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Ten Observations from Week 15 in the NFL

1. Adrian Peterson is this year’s MVP if…
Nobody doubted Peyton Manning’s ability to lead the Broncos to an AFC West title this year. The biggest question surrounding Peyton was his ability to absorb a hit, not fill the one need Denver desperately needed on offense. People assumed he would do that. But nearly every pundit had the Vikings finishing in the basement of the NFC North and yet here they are in the middle of December still competing for a wild card berth. Manning has been outstanding but what Adrian Peterson has been able to accomplish less than a year after major reconstructive knee surgery has been nothing short of incredible. Minnesota’s offensive line and defense shouldn’t be forgotten as we dole out credit for the team’s success, but Peterson is the biggest reason why the Vikings remain relevant in 2012. Opponents design specific game plans in efforts to stop Peterson and yet they can’t even slow him down. They know if they can build a lead and force Christian Ponder to beat them throwing the ball they’ll win. But they can’t because Peterson simply won’t allow them. Granted, Sam Bradford and the Rams helped Minnesota earn its eighth victory of the season on Sunday. But when Peterson sprinted 82 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter the Rams had just tied the game with a Brian Quick 4-yard touchdown reception. It wasn’t as if Peterson’s run put the contest out of reach – it was the beginning of him taking over the game. If he leads the Vikings to the postseason while rushing for over 2,000 yards in a pass-happy NFL, then he undoubtedly has my vote for MVP.

2a. The Bears are finished.
With their 21-13 loss to the Packers, the Bears no longer control their own destiny and they don’t hold the tiebreaker with current fifth seed Seattle because of their 23-17 loss to the Seahawks in Week 13. The question becomes: Will missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years spark change this offseason? How Chicago can fire Lovie Smith when former GM Jerry Angelo ignored the offensive line for most of his tenure is beyond me. Year after year the Bears had opportunities to fix their front five and Angelo never delivered. That said, this is now four straight years that Smith and his coaching staff have been owned by Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers. If your current coaching staff can’t beat your biggest competition, you’ve got an underlying problem.

2b. Packers coach Mike McCarthy makes decisions sometimes…
…that should have all of humanity questioning how the hell he was able to win a Super Bowl. That throwback fake that he called (or allowed his special teams coach Shawn Slocum to call) on the punt return midway through the fourth quarter in Chicago was beyond inane. You’re up 11 points in the fourth quarter, McCarthy, run the clock and secure a victory the ol’ fashion way.

3. Best team in the NFC? It has to be the 49ers.
While they did wind up blowing a 31-3 lead, the 49ers have to be considered the best team in the NFC after the show they put on last night in Foxboro. Granted, the 12-2 Falcons also beat the defending Super Bowl champions 34-0 but no team in the conference can match San Francisco’s physicality and now that Colin Kaepernick is their quarterback, the Niners are now more dangerous on offense, too. As he showed last night by mishandling a handful of snaps from under center and throwing an interception in the end zone, Kaepernick isn’t perfect. But he’s going to learn something new each week that will make him better down the road. It had to be troubling for Jim Harbaugh to watch Tom Brady carve up his defense for 34 points, and adjustments must be made in the secondary. But the bottom line is the Niners not only won the game, but also handled a team that had just humiliated an excellent Houston club just six nights prior.

4a. The Falcons defense has been outstanding against elite QBs.
Fifty-eight point five, 37.6, and 40.7. Those are the quarterback ratings of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning when facing the Falcons in the Georgia Dome this year. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan put together another fantastic game plan on Sunday, one that had Eli Manning under constant duress while shutting down running back David Wilson in the second half. They managed to shutout the defending Super Bowl champions without one of their key defenders, safety William Moore, all while stuffing New York on three separate fourth-and-shorts. Matt Ryan is now 33-4 at home over his career, and Nolan’s aggressive defense has done its finest work inside the Georgia Dome this year. The Falcons won’t quiet critics until they win a playoff game. But they’ve got a great chance to pick up their first postseason win if they can secure home field throughout.

