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Ask the Expert: Jim Corbett

Reggie Roberts: After an uncharacteristic slow start, the Green Bay Packers have very quietly won their last two games and are 4-3. What's your take on the Packers and do you see them getting hot here and making a run to challenge for the NFC North Division title? 

Jim Corbett: Aaron Rodgers is back playing like the reigning league MVP. The league's leading passer is on fire with nine touchdown passes in back-to-back wins against Houston and St. Louis. With should-win games up next against Jacksonville and Arizona, they should be 6-3 at their bye.

Rodgers will need to stay hot with the loss of safety Charles Woodson to a broken collar bone for six weeks. Woodson broke his collar bone diving for a pass when the Packers won the Super Bowl, so they've rallied without him before, though that was for a half. They'll need their pass rush and young players like safety Morgan Burnett to come on.

I do think the Pack will give the 5-1 Bears a run since they're the only team to knock Chicago off. They'll need some help down the stretch, however, to win the NFC North title.

RR: The Falcons — at 6-0 — are the NFL's only undefeated team. How good are the Falcons?      

JC: Short answer: The Falcons are Super Bowl good. Yet more than any team, the Falcons know it's about how they finish, not how they've started. Still, in a week-to-week league, the Thomas Dimitroff-Mike Smith Falcons are the anomaly, having defied the odds by stacking six wins to stand as the NFL's lone unbeaten.

For a team breaking in new offensive and defensive coordinators in Dirk Koetter and Mike Nolan, respectively, they've proven both adaptable and resilient.

Their six wins haven't all been pretty. In fact, their last three, fourth-quarter street fights were downright gritty. But they showed they could pull out close games when tested and will be defined by their 10-game regular-season finishing strech.

Coming off their bye week recharger, those three escapes against Carolina, Washington and Oakland taught them how quickly the aura of invincibility can disappear and a very good team can be made to look ordinary. Check the Packers' 42-24 waxing of the Houston Texans, who otherwise stand 6-1.

The Falcons likely found they need to run the ball, stop the run better and protect Matt Ryan better on the edges if they are to succeed in their bid to earn NFC home-field advantage. There are plenty of strong contenders, among them the 5-2 New York Giants, the 4-3 Packers, the 5-1 Chicago Bears and 5-2 San Francisco 49ers.

The league's fourth-rated passer, Matt Ryan, has grown as a leader, no-huddle maestro and fourth-quarter closer who draws confidence from his lethal triangle of big-play weapons in ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez and the dynamic receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones that however a defense chooses to scheme them, he'll always have an answer.

Nolan's defense has been more multiple, forcing takeaways and getting Ryan more scoring opportunities. The offense has been more dynamic and yet it can still pound out a close slugfest with power back Michael Turner.

The Falcons are a complete team in every sense but the most significant one — these Falcons won't really know how much better they are until their postseason litmus test. If they can play their best football by exorcising their 0-3 run of one-and-dones, then, they'll be that different Falcons team they've given themselves a strong chance to become.

RR: Let's switch to the AFC where the Houston Texans, after being embarrassed on Monday Night Football by Green Bay, comes back the next week and takes out their frustrations on the Baltimore Ravens. Are the Texans the best team in the AFC?

JC: No question, the 6-1 Texans are the AFC team to beat with the road to the Super Bowl running through Houston. Their six-touchdown torching by Rodgers served as their wake-up call as coach Gary Kubiak challenged his captains to jolt the team from its post-Brian Cushing hangover.

In stomping the Ravens 43-13, the Texans scored a franchise record in points and their "Bulls on Parade'' defense stamped Joe Flacco into two-interception, four-sack, six-batted passes submission. They proved they can win without their defensive leader Cushing, lost to a season-ending Week 5 knee injury. Linebacker Connor Barwin ended his sack-less drought with a party-starting safety and J.J. Watt deflected two more passes, including one Jonathan Joseph returned 52 yards for a touchdown. Like the Falcons, the Texans can win any way necessary. They have the league's leading rusher in Arian Foster. Quarterback Matt Schaub has thrown 10 touchdowns and four interceptions as Kubiak's zone-stretch scheme gets him out on the edge, where he's at his best distributing the ball to Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels, who leads the team with four touchdowns.

