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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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Peyton Manning still hopes to play this season

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning waits on the sidelines late in the game against the Tennessee Titans during their NFL game in Indianapolis December 6, 2009. REUTERS/Brent Smith (UNITED STATES SPORT FOOTBALL)

While the rest of the NFL world is seemingly transfixed on whether or not the Colts would select Stanford’s Andrew Luck if they received the No. 1 overall pick next April, their injured franchise quarterback still hopes to play this season.

Peyton Manning told reporters on Thursday that he hopes to return to practice this year and still holds out hope of playing if doctors deem him clear to play. He underwent a second surgery on his neck on September 8 and even though he hasn’t played a snap, the Colts have yet to place him on injured reserve.

Of course, the Colts face a much bigger issue than whether or not to free up a roster spot by placing Manning on I.R. They must decide whether to opt out of Manning’s five-year contract or pay him a $28 million bonus to keep him on the 53-man roster. Some in Indianapolis who follow the team closely believe that Manning’s chances of playing again are less than 50-percent.

One of those followers is long-time beat writer Phillip B. Wilson of the Indianapolis Star, who says he’s “maybe even 30-70” on whether or not Manning takes another snap. Considering how close Wilson has been to the situation over the years, it’s rather eye opening to see the beat writer spit out those odds.

For now, it’s still a waiting game. Manning hopes he’ll return next season but surely the Colts would trade one down year for three-to-five more years of Peyton under center. But whether he’ll be able to play ever again is the question.

2011 Week 9 NFL Primer

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tries to get off his pass as he gets hit by Baltimore Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb and safety Haruki Nakamura in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Baltimore, Maryland September 11, 2011. REUTERS/Joe Giza (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Giants @ Patriots, 4:15PM ET
There are a couple of really good matchups on this week’s schedule, including Ravens-Steelers, Bucs-Saitns and Packers-Chargers. But none of them compare to this one when you think about the intrigue surrounding this game. Not only were the Giants the ones to ruin the Patriots’ perfect season back in 2007, but New England is also coming off a loss and Bill Belichick never loses when coming off a loss. But for whatever reason, New York has had New England’s number over the years. Could you imagine how burned Belichick would be if the Giants were the ones to end his non-consecutive losing streak? Game…of…the…week.

Ravens @ Steelers, 8:20PM ET
It doesn’t get much better than this, especially when you considering how hot the Steelers are and how badly the Ravens beat Pittsburgh in Baltimore in Week 1. The Steelers are coming off an emotional win against the Patriots but Pittsburgh and Baltimore always get up for each other so don’t expect Mike Tomlin’s squad to suffer a letdown. But can Ben Roethlisberger bounce back from his rough Week 1 performance in order to create even more of a divide between these two teams in the AFC North? After brutal matchup after brutal matchup for the Sunday Night Football gang, finally NBC gets a good game.

Bears @ Eagles, 8:30PM ET, Monday
Are the Eagles back? That’s the question on everyone’s mind. They might be but don’t forget Michael Vick has never beaten the Bears, which includes losing 31-26 in Chicago last season. For whatever reason, Vick has never been able to get the best of Brian Urlacher and with the Bears having two weeks to prepare for this game, it’ll be interesting to see how Philly plays following its 34-7 dismantling of Dallas last Sunday.

Bucs @ Saints, 1:00PM ET
I wouldn’t want to be Raheem Morris’ Bucs this weekend. Not only are the Saints steamed that they lost to Tampa three weeks ago but they’re also coming off an embarrassing loss to the previously winless Rams last Sunday. No wonder oddsmakers set the spread at New Orleans –9 despite the fact that this is a divisional game and should be close. If the Bucs can drum up some pressure on Drew Brees using their front four and force turnovers, Tampa could hand New Orleans its second straight loss. But I wouldn’t count on the Bucs pulling off the upset. The Saints have been a different team at home this year. A 62-7-type of team.

Packers @ Chargers, 4:15PM ET
We’re about to see what Norv Turner’s squad is made of. They had a win in the bag on Monday night before Philip Rivers fumbled it away and now the undefeated defending Super Bowl champions come in this Sunday. San Diego’s pass rush has been very good this season but its secondary has been picked apart at times. If the Chargers can get after Aaron Rodgers then there’s no reason to think that San Diego can’t pull off the upset – especially at home. But on the other side of the ball, if the Chargers can’t get their running game going then Rodgers may eventually start to pick apart the Bolts’ secondary. This is an extremely interesting matchup.

