NFL Nation: 2013 Week 16 Upon Further Review NFC

Upon Further Review: 49ers Week 16

December, 24, 2013
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SAN FRANCISCO -- A review of four hot issues from the San Francisco 49ers' 34-24 win over Atlanta:

Bowman
Crabtree
Bowman redemption: Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman has arguably been the 49ers’ best player this season. That’s why it was so shocking when he put himself in position to be the goat of the game Monday night. However, it was less shocking when Bowman came up with the biggest moment of the game and perhaps San Francisco’s season moments later. Bowman made a huge mistake when he let an onside kick get past him. The Falcons recovered the ball, down 27-24, with 2 minutes, 9 seconds to play. The Falcons quickly moved inside the red zone and appeared ready to tie the game or take the lead. But Bowman redeemed himself dramatically as he caught a tipped ball (after a nice play by San Francisco cornerback Tramaine Brock) and took it 89 yards for a touchdown to seal the game with 1:10 to go.

Playoff bound: The 49ers, who are 11-4 and have won five straight games, have qualified for the playoffs in all three seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. With their thrilling win, they closed out the last regular-season game played at Candlestick Park the right way. There is still a slight chance there could be playoff football at Candlestick. The 49ers can still be the No. 1, No. 2, No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the NFC. They will win the NFC West and get a first-round bye if Seattle loses to visiting St. Louis and the 49ers win at Arizona on Sunday. If the 49ers beat the Cardinals, the lowest seed they will be is No. 5.

Kaepernick, Crabtree shine in second half: The 49ers scored 31 of their 34 points in the second half. A big reason why is quarterback Colin Kaepernick and receiver Michael Crabtree. Crabtree had one catch for 3 yards in the first half. He came back with four catches for 99 yards in the second half. Kaepernick averaged 12.8 yards per passing attempt in the second half after averaging just 6.3 in the first half.

Pass defense shaky: The San Francisco defense has been special for most of this season, especially in the second half of the season. Yes, San Francisco had its moments defensively against Atlanta and it made the big plays when needed, but the Falcons produced in the air. Matt Ryan completed 37 of 48 passes for 348 yards. Receiver Roddy White had 12 catches for 141 yards. Is this alarming? Not unless it continues into the playoffs. Ryan was dumping off a lot of short passes. It simply may be chalked up to a bad night for the 49ers’ pass defense, but it is worth monitoring moving forward.

Upon Further Review: Falcons Week 16

December, 24, 2013
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A look at four key issues from the Atlanta Falcons' 34-24 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night:

Game changer: San Francisco fans surely won't stop talking about linebacker NaVorro Bowman's game-winning, playoff-clinching 89-yard interception return for a touchdown. But the play was a product of the 49ers sending a seven-man rush at Matt Ryan, which forced a quicker throw. Ryan still delivered a catchable ball to Harry Douglas, but 49ers cornerback Tramaine Brock outmuscled Douglas and popped the ball in the air, resulting in Bowman's timely pick-six after he snatched the free ball from midair. "We both got there at the same time," Douglas said of the collision with Brock. "When the ball popped up in the air, I was hoping that it hit the ground. It was just one of those plays." Said Ryan, "I threw it and then I was hit and went to the ground, so I really didn't see what happened. I was on the ground." The Falcons certainly were grounded at the most inopportune time -- a microcosm of their season.

Snelling
Ryan
Ryan
Wearing down: Defensively, the Falcons put up quite a fight in the first half, limiting the 49ers and quarterback Colin Kaepernick to 113 total yards and a 1-of-5 conversion rate on third down. But in the second half, the Falcons surrendered 266 total yards, including a 47-yard pass play from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree and a 45-yard run to running back Kendall Hunter that set up a touchdown. "Once they got the momentum, it was hard to get it back,'' Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "They had the crowd behind them. They're a good team. We were holding them for a while. We couldn't get the stops when we needed them.''

Tough call: It's fair to ask if the 49ers would have even seized the momentum had it not been for a tough call on Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow. The rookie was whistled for pass interference while attempting to cover 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin down the middle. Worrilow appeared to do nothing wrong. And the play occurred with the 49ers facing third-and-19 from the Falcons' 39. The end result was a field goal that gave the 49ers their first lead of the game; a lead they wouldn't relinquish. "Third-and-19 and we get a call like that," safety William Moore said. "I don't know what to say. Our linebacker was in excellent position. We don't agree with everything, but they call the game. And stuff like that is unfortunate."

Special play: Buried in the loss was the outstanding play made by running back Jason Snelling in recovering Matt Bosher's onside kick. Bosher bounced the ball underneath eventual game hero Bowman, and Snelling corralled it with one hand while tip-toeing the sideline to give the Falcons a chance to either tie or go ahead in the final moments. "It was executed extremely well," head coach Mike Smith said of the play. "Jason Snelling made a great, one-handed catch there on the sideline. And unfortunately, we weren't able to make the plays that we needed to make there at the end." Special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong also deserves credit for having his bunch ready to execute such a play under those circumstances, although it went for naught after Bowman's pick-six.

