1. Adrian Peterson is this year’s MVP if…
Nobody doubted Peyton Manning’s ability to lead the Broncos to an AFC West title this year. The biggest question surrounding Peyton was his ability to absorb a hit, not fill the one need Denver desperately needed on offense. People assumed he would do that. But nearly every pundit had the Vikings finishing in the basement of the NFC North and yet here they are in the middle of December still competing for a wild card berth. Manning has been outstanding but what Adrian Peterson has been able to accomplish less than a year after major reconstructive knee surgery has been nothing short of incredible. Minnesota’s offensive line and defense shouldn’t be forgotten as we dole out credit for the team’s success, but Peterson is the biggest reason why the Vikings remain relevant in 2012. Opponents design specific game plans in efforts to stop Peterson and yet they can’t even slow him down. They know if they can build a lead and force Christian Ponder to beat them throwing the ball they’ll win. But they can’t because Peterson simply won’t allow them. Granted, Sam Bradford and the Rams helped Minnesota earn its eighth victory of the season on Sunday. But when Peterson sprinted 82 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter the Rams had just tied the game with a Brian Quick 4-yard touchdown reception. It wasn’t as if Peterson’s run put the contest out of reach – it was the beginning of him taking over the game. If he leads the Vikings to the postseason while rushing for over 2,000 yards in a pass-happy NFL, then he undoubtedly has my vote for MVP.
2a. The Bears are finished.
With their 21-13 loss to the Packers, the Bears no longer control their own destiny and they don’t hold the tiebreaker with current fifth seed Seattle because of their 23-17 loss to the Seahawks in Week 13. The question becomes: Will missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years spark change this offseason? How Chicago can fire Lovie Smith when former GM Jerry Angelo ignored the offensive line for most of his tenure is beyond me. Year after year the Bears had opportunities to fix their front five and Angelo never delivered. That said, this is now four straight years that Smith and his coaching staff have been owned by Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers. If your current coaching staff can’t beat your biggest competition, you’ve got an underlying problem.
2b. Packers coach Mike McCarthy makes decisions sometimes…
…that should have all of humanity questioning how the hell he was able to win a Super Bowl. That throwback fake that he called (or allowed his special teams coach Shawn Slocum to call) on the punt return midway through the fourth quarter in Chicago was beyond inane. You’re up 11 points in the fourth quarter, McCarthy, run the clock and secure a victory the ol’ fashion way.
3. Best team in the NFC? It has to be the 49ers.
While they did wind up blowing a 31-3 lead, the 49ers have to be considered the best team in the NFC after the show they put on last night in Foxboro. Granted, the 12-2 Falcons also beat the defending Super Bowl champions 34-0 but no team in the conference can match San Francisco’s physicality and now that Colin Kaepernick is their quarterback, the Niners are now more dangerous on offense, too. As he showed last night by mishandling a handful of snaps from under center and throwing an interception in the end zone, Kaepernick isn’t perfect. But he’s going to learn something new each week that will make him better down the road. It had to be troubling for Jim Harbaugh to watch Tom Brady carve up his defense for 34 points, and adjustments must be made in the secondary. But the bottom line is the Niners not only won the game, but also handled a team that had just humiliated an excellent Houston club just six nights prior.
4a. The Falcons defense has been outstanding against elite QBs.
Fifty-eight point five, 37.6, and 40.7. Those are the quarterback ratings of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning when facing the Falcons in the Georgia Dome this year. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan put together another fantastic game plan on Sunday, one that had Eli Manning under constant duress while shutting down running back David Wilson in the second half. They managed to shutout the defending Super Bowl champions without one of their key defenders, safety William Moore, all while stuffing New York on three separate fourth-and-shorts. Matt Ryan is now 33-4 at home over his career, and Nolan’s aggressive defense has done its finest work inside the Georgia Dome this year. The Falcons won’t quiet critics until they win a playoff game. But they’ve got a great chance to pick up their first postseason win if they can secure home field throughout.
4b. There isn’t a more maddening team in the NFL than the New York Giants.
Four weeks ago the Giants crushed Green Bay 38-10 but followed up that performance with a 17-16 loss in Washington. Then they scored 52 points in a 52-27 beat-down of the Saints only to post a goose egg in a 34-0 loss to the Falcons on Sunday. Eli Manning had one of those games where you wanted to shake him to make sure he wasn’t sleepwalking and David Wilson bombed as the team’s featured back (at least in the second half). New York’s secondary is also extremely beat up and several defensive linemen walked off the field limping after trying (and failing) to tackle Atlanta ball carriers throughout the day. Granted, we know better not to count Tom Coughlin’s team out when they still have plenty of life. But Giants fans have every reason to be concerned after what transpired in Atlanta on Sunday.
