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Jets to try and trade Sanchez? Good luck.
ESPN's Adam Schefter suggested on NFL Live that the Jets will look to trade Mark Sanchez before Week 1 if Geno Smith shows that he's ready to play as a rookie. To that, I reply: Good luck. Teams won't want to take on the $8.5 million in guaranteed money that Sanchez is currently owed on his contract. (And if some team does then its just as insane as the Jets were for taking Sanchez with the fifth overall pick in the 2009 draft.) The NFL is a quarterback-driven league and there are a plenty of quarterback-needy teams around. But there are only a handful of quarterbacks in the NFL that can elevate the talent around them and Sanchez isn't one of them. He's a consistently average signal-caller that buckles under pressure and can't avoid making costly mistakes. Any team that would be willing to part with draft picks and $8.5 million in guaranteed money is likely desperate for a quarterback because its roster is devoid of talent. How is Sanchez going to make a losing situation better? He'd be better off going to a team that already has an established starter so that he can be the backup.
Titus Young needs help.
You don't need to be a shrink to realize that Titus Young needs serious help after he was arrested yet again in California last Friday. That makes three arrests in less than a week for the embattled wide receiver, who was released by the Rams back in February less than two weeks after he was claimed off waivers from the Lions. His father says that his son has a disorder that causes his brain to be compressed against the front of his skull and that Titus hasn't been taking his prescribed medication. Forget football - this kid needs serious help. And somebody better give him that help before he winds up hurting himself or someone else (again).
The Chiefs made an interesting hire.
According to Dan Hinxman of the Reno Gazette-Journal, Chris Ault has agreed to a consultant position with the Chiefs. Why is this noteworthy? Because Ault is known as the guru of the 'pistol offense,' which had great success when he was the head coach at Nevada from 2004 to when he retired last December. Andy Reid runs the West Coast, but one would surmise that he's ready to open up his playbook to incorporate the pistol formation, which could benefit running back Jamaal Charles. (I can't imagine that Alex Smith would run the read-option on a consistent basis, although he has more mobility than people give him credit for.)
Did the Bills shift Nix out of the GM role too late?
Buddy Nix has had a rough go of things in Buffalo since taking over the mantle of general manager in 2010. Hindsight is always 20/20 but he's made a handful of questionable decisions over the years, including overpaying Ryan Fitzpatrick and passing on the likes of Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson in previous drafts. Less than a month after he helped the Bills land former Florida State signal-caller E.J. Manuel to help run Doug Marrone's offense, Nix will step away from his role as GM and transition to Special Assistant. It's widely assumed that Buffalo will hand the GM role over to Doug Whaley, the Assistant General Manager and Director of Player Personnel. If Manuel doesn't pan out, Bills fans will be left wondering why the team's front office didn't move Nix out of the role much sooner.
Will Carimi even make Chicago's roster?
The Bears seemingly landed a steal in the 2011 NFL Draft when they plucked Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi off the board with the 29th overall pick. But as it turns out, the former Badger was just the latest in a long line of brutal first-round picks by ex-GM Jerry Angelo. Carimi missed nearly all of his rookie season with a knee injury and when he came back in 2012, he was brutal. Now it appears he might not even make the 2013 roster after he was a no-show for the first day of Chicago's OTAs on Monday. The workouts aren't mandatory, but one would think that a player on the roster bubble would want to show a new coaching staff that he isn't the gigantic bust that everyone believes him to be.
Five rookies that could make an impact from Day 1 in the NFL
Making an impact at a new job is as much about opportunities as it is talent, hard work and dedication. Based on talent, skill set and yes, opportunity, here are five rookies that could make an impact from Day 1 in the NFL.
Tavon Austin, WR, Rams
One year after the Jaguars leapfrogged them for the opportunity to snag Justin Blackmon, the Rams foiled the Jets' plan to select West Virginia sparkplug Tavon Austin in the first round of the 2013 draft by trading up to No. 8 (one spot ahead of New York). Jeff Fisher doesn't strike me as someone who would go to great lengths to acquire a player if he didn't plan to use him right away. Much like Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb, the Rams figure to use Austin as a moveable chess piece in Brian Schottenheimer's offense. Whether it's in the slot, the backfield or as a returner, Austin will be heavily utilized this season. And thanks to the different skill sets that guys like Austin, Jared Cook and Chris Givens bring to the table, opponents may have a difficult time matching personal with the Rams' playmakers this season.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Last year it was telling how badly the Texans needed another offensive playmaker, not only in their Divisional Round loss to the Patriots, but four weeks prior when they were beaten badly at home by the Vikings in Week 16. Andre Johnson caught seven passes for 97 yards but failed to rip the top off the defense with one big play, and Minnesota did a great job limiting tight end Owen Daniels to just three catches for 27 yards. While DeVier Posey was targeted six times, he caught just one pass for a miniscule six yards and Matt Schaub was held to under 180 yards passing for only the second time all season. (He was also held to 95 yards against the Bears in Week 10 due to sloppy conditions.) Enter DeAndre Hopkins, Houston's first-round pick in 2013. Hopkins has drawn comparisons to Roddy White and Rod Smith for his route running ability and ball skills. He doesn't have elite speed but that won't limit him from creating separation thanks in large part to his excellent technique. A projected starter from Day 1, he should flourish playing opposite Johnson in Gary Kubiak's offense. (One could also surmise that he'll post better production than fellow rookie receivers Robert Woods, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson based on projected quarterback play alone.)
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Bell has already drawn praise from offensive coordinator Todd Haley for his ability to be a three down back and "workhorse" runner, and he figures to play a large roll in the Steelers' revamped running game because of his pass-catching ability. (He caught 67 passes for 434 yards with one touchdown at Michigan State.) He's also durable and versatile in that he's not only a north-south runner, but he has the ability to attack the edge as well. Largely mistaken as a "bruiser" entering the 2013 draft, there's fluidity to Bell's game. With no elite competition in Pittsburgh's backfield, he has an opportunity to post instant production as a rookie.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, Browns
Last year, Les Miles and his coaching staff at LSU asked Mingo to play contain more than he did the season before when he racked up eight sacks and 15 tackles for loss. The new role crippled his production, as his sack number dropped to 4.5 and his tackles for loss fell to 8.5. At 237 pounds, it's unlikely that Mingo will hold up against the run but the Browns figure to use him like the Seahawks utilized 2012 first-rounder Bruce Irvin last year: As a pass-rushing maven. Mingo is an athletic marvel and if Cleveland turns him loose as a rookie, don't rule out a six or seven-sack season. (Irvin finished with eight sacks last year after pundits ripped Seattle for taking him in the first round.) Unless he adds weight, Mingo will struggle when opponents run straight at him. But as a DPR, he should turn heads as a rookie.
Matt Elam, S, Ravens
Elam projects as the starting safety opposite Michael Huff in Baltimore's defense, much like Eric Reid figures to start as a rookie for the 49ers. But Elam has better ball skills and more playmaking ability than Reid, who looks stiff in coverage and isn't always quick to break on passes. Elam's short but he hits like a MAC truck and has the versatility to be an interchangeable safety in Dean Pees' scheme. Don't rule out a 100-tackle season for the former Florida Gator, who also has the ball skills to snag a few interceptions as well.
+ Many of the offensive linemen taken in the first round also figure to make an immediate impact for their respective teams, but I left out players like Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel because it's hard to quantify production for O-linemen.
+ I left off defensive linemen because it's rare that they make huge impacts as rookies, although Bruce Irvin was the exception to the rule. One of the reasons for their limited production is because they quickly find out that the pass-rushing moves they used in college don't work against NFL offensive linemen.
+ Some might wonder why I left Jarvis Jones off this list and the reason is simple: Dick LeBeau's scheme is complicated to learn. It usually takes first timers to the defense a half or even full season to pick up. Players have talked about being lost in their first year but by season two they feel more comfortable. Thus, look for Jones to potentially make an impact in 2014 for the Steelers.
Surely all of these picks will be correct on Thursday night…surely.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
There has been plenty of pre-draft speculation that the Chiefs will select Central Michigan's Eric Fisher with this pick and maybe they will. But GM John Dorsey will ultimately have the final say and he has a history of taking big school prospects. Whether it's Joeckel or Fisher, expect the Chiefs to select an offensive tackle first overall.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
Dion Jordan is a logical (and popular) pick for the Jaguars because they finished with 20 sacks last season, which is a brutal stat. But the bottom line is that this is a quarterback-driven league and neither David Caldwell nor Gus Bradley were around when the former regime took Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick in 2011. Would I take Geno Smith this high? No. But Caldwell and Bradley might set the tone in their first draft by taking who they believe is a franchise signal-caller.
3. Detroit Lions: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan (PROJECTED TRADE W/OAKLAND)
Martin Mayhew tried and failed to land top cornerback prospects Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne the past two years, so there's a possibility the Lions will stay at No. 5 and take Alabama's Dee Milliner. But following the retirement of Jeff Backus and the departure of Gosder Cherilus (FA/Colts), the Lions can't pass on addressing their need at left tackle. Fisher has as much upside as any offensive lineman in this draft, which includes Luke Joeckel. With the Jaguars passing on Fisher in this mock, the Lions swap picks with the Raiders to ensure that they land their left tackle of the future.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
The Eagles could go in a variety of ways here, including Oregon's Dion Jordan or even Florida's Sharrif Floyd if he's available. But Jason Peters is coming off an Achilles injury and he's set to make $10 million in 2014. Johnson is the most athletic offensive tackle in this year's draft, which makes him a fit for Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense. The Eagles could slide Todd Herremans inside to guard and have Johnson start at right tackle until they're ready to part ways with Peters.
5. Oakland Raiders: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida (PROJECTED TRADE W/ DETROIT)
The Raiders need more draft picks after Hue Jackson foolishly gave up a ransom to acquire Carson Palmer from Cincinnati two years ago. Thus, they make a logical trade partner for any team looking to move up in the top 10. But whether they trade out of the No. 3 spot or not, Floyd is a solid fit. He gives them the interior defensive line help that they desperately need following the departures of Desmond Bryant and Tommy Kelly.
6. Cleveland Browns: Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon
Unless the Browns intend to start career backup Christopher Owens opposite Joe Haden in their secondary, then cornerback remains a priority. Outside linebacker isn't a pressing need for Cleveland but when it comes to a pass-rusher with unlimited upside versus a No. 2 corner, there is no debate for NFL teams. Jordan may not slide out of the top 5 but if he does, the Browns would be hard pressed to pass on the versatile Duck.
7. Arizona Cardinals: Barkevious Mingo, OLB, LSU
If Lane Johnson slides to the Cardinals at this spot, then he's the most logical choice. In D'Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie, Arizona had the worst offensive tackle tandem in the league last year so upgrading their line should be a priority. But with Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson off the board, the Cardinals could address their need at pass rusher with Mingo, who is an athletic freak. There's some question whether the svelte Mingo will hold up against the run but for now, Arizona can use him as a designated pass rusher against the likes of Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.
8. Buffalo Bills: E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib has been a popular pick for the Bills either at this spot or in the second round because of his connection to new head coach Doug Marrone. But Manuel is the better overall prospect and he's the best fit in this year's draft class to run the read-option (which Marrone plans to utilize in his offense). The Bills could use Kevin Kolb as a bridge player this year and turn the keys to Marrone's offense over to Manuel next season.
9. New York Jets: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
If the season were to start today, Rex Ryan’s edge rushers would be Garrett McIntyre and Antwan Barnes. Thus, while receiver, running back and quarterback are all holes for the Jets, they can’t head into next season without addressing their need for edge rushers. Ansah is versatile in that he lined up both inside and outside at BYU, and has the ability to stand up as an edge rusher as well.
10. Tennessee Titans: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
Everyone expects the Titans to draft a guard with this pick but after they signed Andy Levitre to a massive free agent deal, defensive end becomes a bigger need. Thus, if Ezekiel Ansah were to fall to this spot, he would be a logical selection. But with all of the top pass-rushers coming off the board in this mock (save for Florida State's Bjorn Werner), the Titans take the best defensive back available in Milliner. He's the type of press man corner that Tennessee is seeking and his medical history could scare off teams like Cleveland, which has been a popular landing spot for Milliner in other mocks.
11. San Diego Chargers: Menelik Watson, OT, Florida State
Many draftniks will view this pick as a major reach but I'm willing to bet that Watson's name will be read by Roger Goodell far sooner than people expect. There's a team out there that has already fallen in love with his size (6'6", 320 pounds) and will undoubtedly pull him off the board before he's projected to go. Is that team the Chargers? Outside of cornerback and linebacker, there is no bigger need in San Diego than offensive tackle, so it's certainly a possibility.
12. Miami Dolphins: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
I'm making this pick based on the assumption that the Dolphins will acquire OT Branden Albert before the draft. Miami signed Brent Grimes to a one-year deal but he's coming off an Achilles injury that wiped out most of his 2012 season and there's an opening that was created when Sean Smith signed with Kansas City. If the Dolphins don't trade for Albert, then Watson could be the selection at No. 12 and Rhodes could be San Diego's pick at No. 11.
13. New York Jets: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Tavon Austin and Tyler Eifert are definite possibilities at this pick but the Jets lost LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell in free agency and thus, safety is a huge need as well. Rex Ryan has yet to find a long-term solution at safety since taking the New York job in 2009, but the versatile Vaccaro could be the answer.
14. Carolina Panthers: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
The Panthers have needs at offensive tackle, cornerback and safety, but Richardson is arguably the best player available and would give Carolina's pass-rush a boost. Playing on the same line as Charles Johnson could do wonders for Richardson, who should be a stud as a three-technique tackle.
15. New Orleans Saints: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Jones is hard to project because you don’t know how many teams have flagged him as a medical risk. (He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2009.) But the condition didn’t hinder him in 2012 and despite his poor showing at his Pro Day in March, he certainly stands out as a playmaker on film. The Saints need to give Rob Ryan more edge rushers and the versatile Jones could be used in a multitude of ways.
16. St. Louis Rams: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
The Rams have holes at safety, running back, outside linebacker and guard, but adding offensive playmakers continues to be a priority. After signing tight end Jared Cook in free agency, Austin could provide Brian Schottenheimer and the Rams with another mismatch in the slot. (He also fills an immediate need as a returner.) Many pundits don't believe he'll fall this far but the NFL is still about height, weight and speed. Austin certainly has speed, but his small frame could cause him to fall further than people expect. If he comes off the board to the Jets No. 13 like many suspect, then Alabama's Eddie Lacy and Chance Warmack, North Carolina's Jonathan Cooper, and Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins are all possibilities at this spot.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
The Steelers could go in a variety of directions here, including pass rusher, guard or safety. But after losing Mike Wallace to the Dolphins via free agency, they need to find another weapon to go along with Antonio Brown in their passing attack. Heath Miller blew out his knee in Week 16 last year, tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL in the process. With the 30-year-old due over $5 million in 2013 and $6 million next season, the Steelers could address an immediate and future need with the selection of Eifert (who can attack the seam as well as line up on the outside and challenge cornerbacks with his size and athleticism).
18. Dallas Cowboys: Eric Reid, S, LSU
The Cowboys have needs along both their lines but Jerry Jones loves to draft skill players in the first round. (Not that offensive and defensive linemen aren't skill players in the NFL.) Prospect to prospect, I like Florida's Matt Elam more than I do Reid. But Elam is 5'9" and 208 pounds, while Reid is 6'2" and 213 pounds and can run a 4.53 forty. He fills a need for Dallas and quenches Jones' thirst to add athletic marvels on draft day.
19. New York Giants: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State
Is there a general manager in the league who values defensive ends more than Jerry Reese? With Osi Umenyiora now in Atlanta and Justin Tuck slowing down, Werner gives the Giants youth and upside at their most coveted position. While he's shown a tendency to avoid tackling ball carriers, Werner had no issues getting after the quarterback at Florida State and is arguably the most skilled pass-rusher in this year's draft.
20. Chicago Bears: Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina
Nobody expects Cooper to fall this far but the average slot position for guards over the last 10 years is No. 23. Who thought David DeCastro would fall to the Steelers at pick No. 24 last year? Simply put, guards rarely go as high as everyone thinks they will. Phil Emery is currently paying for past mistakes made by former Chicago GM Jerry Angelo, who missed on former first-round busts Chris Williams and Gabe Carimi. Either Cooper or Alabama's Chance Warmack would offer an instant upgrade over Lance Louis at right guard.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
The Bengals could still wind up re-signing Andre Smith after the draft but if they don't, right tackle becomes a huge need for them. Alec Ogltree or a wide receiver are also options for Cincinnati as well.
