Deflategate comes full circle as Patriots near another title

The seasons have a way of blending into one another in New England, the AFC Championship Game being the thread that binds the years together. These are so routine here — this was the sixth in a row for the Patriots — that getting to one is no longer considered much of an accomplishment. Those four Lombardi Trophies, after all, cast quite a shadow over everything else, even being one of the top four teams in football, moments that would be signal achievements for other teams.

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It was a few hours after another one of these games two years ago — that was a Patriots win, too, of course — that word first came about underinflated footballs and a league investigation.

The New England Patriots have never been quite the same since, stained by the suspicion of scandal, furious about an investigation and penalties they thought were unfair and unbelievable. They won the Super Bowl immediately after Deflategate first erupted, long before anybody knew much about cheap jerseys from China and the Ideal Gas Law and pressure gauges and the toll it would all take on the league and the team that was one of its model franchises. But the thread that began with an email from the Indianapolis Colts general manager in the days before that game, alerting the league to the suspicion of football tampering, is wrapped still around the Patriots and this weekend; it felt like it was tied in a neat bow.

Little more than 24 hours after Ryan Grigson, author of that fateful email, was fired by the Colts, the Patriots won another AFC Championship, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 36-17. They are headed to their seventh Super Bowl in the Belichick-Brady era, a remarkable accomplishment under any circumstances, but particularly staggering considering Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the season for what the league believes was his role in those footballs being underinflated in that other AFC Championship Game. Brady has put a mostly sunny veneer on his season since he returned — he turned a question from CBS’ Jim Nantz about his personal satisfaction after the season he had into an ode to how many people help the team perform during the season — and outwardly, there has been little to be unhappy about. The Patriots, after all, have lost just one game on Brady’s watch in the 14 games he’s played this season, and he’s thrown 33 touchdowns and four interceptions.

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We’ll assume Tom Brady plays the role of Daenerys Targaryen in this particular dragon quest.

The Patriots are 16-3 at home in the playoffs under Bill Belichick. Brady has completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 256.7 yards per game and 37 TDs to 18 INTs in those 19 contests. The Pats’ last playoff loss at Gillette Stadium came in 2012 versus the Baltimore Ravens. Overall, New England is 33-4 at home since 2013.

“They’re the best in the world, they’re the gold standard if you will, so you want to have that opportunity to go play the best. It’ll be an awesome challenge for us,” Roethlisberger said.

When asked if he is in the same standard as Brady, Big Ben replied:

“No, not yet, look at all the Super Bowls and wholesale jerseys he has.”

Brady owns four rings. Roethlisberger, two. Brady is playing in his 11th championship game — the next closest is Joe Montana with seven. Big Ben is playing in his fourth (3-1). Brady is 7-7 against Super Bowl-winning QBs in the playoffs.

A lot of ink and TV time this week will be used comparing Brady and Big Ben, but Roethlisberger noted that quarterback’s don’t go head-to-head.

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“We’re not playing tennis, we’re going out there to play a football game with 11 guys at the time,” he said.

“Very explosive,” Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich raved. “That’s a word I’m going to say over and over about New England Patriots jersey again.”

Nike Patriots #29 LeGarrette Blount Red Alternate Super Bowl LI Champions Men's Stitched NFL Elite JerseyWhether or not Freeman and Coleman find themselves in open prairie land with a chance to make New England’s linebackers miss will depend heavily on the offensive line winning the battle up front.

Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder gave his dynamic duo the highest of compliments, calling them “every lineman’s dream” because they can make the front line look good even when the play isn’t blocked right.

“It’s amazing because when they run their mentality is they’re so tough you never see those guys get knocked around,” Schraeder added. “As an offensive lineman, that pumps you up because you know that any play they can hit for a touchown.”

It’s that threat of turning a short pass into a game-altering play that will make defensive coordinator Matt Patricia think twice about devoting unbalanced coverage to NFC Championship Game hero Julio Jones. The Patriots understand they can’t short-circuit Ryan’s high-octane offense through Belichick’s legendary penchant for erasing an opponent’s greatest strength.

“They are great running backs,” Belichick gushed at Wednesday’s news conference. “They can get outside. They can run inside. They do a great job of breaking tackles. They make people miss in space. They run over guys. They run through them. They dodge them. They don’t fumble.

“They run with good toughness. They get tough yards around the goal line, short yard situations, digging out that extra yard or two for a first down. These backs are really, really good. Ryan knows how to use them. Coach Shanahan knows how to use them. … They are very hard to defend.”

