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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?’

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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Broncos rule Moreno out for Week 3

DENVER - SEPTEMBER 19: Running back Knowshon Moreno  of the Denver Broncos rushes with the ball and is stopped by linebacker Lofa Tatupu  and defensive end Chris Clemons  of the Seattle Seahawks at INVESCO Field at Mile High on September 19, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Seahawks 31-14. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

In a somewhat shocking development, Knowshon Moreno out for this Sunday’s game against the Colts, per Max Broncos on Twitter:

Knowshon Moreno “sustained a little something he will not be able to play through this week,” McDaniels said.

McDaniels is a Bill Belichick disciple, so it’s no surprise that he’s playing things close to the vest. There’s no upside in giving anyone any extraneous information, so why not keep it a secret? Sure, he’s screwing over fantasy owners, but he doesn’t give two schnitz about us.

Anyway, this is seemingly a big boost for someone in the Denver backfield, but I’m not sure who. In his comments, Josh McDaniels seemed to go out of his way NOT to mention Correll Buckhalter, but instead mentioned Laurence Maroney and Andre Brown as guys who will pick up the slack. If you’re desperate at RB, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to pick up Maroney and/or Brown.

2010 NFL Preview: AFC West Predictions

SAN DIEGO - JANUARY 17: Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates after a touchdown against the New York Jets during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Qualcomm Stadium on January 17, 2010 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

On paper, the AFC West is definitely one of the weaker divisions in football. The Chargers remain the team to beat, while the Broncos are just trying to make it to their opener without losing another starter to injury.

But the West usually produces a surprise or two along the way (i.e. Denver last year), so don’t count out the Broncos, Raiders or Chiefs before the season starts. All three of those teams come with some glaring weaknesses, but it’s not like the Chargers are the picture of perfection.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the AFC West in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season. (If the links aren’t available now for some teams, check back because they will be before the season starts.)

1. Chargers

What to Like: After finishing fifth in the league in passing yards per game (271.1) in 2009, the Chargers should once again be explosive through the air. Losing Vincent Jackson is a major blow, but adding a pass-catching back like Ryan Mathews in the draft was a nice coup. Philip Rivers returns after compiling a 104.4 QB rating last season and developing into one of the best signal callers in the game. Again, the loss of Jackson hurts, but Malcolm Floyd is ready for a breakout campaign, Antonio Gates returns as one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the NFL and the team recently acquired Patrick Crayton from the Cowboys. Brandyn Dombrowski has also looked good filling in for Marcus McNeill, who continues to holdout while seeking a new contract. Defensively, free safety Eric Weddle is coming off a great ’09 season, while Shaun Phillips and Stephen Cooper remain steady at their linebacker positions.
What Not to Like: Is there anybody left that GM A.J. Smith hasn’t pissed off? This team managed to lose its top wideout and is close to watching its best offensive tackle (McNeill) holdout well into the season. Defensively, Shawne Merriman is back but who knows how productive he’ll be after a poor showing in ’09, while Larry English failed to impress last season as well (albeit as a rookie). The defensive line lost their top run-stuffer when Jamal Williams was released and Luis Castillo has been living off his reputation for the last two years. The entire defensive line, in fact, is arguably this team’s biggest weakness. The secondary, outside of Weddle, has a ton of question marks as well.
Keep Your Eye On: Malcolm Floyd
The 28-year-old out of Wyoming will finally have his opportunity to shine now that Jackson is gone (or rather, not playing). He’s been Rivers’ favorite target so far this offseason after finishing fourth in the league last year in yards-per-catch average. If he can build off the nine-catch, 140-yard performance he had in Week 17 last year (while Jackson was out), then Floyd could be another dangerous weapon in the Chargers’ arsenal.
The Final Word: If there were another team in this division that I thought had a remote chance of overtaking the Chargers, I would probably have them winning the division. But because the West is so weak this year, the Bolts should have no problems winning 10-plus games and claiming the division again, even though they have a several weaknesses heading into the new season. Whether or not they advance in the playoffs is another story. The key is Rivers, who is an exceptional talent that has proven he can carry this team during the regular season. But the playoffs are a different animal – he’s going to need help and while Mathews looks like he has all the tools to make him a solid young player, relying on a rookie is always a dangerous proposition. Defensively, this team has way too many question marks and unless guys like Merriman or English step up, I think they’re going to struggle at every level this year. A division crown looks to be on the horizon, but so does another one-and-done showing in the postseason.

