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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Outside linebacker James Harrison told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he took about 30 snaps in his first practice with the New England Patriots on Wednesday and has been told that he will play in Sunday’s season finale against the New York Jets.

Furthermore, Harrison told reporter Gerry Dulac that coach Bill Belichick “has not asked me one thing” about the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Harrison’s first full day with the Patriots on Wednesday began when he was introduced to his new teammates by Belichick in a full-team meeting, and he acknowledged them with a wave, according to players. Players said they didn’t need to hear a list of Harrison’s career accomplishments because they are well known.
Then, about four hours later, Harrison took part in his first Patriots practice, wearing his trademark tinted visor and having been given his No. 92 by third-year defensive end Geneo Grissom. Harrison was a visible presence in the locker room after that when reporters were present later in the day, his locker directly to the right of fellow veteran linebacker David Harris.

Offensive tackle Nate Solder, who has gone up against Harrison in the past, described his addition as “excellent” because the team has “another tool going against the Jets.”

As for what it’s been like facing the 6-foot, 242-pound Harrison in games, Solder said, “Strong, physical guy who knows what he’s doing, smart, obviously well-versed with everything that comes on the football field.”

Harrison’s physical makeup was noted by players, with safety Devin McCourty saying, “He’s a well-put-together human being. Scary looking, some would probably say.”

The physical presence of James Harrison, No. 92, was felt by the Patriots in his first full day with the team. "He's a well-put-together human being," Devin McCourty said.

The physical presence of James Harrison, No. 92, was felt by the Patriots in his first full day with the team. “He’s a well-put-together human being,” Devin McCourty said.

Asked what it means to have Harrison on the team, linebacker Marquis Flowers added, “I know the edge will be set.”

There was widespread respect for Harrison from those in the locker room.

“What he has done in the league, just his whole story, undrafted free agent, how he wasn’t the most polished but just kept getting better and better,” safety Duron Harmon said. “It’s a pleasure to have him here. Try to welcome him with open arms and hopefully he can do some things to help us.”

Added defensive end Trey Flowers, “He’s been doing a lot of great things through his whole career. I’m looking forward to being on the field with him making plays and him continuing his career here.”

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The NFL has finalized its schedule for Week 17, eliminating the Sunday night game so as to ensure that all matchups with playoff implications that affect one another will be played at the same time.

The last time the NFL regular season didn’t end with a night game, either on Sunday or Monday, was in 1977 — the last season with a 14-game schedule. The last time the final NFL Sunday fell on New Year’s Eve was 2006.
Games on both Fox and CBS have been affected this year, with Fox flexing both NFC South games. Due in part to a back-loaded divisional schedule, the NFC South remains the only division that has not yet been clinched. The New Orleans Saints’ game at Tampa Bay has been moved from 1 p.m. to 4:25 p.m. ET. The same goes for the Panthers-Falcons meeting in Atlanta.

Both New Orleans (11-4) and Carolina (11-4) clinched playoff berths Sunday, with the Saints needing either a win over the Bucs (4-11) or a loss by the Panthers next week to clinch the division. Carolina can claim the NFC South with a win over Atlanta and a Saints loss.

The Falcons (9-6) can’t win the division but can advance to the playoffs by beating the Panthers.

On CBS, Bengals-Ravens, Bills-Dolphins and Jaguars-Titans also have been moved to 4:25 p.m.

The Ravens (9-6), Titans (8-7) and Bills (8-7) are all fighting for a wild card, while the Jaguars already clinched the AFC South.

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“We felt that both from a competitive standpoint and from a fan perspective, the most fair thing to do is to schedule all Week 17 games in either the 1 p.m. or 4:25 p.m. ET windows,” NFL senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz said. “This ensures that we do not have a matchup on Sunday Night Football on New Year’s Eve that because of earlier resu
“We felt that both from a competitive standpoint and from a fan perspective, the most fair thing to do is to schedule all Week 17 games in either the 1 p.m. or 4:25 p.m. ET windows,” NFL senior vice president of broadcasting Howard Katz said. “This ensures that we do not have a matchup on Sunday Night Football on New Year’s Eve that because of earlier results has no playoff implications for one or both of the competing teams.”

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Ben Rothlisberger thinks that the Jesse James catch reversal was a product of over-officiating.

Ben Rothlisberger thinks that the Jesse James catch reversal was a product of over-officiating.

PITTSBURGH — If you’re seeing too much yellow during your NFL viewership, you’re not alone.

