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NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 4

1. Newton isn’t a closer, but thankfully for the Falcons Ryan is.
Following his dreadful performance last Thursday against the Giants, Cam Newton bounced back nicely against the Falcons on Sunday while throwing for 215 yards, rushing for 86 yards, and reaching the end zone three times (twice through the air and once rushing). But for all of his heroics, Newton remains a quarterback unable to close out games. Faced with a crucial third-and-one with less than two minutes remaining in the contest, Newton had picked up a first down on a designed run, but he fumbled the ball while pin-balling off bodies. Had he squeezed the ball tightly, the Panthers could have run out the clock and earned a huge road victory against an undefeated division rival. Instead, the ball bounced backwards and while one of his teammates jumped on it, the Falcons still had life. Then, despite gashing Atlanta for nearly 200 yards on the ground, coach Ron Rivera decided that his team couldn’t pick up one more yard to put the game away. He punted on fourth-and-1 and despite pinning the Falcons on their own 1-yard line, defensive back Haruki Nakamura inexplicably allowed a 59-yard pass completion to Roddy White, which put the Falcons in range of a game-winning field goal. The rest was history, as Matt Ryan, a true closer, marched Atlanta down to the Carolina 22-yard-line to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning 40-yard field goal. The outcome was yet another reminder of the one thing that Newton has still yet to learn: How to finish. Like so many times before, Ryan was handed an opportunity to put his team on his shoulders and win the game, which he did. Granted, a lot of luck was involved and Newton had plenty of help giving that game away. But at the end of the day, one quarterback closed and the other didn’t.

2. The Patriots remain the team to beat the AFC East.
Heading into Week 4, people wanted to believe the Patriots’ reign of terror in the AFC East was over. They bought into the notion that the Bills were ready to unseat New England, which had lost in Buffalo last year and was coming off back-to-back losses the past two weeks. But despite the offseason additions of Mario Williams (who has been a ghost since signing that huge deal back in March), Stephon Gilmore and Mark Anderson, Buffalo’s defense remains a major work in progress. The Bills thought they had fixed their issues on that side of the ball and yet, their defensive line applied very little pressure to Tom Brady and allowed 247 yards rushing. The Patriots reminded us that they can still turn it on when they need to, as 45 of their 52 points came in the second half. Where as Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to struggle with the deep ball and throwing outside the numbers, Brady used his legs to buy himself more time and even rushed for a score in the third quarter. Stevan Ridley added 106 yards on the ground but was overshadowed by undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden, who seemingly came out of nowhere to rush for 137 yards on 16 carries. Despite Buffalo being at full strength with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson (both were active despite being questionable throughout the week), the Patriots sent a message that they’re still one of the most dangerous teams in the AFC when they’re firing on all cylinders.

3. The Saints played their best game of the season…and still lost.
There were plenty of moments in Green Bay on Sunday where you were reminded of the Saints of the last couple of years, at least offensively. Drew Brees completed 35-of-54 passes for 446 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, while Marques Colston emerged from his slumber to catch nine passes for 153 yards and one score. This is still a team that will scare opponents week in and week out, although it’s telling that this was New Orleans’ best game of the season and it still walked away with a 28-27 loss. The defense created little to no pressure on Aaron Rodgers, who wasn’t sacked after being dropped eight times by Seattle just six days prior. The Saints also don’t have a running game and clearly miss Carl Nicks. (The offensive line hasn’t been the same without him.) It’ll also be interesting to see if the Saints can remained focused throughout the year. It’s still relatively early but no team shakes off a 0-4 start. Keep in mind that the players on this roster aren’t used to losing and most are holdovers from the Super Bowl squad. This is a team that has fought for division titles and Super Bowl berths the past few seasons. How will they respond when faced with immense adversity?

4. Let’s give credit where credit is due: Kolb has lifted his play.
The Dolphins sacked Kevin Kolb eight times on Sunday, held the Cardinals to just 28 yards rushing, forced two turnovers and built leads of 13-0 and 21-14 before Arizona finally came back and won 24-21 in overtime. Kolb completed 29-of-48 passes for 324 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. It wasn’t a brilliant performance but few are when we speak of Kolb. The key is that he raised the level of his play, which is something he has failed to do on a consistent basis over the past two years. Too many times we’ve seen Kolb take jab after jab while cashing out long before the fight is over. This time, he hung in there and made one of the best throws of his career while finding Andre Roberts on a perfect sideline pass on a 4th-and-10 with less than a minute in regulation. Had his pass fell to the ground, we wouldn’t have been surprised. ‘It’s Kevin Kolb,’ we would have said while shrugging. But let’s give credit where credit is due: Kolb was a huge factory in Sunday’s victory. And if Ray Horton’s defense continues to play as well as it has, maybe a confident Kolb will allow the Cardinals to stay in the mix all season.

5. Less is more when it comes to Vick.
Michael Vick didn’t put on a passing clinic on Sunday night against the Giants. He didn’t have a series of highlight runs and he didn’t leap head first into the end zone while trying to score. He also didn’t turn the ball over and the Eagles picked up a huge 19-17 victory against a division rival. Vick is a better quarterback when he plays within himself, understands his limitations, and doesn’t try to win the game on his own. He didn’t routinely force throws into coverage or wildly run around when the pocket broke down. He simply took what the defense gave him and led his team on four second-half scoring drives despite only mustering seven points in the first half. Vick has a lot of schoolyard to his game and that shouldn’t change. But if the Eagles’ talented roster is ever going to reach its full potential, he has to understand that his reckless play is hurting his team, himself, and his coach. Hopefully last night was a step in the right direction for the veteran quarterback.

