Saints vs. Panthers, 1:00PM ET
After the Seahawks thrashed the Saints on “Monday Night Football” a few weeks back, Drew Brees reminded reporters that New Orleans has the best road record of any team in the NFL since 2009. While that may be, there’s no denying that the Saints are a much different team on the road this year than at home. Part that is because the Saints are seemingly unbeatable inside the Superdome. But Sean Payton is also more conservative with his play-calling on the road, Brees is less accurate, and Rob Ryan’s defense is softer versus the run. The Panthers should adjust to what they the Saints did to them in Week 14 when these two teams met in New Orleans (a walk away win for the Saints). I expect them to tighten up their red zone coverage and not allow Jimmy Graham to get a free release up the seam and torch them for a second time. The Saints are just 1-4 against the spread in their last five games in Carolina and 3-8 ATS in their last 11 games overall versus the Panthers. FREE PICK: PANTHERS -3
Cowboys vs. Redskins, 1:00PM ET
Kirk Cousins was outstanding in the first half last Sunday in Atlanta and nearly helped Washington overcome seven turnovers to beat the hapless Falcons. He may have just as much success on Sunday versus a Dallas defense that ranks dead last in yards allowed this season, but this isn’t the game the Cowboys will choke away. (That’ll come next weekend when they host the Eagles for what will amount to the NFC East Division title game, a la Week 17 last season.) Regardless of who is under center, the Redskins remain a mess defensively and they’re just 2-9 against the number in their last 11 games versus NFC opponents. They’re also 0-4 ATS in their last four divisional games and 0-5 ATS in their last five games following an ATS win. The Cowboys should get it done on Sunday. FREE PICK: COWBOYS -2.5
Steelers vs. Packers, 4:25PM ET
The Packers have won two straight games after out-playing their opponents in the second half. They trailed by double-digits at home to the Falcons two weeks ago and by 23 points at half versus the Cowboys in Dallas last Sunday but still managed to win. At some point they’re not going to be able to dig themselves out if they continue their inconsistent play on offense and shoddy play on defense. Green Bay is just 1-6 against the spread in its last seven games overall, 0-4 ATS in its last four home games and 0-4 ATS in their last four games against a team with a losing record. On the other side, the Steelers are 5-1 against the number in their last six games overall and 4-1 ATS in their last five games following a straight up win. With Aaron Rodgers sidelined for another week with an injured collarbone, look for Pittsburgh to pull off the minor upset. FREE PICK: STEELERS +2.5
Bears vs. Eagles, 8:30PM ET
The total is set high in this one but neither of these teams were interested in playing defense last week. The Bears are going to have loads of trouble slowing down LeSean McCoy on Sunday night and after getting torched by Matt Cassel last week, the Eagles should struggle trying to defend Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte. The over is 4-1 in the Bears’ last five games overall, 11-3 in their last 14 road games and 9-2 in the Eagles’ last 11 games following an ATS loss. FREE PICK: OVER 55.5
1. Nobody should sleep on the Ravens.
The Baltimore Ravens could go from playoff afterthought to Super Bowl contenders very quickly. Their fate depends on Joe Flacco, who finally awoke from his month-long slumber to complete 25-of-36 passes for 309 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the Ravens’ 33-14 rout of the Giants in Baltimore. When Flacco plays like he did on Sunday, you understand why some believed that Baltimore would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Flacco was almost relentless in attacking a sub par New York secondary, as he constantly toyed with cornerback Corey Webster on deep throws. He was confident, he was in total command of the offense, and he was poised as a passer. Most importantly, he was a catalyst for Baltimore’s offense instead of a deterrent, as he didn’t throw an interception for the first time since Week 12. With that Joe Flacco under center, the Ravens become a much different team heading into the postseason.
