Tag:Chicago Bears
Posted on: October 5, 2011 11:17 am
Edited on: October 6, 2011 4:59 pm
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Film Room: Panthers vs. Saints preview

Posted by Eye on Football Analyst Andy Benoit



The Saints are 3-1 but it’s the 1-3 Panthers creating most of the chatter. Or, Cam Newton creating the chatter. Through a quarter of his rookie season, the No. 1 overall pick is, in a word, sensational. But obviously not perfect. The Panthers are still dwelling in the basement of the NFC South.

Here’s a comprehensive look at Newton and his club as they head into their first divisional showdown of the season.



1. How good is he, really?
Through four games, Newton has far exceeded all expectations. Remarkably, this includes expectations about his physical talents. We knew the 6’5”, 245-pound Auburn Tiger was an athletic monster, but rarely are quarterbacks still athletic monsters once they reach the NFL. Newton has been a productive runner, both with power and speed.

He’s a poor man’s Vick when it comes to eluding tacklers and a poor man’s Roethlisberger when it comes to shedding them. That’s a rich combination considering no other quarterback truly exhibits any of these traits (save for maybe Josh Freeman shedding defenders).

Most impressive, however, is that Newton has not leaned on his athleticism. Operating almost exclusively out of shotguns, he’s been a willing and poised statuesque passer who willingly works through his progressions from the pocket. His decisions are usually capped off by a bullet either downfield, outside the numbers (he has the uncanny arm strength to stretch the field both horizontally and vertically) or, if need be, underneath.

For the most part, Newton’s decisions have been good. He has faced an aggressive blitzing defense in Arizona, a classic 3-4 press defense in Green Bay (playing without Tramon Williams, the Packers kept Charles Woodson outside and blitzed far less often than usual that game) and, most recently, a classic Cover 2 defense in Chicago. He posted a legit 370-plus yards passing against all three of them.

The proof that it’s not all daisies and roses is that Newton also threw crucial interceptions in all three games and came away with a loss. He’s still a rookie and still prone to the occasional blunder. The blunders have been far less frequent than anyone expected, but they’ve been costly nevertheless.

2. Panthers dual tight ends
We assumed that with tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen, Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski would craft a dink-and-dunk, run-first system. Indeed, the Panthers have kept two tight ends on the field a majority of the time, but often, at least one of them (usually Olsen) has split out, serving essentially as a No. 3 receiver.

This poses serious personnel issues for defenses. Leave your base three-linebacker unit on the field and risk getting burned through the air (Shockey and Olsen have been superb downfield route runners the first four weeks). Use your nickel personnel and you risk getting run on by a team that always has a top-10 running back on the field.

The Saints are one of the few defenses that have an answer for this: strong safety Roman Harper. He is their second best run defender (behind Jonathan Vilma) and a demon in the box. He’s versatile enough to play press man coverage (he’s not particularly good at it, but Gregg Williams feels comfortable using him sporadically in this capacity) or blitz (3.5 sacks on the season).
 
Expect the Panthers in Week 5 to continue to be pass-first with their tight ends. And expect the Saints to not simply react to this, but rather, to attack by changing up what they do with Harper throughout the game in order to get Newton thinking.

3. Running Impact
Newton is the first quarterback since Vick to pose a veritable threat as a runner (Vince Young can’t be counted as a running threat quarterback because he was such a limited passer that defenses could get away with putting nine in the box against him; not a chance that happens against Newton). Having a running threat under center does wonders for your rushing attack.

The Panthers have all the resources to pound teams on the ground – DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are an excellent duo, center Ryan Kalil can lock defenders at both the first and second level, left tackle Jordan Gross is a Pro Bowler and right tackle Jeff Otah flashed his old power against Chicago last week. But for whatever reason, Chudzinski has not gone in that direction. Carolina is averaging 25.5 rushing attempts per game, tied for 18th in the NFL.

Chudzinski would be wise to change this. The threat that Newton poses really opens things up. We saw this on the third play of the game against Chicago last week:


4. What Newton will see from Saints D
The Saints have one of the most aggressive defenses in football – both in terms of execution and presnap disguise. That has a lot to do with the trust Gregg Williams has in his secondary. Jabari Greer is one of the best ball-man corners in the game. Patrick Robinson had a rough Week 1 at Green Bay but has come on the last few outings (he was phenomenal at Jacksonville).

Playmaker Tracy Porter was eased back into action last week – he missed two games with a calf injury – and should see more snaps Sunday. When you factor in free safety Malcom Jenkins’ range, the Saints clearly have the resources to handle a Panthers’ wide receiving corps that is underwhelming outside of Steve Smith.

Dealing with the tight ends might be an issue, but Roman Harper’s versatility could cause Newton to question that matchup at times. How will Newton react when he sees Harper leave Olsen or Shockey and blitz? The simple answer would be, “He’ll throw to Olsen or Shockey”. But if you and I can predict this, so can Gregg Williams.

The Saints are one of the best green dog blitzing defenses in the league. (A green dog blitz is when a linebacker has a running back man-to-man, sees that the running back is staying in to pass protect and so he goes after the quarterback in response.) These blitzes can be hard to recognize because they come unexpectedly and late in the action.
 
When blitzing is not involved, Carolina’s offensive line can contain a Saints pass-rush that has been hit-or-miss early this season (the return of end Will Smith certainly helps). Thus, expect Gregg Williams to go after Newton and get him guessing before the snap. Many of Williams’ blitzes come out of nickel personnel packages. The Saints used their nickel later in the game against the Texans to counter the receiving impact of Houston’s two tight ends (Owen Daniels and James Casey). Don’t be surprised if they refer to their nickel early against the Panthers’ two-tight end offense.

5. The other side of the ball
The Saints have remade their offense this season. It now runs through Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham. Sproles has been better for the Saints than Reggie Bush ever was (much better, in fact). That could be in part because Sproles doesn’t yet draw the attention that Bush drew. But more than anything, it’s because he has lightning quick feet and an understanding for how to create and exploit spacing in both the run and pass game.

Graham is the dynamic athlete we all knew he’d be after his 2010 debut. It just so happens that the ex-power forward is developing much quicker than expected. He’s a mismatch for any linebacker, has the size to out-position defensive backs and has better hands than Robert Meachem (who is now the fourth option in this pass offense, behind Sproles, Graham and, when healthy, Marques Colston).

Panthers strong safety Charles Godfrey has been stellar in coverage this season and can compete with Graham, but the Panther linebackers (who are really missing Jon Beason) will have trouble with Sproles. Carolina’s best hope is to get pressure on Brees early in the down.

Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are capable of embarrassing New Orleans’ athletic but grossly unreliable tackles Jermon Bushrod and Charles Brown. But Brees knows this and is also capable of adjusting.

So who will win? Check our Week 5 NFL expert picks for all the games

Follow @Andy_Benoit on Twitter or contact him at Andy.Benoit-at-NFLTouchdown.com.
Posted on: October 5, 2011 8:57 am
 

Eye on Football NFL Awards: Week 4

Posted by Will Brinson



Every week, our NFL experts will hand out the Eye on Football hardware to the best of the best from the NFL week that was.

Week 4 NFL Awards
Expert Offense Defense STeams Coach
Freeman  Blount  Texans Crosby Schwartz
Judge Rodgers   Osi  Hester Harbaugh
Prisco Rodgers Williams  Hester Harbaugh
Brinson Rodgers  Ngata  Hester Harbaugh
Katzowitz Johnson  Maybin Succop Schwartz
Wilson Rodgers  Ngata  Hester Harbaugh
For such an insane week of NFL action, there was a surprising amount of consensus from our experts on who deserves the hardware.

Aaron Rodgers, for example, was a pretty stone-cold lock for the Eye on Offense award after he scored six touchdowns against the Broncos. That's just what six touchdowns will do for you.

In terms of defensive selections, there was a little more variation, and Mario Williams could have walked away with the hardware, but Haloti Ngata ended up winning the Eye on Defense award for terrorizing Mark Sanchez.

There wasn't a whole lot to wonder about in terms of Eye on Special Teams -- Devin Hester was just the difference maker against the Panthers. And in coaching, it always helps to come from 20-plus points behind on the road if you want to win the Eye on Coaching award, which is what Jim Harbaugh did.

Leave your votes in the comments below or scream angrily at us on Twitter @EyeOnNFL.

