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2011 NFL Week 12 Primer

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) leads his team on the field before their game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field on November 14, 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. UPI/Brian Kersey

Packers @ Lions, 12:30PM ET, Thursday
I truly believe that it’s Green Bay and then everyone else when it comes to the power structure of the NFL. But don’t think for a second that the Lions can’t beat the Packers on Thanksgiving Day. They’ve been waiting a long time to be strong enough to finally punch the bully back and they’ll have their opportunity tomorrow. The key for Detroit is its front four. If they can rush Aaron Rodgers with only Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch, then they’re going to be fine. And with how suspect Green Bay’s defense has been this year, if its still a game in the fourth quarter then the Lions have a shot to pull off the upset.

Dolphins @ Cowboys, 4:15PM ET, Thursday
This is definitely the weakest of the Thanksgiving matchups but this game still offers plenty of intrigue. The Cowboys are now tied with the Giants for first place in the NFC East but they’ve turned in inconsistent performances all season. And during Miami’s three-game winning streak, the Dolphins haven’t allowed a touchdown in 12 quarters. This is going to be a bigger challenge for Tony Romo and Co. than people think.

49ers @ Ravens, 8:20PM ET, Thursday
Forget the Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh stuff – this is a great matchup between two physical teams that will fight for four quarters. The Ravens have been playing up and down to their competition all season and their offense has sputtered at times. On the other side, San Francisco’s defense has been a rock for nine straight weeks but Baltimore’s run defense is outstanding so it’ll be interesting to see how the Niners fare when they have to lean on Alex Smith and the passing game. There doesn’t figure to be much scoring in this game but if you like hard-nosed football, then it doesn’t get better than this.

Vikings @ Falcons, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
This isn’t a very exciting matchup with Adrian Peterson out with an ankle injury but it’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons stay with their no-huddle attack on offense. They ran the no-huddle exclusively in their 23-17 win over the Titans last Sunday and had great success with it (outside of settling for field goals when they reached the red zone, that is). Matt Ryan looks most comfortable running that offense but will OC Mike Mularkey make it Atlanta’s identity on offense? He’s been hesitant to ditch his “smashmouth” approach but at some point the Falcons need to develop more consistency on offense. Maybe running the no-huddle full-time is the answer.

Texans @ Jaguars, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
It’s time to see if Matt Leinart has matured as a quarterback. He failed in Arizona because he wasn’t ready to lead a young team with potential (unlike Kurt Warner, who prospered in the situation). Now Leinart is at the controls of a veteran club that has an outstanding running game and a sound defense. Can he manage games and make plays when his number is called or will he crumble under the pressure? In Jacksonville’s defense, he’ll face a stiff test right out of the gates.

Buccaneers @ Titans, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
One of these teams will keep its playoff hopes alive on Sunday while the other could be looking at a long offseason. The Titans remain two games behind the Texans in the AFC South but with Matt Schaub out for the season, Tennessee has a golden opportunity to get back into the divisional race if it can string some wins together. On the other side, the Bucs continue to fall further behind the Saints and Falcons in the NFC South. In some respects, this might as well be an elimination game for these two teams (although more so for the Bucs).

Cardinals @ Rams, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
Steve Spagnuolo and Billy Devaney’s jobs seem safe for now in St. Louis. But any more displays like last Sunday and the Rams could be searching for a new head coach and/or general manager this offseason. Sam Bradford and Co. were pitiful on offense in their 24-7 loss to Seattle last weekend.

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Sunday Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 11 in the NFL

Every Sunday throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler warms up before the game against the San Diego Chargers at Soldier Field on November 20, 2011 in Chicago. UPI/Brian Kersey

- December 25th – mark it down. That’s the day the Bears get their rematch with the Packers and it’s going to be a spectacle to watch. There might not be a team playing with more confidence right now than Chicago, which hasn’t lost since its ugly effort in Detroit on Monday Night Football back in early October. Jay Cutler didn’t light the stat sheet on fire today but he made big plays all day. And his lone mistake (an interception to Antoine Cason), wasn’t a mistake at all because Johnny Knox slipped on the play. Besides, the Bear defense picked off Philip Rivers in the end zone on the next possession, basically nullifying Cason’s interception. With guys like Cutler, Matt Forte and Devin Hester, as well as a physical, unrelenting defense, the Bears look playoff ready…

