Ten Observations from Week 11 in the NFL

1. Losing Gronkowski is a killer for Patriots.
Bill Belichick always finds a way. When Randy Moss became a nuisance in 2010 and the Patriots eventually decided to trade him, Belichick revamped his offense to feature rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Instead of attacking teams vertically with Moss, New England started going down the seam to its tight ends while mixing in a variety of screens (a staple in the Pats offense). So losing Gronkowski for 4-6 weeks due to a broken forearm isn’t going to completely derail the Patriots. They’re going to win the AFC East and they’ll probably wind up hosting a playoff game come January. But make no mistake: losing Gronkowski changes a lot for New England. Including Sunday’s 59-24 win over the Colts, “Gronk” had 37 touchdowns in 42 career games. He’s solidified himself as one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the game and is perhaps the best player at his position. Indianapolis didn’t have an answer for him on Sunday and most teams usually don’t. He’s too fast for tight ends and he’s too big for safeties or cornerbacks. Double him and you’ll leave Wes Welker open in space, or create holes for New England’s shredding running game. The Patriots didn’t just lose a playmaker – they lost the most productive player on their roster not named Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. Again, Belichick will find a way to keep his offense firing on all cylinders (the return of Herndandez will help). But he just lost one hell of a piston.

2. The blueprint on how to beat the Falcons has been revealed.
Coming into this week, the most interceptions Matt Ryan had thrown in one game was three. He matched that total in the first quarter of the Falcons’ fortunate 23-16 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, and threw two more interceptions before the completion of the game. It’s fair to point out that one interception went off Roddy White’s hands while two more were tipped at the line of scrimmage. But the other two picks were all Ryan, who perhaps had the worst game of his career. Ray Horton put together a brilliant game plan, dialing up a heavy array of blitzes while bringing pressure up the middle. Arizona only sacked Ryan once, but the Atlanta QB was constantly under duress and had someone in his face all game. With Julio Jones limited due to an ankle injury, the Cardinals were also smart to play bump and run on the outsides. Ryan threw for 301 yards but Arizona turned his five interceptions into 16 points. If the Cardinals had something even remotely resembling a NFL quarterback on their roster, they would have won the game easily. Instead, Horton handed other defensive coordinators a blueprint on how to corral the Falcon offense. Pressure Ryan up the middle, play physical on the outsides, and bracket Tony Gonzalez in coverage and you’ll limit what Atlanta can do. Granted, that’s easier said than done but thanks to the cemented-footed Michael Turner, it’s not as if the Falcons can lean on their running game in efforts to mix things up. Considering they may face aggressive defenses like San Francisco and Chicago in the playoffs, the one-dimensional Falcons have legitimate concerns despite being 9-1.

3. Manning is now the clear choice for MVP.
Save for his disastrous five-interception effort on Sunday, Matt Ryan has been phenomenal for the Falcons this season. He’s having a career year and if the MVP award were to be handed out tomorrow, one could easily make an argument that he’s deserving of the honor. But if you were looking for an MVP favorite right now, it would have to be Peyton Manning, who is having a career year statistically for the Broncos. The Chargers sacked him three times on Sunday and constantly pressured Manning inside the pocket. But he still wound up completing 25-of-42 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He has a 21-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last eight games and he’s put Denver in position to challenge for one of the top two seeds in the AFC. Thanks in large part to his production and the play of Von Miller (who’s a beast), the Broncos have now won five straight. And considering he missed all of last season due to multiple neck/back surgeries, what he’s been able to accomplish this season has been nothing short of remarkable. While his statistics have been impressive, you can’t measure what he’s been able to do for Denver this season. He’s going to make the Broncos a very tough out in the postseason.