As Belichick knows all too well, the NFC champion’s greatness goes beyond the consensus MVP favorite and football’s most dominant talent at wide receiver. The Falcons also bedevil defenses with a pair of top-10 running backs.

Steelers’ offense primed for playoff run pending Big Ben’s health

Ben Roethlisberger hobbled up to the dais Sunday afternoon, a bulky walking boot changing the tenor of a day that had seemed to encapsulate the vision the Pittsburgh Steelers have for their offense and their playoff potential.

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Roethlisberger said he was hurt on the Steelers’ final offensive play of their 30-12 wild-card victory over the Miami Dolphins before the kneeldown that ended the game, when Cameron Wake fell on his right ankle on a third-down pass attempt. That Roethlisberger was still in the game at that point — with 4:34 remaining in a game that the Steelers were leading by 18 points — will be fodder for questioning Mike Tomlin if Roethlisberger’s play is compromised next Sunday in Kansas City for the Divisional Round. That Roethlisberger had a reputation early in his career of injury-related drama will probably encourage a week of wondering if this is anything more than a routine sputter for an otherwise high-performance offense. Still, on a day when everything was working the way offensive coordinator Todd Haley has long imagined it, an injury to Roethlisberger, however minor it might turn out to be, provided sobering ballast to the soaring expectations that the Steelers could be primed for a run through the AFC field.

“We don’t know anything yet, but we’ll find out soon enough,” Roethlisberger said. “You’re always worried about being hurt, but I’ll be out there next week.”

For good measure, Roethlisberger said his right shoulder was fine, too, after he was spotted flexing his arm late in the game. Although head coach Mike Tomlin, without getting into specifics, described the team’s injuries as “nothing of extreme significance.” It was a long way from a summer morning at the Steelers’ training camp at St. Vincent College a few years ago, when Haley sat on a bench with NFL jerseys from China and said he thought his offense could score 30 points per game. That kind of offense hasn’t been spotted in the playoffs in Pittsburgh, mostly because the roster was never intact, addled by injuries to so many of the critical principles.

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This was the first time running back Le’Veon Bell jersey and wide receiver Antonio Brown jersey were healthy and available for the playoffs together. In fact, the Steelers had been able to rest them and Roethlisberger in last week’s regular-season finale — and the impact was immediate against the overmatched Dolphins. The Steelers opened with a passing attack that took advantage of the Dolphins’ injury-decimated secondary, as Brown took short passes for long runs and touchdowns on the two opening drives. That forced the defense back, and the Steelers followed with a 1970s flashback drive of 10 plays, 10 runs and a touchdown. It was a brutal show of force, with the Steelers’ offensive line shoving the Dolphins’ defensive line, including defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, backward as if they were riding skateboards, to give Bell the time to read his blocks and wholesale NFL jerseys — so patient that his coaches were telling him to hurry up — and burst through the massive holes.

In a somewhat-ugly 18-16 divisional-round win over the Chiefs, Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell owned the scoreboard with six successful kicks off as many attempts.

Boswell’s heroics vaulted the Steelers into next week’s AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, while also tugging Pittsburgh into the history books.

As NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo noted Sunday, the Steelers became just the sixth team in league history to win a playoff game without scoring a touchdown. The last occurrence came a decade ago when the 2006 Colts knocked off the Ravens 15-6 in a divisional-round “thriller” before eventually winning Super Bowl XLI.

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Roethlisberger began the second half with an interception and tossed another wayward ball that was picked before the third quarter ended.

Nike Steelers #7 Ben Roethlisberger White Men's Stitched NFL Limited Salute to Service JerseyWith the Steelers trailing by 10 points to open the fourth quarter, Big Ben went to work. He found Antonio Brown over the middle, Eli Rogers and Jesse James down the seam, Le’Veon Bell in the flat.

“We just went into attack mode,” Roethlisberger said. “We went all no-huddle and we were throwing it and just making things happen. You know, guys made plays, and I just threw it to the right guys.”

After getting down 20-10, the Steelers scored on back-to-back drives of 75 yards and 60 yards, respectively, to take the lead. After Pittsburgh’s defense had surrendered a long Ravens march to retake the lead, Roethlisberger was masterful. The Steelers’ signal-caller led a flawless 10-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with Antonio Brown jersey reaching the ball over the goal line for the win with 0:09 remaining on the clock.

