LaDainian Tomlinson

Five NFL Week 9 matchups to watch: Can Carson Wentz conquer Broncos’ D?

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   Carson Wentz has set an MVP pace with 19 passinig touchdowns in guiding the Philadelphia Eagles to an NFL-best 7-1 record, but a new challenge awaits him in the second half of the schedule.

Playing in his first game without standout left tackle Jason Peters, Wentz was sacked three times and took seven hits while being held to his second-lowest passing yardage output of the season (211) in a 33-10 win over the San Francisco 49ers. The second-year quarterback will have to navigate the rest of the season without his blindside protector, and his biggest obstacle yet comes Sunday against the Denver Broncos’ top-ranked defense.

Denver has just 17 sacks so far this year, but the threat of its pass rush won’t be lost on Wentz. Outside linebacker Von Miller is tied for ninth in the NFL with seven sacks and remains one of the game’s most-challenging matchups. Though he primarily lines up against right tackles, Miller could be moved to generate showdowns with Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who has struggled when forced into the starting rotation.

Wentz might have to scale back his daredevil tactics, as the quarterback has been prone to holding onto the ball for an extended period and leaving himself vulnerable to hits while on the run. In order to limit turnover opportunities against cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., Philadelphia likely will keep tight end Zach Ertz a central part of its passing attack.

Jay Ajayi also could have an immediate role in the offense after arriving in a trade from the Miami Dolphins on Tuesday. The running back should push LeGarrette Blount for work, though both of them could find it difficult to break through against a run defense that has yet to allow a touchdown and is giving up just 3 yards per carry.

Here are four other matchups that could define Week 9 in the NFL:

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott vs. Kansas City Chiefs’ front seven

With a stay for his six-game suspension granted this week, Elliott is now back for at least the first game in a crucial November stretch for the Cowboys. Needing to keep pace in the NFC East, Dallas should once again center its game plan on its star running back.

Amid the uncertainty of his ongoing legal battle, Elliott has eclipsed 115 rushing yards in each of his last three games. After the running back tallied 91 touches in that span, the Cowboys are a good bet to saddle him with a similar workload again. A heavy dose of Elliott also will help limit Dallas’ liability against Alex Smith and the Chiefs’ third-ranked offense.

Kansas City has had just one running back (the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell) crack 100 rushing yards against its defense, but it has given up 459 yards on the ground in its last three games. Inside linebackers Derrick Johnson and Reggie Ragland will be counted on to prevent Elliott from breaking long runs that could devastate the unit. And if the front seven requires additional help, Dak Prescott will have advantageous one-on-one opportunities against a secondary that is tied for the most pass plays of at least 40 yards (9) allowed.

Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson vs. Washington Redskins’ pass rush

Wilson vaulted into the MVP conversation with a 482-yard, four-touchdown performance last week against the Houston Texans. More importantly, he has the Seahawks’ hot-and-cold offense sizzling at midseason.

The outlook is even more promising for Seattle following the acquisition of left tackle Duane Brown. The former Texans standout gives Wilson the blindside protector he has sorely needed. Brown’s addition also could open things up for the rest of the offense, which had just 3 yards rushing outside of Wilson last week.

Washington’s defense should have its hands full with Wilson after giving up 67 points in the last two weeks. With the defensive line thinned by injuries, outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith will carry an even larger burden in generating pressure while not leaving the secondary vulnerable to extended pass plays.

Atlanta Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Carolina Panthers CB James Bradberry

When Jones ripped through the Carolina secondary for 12 catches and 300 yards last October, it served as one of the early signs of how explosive Atlanta’s attack might be. Half a season removed from leading the league in points scored, the Falcons’ offense now seem to be a world away from that dominant version of itself.

Jones’ role in coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s middling unit has been a weekly source of consternation in Atlanta. Though the All-Pro pass catcher ranks ninth in the NFL with 540 receiving yards, he has has yet to enjoy the dominating performance that seemed to come weekly last year. Perhaps most confounding has been his lone touchdown through eight weeks, as he has just seven targets and two catches in the red zone this year.

Even if repeatedly targeted, Jones could have difficult time replicating last year’s effort against a pass defense that ranks third with 182 yards allowed per game. A turf toe injury limited James Bradberry in that game, but the second-year cornerback has emerged as a strong option for erasing opponent’s top receivers. But Jones has seldom fully disappeared this season, with just one game under 50 receiving yards.

Green Bay Packers QB Brett Hundley vs. Detroit Lions’ secondary

The bye arrived at a needed time for Green Bay after Hundley inspired little confidence by managing just 89 yards on 25 passes in his debut as Aaron Rodgers’ fill-in. Unless the third-year passer can make significant strides, the Packers are in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Packers coaches have expressed a desire to see Hundley play quicker and with more confidence, which likely indicates an even more simplified game plan. He should also stand to benefit from the improved health of his offensive line, as the initial starting group has played just 15 snaps together this season. But Hundley will have to display an improved sense of timing with his receivers to take advantage of the quick-developing plays that would neutralize his exposure to the pass rush.

But the Lions’ defense has its own concerns, as it ranks 26th with just 13 sacks and gave up 193 yards to Pittsburgh Steelers rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster last week. Cornerback Darius Slay and safety Glover Quin rank among the best at their position, but Nevin Lawson could again be a liability against a deep Packers receiving corps. At 3-4, Detroit can’t afford to fall much further behind the Minnesota Vikings (6-2) and the Packers (4-3) in the NFC North standings.

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Pressure’s on

Tom Savage. Back in the lineup after Deshaun Watson’s sensational rookie season was derailed by a torn ACL, the Texans quarterback isn’t equipped to run Bill O’Brien’s offense as Watson would. But with Indianapolis visiting and Houston merely a game out of first place, throwing for his first NFL touchdown and avoiding big gaffes would represent significant progress. No, the season for the Texans is not over yet. But Savage must be better than the sack machine he was before getting benched in the opener. Or else.

Who’s hot

Russell Wilson. Including the desperate, 452-yard, 4-TD showing to outlast Deshaun Watson, the Seahawks quarterback has thrown for 786 yards and 7 TDs the past two weeks to keep alive a winning streak that has hit four games with Washington visiting on Sunday. Wilson passed for fewer than 200 yards in three of his first five games this season, but now averages 286.9 yards, on pace for the highest of his career. Seattle needs it, given its sputtering running game. And Wilson must stay healthy. Obviously. The mobility Wilson didn’t have during last year’s injury-stung season has returned, allowing for great escapes to avoid spotty protection, buy throwing time and add juice to the running game, too. All told, Wilson has emerged as an under-the-radar MVP candidate.

Key matchup

Ezekiel Elliott vs. Chiefs run defense. This space was previously pegged for the Dez Bryant-Marcus Peters matchup of fiery competitors. But Elliott’s suspension is on hold again, which is big trouble for a unit that allowed Denver to run 177 yards on Monday night and for Le’Veon Bell to shred it for 179 in Week 6. Elliott is coming off a 33-carry, 150-yard game at Dallas and has found rhythm with three consecutive 100-yard games. Kansas City’s 29th-ranked run defense is allowing an NFL-high 4.9 per rush, which means the formula is no secret: run Elliott, control the clock and keep Alex Smith the Chiefs’ explosive offense off the field.

Next man up

Brock Osweiler. Of all the backup quarterbacks in the lineup, the Broncos’ switch to Osweiler wasn’t due to an injury. That was last time, when he filled in for Peyton Manning to keep then afloat during what turned out to be a Super Bowl championship season. This time, facing the task of beating the red-hot Eagles in Philadelphia, the same formula exists as Osweiler takes the reins from Trevor Simeon: Rely on the No. 1 defense and protect the football. Simeon lost his job on the vibe of 10 INTs, second-most in the NFL. But talk about full-circle. Osweiler, 18th months later, is back where he might have stayed in the first place, before stops in Houston and Cleveland, plus one huge contract, allowed John Elway to get him off the scrap heap.

Rookie watch

Marshon Lattimore. After a few misses on high-round picks in recent years, the Saints have a hit with the cornerback, drafted 11th overall, who brought his knack for big plays with him from Ohio State. That’s one reason New Orleans’ resurgence includes an upgraded defense – finally – after wallowing among the worst in the league for several years. The Saints are 17th against the pass? That’s huge when considering that it wasn’t too long ago when New Orleans allowed more yards and TDs than any unit in NFL history. Lattimore, the first Saints player since Reggie Bush to win Rookie of the Month honors, will get a stiff test in trying to contain Mike Evans when the Bucs come calling on Sunday.

Stomach for an upset

Lions at Packers. After a rough starting debut for Brett Hundley in losing to the Saints, let’s see what Mike McCarthy can do with a bye week to prepare the young fill-in for Aaron Rodgers. Oddsmakers are cynical, making Green Bay a home underdog. Yet the Packers have a running game and the Lions do not.

If the playoffs were today…

Carolina (5-3) would be in as the sixth and final seed in the NFC. But it’s shaky. On the flip side of a sound, second-ranked defense, they’ve got Cam Newton, who has thrown for more interceptions (11) than TDs (10), and now must proceed without Kelvin Benjamin. Okay, the last time Newton didn’t have Benjamin’s big-receiver presence, he won NFL MVP honors and went to the Super Bowl. Now there will by no MVP, but a chance to solidify positioning during division games. The Falcons visit on Sunday, which means trying to avoid getting showcased again by Julio Jones. In bigger picture, this game could ultimately have huge ramifications to determine which team will get a ticket to the postseason dance.

Did you notice?

Road teams are 5-4 this season on Thursday night, which douses water on the theory that home teams have an overwhelming advantage on a short week. Sure, they have a bit of an edge – and we’ve seen back-to-back blowout victories from the Jets and Ravens in that situation – but both teams are pressed to recover inside a tight window. So, in the wake of Richie Incognito’s grumbling, the gripes can go both ways.

Stat’s the fact

Deshaun Watson, named AFC Rookie of the Month, set an NFL record for TDs passes in a calendar month with 16 in October. It shattered the previous mark, 11, by Dan Marino in October 1983.

MNF: Titans end 11-game skid to Colts with 36-22 win

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Marcus Mariota shuffled around the pocket, carefully protecting a strained left hamstring that already cost him one game this season.

So the quarterback known for his legs showed off his arm.

Mariota threw a 53-yard touchdown pass to Taywan Taylor with 5:29 left , and the Tennessee Titans beat the Indianapolis Colts 36-22 on Monday night to snap an 11-game skid tied for the NFL’s longest active losing streak against one team.

Titans coach Mike Mularkey said Mariota followed their instructions, doing whatever he could to lessen the risk of further injury.

“He’s as tough as I’ve been around and made some throws that were, obviously that one to Taywan was a big throw,” Mularkey said. “It was a real big throw. I mean he did. He played well.”

Mariota was 23 for 32 for a season-high 306 yards. He completed each of his three passes on the drive that ended with Taylor’s tiebreaking score.

The Titans (3-3) stopped a two-game slide and moved into a tie for the AFC South lead with Jacksonville and Houston.

