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Ten Observations from Championship Sunday in the NFL

49ers 28, Falcons 24

1. The Falcons may have been overly concerned about Kaepernick.
The Falcons went into the NFC title game knowing they had to at least contain Colin Kaepernick. They did that – it’s just too bad that they didn’t defend anyone else in the process. The Falcons were so concerned about Kaepernick beating them with his legs that they lost sight of the fact he was killing them with his arm. His receivers were either left wide open or in one-on-one mismatches with Atlanta defenders like Thomas DeCoud, who couldn’t tackle a trashcan on Sunday. Football, as with all sports, is a game of adjustments. The Falcons had the right game plan coming in but it became apparent after halftime when the 49ers scored a touchdown on their third straight drive (save for the one play at the conclusion of the first half) that Mike Nolan didn’t make the right adjustments. It’s easy to make coaches the scapegoat but I refuse to believe Atlanta’s game plan defensively was to allow Vernon Davis to run free in the secondary – especially after Seattle tight end Zach Miller torched them for 142 yards and a touchdown the week before. Credit John Harbaugh and Greg Roman for playing things straight up, allowing the game to come to them and for taking what the Falcons gave them.

2. Four plays cost Matt Ryan a trip to the Super Bowl.
According to Pro Football Focus, Matt Ryan took 67 snaps from center on Sunday. On 63 of those snaps, he was damn-near brilliant. It was the other four that cost him and his team a trip to New Orleans. The interception and the fluke fumble in the second half were killers. They didn’t lead to points for the 49ers but they also occurred in San Francisco territory, meaning they didn’t lead to points for the Falcons either. It became clear in the second half that Ryan and Atlanta would need to outpace Kaepernick and without those two turnovers, they probably would have. But the other two plays that cost the Falcons were the controversial catch by Harry Douglas and the fourth down throw inside the red zone. Forget whether or not Douglas caught the ball – if he keeps his feet he probably scores because there was no defender within six miles of him. Instead, he stumbles and while the Falcons were fortunate to have the call go their way, they were hardly lucky in that instance. Four plays later, Ryan forces a pass to Roddy White at the San Francisco 10-yard line and the game is essentially over. It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback but if Ryan sees an open Tony Gonzalez on that play, the Falcons score and go up by 3 with under two minutes remaining. It was just one bad event after another for Ryan, who nearly willed his team to the Super Bowl. When your quarterback completes over 70-percent of his passes while throwing for nearly 396 yards and three touchdowns, you should win.

3. What mobile quarterback?
Can a mobile quarterback ever win a Super Bowl? Sure they can, just as long as that mobile quarterback is Colin Kaepernick, who oh-by-the-way also can beat opponents with his arm. Kaepernick’s running ability makes him dangerous but not as dangerous as his ability to force an opponent to get out of its comfort zone defensively. The Falcons hired Mike Nolan so that he could implement a defense that would stop pass-heavy teams like the Packers, Saints and Giants. During the regular season they intercepted Peyton Manning three times in one quarter, Drew Brees five times in one game, and Eli Manning twice in a 34-0 shutout late in the year. But they were undone by Kaepernick, not because he’s mobile but because he was accurate throwing vertically. He only rushed twice for 21 yards but his average pass went for 11.1 yards, which made a huge difference in the outcome of the game. The Niners eventually wore down the Falcons’ undersized defensive line in the second half, but they would have had a hard time keeping pace with Ryan and Atlanta’s offense had Kaepernick not had the ability to pick up huge chunks of yards through the air. Is his mobility a factor? No question. Could the Niners have won on Sunday if Kaepernick weren’t also a dangerous passer? That’s debatable, especially with the way their defense was playing. He’s headed to a Super Bowl not because of his mobility but because he’s the complete package.

4. It was a great time for Davis to re-join the San Francisco offense.
After Zach Miller torched the Falcons’ secondary last week Vernon Davis had to be licking his chops. But there have been times this season when he’s disappeared and San Francisco’s passing game over the past two months has really run through Michael Crabtree. With Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel doing a nice job to limit Crabtree’s involvement, it was a great time for Kaepernick to rediscover his relationship with Davis, who destroyed safety Thomas DeCoud and linebacker Stephen Nicholas in coverage. DeCoud is fast enough to stay with Davis, but he missed too many tackles and was usually a split second late getting to the tight end in coverage. The loss of Mario Manningham late in the season hurt, but when Davis is a threat down the seam the Niners have more than enough weapons offensively. The talented tight end was outstanding on Sunday.