“It’s pretty special the way we won it,” Roethlisberger said. “Especially after feeling the way I felt at a certain point in that game and feeling like you let guys down and you blew it. So to come back and win it is pretty special.”

It was Roethlisberger’s 39th career game-winning drive (including playoffs), the most of any QB since 2004.

Rams’ pressuring defense stifles Palmer, Cardinals

The Arizona Cardinals were a lost bird Thursday night with Drew Stanton at quarterback.

The Cards punted on their first six possessions with just one of those drives lasting more than five plays. In eight first-half drives, Arizona punted seven times and got a touchdown gift after an interception at the 21-yard-line.

Searching for a stabilizer, the Cardinals turned to David Johnson. The second-year back pounded the San Francisco 49ers into submission in a 33-21 victory. Johnson carried 27 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns, adding three receptions for 28 yards. He totaled 185 yards; the rest of Arizona’s offense earned 111 additional.

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“I feel unstoppable, basically,” Johnson said of when he gets rolling, via “Especially with the help of the guys blocking, the tight ends, the receivers and, obviously, the O-line. It helps me get going. It helps me get into the flow of being able to break some of those tackles, being able to get the yards that we needed.”

The plan wasn’t for Johnson to carry the load, but the big-bodied speedster couldn’t be taken down, so Bruce Arians jersey fed the beast.

“That’s what we expected out of him the whole time,” Arians said. “He doesn’t have to do it all, just take what’s there.”

1. After leading the NFL in several major categories last season, Arizona’s offense has begun this season in a malaise. Through four games, all 10 of Carson Palmer’s first-quarter drives have resulted in punts, putting the defense behind the eight-ball. Rather than using the run and the short passing game to set up downfield strikes, the Cardinals have been forcing the deep ball and wholesale sports jerseys in inopportune situations. Although the overhauled offensive line has been shaky at times, there’s too much talent and China football jerseys on this offense to remain stuck in the mud all season long. Coach Bruce Arians announced after the game that the team will be “very, very careful” with Palmer in the concussion protocol. On a short week, the veteran signal-caller’s status is in doubt for Thursday’s game at San Francisco.

2. Arizona’s offensive woes were due in no small part to a pressuring Rams defense led by Aaron Donald. The All Pro defensive tackle generated 1.5 sacks and four QB hits, teaming with Eugene Sims on a high-low takedown that knocked Palmer out of a 13-10 game late in the fourth quarter. Donald and Robert Quinn have been as disruptive as any tackle-end tandem in football this season, setting the tone for a swarming defense that has bounced back in a big way from an embarrassing 28-0 shellacking in the season opener.

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Mitchell And Ness Diamondbacks #20 Luis Gonzalez Purple Throwback Stitched MLB Jersey3. The Cardinals made it a point to get John Brown jersey involved after the speedy wideout’s role was deemphasized in September due to a concussion that sidelined him for the majority of training camp. Brown corralled 10 of a career-high 16 targets for 144 yards while Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd combined for eight catches and 98 yards on 14 targets. Unreliable at the point of the catch, Floyd has been as disappointing as any starting receiver this season. Look for Brown to remain a key cog in the aerial attack, perhaps even at Floyd’s expense.

4. Todd Gurley was stonewalled on the ground once again, lowering his per-carry average to 2.63 yards this season. It took four games, but the Rams finally decided to bypass the offensive line on occasion to highlight Gurley’s playmaking ability as a receiver. He contributed 49 yards on five receptions, including an impressive first-down conversion that set up Brian Quick’s game-winning touchdown.

5. Case Keenum plays like the youngest brother in a backyard with Tony Romo and Ryan Fitzpatrick. He shares the same penchant for keeping broken plays alive and bedeviling defenses with his feet even if his arm is barely NFL caliber. He hasn’t been a major liability since the Rams were shut out in a dismal Week 1 performance.

6. Returning from ACL surgery, Tyrann Mathieu has been outplayed thus far by fellow Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson who is off to a Pro Bowl start at the season’s quarter-pole. After staking its claim as one of league’s stingiest big-play secondaries last season, Arizona’s defensive backfield has struggled early this year. The cornerback spot opposite All Pro Patrick Peterson remains an Achilles’ heel, as Marcus Cooper was beaten twice by Brian Quick for difference-making plays.

7. It’s easy to see why the Cardinals elected to let Dwight Freeney walk in favor of second-year pass rusher Markus Golden jersey. Borrowing Freeney’s trademark spin move, Golden took Keenum down for his fourth sack of the young season. He and bookend edge rusher Chandler Jones have totaled eight sacks this year — one apiece in each game.

