NFL Nation: 2013 Week 15 Upon Further Review NFC

Upon Further Review: Lions Week 15

December, 17, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Detroit Lions' 18-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens:

[+] EnlargeMatt Stafford
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsDetroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has been a fixture in the film room during the offseason.
Job security: There isn't much of that for Detroit coach Jim Schwartz or his coaching staff Tuesday morning. While there is still a chance for the Lions to make the playoffs, they have to win out and then hope for some help from either Chicago or Green Bay. Considering where Detroit has been throughout the season -- the healthiest team in the NFC North, in control of its own fate for most of the year, having lost four of its past five games -- there are a lot of questions around this coaching staff now.

No offensive improvement: Other than a blip of progress against Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day, the Lions' offense has struggled throughout most of the season's second half. The Lions continue to turn the ball over at a high rate, with three more turnovers Monday night, the fifth straight game the Lions have had at least three and have also been on the losing end in turnover differential. It has been many of the same problems this season for Detroit. The Lions continue to drop passes -- now at 44 on the season, 12 more than any other team in the league. They continue to turn the ball over at a high rate, and the 31 turnovers this year are second worst in the NFL, only ahead of the Giants.

Defense hung in: Much of Monday night's loss can be attributed to Detroit's offense. Detroit's defense did what it was supposed to do. Baltimore did not score a touchdown and had to make a 61-yard field goal to give the Ravens the lead with less than a minute remaining. It is the second time in three games that the Lions' defense has held an opponent without a touchdown. Even with depleted depth at cornerback, the Lions held Joe Flacco to a 52.6 completion percentage and fewer than 250 yards passing while also allowing fewer than 100 yards rushing for the seventh time in the last eight games.

Stafford's rough day: Some of this ties into the lack of offensive improvement -- and frankly, some questionable play calls throughout the game -- but Matthew Stafford was inefficient once again Monday night. He completed 52.9 percent of his passes, the fifth time in six games after the bye week he has completed less than 60 percent of his throws. He tossed three interceptions, the sixth time in seven games he has thrown at least one pick and the third time in four games he has thrown multiple interceptions. His receivers again didn't help him out, dropping three passes. Two of those three interceptions came in the fourth quarter, where he has noticeably struggled in the second half of the season. After having a passer rating over 100 in the fourth quarter of all but one game the first half of the season, Stafford has reached that mark just once in the second half of the year -- and that was in a rout on Thanksgiving, the only time in the season's second half in which Detroit had a high-efficiency performance on offense.

Upon Further Review: Panthers Week 15

December, 16, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- An examination of five hot issues from the Carolina Panthers' 30-20 victory over the New York Jets:

Playoff picture: The Panthers (10-4) are back in control of their own destiny in the NFC South. Beat New Orleans (10-4) on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium and beat Atlanta on the road, and they are division champions with a first-round bye in the playoffs. As for the wild card, the Panthers, Saints and San Francisco 49ers all are 10-4. Arizona is a game back at 9-5. Should by some chance Carolina, San Francisco and Arizona finish tied, the Panthers hold the tiebreaker edge. If Carolina finishes tied with the 49ers, it still holds the edge based on a 10-9 win earlier this season. Carolina can clinch a playoff spot this weekend with a win or a combination of losses for Arizona, San Francisco and Detroit, or losses for Arizona, San Francisco and Chicago.

Stubbed toe: Quarterback Cam Newton went into the locker room with one play left in the first half to have a toe injury looked at. Newton stubbed the toe on a late third-down scramble when he was tackled hard by Muhammad Wilkerson. It wasn't serious, and the Panthers never took X-rays. Newton played the entire second half without any worries. "It'll be all right," he said. "It was a shocker at first. As the game progressed it loosened up.''

Crash landing: Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn isn't one to rub something in somebody's face. He leaves that to safety Mike Mitchell for the most part. But after Jets receiver Santonio Holmes made it personal by saying the secondary was the weakness of Carolina's second-ranked defense, Munnerlyn couldn't resist imitating Holmes' airplane move in the end zone by holding both arms out like he was flying. Then he added his own wrinkle, falling to the ground like a crashed jet. It drew him a 15-yard penalty and likely a fine from the league this week, but he doesn't care. "I've never been called out like that before,'' Munnerlyn said. "I have never been a part of nothing like that. If you think that, I've never heard anybody say it. And he went out publicly and said it."

Riverboat Ron: I still don't believe coach Ron Rivera should have gone for it on fourth-and-3 midway through the fourth quarter with a 16-6 lead. A 19-6 lead might have broken the Jets' back. Instead, they answered with a touchdown to make it 16-13 and put a scare into the home crowd. But you have to commend Rivera for his continued aggressive nature and having confidence in his defense to stop the Jets. It's a big reason they are where they are today.

