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Ten Observations from Week 8 in the NFL

1. This is a different Falcons team – a more dangerous one.
Even after their impressive 30-17 victory over the Eagles on Sunday, it’s fair to question whether or not the Falcons will roll through the rest of the regular season just to once again fall flat in the playoffs. They’re 0-4 in the postseason under Mike Smith and we’ve seen Atlanta clinch in the top seed in the NFC before, only to get steamrolled by a more complete team (i.e. the Packers in 2010). But this is a different Falcons team – a better one, in fact. Dirk Koetter is a significant upgrade over former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey when it comes to creativity, play design, and philosophy. Koetter actually installs a route tree that allows his receivers to run vertically. He’s creative in the red zone, as he proved on Sunday when he used deception to free up unknowns Drew Davis and Jason Snelling for touchdowns. Matt Ryan has thrived under Koetter, who understands how to best utilize talent like Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Defensively, the Falcons are more aggressive and more versatile now that Mike Nolan is calling the shots, as opposed to Mike Smith and former coordinator Brian Van Gorder. For the first time since Smith took over five years ago, the Falcon defense is forcing opposing offenses to adjust to them instead of the other way around. Granted, their running game and run defense still leave a lot to be desired so this Atlanta team isn’t perfect. But to assume the Falcons are set up to go one-and-done again in the playoffs would be a mistake. They’re simply a more dangerous team now than at any point in the past five years.

2. With his scapegoat gone, Reid now must point the finger at himself.
With an impatient and agitated fan base demanding change following the team’s 3-3 start, Andy Reid fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo last week. But Castillo was made to be the scapegoat for a much bigger problem in Philadelphia. That was evident again on Sunday when, under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Eagles surrendered 30 points and 392 yards, produced zero turnovers and didn’t force a punt until seven minutes and 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of an ugly 30-17 loss to the Falcons. Neither Castillo nor Bowles can cover Drew Davis or Julio Jones. They can’t tackle Jacquizz Rodgers or force Matt Ryan to turn the ball over. They also can’t light a fire under Michael Vick or inspire a talented yet underachieving roster that has shown zero signs of cohesion or chemistry the past two years. The problem in Philadelphia wasn’t the defensive coordinator and everyone knew it. But Reid was forced to make a change and Castillo was an easy target. It wouldn’t be surprising if Reid made another change this week, inserting rookie Nick Foles into the starting lineup and benching Vick. But it isn’t Vick’s fault that Reid put together a conservative game plan when he had two weeks to prepare for the Falcons. At a time when his coaching seat has never been hotter, Reid decided that a dink-and-dunk philosophy was the best way to beat an Atlanta team that hasn’t scored fewer than 23 points in a game all season. So while Castillo was forced to fall on his sword last week and Vick may soon be asked to do the same, at what point does Andy Reid point the finger of blame at himself?

3. If Turner goes, Smith should follow in San Diego.
Following their brutal 7-6 loss in Cleveland on Sunday, the Chargers have now gone six quarters without scoring a touchdown. That stat doesn’t exactly bode well for Norv Turner, who calls all of San Diego’s plays. But if the front office decides to finally axe Turner, it better be prepared to hand GM A.J. Smith his walking papers as well. This is the same man who believed Robert Meachem was a capable replacement for Vincent Jackson, whom he decided not to pay when he had the opportunity. Outside of his two-touchdown game versus New Orleans earlier this season, Meachem has been a free agent bust in San Diego. He dropped a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter on Sunday versus the Browns and has caught just 12 passes for 189 yards this season. Meanwhile, Jackson’s 29 receptions have gone for 626 yards and five touchdowns for Tampa Bay, which was more than happy to pay a receiver with great hands, the ability to stretch defenses vertically, and that is willing to block in the running game. Let’s not forget that Smith’s drafts have also been poor for several years, which has contributed to the constant underachieving in San Diego. Thus, there shouldn’t be a scenario that exists where Turner looses his job but Smith is allowed to keep his. The Chargers are in full freefall and more than one man is to blame.

