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Ten Observations from Week 14 in the NFL

1. The Redskins dodge two big bullets.
It’s ironic to think that back in April Mike Shanahan and the Redskins were blasted for drafting quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round instead of filling one of their many needs. Because just over five months later Cousins wound up saving a game for the Skins, if not their entire season. For Cousins to show so much poise and composure while leading the Redskins to a 31-28 come-from-behind victory over the Ravens was impressive. He was thrust into a situation where his decisions would directly affect whether or not his team would win or lose and he performed like a 10-year veteran as opposed to a fourth-round rookie. Instead of allowing the moment to overwhelm him, he displayed fortitude while finding Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with under a minute remaining in the game. Not only that, but he also ran for a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 28 and send it into overtime, where Washington eventually won. Afterwards it was revealed that an MRI on RGIII’s right knee came back clear and it appears as though the 7-6 Redskins will have their starting quarterback for the stretch run. Of course, if RGIII can’t go, Washington is fortunate to have a backup like Cousins. That’s something nobody expected anyone would say back in April.

2. The Bears may be on the verge of their second straight collapse.
The Bears would have made the playoffs last season had Matt Forte and Jay Cutler not been injured. That’s more of a presumption than a fact, but the bottom line is that they were undone by injuries and they might be suffering from déjà vu. With Brian Urlacher inactive, Chicago’s defense was no match for Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 31 yards on 154 carries and two touchdowns in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory. Worse yet, Cutler was shaken up late in the fourth quarter and is now day-to-day with a neck injury. We’ve seen this scene already play out multiple times: the Bears won’t survive without Cutler, who continues to take abuse from his shoddy offensive line. Fortunately for Chicago it plays Arizona in two weeks and wraps up the season against a Detroit team with nothing to play for. But the NFC North could be up for grabs next week and if Cutler can’t play, the Bears could suffer the same fate they did a season ago.

3. It took nearly three months but Cam Newton is finally putting on a show.
Turnovers and an inability to close out games doomed Cam Newton over the first three months of the season. That’s why instead of challenging for a postseason berth like some had thought they would, the Panthers stumbled to a 2-8 record. But Newton has been luminous over his past three games while playing like the star he was a season ago. He’s thrown for over 800 yards the past three weeks while posting a 7:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completing 62.2-percent of his passes. In Carolina’s impressive 30-20 victory over Atlanta on Sunday, Newton nearly played mistake-free football while completing 23-of-35 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also added 116 yards on nine rushes, including a 72-yard touchdown scamper on a read option in which he flashed his explosiveness and patience as a runner. He was even more impressive as a passer. It wasn’t just that he was accurate – he was accurate while throwing a handful of passes outside the numbers. He racked up 53 yards and a touchdown on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams in the fourth quarter, but the majority of his throws were lasers to receivers with defenders draped over them. He also benefited from an angry Steve Smith, who took 13 weeks of frustrations out on an overmatched Atlanta defense. Granted, it’s too little, too late for Newton and the Panthers. But Carolina has to feel much better about Newton’s performance over the past three weeks than it did earlier in the season when he sulked his way to six losses in his first seven games.

4. Reality is starting to set in for the Ravens.
The Ravens were a team of resiliency earlier this year but now they’re just a team trying to hold it all together. Thanks to injuries, they’re lacking playmakers on the defensive side of the ball and while their offense has been the highlight of their season at times, they’re an inconsistent unit led by an inconsistent quarterback. They caught a massive break when both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also lost on Sunday, but Baltimore can’t feel too good about allowing Kirk Cousins to put together an unthinkable comeback in the Redskins’ 31-28 victory. It was a game in which the Ravens held an eight-point lead until Cousins found Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds remaining, and a long punt return by Richard Crawford set up Kai Forbath’s 34-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. One week after losing to a banged up Steelers team, the Ravens were beaten by a rookie quarterback and his rookie backup. At 9-4 they’re still in good shape to make the postseason and even win the division. But at a point when teams hope to be ascending, Baltimore is stumbling backwards with legitimate concerns on both sides of the ball.

5. Skepticism once again takes center stage in Atlanta.
Instead of wondering whether or not they can make a Super Bowl run, the Falcons have once again left everyone doubting whether they can even win a playoff game. Their 30-20 loss to the Panthers was much worse than the final score would indicate. Carolina dominated Atlanta in all three phases of the game, which is noteworthy considering the Panthers currently reside in the basement of the NFC South. The Falcons’ game plan on both sides of the ball was rudimentary and despite scoring 20 points, their offense looked bogged down outside of a handful of drives. Opponents are making a habit of bringing pressure and putting it right in Matt Ryan’s face and the Falcons can’t counter the onslaught because they can’t run the ball. They also can’t stop the run, which was apparent by the 195 rushing yards their defense gave up on Sunday. Granted, they were without Week 13 hero William Moore (hamstring) and starting corner Asante Samuel (shoulder), but they can’t use injuries as an excuse. The Panthers manhandled them for four quarters and even though they’re 11-2, the Falcons are left with more questions than answers at this critical junction in the season.