While we’re discussing tight ends, it would be a shame if Tony Gonzalez does retire now that Atlanta has been eliminated. He’s coming off his best season as a Falcon and while he isn’t the same player he was earlier in his career, he’s still playing at an elite level. He’s always said that he would keep coming back as long as he was still physically able to compete and for those that watched him all season, that’s certainly still the case. Plus, with Julio Jones and Roddy White flanking him on the outsides, Gonzo should continue to be productive.

5. Stop all the Mike Smith replacement talk.
It’s asinine to suggest that Mike Smith should be on the hot seat after his team came up short on Sunday. The Falcons never had back-to-back winning seasons before Smith arrived in 2008 and they haven’t had a losing season since. He’s a good coach that added two excellent coordinators in Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan last offseason. With both back in the mix for 2013, there’s a good chance Smith will have the Falcons playing in January again next year. Does he have his flaws? Absolutely. This postseason proved that he needs to do a better job of coaching with a lead. Too often he’ll take his foot off the pedal instead of going for the jugular and he still has a hard time weighing risk versus reward in certain situations (such as calls on fourth down). But 30 teams are eliminated every year before the Super Bowl and there’s no shame in coming up short in the NFC title game. You don’t fire a man that has compiled a 56-24 record over his career because he’s struggled in the postseason. The people that say he should have had the Falcons in the Super Bowl this year are probably the same ones that called Atlanta a fraud No. 1 seed. Despite what the records indicated, Smith didn’t have the best team in the NFC this year. In fact, he probably had the third best team behind San Francisco and Seattle. And yet, the Falcons were one more Matt Ryan touchdown away from playing in the Super Bowl. For those that want Smith gone, remember that another June Jones, Jim Mora or Bobby Petrino could be right around the corner.

Ravens 28, Patriots 13

1. Brady simply wasn’t good enough.
The absence of Rob Gronkowski and the injury to corner Aqib Talib hurt the Patriots on Sunday, but the bottom line is that Tom Brady didn’t play well enough for New England to advance. As usual, he did a nice job stepping up in the pocket when he felt the rush and he constantly kept his eyes downfield. Credit Baltimore for finding a way to bring pressure in his face and for locking down his receivers in key moments of the game. Granted, his receivers did drop four balls, including two by Wes Welker. But while Joe Flacco came up with some huge passes in the second half, Brady simply failed to make enough plays. He should also be vilified for his scissor kick to Ed Reed right before halftime. It was an embarrassing moment for the future Hall of Famer.

2. Flacco is playing the best football of his career.
Joe Flacco didn’t have a very strong first half but he consistently challenged his opponent downfield for the second straight week. Granted, he was aided by another outstanding game by his offensive line, Anquan Boldin’s heroics, and a New England defense that couldn’t tackle Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce, but the bottom line is that Flacco out-dueled Peyton Manning and Tom Brady the past two weeks. He also now has six road playoff wins in his career and whether he wins the Super Bowl or not, he’s set himself up for a huge payday in the offseason. It isn’t always pretty when it comes to Flacco, but it’s hard to argue with his production over the past five years. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares against a San Francisco defense that was torched by fellow 2008 first-rounder Matt Ryan.

3. Boldin doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves.
Anquan Boldin is a fantastic player that is constantly overlooked when the discussion turns to who the best receivers are in the NFL. He doesn’t have elite top-end speed and yet he can still beat a defense vertically. He also has some of the best hands at the position and his body control is outstanding. On both of his touchdown receptions, as well as the catch he made early in the third quarter for a 26-yard gain, Boldin had perfect body control and made great adjustments to the passes. At this point in his career he’s more like a tight end than a receiver but he remains a mismatch on linebackers and safeties.

4. Baltimore’s defense clamped down when it needed to.
Judging by the stats you would have thought the Ravens’ defense played poorly on Sunday. Brady threw for 320 yards, the Patriots gained 108 yards on the ground and Wes Welker finished with 117 yards receiving and a touchdown. But the Ravens held New England to a field goal right before half, which was huge, and despite allowing 428 yards they forced three huge turnovers in the second half. Whenever there was a big play to be made, it was Baltimore’s defense coming up huge – not Tom Brady. For the No. 1 scoring offense to be shut out in the second half on its home turf is a major credit to the defense.