Upon Further Review: Redskins Week 16

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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A review of four hot issues after the Washington Redskins' 24-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys:

Job security: Obviously Mike Shanahan's job is the one most discussed and his status obviously would impact that of his coaching staff. It’s not uncommon for some coaches to return if a new coach is hired; many are under contract for next season and it can ease any transition. The Redskins have 26 players on their active roster or on injured reserve who were drafted by this regime (plus undrafted free agents such as Logan Paulsen and Nick Williams, who have only played here). They, too, are playing for their jobs and some are paranoid about their future; they have never been through a coaching change and don’t know how it would impact them. The Redskins’ roster will undergo major changes regardless of who’s coaching next season -- upgrades are needed in many areas. Add to it a regime change, with different schemes and beliefs, and there will be even more. You can’t change over everyone, but it does lead to anxious times for everyone, not just the head coach. That's the result of a 24-39 record in four years.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesQuestions remain surrounding the job security of both QB Kirk Cousins and coach Mike Shanahan.
Quarterback watch: If Kirk Cousins had driven the Redskins down the field to win the game, imagine what would have been said in Washington on Monday. He would have been hailed a hero and the talk of his trade value would have escalated. Or, for some, perhaps it would have meant there’s more competition at this position than first realized. But that didn’t happen; the Redskins gained only 23 yards in the fourth quarter and the offense failed to get a first down on their final series. It’s not as if Cousins played poorly, but it is why you need to see players for an extended time before reaching a conclusion. They need to be in all sorts of situations -- under pressure from the rush, facing various schemes. There are things Cousins does well, such as make decisive throws; he does a better job at this point than Robert Griffin III of not staring down receivers. But interceptions remain an issue; will that always be the case or will it improve with experience? He needs a chance to grow, just like any young quarterback. I’ve said this before, but I would not be in a rush to trade him. There could be some team that loves him enough right now to make a strong offer (second round) and it then wouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It also will depend on if there’s a new coach here and what they think of Cousins.

Run game: Dallas was intent on taking away running back Alfred Morris, often aligning in what the Redskins call a Navajo front, with three defensive linemen over the interior of the Redskins’ front, with the linebackers focusing on taking away the outside. It messes with the blocking combinations up front, but the Redskins anticipated this look. At times, one of the Cowboys’ linemen would shoot in behind the play for penetration, something that has happened quite a bit this year. So Morris had to gut out a 24-carry, 88-yard day. It wasn’t pretty, but the Redskins did stick with the run. Morris gained 2 yards or fewer on eight of his first 13 carries and 11 of 24 overall. The execution improved in the third quarter as the Redskins used more power runs with guard Chris Chester pulling; Morris ran 10 times for 52 yards in the third quarter. One area Morris must absolutely improve in: catching the ball. He’ll never be Reggie Bush, but he needs to have consistent hands. It limits the offense at times, and that has to change.

Special teams: Washington’s special teams have been dreadful all season and it likely cost them two wins against Dallas. Yes, in the first game the officials missed at least one call that would have resulted in a turnover in favor of the Redskins. And maybe there were missed calls on the blocks -- good teams still overcome those issues over the long haul, and sometimes even on the plays in question. When you have one guy with a shot at making a tackle, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Too often that’s what happens and it’s what happened Sunday when, on Micheal Spurlock’s 62-yard punt return in the first quarter, only Niles Paul had a shot at making a tackle. He should have made it and stopped him for maybe 2 yards. Instead, he failed and Spurlock took off. Few care more than Paul, but he absolutely needs to make that play. It led to Dallas’ first touchdown; perhaps the Cowboys score on this possession anyway, but it once again left the Redskins in a hole. I’ve said it before, but these special teams were not put together well from the top on down. And even if coaching is an issue, that’s no excuse for not making a tackle when it’s in front of you. It leads to this: an NFL-worst 18.46 yards allowed per punt return. They are 10th against kickoffs. The problem is, they cost them games but never did anything to help. The way this group was put together felt too haphazard. Doesn't happen that way. Games are too close in this league to consistently have one of the three phases of the game lose every single week.

Upon Further Review: Vikings Week 16

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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CINCINNATI -- A review of four hot issues after the Minnesota Vikings' 42-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

Peterson
Peterson
Peterson's health: Running back Adrian Peterson came out of Sunday's game once the Bengals built an insurmountable lead, and even Peterson -- who said he was "devastated" by the Vikings' decision to hold him out the previous week with a sprained foot -- couldn't argue with this one too much. The question now is, will Peterson come back for the final game of the season against the Detroit Lions? He's unlikely to be completely healthy next week, and with nothing on the line for either team, it might make sense to sit Peterson down, rather than risking an injury in a meaningless game. Peterson effectively lost his shot at a second straight rushing title Sunday, and although he'll probably want to play, it doesn't seem to be worth starting him.

