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Ten Observations from Week 7 in the NFL

1. Flacco still isn’t ready to carry Ravens.
For the past four years, Joe Flacco has been able to get away with inconsistent performance after inconsistent performance because his defense constantly bailed him out. The Ravens coped with his hot and cold production because they were dominant on the other side of the ball. But with injuries to Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb, Baltimore is no longer a force defensively. Houston’s receivers ran free in the Ravens’ secondary and the Texans’ offensive line had its way with Baltimore’s defensive front in the running game. For once, the Ravens needed Flacco to carry his defense and instead he turned in a brutal performance. He completed just 21-of-43 passes for 147 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, and when he wasn’t skipping passes to his receivers he was throwing over their heads. Granted, Houston relentlessly pressured the pocket and its secondary was excellent. But the game looked like it was moving way too fast for Flacco, which is troublesome considering he’s a fifth-year starter. Baltimore’s offense hasn’t been in sync for weeks and now that the defense is limping, the door has opened for the Steelers to chip away at their rival’s lead in the division.

2. Rodgers is heating up.
The Packers aren’t exactly the perfect specimens. Their no huddle isn’t firing on all cylinders, their running game is non-existent, and their defense can be ordinary at times. But when Aaron Rodgers plays like he did in Green Bay’s 30-20 victory over St. Louis on Sunday, the Packers are difficult to beat. Rodgers was insanely accurate versus the Rams, completing 30-of-37 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. He was as good in the Lou as he was in Houston the week before and now that the Packers have gotten past the challenging part of their schedule (which included three straight road games), you can tell they’re ready to make a run at the Bears and Vikings in the NFC North. And thanks to Rodgers being Rodgers again, don’t be surprised if Green Bay eventually catches and surpasses its division rivals.

3. Pass defense makes Patriots vulnerable.
The Patriots claimed sole possession of first place in the AFC East with their 29-26 victory over the Jets on Sunday. Their rushing attack continues to be an important cog in their success, as they’re now 4-0 this season when rushing for more than 100 yards. But their pass defense continues to hold them back. Despite his best efforts not to at times, Mark Sanchez looked like a competent quarterback on Sunday. He completed a career-high nine passes of 15 yards or more and nearly led the Jets to what many believed to be an improbable victory in Foxboro. Opposing wideouts are allowed to run free in Bill Belichick’s zone and the pass rush continues to be inconsistent. Thus, even though the Patriots remain one of the most dangerous teams offensively, their defense will allow opponents to stay in games until the end, just as it did Sunday versus the Jets.

4. The Steelers’ defense finally steps up.
In Pittsburgh’s 24-17 victory over Cincinnati, the Steelers’ much maligned defense had to stop the Bengals on three separate drives in the fourth quarter. That’s usually not a noteworthy task for Dick LeBeau’s defensive unit, but the Steelers have become a team known for blowing fourth quarter leads this season. The Bengals didn’t even reach their own 40-yard line on each of their final three drives as Pittsburgh bowed up and finally resembled something of its past. Granted, it wasn’t all pretty for the Steelers. They dropped two touchdown passes in the first half and injuries continue to be a problem on defense. Still, the Ravens are a mess right now and the Bengals’ psyche has taken a huge hit. Furthermore, Pittsburgh was able to get its running game going thanks to Jonathan Dwyer (17 carries, 122 yards), so the Steelers might be able to help out their defense by sustaining drives and keeping opponents off the field. All of a sudden things are looking up again in Pittsburgh.

5. The Cowboys win but trouble remains.
The Cowboys essentially saved their season with a hard fought, but lackluster 19-14 victory over the Panthers on Sunday. There are several underlying problems in Big D right now. Sean Lee and Phil Costa had to leave the game with injuries, the Cowboys racked up just 19 points against a defense that allowed 25.0 PPG coming into Week 7, and there’s clearly a lack of trust between Jason Garrett and his team. Why else would he call a run on third-and-9 from the Carolina 15-yard line in the fourth quarter instead of allowing Tony Romo to fire a pass to the end zone? Maybe because Dez Bryant had just dropped yet another pass the play before? Or because Garrett is afraid Romo will once again turn the ball over trying to do too much? Garrett is playing not to lose and even though the Cowboys won on Sunday, that’s proven to be a losing proposition from week to week. Since their impressive victory Week 1 against the Giants, the ‘Boys have failed to generate much momentum over these last six games. If they’re not skating by with a win like they did in Carolina, they’re imploding like they did versus Chicago on Monday Night Football.

