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NFL Week Four: Hits and Misses

Miss: New York Jets Offense

Mark Sanchez, formerly known as “Sanchize”, was supposed to save the franchise. In his first two seasons, he was the “it” guy, and now he’s the fall guy. The Wildcat offense has been even worse than Sanchez, who is struggling to even complete 50% of his passes. Sanchez threw for just 103 yards with an INT and a fumble. Meanwhile, the run game has fallen far from its 2009/2010 dominance. With no end in sight for the Jets offensive struggles, Rex Ryan’s dream of a Super Bowl run has slowly become a nightmare only four games in. That nightmare is only just beginning, as the 2-2 Jets face the 4-0 Texans and the 2-2 Patriots within the next three weeks.

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Can the Falcons go undefeated?? Too soon? Too lofty? It’s hard to doubt Matty Ice the way he’s playing right now

Hit: Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan seems to redefine the word “WOW” every week. Down one with 1:09 remaining and no timeouts, the Falcons started at their own one. That wasn’t an issue for “Matty Ice”. From his own end zone, Ryan held firm in the pocket and launched a deep ball for Roddy White, who made the spectacular grab down the field. After a few more accurate throws by Ryan, Matt Bryant kicked the game winning field goal. Just like that, Ryan’s team is 4-0 and he has solidified his position as the game’s best QB right now. 

Miss: Buffalo Bills Defense 

That much-improved defense of the Bills has fallen far short of expectations. On Sunday the Patriots scored 52 points on the Bills, including 35 straight second half points. This Bills defense is the same defense that gave up 48 points to the Jets in week one. In the offseason, the Bills, a small market team, signed defensive end Mario Williams to a $100 million+ contract. That investment has looked like a bust so far, as Williams, a former No. 1 overall pick, has only 1.5 sacks so far.

Hit: Arizona Cardinals

It didn’t look pretty, but it looked like a win for the Arizona Cardinals. Against Miami, they were outgained 480-297 in total yards and trailed 13-0 at halftime. Late turnovers by QB Ryan Tannehill, who threw for 431 yards, one short of the rookie record, did the Dolphins in. Under pressure, Tannehill threw an INT on the Dolphins first possession in OT to set up a game-winning field goal. The Cardinals have now won 9 of their last 11, and are 4-0 on the season.

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Just How Bad Did Roger Goodell and The NFL Screw Up?

Finally the NFL did what was right.

Finally Commissioner Roger Goodell practiced what he preached.

And finally, the real referees will return to their jobs.

It took a national televised debacle, one the likes the NFL has never seen before, to end the stalemate between the NFL and the league’s referees.

That now infamous play has changed this NFL season forever.

The Packers are 1-2, tied for last in the NFC North instead of being 2-1 and tied for first place. Meanwhile, the Seahawks are 2-1 and in position to make a run at the postseason.

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One referee signaled touchdown while the other referee signaled timeout, which usually happens after an interception.

For the NFL and Goodell, it can’t get any worse. Their refusal to budge and send competent referees to the job has altered the seasons of the both of these teams, and the entire playoffs. Now the league has to hope that both the Packers and the Seahawks miss the playoffs by more than one game so that playoff spots, playoff seedings and home field advantages aren’t impacted. If not, then the whole season has been tainted and compromised by referee mishaps.

While that stain on the season has a chance to fade, the stain on Roger Goodell’s legacy is permanent.

Goodell, commissioner since 2006, built his reputation on protecting the integrity of the league and making player safety a cornerstone of rule changes. He delivered heavy punishments to players like Adam “Pacman” Jones and the Michael Vick for disgracing the game. He instilled rules that banned late hits on the quarterback, head-to-head hits and the hitting a player up high.

However Goodell’s decision to allow heavily outmatched replacement officials to referee NFL games went against both of those principles.

By not putting the highest quality of officials on the field, Goodell disgraced the reputation of the game and allowed the failures of those officials to make the league a laughing matter on television networks nationwide.

The replacement referees weren’t even from the highest level of college. Rather they from non-BCS conferences in Division 1, lower college divisions, junior colleges and high school.

