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Rams offense fails to execute, Seahawks first losing team to make playoffs

St. Louis Rams starting quarterback Sam Bradford (8) is pressured by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock during the second quarter of their NFL football game in Seattle, Washington, January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Robert Sorbo (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are five quick-hit thoughts on the Seahawks’ playoff-clinching 16-6 win over the Rams on Sunday night.

1. Did a losing team really just make the playoffs?
I know Seattle fans are excited that their team just made the playoffs. They should be. I would be excited too if the Seahawks were my team. But it’s disgusting that a 7-9 team just qualified for the postseason and will host a game next weekend. The Giants and Bucs each won 10 games this year and they’ll be watching the playoffs from their couches next week. The Seahawks finished with only one more win than the Lions, Cowboys, Redskins, Vikings and 49ers. Think about that for a second. Think about how bad the 49ers, Vikings and Redskins were at times this season and they finished with just one fewer win than Seattle. In terms of competitiveness, this can’t be what the NFL wants. Regardless, the Seahawks are in and that’s all that matters. When they play the Saints next weekend, the regular season records won’t matter.

2. One team played to win tonight and the other didn’t.
Criticize the Seahawks and their record all you want but at least Pete Carroll’s squad went for it on Sunday night. They started their backup quarterback but as Al Michaels and Cris Colinsworth said throughout the broadcast, Jeremy Bates removed the shackles from Charlie Whitehurst and let him play. Granted, Michaels and Colinsworth made him out to be Dan Marino but there’s no denying Whitehurst stepped up with the playoffs on the line. The Rams, on the other hand, played true to Steve Spagnuolo’s conservative nature and tried not to lose. I don’t know if it was him or it was by design, but Sam Bradford threw most of his passes under 10 yards and rarely tested Seattle’s shaky secondary. Not much separated these two teams at kickoff, yet one made plays when it had to and the other one didn’t. The Seahawks aren’t very good but they approached this game as if it was the last one they would play this season. As it turns out, it won’t be.

3. Rams’ offense fails to execute.
The Rams’ offense was putrid tonight. Bradford and Pat Shurmur played things way too conservatively and the results were disastrous. On a night when two touchdowns and a field goal would have won the game for St. Louis, the Rams produced seven three-and-outs and racked up just 184 yards of total offense. Michaels noted how Steven Jackson only had seven carries at halftime but the Rams only ran about eight plays in the first half. The Rams never got into a rhythm and therefore, could never get Jackson rolling. Bradford wasn’t very accurate and even when he delivered a catchable ball, his receivers would drop it. How many first downs did the Rams fail to pick up because their receivers couldn’t make a play? You could see the wideouts’ confidence shrink as the night wore on and after Bradford threw that horrible pick midway through the fourth quarter, the entire team shut down. Their defense played well enough to win, but the offense never gave them a chance. This team also settled for field goals when it got inside the red zone all season long and what happened against Seattle? They settled for field goals on their two trips inside the red zone. How frustrating.

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Colts earn No. 3 seed in AFC after narrowly beating Titans

Here are three quick-hit observations on the Colts’ AFC South-clinching 23-20 win over the Titans on Sunday.

1. Colts hit jackpot on Sunday.
First, the Chiefs lost to the Raiders at home. Seven. Then, the Colts beat the Titans on a last-second field goal by Adam Vinatieri field goal as time expires. Seven. Then, the Jaguars lose to the Texans. Seven…jackpot. All right, so that last thing didn’t even need to happen if the Colts beat the Titans but it worked well with my jackpot theme so I forced it in there to make the bad analogy work. Sue me. Give Indianapolis credit for not backing down when Tennessee came out swinging. The Titans had nothing to play for and it’s human nature to think that, in that situation, Tennessee might roll over. But they didn’t, and the Colts showed some resolve by continuing to fight for four quarters. You would expect them to do that with the playoffs on the line, but look at the Chiefs. They would have won the No. 3 seed in the AFC had they beaten the Raiders, who also had nothing to play for. But the Chiefs thought Oakland would lay down and when Oakland didn’t, Kansas City tucked tail and ran away. Now Indianapolis has the No. 3 spot and has earned a date with the Jets next weekend.

