Apr 15, 2014 fbook icon twitter icon rss icon

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11NFC North Offseason Needs: Lions, Bears, Vikings, Packers

The NFC North was one of the most competitive divisions in football last year, putting pressure on teams this offseason to make the right moves that can move them to the top of the division.  Let’s take a look at the offseason needs for the Bears, Packers, Vikings, and Lions.

Chicago Bears – With Jay Cutler being re-signed and wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery likely to be one of the top receiver duos in the NFL in 2014, the offense is in great shape, which means the Bears need to turn their full attention to the defense.  The secondary was atrocious last season, and the Bears could benefit from four new starters there next year, although if that’s not realistic they need at least one new safety to replace free agent Major Wright and one new starter at cornerback to replace Charles Tillman.  Chicago devoted much of last year’s draft to the linebacker position, so that may not be a priority this offseason, unless they can add an impact player.  However, the same can’t be said about the defensive line.  The interior of the line could use an impact player, while Julius Peppers could become a salary cap casualty, forcing the Bears to spend money or a high-round draft pick on a pass rusher, meaning the defensive line will require a lot of attention this offseason.

Detroit Lions – Despite its collapse at the end of the season that prompted a coaching change, Detroit isn’t far away from being competitive if they can have a successful offseason.  The Lions have one of the most talented defensive fronts in the NFL, but they leave a lot to be desired in the secondary.  Detroit would be wise to bring in re-sign veteran cornerback Rashean Mathis to help solidfy the unit, but they should also sign a younger cornerback that can step into the starting lineup.  They were forced to cut safety Louis Delmas for cap reasons, so the Lions may need to use an early-round draft pick on a safety, while also adding depth at that position later in the draft if they can.  Detroit could also consider using a high draft pick on a wide receiver, taking advantage of the depth at that position to give Matthew Stafford a talented number-two receiver to complement Calvin Johnson, but right now the Lion’s offense isn’t as much of a priority as the defense.

Green Bay Packers – If the Packers can re-sign Matt Flynn or one way or another bring in a backup quarterback that they trust, the offense should be in good shape heading into next season.  However, the Green Bay defense needs a lot of work, as it pales in comparison to the defenses of the other top teams in the NFC.  Outside of A.J. Hawk and Nick Perry, the Packers don’t have much at linebacker, and they’ll need an infusion of talent at that position this offseason.  Up front, Green Bay won’t miss B.J. Raji that much, but they will need to add one or two defensive linemen, possibly using an early-round pick to do so.  In the secondary, the Packers need to do what they can to re-sign Sam Shields, but they’ll also need to add talent at the safety position, as well as depth throughout their secondary.

Minnesota Vikings – The Vikings will likely look to draft a new quarterback this year, but the top three quarterbacks could all be off the board by the time Minnesota is on the clock with the 8th overall pick, so that could make their pursuit of a signal caller complicated.  If they can find a suitable quarterback at some point, then the offense should be in good shape, which would allow Minnesota to spend the rest of the offseason focusing on their defense.  After a lot of good seasons, Jared Allen appears to be on his way out of town, so the Vikings will need a pass-rushing defensive end, which could be their biggest priority in the draft outside of quarterback.  Minnesota also leaves a lot to be desired at linebacker and they may need to make a splash at that position in free agency if their top draft picks are used on a quarterback and a pass rusher.  It might also be beneficial for the Vikings to add a piece or two to their secondary, although the future appears to be bright for cornerback Xavier Rhodes, which gives some hope for the future of their secondary.


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11NFL Playoff Preview: San Francisco 49ers vs. Green Bay Packers

The final game of NFL wildcard weekend figures to be a good one. The 49ers and Packers met back in week 1 and in the divisional round of the playoffs last year, with San Francisco winning both games. These two teams should know each other pretty well, so it should be interesting. Let’s take a closer look:

HOW THYEY GOT HERE?
The Packers persevered over an eight-week period without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, enduring a five-game winless streak during that time, and thanks to a complete collapse by the Lions, Green Bay was in position to win the NFC North in week 17, when Rodgers returned and led the Packers to victory over the Bears to put them in the postseason. Things weren’t quite as complicated for the 49ers, who won their final six games and clinched a playoff birth in week 16. However, with Seattle winning the NFC West, San Francisco had to settle for a wildcard spot, despite winning 12 games this season.

SAN FRANCISCO OFFENSE VS. GREEN BAY DEFENSE
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has had an uneven season and hasn’t always been a game changer with his arm, but he finished the regular season strong with 10 touchdowns and one interception over the final six games. The Green Bay defense has had their fair share of problems this season, especially over the last three weeks, and if that continues it may put Kaepernick in position to make plays with his arm, especially with the trio of Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, and Vernon Davis in place. Meanwhile, the 49ers know that they have a good rushing attack behind Frank Gore, with Kaepernick also being a threat to take off and make plays with his legs. The goal for the Packers on defense will be to stop the run as best they can and force Kaepernick to beat them with his arm, which will be their best chance to keep the game as low scoring as possible and keep the pressure off Rodgers and their offense as much as possible, although based on how Kaepernick has played in recent weeks, that doesn’t guarantee success for the Green Bay defense, as Kaepernick is capable of beating the Packers through the air, throwing for over 400 yards against them in week 1.

GREEN BAY OFFENSE VS. SAN FRANCISCO DEFENSE
Not only is Rodgers back, but so is Randall Cobb, and that combination came up big for the Packers in crunch time last week, with both of Cobb’s receptions going for touchdowns, and those two will have to come up big for Green Bay again this week. Rodgers did show some signs of rust, but he should be a little sharper in his second week back, and it should help that he has a nice collection of receivers, including Cobb, the reliable Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Jarrett Boykin, and emerging tight end Andrew Quarless. That group should be enough for a quarterback like Rodgers, although if the Packers need to rely on their running game, they can do so with potential rookie of the year Eddie Lacy, as well as James Starks, who had a big game against the Bears last week. Of course, things won’t come as easy against the San Francisco defense as they did last week against the Chicago defense. The Packers may have one of the best rushing attacks in the NFL, but they’ll be going up against one of the top rush defenses in the league, and whichever team gets the better of that matchup will have a distinct advantage, especially if the weather conditions make it difficult to throw the ball. As good as Rodgers can be, it will be tough for him if the Packers are forced to become one-dimensional on offense against a quality defense, so it’s imperative that the Packers run the ball effectively and maintain balance on offense, especially if the Green Bay defense struggles and the game turns into a shootout in the second half.