Third-down meltdown: The Vikings' defense has been one of the NFL's worst on third down all season, but even by their standards, Sunday's game was ugly. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton hit eight of his 11 throws on third down, for 137 yards and a touchdown. In the process, he helped the Bengals convert six third downs of 7 yards or longer. It helped that he didn't face much pressure all day from the Vikings' defense; he saw four or fewer pass-rushers on 27 passes and completed 21 of them for 293 yards. The Vikings have allowed a 71.9 QBR when rushing four this season, which is the fourth-worst total in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and on a day when the Vikings again brought little extra pressure, Dalton shredded them on passing downs.

Patterson's big day wasted: The Bengals were the second team to kick to rookie Cordarrelle Patterson in the past month, and Patterson responded by returning four kicks for 143 yards, staking the Vikings to an average starting position of their own 43 on those returns, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Patterson also had a 35-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but his returns set up just one Vikings touchdown.

Frazier's future: Coach Leslie Frazier said he's focused solely on Sunday's game against the Lions, not on his own job status. But in a week in which neither team has much on the line, other than the future of its coach, what kind of an effort will Frazier be able to coax out of his team? The Vikings will talk all week about playing hard and finishing on a positive note, but no player wants to get hurt in the final week of the season and spend much of his offseason recovering. The final game at the Metrodome figures to have some energy, and the many players who are voicing support for Frazier will have one more chance to play hard for him. But will that translate into a win, and will a win mean anything for Frazier? It's sure to be a topic we'll revisit throughout the week.

Upon Further Review: Giants Week 16

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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DETROIT -- An examination of four hot issues from the New York Giants' 23-20 overtime victory against the Detroit Lions:

Amukamara
Prince on Megatron: The Giants assigned top cornerback Prince Amukamara to cover superstar Lions receiver Calvin Johnson wherever he lined up Sunday except in the slot. Amukamara said it was the first time he'd had such an assignment (as opposed to "splitting the field" with another cornerback) and that it made him "feel special." Johnson was targeted just four times and had three catches for 43 yards and no touchdowns. He also was dealing with a knee injury that made him a game-time decision to play, per Adam Schefter, and he spent a fair amount of time on the sideline. Amukamara said Johnson didn't seem injured to him when he was on the field -- that he looked "very explosive off the line, but there were series where he had to go out of the game, so I kind of figured he must be injured."

Jernigan shows toughness: Playing the slot receiver position in place of the injured Victor Cruz, Jerrel Jernigan had a very Cruz-like stat line -- six catches for 80 yards and his first NFL touchdown. "I see his game elevate and get better year after year after year out there on the practice field," fellow wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said of Jernigan. "He's the next guy up with Victor out, and he's obviously up to the task." Jernigan's 15-yard catch on fourth-and-seven in the overtime period kept alive the winning drive and moved the Giants into position for Josh Brown's game-winning field goal. Jernigan is taking advantage of a chance to prove himself a useful NFL player.

Protection remains an issue: Down to third- and fourth-stringers at the guard positions, the Giants struggled mightily to protect quarterback Eli Manning from the rushing Detroit defensive line. With some inside handoffs to Andre Brown and some rollouts by Manning in the first half, they were able to keep the defense off him enough to build a 13-3 lead. But in the second half, they had no time to do anything on offense, and Manning was sacked in the end zone for a safety that was part of Detroit's 17 straight points. Manning surely will play Sunday and extend his streak to 151 consecutive games, but the Giants will have to work hard to keep Redskins pass-rushers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan from terrorizing him.

The whole story: The Giants turned the ball over twice. The Lions turned the ball over three times. That makes it the fourth game this season in which the Giants have had a positive turnover differential. They are 4-0 in those games, 1-2 in games in which it's even and 1-7 when they turn the ball over more than their opponent does. That's your Giants season in a nutshell, right there.

Upon Further Review: Saints Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- An examination of four hot issues from the New Orleans Saints' 17-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Bank of America Stadium.

Playoff scenarios: There are still a ton of possibilities for the Saints (10-5). They could wind up as the NFC's No. 2 seed (with a win and a Carolina loss), No. 5, No. 6 or out of the playoffs entirely (with a loss, a San Francisco win Monday night and an Arizona win over San Francisco next week).

[+] EnlargeDomenik Hixon
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe Saints watched Domenik Hixon and the Panthers quickly march down the field for the game-winning score.
Trying to figure out where the Saints will play if they wind up as a wild-card is even more complicated. Philadelphia (9-6), Dallas (8-7), Chicago (8-7) and Green Bay (7-7-1) are all still in play. Obviously things would have been much simpler for the Saints if they had beaten Carolina.

Offense a concern: The Saints' defense blew it in the final minute Sunday, but that's not why they lost. The most disconcerting performance Sunday was yet another offensive dud. It's stunning how different the Saints' offense is on the road.