5. Tackling played a huge part.
The Patriots’ tackling (or lack thereof) was horrendous. Safety Steve Gregory had a night to forget in coverage but he also missed multiple tackles, as did linebacker Jerod Mayo (one of which resulted in Ray Rice’s first touchdown). But it wasn’t just those two players – Alfonzo Dennard, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes whiffed as well. What’s interesting is that the Ravens only rushed for 3.7 yards per carry but the Patriots made life worse on themselves by not wrapping up.

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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Ten Observations from Week 12 in the NFL

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.

10. Quick-Hits.
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.

Ten Observations from Week 11 in the NFL

1. Losing Gronkowski is a killer for Patriots.
Bill Belichick always finds a way. When Randy Moss became a nuisance in 2010 and the Patriots eventually decided to trade him, Belichick revamped his offense to feature rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Instead of attacking teams vertically with Moss, New England started going down the seam to its tight ends while mixing in a variety of screens (a staple in the Pats offense). So losing Gronkowski for 4-6 weeks due to a broken forearm isn’t going to completely derail the Patriots. They’re going to win the AFC East and they’ll probably wind up hosting a playoff game come January. But make no mistake: losing Gronkowski changes a lot for New England. Including Sunday’s 59-24 win over the Colts, “Gronk” had 37 touchdowns in 42 career games. He’s solidified himself as one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the game and is perhaps the best player at his position. Indianapolis didn’t have an answer for him on Sunday and most teams usually don’t. He’s too fast for tight ends and he’s too big for safeties or cornerbacks. Double him and you’ll leave Wes Welker open in space, or create holes for New England’s shredding running game. The Patriots didn’t just lose a playmaker – they lost the most productive player on their roster not named Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. Again, Belichick will find a way to keep his offense firing on all cylinders (the return of Herndandez will help). But he just lost one hell of a piston.

2. The blueprint on how to beat the Falcons has been revealed.
Coming into this week, the most interceptions Matt Ryan had thrown in one game was three. He matched that total in the first quarter of the Falcons’ fortunate 23-16 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, and threw two more interceptions before the completion of the game. It’s fair to point out that one interception went off Roddy White’s hands while two more were tipped at the line of scrimmage. But the other two picks were all Ryan, who perhaps had the worst game of his career. Ray Horton put together a brilliant game plan, dialing up a heavy array of blitzes while bringing pressure up the middle. Arizona only sacked Ryan once, but the Atlanta QB was constantly under duress and had someone in his face all game. With Julio Jones limited due to an ankle injury, the Cardinals were also smart to play bump and run on the outsides. Ryan threw for 301 yards but Arizona turned his five interceptions into 16 points. If the Cardinals had something even remotely resembling a NFL quarterback on their roster, they would have won the game easily. Instead, Horton handed other defensive coordinators a blueprint on how to corral the Falcon offense. Pressure Ryan up the middle, play physical on the outsides, and bracket Tony Gonzalez in coverage and you’ll limit what Atlanta can do. Granted, that’s easier said than done but thanks to the cemented-footed Michael Turner, it’s not as if the Falcons can lean on their running game in efforts to mix things up. Considering they may face aggressive defenses like San Francisco and Chicago in the playoffs, the one-dimensional Falcons have legitimate concerns despite being 9-1.

3. Manning is now the clear choice for MVP.
Save for his disastrous five-interception effort on Sunday, Matt Ryan has been phenomenal for the Falcons this season. He’s having a career year and if the MVP award were to be handed out tomorrow, one could easily make an argument that he’s deserving of the honor. But if you were looking for an MVP favorite right now, it would have to be Peyton Manning, who is having a career year statistically for the Broncos. The Chargers sacked him three times on Sunday and constantly pressured Manning inside the pocket. But he still wound up completing 25-of-42 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He has a 21-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last eight games and he’s put Denver in position to challenge for one of the top two seeds in the AFC. Thanks in large part to his production and the play of Von Miller (who’s a beast), the Broncos have now won five straight. And considering he missed all of last season due to multiple neck/back surgeries, what he’s been able to accomplish this season has been nothing short of remarkable. While his statistics have been impressive, you can’t measure what he’s been able to do for Denver this season. He’s going to make the Broncos a very tough out in the postseason.

