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Ten Observations from Week 14 in the NFL

1. The Redskins dodge two big bullets.
It’s ironic to think that back in April Mike Shanahan and the Redskins were blasted for drafting quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round instead of filling one of their many needs. Because just over five months later Cousins wound up saving a game for the Skins, if not their entire season. For Cousins to show so much poise and composure while leading the Redskins to a 31-28 come-from-behind victory over the Ravens was impressive. He was thrust into a situation where his decisions would directly affect whether or not his team would win or lose and he performed like a 10-year veteran as opposed to a fourth-round rookie. Instead of allowing the moment to overwhelm him, he displayed fortitude while finding Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with under a minute remaining in the game. Not only that, but he also ran for a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 28 and send it into overtime, where Washington eventually won. Afterwards it was revealed that an MRI on RGIII’s right knee came back clear and it appears as though the 7-6 Redskins will have their starting quarterback for the stretch run. Of course, if RGIII can’t go, Washington is fortunate to have a backup like Cousins. That’s something nobody expected anyone would say back in April.

2. The Bears may be on the verge of their second straight collapse.
The Bears would have made the playoffs last season had Matt Forte and Jay Cutler not been injured. That’s more of a presumption than a fact, but the bottom line is that they were undone by injuries and they might be suffering from déjà vu. With Brian Urlacher inactive, Chicago’s defense was no match for Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 31 yards on 154 carries and two touchdowns in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory. Worse yet, Cutler was shaken up late in the fourth quarter and is now day-to-day with a neck injury. We’ve seen this scene already play out multiple times: the Bears won’t survive without Cutler, who continues to take abuse from his shoddy offensive line. Fortunately for Chicago it plays Arizona in two weeks and wraps up the season against a Detroit team with nothing to play for. But the NFC North could be up for grabs next week and if Cutler can’t play, the Bears could suffer the same fate they did a season ago.

3. It took nearly three months but Cam Newton is finally putting on a show.
Turnovers and an inability to close out games doomed Cam Newton over the first three months of the season. That’s why instead of challenging for a postseason berth like some had thought they would, the Panthers stumbled to a 2-8 record. But Newton has been luminous over his past three games while playing like the star he was a season ago. He’s thrown for over 800 yards the past three weeks while posting a 7:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completing 62.2-percent of his passes. In Carolina’s impressive 30-20 victory over Atlanta on Sunday, Newton nearly played mistake-free football while completing 23-of-35 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also added 116 yards on nine rushes, including a 72-yard touchdown scamper on a read option in which he flashed his explosiveness and patience as a runner. He was even more impressive as a passer. It wasn’t just that he was accurate – he was accurate while throwing a handful of passes outside the numbers. He racked up 53 yards and a touchdown on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams in the fourth quarter, but the majority of his throws were lasers to receivers with defenders draped over them. He also benefited from an angry Steve Smith, who took 13 weeks of frustrations out on an overmatched Atlanta defense. Granted, it’s too little, too late for Newton and the Panthers. But Carolina has to feel much better about Newton’s performance over the past three weeks than it did earlier in the season when he sulked his way to six losses in his first seven games.

4. Reality is starting to set in for the Ravens.
The Ravens were a team of resiliency earlier this year but now they’re just a team trying to hold it all together. Thanks to injuries, they’re lacking playmakers on the defensive side of the ball and while their offense has been the highlight of their season at times, they’re an inconsistent unit led by an inconsistent quarterback. They caught a massive break when both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also lost on Sunday, but Baltimore can’t feel too good about allowing Kirk Cousins to put together an unthinkable comeback in the Redskins’ 31-28 victory. It was a game in which the Ravens held an eight-point lead until Cousins found Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds remaining, and a long punt return by Richard Crawford set up Kai Forbath’s 34-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. One week after losing to a banged up Steelers team, the Ravens were beaten by a rookie quarterback and his rookie backup. At 9-4 they’re still in good shape to make the postseason and even win the division. But at a point when teams hope to be ascending, Baltimore is stumbling backwards with legitimate concerns on both sides of the ball.

