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Ten Observations from Week 12 in the NFL

1. The 49ers are the team to beat in the NFC.
With all due respect to the 10-1 Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers are clearly the team to beat in their conference. All of their strengths were on display Sunday in New Orleans. Their physicality is unrivaled by any team in the league and they’re equipped defensively to beat all of the top offenses in the NFC, including the Saints, Packers and Falcons. Drew Brees couldn’t do anything yesterday. He was under constant pressure, was sacked five times, saw both of his interceptions returned for touchdowns and had to witness his receivers take a beating nearly every time they caught the ball. The Niners also somehow took Jimmy Graham out of the game, which isn’t easy to do considering the Saints were at home (where he thrives). I don’t care what Alex Smith’s competition percentage is – Colin Kaepernick also needs to be the starter. He outplayed Brees while completing 16-of-25 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and also added 27 yards and another score on six rushes. He was calm under pressure, displayed his playmaking ability on his lone touchdown run, and still managed to move the ball despite not having the same aggressive or creative approach that San Francisco’s coaching staff used Monday night versus Chicago. The Niners have suffered some bumps in the road this year, the latest coming in a 24-24 tie with the Rams three weeks ago. But with that defense, that running game, and that quarterback under center, I’d put the Niners up against any team in the NFL right now.

2 The Giants still own the NFC East.
Just when you thought the Giants were on the verge of crumbling, they have one of those games that leaves their detractors silent. Eli Manning and the pass defense was horrible in previous losses to the Steelers and Bengals, so naturally Manning throws for three touchdowns and New York’s defense holds Aaron Rodgers to 14-of-25 passing for 219 yards with one interception. This effort by the Giants wasn’t surprising to those that have paid attention to them under Tom Coughlin. They love to play down to their competition and take entire games off, but when they feel like their backs are against the wall and they have something to prove they always rise to the occasion. They ran the ball with authority last night, had receivers running free in Green bay’s secondary, and constantly harassed Rodgers while sacking him five times. Their message was clear: ‘We’re still the class of the NFC East.’

3. Jim Schwartz has nobody but himself to blame.
The NFL has to do away with the rule that allowed Justin Forsett’s 81-yard touchdown to stand in Houston’s 34-31 win over Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. It’s unrealistic to think that a head coach won’t throw his challenge flag in the heat of the moment, just as Jim Schwartz did after he saw that Forsett was clearly down. The point of replay is to ensure that the calls on the field are correct. Yet the correct call on Forsett’s run wasn’t made because Schwartz’s split second decision nullified the officials’ ability to review the play. What an arrogant rule by the NFL. ‘How dare you challenge a play when the league has ruled that all touchdowns are reviewed by the booth! You shall suffer the consequences!’ Sorry NFL, but we fans suffered in that moment. It’s a ridiculous rule and the league needs to get rid of it, which it will. That said, Schwartz throwing the challenge flag in that situation was inexcusable. First and foremost, this is the same guy who screamed at 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh last year to “know the rules” during the “Handshake Gate” game. How fitting that Schwartz was the one to forget the rules this time around. Also, Falcons head coach Mike Smith made the same exact mistake just four days prior to Thanksgiving. If we’re going to chastise players for not learning from their peers (such as we do when two athletes get arrested for the same infraction just days or weeks apart), then it’s only fair that we criticize head coaches that don’t learn from each other, too. And lastly, we’ve seen these kinds of actions before out of Schwartz, who constantly allows his emotions to affect his judgment. NFL coaches need to be clear-headed and rational when making decisions. Schwartz is neither and his often-reckless team is a reflection of that. His emotions cost the Lions a touchdown on Thursday, if not a win and whatever hopes they had of still making the playoffs.

4. The banged up Texans haven’t been exposed, but there’s still reason to be concerned.
Following near-losses to the Jaguars and Lions the past two weeks, one could make the argument that the Texans have been exposed. They’ve surrendered 68 points and a whopping 791 yards through the air over their past two games. (They’ve also given up at least one touchdown in seven of the past eight quarters in regulation.) But if you’re searching for answers as to why the Texans defense has been so bad lately, take a glance at their injury report. They’ve already lost Brian Cushing for the season and fellow linebacker Brooks Reed is expected to miss at least three-to-four weeks after suffering a groin injury in Thursday’s win over the Lions. The team thought cornerback Jonathan Joseph (hamstring) would play in Detroit but he didn’t even suit up. The Texans haven’t been exposed, they’re just merely beat up on the defensive side of the ball. And until they get some of their starters back, their offense may have to score 30-plus points a game, which they’re certainly capable of doing. That said, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are both prone to injury and no running back has carried the ball more than Arian Foster this season. Can Houston’s offensive core hold up throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs? While the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens are getting stronger as the year wears on, the Texans appear to be weakening.

