Michigan State vs. Notre Dame, 3:30PM ET, Saturday
There’s tremendous value in the Spartans on Saturday. Granted, their defense hasn’t been tested yet but they rank fifth nationally with an average of 126.7 passing yards against. Perhaps most importantly is that sophomore Connor Cook emerged last week from a crowded quarterback competition by throwing for four first-half touchdowns and 202 yards against Youngstown State. Running back Jeremy Langford has also scored four touchdowns on the season and is averaging 4.5 yards per carry, so MSU should generate plenty of offense this weekend. The Spartans are 7-1 against the spread in their last eight trips to South Bend, while the road team is 11-2 against the number in the last 13 meetings between these two teams. Granted, Notre Dame is seeking its 10th consecutive win in South Bend but the Irish looked vulnerable on the road last week versus Purdue. This is a field goal game either way and if you like the Spartans, jump on them now. The line has already moved down to 4.5 after opening at 6. FREE PICK: MICHIGAN STATE +4.5
Arizona State vs. Stanford, 7:00PM ET, Saturday
The Sun Devils are coming off of what many would deem as a “gift” win over Wisconsin after the officiating crew blew the end of last Saturday’s game. But ASU will gladly take the victory and will look towards Saturday, which coach Todd Graham says “is a great opportunity for us to take a step forward as a program.” Stanford won’t be easy to overcome. The Cardinal is 8-2 at home against ranked opponents since 2009 and boasts a defense that returned eight starters from a unit that statistically was the best in the Pac-12 last season. That said, the Sun Devils are 4-1 against the spread in their last five games overall and the coaching staff knows what a win over the Cardinal could do for the program. The line has already been bet down two full points in this one – you can expect ASU’s best effort. FREE PICK: ARIZONA STATE +5.5
Falcons vs. Dolphins, 4:05PM ET, Sunday
The Falcons have been absolutely ravaged by injuries in the early going. It was revealed following the team’s Week 1 loss to the Saints that Roddy White suffered a high-ankle sprain in preseason, and just this past week Steven Jackson (thigh), Sean Weatherspoon (foot), and Kroy Biermann (Achilles) all fell victim to serious injuries. Atlanta was already having issues running the ball so without Jackson in the starting lineup, the feat could become impossible. Losing Weatherspoon and Biermann also force DC Mike Nolan to play with inexperienced players at crucial spots defensively, and this was already a unit that struggles to generate pressure. On the other side, the Dolphins have been impressive while winning both of their games on the road. Ryan Tannehill has looked sharp in the early going and finally got on the same page as receiver Mike Wallace, who had a big game in Indy last week. With the public jumping on the underdog Falcons, the Dolphins are a value at under a field goal. Miami goes to 3-0. FREE PICK: MIAMI DOLPHINS -1
Buccaneers vs. Patriots, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
The Bucs have been a mess both on and off the field thus far. They scored a combined 31 points in their first two games and there have been reports questioning Josh Freeman’s leadership and whether or not coach Greg Schiano is a fit. That said, in both of their games they squandered leads with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. While the unit has failed to close out games in the final minutes the past two weeks, the Bucs wouldn’t have been in either contest had it not been for Bill Sheridan’s defense. Tampa will play a New England team on Sunday that had issues moving the ball last week against Rex Ryan’s Jets. Tom Brady was visibly frustrated with his young receiving corps during the game and without Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, there’s reason to believe that the Pats could continue to struggle offensively. New England opened as a 9.5-point favorite but the spread has already been bet down a full point. The Bucs have a ton of issues but their defense should give them a chance on Sunday. FREE PICK: TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS +8.5
+ At this point it would be an upset if Rex Ryan wasn’t handed his pink slip before the end of the regular season. What he did Saturday night in New York was a joke, inserting his starting quarterback Mark Sanchez into a game that didn’t matter and watching him get planted by Marvin Austin. The result was rather Jets-like: Sanchez was injured and now Ryan will likely be forced to play rookie Geno Smith Week 1. (And that isn’t a good thing, as Smith looked completely overwhelmed in a disastrous performance on Saturday.) What was it all for? Apparently the annual “Snoopy Trophy,” which is handed to the winner of the Jets-Giants preseason game. Ryan and the Jets have progressively gotten worse every year he’s been head coach. He doesn’t have a handle on how to manage quarterbacks, he hires overmatched assistants, and no offensive player has show improvement under his guidance. He should go back to doing what he does best: Coordinate defenses.