22. St. Louis Rams: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
Assuming the Rams take a receiver at No. 16, they could go in a variety of ways with this pick, including guard, outside linebacker and safety. That said, I ultimately envision Jeff Fisher and Les Snead taking Lacy off the board here in efforts to fill the void left by Steven Jackson, and then address their need at safety in the second or third round. A combination of Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson won't cut it for a head coach like Fisher, who wants to pound the ball between the tackles. Would I take Lacy here? No. Quality running backs are found in the middle rounds all the time (see Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew, Michael Turner, Jamaal Charles, Stevan Ridley, Frank Gore and Ray Rice). But I don't get the impression that Fisher is as concerned about the safety position as he is acquiring as many weapons for Sam Bradford as possible.
23. Minnesota Vikings: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
The Vikings did well to sign Greg Jennings in free agency, but they still have a need at receiver following the trade of Percy Harvin to Seattle. Patterson is raw and will need to refine his route-running ability, but he’s also an explosive playmaker when he gets his hands on the ball. If OC Bill Musgrave is creative, he’ll design ways to get Patterson the ball while he learns the nuances of becoming an NFL receiver.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Chance Warmack, G, Alabama
The Colts addressed a lot of their defensive needs in free agency, so turning their attention to their offensive line is logical. While they did sign Donald Thomas in free agency, Indy could out-draft Mike McGlynn with the selection of Warmack or fellow guard Jonathan Cooper.
25. Minnesota Vikings: Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
Te’o could easily slip into the second round because the middle linebacker position just doesn’t hold as much value as it did 10 years ago. It’s a pass-happy league and teams will continue to avoid paying two-down linebackers big money, as well as drafting them high in the first round. But at 23, the Vikings could fill a need with Te’o, who was one of the best defenders in the nation last year despite his lousy performance in the national title game. He could start Week 1 and represents an upgrade over current MLB Marvin Mitchell.
26. Green Bay Packers: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
There's a good chance that Lotulelei won't fall this far but the Packers and Steelers always seem to have top prospects fall into their laps on draft day. Last year nobody thought Stanford guard David DeCastro would slip out of the top 15 and he wound up going to Pittsburgh at No. 24. Nick Perry also fell to Green Bay with the No. 28 overall pick last year and Mississippi State offensive tackle Derek Sherrod wasn't slated to slip to No. 32 in 2011. Lotulelei wasn't one of the 23 prospects invited to Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night. And while that might not mean a damn thing, it also could be an indication that draftniks have the Utah defensive tackle rated too high. Either way, I'm calling my shot: Lotulelei falls further than people think on Thursday night.
27. Houston Texans: Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee
The Texans desperately need a weapon opposite Andre Johnson, which was evident during their postseason run last year. Hunter's 2012 season was marred by a knee injury but he's one of the most explosive receivers in this draft and has as much upside as any prospect slated to go in the first round.
28. Denver Broncos: Datone Jones, DE, UCLA
The Broncos might wind up signing a veteran free agent like Dwight Freeney or John Abraham to address their need at defensive end, but even then they still need a long-term replacement for Elvis Dumervil. Jones might not get past the Giants at No. 19 but if he did, the former Bruin could be a steal at this spot. He has an aggressive style and often wins off the edge with strength and power. He’s also versatile enough to play inside in obvious passing situations.
29. New England Patriots: Keenan Allen, WR, Cal
I'm not convinced that Allen will be a first-round pick but he was highly productive at Cal and might be the best route runner in this year's draft class. New England is always a mystery on draft day thanks to Bill Belichick, but receiver is a need, as is cornerback, defensive end and safety.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington
Plenty of mocks have the Falcons selecting a defensive end at this spot, which makes sense given their need for pass rushers. But they signed Osi Umenyiora in free agency and remain high on undersized pass rusher Kroy Biermann. They also seem to like former mid/late-round picks Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews as well. Thus, the bigger need is at corner following the release of Dunta Robinson. Trufant might be off the board at this spot, but if he’s still available, he has the speed, agility and quickness to be a starter from Day 1. He just needs to be more physical, both in coverage and when defending the run. It'll be interesting to see if the Falcons trade up to get Trufant, or maybe an edge rusher like Bjorn Werner if he falls. (Don't rule out a defensive tackle such as Sheldon Richardson either.)
31. San Francisco 49ers: Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
When Justin Smith tore his triceps in a late-season game against the Patriots last year, the 49ers’ secondary fell apart. But instead of investing a high draft pick in a cornerback, GM Trent Baalke once again went the bargain-bin route by signing Nnamdi Asomugha to a cheap one-year deal. (Baalke made a similar move a couple of years ago when he signed Carlos Rogers off the scrap heap in early August.) It makes sense that the Niners continue to focus on their front seven, and the versatile Hunt would be a nice fit at this spot.
32. Baltimore Ravens: Jonathan Cyprien, S, Florida International
Ozzie Newsome signed Michael Huff in free agency, but the addition of Cyprien could make the Ravens’ safeties interchangeable. They need to find a replacement for Ed Reed and while the safety position is deep in this year’s draft, Baltimore can’t wait to land one seeing as how its picking at the bottom of each round. A linebacker such as Manti Te’o or Kevin Minter also makes sense.
The NFL draft never unravels the way we expect. In the months leading up to the event, we discuss a multitude of scenarios surrounding our favorite teams and yet, there are always a handful of surprises in the first round.
That said, don't be surprised if…
…Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel is selected in the first round.
Out of all of the quarterbacks in this year's draft class, Manuel is the best fit for the read-option (i.e. the NFL's hottest trend). If a team were to take a chance on a quarterback in the first round, it would for Manuel - not USC's Matt Barkley, who doesn't have great arm strength and who is coming off a shoulder injury. While his accuracy and decision making need to improve, Manuel is described as a natural leader with great athleticism, prototypical height and above average arm strength. He's also been invited to attend Radio City Music Hall, indicating that he'll be a top 40 selection.
…the two guards aren't selected in the top 15.
Over the past three months, Chance Warmack and Jonathan Cooper have drawn rave reviews from scouts and draftniks alike. In fact, Warmack is a popular pick for the Titans at No. 10 in most mocks, and Cooper is often listed in the teens. But not many mocks had Stanford's David DeCastro falling out of the top 15 last year and he made it all the way to the Steelers at No. 24 overall. The fact is that teams don't value guards as highly as draftniks do, not even elite prospects like Warmack and Cooper. Since 2004, the average draft position for guards in the first round is pick No. 23.
…Tavon Austin drops out of the top 15.
The NFL is about height, weight and speed. It's why hundreds of grown men flock to Indianapolis every year to pour over measurements and forty-yard dash numbers for nearly a week. There's plenty of buzz that Austin could be selected in the top 15, but his lack of size would suggest otherwise. He's 5'8" and 174 pounds, which is right at the NFL minimum for wide receiver prospects. Granted, his 4.3 speed and playmaking ability make him a surefire first-rounder, but this notion that he'll be taken in the top 10 seems absurd. The Rams have the No. 16 selection. If you're looking for the perfect over/under for Austin's draft projection, start with that number.
…the Dolphins trade into the top 5.
There's been talk about Miami trading into the top 10 but why would Jeff Ireland stop there? He was the most active general manager in free agency and he knows his team needs to find a replacement for Jake Long (FA/Rams). Thus, why trade ahead of the Cardinals at No. 7 in efforts to land Oklahoma's Lane Johnson when he might be able to get into the top 5 and nab an elite left tackle prospect like Central Michigan's Eric Fisher? The Raiders own the No. 3 overall pick and might make the perfect trade partner seeing as how a) they lack picks due to Hue Jackson's boneheaded trade for Carson Palmer two years ago and b) they select directly ahead of Philadelphia and Detroit, which also need offensive line help. Ireland has seemingly made aggressive move after aggressive move this offseason in efforts to save his job in Miami. What's one more on draft night?
…the Jaguars take Geno Smith.
The most popular pick to Jacksonville at No. 2 is Oregon defensive end/linebacker Dion Jordan, which makes sense given the team's need at pass rusher. But neither David Caldwell nor Gus Bradley drafted Blaine Gabbert, which means there's no loyalty there. How many times do we see new head coaches and/or general managers take over a team and one of their first moves is to acquire a franchise signal caller? Smith isn't close to being a top 5 pick but he plays the most coveted position in the NFL and he is the best quarterback prospect in this draft. He could wind up sinking the Jaguars further into NFL oblivion but chances are Caldwell and Bradley are willing to take that chance.
One time, Brad Smith returned a kickoff 90 yards-with one shoe. Another time, he scored on a 32 yard scamper via the ground. Yet another, he returned a blocked punt for a TUD. And I didn’t even mention the fact that last season he scored on a 32 yard receiving TUD against the rival Patriots.
His insane versatility on the field stretches to his local community as well, where he started the “Brad Smith True Foundation” to help kids in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio to promote “discipline, education and organized activity.”
BE: With the Jets, you had a 108-yard kickoff return for a TD, the longest in franchise history. What do you get more exhilaration out of: that or a 32-yard scamper for a TD?
Brad Smith: It doesn’t matter to me (laughs). If it’s running, blocking a kick, it doesn’t matter. What matters to me is, did I do something to help my team win?
BE: Do you want to play QB more?
Brad Smith: I’m always a quarterback first — it’s what I’ve done my whole life. And I have fun doing it, but I’ve done all kinds of stuff. Whatever they ask me to do is what I’m going to do. That’s how I look at it man. Whatever I can do to help the team win is what I will do.
BE: With the Jets you were there from the transition between Eric Mangini to Rex Ryan. What was that like?
Brad Smith: It was a good transition. The support group they have there is unbelievable, from the training staff to the strength staff at the time, they all made it a smooth transition. Coach Mangini, I learned stuff I still use to prepare for games to this day from coach Mangini. He was one of the most detail-oriented coaches I’ve ever been around. Rex gets you to play and let it loose 100%, so you don’t have to think — I picked that up from Rex. We’ll see how it goes with coach Marrone.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
The Chiefs cleared a spot along their offensive line when they released steady veteran Eric Winston back in March. With Branden Albert's future up in the air, Kansas City could stick Joeckel at right tackle with the idea of moving him to the left side once Albert moves on. Or, if Albert winds up signing a long-term deal, he and Joeckel would make nice bookends along the Chiefs' offensive line for years to come.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
The Jaguars need pass rushers so Florida's Sharrif Floyd and Oregon's Dion Jordan are logical choices at this spot. But they also have a new head coach in Gus Bradley and a new GM in David Caldwell, neither of which drafted former top-10 pick Blaine Gabbert. The Jags could allow Gabbert and Chad Henne to battle in 2013 and then re-evaluate the quarterback position heading into 2014. But chances are Bradley and Caldwell will look to put their stamp on things by handpicking their franchise signal caller with this pick.
3. Miami Dolphins: Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan (Projected trade with Raiders)
After signing Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler to lucrative free agent deals in March, why wouldn't Jeff Ireland continue his aggressive approach on draft night? The Raiders are a logical trade partner because of how few selections they have following Hue Jackson's brutal acquisition of Carson Palmer two years ago. So, Oakland moves down and stockpiles more picks, and Miami uses this selection to replace the departed Jake Long. Fisher can start on the left side while Jonathan Martin stays at right tackle (his more natural position).
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
Floyd is widely viewed as a three technique defensive tackle, which would make him a poor fit for Philadelphia's new 3-4 front. But the Eagles did a nice job filling holes in free agency so they're in position to take the best player available at No. 4, which would be Floyd (at least in this mock). Plus, just because the Eagles will run a 3-4 doesn't mean they won't use one-gap principles along their defensive line. While lining up opposite 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox, Floyd could be a terror if Philadelphia plays to his strengths. If Floyd is off the board, Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson, Dion Jordan and Star Lotulelei are fits as well.
5. Detroit Lions: Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
Martin Mayhew unsuccessfully tried to trade up to obtain Patrick Peterson two years ago and Stephon Gilmore last year, so he could nab Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner with this pick. But the Lions lost Cliff Avril in free agency and released Kyle Vanden Bosch in early February. Thus, look for Mayhew to address the team's need for pass rushers and wait until the middle rounds to take a corner or an offensive tackle. (Along with Milliner, Eric Fisher would also be a fit at this spot.)
6. Cleveland Browns: Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
The Browns showed interest in free agent Brent Grimes before the veteran corner signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins. The Browns could potentially trade back and still fill their need at corner, but why not take the best defensive back in this year's draft?
7. Arizona Cardinals: Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma
Bruce Arians has thrown his support behind his offensive line since becoming the team's newest head coach, but the bottom line is that the Cardinals had the league's worst offensive tackle combination last season. Johnson will need to refine his technique but he has plenty of upside and addresses a pressing need for Arizona.
8. Buffalo Bills: Dion Jordan, LB, Oregon
There's a chance that Jordan won't fall to this pick but in this mock he's available and is a fit for the new-look Bills. Jordan can play with his hand in the dirt or stand up and rush the passer as an outside linebacker after playing "drop end" at Oregon. His versatility would be a welcome sign for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who plans on utilizing hybrid fronts next season.
9. New York Jets: Barkevious Mingo, OLB, LSU
If the season were to start today, Rex Ryan’s edge rushers would be Garrett McIntyre and Antwan Barnes. So while receiver, running back and quarterback are all needs for the Jets, they can’t head into next season without addressing their need for pass rushers. And while there are concerns about whether or not he’ll be able to hold up versus the run because of his svelte frame, Mingo is an athletic freak with untapped potential.
10. Tennessee Titans: Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah
The consensus is that the Titans will select a guard at this spot, which makes sense given their need at right guard. But the middle of Tennessee’s defensive line hasn’t been a strength since Albert Haynesworth departed for Washington in 2009 and Lotulelei is versatile enough to play multiple positions. Tennessee added three versatile defensive linemen this offseason, which include Ropati Pitoitua, Moise Fokou and Sammie Hill. The Titans' base is a 4-3 but they could use more 3-4 elements next season, making Lotulelei a nice fit.
11. San Diego Chargers: Xavier Rhodes, CB, Florida State
The Chargers need help along their offensive line so tackle and guard both make sense at this spot. But guards are always overvalued by draft pundits so with the top offensive tackles off the board, San Diego could turn its attention to another pressing need. The combination of Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason allowed more touchdowns (13) than it had passes defended (12). Rhodes is regarded as the best press-man corner in the draft and with Jammer (FA) and Cason (Arizona) both gone, the Florida State product fills a major need.
12. Oakland Raiders: Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State (Projected trade with Miami)
The Raiders could stay pat at No. 3 and take Sharrif Floyd but if they do trade back, then Werner or Mizzou product Sheldon Richardson are fits. Oakland needs pass rushers, period. Whether they come in the form of defensive tackles or defensive ends, this team needs to add players that can get after the passer. Werner takes running plays off and avoids contact, but his upside as a pass rusher is unquestioned.
13. New York Jets: Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama (Projected trade with Bucs)
The Bucs appear to be on the verge of acquiring cornerback Darrelle Revis, so let's have some fun and assume that the Jets acquire this pick. After addressing their need at outside linebacker by selecting Mingo with the ninth overall pick, New York could focus on offense with the selection of Lacy. The Jets did sign Mike Goodson in free agency and maybe they view him as a capable starter. But this team had its most success in 2009 and 2010 when the running game was firing on all cylinders. A combination of Goodson and Lacy could be tempting for Rex Ryan and new GM Mike Idzik.
14. Carolina Panthers: Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri
The Panthers have a need at defensive tackle and Richardson is the best interior lineman left on the board. He could be a terror as a three-technique defensive tackle, which is something Carolina sorely needs.
15. New Orleans Saints: Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Jones is hard to project because you don’t know how many teams have flagged him as a medical risk. (He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2009.) But the condition didn’t hinder him in 2012 and despite his poor showing at his Pro Day in March, Jones stands out on film. The Saints need to give Rob Ryan more edge rushers and the versatile Jones could be used in a multitude of ways.
16. St. Louis Rams: Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
The Rams have holes at safety, running back, outside linebacker and guard, but adding offensive playmakers has to be a priority. After signing tight end Jared Cook in free agency, Austin could provide Brian Schottenheimer and the Rams with another mismatch in the slot. Plus, he fills an immediate need as a returner.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers: Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame
The Steelers could go in a variety of directions here, including pass rusher, guard or safety. But after losing Mike Wallace to the Dolphins via free agency, they need to find another weapon to go along with Antonio Brown in their passing attack. Heath Miller blew out his knee in Week 16 last year, tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL in the process. With the 30-year-old due over $5 million in 2013 and $6 million next season, the Steelers could address an immediate and future need with the selection of Eifert (who can attack the seam as well as line up on the outside and challenge cornerbacks with his size and athleticism).
