NFL Nation: Andrew Luck

MINNEAPOLIS -- It appears the Minnesota Vikings' efforts to land another receiver named Carter will come up empty-handed.

ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported on Tuesday evening that Montreal Alouettes receiver Duron Carter -- a CFL All-Star and the son of Vikings Hall of Famer Cris Carter -- is closing in on an agreement with the Indianapolis Colts. After Carter worked out with the Vikings on Jan. 9, he said the team was at the top of his list, along with the Colts, and it's believed Carter was being offered a three-year deal with a signing bonus in the neighborhood of $100,000. That's big money for a CFL receiver, and when Carter narrowed his list down to two teams late last week, the Vikings appeared to still be in the thick of things.

[+] EnlargeCarter
Claus Andersen/Getty ImagesIt appears CFL star Duron Carter, the son of Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, will not be joining the Vikings.
There are some valid reasons for Carter to head to Indianapolis, though, and as you might expect, the biggest one wears No. 12. Andrew Luck directed the league's most prolific passing offense last season, and the Colts' receiver group could be in flux with Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks possibly on the way out. Carter also has a couple former college teammates on the Colts' roster in linebacker Jonathan Newsome and running back Trent Richardson. And while he'll always be compared to his father on some level, those comparisons would be much louder in Minnesota. If part of Carter's motivation was a desire to forge his own path, there's something to be said for that.

What we can draw from the process, though, is further confirmation the Vikings are in the market for a receiver. They'd stayed in touch with Carter since his rookie camp tryout two years ago, and they liked the idea of pairing him with Teddy Bridgewater. There will be other avenues available to the Vikings if they want a playmaking wideout this offseason. The team is still hoping Cordarrelle Patterson can emerge in Year 3, though it remains to be seen if he'll work in more of a specialty role than as a split end. Players like Louisville's DeVante Parker and West Virginia's Kevin White could be options with the 11th overall pick, and there's plenty of talent among this year's group of unrestricted free agents. If Carter does indeed finalize a deal with the Colts -- as it appears he will -- the Vikings will have lots of other options this spring.
PHOENIX -- The moment Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck realized he used the word “deflated” on Wednesday night, a look of regret washed over his face.

He wished, instantly, he could have that sentence back, just like the two interceptions he threw Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, the game that sparked “Deflategate” after the Patriots were alleged to have played with 11 underinflated balls in the first half.

Luck
After he was picked first overall in the Pro Bowl draft in Phoenix, Luck was asked how he was feeling after Sunday’s 45-7 loss to New England when a trip to Super Bowl XLIX was at stake.

“It’s sort of ... the energy is sort of sucked out of you,” Luck said. “You do feel deflated.”

A reporter quickly mentioned he probably shouldn’t have used that word.

“Oh, shhh...” Luck started. “Yeah.”

He closed his eyes, regret setting in. The tone in Luck’s voice changed. He was ready for his brief media session to end. The man who doesn’t say anything controversial said something controversial.

Immediately the questions about “Deflategate” began blitzing Luck.

Did he notice anything about the footballs in New England?

“No, I didn’t,” he said.

Don’t the Colts use their own footballs?

“Yeah, we do,” he said.

What does Luck make of all the attention paid to the aftermath of the game?

“I don’t know. We lost the game, and once that happens, my mind shifts over and you start focusing on the next season,” he said.

How does he prefer his footballs to be inflated?

“Obviously everybody has their preference and our equipment managers sort of handle our footballs in a sense,” he said. “I get them as they are, I guess, and whatever they do with it.”

Were the allegations as big of a deal to him as they’re made out to be?

“I don’t know,” Luck said. “Things in the media tend to be blown out of proportion a little bit. It’s the nature of, I think, where we are today in society.

“Can’t take anything away from them being a heck of a team and they’re a good football team.”

Broncos vs. Colts preview

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
8:00
AM ET
When: 4:40 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High TV: CBS

For many, well, for most everybody really, it will be difficult to get past the quarterbacks in this one. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning will face his former team and the player the Indianapolis Colts selected with the No. 1 pick in the draft, Andrew Luck, just after the Colts released Manning in early 2012 -- all with a slot in the AFC Championship Game on the line.

In some ways there is a bit of old-news flavor to this divisional-round game given it will actually be the third time Manning will face his former team after a meeting in Indianapolis in 2013 (a Colts win) and this year's regular-season opener in Denver (a Broncos win).

But this is the first postseason dance. The Broncos (12-4) are trying to earn a return trip to the Super Bowl and the Colts (12-5) are trying to keep the momentum they earned with Sunday's wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a look at the quarterbacks as well as other issues in the playoff matchup.

Legwold: Mike, any concern there, even with Luck's heroics, the offense has become too one-dimensional? And how much could they adjust in a week?

