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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 17 in the NFL

1. Adrian Peterson is this year’s MVP.
It wouldn’t be a travesty if Peyton Manning were to claim this year’s MVP award. It wouldn’t be a crime, an injustice, or a mockery for the NFL. Having said that, Adrian Peterson is so clearly this year’s most valuable player that it’s almost not even worth discussing. The Vikings went 3-13 last year and owned the third overall pick in the draft (later traded to Cleveland for the fourth overall selection, which was used on outstanding left tackle Matt Kalil). Nobody expected them to finish third in a competitive NFC North, nevertheless winning 10 games and clinching a playoff spot. And with all due respect to Minnesota’s offensive line and underrated defense, without Peterson accomplishing what he did this season, the Vikings may not have won half of the games they did. Opponents put together game plans solely to stop Peterson and often dared second-year quarterback Christian Ponder to beat them, which he rarely did. Yet Peterson did the extraordinary by amassing 1,598 yards over the final 10 games, a number still good enough to lead the league in rushing this season. He finished with a 6.03 yards per carry average, totaled over 100 yards rushing in nine of his final 10 games, and rushed for over 200 yards on two separate occasions. Had there been one more minute left in Sunday’s contest versus the Packers, there is a good chance Peterson would have broke Eric Dickerson’s single-game rushing record as well. All this despite suffering an injury at the end of last season that usually takes players two full seasons to recover from. Consider this as well: Peterson rushed a career-high 34 times in the Vikings’ 37-34 win over the Packers, who oh-by-the-way needed a win to clinch a first-round bye next week. Most running backs wear down throughout an entire season – “All Day” seemingly got stronger. He’s a remarkable player who just put the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable seasons in NFL history. If that doesn’t net him the most prestigious individual award in football, what will?

2. Peyton Manning is deserving of Comeback Player of the Year.
Without Adrian Peterson having a season for the ages, the Vikings would have likely missed the playoffs. Without Peyton Manning, the Broncos may have still been good enough to beat the toilet water in the AFC West thanks to their stout defense. Granted, Denver wouldn’t have clinched the No. 1 seed without Manning but you get the point. Those are just a few reasons why Peterson should be considered the most valuable player in the NFL this season. (The other reasons are detailed above.) But at this time last year, people wondered whether or not Manning would, or better yet, should retire after not taking a single snap in 2011. And all he’s done this year is put together one of the finest seasons of his illustrious career. He finished the regular season with 4,659 yards passing, 37 touchdowns, a 68.6 completion percentage and a 105.8 QB rating, which were all Denver Broncos records. His three-touchdown performance against Kansas City on Sunday was also the 73rd of Manning’s career and gave him yet another NFL record. As mentioned in “Observation No. 1,” it wouldn’t be a farce if Manning were named MVP. But considering his road back to the gridiron was paved with multiple neck/back surgeries, an entire season spent on the sidelines, and a change of cities, Manning’s “comeback” was more impressive than Peterson’s. Either way, both players should be properly recognized for their impressive feats this season.

3. The Texans’ collapse is nearly complete.
On December 2 the Texans were 11-1 having just beaten the Titans to earn their sixth-straight victory. At that moment it seamed unimaginable that Houston wouldn’t have home field advantage throughout the postseason. But the Texans, losers of three of their last four games following their 28-16 defeat in Indianapolis on Sunday, have completely collapsed. Injuries on defense have turned a once top-5 unit into one susceptible of big plays. (See Andrew Luck’s 70-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton as proof.) But there are no excuses as to why Houston’s offense has become punchless over the past month. At the root of the issue is quarterback Matt Schaub, who threw two ugly interceptions to Indy cornerback Vontae Davis on Sunday. Despite completing a high-percentage of throws, Schaub was ineffective for the second straight week and for the third time in his last four games. Remember, Schaub doesn’t have a postseason start under his belt. It would have been nice for the Texans if their playoff-inexperienced quarterback could have built a little momentum heading into next week. Instead, the Texans enter the postseason as one of the coldest teams in the field of 12. And while the Bengals are the least imposing team in this year’s playoffs, their underrated defense is certainly good enough to hold Houston’s struggling offense in check. The Texans now have less than a week to figure out how they’ve gone from Super Bowl favorites to title pretenders.

4. RGIII, AP and the Hawks – the bottom of the NFC is dangerous.
Try as they did, the Cowboys didn’t have much of an answer for Robert Griffin III on Sunday night. As he’s done to opponents all season, RGIII forced Dallas’ defense to play back on its heels, which in turn made Alfred Morris more effective. The Packers also had a hell of a time trying to corral Adrian Peterson, whom they’ll see again in less than a week. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have won five straight games and are arguably the hottest team in the NFC…as the fifth seed. Granted, the media always tries to over hype the lower seeds in the playoffs. That’s probably because we spend an entire season pointing out flaws in the higher-ranked seeds (it’s human nature). But in the case of the Skins, Vikes and Hawks, there’s no downplaying how dangerous they are on any given Sunday. Granted, either the Redskins or Seahawks will be finished next weekend because they play each other in the first round, but would anyone be surprised if any one of these teams wind up in the NFC title game? Thanks to all six teams winning at least 10 games this season, the NFC playoff field is highly intriguing this year.

