1. The 49ers are the team to beat in the NFC.
With all due respect to the 10-1 Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers are clearly the team to beat in their conference. All of their strengths were on display Sunday in New Orleans. Their physicality is unrivaled by any team in the league and they’re equipped defensively to beat all of the top offenses in the NFC, including the Saints, Packers and Falcons. Drew Brees couldn’t do anything yesterday. He was under constant pressure, was sacked five times, saw both of his interceptions returned for touchdowns and had to witness his receivers take a beating nearly every time they caught the ball. The Niners also somehow took Jimmy Graham out of the game, which isn’t easy to do considering the Saints were at home (where he thrives). I don’t care what Alex Smith’s competition percentage is – Colin Kaepernick also needs to be the starter. He outplayed Brees while completing 16-of-25 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and also added 27 yards and another score on six rushes. He was calm under pressure, displayed his playmaking ability on his lone touchdown run, and still managed to move the ball despite not having the same aggressive or creative approach that San Francisco’s coaching staff used Monday night versus Chicago. The Niners have suffered some bumps in the road this year, the latest coming in a 24-24 tie with the Rams three weeks ago. But with that defense, that running game, and that quarterback under center, I’d put the Niners up against any team in the NFL right now.
2 The Giants still own the NFC East.
Just when you thought the Giants were on the verge of crumbling, they have one of those games that leaves their detractors silent. Eli Manning and the pass defense was horrible in previous losses to the Steelers and Bengals, so naturally Manning throws for three touchdowns and New York’s defense holds Aaron Rodgers to 14-of-25 passing for 219 yards with one interception. This effort by the Giants wasn’t surprising to those that have paid attention to them under Tom Coughlin. They love to play down to their competition and take entire games off, but when they feel like their backs are against the wall and they have something to prove they always rise to the occasion. They ran the ball with authority last night, had receivers running free in Green bay’s secondary, and constantly harassed Rodgers while sacking him five times. Their message was clear: ‘We’re still the class of the NFC East.’
3. Jim Schwartz has nobody but himself to blame.
The NFL has to do away with the rule that allowed Justin Forsett’s 81-yard touchdown to stand in Houston’s 34-31 win over Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. It’s unrealistic to think that a head coach won’t throw his challenge flag in the heat of the moment, just as Jim Schwartz did after he saw that Forsett was clearly down. The point of replay is to ensure that the calls on the field are correct. Yet the correct call on Forsett’s run wasn’t made because Schwartz’s split second decision nullified the officials’ ability to review the play. What an arrogant rule by the NFL. ‘How dare you challenge a play when the league has ruled that all touchdowns are reviewed by the booth! You shall suffer the consequences!’ Sorry NFL, but we fans suffered in that moment. It’s a ridiculous rule and the league needs to get rid of it, which it will. That said, Schwartz throwing the challenge flag in that situation was inexcusable. First and foremost, this is the same guy who screamed at 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh last year to “know the rules” during the “Handshake Gate” game. How fitting that Schwartz was the one to forget the rules this time around. Also, Falcons head coach Mike Smith made the same exact mistake just four days prior to Thanksgiving. If we’re going to chastise players for not learning from their peers (such as we do when two athletes get arrested for the same infraction just days or weeks apart), then it’s only fair that we criticize head coaches that don’t learn from each other, too. And lastly, we’ve seen these kinds of actions before out of Schwartz, who constantly allows his emotions to affect his judgment. NFL coaches need to be clear-headed and rational when making decisions. Schwartz is neither and his often-reckless team is a reflection of that. His emotions cost the Lions a touchdown on Thursday, if not a win and whatever hopes they had of still making the playoffs.
4. The banged up Texans haven’t been exposed, but there’s still reason to be concerned.
Following near-losses to the Jaguars and Lions the past two weeks, one could make the argument that the Texans have been exposed. They’ve surrendered 68 points and a whopping 791 yards through the air over their past two games. (They’ve also given up at least one touchdown in seven of the past eight quarters in regulation.) But if you’re searching for answers as to why the Texans defense has been so bad lately, take a glance at their injury report. They’ve already lost Brian Cushing for the season and fellow linebacker Brooks Reed is expected to miss at least three-to-four weeks after suffering a groin injury in Thursday’s win over the Lions. The team thought cornerback Jonathan Joseph (hamstring) would play in Detroit but he didn’t even suit up. The Texans haven’t been exposed, they’re just merely beat up on the defensive side of the ball. And until they get some of their starters back, their offense may have to score 30-plus points a game, which they’re certainly capable of doing. That said, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are both prone to injury and no running back has carried the ball more than Arian Foster this season. Can Houston’s offensive core hold up throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs? While the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens are getting stronger as the year wears on, the Texans appear to be weakening.
