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Sportsbooks set early odds for NFL Final Four

After a typical NFL season with all sorts of surprises and countless ups and downs, we end up with four teams left standing who many would list as the four best teams in the NFL. New England pounded Indianapolis with the running game as LeGarrette Blount ran wild for 166 yards and 4 touchdowns, giving the rest of the NFL the blessing of not having to listen to Jim Irsay any more this season. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning and the Broncos took care of business against upstart San Diego last night to set up another Peyton Manning/Tom Brady matchup for a trip to the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, on the NFC side, San Francisco took care of Cam Newton and the Panthers while Seattle won a slugfest against Drew Brees and the Saints.

Anyone looking forward to next week already can check out the early NFL odds at online sportsbooks as Denver is a 5-point favorite at home versus New England and Seattle is a 3.5-point favorite at home versus San Francisco. Not only do we have 4 excellent teams, but we have some serious rivalries as well which makes these games even more interesting and also complicated to pick. We have the Manning/Brady matchup, though now Manning is wearing Denver orange. Can Tom Brady and the Pats take another championship run away from Manning in a season where Manning shattered the record books? Does New England’s new-found running game alter the analysis here?

Also, with Seattle and San Francisco we have one of the more physical and bitter rivalries in the NFL, with a deeper rivalry between coaches Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll as well that’s been going on since their Stanford/USC days. Seattle has owned the 49ers in Seattle and has frankly overpowered them. But San Francisco has improved dramatically from early in the season with Colin Kaepernick playing much better. Also, Russell Wilson hasn’t been playing quite as well, and look for the 49ers to stack the box and dare Wilson to throw deep. We’ll see which young quaterback emerges this week.

Regardless of the results next week, we should have an epic Super Bowl on our hands with contrasting styles, as the AFC has two traditional teams with classic drop-back passers while the NFC teams feature younger, more mobile quarterbacks. This should be fun!

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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After a productive offseason, Bucs should compete in 2012

There’s reason to believe that the 2011 season was the true aberration for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – not 2010.

Behind the solid play of quarterback Josh Freeman, the Bucs won 10 games in 2010 only to transform into a laughingstock in 2011. Led by the usually cheap Malcolm Glazer, Tampa Bay kicked off the 2011 season by making punter Michael Koenen their prized free agent piece. The Glazers clearly assumed that they could win with the same roster they had in 2010 and the plan backfired in their faces.

First round pick Adrian Clayborn turned out to be a stud but the defense as a whole was horrific, finishing 21st in pass defense, 30th in overall defense and dead last in run defense. The Bucs also allowed 30.9 points per game, which was most by any team in the NFL.

The offense wasn’t much better, finishing 16th in passing yards per game, 30th in rushing and 21st overall. Their 17.9 points per game average was the sixth fewest by any team in the league.

But thanks to a successful offseason, the Bucs have bounced back.

It’s not known whether Greg Schiano will be a successful NFL head coach but there’s little doubt that he’ll bring toughness and discipline to a team that was lacking in each category last season. The Glazers also surprised by breaking out their checkbook in order to sign free agents Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. The team’s most underrated move was bringing back defensive end Michael Bennett, who was solid in all facets of the game last season.

The Bucs’ draft was a success, too. Mark Barron is best when playing in the box but thanks to Nick Saban’s tutelage, he can hold his own in coverage as well. Trading back into the first round in order to select Boise State running back Doug Martin was also solid as he’ll force LeGarrette Blount to be a more rounded player if he hopes to get carries in Schiano’s offense. Linebacker Lavonte David was a first-round talent that the Bucs drafted in the second round, while sixth-round pick Keith Tandy is a physical cornerback who could push for playing time down the road.

Assuming the Saints re-sign Drew Brees, they’re still the class of the NFC South but the bounty scandal has left them without a head coach for the entire year, as well as several players for the first few weeks of the season. The Falcons will be good again but the Bucs always seem to give Atlanta trouble (especially in Tampa Bay) and the Panthers are a couple of defensive pieces shy from competing for a playoff spot.

