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NFL Week 16 Free Picks

Saints vs. Panthers, 1:00PM ET
After the Seahawks thrashed the Saints on “Monday Night Football” a few weeks back, Drew Brees reminded reporters that New Orleans has the best road record of any team in the NFL since 2009. While that may be, there’s no denying that the Saints are a much different team on the road this year than at home. Part that is because the Saints are seemingly unbeatable inside the Superdome. But Sean Payton is also more conservative with his play-calling on the road, Brees is less accurate, and Rob Ryan’s defense is softer versus the run. The Panthers should adjust to what they the Saints did to them in Week 14 when these two teams met in New Orleans (a walk away win for the Saints). I expect them to tighten up their red zone coverage and not allow Jimmy Graham to get a free release up the seam and torch them for a second time. The Saints are just 1-4 against the spread in their last five games in Carolina and 3-8 ATS in their last 11 games overall versus the Panthers.
FREE PICK: PANTHERS -3

Cowboys vs. Redskins, 1:00PM ET
Kirk Cousins was outstanding in the first half last Sunday in Atlanta and nearly helped Washington overcome seven turnovers to beat the hapless Falcons. He may have just as much success on Sunday versus a Dallas defense that ranks dead last in yards allowed this season, but this isn’t the game the Cowboys will choke away. (That’ll come next weekend when they host the Eagles for what will amount to the NFC East Division title game, a la Week 17 last season.) Regardless of who is under center, the Redskins remain a mess defensively and they’re just 2-9 against the number in their last 11 games versus NFC opponents. They’re also 0-4 ATS in their last four divisional games and 0-5 ATS in their last five games following an ATS win. The Cowboys should get it done on Sunday.
FREE PICK: COWBOYS -2.5

Steelers vs. Packers, 4:25PM ET
The Packers have won two straight games after out-playing their opponents in the second half. They trailed by double-digits at home to the Falcons two weeks ago and by 23 points at half versus the Cowboys in Dallas last Sunday but still managed to win. At some point they’re not going to be able to dig themselves out if they continue their inconsistent play on offense and shoddy play on defense. Green Bay is just 1-6 against the spread in its last seven games overall, 0-4 ATS in its last four home games and 0-4 ATS in their last four games against a team with a losing record. On the other side, the Steelers are 5-1 against the number in their last six games overall and 4-1 ATS in their last five games following a straight up win. With Aaron Rodgers sidelined for another week with an injured collarbone, look for Pittsburgh to pull off the minor upset.
FREE PICK: STEELERS +2.5

Bears vs. Eagles, 8:30PM ET
The total is set high in this one but neither of these teams were interested in playing defense last week. The Bears are going to have loads of trouble slowing down LeSean McCoy on Sunday night and after getting torched by Matt Cassel last week, the Eagles should struggle trying to defend Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte. The over is 4-1 in the Bears’ last five games overall, 11-3 in their last 14 road games and 9-2 in the Eagles’ last 11 games following an ATS loss.
FREE PICK: OVER 55.5

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NFL Week 2 Picks & Predictions

Rams at Falcons, 1:00PM ET
The Falcons aren’t firing on all cylinders offensively. Roddy White was relegated to decoy duties last Sunday against the Saints due to a high-ankle injury, and the offensive line is young, vulnerable, and inexperienced. New Orleans pressured Matt Ryan relentlessly last week and the strength of St. Louis’ defense is its front four. Thus, Falcons OC Dirk Koetter might slow things down and build his game plan around Steven Jackson and his running game in efforts to slow the Rams’ pass rush down. On the other side, Sam Bradford and Co. scored 27 points against Arizona in Week 1 but 14 of those points didn’t come until the fourth quarter. The Rams shot themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers, which halted a couple potential scoring drives. This is a young St. Louis team that will be facing a defense today led by Mike Nolan, who creates a lot of confusion with his schemes. Don’t expect a shootout today in the Dome. The under is 39-18-1 in the Rams’ last 58 road games and 6-2 in the Falcons’ last eight home games.
PREDICTION: RAMS/FALCONS UNDER 47.5

