With Michael Vick and the Eagles coming to town, it’s statement time for the Falcons

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) passes during the first quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on September 11, 2011 in Chicago. UPI/Brian Kersey

Week 2 is a little early for statement games but the Falcons may be the exception.

There were a handful of media members who predicted Atlanta to reach the Super Bowl this season, none more prominent than SI’s Peter King. But if the Falcons don’t believe they’re ready to take the next step then why should anyone else? Their brutal performance in Chicago last weekend followed an 0-4 preseason, which followed a 48-21 loss to the Packers in last year’s playoffs. Super Bowl? How about this team bothers winning a game of importance first?

Things don’t get any easier for the Falcons this Sunday night when Michael Vick and the Eagles come to town. ESPN has had a field day with the “Whose house is it?” topic, but the Falcons should be more concerned with starting 0-2 than trying to figure out whether Vick or Matt Ryan’s name should be on the doorknocker. Atlanta has lost four straight to Philadelphia and eight of its last nine to the Eagles, including two playoff games. To suggest Andy Reid has had the Falcons’ number over the years would be an understatement.

But Atlanta can change all that this weekend. The sloppiness that they exhibited in last Sunday’s loss to the Bears was rather uncharacteristic of the Mike Smith-led Falcons over the last three years. Thus, I expect Atlanta to play with more focus and pride this weekend.

But focus and pride are just two ingredients that this team is missing right now. They could also use a dash of attitude, swagger and aggressiveness. Their quarterback is seemingly ready to join the elite but he hesitates to throw downfield. Their offensive coordinator was viewed as a head-coaching candidate late last season but his conservative playcalling is befuddling with the amount of weapons the Falcons posses on offense. Their head coach was once a defensive coordinator in Jacksonville but thus far, he and his current DC can’t figure out the coverage woes that the secondary and linebacker corps is having. (Save for corner Brent Grimes, who has emerged as one of the team’s top playmakers.)

In other words, this team is a small mess right now – not a Super Bowl contender. But it’s not like the Falcons don’t have talent. On the contrary – this team is stacked. They have a slew of playmakers on offense, a ton of potential on defense, and thanks to the recent additions of James Sanders and Kelvin Hayden, plenty of depth as well.

With that in mind, the Falcons can’t allow this game to be about Vick and his heroic homecoming. After all, if they’re going to play second fiddle to him in their own stadium, then they might as well lay down for the rest of the NFC powers as well. This game needs to be about making a statement. This needs to be about beating an opponent that has had their number and stomping out the cloud of doubt that is starting to form around them.

A loss to the Eagles this Sunday isn’t going to eliminate the Falcons from the playoffs. But it wouldn’t kill them to have a sense of urgency right now either.

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Remember when some people thought the Pats should trade Brady? Ha! That was funny.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady congratulates Wes Welker after scoring a touchdown during 2nd half action, between the Miami Dolphins, and the New England Patriots September 12, 2011 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Florida.The New England Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins 38-24.. .. UPI Photo/Susan Knowles

Hey, I’m guilty of it. We’re all guilty of it. We see a player get seriously injured and one of the first statements out of someone’s mouth is, “This may be career-threatening.”

The latest example of this is Peyton Manning. He recently had his second neck surgery in less than five months and at least one clown in the media wrote last week about how the Colts may wind up with Andrew Luck in next year’s draft. We live in a world where present news is old news and everyone has a blog nowadays so getting a jump on a story often takes precedence. But the media (and fans too, because they’re just as guilty even though the media provides a nice patsy for them) could learn a thing or two about Manning’s situation from Tom Brady.

As I watched Brady carve up the Dolphins for 517 yards and four touchdowns on Monday night, I had to laugh thinking about Matt Cassel’s 2008 season. He was so good that year that some wondered if the Pats should trade Brady and go with the younger Cassel at quarterback.

The idea wasn’t that far-fetched either. At the time, there was no timetable set for Brady’s return after he had season-ending knee surgery earlier in the year. Nobody knew when he would return in ’09, or if he would return at all. Cassel was also set to become a free agent, which further complicated the situation. If the Pats traded him or allowed him to leave via free agency, they risked not having an experienced quarterback for 2009 if Brady couldn’t recover.

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Do the Bengals already have concerns about Andy Dalton?

Texas Christian University quarterback Andy Dalton celebrates after his 23 yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Bart Johnson during first quarter of the 2011 Rose Bowl game in Pasadena on January 1, 2011. UPI/Jon SooHoo

Andy Dalton hasn’t taken one meaningful snap yet in his NFL career and already his team may have concerns about whether or not he can get the job done.

According to Yahoo Sports’ Jason Cole, the Bengals “leaked” their interest in Carson Palmer coming out of retirement because they’re concerned about Dalton starting as a rookie. But as Rotoworld.com points out, this might just be speculation on Cole’s part and they’re probably right. After all, what difference does it make if they “leak” out that they’re interested in Palmer? It would make more sense if they were being coy about situation because then it wouldn’t look bad on their part that they’re not showing faith in Dalton. How do the Bengals help themselves by “leaking” this information out? Cole’s report makes zero sense.

But let’s assume for a moment that part of Cole’s report makes sense and that the Bengals fear Dalton isn’t ready. My question is: What did they expect? Dalton was a fine college quarterback but he didn’t exactly face the toughest competition at TCU and there were questions about his arm strength heading into the draft. They knew Palmer didn’t want anything to do with coming back and they should have known that Dalton was going to be a major project. Thus, they should have had option B in place in case Dalton struggled in preseason. Vince Young was available earlier this offseason, as was Matt Hasselbeck and now so is David Garrard. There’s no guarantee that Young or Hasselbeck would have come to Cincinnati but as far as I know the Bengals never tried to pursue them either. If I were them, I’d jump on the phone with Garrard’s agent before a team like the Colts beats them to the punch.