PREDICTION
It’s inevitable that the cold temperatures at Lambeau Field will become a factor, although it may end up helping the 49ers more than the Packers, as the strength of the 49ers is their defense, which should be largely unaffected by the weather. The Packers have made a great run to the playoffs, but the 49ers are a more balanced team and better suited for the postseason. It’ll be tough for both teams to throw the ball, and while Rodgers will have some success in the passing game, San Francisco has a better front-7 defensively, as well as a quarterback that can help move the ball on the ground, and those two areas will ultimately give the 49ers the edge. San Francisco 23, Green Bay 14.


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11Top 5 Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates: Chargers, Bengals, Texans, Packers, Rams

Yesterday, we took a look at the leading candidates for defensive rookie of the year, and now it’s time to take a closer look at the first-year standouts on the offensive side of the ball. There are a lot of great candidates for this award, but we’ve narrowed it down to the top five.

Keenan Allen, San Diego – In a tight and crowded rookie of the year race, Allen may be one of the few players that is starting to stand out. The Chargers needed somebody to step up at wide receiver and Allen responded, as he has become San Diego’s leading receiver with nearly 1,000 yards on the season and eight touchdowns. Few rookie receivers are able to make a big impact, but Allen has made a seamless transition from college to the NFL, and that has put him in good position to be offensive rookie of the year.

Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati – Bernard is only playing part time, but he has taken that part time play and carried it a long way. The Bengals drafted him to be a change-of-pace back, but he’s nearly in equal to BenJarvus Green-Ellis in yards, while averaging 4.3 yards per carry. What has separated Bernard from a lot of the other rookie running backs has been his pass catching ability, as he’s the team’s third leading receiver with 51 catches for over 400 yards and three touchdowns. He may not have enough carries or played a big enough role on his team to win the award, but he’s been a great addition to an offense with a lot of playmakers and has shown great promise during his rookie season.

DeAndre Hopkins, Houston – His team’s terrible record will probably prevent him from garnering serious consideration for the award, as will some of his inconsistencies, but Hopkins has made an instant impact for the Texans as a nice complement to veteran Andre Johnson. Hopkins has nearly eclipsed the 800-yard mark this season and is averaging 16 yards per reception. His chances to win are hurt by the fact that he only has two touchdowns on the season, but compared to other rookie wide receivers, Hopkins has had a good season and made a difference, even on a bad team.

Eddie Lacy, Green Bay – Lacy is most likely Allen’s biggest competition for offensive rookie of the year. He has gone over the 1,100-yard mark and found the end zone 10 times, while averaging nearly 80 yards per game. Most importantly, he has helped carry a team that has been without its starting quarterback for half the season. Lacy has had no trouble adjusting physically to life in the NFL, even against teams stacking the box against him. Perhaps most importantly, he’s only fumbled the ball once, so he’s taken care of the football and his team has been able to rely on him, which should carry him a long way in the rookie of the year race.

Zac Stacy, St. Louis – Stacy was my pick before the season as a rookie running back that could come out of nowhere and make an impact, and now he’s a dark horse to win rookie of the year. He didn’t start playing regularly until October, and yet Stacy still has 958 yards rushing on the season, making him second only to Lacy among rookies, and giving him a chance to eclipse 1,000 yards in what would essentially be three-quarters of a season. If his stats could be extrapolated to a full season and his team was better, Stacy would certainly be among the top two or three candidates for the award and have a real chance to be rookie of the year.


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11NFC Week 17 Power Rankings: Seahawks, Panthers, 49ers, Eagles, Cardinals, Saints, Packers and More

With one week left to play in the NFL season, things are finally coming into focus in the NFC, so let’s take one last crack at the NFC power rankings.

1. Seattle – It turns out the Seahawks aren’t unbeatable at home, but they’re still the top team in the NFC. Seattle may have lost two of their last three games, but their defense is still playing well and will be hard to score against in the postseason, while Russell Wilson has made game-winning plays when he’s needed to more times than not this season, and that’ll make them tough to take down in the playoffs.

2. Carolina – The Panthers have two things that make them the second best team in the NFC and a contender in the postseason: first, they have a top-5 defense that will play well whether they’re at home or on the road; and second, just as he did on Sunday against the Saints, Cam Newton has been great at driving the ball down the field in the final minutes to win games, and that clutch play will make them dangerous in the playoffs.

3. San Francisco – The 49ers have made it into the playoffs behind a top-notch defense, a defense that will make them tough to beat when they get to the postseason, even if the have to win three road games to get back to the Super Bowl. Colin Kaepernick has been a little inconsistent this year leading the offense, but he’s capable of doing some incredible things, and if he comes close to playing the way he did in the playoffs last year, San Francisco is a dangerous team.

4. Philadelphia – Who would have thought when the season began that the Eagles would end up being the fourth best team in the NFC, but they are. The offense is really clicking, which should be enough to get them past Dallas this week and into the postseason as a 10-win team. Philadelphia is for real, and they’ll be an interesting matchup for most of the teams in the NFC playoffs.

5. Arizona – If the Cardinals don’t make it to the playoffs, it’ll only be because they play in the toughest division in football. Arizona has won 10 games this season and they’re the only team to beat Seattle on the road this season, which is an impressive feat. Regardless of if they make the playoffs or not, the Cardinals are a top-5 team in the NFC.

6. New Orleans – The Saints have really slipped heading down the stretch, losing three of their last four games, albeit against quality teams. They simply aren’t reliable playing on the road and it looks like they’re going to be playing every game of the playoffs on the road, so unless they can find a way to get their offense going outside of the Super Dome, they may not last long in the playoffs.

7. Green Bay – The Packers are still overwhelmed with injuries, and there’s still no guarantee Aaron Rodgers will be back by the season finale, but they’ve managed to put themselves in position to get to the postseason with a win this week, and that’s quite an accomplishment for a team that’s been missing its starting quarterback for more than half the season and endured a five-game winless streak. It hasn’t been easy or pretty, but Green Bay has survived a tough stretch and over the last few weeks they’ve looked like a playoff-caliber team, even without Rodgers at the helm.

