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Ten Observations from Week 17 in the NFL

1. Adrian Peterson is this year’s MVP.
It wouldn’t be a travesty if Peyton Manning were to claim this year’s MVP award. It wouldn’t be a crime, an injustice, or a mockery for the NFL. Having said that, Adrian Peterson is so clearly this year’s most valuable player that it’s almost not even worth discussing. The Vikings went 3-13 last year and owned the third overall pick in the draft (later traded to Cleveland for the fourth overall selection, which was used on outstanding left tackle Matt Kalil). Nobody expected them to finish third in a competitive NFC North, nevertheless winning 10 games and clinching a playoff spot. And with all due respect to Minnesota’s offensive line and underrated defense, without Peterson accomplishing what he did this season, the Vikings may not have won half of the games they did. Opponents put together game plans solely to stop Peterson and often dared second-year quarterback Christian Ponder to beat them, which he rarely did. Yet Peterson did the extraordinary by amassing 1,598 yards over the final 10 games, a number still good enough to lead the league in rushing this season. He finished with a 6.03 yards per carry average, totaled over 100 yards rushing in nine of his final 10 games, and rushed for over 200 yards on two separate occasions. Had there been one more minute left in Sunday’s contest versus the Packers, there is a good chance Peterson would have broke Eric Dickerson’s single-game rushing record as well. All this despite suffering an injury at the end of last season that usually takes players two full seasons to recover from. Consider this as well: Peterson rushed a career-high 34 times in the Vikings’ 37-34 win over the Packers, who oh-by-the-way needed a win to clinch a first-round bye next week. Most running backs wear down throughout an entire season – “All Day” seemingly got stronger. He’s a remarkable player who just put the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable seasons in NFL history. If that doesn’t net him the most prestigious individual award in football, what will?

2. Peyton Manning is deserving of Comeback Player of the Year.
Without Adrian Peterson having a season for the ages, the Vikings would have likely missed the playoffs. Without Peyton Manning, the Broncos may have still been good enough to beat the toilet water in the AFC West thanks to their stout defense. Granted, Denver wouldn’t have clinched the No. 1 seed without Manning but you get the point. Those are just a few reasons why Peterson should be considered the most valuable player in the NFL this season. (The other reasons are detailed above.) But at this time last year, people wondered whether or not Manning would, or better yet, should retire after not taking a single snap in 2011. And all he’s done this year is put together one of the finest seasons of his illustrious career. He finished the regular season with 4,659 yards passing, 37 touchdowns, a 68.6 completion percentage and a 105.8 QB rating, which were all Denver Broncos records. His three-touchdown performance against Kansas City on Sunday was also the 73rd of Manning’s career and gave him yet another NFL record. As mentioned in “Observation No. 1,” it wouldn’t be a farce if Manning were named MVP. But considering his road back to the gridiron was paved with multiple neck/back surgeries, an entire season spent on the sidelines, and a change of cities, Manning’s “comeback” was more impressive than Peterson’s. Either way, both players should be properly recognized for their impressive feats this season.

3. The Texans’ collapse is nearly complete.
On December 2 the Texans were 11-1 having just beaten the Titans to earn their sixth-straight victory. At that moment it seamed unimaginable that Houston wouldn’t have home field advantage throughout the postseason. But the Texans, losers of three of their last four games following their 28-16 defeat in Indianapolis on Sunday, have completely collapsed. Injuries on defense have turned a once top-5 unit into one susceptible of big plays. (See Andrew Luck’s 70-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton as proof.) But there are no excuses as to why Houston’s offense has become punchless over the past month. At the root of the issue is quarterback Matt Schaub, who threw two ugly interceptions to Indy cornerback Vontae Davis on Sunday. Despite completing a high-percentage of throws, Schaub was ineffective for the second straight week and for the third time in his last four games. Remember, Schaub doesn’t have a postseason start under his belt. It would have been nice for the Texans if their playoff-inexperienced quarterback could have built a little momentum heading into next week. Instead, the Texans enter the postseason as one of the coldest teams in the field of 12. And while the Bengals are the least imposing team in this year’s playoffs, their underrated defense is certainly good enough to hold Houston’s struggling offense in check. The Texans now have less than a week to figure out how they’ve gone from Super Bowl favorites to title pretenders.