5. The Packers’ issues have resurfaced.
The Packers came into Sunday night riding a five-game winning streak but before the clock read double-zeros, Graham Harrell had already replaced Aaron Rodgers in the Giants’ 38-10 blowout. Green Bay’s offensive line can’t protect Rodgers, who doesn’t have enough time to get the ball to playmakers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Other defensive coordinators around the league are going to copy Perry Fewell’s game plan and use it against the Packers the rest of the year. Granted, most D-coordinators don’t have Fewell’s pass rushers but they’ll employ a similar two-deep shell that the Giants used in efforts to thwart Green Bay’s passing game. Injuries have also killed the Packers’ rushing attack and pass rush, which was non-existent versus Eli Manning last night. Just when you thought the Pack’s issues were in the rearview mirror, they came screeching back on primetime television. They’re still going to be a hell of an out if/when they make the playoffs, but you have to wonder if their makeshift O-line and injuries will derail the Packers in the end.
6. The Falcons have an X-factor that they’re not using.
The Falcons have owned one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL this season but give offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter credit for running right at the Bucs’ top-ranked run defense in Atlanta’s 24-23 win on Sunday. The key was Jacquizz Rodgers, who rushed 10 times for 49 yards and one touchdown. He’s become the X-factor that Koetter isn’t using, or at least isn’t using merely enough. When Michael Turner has been the featured back, Atlanta’s running game grinds to a halt and he often puts Matt Ryan and the passing game in long down-and-distance situations. The cemented-footed Turner lacks the vision, acceleration and burst of Rodgers, who does a nice job of gaining yards even when he’s bottled up. Thanks to Ryan and the assortment of weapons that he has at his disposal (Julio Jones was once again dominant despite being slowed by an ankle injury), the Falcons’ passing attack remains dangerous. But unless they figure out a way to run the ball then they’re going to be too one-dimensional to beat tough defenses like the ones in San Francisco and Chicago. If Koetter and head coach Mike Smith were paying attention yesterday, they realize they have a true sparkplug in Rodgers.
7. The Cowboys’ problems on offense have become glaring.
Tony Romo is on pace to attempt a career-high 663 passes for a career-high 4,883 yards. While the yards would be impressive, the number of attempts tells the story of what has gone wrong in Dallas this season. The Cowboys have become too one-dimensional on offense and while the injury to DeMarco Murray has played a factor in the team’s play calling, Jason Garrett deserves blame for not creating more balance. Of course, Garrett doesn’t deserve blame for his running game averaging just 2.3 yards per carry. So while it’s easy to criticize Dallas for becoming too one-dimensional, what is Garrett supposed to do when his rushing attack can’t even gain three yards per attempt? Just as was the case on Thanksgiving when they fell behind 28-3 to the Redskins, the Cowboys are also starting games too slow. They were fortunate to erase a 13-0 deficit versus Cleveland two weeks ago, but the hole they put themselves in against Washington turned out to be insurmountable. With injuries now ravaging the defense and the Giants proving on Sunday night that they’re still the class of the division, it’s time for drastic measures. Romo and the offense have been efficient in the hurry up this season. But putting Romo in the hurry up more would mean Garrett sacrificing the play-calling duties during those drives. Most play callers can’t put aside their egos in order to allow their quarterback to call the plays and if Garrett falls into that category then the Cowboys will miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Simply put, Dallas can’t keep doing what its been doing offensively because it clearly doesn’t work.
