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First and 10: Andrew Luck, like Peyton Manning, can’t beat Tom Brady’s Patriots – NFL Week 11

FIRST…

INDIANAPOLIS — Andrew Luck has gone from top overall pick in the NFL draft to immediately productive starter to league MVP candidate in his three seasons as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. He has made the franchise’s quarterbacking transition from Peyton Manning to him go as seamlessly as possible.

But Luck has inherited more than Manning’s position, professionalism, reliability and MVP-caliber play in Indianapolis. He apparently also has inherited Manning’s inability to beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

Luck’s career record vs. Brady and New England dropped to 0-3 when he and the Colts lost to the Patriots, 42-20, here Sunday night.

“They forced us to be one-dimensional, and it’s tough,” Luck said. “It’s tough sledding. We knew that going into the game. We just couldn’t keep it close enough to have a fighting chance at the end. They certainly pulled away from us. They beat us fair and square tonight. They were the better team.”

Manning and his Denver Broncos lost to the Patriots this season, leaving Manning 5-11 in his career against Brady. Manning was 4-8 vs. Brady while with the Colts.

Luck isn’t faring any better. He threw four interceptions in a playoff loss at New England last season and now has eight interceptions in his three career defeats to the Patriots, including one Sunday night.

“To us what matters is we lost a game [and] we’ve got to fix what we did wrong, and then go out and try to win our next one because that’s the biggest one now,” Luck said. “I think if this was the last game of the season, we’d truly be sick to our stomachs. … We’ve got a lot to improve on.”

Brady threw two touchdown passes Sunday night but also threw two interceptions. He had plenty of help from a running game that produced 244 rushing yards. The Colts had only 19 rushing yards.

“We’ve got to get over this in a hurry, find a way. … We’ve got to go to work and find a way to run the ball and stop the run,” Colts Coach Chuck Pagano said.

Tailback Jonas Gray, a member of the Patriots’ practice squad until being promoted to the 53-man roster in mid-October, ran for 199 yards and four touchdowns on 38 carries. Gray was waived by the Patriots before the regular season, then re-signed to the practice squad after being unclaimed on waivers.

“He was productive in preseason,” Patriots Coach Bill Belichick said. “We talked about that long and hard. We really talked about bringing him up on the roster several weeks before we did it. … I had several conversations with him in previous weeks telling him that, ‘You’re close. We want to try to get you on the roster. Right now we’ve got a couple other issues we’ve got to deal with.’ I think we all felt as a coaching staff that he would be playing for us at some point this year at that final cut.”

The Patriots improved their record to 8-2 and moved a step closer to securing the top seed in the AFC playoffs. They’re a game ahead of Denver, which lost earlier Sunday at St. Louis, and hold the tiebreaker advantage over the Broncos by virtue of beating them.

… AND TEN

1. NFL Poised to Act in Peterson Case

A hearing is scheduled to take place via conference call Monday afternoon on the NFL Players Association’s grievance on behalf of Adrian Peterson seeking to have the standout running back for the Minnesota Vikings reinstated from the exempt-commissioner’s permission list.

The resolution of that grievance might not matter in terms of whether Peterson will play again this season, however, with the NFL prepared to rule on possible discipline of Peterson under the sport’s personal conduct policy. That ruling could come Monday or Tuesday, according to two people with knowledge of the deliberations.

According to one of those people, the NFL’s decision is expected “soon” and a suspension of Peterson by the league is “very possible.”

Peterson’s potential reinstatement is taking place on two paths, one related to the exempt list and the other related to the personal conduct policy.

The union’s grievance, to be heard Monday by arbitrator Shyam Das, addresses the exempt list.

Peterson missed his ninth straight game Sunday. The first of those missed games came when he was on the Vikings’ 53-man roster but was placed on the team’s inactive list for that game. The last eight missed games have come after Peterson consented in September to be placed on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list while facing charges in Texas stemming from him disciplining his 4-year-old son by striking the child with a switch.

