NFL Quick-Hits: 10 Observations from Week 3

1. No sense debating the Lions’ fourth down gaff – it wasn’t supposed to happen.
One of the hot topics around your water cooler this morning will be the Lions’ decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in overtime instead of attempting a game-tying field goal from the Titans’ 7-yard line. But there’s no sense debating the decision because the play was never supposed to happen. Following the game coach Jim Schwartz said that Detroit was trying to draw Tennessee offsides. Whether or not the Lions would have still gone for it had the offsides attempt not worked is unknown, but the most controversial play of the day wasn’t controversial at all. Shaun Hill (who came into the game after Matthew Stafford suffered a leg injury) and the Lions just blew the task at hand. The bigger worry for Schwartz should be the fact that his team has yet to play well. The Lions arguably should have lost Week 1 to the Rams, were dominated by the 49ers in Week 2, and allowed 44 points to a Titans team that had been outscored 72-23 coming into Sunday’s action. For a team coming off a postseason berth a year ago, the Lions look every bit a sub-.500 team.

(For what it’s worth, I thought the Lions should have gone for it on fourth down in that situation. Their defense and special teams were brutal all afternoon and they were playing on the road. But you don’t put the ball in the hands of Hill with the day Mikel Leshoure was having.)

2. So far the NFL’s gamble hasn’t paid off.
One of the biggest reasons why Roger Goodell and the NFL hasn’t given in to the demands of the locked out officials is because the league assumed that the replacements would get better each week. But just six nights after the replacement officials contributed to a first quarter between the Broncos and Falcons that took over an hour to complete on “Monday Night Football,” this was the scene on Sunday night: Baltimore’s Ladarius Webb throwing his helmet in disgust, New England’s Vince Wilfork screaming at an official in the end zone following Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal, and Bill Belichick angrily chasing down line judge Esteban Garza and yanking his arm as he tried to run off the field. Following the game, you had linebacker Brandon Spikes tweeting, “Can someone please tell these f****** zebras foot locker called and they’re needed Back at work !!!!” It wasn’t just the Baltimore-New England game either. The Detroit-Tennessee contest was a mess as well, as the replacement officials gave the Titans an extra 12 yards following a penalty in overtime (which eventually led to the game-winning field goal). Is this the vision that Goodell has for his league? The fans, which allow the NFL to be the most popular game in America, deserve better than this. It’s not like the regular officials don’t blow calls, make mistakes, or factor into wins and losses. But the NFL has become a punch line because of these replacements.

3. The jury is still out on the Cardinals, but not their defense.
Are the Cardinals for real? Even after they crushed the Eagles 27-6 on Sunday, skepticism remains. They’re essentially two plays away from being 1-2 instead of 3-0, so let’s wait a few weeks before we assume we misjudged Ken Whisenhunt’s team in preseason. But one thing’s for sure: The Cardinals’ defense is for real. Players were confused and often caught out of position when Ray Horton took over as defensive coordinator last season. He runs the same defensive scheme that Dick LeBeau uses in Pittsburgh, which means every player has a specific role that must be executed or the entire defense may struggle. But in Year 2 of Horton’s scheme, his defenders have a firm grasp on what their responsibilities are and at least three through weeks they’re thriving in their roles. They held Michael Vick to just 217 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced three fumbles on the day. Daryl Washington is becoming a star, Patrick Peterson is on the fast track when it comes to his development, and Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Kerry Rhodes are steady veterans. The offense remains a huge concern thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in football, but Horton’s defense is going to keep Arizona in most games going forward.

4. The Vikings’ upset of the 49ers was easier to spot than you think.
The biggest shock of Week 3 came in Minnesota where the Vikings upset the 49ers, 24-13. The Vikings, who barely got by the Jaguars at home in Week 1 and who were beaten by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck in Week 2, were 7-point home underdogs against a San Francisco team that was regarded as the class of the NFC – if not the entire NFL. But the 49ers were also coming off wins against the Packers and Lions and were due for a letdown. Their offense is also very methodical and lacks explosion, so once they get behind by a couple of scores they’re not prone to stage comebacks. Now, did I see Christian Ponder completing 21-of-35 passes for 198 yards with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing)? No. But his ability to scramble proved to be a major weapon against a stingy San Francisco defense, which couldn’t limit the big play. Throw in the fact that Minnesota won the turnover and time of possession battle and it all adds up to one of the bigger upsets of the year thus far.

