Michigan State vs. Notre Dame, 3:30PM ET, Saturday
There’s tremendous value in the Spartans on Saturday. Granted, their defense hasn’t been tested yet but they rank fifth nationally with an average of 126.7 passing yards against. Perhaps most importantly is that sophomore Connor Cook emerged last week from a crowded quarterback competition by throwing for four first-half touchdowns and 202 yards against Youngstown State. Running back Jeremy Langford has also scored four touchdowns on the season and is averaging 4.5 yards per carry, so MSU should generate plenty of offense this weekend. The Spartans are 7-1 against the spread in their last eight trips to South Bend, while the road team is 11-2 against the number in the last 13 meetings between these two teams. Granted, Notre Dame is seeking its 10th consecutive win in South Bend but the Irish looked vulnerable on the road last week versus Purdue. This is a field goal game either way and if you like the Spartans, jump on them now. The line has already moved down to 4.5 after opening at 6. FREE PICK: MICHIGAN STATE +4.5
Arizona State vs. Stanford, 7:00PM ET, Saturday
The Sun Devils are coming off of what many would deem as a “gift” win over Wisconsin after the officiating crew blew the end of last Saturday’s game. But ASU will gladly take the victory and will look towards Saturday, which coach Todd Graham says “is a great opportunity for us to take a step forward as a program.” Stanford won’t be easy to overcome. The Cardinal is 8-2 at home against ranked opponents since 2009 and boasts a defense that returned eight starters from a unit that statistically was the best in the Pac-12 last season. That said, the Sun Devils are 4-1 against the spread in their last five games overall and the coaching staff knows what a win over the Cardinal could do for the program. The line has already been bet down two full points in this one – you can expect ASU’s best effort. FREE PICK: ARIZONA STATE +5.5
Falcons vs. Dolphins, 4:05PM ET, Sunday
The Falcons have been absolutely ravaged by injuries in the early going. It was revealed following the team’s Week 1 loss to the Saints that Roddy White suffered a high-ankle sprain in preseason, and just this past week Steven Jackson (thigh), Sean Weatherspoon (foot), and Kroy Biermann (Achilles) all fell victim to serious injuries. Atlanta was already having issues running the ball so without Jackson in the starting lineup, the feat could become impossible. Losing Weatherspoon and Biermann also force DC Mike Nolan to play with inexperienced players at crucial spots defensively, and this was already a unit that struggles to generate pressure. On the other side, the Dolphins have been impressive while winning both of their games on the road. Ryan Tannehill has looked sharp in the early going and finally got on the same page as receiver Mike Wallace, who had a big game in Indy last week. With the public jumping on the underdog Falcons, the Dolphins are a value at under a field goal. Miami goes to 3-0. FREE PICK: MIAMI DOLPHINS -1
Buccaneers vs. Patriots, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
The Bucs have been a mess both on and off the field thus far. They scored a combined 31 points in their first two games and there have been reports questioning Josh Freeman’s leadership and whether or not coach Greg Schiano is a fit. That said, in both of their games they squandered leads with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. While the unit has failed to close out games in the final minutes the past two weeks, the Bucs wouldn’t have been in either contest had it not been for Bill Sheridan’s defense. Tampa will play a New England team on Sunday that had issues moving the ball last week against Rex Ryan’s Jets. Tom Brady was visibly frustrated with his young receiving corps during the game and without Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, there’s reason to believe that the Pats could continue to struggle offensively. New England opened as a 9.5-point favorite but the spread has already been bet down a full point. The Bucs have a ton of issues but their defense should give them a chance on Sunday. FREE PICK: TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS +8.5
Tannehill blossoming but…
With the signings of free agents Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, Phillip Wheeler, Tyson Clabo, Brent Grimes and Brandon Gibson, the Dolphins have had an eventful offseason. But the biggest news has been the development of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who reportedly has been sharp in practices and who looks ‘more instinctive and less mechanical.’ With the Bills and Jets devoid of overall talent and the Patriots in the midst of a tumultuous offseason (that’s putting it mildly), some believe the Dolphins could be a sleeper in the AFC East. That said, the reports on left tackle Jonathan Martin have been less than favorable. Martin has been schooled by up-and-comer Olivier Vernon in practice and continues to be suspect in pass protection. And while Martin has looked good as a run-blocker, there are questions about whether Clabo can make the transition from a standard to a zone-blocking scheme. Even if Tannehill takes a significant step in his development and is surrounded by more talent (Lamar Miller continues to showcase his skills in camp), it won’t matter if the offensive line struggles. The play of Miami’s offensive tackles will be a topic of discussion throughout preseason and heading into Week 1.
