Sunday November 4th, 2007

INDIANAPOLIS -- A few quick musings, observations and the occasional insight as we struggle to remember there was more unfolding in Week 9 than a certain well-chronicled clash of AFC superpowers ...

Marques Colston is back. Drew Brees is back. And because they are, so too are the New Orleans Saints' Super Bowl chances. What a wild rollercoaster ride it's been down on the Bayou. From NFC favorite to 0-4, back to .500, all in a two-month span. Saints alive.

The standings in the NFC South still say the Saints are in a second-place tie with Carolina (both 4-4), a half-game behind first-place Tampa Bay (5-4). But don't believe it. A month later than expected, New Orleans has found its 2006 offense, and a bit of last year's mojo to boot.

In their four-game season-opening losing streak, the Saints averaged 12.8 points per game. In their four wins since then, they are scoring 30.5 points per game, including Sunday's 41-24 rout of the visiting Jaguars (5-3). New Orleans put up 538 yards of offense against the Jaguars' usually stout defense, including 435 yards of net passing. True, the Saints defense gave up 432 yards of offense to Jacksonville, but that's like last year's winning formula.

Even better news for Saints fans, the schedule is about to turn softer for the duration of November. New Orleans finishes this month home against St. Louis (0-8), at Houston (3-5) and at Carolina (4-4, with two consecutive ugly losses). In fact, New Orleans' Dec. 2 home date against Tampa Bay is its only remaining game against a team that currently has a winning record.

Nothing has gone as planned for the Saints this season, but they've survived in the weak NFC. They now have an excellent opportunity to become just the second team to overcome an 0-4 start and make the playoffs, joining the 1992 San Diego Chargers. In New Orleans, the football season is just starting.

• What could Adrian Peterson possibly do for an encore after rushing for an NFL single-game record of 296 yards in his eighth NFL game?

Oh, I know. Maybe crack the Vikings starting lineup for good.

It's time everyone admits that Minnesota got the steal of the 2007 draft's first round when it took the hard-running Oklahoma star at No. 7. But it's still important to point out that there are those -- even within the Vikings organization -- who fear that Peterson's fearless and upright running style will preclude a long NFL career.

Let's enjoy it though while it lasts, because Peterson is the most explosive offensive talent to enter the league since LaDainian Tomlinson -- the man he out-classed on Sunday -- in 2001.

Antonio Cromartie's 109-yard return of a missed field goal in San Diego's shocking loss at Minnesota might be the play of the half-season in the NFL. Weird thing is, I can't ever remember seeing a missed field goal returned for a touchdown in the NFL until about four years ago. Now there seems to be at least one a year, and they're all longer than the last one, invariably breaking the record for the longest play ever in the process.

David Carr is the choice in Carolina. Patrick Ramsey replaces the injured Jay Cutler for Denver. Brooks Bollinger has to sub for the injured Tarvaris Jackson in Minnesota. Quinn Gray goes the whole way for Jacksonville in New Orleans. Sage Rosenfels gets the nod for Houston at Oakland, and Cleo Lemon mercifully had the week off in Miami.

Have you noticed there aren't many Peyton Mannings or Tom Bradys working in NFL pass pockets these days? Me, too.

• Washington out-lasted the Jets 23-20 in overtime to improve to 5-3, but remarkably, Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell still has not thrown a touchdown pass to a receiver other than a tight end this season. He's only got six scoring passes in the season's first half. Not sure you can get very far with that stat intact, Skins fans.

• They didn't jump-start their season with a win, but the Jets have to be happy with the showing Kellen Clemens turned in as Chad Pennington's replacement. Clemens wasn't spectacular, but he threw for 226 yards and a touchdown, with no turnovers, and even ran seven times for 48 yards.

• It has to almost be JaMarcus Russell time in Oakland. Or does the shaky state of the Raiders offensive line make Lane Kiffin afraid to throw his rookie quarterback into that particular fire?

• What happened to the popular premise that Denver hiring Jim Bates as its defensive coordinator was the biggest improvement the Broncos made this offseason? Even before the Lions hung a 44-7 hurting on Denver on Sunday, the Broncos defense was hugely disappointing, having allowed a league-worst 166 yards rushing per game through Week 8.

Only Oakland is standing between the Broncos and being the AFC West's worst team.

