MINNEAPOLIS -- Musings, observations and the occasional Week 6 insight as we watch the NFL's most desperate two teams, Dallas and Minnesota, fight it out for an all important second win at the Metrodome ...
• There still may not be any truly elite teams in the NFL this season, but I'm starting to think the most resourceful and resilient club I've seen so far is Bill Belichick's 4-1 Patriots. They're far from the flash and glitz of the record-breaking 2007 Patriots of 18-1 fame, but as I recall, that formula didn't wind up putting another ring on the hand of Tom Brady and Co.
Playing without Randy Moss for the first time on Sunday at home against Baltimore, the Patriots more resembled the gritty and determined New England teams of 2001-2004. They spread the ball around to a collection of no-names or role players, played just enough inspired defense and made almost all of the game's key plays en route to pulling out another close win.
Try these numbers on for size after New England's thrilling 23-20 overtime victory over a Ravens squad that pounded it 33-14 at Gillette Stadium in last year's first round of the playoffs:
• The Patriots, down 10 points early in the fourth quarter, scored the final 13 points of the game, rallying against a defense that entered the game allowing the fourth-fewest points at 14.4 per game. Despite struggling at times, New England moved the ball against Baltimore in crunch time and got the 10 fourth-quarter points it needed to force overtime.
• The New England running game was again led by the likes of Danny Woodhead (11 carries for 63 yards), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (20 yards on 10 rushes) and Sammy Morris. No superstars or first-round picks there. Six players had at least one rush. This is again something of a blue-collar Patriots team.
• The Patriots, in essence, exchanged Moss for old friend, Deion Branch, last week, and the former New England receiver picked up where he left off in Foxboro, leading the way with nine catches for 98 yards, including a five-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown reception. It was almost as if Branch had never left for Seattle five years ago, the year after he had earned Super Bowl MVP honors as a Patriot.
With Moss gone, and their defense still green and growing, the Patriots are not a star-driven team anymore. Outside of Brady, their biggest name player is Wes Welker, the catching machine who went undrafted out of Texas Tech. But the team-first Patriots have thrived before when they've had role players and less-heralded types in key roles, and maybe we're seeing a back-to-the-future approach unfold in Foxboro.
It's working so far. With three wins in a row, and really only one bad half of football played by New England (that second half against the Jets in Week 2), the Patriots look formidable once more. Maybe not elite, but that doesn't seem to be a necessity in this season's NFL. Beating the Ravens and Dolphins back-to-back settled a couple of key scores for New England. But you get the feeling there's plenty more to come from the Belichick-men this year, even if the dominance of 2007 has faded into the distant past.
• For a while there on Sunday, I was thinking the Texans finally proved they have what it takes to beat the Colts, but seemingly had forgotten how to beat anyone else. Houston was the on cusp of losing its third consecutive home game -- and third in four weeks -- before rallying past the upstart Chiefs, 35-31, on the strength of 14 unanswered fourth-quarter points.
Falling to 3-3 after their hopeful 2-0 start could have doomed the Texans, and Gary Kubiak's team deserves credit for fighting back against a good Chiefs team. When he had to be, quarterback Matt Schaub was calm, cool and brilliant, completing 25 of 33 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns.
But while 4-2 Houston managed to keep pace in the AFC South clump, the truth is the Texans are going to have to win most games like they did on Sunday, simply because their defense can't stop anyone. Even Matt Cassel shredded the Houston pass defense for 201 yards and three touchdowns, with Kansas City rolling to 228 yards rushing the ball and 417 total yards.
The Texans have largely earned the boos that have been showered on them the past two weeks at home, and things are not going to get markedly better in Houston until the defense grows some back bone.
• Middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans was one of the Texans' few defensive playmakers, and now he's lost for the season with a torn Achilles. And as a team, Houston's defense -- its Achilles heel -- just got a little weaker.
• Kansas City's loss has to sting, but it's a stage of development that Todd Haley's young club must endure: Learning how to close the deal on a road upset when the home team is ripe for the taking. But from a big-picture standpoint, the Chiefs being 3-2 and still in first place in the AFC West is still progress any way you cut it.
• You can have the rest of the field, I'll take Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles as the NFL's best two-back combination this season. The Chiefs tandem produced 193 yards rushing at Houston, with Jones gaining an even 100 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, and Charles adding 93 yards on 16 attempts. Overall, Kansas City gouged the Texans for the aforementioned 228 yards rushing, gaining an average of six yards a pop on 38 carries. Jones (338 yards) and Charles (418) have already combined for 756 yards rushing through five games, and they're not wearing down -- they're getting better.
• Maybe this is the year the Chargers finally discover they can't merely flip the switch and dig out of their annual early-season hole. San Diego's 20-17 loss at St. Louis drops it to 2-4, and while no one looks likely to waltz away with anything in the AFC West, the Chargers can't count on six easy wins within the division, either.
