NFL Nation: Matt Cavanaugh

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 2

September, 16, 2013
An examination of four hot issues from the Bears’ 31-30 win over the Vikings:

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsKeeping his cool has helped Jay Cutler rally Chicago during critical times this season.
Cutler’s comebacks: In crunch time, Jay Cutler has been more composed than in past performances, which is why he was able to recover from three turnovers and rally the team for the second consecutive week. Cutler believes in the system and the coaches, and that’s paid dividends. It’s also a reason the normally fiery Cutler, according to teammates, has been the calmest player in the huddle during critical situations.

On the sideline, Cutler’s sounding board is quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh.

“Nothing really rattles him,” Cutler said. “He just taps the bench and says come over and sit down. We talk it out. If I’ve got to vent, he lets me get it off my chest and moves straight to the pictures. He’s a calming influence.”

Pass rush still lacking: The Bears forced three turnovers, which is pretty standard for the defense, but the club still hasn’t generated consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Bears go into Week 3 with just two sacks. At this point last season, the team had racked up eight.

“Early on last year, we started off with a bunch more sacks,” defensive end Corey Wootton said. “I don’t think we played up to our caliber with the arsenal we have up front.”

The front four’s highest-paid defenders, Julius Peppers and Henry Melton, have combined for five tackles with zero sacks. With them earning a combined $18.35 million in base salary this season, they’re making a combined $458,750 per tackle so far, by my math.

Dual-threat Forte: Matt Forte touched the ball 30 times and finished with 161 yards from scrimmage, way above his average of 102 yards per game going into the season. Forte has recorded 150 yards or more from scrimmage in 13 career games.

What’s more, Cutler targeted Forte more than go-to receiver Brandon Marshall for the first time since last season’s Week 2 loss at Green Bay. The change stems from the way the club now deploys Forte in the passing game, and provides Cutler another weapon when teams take away options such as Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett.

“We’ve got some guys that want the ball,” Cutler said. “Whenever we give them opportunities, they make plays.”

Cracks in special teams: Cordarrelle Patterson’s 105-yard TD return on the opening kickoff marked the first time the Bears gave up a kickoff-return touchdown since Sept. 30, 2007, against Detroit. Although the Bears immediately responded with a 76-yard return by Devin Hester, there appear to be weaknesses in Chicago’s coverage units.

“I saw a big hole. No way I could’ve missed it,” Patterson said.

In the opener, the punt-coverage unit surrendered a 50-yard return by Adam Jones on the team’s first punt of the day, but it was nullified by an illegal block above the waist.

“It’s hard to be minus-2 in turnovers and get a kick return for a touchdown and win the game,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said.

Hey, playa! Can you coach?

March, 30, 2011
SparanoSam Greenwood/Getty ImagesDolphins coach Tony Sparano felt it was necessary to add former players to his coaching staff.
Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall scoffed in September that broadcast analyst Sterling Sharpe had no right to judge him. Marshall claimed Sharpe didn't do enough on the field to earn the privilege.

Imagine, then, how much disdain Marshall would harbor for criticism from those who didn't play in the NFL at all.

When you consider Marshall's logic and the sort of position coaches he has worked with, you get a sense of how unstable a situation can be.

As a rookie, he learned from former Pro Bowl receiver Steve Watson. But since 2007, Marshall's coaches have been Jeremy Bates, Jedd Fish and Adam Gase with Denver and Karl Dorrell last year with Miami. None of them played in the NFL. Neither Fisch nor Gase played in college.

Probably not the kinds of guys you'd expect to make a connection.

Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano rearranged his coaching staff after last season. He moved Dorrell into the quarterbacks vacancy and promoted Steve Bush from a quality-control role -- usually considered entry-level -- to receivers coach. Bush hasn't been an NFL position coach before. In 2008, the Dolphins hired the one-time Syracuse assistant away from West Genesee High in upstate New York.

Some help was in order, and not just for Bush.

Sparano made it a point to add former players to his coaching staff because he identified a deficiency. He needed more voices to reach his players.

