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What we learned Sunday: J.J. Watt is a beast, Steve Smith is awesome and Adam Vinatieri is ageless 09.28.14 at 8:55 pm ET
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With the Patriots set to play Monday night, here’s a quick look at what we learned around the league Sunday, mostly from a New England perspective.

1. J.J. Watt could be an MVP.

Remarkably, the last defensive player to win MVP was Lawrence Taylor in 1986, but if he continues on his current path, Houston’s J.J. Watt could certainly make a case to be the next defensive player to take home the honor. The defensive lineman had six quarterback hurries and a pass defense before picking off an EJ Manuel pass and rumbling 80 yards for the pick-six to help lift the Texans past the Bills.

Through the first three games, the Patriots offense has five touchdowns. Watt has two of his own this year, and is just the second player since the merger with a receive touchdown and interception in the same season. (Ex-Pats linebacker and current Houston assistant Mike Vrabel was the first to turn the trick back in 2005.)

2. EJ Manuel is apparently suffering from a crisis of confidence. The second-year Buffalo quarterback was apparently pretty shaken in the wake of Sunday’s loss to the Texans. Manuel ended the day 21-for-44 for 225 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Texans as the Bills lost their second straight to fall to 2-2 on the young season. To be fair, things were a little shaky around Manuel, given the fact that his offensive line was struggling, there were a couple of key drops and the fire-breathing monster known as Watt was on the other side of the ball. Coach Doug Marrone said after the game there were no plans to hand the reins to backup Kyle Orton, but the idea of jumpstarting the offense with a switch at quarterback has to be entering the minds of the Buffalo coaching staff.

3. Maybe the Dolphins weren’t as dysfunctional as we thought. The week of back-and-forth between Miami coach Joe Philbin and quarterback Ryan Tannehill ended Sunday in London, where the Dolphins absolutely crushed the Raiders, 38-14, at Wembley Stadium. Tannehill, who engaged in a weird public exchange with his coach after Philbin refused to name him the starter in the media, was an impressive 23-for-31 for 278 yards and two touchdowns in the win. Meanwhile, the Raiders, who looked good last week when they came to Foxboro and put a scare in the Patriots, were a mess. Their issues were compounded by the fact that rookie quarterback Derek Carr left the game in the third quarter, and told the media after the game that he has a high ankle sprain and sprained MCL. Yikes.

4. The Jets are in trouble. New York struggled at home against the Lions, and it was another bad outing for quarterback Geno Smith, who was 17-for-33 for 209 yards, one touchdown and one pick in a 24-17 loss to Detroit. After the game, Rex Ryan said he was standing by Smith. “I’m confident in Geno. If Geno’s healthy, then Geno Smith will start,” Ryan told reporters after the game. “I’m not gonna replace him. I feel good about Geno, and again, I think he’s gonna get it turned. He’s a tough, resilient young man, and I think we’re gonna win.” Meanwhile, it doesn’t sound like Jets fans are going to stand by Geno.

Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson told reporters after the game that fans who were booing Smith should “shut up.” Yikes.

5. Not everyone needs a punter.

Sunday’s game between the Packers and Bears was either the second or third game in NFL history without a punt. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns in the 38-17 win over Chicago. The Packers, who had been suffering from offensive inconsistency over the course of the first three games of the year, scored on their first six possessions and finished with 358 total yards on the way to their fifth consecutive victory at Soldier Field. It was a bit of a redemption for Rodgers, who told Green Bay fans to “R-E-L-A-X” this week when they started worrying about the Packers‘ 1-2 start.

6. No one knows what to make of the Steelers.

There are weeks where the Steelers look ready to crush all those who come before them. Then, there are occasions like Sunday, where they melt down in the fourth quarter and end up losing a game to a Tampa Bay team ‘€¦ that lost to the Falcons by six touchdowns a week ago. Mike Glennon hit Vincent Jackson with the game-winner with six seconds left on the way to a shocking 27-24 win over host Pittsburgh. The Steelers, who were poised to move to 3-1 with the win, fell back to .500 with the surprising last-second loss. (Pittsburgh committed a whopping 13 penalties for 125 yards.)

7. Steve Smith is never not awesome.

As promised, the gritty receiver one-upped his old team. The former Panther lit up Carolina for seven catches — including an awesome reception on a tipped ball he ended up taking for a touchdown — for 139 yards and a pair of scores on the way to a 38-10 win over the Panthers. There wasn’t “blood and guts” like he promised, but Smith, who played 13 seasons in Carolina before he was cut in the offseason, clearly enjoyed making his old team eat a little crow after the contest. “I’m 35 years old and I ran by those guys like they were schoolyard kids,” the veteran said after the game. Meanwhile, while we were all upset about the state of the Panthers’ offense, it’s worth noting that Carolina has yielded 75 points in two games.

I want to know what this kid is thinking.

