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Snap Judgments: Cowboys turning heads, Ravens 'D' stars and more

GREEN Bay, Wis. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as a rather unconventional but fascinating homecoming weekend here in Titletown wrapped up with the Vikings' 38-26 win over the Packers ...

• They're not really known for doing anything all that quietly and understated (see new stadium, $1.15 billion price tag), which is what makes the Cowboys' three-game winning streak so absolutely un-Cowboys-like. Downright stealthy almost. But in case the rest of the NFL hasn't noticed yet, we're here to tell you, Dallas is suddenly on the move.

Believe it or not, the Cowboys' 38-17 home-field destruction of Seattle on Sunday sets up next week's NFC East first-place showdown at Philadelphia, with 5-2 Dallas testing its new-found mojo against the 5-2 Eagles. To the winner goes the undisputed grasp of the division's top spot at the season's mid-point, no matter what the floundering Giants (5-3) do next week at home against San Diego.

Honestly now, a month or so ago, with the Cowboys 2-2 and in a bit of disarray coming off that humbling loss at Denver, did any of us see a first-place battle in the Cowboys' not-too-distant future? Yes, I see that hand, and you can put it down now, Mr. Jones.

To be sure, the Cowboys didn't play their best game in trouncing the fading Seahawks (2-5). They left some points on the field, and gave up a good chunk of yardage defensively (Seattle had 308 total yards). But you can also see a team that's starting to believe in itself, and the Tony Romo-led passing game is finally humming at early 2007 (or better) levels.

Dallas scored five touchdowns, and four came from the previously maligned receiving corps: Sam Hurd, Roy Williams, Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton. True, Crayton's score came on an 82-yard punt return, sealing the deal in the third quarter, but the important point is that the Cowboys' playmakers are taking turns making plays. And that's when an offense starts to take off.

Romo finished 21 of 36 for 256 yards, and three scores, but the best part of his day was completing passes to 10 receivers, with none having more than Austin's team-leading five receptions for 61 yards. Gone are those bad old days of the T.O. era, when Romo looked tortured if he didn't get the ball to No. 81 early and often. Romo is now content to find the open man, no matter who it is, and keep moving the chains. He has gone three consecutive games without an interception, the first such streak of his career.

Having won three in a row at home after that stadium-opening disappointment against the Giants in Week 2, the Cowboys are starting to develop a little home-field advantage in their new digs as well. Now they have to take their act on the road the next two weeks into two of the more hostile settings in the NFL: Philadelphia and Green Bay. Both will be difficult trips, but my sense is these Cowboys will be up for the challenge.

For a change, Dallas is beginning to take on the look of an overachiever. Imagine that.

• That's pretty much what I expected out of the Baltimore defense on Sunday against visiting Denver, a season-saving wake-up call. The Ravens needed to rediscover their defensive identity, and they found it against the undefeated Broncos, holding them to just seven points and 200 yards of offense in the 30-7 win.

Baltimore really used its Week 7 bye to reinvigorate itself and get back to basics on defense. It looked as if the Broncos' bye last week actually robbed them of the momentum generated by their 6-0 start, and Kyle Orton especially seemed out of rhythm.

The Ravens defensive intensity, of course, had something to do with Orton's off day. Baltimore sacked him just twice, but the defense flew around and hit everything in sight, and it looked to me like new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison finally hit his stride in trying to fill Rex Ryan's big shoes. Denver reached the red zone once and dented Baltimore territory all of three times.

You can't overestimate how big the win was for Baltimore, which climbed back over .500 at 4-3. With next week's trip to first-place Cincinnati (5-2) looming, the Ravens' playoff plans are very much alive.

• Denver's defense returned to earth at Baltimore, too. Before Sunday, the Broncos had given up just 10 points in the second half, and the only touchdown scored in the final 30 minutes came in Week 1 at Cincinnati. Against Baltimore, the Broncos allowed 24 points in the second half, although just 17 were against the defense. Ravens rookie cornerback/return man Lardarius Webb's 95-yard kickoff return at the start of the third quarter opened the second-half scoring.

With the schedule Denver has, it was only a matter of time before the Broncos tasted defeat. But the trick will be to ensure that one loss doesn't quickly become a losing streak. The defeat at Baltimore won't hurt Denver much in the AFC West if it can rebound next week at home against the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers (5-2), who will be coming off their bye.

