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Ten Observations from Week 9 in the NFL

1. The Ravens are playing uninspiring football.
While the Ravens did leave Cleveland with a 25-15 victory over the Browns, they haven’t played a complete game since their 31-30 win over the Patriots in Week 3. Their offense went three-and-out on six straight drives versus on Sunday and didn’t wake up until Cleveland took a 15-14 lead in the second half. Fortunately for the Ravens, the Browns shot themselves in the foot with an illegal formation penalty that negated an 18-yard touchdown reception by Josh Gordon that would have given Cleveland a 19-14 lead. Brandon Weeden also threw in a late pick to seal the win for Baltimore, which received yet another inconsistent performance from Joe Flacco. Simply put, John Harbaugh couldn’t have been too thrilled with his team’s performance. Wins are hard to come by in the NFL and nothing is guaranteed. But the Ravens had two weeks to prepare for the Browns and to erase the taste of that 43-13 beatdown that Houston gave them in Week 7. Despite winning 25-15, it was about as uninspiring 25-15 victory that you’ll find.

2. Throw out the records – the Steelers look like the team to beat in the AFC North.
A handful of Giants players were forced from their homes this week because of Hurricane Sandy. Eli Manning had to leave his home in Hoboken, New Jersey and tight end Martellus Bennett reportedly had to shack up with Kevin Boothe at the offensive tackle’s house. Even though players like Justin Tuck wanted to provide the patrons of New York and New Jersey with a victory on Sunday, nobody will blame the Giants for losing to the Steelers in what was a trying week. But regardless of how emotionally drained the Giants were, Pittsburgh nevertheless picked up a huge road win and have now won three in a row. The Steelers remain one game back of the Ravens in the standings but those are two teams heading in opposite directions. Both AFC North inhabitants have offensive line issues but only one team has a quarterback that can overcome shaky pass protection. (That would be Ben Roethlisberger.) The Steelers are getting healthier on defense while the Ravens have clearly been affected by the losses of Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb. Pittsburgh has weapons on offense (although they might be down one after Antonio Brown suffered an ankle injury on Sunday) and its running game has come alive. Joe Flacco is the epitome of inconsistency and his receivers have had issues beating press coverage. Forget the records – the Steelers are currently the most dangerous team in the AFC North.

3. Falcons remain a very quiet 8-0.
The Falcons have to be the least intimidating 8-0 team in league history. Their average margin of victory this year is less than 10 points, they’ve only played one team with a winning record, they don’t run the ball effectively and they’re susceptible to being gashed on the ground defensively. But if you think this is still the same Atlanta team that is 0-3 in the playoffs under Mike Smith, then you haven’t been paying attention. Former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey often failed to get his playmakers in one-on-one matchups. On Sunday night versus Dallas, that’s essentially how Atlanta won the game. On multiple occasions Dirk Koetter freed up Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Jacquizz Rodgers to get one-on-one with a defender and often times, the Falcons won those matchups. Last season guys like Rodgers and Jones were novelties in Mularkey’s offense, and granted, they were rookies. But this year they’re featured players. Matt Ryan, who must be considered the MVP to this point, is playing with more confidence than at any point in his career and he finally doesn’t look over-coached. Defensively, Atlanta ranked 20th in pass coverage last season. This year, they rank 8th. Thanks to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have finally figured how to stop the pass. And that’s without their best defensive back Brent Grimes (knee/out for the year) manning one side of the field. With Mularkey and former DC Brian Van Gorder at the controls, the Falcons weren’t equipped to beat other playoff teams. They simply lacked the creativity to do so, and they were terribly predictable on both sides of the ball. But this year is a different story. This year, Koetter and Nolan have taken this team to a level they have yet to experience under Mike Smith. And thus far, the results have been perfect.

