A rescheduled date for WVU’s Fan Day will be announced when available

The Free Press WV

Fan Day with the Mountaineer football team set for 12:30 p.m. yesterday will be postponed and rescheduled if a later date becomes available.

Five cases of Hand, Foot and Mouth disease have been identified within the program. Hand, foot and mouth is a mild but highly contagious viral infection that is very common among children but can spread to adults. The virus usually goes away on its own in a period of less than a week, and there is no specific treatment, just steps to ease the symptoms.

Because it is highly contagious, it is in the best interest of the general public to postpone the event. WVU’s medical staff continues to monitor the situation, taking proper steps to control the virus and communicating with the proper campus personnel.

“I know fans who were planning on attending Fan Day will be disappointed, but this is in the best interest of all involved,” Director of Athletics Shane Lyons said. “Our medical staff is doing an excellent job of addressing the matter. However, there is no reason to put the general public at risk.”

A rescheduled date for Fan Day will be announced when available.

Shepherd Picked To Win MEC Crown

The Free Press WV

The Shepherd Rams have been picked to win a fourth-straight Mountain East Conference football title after a vote conducted by the league’s coaches. Shepherd received 94 points and was picked to finish first on six of the 11 ballots.

The Rams went 10-1 last year and made a third-straight appearance in the NCAA Playoffs. Head coach Ernie McCook, who replaces the legendary Monte Cater, will lead Shepherd in 2018. SU will have to replace the MEC Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year from last year, but still returns several key playmakers including wideout Ryan Feiss (95 receptions, 1,391 yards, 9 TDs), Chrys Lane (33 tackles, 5 TFL) and DeJuan Neal (30 tackles, 2 interceptions).

Fairmont State was picked to finish second earning 88 points and receiving three first-place votes. Notre Dame was third by just a point with 87 points and also receiving a first-place vote. Both teams carried postseason hopes until the final week of the regular season in 2017, but finished just outside of the playoff picture. Fairmont State brings back nine starters on offense and seven more on defense as it looks to make a push for a conference championship. Notre Dame graduated productive quarterback Malik Grove, but running back D.J. Greene and wideout Marvelle Ross provide playmaking ability behind the steady offensive line led by Michael Kyle and Austin Treneff.

The University of Charleston was slotted fourth with 63 points and earning the remaining first-place vote, followed closely by West Virginia State with 61 points. West Liberty was sixth with 45 points, just ahead of UVa-Wise (44) and West Virginia Wesleyan (42). Glenville State (35), Urbana (34) and Concord rounded out the poll.

The 2018 season begins with three games on Thursday, August 31: West Liberty at Urbana, Glenville State at UVa-Wise and West Virginia State at Charleston. The first week of the regular season concludes on Saturday, September 01, with Shepherd at Notre Dame and Concord at West Virginia Wesleyan.

2018 MEC Preseason Poll
1. Shepherd (6)—94
2. Fairmont State (3)—88
3. Notre Dame (1)—87
4. Charleston (1)—63
5. West Virginia State—61
6. West Liberty—45
7. UVa-Wise—44
8. West Virginia Wesleyan—42
9. Glenville State—35
10. Urbana—34
11. Concord—12

() indicates first-place votes
* Coaches not able to vote for own team

NFL Freezes Anthem Policy

The Free Press WV

The NFL’s two-month old national anthem policy is on hold. Hours after the AP reported that Miami Dolphins players who protest on the field during the anthem could be suspended for up to four games under a team policy issued this week, the league and the players union issued a joint statement late Thursday night saying the two sides are talking things out. “No new rules relating to the anthem will be issued or enforced for the next several weeks while these confidential discussions are ongoing,“ the statement read. Miami’s discipline document included section on “Proper Anthem Conduct,“ which classified anthem protests under a large list of “conduct detrimental to the club,“ all of which could lead to a paid or unpaid suspension, a fine, or both.

The NFL rule that was passed in May forbid players from sitting or taking a knee if they are on the field or sidelines during anthem but allowed them to stay in the locker room if they wish. The policy said teams would be fined if players didn’t stand during the anthem while on the field. The league left it up to teams on how to punish players. The new league rules were challenged this month in a grievance by the players union. The NFLPA said the NFL policy, which the league imposed without consultation with the players union, is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement and infringes on player rights. Now, the two sides are hoping to reach a solution without litigation.

GSC Offense Prevails Over Defense in Annual Blue & White Spring Game

The Free Press WV

The Glenville State Pioneer football team concluded spring practices with the Annual Blue & White Spring game Thursday evening at Morris Stadium.

The Pioneer offense outlasted the defense by one, 41-40.

Quarterback Jaylen McNair went 17 for 31 for 108 yards while fellow QB JT Keffer went 10 for 24 for 88 yards and two scores.

Daman Robinson hauled in both TD passes from Keffer on the evening. Fellow wideout Austin Ratliff had a nice game as he caught eight passes for 65 yards. Mike Williams hauled in 10 passes as he led the receiving core in the game. Another standout was Tre Crutcher as he made several nice catches.

On the ground Tre Smith carried the ball 10 times for 41 yards while Donovan Miller rushed for 57 yards on 14 carries.

For the Pioneer defense Wyatt Workman had a break out game as he was all over the field and racked up eight tackles. Defensive end John Mimes had a nice night as he had three tackles for loss while fellow defensive end Lamar Daniel had three tackles and three sacks. Mimes and Daniels both also combined for a safety.

Quintavius Twine also had a nice evening in the Pioneer secondary as he made several big hits.

At halftime the Pioneers honored the 2017 MEC Football All-Conference Team members while also donating the money raised at the spring game to the Gilmer County Volunteer Fire Department (GCVFD). Glenville State also announced the new Pioneer mascot for the Fall 2018 in Ronisha “Nish” Lawson, a freshman Music Education major from Beckley, West Virginia.

The Pioneers will open up the 2018 season on the road at UVa-Wise on Thursday, August 30 at 7:00 p.m.

Papa John’s Drops NFL Sponsorship

The Free Press WV

The NFL is now lacking an “official pizza.“ Papa John’s has announced that it is cutting ties with the league, ending a sponsorship deal that began in 2010, CNN reports. Steve Ritchie, the pizza chain’s new CEO, says the company will now focus on deals with star players and 22 individual teams instead of a broader sponsorship deal. “While the NFL remains an important channel for us we have determined that there are better ways to reach and activate this audience,“ he told investors Tuesday, per CNBC. He said the NFL and Papa John’s are parting ways by mutual agreement.

Amid slumping sales, stock in Papa John’s is down by more than a third since last summer. It sank another 3.9% after Ritchie’s announcement. In November, founder “Papa” John Schnatter claimed that NFL anthem protests were the reason for falling pizza sales and urged NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to force all players to stand for the anthem. “Leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership,“ he said. The company later apologized for his remarks and Schnatter resigned as CEO the following month.

Six years later, Penn State is still at war over the Sandusky scandal

The Free Press WV

In July, Penn State’s board of trustees met to discuss the most important issues facing a school system with 99,000 students and a $5.7 billion budget. It took about three hours before someone brought up Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno.

As the chairman tried to end the meeting, a hand rose from the back of the room. The chairman’s smile faded as he acknowledged an alumni-elected trustee.