Thus, the division is wide open this year. Granted, Jackson and Nicks have to stay motivated after signing long-term deals, Freeman has to bounce back from a rocky 2011 performance, and Schiano has to prove himself in the ultra-competitive NFL. But this is a team that has significantly upgraded their roster in just one offseason. So much so that they could contend for a division title this season.

Sunday Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 11 in the NFL

Every Sunday throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler warms up before the game against the San Diego Chargers at Soldier Field on November 20, 2011 in Chicago. UPI/Brian Kersey

- December 25th – mark it down. That’s the day the Bears get their rematch with the Packers and it’s going to be a spectacle to watch. There might not be a team playing with more confidence right now than Chicago, which hasn’t lost since its ugly effort in Detroit on Monday Night Football back in early October. Jay Cutler didn’t light the stat sheet on fire today but he made big plays all day. And his lone mistake (an interception to Antoine Cason), wasn’t a mistake at all because Johnny Knox slipped on the play. Besides, the Bear defense picked off Philip Rivers in the end zone on the next possession, basically nullifying Cason’s interception. With guys like Cutler, Matt Forte and Devin Hester, as well as a physical, unrelenting defense, the Bears look playoff ready…

…whoops! Talk about timing. About a millisecond after writing that paragraph I saw a report that Jay Cutler’s season might be over due to a fractured right throwing thumb. If that’s the case, then the Bears could be finished. Caleb Hanie has had his moments, such as leading Chicago to a touchdown on his first series against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game last year. But as B.J. Raji’s interception in that same game can attest to, Hanie is also very inexperienced. If Cutler is indeed out (he’ll undergo more tests on Monday), then his injury dramatically changes the Bears’ offense (and season, for that matter).

- The Falcons would be foolish not to keep Matt Ryan in the no-huddle from here on out. Atlanta ran its no-huddle almost exclusively today in its 23-17 victory over the Titans and Ryan had is second-highest QB rating of the season (110.9), threw for over 300 yards for only the fourth time all year, and didn’t throw an interception for only the third time in 10 games. While they did have issues inside the red zone (they settled for three field goals and Michael Turner coughed the ball up once to allow Tennessee to get back into the game), the Falcons only punted twice in the victory. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has been hesitant to run the no-huddle on a full-time basis but it’s the offense that Ryan is clearly most comfortable running.

- Jake Locker showed why he was once considered a slam-dunk No. 1 overall draft pick. Matt Hasselbeck has done a fantastic job managing games for Tennessee this year but Locker sparked a punchless offense and nearly brought the Titans back from 20 points down in the second half. He only completed 9-of-19 passes but those nine completions went for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He also picked up a first down with an 11-yard rush on a third-and-long and showed good zip on most of his passes. Mike Munchak already backed Hasselbeck as the starter in his post-game press conference but with Matt Schaub now out for the year in Houston, it might be time for Tennessee to roll the dice with the kid. Locker was fun to watch today.

- I watched Chris Johnson very closely today and from my point of view, there’s nothing wrong with him. He just doesn’t have anywhere to run as Tennessee’s run blocking is abysmal. Atlanta’s run defense is very sound but Johnson was bottled up almost immediately after receiving the hand off.

- Blaine Gabbert threw for 210 yards and didn’t turn the ball over in the Jaguars’ 14-10 loss to the Browns. He also threw a perfectly placed ball that Jason Hill couldn’t haul in with three seconds remaining in the game that could have won it for Jacksonville. But Gabbert’s overthrow to a wide-open (and I mean WIDE-OPEN) Hill in the end zone with just under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter really cost Jacksonville a huge opportunity to tie the game at 14-14. Those are the types of plays that Gabbert hasn’t been making all season. Now, he’s only a rookie and deserves time to develop. But I firmly believe that Jacksonville screwed up by releasing David Garrard and forcing Gabbert onto the field before he was ready. The kid should be holding a clipboard right now.