Although the Dolphins parted ways with running backs coach James Saxon, they hired Ike Hilliard to assist Bush and Bryan Cox to coach pass rushing and promoted Dan Campbell from intern to tight ends coach.

"I feel good about the way we were able to put the staff together with the infusion of ex-players onto the staff," Sparano said last week at the NFL owners meeting in New Orleans.

"A little bit of that flavor and that knowledge on your coaching staff helps a lot. Sometimes, as coaches, we can get tunnel vision and forget about what the players' needs are. When you get an ex-player on your staff -- somebody that's really not far removed -- it helps you a lot."

A breakdown of AFC East coaching staffs shows there are multiple philosophies on former NFL players as assistants.

The Dolphins went into last season with two position coaches who played in the NFL: assistant head coach and secondary assistant Todd Bowles and Saxon. They now have four assistants with a combined 557 games.

Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey has one former NFL player on his staff, but none coaching a position. Former defensive back Adrian White, a veteran of seven seasons, handles quality control.

New England Patriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson is the lone member of Bill Belichick's crew to have experienced NFL action. Johnson played linebacker for four teams over 13 years.

Then there's Rex Ryan's staff, populated by six former NFL players with 62 seasons and 829 games. Matt Cavanaugh coaches quarterbacks, Anthony Lynn running backs, Henry Ellard receivers, Mike Devlin tight ends, Mark Carrier defensive line and Dennis Thurman defensive backs.

I reached out to three former coaches who played in the NFL -- Tom Flores, Herm Edwards and Ted Cottrell -- to get their opinions on the significance of having on-field experience on staff.

"It's always been a thing with the players," said Cottrell, an Atlanta Falcons linebacker and successful defensive coordinator for the Bills, Jets, Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers, "where they think in the backs of their minds, 'Well, you haven't played this game. You don't know what we're going through. You haven't done this, Coach.' But if you have some playing experience on your staff, it helps offset that."

As valuable as those players-turned-coaches are, they're difficult to find. The best players don't necessarily make the best coaches because what came to them naturally can't always be conveyed through instruction.

[+] EnlargePepper Johnson
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaPatriots defensive line coach Pepper Johnson is the only member of Bill Belichick's staff with NFL playing experience.
Flores found a way to make it work. He and Mike Ditka are the only two in NFL history to win a Super Bowl ring as a player, assistant coach and head coach. Flores played quarterback for the Bills, Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs before guiding the Raiders to pair of Super Bowl titles.

"Some of the young kids coming out have no idea," Flores said. "They think they invented the game. Sometimes you have to bring them back to reality.

"But you also don't want somebody who keeps saying, 'Well, when I played ... When I played ... When I played ...' The player thinks, 'I don't give a damn when you played. We're playing now.'"

The transition from player to coach is difficult. Many players focus so much on their specific jobs when they're active that they don't become students of the overall game or learn how their roles fit into the overall puzzle. Others find it difficult to stop acting like a player when their careers are over.

Still, the ex-player element can be crucial in various instances.

"Sometimes you need a bridge with a former player," said Edwards, who played cornerback for the Philadelphia Eagles and was head coach for the Jets and Chiefs. "His voice is going to speak volumes, especially during the rough times because he's done it; he's been through it. He can give them, 'OK, this is what we gotta do' speech.

"He's going to respect because he played, but can he teach? That's the whole key. Players will figure that out."

Not all coaches are comfortable hiring former players, particularly those fresh off the field. Cottrell claimed there's a fear of subversion, that the former player will relate better to the locker room than the man in charge.

"Who do you think the players on the roster will gravitate towards more?" Cottrell asked. "The guy who played in the NFL and is young, or the older guy who didn't play?"

The former player, I responded.

"Damn right they would," Cottrell said. "That's why some coaches are intimidated to hire them. That's the truth. They don't want that guy around."

Added Edwards: "I've seen that happen. There's no doubt about that. That's when you're paranoid, but there are coaches like that."

Even so, Edwards conceded insurrections aren't an unfounded conspiracy theory.

