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AP source: Strong expected to accept Texas offer

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Texas will offer its head coaching job to Louisville's Charlie Strong and he is expected to accept, a person familiar with the search told The Associated Press on Friday night.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the process was being kept confidential and had not been completed. Texas has been looking to replace Mack Brown, who stepped down in December after 16 seasons with the Longhorns.

Strong is in his fourth year at Louisville and coming off his second straight double-digit victory season. He took over a program coming off three straight non-winning seasons and has gone 37-15.

The 53-year-old Strong was a longtime defensive coordinator in the Southeastern Conference before getting a chance to be head coach. He took Louisville to the BCS last season and finished 12-1 this year with start quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

New Texas athletic director Steve Patterson, hired in November to replace longtime AD DeLoss Dodds, interviewed Strong this week. Details of a contract offer to Strong were not immediately available. Brown's contract paid him more than $5 million per season.

Earlier Friday, two other coaches Texas reportedly had interest in - Baylor's Art Briles and UCLA's Jim Mora - said publicly they were staying in their current jobs.

Brown stepped down after four straight seasons that failed to live up to expectations, including this season's 8-5 record.

Strong had two stints as an assistant at Florida, first under Steve Spurrier and then as defensive coordinator for Urban Meyer's two national championship teams. In 2010, Louisville hired him to take over the program and he quickly righted the Cardinals, who are moving into the Atlantic Coast Conference next season.

Strong would be Texas' first black head football coach and he inherits a program aching to return to its place among the nation's elite programs.

Brown's Longhorns won the 2005 season national championship and returned to the national championship game after the 2009 season. But the Longhorns fell to 5-7 in 2010 and have lost at least four games each of the last three seasons.

That dropoff, including an 18-17 mark in the Big 12 over the last four seasons, frustrated Texas fans, who demand much more from the wealthiest athletic program in the country that sits in the middle of the most fertile high school recruiting grounds in the country.

Texas also has its Longhorn Network partnership with the ESPN, a 24-hour channel dedicated to Texas athletics, a deal that pays the school at least $300 million over 20 years.

No. 9 Mizzou beats No. 13 OSU 41-31 in Cotton Bowl

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Henry Josey ran for 92 yards and three touchdowns, the last a 16-yarder with 3:08 left, and No. 9 Missouri beat No. 13 Oklahoma State 41-31 in the Cotton Bowl on Friday night.

The former Big 12 and Big Eight rivals traded points on six consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, until Oklahoma State quarterback Clint Chelf was sacked and fumbled with a minute left. Defensive lineman Shane Ray picked up the ball and rumbled 76 yards down the sideline in front of the stunned Cowboys bench to score.

SEC East champion Missouri (12-2) matched its school record for victories, giving the SEC its 10th win in the last 11 Cotton Bowls, all against the Big 12.

Oklahoma State (10-3) had overcome a 10-point deficit by converting two turnovers by Mizzou quarterback James Franklin into points in a 3 1/2-minute span.

No. 12 Clemson tops No. 7 Ohio State, 40-35

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) Tajh Boyd threw for 378 yards and five touchdowns, Sammy Watkins had a record-setting night with 16 catches for 227 yards, and No. 12 Clemson rallied to beat No. 7 Ohio State 40-35 in the Orange Bowl on Friday night.

Boyd's 5-yard pass to Stanton Seckinger with 6:16 remaining put the Tigers (11-2) ahead to stay. Watkins caught two touchdown passes, plus became Clemson's career receptions leader and set an Orange Bowl record for yardage.

Martavis Bryant caught two more TD passes for the Tigers, who won their first Orange Bowl in 32 years.

Braxton Miller threw for 234 yards and Carlos Hyde ran for 113 more for Ohio State (12-2), which wasted a nine-point second-half lead. Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer lost for the first time in five career trips to the Bowl Championship Series.

For the second time in three years, Clemson fell apart at the Orange Bowl.

Only this time, the Tigers found a way to recover. And thanks to Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and plenty of others, the end result was Clemson's biggest win in a generation.

Boyd threw for 378 yards and five touchdowns, Watkins had a record-setting night with 16 catches for 227 yards, and No. 12 Clemson rallied to beat No. 7 Ohio State 40-35 on Friday for the school's first Orange Bowl win in 32 years.

Boyd's 5-yard pass to Stanton Seckinger with 6:16 remaining put the Tigers (11-2) ahead to stay on a night when they allowed 20 unanswered points in wasting an early 11-point lead. Watkins caught two scoring passes, plus became Clemson's career receptions leader and set an Orange Bowl record for yardage.