+ Don’t fall asleep on the Lions this year. The interior of their defensive line is going to cause headaches for opposing quarterbacks and Jason Jones might turn out to be one of the more underrated signings of the offseason. He had his way with New England right tackle Sebastian Vollmer on multiple plays last Thursday.
+ Speaking of the Lions, they’ve been searching for years for a complementary piece for Calvin Johnson and they may have finally found that weapon in Reggie Bush. He remains a home run threat when he gets the ball in his hands, which Detroit plans on doing plenty of this season. While he still tries to bounce too many runs outside at times, he’s difficult to tackle in open space and the guy has the ability to take a screen pass 60-plus yards in the blink of an eye. He provides the Lions offense with an element they haven’t had since they drafted Johnson in 2007.
+ The Patriots’ passing game will be fine as long as Tom Brady is still under center. He has the rare ability to put the ball in places only his receivers can catch it, including when said wideout otherwise blanketed in coverage. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how much growing pains Brady’s new weapons will go through this season. Kenbrell Thompkins scorched Detroit for eight catches and 116 yards, but he also dropped a pass on a potential first down in the first half and fellow rookie Aaron Dobson needs to play with more physicality. While they should win the AFC East with relative ease, it’s fair to wonder whether or not this new receiving corps will hold the Patriots back this season.
+ Halfway through the first quarter of the Falcons-Titans game I was ready to write about how Atlanta’s reshaped offensive line won’t be as big of a problem as some believe. Then came Tennessee’s five sacks and the police report that Matt Ryan filed on RT Lamar Holmes for the abuse he suffered in the second quarter. The run-blocking was good for a second consecutive week, but pass protection could be a recurring issue for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations heading into Week 1.
+ While new OC Dowell Loggains would be wise to lean on Chris Johnson this season, Jake Locker has improved as a pocket passer. He threw a couple of frozen ropes in his 133-yard, one-touchdown performance on Saturday night versus the Falcons. He remains most effective when he can use play-action, deception and mobility to free up receivers, but his confidence is growing in the pocket. He specifically looked good during a second quarter drive that resulted in him completing all three of his pass attempts for 41 yards and a touchdown strike to Nate Washington off a play-action fake.
+ Opponents will find it difficult to run against the likes of Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones and Terrence Cody in Baltimore. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will also continue to be headaches for opposing quarterbacks from a pass-rush standpoint, and getting cornerback Lardarius Webb back from injury will benefit the secondary greatly. The Ravens lost a ton of leadership and experience when Ray Lewis retired and Ed Reed left for Houston via free agency. But from an overall talent perspective, they didn’t suffer much of a drop off and this idea that Baltimore will ultimately sink to the bottom of the AFC North is an overreaction to the losses they experienced this offseason.
+ Luke Kuechly is going to keep plenty of offensive coordinators up at night. Last Thursday he forced a fumble on a perfectly timed read in Baltimore’s backfield, intercepted Joe Flacco in the red zone, and damn near decapitated Aaron Mellette when the receiver went over the middle (which led to a penalty). He plays like a man possessed and he’s seemingly involved in every defensive play Carolina makes. He’s the exception to the current notion that teams should wait to draft linebackers in the middle rounds.
+ The biggest reason the Seahawks will survive Percy Harvin’s injury is because they have a fantastic stable of backs, led by Marshawn Lynch. The trio of Lynch, Robert Turbin and Christine Michael is the best in the NFL and each runner brings something different to the table. Lynch is a bruiser but he’s also versatile in that he can change directions quickly and explode through open lanes. Turbin is more of a plodder but like Lynch, it’s difficult to bring him down on first contact and Michael’s speed and quickness complements the other backs’ styles. Toss in Russell Wilson’s running ability and Seattle’s backfield will once again be a headache for opposing defenses.
+ While nobody will argue that the Cardinals are an improved team, they’re still going to struggle offensively this year. Carson Palmer is a significant upgrade over the signal-callers that Arizona trotted out last year but he’ll have no running game to lean on and he’s likely to face as much pressure as Kevin Kolb and Co. did a year ago. Losing Jonathan Cooper to a potentially season-ending fibula injury was a crushing blow.