Wells: The Colts are one-dimensional on offense. They didn't become one-dimensional on purpose. The goal was for them to have a balanced offense. That thought vanished when Ahmad Bradshaw was lost for the season in the middle of November because of a fractured fibula. Trent Richardson has been so much of a disappointment that he's now the No. 3 running back for the Colts. The Colts finished 22nd in the league in the rushing department during the regular season. The only hope the Colts have in the running department is with Daniel "Boom" Herron. He rushed 12 times for 56 yards and a touchdown against Cincinnati on Sunday. Besides that, Luck's arm will have to carry the offense. The Colts are fine with that because he did lead the NFL in touchdown passes during the regular season and was third in passing yards.

Running back CJ Anderson only carried the ball four times in the Week 1 matchup with the Colts. He had back-to-back games of 167 and 168 yards rushing during the regular season. How much has he helped take the load off of Manning and the passing game?

Legwold: Since an inexplicable loss Nov. 16 in St. Louis, when the Broncos ran the ball just 10 times, they have tried to balance things out the offense. They have run the ball at least 29 times in five of the last six games to close out the regular season. The exception was a 19-carry effort in the loss in Cincinnati. So, when they've pounded the ball down the stretch they've won games. They showed a little more of their pass-first chops in the regular-season finale against Oakland, but Anderson is the No. 1 option in the run game right now. Anderson's roster spot was a rather large question mark when he arrived to offseason workouts too heavy and looked sluggish, but he showed up to training camp far leaner. And when Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman were both injured Anderson got his chance. He has shown vision and power when he runs the ball as well as a good awareness in pass protection to go with his work as a receiver. They've only shown it in glimpses thus far, but if the Broncos can find a way to smooth out the rough spots as they transition from run to pass during games, the offense could certainly be built to work in the grind-it-out environment of the postseason.

Wes Welker didn't play in the season opener for the Broncos, Demaryius Thomas lined up in the slot because of that without a lot of success so it was tight end Julius Thomas who finished with three touchdown catches -- all in the second quarter. What do you think the Colts expect from the Broncos' offense this time around?

Wells: The Colts know Manning will be Manning. The difference for them is Anderson. The last thing the Colts can afford is for Anderson to get going early because it plays right into the hands of Manning with the play-action pass game. Manning is lethal even when he doesn't have a running game behind him. He's going to be almost impossible to stop if Anderson has the Colts on their heels in the running game. I asked former Broncos safety Mike Adams what's the biggest difference with Denver since their Week 1 matchup and the first player he mentioned was Anderson. The Colts have to find a way to put pressure on Manning when he drops back in the pocket. Good luck with that. Manning was only sacked 17 times during regular season. The Colts were 25th in the league in sacks.

The Broncos' defense sacked Luck three times and picked him off twice back in September. What is the key from Denver's defensive perspective in slowing down Luck and the offense?

Legwold: If there is one play in this past Sunday's game that showed the task at hand for the Broncos it was Luck's touchdown throw to Donte Moncrief with Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap wrapped around Luck's leg as he made the throw. The Broncos see Luck as a power runner in a pocket passer's body, a combination that is difficult to handle. It's not that they have to just get to Luck, but they have to get him down when they get there. Luck has shown himself to be particularly adept at escaping four-man rush packages that close in on him, especially if the two edge-rushers get too wide or rush too deep into the backfield in their efforts to get to him. The Broncos will try to keep him contained, allow a secondary with three Pro Bowl players to cover and force Luck to stay put, hold the ball and work through his progressions. Down and distance will also be important. If the Broncos don't allow the Colts much production on first down, they'll get the option of using some of their specialty packages, with five, six or seven defensive backs. Opposing quarterbacks have had some trouble moving the ball against those looks.

In the end, we all know about the quarterbacks, we all will be watching them perform Sunday, but if you had to name one or two other players who have to have an elite player type of day for the Colts to win, who would it be?

Wells: Linebacker Jerrell Freeman. As you recall, Jeff, Broncos tight end Julius Thomas dominated the Colts on that Sunday night in early September. Thomas had seven receptions for 104 yards and three touchdowns. The Colts tried a number of different players on Thomas, even safety LaRon Landry. None of those players could slow him down. You can expect Freeman to spend a lot of time defending Thomas. Freeman is coming off his best game of the season when he had a season-high 15 tackles to go with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. He's the only Colts linebacker athletic enough to defend Thomas.

Still, it wouldn't be right if we previewed this game and I didn't ask a Manning question because of the obvious connection with the Indianapolis. Manning said earlier this season that he'll be back as long as the Broncos will have him. You've been around him for the past three seasons, how many years do you think he has in that arm?