Cowboys vs. Chiefs, 1:00PM ET
The Cowboys had to hang on to a 36-31 win despite creating six turnovers last Sunday night against the Giants. They’re also banged up, as Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Anthony Spencer will play through injuries today in Kansas City. Andy Reid is familiar with the Cowboys’ tendencies after coaching in the NFC East for over 10 years and should put together a quality game plan today. The Chiefs also built some momentum and confidence by spanking a bad Jaguars team in Jacksonville last Sunday, and their defense looks like it could be a strength all season under new DC Bob Sutton. The Cowboys are 4-14 against the spread in their last 18 games following a straight up win and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 games following an ATS win. Chiefs get it done in their home opener.
PREDICTION: KANSAS CITY CHIEFS -3

Titans vs. Texans, 1:00PM ET
Two of the bigger surprises occurred in Week 1 as Tennessee went into Pittsburgh and thumped the Steelers, while the Texans had to overcome a double-digit deficit to beat a bad Chargers team on Monday night. The Titans aren’t getting a lot of respect from oddsmakers today despite making additions this offseason to fix the interior of their offensive line and defense. I expect Wade Phillip’s defense to play much better this week, but keep in mind that Houston is coming off a short week after traveling to San Diego in Week 1. They’re 1-4 against the spread in their last five games overall and 0-4 ATS in their last four games following a straight up win. Tennessee keeps pace today.
PREDICTION: TENNESSEE TITANS +9

Broncos vs. Giants, 4:25PM ET
“The Manning Bowl” is going to be closer than people think. The Giants aren’t going to turn the ball over six times like they did a week ago in Dallas and Peyton Manning will be hard pressed to throw for seven touchdowns again like he did at home versus Baltimore. Look for Perry Fewell and New York’s defense to keep everything in front of them in efforts to minimize Manning’s effectiveness in the passing game. And if Fewell can drum up pressure, then Manning will also be forced to slow down the tempo of the Broncos’ offense. The Giants are 10-4-1 against the spread versus a team with a winning record and 5-2-1 ATS in their last eight games after allowing more than 30 points in their previous game. Look for New York to rebound today.
PREDICTION: NEW YORK GIANTS +4.5

NFL Quick Hits: Romo, Dumervil and Draft Talk

+ There’s a large contingent that feels as though Jerry Jones has condemned his own team by handing Tony Romo a six-year, $108 million contract extension that includes $55 million guaranteed. And who could blame them? Romo is a competitor and a leader. Outside of missing 10 games in 2010 due to a shoulder injury, he’s durable and has eclipsed 4,000 yards passing in four of his last six seasons. He’s also 1-3 in the postseason and has a nasty habit of saving his worst effort for the most crucial of moments. How could any Dallas fan be okay with rewarding what essentially amounts to mediocrity? But survey the league. There are at least 10 teams that would gladly guarantee Romo $55 million if he could suit up for them. Jones is rolling the dice that Romo will eventually prosper in those moments that have ruined him in the past. He’d rather continue to invest in the undrafted gem that he signed in 2003 instead of starting all over again at the position next year. And maybe he’ll eventually be undone by his unwavering loyalty, but it’s not as if the Cowboys developed any Pro Bowlers in the years between Troy Aikman and Romo. For better or worse, Jones has pushed Romo and a large chunk of his money into the middle of the pot and said, “All in.” We’ll see if the gamble pays off in the upcoming years.