Jets @ Bills, 1:00PM ET
What a great matchup this will be between one of the best passing attacks in the league and one of the best pass defenses. Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills’ offense have moved the ball through the air at will but the Jets don’t wilt in coverage. That said, Rex Ryan better get more consistency out of his pass rush or else the Bills could walk away with yet another divisional win. The Jets can’t afford another divisional loss on their record.

Falcons @ Colts, 1:00PM ET
The Falcons have a great opportunity to right the ship after a slow start. If they beat the Colts on Sunday, they’d be 5-3 heading into their big showdown with the Saints next week. But beware the trap. The Saints overlooked the Rams last Sunday and we all saw what happened. Because of the conservative ways of Mike Smith and OC Mike Mularkey, the Falcons have tendency to leave opponents in games. If they allow the Colts to stick around at home, there’s no reason Indy can’t pull off the upset. Atlanta better use New Orleans’ loss to St. Louis last Sunday as a warning of what could happen if it doesn’t come to play this weekend.

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2011 NFL Week 9 Odds & Point Spreads

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick waves for members of his defensive to join him during a timeout in the second quarter of the Pittsburgh Steelers 25-17 win at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 30, 2011. UPI/Archie Carpenter

Four spreads of note:

Buccaneers +9 @ Saints, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
For the record, I think this line is set right. The Saints have proven to be much better and much more explosive at home than they have on the road this season. But the Bucs just beat the Saints three weeks ago, are coming off a bye and didn’t just lose to the previously winless Rams. So why are they 9-point underdogs? It’s a revenge game for New Orleans in more ways than one but will the betting public be willing to lay nine points in order to take the Saints? It’ll be interesting to see where this line winds up but either way, it’s not falling to the key number of 7 or rising to the key number of 10 so bettors have a tough decision to make if they choose to wager on this game.

Giants +9 @ Patriots, 4:15PM ET, Sunday
I’m starting to develop a very general, very subjective take when it comes to betting on Giants games. If they’re not expected to win, jump on them and be glad to take any points oddsmakers throw your way. If they’re expected to win, either fade them or run like hell. In Week 1 they were expected to beat the Redskins and lost outright as a 2.5-point favorite. Two weeks later when they were 9-point underdogs on the road against the Eagles, they won 29-16. When they were expected to beat the Seahawks in Week 5, they lost outright at home. And when they were expected to run all over the hapless Dolphins last Sunday, they needed a fourth-quarter comeback to win but failed to cover the 9.5-point spread. Granted, they did cover against the Rams in Week 2 and the Cardinals in Week 4 when they were expected to win. But both of those games were a little too close for comfort. What’s my point? I like the G-Men getting 9 points this Sunday, even with Bill Belichick and New England’s win-after-a-loss streak on the line. New York just has a habit of showing up when nobody thinks they will.

Rams +4 at Cardinals, 4:15PM ET, Sunday
I smell a trap. The Rams are coming off a huge upset of the Saints and now they’re 4-point underdogs against a brutal Arizona team? Why isn’t this a 1 or 2 point spread? Even 3 points I can see but 4? This one doesn’t make sense and when a spread doesn’t make sense you either go the opposite way of conventional thinking (in this case, take the Cardinals), or you lay off entirely. I just don’t see how the Cardinals could be favored by anything more than 3 points in a game where both teams are 1-6. Especially seeing as how Kevin Kolb will be a game-time decision with turf toe.

Ravens +3 @ Steelers, 8:20PM ET, Sunday
This game opened at 3.5 but is already down to 3. I think if oddsmakers left the spread at 3.5 they would get more three-way action but I have to believe that public bettors would be all over Pittsburgh with the line sitting at 3. Baltimore has looked like a speedboat without an engine the past two weeks while Pittsburgh has won four in a row, which includes its win over New England last Sunday. The Steelers might suffer a hangover from the Patriot game but I highly doubt it. They’re playing the Ravens; these two teams always get up to play each other. It’ll be interesting to see where this line winds up at kickoff.

2011 NFL Week 9 Point Spreads:

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