4b. There isn’t a more maddening team in the NFL than the New York Giants.
Four weeks ago the Giants crushed Green Bay 38-10 but followed up that performance with a 17-16 loss in Washington. Then they scored 52 points in a 52-27 beat-down of the Saints only to post a goose egg in a 34-0 loss to the Falcons on Sunday. Eli Manning had one of those games where you wanted to shake him to make sure he wasn’t sleepwalking and David Wilson bombed as the team’s featured back (at least in the second half). New York’s secondary is also extremely beat up and several defensive linemen walked off the field limping after trying (and failing) to tackle Atlanta ball carriers throughout the day. Granted, we know better not to count Tom Coughlin’s team out when they still have plenty of life. But Giants fans have every reason to be concerned after what transpired in Atlanta on Sunday.

5. The Seahawks have become that team nobody wants to face in the first round.
Granted, over the past two weeks they’ve beaten up on Arizona and Buffalo. But they also outscored Arizona and Buffalo 108-17 and somehow managed to score three defensive touchdowns in the process. And if that didn’t get your attention, Pete Carroll is having his team throw deep on fourth down up 58-0 and calling fake punts up 30 points in the fourth quarter. Here’s what’s really scary: Marshawn Lynch is ripping through tackles and bursting into defensive backfields while also allowing to rest in the fourth quarter because his services are no longer needed in blowouts. Seattle’s biggest offensive weapon is going to be fresh – relatively speaking, of course – come January, and that should leave the Seahawks’ future opponents awfully anxious.

6. Putting Cousin’s performance into perspective.
It’s amazing, really. The Redskins found two quarterbacks with potential in this year’s draft while the Browns can’t find one intriguing quarterback in 14 years of drafting. It’s one thing to play hero when you only take seven snaps at the end of a game. It’s quite another to go on the road with your team’s playoff hopes on the line and face an opponent that not only has had an entire week to game plan for you, but is also in the midst of a three-game winning streak. Kirk Cousins (26-of-37 for 329 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) was beyond impressive in Washington’s Week 15 victory over Cleveland. He was poised, calm under pressure, and showed a fair amount of mobility as well. The 54-yard touchdown throw he made when he rolled to his right on a designed bootleg and dropped the ball perfectly into Leonard Hankerson’s arms was a thing of beauty. With their biggest superstar sidelined with a knee injury (RGIII), Cousins may have just saved the Redskins’ season.

7. Sam Bradford remains completely indefinable.
Bradford completed 35-of-55 passes for 377 yards with three touchdowns in Sunday’s loss to the Vikings. But he also threw an interception and lost a fumble that in large part led to the Rams falling behind 30-7 at halftime. Never have I witnessed a player give both his critics and supporters enough firepower to continue one excruciating debate after another. He’s making progress yet he’s painfully inconsistent. He often delivers uneven performances yet he can be clutch in crucial moments. He’s completing 60-percent of his passes yet he somehow battles with his accuracy. Is he on the verge of greatness or straddling the line between good and mediocre? Is he the next Eli Manning or Alex Smith? Half of St. Louis will draw one comparison while the second half will settle for the other. It’s maddening. Here’s what we know about Bradford: He should continue to improve if the Rams continue to build around him. They need to strengthen their offensive line, add playmakers to their receiving corps, and offer him some stability by not changing the offense. Here’s what we don’t know: Everything else.

8. One bad decision dooms Roethlisberger, Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger was fantastic on Sunday in Dallas. He completed 24-of-40 passes for 339 yards with two touchdowns and constantly bought himself time by moving outside of the pocket. On one play in the second quarter, he evaded the pass rush (a very good NFL pass rush in Dallas) for nearly 10 seconds before finding Heath Miller for a 30-yard touchdown. It was one of those games where an elite quarterback put his team on his shoulders and was practically willing them to victory. Of course, his performance on this day will be remembered for his biggest mistake. Brandon Carr made a fantastic interception in overtime when he jumped a route and picked off Roethlisberger to set the Cowboys up for a game-winning field goal. The loss left Pittsburgh at 7-7 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs with two games to go. If the Steelers can’t sweep their final two games and sneak into the postseason, that one throw will loom large.

