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Coming off two consecutive wins, the Miami Dolphins will host the San Diego Chargers in Week 9 of the 2014 NFL season. The Dolphins have an opportunity to show that they’re a legitimate playoff contender with a win against a talented Chargers team, and Miami holds the upper hand since the Chargers are traveling to Miami for the showdown.

To win the game, certain Dolphins must be able to win individual matchups. Below are four such matchups in which Miami needs to hold its own or prevail if it is to successfully defend against a very good Chargers offense and move the ball against a banged-up San Diego defense.

Don’t forget to post the matchups that you’ll be watching in the comments section below.

Reshad Jones vs. Antonio Gates

For Miami’s defense, guarding tight end Antonio Gates has to be the top priority. The future Hall of Famer has aged incredibly well, as he’s produced 417 yards and nine touchdowns on just 32 receptions this season, per pro-football-reference.com. Bottling up Gates is going to be a very difficult challenge for the Dolphins.

That’s why Reshad Jones should be called upon to defend Gates. Since returning to the lineup, Jones has been one of the better safeties in the NFL. His ability to anticipate where receivers are running has been a needed boost for the Dolphins defense.

Jones isn’t an ideal matchup against Gates, as the 6’4″, 260-pound Gates uses his bulk to box out defenders and make catches in traffic. Jones gives up a lot of size to Gates, meaning that San Diego QB Philip Rivers is likely to target Gates a lot. But using Jones on the veteran TE is a better option than linebacker Philip Wheeler, and putting Jones on Gates means that outside linebacker Jelani Jenkins can focus on containing Branden Oliver.

What could happen is that Jones will cover Gates for a majority of San Diego’s passing plays, and the remaining coverage snaps will go to linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and, if he plays, Koa Misi. That scenario is better than any alternative the Dolphins have for single coverage on the all-time playmaker. If Jones can limit Gates to a few catches, minimize the tight end’s yardage after the catch and keep him out of the end zone, the Dolphins’ chances to win the game will be significantly higher.

Jared Odrick vs. Chad Rinehart

Another week, another major advantage the Dolphins have in the trenches. Pointing out that defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon will have a strong game is too obvious, so it’s time to give defensive tackle Jared Odrick time in the spotlight.

Odrick has been excellent for the Dolphins in a contract year, eating up blocks so that the Dolphins’ edge-rushers face single blockers and penetrating interior gaps en route to eight tackles and three passes defensed. His statistics aren’t Pro Bowl-worthy, but his production has been key for the Dolphins.

Rinehart is the left guard for the Chargers, and he’s been downright terrible this season. His Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grade of minus-9.2 is the 68th best among all qualifying guards, and he’s been equally bad whether run or pass-blocking.

That means Odrick will need to dominate when he’s matched up with Rinehart.

Kendall Reyes vs. Mike Pouncey

Like Rinehart, Reyes is currently graded by PFF as one of the worst starters in the NFL. A left defensive end in San Diego’s 3-4 defense, Reyes will be facing Miami right guard Mike Pouncey on Sunday. Reyes’ PFF grade of minus-15.1 is 48th in the league—or second to last among all ends.

Pouncey played a better game against the Jacksonville Jaguars than his previous two games back from injury, which was expected as the center gets back into football shape and acclimates to a new position. If Pouncey can handle Reyes in one-on-one matchups, it will limit the number of San Diego rushers coming free through the line.

It’s Reyes’ job to demand double teams as a 3-4 end, which would then leave linebackers to shoot the gaps that have been opened by the lineman. But if he is unable to do so, the Dolphins’ offensive line is in a much more advantageous position.

That must happen for Miami’s ground game to get back on track this week.

Ryan Tannehill vs. Chargers Secondary

The Dolphins are playing the Chargers at an opportune time, as the San Diego defense will potentially have to play without its top two cornerbacks. According to Fox Sports’ Mike Garafolo, stud rookie cornerback Jason Verrett could miss significant time after reinjuring his shoulder against the Broncos in Week 8.

Brandon Flowers also could miss the game, although Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk said the veteran corner has a “decent” chance to play against Miami. Even if Flowers can overcome his concussion and participate, expect Miami to target him if he’s lined up against Mike Wallace in man coverage. Flowers is tough and quick but does not have the downfield speed needed to cover Wallace on comebacks, crosses or deep routes.

