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NFL Wild Card Weekend Free Picks

Chiefs vs. Colts, 4:35PM ET
The Colts hammered the Chiefs 23-7 in Indianapolis in Week 16 but expect a different outcome today. Kansas City wasn’t prepared for the hurry up that Pep Hamilton threw at Bob Sutton’s defense but with more time to prepare, the Chiefs should adjust. Injuries could impact this game from Kansas City’s side of things, as Tamba Hali is questionable and Eric Fisher has been ruled out for the contest. But Fisher the Chiefs expect Hali to play and Fisher wasn’t performing well before suffering the injury so his loss shouldn’t play a significant role in today’s outcome. The Colts aren’t a very good first half team but they’ve done well playing from behind with Andrew Luck under center. Unfortunately that plays into Kansas City’s hands. Look for the Chiefs to build a lead and then protect it with a combination of Jamaal Charles and their pass rush.
FREE PICK: Chiefs -2.5

Saints vs. Eagles, 8:10PM ET
The Eagles have only beaten one playoff team this year and that came in Week 10 against an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers squad. But you’re naïve if you believe that Philly’s success this year is somehow marginalized by its schedule. Look at the NFL this year – half the league is garbage, which contributed to the Eagles’ “soft schedule.” Regardless, the Saints are a completely different team on the road than it is playing on the fast track of the Superdome. Drew Brees can talk about the Saints’ road record since 2009 all he wants but the fact remains that he’s a less accurate quarterback, Sean Payton is a more conservative play-caller and Rob Ryan’s defense isn’t as potent. Look for the red-hot Eagles to advance to the next round with a victory.
FREE PICK: Eagles -3

Chargers vs. Bengals, 1:05PM ET
The side is difficult to handicap for this matchup because nobody knows which Andy Dalton will show up. He’s as likely to throw for four touchdowns and 350 yards as he is to turn the ball over four times and keep his opponent in the game nearly single-handedly. Thus, the true value of this matchup may be in the total. The over is 4-0-1 in the last five meetings between these two teams in Cincinnati and 7-2-2 in the last 11 meetings overall. The over is also 4-0 in the Bengals’ last four games overall, 5-0 in their last five home games and 4-1 in their last five games versus AFC opponents.
FREE PICK: OVER 45.5

49ers vs. Packers, 4:40PM ET
Everything about this matchup screams 49ers, at least on paper. They have the significantly better defense, they’re built to win on the road thanks to their running game, and they’ve owned the Packers in the recent past. But this Green Bay team is eirly similar to the one that won the Super Bowl in 2010. That year, the Packers suffered key injuries throughout the season and barely made the postseason before riding a red-hot Aaron Rodgers to the title game versus Pittsburgh. Rodgers looked rusty last week versus the Bears but his second-half magic makes it hard to bet against him at home tomorrow night. If this game turns into a shootout, I like Rodgers over Colin Kaepernick, who has gotten a free pass for his inconsistent play this season after leading the Niners to the Super Bowl last season and playing with Michael Crabtree for most of this season.
FREE PICK: PACKERS +3

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

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NFL Quick-Hits: Ten Observations from Week 2 of Preseason

Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will share his quick-hit observations from the week that was in football. This week he hands out 10 observations from Week 2 of the 2012 NFL preseason.

1. The Jets’ offense is troubling.
Mark Sanchez is already in mid-season form. In two preseason games, he’s 13-of-17 for a dismal 80 yards with no touchdowns and one 77-yard pick-six against the Giants on Saturday night. But it’s unfair to be overly critical of Sanchez’s performance when he’s consistently on his back or starring out of his ear hole. The Jets’ offensive line has been a disaster to this point and how can anyone expect that Sanchez will take that next step if right tackle Wayne Hunter acts as a turnstile instead of a brick wall? Sanchez has been sacked six times in 23 dropbacks in preseason and Hunter allowed four sacks in total on Saturday night. The fact that the Jets tried to trade for Carolina OT Jeff Otah back in July is all you need to know about the team’s confidence in Hunter. (The trade eventually fell through after Otah couldn’t pass a physical.) But it’s not just Hunter – the entire New York offensively is struggling, so much so that Tony Sparano’s offense has yet to score a touchdown in two preseason games. Forget Sanchez and ESPN’s lovechild Tim Tebow – if the Jets don’t get their offensive line straightened, the 1960s version of Joe Namath could step off a time machine and struggle under center.