4. The Cowboys beat quality opponents?
The Cowboys dominated the Falcons in the first half on Sunday night. They harassed Matt Ryan, they torched Dunta Robinson, and they forced Atlanta’s offense to be one-dimensional by shutting down the run. But heading into halftime the score was tied at 6-6 and the Cowboys were lucky they weren’t trailing considering Falcons kicker Matt Bryant missed a 37-yard field goal in the first quarter. By the end of the game the final scored read Atlanta 19, Dallas 13, and the Cowboys were once again left searching for answers. Why hasn’t Jason Garrett allowed Tony Romo to run the hurry up like he did on a 6-play, 78-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter? Why can’t Rob Ryan’s defense make a play with the game on the line? Once again, where did Dez Bryant run off to? The reality is that this Dallas team can’t beat quality opponents. The combined record of the teams they lost to this season is 32-10, which includes the 8-0 Falcons. The Cowboys have simply failed to make plays with the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter. Or they commit stupid penalties. Or they turn the ball over. Or Dan Bailey misses a field goal versus Baltimore. Or Dez Bryant’s pinkie doesn’t come down in bounds versus New York. Something always happens that leaves the Cowboys thisclose of winning but at the end of the day, they’re 3-5. And at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters.

5. It won’t be long before Andrew Luck is considered “elite.”
Nobody knows better than Cam Newton how a player can be on top of the NFL world one year only to be crushed by its weight the next. But that shouldn’t stop any of us from gushing over Andrew Luck. He broke Newton’s single-game rookie passing record by completing 30-of-48 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Colts to a 23-20 victory over a Miami team with a very good defense. He took just one sack while showing exceptional movement within the pocket and he continues to perform under immense pressure (both from his offensive line and from a fan base that grew accustomed to watching Peyton Manning take the team to the playoffs every year). He’s tough, he’s intelligent, and he’s winning games in what many believed to be a rebuilding year in Indy. He’s already tied Manning for the most 300-yard games (four) by a rookie quarterback and he’s done so with little help from his offensive line or an average receiving corps outside of Reggie Wayne. A year from now we may criticize Luck the way we’ve done Newton this year. But for now, this exceptional rookie is at the controls of a Colts team that leads the AFC wild card hunt. The same Colts team, mind you, that didn’t win a game until Week 15 last year.

6. The NFC North is the best division in football.
This really isn’t much of a debate. The Bears are having one of those Bear-like seasons in which their defense is averaging 19 turnovers and three touchdowns per game, and the addition of Brandon Marshall has paid major dividends for Jay Cutler and the offense. The Packers are once again one of the most banged up teams in the NFL but they’re 6-3 thanks in large part to Aaron Rodgers being undefensivable. Fans in Detroit shouldn’t get their hopes too high about the Lions making a playoff run (good luck finding six wins from the remainder of their schedule), but they’re a dangerous team coming off their most complete game of the season, and while the Vikings have lost two in a row they employ the NFL’s leading rusher in Adrian Peterson. The majority of divisions this year don’t have two competitive teams, nevertheless four. If the Vikings can rediscover the magic they had earlier in the year, don’t be shocked if three teams from the North make the postseason this year in the NFC.

Side Note: The Vikings shouldn’t bench Christian Ponder. They invested a top 15 pick in him last year and while his numbers over the last three weeks haven’t been pretty (38-of-74 passing, 372 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs), they need to show confidence in him through thick and thin. If over the next year it becomes increasingly clear that he isn’t the answer, then they can think about making a significant move. But this is the price teams pay when a quarterback is in his second year as a starter. It does Ponder nor the Vikings’ future any good to play Joe Webb.

7. This just in: Greg Schiano’s offense works in the NFL.
Say what you want about Greg Schiano’s philosophies when it comes to defending the “Victory Formation” – his offense plays in the NFL. Doug Martin’s effort in the Bucs’ 42-32 win over the Raiders was epic, as he rushed for 251 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries. For those scoring at home, that’s over 10 yards per carry. Perhaps what was most impressive is that Martin accomplished the feat without running behind All-Pro guard Carl Nicks (toe), who was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Thursday. Tampa Bay racked up 515 yards in the win and while Oakland’s defense contributed to the effort with horrendous tackling, the Bucs have now scored 38, 28, 36 and 42 points in their last four games. In fact, they haven’t scored fewer than 22 points since a 16-10 loss to the Cowboys in Week 3. College coaches like Bobby Petrino fail to convert their offenses at the pro level. But because Schiano is such a big believer in running the ball and taking shots downfield in the passing game, his offense has flourished. They need to add more playmakers on defense before they’re considered a legit playoff contender. But thanks to Martin, Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson, the Bucs have a solid offense core to build around for years to come.

