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Gene Steratore of index-card fame will referee the Super Bowl

Gene Steratore, whose use of an index card to measure a first down during a Cowboys-Raiders game in December caused something akin to a stir, has been chosen by the NFL to referee Super Bowl LII. It will be the first Super Bowl assignment for Steratore, who has been an NFL referee since 2006 and has led an officiating crew in 11 playoff games and two conference championship games.

To be chosen for the Super Bowl, NFL officials must be rated in the top tier of their positions and have at least five years of NFL experience (they also must have worked playoff games in the past). Steratore will not be working with his usual officiating crew for the Super Bowl. Instead, Roy Ellison (umpire), Jerry Bergman (down judge), Byron Boston (line judge), Tom Hill (field judge), Scott Edwards (side judge) and Perry Paganelli (back judge) will fill out his crew. Ellison and Paganelli were part of Steratore’s crew this season, however.

Because a certain segment of the football-watching population will be seeking out this information, point-spread favorites went 8-6-2 against the number while the over went 9-7 in the games refereed by Steratore this season. His crew called 13.94 penalties per game this season, slightly above the NFL average of 13.27, but its 113.63 penalty yards assessed per game was slightly below the league average of 115.08.

There’s ways to win games in this league without a franchise quarterback, Vrabel said. We got one, we’re going to develop him. So I don’t think that that’s a critical factor. I think what it is is that it has to be the right fit.

He added: We never want to put him in harm’s way. We don’t want to sit there and run him for the sake of running him. But we want to make sure people know he’s back there.

The above quote should be music to the ears of Titans fans. Far too often the previous coaching staff attempted to shove a round peg into a square hole. Mariota was at his best in an up-tempo offense utilizing his legs when his reads broke down. Sadly, it took trailing in most games for Mularkey to deploy such a game-plan.

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Adam Thielen to play against Eagles despite back injury

Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen will play Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles with a chance to reach the Super Bowl in his home state. But he’ll be doing so in plenty of pain.

The standout receiver suffered a couple slight fractures in his back last week against the New Orleans Saints, sources said. He is active for the NFC Championship Game.

The former undrafted free agent-turned-Pro Bowler has emerged as one of the feel-good stories in the NFL, setting new career highs with 91 receptions and 1,276 yards for his hometown team. And with a chance to help take the Vikings to a hometown Super Bowl, he won’t miss it no matter how much pain he’s in.

All you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on and choose as their favorite driver, Busch said during the NASCAR preseason media days at the Charlotte Convention Center. I think it’s stupid. I don’t know, I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.

So I just do what I can do, and my part of it is what my part is.

NASCAR has a slew of Cup drivers younger than 25: Ryan Blaney (24), Darrell Wallace Jr. (24), Alex Bowman (24) Chase Elliott (22), Erik Jones (21) and William Byron (20). Blaney does a podcast for NASCAR, and NASCAR often uses the young drivers on its social media channels.

The day’s other significant quarterback news was Tyrod Taylor’s restructured deal to remain with the Buffalo Bills. There had been speculation that the Bills, after hiring Sean McDermott as their new head coach, might move on from Taylor. That would have put the Bills in the market for a new starter, and it would have given other quarterback-needy teams a capable candidate.

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From Jeff Triplette’s calls to Al Michaels’s frustration, NFL replay has another bad day

On the first day of the NFL playoffs, the last thing anyone wants to talk about is replay and officiating and yet here we are, back in the same place we’ve been so many times this season.

All of that was enough to pull the conversation away from the game itself after a season in which officials struggled to parse and apply the catch rule. Replay review by suits in New York has brought the game to a halt as its purpose is subverted from simply trying to make calls correctly and fairly. This is no longer officiating, it’s litigating and no one wants that, especially in the NFL’s biggest games of the season.

After a call went against his team two weeks ago, Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula admitted that owners have to fix this problem, which won’t help with the few remaining games. At that time, Pereira went on to note how irritating it is to have people in Park Avenue breaking down calls and undermining officials on location around the country.

Regarding the Buffalo no touchdown, nothing [is]more irritating to an official than to make a great call and then someone in a suit in an office in New York incorrectly reverses it, he tweeted. It is more and more obvious that there isn’t a standard for staying with the call on the field.

The Texans have the better offensive line and running game, at least at this point. But they’d have to admit their mistake last offseason in signing quarterback Brock Osweiler in free agency and work around Osweiler’s $18 million-per-season contract. The Broncos would have to put the development of young quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch on hold, although they perhaps could trade Siemian if Romo comes aboard.