The union’s grievance contends that Peterson’s agreement with the league to be placed on the exempt list states that he was to be reinstated from that list once his legal case was resolved. The NFL refused to do what it previously had agreed to do after Peterson completed his recent plea deal, the grievance contends. The grievance seeks to have Peterson reinstated from the exempt list and eligible to play pending the completion of the NFL’s review of his case under the personal conduct policy.

But Peterson being reinstated from the exempt list would not put him back on the field if the league suspends him under the conduct policy before he plays a game.

According to an NFL official, the league plans to “address this based on the information currently available to us” after Peterson and the union refused to participate in a review hearing Friday.

According to that league official, the NFL last Tuesday scheduled the hearing for Friday to review the case, with plans to include a group of outside experts in the meeting. The union initially indicated to the league that it wanted the hearing to take place sooner rather than later but on Thursday, according to the NFL official, informed the league that it was not available Friday. The union also rejected alternative dates proposed by the league for the hearing, according to the NFL official, who added that the league is “yet to receive more than cursory materials in response to our requests for information on the case.”

Peterson and the union dispute that account. In a written statement issued Sunday morning by the NFLPA, Peterson said he consulted with the union after learning of the scheduling of Friday’s review hearing and “learned that this ‘hearing’ was something new and inconsistent” with the sport’s collective bargaining agreement. Peterson said the union did not receive acceptable responses from the league during the week to inquiries about the details and purpose of the hearing.

“After consulting with the union, I told the NFL that I will attend the standard meeting with the Commissioner prior to possible imposition of discipline, as has been the long-term practice under the CBA, but I wouldn’t participate in a newly created and non-collectively bargained pre-discipline ‘hearing’ that would include outside people I don’t know and who would have roles in the process that the NFL wouldn’t disclose,” Peterson said in the union-issued written statement.

“At this point, I’ve resolved my matter in the criminal court; I’ve worked to make amends for what I’ve done; I’ve missed most of the season, and I stand ready to be candid and forthcoming with [Commissioner Roger] Goodell about what happened. However, I will not allow the NFL to impose a new process of discipline on me, ignore the CBA, ignore the deal they agreed to with me, and behave without fairness or accountability. The process they are pushing is arbitrary, inconsistent, and contrary to what they agreed to do, and for those reasons, I never agreed to the hearing.

“I’m sorry for all of this, but I can’t excuse their refusal to be fair,” Peterson said.

What does all of that mean? It means the league and the union clearly remain at odds over Peterson’s reinstatement from the exempt list and the process by which potential discipline under the personal conduct policy will be determined. So the league appears poised, as it said, to act on prospective discipline without the cooperation of Peterson and the union.

The games missed by Peterson thus far have come with pay. A suspension under the personal conduct would be without pay.

Several people familiar with the case have said that Peterson’s representatives might push for him to be reinstated but with the possible concession that he would pay a fine to make the games he already has missed more like a suspension without pay instead of being paid leave. But it is not clear if the league would be receptive to the possibility of taking such an approach.

2. Things Worsen in NFC South

The NFC South has gone from curiosity to embarrassment to something even worse now, bordering on downright abomination.

With the Atlanta Falcons winning Sunday at Carolina and the New Orleans Saints losing at home to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Falcons and Saints are left tied for first place with records of 4-6. Even the last-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at 2-8, are only two games off the division lead and still can call themselves “contenders.”

The Falcons are two games removed from being 2-6 and on a five-game losing streak. Coach Mike Smith has had to face questions about his job security. Now they’re technically in first place, with the tiebreaker advantage over the Saints after beating them in the season opener. The Falcons are 4-0 against NFC South opponents and 0-6 vs. the rest of the league.

The 2010 Seattle Seahawks became the first team ever to reach the NFL playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike season when they won the NFC West at 7-9. Those Seahawks hosted the 11-win Saints in a first-round NFC playoff game and won, advancing to a conference semifinal.