8a. The NFC East is once again ready for a thrilling ending.
Everyone figured the Cowboys would eventually settle for a .500 season but their massive victory over the Steelers on Sunday has breathed new life into Dallas. The victory came on the heels of the Redskins’ win over the Browns, but also the Giants’ embarrassing 34-0 loss to the Falcons. If the playoffs were to start today, the Redskins would own the fourth seed after securing first place in the NFC East, while the Giants would be the sixth seed and the Cowboys would be on the outside looking in. But fortunately for diehard NFL fans, there’s still two more weeks of thrilling football to be played in the East. The Cowboys might have the toughest road, as they’ll host the always-dangerous Saints this Sunday before finishing at Washington. The Redskins, meanwhile, will visit the hapless Eagles on Sunday before hosting Dallas in Week 17, and the Giants will visit Baltimore before hosting Philadelphia in their final game of the season. Of course, the Bears and Vikings are still in the wild card mix as well so buckle up, sit tight and enjoy the friggin’ ride.

9a. Joe Flacco is literally burning future earnings every week.
Flacco completed 20-of-40 passes for 254 yards with two touchdowns in Baltimore’s 34-17 loss to Denver, but he did most of his damage after he put his team in a 31-3 hole. He lost a fumble on a quarterback sneak and before throwing a pick-six at the goal line he sprinkled in three straight three-and-outs, which allowed the Broncos to build a sizeable lead. The Ravens are going to begrudgingly win the AFC North and make the playoffs for the fifth straight year, where they could be bounced very early. Somewhere Cam Cameron is smiling.

9b. Moreno finally flashing his ability in Denver.
Now finally healthy, Knowshon Moreno is running like the back that Denver thought it drafted back in 2009. He literally jumped over Ed Reed in the Broncos’ 34-17 victory over the Ravens on Sunday, and Reed was practically standing up. Athens, Georgia grew accustomed to Moreno’s combination of power and athleticism, but now it’s a welcome sight in Denver, too. Moreno has allowed the Broncos offense to continue firing on all cylinders despite losing Willis McGahee.

10. The Panthers will be a playoff contender at this point next year.
The pass two weeks Cam Newton has been sharp on passes outside the numbers and in turn, he’s made DeAngelo Williams a bigger weapon in both the running and screen game. While they’ll need to continue to build on the defensive side of the ball and give Newton another weapon in the passing game, the Panthers will be a team to reckon with in 2013. Following the team’s third win in their last four games, Carolina fans are appropriately asking themselves, ‘Where has this been all season?’

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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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.

Ten Observations from Week 7 in the NFL

1. Flacco still isn’t ready to carry Ravens.
For the past four years, Joe Flacco has been able to get away with inconsistent performance after inconsistent performance because his defense constantly bailed him out. The Ravens coped with his hot and cold production because they were dominant on the other side of the ball. But with injuries to Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb, Baltimore is no longer a force defensively. Houston’s receivers ran free in the Ravens’ secondary and the Texans’ offensive line had its way with Baltimore’s defensive front in the running game. For once, the Ravens needed Flacco to carry his defense and instead he turned in a brutal performance. He completed just 21-of-43 passes for 147 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, and when he wasn’t skipping passes to his receivers he was throwing over their heads. Granted, Houston relentlessly pressured the pocket and its secondary was excellent. But the game looked like it was moving way too fast for Flacco, which is troublesome considering he’s a fifth-year starter. Baltimore’s offense hasn’t been in sync for weeks and now that the defense is limping, the door has opened for the Steelers to chip away at their rival’s lead in the division.

2. Rodgers is heating up.
The Packers aren’t exactly the perfect specimens. Their no huddle isn’t firing on all cylinders, their running game is non-existent, and their defense can be ordinary at times. But when Aaron Rodgers plays like he did in Green Bay’s 30-20 victory over St. Louis on Sunday, the Packers are difficult to beat. Rodgers was insanely accurate versus the Rams, completing 30-of-37 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. He was as good in the Lou as he was in Houston the week before and now that the Packers have gotten past the challenging part of their schedule (which included three straight road games), you can tell they’re ready to make a run at the Bears and Vikings in the NFC North. And thanks to Rodgers being Rodgers again, don’t be surprised if Green Bay eventually catches and surpasses its division rivals.