Martavis Bryant caught two more TD passes for the Tigers, who posted consecutive 11-win seasons for the first time in school history.

Braxton Miller threw for 234 yards and Carlos Hyde ran for 113 more for Ohio State (12-2), which led 29-20 in the second half but wound up losing its second straight game - after having won each of its previous 24 under coach Urban Meyer, whose record in Bowl Championship Series games fell to 4-1. Corey Brown had 116 yards receiving for the Buckeyes.

Miller was intercepted twice in the final 3:12, dooming the Buckeyes. Boyd threw an interception to give Ohio State the ball back, but Miller was picked again - Stephone Anthony made the play for the Tigers - and Clemson ran out the clock.

The Buckeyes had a 29-20 lead in the third after Hyde picked up 31 yards on 4th-and-inches, then went airborne to break the plane of the goal line on the next play.

Then the mistakes started coming in bunches by Ohio State. A fumbled punt return and an interception led to touchdown grabs by Watkins and Bryant, putting the Tigers up entering the fourth.

Hyde caught a 14-yard scoring pass from Miller with 11:35 left, giving the Buckeyes a one-point lead, but Clemson and Boyd went on one last scoring march to give the Tigers the BCS win they've been seeking for years.

When Clemson played in the Orange Bowl two years ago, the Tigers gave up 21 points in the final 2:29 of the first half, letting a close game get blown wide open on the way to a 70-33 loss to West Virginia.

End-of-half mistakes cost Clemson again.

Boyd's 3-yard touchdown pass to Bryant had Ohio State facing a 20-9 deficit, but two scores in a 3 1/2-minute span gave the Buckeyes a 22-20 halftime lead. Clemson left Jeff Heuerman wide open down the middle for a 57-yard touchdown pass from Miller, making it a one-score game. And on a drive aided by a 15-yard penalty against Clemson's Darius Robinson, Miller ran in from 3 yards with 12 seconds left to give the Buckeyes their first lead.

And Ohio State had to feel fortunate.

Boyd went 48 yards untouched - his longest career run - for a touchdown that opened the scoring. The Buckeyes tied it on the ensuing drive, catching a break when a third-down sack by Vic Beasley that would have forced a punt was rendered moot by his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Heuerman pulled off a fake punt later in the drive, and Miller eventually rumbled 33 yards to tie the game.

Boyd found Watkins for a 34-yard score to put Clemson back on top. Ohio State answered with a safety, sacking Boyd one play after Armani Reeves brilliantly downed a punt at the 1, putting the ball on the turf with his left hand as his right hand was touching the orange paint in the Clemson end zone.

Vikings retain counsel to look into Kluwe charges

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The Minnesota Vikings have retained a former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court and a former federal trial attorney to conduct an investigation into Chris Kluwe's allegations that he was released from the team due to his support of gay marriage.

Former Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court Eric Magnuson and former Justice Department attorney Chris Madel will lead the investigation.

"It is extremely important for the Vikings organization to react immediately and comprehensively with an independent review of these allegations," team President Mark Wilf said in a statement Friday, one day after Kluwe penned an article alleging that special teams coordinator Mike Priefer made anti-gay comments during team meetings.

Priefer denied Kluwe's allegations, and the Vikings said they take the matter "very seriously."

Magnuson and Madel now work at Robins, Kaplan, Ciresi and Miller. The Vikings said the investigation is already underway and interviews are being conducted with current and former members of the organization.

Kluwe said that he is pleased to see the team is taking the matter seriously and he looked forward to cooperating with the investigation. Several players have come out in support of Priefer, but Kluwe did say that he has witnesses who will corroborate his claims. He reiterated his hope that bringing this issue to light would discourage the Vikings or other teams from employing Priefer.

"I made some very serious statements and I do have the evidence to back them up," Kluwe said on Friday in a phone interview. "I don't think he's a good role model."

Kluwe was cut by the Vikings in May after eight seasons in Minnesota. He lost a competition for a job in Oakland in the preseason. When he couldn't catch on with a team during the season despite several tryouts, he said he believed that teams were turned off by his outspoken nature.

"I could still punt the ball 45 yards outside the numbers with decent hang time," Kluwe said. "When I continued to do that and still wasn't getting a job, you had to think that people were looking at what he would say on Twitter."

Kluwe has been outspoken on a number of topics, including supporting gay marriage, criticizing the Catholic church and stumping for Ray Guy to make it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He said he decided to bring his concerns with Priefer, former coach Leslie Frazier and Vikings GM Rick Spielman to light now in hopes of "getting them to take a look at themselves and examine who they are as individuals."

