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Ten Observations from Week 5 in the NFL

1. It doesn’t get more inspiring than the Colts’ performance vs. Green Bay.
When it’s all said and done, we’ll look back on the Colts’ 30-27 victory over the Packers as one of those defining moments in a season. The players in Indianapolis found out earlier this week that their head coach Chuck Pagano has a long road ahead of him as he gets ready to fight leukemia. So they fought for him on Sunday, turning in an inspiring performance against a Green Bay team that’s banged up yet still dangerous. The Colts struck gold in Andrew Luck, who joined Cam Newton as only the second rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 or more yards in three of his first four starts. The kid is for real, and he’s tougher than a bad piece of meat. All elite passers take risks and Luck is no exception. He continuously fired passes into tight windows today and it’s incredible how quickly he’s developed chemistry with Reggie Wayne. But this win wasn’t just about Luck. The Colts could have thrown in the towel when the Packers jumped out to a 21-3 lead. But they didn’t. Granted, Green Bay is banged up and lost a couple of more players today, including defensive tackle B.J. Raji. But the Packers have some of the best depth in the league and the Colts are devoid of overall talent on both sides of the ball. Greg Jennings or no Greg Jennings, what Indy did today was impressive.

2. The Falcons’ offense is dangerous but not complete.
It’s hard to nitpick a team that’s 5-0. Matt Ryan is having the finest season of his career, Tony Gonzalez has thrived with the amount of attention that opponents have to pay to Roddy White and Julio Jones, the defense has been fantastic, and the change from Mike Mularkey to Dirk Koetter at offensive coordinator has made a massive difference for the undefeated Falcons. But if there’s one thing holding Atlanta back, it’s a lack of a dominant running game. Michael Turner has had success the past two weeks, but it’s come when the opposing defense is worn down. And even though Koetter has wisely built his scheme around Ryan (where as Mularkey kept the focus on Turner), the Falcons won’t be as dangerous as they could be without a power running game. What made the 2009 Saints so dangerous is that once Sean Payton had a defense back on its heels trying to slow down the New Orleans passing game, he would pound Pierre Thomas inside to draw those safeties back up. Balance remains the key for NFL offenses, even in a passing league. There were times on Sunday when the Redskins dared the Falcons to run the ball and Atlanta just couldn’t do it with much consistency. So while the Falcons should be thrilled about their 5-0 start, at some point Koetter needs to figure out a way to develop a power running game. Unfortunately Turner’s skills are declining and second-year player Jacquizz Rodgers has made a limited impact.

3. Are the Vikings for real? They just might be.
In looking at the Vikings’ schedule up to this point, it would be easy to dismiss their 4-1 start. Three of their four wins have come against teams with losing records and three of their first five contests have come at home. But they did beat a team in the 49ers that many consider to be the class of the NFC and when you watch the Vikings play you realize they haven’t shown many flaws. They’re the team that doesn’t excel in one single area (outside of many run defense), but they do everything just well enough. Their offensive line does a decent job protecting Christian Ponder, who hadn’t thrown an interception until he threw two in Minnesota’s 30-7 win over Tennessee on Sunday. Percy Harvin continues to be the team’s best weapon, although Adrian Peterson has already exceeded expectations coming off knee surgery and tight end Kyle Rudolph is quickly becoming one of Ponder’s favorite targets. Is this a great team? No, but the schedule is very favorable until after they come back from their Week 11 bye. So for those waiting for Minnesota to come back to earth, you may be waiting a while.

4. Thanks to the Broncos’ sloppiness, the game of the week was a dud.
There was a moment in yesterday’s Denver-New England game when you thought we were going to have a classic Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady finish. But then Denver coughed the ball up inside the red zone (its third turnover of the day), and it sent most viewers scrambling for the remote. Arguably the best storyline coming into Week 5 was Manning vs. Brady, but the game was a loser right from the start. Thanks in large part to the Broncos’ miscues, the Patriots built a 17-7 halftime lead and increased the deficit to 31-7 with under five minutes remaining in the third quarter. Manning did cut the lead down to 31-21 but when New England gave Denver a golden opportunity to get within three points, the Broncos gave the gift right back. You were left wondering whether or not Denver is nothing more than a 9-7 team posing as a serious contender.

