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Falcons pull ahead in punchless NFC South with ugly win; Week 11 Snaps

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we absorb the general wackiness of Week 11, the week when this NFL season officially stopped making sense ...

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​• Naturally, it had to come to this. In the NFC South this season, the theater of the absurd rules. Thus, your first-place Atlanta Falcons, ladies and gentlemen. They’re 4-6, making them the best team in football's worst division. When do you suppose they’ll get the go-ahead from the league to start printing up playoff tickets?

It was just a couple weeks ago, of course, that Falcons head coach Mike Smith was widely considered a dead man walking, with a five-game losing streak and almost zero chance of returning for an eighth season.

But look at Smith and his team now. A modest two-game winning streak has changed everything in Atlanta. The Falcons slopped their way past the pathetic Carolina Panthers 19-17 in Charlotte on Sunday, and combined with the Saints’ stunning 27-10 loss at home to Cincinnati, Atlanta now owns the top spot in the division that has been the league’s running punch line this season.

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For the moment, at least, Atlanta’s overtime win at home against New Orleans in Week 1 gives the Falcons the tie-breaking advantage over the 4-6 Saints, who are playing as if they don’t want anything to do with the playoffs this year.

Don’t get me wrong, the Falcons tried to lose this one, blowing a 16-3 lead in the fourth quarter and then sweating out not one but two potential game-winning field goal attempts in the final 1:26 (Carolina’s Graham Gano missed wide left from 46 yards and had his desperation 63-yard attempt blocked at the gun). But in the end, the Panthers (3-7-1) deserved to lose a little bit more than Atlanta, and that made just enough of a difference.

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​The Falcons know there’s work to do in their bid to lock down the NFC’s No. 4 seed in January, but unbelievably, they have a leg up in that race thanks to their 4-0 record against division foes, which includes a series sweep of Tampa Bay and wins over the Saints and Panthers. Nobody else might see beauty in the NFC South, but the Falcons probably like it just fine. They’re 0-6 when they play anyone but a division rival.

But here’s the bad news in Atlanta: The Falcons are almost out of division games, and their schedule over the coming month is quite challenging indeed. Atlanta has three home games on tap in the next four weeks, but they’re against Cleveland (6-4), Arizona (8-1) and Pittsburgh (6-4), sandwiched around a trip to Green Bay (6-3) in Week 14. No easy wins there. The Falcons just hope to survive long enough for their final two games, at home against the Panthers and at New Orleans. If they do, some lucky (or unlucky?) No. 5 seed in the NFC with a much better record than the Falcons is going to have to travel to Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs. Dallas, Green Bay, Detroit, Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco, consider yourselves warned.

At some point, I suppose the depths the NFC South has sunk to this year will become so ugly they’re beautiful. But I doubt Smith and his guys really care how it looks now. A 4-6 first-place record might be embarrassing, but it beats the heck out of the alternative. Isn’t that right, New Orleans?

Hey, somebody’s got to win this thing. With wins these past two weeks, the Falcons have said -- not loudly, mind you -- why not us? Unfathomable as it seems, Atlanta is not just alive in the sorry NFC South, it’s thriving. At least relatively speaking. With six weeks remaining in this regular season unlike many others, the Falcons’ drive to be the best of the worst rolls on.


• I give up trying to figure out these Saints. Somebody please put my preseason Super Bowl champion pick out of its misery. Now New Orleans has lost consecutive home games after finally finding a winning formula on the road in Week 9 at Carolina. Is there any facet of its game this team can count on in 2014? I can’t find one.

The Saints didn’t just lose to the previously struggling Bengals on Sunday at the Superdome. They got rolled. Used and abused. The Saints are undisciplined on defense and too inconsistent on offense. They had 330 yards of offense against Cincinnati and didn’t commit a turnover until the game was almost over, but still only produced a measly 10 points, thanks to numerous drives that bogged down in Bengals' territory. So much for the Saints' NFL record 28-game streak of scoring 20-plus points at home.

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And then there’s Rob Ryan’s defense, which is becoming a major liability. Cincinnati converted nine of the first 11 third-down situations it faced, and somehow the embattled Andy Dalton picked New Orleans apart for three touchdowns, zero interceptions, 220 yards and a 143.9 passer rating, which was 141.9 points higher than what he posted in last week’s Thursday night home loss to Cleveland.

