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Ten Observations from Week 8 in the NFL

1. This is a different Falcons team – a more dangerous one.
Even after their impressive 30-17 victory over the Eagles on Sunday, it’s fair to question whether or not the Falcons will roll through the rest of the regular season just to once again fall flat in the playoffs. They’re 0-4 in the postseason under Mike Smith and we’ve seen Atlanta clinch in the top seed in the NFC before, only to get steamrolled by a more complete team (i.e. the Packers in 2010). But this is a different Falcons team – a better one, in fact. Dirk Koetter is a significant upgrade over former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey when it comes to creativity, play design, and philosophy. Koetter actually installs a route tree that allows his receivers to run vertically. He’s creative in the red zone, as he proved on Sunday when he used deception to free up unknowns Drew Davis and Jason Snelling for touchdowns. Matt Ryan has thrived under Koetter, who understands how to best utilize talent like Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Defensively, the Falcons are more aggressive and more versatile now that Mike Nolan is calling the shots, as opposed to Mike Smith and former coordinator Brian Van Gorder. For the first time since Smith took over five years ago, the Falcon defense is forcing opposing offenses to adjust to them instead of the other way around. Granted, their running game and run defense still leave a lot to be desired so this Atlanta team isn’t perfect. But to assume the Falcons are set up to go one-and-done again in the playoffs would be a mistake. They’re simply a more dangerous team now than at any point in the past five years.

2. With his scapegoat gone, Reid now must point the finger at himself.
With an impatient and agitated fan base demanding change following the team’s 3-3 start, Andy Reid fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo last week. But Castillo was made to be the scapegoat for a much bigger problem in Philadelphia. That was evident again on Sunday when, under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Eagles surrendered 30 points and 392 yards, produced zero turnovers and didn’t force a punt until seven minutes and 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of an ugly 30-17 loss to the Falcons. Neither Castillo nor Bowles can cover Drew Davis or Julio Jones. They can’t tackle Jacquizz Rodgers or force Matt Ryan to turn the ball over. They also can’t light a fire under Michael Vick or inspire a talented yet underachieving roster that has shown zero signs of cohesion or chemistry the past two years. The problem in Philadelphia wasn’t the defensive coordinator and everyone knew it. But Reid was forced to make a change and Castillo was an easy target. It wouldn’t be surprising if Reid made another change this week, inserting rookie Nick Foles into the starting lineup and benching Vick. But it isn’t Vick’s fault that Reid put together a conservative game plan when he had two weeks to prepare for the Falcons. At a time when his coaching seat has never been hotter, Reid decided that a dink-and-dunk philosophy was the best way to beat an Atlanta team that hasn’t scored fewer than 23 points in a game all season. So while Castillo was forced to fall on his sword last week and Vick may soon be asked to do the same, at what point does Andy Reid point the finger of blame at himself?

3. If Turner goes, Smith should follow in San Diego.
Following their brutal 7-6 loss in Cleveland on Sunday, the Chargers have now gone six quarters without scoring a touchdown. That stat doesn’t exactly bode well for Norv Turner, who calls all of San Diego’s plays. But if the front office decides to finally axe Turner, it better be prepared to hand GM A.J. Smith his walking papers as well. This is the same man who believed Robert Meachem was a capable replacement for Vincent Jackson, whom he decided not to pay when he had the opportunity. Outside of his two-touchdown game versus New Orleans earlier this season, Meachem has been a free agent bust in San Diego. He dropped a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter on Sunday versus the Browns and has caught just 12 passes for 189 yards this season. Meanwhile, Jackson’s 29 receptions have gone for 626 yards and five touchdowns for Tampa Bay, which was more than happy to pay a receiver with great hands, the ability to stretch defenses vertically, and that is willing to block in the running game. Let’s not forget that Smith’s drafts have also been poor for several years, which has contributed to the constant underachieving in San Diego. Thus, there shouldn’t be a scenario that exists where Turner looses his job but Smith is allowed to keep his. The Chargers are in full freefall and more than one man is to blame.

