NFC East: Jordy Nelson

IRVING, Texas -- ESPN Insider Mike Sando has a piece up on the loaded 2015 class of potential free-agent wide receivers, and the Dallas Cowboys' Dez Bryant leads the list.

Bryant
Bryant
Sando had help from two NFL general managers, an offensive assistant and a defensive coordinator. If you want to read the full story, you have to be an Insider Insider, but Bryant ranked ahead of guys such as Demaryius Thomas, Michael Crabtree and Jordy Nelson.

There are six receivers in the NFL earning more than $11 million per season. Does Bryant join that list with Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Vincent Jackson? Do we need to point out the new deal DeSean Jackson signed with the Washington Redskins is with $8 million annually?

Here’s what Sando wrote about Bryant:
Bryant lined up on the perimeter for 89.1 percent of his routes last season, the highest percentage for any player on this list. Versatility is great and teams certainly feature players from the slot, but being labeled as a "slot guy" isn't the best thing for a player's value in evaluators' eyes. "It's such a difference when you have outside guys that can stretch the field," a veteran assistant coach said.

Bryant, who turns 26 in November, accounted for 29.2 percent of the Cowboys' receiving yards last season. That was the highest percentage for any player on the list. He also accounted for 39.4 percent of his team's receiving touchdowns, by far the highest for any player on this list and the third highest for any wide receiver, behind Fitzgerald (41.4 percent) and Megatron (39.4).

"You'd better pay Dez Bryant," one of the GMs said. "Jerry Jones had better pay him. The antics you see, that is raw emotion, his competitive flair coming out."

Another GM expressed some concern about paying Bryant top dollar based on Bryant's overall makeup, but both GMs ranked Bryant first on their list, as did the defensive coordinator. "Teams will bid on Bryant," a third GM said, "but not all the teams will be in on that, because of his personality."


Bryant is set to make $1.78 million on the final year of his rookie contract. He doesn’t want to leave. The Cowboys don’t want him to leave. How they reach an agreement will be interesting. Bryant did not dismiss the idea of a hometown discount in this story from Tim MacMahon last month. I’ve written that the structure will matter most.

There is always the possibility of the franchise tag.

But I will ask this question: When was the last time the Cowboys lost somebody they wanted to keep?

Slumping CB Scandrick seeks to rebound

December, 19, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- Orlando Scandrick has been the Dallas Cowboys' best cornerback most of the season, but he's been awful the past two weeks.

Scandrick isn't hiding from the fact. The film doesn't lie, and neither do the numbers.

Scandrick
The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers targeted Scandrick a total of 17 times, completing 14 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns, according to ProFootballFocus.com. By comparison, teams completed 41 of 72 passes for 397 yards and three touchdowns when targeting Scandrick in the Cowboys' first 12 games.

Scandrick, who has been the victim of highlight-reel catches by Chicago's Alshon Jeffery and Green Bay's Jordy Nelson the last two weeks, is trying to find ways to regain the form he's had most of the season.

“Obviously the last couple of weeks, I would have loved to play better,” Scandrick said. “I haven't played up to the standards I set the first 12 weeks. But I don't want to start thinking about like, ‘Oh, no.' I don't want to be afraid to make a play or afraid that it's going to happen again.

“I mean, it's not like I'm going against no-name guys, but that's not an excuse. I've got to figure out a way to make those plays. ... Nobody wants it more than me. I've just got to keep grinding and banging away and figure out a way to make it.”

With the Cowboys ranked dead last in total defense and having already set the team record for yards allowed, Scandrick has plenty of company among defenders searching for solutions. Career backup quarterbacks Josh McCown and Matt Flynn have combined for 647 yards and eight touchdowns on 53-of-75 passing against the Dallas defense the past two weeks.

Scandrick mentioned the need for the Cowboys' healthy defensive starters, particularly in the secondary, to do more with injuries eroding the front seven.

“There is no damn fine line,” Scandrick said when asked about the balance between trying to do more and attempting to do too much. “I feel like I can't let people catch balls on me or, oh, no, we don't have a shot. Clearly I can't have an off day or somewhat off day, because it's all magnified and you see the results.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- For all the yardage and carnage, the Philadelphia Eagles' 27-13 win over the Green Bay Packers came down to two red zone throws from Scott Tolzien to Jordy Nelson.

LeSean McCoy ran for 155 yards. It seemed like the training staffs were out on the field as much as the offensive or defensive units. Nick Foles followed his seven-touchdown day in Oakland with a three-touchdown day.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Boykin and Jordy Nelson
AP Photo/Mike RoemerBrandon Boykin was able to wrestle this pass away from Jordy Nelson for a crucial red zone takeaway.
But it would have been an entirely different game if Tolzien, making his NFL debut after Seneca Wallace injured his groin, had completed those two short passes to Nelson. Come to think of it, he actually might have completed one.

Let's start with the first one. Earlier in the second quarter, with the Eagles leading 7-0, Tolzien drove the Packers from their own 18 to the Eagles' 5-yard line. A touchdown there would have tied the game and swung the momentum to Green Bay. On third-and-3, though, Tolzien underthrew Nelson in the end zone.

Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin pounced. He returned the interception 76 yards.

