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TEMPE, Ariz. — The pact was made during a practice in 2010.

Chandler Jones was a junior, the starting right defensive end for Syracuse, and Justin Pugh was a sophomore starting at left tackle. Every day, the two squared off, helping the other get better.

Neither, Pugh said, realized how good they were — or could be.

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During one practice that season, NFL scouts lined the sidelines at Manley Field House, Syracuse’s practice facility. Jones and Pugh, both years from the NFL, noticed.

“It would give us bright eyes, like, you know, one day we could be an NFL player,” Jones said. “I remember one day we looked at each other and I said, ‘You know, we’re going to go first round. Let’s make a pact and say you’re going to go first round, I’m going to go first round and we’ll call each other the first-round boys — FRB we used to call each other.”

Both came to Syracuse as two-star recruits. Jones was recruited as a tight end, according to Rivals.com. Pugh came to Syracuse “out of shape” which led to him getting nicknamed “Pugh-ny,” he said.

Two years after making that pact, Jones was drafted 21st overall by the New England Patriots. A year later, in 2013, Pugh went 19th to the New York Giants.

Both fulfilled their ends of the deal.

“We held true,” Pugh said.

But, even five years later, Pugh doesn’t let Jones forget who was selected higher.

“He’s always pushing that in my face,” Jones said.

Now, however, Pugh can give Jones a hard time about his draft position from the same locker room.

They were reunited when Pugh signed a five-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals on March 17 as a free agent.

In college, Jones and Pugh were “really close,” Jones said.

Their friendship, which began as teammates, grew as neighbors in Syracuse. Pugh and his roommate, former college teammate Zack Chibane, were “big chefs,” Jones said. They were “always” grilling meats and Jones would swing by to eat “all the time.”

And now Jones hopes he and Pugh can share more meals.

When Jones walked into the Cardinals’ practice facility at 6:20 a.m. for the first day of offseason workouts in early April, Pugh was already there. He told Jones his body was still on Eastern time, so his internal clock was three hours ahead.

“My face lit up, because that was my first time actually seeing him in Arizona,” Jones said. “Gave him a big hug and I was like, ‘Wow, we’re on the same team again.’

“I’m excited to see Justin. I’m excited to see him gel here in Arizona. I’ve been helping him with recommendations and places to live, so hopefully he can be my neighbor.”

Only as long as Pugh promises to get a grill.

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Tom Brady sits as the clear-cut leader to run away with MVP honors for 2017. Barring another season-altering injury, can anyone challenge the New England Patriots quarterback?

Injuries to Carson Wentz, Aaron Rodgers, and Antonio Brown have wiped away those who appeared to have a shot at derailing the 40-year-old quarterback from earning his third NFL MVP award. Inconsistencies have also taken the likes of Russell Wilson and Phillip Rivers out of the conversation.
To fill the void in a debate-frenzied world, the next nominee with a chance to stop Brady from strolling to the MVP throne seems clear after Sunday: Todd Gurley.

The Los Angeles Rams running back dominated the Seattle Seahawks, dashing for 153 rushing yards, 28 receiving yards, and four total touchdowns. Oh, and he did all that despite participating in just nine second-half plays in Sunday’s 42-7 blowout.

As the best player on the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, Gurley’s MVP campaign could just be heating up. The third-year running back certainly has his coach’s vote.

“I’m obviously going to be biased to Todd, but I think if you just look at it from a production standpoint, he’s as productive as any player,” Sean McVay said Monday, via the L.A. Daily News.

If Gurley’s turnaround from a disastrous 2016 campaign (during which he trashed the Rams offense as ‘ middle school’) doesn’t end with an MVP trophy, it could lead to a Comeback Player of the Year award. Gurley’s performance should also help McVay run away with Coach of the Year honors.

“He’s certainly a special player,” McVay said. “With Todd’s success, that is a reflection of our offensive unit, but I think it’s a great honor for him. I think he certainly has put himself into legitimate (MVP) conversations with that, just based on the production and what he has meant to our team.”
The superlatives on Gurley are long after Sunday’s performance — the NFL Research team had two-and-a-half pages of notes on the running back in the post-Week 15 packet.

Gurley ranks first in the NFL in rushing TDs (13) and scrimmage TDs (17), second in scrimmage yards (1,817), third in rushing yards (1,187), and second among running backs in receiving yards (630). Gurley is the only player to score three-plus scrimmage TDs in multiple games (2) this season.