Madel has previously worked with the Vikings before, in 2003, when he investigated a team fundraiser that included allegations of sexual assault.

"This is a highly sensitive matter that we as an organization will address with integrity," Vikings vice president of legal affairs Kevin Warren said in a statement. "Eric and Chris have stellar reputations in both the local and national legal community. They have handled numerous cases involving a wide range of issues, and we are confident they will move swiftly and fairly in completing this investigation."

Peyton Manning is only unanimous All-Pro choice

NEW YORK (AP) Peyton Manning has responded to a lost season the way he reacted to all of his great seasons.

By having more great seasons.

Manning was the only unanimous choice for the 2013 Associated Press NFL All-Pro team Friday. It was his seventh time as a first-teamer, tying Hall of Famer Otto Graham for the most by a quarterback.

The Denver star set NFL records this season with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards through the air.

He was chosen on all 50 ballots from media members who regularly cover the NFL. Manning also was an All-Pro for Indianapolis in 2003, '04, '05, '08 and '09 and last season made it as a Bronco. He's been on the All-Pro team in both seasons since missing 2011 after several neck surgeries.

"I think it's well documented that this is the second chapter of my career, and didn't know what to expect off that injury and new team, new players and new physical state after an injury," said Manning, a four-time league MVP who never missed a pro start before 2011. "So I had no idea what to expect, and I've put a lot of time and a lot of hard work in to it. But I've received a lot of help along the way from coaches and trainers and strength coaches and teammates. So I'm very grateful."

Manning still has a ways to go to set the record for most All-Pro appearances at any position. Among the players ahead of him is Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice with 10.

New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham and Indianapolis outside linebacker Robert Mathis each drew 49 votes. Philadelphia running back LeSean McCoy and Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman had 48.

Minnesota kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson was the only rookie on the squad.

Eighteen NFC players and nine from the AFC made the team. Carolina and Philadelphia each had three: linebacker Luke Kuechly, center Ryan Kalil and fullback Mike Tolbert for the Panthers; NFL rushing leader McCoy, guard Evan Mathis and tackle Jason Peters for the coach Chip Kelly's Eagles.

"Just when Chip came here, we knew we were going to run the ball," McCoy said. "The linemen, they've all been healthy this whole year. They've been blocking so well for me and without those guys, it's not possible."

Only two members of the top teams in each conference made the All-Pro team. Joining Manning from the Broncos (13-3) was guard Louis Vasquez. Joining Sherman from the Seahawks (13-3) was safety Earl Thomas.

"It is very special, especially in a special season," Sherman said. "If you're having a special season and your team has four wins or five wins, I'm sure it doesn't feel as good. But when your team is winning, your defense is No. 1 in every category and you're just contributing, you're not even trying to do anything special individually, you're just contributing to the entire group. It really feels special. And with the chance to do what we have a chance to do this year, it would be fantastic."

Unlike Sherman, many of the players chosen did not enjoy huge team success this season: 12 of the 27 failed to make the playoffs.

Rounding out the offense were receivers Calvin Johnson of Detroit and Josh Gordon of Cleveland; running back Jamaal Charles of Kansas City; and tackle Joe Thomas of Cleveland.

Other All-Pros on defense were ends J.J. Watt of Houston and Robert Quinn of St. Louis; tackles Gerald McCoy of Tampa Bay and Ndamukong Suh of Detroit; outside linebacker Lavonte David of Tampa Bay; inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman of San Francisco; cornerback Patrick Peterson of Arizona; and safety Eric Berry of Kansas City.

The special teamers were Patterson, kicker Justin Tucker of Baltimore and punter Johnny Hekker of St. Louis.

One of 15 first-time All-Pros, Kuechly was last season's Defensive Rookie of the Year.

"It's an individual award, but it's a representation of the team," he said. "You got to always remember that you have four guys in front of you. You got the other linebackers, the coaches and the DBs behind you that make everything possible."

Overall, 16 clubs were represented on the All-Pro team: Denver, Kansas City, Cleveland, Baltimore, Houston and Indianapolis in the AFC; Philadelphia, Carolina, Seattle, Detroit, St. Louis, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Arizona, Minnesota and San Francisco in the NFC.

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AP Pro Football Writers Arnie Stapleton and Rob Maaddi and Sports Writers Steve Reed and Tim Booth contributed to this story.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Baylor coach Briles says 'no desire' for other job

Baylor coach Art Briles said Friday he has no desire to pursue another job and plans to lead the defending Big 12 champion Bears into their new stadium next fall.

