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Ten Observations from Week 8 in the NFL

1. This is a different Falcons team – a more dangerous one.
Even after their impressive 30-17 victory over the Eagles on Sunday, it’s fair to question whether or not the Falcons will roll through the rest of the regular season just to once again fall flat in the playoffs. They’re 0-4 in the postseason under Mike Smith and we’ve seen Atlanta clinch in the top seed in the NFC before, only to get steamrolled by a more complete team (i.e. the Packers in 2010). But this is a different Falcons team – a better one, in fact. Dirk Koetter is a significant upgrade over former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey when it comes to creativity, play design, and philosophy. Koetter actually installs a route tree that allows his receivers to run vertically. He’s creative in the red zone, as he proved on Sunday when he used deception to free up unknowns Drew Davis and Jason Snelling for touchdowns. Matt Ryan has thrived under Koetter, who understands how to best utilize talent like Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Defensively, the Falcons are more aggressive and more versatile now that Mike Nolan is calling the shots, as opposed to Mike Smith and former coordinator Brian Van Gorder. For the first time since Smith took over five years ago, the Falcon defense is forcing opposing offenses to adjust to them instead of the other way around. Granted, their running game and run defense still leave a lot to be desired so this Atlanta team isn’t perfect. But to assume the Falcons are set up to go one-and-done again in the playoffs would be a mistake. They’re simply a more dangerous team now than at any point in the past five years.

2. With his scapegoat gone, Reid now must point the finger at himself.
With an impatient and agitated fan base demanding change following the team’s 3-3 start, Andy Reid fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo last week. But Castillo was made to be the scapegoat for a much bigger problem in Philadelphia. That was evident again on Sunday when, under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Eagles surrendered 30 points and 392 yards, produced zero turnovers and didn’t force a punt until seven minutes and 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of an ugly 30-17 loss to the Falcons. Neither Castillo nor Bowles can cover Drew Davis or Julio Jones. They can’t tackle Jacquizz Rodgers or force Matt Ryan to turn the ball over. They also can’t light a fire under Michael Vick or inspire a talented yet underachieving roster that has shown zero signs of cohesion or chemistry the past two years. The problem in Philadelphia wasn’t the defensive coordinator and everyone knew it. But Reid was forced to make a change and Castillo was an easy target. It wouldn’t be surprising if Reid made another change this week, inserting rookie Nick Foles into the starting lineup and benching Vick. But it isn’t Vick’s fault that Reid put together a conservative game plan when he had two weeks to prepare for the Falcons. At a time when his coaching seat has never been hotter, Reid decided that a dink-and-dunk philosophy was the best way to beat an Atlanta team that hasn’t scored fewer than 23 points in a game all season. So while Castillo was forced to fall on his sword last week and Vick may soon be asked to do the same, at what point does Andy Reid point the finger of blame at himself?

3. If Turner goes, Smith should follow in San Diego.
Following their brutal 7-6 loss in Cleveland on Sunday, the Chargers have now gone six quarters without scoring a touchdown. That stat doesn’t exactly bode well for Norv Turner, who calls all of San Diego’s plays. But if the front office decides to finally axe Turner, it better be prepared to hand GM A.J. Smith his walking papers as well. This is the same man who believed Robert Meachem was a capable replacement for Vincent Jackson, whom he decided not to pay when he had the opportunity. Outside of his two-touchdown game versus New Orleans earlier this season, Meachem has been a free agent bust in San Diego. He dropped a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter on Sunday versus the Browns and has caught just 12 passes for 189 yards this season. Meanwhile, Jackson’s 29 receptions have gone for 626 yards and five touchdowns for Tampa Bay, which was more than happy to pay a receiver with great hands, the ability to stretch defenses vertically, and that is willing to block in the running game. Let’s not forget that Smith’s drafts have also been poor for several years, which has contributed to the constant underachieving in San Diego. Thus, there shouldn’t be a scenario that exists where Turner looses his job but Smith is allowed to keep his. The Chargers are in full freefall and more than one man is to blame.

