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.
1. No sense debating the Lions’ fourth down gaff – it wasn’t supposed to happen.
One of the hot topics around your water cooler this morning will be the Lions’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime instead of attempting a game-tying field goal from the Titans’ 7-yard line. But there’s no sense debating the decision because the play was never supposed to happen. Following the game coach Jim Schwartz said that Detroit was trying to draw Tennessee offsides. Whether or not the Lions would have still gone for it had the offsides attempt not worked is unknown, but the most controversial play of the day wasn’t controversial at all. Shaun Hill (who came into the game after Matthew Stafford suffered a leg injury) and the Lions just blew the task at hand. The bigger worry for Schwartz should be the fact that his team has yet to play well. The Lions arguably should have lost Week 1 to the Rams, were dominated by the 49ers in Week 2, and allowed 44 points to a Titans team that had been outscored 72-23 coming into Sunday’s action. For a team coming off a postseason berth a year ago, the Lions look every bit a sub-.500 team.
(For what it’s worth, I thought the Lions should have gone for it on fourth down in that situation. Their defense and special teams were brutal all afternoon and they were playing on the road. But you don’t put the ball in the hands of Hill with the day Mikel Leshoure was having.)
2. So far the NFL’s gamble hasn’t paid off.
One of the biggest reasons why Roger Goodell and the NFL hasn’t given in to the demands of the locked out officials is because the league assumed that the replacements would get better each week. But just six nights after the replacement officials contributed to a first quarter between the Broncos and Falcons that took over an hour to complete on “Monday Night Football,” this was the scene on Sunday night: Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb throwing his helmet in disgust, New England’s Vince Wilfork screaming at an official in the end zone following Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal, and Bill Belichick angrily chasing down line judge Esteban Garza and yanking his arm as he tried to run off the field. Following the game, you had linebacker Brandon Spikes tweeting, “Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they’re needed Back at work !!!!” It wasn’t just the Baltimore-New England game either. The Detroit-Tennessee contest was a mess as well, as the replacement officials gave the Titans an extra 12 yards following a penalty in overtime (which eventually led to the game-winning field goal). Is this the vision that Goodell has for his league? The fans, which allow the NFL to be the most popular game in America, deserve better than this. It’s not like the regular officials don’t blow calls, make mistakes, or factor into wins and losses. But the NFL has become a punch line because of these replacements.
3. The jury is still out on the Cardinals, but not their defense.
Are the Cardinals for real? Even after they crushed the Eagles 27-6 on Sunday, skepticism remains. They’re essentially two plays away from being 1-2 instead of 3-0, so let’s wait a few weeks before we assume we misjudged Ken Whisenhunt’s team in preseason. But one thing’s for sure: The Cardinals’ defense is for real. Players were confused and often caught out of position when Ray Horton took over as defensive coordinator last season. He runs the same defensive scheme that Dick LeBeau uses in Pittsburgh, which means every player has a specific role that must be executed or the entire defense may struggle. But in Year 2 of Horton’s scheme, his defenders have a firm grasp on what their responsibilities are and at least three through weeks they’re thriving in their roles. They held Michael Vick to just 217 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced three fumbles on the day. Daryl Washington is becoming a star, Patrick Peterson is on the fast track when it comes to his development, and Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes are steady veterans. The offense remains a huge concern thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in football, but Horton’s defense is going to keep Arizona in most games going forward.
4. The Vikings’ upset of the 49ers was easier to spot than you think.
The biggest shock of Week 3 came in Minnesota where the Vikings upset the 49ers, 24-13. The Vikings, who barely got by the Jaguars at home in Week 1 and who were beaten by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 2, were 7-point home underdogs against a San Francisco team that was regarded as the class of the NFC – if not the entire NFL. But the 49ers were also coming off wins against the Packers and Lions and were due for a letdown. Their offense is also very methodical and lacks explosion, so once they get behind by a couple of scores they’re not prone to stage comebacks. Now, did I see Christian Ponder completing 21-of-35 passes for 198 yards with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing)? No. But his ability to scramble proved to be a major weapon against a stingy San Francisco defense, which couldn’t limit the big play. Throw in the fact that Minnesota won the turnover and time of possession battle and it all adds up to one of the bigger upsets of the year thus far.
