Ten Observations from Week 14 in the NFL

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.

10. Quick-Hits.
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.

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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.

NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 4

1. Newton isn’t a closer, but thankfully for the Falcons Ryan is.
Following his dreadful performance last Thursday against the Giants, Cam Newton bounced back nicely against the Falcons on Sunday while throwing for 215 yards, rushing for 86 yards, and reaching the end zone three times (twice through the air and once rushing). But for all of his heroics, Newton remains a quarterback unable to close out games. Faced with a crucial third-and-one with less than two minutes remaining in the contest, Newton had picked up a first down on a designed run, but he fumbled the ball while pin-balling off bodies. Had he squeezed the ball tightly, the Panthers could have run out the clock and earned a huge road victory against an undefeated division rival. Instead, the ball bounced backwards and while one of his teammates jumped on it, the Falcons still had life. Then, despite gashing Atlanta for nearly 200 yards on the ground, coach Ron Rivera decided that his team couldn’t pick up one more yard to put the game away. He punted on fourth-and-1 and despite pinning the Falcons on their own 1-yard line, defensive back Haruki Nakamura inexplicably allowed a 59-yard pass completion to Roddy White, which put the Falcons in range of a game-winning field goal. The rest was history, as Matt Ryan, a true closer, marched Atlanta down to the Carolina 22-yard-line to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning 40-yard field goal. The outcome was yet another reminder of the one thing that Newton has still yet to learn: How to finish. Like so many times before, Ryan was handed an opportunity to put his team on his shoulders and win the game, which he did. Granted, a lot of luck was involved and Newton had plenty of help giving that game away. But at the end of the day, one quarterback closed and the other didn’t.

2. The Patriots remain the team to beat the AFC East.
Heading into Week 4, people wanted to believe the Patriots’ reign of terror in the AFC East was over. They bought into the notion that the Bills were ready to unseat New England, which had lost in Buffalo last year and was coming off back-to-back losses the past two weeks. But despite the offseason additions of Mario Williams (who has been a ghost since signing that huge deal back in March), Stephon Gilmore and Mark Anderson, Buffalo’s defense remains a major work in progress. The Bills thought they had fixed their issues on that side of the ball and yet, their defensive line applied very little pressure to Tom Brady and allowed 247 yards rushing. The Patriots reminded us that they can still turn it on when they need to, as 45 of their 52 points came in the second half. Where as Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to struggle with the deep ball and throwing outside the numbers, Brady used his legs to buy himself more time and even rushed for a score in the third quarter. Stevan Ridley added 106 yards on the ground but was overshadowed by undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden, who seemingly came out of nowhere to rush for 137 yards on 16 carries. Despite Buffalo being at full strength with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson (both were active despite being questionable throughout the week), the Patriots sent a message that they’re still one of the most dangerous teams in the AFC when they’re firing on all cylinders.

3. The Saints played their best game of the season…and still lost.
There were plenty of moments in Green Bay on Sunday where you were reminded of the Saints of the last couple of years, at least offensively. Drew Brees completed 35-of-54 passes for 446 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, while Marques Colston emerged from his slumber to catch nine passes for 153 yards and one score. This is still a team that will scare opponents week in and week out, although it’s telling that this was New Orleans’ best game of the season and it still walked away with a 28-27 loss. The defense created little to no pressure on Aaron Rodgers, who wasn’t sacked after being dropped eight times by Seattle just six days prior. The Saints also don’t have a running game and clearly miss Carl Nicks. (The offensive line hasn’t been the same without him.) It’ll also be interesting to see if the Saints can remained focused throughout the year. It’s still relatively early but no team shakes off a 0-4 start. Keep in mind that the players on this roster aren’t used to losing and most are holdovers from the Super Bowl squad. This is a team that has fought for division titles and Super Bowl berths the past few seasons. How will they respond when faced with immense adversity?

