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NFL Week 16 Free Picks

Saints vs. Panthers, 1:00PM ET
After the Seahawks thrashed the Saints on “Monday Night Football” a few weeks back, Drew Brees reminded reporters that New Orleans has the best road record of any team in the NFL since 2009. While that may be, there’s no denying that the Saints are a much different team on the road this year than at home. Part that is because the Saints are seemingly unbeatable inside the Superdome. But Sean Payton is also more conservative with his play-calling on the road, Brees is less accurate, and Rob Ryan’s defense is softer versus the run. The Panthers should adjust to what they the Saints did to them in Week 14 when these two teams met in New Orleans (a walk away win for the Saints). I expect them to tighten up their red zone coverage and not allow Jimmy Graham to get a free release up the seam and torch them for a second time. The Saints are just 1-4 against the spread in their last five games in Carolina and 3-8 ATS in their last 11 games overall versus the Panthers.
FREE PICK: PANTHERS -3

Cowboys vs. Redskins, 1:00PM ET
Kirk Cousins was outstanding in the first half last Sunday in Atlanta and nearly helped Washington overcome seven turnovers to beat the hapless Falcons. He may have just as much success on Sunday versus a Dallas defense that ranks dead last in yards allowed this season, but this isn’t the game the Cowboys will choke away. (That’ll come next weekend when they host the Eagles for what will amount to the NFC East Division title game, a la Week 17 last season.) Regardless of who is under center, the Redskins remain a mess defensively and they’re just 2-9 against the number in their last 11 games versus NFC opponents. They’re also 0-4 ATS in their last four divisional games and 0-5 ATS in their last five games following an ATS win. The Cowboys should get it done on Sunday.
FREE PICK: COWBOYS -2.5

Steelers vs. Packers, 4:25PM ET
The Packers have won two straight games after out-playing their opponents in the second half. They trailed by double-digits at home to the Falcons two weeks ago and by 23 points at half versus the Cowboys in Dallas last Sunday but still managed to win. At some point they’re not going to be able to dig themselves out if they continue their inconsistent play on offense and shoddy play on defense. Green Bay is just 1-6 against the spread in its last seven games overall, 0-4 ATS in its last four home games and 0-4 ATS in their last four games against a team with a losing record. On the other side, the Steelers are 5-1 against the number in their last six games overall and 4-1 ATS in their last five games following a straight up win. With Aaron Rodgers sidelined for another week with an injured collarbone, look for Pittsburgh to pull off the minor upset.
FREE PICK: STEELERS +2.5

Bears vs. Eagles, 8:30PM ET
The total is set high in this one but neither of these teams were interested in playing defense last week. The Bears are going to have loads of trouble slowing down LeSean McCoy on Sunday night and after getting torched by Matt Cassel last week, the Eagles should struggle trying to defend Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte. The over is 4-1 in the Bears’ last five games overall, 11-3 in their last 14 road games and 9-2 in the Eagles’ last 11 games following an ATS loss.
FREE PICK: OVER 55.5

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 15 in the NFL

1. Adrian Peterson is this year’s MVP if…
Nobody doubted Peyton Manning’s ability to lead the Broncos to an AFC West title this year. The biggest question surrounding Peyton was his ability to absorb a hit, not fill the one need Denver desperately needed on offense. People assumed he would do that. But nearly every pundit had the Vikings finishing in the basement of the NFC North and yet here they are in the middle of December still competing for a wild card berth. Manning has been outstanding but what Adrian Peterson has been able to accomplish less than a year after major reconstructive knee surgery has been nothing short of incredible. Minnesota’s offensive line and defense shouldn’t be forgotten as we dole out credit for the team’s success, but Peterson is the biggest reason why the Vikings remain relevant in 2012. Opponents design specific game plans in efforts to stop Peterson and yet they can’t even slow him down. They know if they can build a lead and force Christian Ponder to beat them throwing the ball they’ll win. But they can’t because Peterson simply won’t allow them. Granted, Sam Bradford and the Rams helped Minnesota earn its eighth victory of the season on Sunday. But when Peterson sprinted 82 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter the Rams had just tied the game with a Brian Quick 4-yard touchdown reception. It wasn’t as if Peterson’s run put the contest out of reach – it was the beginning of him taking over the game. If he leads the Vikings to the postseason while rushing for over 2,000 yards in a pass-happy NFL, then he undoubtedly has my vote for MVP.