5. The Texans and Falcons look like the class of each conference.
With all due respect to the 3-0 Cardinals, the Texans and Falcons look like the class of the AFC and NFC through the first three weeks of the season. Houston has outscored opponents 88-42 and its first trip out West proved to be a successful one, as the Texans beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos 31-25 on Sunday. The Falcons, meanwhile, are 2-0 on the road and had no trouble with previously unbeaten San Diego despite coming off a short week of rest and preparation following their Monday night win over Denver. No quarterback has been more efficient than Matt Ryan through the first three weeks of the season and Mike Nolan has transformed Atlanta’s defense into a top 10 unit. One other thing the Falcons have done well is blend Mike Smith’s philosophy on ball control and Dirk Koetter’s desire to throw the ball vertical. Atlanta’s offense is still very methodical but the difference now is that the scheme is built around Ryan and the no-huddle, compared to Michael Turner and the ground-and-pound philosophy that Mike Mularkey implemented the past four years. Both Atlanta and Houston play keep-away better than any team in the league, with the only difference being that the Texans have a legit running game to compliment their passing attack. Both defenses are also built to confuse opposing quarterbacks and force turnovers, which the Falcons and Texans have been able to do thus far.

6. The Ravens come up huge.
The Ravens exacted a small measure of revenge last night on the Patriots, who beat Baltimore in the AFC title game just a few months ago. The replacement officials marred an otherwise terrific night for the heavy-hearted Torrey Smith, who played less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother. He caught six passes for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a beautiful 25-yard grab in the second quarter. Joe Flacco also impressed one week after struggling against the Eagles, as he completed 28-of-39 passes for 382 yards and three touchdowns. The win was huge on a couple of different levels for Baltimore. First and foremost, the Steelers lost to the Raiders earlier in the day so the Ravens and Bengals are now tied atop the division at 2-1. The victory also guaranteed Baltimore a leg up against New England when it comes to tiebreakers at the end of the year. Even though they’re 1-2, Bill Belichick’s Patriots will bounce back and be in the playoff mix at the end of the year. So it’s huge for the Ravens to have a head-to-head win over a team that they always seem to meet in the postseason.

7. There’s a good chance the Saints will head into their bye week winless.
I guess we all should have seen this coming. No team could have gone through what the Saints did in the offseason and now suffer any residual affects. Not only was New Orleans marred in the bounty scandal, but don’t forget that Drew Brees missed significant offseason time while battling with the front office over his contract. In losing Sean Payton the Saints not only lost their head coach but their playcaller as well. Talk all you want about Pete Carmichael being a reliable fill-in but through three weeks the Saints’ offense has yet to develop consistency. The biggest problem, of course, might be on the defensive side of the ball as Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme has yet to sink in. In their 27-24 victory on Sunday, Kansas City was able to play keep-away with Jamaal Charles, who rushed for over 200 yards on the maligned New Orleans defense. Through three weeks Spagnuolo’s unit has allowed 40 points to Washington, 35 to Carolina and 27 to Kansas City. And with Green Bay and San Diego coming up, there’s a very realistic chance that the Saints will be 0-5 heading into their Week 6 bye.

8. The Steelers’ defense is getting exposed.
We’ve reached a point when it’s no longer surprising that Pittsburgh’s defense allows a 100-yard rusher, isn’t able to generate pressure, and allows big plays when one of Dick LeBeau’s zone blitzes backfires. The problem is that James Harrison and Troy Polamalu can’t stay healthy. The bigger problem is that the Steelers haven’t drafted well on that side of the ball in a long time. Younger players have failed to step up and there’s no new wave of brilliant Pittsburgh defenders coming down what used to be an endless pipe of production. The unit is old, tired and now, underperforming. The Steelers’ defense used to dictate games and now opposing quarterbacks are outsmarting them, even aging signal callers like Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. If you’re expecting the Steelers’ defense to all of a sudden flip the switch and go back to being the dominate force that it’s been for over a decade, you might be waiting awhile. Re-enforcements are not on their way.

9. The Jets are in trouble.
A team source told Jason Cole of Yahoo Sports! that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis “probably” has a torn left ACL. If “probably” turns into “confirmed,” New York is in major trouble. Revis means everything to Rex Ryan’s defense, so much so that the Jets’ entire season could be lost without him locking down one side of the field. Mark Sanchez completed 21-of-45 passes for 306 yards with one touchdown but his numbers are misleading. Against Miami’s weak pass defense, Sanchez routinely missed open receivers, struggled under pressure and threw two interceptions. If Revis is indeed lost for the season, the Jets will quickly find out what they have in Sanchez, who doesn’t handle pressure very well (on or off the field). It could wind up being a long year in New York.

