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Ten Observations from Week 16 in the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Report: Steelers won’t bring back Hines Ward in 2012

Pittsburgh Steelers Hines Ward reaches the 12.000 yards receiving milestone during the 35-7 Steeler win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 4, 2011. Pittsburgh Steelers Hines Ward is the first Pittsburgh Steeler to reach that mark and the 19th overall in NFL history. UPI/Archie Carpenter

Jason La Canfora of the NFL Network is reporting that the Steelers will not bring back receiver Hines Ward for the 2012 season.

“He has one year left on his deal worth $4 million,” said La Canfora. “According to my sources, he won’t be back there. So that’s $4 million off the books.”

Kind of cold there, huh, Jason? The man has given a lot to that franchise so I’m sure true Pittsburgh fans aren’t looking at him as just “$4 million off the books.”

Ward, 35, has won two Super Bowls as a member of the Steelers and three Pittsburgh MVP awards (2002, 2003, 2005). He’s also appeared in four Pro Bowls (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004) and was the Super Bowl XL MVP.

The former Georgia Bulldog has totaled exactly 1,000 receptions for 12,083 yards and 85 touchdowns over his dazzling career after being selected in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft. He’s only played for one team since ’98.

Assuming he doesn’t retire, Ward may get looks as a No. 3 on a receiver-needy team. But considering he doesn’t play special teams, he isn’t likely to return to Pittsburgh – even on a restructured deal. It would be weird to see Ward in anything but black and yellow but stranger things have happened.

After all, Jerry Rice was once a Seattle Seahawk.

Rice, Smith head 2010 Hall of Fame Class

Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Ricky Jackson, Russ Grimm and John Randle were announced as the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2010 on Saturday.

From ESPN.com:

“I am just honored … to stand up there with greatness,” Rice added.

Smith teared up when speaking about his father and how “I was living his dream.”

“We are blessed to achieve this level of greatness together,” Smith said, referring to Rice.
Rice and Smith each won three Super Bowls and was the MVP in one of those victories. Smith was the 1993 league MVP, as well.

Rice, the NFL’s career receiving and touchdowns leader, and Smith, the top rusher, were joined in the Hall by John Randle, Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Floyd Little and Dick LeBeau. Little and LeBeau were elected as senior committee nominees.
Smith, among the most durable running backs, rushed for 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns for Dallas and Arizona.

In an era of me-first players and diva receivers, it’s nice to take a step back and honor Rice. He was one of those players that knew what it took to be great and strived to get there every season. His workout habits are well renowned and I don’t know if there will ever be another receiver like him.

It’s nice to see a player like Jackson get in too. The Saints were one of the saddest franchises in the NFL for a long time yet he played on some top 10 defenses that helped turn things around in the early 90s. The “Dome Patrol” was arguably the best linebacker corps in NFL history.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

Jerry Rice: ‘Signing Favre could backfire on Vikings.’

In a recent interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, future Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice questioned the Vikings’ potential signing of Brett Favre, suggesting that the move could backfire on the team by season’s end.

What are your thoughts on Favre’s likely return?

Rice: “You have two quarterbacks [Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels] who don’t know exactly what is going to happen. All of a sudden these two guys thought they were going to be competing. To be honest with you, I thought Tarvaris would be the starting guy this year. I’ve watched him off and on. The most important thing for him is the consistency. He shows that at times ‘OK, I can do this.’ I think he was moving in the right direction, making progress. Now you have this saga, and everybody is sitting back wondering what is going to happen.”

What do you think the expectations should be with Favre? He’s going to be 40 and is coming off arm surgery.

Rice: “In New York, you hear about what happened, and it was not very good. I think Brett showed some great flashes last year. Did some good things. But then towards the end he didn’t play as well. If they feel like bringing him in is going to get them to the next level, I think they should. But to be honest with you, I think the two guys with the team right now should be the two guys that they should be focusing on.”

What happens if he does struggle or is not healthy with a team that is built to win now?