With his name linked to the opening at Texas, and speculation increasing after the Bears' most successful season ever, Briles sent a tweet on his account that read "Contrary to reports and rumors I am a Baylor Bear - 2013 Big 12 Champs." The school later released a statement from the coach.

"As I've said many times, I am both humbled and honored to be the head coach at Baylor University, and believe we have something special going here," Briles said. "I look forward to leading the Bears onto the field next fall at McLane Stadium and defending our Big 12 championship that our players and coaches worked so hard to win this season. `'

The sixth-ranked Bears finished 11-2 after losing 52-42 to No. 15 UCF on Wednesday night in the Fiesta Bowl, their only Bowl Championship Series appearance. They finished the regular season with a 30-10 win over Texas to clinch their first Big 12 title, Baylor's first outright conference title since the 1980 Southwest Conference.

"There is tremendous excitement for our program's future, and I look forward to many more great seasons at Baylor," Briles said. "There is tremendous commitment from our university leadership, athletic administration, coaches and student-athletes - it truly is a great time to be a Baylor Bear."

Baylor next season moves into a new $260 million stadium on the Waco campus.

Briles in November agreed to a new 10-year contract through 2023, though the 58-year-old coach had already been signed for multiple seasons past this year. He is 44-32 at Baylor, and this season was the unanimous pick as AP All-Big 12 coach of the year.

The private school doesn't reveal financial terms, but the new deal was reportedly worth more than $4 million a season.

When Briles arrived at Baylor six years ago, the Bears had just finished their 12th consecutive losing season under four coaches since the inception of the Big 12.

Baylor is 29-10 over the past three seasons, a stretch that began in 2011 with Robert Griffin III winning the Heisman Trophy before being the No. 2 overall pick by the NFL's Washington Redskins. The Bears have been to four consecutive bowls for the first time in school history.

Briles went to Baylor from Houston, where he was 34-28 in five seasons (2003-07). The Cougars were 0-11 two seasons before he arrived, but Briles led them the 2006 Conference USA championship and four bowl games.

O'Brien takes over as Texans coach

HOUSTON (AP) Bill O'Brien has been introduced as the third coach in Houston Texans history.

Less than two years after replacing Joe Paterno as coach at Penn State, the 44-year-old O'Brien has returned to the NFL. He was an offensive assistant under Bill Belichick at New England from 2007-12.

He was introduced on Friday, taking over for Gary Kubiak, who was fired with three games left in Houston's NFL-worst 2-14 season.

O'Brien was 15-9 at Penn State, hit hard by NCAA sanctions levied for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that cost the late Paterno his job.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Newton eager for big stage, wants to be accurate

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Cam Newton knows he'll need to bring his passes down if he wants to thrive in the NFL playoffs.

Whether it's leading Auburn to a national championship, throwing for 422 yards in his rookie debut or leading the Carolina Panthers on a last-minute drive to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots on Monday Night Football, Newton has been at his best when the games are most important.

Coach Ron Rivera said big games tend to bring out the best in Newton.

The Panthers hope that Newton continues that trend on Jan. 12 when he plays in his first playoff game.

Newton believes he and his teammates will do just that - no matter who they play.

"I feel when we are playing at our best there is really no team that can stop us." Newton said.

But the Panthers' offense hasn't been at its best in the last month.

Newton has reverted at times to his tendency to throw off his back foot, thus allowing the ball to sail over the heads of intended receivers.

Rivera said he's not concerned, though.

"We have been through this before with him before and he just makes a couple of adjustments and he gets it back down," Rivera said. "Everybody goes through ups and downs. So right now he might be in a down."

The Panthers have spent the bye week working to sharpen their offense, particularly the passing game. Over the past four games Newton has thrown for only 763 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 7.1 yards per pass attempt. It doesn't help that wide receiver Steve Smith is nursing a sprained ligament in his knee and missed Week 17.

"I need to be better, not missing throws that I'm capable of making," Newton said.

His overall body of work has been pretty solid.

Newton threw for 3,379 yards this season with a career-high 24 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. He ran for 585 yards and six scores and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

More importantly to Newton, he got the Panthers to the playoffs with a 12-4 record and a bye for the wild-card round.

Newton said the two-week layoff between the regular season and the Panthers' first playoff game doesn't compare to the lead up to the national championship game at Auburn.

"Two different situations," Newton said. "It's nothing like college at all. I have yet to experience a playoff game, but I know the atmosphere will be hectic to say the least. There is a lot more to play for if you ask me."

Newton said his approach to the playoffs will be the same as the regular season.

