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NFL AM: Desperate Times Call for Desperate Players

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Saturday Football: Where Drama Meets Desperation

The season’s first Saturday football games share an interesting theme, pitting desperate teams against squads on the brink of implosion.

The Eagles need a win to put pressure on the Cowboys in the NFC East. On the road in Washington, an Eagles loss would give the Cowboys a chance to clinch the division at home a day later against the Colts.

Luckily for Chip Kelly’s squad, they are facing a Redskins team that is challenging the Raiders for the title of the league’s most dysfunctional organization. First-year coach Jay Gruden is feuding with his franchise quarterback and basically begging to go one-in-done in Washington, including throwing in the towel with a minute remaining in last week’s loss to the Giants.

If the Eagles could hand-pick an opponent to help them snap a two-game losing streak, it would likely be these Redskins.

In Saturday’s second game, the Chargers try to snap their own two-game losing streak against a 49ers team that was eliminated from the playoff race last week. San Francisco has dominated the headlines for all the wrong reasons this week, from coach Jim Harbaugh’s flirtation with Michigan to the release of Ray McDonald due to sexual assault allegations.

The 49ers, of course, are light years better than the Redskins. So while Washington could very well wind up on the wrong side of a blowout, the Chargers-49ers game figures to be much closer. We know this: San Francisco will get San Diego’s best shot. After back-t0-back losses to the Patriots and Broncos, the Chargers need to win their final two games to have a shot to secure one of the AFC’s two wild-card berths.

“I expect us to treat it like a playoff game, because essentially that’s what it is for us,” Antonio Gates said. “Obviously, it doesn’t guarantee us anything at this point in the season, but a win would give us the opportunity to still get done what we want to get done throughout the season. Our goal was to get to the postseason and it starts this week. There is no more room for error for us.”

Clausen Ready to Rub Some Money

Johnny Manziel made the wrong kind of headlines last week, as Bengals defenders mocked him with his “money rub” hand gesture throughout Cincinnati’s 30-0 victory in Cleveland. Four days later, Jaguars defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks made the same gesture when he recorded his eighth sack of the season in a win over the Titans, triggering a $600,000 bonus in his contract.

Who will be the next player to do the “money rub”? It could be Jimmy Clausen, who now has a two-game audition to show he has improved enough to be a viable starting quarterback in the NFL.

Chicago’s reasoning for benching Jay Cutler is likely based mostly on the desire to keep Cutler healthy, as an injury could put the Bears on the hook for more money if the team indeed intends to release Cutler this offseason. But what an opportunity for Clausen, who gets to work with the likes of Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte as he looks to add some polish to his NFL resumé.

Clausen will be making his first start since his rookie season in 2010.

“It was a tough four years going through that whole entire transition and being hurt last year and rehabbing every day on my shoulder,” Clausen said. “It’s just a great opportunity for me. A lot of people don’t get second chances to showcase their talent in the National Football League.”

The opposition won’t be easy. The Lions are sniffing a playoff berth and come to town with the league’s No. 2 defense. The Vikings are not playoff contenders, but their pass defense is surprisingly stout, ranking No. 6 in the league. But if Clausen can move the ball and look more efficient than Cutler (which shouldn’t be too hard), he could make himself a lot of money.

There are several teams that will be in the market for quarterbacks this offseason, including the Jets, Bills, Titans, Rams, Buccaneers and — possibly — the Bears. That is a lot of openings without enough talent to fill them all, as the free agent market will be headlined by middle-of-the-pack players like Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett and Michael Vick. If Clausen can show the ability that made the Panthers draft him with their first selection back in 2010, he can cash in on a desperate market.

Newton Eyes Second Straight Divisional Crown

Cam Newton will return to action this week after missing last week’s game due to a back injury suffered in a car accident. Derek Anderson improved to 2-0 as a starter in Newton’s absence, with the giant asterisk that both wins came against the draft-ready Buccaneers.

It is hard to say what is more miraculous, that Newton missed just a single game or that the Panthers are still in the playoff hunt at 5-8-1.

The Panthers get a Browns team in just the second game of the Johnny Football era. Judging by how awful things went last week for Cleveland, you have to like Newton’s chances to win the match-up between former Heisman Trophy winners.

Perhaps the more important game from Carolina’s perspective is the Saints-Falcons showdown in New Orleans. If Atlanta beats its division rival as it did in the season opener — and Carolina handles business at home — it would set up a virtual division championship game in Week 17 between the Panthers and Falcons in Atlanta.

“I’m not going to apologize for hopefully being 7-8-1 and in the first round of the playoffs,” said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. “I’m not going to apologize for that. It’s too hard to get into the playoffs, first and foremost. There is going to be a team that’s 10-6 that’s not going to make it. And people will say, ‘Well, that’s not fair.’ But that’s the way it is. That’s what the excitement is about, fair or not.”

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About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.