Anthony Lubrano, a 57-year-old wealth management executive, launched into a lengthy statement assailing the board and administration. Lubrano’s criticism, as always, focused on the Freeh Report, the NCAA and the Penn State administration’s efforts to distance the university from the iconic coach.

“Hundreds of thousands of alumni who care about our past and our future have been deceived and, in the process, disenfranchised,“ Lubrano said. “We will never heal without truth and reconciliation.“

While some of the nine alumni-elected trustees nodded their heads in agreement, some of the remaining 29 trustees rolled their eyes or shook their heads in frustration. Some walked out. When Lubrano finished, the room was half-empty.

Six years after the Sandusky scandal rocked Penn State, university leadership is still fighting a civil war over the case, a conflict fueled, in part, by weaknesses that have developed in investigations that concluded top Penn State officials covered up for the convicted child molester.

While new evidence has not altered the public perception of Paterno’s culpability for Sandusky’s crimes, it has become fodder for conspiracy theories that have influenced state elections and incited feuds among Penn State trustees, some of whom hold deep suspicions about colleagues who quickly agreed to measures intended to end the crisis as quickly as possible.

Law enforcement officials, victims’ lawyers and private investigators - including Louis Freeh, the former FBI director who authored a damning 2012 report that asserted Paterno’s involvement in a coverup - say the dispute results from stubborn “Paterno-deniers,“ “Joebots” and “truthers,“ for whom no evidence will be strong enough to condemn the beloved former football coach.

“The tragedy of all of this is that it is self-perpetuated and self-inflicted,“ said Tom Kline, an attorney for one victim. “They have settled on an endless assault on anyone who dares suggest that there was something that happened that was wrong and that the fault lies at the doorstep of either Paterno or the football program.“

But alumni trustees and supporters insist Paterno and the school were victims of a rush to judgment that spared other, more culpable organizations - most notably the Second Mile, Sandusky’s charity for at-risk children - from public scorn. They point to conflicting accounts of the assault at the core of the coverup case, evidence the NCAA may have influenced Freeh’s report and doubts about claims Paterno ignored assaults as far back as the 1970s.

“The board has tried to cast us as a kook fringe. . . . We’re not a bunch of kooks. We’re not Joebots. We just see it for what it is,“ said Christian Marrone, a 1997 alum who has served as a senior presidential appointee in both the Bush and Obama administrations. “It’s a complex, complicated, emotional situation . . . and it’s not going to go away anytime soon.“

Penn State’s president, board chairman and alumni association president all declined interview requests and, in written statements, downplayed strife.

“The vast majority of our alumni are overwhelmingly supportive,“ board chairman Mark Dambly wrote.

Every time alumni vote, however, they elect trustees who vow to renounce Freeh’s report and reconcile with the Paternos.

At that July meeting, the newest alumni trustee - who received more votes than any other candidate - walked in early, with a backpack commemorating the 2009 Rose Bowl slung over his shoulder. He doesn’t have his father’s prominent nose and chin, but the resemblance is there, in the eyes.

He sat down in a corner with the other alumni trustees, behind a placard with his name: “JAY PATERNO.“

- - -

News cameras snapped as a publicist strode to the lectern the morning of July 12, 2012.

“In just a moment, Louis Freeh will take the podium,“ the man said with a thick British accent, “to discuss the independent investigation.“

A former federal judge who led the FBI from 1993 until 2001, Freeh had entered the lucrative world of leading internal investigations for troubled organizations. This assignment, which earned his firm $8.3 million, was his most high-profile case.

Sandusky had been convicted two weeks before, but Paterno’s role in his former assistant’s crimes was still an open question. Freeh answered it.

According to Freeh, in 2001, Paterno and three university administrators - president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz - decided to conceal a report of Sandusky assaulting a boy, to avoid bad publicity for the university and its football team. The men displayed a “callous and shocking disregard for child victims,“ Freeh said, as they “empowered Sandusky” to abuse boys for another decade.

Freeh’s verdict capped an unimaginable downfall for Paterno, who just eight months before seemed poised to retire as the winningest, most respected coach in the history of college football. In 46 years as head coach, he’d piled up 409 wins and two national championships while professing selflessness and education, fielding teams that wore simple jerseys with no names on the back, his players graduating at rates that outpaced competitors. In the venal world of college football, Paterno built a reputation as a coach who valued integrity over winning - “Success with Honor” was his motto - and now he stood accused of covering up for a pedophile to protect his public image.

In including Paterno, Freeh had gone further than prosecutors, who would charge the administrators with crimes but said they did not believe Paterno participated. In defending his conclusion, Freeh cited “the most important evidence in the case”: a chain of emails between the three administrators from 2001.

The emails showed the men planned to report Sandusky to child welfare authorities but changed course after Curley met with Paterno. Instead, they banned Sandusky from bringing children to Penn State and informed the Second Mile of the incident. Sandusky was convicted of assaulting four boys after this incident.

Regarding that pivotal conversation, Freeh did not interview Paterno, who had died that January, or Curley, who declined on the advice of his lawyer.

“We are basing this reasonable conclusion on the emails . . . but we do not know what the content of that conversation was,“ he said.

The reaction to Freeh’s report was swift, and immense. Rumors swirled the NCAA was considering imposing the “death penalty,“ the cancellation of an entire football season.

In an email, one trustee urged then-Penn State president Rod Erickson to tear down the statue of Paterno outside the stadium, if it would pacify the NCAA.

“Do whatever you need to do to keep the NCAA from giving us the ‘Death Penalty,‘ “ trustee Paul Suhey wrote. “I don’t care if you have to bring your own bulldozer over and drag it to your farm, do it!“

Erickson replied, “That’s precisely what I’m trying to do, Paul.“

Two days later, after the statue was gone, Erickson emailed several colleagues: “Just talked with [NCAA President] Mark Emmert. He thought statue removal was handled very well.“

Eleven days after Freeh’s news conference, the NCAA announced that Penn State had entered into a “consent decree,“ accepting a $60 million fine and the erasing of all of Paterno’s wins after 1998, the year Sandusky was investigated - but cleared - by Penn State police and a state child welfare agency. Freeh had concluded Paterno should have suspected then his assistant was a pedophile.

The NCAA traditionally didn’t venture into criminal matters at universities, instead dealing with rules violations within athletics. When asked why that changed, Emmert later testified, “If a university is involved in a coverup . . . that constitutes a kind of behavior that we . . . want to be involved in.“

In response to alumni outrage, Erickson explained that NCAA officials had made clear Penn State had no choice to avoid the death penalty.

“Emmert indicated that our only chance to avoid a death penalty along with sanctions might be to opt for a consent decree,“ Erickson explained at a board meeting. “It was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.“

The board’s leadership commended Erickson and urged alumni to move on. A few months later, board chairwoman Karen Peetz predicted, thanks to their aggressive response, that by 2014 the Sandusky case “will be just a distant memory.“

- - -

While Penn State leaders were relieved to avoid the death penalty, some alumni seethed. Two state lawmakers asked the NCAA to spend the $60 million fine in Pennsylvania. When the NCAA refused, the lawmakers sued.

“We had a problem with the NCAA, by fiat, deciding we’re going to take $60 million of taxpayer money and spend it wherever we please,“ said Matthew Haverstick, attorney for state Sen. Jake Corman, R.

