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NFL Wild Card Weekend Free Picks

Chiefs vs. Colts, 4:35PM ET
The Colts hammered the Chiefs 23-7 in Indianapolis in Week 16 but expect a different outcome today. Kansas City wasn’t prepared for the hurry up that Pep Hamilton threw at Bob Sutton’s defense but with more time to prepare, the Chiefs should adjust. Injuries could impact this game from Kansas City’s side of things, as Tamba Hali is questionable and Eric Fisher has been ruled out for the contest. But Fisher the Chiefs expect Hali to play and Fisher wasn’t performing well before suffering the injury so his loss shouldn’t play a significant role in today’s outcome. The Colts aren’t a very good first half team but they’ve done well playing from behind with Andrew Luck under center. Unfortunately that plays into Kansas City’s hands. Look for the Chiefs to build a lead and then protect it with a combination of Jamaal Charles and their pass rush.
FREE PICK: Chiefs -2.5

Saints vs. Eagles, 8:10PM ET
The Eagles have only beaten one playoff team this year and that came in Week 10 against an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers squad. But you’re naïve if you believe that Philly’s success this year is somehow marginalized by its schedule. Look at the NFL this year – half the league is garbage, which contributed to the Eagles’ “soft schedule.” Regardless, the Saints are a completely different team on the road than it is playing on the fast track of the Superdome. Drew Brees can talk about the Saints’ road record since 2009 all he wants but the fact remains that he’s a less accurate quarterback, Sean Payton is a more conservative play-caller and Rob Ryan’s defense isn’t as potent. Look for the red-hot Eagles to advance to the next round with a victory.
FREE PICK: Eagles -3

Chargers vs. Bengals, 1:05PM ET
The side is difficult to handicap for this matchup because nobody knows which Andy Dalton will show up. He’s as likely to throw for four touchdowns and 350 yards as he is to turn the ball over four times and keep his opponent in the game nearly single-handedly. Thus, the true value of this matchup may be in the total. The over is 4-0-1 in the last five meetings between these two teams in Cincinnati and 7-2-2 in the last 11 meetings overall. The over is also 4-0 in the Bengals’ last four games overall, 5-0 in their last five home games and 4-1 in their last five games versus AFC opponents.
FREE PICK: OVER 45.5

49ers vs. Packers, 4:40PM ET
Everything about this matchup screams 49ers, at least on paper. They have the significantly better defense, they’re built to win on the road thanks to their running game, and they’ve owned the Packers in the recent past. But this Green Bay team is eirly similar to the one that won the Super Bowl in 2010. That year, the Packers suffered key injuries throughout the season and barely made the postseason before riding a red-hot Aaron Rodgers to the title game versus Pittsburgh. Rodgers looked rusty last week versus the Bears but his second-half magic makes it hard to bet against him at home tomorrow night. If this game turns into a shootout, I like Rodgers over Colin Kaepernick, who has gotten a free pass for his inconsistent play this season after leading the Niners to the Super Bowl last season and playing with Michael Crabtree for most of this season.
FREE PICK: PACKERS +3

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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Questions about Andy Dalton in Cincy

Andy Dalton is a pretty good quarterback. The question is whether he can ever be any better than that and actually lead the Cincinnati Bengals to a playoff win, let alone the Super Bowl. With his lame performance against the Cleveland Browns this past Sunday, questions are starting to emerge around the league and in Cincinnati as to Dalton’s ceiling as a quarterback.

Dalton has a decent arm, but not a great arm. Under pressure his accuracy seems to falter as well. The Bengals were looked at as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but Dalton always made me skeptical about that prediction, and now his recent performances are causing more people to be skeptical as well.

Ten Observations from Wild Card Weekend in the NFL

1. Mike Shanahan cost both his quarterback and his team on Sunday.
That was a shameful display of coaching on Sunday by Mike Shanahan. First and foremost, who cleared Robert Griffin III to play? Dr. James Andrews said he never even examined him, so if it was Shanahan that cleared him then the league needs to investigate why a head coach is playing doctor. Secondly, RGIII was clearly in pain after he tweaked his knee near the end zone of the Redskins’ second scoring drive. It was painful to watch him fall to the ground after being untouched and then quickly glance to the sidelines looking for somebody (his head coach maybe?) to waive the white flag for him. But he’s tough and he should be commended for staying in the game. Still, it shouldn’t have taken his knee bending sideways and him lying on the ground withering in pain during the fourth quarter for Shanahan to finally pull him. He couldn’t run and he couldn’t put weight on his back leg, which caused him to throw inaccurately on nearly every attempt. By keeping him in the game, Shanahan continued to put RGIII at risk for serious injury. Forget being a human being at that point – why didn’t Mike Shanahan, the head coach, recognize that his injured quarterback was costing him an opportunity to win? Even if RGIII had begged to stay in the game Shanahan should have pulled the kid at halftime and allowed a healthy Kirk Cousins to have a crack at Seattle’s defense. There was a lot of bad coaching that took place this weekend but Shanahan was the king of stupidity on Sunday.

