J.J. Watt has been named the 2017 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year.

The Texans defensive end raised more than $37 million in less than three weeks to aid the relief efforts in Houston following Hurricane Harvey. The other finalists for the award, announced Saturday at the NFL Honors show in Minneapolis, were Panthers tight end Greg Olsen and Ravens TE Benjamin Watson.

Olsen and his wife, Kara, founded the HEARTest Yard Fund in 2013 after an exam of their unborn son, T.J., revealed the infant had a congenital heart defect. The couple have not only donated their own money toward pediatric heart equipment and screening, but headline an annual gala that has raised almost $4 million in only three years. The HEARTest Yard Fund unveiled a new cardiac neurodevelopmental program in 2017.

Watson, who missed all of the 2016 season with an Achilles injury, returned this season to haul in 61 passes for 522 yards and four touchdowns. He has been hailed for his work in a variety of charitable efforts, but his One More Foundation supports both existing charities and initiates programs of its own in working to combat human trafficking and violence against the poor. He also hosts the Big BENefit, which offers 25 underserved families an opportunity to provide holiday gifts for their children.

Owens ranks third in career receiving touchdowns (153), second in yards (15,934) and his 1,078 receptions are eighth all-time. Owens was passed over the previous two years, but finally got in this time. While his numbers are undeniable, Owens was perceived as a bad teammate — something that had kept him out of Canton.

Joining Owens in the 2018 Hall of Fame Class were fellow receiver Randy Moss, linebackers Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher and Robert Brazile, former Packers guard Jerry Kramer, former Eagles and Broncos safety Brian Dawkins and former NFL general manager Bobby Beathard.

When Hall of Fame president David Baker, who knocked on the hotel room doors of the other Hall of Famers, called Owens to tell him he had been voted in, Baker said Owens displayed humility. bills_044

Afterward, Mangold was as angry with Bennett as Bennett was with Winters.

Yet, later in that game, Bennett was flagged for nailing unsuspecting, defenseless center Nick Mangold in the back. Apparently Mangold’s family is less important than Bennett’s.

Bennett, while with the Buccaneers, had gone after players’ knees in game-ending kneel-down situations — while decrying those who did the same. He’s another who demands respect in return for none.

The Eagles’ average margin of victory in their seven wins is 12 points. They’re 6-0 in conference play, which could help them in a tiebreaker for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

What’s impressive about the Eagles’ first-half run, aside from their rising-star quarterback Carson Wentz, is the fact that they don’t appear satisfied.

After their 33-10 win over the winless 49ers last week, several players were upset at how sloppy the Eagles played.

“I feel like a loss right now,” right tackle Lane Johnson said, according to ESPN.

Long, the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long, was the first guard the Bears drafted in the first round since 1960. He rewarded their faith in him with three straight Pro Bowl seasons, even moving to tackle in 2015. Chicago signed him through 2021. Long struggled through injuries for eight games in 2016 before being shut down as the Bears stumbled to a 3-13 season. Still, he’s one of the closest things to a cornerstone player to come out of this first round.

The Notre Dame standout was the top tight end in the draft. After missing almost the entire 2014 season due to injury, he had a breakout 2015 with 13 touchdowns and was voted to the Pro Bowl. But he suffered an ankle injury in the game that sidelined him for the first eight games of 2016, which, in addition to injuries to A.J. Green and Gio Bernard, contributed to the Bengals missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.

Since it was announced that Timberlake would be performing at this year’s big game, Twitter has been alight with the #JusticeForJanet hashtag, as users call out the privilege suggested by Timberlake being asked to perform again, while Jackson was not.

Timberlake has stayed mum about including Jackson in his halftime show, although he recently told Beats 1 host Zane Lowe that the two had “absolutely” made peace.

But Jackson family insiders say that just because the singer has forgiven Timberlake for not standing up for her when she was vilified for the incident, she hasn’t forgotten.bills_016

Some players appear likely to continue their protests.

The NFL has yet to have an openly gay player appear in a regular season game, although several players have come out after their careers ended. Michael Sam came out before the 2014 NFL draft and was selected by the Rams before being released in the preseason.

Asked by Outsports whether either the Falcons or 49ers knew of her sexual orientation, Sowers mentioned that it came up with Atlanta assistant general manager Scott Pioli, whom she described in a Facebook post as “a close friend and mentor.” Pioli also proved invaluable to former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan, who said his fears of being outed as gay had him nearing suicide a few years ago, before he opened up to the executive and experienced life-changing acceptance.

“This initiative between the NFL, owners and Players Coalition does not mandate an end to any player demonstrations,” Jenkins and Boldin said in a written statement posted to each of their Twitter accounts last week. “It[‘]s always been about the issues; strengthening the criminal justice system and fight for racial and social equality.”

That group notably is expected to include San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid.

Why are the Bills scrambling to make the playoffs for the first time this century? It also makes the Patriots’ run, in the week they clinched an NFL-record ninth consecutive division title, even more admirable. The league is built to be an annual snow globe, and the Patriots are an obelisk at the top of the league. It would make for a decent tagline for the NFL: Parity and the Patriots.

By the end of the season, it’s possible 20 teams — nearly two-thirds of the league — will have either made the playoffs this season or last, or both. It’s how the NFL likes it, with fans in every NFL city able to believe next year might be their team’s year. But it also puts pressure on coaches to win immediately. We could see one effect of McVay’s and Marrone’s excellence in the next few weeks.

The Vikings ane Eagles are being rewarded for building their whole team around “pick your man up” and “next man up.” If you’ve heard Mike Zimmer and Pederson all the way this season as they’ve lost other key members of their teams to injuries, they’ve shown unwavering faith in their personnel and confidence that their systems are bigger than any one player.cowboys_097

They have too much potential to make Foles look bad and to overcome gaffes like Keenum’s interception that helped the Saints get back into the game.