18. Dallas Cowboys: Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas
Safety was the Cowboys' biggest need heading into free agency and unless they feel confident in Will Allen holding down the position opposite Barry Church, then Vaccaro makes a lot of sense at this spot. Jerry Jones handed Church a four-year, $12.4 million extension even after he tore his Achilles' last year, so it's probably safety assume that he'll hold down one safety spot. Vaccaro has to become a better tackler at the next level but his athleticism and physicality allows him to play centerfield, down in the box, or even in the slot against receivers and tight ends. He did it all at Texas.
19. New York Giants: Datone Jones, DE, UCLA
Is there a general manager in the league that values defensive ends more than Jerry Reese? With Osi Umenyiora now in Atlanta and Justin Tuck slowing down, Jones gives the Giants youth and upside at their most coveted position. He has an aggressive style of play and often wins off the edge with strength and power. He's also versatile enough to play inside in obviously passing situations.
20. Chicago Bears: Chance Warmack, G, Alabama
There's a chance that Warmack won't fall this far but then again, nobody thought David DeCastro would drop out of the top 15 last year and he fell to the Steelers at No. 24 overall. Simply put, guards rarely go as high as everyone think they will. Phil Emery is currently paying for past mistakes made by former Chicago GM Jerry Angelo, who missed on former first-round busts Chris Williams and Gabe Carimi. Warmack would offer an instant upgrade over Lance Louis at right guard.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Alec Ogletree, OLB, Georgia
Ogletree is listed as an inside linebacker but he could play outside in a 4-3 thanks to his athleticism. (He’s a former safety with 4.70 speed.) Mike Zimmer likes his SAM to be able to rush the passer and Ogletree could be a potential playmaker in that role. He’s also a knucklehead off the field, which makes him a perfect fit for Cincinnati.
22. St. Louis Rams: Matt Elam, S, Florida
The Rams could take running back Eddie Lacy or even a linebacker such as Jarvis Jones or Alec Ogletree if they fall, but they have a pressing need at safety and Elam could be a perfect fit for Jeff Fisher’s defensive scheme. Fisher likes safeties that can tackle and Elam is better in this regard than Kenny Vaccaro, who failed to wrap up on a consistent basis at Texas. Elam could also be the centerfielder that the Rams desperately need. (Again though, don't rule out the possibility that the Rams take Lacy, Ogletree or Jonathan Cooper at this spot and address their safety need later in the draft.)
23. Minnesota Vikings: Cordarrelle Patterson, WR, Tennessee
The Vikings did well to sign Greg Jennings in free agency but they still have a need at receiver following the trade of Percy Harvin to Seattle. Patterson is raw and will need to refine his route running ability, but he’s also explosive with the ball in his hands. If OC Bill Musgrave is creative, he’ll design ways to get Patterson the ball while he learns the nuances of becoming a NFL receiver.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Jonathan Cooper, G, North Carolina
The Colts addressed a lot of their defensive needs in free agency, so turning their attention to their offensive line is logical. While they did sign Donald Thomas in free agency, Indy could out-draft Mike McGlynn with the selection of Cooper, who has a chance to be selected ahead of Alabama's Chance Warmack.
25. Minnesota Vikings: Manti Te’o, LB, Notre Dame
Te’o could easily slip into the second round because the middle linebacker position just doesn’t hold as much value as it did 10 years ago. It’s a pass happy league and teams will continue to avoid paying two-down linebackers big money, as well as drafting them high in the first round. But at 23, the Vikings could fill a need with Te’o, who was one of the best defenders in the nation last year despite his lousy performance in the national title game. He could start Week 1 and represents an upgrade over current MLB Marvin Mitchell.
26: Buffalo Bills: Matt Barkley, QB, USC (Projected trade with Packers)
Ryan Nassib has been widely connected with the Bills due to his connection with Doug Marrone at Syracuse. But how often does the seemingly perfect fit not happen (outside of maybe Ryan Tannehill's reunion with Mike Sherman last year in Miami)? The fact is that Barkley is a better prospect than Nassib and the Bills need a franchise signal caller to develop under Kevin Kolb (who is just a stopgap). Barkley has experience running a pro-style offense and while his arm strength has come into question, he displays good accuracy and touch on the short-to-intermediate passing game.
(If the Packers sit and pick at this spot, offensive line, defensive tackle and running back make sense.)
27. Houston Texans: Robert Woods, WR, USC
The Texans desperately need a weapon opposite Andre Johnson, which was evident during their postseason run last year. Woods played in a pro-style offense and has more speed than Cal product Keenan Allen. That said, Allen, Justin HUnter and DeAndre Hopkins are all possibilities as well.
28. Denver Broncos: Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M
The Broncos might wind up signing a veteran free agent like Dwight Freeney or John Abraham to address their need at defensive end, but even then they still need a long-term replacement for Elvis Dumervil. Moore doesn't display much explosiveness off the edge and he's admitted to having a poor work ethic off the field. But put him in a winning NFL environment with veterans like Champ Bailey and Von Miller and Moore should realize his potential.
29. San Diego Chargers: D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama (Projected Trade with Patriots)
After missing out on one of the top offensive tackles at No. 11, the Chargers could trade back into the first round and nab Fluker at this spot. (Bill Belichick is always moving picks, so New England makes for a logical trade partner.) Fluker could start as a rookie and in the process, the Chargers could save $2.3 million in cap space by releasing Jeromey Clary.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Desmond Trufant, CB, Mississippi State
Plenty of mocks have the Falcons selecting a defensive end at this spot, which makes sense given their need for pass rushers. But they signed Osi Umenyiora in free agency and remain high on undersized pass rusher Kroy Biermann. They also seem to like former mid/late-round picks Jonathan Massaquoi and Cliff Matthews as well. Thus, the bigger need is at corner following the release of Dunta Robinson. Trufant might be off the board at this spot but if he’s still available, he has the speed, agility and quickness to be a starter from Day 1. He just needs to be more physical, both in coverage and when defending the run.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Margus Hunt, DE, SMU
When Justin Smith tore his triceps in a late-season game against the Patriots last year, the 49ers' secondary fell apart. But instead of investing a high draft pick in a cornerback, GM Trent Baalke once again went the bargain-bin route by signing Nnamdi Asomugha to a cheap one-year deal. (Baalke made a similar move a couple of years ago when he signed Carlos Rogers off the scrap heap in early August.) It makes sense that the Niners continue to focus on their front seven and the versatile Hunt would be a nice fit at this spot.
32. Baltimore Ravens: Jonathan Cyprien, S, Florida International
Ozzie Newsome signed Michael Huff in free agency but the addition of Cyprien could make the Ravens' safeties interchangeable. They need to find a replacement for Ed Reed and while the safety position is deep in this year's draft, Baltimore can't wait to land one seeing as how its picking at the bottom of each round. A linebacker such as Manti Te'o or Kevin Minter also makes sense.
As the 2013 NFL scouting combine quickly approaches (it'll kick off this Wednesday and run through the following Tuesday), here are some thoughts and observations on this year's class.
1. Good luck if you're a quarterback-desperate team.
It's a bad year to be a team desperate for a franchise signal caller. Geno Smith is a good athlete but he progressively got worse as the 2012 college season wore on. Matt Barkley is closer to being a third-round prospect than the first overall selection, which is where some pundits had him slated at the start of the college season. Mike Glennon has NFL-caliber arm but was mistake prone at NC State. Ryan Nassib, Tyler Wilson and Zac Dysert are "sleepers," although none project as first-year starters. One year after Andrew Luck, RGIII and Russell Wilson burst onto the NFL scene, we might not see a quarterback drafted in the first round this year.
2. It's a deep OT class but who's at the top?
Thanks to his combination of height, weight and agility, Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel might be the safest pick in this year's draft. But is he unquestionably the best offensive tackle prospect in this year's class? How concerned were defensive ends about losing contain on quarterback Johnny Manziel that they didn't challenge Joeckel from a pass-rushing standpoint? Considering the Aggies' offense was predicated on getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand as quickly as possible, did Joeckel benefit from A&M's system? Now, it's not like Central Michigan ran a pro-style offense in the MAC. But Eric Fisher has the size (6'7", 305 pounds), frame (he might be able to add 20 pounds), and arm length (34 inches) to start at left tackle as a rookie. That's not to suggest that Joeckel can't, because the steady prospect does project as a first-year starter. But coming off a dominating season and an impressive week at the Senior Bowl, Fisher at least deserves mention as being the top tackle in this year's draft.
3. Vaccaro is worth a top 10 selection.
The safety position is deep this year but Texas product Kenny Vaccaro is a stud and it would be a crime if he fell past the first 12 teams. He's a ball-hawking centerfielder that is athletic enough to defend receivers in the slot and also come up in run support. He hits like a 218-pound MAC truck and is clearly the best all-around safety in this year's class. Eric Reid, Matt Elam and T.J. McDonald are no less intriguing, but Vaccaro is the best of the bunch.
4. Dion Jordan is maddening.
Watch Oregon's Dion Jordan for 20 minutes and you'll spend half the time being mesmerized and the other half feeling unsatisfied. He's far from being a polished product and someone will need to teach him how to bend the arc when rushing the passer. (Too often he'll burst upfield only to be forced to work his way back to the quarterback, which creates clear passing windows and running lanes for the opposition.) But his length, burst and athleticism make him attractive to teams with creative defensive coordinators. After spending time as a drop end and as an outside linebacker while at Oregon, he has the versatility to play with his hand in the dirt or standing up in a 3-4. He's raw, but he also might be a perfect fit for the Patriots, Jets, Cowboys, Saints or Falcons, teams that run hybrid looks.
5. Have we seen the best that Banks has to offer?
While at Mississippi State, cornerback Jonathan Banks spent a lot of time playing in a cover 3 zone. That allowed him to break on underneath passes and keep plays in front of him. But at 6'1" and 185 pounds he's cut from the same mold as players like Antonio Cromartie and Richard Sherman, who excel playing up at the line of scrimmage and using their length to disrupt routes. Behind only Dee Milliner of Alabama, Banks is widely considered one of the top cornerbacks in this year's draft. But considering he has the ability to play in multiple coverages despite not being asked to in college, we may not have seen the best that he has to offer. He would appear to be a complete corner, one that can play in either a zone or in press man.
6. The best prospect in the draft that won't go No. 1.
Alabama guard Chance Warmack is arguably the best prospect in this year's draft but he won't be selected with the top overall pick. In fact, he might slide out of the top 10 altogether. Guards usually aren't selected within the first 10 picks because they're simply not valued that high. Warmack might wind up being the exception, although the odds suggest otherwise. Teams know that they can find starting guards in rounds three through four and despite Warmack being an exceptional prospect, he's still likely to fall into the teens.
7. How quickly things can change.
Heading into the 2012 college season, Ohio State's Jonathan Hawkins was hands down the best defensive tackle prospect in the nation. Now he might not even be the third-best prospect at his position. He has the athleticism and power to consistently control the line of scrimmage but he often disappeared during games and his motor ran hot and cold. In September he was chasing down mobile quarterback Zach Maynard (Cal) from the backside, but by November he was merely average on a week-to-week basis. Star Lotulelei, Sharrif Floyd and Sheldon Richardson are more intriguing defensive tackle prospects at this point and speaking of Floyd, it wouldn't be an upset if he were selected in the top 10. He's the perfect fit as a three-technique in a 4-3, but he also has experience playing outside in a five-technique. He was one of the more disruptive defensive tackles in the nation last year and is built like a tank.
8. As usual, teams will be playing Russian Roulette when it comes to pass rushers.
Due to his combination of length and burst of the edge, Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore gave offensive tackles fits last year. But he'll need to improve his technique and learn how to use his hands more while rushing the passer at the next level. Meanwhile, Bjoern Werner of Florida State isn't as scheme versatile as Moore, but he's quick off the line and uses his hands well to create separation. He's drawn comparisons to Chris Long, although his motor also ran hot and cold at Florida State. BYU's Ezekiel Ansah might be the most polarizing prospect in this year's draft, as some pundits believe he has the potential to be the best player in this year's class while others think he's overrated. The former track athlete has only played football for three years but his technique has improved nearly every season. If a team shows patience with him, he might become a key starter in three years. But considering teams now expect a quick return on their investment, it'll be interesting to see if Ansah can develop under pressure. This is a deep class for pass rushers but as usual, finding the right fit will be a risky proposition.
9. Teams might want to wait on a linebacker.
The linebackers projected to go in the first round have some serious baggage. Jarvis Jones is a hell of a pass rusher but is he destined to be a situational player? (He also has durability issues.) LSU's Barkevious Mingo is a freak athletically but wasn't a productive player despite his intriguing skill set. One could make the argument that Alabama exposed Manti Te'o in the national championship game and, well, nobody has forgotten about his relationship "issues." His speed and athleticism not withstanding, Alec Ogletree was suspended in 2012 for violating Georgia's substance abuse policy and he recently was arrested for DUI. In terms of risk, teams in need of linebacker help might want to wait until the middle rounds where Khaseem Greene, Zaviar Gooden and Nico Johnson could be had.
10. Cordarrelle Patterson is dynamic.
It's hard not to be a fan of Tennessee wideout Cordarrelle Patterson. For being 6'3" and 205 pounds he moves like a 5-10 scatback. Tennessee lined him up as a receiver as well as a kick returner, and also gave him the ball on end-arounds. With all due respect to Cal's Keenan Allen, Patterson is the best receiving prospect in this year's draft and it's not even close. It's not often that you see a receiver that is as dynamic outside the numbers as he is between the hashes, but Patterson has that sort of talent.
1. The Falcons may have been overly concerned about Kaepernick.
The Falcons went into the NFC title game knowing they had to at least contain Colin Kaepernick. They did that - it's just too bad that they didn't defend anyone else in the process. The Falcons were so concerned about Kaepernick beating them with his legs that they lost sight of the fact he was killing them with his arm. His receivers were either left wide open or in one-on-one mismatches with Atlanta defenders like Thomas DeCoud, who couldn't tackle a trashcan on Sunday. Football, as with all sports, is a game of adjustments. The Falcons had the right game plan coming in but it became apparent after halftime when the 49ers scored a touchdown on their third straight drive (save for the one play at the conclusion of the first half) that Mike Nolan didn't make the right adjustments. It's easy to make coaches the scapegoat but I refuse to believe Atlanta's game plan defensively was to allow Vernon Davis to run free in the secondary - especially after Seattle tight end Zach Miller torched them for 142 yards and a touchdown the week before. Credit John Harbaugh and Greg Roman for playing things straight up, allowing the game to come to them and for taking what the Falcons gave them.
2. Four plays cost Matt Ryan a trip to the Super Bowl.
According to Pro Football Focus, Matt Ryan took 67 snaps from center on Sunday. On 63 of those snaps, he was damn-near brilliant. It was the other four that cost him and his team a trip to New Orleans. The interception and the fluke fumble in the second half were killers. They didn't lead to points for the 49ers but they also occurred in San Francisco territory, meaning they didn't lead to points for the Falcons either. It became clear in the second half that Ryan and Atlanta would need to outpace Kaepernick and without those two turnovers, they probably would have. But the other two plays that cost the Falcons were the controversial catch by Harry Douglas and the fourth down throw inside the red zone. Forget whether or not Douglas caught the ball - if he keeps his feet he probably scores because there was no defender within six miles of him. Instead, he stumbles and while the Falcons were fortunate to have the call go their way, they were hardly lucky in that instance. Four plays later, Ryan forces a pass to Roddy White at the San Francisco 10-yard line and the game is essentially over. It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback but if Ryan sees an open Tony Gonzalez on that play, the Falcons score and go up by 3 with under two minutes remaining. It was just one bad event after another for Ryan, who nearly willed his team to the Super Bowl. When your quarterback completes over 70-percent of his passes while throwing for nearly 396 yards and three touchdowns, you should win.
3. What mobile quarterback?
Can a mobile quarterback ever win a Super Bowl? Sure they can, just as long as that mobile quarterback is Colin Kaepernick, who oh-by-the-way also can beat opponents with his arm. Kaepernick's running ability makes him dangerous but not as dangerous as his ability to force an opponent to get out of its comfort zone defensively. The Falcons hired Mike Nolan so that he could implement a defense that would stop pass-heavy teams like the Packers, Saints and Giants. During the regular season they intercepted Peyton Manning three times in one quarter, Drew Brees five times in one game, and Eli Manning twice in a 34-0 shutout late in the year. But they were undone by Kaepernick, not because he's mobile but because he was accurate throwing vertically. He only rushed twice for 21 yards but his average pass went for 11.1 yards, which made a huge difference in the outcome of the game. The Niners eventually wore down the Falcons' undersized defensive line in the second half, but they would have had a hard time keeping pace with Ryan and Atlanta's offense had Kaepernick not had the ability to pick up huge chunks of yards through the air. Is his mobility a factor? No question. Could the Niners have won on Sunday if Kaepernick weren't also a dangerous passer? That's debatable, especially with the way their defense was playing. He's headed to a Super Bowl not because of his mobility but because he's the complete package.
