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Ten observations from the first week of NFL free agency

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.

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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NFL Quick-Hits: Smith dealt, Ryan’s future big pay day & more Revis mess

I. Alex Smith is a solid fit for Andy Reid’s offense in Kansas City and he truly was the best option available this offseason. Geno Smith doesn’t scream “franchise quarterback” and it would have been a tough sell to the fan base to re-install Matt Cassel as the starter while patiently waiting for a better option to come along. Smith was that better option.

That said, a second-round pick and a condition third-round selection that could turn into another second-rounder was a steep price to pay for Smith. Yes, he was having an excellent season before suffering a concussion in mid-November and yes, he should be able to effectively run Reid’s West Coast Offense. But the reason Jim Harbaugh stuck with Colin Kaepernick last season when Smith was healthy is because he knew the Niners were more explosive offensively with Kaepernick under center. Granted, Kaepernick adds another dimension by running the Pistol offense but Smith will prevent Reid from threatening opponents downfield on a consistent basis. Can the Chiefs win with Smith in the time being? Sure, but this move only delays the inevitable, which is that at some point Kansas City will need to draft and develop a young franchise quarterback for the long term.

II. Now that we know the annual average ($20.1 million) of Joe Flacco’s new deal, as well as the guaranteed portion ($52 million) and how much he’ll receive over the first three seasons of the contract ($62 million), there’s absolutely no reason why the Falcons shouldn’t re-sign Matt Ryan well before the end of the 2013 season. Flacco has eight more postseason victories under his belt, but it’s not as if Ryan is on the decline – on the contrary, he’s only going to get better. He posted career numbers last season with Michael Turner barely churning out 3.5 yards per carry. Imagine what Ryan could do against a defense that also had to worry about stopping Steven Jackson (or any other running back that didn’t have cement blocks for feet). The new floor for contracts involving franchise quarterbacks as been set following Flacco’s agreement with the Ravens. The Falcons would be wise to be proactive because with Ryan set to become a free agent in 2014, there’s no sense to wait.

III. Jake Long isn’t going to get the $11 million that he/his agent is asking for on the free agent market. He’s coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons and has also dealt with various injuries over that span. Granted, he’ll be 28 by the start of the season so if he can stay healthy he still has plenty of good years left in the tank. But in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, this was a bad year for him to hit the open market. A team would either have to be crazy or desperate to fork over $11 million per year after what Long has shown the past two seasons.

IV. This situation involving Darrelle Revis and the Jets is ugly. It’s believed that he’s seeking $16 million annually and $60 million guaranteed on his next contract, which would make him the highest paid defensive player in the league. If he holds out this summer, then the final three years of his contract won’t void and he’ll be “stuck” in New York until he becomes a free agent in 2017. Meanwhile, the Jets only have him signed through 2013 and former GM Mike Tannenbaum left the team in cap hell before he was let go at the end of the season. Thus, the Jets could trade Revis, but his value couldn’t be lower coming off knee surgery. Plus, from a scheme standpoint, Revis means more to Rex Ryan’s defense than any other player on the Jets’ roster. If you’re trying to win, it behooves you not to get rid of its best defensive player. Then again, it’s not as if the Jets are going to compete any time soon. Not with Mark Sanchez under center and an overall lack of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. If new GM John Idzik wanted to start fresh, trading Revis, saving the cap space and acquiring a couple of picks might not be a bad idea. (Even if the Jets aren’t getting max value on their return.)

V. The Falcons’ decision to release John Abraham, Michael Turner and Dunta Robinson turned heads last week but it’s simple cost versus production. Turner no longer has the ability to create on his own and managed just 3.6 yards per carry last season. Robinson is coming off his best year in Atlanta but he’s maddeningly inconsistent in coverage and the Falcons probably could get better, cheaper production out of Brent Grimes assuming he’s healthy and they re-sign him. After racking up 10 sacks, Abraham was clearly the most productive of the three but he’s no longer an every-down player and GM Thomas Dimitroff recognizes the need to find younger pass rushers. By releasing these three players, Dimitroff created roughly $18 million in cap space. That money can be used not only to sign Matt Ryan to an extension, but also get younger and/or better at running back and up front defensively.

NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hits from the Divisional Round

+ Everyone thought the Ravens’ game plan on Saturday would be to take the pressure off Joe Flacco’s shoulders by making Ray Rice the focal point of the offense. Instead, John Harbaugh and Jim Caldwell put the game in their quarterback’s hands and Flacco repaid them out dueling Peyton Manning. Outside of two errant deep passes to Torrey Smith, Flacco was perfect. He relentlessly challenged Denver’s secondary downfield (his 9.7 YPA average was eye popping) and he used the entire field to orchestrate Baltimore’s offense. In the past two weeks we’ve seen one coaching blunder after another. But Harbaugh and Caldwell went against conventional wisdom and thanks to the play of their embattled signal caller, they’ll be heading to Foxboro next weekend. It’s good to see an aggressive game plan rewarded.

+ One other note on Flacco: His best throw didn’t come on a scoring play, nor did it lead to a score. On the second possession of overtime and his team backed up on a 3rd and 13, Flacco threw a frozen rope to tight end Dennis Pitta for a 24-yard gain while standing in his own end zone. Credit Pitta for making a spectacular adjustment on the catch, but Flacco put the ball where only his tight end could come down with the pass. Granted, four plays later the Ravens punted but if Flacco doesn’t convert on that third down maybe Denver uses marches up a short field for the game-winning score.

+ Manning’s crucial interception in overtime may have been a result of the Hall of Famer trying to do too much. You never see Peyton throw across his body while on the move, but he got impatient while attempting to make a play. That said, blame can be spread throughout the entire Denver locker room…

+…Manning’s interception directly led to Baltimore’s game-winning field goal but Denver was undone by its secondary long before Corey Graham accepted Peyton’s gracious gift. There’s simply no excuse for how safety Rahim Moore played Jacoby Jones’ 70-yard touchdown reception at the end of regulation. It wasn’t as if the Ravens caught the Broncos in a coverage breakdown – Moore just screwed up. If he’s two yards deeper, there’s a good chance he intercepts that pass and then nobody’s talking about Manning’s interception because it wouldn’t have existed.

+ … Moore isn’t the only member of Denver’s secondary that deserves a scolding, either. Champ Bailey had yet another solid season but he was torched for both of Torrey Smith’s touchdowns and also allowed 128 receiving yards in what was easily his worst game of the year. Jack Del Rio and John Fox have left Bailey on an island throughout the year and the results have been positive. But while hindsight is always 20/20, one would have thought that following Smith’s 59-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter that Denver’s coaching staff would have given Bailey more help. They didn’t, and they paid the price.

+…Then there’s Fox himself. Some are criticizing him for taking the ball out of Manning’s hands on that 3rd-and-7 play with just over a minute left in the game. But at least his rationale was just: Run the ball and force the Ravens to march 70-plus yards for a touchdown with a minute and no timeouts. Nobody could foresee Baltimore throwing a 70-yard touchdown pass three plays later, so it’s hard to eat Fox’s lunch for that decision. That said, his choice not to give Manning a chance to march the Broncos into field goal range with 37 seconds remaining in regulation and two timeouts was incomprehensible. This was proven less than 24 hours later when Matt Ryan drove the Falcons to a game-winning field goal with two timeouts and 31 seconds on the clock. The two situations weren’t exactly the same, but if Ryan could accomplish the feat in two plays, Fox should be embarrassed for not giving his living legend of a quarterback even an opportunity to pull off the same heroics.

+ Not that it matters now, but without Trindon Holliday’s record-setting day, is the game in Denver even that close? Take away his two touchdowns and the Ravens might not even need an improbable Jacoby Jones touchdown or a Justin Tucker 47-yard field goal to win.

+ Two underlying storylines in Baltimore’s upset victory: The Ravens’ run defense and their offensive line. After surrendering 152 rushing yards last week to the Colts, the Broncos running game was a big failure on Sunday (they rushed for 125 yards but at 3.0 yards per clip). Also, thanks to Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, Denver has one of the best pass rushes in the game. But for all intents and purposes, the duo had a quiet day against Baltimore’s revamped offensive line (which has now played well in back-to-back weeks).

