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NFL Power Rankings: Falcons Top Team; Comments on Saints; NFC North Best Division Despite Lions Atrocious Defense? Steelers Done?

1.  Atlanta- Finally, a change of identity, even though the personnel has been screaming for it for a while now, and look at the results. Atlanta has led by at least 20 points in each of its first three games. That’s what good teams do. Even more impressive, they completely put away the two games they played on the road….. in different time zones.

2.  Houston- You could almost call the Texans 1a, as they have the same league leading point differential, but there is one huge deficiency in this team right now that keeps it a spot below Atlanta; special teams. Consider that on three of five kick returns, Trindon Holliday hasn’t made it back to the 20. Worse, Shayne Graham has just 7 touchbacks in 18 kickoffs. Those field position issues add up against good teams.

3.  Baltimore- You know Baltimore is kicking themselves for the way they lost to the Eagles, but the win over New England, especially after a very poor opening of the game, and the Ravens have established themselves as a prime contender. The big difference is the offense this year is getting the job done and performing at an elite level.

4.  San Francisco- Expect Jim Harbaugh to use the loss to Minnesota has a nice teaching tool. Everyone was ready to anoint the Niners as the best team in the NFL after week two. I think the 49ers players were too. I know people were talking about this defense as easily being the leagues best unit after week one, but it’s been surprisingly mediocre thus far in the season.

5.  Green Bay- First they open the season in San Francisco, then we have the replacement debacle. For all that, they went out west against what was expected to be two of the top defenses in the league, and should have won at least one. People forget that against Seattle, Aaron Rodgers had to use a kickers ball on the two point conversion play, and a bogus roughing the passer call wiped out an interception that would have set the Packers up in good scoring position and iced the game. People say it shouldn’t have been close enough for a hail-mary to win the game, and they’re right.

6.  New England- The Arizona loss was disappointing. But to Bill Belichik the loss to Baltimore was the most maddening. Maybe it was because his defense allowed almost as many passing yards to the Ravens as it had allowed in the first two games of the season combined. Facing a quality offense, the Patriots surrendered over 500 yards of offense. That definitely will make for an angry Hoodie.

7.  Arizona- Don’t tell me this is because I’m not buying them. Don’t tell me because I think Miami could potentially beat them this week that I’m not buying them. I fully expect the Cardinals to be around the entire season. But I also know that Kevin Kolb has yet to prove himself as a consistent game manager, as he has successfully been thus far this season. It’s not the defense that needs to show me anything. I just need to know Kolb can keep enabling the defense to force teams into submission.

8.  Chicago- The offense, it has it’s obvious problems. They can’t protect the guy under center, and truthfully, if you’re a Bears player, do you really want to “protect” Jay Cutler? Okay, in the spirit of winning football games, yes. The offense has been dreadful, but no team in the NFL has a better combination of defense and special teams. Even Jay Cutler can’t keep this team from contending all year.

9.  New York Giants- As long as they have Eli Manning, they’re going to contend and be very good. Eli may never put up the gaudy numbers his elder brother has, but he may ultimately be better remembered. The Giants defense has shown some holes, anyone who lets the Bucs score as many points as they did has questions. And, it’s not like the Cowboys offense has been on fire in their two games following the season opener. But generally speaking, Eli and company find ways to win ballgames. No team in football gains more yards per drive than the Giants do.

10.Minnesota- Am I crazy? Don’t forget how close this team is to being 3-0. Okay, it’s equally as close to being 1-2. That said, the one game in which there was no doubt? It came against the 49ers when everyone thought they were head and shoulders above everyone else the best team in the NFL. The Vikings at the moment don’t do any one thing exceptionally well, but they’re solid in most every phase. If there’s one area of their game that could use some substantial improvement, it would be the running game. And that isn’t far fetched to foresee as Adrien Peterson continues his return form a torn ACL.

11.Seattle- They’re 2-1, but everyone in their right mind knows they deserve to be 1-2. That said, they had a chance to win late at Arizona, and defensively dominated the Packers for the first half on Monday night. Offensively, they don’t really have a clue, and eventually that will probably catch up to them. But for right now, you’d be hard pressed to argue that many more than 10 teams in the league are better.

12.Denver- Denver wins at Pittsburgh to open the year and then proceeds to drop two in a row, but only a combined 12 points to the two best teams in the league. So, let’s keep the shovels away from Peyton Manning and the Broncos. The AFC West looks like anything but a treacherous gauntlet, so Denver isn’t going away.

13.Dallas- The Cowboys should be weekly ranked compared to the Cowboys teams of previous weeks. It is absolutely impossible to get a feel for this team, and as long as the coaching staff and core talent remains in place, it will stay as such. They can be world beaters one day, embarrass themselves the next week, and then scratch out a hard fought victory over a team they should have beaten easily. Welcome to Jerry World.

14.San Diego- San Diego fans were probably feeling a bit good about themselves after starting the year 2-0 and just breezing thru Tennessee. Lost in all of that though might have been a dose of reality that could have been served by remembering the victory over the Raiders was aided greatly by the lack of a long snapper for the Silver and Black. Fear not though, the reality check was delivered loud and clear by Matt Ryan and the Falcons this past Sunday afternoon. It will be very interesting to see how they bounce back from this on the road against Kansas City.