This season’s NFC South champion likewise will host a first-round postseason game. That is almost certain to reignite the debate over whether a division champion automatically should host a playoff game regardless of its record. But franchise owners have been unwavering on that issue in the past, saying any team that wins its division should be rewarded with a home playoff game. In all likelihood, they’ll probably be unwilling to budge on that.

The most fitting scenario, of course, is that the Saints win their division while the Seahawks secure a wild-card spot as the NFC’s No. 5 seed. That would have the Seahawks playing in New Orleans in a mirror image of the January 2011 game.

Of course, the Seahawks have to reach the playoffs for that scenario to play out. The defending Super Bowl champions are currently a game out of the NFC’s second wild-card spot. Catching the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West is becoming increasingly unrealistic. The Seahawks’ 24-20 loss Sunday at Kansas City, coupled with Arizona’s 14-6 triumph at home over the Detroit Lions, left Seattle trailing the first-place Cardinals by three games in the division race.

The Chiefs averaged 6.3 yards per rushing attempt Sunday against a Seattle defense that entered the game allowing opponents to run for only 3.2 yards per carry. The Seahawks clearly suffered from the absence of defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, who was placed on the injured reserve list last week because of a torn hamstring.

strong>3. Expanded Playoffs Still Likely Next Season

Goodell has said he expects the league to expand its annual playoff field from 12 to 14 teams beginning next season.

The issue has not received much public attention lately, and the owner of one NFL franchise said last week that he hadn’t heard much recent internal talk about it either. But that owner added he thinks the measure remains on course to be approved early next year and in place for the 2015 season.

“I think so,” the owner said. “But I have not heard any recent discussions on that.”

The proposal would have to be ratified by at least 24 of the 32 owners to be enacted. It could be put to a vote at the annual league meeting next spring.

This season’s AFC wild-card race could bolster the argument in favor of expanding the postseason field. With all four teams in the AFC North above .500 and so many good teams chasing the two playoff spots for non-division winners, it appears inevitable that multiple clubs with excellent records will be left out of the postseason in that conference. The Cardinals missed the NFC playoffs last season despite going 10-6. The situation could be far worse in the AFC this year.

The concerns about expanding the playoffs have included wariness over watering down the postseason by allowing undeserving teams to be included. But, for the most part, teams that reach the playoffs without deserving to be there tend to be division winners, not wild-card entries. The 2010 Seahawks and this season’s NFC South winner-to-be are the prime examples.

Under the expanded-playoffs proposal, seven teams in each conference would qualify for the postseason instead of the current six. There would be only one first-round playoff bye given in each conference rather than the current two, and there would be six first-round postseason games played league-wide instead of the current four. One of those first-round games probably would be played on a Monday night.

The measure would be designed to generate additional revenues for the sport, primarily by selling the extra–presumably highly rated–playoff games to the television networks.

It seemed possible at one point that expanding the playoffs could be accompanied by a reduction in preseason games. But more recently, owners have expressed a preference for expanding the postseason field without cutting back the preseason. That potentially could change in prospective deliberations with the union. But for now, that’s the approach that at least some owners seem to be taking.

4. Browns’ Stay in First Place Short-Lived

The Cleveland Browns just couldn’t live with the prosperity.

The Browns, coming off a lopsided Thursday night triumph at Cincinnati in Week 10 that enabled them to move into first place in the rugged AFC North, promptly surrendered their division lead by losing at home Sunday to the Houston Texans, 23-7.

How very Browns-like of them.

Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer lost to the Texans’ Ryan Mallett, who was making his first NFL start, in a matchup of Brady’s former Patriots backups.

Houston’s victory was far more about J.J. Watt than it was about Mallett, though. Watt not only is the NFL’s top defensive player, he also is becoming the league’s leading two-way threat.

Mallett’s first NFL touchdown pass went to Watt, who lined up at wide receiver and made a superb catch of Mallett’s lob on a fade pattern. It was Watt’s second touchdown on offense this season to go with his two touchdowns on defense. He is the first NFL defensive lineman to score four touchdowns in a season since 1948.