2. There’s a lot of good and bad that came out of the Seahawks’ win.
After 12 minutes had ticked off the clock on Sunday, it looked as if the Redskins were going to waltz down to Atlanta next week. So it was impressive to watch the Seahawks weather the storm and produce what wound up being a convincing victory. Marshawn Lynch was in full “beastmode” while rushing for 132 yards on 20 carries and he could be in store for another big game next week because the Falcons can’t stop the run either. Russell Wilson was shaky in his NFL postseason debut but he made plays when they counted, specifically on a 22-yard pass to Zach Miller on third down to set up a go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The defense also harassed a limited RGIII and held Alfred Morris in check outside of the first quarter. But the news wasn’t all positive for Seattle. The early reports are that top pass rusher Chris Clemons tore his ACL and his loss would serve as a big blow to Seattle’s defense with Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ explosive passing game on deck. That was also an extremely physical game for the Seahawks, who now have to fly back to Seattle before making the cross-country flight to Atlanta next weekend. That’s a lot of traveling for a team that has a history of not playing well on the road so while it’ll be a happy flight back to Seattle for Pete Carroll’s team, it might feel like a short week with all that transpired on Sunday.

3. Bill Musgrave did Joe Webb a disservice.
Joe Webb was brutal in Green Bay on Saturday night but he should be spared of heavy criticism. Christian Ponder’s injury left the Vikings in a bad situation and it’s hardly surprising that a quarterback with zero reps in the regular season struggled in a road playoff game. That said, Webb took first-team reps all week in practice so clearly Minnesota knew there was a good chance that Ponder wouldn’t play. So why offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave didn’t play to the strengths of his backup quarterback is beyond conventional wisdom. Remember, Green Bay prepared all week for Ponder, not the athletically-gifted Webb. Outside of Adrian Peterson, the biggest threat Minnesota had was the element of surprise but Musgrave decided against using it to his advantage. Why did he ditch the read-option after the first series of the game (a series that netted the Vikings a field goal)? Why didn’t he turn the contest into the equivalent of a college football bowl game? Instead of using Webb’s speed as a weapon, Musgrave kept him in the pocket. Instead of putting the Packers on their heels, Musgrave allowed Green Bay to turn Clay Matthews loose by forcing an inaccurate Webb to stand still. The results were predictably horrifying for the Vikings, who just one week ago beat that same Packers team to reach the postseason. Granted, Musgrave should be cut a little slack for having to call plays for a quarterback he hadn’t worked with all season (at least not in a regular season game). But instead of going for broke with the cards that he was dealt, Musgrave played things conventionally and wound up losing anyway.

4. The Bengals’ over thought their game plan.
Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden made tight end Jermaine Gresham the focal point of his game plan on Saturday because he believed the way to beat Houston’s defense was to attack its linebackers. It was, at the very least, a novel approach. But Gruden also completely outthought himself in the process. When it comes to the playoffs, teams need to dance with who brought them and in the case of Cincinnati, that would be A.J. Green. Andy Dalton had negative-6 yards passing at halftime of the Bengals’ 19-13 loss to the Texans on Saturday as Green wasn’t even targeted once. When the Bengals changed their approach at halftime to get Green (five catches, 80 yards) more involved, they moved the ball much more effectively in the second half. Granted, credit Wade Phillips for scheming to take Green out of the game. He often used a corner underneath and a safety over top in coverage, which helped neutralize both Green and Dalton. But Gruden’s job is to design ways for Green to get open and he didn’t do that until Houston had built a 17-6 lead in the third quarter. Failing to utilize his best playmaker in the biggest game of the season could eat at Gruden all offseason.

5. Andy Dalton needs more help.
Andy Dalton has struggled playing against the upper-echelon of NFL defenses in his first two seasons. No quarterback likes to have defenders in their face but Dalton especially struggles when teams figure out how to bring pressure up the middle. The Texans did that on Saturday and Dalton struggled mightily. His overthrow to A.J. Green late in the fourth quarter was so bad that a diving Green (who had broken open on the play) never laid a hand on it. And because of his talent limitations (the biggest knock on him is his average to below-average arm strength), there also seems to be a ceiling to Dalton’s development. That said, he’s led the Bengals (the Bengals, mind you) to back-to-back postseason appearances. Poor performance or not, Cincinnati isn’t considering making a change at quarterback right now, nor should it. That said, the Bengals need to find Dalton more weapons because it’s hard to imagine him leading Cincinnati to the Super Bowl on the strengths of his God-given abilities. They need to find another weapon opposite of A.J. Green. They need to find a running back capable of producing explosive runs. They need to find a slot receiver with breakaway speed and another pass-catching tight end to go along with Jermaine Gresham. Outside of upgrading the middle linebacker position (Rey Maualuga was repeatedly exposed on Saturday), Cincinnati’s defense is in good shape. What the Bengals need to focus on now is elevating the talent around their quarterback or else the expectations for both Dalton and the offense should be tempered.