15.Pittsburgh- This might be a little bit high, and might be entirely on reputation alone. In fact, I’m positive it is. It is based completely on the fact that I expect them to turn it around, at any time, meaning, I wouldn’t want to play them this week. Wait, nobody does. Perfect. Quick little question though, on what opponent did both Denver and Oakland post their highest scoring game in the young season? If you said Pittsburgh, you win the grand prize. The Steelers defense has been among the leagues worst, particularly against the passing game. Not having Ryan Clark against Denver, okay, I’ll grant them that. But they also got to face the Mark Sanchez led Jets aerial…..we won’t call it an assault, so…..yeah, you get the point, and then the Raiders. And they still rank so poorly. Pittsburgh doesn’t want to admit it, and argues they will use it for motivation, but that defense plain and simple, is old.

16.New York Jets- This team is 2-1? Please, someone explain how. Oh, right, because Miami absolutely had no interest in winning last week, at least kicker Dan Carpenter didn’t. I should punish the Jets more for the win they barely eeked out, but I’ll let them get by on the fact they’ve won two of three games. They haven’t been very good on offense or defense, and their advantage on special teams comes mostly due to Carpenter’s struggles on Sunday. I guess moving Joe McKnight to cornerback is going to solve everything, right? And remember the last high profile passer to struggle with a 50% completion percentage, well, at least you might get 1,000 yards rushing from him. So, I mean if the quarterback can’t hit half his passes, and can’t run, maybe a change there might not be the worst thing.

17.Buffalo- Oh, Buffalo, why did you have to lay that egg in week one? I wanted so much to give you guys a lot of love, but that 48-20 beat down won’t just disappear. Beat New England this week, and then we’ll see what happens. The Bill have recovered nicely, and have discovered that no team in football has a better trio of backs. Some may have thought Tashard Choice is only here because of his relationship with Chan Gailey. No, it’s because he’s a good running back.

18.Detroit- This team reminds me more and more of the early 90s Falcons. They can fling it all over the place with a cannon arm at quarterback, they have big time talent at the receiver position, and a couple backs who can make some plays. But they can’t run when they have to, and they can’t stop a soul to save their life. Consider the Rams and Titans have combined for 64 points against them. Against their other four opponents they’ve combined for 63. Their offense is good enough that they can compete. Good enough to make the playoffs in this improved division? Don’t think so.

19.Philadelphia- It was once said if you turn the ball over, you lose, that simple. Don’t tell the Eagles that. And certainly don’t tell Michael Vick this. He can talk all he wants about his renewed work ethic, and his film study, and his attention to detail. Shut it Michael. He is still reckless with the football, can’t make adjustments at the line, and doesn’t read defenses well. Now, can he win football games? Absolutely. But not when his coach insists on him playing in an offense that ultimately requires quarterbacks that are none of those three things. As long as Andy Reid insists Vick can be a pocket passer, the turnovers will continue, and the losses will soon mount. Vick flourished in Atlanta with the support of a strong running game and an offense built around his talents, even if he didn’t work at them. Maybe it’s Andy Reid’s ego, I don’t know, but he’s mismanaging a dynamic playmaker, and perhaps writing out his own death certificate as Eagles head coach. I mean, for Pete’s sake, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning have been more valuable with their legs this season.

20.Miami- Ryan Tannehill may be in over his head, but he’s not so submerged that Miami can’t wind up a solid football team. They play good defense, and despite giving their rookie quarterback next to nothing to throw to, should be competitive in most games they play. Most games they play won’t be a season opener on the road against a Super Bowl favorite. The Dolphins schedule is ridiculously manageable all the way thru November. There’s a possibility when they play the Patriots in December, they’ve put themselves in the playoff discussion.

21.Tampa Bay- So the Buccaneers have apparently gone from an idiot who had no idea what he was doing (Raheem Morris), to a meat head who wants to make sure everyone knows he knows what he’s doing, and how he’s going to do it. It appears to get as far away from the Morris disaster as possible, the Bucs could have possibly gone too far the other direction. The defense is good, and helps make them competitive, but bottom line, Josh Freeman is not. He still doesn’t get it. The only quarterbacks who have been of more harm to their teams thus far this year are Cutler, Brandon Weeden, and Vick, and thats because each have twice the turnovers Freeman does. Other than that, there may not be a worse starting quarterback in the league. For a fourth year starter, this cannot happen. When you’re dead last in the NFL in passing yards allowed, and 30th in passing yards for yourself, in today’s game, you’re going to stink. This ranking is reflective entirely of the fact they’ve managed to still find a way to be competitive in their two losses.

22.Cincinnati- Sure, 2-1 is nice, but one score wins over the Redskins and Browns don’t equate to a whole lot of respect. Especially in your only real test, you were blasted out of the stadium by the Ravens 44-10. The offense, the passing game in particular, is exciting, and will score points, and will win shootouts with other mediocre to bad teams. But their defense, in particular against the run, won’t let them beat anybody that’s worth their salt. Their run defense isn’t just the worst run defense in football, it’s the worst by a wide, wide margin.

23.Indianapolis- Before the season a Colts fan tried to tell me this was going to be a very competitive team this season, and that a playoff berth may not be in the cards, a 6 or 7 win season that might leave them in the discussion into September was. I told him no way. Beating the Vikings by three, at home, and then losing at home to the Jaguars doesn’t dispel that theory any. Maybe he met competitive in the division, if so, well, competitive to avoid last place? Absolutely, it’s an absolutely horrible division. So, maybe in that sense, yes, they’re going to be competitive.

24.Washington- Will someone please tell Robert Griffin III that every team hits every quarterback? Or at least every quarterback they can get to. Why does he act shocked, or think we should be shocked, that teams are trying to hit him, hit him often, and hit him hard? If I hear one more post game press conference where he talks about how he’s “going to keep getting up”, I swear….Aside from that, he’s been as good as advertised, maybe better. The Redskins have yet to score under 28 points in a game this season. Unfortunately they’ve yet to allow less than 31.

