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Ten Observations from Week 5 in the NFL

1. It doesn’t get more inspiring than the Colts’ performance vs. Green Bay.
When it’s all said and done, we’ll look back on the Colts’ 30-27 victory over the Packers as one of those defining moments in a season. The players in Indianapolis found out earlier this week that their head coach Chuck Pagano has a long road ahead of him as he gets ready to fight leukemia. So they fought for him on Sunday, turning in an inspiring performance against a Green Bay team that’s banged up yet still dangerous. The Colts struck gold in Andrew Luck, who joined Cam Newton as only the second rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 or more yards in three of his first four starts. The kid is for real, and he’s tougher than a bad piece of meat. All elite passers take risks and Luck is no exception. He continuously fired passes into tight windows today and it’s incredible how quickly he’s developed chemistry with Reggie Wayne. But this win wasn’t just about Luck. The Colts could have thrown in the towel when the Packers jumped out to a 21-3 lead. But they didn’t. Granted, Green Bay is banged up and lost a couple of more players today, including defensive tackle B.J. Raji. But the Packers have some of the best depth in the league and the Colts are devoid of overall talent on both sides of the ball. Greg Jennings or no Greg Jennings, what Indy did today was impressive.

2. The Falcons’ offense is dangerous but not complete.
It’s hard to nitpick a team that’s 5-0. Matt Ryan is having the finest season of his career, Tony Gonzalez has thrived with the amount of attention that opponents have to pay to Roddy White and Julio Jones, the defense has been fantastic, and the change from Mike Mularkey to Dirk Koetter at offensive coordinator has made a massive difference for the undefeated Falcons. But if there’s one thing holding Atlanta back, it’s a lack of a dominant running game. Michael Turner has had success the past two weeks, but it’s come when the opposing defense is worn down. And even though Koetter has wisely built his scheme around Ryan (where as Mularkey kept the focus on Turner), the Falcons won’t be as dangerous as they could be without a power running game. What made the 2009 Saints so dangerous is that once Sean Payton had a defense back on its heels trying to slow down the New Orleans passing game, he would pound Pierre Thomas inside to draw those safeties back up. Balance remains the key for NFL offenses, even in a passing league. There were times on Sunday when the Redskins dared the Falcons to run the ball and Atlanta just couldn’t do it with much consistency. So while the Falcons should be thrilled about their 5-0 start, at some point Koetter needs to figure out a way to develop a power running game. Unfortunately Turner’s skills are declining and second-year player Jacquizz Rodgers has made a limited impact.

3. Are the Vikings for real? They just might be.
In looking at the Vikings’ schedule up to this point, it would be easy to dismiss their 4-1 start. Three of their four wins have come against teams with losing records and three of their first five contests have come at home. But they did beat a team in the 49ers that many consider to be the class of the NFC and when you watch the Vikings play you realize they haven’t shown many flaws. They’re the team that doesn’t excel in one single area (outside of many run defense), but they do everything just well enough. Their offensive line does a decent job protecting Christian Ponder, who hadn’t thrown an interception until he threw two in Minnesota’s 30-7 win over Tennessee on Sunday. Percy Harvin continues to be the team’s best weapon, although Adrian Peterson has already exceeded expectations coming off knee surgery and tight end Kyle Rudolph is quickly becoming one of Ponder’s favorite targets. Is this a great team? No, but the schedule is very favorable until after they come back from their Week 11 bye. So for those waiting for Minnesota to come back to earth, you may be waiting a while.

4. Thanks to the Broncos’ sloppiness, the game of the week was a dud.
There was a moment in yesterday’s Denver-New England game when you thought we were going to have a classic Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady finish. But then Denver coughed the ball up inside the red zone (its third turnover of the day), and it sent most viewers scrambling for the remote. Arguably the best storyline coming into Week 5 was Manning vs. Brady, but the game was a loser right from the start. Thanks in large part to the Broncos’ miscues, the Patriots built a 17-7 halftime lead and increased the deficit to 31-7 with under five minutes remaining in the third quarter. Manning did cut the lead down to 31-21 but when New England gave Denver a golden opportunity to get within three points, the Broncos gave the gift right back. You were left wondering whether or not Denver is nothing more than a 9-7 team posing as a serious contender.

5. The last two weeks identify what the Eagles are.
Last Sunday night Michael Vick didn’t turn the ball over and played within himself. The result was an Eagles’ victory over the Giants. On Sunday, Vick turned the ball over twice, including once on the goal line, and the result wasn’t as favorable for Philadelphia. Granted, he did orchestrate an outstanding 17-play, eight-minute touchdown drive to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. But all of Vick’s comebacks this year is largely due to the fact that Vick himself put the Eagles in a hole. Pittsburgh’s now-healthy defense had a lot to do with Vick’s struggles, so let’s give credit were credit is due. But it’s getting to be pretty simple to define Philadelphia. When Vick doesn’t turn the ball over, they win. When he does, he either has to lead them to a fourth quarter comeback or the team falls flat. With how well the defense has played this season, Philadelphia should challenge for the NFC East crown. But it’s gotten to the point that as Vick goes, so does the Eagles.

6. That was a real stinker by the Ravens.
Let’s get all of the clichés out of the way first: You earn everything you get in the NFL. A win is a win. All that matters is that “W.” Having said that, what a brutal performance by Baltimore yesterday in Kansas City. The Chiefs have been dreadful for every game but one this season (an overtime victory in New Orleans), were on the verge of replacing their starting quarterback coming into the week, and have been a total disaster at times defensively. And yet a well rested Ravens team could only muster 9 points? A win is a win but Baltimore has some underlying problems. Edge rushers have given the offensive tackles problems and the defense can’t stop the run (as evidence in Kansas City’s 214 yards on the ground yesterday). Despite the changes Cam Cameron implemented this offseason, the Ravens’ offense is still a work in progress as well. There’s no doubt that Baltimore is going to be in the playoff mix at the end of the season and hey, sometimes good teams don’t play well. But some of Baltimore’s issues were on full display in Kansas City.

7. Gailey’s seat just got hotter in Buffalo.
Chan Gailey challenged his team’s toughness heading into Sunday’s game with the 49ers and his players responded by rolling over in a 45-3 San Francisco victory. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for only 126 yards with no touchdowns and one interception as his arm strength continues to limit what Buffalo can do offensively. The new high-priced defense also allowed Alex Smith to throw for 303 yards and at one point in the second half the Bills’ defenders gave up trying to tackle anyone. This is a 2-3 team that already looks defeated. They lack an identity on defense and thanks to Fitzpatrick, there’s a ceiling on what the offense can do. With Gailey at the controls, it’s unlikely that the Bills figure it out and turn things around. In fact, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

8. The Saints’ skid is over, but…
All things considered, it was a great night in New Orleans. Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game, moving him past Johnny Unitas for the all-time record. He also threw for 730 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception as the Saints beat the Chargers and finally got into the win column in 2012. But even though the numbers were eye-popping, you can tell there’s still something off with this New Orleans team. The defense did cause two turnovers but it’s ready to wilt at every turn, and without Sean Payton the offense isn’t as dominant as it has been in years past. We’re so used to holding out breath because the Saints could score at any moment. But without Payton’s brilliant play calling, this offense is missing its punch. Either way, it was a good win for a team that can finally let out a sigh of relief. The Saints have a long ways to go in order to get back into the NFC South race (especially with Atlanta sitting at 5-0), but that first victory is always the hardest.