4. Let’s give credit where credit is due: Kolb has lifted his play.
The Dolphins sacked Kevin Kolb eight times on Sunday, held the Cardinals to just 28 yards rushing, forced two turnovers and built leads of 13-0 and 21-14 before Arizona finally came back and won 24-21 in overtime. Kolb completed 29-of-48 passes for 324 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. It wasn’t a brilliant performance but few are when we speak of Kolb. The key is that he raised the level of his play, which is something he has failed to do on a consistent basis over the past two years. Too many times we’ve seen Kolb take jab after jab while cashing out long before the fight is over. This time, he hung in there and made one of the best throws of his career while finding Andre Roberts on a perfect sideline pass on a 4th-and-10 with less than a minute in regulation. Had his pass fell to the ground, we wouldn’t have been surprised. ‘It’s Kevin Kolb,’ we would have said while shrugging. But let’s give credit where credit is due: Kolb was a huge factory in Sunday’s victory. And if Ray Horton’s defense continues to play as well as it has, maybe a confident Kolb will allow the Cardinals to stay in the mix all season.

5. Less is more when it comes to Vick.
Michael Vick didn’t put on a passing clinic on Sunday night against the Giants. He didn’t have a series of highlight runs and he didn’t leap head first into the end zone while trying to score. He also didn’t turn the ball over and the Eagles picked up a huge 19-17 victory against a division rival. Vick is a better quarterback when he plays within himself, understands his limitations, and doesn’t try to win the game on his own. He didn’t routinely force throws into coverage or wildly run around when the pocket broke down. He simply took what the defense gave him and led his team on four second-half scoring drives despite only mustering seven points in the first half. Vick has a lot of schoolyard to his game and that shouldn’t change. But if the Eagles’ talented roster is ever going to reach its full potential, he has to understand that his reckless play is hurting his team, himself, and his coach. Hopefully last night was a step in the right direction for the veteran quarterback.

6. Opponents have figured out the Lions, who refuse to adjust under Schwartz.
Jim Schwartz deserved the contract extension he received before the season. But his inability to make adjustments throughout the week and on game days has to be maddening for Detroit fans. Last season the Lions played to their strength, which was their passing game. Opponents knew what was coming and they still couldn’t slow down Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. But this year teams are playing two safeties deep in order to keep Detroit’s vertical game in check, and the Lions have refused to adjust. Stafford threw for over 300 yards in Sunday’s loss against Minnesota, but he leads an offense that continues to be out of sync. It’s not Stafford’s fault that Johnson had a touchdown knocked out of his hands on one play and Brandon Pettigrew dropped a pass in the end zone the next, but for whatever reason Detroit’s offense has been disjointed all season. They also can’t run the football and the defense is still plagued by the same issues it had last year because GM Martin Mayhew didn’t have the cap space in order to fix the team’s problems. Furthermore, the Lions remain one of the most undisciplined teams in football and clearly there hasn’t been an emphasis on special teams during the week because this is now back-to-back weeks that Detroit has given up two touchdowns on kickoffs and punts. The defense actually played well on Sunday but their performance was overshadowed by the fact that the special teams units were once again atrocious. If Schwartz doesn’t start making wholesale changes then the Lions could be back to square one very soon here.

7. The Jets’ problems have grown.
It used to be that the Jets could mask Mark Sanchez’s issues with Rex Ryan’s defense and a strong running game. But they lost the ability to run the ball last year and now thanks to the season-ending injury to Darrelle Revis, this is a team ready to unravel. Sanchez doesn’t look like he’s learned anything in four years. He’s generated just one touchdown in his last 34 possessions and has completed a dreadful 43.6 percent of his passes the past three weeks. While Ryan gave him a vote of confidence following Sunday’s 34-0 loss to the 49ers, it won’t be long before Tim Tebow is inserted as the starter. Tebow, of course, isn’t a better option under center. But he at least has shown the ability to make things happen and he’s a stronger leader than the unconfident Sanchez. This isn’t a playoff caliber team without Revis, and if the Jets finally come to terms with the fact that Sanchez isn’t the answer, then Tebow needs to play. But either way, Ryan and the Jets have issues they can no longer mask.

8. The Fisher hire has already paid off for St. Louis.
Because they played in two Super Bowls within the last 15 years, people seem to forget how bad the Rams have been over the last decade. This is a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2003 and hasn’t gone to the playoffs since qualifying for the 2004 postseason with an 8-8 record. But the hiring of Jeff Fisher has brought stability to a franchise that has yearned for that very thing the past 10 years. Despite having the youngest roster in the NFL, a polarizing figure at quarterback, one of the worst offensive lines in the league and an ineffective Steven Jackson, the Rams are 2-2. They’re playing meaningful football again in the fourth quarter and arguably should have beaten the Lions in Week 1. Make no mistake: Fisher is putting his print on this team, which is no longer just the “Same old Rams.” They also have a true weapon in rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, who converted on attempts of 58, 48, 60, and 24 yards out in Sunday’s 19-13 win over the Seahawks. Just wait until Fisher and GM Les Snead start filling the roster with talent. The Rams are going to be a competitor very soon.