5. The Packers’ issues have resurfaced.
The Packers came into Sunday night riding a five-game winning streak but before the clock read double-zeros, Graham Harrell had already replaced Aaron Rodgers in the Giants’ 38-10 blowout. Green Bay’s offensive line can’t protect Rodgers, who doesn’t have enough time to get the ball to playmakers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Other defensive coordinators around the league are going to copy Perry Fewell’s game plan and use it against the Packers the rest of the year. Granted, most D-coordinators don’t have Fewell’s pass rushers but they’ll employ a similar two-deep shell that the Giants used in efforts to thwart Green Bay’s passing game. Injuries have also killed the Packers’ rushing attack and pass rush, which was non-existent versus Eli Manning last night. Just when you thought the Pack’s issues were in the rearview mirror, they came screeching back on primetime television. They’re still going to be a hell of an out if/when they make the playoffs, but you have to wonder if their makeshift O-line and injuries will derail the Packers in the end.

6. The Falcons have an X-factor that they’re not using.
The Falcons have owned one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL this season but give offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter credit for running right at the Bucs’ top-ranked run defense in Atlanta’s 24-23 win on Sunday. The key was Jacquizz Rodgers, who rushed 10 times for 49 yards and one touchdown. He’s become the X-factor that Koetter isn’t using, or at least isn’t using merely enough. When Michael Turner has been the featured back, Atlanta’s running game grinds to a halt and he often puts Matt Ryan and the passing game in long down-and-distance situations. The cemented-footed Turner lacks the vision, acceleration and burst of Rodgers, who does a nice job of gaining yards even when he’s bottled up. Thanks to Ryan and the assortment of weapons that he has at his disposal (Julio Jones was once again dominant despite being slowed by an ankle injury), the Falcons’ passing attack remains dangerous. But unless they figure out a way to run the ball then they’re going to be too one-dimensional to beat tough defenses like the ones in San Francisco and Chicago. If Koetter and head coach Mike Smith were paying attention yesterday, they realize they have a true sparkplug in Rodgers.

7. The Cowboys’ problems on offense have become glaring.
Tony Romo is on pace to attempt a career-high 663 passes for a career-high 4,883 yards. While the yards would be impressive, the number of attempts tells the story of what has gone wrong in Dallas this season. The Cowboys have become too one-dimensional on offense and while the injury to DeMarco Murray has played a factor in the team’s play calling, Jason Garrett deserves blame for not creating more balance. Of course, Garrett doesn’t deserve blame for his running game averaging just 2.3 yards per carry. So while it’s easy to criticize Dallas for becoming too one-dimensional, what is Garrett supposed to do when his rushing attack can’t even gain three yards per attempt? Just as was the case on Thanksgiving when they fell behind 28-3 to the Redskins, the Cowboys are also starting games too slow. They were fortunate to erase a 13-0 deficit versus Cleveland two weeks ago, but the hole they put themselves in against Washington turned out to be insurmountable. With injuries now ravaging the defense and the Giants proving on Sunday night that they’re still the class of the division, it’s time for drastic measures. Romo and the offense have been efficient in the hurry up this season. But putting Romo in the hurry up more would mean Garrett sacrificing the play-calling duties during those drives. Most play callers can’t put aside their egos in order to allow their quarterback to call the plays and if Garrett falls into that category then the Cowboys will miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Simply put, Dallas can’t keep doing what its been doing offensively because it clearly doesn’t work.

8. The Rams get back to basics in win over Cards.
Entering the season Jeff Fisher knew that his young team would have to run the ball, limit mistakes, and play good defense in order to stay competitive throughout the year. That very general philosophy got lost in the midst of the Rams’ five-game winless streak, which ended on Sunday when they defeated the Cardinals 31-17. It’s no secret how Fisher and Co. beat Arizona. Steven Jackson was finally allowed to carry the running game and he responded by churning out 139 yards and a 5.8 YPC average. And while Ryan Lindley did throw for over 300 yards against that Charmin extra soft zone that the Rams like to use on a weekly basis, St. Louis took advantage of his rookie mistakes (four of them to be exact). Quite frankly, this was the type of effort that we expected out of the Rams all year. This isn’t a playoff caliber team – not yet, anyway. Fisher and Les Snead will need at least another year to acquire playmakers on both sides of the ball, which includes addressing holes along the offensive line, at wideout, and at safety. But for the next five weeks it would be nice to see the Rams do exactly what they did yesterday: Limit the mistakes, take advantage of the opportunities that their opponents give them, and control the tempo of the game with Jackson. At some point the Rams will need to be concerned with the fact that Sam Bradford only completed 8 passes or a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start somehow racked up 300 yards. passing But for now, building confidence is the key and you do that by winning, which remains the ultimate cure-all.

9. The Seahawks are finished.
That is, if Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are suspended. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Seattle’s starting cornerback duo is facing a four-game punishment for violating the NFL’s policy against PEDs. The substance for which they took remains unclear but their agents claim it was Adderall, which landed Cleveland’s Joe Haden a four-game suspension earlier this season. Outside of Chicago’s Charles Tillman and Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield, nobody has played better in coverage this season than Sherman. And after making the Pro Bowl last season, Browner is a borderline top-10 corner as well, so losing both would kill the Seahawks’ hopes of making the playoffs. If you think that’s harsh, consider that Seattle’s identity defensively is its secondary. Safety Earl Thomas isn’t having the season he did a year ago and to a much lesser extent, neither is his partner Kam Chancellor. The Hawks can ill-afford to lose either Browner or Sherman, the latter of which has been Seattle’s best defender in 2012. After blowing leads of 14-7 and 21-14 in an eventual 24-21 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, the Seahawks didn’t need this news.

