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Ten Observations from Week 9 in the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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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.

Ten Observations from Week 7 in the NFL

1. Flacco still isn’t ready to carry Ravens.
For the past four years, Joe Flacco has been able to get away with inconsistent performance after inconsistent performance because his defense constantly bailed him out. The Ravens coped with his hot and cold production because they were dominant on the other side of the ball. But with injuries to Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb, Baltimore is no longer a force defensively. Houston’s receivers ran free in the Ravens’ secondary and the Texans’ offensive line had its way with Baltimore’s defensive front in the running game. For once, the Ravens needed Flacco to carry his defense and instead he turned in a brutal performance. He completed just 21-of-43 passes for 147 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, and when he wasn’t skipping passes to his receivers he was throwing over their heads. Granted, Houston relentlessly pressured the pocket and its secondary was excellent. But the game looked like it was moving way too fast for Flacco, which is troublesome considering he’s a fifth-year starter. Baltimore’s offense hasn’t been in sync for weeks and now that the defense is limping, the door has opened for the Steelers to chip away at their rival’s lead in the division.

2. Rodgers is heating up.
The Packers aren’t exactly the perfect specimens. Their no huddle isn’t firing on all cylinders, their running game is non-existent, and their defense can be ordinary at times. But when Aaron Rodgers plays like he did in Green Bay’s 30-20 victory over St. Louis on Sunday, the Packers are difficult to beat. Rodgers was insanely accurate versus the Rams, completing 30-of-37 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. He was as good in the Lou as he was in Houston the week before and now that the Packers have gotten past the challenging part of their schedule (which included three straight road games), you can tell they’re ready to make a run at the Bears and Vikings in the NFC North. And thanks to Rodgers being Rodgers again, don’t be surprised if Green Bay eventually catches and surpasses its division rivals.

3. Pass defense makes Patriots vulnerable.
The Patriots claimed sole possession of first place in the AFC East with their 29-26 victory over the Jets on Sunday. Their rushing attack continues to be an important cog in their success, as they’re now 4-0 this season when rushing for more than 100 yards. But their pass defense continues to hold them back. Despite his best efforts not to at times, Mark Sanchez looked like a competent quarterback on Sunday. He completed a career-high nine passes of 15 yards or more and nearly led the Jets to what many believed to be an improbable victory in Foxboro. Opposing wideouts are allowed to run free in Bill Belichick’s zone and the pass rush continues to be inconsistent. Thus, even though the Patriots remain one of the most dangerous teams offensively, their defense will allow opponents to stay in games until the end, just as it did Sunday versus the Jets.

4. The Steelers’ defense finally steps up.
In Pittsburgh’s 24-17 victory over Cincinnati, the Steelers’ much maligned defense had to stop the Bengals on three separate drives in the fourth quarter. That’s usually not a noteworthy task for Dick LeBeau’s defensive unit, but the Steelers have become a team known for blowing fourth quarter leads this season. The Bengals didn’t even reach their own 40-yard line on each of their final three drives as Pittsburgh bowed up and finally resembled something of its past. Granted, it wasn’t all pretty for the Steelers. They dropped two touchdown passes in the first half and injuries continue to be a problem on defense. Still, the Ravens are a mess right now and the Bengals’ psyche has taken a huge hit. Furthermore, Pittsburgh was able to get its running game going thanks to Jonathan Dwyer (17 carries, 122 yards), so the Steelers might be able to help out their defense by sustaining drives and keeping opponents off the field. All of a sudden things are looking up again in Pittsburgh.

5. The Cowboys win but trouble remains.
The Cowboys essentially saved their season with a hard fought, but lackluster 19-14 victory over the Panthers on Sunday. There are several underlying problems in Big D right now. Sean Lee and Phil Costa had to leave the game with injuries, the Cowboys racked up just 19 points against a defense that allowed 25.0 PPG coming into Week 7, and there’s clearly a lack of trust between Jason Garrett and his team. Why else would he call a run on third-and-9 from the Carolina 15-yard line in the fourth quarter instead of allowing Tony Romo to fire a pass to the end zone? Maybe because Dez Bryant had just dropped yet another pass the play before? Or because Garrett is afraid Romo will once again turn the ball over trying to do too much? Garrett is playing not to lose and even though the Cowboys won on Sunday, that’s proven to be a losing proposition from week to week. Since their impressive victory Week 1 against the Giants, the ‘Boys have failed to generate much momentum over these last six games. If they’re not skating by with a win like they did in Carolina, they’re imploding like they did versus Chicago on Monday Night Football.