2. Manning does it again.
This wasn’t an overly impressive outing for Peyton Manning, who was out-gunned by Kerry Collins (who threw for 300 yards and finished with a passer rating of 111.1). But it was Manning who once again came up clutch in the end by leading his team into field goal range in the closing minutes. Manning couldn’t move his offense much in the fourth quarter, but it didn’t matter in the end. He saved his best work for the finale and now the Colts are once again AFC South champions.

3. The Titans deserve some praise.
Give Tennessee credit for showing up to play on Sunday. This is a team that was criticized for giving up last weekend in Kansas City but they came out swinging against the Colts. When Indy held leads of 13-6 and 20-13, the Titans could have shut it down and let the Colts cruise in the second half. But Tennessee didn’t and the Titans wound up making a game out of it. And hey – surprise! – Randy Moss actually made a big play when he snagged a first down pass in the second half to keep a drive alive.

Thanks to defense and special teams, Packers clinch playoff berth

Chicago Bears starting quarterback Jay Cutler (bottom) is sacked by Green Bay Packers’ Erik Walden (93) and Clay Matthews (52) in the second half during their NFL football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are three quick-hit observations from the Packers’ playoff-clinching 10-3 win over the Bears.

1. Packers’ defense and special teams comes up huge.
With their playoff hopes on the line, Dom Capers’ defense was outstanding. The Packers held the Bears to a lone field goal while limiting their offense to just 227 total yards, which includes 117 through the air. They also forced two turnovers (which was big because their offense also turned the ball over twice) and picked off Jay Cutler in the closing seconds to preserve victory. Green Bay’s special teams were excellent as well. Tim Masthay and the Packers’ punt coverage team held Devin Hester to just two returns for 35 yards and a couple of Masthay’s punts backed Chicago up inside the 10. Tramon Williams also broke off a 41-yard punt return in the third quarter that put the ball at the Bears’ 44-yard line. Up to that point, Green Bay was held scoreless and its offense had been completely shut down. The Packers blew an opportunity to score a touchdown on that drive, but they did walk away with a field goal to tie the game at 3-all. On a day when Aaron Rodgers was largely held in check outside of one enormous completion to Greg Jennings in the second half, the Packers needed a big effort from their defense and special teams and that’s exactly what they got.

2. Did Smith do the right thing by playing his starters?
It doesn’t matter now because the Bears escaped without suffering any injuries, but how risky was it for Lovie Smith to keep his starters in the game even though the outcome didn’t matter? Chicago clinched a first round bye on Tuesday night when the Vikings beat the Eagles, and after the Falcons defeated the Panthers earlier in the day the Bears were locked into the No. 2 seed. But Smith decided to start players like Cutler and also never took them out. Again, the proposed question is moot because the Bears left Green Bay injury-free but Smith’s decision will be a topic of discussion on Monday’s sports radio shows in Chicago. I guess you kind of have to hand it to Smith and the Bears for trying to stick it to their biggest rivals.

3. What’s next?
With the win, the Packers knocked the Giants and Bucs and will now play at Philadelphia next weekend. The Packers have already beaten the Eagles on the road but that was in Week 1 when Kevin Kolb started and was a disaster in the first quarter and a half. The Packers may have caught a break because Michael Vick was injured on the first play against Minnesota on Tuesday night. By the time he’s ready for the Wildcard game, he will have had two weeks of rest but it’ll be interesting to see if his injured quad limits him as a runner. The Eagles are also coming off two-straight losses, so they’re reeling a little bit. If Green Bay’s defense plays as well next week as it did against Chicago, it may set up a return trip to Atlanta in two weeks. (The Packers lost to the Falcons earlier this season.)

Drew Brees and the Saints have issues

New Orleans Saints Drew Brees passes over the middle against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during third quarter of their NFL football game in New Orleans, Louisiana January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are three quick-hit observations on the Bucs’ shocking 23-13 win over the Saints.