Eye on Offense Award
Mike Freeman Clark Judge
LeGarrette Blount LeGarrette Blount, RB, Buccaneers
It was only the Colts. If the Colts' defense had any more holes it would be a script for "Lost." They're still an NFL team, though, and what Blount did at times in that Monday night game was ridiculous. He was a plow and the Colts were fertile soil. He's the size of a small apartment building, has some speed and thank God hasn't punched anybody this season.
Aaron RodgersAaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
He throws for four touchdowns runs for two more and looks more and more like the next great quarterback. Thank you, San Francisco. The 49ers could've taken Rodgers with the first pick of the 2005 draft. Instead, they chose Alex Smith. Life is not fair ... unless, of course, you're Mike McCarthy. He was the 49ers' OC then; he's the Packers' head coach now.
Pete Prisco Will Brinson
Aaron Rodgers Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Anytime a guy can throw for four touchdowns and run for two more, like Rodgers did in helping the Packers blow out the Broncos,f it's an easy choice. He can win this award every week.
Aaron RodgersAaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
After 2010, we expect Rodgers to be good. Maybe even great. What he's doing this year is filthy, and the things he did to the Broncos were just dirty. I don't have many rules in life, but one of them is "if a guy accounts for six touchdowns in one game, he's my offensive player of the week."
Josh Katzowitz Ryan Wilson
Calvin JohnsonCalvin Johnson, WR, Lions
Early in the Cowboys-Lions game, it looked like Rob Ryan was partially correct when he said that Dez Bryant and Austin Miles were better receivers than Johnson (though we all knew better, didn’t we?). But who remembers now what Bryant did? That’s because Johnson caught two more touchdown passes, including a jump-ball in triple coverage, and led Detroit to a huge comeback victory.
Aaron Rodgers Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Yes, the Packers were facing the Broncos, but unless something's changed, Denver's players still get paid and they are considered "professionals." But we suspect Rodgers would put up similar numbers against the 1985 Bears. He finished the day 29 of 38 for 408 yards, four touchdown passes, two touchdown runs, and the inevitably awesome championship belt end-zone routine.
Eye on Defense Award
Freeman Judge
Mario WilliamsHouston Texans, DST
Yeah, I'm picking the whole damn group. I've never seen the Pittsburgh Steelers during the Tomlin/Roethlisberger era get so physically outmatched. I mean, the Texans. Who would have believed this group could be so tough. Defense and the Texans rarely appear in the same sentence but after they battered Ben, shut down Pittsburgh's running game and intimidated their receivers, those two words might be associated a great deal this season.
Drayton Florence Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
In his first game since returning from knee surgery Umenyiora produces two sacks, forces a fumble and makes a case for why the Giants should keep him, pay him and make him happy. You can never have enough pass rushers, and Umenyiora is one of the best in the game. If the Giants were auditioning him for the next trading partner, color me interested.
Prisco Brinson
Mario WilliamsMario Williams, DE, Texans
He had two sacks and made a great tackle on a run for a loss. He is playing at a Pro Bowl level. Got both sacks with his hand on the ground.
Haloti NgataHaloti Ngata, DL, Ravens
The Ravens destroyed the Jets, their second-closest AFC rival, on Sunday night. Joe Flacco and the Baltimore offense had nothing to do with, really. Ngata did though -- with Nick Mangold out, the Baltimore lineman was an absolute terror, limiting the Jets in every facet of their offense.
Katzowitz Wilson
Aaron Maybin Aaron Maybin, DE, Jets
There might be better candidates this week -- like, somebody who played for a team that won -- but give credit to Maybin. After his disastrous stint with the Bills ended before the season started, he was cut by the Jets, then re-signed with New York, and he responded with snappy play and his first NFL sack. Which means he’s already one-up on Vernon Gholston.
Haloti Ngata Haloti Ngata, DL, Ravens
This could go to the entire Ravens defense, but Ngata absolutely obliterated Mark Sanchez on a sack-and-fumble play that ended with Jaret Johnson doing a touchdown dance in the end zone. A lot of big-name defenders got new contracts in recent weeks but Ngata has probably done the most to earn his substantial pay bump.
Eye on Special Teams Award
Freeman Judge
Mason CrosbyMason Crosby, K, Packers
He may be the best at onside kicks in the league. The Packers detroyed the Broncos and while there is no key moment in such an obliteration Crosby's onside kick was the closet thing. The Packers were up 14-3 when Mike McCarthy called for it and Mason was perfect. The Broncos never saw it coming.
Devin Hester Devin Hester, WR/KR, Bears
He returns a punt 69 yards for a touchdown. He returns a kickoff 73 yards to set up another score. Basically, he beats the Carolina Panthers by himself, and where's the surprise? I mean, his punt return was his 11th for a touchdown, setting an NFL record. So why in the world would anyone kick to the guy? Carolina coaches must be asking the same question.
Prisco Brinson
Devin HesterDevin Hester, WR/KR, Bears
Hester had a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown and also had another long return (a kickoff he took back 73 yards). Plus, the Bears won, which is why I give him the edge over Joe McKnight.
Devin HesterDevin Hester, WR/KR, Bears
It was Hester's effort -- a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 73-yard kickoff return that nearly went to the house -- that changed the outcome of this game. Ron Rivera managed to forget that Bears coaches sit back and laugh at anyone who kicks his way.
Katzowitz Wilson
Ryan Succop Ryan Succop, K, Chiefs
The Chiefs scored their first win of the season, and their kicker was the one who did most of the scoring. Succop went 5-for-5 on field goals, including a career-high 54-yarder. Kansas City wasn’t great, but its field goal kicker was.
Devin Hester Devin Hester, WR/KR, Bears
We'll never understand why any team thinks kicking to Hester is a good idea. But the Panthers threw caution to the wind and were predictably  burned. Hester had a 69-yard punt return for six, and added a 73-yard kickoff return for good measure. The Panthers ended up losing by five.
Eye on Coaching Award
Freeman Judge
Jim SchwartzJim Schwartz, Lions
Lions fell behind big but still won. Schwartz is one mentally tough dude and his Lions showed the same. Sure, Tony Romo threw his usual lazy pick sixes and kept the Lions in it but coming back from that type of margin is still impressive and says a lot about Schwartz. I would expect no less from a Mt. St. Joe grad.
Jim Harbaugh Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
Not only does he have the 49ers on top of the NFC West, he just scored a huge victory in Philadelphia after overcoming a 20-point second-half deficit. What that win told me was that Harbaugh is changing the culture there; that the 49ers are learning to close games. A couple of years ago they would've given up and gotten drilled by 30. Instead, they fight back and win. Trust me, this will have a ripple effect for the rest of the season.
Prisco Brinson
Jim HarbaughJim Harbaugh, 49ers
Harbaugh kept his team over on the East Coast -- they stayed in Ohio after playing the Bengals -- for a week and it paid off. Their rally against the Eagles on the road was impressive. He also gets points for making Alex Smith look good.
Jim HarbaughJim Harbaugh, 49ers
Harbaugh's done amazing work with the 49ers, even if the comeback against the Eagles isn't something you can count on every week. His postgame speech and his willingness to give up a first-class plane ticket are indicative that this isn't a fluke -- he's somehow got an Alex Smith-quarterbacked team on a winning streak.
Katzowitz Wilson
Jim Schwartz Jim Schwartz, Lions
It doesn’t matter how far behind Detroit falls to its opponent. 24 points vs. the Cowboys? 20 points to the Vikings? When Schwartz is your coach, none of that matters, because your team can do nothing but win. That zinger on Cowboys DC Rob Ryan in the postgame presser was nothing short of awesome.
Jim Harbaugh Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
Not sure if we should be giving this award to Andy Reid and Juan Castillo, but the fact remains that the 49ers are 3-1, and did what so many west coast teams struggle to do: travel east and win a 1 p.m. start.

Posted on: October 4, 2011 12:03 pm
Edited on: October 5, 2011 1:05 pm
 

NFL Winners/Losers and experts live chat



Posted by Will Brinson



The world is a far better place when there are clear and distinct delineations between who is a winner and who is a loser. Since actual football records only do so much of that for us, let's dive into who's winning and who's losing a quarter of the way into the 2011 NFL season.

BUT FIRST -- we need to talk. No, seriously, let's chat -- starting at 1:00 pm ET on Wednesday. You can tell Pete Prisco his Power Rankings are awful, ask fantasy questions or just yell at me for not including [insert your favorite player's name here] in the winners list below. Either way, come on by.