Kolb has already been sacked.
The preseason hasn’t even started and already Kevin Kolb is on his backside. Bills coach Doug Marrone said the quarterback “tweaked” his knee and is considered day to day after tripping on a wet mat Saturday morning. The news comes on the heels of reports that Kolb has been outplayed in practice by rookie E.J. Manuel, who might wind up starting Week 1 despite his rawness at the position. Manuel fits Marrone’s up-tempo, run-first approach, so the first-year quarterback could grow on the job without having the pressure or expectations of carrying the offense with his arm. But it’s an indictment against Kolb that he can’t even stay on his own two feet while competing for a starting job in training camp. Granted, he was just keeping the seat warm until Manuel was ready to start, but if Kolb can’t win the starting job in Buffalo then what head coach or GM in his right mind will ever view Kolb as a starter again? It’s amazing to think he was once handpicked by Andy Reid to be the successor to Donovan McNabb.
49ers add Collie and Hawkins: What does it say about Jenkins?
The recent additions of Austin Collie and Lavelle Hawkins speak volumes about the development or lack thereof of 49ers’ 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins. The former Illinois standout reported to camp out of shape last year, was eased into the offense by head coach John Harbaugh and OC Greg Roman, and then logged just 47 snaps in the regular season as a rookie. He’s reportedly off to a slow start again this summer and is now dealing with a hamstring strain. And while the additions of Collie and Hawkins could be precautionary with Michael Crabtree (Achilles’ tear) out and Kyle Williams returning from ACL surgery, it’s worth noting that Jenkins has failed to distinguish himself with the position opposite Anquan Boldin up for grabs.
It took Pro Bowlers Roddy White and Vincent Jackson three years to make an impact in the NFL, so the Niners will remain patient with Jenkins. But with Crabtree down, the team has to be frustrated that it hasn’t received more from its first-round investment up to this point.
Cook could be ready for a breakout campaign.
Titans fans are well aware of tight end Jared Cook’s upside and potential. For years they had to endure preseason chatter about how Cook was going to develop into a major contributor in Tennessee’s passing game, only to be disappointed by his lack of production. Whether it was poor playcalling or game planning, quarterback struggles, or Cook’s own bouts with inconsistency, the former South Carolina tight end has failed to deliver.
But after signing a lucrative free agent deal this offseason, Cook has turned heads in Rams camp. He and Sam Bradford have built a solid rapport and Cook has demonstrated his immense versatility. On one play he’s lining up in-line and the next he’s in the slot or out wide and in motion. He’s allowed the Rams to practice formations that they couldn’t use a year ago because they simply didn’t have a weapon as skilled as Cook. Whether it’s against a veteran defensive back or rookie safety TJ McDonald, Cook continues to beat defenders with his speed, soft hands, and big catch radius. The success of St. Louis’ offense will depend on Brian Schottenherim’s creativity, as well as Bradford’s ability to work through his progressions quickly and get the ball out of his hands on time and accurately. But with weapons like Cook, Tavon Austin and Chris Givens, the Rams have finally equipped Bradford with the tools necessarily to succeed.
An offensive weapon is developing in Cleveland.