Romo’s release changes nothing about the league-wide quarterback dynamic, unless he ends up in Denver and the Broncos trade Siemian. That could be solution to another team’s quarterback woes.

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Dick LeBeau reportedly out as Tennessee Titans DC

The 80-year-old LeBeau was informed Monday that he would not be invited to join the staff of newly minted head coach Mike Vrabel, hired over the weekend to replace the departed Mike Mularkey.

According to Wolf, a second source told the newspaper last week that LeBeau would be comfortable retiring if it [didn’t] work out in Tennessee.

Steve Erban, marketing director with Minnesota-based Creative Charters, offered this to Vikings fans: I would advise you not to be over inebriated because (Eagles fans) will be.

The Eagles’ old home, Veterans Stadium, even had a jail and courtroom that often did a brisk business on game days. Although the team did away with the jail after moving to Lincoln Financial Field in 2003, Philly fans remain among the most feared in football; a 2015 Sports Illustrated poll labeled those fans the Most Hated Fan Base in the NFL.

2. Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham left with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter of the team’s 19-10 win over the Raiders.

3. Houston Texans running back Jordan Todman suffered a shoulder injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday and didn’t return. Cornerback Kevin Johnson left early with a knee injury and backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke suffered a concussion.

4. Atlanta Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo suffered a sprained MCL, according to Rapoport. His status for Atlanta’s regular-season finale against the Carolina Panthers is in doubt.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (calf), offensive guard Ramon Foster (concussion) and cornerback Cody Sensabaugh (shoulder) did not play against the Houston Texans. Rapoport reported Sunday that Brown is expected to be 100 percent by the time the Steelers take the field in the postseason, whether it’s in the wild card or divisional round.

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In Week 17 last season, it was the Cowboys resting up as the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Now it’s the Eagles’ turn, and they won’t care if it means splitting with their East rivals. The Eagles need to worry about rebooting for the divisional playoff after two tough games.

The Raiders and Chargers can both think about what could have been in the AFC West. Their respective ends and beginnings to the season cost them in the losing race to the Chiefs, who both started and finished well. The city of LA can still get two NFL playoff teams, and the AFC version will do its part. Philip Rivers will rip Oakland’s defense, while Oakland’s offense will be rattled by Joey Bosa.

Jimmy Garoppolo and Jared Goff don’t just share initials �� they are the promising, young quarterbacks who will return the glory to this NFC West rivalry. Keep in mind the first meeting, a shootout between Goff and Brian Hoyer, was close and entertaining. This will be close, too, with the Rams stepping off the gas late thinking about a more important home game in the playoffs next week.

In a sense, teams like Houston have no choice but to try to beat the Warriors by mimicking them. Trying an older style of basketball as a strategy is hopelessly naive. Yet by trying to be like them, teams accept that they will be an inferior version of the Warriors.

That’s because they can only take a part of the Warriors’ essence. Their success doesn’t just come down to three-point shooting, or switching on defense, or ball movement, or chemistry, or even the coaching. It’s all of those qualities at the same time with this specific personnel group. Teams can replicate a few of those traits, but it’s impossible to possess all of them.

It’s not the only time something like this occurs. Almost everyone who is forged in Wolverine’s image �� whether literally like a clone or figuratively like his sons �� eventually loses to him. Wolverine wins because the clones, children, and relatives miss the essential point that he keeps showing them. He’s the best at what he does. They are copies.

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Rosen caught everyone’s attention with a 3,670-yard freshman season in 2015.

NFL scouts love the way he looks in the pocket — his footwork, throwing motion, anticipation and accuracy. After an injury-plagued 2016 season, he rebounded in 2017 with numbers nearly identical to those he put up as a freshman. Injuries set in again, though, and with Chip Kelly and a new coaching staff on the way in, it seems like a sure thing that Rosen will enter the draft. He’s enough of a prospect to merit consideration at No. 1 overall — especially if Sam Darnold doesn’t come out.

Kiper’s draft ranking: No. 1 QB and No. 4 overall prospect. From Kiper’s Big Board: I have Rosen over Darnold for now, but it’s close, and things could change between now and April. … There aren’t many quarterbacks who can make the throws [Rosen] does.

McShay’s draft ranking: No. 1 QB and No. 1 overall prospect. From McShay’s Top 32: Rosen is far superior [than Darnold] going through his progressions and has a pretty deep ball. He’s a better QB right now, but that doesn’t mean he will be down the line.

