1. The 49ers are the team to beat in the NFC.
With all due respect to the 10-1 Atlanta Falcons, the 49ers are clearly the team to beat in their conference. All of their strengths were on display Sunday in New Orleans. Their physicality is unrivaled by any team in the league and they’re equipped defensively to beat all of the top offenses in the NFC, including the Saints, Packers and Falcons. Drew Brees couldn’t do anything yesterday. He was under constant pressure, was sacked five times, saw both of his interceptions returned for touchdowns and had to witness his receivers take a beating nearly every time they caught the ball. The Niners also somehow took Jimmy Graham out of the game, which isn’t easy to do considering the Saints were at home (where he thrives). I don’t care what Alex Smith’s competition percentage is – Colin Kaepernick also needs to be the starter. He outplayed Brees while completing 16-of-25 passes for 231 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and also added 27 yards and another score on six rushes. He was calm under pressure, displayed his playmaking ability on his lone touchdown run, and still managed to move the ball despite not having the same aggressive or creative approach that San Francisco’s coaching staff used Monday night versus Chicago. The Niners have suffered some bumps in the road this year, the latest coming in a 24-24 tie with the Rams three weeks ago. But with that defense, that running game, and that quarterback under center, I’d put the Niners up against any team in the NFL right now.
2 The Giants still own the NFC East.
Just when you thought the Giants were on the verge of crumbling, they have one of those games that leaves their detractors silent. Eli Manning and the pass defense was horrible in previous losses to the Steelers and Bengals, so naturally Manning throws for three touchdowns and New York’s defense holds Aaron Rodgers to 14-of-25 passing for 219 yards with one interception. This effort by the Giants wasn’t surprising to those that have paid attention to them under Tom Coughlin. They love to play down to their competition and take entire games off, but when they feel like their backs are against the wall and they have something to prove they always rise to the occasion. They ran the ball with authority last night, had receivers running free in Green bay’s secondary, and constantly harassed Rodgers while sacking him five times. Their message was clear: ‘We’re still the class of the NFC East.’
3. Jim Schwartz has nobody but himself to blame.
The NFL has to do away with the rule that allowed Justin Forsett’s 81-yard touchdown to stand in Houston’s 34-31 win over Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. It’s unrealistic to think that a head coach won’t throw his challenge flag in the heat of the moment, just as Jim Schwartz did after he saw that Forsett was clearly down. The point of replay is to ensure that the calls on the field are correct. Yet the correct call on Forsett’s run wasn’t made because Schwartz’s split second decision nullified the officials’ ability to review the play. What an arrogant rule by the NFL. ‘How dare you challenge a play when the league has ruled that all touchdowns are reviewed by the booth! You shall suffer the consequences!’ Sorry NFL, but we fans suffered in that moment. It’s a ridiculous rule and the league needs to get rid of it, which it will. That said, Schwartz throwing the challenge flag in that situation was inexcusable. First and foremost, this is the same guy who screamed at 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh last year to “know the rules” during the “Handshake Gate” game. How fitting that Schwartz was the one to forget the rules this time around. Also, Falcons head coach Mike Smith made the same exact mistake just four days prior to Thanksgiving. If we’re going to chastise players for not learning from their peers (such as we do when two athletes get arrested for the same infraction just days or weeks apart), then it’s only fair that we criticize head coaches that don’t learn from each other, too. And lastly, we’ve seen these kinds of actions before out of Schwartz, who constantly allows his emotions to affect his judgment. NFL coaches need to be clear-headed and rational when making decisions. Schwartz is neither and his often-reckless team is a reflection of that. His emotions cost the Lions a touchdown on Thursday, if not a win and whatever hopes they had of still making the playoffs.
4. The banged up Texans haven’t been exposed, but there’s still reason to be concerned.
Following near-losses to the Jaguars and Lions the past two weeks, one could make the argument that the Texans have been exposed. They’ve surrendered 68 points and a whopping 791 yards through the air over their past two games. (They’ve also given up at least one touchdown in seven of the past eight quarters in regulation.) But if you’re searching for answers as to why the Texans defense has been so bad lately, take a glance at their injury report. They’ve already lost Brian Cushing for the season and fellow linebacker Brooks Reed is expected to miss at least three-to-four weeks after suffering a groin injury in Thursday’s win over the Lions. The team thought cornerback Jonathan Joseph (hamstring) would play in Detroit but he didn’t even suit up. The Texans haven’t been exposed, they’re just merely beat up on the defensive side of the ball. And until they get some of their starters back, their offense may have to score 30-plus points a game, which they’re certainly capable of doing. That said, Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are both prone to injury and no running back has carried the ball more than Arian Foster this season. Can Houston’s offensive core hold up throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs? While the Patriots, Broncos and Ravens are getting stronger as the year wears on, the Texans appear to be weakening.