"If you've got a former player in his positional meeting room, saying, 'Man, the coach doesn't know what he's talking about,' then you've got no shot as a head coach," Edwards said. "That's why you've got to be particular on who you hire."

The Patriots have a more institutional coaching staff. Their message is easy to deliver when players consider Belichick has won three Super Bowls and four conference championships in the past decade.

Rather than rely on former players, Belichick has core assistants such as offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia (28th season with New England) and running backs coach Ivan Fears (15th season).

Belichick grooms assistants from gophers into coordinators and even head coaches. A steady stream of his acolytes -- Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels, Brian Daboll, Bill O'Brien, Matt Patricia -- got their NFL starts under Belichick with no pro playing experience.

New England's cyclical process protects organizational doctrine from outside influences. Johnson, the lone ex-player on the staff, played 10 of his 13 seasons under Belichick.

"Belichick has a certain philosophy, and you want everybody to be on the same page," Flores said. "Sometimes, when you bring in guys that have been too many other places, they're not going to be on your page because they've been trained someplace else.

"If you bring up assistants through the ranks, then they'll be trained the way you want them to be. Everybody has to buy into the same program."

At the other end of the spectrum are the Jets.

Ryan obviously values former players. Their presence on the staff contributes to the Jets being an attractive destination for free agents, and Cottrell surmises the Dolphins have noticed.

"From a coaching standpoint, he looks at the Jets and wants to catch them in the division," Cottrell said. "He thinks, 'Rex has six guys that have played the game who are coaching. Uh oh. Rex has got an advantage on me.'

"That's got to be in the back of his mind. You've got to win your division to get into the playoffs, and when you look at your coaching staff, you see you don't matchup in that area."

Or, in the case of adding Hilliard at least, maybe it was as simple as noticing the Dolphins didn't match up with Marshall.

QB-ready teams can handle long lockout

March, 11, 2011
The NFL long has been a quarterback-dominated league.

But quarterbacks will be more important than ever in 2011 if a protracted labor stoppage wipes out offseason workouts or encroaches on training camps. senior writer John Clayton wrote a column on the topic, stressing teams with stability at quarterback could emerge way ahead of those that do not once a new collective bargaining agreement is brokered.

Several clubs, two in the AFC East, are evaluating their quarterback situations and are open to addressing their needs through free agency, trades or the draft.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Icon SMIMark Sanchez has the second most starts in the AFC East, but who will he be throwing to next season?
We have no idea when free agency will commence or player trades will be permitted. The longer teams must wait on those options, the less time there will be to learn playbooks and develop chemistry with receivers.

With that in mind, let's rank each situation in the AFC East based on how much its quarterback and infrastructure (stability of his supporting cast) will be able to withstand NFL dormancy.

New England Patriots

The Patriots have one of the NFL's most consistent situations. Tom Brady is the reigning MVP, guided his team to a 14-2 record and has all of his receivers coming back.

He and Deion Branch have an eerie chemistry that resurfaced immediately despite 3 1/2 years apart. I don't think Brady and Wes Welker need to worry about getting on the same page, but I wouldn't be shocked if they worked out regularly again like they did last summer, while Welker was rehabbing from his knee injury. Brady proved how quickly he can integrate new blood by the way he used rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Patriots offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien will call the plays for the third season. The Patriots, like the Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning, will be just fine if there's a lengthy lockout.

New York Jets

Fact: Mark Sanchez has the second-most NFL starts of any No. 1 quarterback in the AFC East. He's only 24 years old, but Sanchez has started 37 games, one more than Ryan Fitzpatrick and 10 more than Chad Henne.

Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh have been with Sanchez from the beginning. Sanchez also is a self starter in the offseason. He convened a "Jets West" camp for his receivers last summer in California.

A potential problem is that Sanchez will have trouble gathering receivers this offseason because they don't know if they'll be back. Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards are free agents. But receiver Jerricho Cotchery and tight end Dustin Keller are on the roster.