4. RGIII, AP and the Hawks – the bottom of the NFC is dangerous.
Try as they did, the Cowboys didn’t have much of an answer for Robert Griffin III on Sunday night. As he’s done to opponents all season, RGIII forced Dallas’ defense to play back on its heels, which in turn made Alfred Morris more effective. The Packers also had a hell of a time trying to corral Adrian Peterson, whom they’ll see again in less than a week. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have won five straight games and are arguably the hottest team in the NFC…as the fifth seed. Granted, the media always tries to over hype the lower seeds in the playoffs. That’s probably because we spend an entire season pointing out flaws in the higher-ranked seeds (it’s human nature). But in the case of the Skins, Vikes and Hawks, there’s no downplaying how dangerous they are on any given Sunday. Granted, either the Redskins or Seahawks will be finished next weekend because they play each other in the first round, but would anyone be surprised if any one of these teams wind up in the NFC title game? Thanks to all six teams winning at least 10 games this season, the NFC playoff field is highly intriguing this year.

5. Romo once again saves his worst performance for last.
Heading into Sunday night’s NFC East title tilt between the Redskins and Cowboys, no quarterback in the league was hotter than Tony Romo. In his previous eight games he had thrown 17 touchdown passes to just three interceptions and thanks to plenty of help from Dez Bryant, was practically willing Dallas to a division crown and a playoff berth. But in typical Romo fashion, he saved his worst performance for the biggest moment of the season. He did toss two touchdown passes, which included a crucial 10-yard completion to Kevin Ogletree midway through the fourth quarter to cut the Redskins’ lead down to three with a 2-point conversion. But he also threw three brutal interceptions, the final one coming late in the fourth quarter after the Dallas defense gave its offense a chance to at least tie the game following a punt. Romo wanted to dump the ball off to his running back in the flats and was instead intercepted by linebacker Rob Jackson, who read the play perfectly. It was one of those all-too-familiar moments for Romo, who never saw Jackson retreat to the flats as he lobbed the pass to the sidelines. And thanks to a brutal roughing the passer penalty on Washington’s next drive, the Skins were able to put the game away with a touchdown under two minutes to play. The 32-year-old Romo has once again left Jerry Jones in an unenviable situation. He once again posted great numbers while throwing for over 4,600 yards but the Cowboys will once again be at home for the playoffs. The question is, does Jones still believe he can win a Super Bowl with Romo under center? When his team absolutely had to have a win, Romo didn’t deliver. Again.

6. The Bears have nobody to blame but themselves.
Chicago fans will undoubtedly blame Green Bay’s inability to beat Minnesota as the reason why their beloved Bears missed the playoffs despite finishing with a 10-6 record this season. And technically, they’re right. With Chicago’s season hanging in the balance, the Packers never led in Minnesota and turned in their worst defensive performance in over a month. But from Weeks 11 through 16, Chicago only won one game over a six-game stretch. They also lost three in a row to start the month of December and couldn’t produce against playoff qualifiers Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota and Green Bay. It’s a shame that a 10-win team missed the postseason but the Bears did themselves in by leaving their fate in another team’s hands (specifically their most hated rivals.)

7. Falcons’ Smith still can’t gauge risk vs. reward.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith is conservative by nature. He’s been criticized for playing not-to-lose, especially in the postseason where he’s 0-3 over the past four seasons. And yet, when he does decide to gamble, it comes at the most inopportune times. Take Week 13 of last year for example. His decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 in overtime cost his team a potential victory versus the Saints. He also went for it on fourth down on multiple occasions during the Falcons’ embarrassing 24-2 loss to the Giants in the wild card round, none of which were successful. Fast forward to Sunday when, in a meaningless game, he played his starters in a lackluster loss to the Bucs. The decision could prove to be costly too, as Dunta Robinson (concussion) and John Abraham (ankle) left the game with injuries. Abraham is the bigger concern, as he had to be helped off the field by trainers. Why, with nothing to gain, would Smith risk injury to one of his starters? What was he and the Falcons hoping to prove by going through the motions versus a Tampa Bay team looking to end the season on a high note? If anything, it planted the seed of doubt in a team that had built up some momentum the past two weeks. If Abraham’s injury proves to be serious, then Smith should be questioned for why he can’t manage simple risk versus reward.

