Ten Observations from Week 8 in the NFL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ten Observations from Week 5 in the NFL

1. It doesn’t get more inspiring than the Colts’ performance vs. Green Bay.
When it’s all said and done, we’ll look back on the Colts’ 30-27 victory over the Packers as one of those defining moments in a season. The players in Indianapolis found out earlier this week that their head coach Chuck Pagano has a long road ahead of him as he gets ready to fight leukemia. So they fought for him on Sunday, turning in an inspiring performance against a Green Bay team that’s banged up yet still dangerous. The Colts struck gold in Andrew Luck, who joined Cam Newton as only the second rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for 300 or more yards in three of his first four starts. The kid is for real, and he’s tougher than a bad piece of meat. All elite passers take risks and Luck is no exception. He continuously fired passes into tight windows today and it’s incredible how quickly he’s developed chemistry with Reggie Wayne. But this win wasn’t just about Luck. The Colts could have thrown in the towel when the Packers jumped out to a 21-3 lead. But they didn’t. Granted, Green Bay is banged up and lost a couple of more players today, including defensive tackle B.J. Raji. But the Packers have some of the best depth in the league and the Colts are devoid of overall talent on both sides of the ball. Greg Jennings or no Greg Jennings, what Indy did today was impressive.

2. The Falcons’ offense is dangerous but not complete.
It’s hard to nitpick a team that’s 5-0. Matt Ryan is having the finest season of his career, Tony Gonzalez has thrived with the amount of attention that opponents have to pay to Roddy White and Julio Jones, the defense has been fantastic, and the change from Mike Mularkey to Dirk Koetter at offensive coordinator has made a massive difference for the undefeated Falcons. But if there’s one thing holding Atlanta back, it’s a lack of a dominant running game. Michael Turner has had success the past two weeks, but it’s come when the opposing defense is worn down. And even though Koetter has wisely built his scheme around Ryan (where as Mularkey kept the focus on Turner), the Falcons won’t be as dangerous as they could be without a power running game. What made the 2009 Saints so dangerous is that once Sean Payton had a defense back on its heels trying to slow down the New Orleans passing game, he would pound Pierre Thomas inside to draw those safeties back up. Balance remains the key for NFL offenses, even in a passing league. There were times on Sunday when the Redskins dared the Falcons to run the ball and Atlanta just couldn’t do it with much consistency. So while the Falcons should be thrilled about their 5-0 start, at some point Koetter needs to figure out a way to develop a power running game. Unfortunately Turner’s skills are declining and second-year player Jacquizz Rodgers has made a limited impact.

3. Are the Vikings for real? They just might be.
In looking at the Vikings’ schedule up to this point, it would be easy to dismiss their 4-1 start. Three of their four wins have come against teams with losing records and three of their first five contests have come at home. But they did beat a team in the 49ers that many consider to be the class of the NFC and when you watch the Vikings play you realize they haven’t shown many flaws. They’re the team that doesn’t excel in one single area (outside of many run defense), but they do everything just well enough. Their offensive line does a decent job protecting Christian Ponder, who hadn’t thrown an interception until he threw two in Minnesota’s 30-7 win over Tennessee on Sunday. Percy Harvin continues to be the team’s best weapon, although Adrian Peterson has already exceeded expectations coming off knee surgery and tight end Kyle Rudolph is quickly becoming one of Ponder’s favorite targets. Is this a great team? No, but the schedule is very favorable until after they come back from their Week 11 bye. So for those waiting for Minnesota to come back to earth, you may be waiting a while.

4. Thanks to the Broncos’ sloppiness, the game of the week was a dud.
There was a moment in yesterday’s Denver-New England game when you thought we were going to have a classic Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady finish. But then Denver coughed the ball up inside the red zone (its third turnover of the day), and it sent most viewers scrambling for the remote. Arguably the best storyline coming into Week 5 was Manning vs. Brady, but the game was a loser right from the start. Thanks in large part to the Broncos’ miscues, the Patriots built a 17-7 halftime lead and increased the deficit to 31-7 with under five minutes remaining in the third quarter. Manning did cut the lead down to 31-21 but when New England gave Denver a golden opportunity to get within three points, the Broncos gave the gift right back. You were left wondering whether or not Denver is nothing more than a 9-7 team posing as a serious contender.

