Falcons 20, Packers 17
CHRIS PUMMER: While it seems to me like more focus was being given to the Bears-Eagles matchup, I think this is the game that pitted the two best teams in the NFC right now.
At one point it looked like the Packers (7-4) were on the verge of imploding from a slew of injuries. In particular their running game is still hampered, but unlike a team like Denver, Green Bay still makes at least enough of a show of attempting to run that opposing defenses can’t just scheme to stop Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers put together another terrific game, tossing a TD and rushing for the Packers’ other score. That he had more rushing yards than the rest of his teammates combined — the guy is not Michael Vick — is why I’m not comfortable predicting a long postseason run for this group.
The Falcons (9-2), however, are perhaps the most balanced team in the league, and right now I think the best. Michael Turner churned out another 100-yard rushing game, Matt Ryan had a great 24-for-28 passing day, and four different players from the deep receiving corps each hauled in at least three passes.
And while Rodgers played well, the Falcons defense yielded nothing on the ground and kept a top-10 offense in check.
This looks like the team to beat in the NFC.
BRAD GOLDBACH: I agree the Falcons look like the team to beat in the NFC right now. Everyone else better hope they drop a few games, because if Atlanta gets homefield advantage in the playoffs, watch out.
ALEX PREWITT: Look at that, we get a little consensus going here. While the yardage wasn’t there for Matt Ryan like it has been for the rest of the season (his 197 yards versus the Packers was only the second time he dipped below the 200-yard mark in 2010), his 24-for-28 performance was by far his most accurate. And when it comes down to it, that’s all the Falcons need from him in these big games.
With a defense playing as well as Atlanta’s has been recently, and Michael Turner hitting consecutive 100-yard games for the first time since Weeks 9-10 of 2009, everything’s coming up big for the Falcons. I wrote last week about how Atlanta has taken care of business when necessary, and that statement stayed true this week. The two losses came in Week 1 on the road at Pittsburgh (back when the Steelers’ defense was more concerned with shutting down opponents than making statements to Roger Goodell) and away at Philadelphia in Week 6 (when Mike Vick was still in Freak Mode).
With two games left against Carolina, one more at home versus New Orleans (the Falcons are still undefeated there this season) and two more road contests at Tampa Bay and Seattle, a 13-win season is well within the realm of possibility. Last time that many wins happened? The Falcons got to the Super Bowl.
Bears 31, Eagles 26
CHRIS PUMMER: Forget about some of the bizarre play calls near the end. This obviously wasn’t the Super Bowl of coaching. The Bears (8-3) earned their first legitimately impressive win of the season by stymieing Michael Vick and the Eagles (7-4).
Chicago didn’t stop the run so much as the Eagles abandoned it, almost half of the 22 “carries” they had for the game coming in the form of Vick scrambles. Still, that played right into the Bears’ strength, which was keeping Vick off-balanced mostly using just four pass-rushers and sitting back to avoid getting killed by the big plays.
The praises of Jay Cutler are again being sung after his four-TD effort, but maybe overlooked is the game Matt Forte had. Earlier it looked like it would be another disappointing season for the third-year back, but he’s quietly picked up his game. Forte had just his second 100-yard rushing game of the year, and third in which he’s averaged better than four yards per carry. Behind a spotty offensive line, and with what I still consider a suspect group of wide receivers, Cutler needs help carrying the load. Forte came through.
This game probably didn’t throw a wet blanket on the Vick-for-MVP talk, but the Eagles QB didn’t have a great game. he threw his first pick of the year. And while none of his fumbles became turnovers, Vick did put the ball on the ground four times.
The shape of the game might have also been different had Vick not thrown a red-zone pick to Chris Harris. The Bears scored on the ensuing drive, turning what could have been a 20-14 Philly lead into a 21-13 deficit at halftime.
The Eagles are still explosive with Vick under center, so of course they can make a run at the Super Bowl. At any time they could also blow up in coach Andy Reid’s face.
ALEX PREWITT: It’s scary to think about where the Eagles would be right now had there been a little consistency throughout the early stages of the season. But now the playoff push starts and, with crucial stability at the quarterback position, I’m not too worried about this one speed bump for Philadelphia. Chicago hasn’t lost coming off its Bye Week and seems to have fixed the problems that gave the Bears back-to-back losses against Seattle (!) and Washington (!!), both of which were at Solider Field (!!!). The battle in the NFC Central will likely come down to Week 17 when Green Bay will host Chicago — have your calendars marked for that one. It’s going to be great.