9. Peyton Manning and the Broncos: The ultimate wild card.
The Raiders’ pass coverage isn’t very good. Safety Tyvon Branch is a solid player but Michael Huff continues to be inconsistent and the rest of Oakland’s secondary hasn’t made anyone forget about Nnamdi Asomuagha. That said, it was nice to see some vintage Peyton Manning on Sunday. He torched the Raiders for 338 yards and three touchdowns while misfiring on just eight of his 38 pass attempts. Granted, he was aided by a running game that produced 165 yards and he rarely challenged downfield. His receivers did a nice job racking up yards after the catch too, but as a football fan it was nice to see Manning be effective. Denver remains a true mystery. Thanks to their defense and rushing attack, the Broncos will continue to battle the Chargers for first place in the AFC West. But Manning is the wild card. If he can do what he did on Sunday and in Week 1 versus the Steelers, the Broncos are a threat in the AFC. But we’ve seen the past two weeks how Manning can derail things as well. It’s going to be an interesting ride all season.

10. The rest of the Redskins deserved one made field goal.
There’s little doubt that an 0-for-4 day would have cost kicker Billy Cundiff his job. Thankfully he didn’t send himself on an extended vacation by converting a 41-yard field goal to give the Redskins a 24-22 win over the Bucs on Sunday.. On a day when Cam Newton couldn’t hold onto the ball on a crucial third-and-one in Atlanta, Robert Griffin III was 4-for-5 for 46 yards and added a 15-yard scramble on Washington’s final drive. He moved his team into field goal range and had Cundiff missed wide right, it wouldn’t have been RGIII’s fault that the Skins lost. But he and his teammates deserved that win. Alfred Morris deserved that win. Despite being beaten by Josh Freeman on a couple of nice second-half throws, Washington’s defense deserved that win. Cundiff saved his job for the moment, but more importantly he allowed his teammates to celebrate something that was deservedly theirs.

NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 3

1. No sense debating the Lions’ fourth down gaff – it wasn’t supposed to happen.
One of the hot topics around your water cooler this morning will be the Lions’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime instead of attempting a game-tying field goal from the Titans’ 7-yard line. But there’s no sense debating the decision because the play was never supposed to happen. Following the game coach Jim Schwartz said that Detroit was trying to draw Tennessee offsides. Whether or not the Lions would have still gone for it had the offsides attempt not worked is unknown, but the most controversial play of the day wasn’t controversial at all. Shaun Hill (who came into the game after Matthew Stafford suffered a leg injury) and the Lions just blew the task at hand. The bigger worry for Schwartz should be the fact that his team has yet to play well. The Lions arguably should have lost Week 1 to the Rams, were dominated by the 49ers in Week 2, and allowed 44 points to a Titans team that had been outscored 72-23 coming into Sunday’s action. For a team coming off a postseason berth a year ago, the Lions look every bit a sub-.500 team.

(For what it’s worth, I thought the Lions should have gone for it on fourth down in that situation. Their defense and special teams were brutal all afternoon and they were playing on the road. But you don’t put the ball in the hands of Hill with the day Mikel Leshoure was having.)

2. So far the NFL’s gamble hasn’t paid off.
One of the biggest reasons why Roger Goodell and the NFL hasn’t given in to the demands of the locked out officials is because the league assumed that the replacements would get better each week. But just six nights after the replacement officials contributed to a first quarter between the Broncos and Falcons that took over an hour to complete on “Monday Night Football,” this was the scene on Sunday night: Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb throwing his helmet in disgust, New England’s Vince Wilfork screaming at an official in the end zone following Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal, and Bill Belichick angrily chasing down line judge Esteban Garza and yanking his arm as he tried to run off the field. Following the game, you had linebacker Brandon Spikes tweeting, “Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they’re needed Back at work !!!!” It wasn’t just the Baltimore-New England game either. The Detroit-Tennessee contest was a mess as well, as the replacement officials gave the Titans an extra 12 yards following a penalty in overtime (which eventually led to the game-winning field goal). Is this the vision that Goodell has for his league? The fans, which allow the NFL to be the most popular game in America, deserve better than this. It’s not like the regular officials don’t blow calls, make mistakes, or factor into wins and losses. But the NFL has become a punch line because of these replacements.

