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NFL News & Notes: Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan & “Free Hernandez”

McNabb was shortsighted with comments about Stafford.
Donovan McNabb recently said that he didn’t think Matthew Stafford was worth top 5 money in the NFL and while it’s hard to argue with his logic, he was also being shortsighted with his comments. Before the Lions selected Stafford with the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, they suffered through the likes of Joey Harrington, Jeff Garcia, Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky, Daunte Culpepper and Drew Stanton. And while Kitna did have one productive season under Mike Martz, there’s not a franchise quarterback among that group.

You see, it doesn’t matter what you, me, or McNabb thinks about Stafford as a player. The Lions firmly believe that he’s a franchise signal caller and thus, they were justified to pony up for his prime years. There have been exceptions to the rule but generally speaking, if you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have a Super Bowl contender.

Are there flaws in Stafford’s game that he needs to fix? Undoubtedly. But he’s a strong leader, a hard worker, and is dedicated to his craft. If he weren’t, the Lions wouldn’t have signed him to an extension with two years remaining on his rookie deal. Besides, he didn’t receive as much guaranteed money as Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco or even Tony Romo, who only has one more career playoff win than Stafford. Plus, had the Lions chosen to make Stafford prove he deserves a new long-term deal, what’s to say he wouldn’t have led them to their first-ever Super Bowl appearance and demanded more than what they wound up paying him? It was a good deal for both sides.

When will Ryan sign?
There’s zero reason why the Falcons shouldn’t sign Matt Ryan to an extension before the season starts. Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford all have new deals, which means Atlanta has a baseline to use to structure Ryan’s new contract. No matter what you think about Ryan’s ability (or inability) to lead a team to the Super Bowl, the Falcons know what they have in their franchise signal caller. In his five seasons, he’s led Atlanta to the playoffs four times and has posted a winning record in all five years he’s been in the league. And while he only has one playoff victory to show for his efforts, anyone who watched him operate in Dirk Koetter’s vertical-based offense last year knows that he’s on the fringe of becoming elite. (Granted, he did have Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez at his disposal, but Ryan posted outstanding passing numbers last season despite playing behind an inconsistent offensive line and an unproductive running game.) It’s not a matter of “if” but “when” the Falcons finally pony up and get a deal done.

Discretion apparently isn’t a word that the Pouncey brothers are familiar with.
It’s great to see Maurkice and Mike Pouncey express their freedom of expression by wearing “Free Hernandez” hats to a nightclub over the weekend. After all, they do hail from the same University of Florida that Aaron Hernandez attended before he was selected by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. But seeing as how the two brothers’ names were mentioned in the 2007 incident report stemming from a double shooing that also may have involved Hernandez, one would think the Pouncey twins would want to bring as little attention to themselves as possible. Not to mention, a man is dead and another is awaiting trial after he was charged with murder. This is hardly the best time to make a statement via wardrobe.

The Broncos were wise to lock up Clady.
The two most valuable players on the Broncos’ roster are Peyton Manning and Von Miller but if you were to rank a top 3, left tackle Ryan Clady would nestle into that third spot. Denver handed Clady a new five-year, $52.5 million contract on Sunday night and they were wise not to wait a minute longer. According to Pro Football Focus, Clady was ranked as the fourth-best left tackle in all of football last year and his extension ensures that Manning’s blindside will be protected heading into this pivotal 2013 season. The Super Bowl window isn’t going to stay open for forever in Denver, so it was vital that the Broncos locked Clady up long-term. Handing him $33 million in guaranteed money also proves that team doctors must be confident that Clady is fully recovered from season off-season surgery.

New quarterback but O-line will still hold Arizona back.
There has been a handful of positive reports to come out of Arizona this week about Carson Palmer, who has drawn praise from teammates like Larry Fitzgerald and Calais Campbell. Palmer is a good fit for new head coach Bruce Arian’s vertical passing game, as he still has enough arm strength and velocity to move the chains through the air. That said, he has no mobility inside or outside of the pocket and that’s likely to hurt him behind Arizona’s shaky offensive line. Granted, the Cardinals did select Jonathan Cooper with the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft and getting a healthy Levi Brown back will definitely help. But the bottom line is that the Cardinals still have question marks at four out of the five positions along their O-line and Brown is only two years removed from being considered the worst left tackle in all of football. At his age, Palmer will need plenty of functional space within the pocket and it’s unlikely he’ll receive it on a consistent basis. The Cards will be improved this season, but don’t expect them to make a huge leap with Palmer having to play behind that line. Besides, the Seahawks, 49ers and Rams are going to be tough to beat.

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 16 in the NFL

1. Nobody should sleep on the Ravens.
The Baltimore Ravens could go from playoff afterthought to Super Bowl contenders very quickly. Their fate depends on Joe Flacco, who finally awoke from his month-long slumber to complete 25-of-36 passes for 309 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the Ravens’ 33-14 rout of the Giants in Baltimore. When Flacco plays like he did on Sunday, you understand why some believed that Baltimore would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Flacco was almost relentless in attacking a sub par New York secondary, as he constantly toyed with cornerback Corey Webster on deep throws. He was confident, he was in total command of the offense, and he was poised as a passer. Most importantly, he was a catalyst for Baltimore’s offense instead of a deterrent, as he didn’t throw an interception for the first time since Week 12. With that Joe Flacco under center, the Ravens become a much different team heading into the postseason.