5. The Seahawks have become that team nobody wants to face in the first round.
Granted, over the past two weeks they’ve beaten up on Arizona and Buffalo. But they also outscored Arizona and Buffalo 108-17 and somehow managed to score three defensive touchdowns in the process. And if that didn’t get your attention, Pete Carroll is having his team throw deep on fourth down up 58-0 and calling fake punts up 30 points in the fourth quarter. Here’s what’s really scary: Marshawn Lynch is ripping through tackles and bursting into defensive backfields while also allowing to rest in the fourth quarter because his services are no longer needed in blowouts. Seattle’s biggest offensive weapon is going to be fresh – relatively speaking, of course – come January, and that should leave the Seahawks’ future opponents awfully anxious.
6. Putting Cousin’s performance into perspective.
It’s amazing, really. The Redskins found two quarterbacks with potential in this year’s draft while the Browns can’t find one intriguing quarterback in 14 years of drafting. It’s one thing to play hero when you only take seven snaps at the end of a game. It’s quite another to go on the road with your team’s playoff hopes on the line and face an opponent that not only has had an entire week to game plan for you, but is also in the midst of a three-game winning streak. Kirk Cousins (26-of-37 for 329 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) was beyond impressive in Washington’s Week 15 victory over Cleveland. He was poised, calm under pressure, and showed a fair amount of mobility as well. The 54-yard touchdown throw he made when he rolled to his right on a designed bootleg and dropped the ball perfectly into Leonard Hankerson’s arms was a thing of beauty. With their biggest superstar sidelined with a knee injury (RGIII), Cousins may have just saved the Redskins’ season.
7. Sam Bradford remains completely indefinable.
Bradford completed 35-of-55 passes for 377 yards with three touchdowns in Sunday’s loss to the Vikings. But he also threw an interception and lost a fumble that in large part led to the Rams falling behind 30-7 at halftime. Never have I witnessed a player give both his critics and supporters enough firepower to continue one excruciating debate after another. He’s making progress yet he’s painfully inconsistent. He often delivers uneven performances yet he can be clutch in crucial moments. He’s completing 60-percent of his passes yet he somehow battles with his accuracy. Is he on the verge of greatness or straddling the line between good and mediocre? Is he the next Eli Manning or Alex Smith? Half of St. Louis will draw one comparison while the second half will settle for the other. It’s maddening. Here’s what we know about Bradford: He should continue to improve if the Rams continue to build around him. They need to strengthen their offensive line, add playmakers to their receiving corps, and offer him some stability by not changing the offense. Here’s what we don’t know: Everything else.
8. One bad decision dooms Roethlisberger, Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger was fantastic on Sunday in Dallas. He completed 24-of-40 passes for 339 yards with two touchdowns and constantly bought himself time by moving outside of the pocket. On one play in the second quarter, he evaded the pass rush (a very good NFL pass rush in Dallas) for nearly 10 seconds before finding Heath Miller for a 30-yard touchdown. It was one of those games where an elite quarterback put his team on his shoulders and was practically willing them to victory. Of course, his performance on this day will be remembered for his biggest mistake. Brandon Carr made a fantastic interception in overtime when he jumped a route and picked off Roethlisberger to set the Cowboys up for a game-winning field goal. The loss left Pittsburgh at 7-7 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs with two games to go. If the Steelers can’t sweep their final two games and sneak into the postseason, that one throw will loom large.
8a. The NFC East is once again ready for a thrilling ending.
Everyone figured the Cowboys would eventually settle for a .500 season but their massive victory over the Steelers on Sunday has breathed new life into Dallas. The victory came on the heels of the Redskins’ win over the Browns, but also the Giants’ embarrassing 34-0 loss to the Falcons. If the playoffs were to start today, the Redskins would own the fourth seed after securing first place in the NFC East, while the Giants would be the sixth seed and the Cowboys would be on the outside looking in. But fortunately for diehard NFL fans, there’s still two more weeks of thrilling football to be played in the East. The Cowboys might have the toughest road, as they’ll host the always-dangerous Saints this Sunday before finishing at Washington. The Redskins, meanwhile, will visit the hapless Eagles on Sunday before hosting Dallas in Week 17, and the Giants will visit Baltimore before hosting Philadelphia in their final game of the season. Of course, the Bears and Vikings are still in the wild card mix as well so buckle up, sit tight and enjoy the friggin’ ride.
9a. Joe Flacco is literally burning future earnings every week.
