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NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 4

1. Newton isn’t a closer, but thankfully for the Falcons Ryan is.
Following his dreadful performance last Thursday against the Giants, Cam Newton bounced back nicely against the Falcons on Sunday while throwing for 215 yards, rushing for 86 yards, and reaching the end zone three times (twice through the air and once rushing). But for all of his heroics, Newton remains a quarterback unable to close out games. Faced with a crucial third-and-one with less than two minutes remaining in the contest, Newton had picked up a first down on a designed run, but he fumbled the ball while pin-balling off bodies. Had he squeezed the ball tightly, the Panthers could have run out the clock and earned a huge road victory against an undefeated division rival. Instead, the ball bounced backwards and while one of his teammates jumped on it, the Falcons still had life. Then, despite gashing Atlanta for nearly 200 yards on the ground, coach Ron Rivera decided that his team couldn’t pick up one more yard to put the game away. He punted on fourth-and-1 and despite pinning the Falcons on their own 1-yard line, defensive back Haruki Nakamura inexplicably allowed a 59-yard pass completion to Roddy White, which put the Falcons in range of a game-winning field goal. The rest was history, as Matt Ryan, a true closer, marched Atlanta down to the Carolina 22-yard-line to set up Matt Bryant’s game-winning 40-yard field goal. The outcome was yet another reminder of the one thing that Newton has still yet to learn: How to finish. Like so many times before, Ryan was handed an opportunity to put his team on his shoulders and win the game, which he did. Granted, a lot of luck was involved and Newton had plenty of help giving that game away. But at the end of the day, one quarterback closed and the other didn’t.

2. The Patriots remain the team to beat the AFC East.
Heading into Week 4, people wanted to believe the Patriots’ reign of terror in the AFC East was over. They bought into the notion that the Bills were ready to unseat New England, which had lost in Buffalo last year and was coming off back-to-back losses the past two weeks. But despite the offseason additions of Mario Williams (who has been a ghost since signing that huge deal back in March), Stephon Gilmore and Mark Anderson, Buffalo’s defense remains a major work in progress. The Bills thought they had fixed their issues on that side of the ball and yet, their defensive line applied very little pressure to Tom Brady and allowed 247 yards rushing. The Patriots reminded us that they can still turn it on when they need to, as 45 of their 52 points came in the second half. Where as Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to struggle with the deep ball and throwing outside the numbers, Brady used his legs to buy himself more time and even rushed for a score in the third quarter. Stevan Ridley added 106 yards on the ground but was overshadowed by undrafted free agent Brandon Bolden, who seemingly came out of nowhere to rush for 137 yards on 16 carries. Despite Buffalo being at full strength with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson (both were active despite being questionable throughout the week), the Patriots sent a message that they’re still one of the most dangerous teams in the AFC when they’re firing on all cylinders.

3. The Saints played their best game of the season…and still lost.
There were plenty of moments in Green Bay on Sunday where you were reminded of the Saints of the last couple of years, at least offensively. Drew Brees completed 35-of-54 passes for 446 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, while Marques Colston emerged from his slumber to catch nine passes for 153 yards and one score. This is still a team that will scare opponents week in and week out, although it’s telling that this was New Orleans’ best game of the season and it still walked away with a 28-27 loss. The defense created little to no pressure on Aaron Rodgers, who wasn’t sacked after being dropped eight times by Seattle just six days prior. The Saints also don’t have a running game and clearly miss Carl Nicks. (The offensive line hasn’t been the same without him.) It’ll also be interesting to see if the Saints can remained focused throughout the year. It’s still relatively early but no team shakes off a 0-4 start. Keep in mind that the players on this roster aren’t used to losing and most are holdovers from the Super Bowl squad. This is a team that has fought for division titles and Super Bowl berths the past few seasons. How will they respond when faced with immense adversity?

4. Let’s give credit where credit is due: Kolb has lifted his play.
The Dolphins sacked Kevin Kolb eight times on Sunday, held the Cardinals to just 28 yards rushing, forced two turnovers and built leads of 13-0 and 21-14 before Arizona finally came back and won 24-21 in overtime. Kolb completed 29-of-48 passes for 324 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. It wasn’t a brilliant performance but few are when we speak of Kolb. The key is that he raised the level of his play, which is something he has failed to do on a consistent basis over the past two years. Too many times we’ve seen Kolb take jab after jab while cashing out long before the fight is over. This time, he hung in there and made one of the best throws of his career while finding Andre Roberts on a perfect sideline pass on a 4th-and-10 with less than a minute in regulation. Had his pass fell to the ground, we wouldn’t have been surprised. ‘It’s Kevin Kolb,’ we would have said while shrugging. But let’s give credit where credit is due: Kolb was a huge factory in Sunday’s victory. And if Ray Horton’s defense continues to play as well as it has, maybe a confident Kolb will allow the Cardinals to stay in the mix all season.