San Diego has one of the top free safeties in the league in Eric Weddle, so Tannehill will need to be wary of his location every play. He is often in single-high coverage, and is able to make up a lot of ground quickly if he’s tested.

Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline has struggled mightily this season, and saw his snap count dip against Jacksonville in favor of Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews. Whether he’s the No. 2 receiver or it is someone else, they must be more productive and reliable than what Miami has gotten out of that position recently.

This should be a week where the Dolphins offense mirrors its play against the Oakland Raiders and its second-half performance against the Green Bay Packers. The Chargers are banged up and lack the pass-rushers to create enough pressure on Tannehill and the running game.

It’s time for the Dolphins to show that they are one of the better teams in the AFC, and a win in these matchups will be major factors in whether that happens. On Thursday we will look at a specific game plan to beat the Chargers.

All stats used are from Pro Football Focus’ Premium Stats (subscription required) or sports-reference.com.

Ian Wharton is a Miami Dolphins Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for FinDepth.

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Andy Dalton looked over the spread-out Ravens defense and decided there was enough room for a quarterback sneak.

With a push from his linemen, he surged into end zone for a last-minute win.

Surged the Bengals back into first place, too.

Dalton made up for his two fourth-quarter turnovers by scoring on a 1-yard sneak with 57 seconds left on Sunday, rallying Cincinnati to a 27-24 victory over Baltimore

that changed the AFC North’s pecking order.

After three very bad weeks, the Bengals (4-2-1) were back atop the tightly bunched division.

“That was a cool moment, a cool experience and exactly what we had to have in that situation,” said Dalton, who scored Cincinnati’s first and last touchdowns on 1-yard

sneaks.

It was especially satisfying for Dalton, who had a fumble and an interception in the fourth quarter that let an 11-point lead slip away. The Ravens (5-3) took

advantage and pulled ahead 24-20 with 3:59 to go.

Dalton pulled it out with a 10-play, 80-yard drive against the NFL’s stingiest defense.

“He was like, `We’re good, we’ve got this,” receiver Mohamed Sanu said.

Dalton threw a 53-yard pass to Sanu on third-and-10 — safety Terrence Brooks got turned around and couldn’t make a play on the ball — to get Cincinnati in range.

Dalton was 3 of 5 for 62 yards on the drive, converting a pair of third downs.

On the fourth-down play from just beyond the 1-yard line, Dalton had the option of taking it himself. The Bengals sent three receivers to the right, and he figured the

sneak would work. His linemen gave him the final push over the goal line.

“They could have called forward progress stopped, yes they could have,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

It was the first touchdown that the Ravens had allowed in the final 2 minutes of a game this season. The 24 points were the most they have allowed overall.

The Bengals had to wait out a few scary moments before celebrating.

Joe Flacco eluded the rush and lofted a pass to Steve Smith, who went 80 yards for an apparent touchdown with 32 seconds left. Smith was called for pushing off on

George Iloka to get open, nullifying the play.

“That was pass interference two years ago, it was pass interference last year, it’s pass interference this year, and it will be pass interference for the next two

years,” Iloka said. “I knew it right away.”

With that, the Bengals had their first series sweep of the Ravens since 2009. They won the season opener 23-16 in Baltimore on A.J. Green’s juggling 77-yard touchdown

in the closing minutes.

Green was inactive on Sunday for the third week in a row because of an injured big right toe, hurt in the opener at Baltimore. Sanu filled in and had two big plays

while finishing with five catches for a career-high 125 yards.

Sanu also made a one-handed catch for a 48-yard pass play on Cincinnati’s game-opening drive, which ended with a 1-yard sneak by Dalton. He was 21 of 28 for 266 yards

with an interception, a fumble and two sacks.

Those turnovers helped Baltimore take its first lead. Haloti Ngata forced a fumble by Dalton that Daryl Smith returned to the 8-yard line, and Lorenzo Taliaferro’s

second touchdown run put the Ravens up 21-20.

C.J. Mosley intercepted Dalton’s tipped pass, setting up Justin Tucker’s 53-yard field goal with 3:59 to go. Just like in the opener, the Ravens’ defense couldn’t hold

onto a late lead.

Flacco was 17 of 34 for 195 yards with two interceptions and a sack. The Ravens dominated the first half against a struggling defense — Cincinnati had allowed more

than 500 yards in two of its past three games — but couldn’t get touchdowns out of long drives.