+ Some are expecting a massive rebound from the Saints this year and given how much explosion they have offensively, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them atop the NFC South again. That said, they better average 30-plus points a game because the defense is liable to give up 40 on a given Sunday. Former first-round pick Cameron Jordan is emerging as a stud but the Saints are going to need more than him and newly acquired Parys Haralson to drum up a pass rush. Matt Schaub did a nice job of getting the ball out of his hand quickly on Sunday but there were a handful of times when he had all day to allow his receivers to find openings in the Saints’ zone. The first-string wasn’t much better on run defense for New Orleans, which allowed Ben Tate to gash them for 6.7 yards per carry. Rob Ryan is a creative playcaller but he simply doesn’t have the manpower to keep top offenses in check.
+ Rams fans had to be encouraged that four of their offseason additions made impacts on Saturday versus the Broncos. While rookie LB Alec Ogletree continues to struggle getting off blocks, he caused a fumble of Ronnie Hillman, recovered the ball and ran it into the end zone for a touchdown early in the contest. Then later he got excellent depth in coverage and intercepted one of Peyton Manning’s passes down the seam, then nearly had another pick of Manning in the end zone. Fellow rookies Tavon Austin (81-yard punt return) and T.J. McDonald (blocked field goal) also made impacts, as did tight end Jared Cook (4 catches, 50 yards, 1 TD), who could be in store for a breakout season. Throw in another stellar performance by a motivated Jake Long and St. Louis’ collective 2013 offseason had quite a night.
+ There’s little to suggest that Christian Ponder will start all 16 games for the Vikings this season. Thus far, he’s completed 62.2 percent of his passes but his 4.97 YPA average paints a much clearer picture of his abilities. While his mobility is a plus, his slightly above-average arm will continue to hold Minnesota’s offense back. If Adrian Peterson doesn’t rush for another 2,000-plus yards, the Vikings are a horrible bet to make back-to-back playoff appearances.
+ The Bills need to resist the temptation of rushing E.J. Manuel back to the field. He’s their franchise signal-caller and while Week 1 will be an ass-kicking that Jeff Tuel has yet to endure, Doug Marrone and his coaching staff need to keep their eyes on the future. Heading into a season where they’ll be fortunate to win four games, it makes no sense risking further injury to Manuel in hopes of receiving less of a beat-down from New England in the opening week.
When you read this article about the strength of the case against Aaron Hernandez, you realize immediately that the New England Patriots had little choice in releasing him after he was arrested for murder. It’s hard to cover your tracks in today’s world, and it appears that the police have a witness along with a ton of information regarding the timeline that implicates Hernandez. The defense seems to have an uphill battle in this case.
This decision by the Patriots also spares Roger Goodell and the NFL from having to deal with a suspension. Hernandez has been released so there’s no need to go through a process that will demand even more media attention.
1. The Percy Harvin trade was outstanding for the Seahawks. They landed a proven playmaker for a first-round pick that may-or-may not wind up being a valuable piece, a seventh-rounder that probably would have been a long-shot to make an already stacked roster, and a third-round selection in 2014 that may-or-may not turn into a solid role player. It’s clear that Harvin wore out his welcome in Minnesota and the Vikings did what they had to do in order to rid themselves of the headache. But this is a dynamic, versatile player that adds a much-needed element to Seattle’s offense. He did miss seven games last season due to an ankle injury, but he missed only three games in the three years prior and his migraine issues have seemingly been resolved. (After being diagnosed with sleep apnea in 2010, he hasn’t suffered a migraine in two year.) With Harvin joining Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Sidney Rice, Zach Miller and Golden Tate, I’d match the Seahawks up against any other offense in the NFC right now.
2. Speaking of the Seahawks, the signing of Michael Bennett was a shrewd move by Pete Carroll and John Schneider. Bennett wasn’t impressed with the offer he received from the Buccaneers so instead of being patient while testing the market, he accepted what essentially was a one-year “prove it” deal at $5 million. He had nine sacks with Tampa Bay last season and is versatile enough to play end or tackle in a 4-3 alignment. He more than makes up for the loss of Jason Jones (Lions) and after signing Cliff Avril to a reasonable two-year, $15 million contract, Seattle is prepared from a pass-rushing standpoint to get by while Chris Clemons (ACL surgery) is on the mend. Once Clemons returns, he’ll join a defensive line that features Bennett, Avril and former first-rounder Bruce Irvin, who finished with eight sacks last season as a rookie.