8. Adam Vinatieri is some sort of superhuman.

It’s remarkable to think that the former Patriots kicker is now in his ninth season in Indy, and while the 41-year-old isn’t the kicker he once was, he’s still money when it comes to working extra points and field goals. Through four games, he’s 8-for-8 on field goal attempts and 16-for-16 on extra-point attempts, including a pair of field goals and five extra points Sunday in the 41-17 win over the Titans.

Oh, and this happened 18 years ago.

9. Chip Kelly can feel Bill Belichick‘s pain.

Philly went West on Sunday and nearly knocked off the Niners, despite the fact that the Eagles continue to have serious offensive line issues. Pro Bowl left guard Evan Mathis went down in Week 1, and with starting right tackle Lane Johnson already serving a four-game suspension, things got even worse when starting center Jason Kelce went down last week with a sports hernia. Despite those woes, Philly nearly pulled off the upset, despite the fact that the Eagles’ offense didn’t pass midfield until the fourth quarter and it had just two more first downs (five) than turnovers (three) late in the third quarter. Things should get better next week when Johnson is eligible to return from his ban, but the fact that Kelce and Mathis won’t be back until the second half of the season should provide some interesting phone conversation between BFF’s Kelly and Belichick when it comes to commiserating about their woes.

10. The Patriots are in first place.

The Bills’ loss to the Texans in Houston allowed the 2-1 Patriots to sneak into first place in the AFC East.

Read More: aaron rodgers, Adam Vinatieri, Bill Belichick, Chip Kelly
Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson headline our list of 10 finalists for NFL MVP 12.18.13 at 7:47 pm ET
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FOXBORO — As the 2013 regular season nears the end of the road, the MVP race is starting to come into sharper focus. With two games remaining, here are our top 10 candidates — in no particular order — to take the honors.

Tom Brady: After a relatively slow start — he completed 56.6 percent of his passes over the first five games of the season, and in two of those games he threw for less than 200 yards — the quarterback has nudged his way back to the forefront of the MVP debate. Over the last six games, he’€™s gone 181-for-271 (67 percent) for 2,225 yards, with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions, all while dealing with serious personnel losses. He’€™s received a boost in that time from wide receiver Julian Edelman (who could be the first Patriots wide receiver other than Wes Welker to catch 100 passes from Brady since Troy Brown broke the 100-catch mark in 2001) and Shane Vereen (who could be the first 50-catch/50-carry running back in New England since Kevin Faulk turned the trick in 2008). He needs a strong finish to really put a capper on his candidacy, but is every bit the equal as most of the people on this list.

Calvin Johnson: Johnson is enjoying another terrific season, and with 81 receptions through 14 games, appears to have an outside shot at another 100-catch year. (If he does reach 100, it would be the second time in three seasons he’€™s hit that mark.) He’€™s tied for eighth in the league in catches, but is second in the league in receiving yards (1,449) and touchdown grabs (12, tied with Vernon Davis). The 6-foot-5, 236-pounder is the prototypical big receiver, one who can only be stopped if he drops the ball (he has eight drops on the season) or someone gets to his quarterback before he can get the ball out to him. If he’€™s able to crack 100 catches and the Lions reach the postseason (right now, they’€™re 7-7), Johnson should be considered a candidate.

Peyton Manning: In the eyes of many people, the default choice for the award, based primarily on his performance over the first half of the season. (He hit on 60 percent or better of his passes over the first six weeks of the season, and didn’€™t throw a pick until Week 5.) Manning stands poised to breaks Brady’€™s single-season mark for touchdown passes in a season (50, set in 2007), and it appears the Broncos will capture the No. 1 seed in the AFC while possibly setting a handful of new offensive records. That could be enough to lift him above the rest of the field in the eyes of the voters.

Robert Quinn: Probably an outside candidate at this point for several reasons, including the fact that defensive players almost never get their proper due when it comes to MVP voting. But the St. Louis defensive lineman has really come on down the stretch. He’€™s second in the league in sacks with 15, and leads the league with seven forced fumbles. You can argue whether or not a defensive player on a team that will struggle to reach .500 deserves a shot (the Rams are 6-8 heading into the final two games of the season), but Quinn’€™s overwhelming dominance at times certainly suggests he should earn a spot in the Top 10 — at the very least, he’€™ll certainly receive Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

J.J. Watt: Another defensive lineman who deserves to be on this list despite the fact that his team has had a bad year, the Houston defensive lineman remains a transformative defensive presence. Rated as the No. 1 3-4 defensive end in the league by Pro Football Focus, PFF also has him graded out as the leading pass rusher and run stopper at his position. He has 9.5 sacks through 14 games, and while he’€™s not batting down passes as the same rate he did last season (he has six this year, as opposed to 16 last season), but he’€™s someone you have to always account for on every play. Probably not in the running for the top spot this year, he’€™ll almost certainly garner serious consideration (along with Quinn) for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Josh Gordon: He’€™s the best wide receiver the Patriots have faced to this point in the season, and while he’€™s probably more in the running for something like ‘€œBest Offensive Player’€ as opposed to MVP, it’€™s still worth mentioning that the Cleveland pass catcher leads the league with 1,467 receiving yards, and is 15th overall with 74 catches. His epic streak of four straight games with at least 125 receiving yards included a memorable seven-catch, 151-yard effort against New England — that came on the heels of back-to-back performances of at least 200 receiving yards. Like Quinn, you can argue the merits of handing out the MVP to a player on a team that won’€™t make the postseason, but his numbers are undeniable, and that should be enough for him to warrant consideration.