6. Despite the loss, RGIII’s statue continues to grow.
Robert Griffin III made several mistakes on Sunday, which included turning the ball over twice in New York territory and taking a 12-yard sack on a 1st-and-10 early in the fourth quarter. But the man continues to dazzle, so much so that following the game the Giants crowned him the best quarterback they’ve faced this season. There was the sensational 19-yard completion to Logan Paulsen on 4th-and-10 less than three minutes remaining that kept Washington’s hopes alive. There was the picture perfect 30-yard rainbow to Santana Moss that should have been the Redskins’ game-winning score. And there were the nine electric runs for 89 yards that sent the crowd at MetLife Stadium to their feet. It wasn’t a perfect performance and he’ll have to limit the mistakes going forward, just as he’s learned to cut down on absorbing big hits when he runs. But RGIII once again put on a show and once he figures out how to win on a consistent basis, then he’ll really impress.

7. How long before Ponder bursts Minnesota’s bubble?
Nobody expected the Vikings to be sitting at 5-2 after seven weeks. But thanks in large part to a restructured offensive line, a healthy Adrian Peterson and a defense that doesn’t have a glaring weakness, Minnesota is very much a playoff contender at this point. That said, how long will it be until Christian Ponder starts holding this team back? He completed just 8-of-17 passes for 58 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday. It was the second time in two weeks that he floated an interception to a defender, failed to sustain drives and generally misfired on most of his passes. Granted, he’s dealing with a sore knee so maybe that has affected his performance. But Sunday was also the second time in the past four games that Leslie Frazier and his coaching staff decided to run out the clock as soon as they built a second half lead. The Vikings turned the lights off at Mall of America Field as soon as Harrison Smith went 31 yards to the end zone on a pick six to start the second half. Are Frazier and Co. overly cautious or do they not trust Ponder? We’ll find out after Minnesota’s Week 11 bye when they play at Chicago and Green Bay before hosting the Bears in Week 14.

8. The Bucs are the Bucs’ own worst enemy.
The Bucs were screwed on the final play of the Saints’ 35-28 victory on Sunday. It’s more than a little unfair that Mike Williams was shoved out of bounds by a New Orleans defender and after hauling in a touchdown pass from Josh Freeman (who was outstanding, by the way), was penalized for being the first person to touch the ball. After all, what’s from stopping defenders from pushing receivers out of bounds all the time if they know the refs aren’t going to call pass interference? Regardless, the Bucs had already shot themselves in the foot twice before that game-ending play. With 14:54 left in the fourth quarter and the Saints leading 28-21, the Bucs drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for trying to simulate the snap count on a 51-yard New Orleans field goal attempt. Instead of possibly trailing by 10 with the entire fourth quarter left to play, the penalty kept the Saints drive alive and the Bucs fell behind by two touchdowns. Earlier in the half, Freeman hit Vincent Jackson on a 95-yard touchdown pass to set Tampa up at the New Orleans 1-yard line. The Bucs then proceeded to call three straight runs with LeGarrette Blount, all of which were stopped cold by the league’s worst defense. Freeman then lost four yards on 4th-and-1 and the Bucs inexcusably didn’t get points on the drive. Thus, while Tampa Bay fans have every right to cry foul on the final play of the game, their team didn’t do themselves any favors, which included blowing leads of 14-0 and 21-7 in the first half.