Baltimore is ravaged by injuries to Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb. And New England showed its vincibility by struggling to beat the Mark Sanchez-led Jets in overtime. If the Texans play up to their potential, they seem likely to be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl.

RR: What's your take on the New Orleans Saints, who after an 0-4 start, have quietly put together back-to-back wins and are seemingly getting things rolling down in the Bayou state?

JC: The Saints are getting their mojo back, winning two straight right before they welcomed interim coach Joe Vitt back from his six-game, Bountygate-related suspension. Vitt is deeply respected within that locker room for his "Jersey Joe'' everyman persona, his funny stories and a motivational magic only surpassed by head coach Sean Payton. They'll need to tighten up a 31st-ranked run defense as they head into a season-defining three-game stretch against the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Falcons Nov. 11.

RR: The Philadelphia Eagles fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo last week and replaced him with secondary coach Todd Bowles. Will that change help the Eagles defense get rolling?

JC: Yes. The Eagles haven't gone three consecutive games without a sack since 1983. Castillo effectively had backed off blitzing, calling off the red and green dogs as the Eagles ran defensive line coach Jim Washburn's wide-nine pass rush. They ranked 27th in sacks when Reid fired his close friend, Castillo, making him the scapegoat for an underperforming team.

RR: The Falcons come off of their bye week and head up to Philadelphia to battle the Eagles, who are 13-0 under head coach Andy Reid in games following a bye week. How big of a game is this for both teams?

JC: The Eagles will certainly be the more desperate team with Reid literally coaching for his job.
Bowles is a fiery, Bill Parcells disciple, who worked under Parcells with the Al Groh-coached New York Jets, coach on Parcells' Dallas Cowboys staff and as an assistant head coach/secondary in Miami when Parcells was executive vice president of football operations. He will be more aggressive and fundamentally sound. But it may take some time for his schematic changes to take. So the Falcons catch the Eagles at the right time. Also, former Falcon Michael Vick has struggled with ball security and no team can consistently overcome Vick's total of 13 turnovers (8 interceptions) through six games.

Can Vick change? Let's just say he'd better. Or else Reid's next change will be elevating talented rookie Nick Foles, since Vick has played like a rookie when it comes to protecting the football, especially in the red zone.

RR: And finally, give us your take on the firing of Carolina GM Marty Hurney?

JC: Cam Newton didn't realize Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has the only suggestion box that counts in Carolina.

Every disappointing team needs a scapegoat, if only as a warning shot across the bow to get everyone's attention. Classy and respected Marty Hurney was intensely loyal and close to Richardson. And though he appears to have made the right choice on franchise quarterback in Newton, Hurney didn't support Newton with enough help in a passing league.

A Bobby Beathard disciple and former sportswriter who covered the Joe Gibbs-coached Washington Redskins "Hogs'' before he took a Redskins public relations job offered by late owner Jack Kent Cooke in 1988, Hurney preferred the old-school style of building around a strong line and run game. That approach worked well under former head coach John Fox when the Panthers reached the Super Bowl in 2003. Problem is, Fox coaches in Denver now and Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski raised expectations with an exciting 6-10 debut led by Newton's dazzling, Rookie of the Year campaign.
As much as Newton thrived as a rookie in the high-speed read option offense, he has regressed in his second season and has failed to show the maturity and leadership necessary to raise his game and his team to the next level. Hurney is due some blame there for not getting him a Julio Jones-, A.J. Green-type weapon to grow with and complement Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen.

The fact the Panthers haven't had a winning season since reaching the playoffs in 2008 is why Richardson, 76 and expecting a deep playoff run, pulled the trigger. Rivera is under the gun now and pressure is on every Panthers coach and player to raise their game.

In firing the man who picked him, Richardson deposited the biggest suggestion of all in that suggestion box Newton solicited after Carolina's fourth straight loss Sunday — grow up, stop wondering what's wrong and take control of your team that has lost four games by six points or fewer. 

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