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PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles are the first top seed in NFL history to enter its opening playoff game as an underdog.

According to standout defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, it’s just another example of this Eagles team not getting its proper respect.

“We’ve been disrespected all year,” he said. “Our record can speak for itself. We’re a team that’s been disrespected week in and week out, and we just come out and ring the bell every week.”

The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook set the opening line at minus-2.5 in favor of the sixth-seeded Falcons, who upset the Los Angeles Rams in the wild-card round to advance.

Since 1975, when the NFL began basing home-field advantage on teams’ regular-season winning percentage, no No. 1 seed has ever been an underdog in its first playoff game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Until now.

“It just puts a bigger chip on our shoulder and just adds fuel to the fire, and that’s what this team, obviously, has been going off of all year,” Cox said, “people doubting us every week. So we just want to go out and shut those doubters up.”

Westgate Superbook oddsmaker Ed Salmons estimates the Eagles could have been as much as a 6.5-point favorite over the Falcons with a healthy Carson Wentz. The fact that Wentz is out with a torn ACL is clearly having a major impact on public perception. So, too, has the recent play of backup Nick Foles. He’s 23-of-49 (47 percent) for 202 yards with a TD over his past five quarters of work.

Following a Christmas night win over the Oakland Raiders, in which Foles and the offense struggled, right tackle Lane Johnson faced a string of questions about his unit’s down play despite the fact that the Eagles had just improved to 13-2. He later told reporters that he was done talking for the year, but he rescinded that a week later after he’d cooled off.

“Obviously I wasn’t happy with the way we performed, but then again, we are where we are and it’s kind of, nothing is ever good enough,” he said last week. “There’s kind of pros and cons to it. I think it’s a good motivator. It’ll piss you off and get a lot of guys fired up, and that’s what it did for me.”

Not everyone is using external forces as motivation. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz insists he has no idea in a given week whether his team is a favorite or underdog, and he’s not going to start paying attention to that now.

“The game’s going to be about preparing well, the game’s going to be about executing on Saturday,” he said, “and the teams that do that the best are going to win, not the team that got picked by the most number of analysts or experts or what the simulation games say or any of that stuff. That has zero bearing on the game for us.”

But it is serving as good bulletin-board material for some.

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Panthers coach Ron Rivera

Panthers coach Ron Rivera

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he was surprised and disappointed to learn on Sunday that owner Jerry Richardson, amid allegations of workplace misconduct, planned to put the team up for sale after the 2017 season.

But Rivera made it clear that the Panthers, 10-4 and tied with New Orleans atop the NFC South, will continue to “go forward” with their playoff push and let the investigation by the NFL into Richardson’s conduct play out.

Sports Illustrated published an article on Sunday that said the organization settled financially with a least four employees regarding Richardson’s improper behavior in the workplace.

The allegations ranged from sexual harassment to Richardson using a racial slur with a former team scout.

“They’re all very serious,” Rivera said Monday of the allegations. “I do have a lot of concern about it. To be honest with you, I have not read them. I’m not dismissing them, because I’m going to wait until the investigation is done before I draw any conclusions. I think that’s the only fair thing to do. I don’t want to have anything altering my thought process.

“The investigation will take a life of its own. I believe it will be a thorough one. And remember, Mr. Richardson was the one that pushed for this to begin with.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said Monday that “the league is moving forward with the investigation.”

Rivera’s focus will be on preparing for Sunday’s home game against Tampa Bay. The Panthers can clinch a playoff spot with a victory.

Rivera spoke on Monday to his players about Richardson’s decision to sell since the news broke after they departed Bank of America Stadium following Sunday’s 31-24 victory over Green Bay. He reminded them that their focus should be on football just as it has when the team has faced other off-the-field distractions in the past.

“I don’t know how much different it is from some of the things we’ve dealt with,” he said. “The thing that again we all have to understand is the serious nature of these allegations and who they affect.

“For the most part, these people need to be heard, respect what they have to say and again let the process take its course.”

Rivera said he spoke with Richardson on Sunday night just before the owner announced his decision to sell in a letter posted on the team website.

“He was terrific in terms of our conversation,” Rivera said, declining to elaborate on specifics of the conversation.

Rivera said he hoped new ownership keeps the team in Charlotte. Richardson in 2013 made a deal when the city agreed to pay for upgrades to the stadium that the team would be tethered to Charlotte through the 2018 season.

“This organization has had a tremendous impact on the Carolinas,” Rivera said. “It has helped the growth of this city and this community. It’s been a source of pride and goodwill. I’d like to see it continue.

“This is a great community, a very supportive fan base that’s been out there for us. I hope that somehow it’s able to stay here.”

As for the allegations, Rivera said he wouldn’t make a judgment until the investigation is over.

“Not to discount the serious nature of these allegations, for us, for what we do, we’re here to play football,” he said. “It’s important that we remember that. These allegations don’t change what we do. So we’ve got to go out and focus on getting ready for Tampa Bay.”