4. Stick a fork in the Saints.
It’s a dangerous proposition to write off a team that employs Drew Brees at quarterback and has the ability to score 30-plus points a game. But following their putrid effort on defense Sunday night in Denver, it’s probably safe to assume that the New Orleans Saints’ 2012 season is officially lost for good. Their struggles on defense reached new heights in the Broncos’ 34-14 win, as Denver racked up 530 yards of total offense and finished with nine plays of 23 yards or more. Patrick Robinson was torched for passes for 41 and 26 yards, while receiver Demaryius Thomas got free for a 34-yard gain against busted coverage for the Saints secondary. Offensively New Orleans wasn’t much better, as Brees and Co. converted just 1 of 12 attempts on third down. It was the team’s worst performance on third down since 2005 when they finished 0 for 11 versus the Dolphins. Getting back to the Saint defense, this team has no shortage of issues on that side of the ball. But if you want to start somewhere, start with the fact that the Saints can’t pressure the quarterback despite that being Steve Spagnuolo’s area of expertise. Granted, he doesn’t have the personnel to run the scheme he wants. Will Smith is aging, Sedrick Ellis has been a bust from an interior pass-rushing standpoint, and Cameron Jordan is only in his second year. But Spags can’t use the fact that he doesn’t have Justin Tuck or Osi Umenyoira up front as an excuse. The Saints are the worst defensive team in the league and unless Brees is ready to win every game 35-31, the Saints are toast.

5. Don’t sleep on the Steelers.
Looking for a slightly above-average team that could make a strong second-half run and punch a ticket to the playoffs? Look no further than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have discovered their roots the past two weeks. The Steelers haven’t been able to run the ball on a consistent basis since Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker left town some odd years ago. Pittsburgh has since become one-dimensional on offense and has left Ben Roethlisberger susceptible to beatings behind a shaky offensive line. But in their past two games, Pittsburgh has rushed for 167 and 140 yards, respectively. Jonathan Dwyer has given the Steelers’ a lift and their offense has been more balanced and stable because of it. Granted, Mike Tomlin’s team is still searching for consistency on that side of the ball. But if Pittsburgh’s defense plays as well the rest of the season as it did on Sunday in a 27-12 victory over Washington, the Steelers will once again challenge for a playoff berth. With Ray Lewis and LaDarius Webb out of the season and Joe Flacco proving that he isn’t ready to put the Ravens on his shoulders, the door is open for the Steelers to close the gap in the AFC North and eventually take over the division if Baltimore continues to scuffle.

6. The Cowboys came inches from turning their season around.
Considering they turned the ball over four times and fell behind the Giants 23-0 on their home turf, the Cowboys hardly deserved to win on Sunday. But they came within the pinky on Dez Bryant’s right hand from producing a remarkable comeback. Trailing 29-24 with less than a minute remaining in the game, Bryant leapt high to snag a 37-yard pass from Tony Romo that would have given Dallas a late lead. But when Bryant landed, his pinky finger came down on the white strip in the back of the end zone. It was a remarkable catch but it was a catch that didn’t count. Three plays later, the Giants were able to preserve the victory by that same 29-24 score. Credit Dallas for not giving up down 23-0 after a disastrous first-half performance. But the Cowboys remain a team that can’t get out of its own way and at 3-4 they and Philadelphia are now each three games back of New York in the NFC East. Things don’t get any easier for Dallas, which travels to Atlanta next Sunday night to play the undefeated Falcons. The Cowboys will then travel to Philadelphia before hosting the Browns, Redskins and Eagles in mid-November. It’s feasible that the Cowboys could still turn things around but they could realistically fall to 3-6, too. Had Bryant managed to get his entire body in bounds, Dallas could have made things interesting in the division. Instead, the Cowboys have come to yet another fork in the road under Jason Garrett.

