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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.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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NFL Week 6 MVP, COY and ROY Power Rankings

Every week we have different candidates here, because the 2010 NFL season has been wacky. And that’s okay, as it makes ranking MVP, Coach of the Year and Rookie of the Year candidates more fun. Anyway, here we go….

MVP Power Rankings

1. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts—Okay, so Philip Rivers and Kyle Orton have more yards per game, but they play for 2-4 teams. Manning’s Colts are 4-2, and check out these numbers through six games—1916 yards, 67.3 completion percentage, 319.3 yards per game, 13 touchdowns (leads NFL) and just 2 interceptions, for a QB rating of 103.4. As usual, Manning sort of defines what the term MVP is all about.

2. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers—I heard someone on NFL Network the other day call Matthews the “best defensive player in the NFL.” Not bad for a linebacker in his second year, who was selected after 25 other players in the 2009 draft. Anyway, Matthews has 9 sacks to lead the NFL, and 21 tackles through five games…and the Packers sorely missed him last Sunday in a loss to Miami when Matthews sat out with a hamstring injury.

3. Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers—We’re leaving Antonio on here this week because he left the game against the Rams last Sunday with an ankle injury, leaving Philip Rivers without his favorite target. And then the Chargers lost the game. To the Rams. Gates only had 2 catches for 12 yards in that one, but on the season he still has 31 receptions for 490 yards and 7 TDs (which leads all tight ends and receivers).

Honorable mention: Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles (thanks to Kevin Kolb’s performance last Sunday, Vick got bumped off the list); LaDainian Tomlinson, New York Jets; Brandon Lloyd, Denver Broncos; Kyle Orton, Denver Broncos; Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers; Osi Umenyiora, New York Giants; Arian Foster, Houston Texans

Coach of the Year Power Rankings

1. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers—If you start the season without your star quarterback for four games, and have the likes of Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon, and Byron Leftwich at the helm, coming out of that 2-2 would be a huge moral victory. Well, Tomlin came out of that stretch 3-1 and it could have been 4-0 if not for that last-gasp drive by Joe Flacco and the Ravens a few weeks ago. Of course, the D led by a healthy Troy Polamalu and hard-hitting-to-a-fault James Harrison, has helped, but let’s give Tomlin some huge and well-deserved props here.

2. Steve Spagnuolo, St. Louis Rams—Has anyone noticed that the Rams are 3-3, having already equaled their win total from 2008 and 2009 combined. And they’re giving up less than 19 points per game after allowing 27 per game last year—something that has much to do with the Rams’ defensive whiz of a coach.

3. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants—How do you go from the scorching hot hot seat to a coach of the year nomination? Ask Tom Coughlin, who the New York media had being replaced by Bill Cowher a few weeks ago when they lost badly to the Colts, and then beat themselves badly in a loss the Titans at home. The Giants rallied around Coughlin and squashed the previously unbeaten Bears, then crushed the upstart Texans in Houston 34-10, before not allowing the dreaded trap game against Detroit ruin his team’s winning streak. So from 1-2 to 4-2, and tied with the Eagles for the division lead. That’s why Tom Coughlin is on here.

Honorable mention: Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks; Raheem Morris, Tampa Bay Bucs; Todd Haley, Kansas City Chiefs; Rex Ryan, New York Jets; Andy Reid, Philadelphia Eagles

Rookie of the Year Power Rankings

1. Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions—Suh leads all NFL defensive tackles with 5 sacks, and he also has 21 tackles through six games, plus an interception—a pretty rare feat for a DT. Is there any doubt that this young big man is the real deal?

2. Jahvid Best, Detroit Lions—Injury may have slowed Best down, but how about the fact that to go along with 249 rushing yards, Best has 31 catches for a league-high 285 receiving yards among running backs. That’s 534 all-purpose yards through six games.

3. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams—He’s way down the list of quarterbacks stat-wise, but Bradford is averaging 226 yards per game and has 7 TD passes. We’ll let the 8 picks slide for now, because let’s face it—the kid is helping to lead the Rams to respectability.

Honorable mention: Max Hall, Arizona Cardinals; Rolando McClain, Oakland Raiders; Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys; Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals

Breaking News: Big Ben’s suspension reduced to four games

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger walks onto the field before a preseason game against the New York Giants in East Rutherford, New Jersey August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

NFL Network’s Jason LaCanfora is reporting that the NFL has reduced Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension from six to four games.

Roethlisberger’s suspension is 4 games. He has left the NY area and is en route back to Pittsburgh. Full story ahead on NFL Network

Not shocking – I think most people were expecting Roger Goodell to reduce the suspension in light of Big Ben’s good behavior (for lack of better words).