9. The Panthers will continue to be hamstrung by Newton.
As Michael Vick goes, so do the Philadelphia Eagles. And as Cam Newton goes, so does the Carolina Panthers. Newton is a phenomenal young talent. He really is. He has the ability to put his team on his back, do his Superman thing and will Carolina to victory. He also has the ability to sink the Panthers in the blink of an eye and as we’ve found out the past two weeks, he’s not a closer. While leading 16-12 on Sunday, the Seahawks put the game in Newton’s hands by taking a safety with just under a minute left to play. It’s not easy for any quarterback to drive down the field in less than a minute and score a game-winning touchdown, nevertheless a second-year signal caller. But the Panthers didn’t even sniff mid-field because Newton had the ball stripped out of his hands. He also skipped a pass to Ben Hartsock on a 4th-and-1 from the goal line two series before that would have given the Panthers the lead had he put the pass on the money. Part of the problem in Carolina is that Ron Rivera is too conservative with his game plans. First and second-year head coaches will often play not to lose and they wind up losing a lot of close games. But at some point Newton has to be expected to raise the level of his play. That’s why Carolina drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick last year and why they’ve installed him as the face of the franchise. At some point he simply has to get it done in the fourth quarter.

10. The Dolphins might own the most underrated defense in the NFL.
After their 17-13 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, it’s time to pump the breaks on the Bengals. Entering today they were 3-1 but their wins came against the Browns, Redskins and Jaguars, which isn’t exactly a Murderers’ Row of elite NFL talent. The Bengals can’t run the ball with any success, which makes them one-dimensional offensively, and they struggle stopping the run on defense. That said, Miami’s defense is solid. In fact, it might be the most underrated defense in the league next to Pete Carroll’s squad in Seattle. Opponents are having a difficult time running against that front seven and Cameron Wake is a fierce pass rusher. The secondary has bouts of inconsistency, but the Dolphins have been in every game outside of a 30-10 loss to the Texans in Week 1. Unfortunately there’s a ceiling on how good Miami can be thanks to a rookie quarterback and a lack of explosive weapons. But Kevin Coyle’s defense gives the Dolphins an opportunity to compete week in and week out.

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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NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 2


Image source: Indianapolis Colts Facebook page

1. Schiano’s tactics weren’t dirty – just unnecessary.
When Eli Manning and the Giants got into the “Victory” formation following their thrilling come-from-behind victory against the Bucs on Sunday, Tampa Bay’s defenders fired off the ball and sent Manning backwards to the ground. The “Victory” formation is usually a causal affair. Players get down into their stances but only because it’s a formality. After the quarterback drops to a knee, players will pat each other on the helmet or shake hands because the game is over at that point. So it was rather lame for Greg Schiano to say following the game, “we fight until they tell us the game is over,” because the game is metaphorically over at that point. The play wasn’t dirty but it was highly unnecessary. The odds of a player getting hurt in that situation are much higher than a quarterback fumbling the ball, your team recovering, and marching into scoring position so you can either tie or win the game. So is there a lot to be gained by doing it? Schiano is trying to clean up the mess that Raheem Morris left for him in Tampa, which includes making his players tougher. But this isn’t the way to do it and it wasn’t very smart to tick off a head coach that has as much stature as Tom Coughlin. If he and the Bucs were pissed about the loss, then they shouldn’t have squandered a game that was well in hand until the fourth quarter. (Furthermore, what’s most disappointing about the situation is that everyone is now talking about that play as opposed to yet another incredible fourth quarter comeback engineered by Manning.)

2. Make no mistake, the Patriots’ loss was stunning.
Let’s really put the Patriots’ 20-18 loss into perspective. They were a 13.5-point home favorite against a team with the worst offensive line in football and arguably the worst quarterback situation as well. The Cardinals won despite gaining only 16 first downs, running just 61 plays and throwing for only 140 yards. Kevin Kolb’s average yard per pass went just 5.2 yards and Beanie Wells rushed for just 3.1 yards per carry. Arizona also lost the turnover and time of possession battles, so talk about one of the weirdest games in the past 10 years – this was it. That said, let’s give credit were credit is due. I wrote several times this offseason about how Arizona’s defense was likely to come together this year under Ray Horton. The Cardinal defenders were often confused and out of place last season, but the players are more confident in Horton’s second year. It’s the same system that the Steelers run in Pittsburgh so it’s predicated on every player understanding their role, executing their job, and trusting that the man next to them will do the same. The players have bought into the approach and we seen the results thus far. (Through two games the Cardinals have held opponents to 17.0 points per game, which ranks fifth in the league.) I don’t expect the Cardinals to keep winning, especially the way they did Sunday in Foxboro. But I do expect the defense to continue to play well under Horton, who will be a head coaching candidate again next offseason.

3. Frustrations are already boiling over in Tennessee.
Following the Titans’ ugly 38-10 loss to the Chargers in which Tennessee rushed for just 38 yards as a team, Chris Johnson sounded off about his teammates. Said Johnson, “People need to step up and do their job. They don’t need to let people beat them. It don’t matter who the opposing defense is, you can’t let your buy beat you.” Johnson’s right: The Titans offensive line has been brutal. It was brutal last year from a run blocking standpoint and it’s been brutal through the first two weeks of the season this year. But I can count on one finger how many times Johnson has hit the whole hard this year. He’s making too many cutbacks trying to hit a home run on every play instead of trusting his instincts and using his vision to find creases in the defense. Does his offensive line need to perform better? Certainly. But right now Johnson is as much of the problem as he is the solution so instead of calling his teammates out publicly, he needs to figure out what can be done internally to better the situation because we’re only two games into a very long season.

4. Alex Smith finally looks comfortable.
For the first time in his career Alex Smith is running the same offense with the same playbook with the same offensive coordinator as he did the year prior. And what do you know? He’s been successful. It’s too early to make bold statements about the positioning of any team, but the 49ers might just be the best squad in football. They beat the Packers in Lambeau, then returned home on Sunday night and suffocated the Lions for four quarters. Detroit had to scratch, claw, and fight for every single yard that they earned, which is the way San Francisco’s defense wants it. On the other side of the ball, Smith once again took what the defense gave him, didn’t turn the ball over and threw two more touchdown passes to give him a total of four on the season. It’s hard to make statements in only two weeks but the Niners have sent a message that last year wasn’t a fluke. If Smith is their weak link, they’re in good shape so far.