Flacco completed 20-of-40 passes for 254 yards with two touchdowns in Baltimore’s 34-17 loss to Denver, but he did most of his damage after he put his team in a 31-3 hole. He lost a fumble on a quarterback sneak and before throwing a pick-six at the goal line he sprinkled in three straight three-and-outs, which allowed the Broncos to build a sizeable lead. The Ravens are going to begrudgingly win the AFC North and make the playoffs for the fifth straight year, where they could be bounced very early. Somewhere Cam Cameron is smiling.
9b. Moreno finally flashing his ability in Denver.
Now finally healthy, Knowshon Moreno is running like the back that Denver thought it drafted back in 2009. He literally jumped over Ed Reed in the Broncos’ 34-17 victory over the Ravens on Sunday, and Reed was practically standing up. Athens, Georgia grew accustomed to Moreno’s combination of power and athleticism, but now it’s a welcome sight in Denver, too. Moreno has allowed the Broncos offense to continue firing on all cylinders despite losing Willis McGahee.
10. The Panthers will be a playoff contender at this point next year.
The pass two weeks Cam Newton has been sharp on passes outside the numbers and in turn, he’s made DeAngelo Williams a bigger weapon in both the running and screen game. While they’ll need to continue to build on the defensive side of the ball and give Newton another weapon in the passing game, the Panthers will be a team to reckon with in 2013. Following the team’s third win in their last four games, Carolina fans are appropriately asking themselves, ‘Where has this been all season?’
1. The Redskins dodge two big bullets.
It’s ironic to think that back in April Mike Shanahan and the Redskins were blasted for drafting quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round instead of filling one of their many needs. Because just over five months later Cousins wound up saving a game for the Skins, if not their entire season. For Cousins to show so much poise and composure while leading the Redskins to a 31-28 come-from-behind victory over the Ravens was impressive. He was thrust into a situation where his decisions would directly affect whether or not his team would win or lose and he performed like a 10-year veteran as opposed to a fourth-round rookie. Instead of allowing the moment to overwhelm him, he displayed fortitude while finding Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with under a minute remaining in the game. Not only that, but he also ran for a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 28 and send it into overtime, where Washington eventually won. Afterwards it was revealed that an MRI on RGIII’s right knee came back clear and it appears as though the 7-6 Redskins will have their starting quarterback for the stretch run. Of course, if RGIII can’t go, Washington is fortunate to have a backup like Cousins. That’s something nobody expected anyone would say back in April.
2. The Bears may be on the verge of their second straight collapse.
The Bears would have made the playoffs last season had Matt Forte and Jay Cutler not been injured. That’s more of a presumption than a fact, but the bottom line is that they were undone by injuries and they might be suffering from déjà vu. With Brian Urlacher inactive, Chicago’s defense was no match for Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 31 yards on 154 carries and two touchdowns in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory. Worse yet, Cutler was shaken up late in the fourth quarter and is now day-to-day with a neck injury. We’ve seen this scene already play out multiple times: the Bears won’t survive without Cutler, who continues to take abuse from his shoddy offensive line. Fortunately for Chicago it plays Arizona in two weeks and wraps up the season against a Detroit team with nothing to play for. But the NFC North could be up for grabs next week and if Cutler can’t play, the Bears could suffer the same fate they did a season ago.
3. It took nearly three months but Cam Newton is finally putting on a show.
Turnovers and an inability to close out games doomed Cam Newton over the first three months of the season. That’s why instead of challenging for a postseason berth like some had thought they would, the Panthers stumbled to a 2-8 record. But Newton has been luminous over his past three games while playing like the star he was a season ago. He’s thrown for over 800 yards the past three weeks while posting a 7:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completing 62.2-percent of his passes. In Carolina’s impressive 30-20 victory over Atlanta on Sunday, Newton nearly played mistake-free football while completing 23-of-35 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also added 116 yards on nine rushes, including a 72-yard touchdown scamper on a read option in which he flashed his explosiveness and patience as a runner. He was even more impressive as a passer. It wasn’t just that he was accurate – he was accurate while throwing a handful of passes outside the numbers. He racked up 53 yards and a touchdown on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams in the fourth quarter, but the majority of his throws were lasers to receivers with defenders draped over them. He also benefited from an angry Steve Smith, who took 13 weeks of frustrations out on an overmatched Atlanta defense. Granted, it’s too little, too late for Newton and the Panthers. But Carolina has to feel much better about Newton’s performance over the past three weeks than it did earlier in the season when he sulked his way to six losses in his first seven games.
