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Snap Judgments: Divisions take shape, Palmer owns Ravens, more

PHILADELPHIA -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we await the Cowboys-Eagles NFC East first-place grudge match to come tonight at Lincoln Financial Field ...

• Thank you, Week 9. Thanks for the dose of clarity. We needed that. We entered play on Sunday with most of the league's divisions in a jumble at the top, but we exited with considerably more definition to the NFL's pennant races as the season's second half looms. To wit:

-- In the AFC North, the first-place Bengals definitively proved themselves for real, beating the Ravens for the second time in less than a month, 17-7. Buoyed by a defense that's far better than anyone knew, Cincinnati improved to 6-2 for the first time since its most recent Super Bowl season (1988) and stayed unbeaten in the division at 4-0. It's now Cincinnati and Pittsburgh (5-2 entering Monday night's visit to Denver) at the top of the division, with the Ravens (4-4) forced to fall back and join the fight in the AFC wild-card heap. Next week: Bengals at Steelers, for control of the AFC North.

-- In the AFC South, the undefeated Colts barely survived a stern challenge from mistake-prone Houston, 20-17, but when the smoke had cleared, Indy owned a 3½ game lead over the Texans (5-4) in the division. If you think the Colts (8-0) can lose a three-plus-game lead with eight weeks remaining, I've got some swampland in the Everglades I'd like to show you. Close doesn't count in the NFL, and that's why Houston, too, got thrown back into the AFC wild-card chase.

-- In the AFC East, the Patriots fended off those always tricky Dolphins, 27-17, in Foxboro. New England is now in command of the division at 6-2, two games ahead of the idle Jets (4-4), and three games better than Miami (3-5). Just in time for their annual blood feud next week in Indianapolis, the Patriots have won three in a row and have a Tom Brady-led passing game (332 yards against the Dolphins) that is rapidly rounding back into dominating form. As for the Jets and Dolphins, good luck in the crowded AFC middle of the pack.

-- In the NFC West, the Cardinals didn't beat a key division foe head-to-head like the home-standing Bengals, Colts and Patriots did, but their resounding 41-21 beatdown of the defense-less Bears served notice that Arizona is ready to assert itself at the midpoint of 2009. The Cardinals are now 5-3, but they're undefeated at 4-0 on the road, which bodes very well for their efforts at defending their NFC West title. Arizona destroyed Chicago in the first half, scoring four touchdowns and a field goal on its five possessions. A week after throwing five interceptions against Carolina, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner rebounded with five touchdowns against the Bears.

-- And Week 9's ability to clarify matters in the division races continued in the late-afternoon games. New Orleans improved to 8-0 for the first time in its 43-year franchise history and further solidified its stranglehold on the NFC South, rallying from down 14-0 to beat visiting Carolina 30-20. The Panthers (3-5) could have reached .500 with the upset and climbed back into contention in the division, but now the Saints lead the Falcons (5-3) by three games and Carolina by five, with a win over each of their rivals.

Lastly, Sunday night's Cowboys-Eagles showdown will leave just one 6-2 team atop the NFC East with eight games remaining in the regular season. With the fading Giants (5-4) losing their fourth in a row, the Cowboys-Eagles winner takes a huge step toward taking command in the division.

• There is one division that's not exactly put way just yet, and of course it's the one that most folks have assumed was over for weeks. Don't look now, but if the Steelers can get out of Denver with a win Monday night, the Chargers (5-3) will trail the Broncos (6-1) by just one game, having made up two games in two weeks.

San Diego never, ever does anything easily, but that was a mammoth 21-20 win at the Meadowlands on Sunday for the Norv-men. After losing at home to the Broncos three weeks ago, the Chargers at 2-3 appeared to be in their best underachieving form again this season. But San Diego is 3-0 since that game, and if it can beat the Eagles at home next week, then Week 11's showdown at Denver will be for at least a share of first place in the division.

Like Glenn Close's whack-job character in Fatal Attraction, never make the mistake of assuming the Chargers are dead, even if they look submerged in the bath tub.

• Speaking of comebacks, the Saints have now trailed in their past three games, and won them all. That style of tightrope-walking might catch up to 8-0 New Orleans, but it's also building a confidence in Sean Payton's team that no game is over, no matter the situation.

• I'll be interested to see how much patience the Lions show with quarterback Matthew Stafford. I get rookie growing pains and all, but five interceptions, and the wasting of a 17-0 Lions lead, which kept Detroit from winning its first road game since 2007? Stafford had a few promising moments early this season, but he's been either injured or ineffective for quite a while now.