“I was able to get my hands on it,” Boykin said. “I am a little bit disappointed that I wasn't able to score, but it was a big stop in the red zone, so it was good.”

The Eagles wound up missing a field goal, but the pick kept momentum on the visitors' side.

In the fourth quarter, with the Eagles ahead 27-13, the Packers recovered a Foles fumble at the Philadelphia 13. On fourth-and-4 at the 7, Tolzien threw a fade to Nelson on his right. The play was ruled incomplete on the field and Packers coach Mike McCarthy challenged it.

After review of replays that seemed to show Nelson's hand under the ball, referee Mike Carey upheld the call.

“A relief,” Eagles linebacker Trent Cole said.

It was the Eagles' ball. The Packers never got the ball back, as the Eagles ran out the final 9:32 on the clock. If the touchdown had counted, Eagles coach Chip Kelly said, it would have changed his strategy.

“If it's a one-score game, I think you have to go down and try to score,” Kelly said. “We talked about both scenarios.”

Because those passes to Nelson didn't find their target, the Eagles were able to run out the clock on a 14-point win.
Nick Foles and A.J. HawkGetty ImagesNick Foles and A.J. Hawk meet Sunday in Green Bay in a game that's turned in the Eagles' favor.
If you expected the Philadelphia Eagles to have the edge at quarterback for their Week 10 meeting against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, go to the head of the class.

The teams play Sunday, a week after their quarterbacks made headline news. The Pack's Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Monday night's loss to the Chicago Bears, a day after the Eagles' Nick Foles tied the NFL record with seven touchdown passes against the Oakland Raiders.

A game that looked to be safely in the Packers' column is suddenly wide open. NFC North aficionado and all-around NFL expert Kevin Seifert breaks down the game with ESPN.com Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan.

Phil Sheridan: I'll start with the obvious one: Can the Packers win without Rodgers? Did they take his durability for granted in not having a better backup in place?

Kevin Seifert: On a local level, the backup quarterback has been an annual source of controversy for the Packers throughout Rodgers' career as a starter. Nationally, most people didn't find out about it until Monday night.

Seneca Wallace is the backup only because he was available when they realized none of the players they took to training camp was up to the job. He is 6-15 in his career as a starter, and his career seemed over in August 2012 when the Cleveland Browns released him.

The Packers' entire scheme is built around Rodgers doing things that only Rodgers can do. Think of what happened when the Indianapolis Colts played without Peyton Manning in 2011. The Packers will need to make fundamental changes to their offense -- and expect substantial elevation in other areas of their team -- to make it through this wilderness.

I have to imagine the Eagles can't believe their luck to be facing Wallace instead of Rodgers, huh?

Sheridan: They are saying all the right things about wanting to face the best and never wanting to see anyone get hurt, but they aren't oblivious. This game looked like a double-digit loss the day the schedule came out, and it still looked like an easy Packers home win until Rodgers' collarbone broke Monday night. So it not only becomes a winnable game for the Eagles, it comes when a win, combined with a Dallas loss (the Boys are in New Orleans), would move them even with the Cowboys at 5-5.

And it's not like the Eagles owe anybody an apology when it comes to luck. They haven't had a quarterback start and finish two games in a row since September, and they've been down to Matt Barkley twice.

They may not have a starter as good as Rodgers, but their backup isn't half bad. Foles threw for seven touchdowns Sunday against an Oakland defense that didn't blitz or, at times, even cover receivers. Given Dom Capers' background, how would you expect him to respond to a challenge like this?

Seifert: Capers is known for major scheme changes from week to week, depending on matchups. But as usual, the Packers are dealing with injuries that will limit his options. They are down four linebackers at the moment, although the Packers are hopeful that Clay Matthews can return soon -- if not Sunday -- and play with a club to protect his broken thumb.

In short, I'm not sure how many options Capers will have. He does have a group of talented cornerbacks -- Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House. Capers will have to hope that they can stick with the Eagles' group of perennial All-Pros and future Hall of Famers better than the Raiders did.

Are the Eagles' receivers really that good?

Sheridan: If they are, they have managed to keep that greatness a secret until Sunday in Oakland. DeSean Jackson is a dynamic player, no question about that, but he has been taken out of games in the past when cornerbacks get physical with him. The Raiders did not, and Jackson went off.

As for Riley Cooper and Jason Avant, they have not made up for the loss of Jeremy Maclin to a torn ACL during training camp. Cooper had great numbers Sunday -- five catches, three touchdowns, 139 yards -- but he has been neutralized more often than not during the season.

Tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz had big numbers at Oakland too. So either the Eagles offense really turned a corner or the Raiders just didn't have anyone playing corner. Maybe a bit of both.

The Packers have added a more robust running game to their offense this season. Now that Rodgers is hurt, can Eddie Lacy & Co. carry the team until the quarterback is back? Is that even possible in this pass-happy league?

Seifert: I tend to doubt it. Up until Monday night's game against the Bears, much of the Packers' success in the run game came against light boxes (six men or fewer) designed to focus first on the pass, according to the charting we get from ESPN Stats & Information. The Bears brought a safety into the box Monday night and the Packers still rushed for 199 yards, but we should note that the Bears have the NFL's fourth-worst rush defense this year.

And even when you run successfully, it usually takes longer to score and thus your total points can drive down. The Packers were averaging 30 points per game before scoring 20 Monday night against the Bears.

