubs stand in their way.

2. Seahawks (8-3-1): Offensively, it feels like Seattle might be readying for another dominant stretch drive. The division is well within reach but the loss of Earl Thomas — and how Seattle adjusts to unchartered waters — should decide its Super Bowl candidacy.

3. Lions (8-4): Their first NFC North title ever is so close they can taste it, yet so far away with tough NFC East road games sandwiched between the Bears coming to town Sunday and the Packers visiting in the finale for what the Lions hope isn't the division's fourth season culminating in a NFC North title game in Week 17.

4. Falcons (7-5): They currently hold the tiebreaker over Tampa, but the Falcons' grip on the division has grown increasingly tenuous as the Bucs' surge continues. Atlanta has a great offense and improved, albeit banged-up 'D,' but it was bested in the third phase by the Chiefs' perennially superb special teams. The remaining schedule — at LA, vs. SF, at CAR, vs NO — is favorable.

5. Giants (8-4): Their longest winning streak — six games — since the 2008 Super Bowl season was snapped in Pittsburgh, where the offense went cold. The G-Men are awaiting an MRI on the injured groin of Jason Pierre-Paul, a potential gut punch to their Super Bowl ambitions. They're clinging to the first wild card but a Week 17 road game in Washington could loom large.

6. Buccaneers (7-5): Tampa is riding a four-game winning streak, buoyed by an increasingly opportunistic defense accounting for 11 takeaways over that span. They still can catch the Falcons, but with two left vs. the Saints, they can easily fall behind New Orleans and out of the playoff picture as well.

Alive and well:

Washington (6-5-1): After dropping its second straight and reportedly being read the riot act by Jay Gruden in the aftermath of Sunday's loss to Arizona for lackluster preparation (should Gruden be chewing himself out, then?), Washington can still rebound, but that London tie could come back to haunt.

Green Bay (6-6): The Pack must first get back above .500 with a win over Seattle, then get at least a little help in the form of a Detroit loss.

On a ventilator:

Vikings (6-6): At 2-4 in the division, having been swept by the Lions, they need help.

Cardinals (5-6-1): Arizona remained relevant by upsetting Washington, but it trails Seattle by three games with a head-to-head left in Week 16.

Current AFC playoff standings:

1. Raiders (10-2): Darlings of the AFC at the moment, they're also a loss on 'Thursday Night Football' in Kansas City from falling out of the AFC West driver's seat. The Raiders have been crunch-time heroes, but they could use a comfortable victory along the way with an uncomfortable remaining docket: at KC, at SD, vs. IND and at DEN.

2. Patriots (10-2): Three postseason clubs left, including two on the road. New England isn't out of the cold yet, though its eighth consecutive postseason berth is a fait accompli.

3. Ravens (7-5): If the offense can build on its pummeling of Miami, perhaps the Ravens, deadlocked with the Steelers, are the team to beat in AFC North. But if not, with trips to Foxborough and Pittsburgh over the next three weeks, they could also soon be on the outside of the tournament looking in.

4. Texans (6-6): Houston has lost three consecutive games and, although Brock Osweiler finally did his part in Sunday's road loss in Green Bay, its overall trajectory isn't encouraging. Moreover, road trips to Indianapolis, which can pull into a three-way tie in the NFL's worst division with a win at the Jets on Monday night, and Tennessee, are a tall order. The health of Jadeveon Clowney, inactive Sunday with elbow and wrist injuries, is vital, but so is the Texans' 3-0 division mark.

5. Chiefs (9-3): Monstrous playmaking ability on defense and special teams continues covering for the offense, where Andy Reid should still get back Jeremy Maclin, and Travis Kelce has found another gear in his absence. After road wins in Denver and Atlanta, the Chiefs, not Oakland, can make the best case for being the conference's second-best team.

6. Broncos (8-4): In the case of Trevor Siemian, absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder. Will his injured foot mend in time for a Week 14 trip to Nashville? After watching Paxton Lynch struggle in a win in Jacksonville, would Gary Kubiak dare trying to preserve Siemian for Week 15 vs. the Patriots?

Alive and well:

Steelers (7-5): They're dangerous, for sure, especially as the defense continues taking it away and limiting opponents from scoring: six combined takeaways and 30 total points allowed during three-game ascent.