4. At some point, the Rams need more from Bradford.
With how bad Sam Bradford was on Sunday, Brian Schottenheimer must have thought he was still calling plays for Mark Sanchez. Bradford completed just 23-of-44 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the Rams’ 27-13 loss to the Jets. He completed just 52 percent of his passes for a dismal 3.9 yards per attempt and also lost a fumble while looking uncomfortable by what the Jets were doing defensively. One week after shredding San Francisco’s outstanding defense, Bradford put together a forgettable performance against a reeling Jets team that was without its best defender. Granted, the excuses for Bradford are still viable. He’s playing in his third offense and for his third offensive coordinator in three years. But at some point the Rams are going to have to see signs of sustained progress from their third-year QB. Right now the formula is too easy for opposing defenses: Contain Danny Amendola, shut down Bradford and the St. Louis passing game. There’s no question Bradford needs a better supporting cast and it’s not as if he hasn’t improved. At times this season he’s played with more confidence and has looked more poised than at any point in his career. But one major flaw that he lacks is the ability to create on his own. That’s what the best do. And while the New York loss shouldn’t solely be laid at his feet the Rams need more from their franchise player or the team’s success will remain sporadic.

5. The Bucs are legit playoff contenders.
There’s something special brewing in Tampa Bay this year. Down 11 points late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs mounted an impressive comeback to beat the Panthers 27-21 in overtime. It was the fifth straight game in which Tampa scored at least 27 points and over the last six weeks, Josh Freeman has thrown 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions while averaging 285.8 yards per game. Granted, it wasn’t all good for Freeman on Sunday. He threw a mind-numbing pick-six to Captain Munnerlyn at the end of the first quarter while displaying shoddy footwork for much of the game. But with everything on the line late in the fourth, he threaded the needle to Vincent Jackson between two defenders and with one Panther hanging on him to put the Bucs within a 2-point conversation of tying the game. He then found Jackson again on the 2-point attempt before orchestrating an 8-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in overtime to put Carolina out of its misery. After what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past four weeks, don’t for a second think that the Bucs can’t beat the Falcons next week. Atlanta has had major issues in Tampa for the better part of a decade, including last season when the Bucs beat the Falcons, 16-13. They also can’t stop the run (hello, Doug Martin) and they’re banged up defensively (Sean Weatherspoon missed his third straight game due to an ankle injury, Asante Samuel hurt his shoulder and John Abraham came up limping several times on Sunday). That said, the biggest thing holding Tampa Bay back right now is its pass defense. And while Atlanta has proven to be one-dimensional offensively, the thing the Falcons do well is throw the ball. Next week will be the Bucs biggest challenge to date. Beat the 9-1 Falcons and all of a sudden they’re in the driver’s seat to secure one of the two wild card spots in the NFC.

6. The Steelers are in trouble.
Following the most athletic play of his career, Byron Leftwich did a very Byron Leftwich-type thing: He tripped over his own two feet with nobody around him and somehow hurt his shoulder in the process. He went on to complete just 18-of-39 passes for 201 yards with one costly interception in the Steelers’ 13-10 loss to the Ravens on “Sunday Night Football.” To be fair, it was a gritty performance by the former Jaguar, who stayed in the game despite taking hit-after-hit from aggressive Baltimore defenders. But the same progrems that plagued him as a rookie continue to plague him in his 10th year. He holds onto the ball too long, his elongated release welcomes turnovers, and he’s too erratic as a passer. Pittsburgh’s defense played well enough to win but Leftwich couldn’t sustain drives and special teams let the Steelers down when Jacoby Jones returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first half. Leftwich should be good enough to beat Cleveland next Sunday but two weeks from now the Steelers will have to travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens again. If they lose that game, they’ll almost certainly lose the division and will then have to compete with Indianapolis and Cincinnati for a wild card berth in the AFC. With Leftwich under center, there are no more “gimmies” on the schedule.