5. Maybe it was just rust for Vick.
One week after playing like a rookie in Cleveland, Michael Vick completed 23-of-32 passes for 371 yards with one touchdown and added 10 carries for 34 yards and another score the Eagles’ 24-23 come-from-behind win against the Ravens on Sunday. It was vintage Vick, as he threw two costly interceptions and fumbled on an exchange with LeSean McCoy, but he also elevated his team to victory. That’s two last-second touchdown drives that Vick has engineered in as many weeks and while he deserves criticism for the turnovers, he deserves praise for pulling victory out of the jaws of defeat in back-to-back weeks. Still, questions remain about his health. He took two big shots by Baltimore defenders early in the game and he stayed down on his knee for a couple of moments after taking the first hit. How long before we see Nick Foles have to enter a game that Vick leaves due to an injury?

6. The rookie quarterbacks were much improved.
Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson picked up their first NFL wins, RGIII once again dazzled despite losing in St. Louis, and Brandon Weeden actually resembled a professional quarterback in a road loss to Cincinnati. All in all, it was a great day for rookie quarterbacks around the league. What Luck did in Indianapolis was particiluarly noteworthy. With the Colts and Vikings tied 20-20 with just 31 seconds remaining in the game, Luck took Indy 44 yards in four plays, setting Adam Vinatieri up for a game-winning 53-yard field goal. He certainly wasn’t perfect on the day, missing open receivers and taking a huge 22-yard sack on a crucial fourth down in the fourth quarter, but he remains well ahead of where he should be for a rookie signal caller. Wilson got a lot of help from his defense and special teams but both his and Tannehill’s athleticism were on display yesterday. Weeden also deserves praise for taking better care of the ball this week than in the Browns’ opening-season loss to the Eagles and credit him for taking what Cincinnati’s defense gave him. (The middle of the field was wide open throughout the day and Weeden just kept firing balls in between the linebackers and safeties.)

7. Morgan is fortunate to still be on Shanahan’s roster.
The Redskins were an enormous gift by Rams’ rookie Daryl Richardson, who fumbled with just under three minutes remaining in the game. Washington took over at its own 37-yard-line needing at least a field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. But on a third-and-eight play in St. Louis territory, Redskins’ wideout Josh Morgan caught a pass from Robert Griffin III and after being shoved by Cortland Finnegan, Morgan chucked the ball at the Rams’ corner and was flagged for a 15-yard personal foul. So instead of being well within Billy Cundiff’s range to tie the game, the play moved the Redskins out of field goal range and they eventually lost the game, 31-28. Part of you feels for Morgan because Finnegan started the fire by shoving the Washington receiver. But Morgan simply has to be better than that. With the game on the line, he has to keep his cool. A team never wins or losses on just one play but in a situation like that, it’s hard not to forget everything else that happened prior to that situation. That’s a play that Morgan and the Redskins may not forget the rest of the year.

8. Bush reminds us of how exciting a player he is.
The Saints did what they had to do two years ago when they traded Reggie Bush to Miami. They knew they were overpaying him and they found his replacement in Darren Sproles very easily on the open market. But while he became a forgot man in NFL circles, Bush has quietly turned into a reliable playmaker for the Dolphins. He totaled 109 yards in Week 1 against one of the best defenses in the league (Houston), and then for an encore performance he rushed 26 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns in Miami’s 35-13 win over the Raiders on Sunday. The 23-yard touchdown run that he had in which he broke several tackles and refused to go down was reminiscent of his days at USC. He’s an exciting player again and doesn’t get enough credit for playing with raw emotion and passion. He continues to be the featured player in Mike Sherman’s West Coast offense and it’s a role that certainly suits him.

9. Bad day for injuries around the league.
The Giants’ offensive line isn’t very good and the depth behind the starters is thin. Thus, losing left tackle David Diehl (knee) for any amount of time is troublesome. Even worse, running back Ahmad Bradshaw underwent an X-ray for a neck injury and at this point, his status remains unclear…The Eagles lost center Jason Kelce, left tackle King Dunlap and receiver Jeremy Maclin in their win over the Ravens. Kelce is done for the season and keep in mind this is a team that already lost Jason Peters to a season-ending injury before the season even started…Adding insult to injury, the Patriots could be without tight end Aaron Hernandez for awhile after he suffered a high ankle sprain in the team’s embarrassing 20-18 loss to the Cardinals…People in St. Louis thought running back Steven Jackson was benched right before halftime for spiking the ball following what he believed to be a touchdown, and then cost the Rams an opportunity for a touchdown as they were pushed back 15 yards. But it was worse – Jackson suffered a groin injury on the play and never returned. The Rams also lost Rodger Saffold again, this time to a knee injury…Blaine Gabbert had to be replaced by Chad Henne after he injured his toe and hamstring…Despite not being listed on the Seahawks’ postgame injury report, receiver Sidney Rice, who hasn’t looked right all season, left the game early for an unknown reason…Just a bad day for injuries in the NFL.

10. It’s going to be a great one in Atlanta.
The NFL couldn’t have asked for a better Monday night matchup than the one it’ll get tonight when the Falcons host the Broncos. Peyton Manning was sharp in Denver’s win last Sunday night against the Steelers and it’ll be interesting to see how he attacks an Atlanta secondary that lost its top corner in Brent Grimes (Achilles) for the season. On the other side, Matt Ryan is now at the helm of an offense that can actually outscore opponents through the air instead of trying to grind out wins on the ground. As Michael Turner’s play continues to decline, Julio Jones’ career is just taking off. The Broncos love to get after the passer so Ryan will need to continue to get the ball out of his hands quickly as he did in Week 1 and throughout the preseason. There’s also added incentive for both teams after what happened on Sunday. The Chargers are 2-0 after beating the Titans so if the Broncos don’t want to lose any ground in the AFC West, they need a victory tonight. And with the Saints sitting at 0-2 two weeks in, the Falcons could take sole possession of the NFC South, which is huge considering how good that division is top to bottom. It’s going to be fun tonight.