…whoops! Talk about timing. About a millisecond after writing that paragraph I saw a report that Jay Cutler’s season might be over due to a fractured right throwing thumb. If that’s the case, then the Bears could be finished. Caleb Hanie has had his moments, such as leading Chicago to a touchdown on his first series against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game last year. But as B.J. Raji’s interception in that same game can attest to, Hanie is also very inexperienced. If Cutler is indeed out (he’ll undergo more tests on Monday), then his injury dramatically changes the Bears’ offense (and season, for that matter).

- The Falcons would be foolish not to keep Matt Ryan in the no-huddle from here on out. Atlanta ran its no-huddle almost exclusively today in its 23-17 victory over the Titans and Ryan had is second-highest QB rating of the season (110.9), threw for over 300 yards for only the fourth time all year, and didn’t throw an interception for only the third time in 10 games. While they did have issues inside the red zone (they settled for three field goals and Michael Turner coughed the ball up once to allow Tennessee to get back into the game), the Falcons only punted twice in the victory. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has been hesitant to run the no-huddle on a full-time basis but it’s the offense that Ryan is clearly most comfortable running.

- Jake Locker showed why he was once considered a slam-dunk No. 1 overall draft pick. Matt Hasselbeck has done a fantastic job managing games for Tennessee this year but Locker sparked a punchless offense and nearly brought the Titans back from 20 points down in the second half. He only completed 9-of-19 passes but those nine completions went for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He also picked up a first down with an 11-yard rush on a third-and-long and showed good zip on most of his passes. Mike Munchak already backed Hasselbeck as the starter in his post-game press conference but with Matt Schaub now out for the year in Houston, it might be time for Tennessee to roll the dice with the kid. Locker was fun to watch today.

- I watched Chris Johnson very closely today and from my point of view, there’s nothing wrong with him. He just doesn’t have anywhere to run as Tennessee’s run blocking is abysmal. Atlanta’s run defense is very sound but Johnson was bottled up almost immediately after receiving the hand off.

- Blaine Gabbert threw for 210 yards and didn’t turn the ball over in the Jaguars’ 14-10 loss to the Browns. He also threw a perfectly placed ball that Jason Hill couldn’t haul in with three seconds remaining in the game that could have won it for Jacksonville. But Gabbert’s overthrow to a wide-open (and I mean WIDE-OPEN) Hill in the end zone with just under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter really cost Jacksonville a huge opportunity to tie the game at 14-14. Those are the types of plays that Gabbert hasn’t been making all season. Now, he’s only a rookie and deserves time to develop. But I firmly believe that Jacksonville screwed up by releasing David Garrard and forcing Gabbert onto the field before he was ready. The kid should be holding a clipboard right now.

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten hugs kicker Dan Bailey after Bailey kicked a game winning 39-yard field goal in overtime against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Washington on November 20, 2011. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

- I’m sorry, I know a win is a win and they very well could wind up being tied for first in the NFC East before the night is over (the Giants are currently losing to the Eagles as I type). But that was not a very impressive win by the Cowboys today. The Redskins’ offense has been putrid for over a month and the Cowboys were one 52-yard field goal by Graham Gano away from losing. Jason Witten and Tony Romo made some great plays today and hey, divisional games are usually close. But count me among the people who keep waiting for the ‘Boys to put together that signature win and yet, it still hasn’t come. I picked the Cowboys to win the NFC East this year so I’m not surprised that they’re 6-4. It’s just not a very impressive 6-4 to me.

- Andy Dalton made some big mistakes today, which included throwing three interceptions and being flagged for intentional grounding on the Bengals’ final possession. But it’s clear that he and Cincinnati have a very bright future. This was a team that was without its best offensive playmaker (A.J. Green) and its top cornerback (Leon Hall) and still hung with the Ravens on their home field. On paper, Baltimore should have cruised to victory and it almost did. But thanks to Dalton and the Bengals’ perseverance, they had a chance to at least tie the game in the closing minutes. Assuming Dalton doesn’t go backwards from here, I see no reason why the Bengals won’t continue to challenge the Ravens and the Steelers in the AFC North.