Patriots 45, Lions 24
CHRIS PUMMER: Anyone worried when the Patriots (9-2) went to the locker room at halftime trailing by a touchdown shouldn’t have been.
The Lions (2-9) are still looking like a better team. First-round draft pick Ndamukong Suh is playmaker at defensive tackle. The supporting offensive cast is still good enough that a backup QB like Shaun Hill can step in and probably beat a lesser team. In fact, Hill was threading some needles between Patriot defenders in the first half before New England got to him after the intermission.
The question still remains how much of this progress can be carried forward into next season. That’s been the challenge for Detroit, really since Wayne Fontes was fired.
ALEX PREWITT: Yes, it came against the Lions. But in a week when Mike Vick finally proved human and Peyton Manning continued to show his penchant for untimely interceptions, Tom Brady was once again solid. What I really got out of this game, though, was the re-emergence of Wes Welker.
Historically one of Brady’s favorite targets, Welker was practically non-existent as Brady spread to the wealth around to relative nobody’s like Aaron Hernandez, Danny Woodhead and Rob Gronkowski. But thanks to a season-high 90 yards and eight catches (he hasn’t had more than eight in a single game all season; he had seven double-digit games in ’09), in addition to two touchdowns (he had four on the year entering Thursday’s game), Welker is finally back. The surgically repaired knee isn’t inhibiting him at all, and he’s finally reverting back to his old form, when he torched linebackers in the slot. The real test for him will come in the next three weeks (vs. Jets, at Bears, vs. Packers) as New England tries to lock up a playoff berth.
Saints 30, Cowboys 27
CHRIS PUMMER: Dallas (3-8) still has too much talent to not be dangerous, but the Saints (8-3) managed to hold on after almost blowing a couple 17-point leads. New Orleans is still getting enough balance from it’s running game.
BRAD GOLDBACH: Dallas is a very dangerous team and finally seems to be playing up to expectations with Jason Garrett taking over the reins. The Cowboys probably would have won this game, too, if it weren’t for Roy Williams’ fumble near the end of the game that gave the Saints new life.
ALEX PREWITT: It’s good to see a little bit of life emerging in the Cowboys after they essentially sat down for Wade Phillips. Chris Ivory had a nice game in short-yardage situations, especially in the red zone in the first quarter, which will take some pressure of Drew Brees down the road. The 17-0 lead the Saints jumped out to through the first 15 minutes didn’t hurt, either.
Jets 26, Bengals 10
CHRIS PUMMER: Here is the blowout win the Jets (9-2) have been looking for, though coming against the self-destructing Bengals (2-9), it’s probably not helping the die-hards sleep.
BRAD GOLDBACH: It won’t help the die-hards sleep much better, but after several close wins, this one certainly gives those fans a chance to breathe. Every win counts in the NFL, especially when trying to keep pace atop the AFC standings. These Jets are in this one for the long haul.
ALEX PREWITT: They don’t have time to breathe for much longer; Rex Ryan and co. visit Tom Brady next week with first place in the AFC East on the line.
Steelers 19, Bills 16 (OT)
CHRIS PUMMER: The Steelers (8-3) didn’t make anyone happy with this win. After coughing up a 13-point lead, Pittsburgh needed two bites at the apple in overtime. Against Buffalo (2-9), it didn’t make fans happy. And by failing to cover the spread, the gamblers weren’t happy, either.
BRAD GOLDBACH: Another game where a supposed championship contender needed a terrible gaff by an opposing wide receiver to escape. But just like the Cowboys, the Bills have become a very competitive team recently. The Steelers were lucky to get a very important win in the playoff race. You can’t lose games like this.
ALEX PREWITT: Bless Steve Johnson’s heart, he must be the sickest man in America.
Browns 24, Panthers 23
CHRIS PUMMER: This is maybe the most inventive way the Panthers (1-10) have lost all season. Jake Delhomme reminded his old team why they cut him, and his new team how dumb they are to have brought him in, much less given him a huge pile of money. The Browns (4-7) at least have a capable backup QB for their run at six wins.
Jaguars 24, Giants 20
CHRIS PUMMER: Early in this game, it looked like the Jaguars (6-5) were going to assertively dismiss the naysayers (like me) who have decried this team’s mediocrity. By beating the Giants (7-4) on the road, they’d be close to the doorstep of the playoffs. That has to count for something.