2. I was wrong about the 49ers.
Last week I insisted that the 49ers were the best team in the NFC. But the Seahawks proved me wrong with their 42-13 romp over San Francisco on Sunday night. I’m not convinced that Seattle can win a Super Bowl with Russell Wilson running around backyard-football style, but I do know that teams are less intimidated by the 49ers now than they were a week ago at this time. Maybe their lousy performance was the byproduct of them playing in New England last week or the absence of Justin Smith proves that he means more to their defense than anyone originally knew. But that’s still no excuse not to show up for a huge divisional game on primetime television. San Francisco has been widely considered the most physical team in the NFL but Seattle pounded the Niners into submission last night. All Jim Harbaugh could do was watch as the Seahawks racked up points while his players limped off the field. He also witnessed what happens when his team falls behind early and his offense can no longer remain balanced. Colin Kaepernick made a couple of nice throws but he otherwise looked befuddled and confused by what Seattle’s defense was doing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. And to watch San Francisco struggle to contain Seattle’s option attack was startling. I’m not ready to crown the Niners dead or put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. But last night was eye opening to say the least.

3. There won’t be a December miracle for the Giants this time around.
The New York Giants have become a team under Tom Coughlin that believes it can push a button and turn it on whenever they need to. But the past two weeks have shown that even defending Super Bowl champions can’t play flat and expect to win. In his past two games, Eli Manning has totaled 311 yards with just one touchdown and two interceptions while looking befuddled by what was going on around him. But to solely blame Manning for New York’s woes would be ridiculous. His offensive line can’t protect him, his running game has disappeared, and his defense has put him in early holes too insurmountable to overcome. This collapse by the Giants has taken a total team effort and there will be no December miracle this year. Granted, they can still clinch the sixth seed in the NFC but even if they beat the Eagles next Sunday, they would still need the Vikings to lose to the Packers, the Bears to lose to the Lions, and the Cowboys to lose to the Redskins. Two or even three of those scenarios may happen, but certainly not all four. Three weeks ago some pondered whether or not the Giants were still the best team in the NFC and now they’re spending Christmas on the brink of elimination.

4. Why isn’t Rodgers being mentioned in MVP discussions?
Aaron Rodgers has yet to eclipse the 4,000-yard passing mark this season but it’s ridiculous that his name isn’t being debated in MVP discussions. His quarterback rating of 106.2 is the best in the NFL and his 35 touchdowns are only four less than league-leader Drew Brees. He also has the Packers on the verge of clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC despite getting little help from his running game and not having Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson healthy for an entire season. He’s compiled seven touchdown passes and 633 passing yards the past two weeks as Green Bay has now won nine of their last 10 games. Ever since that ugly 38-10 loss to the Giants in Week 12, the Packers have become an afterthought. But thanks to a red-hot Rodgers, they might be the most dangerous team in the NFC again.

5. The Falcons are ascending.
The storyline Saturday night in Detroit was Calvin Johnson breaking Jerry Rice’s all-time single-season yardage record and becoming the first receiver in NFL history to record eight straight 100-yard games. The Lions have been a total disaster this season but the one constant has been the play of Johnson, who is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. But the underlying storyline to come out of Detroit was the fact that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC now travels through Atlanta. Following their hiccup in Carolina, a lot of people nearly broke their necks while jumping off the Falcons’ bandwagon three weeks ago. But Matt Ryan put on another passing clinic on Saturday, completing 25-of-32 passes for 279 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Despite all the yardage they allowed to Johnson and Matthew Stafford, it was also the second time in as many weeks that Atlanta’s defense held an opposing quarterback out of the end zone. And considering those opposing quarterbacks were Stafford and Eli Manning, that’s noteworthy. The Falcons aren’t going to convince anyone that they’re a Super Bowl contender until they win a playoff game with Ryan under center. But while all the attention in the NFC has now shifted to the Redskins and the Seahawks, the team with the best record in the NFL has very quietly started to hit its stride.

6. The Texans are regressing.
The Falcons and Texans’ seasons have pretty much run parallel to each other all season. Until now, that is. As the Falcons have started to ascend, the Texans have been regressing since their 13-6 victory over the Bears in Chicago on November 11. Since then, they could have easily lost back-to-back overtime games to the Jaguars and Lions, and did lose to the Patriots and Vikings the past three weeks. Their other wins came against the Titans and Colts, with the latter being only marginally impressive considering the Texans were in the red zone five times and scored just one touchdown. This isn’t the same juggernaut that ran through its schedule the first half of the season. It’s not good when your starting quarterback is pulled in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss at home, especially when that blowout loss comes in Week 16. Sunday’s loss to the Vikings was the first time the Texans failed to score a touchdown since Matt Schaub became their starting quarterback in 2007. Credit the Vikings for bottling up Houston’s running game and taking away Owen Daniels while leaving Schaub second-guessing himself all day. But this is a Houston team that many considered would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl and is now on the verge of coughing up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. At a time when teams want to be sprinting into the postseason, the Texans are stumbling backwards.