8. Chicago – The Bears have some serious issues on defense, which could ultimately keep them out of the postseason, but they’re going to be able to score against most teams with a balanced offensive attack that’s better than most of the offenses in the NFC. They probably don’t deserve a spot in the playoffs, but they’ve overcome an injury to their starting quarterback and have a chance to get to the postseason, and that’s something to be proud of.

9. Dallas – Tony Romo’s injury is meaningless, because the Dallas defense is going to be what keeps the Cowboys out of the playoffs. They may have stopped the Eagles back in week 7, but that’s unlikely to happen again the way the Philadelphia offense is playing. Looking back on the season, it’s hard to believe the Cowboys have lost as many games as they have, especially when they had a chance to runaway with the NFC East early in the season, but they have and the biggest reason for their struggles has been a terrible defense.

10. St. Louis – If they only had a quarterback, there’s no telling how good the Rams could have been this year. Even in the NFL’s best division, they still have a chance to finish .500, with wins over at least three playoff teams, possibly five. Regardless of their record, the Rams were one of the toughest teams for opposing teams to play all season with their vicious pass rush, and for that they deserve some recognition.

11. New York Giants – It wasn’t a good season for the Giants, but after starting the season 0-6, they have a chance to finish with a 7-9 record, which doesn’t sound all that bad, especially considering the number of times they turned the ball over this season. Things could have spiraled out of control for the Giants, but with a win this week they will have won seven of their final 10 games, which is a nice silver lining to such a disappointing season.

12. Detroit – Even though several of their losses came in close games, Detroit’s collapse over the second half of the season has been one of the worst in the NFL in recent memory, and it’ll likely cost Jim Schwartz his job. Considering that Chicago and Green Bay played without their starting quarterbacks for significant chunks of the season, there’s no excuse for the Lions not winning the division with all of their talent, as they might be the most disappointing team in the NFL.

13. Minnesota – The Vikings have suffered some close losses this season and they’ve played fairly well towards the end of the season, but with little clarity at the quarterback position, this wasn’t the season Minnesota was hoping for, and that’ll likely mean a new head coach and a new quarterback for the Vikings next season.

14. Atlanta – Some key injuries and an ill-equipped defense hurt the Falcons this season after they had high hopes for a Super Bowl run coming into the year. Atlanta has played much better down the stretch and stayed competitive with playoff-caliber teams, which isn’t much, but it’s something.

15. Tampa Bay – At times this season, the Bucs looked competitive and played like a team you wouldn’t want to face, but they hurt themselves in close games and didn’t show much consistency throughout the season. Tampa was terrible at the start of the season and they haven’t been much better towards the end of the season, showing little growth or improvement over the course of the season.

16. Washington – The Redskins have actually looked better with Kirk Cousins at quarterback than RG3, which should make for an interesting offseason, but ultimately it’s hard to argue against Washington being the worst team in the NFC this season, as they’ve been a disaster from beginning to end and could close out the season on an eight-game losing streak.


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11NFL Week 16 Preview: Cowboys-Redskins, Saints-Panthers, Steelers-Packers, Raiders-Chargers and More

There are two weeks left in the NFL season and yet the playoff picture remains unsettled. Let’s not waste our time with the meaningless games on this week’s schedule and take a closer look at all the games that have playoff implications.

Miami at Buffalo – The Dolphins need to win and get some help over the final two weeks in order to get to the playoffs, and a win over the Bills isn’t a guarantee, especially after Buffalo beat them earlier in the season. The Dolphins hurt themselves with turnovers when the teams met in week 7, and that’s not something that can repeat itself this time around, as Miami will have to do a better job of handling Buffalo’s defensive front, which can be disruptive against the Dolphin’s suspect offensive line. Thad Lewis will be Buffalo’s quarterback for the injured E.J. Manuel, but Lewis was the quarterback when the Bills beat the Dolphins in week 7, so that shouldn’t hold them back from trying to pull off a season sweep of the fish.

Minnesota at Cincinnati – Believe it or not, the Bengals still haven’t wrapped up the AFC North, nor have they assured themselves of a playoff spot yet. With a win and some help Cincinnati can lock up a postseason spot, but that may not be so easy against the Vikings, who have just one loss in their last four games. Matt Cassel has played great over the last three weeks, and even if Adrian Peterson doesn’t play, Cassel is capable of leading the offense and putting points on the board, which could put pressure on Andy Dalton to have a good game as well, and if Dalton doesn’t play well, the Bengals could be in trouble.

Indianapolis at Kansas City – If the Colts are going to be taken seriously in the postseason, this is a game they need to win. Indy hasn’t won two in a row since week 9, as their play since then has been erratic and inconsistent. If the Colts have another sluggish first half, they’re likely to be blown out, as the Chiefs have found a groove offensively in recent weeks, even though their defense has taken a step back. It all hinges on Andrew Luck, but if he’s sharp and the Chiefs can’t put pressure on him, Kansas City could find themselves in another shootout, which is something they’d like to stay away from.

Dallas at Washington – The Cowboys are sinking fast, but they may be catching a break by playing the Redskins this week. However, Kirk Cousins looked good in his first start of the season last week, and he’s certainly capable of carving up the Dallas defense, which has been downright terrible in recent weeks. If Cousins can get the Washington offense moving, it would put a lot of pressure on Tony Romo and the Dallas offense to win a shootout, which could lead to Romo forcing throws and making mistakes. As bad as the Redskins have been this year, all the pressure in this game is on Dallas, whose season will be over if they lose and the Eagles win, so all the problems the Cowboys have had the past two weeks need to be fixed in a hurry, because Washington would love to play spoiler against their division rivals.

New Orleans at Carolina – The winner of this game will win the NFC South and get a first round bye in the playoffs, although technically the Panthers would have to win in Atlanta next week to wrap everything up. Carolina has some adjustments to make after getting dominated by the Saints two weeks ago, but being at home should help, especially considering that the Saints have been a mediocre road team this season. New Orleans is most vulnerable when Drew Brees is put under pressure, so Carolina’s best chance to reverse the outcome of two weeks ago is to have an effective pass rush. Offensively, the Panthers will have to capitalize on red zone opportunities by getting into the end zone, something they’ve struggled to do. If Carolina can do those two things, they’ll have a chance to take down the Saints and win the division.