10. Quick-Hits.
I’ve seen the reply of Ndamukong Suh’s groin-kick to Matt Schaub and I still can’t definitively say that it was intentional. But I do know this: he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt given his history…Ray Rice’s 4th-and-29 catch-and-run was the play of the year. The effort that both he and Anquan Boldin (who laid out Eric Weddle on a vicious block to allow Rice to gain the last six yards) gave was incredible…After yesterday, can anyone dispute that Jay Cutler isn’t the difference maker in Chicago? Behind the same brutal offensive line that nearly decapitated Jason Campbell on Monday night, Cutler completed 23-of-31 and only threw two incompletions in 17 attempts before halftime. The Bears’ Super Bowl hopes firmly rest on Cutler’s shoulders…Thanks to Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne (who racked up another eight catches for 102 yards in a win over Buffalo on Sunday), the Colts will be fun to watch in the playoffs…One of the most underrated performances in Week 12 came in Miami, compliments of rookie Ryan Tannehill. His numbers (18-of-26, 253 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) don’t tell the whole story. He orchestrated two 80-yard touchdown drives and then with the game hanging in the balance, put together a 65-yard drive that led to Dan Carpenter’s 43-yard game-winning field goal. For the moment, it would appear as though Miami finally has its quarterback…I said it last week and I’ll say it again: The Bengals are far from dead. They’ve now won their last three games by a combined score of 93-29 and their defense hasn’t allowed more than 13 points over that span. The real test won’t come until Weeks 16 and 17 when they travel to Pittsburgh and host Baltimore, but Cincinnati has put itself in position to challenge for a postseason spot for the second year in a row…The Steelers can kiss the AFC North crown goodbye and unless Ben Roethlisberger has the ability to heel himself at a rapid pace, then this team isn’t making the playoffs either. That was an ugly, ugly performance from Charlie Batch yesterday in Cleveland…The gap in the NFC South is miniscule. Give the Falcons credit for shutting down Doug Martin and the Tampa Bay running game, but the Bucs went toe-to-toe with their division rivals on Sunday and nearly won. Once the Bucs address their porous secondary, that division is going to be a three-headed monster with Tampa, Atlanta and New Orleans battling for supremacy every year.

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 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 8 in the NFL

1. This is a different Falcons team – a more dangerous one.
Even after their impressive 30-17 victory over the Eagles on Sunday, it’s fair to question whether or not the Falcons will roll through the rest of the regular season just to once again fall flat in the playoffs. They’re 0-4 in the postseason under Mike Smith and we’ve seen Atlanta clinch in the top seed in the NFC before, only to get steamrolled by a more complete team (i.e. the Packers in 2010). But this is a different Falcons team – a better one, in fact. Dirk Koetter is a significant upgrade over former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey when it comes to creativity, play design, and philosophy. Koetter actually installs a route tree that allows his receivers to run vertically. He’s creative in the red zone, as he proved on Sunday when he used deception to free up unknowns Drew Davis and Jason Snelling for touchdowns. Matt Ryan has thrived under Koetter, who understands how to best utilize talent like Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Defensively, the Falcons are more aggressive and more versatile now that Mike Nolan is calling the shots, as opposed to Mike Smith and former coordinator Brian Van Gorder. For the first time since Smith took over five years ago, the Falcon defense is forcing opposing offenses to adjust to them instead of the other way around. Granted, their running game and run defense still leave a lot to be desired so this Atlanta team isn’t perfect. But to assume the Falcons are set up to go one-and-done again in the playoffs would be a mistake. They’re simply a more dangerous team now than at any point in the past five years.

2. With his scapegoat gone, Reid now must point the finger at himself.
With an impatient and agitated fan base demanding change following the team’s 3-3 start, Andy Reid fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo last week. But Castillo was made to be the scapegoat for a much bigger problem in Philadelphia. That was evident again on Sunday when, under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Eagles surrendered 30 points and 392 yards, produced zero turnovers and didn’t force a punt until seven minutes and 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of an ugly 30-17 loss to the Falcons. Neither Castillo nor Bowles can cover Drew Davis or Julio Jones. They can’t tackle Jacquizz Rodgers or force Matt Ryan to turn the ball over. They also can’t light a fire under Michael Vick or inspire a talented yet underachieving roster that has shown zero signs of cohesion or chemistry the past two years. The problem in Philadelphia wasn’t the defensive coordinator and everyone knew it. But Reid was forced to make a change and Castillo was an easy target. It wouldn’t be surprising if Reid made another change this week, inserting rookie Nick Foles into the starting lineup and benching Vick. But it isn’t Vick’s fault that Reid put together a conservative game plan when he had two weeks to prepare for the Falcons. At a time when his coaching seat has never been hotter, Reid decided that a dink-and-dunk philosophy was the best way to beat an Atlanta team that hasn’t scored fewer than 23 points in a game all season. So while Castillo was forced to fall on his sword last week and Vick may soon be asked to do the same, at what point does Andy Reid point the finger of blame at himself?