3. After some initial confusion, the Patriots signed Danny Amendola before Wes Welker agreed to terms with the Broncos. He also received less money per year than Welker, which further proves that Bill Belichick and his staff coveted Amendola from the start of free agency (as opposed to countering Denver’s decision to sign Welker). New England was wise to tie up $2.5 million of Amendola’s contract in per-game roster bonuses, meaning the oft-injured receiver will need to stay healthy if he wants to fully cash in on his new deal. Considering he’s caught over 100 passes in five of the last six seasons, it’s almost ridiculous to think that the Pats have replaced Welker. But by signing Amendola, they acquired a player with a similar skill set that is also four years younger. As far as production goes, Welker has been in a league of his own since 2007 but Amendola arguably owns a better pair of hands and has more than enough short-area quickness to play the slot in Josh McDaniels’ offense. Amendola just needs to stay healthy or his value will be greatly diminished over the course of his contract in New England.
4. Considering Brian Hartline led the Dolphins in receiving last season, it’s hard to argue why Jeff Ireland spent a large portion of his cap space on Mike Wallace. He gives Miami’s offense something it desperately needed: A playmaker with the ability to take the top off a defense. But did Ireland really improve his defense or did he make slight upgrades while also spending more money? Both Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe are solid players but Ireland spent a combined $56 million to acquire them on the open market. In one fell swoop, he also released Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who were productive last season for Miami’s defense. It’s not as if linebacker was a need coming into the offseason – Ireland just shifted players around and by doing so, spent more money in the process. Given the mess that are the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, the Dolphins will likely be the only threat to the Patriots in the AFC East next season. Again, it’s not as if Miami hasn’t made upgrades to its roster. But these are hardly calculated decisions by Ireland, whose future in Miami could rest on the moves he made last week.
5. It’s laughable that some are questioning the Falcons’ decision to sign Steven Jackson when they could have just kept Michael Turner. These same folks point to both players’ production over the last four years and the fact that Turner has racked up 60 touchdowns since 2008 compared to Jackson’s 26 TDs over that same span. But Turner’s burst and acceleration have evaporated, and he no longer can create on his own. Too often he would run into the backs of his offensive linemen last year and managed a paltry 3.6 yards per carry. Jackson has lost a step over the years but he still displays some quickness and the ability to beat defenses on the edge. Monetarily-speaking, the two players aren’t comparable either. Turner was set to make $6.9 million in his final year with the Falcons, while Jackson signed for a reasonable $12 million over three years. (Of the amount, only $4 million is guaranteed.) For those that worry about touchdown totals, keep in mind that Turner received 51 red-zone opportunities last season with Atlanta, compared to Jackson’s 27 with St. Louis. Considering Dirk Koetter used Turner as his goal-line battering ram last season, Jackson will have more than enough opportunities to reach pay dirt in 2013. More importantly, he’ll also give Matt Ryan and the dangerous Atlanta offense increased production while on its way to the end zone.
6. The Bears took somewhat of a gamble by signing former Saint Jermon Bushrod to a five-year contract on the opening day of free agency. Bushrod was a top-10 tackle in 2011 but his play dipped last season. According to Pro Football Focus, Bushrod allowed a whopping 46 quarterback hurries, eight QB hits, and four sacks. The hurries and QB hits were more than Chicago’s 2012 left tackle J’Marcus Webb (5 QB hits, 29 QB hurries), although the latter allowed three more sacks. If Bushrod can return to his 2011 form, the Bears will have upgraded the blindside protection of Jay Cutler. But if 2012 wasn’t an anomaly for Bushrod, then Chicago will continue to have a real problem on its hands upfront. They’re still deciding what position 2011 first-round bust Gabe Carimi will play (Chris Williams 2.0, anyone?), and if Webb performs as poorly on the right side next year as he did on the left, Cutler’s days of being under constant duress will live on. Phil Emery still has a lot of work ahead of him when it comes to re-building the mess that Jerry Angelo left him along the offensive line.