7. Defense, Ponder lift Vikings this time.
Minnesota’s defense stole the show on Sunday in Houston. Arian Foster left the game early because of an irregular heartbeat but he was held to just 15 yards on 10 carries before that. The Vikings also did a great job of taking Houston’s tight ends out of the game and limiting Andre Johnson’s ability to beat them deep. Christian Ponder finally rose to the challenge too, completing 16-of-30 passes for 174 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Like many opponents do, the Texans loaded up the box with eight and nine-man fronts in order to stop Adrian Peterson. They dared Ponder to beat them and he did, converting 8-of-17 third down attempts while also scrambling seven times for 48 yards. On a day when they needed to pull off a huge road win, it was because of Ponder and the defense that Minnesota remains alive in the NFC. Of course, one huge challenge still awaits the Vikings in the form of Green Bay this Sunday. Win and Minnesota is in.

8. Don’t blame Romo for the Cowboys’ collapse.
If the Cowboys wind up missing the postseason, nobody better blame Tony Romo for the team’s misfortunes. Granted, he was a factory for turnovers earlier in the season but he’s thrown 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions over his last eight games. When a quarterback completes 26-of-43 passes for 416 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions, the team should win. The fact is that Rob Ryan’s defense had no answer for Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense, which shredded Dallas’ secondary all afternoon. Jason Garrett also didn’t help matters but only running the ball 11 times and therefore not sustaining long drives in order to help Romo and his defense. Alas, the Cowboys still have one more chance to save their season as a win over Washington this weekend would mean they’re NFC East champs.

9. If true, the Tebow report is unnerving.
According to multiple team sources, ESPN New York is reporting that Tim Tebow pulled himself out of the Jets’ Wildcat package after he was passed over for Greg McElroy to be the team’s starting quarterback last week. Tebow was active for Sunday’s loss to the Chargers, but receiver Jeremy Kerley played the role as quarterback in the Jets’ Wildcat packages, which gives at least some credence to the ESPN report. Granted, it’s not Tebow’s fault that the Jets had no idea how they wanted to use him when they acquired him from Denver. But he won a playoff game for the Broncos last year and the first thing John Elway did was trade him in the offseason. Rex Ryan also stood and watched as Mark Sanchez single-handedly flushed the Jets’ playoff hopes down the toilet and he still refused to switch to Tebow. Maybe the ESPN report is inaccurate or there’s more to the story. Maybe the Jets told Tebow that he was being pulled so that they could get a closer look at Kerley in that role. Who knows? But if the story is true, then Tebow needs a massive wake up call. He’s an upstanding human being but that has little to do with playing quarterback in the NFL. He doesn’t have the physical tools as a passer to be a reliable starter and the Patriots proved in last year’s playoffs that college offenses like the one Tebow ran in Denver can only get a team so far. He has every right to be frustrated by the three-ring circus that has become the Jets, but him refusing to play in the Wildcat is no different than Lions receiver Titus Young purposely lining up in the wrong spot in Detroit. In either instance, the players are sabotaging their own offense. Hopefully for everyone involved he’ll be out of New York soon and this charade will finally come to an end.

10. Fisher has finally given St. Louis a reason to be hopeful in December.
Following their 36-22 loss to the Vikings last week, Jeff Fisher told his players that they can either act like a team that just lost one game or act like one that had just won three out of their last four. NFL teams need to have attitude and fortitude in order to be successful and the Rams now have both because of Fisher. Over the past eight years the team hasn’t given their fans reason to be hopeful around Christmas. The last time the city had any reason to be optimistic came in 2010 when the Rams came within a road win in Seattle of winning the NFC West and playing in their first postseason game since 2004. But nobody in St. Louis needs a reminder of what transpired last season and honestly, nobody at Rams Park seems interested in discussing the recent past either. Fans aren’t going to settle for seven wins, nor should they. But here’s the key: Neither will Fisher. Let’s keep things in perspective: One prominent media outlet predicted that the Rams wouldn’t win a game this year. Yet here they are at the conclusion of 16 weeks and they’ve won seven games with one left to go this Sunday. Whether the Rams beat the Seahawks isn’t as important as knowing that their future is bright. The team, their fans, and the city can thank Fisher for that.

Quick Hits…
It’s not fair to pin the Steelers’ loss on Ben Roethlisberger considering the vicious beating his offensive line gives him every week. But that’s two weeks in a row now that he’s thrown interceptions that cost Pittsburgh games. His latest turnover also knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs…The Bengals deserve praise for finally overcoming the hold that the Steelers had on them to win on Sunday and clinch a playoff spot. It’s not easy to win a late December road game in Pittsburgh with both teams essentially facing playoff elimination…Brady Quinn is a poor man’s Mark Sanchez, which is really saying something about his ability to lead a NFL team. After this week, he shouldn’t start another game the rest of his career…Andrew Luck set the record for most passing yards by a rookie quarterback. What’s even more amazing is that the record lasted just one year. (Cam Newton threw for 4,051 yards in 2011, breaking Peyton Manning’s mark set back in 1998)…Credit the Saints for not throwing in the towel when they know they can’t make the playoffs. Unlike the Titans, the Saints are still playing with pride…The Dolphins have to drive their fans crazy. This is the second year in a row that they’re playing just well enough down the stretch to ruin their chances of higher draft picks. Still, just like with the Saints, it’s good to see a team play out the remainder of their schedule with dignity…The throw RGIII made to Santana Moss for a 22-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter yesterday was a thing of beauty. The NFL needs this kid to be in the playoffs…Just throw the freaking ball Nick Foles! Give your team a chance for cribs’ sake…This in no way is meant to discredit what Peyton Manning and the Broncos have done this season because any team that wins 10 straight games in the NFL is special. But I wonder if Denver will be done in by the fact that it got to beat up on the brutal AFC West this season…Brandon Marshall is a serious talent. The catch he made yesterday where he battled Patrick Peterson while turning his entire body to adjust to a sideline throw by Jay Cutler was outstanding…I was absolutely lambasted a few years ago for questioning whether or not Josh Freeman can be a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. Those fans that called me every name in the book deserve the last two weeks. Just sayin’.

