Drew Brees and the Saints have issues

New Orleans Saints Drew Brees passes over the middle against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during third quarter of their NFL football game in New Orleans, Louisiana January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are three quick-hit observations on the Bucs’ shocking 23-13 win over the Saints.

1. The Saints have issues heading into the playoffs.
After knocking off the Falcons less than seven nights ago, everyone was talking about how nobody wants to face the Saints in the postseason. But after the crap-show they put on Sunday in New Orleans, why should any team be worried about New Orleans? Drew Brees threw an inception in his 12th-straight game. Thomas Julius Jones fumbled at the goal line, which cost the Saints six points. For the second consecutive game, Sean Payton couldn’t get his offense moving. What’s going on here? The Saints are dangerous, period. But because of injuries and inconsistent play, they haven’t be dominant all season and it makes you wonder if they have what it takes to make another run to the Super Bowl.

2. The Bucs prove they can hang with the big boys.
Entering this game, the Bucs didn’t have a win against a team with a winning record. That didn’t mean they weren’t good or that they were lucky to still be in the playoff picture, but they lacked a signature win. Not anymore. For the second year in a row, Tampa went into New Orleans and beat the Saints. That’s remarkable considering the Saints won the Super Bowl last year. Raheem Morris has his young team believing that it can beat anyone and it proved on Sunday that it can. Josh Freeman continues to be special. Mike Williams is a great young playmaker. The defense is starting to take shape under Morris’ guidance. Regardless of whether or not they earn a trip to the postseason, things are starting to take shape in Tampa.

3. Why didn’t Payton remove his starters earlier?
I love Payton’s desire to win but he has to be smarter. The Falcons were obviously in control against Carolina up 31-3 midway through the third quarter and with nothing on the line in terms of playoff seeding for the Saints, Payton should have pulled his starters earlier. Malcolm Jenkins, Jimmy Graham, Chris Ivory and Alex Brown were all hurt in the first half. Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas, Jeremy Shockey and Anthony Hargrove were all inactive before the game. The Saints should beat whichever NFC West team wins on Sunday night in the first round of the playoffs next weekend, but they can’t be shorthanded for the Divisional Round. Payton is fortunate that Brees or another starter wasn’t hurt after he exposed his starters to injury longer than he had to.

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Falcons earn a much-needed week off

Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (R) makes a catch in front of Carolina Panthers linebacker Jon Beason in the first half of their NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Atlanta, Georgia January 2, 2011. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are three quick-hit observations from the Falcons’ huge 31-10 win over the Panthers on Sunday.

1. The Falcons desperately need a week off.
For much of the season, the Falcons have been a team that has largely done the small things right. They don’t turn the ball over, they don’t get penalized and they don’t beat themselves. But in the past two weeks, they’ve had trouble getting out of their own way. They blew several opportunities to beat the Saints on Monday night and even in their 31-10 win over the Panthers on Sunday, they missed opportunities that would have cost them against a better opponent. The offense failed to convert on two fourth down plays in Carolina territory and Michael Turner once again fumbled inside the 10-yard line. That’s twice in the past two weeks he’s put the ball on the ground when the Falcons were closing in on points. Does this mean Atlanta is primed for a fall in the playoffs? No, but the week off should do this team a world of good. It will allow the players and coaching staff to relax, re-focus and re-energize. The regular season is a grind and the Falcons did it: they earned the top seed in the NFC. But now isn’t the time for any team to lose its edge.

2. Weems is emerging as a weapon.
Eric Weems isn’t a household name but he will be soon if he continues to be a playmaker. A couple of weeks ago he returned a 102 yard kickoff return against the Bucs for a touchdown to spark a fourth quarter comeback. On Sunday, he took a 55-yard punt to the house to give the Falcons a 14-0 lead after Turner had fumbled inside the 10-yard line. Thanks to Turner, Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, this team has a ton of playmakers on offense. But having that added weapon in the return game is huge, just as Devin Hester and DeSean Jackson have proved with the Bears and Eagles, respectively. Weems isn’t quite on Hester or Jackson’s level, but he’s been great for Atlanta this season.