6. Opponents have figured out the Lions, who refuse to adjust under Schwartz.
Jim Schwartz deserved the contract extension he received before the season. But his inability to make adjustments throughout the week and on game days has to be maddening for Detroit fans. Last season the Lions played to their strength, which was their passing game. Opponents knew what was coming and they still couldn’t slow down Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. But this year teams are playing two safeties deep in order to keep Detroit’s vertical game in check, and the Lions have refused to adjust. Stafford threw for over 300 yards in Sunday’s loss against Minnesota, but he leads an offense that continues to be out of sync. It’s not Stafford’s fault that Johnson had a touchdown knocked out of his hands on one play and Brandon Pettigrew dropped a pass in the end zone the next, but for whatever reason Detroit’s offense has been disjointed all season. They also can’t run the football and the defense is still plagued by the same issues it had last year because GM Martin Mayhew didn’t have the cap space in order to fix the team’s problems. Furthermore, the Lions remain one of the most undisciplined teams in football and clearly there hasn’t been an emphasis on special teams during the week because this is now back-to-back weeks that Detroit has given up two touchdowns on kickoffs and punts. The defense actually played well on Sunday but their performance was overshadowed by the fact that the special teams units were once again atrocious. If Schwartz doesn’t start making wholesale changes then the Lions could be back to square one very soon here.

7. The Jets’ problems have grown.
It used to be that the Jets could mask Mark Sanchez’s issues with Rex Ryan’s defense and a strong running game. But they lost the ability to run the ball last year and now thanks to the season-ending injury to Darrelle Revis, this is a team ready to unravel. Sanchez doesn’t look like he’s learned anything in four years. He’s generated just one touchdown in his last 34 possessions and has completed a dreadful 43.6 percent of his passes the past three weeks. While Ryan gave him a vote of confidence following Sunday’s 34-0 loss to the 49ers, it won’t be long before Tim Tebow is inserted as the starter. Tebow, of course, isn’t a better option under center. But he at least has shown the ability to make things happen and he’s a stronger leader than the unconfident Sanchez. This isn’t a playoff caliber team without Revis, and if the Jets finally come to terms with the fact that Sanchez isn’t the answer, then Tebow needs to play. But either way, Ryan and the Jets have issues they can no longer mask.

8. The Fisher hire has already paid off for St. Louis.
Because they played in two Super Bowls within the last 15 years, people seem to forget how bad the Rams have been over the last decade. This is a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2003 and hasn’t gone to the playoffs since qualifying for the 2004 postseason with an 8-8 record. But the hiring of Jeff Fisher has brought stability to a franchise that has yearned for that very thing the past 10 years. Despite having the youngest roster in the NFL, a polarizing figure at quarterback, one of the worst offensive lines in the league and an ineffective Steven Jackson, the Rams are 2-2. They’re playing meaningful football again in the fourth quarter and arguably should have beaten the Lions in Week 1. Make no mistake: Fisher is putting his print on this team, which is no longer just the “Same old Rams.” They also have a true weapon in rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, who converted on attempts of 58, 48, 60, and 24 yards out in Sunday’s 19-13 win over the Seahawks. Just wait until Fisher and GM Les Snead start filling the roster with talent. The Rams are going to be a competitor very soon.

9. Peyton Manning and the Broncos: The ultimate wild card.
The Raiders’ pass coverage isn’t very good. Safety Tyvon Branch is a solid player but Michael Huff continues to be inconsistent and the rest of Oakland’s secondary hasn’t made anyone forget about Nnamdi Asomuagha. That said, it was nice to see some vintage Peyton Manning on Sunday. He torched the Raiders for 338 yards and three touchdowns while misfiring on just eight of his 38 pass attempts. Granted, he was aided by a running game that produced 165 yards and he rarely challenged downfield. His receivers did a nice job racking up yards after the catch too, but as a football fan it was nice to see Manning be effective. Denver remains a true mystery. Thanks to their defense and rushing attack, the Broncos will continue to battle the Chargers for first place in the AFC West. But Manning is the wild card. If he can do what he did on Sunday and in Week 1 versus the Steelers, the Broncos are a threat in the AFC. But we’ve seen the past two weeks how Manning can derail things as well. It’s going to be an interesting ride all season.

10. The rest of the Redskins deserved one made field goal.
There’s little doubt that an 0-for-4 day would have cost kicker Billy Cundiff his job. Thankfully he didn’t send himself on an extended vacation by converting a 41-yard field goal to give the Redskins a 24-22 win over the Bucs on Sunday.. On a day when Cam Newton couldn’t hold onto the ball on a crucial third-and-one in Atlanta, Robert Griffin III was 4-for-5 for 46 yards and added a 15-yard scramble on Washington’s final drive. He moved his team into field goal range and had Cundiff missed wide right, it wouldn’t have been RGIII’s fault that the Skins lost. But he and his teammates deserved that win. Alfred Morris deserved that win. Despite being beaten by Josh Freeman on a couple of nice second-half throws, Washington’s defense deserved that win. Cundiff saved his job for the moment, but more importantly he allowed his teammates to celebrate something that was deservedly theirs.

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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2012 NFL Season & Super Bowl Predictions

Will the Patriots roll through an easy schedule on their way to yet another Super Bowl appearance?

Does Peyton Manning’s presence make the Broncos the team to beat in the AFC West or will another team unseat Denver in the division?

