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Ten Observations from Week 14 in the NFL

1. The Redskins dodge two big bullets.
It’s ironic to think that back in April Mike Shanahan and the Redskins were blasted for drafting quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round instead of filling one of their many needs. Because just over five months later Cousins wound up saving a game for the Skins, if not their entire season. For Cousins to show so much poise and composure while leading the Redskins to a 31-28 come-from-behind victory over the Ravens was impressive. He was thrust into a situation where his decisions would directly affect whether or not his team would win or lose and he performed like a 10-year veteran as opposed to a fourth-round rookie. Instead of allowing the moment to overwhelm him, he displayed fortitude while finding Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with under a minute remaining in the game. Not only that, but he also ran for a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 28 and send it into overtime, where Washington eventually won. Afterwards it was revealed that an MRI on RGIII’s right knee came back clear and it appears as though the 7-6 Redskins will have their starting quarterback for the stretch run. Of course, if RGIII can’t go, Washington is fortunate to have a backup like Cousins. That’s something nobody expected anyone would say back in April.

2. The Bears may be on the verge of their second straight collapse.
The Bears would have made the playoffs last season had Matt Forte and Jay Cutler not been injured. That’s more of a presumption than a fact, but the bottom line is that they were undone by injuries and they might be suffering from déjà vu. With Brian Urlacher inactive, Chicago’s defense was no match for Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 31 yards on 154 carries and two touchdowns in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory. Worse yet, Cutler was shaken up late in the fourth quarter and is now day-to-day with a neck injury. We’ve seen this scene already play out multiple times: the Bears won’t survive without Cutler, who continues to take abuse from his shoddy offensive line. Fortunately for Chicago it plays Arizona in two weeks and wraps up the season against a Detroit team with nothing to play for. But the NFC North could be up for grabs next week and if Cutler can’t play, the Bears could suffer the same fate they did a season ago.

3. It took nearly three months but Cam Newton is finally putting on a show.
Turnovers and an inability to close out games doomed Cam Newton over the first three months of the season. That’s why instead of challenging for a postseason berth like some had thought they would, the Panthers stumbled to a 2-8 record. But Newton has been luminous over his past three games while playing like the star he was a season ago. He’s thrown for over 800 yards the past three weeks while posting a 7:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completing 62.2-percent of his passes. In Carolina’s impressive 30-20 victory over Atlanta on Sunday, Newton nearly played mistake-free football while completing 23-of-35 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also added 116 yards on nine rushes, including a 72-yard touchdown scamper on a read option in which he flashed his explosiveness and patience as a runner. He was even more impressive as a passer. It wasn’t just that he was accurate – he was accurate while throwing a handful of passes outside the numbers. He racked up 53 yards and a touchdown on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams in the fourth quarter, but the majority of his throws were lasers to receivers with defenders draped over them. He also benefited from an angry Steve Smith, who took 13 weeks of frustrations out on an overmatched Atlanta defense. Granted, it’s too little, too late for Newton and the Panthers. But Carolina has to feel much better about Newton’s performance over the past three weeks than it did earlier in the season when he sulked his way to six losses in his first seven games.

4. Reality is starting to set in for the Ravens.
The Ravens were a team of resiliency earlier this year but now they’re just a team trying to hold it all together. Thanks to injuries, they’re lacking playmakers on the defensive side of the ball and while their offense has been the highlight of their season at times, they’re an inconsistent unit led by an inconsistent quarterback. They caught a massive break when both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also lost on Sunday, but Baltimore can’t feel too good about allowing Kirk Cousins to put together an unthinkable comeback in the Redskins’ 31-28 victory. It was a game in which the Ravens held an eight-point lead until Cousins found Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds remaining, and a long punt return by Richard Crawford set up Kai Forbath’s 34-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. One week after losing to a banged up Steelers team, the Ravens were beaten by a rookie quarterback and his rookie backup. At 9-4 they’re still in good shape to make the postseason and even win the division. But at a point when teams hope to be ascending, Baltimore is stumbling backwards with legitimate concerns on both sides of the ball.