3. The jury is still out on the Cardinals, but not their defense.
Are the Cardinals for real? Even after they crushed the Eagles 27-6 on Sunday, skepticism remains. They’re essentially two plays away from being 1-2 instead of 3-0, so let’s wait a few weeks before we assume we misjudged Ken Whisenhunt’s team in preseason. But one thing’s for sure: The Cardinals’ defense is for real. Players were confused and often caught out of position when Ray Horton took over as defensive coordinator last season. He runs the same defensive scheme that Dick LeBeau uses in Pittsburgh, which means every player has a specific role that must be executed or the entire defense may struggle. But in Year 2 of Horton’s scheme, his defenders have a firm grasp on what their responsibilities are and at least three through weeks they’re thriving in their roles. They held Michael Vick to just 217 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced three fumbles on the day. Daryl Washington is becoming a star, Patrick Peterson is on the fast track when it comes to his development, and Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes are steady veterans. The offense remains a huge concern thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in football, but Horton’s defense is going to keep Arizona in most games going forward.

4. The Vikings’ upset of the 49ers was easier to spot than you think.
The biggest shock of Week 3 came in Minnesota where the Vikings upset the 49ers, 24-13. The Vikings, who barely got by the Jaguars at home in Week 1 and who were beaten by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 2, were 7-point home underdogs against a San Francisco team that was regarded as the class of the NFC – if not the entire NFL. But the 49ers were also coming off wins against the Packers and Lions and were due for a letdown. Their offense is also very methodical and lacks explosion, so once they get behind by a couple of scores they’re not prone to stage comebacks. Now, did I see Christian Ponder completing 21-of-35 passes for 198 yards with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing)? No. But his ability to scramble proved to be a major weapon against a stingy San Francisco defense, which couldn’t limit the big play. Throw in the fact that Minnesota won the turnover and time of possession battle and it all adds up to one of the bigger upsets of the year thus far.

5. The Texans and Falcons look like the class of each conference.
With all due respect to the 3-0 Cardinals, the Texans and Falcons look like the class of the AFC and NFC through the first three weeks of the season. Houston has outscored opponents 88-42 and its first trip out West proved to be a successful one, as the Texans beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos 31-25 on Sunday. The Falcons, meanwhile, are 2-0 on the road and had no trouble with previously unbeaten San Diego despite coming off a short week of rest and preparation following their Monday night win over Denver. No quarterback has been more efficient than Matt Ryan through the first three weeks of the season and Mike Nolan has transformed Atlanta’s defense into a top 10 unit. One other thing the Falcons have done well is blend Mike Smith’s philosophy on ball control and Dirk Koetter’s desire to throw the ball vertical. Atlanta’s offense is still very methodical but the difference now is that the scheme is built around Ryan and the no-huddle, compared to Michael Turner and the ground-and-pound philosophy that Mike Mularkey implemented the past four years. Both Atlanta and Houston play keep-away better than any team in the league, with the only difference being that the Texans have a legit running game to compliment their passing attack. Both defenses are also built to confuse opposing quarterbacks and force turnovers, which the Falcons and Texans have been able to do thus far.

6. The Ravens come up huge.
The Ravens exacted a small measure of revenge last night on the Patriots, who beat Baltimore in the AFC title game just a few months ago. The replacement officials marred an otherwise terrific night for the heavy-hearted Torrey Smith, who played less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother. He caught six passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a beautiful 25-yard grab in the second quarter. Joe Flacco also impressed one week after struggling against the Eagles, as he completed 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The win was huge on a couple of different levels for Baltimore. First and foremost, the Steelers lost to the Raiders earlier in the day so the Ravens and Bengals are now tied atop the division at 2-1. The victory also guaranteed Baltimore a leg up against New England when it comes to tiebreakers at the end of the year. Even though they’re 1-2, Bill Belichick’s Patriots will bounce back and be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. So it’s huge for the Ravens to have a head-to-head win over a team that they always seem to meet in the postseason.