5. Skepticism once again takes center stage in Atlanta.
Instead of wondering whether or not they can make a Super Bowl run, the Falcons have once again left everyone doubting whether they can even win a playoff game. Their 30-20 loss to the Panthers was much worse than the final score would indicate. Carolina dominated Atlanta in all three phases of the game, which is noteworthy considering the Panthers currently reside in the basement of the NFC South. The Falcons’ game plan on both sides of the ball was rudimentary and despite scoring 20 points, their offense looked bogged down outside of a handful of drives. Opponents are making a habit of bringing pressure and putting it right in Matt Ryan’s face and the Falcons can’t counter the onslaught because they can’t run the ball. They also can’t stop the run, which was apparent by the 195 rushing yards their defense gave up on Sunday. Granted, they were without Week 13 hero William Moore (hamstring) and starting corner Asante Samuel (shoulder), but they can’t use injuries as an excuse. The Panthers manhandled them for four quarters and even though they’re 11-2, the Falcons are left with more questions than answers at this critical junction in the season.

6. The Rams are finding it’s better to be lucky than good.
In their past two games, the Rams defense has held the rushing trio of Frank Gore, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to 109 yards on 39 carries (2.79 YPC). A team doesn’t do that by accident. It takes a great game plan and near-flawless execution in order to suffocate some of the best backs in the league. What the Rams have done defensively over the past two weeks is hold their opponent just long enough for their offense to muster the confidence to move the ball into scoring range. That said, in taking nothing away from the heroics of Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Janoris Jenkins and Michael Brockers, the Rams have discovered it’s better to be lucky than good. If Jim Harbaugh doesn’t arrogantly call a toss play with Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter last week, the Rams probably don’t have an opportunity to beat the 49ers. If Austin Pettis doesn’t make a spectacular catch on a pass that was thrown behind him on a crucial fourth down play on Sunday, the Rams don’t beat the Bills either. (Buffalo also dropped at least two potential interceptions on that same drive.) But just as the adage goes, winners make their own luck. The Rams defense deserved to win the past two weeks, as did the much-maligned Brandon Gibson, the often forgotten Pettis, and the polarizing Sam Bradford (who didn’t become gun shy despite nearly ending the Rams’ comeback hopes with an interception). When a team goes 29-83 in between its last playoff appearance and the hiring of yet another head coach, luck can ride shotgun as long as the wins keep piling up.

7. The Giants might be the best team in the NFC (again).
Throw out the records – the 49ers are better than the Falcons. If the two were to met on a neutral field next Sunday, San Francisco would pound Atlanta on the ground and the Falcons wouldn’t be able to stop Colin Kaepernick or the option (much like they didn’t stop Cam Newton Sunday in Carolina). But the Giants took it to the Niners in San Fran earlier this season and with how good they looked versus the Saints in their 52-27 victory, New York might just be the best team in the NFC despite being 8-5. Having said all that, the Falcons will probably beat the Giants next Sunday in Atlanta and force me to take back everything I just wrote. (The NFC is a maddening bitch this year, isn’t it?)

8. The Steelers offense is regressing.
There were a number of things that had to disturb Steelers coach Mike Tomlin following the Chargers’ 34-24 victory. San Diego’s 34 points were the most that Pittsburgh allowed at Heinz Field in two years and Sunday marked the first time the Chargers had ever won a regular season game in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger’s return also did nothing for a Steelers offense that appears to be regressing heading down the stretch. Roethlisberger looked rusty out of the gates while throwing low to intended targets and struggling with his accuracy throughout the first half. His offensive line didn’t do him any favors either, and losing Willie Colon to injury in the second quarter forced Pittsburgh to reshuffle its front five. The result was predictable for the Steelers, who did nothing against San Diego’s aggressive front seven (which also shut down Pittsburgh’s running game). On a day when the Ravens and Bengals both lost, the Steelers blew a golden opportunity to gain ground/separation in the AFC playoff race. Tomlin’s only hope is that the loss to San Diego was a result of a hangover stemming from the win over Baltimore last week. Because the alternative is that a struggling Chargers team just exposed his squad n both sides of the ball.

9. Good for Andy Reid.
It’s been so easy to get caught up in trying to figure out who Andy Reid’s replacement will be next season that you forget Reid still occupies the job. You forget that Reid is still pouring countless hours of preparation into a game that, for all intents and purposes, won’t matter if his team wins or loses. You forget that this man still has a job to do despite everyone around him asking when he’ll be handed his walking papers. Nick Foles ability to find Jeremy Maclin on a 1-yard touchdown pass with no time left on the clock to give Philadelphia a 23-21 win over Tampa Bay won’t save Reid’s job. His players seemingly quit on him weeks ago and management has probably already made up its mind that a change is in order. But for one Sunday it was touching to see Reid engage in a long embrace with one of his assistants following the Eagles’ 23-21 victory. For one Sunday, Reid can celebrate all of the hard work that he did leading up to kickoff. For one Sunday, Reid can embrace victory.