1. The Saints have issues heading into the playoffs.
After knocking off the Falcons less than seven nights ago, everyone was talking about how nobody wants to face the Saints in the postseason. But after the crap-show they put on Sunday in New Orleans, why should any team be worried about New Orleans? Drew Brees threw an inception in his 12th-straight game. Thomas Julius Jones fumbled at the goal line, which cost the Saints six points. For the second consecutive game, Sean Payton couldn’t get his offense moving. What’s going on here? The Saints are dangerous, period. But because of injuries and inconsistent play, they haven’t be dominant all season and it makes you wonder if they have what it takes to make another run to the Super Bowl.

2. The Bucs prove they can hang with the big boys.
Entering this game, the Bucs didn’t have a win against a team with a winning record. That didn’t mean they weren’t good or that they were lucky to still be in the playoff picture, but they lacked a signature win. Not anymore. For the second year in a row, Tampa went into New Orleans and beat the Saints. That’s remarkable considering the Saints won the Super Bowl last year. Raheem Morris has his young team believing that it can beat anyone and it proved on Sunday that it can. Josh Freeman continues to be special. Mike Williams is a great young playmaker. The defense is starting to take shape under Morris’ guidance. Regardless of whether or not they earn a trip to the postseason, things are starting to take shape in Tampa.

3. Why didn’t Payton remove his starters earlier?
I love Payton’s desire to win but he has to be smarter. The Falcons were obviously in control against Carolina up 31-3 midway through the third quarter and with nothing on the line in terms of playoff seeding for the Saints, Payton should have pulled his starters earlier. Malcolm Jenkins, Jimmy Graham, Chris Ivory and Alex Brown were all hurt in the first half. Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Jeremy Shockey and Anthony Hargrove were all inactive before the game. The Saints should beat whichever NFC West team wins on Sunday night in the first round of the playoffs next weekend, but they can’t be shorthanded for the Divisional Round. Payton is fortunate that Brees or another starter wasn’t hurt after he exposed his starters to injury longer than he had to.

Falcons earn a much-needed week off

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (R) makes a catch in front of Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason in the first half of their NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Atlanta, Georgia January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are three quick-hit observations from the Falcons’ huge 31-10 win over the Panthers on Sunday.

1. The Falcons desperately need a week off.
For much of the season, the Falcons have been a team that has largely done the small things right. They don’t turn the ball over, they don’t get penalized and they don’t beat themselves. But in the past two weeks, they’ve had trouble getting out of their own way. They blew several opportunities to beat the Saints on Monday night and even in their 31-10 win over the Panthers on Sunday, they missed opportunities that would have cost them against a better opponent. The offense failed to convert on two fourth down plays in Carolina territory and Michael Turner once again fumbled inside the 10-yard line. That’s twice in the past two weeks he’s put the ball on the ground when the Falcons were closing in on points. Does this mean Atlanta is primed for a fall in the playoffs? No, but the week off should do this team a world of good. It will allow the players and coaching staff to relax, re-focus and re-energize. The regular season is a grind and the Falcons did it: they earned the top seed in the NFC. But now isn’t the time for any team to lose its edge.

2. Weems is emerging as a weapon.
Eric Weems isn’t a household name but he will be soon if he continues to be a playmaker. A couple of weeks ago he returned a 102 yard kickoff return against the Bucs for a touchdown to spark a fourth quarter comeback. On Sunday, he took a 55-yard punt to the house to give the Falcons a 14-0 lead after Turner had fumbled inside the 10-yard line. Thanks to Turner, Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, this team has a ton of playmakers on offense. But having that added weapon in the return game is huge, just as Devin Hester and DeSean Jackson have proved with the Bears and Eagles, respectively. Weems isn’t quite on Hester or Jackson’s level, but he’s been great for Atlanta this season.

3. The Panthers have a long row to hoe.
What a disaster this Carolina team is. John Fox smiled more on Sunday than he has all season and why shouldn’t he be happy? The Panthers are a mess and a massive project for the next head coach. They need to draft a quarterback but if Andrew Luck doesn’t come out, then there’s not a prospect worth taking at the No. 1 spot. So what does Carolina do? Take the best player available and hope that Jimmy Clausen develops by leaps and bounds over the summer? The Panthers also don’t have a pick in the second round next April, which is rather unfortunate considering how devoid of talent the roster is. I know the Rams turned things around quickly, but they also have an up and coming quarterback and a competent head coach. Carolina has neither of those.

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