5. Romo once again saves his worst performance for last.
Heading into Sunday night’s NFC East title tilt between the Redskins and Cowboys, no quarterback in the league was hotter than Tony Romo. In his previous eight games he had thrown 17 touchdown passes to just three interceptions and thanks to plenty of help from Dez Bryant, was practically willing Dallas to a division crown and a playoff berth. But in typical Romo fashion, he saved his worst performance for the biggest moment of the season. He did toss two touchdown passes, which included a crucial 10-yard completion to Kevin Ogletree midway through the fourth quarter to cut the Redskins’ lead down to three with a 2-point conversion. But he also threw three brutal interceptions, the final one coming late in the fourth quarter after the Dallas defense gave its offense a chance to at least tie the game following a punt. Romo wanted to dump the ball off to his running back in the flats and was instead intercepted by linebacker Rob Jackson, who read the play perfectly. It was one of those all-too-familiar moments for Romo, who never saw Jackson retreat to the flats as he lobbed the pass to the sidelines. And thanks to a brutal roughing the passer penalty on Washington’s next drive, the Skins were able to put the game away with a touchdown under two minutes to play. The 32-year-old Romo has once again left Jerry Jones in an unenviable situation. He once again posted great numbers while throwing for over 4,600 yards but the Cowboys will once again be at home for the playoffs. The question is, does Jones still believe he can win a Super Bowl with Romo under center? When his team absolutely had to have a win, Romo didn’t deliver. Again.

6. The Bears have nobody to blame but themselves.
Chicago fans will undoubtedly blame Green Bay’s inability to beat Minnesota as the reason why their beloved Bears missed the playoffs despite finishing with a 10-6 record this season. And technically, they’re right. With Chicago’s season hanging in the balance, the Packers never led in Minnesota and turned in their worst defensive performance in over a month. But from Weeks 11 through 16, Chicago only won one game over a six-game stretch. They also lost three in a row to start the month of December and couldn’t produce against playoff qualifiers Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota and Green Bay. It’s a shame that a 10-win team missed the postseason but the Bears did themselves in by leaving their fate in another team’s hands (specifically their most hated rivals.)

7. Falcons’ Smith still can’t gauge risk vs. reward.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith is conservative by nature. He’s been criticized for playing not-to-lose, especially in the postseason where he’s 0-3 over the past four seasons. And yet, when he does decide to gamble, it comes at the most inopportune times. Take Week 13 of last year for example. His decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 in overtime cost his team a potential victory versus the Saints. He also went for it on fourth down on multiple occasions during the Falcons’ embarrassing 24-2 loss to the Giants in the wild card round, none of which were successful. Fast forward to Sunday when, in a meaningless game, he played his starters in a lackluster loss to the Bucs. The decision could prove to be costly too, as Dunta Robinson (concussion) and John Abraham (ankle) left the game with injuries. Abraham is the bigger concern, as he had to be helped off the field by trainers. Why, with nothing to gain, would Smith risk injury to one of his starters? What was he and the Falcons hoping to prove by going through the motions versus a Tampa Bay team looking to end the season on a high note? If anything, it planted the seed of doubt in a team that had built up some momentum the past two weeks. If Abraham’s injury proves to be serious, then Smith should be questioned for why he can’t manage simple risk versus reward.

8. Vick’s football career reaches a new low.
Michael Vick has been adamant that he’s still a starter but he’ll be fortunate that some team even views him as a capable backup heading into 2013. All you need to know about Vick’s performance on Sunday versus the Giants was that he was pulled in favor of Trent Edwards for the final drive of the game. Over the past two seasons he’s gone 10-13 as a starter while throwing 33 interceptions to go with his 32 touchdowns. He also hasn’t played a full season since 2006 and his threat to run has been neutralized by his inability to take a hit. He may still fancy himself as a starter but even quarterback-hungry teams like the Cardinals, Chiefs and Jaguars will be weary of handing the reigns to a 33-year-old quarterback who is turnover prone, has never been an accurate passer and who can’t stay healthy. Considering many believed he would revolutionize the quarterback position when he came into the league in 2001, Vick may go down as one of the most overrated players in NFL history.