How do you think the Eagles will approach it? Eight men in the box? Nine? How about 11?

Sheridan: This sets up a bit like the Tampa Bay game, I guess. Mike Glennon was making his second start, and the Bucs' passing game was not expected to be a big threat. The Eagles focused on shutting down Doug Martin, and they did, holding him to 67 yards on 16 carries. It helps, of course, to get a lead and force the opponent to throw the ball more.

All season, the Eagles' focus has been to stop the run while limiting big pass plays downfield. That made them vulnerable to intermediate passing and runs after the catch. Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson, for instance, had nine catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns while the Eagles were focused on Martin.

That has to be the Packers' blueprint for success. If Wallace can get the ball out quickly and catch Jordy Nelson and Andrew Quarless in stride, the Packers can move the ball. The Eagles are better at tackling and covering underneath than they were, but there's opportunity there.

Friday Conversation: DeAngelo Hall

November, 1, 2013
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Washington Redskins corner DeAngelo Hall has returned two interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns; he's also played well against the best receivers in the NFL. If his second half is like his first, Hall could be headed to his fourth Pro Bowl.

How do you feel you’re playing this year compared to your Pro Bowl years?

DeAngelo Hall: I feel I’m playing good. It’s a tough question to answer. There are a lot of games left. The end result is I want to win games and we haven’t been doing that. But at the halfway point I feel I’ve done a good job. I saw Jerry Jones’ comment that Deion [Sanders] could shut Calvin [Johnson] down; anybody who puts their mind to it has a chance. I felt like [Brandon] Carr, I don’t know if he was scared of the man or what. He came out against us and played like a Pro Bowler. He got out there and looked timid or the scheme wasn’t devised for him to make plays. I haven’t watched the [whole] game and saw the end result and saw the one slant that I picked off [against Johnson] that he took 80 yards [against Dallas]. I feel good. The guys I’ve had to cover this season is nothing short of a who’s-who list of receivers.

To me it looks like you’re playing better.

[+] EnlargeDeAngelo Hall
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsPlaying in his 10th NFL season, DeAngelo Hall has been holding his own against some of the best receivers in the game.
Hall: I feel like I am. Like I said it’s hard to say great when you don’t win games. As good as Denver was, as good as a lot of other games were …. Chicago I felt I played great; we won the game. I didn’t have an interception, a couple pass break-ups, I wasn’t around the ball a lot. I held my own against a damn good receiver, but we won the game. I’ve been in the league long enough. I made a lot of Pro Bowls and had individual success, made a lot of money. I want to win. You get defined by winning and I want to win more than anything now. That’s my focus.

You had to take a pay cut in the offseason. Your attitude seems good and you’re playing well. Is there a part of you that is bothered by having to do this?

Hall: I don’t know if I took a pay cut for my performance. I like to think not. The cornerback inside me says that’s not why. Other things made that happen. The market wasn’t what I thought it was and I felt I could still play better than a lot of cornerbacks in this league, so I wanted to come back. I felt comfortable and it was somewhere they’d use me the right way. I think after that [season-ending] Dallas game, they said, ‘You’re not gonna play nickel and do all the other stuff, play safety; we want you go to out there and lock down a guy.’ I was like, I like that. To have an opportunity to do that again I relish that. It was a no-brainer to come back here. The money will take care of itself.

I know the reasons for the pay cut are different, but I’ve still seen other guys that’s it’s affected.

Hall: You ask me that five years ago and my answer would have been different. I’m a much wiser man than I was then. I’m not bitching and complaining. I had a terrible migraine [Thursday] and they wanted me to take the day off. I missed a little bit of the stretching. I still came out and practiced. Mike [Shanahan] was like, "Get back inside and relax." I was like, "No, I want to be out here for these guys." I have to show them I care about this and I want to win games. It’s part of the maturation process. A couple years ago you give me a day off I’ll take it, regardless of the situation. My head is still banging. I had to come and work with these guys and implement the game plan.

What’s underappreciated about your game?

Hall: I don’t know, I don’t know… A lot of people think I can’t tackle. I feel I’m one of the best tackling corners there is in the league.

I thought that’s what you’d say. I don’t get it, but that’s what I hear about you, too.

Hall: I hear it, too. I don’t know if it’s the stigma of corners can’t tackle, so they group me in there, too. But I feel I’m a darn good tackler. So that’s something underappreciated. I guess my physicalness even at the line, checking receivers. I’m 5-10, 5-11, 190 pounds and there’s no way I should win against Calvin and Dez [Bryant] and Demaryius [Thomas] and all the other big guys and I’m able to hold my own.

Of the receivers you’ve played, who’s the toughest?

Hall: It’s hard. I don’t want to disrespect anybody. From Jordy Nelson to Dez to Calvin to Demaryius to Brandon [Marshall], they all pose different challenges. With Brandon, I didn’t press as much because he uses a technique at the line. He’ll let you jam him and he’ll pull himself through. I didn’t want to play as physical with him as I did a lot of the other guys. They’re all beasts at what they do. Calvin, they wanted me to do something. I tried it one time and I said, "Hey, that aint’ gonna work, this dude is too big; I can’t go punk him and throw him around in Cover 2." That dude’s just shrugging me off so I have to go back to the drawing board. They’re all great receivers who can be game-breakers. If I had to vote all of them to the Pro Bowl I would. They’re all beasts.

