Monday, November 28, 2011

The No-Huddle: The Sunday Report

Sunday had plenty of highlights -- and lowlights -- but Steve Johnson's TD celebration was in a class of it's own. Without any further ado, the No-Huddle will now sum up the madness that was week 12.

The Highlights:

1. Mr. Tom Brady -- Brady threw for 361 and three TD's in Philly yesterday as the Patriots abused the woeful Eagles. Brady's 133rd career win (playoff and reg. season) ties him with Joe Montana, his boyhood idol. Brady reached the total four years ahead of Montana, and doesn't appear to be anything close to done yet. Brady was actually outgunned by Vince Young, who threw for 400 against the Pats, but the Patriots moved to 8-3, solidifying their chances at winning the AFC East.

2. Patrick Peterson, the next Devin Hester? -- Arizona rookie and LSU alumni Patrick Peterson took his fourth punt return for a touchdown yesterday, becoming only the second player in NFL history to have that many returns for touchdowns in his first eleven games. And all four have been for 80 yards or more.

3. Tebowmania! -- Not only is Tim Tebow's refreshingly serious faith helping him become a better football player, it's also helping him make opposing kickers miss in overtime. Did Tebow really have the gall to pray for something so silly as a field-goal attempt? "I might have said that. Or maybe a block. Maybe all of it," said Tebow with a laugh. Whatever he prayed, it worked. And Tebow marched his team down for the winning field goal with under a minute to go in overtime. The 6-5 Broncos are 5-1 with Tebow at the helm, and will face the sputtering Vikes next week.

4. Seabass! -- SI's Peter King wrote a nice blurb about the 2000 NFL draft today in his Monday Morning Quarterback column. In it he talked about the second most successful player in that draft (behind the Pats stealing Tom Brady in the sixth round), Mr. Al Davis. Davis drafted both Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler in that draft. Davis was lambasted for taking a kicker in the first round, but Janikowski is having a Hall of Fame career, and Lechler is the leading punter in NFL history, so I guess he is too. That ridiculed draft payed big dividends for the Raiders yesterday, as Seabass nailed 6 FG's in 6 attempts, and Lechler drilled and 80-yard punt over the head of Devin Hester just when the Bears were threatening to come back and win.

5. CJ2K -- Was that former 2,000 yard rusher Chris Johnson galloping for 190 yards against the Bucs yesterday? It sure was, and that's the Tennessee Titans, still hanging around in the AFC playoff hunt after a much-needed win over Tampa.

The Lowlights:

1. Steve Johnson -- His post-TD celebration was tasteless (see video at top of page), and the 15-yard penalty he received for it was deserved. Now you can stick a fork in the Bills, who dropped to 5-6 after jumping out to a 3-0 start.

2. Chargers kicker, Nick Novak -- Not only was he spotted peeing on the sideline, he also missed a 53-yarder in OT that would have ended the Chargers losing streak at 5.

3. Suh-Spension? -- Lions' DT Ndamukong Suh finally admitted on Facebook last Friday that he had made a mistake. For Lions brass, who are no doubt getting tired of watching their star defensive player sabotage his own career, that is good news. Most believe that Suh will face a two-game suspension and be required to take an anger management course. As far as the Lions go, they are falling fast, and, for the first time all season, they are on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff hunt. With road games against the Saints, Raiders and Packers in three of the last five games, it's the wrong time for a team with a banged-up QB and a suspended DT to be facing such a daunting road schedule.

4. Hanie throws three picks -- The Bears might be in playoff trouble too, as their first-time starter Caleb Hanie looked pretty poor against a Raiders defense that isn't exactly stingy. The Bears schedule is nowhere near as bad as Detroit's, but if Mike Martz can't develop a gameplan that can hide his green QB (hint, give it to Forte), the Bears could be in for a disappointing December.