4. Reality is starting to set in for the Ravens.
The Ravens were a team of resiliency earlier this year but now they’re just a team trying to hold it all together. Thanks to injuries, they’re lacking playmakers on the defensive side of the ball and while their offense has been the highlight of their season at times, they’re an inconsistent unit led by an inconsistent quarterback. They caught a massive break when both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also lost on Sunday, but Baltimore can’t feel too good about allowing Kirk Cousins to put together an unthinkable comeback in the Redskins’ 31-28 victory. It was a game in which the Ravens held an eight-point lead until Cousins found Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds remaining, and a long punt return by Richard Crawford set up Kai Forbath’s 34-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. One week after losing to a banged up Steelers team, the Ravens were beaten by a rookie quarterback and his rookie backup. At 9-4 they’re still in good shape to make the postseason and even win the division. But at a point when teams hope to be ascending, Baltimore is stumbling backwards with legitimate concerns on both sides of the ball.
5. Skepticism once again takes center stage in Atlanta.
Instead of wondering whether or not they can make a Super Bowl run, the Falcons have once again left everyone doubting whether they can even win a playoff game. Their 30-20 loss to the Panthers was much worse than the final score would indicate. Carolina dominated Atlanta in all three phases of the game, which is noteworthy considering the Panthers currently reside in the basement of the NFC South. The Falcons’ game plan on both sides of the ball was rudimentary and despite scoring 20 points, their offense looked bogged down outside of a handful of drives. Opponents are making a habit of bringing pressure and putting it right in Matt Ryan’s face and the Falcons can’t counter the onslaught because they can’t run the ball. They also can’t stop the run, which was apparent by the 195 rushing yards their defense gave up on Sunday. Granted, they were without Week 13 hero William Moore (hamstring) and starting corner Asante Samuel (shoulder), but they can’t use injuries as an excuse. The Panthers manhandled them for four quarters and even though they’re 11-2, the Falcons are left with more questions than answers at this critical junction in the season.
6. The Rams are finding it’s better to be lucky than good.
In their past two games, the Rams defense has held the rushing trio of Frank Gore, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to 109 yards on 39 carries (2.79 YPC). A team doesn’t do that by accident. It takes a great game plan and near-flawless execution in order to suffocate some of the best backs in the league. What the Rams have done defensively over the past two weeks is hold their opponent just long enough for their offense to muster the confidence to move the ball into scoring range. That said, in taking nothing away from the heroics of Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Janoris Jenkins and Michael Brockers, the Rams have discovered it’s better to be lucky than good. If Jim Harbaugh doesn’t arrogantly call a toss play with Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter last week, the Rams probably don’t have an opportunity to beat the 49ers. If Austin Pettis doesn’t make a spectacular catch on a pass that was thrown behind him on a crucial fourth down play on Sunday, the Rams don’t beat the Bills either. (Buffalo also dropped at least two potential interceptions on that same drive.) But just as the adage goes, winners make their own luck. The Rams defense deserved to win the past two weeks, as did the much-maligned Brandon Gibson, the often forgotten Pettis, and the polarizing Sam Bradford (who didn’t become gun shy despite nearly ending the Rams’ comeback hopes with an interception). When a team goes 29-83 in between its last playoff appearance and the hiring of yet another head coach, luck can ride shotgun as long as the wins keep piling up.
7. The Giants might be the best team in the NFC (again).
Throw out the records – the 49ers are better than the Falcons. If the two were to met on a neutral field next Sunday, San Francisco would pound Atlanta on the ground and the Falcons wouldn’t be able to stop Colin Kaepernick or the option (much like they didn’t stop Cam Newton Sunday in Carolina). But the Giants took it to the Niners in San Fran earlier this season and with how good they looked versus the Saints in their 52-27 victory, New York might just be the best team in the NFC despite being 8-5. Having said all that, the Falcons will probably beat the Giants next Sunday in Atlanta and force me to take back everything I just wrote. (The NFC is a maddening bitch this year, isn’t it?)
8. The Steelers offense is regressing.
There were a number of things that had to disturb Steelers coach Mike Tomlin following the Chargers’ 34-24 victory. San Diego’s 34 points were the most that Pittsburgh allowed at Heinz Field in two years and Sunday marked the first time the Chargers had ever won a regular season game in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger’s return also did nothing for a Steelers offense that appears to be regressing heading down the stretch. Roethlisberger looked rusty out of the gates while throwing low to intended targets and struggling with his accuracy throughout the first half. His offensive line didn’t do him any favors either, and losing Willie Colon to injury in the second quarter forced Pittsburgh to reshuffle its front five. The result was predictable for the Steelers, who did nothing against San Diego’s aggressive front seven (which also shut down Pittsburgh’s running game). On a day when the Ravens and Bengals both lost, the Steelers blew a golden opportunity to gain ground/separation in the AFC playoff race. Tomlin’s only hope is that the loss to San Diego was a result of a hangover stemming from the win over Baltimore last week. Because the alternative is that a struggling Chargers team just exposed his squad n both sides of the ball.
