First and 10: MJD makes MVP case, Cutler improves, more analysis
The Titans appear to have given up on the season, while the Jags have quietly put themselves in great position to make the playoffs. Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew ran for a career-high 186 yards -- his fifth straight game over 100. Jones-Drew may not catch Houston's Arian Foster for the rushing crown this year, but the Jags star is making a strong case for MVP. The Jags host Oakland next week and then head to Indy for a showdown that could determine the division winner. Meanwhile, the drama in Tennessee seems to finally gotten to the Titans. Maybe the Vince Young controversy was too much for Jeff Fisher or maybe running back Chris Johnson has too much wear and tear to still dominate. But this isn't the same team that started out 5-2 and looked like a threat to come out of the AFC.
Brett Favre got a raw deal. He started the season without Sidney Rice and faced the toughest road schedule in the NFL (trips to New Orleans, New York Jets, Green Bay and New England in the first half). Now that the Vikings hit an easier part of the schedule, he may not be able to enjoy it. Favre sprained his throwing shoulder on his first pass, and Tarvaris Jackson came in to complete 15-of-22 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns. But Jackson did throw three picks and has a lot more to prove. Rice had five catches for 105 yards and two touchdowns and showed why Favre loved him so much last year during a long jump ball he stole from two Buffalo defenders.
Jay Cutler isn't the same quarterback he was at the beginning of the season. Despite considerable pressure from Detroit's line, Cutler looked cool and collected, completing 21-of-26 passes for 234 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Bears receiver Earl Bennett is stepping up as key playmaker. After his two-TD performance last week, Bennett caught seven passes for 104 yards. Detroit once again found a way to blow a lead. Rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh wants to hurt quarterbacks any time he can and it cost the Lions when he got a personal foul for hitting Cutler on a drive that ended to a touchdown instead of a field goal. Suh is one of the most dominant interior lineman to come into the league in a long time, but just needs a bit more control to be even more effective.
Give the Chiefs credit, they know who they are. They're going to win with defense and running and they play the kind of schedule that will win most weeks, especially against a team like the Broncos. They held the NFL's passing yardage leader Kyle Orton to 117 yards on 9-of-28 passing. Orton actually hit his first three passes, which means he hit only six of his last 25. The Broncos defense also played well to keep Denver in it. They held Kansas City star Dwayne Bowe to zero catches and frustrated K.C. quarterback Matt Cassell.
All season long, the Bengals have made critical mistakes at the wrong time. But none was worse than jumping offside when the Saints had the ball on 4th-and-2 deep in Cincinnati territory in the final minutes. Everyone knew New Orleans wasn't running a play -- all the defense had to do was sit there. But somehow Cincy got penalized. The Saints are a hard-to-decipher 9-3. They're right there with the Falcons in the NFC South, but it's hard to figure out if this is the same team that won the Super Bowl last season. They were all about efficiency on Sunday -- Drew Brees completed 25-of-29 passes for 313 yards, while Christopher Ivory ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.
Chad Henne's pass was deflected into the arms of Cleveland's Mike Adams to set up the game-winning field goal -- handing the Dolphins yet another home setback. The Dolphins fall to 6-6 and are just 1-5 at home. And they can't be confident Chad Henne has any kind of future as a franchise quarterback. After starting 1-5, the Browns improve to 5-7, and have established an identity as a tough-nosed defensive team.
This is the time of year when the Packers will really start to miss injured running back Ryan Grant. Sunday, they turned to rookie James Starks, a sixth-round draft pick, who ran for 73 yards on 18 carries to help seal the win. Starks might have been a first-day pick in the draft, but lost his senior season because of a shoulder injury. He can help the Packers run on early downs, while Brandon Jackson remains a solid weapon in the passing game. Green Bay doesn't need too much out of their running backs -- Aaron Rodgers-to-Greg Jennings has developed into one of the best duos in the league. Jennings is good for one or two long plays every game and that's what made the difference on a cold day in Green Bay. The Niners fall to 4-8, which believe it or not, doesn't necessarily mean they're out of the race in the NFC West.
With receivers Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith out on a windy day in the Meadowlands, the Giants have to feel great they could dominate on the ground, totaling 197 yards. Especially considering they were without starting offensive linemen Shaun O'Hara and David Diehl. New York running back Brandon Jacobs appears to be running with the kind of power he had a few years ago. He broke the century mark for the first time since November of 2008 with 103 yards. But perhaps Giants shouldn't get too excited, because the Redskins have lost four of their last five and appear to have given up on the season. Albert Haynesworth was inactive for a supposed illness earlier in the week (the technical diagnosis has to be not getting along with your coach). Meanwhile, Donovan McNabb hasn't played well since signing his contract extension, which reportedly provides an option for the team to jettison him in the offseason without a big financial penalty.
• One of the side effects of a sub-.500 team potentially winning the NFC West is that teams with good records may not make the postseason in the other three division. Just look at the early games -- the Bears, Packers, Saints and Giants all won and are challenging the Falcons to win the conference. But all of them are in a dogfight just to make the playoffs. Should be a wild final four weeks with at least two good teams going home early.
• Ugly was the watchword for the early games Sunday. We had games with no offense (Broncos-Chiefs, Jags-Titans, Browns-Dolphins), games where one team appears to have packed it in early ('Skins-Giants, Jags-Titans), games with epically bad plays in the final minutes (Browns-'Fins, Saints-Bengals), and more mistakes than actual highlights throughout the league. The best play of the day was probably Dan Carpenter's 60-yard field goal and they didn't even win. And the NFL really wants to go to 18-regular season games?