The games he’ll miss are against the Falcons, Titans, Bucs and Ravens and the news couldn’t come at a better time with Byron Leftwich suffering a knee injury in Pittsburgh’s final preseason game Thursday night. ESPN.com’s Chris Mortensen believes that Leftwich can avoid having surgery and still start in the opener, although in my opinion, Dennis Dixon is a better option anyway given Lefty’s issues with consistency.

We’ll see what happens with Big Ben in four weeks. He’ll have some rust to shake off by that point and it stands to reason that he’ll need a couple of starts to get back into the groove of things.

And no matter how well he performs when he comes back, he better avoid off-field issues or else is career in Pittsburgh will likely end. Considering the Steelers were contemplating dumping him after this last incident, I don’t think I’m reaching with that statement either.

All summer, I’ve been advocating taking Big Ben in the 9th or 10th round as part of a Quarterback By Committee (QBBC) with Eli Manning, Matt Ryan or Joe Flacco, so this is obviously good news for those owners that have followed that advice. By getting Roethlisberger so late, fantasy owners will be getting a Top 6 or 7 fantasy QB at a big discount. I suspect that this news will push Roethisberger’s ADP into the 9th round, so be prepared to use a 7th or 8th rounder on Eli/Ryan/Flacco and a 9th on Big Ben to round out a very potent committee.

Can Leftwich and Dixon keep the Steelers afloat until Big Ben returns?

8-14-10:  Ben Roethlisberger  and Byron Leftwich  during the Pittsburgh Steelers vs Detroit Lions game in Pittsburgh at Heinz Field.

Merry training camp season, everyone. It’s been a long offseason, but football is finally gearing up again and to celebrate I’m rolling out a new series on TSR entitled “2010 NFL Question Marks,” where I discuss one or two of the biggest concerns that teams have heading into the new season. Granted, some teams have more issues than others, but I’ll primarily be focusing on the biggest problem areas. Today I’ll be discussing the affects that Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension could have on the Steelers’ quarterback position.

After trading Santonio Holmes to the Jets in the offseason, some feel as though the Steelers’ biggest weakness is at receiver. But Hines Ward continues to be the model for production and Mike Wallace is turning heads as a potential deep threat. I also like promising sixth-rounder Antonio Brown and there have been reports that third rounder Emmanuel Sanders could beat out Antwaan Randle El for the No. 3 receiver job by the start of the season.

If I’m the Steelers, receiver isn’t my main concern – quarterback is.

As of this writing, Ben Roethlisberger is still slated to miss the first six games of the season due to a suspension. That number could be reduced to four games, but Roger Goodell has yet to make announce his decision either way.

But even if it’s only four games, the Steelers still have to be concerned about getting off to a slow start with either Byron Lefwich or youngster Dennis Dixon at the helm. They host the Falcons in Week 1 before facing the Titans and Buccaneers in back-to-back road games. They host the Ravens in Week 4, their bye is Week 5 and then they play the Browns at home in Week 6 before going on the road to Miami in Week 7.

While it’s a rather fruitless endeavor to try and predict the success of teams in preseason, it’s probably safe to assume the Falcons, Ravens and Dolphins will be playoff contenders, while the Titans will be improved as well. I’m sure if the Steelers can play .500 ball while Big Ben is out, they’ll take it. But what if Leftwich and/or Dixon put them in a hole early in the season?

Read the rest of this entry »

Roethlisberger looking forward to second chance

Speaking to the media for the first time since he rejoined the Steelers earlier in the week, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said that he was looking forward to a “second chance” and a new opportunity.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“I’ve put a lot of thought into my life, decisions that I’ve made in the past that I’ve been sitting at home thinking about things. I’ve been working closely with the commissioner on ways to make changes, corrections. So, I’m looking forward to the second chance and a second opportunity, not just in football because I think everyone knows what you’re going to get in football, but in life. I think that’s what’s kind of more important.

“A lot of them are personal things, you know, which is just something that I need to do. But it’s been neat being able to really re-evaluate my life and spend time with my family and kind of re-evaluate and re-figure what’s important in my life. That’s me … evaluating what I need to do and be smarter when it comes to certain things. Like I said it’s a new chapter and I’m looking forward to it and it starts with football. I’m glad to be back here … I’ll be talking to you guys a lot more.”

There are no shortage of young, drunk women that are ready to fawn over athletes and regret their decisions later. So we’ll see if Big Ben has made wholesale changes and whether or not he’ll follow through on some of the things he said to the media today.

And I hope he does change. Our society doesn’t need yet another athlete that has no concept of what it is to be a role model to kids. (Not that I think athletes should be role models anyway, but it doesn’t help when they publicly are accused of sexually assaulting not one, but two women in under a year.)

On a related note, the Post-Gazette is also reporting that it’s “obvious” that Byron Leftwich will be starting for the Steelers in Week 1. Dennis Dixon has yet to work with the first team, although that could change when training camp begins later this summer.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

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