9. Good for Andy Reid.
It’s been so easy to get caught up in trying to figure out who Andy Reid’s replacement will be next season that you forget Reid still occupies the job. You forget that Reid is still pouring countless hours of preparation into a game that, for all intents and purposes, won’t matter if his team wins or loses. You forget that this man still has a job to do despite everyone around him asking when he’ll be handed his walking papers. Nick Foles ability to find Jeremy Maclin on a 1-yard touchdown pass with no time left on the clock to give Philadelphia a 23-21 win over Tampa Bay won’t save Reid’s job. His players seemingly quit on him weeks ago and management has probably already made up its mind that a change is in order. But for one Sunday it was touching to see Reid engage in a long embrace with one of his assistants following the Eagles’ 23-21 victory. For one Sunday, Reid can celebrate all of the hard work that he did leading up to kickoff. For one Sunday, Reid can embrace victory.
Want to know how weird Sunday was? The Browns were the highlight of the AFC North…After putting together a complete win against the Steelers, Charger fans can understandably ask: Where the hell was that effort all season?…Give the Comeback Player of the Year Award to both Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. Seriously, just add an “s” to “Player” and call it a day. They’ve both been fantastic and the league will be slighting the player who doesn’t win so make everyone happen and have co-winners this season. Either that, or I want someone to look me in the eye and tell me one of those two players doesn’t deserve it…The Colts continue to defy logic. The past two weeks I watched that team play sloppy football for at least a half, only to still win in the end…It’ll be disappointing if Ken Whisenhunt winds up being the fall guy in Arizona, because GM Rod Graves is just as much at fault. If the Cardinals want to ensure that talented DC Ray Horton is given a shot to be a head coach, they could replace Horton with Whisenhunt for the final three games of the season. But it’s been Graves’ inability to find Whisenhunt a quarterback and built a component offensive line that has doomed the Cardinals. If Whisenhunt is ousted, it’s unfair that Graves is allowed to keep his job…Pete Carroll must have thought he was still trying to impress the BCS by running up the score versus the Cardinals. For the record, I have no problem with the Seahawks still throwing the ball up 83-0 on Arizona. The last time I checked, the Cardinals were still allowed to play with 11 defenders so if they didn’t like what the Seahawks were doing, they should have stopped them. That said, if Jim Harbaugh runs up the score against Seattle in two weeks, Carroll better not say a word…I hope Titus Young watched the effort that Kris Durham gave on Sunday night for the Lions and is embarrassed by his actions over the past few weeks…The ending of the 49ers’ victory over the Dolphins was exactly why Jim Harbaugh has decided to go with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. Just in case you were wondering…Defense isn’t the only issues the Saints have – that was a horrendous effort on special teams and for the second straight week, Drew Brees wasn’t very good either…The tragedies in Kansas City and Dallas the past two weeks have shown that the NFL and its 32 teams can only do so much when it comes to protecting its players. It’s ultimately up to these young men to make good decisions and the NFL can only hope that one of these times that the message will get through. Take a cab, reach out when you need it, and don’t be careless with your life or others.
Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league.
+ Let’s hold judgment on Adrian Peterson before all of the details have been released following his arrest. This is a player with no history of off-field issues and it’s extremely bizarre that he was only charged with resisting arrest. The current details of the situation are that Peterson and some family members were out at a Houston nightclub when police entered the building at closing time. When they instructed people to leave, Peterson apparently wanted some water but an officer told him no and AP headed for the exit. At some point an officer was pushed, causing him to stumble and then three policemen had to “detain” Peterson. What’s unclear is how a push led to three officers attempting to detain the running back and then escalating to an actual arrest. Again, we should hold judgment until the full details have been released because something doesn’t sound right here. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the Houston police overreacted and didn’t handle the situation properly.
+ Many have argued that the Saints players involved in the New Orleans bounty scandal were simply following the orders of Gregg Williams and thus, they had little to no choice but to follow their coach’s orders. I get that. If you’re a fringe player looking to stick with a team because your career and livelihood is on the line, then you may be more apt to get along and go along then to cause waves. But what everyone seems to overlook is that Roger Goodell was lied to, and that’s why he came down hard on these participants. When Goodell went to Williams, Sean Payton and Anthony Hargrove asking if a bounty program was in place, they all told him no. Then, instead of stopping the program right then and there, they continued their pay-for-performance system. And while players like Hargrove, Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fuijta insist that Goodell has no prove that a bounty program was in place, has everyone forgotten that Williams has already apologized and thrown himself at the mercy of the court? He already admitted that he was putting bounties on opposing players. So yes, maybe the players were simply following orders. But at one point Goodell asked the participants to tell the truth and nobody spoke up, so they remain in a hell of their own making.
