1. At some point the Rams need more from Bradford.
The excuses for why Sam Bradford is merely average in his third year remain viable. He’s working with his third different offensive coordinator and learning his third different offense in the past three years. Try mastering algebra one year only to turn around and be forced to learn calculus and geometry the next two. There’s no question that the Rams also need to surround him with a better supporting cast, which includes an offensive line that can keep their blocks for more than a split second. But at some point the Rams need to see sustained progress out of their third-year quarterback. One week after torching San Francisco’s outstanding defense for 275 yards and two touchdowns, Bradford turned in a forgettable performance in St. Louis’ 27-13 loss to the Jets on Sunday. He completed just 52 percent of his passes for a dismal 3.9 yards per attempt and generally looked lost by the multiple fronts that New York showed him. Granted, his offensive line didn’t do him many favors. A defender was constantly coming partially clean off the edge and there were several times when Bradford couldn’t get to his second read before someone was barreling down on him. But there are no excuses for the interception he threw to Eric Smith to set the Jets up with great field position early in the second quarter. His fumble before halftime also killed momentum that Steven Jackson and the running game had worked hard to gain, and he was an atrocious 2-for-11 on third down passes (not counting when the Jets were flagged for roughing the passer and he was called for intentional grounding). When he did have a clean pocket, his passes sailed wide or at the feet of his intended receivers and right now the formula is too easy for opposing defenses: Contain Danny Amendola, shut down Bradford and the St. Louis passing game. Now, there have been times this season when he’s played with more confidence and has looked more poised than at any point in his career. But his biggest flaw right now is the inability to create on his own. All quarterbacks have bad days – hell, Matt Ryan threw five interceptions on Sunday. But the best are able to make plays when they’re off their game and Bradford doesn’t do that on a consistent basis. While the New York loss shouldn’t solely be laid at his feet, the Rams need more from their franchise player or the team’s success will remain sporadic.
2. Losing Gronkowski is a killer for Patriots.
Bill Belichick always finds a way. When Randy Moss became a nuisance in 2010 and the Patriots eventually decided to trade him, Belichick revamped his offense to feature rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Instead of attacking teams vertically with Moss, New England started going down the seam to its tight ends while still mixing in a variety of screens (a staple in the Pats offense). So losing Gronkowski for 4-6 weeks due to a broken forearm isn’t going to completely derail the Patriots. They’re going to win the AFC East and they’ll probably wind up hosting a playoff game come January. But make no mistake: losing Gronkowski changes a lot for New England. Including Sunday’s 59-24 win over the Colts, “Gronk” had 37 touchdowns in 42 career games. He’s solidified himself as one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the game and is perhaps the best player at his position. Indianapolis didn’t have an answer for him on Sunday and most teams usually don’t. He’s too fast for tight ends and he’s too big for safeties or cornerbacks. Double him and you’ll leave Wes Welker open in space, or create holes for New England’s rushing attack. The Patriots didn’t just lose a playmaker – they lost the most productive player on their roster not named Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. Again, Belichick will find a way to keep his offense firing on all cylinders (the return of Herndandez will help). But he just lost one hell of a piston.
3. The blueprint on how to beat the Falcons has been revealed.
Coming into this weekend the most interceptions Matt Ryan had thrown in one game was three. He matched that total in the first quarter of the Falcons’ fortunate 23-16 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, and threw two more interceptions before the completion of the game. It’s fair to point out that one interception went off Roddy White’s hands, while two more were tipped at the line of scrimmage. But the other two picks were all Ryan, who perhaps had the worst game of his career. Ray Horton put together a brilliant game plan, dialing up a heavy array of blitzes while bringing pressure up the middle. Arizona only sacked Ryan once, but the Atlanta QB was constantly under duress and had someone in his face all game. With Julio Jones limited due to an ankle injury, the Cardinals were also smart to play bump and run on the outsides. Ryan threw for 301 yards but Arizona turned his five interceptions into 16 points and the Falcons never established a rhythm offensively. If the Cardinals had something even remotely resembling a NFL quarterback on their roster, they would have won the game easily. Instead, Horton handed other defensive coordinators a blueprint on how to corral the Falcon offense. Pressure Ryan up the middle, play physical on the outsides, and bracket Tony Gonzalez in coverage and you’ll limit what Atlanta can do. Granted, that’s easier said than done but thanks to the cemented-footed Michael Turner, it’s not as if the Falcons can lean on their running game in efforts to mix things up. Considering they may face aggressive defenses like San Francisco and Chicago in the playoffs, the one-dimensional Falcons have legitimate concerns despite being 9-1.