Legwold: Most folks look at Manning's right arm when they discuss his future, how he throws, the velocity on the ball, his ability to drive the ball to all parts of the field. But in terms of how many seasons he will play beyond this one, I believe in many ways he will make the call on when to call it a career, by how his legs are doing. He often talks about the “ability to move around and protect yourself,'' as being an important part of how he feels. And it is worth noting -- and I see him in practice every day -- he still throws the ball much the same as when he arrived in Denver in 2012 and that all of his injuries, at least the ones serious enough to show up on the injury reports, have been leg injuries. Last year he injured, and re-injured, both ankles and played with pain down the stretch. And this year he suffered a right thigh injury in a December win over the San Diego Chargers that affected his ability to plant and throw down the stretch. In the end, Manning has already said he plans to come back next season. His contract runs through 2016 and there are some in the Broncos organization who could see him finishing out the deal, but it will depend on Manning's health overall, including his ability to move in the pocket, to slide and to keep himself out of harm's way.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The third time is a charm, or at least the Denver Broncos hope it works out that way Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts.

Manning
But since Sunday will indeed be the third time quarterback Peyton Manning has faced his former team since he signed with the Broncos, including this season's opener this past September, it also means Manning is essentially addressed the topic enough for his liking.

"No, we've kind of covered that," Manning said following Wednesday's practice when asked about significance of facing the Colts. "I've been in Denver three years, third time we played them … last year went back there to play and understand that was kind of a unique story."

But Manning made it clear Wednesday he's living in the football here and now. That Sunday's game is the first step of what the Broncos hope is a successful playoff run, that the fact the first opponent is Indianapolis doesn't give the game any added significance.

That the Colts are different than the Colts' teams he played for, even a little different, because of injuries and lineup changes, than the Colts team the Broncos defeated, 31-24, in the regular-season opener this past September.

"It's been a long time since we played them," Manning said. "A lot has changed, we've changed, they've changed. … You're having to get to know a team all over again so we are trying to do that still."

Any matchup with the Colts will always bring the comparisons between Manning's 14 seasons with the team with Andrew Luck's first three years and beyond. Luck has led the team to the playoffs in each of those three years since he was the No. 1 pick of the 2012 draft just after the Colts had released Manning.

Manning was asked Wednesday if he understands what it's like for Luck to play in Indianapolis after Manning's career there as well as being asked if he believes there is any comparisons made between what Luck is doing for the Colts and Manning is doing for the Broncos.

"If you're the first pick of the draft, I guess you're always going to be compared to other first picks," Manning said. " … He's had an outstanding start to his career, it's not a surprise at all to me, guy that has as much talent as he has, combine that with the work ethic that you hear that he has and the times I've been around him you just knew he was going to do everything he could, combined with his talent, to be a special player … But I've never thought much about comparisons, how it affects me and I'm sure he doesn't either."
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CINCINNATI -- Twice in his end-of-season news conference Monday -- once at the beginning, once more near the end -- Marvin Lewis offered remorse to the city of Cincinnati and the fans of his team who inhabit it.

The 12th-year Cincinnati Bengals head coach understood how desperate they have grown for a playoff win. After Sunday's 26-10 wild-card round loss at Indianapolis, they still haven't seen a Bengals postseason victory since January 1991.

"I'm disappointed for the team. I'm disappointed for our fans. I'm disappointed for the city," Lewis said during his near 30-minute media session. "The city needs to win on a big scale. Big time. They deserve it. And that's what I'm disappointed in. It's not about me, it's about them.

"One day when I walk out of [the news conference room], hopefully I leave that trophy in here, and I just keep on stepping. That's all I want to do. I'm telling you, that's all I want to do. And you'll never hear from me again."

[+] EnlargeBengals
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCoach Marvin Lewis says his team's goal isn't just to be in the playoffs, but to be "world champions."
With Sunday's loss, Lewis became the second coach in NFL history to have lost six consecutive playoff games while associated with the same team. Steve Owen was the only other coach to accomplish the ominous feat, doing so in 1939-50. He had two NFL championships before the playoff drought began, and ended up coaching three more seasons after the sixth playoff loss. His 22-year career -- all spent with the New York Giants -- ended following a 3-9 campaign in 1953.

Like Owen, even after playoff loss No. 6, Lewis doesn't appear to be heading anywhere.

In order to better put his team in position to win a playoff game, Lewis said Monday his entire staff needed to coach better.

"I told our coaches [Monday] that moving forward, we're going to find a way to do better," Lewis said. "We've got to do better. We've got to find a way to get our guys through the little things, the critical moments of the game, to get those things done in a game that has the importance of a playoff game."

The Bengals didn't have any memorable plays on offense, and they couldn't take advantage of cornerback Darqueze Dennard's forced fumble in the second half. Big, momentum-turning plays like Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's well-placed third-quarter, 36-yard touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief while being tackled, didn't happen for the Bengals.

Lewis said he hadn't yet reached the point in the offseason where he and the front office have discussed making changes to the coaching staff.

At least one change could come whether he wants it to or not. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson could land a head-coaching job for the first time since the Raiders fired him in 2011.