Aside their overuse of pass interference penalties though, the replacement referees penalties called relatively the same amount of penalties as the actual referees did up until this point in 2011.

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Hines Ward has some competition for league’s dirtiest offensive player…

Instead, the problem was their inability to control the game. From numerous after-the-play cheap shots to unnecessary player scrums, control was far from the norm.

Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III told the media that St. Louis Rams defenders hit him several times after the play ended. Video evidence confirmed his remarks.

In week two, Golden Tate delivered a vicious hit on a defenseless player while his quarterback broke the pocket to run the ball. Tate, who wasn’t flagged, should have been called for block-in-the-back. A week later, Tate pushed a defenseless Green Bay defender on the final play on Monday Night’s game.

In all these situations, player safety remained second to Goodell and the league’s dispute with the regular referees. Luckily no player was seriously injured.

The replacement referees put the NFL players’ safety in danger, and Goodell and the league allowed that to happen.

This weekend the regular referees will take over but the damage has been done.

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New York Giants Back on Track

The Super Bowl high in New York has worn off pretty quickly this season. The Giants followed a disappointing performance in the season opening loss to the Cowboys with a disgraceful showing in the first half against the Buccaneers in week 2. Eli Manning threw 3 interceptions in the second quarter and the Giants went into the locker room at halftime trailing 24-13 and looking on the verge of dropping to 0-2 on the season.

For the first time this season, the Giants looked like a team that could be a Super Bowl contender.

Then the fourth quarter rolled around. Rather than give up and move on to the next game, Manning led the team to a 25 point quarter, showing the world once again why this team won last year’s Super Bowl, and earning the win in the game’s final minute. But this incredible comeback was lost in the midst of a controversy as Manning attempted to take the final knee, but was instead knocked over by an unexpected Tampa Bay pass rush.

As tempers flared and arguments spewed forth regarding the sport’s ethics, news of the Giants re-emergent dominance in the fourth quarter was pushed aside. In front of a national audience on Thursday night, Manning & Co. made sure to remind everyone what they missed, trouncing the Carolina Panthers 36-7. While the offense looked strong behind an efficient Manning and an excellent performance by Andre Brown, filling in for an injured Ahmad Bradshaw, it was the defense that shined in this game. After opening the season with two less than stellar defensive performances, giving up a combined 58 points, the Giants defense held a dangerous Panthers offense to just 7 points, forcing 5 turnovers, including 3 interceptions thrown by Cam Newton. The stout defense was bolstered by the return to health of cornerback Prince Amukamara. After playing two games with a banged up secondary, getting Amukamara back helped shut down Newton’s passing attack and should bode well for the Giants for the rest of the season.

Eli Manning won the quarterback battle against Cam Newton, throwing for 288 yards and a touchdown.

As the defense got healthier, New York’s offense went a bit in the other direction, playing without Bradshaw, the starting running back, and star receiver Hakeem Nicks. Yet even without their offensive cornerstones, the Giants’ offense played their most efficient game of the season thus far. Two backups filled the void made by the injured starters. Brown ran for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns while wide receiver Ramses Barden pulled an Ogletree, matching his 2011 season totals in just one game. Barden caught 9 passes for 138 yards, besting the 9 catches for 94 yards he had all of last season.

With the defense returning to health, the offense finding a way to stay productive despite its injuries and Eli Manning playing in superstar form, the New York Giants finally looks like a team ready to defend its title.

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Surprising Performances in NFL’s First Two Weeks

Week 2 concluded Monday night as Matt Ryan and the Falcons held off a late surging Broncos team led by Peyton Manning. With the exception of the Broncos’ first quarter, both teams have looked strong in their first two games, but that was expected. It’s the unexpected performances that are the interesting ones.

It’s been just two weeks, so there’s bound to be some flukes, but so far, several players have turned some heads with their play. And it’s not all for good reasons.

Despite his poor play, Vick has found a way to win games for the Eagles.