The case produced evidence embarrassing for the NCAA. One staffer, in an email, wrote that NCAA punishments for Penn State would be unneeded and excessive, but “new NCAA leadership is extremely image conscious, and if they conclude that pursuing allegations against PSU would enhance the association’s standing with the public, then an infractions case could follow.“

Emails showed Oregon State President Ed Ray, NCAA executive committee chair, urged Emmert to act quickly on the Freeh Report, and Emmert expressed a desire to “leverage the moment.“ Ray acknowledged he never actually read the report because he was vacationing in Hawaii at the time.

Ray also testified that the NCAA’s executive committee never seriously considered the death penalty. Emmert approached them, according to Ray, and said Penn State suggested a consent decree.

“Our read of the evidence was that the NCAA board of directors and the Penn State board of trustees were being played off one another by the NCAA C-suite executives,“ Haverstick said. “They had wildly different understandings about what was happening around them at that time.“

Emmert testified the NCAA had seriously considered the death penalty and Penn State willingly agreed to the consent decree. “No one was saying this was take it or leave it,“ Emmert said.

In January 2015, the case settled. The NCAA agreed to spend the money in Pennsylvania and reduced other sanctions, including restoring Paterno’s win total to 409.

In a phone interview, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy denied the organization tried to use the case to burnish its public image and said Penn State and the NCAA had agreed the consent decree “was the best way to allow the university to move forward.“

The lawsuit also produced communications between NCAA staffers and Freeh’s team that prompted some alumni to theorize Freeh catered his report - which, by including Paterno, put the case squarely in the NCAA’s crosshairs - to appeal to a desired client.

While the investigation was ongoing, NCAA staffers sent Freeh’s team a list of suggested interview subjects and questions. NCAA staffers gave a presentation to Freeh investigators, explaining how the NCAA determines when a university loses “institutional control” over athletics, one of the most serious offenses in the NCAA’s rule book. In a deposition, a Freeh investigator acknowledged the firm had identified the NCAA as a potential client.

“This isn’t and never should have been a sports story,“ said Maribeth Roman Schmidt, executive director of Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship, a nonprofit that, since 2012, has worked to elect alumni trustees who promise to repudiate the Freeh Report.

In a statement, the Freeh firm rejected the suggestion that its interactions with the NCAA influenced its findings.

“Our investigation was our own. . . . We did not ask questions for others, or let others’ opinions affect our work,“ the firm wrote.

The NCAA is only a part of why some alumni feel the school and Paterno took a disproportionate share of the blame, Schmidt said, before explaining theories involving a former governor and the Second Mile.

“If you really want to understand this,“ Schmidt said, “you need to talk to Ray Blehar.“

- - -

Mementos of Penn State fandom - framed photos of Paterno, magazine covers featuring the coach and his team, and Nittany Lion-themed toy cars - line the shelves, along with an assortment of unusual reading material. An academic report entitled “Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis,“ sits near an audit of Pennsylvania’s child welfare system and an accordion binder, filled with financial statements from the Second Mile.

“This is all Sandusky,“ said Blehar as he pointed at one shelf. On the desk sat two USB drives containing more than 300,000 pages of evidence and testimony from Sandusky-related litigation. “This, over here, this is all Sandusky, too.“

Blehar, 56, is a former intelligence analyst for the federal government who has devoted retirement to uncovering what he believes was a conspiracy, reaching to the highest ranks of Pennsylvania government, to have Penn State take the blame for Sandusky.

From his home outside Annapolis, Maryland, Blehar has written hundreds of posts over the years for - a website devoted to “searching for the truth through a fog of deception” - analyzing new evidence from Sandusky-related cases.

“The Freeh Report was supposed to be the definitive account, and after reading it, I had more questions than answers,“ Blehar said. “I just want to know what the truth is.“

The Freeh Report, Blehar argues, is tainted with hindsight bias, written with the assumption football coaches and college administrators should have recognized warning signs that a child welfare agency and a charity for at-risk children missed.

Freeh chided Paterno and others at Penn State for not reacting with alarm to the sight of Sandusky showering with children. In 1998, however, Sandusky admitted to an investigator with a state child welfare agency that he showered with children, and the agency cleared Sandusky to work with children anyway. In 2001, when the Second Mile’s executive director learned Sandusky was showering with children, his response was to advise Sandusky, when showering with children in the future, to wear a swimsuit.

Blehar also has written several posts dissecting the testimony of Mike McQueary, the redheaded former Penn State football assistant who testified he witnessed Sandusky molesting a boy in a Penn State shower and then told Paterno and the administrators.

First, McQueary testified the incident happened in March 2002, then records showed it was February 2001. Prosecutors, in charging documents, implied McQueary reported “anal intercourse” to Paterno; McQueary has testified he never would have used such explicit terms with Paterno, though he made clear he witnessed something sexual. In an email McQueary sent prosecutors, released years later, he wrote, “I feel my words were slightly twisted.“

Paterno testified that McQueary reported “fondling” and something of “a sexual nature,“ but Blehar thinks the coach, who was 84 at the time of his testimony, misremembered what his young assistant told him a decade before.

Blehar believes McQueary described a more ambiguous scene in 2001 and that, when he learned nine years later from detectives that Sandusky was under investigation for abusing children, he recalled something far more vivid. This would explain why McQueary and no one with whom he spoke in 2001 decided to contact authorities on their own, said Blehar, citing testimony of State College physician Jonathan Dranov, one of the first people McQueary spoke with that night.

Dranov, a mandatory reporter of abuse because he’s a doctor, has testified repeatedly that McQueary never said he witnessed a sex act. Instead, according to Dranov, McQueary described seeing a boy appear around a shower wall and an arm pull the boy back. McQueary described hearing “sexual sounds,“ Dranov said, and then saw Sandusky leave the shower.

When detectives came asking, Blehar theorizes, McQueary unwittingly became part of a conspiracy engineered by former Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, R. As Pennsylvania attorney general, Corbett oversaw the early stages of the Sandusky investigation, and as governor, Corbett was a member of the Penn State board that forced out Spanier, the school’s president. Blehar points out Corbett accepted campaign donations from Second Mile board members and had feuded with Spanier over state funding.

While outlandish, such theories gained currency in Pennsylvania. In 2013, newly elected Attorney General Kathleen Kane, D, who suggested on the campaign trail that Corbett slow-walked the Sandusky investigation and donations from Second Mile officials played a role, appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the state’s Sandusky investigation.

The inquiry concluded politics played no role in the Sandusky investigation but also uncovered the fact that attorney general staffers - including Frank Fina, the prosecutor who led the Sandusky case - shared pornography via office email. The ensuing scandal, known in Pennsylvania as “Porngate,“ tarnished several careers.

“No one involved with this case ever envisioned that taking a serial pedophile out of society was going to result in years’ worth of professional and personal attacks by people who are basically lunatics,“ Fina said in a recent phone interview.

In 2014, Corbett became the first incumbent Pennsylvania governor in 40 years to lose a bid for reelection. In a phone interview, Corbett said he believes the Sandusky case played a role.

“The Second Mile had no influence on that investigation whatsoever, and there’s no evidence that they did,“ Corbett said. “But they [Penn State alumni] won’t accept that, will they?“

About a year ago, Corbett said, a man in a Penn State jacket approached him in a supermarket and said, “You’re Tom Corbett, aren’t you? . . . We got even with you.“

Blehar plans to write a book about the Sandusky case but expects he’s years away from finishing his work.

Asked when alumni will move past the case, Blehar answered, without hesitation, “When we’re all dead.