Whether that happens, the bottom line is Lewis believes it's on all his coaches to get the team better prepared to achieve more.

"You're fortunate to have earned your way into the playoffs again, but we're not here just to go to the playoffs," Lewis said. "In fact, that's not even a goal. Our goals are to be undefeated at home, win the AFC North and be world champions.

"So we're not satisfied with just being in the playoffs. There's a lot to be proud of for our players, the things they've accomplished, but there's more to it than just getting there. That's why we do this."

W2W4: Bengals vs. Colts

January, 3, 2015
Jan 3
4:00
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INDIANAPOLIS -- A few storylines to watch Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals visit the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium in an AFC wild-card game:

Hill
Hill ignores the noise: All this week, monitors in the Bengals' locker room occasionally flashed a message bearing the words: "Ignore the noise." At one point during his news conference Wednesday, as he addressed a question about the Bengals' 24-year playoff-win drought, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis even uttered them in his succinct response. It appears rookie running back Jeremy Hill has been paying attention. Hill told me this week that he had avoided watching ESPN and other sports networks in an effort to have a one-track mind this weekend. He said it's the same approach he took entering the Week 15 game at Cleveland when he rushed for 148 yards and two touchdowns. As he goes for his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game, keep an eye on Hill. He figures to be a large part of the Bengals' game plan as they try to be run-focused this week.

Dalton
Dalton
Which Andy Dalton shows up? This is arguably the biggest question entering the game. The fourth-year quarterback has mostly been inconsistent throughout his career. He's been known to put up 300-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception numbers in sporadic games, and then have trouble connecting with any of his receivers in others. You never can tell which Dalton will step up, particularly in big games. He's 0-3 in playoff games, with one touchdown pass and six interceptions. His career postseason QBR is about 35 points lower than his career regular-season QBR. One thing we have learned about the Bengals under offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, though, is that his offense can operate without putting too much pressure on Dalton to play the role of hero. Expect that to happen Sunday. That is precisely why Hill ought to be a major focal point of the scheme.

Luck
Will Andrew Luck go off? As poorly as Dalton's numbers have been in three postseasons, Luck's haven't been much better. The Colts quarterback has more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six), and has a 1-2 record. He very nearly went 0-2 in his first two playoff games, but staged a big comeback in last year's wild-card round win against the Chiefs. Down 38-10 in the third quarter, Luck rallied the Colts to a 45-44 win. Performances like that have the Bengals motivated to keep Luck contained for all 60 minutes. With injuries all along Indianapolis' offensive line, and the Colts playing their 11th offensive line combination, Cincinnati has to believe it can get pressure on the quarterback.

Green
No Green, no problem: Of obvious concern all week was the status of Bengals receiver A.J. Green. The Pro Bowler spent the last six days under concussion protocol after taking a hard blow to the head in the fourth quarter of last week's loss in Pittsburgh. He's still going through it. The team announced Saturday afternoon he was officially out because of the concussion. A deep threat in the play-action passing game, Green would have been a good weapon for the Bengals to have. But there are reasons why they shouldn't be too concerned about his absence. Much like Dalton, Green's best performances have come in the regular season. In three playoff games, Green has caught only 13 passes on 32 targets, and he doesn't have a touchdown. Of Dalton's six interceptions, four came while targeting Green. Maybe that means the Bengals might be better without Green? They won't be better without Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham, though. Nursing a back injury all week, Gresham is questionable.
CINCINNATI -- Only twice since Marvin Lewis took over as the Cincinnati Bengals' head coach in 2003 has his defense had 20 or fewer sacks in a season.

The first time it happened? 2008.

The second? 2014.

That's right, six seasons after Lewis' Bengals recorded just 17 sacks of opposing quarterbacks, the group had exactly 20 this season. For a defense that had earned a reputation the previous five years for being aggressive, sack-focused and crafty with blitzes, it was a far lower number than had been expected.

[+] EnlargeWallace Gilberry
AP Photo/David RichardThe Bengals and Wallace Gilberry are not concerned with their low regular-season sack total. They just care about getting to Colts QB Andrew Luck.
Naturally, many will pin the lower sack total on defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who took over this season following former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's departure last January for the Minnesota head-coaching position.

Those who think the lack of pressure solely falls on Guenther are wrong.

However, it is Guenther's scheme, and he clearly has been less intent on sending extra pressure than Zimmer. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bengals blitzed on just 144 plays this season. That is 19 blitzes less than the fewest Zimmer ever called when he was with the Bengals. Per Stats & Information, Zimmer's defense blitzed 163 times both in 2008 -- his first year -- and 2012.

Though the Bengals might have given their defensive linemen less help this season, the fact is that like Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati, the players simply didn't get their pass-rushing job done.

None of that matters to the Bengals playing in Sunday's wild-card round game at Indianapolis, though. They contend the focus is to get after Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, disrupt his rhythm and try to register sacks.

