EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight on a second consecutive NFL Sunday ruled by the road teams....
• Too bad it wasn't Throwback Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, because John Fox's time-warping Broncos would have fit right in. Denver has definitely turned back the clock on offense, running the ball with a devotion and single-mindedness that perhaps hasn't been seen since the days of the single wing.
I know Tim Tebow's fans have always fervently believed he was a game-changer, but I'm guessing they didn't imagine it quite like this. The Broncos' second-year running back, I mean, quarterback, completed all of two passes against the hometown Chiefs -- and still won fairly comfortably, 17-10. And as absurd as that sounds, here's the more astounding thing: The Broncos might just have the best winning formula of any AFC West team at the moment. Is that even arguable? Defense and a running game is somehow getting it done in Denver.
Credit to the Broncos for stealing the Raiders' "Just win, Baby,'' mantra and using it to go 3-1 in Tebow's four starts, thrusting Denver into the thick of the AFC West playoff race at 4-5. The Broncos game plans are so old-school that they might as well wear leather helmets, but they're also brutally effective. Who said you had to pass to win in today's NFL? These Broncos run on third-and-long and make no apologies for it. Being just a game out of first place means you never have to say you're sorry.
There have always been a lot of different ways to skin the cat in this league, but I'm not sure we've seen a team go this route on offense for at least five or six decades. Denver ran the ball 55 times and threw it just eight times against Kansas City, four in each half. Tebow finished 2 of 8 for 69 yards, but his final completion of the game was a 56-yard scoring bomb to receiver Eric Decker in the fourth quarter, and he also contributed a first-quarter 7-yard scoring run for Denver's other touchdown.
According to ESPN, Denver had never before won a game with two or fewer completions, and no team had accomplished that in the past 25 years other than in a Week 5 2009 win for Cleveland at Buffalo, in which Derek Anderson went 2 of 17.
I know, I know. Long-term success in Denver still mandates a passing game of some sort out of Tebow. And this is definitely not an offense that can play from behind. But how can you quibble with the bottom line at the moment? At halftime against the Chiefs, Tebow was 0 of 4 as a passer, and yet Denver led 10-0 behind 169 yards rushing from six rushers. The Broncos lost their top two running backs in the first half, with Willis McGahee leaving with a hamstring injury and Knowshon Moreno spraining a knee, and they still churned out their second consecutive road win in the division. The victory also gave the Broncos their first two-game winning streak over the span of the past 29 games -- which was the league's longest active span without consecutive victories.
Without a doubt, Denver has played some fabulous defense in the past month or so (with the exception of its Week 8 loss at home to Detroit). But the running game is leading the way and letting the Broncos get away with minimal passing. Denver wound up with 244 yards rushing on 55 attempts (4.4 average), which was the bulk of their 313-yard day on offense against the Chiefs. Third-team running back Lance Ball took over the lead back duties, rumbling for 96 yards on 30 carries, never once gaining more than nine yards at a time. Tebow carried nine times for 43 yards.
Everybody in Denver is getting in on the rushing craze. The Broncos gave the ball to fullback Spencer Larsen five times for 17 yards, and even receiver Eddie Royal carried three times for 19. While Denver's running game has a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention feel to it, the Broncos probably don't care as long as they keep getting results. No, we still don't know if Tebow will ever cut it as an NFL passer, but Denver is at least successfully buying itself time to figure things out and stay in the playoff chase while it does it.
This much I am starting to buy into: Maybe there really is something to the notion that all Tebow does is win. On Sunday in Kansas City, the Broncos on offense didn't look like any other team I can remember in the past 40-plus years. But they won again, and how they're doing it is starting to matter less and less every week. As it turns out, Tebow Time in Denver has meant a trip back in time. But when you win, it seems like a return to the good old days.
• It took until late in Week 10, but Andy Dalton finally looked like a rookie quarterback on that game-sealing interception to Steelers cornerback William Gay with 2:27 remaining in Pittsburgh's clutch 24-17 win at Paul Brown Stadium. Dalton locked in on receiver Jerome Simpson, and Gay read the Bengals quarterback like a book.
It was, of course, a statement game for Cincinnati, and the statement made was that the Bengals are good enough to compete with the Steelers, but not good enough to beat them. Cincy's AFC-high five-game winning streak is over and now the Bengals face the prospect of a two-game losing streak if they can't go into Baltimore next week and pull the upset.
Maybe the worst news of all centered on the losses within the Cincinnati loss. The Bengals' spectacular rookie receiver A.J. Green hurt his right knee on a 36-yard first-half touchdown pass -- it looked like a hyperextension -- and Cincy's best cornerback, Leon Hall, missed the second half with an Achilles injury.