5. The last two weeks identify what the Eagles are.
Last Sunday night Michael Vick didn’t turn the ball over and played within himself. The result was an Eagles’ victory over the Giants. On Sunday, Vick turned the ball over twice, including once on the goal line, and the result wasn’t as favorable for Philadelphia. Granted, he did orchestrate an outstanding 17-play, eight-minute touchdown drive to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. But all of Vick’s comebacks this year is largely due to the fact that Vick himself put the Eagles in a hole. Pittsburgh’s now-healthy defense had a lot to do with Vick’s struggles, so let’s give credit were credit is due. But it’s getting to be pretty simple to define Philadelphia. When Vick doesn’t turn the ball over, they win. When he does, he either has to lead them to a fourth quarter comeback or the team falls flat. With how well the defense has played this season, Philadelphia should challenge for the NFC East crown. But it’s gotten to the point that as Vick goes, so does the Eagles.

6. That was a real stinker by the Ravens.
Let’s get all of the clichés out of the way first: You earn everything you get in the NFL. A win is a win. All that matters is that “W.” Having said that, what a brutal performance by Baltimore yesterday in Kansas City. The Chiefs have been dreadful for every game but one this season (an overtime victory in New Orleans), were on the verge of replacing their starting quarterback coming into the week, and have been a total disaster at times defensively. And yet a well rested Ravens team could only muster 9 points? A win is a win but Baltimore has some underlying problems. Edge rushers have given the offensive tackles problems and the defense can’t stop the run (as evidence in Kansas City’s 214 yards on the ground yesterday). Despite the changes Cam Cameron implemented this offseason, the Ravens’ offense is still a work in progress as well. There’s no doubt that Baltimore is going to be in the playoff mix at the end of the season and hey, sometimes good teams don’t play well. But some of Baltimore’s issues were on full display in Kansas City.

7. Gailey’s seat just got hotter in Buffalo.
Chan Gailey challenged his team’s toughness heading into Sunday’s game with the 49ers and his players responded by rolling over in a 45-3 San Francisco victory. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for only 126 yards with no touchdowns and one interception as his arm strength continues to limit what Buffalo can do offensively. The new high-priced defense also allowed Alex Smith to throw for 303 yards and at one point in the second half the Bills’ defenders gave up trying to tackle anyone. This is a 2-3 team that already looks defeated. They lack an identity on defense and thanks to Fitzpatrick, there’s a ceiling on what the offense can do. With Gailey at the controls, it’s unlikely that the Bills figure it out and turn things around. In fact, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

8. The Saints’ skid is over, but…
All things considered, it was a great night in New Orleans. Drew Brees threw a touchdown pass in his 48th straight game, moving him past Johnny Unitas for the all-time record. He also threw for 730 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception as the Saints beat the Chargers and finally got into the win column in 2012. But even though the numbers were eye-popping, you can tell there’s still something off with this New Orleans team. The defense did cause two turnovers but it’s ready to wilt at every turn, and without Sean Payton the offense isn’t as dominant as it has been in years past. We’re so used to holding out breath because the Saints could score at any moment. But without Payton’s brilliant play calling, this offense is missing its punch. Either way, it was a good win for a team that can finally let out a sigh of relief. The Saints have a long ways to go in order to get back into the NFC South race (especially with Atlanta sitting at 5-0), but that first victory is always the hardest.

9. The Panthers will continue to be hamstrung by Newton.
As Michael Vick goes, so do the Philadelphia Eagles. And as Cam Newton goes, so does the Carolina Panthers. Newton is a phenomenal young talent. He really is. He has the ability to put his team on his back, do his Superman thing and will Carolina to victory. He also has the ability to sink the Panthers in the blink of an eye and as we’ve found out the past two weeks, he’s not a closer. While leading 16-12 on Sunday, the Seahawks put the game in Newton’s hands by taking a safety with just under a minute left to play. It’s not easy for any quarterback to drive down the field in less than a minute and score a game-winning touchdown, nevertheless a second-year signal caller. But the Panthers didn’t even sniff mid-field because Newton had the ball stripped out of his hands. He also skipped a pass to Ben Hartsock on a 4th-and-1 from the goal line two series before that would have given the Panthers the lead had he put the pass on the money. Part of the problem in Carolina is that Ron Rivera is too conservative with his game plans. First and second-year head coaches will often play not to lose and they wind up losing a lot of close games. But at some point Newton has to be expected to raise the level of his play. That’s why Carolina drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick last year and why they’ve installed him as the face of the franchise. At some point he simply has to get it done in the fourth quarter.