9. The Saints aren’t going away but their road back remains challenging.
Drew Brees reminded everyone on Sunday that he’s still one of the most dangerous passers in the NFL, one that is quite capable of leading a team out of the doldrums. He completed 27-of-37 passes for 377 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in the Saints’ 35-28 victory over the Bucs. He did all of this with one of his biggest and best weapons, Jimmy Graham, sidelined with an ankle injury. The 6-0 Falcons have a commanding lead in the NFC South but don’t forget that the Saints still have two games against their division rivals. It’s not inconceivable that New Orleans rattles off a few more wins and put itself in position to make a run at one of the Wild Card spots in the NFC. That said, the Saints are owners of the worst defense in the league and their schedule is challenging the rest of the way. They play Atlanta twice, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York and Dallas before the year is out. And even with Brees throwing for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns, it’s going to be difficult for the Saints to overcome that early 0-4 hole they put themselves into.

10. Injury roundup.
The Redskins were hit the hardest on Sunday. They lost tight end Fred Davis to a season-ending Achilles tendon injury and it was reported following the game that Pierre Garcon has a torn tendon in his foot. London Fletcher also left the Giants game with a hamstring injury. For the Browns, rookie running back Trent Richardson was apparently benched for ineffectiveness against the Colts but he says his rib injury is worse than people think. As previously mentioned, Cowboys’ linebacker Sean Lee left the Carolina game with a toe injury and Phil Costa suffered an ankle sprain that looked pretty bad at the time.

NFL Quick Hits: 10 Observations from Week 1

The Redskins win was a shock but how they won wasn’t.
Outside of the Eagles struggling in Cleveland, the Redskins’ 40-32 shocker over the Saints was easily the biggest surprise of Week 1. But it’s not as if Washington won using smoke and mirrors. Mike Shanahan built Robert Griffin III’s confidence by calling several zero or “bubble” screens to start the game, then mixed in the play-action pass in order to suck the Saints’ LBs up and give his rookie QB clear passing lanes to throw in. These aren’t the same Redskins of the past several years either. This team finally has offensive playmakers and it’s not just RGIII. Pierre Garcon and Aldrick Robinson form a nice receiving duo and Alfed Morris complements RGIII as a downhill runner with quickness and vision. He only gained 3.4 YPC but for those that watched the game, Morris was a factor. Defensively Washington was equally as impressive. Ryan Kerrigan routinely beat left tackle Jermon Bushrod off the edge and Drew Brees had defenders in his face from the first snap of the game. When Jim Haslett called blitzes, they worked. DeAngelo Hall was successful blitzing from his cornerback position, the interior pressure provided by Barry Cofield also disrupted Brees’ timing and Brian Orakpo was effective as well. Whether it was Washington’s pressure or an off day for Brees, the Saints looked completely out of sync offensively. And they were sloppy, too. The offensive line had multiple false start penalties, Brees routinely threw balls at his receivers’ feet or over their heads, and when he was on target his wideouts dropped a few passes as well. It was just an ugly day for an offense that we’re used to seeing fire on all cylinders. Even when things went right and they were knocking on the door of an easy touchdown, Marques Colston had the ball punched out at the goal line, which resulted in a touchback. But credit Haslett and his defense, as the Redskins snuffed out several of Brees’ go-to plays and routinely blanketed receivers. Washington implemented a solid game plan and executed to perfection. The two teams may go in opposite directions from here on out but for 60 minutes on Sunday, the Redskins were flat out better.

It was vintage Vick – and not in a good way.
When he was in Atlanta, there were games the Falcons would play where they were expected to win and Michael Vick almost single-handedly kept the opponent in the game with his sloppy play. That same Vick showed up in Cleveland on Sunday, as the Browns could have, and should have, beaten the Eagles but fell, 17-16. Make no mistake: Vick was awful. He stared down receivers. He threw into double coverage. He telegraphed his throws. He would desperately chuck balls into traffic when he was under pressure. He looked like a rookie and if the Browns weren’t starting a rookie signal caller of their own in Brandon Weeden (who resembled hot garbage himself), the Browns would have pulled away long before the final whistle. People may talk about Vick engineering that final comeback drive but had L.J. Fort hung onto an interception in the end zone on the play before the Eagles game-winning touchdown, Cleveland would have won. Andy Reid blames Vick’s performance on rust after he received just 12 snaps this preseason and hey, maybe it was rust. But the bottom line is that Philly is expected to challenge for not only a playoff berth but also a Super Bowl and their quarterback nearly willed them to a loss against a team that will challenge for the No. 1 pick next April. Good thing for Vick and Philly it was only Week 1.