NFL Quick Hits: 10 Observations from Week 1

The Redskins win was a shock but how they won wasn’t.
Outside of the Eagles struggling in Cleveland, the Redskins’ 40-32 shocker over the Saints was easily the biggest surprise of Week 1. But it’s not as if Washington won using smoke and mirrors. Mike Shanahan built Robert Griffin III’s confidence by calling several zero or “bubble” screens to start the game, then mixed in the play-action pass in order to suck the Saints’ LBs up and give his rookie QB clear passing lanes to throw in. These aren’t the same Redskins of the past several years either. This team finally has offensive playmakers and it’s not just RGIII. Pierre Garcon and Aldrick Robinson form a nice receiving duo and Alfed Morris complements RGIII as a downhill runner with quickness and vision. He only gained 3.4 YPC but for those that watched the game, Morris was a factor. Defensively Washington was equally as impressive. Ryan Kerrigan routinely beat left tackle Jermon Bushrod off the edge and Drew Brees had defenders in his face from the first snap of the game. When Jim Haslett called blitzes, they worked. DeAngelo Hall was successful blitzing from his cornerback position, the interior pressure provided by Barry Cofield also disrupted Brees’ timing and Brian Orakpo was effective as well. Whether it was Washington’s pressure or an off day for Brees, the Saints looked completely out of sync offensively. And they were sloppy, too. The offensive line had multiple false start penalties, Brees routinely threw balls at his receivers’ feet or over their heads, and when he was on target his wideouts dropped a few passes as well. It was just an ugly day for an offense that we’re used to seeing fire on all cylinders. Even when things went right and they were knocking on the door of an easy touchdown, Marques Colston had the ball punched out at the goal line, which resulted in a touchback. But credit Haslett and his defense, as the Redskins snuffed out several of Brees’ go-to plays and routinely blanketed receivers. Washington implemented a solid game plan and executed to perfection. The two teams may go in opposite directions from here on out but for 60 minutes on Sunday, the Redskins were flat out better.

It was vintage Vick – and not in a good way.
When he was in Atlanta, there were games the Falcons would play where they were expected to win and Michael Vick almost single-handedly kept the opponent in the game with his sloppy play. That same Vick showed up in Cleveland on Sunday, as the Browns could have, and should have, beaten the Eagles but fell, 17-16. Make no mistake: Vick was awful. He stared down receivers. He threw into double coverage. He telegraphed his throws. He would desperately chuck balls into traffic when he was under pressure. He looked like a rookie and if the Browns weren’t starting a rookie signal caller of their own in Brandon Weeden (who resembled hot garbage himself), the Browns would have pulled away long before the final whistle. People may talk about Vick engineering that final comeback drive but had L.J. Fort hung onto an interception in the end zone on the play before the Eagles game-winning touchdown, Cleveland would have won. Andy Reid blames Vick’s performance on rust after he received just 12 snaps this preseason and hey, maybe it was rust. But the bottom line is that Philly is expected to challenge for not only a playoff berth but also a Super Bowl and their quarterback nearly willed them to a loss against a team that will challenge for the No. 1 pick next April. Good thing for Vick and Philly it was only Week 1.

Typical Giants.
There’s a general rule I have when it comes to the New York Giants. If their backs are against the wall and they’re not expected to win, ride like them hell because they’re going to fight. But if the general perception is that they should win, expect them to scuffle. The Cowboys came out of the gates on Thursday night looking for a 10-round fight and they wound up delivering a four-round knockout instead. Eli Manning was ordinary, the pass protection was poor, and the vaunted pass rush was non-existent outside of what Jason Pierre-Paul did from his right end spot. Justin Tuck did next to nothing from a pass-rush standpoint, which has to frustrate the Giants considering he didn’t wake up until about Week 15 last year, and both Tony Romo and Dez Bryant abused Corey Webster in coverage. For a team that talked about being overlooked in the offseason, it was surprising that the Giants were as flat as they were…

…that said, let’s not understate what the Cowboys accomplished. Romo was surgical in the passing game and if DeMarco Murray can stay healthy the ‘Boys have an explosive backfield to complement their stable of receivers. Jason Garrett also deserves credit for going for the jugular on that third down play at the end of the game. How in the world the Giants didn’t account for Kevin Ogletree on that play is inexcusable (he had killed them all game), but Garrett deserves praise for keeping the ball out of Eli’s hands. He could have very easily ran the ball, punted, and took the chance that his defense would hold the Giants one more time. But in going for it and picking up the first down, he eliminated even the possibility of a comeback. Finally a Jason Garrett that Dallas fans can get behind.

A tale of two defenses in Green Bay.
One thing teams don’t do enough of when playing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ explosive passing attack is be physical with Green Bay’s receivers. Teams are so worried about giving up a big play (and rightfully so) that they play off the ball on every snap and allow Rodgers to have huge passing lanes to fit the ball into. But in their impressive 30-22 win on Sunday, the Niners aligned their corners and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. The defensive backs were physical not just at the line of scrimmage but through the entire route, and San Fran consistently generated an interior pass rush. On the other side, the Packers were able to bring pressure from the edge but Alex Smith was able to step up in the pocket and find open receivers the entire game. Green Bay played too soft in coverage, which was a problem last year as well. I understand what the Packers’ game plan was: Pressure Smith and force him to beat you throwing the ball. But the 49ers’ receivers were able to sit down in open areas and Smith was simply taking what the defense gave him. When the Packers were physical with the Niners’ receivers, Jarrett Bush was flagged for pass interference, or Clay Matthews for roughing the passer, or San Francisco’s wideouts just made plays. The other problem, of course, was that the Packers couldn’t slow down Frank Gore and the San Francisco running game. That opened up the middle of the field and the intermediate passing game. The 49ers had a better game plan, executed that game plan better than Green Bay, and made more plays. I don’t know if you can say it was a statement win for the 49ers but they certainly sent a message for those that thought they weren’t as good as their record indicated last year. (On a side note, if the regular officials wanted to make a case that the NFL needs them, they could use this game as Exhibit A. The replacement officials missed multiple false start penalties, often called infractions late, and made several questionable calls. Just a brutal day by that specific crew.)

Johnson already off to a horrendous start.
I went back and watched the Patriots’ 34-13 victory over the Titans to see if Tennessee’s offensive line failed Chris Johnson or if Johnson failed himself. While the run blocking didn’t to generate much push on interior runs, Johnson was slow to the hole, tried to bounce everything outside, and didn’t trust what he saw. When he wasn’t smashing into the backs of his linemen he was trying to make too many cuts and New England would bottle him up. Last year he wasn’t in shape and it showed. This year, at least after four quarters, he looks like he’s trying to hit a home run on every play. While Tennessee’s run blocking needs to improve, Johnson could do himself a favor by hitting the hole harder and trusting his instincts. He was a one-cut-and-go back just two seasons ago. Now he’s trying to break a 70-yard run on every play.

Luck is already ahead of the game.
The Colts’ shaky offensive line didn’t do Andrew Luck any favors on Sunday in Chicago but the rookie still completed 23-of-45 passes for 309 yards with one touchdown. He also threw three interceptions but all things considered, it was an impressive first performance. (Consider how poorly Matt Ryan performed last year Week 1 against the Bears in Chicago.) From a pocket presence standpoint Luck is already playing like a seasoned veteran and keep in mind he doesn’t have a ton of playmakers around him. Reggie Wayne is still a better option than most but his best days are behind him and Austin Collie wasn’t in the lineup. This won’t be the last time I say this in 2012 but as soon as the Colts give Luck a better supporting cast he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.