I want to give Carolina's defense a ton of deserved credit. The Panthers' coverage was stifling, and linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are awesome. But I just saw the Saints' offense torch this same unit for 31 points two weeks ago in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. It's hard to explain.

I give the Saints credit for showing resilience with a 97-yard TD drive in the fourth quarter. But the Saints allowed six sacks, and Brees threw two interceptions on a rough day -- both when it was raining and when it wasn't. They seemed to adapt as the game went along, running the ball with Mark Ingram more and protecting Brees better after rookie left tackle Terron Armstead struggled early. But it was too little, too late.

Devastating finish: The defense was on the field for only 21:12, and the Saints were dominant for about 20 of those minutes. But they broke down late in the first half on DeAngelo Williams' 43-yard touchdown run. And they collapsed during Carolina's game-winning touchdown drive, which lasted 32 seconds.

It was the most stunning development in the game. Carolina didn't convert a single third down all day, and there was no indication that quarterback Cam Newton was capable of completing a 37-yard strike to receiver Ted Ginn, a 14-yard strike to tight end Greg Olsen and a blitz-busting 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Domenik Hixon.

Saints coach Sean Payton was quick to defend the defensive play calls late in the game, saying they had played the same way on the previous series when Carolina went three-and-out. But this time the pass rush didn't quite get to Newton, and the coverage by safety Roman Harper and cornerback Corey White offered a little too much cushion.

Play calling: I feel like I have to address this, based on the criticism I saw on Twitter after the game. But I'm not sure how it's possible to second-guess Payton's play-calling on the final two drives (both three-and-outs): run-pass-pass; Run-run-run. The Saints were aggressive the first time but didn't convert. Then they were conservative on the second drive (wise considering the way Carolina's offense was struggling.) Ineffective, yes. But the overall strategy wasn't the problem.

Payton also tried some “exotics” -- successfully converting a surprise onside kick and failing on a fake field goal. Again, it's hard to criticize one but not the other. However, it was weird the way the Saints shifted into their passing look on the fake field goal, giving Carolina plenty of time to adjust defensively.

Upon Further Review: Eagles Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA -- Taking a look at several issues arising from the Philadelphia Eagles' 54-11 blowout victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday night.

McCoy sets the tone. When the Eagles played the Dallas Cowboys in Philadelphia in October, Nick Foles had his worst game of the season, and LeSean McCoy ran for just 55 yards on 18 carries in a 17-3 loss.

“I can't even remember that far back,” McCoy said after rushing for 133 yards and two touchdowns against the Bears. “I did not play well, so I can't even remember how that game went.”

The Eagles and Cowboys meet again Sunday. Winner goes to the playoffs.

“I can tell you that they didn't see the best of the Eagles,” McCoy said. “They didn't see the best of Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy -- they didn't see the best of us, but they will this Sunday, so it will be a different story.”

McCoy retained his lead in the race for the NFL rushing title. That wouldn't have happened if coach Chip Kelly had decided to hold him out or limit his touches in an effort to avoid injury.

[+] EnlargeTrent Cole
Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty ImagesTrent Cole had his first three-sack game in three years against the Bears.
“There are times when you're clinched in and you want to keep your guys healthy,” McCoy said. “I understand that. But for the most part ... this is our job. They pay us to come out here and play ball. The fans pay hard-earned money to watch us.”

Accurate Foles. Nick Foles' 84 percent completion rate (21-for-25) was the highest ever for an Eagles quarterback. But that's not even the full story.

Foles' incompletions all came on balls he threw away deliberately. He didn't miss a single pass he intended for a receiver. One of the dumped passes kept the Eagles in position for Alex Henery's 49-yard field goal.

“I thought he made really good decisions,” Kelly said. “That's one thing that he's been great with is his decision making has been outstanding. He hasn't put the ball in harm's way. He could have taken a sack and gotten us out of field goal range.”

Foles said he has “learned the hard way” how and when to throw the ball away. “I have forced balls before. You watch film and understand the game and the strategy. It is not bad to throw the ball away. It actually is really good.”

Foles has thrown 25 touchdown passes and just two interceptions this season.

“He was throwing the ball well in that pregame routine that we've been doing every week,” tight end Zach Ertz said. “He was throwing the ball with a lot of zip, and you kind of knew he was going to be on fire from the get-go.”

Cole minding. Outside linebacker Trent Cole's first three-sack game in three years was a testament to the veteran's perseverance in making the transition from defensive end in the Eagles' old 4-3 defense.

“Trent was lights-out tonight,” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “That's what Trent is capable of doing -- taking over games, dominating offensive tackles and getting to the quarterback. It's a tough transition when you ask a guy who has been rushing for 10 years to drop back and cover zones. He's an unselfish player.”

Cole, 31, didn't have a single sack through the first half of the season. He has eight in the last seven games.

“Anybody that plays as hard as Trent Cole, you love seeing success,” defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “That man's never seen a down where he hasn't given everything he's had.”

Wolff nicked. Rookie safety Earl Wolff returned after missing four games with a knee injury. He left the game after one series.