- It was good to see Cam Cameron let it rip today. Sometimes the Ravens’ offense looks like a Ferrari but drives like a Pinto. Joe Flacco took a couple of deep shots, Ray Rice was heavily involved and Torrey Smith (6 receptions, 165 yards, 1 TD) had a breakout performance. Speaking of Smith, if he maintains his confidence week in and week out, he’s going to be a star in this league. That 49-yard catch that he hauled in today was a thing of beauty.

- If I’m a Lions fan I’m ecstatic that my team scored 49 points as Matthew Stafford threw for five touchdowns and Kevin Smith rushed for 140 yards and two scores. But I would be extremely concerned about the number of times they’ve had to stage a big comeback because they’ve dug themselves a huge hole in the first half. Three of the Lions’ seven wins this year (Dallas, Minnesota and Carolina) have come after they’ve fallen behind by 20 points or more and while it’s impressive that they’ve been able to persevere, it would be more impressive if they figured out a way to play four quarters more consistently. Because this is obviously a very dangerous team when they’re firing on all cylinders.

- Cam Newton is extremely fun to watch and he’s making a lot of pundits look very stupid for doubting him (and the Panthers for that matter) back in April. That said, he certainly helped his team lose today. Carolina’s defense turned in a brutal second-half effort against Detroit but Newton’s inaccuracy was a major issue as well. He often missed high to his receivers and wound up throwing four interceptions in the loss. Recklessness simply can’t be a part of his game.

- Kellen Winslow (9 receptions, 132 yards, 1 TD) had a monster game but he cost the Bucs’ twice in their 35-26 loss to the Packers. First he was flagged for an obvious pass interference call in the end zone on a third-and-3 from the Packers’ 4-yard-line, which led to a Tampa Bay field goal instead of a potential touchdown early in the third quarter. Then he dropped a pass on a two-point conversation attempt that would have tied the game at 21-21 early in the fourth. Granted, the Bucs’ defense couldn’t come up with that one big stop in the fourth but they were also trailing by nine points virtually that entire quarter because of Winslow’s mistakes. Still, Tampa certainly gave Green Bay all it could handle. There are no moral victories but the Bucs finally showed some punch on offense (including LeGarrette Blount’s unbelievable touchdown run).

- All of those weapons on offense and the Packers’ first two touchdowns today came on a 1-yard B.J. Raji run and a Tom Crabtree five-yard reception, respectively. As if opposing defenses don’t have enough to worry about when it comes to Green Bay, now they have to try and tackle 337 pounds of B.J. Raji and defend some guy named Tom Crabtree.

- Want to know the biggest reason why the previously 0-7 Dolphins have won three games in a row? Try the fact that they haven’t allowed a touchdown in 12 quarters now. Miami’s defense absolutely stifled the Bills today, allowing just 41 rushing yards in a 35-8 rout. They also stuffed Buffalo at the goal line early in the fourth quarter and intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. And who needs Andrew Luck? Matt Moore has thrown six touchdowns in his last three games.

- Somebody stick a fork in the Bills because they’re done. They made believers out of a lot of people earlier in the year but they’ve looked absolutely horrendous the last three weeks. Do you think the front office is regretting signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to that extension? He signed his new deal on October 28, beat the Redskins two days later and hasn’t won since.

- His play is indicative of a rookie quarterback but Christian Ponder is absolutely maddening to watch sometimes. One minute he’s using his athleticism to make a big throw downfield and the next he’s literally throwing the ball directly to a defender (see his interception to Stanford Routt in the fourth quarter today). He did extremely well to lead the Vikings from 20 points down against the Raiders without Adrian Peterson (who left the game early with an injury), but Ponder made some really bad decisions. Again, this is what you expect out of a rookie but he’s liable to make Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave insane.