7. The Eagles have no choice but to hand Reid his walking papers.
The sensible thing for the Eagles to do is fire Andy Reid right now in order to get a jumpstart on finding his replacement. Why delay the inevitable? But considering he’s been one of the finest head coaches to not win a Super Bowl over the past two decades, Philadelphia may decide to let Reid finish out the season. Either way, the Eagles need to make a move. Following their 31-6 loss to the Redskins on Sunday, it’s apparent that there will be no miracle in Philadelphia this year. Despite having all of that talent, the Eagles don’t do anything well on either side of the ball. They can’t tackle. They don’t start fast. They don’t finish strong. No matter who’s under center they generate too many turnovers from the quarterback position. They don’t play with urgency, their game plans are often puzzling and injuries have decimated the offensive line. They’re just a bad football team, perhaps one of the worst in the NFL. And when a team has that much talent and is playing this bad, the head coach must go. It’s not as if the game has passed Reid by. The players have just stopped responding and when that happens, it’s best for all involved if there’s a change at the top. Reid will surely find work after this season, or in two years if he decides to take a year off. But his time in Philadelphia is coming to an end. It simply has to.

8. The Packers have very quietly won five in a row.
Last year the Packers sprinted through the regular season while lighting up opponents along the way. But they’ve traded in style for grit this year and they’ve very quietly put together a five-game winning streak. In their 24-20 win over the Lions on Sunday, Mason Crosby missed two field goals, Aaron Rodgers spent most of the day not being on the same page with his receivers, and Mike McCarthy questionably stuck with a running game that simply wasn’t working. It was the second time in three games that the Packer offense struggled, although Rodgers remains on a pretty good tear. He now has 24 touchdown passes in his last seven games and was clutch Sunday when it mattered most, hitting Jermichael Finley for a 40-yard pass play to set up the game-winning 22-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb. Green Bay is far from being the juggernaut that it was last season but just like in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl, they’re having to grind out victories. That could serve them well down the road.

9. The Bengals still have a pulse.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have revived a Bengals team left for dead two weeks ago. At 5-5 there’s still time for Cincinnati to mount a comeback in the AFC, especially with Ben Roethlisberger likely to miss sufficient time due to injuries. With games versus Oakland, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia coming up, it’s realistic that the Bengals could be 9-5 heading into Pittsburgh on December 23. The key is whether or not Dalton continues to play with the confidence that he’s exhibited over his past two games. Following his four-touchdown, zero-interception performance versus the Giants, the second-year QB completed 18-of-29 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in Cincinnati’s 28-6 win over the Chiefs on Sunday. Green also caught a touchdown pass in his ninth straight game, leaving him one TD shy of tying Carl Pickens’ franchise record. At some point they need to prove that they can beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh if they want to be taken seriously. But suddenly the Bengals are in position to compete for that sixth and final wild card spot in the AFC.

10. Quick-Hits from around the league…
Even though they eventually lost the game, Jaguar fans had to be thrilled with their team’s effort on Sunday. That said, big picture-wise it’s not good that Chad Henne lit Houston up for 354 yards and four touchdown passes while once again being forced into action because of an injury to Blaine Gabbert. Henne was exposed in Miami as a full-time starter and he’s not the long-term answer in Jacksonville. But through a season and a half, Gabbert doesn’t appear to be either…Speaking of Houston, what a day for Matt Schaub (43-of-55, 527 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs). On a rare day when he had to pick up his defense, Schaub and Andre Johnson (14 catches, 273 yards, 1 TD) were sensational…The Cowboys are in trouble if they’re barely squeaking by the Browns at home. How can anyone in Dallas be confident that the Cowboys will make the postseason when Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Seattle New Orleans and Minnesota are all playing better?…The Colts proved in New England that they’re not quite ready for primetime but Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton are starting to become a nice little duo. Hilton now has three 100-yard games this season and has emerged as a true deep threat in Indy’s offense. And while New England took two of Luck’s interceptions back for touchdowns, the rookie QB continues to show great pocket presence and toughness. He’s not afraid to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike in the face of charging defenders…. Mike Mularkey did wonders for Roddy White’s career in Atlanta and he could do the same for Justin Blackmon in Jacksonville. While receiving a team-high 13 targets as the focal point of the Jaguars passing game, Blackmon broke out with a seven-catch, 236-yard performance. He also caught an 81-yard touchdown pass while snatching the ball in triple coverage. It was the game Jacksonville fans have been waiting for since April…If Matthew Stafford ever decides to go back and review his performance from this season, he won’t like what he sees. Too many times this year he would be careless with the football, including on Sunday when he threw a side-armed interception just before halftime, killing whatever opportunity Detroit had to sustain momentum versus Green Bay. He’s also taken some bad sacks in crucial moments of games, hasn’t always secured the ball properly and often halted drives with poor decision-making. After throwing for over 5,000 yards in 2011, this season has been a bust for the fourth-year QB…Forget the Cardinals’ record – Ray Horton is going to be a hot name this offseason when it comes to coaching vacancies around the NFL. On most Sundays, his defense has played well enough to win games, even though Arizona’s offense constantly puts his players in horrible situations…The Saints’ victory over the lowly Raiders was impressive, but their playoff hopes firmly ride on the next four weeks: vs. 49ers, at Falcons, at Giants, vs. Bucs. If they can win three of four they can make the playoffs with a two-game sweep of the Cowboys and Panthers to close out the regular season…There’s not much going right for the Chargers these days, including a reckless Philip Rivers. But former Ram Danario Alexander is making the most out of a second chance. Limited by a hamstring injury in training camp and preseason, having five weeks off to heal up did wonders for Alexander’s career. He now has 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games.