10. Quick-Hits.
Want to know how weird Sunday was? The Browns were the highlight of the AFC North…After putting together a complete win against the Steelers, Charger fans can understandably ask: Where the hell was that effort all season?…Give the Comeback Player of the Year Award to both Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. Seriously, just add an “s” to “Player” and call it a day. They’ve both been fantastic and the league will be slighting the player who doesn’t win so make everyone happen and have co-winners this season. Either that, or I want someone to look me in the eye and tell me one of those two players doesn’t deserve it…The Colts continue to defy logic. The past two weeks I watched that team play sloppy football for at least a half, only to still win in the end…It’ll be disappointing if Ken Whisenhunt winds up being the fall guy in Arizona, because GM Rod Graves is just as much at fault. If the Cardinals want to ensure that talented DC Ray Horton is given a shot to be a head coach, they could replace Horton with Whisenhunt for the final three games of the season. But it’s been Graves’ inability to find Whisenhunt a quarterback and built a component offensive line that has doomed the Cardinals. If Whisenhunt is ousted, it’s unfair that Graves is allowed to keep his job…Pete Carroll must have thought he was still trying to impress the BCS by running up the score versus the Cardinals. For the record, I have no problem with the Seahawks still throwing the ball up 83-0 on Arizona. The last time I checked, the Cardinals were still allowed to play with 11 defenders so if they didn’t like what the Seahawks were doing, they should have stopped them. That said, if Jim Harbaugh runs up the score against Seattle in two weeks, Carroll better not say a word…I hope Titus Young watched the effort that Kris Durham gave on Sunday night for the Lions and is embarrassed by his actions over the past few weeks…The ending of the 49ers’ victory over the Dolphins was exactly why Jim Harbaugh has decided to go with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. Just in case you were wondering…Defense isn’t the only issues the Saints have – that was a horrendous effort on special teams and for the second straight week, Drew Brees wasn’t very good either…The tragedies in Kansas City and Dallas the past two weeks have shown that the NFL and its 32 teams can only do so much when it comes to protecting its players. It’s ultimately up to these young men to make good decisions and the NFL can only hope that one of these times that the message will get through. Take a cab, reach out when you need it, and don’t be careless with your life or others.

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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Quick-Hit Reactions from Week 14 in the NFL

Every Sunday throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Joe Webb celebrates his touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles during the third quarter of their NFL football game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 28, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Holy facemask, Batman – why wasn’t a penalty called on linebacker DeAndre Levy when he grabbed Joe Webb’s facemask on that crazy final play in Detroit today? Granted, the game should have never come down to that play for the Lions, who were up 31-14 at one point. But how do you miss that if you’re the refs?

- Speaking of Webb – dude was fun to watch today. The Lions didn’t prepare for a running quarterback in practice this week so it’s not surprising that Webb was able to burn Detroit with his legs. But he nearly led Minnesota to the most improbable win of the day. I feel like I’m back in 2010 when Webb was starting for that perv Brett Favre.

- It’s hard to criticize the effort that Jake Locker put in today while replacing the injured Matt Hasselbeck (calf). For three and a half quarters Locker went toe-to-toe with Drew Brees and nearly willed the Titans to a huge come-from-behind victory. He flashed his athletic ability on a 6-yard touchdown run that gave the Titans a brief lead in the second half, and threw a couple beautiful passes in the fourth quarter to put his team into scoring range. That said, THROW THE BALL, KID! Anything but take a sack in that situation.

- Tim Tebow: Five fourth-quarter or overtime wins this season. That’s amazing. The guy won’t complete a pass for the first quarter and a half (although his receivers didn’t help him today), will look completely horrendous until the fourth quarter and then pull some miraculous victory out of his backside. He’s a mixture of luck, clutch play and pure disaster but Denver now owns the AFC West with three games remaining. Think about that for a second.