Baltimore had the ball for 18 plays on its first drive, but Flacco’s incompletion on fourth down from the 1-yard line made the Ravens come up empty. It was the longest

drive without points in franchise history.

Game notes

Ravens WR Torrey Smith ran into a cluster of players in the second half and was tested for a concussion, but returned. WR Michael Campanaro pulled a hamstring in the

third quarter and didn’t return. CB Jimmy Smith left with a foot injury during the Bengals’ opening drive. Harbaugh provided no specifics on the injuries. … Bengals

LB Vontaze Burfict left during Baltimore’s opening series after hurting his left knee but returned. RG Kevin Zeitler reinjured his right calf, which forced him to miss

three games.

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After last Sunday’s demoralizing loss to the Buffalo Bills dropped the Minnesota Vikings to 2-5 and probably dashed any realistic playoff hopes for this year, one question pops to mind for Vikings’ fans:

“Where do we go from here?”

2014 has already been a roller-coaster ride for Vikings fans. With new head coach Mike Zimmer’s providing a positive spark all summer long, the team seemed to have turned a corner in plowing through a perfect 4-0 preseason and then beating the St. Louis Rams on opening day in dominating fashion.

The first shoe then dropped on September 12, when the team’s best player, Adrian Peterson, was indicted on child-abuse charges. Peterson is currently on the exempt list as he awaits trial in Texas.

Things took another major turn in a loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 3, when starting quarterback Matt Cassel broke his foot and was lost for the season.

Cassel was replaced by rookie first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater, who filled in admirably that week and then starred the following week in a thrilling 41-28 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

Bridgewater sprained his ankle late in that win, however, and third-string quarterback Christian Ponder was forced into action in a Thursday night shellacking at the hands of the Green Bay Packers.

Bridgewater returned the following week against the Detroit Lions but has been ineffective for two games—the Vikings offense has been completely ineffective during consecutive losses.

Minnesota takes to the road this week, heading to Tampa to take on the Buccaneers, who they’ve dropped six consecutive games to, dating back to 2001.

You can call this matchup the “very resistible force against the easily moveable object.”

The Vikings are averaging 17.1 points a game, which ranks 30th in the league (they’ve averaged just nine points a game in their five losses), and the Buccaneers defense is giving up 34 points and 423 yards a game, which are both last in the league.

Minnesota is passing for 183.9 yards per game, which ranks last in the league, and Tampa Bay’s defense is allowing 295 passing yards a game, which also ranks last in the league.

Something’s gotta give.

For the Vikings, this week’s game begins a stretch of nine where they have absolutely nothing to lose. Bridgewater was drafted to be the quarterback of the future. But that future has begun early, and much of its success will depend on how quickly he can reach his obvious potential.

The Vikings have played pretty bad football for three straight weeks, particularly on offense. In the 1-5 Buccaneers they’re playing a team that’s even worse than they are.

Minnesota’s defense is improving quickly and showing promise. Here’s hoping the offense can follow suit.

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The Browns don’t need a victory this week against the Oakland Raiders, they require a football exorcism.

Nearly all the ghosts of Bad Browns Teams Past arose to haunt the orange helmets in the 24-6 loss at Jacksonville.

Bad blocking. Bad quarterback play. Bad coaching. Bad organization. Bad run defense.

And suddenly, there was something even worse — fear.

Are the Browns back to that 4-12/5-11 form? Are we headed into the Quarterback Controversy Zone? Were the first five games a mirage?

Or did the Browns just have a lousy game? The Bengals did the same thing, losing 27-0 to the Colts. And Pittsburgh had a real stinker in Cleveland, a 31-10 loss.

So it happens. But when it happens to the Browns, you worry.

THE TIME IS NOW

That’s why the Browns need to return to the team that averaged 27 points in the first five games. That was the team that ran the ball with determination, the team that

operated with a sense of organization and purpose.

That was Brian Hoyer playing at the Top 10 quarterback rating, and the receivers not dropping the ball. It was just the opposite in Jacksonville, where a shaky Hoyer

was 16-of-41 with no touchdowns, an interception and misses of too many open receivers.

Maybe part of that team is gone with the broken leg to center Alex Mack. Or maybe it was a rotten idea to move John Greco over from right guard to center, and then

insert veteran Paul McQuistan at right guard. That had two players in different spots on the line.