5. The Packers’ issues have resurfaced.
The Packers came into Sunday night riding a five-game winning streak but before the clock read double-zeros, Graham Harrell had already replaced Aaron Rodgers in the Giants’ 38-10 blowout. Green Bay’s offensive line can’t protect Rodgers, who doesn’t have enough time to get the ball to playmakers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Other defensive coordinators around the league are going to copy Perry Fewell’s game plan and use it against the Packers the rest of the year. Granted, most D-coordinators don’t have Fewell’s pass rushers but they’ll employ a similar two-deep shell that the Giants used in efforts to thwart Green Bay’s passing game. Injuries have also killed the Packers’ rushing attack and pass rush, which was non-existent versus Eli Manning last night. Just when you thought the Pack’s issues were in the rearview mirror, they came screeching back on primetime television. They’re still going to be a hell of an out if/when they make the playoffs, but you have to wonder if their makeshift O-line and injuries will derail the Packers in the end.
6. The Falcons have an X-factor that they’re not using.
The Falcons have owned one of the worst rushing attacks in the NFL this season but give offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter credit for running right at the Bucs’ top-ranked run defense in Atlanta’s 24-23 win on Sunday. The key was Jacquizz Rodgers, who rushed 10 times for 49 yards and one touchdown. He’s become the X-factor that Koetter isn’t using, or at least isn’t using merely enough. When Michael Turner has been the featured back, Atlanta’s running game grinds to a halt and he often puts Matt Ryan and the passing game in long down-and-distance situations. The cemented-footed Turner lacks the vision, acceleration and burst of Rodgers, who does a nice job of gaining yards even when he’s bottled up. Thanks to Ryan and the assortment of weapons that he has at his disposal (Julio Jones was once again dominant despite being slowed by an ankle injury), the Falcons’ passing attack remains dangerous. But unless they figure out a way to run the ball then they’re going to be too one-dimensional to beat tough defenses like the ones in San Francisco and Chicago. If Koetter and head coach Mike Smith were paying attention yesterday, they realize they have a true sparkplug in Rodgers.
7. The Cowboys’ problems on offense have become glaring.
Tony Romo is on pace to attempt a career-high 663 passes for a career-high 4,883 yards. While the yards would be impressive, the number of attempts tells the story of what has gone wrong in Dallas this season. The Cowboys have become too one-dimensional on offense and while the injury to DeMarco Murray has played a factor in the team’s play calling, Jason Garrett deserves blame for not creating more balance. Of course, Garrett doesn’t deserve blame for his running game averaging just 2.3 yards per carry. So while it’s easy to criticize Dallas for becoming too one-dimensional, what is Garrett supposed to do when his rushing attack can’t even gain three yards per attempt? Just as was the case on Thanksgiving when they fell behind 28-3 to the Redskins, the Cowboys are also starting games too slow. They were fortunate to erase a 13-0 deficit versus Cleveland two weeks ago, but the hole they put themselves in against Washington turned out to be insurmountable. With injuries now ravaging the defense and the Giants proving on Sunday night that they’re still the class of the division, it’s time for drastic measures. Romo and the offense have been efficient in the hurry up this season. But putting Romo in the hurry up more would mean Garrett sacrificing the play-calling duties during those drives. Most play callers can’t put aside their egos in order to allow their quarterback to call the plays and if Garrett falls into that category then the Cowboys will miss the playoffs for the third straight year. Simply put, Dallas can’t keep doing what its been doing offensively because it clearly doesn’t work.
