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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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It’s official: The wedding night and honeymoon are over for the Saints

NEW ORLEANS - AUGUST 27: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints watches a play during the game against the San Diego Chargers at the Louisiana Superdome on August 27, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Saints defeated the Chargers 36-21. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The Saints are currently in post-Super Bowl hell.

Every week, their opponent acts is if its their Super Bowl, which means New Orleans will get everyone’s best effort from here on out.

Every week, defensive coordinators want to be the one that comes up with the game plan that beat Sean Payton’s offense.

And that means that every week, teams like the Cardinals have an opportunity to pull off an upset.

In Arizona on Sunday, the Cardinals recovered two fumbles for touchdowns and returned an interception for a touchdown to shock New Orleans, 30-20. It was exactly the type of defensive effort the Cards needed since they were starting an undrafted rookie quarterback in Max Hall, who made his fair share of mistakes but went on to complete 17-of-27 passes for 168 yards and an interception. He took way too many hits, but he targeted Larry Fitzgerald (7 catches, 93 yards) nine times, spread the ball around effectively and most importantly, he pulled off a win in his first career start.

Not bad for a rookie considering whom his opponent was.

At 3-2, it isn’t time to start making definitive statements about the Saints. But it’s safe to say that this isn’t the same team that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy back in February.

Drew Brees threw for 294 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday, but he was also intercepted three times and has only thrown for over 300 yards once this year (365 vs. the Falcons in Week 3). It doesn’t help that both Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas were out again this week and that the Saints couldn’t run the ball, although it may not have mattered today. Arizona’s defense swarmed to the ball and put New Orleans back on its heels for most of the game.

After the Saints lost to the Falcons, everyone figured they would get back on track quickly with the Panthers, Cardinals, Bucs and Browns on their upcoming schedule. But they barely beat the Panthers last Sunday, were soundly beaten today and will face a 3-1 Tampa team brimming with confidence next week. If they’re not careful, the Saints are going to dig themselves a hole heading towards the midway point in the season.

But that’s life for a defending champ. Every week they have a target on their backs.

Are the Redskins and Bucs for real?

Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Neal (L), without his helmet, watches as teammates pursue Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb in the first half of their NFL football game in Landover, Maryland, October 10, 2010.   REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Despite their wins on Sunday and their overall records, I’m struggling with the notion that the Redskins and Bucs are “for real” (whatever that means). Personally, I think they’re both a product of their circumstances.

Let me explain before Washington and Tampa Bay Fan rip my nuggets off.

The Bucs have beaten three teams with weak passing games (Cleveland, Carolina and Cincinnati). Their only loss was at the hands of the Steelers, who absolutely destroyed them on their home field in Week 3.

Wins are tied to yards per pass and turnovers. Teams that can throw for more yards per pass and turn the ball over less usually win. (Look at the box scores from this week in the NFL if you think I’m making this up.) With that in mind, is it that big of a shock that the Bucs are 3-1 after facing teams that can’t throw the ball? Some would say yes just based on how bad Tampa was last year, but you have to consider how brutal the Browns, Panthers and Bengals’ passing games are when it comes to Tampa’s surprising start.

Now, the Redskins are kind of a different story. They’ve beaten the Cowboys, Eagles and Packers – three teams that have better passing games than the teams Tampa has faced. However, Dallas’ offense carried its funk from preseason into the regular season, Philadelphia lost Michael Vick in the first quarter last week and Green Bay has racked up more injuries than the front lines of the Revolutionary War.

Again I ask, are these two teams for real or have they cashed in on some nice opportunities early in the year?

That said, regardless of what I or anyone else thinks, the Skins (3-2) and Bucs (3-1) are what their records say they are. You can’t take that away from them and after both of them produced some big-time wins today, so I hate to damper the mood.

But we’ll see.

Get used to the way this Falcons team wins

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) throws with pressure from Cleveland Browns linebacker David Bowens during the second quarter of their NFL football game in Cleveland, Ohio October 10, 2010. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

At halftime of the game between the Browns and Falcons, I was ready to start using the term “overrated” when it came to Atlanta. Before the season, many pundits said the Falcons were Super Bowl contenders, yet there they were in Cleveland on Sunday trailing 7-6 and being somewhat dominated by a more motivated Browns’ defense.

But a 20-10 win later and I’ve started to realize that the Falcons are who they are.

They’re not overrated – far from it. Are they a Super Bowl contender? Maybe, but don’t expect them to play as smooth and as fluid as the Saints did last year when they rolled over opponents on a weekly basis. Atlanta is heavy metal compared to New Orleans’ smooth jazz.

This Falcons team relies on its running game and methodical passing to wear defenses down in the second half and keep the game close. Then, when they have an opportunity to strike, they take it and all of a sudden have found a way to win.

Most teams try to have a similiar philosophy, but few pull it off like the Falcons. Thanks to Michael Turner’s 140 yards on 19 carries, Atlanta wore Cleveland’s defense out and then just when you thought Matt Ryan wasn’t going to complete a pass for more than five yards (or complete a pass period), he hit Roddy White on a 45-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter and the Falcons never looked back.

If you’re a football fan and you’ve watched the Falcons these first five weeks, chances are you haven’t been impressed outside of their rout of the Cardinals in Week 2. You may have even wanted to use the term “overrated” yourself.

But the fact remains that they’re 4-1, Ryan is making plays when it matters most, Turner and Snelling continue to wear teams down, White is damn near unstoppable and the defense is fast and opportunistic. (Did you see Kroy Biermann’s 41-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the game? Holy amazing play, Batman.)

Have they been fortunate a couple of times this year? Without a doubt. Garrett Hartley’s missed field goal in Week 3, Nate Clements’ fumble in Week 4 and Seneca Wallace’s (who was playing great before coming out just before halftime) injury today has all played a huge factor in Atlanta’s strong start. But it all plays into the Falcons’ makeup in some weird, twisted way.

“Winning Ugly” should be their philosophy the rest of the season.

That win is on you, Mike Martz

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte warms up before before a preseason game against the Oakland Raiders at Soldier Field in Chicago on August 21, 2010.   UPI/Brian Kersey Photo via Newscom

With Jay Cutler out and the I-can’t-believe-dude-is-this-bad Todd Collins in, Mike Martz knew he had to change his offensive philosophy for Sunday’s game against the Panthers.

So for the first time ever in his career, Martz ran the football. And he ran the football. And he ran, and ran, and continued to run until the Bears managed to scoop up a dominating 23-6 win. And thanks to Martz’s dedication to the run game, Matt Forte had an opportunity to be the hero and that’s exactly what he was.

Forte rushed 22 times for a career-high 166 yards and two touchdowns, which included a score on the first drive of the game on an 18-yard scamper. He also added a 68-yard score later in the first quarter to give Chicago a 14-3 lead.

It was rather impressive that the Panthers knew the Bears had to run to win and they still couldn’t stop Forte. Collins was just as bad as everyone feared (he completed only 6-of-16 passes and threw four interceptions), but it didn’t matter because Chicago grabbed an early lead and never looked back. Collins kept Carolina in the game, but thanks to Forte and Jimmy Clausen, the Bears never trailed.

At 4-1, the Bears now have sole possession of the NFC North.

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