+ Did Elvis Dumervil just pass up his best chance at playing for a championship by not re-signing with the Broncos? Think about that for a moment. It’s not as if he took the money a la Mario Williams and become a hired mercenary for a bad team – the Ravens are the defending champions, after all. But the last franchise to win back-to-back Super Bowls was the Denver Broncos in the late 90s, which proves how difficult it is to repeat in the NFL. Thanks to Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh, Baltimore will continue to compete year in and year out. But if it weren’t for Rahim Moore’s mistake in the Divisional Round last season, the Broncos may have won it all in February. (One could certainly make the argument that they were the best team heading into the playoffs.) With Wes Welker now catching passes from Peyton Manning, the Broncos should be right back in the Super Bowl mix in 2013. While he may never regret the decision to leave the Mile High state (especially when you consider the manner in which things ended in Denver), it would be a bitter pill to swallow if Dumervil was forced to watch his former teammates compete for a title next year. And that may very well happen.

+ Buddy Nix continues to boggle the mind in Buffalo. He had to part ways with Ryan Fitzpatrick a couple of weeks ago because he made the bone-headed decision in 2011 to overpay Fitzpatrick for one month of quality football. But why sign Kevin Kolb to a two-year, $13 million contract? He doesn’t represent a clear upgrade over Fitzpatrick, who also would have been a fit for coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s “K-Gun” offense. Fitzpatrick often displayed poor footwork and mechanics but he was at his best when getting the ball out of his hands quickly and spreading it around to different receivers. Instead of throwing more money at the position, Fitzpatrick could have been the starter until Ryan Nassib or another rookie was ready to take over in 2014. It just doesn’t make sense although hey, we’re also talking about the same guy in Nix who passed up on Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson in the second and third rounds each of the past two years. Not much Nix has done over the past three years has made much sense.

+ The more film I watch on this year’s defensive tackle class, the more I like. Star Lotulelei is versatile in that he can play in multiple defensive fronts, can anchor and also collapse the pocket when rushing. Meanwhile, Florida’s Sharrif Floyd is massive at 6-foot-2 and 297 pounds, but he’s light on his feet and has the ability to be a double-digit sack lineman as a 3-technique tackle. One could easily say the same about Mizzou’s Sheldon Richardson, who is an athletic marvel and a player that spent a lot of time in the opposing team’s backfield last season. When you get past the top three, Ohio State’s Jonathan Hankins was considered the best defensive tackle prospect at the start of the 2012 college football season (until his play fell off the map as the year wore on), and North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams is athletic, strong, and shows burst off the snap. It’s a great year for teams looking for interior pass-rush help.

+ Geno Smith might be the biggest wild card in the first round this year. The Chiefs have expressed interest in him, but chances are they’re planning on drafting Luke Joeckel with the No. 1 pick. The Raiders could take him at No. 3 but they’ve also expressed interest in Matt Flynn, while the logical move for the Bills would be to wait until the second round and nab Doug Marrone’s former Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib. (This after signing Kevin Kolb to a two-year, $13 million contract over the weekend.) If Smith goes in the top 10, my best guess is that it’ll be to Arizona at No. 7. There have been so many smokescreens surrounding the Cardinals over the past few weeks that you would think the entire state of Arizona is on fire. But I’m not buying their interest in Matt Barkley, whose best fit is in a West Coast offense. He simply doesn’t have the arm strength to run Bruce Arians’ offense efficiently, and neither does Carson Palmer (whom the Cardinals have expressed interest in as well). Smith is far from an elite quarterback prospect, but he does have enough arm strength to challenge the seam at the next level. That’s vital in Arians’ system.

+ If Manti Te’o falls out of the first round, it’ll be because of the current value for NFL middle linebackers – not because of his fake girlfriend or one miserable game versus Alabama. Just as he showed in the months leading up to the national title game, he sifts through traffic well, he plays downhill, and he’s an instinctive player. But this is a pass-happy league and if Te’o is going to play middle linebacker in a 4-3, he’s likely to come off the field on third downs. Middle linebackers simply don’t hold as much value as they did 10 years ago, which is why a player like Alec Ogletree may come off the board ahead of Te’o. Ogletree is a knucklehead who ran into off-field issues at Georgia, but he’s also a former safety that can run and cover. Assuming he develops at the pro level, teams won’t have to take him off the field in nickel situations. There’s a lot of value in that attribute, more so than a prospect that is a true thumper in the running game that has his limitations in coverage.