The Falcons’ passing game was on point but “The Burner” looks finished.
It cannot be overstated that the Chiefs were banged up defensively on Sunday. They were without their best pass rusher in Tamba Hali (suspended one game) and their top corner in Brandon Flowers (heel). Derrick Johnson was also battling an ankle injury and while Justin Houston is developing nicely, he’s not a player that’s going to take over a game. That said, the Falcons’ passing game looked good. Really good. Matt Ryan routinely found open receivers and exploited one-on-one matchups in the secondary. Even though he’s a second-year player, Julio Jones already uses his body well to shed defenders and gives Ryan a clear target to throw to. Roddy White also made several excellent catches in the Falcons’ 40-24 win, including a snag along the sideline in which he had to drag his right foot in order to compete the play. But I point out the passing game and not the entire offense because Michael Turner did nothing on the ground. He looked like he had cement blocks for feet and constantly banged into the backs of his offensive linemen instead of cutting back and finding extra running room. Not only is he slowing down but he lacks vision as well. Everyone knew he was declining but there’s reason to believe he’s already done and if OC Dirk Koetter were smart, he’d get second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers more involved immediately.

The demise of the Jets may have been a tad exaggerated.
The Jets couldn’t score a touchdown in preseason against thin air so hey, why wouldn’t they hang 58 points on the Bills in Week 1? Fourteen of those 58 points were split between New York’s special teams and defense but still, it was quite a performance by the Jets’ seemingly lackluster offense. Despite adding the likes of Mario Williams, Stephon Gilmore and Mark Anderson in preseason, the Bills’ defense did not look sharp in preseason. So it’s not overly surprisingly that they struggled in Week 1 but this was a New York offense that was positively putrid in exhibition play. The key was that Mark Sanchez never got rattled, although it’s hard not to play with confidence with a 20-point halftime lead. Despite sharing reps with Tim Tebow, Sanchez remained unfazed and often burned Buffalo’s defense with pump fakes and double moves. Even the staunchest Sanchez critics, and I count myself as one of them, had to be impressed by his 2012 debut performance (and I was). There’s a lot of season left for both of these teams but it’s safe to say that the offseason projections for the Jets were grossly exaggerated.

Rams prevent Fisher’s first win in St. Louis era.
It’s rare when a team forces three turnovers and loses a game but that stat tells the tale for the Rams in Detroit on Sunday. They intercepted Matthew Stafford three times but still found a way to lose, 27-23. On one hand the St. Louis faithful has to be thrilled that their team had an opportunity to win a game in the end. That didn’t happen much last year. But there are no moral victories for Jeff Fisher and he can’t be happy that his young team allowed a win to slip through its grasp. St. Louis’ defense made Stafford look ordinary for three quarters but the offense never put the game out of reach. And when the defense had an opportunity to shut the door following Brandon Gibson’s spectacular 23-yard touchdown reception with just under 10 minutes to play in the fourth, it wilted. Fisher and his staff went to a prevent defense, and the results were predictable as the Lions snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat. Thanks to the worst offensive line in football (a line that lost Scott Wells and Rodger Saffold to injuries on Sunday), the Rams won’t have many opportunities to win games this season. That’s why they can’t let victories like yesterdays slip through their fingertips.

2012 NFL Season & Super Bowl Predictions

Will the Patriots roll through an easy schedule on their way to yet another Super Bowl appearance?

Does Peyton Manning’s presence make the Broncos the team to beat in the AFC West or will another team unseat Denver in the division?

Can the Eagles unseat the Giants in a tough NFC East? Will the Falcons take advantage of the Saints’ tumultuous offseason and finally get over the playoff hump?

The start of the 2012 NFL regular season is just days away, which means it’s time to hand out our predictions for the new year. Below you’ll find division-by-division picks, as well as playoff and of course Super Bowl projections as well.

Dear God, football is back.

AFC EAST
1. New England Patriots
2. Buffalo Bills
3. New York Jets
4. Miami Dolphins

The Patriots won’t suffer a letdown after reaching the Super Bowl back in February. Their offense remains steady thanks to Tom Brady and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and their defense keeps improving under Bill Belichick’s guidance. The addition of Defensive ROY candidate Chandler Jones will help the Pats pressure the quarterback, which was one of their weaknesses the last year. Considering they have the easiest schedule of all 32 NFL teams based on the opponents’ records in 2011, the Patriots shouldn’t have any issues winning the AFC East again this season…The Bills upgraded their defense with the additions of free agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, as well as the selection of first-rounder Stephon Gilmore. They also have a solid offensive core in Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson, plus an improving offensive line. But Buffalo will only go as far as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick takes them and unfortunately for the Bills, he’s often exposed by top defenses. While some are predicting Buffalo to reach the postseason, come the end of the year I have the Bills on the outside looking in…The offseason “battle” between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow has taken the onus off the real problem in New York: The offensive line. The two years the Jets made the playoffs with Sanchez under center their defense and running game were outstanding. The defense is still one of the league’s best but they’re going to have to pitch shutouts because as the preseason showed us, the Jets are going to have a difficult time finding the end zone behind their O-line. “Gang Green” will be fortunate to finish .500 this season…The Dolphins have a new head coach, new coordinators, and a new quarterback but they’ll struggle to win games in 2011. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton have proven that rookie quarterbacks can have a great deal of success their fist years in the league, but Ryan Tannehill isn’t surrounded by great talent. This isn’t the worst team in the league but the Fins will likely top out at six wins again.

AFC NORTH
1. Baltimore Ravens
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Cincinnati Bengals
4. Cleveland Browns

The offensive lines in Baltimore and Pittsburgh are both question marks entering the season but I see the Ravens’ O-line gelling throughout the season. I can’t say the same about the Steelers’ front five, which lost rookie guard David DeCastro in preseason. Joe Flacco and Cam Cameron butted heads last year because Flacco often felt that the offense was too tepid. But Flacco has been energized by Cameron’s decision to incorporate more no-huddle elements into the offense. And with the re-signing of Ray Rice and the development of budding star Torrey Smith, the Ravens’ offense is finally ready to carry this team. Granted, the defense is getting long in the tooth and the loss of Terrell Suggs is significant. But the secondary is solid and the Baltimore defense always finds a way to be productive…The Steelers will once again challenge the Ravens for first place in the division. That’s just what they do. But Ben Roethlisberger can’t keep running for his life behind a shaky offensive line. Pittsburgh thought it had upgraded the unit over the offseason but as previously mentioned, DeCastro will miss significant time due to a knee injury and second-round pick Mike Adams proved in preseason that he wasn’t ready to take over the starting right tackle spot. Pittsburgh’s defense is also aging and if younger players like Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward and Keenan Lewis don’t step up, we could see Dick LeBeau’s squad start to unravel. The Steelers are still a playoff contender but for how much longer?…The Bengals were no fluke in 2011. Andy Dalton may take a step back in his second year like most quarterbacks do, but it would be a mistake to question whether or not he can win in this league. That said, Cincinnati doesn’t have much behind star A.J. Green in its receiving corps and the depth along the defensive line and in the secondary is also thin. This team was 0-4 against the likes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore last season and if they can’t win games in the division I don’t see them making a repeat trip to the postseason…The Browns are once again starting over with rookies Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, who will struggle after facing soft defenses in the Big 12. While Greg Little and Josh Gordon certainly have potential, Weeden also doesn’t have a true No. 1 receiving target and outside of Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, questions remain along the offensive line. Defensively, injuries continue to take their toll along the front four and while Joe Haden is a stud in the making, the secondary is littered with holes as well. In a tough division, Cleveland will have a hard time competing.