“Either that or when the truth comes out,“ he said. “Whichever happens first.“

- - -

In March, the Penn State coverup case finally went to trial. The case had been delayed by years of appeals over the prosecution’s controversial decision to use Penn State’s former general counsel, Cynthia Baldwin, as a key witness.

When the administrators were called to testify to the grand jury investigating Sandusky, none of them hired their own lawyers. Instead, they identified Baldwin, who had no experience representing clients before grand juries, as their lawyer, and she accompanied them as they testified.

But after Sandusky’s arrest, when prosecutors started asking hard questions about difficulties getting records from Penn State, Baldwin decided to testify against the men, alleging they lied to her about whether they had records. New attorneys for the administrators appealed, arguing any problems law enforcement had getting records were Baldwin’s fault and she was violating attorney-client privilege by testifying against them.

An appeals court eventually agreed Baldwin couldn’t testify, and threw out most of the charges.

Days before the trial, in a surprise move, Curley and Schultz each pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of child endangerment, prompting speculation they would finally admit to a coverup.

When Curley and Schultz appeared on the stand, however, they said the same things their lawyers had said for five years. Paterno had told them someone saw Sandusky “horsing around” with a boy. They didn’t think Sandusky was a pedophile, they thought he had “boundary issues.“ When they met with McQueary, he did not describe witnessing a sexual assault.

Curley, to the frustration of the prosecution, didn’t recall many important conversations from 2001, including his meeting with Paterno, after which Curley decided not to contact authorities.

As Spanier’s lawyer made his closing argument that there was no coverup at Penn State, he displayed for the jury the same email chain that, five years earlier, Freeh had declared “the most important evidence” proving a coverup.

“That’s basically all the [prosecution] has on its claim of a criminal conspiracy,“ attorney Sam Silver said. “. . . They did not talk about hiding anything. . . . They concluded that they would go outside of Penn State to an independent, nonprofit organization that was Jerry Sandusky’s employer and had as its mission the welfare of children.

“Is that a plan we would all make today knowing what we all know today? I don’t need to answer that question.“

Silver then listed 12 people who knew in 2001 that an assistant had been disturbed by something he saw in a shower involving Sandusky and a boy, none of whom said anyone at Penn State urged them not to contact authorities.

“That is a heck of a way to pull off a criminal conspiracy,“ Silver said.

Prosecutors alleged Penn State officials downplayed the incident when informing the Second Mile, in the hopes the charity wouldn’t make its own inquiry.

“These were smart men, and they were concerned about their image and the image of that school,“ lead prosecutor Laura Ditka said. “And their plan resulted in a sea of carnage left behind. . . . Find him guilty of everything.“

The jury acquitted Spanier of conspiracy and convicted him of misdemeanor child endangerment. A case that started with each man facing five felonies and 39 years in prison concluded with three misdemeanor convictions. Curley spent 2 1/2 months in jail. Schultz served two months. Spanier is appealing.

Prosecutors celebrated the verdict.

“The Office of Attorney General is 4-for-4 in the Penn State sexual abuse cases,“ a spokesperson said.

Freeh declared complete vindication. “For over 12 years, these men actively protected a notorious pedophile . . . they decided together to protect this monster rather than report him to the police,“ he wrote in a statement.

Alumni had a different perspective.

“No one was convicted of a conspiracy,“ said alumni trustee Alice Pope, a psychology professor at St. John’s University. “So there was no coverup.“

After the trial, alumni trustee Al Lord, former chief executive of Sallie Mae, emailed a reporter that he was “running out of sympathy for . . . so-called victims.“ When the comment was published, two board members called on Lord to resign.

Lord refused, releasing a statement apologizing while clarifying his remark was not directed at the eight men who testified at Sandusky’s trial, but at some of the others who reached private settlements with the university.

“It was certainly not intended to offend real victims,“ Lord wrote. “Real victims and alleged victims were among the 30 or so recipients of nearly $100 million distributed by Penn State.“

- - -

Last year, a court unsealed documents from litigation between Penn State and its insurance company that appeared damning for Paterno. One man testified in a deposition that Sandusky molested him on campus in 1976, when he was a teenage boy, and Paterno brushed him off when he told the coach about the incident a day later. The Paterno family responded with a public statement disputing the man’s account as “containing numerous specific elements . . . that defy all logic.“

Other men alleged Penn State officials ignored assaults in the 1980s. Penn State settled with all of them, paying six- and, in some cases, seven-figure amounts.

When the documents were released, Penn State President Eric Barron denounced news stories about them with a statement that, essentially, acknowledged the school’s board had spent tens of millions of dollars without making an effort to corroborate claims.

“None of these allegations . . . has been substantiated in a court of law or in any other process to test their veracity,“ Barron wrote.

As part of the litigation, the insurance company brought in a lawyer with expertise in sex abuse cases to examine how Penn State vetted claims before paying alleged victims.

“It appears as though Penn State made little effort, if any, to verify the credibility of the claims,“ wrote the lawyer, who noted a surprising lack of documentation. The lawyer speculated “a concern about publicity and a desire to resolve the matters very quickly” influenced the process.

Among those Penn State paid was a former Second Mile participant who, before Sandusky’s trial, approached law enforcement and said he was the boy McQueary saw in the shower. Former prosecutor Fina said he didn’t believe the man’s claims, noting he was too old to match McQueary’s description and the man submitted a statement only after McQueary testified.

“It was like someone sat down with McQueary’s transcript and wrote the statement. It was absurd,“ Fina said.

One man alleged that in 1988, Penn State assistant Kevin O’Dea walked in while Sandusky was touching him improperly in a locker room and O’Dea did nothing. O’Dea, now an assistant with the New Orleans Saints, said in a statement through his attorney this was a “complete fabrication” and pointed out he didn’t work at Penn State until 1991. Penn State officials never contacted O’Dea before settling with the alleged victim, his attorney said.

A copy of the settlement agreement Penn State required alleged victims to sign - also made public last year - renewed controversy among alumni who believe the Second Mile dodged penalties for its role in Sandusky’s abuse.

The settlement agreements required victims to release several organizations, and anyone connected to them, from lawsuits, including the Second Mile.

“That’s not normal. Why would Penn State care about the Second Mile?“ said Jonathan Little, an Indianapolis lawyer who specializes in representing sex abuse victims. Little said he has never encountered a defendant requesting a liability release for a separate organization.

Kenneth Feinberg, a mediator Penn State hired to assist with the process, said the university structured the settlements to prevent a series of events in which a victim settled with Penn State, then sued the Second Mile, prompting the Second Mile to countersue Penn State, landing the university back in litigation.

Lord, the former alumni trustee, is skeptical of this explanation.

“That is 2,000 percent” nonsense, Lord said. “There’s only one reason [for the release], and that was to protect . . . members of the board who were involved at the Second Mile.“

The trustee who chaired the board committee that oversaw negotiations was Ira Lubert, a real estate and private equity executive. Lubert is a longtime friend of former Second Mile board chair Bob Poole; the two share a suite at Penn State football games. In the 2000s, state records show, Lubert was also part-owner of a summer camp the Second Mile visited. (Poole and former Second Mile executive director Jack Raykovitz did not respond to multiple requests to comment. In 2012, the Second Mile shuttered and another charity took over some of its programs and assets.)