+ With all the talk surrounding Tavon Austin this year, one receiver that should be getting more attention is Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton. He has good size, quickness, and pass-catching ability. He doesn’t drop passes, he’s smooth in and out of routes, and he shows a willingness to block. Unlike Austin, Patton lacks top end speed, doesn’t separate and he didn’t make much of an impact as a return man in college. But he was productive in his two years with the Bulldogs and he has great intangibles. Prior to the 2011 Poinsettia Bowl, he gave a $300 Best Buy gift card (which was one of his bowl gifts) to a child from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Some team in the second round is going to get a solid player on the field and a high-character person off it.

+ Some team is either going to hit a grand slam with LSU’s Barkevious Mingo or they’re going to strike out looking. I fear there’s no in between. He’s a freak athletically and he could potentially be a headache for opposing teams as a designated pass rusher, but he’s really lean and may not hold up against the run. He also wasn’t overly productive at LSU and arguably wasn’t their best pass rusher, either. (That would be teammate Sam Montgomery.) If he can’t defend the run and he can’t set the edge, will he be worth taking in the first round based on his upside as a pass rusher? Bruce Irvin was, but the Seahawks also used him appropriately (i.e. as a DPR). When Irvin had to start versus the Falcons in the Divisional Round last year because of the injury to Chris Clemons, Atlanta ran right at him because he couldn’t set the edge in run support. Then again, he also finished with eight sacks as a rookie and there are plenty of teams that would kill for similar production. It’ll be interesting to see which ones will be willing to give up a late first-round pick in hopes of acquiring that same kind of output from Mingo.

+ The Dolphins just signed an underrated player in Brent Grimes. Assuming he’s healed from the Achilles injury that robbed him of nearly his entire 2012 season, he’ll upgrade a secondary that was often torched last year. He’s small but he’s technically sound and often the best athlete on the field at any given time. Granted, in signing him to a one-year, $5.5 million contract they overpaid for his services, especially considering he’s coming off the injury. (The cornerback market has also been weak this year.) But Miami got a quality player nonetheless.

Ten Observations from Week 17 in the NFL

1. Adrian Peterson is this year’s MVP.
It wouldn’t be a travesty if Peyton Manning were to claim this year’s MVP award. It wouldn’t be a crime, an injustice, or a mockery for the NFL. Having said that, Adrian Peterson is so clearly this year’s most valuable player that it’s almost not even worth discussing. The Vikings went 3-13 last year and owned the third overall pick in the draft (later traded to Cleveland for the fourth overall selection, which was used on outstanding left tackle Matt Kalil). Nobody expected them to finish third in a competitive NFC North, nevertheless winning 10 games and clinching a playoff spot. And with all due respect to Minnesota’s offensive line and underrated defense, without Peterson accomplishing what he did this season, the Vikings may not have won half of the games they did. Opponents put together game plans solely to stop Peterson and often dared second-year quarterback Christian Ponder to beat them, which he rarely did. Yet Peterson did the extraordinary by amassing 1,598 yards over the final 10 games, a number still good enough to lead the league in rushing this season. He finished with a 6.03 yards per carry average, totaled over 100 yards rushing in nine of his final 10 games, and rushed for over 200 yards on two separate occasions. Had there been one more minute left in Sunday’s contest versus the Packers, there is a good chance Peterson would have broke Eric Dickerson’s single-game rushing record as well. All this despite suffering an injury at the end of last season that usually takes players two full seasons to recover from. Consider this as well: Peterson rushed a career-high 34 times in the Vikings’ 37-34 win over the Packers, who oh-by-the-way needed a win to clinch a first-round bye next week. Most running backs wear down throughout an entire season – “All Day” seemingly got stronger. He’s a remarkable player who just put the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable seasons in NFL history. If that doesn’t net him the most prestigious individual award in football, what will?