Yes, the Saints have the same record as first-place Atlanta, and it’s not even possible to play your way out of this NFC South race. But New Orleans is a mess in so many different ways, it’s difficult to take it seriously as a team that could cause trouble in the playoffs -- if it can somehow get there. The Saints look soft, lacking in cohesion and confidence, and out of answers. And now even home games are a source of frustration for Sean Payton’s team.

• The Saints were so bad even their fans lost their mojo. Did you see the clip of that gold-clad Saints fan who basically ripped the football out of the hands of a woman wearing a Bengals jersey after Cincinnati tight end Jermaine Gresham flipped the ball in her direction following one of his two touchdown catches?

That’s just cold, man. Cold, cold, cold. The Bengals eventually made sure she got a football to take home, but the Saints fan left with his ill-gotten prize, drawing the heat of even fellow New Orleans fans who were sitting nearby.

• Aaron Brooks was inducted into the Saints’ Hall of Fame? Really? Aaron Brooks? I know he secured the franchise’s first playoff win during the 2000 season, but I don’t think of the team’s Aaron Brooks era as anything particularly close to Hall of Fame-worthy. He was pretty good for a little while there, but far from great. But hey, it’s their Hall and their call. They didn’t ask me to vote.

• Well that’s the way to shut us all up, Andy Dalton. You put that 2.0 passer rating against the Browns behind you quite nicely and showed the resiliency everyone was looking for this week. I wish I knew if the Bengals of Week 11 were the real Bengals, and the same goes for Dalton at quarterback. Consistency is not Cincinnati’s strong suit, but Marvin Lewis’s 6-3-1 team vaulted back into first place in the AFC North with the 17-point win at New Orleans. And the Dalton doubters must stay silent for at least one week.

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• Another big day for Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill, who toted the rock 27 times for 152 yards against the porous Saints defense. That’s the second time Hill has topped 150 this season -- he gashed the Jaguars for 154 in Week 9.

But Hill nearly committed a major blunder against the Saints, ripping off a 62-yard run in the final seconds of the first half but failing to get out of bounds to stop the clock. Cincinnati got its timeout called in the nick of time, with one second left, which led to a 42-yard Mike Nugent field goal and a 13-3 lead at the break. Hill almost fell asleep at the wheel, and if the Bengals had been in a closer game, that mental error could have really hurt.



• It wasn’t a productive week for last season’s Super Bowl teams, with both Seattle and Denver losing on the road in Missouri and in the process topping their combined six regular-season losses of a year ago. The Seahawks dropped to 6-4 with a 24-20 loss at Kansas City, and the Broncos are 7-3 after their surprising 22-7 defeat at the hands of those pesky Rams.

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The Broncos were short of weapons in the second half after losing tight end Julius Thomas (ankle), receiver Emmanuel Sanders (concussion) and running back Montee Ball. And while you can’t hit the panic button in Denver based on two losses in the past three weeks, it did seem strange to see the Broncos’ high-octane offense limited to a mere seven points -- its lowest total since Peyton Manning arrived in 2012. Denver couldn’t sustain drives against St. Louis and didn’t take a snap in the red zone all game.

Still, if the Colts win at home Sunday night against the Patriots, Denver jumps back into the lead for the AFC’s top playoff seed. What Sunday’s outcomes in Missouri did was put the Chiefs in play for more than just another AFC wild-card trip this season. Kansas City is 7-3, as are the Broncos, but Denver’s Week 2 win at home against the Chiefs gives it the tiebreaker at the moment. The Broncos' trip to Kansas City on Thanksgiving weekend could decide the AFC West.

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• The Seahawks now have a battle on their hands just to stay in the upper half of the NFC West. Seattle and San Francisco are both 6-4 and still play twice, in Weeks 13 and 15. Two more tough games await against the first-place Arizona Cardinals, and there’s also a cross-country trip to Philadelphia in Week 14.

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With five of its six NFC West games remaining,​ Seattle isn’t dead in the division race, but Arizona looks to be in a commanding position to close things out with a three-game lead and just six weeks left. That means if the Seahawks make the playoffs, they'll be hitting the road, where they are just 2-3 this season.

The worst development for Seattle was seeing Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles shred the defense for 159 yards and two touchdowns on 20 attempts. Seattle clearly does not impose its will on opposing offenses this season, and the Chiefs' two drives of at least 80 yards in the first half showed how much they dominated the line of scrimmage.