6. The Rams are finding it’s better to be lucky than good.
In their past two games, the Rams defense has held the rushing trio of Frank Gore, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to 109 yards on 39 carries (2.79 YPC). A team doesn’t do that by accident. It takes a great game plan and near-flawless execution in order to suffocate some of the best backs in the league. What the Rams have done defensively over the past two weeks is hold their opponent just long enough for their offense to muster the confidence to move the ball into scoring range. That said, in taking nothing away from the heroics of Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Janoris Jenkins and Michael Brockers, the Rams have discovered it’s better to be lucky than good. If Jim Harbaugh doesn’t arrogantly call a toss play with Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter last week, the Rams probably don’t have an opportunity to beat the 49ers. If Austin Pettis doesn’t make a spectacular catch on a pass that was thrown behind him on a crucial fourth down play on Sunday, the Rams don’t beat the Bills either. (Buffalo also dropped at least two potential interceptions on that same drive.) But just as the adage goes, winners make their own luck. The Rams defense deserved to win the past two weeks, as did the much-maligned Brandon Gibson, the often forgotten Pettis, and the polarizing Sam Bradford (who didn’t become gun shy despite nearly ending the Rams’ comeback hopes with an interception). When a team goes 29-83 in between its last playoff appearance and the hiring of yet another head coach, luck can ride shotgun as long as the wins keep piling up.

7. The Giants might be the best team in the NFC (again).
Throw out the records – the 49ers are better than the Falcons. If the two were to met on a neutral field next Sunday, San Francisco would pound Atlanta on the ground and the Falcons wouldn’t be able to stop Colin Kaepernick or the option (much like they didn’t stop Cam Newton Sunday in Carolina). But the Giants took it to the Niners in San Fran earlier this season and with how good they looked versus the Saints in their 52-27 victory, New York might just be the best team in the NFC despite being 8-5. Having said all that, the Falcons will probably beat the Giants next Sunday in Atlanta and force me to take back everything I just wrote. (The NFC is a maddening bitch this year, isn’t it?)

8. The Steelers offense is regressing.
There were a number of things that had to disturb Steelers coach Mike Tomlin following the Chargers’ 34-24 victory. San Diego’s 34 points were the most that Pittsburgh allowed at Heinz Field in two years and Sunday marked the first time the Chargers had ever won a regular season game in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger’s return also did nothing for a Steelers offense that appears to be regressing heading down the stretch. Roethlisberger looked rusty out of the gates while throwing low to intended targets and struggling with his accuracy throughout the first half. His offensive line didn’t do him any favors either, and losing Willie Colon to injury in the second quarter forced Pittsburgh to reshuffle its front five. The result was predictable for the Steelers, who did nothing against San Diego’s aggressive front seven (which also shut down Pittsburgh’s running game). On a day when the Ravens and Bengals both lost, the Steelers blew a golden opportunity to gain ground/separation in the AFC playoff race. Tomlin’s only hope is that the loss to San Diego was a result of a hangover stemming from the win over Baltimore last week. Because the alternative is that a struggling Chargers team just exposed his squad n both sides of the ball.

9. Good for Andy Reid.
It’s been so easy to get caught up in trying to figure out who Andy Reid’s replacement will be next season that you forget Reid still occupies the job. You forget that Reid is still pouring countless hours of preparation into a game that, for all intents and purposes, won’t matter if his team wins or loses. You forget that this man still has a job to do despite everyone around him asking when he’ll be handed his walking papers. Nick Foles ability to find Jeremy Maclin on a 1-yard touchdown pass with no time left on the clock to give Philadelphia a 23-21 win over Tampa Bay won’t save Reid’s job. His players seemingly quit on him weeks ago and management has probably already made up its mind that a change is in order. But for one Sunday it was touching to see Reid engage in a long embrace with one of his assistants following the Eagles’ 23-21 victory. For one Sunday, Reid can celebrate all of the hard work that he did leading up to kickoff. For one Sunday, Reid can embrace victory.