4. At some point, the Rams need more from Bradford.
With how bad Sam Bradford was on Sunday, Brian Schottenheimer must have thought he was still calling plays for Mark Sanchez. Bradford completed just 23-of-44 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the Rams’ 27-13 loss to the Jets. He completed just 52 percent of his passes for a dismal 3.9 yards per attempt and also lost a fumble while looking uncomfortable by what the Jets were doing defensively. One week after shredding San Francisco’s outstanding defense, Bradford put together a forgettable performance against a reeling Jets team that was without its best defender. Granted, the excuses for Bradford are still viable. He’s playing in his third offense and for his third offensive coordinator in three years. But at some point the Rams are going to have to see signs of sustained progress from their third-year QB. Right now the formula is too easy for opposing defenses: Contain Danny Amendola, shut down Bradford and the St. Louis passing game. There’s no question Bradford needs a better supporting cast and it’s not as if he hasn’t improved. At times this season he’s played with more confidence and has looked more poised than at any point in his career. But one major flaw that he lacks is the ability to create on his own. That’s what the best do. And while the New York loss shouldn’t solely be laid at his feet the Rams need more from their franchise player or the team’s success will remain sporadic.

5. The Bucs are legit playoff contenders.
There’s something special brewing in Tampa Bay this year. Down 11 points late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs mounted an impressive comeback to beat the Panthers 27-21 in overtime. It was the fifth straight game in which Tampa scored at least 27 points and over the last six weeks, Josh Freeman has thrown 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions while averaging 285.8 yards per game. Granted, it wasn’t all good for Freeman on Sunday. He threw a mind-numbing pick-six to Captain Munnerlyn at the end of the first quarter while displaying shoddy footwork for much of the game. But with everything on the line late in the fourth, he threaded the needle to Vincent Jackson between two defenders and with one Panther hanging on him to put the Bucs within a 2-point conversation of tying the game. He then found Jackson again on the 2-point attempt before orchestrating an 8-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in overtime to put Carolina out of its misery. After what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past four weeks, don’t for a second think that the Bucs can’t beat the Falcons next week. Atlanta has had major issues in Tampa for the better part of a decade, including last season when the Bucs beat the Falcons, 16-13. They also can’t stop the run (hello, Doug Martin) and they’re banged up defensively (Sean Weatherspoon missed his third straight game due to an ankle injury, Asante Samuel hurt his shoulder and John Abraham came up limping several times on Sunday). That said, the biggest thing holding Tampa Bay back right now is its pass defense. And while Atlanta has proven to be one-dimensional offensively, the thing the Falcons do well is throw the ball. Next week will be the Bucs biggest challenge to date. Beat the 9-1 Falcons and all of a sudden they’re in the driver’s seat to secure one of the two wild card spots in the NFC.

6. The Steelers are in trouble.
Following the most athletic play of his career, Byron Leftwich did a very Byron Leftwich-type thing: He tripped over his own two feet with nobody around him and somehow hurt his shoulder in the process. He went on to complete just 18-of-39 passes for 201 yards with one costly interception in the Steelers’ 13-10 loss to the Ravens on “Sunday Night Football.” To be fair, it was a gritty performance by the former Jaguar, who stayed in the game despite taking hit-after-hit from aggressive Baltimore defenders. But the same progrems that plagued him as a rookie continue to plague him in his 10th year. He holds onto the ball too long, his elongated release welcomes turnovers, and he’s too erratic as a passer. Pittsburgh’s defense played well enough to win but Leftwich couldn’t sustain drives and special teams let the Steelers down when Jacoby Jones returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first half. Leftwich should be good enough to beat Cleveland next Sunday but two weeks from now the Steelers will have to travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens again. If they lose that game, they’ll almost certainly lose the division and will then have to compete with Indianapolis and Cincinnati for a wild card berth in the AFC. With Leftwich under center, there are no more “gimmies” on the schedule.