5. The Texans and Falcons look like the class of each conference.
With all due respect to the 3-0 Cardinals, the Texans and Falcons look like the class of the AFC and NFC through the first three weeks of the season. Houston has outscored opponents 88-42 and its first trip out West proved to be a successful one, as the Texans beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos 31-25 on Sunday. The Falcons, meanwhile, are 2-0 on the road and had no trouble with previously unbeaten San Diego despite coming off a short week of rest and preparation following their Monday night win over Denver. No quarterback has been more efficient than Matt Ryan through the first three weeks of the season and Mike Nolan has transformed Atlanta’s defense into a top 10 unit. One other thing the Falcons have done well is blend Mike Smith’s philosophy on ball control and Dirk Koetter’s desire to throw the ball vertical. Atlanta’s offense is still very methodical but the difference now is that the scheme is built around Ryan and the no-huddle, compared to Michael Turner and the ground-and-pound philosophy that Mike Mularkey implemented the past four years. Both Atlanta and Houston play keep-away better than any team in the league, with the only difference being that the Texans have a legit running game to compliment their passing attack. Both defenses are also built to confuse opposing quarterbacks and force turnovers, which the Falcons and Texans have been able to do thus far.
6. The Ravens come up huge.
The Ravens exacted a small measure of revenge last night on the Patriots, who beat Baltimore in the AFC title game just a few months ago. The replacement officials marred an otherwise terrific night for the heavy-hearted Torrey Smith, who played less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother. He caught six passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a beautiful 25-yard grab in the second quarter. Joe Flacco also impressed one week after struggling against the Eagles, as he completed 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The win was huge on a couple of different levels for Baltimore. First and foremost, the Steelers lost to the Raiders earlier in the day so the Ravens and Bengals are now tied atop the division at 2-1. The victory also guaranteed Baltimore a leg up against New England when it comes to tiebreakers at the end of the year. Even though they’re 1-2, Bill Belichick’s Patriots will bounce back and be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. So it’s huge for the Ravens to have a head-to-head win over a team that they always seem to meet in the postseason.
7. There’s a good chance the Saints will head into their bye week winless.
I guess we all should have seen this coming. No team could have gone through what the Saints did in the offseason and now suffer any residual affects. Not only was New Orleans marred in the bounty scandal, but don’t forget that Drew Brees missed significant offseason time while battling with the front office over his contract. In losing Sean Payton the Saints not only lost their head coach but their playcaller as well. Talk all you want about Pete Carmichael being a reliable fill-in but through three weeks the Saints’ offense has yet to develop consistency. The biggest problem, of course, might be on the defensive side of the ball as Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme has yet to sink in. In their 27-24 victory on Sunday, Kansas City was able to play keep-away with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for over 200 yards on the maligned New Orleans defense. Through three weeks Spagnuolo’s unit has allowed 40 points to Washington, 35 to Carolina and 27 to Kansas City. And with Green Bay and San Diego coming up, there’s a very realistic chance that the Saints will be 0-5 heading into their Week 6 bye.
8. The Steelers’ defense is getting exposed.
We’ve reached a point when it’s no longer surprising that Pittsburgh’s defense allows a 100-yard rusher, isn’t able to generate pressure, and allows big plays when one of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitzes backfires. The problem is that James Harrison and Troy Polamalu can’t stay healthy. The bigger problem is that the Steelers haven’t drafted well on that side of the ball in a long time. Younger players have failed to step up and there’s no new wave of brilliant Pittsburgh defenders coming down what used to be an endless pipe of production. The unit is old, tired and now, underperforming. The Steelers’ defense used to dictate games and now opposing quarterbacks are outsmarting them, even aging signal callers like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. If you’re expecting the Steelers’ defense to all of a sudden flip the switch and go back to being the dominate force that it’s been for over a decade, you might be waiting awhile. Re-enforcements are not on their way.
9. The Jets are in trouble.
A team source told Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports! that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis “probably” has a torn left ACL. If “probably” turns into “confirmed,” New York is in major trouble. Revis means everything to Rex Ryan’s defense, so much so that the Jets’ entire season could be lost without him locking down one side of the field. Mark Sanchez completed 21-of-45 passes for 306 yards with one touchdown but his numbers are misleading. Against Miami’s weak pass defense, Sanchez routinely missed open receivers, struggled under pressure and threw two interceptions. If Revis is indeed lost for the season, the Jets will quickly find out what they have in Sanchez, who doesn’t handle pressure very well (on or off the field). It could wind up being a long year in New York.
