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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.

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Fade Material: NFL Week 8 Predictions

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) passes on the run against the Indianapolis Colts during their NFL football game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana October 23, 2011. REUTERS/Sean Gardner (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

It looks like I’m starting to inch closer to respectability with my NFL predictions. The Steelers, Chiefs and Broncos (by a small miracle) covered last week, while the Packers were a fourth-quarter dud against the Vikings.

That gave me a 3-1 Sunday for Week 7, which puts me at 13-15 on the year. I need one more 3-1 effort today to get me back to .500 and then I’ll really tear things up in the second half. Just you wait and see. Oh, just you wait and see.

Saints @ Rams, 1:00PM ET
After they dropped 62 points on the Colts last week, I’m sure public bettors have been racing to the window to take the over with the Saints today. The Rams have allowed the second-most points this year, just behind…yup, the Colts. But 48.5 points seems way too high for me, although I understand why oddsmakers have jacked up the total given the Saints’ offensive output last weekend. New Orleans plays things more conservatively on the road and I don’t see St. Louis helping cover the over with A.J. Feeley at the helm. I like the under.
THE PICK: UNDER 48.5

Dolphins @ Giants, 1:00PM ET
No matter how well Brandon Marshall tries to spin it, the Dolphins have checked out. Reggie Bush says the team stinks, while Yeremiah Bell says that Reggie Bush stinks. The funny part is that half the locker room seemingly agrees with Bush while the other half agrees with Bell. That’s not good for locker room dynamics and considering the Dolphins have to hit the road to face a well-rested New York squad, I like the G-Men to roll today. Of course, the last time I picked the Giants they lost outright to the Seahawks at home, which caused one of our loyal readers to request that I don’t pick them anymore. Sorry snd_dsr, but I’m going back to the well.
THE PICK: GIANTS –9.5

Lions @ Broncos, 4:05PM ET
The Lions are a complete mess and I get three points? Sign me up! Detroit is better than Denver but Detroit also has zero running game, its quarterback is banged up and its defense can’t stop the run. Oh, and they have to travel cross-country to play a team that seemingly has new life under Tim Tebow. For at least one more week I’m going to UNLEASH THE TEBOW!
THE PICK: Broncos +3

Bengals @ Seahawks, 4:15PM ET
Seattle’s quarterback situation is an abomination but no matter how ugly things can get for the Seahawks, they usually play well at home. Seattle is a tough environment for any quarterback to play in, nevertheless a rookie. Andy Dalton has certainly surpassed expectations to this point, but I think he’ll make a couple of big mistakes to cost the Bengals today. Seattle’s defense hasn’t played poorly this season and if their offense can muster double-digit points I think they win outright.
THE PICK: SEAHAWKS +1

Check out the most current NFL Football Betting odds.

Andre Johnson a game-time decision for Week 8 as optimism fades

Houston Texans Andre Johnson celebrates his touchdown against the Washington Redskins to tie the game in the fourth quarter during their NFL football game in Landover, Maryland September 19, 2010. REUTERS/Molly Riley (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Andre Johnson insists that if his injured hamstring isn’t ready by game time on Sunday, he will not play against the Jaguars this weekend.

Johnson has been out since October 2 when he hurt his hamstring during the Texans’ 17-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He caught four passes for 36 yards before leaving the game after being attended to on the field by team trainers. While he returned to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday, Johnson doesn’t sound optimistic about his chances of returning this weekend.

“I felt a lot better in practice, but not where I want to be,” said Johnson, who still feels a “tugging” in the back of his leg. “If I don’t feel like I can play, I’m not going to go out there. I definitely won’t do anything to put myself in any danger.”

While that news might sound deflating to Houston fans (as well as fantasy football owners), it’s probably the mindset Johnson needs to have. If he pushes too hard too soon he could wind up aggravating the injury or making it worse, which would shelve him a lot longer than had he just let it heal. With the Texans in prime position to win the AFC South this year, they’re going to need Johnson down the stretch and into the postseason.

2011 NFL Week 8 Primer

Dallas Cowboys DeMarco Murray cuts upfield as St. Louis Rams Quintin Mikell defends during the first quarter at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas on October 23, 2011. UPI/Ian Halpeirn

Patriots @ Steelers, 4:15PM ET
This is an intriguing matchup not only because of the two teams but also due to the individual matches within the game. The Patriots arguably have the most efficient passing attack in the league, but they’ve struggled defending the pass for much of the season. Thanks to Ben Roethlisberger and the big-play ability of Pittsburgh’s receivers, the Steelers could strike for a long score at any point. I think this one will live up to the hype and with a whole slew of garbage matchups on the Week 8 schedule, I hope it does.

Cowboys @ Eagles, 8:20PM ET
It’s time to see how many of the Eagles’ problems Andy Reid was able to iron out over the bye week. Philadelphia looked great against Washington the week before its bye, but Dallas will provide a more difficult challenge than the Redskins did. DeMarco Murray is coming off a breakout game and the Eagles haven’t been able to stop the run all season. If Murray can get going again, the Cowboys have a chance to potentially put the nail in the coffin of their bitter rivals.

Lions @ Broncos, 4:05PM ET
The Lions have more pressing issues to worry about than whether or not Ndamukong Suh is a dirty player. Matthew Stafford (ankle) is hobbled, Jahvid Best (concussion) is out for another week and the defense can’t stop the run. The Broncos might not be the better overall team in this matchup but Tim Tebow has breathed new life into Denver and will be fired up to play at home. This will not be an easy road trip this weekend for the Lions.

Vikings @ Panthers, 1:00PM ET
Rookie quarterbacks will be on display this Sunday in Carolina when the Panthers host the Vikings. Outside of the two interceptions he threw to Charles Woodson in the third quarter last week, the Vikings had to be pleased with Christian Ponder’s first professional start. If Minnesota wants to give Ponder an opportunity to notch his first win, then the Vikes better get Adrian Peterson revved up. Carolina’s run defense has been bad all year and it would be wise to keep Cam Newton on the bench considering how bad Minnesota’s pass defense is.

Chargers @ Chiefs, 8:30PM ET Monday
This matchup certainly got more interesting over the past few weeks. After starting the year 0-3 the Chiefs have rattled off three-straight and who can forget the beating they gave the Chargers on Monday night last season? Of course, they won’t have Jamaal Charles this time around but Jackie Battle is starting to come on as KC’s leading rusher. The Chargers’ offense was blanked in the second half last Sunday against the Jets, leading to speculation about whether or not Philip Rivers may be hurt. If he’s not, then it’s time for him to step up on Monday night in what has turned out to be a pretty big divisional game.

Jaguars @ Texans, 1:00PM ET
Blaine Gabbert has received most of the attention this year in Jacksonville, but it’s been the Jaguar defense that has stolen the show. They absolutely dominated the Ravens on Monday night and thanks to strong play out of linebackers Daryl Smith and Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville ranks sixth in yards allowed this season. The Jags’ defense will certainly be tested this weekend, especially if Andre Johnson returns from the hamstring injury that has held him out for nearly a month.

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