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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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Fade Material: 2011 NFL Week 4 Predictions

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton passes on the sidelines as the Panthers play the Green Bay Packers in an NFL football game in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 18, 2011. UPI/Nell Redmond .

Two weeks ago I was a flaming pile of horse dung. Last week, I went 3-1 as the Raiders, Seahawks and Bears/Packers under all hit. My lone loss was the Patriots, who choked away a 21-0 lead in Buffalo.

What does all this mean? I’m ready for my first 4-0 Sunday! Or, more than likely, another 0-4 day. Either way it’ll be fun…

Lions @ Cowboys, 1:00PM ET
Something’s fishy about this line. The public is all over the 3-0 Lions, especially with how poorly the Cowboys played on Monday night in a win over the Redskins. Yet Detroit goes from +1 to +2.5 the night before the game? Give me the Cowboys, who are 7-3-1 against the spread in their last 11 games. (The home team is also 4-1 ATS in the last five meetings between these two teams.)
THE PICK: COWBOYS –2.5

Panthers @ Bears, 1:00PM ET
Cam Newton has been a big-time surprise so far but I think the Bears’ Tampa 2 will give him problems today in Chicago. That defense is designed to take away the big play, which has been a staple of Newton’s game early on. The Bears have always played better at home and I like the fact that the spread is below the key number of 7. The Bears are 4-1-1 against the spread in their last six games as a favorite, while the Panthers are 0-4-1 ATS in their last four road games.
THE PICK: BEARS –6.5

Giants @ Cardinals, 4:05PM ET
Eli Manning and the Giants looked fantastic against the Eagles last Sunday in Philadelphia, so it’s only natural that he and New York will struggle against a 1-2 Cardinals team today. This is another spread that doesn’t make much sense. The Giants opened as a 3-point favorite and despite a public backing, it’s dropped to New York –1. Kevin Kolb is familiar with the Giants’ defense from his days in Philadelphia and I think that experience will play out today in an outright Arizona victory.
THE PICK: CARDINALS +1

Broncos @ Packers, 4:15PM ET
I don’t like this spread either. The Broncos are vastly inferior to the Packers and yet the line continues to drop. The spread opened at Green Bay –13.5 and is now down to 12. Who on earth is taking Denver in this matchup? Better yet, who is betting against Green Bay? The line movement doesn’t make sense and when that happens, I like going against the grain. A week after winning an emotional back-and-forth battle against the Saints, the Packers found themselves down 10-0 to the Panthers and didn’t cover. Now they’re coming off a physical road win against a divisional opponent (the Bears) and face a non-conference team that’s 1-2. I think this one stays within 10 points.
THE PICK: BRONCOS +12

Last Week: 3-1
Season: 5-7

Check out Bullz-Eye.com for a complete list of NFL Week 4 odds.

2011 NFL Week 4 Primer

Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz reacts on the sidelines during the second half of their NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Detroit, Michigan December 20, 2009. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Panthers @ Bears, 1:00PM ET
Jay Cutler admitted on Wednesday that the pressure he’s facing on a weekly basis is starting to affect him. This of course prompted ESPN’s “First Take” to discuss whether or not there is too much crying coming from quarterbacks. You know what? I’m with Cutler. The offensive line has one job to do in pass protection: Protect the quarterback. If the front five isn’t doing their job then how does anyone believe Cutler can do his?

Bills @ Bengals, 1:00PM ET
If I’m a Bills fan I’m on top of the world right now but I’d also be a little leery about this Sunday. You’re coming off an emotion come-from-behind win against the Patriots last week at home and now you have to travel to Cincinnati to play a Bengals team that is more competitive than people think. Don’t get me wrong: this is a game Buffalo should win. But beware the letdown.

Titans @ Browns, 1:00PM ET
Apparently the Titans are considering splitting out Chris Johnson more as a receiver in the weeks ahead. Hey Tennessee, how about you figure out why Johnson is only rushing for 2.1 yards per carry at his normal position before trying him out at another one?

Lions @ Cowboys, 1:0oPM ET
After surrendering 20 points to the Vikings in the first half last week by blitzing heavily, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said his defense is unlikely to send extra defenders in Week 4. Of course, if Cowboys’ center Phil Costa is as bad snapping the ball on Sunday as he was on Monday night against the Redskins, the Lions won’t need to blitz much.

Vikings @ Chiefs, 1:00PM ET
When asked on Wednesday how his team is going to fix the struggles it’s been having in the second half of games, Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier responded with: “There’s a second half?”

Redskins @ Rams, 1:00PM ET
It’s funny, in preseason this was the only game on the Rams’ brutal first-half schedule that people figured would be a sure win. But Washington is 2-1 and certainly has enough offensive firepower to hand St. Louis its fourth straight loss. (Not that that “firepower” showed up in Dallas on Monday night.)

49ers @ Eagles, 1:00PM ET
Michael Vick is 100% sure that he’s going to play this Sunday against the 49ers. He’s about 10% sure that he’s going to finish it, however.

Saints @ Jaguars, 1:00PM ET
With so much attention being paid to the feel-good Lions and Bills, hardly anyone is talking about how the Saints have scored 30-plus points in all three of their games this year. I’m telling you: Don’t sleep on New Orleans this year. They have issues on defense but this is a Super Bowl-caliber team again.

Steelers @ Texans, 1:00PM ET
Here’s a perfect opportunity for the Texans to notch that one signature win that can build confidence in them the rest of the season. They nearly knocked off the Saints last weekend in New Orleans before running out of gas in the fourth quarter. With Arian Foster set to return this week, a win over the Steelers could do wonders for a team that still hasn’t proven that it belongs among the top teams in the AFC.