Lessons learned: David Amerson

September, 20, 2013
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James JonesBenny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsRookie David Amerson has learned that peeking back at the quarterback while in coverage can get you burned in the NFL.
ASHBURN, Va. -- The lessons Josh Wilson learned throughout his career let you know one thing: It takes time to learn how to play corner in the NFL. And it’s often because of the so-called little things.

For starters, you have to get used to facing quarterbacks of the caliber you rarely saw in college.

“In college you may have that second to look back and then the ball’s here,” Wilson said. “In the NFL, that ball will just be thrown and will be right on the outside shoulder where it’s supposed to be. In college it could be anywhere. You might get a bad ball 50 percent of the time. In the NFL, going against Aaron Rodgers, 99 percent of the time the ball will be where it’s supposed to be.”

And then you have to learn how receivers alert you that the ball is coming. Some receivers’ eyes provide the clue; for others it’s their hands. But it’s not always that easy. Wilson learned that facing certain veterans.

“Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt, their eyes [didn’t] change,” Wilson said. “Torry’s hands didn’t go up until the ball is there. He’ll wait, he’ll wait and that ball is right there and then he’ll throw his hands up. It’s hard.”

Which is why he gives Redskins rookie corner David Amerson credit for being in position to play as a rookie. There are plenty of lessons to be learned. (One of which was how to play the proper leverage; against Green Bay, on the play in which Randall Cobb barely stepped out of bounds, Amerson could not get off his block and, just as bad, lost outside contain. It was not good.) Anyway, here are two things Amerson learned in coverage last week:

1. Play the defense. Amerson said the coaches wanted him to play outside leverage all game and that’s what he was doing. Until he played Jordy Nelson with inside leverage, getting beat for a 37-yard catch and being flagged for pass interference.

“Little things will get you in trouble if you fall off for one second,” Amerson said. “I was [playing outside leverage] and I was killing it and killing him and the one time I did slide to inside leverage, that’s when they threw the fade on me. After I was killing him pretty much all game one little mistake like that and it’s a 30-yard gain.”

Wilson’s take: “You have to be technique-sound. You can’t get caught in bad leverage because in this league great quarterbacks will take advantage of it.”

2. Keep your eyes on your work. Jones beat Amerson with a double move in man coverage. The problem: When Jones made his first move, Amerson looked back at the quarterback. That’s a no-no. Double moves will get every corner on occasion, but in this case Amerson needed to keep his eyes elsewhere. He was fortunate that the ball wasn’t caught (and that he wasn’t called for holding or pass interference after he grabbed Jones).

“That’s one of those tough plays,” Amerson said. “In the NFL, there are more comebacks than there are comeback and go’s. You have to do whatever you can to break up the pass or stop the receiver. At that point I had to tug him a bit to give me a chance and for the defense to come back on the field and to not give up a touchdown. With double moves the best thing you can do is keep your eyes on the receiver.”

Wilson’s take: “Double moves are hard. There’s a reason why they’re doing them. It doesn’t matter what year, it’s hard. To come over and get away with a tug? Hats off to him. That’s a veteran move. That’s something I would have told him to do in that same situation.”
Aaron RodgersRich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Giants sacked Aaron Rodgers five times and limited him to 219 yards and one touchdown.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There was much hand-wringing in these parts the past several weeks about the way the New York Giants were slogging their way through another November. There was fresh enthusiasm in Dallas and Washington about the idea of the defending champions slipping back toward the pack. The Giants had made all of this happen by losing their last two games prior to their Week 11 bye, then emerging from it this week and into a remaining schedule that looked as though it could well be a meat-grinder.

And then, Sunday night, the Giants beat the red-hot Green Bay Packers 38-10, and the old reality reclaimed its place in the consciousness of those who'd been imagining a different ending this year. When the Giants are fired up, focused, physical on the offensive and defensive lines and driven by some sort of powerful external motivation … well, they're just about impossible to beat.

"All week, the message was that this game is on us, this game is about us and our execution," said linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, who had two of the Giants' five sacks of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "If we do what we know we can do, we're going to be OK."

That message can be taken right out of this one game and applied to the remainder of the season. Sure, the rest of the schedule still looks tough. The Washington Redskins are on fire, two games behind and awaiting the Giants at FedEx Field next Monday night. The Dallas Cowboys are right there with Washington, and with what looks to be the easiest of all the division's schedules left to play. But the Giants are the ones with the two-game lead. The Giants are the ones who know they can win in places like Green Bay and San Francisco in the biggest of games. The Giants are the team in the NFC East with the championship pedigree, and Sunday night's alarming message to the rest of the league was that they appear to remember that now.

"There was a different enthusiasm in practice this week, and it showed up in the game," said Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who threw three touchdown passes in the game after three straight games without throwing any and passed Phil Simms for the all-time franchise lead in that category.

