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Quick-Hit Reactions from Week 17 in the NFL

Every Sunday 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…

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow loses the ball while tackled by Kansas City Chiefs safety Kendrick Lewis during the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 1, 2012 in Denver. Denver still makes the playoffs despite losing to Kansas City 7-3. UPI/Gary C. Caskey

- Good luck, Broncos. You may have backed into the playoffs because the Raiders just happened to catch the Chargers on one of San Diego’s good days, but don’t make any travel plans for New England or Baltimore. You’re not going to win with a quarterback who can‘t even complete 10 passes in the biggest game of the year. I thought the Tim Tebow storyline was pretty fun for a while but at the end of the day it’s just bad football. The Steelers are severely banged up and their offense is in a major funk, but they only need about 10 points to beat the Broncos next week in the Wild Card round. If Denver somehow finds a way to pull off the upset then I’ll eat as much crow as Broncos fans want to dish out. But with a division title and a playoff berth on the line, Denver managed just one field goal at home against a Kansas City team that had nothing to play for. Thus, I don’t think I’ll have the taste of crow on my lips any time soon.

- Has any team lost three starting quarterbacks to injuries in one season and still host a playoff game? That must be some kind of record. Some kind of cruel, horrific record for a Houston Texans team that must feel like its cursed. The Texans finally make the playoffs and they have to start Jake Delhomme at quarterback because their fifth-round rookie T.J. Yates, who was subbing for the injured Matt Leinart, who was subbing for the injured Matt Schaub, separated his shoulder in the final game of the season. At this point all Houston can do is laugh because really, what else could go wrong? I mean, they’re about to start Jake freaking Delhomme in a playoff game and the guy was signed off the streets about an hour ago. How unfortunate for a Houston franchise that has been waiting a very long time for this moment.

- I was prepared to rip the Bengals after backing into the playoffs and for going 0-4 against the Ravens and Steelers this season. But what does Cincinnati have to be ashamed of? Nobody thought the Bengals would win five games this year, let alone nine and qualify for the playoffs in a tough conference (with a rookie second-round pick starting at quarterback, no less). And seeing as how the Texans will start Jake Delhomme at quarterback next week, the Bengals could advance to the Divisional Round! There’s no sense ripping a team that has a very good chance of winding up among the final eight this season.

- When Eli Manning takes care of the football, the Giants usually win. It’s as simple as that. The G-Men were 4-0 this season when Eli didn’t turn the ball over at all and 5-2 when he “only” turned the ball over once. They were 0-5 when he had multiple turnovers in one game. Granted, I imagine that if I did the same study on all the quarterbacks in the league, I’d probably get similar results. Turnovers are a huge part of the game whether it’s a quarterback, running back or receiver coughing the ball up. But when Eli turns the ball over it seems to have a trickle-down effect that hurts the entire New York team.

- Tony Romo comes up short again in a playoff-type situation. Who would have saw that coming?

- The Lions really blew it today. All they had to do was beat Green Bay’s backups and they would have clinched the fifth seed in the NFC. Instead, their defense couldn’t stop Matt Flynn from doing whatever he wanted and now the Lions will have to play in New Orleans next weekend instead of traveling to New York or Dallas. Granted, if they want to advance to the Super Bowl then they’d have to play beat the Saints or Packers at some point anyway. But it would have been nice to let the Falcons try and deal with the Saints right out of the gates instead. Furthermore, even if Detroit does upset New Orleans next week, the Lions haven’t beaten the Packers in Green Bay since 1991. How much confidence do they have heading into the playoffs knowing that they couldn’t even beat the Packers’ JV squad? (Of course, with ultra-sick Calvin Johnson lining up at wide receiver, I still wouldn’t count the Lions out against anyone.)

- Good for the Ravens. This is a Baltimore squad that has looked like a completely different team on the road this year than at home, but it went into hostile territory today and took care of business. Now that they have home field advantage for at least one playoff game, you have to like the Ravens’ chances of making a Super Bowl run. The AFC is incredibly flawed this year and New England’s defense is Charmin Extra Soft. Thanks to the incredible Ray Rice, the Ravens have as good as shot as the Patriots of playing for a NFL title.