Lions will battle Packers at legendary Lambeau Field

The 8-4 Green Bay Packers are a touchdown favorite this Sunday night as the 4-8 Detroit Lions invade legendary Lambeau Field in an attempt to salvage their season. Conditions have certainly been worse at Lambeau in past battles, but the Lions will definitely face an uphill battle on what is expected to be a cold night in Green Bay.

The Packers of course have a very rich history, with the great Vince Lombardi standing at the top of the heap with his incredible teams from the 60s. The video above relives the story of the legendary “Ice Bowl” championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys from New Year’s Eve in 1967 at a frozen Lambeau Field with windchill taking the temperature down to −70°F. We’ve all heard the “frozen tundra” line a million times and this is where it all started. The Packers has plenty of down years after that, but then returned to greatness with Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre in the 90s and then again several years ago with Aaron Rodgers.

So the Lions will have to deal with much more than their own problems Sunday night. They’ll be on the road in cold weather facing a tough Packer team and all the mystique of Lambeau Field as well. Perhaps that doesn’t mean to much to the players on the field, but this stadium has its reputation for a reason. It’s hard to win there. There’s also this nugget – the Lions have lost 20 consecutive games in Green Bay. You can bet they’ll be hearing about that all week. It can either motivate them or contribute to another loss.

The Packers have their own problems, as they can’t seem to generate a running game. Their once-dominant passing game can get derailed when the opposing defense can key on the pass rush, and with Ndamukong Suh leading the charge, the Packers need to make sure Rodgers stays on his feet. He has been sacked a league-leading 39 times and the offensive line is banged up. They’re hoping that the signing of running back Ryan Grant can help.

Suh has also had some issues, as usual, and some argue he’s becoming a distraction for a Lions team that has had a very disappointing season with only four wins. The Lions had big expectations this season, and Matthew Stafford is piling up huge yardage again, but the defense keeps killing them. Nothing will change for the Lions until they can stop someone, and even with their issues the Packers are still very dangerous. We could see another shootout.

If you’re heading to the game, dress warm and keep a look out for Prilosec OTC as they are doing an on-location event at the Lambeau tailgate in connection with the new Prilosec OTC Wildberry.

From now until January 7, 2013, you can enter at WildberryFlavor.com for a chance to win trips to three of America’s most flavorful cities, including tickets to some of the country’s biggest sporting events courtesy of new Prilosec OTC Wildberry. One winner will be chosen at random to receive the prize pack, including tickets to the big football game in New Orleans (February 3, 2013), the first big auto race of the year in Daytona Beach (February 24, 2013) and the basketball championship game in Atlanta (April 8, 2013), travel and accommodations (a two-night hotel stay and air transportation for each destination), and one $5,000 check to be used in any of these flavorful cities.

Ten Observations from Week 11 in the NFL

1. Losing Gronkowski is a killer for Patriots.
Bill Belichick always finds a way. When Randy Moss became a nuisance in 2010 and the Patriots eventually decided to trade him, Belichick revamped his offense to feature rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Instead of attacking teams vertically with Moss, New England started going down the seam to its tight ends while mixing in a variety of screens (a staple in the Pats offense). So losing Gronkowski for 4-6 weeks due to a broken forearm isn’t going to completely derail the Patriots. They’re going to win the AFC East and they’ll probably wind up hosting a playoff game come January. But make no mistake: losing Gronkowski changes a lot for New England. Including Sunday’s 59-24 win over the Colts, “Gronk” had 37 touchdowns in 42 career games. He’s solidified himself as one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the game and is perhaps the best player at his position. Indianapolis didn’t have an answer for him on Sunday and most teams usually don’t. He’s too fast for tight ends and he’s too big for safeties or cornerbacks. Double him and you’ll leave Wes Welker open in space, or create holes for New England’s shredding running game. The Patriots didn’t just lose a playmaker – they lost the most productive player on their roster not named Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. Again, Belichick will find a way to keep his offense firing on all cylinders (the return of Herndandez will help). But he just lost one hell of a piston.

2. The blueprint on how to beat the Falcons has been revealed.
Coming into this week, the most interceptions Matt Ryan had thrown in one game was three. He matched that total in the first quarter of the Falcons’ fortunate 23-16 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, and threw two more interceptions before the completion of the game. It’s fair to point out that one interception went off Roddy White’s hands while two more were tipped at the line of scrimmage. But the other two picks were all Ryan, who perhaps had the worst game of his career. Ray Horton put together a brilliant game plan, dialing up a heavy array of blitzes while bringing pressure up the middle. Arizona only sacked Ryan once, but the Atlanta QB was constantly under duress and had someone in his face all game. With Julio Jones limited due to an ankle injury, the Cardinals were also smart to play bump and run on the outsides. Ryan threw for 301 yards but Arizona turned his five interceptions into 16 points. If the Cardinals had something even remotely resembling a NFL quarterback on their roster, they would have won the game easily. Instead, Horton handed other defensive coordinators a blueprint on how to corral the Falcon offense. Pressure Ryan up the middle, play physical on the outsides, and bracket Tony Gonzalez in coverage and you’ll limit what Atlanta can do. Granted, that’s easier said than done but thanks to the cemented-footed Michael Turner, it’s not as if the Falcons can lean on their running game in efforts to mix things up. Considering they may face aggressive defenses like San Francisco and Chicago in the playoffs, the one-dimensional Falcons have legitimate concerns despite being 9-1.