7. Manning is starting to live up to expectations in Denver.
Peyton Manning has lost zip on his vertical passes. He’s 36 – this happens when quarterbacks get older. But following his 305-yard effort in Denver’s 34-14 victory over the Saints on Sunday night, Manning has now thrown for at least 300 yards in five consecutive games and has posted an incredible 14:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that same period. Following his ugly first-half performance versus the Falcons on Monday Night Football in Week 2 (a game in which he threw three interceptions in the first quarter alone), Manning has been solid for a Bronco team that is clearly the best squad in the AFC West. If Denver can run the ball like it did versus New Orleans, Manning will continue to be surgical in the passing game. And hey, if the Broncos’ defense plays the rest of the season like it did Sunday night, Denver could make some noise down the road.

8. Rams prove they still have a long ways to go.
Rams fans were encouraged by the teams 3-2 start, as they should have been. But following three straight losses, which included an ugly 45-7 defeat at the hands of the Patriots on Sunday, it’s apparent that the Rams still have a long ways to go. For the second straight week, an elite quarterback had his way against the Rams defense. Neither Chris Long nor Robert Quinn pressured Tom Brady, who threw four touchdowns and constantly found Rob Gronkowski open in the middle of the field. What exactly was the Rams’ game plan defensively? They had to have known that with Aaron Hernandez out Gronkowski was going to be the focal point of the Patriot offense. Yet there he was, constantly running free in St. Louis’ defensive backfield. It was a brutal effort by a Rams’ defense that didn’t produce a sack, didn’t force any turnovers, and couldn’t stop the run. St. Louis’ defense was so lost that it’s amazing they found their locker room at the end of the game. Jeff Fisher is a good head coach and regardless of the final score of Sunday’s game, this Rams team is heading in the right direction. But after what Brady and the Pats did to them in London, you realize just how large the gap really is between St. Louis and the contenders.

9. The best in the NFC North have nothing to worry about.
It was rather jarring that the 15.5-point underdog Jaguars took the Packers to the brink Sunday in Green Bay. And that the Bears needed a last-second field goal just to beat the 1-5 Panthers. But neither Green Bay nor Chicago has nothing to worry about. The Packers were coming off three-straight road games and were hosting a Jacksonville team that lost Maurice Jones-Drew to injury last week. Chicago had a short week of rest and preparation after an emotional victory over division-rival Detroit. These were letdown games for the Packers and Bears and while coaches don’t want to admit that their players suffer emotional highs and lows, it does happen in the NFL. The key is that both teams won while the Vikings suffered their second loss of the season on Thursday. By the end of the year, Chicago and Green Bay will battle down the stretch for the NFC North crown. Some Sundays will just be prettier than others.

10. Injury roundup – some contenders could lose key pieces.
All in all the Falcons had a successful trip to Philadelphia on Sunday. But late in the fourth quarter linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered an ankle injury and was carted off the field. He’ll undergo an MRI on Monday to discover the extent of the injury and if it’s serious, Atlanta will lose a key piece of its defense. Weatherspoon is the epitome of a sideline-to-sideline player and he has such an active role in the Falcons’ defensive game plans. Hopefully his ankle sprain isn’t of the “high” variety and he won’t miss any time…The Chiefs might have to go back to Matt Cassel full-time at quarterback. That’s because Brady Quinn was knocked out of the Chiefs’ 26-16 loss to the Raiders in the first quarter with a head injury. Of course, Quinn had already put Kansas City in position to fail by turning the ball over twice. Chiefs fans may not enjoy watching Cassel play but Quinn once again proved that he’s not a starting NFL quarterback…Ryan Tannehill left the first quarter of the Dolphins’ 30-9 victory over the Jets with a hyperextended knee. Matt Moore didn’t miss a beat, guiding the Dolphins to their fourth victory of the season while throwing for 131 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-19 passing…One week after losing Sean Lee for the season, Cowboys’ linebacker Dan Connor left the team’s 29-24 loss to the Giants because of a neck strain. He might not play versus the Falcons on Sunday night…Eagles’ receiver DeSean Jackson suffered an ankle injury versus Atlanta but was able to return…Lions’ safety Louis Delmas left the team’s 28-24 win over the Seahawks with an injured knee and didn’t return. Delmas is a good young player but he can never stay healthy.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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Pablo Sandoval crushes three homers in Game 1 victory

I heard an interview with Detroit Tigers starter Justin Verlander before Game 1 where he was talking about what the fans wanted to see from him. It was something about fans wanting to see him pump fastballs past hitters instead of nibbling the corners, and that would be his approach. Well, maybe the long layoff hurt him and the Tigers, or maybe he should avoid worrying about what fans want in terms of pitching advice, as the Tigers got thumped in Game 1 of the World Series.

