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Sunday Six: Peyton looking like an MVP; midseason firings a mistake


After every NFL Sunday, there is much ground to cover. Let's get to it in this week's Sunday Six.

Stop ripping Falcons, Broncos

For the past few weeks I've received emails and phone calls on my radio show, saying that the Falcons aren't really a 6-0 team and Peyton Manning has lost his arm strength.

It's time to drop the negative speculation about both situations. The 7-0 Falcons aren't only the No. 1 seed in the NFC -- they should be respected as the best team in the NFL right now. Their quarterback is playing at a high level, they have weapons all over on offense and the defense is underrated.

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Sure they will lose a few games before the end of the season and they still have to prove they can win in the postseason, but right now there’s no reason for negativity.

As for Manning, I thought he was a lock for comeback player of the year. However, that award goes to another deserving player -- Adrian Peterson.

Instead, Manning is heading straight for the MVP award.

In dismantling the Saints he completed his fifth straight game with more than 300 yards passing. He has 14 touchdowns and only one interception during this run.

Manning is on pace to finish the season with 4,829 yards, which would be a career high. He's on pace for 39 touchdown passes, which would be the second-highest season total. And at his current pace, he would finish with nine INTs, tying the fewest he's ever had in one season.

Midseason firings solve nothing

This week, the Eagles and the Panthers took the field after firing good men because immediate change was supposedly needed. Call it impulsive behavior -- or the business of the NFL -- to terminate Eagles defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and Panthers GM Marty Hurney. I call it a mistake and one that didn't do one positive thing for either franchise.

I think it set both teams back.

There were other ways to handle adversity. And showing two good men the door and expecting to win as a result is irrational in-season behavior. Would the Giants or Steelers terminate someone serving the same capacity as Castillo or Hurney in October?

Unless an employee broke the law or otherwise was involved in improper behavior, terminating football people is a postseason step. I've been fired, as have many NFL people, but embarrassing Castillo and Hurney in October improves nothing and looks like the biggest mistake each club has made all season.

The Eagles' defense looked lost as the Falcons marched to a TD on its opening 16-play drive. That was only the beginning, as Atlanta scored on its first six drives. Castillo deserves an apology and his job back. Of course, that will never happen. Who do the players blame now?

As for Hurney, he didn't call plays or formulate lineups but he was right there to fly home with the team and share in the burden of another loss. Now? The trading deadline is Tuesday and he's not in his office to take calls to discuss possibilities for improving the Panthers. He's not in his office as a sounding board for young head coach Ron Rivera to discuss the loss at Chicago or the latest injuries. He isn't around to get a call from his owner to discuss the state of the team, either. As it turns out, maybe that's a good thing for Hurney -- but he deserved the whole season.

I couldn't help but wonder what was going through the minds of Eagles coach Andy Reid and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson on Sunday after their teams lost again -- with Castillo and Hurney at home unable to help.

Steelers offense not dink and dunk

Last week we heard the Steelers' offense was a dink and dunk passing attack. But Todd Haley, the new offensive coordinator, has a history of throwing downfield -- especially when he had Kurt Warner under center and got to a Super Bowl with Arizona.

Well, the Steelers' offense is no dink and dunk package. In fact, their vertical attack can be as deadly as any in the NFL, especially when complemented by the inside power running of Jonathan Dwyer. Dwyer runs like Jerome Bettis -- and even though he's a backup in for the injured Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman, he makes the offense better.

In the past two games, Dwyer has carried the ball 34 times for 229 yards, mostly between the tackles. The ripple effect has been a very good vertical passing attack. Six different receivers have receptions of more than 20 yards in the past two games and had there not been a few drops, that could have been at least seven different receivers.

As for short throws, they are an important part of a passing attack when teams overplay the speed of the wideouts. Ask any defensive coordinator who faces the Steelers, and they don't see a dink and dunk package right now.

Special teams should be better

Scoring on special teams is up -- and it's not a good sign, but it is exciting for the fans. There are already five blocked punts for touchdowns this season -- there were only five all of last season. There are six kickoff returns for touchdowns, only nine all of last season. There are seven punt returns for touchdowns (20 last season).

The Jets-Dolphins game was a special teams nightmare for New York. Special teams Coach Mike Westoff is one of the best in the business but probably couldn't sleep after the performance his special teams had against his old team.

A blocked punt for a touchdown, an onside kick recovered by the Dolphins, and a blocked field goal by the Dolphins made this contest look like a preseason game.

The Jets weren't alone in the special team nightmare. Green Bay blocked a Jacksonville punt for a touchdown. Dallas muffed a punt, Kansas City muffed a punt. Green Bay continues to return kickoffs at a rate that should have been slowed down by now. Randall Cobb had two returns for 57 yards on Sunday -- and 16 of the Packers' 17 kickoff returns have been beyond the 20-yard line.

As for long kickoff returns, 2012 is on pace to be a bad year for coverage units. Return units realize the coverage isn't what it should be and they are letting returners bring the ball out on kicks deep in the end zone. With one game to play this week there are already 48 kick returns of 40 yards or more. That puts the league on pace for 100 this season. Last season, there only 73 kick returns of 40 yards or more.

One special teams coach reminded me that recent injuries to starters on offense and defense has pushed backups into starting roles. Those backups were core special teams players and either have to be replaced have double duty. That is a problem.

Tough without the middle backer

The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense. He makes the calls, adjustments, checks blitzes and in some cases coverages.

When he's missing, things can be rough. Ask the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans, who have struggled without Ray Lewis and Brian Cushing.

This week was no exception for the Cowboys and Panthers. Dallas lost Sean Lee and Carolina lost Jon Beason.

Did you notice how quickly the Colts' defense improved when Pat Angerer returned from injury? He's been back for the past two games and the Colts are 2-0.

Quick observations

Since Coach Chuck Pagano left the Colts because of leukemia, the team has been playing inspired football in his name -- going 3-1 and doing all they can to help him through tough times. My hat is off to the coaches and players of the Indianapolis Colts.

 The Pittsburgh Steelers and particularly defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau love to see visiting NFC teams -- especially if they're playing a rookie QB. They got that exact combination when the Redskins and Robert Griffin III visited Pittsburgh. In the past 19 times a NFC team came to Pittsburgh the Steelers are 18-1 and LeBeau's defense gives up 12 points a game. The Redskins hit the point average right on the head as they left with 12 points in a loss.

 Throwing interceptions is always bad, and this week was no exception. In seven of eight games where one quarterback threw more interceptions than the other, the more-intercepted QB lost. The exception was Andrew Luck in the Colts' overtime win over Tennessee.

 I am quickly becoming a big fan of Randall Cobb, the Packers' do-it-all athlete. You would never know the Packers' two best receivers (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson) were sidelined by injuries with Cobb on the field. Cobb can do it all as a receiver, runner and returner. To date he has 78 touches for 1,161 yards, five touchdowns, 28 first downs as a runner and receiver and close to a dozen in hidden yardage from punt and kick returns. Cobb is on pace for 2,700 yards of total offense this year.

Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.

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