Denver at Houston – Despite last week’s loss, the Broncos are still in line to have home field throughout the playoffs if they win their final two games. On paper this looks like a mismatch, but if the Texans can run the ball effectively and control the clock the way San Diego did against the Broncos last week, Denver could have a problem. The Denver secondary also has to start playing better amidst all the injuries, as Houston has two quality wide receivers that have the potential to do some damage against a vulnerable secondary.

New York Giants at Detroit – The Lions are now on the outside of the playoffs after losing four of their last five games, but a home game against the Giants could be just what they need. After a brief glimmer of hope, the Giants have been abysmal the last two weeks and appear to be just playing out the season. If Detroit can start fast and get an early lead, the Giants may not put up much of a fight, but if the Lions are sluggish and can’t get their pass rush going against a questionable offensive line, the Giants will be able to hang around and could be a tough team for the struggling Lions to beat.

Arizona at Seattle – The Cardinals are still in contention, but if they’re going to make the playoffs they have to beat the Seahawks, who are virtually unbeatable at home. The first time these two teams met, Arizona couldn’t run the ball at all, which put a lot of pressure on Carson Palmer. If the Cardinals expect to win this game, they’ll need to run the ball effectively and play great defense, as they’ll need just about everything to go their way if they’re going to win in Seattle.

Pittsburgh at Green Bay – With or without Aaron Rodgers, the Packers need to win this game. They’ve found a way to win each of their last two games by a single point, but the Steelers are far better than either of the teams they’ve played the last two weeks. Pittsburgh has slim odds to reach the postseason, but they’re playing quality football on both sides of the ball, and there is no team in the NFL that wants to play them right now. Green Bay may have to beat Pittsburgh at their own game, by grinding it out on the ground and trying to be more physical than the Steelers, which will be tough, but if the Packers don’t have Rodgers, they’re going to have a hard time beating the Steelers, even at home.

Oakland at San Diego – San Diego still has slim playoff hopes if they can win out, but beating the Raiders may not be a lock. Oakland has picked it up offensively behind Matt McGloin and they may be able to keep pace with San Diego. However, the Raiders will need to avoid turning the ball over if they hope to win, and that could be a problem.

New England at Baltimore – There may be no hotter team in the NFL right now than the Ravens, and a win in this game will set up a de facto AFC North championship game next week against the Bengals. Baltimore is coming on strong at the right time of year while the Patriots are beginning to sputter and are barely able to pull out wins against bad teams. New England will need their defense to step up and play well in this game in order to stay close and have a chance in the 4th quarter, because the offense could have a tough time against the Baltimore defense, especially if they have to come from behind late in the game.

Chicago at Philadelphia – All of a sudden, the Bears control their own destiny in the NFC North, but to keep it that way they need to win a night game in Philadelphia against an offense that can be tough to stop. Chicago does not have a strong defense, and that could be a problem against Philadelphia’s potent offense. If the Bears can’t slow down the Eagles, it’ll be up to Jay Cutler to not only put a lot of points on the board, but also avoid costly turnovers. We know that Nick Foles takes care of the football while helping the Eagles reach the end zone, and it’ll be up to Cutler to do the same if the Bears are going to pull off the win on the road.


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11NFL Week 15 Preview: Redskins-Falcons, Bears-Browns, Patriots-Dolphins, Packers-Cowboys, Bengals-Steelers

We’re getting down to the nitty gritty with just three weeks left to play, and the playoff picture in both conferences is still far from decided. Things are bound to start taking shape after this weekend’s games, so let’s take a closer look at the week 15 schedule:

Washington at Atlanta – This game is meaningless playoffs wise, but it does have draft order significance, although the Redskins won’t have their first round pick anyway. Kirk Cousins is taking over at quarterback, so it’ll be interesting to see if he moves the ball any better than Robert Griffin III did. Of course, Cousins will have little affect on Washington’s defense, which will have to stop an Atlanta offense that is capable of scoring points against a weak defense.

Chicago at Cleveland – The Browns let one slip away last week, but they’ll have another chance to play spoiler this week, as the Bears can’t afford to lose another game the rest of the season. Chicago was lightning in a bottle offensively Monday night, but that won’t be so easy against a tough Cleveland defense. Despite winning one game in the past two months, the Browns have a solid defense, and with Jason Campbell at quarterback, Cleveland’s offense is capable of scoring points against a questionable Chicago defense, which means a win is far from a certainty for the Bears, whose defense needs to play with a sense of urgency on the road in order to win.

Houston at Indianapolis – The Colts have already locked up the division, but they need to start playing better down the stretch or their postseason will be brief and disappointing, and this is a game the Colts should be able to win in order to get back on track. As for the Texans, they are still riding an 11-game losing streak, but they’ve lost plenty of close games during that stretch and looked better with Matt Schaub back at quarterback last week, so this is a game they can steal if Indianapolis continues to struggle and doesn’t play a complete game.

New England at Miami – The Patriots are lucky to have won the last two weeks, and they won’t have much margin for error this week down in Miami against a team that needs to win to stay in the playoff hunt. Despite some deficiencies, the Dolphins are playing good football and always put themselves in position to win in the 4th quarter; Ryan Tannehill and company need to make sure they’re the ones making the game-winning plays late, especially against a team that has a history of making key plays when it matters the most. Miami is tied with Baltimore for the last playoff spot, but the Ravens own the tiebreaker between the two teams, so there is no margin for error down the stretch for the Dolphins, as they have to finish ahead of Baltimore to make the postseason, and that’ll be tough to do if they lose this game.

Philadelphia at Minnesota – The Eagles are really rolling right now, and their offense should be tough to stop inside a dome, where there’s no chance of the weather becoming a factor. The Vikings are a little better than their record indicates, and they’ll put up a fight against a contending team, but if Adrian Peterson doesn’t play, or isn’t 100%, it’ll be difficult to keep up with Philadelphia’s offense.

Seattle at New York Giants – The Giants put up a fight after starting the season 0-6, but after their performance last week in San Diego it looks like their season is over. Meanwhile, the Seahawks are comfortably in first place, but they won’t be happy about last week’s loss, which means they’ll be motivated to play on the road, whereas the Giants may have resigned themselves to just playing out the season.