In a phone interview, Lubert denied his Second Mile connections influenced negotiations. Penn State spokesperson Lawrence Lokman, in an email, termed it “an absurd stretch of reality” for anyone to consider Lubert had a conflict of interest.

Nicholas Mirkay, a University of Hawaii law school professor and nonprofit governance expert, said Lubert’s relationship with the Second Mile gave the appearance of a potential conflict and board members were right to question it. Mirkay found it surprising Penn State leadership allowed a board member with even a tangential connection to the Second Mile to lead settlement negotiations.

The lawyer for the man alleging abuse in 1976 and other alleged victims strongly disagreed Penn State made little effort to verify claims.

“My 13 clients were HEAVILY vetted,“ attorney Slade McLaughlin wrote in an email. “I think Penn State played it smart in resolving the cases and getting them into their rearview mirror as soon as possible.“

- - -

Last year, Penn State’s administration tried to discreetly commemorate the 50th anniversary of Paterno’s first game as coach. It was the first time the school had officially honored Paterno since he walked off the field Oct. 29, 2011, after a 10-7 win over Illinois that unexpectedly became his last.

National news outlets pilloried the school as tone-deaf. The student newspaper slammed the decision, writing, “This is our Penn State. It is a Penn State without Joe Paterno.“

Some alumni, meantime, praised the move while criticizing the university for not doing more, such as having a role in the ceremony for Sue Paterno, Joe’s widow, who still lives a few blocks away from campus.

In early September, Franco Harris - the former Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers star and outspoken Paterno loyalist - returned to State College, to attend a game against Pitt. As he lumbered across campus, Harris couldn’t manage five steps without getting stopped by an alum wanting a picture.

“Thanks for sticking up for Joe,“ one alum from the 1960s told Harris.

Students, meanwhile, walked by, unaware of the NFL legend in their midst.

While references to Paterno have mostly disappeared from campus, Paterno was omnipresent in alumni tailgates the next day, in life-size cardboard cutouts and messages written on signs, hats and T-shirts: “409,“ “Honor Him,“ and “You Can’t Erase History.“

Students passed through in packs, many in shirts that said “Unrivaled,“ the motto Coach James Franklin introduced a few years ago to replace “Success with Honor.“

As Jay Paterno walked through, some alumni cheered and called out his name.

A 49-year-old father of five, Jay Paterno has been unable to find a coaching job since 2011. He still lives in State College, dividing his time between writing and several business interests, and ran for Penn State’s board, in part, to defend his father’s legacy. He adamantly maintains his father didn’t know the truth about Sandusky, pointing to the only piece of evidence he thinks matters: His father allowed his children, and his grandchildren, to spend time around Sandusky, until months before his arrest.

“At some point the administration needs to say, ‘We got it wrong,‘ “ Jay Paterno said. “The fact that my dad was unaware of what Jerry was, that shouldn’t be a scarlet letter.“

Paterno acknowledged his family’s relationship with Penn State administration is “strained,“ but he expressed hope that will change.

“My family’s love for this university has never wavered and never will,“ Paterno said. “The people in the current administration will be gone at some point, and Penn State will continue on.“

2017 All-USA West Virginia football teams

The Free Press WV

USA Today this week announced its 2017 All-USA West Virginia football team.

The complete selections are below.

COACH OF THE YEAR: Fred Simon, Bluefield

Simon led the Beavers (14-0) to their first state championship since 2009. A year after his team finished just 4-6, Simon and Bluefield closed out the perfect season with a wild 29-26 win over Fairmont Senior.



OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyson Bagent, Martinsburg

The senior quarterback led the Bulldogs to a 14-0 record and a fifth straight Class AAA state championship this past season, completing 197 of 274 passes for a 72 percent completion rate, 3,199 yards and 41 touchdowns against just four interceptions.

Bagent had a pair of TD passes and two scoring runs in Martinsburg’s 44-16 win over Spring Valley in the state title game, concluding his prep career with 7,759 passing yards and 93 touchdowns.


First Team

QB Tyson Bagent (6-4, 210, Sr.), Martinsburg

RB Mookie Collier (5-11, 170, Sr.), Bluefield

RB Jacob Northcraft (6-0, 200, Sr.), Musselman

WR Amir Richardson (6-2, 200, Jr.), University

WR Brett Tharp (6-2, 175, Sr.), East Hardy

TE Jacob Cassidy (6-3, 230, Sr.), Spring Valley

OL Ben Billanti (6-0, 250, Sr.), Riverside

OL Trey Henry (6-1, 310, Sr.), Martinsburg

OL Jordan King (6-2, 230, Sr.), Cabell Midland

OL Doug Nester (6-5, 285, Jr.), Spring Valley

OL Darnell Wright (6-6, 275, Jr.), Huntington

Second Team

QB Jeremy Dillon (6-5, 195, Sr.), Mingo Central

RB Jake Bowen (6-1, 195, Jr.), Bridgeport

RB Ivan Vaughn (5-11, 185, Jr.), Cabell Midland

WR Malakai Brown (5-11, 190, So.), Hedgesville

WR Dylan Smith (5-10, 170, Sr.), Chapmanville

TE Zach Payne (5-10, 175, Sr.), Nicholas County

OL Will Anderson (6-3, 255, Sr.), St. Albans

OL Grant Dickson (6-2, 308, Sr.), Winfield

OL Dalton Fields (6-0, 230, Sr.), Mingo Central

OL Zach Frazier (6-2, 265, So.), Fairmont Senior

OL Jackson Zdziera (6-3, 275, Sr.), Spring Mills



DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dante Stills, Fairmont Senior

A standout senior defensive end, Stills was a disruptive force in leading his team to the Class AA state final. A West Virginia commit, Stills made 84 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss and collected 11 sacks this season.


First Team

DL Jalen Hesen (6-3, 255, Sr.), Martinsburg

DL Breece Hoff (6-0, 170, Jr.), Capital

DL Tavis Lee (6-3, 225, Sr.), Martinsburg

DL Dante Stills (6-4, 265, Sr.), Fairmont Senior

LB Dewayne Grantham (6-0, 185, Jr.), Martinsburg

LB Drew Joseph (5-9, 195, Jr.), South Charleston

LB Owen Porter (6-3, 215, Sr.), Spring Valley

DB Jadon Hayes (5-11, 175, Sr.), Huntington

DB Kerry Martin (6-1, 182, Jr.), Capital

DB Nate Phillips (5-11, 170, Sr.), Wheeling Park

DB Brenton Strange (6-5, 212, Jr.), Parkersburg

Second Team

DL Ryan Burdette (6-2, 173, Sr.), Clay County

DL William Howell (5-9, 200, Sr.), Doddridge County

DL Tyler Komorowski (6-3, 235, Jr.), Weir

DL Dyllan Richmond (6-3, 227, Sr.), Sherman

LB Shymeik Burger (6-0, 215, Sr.), Huntington

LB Isaiah Duncan (6-2, 215, Sr.), Cabell Midland

LB Adam Murray (6-1, 218, So.), Wheeling Central Catholic

DB Grant Harman (5-11, 180, Jr.), Martinsburg

DB Brady Ours (6-2, 185, Sr.), Keyser

DB John Merica (6-0, 170, Sr.), Bridgeport

DB Tayton Stout (6-1, 170, Sr.), Braxton County (Sutton)



K Tim McCutchen (5-10, 170, Jr.), Hurricane

NFL Power Rankings, Week 16

The Free Press WV

Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske ranks the league’s 32 teams. This week, the New England Patriots maintain the top spot in the rankings but find a new contender for No. 1 right below in the Minnesota Vikings. The Panthers, Steelers and Rams round out the top five headed into the final week of the regular season, while the biggest mover, the San Francisco 49ers, rocket into the No. 14 spot thanks to a four-game winning streak engineered by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

1. New England Patriots (12-3) — Last Week’s Rank: 1

The Patriots still have a bit of Week 17 work to do to secure the top seed in the AFC playoffs. That means no chance to rest QB Tom Brady and other key starters. Coach Bill Belichick seems to prefer it that way, anyway.

