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.

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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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.

Ten Observations from Week 9 in the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Observations from Week 8 in the NFL

1. This is a different Falcons team – a more dangerous one.
Even after their impressive 30-17 victory over the Eagles on Sunday, it’s fair to question whether or not the Falcons will roll through the rest of the regular season just to once again fall flat in the playoffs. They’re 0-4 in the postseason under Mike Smith and we’ve seen Atlanta clinch in the top seed in the NFC before, only to get steamrolled by a more complete team (i.e. the Packers in 2010). But this is a different Falcons team – a better one, in fact. Dirk Koetter is a significant upgrade over former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey when it comes to creativity, play design, and philosophy. Koetter actually installs a route tree that allows his receivers to run vertically. He’s creative in the red zone, as he proved on Sunday when he used deception to free up unknowns Drew Davis and Jason Snelling for touchdowns. Matt Ryan has thrived under Koetter, who understands how to best utilize talent like Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Defensively, the Falcons are more aggressive and more versatile now that Mike Nolan is calling the shots, as opposed to Mike Smith and former coordinator Brian Van Gorder. For the first time since Smith took over five years ago, the Falcon defense is forcing opposing offenses to adjust to them instead of the other way around. Granted, their running game and run defense still leave a lot to be desired so this Atlanta team isn’t perfect. But to assume the Falcons are set up to go one-and-done again in the playoffs would be a mistake. They’re simply a more dangerous team now than at any point in the past five years.

2. With his scapegoat gone, Reid now must point the finger at himself.
With an impatient and agitated fan base demanding change following the team’s 3-3 start, Andy Reid fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo last week. But Castillo was made to be the scapegoat for a much bigger problem in Philadelphia. That was evident again on Sunday when, under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Eagles surrendered 30 points and 392 yards, produced zero turnovers and didn’t force a punt until seven minutes and 18 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of an ugly 30-17 loss to the Falcons. Neither Castillo nor Bowles can cover Drew Davis or Julio Jones. They can’t tackle Jacquizz Rodgers or force Matt Ryan to turn the ball over. They also can’t light a fire under Michael Vick or inspire a talented yet underachieving roster that has shown zero signs of cohesion or chemistry the past two years. The problem in Philadelphia wasn’t the defensive coordinator and everyone knew it. But Reid was forced to make a change and Castillo was an easy target. It wouldn’t be surprising if Reid made another change this week, inserting rookie Nick Foles into the starting lineup and benching Vick. But it isn’t Vick’s fault that Reid put together a conservative game plan when he had two weeks to prepare for the Falcons. At a time when his coaching seat has never been hotter, Reid decided that a dink-and-dunk philosophy was the best way to beat an Atlanta team that hasn’t scored fewer than 23 points in a game all season. So while Castillo was forced to fall on his sword last week and Vick may soon be asked to do the same, at what point does Andy Reid point the finger of blame at himself?

3. If Turner goes, Smith should follow in San Diego.
Following their brutal 7-6 loss in Cleveland on Sunday, the Chargers have now gone six quarters without scoring a touchdown. That stat doesn’t exactly bode well for Norv Turner, who calls all of San Diego’s plays. But if the front office decides to finally axe Turner, it better be prepared to hand GM A.J. Smith his walking papers as well. This is the same man who believed Robert Meachem was a capable replacement for Vincent Jackson, whom he decided not to pay when he had the opportunity. Outside of his two-touchdown game versus New Orleans earlier this season, Meachem has been a free agent bust in San Diego. He dropped a sure touchdown pass in the third quarter on Sunday versus the Browns and has caught just 12 passes for 189 yards this season. Meanwhile, Jackson’s 29 receptions have gone for 626 yards and five touchdowns for Tampa Bay, which was more than happy to pay a receiver with great hands, the ability to stretch defenses vertically, and that is willing to block in the running game. Let’s not forget that Smith’s drafts have also been poor for several years, which has contributed to the constant underachieving in San Diego. Thus, there shouldn’t be a scenario that exists where Turner looses his job but Smith is allowed to keep his. The Chargers are in full freefall and more than one man is to blame.