5. Houston has a huge problem -- After losing Matt Schaub for the season, it only took another game for the Texans to lose their new starter Matt Leinart to collarbone surgery. The Texans will be forced to rely even more heavily on their defense, with T.J. Yates ready to step in at QB. It will be very interesting to see what the Texans can do down the stretch. Up until now, this has been Houston's breakout season, but it will be tough for them to make an impact down the stretch, even if they are currently the top team in the conference.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Quick Take: No Holiday For Lions

It was not a happy Thanksgiving for the Lions, as their playoff hopes took a big hit with their 27-15 loss to the undefeated Packers. There weren't a lot of people who expected Detroit to win today, but that's no consolation for a team who needs wins badly down the stretch, especially at home.

What's worse is that could have been a very winnable game if the offense would have contributed anything in the first half. Even a couple field goals might have done the trick the way the defense was playing. Sadly for Detroit, it wasn't in the cards, and to make matters worse, a Matt Stafford interception gave the reeling Packers offense a 13-yard field to work with late in the 2nd quarter of a scoreless game, and a questionable interference call gave them a first down that eventually let them take a 7-0 lead.

How does that happen? You shut down the NFL's most lethal offense for 25 minutes, and they finish the first half leading 7-0? That was your ball game, and the ball game, which pushed Detroit back to the rest of the pack at 7-4, rested on the inability of the offense to score much-needed points early in this game.

The Lions played near-perfect in the first half. They stopped Rodgers and Co. routinely, and allowed 86 total yards in an awe inspiring performance. But where was the offense? Surely, playing indoors against a pass defense that has been notorious for being the Packers weak link, the Lions could find ways to capitalize?

No such luck. The Lions actually moved the ball effectively on their first three drives, gaining 26, 45 and 36 yards respectively, but penalties marred each drive, and in the end, the offense didn't seem to sense the urgency of getting points early in this one.

On the Lions fourth drive, Stafford's ill-gotten throw was tipped and picked by Clay Matthews and you could feel the life getting sucked out of the Lions. Somehow, after Jason Hanson missed a 47-yard field goal, the Lions had managed to turn 30 exceptional minutes against the best team in the NFL into a 7-point deficit.

The lesson? The Lions have the tools to be an elite team someday, but until they can grasp the importance of taking an early lead, especially at home, they are going to struggle beating quality teams. The Lions had their chances in the first half. The defense set the table for the offense, but the offense failed to get it done.

Last week the same thing happened, but the Lions were able to come back from 17 points down against Carolina to win. Comebacks against Dallas and Minnesota have been similarly sketched. But how many of these type of wins can a team expect? By my count, the Lions have already gotten more than their share. The Lions need to learn that good teams do not blow 17-point leads, they expand them.

You can look at the injuries (Louis Delmas, Kevin Smith and others were injured), the Suh incident (another story for another post), or the insane chemistry that Rodgers has with his receivers, but the real reason the Lions lost this game is due to their first-half offensive ineptitude. It's been a problem all year, and until Stafford and Co. can get it together early, the Lions will forever be forced to play from behind, no matter how lights-out the defense plays. That's okay against lesser foes sometimes, but it's a recipe for being blown away against teams like the Packers.

The Lions are in danger of getting bounced from the playoff hunt unless they start playing four quarters when they visit New Orleans next Sunday.

This could have been a coming out party for the Lions, and the defense certainly did come out. But until the offense joins the party early in the games, the Lions will always be on the outside looking out at the final buzzer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The No-Huddle: Bears and Texans Facing Huge QB Challenges

It's just two days after the Bears have lost Jay Cutler to a thumb injury on his throwing hand, but there has already been enough internet debate and discussion to keep concerned Bears fans clicking links for days. Go here, here and here for a small sample. Google "Cutler's thumb" for many more.

It's really a shame for Chicago. After a very shaky start to the season, the Mike Martz and Jay Cutler-led offense has been in fine form, and the Bears have reeled off five straight wins, scoring more than 30 points in all but one of them (they only struck for 24 against the Bucs).