The reports out of Cleveland have been inconsistent on receiver Josh Gordon. While new GM Mike Lombardi says Gordon has had a “great attitude” this offseason, others have written about his immaturity and lackadaisical habits at practice. He’s also facing a three-game suspension at the start of the season and is now battling “patellar tendonitis.” With second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden also drawing mixed reviews from pundits, the one consistent positive for Cleveland has been tight end Jordan Cameron. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Cameron has been targeted “early and often” during training camp, and he might emerge as Weeden’s security blanket this season. While the Browns’ success this season will depend on Ray Horton’s underrated defense and the development of Weeden, it’s good to hear that Cameron is turning heads. Cleveland has long searched for offensive weapons.
The NFL draft never unravels the way we expect. In the months leading up to the event, we discuss a multitude of scenarios surrounding our favorite teams and yet, there are always a handful of surprises in the first round.
That said, don’t be surprised if…
…Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel is selected in the first round.
Out of all of the quarterbacks in this year’s draft class, Manuel is the best fit for the read-option (i.e. the NFL’s hottest trend). If a team were to take a chance on a quarterback in the first round, it would for Manuel – not USC’s Matt Barkley, who doesn’t have great arm strength and who is coming off a shoulder injury. While his accuracy and decision making need to improve, Manuel is described as a natural leader with great athleticism, prototypical height and above average arm strength. He’s also been invited to attend Radio City Music Hall, indicating that he’ll be a top 40 selection.
…the two guards aren’t selected in the top 15.
Over the past three months, Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper have drawn rave reviews from scouts and draftniks alike. In fact, Warmack is a popular pick for the Titans at No. 10 in most mocks, and Cooper is often listed in the teens. But not many mocks had Stanford’s David DeCastro falling out of the top 15 last year and he made it all the way to the Steelers at No. 24 overall. The fact is that teams don’t value guards as highly as draftniks do, not even elite prospects like Warmack and Cooper. Since 2004, the average draft position for guards in the first round is pick No. 23.
…Tavon Austin drops out of the top 15.
The NFL is about height, weight and speed. It’s why hundreds of grown men flock to Indianapolis every year to pour over measurements and forty-yard dash numbers for nearly a week. There’s plenty of buzz that Austin could be selected in the top 15, but his lack of size would suggest otherwise. He’s 5’8″ and 174 pounds, which is right at the NFL minimum for wide receiver prospects. Granted, his 4.3 speed and playmaking ability make him a surefire first-rounder, but this notion that he’ll be taken in the top 10 seems absurd. The Rams have the No. 16 selection. If you’re looking for the perfect over/under for Austin’s draft projection, start with that number.
…the Dolphins trade into the top 5.
There’s been talk about Miami trading into the top 10 but why would Jeff Ireland stop there? He was the most active general manager in free agency and he knows his team needs to find a replacement for Jake Long (FA/Rams). Thus, why trade ahead of the Cardinals at No. 7 in efforts to land Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson when he might be able to get into the top 5 and nab an elite left tackle prospect like Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher? The Raiders own the No. 3 overall pick and might make the perfect trade partner seeing as how a) they lack picks due to Hue Jackson’s boneheaded trade for Carson Palmer two years ago and b) they select directly ahead of Philadelphia and Detroit, which also need offensive line help. Ireland has seemingly made aggressive move after aggressive move this offseason in efforts to save his job in Miami. What’s one more on draft night?
…the Jaguars take Geno Smith.
The most popular pick to Jacksonville at No. 2 is Oregon defensive end/linebacker Dion Jordan, which makes sense given the team’s need at pass rusher. But neither David Caldwell nor Gus Bradley drafted Blaine Gabbert, which means there’s no loyalty there. How many times do we see new head coaches and/or general managers take over a team and one of their first moves is to acquire a franchise signal caller? Smith isn’t close to being a top 5 pick but he plays the most coveted position in the NFL and he is the best quarterback prospect in this draft. He could wind up sinking the Jaguars further into NFL oblivion but chances are Caldwell and Bradley are willing to take that chance.