3. Manning is now the clear choice for MVP.
Save for his disastrous five-interception effort on Sunday, Matt Ryan has been phenomenal for the Falcons this season. He’s having a career year and if the MVP award were to be handed out tomorrow, one could easily make an argument that he’s deserving of the honor. But if you were looking for an MVP favorite right now, it would have to be Peyton Manning, who is having a career year statistically for the Broncos. The Chargers sacked him three times on Sunday and constantly pressured Manning inside the pocket. But he still wound up completing 25-of-42 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He has a 21-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last eight games and he’s put Denver in position to challenge for one of the top two seeds in the AFC. Thanks in large part to his production and the play of Von Miller (who’s a beast), the Broncos have now won five straight. And considering he missed all of last season due to multiple neck/back surgeries, what he’s been able to accomplish this season has been nothing short of remarkable. While his statistics have been impressive, you can’t measure what he’s been able to do for Denver this season. He’s going to make the Broncos a very tough out in the postseason.

4. At some point, the Rams need more from Bradford.
With how bad Sam Bradford was on Sunday, Brian Schottenheimer must have thought he was still calling plays for Mark Sanchez. Bradford completed just 23-of-44 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the Rams’ 27-13 loss to the Jets. He completed just 52 percent of his passes for a dismal 3.9 yards per attempt and also lost a fumble while looking uncomfortable by what the Jets were doing defensively. One week after shredding San Francisco’s outstanding defense, Bradford put together a forgettable performance against a reeling Jets team that was without its best defender. Granted, the excuses for Bradford are still viable. He’s playing in his third offense and for his third offensive coordinator in three years. But at some point the Rams are going to have to see signs of sustained progress from their third-year QB. Right now the formula is too easy for opposing defenses: Contain Danny Amendola, shut down Bradford and the St. Louis passing game. There’s no question Bradford needs a better supporting cast and it’s not as if he hasn’t improved. At times this season he’s played with more confidence and has looked more poised than at any point in his career. But one major flaw that he lacks is the ability to create on his own. That’s what the best do. And while the New York loss shouldn’t solely be laid at his feet the Rams need more from their franchise player or the team’s success will remain sporadic.

5. The Bucs are legit playoff contenders.
There’s something special brewing in Tampa Bay this year. Down 11 points late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs mounted an impressive comeback to beat the Panthers 27-21 in overtime. It was the fifth straight game in which Tampa scored at least 27 points and over the last six weeks, Josh Freeman has thrown 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions while averaging 285.8 yards per game. Granted, it wasn’t all good for Freeman on Sunday. He threw a mind-numbing pick-six to Captain Munnerlyn at the end of the first quarter while displaying shoddy footwork for much of the game. But with everything on the line late in the fourth, he threaded the needle to Vincent Jackson between two defenders and with one Panther hanging on him to put the Bucs within a 2-point conversation of tying the game. He then found Jackson again on the 2-point attempt before orchestrating an 8-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in overtime to put Carolina out of its misery. After what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past four weeks, don’t for a second think that the Bucs can’t beat the Falcons next week. Atlanta has had major issues in Tampa for the better part of a decade, including last season when the Bucs beat the Falcons, 16-13. They also can’t stop the run (hello, Doug Martin) and they’re banged up defensively (Sean Weatherspoon missed his third straight game due to an ankle injury, Asante Samuel hurt his shoulder and John Abraham came up limping several times on Sunday). That said, the biggest thing holding Tampa Bay back right now is its pass defense. And while Atlanta has proven to be one-dimensional offensively, the thing the Falcons do well is throw the ball. Next week will be the Bucs biggest challenge to date. Beat the 9-1 Falcons and all of a sudden they’re in the driver’s seat to secure one of the two wild card spots in the NFC.

6. The Steelers are in trouble.
Following the most athletic play of his career, Byron Leftwich did a very Byron Leftwich-type thing: He tripped over his own two feet with nobody around him and somehow hurt his shoulder in the process. He went on to complete just 18-of-39 passes for 201 yards with one costly interception in the Steelers’ 13-10 loss to the Ravens on “Sunday Night Football.” To be fair, it was a gritty performance by the former Jaguar, who stayed in the game despite taking hit-after-hit from aggressive Baltimore defenders. But the same progrems that plagued him as a rookie continue to plague him in his 10th year. He holds onto the ball too long, his elongated release welcomes turnovers, and he’s too erratic as a passer. Pittsburgh’s defense played well enough to win but Leftwich couldn’t sustain drives and special teams let the Steelers down when Jacoby Jones returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first half. Leftwich should be good enough to beat Cleveland next Sunday but two weeks from now the Steelers will have to travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens again. If they lose that game, they’ll almost certainly lose the division and will then have to compete with Indianapolis and Cincinnati for a wild card berth in the AFC. With Leftwich under center, there are no more “gimmies” on the schedule.