7. The Eagles have no choice but to hand Reid his walking papers.
The sensible thing for the Eagles to do is fire Andy Reid right now in order to get a jumpstart on finding his replacement. Why delay the inevitable? But considering he’s been one of the finest head coaches to not win a Super Bowl over the past two decades, Philadelphia may decide to let Reid finish out the season. Either way, the Eagles need to make a move. Following their 31-6 loss to the Redskins on Sunday, it’s apparent that there will be no miracle in Philadelphia this year. Despite having all of that talent, the Eagles don’t do anything well on either side of the ball. They can’t tackle. They don’t start fast. They don’t finish strong. No matter who’s under center they generate too many turnovers from the quarterback position. They don’t play with urgency, their game plans are often puzzling and injuries have decimated the offensive line. They’re just a bad football team, perhaps one of the worst in the NFL. And when a team has that much talent and is playing this bad, the head coach must go. It’s not as if the game has passed Reid by. The players have just stopped responding and when that happens, it’s best for all involved if there’s a change at the top. Reid will surely find work after this season, or in two years if he decides to take a year off. But his time in Philadelphia is coming to an end. It simply has to.

8. The Packers have very quietly won five in a row.
Last year the Packers sprinted through the regular season while lighting up opponents along the way. But they’ve traded in style for grit this year and they’ve very quietly put together a five-game winning streak. In their 24-20 win over the Lions on Sunday, Mason Crosby missed two field goals, Aaron Rodgers spent most of the day not being on the same page with his receivers, and Mike McCarthy questionably stuck with a running game that simply wasn’t working. It was the second time in three games that the Packer offense struggled, although Rodgers remains on a pretty good tear. He now has 24 touchdown passes in his last seven games and was clutch Sunday when it mattered most, hitting Jermichael Finley for a 40-yard pass play to set up the game-winning 22-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb. Green Bay is far from being the juggernaut that it was last season but just like in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl, they’re having to grind out victories. That could serve them well down the road.

9. The Bengals still have a pulse.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have revived a Bengals team left for dead two weeks ago. At 5-5 there’s still time for Cincinnati to mount a comeback in the AFC, especially with Ben Roethlisberger likely to miss sufficient time due to injuries. With games versus Oakland, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia coming up, it’s realistic that the Bengals could be 9-5 heading into Pittsburgh on December 23. The key is whether or not Dalton continues to play with the confidence that he’s exhibited over his past two games. Following his four-touchdown, zero-interception performance versus the Giants, the second-year QB completed 18-of-29 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in Cincinnati’s 28-6 win over the Chiefs on Sunday. Green also caught a touchdown pass in his ninth straight game, leaving him one TD shy of tying Carl Pickens’ franchise record. At some point they need to prove that they can beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh if they want to be taken seriously. But suddenly the Bengals are in position to compete for that sixth and final wild card spot in the AFC.

10. Quick-Hits from around the league…
Even though they eventually lost the game, Jaguar fans had to be thrilled with their team’s effort on Sunday. That said, big picture-wise it’s not good that Chad Henne lit Houston up for 354 yards and four touchdown passes while once again being forced into action because of an injury to Blaine Gabbert. Henne was exposed in Miami as a full-time starter and he’s not the long-term answer in Jacksonville. But through a season and a half, Gabbert doesn’t appear to be either…Speaking of Houston, what a day for Matt Schaub (43-of-55, 527 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs). On a rare day when he had to pick up his defense, Schaub and Andre Johnson (14 catches, 273 yards, 1 TD) were sensational…The Cowboys are in trouble if they’re barely squeaking by the Browns at home. How can anyone in Dallas be confident that the Cowboys will make the postseason when Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Seattle New Orleans and Minnesota are all playing better?…The Colts proved in New England that they’re not quite ready for primetime but Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton are starting to become a nice little duo. Hilton now has three 100-yard games this season and has emerged as a true deep threat in Indy’s offense. And while New England took two of Luck’s interceptions back for touchdowns, the rookie QB continues to show great pocket presence and toughness. He’s not afraid to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike in the face of charging defenders…. Mike Mularkey did wonders for Roddy White’s career in Atlanta and he could do the same for Justin Blackmon in Jacksonville. While receiving a team-high 13 targets as the focal point of the Jaguars passing game, Blackmon broke out with a seven-catch, 236-yard performance. He also caught an 81-yard touchdown pass while snatching the ball in triple coverage. It was the game Jacksonville fans have been waiting for since April…If Matthew Stafford ever decides to go back and review his performance from this season, he won’t like what he sees. Too many times this year he would be careless with the football, including on Sunday when he threw a side-armed interception just before halftime, killing whatever opportunity Detroit had to sustain momentum versus Green Bay. He’s also taken some bad sacks in crucial moments of games, hasn’t always secured the ball properly and often halted drives with poor decision-making. After throwing for over 5,000 yards in 2011, this season has been a bust for the fourth-year QB…Forget the Cardinals’ record – Ray Horton is going to be a hot name this offseason when it comes to coaching vacancies around the NFL. On most Sundays, his defense has played well enough to win games, even though Arizona’s offense constantly puts his players in horrible situations…The Saints’ victory over the lowly Raiders was impressive, but their playoff hopes firmly ride on the next four weeks: vs. 49ers, at Falcons, at Giants, vs. Bucs. If they can win three of four they can make the playoffs with a two-game sweep of the Cowboys and Panthers to close out the regular season…There’s not much going right for the Chargers these days, including a reckless Philip Rivers. But former Ram Danario Alexander is making the most out of a second chance. Limited by a hamstring injury in training camp and preseason, having five weeks off to heal up did wonders for Alexander’s career. He now has 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