8. How much more can the Saints take?
There are so many questions stemming from the news that Sean Payton’s contract extension has been voided. First, why did it take so long for the NFL to decide/announce that the contract was voided? And did the Saints ultimately decide that following the bounty scandal they wanted a clean break from Payton (who was also involved in a situation where he was stealing vicodin from the team’s facility in May of 2010). If they still view him as their head coach, then one would assume he would stay to try to make right on what has transpired over the past two years. But we have yet to hear from the Saints, which makes you wonder if they’re ready to wash their hands of the situation. If they are, darker days could be ahead. Drew Brees will keep this team competitive as long as he remains as productive as he has been. But without Payton calling the plays, we’ve seen New Orleans struggle this season. Brees may still be running Payton’s offense but not having Payton the playcaller is holding the Saints’ offense back. It’ll be interesting to see not only where Payton winds up next year (Dallas makes all the sense in the world), but also who New Orleans hires to replace the only coach to lead the franchise to a Super Bowl title.

9. Don’t underestimate the Broncos’ win in Cincinnati.
Many pundits viewed Denver’s matchup with Cincinnati as a game the Broncos should win. The Bengals had lost three straight games coming into Week 9 and looked like a team that was ready to fall apart. But Cincinnati also had two weeks to prepare for Denver, which was 1-2 on the road before Sunday and the one win was the epic come-from-behind victory in San Diego in Week 6. The Bengals were well rested, at home, and desperate for a win. And despite watching a 17-3 lead evaporate in the second half, it was impressive that the Broncos left Cincinnati with a 31-23 win. Peyton Manning snapped a five-game streak of throwing for 300-plus yards and threw interceptions on back-to-back series in the second half. But he was magnificent otherwise while completing 27-of-35 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns. I’m still waiting for Denver’s defense to string together dominating performances but that will come. They have too much talent on that side of the ball not to. But while the Bengals watch their playoff hopes fade away, the Broncos have sole possession of first place in the AFC West and have positioned themselves to make a strong second-half run.

10. It’s time to pump the breaks on the Miami playoff talk.
There was talk all week about how Miami was a legitimate playoff contender after rattling off three straight wins. But the Dolphins put themselves behind the 8-ball with their 23-20 loss to the Colts. That’s because they’re now staring up at Indianapolis in the AFC wild card standings. The Dolphins do have winnable games against the Titans, Bills (twice), Seahawks (in Miami) and Jaguars in upcoming weeks, but this loss could come back to bite them. The good news is that Ryan Tannehill looked comfortable in the pocket and when rolling out after suffering what was believed to be a hyperextended knee last Sunday. But Miami’s offense did nothing after scoring 17 points on its first three possessions and for as good as the defense has been this season, Andrew Luck torched the Dolphins for 433 yards through the air. The schedule is favorable the rest of the way but this was a winnable game that Miami dropped. Thus, checking off wins against opponents like Buffalo, Tennessee and Jacksonville is premature.

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 9 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…

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) throws against the New England Patriots third quarter at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts on November 6, 2011. The Giants defeated the Patriots 24-20. UPI/Matthew Healey

- It’s not surprising that the Giants gave the Patriots all they could handle today in Foxboro. It’s not even all that surprising that New York won 24-20 despite the fact that New England never losses consecutive games under Bill Belichick. For whatever reason, Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have Belichick and Tom Brady’s numbers. But if you were asked before the game which quarterback would pull off a great fourth-quarter comeback to lead their team to victory, most people wouldn’t have said Eli. (Even when you consider how many fourth-quarter comebacks the G-Men have already tallied this season.) People scoffed when Manning said he considered himself to be in the same class as Brady back in August. Whether you think he does or not, consider that he has the best fourth-quarter passer rating of any quarterback in the league this season and that his Giants are 6-2 when everyone thought they’d be looking up at the Eagles in the NFC East standings right about now. He’s also been the winning quarterback the past two times the Giants have played the Patriots, so the whole “does Eli belong in Brady’s class” conversation is rather moot at the moment. It’s all about wins, losses, and…nope, that’s about it.