5. Skepticism once again takes center stage in Atlanta.
Instead of wondering whether or not they can make a Super Bowl run, the Falcons have once again left everyone doubting whether they can even win a playoff game. Their 30-20 loss to the Panthers was much worse than the final score would indicate. Carolina dominated Atlanta in all three phases of the game, which is noteworthy considering the Panthers currently reside in the basement of the NFC South. The Falcons’ game plan on both sides of the ball was rudimentary and despite scoring 20 points, their offense looked bogged down outside of a handful of drives. Opponents are making a habit of bringing pressure and putting it right in Matt Ryan’s face and the Falcons can’t counter the onslaught because they can’t run the ball. They also can’t stop the run, which was apparent by the 195 rushing yards their defense gave up on Sunday. Granted, they were without Week 13 hero William Moore (hamstring) and starting corner Asante Samuel (shoulder), but they can’t use injuries as an excuse. The Panthers manhandled them for four quarters and even though they’re 11-2, the Falcons are left with more questions than answers at this critical junction in the season.

6. The Rams are finding it’s better to be lucky than good.
In their past two games, the Rams defense has held the rushing trio of Frank Gore, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to 109 yards on 39 carries (2.79 YPC). A team doesn’t do that by accident. It takes a great game plan and near-flawless execution in order to suffocate some of the best backs in the league. What the Rams have done defensively over the past two weeks is hold their opponent just long enough for their offense to muster the confidence to move the ball into scoring range. That said, in taking nothing away from the heroics of Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Janoris Jenkins and Michael Brockers, the Rams have discovered it’s better to be lucky than good. If Jim Harbaugh doesn’t arrogantly call a toss play with Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter last week, the Rams probably don’t have an opportunity to beat the 49ers. If Austin Pettis doesn’t make a spectacular catch on a pass that was thrown behind him on a crucial fourth down play on Sunday, the Rams don’t beat the Bills either. (Buffalo also dropped at least two potential interceptions on that same drive.) But just as the adage goes, winners make their own luck. The Rams defense deserved to win the past two weeks, as did the much-maligned Brandon Gibson, the often forgotten Pettis, and the polarizing Sam Bradford (who didn’t become gun shy despite nearly ending the Rams’ comeback hopes with an interception). When a team goes 29-83 in between its last playoff appearance and the hiring of yet another head coach, luck can ride shotgun as long as the wins keep piling up.

7. The Giants might be the best team in the NFC (again).
Throw out the records – the 49ers are better than the Falcons. If the two were to met on a neutral field next Sunday, San Francisco would pound Atlanta on the ground and the Falcons wouldn’t be able to stop Colin Kaepernick or the option (much like they didn’t stop Cam Newton Sunday in Carolina). But the Giants took it to the Niners in San Fran earlier this season and with how good they looked versus the Saints in their 52-27 victory, New York might just be the best team in the NFC despite being 8-5. Having said all that, the Falcons will probably beat the Giants next Sunday in Atlanta and force me to take back everything I just wrote. (The NFC is a maddening bitch this year, isn’t it?)

8. The Steelers offense is regressing.
There were a number of things that had to disturb Steelers coach Mike Tomlin following the Chargers’ 34-24 victory. San Diego’s 34 points were the most that Pittsburgh allowed at Heinz Field in two years and Sunday marked the first time the Chargers had ever won a regular season game in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger’s return also did nothing for a Steelers offense that appears to be regressing heading down the stretch. Roethlisberger looked rusty out of the gates while throwing low to intended targets and struggling with his accuracy throughout the first half. His offensive line didn’t do him any favors either, and losing Willie Colon to injury in the second quarter forced Pittsburgh to reshuffle its front five. The result was predictable for the Steelers, who did nothing against San Diego’s aggressive front seven (which also shut down Pittsburgh’s running game). On a day when the Ravens and Bengals both lost, the Steelers blew a golden opportunity to gain ground/separation in the AFC playoff race. Tomlin’s only hope is that the loss to San Diego was a result of a hangover stemming from the win over Baltimore last week. Because the alternative is that a struggling Chargers team just exposed his squad n both sides of the ball.