10. The Dolphins might own the most underrated defense in the NFL.
After their 17-13 loss to the Dolphins on Sunday, it’s time to pump the breaks on the Bengals. Entering today they were 3-1 but their wins came against the Browns, Redskins and Jaguars, which isn’t exactly a Murderers’ Row of elite NFL talent. The Bengals can’t run the ball with any success, which makes them one-dimensional offensively, and they struggle stopping the run on defense. That said, Miami’s defense is solid. In fact, it might be the most underrated defense in the league next to Pete Carroll’s squad in Seattle. Opponents are having a difficult time running against that front seven and Cameron Wake is a fierce pass rusher. The secondary has bouts of inconsistency, but the Dolphins have been in every game outside of a 30-10 loss to the Texans in Week 1. Unfortunately there’s a ceiling on how good Miami can be thanks to a rookie quarterback and a lack of explosive weapons. But Kevin Coyle’s defense gives the Dolphins an opportunity to compete week in and week out.

NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 2


Image source: Indianapolis Colts Facebook page

1. Schiano’s tactics weren’t dirty – just unnecessary.
When Eli Manning and the Giants got into the “Victory” formation following their thrilling come-from-behind victory against the Bucs on Sunday, Tampa Bay’s defenders fired off the ball and sent Manning backwards to the ground. The “Victory” formation is usually a causal affair. Players get down into their stances but only because it’s a formality. After the quarterback drops to a knee, players will pat each other on the helmet or shake hands because the game is over at that point. So it was rather lame for Greg Schiano to say following the game, “we fight until they tell us the game is over,” because the game is metaphorically over at that point. The play wasn’t dirty but it was highly unnecessary. The odds of a player getting hurt in that situation are much higher than a quarterback fumbling the ball, your team recovering, and marching into scoring position so you can either tie or win the game. So is there a lot to be gained by doing it? Schiano is trying to clean up the mess that Raheem Morris left for him in Tampa, which includes making his players tougher. But this isn’t the way to do it and it wasn’t very smart to tick off a head coach that has as much stature as Tom Coughlin. If he and the Bucs were pissed about the loss, then they shouldn’t have squandered a game that was well in hand until the fourth quarter. (Furthermore, what’s most disappointing about the situation is that everyone is now talking about that play as opposed to yet another incredible fourth quarter comeback engineered by Manning.)

2. Make no mistake, the Patriots’ loss was stunning.
Let’s really put the Patriots’ 20-18 loss into perspective. They were a 13.5-point home favorite against a team with the worst offensive line in football and arguably the worst quarterback situation as well. The Cardinals won despite gaining only 16 first downs, running just 61 plays and throwing for only 140 yards. Kevin Kolb’s average yard per pass went just 5.2 yards and Beanie Wells rushed for just 3.1 yards per carry. Arizona also lost the turnover and time of possession battles, so talk about one of the weirdest games in the past 10 years – this was it. That said, let’s give credit were credit is due. I wrote several times this offseason about how Arizona’s defense was likely to come together this year under Ray Horton. The Cardinal defenders were often confused and out of place last season, but the players are more confident in Horton’s second year. It’s the same system that the Steelers run in Pittsburgh so it’s predicated on every player understanding their role, executing their job, and trusting that the man next to them will do the same. The players have bought into the approach and we seen the results thus far. (Through two games the Cardinals have held opponents to 17.0 points per game, which ranks fifth in the league.) I don’t expect the Cardinals to keep winning, especially the way they did Sunday in Foxboro. But I do expect the defense to continue to play well under Horton, who will be a head coaching candidate again next offseason.

3. Frustrations are already boiling over in Tennessee.
Following the Titans’ ugly 38-10 loss to the Chargers in which Tennessee rushed for just 38 yards as a team, Chris Johnson sounded off about his teammates. Said Johnson, “People need to step up and do their job. They don’t need to let people beat them. It don’t matter who the opposing defense is, you can’t let your buy beat you.” Johnson’s right: The Titans offensive line has been brutal. It was brutal last year from a run blocking standpoint and it’s been brutal through the first two weeks of the season this year. But I can count on one finger how many times Johnson has hit the whole hard this year. He’s making too many cutbacks trying to hit a home run on every play instead of trusting his instincts and using his vision to find creases in the defense. Does his offensive line need to perform better? Certainly. But right now Johnson is as much of the problem as he is the solution so instead of calling his teammates out publicly, he needs to figure out what can be done internally to better the situation because we’re only two games into a very long season.