Can the Eagles unseat the Giants in a tough NFC East? Will the Falcons take advantage of the Saints’ tumultuous offseason and finally get over the playoff hump?

The start of the 2012 NFL regular season is just days away, which means it’s time to hand out our predictions for the new year. Below you’ll find division-by-division picks, as well as playoff and of course Super Bowl projections as well.

Dear God, football is back.

AFC EAST
1. New England Patriots
2. Buffalo Bills
3. New York Jets
4. Miami Dolphins

The Patriots won’t suffer a letdown after reaching the Super Bowl back in February. Their offense remains steady thanks to Tom Brady and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and their defense keeps improving under Bill Belichick’s guidance. The addition of Defensive ROY candidate Chandler Jones will help the Pats pressure the quarterback, which was one of their weaknesses the last year. Considering they have the easiest schedule of all 32 NFL teams based on the opponents’ records in 2011, the Patriots shouldn’t have any issues winning the AFC East again this season…The Bills upgraded their defense with the additions of free agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, as well as the selection of first-rounder Stephon Gilmore. They also have a solid offensive core in Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson, plus an improving offensive line. But Buffalo will only go as far as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick takes them and unfortunately for the Bills, he’s often exposed by top defenses. While some are predicting Buffalo to reach the postseason, come the end of the year I have the Bills on the outside looking in…The offseason “battle” between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow has taken the onus off the real problem in New York: The offensive line. The two years the Jets made the playoffs with Sanchez under center their defense and running game were outstanding. The defense is still one of the league’s best but they’re going to have to pitch shutouts because as the preseason showed us, the Jets are going to have a difficult time finding the end zone behind their O-line. “Gang Green” will be fortunate to finish .500 this season…The Dolphins have a new head coach, new coordinators, and a new quarterback but they’ll struggle to win games in 2011. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton have proven that rookie quarterbacks can have a great deal of success their fist years in the league, but Ryan Tannehill isn’t surrounded by great talent. This isn’t the worst team in the league but the Fins will likely top out at six wins again.

AFC NORTH
1. Baltimore Ravens
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Cincinnati Bengals
4. Cleveland Browns

The offensive lines in Baltimore and Pittsburgh are both question marks entering the season but I see the Ravens’ O-line gelling throughout the season. I can’t say the same about the Steelers’ front five, which lost rookie guard David DeCastro in preseason. Joe Flacco and Cam Cameron butted heads last year because Flacco often felt that the offense was too tepid. But Flacco has been energized by Cameron’s decision to incorporate more no-huddle elements into the offense. And with the re-signing of Ray Rice and the development of budding star Torrey Smith, the Ravens’ offense is finally ready to carry this team. Granted, the defense is getting long in the tooth and the loss of Terrell Suggs is significant. But the secondary is solid and the Baltimore defense always finds a way to be productive…The Steelers will once again challenge the Ravens for first place in the division. That’s just what they do. But Ben Roethlisberger can’t keep running for his life behind a shaky offensive line. Pittsburgh thought it had upgraded the unit over the offseason but as previously mentioned, DeCastro will miss significant time due to a knee injury and second-round pick Mike Adams proved in preseason that he wasn’t ready to take over the starting right tackle spot. Pittsburgh’s defense is also aging and if younger players like Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward and Keenan Lewis don’t step up, we could see Dick LeBeau’s squad start to unravel. The Steelers are still a playoff contender but for how much longer?…The Bengals were no fluke in 2011. Andy Dalton may take a step back in his second year like most quarterbacks do, but it would be a mistake to question whether or not he can win in this league. That said, Cincinnati doesn’t have much behind star A.J. Green in its receiving corps and the depth along the defensive line and in the secondary is also thin. This team was 0-4 against the likes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore last season and if they can’t win games in the division I don’t see them making a repeat trip to the postseason…The Browns are once again starting over with rookies Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, who will struggle after facing soft defenses in the Big 12. While Greg Little and Josh Gordon certainly have potential, Weeden also doesn’t have a true No. 1 receiving target and outside of Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, questions remain along the offensive line. Defensively, injuries continue to take their toll along the front four and while Joe Haden is a stud in the making, the secondary is littered with holes as well. In a tough division, Cleveland will have a hard time competing.

AFC SOUTH
1. Houston Texans
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Indianapolis Colts

The Texans are the class of the division and they might have the most talent of any team in the AFC, which includes the Patriots. The loss of Mario Williams won’t hurt as much as some think because he simply wasn’t a fit for Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense. Thanks to Arian Foster, Ben Tate and a very good run-blocking offensive line, the Texans will control the clock and win tight games because of their stingy defense. The biggest question is whether or not Matt Schaub can put this team on his shoulders for 16-plus games and, if guys like Andre Johnson can stay healthy…The Titans are my Cincinnati Bengals of 2012. A darkhorse if you will. Jake Locker must become a more accurate and consistent passer but he’s going to produce plenty of big plays thanks to his arm strength and OC Chris Palmer’s decision to install Run ‘N Shoot elements into his offense. Locker also has a couple of nice weapons in Kenny Britt (if he can stay healthy and out of trouble), Kendall Wright and Chris Johnson, who should have a bounce back year. Granted, the offensive line wasn’t very good from a run-blocking standpoint last year and the defense doesn’t do one thing particularly well but I like the Titans to surprise and qualify for one of the Wild Card spots…The Jaguars received huge sigh of relief when Maurice Jones-Drew finally reported to team head quarters. But holdout running backs have a tendency to struggle (look at Chris Johnson last year) when they miss all of training camp and preseason, and Blaine Gabbert will still suffer through plenty of ups and downs. That said, this team will be more competitive than it was a year ago. Gabbert has made marked improvements as a passer and the addition of Justin Blackmon gives this team a much needed playmaker at receiver…The Colts will be better than they were a year ago because of rookie QB Andrew Luck, who looks like the real deal. But there’s not much around him. It’ll be a year or two before Chuck Pagano can get the right pieces in place to run his 3-4 defense and the Colts simply don’t have enough weapons on offense to be competitive.