8. The Rams get back to basics in win over Cards.
Entering the season Jeff Fisher knew that his young team would have to run the ball, limit mistakes, and play good defense in order to stay competitive throughout the year. That very general philosophy got lost in the midst of the Rams’ five-game winless streak, which ended on Sunday when they defeated the Cardinals 31-17. It’s no secret how Fisher and Co. beat Arizona. Steven Jackson was finally allowed to carry the running game and he responded by churning out 139 yards and a 5.8 YPC average. And while Ryan Lindley did throw for over 300 yards against that Charmin extra soft zone that the Rams like to use on a weekly basis, St. Louis took advantage of his rookie mistakes (four of them to be exact). Quite frankly, this was the type of effort that we expected out of the Rams all year. This isn’t a playoff caliber team – not yet, anyway. Fisher and Les Snead will need at least another year to acquire playmakers on both sides of the ball, which includes addressing holes along the offensive line, at wideout, and at safety. But for the next five weeks it would be nice to see the Rams do exactly what they did yesterday: Limit the mistakes, take advantage of the opportunities that their opponents give them, and control the tempo of the game with Jackson. At some point the Rams will need to be concerned with the fact that Sam Bradford only completed 8 passes or a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start somehow racked up 300 yards. passing But for now, building confidence is the key and you do that by winning, which remains the ultimate cure-all.
9. The Seahawks are finished.
That is, if Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are suspended. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Seattle’s starting cornerback duo is facing a four-game punishment for violating the NFL’s policy against PEDs. The substance for which they took remains unclear but their agents claim it was Adderall, which landed Cleveland’s Joe Haden a four-game suspension earlier this season. Outside of Chicago’s Charles Tillman and Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield, nobody has played better in coverage this season than Sherman. And after making the Pro Bowl last season, Browner is a borderline top-10 corner as well, so losing both would kill the Seahawks’ hopes of making the playoffs. If you think that’s harsh, consider that Seattle’s identity defensively is its secondary. Safety Earl Thomas isn’t having the season he did a year ago and to a much lesser extent, neither is his partner Kam Chancellor. The Hawks can ill-afford to lose either Browner or Sherman, the latter of which has been Seattle’s best defender in 2012. After blowing leads of 14-7 and 21-14 in an eventual 24-21 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, the Seahawks didn’t need this news.
I’ve seen the reply of Ndamukong Suh’s groin-kick to Matt Schaub and I still can’t definitively say that it was intentional. But I do know this: he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt given his history…Ray Rice’s 4th-and-29 catch-and-run was the play of the year. The effort that both he and Anquan Boldin (who laid out Eric Weddle on a vicious block to allow Rice to gain the last six yards) gave was incredible…After yesterday, can anyone dispute that Jay Cutler isn’t the difference maker in Chicago? Behind the same brutal offensive line that nearly decapitated Jason Campbell on Monday night, Cutler completed 23-of-31 and only threw two incompletions in 17 attempts before halftime. The Bears’ Super Bowl hopes firmly rest on Cutler’s shoulders…Thanks to Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne (who racked up another eight catches for 102 yards in a win over Buffalo on Sunday), the Colts will be fun to watch in the playoffs…One of the most underrated performances in Week 12 came in Miami, compliments of rookie Ryan Tannehill. His numbers (18-of-26, 253 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) don’t tell the whole story. He orchestrated two 80-yard touchdown drives and then with the game hanging in the balance, put together a 65-yard drive that led to Dan Carpenter’s 43-yard game-winning field goal. For the moment, it would appear as though Miami finally has its quarterback…I said it last week and I’ll say it again: The Bengals are far from dead. They’ve now won their last three games by a combined score of 93-29 and their defense hasn’t allowed more than 13 points over that span. The real test won’t come until Weeks 16 and 17 when they travel to Pittsburgh and host Baltimore, but Cincinnati has put itself in position to challenge for a postseason spot for the second year in a row…The Steelers can kiss the AFC North crown goodbye and unless Ben Roethlisberger has the ability to heel himself at a rapid pace, then this team isn’t making the playoffs either. That was an ugly, ugly performance from Charlie Batch yesterday in Cleveland…The gap in the NFC South is miniscule. Give the Falcons credit for shutting down Doug Martin and the Tampa Bay running game, but the Bucs went toe-to-toe with their division rivals on Sunday and nearly won. Once the Bucs address their porous secondary, that division is going to be a three-headed monster with Tampa, Atlanta and New Orleans battling for supremacy every year.