Dolphins (7-5): The 'Phins now need help from Denver after getting rocked in Baltimore.

Colts (5-6): Having the best quarterback in a log-jammed division is huge. Still having road trips to Minnesota and Oakland in Weeks 15 and 16, respectively, is a huge challenge, assuming Luck can stay upright.

Titans (6-6): They've already been swept by the Colts and sit at just 1-2 in the AFC South, not to mention a pair of AFC West battles that loom. But hosting the Texans in Week 17 ultimately gives Tennessee more than a puncher's chance if it can deliver a few knockouts along the way.

On a ventilator:

Bills (6-6): They're at 1-3 in the division and reeling after becoming the latest team to fall prey to the Raiders' comeback magic.

Greg Gabriel: Quarterbacks need to think twice before entering NFL Draft early

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Greg Gabriel: Quarterbacks need to think twice before entering NFL Draft early

Going through the last 11 NFL Drafts, we have seen 29 quarterbacks drafted in the first round. The first two selections of the 2015 draft were both quarterbacks, Jameis Winston went first to Tampa Bay and was an underclassman. Marcus Mariota went No. 2 and was a senior.

In the 2016 draft, quarterbacks again went one and two, with Jared Goff, who was an underclassman, going first, and Carson Wentz, who was a fifth-year senio,r going second. Later in the first round, Paxton Lynch, who was an underclassman, was selected by Denver.

Of those 29 players, only four have lived up to expectations. They are Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck. It's still early to say that Mariota, Winston, Goff, Wentz and Lynch are going to be great quarterbacks. That said, Winston, Mariota and Wentz look as if they will be excellent NFL quarterbacks and consistently get thier teams to the playoffs.

There are a few more quarterbacks who have had some success in the league but have not had year-in and year-out success. Those quarterbacks would be Matt Stafford and Ryan Tannehill. Jay Cutler has put up some good numbers at times but injuries and inconsistency have made him more cold than hot. Tannehill has had a very good 2016 under a new head coach and he finally looks like he will become a top-flight quarterback.

Fair or not, all the rest are busts. A few are still in the league as backups, but they haven’t come close to living up to expectations.

In 2006, the third pick of the draft was Vince Young. He came out early and was considered a bust. The next quarterback taken was Matt Leinart at No. 10 and he also busted and is out of the league. Cutler was the third quarterback taken (No. 11) and was traded by the team that originally drafted him (Denver).

The 2007 draft saw two quarterbacks get drafted in the opening round. The first overall selection was JaMarcus Russell, who entered the draft early and is looked upon as one of the biggest busts in NFL history. At No. 22, Brady Quinn from Notre Dame was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and never did much of anything as a starter and is out of the league.

2008 was a good year. Ryan went third overall and has been a Pro Bowl-type player for the Atlanta Falcons. Flacco was drafted at the 18th slot by Baltimore and won a Super Bowl. Both quarterbacks had used all their college eligibility.

2009 saw Georgia’s Stafford taken first overall by the Detroit Lions. Stafford has had some memorable games but overall has been a bit of a disappointment. When he gets into big games, he struggles.

Mark Sanchez was taken at No. 5 by the Jets and early on looked as if he would have a promising career but that ended quickly and he is a career backup. Josh Freeman was drafted by Tampa Bay at No. 17 and busted. He is currently out of the league.

In 2010, Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford was the first overall selection of the St. Louis Rams. He was an early entree and like most early entrees, failed to live up to expectations. St Louis finally traded him this past offseason and it remains to be seen how he will do in Philadelphia. Tim Tebow was drafted at No. 25 that year even though most felt he wasn’t a first-round talent. Like many of the others drafted in the first round, he is already out of the league.

Because of the labor impasse and league lockout, we saw four quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft. Newton, who was an early entree, was the first overall selection and has had a solid career and looks like he will become one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. The other three have all busted. Jake Locker (No. 8) is out of the league, Christian Ponder (No. 12) and Blaine Gabbert (No. 10) are backups playing with different NFL clubs after failing with the teams that originally drafted them.