2. Minnesota Vikings (12-3) — Last Week’s Rank: 3

The defense pitched the shutout Saturday night in Green Bay to compensate for a mediocre outing by QB Case Keenum and the offense. The Vikings probably will enter the playoffs as the favorite in the NFC given the diminished state of the Eagles. But only slightly so amid the conference’s balanced field of very good but not quite great teams.

3. Carolina Panthers (11-4) — Last Week’s Rank: 2

The Panthers probably are headed to a wild-card berth. But they would be a very good in that role, and fully capable of running the table to reach the Super Bowl.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-3) — Last Week’s Rank: 4

The Steelers bounced back from their defeat to the Patriots and took care of business Monday against the overmatched Texans, even without WR Antonio Brown in the lineup. Despite Brown’s uncertain status for the playoffs, there remains no reason to doubt a Steelers-Patriots rematch in the AFC championship game.

5. Los Angeles Rams (11-4) — Last Week’s Rank: 6

Todd Gurley is very unlikely to be the league’s MVP. It’s difficult to imagine the award going to anyone but Tom Brady. But Gurley is having a terrific season and he certainly belongs in the conversation.

6. Philadelphia Eagles (13-2) — Last Week’s Rank: 7

The Eagles clinched the NFC’s top seed with the triumph Monday night over the Raiders. But they looked like anything but a Super Bowl team. The defense was much improved after struggling so badly against the Giants, but fill-in QB Nick Foles was shaky and the offense was unimpressive. The Eagles appear extremely vulnerable heading into the postseason.

7. New Orleans Saints (11-4) — Last Week’s Rank: 9

A playoff spot is secured. But the Saints cannot take their foot off the accelerator, needing a victory Sunday at Tampa to wrap up the NFC South.

8. Baltimore Ravens (9-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 10

The Ravens made it far tougher than it needed to be Saturday against the Colts. But at least they got the victory. A win Sunday against the Bengals gets them back into the AFC playoffs after a two-year drought. That’s what this season was all about.

9. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-5) — Last Week’s Rank: 5

Yes, the 49ers are playing well with Jimmy Garoppolo at QB. And yes, it was on the road. Even so, that was an embarrassing and bewildering loss for a team that’s supposed to be the main threat to a Steelers-Patriots rematch in the AFC championship game. Most troubling of all, Blake Bortles was back to being Blake Bortles with his three-interception performance.

10. Atlanta Falcons (9-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 8

The Falcons still can reach the playoffs with a victory over the Panthers or a Seahawks loss. But this simply is not the same offense that it was last season. And this season is bound to end in disappointing fashion for Atlanta, whether it’s this coming weekend or soon thereafter.

11. Kansas City Chiefs (9-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 13

The Chiefs have pulled things together with three straight wins. But it’s still impossible to forget that 1-6 stretch of miserable play, and nearly as impossible to envision them being a major factor in the AFC playoffs.

12. Los Angeles Chargers (8-7) — Last Week’s Rank: 15

The Chargers still can reach the playoffs but need plenty of help. They have only themselves to blame for the way they started the season.

13. Seattle Seahawks (9-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 17

This is a very flawed team. Winning a playoff-elimination game against the Cowboys with more penalty yards than yards of total offense was next to unthinkable. But the Seahawks retain their playoff possibilities, needing a win Sunday over the Cardinals and a Falcons loss to the Panthers.

14. San Francisco 49ers (5-10) — Last Week’s Rank: 20

The success of QB Jimmy Garoppolo playing in Coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense provides plenty of hope for next season in Year 2 of the Niners’ new regime. The 49ers are playing like a playoff team right now. Unfortunately for them, it took them until December to get Garoppolo into the lineup.

15. Buffalo Bills (8-7) — Last Week’s Rank: 14

Okay, the instant-replay reversal that overturned Kelvin Benjamin’s TD catch was debatable at best. Fine. But does that explain the Bills being outscored, 24-3, by the Patriots in the second half Sunday? The criticism of the officiating was off target. Some of the players needed to take a look at their own play instead. They must move on quickly, though. The Bills still have a Week 17 chance to end the franchise’s long playoff drought, although they’ll need help.

16. Dallas Cowboys (8-7) — Last Week’s Rank: 11

Very little went as planned this season for the Cowboys, and there was nothing but frustration Sunday as they lost to the Seahawks and were eliminated from the playoffs even with Ezekiel Elliott back in the lineup. The Cowboys certainly can hope for better next season, with Elliott presumably available for a full season and QB Dak Prescott another year wiser following this season’s ups and downs. But that Super Bowl-filled future for Prescott and Elliott no longer looks as certain as it did at the conclusion of last season, does it?

17. Washington Redskins (7-8) — Last Week’s Rank: 21

Finishing .500 would be nice. But really, it’s all about what happens next with Coach Jay Gruden and QB Kirk Cousins. The Redskins have total control over the decision with Gruden. They can keep him if they want, and they should. Unfortunately for them, their past sets of negotiations with Cousins have put that situation somewhat out of their control, given how costly a third straight franchise tag would be.

18. Cincinnati Bengals (6-9) — Last Week’s Rank: 27

Can the Bengals come up with a big performance Sunday in Baltimore to knock the Ravens from the playoffs and, if the speculation about Coach Marvin Lewis’s future is accurate, send him off with a victory?

19. Detroit Lions (8-7) — Last Week’s Rank: 12

Coach Jim Caldwell probably deserves to stay. The Lions reached the playoffs last season and still could go 9-7 this season. But the lack of clarity on that issue to this point could be telling.

20. Tennessee Titans (8-7) — Last Week’s Rank: 18

The Titans’ playoff “push” has been an embarrassment. They still can reach the postseason with a triumph Sunday at home over the Jaguars, who are locked into the AFC’s No. 3 seed and have nothing at stake. But the Titans look like a complete playoff non-factor, and their late-season spiral feels like a step backward for their once promising development even if they sneak in.

21. Green Bay Packers (7-8) — Last Week’s Rank: 16

Other NFL teams think the Packers should be forced to release Aaron Rodgers? Great. They can think that all they want. It’s not going to happen. Even so, the Packers got a little too cute by placing Rodgers on IR. It wasn’t necessary. Shutting him down for the remainder of the season was fine. That was the right move. But he didn’t need to be placed on IR. Did the Packers really need to free up that roster spot so badly for two meaningless games? Did anyone tell them that there’s a game-day inactive list?

22. Arizona Cardinals (7-8) — Last Week’s Rank: 23

It remains unclear whether Bruce Arians will opt to return for another season or walk away from coaching the Cardinals. If Arians is not back, it would stand to reason that the Cardinals would overhaul the roster and make it a team-wide reset.