4. Stick a fork in the Saints.
It’s a dangerous proposition to write off a team that employs Drew Brees at quarterback and has the ability to score 30-plus points a game. But following their putrid effort on defense Sunday night in Denver, it’s probably safe to assume that the New Orleans Saints’ 2012 season is officially lost for good. Their struggles on defense reached new heights in the Broncos’ 34-14 win, as Denver racked up 530 yards of total offense and finished with nine plays of 23 yards or more. Patrick Robinson was torched for passes for 41 and 26 yards, while receiver Demaryius Thomas got free for a 34-yard gain against busted coverage for the Saints secondary. Offensively New Orleans wasn’t much better, as Brees and Co. converted just 1 of 12 attempts on third down. It was the team’s worst performance on third down since 2005 when they finished 0 for 11 versus the Dolphins. Getting back to the Saint defense, this team has no shortage of issues on that side of the ball. But if you want to start somewhere, start with the fact that the Saints can’t pressure the quarterback despite that being Steve Spagnuolo’s area of expertise. Granted, he doesn’t have the personnel to run the scheme he wants. Will Smith is aging, Sedrick Ellis has been a bust from an interior pass-rushing standpoint, and Cameron Jordan is only in his second year. But Spags can’t use the fact that he doesn’t have Justin Tuck or Osi Umenyoira up front as an excuse. The Saints are the worst defensive team in the league and unless Brees is ready to win every game 35-31, the Saints are toast.

5. Don’t sleep on the Steelers.
Looking for a slightly above-average team that could make a strong second-half run and punch a ticket to the playoffs? Look no further than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have discovered their roots the past two weeks. The Steelers haven’t been able to run the ball on a consistent basis since Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker left town some odd years ago. Pittsburgh has since become one-dimensional on offense and has left Ben Roethlisberger susceptible to beatings behind a shaky offensive line. But in their past two games, Pittsburgh has rushed for 167 and 140 yards, respectively. Jonathan Dwyer has given the Steelers’ a lift and their offense has been more balanced and stable because of it. Granted, Mike Tomlin’s team is still searching for consistency on that side of the ball. But if Pittsburgh’s defense plays as well the rest of the season as it did on Sunday in a 27-12 victory over Washington, the Steelers will once again challenge for a playoff berth. With Ray Lewis and LaDarius Webb out of the season and Joe Flacco proving that he isn’t ready to put the Ravens on his shoulders, the door is open for the Steelers to close the gap in the AFC North and eventually take over the division if Baltimore continues to scuffle.

6. The Cowboys came inches from turning their season around.
Considering they turned the ball over four times and fell behind the Giants 23-0 on their home turf, the Cowboys hardly deserved to win on Sunday. But they came within the pinky on Dez Bryant’s right hand from producing a remarkable comeback. Trailing 29-24 with less than a minute remaining in the game, Bryant leapt high to snag a 37-yard pass from Tony Romo that would have given Dallas a late lead. But when Bryant landed, his pinky finger came down on the white strip in the back of the end zone. It was a remarkable catch but it was a catch that didn’t count. Three plays later, the Giants were able to preserve the victory by that same 29-24 score. Credit Dallas for not giving up down 23-0 after a disastrous first-half performance. But the Cowboys remain a team that can’t get out of its own way and at 3-4 they and Philadelphia are now each three games back of New York in the NFC East. Things don’t get any easier for Dallas, which travels to Atlanta next Sunday night to play the undefeated Falcons. The Cowboys will then travel to Philadelphia before hosting the Browns, Redskins and Eagles in mid-November. It’s feasible that the Cowboys could still turn things around but they could realistically fall to 3-6, too. Had Bryant managed to get his entire body in bounds, Dallas could have made things interesting in the division. Instead, the Cowboys have come to yet another fork in the road under Jason Garrett.