Buffalo Bills

Even if the Bills draft a quarterback, a long lockout probably would ensure Fitzpatrick remains the starter by wiping out rookie camps and other critical orientation time. Fitzpatrick is a savvy veteran, a calming influence for the Bills' offense. He incorporates head coach Chan Gailey's concepts and has the support of his locker room.

Based on how Fitzpatrick played as the season wore on, there's no reason to believe the Bills suffered from a lack of chemistry. When receivers Roscoe Parrish and Lee Evans went down with injuries, Fitzpatrick had no trouble getting undrafted rookies David Nelson and Donald Jones involved.

But the Bills still could benefit from informal practices during a work stoppage. Top receiver Steve Johnson told me this week they have none scheduled.

Miami Dolphins

Henne created a stir when he divulged he had been, against the NFL's wishes, going over the playbook with new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and new quarterbacks coach Karl Dorrell. The NFL declined to pursue, and that was doubly good news for the Dolphins. They avoided punishment and got a head start before the league turned into a pumpkin.

But Henne would appear to be at a disadvantage despite the extra help. The Dolphins have declined to give him any kind of legitimate public endorsement. He's entering his fourth season, presents more questions than answers and is working with a new playbook. Top receiver Brandon Marshall suggested after the season he had more chemistry with third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen than Henne.

Henne also revealed the Dolphins have informal workouts and a location arranged. That's much easier to do in Broward County than, say, Western New York. Good thing, too, because Henne can use all the help he can get to morph into the franchise quarterback the Dolphins hoped he would be.

Jets stiff-arm Titans over Bill Callahan

February, 10, 2011
The New York Jets won't let a conference opponent cherry-pick their coaching staff for an offensive coordinator.

The Jets already have announced they're keeping Brian Schottenheimer around, and they've spurned a team's request to speak to another assistant about becoming a coordinator. senior writer John Clayton reports the Tennessee Titans approached the Jets about offensive line coach Bill Callahan filling their coordinator vacancy. The Jets declined because Callahan is under contract.

Callahan has overseen one of the NFL's best offensive lines the past three seasons. The Jets feature All-Pro center Nick Mangold and Pro Bowl left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Right guard Brandon Moore and right tackle Damien Woody are highly respected in the league.

Clayton, citing an unnamed source, said Callahan would like to be a coordinator again to enhance his allure as a future head coach candidate. Callahan was Oakland Raiders offensive coordinator for four years before being promoted to head coach in 2002. He became the fourth first-year head coach to take his team to the Super Bowl.

Callahan lasted only two seasons in Oakland. He became head coach at Nebraska and introduced the West Coast offense to a traditional ground-and-pound program.

Jets quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh also has significant coordinator experience. He handled play-calling duties for the Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens and the University of Pittsburgh.

Joe Namath sets stage for Jets-Steelers

January, 21, 2011
New York Jets icon Joe Namath was a guest on "Mike & Mike in the Morning" and declared last week's victory against the New England Patriots second only to Super Bowl III in franchise history.

A triumph Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field would knock last week's monumental game down a peg to No. 3 in the Jets' all-time order. It would send the Jets back to the Super Bowl -- finally.

"The Jets haven't played their best football yet. I believe that," said Namath, who predicted a Patriots victory against the Jets last week at Gillette Stadium. "I think they've improved over the season, and these last couple of games have been tremendous confidence builders.

"They know what they have to do, and that's not beat themselves. They need to play a game where they don't make the kind of self-destructing errors that they had earlier in the season with the broken assignments and the penalties and the turnovers."

Namath dismissed the notion Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez might wilt from the intensity of Sunday night's do-or-die showdown.

"For anyone to think that this big game is any different than the big games that Sanchez has faced in his young career, they're wrong, man," Namath said. "This fella's played already five playoff games and has done a fine job. I don't think Sanchez is going to be overwhelmed one little bit with this opportunity."

Rex Ryan implores Jets to show leadership

September, 1, 2010
Rex Ryan is the face of the New York Jets and the star of the HBO series "Hard Knocks."

The head coach apparently is wary of not only being in front as a leader, but also alone.

In the latest episode of "Hard Knocks," an exasperated Ryan scolds his team for a growing lack of professionalism and a dearth of demonstrable leadership.