4. Stick a fork in the Saints.
It’s a dangerous proposition to write off a team that employs Drew Brees at quarterback and has the ability to score 30-plus points a game. But following their putrid effort on defense Sunday night in Denver, it’s probably safe to assume that the New Orleans Saints’ 2012 season is officially lost for good. Their struggles on defense reached new heights in the Broncos’ 34-14 win, as Denver racked up 530 yards of total offense and finished with nine plays of 23 yards or more. Patrick Robinson was torched for passes for 41 and 26 yards, while receiver Demaryius Thomas got free for a 34-yard gain against busted coverage for the Saints secondary. Offensively New Orleans wasn’t much better, as Brees and Co. converted just 1 of 12 attempts on third down. It was the team’s worst performance on third down since 2005 when they finished 0 for 11 versus the Dolphins. Getting back to the Saint defense, this team has no shortage of issues on that side of the ball. But if you want to start somewhere, start with the fact that the Saints can’t pressure the quarterback despite that being Steve Spagnuolo’s area of expertise. Granted, he doesn’t have the personnel to run the scheme he wants. Will Smith is aging, Sedrick Ellis has been a bust from an interior pass-rushing standpoint, and Cameron Jordan is only in his second year. But Spags can’t use the fact that he doesn’t have Justin Tuck or Osi Umenyoira up front as an excuse. The Saints are the worst defensive team in the league and unless Brees is ready to win every game 35-31, the Saints are toast.

5. Don’t sleep on the Steelers.
Looking for a slightly above-average team that could make a strong second-half run and punch a ticket to the playoffs? Look no further than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have discovered their roots the past two weeks. The Steelers haven’t been able to run the ball on a consistent basis since Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker left town some odd years ago. Pittsburgh has since become one-dimensional on offense and has left Ben Roethlisberger susceptible to beatings behind a shaky offensive line. But in their past two games, Pittsburgh has rushed for 167 and 140 yards, respectively. Jonathan Dwyer has given the Steelers’ a lift and their offense has been more balanced and stable because of it. Granted, Mike Tomlin’s team is still searching for consistency on that side of the ball. But if Pittsburgh’s defense plays as well the rest of the season as it did on Sunday in a 27-12 victory over Washington, the Steelers will once again challenge for a playoff berth. With Ray Lewis and LaDarius Webb out of the season and Joe Flacco proving that he isn’t ready to put the Ravens on his shoulders, the door is open for the Steelers to close the gap in the AFC North and eventually take over the division if Baltimore continues to scuffle.

6. The Cowboys came inches from turning their season around.
Considering they turned the ball over four times and fell behind the Giants 23-0 on their home turf, the Cowboys hardly deserved to win on Sunday. But they came within the pinky on Dez Bryant’s right hand from producing a remarkable comeback. Trailing 29-24 with less than a minute remaining in the game, Bryant leapt high to snag a 37-yard pass from Tony Romo that would have given Dallas a late lead. But when Bryant landed, his pinky finger came down on the white strip in the back of the end zone. It was a remarkable catch but it was a catch that didn’t count. Three plays later, the Giants were able to preserve the victory by that same 29-24 score. Credit Dallas for not giving up down 23-0 after a disastrous first-half performance. But the Cowboys remain a team that can’t get out of its own way and at 3-4 they and Philadelphia are now each three games back of New York in the NFC East. Things don’t get any easier for Dallas, which travels to Atlanta next Sunday night to play the undefeated Falcons. The Cowboys will then travel to Philadelphia before hosting the Browns, Redskins and Eagles in mid-November. It’s feasible that the Cowboys could still turn things around but they could realistically fall to 3-6, too. Had Bryant managed to get his entire body in bounds, Dallas could have made things interesting in the division. Instead, the Cowboys have come to yet another fork in the road under Jason Garrett.