2. Let’s keep Peyton’s “struggles” in proper context.
Following the Broncos’ loss to the Seahawks on Saturday night, the headlines on Sunday focused on Peyton Manning’s two interceptions. In two games this preseason, Manning is 20-of-30 passing for 221 yards, no touchdowns and three picks. Ever consumed by projections and predictions, many message board fanatics and media members are clamoring about how Manning doesn’t look like the Peyton of old. Really? The guy didn’t play a down last year and his career appeared to be in jeopardy. Twelve months ago many said he was finished. Now, because he’s thrown three interceptions in his first two preseason games following multiple neck surgeries, everyone is concerned? Relax. Jacob Tamme dropped an easy touchdown versus Seattle and Eric Decker also put one of Manning’s passes on the ground as well. His velocity isn’t there yet and may never return. But it’s only the second week of the preseason. Give him time to get his feel back for the game before we chastise him about his numbers.

3. It’s great to see Atlanta and Baltimore open things up.
The paths of the Falcons and Ravens have run parallel to each other since 2008. Mike Smith and John Harbaugh were both hired that year, while Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan were both selected in the first round of that draft. Both teams have also been on the cusp of big things, although Baltimore has been closer to fulfilling its promise than Atlanta, which is 0-3 in the playoffs under Smith. One other key similarity between these two teams is their offensive philosophy, which is to keep the ball on the ground and play a physical brand of football. Or, should I say that was the teams’ philosophy until this year. Flacco was inconsistent against the Lions on Friday but for the most part he looked smooth running Cam Cameron’s no huddle offense. He often got the Ravens set before Detroit’s defense was settled and while he attacked with mostly underneath routes, the takeaway is that he looked comfortable. Ryan, meanwhile, has looked like a different quarterback in new OC Dirk Koetter’s system. He’s no longer just a game manager that is afraid to fit the ball into tight windows. He’s confident, he’s standing strong in a muddied pocket and he has developed a great rapport with Julio Jones. In what has become a passing league, it’s good to see that two contenders have finally come to grips with the fact that they need to adjust.

4. Enough about Bradford’s ankle.
CBSsports.com’s Jason La Canfora released a report earlier this week that stated there’s a “definite possibility” that Sam Bradford will need ankle surgery after the season. I’m not here to discredit La Canfora’s report, which was validated a day later when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch confirmed that the team does have concerns about Bradford’s left ankle holding up for the entire season. But the bottom line is that he didn’t miss one rep in mini-camp, hasn’t missed one rep in training camp, and has yet to be affected by the ankle in preseason. In practices he hasn’t had issues rolling out of the pocket and hasn’t as much as limped around the field. Saturday night versus the Chiefs, he completed 6-of-9 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. From the very first snap of the game when he hit Danny Amendola on a long crossing route for a 35-yard gain, Bradford consistently went through his progressions and found open receivers. He’s primed for a bounce back season.

5. Outside of Urlacher, optimism continues to build in Chicago.
Looking back, the Bears had one of the better offseasons of any team in the league. Had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not gotten hurt last season, the Bears were on a collision course with the fifth playoff seed in the NFC. So what did they do? They signed a quality player in Jason Smith to backup Cutler and added Michael Bush to help take some of the rushing load off of Forte. Of course, Chicago’s biggest and best move was trading for Brandon Marshall, who finally gives Cutler a bona fide No. 1 target. The Bears also drafted South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery, who has caught seven passes for 97 yards this offseason. The offensive line is the biggest concern, but the unit looked good on Saturday night. The other question mark is obviously Brian Urlacher, who likely won’t be healthy all season. But while the defense is getting long in the tooth, the Bears have everything they need to make a deep postseason run this season.

6. The Cardinals are in trouble.
If I were to pick one defense to improve the most from 2011 to 2012, I would choose the Arizona Cardinals. Last year coordinator Ray Horton implemented the same defense that Dick LeBeau runs in Pittsburgh and while the Cardinal defenders were often caught out of position last season because of their unfamiliarity with the scheme, they improved throughout the year. With a full offseason to grasp Horton’s scheme, Arizona’s defense should be quietly consistent all season. Then again, it better be because the offense could be a total disaster. The offensive line was already struggling before Levi Brown suffered what should be a season-ending triceps injury on Friday. Not only that, but Kevin Kolb has been a train wreck in preseason and while John Skelton has displayed a little magic before, he’ll eventually succumb to the pitfalls of the offensive line. Thanks to Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells, Michael Floyd and Ryan Williams, the parts are there. But Wells and Williams are injury concerns, the Cardinals are bringing Floyd along slowly and the greatness of Fitzgerald is nullified by a bad situation at quarterback and along the offensive line. It could be a long season in the desert.