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.
1. No sense debating the Lions’ fourth down gaff – it wasn’t supposed to happen.
One of the hot topics around your water cooler this morning will be the Lions’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime instead of attempting a game-tying field goal from the Titans’ 7-yard line. But there’s no sense debating the decision because the play was never supposed to happen. Following the game coach Jim Schwartz said that Detroit was trying to draw Tennessee offsides. Whether or not the Lions would have still gone for it had the offsides attempt not worked is unknown, but the most controversial play of the day wasn’t controversial at all. Shaun Hill (who came into the game after Matthew Stafford suffered a leg injury) and the Lions just blew the task at hand. The bigger worry for Schwartz should be the fact that his team has yet to play well. The Lions arguably should have lost Week 1 to the Rams, were dominated by the 49ers in Week 2, and allowed 44 points to a Titans team that had been outscored 72-23 coming into Sunday’s action. For a team coming off a postseason berth a year ago, the Lions look every bit a sub-.500 team.
(For what it’s worth, I thought the Lions should have gone for it on fourth down in that situation. Their defense and special teams were brutal all afternoon and they were playing on the road. But you don’t put the ball in the hands of Hill with the day Mikel Leshoure was having.)
2. So far the NFL’s gamble hasn’t paid off.
One of the biggest reasons why Roger Goodell and the NFL hasn’t given in to the demands of the locked out officials is because the league assumed that the replacements would get better each week. But just six nights after the replacement officials contributed to a first quarter between the Broncos and Falcons that took over an hour to complete on “Monday Night Football,” this was the scene on Sunday night: Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb throwing his helmet in disgust, New England’s Vince Wilfork screaming at an official in the end zone following Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal, and Bill Belichick angrily chasing down line judge Esteban Garza and yanking his arm as he tried to run off the field. Following the game, you had linebacker Brandon Spikes tweeting, “Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they’re needed Back at work !!!!” It wasn’t just the Baltimore-New England game either. The Detroit-Tennessee contest was a mess as well, as the replacement officials gave the Titans an extra 12 yards following a penalty in overtime (which eventually led to the game-winning field goal). Is this the vision that Goodell has for his league? The fans, which allow the NFL to be the most popular game in America, deserve better than this. It’s not like the regular officials don’t blow calls, make mistakes, or factor into wins and losses. But the NFL has become a punch line because of these replacements.
3. The jury is still out on the Cardinals, but not their defense.
Are the Cardinals for real? Even after they crushed the Eagles 27-6 on Sunday, skepticism remains. They’re essentially two plays away from being 1-2 instead of 3-0, so let’s wait a few weeks before we assume we misjudged Ken Whisenhunt’s team in preseason. But one thing’s for sure: The Cardinals’ defense is for real. Players were confused and often caught out of position when Ray Horton took over as defensive coordinator last season. He runs the same defensive scheme that Dick LeBeau uses in Pittsburgh, which means every player has a specific role that must be executed or the entire defense may struggle. But in Year 2 of Horton’s scheme, his defenders have a firm grasp on what their responsibilities are and at least three through weeks they’re thriving in their roles. They held Michael Vick to just 217 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced three fumbles on the day. Daryl Washington is becoming a star, Patrick Peterson is on the fast track when it comes to his development, and Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes are steady veterans. The offense remains a huge concern thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in football, but Horton’s defense is going to keep Arizona in most games going forward.
4. The Vikings’ upset of the 49ers was easier to spot than you think.
The biggest shock of Week 3 came in Minnesota where the Vikings upset the 49ers, 24-13. The Vikings, who barely got by the Jaguars at home in Week 1 and who were beaten by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 2, were 7-point home underdogs against a San Francisco team that was regarded as the class of the NFC – if not the entire NFL. But the 49ers were also coming off wins against the Packers and Lions and were due for a letdown. Their offense is also very methodical and lacks explosion, so once they get behind by a couple of scores they’re not prone to stage comebacks. Now, did I see Christian Ponder completing 21-of-35 passes for 198 yards with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing)? No. But his ability to scramble proved to be a major weapon against a stingy San Francisco defense, which couldn’t limit the big play. Throw in the fact that Minnesota won the turnover and time of possession battle and it all adds up to one of the bigger upsets of the year thus far.