In 2012, Luck left college with a year of eligibility to become the first overall selection. He is on his way to becoming a premier NFL quarterback. Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, also an underclassman, was the second overall selection by Washington. He was supposed to change how the quarterback position is played. That didn’t work out and is looked at as the biggest bust since Russell. The third quarterback taken that year was overaged Brandon Weedon and he never did anything in Cleveland and lost the starting job in Dallas after two games playing for the injured Tony Romo in 2015.

In 2013, there really wasn’t a quarterback worthy of being drafted in the first round, but that didn’t prevent Buffalo from taking EJ Manuel. They have regretted the move ever since.

In 2014, we saw three quarterbacks drafted in the opening round. Blake Bortles taken at the No. 3 slot has been very inconsistent and Johnny Manziel has had problems on and off the field in Cleveland and is currently out of the league. Both were underclassmen and not ready to make the transition to the NFL. Teddy Bridgewater looks to be a game manager if he can stay healthy.

The only underclassmen who have had any kind of success at all have been Newton, Stafford and Luck. Why a quarterback would leave school early to play in the NFL is beyond me. History says they will fail.

Quarterbacks no longer get the huge rookie contracts that Bradford and Russell saw. It is more to their benefit to get experience and perfect their skills in the college game. By the nature of the position, the quarterback has to be the leader of the team. Most players who give up eligibility and leave college early not only aren’t physically ready to compete in the NFL, they aren’t mentally ready.

Wentz has started every game and looks to be a future star. Goff struggled in camp and it wasn't until a few weeks ago that he ws able to be a starter.

The best quarterback in this draft has been fourth-round pick Dak Prescott, who Dallas selected. Like Wentz, he has started every game and shown improvement along the way. It doesn't hurt that he plays behind the best offenisve line in football and has a Pro Bowl wide receiver and one of the best running backs in the game.

A common denominator that Prescott and Wentz share is both were fifth-year seniors before they entered the draft. That extra time in college helped prepare them for competing against men.

This year, they may be four or five underclassmen quarterbacks who enter the draft. At least three will be selected in the first round and while it is to early to say how well they will play as pros, the odds are against them having great success. Maybe they all should think about staying in school.

Loss of Earl Thomas big hit to Seattle Seahawks' playoff plans

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Loss of Earl Thomas big hit to Seattle Seahawks' playoff plans

SEATTLE (AP) — The missing necktie that cost Carolina's Cam Newton one play is insignificant compared to what the Seattle Seahawks lost on Sunday night.

There is no replacing Earl Thomas and all he means to Seattle's stingy defense. Now, the Seahawks must play the rest of the regular season and likely a big chunk of the postseason without their star safety.

"You can't make up for it," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "You just try to find some others who can do half of what he does."

Seattle's 40-7 romp over the Panthers kept the Seahawks on track for another NFC West title. They are three games ahead of Arizona with four remaining, and Seattle (8-3-1) moved back in front of Detroit for a coveted first-round bye.

But playoff positioning or Seattle reaching the 40-point mark for the first time since its Super Bowl rout of Denver was secondary to Thomas' broken lower left leg. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Thomas has a cracked tibia and the injury is "always six weeks," but his status for a possible return during the postseason remains very much in question.

Thomas missed the first game of his pro career last week when he sat out against Tampa Bay due to a hamstring injury. He returned just 14 days after first getting hurt and lasted less than two quarters before the course of Seattle's season changed.

Thomas collided with teammate Kam Chancellor as both attempted to intercept a pass from Newton. True to Thomas' nature, he was talking about the break he made on the ball as he laid on the ground in pain, teammate Richard Sherman said.

"We're all going to miss the heck out of Earl because we love having that guy back there," Carroll said. "But we don't get to."

Seattle will rely on Steven Terrell to fill Thomas' role as the center fielder patrolling the back of the defense. Terrell has played well in his limited opportunities, but now will be counted on for an extended period if Seattle is to stay on its playoff track.

Of course, if the Seahawks continue to put up 40 points and rush for 240 yards, there will be less pressure on the defense.

"The running game is a big part of the offense and it complements everything that we do," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "When we run the ball like we did tonight, the defense has to account for it."

Carolina (4-8) has its own injury issues it's been dealing with, but it was a missing necktie that became the focal point of what turned into a blowout loss. Newton was benched for the first series of the game because he violated the Panthers' dress code by not having a necktie for the team flight to Seattle.