+ Even if the 49ers were to lose to the Falcons in the NFC Championship, nobody will question Jim Harbaugh’s decision to replace Alex Smith after the show Colin Kaepernick put on versus Green Bay. It showed some resiliency on Kaepernick’s part to throw for 263 yards, rush for a NFL-record 183 yards, and record four total touchdowns after throwing that early pick-six to Sam Shields. Instead of allowing his emotions to get the best of him, he settled in and let his instincts take over…

+ …Not to take anything away from Kaepernick but where were the Packers’ adjustments? One would have thought Capers would have changed something at halftime in efforts to slow Kaepernick down and instead, the quarterback was still running free well into the fourth quarter. Granted, coordinators can only put their guys in position to make plays. It’s up to the players to execute the game plan and for the likes of Erik Walden, B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson, they didn’t. I’m just not sure what the game plan was to begin with.

+ Lost in Kaepernick’s big night was how well Vic Fangio’s defense played. When the Niners went with press man on the outsides, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers did a nice job of not allowing the Packers’ receivers to get a free release. And when Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith brought pressure, it completely took Aaron Rodgers out of his game. It wasn’t as if Rodgers played poorly – San Francisco just never allowed him to get into a rhythm.

+ Aside from Kaepernick turning Candlestick Park into his own personal jungle gym, the key to San Francisco’s victory was its dominance up front on both sides of the ball. Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were unstoppable forces in the running game and immovable options in pass protection. There was plenty of great offensive line play this weekend but the best work may have been done on Saturday night by those two players.

+ Regardless of how fortunate the Falcons are to be advancing to the NFC Championship Game, it’s hard not to feel elated for Tony Gonzalez. Assuming he stays true to his word and retires at the end of the season, that man was 31 seconds away from never tasting postseason victory. Thankfully he doesn’t have to worry about what that would have felt like.

+ It’s easy to get swept up in the emotions of the game but Mike Smith blew it by calling his last timeout with 13 seconds remaining in regulation. Chances are the Seahawks would have still burned a timeout anyway but shame on Smith for not putting Pete Carroll in that position.

+ Matt Bosher either had a vacation to Cabo lined up next weekend because he nearly handed the Seahawks a victory by shanking two punts and then dribbling an impromptu onsides kick at the end of the game. For a second I swore the kid had Seattle on the money line.

+ Nobody should ignore the fact that Matt Ryan helped the Falcons blow a 20-point fourth-quarter lead on Sunday. The interception to Earl Thomas was brutal and his sudden inability to move the ball in the fourth quarter should come into question as well. But it is remarkable what he can do with less than two minutes remaining in a game that his team is trailing. He’s unflappable in those situations and nine times out of 10, he’s going to put the Falcons in position to win. Jacquizz Rodgers’ kick return was key in setting up that game-winning drive, but it took Ryan only two plays to erase everything the Seahawks accomplished in the fourth quarter. If nothing else, Ryan remains one of the most clutch performers in the game.

+ Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did a great job not over thinking the game plan for Sunday. He wanted to take advantage of undersized rookie Bruce Irvin and that’s what he did, constantly running Rodgers and Michael Turner at the edge of Seattle’s defense. The Falcons haven’t run the ball effectively all season and Turner has looked like a back running with cement blocks for feet. But neither was the case on Sunday.

+ The Falcons actually might be the most predictable team in the NFL, you just have to understand their recipe for success: Dominant for two quarters, take two quarters off, give Matt Ryan the ball with at least 30 seconds left on the clock and make sure Matt Bryant is properly stretched out. Amazement, heartburn, jubilation, repeat.

+ Russell Wilson is special. After a shaky first half he was brilliant in the final quarters, including going 10-for-10 for 185 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Seahawks back from a 20-0 deficit. Granted, he had six days to find receivers that were generally covered by Atlanta defenders, but he also once again did a great job eluding pass rushers and buying himself more time. Both he and the Seahawks have a bright future.

+ Wilson and Kaepernick are quarterbacks first – not mobile players that happen to play the quarterback position. I watched both of those players force the defense to unveil where the blitz was coming from this weekend by making pre-snap adjustments. They’re intelligent players with big arms that just so happen to be blessed with mobility and speed. It’s not as if they’re beating teams because of their athleticism alone, like Michael Vick used to do. They’re beating you well before they take the snap.