7. Manning is starting to live up to expectations in Denver.
Peyton Manning has lost zip on his vertical passes. He’s 36 – this happens when quarterbacks get older. But following his 305-yard effort in Denver’s 34-14 victory over the Saints on Sunday night, Manning has now thrown for at least 300 yards in five consecutive games and has posted an incredible 14:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that same period. Following his ugly first-half performance versus the Falcons on Monday Night Football in Week 2 (a game in which he threw three interceptions in the first quarter alone), Manning has been solid for a Bronco team that is clearly the best squad in the AFC West. If Denver can run the ball like it did versus New Orleans, Manning will continue to be surgical in the passing game. And hey, if the Broncos’ defense plays the rest of the season like it did Sunday night, Denver could make some noise down the road.

8. Rams prove they still have a long ways to go.
Rams fans were encouraged by the teams 3-2 start, as they should have been. But following three straight losses, which included an ugly 45-7 defeat at the hands of the Patriots on Sunday, it’s apparent that the Rams still have a long ways to go. For the second straight week, an elite quarterback had his way against the Rams defense. Neither Chris Long nor Robert Quinn pressured Tom Brady, who threw four touchdowns and constantly found Rob Gronkowski open in the middle of the field. What exactly was the Rams’ game plan defensively? They had to have known that with Aaron Hernandez out Gronkowski was going to be the focal point of the Patriot offense. Yet there he was, constantly running free in St. Louis’ defensive backfield. It was a brutal effort by a Rams’ defense that didn’t produce a sack, didn’t force any turnovers, and couldn’t stop the run. St. Louis’ defense was so lost that it’s amazing they found their locker room at the end of the game. Jeff Fisher is a good head coach and regardless of the final score of Sunday’s game, this Rams team is heading in the right direction. But after what Brady and the Pats did to them in London, you realize just how large the gap really is between St. Louis and the contenders.

9. The best in the NFC North have nothing to worry about.
It was rather jarring that the 15.5-point underdog Jaguars took the Packers to the brink Sunday in Green Bay. And that the Bears needed a last-second field goal just to beat the 1-5 Panthers. But neither Green Bay nor Chicago has nothing to worry about. The Packers were coming off three-straight road games and were hosting a Jacksonville team that lost Maurice Jones-Drew to injury last week. Chicago had a short week of rest and preparation after an emotional victory over division-rival Detroit. These were letdown games for the Packers and Bears and while coaches don’t want to admit that their players suffer emotional highs and lows, it does happen in the NFL. The key is that both teams won while the Vikings suffered their second loss of the season on Thursday. By the end of the year, Chicago and Green Bay will battle down the stretch for the NFC North crown. Some Sundays will just be prettier than others.

10. Injury roundup – some contenders could lose key pieces.
All in all the Falcons had a successful trip to Philadelphia on Sunday. But late in the fourth quarter linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered an ankle injury and was carted off the field. He’ll undergo an MRI on Monday to discover the extent of the injury and if it’s serious, Atlanta will lose a key piece of its defense. Weatherspoon is the epitome of a sideline-to-sideline player and he has such an active role in the Falcons’ defensive game plans. Hopefully his ankle sprain isn’t of the “high” variety and he won’t miss any time…The Chiefs might have to go back to Matt Cassel full-time at quarterback. That’s because Brady Quinn was knocked out of the Chiefs’ 26-16 loss to the Raiders in the first quarter with a head injury. Of course, Quinn had already put Kansas City in position to fail by turning the ball over twice. Chiefs fans may not enjoy watching Cassel play but Quinn once again proved that he’s not a starting NFL quarterback…Ryan Tannehill left the first quarter of the Dolphins’ 30-9 victory over the Jets with a hyperextended knee. Matt Moore didn’t miss a beat, guiding the Dolphins to their fourth victory of the season while throwing for 131 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-19 passing…One week after losing Sean Lee for the season, Cowboys’ linebacker Dan Connor left the team’s 29-24 loss to the Giants because of a neck strain. He might not play versus the Falcons on Sunday night…Eagles’ receiver DeSean Jackson suffered an ankle injury versus Atlanta but was able to return…Lions’ safety Louis Delmas left the team’s 28-24 win over the Seahawks with an injured knee and didn’t return. Delmas is a good young player but he can never stay healthy.