5. The Texans and Falcons look like the class of each conference.
With all due respect to the 3-0 Cardinals, the Texans and Falcons look like the class of the AFC and NFC through the first three weeks of the season. Houston has outscored opponents 88-42 and its first trip out West proved to be a successful one, as the Texans beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos 31-25 on Sunday. The Falcons, meanwhile, are 2-0 on the road and had no trouble with previously unbeaten San Diego despite coming off a short week of rest and preparation following their Monday night win over Denver. No quarterback has been more efficient than Matt Ryan through the first three weeks of the season and Mike Nolan has transformed Atlanta’s defense into a top 10 unit. One other thing the Falcons have done well is blend Mike Smith’s philosophy on ball control and Dirk Koetter’s desire to throw the ball vertical. Atlanta’s offense is still very methodical but the difference now is that the scheme is built around Ryan and the no-huddle, compared to Michael Turner and the ground-and-pound philosophy that Mike Mularkey implemented the past four years. Both Atlanta and Houston play keep-away better than any team in the league, with the only difference being that the Texans have a legit running game to compliment their passing attack. Both defenses are also built to confuse opposing quarterbacks and force turnovers, which the Falcons and Texans have been able to do thus far.
6. The Ravens come up huge.
The Ravens exacted a small measure of revenge last night on the Patriots, who beat Baltimore in the AFC title game just a few months ago. The replacement officials marred an otherwise terrific night for the heavy-hearted Torrey Smith, who played less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother. He caught six passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a beautiful 25-yard grab in the second quarter. Joe Flacco also impressed one week after struggling against the Eagles, as he completed 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The win was huge on a couple of different levels for Baltimore. First and foremost, the Steelers lost to the Raiders earlier in the day so the Ravens and Bengals are now tied atop the division at 2-1. The victory also guaranteed Baltimore a leg up against New England when it comes to tiebreakers at the end of the year. Even though they’re 1-2, Bill Belichick’s Patriots will bounce back and be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. So it’s huge for the Ravens to have a head-to-head win over a team that they always seem to meet in the postseason.
7. There’s a good chance the Saints will head into their bye week winless.
I guess we all should have seen this coming. No team could have gone through what the Saints did in the offseason and now suffer any residual affects. Not only was New Orleans marred in the bounty scandal, but don’t forget that Drew Brees missed significant offseason time while battling with the front office over his contract. In losing Sean Payton the Saints not only lost their head coach but their playcaller as well. Talk all you want about Pete Carmichael being a reliable fill-in but through three weeks the Saints’ offense has yet to develop consistency. The biggest problem, of course, might be on the defensive side of the ball as Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme has yet to sink in. In their 27-24 victory on Sunday, Kansas City was able to play keep-away with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for over 200 yards on the maligned New Orleans defense. Through three weeks Spagnuolo’s unit has allowed 40 points to Washington, 35 to Carolina and 27 to Kansas City. And with Green Bay and San Diego coming up, there’s a very realistic chance that the Saints will be 0-5 heading into their Week 6 bye.
8. The Steelers’ defense is getting exposed.
We’ve reached a point when it’s no longer surprising that Pittsburgh’s defense allows a 100-yard rusher, isn’t able to generate pressure, and allows big plays when one of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitzes backfires. The problem is that James Harrison and Troy Polamalu can’t stay healthy. The bigger problem is that the Steelers haven’t drafted well on that side of the ball in a long time. Younger players have failed to step up and there’s no new wave of brilliant Pittsburgh defenders coming down what used to be an endless pipe of production. The unit is old, tired and now, underperforming. The Steelers’ defense used to dictate games and now opposing quarterbacks are outsmarting them, even aging signal callers like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. If you’re expecting the Steelers’ defense to all of a sudden flip the switch and go back to being the dominate force that it’s been for over a decade, you might be waiting awhile. Re-enforcements are not on their way.