WINNERS
Carolina Panthers: Yes, the Panthers are 1-3 and that is not what you would call winning. But this season, thanks solely to the early emergence of Cam Newton, is already eleventy billion times better than 2010, when the Panthers went 2-14. In fact, I'd argue that Carolina could lose out the rest of their schedule -- and they could! -- and it would be a better season than last year, when they despondently limped to the worst record in the NFL. There are plenty of arguments to be made against Newton's performance thus far (namely: he's posting some garbage-time stats and he's made plenty of rookie mistakes), but there's little doubt that Carolina landed themselves a franchise quarterback, and did so at a very reasonable cost.

Detroit Lions: This is a case where the record actually does match up with the placement. Matthew Stafford could go here, as he's proving himself to be a potentially elite quarterback. So could Calvin Johnson, who's vaulted himself into the pole position when it comes to wide receivers in the NFL. And so could Jim Schwartz, as he's clearly the best "new" head coach in the NFL. Which is why the organization as a whole gets the nod, since they've somehow managed to justify the hype and make the early Thanksgiving game -- a Packers-Lions matchup -- more meaningful than it's been in years.

Ryan Fitzpatrick/Fred Jackson: The oft-overlooked offensive duo that drives the Buffalo Bills are in full-on resurgence mode early in the season, with Jackson sitting at fourth in the NFL in rushing yards being the most obvious example. Fitzpatrick's been pretty spectacular himself even if his total passing yardage only ranks him 13th in the NFL. Passing yards can be misleading anyway -- he's thrown nine touchdowns to three interceptions and completed 63.4 percent of his passes. Most importantly, the Buffalo Bills are 3-1, something no one saw coming. They were so hot at one point this season that Fitzpatrick was impossible to book for an interview this season and both he and Jackson are working their way towards new, big-money contracts.

Matt Hasselbeck: Mentioned it in Sorting the Sunday Pile, but Hasselbeck is seeing a serious return to dominance as a result of his move to Tennessee. He's got 1,152 yards in just four games -- last season he barely crossed over 3,000 in 14. His average yards per pass is all the way up to 8.9, and his passing yards per game, 288, is currently the highest of his career. It helps to play for a coach that puts an emphasis on the offensive line, of course, and is willing to keep blockers at home in order to make sure Hasselbeck doesn't get touched and is able to throw the ball deep.

Darren Sproles: Arguably "the Saints" could be on this list ... just for landing Sproles. Has a guy ever fit what Sean Payton wants to do better than the diminutive Kansas State-star-turned-Chargers specialist? We used to think that Reggie Bush was the king of Payton's offensive scheming, and he did fit what the offensive guru loves to do, but Sproles, with better big-play burst, is the perfect addition to the already explosive Saints.

Gary Kubiak: First of all, kudos to the Texans for correctly playing the 2011 offseason. We've said this before, but they failed to draft for secondary help, which seemed weird, but now looks genius, especially since they went out and signed Johnathan Joseph in free agency. He's been a difference maker for Houston, and not just because he represents better value than Nnamdi Asomugha already. Kubes, on the other hand, is sitting at 3-1 and has a pretty clear path to a division title, the Titans success notwithstanding. Obviously the Texans aren't locked into the 2011 playoffs just yet, but their chances are looking pretty good right now, and that'll do a lot to justify his return for this season.

Matt Forte: Another topic in this past week's SSP, Forte is mauling defenses this year -- even if they are the Panthers! -- and forcing the Bears to pay him this offseason. For whatever reason, Chicago believed that Forte wasn't worth the cash and didn't pony up before 2011 began. That's fine, and that's their prerogative. But if they want to keep him, Forte's success this year is going to make it expensive.

NFL Fans: In just a few hectic weeks, fans of football went from "OMG, we might not get football at all this year" to "OMG, football is more exciting to watch than at any period of time, ever." We've seen scoring cranked up, we've seen incredible storylines (Lions, Bills, oh my), we've seen incredible comebacks (four 20-pointers in the last two weeks) and we've seen no truly noticeable ill effects of the missed offseason. If there are any complaints, it might be the new kickoff rules and the lack of consistency on replays. The former everyone who's not over now will be over by the end of the year, and the latter can be fixed. It's a good time to be an NFL fan.

LOSERS
Todd Haley: That Haley ended the quarter-season mark on a high note, with a victory over Minnesota, is a good thing. Otherwise the Chiefs might be starting at an 0-4 start and his seat would be somehow be hotter. It's really an unfathomable dropoff from winning the division in 2010. Haley's been victimized by a lot of key injuries -- Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki and Jamaal Charles all went down for the year -- but things weren't all that good with the win against Minny, as Haley managed to get in a screaming match with Matt Cassel.

Tony Romo: It amazes me that Romo can't do anything right. Or, maybe, he can't avoid whatever he does being scrutinized to the nth degree. After Week 1, when he threw a terrible pick against the Jets that cost him the game, he was a goat. Then he injured his ribs against the 49ers, led the Cowboys to victory and he was a hero. Then he played with busted ribs against the Redskins, overcame his entire team stinking the joint up and morphed into a different person that we knew.  Then came the Lions loss. Romo tossed back-to-back picks that Detroit took to the house and everyone hopped off the "I heart Romo" bandwagon and back on the "Choker" train. It's not fair to Romo because it's not all his fault, but none of that matters to anyone that applies the labels.

Ben Roethlisberger: For years, the Steelers have managed to succeed despite a porous offensive line. That's mainly because Roethlisberger's strength is keeping a play alive by being a physical beast. But even he's struggling to fight through the Steelers inability to block, and suddenly Pittsburgh's in a precarious position at 2-2 with Roethlisberger banged up. Of course, he missed time for non-injury reasons last year, and he also suffered through injuries and the Steelers line was also terrible last season. Still, it's hard to fathom Roethlisberger staying healthy if he keeps getting destroyed at this rate.

Kyle Orton/Donovan McNabb: Because quarterbacks seem to be succeeding at an earlier stage than ever before, there's immediate cries for the next guy any time a veteran struggles. Orton and McNabb, neither of whom is putting up great numbers thus far in 2011, are the best examples because of the two guys -- Tim Tebow and Christian Ponder, respectively -- who sit behind them. Both Orton and McNabb are slightly under 60 percent in terms of completion percentage this season, and while neither one is lighting up the scoreboard with touchdown passes and passing yardage, it's important to remember that one (Orton) is running a John Fox offense and the other (McNabb) is on a team with Adrian Peterson.

Juan Castillo: The Eagles shipped out Sean McDermont because Jim Johnson's shadow was too much to overcome. And then they brought in Castillo, who coached Philly's offensive line for 12 years. Yes, that's offensive line. Given that the Eagles added both Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the offseason, it looked like it might not matter. But Castillo's new-age "don't tackle" defense hasn't gone over well against an opponent yet, and the Eagles find themselves 1-3 primarily because they simply can't stop anyone. Sure, they're tough to pass on ... unless you have a good tight end. And if you don't, and you happen to have a decent power running game, you don't even have to worry about it.

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Posted on: October 3, 2011 12:43 am
Edited on: October 3, 2011 1:36 pm
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile: Week 4


Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action and figures out the most important storylines for you to digest. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter.Make sure and listen to our Week 4 podcast review below as well and feel free to subscribe via iTunes.



1. The bandwagon rolls on
On Sunday, the mojo disappeared for the Lions and they fell 24 points behind the Cowboys in Dallas, until Tony Romo decided to drag Detroit back from a lockjob of a defeat with a pair of pick-sixes that sparked a rally in which Matthew Stafford hit Calvin Johnson for two touchdowns and the Lions stunned Dallas 34-30 at Jerry Jones' palatial estate.

There are two ways to look at this. One, Romo is a choker again (more on that in a second) and Dallas stinks. Or, two, the Lions are very much for real. I'm inclined to believe the second narrative. So is Cowboys fan LeBron James.


I'm including this mainly because I find it absolutely hysterical that Ohio native James is a Cowboys fan. I'm sure it has nothing to do with bandwagons. But I'm also including it because James is right -- the Lions do "got swag right now."

This was mentioned after Week 2, when the Lions slammed a beatdown on the Chiefs, and it makes sense to mention now.

That's primarily because the Lions are 4-0 for the first time since 1980 and became the fourth team to start a season 4-0 a year after starting the season 0-4 since 1990. (The impressive nature of that turnaround aside, what a statement on the NFL's parity, huh?)

Take it back even further, and count preseason games and the Lions are on a 12-game winning streak, and once, again, appear to develop some of this attitude from their head coach.

"I'm glad the third best wide receiver on the Cowboys is on our team," Jim Schwartz said after the game.