1. The Percy Harvin trade was outstanding for the Seahawks. They landed a proven playmaker for a first-round pick that may-or-may not wind up being a valuable piece, a seventh-rounder that probably would have been a long-shot to make an already stacked roster, and a third-round selection in 2014 that may-or-may not turn into a solid role player. It’s clear that Harvin wore out his welcome in Minnesota and the Vikings did what they had to do in order to rid themselves of the headache. But this is a dynamic, versatile player that adds a much-needed element to Seattle’s offense. He did miss seven games last season due to an ankle injury, but he missed only three games in the three years prior and his migraine issues have seemingly been resolved. (After being diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2010, he hasn’t suffered a migraine in two year.) With Harvin joining Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Sidney Rice, Zach Miller and Golden Tate, I’d match the Seahawks up against any other offense in the NFC right now.
2. Speaking of the Seahawks, the signing of Michael Bennett was a shrewd move by Pete Carroll and John Schneider. Bennett wasn’t impressed with the offer he received from the Buccaneers so instead of being patient while testing the market, he accepted what essentially was a one-year “prove it” deal at $5 million. He had nine sacks with Tampa Bay last season and is versatile enough to play end or tackle in a 4-3 alignment. He more than makes up for the loss of Jason Jones (Lions) and after signing Cliff Avril to a reasonable two-year, $15 million contract, Seattle is prepared from a pass-rushing standpoint to get by while Chris Clemons (ACL surgery) is on the mend. Once Clemons returns, he’ll join a defensive line that features Bennett, Avril and former first-rounder Bruce Irvin, who finished with eight sacks last season as a rookie.
3. After some initial confusion, the Patriots signed Danny Amendola before Wes Welker agreed to terms with the Broncos. He also received less money per year than Welker, which further proves that Bill Belichick and his staff coveted Amendola from the start of free agency (as opposed to countering Denver’s decision to sign Welker). New England was wise to tie up $2.5 million of Amendola’s contract in per-game roster bonuses, meaning the oft-injured receiver will need to stay healthy if he wants to fully cash in on his new deal. Considering he’s caught over 100 passes in five of the last six seasons, it’s almost ridiculous to think that the Pats have replaced Welker. But by signing Amendola, they acquired a player with a similar skill set that is also four years younger. As far as production goes, Welker has been in a league of his own since 2007 but Amendola arguably owns a better pair of hands and has more than enough short-area quickness to play the slot in Josh McDaniels’ offense. Amendola just needs to stay healthy or his value will be greatly diminished over the course of his contract in New England.
4. Considering Brian Hartline led the Dolphins in receiving last season, it’s hard to argue why Jeff Ireland spent a large portion of his cap space on Mike Wallace. He gives Miami’s offense something it desperately needed: A playmaker with the ability to take the top off a defense. But did Ireland really improve his defense or did he make slight upgrades while also spending more money? Both Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe are solid players but Ireland spent a combined $56 million to acquire them on the open market. In one fell swoop, he also released Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who were productive last season for Miami’s defense. It’s not as if linebacker was a need coming into the offseason – Ireland just shifted players around and by doing so, spent more money in the process. Given the mess that are the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, the Dolphins will likely be the only threat to the Patriots in the AFC East next season. Again, it’s not as if Miami hasn’t made upgrades to its roster. But these are hardly calculated decisions by Ireland, whose future in Miami could rest on the moves he made last week.
5. It’s laughable that some are questioning the Falcons’ decision to sign Steven Jackson when they could have just kept Michael Turner. These same folks point to both players’ production over the last four years and the fact that Turner has racked up 60 touchdowns since 2008 compared to Jackson’s 26 TDs over that same span. But Turner’s burst and acceleration have evaporated, and he no longer can create on his own. Too often he would run into the backs of his offensive linemen last year and managed a paltry 3.6 yards per carry. Jackson has lost a step over the years but he still displays some quickness and the ability to beat defenses on the edge. Monetarily-speaking, the two players aren’t comparable either. Turner was set to make $6.9 million in his final year with the Falcons, while Jackson signed for a reasonable $12 million over three years. (Of the amount, only $4 million is guaranteed.) For those that worry about touchdown totals, keep in mind that Turner received 51 red-zone opportunities last season with Atlanta, compared to Jackson’s 27 with St. Louis. Considering Dirk Koetter used Turner as his goal-line battering ram last season, Jackson will have more than enough opportunities to reach pay dirt in 2013. More importantly, he’ll also give Matt Ryan and the dangerous Atlanta offense increased production while on its way to the end zone.