Ben Roethlisberger feels the same way.

The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback looked at the big picture of officiating during his weekly radio show Tuesday, a timely topic coming out of Jesse James’ controversial touchdown reversal.

“I think officials are calling a lot, maybe too much. I think officials are taking the game away some times,” Roethlisberger said. “I think that they’re affecting the outcome, and I’m not trying to criticize officiating because I don’t want to get fined or anything like that. I’ve heard it from many people. You watch a game and it’s like almost every snap there seems to be a penalty and whether it’s warranted or unwarranted, it just seems like there’s a lot of penalties being called nowadays.”
Roethlisberger thought he had a 10-yard touchdown to James with 28 seconds left to take a 30-27 lead over New England. But the officials ruled the catch incomplete because James didn’t “survive the ground,” prompting a wild sequence for the Steelers offense that resulted in a Roethlisberger interception.

Roethlisberger makes clear he thought James caught the ball, especially after a few days to digest the play.

“Honestly it makes less sense to me,” Roethlisberger said. “I felt like he caught it. He brought it into his body and then reached out and then yeah, when he hit the ground it came loose, but I felt like the reach is credit of the football move.”

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FRISCO, Texas — Shortly after noon CT Monday, Ezekiel Elliott appeared at The Star, with his six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy concluded.

Elliott met with coach Jason Garrett for 10 or 15 minutes as well as with running backs coach Gary Brown. After Sunday’s win over the Oakland Raiders, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he would meet with the running back on Monday.

Garrett said his message to Elliott was to “get back to work” and that Elliott “looked good” and his spirits “seemed good.”

On Tuesday, Elliott and the full team will be together at The Star for the first time since the Cowboys beat the Kansas City Chiefs on Nov. 5. They will have meetings and conditioning before they have their first practice Wednesday in preparation for Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Cowboys removed Elliott from the reserve/suspended list and cut running back Trey Williams to make room for Elliott on the active roster.

Garrett was not ready to commit Monday to how much the Cowboys will use Elliott in their final two games.

“Just have to wait and see,” Garrett said. “Got to see how he is [Tuesday], got to see how he practices as the week goes on.”

The Cowboys weren’t shy in how much they used Elliott in the first eight games of the season before the suspension. Elliott ran for 783 yards on 191 carries and seven touchdowns and had at least 93 yards rushing in each of his past four games, topping out at 150 yards on 33 carries and two touchdowns in a win at the Washington Redskins on Oct. 29.
Earlier this year, the Cowboys worked David Irving back into the lineup after a four-game suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy. Damontre Moore returned from a two-game suspension. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Cowboys know what to look for when a player comes back from a layoff.

“I just think the obvious things: what kind of condition are they in, how’s their movement, can they sustain it, do they look functional, do they look smooth, do they look natural out there,” Garrett said. “And again, we anticipate him being able to do all the things we ask him to do and hopefully get him reacclimated quickly.”

Elliott spent his suspension working out in Cabo and is said to be in better condition. Garrett did not agree with the premise that Elliott was not in top shape for the first eight games.

“Typically, when you’re away from the team, you have to find ways to stay in shape and get yourself ready to come back and play football,” Garrett said. “Obviously, he was very productive for us the first half of the season, productive as a runner, did a lot of really good things for our football team. He was away from our team, and obviously, what you want to do is stay in shape to come back and reacclimate yourself to playing pro football.”

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New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara returned to full practice participation Wednesday and told reporters he is “good to go” for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.

In order to get full clearance through the NFL’s concussion protocol, Kamara has to pass all steps, which includes showing that he can tolerate full participation in practice without signs or symptoms.

But his words and his return to practice both indicate that he is on the right track.
Kamara left last Thursday night’s 20-17 loss at Atlanta after a helmet-to-helmet tackle by Falcons linebacker Deion Jones in the first quarter. He was evaluated by trainers on the sideline before being taken back to the locker room for further evaluation and ultimately ruled out of the game.

Kamara, a third-round draft pick from Tennessee, has emerged as the front-runner for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with 608 rushing yards, 639 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. He is already just the third rookie in NFL history to surpass 600 rushing and receiving yards in a season with three games to go.

Kamara has been especially dynamic since the Saints’ Week 5 bye. He ranks second in the NFL behind only Le’Veon Bell in that span with 1,017 yards from scrimmage, and he is tied with teammate Mark Ingram for the league lead with nine touchdowns since Week 6.