4. Manning has emerged as the clear MVP favorite.
Save for his disastrous five-interception effort on Sunday, Matt Ryan has been phenomenal for the Falcons this season. He’s having a career year and if the MVP award were to be handed out tomorrow, one could easily make an argument that he’s deserving of the honor. But if you were looking for an MVP favorite right now, it would have to be Peyton Manning, who is having a career year. The Chargers sacked him three times on Sunday and constantly pressured him inside the pocket. But he still wound up completing 25-of-42 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He has a 21-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last eight games and he’s put Denver in position to challenge for one of the top two seeds in the AFC. Thanks in large part to his production and the play of Von Miller (who’s a beast), the Broncos have now won five straight. And considering he missed all of last season due to multiple neck/back surgeries, what Manning has been able to accomplish this season has been nothing short of remarkable. While his statistics have been impressive, you can’t measure what he’s been able to do for Denver this season on numbers alone. He’s going to make the Broncos a very tough out in the postseason.
5. The Bucs are legit playoff contenders.
There’s something special brewing in Tampa Bay this year. Down 11 points late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs mounted an impressive comeback to beat the Panthers 27-21 in overtime. It was the fifth straight game in which Tampa scored at least 27 points and over the last six weeks, Josh Freeman has thrown 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions while averaging 285.8 yards per game. Granted, it wasn’t all good for Freeman on Sunday. He threw a mind-numbing pick-six to Captain Munnerlyn at the end of the first quarter while displaying shoddy footwork for much of the game. But with everything on the line late in the fourth, he threaded the needle to Vincent Jackson between two defenders and with one Panther hanging on him to put the Bucs within a 2-point conversation of tying the game. He then found Jackson again on the 2-point attempt before orchestrating an 8-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in overtime to put Carolina out of its misery. After what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past four weeks, don’t for a second think that the Bucs can’t beat the Falcons next week. Atlanta has had major issues in Tampa for the better part of a decade, including last season when the Bucs beat the Falcons, 16-13. They also can’t stop the run (hello, Doug Martin) and they’re banged up defensively (Sean Weatherspoon missed his third straight game due to an ankle injury, Asante Samuel hurt his shoulder and John Abraham came up limping several times on Sunday). That said, the biggest thing holding Tampa Bay back right now is its pass defense. And while Atlanta has proven to be one-dimensional offensively, the thing the Falcons do well is throw the ball. Next week will be the Bucs biggest challenge to date. Beat the 9-1 Falcons and all of a sudden they’re in the driver’s seat to secure one of the two wild card spots in the NFC.
6. The Steelers are in trouble.
Following the most athletic play of his career (a 31-yard touchdown scramble on the game’s opening drive), Byron Leftwich did a very Byron Leftwich thing on Sunday night: He tripped over his own two feet with nobody around him and somehow hurt his shoulder in the process. He went on to complete just 18-of-39 passes for 201 yards with one costly interception in the Steelers’ 13-10 loss to the Ravens. To be fair, it was a gritty performance by the former first-round pick, who stayed in the game despite taking hit after hit from an aggressive Baltimore defense. But the same problems that plagued him as a rookie continue to plague him in his 10th year. He holds onto the ball too long, his elongated release welcomes turnovers, and he’s too erratic as a passer. Pittsburgh’s defense played well enough to win but Leftwich couldn’t sustain drives and special teams let the Steelers down when Jacoby Jones returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first half. Leftwich should be good enough to beat Cleveland next Sunday, but two weeks from now the Steelers will have to travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens again. If they lose that game, they’ll almost certainly lose the division and will then have to compete with Indianapolis and Cincinnati for a wild card berth in the AFC. With Leftwich under center, there are no longer any “gimmies” on the Steelers’ schedule.
7. The Eagles have no choice but to hand Reid his walking papers.
The sensible thing for the Eagles to do is fire Andy Reid right now in order to get a jumpstart on finding his replacement. After all, why delay the inevitable? But considering he’s been one of the finest head coaches to not win a Super Bowl over the past two decades, Philadelphia may decide to let Reid finish out the season. Either way, the Eagles need to make a move. Following their 31-6 loss to the Redskins on Sunday, it’s apparent that there will be no miracle in Philadelphia this year. Despite having all of that talent, the Eagles don’t do anything well on either side of the ball. They can’t tackle. They don’t start fast. They don’t finish strong. No matter who’s under center they generate too many turnovers from the quarterback position. They don’t play with urgency, their game plans are often puzzling and injuries have decimated the offensive line. They’re just a bad football team, perhaps one of the worst in the NFL. And when a team has that much talent and is playing this bad, the head coach must go. It’s not as if the game has passed Reid by. The players have just stopped responding and when that happens it’s best for all involved if there’s a change at the top. Reid will surely find work after this season, or in two years if he decides to take a season off. But his time in Philadelphia is coming to an end. It has to.