Dalton finished 15 of 30 for 170 yards and two touchdowns, but he threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter and could not overcome a Steelers defense that is starting to get healthy and once again force takeaways.
Pittsburgh responded to last week's crushing loss at home to Baltimore the way I expected it to: With an efficient and show-no-panic approach that featured Ben Roethlisberger hitting nine receivers in his 21-of-33, 245-yard passing day. As Big Ben goes, so go the Steelers. Now more than ever.
• The Saints and Falcons just don't know how to play anything other than entertaining semi-classics when they square off, and Sunday gave us another one. New Orleans won 26-23 in overtime in the Georgia Dome, and the big talking point will be Mike Smith's controversial and ill-fated decision to go for a fourth-and-inches from his own 29 in overtime.
The Falcons head coach will get crucified because the Saints smothered Michael Turner and shortly thereafter kicked the game-winning, 26-yard field goal, but I get his thinking. Turner is one of the best short-yardage backs in the game, and the Saints offense in overtime is a good bet to score and end the game anyway.
Atlanta's loss is a huge blow to its hopes of repeating in the NFC South. The Falcons are 5-4 and trail first-place New Orleans (7-3) by 1.5 games. The irony for me is that the run-oriented Falcons spent most of the offseason trying to get more explosive to keep up with the likes of the Saints and Packers, but then it was a fourth-and-inches play that might just have swung their season in the wrong direction.
As good as this rivalry has been in recent years, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that the Saints fairly well own the Falcons. New Orleans has won nine out of the past 11 games in the series, including its past three trips to Atlanta. The Falcons just hope their Week 16 trip to the Superdome for the rematch means something in terms of their playoff chances or positioning.
• That'll do it for the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles. Thanks for coming, drive safely, and someone make sure to hit the lights at Lincoln Financial Field. I have to believe that Sunday's loss at home to John Skelton and the lowly Arizona Cardinals will be the one that finally convinces Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie it's time to blow things up, at least to the degree that the Andy Reid era ends.
You have to keep Michael Vick because you can't get out of that contract so quickly without losing your shirt. And LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin are valuable assets on offense. On defense, Nnamdi Asomugha, Trent Cole and Jason Babin are probably the keepers. But everyone else in green and white should be in play when it comes to the house-cleaning.
The Eagles (3-6) went all in this season and crapped out. There's no other way to assess it at this point. Philadelphia just lost its fourth home game of the year in which it held a fourth-quarter lead, and no team in NFL history has ever sunk to those depths. And to think that the Eagles still have three home games this season.
As it turns out, Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson was the lucky one on Sunday. He was inactive and ordered to stay home by Reid after sleeping in and missing a special teams meeting on Saturday. He missed Philadelphia's ugliest loss of all in this ugly season.
• I still don't know where the 7-3 Texans rank in terms of the AFC elite, but they're working their way into the discussion week by week. The Texans took Tampa Bay apart 37-9 at Raymond James Stadium, and it really wasn't that close. Houston isn't just beating teams these days, it's embarrassing them. The Texans have outscored their opponents 132-42 in the course of their four-game winning streak, and now they get the chance to finally get healthier and return all-world receiver Andre Johnson to the lineup after their Week 11 bye.
As for the Bucs, they look like clear-cut pretenders, not contenders this season. Albert Haynesworth didn't help slow down the Houston running game one bit (185 yards), and what was with that Keystone Kops routine by the Tampa Bay secondary? Jacoby Jones blew past the Bucs defensive backs for an early 80-yard touchdown catch, and then Arian Foster weaved his way between them for a 78-yard reception.
• If the Colts can't get within two touchdowns of winning at home against a 2-6 Jacksonville club that starts a rookie at quarterback, then who can Jim Caldwell's reeling club ever hope to beat? Here's the only good news Indianapolis has gotten all season: The 0-10 Colts can't possibly lose again next week, because their bye has finally and mercifully arrived.
After that, Indy has six games remaining and a more than decent shot to join the 2008 Lions in 0-16 infamy. Checking the schedule, Week 12 at home against Carolina might be the Colts' last best shot to win a game, because I don't see a victory coming at New England, at Baltimore, home against Tennessee, home against Houston or at Jacksonville. In Indy, the fans have to be starting to feel Luck-y.
• If you're a Bills fan, Sunday in Arlington had to feel like a flashback to the consecutive blowout Super Bowl losses to the Cowboys after the 1992 and 1993 seasons. Buffalo's 44-7 meltdown featured a little bit of everything but Thurman Thomas losing his helmet.
