Sunday November 14th, 2010

PITTSBURGH -- Musings, observations and the occasional Week 10 insight as we await the clash of AFC superpowers at Heinz Field, aka, the Big Ketchup Bottle ...

• It would have been a tie that felt like a demoralizing loss, but the Jets wouldn't let it happen. Later this season, we might look back at Sunday's 26-20 overtime win in Cleveland as the game that proved Rex Ryan's much-ballyhooed team was going to be a factor in the AFC Super Bowl race until the very end.

The Jets were once again far from dominant. But they're starting to specialize in finding new ways to win road games in which they don't necessarily look their best, and their resiliency is becoming too impressive to ignore. As they did in Denver last month and again in Detroit last week, the Jets got away with one against the Browns, beating a Cleveland team that in overtime looked poised to pull its third consecutive upset of a 2009 playoff qualifier.

But unlike the Saints and Patriots, the Jets withstood the Browns' every thrust and parry -- not to mention three Nick Folk field-goal misses -- and headed home to New York at 7-2 -- and an eye-opening 5-0 on the road.

With home games against sub-.500 Houston and Cincinnati coming between now and Thanksgiving night, the Jets should be a lofty 9-2 and poised to make a run at the AFC's top playoff seed when December arrives. No long-shot wild-card run in mind this year. For now, Rex's big talkers are backing it all up where it matters most: On the field.

• It was only fitting that in this game, with so many crisscrossing storylines and ties between the teams, that an ex-Jet was front and center in perhaps the day's most pivotal play. Cleveland was marching into field-goal range in overtime, but Browns receiver Chansi Stuckey -- who was involved in the teams' headline-making Braylon Edwards trade last October -- fumbled the ball away at the New York 36, about five minutes into the extra period.

That killed Cleveland's best chance of winning, and made Browns coach Eric Mangini 1-1 on his "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past'' tour. Mangini, the ex-Jets head coach, couldn't make it a two-week sweep of New England and New York.

• It's a tough call not to try to take a shot to win, but the Browns really gave the Jets life by throwing the ball on first down backed up deep in their own territory in the final 95 seconds of overtime. They could have played for a tie in that situation and ate up more time.

Cleveland quarterback Colt McCoy threw incomplete to the deep middle to tight end Benjamin Watson on first down from the Browns' 3 with 1:35 remaining. That stoppage of the clock proved important, because New York eventually got the ball back with 24 seconds remaining at the Browns' 37. On the first play of that possession, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez found Santonio Holmes for 37 yards for the game-winning touchdown. There were just 16 seconds left on the clock when Holmes scored.

In reality, maybe Cleveland's first mistake was when rookie cornerback Joe Haden chose to intercept a Sanchez pass at his own 3 with 1:35 to go in OT. If he would have knocked the ball down, the Jets probably would have punted on the next play, on fourth down.

• Sanchez is quickly becoming a master at keeping plays alive with his feet and his scrambling ability. Time and time again against the Browns, he rescued plays that had no business continuing, buying himself room and the time to find a receiver downfield for some critical gains. His 27 of 44 passing for 299 yards, two touchdowns and 87.2 rating doesn't begin to tell the story of how well the Jets' 2009 first-round pick played in this one.

• Now that's the Nick Folk Cowboys fans remember from early last year. Where's that guy been all season in New York?

• Speaking of knocking the ball down rather than trying to catch it, that's what they teach defenders to do in the NFL in Hail Mary-type situations. But what coaches don't tell you is that you're not supposed to knock the ball down, directly to a waiting receiver.

Houston cornerback Glover Quin found that out the hard way Sunday in Jacksonville. David Garrard's 50-yard, game-winning Hail Mary pass on the final play wound up in the arms of the Jaguars' Mike Thomas only because Quin batted it to him. It's basically the final indignity for a Texans pass defense that has been victimized steadily all season.