7. There’s a good chance the Saints will head into their bye week winless.
I guess we all should have seen this coming. No team could have gone through what the Saints did in the offseason and now suffer any residual affects. Not only was New Orleans marred in the bounty scandal, but don’t forget that Drew Brees missed significant offseason time while battling with the front office over his contract. In losing Sean Payton the Saints not only lost their head coach but their playcaller as well. Talk all you want about Pete Carmichael being a reliable fill-in but through three weeks the Saints’ offense has yet to develop consistency. The biggest problem, of course, might be on the defensive side of the ball as Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme has yet to sink in. In their 27-24 victory on Sunday, Kansas City was able to play keep-away with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for over 200 yards on the maligned New Orleans defense. Through three weeks Spagnuolo’s unit has allowed 40 points to Washington, 35 to Carolina and 27 to Kansas City. And with Green Bay and San Diego coming up, there’s a very realistic chance that the Saints will be 0-5 heading into their Week 6 bye.

8. The Steelers’ defense is getting exposed.
We’ve reached a point when it’s no longer surprising that Pittsburgh’s defense allows a 100-yard rusher, isn’t able to generate pressure, and allows big plays when one of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitzes backfires. The problem is that James Harrison and Troy Polamalu can’t stay healthy. The bigger problem is that the Steelers haven’t drafted well on that side of the ball in a long time. Younger players have failed to step up and there’s no new wave of brilliant Pittsburgh defenders coming down what used to be an endless pipe of production. The unit is old, tired and now, underperforming. The Steelers’ defense used to dictate games and now opposing quarterbacks are outsmarting them, even aging signal callers like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. If you’re expecting the Steelers’ defense to all of a sudden flip the switch and go back to being the dominate force that it’s been for over a decade, you might be waiting awhile. Re-enforcements are not on their way.

9. The Jets are in trouble.
A team source told Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports! that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis “probably” has a torn left ACL. If “probably” turns into “confirmed,” New York is in major trouble. Revis means everything to Rex Ryan’s defense, so much so that the Jets’ entire season could be lost without him locking down one side of the field. Mark Sanchez completed 21-of-45 passes for 306 yards with one touchdown but his numbers are misleading. Against Miami’s weak pass defense, Sanchez routinely missed open receivers, struggled under pressure and threw two interceptions. If Revis is indeed lost for the season, the Jets will quickly find out what they have in Sanchez, who doesn’t handle pressure very well (on or off the field). It could wind up being a long year in New York.

10. Cowboys once again disappoint.
They may have earned a hard-fought victory but the Cowboys didn’t exactly send fear into the hearts of the NFC elite with their 16-10 win over the Bucs on Sunday. Dallas only racked up 297 yards of total offense, which featured six false start penalties and a couple of Jason Witten drops (including one would-be touchdown). Credit Tampa Bay’s defense for coming to play but 2.1 yards per carry out of DeMarco Murray isn’t going to cut it either. Through three weeks the Cowboys have one impressive performance (the opening win against the Giants), one dud performance (the Week 2 loss at Seattle) and one blasé performance (Sunday vs. the Bucs). We’ll find out a lot about Jerry Jones’ team when it hosts Chicago next week before visiting Baltimore following a bye in Week 6.

NFL Quick-Hits: Ten Observations from Week 3 of Preseason

Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will share his quick-hit observations from the week that was in football. This week he focuses on topics that emerged from Week 3 of preseason.

1. The gap has widened in the AFC North.
The Steelers have had issues with their offensive line for years but they created hope this offseason by drafting Stanford OG David DeCastro and Ohio State OT Mike Adams. But Adams proved in Pittsburgh’s first preseason game that he isn’t ready to start and DeCastro dislocated his right kneecap, tore his MCL, and suffered damage to his patellar tendon in Saturday night’s game against the Bills. ESPN’s Adam Schefter hasn’t ruled out the possibility that DeCastro could play this year, but it doesn’t look good for the Steelers’ first-round pick. Finding a suitable replacement for running back Rashard Mendenhall continues to be an issue and Mike Wallace remains a holdout. Meanwhile, the Ravens’ offensive line, which was a question mark heading into training camp, has started to gel. Joe Flacco also looks comfortable running Baltimore’s no-huddle offense and receiver Torrey Smith is on the verge of a breakout season. The Steelers are going to complete – that’s just what they do. But the gap between them and the Ravens has widened the past three weeks.