But if Garrard isn’t in their plans then I say the Bengals mush on with Dalton. He’s a rookie and he’s going to have his ups and downs. But if he learns on the job then maybe next year he’ll be better. And maybe the year after that he’ll turn the Bengals into a contender assuming they add pieces around him.

Or maybe the guy will be a total bust and never live up to anything in the NFL. Either way, the Bengals took this risk and now they might as well show their full support in the kid. After all, it’s not like they’ve left themselves with better options.

It’s now or never for the Giants and their hapless offense

San Francisco Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff reacts after striking out with two men on base to end the fifth inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field in Denver on May 17, 2011. Colorado came from behind to defeat the Giants 5-3. UPI/Gary C. Caskey

When Buster Posey was lost for the season following a collision at home plate with Marlins’ outfielder Scott Cousins back in May, one could have pointed to that moment as a low point in the San Francisco Giants’ 2011 season. But oh how things have gotten much worse.

On Monday night, the Cubs’ Randy Wells threw his first career shutout while limiting San Fran’s hopeless offense to just two hits in a 7-0 victory. (For those wondering, yes, that’s 5.00-plus ERA Randy Wells I’m referring to.) The losing pitcher for the Giants was none other than ace Tim Lincecum, who received zero run support for the 10th time in his last 28 starts.

The economy has looked more efficient in the past two weeks than the Giants’ offense has, which is frustrating when you consider how GM Brian Sabean gave away the organization’s best prospect to acquire Carlos Beltran from the Mets. Beltran was supposed to provide the team with just enough offense to get them to the postseason where their pitching could (hopefully) dominate like it did in 2010. Instead, Beltran has been sucked into the same black hole as the rest of the Giants’ hitters (save for Pablo Sandoval) and once again Sabean has been had in a trade (which is nothing new).

Of course, as infuriating as Sabean can be in his decision-making at times (Miguel Tejada or Orlando Cabrera anyone?), it’s not his fault that seemingly every night the Giants send a new player to the infirmary. Posey and second baseman Freddy Sanchez (one of Sabean’s better trade acquisitions) are out for the season while Beltran, Sandoval, Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, Jonathan Sanchez, Barry Zito, Mark DeRosa, Cody Ross, Andres Torres, Pat Burrell, and Nate Schierholtz are either on the disabled list now or have at least spent some time on it this season. It appears as though the baseball gods have returned to wreak havoc on the Giants following their magical run in 2010.

Now if you’re among the many people who felt that last year’s World Series title was a fluke, then you’re certainty entitled to your opinion. I think your opinion is pure horse dung, but you’re entitled to your opinion nonetheless.

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If defense improves, now is the time for Texans to overtake Colts

Houston Texans defensive end Adewale Ogunleye (99) tackles Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (18) during the second quarter of their NFL football game in Indianapolis November 1, 2010. REUTERS/Brent Smith (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

It’s now or never for the Houston Texans. Either they win the AFC South this season or spend the rest of their miserable existence in NFL purgatory.

All right, so that was a little extreme. But you’d have to be a corpse not to feel the sense of urgency that is surrounding the Texans as we draw closer to the 2011 regular season.

Peyton Manning’s neck injury has cast a cloud of doubt around the Colts. Tony Dungy was probably right when he recently said that unless Manning is dead, he won’t miss Week 1. But even if he does suit up, Manning, or Mr. Preparation as his poker buddies call him, hasn’t done much prepping for the 2011 season. How effective will he be early on? Will this be an injury that nags him the entire season? Will he be Peyton Manning? Because if he isn’t, then it’s fair to say that the Colts are a rather average team.

Nevermind that though; the Texans can’t be worried about what Manning and the Colts are doing. They need to focus on themselves because their moment to shine is here. Besides re-signing running back Arian Foster and tight end Owen Daniels to keep their explosive offense intact, the biggest move Houston made this offseason was hiring Wade Phillips to be its new defensive coordinator. Say what you will about Phillips’ inability to be a head coach, but the man knows how to run a defense. And he knows something about quick turnarounds, too.

The last seven times that Phillips has taken over as a head coach or defensive coordinator, his new team has reached the playoffs in its first season. And only once in those seven years has Phillips taken over a club that was coming off a winning record, which is a testament to the impact he can have on new teams. That’s a good sign for Houston, which finished 6-10 last year largely because of a defense that finished third to last in yards allowed and fourth to last in points per game.

The Texans also signed a key piece this offseason to help Phillips turn around the team’s defensive misfortunes. While they heavily pursued corner Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency, the Texans did well to land the second-best DB on the market in Jonathan Joseph. Still in his prime at 27, Joseph flashed shutdown corner ability in Cincinnati and should dramatically improve the league’s worst secondary from a year ago.

Of course, the defense wasn’t the only problem last year. The Texans have been a team that has struggled against divisional opponents the last two years. After going 1-5 in 2009, the Texans did finish 3-3 against the AFC South last season, but 3-3 usually doesn’t win divisional crowns. In fact, the 2010 Kansas City Chiefs have been the only team in the last four years to win their division despite having a losing record, which shines light on how important it is that the Texans take care of business against Indy, Jacksonville and Tennessee this year.

I joked earlier about this season being a “now or never” opportunity for the Texans to win the AFC South. Unless owner Bob McNair abruptly folds the franchise after this year, the Texans may be favored to win in 2012 or beyond. That said, when are the Texans going to have a better opportunity than now? Phillips was the right man for the defensive job, Manning’s injury leaves a lot of uncertainty in Indy, and Jacksonville and Tennessee are largely devoid of talent.

Now or never? Not quite. But then again it might as well be.

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