Carson Wentz returns to dominant MVP form as Eagles smother Giants

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz looked like his old MVP-caliber self Thursday night, slicing through the New York Giants defense to post three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 122 quarterback rating as the Eagles rolled past their division rival, 34-13, improving to 3-3 in the process.

It was clear Wentz was back to form right out of the gate. Facing a third-and-7 at the Giants 13-yard line on the Eagles’ first possession, Wentz rolled out right, extended the play and then threw across his body and into the back of the end zone to a tightly-covered Alshon Jeffery for the touchdown.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he took 6.77 seconds to throw that touchdown pass, the third-longest by any player on a TD this season.

Wentz found Jeffery again in the second half and also threw one to tight end Zach Ertz.

Suddenly, an offense that sputtered through the first five games looked like its old self. The Eagles had failed to post 24 points in a single game entering Thursday. They hit that mark before halftime. They had slipped towards the bottom of the league in red zone and third-down efficiency, but bounced back by scoring four times in the red zone and converting nine third downs.

Wentz, playing in his fourth game since returning from an ACL/LCL injury, was the catalyst. He went 10-of-10 for 155 yards and two touchdowns on third down through the first three quarters. Coming in, he was completing 44 percent of his third-down passes.

Granted, the Giants have been somewhat giving on defense this season — they ranked 19th in average points allowed coming in (25.6) — but the Eagles’ offense was dealing with some issues of its own. Right tackle Lane Johnson was playing through a high ankle sprain suffered just four days prior against the Minnesota Vikings and was unable to finish. Standout left tackle Jason Peters also left early with a biceps injury. And Philly was down two of its top running backs with Jay Ajayi on injured reserve (ACL) and Darren Sproles (hamstring) still working himself back.

The mounting injuries are a concern for the Eagles, whose schedule picks up with games against the Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints over the next four weeks.

But on Thursday, the 2017 Eagles offense showed up, and just in time to potentially save the 2018 season.

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Ben Roethlisberger says running back James Conner deserves playing time when Le’Veon Bell returns

PITTSBURGH — James Conner has earned a prominent role in the Steelers offense with or without Le’Veon Bell, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday.

Bell hasn’t signed his $14.5 million franchise tag while preserving his health for a long-term contract in Pittsburgh or elsewhere, but he’s planning a return for the Week 8 matchup against the Cleveland Browns. Conner has produced as the starting running back, rushing for 342 yards and five touchdowns on 84 carries and adding 22 catches for 239 yards.

“I think James has done some amazing things and deserves to be on the field,” Roethlisberger told the media from his locker Wednesday, ahead of Sunday’s matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. “We also know what Le’Veon is and what he brings to the table. I guess we’ll cross that bridge if and when it happens.”

Bell, an All-Pro in 2017, has averaged nearly 129 total yards per game since entering the league in 2013. He wants to sign with Pittsburgh but rocky franchise-tag negotiations have complicated matters. The Steelers most recently offered a five-year, $70 million deal that Bell rejected because of low guarantees ($17 million).

Bell does a little bit of everything for the offense, and in his absence, the Steelers have asked much of Conner, too. He struggled with pass protection, injuries and conditioning as a rookie but has progressed steadily in his second year. Conner has two fumbles, however, and the rushing attack stalled from Weeks 2-4, averaging 2.8 yards per carry.

But Roethlisberger said the numbers don’t tell the entire story about Conner’s well-rounded game.

“If you look at the overall picture of what we’ve asked him to do every week, I think it’s been going up every week,” Roethlisberger said. “I think that’s what gets lost in what a running back [does] and what he’s been doing — pass blocking, picking up the blitz, catching out of the backfield. I don’t want to jinx anything, but he’s catching almost everything I’m throwing to him, and he’s in the right spot all the time quickly.”

Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said a Bell-Conner combo can be “very effective” because of Bell’s patient running style coupled with Conner’s explosion through the hole. Pittsburgh’s offense typically relies on one workhorse back, but Roethlisberger said both players can help spell each other to stay fresh for a long season.

The Steelers (2-2-1) have a Week 7 bye but need a win over the 4-1 Bengals to tighten the AFC North race. Steelers-Bengals games have featured a litany of injuries and fines for questionable hits. Roethlisberger hopes for a cleaner game, noting NFL rules preventing ill-intended hits haven’t curbed issues in the past.