4. Alex Smith finally looks comfortable.
For the first time in his career Alex Smith is running the same offense with the same playbook with the same offensive coordinator as he did the year prior. And what do you know? He’s been successful. It’s too early to make bold statements about the positioning of any team, but the 49ers might just be the best squad in football. They beat the Packers in Lambeau, then returned home on Sunday night and suffocated the Lions for four quarters. Detroit had to scratch, claw, and fight for every single yard that they earned, which is the way San Francisco’s defense wants it. On the other side of the ball, Smith once again took what the defense gave him, didn’t turn the ball over and threw two more touchdown passes to give him a total of four on the season. It’s hard to make statements in only two weeks but the Niners have sent a message that last year wasn’t a fluke. If Smith is their weak link, they’re in good shape so far.

5. Maybe it was just rust for Vick.
One week after playing like a rookie in Cleveland, Michael Vick completed 23-of-32 passes for 371 yards with one touchdown and added 10 carries for 34 yards and another score the Eagles’ 24-23 come-from-behind win against the Ravens on Sunday. It was vintage Vick, as he threw two costly interceptions and fumbled on an exchange with LeSean McCoy, but he also elevated his team to victory. That’s two last-second touchdown drives that Vick has engineered in as many weeks and while he deserves criticism for the turnovers, he deserves praise for pulling victory out of the jaws of defeat in back-to-back weeks. Still, questions remain about his health. He took two big shots by Baltimore defenders early in the game and he stayed down on his knee for a couple of moments after taking the first hit. How long before we see Nick Foles have to enter a game that Vick leaves due to an injury?

6. The rookie quarterbacks were much improved.
Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson picked up their first NFL wins, RGIII once again dazzled despite losing in St. Louis, and Brandon Weeden actually resembled a professional quarterback in a road loss to Cincinnati. All in all, it was a great day for rookie quarterbacks around the league. What Luck did in Indianapolis was particiluarly noteworthy. With the Colts and Vikings tied 20-20 with just 31 seconds remaining in the game, Luck took Indy 44 yards in four plays, setting Adam Vinatieri up for a game-winning 53-yard field goal. He certainly wasn’t perfect on the day, missing open receivers and taking a huge 22-yard sack on a crucial fourth down in the fourth quarter, but he remains well ahead of where he should be for a rookie signal caller. Wilson got a lot of help from his defense and special teams but both his and Tannehill’s athleticism were on display yesterday. Weeden also deserves praise for taking better care of the ball this week than in the Browns’ opening-season loss to the Eagles and credit him for taking what Cincinnati’s defense gave him. (The middle of the field was wide open throughout the day and Weeden just kept firing balls in between the linebackers and safeties.)

7. Morgan is fortunate to still be on Shanahan’s roster.
The Redskins were an enormous gift by Rams’ rookie Daryl Richardson, who fumbled with just under three minutes remaining in the game. Washington took over at its own 37-yard-line needing at least a field goal to tie the game and send it to overtime. But on a third-and-eight play in St. Louis territory, Redskins’ wideout Josh Morgan caught a pass from Robert Griffin III and after being shoved by Cortland Finnegan, Morgan chucked the ball at the Rams’ corner and was flagged for a 15-yard personal foul. So instead of being well within Billy Cundiff’s range to tie the game, the play moved the Redskins out of field goal range and they eventually lost the game, 31-28. Part of you feels for Morgan because Finnegan started the fire by shoving the Washington receiver. But Morgan simply has to be better than that. With the game on the line, he has to keep his cool. A team never wins or losses on just one play but in a situation like that, it’s hard not to forget everything else that happened prior to that situation. That’s a play that Morgan and the Redskins may not forget the rest of the year.

8. Bush reminds us of how exciting a player he is.
The Saints did what they had to do two years ago when they traded Reggie Bush to Miami. They knew they were overpaying him and they found his replacement in Darren Sproles very easily on the open market. But while he became a forgot man in NFL circles, Bush has quietly turned into a reliable playmaker for the Dolphins. He totaled 109 yards in Week 1 against one of the best defenses in the league (Houston), and then for an encore performance he rushed 26 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns in Miami’s 35-13 win over the Raiders on Sunday. The 23-yard touchdown run that he had in which he broke several tackles and refused to go down was reminiscent of his days at USC. He’s an exciting player again and doesn’t get enough credit for playing with raw emotion and passion. He continues to be the featured player in Mike Sherman’s West Coast offense and it’s a role that certainly suits him.