23. Chicago Bears (5-10) — Last Week’s Rank: 26

It hasn’t been a great rookie season at QB for Mitchell Trubisky. But it has been a necessary part of the learning process. Enough good things have happened for the Bears to hope that he makes a big jump in Year 2 and becomes a reliable starter.

24. Denver Broncos (5-10) — Last Week’s Rank: 19

Did Sunday’s loss at FedEx Field amount to Kirk Cousins’s in-person audition for the Broncos’ QB job in 2018? If so, he was impressive enough. But before they address their QB situation, the Broncos must decide whether it will be one and done for Vance Joseph as their coach.

25. Miami Dolphins (6-9) — Last Week’s Rank: 22

The Dolphins are stumbling to the finish line in a forgettable season. The major offseason task is to clarify the QB situation and decide whether Ryan Tannehill returns to being the unquestioned starter.

26. Oakland Raiders (6-9) — Last Week’s Rank: 24

The Eagles gave the Raiders every chance to beat them Monday night in Philadelphia. And the Raiders couldn’t do it. It’s been that kind of season for a team that was supposed to be so much better.

27. New York Jets (5-10) — Last Week’s Rank: 25

The Jets have five more wins than many thought they’d have this season. But is that enough for Todd Bowles to stay?

28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) — Last Week’s Rank: 28

The Jon Gruden speculation has intensified and it doesn’t look particularly promising for Dirk Koetter to be given a third season.

29. Houston Texans (4-11) — Last Week’s Rank: 29

Things went about as expected Monday against the Steelers. The combination of T.J. Yates and Taylor Heinicke at QB was forgettable. At least WR DeAndre Hopkins provided one highlight with his unreal TD catch.

30. Indianapolis Colts (3-12) — Last Week’s Rank: 30

The coaching tenure of Chuck Pagano presumably comes to an end Sunday against the Texans. Pagano never had a chance this season without Andrew Luck or a viable Plan B at QB until the Jacoby Brissett trade was made just before the season. But it’s not always about fairness when the firing-and-hiring season for NFL coaches arrives.

31. New York Giants (2-13) — Last Week’s Rank: 31

Will Sunday’s matchup against the Redskins at the Meadowlands be Eli Manning’s final game with the Giants? The possibility of that adds considerable intrigue to an otherwise unwatchable game.

32. Cleveland Browns (0-15) — Last Week’s Rank: 32

The Browns are on the clock. The No. 1 overall selection in the NFL draft is secured. In the meantime, they seek their own brand of perfection when they play Sunday at Pittsburgh with a winless season still within reach.

WVU vs. Utah Bowl Game

The Free Press WV

Early last week, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner challenged his friend and Colorado’s Secretary of State Wayne Williams to a friendly wager on the outcome of the Gildan New Mexico Bowl played last Saturday.  In that bowl game, the Marshall University Thundering Herd took on the Colorado State Rams in one of the first games of the 2017 bowl season and certainly one of the most exciting.

With a down-to-the-wire finish, Marshall beat the Colorado State 31-28. More information on that game can be found here:

The Warner and Williams wager involved each man putting up $50.  After the game, each Secretary would donate his $50 to a local food bank in his state.  The catch, however, is that he donation would have to be made in the name of the winning team. Details on how that wager ended can be found at this link:

“Secretary Williams and I had fun texting each other during the game as the score went back and forth.  It was an exciting game, fun to watch and both teams did really well,” Warner said.

Now 1-0 in his 2017 bowl season wagers, Secretary Warner has his sights set on the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl scheduled for Tuesday, December 26th.

The Heart of Dallas Bowl pits the West Virginia University Mountaineers (7-5) against the Utah Utes (6-6). WVU is a member of the Big 12 Conference. Utah is a member of the Pac-12 Conference. For more information on that game click on this link:

Warner challenged Utah Lt. Governor Spencer Cox to friendly wager similar to the one he and Williams made last week. Utah doesn’t have a Secretary of State. Rather, that state has a Lt. Governor who also assumes the role and functions of a Secretary of State.

Cox immediately accepted the challenge.

Warner is a graduate of the WVU School of Law.  Both he and Lt. Governor Cox are attorneys.

“I’m confident that the Mountaineers will be victorious. Coach Dana Holgerson and our team will go to Dallas with one thing in mind – beating Utah,” Warner said.

“And just what is a Ute anyway,” Warner asked his friend and Lt. Governor in Utah.

Warner and Cox will each put up a $50 wager.  Each will donate to a local food bank in the name of the winning team.

NFL Power Rankings – Week 15

The Free Press WV

Each week, national NFL writer Mark Maske ranks the league’s 32 teams. This week, the New England Patriots take advantage of the rule book and a questionable late-game decision by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to move back into the No. 1 spot. Pittsburgh stays in the top five despite the loss, but is now looking up at the Panthers and Vikings, who look like the class of the NFC. Speaking of which, the L.A. Rams jump three spots after their destruction of the Seahawks in Seattle. And the Jaguars, now with double-digit wins for the first time since 2007, clock in at No. 5 with a return to the playoffs just a few weeks away.

1. New England Patriots (11-3) — Last Week’s Rank: 2

The Patriots reclaim the No. 1 spot after their victory over the Steelers. It certainly wasn’t easy. But Tom Brady yet again was at his best in crunchtime. Rob Gronkowski was a difference-maker for the offense in his return from his one-game suspension. And good luck and meticulous preparation came together for the Patriots in the wild final sequence when the catch-rule replay reversal went their way and their defense was more than ready for the fake-spike throw into the end zone.

2. Carolina Panthers (10-4) — Last Week’s Rank: 3

Owner Jerry Richardson’s announcement that he will sell the franchise after the season amid the NFL’s investigation into allegations of workplace misconduct against him, along with his exit from the team’s day-to-day operations, coincide with the Panthers potentially headed to their second Super Bowl in three years. They certainly can compete with the NFC’s best teams, and TE Greg Olsen’s return to form in Sunday’s victory over the Packers could give QB Cam Newton the help he needs on offense.

3. Minnesota Vikings (11-3) — Last Week’s Rank: 4

The ovation for QB Teddy Bridgewater in his appearance Sunday was a terrific moment. But this is undeniably Case Keenum’s team at this point, and the Vikings will go as far as Keenum is able to take them. Who would have thought those words would be said this season?

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3) — Last Week’s Rank: 1

The Steelers couldn’t beat the Patriots in last season’s AFC championship game and they couldn’t beat the Patriots on Sunday in Pittsburgh despite having an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter. There’s little reason to be confident they can win at New England this season if indeed it comes to that. One obvious key will be WR Antonio Brown’s recovery from the calf injury he sustained Sunday. His MVP hopes were dashed, and it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be able to be during the postseason.

5. Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) — Last Week’s Rank: 5

The Jaguars may be the one team capable of preventing the expected Steelers-Patriots rematch in the AFC championship game. They can play rugged defense and run the football, and they could face the Steelers in what could be a competitive conference semifinal. But the problem remains: Can QB Blake Bortles, even with his recently improved play, be trusted in games of real consequence?

6. Los Angeles Rams (10-4) — Last Week’s Rank: 9

Their shockingly lopsided victory in Seattle reestablishes the Rams as a top NFC contender. They went 2-2 in their four recent games against the Vikings, Saints, Eagles and Seahawks, and close the regular season against the faltering Titans and the 49ers. A 12-win season is well within reach.