Jacoby Brissett tried to rally the Colts (2-4) to a second straight overtime. But Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard forced Brissett out of bounds shy of the first-down marker on fourth-and-inches with 2:19 left before going toward midfield to celebrate.

Coach Chuck Pagano lost his challenge of the spot and said he wouldn’t blame officials.

“Disappointing to say the least,” Pagano said. “Got to play 60 minutes. It’s a recurring thing I know that.”

The Titans were pleased to put their skid against the Colts behind them.

“We feel like every game’s a must-win, but this was definitely a must-win, especially with the 11-game streak on the line,” Woodyard said. “We came in and answered the call.”

Derrick Henry clinched the win for Tennessee with a 72-yard TD run with 47 seconds left. Henry, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner, finished with a career-high 131 yards on 19 carries. DeMarco Murray also scored.

The Titans looked like the NFL’s worst scoring defense in the first half instead of Indianapolis, with Brissett directing the Colts to a 13-9 halftime lead. John Simon then intercepted Mariota’s first pass of the third quarter and returned it 26 yards for a TD.

But the Titans forced the Colts to go three-and-out on three of their first four drives of the second half, and Avery Williamson stripped tight end Jack Doyle of the ball after a catch.

QUOTABLE

“It’s a long season,” Mariota said. “You’re going to have to play with some sort of nick or ding. I’m just really happy for the guys. I mean they did a great job of putting protection up front.”

NFL KICKING RECORD

Tennessee kicker Ryan Succop went 5 for 5 to break the NFL record for most consecutive successful field goals inside of 50 yards. He connected from 48, 32 and 40 yards in the first half and then hit from 23 and 48 yards in the third.

Succop began the day tied with Matt Bryant, who connected on 46 straight field goals inside 50 yards between 2013 and 2015 for the Atlanta Falcons.

Adam Vinatieri, the Colts’ accomplished kicker, got three field goals himself, including a 52-yarder. But he missed an extra point off the left upright.

PRIME-TIME UNITY

The Colts’ team message got a prime-time audience with outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard wearing a black T-shirt with the message “We Will” over his jersey during the coin toss. On the back were the words “Stand For: Equality Justice Unity Respect Dialogue Opportunity.”

The Colts have been wearing these T-shirts during pregame warmups for the last couple of weeks.

A handful of Titans, including defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, raised a fist into the air after the national anthem ended. Wide receiver Rishard Matthews stayed off the field during the anthem for a third straight game.

INJURIES

Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan strained an abdominal muscle. … Colts cornerback Rashaan Melvin went to the sideline during an injury timeout in the second quarter but returned to the game. … Colts running back Robert Turbin was escorted to the locker room after a catch and run for 9 yards with 2:30 left. Pagano said Turbin will get an MRI exam on his elbow.

CLEVELAND’S TURN

The Colts’ 11-game win streak had been tied with Denver for the longest active streak in the NFL. Now Denver stands alone with its 11-game streak over Cleveland, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

UP NEXT

Colts: Host Jacksonville.

Titans: Visit winless Browns.

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL.

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Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

NFL Roundup: Steelers outlast Chiefs 19-13 to defeat NFL’s last unbeaten

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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Harrison Smith led Minnesota’s defense in a thorough dismantling of Green Bay, as the Vikings knocked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers out of the game on Sunday with a broken collarbone during a 23-10 victory that drastically altered the course of the NFC North.

Smith had 1½ sacks on safety blitzes, a diving interception and two pass breakups, helping the Vikings (4-2) limit the injury-depleted Packers to a season-low 227 yards.

Anthony Barr, who later left with a concussion, delivered the game-changing hit on Green Bay’s second drive when he took Rodgers hard to the turf as the two-time NFL MVP followed through on a pass.

Rodgers fell on his throwing shoulder, and the Packers (4-2) announced he could miss the remainder of the season.

Brett Hundley threw his first career touchdown pass in relief, connecting with Davante Adams in the second quarter after a 63-yard return by Clay Matthews of Jerick McKinnon’s fumble gave the Packers the ball at the 18.

Hundley was picked off three times and sacked four times. He finished 18 for 33 for 157 yards. The Packers had five first downs and 102 yards over the first three quarters.

Case Keenum, making his fourth start in place of the injured Sam Bradford, went 24 for 38 for 239 yards without top wide receiver Stefon Diggs. He threw 13 times to Adam Thielen, completing nine for 97 yards.

GIANTS 23, BRONCOS 10

DENVER (AP) – Eli Manning ignored the loss of four wide receivers, and reeling New York capped a stormy week of injuries and infighting by stunning Denver.

The Giants (1-5) pulled off one of the season’s biggest upsets by dominating Denver in every phase from start to finish. The Broncos (3-2) blew a golden opportunity to close in on Kansas City in the AFC West after the Steelers knocked off the last unbeaten team in the league earlier Sunday.

Visiting teams went 8-5 in Week 6 and are 46-44 overall this upside-down NFL season.

Jason Pierre-Paul had a trio of sacks for the Giants, who came into Denver tottering from a tumultuous week in which three wide receivers landed on injured reserve, five other starters were sidelined with injuries and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was suspended for insubordination.

PATRIOTS 24, JETS 17

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – Tom Brady set the NFL record for regular-season victories by a quarterback, getting his 187th.

The Patriots (4-2) were playing their first game in 10 days after beating Tampa Bay 19-14 on Oct. 5, and appeared a bit rusty early as they fell behind 14-0 in the second quarter against the surprising Jets (3-3).

New York had a chance to tie the game after getting the ball back with 1:53 remaining, but the Patriots’ 32nd-ranked overall defense held on – forcing Josh McCown to throw incomplete on a desperation heave on fourth-and-17 from the 50, and ending the Jets’ three-game winning streak.

Brady broke a tie with Peyton Manning and Brett Favre for the record.

New York appeared to make it a one-score game again on its next possession as Austin Seferian-Jenkins took a short pass from McCown and reached over the goal line for a 4-yard touchdown.

But officials reviewed the score and said the video replay showed that Seferian-Jenkins slightly lost control of the ball as he went out of bounds on the side of the end zone, resulting in a touchback – despite the ball never hitting the ground. That gave the Patriots back the ball, with the Jets’ sideline irate.

STEELERS 19, CHIEFS 13

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – Le’Veon Bell ran for 179 yards and a touchdown, Antonio Brown made an acrobatic touchdown catch in the fourth quarter and the Steelers handed the NFL’s only unbeaten team its first loss.

The Chiefs (5-1) still had a chance after Brown’s 51-yard reception made it 19-10, moving quickly downfield and getting a 33-yard field goal from Harrison Butker.

And when their defense forced a quick three-and-out, Tyreek Hill’s 32-yard punt return gave them the ball with 1:48 to go.

But after the Steelers (4-2) gave up a first down, James Harrison sacked Alex Smith on third-and-10, and the quarterback’s incomplete pass on fourth down left the NFL with no perfect teams.

Ben Roethlisberger was 17 of 25 for 252 yards for Pittsburgh, bouncing back from his abysmal five-interception performance against Jacksonville last week. His favorite target was Brown, who a few weeks ago was flipping over water coolers on the sideline but spent Sunday slinging high-fives. He finished with eight catches for 155 yards, often beating All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters.

CHARGERS 17, RAIDERS 16

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – Nick Novak kicked a 32-yard field goal on the final play and the Chargers took advantage of a key missed extra point by Giorgio Tavecchio.

The Chargers (2-4) had been done in by poor kicks this season, losing twice on misses by former kicker Younghoe Koo. Novak missed a 48-yard field goal in the first quarter, but it was a missed extra point by Tavecchio – after a high snap by Jon Condo early in the fourth quarter – that was the difference in a fourth straight loss by the Raiders (2-4).

Philip Rivers took over at his 8 with 4:09 to play and used two long passes to Hunter Henry to move the Chargers into field-goal range. Five straight runs by Melvin Gordon and two kneeldowns moved the ball to the 14 and drained the clock, setting the stage for Novak’s winning kick.

The Raiders had taken the lead on a 47-yard end-around by Cordarrelle Patterson, but that and the return of quarterback Derek Carr weren’t enough to end this slide. Oakland last lost four in a row during an 0-10 start in 2014.

CARDINALS 38, BUCCANEERS 33

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) – Adrian Peterson rushed for two touchdowns and 134 yards in an impressive Arizona debut and the Cardinals held off a furious second-half Tampa Bay rally.

The Buccaneers (2-3) lost quarterback Jameis Winston to a right shoulder injury in the second quarter, with the Cardinals (3-3) leading 21-0. But backup Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns to bring Tampa Bay back from a 31-0, early third-quarter deficit.

Fitzpatrick’s 37-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans cut the Arizona lead to 38-32 with 2:02 to play.

Larry Fitzgerald recovered the onside kick and, with no Tampa Bay timeouts remaining, the Cardinals ran out the clock.

Carson Palmer completed his first 14 passes and finished 18 of 22 for 283 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Fitzgerald caught 10 passes for 138 yards and a score.

Peterson, acquired in a trade with New Orleans on Tuesday, carried 26 times and scored on a 27-yard run to cap Arizona’s first possession. He added a 1-yard TD run after Tramon Williams’ interception near the goal line in the fourth quarter. The 32-year-old running back gained 47 more yards on Sunday than the 87 he had in four games with the Saints.

BEARS 27, RAVENS 24, OT

BALTIMORE (AP) – Connor Barth kicked a 40-yard field goal with 2:08 left in overtime, and the Bears used a 167-yard rushing effort by Jordan Howard to beat the Ravens.

The Bears (2-4) blew a 14-point lead in the second half before coming through in overtime behind Howard, whose 53-yard run put Chicago at the Baltimore 40. After rookie Mitchell Trubisky completed an 18-yard pass to Kendall Wright, Barth delivered the winner.

Making his first career start on the road, Trubisky directed a conservative game plan that leaned heavily on the run. The first-round draft pick completed 8 of 16 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.

The Bears gained 231 yards on 54 rushing attempts.

Baltimore (3-3) trailed 17-3 in the third quarter and 24-16 late in regulation before using two long kick returns to get back in the game.

Bobby Rainey took a kickoff 96 yards for a score and Michael Campanaro brought back a punt 77 yards for a touchdown with 1:37 remaining. The 2-point conversion was successful, setting up overtime.

DOLPHINS 20, FALCONS 17

ATLANTA (AP) – Jay Cutler threw a pair of touchdown passes, Cody Parkey kicked a pair of field goals and the Dolphins rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit.

Matt Ryan had another crucial interception with the Falcons in position to at least attempt a tying field goal. Cordrea Tankersley got a hand on a pass intended for Austin Hooper and Reshad Jones swooped in to make the clinching interception with 39 seconds remaining.

Parkey put the Dolphins (3-2) ahead for the first time with 2:30 remaining, booting a 38-yard field goal after a gutsy play by receiver Jarvis Landry, who was hit by six players but still managed to power ahead for a key first down.