3. Pass defense makes Patriots vulnerable.
The Patriots claimed sole possession of first place in the AFC East with their 29-26 victory over the Jets on Sunday. Their rushing attack continues to be an important cog in their success, as they’re now 4-0 this season when rushing for more than 100 yards. But their pass defense continues to hold them back. Despite his best efforts not to at times, Mark Sanchez looked like a competent quarterback on Sunday. He completed a career-high nine passes of 15 yards or more and nearly led the Jets to what many believed to be an improbable victory in Foxboro. Opposing wideouts are allowed to run free in Bill Belichick’s zone and the pass rush continues to be inconsistent. Thus, even though the Patriots remain one of the most dangerous teams offensively, their defense will allow opponents to stay in games until the end, just as it did Sunday versus the Jets.

4. The Steelers’ defense finally steps up.
In Pittsburgh’s 24-17 victory over Cincinnati, the Steelers’ much maligned defense had to stop the Bengals on three separate drives in the fourth quarter. That’s usually not a noteworthy task for Dick LeBeau’s defensive unit, but the Steelers have become a team known for blowing fourth quarter leads this season. The Bengals didn’t even reach their own 40-yard line on each of their final three drives as Pittsburgh bowed up and finally resembled something of its past. Granted, it wasn’t all pretty for the Steelers. They dropped two touchdown passes in the first half and injuries continue to be a problem on defense. Still, the Ravens are a mess right now and the Bengals’ psyche has taken a huge hit. Furthermore, Pittsburgh was able to get its running game going thanks to Jonathan Dwyer (17 carries, 122 yards), so the Steelers might be able to help out their defense by sustaining drives and keeping opponents off the field. All of a sudden things are looking up again in Pittsburgh.

5. The Cowboys win but trouble remains.
The Cowboys essentially saved their season with a hard fought, but lackluster 19-14 victory over the Panthers on Sunday. There are several underlying problems in Big D right now. Sean Lee and Phil Costa had to leave the game with injuries, the Cowboys racked up just 19 points against a defense that allowed 25.0 PPG coming into Week 7, and there’s clearly a lack of trust between Jason Garrett and his team. Why else would he call a run on third-and-9 from the Carolina 15-yard line in the fourth quarter instead of allowing Tony Romo to fire a pass to the end zone? Maybe because Dez Bryant had just dropped yet another pass the play before? Or because Garrett is afraid Romo will once again turn the ball over trying to do too much? Garrett is playing not to lose and even though the Cowboys won on Sunday, that’s proven to be a losing proposition from week to week. Since their impressive victory Week 1 against the Giants, the ‘Boys have failed to generate much momentum over these last six games. If they’re not skating by with a win like they did in Carolina, they’re imploding like they did versus Chicago on Monday Night Football.

6. Despite the loss, RGIII’s statue continues to grow.
Robert Griffin III made several mistakes on Sunday, which included turning the ball over twice in New York territory and taking a 12-yard sack on a 1st-and-10 early in the fourth quarter. But the man continues to dazzle, so much so that following the game the Giants crowned him the best quarterback they’ve faced this season. There was the sensational 19-yard completion to Logan Paulsen on 4th-and-10 less than three minutes remaining that kept Washington’s hopes alive. There was the picture perfect 30-yard rainbow to Santana Moss that should have been the Redskins’ game-winning score. And there were the nine electric runs for 89 yards that sent the crowd at MetLife Stadium to their feet. It wasn’t a perfect performance and he’ll have to limit the mistakes going forward, just as he’s learned to cut down on absorbing big hits when he runs. But RGIII once again put on a show and once he figures out how to win on a consistent basis, then he’ll really impress.