With Cutler out for most of the remainder of the season (reports are that they'll get a better idea of the timeline after Wednesday's surgery), the Bears are forced to go with backup Caleb Hanie. Yes, that's right, he of the 14 career regular- season passing attempts.

The Bears will also take a long, hard look at the waiver wire, which now features recently demoted Bronco Kyle Orton. Orton has no experience with Mike Martz's offense, but he did have some success with the organization from 2005-2008, and he'd probably be a better choice than Nathan Enderle if Hanie also went down to injury.

Whatever the front office decides, the real question will be about the cohesiveness of the Bears as a unit, the ability of their defense and special teams to continue to play a huge role in their success, and the ability of Mike Martz to re-tailor his system to fit whomever the Bears decide to plug in.

It will be a huge challenge for Chicago, but they are still very much in the hunt for an NFC wildcard at 7-3 with a very favorable schedule going down the stretch. The Raiders and the Packers are the only teams over .500 of the Bears remaining seven opponents.

With Chicago's well-balanced attack, the existence of multiple weapons in the passing game and a great back in Matt Forte, I think there's a chance that Hanie (or Orton) could keep them in the hunt until Cutler returns (if he returns) -- maybe even if he doesn't.

The same thing goes for the Texans. Houston is in a much better spot in the standings, but they also have QB concerns. The Texans still have a glimmer of hope that Matt Schaub can return from a foot injury, but in the meantime they'll be traveling to Jacksonville to face the 3-7 Jags with 2004 Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart at the helm.

Leinart famously washed out of Arizona after being replaced by Kurt Warner in 2008. He was eventually cut in 2010, and will look to fulfill some of his lost promise as he takes over a Texans team that is enjoying a four-game winning streak, and a two-game lead in the AFC south.

Leinart, who will be making his first start since 2009, will not need to be as good as Schaub was (15 TD's, 6 ints, 96.8 rating) to keep the Texans afloat. Houston's top-notch defense could see four rookie quarterbacks in its last seven games, and with Wade Phillips scheming at the helm, they'll likely make things a lot easier for Leinart.

Injuries are always part of the game. Good teams find ways to weather the storm and some even become stronger. It's hard to imagine the Bears or Texans getting stronger without Cutler or Schaub, but it will be interesting -- and a true test of team character and chemistry -- to see how the fare.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Saucer Pass: This Might Fly In Practice, But...

Welcome to The Saucer Pass, where The Fan Child talks puck. Today we'll keep it short and light. Pred's center Craig Smith is a guy who has already notched seven goals and seven assists this season, so he's probably not going to lose too much sleep over this one. And since the Preds were up by three on the Leafs when it happened, I don't think Barry Trotz found it necessary to strangle him. Still it's a pretty funny play -- enjoy.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The No-Huddle: Tebow's Triple Option Vs The Jets = Must-See

Three hours from tonight's kick-off and the excitement is palpable in Denver. Cheerleaders on the field, their cowboy hats blowing off their heads as they polish their routines in front of an empty stadium. And outside the stadium, there he is, the man of the hour, Tim Tebow. He is walking through the tunnel, wearing a casual grey hoodie and listening to his iPhone as an NFL Network camera rolls.

Whether coach John Fox, who said Tebow would be "screwed" in a conventional offense on Tuesday (he later backtracked and made nice), likes it or not, this is his guy.

Fox's Broncos have completely gutted their offense and are now sporting a collegiate-looking Option and/ or triple option, designed to let Tebow do what he does best (run like a horse), and to avoid what he doesn't do so well (throw the ball). Now, at 4-5 (3-1 under Tebow), the Broncos will play their biggest game of the year against the New York Jets tonight. For the Jets it's pretty big too. It may not be must win, but it's definitely MUST NOT LOSE.

At first glance, this Jets-Broncos match-up wasn't exactly mouth watering. But now that Tebowmania has sparked the imagination of football fans everywhere, this is must-see TV.

It has been a remarkable turn of events in Denver from the moment Tebow took over for Kyle Orton in week 7. It appears that everything bad that has been said about Tebow might true (specifically that he'll never be a conventional gun-slinging NFL quarterback), but it also appears that everything good that has been said about him is true as well (that he's an incredible leader and runner).