“It’s not about just the physicality of the football game, to me,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s when it gets the extracurricular, the dirty stuff that you wish was cut out of it, and hope is cut out this time.”

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Kevin McDermott, of Minnesota Vikings, loses tip of pinkie, returns to game

Vikings long snapper Kevin McDermott lost the tip of the pinkie on his left hand during Minnesota’s game Thursday against the Rams, but returned to the game after receiving stitches, a source told ESPN.

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Aaron Rodgers (knee) of Green Back Packers returns to game

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers made a return for the ages in the second half to lead the Green Bay Packers back from a 20-point deficit for a 24-23 season-opening victory over the Chicago Bears.

Rodgers’ season appeared to be peril when he suffered a left knee injury in the first half.

But the Packers’ season outlook remains bright after he threw three touchdowns and tied the largest comeback in his NFL career.

The go-ahead score was a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Randall Cobb with 2:13 remaining.

“Aaron Rodgers was remarkable. I just can’t tell you how proud I am with him,” coach Mike McCarthy said.

Rodgers was injured when Bears defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris seemed to fall on Rodgers’ left knee after a second-quarter sack.

Rodgers stood up, tried to put weight on his left leg and then crumbled to the ground.

The Packers quarterback finally walked off Lambeau Field under his own power.

After nearly 10 minutes in the sideline examination tent, the team’s medical staff carted him to the locker room midway through the second quarter of the season opener against the Bears.

“It was painful,” Rodgers said.

That’s the same knee in which Rodgers tore his ACL in high school, an injury that wasn’t surgically repaired until college. It’s also the same knee he minor surgery on following the 2015 season.

Rodgers said he would undergo additional tests on Monday but “as long as there are no major issues I’ll keep playing.”

As if the Packers’ home opener weren’t off to a rough enough start before Rodgers’ injury, the offense was booed off the field just two minutes into the second quarter after a third straight punt.

Rodgers was 3-of-7 passing for 13 yards and was sacked twice before leaving the game. He was 17-of-23 passing for 278 yards with three touchdowns after he returned.

In between, former Cleveland Browns starter DeShone Kizer, who went 0-15 as a rookie last season, replaced Rodgers with the Packers trailing 10-0.

Kizer’s first two series after Rodgers departed were disastrous, both because of the newest Bears defender, Khalil Mack. Mack ended Kizer’s first series with a strip-sack, as he ripped the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. Then he picked off a Kizer screen pass and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown that gave the Bears a 17-0 lead.

Kizer’s interception was his 23rd since the start of last season. No other quarterback has 20 interceptions in that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Packers traded Rodgers’ backup last season, Brett Hundley, to the Seattle Seahawks last month for a sixth-round pick. Hundley started nine games — and won only three — last season after Rodgers broke his right collarbone.

It was 10-0 when Rodgers left the game. It was 20-0 when he returned. It tied the biggest comeback of Rodgers’ career, according to ESPN Stat & Information. He also came back from down 20 when he threw the Hail Mary to beat Detroit in 2015.

“I felt like once I got back out there, when the adrenalin was going, it loosened up a little bit,” Rodgers said. “But then it tightened up there in the fourth quarter, I was walking up and down the sideline trying to keep it loose. We’ll do tests [Monday] and you’ll get a better answer Wednesday when I talk.”

Late last month, Rodgers signed a record four-year, $134 million contract extension.

“Well, this is what we’re paid to do,” Rodgers said. “We’re paid to deal with injuries and play through ’em. That’s what everybody is doing and will be doing throughout this season. That’s the measure of a teammate, is what are you willing to put on the line for your team? And, to me, it’s a no-brainer. Being out there is special. The ovation from the crowd lifts you up, gives the energy, the momentum of the game, and you feel the tide turning. It’s special. This will definitely go down as one of my favorite memories, especially in this rivalry.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Cowboys offensive lineman Zack Martin returns to practice after knee injury

FRISCO, Texas — Last week Zack Martin said he would play in the Sept. 9 season opener against the Carolina Panthers. On Tuesday there was proof with the Pro Bowl right guard returning to practice for the first time since getting hurt Aug. 18.

Martin suffered a hyperextended and bruised left knee in the first half of the Cowboys’ preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals. An MRI revealed there was no structural damage to his knee, only a bruise.