Michael Vick: After an incredible 2010 season, Vick regressed a bit last season, upping his interception total from 6 to 14. So far this year, Vick is making it look like that regression is exponential; he’s matched the 6 interceptions he threw in 2010 and it took him just two games. Even more surprising than his struggles is the fact that he somehow has led the Eagles to two wins. Vick has led Philadelphia to consecutive come from behind victories with last minute touchdown drives. His inaccuracy will come back to haunt him eventually, but thus far he’s been escape his struggles.

Drew Brees: When coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season, two theories arose regarding the Saints success this year. Either Drew Brees, who is as much an extension of his coach as any quarterback in the league, would step up in Payton’s absence and lead New Orleans to another winning season, or the lack of Payton’s offensive mind and leadership would derail the Saints. So far, the latter seems to be the case. Brees has looked very un-Breesish, completing just 54% of his passes and tossing 4 interceptions. Qualitatively, he doesn’t seem to have the same control over the game that has made him so dominant for the past half decade. The Saints are 0-2 and Brees will have to step up his game if he hopes to get his team back on track.

Spiller has looked like a superhero this season.

CJ Spiller: A year ago, Spiller had 561 rushing yards. In just two games this season, he’s already reached haf that amount, totaling 292 rushing yards. With Fred Jackson’s injury, Spiller has become the feature back of Buffalo’s offense and has embraced the role. Adding to his gaudy rushing yards are some equally impressive stats: 10.1 yards per carry, 3 rushing touchdowns, and 72 receiving yards.

Chris Johnson: CJ2K may need to change his Twitter handle soon. After rushing for 2,000 yards in 2009, Johnson barely cracked a thousand last season. If he gains that many this year, it’ll be a surprise. In 2 games this year, Johnson has 19 carries for 21 yards. Yes, that’s 1.1 yards per carry, good for last in the NFL. With a longest run of 7 yards, Johnson looks beyond washed up in his fifth year in the league.

Darren McFadden: The knock on Run-DMC has always been his durability, not his ability to gain yards. So far, McFadden hasnt dealt with injuries, but hes notched just 54 yards in two games, averaging 2.1 yards per carry. After averaging over 5 yards per cary the past two years, McFadden is playing well below his norm. He’s also been struggling in the passing game. He’s been targeted the second most in the league with 25 passes thrown his way, but he’s only been able to come up with 15 of those. He had two particularly egregious drops Sunday against the Dolphins.

Larry Fitzgerald: In this case, Fitzgerald is more of a victim than a culprit. He has just 5 catches for 67 yards in two games, far below the numbers his fellow star receivers are putting up. But this is much the results of poor quarterback play, as the position battle between Kevin Kolb and John Skelton never got resolved during the preseason.

This is terrifying.

Clay Matthews: Matthews’ play has been more eye-opening than surprising. His 6 sacks not only double the second highest total this year, but also match the number he had all of last year. He’s played out of his mind thus far.

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What We Learned from Week 1

With a week of NFL action under our belts, what better time is there to make some hasty generalizations about the rest of the season.

1. It’s going to take more than Andrew Luck to turn the Colts around.

Andrew Luck can’t save the Colts from the ground.

After two years of being hyped as the greatest quarterback prospect since John Elway, Luck showed on Sunday that his hype doesn’t mean he’s a finished product. He didn’t dazzle in his debut, tossing 3 interceptions to just 1 touchdown, but he still played a fairly solid game, passing for over 300 yards. Some of the blame for Luck’s shakiness can be shifted from his shoulders to those of his offensive line. While he was only sacked 3 times, Luck was constantly under pressure and forced into quick throws. Combine that with a lackluster group of receivers and a rebuilding defense and it’s clear that it may be another year until Luck is labeled a savior.

2. It’s going to take more than a great offense to win this year.

Three of last year’s top scoring teams – the Saints, Packers and Giants – came out on the losing end this week, unable to keep their opponents’ offenses at bay. What makes this cause for concern is that none of the teams they faced were amongst the leading offenses a year ago. If their defenses can’t contain the opposing team, it won’t matter how how many points New Orleans, Green Bay and New York can put up.

