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Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 12: Is anyone scared of the Falcons?

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

Is anyone afraid of the Falcons?
Another close win on Sunday -- this time 24-23 over the Bucs -- Atlanta is tied for the best record in football at 10-1. But is anyone afraid of them? I ask that as someone who actually picked them to win the Super Bowl too.

Because I'm not sure anyone should be. OK, let me rephrase that. Atlanta's a good team and plenty scary. But they're not beating the mess out of opponents like a 10-win November team should be.

They're now an improbable 7-1 in one-score games and haven't been able to really crank up the gas against any inferior opponents. Carolina, Oakland and Arizona (combined 9-23 this year) kept things close against the Falcons, something that shouldn't happen, particularly at home.

Sunday's win over the Buccaneers was similar in terms of their inability to harness their full talent and beat up on a team. Tampa's secondary is terrible and even though Matt Ryan finished with 353 passing yards and only six incompletions, it certainly felt like Atlanta could've taken more shots down the field. Why try and run against a good rush defense when heaving it down the field -- your best trait -- exposes your opponent's biggest weakness?

And here's a better question: why isn't Jacquizz Rodgers getting more run? I get that Michael Turner's been their bellcow and he's the guy who gets all the money, but Rodgers needs to go more often. Rodgers (10 carries for 49 yards) outrushed Turner (13 carries for 17 yards) Sunday and it's quite clear that when he's on the field Atlanta is more dangerous on offense. Turner doesn't have to completely disappear, but if Atlanta wants to be one of those scary teams in the playoffs, flipping the usage for Rodgers and Turner might very well be the answer.

Washington Back in the Wild-Card Race?
The NFC wild-card race should be fun to watch. Even after getting hammered on Sunday night, I'd expect the Packers to pick up the first seed there, assuming they can sweep the Vikings. Seattle, with three home games left, is a good bet for the second spot. But how about the Redskins as a sleeper to sneak in?

They have a quarterback in Robert Griffin III who can keep them in any game. They're warming up at the right time, winning two-straight division games out of the bye. They have a decent schedule with the Giants, Ravens, Browns, Eagles and Cowboys on tap. And most importantly, they have tiebreakers: the Skins beat the Vikings and Buccaneers head-to-head.

With Seattle, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and New Orleans all losing on Sunday, things are suddenly kind of sneakily opening up for Washington to make a run. Let's say they win four of their last five and finish 9-7.

Tampa plays at Denver, New Orleans and Atlanta. Anything above 8-8 would be impressive. The Vikings have the Packers twice, the Texans and the Bears. Is 7-9 out of the question? Seattle could lose two games on the road and then at home to San Francisco to finish 9-7 with a 6-6 conference record. Even with a loss to the Giants, closing out with wins over Philly and Dallas would get Washington to 7-5 in the conference.

It's a long shot. I admit as much. But it's worth noting as we prep for the stretch run.

Or good one anyway -- there are a group of teams (Seattle, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans, Washington, Dallas) bunched up at either 6-5 or 5-6 and prepared to duel it out for the last spot, with Green Bay (7-4) holding a slight advantage.

But look at that list of teams again because they all lost on Sunday. Seattle choked in Miami, Minnesota got hammered by the Bears, Tampa Bay couldn't stop Matt Ryan from marching late and the Saints were overpowered by the 49ers defense. Washington's the only team that made up any ground this week.

Eli-te, Again
Of course, it would be totally irresponsible to get on the Redskins hype train without also pointing out that the Giants have a shot to basically wrap up the NFC East when they head to Washington in Week 13.

Oh yes, and that the Giants team that showed up in New York on Sunday night and whipped the Packers 38-10 sure did look like the Giants team that tends to get insanely hot after Thanksgiving and storm into the playoffs.

When Eli Manning is clicking and they're running the ball efficiently and the defense is disrupting quarterbacks, the Giants are a tough team to beat. They did all those things on Sunday night and now they're a game better at 7-4 than their pace through 12 weeks last season. As the only NFC East team above .500, they don't have a ton of competition in the division at the moment.

Wrapping up the Blaine Gabbert Era
Boy, that really got out of hand fast didn't it? Gabbert's got to be done in Jacksonville, what with Chad Henne actually making Jacksonville look competitive the last two weeks. Even if they lose out, Henne's clearly a better option.

