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Ten Observations from Wild Card Weekend in the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Ten Observations from Week 15 in the NFL

1. Adrian Peterson is this year’s MVP if…
Nobody doubted Peyton Manning’s ability to lead the Broncos to an AFC West title this year. The biggest question surrounding Peyton was his ability to absorb a hit, not fill the one need Denver desperately needed on offense. People assumed he would do that. But nearly every pundit had the Vikings finishing in the basement of the NFC North and yet here they are in the middle of December still competing for a wild card berth. Manning has been outstanding but what Adrian Peterson has been able to accomplish less than a year after major reconstructive knee surgery has been nothing short of incredible. Minnesota’s offensive line and defense shouldn’t be forgotten as we dole out credit for the team’s success, but Peterson is the biggest reason why the Vikings remain relevant in 2012. Opponents design specific game plans in efforts to stop Peterson and yet they can’t even slow him down. They know if they can build a lead and force Christian Ponder to beat them throwing the ball they’ll win. But they can’t because Peterson simply won’t allow them. Granted, Sam Bradford and the Rams helped Minnesota earn its eighth victory of the season on Sunday. But when Peterson sprinted 82 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter the Rams had just tied the game with a Brian Quick 4-yard touchdown reception. It wasn’t as if Peterson’s run put the contest out of reach – it was the beginning of him taking over the game. If he leads the Vikings to the postseason while rushing for over 2,000 yards in a pass-happy NFL, then he undoubtedly has my vote for MVP.

2a. The Bears are finished.
With their 21-13 loss to the Packers, the Bears no longer control their own destiny and they don’t hold the tiebreaker with current fifth seed Seattle because of their 23-17 loss to the Seahawks in Week 13. The question becomes: Will missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years spark change this offseason? How Chicago can fire Lovie Smith when former GM Jerry Angelo ignored the offensive line for most of his tenure is beyond me. Year after year the Bears had opportunities to fix their front five and Angelo never delivered. That said, this is now four straight years that Smith and his coaching staff have been owned by Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers. If your current coaching staff can’t beat your biggest competition, you’ve got an underlying problem.

2b. Packers coach Mike McCarthy makes decisions sometimes…
…that should have all of humanity questioning how the hell he was able to win a Super Bowl. That throwback fake that he called (or allowed his special teams coach Shawn Slocum to call) on the punt return midway through the fourth quarter in Chicago was beyond inane. You’re up 11 points in the fourth quarter, McCarthy, run the clock and secure a victory the ol’ fashion way.

3. Best team in the NFC? It has to be the 49ers.
While they did wind up blowing a 31-3 lead, the 49ers have to be considered the best team in the NFC after the show they put on last night in Foxboro. Granted, the 12-2 Falcons also beat the defending Super Bowl champions 34-0 but no team in the conference can match San Francisco’s physicality and now that Colin Kaepernick is their quarterback, the Niners are now more dangerous on offense, too. As he showed last night by mishandling a handful of snaps from under center and throwing an interception in the end zone, Kaepernick isn’t perfect. But he’s going to learn something new each week that will make him better down the road. It had to be troubling for Jim Harbaugh to watch Tom Brady carve up his defense for 34 points, and adjustments must be made in the secondary. But the bottom line is the Niners not only won the game, but also handled a team that had just humiliated an excellent Houston club just six nights prior.

4a. The Falcons defense has been outstanding against elite QBs.
Fifty-eight point five, 37.6, and 40.7. Those are the quarterback ratings of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning when facing the Falcons in the Georgia Dome this year. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan put together another fantastic game plan on Sunday, one that had Eli Manning under constant duress while shutting down running back David Wilson in the second half. They managed to shutout the defending Super Bowl champions without one of their key defenders, safety William Moore, all while stuffing New York on three separate fourth-and-shorts. Matt Ryan is now 33-4 at home over his career, and Nolan’s aggressive defense has done its finest work inside the Georgia Dome this year. The Falcons won’t quiet critics until they win a playoff game. But they’ve got a great chance to pick up their first postseason win if they can secure home field throughout.