9. Bad day for injuries around the league.
The Giants’ offensive line isn’t very good and the depth behind the starters is thin. Thus, losing left tackle David Diehl (knee) for any amount of time is troublesome. Even worse, running back Ahmad Bradshaw underwent an X-ray for a neck injury and at this point, his status remains unclear…The Eagles lost center Jason Kelce, left tackle King Dunlap and receiver Jeremy Maclin in their win over the Ravens. Kelce is done for the season and keep in mind this is a team that already lost Jason Peters to a season-ending injury before the season even started…Adding insult to injury, the Patriots could be without tight end Aaron Hernandez for awhile after he suffered a high ankle sprain in the team’s embarrassing 20-18 loss to the Cardinals…People in St. Louis thought running back Steven Jackson was benched right before halftime for spiking the ball following what he believed to be a touchdown, and then cost the Rams an opportunity for a touchdown as they were pushed back 15 yards. But it was worse – Jackson suffered a groin injury on the play and never returned. The Rams also lost Rodger Saffold again, this time to a knee injury…Blaine Gabbert had to be replaced by Chad Henne after he injured his toe and hamstring…Despite not being listed on the Seahawks’ postgame injury report, receiver Sidney Rice, who hasn’t looked right all season, left the game early for an unknown reason…Just a bad day for injuries in the NFL.

10. It’s going to be a great one in Atlanta.
The NFL couldn’t have asked for a better Monday night matchup than the one it’ll get tonight when the Falcons host the Broncos. Peyton Manning was sharp in Denver’s win last Sunday night against the Steelers and it’ll be interesting to see how he attacks an Atlanta secondary that lost its top corner in Brent Grimes (Achilles) for the season. On the other side, Matt Ryan is now at the helm of an offense that can actually outscore opponents through the air instead of trying to grind out wins on the ground. As Michael Turner’s play continues to decline, Julio Jones’ career is just taking off. The Broncos love to get after the passer so Ryan will need to continue to get the ball out of his hands quickly as he did in Week 1 and throughout the preseason. There’s also added incentive for both teams after what happened on Sunday. The Chargers are 2-0 after beating the Titans so if the Broncos don’t want to lose any ground in the AFC West, they need a victory tonight. And with the Saints sitting at 0-2 two weeks in, the Falcons could take sole possession of the NFC South, which is huge considering how good that division is top to bottom. It’s going to be fun tonight.

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.

2012 NFL Season & Super Bowl Predictions

Will the Patriots roll through an easy schedule on their way to yet another Super Bowl appearance?

Does Peyton Manning’s presence make the Broncos the team to beat in the AFC West or will another team unseat Denver in the division?

Can the Eagles unseat the Giants in a tough NFC East? Will the Falcons take advantage of the Saints’ tumultuous offseason and finally get over the playoff hump?

The start of the 2012 NFL regular season is just days away, which means it’s time to hand out our predictions for the new year. Below you’ll find division-by-division picks, as well as playoff and of course Super Bowl projections as well.

Dear God, football is back.

AFC EAST
1. New England Patriots
2. Buffalo Bills
3. New York Jets
4. Miami Dolphins

The Patriots won’t suffer a letdown after reaching the Super Bowl back in February. Their offense remains steady thanks to Tom Brady and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and their defense keeps improving under Bill Belichick’s guidance. The addition of Defensive ROY candidate Chandler Jones will help the Pats pressure the quarterback, which was one of their weaknesses the last year. Considering they have the easiest schedule of all 32 NFL teams based on the opponents’ records in 2011, the Patriots shouldn’t have any issues winning the AFC East again this season…The Bills upgraded their defense with the additions of free agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, as well as the selection of first-rounder Stephon Gilmore. They also have a solid offensive core in Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson, plus an improving offensive line. But Buffalo will only go as far as quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick takes them and unfortunately for the Bills, he’s often exposed by top defenses. While some are predicting Buffalo to reach the postseason, come the end of the year I have the Bills on the outside looking in…The offseason “battle” between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow has taken the onus off the real problem in New York: The offensive line. The two years the Jets made the playoffs with Sanchez under center their defense and running game were outstanding. The defense is still one of the league’s best but they’re going to have to pitch shutouts because as the preseason showed us, the Jets are going to have a difficult time finding the end zone behind their O-line. “Gang Green” will be fortunate to finish .500 this season…The Dolphins have a new head coach, new coordinators, and a new quarterback but they’ll struggle to win games in 2011. Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton and Andy Dalton have proven that rookie quarterbacks can have a great deal of success their fist years in the league, but Ryan Tannehill isn’t surrounded by great talent. This isn’t the worst team in the league but the Fins will likely top out at six wins again.