10. Quick-Hits.
Want to know how weird Sunday was? The Browns were the highlight of the AFC North…After putting together a complete win against the Steelers, Charger fans can understandably ask: Where the hell was that effort all season?…Give the Comeback Player of the Year Award to both Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. Seriously, just add an “s” to “Player” and call it a day. They’ve both been fantastic and the league will be slighting the player who doesn’t win so make everyone happen and have co-winners this season. Either that, or I want someone to look me in the eye and tell me one of those two players doesn’t deserve it…The Colts continue to defy logic. The past two weeks I watched that team play sloppy football for at least a half, only to still win in the end…It’ll be disappointing if Ken Whisenhunt winds up being the fall guy in Arizona, because GM Rod Graves is just as much at fault. If the Cardinals want to ensure that talented DC Ray Horton is given a shot to be a head coach, they could replace Horton with Whisenhunt for the final three games of the season. But it’s been Graves’ inability to find Whisenhunt a quarterback and built a component offensive line that has doomed the Cardinals. If Whisenhunt is ousted, it’s unfair that Graves is allowed to keep his job…Pete Carroll must have thought he was still trying to impress the BCS by running up the score versus the Cardinals. For the record, I have no problem with the Seahawks still throwing the ball up 83-0 on Arizona. The last time I checked, the Cardinals were still allowed to play with 11 defenders so if they didn’t like what the Seahawks were doing, they should have stopped them. That said, if Jim Harbaugh runs up the score against Seattle in two weeks, Carroll better not say a word…I hope Titus Young watched the effort that Kris Durham gave on Sunday night for the Lions and is embarrassed by his actions over the past few weeks…The ending of the 49ers’ victory over the Dolphins was exactly why Jim Harbaugh has decided to go with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. Just in case you were wondering…Defense isn’t the only issues the Saints have – that was a horrendous effort on special teams and for the second straight week, Drew Brees wasn’t very good either…The tragedies in Kansas City and Dallas the past two weeks have shown that the NFL and its 32 teams can only do so much when it comes to protecting its players. It’s ultimately up to these young men to make good decisions and the NFL can only hope that one of these times that the message will get through. Take a cab, reach out when you need it, and don’t be careless with your life or others.

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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2012 a make-or-break year for Kevin Kolb

Despite the contrary, John Skelton should be the least of Kevin Kolb’s worries in training camp this year.

Because if Skelton passes him on the Cardinals’ depth chart, it’ll already be too late for Kolb to save his career in the desert.

The 27-year-old Kolb is entering a make-or-break year in Arizona. The Cardinals signed him to a six-year, $65 million contract after acquiring him from the Eagles last July but the deal only contains $12 million in guaranteed money so it’s not as if Ken Whisenhunt has a financial obligation to start Kolb in Week 1. Twelve million is nothing to sneeze at but when you look at some of the other guaranteed money that has been given to quarterbacks, Kolb’s deal pails in comparison. (For example, Peyton Manning received $18 million in guaranteed money from the Broncos and he didn’t even take a snap last season.)

Kolb played in just nine games last year and when he was healthy, he wasn’t very good. He completed just 57.7-percent of his passes and while he did throw for nine touchdowns, defenses also picked him off eight times. He somehow lost seven fumbles as well, which is almost impossible when you spend half the season on the sidelines nursing injuries.

Although he seemingly has all the tools to succeed as a starter in the NFL, Kolb has only flashed brief moments of brilliance. There was that 326-yard, three-touchdown performance against Atlanta in 2010 that got everyone all hot and bothered, and there was also that 247-yard, one-touchdown game against the Cowboys in December of last year (a 19-13 overtime win for the Cardinals). But thanks to injuries and uneven play, Kolb has never put it all together.

Considering he compiled a 68.9 QB rating in eight games last season, one would assume that Skelton isn’t a threat to Kolb’s job. But through the use of witchcraft and magic, they went 5-2 with him under center.

Winning is the only thing that matters in the NFL and if Kolb can’t prove that he’s a winner, he might be starring at a career as a backup. There will always be a team willing to take a shot on a quarterback that had so much potential coming into the league but what has Kolb done to prove that he’s a starter capable of winning six games, nevertheless 10? Granted, his offensive line has to be significantly better in pass protection than they were a year ago but with weapons like Larry Fitzgerald, “Beanie” Wells and rookie Michael Floyd, Kolb doesn’t have any excuses not to succeed.

It’s now or never for the former Houston product.

The curious case of Matt Leinart

GLENDALE, AZ - AUGUST 14: Quarterback Matt Leinart  of the Arizona Cardinals is introduced prior to preseason NFL game against the Houston Texans at the University of Phoenix Stadium on August 14, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Texans 19-16. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Whether it was his intentions or not, Ken Whisenhunt just started a storm of epic proportions in Arizona.