They also have a better chance of matching the coaching of Doug Pederson and his coordinators (with Mike Zimmer and his), than the group last week that included Steve Sarkisian.

There are concerns about his effort and he’s been suspended multiple times already, but if he wants to try, he’s the missing piece on the Jaguars defensive line. Jacksonville just ended the argument on who the best defense in the NFL is, now they’ll find out if it’s good enough to carry them to a Super Bowl.

Falk, the Pac-12’s all-time passing leader, has the ideal size for a pocket-passer and makes plays with defenders in his face. He can complete throws while taking hits, but also demonstrates great pocket footwork by avoiding rushers or stepping up in the pocket to find open throwing lanes. His awareness to get rid of the ball is sometimes a concern, and he has often seemed confused by disguised coverages.

Falk has average arm strength, good trajectory to fit the ball in tight windows and can drive to the middle of field, but he needs air under his ball on the outside-intermediate to deep routes. Falk is mentally tough, but makes bad decisions when pressing. He needs improvement in several areas, but everything seems fixable. He likely won’t dominate practice, but NFL teams expect him to show his mental process in interviews.

In a close game, it’s bound to come down to someone getting a key takeaway on defense and/or a critical special team play. The Vikings will be in better position to do just that, and they will return home for the Super Bowl in Minneapolis.

David Steele: How much does emotion and momentum carry over from week to week, including during the playoffs? And if they do, what happens when both teams are riding an adrenaline rocket into their meeting?

It might be smarter to push aside the dramatic endings of the Eagles’ and Vikings’ divisional-round wins last week and dive into the 58 minutes or so that preceded them.

That came after Pence left a game between the 49ers and Colts in Indianapolis earlier Sunday, citing player protests during the anthem. Trump tweeted that he’d directed Pence to do just that if such protests occurred. Pence’s early exit came on a day when the Colts were honoring their former great quarterback, Peyton Manning.
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Papa John’s issued an apology via its Twitter account Tuesday for having blamed disappointing quarterly earnings on NFL players’ protests during the national anthem.

The pizza chain said that while it believes Americans “should honor the anthem,” it supports “the players’ movement to create a new platform for change.”

Earlier in the month, the founder and CEO of Papa John’s, John Schnatter, said that the NFL’s “controversy” was the result of the league’s “poor leadership” and “should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.” Without specifying the controversy to which he was referring, Schnatter said that it was hurting the NFL’s TV ratings and thus sales of his product, which is advertised heavily during games.

The Dolphins may be appearing in the postseason for the first time since 2008, but the Steelers seemingly have been here every year since the dawn of time. This year, there’s a new face at running back, where Le’Veon Bell will make his playoff debut after missing the last two playoff appearances because of injuries. Antonio Brown, who ranked second in the league with 106 catches and was tied for second with 12 touchdown catches, will be a primary receiving target.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, Sacramento Kings (31.8 percent): The Kings’ commitment to their budding prospects has fueled Bogdanovic’s ascent; he’s averaged 17.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 3.3 APG during his past seven games. It’s time to invest in the Kings’ young playmakers.

Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies (4.8 percent): Another hot hand who deserves our attention, Brooks has stepped up as a premier perimeter scorer for Memphis over the past week; he’s averaging 17.0 PPG and 1.5 SPG in 29.1 MPG during his past four games, all starts.

“I do have the concern, though, there is a 40-second clock that’s moving after touchdowns and scoring plays, so they have got to hurry up and get off the field,” Eagles Coach Doug Pederson said. “But they are enjoying each other right now. They enjoy coming to work every week, and this game is hard enough, and when you score, you kind of want them to celebrate together, and that’s a great thing.

“It’s a lot of fun. Listen, the guys are having fun doing it. They are having fun playing together. Obviously, when you’re winning in this position, it is definitely fun and all that.”cowboys_047

In looking at the AFC title game, don’t count on Jaguars corner Jalen Ramsey’s prediction of a victory in Foxborough.

The Patriots are in the AFC championship for an amazing seventh straight year. They’ve split those six games, but they clearly understand what it takes to win at this level. Plus, they’re almost unbeatable in home playoff games — Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are 16-3 in the postseason at home. And can you really see Bortles outplaying Brady?

Zimmer predicts the team that runs the ball better and wins the turnover battle will win. Turnovers always are critical, but I think both teams will struggle to run, so the team that plays better pass defense and has the superior quarterbacking will prevail. I like the Minnesota defense a little more and Keenum’s poise and clutch play over Foles, who has not led the Eagles to 20 points or more in the last three games.

The case against: Owner Jim Irsay surprised just about everyone a few years ago when he retained both Pagano as his coach and Ryan Grigson as his general manager. That was a mistake. The Colts have gone from Super Bowl contender to absolute pretender, and Luck is facing an uncertain future. Irsay righted his wrong at GM by firing Grigson after last season and replacing him with Chris Ballard. Pagano has had plenty of chances and it’s time for Ballard to have an opportunity to hire his coach.

Per the Elias Sports Bureau and ProFootballReference.com, five other teams since 1991 started second-stringers in the playoffs rather than quarterbacks who had won at least 10 games during the regular season a la Wentz. All five lost.

“Really, there are a lot of different little things that you work on. But I really think that he’s confident and we’re confident in him. Our offense has come along pretty well now.”

Buttressed by a strong defensive showing and sound special-teams play against the Falcons, the offensive output was not only sufficient enough to put Philadelphia in its first NFC title game since the 2008 season; it also has raised hope that Foles might be this generation’s version of Jeff Hostetler, the backup who guided the 1990 New York Giants to a Lombardi Trophy after stepping in for an injured Phil Simms.
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