6. The Bears took somewhat of a gamble by signing former Saint Jermon Bushrod to a five-year contract on the opening day of free agency. Bushrod was a top-10 tackle in 2011 but his play dipped last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Bushrod allowed a whopping 46 quarterback hurries, eight QB hits, and four sacks. The hurries and QB hits were more than Chicago’s 2012 left tackle J’Marcus Webb (5 QB hits, 29 QB hurries), although the latter allowed three more sacks. If Bushrod can return to his 2011 form, the Bears will have upgraded the blindside protection of Jay Cutler. But if 2012 wasn’t an anomaly for Bushrod, then Chicago will continue to have a real problem on its hands upfront. They’re still deciding what position 2011 first-round bust Gabe Carimi will play (Chris Williams 2.0, anyone?), and if Webb performs as poorly on the right side next year as he did on the left, Cutler’s days of being under constant duress will live on. Phil Emery still has a lot of work ahead of him when it comes to re-building the mess that Jerry Angelo left him along the offensive line.
7. The $38.5 million over five years that the Rams handed tight end Jared Cook was a lot to give a player that has never caught 50 passes in a single season. (His highest reception total came in 2011 when he caught 49 passes for 759 yards.) But Jeff Fisher drafted the former South Carolina product and as long as St. Louis makes him one of the focal points of its offense, chances are he’ll be worth the price tag. But it’s hard to blame fans for being frustrated after the Seahawks landed Harvin and the 49ers gave up a late-round pick for Anquan Boldin. They look at the current depth chart at receiver and wonder, ‘Is that it?’ The key is Brian Quick. If he develops into the player the Rams envision he’ll be when they selected him at No. 33 overall last April, then fans will take comfort in the fact that the team didn’t part with multiple picks and $25 million in guaranteed money for Harvin. Chris Givens is already entrenched as a playmaker on one side and with Cook testing defenses down the seam, the Rams really only need that outside-the-numbers weapon to make their passing game hum. In a perfect world that player will be Quick, and then St. Louis could supplement its depth at receiver by drafting another wideout or acquiring a veteran this spring. (Don’t rule out Nate Washington, who the Titans might release in the coming weeks.) If the Rams missed on Quick, then the present fears will be amplified down the road.
8. Some of the contracts handed out to offensive linemen this week were staggering. I mentioned Bushrod’s five-year, $36 million deal, but there were more head-scratching decisions made by other NFL front offices. Andy Levitre is a solid player and the Titans needed to upgrade their offensive line this offseason. But $46.8 million is an astounding figure for a guard. Sam Baker has only had one productive year since the Falcons reached on him in the first round of the 2008 draft, yet they decided to hand him $41.5 million over six years. With some of the money that has been thrown around in free agency thus far, you can’t blame Jake Long for waiting until he receives the offer he wants.
9. Jets owner Woody Johnson didn’t exactly squash the notion that cornerback Darrelle Revis would be traded at some point this offseason. “No team is just one player away, maybe with the exception of the quarterback,” Johnson told reporters. “You can’t be distracted by one player. You have to look at everything.” Johnson went on to say that the team would like to have Revis back, but “it depends.” In typical Jets fashion, it’s unlikely that they get the best of this current situation. Revis is coming off an ACL injury and thus, his value has never been lower. The Jets are also in cap hell because of former GM Mike Tannebaum, so other teams are well aware that New York doesn’t have the cap space to pay Revis what he wants long-term. With Mark Sanchez under center and Rex Ryan seemingly a dead man walking, there appears to be zero hope on the horizon for “Gang Green.”