2. Peyton Manning is deserving of Comeback Player of the Year.
Without Adrian Peterson having a season for the ages, the Vikings would have likely missed the playoffs. Without Peyton Manning, the Broncos may have still been good enough to beat the toilet water in the AFC West thanks to their stout defense. Granted, Denver wouldn’t have clinched the No. 1 seed without Manning but you get the point. Those are just a few reasons why Peterson should be considered the most valuable player in the NFL this season. (The other reasons are detailed above.) But at this time last year, people wondered whether or not Manning would, or better yet, should retire after not taking a single snap in 2011. And all he’s done this year is put together one of the finest seasons of his illustrious career. He finished the regular season with 4,659 yards passing, 37 touchdowns, a 68.6 completion percentage and a 105.8 QB rating, which were all Denver Broncos records. His three-touchdown performance against Kansas City on Sunday was also the 73rd of Manning’s career and gave him yet another NFL record. As mentioned in “Observation No. 1,” it wouldn’t be a farce if Manning were named MVP. But considering his road back to the gridiron was paved with multiple neck/back surgeries, an entire season spent on the sidelines, and a change of cities, Manning’s “comeback” was more impressive than Peterson’s. Either way, both players should be properly recognized for their impressive feats this season.

3. The Texans’ collapse is nearly complete.
On December 2 the Texans were 11-1 having just beaten the Titans to earn their sixth-straight victory. At that moment it seamed unimaginable that Houston wouldn’t have home field advantage throughout the postseason. But the Texans, losers of three of their last four games following their 28-16 defeat in Indianapolis on Sunday, have completely collapsed. Injuries on defense have turned a once top-5 unit into one susceptible of big plays. (See Andrew Luck’s 70-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton as proof.) But there are no excuses as to why Houston’s offense has become punchless over the past month. At the root of the issue is quarterback Matt Schaub, who threw two ugly interceptions to Indy cornerback Vontae Davis on Sunday. Despite completing a high-percentage of throws, Schaub was ineffective for the second straight week and for the third time in his last four games. Remember, Schaub doesn’t have a postseason start under his belt. It would have been nice for the Texans if their playoff-inexperienced quarterback could have built a little momentum heading into next week. Instead, the Texans enter the postseason as one of the coldest teams in the field of 12. And while the Bengals are the least imposing team in this year’s playoffs, their underrated defense is certainly good enough to hold Houston’s struggling offense in check. The Texans now have less than a week to figure out how they’ve gone from Super Bowl favorites to title pretenders.

4. RGIII, AP and the Hawks – the bottom of the NFC is dangerous.
Try as they did, the Cowboys didn’t have much of an answer for Robert Griffin III on Sunday night. As he’s done to opponents all season, RGIII forced Dallas’ defense to play back on its heels, which in turn made Alfred Morris more effective. The Packers also had a hell of a time trying to corral Adrian Peterson, whom they’ll see again in less than a week. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have won five straight games and are arguably the hottest team in the NFC…as the fifth seed. Granted, the media always tries to over hype the lower seeds in the playoffs. That’s probably because we spend an entire season pointing out flaws in the higher-ranked seeds (it’s human nature). But in the case of the Skins, Vikes and Hawks, there’s no downplaying how dangerous they are on any given Sunday. Granted, either the Redskins or Seahawks will be finished next weekend because they play each other in the first round, but would anyone be surprised if any one of these teams wind up in the NFC title game? Thanks to all six teams winning at least 10 games this season, the NFC playoff field is highly intriguing this year.