3. If Turner goes, Smith should follow in San Diego.
Following their brutal 7-6 loss in Cleveland on Sunday, the Chargers have now gone six quarters without scoring a touchdown. That stat doesn’t exactly bode well for Norv Turner, who calls all of San Diego’s plays. But if the front office decides to finally axe Turner, it better be prepared to hand GM A.J. Smith his walking papers as well. This is the same man who believed Robert Meachem was a capable replacement for Vincent Jackson, whom he decided not to pay when he had the opportunity. Outside of his two-touchdown game versus New Orleans earlier this season, Meachem has been a free agent bust in San Diego. He dropped a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter on Sunday versus the Browns and has caught just 12 passes for 189 yards this season. Meanwhile, Jackson’s 29 receptions have gone for 626 yards and five touchdowns for Tampa Bay, which was more than happy to pay a receiver with great hands, the ability to stretch defenses vertically, and that is willing to block in the running game. Let’s not forget that Smith’s drafts have also been poor for several years, which has contributed to the constant underachieving in San Diego. Thus, there shouldn’t be a scenario that exists where Turner looses his job but Smith is allowed to keep his. The Chargers are in full freefall and more than one man is to blame.

4. Stick a fork in the Saints.
It’s a dangerous proposition to write off a team that employs Drew Brees at quarterback and has the ability to score 30-plus points a game. But following their putrid effort on defense Sunday night in Denver, it’s probably safe to assume that the New Orleans Saints’ 2012 season is officially lost for good. Their struggles on defense reached new heights in the Broncos’ 34-14 win, as Denver racked up 530 yards of total offense and finished with nine plays of 23 yards or more. Patrick Robinson was torched for passes for 41 and 26 yards, while receiver Demaryius Thomas got free for a 34-yard gain against busted coverage for the Saints secondary. Offensively New Orleans wasn’t much better, as Brees and Co. converted just 1 of 12 attempts on third down. It was the team’s worst performance on third down since 2005 when they finished 0 for 11 versus the Dolphins. Getting back to the Saint defense, this team has no shortage of issues on that side of the ball. But if you want to start somewhere, start with the fact that the Saints can’t pressure the quarterback despite that being Steve Spagnuolo’s area of expertise. Granted, he doesn’t have the personnel to run the scheme he wants. Will Smith is aging, Sedrick Ellis has been a bust from an interior pass-rushing standpoint, and Cameron Jordan is only in his second year. But Spags can’t use the fact that he doesn’t have Justin Tuck or Osi Umenyoira up front as an excuse. The Saints are the worst defensive team in the league and unless Brees is ready to win every game 35-31, the Saints are toast.

5. Don’t sleep on the Steelers.
Looking for a slightly above-average team that could make a strong second-half run and punch a ticket to the playoffs? Look no further than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have discovered their roots the past two weeks. The Steelers haven’t been able to run the ball on a consistent basis since Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker left town some odd years ago. Pittsburgh has since become one-dimensional on offense and has left Ben Roethlisberger susceptible to beatings behind a shaky offensive line. But in their past two games, Pittsburgh has rushed for 167 and 140 yards, respectively. Jonathan Dwyer has given the Steelers’ a lift and their offense has been more balanced and stable because of it. Granted, Mike Tomlin’s team is still searching for consistency on that side of the ball. But if Pittsburgh’s defense plays as well the rest of the season as it did on Sunday in a 27-12 victory over Washington, the Steelers will once again challenge for a playoff berth. With Ray Lewis and LaDarius Webb out of the season and Joe Flacco proving that he isn’t ready to put the Ravens on his shoulders, the door is open for the Steelers to close the gap in the AFC North and eventually take over the division if Baltimore continues to scuffle.

6. The Cowboys came inches from turning their season around.
Considering they turned the ball over four times and fell behind the Giants 23-0 on their home turf, the Cowboys hardly deserved to win on Sunday. But they came within the pinky on Dez Bryant’s right hand from producing a remarkable comeback. Trailing 29-24 with less than a minute remaining in the game, Bryant leapt high to snag a 37-yard pass from Tony Romo that would have given Dallas a late lead. But when Bryant landed, his pinky finger came down on the white strip in the back of the end zone. It was a remarkable catch but it was a catch that didn’t count. Three plays later, the Giants were able to preserve the victory by that same 29-24 score. Credit Dallas for not giving up down 23-0 after a disastrous first-half performance. But the Cowboys remain a team that can’t get out of its own way and at 3-4 they and Philadelphia are now each three games back of New York in the NFC East. Things don’t get any easier for Dallas, which travels to Atlanta next Sunday night to play the undefeated Falcons. The Cowboys will then travel to Philadelphia before hosting the Browns, Redskins and Eagles in mid-November. It’s feasible that the Cowboys could still turn things around but they could realistically fall to 3-6, too. Had Bryant managed to get his entire body in bounds, Dallas could have made things interesting in the division. Instead, the Cowboys have come to yet another fork in the road under Jason Garrett.

7. Manning is starting to live up to expectations in Denver.
Peyton Manning has lost zip on his vertical passes. He’s 36 – this happens when quarterbacks get older. But following his 305-yard effort in Denver’s 34-14 victory over the Saints on Sunday night, Manning has now thrown for at least 300 yards in five consecutive games and has posted an incredible 14:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that same period. Following his ugly first-half performance versus the Falcons on Monday Night Football in Week 2 (a game in which he threw three interceptions in the first quarter alone), Manning has been solid for a Bronco team that is clearly the best squad in the AFC West. If Denver can run the ball like it did versus New Orleans, Manning will continue to be surgical in the passing game. And hey, if the Broncos’ defense plays the rest of the season like it did Sunday night, Denver could make some noise down the road.