Andy Reid’s job is on the line with Castillo hire

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid talks to an assistant during the fourth quarter at Soldier Field in Chicago on November 28, 2010. The Bears won 31-26. UPI/Brian Kersey

Andy Reid is smarter than you.

Everyone thought he would finally go with an outside hire when he had to find a new defensive coordinator. And why wouldn’t he? Replacing Jim Johnson with in-house option Sean McDermott backfired, so surely he would go with someone established like Dick Jauron or Jim Mora.

Only Reid hired his offensive line coach instead. Don’t adjust your monitors, you read that right. In an unprecedented move, Reid hired his offensive line coach to coordinate his defense.

And you want to be my latex salesman.

Juan Castillo deserves an opportunity to have success before everyone says he can’t. He did coach linebackers and defensive line to start his career at Texas A&M Kingsville, so it’s not like he’s always been stuck on the offensive side of the ball. From what I’ve read, he’s also gotten this far on hard work and his ability to coach up and motivate players. That sounds like a winning combination for a coach.

But does he know how to put together a defensive game plan? Does he know how to implement a scheme? Does he even know how to be a playcaller? Considering he has zero experience on the defensive side of the ball in the NFL, it’s hard to fault anyone who thinks this is a horrendous hire. Just because he’s a hard worker doesn’t mean he has what it takes to become a great coordinator. Just because he can relate to his players doesn’t mean he’ll be able to make the personnel adjustments on Sundays in the heat of the moment.

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Will McNabb be back in Philly in 2010?

Following their embarrassing playoff loss on Saturday to the Cowboys, questions have been raised about whether or not Donovan McNabb will be back under center for the Eagles in 2010.

His head coach thinks so (via beat writer Sheil Kapadia’s Twitter page):

“Yeah, I do” — Reid when asked if he expects Donovan McNabb to be his quarterback next year.

“Would I like to extend and be here? Yes. Absolutely.” when asked about playing next year as the final year of his contract.

While almost every Eagle played like crap yesterday, the loss to the Cowboys can’t solely be pinned on McNabb. He had no time to throw because Dallas’ pass-rush was in the backfield on damn near every snap. Had his offensive line did a better job in pass protection, then maybe the score would have been closer. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t have been. Philly’s defense deserves plenty of the blame for the debacle yesterday, so when it all comes down to it everyone wearing midnight green is at fault for what transpired in Dallas.

Assuming Tom Heckert leaves for Cleveland’s front office, the Eagles’ next GM is going to have a decision on his hands. In terms of getting to a Super Bowl, the combination of Reid and McNabb isn’t working. But will they keep their jobs based on the fact that they can reach the postseason on a regular basis?