Blocked kick: The Panthers hadn't blocked a punt all season until Jason Williams blocked Ryan Quigley's kick early in the fourth quarter with Carolina leading 16-13. That led to a touchdown that made it 23-13 and all but ended this one. Carolina saw something the Jets were doing in punt coverage on tape earlier in the week. Williams came to the sideline before the block and told the special-teams staff he thought he could get around the snapper to the kicker. He went in untouched. "It was probably the easiest block I'll ever have," Williams said.

Upon Further Review: Seahawks Week 15

December, 16, 2013
A review of four hot issues from the Seattle Seahawks' 23-0 victory over the New York Giants:

Baldwin fueled by critical article: A USA Today story last week said the Seahawks receiving corps, without Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice, could be the team's downfall in the playoffs. Receiver Doug Baldwin took offense to that story, going into a four-letter-word tirade in the locker room after his big day. Baldwin had six receptions and a 12-yard TD Sunday. "People continue to think we're just average," Baldwin said. "Well, they need to do some research. We have one of the most diverse receiving corps in the NFL." Seattle has four receivers with at least four TD receptions, and Baldwin has five.

[+] EnlargeSeattle's Doug Baldwin
Photo by Elsa/Getty ImagesDoug Baldwin had six catches for 71 yards and a touchdown against the Giants.
All about the D: This was the first shutout for the Seattle defense since the 58-0 victory over at home against Arizona on Dec. 9, 2012. It was the first shutout on the road in more than eight years. The last one was 42-0 victory at Philadelphia on Dec. 5, 2005, during Seattle's only Super Bowl season. Giants' quarterback Eli Manning had a career-worst five interceptions. Four of those interception came on 10 passes thrown more than 10 yards downfield.

Depth galore: The Seahawks started the game without three defensive starters -- cornerback Brandon Browner, weak-side linebacker K.J. Wright and defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, who was sick Sunday and played only a few plays. That doesn't include Browner's backup, Walter Thurmond, who was serving the third game of a four-game suspension for a substance-abuse violation. Thurmond may not be the starter when he returns considering how well Byron Maxwell is playing with three interceptions in the last two games, including two Sunday. Reserve cornerback Jeremy Lane had five tackles on defense, and two other on special teams. Linebacker Malcolm Smith had five tackles, including one for a loss, as Wright's replacement.

Very special teams: The third phase of this team continues to shine. Kicker Steven Hauschka was 3-for-3 in field goals Sunday making him 30-of-31 this season. His only miss was blocked at Indianapolis. Punter Jon Ryan doesn't have a lot of long punts, but that doesn't matter. Only one of his seven punts Sunday was returned, and that was only 4 yards. He had three punts inside the 20. Punt returner Golden Tate tied the team record Sunday with seven returns, but the remarkable part of that number is he averaged 10.4 yards per return. Tate will make you gasp at times back there, and also make a bad decision every now and then, like his fair catch at the 7 in the first half. But he's a threat to break one every time he catches the ball, and his returns are a big factor in Seattle winning the field-position battle in most games.

Upon Further Review: Giants Week 15

December, 16, 2013
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A review of four hot issues from the New York Giants' 23-0 loss to the Seattle Seahawks:

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin
AP Photo/Bill KostrounTom Coughlin and the Giants are showing signs of frustration as they trudge down the stretch of a disappointing season.
Locker room strife? The Giants have held together admirably all miserable season long, in spite of an 0-6 start and a generally dismal performance by their offense even during their four-game win streak. But after Sunday's game, coach Tom Coughlin laid the blame deservedly at the feet of the offense, and safety Antrel Rolle strongly indicated that he agreed. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks bristled at Coughlin's use of the word "pathetic," and tight end Brandon Myers tweeted, "If ppl on this team wanna take shots at me an say I have no passion they are mistaken. I give everything I have each an every week." The Giants aren't going anywhere this season. They can't even finish .500 at this point. But the leaders and the coaches could conceivably face a challenge in keeping the locker room together to maintain some semblance of respectability in the final two weeks.

Nicks' woes continue: It was easy to infer that Nicks was one of the players Coughlin suggested had to "fight harder for the ball," as Eli Manning was 1-for-4 for five yards and three interceptions when targeting Nicks on Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Manning is completing 56.8 percent of his attempts to Nicks this season with no touchdowns and six interceptions. The Giants entered this season hoping Nicks would have a big year and give them a difficult decision about how much to pay to sign him as a free agent. Instead, he has had a horrible one, and does not appear likely to be back. Amazing that he has fallen so far out of favor after being such a respected figure in their huddle and their locker room for his first four years.