7. Locker is keeping Hasselbeck in the running.
With an opportunity to perhaps widen the gap between he and Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker really struggled in his second preseason game on Saturday might. He completed just 4-of-11 passes for 21 yards and one interception and he struggled mightily in his first NFL start (preseason or regular). And because he had so many issues, coach Mike Munchak wasn’t able to declare Locker the starter this weekend. It makes sense that the Titans want Locker to emerge as the starter. After all, he’s the future and while the veteran Hasselbeck can keep Tennessee in most games, Locker is the superior athlete and has the ability to produce more big plays. But if the second-year quarterback can’t seize the opportunity in front of him, then Munchak has no choice but to allow the two signal callers to keep battling.

8. The Seahawks have an underrated battle at quarterback.
Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports joined Tony Softli and myself this morning on 101 ESPN radio in St. Louis and noted that at least one team would have drafted Russell Wilson ahead of Ryan Tannehill if Wilson weren’t as short as he is. But as SI.com’s Peter King said earlier this week, Wilson didn’t have one ball knocked down at Wisconsin. He’s a smart, instinctive kid with excellent fundamentals. If Matt Flynn didn’t sign that free agent deal this offeason, I’m not so sure Wilson wouldn’t have been named the starter by Pete Carroll at this point. Granted, Wilson has played against the second and third-teamers in preseason but that doesn’t negate the fact that he’s still making the throws, still making sound decisions, and still forcing Carroll from naming Flynn the starter heading into the third week of preseason.

9. The NFL hasn’t made the referees a priority, which is bothersome.
A couple of days ago NFL executive Ray Anderson made a comment on the locked out officials saying, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game.” That’s true, I’ve never purchased a ticket to a NFL game hoping to a see a Pro Bowl-caliber performance from a referee. But I have paid to watch a professional NFL game, which should include professional referees. I get that the NFL is in the middle of a labor dispute and is therefore downplaying the value of the regular referees. But Anderson shouldn’t insult the intelligence of fans with comments like the one above. It’s a different game with replacement refs, and that much has been proven the past two weeks. I have no doubt that these replacements will improve with each week but it’s going to be a long time before they reach the level that the regulars are at. The NFL is not putting a high value on the regular referees, and that’s not fair to fans.

10. Questions surround Bowe.
As a whole, the Chiefs had a poor showing in their 31-17 loss to the Rams on Saturday night. But Matt Cassel did some good things, especially when he was allowed to open things up and target the middle of the field (which happens to be St. Louis’ weakness save for MLB James Laurinaitis). Jon Baldwin has also drawn rave reviews in training camp and Jamaal Charles appears to be recovering nicely from ACL surgery. Another piece of positive news is that Dwayne Bowe signed his franchise tender and has been cleared to practice. But will he learn new OC Brian Daboll’s scheme in time for the regular season? Imagine trying to master a new language before having to take the final exam in just two weeks. While there’s plenty of optimism growing in Kansas City, there’s a realistic chance that Bowe will be slow out of the gates until he can learn Daboll’s offense.

Sunday Evening Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 2 in the NFL

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

DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING…

Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler celebrates a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York September 18, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Who knew that with the Bears in New Orleans to take on the Saints and Cam Newton hosting the defending champs that Raiders-Bills would be the most entertaining early game on Sunday? I’m pretty sure neither defense dressed for the second half but this game had it all: a major come-from-behind victory, plenty of big plays (that TD Denarius Moore caught from Jason Campbell was siiiick), and a last-minute touchdown pass on fourth down (see the photo above as Scott Chandler scores the game-winner). It’s actually fun to watch Ryan Fitzpatrick run Buffalo’s dare-I-say-high-powered offense.

- I was impressed by Cam Newton in his pro debut (how could you not be?), but I fully admit that I expected him to fall flat on his face against the Packers. Naturally he comes out and throws for over 400 yards again and is now on pace to pass for 6,832 yards this season. He’s also completing over 60% of his passes and had he not turned the ball over three times, I’m not so sure the Panthers don’t beat the Packers today. I don’t know if this is beginner’s luck or we’re seeing the next great thing at quarterback but I shudder to think what he’ll do once the game actually starts slowing down for him.

- Let me get this straight: the Ravens rack up 35 points on the Steelers’ defense but couldn’t muster more than a touchdown and two field goals against the Titans? Some were concerned that the Ravens would come out flat after their impressive win over the Steelers last Sunday and “some” were right. Matt Hasselbeck took advantage of a depleted Baltimore secondary all afternoon, completing 30 of his 42 pass attempts for 358 yards and a touchdown. Hasselbeck was helped by the fact that the Ravens wanted nothing to do with pressuring him as they finished with zero sacks.

- Jaguars win a gutsy 16-14 game over the Titans in their season opener, then fail to show up today and are blasted by the Jets, 32-3. Titans look hapless in Jacksonville last week, then came out on Sunday and romp a Raven team that destroyed the Steelers last week. The NFL is screwy, I tell ya.