9. Good for Andy Reid.
It’s been so easy to get caught up in trying to figure out who Andy Reid’s replacement will be next season that you forget Reid still occupies the job. You forget that Reid is still pouring countless hours of preparation into a game that, for all intents and purposes, won’t matter if his team wins or loses. You forget that this man still has a job to do despite everyone around him asking when he’ll be handed his walking papers. Nick Foles ability to find Jeremy Maclin on a 1-yard touchdown pass with no time left on the clock to give Philadelphia a 23-21 win over Tampa Bay won’t save Reid’s job. His players seemingly quit on him weeks ago and management has probably already made up its mind that a change is in order. But for one Sunday it was touching to see Reid engage in a long embrace with one of his assistants following the Eagles’ 23-21 victory. For one Sunday, Reid can celebrate all of the hard work that he did leading up to kickoff. For one Sunday, Reid can embrace victory.

10. Quick-Hits.
Want to know how weird Sunday was? The Browns were the highlight of the AFC North…After putting together a complete win against the Steelers, Charger fans can understandably ask: Where the hell was that effort all season?…Give the Comeback Player of the Year Award to both Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. Seriously, just add an “s” to “Player” and call it a day. They’ve both been fantastic and the league will be slighting the player who doesn’t win so make everyone happen and have co-winners this season. Either that, or I want someone to look me in the eye and tell me one of those two players doesn’t deserve it…The Colts continue to defy logic. The past two weeks I watched that team play sloppy football for at least a half, only to still win in the end…It’ll be disappointing if Ken Whisenhunt winds up being the fall guy in Arizona, because GM Rod Graves is just as much at fault. If the Cardinals want to ensure that talented DC Ray Horton is given a shot to be a head coach, they could replace Horton with Whisenhunt for the final three games of the season. But it’s been Graves’ inability to find Whisenhunt a quarterback and built a component offensive line that has doomed the Cardinals. If Whisenhunt is ousted, it’s unfair that Graves is allowed to keep his job…Pete Carroll must have thought he was still trying to impress the BCS by running up the score versus the Cardinals. For the record, I have no problem with the Seahawks still throwing the ball up 83-0 on Arizona. The last time I checked, the Cardinals were still allowed to play with 11 defenders so if they didn’t like what the Seahawks were doing, they should have stopped them. That said, if Jim Harbaugh runs up the score against Seattle in two weeks, Carroll better not say a word…I hope Titus Young watched the effort that Kris Durham gave on Sunday night for the Lions and is embarrassed by his actions over the past few weeks…The ending of the 49ers’ victory over the Dolphins was exactly why Jim Harbaugh has decided to go with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. Just in case you were wondering…Defense isn’t the only issues the Saints have – that was a horrendous effort on special teams and for the second straight week, Drew Brees wasn’t very good either…The tragedies in Kansas City and Dallas the past two weeks have shown that the NFL and its 32 teams can only do so much when it comes to protecting its players. It’s ultimately up to these young men to make good decisions and the NFL can only hope that one of these times that the message will get through. Take a cab, reach out when you need it, and don’t be careless with your life or others.

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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Chargers to pursue Panthers’ WR Steve Smith?

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith (L) is tackled by Baltimore Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson during an NFL football game in Charlotte, North Carolina November 21, 2010. REUTERS/Chris Keane (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Chargers are “monitoring” the Steve Smith situation in Carolina.

The Chargers’ interest, according to people with knowledge of the situation, can be characterized as monitoring and wait-and-see. That is comparable to how they went about signing free agent safety Bob Sanders in March, letting other teams woo Sanders before making an offer to a player who wanted to be a Charger.