25.Carolina- The discussion over Cam Newton’s leadership abilities not withstanding, there is plenty of cause for concern in Charlotte. Jonathan Stewart back on the field certainly helps, he’s shown again to be a far more effective rusher for the Panthers than DeAngelo Williams has, and that should benefit Newton, who has struggled to find the electricity and magic he had last season. Granted, there isn’t a lot to film wise to figure out Newton. Defenses would adjust, and easily. The question is, can he? This is where the dangers of taking a quarterback number one overall who only played one season, and for all intents and purposes had a very, very limited playbook.

26.Oakland- The come back win against the Steelers was nice, but it’d been better if it had been in the 1970s. As is, that wasn’t a very good Steelers team. What’s more telling is that in their first two games they were perhaps single handedly undone by losing a long snapper to injury, and were embarrassed by a Miami team that has questions galore on offense. Yep, same old Raiders right now. These next two games, at Denver, then at Atlanta, will make or break their season. Lose them both, and the wheels will be off before Halloween

27.New Orleans- I’m so giddy I can’t even talk about it.

28.Tennessee- The Tians are bad, really, really bad. And I’m really having second thoughts about them being here, but they did beat the Lions, so I have to give them credit for that. But if not for an incredible special teams day, that wouldn’t have happened. Remember, they lost their opening two games by a combined 72-23 score. Granted, those were expected playoff contenders New England and San Diego, but even still….. That’s not even remotely competitive. Another long year is coming in Nashville, and I won’t even talk about Chris Johnson.

29.St.Louis- Once again the offense is atrocious, and that’s having played two of the league’s worst defenses already. They play in a division where defense is put on a premium, and while theirs is good, it’s not at the level of the other three. Unfortunately, the other offer more promise to put up points against a quality defense than the Rams do. The Rams have done a poor job of protecting Sam Bradford, and giving him viable weapons to throw to. As a result, we can’t come down too quickly on him, but the clock is ticking.

30.Cleveland- This is perhaps the only offense that’s on the Rams level. It’s a shame too. Trent Richardson is a mighty fine football player at running back. Unfortunately, there are questions all over the rest of the offense. Despite all that, they are 0-3 but with their losses by an average of just six points per game. Does that mean we should expect a rebound? No, it’s a bad football team. But at least they’re worth watching a full game for.

31.Jacksonville- Maybe Maurice Jones-Drew is starting to get his legs under him. The Jaguars can only hope, because he literally is their only hope. You thought Obi-Wan Kenobi felt alone watching Leia’s message? Imagine Jones-Drew looking around the huddle.

32. Kansas City- So am I saying the worst team in football just beat the Saints? Yes, I am. Beating an 0-3 team in overtime means nothing, and right now, beating the Saints doesn’t add a whole lot of credibility either. Congratulations, you joined Carolina and Washington. What stands out more is the fact that they were blown out by both Atlanta and Buffalo. The performance in the first half against Atlanta, and the second half against New Orleans show you what this team can do. But what when you do that for just 1/3 of the season, you start to believe the other side of them is what you’re going to see most often.

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There’s No Shame In Retiring Today Due to Injury Peyton

Peyton Manning has a decision to make. A very difficult decision that even the greatest of professional sports stars all to often seem to wreck up.

To play, or not to play?

For Peyton Manning, yes, he could attempt to return from what clearly is a serious injury, and threat to his well-being, and continue to showcase why he’s one of the finest quarterbacks, if not the finest, to ever play the game.

He could also return, be no longer capable of performing at the ridiculously high level he has throughout his career and beginning tarnishing a legacy. This particular possibility creates a very slippery scope, one where the pride and ego of a man who essentially has been the coach of his professional football teams may feel a drive to come back another year, and another, in a desperate attempt to prove he still “had it”. Such a downhill slide would only further remove the luster of one of exceptional career.

Worse than either of those however, he could return and suffer a debilitating, life altering injury that prevents him from doing all the things he once perhaps took for granted, besides of course throwing touchdown passes. Were this to happen, Manning would suddenly be not only unable to be a husband and father the way he always assumed he could, he’d be vilified by many as a selfish arrogant athlete who put his own ego and desire ahead of that of his family. That’s not exactly a way to be remembered.

Or, Manning could just acknowledge that his time has come. He could hang it up today, and nobody will ultimately really remember that ultimately it was indeed injury that forced him out of the game. They’ll remember that even in his 13th season at age 34, Manning threw for more yards than he had in all but one season prior, and threw for as many touchdowns as he had in all but one previous season. In other words, they’ll remember Peyton Manning in his final year being just about as good as Peyton Manning ever was.

In taking that route though, Manning must accept he has to leave the game on terms other than his own. He must accept that injury, the laws of age, and physics, have taken a toll, and it’s time to move on. Such acceptance is hard for many of us to accept in many aspects of our own lives. You take the egos and pride of high profile superstar athletes, and those who can do it become few and far between.

In fact, the number of athletes who weren’t able to accept it is rather depressing. Instead of retiring and walking away at the top of their games, they hang on, and become trending topics on twitter. And not for adoration and praise, but because they’ve become the punchline of thousands of jokes across the internet.

They become the player our kids look at and laugh, unaware of their former prowess on the playing field. To a generation they became a joke, a nobody. To an entire generation, there is no thought given to the fact that at one time they had reached legendary status of almost mythical proportions. Nope, they’re just the old guy that stinks and needs to be replaced by the new young superstar.