"You don't want to be overthinking things," he said.

He also said getting a rest this week has been "therapeutic" for him and the team.

In recent weeks, he's battled through minor injuries to his ankle, toe, arm, head and mouth but hasn't missed a snap.

Part of that could be Newton is running a bit more than he did early in the season, which he attributed to "taking what the defense is giving me."

Newton ran 12 times in Carolina's win over Atlanta on Sunday and said after the game he doesn't want to make a living off carrying the ball that many times on a regular basis.

But the bottom line is Carolina is winning games.

The Panthers have won 11 of their last 12 games with Newton leading four game-winning drives during that span, using both his legs and his arm. And Newton is willing to do whatever it takes to continue that trend on the big stage.

"We have found a way to win," Newton said. "Prior to this year, we haven't had the success we needed (in close games), but we learned from those situations and it's showing."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Knight has 4 TDs as Sooners stun Bama in Sugar Bowl

NEW ORLEANS (AP) Trevor Knight passed for 348 yards and four touchdowns and No.11 Oklahoma took down third-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 45-31 on Thursday night.

Kinght's completion percentage entering the game was 52.2. He had completed 47 passes all season, and had 32 against Alabama to set a Sugar Bowl record.

The victory was a sweet one for Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who last offseason called talk about the Southeastern Conference being the best league in college football "propaganda."

His team vanquished an Alabama squad that had been ranked No. 1 much of the past three seasons, winning the previous two national titles.

AJ McCarron passed for 387 yards and two TDs, but his two interceptions set up Oklahoma TDs, and his fumble, returned for a score in the final minute, sealed `Bama's first two-game skid since its Sugar Bowl loss to Utah in January 2009.

The Sugar Bowl's 80th edition marked the first in which both quarterbacks passed for 300-plus yards.

Vikings LB Henderson arrested again for DWI

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Minnesota Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson has been arrested again for drunken driving, putting his status with the team in question after a perilous one-car crash that heavily damaged the sports utility vehicle he was driving.

Henderson was booked into jail Wednesday and released Thursday on $12,000 bail. He has a court appearance scheduled March 3 on these charges: second and third degree driving while intoxicated and test refusal; possession of a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, and violation of a limited driver license.

Henderson was arrested in Chanhassen, a suburb near team headquarters in Eden Prairie.

The Vikings issued a statement Thursday morning: "We are aware of the matter involving Erin Henderson. We are continuing to gather information and will have further comment at the appropriate time."

According to the Carver County Sheriff's office, Henderson was traveling on a county road when he lost control of the car, skidded over the centerline and went through a grassy area and a park-and-ride lot before colliding with some trees.

The 27-year-old Henderson, who finished second on the team in tackles this season, was not injured. Officers observed a strong odor of alcohol on Henderson's breath as well as bloodshot and glassy eyes. He was arrested after "performing poorly during standardized field sobriety testing," according to a news release from the sheriff's office.

Henderson was moved to middle linebacker this year and the starter there until he was arrested Nov. 19 in Eden Prairie on suspicion of DWI and drug possession, one of three arrests involving Vikings players that month. Audie Cole took his spot, and Henderson returned to his previous position on the weak side.

Henderson has one season left on his contract with a $1.95 million salary, but if the Vikings cut him before the new league year begins they'd only take a $250,000 hit against their salary cap for the remaining prorated portion of his signing bonus.

Henderson spoke to reporters after the first arrest about "a wake-up call" that he said he thought would help him mature. Again this week as players cleaned out their cubicles following the end of the season, Henderson said he was in a better place.

"I think I grew leaps and bounds as a player and as a person as well," he said Monday.

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AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org

Troy football player Garner found dead on highway

TROY, Ala. (AP) Troy football player Jadarius Garner was found dead on a Mississippi highway Thursday morning, and the state highway patrol is investigating the cause of his death.

Mississippi Highway Patrol spokesman Anthony Dunn said that the 20-year-old Garner was found lying on U.S. Highway 61 in Bolivar County at 2:27 a.m. after two cars had run over him.

He was pronounced dead at the scene.

State troopers, sheriff's deputies and rescue officials from Bolivar County were responding to what was believed to be a two-vehicle accident about 3 miles south of Oreilly, Miss.

The drivers of the two cars were not injured.

"This is a terrible tragedy and our thoughts and prayers go out to Jadarius' family in this time of grief," Troy coach Larry Blakeney said. "Jadarius was a well-respected member of our football team and his loss will be felt by all of us."