San Francisco at Tampa Bay – The 49ers made a statement by beating Seattle last week, but their playoff spot is not yet secure, so they need to bring that same intensity with them to Tampa Bay. We know the Bucs are going to play hard, and they’re just good enough to take advantage of teams that aren’t at the top of their game, especially on defense. The San Francisco offense needs to do a better job of finishing drives in the end zone than they did last week, because if they don’t the Bucs will hang around and have a chance to pull off the upset.

Buffalo at Jacksonville – Nothing much to see here, although the recent resurgence by Jacksonville is a pleasant surprise for a team that some had pegged as a one or two win team this season. The Bills embarrassed themselves last week in Tampa, and they need to avoid repeating that this week and at least play with some pride.

Kansas City at Oakland – There’s nothing like a good old-fashioned AFC West rivalry. The Raiders are out of contention, but they’re going to play hard and look to knock off the Chiefs on their way to the postseason. If the Oakland offense can get it going like they have the past couple of weeks, this game could get interesting, although the Chiefs can lock in a postseason birth with a win, so they won’t be taking the Raiders lightly, while also hoping that their recent offensive surge will continue.

New York Jets at Carolina – The Panthers had a rough time last Sunday night and they need to respond well this week or speculation will start to grow that they peaked too early. Of course, the Jets may be the best team for them to play right now. New York had a nice game offensively last week against Oakland, but that’ll be tough to repeat against Carolina’s defense. As long as the Panther’s defense gets back on track, winning shouldn’t be an issue and they can go back to setting their sights on the postseason.

Green Bay at Dallas – It doesn’t look like Aaron Rodgers will play in this one, but that doesn’t mean the Packers won’t be able to score against the Dallas defense, which was atrocious Monday night and now has a short week to prepare for the Packers. If Green Bay can establish their running game early, it could soften up the Cowboy’s back-seven and create some space in the secondary for Matt Flynn to get the ball downfield. If the Packers are anywhere close to as efficient on offense against Dallas as the Bears were Monday night, once again all the pressure will be on Tony Romo and the offense, which is not where Dallas wants to be. The Cowboys can score on offense, but it won’t matter unless their defense can get some stops.

Arizona at Tennessee – This could be a tricky game for the Cardinals, but with Seattle and San Francisco on the schedule the final two weeks, it’s a game they need to win. Arizona has built up a lot of momentum over the past month and a half, and they need to keep that going into the final three weeks. In this game, the Cardinals need to start fast and take an early lead. The Titans would like to win and play spoiler, but if Arizona gets up early, it’ll be easier to take care of business against a team that’s just 2-4 at home this season.

New Orleans at St. Louis – The Saints were quite impressive last week at home against the Panthers, but now it’s time to show everybody that they can just as impressive on the road. The Rams haven’t looked all that threatening the past couple of weeks, but they’re capable of pulling of a surprise, so the Saints need to make sure they’re crisp and efficient on offense by controlling the St. Louis pass rush, which could pose some problems for the Saints. For now, New Orleans has a strong hold on the NFC South, but a loss in St. Louis could cause some problems for them heading into their road trip to Carolina next week.

Cincinnati at Pittsburgh – A couple of close losses the past two weeks have all but ended Pittsburgh’s postseason hopes, but they’ve playing much better than they were early in the season, and they’ll have a chance to knock off the Bengals at home Sunday night. The Steelers are going to have to clamp down defensively and force Andy Dalton into making bad decisions and bad throws because playing from behind against the Cincinnati defense will be a difficult task for them. If the game stays low scoring, the Steelers will have a good chance of winning, but if Dalton plays mistake free football the Bengals should score plenty of points, making it hard for the Steelers to keep up.


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11NFL Week 14 Preview: Colts-Bengals, Falcons-Packers, Raiders-Jets, Lions-Eagles, Chiefs-Redskins and More

We’ve made it to December, and that means just four weeks left in the NFL regular season. There is plenty left to be decided concerning the playoffs, so let’s take a closer look at all the games on the week 14 schedule:

Indianapolis at Cincinnati – Both these teams are heading to the playoffs, although they probably won’t meet unless both get to the AFC Championship Game. As bad as the Colts have been over the past month, they will clinch the AFC South with a win, although if Indy doesn’t get better performances out of their defense and running game, Andrew Luck is going to have a lot of heavy lifting to do against a good Cincinnati defense. Meanwhile, the Bengals have been in a lot of close games and are battle tested; in fact, they’re two overtime losses away from an eight-game winning streak, so they’re actually playing quite well coming into this game. Even if Andy Dalton isn’t at the top of his game, the Bengals have a lot of playmakers that will be tough for a questionable Colts defense to stop.

Atlanta at Green Bay – The status of Aaron Rodgers is still up in the air, but even without Rodgers, the Packers should be able to move the ball against Atlanta’s defense. Green Bay has a sliver of postseason hope left, but they can’t afford to lose at home to the Falcons, who are still playing for pride. The Packers will need to show a sense of urgency to secure their first win in over a month, even against the 3-9 Falcons.

Cleveland at New England – The Patriots almost let one slip away last week, and they need to make sure that doesn’t happen again this week against another inferior team, especially with New England still chasing Denver for the top seed in the AFC. The Browns shouldn’t be able to hang with the Patriots in Foxboro, unless the Patriots let them.

Oakland at New York Jets – Expect this one to be ugly. The Jets are good enough on defense to shut down the Raiders, but they’re also terrible on offense and shouldn’t be expected to score many points. Whichever team can make fewer mistakes and commit fewer penalties, a steep challenge for both sides, will have the advantage in this game.

Detroit at Philadelphia – This game has major playoff implications, with the Lions trying to create some distance in their division and the Eagles locked in a tie with the Cowboys in their division. The Philadelphia defense has shown signs of improvement lately, but playing Detroit will be a true test of how good they are. If the Eagles are truly better on defense than most people think, they should be able to slow down Detroit’s offense enough to win this game, because the Lions may not be able to stop Nick Foles and the Eagles on offense. However, if Detroit’s offense gets rolling as well, this one could go back and forth and become a shootout between Foles and Matthew Stafford.

Miami at Pittsburgh – This game is critical in the AFC wildcard race, as the Steelers are still alive, but only if they win this game. Pittsburgh won three straight before losing on Thanksgiving, and if they can get their offense rolling again, they could have the advantage in this game, especially at home. The Dolphins will need Ryan Tannehill to step up his game and lead them to victory in a tough road environment against a defense that can be tough to go against; otherwise, Miami’s playoff hopes could start to slip.