8. The Rams get back to basics in win over Cards.
Entering the season Jeff Fisher knew that his young team would have to run the ball, limit mistakes, and play good defense in order to stay competitive throughout the year. That very general philosophy got lost in the midst of the Rams’ five-game winless streak, which ended on Sunday when they defeated the Cardinals 31-17. It’s no secret how Fisher and Co. beat Arizona. Steven Jackson was finally allowed to carry the running game and he responded by churning out 139 yards and a 5.8 YPC average. And while Ryan Lindley did throw for over 300 yards against that Charmin extra soft zone that the Rams like to use on a weekly basis, St. Louis took advantage of his rookie mistakes (four of them to be exact). Quite frankly, this was the type of effort that we expected out of the Rams all year. This isn’t a playoff caliber team – not yet, anyway. Fisher and Les Snead will need at least another year to acquire playmakers on both sides of the ball, which includes addressing holes along the offensive line, at wideout, and at safety. But for the next five weeks it would be nice to see the Rams do exactly what they did yesterday: Limit the mistakes, take advantage of the opportunities that their opponents give them, and control the tempo of the game with Jackson. At some point the Rams will need to be concerned with the fact that Sam Bradford only completed 8 passes or a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start somehow racked up 300 yards. passing But for now, building confidence is the key and you do that by winning, which remains the ultimate cure-all.
9. The Seahawks are finished.
That is, if Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are suspended. According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Seattle’s starting cornerback duo is facing a four-game punishment for violating the NFL’s policy against PEDs. The substance for which they took remains unclear but their agents claim it was Adderall, which landed Cleveland’s Joe Haden a four-game suspension earlier this season. Outside of Chicago’s Charles Tillman and Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield, nobody has played better in coverage this season than Sherman. And after making the Pro Bowl last season, Browner is a borderline top-10 corner as well, so losing both would kill the Seahawks’ hopes of making the playoffs. If you think that’s harsh, consider that Seattle’s identity defensively is its secondary. Safety Earl Thomas isn’t having the season he did a year ago and to a much lesser extent, neither is his partner Kam Chancellor. The Hawks can ill-afford to lose either Browner or Sherman, the latter of which has been Seattle’s best defender in 2012. After blowing leads of 14-7 and 21-14 in an eventual 24-21 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, the Seahawks didn’t need this news.
I’ve seen the reply of Ndamukong Suh’s groin-kick to Matt Schaub and I still can’t definitively say that it was intentional. But I do know this: he doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt given his history…Ray Rice’s 4th-and-29 catch-and-run was the play of the year. The effort that both he and Anquan Boldin (who laid out Eric Weddle on a vicious block to allow Rice to gain the last six yards) gave was incredible…After yesterday, can anyone dispute that Jay Cutler isn’t the difference maker in Chicago? Behind the same brutal offensive line that nearly decapitated Jason Campbell on Monday night, Cutler completed 23-of-31 and only threw two incompletions in 17 attempts before halftime. The Bears’ Super Bowl hopes firmly rest on Cutler’s shoulders…Thanks to Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne (who racked up another eight catches for 102 yards in a win over Buffalo on Sunday), the Colts will be fun to watch in the playoffs…One of the most underrated performances in Week 12 came in Miami, compliments of rookie Ryan Tannehill. His numbers (18-of-26, 253 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) don’t tell the whole story. He orchestrated two 80-yard touchdown drives and then with the game hanging in the balance, put together a 65-yard drive that led to Dan Carpenter’s 43-yard game-winning field goal. For the moment, it would appear as though Miami finally has its quarterback…I said it last week and I’ll say it again: The Bengals are far from dead. They’ve now won their last three games by a combined score of 93-29 and their defense hasn’t allowed more than 13 points over that span. The real test won’t come until Weeks 16 and 17 when they travel to Pittsburgh and host Baltimore, but Cincinnati has put itself in position to challenge for a postseason spot for the second year in a row…The Steelers can kiss the AFC North crown goodbye and unless Ben Roethlisberger has the ability to heel himself at a rapid pace, then this team isn’t making the playoffs either. That was an ugly, ugly performance from Charlie Batch yesterday in Cleveland…The gap in the NFC South is miniscule. Give the Falcons credit for shutting down Doug Martin and the Tampa Bay running game, but the Bucs went toe-to-toe with their division rivals on Sunday and nearly won. Once the Bucs address their porous secondary, that division is going to be a three-headed monster with Tampa, Atlanta and New Orleans battling for supremacy every year.
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.