Garner had just completed his second season with the Trojans after transferring from Jones County Community College in Mississippi. He had 21 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks in 12 games as a sophomore.

Garner was named the Sun Belt Conference defensive player of the week on Sept. 9.

"I can't express how deeply saddened we are by the loss of Jadarius," Troy athletic director John Hartwell said. "Our hearts go out to his family, friends and teammates in this unimaginable time of pain, and we will do all that we can to help and support them."

Cavaliers' Irving misses game with knee injury

CLEVELAND (AP) Kyrie Irving wanted to play in all 82 games this season. Now the Cleveland Cavaliers hope he will only miss one.

The All-Star point guard sat out for the first game of the season Thursday night, missing the Cavaliers' game against Orlando because of a bruised left knee.

Irving, averaging a team-leading 22.2 points, was injured in the third quarter Tuesday in a 91-76 loss at Indiana. Irving felt a "pop" as he fell awkwardly on a drive to the basket, but an MRI on Wednesday revealed he only bruised the knee.

Cavaliers coach Mike Brown believes it's best to be cautious with his star player, who is listed as day-to-day. Cleveland's next game is Saturday at Brooklyn and the Cavaliers host Indiana on Sunday.

"I think he understands what he needs to do to help make sure he takes care of his body long term and not think about the short term," Brown said. "I don't think it's a big problem for him."

Irving, who worked out at Quicken Loans Arena prior to Thursday's game, will receive additional treatment and rest. The former No. 1 overall pick has been injury prone during his NBA career. Irving missed 38 games in his first two seasons with a variety of injuries.

Jarrett Jack started at point guard for the Cavaliers, who have dropped a season-high six consecutive games, including two in overtime and a three-point loss in regulation.

"It's tough because you obviously want to have him on the floor," Brown said. "For us, where we're sitting and the way we've closed games, whether we have Kyrie or not, it's a psychological barrier we have to get over in order to get wins. You'd love to have him but whether he's here or not, it's not an easy task."

Irving's injuries in his first two seasons have included a broken nose, fractured jaw, broken finger, sprained knee and shoulder, and concussion. He played in only 11 games as a freshman at Duke because of a foot injury, and he broke his hand after his rookie season when he slammed a padded wall during a summer league practice in Las Vegas.

Dolphins owner Ross contemplates possible changes

DAVIE, Fla. (AP) Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has left the team's complex without any announcement regarding the makeup of the organization for 2014.

Ross spent more than six hours at the Dolphins' headquarters on Thursday. He arrived and departed aboard his helicopter, which used the practice field as a landing pad, and he did not talk with reporters.

Ross has been meeting in recent days with his top advisers before deciding whether to fire anyone in the wake of a late-season collapse.

Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman is considered the most likely to go, and the future of general manager Jeff Ireland and coach Joe Philbin is uncertain.

The Dolphins (8-8) were on the verge of earning the final AFC wild-card berth before losing their last two games to the Bills and Jets.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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Ex-Vikings punter: Coach made anti-gay remarks

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Former Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe says his special teams coordinator made anti-gay comments while Kluwe was with the Vikings, an allegation the coach "vehemently denies."

In an article posted Thursday on the website Deadspin, Kluwe wrote that coach Mike Priefer made several anti-gay comments in objection to Kluwe's outspoken support of a gay marriage amendment in Minnesota.

Kluwe also says former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and current general manager Rick Spielman encouraged him to tone down his rhetoric in an effort to reduce distractions to the team. At the same time, Kluwe said, Vikings owner Zygi Wilf expressed support for Kluwe's championing of gay rights.

Hours later, Priefer issued a statement disputing Kluwe's portrayal of the events.

"I want to be clear that I do not tolerate discrimination of any type and am respectful of all individuals," Priefer said. "I personally have gay family members who I love and support just as I do any family member."

The Vikings said in a statement that they take the allegations "very seriously and will thoroughly review this matter."

"As an organization, the Vikings consistently strive to create a supportive, respectful and accepting environment for all of our players, coaches and front office personnel," the team said. "We do not tolerate discrimination at any level.

"The team has long respected our players' and associates' individual rights, and, as Chris specifically stated, Vikings ownership supports and promotes tolerance, including on the subject of marriage equality. Because he was identified with the Vikings, Chris was asked to be respectful while expressing his opinions. Team ownership and management also repeatedly emphasized to Chris that the Vikings would not impinge on his right to express his views."

Kluwe called Priefer "a bigot" and Spielman and Frazier "two cowards" for releasing him in May after eight seasons with the Vikings.