8. The Packers have very quietly won five in a row.
Last year the Packers sprinted through the regular season while lighting up opponents along the way. But they’ve traded in style for grit this year and they’ve very quietly put together a five-game winning streak. In their 24-20 win over the Lions on Sunday, Mason Crosby missed two field goals, Aaron Rodgers spent most of the day not being on the same page with his receivers, and Mike McCarthy questionably stuck with a running game that simply wasn’t working. It was the second time in three games that the Packer offense struggled, although Rodgers remains on a pretty good tear. He now has 24 touchdown passes in his last seven games and was clutch Sunday when it mattered most, hitting Jermichael Finley for a 40-yard pass play to set up the game-winning 22-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb. Green Bay is far from being the juggernaut that it was last season but just like in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl, they’ve had to grind out victories. That could serve them well down the road.
9. The Bengals still have a pulse.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have revived a Bengals team left for dead two weeks ago. At 5-5 there’s still time for Cincinnati to mount a comeback in the AFC, especially with Ben Roethlisberger likely to miss sufficient time due to injuries. With games versus Oakland, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia coming up, it’s realistic that the Bengals could be 9-5 heading into Pittsburgh on December 23. The key is whether or not Dalton continues to play with the confidence that he’s exhibited over his past two games. Following his four-touchdown, zero-interception performance versus the Giants, the second-year QB completed 18-of-29 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in Cincinnati’s 28-6 win over the Chiefs on Sunday. Green also caught a touchdown pass in his ninth straight game, leaving him one TD shy of tying Carl Pickens’ franchise record. They’ll need to prove that they can beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh if they want to be taken seriously. But suddenly the Bengals are in position to compete for that sixth and final wild card spot in the AFC.
10. Quick-Hits from around the league…
Even though they eventually lost the game, Jaguar fans had to be thrilled with their team’s effort on Sunday. That said, big picture-wise it’s not good that Chad Henne lit Houston up for 354 yards and four touchdown passes while once again being forced into action because of an injury to Blaine Gabbert. Henne was exposed in Miami as a full-time starter and he’s not the long-term answer in Jacksonville. But through a season and a half, Gabbert doesn’t appear to be either…Speaking of Houston, what a performance by Matt Schaub (43-of-55, 527 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs). On a rare day when he had to pick up his defense, he and Andre Johnson (14 catches, 273 yards, 1 TD) were sensational…The Cowboys are in trouble if they’re barely squeaking by the Browns at home. How can anyone in Dallas be confident that the Cowboys will make the postseason when Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Seattle New Orleans and Minnesota are all playing better?…The Colts proved in New England that they’re not quite ready for primetime but Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton are starting to become a nice little duo. Hilton now has three 100-yard games this season and has emerged as a true deep threat in Indy’s offense. And while New England took two of Luck’s interceptions back for touchdowns, the rookie QB continues to show great pocket presence and toughness. He’s not afraid to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike in the face of charging defenders…. Mike Mularkey did wonders for Roddy White’s career in Atlanta and he could do the same for Justin Blackmon in Jacksonville. While receiving a team-high 13 targets as the focal point of the Jaguars passing game, Blackmon broke out with a seven-catch, 236-yard performance. He also caught an 81-yard touchdown pass while snatching the ball in triple coverage. It was the game Jacksonville fans have been waiting for since April…If Matthew Stafford ever decides to go back and review his performance from this season, he won’t like what he sees. He’s been careless with the football too many times this year, including on Sunday when he threw a side-armed interception just before halftime, killing whatever opportunity Detroit had to sustain momentum versus Green Bay. He’s also taken some bad sacks in crucial moments of games, hasn’t always secured the ball properly and has often halted drives with poor decision-making. After throwing for over 5,000 yards in 2011, this season has been a bust for the fourth-year QB…Forget the Cardinals’ record – Ray Horton is going to be a hot name this offseason when it comes to coaching vacancies around the NFL. On most Sundays his defense has played well enough to win games, even though Arizona’s offense constantly puts his players in horrible situations…The Saints’ victory over the lowly Raiders was impressive but their playoff hopes firmly ride on the next four weeks: vs. 49ers, at Falcons, at Giants, vs. Bucs. If they can win three of four they can make the playoffs with a two-game sweep of the Cowboys and Panthers to close out the regular season…There’s not much going right for the Chargers these days, including a reckless Philip Rivers. But former Ram Danario Alexander is making the most out of a second chance. Limited by a hamstring injury in training camp and preseason, having five weeks off to heal up did wonders for Alexander’s career. He now has 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games.