4b. There isn’t a more maddening team in the NFL than the New York Giants.
Four weeks ago the Giants crushed Green Bay 38-10 but followed up that performance with a 17-16 loss in Washington. Then they scored 52 points in a 52-27 beat-down of the Saints only to post a goose egg in a 34-0 loss to the Falcons on Sunday. Eli Manning had one of those games where you wanted to shake him to make sure he wasn’t sleepwalking and David Wilson bombed as the team’s featured back (at least in the second half). New York’s secondary is also extremely beat up and several defensive linemen walked off the field limping after trying (and failing) to tackle Atlanta ball carriers throughout the day. Granted, we know better not to count Tom Coughlin’s team out when they still have plenty of life. But Giants fans have every reason to be concerned after what transpired in Atlanta on Sunday.

5. The Seahawks have become that team nobody wants to face in the first round.
Granted, over the past two weeks they’ve beaten up on Arizona and Buffalo. But they also outscored Arizona and Buffalo 108-17 and somehow managed to score three defensive touchdowns in the process. And if that didn’t get your attention, Pete Carroll is having his team throw deep on fourth down up 58-0 and calling fake punts up 30 points in the fourth quarter. Here’s what’s really scary: Marshawn Lynch is ripping through tackles and bursting into defensive backfields while also allowing to rest in the fourth quarter because his services are no longer needed in blowouts. Seattle’s biggest offensive weapon is going to be fresh – relatively speaking, of course – come January, and that should leave the Seahawks’ future opponents awfully anxious.

6. Putting Cousin’s performance into perspective.
It’s amazing, really. The Redskins found two quarterbacks with potential in this year’s draft while the Browns can’t find one intriguing quarterback in 14 years of drafting. It’s one thing to play hero when you only take seven snaps at the end of a game. It’s quite another to go on the road with your team’s playoff hopes on the line and face an opponent that not only has had an entire week to game plan for you, but is also in the midst of a three-game winning streak. Kirk Cousins (26-of-37 for 329 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) was beyond impressive in Washington’s Week 15 victory over Cleveland. He was poised, calm under pressure, and showed a fair amount of mobility as well. The 54-yard touchdown throw he made when he rolled to his right on a designed bootleg and dropped the ball perfectly into Leonard Hankerson’s arms was a thing of beauty. With their biggest superstar sidelined with a knee injury (RGIII), Cousins may have just saved the Redskins’ season.

7. Sam Bradford remains completely indefinable.
Bradford completed 35-of-55 passes for 377 yards with three touchdowns in Sunday’s loss to the Vikings. But he also threw an interception and lost a fumble that in large part led to the Rams falling behind 30-7 at halftime. Never have I witnessed a player give both his critics and supporters enough firepower to continue one excruciating debate after another. He’s making progress yet he’s painfully inconsistent. He often delivers uneven performances yet he can be clutch in crucial moments. He’s completing 60-percent of his passes yet he somehow battles with his accuracy. Is he on the verge of greatness or straddling the line between good and mediocre? Is he the next Eli Manning or Alex Smith? Half of St. Louis will draw one comparison while the second half will settle for the other. It’s maddening. Here’s what we know about Bradford: He should continue to improve if the Rams continue to build around him. They need to strengthen their offensive line, add playmakers to their receiving corps, and offer him some stability by not changing the offense. Here’s what we don’t know: Everything else.

8. One bad decision dooms Roethlisberger, Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger was fantastic on Sunday in Dallas. He completed 24-of-40 passes for 339 yards with two touchdowns and constantly bought himself time by moving outside of the pocket. On one play in the second quarter, he evaded the pass rush (a very good NFL pass rush in Dallas) for nearly 10 seconds before finding Heath Miller for a 30-yard touchdown. It was one of those games where an elite quarterback put his team on his shoulders and was practically willing them to victory. Of course, his performance on this day will be remembered for his biggest mistake. Brandon Carr made a fantastic interception in overtime when he jumped a route and picked off Roethlisberger to set the Cowboys up for a game-winning field goal. The loss left Pittsburgh at 7-7 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs with two games to go. If the Steelers can’t sweep their final two games and sneak into the postseason, that one throw will loom large.