Panthers tight end Ed Dickson didn’t want to go into details about the allegations against Richardson.

“Personally, it’s sad to me, the whole thing,” he said. “We work to be better people, better individuals, better whatever you want to call it and to see that happen, it just saddened me as an individual. I got a lot of respect for our owner. He gave me an opportunity to come here and further my career and do the things I need to do as a football player, and I can only touch basis on a personal level from my standpoint of view.”

Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, who grew up in Charlotte, also hopes the team doesn’t move elsewhere.

One of the top African-American head-coaching candidates in the NFL, Wilks said he had never heard Richardson use a racial slur.

“In my six years around here I never encountered anything around here of that sorts,” he said. “Never have I heard of that. I’m just going to wait and see exactly what comes through the investigation.”

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — If Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers shows anything, it’s that for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it may always be a mixed bag with quarterback Jameis Winston. He’ll give you some big-time plays, but also will make some amazingly poor decisions, such as the one Sunday that led to a lost fumble and a 26-20 overtime loss.

He spent three weeks on the sideline watching veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick lead the team to two wins by taking few risks. Yet Winston’s fumble in the second quarter Sunday showed that he has failed to absorb one of the most important lessons a quarterback can learn, something he continues to fail at in his third year in the NFL: knowing when a play is dead.

Under duress, Winston coughed up the ball as he was being taken down, resulting in a fumble recovery returned 62 yards by Dean Lowry for a touchdown. It was first-and-10. Winston should have taken the sack and lived to see another play. Instead, the Packers extended their lead to 17-7.

“I don’t even know how the ball came out,” Winston said. “I think when I ran back, I think I hit a guy’s butt or something. I don’t even know. I just know I was going out to the right, trying to actually throw it away, but I think when I ran back, I hit someone. … I had Cameron Brate on a route in front of me so I was about to throw it in front of him.”

Earlier in the game, on the opening drive, Winston hit Brate down the seam for a 28-yard touchdown, the first time the Bucs had scored a touchdown on an opening drive all year. For a unit that has struggled with slow starts, that was huge progress. He’d hit Brate again for a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, another plus.

“It really did [feel like it was going to be a good day]. It really was,” Brate said. “We just kind of killed ourselves, whether it was sacks — those kind of killed our momentum, a couple calls didn’t go our way, the turnover — those killed us. … Ultimately we shot ourselves in the foot.”

Winston’s fumble, plus two Tampa Bay fumbles at the goal line, were unacceptable. You can’t pin that all on Winston when he was in the middle of changing a protection and the ball is snapped, but this team has to have more composure in high-pressure situations, Winston included.

To be fair, Winston didn’t find out until Sunday that he would be taking snaps from Evan Smith, a backup guard. Backup center Joe Hawley was to step in for starting center Ali Marpet, who landed on injured reserve this week, but Hawley came down with an illness.

“I don’t think I had my hands under Evan in about a year,” Winston admitted. “We had like two miscommunications and we just found out today that this was gonna be our offensive line. We did not think we’d be in this situation today. This was a game-time decision.”

The Bucs’ offensive line had an atrocious performance without Marpet and without starting right tackle Demar Dotson. They surrendered seven sacks — nearly a team record for the Packers — and on multiple instances, defenders were coming at Winston completely unabated.

“We didn’t protect Jameis nearly as well as we protected this year. That [was] probably our worst protection game that we played all year,” said head coach Dirk Koetter, who praised Winston for competing hard throughout the game despite it.

“We’ve talked about this many times. Jameis, he is gonna make some plays — he made a couple really nice scramble plays today, and he was under pressure all day — that particular one there, in a perfect world, he would have gotten that ball out of his hands but they were on him quick. But we’ve got to remember — he’s 23 years old and experience is still the best teacher.”

Something Winston did do well, and perhaps it’s something he absorbed from watching Fitzpatrick, was taking what the defense gave him. That meant checking down when facing pressure instead of pushing the envelope, trying to get an explosive play. That also meant utilizing Peyton Barber, who stepped in for Doug Martin and rushed for 102 yards — the first time a Bucs running back has eclipsed 100 yards in a game this season.

At 4-8 now, with the Bucs’ hopes of reaching the playoffs slim-to-none, these next four games are a chance for Winston to restore waning confidence in the offense and his ability to lead it — although he has a ways to go before he can achieve that in a season marred by injury and failed expectations.

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Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers found themselves in a strange spot on Monday in the first practice after a bye week.

But punter Michael Palardy found a potential opportunity to brush the dust off a skill not many know he possesses.

The Panthers’ two backup quarterbacks, Derek Anderson and Garrett Gilbert, were sick and contagious and had to be sent home from the team’s facilities, coach Ron Rivera said.

That left starter Cam Newton alone as the only player who could get receivers their repetitions out of the bye – or so the team thought.