Read the rest of this entry »

NFL Week 17 MVP power rankings

Well, I’m pretty sure the announcement for NFL MVP comes down this weekend, so let me begin by saying that I was not influenced by anything that I read when making these picks…..

1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots—Brady, who is going to run away with this award, played about half a game last Sunday, and still threw for 199 yards with 2 TDs and 0 picks. He hasn’t thrown an interception since like early October.

2. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles—Vick did Brady a favor by not being in the lineup against Dallas in Week 17, but he and his coach know what’s more important, and that is for him and some nagging injuries, resting up for the Packers.

3. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints—He wound up third in yards (4620) and tied for second in TDs (33) but uncharacteristically threw for 22 interceptions.

4. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts—4700 yards, 33 TDs, 17 picks. But most impressive is the way Peyton led his team to the postseason when things looked bleak.

5. Matt Cassel/Jamaal Charles/Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs—Cassel had a dreadful game in Week 17, but we stand by the fact that this was a trio that helped a young KC team win their division and a 4-seed.

6. Arian Foster, Houston Texans—Not only did he lead the league in rushing (1616 yards), but Foster added a whopping 66 receptions for 604 more yards—giving him 2220 yards from scrimmage and 18 TDs.

7. Matt Ryan/Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons—Well, at 13-3, someone had to be good for them to get there, especially with all of those come from behind wins.

8. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers—Finished with 3922/28/11 in 15 games, but what counts is leading his team to the postseason berth they deserve.

9. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers—If they could do last year’s draft over again, do you think Matthews would still be picked at #26?

10. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers—You know, he led the NFL in passing yards (4710) and had 30 TDs with 13 interceptions. He didn’t have Antonio Gates for a while, and he had Vincent Jackson for maybe two games. That’s why we can’t discount Rivers’ numbers.

11. Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Bucs—We had to add one more. This kid is going to be a star. Oh wait, he already is. Freeman started every game and wound up with 3451 passing yards with 25 touchdown passes and just 6 interceptions. By comparison, Eli Manning had more than FOUR times as many picks.

Fantasy Points Per Touch: RBs

New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs fends off Washington Redskins line backer Brian Orakpo to pick up get back to the line of scrimmage in the first quarter at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland on January 2, 2010. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg

After each fantasy football season, I like to do something of a post-mortem by looking at certain stats that might give me a clearer picture of what in the hell just happened. One such stat is fantasy points per touch, which takes the total (non-PPR) fantasy points divided by the sum of the player’s carries and catches.

Here’s a look at the top 20 RBs (with at least 150 total touches) ranked by fantasy points per touch.

When trying to predict a player’s outlook, I always go back to the old fantasy addage, “Talent + Opportunity = Success.” This stat gives us an idea of a player’s talent by answering the question — how productive was this player with the touches he received? If a back is listed here, it indicates that he may very well have the talent to be a top 20 fantasy RB in the NFL if he were to receive the appropriate amount of touches.

A few takeaways:

- Brandon Jacobs can run the ball. His numbers here are a little skewed due to the nine TDs he scored in 147 carries, but he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and should be the feature back somewhere even if Ahmad Bradshaw is the better all around back. 2010 marks the third season in the last four that Jacobs averaged 5.0-plus yards per carry, so his poor 2009 numbers (3.6 ypc) look to be more of an aberration than a trend.

- Jamaal Charles is really, really good. If not for the presence of Thomas Jones, he would be a top 2 or 3 RB heading into the 2011 season. As it stands, I suspect he’ll be a mid-first round pick.

- Ryan Mathews has what it takes to be a very good RB2, but he needs to stay healthy and he needs RB2 touches. His teammate, Mike Tolbert, vultured his touchdowns and will do so again if he’s still a Charger next season.

- BenJarvus Green-Ellis figures to be a sleeper heading into the 2011 season. He’s a touchdown machine and a good runner (4.4 ypc), but Belichick’s fickleness at the RB position will likely depress the Law Firm’s value a bit. He should be a very solid RB2 next season.

- Peyton Hillis outperformed Chris Johnson, Frank Gore and Michael Turner on a per touch basis. Hillis should be the Browns’ feature back heading into 2011, and should continue to be productive even if Cleveland moves to a West Coast offense since he has the pass-catching skills to be effective out of the backfield.

- Michael Bush could be a star with a new team. He’s a free agent this summer, so if the Raiders don’t resign him (though they should), he could turn into a fantasy RB2 if he lands with the right team.

- Maybe Tim Hightower should be the Cardinals’ feature back. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and has good hands out of the backfield. People complain about his breakaway speed, but he had an 80-yard run this season. In 292 career carries, Beanie Wells has a career long run of 33 yards.

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