"There's a lot of guys that have 15-plus sacks just sitting at home right now," defensive end Wallace Gilberry said. "So at the end of the day, none of that matters. We're in the playoffs, and we've got a chance to do something that hasn't been done around here, and that's to get out of the first round."

Cincinnati is 0-5 in the playoffs under Lewis.

The Bengals might get a little help from the Colts. Indianapolis' offensive line is expected to showcase its 11th different lineup this season with interior lineman A.Q. Shipley doubtful because of an ankle injury. He hasn't practiced all week.

In the Bengals' 27-0 loss at Indianapolis in October, Luck was sacked twice for a combined loss of nine yards.

As the season continued, his protection was increasingly worse. He had been sacked 1.6 times per game after the Week 7 meeting. Over the final nine games of the season, he was sacked an average 1.8 times.

Because of the injury and protection issues the Colts have had, keep an eye on how often they max-protect with either an extra offensive tackle or a tight end, both on the edge and in the backfield. Teams like Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay did it against Cincinnati down the stretch this season. With max-protect lines, defenses have trouble calling blitzes. It's one reason the Bengals' blitz numbers were down.

"When you blitz a lot in the beginning of the year and teams start max-protecting you on third downs, if you blitz, it's like banging your head up against a brick wall," Guenther said. "You got to be smart about it. That's the decision you got to make as a coordinator: Do you want to blitz against max protection or do you want to cover them when they're trying to keep everybody in?"

Decisions like these could be crucial to determining the outcome of Sunday's game.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – If Tony Romo was among Aaron Rodgers' top competition for the NFL MVP award, then the All-Pro voting released on Friday should squash that notion.

Rodgers
 Rodgers was selected as the quarterback on the Associated Press All-Pro team released Friday. The Green Bay Packers quarterback received 44 of the 50 votes, while Romo received three votes. Tom Brady (two votes) and Andrew Luck (one) received the other quarterback votes. The Associated Press also conducts the voting for the MVP award.

Fullback John Kuhn was the only other Packers' player to be named to the first team despite playing only 18.3 percent of the offensive snaps this season. He received 18 votes to edge Kansas City's Anthony Sherman (14).

The full All-Pro voting can be found here.

"Those nominations and achievements are great but ultimately at this time of the year, it's about winning championships," Rodgers said. "That’s what we're focused on. Anything else is kind of icing on the cake for us. But I'm especially excited for John."

Jordy Nelson was third among all receivers, meaning he was a second-team selection. Only two receivers make the All-Pro first team. Given how little teams use fullbacks anymore, it might be time to scrap that in favor of a third receiver.

Just don't tell that to Kuhn.

"The fullback position here isn't as traditional as it was back in the 1980s," said Kuhn, a fan favorite despite only 24 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown this season. "We can mix it up, and we can do different things."

Josh Sitton was third among guards, meaning he was a second-team selection for the second straight season.

Perhaps Rodgers' biggest competition for MVP might be J.J. Watt. The Houston Texans defensive stalwart was one of two unanimous selections. The other was New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The question came up on our MVP roundtable debate, which can be found here: Will the timing of Aaron Rodgers' bad game -- one he called a "stinker" -- last Sunday in the road loss against the Buffalo Bills hurt his MVP chances?

Rodgers
Apparently not much, at least according to one oddsmaker.

The online sportsbook Bovada.LV still has Rodgers as the favorite. Two weeks ago, the same sportsbook listed Rodgers as a 1-to-2 favorite to win the MVP. This week, Rodgers was listed at 1-to-3. Tom Brady (5/1) was listed second with J.J Watt (7/1) third.

Here are the full odds for MVP this week (with the odds two weeks ago in parenthesis)
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- This should come as no surprise after Sunday's 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots, but the Green Bay Packers are now the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl.

That's according to the online sportsbook Bovada.LV, which released its latest odds on Wednesday.

The Packers' odds to win the Super Bowl now stand at 7-to-2, followed by the Patriots (15/4) and Denver Broncos (17/4).

Last week, the Packers were behind the Patriots (see accompanying chart).

Of course, the Packers were also listed as the favorite in the NFC at 3-to-2 ahead of the Seattle Seahawks (13/4), Philadelphia Eagles (6/1), Detroit Lions (10/1), Arizona Cardinals (12/1) and New Orleans Saints (12/1).

On Tuesday, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show that he didn't think much would change for the Packers even though most will consider them the Super Bowl favorite.

However, Rodgers has said several times over the years that he likes being an under-the-radar team.

"Early in the season, yeah," Rodgers said on his show, "and then you like the mystique to start to grow."