4. Stick a fork in the Saints.
It’s a dangerous proposition to write off a team that employs Drew Brees at quarterback and has the ability to score 30-plus points a game. But following their putrid effort on defense Sunday night in Denver, it’s probably safe to assume that the New Orleans Saints’ 2012 season is officially lost for good. Their struggles on defense reached new heights in the Broncos’ 34-14 win, as Denver racked up 530 yards of total offense and finished with nine plays of 23 yards or more. Patrick Robinson was torched for passes for 41 and 26 yards, while receiver Demaryius Thomas got free for a 34-yard gain against busted coverage for the Saints secondary. Offensively New Orleans wasn’t much better, as Brees and Co. converted just 1 of 12 attempts on third down. It was the team’s worst performance on third down since 2005 when they finished 0 for 11 versus the Dolphins. Getting back to the Saint defense, this team has no shortage of issues on that side of the ball. But if you want to start somewhere, start with the fact that the Saints can’t pressure the quarterback despite that being Steve Spagnuolo’s area of expertise. Granted, he doesn’t have the personnel to run the scheme he wants. Will Smith is aging, Sedrick Ellis has been a bust from an interior pass-rushing standpoint, and Cameron Jordan is only in his second year. But Spags can’t use the fact that he doesn’t have Justin Tuck or Osi Umenyoira up front as an excuse. The Saints are the worst defensive team in the league and unless Brees is ready to win every game 35-31, the Saints are toast.

5. Don’t sleep on the Steelers.
Looking for a slightly above-average team that could make a strong second-half run and punch a ticket to the playoffs? Look no further than the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have discovered their roots the past two weeks. The Steelers haven’t been able to run the ball on a consistent basis since Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker left town some odd years ago. Pittsburgh has since become one-dimensional on offense and has left Ben Roethlisberger susceptible to beatings behind a shaky offensive line. But in their past two games, Pittsburgh has rushed for 167 and 140 yards, respectively. Jonathan Dwyer has given the Steelers’ a lift and their offense has been more balanced and stable because of it. Granted, Mike Tomlin’s team is still searching for consistency on that side of the ball. But if Pittsburgh’s defense plays as well the rest of the season as it did on Sunday in a 27-12 victory over Washington, the Steelers will once again challenge for a playoff berth. With Ray Lewis and LaDarius Webb out of the season and Joe Flacco proving that he isn’t ready to put the Ravens on his shoulders, the door is open for the Steelers to close the gap in the AFC North and eventually take over the division if Baltimore continues to scuffle.

6. The Cowboys came inches from turning their season around.
Considering they turned the ball over four times and fell behind the Giants 23-0 on their home turf, the Cowboys hardly deserved to win on Sunday. But they came within the pinky on Dez Bryant’s right hand from producing a remarkable comeback. Trailing 29-24 with less than a minute remaining in the game, Bryant leapt high to snag a 37-yard pass from Tony Romo that would have given Dallas a late lead. But when Bryant landed, his pinky finger came down on the white strip in the back of the end zone. It was a remarkable catch but it was a catch that didn’t count. Three plays later, the Giants were able to preserve the victory by that same 29-24 score. Credit Dallas for not giving up down 23-0 after a disastrous first-half performance. But the Cowboys remain a team that can’t get out of its own way and at 3-4 they and Philadelphia are now each three games back of New York in the NFC East. Things don’t get any easier for Dallas, which travels to Atlanta next Sunday night to play the undefeated Falcons. The Cowboys will then travel to Philadelphia before hosting the Browns, Redskins and Eagles in mid-November. It’s feasible that the Cowboys could still turn things around but they could realistically fall to 3-6, too. Had Bryant managed to get his entire body in bounds, Dallas could have made things interesting in the division. Instead, the Cowboys have come to yet another fork in the road under Jason Garrett.