Ten Observations from Week 9 in the NFL

1. The Ravens are playing uninspiring football.
While the Ravens did leave Cleveland with a 25-15 victory over the Browns, they haven’t played a complete game since their 31-30 win over the Patriots in Week 3. Their offense went three-and-out on six straight drives versus on Sunday and didn’t wake up until Cleveland took a 15-14 lead in the second half. Fortunately for the Ravens, the Browns shot themselves in the foot with an illegal formation penalty that negated an 18-yard touchdown reception by Josh Gordon that would have given Cleveland a 19-14 lead. Brandon Weeden also threw in a late pick to seal the win for Baltimore, which received yet another inconsistent performance from Joe Flacco. Simply put, John Harbaugh couldn’t have been too thrilled with his team’s performance. Wins are hard to come by in the NFL and nothing is guaranteed. But the Ravens had two weeks to prepare for the Browns and to erase the taste of that 43-13 beatdown that Houston gave them in Week 7. Despite winning 25-15, it was about as uninspiring 25-15 victory that you’ll find.

2. Throw out the records – the Steelers look like the team to beat in the AFC North.
A handful of Giants players were forced from their homes this week because of Hurricane Sandy. Eli Manning had to leave his home in Hoboken, New Jersey and tight end Martellus Bennett reportedly had to shack up with Kevin Boothe at the offensive tackle’s house. Even though players like Justin Tuck wanted to provide the patrons of New York and New Jersey with a victory on Sunday, nobody will blame the Giants for losing to the Steelers in what was a trying week. But regardless of how emotionally drained the Giants were, Pittsburgh nevertheless picked up a huge road win and have now won three in a row. The Steelers remain one game back of the Ravens in the standings but those are two teams heading in opposite directions. Both AFC North inhabitants have offensive line issues but only one team has a quarterback that can overcome shaky pass protection. (That would be Ben Roethlisberger.) The Steelers are getting healthier on defense while the Ravens have clearly been affected by the losses of Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb. Pittsburgh has weapons on offense (although they might be down one after Antonio Brown suffered an ankle injury on Sunday) and its running game has come alive. Joe Flacco is the epitome of inconsistency and his receivers have had issues beating press coverage. Forget the records – the Steelers are currently the most dangerous team in the AFC North.