4. It was a great time for Davis to re-join the San Francisco offense.
After Zach Miller torched the Falcons' secondary last week Vernon Davis had to be licking his chops. But there have been times this season when he's disappeared and San Francisco's passing game over the past two months has really run through Michael Crabtree. With Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel doing a nice job to limit Crabtree's involvement, it was a great time for Kaepernick to rediscover his relationship with Davis, who destroyed safety Thomas DeCoud and linebacker Stephen Nicholas in coverage. DeCoud is fast enough to stay with Davis, but he missed too many tackles and was usually a split second late getting to the tight end in coverage. The loss of Mario Manningham late in the season hurt, but when Davis is a threat down the seam the Niners have more than enough weapons offensively. The talented tight end was outstanding on Sunday.
While we're discussing tight ends, it would be a shame if Tony Gonzalez does retire now that Atlanta has been eliminated. He's coming off his best season as a Falcon and while he isn't the same player he was earlier in his career, he's still playing at an elite level. He's always said that he would keep coming back as long as he was still physically able to compete and for those that watched him all season, that's certainly still the case. Plus, with Julio Jones and Roddy White flanking him on the outsides, Gonzo should continue to be productive.
5. Stop all the Mike Smith replacement talk.
It's asinine to suggest that Mike Smith should be on the hot seat after his team came up short on Sunday. The Falcons never had back-to-back winning seasons before Smith arrived in 2008 and they haven't had a losing season since. He's a good coach that added two excellent coordinators in Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan last offseason. With both back in the mix for 2013, there's a good chance Smith will have the Falcons playing in January again next year. Does he have his flaws? Absolutely. This postseason proved that he needs to do a better job of coaching with a lead. Too often he'll take his foot off the pedal instead of going for the jugular and he still has a hard time weighing risk versus reward in certain situations (such as calls on fourth down). But 30 teams are eliminated every year before the Super Bowl and there's no shame in coming up short in the NFC title game. You don't fire a man that has compiled a 56-24 record over his career because he's struggled in the postseason. The people that say he should have had the Falcons in the Super Bowl this year are probably the same ones that called Atlanta a fraud No. 1 seed. Despite what the records indicated, Smith didn't have the best team in the NFC this year. In fact, he probably had the third best team behind San Francisco and Seattle. And yet, the Falcons were one more Matt Ryan touchdown away from playing in the Super Bowl. For those that want Smith gone, remember that another June Jones, Jim Mora or Bobby Petrino could be right around the corner.
Ravens 28, Patriots 13
1. Brady simply wasn't good enough.
The absence of Rob Gronkowski and the injury to corner Aqib Talib hurt the Patriots on Sunday, but the bottom line is that Tom Brady didn't play well enough for New England to advance. As usual, he did a nice job stepping up in the pocket when he felt the rush and he constantly kept his eyes downfield. Credit Baltimore for finding a way to bring pressure in his face and for locking down his receivers in key moments of the game. Granted, his receivers did drop four balls, including two by Wes Welker. But while Joe Flacco came up with some huge passes in the second half, Brady simply failed to make enough plays. He should also be vilified for his scissor kick to Ed Reed right before halftime. It was an embarrassing moment for the future Hall of Famer.
2. Flacco is playing the best football of his career.
Joe Flacco didn't have a very strong first half but he consistently challenged his opponent downfield for the second straight week. Granted, he was aided by another outstanding game by his offensive line, Anquan Boldin's heroics, and a New England defense that couldn't tackle Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce, but the bottom line is that Flacco out-dueled Peyton Manning and Tom Brady the past two weeks. He also now has six road playoff wins in his career and whether he wins the Super Bowl or not, he's set himself up for a huge payday in the offseason. It isn't always pretty when it comes to Flacco, but it's hard to argue with his production over the past five years. It'll be interesting to see how he fares against a San Francisco defense that was torched by fellow 2008 first-rounder Matt Ryan.
3. Boldin doesn't get nearly the attention he deserves.
Anquan Boldin is a fantastic player that is constantly overlooked when the discussion turns to who the best receivers are in the NFL. He doesn't have elite top-end speed and yet he can still beat a defense vertically. He also has some of the best hands at the position and his body control is outstanding. On both of his touchdown receptions, as well as the catch he made early in the third quarter for a 26-yard gain, Boldin had perfect body control and made great adjustments to the passes. At this point in his career he's more like a tight end than a receiver but he remains a mismatch on linebackers and safeties.
4. Baltimore's defense clamped down when it needed to.
Judging by the stats you would have thought the Ravens' defense played poorly on Sunday. Brady threw for 320 yards, the Patriots gained 108 yards on the ground and Wes Welker finished with 117 yards receiving and a touchdown. But the Ravens held New England to a field goal right before half, which was huge, and despite allowing 428 yards they forced three huge turnovers in the second half. Whenever there was a big play to be made, it was Baltimore's defense coming up huge - not Tom Brady. For the No. 1 scoring offense to be shut out in the second half on its home turf is a major credit to the defense.
5. Tackling played a huge part.
The Patriots' tackling (or lack thereof) was horrendous. Safety Steve Gregory had a night to forget in coverage but he also missed multiple tackles, as did linebacker Jerod Mayo (one of which resulted in Ray Rice's first touchdown). But it wasn't just those two players - Alfonzo Dennard, Dont'a Hightower and Brandon Spikes whiffed as well. What's interesting is that the Ravens only rushed for 3.7 yards per carry but the Patriots made life worse on themselves by not wrapping up.
+ Everyone thought the Ravens' game plan on Saturday would be to take the pressure off Joe Flacco's shoulders by making Ray Rice the focal point of the offense. Instead, John Harbaugh and Jim Caldwell put the game in their quarterback's hands and Flacco repaid them out dueling Peyton Manning. Outside of two errant deep passes to Torrey Smith, Flacco was perfect. He relentlessly challenged Denver's secondary downfield (his 9.7 YPA average was eye popping) and he used the entire field to orchestrate Baltimore's offense. In the past two weeks we've seen one coaching blunder after another. But Harbaugh and Caldwell went against conventional wisdom and thanks to the play of their embattled signal caller, they'll be heading to Foxboro next weekend. It's good to see an aggressive game plan rewarded.
+ One other note on Flacco: His best throw didn't come on a scoring play, nor did it lead to a score. On the second possession of overtime and his team backed up on a 3rd and 13, Flacco threw a frozen rope to tight end Dennis Pitta for a 24-yard gain while standing in his own end zone. Credit Pitta for making a spectacular adjustment on the catch, but Flacco put the ball where only his tight end could come down with the pass. Granted, four plays later the Ravens punted but if Flacco doesn't convert on that third down maybe Denver uses marches up a short field for the game-winning score.
+ Manning's crucial interception in overtime may have been a result of the Hall of Famer trying to do too much. You never see Peyton throw across his body while on the move, but he got impatient while attempting to make a play. That said, blame can be spread throughout the entire Denver locker room…
+…Manning's interception directly led to Baltimore's game-winning field goal but Denver was undone by its secondary long before Corey Graham accepted Peyton's gracious gift. There's simply no excuse for how safety Rahim Moore played Jacoby Jones' 70-yard touchdown reception at the end of regulation. It wasn't as if the Ravens caught the Broncos in a coverage breakdown - Moore just screwed up. If he's two yards deeper, there's a good chance he intercepts that pass and then nobody's talking about Manning's interception because it wouldn't have existed.
+ … Moore isn't the only member of Denver's secondary that deserves a scolding, either. Champ Bailey had yet another solid season but he was torched for both of Torrey Smith's touchdowns and also allowed 128 receiving yards in what was easily his worst game of the year. Jack Del Rio and John Fox have left Bailey on an island throughout the year and the results have been positive. But while hindsight is always 20/20, one would have thought that following Smith's 59-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter that Denver's coaching staff would have given Bailey more help. They didn't, and they paid the price.
+…Then there's Fox himself. Some are criticizing him for taking the ball out of Manning's hands on that 3rd-and-7 play with just over a minute left in the game. But at least his rationale was just: Run the ball and force the Ravens to march 70-plus yards for a touchdown with a minute and no timeouts. Nobody could foresee Baltimore throwing a 70-yard touchdown pass three plays later, so it's hard to eat Fox's lunch for that decision. That said, his choice not to give Manning a chance to march the Broncos into field goal range with 37 seconds remaining in regulation and two timeouts was incomprehensible. This was proven less than 24 hours later when Matt Ryan drove the Falcons to a game-winning field goal with two timeouts and 31 seconds on the clock. The two situations weren't exactly the same, but if Ryan could accomplish the feat in two plays, Fox should be embarrassed for not giving his living legend of a quarterback even an opportunity to pull off the same heroics.
+ Not that it matters now, but without Trindon Holliday's record-setting day, is the game in Denver even that close? Take away his two touchdowns and the Ravens might not even need an improbable Jacoby Jones touchdown or a Justin Tucker 47-yard field goal to win.
+ Two underlying storylines in Baltimore's upset victory: The Ravens' run defense and their offensive line. After surrendering 152 rushing yards last week to the Colts, the Broncos running game was a big failure on Sunday (they rushed for 125 yards but at 3.0 yards per clip). Also, thanks to Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil, Denver has one of the best pass rushes in the game. But for all intents and purposes, the duo had a quiet day against Baltimore's revamped offensive line (which has now played well in back-to-back weeks).
+ Even if the 49ers were to lose to the Falcons in the NFC Championship, nobody will question Jim Harbaugh's decision to replace Alex Smith after the show Colin Kaepernick put on versus Green Bay. It showed some resiliency on Kaepernick's part to throw for 263 yards, rush for a NFL-record 183 yards, and record four total touchdowns after throwing that early pick-six to Sam Shields. Instead of allowing his emotions to get the best of him, he settled in and let his instincts take over…
+ …Not to take anything away from Kaepernick but where were the Packers' adjustments? One would have thought Capers would have changed something at halftime in efforts to slow Kaepernick down and instead, the quarterback was still running free well into the fourth quarter. Granted, coordinators can only put their guys in position to make plays. It's up to the players to execute the game plan and for the likes of Erik Walden, B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson, they didn't. I'm just not sure what the game plan was to begin with.
+ Lost in Kaepernick's big night was how well Vic Fangio's defense played. When the Niners went with press man on the outsides, Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers did a nice job of not allowing the Packers' receivers to get a free release. And when Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith brought pressure, it completely took Aaron Rodgers out of his game. It wasn't as if Rodgers played poorly - San Francisco just never allowed him to get into a rhythm.
+ Aside from Kaepernick turning Candlestick Park into his own personal jungle gym, the key to San Francisco's victory was its dominance up front on both sides of the ball. Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis were unstoppable forces in the running game and immovable options in pass protection. There was plenty of great offensive line play this weekend but the best work may have been done on Saturday night by those two players.
+ Regardless of how fortunate the Falcons are to be advancing to the NFC Championship Game, it's hard not to feel elated for Tony Gonzalez. Assuming he stays true to his word and retires at the end of the season, that man was 31 seconds away from never tasting postseason victory. Thankfully he doesn't have to worry about what that would have felt like.
+ It's easy to get swept up in the emotions of the game but Mike Smith blew it by calling his last timeout with 13 seconds remaining in regulation. Chances are the Seahawks would have still burned a timeout anyway but shame on Smith for not putting Pete Carroll in that position.
+ Matt Bosher either had a vacation to Cabo lined up next weekend because he nearly handed the Seahawks a victory by shanking two punts and then dribbling an impromptu onsides kick at the end of the game. For a second I swore the kid had Seattle on the money line.
+ Nobody should ignore the fact that Matt Ryan helped the Falcons blow a 20-point fourth-quarter lead on Sunday. The interception to Earl Thomas was brutal and his sudden inability to move the ball in the fourth quarter should come into question as well. But it is remarkable what he can do with less than two minutes remaining in a game that his team is trailing. He's unflappable in those situations and nine times out of 10, he's going to put the Falcons in position to win. Jacquizz Rodgers' kick return was key in setting up that game-winning drive, but it took Ryan only two plays to erase everything the Seahawks accomplished in the fourth quarter. If nothing else, Ryan remains one of the most clutch performers in the game.
+ Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did a great job not over thinking the game plan for Sunday. He wanted to take advantage of undersized rookie Bruce Irvin and that's what he did, constantly running Rodgers and Michael Turner at the edge of Seattle's defense. The Falcons haven't run the ball effectively all season and Turner has looked like a back running with cement blocks for feet. But neither was the case on Sunday.
+ The Falcons actually might be the most predictable team in the NFL, you just have to understand their recipe for success: Dominant for two quarters, take two quarters off, give Matt Ryan the ball with at least 30 seconds left on the clock and make sure Matt Bryant is properly stretched out. Amazement, heartburn, jubilation, repeat.
+ Russell Wilson is special. After a shaky first half he was brilliant in the final quarters, including going 10-for-10 for 185 yards and two touchdowns while leading the Seahawks back from a 20-0 deficit. Granted, he had six days to find receivers that were generally covered by Atlanta defenders, but he also once again did a great job eluding pass rushers and buying himself more time. Both he and the Seahawks have a bright future.
+ Wilson and Kaepernick are quarterbacks first - not mobile players that happen to play the quarterback position. I watched both of those players force the defense to unveil where the blitz was coming from this weekend by making pre-snap adjustments. They're intelligent players with big arms that just so happen to be blessed with mobility and speed. It's not as if they're beating teams because of their athleticism alone, like Michael Vick used to do. They're beating you well before they take the snap.
+ The outcome in Atlanta was yet another example of why coaches shouldn't waste time attempting to freeze a kicker. Why give a veteran like Matt Bryant an extra 20 seconds to compose himself when he's already feeling the burden of an entire season on his shoulders? Carroll's charade following Bryant's missed practice attempt was silly and he deserved to watch the next kick sail through the uprights.
+ If anyone is looking for Zach Miller he can be found running free in Atlanta's secondary. He'll be there for the rest of the day.
+ Tom Brady loses Rob Gronkowski and Danny Woodhead so he throws for 344 yards and three touchdowns…including two to his backup running back. The guy is incredible.
+ This is how good New England's offense is: The Pats didn't score until 1:28 left in the first quarter and still wound up with 41 points.
+ On a weekend when both the Broncos and Falcons blew late leads, the Patriots were still scoring with less than two minutes remaining and up by 10. Bill Belichick never takes his foot off the gas and his players revel in his philosophy.
+ Matt Schaub threw for 343 yards but both of his touchdowns came after the Patriots went up 38-13 and he also threw a brutal interception to kill a drive in the second half. Over the past month the Texans had trouble scoring inside the red zone and Schaub was a big reason for it. Only when it was too late did he respond with scores, and it's reasonable to wonder whether he's the right man to lead a talented team to the Super Bowl.
+ I thought Wade Phillips' defense would respond to giving up 42 points in that Week 14 loss to New England in the regular season. Well, they did - by allowing 41 more points. The linebackers and defensive line couldn't stop the run, there was virtually no pressure on Brady, who promptly dissected their secondary (again). This was all after Gronkowski and Woodhead left the game in the first half.
+ After that crap-fest of a wild card weekend, the Divisional Round was glorious. Upsets, comebacks, points galore, record-setting moments - how could you have not loved every second of this weekend? Championship Sunday? Can't wait, Bart Scott.
+ Clearly oddsmakers weren't phased by the Ravens' upset of the Broncos because Baltimore has opened as a 9.5-point underdog versus the Patriots for the AFC title game. That's with Gronkowski likely being sidelined for New England.
+ As for the NFC title game, the Niners opened as 3.5-point favorites versus the Falcons. What's funny is that if Atlanta continued to dominant Seattle, the Falcons likely would have only been 1-point dogs on Championship Sunday. Perception is everything, isn't it?
1. Mike Shanahan cost both his quarterback and his team on Sunday.
That was a shameful display of coaching on Sunday by Mike Shanahan. First and foremost, who cleared Robert Griffin III to play? Dr. James Andrews said he never even examined him, so if it was Shanahan that cleared him then the league needs to investigate why a head coach is playing doctor. Secondly, RGIII was clearly in pain after he tweaked his knee near the end zone of the Redskins' second scoring drive. It was painful to watch him fall to the ground after being untouched and then quickly glance to the sidelines looking for somebody (his head coach maybe?) to waive the white flag for him. But he's tough and he should be commended for staying in the game. Still, it shouldn't have taken his knee bending sideways and him lying on the ground withering in pain during the fourth quarter for Shanahan to finally pull him. He couldn't run and he couldn't put weight on his back leg, which caused him to throw inaccurately on nearly every attempt. By keeping him in the game, Shanahan continued to put RGIII at risk for serious injury. Forget being a human being at that point - why didn't Mike Shanahan, the head coach, recognize that his injured quarterback was costing him an opportunity to win? Even if RGIII had begged to stay in the game Shanahan should have pulled the kid at halftime and allowed a healthy Kirk Cousins to have a crack at Seattle's defense. There was a lot of bad coaching that took place this weekend but Shanahan was the king of stupidity on Sunday.