- The Chiefs were due for a letdown. While they had won four in a row heading into Week 9, they seriously lack offensive explosion now that Jamaal Charles is out for the year and they would have lost to the Chargers on Monday night had Philip Rivers not decided to break out his best Rex Grossman impression late in the fourth quarter. That said, I don’t think anyone woke up this morning thinking, “Yeah, today is the day the Dolphins get their first win behind Matt Moore’s three touchdown passes and stingy defensive play.” I actually thought Miami would keep things close but 31-3? For the first time all season Tony Sparano will get a good night of sleep.

- The Rams pulled off the upset of the year last Sunday when they knocked off the Saints at home. So naturally they went out today and lost to an Arizona Cardinals team that started John Skelton at quarterback. St. Louis was given every opportunity to notch back-to-back victories for the first time all season and it screwed the pooch instead. The special teams unit was an absolute disaster in the fourth quarter and in overtime, as the Rams had a game-winning field goal blocked and missed four tackles on Patrick Peterson’s electrifying 99-yard punt return in OT. When his team played that brutal schedule to open the year, at least Steve Spagnuolo had an excuse for losing. There’s no excuse to lose to the John Skelton-led Cardinals when the game was practically in the bag.

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Michael Vick has matured as a quarterback

ARLINGTON, TX - JANUARY 9: Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles looks on from the sideline in the second quarter against the Dallas Cowboys during the 2010 NFC wild-card playoff game at Cowboys Stadium on January 9, 2010 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

When everyone was drinking the Michael Vick Kool-Aid earlier this season, I told anyone that would listen to hold off on naming the Philadelphia quarterback Comeback Player of the Year. The reason being was that I was waiting for him to revert back to the quarterback he was in Atlanta (i.e. a player who would frustrate you with his poor decision making just as quickly as he would dazzle you with his highlight reel skills).

But after observing him in the Eagles’ 26-24 win over the Colts on Sunday, the only thing I’ll say now is pass the Kool-Aid because I would love to take a sip.

Vick is a different player now than what he was in Atlanta. Not only is he making better in-game decisions, but he seems more prepared, calmer in the pocket and is allowing the game to come to him. He used to try to get by on his God-given talent but he appears to be reading defenses better now than at any point during his tenure with the Falcons.

Against Indy, he completed 17-of-29 passes for 218 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 74 yards and a score on 10 carries. But stats don’t tell the whole story. When he had time to throw, he went through all of his progressions before finding open receivers. When Dwight Freeney (who played an undisciplined game, might I add) would race up the field trying to crash the pocket, Vick would make one move before picking up first downs with his legs. Sounds simple enough, but these are things he would only do part of the time in Atlanta.

The old Michael Vick may have found a way to lose on Sunday. He would have run too much, tired himself out and then fumbled with the game on the line when he could barely catch his breath. Or he would have forced a pass over the middle thinking the rocket launcher he has for an arm could throw the ball through any window.

But not this year’s Vick. This year’s Vick is patient, smart, and he’s careful with the football. He’s a team player now and a different quarterback – a mature one.

Maybe Vick will eventually revert back to the way he was in Atlanta and this fairytale will have a horrible ending. There’s still a lot of season left and Vick will have plenty of chances to either will his team to victory or succumb to failure. But if he continues to play like he has this season, the Eagles will be dangerous come January.

Bucs may not be the best in the NFC, but they continue to compete

I didn’t believe Raheem Morris when he said the Bucs were the best team in the NFC. I don’t even think he believes that the Bucs are the best team in the NFC.

But if they play every week as hard as they did in Atlanta on Sunday, then they’re going to stay in the thick of things in the conference.