Tebow became the first quarterback with more rushes than passes in a game that he threw all the passes in a game since 1974 when he threw 8 passes and ran 9 times in a win against Kansas City last week. And with Tebow at the helm, the Broncos have averaged more than 200 yards per game in the last five weeks, leading the NFL during that span.

With the triple option offense in full effect (this is not a package, Denver is fully committed), the Broncos will look to play strong D, get an early lead, and run, run, run against the Jets.

Broncos coach John Fox deserves a lot of credit for making the necessary adjustments and for putting Tebow in a position to flourish. Tebow through 39 times in a head-scratching loss against Detroit in week 8, then 22 in a week 9 win vs. Oakland, and 8 last week vs. the Chiefs. All the while the wrinkles have been added, and Denver has rapidly transformed into an offense that looks more like the Tebow-led Florida Gators than it does an NFL team. The fact that Fox has abandoned all hopes of running a conventional offense through Tebow shows that he is a forward thinker that is unafraid to fail. Suddenly, he finds himself in the middle of a playoff hunt, with an offensive philosophy that many, including Kurt Warner, agree is not sustainable.

"I don't think it's going to work for a career," said Warner, "but the question is, is it the right time to do this? You don't have a lot of team to really develop him (Tebow) in mid-season, you didn't have that off-season, so maybe now's the time to have him go out there and be successful, have the team buy into who this guy is, and then you spend your off-season saying 'okay, now we've got to make this guy into a quarterback that can play both ways -- give us a dimension in the running game, but also be able to win games with passing.'"

And that is precisely why the Broncos are such a fun team to watch right now. Just like the Dolphins were when they unleashed the wildcat offense and went 11-5 in 2008, the Broncos are creating a lot of buzz. With Tebow, who is a polarizing personality for so many reasons, the excitement is now at a fever pitch.

Can Tebow lead his Broncos to another victory against a legitimate playoff-contending Jets squad? Is the triple option sustainable at the NFL level?

Tebow might not be the best at throwing the football, but man can he run. And the magic that coaches have always looked for on the field, that special intangible, mixed with belief and positivity, he's got that too.

"He's just such a great kid," said Warner, "he's such a positive kid. I think we all know the limitations. We all know the things that he's struggled with up to this point, but every question I asked him, everything we talked about, it was always positive."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The No-Huddle: Harbaugh For Coach of the Year?

It's time for non-believers to step to the back of the bus on this one, and while we're at it we might as well wrap up the NFL's coach of the year voting early, because Jim Harbaugh is for real. Not only has Harbaugh guided the 49ers to their longest winning streak in over a decade, he's also got long-suffering 49ers fans thinking he might be their messiah.

For those on the outside it might not seem like such a big deal. With a reputation forged by the legacy of those great Bill Walsh-led teams of the 80's the 49ers have always managed to hang on to a bit of their mystique with the general public. But to locals, those who have groaned through six years of Alex Smith being known for little more than the guy that the Niners picked over Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 NFL draft, it has been pure unadulterated hell.

When the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh last year, a lot of skeptics took a wait and see approach. Then, when the stubborn former NFL'er decided to stick with Alex Smith instead of combing the free agency market for a more capable quarterback, the groaning continued.

Now, 9 weeks into a the season, Harbaugh looks like a bona fide genius -- and his QB looks like a first round pick for the first time in his career. It may not seem like a miracle to the casual football watcher, but to those who have been calling for Smith to get the axe for 6 years, it sure feels like one.

"I've seen a lot of u-turns," said Yahoo Sports NFL insider Mike Silver yesterday, on KNBR radio. "But what I haven't seen is a guy who was drafted that high, or close to that high, clearly had a lot of chances in one place and washed out, in his case more than once. [He] Stayed there, got another chance, and totally made a u-turn, and that is the coolest thing about the Alex Smith story. I don't know that there's a parallel."