Whisenhunt made the announcement Thursday that Derek Anderson – not former first round pick Matt Leinart – would start in the Cardinals’ third preseason game on Saturday. Leinart of course, was being viewed as Kurt Warner’s replacement and has taken first-team reps throughout the entire offseason.

Now rumors have started to circulate that the Cards are ready to give up on Leinart and may even try to trade him before the season starts.

On Friday, Leinart lashed out and expressed his frustration with the situation.

“It is disappointing and a little bit frustrating. I can’t sit up here and say I’m happy and all smiles,” said Leinart. “If it is an open competition, then let’s have it that way from the start.”

Leinart has a point. Although he has done nothing in preseason to warrant being the regular season starter, he has also been given fewer opportunities to shine. He has attempted just 13 passes thus far (compared to Anderson’s 41) and while he has yet to throw a touchdown pass or move the ball with any regularity, Anderson has thrown two picks and has a worse completion percentage (58.5% to Leinart’s 76.9%).

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Raiders, Rams, Jaguars and Bills all out of the running for Big Ben

At the start of the week, there was speculation that the Raiders, Rams, Jaguars and Bills were all trade possibilities for Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But after the Rams and Bills both dropped out of the running on Wednesday, the Jaguars and Raiders followed suit today and now the Steelers don’t appear to have any viable trade partners heading into tonight’s draft.

In reality, the Raiders were the only team that made sense, because they’re the only team that wouldn’t care about Big Ben’s contract, off-field baggage and six-game suspension at the start of next season. There should be no bigger wake up call to a player then when even Al Davis doesn’t want you. (Actually, Davis probably doesn’t want Roethlisberger because he doesn’t want to admit that he made a colossal mistake by drafting JaMarcus Russell four years ago.)

According to ESPN’s John Clayton, the Cardinals have contacted the Steelers about a possible trade, but did not make an offer that would lead to a deal getting done soon. Ken Whisenhunt was Big Ben’s offensive coordinator for three years in Pittsburgh, so it would make sense that Arizona would be interested. But at the end of the day, Roethlisberger will likely still be a Steeler in 2010.

For now, the only thing Pittsburgh can do is ride out Ben’s suspension and hope he learns something from it. They’ll prepare for Week 1 with Bryon Leftwich and Dennis Dixon competing for the starting job, then figure out Roethlisberger’s future at a later time.

It could be a rough year in the “Steel City.”


Photo from fOTOGLIF

NFL Playoffs Fan Battle: Cardinals vs. Saints Preview

To get you ready for the Cardinals-Saints’ Divisional Round tilt in the “Big Easy” this Saturday, here’s a preview of the game via a mock dialogue between an Arizona and a New Orleans fan.

Saint Fan: I bet Sean Payton couldn’t sleep after watching the Packers rip apart the Cardinals’ defense last Sunday! Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jermichael Finley lit you guys up and we have similar weapons in Marques Colston, Jeremy Shockey, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem. I can’t wait to see what that group will do against Arizona’s brutal secondary this Saturday!

Cardinal Fan: Last week was an anomaly – the Cards’ defense won’t play that bad two weeks in a row. Ken Whisenhunt and his staff have already dissected what went wrong and are working to correct the problem. Besides, tackling was the main issue last week, which is correctable.

Saint Fan: Payton just won coach of the year and is one of the brightest offensive minds in football. If Mike McCarthy figured out how to rack up 40-plus points on Arizona, then Payton might double that.

Cardinal Fan: This isn’t the regular season – it’s the playoffs.

Saint Fan: Wow, you’re just figuring this out now?

Cardinal Fan: Hear me out; Whisenhunt is 4-1 in the postseason as the Cardinals’ head coach. He has already been to the Super Bowl and thus knows what it takes to get there. There’s no doubt Payton is a great coach, but there’s a lot more at stake for him this weekend with the Saints being the No. 1 seed and expected to reach the Super Bowl after running through the competition for most of the season.

Saint Fan: Yeah, but let’s give defensive coordinator Gregg Williams his due. His aggressive style has changed how the Saints run their defense and he deserves just as much credit for our team’s success this year as Payton does.

Cardinal Fan: Oh, you mean the same Gregg Williams-led defense that can’t stop the run? Once we establish the ground game with Beanie Wells, Kurt Warner is going to pick your fading defense apart with his precision passing. Plus, once we get inside the red zone we’re nearly unstoppable. We’ve scored touchdowns on 70.4 percent of our trips inside our opponents’ 20-yard line, which is the best in the league.

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