AFC NORTH
1. Baltimore Ravens
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
3. Cincinnati Bengals
4. Cleveland Browns

The offensive lines in Baltimore and Pittsburgh are both question marks entering the season but I see the Ravens’ O-line gelling throughout the season. I can’t say the same about the Steelers’ front five, which lost rookie guard David DeCastro in preseason. Joe Flacco and Cam Cameron butted heads last year because Flacco often felt that the offense was too tepid. But Flacco has been energized by Cameron’s decision to incorporate more no-huddle elements into the offense. And with the re-signing of Ray Rice and the development of budding star Torrey Smith, the Ravens’ offense is finally ready to carry this team. Granted, the defense is getting long in the tooth and the loss of Terrell Suggs is significant. But the secondary is solid and the Baltimore defense always finds a way to be productive…The Steelers will once again challenge the Ravens for first place in the division. That’s just what they do. But Ben Roethlisberger can’t keep running for his life behind a shaky offensive line. Pittsburgh thought it had upgraded the unit over the offseason but as previously mentioned, DeCastro will miss significant time due to a knee injury and second-round pick Mike Adams proved in preseason that he wasn’t ready to take over the starting right tackle spot. Pittsburgh’s defense is also aging and if younger players like Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward and Keenan Lewis don’t step up, we could see Dick LeBeau’s squad start to unravel. The Steelers are still a playoff contender but for how much longer?…The Bengals were no fluke in 2011. Andy Dalton may take a step back in his second year like most quarterbacks do, but it would be a mistake to question whether or not he can win in this league. That said, Cincinnati doesn’t have much behind star A.J. Green in its receiving corps and the depth along the defensive line and in the secondary is also thin. This team was 0-4 against the likes of Pittsburgh and Baltimore last season and if they can’t win games in the division I don’t see them making a repeat trip to the postseason…The Browns are once again starting over with rookies Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, who will struggle after facing soft defenses in the Big 12. While Greg Little and Josh Gordon certainly have potential, Weeden also doesn’t have a true No. 1 receiving target and outside of Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, questions remain along the offensive line. Defensively, injuries continue to take their toll along the front four and while Joe Haden is a stud in the making, the secondary is littered with holes as well. In a tough division, Cleveland will have a hard time competing.

AFC SOUTH
1. Houston Texans
2. Tennessee Titans
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
4. Indianapolis Colts

The Texans are the class of the division and they might have the most talent of any team in the AFC, which includes the Patriots. The loss of Mario Williams won’t hurt as much as some think because he simply wasn’t a fit for Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense. Thanks to Arian Foster, Ben Tate and a very good run-blocking offensive line, the Texans will control the clock and win tight games because of their stingy defense. The biggest question is whether or not Matt Schaub can put this team on his shoulders for 16-plus games and, if guys like Andre Johnson can stay healthy…The Titans are my Cincinnati Bengals of 2012. A darkhorse if you will. Jake Locker must become a more accurate and consistent passer but he’s going to produce plenty of big plays thanks to his arm strength and OC Chris Palmer’s decision to install Run ‘N Shoot elements into his offense. Locker also has a couple of nice weapons in Kenny Britt (if he can stay healthy and out of trouble), Kendall Wright and Chris Johnson, who should have a bounce back year. Granted, the offensive line wasn’t very good from a run-blocking standpoint last year and the defense doesn’t do one thing particularly well but I like the Titans to surprise and qualify for one of the Wild Card spots…The Jaguars received huge sigh of relief when Maurice Jones-Drew finally reported to team head quarters. But holdout running backs have a tendency to struggle (look at Chris Johnson last year) when they miss all of training camp and preseason, and Blaine Gabbert will still suffer through plenty of ups and downs. That said, this team will be more competitive than it was a year ago. Gabbert has made marked improvements as a passer and the addition of Justin Blackmon gives this team a much needed playmaker at receiver…The Colts will be better than they were a year ago because of rookie QB Andrew Luck, who looks like the real deal. But there’s not much around him. It’ll be a year or two before Chuck Pagano can get the right pieces in place to run his 3-4 defense and the Colts simply don’t have enough weapons on offense to be competitive.