6. The Texans seemed relieved, which isn’t a good thing with who’s coming up.
Despite their victory over the Bengals on Saturday, the Texans are far from “fixed.” Houston dominated Cincinnati in every facet of the game except the scoreboard. Arian Foster went off for 174 yards of total offense and J.J. Watt was once again a one-man wrecking crew but Houston still couldn’t pull away. In fact, had Andy Dalton not overthrown an open A.J. Green in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati could have easily pulled off a victory. Instead, the Texans hung on for victory and were rewarded with a trip to New England (the site of their 42-14 massacre in Week 14). One touchdown and four field goals isn’t going to cut it next weekend versus the Patriots. Nobody game plans to take away a team’s biggest strength like Bill Belichick, so don’t expect Foster to have the same output next Sunday. Can Matt Schaub elevate his play by putting an entire team on his shoulders? Considering how relieved he looked just to make it past a limited Cincinnati squad, it’s doubtful.

7. It was a collective effort by the Packers.
As Cris Collinsworth pointed out on the broadcast Saturday night, Green Bay’s defense did a great job walling off Adrian Peterson throughout the game. Considering he still rushed for 99 yards it’s not as if the Packers shut him down, but they ensured that he didn’t break long runs by tackling and constantly putting defenders in his face. But it was a collective effort by the Packers, who are at their best when they get everyone involved offensively. John Kuhn only touched the ball five times but he found the end zone twice. Greg Jennings didn’t score but he routinely caught passes on third down to keep the chains moving and DuJuan Harris did a nice job serving as Aaron Rodgers’ check down option. Speaking of which, Rodgers didn’t post monster numbers but he was highly efficient. His poise and accuracy allowed Green Bay to sustain drives and keep Peterson on the sidelines. With Joe Webb floundering on the other side, once Rodgers and the offense built a lead you knew the Packers could start preparing for San Francisco. The task gets much more difficult a week from now but Mike McCarthy had to be pleased with his team’s sound effort on Sunday night.

8. Win or lose, it was a hell of a season for the Colts.
This goes without saying – Andrew Luck needs more help. Save for Arizona, Indianapolis had the worst pass protection in football this year and yet because of Luck, the Colts made the playoffs. But teams that regularly have to throw the ball 50-plus times a game don’t win, especially on the road in the playoffs. He was hit on damn near every pass attempt this season and unlike Russell Wilson and RGIII, Luck wasn’t aided by an effective running game. He, and the Chuck Pagano-inspired Colts, were the best surprise of the 2012 season. And while I thought they would have kept the game on Sunday closer than they did, it was still a very successful season for that team. It won’t be long before the Colts are winning AFC South titles on a consistent basis again.

9. The Ravens offense finally woke up.
Throw out their impressive Week 16 victory over the Giants, the Ravens haven’t exactly been awe-inspiring of late. Their offense has struggled in large part to Ray Rice being limited by his own offensive coordinator and Joe Flacco’s inconsistency. But on in the second half on Sunday, Baltimore’s offense finally awoke from its month-long slumber. Anquan Boldin was marvelous. He essentially put the entire offense on his shoulders while harassing cornerback Cassius Vaughn of pass plays of 50, 46 and 21 yards. On a day when Ray Rice uncharacteristically put the ball on the ground twice, he stepped up when his offense needed him most. Credit the Ravens defense too, because they consistently came up with stops or held the Colts to three points when their backs were against the wall. This is a team built for the postseason and while Denver looks like an unstoppable force, don’t forget that Baltimore has often resembled an immovable object in the past. They’ll likely give Peyton Manning all he can handle next weekend.

10. Was anybody else left unfulfilled?
Life is all about expectations. The moment the final seconds ticked off the clock in Washington’s Week 17 victory over Dallas I immediately became excited for the weekend of playoff bliss that was ahead. RGIII vs. Russell Wilson? Adrian Peterson vs. Green Bay III? Andrew Luck making his first postseason start? Yes, please. Fast forward to Sunday night and I’m left completely unfilled. That just wasn’t a very sharp weekend of football. Cincinnati, Minnesota and Indianapolis all stunk. Washington came out of the gates hot but RGIII’s knee injury cooled that fire. Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco were good, but they were the only quarterbacks that played well. None of the games were blowouts by definition yet all four somehow managed to seem over well before the final whistle blew. After watching Northern Illinois, Kansas State and Oklahoma make a mockery of their bowl games, football fans were ready for a great weekend of NFL action. But instead we got three lackluster finishes and one game (Seattle-Washington) that barely would have caused a ripple on a regular NFL Sunday. “Meh” was the word of the weekend.