Everything about the Giants looked different this week. They were nastier on the offensive line, opening huge holes for running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown (before Brown left in the fourth quarter with what turned out to be a broken leg). They were more fearsome and determined on the defensive line, bringing pressure with the defensive ends and tackles as well as Kiwanuka up from linebacker and Chase Blackburn pressuring Rodgers from his middle linebacker spot. They were spry and nimble with their offensive formations, rotating receivers around to different positions, faking an end-around handoff to Hakeem Nicks before hitting Bradshaw with a 59-yard screen pass and working rookie Rueben Randle into the mix.

They were fresh, focused and emotionally fired up, in part because of a speech by 15-year-old Make-A-Wish recipient Adam Merchant, who'd cashed in his wish to be a part of the Giants' team this weekend and told the players on Friday night to "play like world champions."

"It would have been hard not to match that kind of intensity," Kiwanuka said of the effect Merchant had on the team.

The mission for the Giants now is to maintain that intensity over the next five weeks, and to do it they'll need to play as big up front as they did on both sides of the ball Sunday. Manning is going to be Manning, the receivers are going to be the receivers, and those reliable aspects of the passing game will continue to carry the Giants when they can. But when the Giants play like one of the very best teams in the entire league, it's because they're pushing people around on the offensive and defensive lines the way they were Sunday. Guys like left tackle Will Beatty and left guard Kevin Boothe were dominant against the Packers' defensive front, paving the way for 64 rushing yards from Brown and another 58 from Bradshaw.

"It just makes everybody on this team more comfortable if we can get that running game going," Bradshaw said.

It loosens things up in the passing game and gives the defense time to rest and refresh so it can go out and inflict pain on opposing quarterbacks. That's something the Giants haven't done with enough consistency this year, but they were determined to do it Sunday against Rodgers. They remembered sacking him four times in their playoff victory in Green Bay in January, and they knew they had to repeat that performance.

"Defensively, up front, we know we have the ability to affect every aspect of the game," Kiwanuka said. "We know we have to get it done up front for the rest of the team to feed off of us."

And that's what happened. After a shaky start in which Jordy Nelson got behind Corey Webster for a 61-yard touchdown, the defense locked in the rest of the way once the pass rush got going. Webster came back with a big interception later in the first half, and the Giants rolled in a way that reminded you of that whole January run. This is the way they look when they're at their best and most driven, and it reminds the rest of the league that, if there really does turn out to be a race this year in the NFC East, it'll only be because the Giants allowed that to happen.

"It reminds us what we're capable of, and that's all that matters," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "Yeah, we slipped a little bit, but we're refocused now, and hopefully we're done with the roller coaster and we can just excel."

They're the only team in the NFC East capable of doing that at this complete a level, and Sunday brought that reality back home for anyone who'd been wondering.

 

Rapid Reaction: Giants 38, Packers 10

November, 25, 2012
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' overwhelming 38-10 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night at MetLife Stadium.

What it means: The Giants' lead in the NFC East remains at two games over both the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, which is obviously the most important thing. But if you believe in "statement" games, you have to admit the Giants made a statement with this victory. The Packers came in winners of five games in a row, re-establishing themselves as one of the NFC's best teams. The Giants had lost two straight prior to their Week 11 bye and had spent the past two weeks answering questions about their annual "November swoon" and the idea that the Redskins and Cowboys were closing in on them. A victory this convincing pushes a lot of those questions into the background for at least a week.

Making history: Former Giants quarterback Phil Simms may not consider Eli Manning one of the "elite" quarterbacks in the NFL, but Manning took something from Simms in this game. His third-quarter touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks was the 200th of his career, moving him past Simms and into first place on the all-time Giants touchdown pass list. Manning had not thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7, but he broke that drought with first-half strikes to Rueben Randle and Victor Cruz as the Giants built a 31-10 halftime lead. Interesting that Manning targeted Nicks more in this game than he targeted Cruz. Could indicate that Nicks' health has improved to the point where he'll be a larger part of the offense going forward.

Discount double-check: Pressuring Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was one of the keys to the Giants' playoff victory in Green Bay in January, and the Giants were able to do it again Sunday. They sacked Rodgers three times in the first half and five times in the game, and other than the first-quarter touchdown bomb to Jordy Nelson that tied the score at 7-7, Rodgers couldn't find time to find his receivers down the field. It was one of the most impressive performances of the year from the Giants' defensive front, which has struggled to get consistent pressure on opposing passers for much of the season. Osi Umenyiora had a sack and forced fumble that led to a touchdown late in the first half, Mathias Kiwanuka had two sacks and middle linebacker Chase Blackburn picked up a sack of his own and was a key part of the pressure packages.

Flip side: New York's offensive line had a big game too, opening holes for Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown in the run game more reliably than they had at any point this season. The backs found particular success on the left side of the line, where Will Beatty has been playing very well at tackle and Kevin Boothe appeared to have a very good game at guard.

New kid: Randle's touchdown catch was the first of his career, and while he struggled with a couple of muffs on punt returns in the second half, he does appear to be getting more and more looks on offense as the season goes along. The Giants' second-round pick this year out of LSU, Randle can play on the outside and allow Cruz to work in the slot, where he is at his best.

But he just got back: Safety Kenny Phillips was active for the first time since Week 4, and his impact was obvious on both the run defense and the pass defense. But he left the game in the third quarter with an injury to the same right knee that had kept him out of the previous six games. If Phillips has to miss significant time again, the Giants' defense would surely suffer for his absence. ... Andre Brown also left the game in the fourth quarter with what the team described only as a "lower leg injury."