1. Schiano’s tactics weren’t dirty – just unnecessary.
When Eli Manning and the Giants got into the “Victory” formation following their thrilling come-from-behind victory against the Bucs on Sunday, Tampa Bay’s defenders fired off the ball and sent Manning backwards to the ground. The “Victory” formation is usually a causal affair. Players get down into their stances but only because it’s a formality. After the quarterback drops to a knee, players will pat each other on the helmet or shake hands because the game is over at that point. So it was rather lame for Greg Schiano to say following the game, “we fight until they tell us the game is over,” because the game is metaphorically over at that point. The play wasn’t dirty but it was highly unnecessary. The odds of a player getting hurt in that situation are much higher than a quarterback fumbling the ball, your team recovering, and marching into scoring position so you can either tie or win the game. So is there a lot to be gained by doing it? Schiano is trying to clean up the mess that Raheem Morris left for him in Tampa, which includes making his players tougher. But this isn’t the way to do it and it wasn’t very smart to tick off a head coach that has as much stature as Tom Coughlin. If he and the Bucs were pissed about the loss, then they shouldn’t have squandered a game that was well in hand until the fourth quarter. (Furthermore, what’s most disappointing about the situation is that everyone is now talking about that play as opposed to yet another incredible fourth quarter comeback engineered by Manning.)
2. Make no mistake, the Patriots’ loss was stunning.
Let’s really put the Patriots’ 20-18 loss into perspective. They were a 13.5-point home favorite against a team with the worst offensive line in football and arguably the worst quarterback situation as well. The Cardinals won despite gaining only 16 first downs, running just 61 plays and throwing for only 140 yards. Kevin Kolb’s average yard per pass went just 5.2 yards and Beanie Wells rushed for just 3.1 yards per carry. Arizona also lost the turnover and time of possession battles, so talk about one of the weirdest games in the past 10 years – this was it. That said, let’s give credit were credit is due. I wrote several times this offseason about how Arizona’s defense was likely to come together this year under Ray Horton. The Cardinal defenders were often confused and out of place last season, but the players are more confident in Horton’s second year. It’s the same system that the Steelers run in Pittsburgh so it’s predicated on every player understanding their role, executing their job, and trusting that the man next to them will do the same. The players have bought into the approach and we seen the results thus far. (Through two games the Cardinals have held opponents to 17.0 points per game, which ranks fifth in the league.) I don’t expect the Cardinals to keep winning, especially the way they did Sunday in Foxboro. But I do expect the defense to continue to play well under Horton, who will be a head coaching candidate again next offseason.
3. Frustrations are already boiling over in Tennessee.
Following the Titans’ ugly 38-10 loss to the Chargers in which Tennessee rushed for just 38 yards as a team, Chris Johnson sounded off about his teammates. Said Johnson, “People need to step up and do their job. They don’t need to let people beat them. It don’t matter who the opposing defense is, you can’t let your buy beat you.” Johnson’s right: The Titans offensive line has been brutal. It was brutal last year from a run blocking standpoint and it’s been brutal through the first two weeks of the season this year. But I can count on one finger how many times Johnson has hit the whole hard this year. He’s making too many cutbacks trying to hit a home run on every play instead of trusting his instincts and using his vision to find creases in the defense. Does his offensive line need to perform better? Certainly. But right now Johnson is as much of the problem as he is the solution so instead of calling his teammates out publicly, he needs to figure out what can be done internally to better the situation because we’re only two games into a very long season.
4. Alex Smith finally looks comfortable.
For the first time in his career Alex Smith is running the same offense with the same playbook with the same offensive coordinator as he did the year prior. And what do you know? He’s been successful. It’s too early to make bold statements about the positioning of any team, but the 49ers might just be the best squad in football. They beat the Packers in Lambeau, then returned home on Sunday night and suffocated the Lions for four quarters. Detroit had to scratch, claw, and fight for every single yard that they earned, which is the way San Francisco’s defense wants it. On the other side of the ball, Smith once again took what the defense gave him, didn’t turn the ball over and threw two more touchdown passes to give him a total of four on the season. It’s hard to make statements in only two weeks but the Niners have sent a message that last year wasn’t a fluke. If Smith is their weak link, they’re in good shape so far.
5. Maybe it was just rust for Vick.
One week after playing like a rookie in Cleveland, Michael Vick completed 23-of-32 passes for 371 yards with one touchdown and added 10 carries for 34 yards and another score the Eagles’ 24-23 come-from-behind win against the Ravens on Sunday. It was vintage Vick, as he threw two costly interceptions and fumbled on an exchange with LeSean McCoy, but he also elevated his team to victory. That’s two last-second touchdown drives that Vick has engineered in as many weeks and while he deserves criticism for the turnovers, he deserves praise for pulling victory out of the jaws of defeat in back-to-back weeks. Still, questions remain about his health. He took two big shots by Baltimore defenders early in the game and he stayed down on his knee for a couple of moments after taking the first hit. How long before we see Nick Foles have to enter a game that Vick leaves due to an injury?