10. Cowboys once again disappoint.
They may have earned a hard-fought victory but the Cowboys didn’t exactly send fear into the hearts of the NFC elite with their 16-10 win over the Bucs on Sunday. Dallas only racked up 297 yards of total offense, which featured six false start penalties and a couple of Jason Witten drops (including one would-be touchdown). Credit Tampa Bay’s defense for coming to play but 2.1 yards per carry out of DeMarco Murray isn’t going to cut it either. Through three weeks the Cowboys have one impressive performance (the opening win against the Giants), one dud performance (the Week 2 loss at Seattle) and one blasé performance (Sunday vs. the Bucs). We’ll find out a lot about Jerry Jones’ team when it hosts Chicago next week before visiting Baltimore following a bye in Week 6.

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NFL Quick-Hits: Ten Observations from Week 3 of Preseason

Every Sunday our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will share his quick-hit observations from the week that was in football. This week he focuses on topics that emerged from Week 3 of preseason.

1. The gap has widened in the AFC North.
The Steelers have had issues with their offensive line for years but they created hope this offseason by drafting Stanford OG David DeCastro and Ohio State OT Mike Adams. But Adams proved in Pittsburgh’s first preseason game that he isn’t ready to start and DeCastro dislocated his right kneecap, tore his MCL, and suffered damage to his patellar tendon in Saturday night’s game against the Bills. ESPN’s Adam Schefter hasn’t ruled out the possibility that DeCastro could play this year, but it doesn’t look good for the Steelers’ first-round pick. Finding a suitable replacement for running back Rashard Mendenhall continues to be an issue and Mike Wallace remains a holdout. Meanwhile, the Ravens’ offensive line, which was a question mark heading into training camp, has started to gel. Joe Flacco also looks comfortable running Baltimore’s no-huddle offense and receiver Torrey Smith is on the verge of a breakout season. The Steelers are going to complete – that’s just what they do. But the gap between them and the Ravens has widened the past three weeks.

2. Bradford is quietly becoming one of the more polarizing players in the NFL.
His defenders point to the fact that he’s now learning his third offense in three years, has never played behind a sturdy offensive line and doesn’t have a bona fide No. 1 to throw to. His critics say that he needs to be less skittish in the pocket, needs to do a better job of going through his reads and needs to throw more downfield. He is Sam Bradford. Which side is correct? As of right now both sides are. In the Rams’ second preseason game last Saturday, Bradford stood tall in the pocket, went through his progressions and delivered the ball downfield when given an opportunity. But on Saturday night in Dallas he reverted back to the quarterback that his critics have grown tired of. At this point it’s not fair to call Bradford a bust when his offensive line continues to get him killed in the pocket. But at some point he needs to raise the level of his play. It’s not fair to compare him to Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger, two quarterbacks with three Super Bowl rings between them. But Rodgers and Roethlisberger have both delivered behind suspect offensive lines. It’s true that both QBs have had better weapons around them but the point is that Bradford needs to elevate his teammates. He succeeded as a rookie because Pat Shurmur built an offense that focused on short to intermediate routes that allowed Bradford to get the ball out of his hand quickly. Last season Josh McDaniels nearly got Bradford killed because he continued to call five and seven-step drops even though his receivers couldn’t get open and his offensive line couldn’t protect. This season the focus is back on Steven Jackson and the ground attack, as well as the short passing game. So can Bradford make significant strides in his development or will he give his detractors more fuel? The jury is still out.

3. Luck continues to impress.
Back in April the media fawned over how the Colts drafted two tight ends in Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen for No. 1 pick Andrew Luck. “Tight end is a young quarterback’s friend,” is what everyone said, which is true. But what’s interesting is that Luck hasn’t even used his tight ends in preseason. Fleener does have four catches for 38 yards but both he and Allen were shut out on Saturday against the Redskins. Even in the face of poor pass protection and having to learn the nuances of the pro game Luck hasn’t been afraid to throw to his receivers. (Donnie Avery finished with six receptions for 38 yards after being targeted seven times on Saturday while Reggie Wayne caught six of his seven targets for 41 yards.) The Colts don’t have enough pieces to be a threat this season but thanks to Luck they will be more competitive. He continues to stand tall in the pocket, step into all of his throws, and display accuracy and touch on his passes. Expectations should be tempered but the Colts have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen thus far.

4. Concerns continue to grow in Chicago.
The problem with the Tampa 2 defense is that if the front four can’t generate pressure then there’s a lot of holes that opposing quarterbacks can exploit. Fortunately for the Bears they’ve had a player in Brian Urlacher who has manned the all-important MIKE linebacker position for the past decade and they’ve been able to drum up consistent pressure under Smith. But Urlacher’s health will likely be a concern all season and the team just placed free safety Brandon Hardin on injured reserve with a neck injury. With Chris Conte (shoulder) questionable for Week 1, Chicago could have a growing issue in the middle of their defense. It’s imperative that pass rusher Julius Peppers not regress because if he does, opposing quarterbacks will have a field day picking on Nick Roach (Urlacher’s backup) and the safeties.