8. Rams prove they still have a long ways to go.
Rams fans were encouraged by the teams 3-2 start, as they should have been. But following three straight losses, which included an ugly 45-7 defeat at the hands of the Patriots on Sunday, it’s apparent that the Rams still have a long ways to go. For the second straight week, an elite quarterback had his way against the Rams defense. Neither Chris Long nor Robert Quinn pressured Tom Brady, who threw four touchdowns and constantly found Rob Gronkowski open in the middle of the field. What exactly was the Rams’ game plan defensively? They had to have known that with Aaron Hernandez out Gronkowski was going to be the focal point of the Patriot offense. Yet there he was, constantly running free in St. Louis’ defensive backfield. It was a brutal effort by a Rams’ defense that didn’t produce a sack, didn’t force any turnovers, and couldn’t stop the run. St. Louis’ defense was so lost that it’s amazing they found their locker room at the end of the game. Jeff Fisher is a good head coach and regardless of the final score of Sunday’s game, this Rams team is heading in the right direction. But after what Brady and the Pats did to them in London, you realize just how large the gap really is between St. Louis and the contenders.

9. The best in the NFC North have nothing to worry about.
It was rather jarring that the 15.5-point underdog Jaguars took the Packers to the brink Sunday in Green Bay. And that the Bears needed a last-second field goal just to beat the 1-5 Panthers. But neither Green Bay nor Chicago has nothing to worry about. The Packers were coming off three-straight road games and were hosting a Jacksonville team that lost Maurice Jones-Drew to injury last week. Chicago had a short week of rest and preparation after an emotional victory over division-rival Detroit. These were letdown games for the Packers and Bears and while coaches don’t want to admit that their players suffer emotional highs and lows, it does happen in the NFL. The key is that both teams won while the Vikings suffered their second loss of the season on Thursday. By the end of the year, Chicago and Green Bay will battle down the stretch for the NFC North crown. Some Sundays will just be prettier than others.

10. Injury roundup – some contenders could lose key pieces.
All in all the Falcons had a successful trip to Philadelphia on Sunday. But late in the fourth quarter linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered an ankle injury and was carted off the field. He’ll undergo an MRI on Monday to discover the extent of the injury and if it’s serious, Atlanta will lose a key piece of its defense. Weatherspoon is the epitome of a sideline-to-sideline player and he has such an active role in the Falcons’ defensive game plans. Hopefully his ankle sprain isn’t of the “high” variety and he won’t miss any time…The Chiefs might have to go back to Matt Cassel full-time at quarterback. That’s because Brady Quinn was knocked out of the Chiefs’ 26-16 loss to the Raiders in the first quarter with a head injury. Of course, Quinn had already put Kansas City in position to fail by turning the ball over twice. Chiefs fans may not enjoy watching Cassel play but Quinn once again proved that he’s not a starting NFL quarterback…Ryan Tannehill left the first quarter of the Dolphins’ 30-9 victory over the Jets with a hyperextended knee. Matt Moore didn’t miss a beat, guiding the Dolphins to their fourth victory of the season while throwing for 131 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-19 passing…One week after losing Sean Lee for the season, Cowboys’ linebacker Dan Connor left the team’s 29-24 loss to the Giants because of a neck strain. He might not play versus the Falcons on Sunday night…Eagles’ receiver DeSean Jackson suffered an ankle injury versus Atlanta but was able to return…Lions’ safety Louis Delmas left the team’s 28-24 win over the Seahawks with an injured knee and didn’t return. Delmas is a good young player but he can never stay healthy.

2012 NFL Season & Super Bowl Predictions

Will the Patriots roll through an easy schedule on their way to yet another Super Bowl appearance?

Does Peyton Manning’s presence make the Broncos the team to beat in the AFC West or will another team unseat Denver in the division?

Can the Eagles unseat the Giants in a tough NFC East? Will the Falcons take advantage of the Saints’ tumultuous offseason and finally get over the playoff hump?

The start of the 2012 NFL regular season is just days away, which means it’s time to hand out our predictions for the new year. Below you’ll find division-by-division picks, as well as playoff and of course Super Bowl projections as well.

Dear God, football is back.