The Bills look done and that surprises me. I thought they'd put up a fight in the AFC East all season long after their 3-0 start, but they're 2-4 in their past six games and things are rapidly heading south. Buffalo has lost its past two games by a combined 71-18, to the Jets and Cowboys, and Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick looks like the clock struck midnight right after he signed his contract extension, turning him back into a pumpkin.
The Bills still face two more road games just ahead, with a trip to resurgent Miami followed by a rematch against the Jets in New Jersey. Buffalo is 5-4 but looks headed south of .500.
• I wish I could watch the Cowboys' destruction of Buffalo and convince myself that Tony Romo and the Dallas offense have finally arrived as a force to be reckoned with. But how can you know anything for certain given the Cowboys' and Romo's penchant for inconsistency? Dallas makes the assignment of issuing Snap Judgments a very tricky proposition.
That said, with next week's trip to Washington followed by a home game against Miami on Thanksgiving and a Week 13 game at Arizona, Dallas has a pretty wide road to an 8-4 record heading into its home showdown with the Giants in Week 14.
• What a bizarre little scene in the Bills' loss, with Buffalo receiver David Nelson catching a touchdown pass and then running over to present it to his girlfriend, who happened to be in uniform as well -- as a Cowboys cheerleader. I suppose the NFL's anti-fraternization rules never quite imagined that scenario.
And to think Nelson's little mid-game gift wasn't even the strangest part of the day. Buffalo running back Fred Jackson had a pretty solid homecoming to Dallas, where he grew up. And I mean exactly where he grew up. His former childhood home was torn down as part of the construction project that produced Cowboys Stadium. There are homecoming games of sorts every week in the NFL, but not like this one.
• While the Ravens have seemingly solved their Pittsburgh problem, they now have a new issue to grapple with: Their post-Pittsburgh problem. Baltimore's upset loss at Seattle marked the second time this season that it suffered a surprising loss the week after beating the Steelers. It happened in Week 2, at Tennessee, after the Ravens blasted Pittsburgh in the season opener, and it happened again against the Seahawks, just seven days after Baltimore's dramatic victory at Heinz Field.
The Ravens have been a team for a while now that can suffer from a lack of intensity and let down its guard against losing teams, but this year that trend seems more pronounced that ever. Baltimore's three losses this season have all come after significant victories (the Week 7 loss at Jacksonville followed a home win over first-place Houston in Week 6), and that's a troubling development for John Harbaugh's club. In addition, the Ravens are now just 2-3 on the road, and that makes the need for an AFC North division title and at least one home playoff game all the more urgent.
• The Bears and Lions might have identical 6-3 records in the NFC North, but they look like teams headed in opposite directions after Chicago's 37-13 blowout of the visiting Lions. The Bears, with their fourth consecutive victory, continue to earn respect, and the Lions continue to leak oil, losing their third game out of four after a stellar 5-0 start.
Chicago manhandled the Lions just five weeks after losing to them on a Monday night in Ford Field. Detroit's early season confidence seems seriously on the wane, while the Bears are getting stronger and playing with better offensive execution each week. In addition, Chicago displayed increased physicality against the Lions, pushing Jim Schwartz's supposedly tough team around for much of the game and beating Detroit at its own intimidating game.
• The trend of road teams ruling extended for another week in the NFL. Before Sunday's four late-afternoon or night games, road teams were 9-2 in Week 10. Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago all came through at home in the late games, making visitors 9-5 on the week heading into Sunday night. In Week 9, road teams went 10-4, making for a 19-9 run overall.
• Sorry, but if that wasn't an interception by Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib against Houston, then I still don't know what a legal catch looks like in the NFL. And truth be told, I don't think the league's referees do either. At least not entirely.
• I'm left to surmise that the Chiefs' four-game winning streak really was a mirage, because Kansas City is right back to the desultory days of September, losing at home to Miami and Denver in consecutive weeks. Can't remember a season that rode the big rollercoaster quite like the one Kansas City has been on this season.
Here's how it's going about now for the Chiefs: Rookie receiver Jonathan Baldwin made one of the most jaw-dropping catches you'll ever see -- reaching his arms around Brian Dawkins to pin the ball to the back of the Broncos safety -- but the circus move was wiped out by offsetting penalties.
• We're officially at the "Now what?'' stage of the season in Washington. Lose with Rex Grossman. Lose with John Beck. Lose with Grossman again. That about covers it. And to think the Redskins were 3-1 and in first place in the NFC East in early October.