- What’s the big deal? So Tom Brady got yelled at. Stop the presses. He threw an ugly interception midway through the fourth quarter and it pissed off offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. Even Super Bowl MVPs deserve a tongue-lashing from time to time. Neither Brady nor O’Brien will let this dustup affect their relationship moving forward.

- Rob Gronkowski is essentially uncoverable one-one-one. Washington’s defensive backs were draped all over him on several of his catches and he/Brady still made plays. Gronk has some big-time mitts.

- I’m done doubting the Texans. That’s the grittiest team I’ve seen play in a long time. Without its top two quarterbacks, its top defensive player and its top offensive weapon, Houston just keeps plugging along. I keep waiting for the Texans to eventually come up short and it looked like they would today in Cincinnati. Then all of a sudden T.J. Yates is throwing a game-winning touchdown pass as time expires. Tim Tebow lovers may disagree but Houston is the best story of the season.

- That’s a blow that I don’t think the Bengals will be able to come back from. Wowzers. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

- If Shonn Greene continues to run as hard as he did today, the Jets will be dangerous again if/when they make the playoffs. New York’s entire success offensively revolves around its running game. It has to with Mark Sanchez at the helm.

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) calls out the play against the Carolina Panthers during their NFL football game in Charlotte, North Carolina December 12, 2010. REUTERS/Chris Keane (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Down 23-7 at halftime, the Falcons looked like a team that didn’t deserve to be a playoff team. They had zero urgency or energy, their offensive line looked like a complete mess and the defense couldn’t tackle a soul. Then they came out in the second half and played like the team people thought they would at the beginning of the season. Matt Ryan threw four touchdown passes, including two to Julio Jones (who had a case of the drops earlier in the game) and one beautiful rainbow to rookie Jacquizz Rodgers. It appears as though the Saints will win the NFC South but the Falcons are in great shape assuming they don’t crap the bed from here on out. They have a very winnable home game against the Jaguars this week before heading to New Orleans for a rematch with the Saints and hosting the Bucs in Week 17. There’s no reason Atlanta shouldn’t get to 10 wins and secure the fifth seed in the NFC (assuming the Saints keep winning, that is). Had the Falcons lost today in Carolina, they would have been on the outside looking in. Good thing they woke up.

- All that crap the Bears talked about this week regarding the Broncos’ style of play and they go out and cough up a potential victory. That soft Tampa 2 the Bears run on defense makes it awfully easy for even a guy like Tim Tebow to complete passes with the game on the line.

- Was today’s loss to the Cardinals the product of their division-clinching win last Sunday against the Rams, or are the Niners starting to show some cracks? I think a little bit of both. Clearly San Francisco was out of whack and it wasn’t surprising that the Niners came out flat after securing a playoff berth last weekend. But they’re susceptible to the deep pass defensively, which isn’t a good sign considering San Fran could eventually play Green Bay or New Orleans in the playoffs. Starting left tackle Joe Staley was also hurt, which is a huge problem considering Alex Boone is his replacement. Hopefully for San Fran’s sake, this loss will serve as a wakeup call for the Niners.

- The Cardinals have six wins on the year and John Skelton is essentially responsible for four of them. (He didn’t start today but he essentially won the game for Arizona once Kevin Kolb was forced to leave with a head injury.) Oh those scrappy John Skelton-led Cardinals…

- I truly didn’t expect the Raiders to beat the Packers today at Lambeau but what an ugly performance by Oaktown. For entertainment sake, here’s hoping Tebowmania keeps rolling and the Broncos make the playoffs over the Raiders, who have looked completely lethargic the past two weeks.

- Whistlegate? Titans’ offensive linemen Jake Scott and Michael Roos said that a whistle was being blown in the area of the Saints’ bench late in New Orleans’ 22-17 victory in Tennessee. My question is, wouldn’t the ref on the New Orleans’ sideline hear the whistle? This story ranks right up there with “Tripgate” from last year.

- It’s amazing how Raheem Morris has gone from being one of the league’s brightest young coaches to being on the hot seat. The organization will have to figure out whether or not it wants Morris to be a lame duck in 2012 or fire him this offseason, because clearly the Bucs can’t give this guy an extension. That was an ugly performance by Morris’ Bucs in Jacksonville today.