• On the flip side, the Lions, one must admit, are for real. At 6-2, Detroit will be hard-pressed to miss the playoffs, its first postseason berth since 1999. The Lions can go 4-4 in the season's second half and still fulfill quarterback Jon Kitna's prediction of a 10-win season in Detroit.

Any chance the Lions players carry Matt Millen off on their shoulders once they clinch a playoff berth?

• As much as I liked the signing this offseason, Carr is giving Carolina no chance to win. The Panthers backup-turned-starting quarterback looks shell-shocked from all those sacks he absorbed in Houston the past five years and I'm sure his sore back isn't helping matters. If Vinny Testaverde's balky Achilles heel is still too sore next week, the Panthers should breathe deep and name rookie Matt Moore their starter for their home game against Atlanta.

Moore, who relieved an injured Carr with three minutes remaining against Tennessee, can't possibly do worse than the beleaguered former No. 1 overall pick. Carr was sacked seven times by the Titans, including three by Pro Bowl-bound Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.

Time to park this Carr and hide the keys.

• Have you noticed that the Jets' Leon Washington has quietly become the NFL's best kick returner not named Devin Hester? Washington's 86-yard scoring return of the opening kick on Sunday against the Redskins (meaning Washington scored on Washington) was his third touchdown of the season on a kickoff, setting a Jets franchise record.

• Funny the way some quarterbacks have a great feel for one particular receiver, and can't seem to find anyone else on a consistent basis. Kind of the way J.P. Losman and Lee Evans click in Buffalo. Losman hit Evans for an early 8-yard touchdown pass against the Bengals on Sunday, after the duo combined to beat the Jets last week on an 85-yard game winner when Losman relieved the injured Trent Edwards.

• So it has come to a TV blackout in Atlanta for the first time in the six-year Arthur Blank era. Wow. And the fallout from the Michael Vick saga just keeps coming. And coming. And coming.

• I'm not exactly sure how they're doing it, but the Bills being .500 (4-4) at midseason ranks among the most amazing accomplishments of the NFL's 2007 season. And to think if Buffalo had taken care of business at home against Dallas in that Monday Night Football instant classic, Dick Jauron's team would actually be 5-3 and on a five-game winning streak following a dreadful, injury-laded 0-3 start.

Going into Week 9, Buffalo hadn't scored 20 points in any game this season. Then again, the Bills hadn't played against Cincinnati's defense yet. Buffalo trounced the bumbling Bengals, 33-21.

• Here's a handy and topical way to measure just how long it had been since Navy last beat Notre Dame, which happened Saturday in South Bend, Ind., with the Midshipmen prevailing 46-44 in triple overtime. The last time Navy had triumphed over the Golden Domers was Nov. 2, 1963, nine days before the ancient Vinny Testaverde was born.

That's how long.

• Another week, another 49ers loss, and that 2008 first-round pick of San Francisco's that New England owns is looking better all the time. Entering Sunday, the 49ers 2-5 record was tied for fifth worst in the league with Minnesota, Oakland and Cincinnati. At 2-6, San Francisco is in strong contention for a top-five pick.

• For the record, I thought Kitna's naked-man Halloween costume -- which poked fun at Lions' defensive line coach Joe Cullen's embarrassing driving-while-naked arrest last year -- was pure genius. And kudos to Kitna's wife, Jennifer, for adding that extra touch by dressing up as a Wendy's drive-through window attendant. With apologies to the Guinness guys, "brilliant'' is the only fitting description.

• Upon leaving Miami, Olindo Mare talked about what a dream come true it is for any kicker to join a team that plays indoors. Be careful what you dream for Olindo. Mare missed a pair of field goals -- from 43 and 52 yards -- in the final minute of the first half against visiting Jacksonville and he's now a horrible 6 of 12 on the season.

No wonder the Dolphins thought he was finished.

• Here's a interesting debate that's sure to intensify in the coming weeks: The league changed its rules last year to disallow a player like Shawne Merriman from being considered for selection to the Pro Bowl in a season in which he served a suspension for testing positive for a banned substance. But should New England coach Bill Belichick be disqualified from winning any individual honor after being punished this year for his role in Spy-Gate? After all, he did acknowledge breaking league rules with his team's video-taping practices.

Is there an appreciable difference in the two situations?

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