7. The Eagles have no choice but to hand Reid his walking papers.
The sensible thing for the Eagles to do is fire Andy Reid right now in order to get a jumpstart on finding his replacement. Why delay the inevitable? But considering he’s been one of the finest head coaches to not win a Super Bowl over the past two decades, Philadelphia may decide to let Reid finish out the season. Either way, the Eagles need to make a move. Following their 31-6 loss to the Redskins on Sunday, it’s apparent that there will be no miracle in Philadelphia this year. Despite having all of that talent, the Eagles don’t do anything well on either side of the ball. They can’t tackle. They don’t start fast. They don’t finish strong. No matter who’s under center they generate too many turnovers from the quarterback position. They don’t play with urgency, their game plans are often puzzling and injuries have decimated the offensive line. They’re just a bad football team, perhaps one of the worst in the NFL. And when a team has that much talent and is playing this bad, the head coach must go. It’s not as if the game has passed Reid by. The players have just stopped responding and when that happens, it’s best for all involved if there’s a change at the top. Reid will surely find work after this season, or in two years if he decides to take a year off. But his time in Philadelphia is coming to an end. It simply has to.

8. The Packers have very quietly won five in a row.
Last year the Packers sprinted through the regular season while lighting up opponents along the way. But they’ve traded in style for grit this year and they’ve very quietly put together a five-game winning streak. In their 24-20 win over the Lions on Sunday, Mason Crosby missed two field goals, Aaron Rodgers spent most of the day not being on the same page with his receivers, and Mike McCarthy questionably stuck with a running game that simply wasn’t working. It was the second time in three games that the Packer offense struggled, although Rodgers remains on a pretty good tear. He now has 24 touchdown passes in his last seven games and was clutch Sunday when it mattered most, hitting Jermichael Finley for a 40-yard pass play to set up the game-winning 22-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb. Green Bay is far from being the juggernaut that it was last season but just like in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl, they’re having to grind out victories. That could serve them well down the road.

9. The Bengals still have a pulse.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have revived a Bengals team left for dead two weeks ago. At 5-5 there’s still time for Cincinnati to mount a comeback in the AFC, especially with Ben Roethlisberger likely to miss sufficient time due to injuries. With games versus Oakland, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia coming up, it’s realistic that the Bengals could be 9-5 heading into Pittsburgh on December 23. The key is whether or not Dalton continues to play with the confidence that he’s exhibited over his past two games. Following his four-touchdown, zero-interception performance versus the Giants, the second-year QB completed 18-of-29 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in Cincinnati’s 28-6 win over the Chiefs on Sunday. Green also caught a touchdown pass in his ninth straight game, leaving him one TD shy of tying Carl Pickens’ franchise record. At some point they need to prove that they can beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh if they want to be taken seriously. But suddenly the Bengals are in position to compete for that sixth and final wild card spot in the AFC.

10. Quick-Hits from around the league…
Even though they eventually lost the game, Jaguar fans had to be thrilled with their team’s effort on Sunday. That said, big picture-wise it’s not good that Chad Henne lit Houston up for 354 yards and four touchdown passes while once again being forced into action because of an injury to Blaine Gabbert. Henne was exposed in Miami as a full-time starter and he’s not the long-term answer in Jacksonville. But through a season and a half, Gabbert doesn’t appear to be either…Speaking of Houston, what a day for Matt Schaub (43-of-55, 527 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs). On a rare day when he had to pick up his defense, Schaub and Andre Johnson (14 catches, 273 yards, 1 TD) were sensational…The Cowboys are in trouble if they’re barely squeaking by the Browns at home. How can anyone in Dallas be confident that the Cowboys will make the postseason when Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Seattle New Orleans and Minnesota are all playing better?…The Colts proved in New England that they’re not quite ready for primetime but Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton are starting to become a nice little duo. Hilton now has three 100-yard games this season and has emerged as a true deep threat in Indy’s offense. And while New England took two of Luck’s interceptions back for touchdowns, the rookie QB continues to show great pocket presence and toughness. He’s not afraid to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike in the face of charging defenders…. Mike Mularkey did wonders for Roddy White’s career in Atlanta and he could do the same for Justin Blackmon in Jacksonville. While receiving a team-high 13 targets as the focal point of the Jaguars passing game, Blackmon broke out with a seven-catch, 236-yard performance. He also caught an 81-yard touchdown pass while snatching the ball in triple coverage. It was the game Jacksonville fans have been waiting for since April…If Matthew Stafford ever decides to go back and review his performance from this season, he won’t like what he sees. Too many times this year he would be careless with the football, including on Sunday when he threw a side-armed interception just before halftime, killing whatever opportunity Detroit had to sustain momentum versus Green Bay. He’s also taken some bad sacks in crucial moments of games, hasn’t always secured the ball properly and often halted drives with poor decision-making. After throwing for over 5,000 yards in 2011, this season has been a bust for the fourth-year QB…Forget the Cardinals’ record – Ray Horton is going to be a hot name this offseason when it comes to coaching vacancies around the NFL. On most Sundays, his defense has played well enough to win games, even though Arizona’s offense constantly puts his players in horrible situations…The Saints’ victory over the lowly Raiders was impressive, but their playoff hopes firmly ride on the next four weeks: vs. 49ers, at Falcons, at Giants, vs. Bucs. If they can win three of four they can make the playoffs with a two-game sweep of the Cowboys and Panthers to close out the regular season…There’s not much going right for the Chargers these days, including a reckless Philip Rivers. But former Ram Danario Alexander is making the most out of a second chance. Limited by a hamstring injury in training camp and preseason, having five weeks off to heal up did wonders for Alexander’s career. He now has 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games.

NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 4

1. Newton isn’t a closer, but thankfully for the Falcons Ryan is.
Following his dreadful performance last Thursday against the Giants, Cam Newton bounced back nicely against the Falcons on Sunday while throwing for 215 yards, rushing for 86 yards, and reaching the end zone three times (twice through the air and once rushing). But for all of his heroics, Newton remains a quarterback unable to close out games. Faced with a crucial third-and-one with less than two minutes remaining in the contest, Newton had picked up a first down on a designed run, but he fumbled the ball while pin-balling off bodies. Had he squeezed the ball tightly, the Panthers could have run out the clock and earned a huge road victory against an undefeated division rival. Instead, the ball bounced backwards and while one of his teammates jumped on it, the Falcons still had life. Then, despite gashing Atlanta for nearly 200 yards on the ground, coach Ron Rivera decided that his team couldn’t pick up one more yard to put the game away. He punted on fourth-and-1 and despite pinning the Falcons on their own 1-yard line, defensive back Haruki Nakamura inexplicably allowed a 59-yard pass completion to Roddy White, which put the Falcons in range of a game-winning field goal. The rest was history, as Matt Ryan, a true closer, marched Atlanta down to the Carolina 22-yard-line to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning 40-yard field goal. The outcome was yet another reminder of the one thing that Newton has still yet to learn: How to finish. Like so many times before, Ryan was handed an opportunity to put his team on his shoulders and win the game, which he did. Granted, a lot of luck was involved and Newton had plenty of help giving that game away. But at the end of the day, one quarterback closed and the other didn’t.

2. The Patriots remain the team to beat the AFC East.
Heading into Week 4, people wanted to believe the Patriots’ reign of terror in the AFC East was over. They bought into the notion that the Bills were ready to unseat New England, which had lost in Buffalo last year and was coming off back-to-back losses the past two weeks. But despite the offseason additions of Mario Williams (who has been a ghost since signing that huge deal back in March), Stephon Gilmore and Mark Anderson, Buffalo’s defense remains a major work in progress. The Bills thought they had fixed their issues on that side of the ball and yet, their defensive line applied very little pressure to Tom Brady and allowed 247 yards rushing. The Patriots reminded us that they can still turn it on when they need to, as 45 of their 52 points came in the second half. Where as Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to struggle with the deep ball and throwing outside the numbers, Brady used his legs to buy himself more time and even rushed for a score in the third quarter. Stevan Ridley added 106 yards on the ground but was overshadowed by undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden, who seemingly came out of nowhere to rush for 137 yards on 16 carries. Despite Buffalo being at full strength with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson (both were active despite being questionable throughout the week), the Patriots sent a message that they’re still one of the most dangerous teams in the AFC when they’re firing on all cylinders.

3. The Saints played their best game of the season…and still lost.
There were plenty of moments in Green Bay on Sunday where you were reminded of the Saints of the last couple of years, at least offensively. Drew Brees completed 35-of-54 passes for 446 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, while Marques Colston emerged from his slumber to catch nine passes for 153 yards and one score. This is still a team that will scare opponents week in and week out, although it’s telling that this was New Orleans’ best game of the season and it still walked away with a 28-27 loss. The defense created little to no pressure on Aaron Rodgers, who wasn’t sacked after being dropped eight times by Seattle just six days prior. The Saints also don’t have a running game and clearly miss Carl Nicks. (The offensive line hasn’t been the same without him.) It’ll also be interesting to see if the Saints can remained focused throughout the year. It’s still relatively early but no team shakes off a 0-4 start. Keep in mind that the players on this roster aren’t used to losing and most are holdovers from the Super Bowl squad. This is a team that has fought for division titles and Super Bowl berths the past few seasons. How will they respond when faced with immense adversity?

4. Let’s give credit where credit is due: Kolb has lifted his play.
The Dolphins sacked Kevin Kolb eight times on Sunday, held the Cardinals to just 28 yards rushing, forced two turnovers and built leads of 13-0 and 21-14 before Arizona finally came back and won 24-21 in overtime. Kolb completed 29-of-48 passes for 324 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. It wasn’t a brilliant performance but few are when we speak of Kolb. The key is that he raised the level of his play, which is something he has failed to do on a consistent basis over the past two years. Too many times we’ve seen Kolb take jab after jab while cashing out long before the fight is over. This time, he hung in there and made one of the best throws of his career while finding Andre Roberts on a perfect sideline pass on a 4th-and-10 with less than a minute in regulation. Had his pass fell to the ground, we wouldn’t have been surprised. ‘It’s Kevin Kolb,’ we would have said while shrugging. But let’s give credit where credit is due: Kolb was a huge factory in Sunday’s victory. And if Ray Horton’s defense continues to play as well as it has, maybe a confident Kolb will allow the Cardinals to stay in the mix all season.

5. Less is more when it comes to Vick.
Michael Vick didn’t put on a passing clinic on Sunday night against the Giants. He didn’t have a series of highlight runs and he didn’t leap head first into the end zone while trying to score. He also didn’t turn the ball over and the Eagles picked up a huge 19-17 victory against a division rival. Vick is a better quarterback when he plays within himself, understands his limitations, and doesn’t try to win the game on his own. He didn’t routinely force throws into coverage or wildly run around when the pocket broke down. He simply took what the defense gave him and led his team on four second-half scoring drives despite only mustering seven points in the first half. Vick has a lot of schoolyard to his game and that shouldn’t change. But if the Eagles’ talented roster is ever going to reach its full potential, he has to understand that his reckless play is hurting his team, himself, and his coach. Hopefully last night was a step in the right direction for the veteran quarterback.