AFC WEST
1. Denver Broncos
2. San Diego Chargers
3. Kansas City Chiefs
4. Oakland Raiders

The Broncos have a brutal first-half schedule but if Tim Tebow can win a playoff game in Denver than logic dictates that Peyton Manning can do the same. As long as Manning stays healthy and the defense doesn’t take a step back, the Broncos should win this division…That said, the Chargers might have the best starters of the four teams in the West, and if they can finally start out of the gates hot they could very well win the division. Robert Meachem isn’t Vincent Jackson but he deserves a chance to prove that he can be a No. 1 guy and when healthy, Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews give Philip Rivers a couple of nice weapons. That said, the left tackle position is a concern and the defense underachieved last year. The top spot is up for grabs in this division but in the end I see the Broncos losing one less game than the Bolts…The Chiefs might have the most overall talent and the deepest depth of any team in the division. The problem is that Matt Cassel is their quarterback and while some are predicting that Kansas City will win the West, I just can’t put my faith behind Cassel. That said, thanks to Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, Jon Baldwin and Romeo Crennel’s defense, the Chiefs will keep things interesting…The Raiders narrowly missed the playoffs a year ago but they’re going to pay for past mistakes, specifically Hue Jackson’s decision to trade a first round pick for Carson Palmer last season. Palmer looked shaky in preseason and the offense won’t be as explosive under Gregg Knapp as it was last year under Jackson. If Darren McFadden can stay healthy Oakland will be competitive and the defense does look like it’s improved. But there’s no question that Palmer is on the down slope of his career and it’s not unrealistic to suggest he’s finished as a productive quarterback.

NFC EAST
1. New York Giants
2. Philadelphia Eagles
3. Dallas Cowboys
4. Washington Redskins

Once again this is the most difficult division to predict in the NFL. The Eagles arguably have the most talent in the division but I don’t trust that Michael Vick will stay healthy and even though the defense was very good in the second half last year, Juan Castillo has a tendency to be exposed against good playcallers…The Cowboys seemingly fixed their problems in the secondary and thanks to a number of weapons on offense, they’ll rack up plenty of yardage again this season. But can the skill players stay healthy? Will this offense once again struggle to score points despite moving the ball at will? Is the secondary really fixed or will it remain a problem? Somehow, someway the Cowboys usually find a way to get in their own way…Which brings us to the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. I don’t know how Eli Manning survived behind that offensive line last year and if the pass rusher falters at all, the back seven isn’t good enough to keep the defense afloat. But my general rule when it comes to the Giants is that if nobody is paying attention to them, bet the house that they’ll win. They thrive in the underdog role and they’ve played second-fiddle to the Eagles, Cowboys and even in-state rival the Jets all offseason. Thus, despite Dallas and Philadelphia having better talent, I like New York to once again qualify for the postseason…The Redskins are going to be fun to watch this year thanks to Robert Griffin III. They’ll also be able to run the ball because of Mike Shanahan and they have more weapons on offense than they did a year ago thanks to the additions of RGIII and Pierre Garcon. But the secondary is an issue and questions remain about whether or not this team can keep Griffin upright. The Skins also play in an ultra-competitive division so while they’ll be competitive, they’ll likely fall well short of the playoffs.

NFC NORTH
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Chicago Bears
3. Detroit Lions
4. Minnesota Vikings

The Packers have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL thanks to Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, and the addition of Cedric Benson will pay dividends as well. There’s no way the defense will rank 32nd again so the Pack are poised to make another postseason run…There are two massive question marks surrounding the Bears. One is the offensive line, which continues to be inconsistent and the second is the defense, which is aging quickly. Will Father Time catch up with Chicago’s defense this season or will it hold off another year? That said, if Jay Cutler and Matt Forte don’t get hurt last year then the Bears make the playoffs as the fifth seed in the NFC. Plus, keep in mind that Chicago is just two years removed from winning the division and the additions of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery finally give opposing defensive backs something to be concerned with on Sundays. I like the Bears to win one of the two Wild Card spots…I think the Lions will regress this season. The passing game will be dangerous but can Matthew Stafford once again stay healthy for a full 16 games? Can this team win behind a shaky offensive line and no running game? On the other side the ball the defense doesn’t play with discipline, Louis Delmas’ health remains a concern and rookie Bill Bentley will line up opposite Chris Houston at cornerback. The Lions’ defense was brutal down the stretch last season and while Calvin Johnson will once again be fun to watch, a .500 season seems more realistic than a repeat playoff appearance…The Vikings will continue to grow behind Christian Ponder but Adrian Peterson’s health is obviously a concern, they don’t have a weapon opposite Percy Harvin in the passing game and the defensive secondary isn’t very reliable. In a stacked division Minnesota will once again have a difficult time competing.

