1. The Ravens are playing uninspiring football.
While the Ravens did leave Cleveland with a 25-15 victory over the Browns, they haven’t played a complete game since their 31-30 win over the Patriots in Week 3. Their offense went three-and-out on six straight drives versus on Sunday and didn’t wake up until Cleveland took a 15-14 lead in the second half. Fortunately for the Ravens, the Browns shot themselves in the foot with an illegal formation penalty that negated an 18-yard touchdown reception by Josh Gordon that would have given Cleveland a 19-14 lead. Brandon Weeden also threw in a late pick to seal the win for Baltimore, which received yet another inconsistent performance from Joe Flacco. Simply put, John Harbaugh couldn’t have been too thrilled with his team’s performance. Wins are hard to come by in the NFL and nothing is guaranteed. But the Ravens had two weeks to prepare for the Browns and to erase the taste of that 43-13 beatdown that Houston gave them in Week 7. Despite winning 25-15, it was about as uninspiring 25-15 victory that you’ll find.
2. Throw out the records – the Steelers look like the team to beat in the AFC North.
A handful of Giants players were forced from their homes this week because of Hurricane Sandy. Eli Manning had to leave his home in Hoboken, New Jersey and tight end Martellus Bennett reportedly had to shack up with Kevin Boothe at the offensive tackle’s house. Even though players like Justin Tuck wanted to provide the patrons of New York and New Jersey with a victory on Sunday, nobody will blame the Giants for losing to the Steelers in what was a trying week. But regardless of how emotionally drained the Giants were, Pittsburgh nevertheless picked up a huge road win and have now won three in a row. The Steelers remain one game back of the Ravens in the standings but those are two teams heading in opposite directions. Both AFC North inhabitants have offensive line issues but only one team has a quarterback that can overcome shaky pass protection. (That would be Ben Roethlisberger.) The Steelers are getting healthier on defense while the Ravens have clearly been affected by the losses of Ray Lewis and Ladarius Webb. Pittsburgh has weapons on offense (although they might be down one after Antonio Brown suffered an ankle injury on Sunday) and its running game has come alive. Joe Flacco is the epitome of inconsistency and his receivers have had issues beating press coverage. Forget the records – the Steelers are currently the most dangerous team in the AFC North.
3. Falcons remain a very quiet 8-0.
The Falcons have to be the least intimidating 8-0 team in league history. Their average margin of victory this year is less than 10 points, they’ve only played one team with a winning record, they don’t run the ball effectively and they’re susceptible to being gashed on the ground defensively. But if you think this is still the same Atlanta team that is 0-3 in the playoffs under Mike Smith, then you haven’t been paying attention. Former offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey often failed to get his playmakers in one-on-one matchups. On Sunday night versus Dallas, that’s essentially how Atlanta won the game. On multiple occasions Dirk Koetter freed up Julio Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and Jacquizz Rodgers to get one-on-one with a defender and often times, the Falcons won those matchups. Last season guys like Rodgers and Jones were novelties in Mularkey’s offense, and granted, they were rookies. But this year they’re featured players. Matt Ryan, who must be considered the MVP to this point, is playing with more confidence than at any point in his career and he finally doesn’t look over-coached. Defensively, Atlanta ranked 20th in pass coverage last season. This year, they rank 8th. Thanks to new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons have finally figured how to stop the pass. And that’s without their best defensive back Brent Grimes (knee/out for the year) manning one side of the field. With Mularkey and former DC Brian Van Gorder at the controls, the Falcons weren’t equipped to beat other playoff teams. They simply lacked the creativity to do so, and they were terribly predictable on both sides of the ball. But this year is a different story. This year, Koetter and Nolan have taken this team to a level they have yet to experience under Mike Smith. And thus far, the results have been perfect.
4. The Cowboys beat quality opponents?
The Cowboys dominated the Falcons in the first half on Sunday night. They harassed Matt Ryan, they torched Dunta Robinson, and they forced Atlanta’s offense to be one-dimensional by shutting down the run. But heading into halftime the score was tied at 6-6 and the Cowboys were lucky they weren’t trailing considering Falcons kicker Matt Bryant missed a 37-yard field goal in the first quarter. By the end of the game the final scored read Atlanta 19, Dallas 13, and the Cowboys were once again left searching for answers. Why hasn’t Jason Garrett allowed Tony Romo to run the hurry up like he did on a 6-play, 78-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter? Why can’t Rob Ryan’s defense make a play with the game on the line? Once again, where did Dez Bryant run off to? The reality is that this Dallas team can’t beat quality opponents. The combined record of the teams they lost to this season is 32-10, which includes the 8-0 Falcons. The Cowboys have simply failed to make plays with the game hanging in the balance late in the fourth quarter. Or they commit stupid penalties. Or they turn the ball over. Or Dan Bailey misses a field goal versus Baltimore. Or Dez Bryant’s pinkie doesn’t come down in bounds versus New York. Something always happens that leaves the Cowboys thisclose of winning but at the end of the day, they’re 3-5. And at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that matters.
5. It won’t be long before Andrew Luck is considered “elite.”
Nobody knows better than Cam Newton how a player can be on top of the NFL world one year only to be crushed by its weight the next. But that shouldn’t stop any of us from gushing over Andrew Luck. He broke Newton’s single-game rookie passing record by completing 30-of-48 passes for 433 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Colts to a 23-20 victory over a Miami team with a very good defense. He took just one sack while showing exceptional movement within the pocket and he continues to perform under immense pressure (both from his offensive line and from a fan base that grew accustomed to watching Peyton Manning take the team to the playoffs every year). He’s tough, he’s intelligent, and he’s winning games in what many believed to be a rebuilding year in Indy. He’s already tied Manning for the most 300-yard games (four) by a rookie quarterback and he’s done so with little help from his offensive line or an average receiving corps outside of Reggie Wayne. A year from now we may criticize Luck the way we’ve done Newton this year. But for now, this exceptional rookie is at the controls of a Colts team that leads the AFC wild card hunt. The same Colts team, mind you, that didn’t win a game until Week 15 last year.