2. There's a lot of good and bad that came out of the Seahawks' win.
After 12 minutes had ticked off the clock on Sunday, it looked as if the Redskins were going to waltz down to Atlanta next week. So it was impressive to watch the Seahawks weather the storm and produce what wound up being a convincing victory. Marshawn Lynch was in full "beastmode" while rushing for 132 yards on 20 carries and he could be in store for another big game next week because the Falcons can't stop the run either. Russell Wilson was shaky in his NFL postseason debut but he made plays when they counted, specifically on a 22-yard pass to Zach Miller on third down to set up a go-ahead touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The defense also harassed a limited RGIII and held Alfred Morris in check outside of the first quarter. But the news wasn't all positive for Seattle. The early reports are that top pass rusher Chris Clemons tore his ACL and his loss would serve as a big blow to Seattle's defense with Matt Ryan and the Falcons' explosive passing game on deck. That was also an extremely physical game for the Seahawks, who now have to fly back to Seattle before making the cross-country flight to Atlanta next weekend. That's a lot of traveling for a team that has a history of not playing well on the road so while it'll be a happy flight back to Seattle for Pete Carroll's team, it might feel like a short week with all that transpired on Sunday.
3. Bill Musgrave did Joe Webb a disservice.
Joe Webb was brutal in Green Bay on Saturday night but he should be spared of heavy criticism. Christian Ponder's injury left the Vikings in a bad situation and it's hardly surprising that a quarterback with zero reps in the regular season struggled in a road playoff game. That said, Webb took first-team reps all week in practice so clearly Minnesota knew there was a good chance that Ponder wouldn't play. So why offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave didn't play to the strengths of his backup quarterback is beyond conventional wisdom. Remember, Green Bay prepared all week for Ponder, not the athletically-gifted Webb. Outside of Adrian Peterson, the biggest threat Minnesota had was the element of surprise but Musgrave decided against using it to his advantage. Why did he ditch the read-option after the first series of the game (a series that netted the Vikings a field goal)? Why didn't he turn the contest into the equivalent of a college football bowl game? Instead of using Webb's speed as a weapon, Musgrave kept him in the pocket. Instead of putting the Packers on their heels, Musgrave allowed Green Bay to turn Clay Matthews loose by forcing an inaccurate Webb to stand still. The results were predictably horrifying for the Vikings, who just one week ago beat that same Packers team to reach the postseason. Granted, Musgrave should be cut a little slack for having to call plays for a quarterback he hadn't worked with all season (at least not in a regular season game). But instead of going for broke with the cards that he was dealt, Musgrave played things conventionally and wound up losing anyway.
4. The Bengals' over thought their game plan.
Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden made tight end Jermaine Gresham the focal point of his game plan on Saturday because he believed the way to beat Houston's defense was to attack its linebackers. It was, at the very least, a novel approach. But Gruden also completely outthought himself in the process. When it comes to the playoffs, teams need to dance with who brought them and in the case of Cincinnati, that would be A.J. Green. Andy Dalton had negative-6 yards passing at halftime of the Bengals' 19-13 loss to the Texans on Saturday as Green wasn't even targeted once. When the Bengals changed their approach at halftime to get Green (five catches, 80 yards) more involved, they moved the ball much more effectively in the second half. Granted, credit Wade Phillips for scheming to take Green out of the game. He often used a corner underneath and a safety over top in coverage, which helped neutralize both Green and Dalton. But Gruden's job is to design ways for Green to get open and he didn't do that until Houston had built a 17-6 lead in the third quarter. Failing to utilize his best playmaker in the biggest game of the season could eat at Gruden all offseason.
5. Andy Dalton needs more help.
Andy Dalton has struggled playing against the upper-echelon of NFL defenses in his first two seasons. No quarterback likes to have defenders in their face but Dalton especially struggles when teams figure out how to bring pressure up the middle. The Texans did that on Saturday and Dalton struggled mightily. His overthrow to A.J. Green late in the fourth quarter was so bad that a diving Green (who had broken open on the play) never laid a hand on it. And because of his talent limitations (the biggest knock on him is his average to below-average arm strength), there also seems to be a ceiling to Dalton's development. That said, he's led the Bengals (the Bengals, mind you) to back-to-back postseason appearances. Poor performance or not, Cincinnati isn't considering making a change at quarterback right now, nor should it. That said, the Bengals need to find Dalton more weapons because it's hard to imagine him leading Cincinnati to the Super Bowl on the strengths of his God-given abilities. They need to find another weapon opposite of A.J. Green. They need to find a running back capable of producing explosive runs. They need to find a slot receiver with breakaway speed and another pass-catching tight end to go along with Jermaine Gresham. Outside of upgrading the middle linebacker position (Rey Maualuga was repeatedly exposed on Saturday), Cincinnati's defense is in good shape. What the Bengals need to focus on now is elevating the talent around their quarterback or else the expectations for both Dalton and the offense should be tempered.
6. The Texans seemed relieved, which isn't a good thing with who's coming up.
Despite their victory over the Bengals on Saturday, the Texans are far from "fixed." Houston dominated Cincinnati in every facet of the game except the scoreboard. Arian Foster went off for 174 yards of total offense and J.J. Watt was once again a one-man wrecking crew but Houston still couldn't pull away. In fact, had Andy Dalton not overthrown an open A.J. Green in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, Cincinnati could have easily pulled off a victory. Instead, the Texans hung on for victory and were rewarded with a trip to New England (the site of their 42-14 massacre in Week 14). One touchdown and four field goals isn't going to cut it next weekend versus the Patriots. Nobody game plans to take away a team's biggest strength like Bill Belichick, so don't expect Foster to have the same output next Sunday. Can Matt Schaub elevate his play by putting an entire team on his shoulders? Considering how relieved he looked just to make it past a limited Cincinnati squad, it's doubtful.
7. It was a collective effort by the Packers.
As Cris Collinsworth pointed out on the broadcast Saturday night, Green Bay's defense did a great job walling off Adrian Peterson throughout the game. Considering he still rushed for 99 yards it's not as if the Packers shut him down, but they ensured that he didn't break long runs by tackling and constantly putting defenders in his face. But it was a collective effort by the Packers, who are at their best when they get everyone involved offensively. John Kuhn only touched the ball five times but he found the end zone twice. Greg Jennings didn't score but he routinely caught passes on third down to keep the chains moving and DuJuan Harris did a nice job serving as Aaron Rodgers' check down option. Speaking of which, Rodgers didn't post monster numbers but he was highly efficient. His poise and accuracy allowed Green Bay to sustain drives and keep Peterson on the sidelines. With Joe Webb floundering on the other side, once Rodgers and the offense built a lead you knew the Packers could start preparing for San Francisco. The task gets much more difficult a week from now but Mike McCarthy had to be pleased with his team's sound effort on Sunday night.
8. Win or lose, it was a hell of a season for the Colts.
This goes without saying - Andrew Luck needs more help. Save for Arizona, Indianapolis had the worst pass protection in football this year and yet because of Luck, the Colts made the playoffs. But teams that regularly have to throw the ball 50-plus times a game don't win, especially on the road in the playoffs. He was hit on damn near every pass attempt this season and unlike Russell Wilson and RGIII, Luck wasn't aided by an effective running game. He, and the Chuck Pagano-inspired Colts, were the best surprise of the 2012 season. And while I thought they would have kept the game on Sunday closer than they did, it was still a very successful season for that team. It won't be long before the Colts are winning AFC South titles on a consistent basis again.
9. The Ravens offense finally woke up.
Throw out their impressive Week 16 victory over the Giants, the Ravens haven't exactly been awe-inspiring of late. Their offense has struggled in large part to Ray Rice being limited by his own offensive coordinator and Joe Flacco's inconsistency. But on in the second half on Sunday, Baltimore's offense finally awoke from its month-long slumber. Anquan Boldin was marvelous. He essentially put the entire offense on his shoulders while harassing cornerback Cassius Vaughn of pass plays of 50, 46 and 21 yards. On a day when Ray Rice uncharacteristically put the ball on the ground twice, he stepped up when his offense needed him most. Credit the Ravens defense too, because they consistently came up with stops or held the Colts to three points when their backs were against the wall. This is a team built for the postseason and while Denver looks like an unstoppable force, don't forget that Baltimore has often resembled an immovable object in the past. They'll likely give Peyton Manning all he can handle next weekend.
10. Was anybody else left unfulfilled?
Life is all about expectations. The moment the final seconds ticked off the clock in Washington's Week 17 victory over Dallas I immediately became excited for the weekend of playoff bliss that was ahead. RGIII vs. Russell Wilson? Adrian Peterson vs. Green Bay III? Andrew Luck making his first postseason start? Yes, please. Fast forward to Sunday night and I'm left completely unfilled. That just wasn't a very sharp weekend of football. Cincinnati, Minnesota and Indianapolis all stunk. Washington came out of the gates hot but RGIII's knee injury cooled that fire. Aaron Rodgers and Joe Flacco were good, but they were the only quarterbacks that played well. None of the games were blowouts by definition yet all four somehow managed to seem over well before the final whistle blew. After watching Northern Illinois, Kansas State and Oklahoma make a mockery of their bowl games, football fans were ready for a great weekend of NFL action. But instead we got three lackluster finishes and one game (Seattle-Washington) that barely would have caused a ripple on a regular NFL Sunday. "Meh" was the word of the weekend.
1. Adrian Peterson is this year's MVP.
It wouldn't be a travesty if Peyton Manning were to claim this year's MVP award. It wouldn't be a crime, an injustice, or a mockery for the NFL. Having said that, Adrian Peterson is so clearly this year's most valuable player that it's almost not even worth discussing. The Vikings went 3-13 last year and owned the third overall pick in the draft (later traded to Cleveland for the fourth overall selection, which was used on outstanding left tackle Matt Kalil). Nobody expected them to finish third in a competitive NFC North, nevertheless winning 10 games and clinching a playoff spot. And with all due respect to Minnesota's offensive line and underrated defense, without Peterson accomplishing what he did this season, the Vikings may not have won half of the games they did. Opponents put together game plans solely to stop Peterson and often dared second-year quarterback Christian Ponder to beat them, which he rarely did. Yet Peterson did the extraordinary by amassing 1,598 yards over the final 10 games, a number still good enough to lead the league in rushing this season. He finished with a 6.03 yards per carry average, totaled over 100 yards rushing in nine of his final 10 games, and rushed for over 200 yards on two separate occasions. Had there been one more minute left in Sunday's contest versus the Packers, there is a good chance Peterson would have broke Eric Dickerson's single-game rushing record as well. All this despite suffering an injury at the end of last season that usually takes players two full seasons to recover from. Consider this as well: Peterson rushed a career-high 34 times in the Vikings' 37-34 win over the Packers, who oh-by-the-way needed a win to clinch a first-round bye next week. Most running backs wear down throughout an entire season - "All Day" seemingly got stronger. He's a remarkable player who just put the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable seasons in NFL history. If that doesn't net him the most prestigious individual award in football, what will?
2. Peyton Manning is deserving of Comeback Player of the Year.
Without Adrian Peterson having a season for the ages, the Vikings would have likely missed the playoffs. Without Peyton Manning, the Broncos may have still been good enough to beat the toilet water in the AFC West thanks to their stout defense. Granted, Denver wouldn't have clinched the No. 1 seed without Manning but you get the point. Those are just a few reasons why Peterson should be considered the most valuable player in the NFL this season. (The other reasons are detailed above.) But at this time last year, people wondered whether or not Manning would, or better yet, should retire after not taking a single snap in 2011. And all he's done this year is put together one of the finest seasons of his illustrious career. He finished the regular season with 4,659 yards passing, 37 touchdowns, a 68.6 completion percentage and a 105.8 QB rating, which were all Denver Broncos records. His three-touchdown performance against Kansas City on Sunday was also the 73rd of Manning's career and gave him yet another NFL record. As mentioned in "Observation No. 1," it wouldn't be a farce if Manning were named MVP. But considering his road back to the gridiron was paved with multiple neck/back surgeries, an entire season spent on the sidelines, and a change of cities, Manning's "comeback" was more impressive than Peterson's. Either way, both players should be properly recognized for their impressive feats this season.
3. The Texans' collapse is nearly complete.
On December 2 the Texans were 11-1 having just beaten the Titans to earn their sixth-straight victory. At that moment it seamed unimaginable that Houston wouldn't have home field advantage throughout the postseason. But the Texans, losers of three of their last four games following their 28-16 defeat in Indianapolis on Sunday, have completely collapsed. Injuries on defense have turned a once top-5 unit into one susceptible of big plays. (See Andrew Luck's 70-yard touchdown pass to T.Y. Hilton as proof.) But there are no excuses as to why Houston's offense has become punchless over the past month. At the root of the issue is quarterback Matt Schaub, who threw two ugly interceptions to Indy cornerback Vontae Davis on Sunday. Despite completing a high-percentage of throws, Schaub was ineffective for the second straight week and for the third time in his last four games. Remember, Schaub doesn't have a postseason start under his belt. It would have been nice for the Texans if their playoff-inexperienced quarterback could have built a little momentum heading into next week. Instead, the Texans enter the postseason as one of the coldest teams in the field of 12. And while the Bengals are the least imposing team in this year's playoffs, their underrated defense is certainly good enough to hold Houston's struggling offense in check. The Texans now have less than a week to figure out how they've gone from Super Bowl favorites to title pretenders.
4. RGIII, AP and the Hawks - the bottom of the NFC is dangerous.
Try as they did, the Cowboys didn't have much of an answer for Robert Griffin III on Sunday night. As he's done to opponents all season, RGIII forced Dallas' defense to play back on its heels, which in turn made Alfred Morris more effective. The Packers also had a hell of a time trying to corral Adrian Peterson, whom they'll see again in less than a week. The Seahawks, meanwhile, have won five straight games and are arguably the hottest team in the NFC…as the fifth seed. Granted, the media always tries to over hype the lower seeds in the playoffs. That's probably because we spend an entire season pointing out flaws in the higher-ranked seeds (it's human nature). But in the case of the Skins, Vikes and Hawks, there's no downplaying how dangerous they are on any given Sunday. Granted, either the Redskins or Seahawks will be finished next weekend because they play each other in the first round, but would anyone be surprised if any one of these teams wind up in the NFC title game? Thanks to all six teams winning at least 10 games this season, the NFC playoff field is highly intriguing this year.
5. Romo once again saves his worst performance for last.
Heading into Sunday night's NFC East title tilt between the Redskins and Cowboys, no quarterback in the league was hotter than Tony Romo. In his previous eight games he had thrown 17 touchdown passes to just three interceptions and thanks to plenty of help from Dez Bryant, was practically willing Dallas to a division crown and a playoff berth. But in typical Romo fashion, he saved his worst performance for the biggest moment of the season. He did toss two touchdown passes, which included a crucial 10-yard completion to Kevin Ogletree midway through the fourth quarter to cut the Redskins' lead down to three with a 2-point conversion. But he also threw three brutal interceptions, the final one coming late in the fourth quarter after the Dallas defense gave its offense a chance to at least tie the game following a punt. Romo wanted to dump the ball off to his running back in the flats and was instead intercepted by linebacker Rob Jackson, who read the play perfectly. It was one of those all-too-familiar moments for Romo, who never saw Jackson retreat to the flats as he lobbed the pass to the sidelines. And thanks to a brutal roughing the passer penalty on Washington's next drive, the Skins were able to put the game away with a touchdown under two minutes to play. The 32-year-old Romo has once again left Jerry Jones in an unenviable situation. He once again posted great numbers while throwing for over 4,600 yards but the Cowboys will once again be at home for the playoffs. The question is, does Jones still believe he can win a Super Bowl with Romo under center? When his team absolutely had to have a win, Romo didn't deliver. Again.
6. The Bears have nobody to blame but themselves.
Chicago fans will undoubtedly blame Green Bay's inability to beat Minnesota as the reason why their beloved Bears missed the playoffs despite finishing with a 10-6 record this season. And technically, they're right. With Chicago's season hanging in the balance, the Packers never led in Minnesota and turned in their worst defensive performance in over a month. But from Weeks 11 through 16, Chicago only won one game over a six-game stretch. They also lost three in a row to start the month of December and couldn't produce against playoff qualifiers Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota and Green Bay. It's a shame that a 10-win team missed the postseason but the Bears did themselves in by leaving their fate in another team's hands (specifically their most hated rivals.)