- How f’n good are the Packers that they can score 45 points with Flynn as their starting quarterback and several of their starters resting on both sides of the ball? If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times: Ted Thompson has done one hell of a job building the best depth in football.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn (2nd L) passes against the Detroit Lions during the second half of their NFL football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Speaking of Matt Flynn, I’m torn. I wouldn’t blame a quarterback-needy team for trying to acquire him next offseason after what he did today against the Lions, but how much of his success is because of Green Bay’s offense? Everyone looks good driving a Cadillac, know what I mean?

- Should the Patriots be concerned that they’ve spotted opponents double-digit leads in each of their last two games before rallying in the second half? Considering how explosive Tom Brady and the New England offense has looked, I guess not. But if they spot Baltimore a 21-0 lead in the playoffs then the Pats may have some issues staging more comebacks.

- It seems like nobody has mentioned his name among the head coaches that could be fired on “Black Monday” (at least from a national perspective), but what about Chan Gailey? What has he done in Buffalo that merits him keeping his job? That team took a 21-0 lead today in Foxboro and then stood back and admired its work as the Patriots scored the next 49 points. Why should Buffalo be convinced that Gailey is the right man for the job after the way the Bills crashed and burned this season?

- Even though the Steelers have morphed into a passing team over the past couple of years, losing Rashard Mendenhall (knee) for the playoffs would be a crushing blow. They’ll likely get past the punchless Broncos in the Wild Card round, but Mendenhall allows Pittsburgh to stay balanced offensively and gives defensive coordinators something else to think about when game planning to stop the Steelers. With Mendenhall out for at least one week and Ben Roethlisberger hobbled, there’s no doubt the defending AFC champions are limping into the postseason.

- ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reports that the Rams will fire GM Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo this week, as well they should. St. Louis was absolutely decimated by injuries and it didn’t help that Sam Bradford had little time to learn Josh McDaniels’ offense during the lockout-shortened offseason. But Devaney had a horrible draft and failed to build roster depth, while Spagnuolo made questionable in-game decisions week after week. It’s rumored that Spags will wind up in Philadelphia next season as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, which makes a ton of sense. As of right now it’s clear he isn’t ready to be a head coach in this league.

- The 49ers have had a hell of a season but even their most diehard fans have to admit that there’s something a little off about this San Francisco tea. Maybe it’s because they clinched early and they’ve just been waiting for the postseason to start but this doesn’t seem like the same dominant squad that it was about a month ago. Granted, the Niners did beat the Steelers handily in Week 15, but Pittsburgh is in the midst of a major offensive funk and Ben Roethlisberger played hurt in that game. I’m not suggesting that the Niners won’t reach the NFC Championship Game but compared to the Saints and Packers, this feels like a very beatable San Francisco team.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones runs in for a touchdown in the first half of their NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Atlanta, Georgia January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- It’s too bad the Falcons are so intimidated by good competition (they’re 1-4 against playoff teams this year), because they certainly have the weapons on both sides of the ball to make a serious postseason run. Matt Ryan has looked very sharp in the second half of the season, Julio Jones has emerged as a dangerous playmaker the past five weeks and Sean Weatherspoon, John Abraham, Brent Grimes and William Moore are playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons clearly aren’t better than New Orleans or Green Bay, but when the offense is firing on all cylinders and the defense plays like the relentless, confident unit that it did today against Tampa Bay, then Atlanta could certainly give the Saints and/or Packers a game. But I know what will happen in the playoffs: The coaching staff will play things conservatively, the players will all wait for the next guy to make a play, and the Falcons will once again be left searching for answers for why they came up short. (See the New Orleans game last Monday night as an example.) It’s frustrating really, because if the Falcons really turned things loose then they could be that dangerous Wild Card team that Green Bay was a year ago. (Or at least a poor man’s version of Green Bay.)

- The Jets’ season ends as Mark Sanchez throws three interceptions – what a shock. For the past two seasons, the Jets’ defense and running game has compensated for Sanchez’s horrendous play, and he fooled people into thinking he was better than what he was because he played well in the postseason in front of a national audience. But now he doesn’t have the playoffs to redeem himself, so maybe the Jets will seriously consider other quarterback options this offseason. They would be foolish not to.