9. Fisher’s first season in St. Louis can only be described as a success.
Success can be defined in different ways. Some people probably read the title of this observation and scoffed. Some believe that because the Colts and Vikings surprised by making the postseason, the Rams should have pulled off the same feat. If only life were that black and white. What could posses someone to have such lofty expectations following a 2-14 season and a complete turnover of the roster is beyond me. It wasn’t logical that they would make the postseason this year. Hell, it wasn’t logical that they could win 8 games, at least not to those outside of St. Louis that weren’t mentally and/or monetarily invested in the team. But thanks in large part to Jeff Fisher, 2012 was a success. Free agency was a success. The draft was a success. Winning 80-percent of their games against a tough division was a mark of success, as was learning how to win on the road. Having said that, does Sam Bradford need to make longer strides in his development? That’s not even an argument – of course he does. But he also deserves an opportunity to compete in a stable environment. Quarterbacks that are forced to learn three different offenses under shoddy tutelage is a recipe for failure. There are some people that have already convinced themselves that he’s nothing more than a marginal quarterback capable of only being a Brad Johnson-type game manager. And that’s fine – we all don’t need to agree. But here are the facts: He threw for a career-high 3,702 yards and 21 touchdowns while managing to start every game of the season (a feat he couldn’t accomplish in 2011). Those are signs of improvement. It might not be the improvement that many had hoped, but the bottom line is that he’s a better quarterback now than he was in 2010. More importantly, the Rams are a better team than they were two years ago when they walked out of CenturyLink Field. Only this time nobody should have false hope about the direction the franchise is headed in.

10. Quick-Hits…
The pass that Andrew Luck made when he looked off the safety and hit T.Y. Hilton perfectly in stride for a 70-yard touchdown was one of the prettiest throws by any quarterback this season. He’s a special player and NFL fans are more enriched by the fact that he and the Colts are in the playoffs…Speaking of which, would anyone be surprised if Indianapolis beat Baltimore next week? The Ravens aren’t exactly sprinting into the postseason…Peyton Manning continued to make his case for NFL MVP by throwing another three touchdown passes on Sunday, but did you see the catches that Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker made? The catch by Thomas was one of the best of the year…Don’t be surprised if the Panthers make the postseason next year. They finished 2012 as one of the hottest teams in the leageu and scored at least 30 points in three of their final four games…2012 turned out to be a lost season for the Saints but it doesn’t take away what Drew Brees accomplished. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and with Sean Payton back in the fold next year, the Saints will remain explosive…It’s funny, the NFC South was viewed as one of the best divisions in football at the start of the year. By midseason it was viewed as a joke but all four of the division’s inhabitants could be playoff contenders next year…If I’m Jets owner Woody Johnson I’m keeping Rex Ryan in place for his defense and finding both a new quarterback and a new GM for 2013…Credit the Lions for playing with pride. That’s more than anyone can say about the Eagles…The Steelers’ season turned out to be a major disappointment but for the 12th time in 13 years they avoided having a losing season. That’s sustained success right there…Congratulations to the Chiefs for notching the No. 1 overall pick in next April’s draft. It was well earned…Terrelle Pryor is hardly the answer at quarterback for the Oakland Raiders but if nothing else, he gave them something to think about with his two-touchdown performance on Sunday…One of the broadcasters made a good point following the Seahawks’ hard-fought 20-13 win over the Rams on Sunday. After steamrolling opponents the past couple of months, it’ll serve Seattle well to have fought through a little adversity…If Michael Crabtree plays as well as in the playoffs as he did on Sunday then the Niners aren’t going to miss Mario Manningham…RGIII vs. Russell Wilson? Can’t wait.

Ten Observations from Week 16 in the NFL

1. Nobody should sleep on the Ravens.
The Baltimore Ravens could go from playoff afterthought to Super Bowl contenders very quickly. Their fate depends on Joe Flacco, who finally awoke from his month-long slumber to complete 25-of-36 passes for 309 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the Ravens’ 33-14 rout of the Giants in Baltimore. When Flacco plays like he did on Sunday, you understand why some believed that Baltimore would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Flacco was almost relentless in attacking a sub par New York secondary, as he constantly toyed with cornerback Corey Webster on deep throws. He was confident, he was in total command of the offense, and he was poised as a passer. Most importantly, he was a catalyst for Baltimore’s offense instead of a deterrent, as he didn’t throw an interception for the first time since Week 12. With that Joe Flacco under center, the Ravens become a much different team heading into the postseason.

2. I was wrong about the 49ers.
Last week I insisted that the 49ers were the best team in the NFC. But the Seahawks proved me wrong with their 42-13 romp over San Francisco on Sunday night. I’m not convinced that Seattle can win a Super Bowl with Russell Wilson running around backyard-football style, but I do know that teams are less intimidated by the 49ers now than they were a week ago at this time. Maybe their lousy performance was the byproduct of them playing in New England last week or the absence of Justin Smith proves that he means more to their defense than anyone originally knew. But that’s still no excuse not to show up for a huge divisional game on primetime television. San Francisco has been widely considered the most physical team in the NFL but Seattle pounded the Niners into submission last night. All Jim Harbaugh could do was watch as the Seahawks racked up points while his players limped off the field. He also witnessed what happens when his team falls behind early and his offense can no longer remain balanced. Colin Kaepernick made a couple of nice throws but he otherwise looked befuddled and confused by what Seattle’s defense was doing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. And to watch San Francisco struggle to contain Seattle’s option attack was startling. I’m not ready to crown the Niners dead or put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. But last night was eye opening to say the least.