Alvin Kamara is tied with teammate Mark Ingram for the league lead with nine touchdowns since Week 6.

Alvin Kamara is tied with teammate Mark Ingram for the league lead with nine touchdowns since Week 6.

Kamara and Ingram are on pace to become the first pair of running backs in NFL history to surpass 1,500 yards from scrimmage in the same season.

Three Saints players did not practice Wednesday, however, after being injured in the loss to Atlanta: receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (rib), linebacker A.J. Klein (groin) and defensive end Trey Hendrickson (ankle).

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers’ fate — and perhaps the Packers’ playoff chances — are in the hands of the doctors.

That’s the only update coach Mike McCarthy had on his quarterback after Rodgers underwent tests Monday morning to see whether his broken right collarbone has healed to the point that he could return Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, the first game for which Rodgers is eligible to be activated off injured reserve.

Packers physician Dr. Pat McKenzie is expected to make a determination after consulting with several specialists.

“It is now in the evaluation stage,” McCarthy said late Monday afternoon. “Dr. McKenzie is reviewing it. There’s a number of medical opinions that will be involved in a decision, so at this time, I do not have a clean decision for you or an update. That’s where it stands.”
McCarthy joked that if he didn’t have a decision by Tuesday, “they’re going to be putting Pat McKenzie on IR.”

Aaron Rodgers is eligible to be activated off injured reserve for Sunday's game against the Panthers, but whether he will be back on the field depends on the health of his collarbone.

Aaron Rodgers is eligible to be activated off injured reserve for Sunday’s game against the Panthers, but whether he will be back on the field depends on the health of his collarbone.

It’s unclear why the Packers didn’t put Rodgers through tests late last week.

To this point, everything has gone according to plan in Rodgers’ recovery from surgery on Oct. 19, when he had screws and plates implanted to stabilize his right clavicle. Rodgers said he hoped to come back this season but only if the tests showed the bone had healed.

He returned to practice on Dec. 2, the day he turned 34. Even before that, however, he was throwing. The first time he did so in public was before the Nov. 26 game at Pittsburgh, where he was seen throwing passes 50-plus yards in the air. Packers linebacker Clay Matthews even joked that Rodgers looked so good during the rehab process that the Packers shouldn’t have put him on injured reserve.

“It’s in the evaluation process,” McCarthy said. “I don’t have an answer for you. I’d like to know as soon as possible. Frankly, it’s best for Aaron to know as soon as possible. He’s the one that has to get ready, and obviously, in his mind he’s ready to go if you watch him practice and the conversations with him. But this is a medical decision, and Dr. McKenzie is obviously in touch with a number of different medical experts, and they’re evaluating the information.”
With or without Rodgers, McCarthy and his offensive staff are well into their game plan for the Panthers. They typically start on the next opponent late in the previous week, and this game was no different.

“We do preliminary game plans at the end of each week,” McCarthy said. “So, for instance, the offensive staff has a preliminary game plan for Carolina that is worked on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and then we evaluate their game that they played yesterday. So we had a chance to watch that against Minnesota. Obviously, we were here early this morning correcting our game from Cleveland. So the process is in full motion, and so, we’ll just keep going down the road.”

Brett Hundley won three of his seven starts in place of Rodgers, including consecutive overtime wins the past two weeks to get the Packers to 7-6 and keep them alive in the playoff race.

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"The red zone, it's a tough area, it's just like third down, tight windows, you have got to get on the same page with guys and only having been here a short while, it's going to take a little time," Jimmy Garoppolo said.

“The red zone, it’s a tough area, it’s just like third down, tight windows, you have got to get on the same page with guys and only having been here a short while, it’s going to take a little time,” Jimmy Garoppolo said.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Despite dominating in major statistical categories such as total yards, first downs and time of possession, the San Francisco 49ers still needed a last-second field goal to overcome the Chicago Bears last week.

Yes, a Niners’ turnover and a special teams miscue helped contribute to that, but the biggest culprit preventing the Niners from winning in far more comfortable fashion was an inability to finish trips to the red zone with touchdowns.
In fact, the 49ers’ went 0-for-5 on trips inside Chicago’s 20 on Sunday, settling for a field goal on four of those trips and purposefully playing for one on their final possession. That the Niners were still able to win is a positive, but the lack of red zone production has been a consistent theme all season and the biggest reason for those struggles has also been a persistent issue.