He was due to make $1.45 million, which was more than the cap-strapped Vikings wanted to spend on a punter. So they drafted Jeff Locke in the fifth round and parted ways with Kluwe, bringing to an end his colorful and outspoken stay in Minnesota.

"Any notion that Chris was released from our football team due to his stance on marriage equality is entirely inaccurate and inconsistent with team policy," the Vikings said Thursday. "Chris was released strictly based on his football performance."

In his article, Kluwe alleged that Priefer grew more and more impatient with the various causes Kluwe supported and several times made anti-gay remarks during team meetings.

Kluwe said wanted to post his article now in hopes of discouraging the Vikings, or any other team, from employing Priefer, who is widely respected at Vikings headquarters and is viewed by some as a potential head coach one day. Priefer was hired by the Vikings in 2011. He served previously as the special teams coach in Denver and Kansas City.

"If there's one thing I hope to achieve from sharing this story," Kluwe wrote, "it's to make sure that Mike Priefer never holds a coaching position again in the NFL, and ideally never coaches at any level."

The Vikings did not respond directly to allegations against Priefer in their statement, but did say they "will have further comment at the appropriate time."

"The primary reason I entered coaching was to affect people in a positive way, Priefer said. "As a coach, I have always created an accepting environment for my players, including Chris, and have looked to support them both on and off the field.

"The comments today have not only attacked my character and insulted my professionalism, but they have also impacted my family. While my career focus is to be a great professional football coach, my number one priority has always been to be a protective husband and father to my wife and children."

Kluwe averaged 44.4 yards per punt over his career in Minnesota, including a career-high 39.7 yard net average in 2012. But he ranked just 17th in the NFL in punting that season before he was cut and he lost a competition for the punting job with the Oakland Raiders in the preseason in 2013. He had several tryouts during the season, but was never signed.

Kluwe said he wanted to wait to air his grievances until after the season so as not to provide a distraction to his friends on the team during the season.

The Vikings finished this year 5-10-1 and Frazier was fired Monday.

Several Vikings players took to Twitter to defend Priefer.

"Coach Mike Preifer has always been professional and one of the best special teams coaches I have been around!" fullback Jerome Felton tweeted. "In any meeting I have been in, I have never witnessed him say anything close to what's been alleged. That's just my experience!"

Tweeted safety Harrison Smith: "Since I've had the privilege of playing for Mike Preifer he has been nothing but a class act coach and a respectful human being."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Welker rejoins with Manning after missing month

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Wes Welker and Peyton Manning remain in perfect rhythm even after a month apart.

At least, that's what the Denver Broncos' receiver reported after practice Thursday.

"I felt like we were kind of on the same page," said Welker, who is returning from a concussion he sustained Dec. 8 against Tennessee - his second in a four-game span.

Hardly a surprise, since they've been in sync all season, with Welker catching a career-high 10 touchdown passes.

Lately, though, Manning has been without his security blanket as Welker sat out the final three games of the regular season.

This first-round bye gives Welker and Manning more time to re-establish their rapport.

Not that they really need it. More like fine-tune it.

"I feel like we've been around the league long enough, where we know each other's thinking and can get on the same page and ready to go," said Welker, whose team will host Kansas City, Indianapolis or San Diego on Jan. 12 in the AFC divisional round. "Hopefully, keep it rolling and just keep it going."

With Welker sidelined, Manning had a chance to work receiver Andre "Bubba" Caldwell and tight end Jacob Tamme into the pass-catching rotation. Two more threats for an offense that scored an NFL-record 606 points this season.

"The more weapons we can have, the more guys out there making plays, the better off we're going to be," Welker said. "We're going to need everybody here through the stretch and everybody stepping up and making plays when we need to."

That starts with a healthy Welker, who returned to practice on a limited basis last week and was fully cleared Monday.

"I feel good," he said. "I feel fine. I feel ready to go."

Still, there are those who are concerned about Welker's return, especially since he's suffered two concussions in a short amount of time. He sustained a concussion against Kansas City on Nov. 17 but didn't sit out any games. He was concussed again just before halftime in the Broncos' win against the Titans last month.

And while he appreciates all the worry, he insisted he indeed is good to go.

"I think we've taken a lot more action than what we would have in the past with this whole ordeal," said Welker, who is in his first season with Denver after spending the last six years catching passes from Tom Brady in New England. "I feel like we've taken enough time. It will be five weeks from the day I had any contact at all.

"It's always a tricky injury in just trying to manage it and everything else. The doctors and trainers do a great of just doing the things necessary to get me back out there on the field."

He has been a refreshing sight for Manning, who frequently looks Welker's direction when defenses dial up the pressure.