+ Dick LeBeau remains one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, so don’t think for a moment that the Steelers’ defense is going to fall apart. That said, there’s no question that Pittsburgh is old on that side of the ball. Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will continue to be the focal point of the defense but younger players like Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta’amu to make an impact (especially with Casey Hampton recovering from ACL surgery).
+ It’ll be interesting to see how the Chargers’ offense develops throughout the 2012 season. The run blocking wasn’t very good last season and the pass protection was below average as well, which led to Philip Rivers make a fair amount of mistakes. Ryan Mathews is an emerging star and if the blocking improves, then obviously the running game on a whole will be better than it was a year ago. But the question is how effective will Norv Turner’s coveted vertical offense be. Can Robert Meachem finally have that breakout year that many have expected since he entered the league as a first-rounder? What will the absence of Vincent Jackson have on the passing game? Can an aging Antonio Gates stay healthy? Will Malcolm Floyd be as effective this season without Jackson on the other side? Rivers made the passing game flourish without V-Jax two years ago but he needs help, mostly from his offensive line. Again, it’ll be interesting to see if Turner, who is undoubtedly on the hot seat once again, can blend the new elements together to make the passing game thrive.
+ It’s easy to make the argument that the Texans’ window to win a championship in the next three years is wide open. Even with the loss of Mario Williams their defense has a ton of talent and is coached by one of the best in the game in Wade Phillips. But Matt Schaub has still yet to play in a postseason game and Andre Johnson, now 31, will have to remain healthy or Houston will fail to take the next step after making the playoffs last year. Losing Joel Dreessen to the Broncos in free agency hurt. Not only was Dreessen a solid blocker last year for Houston, but he also averaged 12.6 yards per play in the Texans’ big-play offense. That said, if Schaub and Johnson can stay healthy then Houston will make the postseason again this year. Thanks to the offensive line and the explosiveness of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, the running game will be enough to win games on its own. It’s just a matter of whether or not the Texans can stay healthy long enough to make a deep run.
+ The reports out of San Francisco this offseason have not be positive for first-rounder A.J. Jenkins. He reportedly has made some difficult plays but he’s also had a hard time staying on his feet during workouts and is viewed as a major project. But let’s keep in mind that if Jenkins struggles this year it won’t be the end of the world. It used to be that players could take their time developing but nowadays teams need their first round picks to make an immediate impact. That said, considering the 49ers have veterans Mario Manningham and Randy Moss manning the outsides, they don’t necessarily need Jenkins to be on the fast track to NFL stardom. Is it good that the kid can’t stay on his feet and is viewed as a major project? No, but it wouldn’t be life or death if he needed a year. Besides, the 49ers will make sure that Jenkins contributes one way or another, including getting him involved in sub packages. Just don’t expect him to be a No. 1 as a rookie.
+ Good for Joe Philbin and the Dolphins coaching staff for taking it slow with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Reports out of Miami are that the starting job is between David Garrard and Matt Moore because Tannehill is currently struggling with the speed of the game. Last year in Jacksonville, the thought was that Blaine Gabbert would be allowed to take his time while observe ring Garrard in his first year. But Garrard was released before the season and Gabbert was rushed into action way too soon. The results were disastrous and now observers are already questioning whether or not Gabbert can develop. Tannehill shouldn’t have been a top 10 selection but the Dolphins needed a quarterback and they went with offensive coordinator Mike Sherman’s guy. Fine. Now let the kid learn the game for a year before the weight of the franchise is thrust onto his shoulders. It’s not like the Dolphins are expected to compete this year so there should be no qualms about Garrard or Moore starting while Tannehill observes in his first year.
+ It looks like it’s going to be all or nothing this year for Montario Hardesty. Says ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi: “If Hardesty gets injured again, it’s easy – he will be gone, in my opinion. But if Hardesty stays healthy and is the productive player [Browns GM Tom] Heckert saw at Tennessee, I think he checks in at No. 2.” So essentially Hardesty will either be the first running back off the bench when Trent Richardson needs a blow or else he’ll be in another city at some point this year. Hopefully Hardesty isn’t another talented prospect that never developed because he was held back by injuries. He has all the talent to be a productive player in a two-back system but because of various injuries he hasn’t shown the same explosion he had coming out of college. Maybe this is the year he’ll finally stick.