7. Manning is starting to live up to expectations in Denver.
Peyton Manning has lost zip on his vertical passes. He’s 36 – this happens when quarterbacks get older. But following his 305-yard effort in Denver’s 34-14 victory over the Saints on Sunday night, Manning has now thrown for at least 300 yards in five consecutive games and has posted an incredible 14:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that same period. Following his ugly first-half performance versus the Falcons on Monday Night Football in Week 2 (a game in which he threw three interceptions in the first quarter alone), Manning has been solid for a Bronco team that is clearly the best squad in the AFC West. If Denver can run the ball like it did versus New Orleans, Manning will continue to be surgical in the passing game. And hey, if the Broncos’ defense plays the rest of the season like it did Sunday night, Denver could make some noise down the road.

8. Rams prove they still have a long ways to go.
Rams fans were encouraged by the teams 3-2 start, as they should have been. But following three straight losses, which included an ugly 45-7 defeat at the hands of the Patriots on Sunday, it’s apparent that the Rams still have a long ways to go. For the second straight week, an elite quarterback had his way against the Rams defense. Neither Chris Long nor Robert Quinn pressured Tom Brady, who threw four touchdowns and constantly found Rob Gronkowski open in the middle of the field. What exactly was the Rams’ game plan defensively? They had to have known that with Aaron Hernandez out Gronkowski was going to be the focal point of the Patriot offense. Yet there he was, constantly running free in St. Louis’ defensive backfield. It was a brutal effort by a Rams’ defense that didn’t produce a sack, didn’t force any turnovers, and couldn’t stop the run. St. Louis’ defense was so lost that it’s amazing they found their locker room at the end of the game. Jeff Fisher is a good head coach and regardless of the final score of Sunday’s game, this Rams team is heading in the right direction. But after what Brady and the Pats did to them in London, you realize just how large the gap really is between St. Louis and the contenders.

9. The best in the NFC North have nothing to worry about.
It was rather jarring that the 15.5-point underdog Jaguars took the Packers to the brink Sunday in Green Bay. And that the Bears needed a last-second field goal just to beat the 1-5 Panthers. But neither Green Bay nor Chicago has nothing to worry about. The Packers were coming off three-straight road games and were hosting a Jacksonville team that lost Maurice Jones-Drew to injury last week. Chicago had a short week of rest and preparation after an emotional victory over division-rival Detroit. These were letdown games for the Packers and Bears and while coaches don’t want to admit that their players suffer emotional highs and lows, it does happen in the NFL. The key is that both teams won while the Vikings suffered their second loss of the season on Thursday. By the end of the year, Chicago and Green Bay will battle down the stretch for the NFC North crown. Some Sundays will just be prettier than others.

10. Injury roundup – some contenders could lose key pieces.
All in all the Falcons had a successful trip to Philadelphia on Sunday. But late in the fourth quarter linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered an ankle injury and was carted off the field. He’ll undergo an MRI on Monday to discover the extent of the injury and if it’s serious, Atlanta will lose a key piece of its defense. Weatherspoon is the epitome of a sideline-to-sideline player and he has such an active role in the Falcons’ defensive game plans. Hopefully his ankle sprain isn’t of the “high” variety and he won’t miss any time…The Chiefs might have to go back to Matt Cassel full-time at quarterback. That’s because Brady Quinn was knocked out of the Chiefs’ 26-16 loss to the Raiders in the first quarter with a head injury. Of course, Quinn had already put Kansas City in position to fail by turning the ball over twice. Chiefs fans may not enjoy watching Cassel play but Quinn once again proved that he’s not a starting NFL quarterback…Ryan Tannehill left the first quarter of the Dolphins’ 30-9 victory over the Jets with a hyperextended knee. Matt Moore didn’t miss a beat, guiding the Dolphins to their fourth victory of the season while throwing for 131 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-19 passing…One week after losing Sean Lee for the season, Cowboys’ linebacker Dan Connor left the team’s 29-24 loss to the Giants because of a neck strain. He might not play versus the Falcons on Sunday night…Eagles’ receiver DeSean Jackson suffered an ankle injury versus Atlanta but was able to return…Lions’ safety Louis Delmas left the team’s 28-24 win over the Seahawks with an injured knee and didn’t return. Delmas is a good young player but he can never stay healthy.