7. How long before Ponder bursts Minnesota’s bubble?
Nobody expected the Vikings to be sitting at 5-2 after seven weeks. But thanks in large part to a restructured offensive line, a healthy Adrian Peterson and a defense that doesn’t have a glaring weakness, Minnesota is very much a playoff contender at this point. That said, how long will it be until Christian Ponder starts holding this team back? He completed just 8-of-17 passes for 58 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday. It was the second time in two weeks that he floated an interception to a defender, failed to sustain drives and generally misfired on most of his passes. Granted, he’s dealing with a sore knee so maybe that has affected his performance. But Sunday was also the second time in the past four games that Leslie Frazier and his coaching staff decided to run out the clock as soon as they built a second half lead. The Vikings turned the lights off at Mall of America Field as soon as Harrison Smith went 31 yards to the end zone on a pick six to start the second half. Are Frazier and Co. overly cautious or do they not trust Ponder? We’ll find out after Minnesota’s Week 11 bye when they play at Chicago and Green Bay before hosting the Bears in Week 14.

8. The Bucs are the Bucs’ own worst enemy.
The Bucs were screwed on the final play of the Saints’ 35-28 victory on Sunday. It’s more than a little unfair that Mike Williams was shoved out of bounds by a New Orleans defender and after hauling in a touchdown pass from Josh Freeman (who was outstanding, by the way), was penalized for being the first person to touch the ball. After all, what’s from stopping defenders from pushing receivers out of bounds all the time if they know the refs aren’t going to call pass interference? Regardless, the Bucs had already shot themselves in the foot twice before that game-ending play. With 14:54 left in the fourth quarter and the Saints leading 28-21, the Bucs drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for trying to simulate the snap count on a 51-yard New Orleans field goal attempt. Instead of possibly trailing by 10 with the entire fourth quarter left to play, the penalty kept the Saints drive alive and the Bucs fell behind by two touchdowns. Earlier in the half, Freeman hit Vincent Jackson on a 95-yard touchdown pass to set Tampa up at the New Orleans 1-yard line. The Bucs then proceeded to call three straight runs with LeGarrette Blount, all of which were stopped cold by the league’s worst defense. Freeman then lost four yards on 4th-and-1 and the Bucs inexcusably didn’t get points on the drive. Thus, while Tampa Bay fans have every right to cry foul on the final play of the game, their team didn’t do themselves any favors, which included blowing leads of 14-0 and 21-7 in the first half.

9. The Saints aren’t going away but their road back remains challenging.
Drew Brees reminded everyone on Sunday that he’s still one of the most dangerous passers in the NFL, one that is quite capable of leading a team out of the doldrums. He completed 27-of-37 passes for 377 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in the Saints’ 35-28 victory over the Bucs. He did all of this with one of his biggest and best weapons, Jimmy Graham, sidelined with an ankle injury. The 6-0 Falcons have a commanding lead in the NFC South but don’t forget that the Saints still have two games against their division rivals. It’s not inconceivable that New Orleans rattles off a few more wins and put itself in position to make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the NFC. That said, the Saints are owners of the worst defense in the league and their schedule is challenging the rest of the way. They play Atlanta twice, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York and Dallas before the year is out. And even with Brees throwing for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns, it’s going to be difficult for the Saints to overcome that early 0-4 hole they put themselves into.

10. Injury roundup.
The Redskins were hit the hardest on Sunday. They lost tight end Fred Davis to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury and it was reported following the game that Pierre Garcon has a torn tendon in his foot. London Fletcher also left the Giants game with a hamstring injury. For the Browns, rookie running back Trent Richardson was apparently benched for ineffectiveness against the Colts but he says his rib injury is worse than people think. As previously mentioned, Cowboys’ linebacker Sean Lee left the Carolina game with a toe injury and Phil Costa suffered an ankle sprain that looked pretty bad at the time.

Ten Observations from Week 5 in the NFL

1. It doesn’t get more inspiring than the Colts’ performance vs. Green Bay.
When it’s all said and done, we’ll look back on the Colts’ 30-27 victory over the Packers as one of those defining moments in a season. The players in Indianapolis found out earlier this week that their head coach Chuck Pagano has a long road ahead of him as he gets ready to fight leukemia. So they fought for him on Sunday, turning in an inspiring performance against a Green Bay team that’s banged up yet still dangerous. The Colts struck gold in Andrew Luck, who joined Cam Newton as only the second rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 or more yards in three of his first four starts. The kid is for real, and he’s tougher than a bad piece of meat. All elite passers take risks and Luck is no exception. He continuously fired passes into tight windows today and it’s incredible how quickly he’s developed chemistry with Reggie Wayne. But this win wasn’t just about Luck. The Colts could have thrown in the towel when the Packers jumped out to a 21-3 lead. But they didn’t. Granted, Green Bay is banged up and lost a couple of more players today, including defensive tackle B.J. Raji. But the Packers have some of the best depth in the league and the Colts are devoid of overall talent on both sides of the ball. Greg Jennings or no Greg Jennings, what Indy did today was impressive.