10. Cowboys once again disappoint.
They may have earned a hard-fought victory but the Cowboys didn’t exactly send fear into the hearts of the NFC elite with their 16-10 win over the Bucs on Sunday. Dallas only racked up 297 yards of total offense, which featured six false start penalties and a couple of Jason Witten drops (including one would-be touchdown). Credit Tampa Bay’s defense for coming to play but 2.1 yards per carry out of DeMarco Murray isn’t going to cut it either. Through three weeks the Cowboys have one impressive performance (the opening win against the Giants), one dud performance (the Week 2 loss at Seattle) and one blasé performance (Sunday vs. the Bucs). We’ll find out a lot about Jerry Jones’ team when it hosts Chicago next week before visiting Baltimore following a bye in Week 6.
Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league.
+ Let’s hold judgment on Adrian Peterson before all of the details have been released following his arrest. This is a player with no history of off-field issues and it’s extremely bizarre that he was only charged with resisting arrest. The current details of the situation are that Peterson and some family members were out at a Houston nightclub when police entered the building at closing time. When they instructed people to leave, Peterson apparently wanted some water but an officer told him no and AP headed for the exit. At some point an officer was pushed, causing him to stumble and then three policemen had to “detain” Peterson. What’s unclear is how a push led to three officers attempting to detain the running back and then escalating to an actual arrest. Again, we should hold judgment until the full details have been released because something doesn’t sound right here. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the Houston police overreacted and didn’t handle the situation properly.
+ Many have argued that the Saints players involved in the New Orleans bounty scandal were simply following the orders of Gregg Williams and thus, they had little to no choice but to follow their coach’s orders. I get that. If you’re a fringe player looking to stick with a team because your career and livelihood is on the line, then you may be more apt to get along and go along then to cause waves. But what everyone seems to overlook is that Roger Goodell was lied to, and that’s why he came down hard on these participants. When Goodell went to Williams, Sean Payton and Anthony Hargrove asking if a bounty program was in place, they all told him no. Then, instead of stopping the program right then and there, they continued their pay-for-performance system. And while players like Hargrove, Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fuijta insist that Goodell has no prove that a bounty program was in place, has everyone forgotten that Williams has already apologized and thrown himself at the mercy of the court? He already admitted that he was putting bounties on opposing players. So yes, maybe the players were simply following orders. But at one point Goodell asked the participants to tell the truth and nobody spoke up, so they remain in a hell of their own making.
+ Dick LeBeau remains one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, so don’t think for a moment that the Steelers’ defense is going to fall apart. That said, there’s no question that Pittsburgh is old on that side of the ball. Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will continue to be the focal point of the defense but younger players like Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta’amu to make an impact (especially with Casey Hampton recovering from ACL surgery).
+ It’ll be interesting to see how the Chargers’ offense develops throughout the 2012 season. The run blocking wasn’t very good last season and the pass protection was below average as well, which led to Philip Rivers make a fair amount of mistakes. Ryan Mathews is an emerging star and if the blocking improves, then obviously the running game on a whole will be better than it was a year ago. But the question is how effective will Norv Turner’s coveted vertical offense be. Can Robert Meachem finally have that breakout year that many have expected since he entered the league as a first-rounder? What will the absence of Vincent Jackson have on the passing game? Can an aging Antonio Gates stay healthy? Will Malcolm Floyd be as effective this season without Jackson on the other side? Rivers made the passing game flourish without V-Jax two years ago but he needs help, mostly from his offensive line. Again, it’ll be interesting to see if Turner, who is undoubtedly on the hot seat once again, can blend the new elements together to make the passing game thrive.
+ It’s easy to make the argument that the Texans’ window to win a championship in the next three years is wide open. Even with the loss of Mario Williams their defense has a ton of talent and is coached by one of the best in the game in Wade Phillips. But Matt Schaub has still yet to play in a postseason game and Andre Johnson, now 31, will have to remain healthy or Houston will fail to take the next step after making the playoffs last year. Losing Joel Dreessen to the Broncos in free agency hurt. Not only was Dreessen a solid blocker last year for Houston, but he also averaged 12.6 yards per play in the Texans’ big-play offense. That said, if Schaub and Johnson can stay healthy then Houston will make the postseason again this year. Thanks to the offensive line and the explosiveness of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, the running game will be enough to win games on its own. It’s just a matter of whether or not the Texans can stay healthy long enough to make a deep run.