- Great effort by your team over the past three months, Raheem Morris. Job well done.

- Jared Allen is worth the price of admission for Minnesota Vikings fans. Whether the Vikings are 3-13 or 13-3, dude never lets up.

- The Indianapolis Colts are now on the clock. Let the 24/7 Andrew Luck discussion begin.

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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Five Questions for Week 15 in the NFL

Every Tuesday I’ll take a look at the five biggest questions surrounding NFL teams for that week. This week I take a look at the Broncos-Patriots showdown, the Giants’ important divisional game against the Redskins plus Big Ben’s injury situation.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger surpasses former Steelers Terry Bradshaw mark of 2026 pass completions today during the 35-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 4, 2011. UPI/Archie Carpenter

1. Can the Broncos really do the unthinkable?
At this point it might be foolish to doubt what the Broncos can do. They’ve won six in a row and seven of their last eight, which includes comeback victories in either the fourth quarter or overtime of five games. Tim Tebow has received most of the attention but if not for Denver’s stingy defense or kicker Matt Prater it’s safe to say that Tebow wouldn’t have had the chance to turn in so many clutch performances. But can the Broncos really do the unthinkable? Can they knock off Tom Brady and the Patriots? If they can, they might as well punch their ticket as AFC West champions because they face beatable Buffalo and Kansas City in the final two weeks. But first things first: they must beat New England. That’s obviously easier said than done but if the Broncos come up victorious this weekend they’ll send a message to the rest of the league that they should be taken seriously. (Of course, one could say that they’ve already sent that message over the past six weeks.)

2. Can the scrappy Redskins halt the Giants momentum?
With the Giants’ wild 34-31 win over the Cowboys on Sunday night, things are all tied up again in the NFC East. New York is technically in first place by virtue of its head-to-head tiebreaker, but Dallas will have its shot at revenge in Week 17. In the meantime, there’s no more room for letdowns. The Cowboys travel to Tampa Bay on Saturday night to take on a Bucs team that is coming off a 41-14 spanking at the hands of the lousy Jaguars while the Giants host the 4-9 Redskins. For all intents and purposes, Dallas and New York should emerge from Week 15 with identical 8-6 records. That said, let’s not forget that Rex Grossman and Co. knocked off the Giants all the way back in Week 1. Granted, that game was also played in Washington but the Skins have nothing to lose at this point and they’re playing decent football of late. They’ve dropped three of their last four games but outside of their 34-19 loss to the Jets in Week 13 (a game that didn’t get out of hand until the fourth quarter), they’ve been competitive over the past month. The Giants have a habit of playing down to their competition and if they do it again this week the Mike Shanahan’s could nip them again.

3. How will Big Ben’s ankle injury affect his play?
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the high ankle sprain that Ben Roethlisberger suffered last Thursday against the Browns was the least damaging type of sprain. That’s obviously good news for the Steelers and considering Big Ben was able to return to the Cleveland game, he shouldn’t miss Monday’s game versus San Francisco. That said, how effective will he be is the question. Roethlisberger has played through various injuries all season and has played quite well. But he said this latest injury was “one of the most painful things I ever felt.” With the Steelers still battling with the Ravens for first place in the AFC North, they can ill-afford to have Roethlisberger sit if he says he’s able to go. But considering they all but have a playoff spot locked up, at what point does Pittsburgh decide that the risk isn’t worth the reward? This will be an interesting storyline to follow the next three weeks.

4. Can the Falcons find some consistency?
The Falcons have seemingly been on a roller coaster all season and you don’t know whether they’re going to finish the ride with their hands raised in jubilation or if the damn thing is going to go spiraling off the tracks. On paper they should be dominating but one moment they’re scoring 20-plus points in a half and the next they look completely hopeless offensively. One moment Roddy White and Julio Jones are catching everything in site and the next the ball might as well be a greased pig. One moment the offensive line is allowing Matt Ryan to pick defenses apart and the next they’re constantly helping him off the turf. This team is maddening to watch but maybe their impressive comeback against the Panthers last Sunday was just the thing they needed to wake them up. Yes, they were expected to beat Carolina. But anyone who watched their mistake-filled loss to the Texans the week before realized that the Panthers had a very realistic shot of beating the Falcons at home. And for one half of football, it looked like Carolina would beat Atlanta. But the Falcons finally found their groove in the second half and completely dominated the Panthers in the final two quarters. The question now becomes whether or not the Falcons found whatever has been missing this season. If they have, they’ll be a dangerous team from here on out. If not, well, strap in tight.