6. The NFC North is the best division in football.
This really isn’t much of a debate. The Bears are having one of those Bear-like seasons in which their defense is averaging 19 turnovers and three touchdowns per game, and the addition of Brandon Marshall has paid major dividends for Jay Cutler and the offense. The Packers are once again one of the most banged up teams in the NFL but they’re 6-3 thanks in large part to Aaron Rodgers being undefensivable. Fans in Detroit shouldn’t get their hopes too high about the Lions making a playoff run (good luck finding six wins from the remainder of their schedule), but they’re a dangerous team coming off their most complete game of the season, and while the Vikings have lost two in a row they employ the NFL’s leading rusher in Adrian Peterson. The majority of divisions this year don’t have two competitive teams, nevertheless four. If the Vikings can rediscover the magic they had earlier in the year, don’t be shocked if three teams from the North make the postseason this year in the NFC.
Side Note: The Vikings shouldn’t bench Christian Ponder. They invested a top 15 pick in him last year and while his numbers over the last three weeks haven’t been pretty (38-of-74 passing, 372 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs), they need to show confidence in him through thick and thin. If over the next year it becomes increasingly clear that he isn’t the answer, then they can think about making a significant move. But this is the price teams pay when a quarterback is in his second year as a starter. It does Ponder nor the Vikings’ future any good to play Joe Webb.
7. This just in: Greg Schiano’s offense works in the NFL.
Say what you want about Greg Schiano’s philosophies when it comes to defending the “Victory Formation” – his offense plays in the NFL. Doug Martin’s effort in the Bucs’ 42-32 win over the Raiders was epic, as he rushed for 251 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries. For those scoring at home, that’s over 10 yards per carry. Perhaps what was most impressive is that Martin accomplished the feat without running behind All-Pro guard Carl Nicks (toe), who was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Thursday. Tampa Bay racked up 515 yards in the win and while Oakland’s defense contributed to the effort with horrendous tackling, the Bucs have now scored 38, 28, 36 and 42 points in their last four games. In fact, they haven’t scored fewer than 22 points since a 16-10 loss to the Cowboys in Week 3. College coaches like Bobby Petrino fail to convert their offenses at the pro level. But because Schiano is such a big believer in running the ball and taking shots downfield in the passing game, his offense has flourished. They need to add more playmakers on defense before they’re considered a legit playoff contender. But thanks to Martin, Josh Freeman and Vincent Jackson, the Bucs have a solid offense core to build around for years to come.
8. How much more can the Saints take?
There are so many questions stemming from the news that Sean Payton’s contract extension has been voided. First, why did it take so long for the NFL to decide/announce that the contract was voided? And did the Saints ultimately decide that following the bounty scandal they wanted a clean break from Payton (who was also involved in a situation where he was stealing vicodin from the team’s facility in May of 2010). If they still view him as their head coach, then one would assume he would stay to try to make right on what has transpired over the past two years. But we have yet to hear from the Saints, which makes you wonder if they’re ready to wash their hands of the situation. If they are, darker days could be ahead. Drew Brees will keep this team competitive as long as he remains as productive as he has been. But without Payton calling the plays, we’ve seen New Orleans struggle this season. Brees may still be running Payton’s offense but not having Payton the playcaller is holding the Saints’ offense back. It’ll be interesting to see not only where Payton winds up next year (Dallas makes all the sense in the world), but also who New Orleans hires to replace the only coach to lead the franchise to a Super Bowl title.
9. Don’t underestimate the Broncos’ win in Cincinnati.
Many pundits viewed Denver’s matchup with Cincinnati as a game the Broncos should win. The Bengals had lost three straight games coming into Week 9 and looked like a team that was ready to fall apart. But Cincinnati also had two weeks to prepare for Denver, which was 1-2 on the road before Sunday and the one win was the epic come-from-behind victory in San Diego in Week 6. The Bengals were well rested, at home, and desperate for a win. And despite watching a 17-3 lead evaporate in the second half, it was impressive that the Broncos left Cincinnati with a 31-23 win. Peyton Manning snapped a five-game streak of throwing for 300-plus yards and threw interceptions on back-to-back series in the second half. But he was magnificent otherwise while completing 27-of-35 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns. I’m still waiting for Denver’s defense to string together dominating performances but that will come. They have too much talent on that side of the ball not to. But while the Bengals watch their playoff hopes fade away, the Broncos have sole possession of first place in the AFC West and have positioned themselves to make a strong second-half run.
10. It’s time to pump the breaks on the Miami playoff talk.
There was talk all week about how Miami was a legitimate playoff contender after rattling off three straight wins. But the Dolphins put themselves behind the 8-ball with their 23-20 loss to the Colts. That’s because they’re now staring up at Indianapolis in the AFC wild card standings. The Dolphins do have winnable games against the Titans, Bills (twice), Seahawks (in Miami) and Jaguars in upcoming weeks, but this loss could come back to bite them. The good news is that Ryan Tannehill looked comfortable in the pocket and when rolling out after suffering what was believed to be a hyperextended knee last Sunday. But Miami’s offense did nothing after scoring 17 points on its first three possessions and for as good as the defense has been this season, Andrew Luck torched the Dolphins for 433 yards through the air. The schedule is favorable the rest of the way but this was a winnable game that Miami dropped. Thus, checking off wins against opponents like Buffalo, Tennessee and Jacksonville is premature.