• C'mon, Jeff Fisher, be honest. Wishing you had gone to Vince Young at least two losses before you did? Suddenly Young is one of the more efficient and mistake-free quarterbacks in the league, going 12 of 19 for 172 yards passing, with a 7-yard touchdown run. And most importantly, Tennessee (2-6) is 2-0 since he re-entered the starting lineup, replacing the struggling Kerry Collins.

• Bet you can't wait for Thursday night's Bears at 49ers game. Talk about two teams headed in the wrong direction. San Francisco has dropped four in a row after its hopeful 3-1 start, and Chicago can't stop anyone as its 3-1 beginning has given way to a 4-4 reality that seems far worse than it sounds.

• I thought last week's head butt by Packers defensive lineman Johnny Jolly on Vikings running back Chester Taylor was the height of stupidity, but I do believe it got topped Sunday by Tommie Harris's brainless punch to the helmeted head of Cardinals right guard Deuce Lutui.

The Chicago defensive tackle got himself ejected from the game just four plays into the action in the Bears' blowout loss to visiting Arizona, because referee Ed Hochuli happened to be standing just a few feet away when Harris decided to go all Joe Frazier on the prone Lutui. It's just another brick in the wall of what has already been a disappointing season for Harris, who will definitely be fined and could draw a suspension for his cheap shot.

Tell me what exactly do you think you accomplish by swinging either your fist or your head at an opponent wearing a helmet?

• And speaking of brainless, how transparent was it of Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall to go over and mix it up on the Atlanta sideline after Washington safety LaRon Landry got flagged for a late out of bounds hit on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan?

Hall, the ex-Falcon who left Atlanta for Oakland in 2008 with bruised feelings intact, wound up pretty much tussling with Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who's never afraid to mix it up. And here I thought it was Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff that Hall had a grudge against, given his pointed comments of last week.

• Got to hit those, Kris Brown. If you're the Texans, coming within a missed 42-yard Brown field goal attempt of forcing overtime at Indy has to make you wonder what it's going to take to ever get over the hump against the Colts. Houston is now 0-8 in its history at Indianapolis, and 1-15 against the Colts overall.

The Texans committed a mind-boggling 13 penalties for 103 yards. That's the mark of a young team that just proved it's not ready for its close-up.

• I'm starting to think Carson Palmer owns the Ravens. He's now 8-3 in his career against Baltimore, and the Bengals quarterback looks like he'd love to play the Ravens every week. No fear. No hesitancy. Just execution. Palmer was even better than his 20-of-33, 224-yard day would indicate.

• Remember when nobody, and I mean nobody, rushed for 100 yards against the Ravens defense? Now it's a practically a weekly occurrence. Cincy's Cedric Benson had his second 100-yard rushing game in five weeks against Baltimore, grinding out 117 tough yards and a touchdown on 34 carries (3.4 average). He had 120 yards in Week 5 and now joins Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis as the only backs who have twice topped triple digits in the same season against the Ravens.

I thought the Ravens swagger on defense was back after last week's smackdown of the Broncos, but apparently I was misinformed, because the Bengals were the more physical, aggressive team again on Sunday.

• As much as the kudos to Palmer and Benson are deserved, it's the Bengals defense that's one of the stories of the year. Baltimore came into this week averaging 28.4 points per game, but the Ravens were shut out in the first half and managed just seven points all day. That means Baltimore has scored 21 points in two games against Cincinnati this season (10.5 average), and 185 points in its other six games (30.8).

Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer might just be my NFL assistant coach of the year at midseason. The Ravens finished with 215 yards of offense Sunday, and the Cincinnati sacked Joe Flacco four times and picked him off twice.

• As one who grew up in the Tampa Bay area and suffered through the Bucs' orange-uniform era, I'm not sure I would have messed with losing karma like that. But the Bucs trotted out the throwback creamsicle uniforms Sunday at home against Green Bay, in part to celebrate their 1979 playoff team, and it worked. They finally gave rookie head coach Raheem Morris his first NFL win, upsetting the humiliated Packers 38-28 on the strength of a 21-point fourth quarter.

• Tampa Bay isn't going anywhere this season, but at least the Bucs now have some honest-to-goodness hope with rookie first-round quarterback Josh Freeman making some big plays in his first NFL start. After a shaky beginning, the 21-year-old Freeman -- the Bucs' youngest starting QB ever -- got better as the game wore on and finished with 205 yards passing, three touchdowns and just one interception. He also showed he can make plays on the move, and wound up as Tampa Bay's second-leading rusher with four carries for 20 yards.

