$.01-- Atlanta knocked off the Packers in a highly entertaining game that said a number of things to me. Foremost, it firmly established the Falcons as the NFC?s best team. They control their own fate for home field advantage throughout the playoffs, and no team is better at home than Atlanta. This game also proved to me that Matt Ryan is the NFL MVP to this point of the season. Once again he earned the moniker Matty Ice with his cool handling of yet another last-minute, game-winning drive against a very good opponent. The Packers presented different looks but Ryan would not be confused, correctly finding the right spot to go with the ball and move the Falcons in position for the game winner. Sure, the throws were short and pedestrian, but how many times have we seen quarterbacks fail to make the simple ones? Aaron Rodgers was very good, but Ryan was better. I also came away impressed with the Atlanta safeties, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. Even though Green Bay moved the ball well through the air, the Falcons didn?t give up a lot of big gainers or long TDs, the staples of the Packers offense. Receivers didn?t get behind them, and they did a good job of making tackles right after the catch. For a young duo I thought they held up pretty well against an excellent passing offense. As for Green Bay, the self-inflicted wounds continue to haunt them in close games. Yes, they got hosed on the Tony Gonzalez ?catch?, but four fumbles (they lost one) and eight penalties are a lot to overcome on the road against a strong enemy. The red zone fumbles by Rodgers were particularly crucial, though they did score after the second one. Packers fans are again grumbling about Mike McCarthy?s clock management and play calls, which didn?t strike me as particularly faulty until taken out of context. The bottom line with Green Bay is that you have to wonder about their confidence to win close games, as yet another slipped away. $.02-- If Atlanta is the cream of the NFC crop, the Chicago Bears impressively staked their claim to #2 by bombarding Philadelphia. Jay Cutler was razor sharp in throwing for four touchdowns, but to me the story was Matt Forte?s 117 yards rushing and the Bears stingy defense. They picked off Michael Vick, his first INT all season, and consistently made him uncomfortable, getting 4 sacks and scads of QB pressures without sacrificing containment on Vick?s running. It was a picture-perfect display of how to battle Vick, who put up nice numbers but couldn?t break off the big plays that have punctuated his performance this season. The return of confidence in the rushing offense is what should get Bears fans legitimately excited. Forte ran like his legs were very fresh, and the offensive line did a good job sealing edges and staying engaged without holding (much). Cutler isn?t going to be this good every week, and the Bears have largely gone away from running the ball with authority, choosing to put all their eggs in the Cutler basket. Like many Bears fans, I believe Forte is an above-average runner stymied by an offensive apathy towards sticking with the run. On this day, OC Mike Martz stuck with it and was rewarded with a big day and a big win. Nobody is happier about that than the Chicago defense, which continues to play very well but is often overworked thanks to turnovers and quick 3-and-outs by the offense. This is a signature win for a team that is quietly streaking, notching its 4th win in a row and enjoying almost freakish good health relative to other teams at this point in the season. $.03-- I don?t want to take anything away from the Chargers, but their Sunday night romp in Indianapolis struck me as far more telling about the home team. And it?s not good news for Colts fans. This is not the same Colts team we have grown accustomed to over the last decade. The offensive line, never a great asset, has become a major problem that needs a major overhaul. Both guards must be replaced, and dependable center Jeff Saturday is clearly on the decline. Running back is also a growing problem, but it?s hard to blame Donald Brown or Javarris James entirely for those woes when they rarely get much room to operate. The undersized defensive front consistently gets bullied and pushed around. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis aren?t getting any younger, and recent draft picks designed to augment them have largely flopped. The linebackers are underwhelming except promising rookie Pat Angerer, not as good in coverage as the scheme requires and prone to missing far too many tackles. It is disturbing that the secondary, which is missing the top 3 safeties and two rotational corners, are still the strength of the defense. But the most troubling is Peyton Manning and the passing offense. I?ve repeatedly pointed out this year that Manning just doesn?t have the same sharpness on his throws all the time, and he?s not mind-melding with his wideouts in the syncopated rhythm we?ve come to expect. It?s one thing when he?s working with