7. Falcons' Smith still can't gauge risk vs. reward.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith is conservative by nature. He's been criticized for playing not-to-lose, especially in the postseason where he's 0-3 over the past four seasons. And yet, when he does decide to gamble, it comes at the most inopportune times. Take Week 13 of last year for example. His decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 in overtime cost his team a potential victory versus the Saints. He also went for it on fourth down on multiple occasions during the Falcons' embarrassing 24-2 loss to the Giants in the wild card round, none of which were successful. Fast forward to Sunday when, in a meaningless game, he played his starters in a lackluster loss to the Bucs. The decision could prove to be costly too, as Dunta Robinson (concussion) and John Abraham (ankle) left the game with injuries. Abraham is the bigger concern, as he had to be helped off the field by trainers. Why, with nothing to gain, would Smith risk injury to one of his starters? What was he and the Falcons hoping to prove by going through the motions versus a Tampa Bay team looking to end the season on a high note? If anything, it planted the seed of doubt in a team that had built up some momentum the past two weeks. If Abraham's injury proves to be serious, then Smith should be questioned for why he can't manage simple risk versus reward.
8. Vick's football career reaches a new low.
Michael Vick has been adamant that he's still a starter but he'll be fortunate that some team even views him as a capable backup heading into 2013. All you need to know about Vick's performance on Sunday versus the Giants was that he was pulled in favor of Trent Edwards for the final drive of the game. Over the past two seasons he's gone 10-13 as a starter while throwing 33 interceptions to go with his 32 touchdowns. He also hasn't played a full season since 2006 and his threat to run has been neutralized by his inability to take a hit. He may still fancy himself as a starter but even quarterback-hungry teams like the Cardinals, Chiefs and Jaguars will be weary of handing the reigns to a 33-year-old quarterback who is turnover prone, has never been an accurate passer and who can't stay healthy. Considering many believed he would revolutionize the quarterback position when he came into the league in 2001, Vick may go down as one of the most overrated players in NFL history.
9. Fisher's first season in St. Louis can only be described as a success.
Success can be defined in different ways. Some people probably read the title of this observation and scoffed. Some believe that because the Colts and Vikings surprised by making the postseason, the Rams should have pulled off the same feat. If only life were that black and white. What could posses someone to have such lofty expectations following a 2-14 season and a complete turnover of the roster is beyond me. It wasn't logical that they would make the postseason this year. Hell, it wasn't logical that they could win 8 games, at least not to those outside of St. Louis that weren't mentally and/or monetarily invested in the team. But thanks in large part to Jeff Fisher, 2012 was a success. Free agency was a success. The draft was a success. Winning 80-percent of their games against a tough division was a mark of success, as was learning how to win on the road. Having said that, does Sam Bradford need to make longer strides in his development? That's not even an argument - of course he does. But he also deserves an opportunity to compete in a stable environment. Quarterbacks that are forced to learn three different offenses under shoddy tutelage is a recipe for failure. There are some people that have already convinced themselves that he's nothing more than a marginal quarterback capable of only being a Brad Johnson-type game manager. And that's fine - we all don't need to agree. But here are the facts: He threw for a career-high 3,702 yards and 21 touchdowns while managing to start every game of the season (a feat he couldn't accomplish in 2011). Those are signs of improvement. It might not be the improvement that many had hoped, but the bottom line is that he's a better quarterback now than he was in 2010. More importantly, the Rams are a better team than they were two years ago when they walked out of CenturyLink Field. Only this time nobody should have false hope about the direction the franchise is headed in.
The pass that Andrew Luck made when he looked off the safety and hit T.Y. Hilton perfectly in stride for a 70-yard touchdown was one of the prettiest throws by any quarterback this season. He's a special player and NFL fans are more enriched by the fact that he and the Colts are in the playoffs…Speaking of which, would anyone be surprised if Indianapolis beat Baltimore next week? The Ravens aren't exactly sprinting into the postseason…Peyton Manning continued to make his case for NFL MVP by throwing another three touchdown passes on Sunday, but did you see the catches that Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker made? The catch by Thomas was one of the best of the year…Don't be surprised if the Panthers make the postseason next year. They finished 2012 as one of the hottest teams in the leageu and scored at least 30 points in three of their final four games…2012 turned out to be a lost season for the Saints but it doesn't take away what Drew Brees accomplished. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and with Sean Payton back in the fold next year, the Saints will remain explosive…It's funny, the NFC South was viewed as one of the best divisions in football at the start of the year. By midseason it was viewed as a joke but all four of the division's inhabitants could be playoff contenders next year…If I'm Jets owner Woody Johnson I'm keeping Rex Ryan in place for his defense and finding both a new quarterback and a new GM for 2013…Credit the Lions for playing with pride. That's more than anyone can say about the Eagles…The Steelers' season turned out to be a major disappointment but for the 12th time in 13 years they avoided having a losing season. That's sustained success right there…Congratulations to the Chiefs for notching the No. 1 overall pick in next April's draft. It was well earned…Terrelle Pryor is hardly the answer at quarterback for the Oakland Raiders but if nothing else, he gave them something to think about with his two-touchdown performance on Sunday…One of the broadcasters made a good point following the Seahawks' hard-fought 20-13 win over the Rams on Sunday. After steamrolling opponents the past couple of months, it'll serve Seattle well to have fought through a little adversity…If Michael Crabtree plays as well as in the playoffs as he did on Sunday then the Niners aren't going to miss Mario Manningham…RGIII vs. Russell Wilson? Can't wait.
1. Nobody should sleep on the Ravens.
The Baltimore Ravens could go from playoff afterthought to Super Bowl contenders very quickly. Their fate depends on Joe Flacco, who finally awoke from his month-long slumber to complete 25-of-36 passes for 309 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in the Ravens’ 33-14 rout of the Giants in Baltimore. When Flacco plays like he did on Sunday, you understand why some believed that Baltimore would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Flacco was almost relentless in attacking a sub par New York secondary, as he constantly toyed with cornerback Corey Webster on deep throws. He was confident, he was in total command of the offense, and he was poised as a passer. Most importantly, he was a catalyst for Baltimore’s offense instead of a deterrent, as he didn’t throw an interception for the first time since Week 12. With that Joe Flacco under center, the Ravens become a much different team heading into the postseason.
2. I was wrong about the 49ers.
Last week I insisted that the 49ers were the best team in the NFC. But the Seahawks proved me wrong with their 42-13 romp over San Francisco on Sunday night. I’m not convinced that Seattle can win a Super Bowl with Russell Wilson running around backyard-football style, but I do know that teams are less intimidated by the 49ers now than they were a week ago at this time. Maybe their lousy performance was the byproduct of them playing in New England last week or the absence of Justin Smith proves that he means more to their defense than anyone originally knew. But that’s still no excuse not to show up for a huge divisional game on primetime television. San Francisco has been widely considered the most physical team in the NFL but Seattle pounded the Niners into submission last night. All Jim Harbaugh could do was watch as the Seahawks racked up points while his players limped off the field. He also witnessed what happens when his team falls behind early and his offense can no longer remain balanced. Colin Kaepernick made a couple of nice throws but he otherwise looked befuddled and confused by what Seattle’s defense was doing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. And to watch San Francisco struggle to contain Seattle’s option attack was startling. I’m not ready to crown the Niners dead or put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. But last night was eye opening to say the least.
3. There won’t be a December miracle for the Giants this time around.
The New York Giants have become a team under Tom Coughlin that believes it can push a button and turn it on whenever they need to. But the past two weeks have shown that even defending Super Bowl champions can’t play flat and expect to win. In his past two games, Eli Manning has totaled 311 yards with just one touchdown and two interceptions while looking befuddled by what was going on around him. But to solely blame Manning for New York’s woes would be ridiculous. His offensive line can’t protect him, his running game has disappeared, and his defense has put him in early holes too insurmountable to overcome. This collapse by the Giants has taken a total team effort and there will be no December miracle this year. Granted, they can still clinch the sixth seed in the NFC but even if they beat the Eagles next Sunday, they would still need the Vikings to lose to the Packers, the Bears to lose to the Lions, and the Cowboys to lose to the Redskins. Two or even three of those scenarios may happen, but certainly not all four. Three weeks ago some pondered whether or not the Giants were still the best team in the NFC and now they’re spending Christmas on the brink of elimination.
4. Why isn’t Rodgers being mentioned in MVP discussions?
Aaron Rodgers has yet to eclipse the 4,000-yard passing mark this season but it’s ridiculous that his name isn’t being debated in MVP discussions. His quarterback rating of 106.2 is the best in the NFL and his 35 touchdowns are only four less than league-leader Drew Brees. He also has the Packers on the verge of clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC despite getting little help from his running game and not having Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson healthy for an entire season. He’s compiled seven touchdown passes and 633 passing yards the past two weeks as Green Bay has now won nine of their last 10 games. Ever since that ugly 38-10 loss to the Giants in Week 12, the Packers have become an afterthought. But thanks to a red-hot Rodgers, they might be the most dangerous team in the NFC again.
5. The Falcons are ascending.
The storyline Saturday night in Detroit was Calvin Johnson breaking Jerry Rice’s all-time single-season yardage record and becoming the first receiver in NFL history to record eight straight 100-yard games. The Lions have been a total disaster this season but the one constant has been the play of Johnson, who is well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. But the underlying storyline to come out of Detroit was the fact that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC now travels through Atlanta. Following their hiccup in Carolina, a lot of people nearly broke their necks while jumping off the Falcons’ bandwagon three weeks ago. But Matt Ryan put on another passing clinic on Saturday, completing 25-of-32 passes for 279 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Despite all the yardage they allowed to Johnson and Matthew Stafford, it was also the second time in as many weeks that Atlanta’s defense held an opposing quarterback out of the end zone. And considering those opposing quarterbacks were Stafford and Eli Manning, that’s noteworthy. The Falcons aren’t going to convince anyone that they’re a Super Bowl contender until they win a playoff game with Ryan under center. But while all the attention in the NFC has now shifted to the Redskins and the Seahawks, the team with the best record in the NFL has very quietly started to hit its stride.
6. The Texans are regressing.
The Falcons and Texans’ seasons have pretty much run parallel to each other all season. Until now, that is. As the Falcons have started to ascend, the Texans have been regressing since their 13-6 victory over the Bears in Chicago on November 11. Since then, they could have easily lost back-to-back overtime games to the Jaguars and Lions, and did lose to the Patriots and Vikings the past three weeks. Their other wins came against the Titans and Colts, with the latter being only marginally impressive considering the Texans were in the red zone five times and scored just one touchdown. This isn’t the same juggernaut that ran through its schedule the first half of the season. It’s not good when your starting quarterback is pulled in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss at home, especially when that blowout loss comes in Week 16. Sunday’s loss to the Vikings was the first time the Texans failed to score a touchdown since Matt Schaub became their starting quarterback in 2007. Credit the Vikings for bottling up Houston’s running game and taking away Owen Daniels while leaving Schaub second-guessing himself all day. But this is a Houston team that many considered would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl and is now on the verge of coughing up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. At a time when teams want to be sprinting into the postseason, the Texans are stumbling backwards.
7. Defense, Ponder lift Vikings this time.
Minnesota’s defense stole the show on Sunday in Houston. Arian Foster left the game early because of an irregular heartbeat but he was held to just 15 yards on 10 carries before that. The Vikings also did a great job of taking Houston’s tight ends out of the game and limiting Andre Johnson’s ability to beat them deep. Christian Ponder finally rose to the challenge too, completing 16-of-30 passes for 174 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Like many opponents do, the Texans loaded up the box with eight and nine-man fronts in order to stop Adrian Peterson. They dared Ponder to beat them and he did, converting 8-of-17 third down attempts while also scrambling seven times for 48 yards. On a day when they needed to pull off a huge road win, it was because of Ponder and the defense that Minnesota remains alive in the NFC. Of course, one huge challenge still awaits the Vikings in the form of Green Bay this Sunday. Win and Minnesota is in.
8. Don’t blame Romo for the Cowboys’ collapse.
If the Cowboys wind up missing the postseason, nobody better blame Tony Romo for the team’s misfortunes. Granted, he was a factory for turnovers earlier in the season but he’s thrown 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions over his last eight games. When a quarterback completes 26-of-43 passes for 416 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions, the team should win. The fact is that Rob Ryan’s defense had no answer for Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense, which shredded Dallas’ secondary all afternoon. Jason Garrett also didn’t help matters but only running the ball 11 times and therefore not sustaining long drives in order to help Romo and his defense. Alas, the Cowboys still have one more chance to save their season as a win over Washington this weekend would mean they’re NFC East champs.
9. If true, the Tebow report is unnerving.
According to multiple team sources, ESPN New York is reporting that Tim Tebow pulled himself out of the Jets’ Wildcat package after he was passed over for Greg McElroy to be the team’s starting quarterback last week. Tebow was active for Sunday’s loss to the Chargers, but receiver Jeremy Kerley played the role as quarterback in the Jets’ Wildcat packages, which gives at least some credence to the ESPN report. Granted, it’s not Tebow’s fault that the Jets had no idea how they wanted to use him when they acquired him from Denver. But he won a playoff game for the Broncos last year and the first thing John Elway did was trade him in the offseason. Rex Ryan also stood and watched as Mark Sanchez single-handedly flushed the Jets’ playoff hopes down the toilet and he still refused to switch to Tebow. Maybe the ESPN report is inaccurate or there’s more to the story. Maybe the Jets told Tebow that he was being pulled so that they could get a closer look at Kerley in that role. Who knows? But if the story is true, then Tebow needs a massive wake up call. He’s an upstanding human being but that has little to do with playing quarterback in the NFL. He doesn’t have the physical tools as a passer to be a reliable starter and the Patriots proved in last year’s playoffs that college offenses like the one Tebow ran in Denver can only get a team so far. He has every right to be frustrated by the three-ring circus that has become the Jets, but him refusing to play in the Wildcat is no different than Lions receiver Titus Young purposely lining up in the wrong spot in Detroit. In either instance, the players are sabotaging their own offense. Hopefully for everyone involved he’ll be out of New York soon and this charade will finally come to an end.
10. Fisher has finally given St. Louis a reason to be hopeful in December.
Following their 36-22 loss to the Vikings last week, Jeff Fisher told his players that they can either act like a team that just lost one game or act like one that had just won three out of their last four. NFL teams need to have attitude and fortitude in order to be successful and the Rams now have both because of Fisher. Over the past eight years the team hasn’t given their fans reason to be hopeful around Christmas. The last time the city had any reason to be optimistic came in 2010 when the Rams came within a road win in Seattle of winning the NFC West and playing in their first postseason game since 2004. But nobody in St. Louis needs a reminder of what transpired last season and honestly, nobody at Rams Park seems interested in discussing the recent past either. Fans aren’t going to settle for seven wins, nor should they. But here’s the key: Neither will Fisher. Let’s keep things in perspective: One prominent media outlet predicted that the Rams wouldn’t win a game this year. Yet here they are at the conclusion of 16 weeks and they’ve won seven games with one left to go this Sunday. Whether the Rams beat the Seahawks isn’t as important as knowing that their future is bright. The team, their fans, and the city can thank Fisher for that.
It’s not fair to pin the Steelers’ loss on Ben Roethlisberger considering the vicious beating his offensive line gives him every week. But that’s two weeks in a row now that he’s thrown interceptions that cost Pittsburgh games. His latest turnover also knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs…The Bengals deserve praise for finally overcoming the hold that the Steelers had on them to win on Sunday and clinch a playoff spot. It’s not easy to win a late December road game in Pittsburgh with both teams essentially facing playoff elimination…Brady Quinn is a poor man’s Mark Sanchez, which is really saying something about his ability to lead a NFL team. After this week, he shouldn’t start another game the rest of his career…Andrew Luck set the record for most passing yards by a rookie quarterback. What’s even more amazing is that the record lasted just one year. (Cam Newton threw for 4,051 yards in 2011, breaking Peyton Manning’s mark set back in 1998)…Credit the Saints for not throwing in the towel when they know they can’t make the playoffs. Unlike the Titans, the Saints are still playing with pride…The Dolphins have to drive their fans crazy. This is the second year in a row that they’re playing just well enough down the stretch to ruin their chances of higher draft picks. Still, just like with the Saints, it’s good to see a team play out the remainder of their schedule with dignity…The throw RGIII made to Santana Moss for a 22-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter yesterday was a thing of beauty. The NFL needs this kid to be in the playoffs…Just throw the freaking ball Nick Foles! Give your team a chance for cribs’ sake…This in no way is meant to discredit what Peyton Manning and the Broncos have done this season because any team that wins 10 straight games in the NFL is special. But I wonder if Denver will be done in by the fact that it got to beat up on the brutal AFC West this season…Brandon Marshall is a serious talent. The catch he made yesterday where he battled Patrick Peterson while turning his entire body to adjust to a sideline throw by Jay Cutler was outstanding…I was absolutely lambasted a few years ago for questioning whether or not Josh Freeman can be a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. Those fans that called me every name in the book deserve the last two weeks. Just sayin’.