Manning need only look no further than two former superstar quarterbacks with similar ties to see the pitfalls of failing to realize when it’s time to let it go.

Remember the guy who Peyton Manning once wore black high tops to memorialize for? That Johnny Unitas fellow? Of course you do. But do you remember the way his career ended. Let’s hope you don’t. While Unitas struggled at the tail of his career, throwing just 10 touchdowns to 22 interceptions in his final three years, that’s not what the end of his career is remembered by.

Unitas did something nobody thought he would ever do. He did something nobody could have envisioned Peyton Manning do. He put on a helmet with something besides a blue horseshoe on it. No tale of Unitas’ career is complete without that little footnote at the end reminding us that he ultimately did not finish his career with his Baltimore Colts, but rather flailing around unceremoniously as a San Diego Charger.

Just because Baltimore Colts fans had to deal with seeing such an fathomable sight, it doesn’t mean the Indianapolis version must suffer the same fate.

But there’s an even better lesson to be learned from someone linked a bit stronger to Manning.

While not from Louisiana, Brett Favre, like Manning, is a native of the Bayou region in general. A Mississippi kid, the same state where Peyton’s father, and perhaps soon to be more famous younger brother played collegiately, Favre replaced Archie Manning as the hero of the gulf coast region, only to be replaced by Peyton.

Unfortunately for Favre, a lot of the reason Manning has supplanted him is because of…well…Brett Favre.

Favre memorably retired his way out of Green Bay, and into another shade of green in New York with the Jets. There he proceeded to injure his shoulder and along the way lead the entire NFL in interceptions thrown.

Yes, Favre bounced back in 2009 with a season for the ages, but little of that is remembered. What’s remembered his how he had managed to snake his way out of Green Bay into the arms of bitter rival Minnesota through his detour with the Jets.

What is remembered, that with a Super Bowl appearance in his grasp, Favre made one of the dumbest throws in NFL playoff football history. Coincidentally enough, this took place in Peyton’s home town of New Orleans against Archie’s Saints.

During that particular NFC championship game Favre was hit, and hit often. Injuries to his ankle likely would have left him unable to play in the Super Bowl had he not given the football game away (much like he had given away his last opportunity to win an NFC championship game in 2008, against, ironically enough, Eli’s Giants) so maybe the interception was a moot point.

WHat wasn’t though was a once proud warrior, a legendary folk hero, laying on the Superdome turf, beaten, battered, defeated, and through largely the fault of his own.

There was no way Favre would go out that way, everyone knew that. Thus began that slippery slope. Favre tried again one more time with Minnesota. Only to again, be besieged by injury and ineffectiveness.

Over Favre’s final three years, plus one game, the memories are of two blown Super Bowl appearances, two sub-par seasons, and an injury prone old man. Not how you endear yourself to the younger generation.

Beyond that, the ridicule that came with the ever-lasting Favre saga each and every offseason had become so much a part of everyday life, it finally became un-noticed. You think Tim Tebow coverage is a bit excessive now, I think we all know the Favre love-fest and obsession was far worse.

But in reading what you’ve just read, where was the talk about the gun slinger, care free kid who played football, played it damn well, and had a ton of fun doing it? Oh, right, it wasn’t mentioned, it’s long a distant memory.

Don’t let what made you great become a distant memory to a side-show circus where you undermine what was one of the finer careers in professional football.

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Perhaps We’ve All Been Fooled

Trying to put a positive spin on what took place at Soldier Field last Sunday afternoon has proven to be a task too daunting to accomplish. In fact, it’s just downright impossible. The simple fact of the matter is that the Atlanta Falcons were a terrible football team on Sunday, and that is not a good thing considering the Philadelphia Eagles are heading to town.

I don’t know if you remember this or not, but the last two times the Falcons have been on national television at home, things have not gone well. Tony Gonzalez can talk all he wants about how people shouldn’t be writing this team off after one game, but the fact of the matter is this, when the lights are on, and it’s a good opponent on the other side of the line of scrimmage, this team has wilted in big moments against big time opposition.

People harp about the lack of national respect given to the Falcons. Well, when you lose at home on national television twice to close out your season, once in embarrassing fashion, and then open the following campaign with perhaps the worst performance in the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era (omitting the Eagles game in 2009 in which Chris Redman started at quarterback), you don’t get respect. You don’t deserve it.

Just how bad were they on Sunday? Well, let’s take a closer look.

For starters, no team in the NFL averaged fewer points per drive than the Falcons did. Thirteen drives resulted in ZERO offensive touchdowns, and just two field goals. That’s bad.

Remember, this is a team that over those two games against New Orleans and Green Bay on national television to end the 2010 season, Atlanta averaged a meager 204.5 yards per game in those two, amassing just three offensive touchdowns. One of those, it should be noted, came in garbage time against Green Bay after the team already trailed 42-14.

Three games against three contenders in the NFC and just three touchdowns have been scored. Yes, that’s a problem, a big problem.

The Falcons, with all the talk of being more explosive, were the only team on opening weekend to not score an offensive touchdown.

Mike Smith would have you believe that poor field position contributed greatly to his teams undoing. Well, Lovie Smith might want to argue that point, the Falcons averaged a better starting field position than the Bears did. They managed to score a few points.

Matt Ryan dropped back to pass 52 times on Sunday, yes, 52. The Falcons averaged a whopping 5.3 yards per drop back. That is an unacceptable number for a team who has boasted all off-season of how much more explosive they are going to be.