youngsters, but he and Reggie Wayne have often been on different pages this year--and it?s not always Wayne that?s missing the reads. Manning is 34 and hasn?t missed a game in his 13 seasons, and it?s starting to show. He?s still a Pro Bowl quarterback that strikes fear into every defender, but the aura of invincibility is starting to dim. He?s no longer great enough to overcome a middling supporting cast with no running game. The Colts are now 6-5 and tied with Jacksonville for first in the AFC South, with a multitude of injuries and no cupcakes on the schedule to fluff the win total. Even if they make the playoffs--and I think they will--there is no way they are better than Baltimore, New York, Pittsburgh, New England, or San Diego. $.04-- Denver Head Coach Josh McDaniels is at the center of a cheating scandal that leaves a bad taste in many mouths. McDaniels was fined $50K by the league, as was the team, for not immediately reporting a violation by video director Steve Scarnecchia, who illegally filmed a 49ers practice before the teams met in London earlier this season. Among the myriad problems here is the amount of the fine. When the Patriots were found guilty of the exact same violation, they got hit for $250K as a team, Bill Belichick got fined $500K for being the overseer, and the team forfeited a 1st round draft pick--all for a violation with less tangible evidence than this one. It is not coincidental that McDaniels came from the Patriots and may or may not have been intimately involved in SpyGate I. The Patriots got hit harder because of an alleged pattern of years of illegal behavior, but the league never found any actual tapes (for the record, I absolutely believe Belichick knew about it and was guilty as sin). Scarnecchia took the fall here, but McDaniels should probably think about working on his r?sum?. The Broncos are 3-8 and clearly trending in the wrong direction, beset by some awful personnel decisions (trading up to get Alphonso Smith in the first round and then cutting him, trading Peyton Hillis for Brady Quinn, giving up on Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler for little return, drafting Tim Tebow in the first round and not playing him) and now they have a scarlet letter for cheating. McDaniels apparently sat on the information, perhaps trying to save a good friend, perhaps hoping that ignoring it will make it all go away. There were many that questioned his hiring two years ago when he was a relatively unknown 32-year old Patriots assistant. He hasn?t done a lot to dispel the ?he?s not ready? chorus, and if the team continues to spiral downward, this cheating incident gives the Broncos an easy excuse to end the experiment. $.05-- The Hall of Fame announced the semi-finalists for the class of 2011 on Sunday morning, and it?s sure to be a lively, controversial class. First-time eligible players include Deion Sanders, Willie Roaf, Marshall Faulk, Curtis Martin, and Jerome Bettis--all of whom absolutely belong in the pantheon of greatness. They join prominent holdovers Shannon Sharpe, Tim Brown, Charles Haley, Richard Dent, Cris Carter, Dermontti Dawson, and Roger Craig, along with some others, most notably punter Ray Guy and NFL Films founder Ed Sabol. The Hall of Fame Committee allows only six per class and makes no distinction between players, coaches, and contributors, which makes for some very tough choices. My six for 2011, in order of strongest argument you?ll get from me: 1. Deion Sanders. He couldn?t tackle Betty White, but no Super Bowl-era corner impacted games more than Neon Deion. He is the benchmark to which every young corner aspires, and his flamboyance and dynamic persona added a lot of memorable spice to the game. 2. Shannon Sharpe. The best tight end of the 90s was a consummate winner who helped redefine the position with his speed, athleticism, and ferocious workouts. He was a key contributor to three Super Bowl champs, teams that almost certainly wouldn?t have won without him. 3. Ed Sabol. It?s not going to be a popular choice, but what Sabol created with NFL Films is truly astonishing. His foresight to put microphones on coaches, to save every camera angle from every game, and to assemble highlights in wonderfully digestible packages has done as much for promoting the NFL as any player has. NFL Films is the envy of all other sports. 4. Charles Haley. He bounced around from winning team to winning team, wreaking havoc on quarterbacks like few others could. Haley helped define the hybrid DE/OLB position and was far more than a pass rusher, though his 100+ sacks are nothing to sneeze at. 5. Marshall Faulk. He?s most famous for his Rams years as the bell cow for the Greatest Show on Turf, but a lot of people forget how exceptional he was on some very surprising Colts teams early in his career. No running back was better as a receiver, not even Roger Craig, who was a similar style of player. 