AFC SOUTH
1. Houston Texans
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Indianapolis Colts

The Texans are the class of the division and they might have the most talent of any team in the AFC, which includes the Patriots. The loss of Mario Williams won’t hurt as much as some think because he simply wasn’t a fit for Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense. Thanks to Arian Foster, Ben Tate and a very good run-blocking offensive line, the Texans will control the clock and win tight games because of their stingy defense. The biggest question is whether or not Matt Schaub can put this team on his shoulders for 16-plus games and, if guys like Andre Johnson can stay healthy…The Titans are my Cincinnati Bengals of 2012. A darkhorse if you will. Jake Locker must become a more accurate and consistent passer but he’s going to produce plenty of big plays thanks to his arm strength and OC Chris Palmer’s decision to install Run ‘N Shoot elements into his offense. Locker also has a couple of nice weapons in Kenny Britt (if he can stay healthy and out of trouble), Kendall Wright and Chris Johnson, who should have a bounce back year. Granted, the offensive line wasn’t very good from a run-blocking standpoint last year and the defense doesn’t do one thing particularly well but I like the Titans to surprise and qualify for one of the Wild Card spots…The Jaguars received huge sigh of relief when Maurice Jones-Drew finally reported to team head quarters. But holdout running backs have a tendency to struggle (look at Chris Johnson last year) when they miss all of training camp and preseason, and Blaine Gabbert will still suffer through plenty of ups and downs. That said, this team will be more competitive than it was a year ago. Gabbert has made marked improvements as a passer and the addition of Justin Blackmon gives this team a much needed playmaker at receiver…The Colts will be better than they were a year ago because of rookie QB Andrew Luck, who looks like the real deal. But there’s not much around him. It’ll be a year or two before Chuck Pagano can get the right pieces in place to run his 3-4 defense and the Colts simply don’t have enough weapons on offense to be competitive.

AFC WEST
1. Denver Broncos
2. San Diego Chargers
3. Kansas City Chiefs
4. Oakland Raiders

The Broncos have a brutal first-half schedule but if Tim Tebow can win a playoff game in Denver than logic dictates that Peyton Manning can do the same. As long as Manning stays healthy and the defense doesn’t take a step back, the Broncos should win this division…That said, the Chargers might have the best starters of the four teams in the West, and if they can finally start out of the gates hot they could very well win the division. Robert Meachem isn’t Vincent Jackson but he deserves a chance to prove that he can be a No. 1 guy and when healthy, Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews give Philip Rivers a couple of nice weapons. That said, the left tackle position is a concern and the defense underachieved last year. The top spot is up for grabs in this division but in the end I see the Broncos losing one less game than the Bolts…The Chiefs might have the most overall talent and the deepest depth of any team in the division. The problem is that Matt Cassel is their quarterback and while some are predicting that Kansas City will win the West, I just can’t put my faith behind Cassel. That said, thanks to Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, Jon Baldwin and Romeo Crennel’s defense, the Chiefs will keep things interesting…The Raiders narrowly missed the playoffs a year ago but they’re going to pay for past mistakes, specifically Hue Jackson’s decision to trade a first round pick for Carson Palmer last season. Palmer looked shaky in preseason and the offense won’t be as explosive under Gregg Knapp as it was last year under Jackson. If Darren McFadden can stay healthy Oakland will be competitive and the defense does look like it’s improved. But there’s no question that Palmer is on the down slope of his career and it’s not unrealistic to suggest he’s finished as a productive quarterback.

NFC EAST
1. New York Giants
2. Philadelphia Eagles
3. Dallas Cowboys
4. Washington Redskins

Once again this is the most difficult division to predict in the NFL. The Eagles arguably have the most talent in the division but I don’t trust that Michael Vick will stay healthy and even though the defense was very good in the second half last year, Juan Castillo has a tendency to be exposed against good playcallers…The Cowboys seemingly fixed their problems in the secondary and thanks to a number of weapons on offense, they’ll rack up plenty of yardage again this season. But can the skill players stay healthy? Will this offense once again struggle to score points despite moving the ball at will? Is the secondary really fixed or will it remain a problem? Somehow, someway the Cowboys usually find a way to get in their own way…Which brings us to the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. I don’t know how Eli Manning survived behind that offensive line last year and if the pass rusher falters at all, the back seven isn’t good enough to keep the defense afloat. But my general rule when it comes to the Giants is that if nobody is paying attention to them, bet the house that they’ll win. They thrive in the underdog role and they’ve played second-fiddle to the Eagles, Cowboys and even in-state rival the Jets all offseason. Thus, despite Dallas and Philadelphia having better talent, I like New York to once again qualify for the postseason…The Redskins are going to be fun to watch this year thanks to Robert Griffin III. They’ll also be able to run the ball because of Mike Shanahan and they have more weapons on offense than they did a year ago thanks to the additions of RGIII and Pierre Garcon. But the secondary is an issue and questions remain about whether or not this team can keep Griffin upright. The Skins also play in an ultra-competitive division so while they’ll be competitive, they’ll likely fall well short of the playoffs.

NFC NORTH
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Chicago Bears
3. Detroit Lions
4. Minnesota Vikings

The Packers have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL thanks to Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, and the addition of Cedric Benson will pay dividends as well. There’s no way the defense will rank 32nd again so the Pack are poised to make another postseason run…There are two massive question marks surrounding the Bears. One is the offensive line, which continues to be inconsistent and the second is the defense, which is aging quickly. Will Father Time catch up with Chicago’s defense this season or will it hold off another year? That said, if Jay Cutler and Matt Forte don’t get hurt last year then the Bears make the playoffs as the fifth seed in the NFC. Plus, keep in mind that Chicago is just two years removed from winning the division and the additions of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery finally give opposing defensive backs something to be concerned with on Sundays. I like the Bears to win one of the two Wild Card spots…I think the Lions will regress this season. The passing game will be dangerous but can Matthew Stafford once again stay healthy for a full 16 games? Can this team win behind a shaky offensive line and no running game? On the other side the ball the defense doesn’t play with discipline, Louis Delmas’ health remains a concern and rookie Bill Bentley will line up opposite Chris Houston at cornerback. The Lions’ defense was brutal down the stretch last season and while Calvin Johnson will once again be fun to watch, a .500 season seems more realistic than a repeat playoff appearance…The Vikings will continue to grow behind Christian Ponder but Adrian Peterson’s health is obviously a concern, they don’t have a weapon opposite Percy Harvin in the passing game and the defensive secondary isn’t very reliable. In a stacked division Minnesota will once again have a difficult time competing.