Previous scenes showed offensive coaches bemoaning a lack of confidence, veteran pass-rusher Jason Taylor showing up late multiple times and defensive players groping into a McDonald's bag for cheeseburgers during warmups for a practice at Hofstra University.

Ryan's speech to his players the night before playing the Washington Redskins:
"You guys know me, that I'm about as positive a guy as there is. I believe our team is better than every [expletive] team in the league. I believe our players are better than any players in the league, right? Those are true statements. That's how I believe.

"But the team's only going so far if I'm the only guy that leads. The team is only going so far. I'm not a great leader, OK? I'm not a great leader. I can't lead myself, this whole group of men. We ain't going to win, guys, if it's about me.

"I'm sitting back for us, waiting for us to understand the team that we said we're going to be. What the hell are we waiting on? What are we waiting on? Do you want it or not? Do you understand there's a price to pay?

"Can we have fun? You're damn right. I demand that we have fun. Now there's a difference between having fun and being a jackass. Our defense was a jackass when we went to Hofstra, eating a bunch of [expletive] cheeseburgers before we go stretch and all that. That's being a jackass.

"You can be a world champion, but not like this. We won't win it. We'll sit back and say 'Why didn't we do it?' We didn't do it because 'Where were our [expletive] priorities?' How about our offense? When are we going to put it together? Can we not run the ball down their throats every snap? Can we not throw it any time we want to [expletive] throw it?

"Let's make sure we play like the [expletive] New York Jets and not some slap [expletive] team. That's what I want to see tomorrow. Do we understand what I want to [expletive] see tomorrow?"

Earlier in the show, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer admits his players aren't showing much assertiveness. Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh and running backs coach Anthony Lynn agree.

"We have some really talented guys," Cavanaugh says. "But none of them motivate vocally the group. So they all kind of look to each other like 'Yeah, we're pretty talented. Somebody's going to make a play here,' instead of saying 'I'll take this [expletive] game over.' "

Other highlights on this episode (there's only one more):
  • Nose tackle Kris Jenkins telling the rest of the defense in Washington they needed to force a turnover because Mark Sanchez needed more work.
  • Ryan's man crush on rookie fullback John Conner and the possibility veteran Tony Richardson will be released.
  • A close look at how much rookie left guard Vladimir Ducasse is struggling and concerns that position will get Sanchez hurt.
  • Ryan telling former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden that Santonio Holmes might be the best player on the field.
  • How backup quarterback Kellen Clemens avoided being cut.
  • Releasing receiver Laveranues Coles and reserve quarterback Kevin O'Connell.
  • Flabbergasted general manager Mike Tannenbaum trying to decipher where Tim Cowlishaw's infamous report about Darrelle Revis was coming from.
  • Ryan on the first three games against the Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins: "We open the season with three of our toughest games right out of the gate. But the great thing is if we end up kicking ass, that's going to send a frickin' message to the rest of the league. 'Oh, [expletive]!' "

Sanchise putting Jets in default

November, 22, 2009
Mark SanchezAP Photo/Charles KrupaNew England picked off four of Mark Sanchez's passes. Sanchez also lost a fumble.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New York Jets squeezed tears out of their coach, but they couldn't squeeze production out of their rookie quarterback.

A quick scan of the box score will suggest the reason the New England Patriots won Sunday was Wes Welker's sublime performance. Maybe your eye will pick up Tom Brady's numbers, or the gargantuan discrepancy in first downs, total yards or time of possession.

But the problem that doomed the Jets, what eliminated any chance they had of winning in Gillette Stadium, sweeping the season series and keeping their playoff hopes from flatlining was Mark Sanchez.

What a donkey performance Sanchez turned in. He threw four interceptions. He committed three turnovers -- two picks and a fumble -- in the fourth quarter alone.

The Patriots converted Sanchez's giveaways into two touchdowns and a field goal. They won 31-14.