Cutler, who struggled in his first four games as the Dolphins’ fill-in starter after putting off retirement, completed 19 of 33 for 151 yards, including scoring passes to Landry and Kenny Stills. Jay Ajayi rushed for 130 yards.

The Falcons (3-2) appeared headed for an easy victory, building a big lead that looked even more comfortable against a team that had scored only three offensive touchdowns all season. But back came Miami.

RAMS 27, JAGUARS 17

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Pharoh Cooper returned the opening kickoff 103 yards, one of two special teams touchdowns that helped the Rams.

The Rams (4-2) also blocked a punt for a score and a 10-point lead in the first half. Malcolm Brown returned the loose ball 8 yards for the franchise’s first such touchdown since 2005.

The Jaguars (3-3) botched a decent chance to tie the game early in the fourth period when Blake Bortles fumbled on one play and then threw an interception on the next. It cost Jacksonville a shot at ending its up-and-down start to the season.

Los Angeles essentially sealed its third road victory on Greg Zuerlein’s 29-yard field goal with 2:32 remaining. The Rams hadn’t started 3-0 away from home since 2001.

The Jaguars, coming off an impressive victory at Pittsburgh, still haven’t won consecutive games in more than a year and lost for the ninth time in 10 games at EverBank Field.

SAINTS 52, LIONS 38

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara combined for 237 yards from scrimmage, the Saints’ resurgent defense forced five turnovers and scored a franchise-record three times.

New Orleans (3-2), which has a winning record for the first time since its last playoff season in 2013, built a five-touchdown lead, only to gut out a remarkable bid by Detroit to pull off the greatest comeback in NFL history.

Detroit (3-3) scored four straight TDs, including one on a punt return by Jamal Agnew and another on A’Shawn Robinson’s close-range interception near the Saints goal line, in less than 15 minutes off the game clock to pull as close as 45-38 with 6:41 to go. But after Agnew muffed a punt and barely got it out of the end zone, Saints defensive end Cam Jordan scored on virtually the same type of play as Robinson when he got his hand on Matt Stafford’s pass from the end zone.

The Saints’ defense produced its first points on Detroit’s first possession, when Alex Okafor sacked and stripped Stafford in the end zone and safety Kenny Vaccaro recovered. In the third quarter, rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans’ top draft choice last spring, made his first interception and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown.

Playing on a sore right ankle that visibly limited his mobility, Stafford was hit often, sacked five times and turned over the ball five times: twice on fumbles and three times on interceptions, two of which were tipped. New Orleans also batted down many of Stafford’s throws.

REDSKINS 26, 49ERS 24

LANDOVER, Md. (AP) – Washington’s Kirk Cousins threw for two touchdowns, ran for a score, and also had an interception as part of an inconsistent performance against his past – and possibly – future mentor Kyle Shanahan’s winless 49ers.

The Redskins blew a 17-point lead before barely holding on.

Cousins was hardly at his most accurate in completing 25 of 37 passes for 330 yards against the team he has been linked to for next season because of his connection with Shanahan. The 49ers (0-6) remain unsettled at quarterback: Shanahan benched Brian Hoyer for rookie C.J. Beathard, who threw for 245 yards, a touchdown and an interception and nearly led an impressive comeback.

Beathard, a third-round pick out of Iowa and grandson of former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, took over for Hoyer with about six and a half minutes left in the first half and the 49ers down 14-0. After Hoyer was 4 of 11 for 34 yards, Beathard went 19 of 36 in his first NFL action.

With the 49ers down by two in the final minute, Beathard led them toward field goal range. He was intercepted by Kendall Fuller on fourth down to seal the result.

The Redskins (3-2) weren’t helped by several injuries on defense. They benefited from playing a 49ers team that is now the first in NFL history to lose five consecutive games by three points or fewer. San Francisco’s past five losses have come by a combined 13 points.

TEXANS 33, BROWNS 17

HOUSTON (AP) – Deshaun Watson threw for 225 yards and three touchdowns, becoming the first rookie in NFL history with at least three TD passes in three straight games. Watson has thrown 15 touchdown passes this season, the most in NFL history by a rookie in a team’s first six games. It equals the number of TD throws Brock Osweiler had in 15 games last season.

The Browns lost their 16th in a row on the road.

Cleveland made yet another change at quarterback this week, benching rookie DeShone Kizer, who had thrown a league-high nine interceptions, for Kevin Hogan to make his first NFL start. The results were much the same as Hogan threw three interceptions to keep the Browns (0-6) winless and drop coach Hue Jackson’s record in Cleveland to 1-21.

Johnathan Joseph had two interceptions, including one he returned for 82 yards to boost the Texans’ defense in their first game since J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus sustained season-ending injuries last week.

Watson threw TD passes to Will Fuller, Braxton Miller and DeAndre Hopkins as the Texans (3-3) set a franchise record by scoring at least 30 points for the fourth straight game.

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For more AP NFL coverage: http://pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

NFL Week 6: Can Ben Roethlisberger bounce back vs. Chiefs?

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-    Ben Roethlisberger’s five-interception outing against the Jacksonville Jaguars was troubling for Pittsburgh Steelers fans, but it was his postgame comments that set off an alarm.

After unraveling in a 30-9 loss, the veteran quarterback offered up a cryptic self-assessment by saying after the game, “Maybe I just don’t have it anymore.” Roethlisberger spent much of this week saying his confidence hasn’t been shaken, but there’s ample concern about his central role in the offense’s early struggles.

Facing the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs on the road Sunday, Roethlisberger has the chance to sway the skeptical if he can make significant strides.

By any measure, Pittsburgh’s offense has been a massive letdown. One of the league’s most talented units has averaged just 19.8 points per game, tied for 19th in the NFL. Roethlisberger has thrown six touchdowns and seven interceptions for a 75.8 quarterback rating, leaving him behind the likes of Mike Glennon and Blake Bortles.

But few opponents have had more trouble with the Steelers than the Chiefs, who are 0-6 in games that Roethlisberger has played from start to finish. And though road games have been troublesome for the quarterback in recent years, the Steelers prevailed in an 18-16 AFC divisional playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium last year despite settling for six field goals.

Though the Chiefs have surrendered a league-low 51.4% completion rate, the defense has been prone to giving up big plays and ranks just 25th with 248 yards allowed per game. Top cornerback Marcus Peters doesn’t shadow opposing No. 1 receivers, so the secondary must be prepared for Antonio Brown to be deployed in a number of different ways as Pittsburgh seeks to get him favorable looks.

Here are four other matchups that could define Week 6:

Los Angeles Rams QB Jared Goff vs. Jacksonville Jaguars’ secondary

Three turnovers haunted Goff in last week’s loss to the Seattle Seahawks, and the upstart passer will have to be on watch once again. The Jaguars not only have the most sacks through five games (20) but also the most takeaways (15).

The Rams should continue to lean on Todd Gurley given Jacksonville’s 31st-ranked rush defense (146.4 yards allowed per game) and league-worst 5.4 yards allowed per carry. But Los Angeles can expect a loaded box to stop its star running back and Goff needs to make defenses pay in those scenarios. The red zone has been a particular stumbling block, as the Rams have scored touchdowns on just 47.83% of their trips.

For Jacksonville, slowing another high-powered attack could further legitimize what appears to be the league’s newest elite defense. Cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye have locked down opposing receivers and have a favorable matchup against an underwhelming Rams receiving corps. If Calais Campbell and the defensive line can create havoc up front, Goff could be in for a long day.

Green Bay Packers RB Aaron Jones vs. Minnesota Vikings’ front seven

The fifth-round rookie from UTEP became Green Bay’s latest revelation last week in a 125-yard performance against the Dallas Cowboys. With Ty Montgomery still recovering from broken ribs, Jones could again be in the spotlight for the NFC North rivalry clash.

The Vikings have fared far better against the run (ranked eighth with 80 yards allowed per game) than the pass (20th with 229 yards per game). Yet Aaron Rodgers has already been sacked a league-high 19 times, and starting offensive tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga remain questionable. Facing a formidable pass rush led by Everson Griffen (six sacks) and Danielle Hunter, Green Bay might need to call on Jones to provide balance.

For Minnesota, corralling the run game is a crucial part of preventing big plays from Rodgers. The Vikings rank first in third-down defense with a conversion rate of just 25.5%. If Linval Joseph and the defensive front can force Rodgers into obvious passing situations, it could keep the Packers’ attack in check.

New England Patriots WRs Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan vs. New York Jets’ secondary

Jets defensive end Leonard Williams said his unit has “swagger” heading into its matchup with the Patriots, but it will take more than confidence to slow Tom Brady. In two wins over Gang Green last year, Brady threw for 500 yards and five touchdowns.

Yet a reshuffled secondary has given hope to a Jets team that finds itself tied with the Patriots and Buffalo Bills for a share of the AFC East lead. New York has the eighth-lowest opposing quarterback rating allowed (81.9) and ranks sixth in yards per attempt (6.4). Rookie safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye have had few lapses as starters, while Morris Claiborne has quietly re-established himself as a trusted option at cornerback.

The Patriots’ top-ranked passing offense (320 yards per game) will be the Jets’ greatest test yet, though it hasn’t been impervious to mistakes. With Rob Gronkowski dealing with a thigh injury, New England needs Cooks and Hogan to consistently establish separation against the secondary. Brady has already taken 16 sacks this year and likely will be looking to get the ball out earlier.

Detroit Lions RB Ameer Abdullah vs. New Orleans Saints’ front seven

Matthew Stafford is listed as questionable with ankle and hamstring injuries. though the quarterback is expected to play. With their leader at less than 100%, the Lions could use a new dynamic on offense to lighten Stafford’s traditionally heavy burden.

Abdullah had a career-high 94 rushing yards against the Vikings two weeks ago, but he managed just 31 against the Carolina Panthers last Sunday. If the running game is consistent, the Lions can avoid limit their liability not only against Stafford, but also a defense facing Drew Brees and a Saints attack yet to commit a turnover.

New Orleans’ rushing defense ranks in the middle of the pack, though it bottled up Jay Ajayi and the Miami Dolphins in its last game in London. The line will have to establish a consistent push. Defensive end Cameron Jordan’s matchup with right tackle Rick Wagner could set the tone for the day.

NFL Week 6 kickoff times, TV channel info, game breakdowns

Bears (1-4) at Ravens (3-2)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Sam Rosen, Ronde Barber, Kristina Pink)

The matchup: The Mitchell Trubisky era got underway vs. the Vikings, and the No. 2 overall pick goes from facing one talented and dangerous defense to another — coordinator Dean Pees’ Baltimore Ravens have 12 takeaways. The Bears were near the bottom of the NFL in giveaways. Trubisky’s insertion on offense sparks optimism, but the defense lost another starter. OLB Willie Young (torn triceps) was put on injured reserve, the fifth starter in 2017 to land there. The Ravens return home tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers atop the AFC North. QB Joe Flacco completed his first game without a turnover, and his offense overcame the loss of RG Dan Skura (knee) and RB Terrance West (calf).