8a. The NFC East is once again ready for a thrilling ending.
Everyone figured the Cowboys would eventually settle for a .500 season but their massive victory over the Steelers on Sunday has breathed new life into Dallas. The victory came on the heels of the Redskins’ win over the Browns, but also the Giants’ embarrassing 34-0 loss to the Falcons. If the playoffs were to start today, the Redskins would own the fourth seed after securing first place in the NFC East, while the Giants would be the sixth seed and the Cowboys would be on the outside looking in. But fortunately for diehard NFL fans, there’s still two more weeks of thrilling football to be played in the East. The Cowboys might have the toughest road, as they’ll host the always-dangerous Saints this Sunday before finishing at Washington. The Redskins, meanwhile, will visit the hapless Eagles on Sunday before hosting Dallas in Week 17, and the Giants will visit Baltimore before hosting Philadelphia in their final game of the season. Of course, the Bears and Vikings are still in the wild card mix as well so buckle up, sit tight and enjoy the friggin’ ride.

9a. Joe Flacco is literally burning future earnings every week.
Flacco completed 20-of-40 passes for 254 yards with two touchdowns in Baltimore’s 34-17 loss to Denver, but he did most of his damage after he put his team in a 31-3 hole. He lost a fumble on a quarterback sneak and before throwing a pick-six at the goal line he sprinkled in three straight three-and-outs, which allowed the Broncos to build a sizeable lead. The Ravens are going to begrudgingly win the AFC North and make the playoffs for the fifth straight year, where they could be bounced very early. Somewhere Cam Cameron is smiling.

9b. Moreno finally flashing his ability in Denver.
Now finally healthy, Knowshon Moreno is running like the back that Denver thought it drafted back in 2009. He literally jumped over Ed Reed in the Broncos’ 34-17 victory over the Ravens on Sunday, and Reed was practically standing up. Athens, Georgia grew accustomed to Moreno’s combination of power and athleticism, but now it’s a welcome sight in Denver, too. Moreno has allowed the Broncos offense to continue firing on all cylinders despite losing Willis McGahee.

10. The Panthers will be a playoff contender at this point next year.
The pass two weeks Cam Newton has been sharp on passes outside the numbers and in turn, he’s made DeAngelo Williams a bigger weapon in both the running and screen game. While they’ll need to continue to build on the defensive side of the ball and give Newton another weapon in the passing game, the Panthers will be a team to reckon with in 2013. Following the team’s third win in their last four games, Carolina fans are appropriately asking themselves, ‘Where has this been all season?’

Ten Observations from Week 13 in the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Observations from Week 12 in the NFL

1. The 49ers are the team to beat in the NFC.
With all due respect to the 10-1 Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers are clearly the team to beat in their conference. All of their strengths were on display Sunday in New Orleans. Their physicality is unrivaled by any team in the league and they’re equipped defensively to beat all of the top offenses in the NFC, including the Saints, Packers and Falcons. Drew Brees couldn’t do anything yesterday. He was under constant pressure, was sacked five times, saw both of his interceptions returned for touchdowns and had to witness his receivers take a beating nearly every time they caught the ball. The Niners also somehow took Jimmy Graham out of the game, which isn’t easy to do considering the Saints were at home (where he thrives). I don’t care what Alex Smith’s competition percentage is – Colin Kaepernick also needs to be the starter. He outplayed Brees while completing 16-of-25 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and also added 27 yards and another score on six rushes. He was calm under pressure, displayed his playmaking ability on his lone touchdown run, and still managed to move the ball despite not having the same aggressive or creative approach that San Francisco’s coaching staff used Monday night versus Chicago. The Niners have suffered some bumps in the road this year, the latest coming in a 24-24 tie with the Rams three weeks ago. But with that defense, that running game, and that quarterback under center, I’d put the Niners up against any team in the NFL right now.