Manning's miserable year: Manning has matched his career high for interceptions in a season with 25. He threw 25 in 2010, but he still has two games to go in this season. He was sacked three times in Sunday's game, extending his career high in that category to 36 for the season with two games to go. He was 2-for-10 with four interceptions on throws of 10 or more yards downfield Sunday. If Victor Cruz is out next week in Detroit, which is possible after he left the game with a concussion and a knee sprain, it's hard to imagine how the Giants' passing game has a chance to do anything. And a run game that gained 25 yards on 14 carries Sunday didn't inspire much confidence that it can alleviate any of the pressure.

One positive: The Giants did a good job limiting monster Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch between the tackles. He gained only 47 yards on 16 carries, though he did catch six passes for 73 yards. That looks like the kind of line top running backs were posting against the Giants back in September, which means the season has come full circle. Which is not, for the Giants, awesome.

Upon Further Review: Vikings Week 15

December, 16, 2013
MINNEAPOLIS -- A review of four hot issues following the Minnesota Vikings' 48-30 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday:

Cassel starts again: Coach Leslie Frazier said after Sunday's game there are "no questions" about the Vikings' starting quarterback for next Sunday's game against the Cincinnati Bengals after Matt Cassel threw for 382 yards and two touchdowns and ran for another one. That means, at most, Josh Freeman will get one more chance to play this season, and at this point it seems highly unlikely that will happen. What's probably more interesting now is what happens between the two quarterbacks the Vikings have under contract for next season -- Cassel and Christian Ponder. Cassel can opt out of his deal after this season, but if the Vikings draft another quarterback next spring, they might be well-served by keeping Cassel and letting him start the season until -- or unless -- the rookie is ready.

Wright emerges: Second-year receiver Jarius Wright, who had been a forgotten man after a solid second half in 2012, had his biggest game of the season on Sunday, catching four passes for 95 yards. Wright began the season as the Vikings' third receiver before becoming their fourth option in recent weeks as Cordarrelle Patterson's role in the offense grew. But Wright hauled in a 42-yard pass from Cassel on Sunday, and looked like the kind of downfield slot threat he was at times last season.

Patterson shut out on kickoffs: The Eagles went into Sunday's game clearly wanting to avoid Patterson on kickoffs, but the Vikings might take the alternative; Philadelphia's short kicks helped Minnesota start four drives at its own 30 or better after kickoffs, and though the Vikings didn't get a chance to let Patterson break a big return, they got more consistent field position than even the rookie returning dynamo likely would've been able to provide. Frazier said the Vikings could toy with the idea of putting Patterson on punt returns next week, simply as another way to get the ball in his hands.

Thin secondary survives: The Vikings were missing their top three corners -- Chris Cook, Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson -- on Sunday, but they held up reasonably well against an Eagles offense most expected to burn Minnesota's thin secondary. Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles threw for 428 yards, but had only 144 at halftime and got many of his second-half yards after the Vikings had built a big lead. Cornerback Shaun Prater had the first interception of his career, and safety Harrison Smith returned from a two-month layoff to post eight tackles in his first game back from turf toe. Cook, meanwhile, missed Sunday's game after a knee injury cropped up late in the week. His frequent injuries could prevent him from landing a big contract when he hits the open market next March. And while Prater got his first pick on Sunday, Cook is still waiting for his, four years into his career.

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 15

December, 16, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams' 27-16 victory against the New Orleans Saints:

Quinn again: Rams defensive end Robert Quinn had already established himself as the team’s best defensive player in 2013, and with each passing week he’s making a better case that he’s the league’s best.

Quinn forced Saints coach Sean Payton to toss out the game plan early and continued to punish any blocker put in front of him throughout the Rams' victory. Quinn had five tackles, two sacks, a tackle for loss, two quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

For the season, Quinn leads the NFC in sacks with 15 and the NFL in forced fumbles with eight. This is the definition of a breakout season for one of the game’s emerging stars.

Stacy steps up: It’s no secret that the Rams’ success in 2013 has been directly tied to their ability to run the ball successfully. Rookie Zac Stacy has been the key to that success, and after a couple of down weeks, he rebounded nicely against the Saints.

Stacy rushed for a combined 97 yards in losses to San Francisco and Arizona the past two weeks. He had 106 in the first half against the Saints and finished with 133 yards on 28 carries with a 40-yard touchdown run.

Since becoming the starter in Week 5, Stacy has averaged 88.6 yards in the team’s five wins.

On target: Toughness and leadership are qualities Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens has regularly displayed since becoming the starter in Week 7. Accuracy is not.