Jacksonville targeted McQuistan, who gave up two quarterback hits, according to profootballfocus.com. Playing next to McQuistan was right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who

had his worst game of the season — one sack and three quarterback hurries allowed.

Even rookie phenom Joel Bitonio seemed to struggle at left guard. He had been playing between Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas and Mack. It seemed he never made a misstep. But

with Mack out, Bitonio wasn’t nearly as effective.

When the line buckles, the entire offense is subject to take a major fall — as happened Sunday. So it’s up to the coaches to figure out if it makes more sense to move

Greco back to his usual right guard spot and try Nick McDonald at center — or give the McQuistan/Greco combination one more game.

IDEAL OPPORTUNITY

Oakland is the only remaining winless NFL team. The Raiders are ranked 29th against the run — so this should be a game for the Browns to have the ground game back at

full operation.

Oakland has allowed at least 30 points in 3-of-6 games this season. Only once this season have the Raiders scored more than 14 points in a game. Their 0-6 record is

their worst start to a season in 52 years.

What if the Browns lose to a winless team for the second week in a row? I don’t even want to think about it. Nor do I expect it to happen.

If the Browns are the team that they expect — a team that is competitive and can at least play .500 — this is the perfect opponent in the perfect place (at home) for

the Browns to make a statement.

What statement? That these are not the same old Browns. A victory over Oakland would make them 4-3. A decisive performance would remind fans why there was reason for

optimism after five games.

A lot of the responsibility this week is on the shoulders of Mike Pettine and his coaching staff. He has to put the team’s confidence back together, and remind them

how much fun it can be when they play well at home.

Because the fans are just waiting for a reason to cheer.

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Brian Robison stared at the hideous, worn carpet, motionless except for his hands slowly peeling the black athletic tape off his knuckles.

Everson Griffen sat on a stool next to him, his darting eyes wide in disbelief.

Across the aisle and a few stalls down, Xavier Rhodes, his head covered with a white shower towel, let out a noise that registered somewhere between a groan and a grunt.

The only other noises on the defensive side of the locker room were the showers warming up in the background and the occasional mumble directed at no one in particular.

Twenty minutes earlier, the Vikings seemingly had a victory in the bag. Their defense was playing its best ball of the brief Mike Zimmer era. The unit had forced four turnovers and harassed veteran Buffalo Bills quarterback Kyle Orton all afternoon, perhaps making him reconsider retirement. They were going on 30 minutes and counting without allowing a point.

And when the Bills got the ball back with 3 minutes, 7 seconds left and the Vikings leading by six points, the chasm between the Buffalo 20-yard line and the Minnesota end zone seemed as wide as the thundering falls that were just a short drive up the road in Niagara.

But 15 plays, 80 yards and one inexplicable fourth-and-20 conversion later, the Bills stunned the Vikings 17-16, scoring the game-winning touchdown and extra point with 1 second left and sending the visitors back to their locker room to wonder what the heck had just happened.

“Get ourselves to the sidelines and let Teddy [Bridgewater] kneel on it, that’s the only thing we didn’t do,” outside linebacker Chad Greenway said.

The Vikings had their chances on that final drive as Orton, continually taking two steps forward then one step back, steered the Bills down the field.

When the Bills approached midfield, the Vikings sacked Orton twice, setting up fourth-and-20. But as the Vikings scrambled to line up after the Bills rushed back to the line, Greenway was gesturing to a teammate when the ball was snapped. That split second gave Bills tight end Scott Chandler enough time to get inside positioning on Greenway for a 24-yard, chain-moving reception.

“It was a good throw and catch, and they converted,” Greenway said. “That’s the game.”

It wasn’t quite the game yet, though. With 51 seconds left, the Vikings had the Bills where they wanted them again, at third-and-12. But Orton hit slanting wideout Sammy Watkins for another long conversion.

Two plays later, Orton chucked up a back-shoulder throw to wide receiver Chris Hogan, who made a leaping grab over Rhodes at the 2. Orton’s spike stopped the clock with 5 seconds left.

With the game on the line, the Vikings matched Rhodes up against Watkins, their top draft pick in May, on the right side of the defense. The cornerback had tight coverage on Watkins as a he ran a quick out route, but during a desperation dive he couldn’t get his fingertips on Orton’s accurate throw and Watkins caught his second touchdown pass of the game.