The Falcons beat their division foes 27-21 to take sole possession of first place in the NFC South, but it wasn’t without a couple of close calls. After Atlanta took a 27-14 lead late in the third quarter on a Matt Bryant 41-yard field goal, Michael Spurlock returned the following kickoff for an 89-yard touchdown to cut the Falcons’ lead to 27-21. Tampa Bay’s defense then shut down Atlanta’s offense after a failed onsides kick and following a Josh Freeman interception in the fourth quarter.

But in the end, the Falcons’ defense saved the day by stopping LeGarrette Blount on 4th-and-1 from the Atlanta 2-yard line. Blount thought he had picked up the first down, but it was clear that he was stopped short and with the Bucs out of timeouts, the Falcons were able to run out the rest of the clock (roughly two minutes) after picking up a first down.

Sunday showed that the Bucs are moving in the right direction but they also still have a ways to go – especially Freeman. He made a couple of great throws in crucial moments during the game, but he threw an interception after locking onto receiver Mike Williams early in the fourth quarter and he also mismanaged the play clock (not totally his fault, as the Bucs were having issues getting the play into him) on Tampa’s final drive. Because of that, Morris had to call the team’s last time out and therefore wasn’t able to challenge Blount’s play on 4th-and-1. (The call probably could have stood anyway, but it would have been nice had the Bucs been able to challenge.) It’s games like these that remind fans that Freeman is a talented kid but he’s just that – a kid. He should continue to get better though.

Tampa’s run defense needs to improve as well. Atlanta is going to get its yards on the ground with Michael Turner and Jason Snelling, but the Bucs need to improve in that area if they’re going to compete down the stretch. The Falcons rushed for 130 yards and because of that, they controlled the game throughout (even the Bucs gave them a couple of scares in the second half).

That said, Morris has something brewing in Tampa. He has his team believing that they can win every week and even though they’re often dominated in terms of time of possession and total yards, they’re rarely dominated on the scoreboard (where it counts). They produce some big plays and have that gnat-like ability to hang around late in games.

Maybe they’ll hang around all year, too.

Behind McCoy and Hillis, Browns shock Patriots

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 12: Rookie quarterback Colt McCoy  of the Cleveland Browns warms up just prior to the start of the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on September 12, 2010 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

It figures doesn’t it? Colt McCoy wasn’t the top quarterback prospect in April’s draft and compared to Sam Bradford and Jimmy Clausen (the two quarterbacks that were taken ahead of him), he may have been the most limited (according to the so-called experts, at least) too.

But in just three starts, McCoy has already exceeded expectations in Cleveland. He held his own against the Steelers in his first career start, he played error-free ball in a win over the Saints and then, in his best game to date, he helped the Browns pull off a shocking 34-14 victory over the Patriots on Sunday.

McCoy completed 14-of-19 passes for 174 yards and he also rushed for a 16-yard score in the third quarter to give the Browns a 24-7 lead. Those numbers wouldn’t be impressive for say Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, but for a rookie third-round pick making only his third start of his career, they’re impressive. He also got a ton of help from Peyton Hillis, who rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries. He also once again flashed his playmaking ability as a pass-catcher while hauling in three passes for 36 yards.

The Patriots made their fair share of mistakes, but this loss was no fluke. They were outplayed, outcoached and outsmarted, as Cleveland’s coaching staff went to their bag of tricks again early in order to build a 10-point lead. I’m not going to say that the Browns will suddenly jump back into the playoff picture after beating the Saints and Patriots in back-to-back games, but it makes you wonder if they’re heading in the right direction. McCoy has looked good, the defense has steadily improved over the last three seasons and Hillis may have been the steal of the offseason. What a player.

And how sweet was this win for Eric Mangini? You know every time he beats Bill Belichick he has to be thinking to himself, “Stick that where the sun don’t shine, a-hole.” Mangini has deserved the criticism that he’s gotten over the years but when Mike Holmgren was hired, he was relieved of many of his day-to-day operations so that he could focus on coaching and he’s responded well. I personally don’t think he’s the answer, but you can’t complain about the recent results.

As for the Patriots – they were caught with their pants down. They thought they could roll into Cleveland and the Browns would lay down for them because they were 6-1. They got a reminder that teams can’t take weeks off in the NFL.

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