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 8 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…

St. Louis Rams Steven Jackson looks downfield after making a reception in the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on October 31, 2010. St. Louis won the game 20-10. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

- “If only the Rams could now somehow beat the Saints on Sunday, this would be the greatest sports weekend EVER,” uttered the random St. Louis fan on Friday night after the Cardinals defeated the Rangers in Game 7 of the World Series. How do the previously winless Rams defeat a team in the Saints that just racked up 62 points on the Colts? Well, that’s pretty easy. When you can’t stop Steven Jackson even though you know he’s going to get the ball every down, you lose two turnovers over on your side of the field, and you don’t protect your quarterback, you’re going to lose to most opponents regardless of whether or not they have any wins. The Rams won this game because of Jackson and their defense, which sacked Drew Brees six times and returned one of his passes for a game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. Chris Long absolutely abused Charles Brown, who should have been given more help because he clearly needed it. The Rams clearly haven’t checked out and they’ll continue to fight every Sunday. That was apparent for anyone who saw Jackson flip out on his offensive line late in the second half following yet another false start penalty. What a sweet first win this was for a city that is on cloud nine right now.

- It’s not really shocking that the 2-6 Panthers lost another game. But considering whom they were playing and given that they were 3.5-point home favorites, it was a little surprising to see Carolina go down in flames to Minnesota on Sunday. Christian Ponder’s 102.7 passer rating and 8.4 yards per attempt were both season-highs for the Vikings, who apparently just should have started the kid from Week 1 and bypassed acquiring Donovan McNabb altogether. Ponder threw for 236 yards and a touchdown on 18-of-28 passing while earning his first career win thanks in large part to Olindo Mare’s inability to hit a 31-yard chip shot. The miss, which came with under a minute left to play, cost the Panthers an opportunity to force overtime. Good thing Carolina GM Marty Hurney spent so much money on Mare this offseason. Dude was totally worth it.

Read the rest of this entry »

There’s the Derek Anderson we all know and love

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 10: Quarterback Derek Anderson  of the Arizona Cardinals on the sidelines during the NFL game against the New Orleans Saints at the University of Phoenix Stadium on October 10, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Saints 30-20. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Only Derek Anderson would come in as a replacement, lead his team to a great comeback and stab them in the face with the opportunity for victory presented itself late in the game.

Let me explain.

Midway through the second quarter, Anderson replaced an ineffective Max Hall, who had just thrown a pick-6 to Aqib Talib to give Tampa a 21-14 lead. Anderson then took the Cardinals up the field on his first possession, but a pass attempt to Larry Fitzgerald fell incomplete on a 4th-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 3-yard line and the Bucs wound up kicking a field goal to take a 24-14 halftime lead.

After Tampa built a 31-14 lead midway through the third, Larod Stephens-Howling scored on a 30-yard touchdown run to cut the Bucs’ lead down to 31-21, then Arizona scored on a Gerald Hayes 21-yard fumble return to make the score 31-28. Early in the fourth, Anderson found Fitzgerald on a 5-yard touchdown pass to give the Cardinals a 35-31 lead, although Tampa scored to make it 38-35 with just over five minutes remaining.

After an Anderson interception (not his fault – the receiver had it bounce off his hands and straight into the loving arms of a defender) and a bone-headed decision by Bucs’ head coach Raheem Morris to try a long field goal attempt, Anderson marched the Cards up the field and into the red zone. With just over two minutes remaining, Anderson had the Cardinals knocking on the door of a touchdown or at the very least, a game-tying field goal.

But Derek Anderson, in all of his Derek Anderson glory, threw a pass into quadruple coverage trying to get the ball to Fitzgerald and was promptly picked off by Talib.