More: USA TODAY Sports’ Week 6 NFL picks

Browns (0-5) at Texans (2-3)

TV: Sunday, 1, CBS (Andrew Catalon, James Lofton)

The matchup: This season was supposed to be about the Browns developing rookie QB DeShone Kizer, but Kizer was benched after turning the ball over twice in the red zone in Week 5. Coach Hue Jackson announced Wednesday that Kevin Hogan would start Sunday, but the Texans aren’t scared of either. On the bright side, No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett had two sacks in his NFL debut. Texans rookie QB Deshaun Watson, whom the Browns handed to the Texans during last year’s draft for a 2018 first-round pick, has nine TD passes the last two weeks, and suddenly the Texans rank among the top five in scoring and rushing. Watson has WR DeAndre Hopkins on track for a career year. The Texans lost two of their best defenders to season-ending injuries, DE J.J. Watt (leg) and OLB Whitney Mercilus (torn chest muscle).

Packers (4-1) at Vikings (3-2)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Thom Brennaman, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrew)

The matchup: QB Aaron Rodgers’ late-game mastery was on display again, but Green Bay unearthed a run game with rookie Aaron Jones racking up 125 rushing yards. He unlocks Green Bay’s play-action game, yet another dimension for this lethal offense. Packers S Kentrell Brice and CBs Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins stepped up after injuries to SS Morgan Burnett (hamstring) and rookie CB Kevin King (concussion). Vikings QB Sam Bradford, who missed three weeks (left knee), started vs. the Bears but was replaced by Case Keenum in the first half and is out this week. With rookie phenom Dalvin Cook (torn ACL) on injured reserve, Jerick McKinnon rushed for 95 yards, including a 58-yard TD run. Vikings WR Adam Thielen had 12 catches for 202 yards and two TDs vs. the Packers last December, a few months after teammate Stefon Diggs racked up 9-182-1. Diggs is out this week.

Lions (3-2) at Saints (2-2)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Dan Hellie, Chris Spielman, Peter Schrager)

The matchup: Lions QB Matthew Stafford played much of the second half last weekend with thigh and ankle injuries. The Lions have given up 12 sacks over the last two games, suggesting the line needs to plug leaky pass protection. Stafford has been sacked a league-high 18 times. After producing a league-best 11 takeaways and 47 points off turnovers through four games, the Lions defense came up empty vs. Carolina. Injuries are wreaking havoc along the Saints offensive front as RT Zach Strief (knee) was placed on IR. LT Terron Armstead is expected to make his 2017 debut after offseason shoulder surgery, enabling versatile rookie Ryan Ramczyk to replace Strief. Despite the moving parts, the Saints are only the third NFL team since 1933 to be turnover-free through its first four games.

Dolphins (2-2) at Falcons (3-1)

TV: Sunday, 1, CBS (Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Jamie Erdahl)

The matchup: Although the Dolphins beat the Titans, QB Jay Cutler and the offense continued to struggle. Miami fans chanted for Matt Moore, but coach Adam Gase cited poor blocking as well as dropped passes and ragged route running as contributing factors. Miami has the NFL-worst points-per-game average (10.25) and ranks at the bottom in passing yards and second-to-last in rushing yards per game. Some Falcons said the loss to the Bills before the bye week made it more difficult to relax. QB Matt Ryan has already has thrown five interceptions, two fewer than all of last season. He also has had a hand in six turnovers the last two weeks, including a pick-six and a fumble returned for a TD. Coach Dan Quinn is hopeful to have several injured starters back, including WR Julio Jones (hip), RT Ryan Schraeder (concussion) and LB Vic Beasley (hamstring), the NFL’s reigning sack champion. Beasley and Jones were limited in practice.

Patriots (3-2) at Jets (3-2)

TV: Sunday, 1, CBS (Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn)

The matchup: New England’s defense redeemed itself by limiting Tampa Bay to 14 points and made a last-minute stand to preserve the victory, but the Patriots still struggled to score. TE Rob Gronkowski (thigh) is expected back. For the first time in his 15-year NFL career, Jets QB Josh McCown has guided a team to three wins in a row. A week after RBs Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire combined for 256 yards on 31 carries, the Jets were limited to 25 yards on 13 carries. The Patriots are yielding 124 rushing yards per game and gave up 140 vs. Tampa Bay, so there might be opportunities, but Powell is questionable (calf). The Pats have won both road games this season, following their 8-0 road mark in 2016. But QB Tom Brady, 40, is on pace to be hit 102 times and sacked 51 times. The Pats offensive line has to better protect him.

49ers (0-5) at Redskins (2-2)

TV: Sunday, 1, Fox (Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin)

The matchup: This might be San Francisco’s most important game of the season, if only because the 49ers could be getting an up-close look at their future quarterback, Kirk Cousins. First-year coach Kyle Shanahan, a former Washington assistant, has to be scratching his head about what he needs to do to earn his first NFL victory. San Francisco’s last four losses have come by a combined 11 points. To make matters worse, LB NaVorro Bowman was grumbling about his playing time and was released on Friday. RB Carlos Hyde basically got benched during the Colts loss. Playing in what might be the NFL’s best division, the Redskins can’t afford to come out of their bye with a drop-off. With games at Philadelphia and Seattle coming up sandwiched around a home date with the Cowboys, this franchise can’t lose this week. The loss of CB Josh Norman could be a problem against an underrated group of Niners receivers.

Buccaneers (2-2) at Cardinals (2-3)

TV: Sunday, 4:05, Fox (Kenny Albert, Charles Davis, Pam Oliver)

The matchup: Anyone ready to start designing Jameis Winston’s Hall of Fame bust might want to put those plans on hold. The third-year quarterback has stumbled recently. Getting RB Doug Martin back should give Tampa Bay’s offense another dimension. The Bucs defense, which looked shaky earlier in the season, showed some good things vs. New England. Arizona’s aging squad is centered on QB Carson Palmer and WR Larry Fitzgerald, well into their 30s. Other than S Tyrann Mathieu and injured RB David Johnson, there aren’t a lot of pieces to build upon. Injuries continue to pile up. T Jared Veldheer, one of the only remaining starters on a patchwork offensive line, went down (knee) last week. The Cardinals acquired RB Adrian Peterson this week and cut RB Chris Johnson.

L.A. Rams (3-2) at Jaguars (3-2)

TV: Sunday, 4:05, Fox (Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth, Shannon Spake)

The matchup: The Rams came within a catch of beating rival Seattle, which would have made them 4-1 and firmly in the driver’s seat in the NFC West. Five turnovers played a part in the loss, which coach Sean McVay said has him “extremely concerned.” This week QB Jared Goff faces a menacing secondary that picked off five Ben Roethlisberger passes last week. Tom Coughlin, hired as executive VP of football operations, didn’t need long to make an impression in Jacksonville. The Jaguars are looking like the New York Giants of the Super Bowl years, with an effective running game and a menacing defense that pressures quarterbacks and forces turnovers. The offense rode rookie RB Leonard Fournette heavily and needed QB Blake Bortles for just 14 pass attempts. The Rams are 3-0 when RB Todd Gurley gets 20 or more touches, 0-2 when he doesn’t.

Steelers (3-2) at Chiefs (5-0)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, CBS (Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson)

The matchup: Frustrated QB Ben Roethlisberger said after being intercepted five times in Jacksonville, including two returned for TDs, “You just find a way to move on and play better.” Will he? RB Le’Veon Bell rushed for only 47 yards and the defense allowed 231 yards rushing, though 90 came on a Leonard Fournette TD with 1:47 left in the game. Many players had a hand in Kansas City’s ninth consecutive road victory, but none more than QB Alex Smith. He improved on his league-leading numbers with a 130.2 rating vs. Houston. He has 11 TD passes and no INTs and has thrown 168 consecutive passes without a pick.

Chargers (1-4) at Raiders (2-3)

TV: Sunday, 4:25, CBS (Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon)

The matchup: The Chargers had lost nine consecutive games, including the final five of the 2016 season, before giving Anthony Lynn his first win as the team’s coach against the New York Giants. Chargers QB Philip Rivers will be facing a Raiders pass defense that has allowed a completion percentage of 68.7 this season. After winning their first two games by a combined 71-36, the Raiders have lost three games in a row by a combined 73-37. Their 30-17 loss at home to Baltimore came with EJ Manuel at quarterback as Derek Carr was sidelined by a back injury. But head coach Jack Del Rio says Carr will be ready to play vs. the Chargers. This is the second of three in a row in Oakland, with Kansas City coming four days after this one. The Raiders already have lost to Denver, so they have to snap out of it or things could get ugly with future relocation on the minds of fans.

Giants (0-5) at Broncos (3-1)

TV: Sunday, 8:30, NBC (Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michelle Tafoya)

The matchup: The Giants’ heartbreaking loss to the Chargers dropped them to 0-5 for the fourth time in franchise history. They blew a fourth-quarter lead for the third week in a row as the defense crumbled in crunch time. Their poor pass blocking allowed QB Eli Manning to be sacked five times. And worst of all, their receiving corps was wiped out by injuries, topped by WR Odell Beckham Jr.’s broken ankle, ending his season. Denver comes out of its bye week at 3-1 and the Broncos’ average of 260.8 yards allowed per game is the NFL’s lowest. Combined with the league’s No. 3 rushing offense at 143.0 yards a game, all that has allowed the Broncos to control the ball.

Colts (2-3) at Titans (2-3)

TV: Monday, 8:30, ESPN (Sean McDonough, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters)

The matchup: As bad as the Colts have been, they could be atop the AFC South by Halloween. With key divisional matchups against the Titans and Jacksonville next, Indianapolis can wipe away its horrendous 1-3 start with a Week 6 win. Injured QB Andrew Luck is hoping for a Week 8 return. With Titans QB Marcus Mariota inactive (hamstring), backup QB Matt Cassel was 21-for-32 for 141 yards in a loss to Miami. Mariota hopes to return for this game. A matchup to watch is Colts WR T.Y. Hilton vs. Titans CB Adoree’ Jackson. Last week vs. the 49ers, Hilton caught seven of nine targets for 177 yards. Last year vs. Tennessee, he had 230 yards and two TDs on 12 catches in two games. If he draws the rookie corner Jackson, expect him to have an active day.

Bye: Bengals, Bills, Cowboys, Seahawks

***

Compiled by Brian Allee-Walsh, Zac Jackson, Jordan Godwin, Scott Pitoniak, Arthur Arkush, Andy Friedlander, Scott Johnson, Howard Balzer. All times p.m. Eastern.

TNF: Carson Wentz throws 3 TD passes, Eagles beat Panthers 28-23

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Carson Wentz said he saw some things from the Carolina Panthers he hadn’t seen on film leading to three first-half sacks and plenty of pressure.

It didn’t bother the Philadelphia Eagles’ second-year quarterback.

Wentz came up big in a huge game, throwing for 222 yards and three touchdowns against one of the NFL’s top defenses, and the Eagles beat the Panthers 28-23 on Thursday night to improve to an NFC-best 5-1.

“We kept backs in to handle their linebackers and we did a better job cleaning it up in the second half,” said Wentz, who wasn’t sacked in the second half.