Buffalo at Tampa Bay – The Bills need to win out to have any hope of reaching the postseason, although it’s not impossible, considering their remaining schedule. Doug Marrone had Greg Schiano’s number when the two faced each other as head coaches in college, so the Bills should have an advantage in that department, although most coaches have had Schiano’s number the past couple of seasons. If Buffalo can avoid costly turnovers, they have a good chance to win on the road.

Kansas City at Washington – The last thing the Redskins need right now is to see a Chief’s team that is angry after losing three straight. Of course, Washington is at home and the Kansas City defense isn’t quite as intimidating as they were earlier in the season, so there is some hope for them. If RG3 can avoid Kansas City’s great pass rush, the Redskins should be able to score some points and have a chance to win. However, if the Chiefs get after RG3, a disastrous year in Washington will continue.

Minnesota at Baltimore – The Ravens have moved toward the front of the AFC wildcard race, but even at home the Vikings can be a tricky team to face. Baltimore has one of the top rush defenses in the NFL, but those stats go out the window when facing Adrian Peterson. If Baltimore can stuff the run, they should win easily, but if they can’t, it’ll be up to Joe Flacco to give the Ravens their third straight win.

Tennessee at Denver – The Broncos are rolling again after last week’s win in Kansas City, and they should be able to win again this week, officially end any hope the Titans have of making the playoffs. It will be nice to see John Fox back on the sidelines for the Broncos, and interesting to see how the team to reacts to having their head coach back, as they have four weeks left to come together and prepare themselves for a deep postseason run.

St. Louis at Arizona – The Cardinals need to avenge a week 1 loss to the Rams if they’re going to remain in the playoff hunt. Three turnovers doomed Arizona last week, and that’s something that can’t repeat itself this week against a St. Louis defense that can pressure quarterbacks and force turnovers. The Rams are also a little more dangerous offensively than they were in week 1 with two solid running backs and Tavon Austin starting to breakout, so the Cardinals will have their work cut out for them at home against a team that has the potential to play spoiler down the stretch.

New York Giants at San Diego – The playoff hopes for both teams are bleak and both will need to win out to have a chance, so both teams should have a lot of urgency to win. Outside of that, the matchup of Eli Manning and Phillip Rivers is always an interesting one, as the two were traded for one another on draft day about a decade ago. Whichever team gets better play out of their quarterback should win the game.

Seattle at San Francisco – The Seahawks crushed the 49ers back in week 2, and now San Francisco seeks some redemption against Seattle, who can lock up the division with a win. It’s hard to imagine anybody beating Seattle after what they did to the Saints on Monday night, although the 49ers look much improved in recent weeks and they have a front-7 that may be able to force the Seahawks into throwing the ball to win the game, and Seattle may not have the wide receivers to do that. However, the key to this game is Colin Kaepernick. His slump started when he faced the Seahawks the first time this season, and he’s going to need to make plays with his arm and his legs if the 49ers are going to have a chance to win.

Carolina at New Orleans – This is the game of the week, a Sunday night showdown with the NFC South Division lead on the line. These teams will meet again in two weeks, so this game isn’t the deciding factor in the division race, but it will go a long way. Moreover, the Saints haven’t played great football for the past month, and they are coming off a humiliating loss to the Seahawks Monday night, while the Panthers are riding an eight-game winning streak. However, New Orleans remains undefeated at home this season, so something will have to give. Carolina’s defense has shut down a lot of teams this season, but stopping the Saints in the Super Dome might be their toughest challenge yet, so we’ll see if they’re up to it.


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11NFL Thanksgiving Day Preview: Packers-Lions, Raiders-Cowboys, Steelers-Ravens

Thanksgiving Day isn’t all about food; football is also a tradition on the final Thursday in November. Let’s take a closer look at the three games we’ll be watching while we stuff our faces.

GREEN BAY AT DETROIT
No team in the NFC North won last week, and not only has that made the divisional race tight, but it has also made it unlikely that the division will send more than one team to the postseason, making this a critical game for a pair of NFC North teams jockeying for position. Green Bay is winless in November without Aaron Rodgers, but somehow they are tied in the loss column with Chicago and Detroit and are still alive in the division. Meanwhile, the Lions had a golden opportunity to take control over the division after beating the Bears a few weeks ago, but instead they’ve lost two in a row, which has kept the division close and given this game massive importance, especially considering Detroit’s loss to Green Bay earlier this year.

The Packers got a glimmer of hope in the second half last week with the play of Matt Flynn, who should give Green Bay competent play at the quarterback position if Rodgers isn’t ready to return from his injury. Another key for the Packers will be running back Eddie Lacy, who’s rushed for at least 70 yards on seven occasions this year. The Lions have lost the last two weeks despite stopping their opponents rushing attack completely, so a viable ground attack would make things real tough for Detroit’s defense and give Flynn the support he needs to have success throwing the ball.

Of course, there could be a lot of pressure on Flynn if Green Bay’s defense can’t keep Matthew Stafford and the Detroit offense contained. The Packers only allowed nine points against the Lions back in Week 5, but they haven’t played all that well over the past month, as they’ve dealt with injuries, and in a dome stadium it could be tough for them to stop all the weapons the Lions have on offense. Expect this game to stay close into the 4th quarter, and expect the score line to get into the 20’s, but if it creeps into the 30’s, the Packers could be in trouble on the road without Rodgers in a game that both teams desperately need.


OAKLAND AT DALLAS
The Cowboys got their season back on track with a last-second field goal against the Giants, but they’re going to be in a dogfight with the Philadelphia Eagles down the stretch, as they hope to secure the NFC East, and losing to the Raiders at home is not something that can happen. Meanwhile, Oakland suffered a last-second loss to Tennessee last week and now they need to win out to have a chance at making the postseason, so this game has plenty of significant for both teams.

Due in part (but not completely) to injuries, Dallas has one of the worst defenses in the NFL against both the run and the pass. Of course, the Raiders may not have the kind of offense that can take advantage of that. Matt McGloin has been solid the past couple of weeks, but he’s not necessarily going to take a lot of shots downfield against a vulnerable Dallas secondary. However, Rashad Jennings could be a threat against the Cowboy’s rush defense, as Jennings has come on strong over the past month and is averaging five yards per carry on the season. If Jennings has success running the ball and McGloin isn’t asked to do too much, the Raiders are good enough to stay competitive with the Cowboys in a low-scoring game.