2a. The Bears are finished.
With their 21-13 loss to the Packers, the Bears no longer control their own destiny and they don’t hold the tiebreaker with current fifth seed Seattle because of their 23-17 loss to the Seahawks in Week 13. The question becomes: Will missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years spark change this offseason? How Chicago can fire Lovie Smith when former GM Jerry Angelo ignored the offensive line for most of his tenure is beyond me. Year after year the Bears had opportunities to fix their front five and Angelo never delivered. That said, this is now four straight years that Smith and his coaching staff have been owned by Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers. If your current coaching staff can’t beat your biggest competition, you’ve got an underlying problem.

2b. Packers coach Mike McCarthy makes decisions sometimes…
…that should have all of humanity questioning how the hell he was able to win a Super Bowl. That throwback fake that he called (or allowed his special teams coach Shawn Slocum to call) on the punt return midway through the fourth quarter in Chicago was beyond inane. You’re up 11 points in the fourth quarter, McCarthy, run the clock and secure a victory the ol’ fashion way.

3. Best team in the NFC? It has to be the 49ers.
While they did wind up blowing a 31-3 lead, the 49ers have to be considered the best team in the NFC after the show they put on last night in Foxboro. Granted, the 12-2 Falcons also beat the defending Super Bowl champions 34-0 but no team in the conference can match San Francisco’s physicality and now that Colin Kaepernick is their quarterback, the Niners are now more dangerous on offense, too. As he showed last night by mishandling a handful of snaps from under center and throwing an interception in the end zone, Kaepernick isn’t perfect. But he’s going to learn something new each week that will make him better down the road. It had to be troubling for Jim Harbaugh to watch Tom Brady carve up his defense for 34 points, and adjustments must be made in the secondary. But the bottom line is the Niners not only won the game, but also handled a team that had just humiliated an excellent Houston club just six nights prior.

4a. The Falcons defense has been outstanding against elite QBs.
Fifty-eight point five, 37.6, and 40.7. Those are the quarterback ratings of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning when facing the Falcons in the Georgia Dome this year. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan put together another fantastic game plan on Sunday, one that had Eli Manning under constant duress while shutting down running back David Wilson in the second half. They managed to shutout the defending Super Bowl champions without one of their key defenders, safety William Moore, all while stuffing New York on three separate fourth-and-shorts. Matt Ryan is now 33-4 at home over his career, and Nolan’s aggressive defense has done its finest work inside the Georgia Dome this year. The Falcons won’t quiet critics until they win a playoff game. But they’ve got a great chance to pick up their first postseason win if they can secure home field throughout.

4b. There isn’t a more maddening team in the NFL than the New York Giants.
Four weeks ago the Giants crushed Green Bay 38-10 but followed up that performance with a 17-16 loss in Washington. Then they scored 52 points in a 52-27 beat-down of the Saints only to post a goose egg in a 34-0 loss to the Falcons on Sunday. Eli Manning had one of those games where you wanted to shake him to make sure he wasn’t sleepwalking and David Wilson bombed as the team’s featured back (at least in the second half). New York’s secondary is also extremely beat up and several defensive linemen walked off the field limping after trying (and failing) to tackle Atlanta ball carriers throughout the day. Granted, we know better not to count Tom Coughlin’s team out when they still have plenty of life. But Giants fans have every reason to be concerned after what transpired in Atlanta on Sunday.

5. The Seahawks have become that team nobody wants to face in the first round.
Granted, over the past two weeks they’ve beaten up on Arizona and Buffalo. But they also outscored Arizona and Buffalo 108-17 and somehow managed to score three defensive touchdowns in the process. And if that didn’t get your attention, Pete Carroll is having his team throw deep on fourth down up 58-0 and calling fake punts up 30 points in the fourth quarter. Here’s what’s really scary: Marshawn Lynch is ripping through tackles and bursting into defensive backfields while also allowing to rest in the fourth quarter because his services are no longer needed in blowouts. Seattle’s biggest offensive weapon is going to be fresh – relatively speaking, of course – come January, and that should leave the Seahawks’ future opponents awfully anxious.