“It doesn’t even matter [that it was good coverage] because I didn’t make the play,” Rhodes said.

In those 3 minutes and 6 seconds, the Bills had erased a dominant performance by the Vikings defense. The Bills had just 293 yards before the final drive. Greenway, Griffen and safety Harrison Smith all forced fumbles, two of which were recovered by rookie outside linebacker Anthony Barr. Griffen tied a career high with three sacks. And safety Robert Blanton had his first career interception.

“I felt for 58, 59 minutes we outplayed them,” Robison said. “But the last two minutes, they just made more plays than we did. We’ve got to find a way to get it done, and we didn’t do that today.”

Zimmer, back with the team after missing Friday’s practice because of kidney stones, was surprisingly subdued after the stomach-punch loss. He said he thought his aggressive play-calling might have caught up to the Vikings on the final drive, but he was proud of his team’s effort, especially on defense.

“By no means were we perfect today, but I do feel like this football team improved today,” the coach said.

The offensive issues continued, though. Bridgewater, his rookie quarterback, tossed two first-half interceptions (though he rebounded to connect with wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson for his first career touchdown pass). The offensive line struggled again, allowing five sacks, including two in a row in a critical red-zone trip early in the fourth quarter. And the offense scored only 16 points, forcing the defense to hold off the Bills again for the win.

They could not, and despite getting the better of the Bills for 58 minutes, the Vikings defenders who coughed up the lead were not interested in moral victories or silver linings.

“You can play the game great for three quarters, but in the fourth, you’ve got to play your best,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “And we didn’t. You’ve got to stand up. The game was in our hands.”

And just like that it slipped through their grasp, leaving the Vikings to search for answers in old carpeting in a somber locker room.

“That hurt. Everything hurt,” Griffen said. “The touchdown. The fourth-and-20. Everything hurt.”

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It was a rough weekend for both the Buffalo Bills (3-3) and Minnesota Vikings (2-4).

The Bills dropped to 1-2 at home with a 37-22 loss to the New England Patriots, while the Vikings also lost to a divisional opponent, the Detroit Lions, at home 17-3.

Having lost three of their past four games, it’s a prime chance for the Bills to get back on track at Ralph Wilson Stadium as they enter the softest part of their schedule.

It’s also an opportunity for the Vikings — who have lost four of five — to turn things around.

ESPN.com Bills reporter Mike Rodak and ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling break it down:

Rodak: The Bills and Vikings can relate at quarterback, where they’ve both had to move on from a former first-round Florida State pick in the past year. The Vikings invested a 2014 first-round pick in Teddy Bridgewater and he has made two starts. What are your initial impressions?

Goessling: He’s handled everything well, though it’s hard not to think he’s getting a raw deal in his first season, with no Adrian Peterson, no Kyle Rudolph, a leaky offensive line and a receiving corps that hasn’t been able to consistently get separation from defensive backs. Bridgewater is poised, intelligent and won’t take many unnecessary chances with the ball. He got fooled on his first interception last week, but his next two interceptions were tipped. He could stand to deliver more accurate short passes, and he’ll never have a big arm. But his mobility and smarts give him a good foundation, especially if the Vikings can protect him like they did in his first start.

Watching from afar, it’s certainly seemed like Sammy Watkins is off to a solid start in his rookie season. What have been your impressions of him, and how do the Bills feel about how he’s fit into their offense?

Rodak: It’s been up and down. We’ve certainly seen some flashes of the player the Bills saw when they traded their 2015 first-round pick to move up five spots for him in May. He had a fourth-quarter catch in a road win against the Lions two weeks ago, for example, that led Patriots coach Bill Belichick to compare Watkins to Larry Fitzgerald. He has all of the potential to be on Fitzgerald’s level: We saw that in an eight-catch performance against the Miami Dolphins in Week 2 and his seven-catch outing in Detroit. But there have been some disappointing moments from Watkins. He had a few early drops in Houston three weeks ago and was shut down by Darrelle Revis this past Sunday. Given the cost to move up for him in the draft, the Bills needed Watkins to be a difference-maker immediately and that hasn’t happened.

Much of the early-season Vikings talk was dominated by the Peterson storyline. What has been the impact on this offense?