- Somehow, the Chargers are still alive…

Green Bay Packers’ Greg Jennings fails to catch a pass while playing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the second half during their NFL football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin November 20, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- While watching the Packers absolutely destroy the Raiders today at Lambeau, I thought to myself, “Why even have a playoff? Just hand the ‘Discount Double-Check’s’ the Lombardi.” Then Greg Jennings left the field on a cart after suffering a leg injury that obviously left him in a ton of pain. Green Bay overcame a slew of injuries to win the Super Bowl last year and the Pack certainly have enough weapons to keep terrorizing opponents on a weekly basis. But losing Jennings would be a massive blow.

- Santana Moss won’t sleep well tonight. With the Skins knocking on the door of a potential game-tying score against the Patriots in the closing minutes, he was flagged for offensive pass interference, which moved Washington back to the 15-yard-line. Then he had a Rex Grossman pass bounce off his hands and into those of linebacker Jerod Mayo, which ended the Skins’ comeback attempt. You have to hand it to Washington though. They keep fighting no matter who the opponent is.

- Just think if the Philadelphia defense played that well every week. Given how shaky the rest of the NFC East is, they’d probably be closing in on a playoff spot right now.

Fade Material: NFL Week 14 Predictions

Jacksonville Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert looks to throw the ball downfield against the Houston Texans in the first half at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas on October 30, 2011. The Texans defeated the Jaguars 24-14. UPI/Aaron M. Sprecher

Turns out I do have a pulse – who knew!

After weeks of bad to horrendous predictions, I’ve started to turn things around with my NFL picks. After going 3-1 in Week 12, I followed that performance with another 3-1 Sunday in Week 13 as the Texans, Chiefs and Saints all covered. (My lone loss was the Bengals, who forgot to get off the bus in Pittsburgh.) The latest 3-1 effort lifted my season record to 24-25-2. Let’s see if I can’t get over that .500 mark so I can save some of my dignity.

Texans @ Bengals, 1:00PM ET
The Bengals burned me last Sunday but I’m a glutton for punishment so I’m back for more this week. I think at some point the Texans won’t be able to overcome not having guys like Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Mario Williams in the lineup. T.J. Yates outperformed a very shaky Matt Ryan last Sunday in Houston’s 17-10 victory over Atlanta, but he also didn’t pay for his biggest mistake (an interception returned for a touchdown that would have given the Falcons a second-half lead) because of a penalty on corner Dunta Robinson. I don’t point that out to criticize Yates because the bottom line is he helped the Texans notch a very huge win. But again, at some point Yates will play like a fifth-round rookie and all of these injuries that Houston has endured will eventually catch up to them. Methinks that point will be today in Cincinnati. The Bengals need to slow Arian Foster and Ben Tate to have a shot and I think they will. Their run defense has been consistent all season as long as Andy Dalton and the offense comes up with a couple of big plays, I like Cincinnati to notch a huge home win.
THE PICK: BENGALS –3

Falcons @ Panthers, 1:00PM ET
This is what I wrote in my Week 13 recap last Sunday: You heard it here first: “The Panthers will beat the Falcons next Sunday in Carolina. The records say different but there’s not that big of a gap between Carolina and Atlanta right now. And with two of the Falcons’ top three corners out with injuries, Cam Newton should have a field day throwing the ball.” The two corners that I was referencing was Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe), who will miss their second and third-straight games, respectively. With the inexperienced Dominique Franks and Christopher Owens starting in Grimes and Hayden’s places, I like Carolina to pull off the small upset.
THE PICK: PANTHERS +1

Bucs @ Jaguars, 1:00PM ET
This is the week that the Bucs get off the schnide. The Jaguars aren’t explosive offensively thanks to Blaine Gabbert and while their defense has kept them in most games, they’re extremely banged up in the secondary. Tampa Bay lacks explosion on offense itself, but I just think the Bucs are due. Some bettors will hesitate laying three points on a bad Tampa team that’s playing on the road, but this is a game where the Bucs could wind up taking all of their frustrations out on Jacksonville and cruising. I just think Tampa is due.
THE PICK: BUCS –3

Raiders @ Packers, 4:15PM ET
Given how poorly the Raiders played in Miami last Sunday, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to take Oakland this Sunday against a juggernaut like Green Bay. But then again, I don’t have a ton of sense so I’m going to do it anyway. The Raiders are in a dogfight with the Broncos in the AFC West so they can ill-afford not to play well in Green Bay today. The Packers aren’t playing like they’re taking anyone lightly but I could see their defense allowing the Raiders to keep things within 10 points. I just think 11.5 is too much to be giving a team in Oakland that could wind up winning its division.
THE PICK: RAIDERS +11.5

Check out the most current NFL Football Betting odds.