NFC SOUTH
1. New Orleans Saints
2. Atlanta Falcons
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Saints had a tumultuous offseason, losing head coach Sean Payton and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma to the bounty scandal suspensions, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who was also suspended) to the Rams, and Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem to free agency. But Drew Brees had a huge hand in Payton’s offensive game plans the past four years so he’ll keep New Orleans afloat. Plus, the loss of Vilma was negated with the addition of Curtis Lofton, who is a much better run-stopper than Vilma, Meachem is merely a No. 3 receiver and the team did well to replace Nicks with Ben Grubbs. New DC Steve Spagnuolo (who is an upgrade over Williams) will have to get creative when it comes to his pass rush but this team will be fine…There’s a ton of optimism surrounding the Falcons this season because of the decisions they made this offseason. Mike Mularkey was a solid offensive coordinator but Matt Ryan had outgrown his conservative, run-first approach. In steps in new OC Dirk Koetter, who has installed an up-tempo offense that suits Ryan. Julio Jones looks like he’s ready for a monstrous second year and he should only make Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas better around him. Defensively the Falcons hired Mike Nolan to replace Brian Van Gorder, who wasn’t a bad coordinator but his philosophy under head coach Mike Smith was to stop the run and play bend-but-don’t-break schemes in the back seven. That won’t work against the likes of the Saints, Packers and Giants, so Nolan has installed a scheme that will focus on stopping the pass. The Falcons also traded for Asante Samuel, who will join forces with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson to form an exciting cornerback trio. If young players like Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore have breakout years, the Atlanta defense will be much improved…Cam Newton will keep the Panthers in most games. He has loads of playmaking ability and plenty of weapons around him in Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Greg Olson. But the defense only has one true pass rusher (Charles Johnson), the linebacker corps is always suffering from injuries and the safety position is a major question mark. Simply put, the defense will keep Carolina from earning playoff berth but watch the Panthers stay in contention all season…Thanks to new coach Greg Schiano the Bucs will be tougher and more focused in 2012. The front office also did well to bring in Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson in free agency, which will certainly appease QB Josh Freeman (who is poised to have a bounce back year). Rookie first-rounder Mark Barron might also wind up being the steal of the 2012 draft in that he’s NFL ready having played for Nick Saban at Alabama. Fellow rookie Doug Martin looks like he’s ready to explode in his first year as well. That said, the front seven remains a huge question mark on defense and this team doesn’t have the ability to blow teams out. Under Schiano the Bucs will attempt to win the time of possession battle by keeping the ball on the ground and trying to win games in the fourth quarter. This is an up-and-coming team but it’ll be a year before Tampa is challenging for a playoff spot again.

NFC WEST
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. St. Louis Rams
4. Arizona Cardinals

There aren’t a lot of believers in Alex Smith but the fact is he managed games well last season and stayed out of the way as the 49ers’ defense and running game produced wins. Thanks to the additions of Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and rookie A.J. Jenkins, Smith has plenty of weapons around him to succeed. (Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree obviously remain the highlights of the offense.) Thanks to the best defense in the league and weak competition in the division, the Niners will challenge for the top seed in the NFC again this season…Some believe the Seahawks will struggle under rookie Russell Wilson but if the kid were four inches taller he would have been a top 10 selection. He’s smart and he has the skill set to succeed – it’s just too bad that outside of an unreliable Sidney Rice, he has nobody to throw the ball to. The defense is underrated so if Wilson can move the ball, look for the Hawks to hang around before eventually fading down the stretch…Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff are worth two or three wins alone in St. Louis. The Rams will be better than they were a year ago but plenty of questions remain. The offensive line isn’t very good, the middle of the defense will be exposed on a weekly basis because of poor safety play and the book is still out on Sam Bradford. He has yet to raise the level of his play when under pressure and his O-line won’t do him any favors this year. This is also the youngest team in the league and depth is a massive problem…The Cardinals have the least effective starting quarterback in the NFL thanks to John Skelton, who will play behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. Ray Horton’s defense is going to surprise people this year but it’s also going to be on the field a lot because of the struggles of the offense. Maybe Skelton has more magic up his sleeve and hey, he does have Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams at his disposal. But chances are it’s going to be a long year in ‘Zona.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

AFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Patriots
2. Texans
3. Ravens
4. Broncos
5. Steelers
6. Titans

NFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Packers
2. 49ers
3. Saints
4. Giants
5. Bears
6. Falcons

WILD CARD PREDICTIONS
Ravens over Titans
Steelers over Broncos
Falcons over Giants
Saints over Bears

DIVISIONAL PREDICTIONS
Patriots over Steelers
Ravens over Texans
Packers over Falcons
49ers over Saints

CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTIONS
Ravens over Patriots
Packers over 49ers

SUPER BOWL PREDICTION
Packers over Ravens

Curtis Martin, The Factory of Sadness, replacement refs and more NFL Quick-Hits

Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter provides his quick-hits from the week that was in the NFL.

+ Curtis Martin’s induction speech at the Hall of Fame this weekend was fascinating. He admitted to not wanting to play football after former Patriots head coach Bill Parcells called him on draft day back in 1995 and also lamented on how he didn’t have a strong passion for football, specifically running the ball. How naturally gifted do you have to be to rank fourth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list despite not being passionate about the game? That’s incredible. I’ve always felt that Martin never really got his due. He wasn’t the biggest or the fastest back but when only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders are listed ahead of you on the all-time rushing list, you could play the game. And Curtis Martin could play the game, regardless of how passionate he was about the sport.

