PITTSBURGH -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight in a Week 8 that started out looking like Upset Sunday, but then settled down considerably as the games wore on....
• So you think there are no must-wins in the NFL in late October? Think again. The New York Giants had to have this one.
To be sure, New York, coming off its bye week, remained its maddeningly inconsistent self against the Dolphins, and it was turning Tom Coughlin's face red there for a while in the opening 30 minutes. The Giants fell behind 14-3 in the first half, trailed 17-10 after three quarters and needed a 10-0 fourth quarter run to get past the pesky but ultimately self-destructing Dolphins, 20-17. Miami (0-7) actually outplayed New York for much of the game, but the Giants prevailed because they put the game in Eli Manning's hands and the eighth-year quarterback delivered.
Manning finished a sterling 31 of 45 for 349 yards, with two touchdowns and nary an interception. His game-winning touchdown pass to receiver Victor Cruz came on a third-and-12 from the Miami 25 with 5:58 left to play, and that big play helped put a band-aid of sorts on a less-than-convincing performance by New York.
And with that, New York improved to 5-2, won its fifth game in six tries and tightened its grip on first place in the NFC East, which at the moment features no other teams with winning records. The Giants have no time to get comfortable, however, because their schedule is about to turn brutal as November dawns. Over the next five weeks, New York plays at New England, at San Francisco, home against Philadelphia, at New Orleans and home against Green Bay. At the start of Week 8, those five teams had combined for a record of 24-8, with the 2-4, but on-their-way-back Eagles accounting for half of those losses.
And the season's final four weeks are no picnic for New York either, with two games against the Cowboys and a Christmas Eve "road'' game against the Jets on the docket. All told, eight of the Giants' final nine opponents are currently at .500 or better, and the one that isn't, Philadelphia, often has been a thorn in New York's side the past few years.
I'm still not convinced this Giants team is built for the long haul or if it will survive the gauntlet they hit has to run in the coming nine weeks. The Giants can't stop the run, their pass rush is streaky and they almost always seem to play down to the level of their opponent at some point during a game. The reality is New York had to be at least 5-2 in its first seven games, because it has only played one team with a winning record so far, beating Buffalo at home in Week 6. Wins over St. Louis, Philadelphia, Arizona and Miami all lacked statement-game quality, and the loss at home to a one-win Seattle team three weeks ago could not be repeated against the Dolphins.
Without Sunday's crucial comeback victory, I would have considered New York's playoff chances to be slim and none, even though the Giants would have exited Week 8 at 4-3 and in no worse than a tie for the division lead. But New York avoided disaster against the Dolphins because Manning was clutch when the Giants needed him most, and his strong play helped offset losing Hakeem Nicks (hamstring) and running back Ahmad Bradshaw (sprained foot) for big portions of the game. The pass rush stepped up late, too, with four of New York's five sacks coming on Miami's final two drives.
And now the Giants' toughest tests have at last arrived. New York can breathe a little easier after staving off the Dolphins, but a full-fledged exhale is still weeks and weeks away.
• That was a close one Dolph-fans, but Miami's Andrew Luck dreams are still alive after Tony Sparano's floundering team found yet another way to lose a fourth-quarter lead. The Dolphins, with quarterback Matt Moore playing well and making things happen, looked like a legitimate NFL team for most of the opening three quarters. But then the team that couldn't close the deal last week at home against Denver and Tim Tebow showed up, and did whatever it took to ensure defeat.
I thought Sparano's job might be in jeopardy this week if his Dolphins got blown out by New York, but that didn't happen. Now the Miami head coach probably continues his long and painful fourth season in South Florida. In Miami, it's starting to look like 2007 (1-15) all over again.
• These Giants struggle so much against the run that they actually can make even Reggie Bush look like lead running back material. Bush ripped through New York for 103 yards on 15 carries, and he needed only the first 12 of those carries to reach triple digits. Bush's previous high this season was 71 yards against the Jets two weeks ago at home.
It was only Bush's second 100-yard rushing game of his six-year NFL career, and you'll never guess who the first one came against? Yep, Tom Coughlin's Giants. Bush gouged New York for 126 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in a 30-7 win at New York on Christmas Eve 2006.
• Speaking of running backs who usually don't deliver as much as they talk about delivering, New York's Brandon Jacobs has been making some noise of late about not getting enough work in the Giants backfield. But when Bradshaw went out in the first half with a right foot injury, Jacobs came in and underwhelmed everyone, fumbling one handoff that he recovered, before later dropping a catchable pass.
Jacobs likes to play the role of the aggrieved in the media, but he didn't do much with his opportunity against the Dolphins, gaining just 10 yards on four carries and catching one pass for zero yards.
• The Giants aren't the only team that makes us slap our foreheads on a routine basis. Baltimore had to mount the largest comeback in Ravens history to finally quell the Cardinals, 30-27. Arizona led 24-3 late in the first half, and it looked like Baltimore was about to lose for a second time in seven days to a team that owned just one win coming into the game (see Jacksonville, Monday night).
Credit to Joe Flacco for a superb second half, and Baltimore also got key contributions from Anquan Boldin (seven catches for 145 yards and two pass interference calls) and Ray Rice (three touchdowns, and 99 yards of combined rushing and receiving). But if the Ravens are the Super Bowl team that I predicted they would be this season, why did they need a 21-point wake-up call before dispatching the 1-6 Cardinals, losers of six in a row?
• Well that ought to apply a little smelling salts under the noses of the folks who thought they saw potential greatness in Tim Tebow's victorious starting debut last week at Miami. Tebow was glaringly overmatched at home against Detroit on Sunday, and not even his most ardent fans could find a silver lining in his showing against the Lions.