Gurley has just 32 fewer scrimmage yards than Le’Veon Bell on 76 fewer touches. Of the three running backs with 250-plus carries (Bell, LeSean McCoy, Gurley), the Rams’ rusher is averaging half a yard better per rush (Gurley: 4.6; McCoy: 4.1; Bell: 4.0).

If player grades happen to be your cup of tea, Pro Football Focus ranks Gurley as their top overall running back this season. If you’d rather dissect influencing victories ratios: The Rams are 8-0 when he touches the ball 20-plus times and 2-4 when he comes short of that number.

Perhaps still a longshot to leapfrog Brady, the fact that Gurley deserves to be in the MVP conversation in 2017 given where he and the Rams were one year ago is mind-bending. Thank you, Sean McVay, for helping unleash a talented back after your predecessors failed miserably. The viewing public owes you a debt of gratitude.

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The New York Jets staged a football clinic on Sunday: How to blow a big lead in four easy steps. It was messy and embarrassing.

“A sick feeling,” quarterback Josh McCown said.

A visibly agitated Todd Bowles bemoaned the lack of killer instinct after his team blew a 14-point lead and fell to the Miami Dolphins and backup quarterback Matt Moore, 31-28, at Hard Rock Stadium. This was first time since 1995 they lost a game after leading by at least 14 points in the fourth quarter.

Cardinal rule for Jets’ coaches: Never do anything that warrants a comparison to a Rich Kotite-coached team.

“Too many mistakes, too many blunders,” Bowles said. “At some point, we’ve got to develop some killer instinct to finish the ballgame.”

Remember, the Jets blew a 14-0 lead last week to the New England Patriots. The latest debacle was worse because it happened against the offensively challenged Dolphins, who lost quarterback Jay Cutler (ribs) in the third quarter. The Jets were in control, 28-14, with 12 minutes left in the game. At one point in the fourth quarter, their win probability was 95.5 percent, according to ESPN analytics.
Jets quarterback Josh McCown threw for three touchdowns Sunday but tossed a costly interception late in the fourth quarter that set up the Dolphins’ winning field goal. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
Then came the implosion. What happened?

The Jets’ four-step guide to misery:

1. A ridiculous number of penalties: The Jets were called for seven in the fourth quarter (two declined) and a total of 12 for the game (124 yards). The biggest culprit was cornerback Buster Skrine (three for 36 yards), but eight other players committed at least one penalty, including four offensive linemen. It was a total lack of poise, and here’s the scary part: It wasn’t a fluke. The Jets, among the least penalized teams in Bowles’ first two seasons, have regressed in this area — 57 accepted penalties in seven games.

“We can’t do stupid stuff like that and expect to win,” running back Matt Forte said.

2. A killer turnover: McCown played a terrific game for 59 minutes, becoming the first Jets quarterback since 1960 (Al Dorow) to have three touchdown passes and one rushing touchdown in the same game. Then disaster struck. On a first down from his own 15-yard line with 47 seconds left, he was intercepted by Bobby McCain, setting up Miami’s winning field goal.

McCown blamed himself for the interception, saying it was a bad read. He threw into zone coverage, looking for Jermaine Kearse on an “out” route — a silly mistake.

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3. A weak link in the secondary: Skrine, who played one of the best games of his career last week, followed with a nightmarish performance. In addition to the penalties, he surrendered two touchdown catches to Kenny Stills in the fourth quarter. Moore, who did everything but pull off a fake spike play, attacked Skrine relentlessly. Bowles had no other options because the Jets’ backup slot corner is a rookie, Xavier Coleman, and he already was sidelined with a shoulder injury.

4. A disappearing offense: The Jets produced minus-4 yards in the fourth quarter. McCown dropped back to pass eight times, and they lost 22 yards on those plays. Everything that worked in the first half stopped working, and they never adjusted. The offensive line was a mess, unable to protect McCown.

Some people might try to blame this on the Jets’ youth, but that’s a bunch a hooey. Their veteran players made some of the biggest mistakes, not the rookies. Some of the kids, namely safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, played well.
“We’re not going to say we’re a young team and lean on that excuse,” tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “We didn’t get it done. Whether you’re an old team, a young team, a new team or an expansion team, when you have a team down by two scores, you have to demolish them and close it out and leave no hope for there to be any type of comeback.”

Bowles and several players blamed it on not having a killer instinct, but linebacker Darron Lee wasn’t buying that.

“It’s not about killer instinct. We have killer instinct,” he said. “We have a bunch of killers on defense and on offense.”

Mistake-prone killers.