6. Putting Cousin’s performance into perspective.
It’s amazing, really. The Redskins found two quarterbacks with potential in this year’s draft while the Browns can’t find one intriguing quarterback in 14 years of drafting. It’s one thing to play hero when you only take seven snaps at the end of a game. It’s quite another to go on the road with your team’s playoff hopes on the line and face an opponent that not only has had an entire week to game plan for you, but is also in the midst of a three-game winning streak. Kirk Cousins (26-of-37 for 329 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) was beyond impressive in Washington’s Week 15 victory over Cleveland. He was poised, calm under pressure, and showed a fair amount of mobility as well. The 54-yard touchdown throw he made when he rolled to his right on a designed bootleg and dropped the ball perfectly into Leonard Hankerson’s arms was a thing of beauty. With their biggest superstar sidelined with a knee injury (RGIII), Cousins may have just saved the Redskins’ season.

7. Sam Bradford remains completely indefinable.
Bradford completed 35-of-55 passes for 377 yards with three touchdowns in Sunday’s loss to the Vikings. But he also threw an interception and lost a fumble that in large part led to the Rams falling behind 30-7 at halftime. Never have I witnessed a player give both his critics and supporters enough firepower to continue one excruciating debate after another. He’s making progress yet he’s painfully inconsistent. He often delivers uneven performances yet he can be clutch in crucial moments. He’s completing 60-percent of his passes yet he somehow battles with his accuracy. Is he on the verge of greatness or straddling the line between good and mediocre? Is he the next Eli Manning or Alex Smith? Half of St. Louis will draw one comparison while the second half will settle for the other. It’s maddening. Here’s what we know about Bradford: He should continue to improve if the Rams continue to build around him. They need to strengthen their offensive line, add playmakers to their receiving corps, and offer him some stability by not changing the offense. Here’s what we don’t know: Everything else.

8. One bad decision dooms Roethlisberger, Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger was fantastic on Sunday in Dallas. He completed 24-of-40 passes for 339 yards with two touchdowns and constantly bought himself time by moving outside of the pocket. On one play in the second quarter, he evaded the pass rush (a very good NFL pass rush in Dallas) for nearly 10 seconds before finding Heath Miller for a 30-yard touchdown. It was one of those games where an elite quarterback put his team on his shoulders and was practically willing them to victory. Of course, his performance on this day will be remembered for his biggest mistake. Brandon Carr made a fantastic interception in overtime when he jumped a route and picked off Roethlisberger to set the Cowboys up for a game-winning field goal. The loss left Pittsburgh at 7-7 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs with two games to go. If the Steelers can’t sweep their final two games and sneak into the postseason, that one throw will loom large.

8a. The NFC East is once again ready for a thrilling ending.
Everyone figured the Cowboys would eventually settle for a .500 season but their massive victory over the Steelers on Sunday has breathed new life into Dallas. The victory came on the heels of the Redskins’ win over the Browns, but also the Giants’ embarrassing 34-0 loss to the Falcons. If the playoffs were to start today, the Redskins would own the fourth seed after securing first place in the NFC East, while the Giants would be the sixth seed and the Cowboys would be on the outside looking in. But fortunately for diehard NFL fans, there’s still two more weeks of thrilling football to be played in the East. The Cowboys might have the toughest road, as they’ll host the always-dangerous Saints this Sunday before finishing at Washington. The Redskins, meanwhile, will visit the hapless Eagles on Sunday before hosting Dallas in Week 17, and the Giants will visit Baltimore before hosting Philadelphia in their final game of the season. Of course, the Bears and Vikings are still in the wild card mix as well so buckle up, sit tight and enjoy the friggin’ ride.

9a. Joe Flacco is literally burning future earnings every week.
Flacco completed 20-of-40 passes for 254 yards with two touchdowns in Baltimore’s 34-17 loss to Denver, but he did most of his damage after he put his team in a 31-3 hole. He lost a fumble on a quarterback sneak and before throwing a pick-six at the goal line he sprinkled in three straight three-and-outs, which allowed the Broncos to build a sizeable lead. The Ravens are going to begrudgingly win the AFC North and make the playoffs for the fifth straight year, where they could be bounced very early. Somewhere Cam Cameron is smiling.