Naturally you'll recall that Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had some comments about the skills of Dez Bryant and Miles Austin versus Calvin Johnson before the game.

Schwartz' comments are a straight burn, of course, but it warrants mentioning that Dez did look otherworldly earlier in the game. But Megatron did some dirty things on his two touchdowns to the Dallas defensive backs. On the first catch, he went up in triple coverage and grabbed a ball that probably never should have been a score.

And on the second -- and most important -- score, Johnson scored when he was isolated in single coverage against Terrence Newman. Based on Ryan's theory, Newman's practice against Bryant and Austin should have prepared him for a one-on-one matchup at the goalline.

Unfortunately, Megatron's the biggest freak of nature in the NFL, arguably the best wideout in the league and slicing up some well-deserved humble pie for Ryan after the Lebowski look-a-like tried to put him in man coverage.

2. Hands on Necks
Obviously the Cowboys loss is going to be classified as a chokejob. And it should -- there's no way to classify it as anything other than that, especially when Romo packaged a pair of touchdowns and mailed it the Lions way.

"The games turn, obviously, on turnovers," Romo said. "It's the most important stat in the game. That's why you protect the ball. That's my No. 1 job and I didn't do a well enough job of that today."

The weird thing about the loss is that Dallas is now 2-0 in games where they were "gritty and tough and found a way to win" and 0-2 in games where "Romo peed his pants and threw terrible picks." Or something like that.

The point is that, yes, the Cowboys choked, but it wasn't even the worst choke on Sunday. And perhaps only the third worst -- Dallas was at least playing a very dangerous team in the Lions and even if the game was at home, we've seen Detroit do this before.

There's no real excuse for Buffalo, who was leading 21-3 against the Bengals on Sunday, to lose on a last-second field goal by Mike Nugent. Sure, it was in Cincy and, sure, it was the Bills and we should have seen something coming after buying in so heavily. But losing like that to a Bengals team with a rookie quarterback is just bad news Bears.

And yet it wasn't even the most embarrassing choke of the day. The Eagles deserve some, um, credit for their inability to hold off the 49ers in a home game where they led 23-3 as late as midway through the third quarter.

The Bills and Cowboys can at least hang their respective hats on records that aren't below .500. The Eagles have no such excuse and it's becoming increasingly clear why "offseason winners" isn't always such a nice thing to say about teams in the NFL.



3. Super Bowl champs remain under the radar

Thus far, the Packers have beaten the Saints, the Panthers, the Bears and the Broncos. It's not exactly a murderer's row of great NFL teams, but it's not the four-worst teams in the league either.

And they've looked outstanding on offense, compiling a league-high 148 points en route to a 4-0 record, and giving plenty of folks justification for selecting the Packers to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2011.

Yet ... no one wants to talk about the success they've had this year.

This is partially because of the other storylines that are permeating the NFL this season, and partially because after last season's late run, we've come to expect this out of Aaron Rodgers and his outstanding teammates.

"Trust me, we don't have it all figured out as a football team," Mike McCarthy said Sunday. "We're 4-0, but we're very in tune with what we need to improve as a team."

The biggest issue is defense, clearly. While the Packers have arguably improved their running game from last year (James Starks looks like a legit back for their system, especially when it comes to melting the clock with a lead), the defense isn't the championship-winning caliber that showed up in the playoffs last year.

Both Kyle Orton and Cam Newton posted big numbers against Green Bay, and though there were some fantastic moments from the defenses in those games, it's difficult to justify any claim that the Packers defense is better this year than it was last year.

Having said all that, this team did a pretty good job of gelling at the right time last year, and they're off to a much better start in 2011. We should all take notice.

4. Hope you sick people are happy now
2011 has been a tough go for anyone who supports Arian Foster, whether it be Texans fans, fantasy owners or just, you now, nice people who care about other humans.

Fortunately, those people got some good karmic returns for their Foster love on Sunday, as he and the Texans took some punches from the Steelers and punched right back, eventually beating Pittsburgh 17-10 on Sunday afternoon. As my man Mike Freeman points out, everything about the win at Reliant Stadium on Sunday goes against the typical stereotype of Texans football.

More on that in a second, but first, Foster. When Gary Kubiak said he was going to bring Foster back against the Steelers, I thought he was insane. After all, the Steelers are (well, were) a top-10 rushing defense.

But Foster looked fantastic. He broke long runs, he showed tremendous burst through holes, when he got around the corner he was able to cut back upfield and pick up big yards and in general he looked like the 2010 version of himself.

"I go into every contest thinking that I'm the go-to guy," Foster said. "When the flow of the game starts going, we need certain things, and you've got to be there for your team."

Hamstrings are tricky, of course, and there's no guarantee that Foster's going to roll to another rushing title or anything. Plus, the Texans offense sputtered a bit (OK, a lot) after Andre Johnson left with a hamstring injury that really looked like a knee injury in the second quarter and that could be problematic going forward.

But at least for now, there's reason to think that the Texans offense can hop back up on Foster's back and ride him to a division title.



5. Sunday night monstrosity
The Ravens opened up on fire to begin the Sunday night game against the Jets, jumping out to a 27-7 lead before eventually winning handily. But, um, well, you see ... that was ugly.

Real ugly -- Joe Flacco limped his way to a 10 for 31 performance that generated 163 passing yards and an interception.

It would have been the ugliest performance on the field, but Mark Sanchez took full advantage of Nick Mangold's absence, and fumbled four times, three of which were lost, two of which were taken to the house by Ravens defenders and also threw a pick-six.

Things got so bad that, at one point, Rex Ryan called a timeout just to scream at the officials. It actually seemed to work, or it at least confused the Ravens and Cam Cameron, who took a 20-point lead with just a few minutes remaining in the second quarter and desperately tried to let the Jets back in the game.

That didn't matter, but it didn't make the performance of Sanchez, Flacco and their respective teams any worse or weirder. There were five defensive and special teams touchdowns in total during the game, most in NFL history and Sanchez' final pass (he finished 11 of 35, ugh) went off the heel of a defender.

What perplexes me isn't the Jets struggling, because, frankly, they were kind of due to regress a bit. I'm sure they'll start getting better, and they might start stopping the run (although I'm sure Cameron won't figure that out!) and running the ball better. They almost always do, just in time to claw their way into the playoffs.

The bigger concern is how the Ravens came out in Week 4, continuing the metronome-like performance for Flacco through a few weeks. At times (against the Steelers and the Rams) he's looked like an elite-level quarterback. And at others (Sunday and against the Titans), he's looked absolutely lost.

If he wants to truly "make the jump," he's going to need to find some consistency.

6. Goin' out east
There was no shortage of different predictions for the team that would win the NFC West. Well, except for the Seahawks. No one predicted that. The typical favorites were the Rams and Cardinals, mainly because of their quarterback play.

The 49ers should have gotten more love, but Alex Smith held them back, and Jim Harbaugh, in his first stop as an NFL head coach, is showing exactly why. His team managed to storm back against the Eagles on Sunday and move into first place in their division, with a firm command of the typically crappy NFC West.

San Francisco's 3-1, the Rams are 0-4 and the Seahawks and Cardinals are 1-3.

None of the teams out there have, unsurprisingly, looked very good. And the 49ers are the only squad with a positive point differential, which should tell you just how bad this division is. Again. But maybe Harbaugh is the difference -- look no further than his decision to house his team in Ohio for half a week in between their Week 3 game against the Bengals and Sunday's win in Philadelphia.

"Thanks Youngstown, you've been good to us," Harbaugh said in deference to Ohio. "That's as good a win as I can ever remember being a part of. I'm really proud of our players. They never flinched in a tough environment here, and there was no moment or circumstance that made them nervous in this ballgame. We kept fighting, made adjustments -- a great team victory for us."

Frank Gore gashed the Eagles for 127 yards, and Alex Smith played pretty inspired football, going 13 of 17 for 201 yards and two touchdowns in just the second half.

It's a surprising turnaround for a surprising team that stunk the joint out last year. Given the dearth of talent for Seattle, Arizona's inability to close out, and St. Louis' rough schedule ahead, Harbaugh might have this team -- surprisingly -- poised to take over their division.

7. Remember the Titans

Unless Tennessee has something to say about that anyway -- Mike Munchak picked up his third-career win on Sunday afternoon as the Titans vaulted themselves into a first-place tie with Houston in the AFC South

On The NFL Today, Charley Casserly mentioned that Matt Hasselbeck was drawn to Tennessee because of two things: Munchak's commitment to protecting the quarterback with strong line play, and Munchak's commitment to protecting the quarterback's ability to throw deep by leaving in more blockers.