8. Vick’s football career reaches a new low.
Michael Vick has been adamant that he’s still a starter but he’ll be fortunate that some team even views him as a capable backup heading into 2013. All you need to know about Vick’s performance on Sunday versus the Giants was that he was pulled in favor of Trent Edwards for the final drive of the game. Over the past two seasons he’s gone 10-13 as a starter while throwing 33 interceptions to go with his 32 touchdowns. He also hasn’t played a full season since 2006 and his threat to run has been neutralized by his inability to take a hit. He may still fancy himself as a starter but even quarterback-hungry teams like the Cardinals, Chiefs and Jaguars will be weary of handing the reigns to a 33-year-old quarterback who is turnover prone, has never been an accurate passer and who can’t stay healthy. Considering many believed he would revolutionize the quarterback position when he came into the league in 2001, Vick may go down as one of the most overrated players in NFL history.

9. Fisher’s first season in St. Louis can only be described as a success.
Success can be defined in different ways. Some people probably read the title of this observation and scoffed. Some believe that because the Colts and Vikings surprised by making the postseason, the Rams should have pulled off the same feat. If only life were that black and white. What could posses someone to have such lofty expectations following a 2-14 season and a complete turnover of the roster is beyond me. It wasn’t logical that they would make the postseason this year. Hell, it wasn’t logical that they could win 8 games, at least not to those outside of St. Louis that weren’t mentally and/or monetarily invested in the team. But thanks in large part to Jeff Fisher, 2012 was a success. Free agency was a success. The draft was a success. Winning 80-percent of their games against a tough division was a mark of success, as was learning how to win on the road. Having said that, does Sam Bradford need to make longer strides in his development? That’s not even an argument – of course he does. But he also deserves an opportunity to compete in a stable environment. Quarterbacks that are forced to learn three different offenses under shoddy tutelage is a recipe for failure. There are some people that have already convinced themselves that he’s nothing more than a marginal quarterback capable of only being a Brad Johnson-type game manager. And that’s fine – we all don’t need to agree. But here are the facts: He threw for a career-high 3,702 yards and 21 touchdowns while managing to start every game of the season (a feat he couldn’t accomplish in 2011). Those are signs of improvement. It might not be the improvement that many had hoped, but the bottom line is that he’s a better quarterback now than he was in 2010. More importantly, the Rams are a better team than they were two years ago when they walked out of CenturyLink Field. Only this time nobody should have false hope about the direction the franchise is headed in.

10. Quick-Hits…
The pass that Andrew Luck made when he looked off the safety and hit T.Y. Hilton perfectly in stride for a 70-yard touchdown was one of the prettiest throws by any quarterback this season. He’s a special player and NFL fans are more enriched by the fact that he and the Colts are in the playoffs…Speaking of which, would anyone be surprised if Indianapolis beat Baltimore next week? The Ravens aren’t exactly sprinting into the postseason…Peyton Manning continued to make his case for NFL MVP by throwing another three touchdown passes on Sunday, but did you see the catches that Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker made? The catch by Thomas was one of the best of the year…Don’t be surprised if the Panthers make the postseason next year. They finished 2012 as one of the hottest teams in the leageu and scored at least 30 points in three of their final four games…2012 turned out to be a lost season for the Saints but it doesn’t take away what Drew Brees accomplished. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and with Sean Payton back in the fold next year, the Saints will remain explosive…It’s funny, the NFC South was viewed as one of the best divisions in football at the start of the year. By midseason it was viewed as a joke but all four of the division’s inhabitants could be playoff contenders next year…If I’m Jets owner Woody Johnson I’m keeping Rex Ryan in place for his defense and finding both a new quarterback and a new GM for 2013…Credit the Lions for playing with pride. That’s more than anyone can say about the Eagles…The Steelers’ season turned out to be a major disappointment but for the 12th time in 13 years they avoided having a losing season. That’s sustained success right there…Congratulations to the Chiefs for notching the No. 1 overall pick in next April’s draft. It was well earned…Terrelle Pryor is hardly the answer at quarterback for the Oakland Raiders but if nothing else, he gave them something to think about with his two-touchdown performance on Sunday…One of the broadcasters made a good point following the Seahawks’ hard-fought 20-13 win over the Rams on Sunday. After steamrolling opponents the past couple of months, it’ll serve Seattle well to have fought through a little adversity…If Michael Crabtree plays as well as in the playoffs as he did on Sunday then the Niners aren’t going to miss Mario Manningham…RGIII vs. Russell Wilson? Can’t wait.