Sure, Ryan completed 66% of his passes. But when they’re two yards down the field to a running back standing still in the flat with no chance to make a play with the ball, it really doesn’t matter.

If you give me a .300 hitter who does nothing but hit singles, or give me a guy who hits .260 but puts up 40 doubles and 30 home runs, you can keep the guy batting .300.

The same thing with a quarterback. I’ll take a dip in completion percentage if it comes with more plays made down the field.

John Harbaugh told Joe Flacco before Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh that sometimes he needed to try to squeeze the ball in there, trust his receivers to make a play.

In other words, it’s the NFL, your wide receivers aren’t going to be running around wide open, unless of course you’re being covered by Falcons defensive backs. You’re going to have to fit the ball into some tight spaces and small windows. If you aren’t willing to try, you’re not going to be an explosive offense.

With great risk comes great reward. Matt Ryan needs to take more risks.

Perhaps it is actually the fault of the Falcons defense that Ryan doesn’t make big plays. In practice, against the Falcons secondary, Ryan is probably used to having his receivers run around with nobody near them. Perhaps when he takes the field on Sundays, he expects more of the same, and when it doesn’t happen, he takes too many sacks and checks down way too often.

Sure, the offensive line, particular Sam Baker, struggled to protect Ryan, but Ryan doesn’t do himself any favors in the pocket. He has a tendency to hold the ball too long, waiting too long for someone to get open, or not trusting himself to cut it lose. Not all sacks are the responsibility of the offensive line.

Of course, it wasn’t like the offensive was doing anything to warrant anyone rushing to their defense. Yes, Michael Turner hit the century mark, but that was courtesy of 53 yards coming on one carry.

Oh, who is Michael Turner, you ask? Yeah, it would be understandable if you’d forgotten a bit about him. It seems the Falcons have too.

Against Green Bay and against Chicago, Turner carried the ball for a TOTAL of 20 times. Since joining the Falcons, Turner, when healthy, only had one game in a Falcons uniform where he didn’t total at least 15 carries.

Until the last two games that is. For Turner, he’s had 23 games where he’s carried the ball 20 times or more, and yet, has only been handed the ball 20 times total in his last two.

In their last five games, dating back to last year, playoffs included, Turner has found the endzone just twice, carried the ball more than 17 times only once, and has failed to top the 100 yard mark.

I thought the running game was this team’s calling card and bread and butter. If so, there’s not a lot of evidence to support that’s working, or it’s even the case anymore.

One would think that if a team is abandoning the run they’re slinging the ball over the field and attacking down the field. It’s what Green Bay, and New England and New Orleans and Philadelphia do. And it stands to reason, if you’re not pounding other teams with the run, then you’re drying to beat them with the home run, right?

Not Atlanta.

And therein lies the really concerning part. Who is this football team? What is their identity? Do they know? You could easily argue that they don’t.

People were quick to point out that the Falcons offense isn’t really the big problem, that it’s the defense. These are people who are trying to hard not to say anything negative about the franchise quarterback.

I don’t have the access to the film the coaches see, nor do I know what the plays called in the huddle are, nor do I have the ability to see down the field what Matt Ryan sees. So I can’t say if it’s the play calling, Ryan being gun-shy, or the coaches discouraging balls being thrown down the field, or a combination of them all. What I can see though is an offense that’s becoming increasingly anemic, and instills little confidence that it’s truly the offense of a Super Bowl contender.

Atlanta’s defense won’t be confused with Baltimore’s any time soon. However, it’s a good enough unit for this team to win the Super Bowl with an offense that can score some points. The problem is, right now, the offense is not Super Bowl caliber.

All this time Falcons fans, and NFL pundits, experts and analysts all thought the defense was what was keeping this team from taking that next to step to championship caliber.

Maybe, just maybe we’ve all been fooled. Perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s the offense after all that’s keeping a Lombardi Trophy from resting up at Flowery Branch.

Perhaps we’ve all been trying to put a band-aid on the wrong wound, and unfortunately, the other one is festering to a point we might not be able to heal it in time.

Sunday night would be a good time for it to start healing, but I just can’t see any reason to actually expect anything to change. If we aren’t going to throw the ball down the field and let guys like Roddy White and Julio Jones go make plays, then Michael Turner needs to be getting the ball 25 times.

Because whatever it is they’re doing right now doesn’t do the number one job of an offense, it doesn’t put the ball in the endzone, at all.

People say you can’t panic after week one, and they’re right. It is just one game. However, the offensive woes of these Falcons are not just a one game blip. These shortcomings have been present for longer than that, its only recently though that they’ve come to light in the manner that they are now.

So no, the panic button isn’t being pushed because of the loss to Chicago. But the finger is on the button because of a recurring theme with this offense that’s beginning to advance from trend, to being the cold hard truth of what this team is.

As fans, we’d be well served to recognize this, and perhaps temper expectations a bit. Does this team have the talent and pieces to be special? It absolutely does. But it’s getting more and more difficult to believe that it will.

They can go a long way to re-instilling that belief on Sunday night. However, if it’s more of the same against the Eagles on national television this weekend, Peter King might really be wishing he could have that Super Bowl pick back. This will be a team who will be lucky to make it a fourth straight winning season.

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How the Falcons Can Take Next Step

I’ll break this into two categories, personnel and system.

1. Interior offensive line help. We didn’t run up the middle much, and for good reason. Our running game is exactly why you don’t look at raw yardage to gauge how effective a team is at something. Michael Turner really wasn’t that good this year, but he was the “leading rusher”. He had some big days against weak opponents. Way too many of our runs weren’t what you’d call successful runs, too often our running plays got us behind. We faced way too many 3rd down and longs, and against good defenses it killed us.