• I’m with you, Doug Baldwin. That was a no-brainer of a push-in-the-back pass interference in the end zone by Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith on 4th-and-2 in the fourth quarter. But no flag was thrown, and Seattle didn’t overcome that blown call, which came with Kansas City leading 24-20. If the Saints’ Jimmy Graham pushed off last week on that final play in regulation against San Francisco -- and he did -- then Smith pushed every bit as much and got away with it.

• If only the Rams could play a recent Super Bowl team every week. St. Louis’ last three wins have come against the Seahawks, 49ers and Broncos, three of the four clubs to make the Super Bowl in the past two seasons (alas, Baltimore is not on the Rams’ schedule).

St. Louis (4-6) will likely miss the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season, but nobody wants to play the Rams these days. Coordinator Gregg Williams has his defense playing at an elite level, and with quarterback Shaun Hill back in the lineup, St. Louis got an efficient and mistake-free game on offense.

Even if they only hit their customary seven wins or so, the Rams, you’d have to think, will stay the course and give coach Jeff Fisher another season on the sidelines after this recent run of success. And he deserves that.

• I know there will be a difference of opinion on this, because there was on Twitter on Sunday, but I don’t see how Rams cornerback Rodney McLeod was guilty of an unnecessary roughness penalty for his crushing hit on Denver receiver Emmanuel Sanders. It was violent contact, yes, but not a dirty hit or a helmet-to-helmet blow. McLeod led with his shoulder, as they now teach defensive players to do, and I don’t know how defensive backs are supposed to play the game if that hit is deemed illegal. Sanders left the game with a concussion.

• So far, so good for the Ryan Mallett era in Houston. I know it’s a fairly low bar at quarterback for the Texans, but Mallett easily won the Ex-Patriots Backup Bowl on Sunday in Cleveland, and Houston was fairly impressive on offense with him running the show in the 23-7 win over the Browns. I’m guessing Texans fans could get used to 20-of-30 passing for 211 yards with a pair of touchdown passes and one interception.

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​And how cool is it that Mallett, after waiting three and a half NFL seasons for his shot to play, threw his first career regular-season touchdown pass to star defensive lineman J.J. Watt? It was a pretty-as-a-picture one-yard fade pattern in the back left corner of the end zone, and Watt, in the game as an extra tight end, looked like a Pro Bowl receiving threat pulling it down while getting his knee and feet down inbounds with Browns linebacker Chris Kirksey draped all over him in coverage.

Watt’s versatility is almost ridiculous in this age of NFL specialization. He does everything but sell tickets on gamedays, and his line on Sunday included the touchdown catch (his second of the year), a sack, a fumble recovery, three tackles for loss and, believe it or not, two penalties for roughing the punter.

Back to Mallett for a minute. His quick release was on display against Cleveland, he was decisive with his passes and he’s got that gun for an arm. On his interception, Browns cornerback Joe Haden made an all-world pick in the end zone, tipping the ball to himself.

You know who appears to really like Mallett at quarterback in Houston? Andre Johnson. Johnson had a season-high seven catches to lead all Texans, finishing with 68 yards.

• The Browns are getting a bit confounding. They don’t really seem like they can stand prosperity. Every time you think Cleveland is ready to really take off and put together a run for a playoff berth this season, there comes a loss to Jacksonville on the road, or to Houston at home. A 6-4 record still registers as overachievement by Browns standards, but it feels as if Cleveland isn’t quite mature enough to handle success in 2014.

Pump the brakes, Browns fans. Mike Pettine’s team is getting there, but it has yet to arrive.

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​• Jay Cutler still had his Cutler-esque moments -- two interceptions, an unsportsmanlike penalty for yelling at an official and an ill-fated 4th-and-goal run that failed -- but the Bears' quarterback also helped stop the bleeding in Chicago, and that had to be a monumental relief for coach Marc Trestman and his beleaguered team.

Chicago’s 21-13 win over visiting Minnesota gave Bears fans a home victory to celebrate -- their first since December 2013 -- and proved that Chicago can win games when it doesn’t beat itself. The Bears wisely relied on receivers Alshon Jeffery (11 catches for 135 yards, one touchdown) and Brandon Marshall (seven receptions for 90 yards, two touchdowns) to do the heavy lifting, along with running back Matt Forte (117 yards rushing).

Can you imagine the mood in the Windy City if the Vikings and rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had come into town and kept the Bears reeling? It was closer than it should have been, with Bridgewater throwing a late end zone interception to seal it. But it was a win, and that’s all that mattered to the Bears.