5. The last two weeks identify what the Eagles are.
Last Sunday night Michael Vick didn’t turn the ball over and played within himself. The result was an Eagles’ victory over the Giants. On Sunday, Vick turned the ball over twice, including once on the goal line, and the result wasn’t as favorable for Philadelphia. Granted, he did orchestrate an outstanding 17-play, eight-minute touchdown drive to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. But all of Vick’s comebacks this year is largely due to the fact that Vick himself put the Eagles in a hole. Pittsburgh’s now-healthy defense had a lot to do with Vick’s struggles, so let’s give credit were credit is due. But it’s getting to be pretty simple to define Philadelphia. When Vick doesn’t turn the ball over, they win. When he does, he either has to lead them to a fourth quarter comeback or the team falls flat. With how well the defense has played this season, Philadelphia should challenge for the NFC East crown. But it’s gotten to the point that as Vick goes, so does the Eagles.

6. That was a real stinker by the Ravens.
Let’s get all of the clichés out of the way first: You earn everything you get in the NFL. A win is a win. All that matters is that “W.” Having said that, what a brutal performance by Baltimore yesterday in Kansas City. The Chiefs have been dreadful for every game but one this season (an overtime victory in New Orleans), were on the verge of replacing their starting quarterback coming into the week, and have been a total disaster at times defensively. And yet a well rested Ravens team could only muster 9 points? A win is a win but Baltimore has some underlying problems. Edge rushers have given the offensive tackles problems and the defense can’t stop the run (as evidence in Kansas City’s 214 yards on the ground yesterday). Despite the changes Cam Cameron implemented this offseason, the Ravens’ offense is still a work in progress as well. There’s no doubt that Baltimore is going to be in the playoff mix at the end of the season and hey, sometimes good teams don’t play well. But some of Baltimore’s issues were on full display in Kansas City.

7. Gailey’s seat just got hotter in Buffalo.
Chan Gailey challenged his team’s toughness heading into Sunday’s game with the 49ers and his players responded by rolling over in a 45-3 San Francisco victory. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for only 126 yards with no touchdowns and one interception as his arm strength continues to limit what Buffalo can do offensively. The new high-priced defense also allowed Alex Smith to throw for 303 yards and at one point in the second half the Bills’ defenders gave up trying to tackle anyone. This is a 2-3 team that already looks defeated. They lack an identity on defense and thanks to Fitzpatrick, there’s a ceiling on what the offense can do. With Gailey at the controls, it’s unlikely that the Bills figure it out and turn things around. In fact, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

8. The Saints’ skid is over, but…
All things considered, it was a great night in New Orleans. Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game, moving him past Johnny Unitas for the all-time record. He also threw for 730 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception as the Saints beat the Chargers and finally got into the win column in 2012. But even though the numbers were eye-popping, you can tell there’s still something off with this New Orleans team. The defense did cause two turnovers but it’s ready to wilt at every turn, and without Sean Payton the offense isn’t as dominant as it has been in years past. We’re so used to holding out breath because the Saints could score at any moment. But without Payton’s brilliant play calling, this offense is missing its punch. Either way, it was a good win for a team that can finally let out a sigh of relief. The Saints have a long ways to go in order to get back into the NFC South race (especially with Atlanta sitting at 5-0), but that first victory is always the hardest.

9. The Panthers will continue to be hamstrung by Newton.
As Michael Vick goes, so do the Philadelphia Eagles. And as Cam Newton goes, so does the Carolina Panthers. Newton is a phenomenal young talent. He really is. He has the ability to put his team on his back, do his Superman thing and will Carolina to victory. He also has the ability to sink the Panthers in the blink of an eye and as we’ve found out the past two weeks, he’s not a closer. While leading 16-12 on Sunday, the Seahawks put the game in Newton’s hands by taking a safety with just under a minute left to play. It’s not easy for any quarterback to drive down the field in less than a minute and score a game-winning touchdown, nevertheless a second-year signal caller. But the Panthers didn’t even sniff mid-field because Newton had the ball stripped out of his hands. He also skipped a pass to Ben Hartsock on a 4th-and-1 from the goal line two series before that would have given the Panthers the lead had he put the pass on the money. Part of the problem in Carolina is that Ron Rivera is too conservative with his game plans. First and second-year head coaches will often play not to lose and they wind up losing a lot of close games. But at some point Newton has to be expected to raise the level of his play. That’s why Carolina drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick last year and why they’ve installed him as the face of the franchise. At some point he simply has to get it done in the fourth quarter.