6. The rookie quarterbacks were much improved.
Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson picked up their first NFL wins, RGIII once again dazzled despite losing in St. Louis, and Brandon Weeden actually resembled a professional quarterback in a road loss to Cincinnati. All in all, it was a great day for rookie quarterbacks around the league. What Luck did in Indianapolis was particiluarly noteworthy. With the Colts and Vikings tied 20-20 with just 31 seconds remaining in the game, Luck took Indy 44 yards in four plays, setting Adam Vinatieri up for a game-winning 53-yard field goal. He certainly wasn’t perfect on the day, missing open receivers and taking a huge 22-yard sack on a crucial fourth down in the fourth quarter, but he remains well ahead of where he should be for a rookie signal caller. Wilson got a lot of help from his defense and special teams but both his and Tannehill’s athleticism were on display yesterday. Weeden also deserves praise for taking better care of the ball this week than in the Browns’ opening-season loss to the Eagles and credit him for taking what Cincinnati’s defense gave him. (The middle of the field was wide open throughout the day and Weeden just kept firing balls in between the linebackers and safeties.)
7. Morgan is fortunate to still be on Shanahan’s roster.
The Redskins were an enormous gift by Rams’ rookie Daryl Richardson, who fumbled with just under three minutes remaining in the game. Washington took over at its own 37-yard-line needing at least a field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. But on a third-and-eight play in St. Louis territory, Redskins’ wideout Josh Morgan caught a pass from Robert Griffin III and after being shoved by Cortland Finnegan, Morgan chucked the ball at the Rams’ corner and was flagged for a 15-yard personal foul. So instead of being well within Billy Cundiff’s range to tie the game, the play moved the Redskins out of field goal range and they eventually lost the game, 31-28. Part of you feels for Morgan because Finnegan started the fire by shoving the Washington receiver. But Morgan simply has to be better than that. With the game on the line, he has to keep his cool. A team never wins or losses on just one play but in a situation like that, it’s hard not to forget everything else that happened prior to that situation. That’s a play that Morgan and the Redskins may not forget the rest of the year.
8. Bush reminds us of how exciting a player he is.
The Saints did what they had to do two years ago when they traded Reggie Bush to Miami. They knew they were overpaying him and they found his replacement in Darren Sproles very easily on the open market. But while he became a forgot man in NFL circles, Bush has quietly turned into a reliable playmaker for the Dolphins. He totaled 109 yards in Week 1 against one of the best defenses in the league (Houston), and then for an encore performance he rushed 26 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns in Miami’s 35-13 win over the Raiders on Sunday. The 23-yard touchdown run that he had in which he broke several tackles and refused to go down was reminiscent of his days at USC. He’s an exciting player again and doesn’t get enough credit for playing with raw emotion and passion. He continues to be the featured player in Mike Sherman’s West Coast offense and it’s a role that certainly suits him.
9. Bad day for injuries around the league.
The Giants’ offensive line isn’t very good and the depth behind the starters is thin. Thus, losing left tackle David Diehl (knee) for any amount of time is troublesome. Even worse, running back Ahmad Bradshaw underwent an X-ray for a neck injury and at this point, his status remains unclear…The Eagles lost center Jason Kelce, left tackle King Dunlap and receiver Jeremy Maclin in their win over the Ravens. Kelce is done for the season and keep in mind this is a team that already lost Jason Peters to a season-ending injury before the season even started…Adding insult to injury, the Patriots could be without tight end Aaron Hernandez for awhile after he suffered a high ankle sprain in the team’s embarrassing 20-18 loss to the Cardinals…People in St. Louis thought running back Steven Jackson was benched right before halftime for spiking the ball following what he believed to be a touchdown, and then cost the Rams an opportunity for a touchdown as they were pushed back 15 yards. But it was worse – Jackson suffered a groin injury on the play and never returned. The Rams also lost Rodger Saffold again, this time to a knee injury…Blaine Gabbert had to be replaced by Chad Henne after he injured his toe and hamstring…Despite not being listed on the Seahawks’ postgame injury report, receiver Sidney Rice, who hasn’t looked right all season, left the game early for an unknown reason…Just a bad day for injuries in the NFL.