What's next: The Giants will travel to Landover, Md. next week to play the Washington Redskins on "Monday Night Football." The Redskins are 5-6, two games behind the Giants in the NFC East with five games to play. They lost a heartbreaker to the Giants at MetLife Stadium in Week 7 when Manning hit Cruz for a 77-yard touchdown pass in the final two minutes.

Breakfast links: A day about football

November, 22, 2012
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Actually, this is pretty much my favorite day of the year, and for reasons that have nothing to do with football. I've got a pretty excellent life, and an incredible family, and ever since I was a kid I always enjoyed the idea of a day set aside to appreciate those things. Now that I have a wife and two boys of my own, it's even more special. I hope each and every one of you gets to take a moment today to smile about whatever it is you love about your life, and to give thanks for it. I can promise you that's how I'll be spending my day. Well, that and cooking. And watching football.

Scaled-down links today. You'll all have more than enough to fill you up later on.

New York Giants

The Green Bay Packer who has the Giants worried as they prepare for Sunday night's game is not superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers, or wide receivers Greg Jennings (he's hurt anyway) and Jordy Nelson, or even linebacker Clay Matthews. It's Randall Cobb, who's emerged as the Packers' do-it-all menace this year, that the Giants believe they need to stop.

Dallas Cowboys

Dez Bryant hasn't wanted to talk about his complicated off-field life this season, but that all changed Wednesday, when for some reason he decided to open up to reporters about his relationship with his mother, his kids and everything that goes on when he's away from the field. Jeez, I mean, if Bryant's in a good place off the field as well as on it, the Cowboys have to be flat-out fired up about what he can do, no?

Washington Redskins

In his first game after missing five straight with a foot injury, Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon was a bit of a non-factor Sunday against the Eagles. And it's reasonable to think the main reason the Redskins have him out there is to make opposing defenses think a little, maybe to draw some attention away from the receivers whose feet don't hurt. But offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan thinks Garcon is capable of contributing more to the offense than he did Sunday, so we'll see. Both Garcon and linebacker London Fletcher, who's got a 234-game consecutive-games streak on the line, are listed as questionable for today's game against the Cowboys in Dallas.

Philadelphia Eagles

Quarterback Michael Vick and running back LeSean McCoy are still dealing with concussion problems, and it looks as though Nick Foles is likely to make his second start at quarterback and Bryce Brown his first at running back for the Eagles on Monday night against Carolina. Nothing certain yet -- remember, the Eagles have an extra day to make these decisions. But that's the way things appear as of now.

Victor Cruz is everywhere

July, 26, 2012
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All right, well, maybe not everywhere, but I found New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz popping up in several place on ESPN.com on Wednesday night. First, he's featured in the fantasy guys' latest installment of "decision makers," which poses the question of whether he and the Packers' Jordy Nelson are 2012 candidates to crash back to earth. The answer is a resounding "no," and the reasons are many:
Cruz
When assessing whether or not a receiver can repeat surprising numbers, the factors most important to consider are age, health, quarterback, fellow WR teammates and offensive system from one year to the next. Both of these players get a high score in all of these categories.

Yepper. The main reason people are worried about Cruz's fantasy numbers dropping off is that they may have been inflated by five touchdown catches longer than 65 yards. But (a) the Giants aren't going to stop throwing deep, (b) Cruz is a monster after the catch and (c) the league I play in awards big bonus points for long touchdowns. Ka-ching. There are plenty of fantasy wide receivers about whom you can say worse things than, "He catches too many really long touchdown passes."

Cruz is also featured in ESPN The Magazine's fantasy issue (whose cover is, as you would expect, a photo of Arian Foster and with a unicorn). This feature looks at the cool, composed, down-to-earth phenomenon of Cruz, who has become a big star but is taking it all in stride. I enjoyed reading it, and if you're wondering whether stardom might go to this young man's head, it's worth a read to help convince you it probably will not.

Final Word: NFC East

December, 2, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 13:

Stoppable force, movable object: The Jets have gone three games in a row without intercepting a pass, but they should get their chance Sunday against the Washington Redskins. Washington quarterback Rex Grossman has thrown at least one interception in seven consecutive games, and according to ESPN Stats & Information, "his 14 interceptions on 270 attempts is the highest percentage by a qualifying QB this season." The percentage is 5.2. Deposed Denver quarterback Kyle Orton, now with the Chiefs, is second at 4.5. Philip Rivers of San Diego is third at 4.1. Rex is in a class by himself here.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireIt was another November to smile about for Tony Romo and Dallas.
Streaking Cows: The Dallas Cowboys have won four games in a row. Should they beat Arizona on Sunday, it would be their first five-game winning streak since 2007, when they had two separate streaks of at least that length -- a five-gamer to start the season and a seven-game winning streak from Weeks 7-14. The four-game November win streak is no surprise, since the Cowboys are 19-2 in Novembers with Tony Romo as their quarterback. He is, as you've no doubt heard, a more pedestrian 8-10 in December. His most recent December was a good one, as he led the Cowboys to a division title and a victory against then-undefeated New Orleans in that season's stretch run. Romo was injured last December and did not play.