Typical Giants.
There’s a general rule I have when it comes to the New York Giants. If their backs are against the wall and they’re not expected to win, ride like them hell because they’re going to fight. But if the general perception is that they should win, expect them to scuffle. The Cowboys came out of the gates on Thursday night looking for a 10-round fight and they wound up delivering a four-round knockout instead. Eli Manning was ordinary, the pass protection was poor, and the vaunted pass rush was non-existent outside of what Jason Pierre-Paul did from his right end spot. Justin Tuck did next to nothing from a pass-rush standpoint, which has to frustrate the Giants considering he didn’t wake up until about Week 15 last year, and both Tony Romo and Dez Bryant abused Corey Webster in coverage. For a team that talked about being overlooked in the offseason, it was surprising that the Giants were as flat as they were…

…that said, let’s not understate what the Cowboys accomplished. Romo was surgical in the passing game and if DeMarco Murray can stay healthy the ‘Boys have an explosive backfield to complement their stable of receivers. Jason Garrett also deserves credit for going for the jugular on that third down play at the end of the game. How in the world the Giants didn’t account for Kevin Ogletree on that play is inexcusable (he had killed them all game), but Garrett deserves praise for keeping the ball out of Eli’s hands. He could have very easily ran the ball, punted, and took the chance that his defense would hold the Giants one more time. But in going for it and picking up the first down, he eliminated even the possibility of a comeback. Finally a Jason Garrett that Dallas fans can get behind.

A tale of two defenses in Green Bay.
One thing teams don’t do enough of when playing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ explosive passing attack is be physical with Green Bay’s receivers. Teams are so worried about giving up a big play (and rightfully so) that they play off the ball on every snap and allow Rodgers to have huge passing lanes to fit the ball into. But in their impressive 30-22 win on Sunday, the Niners aligned their corners and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage. The defensive backs were physical not just at the line of scrimmage but through the entire route, and San Fran consistently generated an interior pass rush. On the other side, the Packers were able to bring pressure from the edge but Alex Smith was able to step up in the pocket and find open receivers the entire game. Green Bay played too soft in coverage, which was a problem last year as well. I understand what the Packers’ game plan was: Pressure Smith and force him to beat you throwing the ball. But the 49ers’ receivers were able to sit down in open areas and Smith was simply taking what the defense gave him. When the Packers were physical with the Niners’ receivers, Jarrett Bush was flagged for pass interference, or Clay Matthews for roughing the passer, or San Francisco’s wideouts just made plays. The other problem, of course, was that the Packers couldn’t slow down Frank Gore and the San Francisco running game. That opened up the middle of the field and the intermediate passing game. The 49ers had a better game plan, executed that game plan better than Green Bay, and made more plays. I don’t know if you can say it was a statement win for the 49ers but they certainly sent a message for those that thought they weren’t as good as their record indicated last year. (On a side note, if the regular officials wanted to make a case that the NFL needs them, they could use this game as Exhibit A. The replacement officials missed multiple false start penalties, often called infractions late, and made several questionable calls. Just a brutal day by that specific crew.)

Johnson already off to a horrendous start.
I went back and watched the Patriots’ 34-13 victory over the Titans to see if Tennessee’s offensive line failed Chris Johnson or if Johnson failed himself. While the run blocking didn’t to generate much push on interior runs, Johnson was slow to the hole, tried to bounce everything outside, and didn’t trust what he saw. When he wasn’t smashing into the backs of his linemen he was trying to make too many cuts and New England would bottle him up. Last year he wasn’t in shape and it showed. This year, at least after four quarters, he looks like he’s trying to hit a home run on every play. While Tennessee’s run blocking needs to improve, Johnson could do himself a favor by hitting the hole harder and trusting his instincts. He was a one-cut-and-go back just two seasons ago. Now he’s trying to break a 70-yard run on every play.