AFC EAST
1. New England Patriots
2. Buffalo Bills
3. New York Jets
4. Miami Dolphins

The Patriots won’t suffer a letdown after reaching the Super Bowl back in February. Their offense remains steady thanks to Tom Brady and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and their defense keeps improving under Bill Belichick’s guidance. The addition of Defensive ROY candidate Chandler Jones will help the Pats pressure the quarterback, which was one of their weaknesses the last year. Considering they have the easiest schedule of all 32 NFL teams based on the opponents’ records in 2011, the Patriots shouldn’t have any issues winning the AFC East again this season…The Bills upgraded their defense with the additions of free agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, as well as the selection of first-rounder Stephon Gilmore. They also have a solid offensive core in Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson, plus an improving offensive line. But Buffalo will only go as far as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick takes them and unfortunately for the Bills, he’s often exposed by top defenses. While some are predicting Buffalo to reach the postseason, come the end of the year I have the Bills on the outside looking in…The offseason “battle” between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow has taken the onus off the real problem in New York: The offensive line. The two years the Jets made the playoffs with Sanchez under center their defense and running game were outstanding. The defense is still one of the league’s best but they’re going to have to pitch shutouts because as the preseason showed us, the Jets are going to have a difficult time finding the end zone behind their O-line. “Gang Green” will be fortunate to finish .500 this season…The Dolphins have a new head coach, new coordinators, and a new quarterback but they’ll struggle to win games in 2011. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton have proven that rookie quarterbacks can have a great deal of success their fist years in the league, but Ryan Tannehill isn’t surrounded by great talent. This isn’t the worst team in the league but the Fins will likely top out at six wins again.

AFC NORTH
1. Baltimore Ravens
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Cincinnati Bengals
4. Cleveland Browns

The offensive lines in Baltimore and Pittsburgh are both question marks entering the season but I see the Ravens’ O-line gelling throughout the season. I can’t say the same about the Steelers’ front five, which lost rookie guard David DeCastro in preseason. Joe Flacco and Cam Cameron butted heads last year because Flacco often felt that the offense was too tepid. But Flacco has been energized by Cameron’s decision to incorporate more no-huddle elements into the offense. And with the re-signing of Ray Rice and the development of budding star Torrey Smith, the Ravens’ offense is finally ready to carry this team. Granted, the defense is getting long in the tooth and the loss of Terrell Suggs is significant. But the secondary is solid and the Baltimore defense always finds a way to be productive…The Steelers will once again challenge the Ravens for first place in the division. That’s just what they do. But Ben Roethlisberger can’t keep running for his life behind a shaky offensive line. Pittsburgh thought it had upgraded the unit over the offseason but as previously mentioned, DeCastro will miss significant time due to a knee injury and second-round pick Mike Adams proved in preseason that he wasn’t ready to take over the starting right tackle spot. Pittsburgh’s defense is also aging and if younger players like Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward and Keenan Lewis don’t step up, we could see Dick LeBeau’s squad start to unravel. The Steelers are still a playoff contender but for how much longer?…The Bengals were no fluke in 2011. Andy Dalton may take a step back in his second year like most quarterbacks do, but it would be a mistake to question whether or not he can win in this league. That said, Cincinnati doesn’t have much behind star A.J. Green in its receiving corps and the depth along the defensive line and in the secondary is also thin. This team was 0-4 against the likes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore last season and if they can’t win games in the division I don’t see them making a repeat trip to the postseason…The Browns are once again starting over with rookies Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, who will struggle after facing soft defenses in the Big 12. While Greg Little and Josh Gordon certainly have potential, Weeden also doesn’t have a true No. 1 receiving target and outside of Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, questions remain along the offensive line. Defensively, injuries continue to take their toll along the front four and while Joe Haden is a stud in the making, the secondary is littered with holes as well. In a tough division, Cleveland will have a hard time competing.

AFC SOUTH
1. Houston Texans
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Indianapolis Colts

The Texans are the class of the division and they might have the most talent of any team in the AFC, which includes the Patriots. The loss of Mario Williams won’t hurt as much as some think because he simply wasn’t a fit for Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense. Thanks to Arian Foster, Ben Tate and a very good run-blocking offensive line, the Texans will control the clock and win tight games because of their stingy defense. The biggest question is whether or not Matt Schaub can put this team on his shoulders for 16-plus games and, if guys like Andre Johnson can stay healthy…The Titans are my Cincinnati Bengals of 2012. A darkhorse if you will. Jake Locker must become a more accurate and consistent passer but he’s going to produce plenty of big plays thanks to his arm strength and OC Chris Palmer’s decision to install Run ‘N Shoot elements into his offense. Locker also has a couple of nice weapons in Kenny Britt (if he can stay healthy and out of trouble), Kendall Wright and Chris Johnson, who should have a bounce back year. Granted, the offensive line wasn’t very good from a run-blocking standpoint last year and the defense doesn’t do one thing particularly well but I like the Titans to surprise and qualify for one of the Wild Card spots…The Jaguars received huge sigh of relief when Maurice Jones-Drew finally reported to team head quarters. But holdout running backs have a tendency to struggle (look at Chris Johnson last year) when they miss all of training camp and preseason, and Blaine Gabbert will still suffer through plenty of ups and downs. That said, this team will be more competitive than it was a year ago. Gabbert has made marked improvements as a passer and the addition of Justin Blackmon gives this team a much needed playmaker at receiver…The Colts will be better than they were a year ago because of rookie QB Andrew Luck, who looks like the real deal. But there’s not much around him. It’ll be a year or two before Chuck Pagano can get the right pieces in place to run his 3-4 defense and the Colts simply don’t have enough weapons on offense to be competitive.