+ The outcome in Atlanta was yet another example of why coaches shouldn’t waste time attempting to freeze a kicker. Why give a veteran like Matt Bryant an extra 20 seconds to compose himself when he’s already feeling the burden of an entire season on his shoulders? Carroll’s charade following Bryant’s missed practice attempt was silly and he deserved to watch the next kick sail through the uprights.

+ If anyone is looking for Zach Miller he can be found running free in Atlanta’s secondary. He’ll be there for the rest of the day.

+ Tom Brady loses Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead so he throws for 344 yards and three touchdowns…including two to his backup running back. The guy is incredible.

+ This is how good New England’s offense is: The Pats didn’t score until 1:28 left in the first quarter and still wound up with 41 points.

+ On a weekend when both the Broncos and Falcons blew late leads, the Patriots were still scoring with less than two minutes remaining and up by 10. Bill Belichick never takes his foot off the gas and his players revel in his philosophy.

+ Matt Schaub threw for 343 yards but both of his touchdowns came after the Patriots went up 38-13 and he also threw a brutal interception to kill a drive in the second half. Over the past month the Texans had trouble scoring inside the red zone and Schaub was a big reason for it. Only when it was too late did he respond with scores, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether he’s the right man to lead a talented team to the Super Bowl.

+ I thought Wade Phillips’ defense would respond to giving up 42 points in that Week 14 loss to New England in the regular season. Well, they did – by allowing 41 more points. The linebackers and defensive line couldn’t stop the run, there was virtually no pressure on Brady, who promptly dissected their secondary (again). This was all after Gronkowski and Woodhead left the game in the first half.

+ After that crap-fest of a wild card weekend, the Divisional Round was glorious. Upsets, comebacks, points galore, record-setting moments – how could you have not loved every second of this weekend? Championship Sunday? Can’t wait, Bart Scott.

+ Clearly oddsmakers weren’t phased by the Ravens’ upset of the Broncos because Baltimore has opened as a 9.5-point underdog versus the Patriots for the AFC title game. That’s with Gronkowski likely being sidelined for New England.

+ As for the NFC title game, the Niners opened as 3.5-point favorites versus the Falcons. What’s funny is that if Atlanta continued to dominant Seattle, the Falcons likely would have only been 1-point dogs on Championship Sunday. Perception is everything, isn’t it?

Ten Observations from Week 10 in the NFL

1. “Tired arm” isn’t the only thing ailing Eli Manning.
On Friday NFL Films’ Greg Cosell said that Eli Manning’s struggles the past few weeks were due to the quarterback having a “tired arm.” And after Manning completed 29-of-46 passes for just 215 yards with zero touchdowns and two interceptions in New York’s 31-13 loss to the Bengals, it’s hard to argue with Cosell’s evaluation. Sunday marked Manning’s third straight brutal performance and it’s apparent that he’s lost some zip on his passes. But his problems go beyond declining arm strength, as he’s simply making poor decisions. In his last five starts, Manning has a 2:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and has averaged just 212.4 yards per game over that span. Granted, his offensive line hasn’t helped him, as Geno Atkins was in his face on both of the interceptions he threw versus Cincinnati. But his play over the past three weeks has been highly concerning and neither he nor the Giants are close to ironing out the problem. Making matters worse, the defense has surrendered at least 23 points since the team’s 26-3 win over the 49ers five weeks ago. Thankfully the Giants are still in first place and they have two weeks to figure out what has gone wrong lately. But it’s clear that they’re a long ways off from being the team that won the Super Bowl back in February.