10. The Dolphins might own the most underrated defense in the NFL.
After their 17-13 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, it’s time to pump the breaks on the Bengals. Entering today they were 3-1 but their wins came against the Browns, Redskins and Jaguars, which isn’t exactly a Murderers’ Row of elite NFL talent. The Bengals can’t run the ball with any success, which makes them one-dimensional offensively, and they struggle stopping the run on defense. That said, Miami’s defense is solid. In fact, it might be the most underrated defense in the league next to Pete Carroll’s squad in Seattle. Opponents are having a difficult time running against that front seven and Cameron Wake is a fierce pass rusher. The secondary has bouts of inconsistency, but the Dolphins have been in every game outside of a 30-10 loss to the Texans in Week 1. Unfortunately there’s a ceiling on how good Miami can be thanks to a rookie quarterback and a lack of explosive weapons. But Kevin Coyle’s defense gives the Dolphins an opportunity to compete week in and week out.

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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The Titans have to make a quarterback change

Brady

A year after starting 10-0 and earning the AFC’s top playoff seed last year, the Tennessee Titans have crumbled to a 0-5 start in 2009. And outside of keeping things close against the Steelers in Week 1, it’s been an ugly 0-5 for Jeff Fisher’s team.

In the Colts’ 31-9 win over the Titans on Sunday night, it was again evident that Kerry Collins can’t lead Tennessee’s offense. When his offensive line didn’t give him time to throw this year, he stumbled into sacks by moving backwards in the pocket. When they did give him time, he was off the mark and inaccurate.

The Titans can no longer line up with an opponent and go toe to toe with them. They simply don’t have enough offensive firepower to keep up with how many points their defense is giving up, so Fisher needs to start getting creative. If Collins can’t move the offense, then Vince Young needs to start.

Fisher and his coaching staff obviously doesn’t think Young gives the Titans the best chance to win or else he’d already be starting. But what do they have to lose at this point? If Young gets his confidence back, he might light a fire under the rest of Tennessee’s offense and inspire his team not to quit on the rest of he season. If he flubs, then he flubs and the Titans will continue to drudge through what is turning out to be a lost season.

At one point, the Titans thought Young was going to be their quarterback for a long time. His mental collapse last year was unfortunate, but at some point Tennessee needs to move past that and see if Young will ever be the quarterback they thought he would once be.

It’s good that Fisher went to Young in the fourth quarter tonight, but Vince deserves a chance to take first-team reps in practice and prepare for a defense as a starter. As Young showed by picking up a first down on a third and long, he can make things happen with his legs and at the very least keep the chains moving. He’s still going to make mistakes, but Collins has made his fair share to start the year so you might as well roll the dice with the more athletic Young.

Fisher needs to realize that his 2008 team isn’t coming back. The wily veteran quarterback that led his team to a 13-3 record has aged about 10 years and is playing with a lack of confidence. It’s time to go back to Vince Young.

Is Tom Brady playing with a lack of confidence?

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The Patriots’ 20-17 overtime loss to the Broncos in Denver on Sunday is a perfect example of how the stat sheet doesn’t tell the whole story.

Tom Brady threw for 215 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions on 19-of-33 passing today. That’s a solid stat line and if someone were only looking at those numbers, they’d attribute New England’s loss to something other than its quarterback.

But all is not right with Brady. His offensive line gave him plenty of time today and yet he never got into a rhythm in the passing game, which isn’t the first time I’ve written that about Brady in 2009. He never seemed to get on the same page as his receivers and he overthrew an open Randy Moss (who finished with only one catch) at least twice.