2. I was wrong about the 49ers.
Last week I insisted that the 49ers were the best team in the NFC. But the Seahawks proved me wrong with their 42-13 romp over San Francisco on Sunday night. I’m not convinced that Seattle can win a Super Bowl with Russell Wilson running around backyard-football style, but I do know that teams are less intimidated by the 49ers now than they were a week ago at this time. Maybe their lousy performance was the byproduct of them playing in New England last week or the absence of Justin Smith proves that he means more to their defense than anyone originally knew. But that’s still no excuse not to show up for a huge divisional game on primetime television. San Francisco has been widely considered the most physical team in the NFL but Seattle pounded the Niners into submission last night. All Jim Harbaugh could do was watch as the Seahawks racked up points while his players limped off the field. He also witnessed what happens when his team falls behind early and his offense can no longer remain balanced. Colin Kaepernick made a couple of nice throws but he otherwise looked befuddled and confused by what Seattle’s defense was doing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. And to watch San Francisco struggle to contain Seattle’s option attack was startling. I’m not ready to crown the Niners dead or put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. But last night was eye opening to say the least.
3. There won’t be a December miracle for the Giants this time around.
The New York Giants have become a team under Tom Coughlin that believes it can push a button and turn it on whenever they need to. But the past two weeks have shown that even defending Super Bowl champions can’t play flat and expect to win. In his past two games, Eli Manning has totaled 311 yards with just one touchdown and two interceptions while looking befuddled by what was going on around him. But to solely blame Manning for New York’s woes would be ridiculous. His offensive line can’t protect him, his running game has disappeared, and his defense has put him in early holes too insurmountable to overcome. This collapse by the Giants has taken a total team effort and there will be no December miracle this year. Granted, they can still clinch the sixth seed in the NFC but even if they beat the Eagles next Sunday, they would still need the Vikings to lose to the Packers, the Bears to lose to the Lions, and the Cowboys to lose to the Redskins. Two or even three of those scenarios may happen, but certainly not all four. Three weeks ago some pondered whether or not the Giants were still the best team in the NFC and now they’re spending Christmas on the brink of elimination.
4. Why isn’t Rodgers being mentioned in MVP discussions?
Aaron Rodgers has yet to eclipse the 4,000-yard passing mark this season but it’s ridiculous that his name isn’t being debated in MVP discussions. His quarterback rating of 106.2 is the best in the NFL and his 35 touchdowns are only four less than league-leader Drew Brees. He also has the Packers on the verge of clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC despite getting little help from his running game and not having Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson healthy for an entire season. He’s compiled seven touchdown passes and 633 passing yards the past two weeks as Green Bay has now won nine of their last 10 games. Ever since that ugly 38-10 loss to the Giants in Week 12, the Packers have become an afterthought. But thanks to a red-hot Rodgers, they might be the most dangerous team in the NFC again.
5. The Falcons are ascending.
The storyline Saturday night in Detroit was Calvin Johnson breaking Jerry Rice’s all-time single-season yardage record and becoming the first receiver in NFL history to record eight straight 100-yard games. The Lions have been a total disaster this season but the one constant has been the play of Johnson, who is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. But the underlying storyline to come out of Detroit was the fact that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC now travels through Atlanta. Following their hiccup in Carolina, a lot of people nearly broke their necks while jumping off the Falcons’ bandwagon three weeks ago. But Matt Ryan put on another passing clinic on Saturday, completing 25-of-32 passes for 279 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Despite all the yardage they allowed to Johnson and Matthew Stafford, it was also the second time in as many weeks that Atlanta’s defense held an opposing quarterback out of the end zone. And considering those opposing quarterbacks were Stafford and Eli Manning, that’s noteworthy. The Falcons aren’t going to convince anyone that they’re a Super Bowl contender until they win a playoff game with Ryan under center. But while all the attention in the NFC has now shifted to the Redskins and the Seahawks, the team with the best record in the NFL has very quietly started to hit its stride.