Luck is already ahead of the game.
The Colts’ shaky offensive line didn’t do Andrew Luck any favors on Sunday in Chicago but the rookie still completed 23-of-45 passes for 309 yards with one touchdown. He also threw three interceptions but all things considered, it was an impressive first performance. (Consider how poorly Matt Ryan performed last year Week 1 against the Bears in Chicago.) From a pocket presence standpoint Luck is already playing like a seasoned veteran and keep in mind he doesn’t have a ton of playmakers around him. Reggie Wayne is still a better option than most but his best days are behind him and Austin Collie wasn’t in the lineup. This won’t be the last time I say this in 2012 but as soon as the Colts give Luck a better supporting cast he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.

The Falcons’ passing game was on point but “The Burner” looks finished.
It cannot be overstated that the Chiefs were banged up defensively on Sunday. They were without their best pass rusher in Tamba Hali (suspended one game) and their top corner in Brandon Flowers (heel). Derrick Johnson was also battling an ankle injury and while Justin Houston is developing nicely, he’s not a player that’s going to take over a game. That said, the Falcons’ passing game looked good. Really good. Matt Ryan routinely found open receivers and exploited one-on-one matchups in the secondary. Even though he’s a second-year player, Julio Jones already uses his body well to shed defenders and gives Ryan a clear target to throw to. Roddy White also made several excellent catches in the Falcons’ 40-24 win, including a snag along the sideline in which he had to drag his right foot in order to compete the play. But I point out the passing game and not the entire offense because Michael Turner did nothing on the ground. He looked like he had cement blocks for feet and constantly banged into the backs of his offensive linemen instead of cutting back and finding extra running room. Not only is he slowing down but he lacks vision as well. Everyone knew he was declining but there’s reason to believe he’s already done and if OC Dirk Koetter were smart, he’d get second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers more involved immediately.

The demise of the Jets may have been a tad exaggerated.
The Jets couldn’t score a touchdown in preseason against thin air so hey, why wouldn’t they hang 58 points on the Bills in Week 1? Fourteen of those 58 points were split between New York’s special teams and defense but still, it was quite a performance by the Jets’ seemingly lackluster offense. Despite adding the likes of Mario Williams, Stephon Gilmore and Mark Anderson in preseason, the Bills’ defense did not look sharp in preseason. So it’s not overly surprisingly that they struggled in Week 1 but this was a New York offense that was positively putrid in exhibition play. The key was that Mark Sanchez never got rattled, although it’s hard not to play with confidence with a 20-point halftime lead. Despite sharing reps with Tim Tebow, Sanchez remained unfazed and often burned Buffalo’s defense with pump fakes and double moves. Even the staunchest Sanchez critics, and I count myself as one of them, had to be impressed by his 2012 debut performance (and I was). There’s a lot of season left for both of these teams but it’s safe to say that the offseason projections for the Jets were grossly exaggerated.

Rams prevent Fisher’s first win in St. Louis era.
It’s rare when a team forces three turnovers and loses a game but that stat tells the tale for the Rams in Detroit on Sunday. They intercepted Matthew Stafford three times but still found a way to lose, 27-23. On one hand the St. Louis faithful has to be thrilled that their team had an opportunity to win a game in the end. That didn’t happen much last year. But there are no moral victories for Jeff Fisher and he can’t be happy that his young team allowed a win to slip through its grasp. St. Louis’ defense made Stafford look ordinary for three quarters but the offense never put the game out of reach. And when the defense had an opportunity to shut the door following Brandon Gibson’s spectacular 23-yard touchdown reception with just under 10 minutes to play in the fourth, it wilted. Fisher and his staff went to a prevent defense, and the results were predictable as the Lions snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat. Thanks to the worst offensive line in football (a line that lost Scott Wells and Rodger Saffold to injuries on Sunday), the Rams won’t have many opportunities to win games this season. That’s why they can’t let victories like yesterdays slip through their fingertips.