5. The Lions are seemingly walking a thin line when it comes to health.
Detroit fans should be excited about the possibility that the Lions will make back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since the mid-90s. But their players continue to drop like flies this offseason. Matthew Stafford (hand), Kevin Smith (ankle), Chris Houston (ankle) and Bill Bentley (shoulder) were all injured in the team’s third preseason game on Saturday. Louis Delmas, Mikel Leshoure and Jahvid Best were already dealing with injuries or have just recovered from injuries that occurred before last night’s game. Thus, it’s fair to ask whether or not the Lions will be able to stay healthy enough all season in order to compete with the Packers and Bears in the division. Remember, Detroit would have likely missed the playoffs last season had Jay Cutler and Matt Forte not been injured down the stretch. Thanks to Stafford, Calvin Johnson and that outstanding vertical passing game, the Lions remain a threat in the NFC. But this wasn’t a team that steamrolled into the playoffs last year. Questions remain on the defensive side of the ball, specifically in the secondary, and the offense is without a reliable running game at the moment. Outside of the 2010 Green Bay Packers (who were the sixth seed that year, don’t forget), teams that are usually riddled with injuries early in the year don’t have what it takes to make a deep run. It’ll be interesting to see if Detroit can get guys healthy and avoid future scares.

6. Can the Titans establish an identity?
The Texans are the class of the AFC South and they might even be the class of the entire conference, with apologies to the Patriots and Ravens. But the Titans have enough talent to make things interesting in the division if Jake Locker can improve on his accuracy. I like that Tennessee has installed Run ‘N Shoot elements in the offense and thanks to Locker’s arm strength, this team will strike for big plays throughout the year. Chris Johnson should also have a bounce back campaign if the offensive line can do a better job run-blocking and the defense is decent despite the losses of Cortland Finnegan and James Jones. But who are the Titans? Locker has a couple of nice weapons in Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright, but Britt is always in trouble or hurt and Wright is still a rookie. So are they a run-first team? The defense doesn’t have a huge weakness but it also doesn’t have a reliable strength either. What is the identity on defense? I could see Tennessee winning eight or nine games this season but at some point they’re going to need to figure out who they are under Munchak or they’ll remain the definition of blasé and questions will pop up throughout the year.

7. The Cardinals should kick the tires on Hasselbeck.
Since John Skelton couldn’t create any separation between himself and Kevin Kolb in the team’s fourth preseason game, it looks like Kolb is going to win Arizona’s starting quarterback job based on his inflated salary. It’s fair to point out that the Cardinals’ offensive line has been a disaster for the past three weeks and that has played into Kolb’s shaky preseason performance. But let’s not make excuses for him: He’s been brutal. Not that Tennessee has any interest in trading its most valuable backup, but if I’m Arizona I’m at least picking up the phone and seeing what the Titans would want for Matt Hasselbeck. No quarterback is going to succeed behind that offensive line but at least Hasselbeck is a savvy veteran that can get the ball out of his hands quickly and be a ball distributor. That’s all the Cardinals really need because they have enough specialty players. I’m sure Hasselbeck will remain in Tennessee but if the Cardinals are interested in a veteran QB (and why wouldn’t they be?), then the former Seahawk would be an interesting fit.

8. The rich have gotten richer.
Three weeks ago it looked like Cedric Benson wasn’t going to play in 2012 because nobody wanted anything to do with him. But then James Starks struggled in camp and preseason, and Alex Green was slow to recover from ACL surgery. Thus, Benson winds up in Green Bay…and he looks good. Against the Bengals on Thursday night, the guy ran like he was angry at the ground. He was quick, he was spry, he was incredibly motivated. He doesn’t need to be Adrian Peterson or Maurice Jones-Drew in that Green Bay offense. The Cedric Benson that rushed for 1,000 yards last year will do. Because of the Packers’ up-tempo, no-huddle offense, Benson will face plenty of soft defensive fronts so as long as he’s consistent from week to week, he’s going to make a larger impact for Green Bay than people think.

9. The Bucs are still a year away.
Thanks in large part to Josh Freeman and an opportunistic defense, Tampa Bay surprised in 2010. Even though Freeman and Co. fell off a cliff last season, optimism began to grow for the Bucs when they hired former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano to replace Raheem Morris. (The front office finally opened their checkbook this offseason too, signing Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks.) But the defensive front seven remains a weakness and Freeman doesn’t look comfortable in Mike Sullivan’s offense yet. Through three preseason games he’s completed just 52.9-percent of his passes and has relied mostly on checkdowns. There’s no question the Bucs will be more competitive this year than last, because they’ll rely on Schiano’s power run game to eat up the clock and keep games close. But losing OG Davin Joseph to a season-ending injury doesn’t help and the Saints and Falcons simply have more overall depth and talent in the division.