6. Cris Carter. All he does is catch touchdowns, Buddy Ryan once famously critiqued. Isn?t that the point? Others were better after the catch and he wasn?t always easy to play with, but nobody I?ve ever seen had better hands and better coordination than Cris Carter. His longevity of greatness gives him the edge. $.06-- New England shook off a sluggish start on Thanksgiving and ran away from the Lions with a near-perfect second half. Tom Brady tossed four TDs after the break as the Patriots won the final two quarters 35-7 after getting manhandled early by the host Lions. One of the hallmarks of a good team is the ability to make adjustments in-game. Whatever they were trying clearly wasn?t working early against Detroit, so Bill Belichick & Co. tweaked some protections, found some holes in coverage, and weathered the storm. Detroit is 2-9 for a reason, and the Patriots let them punch themselves out. That?s a difficult strategy to employ, particularly on the road on a short week. But they knew their enemy and didn?t panic when the Lions came out blazing. It wasn?t a real pretty win despite the 45-24 score, but on a weekend where the lowly 2-9 Bills had Pittsburgh dead to rights and the Saints barely survived against 3-8 Dallas, it tells me New England is still a very viable Super Bowl front-runner. Any time you can win on the road by three touchdowns after taking the early physical beatdown that Detroit laid on them, that?s a real impressive victory. $.07-- Cortland Finnegan and Andre Johnson engaged in an ugly skirmish in the Houston/Tennessee game, one of the rare occasions where actual punches have been thrown in an NFL game. Both players landed shots, with Johnson using his wingspan advantage to win the judges? decision. One of the reasons fights so seldom escalate to this magnitude is the punishment, and in this case the NFL would be wise to come down hard. Finnegan deliberately went straight to the head with his elbow right off the snap, and it wasn?t the first time in this game that he did so. Johnson had dislodged Finnegan?s helmet on the prior play, and the churlishness between these two goes way back. Finnegan has long ranked near the top of all ?Dirtiest Player? lists, and he has a very long history of taking out his frustrations at getting beaten by lashing out with cheap shots and childish behavior. Johnson scored a TD on him, and Finnegan?s reaction was to resort to violence. If the NFL fines James Harrison $50K for grazing a WR?s helmet with questionable intent, Finnegan had better get at least double that, plus a week off, for intentionally throwing an elbow at Johnson?s head during a play that instigated fisticuffs. For his part, Johnson deserves a stiff fine as well, but I wouldn?t suspend him based on his prior lack of deviant behavior and the fact he was reacting to a sore loser. $.08--5 NFL quickies: 1. Very happy for Texans CB Glover Quin, who bagged his first three career INTs (and he dropped another) in the Houston domination of the punchless Titans. The entire Houston secondary has been awful this season, but to Quin?s credit he has remained positive and confident. It?s nice to see such a thoroughly defeated unit have a good game, taking advantage of Rusty Smith in pitching the franchise?s first home shutout. 2. Peyton Hillis will make the Pro Bowl with his incredible season, but he?d better give some of his contract bonus to Joe Thomas. The big tackle cemented his status as the best all-around LT in the league with a dominating performance against Carolina. There were several plays where he initiated three blocks, all of them successful. 3. Minnesota flipped off deposed coach Brad Childress by limiting the mistakes that have scuttled their season, winning in Washington under interim coach Leslie Frazier. I give Brett Favre a whole lot of crap, but that 10-yard run that essentially won the game is a play not many QBs, let alone 40-something grandfathers, are going to make on the road in crunch time. No way Favre even tries that scramble if Childress is still the coach. 4. Great game in a losing effort from Buffalo DE Kyle Williams, who was quite often the best player on the field in a tough loss to Pittsburgh. Since the switch back to the 4-3 front, Williams has played at a Pro Bowl level and the Bills defense has been vastly improved. That begs the question, ?What the *@*# were they thinking?!?? with the switch to the 3-4? Just because everyone else is doing it doesn?t mean it?s a good idea for you, kids. 4a. Steve Johnson, don?t let that drop haunt you, as bad as it was. You?ll get a chance for redemption, seize it. And I admire your cojones for blaming God for the drop in an era where far too many athletes give empty praise to God for every mistake their opponents make. 5. Once again Gus Johnson makes a complete fool of himself with his needlessly hyperactive announcing. Quite literally from the opening kickoff of the Raiders/Dolphins game, Johnson detracted from the excitement on the field with his exasperating histrionics. It?s one thing to get a little enthusiastic when Jacoby Ford takes a kickoff to the house, but when you