Brady has always been a fiery player, but he seems to express his frustrations more openly this season. It’s almost like he’s trying too hard to be the player he was before his knee injury and isn’t allowing the game to come to him. He knows he’s missing open receivers and he’s not shaking the bad plays off as quickly as he once did. His confidence seems to be down and it has made the Pats incredibly vulnerable.

That said, New England’s loss in Denver today could hardly be pinned solely on Brady missing the mark in the passing game. Kyle Orton shredded the Patriots’ pass defense for 330 yards and two touchdowns on 35-of-48 passing. Say what you want about Orton, but he’s 26-12 as a starter despite having only two 300-plus passing games over his career. That’s a testament to how well he manages the game and limits mistakes.

It was good to see Eddie Royal (10 receptions, 90 yards) finally snap out of his early season funk and turn in a complete game. If he can build off this, he’ll give Orton another weapon in the passing game and help take attention off of Brandon Marshall, who once again came up huge with a fourth quarter touchdown.

If the Broncos could crash at any point and their 5-0 start would be nothing but a distant memory. But if their defense continues to play as well as it has, then they’ll cruise to an AFC West title, which seemed highly unlikely just five weeks ago.

Falcons expose Shaun Hill, 49ers

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Up until their 45-10 loss to the Falcons in Week 5, Shaun Hill and the 49ers felt pretty good about how they started their 2009 season. Hill wasn’t setting the stat book on fire, but he kept the chains moving by making smart decisions and taking care of the football.

But on Sunday, Atlanta jumped out to a sizable first half lead and forced Hill to beat them through the air. What proceeded was a nasty performance highlighted by off-the-mark throws and inconsistency. He didn’t get much help from the running game, but he never got into a rhythm passing and his limitations as a quarterback were on full display. He struggled mightily with the intermediate and deep passes today.

That said, the Niners won’t be making a switch any time soon. It’s not like Mike Singletary didn’t know that Hill wasn’t Peyton Manning in preseason and Hill still beat out Alex Smith for the starting job. The bottom line is that San Fran will struggle this season when it can’t run the ball and the defense doesn’t step up.

Speaking of the Niners’ defense, Matt Ryan and Roddy White absolutely took them to school today. Ryan threw for 329 yards and two touchdowns on 22 of 32 passing, while White had his best outing of the year with eight receptions for 210 yards and two touchdowns. White, who had gotten off to a slow start this season, found holes in San Francisco’s defense and as he often is, Ryan was accurate with his throws.

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Raiders’ Russell continues to regress in development

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It may be a tad premature to write this given that he’s only in his third year, but it’s getting harder and harder not to tab JaMarcus Russell as one of the worst No. 1 overall picks in NFL history.

Al Davis was blinded by Russell’s arm strength three years ago. Russell might be able to throw the ball the length of the field, but his pocket presence his atrocious and his work ethic is abysmal. When he drops back to pass, it’s clear he doesn’t know where to go with the ball and how to read a defense.

In the Raiders’ 44-7 loss to the Giants on Sunday, Russell completed just 8 of his 13 pass attempts for 100 yards, was sacked six times and lost three fumbles. He simply cannot function in an NFL offense and relies too much on his natural ability to get by. If he doesn’t start putting in the work and learning how to read defenses, he’s never going to succeed and he’ll be out of the league in a couple of years.

Russell is a prime example of why it’s so important for teams to evaluate the intelligence of players. That will never happen with Davis because he’ll always put talent above all else, but draft evaluators are dreaming if they think they can teach work ethic and football smarts. Russell can make all the throws, but he doesn’t have the awareness to get the ball out on time or to deliver it to the right spot. One would think that he would compensate for that by working harder, but he doesn’t.

If Russell doesn’t show vast improvement this season, the Raiders can’t wait to start developing another quarterback. He’s regressed every year he’s been in the league and he’s not going to start succeeding overnight. I realize the Giants have a great defense and make a lot of quarterbacks look bad on Sundays, but Russell can’t even accomplish basic functions. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing the Giants or Rams, if he doesn’t understand the basics the Raiders will continue to spiral into football purgatory.

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