Such is the Harbaugh effect. He is the sprinkler of magic dust, the mad scientist who can create team chemistry with a belligerent post-game handshake. Not only has the first-year coach transformed a gang of athletic but underachieving soldiers into the NFL's second winningest team with a strike-shortened off-season making the task even more difficult, he's completely changed the culture of the locker room, the fortune of the quarterback, the mood of the city, and the opinions of legions of Smith haters in one fell swoop.

How has he done it? He's designed a system around his players capabilities, and in doing so he's proven himself to be a truly versatile coach. And yes, there's the small matter of his decision to bring his defensive coordinator at Stanford, Vic Fangio, along for the ride. Fangio's the name you won't hear nearly as much as Harbaugh's, but it's his defense -- strong against the run, physical, fast, and with playmaking ability -- that is the core of the team.

But credit Harbaugh for having the presence of mind to take Fangio with him, and to build a team around its strengths, rather than building a team around some pre-conceived notion of how football should be played.

"If he's doing this with a beaten-down Alex Smith who was not in a great spot coming in based on what happened last year and before, maybe he could be doing this with a lot of people," added Silver.

He's done it with a team that had stumbled for the better part of a decade, with the same personnel that failed mightily under Mike "my way or the highway" Singletary and Mike Nolan.

Many will say that Harbaugh has "Dilferized" Alex Smith, in reference to the dumbed-down Trent Dilfer, the Ravens quarterback who basically stayed out of the way so that his team could win Super Bowl xxxv with it's dreaded defense, but when the Giants swore that all they had to do to beat the 49ers in San Francisco last week was shut down running back Frank Gore, Harbaugh handed the reins to Smith, allowing him to throw on 11 of the first 13 plays of the game.

It was a clever approach from Harbaugh, one that his team was more than capable of executing. We were surprised, like the Giants, when they did, but maybe we shouldn't have been.

Why? Because this Jim Harbaugh guy, he can coach.

Monday, November 14, 2011

That Sinking Feeling: Are The Lions Down and Out Again?

Is a glove-wearing quarterback Detroit's latest example of futility, or an injury-related one-off?

There are plenty of NFL teams in peril right now. The Eagles can't buy a win, the Jets are clearly not ready to make that next step, and the Bills have suddenly lost their mojo. Add the Detroit Lions to that list, because even though the Lions are 6-3 and would make the playoffs if the season ended today, their latest effort at Soldier Field in Chicago yesterday points to the fact that the Lions are not built to gain the hard yards in the frigid November and December weather where NFL legacies are forged.

And we all know what the Lions legacy has been for Detroit up until 2011. Ineptitude would sum it up nicely. Detroit is an organization that hasn't sniffed the playoffs this century, and is just a few years removed from its record-breaking exercise in futility, that hapless bag-over-the-head season that now stands as the worst in the history of the NFL.

Things looked far different for the Lions in first five weeks of the season, but since then Detroit has slipped badly. Two consecutive home losses were long forgotten when the Lions blitzed the Tim Tebow-led Broncos in Denver for its franchise best sixth consecutive road win two weeks ago, but doubts are surfacing once again after the Lions put forth an epic stinker reminiscent of their woebegone days, turning the ball over six times and breaking the franchise record for passing attempts in a game, with a woefully inaccurate and mysteriously gloved quarterback in 40 mph winds.

After the dust finally settled in Chicago, the truth was painfully evident: Detroit is dangerously close to sinking back into the ineptitude that has characterized the franchise since Barry Sanders impromptu retirement.

Nobody said it was going to be easy for Jim Schwartz and company to turn the tide for this franchise, and really it's no surprise that the young Lions got shellacked by the revenge-seeking Bears at Soldier Field, especially after the upstart Lions carved them up before a National TV audience in Detroit. But when we consider not that the Lions got shellacked, but HOW THEY GOT SHELLACKED -- doubts about the rest of the season start to seep to the surface.