Meanwhile, Pablo Sandoval hit three homers in a row, two off of the mighty Verlander, as he joined Reggie Jackson, Babe Ruth and Albert Pujols as the only hitters to hit three homers in a World Series game.

It’s been a crazy postseason in baseball, and anything can happen, but this was a great start for the Giants.

World Series kicks off tonight

The World Series kicks off tonight with an interesting pitching matchup, as Justin Verlander takes on Barry Zito in game one between the San Francisco Giants and the Detroit Tigers. Verlander is considered to be one of the best, if not the best, pitcher in baseball. He’s also rumored to be dating Kate Upton. So life is pretty good for the guy right now. Meanwhile, Barry Zito has revived his career. He was once a dominant pitcher, but then several years ago the Giants didn’t even put him on the World Series roster. Now he’s starting game one. And that’s how it often goes in baseball. Pitchers at the top of their game can lose it, but you never know when or if they might get it all back. Zito is one of those guys.

The Super Bowl is great, but there are few experiences like a World Series game. There’s all sorts of excitement in each city, with tons of memorabilia for sale as everyone wants something to remember the event. Also, this stuff can be worth something in the future as well. Things like programs are very valuable, and even third party stuff can be cool. All sorts of entrepreneurs try to cash in. Taking their ideas to a printing company or using UPrinting online brochure printing and then selling their creations on the side of the road. Of course you have to be careful. You have to respect the MLB trademarks, so if you’re selling your own creation without an MLB license, it better be completely original and not infringe on MLB trademarks.

Every year a hero emerges, and that’s where creative entrepreneurs can do cool stuff with nicknames, etc. Hopefully you’ll get the chance to attend one of the games in San Francisco or Detroit. And pick up a cool thing to remember the experience!

Great weekend to tailgate in Columbus

Ok – every weekend is great for tailgating at a major college football game, and Columbus ranks up there as one of the most iconic college football spots in the nation.

But this past weekend was particularly good, as the Ohio State Buckeyes had their backs up against the wall versus the Purdue Boilermakers, a team that has given the Buckeyes fits in recent years.

The Buckeyes were 8 points down late in the game, and their star quarterback, Braxton Miller, was on his way to the hospital for an injury he suffered in the third quarter. But backup quarterback Kenny Guiton found some magic in the past minute to miraculously tie the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion, and then led the Buckeyes to the win in overtime. I wish I was there.

Well, Jerod Morris was there courtesy of La Quinta to enjoy the game and all the tailgating leading up to it. Check out his diary of a very fun 36 hours.

Ten Observations from Week 7 in the NFL

1. Flacco still isn’t ready to carry Ravens.
For the past four years, Joe Flacco has been able to get away with inconsistent performance after inconsistent performance because his defense constantly bailed him out. The Ravens coped with his hot and cold production because they were dominant on the other side of the ball. But with injuries to Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb, Baltimore is no longer a force defensively. Houston’s receivers ran free in the Ravens’ secondary and the Texans’ offensive line had its way with Baltimore’s defensive front in the running game. For once, the Ravens needed Flacco to carry his defense and instead he turned in a brutal performance. He completed just 21-of-43 passes for 147 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, and when he wasn’t skipping passes to his receivers he was throwing over their heads. Granted, Houston relentlessly pressured the pocket and its secondary was excellent. But the game looked like it was moving way too fast for Flacco, which is troublesome considering he’s a fifth-year starter. Baltimore’s offense hasn’t been in sync for weeks and now that the defense is limping, the door has opened for the Steelers to chip away at their rival’s lead in the division.