“He did nick the knee,” Davis said.

The plan was for veteran Patrick Chung to start and to ease Wolff back into action after the layoff. Chung played the first two series. Wolff came out for the Bears' third possession.

On the first play of the second quarter, a third-and-2, Jay Cutler threw for Brandon Marshall. Wolff made a nice play, breaking up the pass. But he looked a little shaky going to the sideline and didn't return to the game.

“It's not anything that bad,” Davis said. “I just made the decision, 'Unless, I need you, I'm not going to roll you in because you're still fighting that.'"
A review of four hot issues from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 23-13 loss to the St. Louis Rams:

Schiano
The Schiano Watch. After trending upward briefly, coach Greg Schiano has lost his past two games. His team is 4-11. If Schiano closes out the season by losing his final three games, it's hard to imagine the Bucs keeping him around.

Glennon's rough day. It's easy to point at rookie quarterback Mike Glennon, who was sacked seven times, and direct blame. But Glennon got very little help from his offensive line and absolutely no help from a running game that's been terrible the past couple of weeks.

No imagination. Tampa Bay fans are hoping the people responsible for hiring the next head coach at Army didn't watch this game. Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who has interviewed for the West Point job, didn't have a good game plan. The Bucs weren't able to protect their quarterback or run the ball.

Something positive. I had to look long and hard for this one. But Gerald McCoy has a chance to join some elite company. He now has nine sacks on the season. If he can add one more in the season finale at New Orleans, he'll join Warren Sapp (three times) and Santana Dotson as the only defensive tackles in franchise history to reach double-digit sacks in a season.

Upon Further Review: Rams Week 16

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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ST. LOUIS -- A review of four hot issues from the St. Louis Rams' 23-13 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Crown him: In this space last week, we made a strong case for why Rams defensive end Robert Quinn should be the leading candidate for the NFL's defensive player of the year. Quinn only added to the résumé against the Bucs, racking up three more sacks and six tackles. In the process, Quinn became the franchise's single-season leader for sacks, besting Kevin Carter's previous record of 17 by one.

[+] EnlargeRobert Quinn
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsWith three sacks of Bucs QB Mike Glennon, Robert Quinn moved into the league lead with 18 on the season.
Quinn's 18 sacks now lead the NFL in that category, and he remains tied with Indianapolis' Robert Mathis in forced fumbles with seven. Despite constant double- and triple-teams, Quinn kept battling against the Bucs and proved once again why he should be the leader in the clubhouse. Teammates William Hayes and Chris Long carried Quinn off the field to chants of "MVP, MVP" at the end of the game. No player has wrecked more offensive game plans in 2013.

Don't forget Ogletree: Rams rookie linebacker Alec Ogletree hasn't been as prominently mentioned in the defensive rookie of the year contest as Quinn has in the defensive player of the year battle, but maybe he should be. Ogletree added eight tackles, half of a sack and two forced fumbles to his tally against Tampa Bay.

For the season, Ogletree has 110 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception return for a touchdown, six forced fumbles, eight pass breakups and five batted passes. His half-dozen forced fumbles trail only Quinn and Mathis in that category.

Losing Long: Not all of the news from Sunday's game was positive for the Rams. They lost left tackle Jake Long to a knee injury three plays into the game, and coach Jeff Fisher said there's concern that it's a torn ACL. That would mean a long road to recovery for Long, leaving the Rams with even more questions on an offensive line that figures to have plenty in the offseason.

Rodger Saffold ably filled in for Long against the Bucs and continues to show his value through not only his versatility but also his ability. Saffold's pending free agency now becomes an even more pressing issue for the Rams as the offseason nears.

Rookie ramblings: The Rams have had no problem relying on rookies to produce all season, as they are the league's youngest team for the second year in a row. That production has been hit or miss from week to week but Sunday's game provided a glimpse into what could be when this year's group reaches its potential.

Ogletree is something of a given in terms of production at this point; so is running back Zac Stacy, who provided his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season Sunday. Now, others are starting to become more prominent. Receiver Stedman Bailey had three catches and rushed for a 27-yard touchdown. Safety T.J. McDonald had six tackles and a sack.

That doesn't even include top pick Tavon Austin, who didn't play because of an ankle injury. If the growth of this year's class from Week 1 to now is any indication of the future, this draft class might be the type of foundational group that leads to big things for the Rams in the future.

Upon Further Review: Cardinals Week 16

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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SEATTLE -- A review of four hot issues from the Arizona Cardinals' 17-10 win over the Seattle Seahawks.

Balanced attack: While most of the offense wasn't working, the running game was able to find a rhythm and balance.

Ellington
Mendenhall
Mendenhall
Rookie Andre Ellington's 64 yards complemented starter Rashard Mendenhall's 63. But how they got them was vastly different. Ellington averaged 4.3 yards per carry and had a long of 26. On the other hand, Mendenhall averaged 3 yards per carry and had a long of just 9.