2. We’ve got to find another pass rusher. I was hoping Kroy Biermann could provide a spark on one end, but no, not enough. He made some nice plays, but overall, his impact on the game was minimal. You’d think with all the attention John Abraham commanded, someone else could take advantage of it, nobody did. The fact that Lawrence Sidbury rarely saw the field down the stretch has me worried he’s not going to work out like we’d hoped. This is year two of his experiment, next year is make or break for him. I would love him to step up, but I don’t want to enter 2011 with Biermann and Sidbury still the other pass rusher. Not to mention, Abraham is up there in years.

3. We need more speed at our skill positions. I think the loss of Jerius Norwood is underestimated. I think partially it’s underestimated because he’s always hurt so we never really saw just what he could fully do on the football field, but he’s the only real big play threat we’ve got on offense. Michael Jenkins is a solid receiver, but he’s a solid number two if you’ve got a slot receiver who can help stretch the field. Jenkins doesn’t stretch the field, doesn’t require any safety help, and teams can in turn use their safeties either to crowd the line of scrimmage, or help over the top with Roddy and Tony Gonzalez. Harry Douglass was a huge disappointment this year, his impact was also pretty minimal. We absolutely need a guy who can go down the field and stretch things out. I think getting Kerry Meier back next year is a good thing, but he doesn’t solve our problem of a dearth of big plays.

4. We might need a nickel back. Chris Owens was just abused on Saturday night, and I just haven’t seen enough from him to make me want to rely on him for anything. I understand Brent Grimes had a lot of interceptions, and defended a ton of passes. However, this is also a product of being targeted a lot. This is not to say we need to replace Grimes, not in the least, he’s a heckuva football player who I want out there. However, if we can improve ourselves at the nickel corner position, I’d like to see us move Grimes around more to keep him from getting matched up against some of the league’s bigger receivers. Have him play in the slot at times, he doesn’t need to always be a boundary corner. Brian Williams was solid, and his size is a plus, but age and injury are creeping up. I know people are throwing out names like Champ Bailey and Nnamdi Asomugha, but people need to get in touch with reality, that ain’t happening. With the deal we gave Dunta Robinson last year, we aren’t spending that much money on the secondary. Thomas Dmitrof needs to be shrewd in finding a little help for the secondary.

System

1. Throw the ball deep more. I don’t know if it’s because we can’t throw it deep, or don’t, but we need tot try it more often, just a few shots here and there. Part of me thinks it’s we aren’t sure we can protect Ryan enough to throw the ball down the field, at least not against good defenses. I understand where we ranked in sacks allowed, but that comes in large part to running the ball so often, and the fact that Ryan gets rid of the ball quickly, but unfortunately, his getting rid of the ball quickly coincides with getting very few big plays with the passing game.

2. We need to use the screen game more. I am a huge fan of screens, and we need to use them more. If we aren’t going to throw the ball down the field, screen plays at least give you a better chance at making a big play than a lot of what we run. Granted, not having Norwood, or a true speed back may have impacted that, but what about slot screens to Douglass? Or even to White?

3. Our defenders need work on taking better angles after quarterbacks. Getting pressure, really, wasn’t the huge problem. The problem came when we got there. You’ve got to get these guys on the ground. We whiffed against Drew Brees all day, and then against Aaron Rodgers. If we make half the sacks we had chances to in either game, we might still be playing. I think some of this might be the youth with guys like Weatherspoon and Moore blitzing has an impact on that, and I hope they can improve. I like it when we blitz, and we should do it more often. Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson aren’t bad in the secondary. However, if we have to count on Chris Owens for anything, we are in trouble.

4. Don’t make major, major changes, clearly. We are on the right track. I still liken this team to the Patriots of the early 2000s. The 2001 Patriots received some very fortunate bounces to reach, and win, the Super Bowl that year. They took a step back the following year, and then proceeded to go on their run. The 2003-2004 bunch were the really good teams. While in our 3rd year, we obviously won’t reach the heights the Patriots did, 13-3 is 13-3, we’re a good team that needs a few tweaks. We can still get where we want to go, we’re on the way, and considering the steps we’ve been making, you have to think we’re going to keep moving in the proper direction.

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Colts Don’t Match Up Well With Jets

This game, to me, might be the easiest to predict, and by predict I don’t mean who will win. I do think though, the ways in which this game could play out are relatively few and far between.

The only death sentence in this game I can see for the New York Jets is if they fall behind early. While there are several quarterbacks in this post season clearly capable of rallying their team from double digit deficits, even in the 4th quarter, I do not believe in this particular game Mark Sanchez is one of those.

Yes, Sanchez has five game winning drives this season, three of the fourth quarter comeback variety. However, keep in mind that these rallies came against the likes of Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, and Houston. Not exactly defenses that strike fear into the hearts of anyone, save their own fans.

Yes, I’m aware that the Colts defense hasn’t exactly been scaring anyone this year either, however there are two points that remember when discussing this Colts defense. One, they have been playing much, much better in the last few weeks of the season. Two, and this is part of a reason for number one, they have been afforded the luxury of playing with leads more often in the last few weeks of the season as opposed to the seasons first third.

The difference in the Colts defense when ahead, or trailing, is like night and day. Their run defense doesn’t have the ability to consistently stop people. In fact, teams gain positive yardage running on the Colts defense 84% of the time. That’s the 6th highest total in the league. With numbers like that, if a team has a lead, or is in a close game and can commit to running the ball, the Colts defense can be in trouble, big trouble.