- Some teams don’t have one capable starter at running back and Oakland has two. It must be nice when Darren McFadden goes down with an injury to have Michael Bush step in and take his place. Bush has lifted the Raiders into sole possession of first place in the AFC West the past two weeks. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the Chargers are absolutely imploding.

San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh (R) discusses a call with Line Judge John Hussey during play against the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on November 20, 2011. The 49ers defeated the Cardinals 23-7. UPI/Terry Schmitt

- Perhaps the most impressive thing about Jim Harbaugh is not the fact that he has gotten Alex Smith to play well or that the Niners’ defense is one of the best in the league. Albeit, those things are impressive but not nearly as impressive as the focus and discipline that he’s instilled in this San Francisco team. The Niners were a talented squad under Mike Singletary but the problem was that he was completely overmatched as a football tactician. And because he was so overmatched both on and off the field, his team began falling apart at the seams. But under Harbaugh, the Niners have played sound football, don’t beat themselves and not once have they been caught looking ahead. With a Thanksgiving Day matchup with his brother’s Ravens coming up in just four days, Harbaugh and the Niners could have easily overlooked Arizona today. Instead, they nearly shut the Cardinals out. Again, under Harbaugh they’ve been highly impressive.

- Considering how brutal their schedule was in the first half and the amount of injuries they’ve had to suffer through (particularly in the defensive backfield), it’s not surprising to see the Rams sitting with only two wins. That said, that’s a pitiful football team they have in St. Louis and if Billy Devaney doesn’t have a better offseason than the one he did this past year, the Rams will continue to lose. Devaney better find some gems in next year’s draft; I’m talking about finding a couple of guys that can make an impact right away or else both he and Steve Spagnuolo will be out of jobs very soon.

- I just can’t wrap my head around the play of Philip Rivers this year. This can’t be the same guy who almost single-handedly kept the Chargers in the playoff hunt last year without his top two playmakers. It just can’t. The interception he threw at the end of the game to Corey Graham was one of the worst throwaway attempts I’ve ever seen. And this came after Major Wright picked him off earlier in the quarter when San Diego’s defense put the Chargers in great field position with an interception of their own. Brutal. Philip Rivers has been brutal this year.

Sunday Evening Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 6 in the NFL

Every Sunday evening throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING…

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman (5) is congratulated by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) on the Bucs’ victory after their NFL football game in Tampa, Florida October 16, 2011. REUTERS/Pierre DuCharme(UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- A week after the Bucs were absolutely embarrassed by the 49ers in San Francisco, they turn around on Sunday and dominate the Saints to even things up in the NFC South. Granted, this was the Saints’ third-straight road game and their head coach had to call plays from the bench and from up in the booth after tearing his MCL and fracturing his tibia in a nasty first-quarter collision with his tight end on the sidelines. But still, you can’t take anything away from the Bucs today. They picked off Drew Brees, forced four turnovers and got a 300-yard performance out of Josh Freeman. They were also without promising runner LeGarrette Blount, but Earnest Graham filled in admirably with a 109-yard effort. Suddenly the NFC South is once again tight, as the Saints and Bucs are both 4-2 and the Falcons are only one game behind at 3-3.

- Who would have thought that the midfield handshake would provide more action than the actual game between the 49ers and Lions today? I’m sure plenty of Lion fans were upset with Jim Harbaugh’s excitement following the Niners’ win in Detroit, which is understandable. Considering Harbaugh didn’t have his finest coaching performance of the year, he probably could have toned down his exuberance while heading out to midfield to shake Jim Schwartz’s hand. But let’s make one thing clear: If you’re going to dish it out, you better be willing to take it. And Schwartz has been dishing it out all year in the form of taunting opposing players and nearly knocking himself out with hay-maker fist pumps. In fact, as my good buddy Drew (a huge Lions fan) pointed out following the game, Schwartz gave Harbaugh guff in the first quarter after the San Fran coach challenged a touchdown. Schwartz seemingly shouted “No the rules!” at the 49er sideline. The Niners won and Harbaugh has every right to be excited. Schwartz should have kept his composure.