Going deep in Big D: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Romo has six touchdown passes in the past four weeks on throws at least 15 yards long. That's the highest total in the league during that stretch. The Arizona defense Romo will face Sunday has allowed the second-most touchdown passes of that length this season (7) and the sixth-highest completion percentage on throws of 15 or more yards this season (47.6 percent).

Hookups: The game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers will feature two of the best quarterback/receiver combinations on deep passes in the league. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is 8-for-11 this year when targeting receiver Jordy Nelson 21 or more yards down the field, according to Stats & Info. That's the highest percentage (72.7) in the league for a quarterback/receiver combo with at least 10 such attempts. The Giants' Eli Manning and Victor Cruz rank third on the same list, as Manning is 9-for-14 (64.3 percent) with four touchdowns when targeting Cruz at least 21 yards downfield.

Bizarre historical domination note: The Redskins are 8-1 all-time against the Jets. Sunday will be the 10th time these teams have faced each other in 40 years. (By contrast, the Colts and Patriots meet Sunday for the ninth year in a row.) The last time these teams played each other was Nov. 4 2007, when Shaun Suisham's fifth field goal of the game gave Washington a 23-20 victory in overtime. Clinton Portis rushed for 196 yards for Washington in that game. Kellen Clemens was the Jets' starting quarterback. Washington has beaten the Jets four times in a row. The only Jets victory in the head-to-head series was a 3-0 victory on Dec. 11, 1993. In what had to be one of the worst games in NFL history, Cary Blanchard kicked a first-quarter field goal and no one scored the rest of the way. Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason and Redskins quarterbacks Rich Gannon and Mark Rypien combined for 184 passing yards. Ideally, Sunday's game will be better.

Green Bay Packers silence Troy Polamalu

February, 7, 2011
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Troy PolamaluRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesTroy Polamalu didn't record a tackle until the beginning of the fourth quarter.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers spent the past two weeks trying to figure out how to neutralize the 2010 defensive player of the year. They accomplished that task by pretty much turning Steelers safety Troy Polamalu into a non-factor.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers vowed to know where Polamalu was on every play. And his ability to whistle passes through tight windows actually made Polamalu look slow for much of the evening. The man who had seven interceptions this season tried to force the issue and started guessing in a frantic effort to make plays. It may have been one of the worst games of his career, and it couldn't have happened on a bigger stage in a 31-25 loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

Reporters offered the soft-spoken Polamalu a lifeline by bringing up the Achilles tendon injury that's plagued him throughout the season. He headed that off quickly, saying he simply ran into a quarterback who's on fire.

"It was the healthiest I've been," Polamalu said, "the best I've felt probably since the middle of the season."

Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings caught both of his touchdowns against Polamalu. Jennings said that on the first score the Steelers were in a Cover 2 scheme and Polamalu was forced to choose between covering two receivers running similar routes.

"He chose wrong," said Jennings, whose 21-yard touchdown gave the Packers a 21-3 lead in the second quarter.

The Packers didn't show much interest in the running game (11 attempts), in part because they didn't want Polamalu near the line of scrimmage. Because Green Bay constantly spread the field with four wide receivers, Polamalu rarely played close to the line.

"We wanted to keep him out in space," said Jennings. "If you can contain him in some ways and keep him on a guy that he's uncomfortable with, you have a lot better chance."

Polamalu was even more pensive than usual following the game. He took blame for both touchdown passes to Jennings and indicated that he put his cornerbacks in bad situations by trying to get too "creative." Rodgers connected with Jordy Nelson for a 38-yard pass early in the fourth quarter that set up the Packers to take a 28-17 lead. Polamalu also took the blame for the pass to Nelson and the subsequent 8-yard touchdown pass to Jennings.

He guessed that Jennings was going to run a post because he'd seen him do it so many times on film, but the wide receiver ran a corner route and scored easily.

"That was completely my fault," said Polamalu. "Earlier in the game, they ran Jennings down the middle and I was anticipating that same pass play and I guessed wrong."

Polamalu's given the freedom to freelance in this defense because he's such an instinctive player, but perhaps a more conventional approach would have served him better against Rodgers. The Packers made him uncomfortable throughout the game. Polamalu has told reporters in the past that he constantly fears getting beat despite his brilliant play. But on Sunday night, his fears were realized against a quarterback who can pretty much do anything he wants right now.

This isn't the first time this season the Steelers' secondary has looked vulnerable, but Polamalu often made up for its errors. In this game, he was the one making a lot of the mistakes. The Packers took the Steelers' most unique player and made him a liability.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked repeatedly about Polamalu's performance after the game. When someone asked whether he thought Polamalu made an impact in the game, Tomlin replied, "I'll let you be the judge."

It was one of those rare evenings when having one of the most versatile defensive players in the game didn't help the Steelers. Now, they have a lot of time to think about what went wrong. I guess Polamalu can be flattered the Packers were so worried about him.

But that won't bring much solace on this evening.

Antrel Rolle's complaining again

January, 18, 2011
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New York Giants Pro Bowl safety Antrel Rolle waited until Week 2 of his first season with the club to go off on his head coach and teammates. You may recall the former Cardinals player complaining that Giants coach Tom Coughlin dropped the team off at the stadium too early in Indianapolis and he questioned the team's leadership skills.