AFC WEST
1. Denver Broncos
2. San Diego Chargers
3. Kansas City Chiefs
4. Oakland Raiders

The Broncos have a brutal first-half schedule but if Tim Tebow can win a playoff game in Denver than logic dictates that Peyton Manning can do the same. As long as Manning stays healthy and the defense doesn’t take a step back, the Broncos should win this division…That said, the Chargers might have the best starters of the four teams in the West, and if they can finally start out of the gates hot they could very well win the division. Robert Meachem isn’t Vincent Jackson but he deserves a chance to prove that he can be a No. 1 guy and when healthy, Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews give Philip Rivers a couple of nice weapons. That said, the left tackle position is a concern and the defense underachieved last year. The top spot is up for grabs in this division but in the end I see the Broncos losing one less game than the Bolts…The Chiefs might have the most overall talent and the deepest depth of any team in the division. The problem is that Matt Cassel is their quarterback and while some are predicting that Kansas City will win the West, I just can’t put my faith behind Cassel. That said, thanks to Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, Jon Baldwin and Romeo Crennel’s defense, the Chiefs will keep things interesting…The Raiders narrowly missed the playoffs a year ago but they’re going to pay for past mistakes, specifically Hue Jackson’s decision to trade a first round pick for Carson Palmer last season. Palmer looked shaky in preseason and the offense won’t be as explosive under Gregg Knapp as it was last year under Jackson. If Darren McFadden can stay healthy Oakland will be competitive and the defense does look like it’s improved. But there’s no question that Palmer is on the down slope of his career and it’s not unrealistic to suggest he’s finished as a productive quarterback.

NFC EAST
1. New York Giants
2. Philadelphia Eagles
3. Dallas Cowboys
4. Washington Redskins

Once again this is the most difficult division to predict in the NFL. The Eagles arguably have the most talent in the division but I don’t trust that Michael Vick will stay healthy and even though the defense was very good in the second half last year, Juan Castillo has a tendency to be exposed against good playcallers…The Cowboys seemingly fixed their problems in the secondary and thanks to a number of weapons on offense, they’ll rack up plenty of yardage again this season. But can the skill players stay healthy? Will this offense once again struggle to score points despite moving the ball at will? Is the secondary really fixed or will it remain a problem? Somehow, someway the Cowboys usually find a way to get in their own way…Which brings us to the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. I don’t know how Eli Manning survived behind that offensive line last year and if the pass rusher falters at all, the back seven isn’t good enough to keep the defense afloat. But my general rule when it comes to the Giants is that if nobody is paying attention to them, bet the house that they’ll win. They thrive in the underdog role and they’ve played second-fiddle to the Eagles, Cowboys and even in-state rival the Jets all offseason. Thus, despite Dallas and Philadelphia having better talent, I like New York to once again qualify for the postseason…The Redskins are going to be fun to watch this year thanks to Robert Griffin III. They’ll also be able to run the ball because of Mike Shanahan and they have more weapons on offense than they did a year ago thanks to the additions of RGIII and Pierre Garcon. But the secondary is an issue and questions remain about whether or not this team can keep Griffin upright. The Skins also play in an ultra-competitive division so while they’ll be competitive, they’ll likely fall well short of the playoffs.

NFC NORTH
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Chicago Bears
3. Detroit Lions
4. Minnesota Vikings

The Packers have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL thanks to Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, and the addition of Cedric Benson will pay dividends as well. There’s no way the defense will rank 32nd again so the Pack are poised to make another postseason run…There are two massive question marks surrounding the Bears. One is the offensive line, which continues to be inconsistent and the second is the defense, which is aging quickly. Will Father Time catch up with Chicago’s defense this season or will it hold off another year? That said, if Jay Cutler and Matt Forte don’t get hurt last year then the Bears make the playoffs as the fifth seed in the NFC. Plus, keep in mind that Chicago is just two years removed from winning the division and the additions of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery finally give opposing defensive backs something to be concerned with on Sundays. I like the Bears to win one of the two Wild Card spots…I think the Lions will regress this season. The passing game will be dangerous but can Matthew Stafford once again stay healthy for a full 16 games? Can this team win behind a shaky offensive line and no running game? On the other side the ball the defense doesn’t play with discipline, Louis Delmas’ health remains a concern and rookie Bill Bentley will line up opposite Chris Houston at cornerback. The Lions’ defense was brutal down the stretch last season and while Calvin Johnson will once again be fun to watch, a .500 season seems more realistic than a repeat playoff appearance…The Vikings will continue to grow behind Christian Ponder but Adrian Peterson’s health is obviously a concern, they don’t have a weapon opposite Percy Harvin in the passing game and the defensive secondary isn’t very reliable. In a stacked division Minnesota will once again have a difficult time competing.