The two provided the right inside-out balance that was able to keep Seattle from guessing where they were going. And even when the Seahawks had an idea, Ellington's speed was too much.

Palmer's low days: For the fourth time this season, Carson Palmer threw for fewer than 200 yards. Besides the first time it happened, in Week 3 at New Orleans when Palmer had 187 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns, the Cardinals have won every time. It hadn't happened in almost two months, but Palmer's 178 yards Sunday were his third-fewest this season. The other two games were against Carolina (175) and Houston (172), both wins.

Palmer was 13-for-25 passing against Seattle, tying his lowest total for completions this season and making that his second-lowest attempts.

Pro Bowl year goes on: It seems like everything Justin Bethel does this season has been Pro Bowl worthy. He added to his résumé in Seattle with less than a week before the voting for the Pro Bowl is over.

On Arizona's first punt of the game, he brought down Golden Tate at the Seattle 11 for no gain.

In the third quarter, after Arizona took a 6-3 lead, Robert Turbin fumbled a kickoff return, which was recovered by Bethel.

Reversal of fortunes: After weeks of having calls go against them, the Cardinals were the beneficiaries of some good luck Sunday.

There were a handful of calls that could have gone the other way but were ruled in Arizona's favor, including one that sealed the win. With 2:06 left in the fourth quarter, Russell Wilson's pass bounced off the arm of tight end Doug Baldwin and into the hands of Karlos Dansby. But the play was challenged, alleging that it hit the ground first. Although replays leaned toward this, the video was inconclusive enough to overturn the call, and Arizona kept possession. Seattle also challenged whether Mendenhall was down before he fumbled, and the replay showed he was, which allowed Arizona to keep the ball and eventually led to a field goal.

Upon Further Review: Bears Week 16

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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PHILADELPHIA -- An examination of four hot issues from the Chicago Bears' 54-11 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles:

Cutler
Give Cutler a chance: This loss conjured flashbacks of offensive lines featuring players such as Chris Williams, Frank Omiyale and J’Marcus Webb. The Bears gave up a season-high five sacks, and quarterback Jay Cutler also absorbed plenty of shots throughout the night just as he was releasing his passes. Most of the night, Cutler had a defender in his face when trying to throw the ball. Obviously, that can’t happen Sunday in the season finale against the Packers with the NFC North crown at stake. “We lost the line of scrimmage,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “We didn’t do as good a job as obviously we’ve done at protecting Jay. He got hit probably more in this game than he’s been hit at any time during the season.”

Run defense isn’t getting any better: Guess what? It’s not going to get any better. The Bears are what they are against the run: horrible. The Bears have allowed a 100-yard rusher in 10 games, and on Sunday they let two running backs (LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown) hit the century mark. “Any time you cannot stop the run, it’s disappointing,” defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff said. “We did not stop McCoy like we would have liked to, but we have to put this game behind us and move on.”

More offensive line: Speaking of the offensive line, they also failed to open holes for the rushing attack. It’s telling when Trestman says the Bears “couldn’t even start a run” against the Eagles. Matt Forte entered Sunday’s game having run for 100-plus yards in three consecutive games. At one point against the Eagles, Forte had carried five times for 6 yards. “There is no excuse for what happened or what we didn’t do,” Forte said. “Nobody played well on our side. It was just one of those games where everything was going their way and nothing went our way.”

Trestman’s message after the game: It must have been a good, uplifting message because for a team that had just blown the opportunity to wrap up a division championship and a postseason berth, the Bears were remarkably calm after the game. In fact, nobody seemed down at all about what had just transpired. Maybe the Bears just want to forget about this game and move on to the next one as quickly as possible. Maybe moping too much over the loss to the Eagles isn’t conducive to the club’s next objective Sunday against the Packers. “It’s just a game. The same thing happened to [the Eagles] last week,” defensive end Julius Peppers said. “We’ve got a resilient group. We’re gonna be fine. We’re gonna bounce back from this.”

Upon Further Review: Packers Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A review of four hot issues from the Green Bay Packers' 38-31 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday at Lambeau Field:

Bell outlasts Lacy: In the battle of rookie running backs, the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell got the better of it, although things might have been different had Eddie Lacy been able to stay in the game. Lacy reinjured his sprained right ankle -- the one that had him in a walking boot for most of the days between games the past two weeks -- and missed the entire fourth quarter. Lacy was on his way to another big game. As it was, he rushed for 84 yards on 15 carries (a 5.6-yard average) and scored two touchdowns. By running his season total to 1,112 yards rushing, he surpassed John Brockington's rookie rushing record of 1,105 set in 1971. Lacy's status for the regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears remained in doubt. “I'm definitely going to do everything I can do to get it feeling as good as I possibly can so I can go out and be with my team next week,” Lacy said. Bell rushed for 124 yards on 26 carries and scored one touchdown. The Steelers passed on Lacy because of injury concerns and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said last week that it was “an easy decision” to draft Bell over Lacy.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsEddie Lacy rushed for 84 yards on 15 carries against the Steelers, but missed the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle.
Pick-six times three: In his career as the Packers' starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers has thrown exactly one interception that was returned for a touchdown -- against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009. Since his Nov. 4 collarbone injury, Rodgers' replacements have thrown three of them. The latest pick-six came in the third quarter against the Steelers. Flynn had a run-pass option on the play and decided to throw a quick hitch to Jarrett Boykin, who was split out to the right. However, tight end Andrew Quarless, who was lined up in the backfield intending to block for Lacy, collided with Flynn as he was in his throwing motion. The ball sailed on Flynn, and Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen returned it 40 yards for a touchdown. “It's a run play first but with a pass option,” Quarless said. “It was just a messed-up play. I'm anxious to look at it on film.” Said Flynn, who has two of the three pick-sixes this season: “I've got to do a better job of understanding where my tight end has to fill according to where his linebacker is and get out of his way. I was coming up, and he hit me on my left side and turned me and pulled the ball up. It was just one of those unfortunate plays, and I definitely wish I could take that one back.”

Killer penalties: The most memorable penalties were Nick Perry's encroachment on fourth-and-3 in the fourth quarter when the Steelers were lining up for a field goal, and T.J. Lang's false start (announced as a penalty on Don Barclay) with 20 seconds to go. “Presnap penalties are unacceptable,” coach Mike McCarthy said. Penalties were a problem throughout the game. The Packers had nine penalties -- one short of their season high -- for 90 yards. B.J. Raji's personal foul for unnecessary roughness when he retaliated after Steelers guard Cody Wallace hit him came on a drive that ended with a touchdown that put the Steelers ahead 24-21 late in the third quarter. In the second quarter, guard Josh Sitton's face mask penalty on third-and-8 from the Steelers' 35-yard line wiped out an 8-yard catch by Jordy Nelson. The Packers ended up punting on that drive.

Let them score: A week after the Dallas Cowboys let the Packers score the go-ahead touchdown in order to give themselves as much time as possible, the Packers used the same strategy. But they may have waited one play too long to do it. The Packers let Bell score on a 1-yard touchdown run on second-and-goal with 1:25 remaining. However, had they done it one play earlier, they not only would have saved themselves a few seconds but also a timeout. They burned their last one after Bell rushed for 4 yards on first-and-goal at the 5. When asked why they didn't let Bell score on that play, Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said: “I don't know. That's a good question.”

Upon Further Review: Lions Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Detroit Lions' 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants.

The collapse: It is finally complete now, the Lions' descent of missed opportunity from NFC North leader to out of the playoffs. And of course, it comes with one last insult that might be the cruelest of all. For all the opportunities Detroit squandered to win the division, the Lions would have had one more chance to win the NFC North after both Green Bay and Chicago lost Sunday. Had the Lions won, they would have been win-and-in Sunday in Minnesota.

[+] EnlargeWill Hill
AP Photo/Paul SancyaWill Hill's pick-six was the 19th interception of the season for Matthew Stafford. The 38-yard return tied the game late in the fourth quarter.
Instead, the Lions can start making those offseason plans they had been putting off for a few weeks. The carnage included the fifth loss in six games and the fifth straight loss in which the Lions lost a fourth-quarter lead.

The future: Jim Schwartz's tenure in Detroit looks like it might be coming to a close after five seasons. The Lions missed the playoffs in four of those years and had collapses in the past two seasons. Schwartz did some good things with the Lions, who hired him after the franchise went 0-16 in 2008. But his tenure might have plateaued with the playoff berth in 2011. The same problems that afflicted this team in the middle of the season remained toward the end of the year, and players, most notably quarterback Matthew Stafford, appeared to regress.

The turnovers: This has been the most persistent problem the Lions have had this season and a large reason the Lions are playing for nothing but pride Sunday. For the sixth straight game, Detroit committed three or more turnovers, including a Reggie Bush fumble and a Stafford pick-six interception. For the sixth straight game, the Lions lost the turnover margin.

The main turnover culprits have been Bush, who lost his second fumble since making the promise he wouldn't fumble again the rest of the season after a Week 10 loss to Pittsburgh, and Stafford. Stafford now has thrown two or more interceptions in four of the past five games, and the only game in which he didn't throw an interception was against Philadelphia in the snow.

The quarterback: Stafford probably will not admit it, but he needs help from someone to fix his game right now. He has too much talent and is too intelligent a quarterback to continue to make the same baffling decisions every week. Sure, the Lions didn't help him this season by dropping a league-high 46 passes -- including two Sunday against the Giants.

But too often he is either missing receivers or not making the right throws or the correct reads, either from a throw perspective or an arm slot perspective. Stafford is getting good protection and has the best receiver in the NFL in Calvin Johnson. He has good leadership qualities.

This offseason should be spent helping to make sure he never has a season like this again. He is now at 19 interceptions -- one away from his career-high 20 interceptions he threw as a rookie. Perhaps a visit to a quarterback guru such as Steve Clarkson or George Whitfield Jr. is in order.