2 The Giants still own the NFC East.
Just when you thought the Giants were on the verge of crumbling, they have one of those games that leaves their detractors silent. Eli Manning and the pass defense was horrible in previous losses to the Steelers and Bengals, so naturally Manning throws for three touchdowns and New York’s defense holds Aaron Rodgers to 14-of-25 passing for 219 yards with one interception. This effort by the Giants wasn’t surprising to those that have paid attention to them under Tom Coughlin. They love to play down to their competition and take entire games off, but when they feel like their backs are against the wall and they have something to prove they always rise to the occasion. They ran the ball with authority last night, had receivers running free in Green bay’s secondary, and constantly harassed Rodgers while sacking him five times. Their message was clear: ‘We’re still the class of the NFC East.’

3. Jim Schwartz has nobody but himself to blame.
The NFL has to do away with the rule that allowed Justin Forsett’s 81-yard touchdown to stand in Houston’s 34-31 win over Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. It’s unrealistic to think that a head coach won’t throw his challenge flag in the heat of the moment, just as Jim Schwartz did after he saw that Forsett was clearly down. The point of replay is to ensure that the calls on the field are correct. Yet the correct call on Forsett’s run wasn’t made because Schwartz’s split second decision nullified the officials’ ability to review the play. What an arrogant rule by the NFL. ‘How dare you challenge a play when the league has ruled that all touchdowns are reviewed by the booth! You shall suffer the consequences!’ Sorry NFL, but we fans suffered in that moment. It’s a ridiculous rule and the league needs to get rid of it, which it will. That said, Schwartz throwing the challenge flag in that situation was inexcusable. First and foremost, this is the same guy who screamed at 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh last year to “know the rules” during the “Handshake Gate” game. How fitting that Schwartz was the one to forget the rules this time around. Also, Falcons head coach Mike Smith made the same exact mistake just four days prior to Thanksgiving. If we’re going to chastise players for not learning from their peers (such as we do when two athletes get arrested for the same infraction just days or weeks apart), then it’s only fair that we criticize head coaches that don’t learn from each other, too. And lastly, we’ve seen these kinds of actions before out of Schwartz, who constantly allows his emotions to affect his judgment. NFL coaches need to be clear-headed and rational when making decisions. Schwartz is neither and his often-reckless team is a reflection of that. His emotions cost the Lions a touchdown on Thursday, if not a win and whatever hopes they had of still making the playoffs.

4. The banged up Texans haven’t been exposed, but there’s still reason to be concerned.
Following near-losses to the Jaguars and Lions the past two weeks, one could make the argument that the Texans have been exposed. They’ve surrendered 68 points and a whopping 791 yards through the air over their past two games. (They’ve also given up at least one touchdown in seven of the past eight quarters in regulation.) But if you’re searching for answers as to why the Texans defense has been so bad lately, take a glance at their injury report. They’ve already lost Brian Cushing for the season and fellow linebacker Brooks Reed is expected to miss at least three-to-four weeks after suffering a groin injury in Thursday’s win over the Lions. The team thought cornerback Jonathan Joseph (hamstring) would play in Detroit but he didn’t even suit up. The Texans haven’t been exposed, they’re just merely beat up on the defensive side of the ball. And until they get some of their starters back, their offense may have to score 30-plus points a game, which they’re certainly capable of doing. That said, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are both prone to injury and no running back has carried the ball more than Arian Foster this season. Can Houston’s offensive core hold up throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs? While the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens are getting stronger as the year wears on, the Texans appear to be weakening.