9. The Jets are in trouble.
A team source told Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports! that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis “probably” has a torn left ACL. If “probably” turns into “confirmed,” New York is in major trouble. Revis means everything to Rex Ryan’s defense, so much so that the Jets’ entire season could be lost without him locking down one side of the field. Mark Sanchez completed 21-of-45 passes for 306 yards with one touchdown but his numbers are misleading. Against Miami’s weak pass defense, Sanchez routinely missed open receivers, struggled under pressure and threw two interceptions. If Revis is indeed lost for the season, the Jets will quickly find out what they have in Sanchez, who doesn’t handle pressure very well (on or off the field). It could wind up being a long year in New York.
10. Cowboys once again disappoint.
They may have earned a hard-fought victory but the Cowboys didn’t exactly send fear into the hearts of the NFC elite with their 16-10 win over the Bucs on Sunday. Dallas only racked up 297 yards of total offense, which featured six false start penalties and a couple of Jason Witten drops (including one would-be touchdown). Credit Tampa Bay’s defense for coming to play but 2.1 yards per carry out of DeMarco Murray isn’t going to cut it either. Through three weeks the Cowboys have one impressive performance (the opening win against the Giants), one dud performance (the Week 2 loss at Seattle) and one blasé performance (Sunday vs. the Bucs). We’ll find out a lot about Jerry Jones’ team when it hosts Chicago next week before visiting Baltimore following a bye in Week 6.
Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.
+ Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff had it right in 2008 when they built the Falcons’ offense around Michael Turner. The “Ground and Pound” approach took pressure off rookie Matt Ryan and the Falcons surprised by winning 11 games and making the postseason. Four years later they were still leaning on the same approach and the result was an 0-3 record in the playoffs and plenty of question surrounding Ryan’s ability to be more than just a game manager. But finally it appears that Smith and the Falcons are ready to embrace a new offense. “When we first came in, coach (Mike) Smith said we were going to run the ball,” offensive assistant Andrew Weidinger told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Now, we are going to throw it, too. We’ve got all sorts of weapons. We’ve got running backs. We’ve got tight ends. We’ve got receivers. We are going to be able to do a little bit of everything out there.” Until Smith allows his offensive coordinator (now Dirk Koetter, who replaces Mike Mularkey) to build the offense around Ryan then the Falcons will continue to underachieve. The Falcons are long overdue to attack opponents, run more of the no-huddle (an offense that Ryan thrives in), and puts less emphasis on Turner and the ground game. They’re long overdue to take the chains of Ryan, who was clearly at his ceiling in Mularkey’s system.
+ “As a Buffalo Bills fan, I hope there’s so much turmoil during training camp. I hope (Tim) Tebow plays great, he pushes (Mark) Sanchez, and all of a sudden the locker room is coming apart,” former Bills great Jim Kelly told Andrew Siciliano on NFL Network’s Total Access on Friday. I’m with Kelly, although for different reasons. I hope Tebow plays great and pushes Sanchez because Sanchez hasn’t had to worry about losing his job since he got into the league. Yes, at one point last season Rex Ryan gave Mark Brunell first-team snaps in practice. But Brunell has never been a legitimate threat to Sanchez, who has yet to be pushed since arriving to New York in 2009 and conversely, is seemingly behind in his development. Tebow is a brutal passer but he’s a competitor and he won’t be content with his role as a backup. Jet fans should want Tebow to play well in preseason because he’ll either force Sanchez to elevate his game or he’ll get him out of the starting lineup. Either way it’s a positive for the Jets.
+ There was nothing premature about the Lions signing head coach Jim Schwartz to a multi-year contract extension on Friday. Along with GM Martin Mayhew, Schwartz has overseen one of the more impressive makeovers in NFL history. It wasn’t that long ago that Detroit posted a 0-16 season and was regarded as one of the worst franchises of the last decade. Since the Wayne Fontes era ended in 1996, the Lions have had seven different head coaches, none of which lasted more than three seasons. And while Schwartz’s win-loss record currently sits at 18-30, he clearly has this Detroit team on the rise. Now, if he can only tone down the sideline and post-game antics and get his players to stop making weekly trips to the clink, then the Lions would really be on to something.