1. Adrian Peterson is this year’s MVP if…
Nobody doubted Peyton Manning’s ability to lead the Broncos to an AFC West title this year. The biggest question surrounding Peyton was his ability to absorb a hit, not fill the one need Denver desperately needed on offense. People assumed he would do that. But nearly every pundit had the Vikings finishing in the basement of the NFC North and yet here they are in the middle of December still competing for a wild card berth. Manning has been outstanding but what Adrian Peterson has been able to accomplish less than a year after major reconstructive knee surgery has been nothing short of incredible. Minnesota’s offensive line and defense shouldn’t be forgotten as we dole out credit for the team’s success, but Peterson is the biggest reason why the Vikings remain relevant in 2012. Opponents design specific game plans in efforts to stop Peterson and yet they can’t even slow him down. They know if they can build a lead and force Christian Ponder to beat them throwing the ball they’ll win. But they can’t because Peterson simply won’t allow them. Granted, Sam Bradford and the Rams helped Minnesota earn its eighth victory of the season on Sunday. But when Peterson sprinted 82 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter the Rams had just tied the game with a Brian Quick 4-yard touchdown reception. It wasn’t as if Peterson’s run put the contest out of reach – it was the beginning of him taking over the game. If he leads the Vikings to the postseason while rushing for over 2,000 yards in a pass-happy NFL, then he undoubtedly has my vote for MVP.
2a. The Bears are finished.
With their 21-13 loss to the Packers, the Bears no longer control their own destiny and they don’t hold the tiebreaker with current fifth seed Seattle because of their 23-17 loss to the Seahawks in Week 13. The question becomes: Will missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years spark change this offseason? How Chicago can fire Lovie Smith when former GM Jerry Angelo ignored the offensive line for most of his tenure is beyond me. Year after year the Bears had opportunities to fix their front five and Angelo never delivered. That said, this is now four straight years that Smith and his coaching staff have been owned by Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers. If your current coaching staff can’t beat your biggest competition, you’ve got an underlying problem.
2b. Packers coach Mike McCarthy makes decisions sometimes…
…that should have all of humanity questioning how the hell he was able to win a Super Bowl. That throwback fake that he called (or allowed his special teams coach Shawn Slocum to call) on the punt return midway through the fourth quarter in Chicago was beyond inane. You’re up 11 points in the fourth quarter, McCarthy, run the clock and secure a victory the ol’ fashion way.
3. Best team in the NFC? It has to be the 49ers.
While they did wind up blowing a 31-3 lead, the 49ers have to be considered the best team in the NFC after the show they put on last night in Foxboro. Granted, the 12-2 Falcons also beat the defending Super Bowl champions 34-0 but no team in the conference can match San Francisco’s physicality and now that Colin Kaepernick is their quarterback, the Niners are now more dangerous on offense, too. As he showed last night by mishandling a handful of snaps from under center and throwing an interception in the end zone, Kaepernick isn’t perfect. But he’s going to learn something new each week that will make him better down the road. It had to be troubling for Jim Harbaugh to watch Tom Brady carve up his defense for 34 points, and adjustments must be made in the secondary. But the bottom line is the Niners not only won the game, but also handled a team that had just humiliated an excellent Houston club just six nights prior.
4a. The Falcons defense has been outstanding against elite QBs.
Fifty-eight point five, 37.6, and 40.7. Those are the quarterback ratings of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning when facing the Falcons in the Georgia Dome this year. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan put together another fantastic game plan on Sunday, one that had Eli Manning under constant duress while shutting down running back David Wilson in the second half. They managed to shutout the defending Super Bowl champions without one of their key defenders, safety William Moore, all while stuffing New York on three separate fourth-and-shorts. Matt Ryan is now 33-4 at home over his career, and Nolan’s aggressive defense has done its finest work inside the Georgia Dome this year. The Falcons won’t quiet critics until they win a playoff game. But they’ve got a great chance to pick up their first postseason win if they can secure home field throughout.
4b. There isn’t a more maddening team in the NFL than the New York Giants.
Four weeks ago the Giants crushed Green Bay 38-10 but followed up that performance with a 17-16 loss in Washington. Then they scored 52 points in a 52-27 beat-down of the Saints only to post a goose egg in a 34-0 loss to the Falcons on Sunday. Eli Manning had one of those games where you wanted to shake him to make sure he wasn’t sleepwalking and David Wilson bombed as the team’s featured back (at least in the second half). New York’s secondary is also extremely beat up and several defensive linemen walked off the field limping after trying (and failing) to tackle Atlanta ball carriers throughout the day. Granted, we know better not to count Tom Coughlin’s team out when they still have plenty of life. But Giants fans have every reason to be concerned after what transpired in Atlanta on Sunday.
5. The Seahawks have become that team nobody wants to face in the first round.
Granted, over the past two weeks they’ve beaten up on Arizona and Buffalo. But they also outscored Arizona and Buffalo 108-17 and somehow managed to score three defensive touchdowns in the process. And if that didn’t get your attention, Pete Carroll is having his team throw deep on fourth down up 58-0 and calling fake punts up 30 points in the fourth quarter. Here’s what’s really scary: Marshawn Lynch is ripping through tackles and bursting into defensive backfields while also allowing to rest in the fourth quarter because his services are no longer needed in blowouts. Seattle’s biggest offensive weapon is going to be fresh – relatively speaking, of course – come January, and that should leave the Seahawks’ future opponents awfully anxious.
6. Putting Cousin’s performance into perspective.
It’s amazing, really. The Redskins found two quarterbacks with potential in this year’s draft while the Browns can’t find one intriguing quarterback in 14 years of drafting. It’s one thing to play hero when you only take seven snaps at the end of a game. It’s quite another to go on the road with your team’s playoff hopes on the line and face an opponent that not only has had an entire week to game plan for you, but is also in the midst of a three-game winning streak. Kirk Cousins (26-of-37 for 329 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) was beyond impressive in Washington’s Week 15 victory over Cleveland. He was poised, calm under pressure, and showed a fair amount of mobility as well. The 54-yard touchdown throw he made when he rolled to his right on a designed bootleg and dropped the ball perfectly into Leonard Hankerson’s arms was a thing of beauty. With their biggest superstar sidelined with a knee injury (RGIII), Cousins may have just saved the Redskins’ season.
7. Sam Bradford remains completely indefinable.
Bradford completed 35-of-55 passes for 377 yards with three touchdowns in Sunday’s loss to the Vikings. But he also threw an interception and lost a fumble that in large part led to the Rams falling behind 30-7 at halftime. Never have I witnessed a player give both his critics and supporters enough firepower to continue one excruciating debate after another. He’s making progress yet he’s painfully inconsistent. He often delivers uneven performances yet he can be clutch in crucial moments. He’s completing 60-percent of his passes yet he somehow battles with his accuracy. Is he on the verge of greatness or straddling the line between good and mediocre? Is he the next Eli Manning or Alex Smith? Half of St. Louis will draw one comparison while the second half will settle for the other. It’s maddening. Here’s what we know about Bradford: He should continue to improve if the Rams continue to build around him. They need to strengthen their offensive line, add playmakers to their receiving corps, and offer him some stability by not changing the offense. Here’s what we don’t know: Everything else.
8. One bad decision dooms Roethlisberger, Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger was fantastic on Sunday in Dallas. He completed 24-of-40 passes for 339 yards with two touchdowns and constantly bought himself time by moving outside of the pocket. On one play in the second quarter, he evaded the pass rush (a very good NFL pass rush in Dallas) for nearly 10 seconds before finding Heath Miller for a 30-yard touchdown. It was one of those games where an elite quarterback put his team on his shoulders and was practically willing them to victory. Of course, his performance on this day will be remembered for his biggest mistake. Brandon Carr made a fantastic interception in overtime when he jumped a route and picked off Roethlisberger to set the Cowboys up for a game-winning field goal. The loss left Pittsburgh at 7-7 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs with two games to go. If the Steelers can’t sweep their final two games and sneak into the postseason, that one throw will loom large.
8a. The NFC East is once again ready for a thrilling ending.
Everyone figured the Cowboys would eventually settle for a .500 season but their massive victory over the Steelers on Sunday has breathed new life into Dallas. The victory came on the heels of the Redskins’ win over the Browns, but also the Giants’ embarrassing 34-0 loss to the Falcons. If the playoffs were to start today, the Redskins would own the fourth seed after securing first place in the NFC East, while the Giants would be the sixth seed and the Cowboys would be on the outside looking in. But fortunately for diehard NFL fans, there’s still two more weeks of thrilling football to be played in the East. The Cowboys might have the toughest road, as they’ll host the always-dangerous Saints this Sunday before finishing at Washington. The Redskins, meanwhile, will visit the hapless Eagles on Sunday before hosting Dallas in Week 17, and the Giants will visit Baltimore before hosting Philadelphia in their final game of the season. Of course, the Bears and Vikings are still in the wild card mix as well so buckle up, sit tight and enjoy the friggin’ ride.
9a. Joe Flacco is literally burning future earnings every week.
Flacco completed 20-of-40 passes for 254 yards with two touchdowns in Baltimore’s 34-17 loss to Denver, but he did most of his damage after he put his team in a 31-3 hole. He lost a fumble on a quarterback sneak and before throwing a pick-six at the goal line he sprinkled in three straight three-and-outs, which allowed the Broncos to build a sizeable lead. The Ravens are going to begrudgingly win the AFC North and make the playoffs for the fifth straight year, where they could be bounced very early. Somewhere Cam Cameron is smiling.
9b. Moreno finally flashing his ability in Denver.
Now finally healthy, Knowshon Moreno is running like the back that Denver thought it drafted back in 2009. He literally jumped over Ed Reed in the Broncos’ 34-17 victory over the Ravens on Sunday, and Reed was practically standing up. Athens, Georgia grew accustomed to Moreno’s combination of power and athleticism, but now it’s a welcome sight in Denver, too. Moreno has allowed the Broncos offense to continue firing on all cylinders despite losing Willis McGahee.
10. The Panthers will be a playoff contender at this point next year.
The pass two weeks Cam Newton has been sharp on passes outside the numbers and in turn, he’s made DeAngelo Williams a bigger weapon in both the running and screen game. While they’ll need to continue to build on the defensive side of the ball and give Newton another weapon in the passing game, the Panthers will be a team to reckon with in 2013. Following the team’s third win in their last four games, Carolina fans are appropriately asking themselves, ‘Where has this been all season?’
1. The Redskins dodge two big bullets.
It’s ironic to think that back in April Mike Shanahan and the Redskins were blasted for drafting quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round instead of filling one of their many needs. Because just over five months later Cousins wound up saving a game for the Skins, if not their entire season. For Cousins to show so much poise and composure while leading the Redskins to a 31-28 come-from-behind victory over the Ravens was impressive. He was thrust into a situation where his decisions would directly affect whether or not his team would win or lose and he performed like a 10-year veteran as opposed to a fourth-round rookie. Instead of allowing the moment to overwhelm him, he displayed fortitude while finding Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with under a minute remaining in the game. Not only that, but he also ran for a 2-point conversion to tie the game at 28 and send it into overtime, where Washington eventually won. Afterwards it was revealed that an MRI on RGIII’s right knee came back clear and it appears as though the 7-6 Redskins will have their starting quarterback for the stretch run. Of course, if RGIII can’t go, Washington is fortunate to have a backup like Cousins. That’s something nobody expected anyone would say back in April.
2. The Bears may be on the verge of their second straight collapse.
The Bears would have made the playoffs last season had Matt Forte and Jay Cutler not been injured. That’s more of a presumption than a fact, but the bottom line is that they were undone by injuries and they might be suffering from déjà vu. With Brian Urlacher inactive, Chicago’s defense was no match for Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 31 yards on 154 carries and two touchdowns in Minnesota’s 21-14 victory. Worse yet, Cutler was shaken up late in the fourth quarter and is now day-to-day with a neck injury. We’ve seen this scene already play out multiple times: the Bears won’t survive without Cutler, who continues to take abuse from his shoddy offensive line. Fortunately for Chicago it plays Arizona in two weeks and wraps up the season against a Detroit team with nothing to play for. But the NFC North could be up for grabs next week and if Cutler can’t play, the Bears could suffer the same fate they did a season ago.
3. It took nearly three months but Cam Newton is finally putting on a show.
Turnovers and an inability to close out games doomed Cam Newton over the first three months of the season. That’s why instead of challenging for a postseason berth like some had thought they would, the Panthers stumbled to a 2-8 record. But Newton has been luminous over his past three games while playing like the star he was a season ago. He’s thrown for over 800 yards the past three weeks while posting a 7:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completing 62.2-percent of his passes. In Carolina’s impressive 30-20 victory over Atlanta on Sunday, Newton nearly played mistake-free football while completing 23-of-35 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also added 116 yards on nine rushes, including a 72-yard touchdown scamper on a read option in which he flashed his explosiveness and patience as a runner. He was even more impressive as a passer. It wasn’t just that he was accurate – he was accurate while throwing a handful of passes outside the numbers. He racked up 53 yards and a touchdown on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams in the fourth quarter, but the majority of his throws were lasers to receivers with defenders draped over them. He also benefited from an angry Steve Smith, who took 13 weeks of frustrations out on an overmatched Atlanta defense. Granted, it’s too little, too late for Newton and the Panthers. But Carolina has to feel much better about Newton’s performance over the past three weeks than it did earlier in the season when he sulked his way to six losses in his first seven games.
4. Reality is starting to set in for the Ravens.
The Ravens were a team of resiliency earlier this year but now they’re just a team trying to hold it all together. Thanks to injuries, they’re lacking playmakers on the defensive side of the ball and while their offense has been the highlight of their season at times, they’re an inconsistent unit led by an inconsistent quarterback. They caught a massive break when both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also lost on Sunday, but Baltimore can’t feel too good about allowing Kirk Cousins to put together an unthinkable comeback in the Redskins’ 31-28 victory. It was a game in which the Ravens held an eight-point lead until Cousins found Pierre Garcon on an 11-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds remaining, and a long punt return by Richard Crawford set up Kai Forbath’s 34-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. One week after losing to a banged up Steelers team, the Ravens were beaten by a rookie quarterback and his rookie backup. At 9-4 they’re still in good shape to make the postseason and even win the division. But at a point when teams hope to be ascending, Baltimore is stumbling backwards with legitimate concerns on both sides of the ball.
5. Skepticism once again takes center stage in Atlanta.
Instead of wondering whether or not they can make a Super Bowl run, the Falcons have once again left everyone doubting whether they can even win a playoff game. Their 30-20 loss to the Panthers was much worse than the final score would indicate. Carolina dominated Atlanta in all three phases of the game, which is noteworthy considering the Panthers currently reside in the basement of the NFC South. The Falcons’ game plan on both sides of the ball was rudimentary and despite scoring 20 points, their offense looked bogged down outside of a handful of drives. Opponents are making a habit of bringing pressure and putting it right in Matt Ryan’s face and the Falcons can’t counter the onslaught because they can’t run the ball. They also can’t stop the run, which was apparent by the 195 rushing yards their defense gave up on Sunday. Granted, they were without Week 13 hero William Moore (hamstring) and starting corner Asante Samuel (shoulder), but they can’t use injuries as an excuse. The Panthers manhandled them for four quarters and even though they’re 11-2, the Falcons are left with more questions than answers at this critical junction in the season.
6. The Rams are finding it’s better to be lucky than good.
In their past two games, the Rams defense has held the rushing trio of Frank Gore, Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller to 109 yards on 39 carries (2.79 YPC). A team doesn’t do that by accident. It takes a great game plan and near-flawless execution in order to suffocate some of the best backs in the league. What the Rams have done defensively over the past two weeks is hold their opponent just long enough for their offense to muster the confidence to move the ball into scoring range. That said, in taking nothing away from the heroics of Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Janoris Jenkins and Michael Brockers, the Rams have discovered it’s better to be lucky than good. If Jim Harbaugh doesn’t arrogantly call a toss play with Colin Kaepernick in the fourth quarter last week, the Rams probably don’t have an opportunity to beat the 49ers. If Austin Pettis doesn’t make a spectacular catch on a pass that was thrown behind him on a crucial fourth down play on Sunday, the Rams don’t beat the Bills either. (Buffalo also dropped at least two potential interceptions on that same drive.) But just as the adage goes, winners make their own luck. The Rams defense deserved to win the past two weeks, as did the much-maligned Brandon Gibson, the often forgotten Pettis, and the polarizing Sam Bradford (who didn’t become gun shy despite nearly ending the Rams’ comeback hopes with an interception). When a team goes 29-83 in between its last playoff appearance and the hiring of yet another head coach, luck can ride shotgun as long as the wins keep piling up.