The Eagles turned two interceptions deep in Carolina territory into 15 points. Wentz teamed with Zach Ertz on two touchdown passes, and LaGarrette Blount scored on a 2-point conversion run for an 18-10 lead in the third quarter. Wentz added a 24-yard scoring pass to Nelson Agholor in the fourth quarter.

“He’s a great leader of this football team, even in his second year,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said about Wentz. “Guys really respect the way he plays. It’s exciting to see that.”

Cam Newton threw three interceptions for Carolina (4-2).

The first two interceptions came inside Carolina’s 20, but weren’t Newton’s fault. He was hit by Fletcher Cox as he released one pass, and running back Jonathan Stewart bobbled another pass resulting in a pick. Newton’s third interception — by Jalen Mills with 3:06 left — ended a chance for the go-ahead score.

Carolina had one last shot to win, but turned it over on downs at midfield.

“We gave them layups, giving them the ball inside our 20,” Newton said. “Against a good team like that, well that’s not good ingredients to win. We can’t put our defense in that type of position.”

Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was placed into the concussion protocol after his body crumpled following a collision with Eagles pulling guard Brandon Brooks. Kuechly missed nine games over the past two seasons with two concussions. All of the Eagles’ touchdowns came after Kuechly left the game late in the second quarter.

Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said it won’t be easy to replace Keuchly, adding “Luke is a big part of what we do.”

Added defensive tackle Kawann Short: “You saw a quick prayer, but then the game has to go on.”

Newton gave the Panthers a 10-3 lead on his 51st career touchdown rushing in the second quarter. He kept the ball on a read option and juked cornerback Rasul Douglas on the 16-yard run.

Douglas get revenge on Carolina’s next possession, intercepting Newton’s pass after Cox crashed into Newton as he was throwing, causing the ball to float high into the air.

EAGLES’ COX RETURNS: After a two-game absence due to a calf injury, Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox returned and was a dominant force. Along with the tipped pass on Newton’s interception, he also had a sack and two quarterback hurries. “There’s no way I could sit him tonight,” Pederson said. “It was too important to him.”

NO RUNNING GAME: If it hadn’t been for Newton , the Panthers would not have had any running game to speak of against the Eagles. Newton ran for 71 yards and the touchdown, but running backs Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffrey and Fozzy Whittaker were limited to 1 yard on 13 carries.

“We have a lot of things to look at. We really do,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of the running game.”

BLOUNT POUNDS AWAY: The bruising Blount didn’t find the end zone for a touchdown, although he did score on a 2-point conversion after the Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei jumped early on an extra point attempt. That prompted coach Doug Pederson to go for two. Blount finished with 67 yards on 14 carries.

PEPPERS’ MILESTONE: Julius Peppers needed one sack to become the fifth player to reach 150 since they became an official statistic in 1982. The 37-year-old Peppers didn’t waste any time reaching it, sacking Wentz on the first drive of the game and forcing a fumble.

LINEUP CHANGE: Panthers cornerback Daryl Worley was benched in the first half for Kevin Seymour.

INJURIES:

Eagles: Linebacker Jordan Hicks left the game early with an ankle injury. Defensive end Brandon Graham briefly left with a shoulder injury.

Panthers: Aside from Kuechly’s injury, Whittaker was carted to the locker room in the first quarter with a right ankle injury and did not return.

UP NEXT:

Eagles: Host the Washington Redskins on “Monday Night Football” on Oct. 23

Panthers: At the Chicago Bears on Oct. 22.

___

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

NFL MVP tracker: Packers’ Aaron Rodgers once again in pursuit of Chiefs’ Alex Smith

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —    From Week 1 through Week 17, USA TODAY Sports’ NFL staff will be handicapping the race for league MVP. A first-place vote is worth five points, a second-place vote is worth three, and a third-place vote is worth one.

Our MVP tracker after Week 5’s games:

1. QB Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (30 points): He’s been our front runner all season. Now in his 13th campaign, Smith’s sublime performance begs the question, can every player crash through his “ceiling” and shed long-held labels like “game manager”? Matt Ryan had an MVP breakthrough last year, his ninth NFL season, when the stars aligned for a showing that far outstripped his historic resume (and, it’s worth noting, Ryan seems to be reverting to his previous levels in 2017). Smith appears to be enjoying his own “career year” now, surrounded by playmakers (breakout rookie RB Kareem Hunt, TE Travis Kelce, WR Tyreek Hill) and fueled by the knowledge that his successor, first-round pick Patrick Mahomes, is in the building and likely to force him into job-search mode in 2018. At least Smith should be armed with a strong dossier. He continues to lead the league in completion percentage (76.6%), passer rating (125.8) — both figures are on record pace — and yards per attempt (8.8). He’s thrown 11 TD passes and not a single pick among his 158 attempts. Last week: 1

2. QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (14 points): The man infamously selected after Smith in the 2005 draft is once again trying to overtake him. If Rodgers got to play the Dallas Cowboys every week, that might be a real possibility. After another stellar comeback in JerryWorld on Sunday, Rodgers now has a league-high 13 TD passes and two fourth-quarter comebacks despite operating an injury-riddled offense that has contributed to the 19 sacks he’s absorbed, most in the NFL. If his protection improves and the running game flourishes with rookie Aaron Jones’ inclusion, Rodgers might really take off in the coming  weeks. Last week: 4

3. RB Kareem Hunt, Chiefs (9 points): One could certainly argue he’s every bit as important to Kansas City, the NFL’s lone unbeaten squad, as Smith. Hunt’s performance has slowed from historic levels to merely excellent the past two weeks, when he’s averaged “just” 118.5 scrimmage yards and hasn’t reached the end zone. But his NFL-high 609 rushing yards are 143 more than second-place Leonard Fournette, and his 775 yards from scrimmage are 129 more than Todd Gurley. If Hunt keeps it up, which won’t be easy given he’s averaging 6.3 yards per rush, he could threaten 2,000 rushing yards and Eric Dickerson’s rookie record of 1,808. Last week: 2

4. QB Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (1 point): The league’s 2015 MVP seems to be recapturing that form after a disappointing 2016 season and slow start to this one after reconstructive surgery to his throwing shoulder. Newton has thrown for 671 yards and six TDs the past two weeks, helping the Panthers again emerge as a legitimate Super Bowl threat. He isn’t running like he once did but is completing a career-high 68.3% of his passes in an evolving offense. Last week: Unranked

Week 4 MVP rankings (Alex Smith)
Week 3 MVP rankings (Alex Smith)
Week 2 MVP rankings (Alex Smith)
Week 1 MVP rankings (Alex Smith)

***

NFL Roundup: Chiefs, Packers remain top 2 teams in AP Pro32 poll

NEW YORK (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs are the NFL’s only unbeaten team this season.

And the Green Bay Packers have been almost as good.

So it’s little surprise that they held onto the top two spots in the latest AP Pro32 poll .

Kansas City remained the unanimous No. 1 team, receiving all 12 first-place votes for 384 points Tuesday in balloting by media members who regularly cover the NFL.

The Chiefs beat Houston on Sunday night and will look to stay unbeaten when they host Pittsburgh on Sunday.

“The only question they’ve left is whether (quarterback) Alex Smith or (running back) Kareem Hunt is the MVP so far,” said Pro Football Talk’s Charean Williams.

And the Packers are still No. 2 after Aaron Rodgers rallied them past the Cowboys 35-31.

“Tom Brady may be the most accomplished quarterback ever, but is there anyone better to watch than Aaron Rodgers? He was at his magical best — again — in a spectacular 35-31 win over the Cowboys,” said Newsday’s Bob Glauber.

The Philadelphia Eagles jumped four spots to No. 3 after routing Arizona. The Eagles get a quick start on Week 6 when they face Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night.

“(Eagles QB Carson) Wentz is the real deal,” said Fox Sports’ John Czarnecki.

The Panthers also moved up four spots to No. 5. The two 4-1 teams meet in Charlotte in one of the top matchups of the week.

“Led by a rejuvenated Cam Newton, Carolina has climbed to the top of the NFL’s toughest division with a 3-0 road mark and a knack for pulling out close wins,” said SB Nation Radio’s Ira Kaufman.

Atlanta remained at No. 4 after its bye week and Denver slipped a spot to No. 6 after its week off.

New England inched up one to No. 7 and plays the rival Jets on Sunday in an unexpected matchup of first-place teams in the AFC East.

Seattle moved up six spots to No. 8 after holding off the Los Angeles Rams, who fell one spot to No. 11.

Detroit dropped three places to No. 9 after its comeback attempt fell short in a loss to the Panthers.

The Steelers plummeted seven places to No. 10 after Ben Roethlisberger’s career-high five interceptions in a 30-9 loss to Jacksonville.

The Jaguars, alone atop the AFC South at 3-2, jumped 10 places to No. 13.

Minnesota moved six places to No. 12 and will host the Packers on Sunday.

___

Five weeks into the NFL season, there are still three winless teams, so hot seats seem more plentiful than freezing ones. And Kyle Shanahan, who heads the 0-5 San Francisco 49ers, need not be worried given he’s a rookie coach armed with a six-year contract. But it’s not difficult to find other coaches who should already be sweating as those temperatures underneath them swell.

Here’s the latest installment of our weekly hot seat rankings:

1. Hue Jackson, Cleveland Browns: It’s getting (remaining?) ugly in Cleveland, even with the Indians still alive and Cavs returning soon. But in The Dawg Pound, rookie QB DeShone Kizer seems to already be regressing despite Jackson’s guidance. The club has lost at home to the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets in successive weeks. There are rumblings of discontent in the front office. And Jackson’s game management has to be scrutinized after he opted against a 25-yard field goal that would have tied Sunday’s game in the fourth quarter, a contest the Browns eventually lost 17-14. Last week: 1

2. Ben McAdoo, New York Giants: He lost his best player, WR Odell Beckham Jr., and another game Sunday, this time at home to the previously winless Los Angeles Chargers. The Giants’ decimated wideout corps is a ready-made excuse for McAdoo apologists, but this team’s season was already effectively over prior to the carnage of Week 5. And with the Broncos, Seahawks and Rams up next, 0-8 seems like a distinct possibility by midseason. Last week: 2

3. John Fox, Chicago Bears: Monday night’s version of the Bears, with rookie QB Mitchell Trubisky in the lineup, might be indicative of what Fox will see the rest of the way — a fun, competitive, promising team, but one that’s probably a year away from making much noise. That may be too late for Fox, who’s now 10-27 in Chicago. Last week: 4

4. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals: After a horrific September, he’s getting a reprieve. Lewis’ club is playing much better, and a modest two-game winning streak leaves the Bengals just a game off the lead in a largely unimpressive AFC North. Hope springs eternal, even in Cincinnati. Last week: 3

5. Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts: Another win has Indy tied for second in the AFC South, though given how much Pagano’s team struggled against the winless 49ers, false hope may spring eternal, too. The Andrew Luck tease seems perpetual, and if Cam Newton is any indicator, Luck won’t be himself for a while even if he does suit up in 2017. Last week: 5

6. Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals: Given his relationship with GM Steve Keim and owner Michael Bidwill, Arians is probably safe. However Keim’s shot Monday about the team’s lacking Football IQ certainly wasn’t complimentary, and his acquisition Tuesday of RB Adrian Peterson certainly suggests the organization remains in a win-now mode despite its 2-3 record. If Arians doesn’t figure out how to get the run game in gear or protect inconsistent QB Carson Palmer, he might decide himself that he doesn’t need this headache and would rather chill full time at his lake house. Last week: Unranked

Week 4 rankings (Hue Jackson)
Week 3 rankings (Marvin Lewis)
Week 2 rankings (Marvin Lewis)
Week 1 rankings (Chuck Pagano)

***

Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

1
Record: 5-0
PV Rank

1

Points

384

2
Record: 4-1
2
370
3
Record: 4-1
7
341
4
Record: 3-1
4
340
5
Record: 4-1
9
337
6
Record: 3-1
5
329
7
Record: 3-2
8
320
8
Record: 3-2
14
291
9
Record: 3-2
6
274
10
Record: 3-2
3
261
11
Record: 3-2
10
245
12
Record: 3-2
18
243
13
Record: 3-2
23
236
14
Record: 3-2
11
230
15
Record: 2-2
15
207
16
Record: 2-3
13
199
17
Record: 3-2
21
193
18
Record: 2-3
12
191
19
Record: 2-2
17
179
20
Record: 2-3
16
161
21
Record: 2-2
20
148
22
Record: 3-2
24
146
23
Record: 2-3
25
130
24
Record: 2-3
19
121
25
Record: 2-2
26
108
26
Record: 2-3
22
87
27
Record: 2-3
30
72
28
Record: 1-4
29
63
29
Record: 1-4
27
52
30
Record: 0-5
28
34
31
Record: 0-5
31
31
32
Record: 0-5
32
13

 

NFL Preseason Roundup: Alex Smith, Patrick Mahomes solid before 49ers rally past Chiefs, 27-17

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —-    Alex Smith led the Chiefs to a quick touchdown and first-round pick Patrick Mahomes II had an impressive debut, before the San Francisco backups led the 49ers to a 27-17 victory over Kansas City in their preseason opener Friday night in Kansas City, Missouri.

Smith hit speedster Tyreek Hill for a 32-yard gain on the first play of the game, and Spencer Ware capped a 75-yard march with a short TD run to give the Chiefs a 7-0 lead.

It was the only series for Smith, who finished 4 of 6 for 48 yards.

Mahomes checked in for the first time late in the second quarter, drawing perhaps the biggest roar of the night. The 10th overall draft pick had a long completion wiped out by a penalty on his first play, but later capitalized on a blocked punt with a short touchdown throw to fellow rookie Marcus Kemp.

Mahomes was 7 of 9 for 49 yards as he duels with Tyler Bray for the No. 2 job.

San Francisco rookie C.J. Beathard hit Kendrick Bourne for a 46-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter, then found him for a tying two-point conversion. The Chiefs promptly fumbled the ball back and Beathard added a short TD pass to Tyler McCloskey with 10:41 left to give the 49ers the lead for good.

Beathard, a third-round pick, outplayed both quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart.

Brian Hoyer did little to make new 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan feel good about giving the longtime NFL journeyman the starting job at the onset of training camp. He was 1 of 4 for three yards in two offensive series, going three-and-out on both of them.

Barkley was first off the bench and led San Francisco to a pair of field goals, playing roughly two quarters. He was 10 of 17 for 168 yards without any major mistakes.

Bray was first off the bench for Kansas City. He had an 83-yard TD pass to Chris Conley wiped out by offensive pass interference, then had an errant throw picked off. The fifth-year quarterback, who has yet to appear in a regular-season game, finished 5 of 8 for 63 yards.

Steelers 20, Giants 12: Rookie quarterback Josh Dobbs threw a 28-yard touchdown pass and Chris Boswell kicked a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter to give Pittsburgh the lead for good in a preseason win over New York in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The Steelers capitalized on two major Giants’ turnovers in the preseason opener for both teams.

Terrell Watson added a 15-yard touchdown run in a game that had little offense with Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers and Eli Manning of the Giants being given the night off.

Pittsburgh also was without injured backup Landry Jones, but that didn’t matter because the Giants didn’t get much from either Josh Johnson or Geno Smith, and New York was generous with the football.

Dobbs, a fourth-round draft pick out of Tennessee, hit Cobi Hamilton on his touchdown pass on the first play after Donte Deayon fumbled a punt inside his own 30 and Mike Hilton recovered.

Seven seconds later, Hamilton beat Valentino Blake for a touchdown and a 10-9 lead with 33 seconds left in the half.

A 45-yard field goal by Mike Nugent on the opening series of the second half put New York ahead 12-10, but Arthur Moats intercepted Smith later in the quarter and returned the ball to the New York 14, setting up Boswell’s go-ahead kick.

Watson capped a nine-play, 53-yard drive that Bart Houston guided in his first series after taking over for Dobbs, who was 8 of 15 for 100 yards and two interceptions.

Both picks led to scores. Blake’s interception and 11-yard return to the Steelers 39 set up a 27-yard field goal by rookie Aldrick Rosas, who added a 52-yarder late in the second quarter for a 9-3 lead.

An interception by lineman Devon Taylor led to a 30-yard field goal by Nugent and a 6-0 lead.

A 44-yard pass from Dobbs to Hamilton set up Boswell’s first field goal, a 48-yarder.

Bengals 23, Buccaneers 12: Ryan Fitzpatrick made a good initial impression with Tampa Bay, completing his first series with a 6-yard touchdown run, before host Cincinnati pulled away to a victory over the Buccaneers.

The 34-year-old quarterback signed a one-year deal for a chance to back up Jameis Winston. Fitzpatrick had mixed results after his TD, going 6 of 13 overall with an interception. He also scrambled twice for 15 yards. Fitzpatrick lost the ball while trying to throw, but recovered his fumble.

Ryan Griffin – Tampa Bay’s third-string quarterback the past two seasons – left in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury and didn’t return, forcing Fitzpatrick back into the game.

Tampa Bay opened the game with a 14-play, 92-yard drive, but had to settle for a field goal after Adam “Pacman” Jones broke up a pair of Winston’s passes in the end zone. Jones is suspended by the NFL for the season opener because of his offseason arrest.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was on the sideline after missing a practice last week because of a knee problem.

Andy Dalton had his full complement of receivers – A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert have returned from significant injuries last season – and moved the offense smoothly on Cincinnati’s opening drive before making a bad decision. Vernon Hargreaves III anticipated Dalton’s sideline throw and picked off a pass at the 1-yard line.

Dalton had plenty of time to throw behind Cincinnati’s reconfigured line.

“I just wish I could have that last play back,” said Dalton, who was 4 of 5 for 38 yards on his only drive.

Green, who missed the last half of last season with a hamstring injury, had a pair of catches for 21 yards.

Both teams have kicker competitions that were in the spotlight in their preseason opener.

Roberto Aguayo made a 20-yard field goal on Tampa Bay’s opening possession, but he was wide right on a 47-yard try and hit the right upright on the extra-point attempt. Nick Folk was good from 45 yards on his only chance.

The Bengals’ kickers were perfect. Randy Bullock made field goals of 54 and 49 yards and his extra-point try. Jake Elliott, who was drafted in the fifth round, connected from 45 yards and also made an extra point.

Report: NFL requests collaboration with players’ union to study marijuana in pain treatment

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(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)    —-   The NFL wrote the NFL Players Association a letter requesting collaboration in studying marijuana use for players’ pain management, according to a report by The Washington Post.

Marijuana, in any capacity, is banned from the league. NFL players currently are tested for the drug and face potential discipline, including suspensions, for positive tests. The league and union both agreed in 2014 to modifications that softened the drug policy regarding marijuana.

The NFL’s letter to the NFLPA outlined key areas for potential research, including pain management for both acute and chronic conditions. The NFLPA has previously indicated that it’s already conducting its own research and has not yet responded to the league’s offer.

“We look forward to working with the Players Association on all issues involving the health and safety of our players,” Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, told The Post in a statement.

The union separately formed a pain management committee to study marijuana as a pain management tool for players, among other things. The current collective bargaining agreement between the league and union runs through 2020, meaning the union could be working on a less punitive marijuana proposal as part of negotiations for the next CBA.

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SEATTLE (AP) — For more than a decade, the Pro Football Hall of Fame wasn’t a consideration for Kenny Easley.

He was interested in anything regarding football.

“I didn’t watch an NFL football game, college football game, high school football game, for 15 years basically,” Easley said. “I didn’t watch a football game until the night that I was inducted into the Seahawks Ring of Honor. (That) was the first football game I had watched in 15 years.”

The day that Easley reconciled with the Seahawks happened in 2002 and began another lengthy quest that finally landed the hard-hitting All-Pro safety a spot in the Hall of Fame. Easley will be the fourth Seattle Seahawks player inducted, going into Canton on Saturday as this year’s senior candidate after never being in serious consideration during his time as a modern-day contender. Easley will join Steve Largent, Walter Jones and Cortez Kennedy.

Thirty years after Easley walked away from football due to health issues that were the source of his disillusionment with the game, he is embracing the recognition he is finally receiving. He even dreamt of the induction the night before he found out he was bound for Canton.

“The dream was so vivid that it was almost like I was already in the Hall of Fame and it was just a formality for the knock to come at the door. … It’s a great honor and that dream just sort of made it feel like it was meant to be,” Easley recalled.

Easley’s disenchantment from football has many parts. He had an ugly divorce from the Seahawks after the 1987 season, in part because of a kidney ailment that shortened his NFL career. He was traded to the Cardinals and failed his physical. He would never play another down and believes the large doses of painkillers he took as a player led to his kidney issues. Easley believed the Seahawks knew of the kidney condition and didn’t disclose it to him.

He also believed his involvement in the players’ strike in 1987 helped lead to his departure.

It wasn’t until 2002, then with Paul Allen as the owner in Seattle, that Easley began to soften his stance toward the Seahawks and was open to being welcomed back by the franchise. About the time Easley reconciled with the team, a case was starting to be made that Easley deserved consideration for the Hall of Fame. It was pointed out to Easley that he was the only defensive player on the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1980s not inducted into Canton. He was the 1984 Defensive Player of the Year and an All-Pro three times. He picked up strong support from influential voices, perhaps none stronger than Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott.

“Ronnie Lott has been talking about Kenny Easley going into the Hall of Fame since the day I retired,” Easley said. “He kept the drum beat going, and the remarkable thing about that is he didn’t have to. He was in the Hall of Fame, had a brilliant career and he didn’t have to say anything about Kenny Easley. Every time somebody would ask him or he had an opportunity to say it, he would say that Kenny Easley needed to be in the Hall of Fame. Ronnie Lott is one of the most remarkable human beings that I’ve ever associated with.”