Doubt No. 1: Why is Matthew Stafford playing with a glove? Okay, we now know that Stafford had a fractured finger, but really, is that any excuse for how poorly he played? If Stafford is really the leader that the franchise wants him to be, then he would have used his head to dumb down his game, make safe, short throws, and let the defense do what it does best.

Instead, behind 20-6 early in the second half, Stafford panicked, and it showed.

He threw two horrific pick-sixes at the start of the second half, and the game was history after that. One was a 40 yard across-the-field throw that wouldn't have gained more than two yards if it was completed, and the other was an ill-conceived throw into double coverage.

What was he thinking? Was he thinking? Does he think? Stafford has a cannon for an arm, and moxie to boot, but in his first full injury-free season at the helm, he has regressed as the season has worn on. Is it because he lacks a running game and a line to protect him, or is it because he's not as committed to the craft as he should be?

Doubt No. 2: Why do the Lions insist on proving to the rest of the league how "nasty" they can be, to their own detriment? Do they want to be the team that every opposing coach and player circles on the schedule? Ndamukong Suh is a great player, but every time I see him try to take somebody's head off on a play where he is not in good enough position to make a good clean game-changing hit, it makes me wonder if this guy really has the mental toughness to be one of the best players in the game. I think he'd be better off keeping quiet and saving his energy for the next play.

Doubt No. 3: The Lions special teams have gone sour. They've given up huge yardage in each of their last 4 games, and they aren't getting much of their own. Because of it, the field position battle has been tilted away from them.

Doubt No. 4: Where is the running game? The more obvious it becomes that the Lions can't and won't use the running game to move the chains (or even to chew up clock or get into short yardage situations on 2nd and 3rd down), the easier it will become for opposing defensive coordinators to design a custom-made gameplan to stifle them. The Lions need to find ways to effectively run the ball, or the passing game, electrifying as it was early in the season, will stall.

Doubt No. 5: Are they the same old Lions? Was that Calvin Johnson coughing up the ball early in the first quarter on a huge possession, or was that an impostor? This is the one thing the Lions can control. Even though yesterday's blowout looked bad on the scoreboard, the truth is that the defense was not at fault. The Lions are still one of the better defensive teams in the league, they just need to find ways to grab an early lead so that they can play more to their strengths.

The Lions aren't just playing for themselves. They are playing with the weight of the past on their shoulders, trying desperately to erase the long-held belief that losing just comes with the Silver and Blue uniform. Maybe they just need to relax?

As the Lions head into a week 11 clash with the reeling but dangerous Carolina Panthers, they are in grave danger of falling into disrepair. With one of the toughest schedules in the NFL down the stretch (Panthers, Packers, Saints, Vikings, Raiders, Chargers, Packers), they need at least three and probably four wins to earn a post season berth.

The high hopes and undefeated dreams of the first five weeks have turned into scratching and clawing for survival down the stretch. It's the Lions, so it shouldn't be a surprise. What would be surprising, is if the Lions find a way through.

The franchise is at a turning point as I write this. The current Lions have gone a long way to prove that they're not the same old Lions anymore, but they've still got a huge mountain to climb.

If they can't make it to the top, they'll risk rolling all the way back to the bottom. And if that happens, who knows when they will make it back to the spot where they stand right now.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The No-Huddle: Bush Carries the Raiders Past Chargers

Welcome to "The No-Huddle," the NFL Blog that runs the two-minute drill with the best of them.

1. Michael Bush smashmouthed the Bolts on Thursday Night Football. And then some. Bush's 242 yards from scrimmage were the most by a Raider since the merger. Yes, even more than Bo Jackson's 235 vs. Seattle in 1987. So much for missing Darren McFadden. Huge win for the Raiders, who sit atop the sketchy AFC West for the moment.

2. What's more likely, 16-0 or 0-16?

3. The Vikes are 2-8 in their last 10 MNF appearances, and will head to Green Bay with rookie Christian Ponder at the helm. Can you say 2-9?