7. Philadelphia Eagles (12-2) — Last Week’s Rank: 8

What happened to the defense against the Giants? The secondary was carved up by Eli Manning and the pass rush was nonexistent. The good news was the play of fill-in QB Nick Foles, who took over for the injured Carson Wentz and threw four TD passes. But the Eagles did not look like a Super Bowl team Sunday, and it had nothing to do with Foles.

8. Atlanta Falcons (9-5) — Last Week’s Rank: 6

The Falcons made it tougher than it needed to be Monday night in Tampa but managed to get the win they needed. They’ve held things together in a reasonably good season on the heels of their brutal Super Bowl defeat. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine them being a major factor in the NFC playoffs.

9. New Orleans Saints (10-4) — Last Week’s Rank: 7

Beating the practically QB-less Jets was not exactly a major feat but at least the Saints took care of business. Now they face the Falcons for the second time in three games and have a chance to make amends for their loss in Atlanta. The late-game mistakes by QB Drew Brees and Coach Sean Payton were costly in that defeat, so they must be more reliable this time around.

10. Baltimore Ravens (8-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 12

The Ravens are well positioned to get back into the playoffs after a two-year absence. But nothing can be taken for granted. Their remaining schedule is favorable, with home games against the lowly Colts and Bengals. They cannot afford any missteps, however.

11. Dallas Cowboys (8-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 13

RB Ezekiel Elliott is back from his six-game suspension and the Cowboys still have some hope in the NFC playoff chase. Maybe Elliott should take the opposite approach of Aaron Rodgers and say that yes, he is back to save the season.

12. Detroit Lions (8-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 15

The Lions are out of the division race and would need help to reach the playoffs as a wild card. But no one should be questioning the job security of Coach Jim Caldwell. He’s done a good job.

13. Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 16

They’ve righted themselves with two straight wins and were clearly the better team in the “showdown” (by the modest standards of the AFC West) Saturday night with the Chargers. But it’s difficult to simply forget that 1-6 stretch of miserable play.

14. Buffalo Bills (8-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 18

The Bills visit New England this weekend with their playoff hopes still alive. They must focus on that rather than on seeking any type of revenge for Rob Gronkowski’s hit on Tre’Davious White.

15. Los Angeles Chargers (7-7) — Last Week’s Rank: 10

That was a truly disappointing performance Saturday night in Kansas City. The Chargers simply handed away the game. They are probably the best team in a bad division. But they also are probably headed to missing the playoffs, with their 0-4 start to blame.

16. Green Bay Packers (7-7) — Last Week’s Rank: 14

Aaron Rodgers said he wasn’t coming back to save the Packers’ season. Unfortunately for him, he was right. He gave a distinctly un-Rodgers-like performance with three interceptions in the loss to the Panthers, and now there’s no reason for the Packers to play Rodgers any more this season and expose him to the risk of reinjuring himself. Remember Tony Romo re-breaking his collarbone? The Packers should avoid that scenario with Rodgers. The season is done, made official by the Falcons’ win Monday night. Rodgers should be shut down.

17. Seattle Seahawks (8-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 11

Instead of there being hopes for a deep playoff run, the lopsided defeat to the Rams has produced speculation that a teardown of the roster could be in store. Would Coach Pete Carroll stay around for a rebuilding project around QB Russell Wilson and LB Bobby Wagner? The narrative certainly can change quickly in the NFL, can’t it?

18. Tennessee Titans (8-6) — Last Week’s Rank: 17

Losses to the Cardinals and 49ers are unforgivable for a team that should be making a late-season playoff push. The Titans no longer are deserving of a spot in the postseason. They have played their way out.

19. Denver Broncos (5-9) — Last Week’s Rank: 22

Brock Osweiler, promising-once-more QB prospect? OK, let’s not get carried away. But he did play well Thursday night in Indianapolis.

20. San Francisco 49ers (4-10) | Last Week’s Rank: 25

The future is bright with Jimmy Garoppolo at QB. The three straight wins with Garoppolo as the starter have raised expectations for next season. It always seemed like a near certainty that the Niners would franchise-tag Garoppolo this coming offseason if they couldn’t re-sign him first. But if anyone had any doubts about that, they should be erased. Garoppolo cannot be allowed to leave.

21. Washington Redskins (6-8) — Last Week’s Rank: 27

A .500 season remains within reach as the Redskins close with the Broncos and Giants. That would be a decent accomplishment, given the circumstances.

22. Miami Dolphins (6-8) — Last Week’s Rank: 19

Beat the Patriots and then lose to the Bills? Jay Cutler outplays Tom Brady and then is outplayed by Tyrod Taylor? Even after 14 games, the 2017 Dolphins remain a mystery.

23. Arizona Cardinals (6-8) — Last Week’s Rank: 20

Blaine Gabbert is still Blaine Gabbert, unfortunately for the Cardinals. There was no reason that the Cardinals should have lost Sunday at FedEx Field, but Gabbert simply could not get the offense into the end zone.

24. Oakland Raiders (6-8) — Last Week’s Rank: 21

The Raiders shouldn’t be upset with referee Gene Steratore’s use of an index card to measure a Cowboys’ first down Sunday night. They should be mad at themselves for botching their final drive with QB Derek Carr’s fumble through the end zone. The Raiders remain a major disappointment and their nonwinning season could add Coach Jack Del Rio’s employment status to the list of uncertainties engulfing the franchise.

25. New York Jets (5-9) — Last Week’s Rank: 23

Bryce Petty had his chance. Isn’t it time to give second-year QB Christian Hackenberg a look?

26. Chicago Bears (4-10) — Last Week’s Rank: 24

Coach John Fox heaped praise on Mitchell Trubisky’s three-interception performance against the Lions. Maintaining the confidence of a rookie QB is important, but that’s taking it too far.

27. Cincinnati Bengals (5-9) — Last Week’s Rank: 26

If Coach Marvin Lewis indeed is headed out the door at season’s end, his players aren’t giving him much of a farewell gift. The performance against the Vikings was dreadful. The Bengals may end up appreciating what they had in Lewis as their coach if they return to their status as a league laughingstock after he leaves.

28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-10) — Last Week’s Rank: 28

It’s becoming tougher and tougher to construct an argument - any argument - that the Buccaneers should retain Dirk Koetter as their coach.

29. Houston Texans (4-10) — Last Week’s Rank: 29

It still says here that Bill O’Brien deserves to stay in place as coach, based on what he accomplished in previous seasons. But that’s not looking quite so certain any longer. The one question that should guide everything the Texans do is, what’s best for the development of QB Deshaun Watson?

30. Indianapolis Colts (3-11) — Last Week’s Rank: 30

Is it beginning to feel like no sure thing that QB Andrew Luck will be in the Opening Day lineup next season, either?

31. New York Giants (2-12) — Last Week’s Rank: 31

If Eli Manning needs to audition for other NFL teams, he gave a pretty good one Sunday by throwing for 434 yards and three TDs against the Eagles.

32. Cleveland Browns (0-14) — Last Week’s Rank: 32

Wanted: Real players. New GM John Dorsey isn’t exactly sparing the feelings of the previous regime, is he? It will be interesting to see if the Browns and Coach Hue Jackson remain so committed to one another beyond this season, given that Jackson now could have a potential landing spot in Cincinnati.

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