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Ten Observations from Week 15 in the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quick-Hit Reactions from Week 15 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…

- It’s ironic really. Three weeks ago every NFL talking head said that if the Packers could get past the Lions in Detroit and the Giants in New York that they’d probably go undefeated. And after Green Bay mopped the floor with Oakland last Sunday, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Pack would finish 16-0. Then the Chiefs, led by a chewed up and spit out Kyle Orton, go out and pull off the upset of the year by knocking off Green Bay, 19-14. Everyone will analyze this game to death but there’s not much to dissect. The strength of Kansas City, its defense, once again stepped up and played incredibly well. Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, did not as the usually explosive Green Bay offense fizzled for the first time all year. Romeo Crennel didn’t pan out as a head coach but there’s no doubt the man knows how to run a defense. He put together a scheme today that will be studied, picked apart and emulated by every defensive coordinator that may face the Packers down the road. To hold Rodgers and Green Bay to just 14 points is truly remarkable.

- When you think about it, it makes more sense that an inferior team like the Chiefs were the ones to knock off the Packers instead of a playoff contender like the Lions or Giants. The Packers will always see Detroit or New York coming, so theoretically they should play their best football. A team like Kansas City, however, has a better chance of sneaking up on Green Bay (again, theoretically). Still, the Chiefs have nothing offensively so for them to pull off an upset like this was almost flabbergasting.

- The talk this week leading up to the Patriots’ clash with the Broncos was how Tim Tebow needed to step up in order to match Tom Brady. But in the end, Brady essentially made Tebow a non-factor by craving up a Denver defense that has the biggest reason for the Broncos’ success these past six weeks. One of the many things that make Brady so great is that he usually doesn’t force his hand when he doesn’t need to. For example, with Deion Branch out with an injury and Wes Welker and Rob Gronkwski drawing double teams, Brady simply keyed on Aaron Hernandez, who shredded the Broncos for 129 yards on nine catches. Even though New England’s defense was shaky at times (especially in the first quarter), the Pats proved how difficult it’ll be for Denver to match up with the elite teams in the AFC come playoff time.

- There’s no reason to devote 150 words to how the Saints beat the Vikings today in Minnesota. The Vikings’ secondary resembles a revolving door to the end zone, so it wasn’t surprising to see Drew Brees throw for 700 yards and 19 touchdowns versus a bad Minnesota defense. But it must be a little unnerving to fellow NFC contenders that the Saints finally looked good on the road. They haven’t played well away from the Superdome this season and quite frankly, they’ve developed a reputation of being more conservative on the road than at home. But today they went out and made it look easy. With the Packers falling for the first time all season, maybe the power structure in the NFC has shifted ever so slightly in New Orleans’ favor. If you were to pick one team and one team only to beat Green Bay, it has to be the Saints, who are the only NFC team that can match up with Green Bay in a shootout.

- If I’m a team like the Falcons or Lions, I’m praying that the Giants make it into the playoffs. Because right now they’re about as dangerous as a roll of Tollhouse cookie batter. In the last six weeks the Giants have wilted against good competition (San Francisco, New Orleans and Green Bay) and floundered against inferior division rivals (Philadelphia and Washington). The only reason they’re still alive in the NFC East is because the Cowboys crap themselves whenever they’ve expected to rise to the challenge and make a stand. As I noted in my predictions piece this week, I expected Washington to hang with the Giants. But I even wrote that I didn’t expect the Skins to win. Instead, they absolutely dominated the Giants from the opening kickoff and somehow managed to sweep New York for the first time since 1999. Given how Dallas had already won, how first place was on the line in the division, and how they were at home, it was inexcusable for the Giants to lose to the Skins. But why be shocked given how poorly New York has played the past month and a half? We should be long past expecting this team to dominate an opponent just because it’s better on paper, especially considering how the Giants have played down to their competition all season long.

- Between the Jets, Titans and Bengals, I don’t know which team I want to see in the postseason less. The Jets were absolutely manhandled by the Eagles from start to finish in Philadelphia, the Titans couldn’t muster more than 13 points in a loss to the previously-winless Colts, and the Bengals were in a 6-6 deadlock with the powerhouse Rams before finally shaking loose in the second half. At this point the NFL should just give the No. 3 seed in the AFC a bye and save itself the embarrassment of a Mark Sanchez v. T.J. Yates battle royale.

- I shudder to think how good the Detroit Lions could be if they had even an ounce of discipline and/or composure. As they showed today in Oakland, the Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson connection is electrifying, the front four will give most offensive line fits and the linebacker corps continues to overachieve. That was a great come-from-behind win for Jim Schwartz’s squad but this is a team that lacks the fundamentals (see tackling and not committing stupid penalties). Still, at 9-5 the Lions look like a lock for one of the two Wild Card spots in the NFC and after a decade of miserable football, it’s all smiles right now in Detroit…

- …of course, the Raiders really handed the Lions that game today. Had Oakland stuck with Michael Bush and the running game instead of getting cute with shotgun formations late in the fourth quarter, the Raiders probably win today and make things interesting again in the AFC West. (It also didn’t help that Carson Palmer missed a wide open Chaz Schilens on a third-and-three that could have sealed the game for Oakland.) For all intents and purposes Hue Jackson has done a great job for the Raiders this season, especially considering all the injuries Oakland has suffered through. But he could have managed the fourth quarter better today.