2. The Falcons’ offense is dangerous but not complete.
It’s hard to nitpick a team that’s 5-0. Matt Ryan is having the finest season of his career, Tony Gonzalez has thrived with the amount of attention that opponents have to pay to Roddy White and Julio Jones, the defense has been fantastic, and the change from Mike Mularkey to Dirk Koetter at offensive coordinator has made a massive difference for the undefeated Falcons. But if there’s one thing holding Atlanta back, it’s a lack of a dominant running game. Michael Turner has had success the past two weeks, but it’s come when the opposing defense is worn down. And even though Koetter has wisely built his scheme around Ryan (where as Mularkey kept the focus on Turner), the Falcons won’t be as dangerous as they could be without a power running game. What made the 2009 Saints so dangerous is that once Sean Payton had a defense back on its heels trying to slow down the New Orleans passing game, he would pound Pierre Thomas inside to draw those safeties back up. Balance remains the key for NFL offenses, even in a passing league. There were times on Sunday when the Redskins dared the Falcons to run the ball and Atlanta just couldn’t do it with much consistency. So while the Falcons should be thrilled about their 5-0 start, at some point Koetter needs to figure out a way to develop a power running game. Unfortunately Turner’s skills are declining and second-year player Jacquizz Rodgers has made a limited impact.

3. Are the Vikings for real? They just might be.
In looking at the Vikings’ schedule up to this point, it would be easy to dismiss their 4-1 start. Three of their four wins have come against teams with losing records and three of their first five contests have come at home. But they did beat a team in the 49ers that many consider to be the class of the NFC and when you watch the Vikings play you realize they haven’t shown many flaws. They’re the team that doesn’t excel in one single area (outside of many run defense), but they do everything just well enough. Their offensive line does a decent job protecting Christian Ponder, who hadn’t thrown an interception until he threw two in Minnesota’s 30-7 win over Tennessee on Sunday. Percy Harvin continues to be the team’s best weapon, although Adrian Peterson has already exceeded expectations coming off knee surgery and tight end Kyle Rudolph is quickly becoming one of Ponder’s favorite targets. Is this a great team? No, but the schedule is very favorable until after they come back from their Week 11 bye. So for those waiting for Minnesota to come back to earth, you may be waiting a while.

4. Thanks to the Broncos’ sloppiness, the game of the week was a dud.
There was a moment in yesterday’s Denver-New England game when you thought we were going to have a classic Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady finish. But then Denver coughed the ball up inside the red zone (its third turnover of the day), and it sent most viewers scrambling for the remote. Arguably the best storyline coming into Week 5 was Manning vs. Brady, but the game was a loser right from the start. Thanks in large part to the Broncos’ miscues, the Patriots built a 17-7 halftime lead and increased the deficit to 31-7 with under five minutes remaining in the third quarter. Manning did cut the lead down to 31-21 but when New England gave Denver a golden opportunity to get within three points, the Broncos gave the gift right back. You were left wondering whether or not Denver is nothing more than a 9-7 team posing as a serious contender.

5. The last two weeks identify what the Eagles are.
Last Sunday night Michael Vick didn’t turn the ball over and played within himself. The result was an Eagles’ victory over the Giants. On Sunday, Vick turned the ball over twice, including once on the goal line, and the result wasn’t as favorable for Philadelphia. Granted, he did orchestrate an outstanding 17-play, eight-minute touchdown drive to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. But all of Vick’s comebacks this year is largely due to the fact that Vick himself put the Eagles in a hole. Pittsburgh’s now-healthy defense had a lot to do with Vick’s struggles, so let’s give credit were credit is due. But it’s getting to be pretty simple to define Philadelphia. When Vick doesn’t turn the ball over, they win. When he does, he either has to lead them to a fourth quarter comeback or the team falls flat. With how well the defense has played this season, Philadelphia should challenge for the NFC East crown. But it’s gotten to the point that as Vick goes, so does the Eagles.