Ten Observations from Week 13 in the NFL

1. Quinn’s words on Belcher were inspirational.
I can’t imagine the pain that Romeo Crennel, Scott Pioli, and the entire Kansas City Chiefs organization is going through right now. And it’s fruitless to talk about whether or not the game should have been played because the moment that Jovan Belcher took two lives (his own and the life of his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins), the only people that could answer that question was Crennel and his players. And as I sat in my office trying to gather my thoughts on what transpired over the weekend, Brady Quinn flashed across my TV screen and managed to put many things into perspective: “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently,” Quinn said following the Chiefs’ emotional 27-21 victory over the Panthers. “When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the side than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis. The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people.” It’s unlikely that Belcher would have changed his course had he received more warmth and attention from those around him. Sometimes the demons that we battle are too strong for outside forces. But in a society dominated by cynicism, disconnect, and snark, we could all stand to be more genuine with the people we come in contact with. As Quinn stated, let’s not lose focus on the relationships that are right in front of us.

2. The 49ers were out-coached.
It was only a matter of time before Colin Kaepernick played like a second-year quarterback with fewer than five starts under his belt. In the 49ers’ 16-13 overtime loss to St. Louis, Kaepernick took a safety, foolishly ran out of bounds when his team was attempting to drain the clock late in the fourth quarter, and botched a pitch to receiver Ted Ginn Jr. with 3:04 remaining in the game and the Niners up by a 10-2 score. (The result of the play was disastrous for San Francisco, which watched Janoris Jenkins score his third touchdown in two weeks and turn the entire game on its head.) But second-year quarterbacks are expected to be both brilliant and maddening. Despite the miscues, Kaepernick was poised in the pocket, accurate with his throws, and flashed his mobility on a 50-yard run that nearly put the Niners up for good following Jenkins’ touchdown. The biggest issue for the 49ers wasn’t Kaepernick, but Jim Harbaugh. It was an arrogant play-call to have his first-year starter run a toss sweep with his back to the goal line. The Rams offense did nothing against San Francisco’s stout defense the entire day, but St. Louis turned two massive mistakes into 10 points and eventually won because of Harbaugh’s gamble. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Eugene Sims, William Hayes and the entire Rams defense was also seemingly inside San Francisco’s offensive huddle the entire day. Outside of their lone touchdown drive, Harbaugh’s offense did nothing against a St. Louis defense that had an answer for everything the Niners were doing. In a game they dominated for 57 minutes, San Fran somehow found a way to lose. While Kaepernick certainly shares in the blame, this loss falls on Harbaugh, who has now been out-coached by Jeff Fisher on two separate occasions this season.

3. Luck was good when it mattered.
The media is trying its best to put Andrew Luck in the Hall of Fame following the Colts’ stunning 35-33 come-from-behind victory in Detroit on Sunday. And if you were to only look at his final stat line (391 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs), one could surmise that he had another brilliant performance. But the fact is he was brutal through three quarters while misfiring passes to open receivers and perhaps turning in his worst performance of his outstanding rookie campaign. That said, he was good when it mattered, as he caught fire in the fourth quarter. Down 33-21 with eight minutes remaining, he connected on a 42-yard strike to LaVon Brazill to get Indy within striking distance, and then capped off a game-winning touchdown drive by finding Donnie Avery on a 14-yard dump pass as time expired. Luck now has six 300-yard passing efforts in 12 games and he’s starting to grow a reputation as a clutch performer. Granted, if the Lions weren’t devilishly preoccupied with torturing a fan base that has absorbed more beatings than a toilet seat, the Colts would have lost on Sunday. Instead, thanks in large part to Luck, they’ve become one of the most must-watch teams of 2012.

4. The Falcons defense is underrated.
As Matt Ryan and the offense took most of the night off, the Falcons defense put on a show Thursday night in a 23-13 victory over the Saints. Atlanta hired Mike Nolan this past offseason in hopes that he would install a scheme that would beat pass-happy teams like New Orleans. And while the Falcons rank 26th overall in pass defense, the numbers don’t tell the entire story. In two meetings with the Saints this season, Atlanta has intercepted Drew Brees a total of six times. They also picked off Peyton Manning three times in one quarter in a Week 2 victory over the Broncos, held Philip Rivers to 173 passing yards on 38 attempts in Week 3, and kept a red-hot Josh Freeman out of the end zone in Week 12. Atlanta’s run defense remains a work in progress and somebody other than John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux need to boost the pass rush. But Nolan has confused some of the best minds in football by varying his looks and disguising his coverages, as well as playing to the strengths of ball-hawking safeties William Moore and Thomas Decoud (who have combined for nine interceptions this year). He’s also getting the most out of multi-faceted players like Sean Weatherspoon, Kroy Biermann, and Stephen Nicholas, who have lined up all over the field this season. The numbers don’t support the notion that this unit is dominant, but the defense has been the most underrated aspect of the 11-1 Falcons thus far.