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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The Eagles are primed for a bounce back year but title run is on Vick’s shoulders

Want one team that missed the playoffs last year but is bound to crack the postseason in 2012? Look no further than the Philadelphia Eagles.

After opening their checkbook last season for free agents Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and Ronnie Brown, a lot of pundits just assumed that the Eagles would win the NFC East. But the team lost four of its first five games and despite a strong second-half run that saw them win four straight, the Eagles missed the postseason after finishing 8-8.

But Asomugha is primed for a bounce back, defensive coordinator Juan Castillo will be more comfortable calling plays in his second year and the offense is still chockfull of playmakers.

Thus, there’s little doubt that Eagles will give opponents fits again in 2012.

Their biggest problem remains Michael Vick, who had a very average third season in Philadelphia. He threw for 3,303 yards, 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while compiling a QB rating of 84.9. He also only played in 13 games after starting just 12 in 2010.

The Eagles will only go as far as Vick takes them. As most have pointed ad nauseam, he’s immensely talented and capable of winning games with his feet or the rocket he calls for a left arm. But only once in his career has he ever played a full 16-game schedule (that was in 2006) and only once has he completed over 60 percent of his passes (2010, his second year with the Eagles).

If you look at last year’s numbers, seven quarterbacks who finished in the top 12 when it came to completion percentage made the playoffs. In 2010, eight of the top 12 most accurate signal callers led their teams to a postseason berth, including Vick, who finished 10th in that category.

Tim Tebow is the exception to the rule. Everyone saw what happened last year when the Broncos defense didn’t shut an opponent out for three and a half quarters. The majority of the time, quarterbacks have to be able to complete 60-percent of their passes to win in the NFL.

People become transfixed by Vick’s ability to beat teams with his legs but if he’s going to carry this talented Philadelphia team deep into the playoffs, then he has to be able to win with his arm. He did so in 2010 before he ran into the buzz saw that was the Green Bay Packers and he’ll need to do it again before Andy Reid starts looking at other quarterbacks to run his offense. Say what you will about Reid, but he knows when a player’s best days are behind him (just ask Donovan McNabb).

Granted, there are a lot of facets that play into whether or not a team will be successful. The offensive line has to protect Vick when he’s in the pocket, Jackson can’t disappear for games on end and the defense has to play like it did in the second half of last year – not the first half.

But there’s no question that this Eagles team is primed for a bounce back year and should make the playoffs in 2012. That said, they’ve met their ceiling. If Vick can’t stay healthy and accurate when he does play, then we won’t see this Philadelphia team in the Super Bowl. He’s only one man but Philly’s championship hopes rest on Vick.

Sunday Evening Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 5 in the NFL

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

DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING…

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (C) walks off the field with teammates after throwing an interception that was run into the end zone for a touchdown by the Seattle Seahawks in the fourth quarter during their NFL football game in East Rutherford, New Jersey, October 9, 2011. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- The Giants and Eli Manning had the game I thought they would last week in Arizona. Manning threw three touchdown passes but he was also picked off three times as the Giants started slow and finished poorly. Of course, Eli wasn’t the only reason the G-Men dropped a game they simply had no business losing. Their defense couldn’t stop a Seattle offense that has suddenly started to hit their stride after staging a dramatic comeback in the second half last week against Atlanta. Tarvaris Jackson, Charlie Whitehurst and Marshawn Lynch tuned up New York’s defense for 424 total yards. What’s most remarkable about the Seahawks’ 36-25 win is that the Hawks fumbled twice in New York territory. This could have been an even bigger blow out.

- The Steelers winning a home game against the Titans hardly constitutes a “Didn’t see that coming” moment. That said, this was a Pittsburgh team that didn’t have Casey Hampton, James Harrison, Aaron Smith, Chris Kemoeatu, or a fully healthy Ben Roethlisberger. Considering how good Tennessee’s defense has been this season, it was rather surprising to see Big Ben (who threw five touchdown passes) and Pittsburgh bully the Titans for four quarters. It appears those claims about the Steelers being finished were greatly exaggerated.