6. That was a real stinker by the Ravens.
Let’s get all of the clichés out of the way first: You earn everything you get in the NFL. A win is a win. All that matters is that “W.” Having said that, what a brutal performance by Baltimore yesterday in Kansas City. The Chiefs have been dreadful for every game but one this season (an overtime victory in New Orleans), were on the verge of replacing their starting quarterback coming into the week, and have been a total disaster at times defensively. And yet a well rested Ravens team could only muster 9 points? A win is a win but Baltimore has some underlying problems. Edge rushers have given the offensive tackles problems and the defense can’t stop the run (as evidence in Kansas City’s 214 yards on the ground yesterday). Despite the changes Cam Cameron implemented this offseason, the Ravens’ offense is still a work in progress as well. There’s no doubt that Baltimore is going to be in the playoff mix at the end of the season and hey, sometimes good teams don’t play well. But some of Baltimore’s issues were on full display in Kansas City.

7. Gailey’s seat just got hotter in Buffalo.
Chan Gailey challenged his team’s toughness heading into Sunday’s game with the 49ers and his players responded by rolling over in a 45-3 San Francisco victory. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for only 126 yards with no touchdowns and one interception as his arm strength continues to limit what Buffalo can do offensively. The new high-priced defense also allowed Alex Smith to throw for 303 yards and at one point in the second half the Bills’ defenders gave up trying to tackle anyone. This is a 2-3 team that already looks defeated. They lack an identity on defense and thanks to Fitzpatrick, there’s a ceiling on what the offense can do. With Gailey at the controls, it’s unlikely that the Bills figure it out and turn things around. In fact, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

8. The Saints’ skid is over, but…
All things considered, it was a great night in New Orleans. Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game, moving him past Johnny Unitas for the all-time record. He also threw for 730 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception as the Saints beat the Chargers and finally got into the win column in 2012. But even though the numbers were eye-popping, you can tell there’s still something off with this New Orleans team. The defense did cause two turnovers but it’s ready to wilt at every turn, and without Sean Payton the offense isn’t as dominant as it has been in years past. We’re so used to holding out breath because the Saints could score at any moment. But without Payton’s brilliant play calling, this offense is missing its punch. Either way, it was a good win for a team that can finally let out a sigh of relief. The Saints have a long ways to go in order to get back into the NFC South race (especially with Atlanta sitting at 5-0), but that first victory is always the hardest.

9. The Panthers will continue to be hamstrung by Newton.
As Michael Vick goes, so do the Philadelphia Eagles. And as Cam Newton goes, so does the Carolina Panthers. Newton is a phenomenal young talent. He really is. He has the ability to put his team on his back, do his Superman thing and will Carolina to victory. He also has the ability to sink the Panthers in the blink of an eye and as we’ve found out the past two weeks, he’s not a closer. While leading 16-12 on Sunday, the Seahawks put the game in Newton’s hands by taking a safety with just under a minute left to play. It’s not easy for any quarterback to drive down the field in less than a minute and score a game-winning touchdown, nevertheless a second-year signal caller. But the Panthers didn’t even sniff mid-field because Newton had the ball stripped out of his hands. He also skipped a pass to Ben Hartsock on a 4th-and-1 from the goal line two series before that would have given the Panthers the lead had he put the pass on the money. Part of the problem in Carolina is that Ron Rivera is too conservative with his game plans. First and second-year head coaches will often play not to lose and they wind up losing a lot of close games. But at some point Newton has to be expected to raise the level of his play. That’s why Carolina drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick last year and why they’ve installed him as the face of the franchise. At some point he simply has to get it done in the fourth quarter.