3. The Panthers have a long row to hoe.
What a disaster this Carolina team is. John Fox smiled more on Sunday than he has all season and why shouldn’t he be happy? The Panthers are a mess and a massive project for the next head coach. They need to draft a quarterback but if Andrew Luck doesn’t come out, then there’s not a prospect worth taking at the No. 1 spot. So what does Carolina do? Take the best player available and hope that Jimmy Clausen develops by leaps and bounds over the summer? The Panthers also don’t have a pick in the second round next April, which is rather unfortunate considering how devoid of talent the roster is. I know the Rams turned things around quickly, but they also have an up and coming quarterback and a competent head coach. Carolina has neither of those.

Saints’ defense comes alive, shuts down Falcons

Here are five quick-hit thoughts on the Saints’ 17-14 win over the Falcons on Monday Night Football.

1. Gregg Williams’ defense steps up big-time.
On a night when the offense largely sputtered, Williams’ defense stepped up and won a game for the Saints. Outside of one 27-yard run by Michael Turner in the first half, the run defense was outstanding. This was a unit that has largely been gashed on the ground, which includes giving up over 100 yards last week to Ray Rice. Jonathan Vilma and Co. didn’t do anything special Monday night to shut down a potent Falcons’ rushing attack. They simply filled gaps, won in the trenches and got pressure up field. They dared the Falcons to beat them with the pass and while Matt Ryan was able to hit a few plays to Michael Jenkins throughout the game, this contest was largely won on the strength of New Orleans’ run defense (something that has often cost the Saints games this season).

2. The Falcons offense owes its defense an apology.
The reason I mentioned the Saints’ defensive effort first was because I didn’t want to take anything away from their effort. And I still don’t. That said, what a putrid effort by Mike Mularkey’s offense. They got zero push up front in the running game, center Todd McClure cost his team seven points with one of the worst snaps you’ll ever see and Turner put the ball on the ground at the goal line when the Falcons had seized momentum. And this came on a night when Atlanta’s defense held one of the most explosive offenses in the league to just 17 points. The effort that Jonathan Babineaux and John Abraham gave up front along the defensive line was outstanding. Yes, they missed Drew Brees on a handful of plays but they largely dominated the Saints’ offense with their aggressive play. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder deserves high praise for putting together a game plan that should have won the Falcons the game. How frustrating.

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Updated NFL playoff scenarios

There are two games remaining on the Week 16 schedule (Saints vs. Falcons on Monday and Vikings vs. Eagles on Tuesday), but we know what teams have to do to clinch playoff berths, divisions, sixth seeds and everything else that’s clinchable. (Clinchable?)

Here’s a breakdown for each of the two conferences.

AFC

Steelers
Pittsburgh can clinch the AFC North and a first-round bye with a win or tie and Baltimore loss or tie. They also accomplish the same feat with a Baltimore loss this Sunday.

Ravens
Baltimore clinches the AFC North and a first-round bye with a win and a Pittsburgh loss or tie. They can also clinch with a tie and a Pittsburgh loss.

Colts
Indy can clinch the AFC South with a win or tie against the Titans, or a Jaguars’ loss or tie.

Jaguars
Jacksonville clinches the AFC South with a win and an Indianapolis loss to Tennessee at home.

NFC

Eagles
Philadelphia has clinched the NFC East and still ha sa chance to earn a first-round bye and homefield advantage next week depending on what happens Monday night in the Falcons-Saints game, as well as the Bears-Packers matchup on Sunday. As of right now, there are too many scenarios to list, so I’ll have another update next Monday.

Bears
Chicago clinched the NFC North and much like the Eagles, can earn a first-round bye and homefield advantage next week.

Falcons
If Atlanta beats the Saints on Monday night, it’ll win the NFC South and clinch the top seed in the playoffs. If the Falcons lose to the Saints but beat the Panthers on Sunday, they’ll accomplish the same feat.

Saints
The Saints can clinch a playoff spot with a win or tie against the Falcons on Monday and still has a chance to win the NFC South, a first-round bye and homefield advantage next week.

Packers
Green Bay just has to beat the Bears on Sunday and it’ll earn a playoff spot. They can also clinch a playoff berth with a tie and a Giants’ loss or tie to the Redskins, as well as a Bucs loss or tie to the Saints on Sunday. If all three teams lose this Sunday, the Packers would get it.