7. The Giants might be the best team in the NFC (again).
Throw out the records – the 49ers are better than the Falcons. If the two were to met on a neutral field next Sunday, San Francisco would pound Atlanta on the ground and the Falcons wouldn’t be able to stop Colin Kaepernick or the option (much like they didn’t stop Cam Newton Sunday in Carolina). But the Giants took it to the Niners in San Fran earlier this season and with how good they looked versus the Saints in their 52-27 victory, New York might just be the best team in the NFC despite being 8-5. Having said all that, the Falcons will probably beat the Giants next Sunday in Atlanta and force me to take back everything I just wrote. (The NFC is a maddening bitch this year, isn’t it?)
8. The Steelers offense is regressing.
There were a number of things that had to disturb Steelers coach Mike Tomlin following the Chargers’ 34-24 victory. San Diego’s 34 points were the most that Pittsburgh allowed at Heinz Field in two years and Sunday marked the first time the Chargers had ever won a regular season game in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger’s return also did nothing for a Steelers offense that appears to be regressing heading down the stretch. Roethlisberger looked rusty out of the gates while throwing low to intended targets and struggling with his accuracy throughout the first half. His offensive line didn’t do him any favors either, and losing Willie Colon to injury in the second quarter forced Pittsburgh to reshuffle its front five. The result was predictable for the Steelers, who did nothing against San Diego’s aggressive front seven (which also shut down Pittsburgh’s running game). On a day when the Ravens and Bengals both lost, the Steelers blew a golden opportunity to gain ground/separation in the AFC playoff race. Tomlin’s only hope is that the loss to San Diego was a result of a hangover stemming from the win over Baltimore last week. Because the alternative is that a struggling Chargers team just exposed his squad n both sides of the ball.
9. Good for Andy Reid.
It’s been so easy to get caught up in trying to figure out who Andy Reid’s replacement will be next season that you forget Reid still occupies the job. You forget that Reid is still pouring countless hours of preparation into a game that, for all intents and purposes, won’t matter if his team wins or loses. You forget that this man still has a job to do despite everyone around him asking when he’ll be handed his walking papers. Nick Foles ability to find Jeremy Maclin on a 1-yard touchdown pass with no time left on the clock to give Philadelphia a 23-21 win over Tampa Bay won’t save Reid’s job. His players seemingly quit on him weeks ago and management has probably already made up its mind that a change is in order. But for one Sunday it was touching to see Reid engage in a long embrace with one of his assistants following the Eagles’ 23-21 victory. For one Sunday, Reid can celebrate all of the hard work that he did leading up to kickoff. For one Sunday, Reid can embrace victory.
Want to know how weird Sunday was? The Browns were the highlight of the AFC North…After putting together a complete win against the Steelers, Charger fans can understandably ask: Where the hell was that effort all season?…Give the Comeback Player of the Year Award to both Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson. Seriously, just add an “s” to “Player” and call it a day. They’ve both been fantastic and the league will be slighting the player who doesn’t win so make everyone happen and have co-winners this season. Either that, or I want someone to look me in the eye and tell me one of those two players doesn’t deserve it…The Colts continue to defy logic. The past two weeks I watched that team play sloppy football for at least a half, only to still win in the end…It’ll be disappointing if Ken Whisenhunt winds up being the fall guy in Arizona, because GM Rod Graves is just as much at fault. If the Cardinals want to ensure that talented DC Ray Horton is given a shot to be a head coach, they could replace Horton with Whisenhunt for the final three games of the season. But it’s been Graves’ inability to find Whisenhunt a quarterback and built a component offensive line that has doomed the Cardinals. If Whisenhunt is ousted, it’s unfair that Graves is allowed to keep his job…Pete Carroll must have thought he was still trying to impress the BCS by running up the score versus the Cardinals. For the record, I have no problem with the Seahawks still throwing the ball up 83-0 on Arizona. The last time I checked, the Cardinals were still allowed to play with 11 defenders so if they didn’t like what the Seahawks were doing, they should have stopped them. That said, if Jim Harbaugh runs up the score against Seattle in two weeks, Carroll better not say a word…I hope Titus Young watched the effort that Kris Durham gave on Sunday night for the Lions and is embarrassed by his actions over the past few weeks…The ending of the 49ers’ victory over the Dolphins was exactly why Jim Harbaugh has decided to go with Colin Kaepernick over Alex Smith. Just in case you were wondering…Defense isn’t the only issues the Saints have – that was a horrendous effort on special teams and for the second straight week, Drew Brees wasn’t very good either…The tragedies in Kansas City and Dallas the past two weeks have shown that the NFL and its 32 teams can only do so much when it comes to protecting its players. It’s ultimately up to these young men to make good decisions and the NFL can only hope that one of these times that the message will get through. Take a cab, reach out when you need it, and don’t be careless with your life or others.
1. Quinn’s words on Belcher were inspirational.
I can’t imagine the pain that Romeo Crennel, Scott Pioli, and the entire Kansas City Chiefs organization is going through right now. And it’s fruitless to talk about whether or not the game should have been played because the moment that Jovan Belcher took two lives (his own and the life of his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins), the only people that could answer that question was Crennel and his players. And as I sat in my office trying to gather my thoughts on what transpired over the weekend, Brady Quinn flashed across my TV screen and managed to put many things into perspective: “I know when it happened, I was sitting and, in my head, thinking what I could have done differently,” Quinn said following the Chiefs’ emotional 27-21 victory over the Panthers. “When you ask someone how they are doing, do you really mean it? When you answer someone back how you are doing, are you telling the truth? We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends, and it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us. Hopefully, people can learn from this and try to actually help if someone is battling something deeper on the side than what they are revealing on a day-to-day basis. The one thing people can hopefully try to take away, I guess, is the relationships they have with people.” It’s unlikely that Belcher would have changed his course had he received more warmth and attention from those around him. Sometimes the demons that we battle are too strong for outside forces. But in a society dominated by cynicism, disconnect, and snark, we could all stand to be more genuine with the people we come in contact with. As Quinn stated, let’s not lose focus on the relationships that are right in front of us.
2. The 49ers were out-coached.
It was only a matter of time before Colin Kaepernick played like a second-year quarterback with fewer than five starts under his belt. In the 49ers’ 16-13 overtime loss to St. Louis, Kaepernick took a safety, foolishly ran out of bounds when his team was attempting to drain the clock late in the fourth quarter, and botched a pitch to receiver Ted Ginn Jr. with 3:04 remaining in the game and the Niners up by a 10-2 score. (The result of the play was disastrous for San Francisco, which watched Janoris Jenkins score his third touchdown in two weeks and turn the entire game on its head.) But second-year quarterbacks are expected to be both brilliant and maddening. Despite the miscues, Kaepernick was poised in the pocket, accurate with his throws, and flashed his mobility on a 50-yard run that nearly put the Niners up for good following Jenkins’ touchdown. The biggest issue for the 49ers wasn’t Kaepernick, but Jim Harbaugh. It was an arrogant play-call to have his first-year starter run a toss sweep with his back to the goal line. The Rams offense did nothing against San Francisco’s stout defense the entire day, but St. Louis turned two massive mistakes into 10 points and eventually won because of Harbaugh’s gamble. Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Eugene Sims, William Hayes and the entire Rams defense was also seemingly inside San Francisco’s offensive huddle the entire day. Outside of their lone touchdown drive, Harbaugh’s offense did nothing against a St. Louis defense that had an answer for everything the Niners were doing. In a game they dominated for 57 minutes, San Fran somehow found a way to lose. While Kaepernick certainly shares in the blame, this loss falls on Harbaugh, who has now been out-coached by Jeff Fisher on two separate occasions this season.
3. Luck was good when it mattered.
The media is trying its best to put Andrew Luck in the Hall of Fame following the Colts’ stunning 35-33 come-from-behind victory in Detroit on Sunday. And if you were to only look at his final stat line (391 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs), one could surmise that he had another brilliant performance. But the fact is he was brutal through three quarters while misfiring passes to open receivers and perhaps turning in his worst performance of his outstanding rookie campaign. That said, he was good when it mattered, as he caught fire in the fourth quarter. Down 33-21 with eight minutes remaining, he connected on a 42-yard strike to LaVon Brazill to get Indy within striking distance, and then capped off a game-winning touchdown drive by finding Donnie Avery on a 14-yard dump pass as time expired. Luck now has six 300-yard passing efforts in 12 games and he’s starting to grow a reputation as a clutch performer. Granted, if the Lions weren’t devilishly preoccupied with torturing a fan base that has absorbed more beatings than a toilet seat, the Colts would have lost on Sunday. Instead, thanks in large part to Luck, they’ve become one of the most must-watch teams of 2012.
4. The Falcons defense is underrated.
As Matt Ryan and the offense took most of the night off, the Falcons defense put on a show Thursday night in a 23-13 victory over the Saints. Atlanta hired Mike Nolan this past offseason in hopes that he would install a scheme that would beat pass-happy teams like New Orleans. And while the Falcons rank 26th overall in pass defense, the numbers don’t tell the entire story. In two meetings with the Saints this season, Atlanta has intercepted Drew Brees a total of six times. They also picked off Peyton Manning three times in one quarter in a Week 2 victory over the Broncos, held Philip Rivers to 173 passing yards on 38 attempts in Week 3, and kept a red-hot Josh Freeman out of the end zone in Week 12. Atlanta’s run defense remains a work in progress and somebody other than John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux need to boost the pass rush. But Nolan has confused some of the best minds in football by varying his looks and disguising his coverages, as well as playing to the strengths of ball-hawking safeties William Moore and Thomas Decoud (who have combined for nine interceptions this year). He’s also getting the most out of multi-faceted players like Sean Weatherspoon, Kroy Biermann, and Stephen Nicholas, who have lined up all over the field this season. The numbers don’t support the notion that this unit is dominant, but the defense has been the most underrated aspect of the 11-1 Falcons thus far.
5. Flacco isn’t doing himself any favors.
Not to bury the headline in Baltimore (which was soon-to-be 38-year-old Charlie Batch leading the Steelers to a 23-20 overtime victory over the Ravens), but Joe Flacco is playing his way out of a huge payday at the end of the season. Flacco becomes a free agent next offseason and if he continues to put together efforts like the one he did on Sunday, the Ravens are going to have plenty of leverage come contract time. The fifth-year quarterback completed just 16-of-34 passes for 188 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also lost a fumble and was out-dueled by Batch, who completed 25-of-36 passes for 276 yards with one TD and one INT of his own. The pick that Flacco threw was mind-numbingly bad, as he tossed a pass into the waiting arms of Ryan Clark while trying to throw the ball out of bounds. The fumble also came following an Ed Reed interception in the end zone, and set the Steelers up for a game-tying touchdown with just over seven minutes to play in the game. Much like his entire career, Flacco has been widely inconsistent this season. And while fellow 2008 first-round pick Matt Ryan is having an MVP-like year, Flacco continues to leave doubt on whether or not he can get Baltimore over the hump. Granted, the Ravens are still likely to pay Flacco rather than starting from scratch. But with every turnover and poor performance, Flacco is costing himself next offseason.
6. Despite the win, the Packers remain in flux.
The Packers may have earned their eighth victory of the season by beating the Vikings 23-14 in Green Bay, but Mike McCarthy’s team can’t catch a break. Outside of a four-game stretch when they scored 42, 30, 24 and 31 points from Weeks 6 through 9, the Packers offense can’t establish any kind of a rhythm. The blame falls equally on a porous offensive line and injuries, which have sidelined Greg Jennings, Cedric Benson and Jordy Nelson for part or most of the season. Nelson was forced from Sunday’s win in the first quarter after he suffered a hamstring injury, and if he’s out for an extended period of time Green Bay may never find consistency offensively. Rodgers remains one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL but there’s only so much he can do with shoddy pass protection and a depleted stable of weapons. This isn’t the same Packer offense that burned defenses the past three seasons. Not even close, in fact.
7. Russell Wilson was brilliant in Chicago.
It’s not often the Bears lose a game in which Brandon Marshall catches 10 passes for 165 yards and Jay Cutler throws for over 9.0 yards per attempt. But that’s exactly what happened Sunday as the Seahawks stunned a Solider Field crowd that watched its usually stout defense unexpectedly wilt to Russell Wilson. The rookie signal caller completed 23-of-37 passes for 293 yards with two touchdowns and also ran for 71 yards on nine scrambles. He engineered a 97-yard touchdown drive that should have been the game-defining moment but his defense inexplicably allowed Marshall to snag a 56-yard pass to set the Bears up for a game-tying field goal. In overtime, Wilson was brilliant on a 12-play, 79-yard drive that was capped off by his 13-yard touchdown pass to Sidney Rice (who took a shot while crossing the end zone). Throughout the day, Wilson flashed his athleticism and arm strength, and not once did he seem intimidated by Chicago’s defense. The Seahawks did a nice job rolling the pocket for their rookie QB, which allowed for open throwing lanes down the field. Perhaps what was most remarkable was the fact that Seattle didn’t shy away from Charles Tillman, who was repeatedly burned throughout the day. Toss in some shoddy tackling by Major Wright and the Seahawks were able to pick up their second road victory of the season.
8. It might be time for the Bolts to completely clean house.
That final drive by the Chargers in their 20-13 loss to the Bengals was a microcosm of their entire season. Trailing 20-13 with just over two minutes to play, Philip Rivers drove San Diego down to Cincinnati’s 17-yard line and instead of testing the middle of the field with two timeouts, Rivers threw three passes that had only a small pray of being completed. Then on fourth down he whipped a pass to Bengals’ safety Reggie Nelson for a fitting, last-second turnover to cap San Diego’s loss. Even if Nelson didn’t intercept the pass, there was no way that Malcolm Floyd had a chance to catch it because his back was essentially turned. It was a brutal display of football and it has to be asked: Should Rivers follow Norv Turner and A.J. Smith out the door this offseason? It’s incredibly difficult to find quality starting quarterbacks in the NFL and Rivers has proven that he can win when he has a strong cast around him (which Smith has slowly depleted over the years). But it’s fair to wonder whether Rivers has met his ceiling in San Diego and if a mutual parting wouldn’t be beneficial to both parties.
9. The Bengals are winning with balance.
A month ago the Bengals were left for dead and now they’re one of the hottest teams in the NFL. That’s thanks in large part to their offense, which has finally found balance late in the season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis didn’t rush for 100 yards once in the first 10 games of the season, but he’s now rattled off three straight 100-plus yard efforts the past three weeks. In turn he’s made Andy Dalton and the passing game more potent, as defenses now have to worry about committing extra defenders to the run. Cincinnati’s defense has also risen to the challenge of late, yielding just 13, 6, 10, and 13 points in four consecutive victories. Of course, now the hard part comes. After feasting on the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers these past three weeks, the Bengals will host the Cowboys next Sunday before traveling to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and then back home to host the Ravens in Week 17. Until it proves it can beat Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Cincinnati will remain a Super Bowl pretender. But thanks to a newfound running game and a red-hot defense, the Bengals aren’t likely to fall out of the playoff mix over the last month of the season.
Rex Ryan declined to name his Week 14 starting quarterback following the Jets’ 7-6 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday but it’s a joke if Greg McElroy doesn’t start the final four games. That’s not to suggest that McElroy is the team’s future by one thing’s for sure: Mark Sanchez isn’t either…It’ll be interesting to see where Michael Vick winds up next season. Andy Reid is rolling with Nick Foles the rest of the year and if the rookie plays well, he may convince the Eagles’ next coach that he can be the starter. If that’s the case, Vick will be looking for work and it’ll be interesting to see if teams view him as a backup or a starter next offseason…Dez Bryant (6 catches, 98 yards, 2 TDs) once again proved on Sunday night that he’s not lacking for talent. But has he finally matured or is he only teasing Cowboy fans?…If Bryce Brown learns how to hold onto the football he could be one hell of a player…Too bad Mike Holmgren won’t see the fruits of his labor in Cleveland. That Browns team isn’t without talent, especially on offense where Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon have put together solid seasons…I would pay to watch Peyton Manning play Andrew Luck in the wild card round. What a storyline-driven matchup that would be…Heath Miller continues to be one of the steadiest tight ends in the league. Another five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh’s win, and he was often Charlie Batch’s savior on third down.