Things eventually calmed down and Rolle seemed to enjoy himself with his new team. He made some ridiculous comments about fans booing the Giants, but for the most part, he became well-liked by his new teammates. But as ESPNNewYork.com's Ohm Youngmisuk points out, Rolle was up to his old tricks while appearing on a radio show in Miami. He thinks Coughlin could stand to loosen up a bit more. You know, like the head coach who shares a home field with the Giants.

[+] EnlargeJordy Nelson and Antrel Rolle
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsJordy Nelson and the Packers' receivers burned New York's secondary for 396 passing yards in Week 16.
"As a person I don't have any problem with Coach Coughlin," Rolle said. "We have a great relationship. When you're talking about the coaching side of things, do I feel like things are a little too uptight? Yeah, I do. I feel like if he just loosened up just a little bit, still run the ship the way you want to run it, still run the program the way you want to run it but let us have a little fun ... because at the end of the day that's what it's all about."

"And people like to talk about Rex Ryan and this that and the other. That team is going to war for him," Rolle added.

Someone needs to plant a bug in Rolle's ear that he's made enough war references for one season. And maybe they could also remind him that it seems like poor form to pine away for the coach of their neighborhood rival. To make matters worse, Giants safety Kenny Phillips followed Rolle's lead and started praising Ryan. (What's said in Miami doesn't stay in Miami.)

"I would love to play for a guy like Rex," Phillips said. "He goes to bat for his players. He'll take the blame, he allows you to be you. He's not asking you to hide. If you're a guy that likes to talk, go out and talk, long as you back it up. Like [Antrel] said, his guys are playing for him and I'd love to be a part of that."

From what I can tell, Rolle and Phillips continued to embarrass themselves throughout the interview. Perhaps the safeties could have a little more "fun" if they weren't allowing Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson to shred them for big gains during a blowout loss to the Packers.

One of the Giants' biggest issues down the stretch was the back end of the defense. And when general manager Jerry Reese is trying to decide how to address those issues this offseason, something tells me he'll remember those comments from Rolle and Phillips.

Sometimes it's OK to lay low when you've collapsed at the end of the season and blown an opportunity to make the playoffs. Rolle and Phillips apparently missed the memo.



Kenny Phillips talks about his comments regarding Tom Coughlin and Rex Ryan.

Giant turnovers rule the day in loss

December, 26, 2010
12/26/10
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Just to be clear, I'm not sure the New York Giants had a chance to beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday even if they'd eliminated those six turnovers. But by constantly giving the ball away -- through the air and on the ground -- the Giants found themselves on the wrong end of a blowout in a 45-17 loss.

[+] EnlargeNew York Giants quarterback Eli Manning
AP Photo/Jim PrischingNew York Giants quarterback Eli Manning had four interceptions Sunday against the Packers, and leads the league with 24 on the season.
The Giants managed to overcome two early mistakes and tie the game at 14. But a fumble by Ahmad Bradshaw early in the third quarter ruled out any real hope of a comeback. I suppose the game was still in doubt when Brandon Jacobs contributed a fumble of his own later in the quarter, but Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was probably playing too brilliantly to allow the Giants back in the game.

New Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has looked like a savant at times this season, but over the past four and a half quarters, he's taken a major step back. The Giants' defense was torched by Rodgers for more than 404 yards and four touchdowns. Giants safety Antrel Rolle got caught napping on an 80-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson in the first quarter. Rodgers killed the Giants with the play-action game despite the fact the Packers weren't running the ball with much success.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning wasn't on the same page with his receivers for much of the game and he ended up with four interceptions. He now has 24 on the season to go along with his 30 touchdowns. After a couple of the interceptions, Manning could be seen trying to explain to receivers where they'd gone wrong. But honestly, the whole offense was a mess.

The Giants have had a lot of success in the second half of the season running the ball with Jacobs and Bradshaw, but those backs combined for only 78 yards against the Packers. And on Jacobs' longest carry of the game, he ended up being stripped from behind.

Now, coach Tom Coughlin's job security will be up for debate again. Giants co-owner John Mara has dismissed reports Coughlin's job could be in jeopardy, but he hasn't come out and guaranteed the man a job next season. Coughlin's signed through 2011, and I still think he'll be back one more season even if the Giants miss the playoffs.

But for now, Coughlin is embarrassed by the way his team is playing on both sides of the ball. In 2008, the Giants had a record-low 13 turnovers. They have 41 heading into the final week of the season.

"It's a very, very bad part of our team that we've demonstrated over and over this year," said Coughlin of the turnovers. "We thought we had it under control. Obviously, we didn't have it under control tonight."

But sometimes you have to tip your cap to an opposing player who takes his game to an otherwordly level. Rodgers, who sat out last week's game with a concussion, was unstoppable in Sunday's game. He made Fewell's defense look slow for much of the evening. And even though defensive end Justin Tuck applied plenty of pressure, Rodgers simply stepped up in the pocket and fired strikes. Outside of what Michael Vick did to the Redskins earlier this season, I don't think I've seen a quarterback play a better all-around game.

The Giants still have a shot at the playoffs, but now they need these same Packers to lose next Sunday to the Bears. After watching Rodgers and his receivers, I don't like the Giants' odds.

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