5. Less is more when it comes to Vick.
Michael Vick didn’t put on a passing clinic on Sunday night against the Giants. He didn’t have a series of highlight runs and he didn’t leap head first into the end zone while trying to score. He also didn’t turn the ball over and the Eagles picked up a huge 19-17 victory against a division rival. Vick is a better quarterback when he plays within himself, understands his limitations, and doesn’t try to win the game on his own. He didn’t routinely force throws into coverage or wildly run around when the pocket broke down. He simply took what the defense gave him and led his team on four second-half scoring drives despite only mustering seven points in the first half. Vick has a lot of schoolyard to his game and that shouldn’t change. But if the Eagles’ talented roster is ever going to reach its full potential, he has to understand that his reckless play is hurting his team, himself, and his coach. Hopefully last night was a step in the right direction for the veteran quarterback.

6. Opponents have figured out the Lions, who refuse to adjust under Schwartz.
Jim Schwartz deserved the contract extension he received before the season. But his inability to make adjustments throughout the week and on game days has to be maddening for Detroit fans. Last season the Lions played to their strength, which was their passing game. Opponents knew what was coming and they still couldn’t slow down Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. But this year teams are playing two safeties deep in order to keep Detroit’s vertical game in check, and the Lions have refused to adjust. Stafford threw for over 300 yards in Sunday’s loss against Minnesota, but he leads an offense that continues to be out of sync. It’s not Stafford’s fault that Johnson had a touchdown knocked out of his hands on one play and Brandon Pettigrew dropped a pass in the end zone the next, but for whatever reason Detroit’s offense has been disjointed all season. They also can’t run the football and the defense is still plagued by the same issues it had last year because GM Martin Mayhew didn’t have the cap space in order to fix the team’s problems. Furthermore, the Lions remain one of the most undisciplined teams in football and clearly there hasn’t been an emphasis on special teams during the week because this is now back-to-back weeks that Detroit has given up two touchdowns on kickoffs and punts. The defense actually played well on Sunday but their performance was overshadowed by the fact that the special teams units were once again atrocious. If Schwartz doesn’t start making wholesale changes then the Lions could be back to square one very soon here.

7. The Jets’ problems have grown.
It used to be that the Jets could mask Mark Sanchez’s issues with Rex Ryan’s defense and a strong running game. But they lost the ability to run the ball last year and now thanks to the season-ending injury to Darrelle Revis, this is a team ready to unravel. Sanchez doesn’t look like he’s learned anything in four years. He’s generated just one touchdown in his last 34 possessions and has completed a dreadful 43.6 percent of his passes the past three weeks. While Ryan gave him a vote of confidence following Sunday’s 34-0 loss to the 49ers, it won’t be long before Tim Tebow is inserted as the starter. Tebow, of course, isn’t a better option under center. But he at least has shown the ability to make things happen and he’s a stronger leader than the unconfident Sanchez. This isn’t a playoff caliber team without Revis, and if the Jets finally come to terms with the fact that Sanchez isn’t the answer, then Tebow needs to play. But either way, Ryan and the Jets have issues they can no longer mask.

8. The Fisher hire has already paid off for St. Louis.
Because they played in two Super Bowls within the last 15 years, people seem to forget how bad the Rams have been over the last decade. This is a team that hasn’t had a winning record since 2003 and hasn’t gone to the playoffs since qualifying for the 2004 postseason with an 8-8 record. But the hiring of Jeff Fisher has brought stability to a franchise that has yearned for that very thing the past 10 years. Despite having the youngest roster in the NFL, a polarizing figure at quarterback, one of the worst offensive lines in the league and an ineffective Steven Jackson, the Rams are 2-2. They’re playing meaningful football again in the fourth quarter and arguably should have beaten the Lions in Week 1. Make no mistake: Fisher is putting his print on this team, which is no longer just the “Same old Rams.” They also have a true weapon in rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, who converted on attempts of 58, 48, 60, and 24 yards out in Sunday’s 19-13 win over the Seahawks. Just wait until Fisher and GM Les Snead start filling the roster with talent. The Rams are going to be a competitor very soon.