Giants
New York can clinch a playoff spot with a win over the Redskins and a Packers’ loss or tie to the Bears. They can also clinch with a win and two New Orleans losses, or with a tie against the Redskins and a loss by both the Packers and Bucs.

Bucs
Tampa Bay can clinch a playoff spot with a win and a Saints’ loss to the Falcons, as well as a Giants’ loss or tie to the Redskins. They can also clinch with a win, a Saints loss to the Falcons and a Packers loss to the Bears. Or…a win and a Giants’ loss or tie, plus a Packers’ loss or tie. Or…with a tie, and losses by the Giants and Packers. Or…wait, no – that was it.

Rams & Seahawks
Which ever team wins this Sunday in Seattle will win the NFC West (also known as the greatest division known to man).

Sorry, if your team is not mentioned above, they have been eliminated. You may begin crying………………now.

Giants implode as Packers roll to convincing win

Here are five quick-hit observations from the Packers’ convincing 45-17 win over the Giants on Sunday.

1. If they make the playoffs, the Packers will be a tough out.
Green Bay still needs to beat the Bears next Sunday at Lambeau Field to make the playoffs, but if they do they’re going to be one of the tougher sixth seeds to have ever made the postseason. Pundits often remark how they can’t run the ball, but they won’t need to run the ball if Aaron Rodgers continues to play at a MVP level. I don’t want to downplay the need of a good rushing attack but Rodgers found Jordy Nelson on an 80-yard touchdown on their first possession on Sunday and the Packers were able to turn the game into a track meet. Then they kept throwing late in the second half even though they were up two touchdowns. With the weapons they have in the passing game, they can be aggressive – that can be their game. Granted, the opposing team won’t always turn the ball over six times but the Packers will be a dangerous matchup for any team in the postseason. People seem to forget how good this team is.

2. Turnovers once again kill the Giants.
It’s pretty simple: Turn the ball over six times against any team, regardless of whether or not they’re a quality opponent, and you’re going to lose. Turn the ball over six times against a good team and you’re going to get your face pounded in. Not all of the Giants’ turnovers mattered because one or two came in garbage time when the Packers already had the win wrapped up. But the majority of them hurt. When teams don’t iron out their issues throughout the season, they can come back to haunt them. The Giants started coughing the ball up in Week 1 and have never stopped.

3. The Giants weren’t over last week’s collapse.
The players said they were over their loss to the Eagles and maybe they thought they were. But it sure looked like the Giants needed a quarter to focus after what happened to them last Sunday. They spotted Green Bay a 14-0 lead in the first quarter when Jordy Nelson caught an 80-yard touchdown on the Packers’ first offensive possession when he got by Antrel Rolle at the line of scrimmage. Then Rodgers hit James Jones for a three-yard touchdown with 1:53 remaining in the quarter and all of a sudden it looked as if the rout was on. Credit Tom Coughlin’s squad for snapping out of their funk to tie the game at 14-14, but the Packers just kept coming. Once they took a two-touchdown lead late in the second half, you got the feeling New York was done. Last week was just too much for the G-Men to overcome.

4. Tom Brady, Michael Vick…Aaron Rodgers.
All week it seems as though the sports radio talk shows have discussed who should win the MVP this year: Tom Brady or Michael Vick. But even though the Packers have yet to clinch a playoff spot, Rodgers should at least be in the discussion – even if his name is only briefly mentioned. This was Rodgers’ 10th career game with at least three touchdown passes and no interceptions, which is the most in NFL history for quarterbacks within three years of their first start. Nothing against Matt Flynn (he played well last Sunday night in New England), but take Rodgers off this team and they don’t even sniff a winning record. He has no running game, he lost his tight end in the first half of the season and his offensive line can be very inconsistent. Yet, he continues to put up outstanding numbers. He’s unreal.

5. What now?
The Packers will host the Bears next Sunday in Green Bay and as previously mentioned, if they win they’ll clinch a playoff spot. The Eagles clinched the NFC East with the Giants’ loss and now they’ll fight for playoff seeding. The Giants will wrap up their season next week against the Redskins and they must win. If they win and Green Bay loses to Chicago, then New York is in. The G-Men better not overlook Washington, which has suddenly become pesky.

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