Rodgers also was listed as the favorite to win the MVP, which would be his second such award. His odds were listed at 1-to-2 ahead of J.J. Watt (5/1), Peyton Manning (13/2), Tom Brady (15/2), Andrew Luck (12/1) and DeMarco Murray (25/1).
DAVIE, Fla. -- Let's travel back two years ago with the Miami Dolphins: It is 2012 and no secret that they're in desperate need of a quarterback in the NFL draft. The Chad Henne fiasco just ended and Miami hired a new head coach in Joe Philbin, who needed a quarterback to start his program.

The Dolphins, along with most likely 31 other teams, had Robert Griffin III rated higher than Ryan Tannehill. In fact, many believed it was a reach when Miami selected Tannehill No. 8 overall after Andrew Luck and Griffin were taken off the board with the first two picks by the Indianapolis Colts and Washington Redskins, respectively. Both were viewed as future superstars, and Tannehill was more of a project with just 19 career starts at Texas A&M.

Tannehill
Griffin
However, three seasons later, the Dolphins are better off with Tannehill than Griffin. Tannehill will start his 44th consecutive game for Miami (6-5) when it faces the New York Jets on ESPN's “Monday Night Football.”

Things haven't been perfect, but Tannehill has gradually improved each season and is on pace for a career year in 2014. He has thrown for 2,582 yards, 20 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. His passer rating is 93.4.

Most important, Tannehill still offers hope that he can be Miami's long-term solution at quarterback. He's playing arguably the best football of his career with a 4-2 record over his past six games.

“Yeah, I think he’s been playing better,” Philbin said of Tannehill. “I think he's been playing better for probably even a hair longer than that. Certainly, he’s been throwing the ball accurately and doing a good job running the offense.”

Griffin’s chances of doing the same for the Redskins have all but disappeared since he was benched this week in favor of third-string quarterback Colt McCoy. Griffin struggled the past two seasons since returning from major knee surgery. He has a 13-20 record as a starter, including a 4-14 mark in 2013 and 2014.

Granted, Tannehill also must win more games. He is 21-22 as a starter. But Tannehill's individual stats are up across the board in assistant Bill Lazor's new offense. Tannehill also has Miami in playoff contention in December for the second consecutive season.

“I don't know exactly how my numbers look, [but] I feel more and more comfortable the more games we play,” Tannehill said. “The guys around me are making plays right now. The line is protecting me. The run game is going pretty well. So when the guys around you are making plays and you can just get them the ball in space, it makes it a lot more fun to be a quarterback.”

The Dolphins will have a decision to make on Tannehill's future soon. He's under contract next season and the team must decide if it wants to pick up Tannehill’s fifth-year option. Miami also can determine if it wants to work out a long-term contract instead. Those choices are all in play.

But the Redskins apparently made a decision that Griffin is not the long-term solution at quarterback in Washington. It’s an interesting contrast of two third-year quarterbacks -- just six draft slots apart -- heading in opposite directions.

Aaron Rodgers matching his MVP pace

November, 13, 2014
11/13/14
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If you thought Aaron Rodgers' production from his MVP season of 2011 was a once-in-a-career happening, think again.

He's on a similar pace (see accompanying chart).

Rodgers played only 15 games in 2011, sitting out the meaningless Week 17 affair to rest for the playoffs, so it's possible he could end up with even better numbers this season than his 45 touchdowns (with just six interceptions) of that year.

[+] EnlargeRodgers
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAaron Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception at Lambeau Field since Week 12 of the 2012 season -- or 286 pass attempts.
And after Sunday's six-touchdown game against the Chicago Bears, Rodgers has thrown himself back into the MVP race.

According to the online oddsmaker Bovada.lv, Peyton Manning remains the favorite to win the MVP with 2-1 odds. Rodgers and Andrew Luck are next at 3-1. Five weeks ago, Rodgers was sixth in the MVP race at 10-1.

Just two weeks ago, all 32 ESPN NFL Nation reporters cast their votes for the midseason MVP, and not one of them selected Rodgers.

Imagine how different the polling might be today.

"I think he's playing as good as any quarterback in the league right now and probably the best quarterback in the league right now," said Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, whose team is preparing to play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. "He's on top of his game."

Kelly has the unenviable task of facing Rodgers at Lambeau, where the Packers have averaged 41.5 points per game. No one in the NFL has come close to scoring that many points at home. The New England Patriots rank second but have averaged 5.5 points fewer in their home games.

The Packers have outscored opponents by 101 points at home this season, the highest differential in the league.

In going 4-0 at home, Rodgers hasn't even had to finish the last three games. He has completed nearly 69 percent of his passes at home this season, and his average yards per passing attempt of 9.9 in those games indicates how explosive the Packers' offense has been at Lambeau this season.

Rodgers has 15 touchdowns and no interceptions at home this season. In fact, he hasn't thrown an interception at home since Week 13 of the 2012 season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, his 10-game streak without an interception at home is the longest in NFL history by two games. He's thrown 286 passes at Lambeau since he was last picked off.

