Sunday November 9th, 2008

CHICAGO -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take in the NFL's latest sequel: "The Return of Rex,'' a Windy City-based movie that makes us all feel as if we've seen it before and know how it ends...

After 10 weeks of the NFL's 2008 regular season, we hold these truths to be self-evident:

• We all know by now the New England Patriots are going back to the playoffs. Let's just book it. As much as the Week 1 loss of Tom Brady hurt the defending AFC champions, it's not going to wind up snapping their streak of five consecutive trips to the postseason.

New England is 6-3 and remains tied for first place in the AFC East after exposing the Bills as playoff pretenders on Sunday, 20-10. Next up is a showdown with the Jets, the co-leader in the East, on Thursday night at Gillette, and then a trip 10 days later to Miami. The Pats will do no worse than a split, and emerge from Week 12 at 7-4 or better.

And don't forget, they've still got games against Seattle and Oakland, who won't even be able to stay on the field with them. New England is a winning machine because losing streaks are not allowed under Bill Belichick's reign. Since 2003, the Patriots are 16-1 after a loss.

Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan are playing better as rookies than any two first-year quarterbacks in decades. That's right, decades. There are plenty of reasons why both Baltimore and Atlanta are 6-3 and vastly improved this season, but the poised and productive play of their young quarterbacks can't be over-emphasized.

Nobody seems to think Ryan's too mechanical these days. And nobody questions if a quarterback who played at the smallish University of Delaware can be ready for the big-time. The Ravens have won four in a row, and the Falcons are 4-1 in their past five.

• I know it made for a juicy pre-game sub-plot last week, but Rex Grossman won't be staging a career makeover just as his contract is set to come to a close in Chicago this year. The Bears one-man rollercoaster ride of a quarterback is who he is at this point. Part Good Rex, part Bad Rex. And there won't be any evidence to the contrary coming from this midseason relief stint in place of injured Bears starter Kyle Orton.

As I watched him lead the Chicago offense against the Titans, Grossman was, well, Grossman. There was an impressive touchdown drive on the Bears first possession, and then the next nine times Chicago had the ball, it resulted in an interception and eight straight punts. That's not going to get it done, and the sooner the Bears get Orton healthy -- and re-signed to a long-term deal -- the better things are going to be in Chicago.

• The Dolphins aren't just a nice little story anymore. They're a threat to make the playoffs out of the AFC East. With their 21-19 win over Seattle, the Dolphins have won three games in a row and, at 5-4, are over .500 for the first time since Nick Saban's team finished 9-7 in 2005.

Miami trails the Patriots and Jets by just a game, and the Dolphins schedule has some cupcakes left on it. Miami has Oakland at home next week, and still gets to play at St. Louis, home against San Francisco and at Kansas City. That's nine wins right there if the Dolphins take care of business. This may be Bill Parcells' best first-year rebuilding job ever.

• The 0-9 Lions are really going for this thing, folks. If they can get past Thanksgiving without pulling one of their patented homefield holiday upsets -- and they face the Titans, so it would take a doozey -- they've got a great shot at 0-16. Don't snicker. I'm not kidding. Just look at their schedule.

• We may never see Vince Young take the field again for Tennessee this season. Ditto for Tarvaris Jackson in Minnesota. Throw in Matt Leinart's complete eclipse in Arizona, and it has not been a good year for the Class of 2006 quarterback crop. Denver's Jay Cutler excluded.

Devin Hester took the year off. The Bears return man extraordinaire isn't even making the first man miss very often these days. He's touchdown-less this season, after returning an NFL record 11 punts or kickoffs for scores in his first two seasons. No way to soft-shoe this one: Hester is just another guy in 2008.

• Nothing is ailing the Jacksonville Jaguars that a trip to Detroit couldn't cure. It's the NFL's miracle elixir: A game against the Lions. Jags head coach Jack Del Rio may even re-install the TVs and lift the ban on music in the Jacksonville locker room this week.

• The Saints, my NFC Super Bowl pick, aren't going anywhere this season. They just don't have it. New Orleans' defense remains a problem, and the improvements that I thought the Saints made on that side of the ball continue to be insufficient. You are what your record says you are in the NFL, and the Saints are a 4-5, last-place team. And even that 521 yards of offense at Atlanta on Sunday rings hollow.

• If Vikings head coach Brad Childress gets to work a fourth season in Minnesota, Sunday's 28-27 win over Green Bay might turn out to be the game that saved his job. Childress had lost the first five games of his Vikings tenure against the arch-rival Packers, and it's hard to imagine a scenario in which 0-6 would have been survivable. At 5-4 this season, with four wins out of their past five games, the Vikings are tied with Chicago for first place in the NFC North and better positioned for their upcoming run of four road games in the next five weeks.