4. The Saints have a +1 turnover ratio at home, but they are -7 on the road. The good news? They've won in their last two trips to the Georgia Dome.

5. How cool is this? Sunday was the third time this season that Texans LB Brian Cushing needed his face bandaged.

6. The Chargers, at 4-5, are in the midst of their longest losing streak since 2003.

7. Before the season started, would anybody have circled the 'Niners-Giants game as the game of week 10? Well, here we are -- week 10 -- and it is the game to watch. Giants fans beware. Since Tom Coughlin took over the helm in New York, the Giants have gone 24-32 in the second half of the season, for 24th best in the NFL.

8. Speaking of the 'Niners, he of the 5 consecutive 100 yd rushing games, Frank Gore, is not in perfect health and has been limited in practice this week. With the "Dilferization" of Alex Smith ongoing in SF, Gore's health will be key for this game.

9. It hasn't been all bad for the Eagles. At least they have LeSean McCoy, the NFL's leading rusher. It doesn't make sense, with a runner like McCoy at their disposal, that the Eagles have blown 4th quarter leads in 4 of their 5 losses.

10. Upset Special? Sure, I've got an upset special for ya...How about Miami winning its second straight over the lost-at-sea Redskins?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Things I Think I Know: The Packers Will Not Go Undefeated

Thing I think I know #1: Green Bay won't go undefeated, and they aren't a lock to go to the Super Bowl either.
The Green Bay Packers have a formidable offense. That's good because with a defense that is giving up 399.6 ypg, they will need every touchdown that Aaron Rodger's golden arm can deliver. Much like the Patriots, the Packers have been thriving on a steady diet of big plays, pick sixes and bend, break, but don't lose defense. But can the Packers really go 16-0 with a defense that is middle of the road at best? A quick glance at their run defense provides hope (they are ranked 8th in the NFL, giving up 100 ypg), but look deeper and see that they give up 4.6 yards per carry, which puts them in the bottom third.

Aaron Rodgers is doing a heck of a job leading the leagues most explosive offense to an 8-0 start, but the fact that he's been so perfect in the first half of the season (and so has his core of receivers and tight ends) might actually be a curse rather than a blessing for the Pack.

Some adversity can be a perfect tonic for a winning post season, and unless the Packers get a dose of reality from someone in the 2nd half of the season, they will march into the post season feeling invincible, when in reality they are a team with more holes than a brick of swiss cheese on defense.

November is the time where things get interesting in the NFL season: The weather turns cold, and suddenly the long pass, such a staple of September and October football, isn't so easy to execute. While teams like Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and the Eagles have spent a lot of their time making adjustments and studying tape, the Packers have been doing photo shoots for SI and hearing about how Rodgers is the best quarterback since Tom Brady.

The adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is not true in the NFL. In the NFL, if you don't change, you die. If you can't keep your opponents guessing, they will flatten you.

While the rest of the league has been doggedly trying to bolster their weaknesses, the Packers have been winning in spite of theirs. The Packers too, are aware of their shortcomings, but they seem resigned to continue riding along on the coattails of the offense. "A win covers up everything," said cornerback Tramon Williams after the 45-38 defeat of the Chargers on Sunday. "But it's something that's been going on for half a year now. You want to correct it but it hasn't been yet. We've still been making the same mistakes."

This piece by Pete Dougherty of goes into some of the details of the Packers defensive woes, and compares the '11 team to the '09 team that gave up 51 point in a wildcard loss at Phoenix.

That could happen this year. With Clay Matthews recording only three sacks and doing very little "claymaking," and with the loss of safety Nick Collins to injury early in the season, the Packers are desperately in need of a pass rush to make things a little easier on their struggling secondary.

It may provide comfort that the Pack is tops in the NFL with 16 interceptions, but if the well runs dry, and Rogers puts up a few less than godlike performances in the 2nd half, then Green Bay could drift back to the rest of the pack in the second half of the season very quickly.