This has paid tremendous dividends for Hasselbeck, who's eighth in the NFL in passing yards, sixth in passing touchdowns, third in yards per pass and first in pass plays of 40-plus yards.

"We thought he had a lot left in the tank from watching him in the playoffs last year," Munchak said. "We didn't bring him here to retire quietly. We brought him here to do exactly what he's been doing."

And he's casually doing all of this while playing for a team that doesn't have a viable No. 1 wide receiver because of Kenny Britt's season-ending injury last week.

Chris Johnson finally managed to get going a little bit in the Week 4 win over Cleveland, and provided the Hasselbeck can stay healthy (which is somewhat of a stretch, but possible), the Titans might be the surprise playoff team that no one's talking about.



8. Pay the man!
Just like 2010, Mike Martz refused to run the ball until the Bears met up with the Panthers early in the season. And just like 2010, Martz got enough criticism for his playcalling that he ran the ball a ton against Carolina. And just like 2010, Matt Forte went HAM.

Last year it was 166 rushing yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns. This year it was a career-high 205 rushing yards on 25 carries and a touchdown in the Bears 34-29 win.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. One, the Bears are 9-0 when Forte rushes for 100 yards or more. Yet ... they don't like to run. Two, the Panthers defense is absolutely terrible. I could put up a hundo on them, and it shouldn't be too huge of a shock to see him go key largo against Carolina's beat-up defense.

That being said ... three, Forte wants a new contract, has wanted a new contract but can't get the Bears to even talk to him about getting more money.

The result, predictably, is a running back who appears to be playing with a great deal of intensity and a desire to be highly productive. Of course, for all of Forte's success against the Panthers, there wasn't that much to love about the way Chicago played. Just don't tell Lovie Smith that.

"We’re not apologizing at all about this win," Smith said. "We feel really good about it."

They shouldn't, even if this year suddenly looks like last year in terms of figuring out to run the ball and not get Jay Cutler killed. Cam Newton did a lot of damage to the Bears defense, though he made some rookie mistakes, and the Panthers were able to run pretty easily on Chicago.

Anyone can score on the Panthers, and do it at will, given the lack of depth they have on the defensive side of the ball right now. That being said, it sure does seem like the Bears might have saved themselves some money if they'd gotten Forte some cash before the season rather than waiting.

As my college football colleague Tom Fornelli likes to say, "Pay the man, Chicago."

9. Review Controversy
Could the NFL's current replay system be any less controversial? As you likely know, all scoring plays are reviewed by a booth official. That sounds simple, but it's not at all -- we've already had plenty of problems with plays that seemed like obvious needs for reviews that weren't scrutinized further by the officials.

Sunday, we saw two more examples. First, there an issue in the Chiefs and Vikings game.

With 5:01 remaining, Michael Jenkins caught a one-yard touchdown pass from Donovan McNabb. It appeared, pretty clearly, that he only got one foot inbounds. Fox didn't show any replays of the catch, and the officials at the game never reviewed it. Ultimately, it didn't matter, because the Vikings lost.

But it could have mattered and there wasn't anything Todd Haley or the Chiefs could do to get the play looked at. If Haley had thrown a challenge flag, he'd have been flagged for a delay of game penalty.

Another less controversial instance occurred during the Packers-Broncos game when Aaron Rodgers rushed for his second touchdown of the day on a third down. Rodgers was ruled down at the one-yard line, though replays showed he broke the plane of the goal line.

Mike McCarthy challenged and the Packers were given a touchdown that locked in their win against Denver. Here's the problem: "a scoring play" is only defined as a play in which the officials subjectively rule that a touchdown has happened. If that subjective ruling occurs, then the play is automatically reviewed.

If it doesn't happen, coaches are required to use a challenge.

I realize that the league can't challenge every single play that gets close to the end zone, but it seems to me that these two plays aren't that different. Something was botched by the refs and the booth wasn't available to make sure the right call was locked in. Ironically, in the non touchdown scenario, the coach has more freedom to help out his team with a red flag.

Even if the booth doesn't believe that a call should be looked at by the ref -- and in a close game like that, who's hurt by double-checking? -- there should be an option for a coach to take a stab at having a call overturned as well, if he's really adamant about what happened.

And, of course, there's the whole mess that went down in Arizona with Victor Cruz giving himself up and/or pulling the old stumble-->fumble disaster combo.

That actually seems like it was interpreted correctly, as it relates to the rule book.

"Official shall declare ball dead when a runner declares himself down by falling to ground or kneeling and making no effort to advance," reads Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(e) of the NFL Rule Book.

In other words, it's a subjective call by the guys who look like zebras. If they believe Cruz gave himself up, then he gave himself up and that's the end of it.

10. Maybe they ARE the NFL's Heat

Whenever something good or bad happens in sports, reporters inevitably ask athletes how they feel. No, I don't know why it happens all the time either, but it rarely produces a good result.

It got a decent reaction out of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick on Sunday, though, as he expressed a high level of frustration at the fact that the Eagles just choked away a huge lead against the 49ers -- at home, no less -- that eventually led to a 24-23 loss to San Francisco.

"Do I really have to explain how I feel right now sitting here at 1-3?" Vick asked. "It's frustrating. It's tough. I can't put that in words. I take sole responsibility. Maybe it's a lot of things I can do better. And I gotta figure it out.

"It's frustrating. I'm not going to continue to use that word, but, yeah, it's tough."


That's the thing with the Eagles, though. It's not all Vick's fault.

Is some of it? Sure, of course. But he was 30 of 46 for 416 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. A bigger problem is that he led the team in rushing, with 75 yards on eight carries. When you have a weapon like LeSean McCoy, it seems silly not to utilize him more.

Then again, the lack of a good push from the offensive line causes that too.

And when you can't stop other teams from running the ball, none of it really matters. Frank Gore gashed the Eagles for 127 yards on just 15 carries and Kendall Hunter picked up 38 on nine.

The Eagles might have some really, really talented players at a couple positions, but they're also really, really weak at other positions, and their depth just isn't that impressive at all.

So, come to think of it, maybe they're more like the Miami Heat than any of us could have ever known.

Muffed Punts
Leftovers from Sunday's action ...
... What the hell was Ronnie Brown thinking? He's not even a quarterback, so trying to throw the ball while being tackled at the goal line doesn't even work as a random logical excuse.
... Johnathan Joseph had two -- TWO! -- touchdowns nullified by stupid penalties by the Texans. First there was the ridiculous block in the back by Danieal Manning when Joseph took a blocked punt to the house to end the half. And then there was the pick six he grabbed to close out the game that was negated by a J.J. Watt penalty. Welcome to Houston!
... Speaking of picks, Vince Wilfork now has two on the season after his second career INT against the Raiders.
... Just for trolling purposes: Nnamdi Asomugha only has one interception on the year.
... In one of the more insane things ever, Rex Ryan used a first-half timeout on Sunday night just to yell at the officials.

Worth 1,000 Words



Jim Irsay Pop-Culture Referencing Tweet That's Sure to Drive Colts Fans Insane of the Week
"I woke up in a So Ho doorway ... a policeman knew my name."

"Who Are You" is actually a pretty good thing to ask the Colts quarterback, no?

GIF O' THE WEEK



Hot Seat Tracker
  • Tony Sparano: It would almost be an upset if he made it past the bye at this point.
  • Jack Del Rio: Very impressive that JDR figured out a way to make Maurice Jones-Drew completely ineffective during the first half of a game that was pretty closer during the first half.
  • Leslie Frazier: It might only be his first year, but looking terrible against a terrible Chiefs team ain't helping his cause. 
  • Todd Haley: Can Minnesota visit every weekend?
  • Juan Castillo: New guy for the Eagles, their defense is a leaky ship and someone needs to take the fall.
Chasing Andrew Luck (All odds mine)
We have a new entrant in the usual suspects who are searching for the answer to their franchise woes -- the St. Louis Rams! Heretofore unlisted in this space, the Rams are 0-4 and now squarely in the hunt for Luck, even though they could get to 0-7 and somehow still win their division, based on how easy their schedule is.

What I find fascinating about this is that the Rams and Vikings, my two current faves for Luck, both drafted a "franchise quarterback" in the past two years. Would the Rams consider acquiring Luck if they got the No. 1 overall pick again? Or is Sam Bradford just that much better? Would both they and the Vikings just absolutely trade the pick to whoever was desperate enough for Luck? Because I'm not so sure.