3. There won’t be a December miracle for the Giants this time around.
The New York Giants have become a team under Tom Coughlin that believes it can push a button and turn it on whenever they need to. But the past two weeks have shown that even defending Super Bowl champions can’t play flat and expect to win. In his past two games, Eli Manning has totaled 311 yards with just one touchdown and two interceptions while looking befuddled by what was going on around him. But to solely blame Manning for New York’s woes would be ridiculous. His offensive line can’t protect him, his running game has disappeared, and his defense has put him in early holes too insurmountable to overcome. This collapse by the Giants has taken a total team effort and there will be no December miracle this year. Granted, they can still clinch the sixth seed in the NFC but even if they beat the Eagles next Sunday, they would still need the Vikings to lose to the Packers, the Bears to lose to the Lions, and the Cowboys to lose to the Redskins. Two or even three of those scenarios may happen, but certainly not all four. Three weeks ago some pondered whether or not the Giants were still the best team in the NFC and now they’re spending Christmas on the brink of elimination.

4. Why isn’t Rodgers being mentioned in MVP discussions?
Aaron Rodgers has yet to eclipse the 4,000-yard passing mark this season but it’s ridiculous that his name isn’t being debated in MVP discussions. His quarterback rating of 106.2 is the best in the NFL and his 35 touchdowns are only four less than league-leader Drew Brees. He also has the Packers on the verge of clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC despite getting little help from his running game and not having Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson healthy for an entire season. He’s compiled seven touchdown passes and 633 passing yards the past two weeks as Green Bay has now won nine of their last 10 games. Ever since that ugly 38-10 loss to the Giants in Week 12, the Packers have become an afterthought. But thanks to a red-hot Rodgers, they might be the most dangerous team in the NFC again.

5. The Falcons are ascending.
The storyline Saturday night in Detroit was Calvin Johnson breaking Jerry Rice’s all-time single-season yardage record and becoming the first receiver in NFL history to record eight straight 100-yard games. The Lions have been a total disaster this season but the one constant has been the play of Johnson, who is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. But the underlying storyline to come out of Detroit was the fact that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC now travels through Atlanta. Following their hiccup in Carolina, a lot of people nearly broke their necks while jumping off the Falcons’ bandwagon three weeks ago. But Matt Ryan put on another passing clinic on Saturday, completing 25-of-32 passes for 279 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Despite all the yardage they allowed to Johnson and Matthew Stafford, it was also the second time in as many weeks that Atlanta’s defense held an opposing quarterback out of the end zone. And considering those opposing quarterbacks were Stafford and Eli Manning, that’s noteworthy. The Falcons aren’t going to convince anyone that they’re a Super Bowl contender until they win a playoff game with Ryan under center. But while all the attention in the NFC has now shifted to the Redskins and the Seahawks, the team with the best record in the NFL has very quietly started to hit its stride.

6. The Texans are regressing.
The Falcons and Texans’ seasons have pretty much run parallel to each other all season. Until now, that is. As the Falcons have started to ascend, the Texans have been regressing since their 13-6 victory over the Bears in Chicago on November 11. Since then, they could have easily lost back-to-back overtime games to the Jaguars and Lions, and did lose to the Patriots and Vikings the past three weeks. Their other wins came against the Titans and Colts, with the latter being only marginally impressive considering the Texans were in the red zone five times and scored just one touchdown. This isn’t the same juggernaut that ran through its schedule the first half of the season. It’s not good when your starting quarterback is pulled in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss at home, especially when that blowout loss comes in Week 16. Sunday’s loss to the Vikings was the first time the Texans failed to score a touchdown since Matt Schaub became their starting quarterback in 2007. Credit the Vikings for bottling up Houston’s running game and taking away Owen Daniels while leaving Schaub second-guessing himself all day. But this is a Houston team that many considered would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl and is now on the verge of coughing up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. At a time when teams want to be sprinting into the postseason, the Texans are stumbling backwards.

7. Defense, Ponder lift Vikings this time.
Minnesota’s defense stole the show on Sunday in Houston. Arian Foster left the game early because of an irregular heartbeat but he was held to just 15 yards on 10 carries before that. The Vikings also did a great job of taking Houston’s tight ends out of the game and limiting Andre Johnson’s ability to beat them deep. Christian Ponder finally rose to the challenge too, completing 16-of-30 passes for 174 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Like many opponents do, the Texans loaded up the box with eight and nine-man fronts in order to stop Adrian Peterson. They dared Ponder to beat them and he did, converting 8-of-17 third down attempts while also scrambling seven times for 48 yards. On a day when they needed to pull off a huge road win, it was because of Ponder and the defense that Minnesota remains alive in the NFC. Of course, one huge challenge still awaits the Vikings in the form of Green Bay this Sunday. Win and Minnesota is in.