The Packers are 14-1 in Rodgers' last 15 starts, and the only loss was last season against the Bears when he broke his collarbone in the first quarter.

Statistics aside, Packers coach Mike McCarthy believes Rodgers is better today than he's ever been. Rodgers has more freedom in the no-huddle offense because McCarthy trusts Rodgers' brain, which the coach said is a quarterback's best weapon.

"You can't play quarterback without the ability to process, anticipate, recognize," McCarthy said. "Then, you have the mental toughness part of it. Clearly, I think the strength of any successful quarterback is his mental and emotional gifts, and Aaron is definitely at the highest level."

Said Kelly: "It doesn't seem like you can fool him. He's always kind of a play ahead, a step ahead of defenses and defensive coordinators. He always seems to find the open receiver, no matter how it unveils itself pre-snap. He's extremely accurate, as good a thrower as there is in this league. He can keep things alive because he's such a good athlete. It's an exciting challenge for us to go against the best."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Observed and heard in the locker room following the New York Giants' 40-24 loss to the Colts on Monday Night:
    Ayers
  • Defensive end Robert Ayers had seven quarterback hits, a sack and a forced fumble but didn't feel like talking about it. "I don't do moral victories," he said.
  • Asked about the challenge of sacking Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, Ayers said, "He's about my size and he's faster than me. He knows what you're trying to do. He's the real deal, one of the candidates for MVP."
  • Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said he had Luck picked off in the end zone over top of T.Y. Hilton, but that Hilton's helmet hit the ball and adjusted it in Rodgers-Cromartie's arms, allowing Hilton to take it from him on the way down and turn it into a touchdown pass. "Just got to be stronger there," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "That's a play I make 10 out of 10 times, but I didn't make it."
  • Rodgers-Cromartie says he's still troubled by back and leg injuries but will keep playing through them, especially in the wake of the injury to fellow corner Prince Amukamara. "When you're on that field, you get that adrenaline rush and you don't feel some things," he said. "I don't think 'limited.'"

Colts vs. Giants preview

October, 31, 2014
10/31/14
8:00
AM ET

The Indianapolis Colts had won five games in a row before last week's 51-34 loss to Pittsburgh. The New York Giants had won three in a row before losing in Philadelphia and Dallas prior to last week's bye. These two teams are looking to remind everyone of better times as they meet at MetLife Stadium on "Monday Night Football."

ESPN Colts reporter Mike Wells and ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano are here with your game preview:

Wells: Dan, the Cowboys went from Super Bowl contenders to having to worry about Tony Romo's back, and the Eagles are coming off a loss. Do you feel like the Giants have a realistic shot at winning the NFC East?

Graziano: It's not impossible, but I don't think it's realistic. They trail Dallas by 2½ games and Philadelphia by two, and they lost to each of those teams before the bye. The idea that they could catch both is far-fetched, especially since they can't go 2-0 against either.

Fundamentally, I just don't think the Giants are very good. Eli Manning is playing well in the new offense, but the group around him is made up of young guys and backups. Injuries to Victor Cruz (out for the year) and Rashad Jennings (who will miss a third straight game) have sapped the offense of much of its explosiveness, and guys such as Odell Beckham, Rueben Randle, Larry Donnell and Andre Williams have shown promise but are still developing. The offensive line, also quite young in spots, has been inconsistent. On the defensive side, they're extremely banged up at cornerback and they just lost middle linebacker Jon Beason for the season.

The Giants are a team with a clear vision for the future and they've already shown progress in the new offense, but they're going to be outmanned most weeks.

How about the Colts? The group around Andrew Luck seems to have come together better than I expected it would. What are the main reasons (other than himself) that Luck is leading the league in passing yards?

Wells: The main reason is that Luck's ability to spread the ball around makes it difficult for defenses to key on one area. He had back-to-back games earlier this season where he completed passes to nine different receivers. Another reason: Two key players -- receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen -- are back after having their 2013 seasons cut short. Wayne is second on the team with 434 receiving yards -- trailing only T.Y. Hilton -- despite missing the Pittsburgh game. Allen is tied with former Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with six.

Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton took a lot of criticism last season for being determined to make Indianapolis a power-running team despite having Luck at quarterback. Hamilton is more comfortable in Year 2 as an NFL coordinator and it's showing, as the Colts run the ball just enough to keep defenses honest.

Manning is 22nd in the league in passing yards. Would it be safe to say he's on the decline of his career, or does he have enough left in the tank to win his third Super Bowl ring at some point?

Graziano: I don't think he's declining. They just totally changed the offensive system. Longtime coordinator Kevin Gilbride "retired" (cough, was forced out, cough) and was replaced by Ben McAdoo, a former Packers assistant who brought Mike McCarthy's West Coast offense with him. The emphasis for Manning has been on avoiding turnovers after leading the league with 27 interceptions last year, and as a result the Giants are leaning hard on the run and the short-passing game. A whopping 67 percent of Manning's throws have traveled fewer than 10 yards down the field, compared with 61 and 62 percent the two seasons prior.