3. Don’t bet too heavily on young QBs.

Andy Dalton, Russell Wilson, Brandon Weeden, Andrew Luck, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Tannehill and Cam Newton – all first or second year starters –  all lost their games and few of them were overly impressive. The eight of them combined for 6 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Apart from Weeden and Tannehill, none of them were terrible, but they didn’t look like quarterbacks who could lead their teams to the playoffs. On a brighter note, Robert Griffin III was arguably the best quarterback in the league in week one in the Redskins win over the Saints and Christian Ponder was able to lead his Vikings to an overtime win over the Jaguars. Even so, this large group of young QBs look very much like a work in progress.

4. If the Broncos could win with Tebow last year, they look awfully scary with Peyton at the helm.

Peyton Manning with the Broncos – so wrong, yet so right.

Manning commanded the Denver offense as if it had been a week since his last game, not a year and a half. He was his usual self – minus the blue and white uniform – changing plays at the line of scrimmage, making smart decisions and throwing with accuracy. If his neck was bothering him, he didn’t show it. He was able to handle the Steelers without resorting to an overtime Hail Mary to beat them.

5. ACLs, who needs ’em?

Coming off of torn ACLs last season, running backs Adrian Peterson and Jamal Charles both looked back to (or at least close to) normal. Peterson ran for 84 yards and 2 touchdowns while Charles ran for 87 yards. Not quite the hundred yard masterpieces we’re used to from the two of them, but the both averaged just about 5 yards a carry, which any running back should be happy with.

6. Were the Jets trolling us in the preseason?

After failing to score a touchdown in all three preseason games that their starters played in (and just one with the reserves playing) the Jets opened their season by dropping 48 on the Bills who supposedly improved their defense in the offseason. Mark Sanchez threw for 3 touchdowns, ending any discussion over whether Tebow should start instead of him. New York’s defense was less stout than normal, but if it returns to form and the offense continues to play well, this could finally be the year Rex Ryan’s Super Bowl promise comes true.

7. There’s a reason replacement refs are only used as replacements.

It’s said that you don’t realize what you had until it’s gone. Well the regular referees have driven that point home quite well during their lockout. Their replacements looked incompetent, confused, and uncertain in week one. There were penalties assigned to the wrong team, extra timeouts handed out, two minute warnings interrupting PATs, blown calls, missed calls, you name it. The NFL’s regular officiating crew make mistakes every game too, but the frequency and potential severity of the replacement refs’ flubs nearly marred an exciting opening weekend of football. Having unqualified officials call a game is unfair to players and fans alike, especially given the short NFL season in which every game is important. Hopefully the NFL and the locked out refs can come to an agreement soon.

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NFL Kickoff: Super Bowl Predictions

It’s that time of year again. The time of year when you get the chance to look like a complete genius or a complete fool. It’s Super Bowl Prediction time. Here are my previous years Super Bowl Predictions:

2011: Giants/Jets  , 2010: Packers/Ravens  , 2009: (Forgot?)/Ravens

Now here are my predictions for this year.

NFC: Chicago Bears

Right now, the Bears probably aren’t even the best team in their division let alone their conference but the key word is “right now”.

For the most part, to make a Super Bowl run, you need talent and you need that talent to come together at the right time.

Chicago has flat-out talent.

It starts with the quarterback, Jay Cutler.

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Is Jay Cutler’s time now?

Cutler has all the tools of an elite quarterback, but at times, can make shaky decisions which lead to interceptions. He’ll need to cut down on his turnovers, to take his game, and the Bears’ game, to the next level.

It should help him that the Bears have added his former teammate, star wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Back in Denver in 2008, Cutler and Marshall were the best QB – WR duo in the NFL. By season’s end, the two should be able to rekindle that chemistry and Marshall should become the Bears’ first 1000-yard receiver since 2002.

Marshall’s addition also means that converted wide receiver, Devin Hester, can focus on returning punts and kicks again.