Vikings (2:1) -- Can't imagine they actually feel like Christian Ponder's better than Luck. Right?
Dolphins (2:1) -- As AJB points out below, Miami definitely deserves inclusion here. My bust. Was too worried about Sparano's job.
Rams (3:1) -- So spicy if they get it.
Colts (3:1) -- They'd be the favorites if/when they lose to Tampa on Monday.
Broncos (4:1) -- Stanford, everyone!
Panthers (5:1) -- Fairly confident that the Panthers would acquire some assets for that pick.
Eagles (10:1) -- Andy Reid does love quarterbacks ...

MVP Watch
Stafford, my leader up to this point, did some nice things Sunday. But after Rodgers did the dirty things -- six touchdowns! -- that he did to Denver and helped propel the Packers to 4-0, it's hard not to sit up and take notice and admit that right now he's the best quarterback in the NFL.
Posted on: October 3, 2011 12:43 am
Edited on: October 3, 2011 1:36 pm
 

Sorting the Sunday Pile: Week 4


Sorting the Sunday Pile takes all of Sunday's NFL action and figures out the most important storylines for you to digest. Send your complaints, questions and comments to Will Brinson on Twitter.Make sure and listen to our Week 4 podcast review below as well and feel free to subscribe via iTunes.



1. The bandwagon rolls on
On Sunday, the mojo disappeared for the Lions and they fell 24 points behind the Cowboys in Dallas, until Tony Romo decided to drag Detroit back from a lockjob of a defeat with a pair of pick-sixes that sparked a rally in which Matthew Stafford hit Calvin Johnson for two touchdowns and the Lions stunned Dallas 34-30 at Jerry Jones' palatial estate.

There are two ways to look at this. One, Romo is a choker again (more on that in a second) and Dallas stinks. Or, two, the Lions are very much for real. I'm inclined to believe the second narrative. So is Cowboys fan LeBron James.


I'm including this mainly because I find it absolutely hysterical that Ohio native James is a Cowboys fan. I'm sure it has nothing to do with bandwagons. But I'm also including it because James is right -- the Lions do "got swag right now."

This was mentioned after Week 2, when the Lions slammed a beatdown on the Chiefs, and it makes sense to mention now.

That's primarily because the Lions are 4-0 for the first time since 1980 and became the fourth team to start a season 4-0 a year after starting the season 0-4 since 1990. (The impressive nature of that turnaround aside, what a statement on the NFL's parity, huh?)

Take it back even further, and count preseason games and the Lions are on a 12-game winning streak, and once, again, appear to develop some of this attitude from their head coach.

"I'm glad the third best wide receiver on the Cowboys is on our team," Jim Schwartz said after the game.

Naturally you'll recall that Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had some comments about the skills of Dez Bryant and Miles Austin versus Calvin Johnson before the game.

Schwartz' comments are a straight burn, of course, but it warrants mentioning that Dez did look otherworldly earlier in the game. But Megatron did some dirty things on his two touchdowns to the Dallas defensive backs. On the first catch, he went up in triple coverage and grabbed a ball that probably never should have been a score.

And on the second -- and most important -- score, Johnson scored when he was isolated in single coverage against Terrence Newman. Based on Ryan's theory, Newman's practice against Bryant and Austin should have prepared him for a one-on-one matchup at the goalline.

Unfortunately, Megatron's the biggest freak of nature in the NFL, arguably the best wideout in the league and slicing up some well-deserved humble pie for Ryan after the Lebowski look-a-like tried to put him in man coverage.

2. Hands on Necks
Obviously the Cowboys loss is going to be classified as a chokejob. And it should -- there's no way to classify it as anything other than that, especially when Romo packaged a pair of touchdowns and mailed it the Lions way.

"The games turn, obviously, on turnovers," Romo said. "It's the most important stat in the game. That's why you protect the ball. That's my No. 1 job and I didn't do a well enough job of that today."

The weird thing about the loss is that Dallas is now 2-0 in games where they were "gritty and tough and found a way to win" and 0-2 in games where "Romo peed his pants and threw terrible picks." Or something like that.

The point is that, yes, the Cowboys choked, but it wasn't even the worst choke on Sunday. And perhaps only the third worst -- Dallas was at least playing a very dangerous team in the Lions and even if the game was at home, we've seen Detroit do this before.

There's no real excuse for Buffalo, who was leading 21-3 against the Bengals on Sunday, to lose on a last-second field goal by Mike Nugent. Sure, it was in Cincy and, sure, it was the Bills and we should have seen something coming after buying in so heavily. But losing like that to a Bengals team with a rookie quarterback is just bad news Bears.

And yet it wasn't even the most embarrassing choke of the day. The Eagles deserve some, um, credit for their inability to hold off the 49ers in a home game where they led 23-3 as late as midway through the third quarter.

The Bills and Cowboys can at least hang their respective hats on records that aren't below .500. The Eagles have no such excuse and it's becoming increasingly clear why "offseason winners" isn't always such a nice thing to say about teams in the NFL.



3. Super Bowl champs remain under the radar

Thus far, the Packers have beaten the Saints, the Panthers, the Bears and the Broncos. It's not exactly a murderer's row of great NFL teams, but it's not the four-worst teams in the league either.

And they've looked outstanding on offense, compiling a league-high 148 points en route to a 4-0 record, and giving plenty of folks justification for selecting the Packers to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2011.

Yet ... no one wants to talk about the success they've had this year.

This is partially because of the other storylines that are permeating the NFL this season, and partially because after last season's late run, we've come to expect this out of Aaron Rodgers and his outstanding teammates.

"Trust me, we don't have it all figured out as a football team," Mike McCarthy said Sunday. "We're 4-0, but we're very in tune with what we need to improve as a team."

The biggest issue is defense, clearly. While the Packers have arguably improved their running game from last year (James Starks looks like a legit back for their system, especially when it comes to melting the clock with a lead), the defense isn't the championship-winning caliber that showed up in the playoffs last year.

Both Kyle Orton and Cam Newton posted big numbers against Green Bay, and though there were some fantastic moments from the defenses in those games, it's difficult to justify any claim that the Packers defense is better this year than it was last year.

Having said all that, this team did a pretty good job of gelling at the right time last year, and they're off to a much better start in 2011. We should all take notice.

4. Hope you sick people are happy now
2011 has been a tough go for anyone who supports Arian Foster, whether it be Texans fans, fantasy owners or just, you now, nice people who care about other humans.

Fortunately, those people got some good karmic returns for their Foster love on Sunday, as he and the Texans took some punches from the Steelers and punched right back, eventually beating Pittsburgh 17-10 on Sunday afternoon. As my man Mike Freeman points out, everything about the win at Reliant Stadium on Sunday goes against the typical stereotype of Texans football.

More on that in a second, but first, Foster. When Gary Kubiak said he was going to bring Foster back against the Steelers, I thought he was insane. After all, the Steelers are (well, were) a top-10 rushing defense.

But Foster looked fantastic. He broke long runs, he showed tremendous burst through holes, when he got around the corner he was able to cut back upfield and pick up big yards and in general he looked like the 2010 version of himself.

"I go into every contest thinking that I'm the go-to guy," Foster said. "When the flow of the game starts going, we need certain things, and you've got to be there for your team."

Hamstrings are tricky, of course, and there's no guarantee that Foster's going to roll to another rushing title or anything. Plus, the Texans offense sputtered a bit (OK, a lot) after Andre Johnson left with a hamstring injury that really looked like a knee injury in the second quarter and that could be problematic going forward.

But at least for now, there's reason to think that the Texans offense can hop back up on Foster's back and ride him to a division title.



5. Sunday night monstrosity
The Ravens opened up on fire to begin the Sunday night game against the Jets, jumping out to a 27-7 lead before eventually winning handily. But, um, well, you see ... that was ugly.

Real ugly -- Joe Flacco limped his way to a 10 for 31 performance that generated 163 passing yards and an interception.

It would have been the ugliest performance on the field, but Mark Sanchez took full advantage of Nick Mangold's absence, and fumbled four times, three of which were lost, two of which were taken to the house by Ravens defenders and also threw a pick-six.

Things got so bad that, at one point, Rex Ryan called a timeout just to scream at the officials. It actually seemed to work, or it at least confused the Ravens and Cam Cameron, who took a 20-point lead with just a few minutes remaining in the second quarter and desperately tried to let the Jets back in the game.