+ ESPN’s Ron Jaworski believes that Michael Vick is capable of turning in “the best year of” his ten-year career in 2012. “This offseason is the most important of his career,” Jaws said. “It’s the first time since 2006 with the Falcons that he will go through the OTAs and training camp as the starting quarterback.” That’s all well and good but Vick doesn’t prove his worth in June or even September for that matter. It’s December and January when we find out how much Vick can carry a team. There have been too many times throughout his career where he’s looked like an unstoppable force only to sputter out down the stretch because he’s too banged up and/or gets careless in pivotal games. Go back to 2004 when he posted a 46.5 quarterback rating against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Or the 2010 postseason when he posted a 79.9 QB rating and forced a pass to the end zone that was picked off by Tramon Williams to seal the loss for Philadelphia versus Green Bay. I have no doubts that Vick will play like a Pro Bowler during the regular season. It’s the postseason where he has everything to prove.
+ The Boston Globe had an interesting report on outgoing Eagles president Joe Banner “having a good laugh” about DeSean Jackson’s five-year, $47 million contract. Per Globe reporter Greg Bedard, Banner “never would have done that deal.” But regardless of Banner’s opinion about Jackson’s contract, look for the receiver to have a major bounce back season. Jackson was so consumed by his future and contract situation last season that he completely took himself out of games. And for that, he deserved the criticism he received for not handling the situation more like a professional. It’s human nature to be concerned about your financial future but it’s never okay to stop doing your job, especially when you’re currently under contract. That said, with his contract situation behind him look for Jackson to keep his focus on football and become the weapon he was before the 2011 season.
+ If you enjoy mediocre quarterback competition, then keep tabs on the situation in Miami. ESPN’s Adam Schefter stated on Friday’s SportsCenter that David Garrard looked like the leader in the Dolphins’ quarterback competition during spring practices. “The more you hear, the more it sounds like David Garrard has really taken this opportunity to emerge as the favorite to be the starting quarterback down in Miami. Very impressive, adept, good footwork. Matt Moore’s been good, Ryan Tannehill’s been good, but David Garrard has looked the most comfortable of any of the quarterbacks.” Dolphin fans may disagree but they should want Garrard to start this season. Blaine Gabbert would have benefited from watching Garrard last year in Jacksonville. Instead, the Jags displayed impatience by cutting Garrard and thrusting Gabbert into the starting lineup when he wasn’t ready. You may believe that Tannehill is a better prospect than Gabbert but there’s little doubt the former Texas A&M QB would benefit from holding a clipboard. The Dolphins are without weapons at the wideout position and their pass blocking wasn’t very good last season either (outside of Jake Long). Thus, while Miami fans may groan about having to watch Garrard for a season, at least it would save Tannehill from possibly having a Gabbert-type rookie year (and the sea of doubt that followed it).
+ It’ll be interesting to see how Demaryius Thomas performs this season now that Tim Tebow is out and Peyton Manning is in at quarterback for Denver. The biggest difference between the two quarterbacks is now Thomas actually has to run routes. “You’re gonna have to run the whole route tree now,” said Thomas on Thursday. “The comebacks, the slants, the posts, the ins. And I didn’t have to do that much in my first couple of years in the league.” I’m not sure why Thomas didn’t have to run a full route tree under Josh McDaniels but last year he played backyard football because of Tebow, so we’ll see whether or not his development speeds up or slows down now that Manning is his quarterback.
+ Cedric Benson averaged just 3.67 yards per carry last season with the Bengals and 3.76 YPC during his four seasons with Cincinnati. So it’s not surprising that multiple teams didn’t bust down his door when free agency began back in March. That said, he’s 29 and is coming off a 1,000-yard season. One would think that somebody would sign him as a backup, especially when you consider how many teams implement a two-back system. According to Adam Schefter, Benson remains on the Raiders’ radar but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to sign him despite losing Michael Bush (Bears) in free agency and employing an injury-plagued Darren McFadden as a feature back.
Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett smiles on the sideline while playing against the Philadelphia Eagles during the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)
MARQUE MATCHUP: Falcons vs. Saints, 8:30PM ET, Monday
From Giants-Jets to Chargers-Lions, there is no shortage of solid matchups on the Week 16 schedule. But it doesn’t get any bigger than Atlanta-New Orleans on Monday night. With a victory, the Saints will clinch the NFC South and keep themselves in contention for the No. 2 seed in the conference playoff picture. With a victory, the Falcons would clinch a playoff berth and remain in contention with the Saints for the NFC South crown. But for Atlanta, this game means much more than clinching a spot in the postseason. If they lose, they could accomplish the same thing next week at home against the hapless Buccaneers. No, a victory over the Saints in New Orleans would prove that the Falcons have the pieces in place to take down one of the elite teams in the conference. A win would also go a long way in instilling confidence in a Falcons team that has been inconsistent all season. Beat the seemingly unbeatable Saints on their home turf and the sky is the limit when it comes to the playoffs. Lose and have doubts remain about whether or not you can beat any of the top teams in the NFC. With cornerbacks Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) expected to return this Monday, the Falcons should be at full-strength defensively. And given how good Matt Ryan has looked running Atlanta’s no-huddle attack recently, the Falcons certainly have the weapons to pull off the upset in New Orleans. But whether or not they can do it is another question, especially considering the Saints are averaging nearly 40 points a game at home this season.
THE POTENITAL (NOTEWORTHY) UPSET: Eagles over Cowboys, 1:00PM ET, Saturday
Three weeks ago the Cowboys had a golden opportunity to take a two-game lead over the Giants in the NFC East and they went out and lost to the Cardinals in overtime. The following week, they blew their one-game lead over the Giants when they lost to New York at home, 37-34. My point is that the Cowboys have been in these positions before, when they’ve had chances to improve their standing in the division only to choke the opportunity away. They now have a one-game lead over the Giants again after New York inexcusably lost to the Redskins at home (a game in which I highlighted in this section last week). Now Dallas has a chance to either hold onto its one-game lead or win the division outright with a victory and a New York loss to the Jets. But something tells me Jason Garrett’s squad could choke on applesauce again. Philadelphia has been the most inconsistent team in the league this year but Andy Reid’s team is certainly capable of going into Dallas and knocking off the Cowboys in grand fashion. And if the Giants beat the Jets earlier in the day, the ‘Boys are even more likely to succumb to the pressure.
THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY: GREEN BAY PACKERS (vs. Bears, 8:20PM ET, Sunday)
It doesn’t get any easier for the Packers to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC. All they have to do is beat the rudderless Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on Christmas night and then they can rest their starters for two weeks if they choose to. Of course, they just lost to a rudderless Kansas City team a week ago so it’ll be interesting to see how Green Bay responds on Sunday. The Bears have looked completely inept offensively since Jay Cutler and Matt Forte went down with injuries (and justifiably so), but their defense has be known to keep Green Bay’s offense in check. Just last year, the Bears held the Packers to 10 points in Green Bay on a cold January afternoon at Lambeau and if Josh McCown can somehow revive Chicago’s dead offense, the Bears could pull off the upset. (Hey, crazier things have happened.) That said, this is a game the Pack should win. Again, it doesn’t get any easier for them to clinch the No. 1 seed in the conference.
PUT UP OR SHUT UP: DETROIT LIONS (vs. Chargers, 4:15PM ET, Saturday)
It’s been over a decade since the Lions made an appearance in the playoffs and it’s been nearly two decades since they won a postseason game. But they have a chance this Saturday to do something they haven’t done since 1999: Play past Week 17. All they have to do is beat the suddenly surging San Diego Chargers at Ford Field. Granted, even if the Lions lose they can still win next week and clinch a playoff spot. But next week they play at Green Bay and there’s no telling what the Packers will do in terms of resting starters. Thus, it’s best if Detroit handles its own business this weekend by knocking off San Diego, but it won’t be easy. Over the past three weeks the Bolts have played like everyone expected them to at the start of the year. Suddenly Philip Rivers has stopped turning the ball over, Ryan Mathews is running like a man possessed, and the defense has been lights out. Not that they would but if the Lions think the Chargers are going to waltz into Ford Field and lie down, than Detroit has another thing coming. Keep in mind that the Lions’ secondary is still banged up, which obviously plays into the hands of Norv Turner and his vertical passing attack. It’ll be interesting to see if Jim Schwartz’s squad can rise to the challenge and play with a little composure for once. If not, the Lions will put a ton of pressure on themselves to beat the Packers next week and end their horrific playoff drought.