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
-- 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
-- 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.
• 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
• I'll be interested to see how much patience the Lions show with quarterback
• 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
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
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
Hall, the ex-Falcon who left Atlanta for Oakland in 2008 with bruised feelings intact, wound up pretty much tussling with Falcons head coach
• Got to hit those,
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
• 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
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
• 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
• 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
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
• If you're wondering,
• There was a day in the not-too-distant past when
• 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
• For you fantasy owners out there, I'd say
• Can't wait to hear what
I do believe Riggins has done the near impossible and turned failure-wracked Redskins owner
• Who needs
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
• Another impressive showing by Jaguars receiver
Other than that, Porter was technically active for the game.