5. Romo once again saves his worst performance for last.
Heading into Sunday night’s NFC East title tilt between the Redskins and Cowboys, no quarterback in the league was hotter than Tony Romo. In his previous eight games he had thrown 17 touchdown passes to just three interceptions and thanks to plenty of help from Dez Bryant, was practically willing Dallas to a division crown and a playoff berth. But in typical Romo fashion, he saved his worst performance for the biggest moment of the season. He did toss two touchdown passes, which included a crucial 10-yard completion to Kevin Ogletree midway through the fourth quarter to cut the Redskins’ lead down to three with a 2-point conversion. But he also threw three brutal interceptions, the final one coming late in the fourth quarter after the Dallas defense gave its offense a chance to at least tie the game following a punt. Romo wanted to dump the ball off to his running back in the flats and was instead intercepted by linebacker Rob Jackson, who read the play perfectly. It was one of those all-too-familiar moments for Romo, who never saw Jackson retreat to the flats as he lobbed the pass to the sidelines. And thanks to a brutal roughing the passer penalty on Washington’s next drive, the Skins were able to put the game away with a touchdown under two minutes to play. The 32-year-old Romo has once again left Jerry Jones in an unenviable situation. He once again posted great numbers while throwing for over 4,600 yards but the Cowboys will once again be at home for the playoffs. The question is, does Jones still believe he can win a Super Bowl with Romo under center? When his team absolutely had to have a win, Romo didn’t deliver. Again.

6. The Bears have nobody to blame but themselves.
Chicago fans will undoubtedly blame Green Bay’s inability to beat Minnesota as the reason why their beloved Bears missed the playoffs despite finishing with a 10-6 record this season. And technically, they’re right. With Chicago’s season hanging in the balance, the Packers never led in Minnesota and turned in their worst defensive performance in over a month. But from Weeks 11 through 16, Chicago only won one game over a six-game stretch. They also lost three in a row to start the month of December and couldn’t produce against playoff qualifiers Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota and Green Bay. It’s a shame that a 10-win team missed the postseason but the Bears did themselves in by leaving their fate in another team’s hands (specifically their most hated rivals.)

7. Falcons’ Smith still can’t gauge risk vs. reward.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith is conservative by nature. He’s been criticized for playing not-to-lose, especially in the postseason where he’s 0-3 over the past four seasons. And yet, when he does decide to gamble, it comes at the most inopportune times. Take Week 13 of last year for example. His decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 in overtime cost his team a potential victory versus the Saints. He also went for it on fourth down on multiple occasions during the Falcons’ embarrassing 24-2 loss to the Giants in the wild card round, none of which were successful. Fast forward to Sunday when, in a meaningless game, he played his starters in a lackluster loss to the Bucs. The decision could prove to be costly too, as Dunta Robinson (concussion) and John Abraham (ankle) left the game with injuries. Abraham is the bigger concern, as he had to be helped off the field by trainers. Why, with nothing to gain, would Smith risk injury to one of his starters? What was he and the Falcons hoping to prove by going through the motions versus a Tampa Bay team looking to end the season on a high note? If anything, it planted the seed of doubt in a team that had built up some momentum the past two weeks. If Abraham’s injury proves to be serious, then Smith should be questioned for why he can’t manage simple risk versus reward.

8. Vick’s football career reaches a new low.
Michael Vick has been adamant that he’s still a starter but he’ll be fortunate that some team even views him as a capable backup heading into 2013. All you need to know about Vick’s performance on Sunday versus the Giants was that he was pulled in favor of Trent Edwards for the final drive of the game. Over the past two seasons he’s gone 10-13 as a starter while throwing 33 interceptions to go with his 32 touchdowns. He also hasn’t played a full season since 2006 and his threat to run has been neutralized by his inability to take a hit. He may still fancy himself as a starter but even quarterback-hungry teams like the Cardinals, Chiefs and Jaguars will be weary of handing the reigns to a 33-year-old quarterback who is turnover prone, has never been an accurate passer and who can’t stay healthy. Considering many believed he would revolutionize the quarterback position when he came into the league in 2001, Vick may go down as one of the most overrated players in NFL history.