"We're glad to have him back and can use this time to work and get our timing going," Manning said. "I'm sure he would tell you he has liked being back out on the practice field and having some time to work."

No question about that. Sitting out has been frustrating for Welker.

"It makes you appreciate and it makes you hungry and ready to get back out there, ready to go out there and compete, especially at a time of the year like this," said Welker, who had 73 catches for 778 yards this season.

He will certainly help on third-down conversions. The Broncos were converting at around a 56 percent clip for most of the season with Welker around, a figure that slipped to 20 percent against San Diego and Houston.

Not only that, but Welker has a way of opening things up for other receivers, too, especially Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas.

"A lot of times teams will decide to go ahead and double Wes," explained Thomas, who had a breakout season as he hauled in 12 TD passes. "So absolutely, it opens up things for me. If I have single-man coverage, it's something that I definitely enjoy and look forward to.

"Wes brings a lot to this offense and we're excited to have him back."

NOTES: Manning was selected the AFC Player of the Month after throwing for 1,755 yards and 19 TDs in December. ... Broncos DL Derek Wolfe (illness) didn't practice on Thursday. ... Broncos coach John Fox may cancel practice on Saturday as a reward to the team. ... Asked about the challenges of having a week off, Fox said: "The challenge is it's a new season. All the records go out the window, all the stats go out there window. It's a whole new season. ... You can't have a bad day."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

Nadal reaches Doha semis against qualifier

DOHA, Qatar (AP) Top-seeded Rafael Nadal was the only seed remaining at the Qatar Open after he beat seventh-seeded Ernests Gulbis 7-5, 6-4 in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

Nadal is often tested by the 24th-ranked Gulbis but has yet to lose a match to the Latvian in seven played.

This match, which was delayed for two hours by rain, marked only the second time Nadal has beaten Gulbis in straight sets. The other time was also in Doha, in the 2011 quarterfinals.

Nadal is set to play German qualifier Peter Gojowczyk. The 162nd-ranked Gojowczyk defeated fellow German qualifier Dustin Brown 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5) to reach his first career tour semifinal.

The other semi will pit Florian Mayer of Germany against Gael Monfils of France.

Mayer defeated Victor Hanescu of Romania 6-4, 6-7 (8), 6-4, and Monfils took out Daniel Brands of Germany 6-2, 6-1.

Nadal finally broke Gulbis in the 11th game when the latter sent a drop shot wide. Nadal needed five set points to close out the first set in the next game.

Gulbis raced to 3-0 in the second set but couldn't hold on to the advantage. He had three points for 4-1 but ended up losing serve.

Nadal broke with a stunning backhand cross-court that creased the line in the seventh game to take a permanent lead. He closed the match with a breathtaking backhand volley winner.

"I'm happy to win against Ernests," Nadal said. "If you are not playing well it's very, very difficult. He's able to hit winners from every part on the court."

Before this week, Gojowczyk had only one ATP tour-level match win, at the 2013 U.S. Open.

Gojowczyk was serving for the match against Brown at 5-3, 40-30 in the third set but netted a forehand to drop his serve. From 5-5 in the tiebreaker, Gojowczyk won the final two points.

"I'm so happy to be in the semifinals, it's an unbelievably good feeling," Gojowczyk said. "2014 is beginning great for me."

Texas A&M WR Mike Evans declares for NFL draft

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (AP) Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans is declaring for the NFL draft.

Evans, a redshirt sophomore, was a consensus All-American and a Biletnikoff Award finalist this season.

He had 69 receptions for a school-record 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also set a school record with 279 yards receiving against Alabama this year. He broke his own record when he had 287 yards receiving against Auburn later in the season.

The 6-foot-5 former basketball star is rated as one of the top draft prospects at his position.

Evans thanked his coaches and teammates and says: "I made this decision based on what I thought was best for myself and my family."

He started all 26 games in his two-year career and had at least two catches in each of his games.

Oregon State WR Cooks declares for NFL Draft

CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) Oregon State junior wide receiver Brandin Cooks has declared himself eligible for the NFL draft.

The Biletnikoff award winner as the nation's top receiver, Cooks set Pac-12 records with 128 catches for 1,730 yards for the Beavers this season. His receiving yards were tops in the country.

His 16 touchdown catches this season are a school record.

The first-team All-American finishes his Oregon State career with 226 catches for 3,272 yards and 26 total touchdowns (a school-record 24 via catch). He has 3,863 all-purpose yards.

The Oregon State Beavers went 7-6, capping the season with a 38-23 victory over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl.

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