Ten years ago you didn’t think twice about paying a versatile player like Ray Rice top market value. Given his age, his production, and his contribution in an offense, a team wouldn’t balk at his price tag.
But times are a changing.
Rice is believed to be seeking $10 million a year from the Baltimore Ravens, who are reportedly unwilling to pay their top offensive piece Adrian Peterson-type money. AP just signed a seven-year, $96 million extension with the Vikings last September and the deal includes $36 million in guaranteed money. In that same month, Chris Johnson signed a six-year, $55.26 million deal with the Titans that also included $30 million in guarantees.
Seeing as how Peterson tore his ACL and Johnson produced his worst season as a pro, you can understand why the Ravens are hesitant to pay Rice what he wants. The other issue is that running backs aren’t worth what they were 10, or even seven years ago. Nowadays, most teams believe that investing big money in a running back is unnecessary given how you can find a productive back in the middle rounds of the draft. Plus, by the time backs are 30 their production dips dramatically and they prove they’re not worth the investment.
That said, Rice shouldn’t be criticized for trying to cash in during his prime. As previously noted, he’s been an extremely productive back and for all intents and purposes, has been the entire Baltimore offense at times. NFL players have a very small window in which to be productive and get that long-term contract before the game pushes them out. Rice is merely protecting his biggest investment (himself) and in no way is that intended to make him sound selfish.
But unfortunately for Rice, he also plays running back in a passing era. No team, not even the Ravens after having a front row seat to his splendor over the last four years, is going to pay a running back $10 million a year. That’s just the way it is.
So what’s the solution? Rice should take a long, hard look at the contract LeSean McCoy just signed with the Eagles. “Shady” received a six-year, $45.615 million contract that also includes $20.765 million in guaranteed money. While McCoy is “only” making $7.5 million a year, the guaranteed portion of the contract is what really matters. No, Rice wouldn’t receive $30-plus million in guaranteed money like Peterson or Johnson, but $20 million for a running back in this era wouldn’t be chump change either.
If you’re Rice, you would hate to feel like your compromising but he and his agent must realize that he’s not going to get a deal worth $10 million a year, which also includes with $30 million in guarantees. All things being considered, McCoy’s contract should be what Rice his ultimately shooting for.
Every Sunday throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…
New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez looks at the scoreboard after throwing an interception against the New York Giants in the fourth quarter during their NFL football game in East Rutherford, New Jersey December 24, 2011. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)
- There aren’t many quarterbacks I wouldn’t take over Mark Sanchez right now. I would take Matt Moore over Sanchez. I’d take Rex Grossman over Sanchez, too. Hell, I’d even take Christian Ponder over Sanchez and I wasn‘t high on Ponder coming out of Florida State. I would rather direct snap the ball to Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson 75 times a game than allow Sanchez to throw the ball even once. His performance today in the Jets’ 29-14 loss to the Giants was brutal – Joey Harrington brutal. He makes horrendous decisions, he has zero confidence, and I’m not entirely convinced that he knows where he’s throwing the ball half the time. And at 6’2” he shouldn’t have so many passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage either. For the first time in three years the Jets’ defense isn’t good enough to bail Sanchez out so it appears as though he may have to watch the playoffs from his couch in two weeks.
- That was obviously a huge win for the Giants today but Eli Manning wasn’t much better than Mark Sanchez. I realize the Jets have the best pass defense in the league and pressured Eli relentlessly, but this is the second straight week that he was off his game. If it weren’t for Victor Cruz breaking a tackle along the sideline and racing 99 yards for a touchdown, Manning’s numbers would have been even uglier than they were. (He was 9-of-27 for 225 yards with one touchdown and one interception., although the interception was Hakeem Nicks’ fault as it bounced off his hands.) Again, if Romo doesn’t play next Sunday then Manning and the Giants will host a playoff game in two weeks. But if Eli doesn’t shake out of the two-week funk that he’s been in, then the Giants are prime upset candidates in the first round of the playoffs.
- Obvious statement alert: The Cowboys are in major trouble if Tony Romo can’t go next week. The Giants clearly aren’t intimidated by the Cowboys’ defense, which allowed 34 points to New York three weeks ago. Thus, if Romo isn’t healthy enough to go toe-to-toe with Eli and Co, then it’s going to be a very long offseason for Dallas. Get ready for ESPN to transform into the Tony Romo update network for the next seven days, although it sounds like the injury wasn’t serious.