2. Falcons’ flaws brought to light in loss to Saints.
Their record said they were perfect but the Falcons weren’t fooling anybody. This Atlanta team wasn’t the 2009 Colts or the 2009 Saints, and it certainly wasn’t the 2007 Patriots. They were a flawed 8-0 and that was evident in their 31-27 loss to the Saints on Sunday. Unless the defense has been worn out in the fourth quarter, the Falcons haven’t been able to run the ball. Michael Turner is a shell of his former self and the offensive line continues to struggle in short yardage situations. (See the Falcons’ failed third down attempt at the goal line late in the fourth quarter on Sunday.) This team also can’t stop the run. Chris Ivory gashed Atlanta for 10.3 yards per carry (7-72-1) and Mark Ingram had success running between the tackles as well. That opened things up for Drew Brees to find Jimmy Graham, who caught seven passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns as Mike Nolan inexplicably left the New Orleans tight end in one-on-one situations. The good news for the Falcons is that they’re still 8-1. Thanks to Mike Smith they’re fundamentally sound and the Saints game not withstanding, they usually don’t beat themselves. They’re also a more dangerous team with Nolan and Dirk Koetter as coordinators, and maybe the coaching staff will finally realize that Jacquizz Rodgers makes the offense more potent than Turner does. The bad news is that the Falcons still play a red-hot Buccaneers team twice and the Saints have now beaten Atlanta in four of the past five meetings. Barring a historic collapse, the Falcons will make the playoffs and they’ll probably earn one of the top two spots in the NFC. But they need to figure out how to run the ball more efficiently and fix the holes in the run defense if they want to avoid yet another one-and-done in the postseason. Hopefully for the Falcons, this loss will be a blessing in disguise.

3. The Saints still have life.
To suggest that New Orleans’ defense played well on Sunday would be a stretch. The Saints surrendered 27 points, 454 total yards, and were just 8-of-16 on third downs. But they also made a ton of plays in crucial moments of their 31-27 win over the Falcons, none bigger than Jabari Greer’s batted pass on 4th-and-goal with the Falcons needing a touchdown to take the lead in the final two minutes. The front seven also stuffed Michael Turner for a 1-yard loss the play before and suffocated Atlanta’s running game throughout the day. The Saints put themselves in a bad hole to start the season but at 4-5 they’re still alive in the NFC, especially with a balanced offense led by Drew Brees. The problem is they may have to go 6-1 the rest of the season in order to get in. With games versus San Francisco, New York, Tampa Bay and Dallas, as well as a rematch with the Falcons in Atlanta, that may not be realistic. But if this defense can stay aggressive under Joe Vitt, you know the offense has the ability to score 30-plus every game. After their victory on Sunday, it’s hard to count the Saints out.

4. The Patriots continue to have issues defensively.
When the Patriots held the Rams to just 7 points in London two weeks ago, people believed that New England started to figure things out defensively. But as it turns out, the Rams’ punchless offense had everything to do with the lack of scoring. The Patriots’ defense was gashed in the team’s 37-31 win over the Bills on Sunday. While they did force three key turnovers including a game-sealing pick in the end zone to halt what could have been a game-winning score for Buffalo, New England surrendered 481 total yards, was just 7-of-11 on third downs, and allowed 5.8 yards per rush. What didn’t show up on the stat sheet were the shoddy tackling and the continued reliance on zone coverage. Maybe Aqib Talib will make a difference when he returns from suspension next week, but who knows if he’s even up to speed on Bill Belichick’s scheme after being acquired from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline. Thankfully for the Patriots they’re now 6-0 when they rush for over 100 yards and their offense continues to be a balanced juggernaut. It was a little concerning that Tom Brady and Co. couldn’t deliver that final knockout punch with under three minutes remaining in the game but more times than not, you know the Pats will find a way to score in that situation. Maybe next time they won’t be as fortunate defensively, however.

5. When it’s all said and done, this might be Peyton’s finest season.
Coming into Sunday, Peyton Manning was the NFL’s highest-rated passer and had thrown at least three touchdown passes in five straight games. He was on pace for career bests in yards (4,808) and competition percentage (69.5), as well as his second-best touchdown total (40). And that was before he completed 27-of-38 passes for 301 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in a 36-14 blowout victory over the Panthers on Sunday. Manning has been spectacular – even for him. He’s transformed Denver into a juggernaut offensively, especially in these past six weeks. Over that span, the Broncos are averaging 33.1 points per game and Manning has failed to throw for over 300 yards just once over his last seven starts (a 291-yard effort in a 31-23 win over the Bengals two Sundays ago). With the Chargers fading fast, the Broncos are a near lock to win the AFC West. And given how well Manning has played, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Denver in the AFC title game in a few months. That’s incredible to think about given how many people thought he wouldn’t make it past his first real hit.