Last week, Martin went through conditioning work and individual drills in full pads. He is not wearing any kind of brace on his knee.

Like the rest of the starters, he will not play in Thursday’s preseason finale against the Houston Texans.

Martin’s ability to play in the opener will help a line that will be without Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, who is dealing with Guillain-Barre, an autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system. Veteran Joe Looney will replace Frederick.

Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith is not practicing Tuesday as he deals with a hamstring strain. After last Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he is not concerned over Smith’s injury. With the way the practice schedule has fallen, this is the only on-field workday before the Cowboys play the Texans.

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Tyrod Taylor of Cleveland Browns exits preseason game with injured hand, returns

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Browns quarterback Tyrod Taylor suffered a left hand injury in the first quarter of Cleveland’s preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday night but was able to return.

On fourth-and-goal from the Eagles’ 1-yard line on the Browns’ second offensive series of the game, Taylor had to roll out of the pocket to avoid pressure. As he threw the ball, he fell to the ground, and replays showed his left wrist bent backward. Taylor was favoring the arm as he walked off the field after the play.

The team said he was questionable to return, and he came back out on the field in the second quarter.

First-round draft pick Denzel Ward, who left with a back injury, was ruled out for the game.

Taylor was 4-for-8 for 19 yards before leaving, and finished the first half 11-for-16 for 65 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions and the Browns leading 5-0.

Baker Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, came in to replace Taylor and was 2-for-5 for 19 yards. He took over again to start the second half.

The game plan for the Browns had been to play Taylor for the first half and then let Mayfield play most, if not all, of the second half. The Browns plan to have Taylor be the starting quarterback with Mayfield the backup when the season opens at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 9.

Taylor, who is entering his eighth season, was a two-time Pro Bowl invitee in three seasons as the starting quarterback for the Buffalo Bills before being traded to the Browns for a third-round pick in March.

Ward was injured when he made a play on Eagles tight end Zach Ertz in the first quarter. After being down on the field for about three minutes, Ward got up with the help of trainers and made his way off the field under his own power but was ruled out for the rest of the game.

This isn’t the first time Ward has been banged up in the past couple of weeks. He entered the game battling an ankle that has been flaring up since being stepped on last week in practice.

Ward, the No. 4 overall pick out of Ohio State, is expected to make an immediate impact on the Browns’ secondary this season and has impressed the coaching staff in training camp.

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Saquon Barkley, New York Giants running back, returns to practice after hamstring injury

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley returned to practice Wednesday after being sidelined the previous eight days with a hamstring injury. He is still not expected to play Friday against the New York Jets in their third — and perhaps most important — preseason game of the summer, a source told ESPN.

Barkley said he felt “really good” and strong in his first practice after tweaking his hamstring last Monday. He missed the Giants’ preseason game against the Detroit Lions on Friday.

The No. 2 pick in this year’s draft didn’t do a lot at Wednesday’s practice, but it was more than in previous days. He participated in individual drills, ran a few routes and even took a rep during a live 7-on-7 period. It further validated the belief that, barring a setback, he should be close to 100 percent for the Sept. 9 opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“Well he practiced [Wednesday] as you saw. Getting him back out there,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “He’s coming back from his tweak.”

Shurmur didn’t disclose his intention for Barkley the remainder of the preseason, only offering his standard “we’ll see.” The Giants play the Jets this week and the New England Patriots next Thursday night at MetLife Stadium.

It’s likely Barkley doesn’t see another preseason snap this summer. In that case, he will enter the regular season with just six preseason plays under his belt. Those came two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, and included a 39-yard run on his first carry.

“Would I feel comfortable Week 1 playing? Yeah,” said Barkley, who also noted he didn’t practice much at Penn State as part of the coaching staff’s plan to keep him fresh and healthy. “Obviously I would love to be out there and play as quickly as I possibly can. But that’s part of the game. … When I’m able to play I have to be 100 percent ready.”

Barkley insists his hamstring feels fine. He’s just following the plan set forth by the Giants training staff that seems to have its eyes on the opener.

Shurmur continues to say they are going to play it “smart” with the rookie running back and all their injured players. That does appear to be the case with Barkley.