That didn't matter, but it didn't make the performance of Sanchez, Flacco and their respective teams any worse or weirder. There were five defensive and special teams touchdowns in total during the game, most in NFL history and Sanchez' final pass (he finished 11 of 35, ugh) went off the heel of a defender.

What perplexes me isn't the Jets struggling, because, frankly, they were kind of due to regress a bit. I'm sure they'll start getting better, and they might start stopping the run (although I'm sure Cameron won't figure that out!) and running the ball better. They almost always do, just in time to claw their way into the playoffs.

The bigger concern is how the Ravens came out in Week 4, continuing the metronome-like performance for Flacco through a few weeks. At times (against the Steelers and the Rams) he's looked like an elite-level quarterback. And at others (Sunday and against the Titans), he's looked absolutely lost.

If he wants to truly "make the jump," he's going to need to find some consistency.

6. Goin' out east
There was no shortage of different predictions for the team that would win the NFC West. Well, except for the Seahawks. No one predicted that. The typical favorites were the Rams and Cardinals, mainly because of their quarterback play.

The 49ers should have gotten more love, but Alex Smith held them back, and Jim Harbaugh, in his first stop as an NFL head coach, is showing exactly why. His team managed to storm back against the Eagles on Sunday and move into first place in their division, with a firm command of the typically crappy NFC West.

San Francisco's 3-1, the Rams are 0-4 and the Seahawks and Cardinals are 1-3.

None of the teams out there have, unsurprisingly, looked very good. And the 49ers are the only squad with a positive point differential, which should tell you just how bad this division is. Again. But maybe Harbaugh is the difference -- look no further than his decision to house his team in Ohio for half a week in between their Week 3 game against the Bengals and Sunday's win in Philadelphia.

"Thanks Youngstown, you've been good to us," Harbaugh said in deference to Ohio. "That's as good a win as I can ever remember being a part of. I'm really proud of our players. They never flinched in a tough environment here, and there was no moment or circumstance that made them nervous in this ballgame. We kept fighting, made adjustments -- a great team victory for us."

Frank Gore gashed the Eagles for 127 yards, and Alex Smith played pretty inspired football, going 13 of 17 for 201 yards and two touchdowns in just the second half.

It's a surprising turnaround for a surprising team that stunk the joint out last year. Given the dearth of talent for Seattle, Arizona's inability to close out, and St. Louis' rough schedule ahead, Harbaugh might have this team -- surprisingly -- poised to take over their division.

7. Remember the Titans

Unless Tennessee has something to say about that anyway -- Mike Munchak picked up his third-career win on Sunday afternoon as the Titans vaulted themselves into a first-place tie with Houston in the AFC South

On The NFL Today, Charley Casserly mentioned that Matt Hasselbeck was drawn to Tennessee because of two things: Munchak's commitment to protecting the quarterback with strong line play, and Munchak's commitment to protecting the quarterback's ability to throw deep by leaving in more blockers.

This has paid tremendous dividends for Hasselbeck, who's eighth in the NFL in passing yards, sixth in passing touchdowns, third in yards per pass and first in pass plays of 40-plus yards.

"We thought he had a lot left in the tank from watching him in the playoffs last year," Munchak said. "We didn't bring him here to retire quietly. We brought him here to do exactly what he's been doing."

And he's casually doing all of this while playing for a team that doesn't have a viable No. 1 wide receiver because of Kenny Britt's season-ending injury last week.

Chris Johnson finally managed to get going a little bit in the Week 4 win over Cleveland, and provided the Hasselbeck can stay healthy (which is somewhat of a stretch, but possible), the Titans might be the surprise playoff team that no one's talking about.



8. Pay the man!
Just like 2010, Mike Martz refused to run the ball until the Bears met up with the Panthers early in the season. And just like 2010, Martz got enough criticism for his playcalling that he ran the ball a ton against Carolina. And just like 2010, Matt Forte went HAM.

Last year it was 166 rushing yards on 22 carries with two touchdowns. This year it was a career-high 205 rushing yards on 25 carries and a touchdown in the Bears 34-29 win.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. One, the Bears are 9-0 when Forte rushes for 100 yards or more. Yet ... they don't like to run. Two, the Panthers defense is absolutely terrible. I could put up a hundo on them, and it shouldn't be too huge of a shock to see him go key largo against Carolina's beat-up defense.

That being said ... three, Forte wants a new contract, has wanted a new contract but can't get the Bears to even talk to him about getting more money.

The result, predictably, is a running back who appears to be playing with a great deal of intensity and a desire to be highly productive. Of course, for all of Forte's success against the Panthers, there wasn't that much to love about the way Chicago played. Just don't tell Lovie Smith that.

"We’re not apologizing at all about this win," Smith said. "We feel really good about it."

They shouldn't, even if this year suddenly looks like last year in terms of figuring out to run the ball and not get Jay Cutler killed. Cam Newton did a lot of damage to the Bears defense, though he made some rookie mistakes, and the Panthers were able to run pretty easily on Chicago.

Anyone can score on the Panthers, and do it at will, given the lack of depth they have on the defensive side of the ball right now. That being said, it sure does seem like the Bears might have saved themselves some money if they'd gotten Forte some cash before the season rather than waiting.

As my college football colleague Tom Fornelli likes to say, "Pay the man, Chicago."

9. Review Controversy
Could the NFL's current replay system be any less controversial? As you likely know, all scoring plays are reviewed by a booth official. That sounds simple, but it's not at all -- we've already had plenty of problems with plays that seemed like obvious needs for reviews that weren't scrutinized further by the officials.

Sunday, we saw two more examples. First, there an issue in the Chiefs and Vikings game.

With 5:01 remaining, Michael Jenkins caught a one-yard touchdown pass from Donovan McNabb. It appeared, pretty clearly, that he only got one foot inbounds. Fox didn't show any replays of the catch, and the officials at the game never reviewed it. Ultimately, it didn't matter, because the Vikings lost.

But it could have mattered and there wasn't anything Todd Haley or the Chiefs could do to get the play looked at. If Haley had thrown a challenge flag, he'd have been flagged for a delay of game penalty.

Another less controversial instance occurred during the Packers-Broncos game when Aaron Rodgers rushed for his second touchdown of the day on a third down. Rodgers was ruled down at the one-yard line, though replays showed he broke the plane of the goal line.

Mike McCarthy challenged and the Packers were given a touchdown that locked in their win against Denver. Here's the problem: "a scoring play" is only defined as a play in which the officials subjectively rule that a touchdown has happened. If that subjective ruling occurs, then the play is automatically reviewed.

If it doesn't happen, coaches are required to use a challenge.

I realize that the league can't challenge every single play that gets close to the end zone, but it seems to me that these two plays aren't that different. Something was botched by the refs and the booth wasn't available to make sure the right call was locked in. Ironically, in the non touchdown scenario, the coach has more freedom to help out his team with a red flag.

Even if the booth doesn't believe that a call should be looked at by the ref -- and in a close game like that, who's hurt by double-checking? -- there should be an option for a coach to take a stab at having a call overturned as well, if he's really adamant about what happened.

And, of course, there's the whole mess that went down in Arizona with Victor Cruz giving himself up and/or pulling the old stumble-->fumble disaster combo.

That actually seems like it was interpreted correctly, as it relates to the rule book.

"Official shall declare ball dead when a runner declares himself down by falling to ground or kneeling and making no effort to advance," reads Rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(e) of the NFL Rule Book.

In other words, it's a subjective call by the guys who look like zebras. If they believe Cruz gave himself up, then he gave himself up and that's the end of it.

10. Maybe they ARE the NFL's Heat

Whenever something good or bad happens in sports, reporters inevitably ask athletes how they feel. No, I don't know why it happens all the time either, but it rarely produces a good result.

It got a decent reaction out of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick on Sunday, though, as he expressed a high level of frustration at the fact that the Eagles just choked away a huge lead against the 49ers -- at home, no less -- that eventually led to a 24-23 loss to San Francisco.

"Do I really have to explain how I feel right now sitting here at 1-3?" Vick asked. "It's frustrating. It's tough. I can't put that in words. I take sole responsibility. Maybe it's a lot of things I can do better. And I gotta figure it out.

"It's frustrating. I'm not going to continue to use that word, but, yeah, it's tough."


That's the thing with the Eagles, though. It's not all Vick's fault.

Is some of it? Sure, of course. But he was 30 of 46 for 416 yards and two touchdowns Sunday. A bigger problem is that he led the team in rushing, with 75 yards on eight carries. When you have a weapon like LeSean McCoy, it seems silly not to utilize him more.