NFC SOUTH
1. New Orleans Saints
2. Atlanta Falcons
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Saints had a tumultuous offseason, losing head coach Sean Payton and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma to the bounty scandal suspensions, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who was also suspended) to the Rams, and Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem to free agency. But Drew Brees had a huge hand in Payton’s offensive game plans the past four years so he’ll keep New Orleans afloat. Plus, the loss of Vilma was negated with the addition of Curtis Lofton, who is a much better run-stopper than Vilma, Meachem is merely a No. 3 receiver and the team did well to replace Nicks with Ben Grubbs. New DC Steve Spagnuolo (who is an upgrade over Williams) will have to get creative when it comes to his pass rush but this team will be fine…There’s a ton of optimism surrounding the Falcons this season because of the decisions they made this offseason. Mike Mularkey was a solid offensive coordinator but Matt Ryan had outgrown his conservative, run-first approach. In steps in new OC Dirk Koetter, who has installed an up-tempo offense that suits Ryan. Julio Jones looks like he’s ready for a monstrous second year and he should only make Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas better around him. Defensively the Falcons hired Mike Nolan to replace Brian Van Gorder, who wasn’t a bad coordinator but his philosophy under head coach Mike Smith was to stop the run and play bend-but-don’t-break schemes in the back seven. That won’t work against the likes of the Saints, Packers and Giants, so Nolan has installed a scheme that will focus on stopping the pass. The Falcons also traded for Asante Samuel, who will join forces with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson to form an exciting cornerback trio. If young players like Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore have breakout years, the Atlanta defense will be much improved…Cam Newton will keep the Panthers in most games. He has loads of playmaking ability and plenty of weapons around him in Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Greg Olson. But the defense only has one true pass rusher (Charles Johnson), the linebacker corps is always suffering from injuries and the safety position is a major question mark. Simply put, the defense will keep Carolina from earning playoff berth but watch the Panthers stay in contention all season…Thanks to new coach Greg Schiano the Bucs will be tougher and more focused in 2012. The front office also did well to bring in Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson in free agency, which will certainly appease QB Josh Freeman (who is poised to have a bounce back year). Rookie first-rounder Mark Barron might also wind up being the steal of the 2012 draft in that he’s NFL ready having played for Nick Saban at Alabama. Fellow rookie Doug Martin looks like he’s ready to explode in his first year as well. That said, the front seven remains a huge question mark on defense and this team doesn’t have the ability to blow teams out. Under Schiano the Bucs will attempt to win the time of possession battle by keeping the ball on the ground and trying to win games in the fourth quarter. This is an up-and-coming team but it’ll be a year before Tampa is challenging for a playoff spot again.

NFC WEST
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. St. Louis Rams
4. Arizona Cardinals

There aren’t a lot of believers in Alex Smith but the fact is he managed games well last season and stayed out of the way as the 49ers’ defense and running game produced wins. Thanks to the additions of Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and rookie A.J. Jenkins, Smith has plenty of weapons around him to succeed. (Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree obviously remain the highlights of the offense.) Thanks to the best defense in the league and weak competition in the division, the Niners will challenge for the top seed in the NFC again this season…Some believe the Seahawks will struggle under rookie Russell Wilson but if the kid were four inches taller he would have been a top 10 selection. He’s smart and he has the skill set to succeed – it’s just too bad that outside of an unreliable Sidney Rice, he has nobody to throw the ball to. The defense is underrated so if Wilson can move the ball, look for the Hawks to hang around before eventually fading down the stretch…Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff are worth two or three wins alone in St. Louis. The Rams will be better than they were a year ago but plenty of questions remain. The offensive line isn’t very good, the middle of the defense will be exposed on a weekly basis because of poor safety play and the book is still out on Sam Bradford. He has yet to raise the level of his play when under pressure and his O-line won’t do him any favors this year. This is also the youngest team in the league and depth is a massive problem…The Cardinals have the least effective starting quarterback in the NFL thanks to John Skelton, who will play behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. Ray Horton’s defense is going to surprise people this year but it’s also going to be on the field a lot because of the struggles of the offense. Maybe Skelton has more magic up his sleeve and hey, he does have Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams at his disposal. But chances are it’s going to be a long year in ‘Zona.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

AFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Patriots
2. Texans
3. Ravens
4. Broncos
5. Steelers
6. Titans

NFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Packers
2. 49ers
3. Saints
4. Giants
5. Bears
6. Falcons

WILD CARD PREDICTIONS
Ravens over Titans
Steelers over Broncos
Falcons over Giants
Saints over Bears

DIVISIONAL PREDICTIONS
Patriots over Steelers
Ravens over Texans
Packers over Falcons
49ers over Saints

CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTIONS
Ravens over Patriots
Packers over 49ers

SUPER BOWL PREDICTION
Packers over Ravens

Giants’ WR Hakeem Nicks fractures bone in his foot

The New York Giants’ road to winning back-to-back championships just got a little rockier.

Multiple national reports state that Hakeem Nicks will be sidelined for approximately 12 weeks after he fractured his right foot on Thursday. Apparently the injury was of the non-contact variety as Nicks was running a route tree in practice. He will undergo surgery on Friday and will likely return at some point during training camp.

The good news is that Nicks should return before the regular season but how quickly he gets himself into game shape is the question. Second-round pick Ruben Randle will be the biggest benefactor of this injury, as the rookie will receive plenty of reps in the first-team offseason this summer. Sometimes whether a young player makes an impact right away is determined by the amount of opportunities he has in training camp and preseason.

A superior route runner over his career, Nicks has dealt with a variety of lower-body related injuries throughout his career. On top of this latest setback, he’s also dealt with toe, ankle and knee issues since entering the league in 2009. At least this time he broke a bone because at least the bone will heal and he’ll be fine once he gets back into shape. If it were a hamstring injury, that’s something that could effect him for the entire season.

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