That one series lasted just one play as Derek Anderson's pass for Mike Tolbert deflected into the arms of Seattle linebacker Mike Morgan and was the beginning of a miserable night for Carolina.

The Panthers had one highlight, when Newton hit Ted Ginn Jr. for a 55-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Otherwise, it was big plays by Seattle underneath a cloud of controversy over the decision to punish Newton — even if it lasted only one play.

"There are some guys out there that need to step it up and unfortunately they didn't," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said.

Here are some other things to know after Seattle improved to 6-0 at home this season:

RAWLS ROLLING: Thomas Rawls finally had the breakout Seattle has been waiting for from its run game. Rawls rushed for 103 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, including a 45-yard dart early in the second quarter that answered Carolina's lone score. Rawls finished with 106 yards after he was limited in the second half, but the performance was an optimistic sign coming against the No. 2 rush defense in the NFL.

MOUNTING INJURIES: While losing Thomas is a huge blow for Seattle, the Panthers added to their already significant injury list. Carolina was without starters Kurt Coleman, Luke Kuechly, Daryl Williams and Mario Addison, then lost cornerback Daryl Worley and linebacker David Mayo to concussions against the Seahawks.

"We're beat up pretty bad. Pretty injured," safety Tre Boston said. "We've got guys who stepped up and guys who play well when they step up, but it's starting to show on offense and defense."

ROCKET LOCKETT: Seattle wide receiver Tyler Lockett spent the first half of the season running tentatively after a knee injury in Week 2 against Los Angeles. His burst finally appears to have returned, and he took off on a flashy, 75-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second half. Most impressive was Lockett outrunning Boston, who appeared to have the angle on him.

"I knew if I got caught, I would never hear the end of it at our meetings," Lockett said.

___

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

San Francisco 49ers LT Joe Staley: 'We couldn't complete a pass to save our lives'

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San Francisco 49ers LT Joe Staley: 'We couldn't complete a pass to save our lives'

CHICAGO — The 49ers' most decorated offensive player, five-time Pro Bowl LT Joe Staley, says Sunday marked the first game of his 10-year career with snow.

He likely wishes that was the lone reason San Francisco's 26-6 defeat to the Bears will be memorable.

"You don't ever see anything like this coming, when you can't move the ball in the passing game," Staley said. "We did a good job in the first couple quarters running the ball and then we got stagnant. Frustrating game all around.

How frustrating? His quarterback was benched in the fourth quarter after completing just 1-of-4 passes for five yards. Staley and the Niners' O-line couldn't protect either Colin Kaepernick or Blaine Gabbert, yielding six sacks including a safety, the second-highest total of the season. And Staley, despite his team lost its 11th consecutive game, seemed almost stunned.

"You knew coming in early, any time you play in a rain game —we played in a rain game against the Patriots and kinda ran heavy," said Staley. "And then knew coming in today, knew we would have to run the ball like we did, but offensive line gave up way too much pressure when we did pass the ball and then we couldn’t complete a pass to save our life, so… It’s frustrating when you’re one-dimensional."

All of this after San Francisco in Week 12 had its best offensive showing of the season, nearly toppling the previously red-hot Dolphins while tallying a season-high 475 yards. Sunday, the Niners had nearly as many punts (8) as first downs (10).

49ers fans might view it as one step closer to the first or second overall pick in the draft for a team seemingly in need of a total gutting. Staley, amid his frustration, was again forced to answer questions about what the players have left to try and accomplish in the final four games.

"You have to play for pride, man. You got to play in the NFL. You got to play for pride. Play for your job."

That last part is particularly poignant — and not just for Staley, one of the club's few assets worth dealing.

Pro Football Weekly reported last month Chip Kelly could jet after one season to return to the college ranks. GM Trent Baalke, stationed during the game at the south end of the press box, alone and in silence, has built a noncompetitive roster that has went south in the post Jim Harbaugh era.

Where are the building blocks for the Niners? The once-formidable defense let a Matt Barkley-led Bears offense tally a season-high 26 points. Kaepernick had a few open receivers Sunday, but San Francisco's skill talent might be the worst in the NFL. Kaepernick has been progressing, but his relationship with Baalke might be fractured beyond repair.

Changes are coming for the 49ers. And not just a quarterback getting benched in game.