+ Roger Goodell made a great point recently about the situation with the replacement referees. Said Goodell, “You know, we had this experience in 2002, and the big impact we had in 2002 when we had the replacement officials was, you didn’t get a lot of the holding calls and some of the other calls.” First of all, who remembers that the NFL used replacement officials in 2002? It completely slipped my mind, which goes to show you that this situation isn’t as big a deal as some have made it. Yes, whether or not these replacement refs will be able to keep the peace is a major concern. Whether or not they’ll be abreast of all the rules is a key factor as well. But blown calls are going to happen whether there’s replacement refs or not. They’re part of the game. But as Goodell pointed out, the game might actually be more fast-paced because there will be fewer holding and pass interference calls, which are the two penalties that affect the game the most. Nobody wants to see a bunch of missed calls and rule-breaking but how many times have fans said, ‘Let the guys play!’ following a costly penalty? Well, those fans may get their wish thanks to these replacement officials.

+ The Cleveland Browns remain a fascinating story, although mostly for wrong reasons. Randy Lerner sold the team to Tennessee businessman Jimmy Haslam for more than $1 billion this week and as someone put it so perfectly on Twitter, who knew that the entire city of Cleveland was worth $1 billion, let alone the Browns? Now Haslman has to decide whether to make tweaks to the front office or completely gut the thing and start over. Granted, Mike Holmgren has had a rocky two-plus seasons as team president but it’s not as if he took over a playoff contender or even a franchise that was trending upwards. It’s as if the Browns have been stuck in purgatory for the better part of a decade and while some men enter, no man gets out alive. The thought of the Browns starting over yet again must frustrate fans. It would be nice to see Holmgren have at least another year or two to finish what he started but it would appear as though he won’t receive that opportunity. Then again, when you spend $1 billion on a football team you can do whatever you want with it. Browns fans can only hope that Haslam has a clear vision for what he wants the team to accomplish in the next three to five years because if not, this franchise will continue to flirt with the very definition of insanity.

+ Speaking of The Factory of Sadness, the loss of Chris Gocong is huge. The weakside linebacker has been diagnosed with a ruptured right Achilles’ tendon and is done for the season. He was a 16-game starter each of the past two years for the Browns, whose front seven continues to take hit after hit this offseason. Hopefully Ahtyba Rubin won’t suffer any setbacks after having surgery to repair a slight pelvic tear in June, because if not Cleveland’s run defense will be even worse this year than it was a season ago.

+ Robert Gallery announced his retirement on Saturday. His eight-year NFL career ended with zero All-Pro nominations and zero Pro Bowls. He played for two different organizations including six seasons with the Oakland Raiders, who drafted him with the second overall pick in 2004. Some would say Gallery shouldn’t be considered among the top 20 or 25busts of all time but how could he not? When the Raiders eventually kicked him inside to guard he had a serviceable career. But he was drafted to be a left tackle, one of the most vital positions in football. It wasn’t like Oakland took him in the middle rounds, moved him to guard after he struggled on the outside and were happy they at least got six serviceable years out of him. No, they thought he was going to anchor their O-line for years to come. There have been many draft busts throughout the years and you wouldn’t have to strain very hard to find 25 players that were bigger flubs than Gallery. But he at least deserves mention considering that back in 2004 he was viewed as a future Pro Bowler and a can’t-miss prospect (not that those exist).

+ I had an opportunity to attend the Rams’ “scrimmage” on Saturday. I put quotation marks around the word “scrimmage” because it was more of a practice. While walking out of the Edward Jones Dome the first thing that struck me was how under whelmed I was while watching the workout. Thanks to Jeff Fisher, there’s a lot of optimism building in St. Louis right now and there’s no doubt this is a much improved Rams team. That said, the first-team offensive line looked inconsistent, as did Sam Bradford, rookie running back Isaiah Pead and most of the receivers. Danny Amendola dropped at least three passes during the workout, and he’s normally as sure-handed as they come. But after thinking about it some more, what did I really expect? The Rams have only been practicing for about a week and Saturday was just the third padded practice that the team partook in. Half the roster is new, the head coach is new, the offensive coordinator is new, and the position coaches are all new. That was not going to be a well-oiled machine at the Dome, and it wasn’t. It’s going to take some time but Fisher will put his stamp on things because he’s a good coach and he’s surrounded himself with a great staff. The key is that the Rams are building some excitement around the team and eventually, the roster will be good enough to compete.

+ Mike Wallace’s holdout situation has been the focal point in Pittsburgh this offseason but one of the more captivating storylines is Todd Haley. The former Chiefs head coach takes over for Bruce Arians at offensive coordinator and the early reports have all been positive. Haley is going to allow the Pittsburgh receivers to improvise and react to what the defense is doing, which plays extremely well into Ben Roethlisberger’s freelancing ways. But Haley isn’t exactly a mild-mannered coach. He’s intense and it’s going to be interesting to see how the dynamics play out between him and Big Ben, who has never been afraid to speak his mind when it comes to the way his offense is being ran. The marriage could work as long as the Steelers’ offense doesn’t suffer any hiccups and hey, for the first time in a long time the offensive line is trending up. But the situation could also be a train wreck if the combustible Haley doesn’t mesh with Roethlisberger.

+ There are many signs that point to Chris Johnson having a bounce back year in Tennessee, none bigger than him reporting to camp on time and in shape after he skipped offseason workouts last year due to a contract holdout. But there’s another reason that Johnson should rebound and his name is Steve Hutchinson. Tennessee’s offensive line struggled with run-blocking last year, particularly from the interior. Hutchinson is getting long in the tooth but he’s an upgrade over what the Titans had last year and he reportedly has already made a positive impact on his teammates. Johnson should enjoy running behind the future Hall of Famer this season.