8. Jeff Fisher needs a more astute replay advisor in his headset. The Rams challenged two separate plays that were clearly not catches, including one Brian Quick diving drop that hit the ground twice.

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Buffalo used a combination of both strategies to force Palmer into a shaky performance in Week 3. Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman mixed in some Cover 1, with the corners shadowing from distance to complement their “quarters” coverage looks. The corners varied their techniques to keep Arizona’s receivers on their toes, but it was apparent they were instructed to stay on top of their assigned pass catchers instead of playing from a trail or hip-pocket position. As a result, the Bills were able to keep the ball in front of the defense and eliminate the big plays that fuel the Cardinals’ offense.

Looking at the stats, the tactics have worked well. This season, Palmer has completed just 43.6 percent of his passes that travel 10-plus air yards, for a 47.6 passer rating and a 1:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last season, Palmer posted a 55.4 percent completion rate on such passes, along with a 106.8 passer rating on the strength of a 19:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

While Palmer will bear the brunt of the criticism for those poor numbers, I think some of the blame should fall on the shoulders of the Cardinals’ receivers for their inability to create separation on the perimeter. Michael Floyd, in particular, has struggled to get away from coverage on the outside. Floyd also leads the team in drops (three) and hasn’t put his stamp on the game like a dominant playmaker should. In addition, opponents have made a concerted effort to take away John Brown and cheap Pittsburgh Steelers jerseys on vertical routes. Last season, he tallied six catches of at least 40 yards, but he has yet to deliver an explosive play in 2016.

While the 33-year-old Larry Fitzgerald has played at a high level, he is certainly not a deep threat at this stage of his career. Thus, the Cardinals are forced to play small ball with cheap jerseys in a scheme that doesn’t feature a lot of “dink and dunk” concepts. Until Arians tweaks his game plan or the Cardinals’ receivers find a way to shake free from the smothering coverage on the perimeter, Palmer will continue to look like an aging quarterback losing his game, despite possessing the physical tools to play at an elite level.

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Steelers rookie DBs expect Tom Brady to pick on them

While the Pittsburgh Steelers’ three “Bs” on offense swallow all the tv attention, it’s been the defense that has been the catalyst for the current nine-game win streak.

Over the past nine games Pittsburgh has allowed 16.6 points per game, 287.4 yards per game and 31 sacks. In those nine week’s Keith Butler’s defense ranks first in the NFL in sacks per game, second in yards per play allowed, second in passing yards per game, third in total yards per game and third in points per game.

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Thank the youngsters for the turnaround.

Cincinnati Bengals Pro Line Women's Simplicity Relaxed T-ShirtBud Dupree’s return in Week 11 helped spark a fierce pass rush after Pittsburgh curtailed the rotation. The play of two rookies in the secondary, first-round pick Artie Burns jersey and second-round pick Sean Davis, have solidified a back end that was often subject to breakdowns in coverage and picked apart by good quarterbacks.

Burns’ play escalated as the season wore on, finally earning a starting gig in Week 9. His insertion full-time on the outside allowed William Gay to shift to the nickel role. The reshuffling led to a more cohesive corner group that slotted each player in a spot best suited to his skill set. Davis took over the starting gig in Week 11 and solidified the back end that had ranked 28th in pass yards per game allowed from Week 1-10.

It’s no shock to anyone who watched the game film that the rookies becoming full-time starters helped turn around the Steelers’ defense.

Yet, both Burns and Davis are aware that their youth could make them a target for Tom Brady, who loves to pick on rookies.

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“Yeah, I’m aware of that,” Davis said, via ESPN’s Katherine Terrell. “I’m aware of that every time I step out on the field on Sundays. We have less experience, and they might try us, but I feel like we’ve been playing well, that we’ve been making plays, so you can go on and keep trying me.”

Added Burns: “That’s what he does. He’s a savvy vet. That’s what savvy vets do; they go after rookies. I’m prepared for it. It’s a challenge. I’ve just got to be ready.”

In Week 7 versus the Steelers, Brady went 19-of-26 for 222 yards and two touchdowns for a 93.0 QB rating. The Patriots scored 27 points that day.

The loss came before Tomlin began trusting his rookies full time. Davis played just three defensive snaps versus New England. Burns played 33 (60 percent). If healthy, both will be on the field every down for Pittsburgh.