6. Despite the loss, RGIII’s statue continues to grow.
Robert Griffin III made several mistakes on Sunday, which included turning the ball over twice in New York territory and taking a 12-yard sack on a 1st-and-10 early in the fourth quarter. But the man continues to dazzle, so much so that following the game the Giants crowned him the best quarterback they’ve faced this season. There was the sensational 19-yard completion to Logan Paulsen on 4th-and-10 less than three minutes remaining that kept Washington’s hopes alive. There was the picture perfect 30-yard rainbow to Santana Moss that should have been the Redskins’ game-winning score. And there were the nine electric runs for 89 yards that sent the crowd at MetLife Stadium to their feet. It wasn’t a perfect performance and he’ll have to limit the mistakes going forward, just as he’s learned to cut down on absorbing big hits when he runs. But RGIII once again put on a show and once he figures out how to win on a consistent basis, then he’ll really impress.

7. How long before Ponder bursts Minnesota’s bubble?
Nobody expected the Vikings to be sitting at 5-2 after seven weeks. But thanks in large part to a restructured offensive line, a healthy Adrian Peterson and a defense that doesn’t have a glaring weakness, Minnesota is very much a playoff contender at this point. That said, how long will it be until Christian Ponder starts holding this team back? He completed just 8-of-17 passes for 58 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday. It was the second time in two weeks that he floated an interception to a defender, failed to sustain drives and generally misfired on most of his passes. Granted, he’s dealing with a sore knee so maybe that has affected his performance. But Sunday was also the second time in the past four games that Leslie Frazier and his coaching staff decided to run out the clock as soon as they built a second half lead. The Vikings turned the lights off at Mall of America Field as soon as Harrison Smith went 31 yards to the end zone on a pick six to start the second half. Are Frazier and Co. overly cautious or do they not trust Ponder? We’ll find out after Minnesota’s Week 11 bye when they play at Chicago and Green Bay before hosting the Bears in Week 14.

8. The Bucs are the Bucs’ own worst enemy.
The Bucs were screwed on the final play of the Saints’ 35-28 victory on Sunday. It’s more than a little unfair that Mike Williams was shoved out of bounds by a New Orleans defender and after hauling in a touchdown pass from Josh Freeman (who was outstanding, by the way), was penalized for being the first person to touch the ball. After all, what’s from stopping defenders from pushing receivers out of bounds all the time if they know the refs aren’t going to call pass interference? Regardless, the Bucs had already shot themselves in the foot twice before that game-ending play. With 14:54 left in the fourth quarter and the Saints leading 28-21, the Bucs drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for trying to simulate the snap count on a 51-yard New Orleans field goal attempt. Instead of possibly trailing by 10 with the entire fourth quarter left to play, the penalty kept the Saints drive alive and the Bucs fell behind by two touchdowns. Earlier in the half, Freeman hit Vincent Jackson on a 95-yard touchdown pass to set Tampa up at the New Orleans 1-yard line. The Bucs then proceeded to call three straight runs with LeGarrette Blount, all of which were stopped cold by the league’s worst defense. Freeman then lost four yards on 4th-and-1 and the Bucs inexcusably didn’t get points on the drive. Thus, while Tampa Bay fans have every right to cry foul on the final play of the game, their team didn’t do themselves any favors, which included blowing leads of 14-0 and 21-7 in the first half.