Teams are not allowed to conduct player business during the ongoing NFL lockout. But the Panthers were known to be shopping Smith prior to the league’s shutdown on March 11.

The Chargers landing Smith could be a product of his wanting to play in a good offense, close to his Lynwood, Calif., birthplace coupled with the team’s need for a top-flight receiver.

Smith has already cleaned out his locker in Carolina, put his house on the market and has let the Panthers know that he would like to be traded to the Chargers, Raiders or Ravens. No word yet on if he plans to burn the words “Trade Me Now” into the grass at Bank of America Stadium, but there are rumors that that is his next step.

Smith would be a nice addition to San Diego’s offense and he would certainly appreciate working with Philip Rivers, who actually resembles a professional quarterback (unlike the puss that the Panthers have been trotting onto the field over the last couple of years). He would also benefit from playing opposite Vincent Jackson and not worrying about facing constant double-teams because he’s the only playmaker in the offense.

I’m sure I’ll revisit this story once the owners and players stop fighting over fans money.

Injuries create fantasy opportunities

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 17: Mario Manningham  of the New York Giants against the Detroit Lions at New Meadowlands Stadium on October 17, 2010 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

In this, the last week of byes, there are a few situations that have created opportunity for (somewhat desperate) fantasy owners to pluck a player off the waiver wire and immediately insert them in their starting lineups:

1. Steve Smith 2.0 is out. Mario Manningham is a top 20 play this week. Manningham is available in about 40% of ESPN leagues, so he’s not widely available. But if he’s out there, he’s a pretty solid WR2/flex option with Smith 2.0 sidelined in a great matchup with a very suspect Cowboys’ pass defense. If Manningham is on your bench, consider starting him this week. I have him ranked #19.

2. Owen Daniels is ruled out. Joel Dreessen looks like a sneaky good play. Last week, with Daniels sidelined, Dreessen caught five passes for 67 yards and was the most-targeted Texan receiver (8). He has caught two TDs on the year and has a terrific matchup with Jacksonville, who is among the worst at giving up points to opposing TEs. I have him ranked #14 this week.

3. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are out. Mike Goodson gets the start. Tyrell Sutton is out as well, so Goodson has no competition for carries this week. The Bucs are 30th against the run, so there is some opportunity for Goodson to rack up some yards on the ground. He is also dangerous as a pass catcher, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he gained 120+ yards from scrimmage. I have him ranked #26 this week, so he’s a fringe RB2/flex play.

Would the Panthers be open to trading Steve Smith this season?

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith stands on the field during a break in the action against the Washington Redskins at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 11, 2009. The Panthers won 20-17. UPI/Nell Redmond . Photo via Newscom

At 0-3 and committed to a rebuilding year in what could be John Fox’s final season as head coach, the Panthers might be wise to trade receiver Steve Smith in order to get something now for him while they still can.

Actually, Smith doesn’t become a free agent until 2013, so the Panthers have plenty of time to trade him if they inevitably choose too. But at 31, it’s not like he’s getting any younger and his trade value may never be higher than it is right now.

Carolina isn’t going anywhere this season with the amount of offensive line and quarterback issues they currently have. Thus, Smith is useless to this current team (he’s still a dynamic talent, but what good is he if nobody can get him the ball?), which is why Tom Sorensen of the Charlotte Observer thinks the solution might be to trade him now.

Sorensen mentions Minnesota as a possible landing spot, which would be a perfect fit. But there are other teams that could definitely use Smith’s services, too.

The Seahawks are in first place in the worst division in football, but they’re desperate for a receiver after not pulling the trigger on Brandon Marshall and Vincent Jackson over the past couple of months. The Titans are high on Kenny Britt, but they could use another weapon in the passing game, as could the Steelers unless they’re completely sold on Hines Ward and Mike Wallace as their top guns. (I’m certainly not suggesting Ward or Wallace can’t get the job done, but I’m just throwing the idea out there.)