7. The $38.5 million over five years that the Rams handed tight end Jared Cook was a lot to give a player that has never caught 50 passes in a single season. (His highest reception total came in 2011 when he caught 49 passes for 759 yards.) But Jeff Fisher drafted the former South Carolina product and as long as St. Louis makes him one of the focal points of its offense, chances are he’ll be worth the price tag. But it’s hard to blame fans for being frustrated after the Seahawks landed Harvin and the 49ers gave up a late-round pick for Anquan Boldin. They look at the current depth chart at receiver and wonder, ‘Is that it?’ The key is Brian Quick. If he develops into the player the Rams envision he’ll be when they selected him at No. 33 overall last April, then fans will take comfort in the fact that the team didn’t part with multiple picks and $25 million in guaranteed money for Harvin. Chris Givens is already entrenched as a playmaker on one side and with Cook testing defenses down the seam, the Rams really only need that outside-the-numbers weapon to make their passing game hum. In a perfect world that player will be Quick, and then St. Louis could supplement its depth at receiver by drafting another wideout or acquiring a veteran this spring. (Don’t rule out Nate Washington, who the Titans might release in the coming weeks.) If the Rams missed on Quick, then the present fears will be amplified down the road.
8. Some of the contracts handed out to offensive linemen this week were staggering. I mentioned Bushrod’s five-year, $36 million deal, but there were more head-scratching decisions made by other NFL front offices. Andy Levitre is a solid player and the Titans needed to upgrade their offensive line this offseason. But $46.8 million is an astounding figure for a guard. Sam Baker has only had one productive year since the Falcons reached on him in the first round of the 2008 draft, yet they decided to hand him $41.5 million over six years. With some of the money that has been thrown around in free agency thus far, you can’t blame Jake Long for waiting until he receives the offer he wants.
9. Jets owner Woody Johnson didn’t exactly squash the notion that cornerback Darrelle Revis would be traded at some point this offseason. “No team is just one player away, maybe with the exception of the quarterback,” Johnson told reporters. “You can’t be distracted by one player. You have to look at everything.” Johnson went on to say that the team would like to have Revis back, but “it depends.” In typical Jets fashion, it’s unlikely that they get the best of this current situation. Revis is coming off an ACL injury and thus, his value has never been lower. The Jets are also in cap hell because of former GM Mike Tannebaum, so other teams are well aware that New York doesn’t have the cap space to pay Revis what he wants long-term. With Mark Sanchez under center and Rex Ryan seemingly a dead man walking, there appears to be zero hope on the horizon for “Gang Green.”
10. In any other offseason, a team that needed to fill not one, but two holes at safety would be in full panic mode right now. But the Rams remain in a great spot despite having multiple holes to fill in their secondary. That’s because their options remain plentiful, both in free agency and the draft. Bernard Pollard, Michael Huff, Ed Reed, Kerry Rhodes, Gerald Sensabaugh, Charles Woodson and Tom Zbikowski all remain unsigned, as does Quintin Mikell. A combination of Pollard and either Kenny Vaccaro or Matt Elam would offer an instant upgrade over what St. Louis had at safety last year, provided that Vaccaro or Elam panned out, of course. And the Rams could do much worse than to bring back Mikell for cheap and land a safety in the draft to play centerfield. While it’s a bit unsettling to have clear needs on either side of the ball not addressed quickly in free agency, Jeff Fisher and Les Snead would really have to drop the ball not to land two quality safeties over the next two months.
1. The Falcons may have been overly concerned about Kaepernick.
The Falcons went into the NFC title game knowing they had to at least contain Colin Kaepernick. They did that – it’s just too bad that they didn’t defend anyone else in the process. The Falcons were so concerned about Kaepernick beating them with his legs that they lost sight of the fact he was killing them with his arm. His receivers were either left wide open or in one-on-one mismatches with Atlanta defenders like Thomas DeCoud, who couldn’t tackle a trashcan on Sunday. Football, as with all sports, is a game of adjustments. The Falcons had the right game plan coming in but it became apparent after halftime when the 49ers scored a touchdown on their third straight drive (save for the one play at the conclusion of the first half) that Mike Nolan didn’t make the right adjustments. It’s easy to make coaches the scapegoat but I refuse to believe Atlanta’s game plan defensively was to allow Vernon Davis to run free in the secondary – especially after Seattle tight end Zach Miller torched them for 142 yards and a touchdown the week before. Credit John Harbaugh and Greg Roman for playing things straight up, allowing the game to come to them and for taking what the Falcons gave them.