10. It’s going to be a great one in Atlanta.
The NFL couldn’t have asked for a better Monday night matchup than the one it’ll get tonight when the Falcons host the Broncos. Peyton Manning was sharp in Denver’s win last Sunday night against the Steelers and it’ll be interesting to see how he attacks an Atlanta secondary that lost its top corner in Brent Grimes (Achilles) for the season. On the other side, Matt Ryan is now at the helm of an offense that can actually outscore opponents through the air instead of trying to grind out wins on the ground. As Michael Turner’s play continues to decline, Julio Jones’ career is just taking off. The Broncos love to get after the passer so Ryan will need to continue to get the ball out of his hands quickly as he did in Week 1 and throughout the preseason. There’s also added incentive for both teams after what happened on Sunday. The Chargers are 2-0 after beating the Titans so if the Broncos don’t want to lose any ground in the AFC West, they need a victory tonight. And with the Saints sitting at 0-2 two weeks in, the Falcons could take sole possession of the NFC South, which is huge considering how good that division is top to bottom. It’s going to be fun tonight.
Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league.
+ Let’s hold judgment on Adrian Peterson before all of the details have been released following his arrest. This is a player with no history of off-field issues and it’s extremely bizarre that he was only charged with resisting arrest. The current details of the situation are that Peterson and some family members were out at a Houston nightclub when police entered the building at closing time. When they instructed people to leave, Peterson apparently wanted some water but an officer told him no and AP headed for the exit. At some point an officer was pushed, causing him to stumble and then three policemen had to “detain” Peterson. What’s unclear is how a push led to three officers attempting to detain the running back and then escalating to an actual arrest. Again, we should hold judgment until the full details have been released because something doesn’t sound right here. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the Houston police overreacted and didn’t handle the situation properly.
+ Many have argued that the Saints players involved in the New Orleans bounty scandal were simply following the orders of Gregg Williams and thus, they had little to no choice but to follow their coach’s orders. I get that. If you’re a fringe player looking to stick with a team because your career and livelihood is on the line, then you may be more apt to get along and go along then to cause waves. But what everyone seems to overlook is that Roger Goodell was lied to, and that’s why he came down hard on these participants. When Goodell went to Williams, Sean Payton and Anthony Hargrove asking if a bounty program was in place, they all told him no. Then, instead of stopping the program right then and there, they continued their pay-for-performance system. And while players like Hargrove, Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fuijta insist that Goodell has no prove that a bounty program was in place, has everyone forgotten that Williams has already apologized and thrown himself at the mercy of the court? He already admitted that he was putting bounties on opposing players. So yes, maybe the players were simply following orders. But at one point Goodell asked the participants to tell the truth and nobody spoke up, so they remain in a hell of their own making.
+ Dick LeBeau remains one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, so don’t think for a moment that the Steelers’ defense is going to fall apart. That said, there’s no question that Pittsburgh is old on that side of the ball. Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will continue to be the focal point of the defense but younger players like Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon and Alameda Ta’amu to make an impact (especially with Casey Hampton recovering from ACL surgery).
+ It’ll be interesting to see how the Chargers’ offense develops throughout the 2012 season. The run blocking wasn’t very good last season and the pass protection was below average as well, which led to Philip Rivers make a fair amount of mistakes. Ryan Mathews is an emerging star and if the blocking improves, then obviously the running game on a whole will be better than it was a year ago. But the question is how effective will Norv Turner’s coveted vertical offense be. Can Robert Meachem finally have that breakout year that many have expected since he entered the league as a first-rounder? What will the absence of Vincent Jackson have on the passing game? Can an aging Antonio Gates stay healthy? Will Malcolm Floyd be as effective this season without Jackson on the other side? Rivers made the passing game flourish without V-Jax two years ago but he needs help, mostly from his offensive line. Again, it’ll be interesting to see if Turner, who is undoubtedly on the hot seat once again, can blend the new elements together to make the passing game thrive.
+ It’s easy to make the argument that the Texans’ window to win a championship in the next three years is wide open. Even with the loss of Mario Williams their defense has a ton of talent and is coached by one of the best in the game in Wade Phillips. But Matt Schaub has still yet to play in a postseason game and Andre Johnson, now 31, will have to remain healthy or Houston will fail to take the next step after making the playoffs last year. Losing Joel Dreessen to the Broncos in free agency hurt. Not only was Dreessen a solid blocker last year for Houston, but he also averaged 12.6 yards per play in the Texans’ big-play offense. That said, if Schaub and Johnson can stay healthy then Houston will make the postseason again this year. Thanks to the offensive line and the explosiveness of Arian Foster and Ben Tate, the running game will be enough to win games on its own. It’s just a matter of whether or not the Texans can stay healthy long enough to make a deep run.