The pass offense is complemented by a dynamic running game, led by top-seven running back, Matt Forte.

In the regular season, it’s about offense. But in the playoffs, it comes down to defense, and the Bears have it.

The pass rush, led by All-Pro DE Julius Peppers, will give opposing quarterbacks trouble. Behind them, Captain Brian Urlacher and seven-time Pro-Bowler Lance Briggs anchor the linebacker crew. Their strong front seven should carry the secondary.

Last season, Chicago was 7-3 before Jay Cutler suffered a season-ending thumb injury. The season before, the team lost in the NFC Championship game.

This season, the Bears will build on that success to reach the Super Bowl, albeit as an under-the-radar contender as the favored Packers and high-powered Lions share the division spotlight early on.

AFC: Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens were one 32-yard game-tying field goal away from possibly going to the Super Bowl instead of the Patriots.

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Ravens fans haven’t been able to sleep since January…This years’ team will try to change that

Still, that bittersweet loss did give Baltimore something to look forward to: the possible emergence of Joe Flacco as an elite quarterback. In that AFC Championship, Flacco threw for 306 yards and 2 TD, outplaying Brady in Foxborough. Flacco has led the Ravens to the playoffs in all four of his seasons, and has a 44-20 W-L record.

But for years Baltimore has won those games with its defense. This year the team seems built to win with its offense, behind Flacco and star running back Ray Rice.

The defense though remains one of the league’s best, even with the loss of star LB Terrell Suggs.

The Ravens are built for playoff football, and this year should be the year they finally break through to reach the Super Bowl.

Okay so I have Bears/Ravens in the Super Bowl, who do you have?

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Rookie Quarterbacks Quickly Enter the Spotlight

Quarterbacks were the hot commodities in the 2012 NFL Draft. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III went one and two and were immediately expected to be dominant forces in the league for years. But beyond that talented twosome, this draft could prove to be one of the deepest quarterback drafts in recent memory, as five rookies will take the helms of their teams on opening day. Outside of Luck and RGIII, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and, most recently, Russell Wilson have been named their teams’ starting QBs.

Russell Wilson impressed the Seahawks so much, they’re starting him over their top free agent acquisition Matt Flynn.

After the success of second round pick Andy Dalton last year, teams across the league seem more confident in starting first year quarterbacks who weren’t top picks. Dalton threw for 20 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards while leading the Bengals to 9 wins and a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Dalton was considered a less prospect than Cam Newton yet had just as an impressive season as the top pick did. The Seahawks, Dolphins and Browns are hoping the same holds true this season.

However they seem to be ignoring the egregious failure that was Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert got the start for the Jaguars and went on to lead all quarterbacks in fumbles (14), finish with the lowest Quarterback Rating (65.4) and yards per attempt (5.4), post the second worst completion percentage (50.8%) and was the third most sacked QB (40).

Gabbert was a well thought of prospect, drafted tenth overall, but was thrust into a starting spot too early, as Jacksonville had no other options at the position. That is exactly how teams should not handle young quarterbacks. Throwing them into a position to fail will only damage their confidence and give them very few positives to build around.

Gabbert’s performance and hair have been far from satisfactory.

Weeden and Wilson both seem closer to finished products than Gabbert was and should be at least competent in their starting roles. Tannehill, however, was drafted high due to his potential and is more of the project Gabbert was thought to be. Having played two seasons at Texas A&M at receiver before switching to quarterback for two seasons, Tannehill is still learning the position and could struggle his rookies, especially given the lack of offensive weapons around him.

The trial by fire path seems to have replaced the past strategy of handling rookie QBs. Many of the NFL’s best field generals started their careers as backups to established veterans, learning the nuances of the game from them without suffering the risk of fractured confidence.

Take Jake Locker for instance. The Titans quarterback spent his rookie year last season learning from Matt Hasselbeck. This season, Locker has beat out Hasselbeck and has shown significant improvement in his decision making and accuracy.

With so many young quarterbacks who earned their starting spots in a variety of ways, this season could be an interesting case study in quarterback development.

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