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2011 NFL Week 4 Point Spreads & Odds

Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (R) is back to pass against the New England Patriots, in the second quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York September 25, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Keep Your Eye On: Bills –3 at. Bengals
Who would have thought that the Bills would be sitting at 3-0 and installed as a road favorite at this point in the season? This is an interesting game because while the Bengals are sitting at 1-2 on the season following back-to-back losses, they’re a lot better than people think they are. They’re at least competitive and rookie Andy Dalton isn’t a complete disaster (at least not yet anyway). The Bills are coming off an emotional win against a huge divisional rival and now have to travel this week. Believe it or not, this will be a nice test for Ryan Fitzpatrick and Co.

Primetime: Ravens –3.5 vs. Jets; Bucs –10 vs. Colts
Rex Ryan’s new team heads to his former home when the Jets take on the Ravens this Sunday night. This game figures to be a physical, hard-fought battle and it very likely features two teams that will be competing for a playoff berth in the AFC. Mark Sanchez broke his nose last week but says he’s fine. That’s more than what Ryan’s defense can say after it was steamrolled by Darren McFadden and the Raiders last Sunday. The Jets will have another tough matchup against Ray Rice this weekend…The schedule makers didn’t do the fans any favors by putting the Colts on national television in back-to-back weeks. Of course, they didn’t count on Peyton Manning not playing either. Curtis Painter actually held his own against the Steelers last Sunday night so maybe the Colts will put another competitive effort together. That said, the Bucs are coming off a huge win over the Falcons and will be playing with a ton of confidence.

Highest Point Spread: Packers –13 vs. Broncos
Although they looked rather pedestrian two weeks ago in Carolina, the Packers came out last Sunday and put together a solid effort from start to finish against their division rivals, the Bears. Now they return home where they’re 13-point favorites against a Broncos team that is searching for an identity under new head coach John Fox. Last week the Chargers failed to cover as 14.5-point home favorites against a 0-2 Chiefs team that had been outscored 89-6 in their two previous games. Thus, be careful about laying so much wood in an NFL game, although at least this spread is below one of the magic numbers in football (i.e. 14).

Lowest Point Spread: See below.
There are several 1-point spreads this week, none bigger then Lions-Cowboys at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday. The unbeaten Lions have won in a variety of ways already this year: on the road close, at home blowout, on the road come-from-behind. As they proved on Monday night against the Redskins, the Cowboys are a bit of a mess right now. They have several players banged up and Tony Romo is working with a smattering of receivers that aren’t familiar with Jason Garrett’s offense. This is a great opportunity for the Lions to get to 4-0…Other 1-point spreads include: Browns –1 vs. Titans, Vikings –1 at Chiefs, Rams –1 vs. Redskins, Giants –1 at. Cardinals.

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The offensive lines are killing these three NFC playoff contenders

New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith sacks Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the second half of their NFL football game at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana November 2, 2009. New Orleans won the game 35-27. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES SPORT FOOTBALL)

One of two things is going to happen if the Bears, Eagles and Falcons don’t get their issues along the offensive line figured out. They’re either going to get their quarterbacks killed and miss the playoffs, or they’re going to get their quarterbacks severely beaten and miss the playoffs. Either way, the season won’t end pretty for any of these teams.

It would be a gross understatement to say that the season hasn’t exactly started the way the Bears, Eagles and Falcons had envisioned. All three teams are 1-2 and are reeling at the moment. Most, not all, of their struggles can be pinned on the play of their lines. While the Bears’ front five gets scrutinized the most, the Falcons’ protection has easily been the worst in the league after three games. For those who tuned into that Sunday night game against the Eagles, you witnessed Trent Cole treat Atlanta LT Sam Baker like a revolving door to Matt Ryan.

Philadelphia has been opening up lanes for LeSean McCoy, but every lineman outside of tackle Jason Peters has struggled thus far in pass protection. Everyone knew the line was a question mark coming into the season and it certainly has been. The biggest culprit in pass protection has been rookie Jason Kelce, but it’s not like Todd Herremans and Kyle DeVan have done Michael Vick any favors either.

So what can be done? For Chicago, Mike Martz can start giving the ball more to Matt Forte. I realize that starting RT Gabe Carimi is injured and the front five hasn’t gotten much push in the running game but it’s criminal that Forte only received nine carries last Sunday. Lovie Smith had a sit-down with Martz during the team’s bye week last year and told him he needed to have a more balanced attack. The result was positive, as the Bears’ line played much better in the second half and the team wound up in the NFC Championship Game. This time, Smith may need to have that little chitchat earlier in the season.

For the Falcons, one option they have is to run the no-huddle exclusively, or at least more often. Ryan has had a ton of success running the hurry up since his rookie year and coordinator Mike Mularkey is a disciple of Sam Wyche, who ran the no-huddle with the Bengals in the mid 80s. The only time Atlanta’s offense has moved the ball in the last two weeks is when Ryan has been in the hurry up, which keeps defenses vanilla and slows down the edge rushers that have given the O-line fits. The Falcons ran the no-huddle in the first quarter last year in a win over Baltimore and had plenty of success with it. If Mularkey ran the offense more frequently, maybe the line could start to build some confidence. (It also wouldn’t hurt to bench Baker, who is clearly a bust at this point in his career.)

One of the reasons the Eagles’ line has had issues is because Vick has a tendency to hold the ball too long. But even if Vick made faster decisions it doesn’t change the fact that guys like Kelce have to grow up fast. When it comes to Philadelphia, the O-line might just need more time to gel.

In reality, allowing the line to develop cohesion might be the best thing for all of these teams. A big part of Tom Brady’s success in New England is because his line has played together for years. Unfortunately for the Bears, Eagles and Falcons, they don’t have years to wait. The health of their quarterbacks and their seasons hang in the balance.

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