2. Four plays cost Matt Ryan a trip to the Super Bowl.
According to Pro Football Focus, Matt Ryan took 67 snaps from center on Sunday. On 63 of those snaps, he was damn-near brilliant. It was the other four that cost him and his team a trip to New Orleans. The interception and the fluke fumble in the second half were killers. They didn’t lead to points for the 49ers but they also occurred in San Francisco territory, meaning they didn’t lead to points for the Falcons either. It became clear in the second half that Ryan and Atlanta would need to outpace Kaepernick and without those two turnovers, they probably would have. But the other two plays that cost the Falcons were the controversial catch by Harry Douglas and the fourth down throw inside the red zone. Forget whether or not Douglas caught the ball – if he keeps his feet he probably scores because there was no defender within six miles of him. Instead, he stumbles and while the Falcons were fortunate to have the call go their way, they were hardly lucky in that instance. Four plays later, Ryan forces a pass to Roddy White at the San Francisco 10-yard line and the game is essentially over. It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback but if Ryan sees an open Tony Gonzalez on that play, the Falcons score and go up by 3 with under two minutes remaining. It was just one bad event after another for Ryan, who nearly willed his team to the Super Bowl. When your quarterback completes over 70-percent of his passes while throwing for nearly 396 yards and three touchdowns, you should win.
3. What mobile quarterback?
Can a mobile quarterback ever win a Super Bowl? Sure they can, just as long as that mobile quarterback is Colin Kaepernick, who oh-by-the-way also can beat opponents with his arm. Kaepernick’s running ability makes him dangerous but not as dangerous as his ability to force an opponent to get out of its comfort zone defensively. The Falcons hired Mike Nolan so that he could implement a defense that would stop pass-heavy teams like the Packers, Saints and Giants. During the regular season they intercepted Peyton Manning three times in one quarter, Drew Brees five times in one game, and Eli Manning twice in a 34-0 shutout late in the year. But they were undone by Kaepernick, not because he’s mobile but because he was accurate throwing vertically. He only rushed twice for 21 yards but his average pass went for 11.1 yards, which made a huge difference in the outcome of the game. The Niners eventually wore down the Falcons’ undersized defensive line in the second half, but they would have had a hard time keeping pace with Ryan and Atlanta’s offense had Kaepernick not had the ability to pick up huge chunks of yards through the air. Is his mobility a factor? No question. Could the Niners have won on Sunday if Kaepernick weren’t also a dangerous passer? That’s debatable, especially with the way their defense was playing. He’s headed to a Super Bowl not because of his mobility but because he’s the complete package.
4. It was a great time for Davis to re-join the San Francisco offense.
After Zach Miller torched the Falcons’ secondary last week Vernon Davis had to be licking his chops. But there have been times this season when he’s disappeared and San Francisco’s passing game over the past two months has really run through Michael Crabtree. With Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel doing a nice job to limit Crabtree’s involvement, it was a great time for Kaepernick to rediscover his relationship with Davis, who destroyed safety Thomas DeCoud and linebacker Stephen Nicholas in coverage. DeCoud is fast enough to stay with Davis, but he missed too many tackles and was usually a split second late getting to the tight end in coverage. The loss of Mario Manningham late in the season hurt, but when Davis is a threat down the seam the Niners have more than enough weapons offensively. The talented tight end was outstanding on Sunday.
While we’re discussing tight ends, it would be a shame if Tony Gonzalez does retire now that Atlanta has been eliminated. He’s coming off his best season as a Falcon and while he isn’t the same player he was earlier in his career, he’s still playing at an elite level. He’s always said that he would keep coming back as long as he was still physically able to compete and for those that watched him all season, that’s certainly still the case. Plus, with Julio Jones and Roddy White flanking him on the outsides, Gonzo should continue to be productive.