2. Rodgers is heating up.
The Packers aren’t exactly the perfect specimens. Their no huddle isn’t firing on all cylinders, their running game is non-existent, and their defense can be ordinary at times. But when Aaron Rodgers plays like he did in Green Bay’s 30-20 victory over St. Louis on Sunday, the Packers are difficult to beat. Rodgers was insanely accurate versus the Rams, completing 30-of-37 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. He was as good in the Lou as he was in Houston the week before and now that the Packers have gotten past the challenging part of their schedule (which included three straight road games), you can tell they’re ready to make a run at the Bears and Vikings in the NFC North. And thanks to Rodgers being Rodgers again, don’t be surprised if Green Bay eventually catches and surpasses its division rivals.

3. Pass defense makes Patriots vulnerable.
The Patriots claimed sole possession of first place in the AFC East with their 29-26 victory over the Jets on Sunday. Their rushing attack continues to be an important cog in their success, as they’re now 4-0 this season when rushing for more than 100 yards. But their pass defense continues to hold them back. Despite his best efforts not to at times, Mark Sanchez looked like a competent quarterback on Sunday. He completed a career-high nine passes of 15 yards or more and nearly led the Jets to what many believed to be an improbable victory in Foxboro. Opposing wideouts are allowed to run free in Bill Belichick’s zone and the pass rush continues to be inconsistent. Thus, even though the Patriots remain one of the most dangerous teams offensively, their defense will allow opponents to stay in games until the end, just as it did Sunday versus the Jets.

4. The Steelers’ defense finally steps up.
In Pittsburgh’s 24-17 victory over Cincinnati, the Steelers’ much maligned defense had to stop the Bengals on three separate drives in the fourth quarter. That’s usually not a noteworthy task for Dick LeBeau’s defensive unit, but the Steelers have become a team known for blowing fourth quarter leads this season. The Bengals didn’t even reach their own 40-yard line on each of their final three drives as Pittsburgh bowed up and finally resembled something of its past. Granted, it wasn’t all pretty for the Steelers. They dropped two touchdown passes in the first half and injuries continue to be a problem on defense. Still, the Ravens are a mess right now and the Bengals’ psyche has taken a huge hit. Furthermore, Pittsburgh was able to get its running game going thanks to Jonathan Dwyer (17 carries, 122 yards), so the Steelers might be able to help out their defense by sustaining drives and keeping opponents off the field. All of a sudden things are looking up again in Pittsburgh.

5. The Cowboys win but trouble remains.
The Cowboys essentially saved their season with a hard fought, but lackluster 19-14 victory over the Panthers on Sunday. There are several underlying problems in Big D right now. Sean Lee and Phil Costa had to leave the game with injuries, the Cowboys racked up just 19 points against a defense that allowed 25.0 PPG coming into Week 7, and there’s clearly a lack of trust between Jason Garrett and his team. Why else would he call a run on third-and-9 from the Carolina 15-yard line in the fourth quarter instead of allowing Tony Romo to fire a pass to the end zone? Maybe because Dez Bryant had just dropped yet another pass the play before? Or because Garrett is afraid Romo will once again turn the ball over trying to do too much? Garrett is playing not to lose and even though the Cowboys won on Sunday, that’s proven to be a losing proposition from week to week. Since their impressive victory Week 1 against the Giants, the ‘Boys have failed to generate much momentum over these last six games. If they’re not skating by with a win like they did in Carolina, they’re imploding like they did versus Chicago on Monday Night Football.

6. Despite the loss, RGIII’s statue continues to grow.
Robert Griffin III made several mistakes on Sunday, which included turning the ball over twice in New York territory and taking a 12-yard sack on a 1st-and-10 early in the fourth quarter. But the man continues to dazzle, so much so that following the game the Giants crowned him the best quarterback they’ve faced this season. There was the sensational 19-yard completion to Logan Paulsen on 4th-and-10 less than three minutes remaining that kept Washington’s hopes alive. There was the picture perfect 30-yard rainbow to Santana Moss that should have been the Redskins’ game-winning score. And there were the nine electric runs for 89 yards that sent the crowd at MetLife Stadium to their feet. It wasn’t a perfect performance and he’ll have to limit the mistakes going forward, just as he’s learned to cut down on absorbing big hits when he runs. But RGIII once again put on a show and once he figures out how to win on a consistent basis, then he’ll really impress.