- The Texans were due for a game like they had today against the Panthers. They deserve all the credit in the world for persevering through injury after injury after injury, but T.J. Yates is their starting quarterback. At some point he was going to turn in an ugly performance and he certainly did today. Even with Arian Foster and that powerful rushing attack, it was only a matter of time that the defense would falter and Yates would stumble trying to make plays. That said, seeing as how they’re already in the playoffs this loss will actually serve Yates and the Texans well in the end. It’ll be a good learning experience for the rookie.

Chicago Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie celebrates a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers during the fourth quarter of the NFL NFC Championship football game in Chicago, January 23, 2011. REUTERS/John Gress (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Why again did the Bears not reach out to Donovan McNabb a few weeks ago? Because Mike Martz’s offense is too complicated to learn in a short period of time? That makes sense. Far be it for me to question Jerry Angelo but the odds were rather high that Hanie would struggle as a full-time starter. I would have rather given McNabb a shot to learn a scaled back version of Martz’s offense than allow Hanie to piss away a potential Wild Card spot. Granted, McNabb has shown nothing in two years that would make you think he could have saved Chicago’s season but at least with him there was a chance to catch lightning in a bottle.

- The Seahawks have been pretty fun to watch these past few weeks. Disagree with me and I’ll remind you that they had a fat guy score a touchdown today. Fat guy + touchdown = fun. It’s science.

- I would hate to play the Panthers if I were a team fighting for a playoff berth right now. They pulled off a “fumblerooski” with Richie Brockel in their 28-13 win over the Texans today. There’s no telling what else they’re capable of.

- Next Monday night in New Orleans is going to be f.u.n. – fun. The Falcons have finally found some consistency on offense and if they’re firing on all cylinders out of their no-huddle attack, they can hang with the Saints. New Orleans has been unstoppable at home this year but if the Falcons can get Brent Grimes (knee) and Kelvin Hayden (toe) back from injuries then the Atlanta defense is capable of slowing Brees and Co. down. The defense has quietly been the strength of the Falcons team this season.

- Hello, George Wilson? Yes, this is the grounds crew at Ralph Wilson Stadium. One of our employees retrieved your jockstrap following today’s game. We went back and watched the film and we can pinpoint the moment you lost it. Do you remember when Reggie Bush did that spin move on you in the second quarter? Right, well he spun you right out of them. You can come pick it up at lost and found at your earliest convenience.

- I would love to be a fly on the wall whenever Buffalo’s front office gets together to watch Ryan Fitzpatrick play. There must be a ton of, “Dear God what…were…we…thinking!” after they handed him that seven-year, $62 million contract back in late October. Dude has been brutal ever since. Don’t be fooled by his stat line (31-of-47, 316 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs) from today’s loss to the Dolphins. He was awful, posting his two touchdowns and the majority of his yards when the game was pretty much out of reach in the fourth quarter.

Colts beat Jaguars, are in control of their playoff destiny

INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 28: Peyton Manning  of the Indianapolis Colts watches his teammates before the NFL game against the San Diego Chargers at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 28, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Here are six quick-hit observations of the Colts’ huge 34-24 win over the Jaguars on Sunday.

1. Colts are now in the driver’s seat.
Congratulations Jaguars, you just put Peyton Manning in control of the Colts’ playoff destiny. With their win on Sunday, Indy needs to win its final two games and the Colts will win thier 97th straight (numbers exact) AFC South crown. Not that beating Manning on his home turf was going to be easy, but the Jags had a golden opportunity to put the Colts away for good and couldn’t do it. Now it’s a footrace from here on out, as the Colts travel to Oakland in Week 16 and Jacksonville hosts the Redskins.

2. Seriously, Josh Scobee?
When I think of horrendous onsides kick attempts, I think of Josh Scobee’s feeble try late in the fourth quarter. After the Jaguars had stolen a lot of the momentum back with a touchdown to get within three at 27-24, Scobee dribbled a kick about five yards in front of himself and Tyjuan Hagler returned the gift 41 yards for a touchdown. Recovering an onsides kick is tough enough. It’s even tougher when your kicker rolls one right to a defender so he can return it for an easy touchdown.

3. Why is Sean Considine still in the league?
How Sean Considine still has a job after proving he couldn’t start all those years up in Philadelphia is beyond me. The Colts knew the Jaguars’ weakness was the play of their safeties and Manning attacked them early and often. Considine, specifically, had issues with both the run and the pass. The Colts, who usually struggle running the football, rushed for 155 yards against a Jacksonville run defense that had been stout. Donald Brown had a breakout performance, rushing for 129 yards on 14 carries and one score. Of course, he was aided by the fact that Considine’s head didn’t stop spinning from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.

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