AFC WEST
1. Denver Broncos
2. San Diego Chargers
3. Kansas City Chiefs
4. Oakland Raiders

The Broncos have a brutal first-half schedule but if Tim Tebow can win a playoff game in Denver than logic dictates that Peyton Manning can do the same. As long as Manning stays healthy and the defense doesn’t take a step back, the Broncos should win this division…That said, the Chargers might have the best starters of the four teams in the West, and if they can finally start out of the gates hot they could very well win the division. Robert Meachem isn’t Vincent Jackson but he deserves a chance to prove that he can be a No. 1 guy and when healthy, Antonio Gates and Ryan Mathews give Philip Rivers a couple of nice weapons. That said, the left tackle position is a concern and the defense underachieved last year. The top spot is up for grabs in this division but in the end I see the Broncos losing one less game than the Bolts…The Chiefs might have the most overall talent and the deepest depth of any team in the division. The problem is that Matt Cassel is their quarterback and while some are predicting that Kansas City will win the West, I just can’t put my faith behind Cassel. That said, thanks to Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, Jon Baldwin and Romeo Crennel’s defense, the Chiefs will keep things interesting…The Raiders narrowly missed the playoffs a year ago but they’re going to pay for past mistakes, specifically Hue Jackson’s decision to trade a first round pick for Carson Palmer last season. Palmer looked shaky in preseason and the offense won’t be as explosive under Gregg Knapp as it was last year under Jackson. If Darren McFadden can stay healthy Oakland will be competitive and the defense does look like it’s improved. But there’s no question that Palmer is on the down slope of his career and it’s not unrealistic to suggest he’s finished as a productive quarterback.

NFC EAST
1. New York Giants
2. Philadelphia Eagles
3. Dallas Cowboys
4. Washington Redskins

Once again this is the most difficult division to predict in the NFL. The Eagles arguably have the most talent in the division but I don’t trust that Michael Vick will stay healthy and even though the defense was very good in the second half last year, Juan Castillo has a tendency to be exposed against good playcallers…The Cowboys seemingly fixed their problems in the secondary and thanks to a number of weapons on offense, they’ll rack up plenty of yardage again this season. But can the skill players stay healthy? Will this offense once again struggle to score points despite moving the ball at will? Is the secondary really fixed or will it remain a problem? Somehow, someway the Cowboys usually find a way to get in their own way…Which brings us to the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. I don’t know how Eli Manning survived behind that offensive line last year and if the pass rusher falters at all, the back seven isn’t good enough to keep the defense afloat. But my general rule when it comes to the Giants is that if nobody is paying attention to them, bet the house that they’ll win. They thrive in the underdog role and they’ve played second-fiddle to the Eagles, Cowboys and even in-state rival the Jets all offseason. Thus, despite Dallas and Philadelphia having better talent, I like New York to once again qualify for the postseason…The Redskins are going to be fun to watch this year thanks to Robert Griffin III. They’ll also be able to run the ball because of Mike Shanahan and they have more weapons on offense than they did a year ago thanks to the additions of RGIII and Pierre Garcon. But the secondary is an issue and questions remain about whether or not this team can keep Griffin upright. The Skins also play in an ultra-competitive division so while they’ll be competitive, they’ll likely fall well short of the playoffs.

NFC NORTH
1. Green Bay Packers
2. Chicago Bears
3. Detroit Lions
4. Minnesota Vikings

The Packers have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL thanks to Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, and the addition of Cedric Benson will pay dividends as well. There’s no way the defense will rank 32nd again so the Pack are poised to make another postseason run…There are two massive question marks surrounding the Bears. One is the offensive line, which continues to be inconsistent and the second is the defense, which is aging quickly. Will Father Time catch up with Chicago’s defense this season or will it hold off another year? That said, if Jay Cutler and Matt Forte don’t get hurt last year then the Bears make the playoffs as the fifth seed in the NFC. Plus, keep in mind that Chicago is just two years removed from winning the division and the additions of Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery finally give opposing defensive backs something to be concerned with on Sundays. I like the Bears to win one of the two Wild Card spots…I think the Lions will regress this season. The passing game will be dangerous but can Matthew Stafford once again stay healthy for a full 16 games? Can this team win behind a shaky offensive line and no running game? On the other side the ball the defense doesn’t play with discipline, Louis Delmas’ health remains a concern and rookie Bill Bentley will line up opposite Chris Houston at cornerback. The Lions’ defense was brutal down the stretch last season and while Calvin Johnson will once again be fun to watch, a .500 season seems more realistic than a repeat playoff appearance…The Vikings will continue to grow behind Christian Ponder but Adrian Peterson’s health is obviously a concern, they don’t have a weapon opposite Percy Harvin in the passing game and the defensive secondary isn’t very reliable. In a stacked division Minnesota will once again have a difficult time competing.