+ The reports out of San Francisco this offseason have not be positive for first-rounder A.J. Jenkins. He reportedly has made some difficult plays but he’s also had a hard time staying on his feet during workouts and is viewed as a major project. But let’s keep in mind that if Jenkins struggles this year it won’t be the end of the world. It used to be that players could take their time developing but nowadays teams need their first round picks to make an immediate impact. That said, considering the 49ers have veterans Mario Manningham and Randy Moss manning the outsides, they don’t necessarily need Jenkins to be on the fast track to NFL stardom. Is it good that the kid can’t stay on his feet and is viewed as a major project? No, but it wouldn’t be life or death if he needed a year. Besides, the 49ers will make sure that Jenkins contributes one way or another, including getting him involved in sub packages. Just don’t expect him to be a No. 1 as a rookie.
+ Good for Joe Philbin and the Dolphins coaching staff for taking it slow with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Reports out of Miami are that the starting job is between David Garrard and Matt Moore because Tannehill is currently struggling with the speed of the game. Last year in Jacksonville, the thought was that Blaine Gabbert would be allowed to take his time while observe ring Garrard in his first year. But Garrard was released before the season and Gabbert was rushed into action way too soon. The results were disastrous and now observers are already questioning whether or not Gabbert can develop. Tannehill shouldn’t have been a top 10 selection but the Dolphins needed a quarterback and they went with offensive coordinator Mike Sherman’s guy. Fine. Now let the kid learn the game for a year before the weight of the franchise is thrust onto his shoulders. It’s not like the Dolphins are expected to compete this year so there should be no qualms about Garrard or Moore starting while Tannehill observes in his first year.
+ It looks like it’s going to be all or nothing this year for Montario Hardesty. Says ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi: “If Hardesty gets injured again, it’s easy – he will be gone, in my opinion. But if Hardesty stays healthy and is the productive player [Browns GM Tom] Heckert saw at Tennessee, I think he checks in at No. 2.” So essentially Hardesty will either be the first running back off the bench when Trent Richardson needs a blow or else he’ll be in another city at some point this year. Hopefully Hardesty isn’t another talented prospect that never developed because he was held back by injuries. He has all the talent to be a productive player in a two-back system but because of various injuries he hasn’t shown the same explosion he had coming out of college. Maybe this is the year he’ll finally stick.
In what turned out to be a battle of strength on strength, the Ravens outlasted the Texans in Sunday’s Divisional round playoffs. Here are some quick-hit reactions from Baltimore’s 20-13 victory.
Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice runs against the Houston Texans during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland on January 15, 2012. UPI/Kevin Dietsch
- If it weren’t for the final score, you would have thought Houston dominated this game. The Texans absolutely owned the trenches, which was never more apparent then when they stuffed Ray Rice on a fourth-and-goal attempt from the 1-yard line during the fourth quarter. Rice looked like he ran full force into a brick wall on that play, and never got going throughout the day as he was held to just 60 yards on 21 carries. Even though Houston’s season is over, the job Wade Phillips did re-shaping the defense cannot be overstated. His defensive unit kept the Texans in the game throughout the entire second half.
- One thing that will be overlooked because of the final score is the job Jonathan Joesph did on Torrey Smith. The Houston corner completely took Smith out of the game, which limited what Baltimore could do in the vertical passing game. Because of this, Joe Flacco was sacked five times and largely settled for short passes aside from one 30-yard completion to Lee Evans. Granted, Evans and Anquan Boldin still combined for 103 receiving yards and a touchdown, but the Ravens’ offense wasn’t very effective as a whole. It’s ironic to think that Houston desperately wanted Nnamdi Asomugha this offseason and then “settled” for Joseph, who wound up having the much better season.
- How can you not love Arian Foster? I thought Baltimore would shut him down and all he did was man up to the tune of 132 yards on 27 carries. He essentially put the Texans’ offense on his back and said, “Follow me.” He ran with purpose, determination, and a hell of a lot of heart. I wasn’t excited to get another helping of T.J. Yates in this year’s playoffs but I could watch Foster run every day. Houston needs to pay the man this offseason. (He’s an impending restricted free agent.)
- My comment about T.J. Yates in the paragraph above wasn’t intended to be a knock on the rookie, who has done an incredible job for the Texans given the circumstances. It’s just painfully obvious that Houston’s offense is limited with him under center and as a football fan I would rather see Baltimore have a crack at New England than a Yates-led Texans team. (Sorry, Houston.) That said, Yates did lead a couple of impressive drives today, but the Ravens were always there when he made mistakes. Like most rookie quarterbacks, Yates has a habit of locking onto receivers and at this level, you’re going to be in trouble when you telegraph passes. (Look at Yates’ pass attempt that Ed Reed intercepted to essentially seal the win for Baltimore.) Still, it was quite the season for the youngster out of North Carolina, who has already blossomed into a solid backup for Houston.