Game. Set. Match. Derek Anderson. Bucs win 38-35.

Cardinals need a freaking quarterback.

Another injury for Favre, another loss for Vikings

FOXBORO, MA - OCTOBER 31: Brett Favre  of the Minnesota Vikings reacts after being knocked down in the first half against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on October 31, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Brett Favre left the Vikings’ 28-18 loss to the Patriots in the fourth quarter on Sunday after taking a hard hit to his chin/jaw. He was examined on the sidelines and was then carted off the field in the fetal position. (That’s not a stab at Favre, I just don’t know how else to describe the position he was in.)

Tarvaris Jackson replaced Favre and immediately threw a touchdown pass to Naufahu Tahi, then converted a 2-point conversation pass to Percy Harvin to cut New England’s lead to 21-18. Minnesota’s defense then allowed the Patriots to march right up the field and score with under two minutes to play to put the game out of reach.

Despite suffering from ankle, elbow and biceps issues, as well as acne, foot fungus and bad breath, Favre managed to complete 22-of-32 passes for 259 yards before coming out with the laceration on his jaw.

What’s interesting is that his ankle/foot injury never appeared to be a big problem, yet Brad Childress gave the impression throughout the week that Favre may not play. If the decoy was intentional, it was a smart move by Childress because it forced New England to prepare for two different quarterbacks. But because this is Favre and Childress we’re talking about, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the entire situation was freaking annoying. It basically forced the media to talk about Lord Favre’s consecutive starts streak, which again, was really, really annoying.

It’s been an honor to watch you play, Brett. Now hurry up and retire.

The loss now drops the Vikings to 2-5 and while they’re not completely out of playoff contention, no team has ever made the postseason after starting 2-6. Minnesota hosts a horrendous Arizona team next week, so I’m sure the will-they-or-won’t they, will-he-or-won’t-he torture will continue after the Vikes win next Sunday.

Cowboys reach a new low in blowout loss to Jaguars

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 31: Quarterback Jon Kitna  of the Dallas Cowboys looks to throw a pass against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Cowboys Stadium on October 31, 2010 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Down 14-3 with less than 20 seconds on the clock before halftime on Sunday, the Cowboys moved the ball to the Jaguars’ 1-yard line and faced a third-and-goal.

Punch the ball in and at 14-10, it’s a whole new game. Fail to convert and the misery that is the 2010 Cowboys’ season continues.

Naturally, the Cowboys settled for the latter.

On 3rd-and-1, Jon Kitna (who is only starting now because the Dallas’ O-line failed to pick up a blitzing Michael Boley last Monday night, which lead to Tony Romo being sidelined for the next 6-8 weeks) spun around and handed the ball off to Marion Barber, who was stuffed at the goal line. On 4th-and-1, Kitna ran into Barber at the exchange and once again, Barber was stuffed at the half-inch line.

Turnover on downs: Jacksonville football.

The two plays didn’t cost Dallas the game (a 35-17 Jaguar beatdown), but they personified what the 2010 season has become for the Cowboys. It’s not only that they fail to execute – they fail to execute because they mentally (and physically, apparently) get in their own way. They can’t block, they can’t tackle, they can’t run simple dive plays like the two Barber failed to score on. They’re just bad. They’re a bad football team.

Just because your starting quarterback is out, doesn’t mean you mail it in. Just because your starting quarterback is out, doesn’t mean you allow David Garrard to throw four touchdown passes and allow your opponent to treat your home field like it’s their own personal Mardi Gras celebration. It’s embarrassing. What the Cowboys did on Sunday was embarrassing.

But should anyone be surprised? This is what the season has come to for Dallas. Poor execution, dumb mistakes and ugly losses. But at this point, it is what it is. Wade Phillips isn’t going anywhere at the moment and Jerry Jones will just have to ride out the rest of the season before he can make wholesale changes.

Too bad he has to watch this monstrosity for another nine weeks.

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