10. The Davis trade is good for both sides.
Earlier this week Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted that a trade was coming and as it turns out, he was telling the truth. Indy acquired cornerback Vontae Davis from the Dolphins in exchange for a second-round and conditional sixth-round draft pick in 2013. Chuck Pagano brought Baltimore’s defense to Indianapolis when he was hired by the Colts earlier this year. And for his defense to ultimately succeed, Pagano knew he had to acquire a corner that could play press-man. Last week the Colts traded for Josh Gordy of the Rams, but Indy still lacked a defensive back that can be physical at the line of scrimmage and compete on an island. Davis can be that player, although he’s far from justifying his first-round talent. On the other side, the Dolphins weakened their secondary but Davis had already lost his starting job to Richard Marshall and wasn’t a fit in Kevin Coyle’s system. Considering they’re not going to compete this season, the Dolphins got good value in exchange for a player that they no longer viewed as a starter.

2012 NFL Conference Championships Primer

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco comes to the line during the third quarter against the Houston Texans at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland on January 15, 2012. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Ravens @ Patriots, 3:00PM ET, Sunday
Call me old fashioned but I think this game will come down to the play of the quarterbacks. Joe Flacco usually doesn’t have to throw for many yards because Baltimore’s defense limits the production of the opposing offense. But what if Tom Brady and Co. is firing on all cylinders this Sunday? What if the Patriots do the unthinkable and draw the Ravens into a shootout? Can Flacco beat Brady in a wildfire?

If the Patriots were smart, they’d use the Chargers’ 34-14 Week 15 beat down of the Ravens as a blueprint to beat Baltimore. In that game, Philip Rivers got the ball out of his hand quickly, attacked Baltimore down field and thus, never allowed the Ravens’ fierce pass rush to get into a rhythm. If Baltimore, which led the league in sacks this season, can’t get to the quarterback then its defense can become ordinary. In their 12 wins this season, the Ravens sacked the quarterback 43 times. In their four losses, they got to the opposing signal caller just five times. Considering New England has one of the better offensive lines in the game, it’s not unfathomable that the Ravens will have trouble defensively this weekend.

Which leads me back to Flacco. Can he be the quarterback that threw for 300 yards and led the Ravens to that great fourth-quarter comeback in Pittsburgh this season? Or will he succumb to the pressure of trying to go toe-to-toe with Brady? Nobody will confuse New England’s defense with San Francisco’s but the Patriots did harass Tim Tebow last weekend. If they’re able to take away Ray Rice and Torrey Smith like Houston did last week, will Flacco step up?

Baltimore has often been a match up problem for New England. But the Patriots seem hell bent on getting back to the Super Bowl so it’s probably safe to say that the Ravens will get New England’s best effort this weekend.

New York Giants QB Eli Manning (10) cranks back to throw a long pass against the San Francisco 49ers in the second half at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on November 13, 2011. The 49ers defeated the Giants 27-20. UPI/Terry Schmitt

Giants @ 49ers, 6:30PM ET, Sunday
With all due respect to the other contenders still left in the playoff field, the Giants are probably the most complete team remaining. The Patriots have the better offense and the 49ers have the better defense, but the Giants aren’t far off in either category. They also have a better quarterback in Eli Manning than the Ravens have in Joe Flacco, the latter of which has been highly inconsistent this season.

But the question is whether or not the Giants have started to read their own press clippings. As I’ve written before on this site, the G-Men are the perfect underdog. When their backs are pressed firmly against the wall and they believe that it’s them against the world, they beat teams like the Packers and Patriots (multiple times, in fact). When they’re well aware that they’re the favorite, they’re liable to lose to inferior opponents like Washington, Seattle or a Michael Vick-less Philadelphia team. The Giants are just weird that way.

That said, New York has very few weaknesses. They finished dead last in rushing during the regular season but the duo of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs looks much more potent now that at any time this year. When he protects the football, Eli is tough to beat and he has a trio of wide receivers in Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham that can win individual matchups in coverage. If the defense has a weakness, it’s in the secondary but the pass rush is so good that it masks the holes in the backfield. Yes, the Giants are a complete team.

But let’s pay a little respect to the 49ers, who knocked off a team in the Saints that many people believed was unstoppable. Led by Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Carlos Rogers and rookie Aldon Smith, the Niners don’t have many weaknesses defensively (if any). And while they don’t have as many weapons offensively as the Giants do, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis have proven that they can take over games this season.