6. The two most intriguing teams to watch in the second half?
That would be the Colts and the Buccaneers, who have combined to win seven straight games. It’s incredible what Andrew Luck has been able to do in Indianapolis. Outside of Reggie Wayne he doesn’t have many playmakers and his offensive line isn’t very good either. But if the playoffs were to start tomorrow the Colts would own the No. 5 spot in the AFC and Luck would be gearing up for his first playoff start. In Tampa, Greg Schiano has already made his mark with the Bucs. They’ve now won four of their last five games thanks in large part to an offense that has averaged 35.6 points per game over that span, but they can also stop the run and force turnovers defensively. In his first year as a NFL head coach, Schiano has instantly made Tampa Bay tougher, more aggressive, and more potent offensively. His players have bought into his mentality and they’re playing with as much confidence as anyone. But can they make the playoffs? Two of their final seven games come against the Panthers, Eagles and Rams, which are winnable. If they can win those games, they would likely need two victories against the Falcons (whom they play twice), the Broncos, or the Saints. In fact, their playoff hopes may come down to a Week 17 trip to Atlanta, where the Falcons will either be resting starters or trying to secure home field in the playoffs. No matter how the final seven weeks play out, Indy and Tampa are two of the better surprises in the league this season.

7. Young Rams can’t get out of their own way.
The Rams made so many mistakes in overtime of their 24-24 tie with the 49ers on Sunday that it’s easy to forget all the blunders they made in regulation. Let’s start with the 13 penalties for 85 yards. Teams usually don’t win when they’re flagged 13 times on the road, no matter who the opponent is. The biggest infraction came on the Rams’ first possession of overtime when they were called for Illegal Formation, which wiped out an 80-yard reception by Danny Amendola. One minute the Rams are at the goal line ready to knock off the first-place 49ers, the next they’re backed up to their own 13 because Brandon Gibson wasn’t on the line of scrimmage. (Isn’t that the first thing on a receiver’s checklist when he breaks the huddle?) Then, of course, there was failure on the coaching staff to call a timeout right before the play clock wound down on Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning 53-yard field goal attempt. Jeff Fisher said following the game that those things happen when you have a rookie kicker, but all it took was either he or someone on his staff to look up and use a timeout when they saw the clock was running down. To essentially blame Zuerlein (who is trying to concentrate on hitting a 53-yarder on the road in overtime, mind you) was ridiculous. There was also Fisher’s questionable decision late the fourth quarter to burn a timeout and persevere enough time for San Francisco to march down the field and kick a game-tying field goal. He understandably wanted to ensure that his staff and his players were all on the same page because the Rams had to score a touchdown in that situation. But it still wasn’t good clock management and it potentially cost the Rams a victory. In the end a tie is better than a loss, especially when you’re a young team playing in a hostile environment and coming off an embarrassing 45-7 loss. But the Rams were ultimately dragged down by their own inexperience. Fisher has also had better days as well.

Related Note: There’s absolutely no reason ties should exist in the NFL. For as much money as fans are paying to watch a single game, they shouldn’t leave the stadium feeling like they just kissed their sister. It’s not as if these players have to hit the road and play the following night. This isn’t hockey. If Roger Goodell wants to improve his product both locally and globally, he would take steps to ensure that ties, however rare, should never happen in his league.

8. Say what you want about Cutler – the Bears are much better with him healthy.
Jay Cutler was brutal before he took a helmet-to-helmet blow from Tim Dobbins late in the first half of the Bears’ 13-6 loss to the Texans last night. But for those that hung in there to watch Jason Campbell’s uninspiring performance, you realized just how important Cutler is to that offense. Cutler can be an arrogant S.O.B. and he deserves the best and the worst of the polarizing debates that he sparks with his antics. But the playoff-bound Bears fell apart last year when both he and Matt Forte went down with injuries and it will happen again if Cutler misses an extended amount of time. Campbell has always been a better player than what people perceive. He’s good a strong arm, can make all of the throws and stands tall in the pocket. But in order for him to win, he needs to have a strong supporting cast and a stable offensive line. Thanks to guys like Forte and Brandon Marshall, he does have enough around him to win. But he won’t survive behind Chicago’s inconsistent O-line. He looked scattered shot last night, constantly looking for the check-down and attempting throws he has no business trying to make. Granted, Houston’s defense will make an opposing quarterback jittery and there’s no question the Bears are better off with Campbell under center than the slop they ran onto the field last year. But it’s a different offense when Cutler is at the controls. And if the Bears are going to make a run at the Super Bowl, they’re going to need their starting quarterback to stay healthy from here on out.