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten hugs kicker Dan Bailey after Bailey kicked a game winning 39-yard field goal in overtime against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Washington on November 20, 2011. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

- I’m sorry, I know a win is a win and they very well could wind up being tied for first in the NFC East before the night is over (the Giants are currently losing to the Eagles as I type). But that was not a very impressive win by the Cowboys today. The Redskins’ offense has been putrid for over a month and the Cowboys were one 52-yard field goal by Graham Gano away from losing. Jason Witten and Tony Romo made some great plays today and hey, divisional games are usually close. But count me among the people who keep waiting for the ‘Boys to put together that signature win and yet, it still hasn’t come. I picked the Cowboys to win the NFC East this year so I’m not surprised that they’re 6-4. It’s just not a very impressive 6-4 to me.

- Andy Dalton made some big mistakes today, which included throwing three interceptions and being flagged for intentional grounding on the Bengals’ final possession. But it’s clear that he and Cincinnati have a very bright future. This was a team that was without its best offensive playmaker (A.J. Green) and its top cornerback (Leon Hall) and still hung with the Ravens on their home field. On paper, Baltimore should have cruised to victory and it almost did. But thanks to Dalton and the Bengals’ perseverance, they had a chance to at least tie the game in the closing minutes. Assuming Dalton doesn’t go backwards from here, I see no reason why the Bengals won’t continue to challenge the Ravens and the Steelers in the AFC North.

- It was good to see Cam Cameron let it rip today. Sometimes the Ravens’ offense looks like a Ferrari but drives like a Pinto. Joe Flacco took a couple of deep shots, Ray Rice was heavily involved and Torrey Smith (6 receptions, 165 yards, 1 TD) had a breakout performance. Speaking of Smith, if he maintains his confidence week in and week out, he’s going to be a star in this league. That 49-yard catch that he hauled in today was a thing of beauty.

- If I’m a Lions fan I’m ecstatic that my team scored 49 points as Matthew Stafford threw for five touchdowns and Kevin Smith rushed for 140 yards and two scores. But I would be extremely concerned about the number of times they’ve had to stage a big comeback because they’ve dug themselves a huge hole in the first half. Three of the Lions’ seven wins this year (Dallas, Minnesota and Carolina) have come after they’ve fallen behind by 20 points or more and while it’s impressive that they’ve been able to persevere, it would be more impressive if they figured out a way to play four quarters more consistently. Because this is obviously a very dangerous team when they’re firing on all cylinders.

- Cam Newton is extremely fun to watch and he’s making a lot of pundits look very stupid for doubting him (and the Panthers for that matter) back in April. That said, he certainly helped his team lose today. Carolina’s defense turned in a brutal second-half effort against Detroit but Newton’s inaccuracy was a major issue as well. He often missed high to his receivers and wound up throwing four interceptions in the loss. Recklessness simply can’t be a part of his game.

- Kellen Winslow (9 receptions, 132 yards, 1 TD) had a monster game but he cost the Bucs’ twice in their 35-26 loss to the Packers. First he was flagged for an obvious pass interference call in the end zone on a third-and-3 from the Packers’ 4-yard-line, which led to a Tampa Bay field goal instead of a potential touchdown early in the third quarter. Then he dropped a pass on a two-point conversation attempt that would have tied the game at 21-21 early in the fourth. Granted, the Bucs’ defense couldn’t come up with that one big stop in the fourth but they were also trailing by nine points virtually that entire quarter because of Winslow’s mistakes. Still, Tampa certainly gave Green Bay all it could handle. There are no moral victories but the Bucs finally showed some punch on offense (including LeGarrette Blount’s unbelievable touchdown run).

- All of those weapons on offense and the Packers’ first two touchdowns today came on a 1-yard B.J. Raji run and a Tom Crabtree five-yard reception, respectively. As if opposing defenses don’t have enough to worry about when it comes to Green Bay, now they have to try and tackle 337 pounds of B.J. Raji and defend some guy named Tom Crabtree.