- For about the 9,000,000 time in my career, I was wrong about the Bears. They screw me at every turn. When I predict that they’ll win, they don’t. When I say they’ll lose, they completely dominate a divisional opponent 39-10 on national television. I don’t understand them and quite frankly, I don’t want to understand them. I have zero clue when it comes to predicting the success or failures of the Chicago Bears, whom I predicted would beat Peyton Manning in the 2006 Super Bowl. (We all know how that turned out and I think it’s fitting that I mention that game on the same day Rex Grossman throws four interceptions.) Tonight I thought Jared Allen and Adrian Peterson would take over the game in Chicago and instead, Jay Cutler and Devin Hester put on a clinic. They were masterful against a Minnesota team that I thought was a tad better than its record indicated. Thus, I humbly eat crow, as I was once again was wrong about Chicago. Congrats, Bears – you mother…

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Five storylines to follow for NFL Championship Sunday

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It’s the NFL and it’s Championship Sunday – we know you don’t need reasons to actually watch the games. But here are five storylines to keep an eye on as we draw closer to kickoff.

1. Are the Jets worn out?
Very few pundits thought the Jets would beat Peyton Manning on his home field and nobody thought they would upset Tom Brady in Foxboro. But after two straight upsets, Gang Green now has everyone’s attention and you get the sense that people are actually starting to get behind Rex Ryan’s team. Compared to the last two weeks, the Jets have been awfully quiet over the past five days as they prepare for the Steelers. Are they focused or have they worn themselves out? Playing on the road is draining enough during the regular season. What happens to a team when they have to play three-straight road games in the playoffs when a Super Bowl is on the line and they’re constantly underdogs? This time last year, the Jets fizzled out. Do they have enough left in the tank this year to pull off one more upset?

2. Will Rodgers continue his onslaught on opposing defenses?
After they crushed the Giants and beat the Bears in their final two regular season games, then went on the road and contained Michael Vick in Philadelphia, the Packers already had plenty of believers last week when they traveled to Atlanta. And after Aaron Rodgers put on a clinic against the Falcons, there’s a large contingent that believes the Pack are Super Bowl bound. But Rodgers has a tough test this Sunday against the Bears, whose defense might as well be cement to Atlanta’s Charmin extra soft. In their Week 17 loss at Lambeau, Chicago held Rodgers relatively in check but he still competed 19-of-28 passes for 229 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Rodgers can make plays with both his arm and legs and he has a knack for getting the ball out of his hand quickly and accurately. Can the Bears pressure him in the pocket and if so, can their corners play as physical as they did last week against Seattle in order to disrupt Rodgers’ rhythm with his receivers? Or will the gunslinger elevate his play one last time in order to make Green Bay’s improbable Super Bowl dreams a reality?

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Two factors that could doom the Packers or Bears

Chicago Bears punt returner Devin Hester (C) breaks tackles by Green Bay Packers special teams players Brandon Chillar (L) and Brett Goode on his way to a 57-yard punt return for a touchdown during the fourth quarter at Soldier Field in Chicago on September 27, 2010. The Bears won 20-17. UPI/Brian Kersey

As we approach kickoff for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, here are two factors (one for each team) that could potentially keep the Packers or Bears from reaching the Super Bowl.

Green Bay Packers: Special Teams
Against the Falcons last week, the Packers dominated two of the three main phases of the game (offense and defense) but lost the third (special teams). After tying the score 7-7 early in the second quarter, Eric Weems returned a 102-yard kickoff for a touchdown against Green Bay’s shaky kickoff coverage. In Week 12, it was Weems’ 40-yard kickoff return and subsequent facemask penalty on Matt Willhelm that helped put the Falcons in position to kick a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.

In the Bears’ Week 3 win over the Pack, Devin Hester returned a punt 62 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown, which gave Chicago a 14-10 lead with 14 minutes to play. If there’s one area of concern for the Packers heading into this weekend, it has to be their special teams. They’re allowing 38.9 yards per punt attempt this season, which ranks them 26th in the league in that category. Granted, they rank first in kickoff touchback percentage (4.23%), but Weems proved last week that their coverage unit is liable to give up a big play at any time. Hester is a game-changer; the Packers better be prepared.

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