2. Bradford is quietly becoming one of the more polarizing players in the NFL.
His defenders point to the fact that he’s now learning his third offense in three years, has never played behind a sturdy offensive line and doesn’t have a bona fide No. 1 to throw to. His critics say that he needs to be less skittish in the pocket, needs to do a better job of going through his reads and needs to throw more downfield. He is Sam Bradford. Which side is correct? As of right now both sides are. In the Rams’ second preseason game last Saturday, Bradford stood tall in the pocket, went through his progressions and delivered the ball downfield when given an opportunity. But on Saturday night in Dallas he reverted back to the quarterback that his critics have grown tired of. At this point it’s not fair to call Bradford a bust when his offensive line continues to get him killed in the pocket. But at some point he needs to raise the level of his play. It’s not fair to compare him to Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger, two quarterbacks with three Super Bowl rings between them. But Rodgers and Roethlisberger have both delivered behind suspect offensive lines. It’s true that both QBs have had better weapons around them but the point is that Bradford needs to elevate his teammates. He succeeded as a rookie because Pat Shurmur built an offense that focused on short to intermediate routes that allowed Bradford to get the ball out of his hand quickly. Last season Josh McDaniels nearly got Bradford killed because he continued to call five and seven-step drops even though his receivers couldn’t get open and his offensive line couldn’t protect. This season the focus is back on Steven Jackson and the ground attack, as well as the short passing game. So can Bradford make significant strides in his development or will he give his detractors more fuel? The jury is still out.

3. Luck continues to impress.
Back in April the media fawned over how the Colts drafted two tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen for No. 1 pick Andrew Luck. “Tight end is a young quarterback’s friend,” is what everyone said, which is true. But what’s interesting is that Luck hasn’t even used his tight ends in preseason. Fleener does have four catches for 38 yards but both he and Allen were shut out on Saturday against the Redskins. Even in the face of poor pass protection and having to learn the nuances of the pro game Luck hasn’t been afraid to throw to his receivers. (Donnie Avery finished with six receptions for 38 yards after being targeted seven times on Saturday while Reggie Wayne caught six of his seven targets for 41 yards.) The Colts don’t have enough pieces to be a threat this season but thanks to Luck they will be more competitive. He continues to stand tall in the pocket, step into all of his throws, and display accuracy and touch on his passes. Expectations should be tempered but the Colts have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen thus far.

4. Concerns continue to grow in Chicago.
The problem with the Tampa 2 defense is that if the front four can’t generate pressure then there’s a lot of holes that opposing quarterbacks can exploit. Fortunately for the Bears they’ve had a player in Brian Urlacher who has manned the all-important MIKE linebacker position for the past decade and they’ve been able to drum up consistent pressure under Smith. But Urlacher’s health will likely be a concern all season and the team just placed free safety Brandon Hardin on injured reserve with a neck injury. With Chris Conte (shoulder) questionable for Week 1, Chicago could have a growing issue in the middle of their defense. It’s imperative that pass rusher Julius Peppers not regress because if he does, opposing quarterbacks will have a field day picking on Nick Roach (Urlacher’s backup) and the safeties.

5. The Lions are seemingly walking a thin line when it comes to health.
Detroit fans should be excited about the possibility that the Lions will make back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since the mid-90s. But their players continue to drop like flies this offseason. Matthew Stafford (hand), Kevin Smith (ankle), Chris Houston (ankle) and Bill Bentley (shoulder) were all injured in the team’s third preseason game on Saturday. Louis Delmas, Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best were already dealing with injuries or have just recovered from injuries that occurred before last night’s game. Thus, it’s fair to ask whether or not the Lions will be able to stay healthy enough all season in order to compete with the Packers and Bears in the division. Remember, Detroit would have likely missed the playoffs last season had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not been injured down the stretch. Thanks to Stafford, Calvin Johnson and that outstanding vertical passing game, the Lions remain a threat in the NFC. But this wasn’t a team that steamrolled into the playoffs last year. Questions remain on the defensive side of the ball, specifically in the secondary, and the offense is without a reliable running game at the moment. Outside of the 2010 Green Bay Packers (who were the sixth seed that year, don’t forget), teams that are usually riddled with injuries early in the year don’t have what it takes to make a deep run. It’ll be interesting to see if Detroit can get guys healthy and avoid future scares.