6. The Texans are regressing.
The Falcons and Texans’ seasons have pretty much run parallel to each other all season. Until now, that is. As the Falcons have started to ascend, the Texans have been regressing since their 13-6 victory over the Bears in Chicago on November 11. Since then, they could have easily lost back-to-back overtime games to the Jaguars and Lions, and did lose to the Patriots and Vikings the past three weeks. Their other wins came against the Titans and Colts, with the latter being only marginally impressive considering the Texans were in the red zone five times and scored just one touchdown. This isn’t the same juggernaut that ran through its schedule the first half of the season. It’s not good when your starting quarterback is pulled in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss at home, especially when that blowout loss comes in Week 16. Sunday’s loss to the Vikings was the first time the Texans failed to score a touchdown since Matt Schaub became their starting quarterback in 2007. Credit the Vikings for bottling up Houston’s running game and taking away Owen Daniels while leaving Schaub second-guessing himself all day. But this is a Houston team that many considered would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl and is now on the verge of coughing up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. At a time when teams want to be sprinting into the postseason, the Texans are stumbling backwards.
7. Defense, Ponder lift Vikings this time.
Minnesota’s defense stole the show on Sunday in Houston. Arian Foster left the game early because of an irregular heartbeat but he was held to just 15 yards on 10 carries before that. The Vikings also did a great job of taking Houston’s tight ends out of the game and limiting Andre Johnson’s ability to beat them deep. Christian Ponder finally rose to the challenge too, completing 16-of-30 passes for 174 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Like many opponents do, the Texans loaded up the box with eight and nine-man fronts in order to stop Adrian Peterson. They dared Ponder to beat them and he did, converting 8-of-17 third down attempts while also scrambling seven times for 48 yards. On a day when they needed to pull off a huge road win, it was because of Ponder and the defense that Minnesota remains alive in the NFC. Of course, one huge challenge still awaits the Vikings in the form of Green Bay this Sunday. Win and Minnesota is in.
8. Don’t blame Romo for the Cowboys’ collapse.
If the Cowboys wind up missing the postseason, nobody better blame Tony Romo for the team’s misfortunes. Granted, he was a factory for turnovers earlier in the season but he’s thrown 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions over his last eight games. When a quarterback completes 26-of-43 passes for 416 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions, the team should win. The fact is that Rob Ryan’s defense had no answer for Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense, which shredded Dallas’ secondary all afternoon. Jason Garrett also didn’t help matters but only running the ball 11 times and therefore not sustaining long drives in order to help Romo and his defense. Alas, the Cowboys still have one more chance to save their season as a win over Washington this weekend would mean they’re NFC East champs.
9. If true, the Tebow report is unnerving.
According to multiple team sources, ESPN New York is reporting that Tim Tebow pulled himself out of the Jets’ Wildcat package after he was passed over for Greg McElroy to be the team’s starting quarterback last week. Tebow was active for Sunday’s loss to the Chargers, but receiver Jeremy Kerley played the role as quarterback in the Jets’ Wildcat packages, which gives at least some credence to the ESPN report. Granted, it’s not Tebow’s fault that the Jets had no idea how they wanted to use him when they acquired him from Denver. But he won a playoff game for the Broncos last year and the first thing John Elway did was trade him in the offseason. Rex Ryan also stood and watched as Mark Sanchez single-handedly flushed the Jets’ playoff hopes down the toilet and he still refused to switch to Tebow. Maybe the ESPN report is inaccurate or there’s more to the story. Maybe the Jets told Tebow that he was being pulled so that they could get a closer look at Kerley in that role. Who knows? But if the story is true, then Tebow needs a massive wake up call. He’s an upstanding human being but that has little to do with playing quarterback in the NFL. He doesn’t have the physical tools as a passer to be a reliable starter and the Patriots proved in last year’s playoffs that college offenses like the one Tebow ran in Denver can only get a team so far. He has every right to be frustrated by the three-ring circus that has become the Jets, but him refusing to play in the Wildcat is no different than Lions receiver Titus Young purposely lining up in the wrong spot in Detroit. In either instance, the players are sabotaging their own offense. Hopefully for everyone involved he’ll be out of New York soon and this charade will finally come to an end.
