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ZB Notebook 10-23-12

That Monday Night Football matchup between Chicago and Detroit was a barnburner.

Or not.

In one of the uglier games I’ve seen played in awhile, Detroit gave away opportunity after opportunity to take over the game in the red zone while Chicago took enough advantage early in the game to hold on for the win and continued sole possession of first place in the NFC North.

The Lions continued a pattern of playing putrid offense throughout the first three quarters and then making a mad dash at a comeback toward the end of the game.

Four turnovers in the red zone? Can’t win that way in the NFL. Matt Stafford looks lost for three quarters and Detroit has got to do something to get Calvin Johnson involved in games earlier. Right now that’s a bad team.

But it was still a contest late in the fourth quarter, mainly because the Bears couldn’t put Detroit away. There really wasn’t a point where it felt like Chicago was in danger of losing, but there was one drive that summed it up for me. The Bears took the ball down inside Detroit’s five yard line, largely on the backs of Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Then, inexplicably, the Bears went for three passes in a row, all of which dropped incomplete.

They still got a field goal out of the drive, but that and another blocked three-point attempt helped keep the game close enough so Detroit was within sniffing distance in the end. Chicago looks to be the class of the NFC North to this point, but they’re going to have to play better if they are going to make a true run to the Super Bowl this season.

Dalton overtaking Newton?: Cam Newton exploded out of the gates as a rookie quarterback for Carolina last year throwing for nearly 1,400 yards and five touchdowns in his first four games at the helm.

It’s gone downhill a bit since then, however, and he is in danger of being overtaken as the best quarterback from the 2011 draft class by Andy Dalton in Cincinnati – if he hasn’t been already.

Dalton’s completion percentage has gone up and he is on pace to up his yardage, his touchdowns tossed, his quarterback rating and all the other variables. On the downside, he is throwing more interceptions too. But with age and injuries catching up with division rivals Baltimore and Pittsburgh, Dalton has an outside shot at getting the Bengals to the playoffs this season.

Newton, on the other hand, slipped a bit as a passer after those first four games. He hasn’t had a 300 yard passing day since eclipsing that total in three of his first four (with two of those going over 400) and he just seems stuck in neutral right now.

I’m not sure if that is on him, the talent level surrounding him, the coaching or a combination thereof. It doesn’t seem as though Newton is getting a lot of help on any of those fronts. But he seems to realize something isn’t right and, based on his body language throughout the season and some of the quotes from his postgame press conference Sunday, he sounds frustrated about it.

Dalton will never offer the same running threat Newton offers and Newton’s ceiling is higher, but for now, if I had to choose one of the two quarterbacks to build a franchise around, I’d take the even-keeled red-head from Cincinnati. We’ll probably have more analysis on this to come in the days ahead.

Feeling for the Browns?: The results have not shown up in the win column yet, but the Cleveland Browns are actually playing some interesting football. That’s why I’m not sure this ownership change – and the accompanying changes in the front office – could come at a worse time.

Jimmy Haslam may end up being a great owner. And it is perfectly understandable that he would want to bring in “his guy” to run the show. But Mike Holmgren, who announced he would retire from running football operations at the end of the year, has finally assembled a collection of talent worth keeping an eye on.

Last year the defense came around and looked really, really solid. There was little help from the offense in 2011, but so far in 2012 I have been thoroughly impressed by the contributions of draftee Trent Richardson at running back. Brandon Weeden at quarterback has had some rough spots, but he appears to be getting the hang of the pro game. And he also seems to be getting some rapport with supplemental draftee Josh Gordon.

The trio of skill players on the offense give the Browns the most entertaining pieces they’ve had since before the previous iteration of the team moved to Baltimore.

It will be interesting to see whether incoming CEO Joe Banner gives head coach Pat Shurmur an opportunity to coach this crew of kids for another year or if he brings in his own new guy to continue moving the Browns forward. What seems clear to me is that after around a decade of fits and starts, the nucleus is there for Cleveland to make some strides if the team is kept together. This is one to keep an eye on after the season ends.

Canceling the Pro Bowl: Commissioner Roger Goodell is floating the idea of canceling the Pro Bowl. I think he should have done this a couple years ago.

I hate the Pro Bowl. It is a ridiculous exhibition played at the quality of a preseason game that none of the participants take seriously. There’s almost no defense and teams have been scoring in the mid-50s in recent years. It’s barely watchable – I haven’t in years – and it has become pretty much a joke.

Abolish it, Commissioner. It’d be one of the best decisions you’ve made since taking the job.

Giants set for another run: Hakeem Nicks is getting healthy. Defensive tackle Chris Canty came back. The biggest controversy facing the New York Giants right now is running back Ahmad Bradshaw getting a little snippy with some teammates and coaches on the sideline Sunday.

The Giants have had a number of injuries early in the season. As they get healthy, it looks more and more like that team is going to continue to be the class of the NFC East again. Philadelphia has been inconsistent and turnover-prone. Dallas has been uninspiring (even though Jerry Jones says a less-than-impressive win over Carolina means they aren’t digging themselves out of a hole). Washington has been more competitive than in most recent years, but I think they’ve also shown they’re a year or two off.

The division is tough enough where the Giants might not get a bye in the playoffs, but it’s hard to see them not being in position to go deep in the playoffs again when the season ends in a couple months.

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