The Niners also have home field advantage and have already beaten the Giants once this season (27-20 in Week 10). So again, if the Giants think they’re going to breeze in and out of San Francisco on its way to Indianapolis, they better pause to re-focus. They’ll have to earn what they get this weekend.

2012 NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hit Reactions from Texans vs. Ravens

In what turned out to be a battle of strength on strength, the Ravens outlasted the Texans in Sunday’s Divisional round playoffs. Here are some quick-hit reactions from Baltimore’s 20-13 victory.

Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice runs against the Houston Texans during the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland on January 15, 2012. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

– If it weren’t for the final score, you would have thought Houston dominated this game. The Texans absolutely owned the trenches, which was never more apparent then when they stuffed Ray Rice on a fourth-and-goal attempt from the 1-yard line during the fourth quarter. Rice looked like he ran full force into a brick wall on that play, and never got going throughout the day as he was held to just 60 yards on 21 carries. Even though Houston’s season is over, the job Wade Phillips did re-shaping the defense cannot be overstated. His defensive unit kept the Texans in the game throughout the entire second half.

– One thing that will be overlooked because of the final score is the job Jonathan Joesph did on Torrey Smith. The Houston corner completely took Smith out of the game, which limited what Baltimore could do in the vertical passing game. Because of this, Joe Flacco was sacked five times and largely settled for short passes aside from one 30-yard completion to Lee Evans. Granted, Evans and Anquan Boldin still combined for 103 receiving yards and a touchdown, but the Ravens’ offense wasn’t very effective as a whole. It’s ironic to think that Houston desperately wanted Nnamdi Asomugha this offseason and then “settled” for Joseph, who wound up having the much better season.

– How can you not love Arian Foster? I thought Baltimore would shut him down and all he did was man up to the tune of 132 yards on 27 carries. He essentially put the Texans’ offense on his back and said, “Follow me.” He ran with purpose, determination, and a hell of a lot of heart. I wasn’t excited to get another helping of T.J. Yates in this year’s playoffs but I could watch Foster run every day. Houston needs to pay the man this offseason. (He’s an impending restricted free agent.)

– My comment about T.J. Yates in the paragraph above wasn’t intended to be a knock on the rookie, who has done an incredible job for the Texans given the circumstances. It’s just painfully obvious that Houston’s offense is limited with him under center and as a football fan I would rather see Baltimore have a crack at New England than a Yates-led Texans team. (Sorry, Houston.) That said, Yates did lead a couple of impressive drives today, but the Ravens were always there when he made mistakes. Like most rookie quarterbacks, Yates has a habit of locking onto receivers and at this level, you’re going to be in trouble when you telegraph passes. (Look at Yates’ pass attempt that Ed Reed intercepted to essentially seal the win for Baltimore.) Still, it was quite the season for the youngster out of North Carolina, who has already blossomed into a solid backup for Houston.

– X-rays came back negative on Ed Reed’s ankle, which is obviously huge for Baltimore’s defense. The injury, which Reed suffered on Houston’s final offensive play, looked serious when it first happened. But it looks like the Ravens will have their All-Pro safety next week for Tom Brady and Co.

Ravens-Patriots next week at Foxboro? Sign me the f#&k up. When you consider the matchup problems that Baltimore’s defense gives New England, it’s going to be a great game.

Sunday Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 11 in the NFL

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

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler warms up before the game against the San Diego Chargers at Soldier Field on November 20, 2011 in Chicago. UPI/Brian Kersey

– December 25th – mark it down. That’s the day the Bears get their rematch with the Packers and it’s going to be a spectacle to watch. There might not be a team playing with more confidence right now than Chicago, which hasn’t lost since its ugly effort in Detroit on Monday Night Football back in early October. Jay Cutler didn’t light the stat sheet on fire today but he made big plays all day. And his lone mistake (an interception to Antoine Cason), wasn’t a mistake at all because Johnny Knox slipped on the play. Besides, the Bear defense picked off Philip Rivers in the end zone on the next possession, basically nullifying Cason’s interception. With guys like Cutler, Matt Forte and Devin Hester, as well as a physical, unrelenting defense, the Bears look playoff ready…

…whoops! Talk about timing. About a millisecond after writing that paragraph I saw a report that Jay Cutler’s season might be over due to a fractured right throwing thumb. If that’s the case, then the Bears could be finished. Caleb Hanie has had his moments, such as leading Chicago to a touchdown on his first series against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game last year. But as B.J. Raji’s interception in that same game can attest to, Hanie is also very inexperienced. If Cutler is indeed out (he’ll undergo more tests on Monday), then his injury dramatically changes the Bears’ offense (and season, for that matter).