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 17 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…

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow loses the ball while tackled by Kansas City Chiefs safety Kendrick Lewis during the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 1, 2012 in Denver. Denver still makes the playoffs despite losing to Kansas City 7-3. UPI/Gary C. Caskey

- Good luck, Broncos. You may have backed into the playoffs because the Raiders just happened to catch the Chargers on one of San Diego’s good days, but don’t make any travel plans for New England or Baltimore. You’re not going to win with a quarterback who can‘t even complete 10 passes in the biggest game of the year. I thought the Tim Tebow storyline was pretty fun for a while but at the end of the day it’s just bad football. The Steelers are severely banged up and their offense is in a major funk, but they only need about 10 points to beat the Broncos next week in the Wild Card round. If Denver somehow finds a way to pull off the upset then I’ll eat as much crow as Broncos fans want to dish out. But with a division title and a playoff berth on the line, Denver managed just one field goal at home against a Kansas City team that had nothing to play for. Thus, I don’t think I’ll have the taste of crow on my lips any time soon.

- Has any team lost three starting quarterbacks to injuries in one season and still host a playoff game? That must be some kind of record. Some kind of cruel, horrific record for a Houston Texans team that must feel like its cursed. The Texans finally make the playoffs and they have to start Jake Delhomme at quarterback because their fifth-round rookie T.J. Yates, who was subbing for the injured Matt Leinart, who was subbing for the injured Matt Schaub, separated his shoulder in the final game of the season. At this point all Houston can do is laugh because really, what else could go wrong? I mean, they’re about to start Jake freaking Delhomme in a playoff game and the guy was signed off the streets about an hour ago. How unfortunate for a Houston franchise that has been waiting a very long time for this moment.

- I was prepared to rip the Bengals after backing into the playoffs and for going 0-4 against the Ravens and Steelers this season. But what does Cincinnati have to be ashamed of? Nobody thought the Bengals would win five games this year, let alone nine and qualify for the playoffs in a tough conference (with a rookie second-round pick starting at quarterback, no less). And seeing as how the Texans will start Jake Delhomme at quarterback next week, the Bengals could advance to the Divisional Round! There’s no sense ripping a team that has a very good chance of winding up among the final eight this season.

- When Eli Manning takes care of the football, the Giants usually win. It’s as simple as that. The G-Men were 4-0 this season when Eli didn’t turn the ball over at all and 5-2 when he “only” turned the ball over once. They were 0-5 when he had multiple turnovers in one game. Granted, I imagine that if I did the same study on all the quarterbacks in the league, I’d probably get similar results. Turnovers are a huge part of the game whether it’s a quarterback, running back or receiver coughing the ball up. But when Eli turns the ball over it seems to have a trickle-down effect that hurts the entire New York team.

- Tony Romo comes up short again in a playoff-type situation. Who would have saw that coming?

- The Lions really blew it today. All they had to do was beat Green Bay’s backups and they would have clinched the fifth seed in the NFC. Instead, their defense couldn’t stop Matt Flynn from doing whatever he wanted and now the Lions will have to play in New Orleans next weekend instead of traveling to New York or Dallas. Granted, if they want to advance to the Super Bowl then they’d have to play beat the Saints or Packers at some point anyway. But it would have been nice to let the Falcons try and deal with the Saints right out of the gates instead. Furthermore, even if Detroit does upset New Orleans next week, the Lions haven’t beaten the Packers in Green Bay since 1991. How much confidence do they have heading into the playoffs knowing that they couldn’t even beat the Packers’ JV squad? (Of course, with ultra-sick Calvin Johnson lining up at wide receiver, I still wouldn’t count the Lions out against anyone.)

- Good for the Ravens. This is a Baltimore squad that has looked like a completely different team on the road this year than at home, but it went into hostile territory today and took care of business. Now that they have home field advantage for at least one playoff game, you have to like the Ravens’ chances of making a Super Bowl run. The AFC is incredibly flawed this year and New England’s defense is Charmin Extra Soft. Thanks to the incredible Ray Rice, the Ravens have as good as shot as the Patriots of playing for a NFL title.