5. The Packers’ issues have resurfaced.
The Packers came into Sunday night riding a five-game winning streak but before the clock read double-zeros, Graham Harrell had already replaced Aaron Rodgers in the Giants’ 38-10 blowout. Green Bay’s offensive line can’t protect Rodgers, who doesn’t have enough time to get the ball to playmakers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Other defensive coordinators around the league are going to copy Perry Fewell’s game plan and use it against the Packers the rest of the year. Granted, most D-coordinators don’t have Fewell’s pass rushers but they’ll employ a similar two-deep shell that the Giants used in efforts to thwart Green Bay’s passing game. Injuries have also killed the Packers’ rushing attack and pass rush, which was non-existent versus Eli Manning last night. Just when you thought the Pack’s issues were in the rearview mirror, they came screeching back on primetime television. They’re still going to be a hell of an out if/when they make the playoffs, but you have to wonder if their makeshift O-line and injuries will derail the Packers in the end.

6. The Falcons have an X-factor that they’re not using.
The Falcons have owned one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL this season but give offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter credit for running right at the Bucs’ top-ranked run defense in Atlanta’s 24-23 win on Sunday. The key was Jacquizz Rodgers, who rushed 10 times for 49 yards and one touchdown. He’s become the X-factor that Koetter isn’t using, or at least isn’t using merely enough. When Michael Turner has been the featured back, Atlanta’s running game grinds to a halt and he often puts Matt Ryan and the passing game in long down-and-distance situations. The cemented-footed Turner lacks the vision, acceleration and burst of Rodgers, who does a nice job of gaining yards even when he’s bottled up. Thanks to Ryan and the assortment of weapons that he has at his disposal (Julio Jones was once again dominant despite being slowed by an ankle injury), the Falcons’ passing attack remains dangerous. But unless they figure out a way to run the ball then they’re going to be too one-dimensional to beat tough defenses like the ones in San Francisco and Chicago. If Koetter and head coach Mike Smith were paying attention yesterday, they realize they have a true sparkplug in Rodgers.

7. The Cowboys’ problems on offense have become glaring.
Tony Romo is on pace to attempt a career-high 663 passes for a career-high 4,883 yards. While the yards would be impressive, the number of attempts tells the story of what has gone wrong in Dallas this season. The Cowboys have become too one-dimensional on offense and while the injury to DeMarco Murray has played a factor in the team’s play calling, Jason Garrett deserves blame for not creating more balance. Of course, Garrett doesn’t deserve blame for his running game averaging just 2.3 yards per carry. So while it’s easy to criticize Dallas for becoming too one-dimensional, what is Garrett supposed to do when his rushing attack can’t even gain three yards per attempt? Just as was the case on Thanksgiving when they fell behind 28-3 to the Redskins, the Cowboys are also starting games too slow. They were fortunate to erase a 13-0 deficit versus Cleveland two weeks ago, but the hole they put themselves in against Washington turned out to be insurmountable. With injuries now ravaging the defense and the Giants proving on Sunday night that they’re still the class of the division, it’s time for drastic measures. Romo and the offense have been efficient in the hurry up this season. But putting Romo in the hurry up more would mean Garrett sacrificing the play-calling duties during those drives. Most play callers can’t put aside their egos in order to allow their quarterback to call the plays and if Garrett falls into that category then the Cowboys will miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Simply put, Dallas can’t keep doing what its been doing offensively because it clearly doesn’t work.