10. In any other offseason, a team that needed to fill not one, but two holes at safety would be in full panic mode right now. But the Rams remain in a great spot despite having multiple holes to fill in their secondary. That’s because their options remain plentiful, both in free agency and the draft. Bernard Pollard, Michael Huff, Ed Reed, Kerry Rhodes, Gerald Sensabaugh, Charles Woodson and Tom Zbikowski all remain unsigned, as does Quintin Mikell. A combination of Pollard and either Kenny Vaccaro or Matt Elam would offer an instant upgrade over what St. Louis had at safety last year, provided that Vaccaro or Elam panned out, of course. And the Rams could do much worse than to bring back Mikell for cheap and land a safety in the draft to play centerfield. While it’s a bit unsettling to have clear needs on either side of the ball not addressed quickly in free agency, Jeff Fisher and Les Snead would really have to drop the ball not to land two quality safeties over the next two months.
1. The Ravens are playing uninspiring football.
While the Ravens did leave Cleveland with a 25-15 victory over the Browns, they haven’t played a complete game since their 31-30 win over the Patriots in Week 3. Their offense went three-and-out on six straight drives versus on Sunday and didn’t wake up until Cleveland took a 15-14 lead in the second half. Fortunately for the Ravens, the Browns shot themselves in the foot with an illegal formation penalty that negated an 18-yard touchdown reception by Josh Gordon that would have given Cleveland a 19-14 lead. Brandon Weeden also threw in a late pick to seal the win for Baltimore, which received yet another inconsistent performance from Joe Flacco. Simply put, John Harbaugh couldn’t have been too thrilled with his team’s performance. Wins are hard to come by in the NFL and nothing is guaranteed. But the Ravens had two weeks to prepare for the Browns and to erase the taste of that 43-13 beatdown that Houston gave them in Week 7. Despite winning 25-15, it was about as uninspiring 25-15 victory that you’ll find.
2. Throw out the records – the Steelers look like the team to beat in the AFC North.
A handful of Giants players were forced from their homes this week because of Hurricane Sandy. Eli Manning had to leave his home in Hoboken, New Jersey and tight end Martellus Bennett reportedly had to shack up with Kevin Boothe at the offensive tackle’s house. Even though players like Justin Tuck wanted to provide the patrons of New York and New Jersey with a victory on Sunday, nobody will blame the Giants for losing to the Steelers in what was a trying week. But regardless of how emotionally drained the Giants were, Pittsburgh nevertheless picked up a huge road win and have now won three in a row. The Steelers remain one game back of the Ravens in the standings but those are two teams heading in opposite directions. Both AFC North inhabitants have offensive line issues but only one team has a quarterback that can overcome shaky pass protection. (That would be Ben Roethlisberger.) The Steelers are getting healthier on defense while the Ravens have clearly been affected by the losses of Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb. Pittsburgh has weapons on offense (although they might be down one after Antonio Brown suffered an ankle injury on Sunday) and its running game has come alive. Joe Flacco is the epitome of inconsistency and his receivers have had issues beating press coverage. Forget the records – the Steelers are currently the most dangerous team in the AFC North.
3. Falcons remain a very quiet 8-0.
The Falcons have to be the least intimidating 8-0 team in league history. Their average margin of victory this year is less than 10 points, they’ve only played one team with a winning record, they don’t run the ball effectively and they’re susceptible to being gashed on the ground defensively. But if you think this is still the same Atlanta team that is 0-3 in the playoffs under Mike Smith, then you haven’t been paying attention. Former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey often failed to get his playmakers in one-on-one matchups. On Sunday night versus Dallas, that’s essentially how Atlanta won the game. On multiple occasions Dirk Koetter freed up Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Jacquizz Rodgers to get one-on-one with a defender and often times, the Falcons won those matchups. Last season guys like Rodgers and Jones were novelties in Mularkey’s offense, and granted, they were rookies. But this year they’re featured players. Matt Ryan, who must be considered the MVP to this point, is playing with more confidence than at any point in his career and he finally doesn’t look over-coached. Defensively, Atlanta ranked 20th in pass coverage last season. This year, they rank 8th. Thanks to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have finally figured how to stop the pass. And that’s without their best defensive back Brent Grimes (knee/out for the year) manning one side of the field. With Mularkey and former DC Brian Van Gorder at the controls, the Falcons weren’t equipped to beat other playoff teams. They simply lacked the creativity to do so, and they were terribly predictable on both sides of the ball. But this year is a different story. This year, Koetter and Nolan have taken this team to a level they have yet to experience under Mike Smith. And thus far, the results have been perfect.