Instead the Jags couldn’t build on 17-6 halftime lead, mounting only one more scoring drive and coughing up the pill to end two other second-half charges. David Garrard turned in one of his worst games of the year and reminded everyone why everyone has this team’s ceiling pegged as a first-round playoff exit.
The Giants maybe aren’t getting enough credit here. They stayed their course, didn’t turn over the ball and Eli Manning made the big throws, and Mario Manningham and Kevin Boss the big catches when it mattered. This team isn’t winning the sexy way like the Eagles team its chasing. But underestimate the Giants, and they can beat you.
BRAD GOLDBACH: David Garrard did what he does best in making terrible plays when his team needed him most. The team has given Jacksonville some reason for excitement and optimism recently, but after fortunate wins against Cleveland and Houston, it appears the Jags were just playing with house money. The team certainly has talent, but between Garrard and the apparent subpar coaching of said talent, this team does not seem like it will reach their potential. They are very much alive in the suddenly mediocre AFC South, but you are correct that their ceiling is a first-round exit.
JASON CLINKSCALES: It’s mystifying how Jacksonville got away from its game plan. New York, which boasted one of the NFL’s better run defenses, couldn’t solve the riddle that was the Jaguars’ rushing attack. By the end of the first quarter, the Jags notched up 81 yards on the ground. By the end of the first half, they ran for 145 yards with Maurice Jones-Drew leading the way with 73 yards on just ten carries. If you ever played Madden (as intended, not just throwing deep all the time), you may have recognized the plays: halfback counter, quarterback option, halfback sweep, etc. They threw so many different types of runs at the Giants that the home team was confused on how to line up against MJD, backup RB Rashad Jennings and mobile QB David Garrard.
Though much credit goes to the Giants for mounting a comeback in the second, the Jaguars no longer ran with such gusto and diversity. Despite his feet keeping plays alive, Garrard made a few bad throws and his feet eventually failed him in the final quarter. Jacksonville took its proverbial foot off the gas.
As for the Giants, the offensive line that had been hit with injuries all season has been rather impressive over the last six games. Eli Manning hasn’t been sacked in four games and only taken down three times since mid-October. Though he took two hard hits late in the fourth quarter, the line has been stellar considering second-year lineman Will Beatty made his first start at left tackle this year (he’s the third different player to protect Eli’s blind side this season).
Redskins 17, Vikings 13
CHRIS PUMMER: The Redskins (5-6) probably officially became also-rans with a loss to the Vikings (4-7). They’ve been hanging around, but with the Giants and Eagles to jump past in the NFC East, and the Cowboys coming from behind, there’s probably no digging out of this hole, this late in the season with the tools Washington has in hand.
ALEX PREWITT: Just for kicks, let’s take a look at Washington’s margins of victory in its five wins this season:
1. Six points in Week 1 at home against Dallas
2. Five points at Philadelphia in Week 4
3. Three-point, overtime win at home against Green Bay in Week 5
4. Three points at Chicago in Week 7
5. Three points in overtime at Tennessee in Week 11
So that amounts to five wins, four of which have come on the road, none of which have been by more than six points. Down-and-out? Not quite when two games with the Giants remains, as well as road dates with Jacksonville and Dallas. Maybe Mike Shanahan can play the bad guy a few more times, get the Skins to rally around each other and squeak out a couple of wins to finish over .500.
Texans 20, Titans 0
CHRIS PUMMER: The Texans (5-6) needed a breather for their defense and got one in the form of facing the Titans (5-6) and their third-string quarterback. Tennessee probably won’t be able to overcome the losses of its top two signal callers, unless Kerry Collins is back soon and has hammered out a new deal with whatever devil possessed him two years ago. And Houston probably can’t plug enough gaps to finish with nine wins given its remaining schedule.
BRAD GOLDBACH: This matchup pretty much summed up the AFC South this season. Two teams who looked like contenders early in the season are suddenly looking very punchless. Houston’s defense and Tennessee’s quarterback plague are the culprits, obviously, but a game that looked intriguing a month ago was meaningless this week. Houston is still technically alive, but I wouldn’t trust their defense to stop a high school team these days.
Dolphins 33, Raiders 17
CHRIS PUMMER: The Raiders (5-6) probably aren’t hanging around with AFC West race for much longer. The Dolphins (6-5) are probably not serious contenders, even with Chad Henne back at QB. But Henne did add a few highlights to the reel he’ll be sending around the league in a year or two when he’s looking for a backup job.