2011 NFL Week 14 Primer

Denver Broncos Tim Tebow throws against the New York Jets during the second half at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on November 17, 2011. Denver came from behind to defeat New York 17-14 on a 20-yard touchdown run by quarterback Tim Tebow UPI/Gary C. Caskey

Usually I would break down every NFL game on the schedule for that week, but I don’t even think Buccaneers and Jaguars fans care about Bucs-Jags, the “War on the Shore” this Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

Thus, I’ll roll out a different format this week with only four games remaining on the regular season schedule. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it but if you don’t, well, it’s too late now. The words are already sprawled across your screen…

MARQUE MATCHUP: Giants vs. Cowboys, 8:20PM ET
Neither of these teams seem very motivated to win the NFC East right now. While the Cowboys have won four of their last five games, they barely beat Washington in overtime, had to hang on to beat Miami in the closing minutes, and lost outright to Arizona last Sunday in extra frames. The Giants, meanwhile, showed great effort in their 38-35 loss to the Packers last weekend but as Tom Coughlin said, the G-Men are beyond morale victories at this point. Morale victories won’t get them a division crown and a chance to make it back to the Super Bowl. So which team will step up this Sunday in Dallas? Will it be the Cowboy team that won four in a row before laying an egg against the Cardinals? Or will the Giants build off their solid effort last Sunday and force another tie with the Cowboys in the division? The way I look at it, you could flip a coin. It’s hard what to make of these teams because while the talent is certainly there, the execution sometimes isn’t.

THE POTENTIAL (NOTEWORTHY) UPSET: Panthers over Falcons, 1:00PM ET
Atlanta has a couple of underlying issues that could be its undoing yet again this week. First and foremost, Michael Turner isn’t 100-percent healthy. He’s been dealing with a groin injury and as I wrote last Sunday following the Week 13 games, he ran like he had nine tons of cement tied around his legs. If he’s slowed again this week, the Falcons’ offense may struggle to find balance, which affects Matt Ryan and the passing game greatly. Furthermore, two of Atlanta’s top three corners (Brent Grimes and Kelvin Hayden) are out again this week due to injuries. With the way Cam Newton continues to sling the ball around the field, don’t be surprised if Carolina pulls off the upset this Sunday at home. Granted, the Panthers still have plenty of issues that the Falcons can exploit. Their run defense is soft and their pass coverage is below average. But again, if Atlanta can’t get Turner going and the Falcons once again allow an inferior opponent to stay in the game, they could be primed for an upset.

THE GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY: Denver Broncos
Which team has a golden opportunity to improve its standing in its division and playoff race? Look no further than Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, who host a wounded Bears team at 4:05PM ET on Sunday. Chicago will be without quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte, making it difficult to generate points against an already stout Denver defense. Thrown in the fact that the Broncos are at home while the Raiders head to Green Bay to take on the undefeated Packers, and Denver arguably stands to benefit the most from this week’s schedule. Obviously the Broncos still have to beat the Bears and the Raiders have to succumb to the Pack. But with both Denver and Oakland tied at 7-5 in the AFC West, this is a perfect chance for the Broncos to seize first place in the division and take control of their own destiny.

PUT UP OR SHUT UP: Tennessee Titans
“Put up or shut up” could apply to several different teams. The Bengals certainly have a “put up or shut up” game this Sunday at home against the Texans. Houston is banged up on both sides of the ball and if Cincinnati wants to hold onto the number sixth seed in the AFC, then it better find a way to win. (Especially considering the Jets have a very winnable game against the Chiefs and are also in the running for a Wild Card spot in the conference.) The Falcons also need to prove that they can rebound from their loss to the Texans last week and both the Lions and Bears need to step up to prove that they’re going to remain in the NFC playoff picture. But looking at all of the games, the Titans stand out to me as the team that has the most to prove this weekend. The Saints are easily one of the top 5 teams in the NFL, if not top 3. They’ve also looked like a different team on the road this year than at home, so if the Titans wanted to play them anywhere, they’d want to take on New Orleans in Tennessee. Guess what? They have their shot this Sunday. The Titans are only two games behind the Texans in the AFC South but there’s also only four games remaining. Houston could lose this Sunday in Cincinnati but if Tennessee can’t rise to the challenge and pull off the upset against New Orleans, then the Titans’ odds of catching the Texans become slim and none. But this game versus the Saints is more than just about trying to catch Houston. For Tennessee, this is a measuring stick for what you are as a football team. Do the Titans belong in the mix of legit contenders or are they going to be blow out by a vastly superior team? It’ll be interesting to see if Tennessee raises its level of play.