8. Don’t blame Romo for the Cowboys’ collapse.
If the Cowboys wind up missing the postseason, nobody better blame Tony Romo for the team’s misfortunes. Granted, he was a factory for turnovers earlier in the season but he’s thrown 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions over his last eight games. When a quarterback completes 26-of-43 passes for 416 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions, the team should win. The fact is that Rob Ryan’s defense had no answer for Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense, which shredded Dallas’ secondary all afternoon. Jason Garrett also didn’t help matters but only running the ball 11 times and therefore not sustaining long drives in order to help Romo and his defense. Alas, the Cowboys still have one more chance to save their season as a win over Washington this weekend would mean they’re NFC East champs.

9. If true, the Tebow report is unnerving.
According to multiple team sources, ESPN New York is reporting that Tim Tebow pulled himself out of the Jets’ Wildcat package after he was passed over for Greg McElroy to be the team’s starting quarterback last week. Tebow was active for Sunday’s loss to the Chargers, but receiver Jeremy Kerley played the role as quarterback in the Jets’ Wildcat packages, which gives at least some credence to the ESPN report. Granted, it’s not Tebow’s fault that the Jets had no idea how they wanted to use him when they acquired him from Denver. But he won a playoff game for the Broncos last year and the first thing John Elway did was trade him in the offseason. Rex Ryan also stood and watched as Mark Sanchez single-handedly flushed the Jets’ playoff hopes down the toilet and he still refused to switch to Tebow. Maybe the ESPN report is inaccurate or there’s more to the story. Maybe the Jets told Tebow that he was being pulled so that they could get a closer look at Kerley in that role. Who knows? But if the story is true, then Tebow needs a massive wake up call. He’s an upstanding human being but that has little to do with playing quarterback in the NFL. He doesn’t have the physical tools as a passer to be a reliable starter and the Patriots proved in last year’s playoffs that college offenses like the one Tebow ran in Denver can only get a team so far. He has every right to be frustrated by the three-ring circus that has become the Jets, but him refusing to play in the Wildcat is no different than Lions receiver Titus Young purposely lining up in the wrong spot in Detroit. In either instance, the players are sabotaging their own offense. Hopefully for everyone involved he’ll be out of New York soon and this charade will finally come to an end.

10. Fisher has finally given St. Louis a reason to be hopeful in December.
Following their 36-22 loss to the Vikings last week, Jeff Fisher told his players that they can either act like a team that just lost one game or act like one that had just won three out of their last four. NFL teams need to have attitude and fortitude in order to be successful and the Rams now have both because of Fisher. Over the past eight years the team hasn’t given their fans reason to be hopeful around Christmas. The last time the city had any reason to be optimistic came in 2010 when the Rams came within a road win in Seattle of winning the NFC West and playing in their first postseason game since 2004. But nobody in St. Louis needs a reminder of what transpired last season and honestly, nobody at Rams Park seems interested in discussing the recent past either. Fans aren’t going to settle for seven wins, nor should they. But here’s the key: Neither will Fisher. Let’s keep things in perspective: One prominent media outlet predicted that the Rams wouldn’t win a game this year. Yet here they are at the conclusion of 16 weeks and they’ve won seven games with one left to go this Sunday. Whether the Rams beat the Seahawks isn’t as important as knowing that their future is bright. The team, their fans, and the city can thank Fisher for that.

Quick Hits…
It’s not fair to pin the Steelers’ loss on Ben Roethlisberger considering the vicious beating his offensive line gives him every week. But that’s two weeks in a row now that he’s thrown interceptions that cost Pittsburgh games. His latest turnover also knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs…The Bengals deserve praise for finally overcoming the hold that the Steelers had on them to win on Sunday and clinch a playoff spot. It’s not easy to win a late December road game in Pittsburgh with both teams essentially facing playoff elimination…Brady Quinn is a poor man’s Mark Sanchez, which is really saying something about his ability to lead a NFL team. After this week, he shouldn’t start another game the rest of his career…Andrew Luck set the record for most passing yards by a rookie quarterback. What’s even more amazing is that the record lasted just one year. (Cam Newton threw for 4,051 yards in 2011, breaking Peyton Manning’s mark set back in 1998)…Credit the Saints for not throwing in the towel when they know they can’t make the playoffs. Unlike the Titans, the Saints are still playing with pride…The Dolphins have to drive their fans crazy. This is the second year in a row that they’re playing just well enough down the stretch to ruin their chances of higher draft picks. Still, just like with the Saints, it’s good to see a team play out the remainder of their schedule with dignity…The throw RGIII made to Santana Moss for a 22-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter yesterday was a thing of beauty. The NFL needs this kid to be in the playoffs…Just throw the freaking ball Nick Foles! Give your team a chance for cribs’ sake…This in no way is meant to discredit what Peyton Manning and the Broncos have done this season because any team that wins 10 straight games in the NFL is special. But I wonder if Denver will be done in by the fact that it got to beat up on the brutal AFC West this season…Brandon Marshall is a serious talent. The catch he made yesterday where he battled Patrick Peterson while turning his entire body to adjust to a sideline throw by Jay Cutler was outstanding…I was absolutely lambasted a few years ago for questioning whether or not Josh Freeman can be a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. Those fans that called me every name in the book deserve the last two weeks. Just sayin’.