9. Peyton Manning and the Broncos: The ultimate wild card.
The Raiders’ pass coverage isn’t very good. Safety Tyvon Branch is a solid player but Michael Huff continues to be inconsistent and the rest of Oakland’s secondary hasn’t made anyone forget about Nnamdi Asomuagha. That said, it was nice to see some vintage Peyton Manning on Sunday. He torched the Raiders for 338 yards and three touchdowns while misfiring on just eight of his 38 pass attempts. Granted, he was aided by a running game that produced 165 yards and he rarely challenged downfield. His receivers did a nice job racking up yards after the catch too, but as a football fan it was nice to see Manning be effective. Denver remains a true mystery. Thanks to their defense and rushing attack, the Broncos will continue to battle the Chargers for first place in the AFC West. But Manning is the wild card. If he can do what he did on Sunday and in Week 1 versus the Steelers, the Broncos are a threat in the AFC. But we’ve seen the past two weeks how Manning can derail things as well. It’s going to be an interesting ride all season.

10. The rest of the Redskins deserved one made field goal.
There’s little doubt that an 0-for-4 day would have cost kicker Billy Cundiff his job. Thankfully he didn’t send himself on an extended vacation by converting a 41-yard field goal to give the Redskins a 24-22 win over the Bucs on Sunday.. On a day when Cam Newton couldn’t hold onto the ball on a crucial third-and-one in Atlanta, Robert Griffin III was 4-for-5 for 46 yards and added a 15-yard scramble on Washington’s final drive. He moved his team into field goal range and had Cundiff missed wide right, it wouldn’t have been RGIII’s fault that the Skins lost. But he and his teammates deserved that win. Alfred Morris deserved that win. Despite being beaten by Josh Freeman on a couple of nice second-half throws, Washington’s defense deserved that win. Cundiff saved his job for the moment, but more importantly he allowed his teammates to celebrate something that was deservedly theirs.

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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Favre brilliant for Vikings in win over Packers

Through all the offseason hoopla, the fickleness and the nauseating coverage of his every move, Brett Favre reminded people on Monday night why he’s a legend.

Favre completed 24 of 31 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns in the Vikings’ 30-23 win over the Packers in game that lived up to the hype. On a night where Green Bay did an excellent job containing Adrian Peterson (25 carries, 55 yards, 1 TD), Favre stepped up and delivered one of those games where you couldn’t help but shake your head in amazement about a guy his age making the plays he does.

One of the biggest questions coming into this season was whether or not Favre could step up and make enough plays in the passing game when an opponent shut down Peterson. Tonight, Brett answered that question.

Every time Minnesota faced a third and long, Favre stepped up and made a play. Granted, he faced zero pressure from Green Bay, but that shouldn’t take away from some of the bullets that he was firing into his receivers’ hands. The guy is about to turn 40 in five days and he’s still playing like he’s 25.

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Steelers nearly blow four-touchdown lead against Chargers

Midway through the third quarter of the Steelers-Chargers game on Sunday night, I started pounding away at a post dedicated to how Pittsburgh silenced its critics with a dominating victory over San Diego.

Seriously, I was finished outside of adding the final score and some stats. And it was good too. It was about how the Steelers got back to their grass roots while running the ball down the Chargers’ throats, controlling the time of possession and finally playing four quarters. At the time, Pittsburgh was up 28-0 and the game was essentially over as San Diego was on life support.

Then Jacob Hester made an incredible play early in the fourth when he stripped Stefan Logan on a punt return and raced 41 yards into the end zone to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 28-14.

No problem I thought, a couple extra sentences ought to cover me as the Steelers answered Hester’s touchdown with one of their own to make it 35-14.

Then the journalism gods decided to punish me for writing a recap when the freaking game wasn’t even finished, because the Chargers got within one touchdown of the Steelers late in the fourth before Pittsburgh iced the game with a 46-yard Jeff Reed field goal to give the Steelers a 38-28 victory.

Annnnnnnnnddddd delete.

In reality, not much changed from the time the Steelers were up 28-0 to the time they walked away with a 38-28 win. They still dominated a hapless San Diego run defense by racking up 177 yards on the ground (Rashard Mendenhall finally strapped on the big boy pants and rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries) and kept the ball for 40 minutes and 20 seconds, compared to the Chargers’ 19 minutes and 40 seconds.