The problem is right in the middle. Teams have punished Indianapolis right between the guards, as the Colts defense has been the 5th worst in the NFL at defending runs right up the middle. Why is this such a big problem? Only five teams have been better at running up the middle this year than the Jets.

Against the passing game he Colts have been pretty solid at slowing down the other teams wide receivers. The chink in their pass defense has been covering backs out of the backfield and tight ends. Fortunately for Indianapolis, the Jets attempts to incorporate LaDanian Tomlinson, Shonn Greene and Dustin Keller into the passing game have been rather futile. Neither of the three have been very dangerous in the passing game, despite the fact that Dustin Keller has been targeted over 100 times.

This could prove critical late in the game as teams with late leads on the Colts, and using the ground game to control the clock and keep Peyton Manning off the field will use play action extensively, and often these play action plays will consist of tight ends or backs in the flat. The Jets inability to take advantage of this weakness with the Colts could ultimately be the difference in their ability to put this game away if they are fortunate to be playing with a lead in the second half.

On the flip side of the coin though, when a team is playing from behind, play action becomes relatively useless and ineffective, and that is t area of pass defense that the Jets can hope best to exploit. This is why it’s vital for the Colts to be playing with a lead in this game.

Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are as good a pass rushing duo as you will find in the league. Unfortunately for the Colts, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to rush the passer when the other team has the lead, or is having lots of success running the ball and can still incorporate that into their game plan.

Throw in the factors of playing at home in front of a raucous crowd, indoors, on a fast track, with the struggling Mark Sanchez at quarterback, Freeney and Mathis are foaming at the mouth to be unleashed on Sanchez. If the Jets fall behind and are forced to abandon the running game, and consequentially play action passing, Sanchez could be in for a long, long night, and things could snow ball quickly.

On the other side of the ball, does much more need to be said than simply, Peyton Manning? Perhaps.

The year began with lavish praised being heaped all over this Jets defense. Near the middle of the season however some questions had begun to arise as a couple of different squads had put up some big numbers on the unit. I think those questions should be put on the shelf.

The Jets haven’t been the league’s best unit this year, but they’ve been an elite one. After Pittsburgh, you could throw a blanket over the next 5 or 6 teams, so there’s no place for questioning the validity of the Jets defense.

The pass defense was expected to be a major strength, and for the most part, it has been. Darrell Revis hasn’t exactly been a complete shut down corner, but he’s been more than adequate, to say the least. Missing games, and the hamstring injury limiting him when he first returned all factor into the numbers not being perhaps as impressive as one would expect. Not to mention, having Revis out for such durations forced some shuffling in the secondary that ultimately resulted in teams being able to take advantage of what was the number two corner spot quite a bit.

All told though, the Jets secondary, while not able to really take away one particular target from the offense, also wasn’t particularly hurt by any one particular target. They covered number ones, they covered slot receivers, and they covered backs and tight ends all equally. In other words, there aren’t many holes in this secondary. Without Dallas Clark and Austin Collie, do the Colts have the pass catchers to find what few holes are there?

So can the Colts find some success on the ground? It’s highly unlikely. The Jets run defense was a top five group, and the Colts running game, well, we know what it was. Yes, injuries galore decimated it, and Colts fans have to hope the return of Joseph Addai at the close of the season means good things for the playoffs.

Addai hasn’t been anywhere close to the back he’s proven capable of, but he’s been clearly better than any other option the Colts of trotted out with Manning in the backfield. The Jets defense however is too good for just adequate to make much of a dent. Addai absolutely must suddenly revert back to his normal self, and now, for the Colts running game to have a chance.

The one weakness the Jets have has been stopping teams in short yardage situations. Luck would have it for the Colts that they’ve been pretty futile in such situations, so any hopes of trying to take advantage of this doesn’t seem like a plan that will work for the Colts. Furthermore, the Jets are high among the elite teams in terms of not allowing big plays via the ground game. The Colts, as you can probably guess, rank near the bottom in big plays from the rushing attack.

When it comes to special teams, there’s hardly anything worth discussing here. Only the Chargers had worse special teams play this year than the Colts. The only edge the Colts have is if it comes down to a late field goal they have Adam Vinatieri. No team in the league is worse at covering kicks than the Colts, and nobody has been more proficient returning them than the Jets. So even if the Colts score, the Jets are more than likely going to start with good field position. Similar things can be said of the punting game.

So what happens?

Simple. The Colts need to turn Mark Sanchez over, and do it early. They need to get a lead, and then let the dogs loose on Mark Sanchez. Then they need to keep forcing turnovers, get up, and get up big.

If this game stays close, it’s hard to like the Colts chances. Yes, one would say, “close game, 4th quarter, I’m taking Peyton Manning over Mark Sanchez, all day”. And I would too. However, I’ll take the other 44 guys suited up in Jets uniforms over the 44 in Colts uniforms, and that’s what is going to win this game.

Perhaps, perhaps, thanks to all the talk that has been going on all year, if the game is close late, the Jets crumble, succumbing to the pressure they’ve placed on themselves all year as they see their season potentially ending in the first round of the playoffs.

But I doubt it.

I say the Jets win.

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Saints Ripe For an Upset??

Maybe this is wishful thinking, maybe it’s lunacy, maybe it’s both. I like the chances Seattle has in this one.

The loss of Chris Ivory and Pierre Thomas is huge for the Saints. Do you really want Reggie Bush trying to take advantage of this run defense? Do you want to hitch your wagon to him as a number one running back? I would think not.