NFC SOUTH
1. New Orleans Saints
2. Atlanta Falcons
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Saints had a tumultuous offseason, losing head coach Sean Payton and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma to the bounty scandal suspensions, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (who was also suspended) to the Rams, and Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem to free agency. But Drew Brees had a huge hand in Payton’s offensive game plans the past four years so he’ll keep New Orleans afloat. Plus, the loss of Vilma was negated with the addition of Curtis Lofton, who is a much better run-stopper than Vilma, Meachem is merely a No. 3 receiver and the team did well to replace Nicks with Ben Grubbs. New DC Steve Spagnuolo (who is an upgrade over Williams) will have to get creative when it comes to his pass rush but this team will be fine…There’s a ton of optimism surrounding the Falcons this season because of the decisions they made this offseason. Mike Mularkey was a solid offensive coordinator but Matt Ryan had outgrown his conservative, run-first approach. In steps in new OC Dirk Koetter, who has installed an up-tempo offense that suits Ryan. Julio Jones looks like he’s ready for a monstrous second year and he should only make Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas better around him. Defensively the Falcons hired Mike Nolan to replace Brian Van Gorder, who wasn’t a bad coordinator but his philosophy under head coach Mike Smith was to stop the run and play bend-but-don’t-break schemes in the back seven. That won’t work against the likes of the Saints, Packers and Giants, so Nolan has installed a scheme that will focus on stopping the pass. The Falcons also traded for Asante Samuel, who will join forces with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson to form an exciting cornerback trio. If young players like Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore have breakout years, the Atlanta defense will be much improved…Cam Newton will keep the Panthers in most games. He has loads of playmaking ability and plenty of weapons around him in Steve Smith, Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams and Greg Olson. But the defense only has one true pass rusher (Charles Johnson), the linebacker corps is always suffering from injuries and the safety position is a major question mark. Simply put, the defense will keep Carolina from earning playoff berth but watch the Panthers stay in contention all season…Thanks to new coach Greg Schiano the Bucs will be tougher and more focused in 2012. The front office also did well to bring in Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson in free agency, which will certainly appease QB Josh Freeman (who is poised to have a bounce back year). Rookie first-rounder Mark Barron might also wind up being the steal of the 2012 draft in that he’s NFL ready having played for Nick Saban at Alabama. Fellow rookie Doug Martin looks like he’s ready to explode in his first year as well. That said, the front seven remains a huge question mark on defense and this team doesn’t have the ability to blow teams out. Under Schiano the Bucs will attempt to win the time of possession battle by keeping the ball on the ground and trying to win games in the fourth quarter. This is an up-and-coming team but it’ll be a year before Tampa is challenging for a playoff spot again.

NFC WEST
1. San Francisco 49ers
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. St. Louis Rams
4. Arizona Cardinals

There aren’t a lot of believers in Alex Smith but the fact is he managed games well last season and stayed out of the way as the 49ers’ defense and running game produced wins. Thanks to the additions of Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and rookie A.J. Jenkins, Smith has plenty of weapons around him to succeed. (Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree obviously remain the highlights of the offense.) Thanks to the best defense in the league and weak competition in the division, the Niners will challenge for the top seed in the NFC again this season…Some believe the Seahawks will struggle under rookie Russell Wilson but if the kid were four inches taller he would have been a top 10 selection. He’s smart and he has the skill set to succeed – it’s just too bad that outside of an unreliable Sidney Rice, he has nobody to throw the ball to. The defense is underrated so if Wilson can move the ball, look for the Hawks to hang around before eventually fading down the stretch…Jeff Fisher and his coaching staff are worth two or three wins alone in St. Louis. The Rams will be better than they were a year ago but plenty of questions remain. The offensive line isn’t very good, the middle of the defense will be exposed on a weekly basis because of poor safety play and the book is still out on Sam Bradford. He has yet to raise the level of his play when under pressure and his O-line won’t do him any favors this year. This is also the youngest team in the league and depth is a massive problem…The Cardinals have the least effective starting quarterback in the NFL thanks to John Skelton, who will play behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. Ray Horton’s defense is going to surprise people this year but it’s also going to be on the field a lot because of the struggles of the offense. Maybe Skelton has more magic up his sleeve and hey, he does have Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams at his disposal. But chances are it’s going to be a long year in ‘Zona.

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

AFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Patriots
2. Texans
3. Ravens
4. Broncos
5. Steelers
6. Titans

NFC PLAYOFF TEAMS
1. Packers
2. 49ers
3. Saints
4. Giants
5. Bears
6. Falcons

WILD CARD PREDICTIONS
Ravens over Titans
Steelers over Broncos
Falcons over Giants
Saints over Bears

DIVISIONAL PREDICTIONS
Patriots over Steelers
Ravens over Texans
Packers over Falcons
49ers over Saints

CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTIONS
Ravens over Patriots
Packers over 49ers

SUPER BOWL PREDICTION
Packers over Ravens

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