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 10 in the NFL

1. “Tired arm” isn’t the only thing ailing Eli Manning.
On Friday NFL Films’ Greg Cosell said that Eli Manning’s struggles the past few weeks were due to the quarterback having a “tired arm.” And after Manning completed 29-of-46 passes for just 215 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions in New York’s 31-13 loss to the Bengals, it’s hard to argue with Cosell’s evaluation. Sunday marked Manning’s third straight brutal performance and it’s apparent that he’s lost some zip on his passes. But his problems go beyond declining arm strength, as he’s simply making poor decisions. In his last five starts, Manning has a 2:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has averaged just 212.4 yards per game over that span. Granted, his offensive line hasn’t helped him, as Geno Atkins was in his face on both of the interceptions he threw versus Cincinnati. But his play over the past three weeks has been highly concerning and neither he nor the Giants are close to ironing out the problem. Making matters worse, the defense has surrendered at least 23 points since the team’s 26-3 win over the 49ers five weeks ago. Thankfully the Giants are still in first place and they have two weeks to figure out what has gone wrong lately. But it’s clear that they’re a long ways off from being the team that won the Super Bowl back in February.

2. Falcons’ flaws brought to light in loss to Saints.
Their record said they were perfect but the Falcons weren’t fooling anybody. This Atlanta team wasn’t the 2009 Colts or the 2009 Saints, and it certainly wasn’t the 2007 Patriots. They were a flawed 8-0 and that was evident in their 31-27 loss to the Saints on Sunday. Unless the defense has been worn out in the fourth quarter, the Falcons haven’t been able to run the ball. Michael Turner is a shell of his former self and the offensive line continues to struggle in short yardage situations. (See the Falcons’ failed third down attempt at the goal line late in the fourth quarter on Sunday.) This team also can’t stop the run. Chris Ivory gashed Atlanta for 10.3 yards per carry (7-72-1) and Mark Ingram had success running between the tackles as well. That opened things up for Drew Brees to find Jimmy Graham, who caught seven passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns as Mike Nolan inexplicably left the New Orleans tight end in one-on-one situations. The good news for the Falcons is that they’re still 8-1. Thanks to Mike Smith they’re fundamentally sound and the Saints game not withstanding, they usually don’t beat themselves. They’re also a more dangerous team with Nolan and Dirk Koetter as coordinators, and maybe the coaching staff will finally realize that Jacquizz Rodgers makes the offense more potent than Turner does. The bad news is that the Falcons still play a red-hot Buccaneers team twice and the Saints have now beaten Atlanta in four of the past five meetings. Barring a historic collapse, the Falcons will make the playoffs and they’ll probably earn one of the top two spots in the NFC. But they need to figure out how to run the ball more efficiently and fix the holes in the run defense if they want to avoid yet another one-and-done in the postseason. Hopefully for the Falcons, this loss will be a blessing in disguise.

3. The Saints still have life.
To suggest that New Orleans’ defense played well on Sunday would be a stretch. The Saints surrendered 27 points, 454 total yards, and were just 8-of-16 on third downs. But they also made a ton of plays in crucial moments of their 31-27 win over the Falcons, none bigger than Jabari Greer’s batted pass on 4th-and-goal with the Falcons needing a touchdown to take the lead in the final two minutes. The front seven also stuffed Michael Turner for a 1-yard loss the play before and suffocated Atlanta’s running game throughout the day. The Saints put themselves in a bad hole to start the season but at 4-5 they’re still alive in the NFC, especially with a balanced offense led by Drew Brees. The problem is they may have to go 6-1 the rest of the season in order to get in. With games versus San Francisco, New York, Tampa Bay and Dallas, as well as a rematch with the Falcons in Atlanta, that may not be realistic. But if this defense can stay aggressive under Joe Vitt, you know the offense has the ability to score 30-plus every game. After their victory on Sunday, it’s hard to count the Saints out.