10. Fisher has finally given St. Louis a reason to be hopeful in December.
Following their 36-22 loss to the Vikings last week, Jeff Fisher told his players that they can either act like a team that just lost one game or act like one that had just won three out of their last four. NFL teams need to have attitude and fortitude in order to be successful and the Rams now have both because of Fisher. Over the past eight years the team hasn’t given their fans reason to be hopeful around Christmas. The last time the city had any reason to be optimistic came in 2010 when the Rams came within a road win in Seattle of winning the NFC West and playing in their first postseason game since 2004. But nobody in St. Louis needs a reminder of what transpired last season and honestly, nobody at Rams Park seems interested in discussing the recent past either. Fans aren’t going to settle for seven wins, nor should they. But here’s the key: Neither will Fisher. Let’s keep things in perspective: One prominent media outlet predicted that the Rams wouldn’t win a game this year. Yet here they are at the conclusion of 16 weeks and they’ve won seven games with one left to go this Sunday. Whether the Rams beat the Seahawks isn’t as important as knowing that their future is bright. The team, their fans, and the city can thank Fisher for that.
It’s not fair to pin the Steelers’ loss on Ben Roethlisberger considering the vicious beating his offensive line gives him every week. But that’s two weeks in a row now that he’s thrown interceptions that cost Pittsburgh games. His latest turnover also knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs…The Bengals deserve praise for finally overcoming the hold that the Steelers had on them to win on Sunday and clinch a playoff spot. It’s not easy to win a late December road game in Pittsburgh with both teams essentially facing playoff elimination…Brady Quinn is a poor man’s Mark Sanchez, which is really saying something about his ability to lead a NFL team. After this week, he shouldn’t start another game the rest of his career…Andrew Luck set the record for most passing yards by a rookie quarterback. What’s even more amazing is that the record lasted just one year. (Cam Newton threw for 4,051 yards in 2011, breaking Peyton Manning’s mark set back in 1998)…Credit the Saints for not throwing in the towel when they know they can’t make the playoffs. Unlike the Titans, the Saints are still playing with pride…The Dolphins have to drive their fans crazy. This is the second year in a row that they’re playing just well enough down the stretch to ruin their chances of higher draft picks. Still, just like with the Saints, it’s good to see a team play out the remainder of their schedule with dignity…The throw RGIII made to Santana Moss for a 22-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter yesterday was a thing of beauty. The NFL needs this kid to be in the playoffs…Just throw the freaking ball Nick Foles! Give your team a chance for cribs’ sake…This in no way is meant to discredit what Peyton Manning and the Broncos have done this season because any team that wins 10 straight games in the NFL is special. But I wonder if Denver will be done in by the fact that it got to beat up on the brutal AFC West this season…Brandon Marshall is a serious talent. The catch he made yesterday where he battled Patrick Peterson while turning his entire body to adjust to a sideline throw by Jay Cutler was outstanding…I was absolutely lambasted a few years ago for questioning whether or not Josh Freeman can be a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. Those fans that called me every name in the book deserve the last two weeks. Just sayin’.
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.
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.
Jordy Nelson– Since the 2010 playoffs, no WR has been more productive than Nelson. After a 15 TD 2011, some owners are scared he can’t match that production. But with Aaron Rodgers t QB, why can’t he?
Larry Fitzgerald– Fitz is arguably the best WR in the NFL- but in fantasy he isn’t thanks to another year of his career foreseeably wasted (or at least compromised) by substandard QB play in the desert.
Wes Welker– There are sexier WR out there, but over the last 5 years no one as consistent. 110 rec, 1,221 yards, 6 TD per season over the last five.
After “Megatron” is gone, who do you take next? I’m going Marshall.
Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will share his quick-hit observations from the week that was in football. This week he hands out 10 observations from Week 2 of the 2012 NFL preseason.
1. The Jets’ offense is troubling.
Mark Sanchez is already in mid-season form. In two preseason games, he’s 13-of-17 for a dismal 80 yards with no touchdowns and one 77-yard pick-six against the Giants on Saturday night. But it’s unfair to be overly critical of Sanchez’s performance when he’s consistently on his back or starring out of his ear hole. The Jets’ offensive line has been a disaster to this point and how can anyone expect that Sanchez will take that next step if right tackle Wayne Hunter acts as a turnstile instead of a brick wall? Sanchez has been sacked six times in 23 dropbacks in preseason and Hunter allowed four sacks in total on Saturday night. The fact that the Jets tried to trade for Carolina OT Jeff Otah back in July is all you need to know about the team’s confidence in Hunter. (The trade eventually fell through after Otah couldn’t pass a physical.) But it’s not just Hunter – the entire New York offensively is struggling, so much so that Tony Sparano’s offense has yet to score a touchdown in two preseason games. Forget Sanchez and ESPN’s lovechild Tim Tebow – if the Jets don’t get their offensive line straightened, the 1960s version of Joe Namath could step off a time machine and struggle under center.