Upon Further Review: Cowboys Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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LANDOVER, Md. -- A review of four hot issues from the Dallas Cowboys24-23 win against the Washington Redskins.

Up for the challenge: For the third straight season and fourth time in the past six years, the Cowboys find themselves in a win-and-get-in scenario in Week 17. If they beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, they would win the NFC East and host a playoff game on wild-card weekend. If they lose, they would finish 8-8 for the third year in a row. The only two recent seasons in which they did not face this situation came in 2009, when they had clinched a postseason berth but needed to beat the Eagles to win the division, and in 2010, when they finished 6-10.

Romo
They lost the finale in 2008 (Eagles), 2011 (Giants) and 2012 (Redskins).

“I know in some ways we’ve gotten hit with the fact of losing the last couple of years in that final game, but I think we’re the only team that keeps getting itself in position to win the NFC East every year,” quarterback Tony Romo said. “That’s a credit. That’s also a negative in the fact we didn’t do it the last couple of years. You just have to keep getting yourself there. When your team is good enough you’ll knock down that door.”

Back to the run: After the game, Jason Garrett praised the coaches’ ability to stay with the run in the fourth quarter when they were trailing by nine points. He seemed to forget the three-and-out the Cowboys had after Washington took a 20-14 lead. Dez Bryant dropped a slant. Romo threw the ball away on second down and then was sacked on third down. The drive totaled 50 seconds. The Redskins answered with a field goal to go up 23-14.

“We were just committed to saying, ‘Let’s stay after them. Let’s continue to try to drive the ball by running it, throwing it,’” Garrett said. “We had to make some big third downs. When you’re running the ball on first and second down you get into those third-and-3s and those third-and-4s and I thought our guys did a great job stepping up. Tony made some great throws. Guys made some great conversions and that was really important to sustain those drives. But balance was going to be importance for us throughout this game.”

A look back: The Cowboys’ defense has not played a better game than the one it had on Oct. 20 at Lincoln Financial Field against the Eagles. The Cowboys held Philadelphia to three points and allowed only 278 yards. Nick Foles threw for only 80 yards and Matt Barkley was intercepted three times in the fourth quarter. LeSean McCoy was held to 55 yards rushing. So much of the talk leading into that game was how Chip Kelly dominated Monte Kiffin while he was at Oregon and Kiffin was at USC. The Cowboys could get a boost from the returns of Sean Lee (neck) and Morris Claiborne (hamstring), but even when healthy -- or closer to healthy -- the defense has not played up to par.

No pressure: Try as they might to spin the good work done by Rod Marinelli’s rushers, the Cowboys did not record a sack of Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins. Jeff Heath forced an early throw on a blitz as he planted Cousins on the ground, but DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and George Selvie did not do enough to affect the quarterback. That can’t be the case Sunday against the Eagles with the way Foles has played. In October the Cowboys sacked Philadelphia’s quarterback three times. They have not had a three-sack game since then, and have just nine sacks in their past eight games.

Upon Further Review: Panthers Week 16

December, 23, 2013
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- An examination of five hot issues from the Carolina Panthers' 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints:

Playoff picture: The Panthers (11-4) clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2008, but they have much more to play for. A win in Week 17 at Atlanta would give them the NFC South title and a first-round bye with a home game in two weeks as at least the NFC's No. 2 seed. If San Francisco wins Monday night and next week against Arizona, and Seattle loses its final game against St. Louis, the 49ers would win the NFC West and Carolina would be the No. 1 seed.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsLuke Kuechly is the first player to record at least 20 tackles and an interception in a game since Derrick Brooks in 2001.
The final drive: The Panthers gained only 60 yards on their first 18 plays of the second half. They gained 65 yards on their final five plays, ending with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left. One of those plays was a spike to stop the clock.

Saint nicked: Newton admitted he nicked his ankle Sunday, but he wouldn't admit it affected his effectiveness as a runner. But as a runner, he had a season-low 6 yards scrambling and failed to have a rushing touchdown for the first time this year. Newton blamed much of his ineffectiveness as a runner on the monsoon that hit the stadium in the third quarter. So how did Newton nick his ankle? "I have no clue," he said. "I got tackled. It's a physical sport, and things happen."

Twenty-four: To put in perspective inside linebacker Luke Kuechly's 24 tackles, consider: That's the total of the top six tacklers in the game combined for New Orleans. Or as Carolina safety Mike Mitchell said, "That's like a created player in 'Madden.' That's not supposed to happen." Kuechly now has 165 tackles on the season, or one more than he had last season when he led the league. And he has a game left.

Strange but true: The Panthers apparently are the master of winning games without converting on third down. They were 0-for-9 on Sunday, the first time a team has won without converting at least once since ... you guessed it, the Panthers. They were 0-for-6 in a 48-16 victory over Tampa Bay in Week 16 of 2011.

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