Tomlin said this week that he’s “very confident” in the two rookies after what they’ve shown in two previous postseason games.

“I haven’t felt like a rookie in a long time,” Davis said. “I can’t play like one now. I definitely can’t turn into a rookie now.”

Steelers D wants to ‘confuse’ Eagles QB Carson Wentz

Carson Wentz played fantastic in his first two NFL starts. The rookie quarterback confidently made checks at the line of scrimmage, displayed a strong arm, soft touch, athletic scrambling ability, pinpoint accuracy both from the pocket and on the move and heady decision making.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ starting quarterback has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 658 yards and three touchdowns. Wentz is the first rookie QB since the 1970 merger to start and win his team’s first two games of the season and have 0 INT in those contests.

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Sunday will mark Wentz’s first true test against intrastate rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

“You definitely want to beat him up,” Steelers linebacker Arthur Moats said of facing the rookie quarterback, via the Pittsburgh Tribune. “You want to hit him, but at the same time, when you confuse him with different looks, he’s worried about cheap jerseys and he’s also trying to figure out where the coverage is, things like ‘Who’s my hot receiver?’

“Even our basic look can come off as exotic. To a rookie quarterback, that can be the difference between him making a completion or throwing an interception.”

Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said he isn’t worried about how many starts Wentz has made.

“When I try to game plan for an offense, I don’t take into account that he’s a rookie,” Butler said. “I take into account who I’ve got to stop, what they’re doing well and things that might give us problems and look at how we can alleviate them.”

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San Diego Chargers Nike Team Color Limited JerseyThe Steelers flummoxed an off-target Kirk Cousins in Week 1 and stymied Andy Dalton in Week 2. Mike Tomlin seems to have simplified the back end, cutting down many of the blown coverages we’ve seen in previous seasons. The defensive front has been pesky and stout — especially versus the run. With stud linebacker Ryan Shazier flying to the ball, the Steelers D has been fantastic to start the season and better than the sum of its parts would indicate.

If the Steelers stop the run early, making the Eagles offense one-dimensional, we’ll get to see how Wentz handles the pressure.

Despite facing a rookie, Pittsburgh won’t enter Sunday underestimating Wentz, especially after watching him torch the Bears in prime time.

“You’ve got to treat him like he’s the best,” Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward said. “You treat this guy like he’s a Hall of Famer already.”

The Times-Picayune first reported the visit.

Lewis, a former third-round pick, spent his first four years with the Steelers, starting 16 games in 2012. He then left for New Orleans in 2013.

The Saints cut Lewis due to injury concerns. The 30-year-old corner played in just six games last season and sat out workouts this offseason.

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Lewis contended over the weekend that he was cut because he didn’t get along with defensive coordinator Dennis Allen jersey. Coach Sean Payton said Monday that Lewis not being on the field was the reason the team released the corner.

The Steelers had one of the worst secondaries in the NFL last season, a group Mike Tomlin has attempted to improve this season. At this stage of his career, it’s uncertain what Lewis can bring to the table, due to injures, but the Steelers will at least take a gander at the veteran.

The Pittsburgh Steelers announced Tuesday they placed the tight end on the physically unable to perform list to start the season.

The move doesn’t come as a surprise. Green hasn’t participated in workouts after signing a four-year, $20 million contract this offseason.

NFL Media’s Aditi Kinkhabwala reported earlier this month that Green was dealing with wholesale MLB jerseys and recurring headaches after suffering multiple concussions during his four years in San Diego.

The Steelers and Green insist his ankle has been the reason he’s missed workouts, but the tight end’s agent told Kinkhabwala the ankle is “fine.”

Whatever the reason, Green will not be eligible to return until after Week 6.

NFL reduces Le’Veon Bell’s drug-related suspension to 3 games

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell‘s suspension, which due to missing a required drug test, has been reduced to three games.

The NFL announced Bell’s three-game suspension for violating the substance abuse rules on Friday.

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According to informed sources, the consensus between the NFL and the players union is the reason why Bell’s time to ban from the beginning of the four games reduces to three games.

As part of the agreement, Bell remains in the current stage of the NFL’s drug project rather than advancing to the next one. Missing drug test is due to Bell’s travel plan, which the testers did not be informed about it.

On Twitter and Instagram, Bell apologized to his teammates and Steelers fans, but the apology messages on both platforms were deleted shortly after the release.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said the team was “disappointed” and Bell’s error to make the team in a statement “disadvantaged.”