5. Flacco isn’t doing himself any favors.
Not to bury the headline in Baltimore (which was soon-to-be 38-year-old Charlie Batch leading the Steelers to a 23-20 overtime victory over the Ravens), but Joe Flacco is playing his way out of a huge payday at the end of the season. Flacco becomes a free agent next offseason and if he continues to put together efforts like the one he did on Sunday, the Ravens are going to have plenty of leverage come contract time. The fifth-year quarterback completed just 16-of-34 passes for 188 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also lost a fumble and was out-dueled by Batch, who completed 25-of-36 passes for 276 yards with one TD and one INT of his own. The pick that Flacco threw was mind-numbingly bad, as he tossed a pass into the waiting arms of Ryan Clark while trying to throw the ball out of bounds. The fumble also came following an Ed Reed interception in the end zone, and set the Steelers up for a game-tying touchdown with just over seven minutes to play in the game. Much like his entire career, Flacco has been widely inconsistent this season. And while fellow 2008 first-round pick Matt Ryan is having an MVP-like year, Flacco continues to leave doubt on whether or not he can get Baltimore over the hump. Granted, the Ravens are still likely to pay Flacco rather than starting from scratch. But with every turnover and poor performance, Flacco is costing himself next offseason.

6. Despite the win, the Packers remain in flux.
The Packers may have earned their eighth victory of the season by beating the Vikings 23-14 in Green Bay, but Mike McCarthy’s team can’t catch a break. Outside of a four-game stretch when they scored 42, 30, 24 and 31 points from Weeks 6 through 9, the Packers offense can’t establish any kind of a rhythm. The blame falls equally on a porous offensive line and injuries, which have sidelined Greg Jennings, Cedric Benson and Jordy Nelson for part or most of the season. Nelson was forced from Sunday’s win in the first quarter after he suffered a hamstring injury, and if he’s out for an extended period of time Green Bay may never find consistency offensively. Rodgers remains one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL but there’s only so much he can do with shoddy pass protection and a depleted stable of weapons. This isn’t the same Packer offense that burned defenses the past three seasons. Not even close, in fact.

7. Russell Wilson was brilliant in Chicago.
It’s not often the Bears lose a game in which Brandon Marshall catches 10 passes for 165 yards and Jay Cutler throws for over 9.0 yards per attempt. But that’s exactly what happened Sunday as the Seahawks stunned a Solider Field crowd that watched its usually stout defense unexpectedly wilt to Russell Wilson. The rookie signal caller completed 23-of-37 passes for 293 yards with two touchdowns and also ran for 71 yards on nine scrambles. He engineered a 97-yard touchdown drive that should have been the game-defining moment but his defense inexplicably allowed Marshall to snag a 56-yard pass to set the Bears up for a game-tying field goal. In overtime, Wilson was brilliant on a 12-play, 79-yard drive that was capped off by his 13-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice (who took a shot while crossing the end zone). Throughout the day, Wilson flashed his athleticism and arm strength, and not once did he seem intimidated by Chicago’s defense. The Seahawks did a nice job rolling the pocket for their rookie QB, which allowed for open throwing lanes down the field. Perhaps what was most remarkable was the fact that Seattle didn’t shy away from Charles Tillman, who was repeatedly burned throughout the day. Toss in some shoddy tackling by Major Wright and the Seahawks were able to pick up their second road victory of the season.

8. It might be time for the Bolts to completely clean house.
That final drive by the Chargers in their 20-13 loss to the Bengals was a microcosm of their entire season. Trailing 20-13 with just over two minutes to play, Philip Rivers drove San Diego down to Cincinnati’s 17-yard line and instead of testing the middle of the field with two timeouts, Rivers threw three passes that had only a small pray of being completed. Then on fourth down he whipped a pass to Bengals’ safety Reggie Nelson for a fitting, last-second turnover to cap San Diego’s loss. Even if Nelson didn’t intercept the pass, there was no way that Malcolm Floyd had a chance to catch it because his back was essentially turned. It was a brutal display of football and it has to be asked: Should Rivers follow Norv Turner and A.J. Smith out the door this offseason? It’s incredibly difficult to find quality starting quarterbacks in the NFL and Rivers has proven that he can win when he has a strong cast around him (which Smith has slowly depleted over the years). But it’s fair to wonder whether Rivers has met his ceiling in San Diego and if a mutual parting wouldn’t be beneficial to both parties.

9. The Bengals are winning with balance.
A month ago the Bengals were left for dead and now they’re one of the hottest teams in the NFL. That’s thanks in large part to their offense, which has finally found balance late in the season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis didn’t rush for 100 yards once in the first 10 games of the season, but he’s now rattled off three straight 100-plus yard efforts the past three weeks. In turn he’s made Andy Dalton and the passing game more potent, as defenses now have to worry about committing extra defenders to the run. Cincinnati’s defense has also risen to the challenge of late, yielding just 13, 6, 10, and 13 points in four consecutive victories. Of course, now the hard part comes. After feasting on the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers these past three weeks, the Bengals will host the Cowboys next Sunday before traveling to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and then back home to host the Ravens in Week 17. Until it proves it can beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Cincinnati will remain a Super Bowl pretender. But thanks to a newfound running game and a red-hot defense, the Bengals aren’t likely to fall out of the playoff mix over the last month of the season.