Quick-Hit Reactions from Week 17 in the NFL

Every Sunday throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow loses the ball while tackled by Kansas City Chiefs safety Kendrick Lewis during the second quarter at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 1, 2012 in Denver. Denver still makes the playoffs despite losing to Kansas City 7-3. UPI/Gary C. Caskey

- Good luck, Broncos. You may have backed into the playoffs because the Raiders just happened to catch the Chargers on one of San Diego’s good days, but don’t make any travel plans for New England or Baltimore. You’re not going to win with a quarterback who can‘t even complete 10 passes in the biggest game of the year. I thought the Tim Tebow storyline was pretty fun for a while but at the end of the day it’s just bad football. The Steelers are severely banged up and their offense is in a major funk, but they only need about 10 points to beat the Broncos next week in the Wild Card round. If Denver somehow finds a way to pull off the upset then I’ll eat as much crow as Broncos fans want to dish out. But with a division title and a playoff berth on the line, Denver managed just one field goal at home against a Kansas City team that had nothing to play for. Thus, I don’t think I’ll have the taste of crow on my lips any time soon.

- Has any team lost three starting quarterbacks to injuries in one season and still host a playoff game? That must be some kind of record. Some kind of cruel, horrific record for a Houston Texans team that must feel like its cursed. The Texans finally make the playoffs and they have to start Jake Delhomme at quarterback because their fifth-round rookie T.J. Yates, who was subbing for the injured Matt Leinart, who was subbing for the injured Matt Schaub, separated his shoulder in the final game of the season. At this point all Houston can do is laugh because really, what else could go wrong? I mean, they’re about to start Jake freaking Delhomme in a playoff game and the guy was signed off the streets about an hour ago. How unfortunate for a Houston franchise that has been waiting a very long time for this moment.

- I was prepared to rip the Bengals after backing into the playoffs and for going 0-4 against the Ravens and Steelers this season. But what does Cincinnati have to be ashamed of? Nobody thought the Bengals would win five games this year, let alone nine and qualify for the playoffs in a tough conference (with a rookie second-round pick starting at quarterback, no less). And seeing as how the Texans will start Jake Delhomme at quarterback next week, the Bengals could advance to the Divisional Round! There’s no sense ripping a team that has a very good chance of winding up among the final eight this season.

- When Eli Manning takes care of the football, the Giants usually win. It’s as simple as that. The G-Men were 4-0 this season when Eli didn’t turn the ball over at all and 5-2 when he “only” turned the ball over once. They were 0-5 when he had multiple turnovers in one game. Granted, I imagine that if I did the same study on all the quarterbacks in the league, I’d probably get similar results. Turnovers are a huge part of the game whether it’s a quarterback, running back or receiver coughing the ball up. But when Eli turns the ball over it seems to have a trickle-down effect that hurts the entire New York team.

- Tony Romo comes up short again in a playoff-type situation. Who would have saw that coming?

- The Lions really blew it today. All they had to do was beat Green Bay’s backups and they would have clinched the fifth seed in the NFC. Instead, their defense couldn’t stop Matt Flynn from doing whatever he wanted and now the Lions will have to play in New Orleans next weekend instead of traveling to New York or Dallas. Granted, if they want to advance to the Super Bowl then they’d have to play beat the Saints or Packers at some point anyway. But it would have been nice to let the Falcons try and deal with the Saints right out of the gates instead. Furthermore, even if Detroit does upset New Orleans next week, the Lions haven’t beaten the Packers in Green Bay since 1991. How much confidence do they have heading into the playoffs knowing that they couldn’t even beat the Packers’ JV squad? (Of course, with ultra-sick Calvin Johnson lining up at wide receiver, I still wouldn’t count the Lions out against anyone.)

- Good for the Ravens. This is a Baltimore squad that has looked like a completely different team on the road this year than at home, but it went into hostile territory today and took care of business. Now that they have home field advantage for at least one playoff game, you have to like the Ravens’ chances of making a Super Bowl run. The AFC is incredibly flawed this year and New England’s defense is Charmin Extra Soft. Thanks to the incredible Ray Rice, the Ravens have as good as shot as the Patriots of playing for a NFL title.

- How f’n good are the Packers that they can score 45 points with Flynn as their starting quarterback and several of their starters resting on both sides of the ball? If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times: Ted Thompson has done one hell of a job building the best depth in football.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn (2nd L) passes against the Detroit Lions during the second half of their NFL football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Hauck (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- Speaking of Matt Flynn, I’m torn. I wouldn’t blame a quarterback-needy team for trying to acquire him next offseason after what he did today against the Lions, but how much of his success is because of Green Bay’s offense? Everyone looks good driving a Cadillac, know what I mean?