Goessling: That storyline is never far from the Vikings, partly because Peterson’s case seems to have a different twist every day and partly because of how much the Vikings’ offense has been affected by his absence. The Vikings have been built around Peterson for years, and while they were looking to diversify their offense this season, it was going to be a gradual process of turning some of his carries into catches, and he was still their best offensive weapon. Without him, teams have been able to focus more of their game plans on taking away Cordarrelle Patterson, and the Vikings aren’t seeing nearly as many eight-man boxes — with a single safety up high — as they saw when Peterson was on the field. It’s been a difficult adjustment, and it’s no coincidence the Vikings have scored a total of 29 points in their four losses without Peterson.

Vikings fans are certainly familiar with Kyle Orton from his days as the Bears’ quarterback, and he seems to have given the Bills’ offense a bit of a jump. How long do you think he’ll have the starting job? Does EJ Manuel factor into the picture again at some point soon?

Rodak: The Bills need to win now. If they don’t make the playoffs, jobs could be on the line. Because of that, I think they’ll stick with Orton as long as he’s keeping them in games. If it’s working, why try anything else? In his first start, Orton snapped a 27-game drought where the Bills haven’t had a 300-yard passer. He threw for 299 yards in Sunday’s loss to the Patriots, and while he’s thrown bad interceptions in each of his two starts, it’s still better than what the Bills were getting from Manuel. Barring an injury or sharp decline in Orton’s play, I don’t think we’ll see Manuel on the field until next preseason.

Surprisingly, the Bills have seen more success with their passing game than with their ground attack the past two games. Is that favorable for the Vikings? Are they better equipped to stop the pass than the run?

Goessling: To this point, yes. They’ve seen young corners Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson make some significant strides in pass coverage, and third-year safety Harrison Smith is a star in the making. The Vikings have also had a decent pass rush, posting 14 sacks so far and pressuring the quarterback about 23 percent of the time. Rookie Anthony Barr is going to be a force in the Vikings’ defense in the future; they already line him up as a defensive end and a linebacker, and he’s one of the team’s best defenders against screen passes.

On the other hand, though, the Vikings haven’t been as consistent against the run; they’re giving up 4.2 yards per carry, and they’ve allowed 637 rushing yards in the past five games.

Speaking of running games, the Vikings have had plenty of trouble getting theirs going, and they’ll be in for another tough test this weekend. What has made the Bills’ run defense so vastly improved this season?

Rodak: It’s a combination of coaching and personnel. Jim Schwartz, hired to replace Mike Pettine last offseason, is known for his defense’s ability to stop the run. Pettine is not; his schemes rely more on defensive backs than linebackers, making for a smaller defensive look and more holes for running backs to attack.

The Bills also improved their personnel at linebacker in the offseason, signing Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers and drafting Preston Brown in the third round. With linebacker Nigel Bradham also taking a step forward from his play last season, it has been a more stout group in the second level that has supplemented an already all-star cast along the defensive line.

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Over the weekend, a pair of former Steelers voiced their opinion of the current team and both of them used words to describe the Steelers that no football team ever wants to wear as a label.

Bill Cowher and Hines Ward both called the team “soft” on defense and a “finesse” offense, which is pretty much the same thing as saying they are soft on offense as well. Ward added that he thinks the team is “very close to hitting that panic button,” something that coach Mike Tomlin unsurprisingly declined to spend too much time talking about on Tuesday.

“I don’t worry about that. That’s elevator music as far as I’m concerned,” Tomlin said, via ESPN.com. “I’m concerned about the things that are significant and that’s the men inside this organization right now and how they prepare and how they play. Love those guys, but those guys are on the outside looking in.”

Tomlin did suggest that the team would be making some changes in the coming weeks, although nothing “sweeping or drastic” in terms of the team’s scheme or, presumably, the team’s coordinators. They could come up with a slightly different look by giving time to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant and linebacker Ryan Shazier should be back soon from a knee injury, but wholesale identity changes aren’t likely to happen halfway through the season. That will mean more elevator music if the Steelers continue on their voyage to the basement in the AFC North.

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Welcome to the 49ers era ruled by general manager Trent Baalke, though I think we’re a little late in acknowledging it.

Of course, the 49ers flew to St. Louis on Saturday with Jim Harbaugh as their coach and most visible leader.

They will play the Rams on Monday night, and Harbaugh, Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Willis, among others, will be the central figures.

If they keep to the recent trend, the 49ers will play well, which means there’s a good chance to extend their winning streak to three games.