It’ll be up to the Dallas offense to overwhelm the Raiders early and crush any hope Oakland has of springing the upset. Dallas is best when they’re running the ball effectively, or at least when they’re trying to run the ball and have a balanced offensive approach. Even if the Cowboys think they can score points through the air, they have to give running the ball a chance, even against an Oakland defense that’s top-10 in the league against the run. If the Raiders can force Dallas to abandon their running game completely they could keep the one-dimensional Cowboys from running away with the game early and give themselves a chance in the second half, which is all they can ask for against a more talented team.


PITTSBURGH AT BALTIMORE
For a game between two sub-.500 teams, this one is quite intriguing. Both teams are trying to make a late-season playoff push and find themselves in a six-way tie for the final wildcard spot in the AFC with a record of 5-6. Both teams have a difficult schedule the final month of the season, with Pittsburgh’s being slightly more manageable, and the loser of this game will have a tough time crawling back into the mix, while the winner stays alive in the playoff race and will have a temporary lead over the rest of the teams competing for that final playoff spot.

These two teams met back in Week 7, with the Steelers winning an ugly game 19-16 on a last-second field goal, so this should be a fairly even matchup. Ordinarily these two teams would play a tough and physical brand of football between the tackles, but neither team has been particularly effective running the ball this year. Of course, both quarterbacks are capable or airing it out, but neither has a great collection of playmakers, and both defenses have defended the pass well this season, which could make for a game between two painfully inept offenses.

Knowing how important this game is, both teams should play it tight to the vest, which means the game could be decided by whichever team takes a risk and makes a big play at the right time, or which team makes a mistake at the wrong time. Either way, it’ll be an ugly but interesting way to cap off Thanksgiving night.


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11NFL Week 12 Preview: Steelers-Browns, Vikings-Packers, Chargers-Chiefs, Panthers-Dolphins, Cowboys-Giants and More

The playoff race is heating up in the NFL, and with six weeks left to play almost every team is still alive, but many face must-win situations this week in order to keep their hopes alive.  Let’s take a closer look at every game on the week 12 schedule:

Pittsburgh at Cleveland – Both teams need this game, as the winner will be in the midst of the wild card chase while the loser will be a long shot to get there.  The Steelers have come on strong as of late, winning four of their last six and looking real good the past two weeks.  Meanwhile, the Browns shot themselves in the foot last week with turnovers, and that’s a problem they’ll have to get under control this week against a Pittsburgh defense that will be looking to force turnovers.  If Jason Campbell can take better care of the ball Cleveland will have a chance to get back on track; if not, expect the Steelers to keep their momentum going.

Tampa Bay at Detroit – The Bucs look like a real NFL team after winning their last two games, and they have a real chance to make it three in a row this week.  Look for Tampa to continue feeding the ball to running back Bobby Rainey, although the Lions are one of the best teams at stopping the run, and if they force Mike Glennon to beat them they should be in good shape.  On the other side of the ball, the prolific Detroit passing attack that got shut out in the second half last week by Pittsburgh will be challenged again this week by Tampa’s talented secondary.  Expect this game to be a lot closer than the team’s records on paper would indicate.

Minnesota at Green Bay – Aaron Rodgers still isn’t back, but with or without him this is a game the Packers need to win after losing three straight.  Green Bay’s defense has allowed 27 points each of the last three weeks, and despite some key injuries on that side of the ball, they can’t afford to allow that many against Minnesota, a team that scored 31 points against them a month ago.  Scott Tolzien has been decent, but he’s not going to be able to climb out of a hole if he faces a double-digit deficit, so this game will come down to the Packers keeping Adrian Peterson contained and keeping the Vikings out of the end zone.

San Diego at Kansas City – If the Chargers are going to make the playoffs, they’ll need to find a way to beat either Kansas City or Denver down the stretch, and while winning in Arrowhead is difficult, it’s certainly possible for Phillip Rivers and company, despite three straight losses.  San Diego has had some success this season with a short, quick passing attack, which could help them take Kansas City’s pass rush out of the game.  If the Chargers can control the clock and avoid turning the ball over, they should be able to keep the game close and give themselves a chance to win in the 4th quarter.

Chicago at St. Louis – The Bears enter this game tied atop the NFC North, but beginning a stretch of four road games in five weeks, although the Rams have struggled to win at home this year.  Last time out, St. Louis hung 38 points on the Colts and if the Bears don’t play better on defense, there’s a chance something like that can happen again this week.  In a battle of backup quarterbacks, Chicago should have the advantage with Josh McCown, but they can’t ask him to do too much on the road, which means their defense better come to play, or their playoff hopes could start to slip.

Carolina at Miami – By now, just about everybody should be convinced that the Panthers are for real, and now they’ll put their six game winning streak on the line down in Miami.  Ryan Tannehill has played well the past few weeks, but he’ll have his work cut out for him against Carolina’s defense, and the Dolphins shouldn’t count on scoring too many points.  If Cam Newton and the offense can get it going and find the end zone a few times, the Panthers should feel good about getting their seventh straight win.

New York Jets at Baltimore – Based on their pattern of alternating wins and losses this year, the Jets are slated to win this week, but that won’t be a given against the Ravens.  Baltimore ran the ball better last week, and their defense has also played better of late, so it’ll be tough for Geno Smith to find a groove and get back on track this week.  Of course, the Jets boast the top rushing defense in the NFL, and they’ll be looking to bounce back after last week’s embarrassment against the Bills.  If you like stout defenses and futile offenses, this is the game for you, as the first team to reach 20 points should win, assuming either team is even able to score that much.

Jacksonville at Houston – There’s not much at stake here except for positioning in next year’s draft.  If the Texans lose at home to Jacksonville, things will get real ugly for Gary Kubiak, although the Texans have been a lot more competitive this year than the Jaguars, as Houston has lost its last four games by less than a touchdown, so the Texans should be clear favorites despite having just two wins on the season.

Tennessee at Oakland – Both teams need to win this game if they expect to remain in contention in the AFC wildcard race.  Ryan Fitzpatrick was solid last week against the Colts, but the Titans have yet to win a game that he’s started.  On the other sideline, the Raiders will start Matt McGloin for the second straight week after he helped lead Oakland to a win last week.  Both teams are desperate for a win and forced to go with a backup quarterback, so whichever defense does a better job of making things difficult for the opposing quarterback will have the advantage.