San Diego Chargers 2010 NFL Question Mark: Defensive Line

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Conflicting reports on Moreno’s return

DENVER - JANUARY 03: Running back Knowshon Moreno #27 of the Denver Broncos rushes for yardage as Travis Daniels #34 of the Kansas City Chiefs makes the tackle during NFL action at Invesco Field at Mile High on January 3, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

On Sunday, Mike Klis of the Denver Post said that Knowshon Moreno doesn’t look close to returning to practice:

…from here, running back Knowshon Moreno and receiver Demaryius Thomas don’t look anywhere near close to returning. Both are running and cutting very gingerly.

Considering Moreno suffered his hamstring injury Aug. 1 _ four weeks ago today _ either he’s a slow healer or he received a least a partial tear. I’m betting on the latter.

On Monday, Klis reported that Josh McDaniels ‘indicated’ Moreno would practice this week:

In his postgame comments, Broncos coach Josh McDaniels indicated starting tailback Knowshon Moreno would practice this week. Moreno’s primary backup, Correll Buckhalter, returned to practice on a limited basis last week but did not play in the preseason game Sunday night against Pittsburgh.

“I think that’s always best for a running back – same thing with (RB Correll Buckhalter) – to get hit before they actually go on to a regular-season game,” McDaniels said. “”But, if that’s not the best thing for us to do, the smartest decision to make, then we’ll probably hold off on that. We’re going to practice this week – we’ll be in pads on Tuesday and we’ll see if we can bang one or both of them around if they’re ready to go by then. We don’t have a timetable yet but both of them are getting close.”

The bit about the hamstring being a tear and not a strain is somewhat worrisome. Moreno is slipping in drafts and owners should proceed with caution. I just passed him up for Mike Sims-Walker in the late 5th, but I’d grab him in the 6th if he makes it back to me. It’s vital that anyone who picks Moreno grab his handcuff, Correll Buckhalter, who his battling his own injury at the moment. The good news is that Buck is usually around very late in drafts.

For what it’s worth, the team is listing him as probable for Week 1.

Tuesday Update: He has been cleared for practice, but Rotoworld is reporting that Moreno is telling people that he’s only at about 80% right now.

Dumervil tears pec muscle as Broncos off to a horrific start in 2010

DENVER - SEPTEMBER 16:  Defensive end Elvis Dumervil #92 of the Denver Broncos leaves the line of scrimmage as the Denver Broncos defeated the Oakland Raiders 23-20 in overtime during week two NFL action at Invesco Field at Mile High on September 16, 2007 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

If this past week offers any indication of how the Broncos will fair in 2010, then Josh McDaniels and company are in for a long season.

Just days after the Broncos lost starting running back Knowshown Moreno for 2-3 weeks because of a torn right hamstring, Elvis Dumervil suffered a torn pectoral muscle and will be out for up to five months.

Fans have the right to remain hopeful that Dumervil will return at some point this season, but the math suggests otherwise. If he’s out for five months, that makes his return December and at that point, Denver might as well keep him out the rest of the year.

The real kick to the stones for the Broncos is that they just signed Dumervil to a six-year, $61.5 million contract three weeks ago. And this was after they deliberated about whether or not to just let the linebacker play on the one-year tender they signed him to in June.

But you can’t blame the Broncos for shelling out big bucks to their best pass-rusher. Dumervil led the league in sacks last year and had become a vital component to the team’s defense. Injuries obviously can’t be predicted and there was no way of knowing that Dumervil was going to rip a chest muscle less than a month after the Broncos broke out their checkbook. Despite their incredibly bad timing and luck, it was still the right decision for Denver at the time.

So what now? The Broncos have a couple of options available on the free agent market, including the recently released Aaron Schobel and former Patriot Adiliuas Thomas. But who knows whether or not Schobel would want to play in Denver’s 3-4 and given the lack of interest in Thomas this offseason (and his poor production in ’09 for Bill Belichick), maybe the Broncos will pass on signing a veteran. Of course, the team also has some internal options, as Robert Ayers could switch sides or Jarvis Moss could actually cash in on some of his first round potential. (That later idea is far-fetched, I know.)

Either way, the Broncos couldn’t be off to a worse start in 2010. Moreno should be back in a couple of weeks, but no team wants to see their best pass-rusher go down a month before the season. That’s not to say that other players can’t and/or won’t step up, but this isn’t the most talented team in the league as it is.

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