scare children two counties away with your squealing on a 2-yard dive play, you?re going too far. $.09-- 5 College/Draft quickies: 1. As I predicted 3 weeks ago, Boise State lost at Nevada. That ends one of the more divisive arguments in sports with an anticlimactic whimper. Notice how quiet TCU has been in promoting itself as the non-BCS school that deserves the shot at the national title, and how they?ve taken care of business? Instead of worrying about being slighted, the Frogs worried about what they could control, and now they?re headed for the Rose Bowl...at worst. Meanwhile, Boise State gets to play in a bowl game at home that will draw maybe 8,000 and pays out less than 10% of the Rose Bowl. 2. Loved the Ohio State romp over Michigan once again; I never get tired of the Buckeyes whipping That Team Up North. But those throwback uniforms were simply awful. 3. Texas will not go to a bowl this year after getting whacked by Texas A&M. The Longhorns had a stunning fall from grace in dropping their final 6 Big XII games this year. As for the Aggies, they have been one of the ten best teams in the country since making a QB switch. TAMU fans have to wonder what might have been. 4. The best one-loss team in the country? Wisconsin, which put up 70+ points once again in blowing away Northwestern. Junior DE J.J. Watt cemented his status as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year with another stellar performance, and he augmented his draft stock as well--should he decide to come out. His first step is as quick as any DE in the country, but he comes out of it controlled and can react if the play comes his way, a rare skill for a ?speed? rusher. There?s a lot of Jared Allen to him. 5. Miami fired coach Randy Shannon after a disappointing season where the team failed to come close to anticipated success. Shannon started strong in his effort to restore the swagger and talent level to what Canes fans were used to in the 80s and 90s. But opponents found his schemes easy to prepare for and the emphasis on discipline was clearly waning. Look for Shannon to land on his feet somewhere quickly, if he so desires. I doubt the Hurricanes can do much better. $.10-- Vince Young?s season is over, but he?s far from done creating controversy. Sports talk radio all over the country focused on the Vince Young vs. Jeff Fisher battle even as Young was put on IR, ending his season and perhaps his Tennessee tenure. It?s a very complicated situation. Young essentially treats both Jeff Fisher and the game of football as a whole with selfish contempt. He continually refuses to do what the team asks of him in offseason work, and he prefers to do all rehab work on his own and not with the team. When the team asked him to take on more leadership a couple summers ago, Young threatened suicide and did his best to avoid any responsibility. He?s the epitome of the selfish, childish, recalcitrant modern athlete that so infuriates so many fans today. But Vince Young wins. A lot. After his bizarre behavior before the 2009 season, Coach Fisher turned to Kerry Collins as the starter. After six straight losses, owner Bud Adams forced Fisher to play Young. The team promptly went 8-2 and Young made the Pro Bowl. He?s 31-16 as a starter while competing in one of the NFL?s toughest divisions, bagging many of those wins with lesser talent at WR than most teams. He?s constantly had to deal with Fisher?s short leash hanging around his head, and to his credit Young has consistently bounced back from the benching and played better. His fans vehemently defend him, willing to overlook the numerous faults and decidedly team-unfriendly attitude, and judging from the radio shows I?ve heard, they cannot accept any reality other than Jeff Fisher being a terrible coach and Young?s critics must be racist. The enmity between the sides of this fight are worse than any I can recall in the NFL, beyond the Tebow debates, beyond Michael Vick?s arrest and return, beyond Marcus Allen vs. Al Davis. It?s going to end badly for someone. Jeff Fisher has played the ?it?s him or me? card to Adams, the man who forced the team to draft Young over objections from Fisher and then-Offensive Coordinator Norm Chow, a noted QB guru. Fisher has been the coach since the team left Houston and would get any job he wants in about 5 minutes, even though he?s made just one Super Bowl and has had a number of underachieving teams (this one included). Adams is the kind of guy who will shoot off his nose to spite his face, but dumping Young is more complicated than just reluctantly siding with his coach. Kerry Collins will be 38 next month, and Rusty Smith just got blanked by the worst pass defense in NFL history. If not Young, this team has no viable QB going forward. Would the 87-year old Adams really go through with a rebuild around a new quarterback, while in the process jettisoning a favorite son and a proven winner? It makes for very high drama that won?t end anytime soon. Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com