Tebow led Denver to an early 3-0 lead, then Detroit answered by scoring the game's next 45 points. As in 45-3 in the fourth quarter. That's the kind of deficit that not even charisma, desire and superior leadership skills can overcome. Tebow fumbled three times, with one of them being recovered and returned 24 yards for a touchdown by Lions defensive lineman Cliff Avril. Later, he was picked by Detroit cornerback Chris Houston, who took it back 100 yards for another score. He finished 18 of 39 for 172 yards, with one touchdown, one pick, seven sacks and three fumbles.
There's no way Denver will keep running Tebow out there each week if the results are that putrid. Maybe it'll be Brady Quinn's turn, or maybe it'll be a return to Kyle Orton. But Tebow has looked like a third-string quarterback -- and an inexperienced one at that -- for most of his two starts so far this season. If anything, last week's late heroics at Miami only served to temporarily mask the issues he faces. And they're not magically going away, no matter how hard Tebow tries.
• Stand up and take a bow if you called it that the Rams' A.J. Feeley would out-duel the Saints' Drew Brees in Week 8. Anyone? A 10-point Saints loss at St. Louis wouldn't have sounded all that shocking before the season started, but that was before the woeful Rams opened up 0-6, scoring just more than nine points per game in the process.
But here's the thing about the 31-21 St. Louis upset win on Sunday: New Orleans was probably due to have one of these mulligan-type games, and the Rams were due to have a day when things finally went right for them. I think the law of averages was at work in this one, and I wouldn't panic if I were New Orleans. The Saints scored 62 against the Colts last week at home, and averaged a league-best 35 points coming into Week 8. But the game is just not that easy, and a market correction of sorts was likely in order.
New Orleans clearly needs to do a better job of protecting Brees, who was sacked six times and hurried into a pair of interceptions. But pressuring the quarterback has always been one of the keys to slowing down a great passing attack, so it's not like the blueprint for beating New Orleans just got written. The Saints at 5-3 are still among the NFC's elite, and the Rams at 1-6 are still in the midst of a long and disappointing season.
That didn't change on Sunday, even if for one day, the Saints and Rams seemingly switched roles and identities.
• Now that was the old Steven Jackson running roughshod through the Saints defense, to the tune of 159 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries (6.4 average). When Jackson gets up a head of steam, I can't blame any defender for shying away from full-on contact. With the Rams' running game humming along, the rest of the field opened up enough to let Feeley complete 20 of 37 for 175 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown pass to receiver Brandon Lloyd.
Midseason trades don't always amount to much in the NFL, but the Rams getting Lloyd (a team-high six catches for 53 yards) from Denver has already paid dividends in St. Louis.
• I gave Rams defensive end Chris Long a dishonorable mention on my
Whatever it was that motivated him, Long was a force against the Saints, dropping Brees three times to account for half of those season-best six St. Louis sacks. The Rams had just 11 sacks all season before Sunday.
• His bank account might beg to differ, but Bill Cowher opting to stay in TV is just a smart career move. To repeat: No Super Bowl-winning head coach has ever won a ring with a second franchise, with New England's Bill Parcells and Seattle's Mike Holmgren the only ones who even got back to the Super Bowl with a different team than the one they won it with. Twelve NFL head coaches have won at least one Super Bowl ring and gone on to coach another team, multiple teams, or in one case, had a second stint with their original team (Washington's Joe Gibbs). None have won a ring with another team, proving that it's hard to re-create nirvana.
Cowher has already been out of the game for five seasons, and by already seeming to rule out a return to the sideline in 2012, that will be six years gone from the NFL, signaling that maybe he'll never leave the relatively cushy confines of the TV world for coaching. Maybe he'll reconsider some day, pull a Dick Vermeil and get back in the game. After all, Vermeil lost a Super Bowl with the Eagles after the 1980 season, retired soon afterward for a long career in broadcasting, and then made a comeback with St. Louis and wound up winning his one and only ring almost 20 years later.
• You just never know as much as you think you do about the NFL schedule from week to week. Not to say that Sunday's early six games looked like dogs of the highest order going in, but of the 12 teams playing in that time slot, we were treated to the winless Colts, Rams and Dolphins, the one-win Cardinals and Vikings, and the two-win Panthers and Jaguars. In terms of combined victories, the only game that featured teams with more than five wins was Jacksonville (2-5 coming into Week 8) at Houston (4-3 entering Sunday). Yeech.
But of those six early games, three of them finished with three-point final margins, and two others were 10-point games. Only the Titans' 27-10 home conquest of the hopeless Colts registered as a blowout.
• If you're the Titans, why wouldn't you play Javon Ringer ahead of the ineffective Chris Johnson at this point? With Tennessee at home this week against the dispirited Colts, some predicted a big breakout game this week for Johnson.
Uh, not so much. He totaled 34 yards rushing on 14 carries and caught three passes for another 17 yards. Ringer rushed for 60 yards on 14 carries and added five catches for 42 yards. While Johnson seems to run with hesitation and indecision most of time these days, Ringer hits the hole hard and keeps his legs churning.
It's a problem that's getting stickier by the week for Tennessee, and even the much-needed win over Indy won't make it completely disappear. First Tennessee thought it couldn't live without Johnson this season, and now the reality may be the Titans don't really need him.
• The Texans' 24-14 win over visiting Jacksonville was less than scintillating, but boring works just fine in Houston this season. The Texans have been a thrill-a-minute bunch in years past, but they've also never made the playoffs in franchise history. This year, they're winning some games in workmanlike fashion, and now they own a 3-0 record in the AFC South, with one win over all three of their division opponents.
I don't see anyone or anything keeping the Texans out of the postseason this year, because they've already proven their superiority against the Colts, Titans and Jaguars, and that's a fool-proof formula for playoff qualification.