When and if that happens, there will be logical discussion about how that affects Harbaugh’s future beyond this season with the 49ers, if there is such a future.

There will be analysis of how well the 49ers have held up so far without star pass rusher Aldon Smith (suspended through the ninth game) and linebacker NaVorro Bowman (injured, possibly back in late-November).

And in the background, there will continue to be questions about the handling of defensive end Ray McDonald’s August arrest on suspicion of domestic violence.

Also, as most recently underlined by this newspaper’s in-depth reporting, there will be scrutiny of the 49ers’ relationship with several San Jose police offers, as highlighted by the McDonald case.

There is a lot going on with this team right now, in case you haven’t noticed.

Just generally, this looks and feels like a transition year for the 49ers, as they establish themselves in a new stadium, in possibly Harbaugh’s final season, with a lone, unquestioned leader.

I don’t mean to say this is a transition year for expectations: The 49ers are good enough and experienced enough that the Super Bowl is and should be the end goal, as it has been for the previous several seasons.

I’m talking about a transition in our view of who’s truly leading this team, how it sees itself, where it’s going, and why it’s going that way.

For the 49ers now, all the storylines connect at one point, with one man making all the decisions.

That would be Baalke, who has come to dominate this franchise in the same way Bill Walsh used to.

We shall see if he comes anywhere close to Walsh’s results.

Let’s point out that Baalke has had personnel control of this team since January 2011, when owner/CEO Jed York promoted Baalke to general manager and then both men hired Harbaugh as the coach.

Let’s also point out that Baalke has consistently accumulated a great deal of talent–just this season, rookies Carlos Hyde, Jimmie Ward and Aaron Lynch have earned major playing time on a team that isn’t exactly lacking in talented veterans.

But in those early years, Harbaugh received almost all of the attention and he deserved to, because the 49ers needed an adrenaline shot most of all.

Which Harbaugh obviously provided.

Then, at some point along the line, the Yorks had to pick their No. 1 guy for the long-term, and it’s clear that Jed York picked Baalke over Harbaugh a while ago.

That has happened officially, unofficially, contractually and in every other way that matters, and it’s hard to argue: Harbaugh has never been somebody who sticks around anywhere for a long period.

Unless he wins the Super Bowl this season, it’s difficult to see Harbaugh staying for next season and the 49ers’ structure is wholly set for the possibility of a coaching change.

It’s Baalke who has total control over all football operations and in every manner the 49ers operate.

In some ways, he has more power than York, who has not overruled Baalke on a single thing, to my knowledge.

It’s Baalke who decided that the 49ers would fully support Aldon Smith through all his brushes with the law and NFL policies, who decided that McDonald would play after his arrest, and who has acquired a stream of players with off-the-field issues in their past.

It’s Baalke’s penchant for seeking value by acquiring questionable characters; and that has, in some part, increased the 49ers’ desire to establish strong ties to several law-enforcement agencies, including the SJPD.

The team is made in Baalke’s image, period.

The complicated issue: Whether Harbaugh is the necessary element to manage this group of players.

Can Baalke and York find somebody else who can organize these players without annoying management and maybe without stirring up the locker room every other week?

Maybe they can find that guy. Maybe they’ve got him already lined up for 2015. Or maybe Baalke and York just don’t know yet.

Whatever the decision on Harbaugh or on any other 49ers issue, we know who’s making it. That’d be Trent Baalke, because this is his team now.

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When you turn on an NFL game, you focus on what’s happening on the field, but it’s unbelievable what happens behind the scenes to get the visiting team there every other week, reports CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford.

They pack up and move not only the players, staff and coaches, but all that gear too, most of which is super-sized(Tony Romo Elite Jersey).

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came from behind to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers with seconds left in Sunday’s game, the team’s operations manager Tim Jarocki took only a second to celebrate.

For Jarocki, post-game is crunch time.

“As soon as the clock hits zero, I’m sending out a text to everybody, letting them know that the game is over at x time, and buses are rolling in 60 minutes after that,” Jarocki explained.

The action behind the scenes in Pittsburgh is months in the making. The planning that starts back home in Tampa is critical to the team’s performance on the field, said Buccaneers COO Brian Ford.

“We’re dealing with professional athletes that have a job to do, and you want to take the travel and the whole process off of their plate, so they can concentrate on what they’re paid to do, and that’s win football games,” Ford said.