So when Clemens started Sunday’s game by completing 10 of his first 13 passes, it seemed like just a matter of time before the ball started hitting the turf consistently. It never happened.

Clemens completed 14 of 20 for the game, a 70 percent completion rate which is the highest of his career to date. The Rams grabbed an early lead behind Stacy’s running, leaving Clemens with little to do, but he made the most of his opportunities, posting a 95.7 QBR.

Turnover time: It’s been said and written time and again that no single statistic is more indicative of a team’s performance than the turnover differential. That certainly holds true for the Rams.

St. Louis created three takeaways (two interceptions, one fumble recovery) and coughed up none on offense to finish plus-three against the Saints. That they won given that turnover output should come as no surprise. The Rams are plus-three or better in five of their six wins this season and have not lost when they’ve been on the positive side of the takeaway battle.

Upon Further Review: Cowboys Week 15

December, 16, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas -- A review of four hot issues from the Dallas Cowboys' 37-36 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

[+] EnlargeBoyd_Murray
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesDeMarco Murray and the Cowboys are focusing on winning out and attempting to make the playoffs.
Recuperative powers: If the Cowboys win their final two games, they will make the playoffs. If there is a message Jason Garrett is looking to sell as the team looks to rebound, that's it. The Cowboys' final two games are against the Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles, teams they outscored 48-19 in meetings earlier this season. It's not the message a lot of fans want to hear, but it is what matters most as the Cowboys look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

"I feel good that we have a chance to beat the Redskins, and if we do that, we'll get a chance to play Philadelphia with an opportunity to get in the playoffs," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "I know when I see us lose a game after having a lead like we had at halftime, anything can happen one way or the other."

Pathetic work: On a day in which the offense gained 466 yards and 27 first downs, you would think everything worked well. It didn't. The third-down offense continued its season-long struggles as the Cowboys converting on just 2 of 9 chances. It was the third time this season the Cowboys converted on less than 30 percent of their third-down tries in a game. They are 56-of-159 on the season. Tony Romo said he has to be better on third downs, the receivers have to win in man-to-man situations and the blocking has to be better.

"We haven't done that well," Romo said of the third-down woes. "We have to do a better job."

No chance on D: At one point, the Cowboys fielded a defense that had three players who were not with the team when training camp started (George Selvie, Everette Brown, Corvey Irvin), two undrafted free agents (Jeff Heath, Cameron Lawrence), a sixth-round pick (DeVonte Holloman) and a cornerback (Sterling Moore) who was out of football until Nov. 25. Matt Flynn became the fifth quarterback to throw four touchdown passes against Monte Kiffin's defense, joining Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Josh McCown. Flynn and McCown are backup quarterbacks, and the Cowboys will see another backup next week at Washington with Kirk Cousins quarterbacking the Redskins.

Still producing: Jason Witten caught 110 passes last year, an NFL record for tight ends in a season, but he had only three touchdowns. He has 59 catches this year and eight touchdowns. Witten needs one TD in the final two games to equal his career high. His eight from Romo this season are the most the duo has combined for in a season together. With 59 catches for 703 yards, Witten is averaging 11.9 yards per reception, which equals his career best so far. He might not have the starry numbers of the past, but at 31, Witten is not slowing down yet, either.

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 15

December, 16, 2013
ATLANTA -- A review of five key issues from the Atlanta Falcons' 27-26 win over the Washington Redskins on Sunday at the Georgia Dome:

For starters: Osi Umenyiora, who started all 13 games leading into Sunday, suddenly came off the bench against the Redskins as the Falcons started second-year defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi at Umenyiora's usual right defensive end spot. On first look, it appeared to be another veteran being benched as part of the team's youth movement. But coach Mike Smith quickly dismissed such a notion. "We wanted to work Osi in our sub package, and the way that they presented the formations early in the ballgame, he was not out there," Smith explained. "But Osi, we wanted to put him on a pitch count and get him ramped up rushing the passer. And I think it paid dividends. He did a very good job rushing the passer for us in basically a [designated pass-rusher] role." Umenyiora had the team's only sack and forced a fumble. It will be interesting to see how he is utilized over the final two games.

On the line: Starting undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder at right tackle wasn't the only change made along the offensive line. The Falcons also inserted Harland Gunn at right guard on occasion for starter Peter Konz as Gunn was active for the first time this season. Gunn made at least one key block to spring Steven Jackson's 11-yard run. "It was pretty exciting, man," Gunn said. "I hadn't been out on the field for a while. It was good being out there with my teammates. They pulled me along throughout the game. It just felt good contributing to a win." As for Schraeder, he allowed Ryan Kerrigan to sack Matt Ryan in the second quarter, leading to a Ryan fumble and Falcons turnover. Schraeder quickly settled down. "Obviously, I had one play I wish I could take back,'' he said. "[Kerrigan] just made a good play on me. It just ended up bad. And then, I had a false start. But other than that, I felt like I played really well."