2011 NFL Week 14 Point Spreads & Odds

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton celebrates after the Panthers score against the Washington Redskins in the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 23, 2011. Carolina won 33-20 UPI/Nell Redmond .

Four spreads of note:

Giants +3 @ Cowboys, 8:30PM ET, Sunday
This game is the ultimate crapshoot; it could play out in a variety of different ways, none of which would be surprising. But if you’re looking for value, I almost always go with the underdog when it comes to betting on NFC East teams. When NFC East teams are expected to win against an inferior opponent, for whatever reason they seem to underachieve. Examples of this include the Cowboys’ loss to the Cardinals last week, or their failed cover against the Dolphins and Redskins, respectively, in previous games. The Giants also lost to the Seahawks at home, failed to cover against the Dolphins at home, and lost the Eagles as a 6-point favorite in Week 11. On the flip side, the Giants covered and won against the Eagles (Week 2), Patriots (Week 9) and Packers (Week 13) as underdogs of seven points or more. Granted, New York was also crushed by New Orleans in Week 12 but my point is this: NFC East teams often represent value when they’re the underdog and are good fade material when they’re supposed to win. I don’t have hard data here so take this simple approach with a grain of salt. But again, from a pure value standpoint it sure seems like NFC East teams rise to the challenge when they’re the dog.

Raiders +11 @ Packers, 4:15PM ET
As I’ve written many times on this site: It’s Green Bay and then everyone else. And with how poorly Oakland played last Sunday in Miami, there will be plenty of bettors that look at the spread in this game and lay the 11 points without hesitation. But let’s keep in mind that the Raiders’ backs are against the wall here. They’re now tied with Denver for first place in the AFC West and while they play undefeated Green Bay this Sunday, the Broncos have a very winnable home game against a Jay Cutler and Matt Forte-less Chicago team. Thus, we’re probably going to see Oakland’s best effort. With the amount of injuries that the Raiders accumulated in the past month, it was only a matter of time before they suffered a letdown like they did last weekend against the Dolphins. Thus, I’m thinking they bounce back strong this Sunday and at the very least stay within 10 points of the Pack.

49ers -3.5 @ Cardinals, 4:05PM ET
This is a game you look at and you say, “49ers are only -3.5? Sign me up.” But Arizona proved last Sunday in its win over Dallas that it hasn’t given up on the season despite the fact that the playoffs remain a longshot. The Rams, on the other hand, gave up weeks ago and bettors will probably rush to the window to lay coin on a Niners team that routed St. Louis by 26 points last week. What I’m saying is that this is your classic trap game. Oddsmakers claim that they don’t lay traps for bettors but why is this game only 3.5? San Fran is 10-2 this season while Arizona is 5-7. Even with home field advantage factored in, the line still seems too low. I’m not suggested that the Cards will win outright but something tells me oddsmakers are banking on this being a field goal game either way.

Falcons -3 @ Panthers, 1:00PM ET
I wrote this in my recap of Week 13 and I’ll mention it again seeing as how it relates to this article: I don’t think there’s that wide of a gap between the Falcons and Panthers right now. On paper, Atlanta has better overall talent. But on paper, Atlanta had better overall talent than Houston and it lost 17-10 despite the fact that Andre Johnson suffered another hamstring injury in the second half and T.J. Yates started for the Texans at quarterback. The Falcons will once again be without top cornerback Brent Grimes and nickel back Kelvin Hayden, which means Dominique Franks and Chris Owens will receive plenty of looks this Sunday from Cam Newton. Given the inexperience of Franks and Owens, they become a weakness that Newton may exploit. There’s always value in a home dog and given the injuries the Falcons are currently dealing with on both sides of the ball, I’d give Carolina a long look this Sunday.

2011 NFL Week 14 Odds:

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