• The Jets love playing at home in the first half against a team that either calls St. Louis home, or once did. In Week 4, the Jets ran up a 34-0 halftime bulge against the Arizona (nee St. Louis) Cardinals en route to a 56-35 win. On Sunday, New York was back at it, jumping out to a 40-0 halftime advantage on its way to a 47-3 victory over the St. Louis Rams.

Jim Haslett's bid to hang onto the Rams fulltime head coaching job is all but over. After that hopeful 2-0 start under Haslett, with wins over the Redskins and Cowboys, St. Louis is 0-3 and again looking like the overmatched team it was under Scott Linehan. It obviously messed with Haslett's mojo when the NFL ruled that he couldn't have a clause in his contract in which six wins would earn him an elevation to the fulltime job.

Jim Fassel continues to be a name to track regarding the Rams job in 2009.

Daunte Culpepper didn't make the slightest difference in Detroit. His first three pass plays went incomplete, interception, 2-yard sack. Welcome back to the NFL, D.C. This is what things have come to for winless Detroit. Culpepper was coaching his son's Pop Warner team about 10 days ago, and now he's the Lions starting quarterback. But maybe it's Drew Stanton's turn, given that the second-year passer mopped up for Culpepper on Sunday against the Jaguars. If you're scoring at home, that would make four starting QBs for Detroit in '08.

• The Jets now know what they must do on offense: Limit Brett Favre's per game throws, and keep finding ways to get the ball to running backs Thomas Jones (149 yards rushing and three touchdowns on 26 carries against the Rams) and Leon Washington. Favre only threw 19 times on Sunday, and it was the first time since Week 1 that he went without tossing a pick.

Brett Favre, game manager? Sounds funny, but it might just do the trick.

• Though it has to hurt Browns fans to even think it, it's not the worst-case scenario for quarterback Brady Quinn to be getting his first real dose of NFL experience without these games deciding whether Cleveland goes to the playoffs. In the long run, it might serve Quinn far better to be working on his developing game rather than having to win now. Trust me on this one, Brownies.

Al Davis may very well be eyeing Stanford's Jim Harbaugh as his next victim, er..., head coach, but why would anyone with a coaching future that looks as promising as Harbaugh's be inclined to sign up for the debacle of working for the Raiders?

When it comes to finding the next Oakland coach, Al, you're going to reap what you have so destructively sewn.

• The Ravens know they got quite lucky with Flacco. Talking to a Baltimore official last week, he reminded me how fortunate Baltimore feels about the role fate played in the rookie quarterback's season. In the plans that the Ravens braintrust had hashed out, Flacco was really only supposed to be inserted into their starting lineup now, in time to play the season's second half. But because of Troy Smith's preseason illness and Kyle Boller's injury, the Ravens had no choice but to start Flacco from opening day on. Look how much further along the Ravens and Flacco are because of it. Baltimore is 6-3 and Flacco is growing more polished and impressive every week.

• They only gave DeAngelo Hall a pro-rated slice of a one-year deal for less than lavish money, but the Redskins haven't signed a more self-confident, overrated cornerback since Deion Sanders came to town and stole Daniel Snyder's money in 2000. If only Hall were half as good as he believes himself to be.

• What a sad, sorry season the Seahawks are enduring. Not only has Seattle lost five out of six to fall to 2-7 and completely out of the NFC wild-card chase, but also the Seahawks have had to go a long way to do it. For the second time in four weeks, Seattle played in Florida. When it comes to NFL road trips, it doesn't any worse than Seattle to Miami. (Unless it would be Miami to Seattle, into a stiff west-to-east headwind).

• Patriots rookie running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has the best nickname in the NFL. His teammates call him "Law Firm,'' in honor of his four-part name. Oh, and he can play a little too. Green-Ellis gained 105 yards on 26 carries against the Bills -- the first 100-yard rushing game of his career -- and scored another touchdown. He has touchdowns in four consecutive games, which happens to be all but one of every game he has ever played in.

• Baltimore's secret weapon is Steven Hauschka. Who is he, and what was he doing kicking a 54-yard, second-quarter field goal for the Ravens in their win at Houston?

He's the Ravens' rookie kickoff specialist and was given a shot at a long field goal attempt that's well beyond Matt Stover's range. Not a bad first career NFL field goal effort for the former N.C. State product.

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