Action Jackson: The final numbers showed Jackson running for just 38 yards on 15 carries, with an average of 2.5 yards per carry. Yet two of Jackson's carries went for touchdowns, which is the kind of production the Falcons need from the bruising, veteran running back. Jackson gave the offense great balance on the Falcons' opening 14-play, 83-yard drive that ended with his 3-yard touchdown burst on which he blasted Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson. "You know, you're going to have someone that's going to be in the hole, and I was able to square him off and get underneath him and try to deliver a blow and set a tempo for the game," Jackson said. It's the kind of tough running the Falcons will need from Jackson moving forward. Now, they just have to get better blocking in front of him, as a failed fourth-and-goal showed.

Man down: Injuries have been a key factor in the Falcons' demise this season, and another one hit the team Sunday. Linebacker and defensive leader Sean Weatherspoon, who missed seven games earlier in the season with a Lisfranc foot sprain, suffered a knee injury and did not return to the game. Smith did not update Weatherspoon's status afterward. Weatherspoon was limited with a knee injury leading up to the Green Bay game, so the injury could have lingered or been aggravated. "Anytime Spoon is out there, he's on another level performing," fellow linebacker Paul Worrilow said of his teammate. "It sucks anytime anybody gets injured." At least Stephen Nicholas stepped into the lineup after Weatherspoon's injury and caused a fourth-quarter fumble, recovered by Jonathan Babineaux.

Always ready: Safety William Moore said last Friday he would have to step up big while playing alongside three rookies in the defensive backfield. Moore followed through with a key third-quarter interception -- which he nearly returned for a score -- to set up a Jackson touchdown right after the Redskins had a goal-line stand. Moore also came up with a fumble recovery after a forced fumble by Robert McClain. "William made some game-changing plays," Smith said. "He has over the last month, in terms of his ability to change the game." When you've surrendered as many explosive plays as the Falcons have, you need someone who is willing to step up and make a game-changing defensive play.

Upon Further Review: Cardinals Week 15

December, 16, 2013
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A review of four hot issues from the Arizona Cardinals' 37-34 win over the Tennessee Titans.

Javier Arenas must want the Cardinals to play in cold-weather cities more often. For the second time this season he had at least three kick returns.

On Sunday, he returned those kicks for 72 yards, his second-highest total of the season. At the rate he's been going, Arenas didn't expect to return more than one, maybe two kicks -- if he even had the opportunity to return any.

“It was the wind conditions,” Arenas said. “It's cold outside so he had a couple bad kicks. It shocked me as well.

“It felt pretty good. Great opportunity to get a lot of kicks and get a feel for it as opposed to once every two or three weeks.”

Leading the way: Followers of the Cardinals are used to Bobby Massie substituting in on offense as an eligible receiver. But when No. 66 was announced twice Sunday, a few eyebrows were raised.

Nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu entered the game as a fullback to lead the way for Rashard Mendenhall, and on both plays Mendenhall scored. It was the first time Ta'amu had lined up at fullback since high school, and it didn't take long to remember what to do: put your head down and go.

He hopes to get another opportunity to block for Mendenhall, but he hopes Mendenhall will actually use him. On both runs, Mendenhall didn't follow Ta'amu's lead.

Was the big man mad?

“I mean ...” Ta'amu hesitated, then laughed, “yeah.”

Game-winning machine: Sunday marked the 11th game-winning field goal of Jay Feely's career and his second this season. He hit from 41 yards with 10:22 left in overtime to clinch the win. Feely's last game winner was in Week 3 at Tampa Bay.

It was the fifth game winner of longer than 40 yards.

Road warriors: Cardinals coach Bruce Arians didn't care about stats or “anything else.” He just wanted to get a win on the road.

“It's hard to get a win on the road in the NFL, but we did,” Arians said.

Only three of the Cardinals' nine wins have come on the road, but if you asked Darnell Dockett where he'd go to play a game, he doesn't discriminate.

“I don't care if you go to the Middle East, South America, as long as you get a win, it doesn't matter,” he said.
TAMPA, Fla. -- A review of four hot issues from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 33-14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers:

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay's Bobby Rainey
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesThe 49ers held Bobby Rainey and the Bucs to just 39 net rushing yards.
The Schiano Watch. The Bucs had won four of their previous five heading into Sunday. That created some reason for optimism that coach Greg Schiano might return for a third season. But this loss was a big hit to Schiano's chances. The Bucs very possibly could go 4-12, and not many coaches survive 4-12 seasons.