Just so natural in everything he does on the field. You watch him in the pocket and it’s like he was born to do it. The way he sees the field, the way he operates the offense, just total command. If I had his kind of natural ability, I think I’d be that way too. — NFC offensive coach.

Isaiah Thomas couldn’t help but grin as he walked onto the court to play in his first game in seven months on Tuesday night against the Trail Blazers. He checked in off the bench to a huge standing ovation in Cleveland, and didn’t keep his emotions in.

Thomas took months to properly heal a hip injury over the summer, and through the beginning of the Cavaliers season, waiting for this point. For half of that recovery period, he thought he’d make his comeback in Celtics green, until he was blindsided by a Kyrie Irving blockbuster deal in August.

Thomas was ALL the way back, at least physically, in his Cavs debut, though. He scored 17 points, dished three assists, and knocked down four three-pointers, shooting his way right into the Cavs offense. He played limited minutes (19), but his role as scorer stayed true for every tick.

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The Eagles defense will also have to rise to the occasion given the offense’s struggles without injured QB Carson Wentz.

It’s entirely possible that the college football world will be forever changed because of a movie that garnered a 35 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The premise of the 2013 Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson buddy comedy The Internship was simple enough: Two middle-aged pals get internships at Google. But the plot isn’t important to this story. What’s important is that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney — never one to shy from mediocre comedy — saw the film and took notice of one of the set pieces.

Turns out, Google’s headquarters has a slide, and Swinney loved it. So now, inside Clemson’s $55 million football facility, a stainless steel chute runs from the second floor, outside the coaches offices, down to the first, ending near the team’s weight room.

I thought, ‘If I ever get a new football building, I want a slide,’ Swinney said. Now I go down it every day.

The defenses never rest: The narrative for the 2017 Falcons has focused on their supposed Super Bowl LI hangover and an offense that fell well short of its 2016 standards. Such handwringing overshadowed the continued maturation of a defense that’s quietly morphed into one of the NFL’s most well-rounded units and will likely be the primary reason the team’s NFC title defense succeeds or fails.

Atlanta has allowed just 16.3 points per game over its last six, clamping down on some of the league’s best offenses (New Orleans, Carolina, and the L.A. Rams among them). It’s a speedy, athletic group that borrows many of the concepts head coach Dan Quinn used in Seattle and will typically load the box with eight players and dare fill-in Eagles QB Nick Foles to beat it. Especially impressive in Saturday’s upset of the Rams, who scored more points than any other team in the 2017 regular season, was the play of blossoming LB Deion Jones (10 tackles) and CBs Robert Alford, Brian Poole and Desmond Trufant, who missed last year’s Super Bowl run with an injury.

Philadelphia finished the season ranked fourth in both points and yards allowed, but the performances have been uneven lately. The Eagles surrendered just 16 points in their last two games yet were burned for 88 in the previous three. Coordinator Jim Schwartz relies on a deep and talented front to generate pressure, which will likely be vital against an Atlanta offense that can exploit Philly’s vulnerable secondary given sufficient time.

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Despite a 6-10 finish at best for the 49ers this season, Jimmy G fever is growing.

Everything looks better on a team with a quarterback in place who carries the aura of franchise passer and elevates his teammates’ play, as is the case so far with Garoppolo. 49ers veteran tackle Joe Staley believes the 26-year-old is the second coming of Tom Brady, Garoppolo’s mentor in New England.

I felt strongly before the 2017 draft that then-Cleveland GM Sashi Brown should have made Belichick an offer he could not refuse, including at least a first-round pick, in order to obtain Garoppolo. I was convinced of Garoppolo’s talent, smarts, leadership and poise under pressure after watching him lead New England to victories over good defenses in Arizona and Miami last season while Brady was suspended.

Instead, the door was left open for San Francisco to swoop in at the trade deadline and make a move that has changed the outlook within the organization and fan base.

The early signs suggest he may launch the franchise back to playoff contention and, possibly, Super Bowl glory.

There remains a whale out there — Paul George, who told the Pacers he wouldn’t re-sign in 2018 and got traded to the Thunder, and who is from Los Angeles. George and the Thunder visit the Lakers on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). But will George be that interested in the No. 29 team in the NBA after tasting some success with Westbrook in OKC? Adding Paul George to a core starring Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma doesn’t make a strong Western team. The Lakers need a package deal with DeMarcus Cousins or Isaiah Thomas — or the biggest whale of all, James — to really launch up the standings.