Then again, the lack of a good push from the offensive line causes that too.

And when you can't stop other teams from running the ball, none of it really matters. Frank Gore gashed the Eagles for 127 yards on just 15 carries and Kendall Hunter picked up 38 on nine.

The Eagles might have some really, really talented players at a couple positions, but they're also really, really weak at other positions, and their depth just isn't that impressive at all.

So, come to think of it, maybe they're more like the Miami Heat than any of us could have ever known.

Muffed Punts
Leftovers from Sunday's action ...
... What the hell was Ronnie Brown thinking? He's not even a quarterback, so trying to throw the ball while being tackled at the goal line doesn't even work as a random logical excuse.
... Johnathan Joseph had two -- TWO! -- touchdowns nullified by stupid penalties by the Texans. First there was the ridiculous block in the back by Danieal Manning when Joseph took a blocked punt to the house to end the half. And then there was the pick six he grabbed to close out the game that was negated by a J.J. Watt penalty. Welcome to Houston!
... Speaking of picks, Vince Wilfork now has two on the season after his second career INT against the Raiders.
... Just for trolling purposes: Nnamdi Asomugha only has one interception on the year.
... In one of the more insane things ever, Rex Ryan used a first-half timeout on Sunday night just to yell at the officials.

Worth 1,000 Words



Jim Irsay Pop-Culture Referencing Tweet That's Sure to Drive Colts Fans Insane of the Week
"I woke up in a So Ho doorway ... a policeman knew my name."

"Who Are You" is actually a pretty good thing to ask the Colts quarterback, no?

GIF O' THE WEEK



Hot Seat Tracker
  • Tony Sparano: It would almost be an upset if he made it past the bye at this point.
  • Jack Del Rio: Very impressive that JDR figured out a way to make Maurice Jones-Drew completely ineffective during the first half of a game that was pretty closer during the first half.
  • Leslie Frazier: It might only be his first year, but looking terrible against a terrible Chiefs team ain't helping his cause. 
  • Todd Haley: Can Minnesota visit every weekend?
  • Juan Castillo: New guy for the Eagles, their defense is a leaky ship and someone needs to take the fall.
Chasing Andrew Luck (All odds mine)
We have a new entrant in the usual suspects who are searching for the answer to their franchise woes -- the St. Louis Rams! Heretofore unlisted in this space, the Rams are 0-4 and now squarely in the hunt for Luck, even though they could get to 0-7 and somehow still win their division, based on how easy their schedule is.

What I find fascinating about this is that the Rams and Vikings, my two current faves for Luck, both drafted a "franchise quarterback" in the past two years. Would the Rams consider acquiring Luck if they got the No. 1 overall pick again? Or is Sam Bradford just that much better? Would both they and the Vikings just absolutely trade the pick to whoever was desperate enough for Luck? Because I'm not so sure.

Vikings (2:1) -- Can't imagine they actually feel like Christian Ponder's better than Luck. Right?
Dolphins (2:1) -- As AJB points out below, Miami definitely deserves inclusion here. My bust. Was too worried about Sparano's job.
Rams (3:1) -- So spicy if they get it.
Colts (3:1) -- They'd be the favorites if/when they lose to Tampa on Monday.
Broncos (4:1) -- Stanford, everyone!
Panthers (5:1) -- Fairly confident that the Panthers would acquire some assets for that pick.
Eagles (10:1) -- Andy Reid does love quarterbacks ...

MVP Watch
Stafford, my leader up to this point, did some nice things Sunday. But after Rodgers did the dirty things -- six touchdowns! -- that he did to Denver and helped propel the Packers to 4-0, it's hard not to sit up and take notice and admit that right now he's the best quarterback in the NFL.
Posted on: October 2, 2011 4:13 pm
 

Steve Smith, Devin Hester break records Sunday

Posted by Will Brinson

In a surprisingly offensive game, Carolina and Chicago are shooting it out at Soldier Field, and we've seen a record or two getting broken.

For starters, Devin Hester set an NFL record with his 11th career return for a touchdown when he ripped off a 69-yard return for a touchdown after a Panthers punt.

However, as noted by our Bears Rapid Reporter Gene Chamberlain, Hester drew the ire of Lovie Smith with his flippy celebration in the end zone, which caused him to pick up a 15-yard penalty.

Hester wasn't the only guy breaking records, though -- Steve Smith of the Panthers became the team's all-time leading receiver as he added ridiculous game to his already ridiculous season, piling up 181 receiving yards on the day.

Yes, you might have noticed that his league-leading 530 yards are 24 less than he had during the entire 2010 season combined.

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Posted on: October 2, 2011 9:32 am
Edited on: October 2, 2011 12:59 pm
 

Report: Johnny Knox replaces Roy Williams

                                                                          (US PRESSWIRE)
Posted by Ryan Wilson

When the Bears signed wide receiver Roy Williams before training camp, the plan was to give Jay Cutler a reliable veteran to line up opposite a group of young, inexperienced wideouts. Instead, the only thing Williams has proven to be is, well, old.

In three weeks, he's played in two games, caught four passes for 55 yards, and has yet to haul in a touchdown pass. Johnny Knox, meanwhile, the third-year burner who battled Williams in training camp for reps, has nine receptions for 189 yards, but he's also looking for his first touchdown.

According to FOXSports.com's John Czarnecki, Knox will start for Williams Sunday when the Bears host the Panthers. The move is confirmation that Cutler still doesn't have a go-to receiver, which is reflected in the Bears' mediocre passing stats and high sack totals.

“It just happens over time,” Cutler said, according to the Daily Herald, when talking about developing a go-to guy, like he had in Denver with Brandon Marshall. “In games, there’s a trust factor there, where you know they’re going to be there when they’re supposed to be there and will make the catches and make the plays. It doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t just go, ‘This is our go-to guy,’ because it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to go out there and rep it and just experience it.”

Predictably, the Bears' sputtering offense has led to questions about offensive coordinator Mike Martz's system, specifically one that appears to have little regard for the running game or the quarterback's health.

And if Chicago struggles to score points against Carolina, a defense beset by injuries and coming off a two-win season a year ago, the scrutiny will only intensify.

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Posted on: September 29, 2011 7:29 pm
 

Martz: 'We have to run the ball and we will'

Does Cutler have faith in his pass protection? 'I don't have a choice.' (Getty Images)

Posted by Ryan Wilson

Worry not, Bears faithful. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz wants you to know that not only is he committed to the running game, he plans to make it work, too. That's good news considering Chicago could only muster 13 yards on the ground last Sunday against the Packers.

‘‘We have to [run the ball], and we will,’’ Martz said after practice Wednesday, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘That’s one thing we can do — we can run the football. We’ll get that right."

Martz most recently came under fire after he called pass plays on 52 of Chicago's 63 offensive snaps in a lopsided loss to the Saints. Quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked six times and spent the afternoon getting slapped around. When asked after the game if he could survive the season with weekly beatings like the one he endured in New Orleans, Cutler needed just three words to get the point across: "I don't know."

On Wednesday, Cutler was asked if he had confidence in Bears' pass-blocking schemes.

‘‘Yeah. I don’t have a choice,’’ he said. ‘‘Those are the guys we’ve got to go with, and we’ve got to get them ready and I’ve got to believe in them. So at the end of the day, they’re going to do the best possible job they can for me.’’

Which brings us back to Martz. Every season, players, fans and media inevitably question the pass-happy offensive football he favors. And following the Saints debacle two weeks ago, head coach Lovie Smith joined the chorus, admitting that "I know the balance as far as running/pass wasn't there. All I can say is we'll get it better. You can't win football games with that type of balance."

But Smith hired Martz. Shouldn't he be the one to insure that Martz isn't getting their best player maimed? Well, it's complicated. But ProFootballTalk.com's Michael David Smith broke down Smith and Martz's relationship during a recent visit to the Pick-6 Podcast.

"It's important to remember that Mike Martz was the guy who gave Lovie Smith his big break in St. Louis. Smith was not a very well known position coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Martz, as head coach of the Rams, liked what he saw of the Buccaneers secondary, offered Smith the defensive coordinator job.

"Lovie Smith has recently said that 'Mike Martz is the reason I am a head coach today.' So because of that, Martz now has a boss who respects him and admires him, and is going to give him a lot of leeway."

And unless something changes, that's bad news for Cutler. Upside: Chicago goes three-and-out on 41 percent of their offensive possessions. While not particularly helpful in terms of scoring points, it does improve Cutler's odds of survival.

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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com