10. The Dolphins might own the most underrated defense in the NFL.
After their 17-13 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, it’s time to pump the breaks on the Bengals. Entering today they were 3-1 but their wins came against the Browns, Redskins and Jaguars, which isn’t exactly a Murderers’ Row of elite NFL talent. The Bengals can’t run the ball with any success, which makes them one-dimensional offensively, and they struggle stopping the run on defense. That said, Miami’s defense is solid. In fact, it might be the most underrated defense in the league next to Pete Carroll’s squad in Seattle. Opponents are having a difficult time running against that front seven and Cameron Wake is a fierce pass rusher. The secondary has bouts of inconsistency, but the Dolphins have been in every game outside of a 30-10 loss to the Texans in Week 1. Unfortunately there’s a ceiling on how good Miami can be thanks to a rookie quarterback and a lack of explosive weapons. But Kevin Coyle’s defense gives the Dolphins an opportunity to compete week in and week out.

NFL News & Notes: Phil Taylor, Rueben Randle & Kendall Wright

Louisiana State University wide receiver Rueben Randle (2) scores on a touchdown pass against the University of Florida during their NCAA football game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana October 8, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

The Browns’ run defense just got much worse.
The Browns were brutal against the run last season and that was with 6-foot-3, 334-pound Phil Taylor plugging the middle of their line. With Taylor on the shelf for the next 4-6 months (if not the entire season) with a torn pectoral, Cleveland’s run defense figures to get worse. The Browns drafted Cincinnati DT John Hughes and Boise State’s Billy Winn last month, but neither is suited to be a starter. (Winn is the better bet to make an immediate impact, but his work ethic was questioned coming into the draft.) Opposing running backs should find plenty of open running lanes when playing the Browns again next season.

Randle already impressing.
Second-round pick Rueben Randle is already reportedly impressing the Giants. He went up high to catch a pass along the sideline during Friday’s mini-camp and then burned third-round selection Jayron Hosley on a go pattern later in the day. I said it immediately following the draft and I’ll say it again: Randle is the perfect replacement for Mario Manningham in the Giants’ offense because of his deep threat ability. He’ll work the seam just like Manningham did the past two seasons in New York.

Wright never had a playbook at Baylor.
File away as interesting: Receiver Kendall Wright never had a playbook in college. Baylor coach Art Briles used practices, film study and meetings to teach Wright over 300 plays. The Titans’ playbook will be the first-rounders first ever.

No need to worry about 49er rookies being out of shape.
One of the first things out of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s mouth on Friday was that the 49ers’ rookies looked out of shape, specifically first-round pick A.J. Jenkins. But one thing to keep in mind is that all rookies are out of shape at this point. It’s up to the coaching staffs to bring the players along slowly and show them what NFL speed looks like so that when training camp rolls around, they can be in stride with the veterans. Plus, it’s important for these youngsters not to get hurt tweaking a hamstring that could potentially affect them all year.

Burfict the perfect low-risk player for Bengals.
Former Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict says he has a chip on his shoulder after being undrafted last April. That should be music to the ears of the Bengals, who signed Burfict as a free agent following the draft. Burfict doesn’t lack talent, he just bombed pre-draft workouts and was an undisciplined player in college. If he winds up making the roster (and don’t be surprised if he does), then it’s a perfect low-risk, high-reward situation for Cincinnati. Maybe all he needed was a wake up call and some motivation.

Young to eventually be Bills’ starter?
Vince Young was brutal as Michael Vick’s backup last year in Philadelphia and seeing as how he just signed a seven-year, $62 million contract in October last year, Ryan Fitzpatrick will remain Buffalo’s starter. That said, Chan Gailey has always loved mobile quarterbacks so if Fitzpatrick struggles early in 2012, don’t be surprised if Young finds himself in a starting role again.

Jets latest to turn down “Hard Knocks?”
The AP reports that the Jets have turned down a “Hard Knocks” sequel because the team wants to limit distractions during training camp. The Falcons essentially gave the network the same reason as to why they didn’t want to appear on the show, and it’s saying something that HBO can’t even get Rex Ryan to say yes to attention. That said, hopefully the network can find a suitor because the show is great for fans.

A retractable roof for Minnesota? What would the “Purple People Eaters say?”
Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf have hinted that the team’s new stadium will have a retractable roof because they want to make the stadium as attractive to fans as possible. But I say get your ass out in the cold, Minnesotans, and enjoy the game how it’s meant to be viewed: Out in the elements.

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