9b. Moreno finally flashing his ability in Denver.
Now finally healthy, Knowshon Moreno is running like the back that Denver thought it drafted back in 2009. He literally jumped over Ed Reed in the Broncos’ 34-17 victory over the Ravens on Sunday, and Reed was practically standing up. Athens, Georgia grew accustomed to Moreno’s combination of power and athleticism, but now it’s a welcome sight in Denver, too. Moreno has allowed the Broncos offense to continue firing on all cylinders despite losing Willis McGahee.

10. The Panthers will be a playoff contender at this point next year.
The pass two weeks Cam Newton has been sharp on passes outside the numbers and in turn, he’s made DeAngelo Williams a bigger weapon in both the running and screen game. While they’ll need to continue to build on the defensive side of the ball and give Newton another weapon in the passing game, the Panthers will be a team to reckon with in 2013. Following the team’s third win in their last four games, Carolina fans are appropriately asking themselves, ‘Where has this been all season?’

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.

2012 NFL Scouting Combine: 15 players that improved their draft stock

Missouri Tigers Michael Egnew (82) gets past the Iowa State Cyclones defense for a 39 yard touchdown in the first quarter at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri on October 15, 2011. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Which NFL prospects improved their draft stock at this year’s scouting combine?

Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
Poe may have been the most impressive player at this year’s combine. He’s already a physical marvel at 6-foot-5 and 348 pounds that can play in either a 3-4 or a 4-3. But toss in the fact that he ran an unreal 4.9 forty and did 44 reps on the bench press and what you have is a sure-fire top 20 pick.

Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech
Hill ran a 4.36 forty, which was the fastest time among all of the receivers (Miami’s Travis Benjamin also ran a 4.36) and placed him second behind only Central Florida cornerback Josh Robinson (who ran a 4.33). He also posted an impressive 39.5-inch vertical jump and displayed good quickness in short shuttle drills. At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Hill has the size and speed that teams look for in a potential No. 1 receiver. With his stellar combine workout, he may have moved himself into the late first round.

Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
Griffin made the Rams very happy with his 4.41 forty time, which bested all quarterbacks at the combine. He was a top 5 pick heading into Indianapolis but he may have just upped his asking price with his impressive performance. The Rams seemingly want to deal the No. 2 overall pick and after Griffin shinned in Indianapolis, they should have plenty of trade suitors come April.

Luke Kuechley, LB, Boston College
Teams were well aware of Kuechly’s productivity (he finished with 532 tackles at Boston College), instincts, toughness, and I.Q. before the combine. But after he posted a 4.50 forty and a 38-inch vertical leap, he cemented his status as a top-20 pick. He looks like one of the safer first-round prospects in this year’s draft.

Josh Robinson, CB, Central Florida
Robinson blew scouts away when he ran unofficial forty times of 4.31 and 4.29, respectively. Those times made him the fastest prospect at this year’s combine and he also posted the best broad jump among the defensive backs with a mark of 11-foot-1. He’s a raw underclassman but after compiling 10 interceptions at Central Florida, Robinson has the speed and ball skills to merit a second round selection.

Matt Kalil, OT, USC
Kalil is a monster at 6-foot-7 and 306 pounds and is the younger brother of Panthers Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. He posted a 4.99 forty, was excellent in the three-cone drill, and also did 30 reps on the bench. He cemented his status as the top left tackle in the draft and he may have guaranteed that the Vikings will select him with the No. 3 overall pick in April.

Cordy Glenn, OT, Georgia
Glenn shocked observers by running a 4.96 forty and proved that he’s quick enough to play either right tackle or guard at the next level. He’s a massive run blocker at 6-foot-6 and 345 pounds, yet he stood out in the 10-yard split by clocking a 1.76. He also posted 31 reps on the bench press and cemented his status as a top-20 pick.

Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
Behind Georgia Tech’s Stephen Hill, Floyd was the most impressive receiver in Indy this year. He quelled some fears about his ability to separate from defenders by clocking a 4.47 forty, and at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds he has prototypical size for a receiver. While some scouts remain skeptical about his on-field speed, Floyd definitely improved his draft stock this past weekend.

Nick Perry, USC, OLB/DE
Perry was highly impressive in most of the drills at the combine, posting a 4.50 in the forty, a 38 1/2 –inch vertical leap, 10-foot-4 broad jump, and 35 reps on the bench press. He looks like an ideal fit as an edge-rusher in a 3-4.

Mychal Kendricks, LB, California
I included Kendricks in my “Spotting defensive value” article last week and he didn’t disappoint at the combine. At 5-foot-11 and 239 pounds, there are questions about his size, which is why he was projected to go in the fourth or fifth round before last week. But he posted the fastest forty in the linebacker group with a time of 4.47 and is a violent, explosive hitter from his inside linebacker position. I think he has a spot on a NFL roster and will make some team extremely happy in the fourth round.

Michael Egnew, TE, Missouri
Egnew was one of the top performers at the tight end position in the three-cone, broad jump, short shuttle, and vertical jump, and also posted a 4.6 forty. Some believe his game speed isn’t as fast as his forty would suggest but he nevertheless looks like a solid “Y” or slot tight end at the next level.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State
Cousins was arguably the most impressive quarterback in passing drills last weekend. Granted, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin II and Ryan Tannehill didn’t throw but that shouldn’t take away from the natural skill set that Cousins possessed in the three and five-step drop drills. Before the combine, Cousins was projected to go in the third round but he may have jumped into the second with his impressive performance.

Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
Gilmore posted a 4.37 forty, which highlighted his excellent speed. Considering he’s also 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, teams will be just as intrigued by his size as they are with his speed. He looks like the third best corner in the draft and is ideal for a zone scheme.

Zach Brown, LB, North Carolina
Brown is a former track star and after running an unofficial 4.4 forty, teams will love his potential as a weak-side linebacker. He’s an ideal fit in a Cover-2 scheme that will allow him to track down ball carries in the open field. Look for him to be drafted in the late first or early second.

Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
Ingram was already viewed as a first-round pick coming into the draft but he may have guaranteed that he’ll be a top-15 pick with his performance at the combine. He clocked an unofficial 4.66 forty and a 1.65 10-yard split, and teams could fight over his versatility and athleticism come April.

After all the good, Michigan State’s bad puts it in a tough spot

Michigan State Spartans center John Stipek (R) is consoled by a teammate while sitting on the bench during the second half of the Capital One Bowl college football game against the Alabama Crimson Tide in Orlando, Florida, January 1, 2011. REUTERS/Phelan M. Ebenhack (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Before the month of October started, Michigan State was staring at a brutal conference gauntlet of four straight games against Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Somehow, the Spartans found a way to win those first three, pushing themselves near the top 10 of the BCS rankings and taking control of the Big Ten Legends Division.

But with today’s loss to Nebraska, the Spartans and their very respectable 3-1 record during the month, need help to get to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis.

It’s a cruel fate for a team that found different ways to win against three of the Big Ten’s top six teams, and somehow was able to get emotionally ready to play all three of them. Apparently four is too much to ask for, however, as the Spartans — especially offensively — looked listless in the loss.

Kirk Cousins was terrible, the run game was non-existent and the defense was tired from spending most of the game on the field after the offense yet again failed to do anything.

So now Nebraska is in the Legends driver’s seat, holding the head-to-head tie-breaker against MSU and having the luxury of its one conference loss (at Wisconsin) coming outside of the division. The road is not easy, however, as Nebraska finishes the season at home against Northwestern, at Michigan, at Penn State and at home against Iowa. With as erratic as the Nebraska offense is, any one of those games is losable.

Michigan State’s road wasn’t a guarantee, but it was much easier than Nebraska’s, they substitute Michigan and Penn State for Indiana and Minnesota, the conference’s two worst teams.

It’s amazing how quickly the euphoria from a miracle last-second win against an unbeaten, top 10 opponent can wear off in college football. But I suppose that’s part of the reason we all love it so much.

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