4. The Cowboys beat quality opponents?
The Cowboys dominated the Falcons in the first half on Sunday night. They harassed Matt Ryan, they torched Dunta Robinson, and they forced Atlanta’s offense to be one-dimensional by shutting down the run. But heading into halftime the score was tied at 6-6 and the Cowboys were lucky they weren’t trailing considering Falcons kicker Matt Bryant missed a 37-yard field goal in the first quarter. By the end of the game the final scored read Atlanta 19, Dallas 13, and the Cowboys were once again left searching for answers. Why hasn’t Jason Garrett allowed Tony Romo to run the hurry up like he did on a 6-play, 78-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter? Why can’t Rob Ryan’s defense make a play with the game on the line? Once again, where did Dez Bryant run off to? The reality is that this Dallas team can’t beat quality opponents. The combined record of the teams they lost to this season is 32-10, which includes the 8-0 Falcons. The Cowboys have simply failed to make plays with the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter. Or they commit stupid penalties. Or they turn the ball over. Or Dan Bailey misses a field goal versus Baltimore. Or Dez Bryant’s pinkie doesn’t come down in bounds versus New York. Something always happens that leaves the Cowboys thisclose of winning but at the end of the day, they’re 3-5. And at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters.
5. It won’t be long before Andrew Luck is considered “elite.”
Nobody knows better than Cam Newton how a player can be on top of the NFL world one year only to be crushed by its weight the next. But that shouldn’t stop any of us from gushing over Andrew Luck. He broke Newton’s single-game rookie passing record by completing 30-of-48 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Colts to a 23-20 victory over a Miami team with a very good defense. He took just one sack while showing exceptional movement within the pocket and he continues to perform under immense pressure (both from his offensive line and from a fan base that grew accustomed to watching Peyton Manning take the team to the playoffs every year). He’s tough, he’s intelligent, and he’s winning games in what many believed to be a rebuilding year in Indy. He’s already tied Manning for the most 300-yard games (four) by a rookie quarterback and he’s done so with little help from his offensive line or an average receiving corps outside of Reggie Wayne. A year from now we may criticize Luck the way we’ve done Newton this year. But for now, this exceptional rookie is at the controls of a Colts team that leads the AFC wild card hunt. The same Colts team, mind you, that didn’t win a game until Week 15 last year.
6. The NFC North is the best division in football.
This really isn’t much of a debate. The Bears are having one of those Bear-like seasons in which their defense is averaging 19 turnovers and three touchdowns per game, and the addition of Brandon Marshall has paid major dividends for Jay Cutler and the offense. The Packers are once again one of the most banged up teams in the NFL but they’re 6-3 thanks in large part to Aaron Rodgers being undefensivable. Fans in Detroit shouldn’t get their hopes too high about the Lions making a playoff run (good luck finding six wins from the remainder of their schedule), but they’re a dangerous team coming off their most complete game of the season, and while the Vikings have lost two in a row they employ the NFL’s leading rusher in Adrian Peterson. The majority of divisions this year don’t have two competitive teams, nevertheless four. If the Vikings can rediscover the magic they had earlier in the year, don’t be shocked if three teams from the North make the postseason this year in the NFC.
Side Note: The Vikings shouldn’t bench Christian Ponder. They invested a top 15 pick in him last year and while his numbers over the last three weeks haven’t been pretty (38-of-74 passing, 372 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs), they need to show confidence in him through thick and thin. If over the next year it becomes increasingly clear that he isn’t the answer, then they can think about making a significant move. But this is the price teams pay when a quarterback is in his second year as a starter. It does Ponder nor the Vikings’ future any good to play Joe Webb.
