As six teams compete for the final three playoff spots, the Browns will attempt to avoid infamous perfection.


The Browns have had numerous opportunities to win a game this season, most notably when they held a 21-7 second-half lead on the Packers only to lose in overtime. Their final opportunity to win will come Sunday in Pittsburgh.

It’s been a while since the Browns (0-15) won at Heinz Field, where Pittsburgh’s only setback this season was the controversial 27-24 loss to the Patriots on Dec. 17. Cleveland’s losing streak in Pittsburgh spans 13 games, but last season’s Week 17 contest went into overtime, and the Steelers (12-3) won by just a field goal in Cleveland in the 2017 season opener.

The Chiefs (9-6) are locked into the No. 4 seed in the AFC and will rest starting quarterback Alex Smith. Coach Andy Reid announced this week he will start rookie Patrick Mahomes against the Broncos (5-10) in Denver, where the 2017 first-round pick will have to keep his rocket arm in check in the thin air of the Mile High City to end Kansas City’s long QB drought.

It’s the professor against his prized pupil, and their history together will headline the chatter surrounding this game. From 2004 to 2015, Smart spent every season but one as a member of Saban’s coaching staff. Saban has been Smart’s mentor, as the 42-year-old worked for Saban at LSU, the Miami Dolphins and Alabama, where he was eventually promoted to defensive coordinator. He is in only his second season at Georgia, but in his nine seasons with Alabama, Smart helped the Tide win four national titles. To say Smart learned a thing or two is an understatement. The question is whether he learned enough to outsmart the man who taught him much of what he knows. Alabama has won each of its 11 games against teams coached by Saban’s former assistants — by an average of more than 28 points.

The Tide’s defense looked much stronger and healthier against Clemson than it did toward the end of the regular season, when it was ravaged by injuries, particularly at the linebacker position. Georgia finished with five rushing touchdowns against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, and Sony Michel and Nick Chubb combined for 326 yards — the most by a duo in a single game. Michel finished with an eye-popping 16.5 yards per carry (181 on 11 carries).

With such opportunistic defenses on both teams, neither offense can afford to give the ball away. Clemson gave up two interceptions against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, including one that was returned for a touchdown. The Alabama defense has forced at least one turnover in 41 of its past 43 games, dating to the start of the 2015 season.

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49ers release NaVorro Bowman after brief hunt for a trade partner


NaVorro Bowman’s time with the San Francisco 49ers is over after he was released by the team on Friday, the team announced at a press conference.

NaVorro gave his heart and soul to this team for the last eight years, and for that we are all extremely grateful, 49ers general manager John Lynch said in a statement. During that time, NaVorro was a key component of one of the best teams in the league and his passion for the game allowed him to quickly become a favorite of our faithful fans.

In a sense, Next Man Up is an essential and ordinary part of the lexicon. In a sport with so many injuries, a coach has no choice but to rely on a cut-rate, impersonal slogan to motivate and distract. While he’s telling his players to step up, team personnel are scanning the waiver wire, pulling up reports on practice-squad players and making calls on trades. It’s impossible to ignore statistics like this one: In 2015, NFL players missed 1,639 games — almost 100 per week — because of injury. Those three words — Next Man Up — have become such a vital part of the culture that many players hear it with the same anesthetized indifference.

Even when we watch other games, it gets lost, Vikings safety Harrison Smith says. We react the same way. There’s a human part of it that gets lost.

But sometimes an event changes all that. Whether through proximity or sheer gruesomeness, the collective pain of a group of men rises up to relegate Next Man Up to a heartless clich.

It was very surreal, Boone says of Bridgewater’s injury. Sometimes you forget how brutal this game can be.

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