They've already lost at Kansas City and Oakland, and when you throw in defeats at Seattle and St. Louis, the Chargers are now 0-4 on the road, with losses to four teams that were a combined 15-49 last year. With games at home against New England and Tennessee the next two weeks, and then a trip to Houston in Week 9, that hole might even be too deep for a Chargers club that's near-untouchable in November and December.
• For me, there's no bigger surprise this season than Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing his seventh interception in the Packers' sixth game of the year. Rodgers had just seven picks last season and looked primed for an MVP-level season in 2010.
Banged up Green Bay keeps losing overtime games, but it still only trails first-place Chicago (4-2) by a game in the NFC North. Things are ugly right now, but the Packers just have to figure out a way to hang around the division race until their myriad of injured players start getting healthy again.
• With three sacks of Green Bay's Rodgers, Miami outside linebacker Cameron Wake is officially a beast in my book. Wake now has six sacks in five games, and the second-year veteran seems like he has played the entire season in the opposing team's backfield.
• That's about what I was expecting from Ben Roethlisberger in his anticipated return to the Steelers lineup -- a performance that wasn't always pretty, but featured some hugely clutch plays. We saw again what Big Ben can do for the Steelers with big throws to Mike Wallace (50 yards) and Heath Miller (36 yards) late in the third quarter, with Pittsburgh up just 7-3 over Cleveland. Has anyone ever thrown the ball better with tacklers hanging all over him than No. 7?
So, the Steelers starting quarterback is back, but so is the Pittsburgh tradition of winning with the running game and defense. We know from the past, both distant and recent, that it's a winning combination.
• All I could think of when I saw Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson blow up Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson with that crushing first-half hit was Philly's season from hell on the significant injury front continues. From fullback Leonard Weaver (knee), center Jamaal Jackson (torn bicep), quarterback Kevin Kolb (concussion) and middle linebacker Stewart Bradley (concussion) going down against Green Bay in Week 1, to quarterback Michael Vick (rib cartilage) being knocked out of the Week 4 showdown with Washington, the Eagles have taken more than their fair share of body blows already this year.
But with its first home win of the season, in convincing 31-17 fashion over Atlanta, no less, Philadelphia is right there in the NFC East, tied for first at 4-2.
• And we do have another quarterback controversy in Philadelphia, thanks to Kolb's strong 326-yard, three-touchdown, one-interception showing. At the very least, Kolb has made it very difficult for Eagles coach Andy Reid to put Vick back into the lineup if he's healthy next week at Tennessee.
It's got to be the proverbial good problem to have, but why is it always so complicated on the QB front in Philly?
• When the Falcons play the Eagles, it's pretty apparent that Atlanta's offense features no explosive playmakers in the mold of Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. And no matter how far Atlanta goes this season, that lack of game-breakers might just be the Falcons' downfall.
• The overall numbers weren't anything to write home about (44 yards rushing on 17 attempts), but that Marshawn Lynch trade paid instant dividends for Seattle -- in the form of his pivotal game-sealing touchdown (1 yard) early in the fourth quarter of the Seahawks' 23-20 upset at Chicago.
Lynch broke two tackles as he bulled in from the left side, giving Seattle the kind of power running it was in desperate need of this season. Maybe pushed a bit by Lynch's arrival, Justin Forsett responded with a strong 67 yards and a touchdown (on 10 carries) to lead Seattle's rushing game.
• The Bears' three-point loss to a Seattle team that had dropped both of its previous road games by 17 points should provide a little smelling salt beneath the nose of the Chicago fandom. This is not a Bears team that's good enough to overcome its glaring pass-protection problem. The returning Jay Cutler absorbed another six sacks (giving him 15 in his last six quarters of play) on Sunday, and at this rate, he'll be in a body cast by Thanksgiving.
That said, Cutler continues to hold the ball too long at times and is still making some questionable throws as he runs for his life out there.
• A touchdown catch for Kansas City linebacker Mike Vrabel? That must have been like old times for Chiefs offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. The pairing teamed up for more than a few TDs in New England.
• What an impressive calm-the-nerves win for the Saints at Tampa Bay, against a Bucs team that has bedeviled Sean Payton and Co. in recent years. Drew Brees looked like Drew Brees again, throwing for 263 yards and three touchdowns, and the Saints running game might have found a new star in Chris Ivory. The rookie running back rumbled for 158 yards on just 15 carries against the Bucs (an eye-popping 10.5 average).
• Um, I regret to inform the rest of the NFL, but Devin Hester is back. Hester had gone more than two seasons without a return touchdown, and now he's had two in a three-game span. Hester took one back 89 yards late in the Bears' loss, following up on his punt return touchdown in that Week 3 upset of Green Bay.
It may be time to again ask what was once the most obvious question in the NFL: Why would anyone risk kicking it to No. 23?
• Uh, oh. Another chip shot missed by Garrett Hartley (from 33 yards), and does that mean John Carney is on his way back into a Saints uniform any minute now? Or will New Orleans' impressive win at Tampa Bay whitewash all potential problems in Saints-land this week?