- I could hammer the Chargers for their lackluster play in today’s 38-10 loss to Detroit but that wouldn’t be fair to the Lions, who put together their most complete game of the season. They absolutely dominated San Diego in all facets of the game and that may have been Matthew Stafford’s (29-of-36, 373 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) best performance as a pro. For the first time in 15 weeks the Lions played with composure, discipline, and urgency. If they play like this in two weeks then they’re going to be a tough out in the first round. Even though it played great today, their secondary is still a concern but there’s no reason to think the Lions couldn’t travel to New York, Dallas, or even San Francisco and win in the first round of the playoffs. But hey, for now, let’s just congratulate Detroit for making the postseason for the first time since 1999. Their fan base deserves this one…
- There aren’t enough adjectives in the English language to describe Jerome Simpson’s acrobatic 19-yard touchdown in the Bengals’ 23-16 victory over the Cardinals. If you haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and seek the highlight out on ESPN, NFL.com or YouTube. It’s well worth the watch, trust me. While the Bengals tried to give away today‘s game, they hung on for the win and are now in the driver’s seat for the sixth and final seed in the AFC. Considering most people didn’t think they’d win five games this season, Cincinnati’s effort this year has been rather remarkable.
- Even when they were down 17-0 at halftime did anyone actually believe that the Patriots wouldn’t come back and beat the Dolphins today? I blinked and the Patriots were in the red zone in the third quarter. I sneezed and the game was tied 17-17. I ordered another adult soda at the bar and the game was over. Miami gave it hell but New England’s offense is surgical when it wants to be. If the Pats don’t beat themselves they should represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this year, although Bill Belichick’s defense isn’t going to scare anyone (especially Baltimore or Pittsburgh).
REFILE – CORRECTING TYPO IN NAME Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow (R) is sacked by Buffalo Bills linebacker Arthur Moats (C) and linebacker Chris Kelsay (C) in the first quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York December 24, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)
- Tim Tebow must have left his magic juice back in Denver because he played like the lovechild of Mark Sanchez and Jake Delhomme today. Thirteen of 30 for 185 yards, four interceptions and two pick-sixes? Freaking brutal. I’m torn right now on whether I’d rather see the Broncos or Raiders in the playoffs. Is it worth it to see Tebow go 2-of-11 in the first three quarters only to pull off some stunning fourth-quarter comeback? Or would I rather see something resembling a football game for more than a quarter? It’s a coin flip, it really is. Plus, you never know when Tebow’s going to throw in a stinker like today, or his atrocious effort versus Detroit about a month ago. Well…six-in-one. Something tells me neither Denver nor Oakland will be advancing to the AFC title game so I guess there’s no use babbling about it.
- How could the Chiefs get that burned by Darrius Heyward-Bey on that over route in overtime? Kansas City didn’t bother rushing Carson Palmer on the play so one would have thought the Chiefs would have had about nine guys in coverage but nope – there was Heyward-Bey, running wide open and about two steps in front of a trailing defender. Thanks to Heyward-Bey’s big play, Richard Seymour’s blocked field goal at the end of regulation, and Denver’s atrocious performance in Buffalo, the Raiders are still alive in the AFC West.
- Baltimore is going to be tough to beat at home come playoff time. But suddenly the Ravens don’t look as dangerous as they did just a few weeks ago. They were shredded by San Diego last Sunday night and nearly blew a 20-14 lead against Cleveland today. Even if they thought the game was in hand versus the Browns, now isn’t the time to let your foot off the gas with the playoffs right around the corner – especially after you played so poorly last weekend.
- 2011 couldn’t end fast enough for the Minnesota Vikings. They finally win a game but Adrian Peterson tears his ACL (or at least that‘s what guys like Jay Glazer are reporting). Considering there’s only one more game left and the Vikings have been out of contention for about a month, this injury obviously doesn‘t mean anything to Minnesota’s current season. But because the injury happened now, Peterson may not be fully recovered by time training camp opens next year. And seeing as how ACL tears are usually a two-year injury, this is a devastating situation for a Minnesota franchise that thought the worst was over.
- I don’t care how bad the Browns are, I’d pay the price of admission just to watch Joshua Cribbs return kicks. Dude’s awesome.
- Well done, Josh Brown. As if the Rams’ season isn’t bad enough, you’re missing chip shot field goals as your team posts another goose egg. Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds.
- How about the “OT” on FOX? The Lions make the playoffs for the first time since 1999 and all they talk about is the Dallas Cowboys. The network even showed the Eagles’ (a team that was eliminated today, mind you) locker room celebration and then, in passing as the credits were rolling, finally said, “Congratulations to the Detroit Lions for making the playoffs today!” Granted, CBS had the coverage of the Chargers-Lions game so FOX wasn’t going to be able to do any live looks from Detroit’s locker room. But FOX still could have talked about the Lions more than it did. The media’s infatuation with the Cowboys continues to be nauseating for non-Dallas fans.