• Houston lost that 31-24 thriller, and now the Texans are alone in last place in the AFC South at 4-5, having dropped four of five games after their hopeful 3-1 start. I can't help but wonder when the heat is going to start intensifying on head coach Gary Kubiak, who still can't get the nine-year-old franchise over the hump and into the playoffs for the first time?

With Houston fading much as it did last year in the middle stretch of the season, how much longer can Texans owner Bob McNair avoid making changes?

• As for the 5-4 Jaguars, they're somehow still in the thick of things in the AFC South race. Jacksonville is like a cat with nine lives, and it seems like Jack Del Rio wins two games in a row every time his name gets mentioned in any coaching-hot-seat story.

This is a Jacksonville team that has been beaten soundly by San Diego, Philadelphia, Tennessee and Kansas City this season. But the Jaguars are still standing, and Garrard just had his second consecutive big game, throwing for 342 yards and two touchdowns.

• The Cowboys' upset of the Giants proves how vital emotion can be in an NFL game. Dallas was a flat team under Wade Phillips this season; but for one week at least, interim head coach Jason Garrett figured out how to push his team's buttons and get them to play with passion.

That doesn't mean everything that happened in Dallas was Phillips' fault. But you can't underestimate coaching in the NFL. And after seeing the Cowboys play so well against the Giants -- previously winners of five straight -- you have to wonder if owner Jerry Jones wishes he had pulled the trigger on Phillips weeks ago?

• How much worse can things get for the Lions, and where exactly was Detroit quarterback Shaun Hill throwing the ball on that potential game-tying two-point conversion pass in the final seconds of a 14-12 loss at Buffalo? Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew would have had to be 9 feet tall to have a shot at pulling that one in.

The only thing you absolutely can't do on that play is throw the ball out of the back of the end zone. You have to give your receiver a chance to make the catch, or draw a penalty flag. If it's picked off, oh well. At least you took a shot. But to heave it halfway into the stands?

What is it with Lions quarterbacks and a lack of field awareness when it comes to the back of the end zone? Hill's throwaway was the worst play by a QB that I've seen since Detroit's Dan Orlovsky cost the Lions a game in Minnesota in 2008 by stepping out of the back of his own end zone for a safety.

• There's breaking the plane of the goal and then there's shattering it with style, like Bucs rookie running back LeGarrette Blount did with that diving, whirling effort at the end of his 17-yard second-quarter scoring run against Carolina. With Blount and receiver Arrelious Benn both scoring in the first half, the Bucs' rookie brigade was at it again in Week 10.

Blount's score got my early vote for touchdown of the day ... until Devin Hester went to work against the Vikings in Chicago. The Bears receiver-return man extraordinaire outdid even Blount when he launched himself from just inside the 5 and wound up breaking the plane of the goal on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Jay Cutler.

• It's great to see that Hester has become must-see TV again with the ball in his hands. He has turned back the clock to 2006-2007. Hester had kick returns of 68 and 32 yards, and added a 42-yard punt return, plus four catches for 38 yards and that aforementioned diving touchdown.

• Time for my weekly Brett Favre "broken ankle'' observation. Did you notice Favre after he chucked that 53-yard touchdown pass to Percy Harvin in the second quarter? He went jumping around in celebration and eventually threw a flying chest-bump at tight end Jeff Dugan, knocking him to the ground.

Yeah, I think the ankle's OK, folks. But his game is back in rough shape. Favre had a four-turnover showing in the loss to the Bears (three interceptions and one fumble), and now the Vikings (3-6) could really start to unravel as their games become somewhat meaningless.

Minnesota can't win on the road anymore. The Vikings have lost nine in a row away from home, and haven't picked up a W on the road since beating the Packers in Green Bay in early November 2009.

• That wasn't an NFL game in Miami, that was a quarterback tryout camp. We started with Chad Pennington versus Kerry Collins and ended up with Chad Henne versus Vince Young, and then Tyler Thigpen versus Young. I thought if things kept going, Vinny Testaverde was going to be signed any minute.