9. The Sanchez contract extension looks even worse now.
Back in March the Jets handed Mark Sanchez a five-year, $58.25 million contract extension, which included $20.5 million guaranteed. It was a way for the Jets to apologize to Sanchez for flirting with free agent Peyton Manning, which is just ridiculous. Why the Jets felt the need to apologize to Sanchez is beyond the scope of rational thought. In four years as a starter he’s made marginal improvements and still makes rookie mistakes on a weekly basis. Some like to point out that he led the Jets to back-to-back AFC championship games but it was the team’s defense and running game that led the way. Granted, Sanchez was good in the 2009 and 2010 playoffs but the Jets won in spite of him during the regular season. Without the aid of a power running game and Rex Ryan’s defense, we’ve seen Sanchez’s true capabilities the past two seasons. So again, for the front office to have felt the need to apologize to Sanchez when they were trying to make the team better is laughable. On Sunday the Jets didn’t score an offensive touchdown. They needed a Mo Wilkerson 21-yard fumble return for touchdown in order to avoid being shutout in a 28-7 loss to Seattle. Following the game Ryan told reporters that he’s sticking with Sanchez (9-of-22, 124 yards, 1 INT, 1 lost fumble) despite another brutal effort from his starting quarterback, which makes sense. The Jets already guaranteed Sanchez $20.5 million and it’s not as if Tim Tebow is the future. But if Sanchez is still the team’s starter heading into 2013, then the Jets clearly aren’t in the business to win.

10. Quick-Hit Thoughts
After yesterday, there’s really no debate as to who’s the best team in football. The Texans are second in the NFL in total defense behind the Steelers, but I’ll put Wade Phillips’ unit up against anyone else in the league, including Pittsburgh. Houston also has a vicious rushing attack, an offensive line that keeps Matt Schuab upright, and is a team that plays fundamentally sound football…After their lackluster performances over the past few weeks, it was good to see the Ravens come alive on Sunday. Granted, the Raiders have a habit of making everyone look good. But 55 points is 55 points…The fact that the Bengals haven’t given up on the season is a credit to Marvin Lewis and their impressive win over the Giants on Sunday tells you what his players think of him…The Titans are officially the strangest team of 2012. One week they look like an easy win for opponents and the next they’re scoring 37 points on a pretty good Miami defense (not to mention holding the Dolphins to just a field goal after surrendering 51 points to the Bears the previous week)…Speaking of Miami, that playoff talk two weeks ago is nothing but a distant memory now…Stick a fork in the Lions. While Matthew Stafford played his best game of the season in Detroit’s 34-24 loss to the Vikings, his teammates played their worst. Their schedule isn’t favorable the rest of the way and Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota are just better…Speaking of the Vikings, how funny is Christian Ponder? He’s been a total disaster the past few weeks but you take away his best weapon in Percy Harvin (out with an ankle injury) and he completes 24-of-32 passes for 221 yards with two touchdowns. Go figure…That was a typical Buffalo Bills loss on Sunday and for those that saw it, no explanation is necessary…No quarterback has turned the ball over more since 2011 than Philip Rivers, who has coughed it up 40 times in less than two years. His interception to Leonard Johnson was easily one of the worst decisions you’ll see a NFL quarterback make, nevertheless one that was a top 5 pick…Very quietly the Seattle Seahawks have just as many wins as the San Francisco 49ers…In looking at the Cowboys’ schedule, they could easily rattle off five straight following their 38-23 win in Philadelphia on Sunday. If they can manage to stay out of their own way, that is.

Monday Night Football Prediction: Steelers beat the hapless Chiefs, who somehow figure out a way to cover the 12.5-point spread.

Ten Observations from Week 9 in the NFL

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.

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