Everything is geared toward helping the players, like setting up TSA screenings at their practice facility instead of the airport.

“We sent 16,000 pounds of equipment,” said equipment manager Jim Sorenson. “We basically take a little bit of everything from this room and bring it with us.”

This room is Sorenson’s domain. Most of it gets packed up and shipped for every road game.

“Most players will have a new pair of shoes and a back-up pair of shoes in their travel bag tomorrow before we leave for Pittsburgh,” Sorenson said.

When it’s time to go, everything is planned down to the minute, from the equipment truck departure, to the players boarding buses with a police-escorted ride to the Tampa airport.

The next step involves charter coordinator Jeff Lucas and his team at United Airlines.

“We get everything in, we push off the gate and go,” Lucas said. “Timing is everything.”

But it’s not the only thing. He said they’re very careful loading in a 300-pound lineman into a coach seat.

“You’re kinda sitting in a little box,” defensive Tackle Gerald McCoy said.

Mccoy has earned his seat in first class, along with the all the other linemen. It’s not only more comfortable for the team’s largest players, it’s Buccaneers new coach Lovie Smith’s way of sending a message about the importance of the men on the front lines.

“It all starts up front, on both sides of the ball, everything we do says that, but you want to acknowledge it with this also,” Smith said. “Sitting up in first class lets them know that they’re, you know, first class guys.”

Once the plane is in the air, in-flight coordinator Larry Warren and his crew take over the meal service, as they do on every Buccaneers flight throughout the season.

The platter includes po’ boys, Chick-fil-A burgers — and that’s just the starters.

“They’ve already started working out, so when they get on the plane, they’re hungry,” Warren said.

The entire meal is planned by a nutritionist.

There’s steak, chicken, shrimp, spinach salad and dessert like frozen fruit bars and Skinny Cow ice cream.

“You wanna make sure they’re prepared for the game tomorrow, so we don’t want to overdo the sugar intake,” Warren said.

When the team landed in Pittsburgh, the players headed to their hotel.

At the same time, Jim Sorenson collected the cargo and immediately drove to Heinz Field, the venue for the next day’s game.

“We go from the airport to the stadium and basically set up the locker room,” he said. “We’ll unpack all the players’ bags into their lockers, which is their helmets, their shoulder pads, their shoes, their gloves. We’ll also hang the jerseys and pants just to make sure that we didn’t forget anything.”

Ironically, for the team behind the team, the least-stressful moments of the weekend come when the players first take the field. But that brief calm ends at halftime, when they pack it all back up to take it home.

What took months to plan, wraps up in just over an hour.

And the most amazing fact of all: they do it practically every other weekend.

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Perhaps the Cowboys should concentrate on becoming Texas’ team.

“America’s Team” has won four straight games and is tied for the best record in the NFL, but the team’s home-field advantage — or lack thereof — is becoming a big enough problem that quarterback Tony Romo criticized the Dallas fans who so often deride him(Tom Johnson Jersey), following Sunday’s overtime win over the Houston Texans, in which the visiting fans took over AT&T Stadium and forced the home team to use a silent count on offense.

“I was a little bit surprised by the number of Houston fans,” Romo told the Dallas Morning News.

“[Sunday] we played on the road. We had to go to a silent count, and that was the first time I had to do that throughout the game at home. We need to do a better job as a team, as a fan base, to make sure how big of a difference playing at home is. I think going forward I’m going to press the issue. We just need to tighten up on selling our tickets.”

The Cowboys faced similar issues in previous home games against the 49ers and Saints this season, but the less than four hour drive from Houston to Arlington only put a bigger spotlight on the problem at the stadium, which routinely has trouble filling its 90,000-plus capacity with Cowboys fans.

Head coach Jason Garrett recognized the issue, but took a more diplomatic approach.

“Yeah, we’ve had interesting home games this year,” Garrett said Monday. “Each of those teams have brought a lot of people to the game. That’s something we encounter a lot on the road ourselves. We have a really good national following. One of the things we have to do as a team is we have to give our fans reason to cheer. There are a lot of Cowboys fans there [Sunday]. When we do things the right way and give our fans reason to cheer and be loud, typically things work out well for us. We felt that the other night when we played New Orleans and we certainly felt that a lot in [Sunday's] game.”

Apparently, 4-1 isn’t enough reason to cheer.