– The Falcons would be foolish not to keep Matt Ryan in the no-huddle from here on out. Atlanta ran its no-huddle almost exclusively today in its 23-17 victory over the Titans and Ryan had is second-highest QB rating of the season (110.9), threw for over 300 yards for only the fourth time all year, and didn’t throw an interception for only the third time in 10 games. While they did have issues inside the red zone (they settled for three field goals and Michael Turner coughed the ball up once to allow Tennessee to get back into the game), the Falcons only punted twice in the victory. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has been hesitant to run the no-huddle on a full-time basis but it’s the offense that Ryan is clearly most comfortable running.

Jake Locker showed why he was once considered a slam-dunk No. 1 overall draft pick. Matt Hasselbeck has done a fantastic job managing games for Tennessee this year but Locker sparked a punchless offense and nearly brought the Titans back from 20 points down in the second half. He only completed 9-of-19 passes but those nine completions went for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He also picked up a first down with an 11-yard rush on a third-and-long and showed good zip on most of his passes. Mike Munchak already backed Hasselbeck as the starter in his post-game press conference but with Matt Schaub now out for the year in Houston, it might be time for Tennessee to roll the dice with the kid. Locker was fun to watch today.

– I watched Chris Johnson very closely today and from my point of view, there’s nothing wrong with him. He just doesn’t have anywhere to run as Tennessee’s run blocking is abysmal. Atlanta’s run defense is very sound but Johnson was bottled up almost immediately after receiving the hand off.

Blaine Gabbert threw for 210 yards and didn’t turn the ball over in the Jaguars’ 14-10 loss to the Browns. He also threw a perfectly placed ball that Jason Hill couldn’t haul in with three seconds remaining in the game that could have won it for Jacksonville. But Gabbert’s overthrow to a wide-open (and I mean WIDE-OPEN) Hill in the end zone with just under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter really cost Jacksonville a huge opportunity to tie the game at 14-14. Those are the types of plays that Gabbert hasn’t been making all season. Now, he’s only a rookie and deserves time to develop. But I firmly believe that Jacksonville screwed up by releasing David Garrard and forcing Gabbert onto the field before he was ready. The kid should be holding a clipboard right now.

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten hugs kicker Dan Bailey after Bailey kicked a game winning 39-yard field goal in overtime against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Washington on November 20, 2011. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

– I’m sorry, I know a win is a win and they very well could wind up being tied for first in the NFC East before the night is over (the Giants are currently losing to the Eagles as I type). But that was not a very impressive win by the Cowboys today. The Redskins’ offense has been putrid for over a month and the Cowboys were one 52-yard field goal by Graham Gano away from losing. Jason Witten and Tony Romo made some great plays today and hey, divisional games are usually close. But count me among the people who keep waiting for the ‘Boys to put together that signature win and yet, it still hasn’t come. I picked the Cowboys to win the NFC East this year so I’m not surprised that they’re 6-4. It’s just not a very impressive 6-4 to me.

Andy Dalton made some big mistakes today, which included throwing three interceptions and being flagged for intentional grounding on the Bengals’ final possession. But it’s clear that he and Cincinnati have a very bright future. This was a team that was without its best offensive playmaker (A.J. Green) and its top cornerback (Leon Hall) and still hung with the Ravens on their home field. On paper, Baltimore should have cruised to victory and it almost did. But thanks to Dalton and the Bengals’ perseverance, they had a chance to at least tie the game in the closing minutes. Assuming Dalton doesn’t go backwards from here, I see no reason why the Bengals won’t continue to challenge the Ravens and the Steelers in the AFC North.

– It was good to see Cam Cameron let it rip today. Sometimes the Ravens’ offense looks like a Ferrari but drives like a Pinto. Joe Flacco took a couple of deep shots, Ray Rice was heavily involved and Torrey Smith (6 receptions, 165 yards, 1 TD) had a breakout performance. Speaking of Smith, if he maintains his confidence week in and week out, he’s going to be a star in this league. That 49-yard catch that he hauled in today was a thing of beauty.

– If I’m a Lions fan I’m ecstatic that my team scored 49 points as Matthew Stafford threw for five touchdowns and Kevin Smith rushed for 140 yards and two scores. But I would be extremely concerned about the number of times they’ve had to stage a big comeback because they’ve dug themselves a huge hole in the first half. Three of the Lions’ seven wins this year (Dallas, Minnesota and Carolina) have come after they’ve fallen behind by 20 points or more and while it’s impressive that they’ve been able to persevere, it would be more impressive if they figured out a way to play four quarters more consistently. Because this is obviously a very dangerous team when they’re firing on all cylinders.