Indianapolis at Arizona – The Colts have survived a slow start in two of the last three weeks, but they’ll be playing with fire if they start out sluggish again this week, as the Cardinals are a team that can run them out of the building if they start slow, as Arizona comes in with a three-game winning streak.  Arizona has a stout run defense that should be able to slow down Indy’s inconsistent running game and put all the pressure on Andrew Luck, who will at least need to get some help from his defense, with Carson Palmer is coming off a game in which he threw for over 400 yards.  If the Colts allow him to do that again they could be in trouble.  There’s a good chance that this game turns into a shootout between Luck and Palmer, and it could go either way.


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11NFL Week 10 Good, Bad and Ugly: Rams, Seahawks, Bears, Giants, Bears, Colts, Packers and More

There were certainly some unexpected occurrences during week 10 of the NFL schedule. Let’s try to recap everything and wrap up the week that was with the good, the bad, and the ugly:

GOOD
Tavon Austin – We’ve impatiently waited for the 8th overall pick in this year’s draft to show us something and Austin finally delivered. He caught just two passes, but they totaled 138 yards and both finished with him running into the end zone. Austin also ran a punt back 98 yards for a touchdown, as he finally showed off his explosiveness and was the primary catalyst for the Ram’s blowout win over the Colts. The key is now for Austin to repeat that type of performance in the weeks to come, as St. Louis still doesn’t have much of a passing attack, even with his dynamic playmaking ability.

Seattle’s offense – The Seahawks have had some really poor performances in recent weeks and nearly lost their last two games, but they had a real nice bounce back effort against the Falcons on Sunday. Quarterback Russell Wilson flirted with 300 yards passing, running back Marshawn Lynch went for 145 yards on the ground, and Golden Tate topped the 100-yard mark receiving. Of course, it did come against Atlanta’s defense, so take it with a grain of salt, but Seattle gained nearly 500 yards, had great balance, and didn’t turn the ball over, which is a huge step in the right direction for their offense.

Antonio Brown – Brown was a one-man wrecking crew against the Bills. He had 104 yards receiving and broke off a 50-yard punt return, as he was Pittsburgh’s best player in two phases of the game. Brown has been the only reliable receiver Ben Roethlisberger has had this season, and when he has games like this the Steelers have a chance to win, which they did quite easily on Sunday.

Carolina’s defense – The Panthers were unbelievably impressive on defense against San Francisco. Granted, the 49ers haven’t been the most impressive offensive team in the NFL this year, but holding them under 100 yards throwing the ball and 151 total yards is a great accomplishment. Even against a quality offensive line, the Panthers were able to get pressure on Colin Kaepernick all game long and sacked him six times, holding San Francisco to just three field goals and giving their offense opportunities to put enough points on the board to win.

BAD
New York Giant’s turnovers – The good news is that the Giants won and kept their slim playoff hopes alive, but they certainly didn’t make it easy on themselves by turning the ball over three times. The Giants fumbled the ball away twice and Eli Manning continued his unsteady play by throwing a pick six. Ultimately, they were able to hang on for the win, but they won’t be able to get away with mistakes like that against tougher teams moving forward.

E.J. Manuel’s return – The Bills were glad to welcome back their starting quarterback, especially after last week’s failure with Jeff Tuel at quarterback, but Manuel definitely had some rust to shake off and didn’t play the way Buffalo was hoping he would. Manuel had trouble with his accuracy, and even when he did make accurate throws, his receivers didn’t do him any favors, as the Buffalo offense was stagnant for much of the game. For a rookie to miss a month with an injury, we should have expected him to struggle, but if Manuel had been sharper the Bills would have had a chance to win a game they needed to have to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Jay Cutler’s return – There was a lot of excitement in Chicago about Cutler’s return for the big divisional matchup against the Lions, but things did not go according to plan for the Bears. Cutler looked a little off for much of the game, and despite plenty of good throws, he completed just 21 of his 40 pass attempts. By the end of the game, Cutler was back on the sidelines with another injury, as Josh McCown nearly led the Bears to a game-tying score. McCown played well while Cutler was out, and who knows if things would have gone differently had Cutler taken another week off to recover and McCown had played the entire game.

Injury to Sean Lee – Lee left the Cowboy’s game against the Saints in the first half with a hamstring injury, and it completely changed the complexion of the game. Dallas was missing the leader of their defense, and it showed. The Cowboy’s defense looked like last year’s defense, as they got torched against Drew Brees and the New Orleans passing game without Lee’s intelligence and coverage skills.

UGLY
Jake Locker’s injury – This week was supposed to be an opportunity for Locker to get back on track, but instead Locker threw just nine passes, including an interception, before having to leave with an injury that appears to be season ending. Back up Ryan Fitzpatrick played well, but the Titans still lost to Jacksonville, and despite still being in the middle of the wild card race, they can’t feel good about their chances with Fitzpatrick as their quarterback for the rest of the season.

Andy Dalton – For most of their game against the Ravens, Dalton did more harm than good for the Bengals, and reminded us that he may actually be the biggest thing that’s standing in the way of Cincinnati being able to make a deep playoff run. Dalton threw three interceptions and completed less than 50% of his passes, as a subpar performance by him played a big role in a Cincinnati loss for the second straight week.

Indianapolis Colts – The Colts had the advantage in several statistical categories, except for the ones that really mattered: they had just 18 rushing yards, they turned the ball over five times, and they converted just two of their 12 third down opportunities. Andrew Luck had perhaps his worst game as a pro, throwing three interceptions and fumbling a ball that got returned for a touchdown. Indianapolis followed up last week’s close call against Houston with a truly pitiful effort, as they are a far cry from the team that beat Denver a couple weeks ago.

Green Bay’s quarterback situation – If losing Aaron Rodgers wasn’t bad enough, back up Seneca Wallace couldn’t even get through his first series without going down with an injury as well. Wallace actually completed his first five passes and looked to have good command of the offense, but when the Packers had to go to third string quarterback Scott Tolzien they didn’t have much of a chance, especially after the Eagles took a commanding lead early in the 3rd quarter. Not only did Green Bay lose at home, but they are also in real bad shape at quarterback moving forward, and could have trouble staying in contention until Rodgers gets back.


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