5. Will the Jets rise to the challenge?
The sixth seed in the AFC now belongs to the 8-5 Jets, who have won three in a row after losing back-to-back games to the Patriots and Broncos in Weeks 10 and 11. But the Jets don’t have the luxury of enjoying the moment because the Titans, Bengals and Raiders are still hot on their heels at 7-6. With upcoming games against the Eagles, Giants and Dolphins, the Jets could easily find themselves on the outside looking in if they slip up over these final three weeks. Their running game finally got going last week against the Chiefs, which is a good sign seeing as how poorly Philadelphia’s run defense has been this season. But can Mark Sanchez continue to stay out of the way and allow Shonn Greene and the defense to win games? Better yet, can he raise the level of his play so that the Jets soar into the postseason instead of limp to the finish line?

The Falcons’ first round trade has been three months in the making

Wide receiver Julio Jones of the University of Alabama stands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected as the sixth overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2011 NFL football Draft in New York, April 28, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Heading into this year’s draft, the overall consensus was that the Falcons would use their first round pick (No. 27 overall) on defense after they gave up 48 points in an embarrassing Divisional Round loss to the Packers last January.

But that ugly showing inside the Georgia Dome that night must have showed GM Thomas Dimitroff that he had a more pressing need than defense. One that facilitated the biggest trade so far of the 2011 NFL Draft.

It was apparent in the Falcons’ loss to the Packers that they didn’t have another receiver opposite Roddy White to stretch the defense. In fact, the Falcons had an issue all season in gaining yards after the catch. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is still productive, but he’s lost a step over the years. Michael Jenkins comes up with a couple of clutch receptions every season and is a solid blocker in the run game (an important skill in Atlanta‘s offense), but he doesn’t threaten defenses with his speed. Slot receiver Harry Douglas does have good speed, but he’s been slow to recover from a knee injury that he suffered in training camp in 2010.

So Dimitroff packaged five picks (including his 2012 first round selection) in order to move all the way up to No. 6 (which was the Browns’ original pick) in order to select Alabama receiver Julio Jones in the first round on Thursday night. Jones is the ultimate blue-chip prospect. He can break tackles, make plays after the catch and yes, stretch defenses vertically. Assuming Jones isn’t a bust in the making, defenses won’t be able to double-team White and Matt Ryan now has even more weapons at his disposal.

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Report: Falcons wanted Green, but Bengals rejected trade offer

Wide receiver Julio Jones of the University of Alabama is greeted by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell onstage after being selected as the sixth overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2011 NFL football Draft in New York, April 28, 2011. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

The Falcons made the biggest splash in the first round on Thursday night when they traded five picks to the Browns in order to select Alabama receiver Julio Jones at No. 6 overall. What’s interesting is that Jones wasn’t even the player they wanted the most.

According to a report by the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Falcons attempted to trade with the Bengals at No. 4 in order to select Georgia receiver A.J. Green. But the Bengals, who had Green rated as the No. 1 player on their board, rejected the same offer that Atlanta turned around and handed to Cleveland for the No. 6 pick.

Granted, this doesn’t mean that the Falcons didn’t want Jones. Obviously they did or else they wouldn’t have traded five picks to the Browns, including their first rounder in 2012. But again, it’s interesting that Green was ahead of Jones and they wound up giving up a small fortune in picks to get the guy they had second on their board (or maybe Green was 1A and Jones was 1B – whatever, you get the point).

Either way, GM Thomas Dimitroff got the impact player that he coveted. He knows that the Falcons are built to win now and maybe they’re on the cusp of a Super Bowl. The Packers made it clear in the playoffs last year that the Falcons were lacking another receiver opposite Roddy White that could stretch the field and now they have one in Jones. Obviously if Jones is a bust, this could wind up setting the Falcons back for years. But teams assume that risk any time they make a trade like this. Jones was worth it to Dimitroff and Atlanta, so they paid the price to get him.

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