10. Quick-Hits.
Rex Ryan declined to name his Week 14 starting quarterback following the Jets’ 7-6 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday but it’s a joke if Greg McElroy doesn’t start the final four games. That’s not to suggest that McElroy is the team’s future by one thing’s for sure: Mark Sanchez isn’t either…It’ll be interesting to see where Michael Vick winds up next season. Andy Reid is rolling with Nick Foles the rest of the year and if the rookie plays well, he may convince the Eagles’ next coach that he can be the starter. If that’s the case, Vick will be looking for work and it’ll be interesting to see if teams view him as a backup or a starter next offseason…Dez Bryant (6 catches, 98 yards, 2 TDs) once again proved on Sunday night that he’s not lacking for talent. But has he finally matured or is he only teasing Cowboy fans?…If Bryce Brown learns how to hold onto the football he could be one hell of a player…Too bad Mike Holmgren won’t see the fruits of his labor in Cleveland. That Browns team isn’t without talent, especially on offense where Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon have put together solid seasons…I would pay to watch Peyton Manning play Andrew Luck in the wild card round. What a storyline-driven matchup that would be…Heath Miller continues to be one of the steadiest tight ends in the league. Another five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s win, and he was often Charlie Batch’s savior on third down.

Ten Observations from Week 11 in the NFL

1. Losing Gronkowski is a killer for Patriots.
Bill Belichick always finds a way. When Randy Moss became a nuisance in 2010 and the Patriots eventually decided to trade him, Belichick revamped his offense to feature rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Instead of attacking teams vertically with Moss, New England started going down the seam to its tight ends while mixing in a variety of screens (a staple in the Pats offense). So losing Gronkowski for 4-6 weeks due to a broken forearm isn’t going to completely derail the Patriots. They’re going to win the AFC East and they’ll probably wind up hosting a playoff game come January. But make no mistake: losing Gronkowski changes a lot for New England. Including Sunday’s 59-24 win over the Colts, “Gronk” had 37 touchdowns in 42 career games. He’s solidified himself as one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the game and is perhaps the best player at his position. Indianapolis didn’t have an answer for him on Sunday and most teams usually don’t. He’s too fast for tight ends and he’s too big for safeties or cornerbacks. Double him and you’ll leave Wes Welker open in space, or create holes for New England’s shredding running game. The Patriots didn’t just lose a playmaker – they lost the most productive player on their roster not named Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. Again, Belichick will find a way to keep his offense firing on all cylinders (the return of Herndandez will help). But he just lost one hell of a piston.

2. The blueprint on how to beat the Falcons has been revealed.
Coming into this week, the most interceptions Matt Ryan had thrown in one game was three. He matched that total in the first quarter of the Falcons’ fortunate 23-16 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, and threw two more interceptions before the completion of the game. It’s fair to point out that one interception went off Roddy White’s hands while two more were tipped at the line of scrimmage. But the other two picks were all Ryan, who perhaps had the worst game of his career. Ray Horton put together a brilliant game plan, dialing up a heavy array of blitzes while bringing pressure up the middle. Arizona only sacked Ryan once, but the Atlanta QB was constantly under duress and had someone in his face all game. With Julio Jones limited due to an ankle injury, the Cardinals were also smart to play bump and run on the outsides. Ryan threw for 301 yards but Arizona turned his five interceptions into 16 points. If the Cardinals had something even remotely resembling a NFL quarterback on their roster, they would have won the game easily. Instead, Horton handed other defensive coordinators a blueprint on how to corral the Falcon offense. Pressure Ryan up the middle, play physical on the outsides, and bracket Tony Gonzalez in coverage and you’ll limit what Atlanta can do. Granted, that’s easier said than done but thanks to the cemented-footed Michael Turner, it’s not as if the Falcons can lean on their running game in efforts to mix things up. Considering they may face aggressive defenses like San Francisco and Chicago in the playoffs, the one-dimensional Falcons have legitimate concerns despite being 9-1.

3. Manning is now the clear choice for MVP.
Save for his disastrous five-interception effort on Sunday, Matt Ryan has been phenomenal for the Falcons this season. He’s having a career year and if the MVP award were to be handed out tomorrow, one could easily make an argument that he’s deserving of the honor. But if you were looking for an MVP favorite right now, it would have to be Peyton Manning, who is having a career year statistically for the Broncos. The Chargers sacked him three times on Sunday and constantly pressured Manning inside the pocket. But he still wound up completing 25-of-42 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He has a 21-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last eight games and he’s put Denver in position to challenge for one of the top two seeds in the AFC. Thanks in large part to his production and the play of Von Miller (who’s a beast), the Broncos have now won five straight. And considering he missed all of last season due to multiple neck/back surgeries, what he’s been able to accomplish this season has been nothing short of remarkable. While his statistics have been impressive, you can’t measure what he’s been able to do for Denver this season. He’s going to make the Broncos a very tough out in the postseason.