Watt’s day also included a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, three tackles for a loss and two roughing-the-punter penalties.

It is, yet again, a year of the quarterback in the NFL. But the notion that Watt is the league’s best player is not farfetched, and he deserves consideration in the league MVP balloting.

5. Cutler and Dalton Rebound

Two recently beleaguered quarterbacks, Chicago’s Jay Cutler and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, regrouped to have solid performances Sunday.

Cutler completed 31 of 43 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns as the Bears won at home against the Vikings, 21-13.

It was the Bears’ first win at home this season and came after they’d surrendered a total of 106 points while losing their two previous games at New England and Green Bay. Those two defeats had led to plenty of criticism for Cutler and Coach Marc Trestman. Sunday’s triumph secured an at-least-temporary reprieve for the duo.

The Bengals moved back atop the AFC North with their 27-10 victory at New Orleans, and Dalton was efficient.

He connected on 16 of 22 passes for 220 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Dalton’s passer rating Sunday of 143.9 was 141.9 higher than he’d managed in his previous game. Dalton had a passer rating of 2.0 with a 10-for-33, 86-yard, no-touchdown, three-interception showing 10 days earlier in the Thursday night defeat to the Browns at home.

6. Hits on Defenseless Players Down

Penalties for illegal hits on defenseless players are down this season, which the NFL says it takes as a sign that the game is being played and coached differently.

“They’re substantially down,” Dean Blandino, the league’s vice president of officiating, said in an officiating video distributed to the media last week. “Players are adjusting. Coaches are adjusting. And that’s a positive thing.”

According to the video, there had been 16 penalties called this season for illegal hits on defenseless players through the Week 10 games last weekend, down from 35 such penalties last season through the Week 10 games.

Practically every time the league has implemented a new set of rules on illegal hits in recent seasons, there has been a wave of protest from players and fans accusing the NFL of attempting to turn the sport into something resembling flag football or two-hand touch.

But the rules were enacted amid what experts have called growing evidence about the effects of concussions on players’ long-term health, and with the league facing litigation by former players in recent years over issues related to head injuries. Goodell and other league officials have said the rules were aimed to make the sport safer for players and were necessary, no matter the reaction they generated.

They also have said they believed that players eventually would change the way they played the game, with the assistance of evolving coaching techniques.

Perhaps that indeed is beginning to happen, if the league’s interpretation of its penalty numbers is correct.

“Players have lowered their target area as they have adjusted to the emphasis of the rules,” Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former VP of officiating and now a rules analyst for Fox, wrote on that network’s Web site.

“You are also seeing fewer fines being levied against players for those types of malicious high hits. I do think it’s the players who finally got the message. And it makes for a better football game.”

Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders exited Denver’s loss Sunday at St. Louis after suffering a concussion on what was ruled an illegal hit by Rams safety Rodney McLeod.

It was debatable on replay, however, whether McLeod’s jarring hit included any helmet-to-helmet contact with Sanders.

McLeod forcefully hit Sanders shoulder to shoulder, which is a legal hit. McLeod making any contact to Sanders’s head would be illegal. On replay, it was unclear if there was comparatively light helmet-to-helmet contact between the players in conjunction with the shoulder-to-shoulder hit applied by McLeod.

7. Sanchez Can’t Keep Pace With Rodgers

The error-free version of Mark Sanchez quarterbacking the Philadelphia Eagles lasted only one game.

Sanchez’s first start for the Eagles in place of the injured Nick Foles last Monday night produced his first career 300-yard, no-interception passing performance. The Eagles easily beat the Panthers at home.

But Sanchez and the Eagles had to take the show on the road Sunday in Green Bay, and the results weren’t nearly as good. Sanchez did manage to throw for 346 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw two interceptions and the Eagles were overwhelmed, 53-20, by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

Rodgers remained the biggest standout of all in a season filled with standout quarterback performances. He had three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 22-for-36, 341-yard passing display. The Packers have totaled 108 points in their past two games, victories over the Bears and Eagles at Lambeau Field.