• You can't blame Randy Moss for hoping he never sees Miami again. For the second time this season, Moss was almost a nonfactor against the Dolphins. He went catchless in Week 4 for New England, in a blowout win against Miami that wound up being his last game as a Patriot. And on Sunday, he was held to just one reception for 26 yards.

Although in fairness, Moss did help the Titans' cause by eliciting a 33-yard pass interference against the Dolphins in the first half. But he did drop a pass when drilled by Miami's Chris Clemons, and didn't make the impact the Titans were hoping for. With Moss in the lineup, however, the Dolphins keyed less on run defense, with Chris Johnson rushing for 117 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts.

• If you had the Dolphins (5-4) winning a home game before Thanksgiving in the office pool, you're breathing a sigh of vindication. And with the Bills (1-8) actually winning a game anywhere on Sunday, Week 10 was monumental when it comes to teams getting off the schneid.

• Good to see Brandon Marshall has matured since signing that big deal with Miami. Smart move by the Dolphins' top receiver, whipping a football to the Miami sideline after making his first catch of the game against the Titans. That's a delay of game penalty. Not that the well-compensated Marshall seemed to care. He probably watched Chad Ochocinco pick up the same delay of game flag Monday night in that loss to Pittsburgh. No. 85 spiked the ball in frustration after making a catch, thereby negating any gain from making said catch.

• The Broncos (3-6) destroyed the Chiefs (5-4) in Denver, and I now don't know what to think about the pecking order in the wild, wild AFC West. Kansas City just lost back-to-back division games, and just two games separates the entire division from top to bottom.

The biggest benefactor of Sunday's result was the Raiders, who are now tied for first place in the West with Kansas City and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage. Oakland is also 3-0 in the division.

• I love most of what Peyton Hillis has done this season, but he's got a bit of a fumbling problem, no? The Browns' No. 1 back has four lost fumbles, and has now given the ball away in consecutive games. He coughed one up against both the Patriots and Jets.

• I'm convinced no one in the NFL runs harder in the open field than Josh Cribbs. Maybe not even Adrian Peterson. But it comes at a price. On that 37-yard catch and run in the first half against the Jets, Cribbs absolutely exploded into would-be New York tacklers. Earlier in the game, Cribbs even did a somersault over one Jets defender when he was trying to leap him in the open field.

But Cribbs injured his foot on the catch and did not return to the game. Cribbs will keep hurting himself if he's going to crave contact like he did against the Jets.

• Doesn't it already look like tight end Jacob Tamme has been playing in the Colts offense for years? Tamme had six catches 60 yards in the first half alone, and finished with a team-high seven receptions for 73 yards in Indy's 23-17 home win over Cincinnati. We're not saying the Colts don't miss the injured Dallas Clark, but somehow Indy always finds a new playmaker. Peyton Manning and Tamme already look like they've got a great rapport together on the field.

• Wow. A Cadillac Williams sighting. In the end zone, no less. The Bucs' sixth-year running back has been a forgotten man in Tampa Bay with the emergence of Blount. But Cadillac proved he still has some gas left in his tank with that game-sealing 45-yard touchdown run inside of three minutes in the 31-16 win over Carolina.

• Two of the prettiest touchdown catches from Sunday you'll ever see are probably plays that you won't see -- because both were wiped out by penalties. But Cincinnati receiver Chad Ochocinco and Houston receiver Andre Johnson made gold-star plays in the end zone, only to find out that a yellow hankie negated both scores.

• I'm thinking it's time we update our perception a bit when it comes to the dominance of the Ravens defense. With that Thursday night game in Atlanta put in the hands of the Ray Lewis-led unit, the Falcons almost made it look easy, going 80 yards in about 40 seconds to score the game-winning touchdown.

Baltimore's defense still talks as brashly as ever, and Lewis still has his pregame dance routine, but it's clearly not the shut-down unit it once was. Maybe the Ravens miss Rex Ryan's swagger at defensive coordinator more than they realize.

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