4. At some point, the Rams need more from Bradford.
With how bad Sam Bradford was on Sunday, Brian Schottenheimer must have thought he was still calling plays for Mark Sanchez. Bradford completed just 23-of-44 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the Rams’ 27-13 loss to the Jets. He completed just 52 percent of his passes for a dismal 3.9 yards per attempt and also lost a fumble while looking uncomfortable by what the Jets were doing defensively. One week after shredding San Francisco’s outstanding defense, Bradford put together a forgettable performance against a reeling Jets team that was without its best defender. Granted, the excuses for Bradford are still viable. He’s playing in his third offense and for his third offensive coordinator in three years. But at some point the Rams are going to have to see signs of sustained progress from their third-year QB. Right now the formula is too easy for opposing defenses: Contain Danny Amendola, shut down Bradford and the St. Louis passing game. There’s no question Bradford needs a better supporting cast and it’s not as if he hasn’t improved. At times this season he’s played with more confidence and has looked more poised than at any point in his career. But one major flaw that he lacks is the ability to create on his own. That’s what the best do. And while the New York loss shouldn’t solely be laid at his feet the Rams need more from their franchise player or the team’s success will remain sporadic.

5. The Bucs are legit playoff contenders.
There’s something special brewing in Tampa Bay this year. Down 11 points late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs mounted an impressive comeback to beat the Panthers 27-21 in overtime. It was the fifth straight game in which Tampa scored at least 27 points and over the last six weeks, Josh Freeman has thrown 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions while averaging 285.8 yards per game. Granted, it wasn’t all good for Freeman on Sunday. He threw a mind-numbing pick-six to Captain Munnerlyn at the end of the first quarter while displaying shoddy footwork for much of the game. But with everything on the line late in the fourth, he threaded the needle to Vincent Jackson between two defenders and with one Panther hanging on him to put the Bucs within a 2-point conversation of tying the game. He then found Jackson again on the 2-point attempt before orchestrating an 8-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in overtime to put Carolina out of its misery. After what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past four weeks, don’t for a second think that the Bucs can’t beat the Falcons next week. Atlanta has had major issues in Tampa for the better part of a decade, including last season when the Bucs beat the Falcons, 16-13. They also can’t stop the run (hello, Doug Martin) and they’re banged up defensively (Sean Weatherspoon missed his third straight game due to an ankle injury, Asante Samuel hurt his shoulder and John Abraham came up limping several times on Sunday). That said, the biggest thing holding Tampa Bay back right now is its pass defense. And while Atlanta has proven to be one-dimensional offensively, the thing the Falcons do well is throw the ball. Next week will be the Bucs biggest challenge to date. Beat the 9-1 Falcons and all of a sudden they’re in the driver’s seat to secure one of the two wild card spots in the NFC.

6. The Steelers are in trouble.
Following the most athletic play of his career, Byron Leftwich did a very Byron Leftwich-type thing: He tripped over his own two feet with nobody around him and somehow hurt his shoulder in the process. He went on to complete just 18-of-39 passes for 201 yards with one costly interception in the Steelers’ 13-10 loss to the Ravens on “Sunday Night Football.” To be fair, it was a gritty performance by the former Jaguar, who stayed in the game despite taking hit-after-hit from aggressive Baltimore defenders. But the same progrems that plagued him as a rookie continue to plague him in his 10th year. He holds onto the ball too long, his elongated release welcomes turnovers, and he’s too erratic as a passer. Pittsburgh’s defense played well enough to win but Leftwich couldn’t sustain drives and special teams let the Steelers down when Jacoby Jones returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first half. Leftwich should be good enough to beat Cleveland next Sunday but two weeks from now the Steelers will have to travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens again. If they lose that game, they’ll almost certainly lose the division and will then have to compete with Indianapolis and Cincinnati for a wild card berth in the AFC. With Leftwich under center, there are no more “gimmies” on the schedule.

7. The Eagles have no choice but to hand Reid his walking papers.
The sensible thing for the Eagles to do is fire Andy Reid right now in order to get a jumpstart on finding his replacement. Why delay the inevitable? But considering he’s been one of the finest head coaches to not win a Super Bowl over the past two decades, Philadelphia may decide to let Reid finish out the season. Either way, the Eagles need to make a move. Following their 31-6 loss to the Redskins on Sunday, it’s apparent that there will be no miracle in Philadelphia this year. Despite having all of that talent, the Eagles don’t do anything well on either side of the ball. They can’t tackle. They don’t start fast. They don’t finish strong. No matter who’s under center they generate too many turnovers from the quarterback position. They don’t play with urgency, their game plans are often puzzling and injuries have decimated the offensive line. They’re just a bad football team, perhaps one of the worst in the NFL. And when a team has that much talent and is playing this bad, the head coach must go. It’s not as if the game has passed Reid by. The players have just stopped responding and when that happens, it’s best for all involved if there’s a change at the top. Reid will surely find work after this season, or in two years if he decides to take a year off. But his time in Philadelphia is coming to an end. It simply has to.