• Wow. Break up the Titans. And good to see Vince Young is alive and well after all. What took you so long, Jeff Fisher? And if you're inclined to say Tennessee's beatdown of Jacksonville had more to do with Titans running back Chris Johnson than anyone else, we won't argue. But benched veteran quarterback Kerry Collins had C.J. in his backfield, too, and he didn't win.

• As the Giants slide continues, how long until Tom Coughlin loses the kinder, gentler sideline persona that has worked so well for him since late 2007 or so and goes into one of those red-faced tantrums we all miss so much? I say if things don't start looking up next week against San Diego, the old T.C. makes a return appearance.

• Speaking of the Giants and their former selves, are we watching the resurrection of Eli Manning's once-maddeningly inconsistent game these past three weeks? With two more interceptions in the 40-17 blowout loss at Philadelphia, Manning has seven turnovers (six interceptions and a fumble lost) during New York's three-game losing streak.

You can't tell me Manning's passing isn't being affected by the plantar fasciatis he's playing through. Manning seems to be sailing a lot of his passes high over his receivers' heads, and that's probably an indication he not's real comfortable planting his feet and following through on his throws.

The Giants don't get their bye until Week 10, so Manning has to tough it out through Sunday's game against San Diego. New York has to hope the rest will do Manning's foot -- and flagging confidence -- some good.

• I'm not saying DeSean Jackson has my vote locked up, but as midseason approaches, don't you at least have to include the second-year Eagles receiver on the short list of MVP candidates? Every one of Jackson's touchdowns have been the stuff of highlight-reel, and with Sunday's 54-yard scoring catch against the Giants factored in, the former Cal standout now has four touchdowns as a receiver, one as a rusher and one as a punter returner.

Between Jackson and rookies LeSean McCoy (66-yard scoring run against the Giants) and Jeremy Maclin (23-yard touchdown catch), what an embarrassment of big-play riches the Eagles have on offense these days. Enough new weapons to suit your taste, Donovan McNabb?

• What is going on with the once-proud Giants defense? New York really looks like it misses former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, and so far, new coordinator Bill Sheridan has yet to make some needed adjustments. Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver gouges the Giants previously stout run defense for a 41-yard touchdown run? Are you kidding me?

Consider this: Weaver entered the game with 16 yards on four carries this season, and never had a run longer than 37 yards in his five-year NFL career. It was only the second touchdown he's ever scored as a professional.

All those big plays by the Eagles should make for a pretty uncomfortable week in the Giants defensive meetings.

• Prediction: Ted Ginn Jr. will make the Hall of Fame some day if the Dolphins just do their part and continue to bench him. Ginn lost his starting job to rookie receiver Brian Hartline on Sunday against the Jets, as punishment for a recent spate of costly drops. (Like, in the past three years or so.) But the third-year veteran apparently channeled his anger or embarrassment into his return skills, taking two kickoffs to the house, from 100 and 101 yards -- both in the third quarter -- to spark Miami's bizarre 30-25 upset win.

• OK, we really shouldn't have to hear any more for the time being about the Jets' supplanting the Patriots as the beasts of the AFC East. Until New York (4-4) learns how to handle Miami, which just swept the season series for the first time since 2003, it's really unseemly for the Jets to be talking big and bold about knocking off New England.

I'm not saying the Patriots (5-2) clinched the division title on Sunday. But if I'm the Jets, who limp into their Week 9 bye, I just shut up and get rid of those awful Titans throwback uniforms at this point.

• Another Sunday, another blow to the NFL's "Any Given Sunday" mantra. After last week, which featured the biggest spate of blowouts since December 1970, five of the league's eight early games on Sunday were lopsided affairs, too. Baltimore, Houston, Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia all won by 21-24 points.

• Remember the foul mood Jets head coach Rex Ryan was in the last time New York lost to Miami, three weeks ago? Imagine how he'll feel this week, watching the tape of a game in which his team outgained Miami 378-104, but lost. Ginn's two touchdowns on kickoff returns, and Jason Taylor's 48-yard return of a fumble for a score made up for a whole bunch of Miami's offensive inefficiency.

• From the credit-where-credit-is-due department: Let's give it up for the Texans, who climbed two games over .500 (5-3) for the first time in their eight-season history by hanging in there to beat Buffalo 31-10 on the strength of a 22-point fourth quarter.