The reverse that didn't work. Schiano and special-teams coordinator Dave Wannstedt left themselves open to criticism when they called for a reverse on a kickoff return in the fourth quarter. Eric Page and Russell Shepard botched the handoff, and the 49ers took the fumble in for a touchdown. After the game, Schiano said one of the players made a mistake by following the wrong option on the play. That happens. But maybe the reverse shouldn't have been called in the first place.

Not following the plan: The first thing Schiano prides his offensive system on is the running game. Well, that wasn't working at all Sunday. The Bucs managed just 39 net rushing yards.

Glennon's regression. There's no question rookie quarterback Mike Glennon has taken a step back in the past three games. That may have a lot to do with the fact that he's faced good defenses from Carolina, Buffalo and San Francisco. But Glennon fared well when allowed to run the two-minute offense against the 49ers. Makes you wonder why the Bucs don't go with the no-huddle system more often.

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 15

December, 16, 2013
CLEVELAND -- An examination of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears38-31 win over the Cleveland Browns:

Cutler’s rust: It would be unrealistic to believe that Jay Cutler could knock off all the rust from a month away from the game in just one outing. So you can expect to see the quarterback exhibit a little rust at times next week at Philadelphia. That’s normal.

“I had some throws that were high,” Cutler said of his two interceptions in the first half.

Cutler will be able to work out the kinks much faster over the next couple of weeks, but he’ll really help himself at practice by taking on tons of repetitions to improve his comfort level. Cutler knows that when the Bears face Philadelphia, he can’t put together a start like he did against Cleveland and think he’ll be able to bounce back easily.

The run defense looked better: But we’ve got to keep it in proper perspective because the Bears were facing a 28th-ranked Cleveland rushing attack that featured players such as Fozzy Whittaker, Edwin Baker and Chris Ogbonnaya. (Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of any of them.) What’s encouraging, however, is the Bears are definitely starting to build some chemistry along the front four, and that’s because the club is finally able to use the same lineup for multiple games. Defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff continues to grow with each game after missing more than a year of football, and middle linebacker Jon Bostic is starting to fly around and make plays. Let’s also remember that there’s a good chance Lance Briggs will return to the lineup to face the Eagles.

Corners shining: Tim Jennings essentially shut down Dez Bryant and Josh Gordon in back-to-back outings. Sure, both players caught touchdown passes. But neither had a huge impact on the game; Jennings limited them to a total of 79 yards on five receptions. That’s what we call balling. On the other side, Zack Bowman, filling in for an injured Charles Tillman, picked off two passes against the Browns and returned one for a touchdown.

Now the Bears need to get their safeties to play at a higher level.

Forte quietly destroying opponents: Matt Forte has rushed for 100 yards or more in three consecutive games, carrying the ball 20 times or more each time. Forte is averaging 5.2 yards per attempt over the past three games and needs just 38 yards over the next two contests to match his career high for rushing yards (1,238). Cutler has said that Forte is the glue that holds together the entire offense. That’s absolutely true.

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 15

December, 16, 2013
ST. LOUIS -- An examination of four hot issues from the New Orleans Saints27-16 loss to the St. Louis Rams on Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome.

Playoff scenarios: As bad as the Saints’ loss was at St. Louis, they can quickly make up for it with a win Sunday at Carolina. If the Saints (10-4) beat the Panthers (10-4), they would clinch the NFC’s No. 2 seed. But if the Saints lose, they’ll need a win and a Panthers loss in Week 17 to claim that No. 2 seed. And while we’re looking at worst-case scenarios, the Saints still haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet. They need to win one more game or hope for some losses by other teams.

Jobs in jeopardy: Two starters are on shaky ground after their performances Sunday. Left tackle Charles Brown was pulled during the third quarter after coach Sean Payton said he “saw enough” of Brown struggling against pass-rusher Robert Quinn. It will be interesting to see if Payton puts Brown back in the starting lineup against Carolina -- a team Brown played well against in Week 14.

Meanwhile, kicker Garrett Hartley’s job could also be in jeopardy after he missed two field goal attempts (one of which was blocked). Payton mentioned the field goals first when listing the areas that bothered him after the game Sunday. And the Saints brought in a handful of kickers for tryouts last month when Hartley was struggling. Could this have been the last straw?

Road woes: Payton and quarterback Drew Brees finally admitted that their road performances have become a serious problem. Previously, the Saints had bristled at questions about their road record. My take is that they were obviously aware of their road issues but always confident they could fix them. Sunday, I think they were genuinely shocked at how poorly they played and how flat they were in a lackluster atmosphere at St. Louis.