8. The Packers have very quietly won five in a row.
Last year the Packers sprinted through the regular season while lighting up opponents along the way. But they’ve traded in style for grit this year and they’ve very quietly put together a five-game winning streak. In their 24-20 win over the Lions on Sunday, Mason Crosby missed two field goals, Aaron Rodgers spent most of the day not being on the same page with his receivers, and Mike McCarthy questionably stuck with a running game that simply wasn’t working. It was the second time in three games that the Packer offense struggled, although Rodgers remains on a pretty good tear. He now has 24 touchdown passes in his last seven games and was clutch Sunday when it mattered most, hitting Jermichael Finley for a 40-yard pass play to set up the game-winning 22-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb. Green Bay is far from being the juggernaut that it was last season but just like in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl, they’re having to grind out victories. That could serve them well down the road.

9. The Bengals still have a pulse.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have revived a Bengals team left for dead two weeks ago. At 5-5 there’s still time for Cincinnati to mount a comeback in the AFC, especially with Ben Roethlisberger likely to miss sufficient time due to injuries. With games versus Oakland, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia coming up, it’s realistic that the Bengals could be 9-5 heading into Pittsburgh on December 23. The key is whether or not Dalton continues to play with the confidence that he’s exhibited over his past two games. Following his four-touchdown, zero-interception performance versus the Giants, the second-year QB completed 18-of-29 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in Cincinnati’s 28-6 win over the Chiefs on Sunday. Green also caught a touchdown pass in his ninth straight game, leaving him one TD shy of tying Carl Pickens’ franchise record. At some point they need to prove that they can beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh if they want to be taken seriously. But suddenly the Bengals are in position to compete for that sixth and final wild card spot in the AFC.

10. Quick-Hits from around the league…
Even though they eventually lost the game, Jaguar fans had to be thrilled with their team’s effort on Sunday. That said, big picture-wise it’s not good that Chad Henne lit Houston up for 354 yards and four touchdown passes while once again being forced into action because of an injury to Blaine Gabbert. Henne was exposed in Miami as a full-time starter and he’s not the long-term answer in Jacksonville. But through a season and a half, Gabbert doesn’t appear to be either…Speaking of Houston, what a day for Matt Schaub (43-of-55, 527 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs). On a rare day when he had to pick up his defense, Schaub and Andre Johnson (14 catches, 273 yards, 1 TD) were sensational…The Cowboys are in trouble if they’re barely squeaking by the Browns at home. How can anyone in Dallas be confident that the Cowboys will make the postseason when Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Seattle New Orleans and Minnesota are all playing better?…The Colts proved in New England that they’re not quite ready for primetime but Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton are starting to become a nice little duo. Hilton now has three 100-yard games this season and has emerged as a true deep threat in Indy’s offense. And while New England took two of Luck’s interceptions back for touchdowns, the rookie QB continues to show great pocket presence and toughness. He’s not afraid to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike in the face of charging defenders…. Mike Mularkey did wonders for Roddy White’s career in Atlanta and he could do the same for Justin Blackmon in Jacksonville. While receiving a team-high 13 targets as the focal point of the Jaguars passing game, Blackmon broke out with a seven-catch, 236-yard performance. He also caught an 81-yard touchdown pass while snatching the ball in triple coverage. It was the game Jacksonville fans have been waiting for since April…If Matthew Stafford ever decides to go back and review his performance from this season, he won’t like what he sees. Too many times this year he would be careless with the football, including on Sunday when he threw a side-armed interception just before halftime, killing whatever opportunity Detroit had to sustain momentum versus Green Bay. He’s also taken some bad sacks in crucial moments of games, hasn’t always secured the ball properly and often halted drives with poor decision-making. After throwing for over 5,000 yards in 2011, this season has been a bust for the fourth-year QB…Forget the Cardinals’ record – Ray Horton is going to be a hot name this offseason when it comes to coaching vacancies around the NFL. On most Sundays, his defense has played well enough to win games, even though Arizona’s offense constantly puts his players in horrible situations…The Saints’ victory over the lowly Raiders was impressive, but their playoff hopes firmly ride on the next four weeks: vs. 49ers, at Falcons, at Giants, vs. Bucs. If they can win three of four they can make the playoffs with a two-game sweep of the Cowboys and Panthers to close out the regular season…There’s not much going right for the Chargers these days, including a reckless Philip Rivers. But former Ram Danario Alexander is making the most out of a second chance. Limited by a hamstring injury in training camp and preseason, having five weeks off to heal up did wonders for Alexander’s career. He now has 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games.

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