For a team that has looked completely overmatched on offense this season, the dawn of the Freeman era was a start.

• Freeman wasn't the only rookie quarterback who had a highlight or two for a Florida-based team in Week 9. I thought we saw the beginning of some effective use of Pat White in Miami's loss at New England. White rushed six times for 45 yards against the Patriots, and was in the game at quarterback in the shot-gun formation (can't call it the Wildcat since White's a quarterback) when he pitched on the option to Ricky Williams for a 15-yard touchdown in the second quarter. White was 0-of-1 as a passer, but his 33-yard run was Miami's biggest gain of the day.

• If you're wondering, Ted Ginn Jr. didn't quite follow up on his monstrous game in Week 8 against the Jets. In New England, Ginn returned four kickoffs for an average of 24 yards, with a long of 37. His only reception gained just seven yards.

• There was a day in the not-too-distant past when Chris Henry wouldn't have received a big ovation from an appreciative Bengals crowd as he left the field injured, as he did on Sunday. But Cincinnati fans realize how far Henry has come in recent years to rehabilitate his image, and his likely season-ending broken left forearm against Baltimore is a big blow to the Bengals offense. Henry is the team's best deep threat, and there's no obvious replacement on the roster who can stretch the field as he can.

• You know who had a great day? The Vikings. And they didn't even play. But Minnesota pulled further ahead of both its nearest division competitors Green Bay and Chicago, who both lost in embarrassing fashion to fall to 4-4, miles and miles behind the 7-1 first-place Vikings.

Remember when everyone thought we were in for a season-long three-team dog-fight in the NFC North? Well, we were half right. The Packers and Bears are playing like dogs.

• How bad can it get for the Bears defense? Throw out that win last week at home against hapless Cleveland, and Chicago has lost its past two games by a combined 86-31, getting drilled 45-10 at Cincinnati, and beaten 41-21 by the Cardinals on Sunday. It may be time for head coach Lovie Smith to reconsider having Lovie Smith as his defensive play-caller.

• For you fantasy owners out there, I'd say Michael Turner is most definitely all the way back after gouging Washington for 166 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns on 18 carries (9.2 average) in the Falcons' 31-17 win. Turner went for 151 yards and a touchdown on 20 runs (7.6) at New Orleans on Monday night, giving him 317 yards and three scores in a less than a week. Both games were at home in the dome, where Turner just seems to have a faster, more explosive game at his disposal.

• Can't wait to hear what John Riggins has to say this week about his floundering Redskins, who have dropped four in a row to sink to 2-6. Maybe nothing short of an all-out coup attempt at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va., will suffice at this point.

I do believe Riggins has done the near impossible and turned failure-wracked Redskins owner Daniel Snyder into something of a sympathetic figure. Nice job, Riggo.

• Who needs Anquan Boldin? Apparently not the Cardinals, who hung up ridiculous offensive numbers at Chicago -- 41 points, 438 yards, and most of them in the first half -- without their injured veteran receiver, who sat out with an ankle sprain. The Cardinals cranked out 10 first downs on their first 14 plays against the Bears, and led 31-7 at halftime.

How's that contract negotiation going, A.B.? The Cardinals are now 5-1, including playoff games, when Boldin doesn't play the past two seasons.

• Not a bad waiver-wire acquisition by the Chiefs last week. Receiver Chris Chambers joined Kansas City on Tuesday and wound up catching a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes Sunday in the Chiefs' encouraging 24-21 loss at Jacksonville. Chambers finished with three receptions for 70 yards and those two scores (54 yards and 5 yards), and looked immediately comfortable with K.C. quarterback Matt Cassel.

• Another impressive showing by Jaguars receiver Mike Sims-Walker, who torched Kansas City's secondary for six catches and 147 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown grab. Sims-Walker accounted for more yardage than the other seven Jacksonville pass-catchers combined, and the pesky Jaguars (4-4) refuse to completely go away, having reached .500 at midseason.

Joey Porter talked all week in the buildup for Miami's trip to New England, but he didn't make any noise on the stat sheet on Sunday. The Dolphins outside linebacker had no tackles, no assists, no sacks, no passes defensed, and no fumbles forced or recovered in the Miami 10-point loss.

Other than that, Porter was technically active for the game.

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