9. The Saints aren’t going away but their road back remains challenging.
Drew Brees reminded everyone on Sunday that he’s still one of the most dangerous passers in the NFL, one that is quite capable of leading a team out of the doldrums. He completed 27-of-37 passes for 377 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in the Saints’ 35-28 victory over the Bucs. He did all of this with one of his biggest and best weapons, Jimmy Graham, sidelined with an ankle injury. The 6-0 Falcons have a commanding lead in the NFC South but don’t forget that the Saints still have two games against their division rivals. It’s not inconceivable that New Orleans rattles off a few more wins and put itself in position to make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the NFC. That said, the Saints are owners of the worst defense in the league and their schedule is challenging the rest of the way. They play Atlanta twice, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York and Dallas before the year is out. And even with Brees throwing for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns, it’s going to be difficult for the Saints to overcome that early 0-4 hole they put themselves into.

10. Injury roundup.
The Redskins were hit the hardest on Sunday. They lost tight end Fred Davis to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury and it was reported following the game that Pierre Garcon has a torn tendon in his foot. London Fletcher also left the Giants game with a hamstring injury. For the Browns, rookie running back Trent Richardson was apparently benched for ineffectiveness against the Colts but he says his rib injury is worse than people think. As previously mentioned, Cowboys’ linebacker Sean Lee left the Carolina game with a toe injury and Phil Costa suffered an ankle sprain that looked pretty bad at the time.

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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Sunday Evening Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 7 in the NFL

Every Sunday evening 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…

DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING…

Denver Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow celebrates after running the ball in for a two-point conversion to tie the score in the fourth quarter of play against the Miami Dolphins in their NFL football game in Miami, Florida October 23, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Murray (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Earlier this week the Broncos said that they’re not going to change their offense with Tim Tebow taking over at quarterback. Then on Sunday, they kept their game plan ultra-conservative and hardly called any screen passes or high-percentage throws to help build his confidence while being dominated for 56 minutes by a winless Miami team. Do they want the kid to fail? Are they trying to prove that they were right by not starting him over Kyle Orton? Are they trying to stick it to all of the fans that have basically begged the organization to play Tebow? Either way, I absolutely love what the former Gator did today. Despite his coaching staff’s unwillingness to put him in position to succeed, he found a way to pull off a miraculous victory with some help from his defense and kicker Matt Prater. It wasn’t hard to figure that he would score a couple of touchdowns and compile over 200 total yards. But the way he did it was marvelous. The Broncos did nothing until four minutes left in the fourth, when he basically willed them to victory. He’s too nice of a guy to say it, but that had to feel good to stick it up his critics’ asses for just one week.

- While Denver refused to change its offense in efforts to help Tebow, Minnesota did a nice job of using designed roll-outs and plays that maximized rookie Christian Ponder’s strengths at quarterback. The rookie will be seeing Charles Woodson (2 INTs) in his nightmares for a while, but he showed a lot of grit bouncing back in the fourth quarter to nearly lead the Vikings to an upset over the still-undefeated Packers. Ponder is clearly an upgrade over Donovan McNabb and his performance today was definitely something to build on. Green Bay’s defense has struggled all year but for Ponder to have Minnesota in position to win in the fourth quarter was something not a lot of people expected.

- Anyone who watched DeMarco Murray play at Oklahoma knew he was a versatile player with a bright future. He did everything for the Sooners in his time at OU and the Cowboys really got a steal last April when they selected him with the 71st overall pick in the third-round. Nobody envisioned him rushing for 253 yards (a Dallas single-game record) in one game, but it was only a matter of time before Murray turned heads. Granted, 91 of those yards came on one play and he did face a pathetic St. Louis run defense. But given all the issues the Cowboys have had at running back over the years, his feat today had to be refreshing for Jerry Jones and Co. Here’s hoping the 23-year-old back can avoid injuries and build off of this incredible performance.

- I made it clear in my predictions this week that I liked the Chiefs to at least cover the 3.5-point spread in Oakland. But 28-0 with two 50-yard pick-sixes? Yeah, no – didn’t see that coming. Suddenly Kansas City is only a game back of San Diego and Oakland in the win column. That’s quite a contrast to where the Chiefs were a month ago, when head coach Todd Haley was nearly fired for the team’s ugly 0-3 start.