Cam Newton is extremely fun to watch and he’s making a lot of pundits look very stupid for doubting him (and the Panthers for that matter) back in April. That said, he certainly helped his team lose today. Carolina’s defense turned in a brutal second-half effort against Detroit but Newton’s inaccuracy was a major issue as well. He often missed high to his receivers and wound up throwing four interceptions in the loss. Recklessness simply can’t be a part of his game.

Kellen Winslow (9 receptions, 132 yards, 1 TD) had a monster game but he cost the Bucs’ twice in their 35-26 loss to the Packers. First he was flagged for an obvious pass interference call in the end zone on a third-and-3 from the Packers’ 4-yard-line, which led to a Tampa Bay field goal instead of a potential touchdown early in the third quarter. Then he dropped a pass on a two-point conversation attempt that would have tied the game at 21-21 early in the fourth. Granted, the Bucs’ defense couldn’t come up with that one big stop in the fourth but they were also trailing by nine points virtually that entire quarter because of Winslow’s mistakes. Still, Tampa certainly gave Green Bay all it could handle. There are no moral victories but the Bucs finally showed some punch on offense (including LeGarrette Blount’s unbelievable touchdown run).

– All of those weapons on offense and the Packers’ first two touchdowns today came on a 1-yard B.J. Raji run and a Tom Crabtree five-yard reception, respectively. As if opposing defenses don’t have enough to worry about when it comes to Green Bay, now they have to try and tackle 337 pounds of B.J. Raji and defend some guy named Tom Crabtree.

– Want to know the biggest reason why the previously 0-7 Dolphins have won three games in a row? Try the fact that they haven’t allowed a touchdown in 12 quarters now. Miami’s defense absolutely stifled the Bills today, allowing just 41 rushing yards in a 35-8 rout. They also stuffed Buffalo at the goal line early in the fourth quarter and intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. And who needs Andrew Luck? Matt Moore has thrown six touchdowns in his last three games.

– Somebody stick a fork in the Bills because they’re done. They made believers out of a lot of people earlier in the year but they’ve looked absolutely horrendous the last three weeks. Do you think the front office is regretting signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to that extension? He signed his new deal on October 28, beat the Redskins two days later and hasn’t won since.

– His play is indicative of a rookie quarterback but Christian Ponder is absolutely maddening to watch sometimes. One minute he’s using his athleticism to make a big throw downfield and the next he’s literally throwing the ball directly to a defender (see his interception to Stanford Routt in the fourth quarter today). He did extremely well to lead the Vikings from 20 points down against the Raiders without Adrian Peterson (who left the game early with an injury), but Ponder made some really bad decisions. Again, this is what you expect out of a rookie but he’s liable to make Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave insane.

– Some teams don’t have one capable starter at running back and Oakland has two. It must be nice when Darren McFadden goes down with an injury to have Michael Bush step in and take his place. Bush has lifted the Raiders into sole possession of first place in the AFC West the past two weeks. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the Chargers are absolutely imploding.

San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh (R) discusses a call with Line Judge John Hussey during play against the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on November 20, 2011. The 49ers defeated the Cardinals 23-7. UPI/Terry Schmitt

– Perhaps the most impressive thing about Jim Harbaugh is not the fact that he has gotten Alex Smith to play well or that the Niners’ defense is one of the best in the league. Albeit, those things are impressive but not nearly as impressive as the focus and discipline that he’s instilled in this San Francisco team. The Niners were a talented squad under Mike Singletary but the problem was that he was completely overmatched as a football tactician. And because he was so overmatched both on and off the field, his team began falling apart at the seams. But under Harbaugh, the Niners have played sound football, don’t beat themselves and not once have they been caught looking ahead. With a Thanksgiving Day matchup with his brother’s Ravens coming up in just four days, Harbaugh and the Niners could have easily overlooked Arizona today. Instead, they nearly shut the Cardinals out. Again, under Harbaugh they’ve been highly impressive.

– Considering how brutal their schedule was in the first half and the amount of injuries they’ve had to suffer through (particularly in the defensive backfield), it’s not surprising to see the Rams sitting with only two wins. That said, that’s a pitiful football team they have in St. Louis and if Billy Devaney doesn’t have a better offseason than the one he did this past year, the Rams will continue to lose. Devaney better find some gems in next year’s draft; I’m talking about finding a couple of guys that can make an impact right away or else both he and Steve Spagnuolo will be out of jobs very soon.

– I just can’t wrap my head around the play of Philip Rivers this year. This can’t be the same guy who almost single-handedly kept the Chargers in the playoff hunt last year without his top two playmakers. It just can’t. The interception he threw at the end of the game to Corey Graham was one of the worst throwaway attempts I’ve ever seen. And this came after Major Wright picked him off earlier in the quarter when San Diego’s defense put the Chargers in great field position with an interception of their own. Brutal. Philip Rivers has been brutal this year.

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