4. The Patriots continue to have issues defensively.
When the Patriots held the Rams to just 7 points in London two weeks ago, people believed that New England started to figure things out defensively. But as it turns out, the Rams’ punchless offense had everything to do with the lack of scoring. The Patriots’ defense was gashed in the team’s 37-31 win over the Bills on Sunday. While they did force three key turnovers including a game-sealing pick in the end zone to halt what could have been a game-winning score for Buffalo, New England surrendered 481 total yards, was just 7-of-11 on third downs, and allowed 5.8 yards per rush. What didn’t show up on the stat sheet were the shoddy tackling and the continued reliance on zone coverage. Maybe Aqib Talib will make a difference when he returns from suspension next week, but who knows if he’s even up to speed on Bill Belichick’s scheme after being acquired from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline. Thankfully for the Patriots they’re now 6-0 when they rush for over 100 yards and their offense continues to be a balanced juggernaut. It was a little concerning that Tom Brady and Co. couldn’t deliver that final knockout punch with under three minutes remaining in the game but more times than not, you know the Pats will find a way to score in that situation. Maybe next time they won’t be as fortunate defensively, however.

5. When it’s all said and done, this might be Peyton’s finest season.
Coming into Sunday, Peyton Manning was the NFL’s highest-rated passer and had thrown at least three touchdown passes in five straight games. He was on pace for career bests in yards (4,808) and competition percentage (69.5), as well as his second-best touchdown total (40). And that was before he completed 27-of-38 passes for 301 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in a 36-14 blowout victory over the Panthers on Sunday. Manning has been spectacular – even for him. He’s transformed Denver into a juggernaut offensively, especially in these past six weeks. Over that span, the Broncos are averaging 33.1 points per game and Manning has failed to throw for over 300 yards just once over his last seven starts (a 291-yard effort in a 31-23 win over the Bengals two Sundays ago). With the Chargers fading fast, the Broncos are a near lock to win the AFC West. And given how well Manning has played, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Denver in the AFC title game in a few months. That’s incredible to think about given how many people thought he wouldn’t make it past his first real hit.

6. The two most intriguing teams to watch in the second half?
That would be the Colts and the Buccaneers, who have combined to win seven straight games. It’s incredible what Andrew Luck has been able to do in Indianapolis. Outside of Reggie Wayne he doesn’t have many playmakers and his offensive line isn’t very good either. But if the playoffs were to start tomorrow the Colts would own the No. 5 spot in the AFC and Luck would be gearing up for his first playoff start. In Tampa, Greg Schiano has already made his mark with the Bucs. They’ve now won four of their last five games thanks in large part to an offense that has averaged 35.6 points per game over that span, but they can also stop the run and force turnovers defensively. In his first year as a NFL head coach, Schiano has instantly made Tampa Bay tougher, more aggressive, and more potent offensively. His players have bought into his mentality and they’re playing with as much confidence as anyone. But can they make the playoffs? Two of their final seven games come against the Panthers, Eagles and Rams, which are winnable. If they can win those games, they would likely need two victories against the Falcons (whom they play twice), the Broncos, or the Saints. In fact, their playoff hopes may come down to a Week 17 trip to Atlanta, where the Falcons will either be resting starters or trying to secure home field in the playoffs. No matter how the final seven weeks play out, Indy and Tampa are two of the better surprises in the league this season.

7. Young Rams can’t get out of their own way.
The Rams made so many mistakes in overtime of their 24-24 tie with the 49ers on Sunday that it’s easy to forget all the blunders they made in regulation. Let’s start with the 13 penalties for 85 yards. Teams usually don’t win when they’re flagged 13 times on the road, no matter who the opponent is. The biggest infraction came on the Rams’ first possession of overtime when they were called for Illegal Formation, which wiped out an 80-yard reception by Danny Amendola. One minute the Rams are at the goal line ready to knock off the first-place 49ers, the next they’re backed up to their own 13 because Brandon Gibson wasn’t on the line of scrimmage. (Isn’t that the first thing on a receiver’s checklist when he breaks the huddle?) Then, of course, there was failure on the coaching staff to call a timeout right before the play clock wound down on Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning 53-yard field goal attempt. Jeff Fisher said following the game that those things happen when you have a rookie kicker, but all it took was either he or someone on his staff to look up and use a timeout when they saw the clock was running down. To essentially blame Zuerlein (who is trying to concentrate on hitting a 53-yarder on the road in overtime, mind you) was ridiculous. There was also Fisher’s questionable decision late the fourth quarter to burn a timeout and persevere enough time for San Francisco to march down the field and kick a game-tying field goal. He understandably wanted to ensure that his staff and his players were all on the same page because the Rams had to score a touchdown in that situation. But it still wasn’t good clock management and it potentially cost the Rams a victory. In the end a tie is better than a loss, especially when you’re a young team playing in a hostile environment and coming off an embarrassing 45-7 loss. But the Rams were ultimately dragged down by their own inexperience. Fisher has also had better days as well.

Related Note: There’s absolutely no reason ties should exist in the NFL. For as much money as fans are paying to watch a single game, they shouldn’t leave the stadium feeling like they just kissed their sister. It’s not as if these players have to hit the road and play the following night. This isn’t hockey. If Roger Goodell wants to improve his product both locally and globally, he would take steps to ensure that ties, however rare, should never happen in his league.