8. Thursday Night Issues

The competitiveness of the Thursday night games remains an issue.

Nine of the 11 games played on Thursday nights this season have been decided by 13 or more points, including the Miami Dolphins’ 22-9 triumph over the Buffalo Bills last week.

The games have been decided by an average margin of 19.8 points.

The only two Thursday night games decided by single-digit margins this season—the Colts’ 33-28 win over Houston on Oct. 9 and the Patriots’ 27-25 victory over the New York Jets on Oct. 16—came in consecutive weeks. But that run of competitiveness didn’t last. The four Thursday night games since then have been decided by 14, 18, 21 and 13 points.

The Thursday night games also have generated concerns over player-safety issues.

Sean Gilbert, the former NFL defensive lineman who plans to oppose DeMaurice Smith in March for the union’s executive director job, believes the two teams that play in the Thursday night game should have a bye the previous Sunday.

“We must recognize that the Thursday night package grows the game,” Gilbert said in a written message to media members last week. “However, I have had numerous players and agents express concern to me over the past few months about the health and safety of playing games on short rest.

“I will propose a solution to the problem by changing the scheduling of the season to make sure teams have a bye week before the Thursday night game. This will assure players have enough time to recover.”

9. Niners’ Smith Returns, Browns’ Gordon Next

Linebacker Aldon Smith played his first game of the season for the San Francisco 49ers in their 16-10 victory over the New York Giants at the Meadowlands.

Smith was reinstated by the NFL last week after serving a nine-game suspension for violations of the league’s substance abuse and personal conduct policies.

He was not credited with a tackle or a sack against the Giants. But Smith did seem to energize a San Francisco pass rush that sacked Giants quarterback Eli Manning twice and helped to force him into five interceptions.

Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is to be reinstated this week after serving a 10-game suspension for violating the substance abuse policy. Gordon’s suspension was to be for the entire season before being reduced when the league and union modified the sport’s drug policies earlier this season.

The Browns certainly are in need of a boost from Gordon, who had 1,646 receiving yards in 14 games last season.

10. Manuel Time in Buffalo?

Is it time for the Bills to go back to EJ Manuel at quarterback?

Coach Doug Marrone said in the aftermath of Thursday night’s loss at Miami that he was not contemplating a switch back to the second-year quarterback, who was benched in favor of veteran Kyle Orton six games ago. But perhaps he should.

The Bills had a record of 2-2 and were on a two-game losing streak when Manuel lost the starting job. He had five touchdown passes, three interceptions and a passer rating of 80.3.

They now have gone 3-3 in Orton’s six starts and are on a two-game losing streak. Orton has 10 touchdown passes, three interceptions and a 93.5 passer rating.

Orton has outplayed Manuel. But the Bills are now sputtering on offense and in jeopardy of dropping out of the AFC’s crowded wild-card race. They trail both the Patriots and Dolphins in the AFC East. Securing the franchise’s first playoff berth since the 1999 season is looking increasingly unlikely.

There’s no reason to keep playing Orton without being in the playoff mix. If the Bills reach the end of this season without knowing whether Manuel, a first-round draft choice last year, can be counted on to be their starting quarterback, that complicates planning for next season and beyond.

If it becomes clear in the next few weeks that a postseason run is out of reach—and that arguably has become clear already—there is a strong case to be made that Manuel should be playing down the stretch.

Around the NFL

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DEA conducts snap inspections of NFL teams

Video: Sally Jenkins on DEA inspections

Fantasy Football: Week 12’s top trade targets

Maske: Broncos sputtering as stretch drive approaches

Boswell: Redskins coming to terms with awfulness

Fancy Stats: Tough day to be a Manning

Early Lead: Broncos could struggle to overcome significant injuries

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