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Cowboys make statement against Falcons

Imagine if the Cowboys played with as much confidence, emotion and focus as they did Sunday against the Falcons. Maybe they’d actually cash in on some of their potential and make the playoffs.

Fresh off its bye, Dallas smacked Atlanta 37-21 in Week 7, as Tony Romo completed 21 of 29 pass attempts for 311 yards and three touchdowns. Receiver Miles Austin had another huge day, hauling in six passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns, including scores of 59 and 22 yards.

Defensively, the Cowboys looked like they were playing with a chip on their shoulder. Matt Ryan hasn’t been touched all season, yet Dallas consistently crashed the pocket and racked up four sacks. They also intercepted Ryan twice and forced two fumbles, although one was recovered by Atlanta.

The Cowboys need to find a way to play with this kind of fire every week. They made a statement today against a good opponent, but it means nothing if they come out next Sunday and give a lackluster effort. When they play at a high level, they’re tough to beat. But they’ve had issues playing consistently week in and week out, so the jury is still out on whether or not they can do it after this win.

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Turnovers doom Vikings in loss to Steelers

With their 27-17 win on Sunday, pundits are going to talk about how the Steelers made a statement against a good team. But there’s a strong argument that the good team the Steelers beat actually beat themselves.

The Vikings turned the ball over twice with less than seven minutes remaining, both of which resulted in defensive touchdowns for Pittsburgh. Brett Favre had a hand in both of the turnovers, as he was stripped once (which was returned by LaMarr Woodley for a 77-yard touchdown) and intercepted once (which was returned by Keyaron Fox for an 82-yard touchdown). In fairness to Favre, the interception ricocheted off Chester Taylor’s hands, but he was also a tad quick throwing the ball while setting up the screen.

Some may view Minnesota’s two turnovers as Pittsburgh’s defense making things happen. But the reality is that the fumble and interception were gifts by Favre and the Vikings, who were in scoring range both times. Minnesota had a chance to come away with a victory and wound up serving up a win for the Steelers.

That’s not to say that the Steelers didn’t earn the win, because they did. They held Adrian Peterson to only 69 yards on 18 carries and deserve credit for not only forcing two key turnovers, but also turning them into immediate points. But this was hardly a statement win. Not only did the Vikings turn the ball over twice late in the game, but they also committed 11 penalties (the Steelers only had three) and found ways to shoot themselves in the foot multiple times.

Alex Smith gets second life in San Francisco

The 49ers didn’t get a win in Houston on Sunday, but they may have found their new quarterback in a familiar face.

It appears that the stagnant play of Shaun Hill is finally over, as former first overall pick Alex Smith started the second half of the Niners’ 24-21 loss to the Texans in Week 7. Hill was just 6-of-11 passing for 45 yards in the first half and a very Shaun Hill-like 6.1 YPA. Smith came in and immediately sparked San Fran’s offense, marching them down the field and capping the drive off with a 29-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis. Smith then found Davis twice in the fourth quarter, including on a 23-yard score that cut the Texans’ lead down to 24-21 with less four minutes remaining.

The 49ers want to be a team that dominates opponents on the ground, which is fine. But with Hill, they couldn’t move the ball vertically through the air and teams like the Falcons and Texans took advantage of that the past three weeks. At some point, Mike Singletary and Jimmy Raye had to realize that their offensive approach wasn’t going to work as long as Hill was under center.

Smith might not have won the starting job in preseason, but he took it today. Will he be the key to getting the Niners to the playoffs? Maybe not, but at least he can complete passes further than 6.1 yards. It’s also nice to see that he developed a great connection with Davis, another one of San Fran’s former top 10 picks.

For the Texans, this was a nice win because they haven’t been very consistent this season. They’ve now won back-to-back games for the first time this year and their defense is starting to play better. Matt Schaub (20 for 30, 264 yards, 2 TDs) was excellent once again and tight end Owen Daniels (7 receptions, 123 yards, 1 TD) was damn near unstoppable today.

If Houston can continue to play well defensively, the Texans will make a playoff push in the second half.

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