It's possible the offense develops more of a downfield element as everyone continues to develop -- especially first-round rookie Beckham, who has field-stretching speed but has only played three games. GM Jerry Reese said Monday that he'd like to see the offense be more aggressive, but coach Tom Coughlin has insisted that they're not looking to take more chances downfield and prefer to play it close to the vest so as to avoid a recurrence of last year's turnover problems.

Long term, I think Manning has enough time to win another Super Bowl if this new group develops around him. I imagine he'll get his contract extension this offseason, and the way the league is set up for quarterbacks right now, it's not crazy to think he has five or six good years left.

When we talked to Eli on Monday, he said he'd watched the Colts' past two games and noted the significant difference in the number of points they surrendered in them. His take was that the defensive scheme wasn't different but that Pittsburgh did a great job against it, while Cincinnati obviously did not. What on earth went wrong Sunday, and which Colts defense is the one we should expect to see Monday?

Wells: I'm not even sure the Colts know what went wrong against the Steelers. There wasn't a defense in the league that probably could have stopped Ben Roethlisberger. Defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois summed it up best when he said they got a wake-up call and Roethlisberger was a step ahead of them the entire game. He found the soft spots of the defense when they played zone and torched them when they blitzed. He also laid out the blueprint on how to beat a Colts defense that had 20 sacks and nine turnovers in the five games leading up to that matchup. Indy's front seven couldn't get any pressure on Roethlisberger; it was the first time since Week 2 that the Colts didn't have a sack.

Luck has thrown for at least 300 yards in six straight games. The Giants are 25th in the league against the pass. How do they expect to slow Luck down?

Graziano: Their best bet is that the offense clicks and they put together long, sustained drives that keep Luck off the field for long stretches. Their pass defense is in tatters. Top cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been trying to play through leg and back injuries, and he doesn't seem to have improved much over the bye. They lost nickelback Walter Thurmond (arm) and backup nickel Trumaine McBride (thumb) to a season-ending injuries.

To overcome those losses, they've been putting Prince Amukamara on the opposing team's top receiver and experimenting with a three-safety look that includes Antrel Rolle, Quintin Demps and Stevie Brown, who was demoted earlier in the year due to ineffectiveness. It would help if they could generate more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but in spite of a solid performance against the run, Jason Pierre-Paul and the rest of the defensive line have not been getting sacks. (As a team, the Giants have only 13 in seven games.) Luck has a chance for a big night.

If Luck does have a big night, however, it doesn't seem as though former Giant Hakeem Nicks will be a part of it. Has he been as much of a non-factor there as he was here last year, and if so, why do the Colts think that is?

Wells: The Colts are saying the right things publicly, but it's been a mystery why Nicks hasn't been a factor. Last weekend's game basically summed up his time with the Colts. With Wayne out with an elbow injury, Nicks was the No. 2 receiver, but he was clearly outplayed by rookie Donte Moncrief. Nicks only caught one of the six targets from Luck for 27 yards while playing 60 of 66 snaps. Moncrief only needed 40 snaps to catch seven passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. You would have thought having a bigger role in the offense would help Nicks. Now you have to wonder if he'll fit in at all this season because Wayne will likely play Monday and Moncrief's performance may have been good enough to move him ahead of Nicks as the third receiver.

Graziano: Thanks, Mike. Travel safe and I'll see you Monday.

The Film Don't Lie: Steelers

October, 28, 2014
10/28/14
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the Pittsburgh Steelers must fix.

Cornerback Cortez Allen’s regression continued against the Indianapolis Colts, and the fourth-year veteran got yanked from the Steelers’ 51-34 win after giving up a pair of touchdown passes.

The Steelers replaced Allen at nickelback with Antwon Blake, who could remain in that role for the foreseeable future, including Sunday night's prime-time matchup against the Ravens.

Blake intercepted Andrew Luck in the fourth quarter to help preserve the Steelers’ most impressive win of the season. Allen, meanwhile, looks completely lost.

T.Y. Hilton turned him around with a double move late in the second quarter, and the Colts wide receiver caught a 28-yard touchdown pass even though Allen had given him a healthy cushion.

Allen leads the Steelers with two interceptions but inconsistency led to the Steelers replacing the 6-foot-1, 196-pounder as a starter with Brice McCain. Now Allen may have to fight to win back the nickelback job from Blake, who has primarily played special teams since signing with the Steelers last season.

What is most problematic about Allen’s play is he has either not adjusted to the NFL’s emphasis on enforcing the illegal contact rule on defensive backs or the former fourth-round draft pick is too often grabbing receivers because he doesn’t trust his technique.

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