It was a relationship based out of respect and admiration. Lott and Easley rarely played against each other in the NFL; Easley was retired by the time Lott joined the Raiders and became a twice-yearly opponent of the Seahawks, then in the AFC West. But they had a mutual appreciation for the way each played dating back to college when Lott was a star at USC and Easley was a standout across Los Angeles at UCLA.

“Going back to my freshman year, whether it was on TV in college or whether it was on TV in pros, I loved watching Kenny play,” Lott said. “I just loved the way he played the game. I loved his enthusiasm for the game. I loved his character of when he made a mistake. … It was more than watching Kenny just make hits. It was more than just watching him go out and making a tackle. What I’ve watched was the emotion and the behaviors of Kenny and the intellect of Kenny.”

Along with the kidney problems that shortened his NFL career, Easley had heart surgery last year just before finding out he was the senior committee nominee. That latest health scare made receiving the news in Houston at the Super Bowl that he was entering the Hall of Fame even more special .

“I have a lot of admiration for his pursuit of life and his resolve of not surrendering to anything,” Lott said. “I know that he’s gone through a lot to be able to stand on that stage. A lot. Way more than I ever thought about going through. And so yeah, I can’t wait.”

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

NFL: Chiefs owner Clark Hunt says he’d have ‘no hesitation’ in signing Colin Kaepernick

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   —-   Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said he would have “no hesitation” in signing embattled quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has yet to sign with a team following a season in which he kneeled during national anthems to advocate against police brutality and racial injustice.

Ironically, Chiefs starter Alex Smith had his job taken away by Kaepernick while in San Francisco. Hunt was asked during an NBC Sports radio interview if he’d have an issue signing the former 49ers QB.

“You know, I really wouldn’t,” Hunt said of signing Kaepernick — albeit without an actual roster opening. “Obviously, we have an interesting dynamic in regards to Colin in that we have Alex Smith as our starter. Because of that, I wouldn’t anticipate that Andy (Reid) would come to me with that.

“But, generally, I’m not going to tell our head coach or our GM not to bring in a player if they think that player can bring us some success on the field and make us better. Now there are certain circumstances where guys get in trouble off the field, and that is something as an organization and as a family we care about.

“We’re not going to bring those types of players in. In terms of a player like Colin, I would have no hesitation bringing him into the organization.”

New York Giants owner John Mara previously said that Giants fans had written him letters asking the organization not to sign the free-agent quarterback.

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OTHER FOOTBALL NEWS:

COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — The Los Angeles Chargers have acquired quarterback Cardale Jones from the Buffalo Bills in exchange for an undisclosed conditional draft pick.

The clubs announced the trade Wednesday, four days before the Chargers’ first full practice of training camp.

The 6-foot-5 Jones led Ohio State to a national title during the 2014 season. After one more year with the Buckeyes, he was a fourth-round pick by Buffalo in 2016.

Jones was a project for the Bills, where Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn spent last season as running backs coach before his promotion to offensive coordinator. Jones was inactive for 15 games in Buffalo before throwing 11 passes in the fourth quarter of the season finale.

His future in Buffalo was in question after the Bills drafted Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman in the fifth round last April.

The Chargers are looking for a mobile, athletic third-string quarterback behind Philip Rivers and Kellen Clemens, who has been Rivers’ backup for three seasons. Undrafted quarterbacks Mike Bercovici and Eli Jenkins also are on the roster.

Robert Griffin III worked out for the Chargers on Tuesday, but wasn’t signed.

Rivers is a six-time Pro Bowler who has started 185 consecutive games.

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — The New York Jets claimed wide receiver-kick returner Lucky Whitehead on Wednesday, two days after the Cowboys cut him following a shoplifting charge in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

A man used Whitehead’s identity to steal $40 worth of food and drink from a Virginia convenience store in June. Dallas released him Monday after reports that Whitehead was arrested and subsequently cited for missing a court hearing.

The Jets, desperate for help at receiver, claimed the three-year veteran and waived receiver Devin Street.

Whitehead appeared in 30 games the past two seasons with the Cowboys. He averaged 25.6 yards on 33 kick returns and 6.9 yards on 44 punt returns, and had nine receptions as a reserve receiver.

When the charges against Whitehead were announced, his agent, Dave Rich, contended that his client wasn’t in Virginia at the time of the reported arrest. Police subsequently said they are seeking the person who used the identity of Rodney Darnell Whitehead Jr., the receiver’s given name.

Whitehead could file a grievance with the players’ union about his release.

Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones and coach Jason Garrett said Whitehead’s release was an accumulation of events, although Garrett acknowledged Monday that the decision came after the club did more work gathering information.

During his second season in 2016, Whitehead was left at home for a December game at the New York Giants after missing a Saturday walkthrough. He also was involved in a car accident that Garrett found out about through media reports.

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NFL Power Rankings: Who’s solid when camps open?

RANK TEAM RECORD CHANGE HI/LOW NOTES
1 New England
Patriots
0-0 It’s hard to recall another defending champion in recent history that did more to distance itself from the competition. More than ever, this season might be the Patriots vs. the world.
2 Atlanta
Falcons
0-0 The knives will be out for new coordinator Steve Sarkisian if the offense stumbles. But it’s hard to find a vulnerability, especially if the young defense continues to rise.
3 Pittsburgh
Steelers
0-0 Le’Veon Bell didn’t reach a long-term deal before the deadline, leaving his training camp status uncertain. As long as he’s healthy in the fall and winter, Pittsburgh’s attack remains one of the league’s most dangerous.
4 Green Bay
Packers
0-0 Aaron Rodgers delivered on his “run the table” remark, but expecting a repeat is unreasonable. The two-time MVP needs help, especially from an unreliable running game and consistently subpar secondary.
5 Seattle
Seahawks
0-0 Another year, another gamble along the underdeveloped offense line. Russell Wilson will have to work his magic, while Eddie Lacy must find his footing in the rushing attack.
6 Dallas
Cowboys
0-0 It’s been a bumpy summer in Dallas, as a potential suspension for Ezekiel Elliott still hangs over the team. Even if Dak Prescott’s ascension continues, multiple unknowns on defense are cause for concern.
7 Oakland
Raiders
0-0 Derek Carr landed the five-year extension that, at least for the time, makes him the NFL’s highest-paid player. Once the season starts, however, Marshawn Lynch may seize the spotlight in Oakland.
8 Tennessee
Titans
0-0 Tennessee won’t sneak up on anyone in 2017. With an improved receiving corps and Marcus Mariota back in action, the Titans have all the pieces in place to seize the AFC South crown.
9 Kansas City
Chiefs
0-0 Expecting Tyreek Hill to hold down the No. 1 WR job might be a leap after he averaged just 9.7 yards per catch as a rookie. Watch out for third-round rookie RB Kareem Hunt, who could jolt the running game.
10 New York
Giants
0-0 Will Ben McAdoo’s offense take hold this year? Deficiencies at running back and along the offensive line could derail the attack again, but Eli Manning’s receiving corps might afford him ample leeway.
11 Miami
Dolphins
0-0 Miami’s coaching staff has raved about many of its young offensive talents, including WR DeVante Parker and RB Jay Ajayi. Success in this division, however, will be measured by the ability to challenge the Patriots.
12 Tampa Bay
Buccaneers
0-0 Between encouraging additions to their receiving corps and their impending showcase on “Hard Knocks,” the Bucs look ready for their star turn. A steady output from the defense will be needed to meet heightened expectations.
13 Denver
Broncos
0-0 Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch clash for the training camp QB battle with the highest stakes. Offensive improvement will need to be multi-layered, though, as the line and running game still have to make great strides.
14 Arizona
Cardinals
0-0 Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald are back for another go-around, but it’s clear the Cardinals’ core is racing against time. David Johnson will have to do much of the heavy lifting to keep Arizona in contention.
15 Baltimore
Ravens
0-0 Jeremy Maclin’s eleventh-hour arrival invigorates a previously languid receiving corps. Offseason investments indicate that the defense will be expected to set the tone.
16 Houston
Texans
0-0 The Deshaun Watson-as-starter question appears to be a matter of when rather than if. Duplicating the top-ranked defense, which returns J.J. Watt, will be paramount to holding onto the AFC South.
17 Carolina
Panthers
0-0 Firing Dave Gettleman as GM eight days before training camp makes for a rough transition into a new season. Yet the season may hinge on an all-too-familiar theme: protecting Cam Newton.
18 Minnesota
Vikings
0-0 Injuries washed out the early promise Minnesota showed in 2016, but the Vikings now looks to be on solid ground. Establishing a post-Adrian Peterson formula could still take time, but the defense remains imposing.
19 Washington
Redskins
0-0 Few other teams could liven up an otherwise quiet July the way Washington did with its approach to Kirk Cousins, who enters the season on his second consecutive franchise tag. Regardless of how this year pans out, 2018 will hang over the entire campaign.
20 Los Angeles
Chargers
0-0 This year’s top worst-to-first candidate? Tough sledding in the AFC West, but a healthy offense could provide fireworks for Year 1 in Los Angeles.
21 Detroit
Lions
0-0 No playoff team from 2016 faces as much doubt as Detroit, which rode into the postseason on a magical run of fourth-quarter comebacks. Losing OT Taylor Decker for the early part of the season could be a stumbling block for the offense.
22 Philadelphia
Eagles
0-0 Carson Wentz was playing with house money as a rookie, but he won’t be afforded as many excuses this year given his upgraded receiving corps and added experience. He’ll have to take a significant step forward for Philadelphia to keep pace in the NFC East.
23 New Orleans
Saints
0-0 Drew Brees appears ready to ride into the last year of his contract with little certainty. The burden remains the same, however, as Sean Payton’s group will have to win its share of shootouts to avoid its fourth straight losing season.
24 Indianapolis
Colts
0-0 Anxiety in Indianapolis might be running high given that Andrew Luck is starting training camp on the PUP list. With a supporting cast still under construction, the Colts remain one of the league’s most QB-reliant outfits.
25 Jacksonville
Jaguars
0-0 Jacksonville checked a few boxes this offseason by bolstering its already stout defense and adding RB Leonard Fournette as a potential centerpiece. Those moves may be for naught, though, if Blake Bortles can’t find his equilibrium.
26 Cincinnati
Bengals
0-0 Marvin Lewis enters the final year of his contract with little certainty after Cincinnati’s disappointing 6-9-1 campaign. Significant losses along the offensive line could prove daunting for Andy Dalton.
27 Buffalo
Bills
0-0 Pairing coach Sean McDermott with his old Carolina cohort in new GM Brandon Beane gives Buffalo a unified approach for its rebuild. There may be some growing pains in Year 1 of the regime change.
28 Los Angeles
Rams
0-0 All eyes will be on Jared Goff’s development as Sean McVay, the NFL’s youngest head coach ever, takes over. But Wade Phillips’ impact on the defense and DT Aaron Donald also bears watching.
29 Chicago
Bears
0-0 Mike Glennon has the reins for now, but No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky looms as the future at QB. Will John Fox still be Chicago’s coach when the transition takes place?
30 Cleveland
Browns
0-0 A formidable offensive line should help Hue Jackson move on from last year’s 1-15 debacle. Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and DeShone Kizer all offer different paths in the QB competition.
31 San Francisco
49ers
0-0 Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch bring some long-term certainty to a franchise that has been a revolving door in recent years. Their vision, however, likely won’t truly begin to take shape until next offseason.
32 New York
Jets
0-0 It’s always a troubling sign when tanking talk emerges before training camp has commenced. The quarterback battle might be the lone reason to watch Gang Green until the 2018 NFL draft order begins to take shape.