8. Say what you want about Cutler – the Bears are much better with him healthy.
Jay Cutler was brutal before he took a helmet-to-helmet blow from Tim Dobbins late in the first half of the Bears’ 13-6 loss to the Texans last night. But for those that hung in there to watch Jason Campbell’s uninspiring performance, you realized just how important Cutler is to that offense. Cutler can be an arrogant S.O.B. and he deserves the best and the worst of the polarizing debates that he sparks with his antics. But the playoff-bound Bears fell apart last year when both he and Matt Forte went down with injuries and it will happen again if Cutler misses an extended amount of time. Campbell has always been a better player than what people perceive. He’s good a strong arm, can make all of the throws and stands tall in the pocket. But in order for him to win, he needs to have a strong supporting cast and a stable offensive line. Thanks to guys like Forte and Brandon Marshall, he does have enough around him to win. But he won’t survive behind Chicago’s inconsistent O-line. He looked scattered shot last night, constantly looking for the check-down and attempting throws he has no business trying to make. Granted, Houston’s defense will make an opposing quarterback jittery and there’s no question the Bears are better off with Campbell under center than the slop they ran onto the field last year. But it’s a different offense when Cutler is at the controls. And if the Bears are going to make a run at the Super Bowl, they’re going to need their starting quarterback to stay healthy from here on out.

9. The Sanchez contract extension looks even worse now.
Back in March the Jets handed Mark Sanchez a five-year, $58.25 million contract extension, which included $20.5 million guaranteed. It was a way for the Jets to apologize to Sanchez for flirting with free agent Peyton Manning, which is just ridiculous. Why the Jets felt the need to apologize to Sanchez is beyond the scope of rational thought. In four years as a starter he’s made marginal improvements and still makes rookie mistakes on a weekly basis. Some like to point out that he led the Jets to back-to-back AFC championship games but it was the team’s defense and running game that led the way. Granted, Sanchez was good in the 2009 and 2010 playoffs but the Jets won in spite of him during the regular season. Without the aid of a power running game and Rex Ryan’s defense, we’ve seen Sanchez’s true capabilities the past two seasons. So again, for the front office to have felt the need to apologize to Sanchez when they were trying to make the team better is laughable. On Sunday the Jets didn’t score an offensive touchdown. They needed a Mo Wilkerson 21-yard fumble return for touchdown in order to avoid being shutout in a 28-7 loss to Seattle. Following the game Ryan told reporters that he’s sticking with Sanchez (9-of-22, 124 yards, 1 INT, 1 lost fumble) despite another brutal effort from his starting quarterback, which makes sense. The Jets already guaranteed Sanchez $20.5 million and it’s not as if Tim Tebow is the future. But if Sanchez is still the team’s starter heading into 2013, then the Jets clearly aren’t in the business to win.

10. Quick-Hit Thoughts
After yesterday, there’s really no debate as to who’s the best team in football. The Texans are second in the NFL in total defense behind the Steelers, but I’ll put Wade Phillips’ unit up against anyone else in the league, including Pittsburgh. Houston also has a vicious rushing attack, an offensive line that keeps Matt Schuab upright, and is a team that plays fundamentally sound football…After their lackluster performances over the past few weeks, it was good to see the Ravens come alive on Sunday. Granted, the Raiders have a habit of making everyone look good. But 55 points is 55 points…The fact that the Bengals haven’t given up on the season is a credit to Marvin Lewis and their impressive win over the Giants on Sunday tells you what his players think of him…The Titans are officially the strangest team of 2012. One week they look like an easy win for opponents and the next they’re scoring 37 points on a pretty good Miami defense (not to mention holding the Dolphins to just a field goal after surrendering 51 points to the Bears the previous week)…Speaking of Miami, that playoff talk two weeks ago is nothing but a distant memory now…Stick a fork in the Lions. While Matthew Stafford played his best game of the season in Detroit’s 34-24 loss to the Vikings, his teammates played their worst. Their schedule isn’t favorable the rest of the way and Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota are just better…Speaking of the Vikings, how funny is Christian Ponder? He’s been a total disaster the past few weeks but you take away his best weapon in Percy Harvin (out with an ankle injury) and he completes 24-of-32 passes for 221 yards with two touchdowns. Go figure…That was a typical Buffalo Bills loss on Sunday and for those that saw it, no explanation is necessary…No quarterback has turned the ball over more since 2011 than Philip Rivers, who has coughed it up 40 times in less than two years. His interception to Leonard Johnson was easily one of the worst decisions you’ll see a NFL quarterback make, nevertheless one that was a top 5 pick…Very quietly the Seattle Seahawks have just as many wins as the San Francisco 49ers…In looking at the Cowboys’ schedule, they could easily rattle off five straight following their 38-23 win in Philadelphia on Sunday. If they can manage to stay out of their own way, that is.

Monday Night Football Prediction: Steelers beat the hapless Chiefs, who somehow figure out a way to cover the 12.5-point spread.

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