“The tighter it gets, the more exact you have to be,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Everything gets harder, the windows get smaller. Even the run support with safeties, you can play a two-shell defense and still meet the back at the line of scrimmage because they don’t have to drop back as far. They’re not as worried about posts up over the top and things like that. So, everything gets tighter so you’ve got to execute very well. We didn’t as a whole team.”

At the center of that lack of execution was a series of self-inflicted mistakes in the form of penalties. The Niners were called for six infractions on plays run inside Chicago’s 20 with the Bears accepting four of them. Making matters worse, those penalties didn’t just come inside the Bears’ 20 but inside their 10.

On the Niners’ first drive, they had second-and-goal at Chicago’s 9 when right tackle Trent Brown was called for holding. Suddenly, it was second-and-goal from the 19, a difficult proposition for any team. Two plays later, they settled for the first of five field goals.

In another sequence in the second quarter, the Niners had second-and-1 at Chicago’s 7 and didn’t get the first down on a running play. On third-and-1, they promptly got two false start penalties and suddenly it was third-and-11 at the Bears’ 17. Again, the result was a field goal.

Those mistakes are especially concerning given that the Niners have had that problem for most of the year. After 12 games, the Niners’ 13 accepted offensive penalties committed in the red zone are the most in the league as are the 15 they’ve been called for overall.

Of course, while penalties are at the heart of last week’s red zone woes, there are other ways for the 49ers to improve as well.

“I put a lot on those penalties down there,” Shanahan said. “We had way too many penalties. But, it wasn’t just the number of penalties, it was the time we got those penalties. I feel like that cost us two touchdowns down there, so that was disappointing. The other two times we got in the red zone it was two third-and-6s, and we didn’t convert between the 20 and 15. So, we’ve got to do a better job there. Not getting the third down, and being better on our third down. But, the most disappointing thing with the red zone was the penalties when we should have scored, I believe.”

Three quarters of the way through the season, the Niners are tied with the Cleveland Browns for the second-worst red zone touchdown percentage in the league (40.6 percent). And they’re only a little bit better when it comes to scoring in goal-to-go situations, where they have scored touchdowns on 61.1 percent of their opportunities, ranking 25th in the league.

One thing that could help in both areas is the presence of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He’s only played a game and three snaps but his quick release and accuracy should help him fit the ball into the tight windows to get the job done in tight spaces. There were a few times he was a little late on throws against the Bears, and though he could get away with it in some spots, it clearly didn’t happen near the goal line.
But the chance to get more time with his pass-catchers should only serve him and the Niners well as they get more opportunities deep in opponent territory.

“The red zone, it’s a tough area, it’s just like third down, tight windows, you have got to get on the same page with guys and only having been here a short while, it’s going to take a little time, but I think overall we’re going in the right direction,” Garoppolo said.

The other good news for the Niners on the red zone front is that the penalties, especially of the pre-snap variety, are correctable issues.

“It’s just little things like that when you’re in the red zone and things don’t go perfect, you end up getting field goals,” Shanahan said. “It’s a combination of all those things. The biggest thing was the penalties, though.”

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baltimore Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury Sunday, has been suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Smith, the Ravens’ top cornerback, decided to drop his appeal and begin serving his suspension after tearing his Achilles in Sunday’s 44-20 victory over the Detroit Lions, the source told Schefter.
The Ravens are expected to place Smith on injured reserve this week. This puts a smudge on what had been Smith’s finest season in the NFL. He made three interceptions and led the Ravens with nine passes broken up.

The suspension will cost Smith a total of $182,352. Smith would have lost $2 million if he hadn’t restructured his deal in August.

Smith’s season ended in the second quarter Sunday, when he fell to the ground while trying to cover a deep route. He has been dealing with an Achilles injury for most of the season and rested it by practicing only once or twice a week.

Injuries have consistently hampered Smith’s career. He has only played two full 16-game seasons in seven years. Smith will have missed a total of 17 games over the past four seasons.

Rookie first-round pick Marlon Humphrey will replace Smith in the starting lineup when Baltimore plays at AFC North-leading Pittsburgh this Sunday night.

If Smith didn’t go down with a significant injury, he might have missed the final four regular-season games anyway, depending on the outcome of the appeal. Smith would then have been eligible for the postseason if Baltimore made the playoffs.

The loss of Smith is a big hit to the Ravens (7-5), who control their playoff fate heading into the final four weeks of the regular season. Smith would’ve helped in covering the likes of Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon, T.Y. Hilton and A.J. Green.