7. This just in: Greg Schiano’s offense works in the NFL.
Say what you want about Greg Schiano’s philosophies when it comes to defending the “Victory Formation” – his offense plays in the NFL. Doug Martin’s effort in the Bucs’ 42-32 win over the Raiders was epic, as he rushed for 251 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries. For those scoring at home, that’s over 10 yards per carry. Perhaps what was most impressive is that Martin accomplished the feat without running behind All-Pro guard Carl Nicks (toe), who was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Thursday. Tampa Bay racked up 515 yards in the win and while Oakland’s defense contributed to the effort with horrendous tackling, the Bucs have now scored 38, 28, 36 and 42 points in their last four games. In fact, they haven’t scored fewer than 22 points since a 16-10 loss to the Cowboys in Week 3. College coaches like Bobby Petrino fail to convert their offenses at the pro level. But because Schiano is such a big believer in running the ball and taking shots downfield in the passing game, his offense has flourished. They need to add more playmakers on defense before they’re considered a legit playoff contender. But thanks to Martin, Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson, the Bucs have a solid offense core to build around for years to come.
8. How much more can the Saints take?
There are so many questions stemming from the news that Sean Payton’s contract extension has been voided. First, why did it take so long for the NFL to decide/announce that the contract was voided? And did the Saints ultimately decide that following the bounty scandal they wanted a clean break from Payton (who was also involved in a situation where he was stealing vicodin from the team’s facility in May of 2010). If they still view him as their head coach, then one would assume he would stay to try to make right on what has transpired over the past two years. But we have yet to hear from the Saints, which makes you wonder if they’re ready to wash their hands of the situation. If they are, darker days could be ahead. Drew Brees will keep this team competitive as long as he remains as productive as he has been. But without Payton calling the plays, we’ve seen New Orleans struggle this season. Brees may still be running Payton’s offense but not having Payton the playcaller is holding the Saints’ offense back. It’ll be interesting to see not only where Payton winds up next year (Dallas makes all the sense in the world), but also who New Orleans hires to replace the only coach to lead the franchise to a Super Bowl title.
9. Don’t underestimate the Broncos’ win in Cincinnati.
Many pundits viewed Denver’s matchup with Cincinnati as a game the Broncos should win. The Bengals had lost three straight games coming into Week 9 and looked like a team that was ready to fall apart. But Cincinnati also had two weeks to prepare for Denver, which was 1-2 on the road before Sunday and the one win was the epic come-from-behind victory in San Diego in Week 6. The Bengals were well rested, at home, and desperate for a win. And despite watching a 17-3 lead evaporate in the second half, it was impressive that the Broncos left Cincinnati with a 31-23 win. Peyton Manning snapped a five-game streak of throwing for 300-plus yards and threw interceptions on back-to-back series in the second half. But he was magnificent otherwise while completing 27-of-35 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns. I’m still waiting for Denver’s defense to string together dominating performances but that will come. They have too much talent on that side of the ball not to. But while the Bengals watch their playoff hopes fade away, the Broncos have sole possession of first place in the AFC West and have positioned themselves to make a strong second-half run.
10. It’s time to pump the breaks on the Miami playoff talk.
There was talk all week about how Miami was a legitimate playoff contender after rattling off three straight wins. But the Dolphins put themselves behind the 8-ball with their 23-20 loss to the Colts. That’s because they’re now staring up at Indianapolis in the AFC wild card standings. The Dolphins do have winnable games against the Titans, Bills (twice), Seahawks (in Miami) and Jaguars in upcoming weeks, but this loss could come back to bite them. The good news is that Ryan Tannehill looked comfortable in the pocket and when rolling out after suffering what was believed to be a hyperextended knee last Sunday. But Miami’s offense did nothing after scoring 17 points on its first three possessions and for as good as the defense has been this season, Andrew Luck torched the Dolphins for 433 yards through the air. The schedule is favorable the rest of the way but this was a winnable game that Miami dropped. Thus, checking off wins against opponents like Buffalo, Tennessee and Jacksonville is premature.