I understand that they do have Drew Brees, and a fantastic passing attack. However, also recognize that in the past few weeks, as they’ve gone 1-2, teams have really been able to get after and bother Drew Brees with a ton of pressure. Expect Seattle to do it too.

While I think Baltimore, Atlanta, and Tampa possess much more talent and speed on defense than Seattle does, a couple of factors could help balance this out. One, the injuries to the running backs obviously factor in, and it also matters in blitz protection and pick-up, and could force some more max protect packages. Two, the weather doesn’t promise to be very befitting a high octane down field passing attack. It’s expected to be about 40 degrees and raining. New Orleans should be glad it’s not the 8 pm game as the rain will become snow. Three, the crowd noise. There were some pre-snap issues in the game at the Dome for the Saints, and Quest Field can absolutely be loud enough to cause some in this one.

There is the other matter though of how the heck the Seahawks are supposed to score. The Saints defense is actually probably better than it was last year, just sans the turnovers. Seattle can be apt to turn the ball over though, and in poor weather conditions, we’ll see how it goes.

The Seahawks would be wise I think to use Justin Forsett more often. Marshawn Lynch really just doesn’t offer much of anything at the running back position. At least with Forsett, you have a chance for the big play. People were clamoring after the Baltimore game that the weakness in the Saints defense was exposed. Horsecrap. The Saints run defense is not a weakness, in fact, it’s been pretty good.

Another tidbit with that run defense, that should absolutely go into the play calling for the Seahawks is that the Saints only allow opponents to succeed on 40% of short yardage running situations, best in the league. Playoff football comes down to inches, to the little things, the Saints ability to stop people from running the ball for first downs in short yardage situations, especially in inclement weather, could be vital.

So, what I’m saying is given all the circumstances and conditions surrounding this game, I don’t expect a lot of points. I expect the scoring to be rather low, which in a playoff game like this, in this type of crowd environment in this type of weather, the key will be special teams.

And here is where the Seahawks may have the edge. While on paper, the Saints hold a rather distinct edge it would appear on both offense and defense (though less so with the injuries in the backfield), the Seahawks hold a very distinct edge in special teams. It could be argued the difference between the two special teams units is as gaping as the difference between each offense or defense.

The Saints special teams were borderline bad. The Seahawks were an elite unit.

Leon Washington has a chance to make a big difference in this game. Seattle’s kick return unit was the second best in the league this season, whereas New Orleans kickoff coverage unit ranked merely 16th. The difference is less so in the punting facet of the game, but the kick return unit for Seattle could prove important when it comes to answering any New Orleans scores. Nothing changes momentum like big special teams plays, or back breaking returns, and with this Seattle crowd, a big play early by the ‘Hawks return game could really give the team, and crowd, some major life.

The key might be hitting a big special teams play early, using some of that momentum and energy to hang around the game a bit. Because if it’s close towards the end, who knows what can happen? That’s what playoff football is about.

I’m going way, way, way out on the limb and taking Seattle. But alas, it’s probably more hoping for Seattle, as I’d much rather see them in Atlanta next Saturday.

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Thoughts From Last Night

1. The defense, long considered our achillies heel, played outstanding. The offense, we should trust, will come around, they’ve been too good and have too many players. But our defense was flying around the ball, and tackling well (everyone but Drew Brees of course), and making life rather miserable for Brees. Yes, Brees put up really good numbers against the blitz, but he made some pretty ridiculous plays himself to do that. Those were plays most quarterbacks don’t make, and on most days, I’m not sure Brees doesn’t make. We just about got to him so many times last night, you have to like that formula. If our defense can turn out performances like that, I like our chances going forward.

2. Did we really want to have to beat the Saints three times this year? That’s a tall task. Has anyone ever beaten a defending Super Bowl champion three times in one year? It’s highly unlikely. Do we want to have that task staring us down in our first home playoff game in six years?

3. How many teams are really going to be able to come in here and win a game? How many quarterbacks can handle this crowd noise in this building? Do you really think Michael Vick can orchestrate the offense as well with this noise and this atmosphere like he can in Philadelphia at home? Jay Cutler? The easily rattled Jay Cutler? Drew Brees played well, and yet even in playing well, it wasn’t that well. There were huge mistakes too. And I’m not sure Brees can even come in here and win twice.

4. We learned our secondary can hold up okay in one on coverage, or while we are blitzing. Yes, Brees completed a ton of passes, but as mentioned before, he made some ridiculous plays that 9 times out of 10 nobody in the league can make. There were a lot of completions, for very little gain. If the guys in the secondary tackle, this approach works. Make a team go 10 or 12 plays for a touchdown. Odds are good, they won’t be able to. They’ll commit a penalty, or turn the ball over, which the Saints did a lot of both. The strategy worked perfectly, well, until the end that is. I’ll gladly let a guy complete 9 of 11 passes for 65 yards if those two incompletions are turnovers. That’s a trade-off I’ll make any day of the week. I’m curious to see how many blitzes were called on that final drive by the Atlanta defense though that allowed the go ahead score. Our strategy was to make the Saints patiently move the ball down the field without the benefit of the big play. It worked the entire game, until the end, so I’m curious if we stopped blitzing as much at that point.

5. Teams with chips on their shoulder and something to prove become even more dangerous. Apparently ESPN has forgotten that the Falcons are 12-3, in first place, can still be the one seed if they simply beat the worst team in the league at home, and BEAT the Saints earlier this year in New Orleans. Now, suddenly, after a three point loss to a great football team, in a great game, the Falcons are frauds, and overrated, and exposed. Okay. Tell them that. Tell this team they are nobodys. Good. They like it that way.

See you in January.

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