NFC SOUTH
1. New Orleans Saints
2. Atlanta Falcons
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Saints had a tumultuous offseason, losing head coach Sean Payton and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma to the bounty scandal suspensions, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who was also suspended) to the Rams, and Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem to free agency. But Drew Brees had a huge hand in Payton’s offensive game plans the past four years so he’ll keep New Orleans afloat. Plus, the loss of Vilma was negated with the addition of Curtis Lofton, who is a much better run-stopper than Vilma, Meachem is merely a No. 3 receiver and the team did well to replace Nicks with Ben Grubbs. New DC Steve Spagnuolo (who is an upgrade over Williams) will have to get creative when it comes to his pass rush but this team will be fine…There’s a ton of optimism surrounding the Falcons this season because of the decisions they made this offseason. Mike Mularkey was a solid offensive coordinator but Matt Ryan had outgrown his conservative, run-first approach. In steps in new OC Dirk Koetter, who has installed an up-tempo offense that suits Ryan. Julio Jones looks like he’s ready for a monstrous second year and he should only make Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas better around him. Defensively the Falcons hired Mike Nolan to replace Brian Van Gorder, who wasn’t a bad coordinator but his philosophy under head coach Mike Smith was to stop the run and play bend-but-don’t-break schemes in the back seven. That won’t work against the likes of the Saints, Packers and Giants, so Nolan has installed a scheme that will focus on stopping the pass. The Falcons also traded for Asante Samuel, who will join forces with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson to form an exciting cornerback trio. If young players like Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore have breakout years, the Atlanta defense will be much improved…Cam Newton will keep the Panthers in most games. He has loads of playmaking ability and plenty of weapons around him in Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Greg Olson. But the defense only has one true pass rusher (Charles Johnson), the linebacker corps is always suffering from injuries and the safety position is a major question mark. Simply put, the defense will keep Carolina from earning playoff berth but watch the Panthers stay in contention all season…Thanks to new coach Greg Schiano the Bucs will be tougher and more focused in 2012. The front office also did well to bring in Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson in free agency, which will certainly appease QB Josh Freeman (who is poised to have a bounce back year). Rookie first-rounder Mark Barron might also wind up being the steal of the 2012 draft in that he’s NFL ready having played for Nick Saban at Alabama. Fellow rookie Doug Martin looks like he’s ready to explode in his first year as well. That said, the front seven remains a huge question mark on defense and this team doesn’t have the ability to blow teams out. Under Schiano the Bucs will attempt to win the time of possession battle by keeping the ball on the ground and trying to win games in the fourth quarter. This is an up-and-coming team but it’ll be a year before Tampa is challenging for a playoff spot again.

NFC WEST
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. St. Louis Rams
4. Arizona Cardinals

There aren’t a lot of believers in Alex Smith but the fact is he managed games well last season and stayed out of the way as the 49ers’ defense and running game produced wins. Thanks to the additions of Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and rookie A.J. Jenkins, Smith has plenty of weapons around him to succeed. (Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree obviously remain the highlights of the offense.) Thanks to the best defense in the league and weak competition in the division, the Niners will challenge for the top seed in the NFC again this season…Some believe the Seahawks will struggle under rookie Russell Wilson but if the kid were four inches taller he would have been a top 10 selection. He’s smart and he has the skill set to succeed – it’s just too bad that outside of an unreliable Sidney Rice, he has nobody to throw the ball to. The defense is underrated so if Wilson can move the ball, look for the Hawks to hang around before eventually fading down the stretch…Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff are worth two or three wins alone in St. Louis. The Rams will be better than they were a year ago but plenty of questions remain. The offensive line isn’t very good, the middle of the defense will be exposed on a weekly basis because of poor safety play and the book is still out on Sam Bradford. He has yet to raise the level of his play when under pressure and his O-line won’t do him any favors this year. This is also the youngest team in the league and depth is a massive problem…The Cardinals have the least effective starting quarterback in the NFL thanks to John Skelton, who will play behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. Ray Horton’s defense is going to surprise people this year but it’s also going to be on the field a lot because of the struggles of the offense. Maybe Skelton has more magic up his sleeve and hey, he does have Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams at his disposal. But chances are it’s going to be a long year in ‘Zona.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

AFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Patriots
2. Texans
3. Ravens
4. Broncos
5. Steelers
6. Titans

NFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Packers
2. 49ers
3. Saints
4. Giants
5. Bears
6. Falcons

WILD CARD PREDICTIONS
Ravens over Titans
Steelers over Broncos
Falcons over Giants
Saints over Bears

DIVISIONAL PREDICTIONS
Patriots over Steelers
Ravens over Texans
Packers over Falcons
49ers over Saints

CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTIONS
Ravens over Patriots
Packers over 49ers

SUPER BOWL PREDICTION
Packers over Ravens

NFL Quick-Hits: Ten Observations from Week 2 of Preseason

Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will share his quick-hit observations from the week that was in football. This week he hands out 10 observations from Week 2 of the 2012 NFL preseason.

1. The Jets’ offense is troubling.
Mark Sanchez is already in mid-season form. In two preseason games, he’s 13-of-17 for a dismal 80 yards with no touchdowns and one 77-yard pick-six against the Giants on Saturday night. But it’s unfair to be overly critical of Sanchez’s performance when he’s consistently on his back or starring out of his ear hole. The Jets’ offensive line has been a disaster to this point and how can anyone expect that Sanchez will take that next step if right tackle Wayne Hunter acts as a turnstile instead of a brick wall? Sanchez has been sacked six times in 23 dropbacks in preseason and Hunter allowed four sacks in total on Saturday night. The fact that the Jets tried to trade for Carolina OT Jeff Otah back in July is all you need to know about the team’s confidence in Hunter. (The trade eventually fell through after Otah couldn’t pass a physical.) But it’s not just Hunter – the entire New York offensively is struggling, so much so that Tony Sparano’s offense has yet to score a touchdown in two preseason games. Forget Sanchez and ESPN’s lovechild Tim Tebow – if the Jets don’t get their offensive line straightened, the 1960s version of Joe Namath could step off a time machine and struggle under center.

2. Let’s keep Peyton’s “struggles” in proper context.
Following the Broncos’ loss to the Seahawks on Saturday night, the headlines on Sunday focused on Peyton Manning’s two interceptions. In two games this preseason, Manning is 20-of-30 passing for 221 yards, no touchdowns and three picks. Ever consumed by projections and predictions, many message board fanatics and media members are clamoring about how Manning doesn’t look like the Peyton of old. Really? The guy didn’t play a down last year and his career appeared to be in jeopardy. Twelve months ago many said he was finished. Now, because he’s thrown three interceptions in his first two preseason games following multiple neck surgeries, everyone is concerned? Relax. Jacob Tamme dropped an easy touchdown versus Seattle and Eric Decker also put one of Manning’s passes on the ground as well. His velocity isn’t there yet and may never return. But it’s only the second week of the preseason. Give him time to get his feel back for the game before we chastise him about his numbers.

