The Falcons and Jets, a couple of teams talking Super Bowl in the preseason, seemingly are back on track. But will they survive gigantic tests this weekend?
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Plus, we examine the real face of failure in San Diego.
It’s our weekly sizzle and fizzle in the NFL.
This was Rex’s vision. He challenged the rest of the NFL to beat the Patriots and the Giants and Steelers have obliged. He wanted home playoff games in New York, something that can only be guaranteed by winning the division. Rex’s Jets played their best defensive game of the year last week by totally manhandling the Bills.
Don’t minimize it. The Bills led the AFC with 30 points per game. The game was in Buffalo. Offensive player of the year favorite Fred Jackson did nothing against the previously gashed Jets run defense. Rex’s “ground and pound” philosophy is back.
Shonn Greene has been great the last two weeks. As a result, Mark Sanchez has been more efficient. Brian Schottenheimer should give Greene his 20 carries to establish balance and attack the maligned Patriots defensive backs with Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress, Jeremy Kerley and Dustin Keller. The Jets have the Patriots on the ropes. They now have to deliver the knockout blow and stake claim to the AFC East. I believe they are ready.
On Thursday, I spoke to Jets linebacker Calvin Pace on SiriusXM NFL Radio and linebacker Bart Scott and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine on SNY. To a man, they are confident, but hardly braggadocios like they have been in the past. Darrelle Revis will put a blanket on Wes Welker and be physical with him. Pettine will pressure Tom Brady like he did in the postseason last year. Scott, incredibly quiet on the field and in the interview room this year, finally made a play last week, stopping Fred Jackson on a huge 4th-and-1. He knows how big a game this is for New York.
Pace explained, “This is definitely what we’ve wanted to take the next step forward. The Patriots have been good for so long. They are the Evil Empire. They’ve had a firm hold on the division for a long time. We had a rough stretch (the three-game losing streak) but we took a punch and came back fighting. We need to start fast on Sunday. Take a look at recent champions. The Packers. The Giants when they made their run. The Steelers with Jerome Bettis. The season really starts in November.”
Pettine is a great defensive coach. His attention to detail is legendary. I believe he is a future head coach in the NFL. Pettine told us on Loud Mouths yesterday that the defense improved against Buffalo simply because of “effort and intensity.” On dealing with Tom Brady and the Patriots, he said, “We need to pressure New England and Brady with a variety of pressures. You can’t just beat them with a four-man rush. And that’s one of our issues. We don’t have an elite pass rusher. We have to manufacture pressure. We have to be unconventional. We’ve had some success against them in the past like that, but we need the coverage down field.”
Rex has made this a must-win game. His team will back him up.
Quietly, the Atlanta Falcons are back!
The Falcons, quite frankly, looked awful in the first quarter of the season. They even were unimpressive to the eye in wins against the Eagles and Seahawks. But they are back to playing winning football, winning three straight games. At 5-3, they host the rival 6-3 Saints on Sunday. If they want to win the NFC South, if they want to be taken seriously as a wild-card team, the Falcons must beat the Saints.
I think they are up for the challenge. They had the best record in the NFC last season. The Falcons brass thought they broke training camp with a better team. This is a gigantic game to prove they belong among the NFC’s elite.
Talking to budding star linebacker Curtis Lofton on the SiriusXM Blitz, he explained, "It is about overall attitude and execution. Earlier in the season, we had 10 guys right and one guy wrong. Now it is 11 guys doing the right thing."
Lofton has become the leading tackler and leader of this previously challenged defense. He revealed, "During the lockout I watched tape. I watched every play. I improved my blitzing and overall understanding of pass coverage. I stepped up my leadership in practice. I stepped up my energy. I am now a vocal guy on game day. I have the respect of my teammates to get in someone’s face."
Lofton singles out Sean Weatherspoon and Corey Peters as two defenders who have quietly stood out and made a difference.
They are going to be tested by Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints. Brees has had a knack for turnovers on the road this year. Atlanta must force the issue.
On offense, Julio Jones rightly gets the accolades for his two acrobatic catches last week. But Lofton agrees with my take that the key for Atlanta is, "The run game setting up play action and setting up Matt (Ryan) throwing bombs down field.”
Finally, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has the offense going through Michael Turner, who has rewarded his team in the three-game winning streak. Here’s a nugget of domination: when Turner gets 21 carries in a game, his teams are 25-1. New Orleans’ revamped defensive line has struggled. The Saints, as a team, have been very poor at tackling. Turner should dominate. Turner, setting up Ryan, gives the Falcons their best chance for a win.
Finally, the Falcons have the look. Now, they need to raise the bar.
It’s easy to blame Norv Turner for everything. The Chargers have lost four straight. They failed to make the playoffs. Let’s look at general manager A.J. Smith’s failures over the last few years, starting with firing Marty Schottenheimer and refusing to even talk to Marty when they worked together. Smith’s cantankerous personality hurts San Diego. It would be one thing if Smith was consistently making good, sound football decisions, but the bloom is off the rose. Smith decided Turner was the answer for his team. He needs to be held responsible for that decision alone.
Do you want to examine his drafting success in recent years? Larry English, anyone? His ego prevented Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill from playing full seasons last year. It was clear he needed to add more depth on the offensive line. Smith didn’t. Did you see Brandyn Dombrowski get manhandled by the Raiders on Thursday night, just like he did when he played for McNeill last year? Smith let Darren Sproles leave. He is having a great season for the Saints. He let Michael Turner go via free agency. Study the Chargers’ defense. Is it oozing incredible talent?
If I’m Chargers ownership, I am looking at a clean sweep in the offseason.
He has swung and missed in Rob Deer fashion on defensive players in the draft, trades, and free agency over the last few years. Former second-round pick Darius Butler was cut in the preseason. So was former first-rounder Brandon Meriweather. They just jettisoned Leigh Bodden. And Belichick, who when we talked at training camp was so excited about the potential of Albert Haynesworth, finally had to get rid of him because it didn’t seem like Haynesworth gave a damn.
The Patriots, coached by Belichick, have the single worst defense in the NFL. Let that sink in for a while.
I had no problem with Tomlin punting late in the loss to the Ravens after Pittsburgh was hit with a delay of game penalty on a field goal. But Tomlin told us on the SiriusXM Blitz that it was designed. He wanted to make the Ravens jump and he never had any intention of kicking. That doesn’t make any sense.