Rice: ”Then everything backfires. You’ve got a major problem. Also you have to look at the scenario that happened in New York. If he pretty much distances himself completely from the players, then all of a sudden you’re going to divide the players because a lot of the players are going to say, ‘Hey, Tarvaris Jackson should be in here or Sage.’ You don’t want this to divide the team. So this could really backfire.”

I couldn’t agree more with what Rice said on everything. If the Vikings sign Favre, he’s going to start, which probably means Tarvaris Jackson is all but done in Minnesota and the trade acquisition of Sage Rosenfels was somewhat of a waste (although he would be a serviceable backup if/when Favre got hurt).

If Favre plays great and gets the Vikings to the playoffs, then everyone will applaud the move. But what’s the more likely scenario, Favre leading Minnesota on a magical season, or Favre tiring out again and taking the Vikes down with him? As with the Jets, he might play at a high level again over the first part of the season, but there’s a very real possibility that his 40-year old arm will unravel again and the entire team will crash and burn in the second half. And as Rice suggested, then Brad Childress and company will have a team that will largely question why Favre was signed in the first place.

Super Bowl standings: top 10 teams

The Super Bowl has been played since the 1966 season, so while NFL championships before that are not irrelevant, many records are based on the “Super Bowl era.” And while some teams have a great track record in Super Bowls (49ers), there are others that have awful records (Vikings, Bills). Here is a list of the Top 10 teams record-wise (based primarily on wins) in the Super Bowl era…..

1. San Francisco 49ers (5-0)—The 49ers are undefeated in Super Bowl history, and when you have guys like Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and Steve Young leading the way, it’s easy to see how that happens. But these teams were deep on both offense and defense, and were coached by Bill Walsh and George Seifert. What might be even more remarkable is that the Niners have scored 188 points while giving up 89 in those five games, a 99-point differential. Truly, ahem, super.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-1)—The Steelers are looking to become the first team to win six Super Bowls this Sunday in Tampa against the Cardinals and the second one in the Ben Roethlisberger era. They are already one of the NFL’s premier franchises, but more is always better when it comes to championships.

3. Dallas Cowboys (5-3)—The Cowboys have a rich history of winning, but in today’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL, all anyone remembers is that they haven’t won a playoff game since 1996, and that dysfunction follows them around like tabloids following QB Tony Romo.

4. Green Bay Packers (3-1)—You might immediately think of Brett Favre, but he is only 1-1 in Super Bowls. The other two were Super Bowls I and II, when Bart Starr was the Packers’ QB and the coach was the legendary Vince Lombardi.

5. New York Giants (3-1)—The Giants climbed up a few notches with that improbable upset of the Patriots last season. Bill Parcells has two of the wins, one with Phil Simms at the helm and the other with Jeff Hostetler—and both with one of the greatest defensive players in history, Lawrence Taylor, terrorizing the other teams’ quarterbacks.

6. Oakland/LA Raiders (3-2)—It’s been about a quarter century since the Raiders won a Super Bowl, or around the same time Al Davis started to lose his marbles.

7. Washington Redskins (3-2)—The Redskins lost to Miami in Super Bowl 7, 14-7, to cap Miami’s (and the NFL’s only) perfect season, and have had mixed results since then, last appearing in 1991 when they beat Buffalo. Hard to believe it’s been almost 20 years since their last Super Bowl, but Dan Snyder makes Al Davis type decisions at times, so the drought could be long.

8. New England Patriots (3-3)—Have the Patriots have lost as many Super Bowls as they’ve won? Yes, when you realize the first two losses were to the mighty ’85 Bears, and to the unstoppable Favre/Holmgren Packers in ’96.

9. Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts (2-1)—You would think Peyton Manning should have more than one Super Bowl appearance, but that very fact was the big knock on him until he got his ring two years ago.

10. Miami Dolphins (2-3)—It’s been 25 years since the D-men have been in the big game, but mark my words…with Bill Parcells at the helm, this team will get back there within a few years, maybe even next year.

Source: Pro Football Reference

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