- Should the Patriots be concerned that they’ve spotted opponents double-digit leads in each of their last two games before rallying in the second half? Considering how explosive Tom Brady and the New England offense has looked, I guess not. But if they spot Baltimore a 21-0 lead in the playoffs then the Pats may have some issues staging more comebacks.

- It seems like nobody has mentioned his name among the head coaches that could be fired on “Black Monday” (at least from a national perspective), but what about Chan Gailey? What has he done in Buffalo that merits him keeping his job? That team took a 21-0 lead today in Foxboro and then stood back and admired its work as the Patriots scored the next 49 points. Why should Buffalo be convinced that Gailey is the right man for the job after the way the Bills crashed and burned this season?

- Even though the Steelers have morphed into a passing team over the past couple of years, losing Rashard Mendenhall (knee) for the playoffs would be a crushing blow. They’ll likely get past the punchless Broncos in the Wild Card round, but Mendenhall allows Pittsburgh to stay balanced offensively and gives defensive coordinators something else to think about when game planning to stop the Steelers. With Mendenhall out for at least one week and Ben Roethlisberger hobbled, there’s no doubt the defending AFC champions are limping into the postseason.

- ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reports that the Rams will fire GM Billy Devaney and head coach Steve Spagnuolo this week, as well they should. St. Louis was absolutely decimated by injuries and it didn’t help that Sam Bradford had little time to learn Josh McDaniels’ offense during the lockout-shortened offseason. But Devaney had a horrible draft and failed to build roster depth, while Spagnuolo made questionable in-game decisions week after week. It’s rumored that Spags will wind up in Philadelphia next season as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, which makes a ton of sense. As of right now it’s clear he isn’t ready to be a head coach in this league.

- The 49ers have had a hell of a season but even their most diehard fans have to admit that there’s something a little off about this San Francisco tea. Maybe it’s because they clinched early and they’ve just been waiting for the postseason to start but this doesn’t seem like the same dominant squad that it was about a month ago. Granted, the Niners did beat the Steelers handily in Week 15, but Pittsburgh is in the midst of a major offensive funk and Ben Roethlisberger played hurt in that game. I’m not suggesting that the Niners won’t reach the NFC Championship Game but compared to the Saints and Packers, this feels like a very beatable San Francisco team.

Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones runs in for a touchdown in the first half of their NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Atlanta, Georgia January 1, 2012. REUTERS/Tami Chappell (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

- It’s too bad the Falcons are so intimidated by good competition (they’re 1-4 against playoff teams this year), because they certainly have the weapons on both sides of the ball to make a serious postseason run. Matt Ryan has looked very sharp in the second half of the season, Julio Jones has emerged as a dangerous playmaker the past five weeks and Sean Weatherspoon, John Abraham, Brent Grimes and William Moore are playmakers on the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons clearly aren’t better than New Orleans or Green Bay, but when the offense is firing on all cylinders and the defense plays like the relentless, confident unit that it did today against Tampa Bay, then Atlanta could certainly give the Saints and/or Packers a game. But I know what will happen in the playoffs: The coaching staff will play things conservatively, the players will all wait for the next guy to make a play, and the Falcons will once again be left searching for answers for why they came up short. (See the New Orleans game last Monday night as an example.) It’s frustrating really, because if the Falcons really turned things loose then they could be that dangerous Wild Card team that Green Bay was a year ago. (Or at least a poor man’s version of Green Bay.)

- The Jets’ season ends as Mark Sanchez throws three interceptions – what a shock. For the past two seasons, the Jets’ defense and running game has compensated for Sanchez’s horrendous play, and he fooled people into thinking he was better than what he was because he played well in the postseason in front of a national audience. But now he doesn’t have the playoffs to redeem himself, so maybe the Jets will seriously consider other quarterback options this offseason. They would be foolish not to.

- Great effort by your team over the past three months, Raheem Morris. Job well done.

- Jared Allen is worth the price of admission for Minnesota Vikings fans. Whether the Vikings are 3-13 or 13-3, dude never lets up.

- The Indianapolis Colts are now on the clock. Let the 24/7 Andrew Luck discussion begin.

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