- Want to know the biggest reason why the previously 0-7 Dolphins have won three games in a row? Try the fact that they haven’t allowed a touchdown in 12 quarters now. Miami’s defense absolutely stifled the Bills today, allowing just 41 rushing yards in a 35-8 rout. They also stuffed Buffalo at the goal line early in the fourth quarter and intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. And who needs Andrew Luck? Matt Moore has thrown six touchdowns in his last three games.

- Somebody stick a fork in the Bills because they’re done. They made believers out of a lot of people earlier in the year but they’ve looked absolutely horrendous the last three weeks. Do you think the front office is regretting signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to that extension? He signed his new deal on October 28, beat the Redskins two days later and hasn’t won since.

- His play is indicative of a rookie quarterback but Christian Ponder is absolutely maddening to watch sometimes. One minute he’s using his athleticism to make a big throw downfield and the next he’s literally throwing the ball directly to a defender (see his interception to Stanford Routt in the fourth quarter today). He did extremely well to lead the Vikings from 20 points down against the Raiders without Adrian Peterson (who left the game early with an injury), but Ponder made some really bad decisions. Again, this is what you expect out of a rookie but he’s liable to make Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave insane.

- Some teams don’t have one capable starter at running back and Oakland has two. It must be nice when Darren McFadden goes down with an injury to have Michael Bush step in and take his place. Bush has lifted the Raiders into sole possession of first place in the AFC West the past two weeks. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the Chargers are absolutely imploding.

San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh (R) discusses a call with Line Judge John Hussey during play against the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on November 20, 2011. The 49ers defeated the Cardinals 23-7. UPI/Terry Schmitt

- Perhaps the most impressive thing about Jim Harbaugh is not the fact that he has gotten Alex Smith to play well or that the Niners’ defense is one of the best in the league. Albeit, those things are impressive but not nearly as impressive as the focus and discipline that he’s instilled in this San Francisco team. The Niners were a talented squad under Mike Singletary but the problem was that he was completely overmatched as a football tactician. And because he was so overmatched both on and off the field, his team began falling apart at the seams. But under Harbaugh, the Niners have played sound football, don’t beat themselves and not once have they been caught looking ahead. With a Thanksgiving Day matchup with his brother’s Ravens coming up in just four days, Harbaugh and the Niners could have easily overlooked Arizona today. Instead, they nearly shut the Cardinals out. Again, under Harbaugh they’ve been highly impressive.

- Considering how brutal their schedule was in the first half and the amount of injuries they’ve had to suffer through (particularly in the defensive backfield), it’s not surprising to see the Rams sitting with only two wins. That said, that’s a pitiful football team they have in St. Louis and if Billy Devaney doesn’t have a better offseason than the one he did this past year, the Rams will continue to lose. Devaney better find some gems in next year’s draft; I’m talking about finding a couple of guys that can make an impact right away or else both he and Steve Spagnuolo will be out of jobs very soon.

- I just can’t wrap my head around the play of Philip Rivers this year. This can’t be the same guy who almost single-handedly kept the Chargers in the playoff hunt last year without his top two playmakers. It just can’t. The interception he threw at the end of the game to Corey Graham was one of the worst throwaway attempts I’ve ever seen. And this came after Major Wright picked him off earlier in the quarter when San Diego’s defense put the Chargers in great field position with an interception of their own. Brutal. Philip Rivers has been brutal this year.