This is a sad indictment of Gabbert and perhaps, more importantly, Mike Mularkey. Henne looked horrible in relief against the Colts earlier in the season, but how did Mularkey not figure out that Henne gave them a better shot to win before his hand was forced in Week 11?

It's crazy to think that Jacksonville might already be moving on from their 2011 first-round pick ... but Jacksonville might be moving on from their 2011 first-round pick. Henne's not anyone special, but he's at least making 2012 first-round pick Justin Blackmon look good.

If it's my billions invested in that franchise, I'm going for a full-blown reboot, grabbing a quarterback with upside in the third round (like, you know, Russell Wilson, who the Jaguars passed on in order to take punter Bryan Anger) and rebuilding around other pieces for 2012.

The Niners On the Other Hand ...
We're only two games into the Colin Kaepernick Era in San Francisco, and we can't read too much into what he's done, even if he's undefeated. Teams don't have a ton of film on the 49ers new starter, San Francisco stunned the Bears with a great gameplan and New Orleans is bad on offense.

But if the first two games are a barometer for what Kaepernick could do as a starter, the 49ers just became terrifying.

The one thing they've missed is a quarterback who can make their passing game dynamic. And so far, Kaepernick looks like that guy. He can make throws that Alex Smith can't, and Jim Harbaugh will let him make those throws. The 49ers aren't one-dimensional with Kaepernick under center, and Kaepernick's ability to run and throw only serves to make him more dangerous.

Whether it's him or Smith under center down the stretch is probably irrelevant for the 49ers playoff chances. They're going to win that division after today. What's going to be fascinating will be a pair of games in the middle of December: at New England and at Seattle. Those games are back-to-back and they'll test Kaepernick's mettle in two different and extremely difficult sets of circumstances.

In a month we'll have a much better idea of whether or not Harbaugh made the right move benching Smith for Kaepernick (assuming he continues to do so). But right now it's only fair to give Harbaugh the benefit of the doubt in just about anything he does when it comes to coaching. His latest move is looking pretty brilliant in terms of immediate dividends.

Appreciating the Mannings
It's pretty easy to think about the NFL and think about the Manning family. Peyton Manning is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and Eli Manning reminded us on Sunday night why counting him out is just dumb.

Father Archie is the third wheel here, but he still managed to throw 125 touchdown passes in his career. And that means, with Eli crossing the 200-TD mark on Sunday night, the Manning family now has a whopping 750 touchdown passes in the NFL.

That's an insane amount -- more than the Panthers, Jaguars and Texans, to name a few, have in their franchise history -- and it's just your latest reminder of how good the Manning family is at slinging the rock around.

And you know what's even crazier about their whole milestone-ish afternoon? On Sunday Eli surpassed CBS Sports own Phil Simms for most touchdown passes by a Giants quarterback, and Peyton surpassed the Broncos own John Elway for second-most wins by a quarterback with 149. And he did it on the same day where he managed to go over 25 touchdown passes and 3,000 yards for the 14th time in his career.

Just a remarkable family.

November Pain "
Don't want to spend too much time focusing on the Chiefs because a) they stink and b) I'm writing up the epitaph for their 2012 season. But they're now the first officially eliminated team of 2012 and it's worth noting that they scored all of two touchdowns in November. Like, the whole month!

Lock 'em in for the first overall pick of the draft with the loser of Monday night's game and the Jaguars the only serious competition.

Black Monday?
Sunday's spree of college firings was a harsh reminder exactly what time of the year it is. Everyone with the Chiefs should fear for their jobs and it's really really difficult to imagine Norv Turner making it through the year if San Diego keeps this up.

The Bolts have now lost six of their last seven, with their lone win coming against the Chiefs. Sunday's debacle was perhaps the most Norv loss of Norv's tenure, as the Chargers gave up a 4th-and-29 (29!) to Ray Rice and the Ravens and managed to give it up in overtime.

Were they victims of a terrible spot by the officials? Absolutely. But 4th-and-29! That game was over. They're still technically alive in the playoff hunt at 4-7 and five "meh" teams left on the schedule. But they've only beaten Oakland, Kansas City and Tennessee. They're much worse than anyone expects.

GIF O' THE WEEK

It was a disappointing day, GIF-wise. But this shot of tiny Darren Sproles flipping giant Aldon Smith over his back is just pure-tee amazing.

WORTH 1,000 WORDS

 
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