7. How long before Ponder bursts Minnesota’s bubble?
Nobody expected the Vikings to be sitting at 5-2 after seven weeks. But thanks in large part to a restructured offensive line, a healthy Adrian Peterson and a defense that doesn’t have a glaring weakness, Minnesota is very much a playoff contender at this point. That said, how long will it be until Christian Ponder starts holding this team back? He completed just 8-of-17 passes for 58 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday. It was the second time in two weeks that he floated an interception to a defender, failed to sustain drives and generally misfired on most of his passes. Granted, he’s dealing with a sore knee so maybe that has affected his performance. But Sunday was also the second time in the past four games that Leslie Frazier and his coaching staff decided to run out the clock as soon as they built a second half lead. The Vikings turned the lights off at Mall of America Field as soon as Harrison Smith went 31 yards to the end zone on a pick six to start the second half. Are Frazier and Co. overly cautious or do they not trust Ponder? We’ll find out after Minnesota’s Week 11 bye when they play at Chicago and Green Bay before hosting the Bears in Week 14.

8. The Bucs are the Bucs’ own worst enemy.
The Bucs were screwed on the final play of the Saints’ 35-28 victory on Sunday. It’s more than a little unfair that Mike Williams was shoved out of bounds by a New Orleans defender and after hauling in a touchdown pass from Josh Freeman (who was outstanding, by the way), was penalized for being the first person to touch the ball. After all, what’s from stopping defenders from pushing receivers out of bounds all the time if they know the refs aren’t going to call pass interference? Regardless, the Bucs had already shot themselves in the foot twice before that game-ending play. With 14:54 left in the fourth quarter and the Saints leading 28-21, the Bucs drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for trying to simulate the snap count on a 51-yard New Orleans field goal attempt. Instead of possibly trailing by 10 with the entire fourth quarter left to play, the penalty kept the Saints drive alive and the Bucs fell behind by two touchdowns. Earlier in the half, Freeman hit Vincent Jackson on a 95-yard touchdown pass to set Tampa up at the New Orleans 1-yard line. The Bucs then proceeded to call three straight runs with LeGarrette Blount, all of which were stopped cold by the league’s worst defense. Freeman then lost four yards on 4th-and-1 and the Bucs inexcusably didn’t get points on the drive. Thus, while Tampa Bay fans have every right to cry foul on the final play of the game, their team didn’t do themselves any favors, which included blowing leads of 14-0 and 21-7 in the first half.

9. The Saints aren’t going away but their road back remains challenging.
Drew Brees reminded everyone on Sunday that he’s still one of the most dangerous passers in the NFL, one that is quite capable of leading a team out of the doldrums. He completed 27-of-37 passes for 377 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in the Saints’ 35-28 victory over the Bucs. He did all of this with one of his biggest and best weapons, Jimmy Graham, sidelined with an ankle injury. The 6-0 Falcons have a commanding lead in the NFC South but don’t forget that the Saints still have two games against their division rivals. It’s not inconceivable that New Orleans rattles off a few more wins and put itself in position to make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the NFC. That said, the Saints are owners of the worst defense in the league and their schedule is challenging the rest of the way. They play Atlanta twice, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York and Dallas before the year is out. And even with Brees throwing for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns, it’s going to be difficult for the Saints to overcome that early 0-4 hole they put themselves into.

10. Injury roundup.
The Redskins were hit the hardest on Sunday. They lost tight end Fred Davis to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury and it was reported following the game that Pierre Garcon has a torn tendon in his foot. London Fletcher also left the Giants game with a hamstring injury. For the Browns, rookie running back Trent Richardson was apparently benched for ineffectiveness against the Colts but he says his rib injury is worse than people think. As previously mentioned, Cowboys’ linebacker Sean Lee left the Carolina game with a toe injury and Phil Costa suffered an ankle sprain that looked pretty bad at the time.

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