- Much like the Steelers’ win over the Titans, it’s hardly surprising that the Raiders traveled to Houston and beat the Texans. This isn’t the same Oakland team that was pathetic four or five years ago. That said, Al Davis just passed away yesterday and the Raiders took on a solid Texans team that just bullied Pittsburgh a week ago. Nobody would have been surprised if the Raiders’ hearts weren’t in it and left Houston without a win. But they played hard for four quarters, shut down Arian Foster, and won a huge road game to get to 3-2 on the season. Granted, Matt Schaub did throw an inexcusable interception at the end of the game and the Texans were without Andre Johnson. But “Just win baby?” Absolutely.

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Three factors that could derail the Eagles in 2011

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick leaves the field after the team lost to the Green Bay Packers in their NFC Wild Card NFL playoff football game in Philadelphia, January 9, 2011. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Word has it that the Eagles loaded up this offseason. BIG TIME.

They added Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Ronnie Brown, Anthony Hargrove and Vince Young to a roster that already included Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and Asante Samuel. In other words: CHAMPIONSHIP!

Following their huge offseason, there’s no doubt that the Eagles should be favored to win the NFC East, but let’s pump the breaks for a second and play devil’s advocate. Just like any team at this point of the year, they have question marks. Below are three factors I believe could make Philly fail to live up to the hype.

(For those wondering why I didn’t include DeSean Jackson’s contract situation: I fully believe that the Eagles will pay D-JAX at some point, which is why I chose to focus on other factors.)

1. Michael Vick
Last season, Vick compiled career-highs in completion percentage, touchdowns and QB-rating, while posting a career-low in interceptions and interception percentage. Now let’s see if he can do it again. Talent has never been the issue with Vick – consistency has. When he set a then career-high for completion percentage in ‘04 with Atlanta, he regressed as a passer in ‘05 and ‘06. He’s also injury-prone and has a habit of forcing the action when his team is trailing in the fourth quarter and counting on him to make a play. (One example of this came in last year’s playoffs against the Packers in which he was picked off in the end zone on the Eagles’ final drive.)

There’s no doubt Vick has matured as a player and a person. Prison and not being coddled by an owner (Arthur Blank) and head coach (Jim Mora) will do that for an athlete. But let’s see if Vick can put together back-to-back successful seasons before we anoint him a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. He has a habit of getting complacent in his situation, especially when he has nobody behind him to push him. Granted, Andy Reid is 10-times the coach Mora was, but it remains to be seen whether or not Vick will stay hungry for 16-plus games. Remember, he’s 2-3 as a starter in the playoffs and 0-3 in postseason games in Philly.

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Andy Reid’s job is on the line with Castillo hire

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid talks to an assistant during the fourth quarter at Soldier Field in Chicago on November 28, 2010. The Bears won 31-26. UPI/Brian Kersey

Andy Reid is smarter than you.

Everyone thought he would finally go with an outside hire when he had to find a new defensive coordinator. And why wouldn’t he? Replacing Jim Johnson with in-house option Sean McDermott backfired, so surely he would go with someone established like Dick Jauron or Jim Mora.

Only Reid hired his offensive line coach instead. Don’t adjust your monitors, you read that right. In an unprecedented move, Reid hired his offensive line coach to coordinate his defense.

And you want to be my latex salesman.

Juan Castillo deserves an opportunity to have success before everyone says he can’t. He did coach linebackers and defensive line to start his career at Texas A&M Kingsville, so it’s not like he’s always been stuck on the offensive side of the ball. From what I’ve read, he’s also gotten this far on hard work and his ability to coach up and motivate players. That sounds like a winning combination for a coach.

But does he know how to put together a defensive game plan? Does he know how to implement a scheme? Does he even know how to be a playcaller? Considering he has zero experience on the defensive side of the ball in the NFL, it’s hard to fault anyone who thinks this is a horrendous hire. Just because he’s a hard worker doesn’t mean he has what it takes to become a great coordinator. Just because he can relate to his players doesn’t mean he’ll be able to make the personnel adjustments on Sundays in the heat of the moment.

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