7. Manning is starting to live up to expectations in Denver.
Peyton Manning has lost zip on his vertical passes. He’s 36 – this happens when quarterbacks get older. But following his 305-yard effort in Denver’s 34-14 victory over the Saints on Sunday night, Manning has now thrown for at least 300 yards in five consecutive games and has posted an incredible 14:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that same period. Following his ugly first-half performance versus the Falcons on Monday Night Football in Week 2 (a game in which he threw three interceptions in the first quarter alone), Manning has been solid for a Bronco team that is clearly the best squad in the AFC West. If Denver can run the ball like it did versus New Orleans, Manning will continue to be surgical in the passing game. And hey, if the Broncos’ defense plays the rest of the season like it did Sunday night, Denver could make some noise down the road.

8. Rams prove they still have a long ways to go.
Rams fans were encouraged by the teams 3-2 start, as they should have been. But following three straight losses, which included an ugly 45-7 defeat at the hands of the Patriots on Sunday, it’s apparent that the Rams still have a long ways to go. For the second straight week, an elite quarterback had his way against the Rams defense. Neither Chris Long nor Robert Quinn pressured Tom Brady, who threw four touchdowns and constantly found Rob Gronkowski open in the middle of the field. What exactly was the Rams’ game plan defensively? They had to have known that with Aaron Hernandez out Gronkowski was going to be the focal point of the Patriot offense. Yet there he was, constantly running free in St. Louis’ defensive backfield. It was a brutal effort by a Rams’ defense that didn’t produce a sack, didn’t force any turnovers, and couldn’t stop the run. St. Louis’ defense was so lost that it’s amazing they found their locker room at the end of the game. Jeff Fisher is a good head coach and regardless of the final score of Sunday’s game, this Rams team is heading in the right direction. But after what Brady and the Pats did to them in London, you realize just how large the gap really is between St. Louis and the contenders.

9. The best in the NFC North have nothing to worry about.
It was rather jarring that the 15.5-point underdog Jaguars took the Packers to the brink Sunday in Green Bay. And that the Bears needed a last-second field goal just to beat the 1-5 Panthers. But neither Green Bay nor Chicago has nothing to worry about. The Packers were coming off three-straight road games and were hosting a Jacksonville team that lost Maurice Jones-Drew to injury last week. Chicago had a short week of rest and preparation after an emotional victory over division-rival Detroit. These were letdown games for the Packers and Bears and while coaches don’t want to admit that their players suffer emotional highs and lows, it does happen in the NFL. The key is that both teams won while the Vikings suffered their second loss of the season on Thursday. By the end of the year, Chicago and Green Bay will battle down the stretch for the NFC North crown. Some Sundays will just be prettier than others.

10. Injury roundup – some contenders could lose key pieces.
All in all the Falcons had a successful trip to Philadelphia on Sunday. But late in the fourth quarter linebacker Sean Weatherspoon suffered an ankle injury and was carted off the field. He’ll undergo an MRI on Monday to discover the extent of the injury and if it’s serious, Atlanta will lose a key piece of its defense. Weatherspoon is the epitome of a sideline-to-sideline player and he has such an active role in the Falcons’ defensive game plans. Hopefully his ankle sprain isn’t of the “high” variety and he won’t miss any time…The Chiefs might have to go back to Matt Cassel full-time at quarterback. That’s because Brady Quinn was knocked out of the Chiefs’ 26-16 loss to the Raiders in the first quarter with a head injury. Of course, Quinn had already put Kansas City in position to fail by turning the ball over twice. Chiefs fans may not enjoy watching Cassel play but Quinn once again proved that he’s not a starting NFL quarterback…Ryan Tannehill left the first quarter of the Dolphins’ 30-9 victory over the Jets with a hyperextended knee. Matt Moore didn’t miss a beat, guiding the Dolphins to their fourth victory of the season while throwing for 131 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-19 passing…One week after losing Sean Lee for the season, Cowboys’ linebacker Dan Connor left the team’s 29-24 loss to the Giants because of a neck strain. He might not play versus the Falcons on Sunday night…Eagles’ receiver DeSean Jackson suffered an ankle injury versus Atlanta but was able to return…Lions’ safety Louis Delmas left the team’s 28-24 win over the Seahawks with an injured knee and didn’t return. Delmas is a good young player but he can never stay healthy.

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