“No one in here is blind or ignorant that we have not played as well on the road,” offensive tackle Zach Strief said. “When you get interviewed in this league, you don’t send out panic. That doesn’t mean that when we’re together and our doors are closed that we’re not looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying, ‘What’s going on?’ ... The fact of the matter is that there’s no time for figuring anything out right now. It’s you figure it out now or you go home.”

What went wrong: I’ll break down the specifics in my film studies this week, but it was pretty obvious that there were four problem areas that doomed the Saints: 1. Turnovers (Brees’ first interception and his fumble were due to pressure from Quinn, but the second interception was a poor decision). 2. Pass protection. 3. Missed tackles (more than we’ve seen all year, especially early; safety Malcolm Jenkins, cornerback Corey White and linebacker Parys Haralson missed three bad ones on long touchdown plays). 4. Missed field goals.

Upon Further Review: 49ers Week 15

December, 16, 2013
TAMPA, Fla. -- A review of four hot issues from the San Francisco 49ers' 33-14 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

[+] EnlargeSan Francisco's Eric Reid
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaEric Reid displayed his IQ by not attempting to score on this interception.
Avoiding the trap: This was an impressive win because the 49ers continued to roll no matter the circumstance. San Francisco won its fourth in a row in a date that had all the makings of a letdown game. It came a week after the 49ers' biggest win of the season, a home win over Seattle. The team had to travel cross-country to play a losing team in a 10 a.m. PT start. Yet, the 49ers never trailed. It was a complete team win. San Francisco is now 10-4 and can clinch a playoff berth next week.

Crabtree makes amends: 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree almost ruined a crucial 17-play, 10-minute drive in which the 49ers extended their lead to 23-14 with four minutes to go Sunday. But he ended up saving it. Crabtree was penalized 15 yards for throwing a ball in frustration; it put the 49ers in a big hole, but three plays later, he kept the drive alive with a big first-down catch on third-and-12.

Smart rookie: San Francisco first-round pick Eric Reid has been impressive all season. What stood out to me about the LSU product from the beginning of the season was his polish. He looked like a five-year veteran in his first game. Sunday, he flashed his Football IQ once again. Late in the game, he had an interception deep in Tampa Bay territory. He had a free path to the end zone, but the game was in hand. The rookie simply dropped to the grass to get the 49ers' offense back on the field. He admitted giving up a sure touchdown wasn't easy, but it was for the best for the team. That's a special player.

Injury update: Crabtree had his hand examined after the game and fullback Bruce Miller said he had a stinger. Both players said after the game that they are fine. Miller will be examined Monday, but he said he doesn't believe his injury is overly serious.

Upon Further Review: Packers Week 15

December, 16, 2013
ARLINGTON, Texas – A review of four hot issues from the Green Bay Packers37-36 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at AT&T Stadium:

Sticking with the run: While the Cowboys were busy abandoning their running game in the second half, the Packers stuck with theirs. That couldn’t have been easy for coach Mike McCarthy to do facing a 23-point halftime deficit. Of course, it’s easier when your running back breaks the first play of the third quarter for a 60-yard gain. On the way to becoming the Packers’ first rookie running back to rush for 1,000 yards since 1971 (John Brockington), Eddie Lacy gained 110 of his 141 yards in the second half. “The kid’s a helluva player,” Packers center Evan Dietrich-Smith said. “Week in, week out the guy just goes out there and runs hard. He doesn’t back down from nobody, just goes out there and punishes defenses. When we’re getting clean blocking for him, you see what the kid can do.” The Cowboys, despite averaging 8.5 yards per carry in the first half, ran only seven times in the second half. The Packers ran on 46 percent of their second-half plays.

Quarless’ contribution: This is not a misprint, and you are not seeing double: Tight end Andrew Quarless had six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown on Sunday. That was his exact same line a week earlier against the Atlanta Falcons, and his late-season contributions have been much needed. Going into the Falcons game, Quarless had only 17 catches for 130 yards and no touchdowns in the first 12 games. He has become a security blanket for backup quarterback Matt Flynn and has finally given the Packers some production from the tight end spot after they lost Jermichael Finley to a neck injury on Oct. 20. “He knows that he’s had some opportunities early in the year that he didn’t take full advantage of,” McCarthy said. “He’s been big the last two weeks, and we need him.”

Flynn was fine, but ...: Credit Flynn for his remarkable poise in leading the Packers back in the second half for the second straight week. He was unflappable and deserves as much credit as anyone else for this improbable victory. But with the Packers still in the playoff race with two games remaining, an argument could be made that it’s more imperative now than ever before that Aaron Rodgers returns this week from his broken collarbone. “We’re doing ourselves justice by winning these past two games,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We need a little help moving forward. Hopefully Baltimore helps us out [by beating the Lions on Monday night]. Otherwise we’ve just got to keep this moving. Hopefully, we get Aaron back and keep moving forward.”