Patriots cornerback Leigh Bodden intercepted Sanchez three times, returning the first one 53 yards for a touchdown about nine minutes into the game. The play cast a pall over the rest of the game, and aside from a brief stretch in the third quarter where Sanchez appeared to collect himself, the Jets had no legitimate shot.

"They scored 17 points off of four turnovers by the quarterback, and that's how we lose," Sanchez said.

The Jets are 4-6, three games behind the Patriots and one game better than the last-place Buffalo Bills in the AFC East.

The tone surrounding the Jets' season has gone from inspiring to depressing, and their quarterback's performances have been corollary. He played like a veteran in the first few games yet has seemingly regressed.

After the game, Sanchez could be heard softly singing a song to himself as he buttoned up his dress shirt at his locker stall.

And maybe Jets coach Rex Ryan was whistling in the graveyard when he insisted he won't consider inserting veteran backup Kellen Clemens to give the rookie a break from what has turned into an unremitting series of disheartening displays.

"I don't think he's going to get any better sitting on the sideline," Ryan said of this year's fifth-overall draft pick. "Without question, he made a lot of mistakes today. There were some other guys that made a lot of mistakes as well. But he's got to learn from them.

"You can visualize all you want, watch tape and all that kind of stuff, carry a clipboard. But unless you get on the field, you're not going to get any better."

Sanchez has committed at least four turnovers three times this year.

He threw three interceptions (one for a touchdown) and lost a fumble (for a touchdown) in a 14-point loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 4. He threw five interceptions in a sudden-death loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 6.

Over the seven-game stretch in which the Jets have won one measly game and crumbled from Super Bowl contenders to AFC flotsam, Sanchez has thrown 14 interceptions and lost two fumbles.

That's more giveaways than a feel-good Oprah show. Of course, she leaves her audience giddy. Sanchez makes Jets fans queasy.

"I just tell him to pick his head up and keep playing football," Jets fullback Tony Richardson said, "because, obviously, he is very talented and can help this football team win.

"We are going to follow him 100 percent because he is the leader of this football team. When we watch the film, all of us could have done something to help win this ballgame. It's not just him."

Sanchez didn't have many answers Sunday. He said the first two interceptions were proper reads, but bad throws. He said the last two were the result of trying to do too much on plays that didn't work.

"Sometimes you just need to say 'Uncle' and end the play and be smart with the football," Sanchez said.

But he claimed he was prepared, said he was coming off his best practice week all year and threw only one incomplete pass Friday.

"I was feeling good about the gameplan," Sanchez said. "I knew it frontwards and backwards. But when you miss, a great defense like this will make you pay, and when you get down and try to create too much then they'll make you pay again.

"I've just got to progress and play smarter and not put the ball at risk."

Progress has been undetectable to anyone outside the organization.

"Would I say he's regressed? It's easy to say that when you compare to Week 2, but I think he's getting better," Ryan said.

Sanchez managed the Jets to a victory the first time they played the Patriots. He completed 14 of 22 attempts for 163 yards and one touchdown with zero interceptions at the Meadowlands in Week 2. He posted a 101.1 passer rating.

On Sunday, he was 8 of 21 for 136 yards and one touchdown -- a gorgeous, arcing 29-yard throw to Jerricho Cotchery. But those four interceptions left Sanchez with a 37.1 passer rating. His first half stat line was atrocious: 2 of 9 for 15 yards and two interceptions for a 0.0 rating.

"I'm learning a lot," Sanchez said. "It's hard to say by the stats that 'This kid's really improving,' but ... I've just got to take it one game at a time and then at the end of the season just look back at my performances and how I'm going to improve for next year."

Ryan admitted after the game he, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh might have to reassess their approach with Sanchez.

"Obviously, we've got to look at what we're asking him to do," Ryan said. "We've got to look in the mirror and see what we can do to help this guy.

"He's got all the tools. I think everybody sees that. We've just got to be patient with him. I think he's going to be an outstanding quarterback. I don't believe he's regressed to point where I would even consider ever benching him. He's our quarterback for the future, and he's our quarterback now."
Posted by's Tim Graham

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Miami Dolphins

New England Patriots



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