3. Falcons remain a very quiet 8-0.
The Falcons have to be the least intimidating 8-0 team in league history. Their average margin of victory this year is less than 10 points, they’ve only played one team with a winning record, they don’t run the ball effectively and they’re susceptible to being gashed on the ground defensively. But if you think this is still the same Atlanta team that is 0-3 in the playoffs under Mike Smith, then you haven’t been paying attention. Former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey often failed to get his playmakers in one-on-one matchups. On Sunday night versus Dallas, that’s essentially how Atlanta won the game. On multiple occasions Dirk Koetter freed up Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Jacquizz Rodgers to get one-on-one with a defender and often times, the Falcons won those matchups. Last season guys like Rodgers and Jones were novelties in Mularkey’s offense, and granted, they were rookies. But this year they’re featured players. Matt Ryan, who must be considered the MVP to this point, is playing with more confidence than at any point in his career and he finally doesn’t look over-coached. Defensively, Atlanta ranked 20th in pass coverage last season. This year, they rank 8th. Thanks to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have finally figured how to stop the pass. And that’s without their best defensive back Brent Grimes (knee/out for the year) manning one side of the field. With Mularkey and former DC Brian Van Gorder at the controls, the Falcons weren’t equipped to beat other playoff teams. They simply lacked the creativity to do so, and they were terribly predictable on both sides of the ball. But this year is a different story. This year, Koetter and Nolan have taken this team to a level they have yet to experience under Mike Smith. And thus far, the results have been perfect.

4. The Cowboys beat quality opponents?
The Cowboys dominated the Falcons in the first half on Sunday night. They harassed Matt Ryan, they torched Dunta Robinson, and they forced Atlanta’s offense to be one-dimensional by shutting down the run. But heading into halftime the score was tied at 6-6 and the Cowboys were lucky they weren’t trailing considering Falcons kicker Matt Bryant missed a 37-yard field goal in the first quarter. By the end of the game the final scored read Atlanta 19, Dallas 13, and the Cowboys were once again left searching for answers. Why hasn’t Jason Garrett allowed Tony Romo to run the hurry up like he did on a 6-play, 78-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter? Why can’t Rob Ryan’s defense make a play with the game on the line? Once again, where did Dez Bryant run off to? The reality is that this Dallas team can’t beat quality opponents. The combined record of the teams they lost to this season is 32-10, which includes the 8-0 Falcons. The Cowboys have simply failed to make plays with the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter. Or they commit stupid penalties. Or they turn the ball over. Or Dan Bailey misses a field goal versus Baltimore. Or Dez Bryant’s pinkie doesn’t come down in bounds versus New York. Something always happens that leaves the Cowboys thisclose of winning but at the end of the day, they’re 3-5. And at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters.

5. It won’t be long before Andrew Luck is considered “elite.”
Nobody knows better than Cam Newton how a player can be on top of the NFL world one year only to be crushed by its weight the next. But that shouldn’t stop any of us from gushing over Andrew Luck. He broke Newton’s single-game rookie passing record by completing 30-of-48 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Colts to a 23-20 victory over a Miami team with a very good defense. He took just one sack while showing exceptional movement within the pocket and he continues to perform under immense pressure (both from his offensive line and from a fan base that grew accustomed to watching Peyton Manning take the team to the playoffs every year). He’s tough, he’s intelligent, and he’s winning games in what many believed to be a rebuilding year in Indy. He’s already tied Manning for the most 300-yard games (four) by a rookie quarterback and he’s done so with little help from his offensive line or an average receiving corps outside of Reggie Wayne. A year from now we may criticize Luck the way we’ve done Newton this year. But for now, this exceptional rookie is at the controls of a Colts team that leads the AFC wild card hunt. The same Colts team, mind you, that didn’t win a game until Week 15 last year.

6. The NFC North is the best division in football.
This really isn’t much of a debate. The Bears are having one of those Bear-like seasons in which their defense is averaging 19 turnovers and three touchdowns per game, and the addition of Brandon Marshall has paid major dividends for Jay Cutler and the offense. The Packers are once again one of the most banged up teams in the NFL but they’re 6-3 thanks in large part to Aaron Rodgers being undefensivable. Fans in Detroit shouldn’t get their hopes too high about the Lions making a playoff run (good luck finding six wins from the remainder of their schedule), but they’re a dangerous team coming off their most complete game of the season, and while the Vikings have lost two in a row they employ the NFL’s leading rusher in Adrian Peterson. The majority of divisions this year don’t have two competitive teams, nevertheless four. If the Vikings can rediscover the magic they had earlier in the year, don’t be shocked if three teams from the North make the postseason this year in the NFC.

Side Note: The Vikings shouldn’t bench Christian Ponder. They invested a top 15 pick in him last year and while his numbers over the last three weeks haven’t been pretty (38-of-74 passing, 372 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs), they need to show confidence in him through thick and thin. If over the next year it becomes increasingly clear that he isn’t the answer, then they can think about making a significant move. But this is the price teams pay when a quarterback is in his second year as a starter. It does Ponder nor the Vikings’ future any good to play Joe Webb.