Pittsburgh dominated this game, but it can’t sit well with Mike Tomlin that his team nearly had another fourth quarter collapse. The Steelers can’t figure out a way to put their opponents away and I don’t know if that’s coaching or if the players are at fault for letting up. Either way, it’s a troubling sign so far for a defending Super Bowl champion that has split its first four games of the season and has looked rather mediocre.

Nevertheless, the Steelers earned their second victory of the year and did so by running the ball. Granted, Ben Roethlisberger looked great and the pass protection was outstanding, but this is a team that needs to run the football when the weather starts to turn and Pittsburgh did so tonight.

As for the Chargers, I applaud them for making it close in the end, but Norv Turner’s bunch didn’t show up until seven minutes left in the third when Hester gave them a spark. They were completely dominated in most phases of the game and all of a sudden they have zero running game. For a team that was supposed to walk away with the AFC West, San Diego barely looks like a .500 team right now.

Saints welcome Sanchez to the NFL

It was bound to happen.

Mark Sanchez couldn’t continue to play like he was Joe Montana week after week without suffering a setback. The Saints proved to be Sancehz’s setback on Sunday by constantly harassing the rookie into three huge mistakes in the New Orleans’ 24-14 victory at the Superdome.

Sanchez’s first mistake came early in the second quarter when Darren Sharper intercepted his pass on the goal line, then returned it 99 yards for a touchdown. Two possessions later while backed up to his own end zone, Sanchez held onto the ball too long on a 2 and 7 from the 5-yard line and was sacked by Will Smith. Remi Ayodele recovered the fumble in the end zone to give the Saints a 17-0 lead early in the second.

Down 14 points with about five minutes remaining, Sanchez made his final mistake on a desperation fourth down play in which he was once again intercepted by Sharper. For as much swagger as Sanchez had played with throughout the year, he looked like a beaten rookie on Sunday.

This loss doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of Sanchez, though. New York offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer didn’t do the rookie any favors by failing to offer him max protection when the Saints proved early in the game that they could generate a pass rush with only their four down linemen. On multiple occasions, Charles Grant came off the edge untouched and forced Sanchez to scramble in attempt to make something happen.

It’s great that the Jets have confidence in Sanchez to make plays in the passing game, but Schottenheimer’s play-calling was atrocious and he should re-visit how he plans on protecting his quarterback in future weeks.

For the Saints, this win further proved their elite status in the NFL. Drew Brees and the passing game was held in check throughout the game, but Pierre Thomas and the Saints’ rushing attack racked up 153 yards and often kept the chains moving. Hopefully Sean Payton was paying attention to how hard Thomas ran throughout the game, so he doesn’t continue to leave the talented back on the sidelines in short-yardage situations.

The Saints defense has improved dramatically this season. Sharper has played like a man possessed and veterans like Roman Harper and Jabari Greer have stepped up in the secondary. New Orleans’ front four is as good as anyone in the league, too.

The NFC South is the Saints to lose, if not the conference.

Are the Colts the team to beat in the AFC?

Quick, name the best team in the AFC.

The Patriots? Too many flaws, especially on defense.

The Ravens? Maybe now that they have an offense to match their defense, but their loss in New England on Sunday raised more concerns about their receiving corps.

The Jets? As of this writing, the Saints are making Mark Sanchez look an awfully lot like a rookie starting in his first season. But if they come back and earn a win in New Orleans, then Rex Ryan’s team certainly makes a case that they’re the best in the conference.

The answer to the proposed question, my friends, may very well be the Indianapolis Colts. I understand that this might not be a fair time to ask a question like this given that they had a free win against the banged up Seahawks on Sunday, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Peyton Manning and his offense looks unstoppable, or that Indy’s defense is faster and more aggressive under new coordinator Larry Coyer.

One could certainly make the argument that the Colts haven’t faced anyone this season with wins over the Jaguars, Dolphins, Cardinals and Seahawks. But in each of their wins, Manning has thrown for over 300 yards and has run Tom Moore’s version of the no-huddle offense to near perfection.

There is some concern that the defense will wear down because of the offense’s quick-hit approach, and the running game has almost been non-existent. But as long as the Colts stay close, Manning is going to give them an opportunity to win in the fourth quarter.

The schedule is incredibly favorable for Indianapolis over the next couple weeks. They’re at Tennessee next week, have a bye in Week 6 and then play the Rams in Week 7. Their first true challenge of the year might not come until Week 8 when they host the ever-improving 49ers.

Things are set up for the Colts to streak to the playoffs again this year. And with an improved defense, the sky appears to be the limit for this team.

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