6. Can the Titans establish an identity?
The Texans are the class of the AFC South and they might even be the class of the entire conference, with apologies to the Patriots and Ravens. But the Titans have enough talent to make things interesting in the division if Jake Locker can improve on his accuracy. I like that Tennessee has installed Run ‘N Shoot elements in the offense and thanks to Locker’s arm strength, this team will strike for big plays throughout the year. Chris Johnson should also have a bounce back campaign if the offensive line can do a better job run-blocking and the defense is decent despite the losses of Cortland Finnegan and James Jones. But who are the Titans? Locker has a couple of nice weapons in Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright, but Britt is always in trouble or hurt and Wright is still a rookie. So are they a run-first team? The defense doesn’t have a huge weakness but it also doesn’t have a reliable strength either. What is the identity on defense? I could see Tennessee winning eight or nine games this season but at some point they’re going to need to figure out who they are under Munchak or they’ll remain the definition of blasé and questions will pop up throughout the year.

7. The Cardinals should kick the tires on Hasselbeck.
Since John Skelton couldn’t create any separation between himself and Kevin Kolb in the team’s fourth preseason game, it looks like Kolb is going to win Arizona’s starting quarterback job based on his inflated salary. It’s fair to point out that the Cardinals’ offensive line has been a disaster for the past three weeks and that has played into Kolb’s shaky preseason performance. But let’s not make excuses for him: He’s been brutal. Not that Tennessee has any interest in trading its most valuable backup, but if I’m Arizona I’m at least picking up the phone and seeing what the Titans would want for Matt Hasselbeck. No quarterback is going to succeed behind that offensive line but at least Hasselbeck is a savvy veteran that can get the ball out of his hands quickly and be a ball distributor. That’s all the Cardinals really need because they have enough specialty players. I’m sure Hasselbeck will remain in Tennessee but if the Cardinals are interested in a veteran QB (and why wouldn’t they be?), then the former Seahawk would be an interesting fit.

8. The rich have gotten richer.
Three weeks ago it looked like Cedric Benson wasn’t going to play in 2012 because nobody wanted anything to do with him. But then James Starks struggled in camp and preseason, and Alex Green was slow to recover from ACL surgery. Thus, Benson winds up in Green Bay…and he looks good. Against the Bengals on Thursday night, the guy ran like he was angry at the ground. He was quick, he was spry, he was incredibly motivated. He doesn’t need to be Adrian Peterson or Maurice Jones-Drew in that Green Bay offense. The Cedric Benson that rushed for 1,000 yards last year will do. Because of the Packers’ up-tempo, no-huddle offense, Benson will face plenty of soft defensive fronts so as long as he’s consistent from week to week, he’s going to make a larger impact for Green Bay than people think.

9. The Bucs are still a year away.
Thanks in large part to Josh Freeman and an opportunistic defense, Tampa Bay surprised in 2010. Even though Freeman and Co. fell off a cliff last season, optimism began to grow for the Bucs when they hired former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano to replace Raheem Morris. (The front office finally opened their checkbook this offseason too, signing Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks.) But the defensive front seven remains a weakness and Freeman doesn’t look comfortable in Mike Sullivan’s offense yet. Through three preseason games he’s completed just 52.9-percent of his passes and has relied mostly on checkdowns. There’s no question the Bucs will be more competitive this year than last, because they’ll rely on Schiano’s power run game to eat up the clock and keep games close. But losing OG Davin Joseph to a season-ending injury doesn’t help and the Saints and Falcons simply have more overall depth and talent in the division.

10. The Davis trade is good for both sides.
Earlier this week Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted that a trade was coming and as it turns out, he was telling the truth. Indy acquired cornerback Vontae Davis from the Dolphins in exchange for a second-round and conditional sixth-round draft pick in 2013. Chuck Pagano brought Baltimore’s defense to Indianapolis when he was hired by the Colts earlier this year. And for his defense to ultimately succeed, Pagano knew he had to acquire a corner that could play press-man. Last week the Colts traded for Josh Gordy of the Rams, but Indy still lacked a defensive back that can be physical at the line of scrimmage and compete on an island. Davis can be that player, although he’s far from justifying his first-round talent. On the other side, the Dolphins weakened their secondary but Davis had already lost his starting job to Richard Marshall and wasn’t a fit in Kevin Coyle’s system. Considering they’re not going to compete this season, the Dolphins got good value in exchange for a player that they no longer viewed as a starter.

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