5. Stop all the Mike Smith replacement talk.
It’s asinine to suggest that Mike Smith should be on the hot seat after his team came up short on Sunday. The Falcons never had back-to-back winning seasons before Smith arrived in 2008 and they haven’t had a losing season since. He’s a good coach that added two excellent coordinators in Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan last offseason. With both back in the mix for 2013, there’s a good chance Smith will have the Falcons playing in January again next year. Does he have his flaws? Absolutely. This postseason proved that he needs to do a better job of coaching with a lead. Too often he’ll take his foot off the pedal instead of going for the jugular and he still has a hard time weighing risk versus reward in certain situations (such as calls on fourth down). But 30 teams are eliminated every year before the Super Bowl and there’s no shame in coming up short in the NFC title game. You don’t fire a man that has compiled a 56-24 record over his career because he’s struggled in the postseason. The people that say he should have had the Falcons in the Super Bowl this year are probably the same ones that called Atlanta a fraud No. 1 seed. Despite what the records indicated, Smith didn’t have the best team in the NFC this year. In fact, he probably had the third best team behind San Francisco and Seattle. And yet, the Falcons were one more Matt Ryan touchdown away from playing in the Super Bowl. For those that want Smith gone, remember that another June Jones, Jim Mora or Bobby Petrino could be right around the corner.
Ravens 28, Patriots 13
1. Brady simply wasn’t good enough.
The absence of Rob Gronkowski and the injury to corner Aqib Talib hurt the Patriots on Sunday, but the bottom line is that Tom Brady didn’t play well enough for New England to advance. As usual, he did a nice job stepping up in the pocket when he felt the rush and he constantly kept his eyes downfield. Credit Baltimore for finding a way to bring pressure in his face and for locking down his receivers in key moments of the game. Granted, his receivers did drop four balls, including two by Wes Welker. But while Joe Flacco came up with some huge passes in the second half, Brady simply failed to make enough plays. He should also be vilified for his scissor kick to Ed Reed right before halftime. It was an embarrassing moment for the future Hall of Famer.
2. Flacco is playing the best football of his career.
Joe Flacco didn’t have a very strong first half but he consistently challenged his opponent downfield for the second straight week. Granted, he was aided by another outstanding game by his offensive line, Anquan Boldin’s heroics, and a New England defense that couldn’t tackle Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce, but the bottom line is that Flacco out-dueled Peyton Manning and Tom Brady the past two weeks. He also now has six road playoff wins in his career and whether he wins the Super Bowl or not, he’s set himself up for a huge payday in the offseason. It isn’t always pretty when it comes to Flacco, but it’s hard to argue with his production over the past five years. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares against a San Francisco defense that was torched by fellow 2008 first-rounder Matt Ryan.
3. Boldin doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves.
Anquan Boldin is a fantastic player that is constantly overlooked when the discussion turns to who the best receivers are in the NFL. He doesn’t have elite top-end speed and yet he can still beat a defense vertically. He also has some of the best hands at the position and his body control is outstanding. On both of his touchdown receptions, as well as the catch he made early in the third quarter for a 26-yard gain, Boldin had perfect body control and made great adjustments to the passes. At this point in his career he’s more like a tight end than a receiver but he remains a mismatch on linebackers and safeties.
4. Baltimore’s defense clamped down when it needed to.
Judging by the stats you would have thought the Ravens’ defense played poorly on Sunday. Brady threw for 320 yards, the Patriots gained 108 yards on the ground and Wes Welker finished with 117 yards receiving and a touchdown. But the Ravens held New England to a field goal right before half, which was huge, and despite allowing 428 yards they forced three huge turnovers in the second half. Whenever there was a big play to be made, it was Baltimore’s defense coming up huge – not Tom Brady. For the No. 1 scoring offense to be shut out in the second half on its home turf is a major credit to the defense.
5. Tackling played a huge part.
The Patriots’ tackling (or lack thereof) was horrendous. Safety Steve Gregory had a night to forget in coverage but he also missed multiple tackles, as did linebacker Jerod Mayo (one of which resulted in Ray Rice’s first touchdown). But it wasn’t just those two players – Alfonzo Dennard, Dont’a Hightower and Brandon Spikes whiffed as well. What’s interesting is that the Ravens only rushed for 3.7 yards per carry but the Patriots made life worse on themselves by not wrapping up.