7. This just in: Greg Schiano’s offense works in the NFL.
Say what you want about Greg Schiano’s philosophies when it comes to defending the “Victory Formation” – his offense plays in the NFL. Doug Martin’s effort in the Bucs’ 42-32 win over the Raiders was epic, as he rushed for 251 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries. For those scoring at home, that’s over 10 yards per carry. Perhaps what was most impressive is that Martin accomplished the feat without running behind All-Pro guard Carl Nicks (toe), who was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Thursday. Tampa Bay racked up 515 yards in the win and while Oakland’s defense contributed to the effort with horrendous tackling, the Bucs have now scored 38, 28, 36 and 42 points in their last four games. In fact, they haven’t scored fewer than 22 points since a 16-10 loss to the Cowboys in Week 3. College coaches like Bobby Petrino fail to convert their offenses at the pro level. But because Schiano is such a big believer in running the ball and taking shots downfield in the passing game, his offense has flourished. They need to add more playmakers on defense before they’re considered a legit playoff contender. But thanks to Martin, Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson, the Bucs have a solid offense core to build around for years to come.

8. How much more can the Saints take?
There are so many questions stemming from the news that Sean Payton’s contract extension has been voided. First, why did it take so long for the NFL to decide/announce that the contract was voided? And did the Saints ultimately decide that following the bounty scandal they wanted a clean break from Payton (who was also involved in a situation where he was stealing vicodin from the team’s facility in May of 2010). If they still view him as their head coach, then one would assume he would stay to try to make right on what has transpired over the past two years. But we have yet to hear from the Saints, which makes you wonder if they’re ready to wash their hands of the situation. If they are, darker days could be ahead. Drew Brees will keep this team competitive as long as he remains as productive as he has been. But without Payton calling the plays, we’ve seen New Orleans struggle this season. Brees may still be running Payton’s offense but not having Payton the playcaller is holding the Saints’ offense back. It’ll be interesting to see not only where Payton winds up next year (Dallas makes all the sense in the world), but also who New Orleans hires to replace the only coach to lead the franchise to a Super Bowl title.

9. Don’t underestimate the Broncos’ win in Cincinnati.
Many pundits viewed Denver’s matchup with Cincinnati as a game the Broncos should win. The Bengals had lost three straight games coming into Week 9 and looked like a team that was ready to fall apart. But Cincinnati also had two weeks to prepare for Denver, which was 1-2 on the road before Sunday and the one win was the epic come-from-behind victory in San Diego in Week 6. The Bengals were well rested, at home, and desperate for a win. And despite watching a 17-3 lead evaporate in the second half, it was impressive that the Broncos left Cincinnati with a 31-23 win. Peyton Manning snapped a five-game streak of throwing for 300-plus yards and threw interceptions on back-to-back series in the second half. But he was magnificent otherwise while completing 27-of-35 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns. I’m still waiting for Denver’s defense to string together dominating performances but that will come. They have too much talent on that side of the ball not to. But while the Bengals watch their playoff hopes fade away, the Broncos have sole possession of first place in the AFC West and have positioned themselves to make a strong second-half run.

10. It’s time to pump the breaks on the Miami playoff talk.
There was talk all week about how Miami was a legitimate playoff contender after rattling off three straight wins. But the Dolphins put themselves behind the 8-ball with their 23-20 loss to the Colts. That’s because they’re now staring up at Indianapolis in the AFC wild card standings. The Dolphins do have winnable games against the Titans, Bills (twice), Seahawks (in Miami) and Jaguars in upcoming weeks, but this loss could come back to bite them. The good news is that Ryan Tannehill looked comfortable in the pocket and when rolling out after suffering what was believed to be a hyperextended knee last Sunday. But Miami’s offense did nothing after scoring 17 points on its first three possessions and for as good as the defense has been this season, Andrew Luck torched the Dolphins for 433 yards through the air. The schedule is favorable the rest of the way but this was a winnable game that Miami dropped. Thus, checking off wins against opponents like Buffalo, Tennessee and Jacksonville is premature.

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.

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