2. Let’s keep Peyton’s “struggles” in proper context.
Following the Broncos’ loss to the Seahawks on Saturday night, the headlines on Sunday focused on Peyton Manning’s two interceptions. In two games this preseason, Manning is 20-of-30 passing for 221 yards, no touchdowns and three picks. Ever consumed by projections and predictions, many message board fanatics and media members are clamoring about how Manning doesn’t look like the Peyton of old. Really? The guy didn’t play a down last year and his career appeared to be in jeopardy. Twelve months ago many said he was finished. Now, because he’s thrown three interceptions in his first two preseason games following multiple neck surgeries, everyone is concerned? Relax. Jacob Tamme dropped an easy touchdown versus Seattle and Eric Decker also put one of Manning’s passes on the ground as well. His velocity isn’t there yet and may never return. But it’s only the second week of the preseason. Give him time to get his feel back for the game before we chastise him about his numbers.
3. It’s great to see Atlanta and Baltimore open things up.
The paths of the Falcons and Ravens have run parallel to each other since 2008. Mike Smith and John Harbaugh were both hired that year, while Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan were both selected in the first round of that draft. Both teams have also been on the cusp of big things, although Baltimore has been closer to fulfilling its promise than Atlanta, which is 0-3 in the playoffs under Smith. One other key similarity between these two teams is their offensive philosophy, which is to keep the ball on the ground and play a physical brand of football. Or, should I say that was the teams’ philosophy until this year. Flacco was inconsistent against the Lions on Friday but for the most part he looked smooth running Cam Cameron’s no huddle offense. He often got the Ravens set before Detroit’s defense was settled and while he attacked with mostly underneath routes, the takeaway is that he looked comfortable. Ryan, meanwhile, has looked like a different quarterback in new OC Dirk Koetter’s system. He’s no longer just a game manager that is afraid to fit the ball into tight windows. He’s confident, he’s standing strong in a muddied pocket and he has developed a great rapport with Julio Jones. In what has become a passing league, it’s good to see that two contenders have finally come to grips with the fact that they need to adjust.
4. Enough about Bradford’s ankle.
CBSsports.com’s Jason La Canfora released a report earlier this week that stated there’s a “definite possibility” that Sam Bradford will need ankle surgery after the season. I’m not here to discredit La Canfora’s report, which was validated a day later when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch confirmed that the team does have concerns about Bradford’s left ankle holding up for the entire season. But the bottom line is that he didn’t miss one rep in mini-camp, hasn’t missed one rep in training camp, and has yet to be affected by the ankle in preseason. In practices he hasn’t had issues rolling out of the pocket and hasn’t as much as limped around the field. Saturday night versus the Chiefs, he completed 6-of-9 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. From the very first snap of the game when he hit Danny Amendola on a long crossing route for a 35-yard gain, Bradford consistently went through his progressions and found open receivers. He’s primed for a bounce back season.
5. Outside of Urlacher, optimism continues to build in Chicago.
Looking back, the Bears had one of the better offseasons of any team in the league. Had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not gotten hurt last season, the Bears were on a collision course with the fifth playoff seed in the NFC. So what did they do? They signed a quality player in Jason Smith to backup Cutler and added Michael Bush to help take some of the rushing load off of Forte. Of course, Chicago’s biggest and best move was trading for Brandon Marshall, who finally gives Cutler a bona fide No. 1 target. The Bears also drafted South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery, who has caught seven passes for 97 yards this offseason. The offensive line is the biggest concern, but the unit looked good on Saturday night. The other question mark is obviously Brian Urlacher, who likely won’t be healthy all season. But while the defense is getting long in the tooth, the Bears have everything they need to make a deep postseason run this season.