But now for the hard part. Houston plays undefeated Indianapolis twice in its next three games. If the Texans have any legitimate hopes of beating the Colts out in the AFC South, they'll have to prove it in head-to-head play. It's not hyperbole to say next week's game at the Colts shapes up as biggest game in franchise history for Houston.

• If Buffalo safety Jarius Byrd isn't the leader in the clubhouse when it comes to the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year honor, I don't know who in the world is. With two interceptions for the third consecutive game, both in the first quarter off Houston's Matt Schaub, Byrd leads the league in pickoffs (7).

• I'm giving the Dan Orlovsky field awareness award to Rams safety James Butler, who picked off a Matthew Stafford pass in the end zone, ran it out to the St. Louis 2, and then backtracked and wound up being dropped for a safety. Those are worth two points, J.B.

Butler's in his fifth NFL season, I might add, so he can't claim he didn't know how the whole touchback thing works.

• Don't get me wrong. I applaud the effort, but fed-up Cleveland fans showing up late for a Browns game won't work. It's been tried before. Shoot, the Browns themselves have had whole games this season where they didn't show up, and absolutely nothing has changed.

• Given that a certain quarterback was playing at Lambeau Field on Sunday, I'm guessing Seattle running back Julius Jones knows he picked the wrong day to make his big homecoming to Dallas. I hope he didn't expect much media coverage, because this is pretty much the extent of our interest.

• There are few things in life you can count on, but I promise you Deion Branch is good for another three touchdown catches this season. Book it. The Seattle receiver scored his first touchdown of the season in Dallas, grabbing a 23-yard Matt Hasselbeck pass in the Seahawks' loss. In his first three seasons in Seattle, Branch has totaled touchdown receptions of four, four and four.

What about his four seasons in New England? Glad you asked. Branch, showing a penchant for a pattern of a different sort, scored two touchdowns his first season as a Patriot, three his second, four his third and five in his fourth and final year in Foxboro.

• How bad is that Bears offensive line? Bad enough that even hapless Cleveland sacked Jay Cutler four times.

• Another quality day for Browns quarterback Derek Anderson: 6-of-17 passing, 76 yards, two interceptions and a fumble lost. Can the Brett Ratliff era in Cleveland be far off?

Anderson did score the Browns' only points on a 1-yard plunge. But of course, Cleveland had the extra point blocked. If Josh Cribbs doesn't have the ball in his hands, the Browns offense has no chance whatsoever.

• You heard it here first, Bills fans. After that 29-yard Terrell Owens touchdown on a first-quarter end-around, they might just put T.O. in the Wildcat formation to take advantage of his wheels.

• Congrats to the Colts' Jim Caldwell on becoming the first rookie head coach since the 1970 merger to lead his team to a 7-0 start. But the reality is, it'll be hard for Caldwell to get the credit he deserves this season no matter how far Indy goes. Because he took over the quality team Tony Dungy left him, Caldwell will be short-changed on the credit front. It's not fair. But that's the reality of his situation in 2009.

• I do believe ex-Ravens head coach Brian Billick was rather prophetic in the story I did on Alex Smith late in the week. From what I saw of the 49ers-Colts game, it didn't look like San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye put Smith in the spread-offense type of setting he prospered in last week at Houston and in college at Utah. Instead, it seemed as if the 49ers went fairly conventional, refusing to spread the field. And just as Billick predicted, the 49ers might well have lost because of it in a game they once led 14-6.

• It has come to this: Colts quarterback Peyton Manning can throw for 347 yards -- but no touchdowns and no interceptions -- in an 18-14 win over San Francisco, and we barely notice.

• The Rams deserved to get their first win after 17 consecutive losses, because they've played hard for rookie head coach Steve Spagnuolo, even when they were hopelessly out-manned. Despite the ugliness of this season in St. Louis, the Rams have a plan and will contend again some day under the current regime. Congrats, Spags.

• The Lions, however, simply aren't as far along under rookie head coach Jim Schwartz as I expected at this point in the season. Got to hit your layups in this league, Leos. And having the Rams at your place should be a W. No excuses.

• Hey, Calvin Pace. Don't look now, but that "clown quarterback'' just beat your Jets for the second time in four games. While Miami's Chad Henne wasn't as instrumental to the Dolphins' defeat of New York as he was the last time the teams met, all wins count the same in the NFL.

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