This is where you fall into the abyss: to really do this how Johnson and Pelinka apparently envision it, the Lakers — unable to land a single major talent in free agency and among the very worst teams in the league for several years now — either need to convince James to abandon his legacy in Cleveland and title chase to rebuild a legendary franchise for which he has no allegiance, or they need to convince two All-Star level free agents to join in one summer.

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Browns’ Hue Jackson says he’ll keep promise to jump in Lake Erie

Hue Jackson is a man of his word and plans to keep the promise he made last season about jumping in Lake Erie.

The Browns coach said last year if the team went 1-15 again, he would jump into the lake. With just one game left in the season against the Steelers, the Browns currently are sitting with a 0-15 record.

The CFP is all about teams, not conferences, Hancock said. And these are two really great teams coming off landmark semifinals victories over tremendous opponents. The atmosphere in Atlanta will be truly something to behold. All I can say is, buckle up and enjoy.

Hancock also said there was no talk about expansion. The commissioners and the presidents are very happy with the four-team playoff, he said.

When asked about the criticism that the committee’s emphasis on strength of schedule will lock the Group of 5 out of the top four, Hancock disagreed, pointing to Houston’s schedule in 2016. Under then-coach Tom Herman, the Cougars opened the season with a nationally televised win over No. 3 Oklahoma and beat a ranked Louisville team in November. Had Houston gone undefeated that year, it could have been at least considered for a top-five finish, but the Cougars stumbled, losing to Navy, SMU and Memphis. Hancock said he hears people say the system is unfair to the Group of 5 teams, but I don’t buy it.

I’ve been so fortunate in my career and I’ve had such a good experience playing football that I think it’s a very small contribution to make, Cleary told the Detroit Free Press. It’s not a big deal. It’s kind of analogous to signing your driver’s license. I don’t know how it is here, but in Illinois if you want to be an organ donor you can just check a box and sign your driver’s license, so it’s not like the commitment is some grand thing.

But I just feel as a player who’s kind of aware of the ongoing research and has had such good experience playing ball, I almost feel like I owe it to the players and my own teammates I’ve had, and all the former players and all the guys that will play in the future, to I guess do my part in learning what we can learn about head injuries in football.

Fathers brought daughters. Mothers brought sons. And everyone brought their voices.

The Bills are going to the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, and a little early-morning chill wasn’t going to keep Buffalo from celebrating.

With the temperature at 2 degrees in the first hours of 2018, fans gathered to sing the Bills’ Shout!” song and chant Let’s Go Buffalo!” as they greeted the postseason-bound Bills at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Some 400 die-hards gathered to cheer the team that on Sunday ended the longest active postseason drought in North America’s four major professional sports.

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Jaguars remove tarps for extra playoff seating; tickets sell out in minutes

Jaguars playoff tickets are a hot commodity, and it makes sense as Jacksonville has clinched it’s first home playoff game since 1999.

McDowell was Seattle’s top draft pick in 2017, chosen in the second round out of Michigan State.

He had a traumatic accident and it took a big toll, Carroll said. At this point … nothing has changed in the evaluation. This young man’s future is in the balance of whatever the doctors say and what he can and is capable of doing. We really don’t know. At this point, we just have to just wait. I really don’t have anything else to offer to you. It’s extraordinarily unfortunate to him, as a young man, and it’s extraordinarily unfortunate for our organization as well because he’s a tremendous prospect and would be a beautiful fit. And if that ever comes back around where that happens, then we’ll benefit from it as, of course, he will. But I don’t have any information for you that upgrades us from what we know.

Another Thorpe finalist, Texas safety DeShon Elliott, was one of several Longhorns — including junior tackle Connor Williams — who did not to play in Wednesday’s 33-16 win over Missouri in the Texas Bowl.

While Jackson sealed the win Wednesday, the Hawkeyes offense was carried by senior running back Akrum Wadley, who ran for 88 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for 24 yards. Wadley also returned five kickoffs for 171 yards, including a 72-yard return in the second quarter to set up Iowa’s first touchdown.

The Celtics are looking for Kyrie Irving to regain the defensive mindset he displayed during Boston’s early season winning streak. Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports
2018 resolution: Consistency on defense

Irving’s defensive commitment drew a lot of attention during Boston’s 16-game win streak and with good reason. The Celtics owned the No. 1 defense in the league, and Irving’s defensive rating of 96.1 was a staggering 13 points better than his final season with the Cavaliers. Irving led the league in steals for a portion of that stretch and seemed to be buying into Brad Stevens’ defense-first philosophy.

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