Ricky Williams is quietly playing really well. Now in his mid-30s, his days as a featured back are obviously long over. It’s probably too late for him to crack the all-time top-10 in rushing yards, too. Not with Thomas Jones making a stealth climb up the list. But for a guy labeled a head case, who lost two prime years of his career, his accomplishments are pretty impressive. They also make for a pretty good game of what-could-have-been.
Chiefs 42, Seahawks 24
CHRIS PUMMER: The Chiefs (7-4) made hay with the sun shining, and they had to. The AFC West might be the tightest race going down the stretch. Kansas City probably controls its own destiny with a one-game lead and four lesser opponents outside of the Chargers left on the schedule.
The Seahawks (5-6) might still be the best in the NFC West, but that says an awful lot about that division. Maybe two divisions and four wild cards is the way to go.
BRAD GOLDBACH: Dwayne Bowe is a man possessed these days. With 13 receptions for 170 yards and three touchdowns, the man appears to have signed whatever contract Kerry Collins signed two years ago. I don’t care if it was against the Seahawks. What Bowe is doing these days is inhuman. His total is now 37 catches for 528 yards and eight touchdowns — in the past four games.
Rams 36, Broncos 33
CHRIS PUMMER: After ripping the Broncos (3-8) and Josh McDaniels for almost two straight years now, saying anything else is probably just unnecessary piling on. If McDaniels doesn’t get that you have to run the ball, he probably has no business being a head coach. They guy ain’t there because of his people skills or talent evaluations.
The Rams (5-6) grab one they should have to stay in the NFC West hunt.
ALEX PREWITT: Should have done some more video-taping for this one. Although I doubt any sort of scouting would have prepared them for Billy Bajema inexplicably catching two touchdowns.
Chargers 36, Colts 14
CHRIS PUMMER: This was a huge win for the Chargers (6-5) as they’re still trying to recover from a poor start to the season. With his supporting cast banged up in Indy (6-5), Peyton Manning looked human, throwing four picks. The next three weeks will be important for the Colts, culminating in a rematch against division rival Jacksonville. The Colts would like to find a little separation by then. If they can’t, the race in the AFC South will go down to the wire. Fall behind, and there might not be time to recover.
JASON CLINKSCALES: Having been a long time skeptic of the San Diego defense, this writer wants some hot sauce with his crow. They’re statistically ranked in the upper echelon in many defensive categories, but the group’s inconsistency over the years gave me reasons to the skeptical. However, when it comes to the Colts, they tend to ‘show out’ as Mom would say.
In one fantasy league, I have both Manning brothers. This is the fourth time this year where I wondered aloud if I should have benched Peyton for Eli.
Ravens 17, Buccaneers 10
CHRIS PUMMER: The Ravens (8-3) extend their run of home dominance, taking their eighth in a row there. No shame in losing for the Bucs (7-4), who are still exceeding expectations and very much in the playoff race.
BRAD GOLDBACH: The Bucs were blown out by two title contenders in New Orleans and Pittsburgh earlier this season, so keeping things close is definitely a sign of improvement. It is true that they are 0-4 against teams with winning records, but seven wins is about the total fans expected for this season and the next, combined. You have to like their chances going forward, as they continue to improve every week.
49ers 27, Cardinals 6
CHRIS PUMMER: I forgot they were even playing this game. After a long Thanksgiving weekend, who even wants to see this?
BRAD GOLDBACH: Apparently not Derek Anderson, who reportedly went into a profanity-laced tirade after the game when a reporter asked him why he was smiling in the game’s waning moments. Just add this to the long list of things that Kurt Warner would not have done and you have this season’s Arizona Cardinals in a nutshell.
JASON CLINKSCALES: There’s no question that Troy Smith has taken command of the offense, but credit has to be given to offensive coordinator Mike Johnson. As anemic as this team has looked in recent years, having lost Frank Gore early in the game would have made little use of the scoreboards. Brian Westbrook may have not been able to show the complete Swiss Army knife-repertoire he was known for in Philadelphia, but for Johnson to stick to the game plan with success using the older Westbrook and rookie Anthony Dixon shows that San Francisco isn’t completely inept.
Yes, Arizona’s defense is horrendous and the offense has found no rhythm with either Derek Anderson or Max Hall at quarterback. However, a win’s a win. That still matters in the NFC West.