8. The Rams get back to basics in win over Cards.
Entering the season Jeff Fisher knew that his young team would have to run the ball, limit mistakes, and play good defense in order to stay competitive throughout the year. That very general philosophy got lost in the midst of the Rams’ five-game winless streak, which ended on Sunday when they defeated the Cardinals 31-17. It’s no secret how Fisher and Co. beat Arizona. Steven Jackson was finally allowed to carry the running game and he responded by churning out 139 yards and a 5.8 YPC average. And while Ryan Lindley did throw for over 300 yards against that Charmin extra soft zone that the Rams like to use on a weekly basis, St. Louis took advantage of his rookie mistakes (four of them to be exact). Quite frankly, this was the type of effort that we expected out of the Rams all year. This isn’t a playoff caliber team – not yet, anyway. Fisher and Les Snead will need at least another year to acquire playmakers on both sides of the ball, which includes addressing holes along the offensive line, at wideout, and at safety. But for the next five weeks it would be nice to see the Rams do exactly what they did yesterday: Limit the mistakes, take advantage of the opportunities that their opponents give them, and control the tempo of the game with Jackson. At some point the Rams will need to be concerned with the fact that Sam Bradford only completed 8 passes or a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start somehow racked up 300 yards. passing But for now, building confidence is the key and you do that by winning, which remains the ultimate cure-all.

9. The Seahawks are finished.
That is, if Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are suspended. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Seattle’s starting cornerback duo is facing a four-game punishment for violating the NFL’s policy against PEDs. The substance for which they took remains unclear but their agents claim it was Adderall, which landed Cleveland’s Joe Haden a four-game suspension earlier this season. Outside of Chicago’s Charles Tillman and Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield, nobody has played better in coverage this season than Sherman. And after making the Pro Bowl last season, Browner is a borderline top-10 corner as well, so losing both would kill the Seahawks’ hopes of making the playoffs. If you think that’s harsh, consider that Seattle’s identity defensively is its secondary. Safety Earl Thomas isn’t having the season he did a year ago and to a much lesser extent, neither is his partner Kam Chancellor. The Hawks can ill-afford to lose either Browner or Sherman, the latter of which has been Seattle’s best defender in 2012. After blowing leads of 14-7 and 21-14 in an eventual 24-21 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, the Seahawks didn’t need this news.

10. Quick-Hits.
I’ve seen the reply of Ndamukong Suh’s groin-kick to Matt Schaub and I still can’t definitively say that it was intentional. But I do know this: he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt given his history…Ray Rice’s 4th-and-29 catch-and-run was the play of the year. The effort that both he and Anquan Boldin (who laid out Eric Weddle on a vicious block to allow Rice to gain the last six yards) gave was incredible…After yesterday, can anyone dispute that Jay Cutler isn’t the difference maker in Chicago? Behind the same brutal offensive line that nearly decapitated Jason Campbell on Monday night, Cutler completed 23-of-31 and only threw two incompletions in 17 attempts before halftime. The Bears’ Super Bowl hopes firmly rest on Cutler’s shoulders…Thanks to Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne (who racked up another eight catches for 102 yards in a win over Buffalo on Sunday), the Colts will be fun to watch in the playoffs…One of the most underrated performances in Week 12 came in Miami, compliments of rookie Ryan Tannehill. His numbers (18-of-26, 253 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) don’t tell the whole story. He orchestrated two 80-yard touchdown drives and then with the game hanging in the balance, put together a 65-yard drive that led to Dan Carpenter’s 43-yard game-winning field goal. For the moment, it would appear as though Miami finally has its quarterback…I said it last week and I’ll say it again: The Bengals are far from dead. They’ve now won their last three games by a combined score of 93-29 and their defense hasn’t allowed more than 13 points over that span. The real test won’t come until Weeks 16 and 17 when they travel to Pittsburgh and host Baltimore, but Cincinnati has put itself in position to challenge for a postseason spot for the second year in a row…The Steelers can kiss the AFC North crown goodbye and unless Ben Roethlisberger has the ability to heel himself at a rapid pace, then this team isn’t making the playoffs either. That was an ugly, ugly performance from Charlie Batch yesterday in Cleveland…The gap in the NFC South is miniscule. Give the Falcons credit for shutting down Doug Martin and the Tampa Bay running game, but the Bucs went toe-to-toe with their division rivals on Sunday and nearly won. Once the Bucs address their porous secondary, that division is going to be a three-headed monster with Tampa, Atlanta and New Orleans battling for supremacy every year.

Ten Observations from Week 11 in the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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