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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Football

Dan Quinn confirms Steve Sarkisian will remain with Falcons in 2018

Steve Sarkisian did not exactly pick up where Kyle Shanahan left off in his first year with the Atlanta Falcons, but the offensive coordinator will have an opportunity to improve in 2018.

On Thursday, Dan Quinn confirmed that Sarkisian will return to the team next season. The Falcons head coach also said no one should be blaming Sarkisian for Atlanta’s shortcomings.

There was some talk earlier this month that Sarkisian could leave to work for his former boss, but Quinn was quick to shoot that down.

Matt Ryan was named NFL MVP in 2016 and Atlanta’s offense ranked first in the NFL with 33.8 points per game and second with 415.8 yards per game. This season, the Falcons fell to 15th in the NFL with 22.1 points per game and ranked eighth in total yardage. Some growing pains were expected after Shanahan left to take the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers, and judging Sarkisian on one season would be unfair.

Doug Marrone has funny reaction to Tom Brady’s hand injury

Doug Marrone

Tom Brady is dealing with a hand injury heading into the AFC Championship Game, and the New England Patriots are going to do everything they can to make sure no one knows the extent of it. As far as Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone is concerned, someone could cut Brady’s right hand off and the quarterback would still be good to go.

Brady reportedly injured his throwing hand when he collided with a teammate in practice. He’s expected to be fine for Sunday’s game, and Marrone believes the five-time Super Bowl champion could throw left-handed if he needed to.

Brady was able to practice on Thursday, which is a good sign. He made one change to his usual wardrobe that could be viewed as a concern, but you know he’s going to do everything he can to be 100 percent ready by Sunday. Marrone has no reason to believe Brady will be limited, and he’s not going to let his players give it any thought during their preparations this week.

Tom Brady practices with glove on throwing hand

Tom Brady

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was present at practice on Thursday despite suffering a hand injury the day before, but he was sporting a slightly different look that left some concerned.

Brady injured his hand in a minor collision with a teammate on Wednesday, but X-rays revealed no structural damage. It’s a good sign that he was on the practice field Thursday rather than with the trainers receiving treatment, but reporters noticed that Brady was sporting a glove on his right hand. That’s not something he has done during a game since earlier in his career, and the 40-year-old recently explained why he went away from it.

It was around 30 degrees at the time the Patriots practiced Thursday, so the weather may have factored into Brady’s decision. However, we should note that he chose not to wear a glove in New England’s game against the Jets a few weeks back, and that was one of the coldest games in team history.

Reports have indicated that Brady should be fine for Sunday’s game, and he is obviously going to play. But if he comes out wearing a glove against the Jaguars, it could be a good sign that something — even if it’s not much at all — is wrong with his right hand.

NFL could reportedly force players to stay in locker room during anthem in 2018

Texans kneel

Forcing players to stand for the national anthem has never really been an option for the NFL, but the league could still explore other means of preventing protests prior to the 2018 season.

According to ESPN’s Jim Trotter, the NFL is considering implementing a policy that would require players to remain in the locker room during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” next season.

That would be one way to stop players from kneeling, but it could be a terrible look for the NFL. Players have expressed themselves in a variety of ways during the national anthem, and many of them believe the freedom to do so is their constitutional right.

We know at least one owner wants the league to force players to stand during the national anthem, but that is unlikely to happen. While having players avoid the playing of the anthem altogether might prevent protests, it still seems like it would be a public relations nightmare for the league.

LeSean McCoy has funny remark about his hefty salary for 2018

LeSean McCoy has been one of the best running backs in the NFL for years, and he is compensated accordingly. But as he inches toward the dreaded age of 30, some have wondered if the Buffalo Bills would be better off clearing his salary off the books.

What say you, Shady?

On Thursday, the sports contract experts at Sportrac pointed out that McCoy’s salary cap hit of $8.9 million for 2017 is significantly more than any other running back in the NFL. McCoy had a pretty entertaining response.

McCoy rushed for 1,138 yards and six touchdowns this season. He added another 448 yards and two touchdowns receiving. While he has dealt with some nagging injuries over the years, he has ultimately been dependable and excelled as the focal point of Buffalo’s offense.

Most running backs hit a wall at age 30, so there is obviously some concern about McCoy’s production declining over the final two years of his contract. With the Bills going through some significant changeover this offseason and possibly deciding to move on from quarterback Tyrod Taylor, McCoy’s situation will be one to monitor in the coming months.

10 keys to watch for the NFL conference championships

Case Keenum

The two teams that will meet in Super Bowl LII will be determined on Sunday, with the conference championship games set to kick off. While Tom Brady’s presence isn’t a surprise, most wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told them six months ago that Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles would be the other three quarterbacks vying for a Super Bowl berth.

What does each team need to do to pull out a victory? What are the key factors to watch in each game? Here are ten to keep your eye on as things kick off on Sunday:

1) Which journeyman quarterback will reign supreme in Philadelphia?

It would be safe to say that, when Case Keenum and Nick Foles were playing together on the 2015 St. Louis Rams, even they wouldn’t have believed it if someone told them they were going to be facing off in an NFC Championship Game a little over two years later. That’s where we are, though, and the winner of the game could ultimately hinge on which quarterback outperforms the other. Keenum looked better last week as the Vikings beat the Saints, but Foles has held his own, overcoming some late-season struggles to see off the Atlanta Falcons. They’ll both be facing tough defenses, so this should be a close one. It may come down to whoever makes the fewest mistakes.