- How f’n good are the Packers that they can score 45 points with Flynn as their starting quarterback and several of their starters resting on both sides of the ball? If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times: Ted Thompson has done one hell of a job building the best depth in football.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn (2nd L) passes against the Detroit Lions during the second half of their NFL football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Speaking of Matt Flynn, I’m torn. I wouldn’t blame a quarterback-needy team for trying to acquire him next offseason after what he did today against the Lions, but how much of his success is because of Green Bay’s offense? Everyone looks good driving a Cadillac, know what I mean?

- Should the Patriots be concerned that they’ve spotted opponents double-digit leads in each of their last two games before rallying in the second half? Considering how explosive Tom Brady and the New England offense has looked, I guess not. But if they spot Baltimore a 21-0 lead in the playoffs then the Pats may have some issues staging more comebacks.

- It seems like nobody has mentioned his name among the head coaches that could be fired on “Black Monday” (at least from a national perspective), but what about Chan Gailey? What has he done in Buffalo that merits him keeping his job? That team took a 21-0 lead today in Foxboro and then stood back and admired its work as the Patriots scored the next 49 points. Why should Buffalo be convinced that Gailey is the right man for the job after the way the Bills crashed and burned this season?

- Even though the Steelers have morphed into a passing team over the past couple of years, losing Rashard Mendenhall (knee) for the playoffs would be a crushing blow. They’ll likely get past the punchless Broncos in the Wild Card round, but Mendenhall allows Pittsburgh to stay balanced offensively and gives defensive coordinators something else to think about when game planning to stop the Steelers. With Mendenhall out for at least one week and Ben Roethlisberger hobbled, there’s no doubt the defending AFC champions are limping into the postseason.

- ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reports that the Rams will fire GM Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo this week, as well they should. St. Louis was absolutely decimated by injuries and it didn’t help that Sam Bradford had little time to learn Josh McDaniels’ offense during the lockout-shortened offseason. But Devaney had a horrible draft and failed to build roster depth, while Spagnuolo made questionable in-game decisions week after week. It’s rumored that Spags will wind up in Philadelphia next season as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, which makes a ton of sense. As of right now it’s clear he isn’t ready to be a head coach in this league.

- The 49ers have had a hell of a season but even their most diehard fans have to admit that there’s something a little off about this San Francisco tea. Maybe it’s because they clinched early and they’ve just been waiting for the postseason to start but this doesn’t seem like the same dominant squad that it was about a month ago. Granted, the Niners did beat the Steelers handily in Week 15, but Pittsburgh is in the midst of a major offensive funk and Ben Roethlisberger played hurt in that game. I’m not suggesting that the Niners won’t reach the NFC Championship Game but compared to the Saints and Packers, this feels like a very beatable San Francisco team.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones runs in for a touchdown in the first half of their NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Atlanta, Georgia January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- It’s too bad the Falcons are so intimidated by good competition (they’re 1-4 against playoff teams this year), because they certainly have the weapons on both sides of the ball to make a serious postseason run. Matt Ryan has looked very sharp in the second half of the season, Julio Jones has emerged as a dangerous playmaker the past five weeks and Sean Weatherspoon, John Abraham, Brent Grimes and William Moore are playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons clearly aren’t better than New Orleans or Green Bay, but when the offense is firing on all cylinders and the defense plays like the relentless, confident unit that it did today against Tampa Bay, then Atlanta could certainly give the Saints and/or Packers a game. But I know what will happen in the playoffs: The coaching staff will play things conservatively, the players will all wait for the next guy to make a play, and the Falcons will once again be left searching for answers for why they came up short. (See the New Orleans game last Monday night as an example.) It’s frustrating really, because if the Falcons really turned things loose then they could be that dangerous Wild Card team that Green Bay was a year ago. (Or at least a poor man’s version of Green Bay.)

- The Jets’ season ends as Mark Sanchez throws three interceptions – what a shock. For the past two seasons, the Jets’ defense and running game has compensated for Sanchez’s horrendous play, and he fooled people into thinking he was better than what he was because he played well in the postseason in front of a national audience. But now he doesn’t have the playoffs to redeem himself, so maybe the Jets will seriously consider other quarterback options this offseason. They would be foolish not to.

- Great effort by your team over the past three months, Raheem Morris. Job well done.

- Jared Allen is worth the price of admission for Minnesota Vikings fans. Whether the Vikings are 3-13 or 13-3, dude never lets up.

- The Indianapolis Colts are now on the clock. Let the 24/7 Andrew Luck discussion begin.

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