6. The Cardinals are in trouble.
If I were to pick one defense to improve the most from 2011 to 2012, I would choose the Arizona Cardinals. Last year coordinator Ray Horton implemented the same defense that Dick LeBeau runs in Pittsburgh and while the Cardinal defenders were often caught out of position last season because of their unfamiliarity with the scheme, they improved throughout the year. With a full offseason to grasp Horton’s scheme, Arizona’s defense should be quietly consistent all season. Then again, it better be because the offense could be a total disaster. The offensive line was already struggling before Levi Brown suffered what should be a season-ending triceps injury on Friday. Not only that, but Kevin Kolb has been a train wreck in preseason and while John Skelton has displayed a little magic before, he’ll eventually succumb to the pitfalls of the offensive line. Thanks to Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells, Michael Floyd and Ryan Williams, the parts are there. But Wells and Williams are injury concerns, the Cardinals are bringing Floyd along slowly and the greatness of Fitzgerald is nullified by a bad situation at quarterback and along the offensive line. It could be a long season in the desert.
7. Locker is keeping Hasselbeck in the running.
With an opportunity to perhaps widen the gap between he and Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker really struggled in his second preseason game on Saturday might. He completed just 4-of-11 passes for 21 yards and one interception and he struggled mightily in his first NFL start (preseason or regular). And because he had so many issues, coach Mike Munchak wasn’t able to declare Locker the starter this weekend. It makes sense that the Titans want Locker to emerge as the starter. After all, he’s the future and while the veteran Hasselbeck can keep Tennessee in most games, Locker is the superior athlete and has the ability to produce more big plays. But if the second-year quarterback can’t seize the opportunity in front of him, then Munchak has no choice but to allow the two signal callers to keep battling.
8. The Seahawks have an underrated battle at quarterback.
Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports joined Tony Softli and myself this morning on 101 ESPN radio in St. Louis and noted that at least one team would have drafted Russell Wilson ahead of Ryan Tannehill if Wilson weren’t as short as he is. But as SI.com’s Peter King said earlier this week, Wilson didn’t have one ball knocked down at Wisconsin. He’s a smart, instinctive kid with excellent fundamentals. If Matt Flynn didn’t sign that free agent deal this offeason, I’m not so sure Wilson wouldn’t have been named the starter by Pete Carroll at this point. Granted, Wilson has played against the second and third-teamers in preseason but that doesn’t negate the fact that he’s still making the throws, still making sound decisions, and still forcing Carroll from naming Flynn the starter heading into the third week of preseason.
9. The NFL hasn’t made the referees a priority, which is bothersome.
A couple of days ago NFL executive Ray Anderson made a comment on the locked out officials saying, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game.” That’s true, I’ve never purchased a ticket to a NFL game hoping to a see a Pro Bowl-caliber performance from a referee. But I have paid to watch a professional NFL game, which should include professional referees. I get that the NFL is in the middle of a labor dispute and is therefore downplaying the value of the regular referees. But Anderson shouldn’t insult the intelligence of fans with comments like the one above. It’s a different game with replacement refs, and that much has been proven the past two weeks. I have no doubt that these replacements will improve with each week but it’s going to be a long time before they reach the level that the regulars are at. The NFL is not putting a high value on the regular referees, and that’s not fair to fans.
10. Questions surround Bowe.
As a whole, the Chiefs had a poor showing in their 31-17 loss to the Rams on Saturday night. But Matt Cassel did some good things, especially when he was allowed to open things up and target the middle of the field (which happens to be St. Louis’ weakness save for MLB James Laurinaitis). Jon Baldwin has also drawn rave reviews in training camp and Jamaal Charles appears to be recovering nicely from ACL surgery. Another piece of positive news is that Dwayne Bowe signed his franchise tender and has been cleared to practice. But will he learn new OC Brian Daboll’s scheme in time for the regular season? Imagine trying to master a new language before having to take the final exam in just two weeks. While there’s plenty of optimism growing in Kansas City, there’s a realistic chance that Bowe will be slow out of the gates until he can learn Daboll’s offense.