2) Can the Vikings avoid a hangover effect?

The dramatic 29-24 win over the New Orleans Saints felt like a championship, but it wasn’t. It simply gave the Vikings the right to play for one, and as Mike Zimmer alluded to, they must leave that game in the past and refocus quickly. Minnesota nearly blew a big lead and lost to New Orleans, and they’ll be facing a much less forgiving defense in Philadelphia. Keenum made a few very shaky throws during that second half that he’ll have to clean up. If Minnesota spends too long reveling in a truly incredible victory, Philadelphia could gain an advantage.

3) Which of the NFC’s two best defenses will have the better day?

In terms of points allowed, the Eagles have the NFC’s second best defense — with only the Vikings besting them. All the pieces are in place here for a tantalizing defensive struggle, and pretty much everyone is expecting a tight, low-scoring contest. The Eagles will try to contain Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen with their solid secondary, but Minnesota’s defensive backfield — led by Xavier Rhodes — is better. Minnesota’s offensive line will have to hold up, but the Vikings boast an elite pass rush, too. Minnesota gets a slight edge here. If that translates to game action, they could pull off a road win.

4) Will either run game get going?

With two quarterbacks who don’t have elite track records going against two strong secondaries, these teams may look toward the running game to find any sort of advantage they can. Latavius Murray was okay for the Vikings against New Orleans, while Philadelphia’s two-headed monster of Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount were shaky and fumble-prone against the Falcons. Both defenses are sturdy against the run, but if either side can break off even one or two big plays on the ground, it could be a game-changer considering how hard-pressed both teams will probably be to pick up chunks of yardage.

5) The weather may not help the Eagles as much as they’d have hoped

The Vikings are an indoor team playing outside in mid-January. Usually, that would be a negative for them, but in terms of the weather, Philadelphia’s home field advantage may not be as sturdy as they would have hoped. Clear skies are forecast, with temperatures in the mid-to-upper 40s. That’s chilly, but considering this is Philadelphia in January, that’s much more forgiving than it could have been. If the Eagles were hoping the weather would give them some sort of pronounced advantage, they may come away disappointed.

6) Can the Jaguars limit mistakes again?

How did Jacksonville walk into Pittsburgh and beat the Steelers? They played mistake-free football. The Jaguars didn’t run a single offensive play for a loss and didn’t turn the ball over once, and if they’re going to win at New England, it will probably take a similar performance. That means Bortles needs to be sharp enough to move the ball without turning it over, and Leonard Fournette is going to have to find room to run. That will be much easier said than done, but they’ve already shown themselves to be capable of it.

7) Don’t expect the Patriots to be as lackadaisical as the Steelers were

It’s rare that you see anyone from a losing team admit that they weren’t 100 percent focused on their opponent, but that’s exactly what one Steeler admitted after the Jaguars beat his team. The Steelers were so preoccupied with a revenge game against the Patriots that they overlooked and motivated the Jaguars. Bill Belichick won’t let his players make a similar mistake. The Patriots will be ready to play, especially with a Super Bowl spot on the line, which will add to the difficulty of this game for Jacksonville.

8) Tom Brady vs. the Jacksonville secondary will be a battle

Jacksonville’s defense was elite in 2017 for two big reasons — a defensive line that could put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and a secondary that could make it very hard for them to find openings. Both of those things will be big challenges for Brady. The likes of Jalen Ramsey will not be scared of Brady and will more or less dare him to throw it their way, but the savvy veteran has proven time and time again that he can overcome the best defenses. It is entirely possible that this face-off will decide the result. If Ramsey and the Jaguar defense can make Brady’s life difficult, all bets are off.

9) How powerful is Jacksonville against the world?

The Jaguars have made no secret that they are fueled by their doubters. They take motivation from opponents doubting them, experts picking against them, and the public writing them off. While the Patriots will likely be smarter about handing Jacksonville the sort of bulletin board material the Steelers gave them, the Jaguars will still be underdogs in Foxborough — as of Tuesday, New England was a nine-point favorite. Doubt is a powerful motivator, and the Jaguars will absolutely believe they can win this game. How powerful it will actually be remains to be seen.

10) The experience gap is still big

Experience does still matter in the NFL playoffs, and no one has more of it than Brady and the Patriots. This will be their seventh consecutive AFC championship appearance and Brady’s 12th. To date, he’s 7-4 in these games. The Jaguars definitely don’t have that experience. It remains to be seen how much that matters, but if it’s a close game and you need a big drive, who would you rather have calling the shots — Brady or Bortles? The question answers itself, and the Jaguars would probably like to ensure that it doesn’t come to that.

Report: Tom Brady ‘should be OK’ despite right hand injury

Tom Brady

Tom Brady left practice on Wednesday to receive treatment for an injury, but the New England Patriots quarterback is expected to be fine for Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

ESPN’s Mike Reiss reports that Brady sustained a minor injury to his throwing hand when he collided with a teammate. X-rays revealed no structural damage, and Reiss was told by a source that Brady could be affected slightly on Sunday but “should be OK overall.”

Patriots players did not indicate that they were concerned about Brady’s injury, with cornerback Eric Rowe saying he “looked like the same old Tom out there.”

Suffering an injury in practice before the AFC Championship Game is never ideal, but one of the Jaguars’ key players is also dealing with a minor ailment. The Patriots will need Brady at or near 100 percent health against Jacksonville’s opportunistic defense.

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