+ Yesterday was a great day for former Saints and Chiefs offensive tackle Willie Roaf, so I hate to focus on the negative. But how in the name of Zeus did it take Roaf two tries to be elected into the Hall of Fame? He was an 11-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro Selection and one of the most dominant tackles to ever don a NFL uniform. He swallowed defensive linemen whole with his massive frame and perfect technique. It’s a sin that he wasn’t a first-ballot selection but it’s great to see Roaf get his due.

+ Chris Doleman was Michael Strahan before there was Michael Strahan. Not a ton of flash to his game ; he just got the quarterback and he did so on a consistent basis. And you know what, defensive ends will always be graded and measured by sacks but Doleman was truly an all-around player. Whether lined up as an outside linebacker or with his hand in the dirt, the guy played the run as well as he did the pass.

+ As the Saints get ready to take on the Cardinals in Sunday night’s Hall of Fame game, the focus will once again be back on the bounty scandal. But keeping it on the field, it’s going to be extremely interesting to see what kind of impact Steve Spagnuolo can make in his first year as defensive coordinator for the Saints. Spags wasn’t a very good head coach but the one thing the Rams did well during his time in St. Louis was rush the passer. Giants fans are also well aware that Spags brought the heat but does he have enough weapons in New Orleans? Will Smith is suspended for four games and unless Sedrick Ellis or Cam Jordan play over their heads New Orleans could have issues generating pressure. And considering the Falcons are installing more of a vertical offense, the Bucs’ offense will be more physical under new head coach Greg Schiano, and the Panthers bring an explosive dynamic to the field thanks to Cam Newton, the Saints’ defense could really struggle this season despite Spagnuolo’s previous success.

NFL Sunday Morning Quick Hits: Drew Brees, Gregg Williams & More

Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league.

+ The window to win a Super Bowl is smaller than fans realize. There are teams like the Patriots, Steelers and Peyton Manning-led Colts whose window seems to remain open at all times. But they’re the exception. Thus, the Saints had no choice but to pay Drew Brees what he’s worth. Their championship window remains open because of him so $40 million guaranteed, $60 million guaranteed, $100 million guaranteed – whatever, they had to do it.

+ One head scratchier to come out of this Brees deal is why it took this long to get done. The five-year, $100 million figure that Brees signed for is roughly the same numbers that had been tossed around months ago. So with all the negative press that has surrounded the Saints over these past couple of months, why did Tom Benson and Co. allow this situation to drag on for as long as it did? It’s a moot point now but why the Saints and Brees couldn’t come to an agreement months ago is a tad perplexing. I can’t imagine that the language in this contract was any trickier than any other long-term contract that the Saints have drawn up.

+ That loud noise you heard on Friday morning wasn’t the Brees’ Family celebrating but rather Aaron Rodgers doing back flips while screaming, “Cha-Ching!” Rodgers signed a six-year, $65 million contract back in 2008, which included $20 million guaranteed. Brees received $60 million in guaranteed money so at some point, Ted Thompson and the Packers will need to restructure Rodgers’ deal because the man is now severely underpaid.

+ Need more proof that the NFL had to put a rookie salary structure in place? Brees has completed 3,613 of his 5,479 pass attempts for 40,742 yards and just received $60 million guaranteed as a 33-year-old quarterback. Sam Bradford, before attempting even one pass in the NFL, received $50 million guaranteed after the Rams selected him with the first overall pick in 2010. It was stupid how much money rookies received under the old salary structure.

+ While at his annual golf benefit fundraiser on Friday, Gregg Williams told reporters that he “will coach again” in the NFL. Don’t rule out the possibility that Williams will be coordinating Jeff Fisher’s defense in St. Louis next year. The Rams are going with a defensive coordinator-by-committee approach this season and have yet to fill Williams’ vacant offense at team headquarters. Fisher is severely loyal and if Williams gets the okay from Roger Goodell to begin coaching again, odds have it that he’ll be on the sidelines for St. Louis in 2013.

+ If you’re the Browns, Josh Gordon was worth the risk. Some analysts believe he has first-round talent so why not invest a second-round pick and see if he can’t pair nicely with Greg Little. Outside of Braylon Edwards’ fluke 2007 season, the Browns have lacked a presence at receiver for seemingly forever. If Gordon can make the most of a second chance then Mike Holmgren will be lauded for his risk-taking.

+ Mike Williams will have a hard time latching on to a team after the Seahawks released him on Friday. And even if some team does take a flier on him, it’ll be difficult for him to stick. His 2010 comeback made for a compelling story but he fell off the map last year while catching just 18 passes for 236 yards in 12 games. If Pete Carroll, the man who gave Williams a shot a couple of years ago when the receiver’s career looked to be finished, doesn’t believe he can contribute than who will?

+ Thanks to the trade acquisition of Brandon Marshall and the jettison of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, many people expect the Bears to challenge for a playoff spot in 2012. And hey, why not? They won the division in 2010 and had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not been injured in 2011, the Bears were a shoe-in for one of the two Wild Card spots last year. That said, Mike Tice has his work cut out for himself when it comes to his offensive line. First and foremost he has to pick between an under-performing J’Marcus Webb and an oft-injured Chris Williams at left tackle, and then hope that 2011 first-rounder Gabe Carimi (who missed 14 games last season) can stay healthy in order to anchor the right side. In the middle, Chris Spencer and Lance Louis were disasters at the guard positions last season and Roberto Garza failed to generate much of a push in the running game. So essentially the hope is that either Webb or Williams emerge as a capable left tackle, Carimi stays healthy and that the interior linemen can’t be any worse than they were a year ago. That’s a lot of hoping.