+ The reports out of San Francisco this offseason have not be positive for first-rounder A.J. Jenkins. He reportedly has made some difficult plays but he’s also had a hard time staying on his feet during workouts and is viewed as a major project. But let’s keep in mind that if Jenkins struggles this year it won’t be the end of the world. It used to be that players could take their time developing but nowadays teams need their first round picks to make an immediate impact. That said, considering the 49ers have veterans Mario Manningham and Randy Moss manning the outsides, they don’t necessarily need Jenkins to be on the fast track to NFL stardom. Is it good that the kid can’t stay on his feet and is viewed as a major project? No, but it wouldn’t be life or death if he needed a year. Besides, the 49ers will make sure that Jenkins contributes one way or another, including getting him involved in sub packages. Just don’t expect him to be a No. 1 as a rookie.
+ Good for Joe Philbin and the Dolphins coaching staff for taking it slow with rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Reports out of Miami are that the starting job is between David Garrard and Matt Moore because Tannehill is currently struggling with the speed of the game. Last year in Jacksonville, the thought was that Blaine Gabbert would be allowed to take his time while observe ring Garrard in his first year. But Garrard was released before the season and Gabbert was rushed into action way too soon. The results were disastrous and now observers are already questioning whether or not Gabbert can develop. Tannehill shouldn’t have been a top 10 selection but the Dolphins needed a quarterback and they went with offensive coordinator Mike Sherman’s guy. Fine. Now let the kid learn the game for a year before the weight of the franchise is thrust onto his shoulders. It’s not like the Dolphins are expected to compete this year so there should be no qualms about Garrard or Moore starting while Tannehill observes in his first year.
+ It looks like it’s going to be all or nothing this year for Montario Hardesty. Says ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi: “If Hardesty gets injured again, it’s easy – he will be gone, in my opinion. But if Hardesty stays healthy and is the productive player [Browns GM Tom] Heckert saw at Tennessee, I think he checks in at No. 2.” So essentially Hardesty will either be the first running back off the bench when Trent Richardson needs a blow or else he’ll be in another city at some point this year. Hopefully Hardesty isn’t another talented prospect that never developed because he was held back by injuries. He has all the talent to be a productive player in a two-back system but because of various injuries he hasn’t shown the same explosion he had coming out of college. Maybe this is the year he’ll finally stick.
Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.
+ Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff had it right in 2008 when they built the Falcons’ offense around Michael Turner. The “Ground and Pound” approach took pressure off rookie Matt Ryan and the Falcons surprised by winning 11 games and making the postseason. Four years later they were still leaning on the same approach and the result was an 0-3 record in the playoffs and plenty of question surrounding Ryan’s ability to be more than just a game manager. But finally it appears that Smith and the Falcons are ready to embrace a new offense. “When we first came in, coach (Mike) Smith said we were going to run the ball,” offensive assistant Andrew Weidinger told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Now, we are going to throw it, too. We’ve got all sorts of weapons. We’ve got running backs. We’ve got tight ends. We’ve got receivers. We are going to be able to do a little bit of everything out there.” Until Smith allows his offensive coordinator (now Dirk Koetter, who replaces Mike Mularkey) to build the offense around Ryan then the Falcons will continue to underachieve. The Falcons are long overdue to attack opponents, run more of the no-huddle (an offense that Ryan thrives in), and puts less emphasis on Turner and the ground game. They’re long overdue to take the chains of Ryan, who was clearly at his ceiling in Mularkey’s system.
+ “As a Buffalo Bills fan, I hope there’s so much turmoil during training camp. I hope (Tim) Tebow plays great, he pushes (Mark) Sanchez, and all of a sudden the locker room is coming apart,” former Bills great Jim Kelly told Andrew Siciliano on NFL Network’s Total Access on Friday. I’m with Kelly, although for different reasons. I hope Tebow plays great and pushes Sanchez because Sanchez hasn’t had to worry about losing his job since he got into the league. Yes, at one point last season Rex Ryan gave Mark Brunell first-team snaps in practice. But Brunell has never been a legitimate threat to Sanchez, who has yet to be pushed since arriving to New York in 2009 and conversely, is seemingly behind in his development. Tebow is a brutal passer but he’s a competitor and he won’t be content with his role as a backup. Jet fans should want Tebow to play well in preseason because he’ll either force Sanchez to elevate his game or he’ll get him out of the starting lineup. Either way it’s a positive for the Jets.