"This is a situation that none of us want to be in. If you have pride in what you do, that's going to carry you through the last four games."

Colin Kaepernick's benching creates more questions than answers for hapless San Francisco 49ers

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Colin Kaepernick's benching creates more questions than answers for hapless San Francisco 49ers

CHICAGO — Colin Kaepernick last Sunday became the fifth quarterback since the merger to toss three touchdowns, plus log 100 rushing, yards as the 49ers lost their franchise record 10th consecutive game, 31-24 to the Dolphins.

Sunday, Kaepernick became backup Blaine Gabbert's clipboard holder for the fourth quarter after completing 1-of-4 passes for five yards in another 49ers' defeat, 26-6 to the Bears.

"I thought we needed a spark on offense," coach Chip Kelly explained of his decision. "We needed to get something going."

In cold and snowy conditions, Kaepernick and Matt Barkley failed to complete a pass in the first quarter, marking the first such instance since a Nov. 13, 1998 game between the Jets and Patriots, according to STATS inc. Yet the Niners built a 6-0 second quarter lead with Carlos Hyde and Draughn doing virtually all of the heavy lifting.

While Barkley eventually found his rhythm once the Bears went to the hurry-up to close the first half, engineering his first of three touchdown drives and finishing with a 97.5 passer rating, Kaepernick remained erratic. He underthrew running back Shaun Draughn on a wheel route on one third down, then overshot an open Vance McDonald on the next third down, both likely big plays with accurate throws.

Gabbert entered and promptly completed an 18-yard pass on his first play, San Francisco's longest of the day and just six yards shy of Kaepernick's total yardage. Remember, though, the Niners saw enough of Gabbert and his 69.9 passer rating through five games to turn to Kaepernick in Week Six

And prior to Sunday, Kaepernick showed marked improvement in each of his six starts, including a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 8:2, plus 223 rushing yards, over the previous four games. It was enough to perhaps suggest the 49ers, who after Sunday's defeat moved one step closer to the second overall pick in the 2017 draft, might be able to address their other myriad needs in the draft and continue to develop Kaepernick.

Fast-forward to late Sunday afternoon and Kelly wasn't ready to commit to Kaepernick over the final four games.

"It wasn't my permanent decision or anything like that," said Kelly, stopping short of saying Kaepernick will start vs. the Jets in Week 14. "... I was just watching how the ball was coming off his hands and what our chances were completing it. It didn't look like we were doing much in the passing game. You got to get it out a little quicker when you have a rushing coming."

A NFL media report on Sunday indicates Kaepernick, who restructured his six-year, $126 million deal prior to taking over as the starter, plans to opt out of his deal after the season to test the market.

"Once again, like I’ve said all along, my focus is on the next game," said Kaepernick when asked to confirm or deny the report. "So my focus has been on the Bears this past week."

Kaepernick said he was informed by QBs coach Ryan Day of Kelly's decision to make a change. Did he think the 10 opportunities he had to throw — Kaepernick took five sacks — were ample to show he could recover after the terrible start?

"Once again, it’s not about my feelings," said Kaepernick. "It’s about being able help this team win. This coaching staff didn’t feel like I was out there being able to help this team win so they made a change, whether I agree with that or not."

Kaepernick, whose national anthem protests have made him perhaps the game's most controversial figure, again kneeled on the visitor's sideline Sunday at Soldier Field. He said his decision to kneel Sunday carried extra significance, as it's the 40-year anniversary of Fred Hampton's killing by Chicago police officers. Hampton was the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers.

"I do think there is significance of being here today, seeing as it’s the anniversary of the assassination of chariman Fred Hampton," he said. "Being in Chicago, being able to acknowledge a black figure, a black leader like him is very important and his role in being a leader in this community and bringing this community together is something that needs to be acknowledged."

Kaepernick's season was defined early on by his protests. In recent weeks, the conversation shifted to a player who once led the 49ers within yards of a Super Bowl victory rediscovering his unique ability as a dangerous scrambling quarterback. With four games left, the narrative will now be Kaepernick's benching and whether his time in San Francisco is nearing its end.

"We have to continue to keep building, keep progressing," Kaepernick said. "This is a setback, most definitely, but we have to continue to keep pushing forward."