- X-rays came back negative on Ed Reed’s ankle, which is obviously huge for Baltimore’s defense. The injury, which Reed suffered on Houston’s final offensive play, looked serious when it first happened. But it looks like the Ravens will have their All-Pro safety next week for Tom Brady and Co.
- Ravens-Patriots next week at Foxboro? Sign me the f#&k up. When you consider the matchup problems that Baltimore’s defense gives New England, it’s going to be a great game.
The Texans defeated the Bengals 31-10 on Saturday to notch their first playoff victory in franchise history. Here are a couple of quick-hit reactions from this Wildcard contest.
Houston Texans running back Arian Foster rushes for a gain against the San Diego Chargers in the first half at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas on November 7, 2010. UPI/Aaron M. Sprecher
- Many times during the postseason we see a defensive line take over a game and that’s exactly what Houston’s front four did on Saturday. Outside of one or two passes, Andy Dalton simply didn’t have enough time to go through his progressions and get the ball down filed because the Texans’ D-line was up his ass every play. The Bengals’ running game didn’t do him any favors but credit Wade Phillips for putting together a great game plan. (A game plan that turned A.J. Green into a ghost.) Dalton had some success moving the ball in the first quarter but once the Bengals got further off of their opening script, their offense crumbled.
- You say defensive tackle J.J. Watt was a former tight end in college? Huh, could have fooled me on that ridiculous catch he made on that game-changing pick-six right before halftime. It‘s hardly surprising that he turned out to be such a good player in his first year. He’s a fellow Central Michigan Chippewa and those guys can just…flat…out…play.
- Speaking of Watt, how annoying was Mike Mayock when he kept boasting about how he thought Watt should have been a top-10 pick back in April? We get it Mike, you were high on the kid coming out of college.
- Speaking of Watt x2: What were Watt’s odds for the prop bet, “What rookie will score first in Saturday’s Bengals-Texans game?” Andy Dalton 5/1. T.J. Yates 6/1. J.J. Watt 100,000,000/1.
- It’s amazing to think that Arian Foster was once on Houston’s practice squad. You watch how elusive, athletic and powerful he is and it makes you wonder how the hell he wasn’t considered one of the Texans’ top 3 running backs during a given year. That said, Foster has even admitted that he wasn’t motivated until finding out that practice players could be called up, so it’s probably not the Texans’ fault that he wasted some time when he first arrived in the NFL. And boy has he arrived.
- I hate to be critical because the kid is doing the best he can in a difficult situation, but T.J. Yates wasn’t very impressive. On one drive in the second quarter, he overlooked open receivers on two separate pass plays in order to throw to guys that were covered, and Chris Crocker nearly had a pick-six late in the third when Yates threw across his body. (Crocker inexplicably dropped the gift.) But again, how critical can you be of a fifth-round rookie quarterback who won his first postseason game of his career? Peyton Manning didn’t accomplish that feat and neither did Eli Manning or Matt Ryan. I only mention the fact that Yates wasn’t impressive because Baltimore’s defense is a) better against the run than Cincinnati and b) will likely score more than 10 points. Thus, Yates might not be able to step into the shadows and allow Foster and Houston’s defense to take over.
- One thing that was impressive about Yates was the double-move he put on Pacman Jones to burn the corner on Andre Johnson’s touchdown catch. Houston‘s o-line gave him great protection and Yates calmly juked Jones out of jockstrap. (On a related note, it’s easy to forget that Pacman is still in the NFL when he’s not being arrested every week.)
- This game was yet another example of what happens when a team doesn’t have enough offensive weapons. The Texans took Green out of the game and Dalton essentially didn’t have anyone else to throw to. You see this type of thing all the time in the playoffs and you understand why teams like the Saints and Packers load up on playmakers during the offseason.
- The coaches upstairs for the Bengals should have done a better job of telling Marvin Lewis not to challenge Owen Daniels’ first-down catch late in the first half. Had they done their jobs, Lewis wouldn’t have blown Cincinnati’s second timeout and more importantly, the team’s final challenge on a call that obviously wasn‘t going to go their way. That said, it’s ultimately up to Lewis to make sure he still has a challenge in his back pocket for the final 30-plus minutes of the game. That’s just bad coaching all around for Cincinnati.
- That’s a bad half of football, Chris Crocker.
- Despite this bitter ending, it was a hell of a season for the Bengals. I know fans wanted their team to advance but looking at the big picture, nobody expected Cincinnati to make the postseason back in August.