+ There was nothing premature about the Lions signing head coach Jim Schwartz to a multi-year contract extension on Friday. Along with GM Martin Mayhew, Schwartz has overseen one of the more impressive makeovers in NFL history. It wasn’t that long ago that Detroit posted a 0-16 season and was regarded as one of the worst franchises of the last decade. Since the Wayne Fontes era ended in 1996, the Lions have had seven different head coaches, none of which lasted more than three seasons. And while Schwartz’s win-loss record currently sits at 18-30, he clearly has this Detroit team on the rise. Now, if he can only tone down the sideline and post-game antics and get his players to stop making weekly trips to the clink, then the Lions would really be on to something.
+ ESPN’s Ron Jaworski believes that Michael Vick is capable of turning in “the best year of” his ten-year career in 2012. “This offseason is the most important of his career,” Jaws said. “It’s the first time since 2006 with the Falcons that he will go through the OTAs and training camp as the starting quarterback.” That’s all well and good but Vick doesn’t prove his worth in June or even September for that matter. It’s December and January when we find out how much Vick can carry a team. There have been too many times throughout his career where he’s looked like an unstoppable force only to sputter out down the stretch because he’s too banged up and/or gets careless in pivotal games. Go back to 2004 when he posted a 46.5 quarterback rating against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Or the 2010 postseason when he posted a 79.9 QB rating and forced a pass to the end zone that was picked off by Tramon Williams to seal the loss for Philadelphia versus Green Bay. I have no doubts that Vick will play like a Pro Bowler during the regular season. It’s the postseason where he has everything to prove.
+ The Boston Globe had an interesting report on outgoing Eagles president Joe Banner “having a good laugh” about DeSean Jackson’s five-year, $47 million contract. Per Globe reporter Greg Bedard, Banner “never would have done that deal.” But regardless of Banner’s opinion about Jackson’s contract, look for the receiver to have a major bounce back season. Jackson was so consumed by his future and contract situation last season that he completely took himself out of games. And for that, he deserved the criticism he received for not handling the situation more like a professional. It’s human nature to be concerned about your financial future but it’s never okay to stop doing your job, especially when you’re currently under contract. That said, with his contract situation behind him look for Jackson to keep his focus on football and become the weapon he was before the 2011 season.
+ If you enjoy mediocre quarterback competition, then keep tabs on the situation in Miami. ESPN’s Adam Schefter stated on Friday’s SportsCenter that David Garrard looked like the leader in the Dolphins’ quarterback competition during spring practices. “The more you hear, the more it sounds like David Garrard has really taken this opportunity to emerge as the favorite to be the starting quarterback down in Miami. Very impressive, adept, good footwork. Matt Moore’s been good, Ryan Tannehill’s been good, but David Garrard has looked the most comfortable of any of the quarterbacks.” Dolphin fans may disagree but they should want Garrard to start this season. Blaine Gabbert would have benefited from watching Garrard last year in Jacksonville. Instead, the Jags displayed impatience by cutting Garrard and thrusting Gabbert into the starting lineup when he wasn’t ready. You may believe that Tannehill is a better prospect than Gabbert but there’s little doubt the former Texas A&M QB would benefit from holding a clipboard. The Dolphins are without weapons at the wideout position and their pass blocking wasn’t very good last season either (outside of Jake Long). Thus, while Miami fans may groan about having to watch Garrard for a season, at least it would save Tannehill from possibly having a Gabbert-type rookie year (and the sea of doubt that followed it).
+ It’ll be interesting to see how Demaryius Thomas performs this season now that Tim Tebow is out and Peyton Manning is in at quarterback for Denver. The biggest difference between the two quarterbacks is now Thomas actually has to run routes. “You’re gonna have to run the whole route tree now,” said Thomas on Thursday. “The comebacks, the slants, the posts, the ins. And I didn’t have to do that much in my first couple of years in the league.” I’m not sure why Thomas didn’t have to run a full route tree under Josh McDaniels but last year he played backyard football because of Tebow, so we’ll see whether or not his development speeds up or slows down now that Manning is his quarterback.
+ Cedric Benson averaged just 3.67 yards per carry last season with the Bengals and 3.76 YPC during his four seasons with Cincinnati. So it’s not surprising that multiple teams didn’t bust down his door when free agency began back in March. That said, he’s 29 and is coming off a 1,000-yard season. One would think that somebody would sign him as a backup, especially when you consider how many teams implement a two-back system. According to Adam Schefter, Benson remains on the Raiders’ radar but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to sign him despite losing Michael Bush (Bears) in free agency and employing an injury-plagued Darren McFadden as a feature back.