6. Opponents have figured out the Lions, who refuse to adjust under Schwartz.
Jim Schwartz deserved the contract extension he received before the season. But his inability to make adjustments throughout the week and on game days has to be maddening for Detroit fans. Last season the Lions played to their strength, which was their passing game. Opponents knew what was coming and they still couldn’t slow down Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. But this year teams are playing two safeties deep in order to keep Detroit’s vertical game in check, and the Lions have refused to adjust. Stafford threw for over 300 yards in Sunday’s loss against Minnesota, but he leads an offense that continues to be out of sync. It’s not Stafford’s fault that Johnson had a touchdown knocked out of his hands on one play and Brandon Pettigrew dropped a pass in the end zone the next, but for whatever reason Detroit’s offense has been disjointed all season. They also can’t run the football and the defense is still plagued by the same issues it had last year because GM Martin Mayhew didn’t have the cap space in order to fix the team’s problems. Furthermore, the Lions remain one of the most undisciplined teams in football and clearly there hasn’t been an emphasis on special teams during the week because this is now back-to-back weeks that Detroit has given up two touchdowns on kickoffs and punts. The defense actually played well on Sunday but their performance was overshadowed by the fact that the special teams units were once again atrocious. If Schwartz doesn’t start making wholesale changes then the Lions could be back to square one very soon here.

7. The Jets’ problems have grown.
It used to be that the Jets could mask Mark Sanchez’s issues with Rex Ryan’s defense and a strong running game. But they lost the ability to run the ball last year and now thanks to the season-ending injury to Darrelle Revis, this is a team ready to unravel. Sanchez doesn’t look like he’s learned anything in four years. He’s generated just one touchdown in his last 34 possessions and has completed a dreadful 43.6 percent of his passes the past three weeks. While Ryan gave him a vote of confidence following Sunday’s 34-0 loss to the 49ers, it won’t be long before Tim Tebow is inserted as the starter. Tebow, of course, isn’t a better option under center. But he at least has shown the ability to make things happen and he’s a stronger leader than the unconfident Sanchez. This isn’t a playoff caliber team without Revis, and if the Jets finally come to terms with the fact that Sanchez isn’t the answer, then Tebow needs to play. But either way, Ryan and the Jets have issues they can no longer mask.

8. The Fisher hire has already paid off for St. Louis.
Because they played in two Super Bowls within the last 15 years, people seem to forget how bad the Rams have been over the last decade. This is a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2003 and hasn’t gone to the playoffs since qualifying for the 2004 postseason with an 8-8 record. But the hiring of Jeff Fisher has brought stability to a franchise that has yearned for that very thing the past 10 years. Despite having the youngest roster in the NFL, a polarizing figure at quarterback, one of the worst offensive lines in the league and an ineffective Steven Jackson, the Rams are 2-2. They’re playing meaningful football again in the fourth quarter and arguably should have beaten the Lions in Week 1. Make no mistake: Fisher is putting his print on this team, which is no longer just the “Same old Rams.” They also have a true weapon in rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, who converted on attempts of 58, 48, 60, and 24 yards out in Sunday’s 19-13 win over the Seahawks. Just wait until Fisher and GM Les Snead start filling the roster with talent. The Rams are going to be a competitor very soon.

9. Peyton Manning and the Broncos: The ultimate wild card.
The Raiders’ pass coverage isn’t very good. Safety Tyvon Branch is a solid player but Michael Huff continues to be inconsistent and the rest of Oakland’s secondary hasn’t made anyone forget about Nnamdi Asomuagha. That said, it was nice to see some vintage Peyton Manning on Sunday. He torched the Raiders for 338 yards and three touchdowns while misfiring on just eight of his 38 pass attempts. Granted, he was aided by a running game that produced 165 yards and he rarely challenged downfield. His receivers did a nice job racking up yards after the catch too, but as a football fan it was nice to see Manning be effective. Denver remains a true mystery. Thanks to their defense and rushing attack, the Broncos will continue to battle the Chargers for first place in the AFC West. But Manning is the wild card. If he can do what he did on Sunday and in Week 1 versus the Steelers, the Broncos are a threat in the AFC. But we’ve seen the past two weeks how Manning can derail things as well. It’s going to be an interesting ride all season.

10. The rest of the Redskins deserved one made field goal.
There’s little doubt that an 0-for-4 day would have cost kicker Billy Cundiff his job. Thankfully he didn’t send himself on an extended vacation by converting a 41-yard field goal to give the Redskins a 24-22 win over the Bucs on Sunday.. On a day when Cam Newton couldn’t hold onto the ball on a crucial third-and-one in Atlanta, Robert Griffin III was 4-for-5 for 46 yards and added a 15-yard scramble on Washington’s final drive. He moved his team into field goal range and had Cundiff missed wide right, it wouldn’t have been RGIII’s fault that the Skins lost. But he and his teammates deserved that win. Alfred Morris deserved that win. Despite being beaten by Josh Freeman on a couple of nice second-half throws, Washington’s defense deserved that win. Cundiff saved his job for the moment, but more importantly he allowed his teammates to celebrate something that was deservedly theirs.

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