Sunday Evening Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 9 in the NFL

Every Sunday evening throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING…

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) throws against the New England Patriots third quarter at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts on November 6, 2011. The Giants defeated the Patriots 24-20. UPI/Matthew Healey

- It’s not surprising that the Giants gave the Patriots all they could handle today in Foxboro. It’s not even all that surprising that New York won 24-20 despite the fact that New England never losses consecutive games under Bill Belichick. For whatever reason, Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have Belichick and Tom Brady’s numbers. But if you were asked before the game which quarterback would pull off a great fourth-quarter comeback to lead their team to victory, most people wouldn’t have said Eli. (Even when you consider how many fourth-quarter comebacks the G-Men have already tallied this season.) People scoffed when Manning said he considered himself to be in the same class as Brady back in August. Whether you think he does or not, consider that he has the best fourth-quarter passer rating of any quarterback in the league this season and that his Giants are 6-2 when everyone thought they’d be looking up at the Eagles in the NFC East standings right about now. He’s also been the winning quarterback the past two times the Giants have played the Patriots, so the whole “does Eli belong in Brady’s class” conversation is rather moot at the moment. It’s all about wins, losses, and…nope, that’s about it.

- The Chiefs were due for a letdown. While they had won four in a row heading into Week 9, they seriously lack offensive explosion now that Jamaal Charles is out for the year and they would have lost to the Chargers on Monday night had Philip Rivers not decided to break out his best Rex Grossman impression late in the fourth quarter. That said, I don’t think anyone woke up this morning thinking, “Yeah, today is the day the Dolphins get their first win behind Matt Moore’s three touchdown passes and stingy defensive play.” I actually thought Miami would keep things close but 31-3? For the first time all season Tony Sparano will get a good night of sleep.

- The Rams pulled off the upset of the year last Sunday when they knocked off the Saints at home. So naturally they went out today and lost to an Arizona Cardinals team that started John Skelton at quarterback. St. Louis was given every opportunity to notch back-to-back victories for the first time all season and it screwed the pooch instead. The special teams unit was an absolute disaster in the fourth quarter and in overtime, as the Rams had a game-winning field goal blocked and missed four tackles on Patrick Peterson’s electrifying 99-yard punt return in OT. When his team played that brutal schedule to open the year, at least Steve Spagnuolo had an excuse for losing. There’s no excuse to lose to the John Skelton-led Cardinals when the game was practically in the bag.

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Sunday Evening Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 2 in the NFL

Every Sunday evening throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING…

Buffalo Bills tight end Scott Chandler celebrates a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York September 18, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Who knew that with the Bears in New Orleans to take on the Saints and Cam Newton hosting the defending champs that Raiders-Bills would be the most entertaining early game on Sunday? I’m pretty sure neither defense dressed for the second half but this game had it all: a major come-from-behind victory, plenty of big plays (that TD Denarius Moore caught from Jason Campbell was siiiick), and a last-minute touchdown pass on fourth down (see the photo above as Scott Chandler scores the game-winner). It’s actually fun to watch Ryan Fitzpatrick run Buffalo’s dare-I-say-high-powered offense.

- I was impressed by Cam Newton in his pro debut (how could you not be?), but I fully admit that I expected him to fall flat on his face against the Packers. Naturally he comes out and throws for over 400 yards again and is now on pace to pass for 6,832 yards this season. He’s also completing over 60% of his passes and had he not turned the ball over three times, I’m not so sure the Panthers don’t beat the Packers today. I don’t know if this is beginner’s luck or we’re seeing the next great thing at quarterback but I shudder to think what he’ll do once the game actually starts slowing down for him.

- Let me get this straight: the Ravens rack up 35 points on the Steelers’ defense but couldn’t muster more than a touchdown and two field goals against the Titans? Some were concerned that the Ravens would come out flat after their impressive win over the Steelers last Sunday and “some” were right. Matt Hasselbeck took advantage of a depleted Baltimore secondary all afternoon, completing 30 of his 42 pass attempts for 358 yards and a touchdown. Hasselbeck was helped by the fact that the Ravens wanted nothing to do with pressuring him as they finished with zero sacks.

- Jaguars win a gutsy 16-14 game over the Titans in their season opener, then fail to show up today and are blasted by the Jets, 32-3. Titans look hapless in Jacksonville last week, then came out on Sunday and romp a Raven team that destroyed the Steelers last week. The NFL is screwy, I tell ya.

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