3. It’s great to see Atlanta and Baltimore open things up.
The paths of the Falcons and Ravens have run parallel to each other since 2008. Mike Smith and John Harbaugh were both hired that year, while Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan were both selected in the first round of that draft. Both teams have also been on the cusp of big things, although Baltimore has been closer to fulfilling its promise than Atlanta, which is 0-3 in the playoffs under Smith. One other key similarity between these two teams is their offensive philosophy, which is to keep the ball on the ground and play a physical brand of football. Or, should I say that was the teams’ philosophy until this year. Flacco was inconsistent against the Lions on Friday but for the most part he looked smooth running Cam Cameron’s no huddle offense. He often got the Ravens set before Detroit’s defense was settled and while he attacked with mostly underneath routes, the takeaway is that he looked comfortable. Ryan, meanwhile, has looked like a different quarterback in new OC Dirk Koetter’s system. He’s no longer just a game manager that is afraid to fit the ball into tight windows. He’s confident, he’s standing strong in a muddied pocket and he has developed a great rapport with Julio Jones. In what has become a passing league, it’s good to see that two contenders have finally come to grips with the fact that they need to adjust.

4. Enough about Bradford’s ankle.
CBSsports.com’s Jason La Canfora released a report earlier this week that stated there’s a “definite possibility” that Sam Bradford will need ankle surgery after the season. I’m not here to discredit La Canfora’s report, which was validated a day later when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch confirmed that the team does have concerns about Bradford’s left ankle holding up for the entire season. But the bottom line is that he didn’t miss one rep in mini-camp, hasn’t missed one rep in training camp, and has yet to be affected by the ankle in preseason. In practices he hasn’t had issues rolling out of the pocket and hasn’t as much as limped around the field. Saturday night versus the Chiefs, he completed 6-of-9 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. From the very first snap of the game when he hit Danny Amendola on a long crossing route for a 35-yard gain, Bradford consistently went through his progressions and found open receivers. He’s primed for a bounce back season.

5. Outside of Urlacher, optimism continues to build in Chicago.
Looking back, the Bears had one of the better offseasons of any team in the league. Had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not gotten hurt last season, the Bears were on a collision course with the fifth playoff seed in the NFC. So what did they do? They signed a quality player in Jason Smith to backup Cutler and added Michael Bush to help take some of the rushing load off of Forte. Of course, Chicago’s biggest and best move was trading for Brandon Marshall, who finally gives Cutler a bona fide No. 1 target. The Bears also drafted South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery, who has caught seven passes for 97 yards this offseason. The offensive line is the biggest concern, but the unit looked good on Saturday night. The other question mark is obviously Brian Urlacher, who likely won’t be healthy all season. But while the defense is getting long in the tooth, the Bears have everything they need to make a deep postseason run this season.

6. The Cardinals are in trouble.
If I were to pick one defense to improve the most from 2011 to 2012, I would choose the Arizona Cardinals. Last year coordinator Ray Horton implemented the same defense that Dick LeBeau runs in Pittsburgh and while the Cardinal defenders were often caught out of position last season because of their unfamiliarity with the scheme, they improved throughout the year. With a full offseason to grasp Horton’s scheme, Arizona’s defense should be quietly consistent all season. Then again, it better be because the offense could be a total disaster. The offensive line was already struggling before Levi Brown suffered what should be a season-ending triceps injury on Friday. Not only that, but Kevin Kolb has been a train wreck in preseason and while John Skelton has displayed a little magic before, he’ll eventually succumb to the pitfalls of the offensive line. Thanks to Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells, Michael Floyd and Ryan Williams, the parts are there. But Wells and Williams are injury concerns, the Cardinals are bringing Floyd along slowly and the greatness of Fitzgerald is nullified by a bad situation at quarterback and along the offensive line. It could be a long season in the desert.

7. Locker is keeping Hasselbeck in the running.
With an opportunity to perhaps widen the gap between he and Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker really struggled in his second preseason game on Saturday might. He completed just 4-of-11 passes for 21 yards and one interception and he struggled mightily in his first NFL start (preseason or regular). And because he had so many issues, coach Mike Munchak wasn’t able to declare Locker the starter this weekend. It makes sense that the Titans want Locker to emerge as the starter. After all, he’s the future and while the veteran Hasselbeck can keep Tennessee in most games, Locker is the superior athlete and has the ability to produce more big plays. But if the second-year quarterback can’t seize the opportunity in front of him, then Munchak has no choice but to allow the two signal callers to keep battling.

8. The Seahawks have an underrated battle at quarterback.
Doug Farrar of Yahoo! Sports joined Tony Softli and myself this morning on 101 ESPN radio in St. Louis and noted that at least one team would have drafted Russell Wilson ahead of Ryan Tannehill if Wilson weren’t as short as he is. But as SI.com’s Peter King said earlier this week, Wilson didn’t have one ball knocked down at Wisconsin. He’s a smart, instinctive kid with excellent fundamentals. If Matt Flynn didn’t sign that free agent deal this offeason, I’m not so sure Wilson wouldn’t have been named the starter by Pete Carroll at this point. Granted, Wilson has played against the second and third-teamers in preseason but that doesn’t negate the fact that he’s still making the throws, still making sound decisions, and still forcing Carroll from naming Flynn the starter heading into the third week of preseason.

9. The NFL hasn’t made the referees a priority, which is bothersome.
A couple of days ago NFL executive Ray Anderson made a comment on the locked out officials saying, “You’ve never paid for an NFL ticket to watch somebody officiate a game.” That’s true, I’ve never purchased a ticket to a NFL game hoping to a see a Pro Bowl-caliber performance from a referee. But I have paid to watch a professional NFL game, which should include professional referees. I get that the NFL is in the middle of a labor dispute and is therefore downplaying the value of the regular referees. But Anderson shouldn’t insult the intelligence of fans with comments like the one above. It’s a different game with replacement refs, and that much has been proven the past two weeks. I have no doubt that these replacements will improve with each week but it’s going to be a long time before they reach the level that the regulars are at. The NFL is not putting a high value on the regular referees, and that’s not fair to fans.

10. Questions surround Bowe.
As a whole, the Chiefs had a poor showing in their 31-17 loss to the Rams on Saturday night. But Matt Cassel did some good things, especially when he was allowed to open things up and target the middle of the field (which happens to be St. Louis’ weakness save for MLB James Laurinaitis). Jon Baldwin has also drawn rave reviews in training camp and Jamaal Charles appears to be recovering nicely from ACL surgery. Another piece of positive news is that Dwayne Bowe signed his franchise tender and has been cleared to practice. But will he learn new OC Brian Daboll’s scheme in time for the regular season? Imagine trying to master a new language before having to take the final exam in just two weeks. While there’s plenty of optimism growing in Kansas City, there’s a realistic chance that Bowe will be slow out of the gates until he can learn Daboll’s offense.

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