9. Fisher’s first season in St. Louis can only be described as a success.
Success can be defined in different ways. Some people probably read the title of this observation and scoffed. Some believe that because the Colts and Vikings surprised by making the postseason, the Rams should have pulled off the same feat. If only life were that black and white. What could posses someone to have such lofty expectations following a 2-14 season and a complete turnover of the roster is beyond me. It wasn’t logical that they would make the postseason this year. Hell, it wasn’t logical that they could win 8 games, at least not to those outside of St. Louis that weren’t mentally and/or monetarily invested in the team. But thanks in large part to Jeff Fisher, 2012 was a success. Free agency was a success. The draft was a success. Winning 80-percent of their games against a tough division was a mark of success, as was learning how to win on the road. Having said that, does Sam Bradford need to make longer strides in his development? That’s not even an argument – of course he does. But he also deserves an opportunity to compete in a stable environment. Quarterbacks that are forced to learn three different offenses under shoddy tutelage is a recipe for failure. There are some people that have already convinced themselves that he’s nothing more than a marginal quarterback capable of only being a Brad Johnson-type game manager. And that’s fine – we all don’t need to agree. But here are the facts: He threw for a career-high 3,702 yards and 21 touchdowns while managing to start every game of the season (a feat he couldn’t accomplish in 2011). Those are signs of improvement. It might not be the improvement that many had hoped, but the bottom line is that he’s a better quarterback now than he was in 2010. More importantly, the Rams are a better team than they were two years ago when they walked out of CenturyLink Field. Only this time nobody should have false hope about the direction the franchise is headed in.

10. Quick-Hits…
The pass that Andrew Luck made when he looked off the safety and hit T.Y. Hilton perfectly in stride for a 70-yard touchdown was one of the prettiest throws by any quarterback this season. He’s a special player and NFL fans are more enriched by the fact that he and the Colts are in the playoffs…Speaking of which, would anyone be surprised if Indianapolis beat Baltimore next week? The Ravens aren’t exactly sprinting into the postseason…Peyton Manning continued to make his case for NFL MVP by throwing another three touchdown passes on Sunday, but did you see the catches that Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker made? The catch by Thomas was one of the best of the year…Don’t be surprised if the Panthers make the postseason next year. They finished 2012 as one of the hottest teams in the leageu and scored at least 30 points in three of their final four games…2012 turned out to be a lost season for the Saints but it doesn’t take away what Drew Brees accomplished. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and with Sean Payton back in the fold next year, the Saints will remain explosive…It’s funny, the NFC South was viewed as one of the best divisions in football at the start of the year. By midseason it was viewed as a joke but all four of the division’s inhabitants could be playoff contenders next year…If I’m Jets owner Woody Johnson I’m keeping Rex Ryan in place for his defense and finding both a new quarterback and a new GM for 2013…Credit the Lions for playing with pride. That’s more than anyone can say about the Eagles…The Steelers’ season turned out to be a major disappointment but for the 12th time in 13 years they avoided having a losing season. That’s sustained success right there…Congratulations to the Chiefs for notching the No. 1 overall pick in next April’s draft. It was well earned…Terrelle Pryor is hardly the answer at quarterback for the Oakland Raiders but if nothing else, he gave them something to think about with his two-touchdown performance on Sunday…One of the broadcasters made a good point following the Seahawks’ hard-fought 20-13 win over the Rams on Sunday. After steamrolling opponents the past couple of months, it’ll serve Seattle well to have fought through a little adversity…If Michael Crabtree plays as well as in the playoffs as he did on Sunday then the Niners aren’t going to miss Mario Manningham…RGIII vs. Russell Wilson? Can’t wait.

Ten Observations from Week 12 in the NFL

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.

10. Quick-Hits.
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.

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