Instead, Rivera called over Palardy as the team was stretching, and told him they’d probably go with him as a backup arm in a period of drills that day, during which Palardy would take nine snaps at quarterback.

Palardy all but skipped delightfully back across the field to tell his fellow specialists, who immediately began hooting with glee. Long snapper J.J. Jansen also wondered aloud what this year’s franchise tag contract looks like for a quarterback, as opposed to a punter.

“I was so pumped,” said Palardy. “I was so, so excited. … I haven’t taken live snaps since I was 15. I was relishing the moment. I was like, ‘I’m excited. I’m pumped.’

The punter attended St. Thomas Aquinas High in Florida, a noted powerhouse in high school football, where he played quarterback his freshman and sophomore years. He also kicked and punted, so if he threw a touchdown pass, he’d just stay on the field to notch the extra point.

“I was always out there for first, second, third or fourth down,” he said. “If I had to punt, I punted. If I had to kick, I kicked. And then once we scored, if I threw the touchdown or whatever it was, I’d throw the extra point. And then I’d stay out for the ensuing kickoff and kick (the ball) off.”

Palardy was ultimately beaten out at quarterback by Jake Rudock, who is on the Detroit Lions roster after playing for Iowa and Michigan, and Ryan Becker, now the assistant director of football operations at Penn.

On Monday, he was also beaten out by quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey as the go-to backup in camp.

Dorsey was the winningest quarterback in school history at the University of Miami, where he played from 1999-2002 and won a national title in 2001.

His credentials at the position do outweigh Palardy’s, but the punter still said he was “crushed” when Rivera decided to go with Dorsey instead (a reaction that caused the head coach to laugh out loud in his press conference later in the day).

“Man, I was distraught. It was like somebody ripped my heart out and stepped on it,” Palardy said.

Kicker Graham Gano reacted by ripping off his beanie and animatedly throwing it to the ground when a dejected Palardy shared the news.

Dorsey was intercepted once in practice, by safety Jairus Byrd, but Palardy joked that he would have gone 9-for-9 in the drill.

Rivera said he just wanted to preserve the health of the punter, who ranks No. 5 in the NFL in net punting, with an average of 43.3 yards per punt.

“We figured it was safer than having Palardy do it,” Rivera grinned. “We figured Kenny’s expendable, and Palardy’s a little bit more valuable. We can’t have someone running into him.”

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Vance Joseph

Vance Joseph

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After sifting through the wreckage of Sunday’s 28-point loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph has decided to give Brock Osweiler another start at quarterback.

Osweiler will be behind center when the 3-5 Broncos face the New England Patriots this Sunday. And while Joseph didn’t like much of what he saw in Denver’s 51-23 loss to the Eagles, he said Osweiler’s work in the days leading up to the game earned the sixth-year quarterback another start.

“I thought Brock had an excellent week of preparation,” Joseph said Monday. “It felt good to our team, it was a confident week, the energy was there, it was detailed. … Brock’s experience Brock’s personality really helped our team bounce back and gave us confidence going into this week. I think Brock’s earned it from that standpoint.”

The Broncos benched Trevor Siemian after seven games and put Osweiler in the lineup against the Eagles. Last week, Joseph said he would look at how things went in Philadelphia and then decide who the quarterback would be against the Patriots this Sunday night.

And once again Joseph would only commit to Osweiler starting against the Patriots and said that he would re-evaluate things a week from now. Osweiler finished 19-of-38 passing for 208 yards to go with a touchdown and two interceptions in the loss to the Eagles.

“In the football game … he had two interceptions, which he can’t have, he understands that,” Joseph said. “He had a couple ill-advised throws. Brock had some good things, the red-zone audible for the (Demaryius Thomas) touchdown, that was one of Brock’s audibles. I think Brock deserves one more week to prove he’s the guy for us.”

For his part, Osweiler expressed his hope, following the loss, that he would get another chance.

“Absolutely, I think every player in the National Football League plays this game to be the starter, to contribute to his team, to help their football team win games,” Osweiler said. “So, I would love to be the starter of this football team. I can promise you that this game is not going to discourage me. I’m going to work harder than ever to clean up these problems and get us back in the win column.”

The Broncos have scored 14 touchdowns on offense in eight games and are 22nd in the league in scoring (18.8 points per game), 17th in total offense (327.3 yards per game), 21st in yards per play (4.9) to go with 18th in third down conversions.

The biggest issue, however, and the one that was likely the biggest factor in Siemian’s benching, has been turnovers. The Broncos are 31st in the league in turnovers, with 19 — only the winless Cleveland Browns have more.

That total includes 12 interceptions, second-highest total in the league behind the Browns’ 17. At the moment the Patriots are last in the league in total defense (417 yards allowed per game), last in the league in pass defense (295.5 yards allowed per game) and 24th in the run defense (121.5 yards allowed per game).