The wildcard is Atlanta, who has Roddy White but doesn’t have that complement at the No. 2 wideout position. Michael Jenkins is a terrific blocker but he isn’t a threat in the passing game and Harry Douglas is best left in the slot. Teams don’t usually trade within the division, but after the Eagles dealt Donovan McNabb to the Redskins this offseason, nothing would surprise me.

As of now, this is all just speculation. The Panthers haven’t given any indication that they’re ready to put Smith on the trade block and for all we know, he’s going to finish out his career in Carolina. But given the current state of the franchise, it’s an interesting thought.

2010 NFL Preview: NFC South Predictions

NEW ORLEANS - JANUARY 24: Quarterback Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints addresses his teammates prior to playing against the Minnesota Vikings during the NFC Championship Game at the Louisana Superdome on January 24, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

One of the best battles in the NFL this year will reside in the NFC South, where the defending Super Bowl champion Saints will be tested by an improved Falcons team coming off back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in franchise history.

As for the rest of the South, the Panthers are in transition now that Matt Moore is under center, but they’re still going to be competitive on weekly basis and the Bucs should be improved as well. (Although I don’t see them getting out of the division cellar anytime soon.)

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the NFC South in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season. (If the links aren’t available now for some teams, check back because they will be before the season starts.)

1. Saints

What to Like: It’s hard to start a sentence about what’s to like about the Saints without first mentioning their offense. The dynamics between Sean Payton and Drew Brees are exceptional. Payton knows exactly how to attack an opponents’ weakness and Brees knows how to execute what Payton is trying to do. While the defense was certainly a surprise last year, the relationship between Payton and Brees was the main reason the Saints lifted the Lombardi Trophy last year. Of course, it never hurts to have playmakers like Marques Colston, Reggie Bush, Jeremy Shockey and Robert Meachem in the offense, either. Nor does having outstanding guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks, and tackle Jon Stinchcomb along the O-line either. Defensively, Gregg Williams was a miracle worker in his first season as defensive coordinator and was fortunate to have guys like Darren Sharper, Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Tracy Porter play opportunistic football. The addition of Alex Brown will also fix a major hole at the end spot opposite Smith in terms of pass rushing.
What Not to Like: This team is weak up the middle on defense. After coming off a promising rookie campaign, Sedrick Ellis struggled last year due to injuries and Remi Ayodele (who was brought in to be a run-stuffer) was highly ineffective and doesn’t offer anything in the pass-rush department. Vilma, who is an outstanding cover middle linebacker, struggled at times against the run last year and the same could be said for Scott Shanle. Former first round pick Malcolm Jenkins (who is a converted corner) takes over for Sharper at free safety and while he has the tools to be good, he’s never played the position before. Offensively, there are very few weaknesses but if I had to pick one it would be left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who struggled badly last season. Cowboys’ OLB DeMarcus Ware (who makes most tackles look bad) exposed him on national television last season and there are some concerns that he can protect Brees’ blindside.
Keep Your Eye On: Pierre Thomas
I didn’t even mention the running game in the “What to Like” section, so here it goes. One of the main reasons Payton’s offense and the Saints’ passing game is so efficient is because of the team’s ability to run the football. Now that Mike Bell is gone, Thomas should have even more opportunities than he received last season to be the rock in New Orleans’ backfield. Reggie Bush will still get his touches, but I don’t think a 1,000-plus yard season out of Thomas is out of the question – especially now that he’s fully healthy heading into Week 1 (he wasn’t at the start of 2009).
The Final Word: The Saints certainly don’t come without their weaknesses, but this is still the team to beat in the NFC South. Their offense will once again rank near the top of the league by year’s end (barring injuries, of course) and Williams proved to be an outstanding game-planner last season. The run defense is a concern, as is Bushrod at left tackle. But Brees and company are going to light up the scoreboard again this year and even if the defense takes a step back, I don’t see the Saints relinquishing the division crown quite yet.

New Orleans Saints 2009 Question Mark: Interior Defense

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