There are plenty of head coach-quarterback combinations that would love to reach the playoffs as much as Reid and McNabb do. But it’s the same ol’ song and dance for Philly: They always make it to the party, but they leave awfully early.

Should the Eagles part ways with McNabb?
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Would a loss to the Cowboys signal the end for McNabb?

Rich Hofmann of the Philadelphia Inquirer speculates that if the Eagles lose their Wild Card matchup to the Cowboys on Saturday that the team will look to dump Donovan McNabb in the offseason.

Is this the last go-round for Donovan McNabb, the man who has done everything a Philadelphia quarterback can do except for the one thing that everybody so desperately wants him to do?

Personally, I think this is it. I think the club made that clear without saying it by giving McNabb a raise during the offseason but declining to extend his contract past the 2010 season. If they win a Super Bowl, of course, things change. If they get to another NFC Championship Game, and McNabb plays great, things change. Short of that, though, I think it’s over.

Eleven years is a long time for a quarterback in one city. Five years is a long time for a fan base to be locked in perpetual debate about a quarterback – and that is how long Eagles fans have been burying me in a digital avalanche every time I type the guy’s name, pro or con. Ever since that achingly slow fourth-quarter drive in the Super Bowl, when McNabb either did or did not throw up in the huddle, the town has been thoroughly divided. During the flash points, you can read the exhaustion on everyone’s face, including McNabb’s. Another flash point is coming, maybe as soon as tomorrow night. When this season is over, there is nothing that anybody will say concerning McNabb that hasn’t already been said a million times. The answer here is not obvious until you look at the contract. McNabb has trade value only as long as he is under contract – which means you trade him now or you have to extend him for X-number of years after the season, with a new signing bonus and plenty of color and pageantry (and a likely one-way ticket out the door for Kevin Kolb, whom you have previously identified as your future).

If the Eagles lose tomorrow, does anybody really think they are going to do that? Or that they should?

This has been a heated debate for years. Some feel as though Eagle fans should be happy getting to the playoffs on a regular basis, even though they come up short of a Super Bowl victory every year. But when you watch the same product repeatedly fail over and over again, you get tired of it.

Personally, if you have a quarterback that can consistently get a team to the playoffs every year, or every other year or whatever, they have to hold onto him. But I understand the frustration that Eagle fans go through in that the team is always knocking on the door of more and never producing.

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Reid could follow McNabb out of Philly at season’s end

Andy ReidAfter he was benched at halftime of the Eagles’ embarrassing 36-7 loss to the Ravens on Sunday, there’s little doubt that the writing is on the wall for quarterback Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia.

But what about head coach Andy Reid?

After a couple of dreadful performances (and I mean dreadful), it’s hard to back McNabb at this point. His play last week in a tie against the Bengals was downright embarrassing and even hard to watch. It seriously looked like he was trying to throw into double and triple coverage just to see if he could still complete the pass. And his brilliant outing Sunday against the Ravens was JaMarcus Russell-esqe: 8 of 18 for 59 yards, two interceptions, one fumble.

But Reid deserves plenty of criticism for throwing an unproven Kevin Kolb to the wolves after the Eagles had just cut their deficit to 10-7 at halftime. They were still in the game and while McNabb didn’t necessarily deserve to go back under center, Reid’s decision was inexplicable. It’s not like Kolb had a full week to prepare – he was thrust into a horrible situation, unprepared and against one of the nastiest defenses in the league. Reid essentially sealed his, and his teams’ fate by benching McNabb when a win was still very much in reach.

So now what, Andy? Go back to McNabb in hopes he can save your fleeting playoff hopes? Or go with a second-year quarterback and pray he does his best Matt Cassel impression?

Everyone likes to criticize Mike Martz for not running the football more, but what about Reid? He’s had success throwing the ball over his career, but he also continuously kills his team by not creating offensive balance. He might be the most overrated coach in the NFL and his decision to bench McNabb might not only cost him the playoffs this season, but also his job in Philadelphia. If McNabb goes, shouldn’t Reid, too?

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