Sunday Morning NFL Quick-Hits

Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.

- LaDainian Tomlinson hasn’t rushed for over 1,000 since 2008 but it’s hard to argue that he isn’t the best running back of the last decade. He’ll retire with 13,684 rushing yards and 145 touchdowns on 3,174 carries throughout his Hall of Fame career. He also set a single-season record with 28 touchdowns in 2006 and ranks fifth all-time in yards from scrimmage with 18,456. On top of his outstanding career, LT was a class act, too. I had an opportunity to meet him during an event in New York City and there was nothing fake about him. He was a competitor right through his final carry.

- When Maurice Jones-Drew and the Jaguars agreed on a five-year, $30.95 million deal back in April of 2009, both sides assumed that he would live up to his contract. It’s not surprising that he went out and rushed for over 1,300 yards in his next three years, including his league-leading 1,606-yard performance in 2011. But what is surprising is that MJD now wants more money. It’s not like the Jaguars stiffed him on his ’09 contract. Both sides agreed that it was a fair deal and now that MJD has lived up to the contract he wants more? Yes, teams can cut players at any point and players need to make as much as they can, when they can. But this was a bad move by MJD and his agent, who are highly unlikely to sway the Jags into paying them more.

- It’s only June but John Harbaugh has to be concerned about his offensive line. Jah Reid, who spent most of this week’s mini camp at right tackle because the Ravens told Bryant McKinnie to focus on his conditioning instead of practicing, was carted off the field on Thursday with a leg injury. Center Matt Birk also missed camp after undergoing surgery to repair a varicose vein in his leg and former Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs is now in New Orleans after signing a free agent deal with the Saints. Michael Oher and Marshal Yanda are entrenched at their spots but the rest of Baltimore’s O-line is a major question mark right now.

- The Falcons will wind up regretting not bringing in outside options at left tackle. The hope is that new offensive line coach Pat Hill can restore Sam Baker back to his early days, but what does that entail? Baker was a second-round prospect back in 2008 but the Falcons drafted him in the first because GM Thomas Dimitroff panicked when he saw all of the tackles flying off the board. (And he needed a left tackle to protect his prized position in the ’08 draft, quarterback Matt Ryan.) Since then, Baker has been average at best and a complete disaster at worst. He’s in a contract year so maybe he’ll play well, but “well” for him at this level hasn’t been nearly good enough. The Falcons should have at least kicked the tires on Demetress Bell, King Dunlap or Anthony Collins this offseason.

+ Assuming the Cardinals defense makes significant improvements from last season (and it should), Ray Horton will become one of the hotter names in head coaching circles next offseason. His defensive influences come from Dick LeBeau’s scheme in Pittsburgh, so the system works if every player understands his role. As I wrote last week, there was a ton of confusion among Arizona defenders last year in Horton’s first season as coordinator. But now that everyone has a better grasp of the system, Horton will likely become a sought after commodity next year.

- Speaking of the Cardinals, Arizona Republic’s Kent Somers writes that he “couldn’t make a clear call on” the competition between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton. That’s not good for the Cardinals, who don’t want to have competition at quarterback. They acquired Kolb and paid him all of that money so that he could solve their issues at the position. Instead, he’s only added to the problems.

- If I were the GM of a team that needed an upgrade at backup quarterback, I wouldn’t hesitate to send Cleveland a sixth or seventh rounder for Colt McCoy. The Browns did what they had to do in drafting Brandon Weeden. McCoy doesn’t have the arm strength to win in Pittsburgh or Baltimore in late December with the playoffs on the line. But he isn’t without ability. He’s mobile, accurate (or at least he was accurate at Texas), and he can run a NFL offense. Looking around the league, many teams could do worse than add McCoy as a backup, especially for the low cost of a late round pick.

- The Panthers are another defense that should improve upon last year’s effort (although how could it not, after last year’s Carolina team gave up the most total yards, passing yards, points and touchdowns than any squad in its 17-year history). Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was at such a disadvantage last offseason because of the lockout but players are starting to get a better feel for his scheme in Year 2. Getting Jon Beason (Achilles’ surgery) back certainly helps and Luke Kuechly was viewed as one of the safest picks in his year’s draft. Granted, outside of Chris Gamble (who was solid in coverage last season) the secondary is a major question mark but there’s little doubt that Carolina’s outlook is bright for 2012.

- I truly believe Jeff Fisher will not be a bust hire for the Rams, but he’s got issues at outside linebacker. They missed an opportunity to land Mychal Kendricks, Zach Brown or Lavonte David in the second round of this year’s draft and while they gave the impression that they were fine with Lo-Jonn Dunbar starting, they just signed free agent Rocky McIntosh on Thursday. A combination of Dunbar, McIntosh and Mario Haggan doesn’t scream reliability and chances are outside linebacker will be atop their needs list next offseason.

- The Titans avoided a major scare earlier this week when Kendall Wright’s X-rays showed no structural damage to his shoulder. Because of Chris Johnson’s struggles and Kenny Britt’s knee injury, this is a team that lacked playmakers last season. After investing a first-round pick in him this April, the Titans can ill-afford to lose Wright.

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