Defensive issues linger: The 23-point comeback should not put the issues that continued to plague the defense on the back burner. The Cowboys dominated Dom Capers’ defense in the first half, amassing 332 yards, 17 first downs and 26 points. The Cowboys’ first-half drives ended like this: field goal, field goal, touchdown, punt, field goal, field goal, touchdown. “We couldn’t stop them on defense,” defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “They did it pretty much running it, throwing it. They had over 300 yards at halftime.”

Upon Further Review: Eagles Week 15

December, 16, 2013
MINNEAPOLIS -- A review of four issues raised by the Philadelphia Eagles' 48-30 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

It seemed like a good idea at the time: Minnesota kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson is dangerous, so the Eagles decided to use short kickoffs that would be fielded by other members of the Vikings’ return team.

“It was a game plan, just like an offensive or defensive game plan,” cornerback and special teamer Roc Carmichael said. “We worked on it all week. We wanted to keep the ball out of (Patterson’s) hands. He’s a dynamic guy. We felt we could do better kicking it to the tight ends or fullbacks or those up guys.”

The strategy gave the Vikings consistently good field position. After kickoffs, they started drives at their 25, 38, 25, 34 and 46, respectively. If Alex Henery had simply kicked the ball out of the end zone, as Minnesota’s Blair Walsh did seven times, the Vikings would have started on their 20 each time.

“Even if you do kick it deep,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said, “he takes it out. He’s got a 109-yard kickoff return. We knew how dangerous he was, and we were just trying to keep the ball away from him.”

[+] EnlargeLeSean McCoy
AP Photo/Andy KingIt was a long day in Minnesota on Sunday for running back LeSean McCoy and the Eagles.
Fourth-and-a-half-yard: Kelly made one good point about his decision to go for it on fourth down at his own 24-yard line in the third quarter.

“You have to think on fourth-and-a-half-a-yard, we can get a half a yard,” Kelly said.

But LeSean McCoy's dive over left guard fell short. Kelly challenged the spot -- in for a penny, in for a pound -- and wound up losing a timeout.

“It started as a combination block with me and Evan (Mathis),” center Jason Kelce said. “The 'backers are flowing hard to their gaps, so you can’t stay on the double-team that long. When he left, I started pushing my guy to the left. Shady tried to hit that hole. It looked like he just dove forward. I’m not sure why we didn’t get it.”

It was McCoy’s second try to pick up that single yard. On third-and-1, he was stopped on a run around right end.

“We shouldn’t have been in that situation,” Kelce said, “if we did a better job on third down. We had a good play called, I thought. I was pulling. I got picked by one of the blocks inside. That made LeSean bounce it outside.”

Trying too hard: Eagles quarterback Nick Foles prides himself on being a team-first guy. So when he had to block a linebacker on a reverse, he didn’t settle for the usual quarterback patty-cake block. He dove in an attempt to take the player out.

“In the heat of battle, I made a mistake,” Foles said. “I made a block that I thought would help the team. You cannot turn back on someone and do that. I am at fault and the referee made the correct call.”

The penalty for an illegal peel-back block negated DeSean Jackson's touchdown. The Eagles instead kicked a field goal. The irony is that the pattycake block -- just getting in front of the defender -- would have been effective in springing Jackson.

“He has to seal that guy,” Kelly said. “I don’t think he had to cut him.”

Unraveling: Things got messy for the Eagles toward the end of the game.

Jackson made a great run after a short pass from Foles, making five defenders miss for a 51-yard gain to the Minnesota 4-yard line. The normally up-tempo Eagles couldn’t get a play off before the clock ran down and were flagged for delay of game.

After Foles’ 16-yard touchdown pass to Jason Avant made it 41-28, the kicking team started on the field. Kelly had to waste a timeout to set up for the two-point conversion.

“It was just a miscommunication upstairs,” Kelly said. “We should have gone for two, and that’s on me.”

Then there was the wave of penalties: Carmichael for taunting, Patrick Chung and Cary Williams for unnecessary roughness, Carmichael for 30 yards for pass interference.

Carmichael said he and Vikings wide receiver Rodney Smith had been going back and forth all game on special teams.

“I told him it was going to be a long day,” Carmichael said. “I turned around and there was a flag. It’s part of the game.”

Williams didn’t talk to reporters after the game.



Thursday, 11/20
Sunday, 11/23
Monday, 11/24