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Read More: Calvin Johnson, Cam Newton, Jamaal Charles, JJ Watt
As it turns out, J.J. Watt did spit on Patriots logo in pregame 01.13.13 at 10:27 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Before Sunday’s Patriots-Texans divisional-round matchup, Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt was spotted spitting on the Gillette Stadium center logo and wiping his feet off on the Flying Elvis before sitting down to stretch.

Twitter began circulating the news after this original tweet from WEEI.com’s Mike Petraglia. It was unclear if Watt meant to disrespect the organization or to fire his team up. Watt confirmed after the game that he did spit on the logo, but he said it isn’t an uncommon routine for him, and he meant no disrespect.

“I do that every game, home or away,” Watt said. “I go out to midfield, I jog out there, spit a little bit, wipe my feet off, and then I go through my stretches. No drama there, that’s 100 percent what I do every game, home or away.”

After the game, Watt said that the Texans entered the locker room at halftime feeling pretty good about scoring 10 unanswered points, but the momentum didn’t carry over to the second half.

“We didn’t play a good game, and they played a very good game,” he said. “They are moving on and we are not. We came in here at halftime feeling pretty good; obviously the long field goal by Shayne [Graham] was a heck of a kick. We came out in the second half and didn’t perform and it is plain and simple. We just didn’t do the things we needed to to do to win.”

Watt finished with four total tackles on the night (one solo), with half a sack, one tackle for loss, and one quarterback hit.

The inability to get pressure on Tom Brady frustrated the Texans defense, especially Watt, who has a total of eight total tackles against the Patriots this season in two games, and no passes defensed.

“He is a very good football player, and a heck of a quarterback,” he said. “Obviously he is one of the best for a reason. We needed to hit him and we needed to knock some balls down, and we didn’t do that and we lost. Obviously all we can do is move forward.”

Watt and the Texans end their season for the second straight year in the divisional playoff round.

“It is really frustrating, because have been here before and you don’t want to get back to where you have been before,” he said. “You want to move on and you want to get better and move forward, and we didn’t do that. We are going to come into next season extremely strong and we are not going to wait to get back to work.”

Read More: houston texans, JJ Watt, New England Patriots, Tom Brady
J.J. Watt quiet vs. Patriots, but reminds that Texans still control AFC playoff race 12.11.12 at 1:34 am ET
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FOXBORO — Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt entered Foxboro as one of the more feared defensive players in the NFL, and had his name tossed around very early as a defensive player of the year candidate. He leads the league in passes batted down with 15, and has 16.5 sacks on the year with three games left to play.

But on the Monday Night Football stage, Watt went silent against right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, posting just four total tackles (two solo, two assisted) and a forced fumble that actually hurt the Texans when it resulted in a Brandon Lloyd touchdown.

Though he wasn’t a no-show on Monday, by the time his presence was felt, the Patriots had such a commanding lead that his play wasn’t the game-changer it usually is.

‘€œWe played a very good football team and they executed everything very well and had a great game plan,’€ Watt said after the 42-14 Patriots win. ‘€œThey came in and played a great game, and we didn’t play a great game, and they won.’€

The forced fumble occurred at the start of the fourth quarter when the Patriots already held a 28-7 lead. Brady completed a dump pass to Danny Woodhead on a second down and 10. Woodhead scrambled for 16 yards before Watt caught up to him and punched the ball loose.

The bounce the ball took was fitting for the Texans’€™ night, as Lloyd easily fell it several yards past the goal line.

‘€œA play like that is just tough luck,’€ Watt said. ‘€œI came from the back side and forced a fumble and they get a touchdown out of it. Just a tough night.’€

The Patriots now sit a single game behind the Texans in the AFC standings with three games left in the regular season. Both Denver and New England have records of 10-3, while Houston is 11-2. And the Pats have the tiebreaker against both teams.

Watt said that, with two games left against the (now) 9-4 Colts, the focus is more on winning the division more so than taking the top seed in the conference. There are now three teams that could viably win the AFC and receive a first-round bye plus home field advantage.

‘€œWe’€™re 11-2 and we still control our destiny,’€ he said. ‘€œWe control everything. We are going to go back and focus on winning the division and locking that up. Everything is in front of us.’€

Read More: Brandon Lloyd, houston texans, JJ Watt, New England Patriots
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