“Personally, the way I feel and my body feels, I’ll be honest, I feel good,” he said. “I feel pretty good. I’ve been moving really well. But that is what the trainers get paid for. They tell me stories all the time and tell me to talk to other guys, even guys like [Odell Beckham Jr.], who hurt their hamstring before. Because when you feel 100 percent, that is when you give it that push and, boom, it happens again and it’s a setback.

“I don’t want any setbacks at all. That’s why I’ve just been trying to be a team player there. Just listen and follow instructions. I know they have a great game plan set out for me. When they feel I’m ready, that is when I’ll be ready.”

It may not be until Week 1. That could be the first time he will be on the field in a game with Beckham, who has not played in a preseason game this summer. Beckham is looking for a new contract and is returning from a broken ankle suffered last year. He was held out of the Giants’ first two preseason games this summer.

Shurmur was non-committal about Beckham’s status for Friday night’s preseason game against the Jets as well.

“We’re trying to be smart with it,” Shurmur said. “We’ll see. He’s gotten so much work behind the scenes. We’ll just have to see how it plays out.”

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Leonard Floyd has hand surgery; Chicago Bears hope LB returns for Week 1

Chicago Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd, the team’s top edge rusher, had surgery Sunday to repair a fracture in his right hand.

Bears head coach Matt Nagy confirmed the surgery to reporters Monday at Halas Hall, adding that the procedure “went well.”

“We’re staying optimistic for Green Bay,” Nagy said, expressing hope that Floyd would be on the field for the Bears’ regular-season opener against the rival Packers.

Nagy described the fracture as on Floyd’s index and middle finger. It occurred on a cut block late in the first quarter of the Bears’ preseason game against the Broncos; Floyd hit the ground and injured his hand as he braced himself.

“[He was] just unlucky,” Nagy said.

“I talked to him,” Bears defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris added. “I think Leonard’s going to be fine. He’s going to come back and rush his butt off.”

Floyd, the ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft, has played only 22 combined games in the past two seasons due to injuries.

With three weeks to go before the start of the regular seaso, the Bears are testing their depth at the outside linebacker position. Floyd’s backup Aaron Lynch has a hamstring injury and hasn’t played in the preseason. The other backups at the position are Kasim Edebali, Kylie Fitts and Isaiah Irving.

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Josh Gordon returns to Cleveland Browns

Wide receiver Josh Gordon has returned to the Cleveland Browns, expressing gratitude to the team for giving him time to work on his mental and physical health.

“As I humbly return to being a member of this team with an opportunity to get back to playing this game I love, I realize in order for me to reach my full potential my primary focus must remain on my sobriety and mental well-being,” Gordon said in a statement Saturday.

Gordon had been away from the team since it opened training camp last month. League sources had told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that Gordon was seeking additional counseling to deal with his mental health and anxiety. The wide receiver has said that he typically used alcohol or marijuana when he was anxious, something he cannot do without another violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

Browns general manager John Dorsey said in a statement that Gordon will start by participating in meetings and conditioning. The wide receiver will gradually return to all football activities, Dorsey said.

The decision for Gordon to return to practice will include the doctors overseeing his counseling.

Dorsey praised Gordon’s “hard work, commitment and focus on becoming the best version of himself.”

“We are glad Josh has reached a point where he can return to our organization, be in our building and be around his teammates,” Dorsey added.

Gordon has missed most of the past three seasons because of suspensions stemming from violations of the substance abuse policy. The Browns had told Gordon to take the extra time away from the team in a proactive move, sources said.

He thanked the Browns, the NFL and the players’ association, among others, for helping him.

“This has by no means been an easy road and I’m extremely grateful to have all of you in my life,” Gordon said in his statement.

Information from ESPN’s Pat McManamon was used in this report.

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Jon Gruden returns to Oakland Raiders sideline in preseason loss to Detroit Lions

OAKLAND — It took all of 60 seconds for Jon Gruden to realize he was all the way back as an NFL coach with the Oakland Raiders after nine years in the Monday Night Football booth.

It happened when Marshawn Lynch‘s 60-yard touchdown run was called back on a holding penalty by left tackle Kolton Miller, the Raiders’ first-round draft pick. As you might expect, Gruden did not agree with the flag.

“Chucky,” Gruden said, referring to himself in the third person, “came out for a brief moment tonight.”

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