 

NFL Hall of Fame: Tomlinson, Warner, Davis part of 7-man Hall of Fame class

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HOUSTON (AP) — The quarterback served as ringmaster for “The Greatest Show on Turf.” The running backs were known simply by their initials: LT and TD. And the receiver also known by two letters — TO — was on the outside looking in again.

All unstoppable in their own way, LaDainian Tomlinson, Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner earned their spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. Terrell Owens, though, got turned away in a decision that went viral on social media and led the receiver to blame a “flawed process” in an after-the-fact tweet.

Also making it were sackmaster Jason Taylor — in on his first ballot, the same as Tomlinson — and Morten Andersen, the NFL’s all-time leading scorer, who joins Jan Stenerud as the second pure placekicker to make the hall.

Seahawks safety Kenny Easley made it as a senior nominee, while Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is in as a contributor. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue did not get in, with his role in downplaying the severity of the league’s concussion problem a factor in the vote.

Tomlinson’s victory shed a glimmer of light on a dark year for San Diego fans. The city lost its team, but gained a Hall of Famer.

“Those fans there inspired me to run harder, to dig deeper in times when I was tired in the fourth quarter and didn’t think I had anything left,” Tomlinson said.

In nine years with the Chargers, then two with the Jets, the 5-foot-10 Tomlinson reset the template for what had been known as a scatback, proving someone of his size and speed could be a game changer, not merely a change of pace.

As dangerous catching the ball (4,772 career yards) as he was running it (13,684), in 2003, LT became the first player to rush for 1,000 yards and catch 100 passes. His 31 touchdowns scored in 2006 are still the single-season record. He finished his career with 145 TDs, not counting the seven he threw on halfback options.

In giving the thumbs-up to Davis and Warner, the 48 Hall of Fame voters answered ‘Yes’ to the question of whether a few truly dominating years are enough for someone to be enshrined.

Getting a big, fat ‘No’ for the second straight year was Owens, the league’s second-leading all-time receiver, but also one of its most divisive players over a career that spanned 1996-2010.

“Unfortunately I DID NOT MAKE IT again this year,” Owens tweeted. “Thanks to ALL my fans & supporters. #FlawedProcess.”

Warner on Owens: “When you just look at what he accomplished, everybody looks and says, ‘C’mon.’ The numbers are there, the impact is there.”

Warner’s heyday was 1999-2001 with the Rams, whose offense was known as “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Warner quit his job bagging groceries, first for a stint in the Arena League, then landing in the NFL after getting a tryout with St. Louis.

An injury to Trent Green thrust Warner into the lineup for 1999. Coach Dick Vermeil cried when he lost his supposed star quarterback. But he ended up with another. Warner went on to win two overall MVPs and one at the Super Bowl to close the 1999 season, when the Rams captured their only Lombardi Trophy. The 1999 and 2000 teams are still among the top 10 in most points scored in league history.

“You’ve got to remember, he was crying at the time, because he didn’t believe it either,” Warner said. “We all had dreams. We all believed big things. We all expected greatness from ourselves. But I never would have expected ’99.”

Davis was a sixth-round pick in 1995 who caught Broncos coach Mike Shanahan’s eye with a big hit on special teams in a preseason game. Davis became the starting tailback, and from 1996-98 he helped the Broncos to 45 victories and finally pushed John Elway over the top with two Super Bowl titles. In 1998, Davis became the fourth runner to surpass 2,000 yards, with 2008.

He suffered a career-changing knee injury in 1999 while making a tackle after an interception, and played only 17 more games before retiring in 2001. His 78 career games spanned seven seasons, meaning Davis lasted the same number of years as Hall of Fame runner Gale Sayers, who is often held up as Exhibit A when voters are debating short bursts of greatness versus longevity.

“I really thought that there’s no way they’re going to put two backs in the same class, especially a guy that was a first ballot Hall of Famer versus a special circumstance guy like me,” Davis said. “I thought that’s what they saw me as. When I got the knock, obviously I was shocked.”

On the other end of the spectrum was Andersen, the kicker who lasted 25 seasons, played in 382 games and scored 2,544 points for five teams. He was among the first to make the 50-plus-yard field goal routine. His 40 kicks of 50-yards plus were the most in NFL history at his retirement.

Taylor was Defensive Player of the Year in 2006 with 13 1/2 sacks and finished his 15-year career, most of them with the Dolphins, with 139 1/2 sacks, eight interceptions and 29 fumble recoveries.

Easley was the hard-hitting Seattle safety who also played only seven seasons, but made them all count. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 1984 and a four-time All-Pro selection. He finished with 32 interceptions.

Jones is still very much active in charting the league’s course in the 21st century. His $1.2 billion stadium, dubbed “Jerry World,” set the standard for stadiums to follow it in New Jersey, the Bay Area, Minneapolis, Atlanta and, eventually, Los Angeles. He brokered TV and marketing deals that have helped turn the league into a $13 billion-a-year business, all the while keeping a steady — and some might agree, entertaining — presence in front of the TV cameras.

“His impact on our organization, the National Football League is significant,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s changed the league in so many ways.”

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AP Power Rankings: Pats finish regular season at No. 1 / HOF Finalists

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NEW YORK (AP) — Going into the playoffs, the New England Patriots are once again a strong favorite to reach the Super Bowl.

The Patriots finished the regular season with an NFL-best 14-2 record. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs and will start their drive for their seventh Super Bowl appearance in Foxborough on Jan. 14.

The Patriots also finished the season as the unanimous choice for the top spot in the final AP Pro32 poll of the season, released Tuesday.

New England received all 12 first-place votes for 384 points from balloting by media members who regularly cover the NFL.

“The 14-2 Patriots own home-field advantage in the AFC,” said Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News. “But does it really matter? New England was the only NFL team to go 8-0 on the road this season.”

Dallas and Kansas City remained at No. 2 and 3, respectively. Dallas has the top seed in the NFC.

“And now for the hard part. After a brilliant regular-season performance earns the Cowboys the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, they try and become the first team to win a Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback,” Newsday’s Bob Glauber said.

“But Dak Prescott doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the moment, and wunderkind running back Ezekiel Elliott looks ready to build on a spectacular regular-season performance.”

The Chiefs wrapped up the AFC West title and a first-round bye.

“What the Chiefs have done in four seasons under Andy Reid and John Dorsey should serve as a model for teams starting the rebuild process this offseason,” said Jenny Vrentas of The Monday Morning Quarterback. “Reid trusted Dorsey to build a deep roster; Dorsey trusted Reid to coach and develop their players. The result was steady forward progress and sweeping the toughest division in football.”

NFC South champion Atlanta and AFC North winner Pittsburgh both inched up, to No. 4 and 5, respectively.

“No one is talking about Matt Ryan or the Atlanta Falcons,” said Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. “Something tells me that’s just the way they like it.”

The Giants and Packers, who will meet on Sunday afternoon in Lambeau Field, tied for No. 6.

“Very hot right now, but banged-up on defense,” NBC’s Tony Dungy said of the Packers. “If they can handle the Giants, I could see them winning in Dallas.”

NFC West champ Seattle was No. 8 and hosts Detroit on Saturday night.

“Should have an easy time with Lions,” Fox Sports’ John Czarnecki said of the Seahawks.

The Raiders dropped five spots to No. 9 and may have to use Connor Cook at quarterback in their wild-card game against the Texans on Saturday.

Miami remained at No. 10 as the Dolphins go to Heinz Field and face the Steelers on Sunday.

Denver, which missed the playoffs and needs a coach after Gary Kubiak resigned for health reasons, finished No. 13.

“Went from 7-3 on their bye week to 9-7 and out of the playoffs,” ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold said. “They lost an eight-point lead with three minutes to play in Denver against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 12 and weren’t the same since.

“Now Gary Kubiak has retired and they enter the offseason with huge questions in the offensive line and in need of a head coach.”

Carolina, the Broncos’ opponent in Super Bowl 50, finished No. 24.

“Cam Newton and the shell-shocked Panthers looked like they never recovered from that Super Bowl loss to Denver,” said Ira Kaufman of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Cincinnati, which won the AFC North last season, failed to qualify for the first time in six seasons and was at No. 25. And the Bengals’ division rival, the Browns, were 1-15 and last in the poll.

But the Browns finished first for the NFL draft, where they will have the No. 1 overall pick in the spring.

“Have enough draft picks and cap space to acquire some talented young players,” Dungy said. “But if they don’t find a QB it won’t help.”

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Tomlinson, J. Taylor, Dawkins are Hall of Fame finalists

First-year eligibles LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor and Brian Dawkins are among 15 modern-era finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Also making the finals are Morten Andersen, Tony Boselli, Isaac Bruce, Don Coryell, Terrell Davis, Alan Faneca, Joe Jacoby, Ty Law, John Lynch, Kevin Mawae, Terrell Owens and Kurt Warner.

Previously selected as a finalist by the veterans committee is former Seattle safety Kenny Easley.

In the contributors’ category, the nominees are former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

The class of 2017 will be elected on Feb. 4, the day before the Super Bowl in Houston. Inductions will be Aug. 5 in Canton, Ohio.

Other than Tomlinson, Taylor and Dawkins, first-time finalists are Boselli, Bruce, Law, Mawae, Easley and Jones.

Most-frequent finalists are Lynch, Tagliabue and Coryell, four apiece. Davis and Warner are three-time finalists.

Coryell, an offensive mastermind with the Cardinals and Chargers, is in his 30th year of eligibility. Easley is in his 25th, while Jacoby, the left tackle on the Redskins’ offensive line known as the “Hogs”, is in his 19th.

Tomlinson played 11 NFL seasons, nine with San Diego, winning league MVP honors in 2006 when he set a record with 28 rushing touchdowns. He won two rushing titles.

Dawkins spent 16 seasons in the NFL, 13 with Philadelphia, and was considered a prototype modern safety. He made four All-Pro teams and was the first player with a sack, interception, fumble recovery and touchdown catch in the same game (vs. Houston in 2002).

Taylor was one of the NFL’s top pass rushers for 15 seasons, mostly with Miami. The 2006 Defensive Player of the Year with 13½ sacks, he had 139½ sacks for his career.

Among the other modern-era finalists, Andersen is the NFL’s career scoring leader with 2,544 points, has the most field goals (565) and games (382) playing for five franchises. He made two all-decade teams (1980s and ’90s).

Bruce, Davis, Faneca, Jacoby, Law, Lynch and Warner all won Super Bowls.

___

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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