Maybe for Green Bay, it would be the blessing they need. A good hard look in the mirror can be just what the doctor ordered sometimes, even when you are among the leagues elite.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Things I Think I Know, Week 9 NFL

We are 8 weeks in, and the only thing I'm sure I know about the NFL is that I don't know jack about the NFL.

But hey, I'm as eager to pretend as the next guy, so today I'm gonna pretend the I am the guru who knows it all. I am all-knowing, the shaman of the pigskin, the guru of the gridiron. Call me "goo" for short, just don't call me on my day off or after midnight if you know what I mean.

But I digress yet again. Without any further ado I will begin to enlighten you on the prospects of NFL, Week 9.

Thing I think I know #1. The Steelers are no longer the team that got blasted by the Ravens in week 1. But the Ravens have changed too, and not necessarily for the better. Is Joe Flacco going to be the guy that tossed three touchdowns in Baltimore, or is he going to be the guy that has thrown for zero touchdowns in three of the last four games?

Pick: Steelers 22 Ravens 17

Thing I think I know #2: Ryan Fitzpatrick is leading a well balanced, efficient offense that possesses both big-play potential and grind'em-up potential (5th in rushing ypg). And Gang Green, 25th in the NFL in terms of yards given up per game, ain't what it used to be.

Picks: Bills 28 Jets 24

Thing I think I know #3: Dallas will continue to tease us by making a mockery of the Seattle defense on Sunday. RB DeMarco Murray has run for 327 yards in his last two games, so you can rule out the health of Felix Jones being a factor.

Pick: Cowboys 33 Seahawks 17

Thing I think I know #4: A win by the Texans at home over Cleveland this week won't mean a whole lot in terms of determining whether or not the Texans are for real, but it will mean a lot for the Texans mid-season playoff hopes.

Pick: Texans 27 Browns 21

Thing I think I know #5: The Kansas City Chiefs will be the feelgood story of the NFL after they beat the hapless Dolphins this week to go 5-3, after starting 0-3. The following week, when they defeat the Broncos to go to 6-3, they will grace the cover of SI.

Pick: Chiefs 19 Dolphins 14

Thing I think I know #6: Tebow can't possibly get any worse.

Pick: Raiders 24 Broncos 21

Thing I think I Know #7: Jim Harbaugh is going to be the NFL's coach of the year. He inherited a coach-killing QB and gave him a chance to succeed. He may have done it more because of his ego than because of Alex Smith. Either way you slice it, it's working.

Pick: 49ers 13 Redskins 12

Thing I think I know #8: The Eagles average a league leading 449 ypg on offense for a reason: They are loaded with weapons. As the Vick passing attack improves, look for LeSean McCoy to take over the NFL rushing lead. He scampered for 185 last week, and only trails Adrian Peterson by 44 yards.

Pick: Eagles 26 Bears 20

Thing I think I know #9: The teams with the most points will win. Just ask the dude who narrated that video above. Enjoy the games!

Will the Real Eagles Please Step Up?

Three weeks ago the Eagles were considered by many the biggest flop of the 2011 season. Huge expectations surrounded this club heading into the season, but they quickly fell into disarray after back-to-back inept performances against San Francisco and Buffalo. Now, after two consecutive victories over division rivals, the Eagles are looking like nasty birds of prey once again.

The Eagles are first in the NFL in yards gained, first in rushing yards gained, and while they are in the middle of the pack on defense (particularly vs. the rush) they played exceptionally well against Dallas last week (allowed 12 1st downs), and should improve if their offense can limit turnovers (currently a -7).

So, what's it going to be for the Eagles? Are they an overhyped, overpaid bunch of individuals who are never going to gel consistently as a team? Or, are they a hungry bunch that is finally ready to reach its potential under the heavy hand of Andy Reid?

The Eagles week 9 Monday Night Football clash at home vs. the Bears is bound to be a nice litmus test for the squad. If they can't get this one at home, with all the momentum they are toting, I think it's a very bad sign going forward for them. On the other hand, if they can find a way to win, things will be looking really nice for the Eagles, who face the lowly Cardinals in week 10.