EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we digest a blowout-happy Week 9 in the NFL...
• As sensational as Peyton Manning's comeback has been in Denver this season, the Colts sure didn't get it wrong, did they? Manning might take his Broncos big places this season, but Andrew Luck is nobody's consolation prize. We saw that again on Sunday, when this year's No. 1 overall pick dazzled us with an NFL rookie record of 433 yards passing, leading his improbable Colts to their fifth win in eight games and putting them in prime position to chase an AFC playoff berth in the season's second half.
Who saw this coming? Indianapolis was not supposed to be taking these kind of steps so soon in the Luck era, coming off 2011's 2-14 debacle. But somebody forgot to tell No. 12 and the rest of the Colts, who nipped visiting Miami 23-20 in a battle of surprising AFC turnaround teams. This one had plenty of storylines to chew on, but none were more impressive than Luck proving just how savvy and well-developed his game is halfway through his first season of filling Manning's shoes in Indy.
Luck finished with a gaudy 30 completions on 48 attempts for those 433 yards, and two touchdowns, erasing Cam Newton's 2011 Week 2 rookie passing yardage mark of 432 almost before the ink was dry in the league's record book. Miami rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill more than held his own with Luck in the first half, but the Dolphins were held to just three points in the second half, as the Colts turned a four-point halftime deficit into a three-point win -- Indy's third victory in a row.
Rookie quarterbacks aren't really allowed to be this good on third down, but Luck was other-worldly against the Dolphins. The Colts converted on 13 of 19 third downs (68.4 percent), and six of those conversions were from 10 yards or longer. Luck threw lasers all day long, threading the needle on a 9-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne in the back of the end zone in the first quarter and adding a pretty 36-yard scoring pass to rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton in the third quarter, giving the Colts a 20-17 lead.
And Luck was a master of spreading the ball around against the tough Dolphins defense, with the Colts' top four receivers all finishing with between five and seven catches, and each of them totaling 75 yards or more. Indy's passing game was so good the Colts had a pair of 100-yard receivers, and neither were named Reggie Wayne. Donnie Avery led the way with five catches for 108 yards, followed by Hilton (six for 102), Wayne (seven for 78) and rookie tight end Dwayne Allen (six for 75). Luck was sacked only once.
If the NFL playoffs started today, the Colts remarkably would be in the dance as an AFC wild card. And if April's NFL Draft was re-held today, the Colts would take Luck first all over again, this time without a scintilla of a doubt that he was up to the task of fronting their franchise and replacing a future Hall of Famer in Manning. As good as Manning has been in his career renaissance season, he's 36, and his future is no match for Luck's glittering upside.
Luck is for real, and as we now know, so are the Colts. At 5-3, with games still remaining to be played against the likes of the one-win Jaguars (Thursday night in Jacksonville), the three-win Bills and Titans, and the one-win Chiefs, a 9-7 season looks more than doable, and a stunning 10-6 finish is well within reach. It took some moxie to end the team's glorious Manning era, but for the Colts it was the right call at the right time, for the right reason.
The rookie was ready, and ready from the start. And because he was, the Colts look ready to return to the ranks of NFL playoff teams after their brief one-year hiatus. What a stroke of Luck in Indy.
COLTS 23, DOLPHINS 20: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• The week of Chuck Pagano's leukemia diagnosis, the Colts played inspired football and shocked the NFL with an upset of the mighty Packers in Indianapolis. And with Pagano in the house on Sunday and watching his team for the first time since his illness was discovered, the Colts again responded, beating the Dolphins to give their head coach another boost as he heads back into chemotherapy treatment this week.
We are not there yet, but if Indy's turnaround story continues, will Pagano generate support as a coach of the year candidate? Would the award, if it has to go to someone on the staff of the surprising Colts, be shared by both interim coach Bruce Arians and Pagano? It's an interesting and unprecedented question to try to answer. Pagano clearly deserves some credit for the Colts' unexpected success, but how much, given his long absence?
• The Bears franchise has long been known for dominating defense, but this is getting fairly ridiculous. Chicago had another five takeaways in a 51-20 domination of Tennessee that wasn't as close as the score indicates, and for good measure tacked on another defensive touchdown -- the Bears' team-record seventh of the season, in just eight games.
The tally in Chicago now is 10 touchdowns allowed this season by the Bears, just three more than their defense has scored. When ancient middle linebacker Brian Urlacher can lumber 46 yards for a pick-6 interception in the first quarter, you know things are going well and it's going to be your day.
The Bears have 28 takeaways this season, averaging 3.5 per game. Their seven interception return touchdowns already rank tied for third most in league history, trailing only the 1998 Seahawks (eight) and the 1961 Chargers (nine) in terms of defensive touchdowns of any kind in one season.
Want more? The Bears have a superb run defense (Chris Johnson's 80-yard garbage time touchdown rush notwithstanding), two cornerbacks who deserve Defensive Player of the Year consideration in Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, and entered Week 9 with a league-low 100 points allowed. Tillman had another big day for himself against the outclassed Titans, forcing four fumbles. All told, Chicago scored five ways: by passing touchdown, rushing touchdown, blocked punt for a touchdown, interception for a touchdown and field goal. That'll get it done most weeks.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's guys aren't going to make anyone forget the '85 Bears defense, but at some point the production Chicago is getting this season has to be put into historical context. Whatever the case in terms of where Chicago's defense ranks in team history, the Bears are winning big because of the tone being set on that side of the ball. Chicago has its first six-game winning streak since its Super Bowl season of 2006, and all those takeaways helped the Bears score a franchise-record 28 points in the first quarter against Tennessee, paving the way to the rout.
BEARS 51, TITANS 20: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• As homecomings go, I think Jay Cutler had a lot more fun going back to Nashville, where he played collegiately for Vanderbilt, than Mario Williams did returning to Houston, where the current Buffalo defensive end remains the Texans' all-time sacks leader.
Cutler went 19 of 26 for 229 yards with three touchdowns and no picks in the Bears' 31-point blowout of Tennessee. Williams didn't fare quite as well, registering one sack and five tackles in the Bills' 21-9 loss to the Texans. Houston is just fine without Williams, starting 7-1 and cruising to first place in the AFC South. The Bills, meanwhile, continue to sink like a stone, falling to 3-5 in what was supposed to be a return to playoff form season in Buffalo.
TEXANS 21, BILLS 9: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• The Vikings have thrown it into reverse, but not Adrian Peterson. He's full speed ahead after last December's ACL blowout. Peterson isn't just back, he's back with a vengeance. He led the NFL in rushing with 775 yards entering Week 9, and then he went out and ripped off an 182-yard day on just 17 carries, good for a 10.7 yard average. He had a 74-yard burst that proved his speed is back, and he's still one of the toughest short-yardage runners in the game, scoring from 1 and 4 yards in the 30-20 loss at Seattle.
Seriously, how do you snub either Peterson or Peyton Manning in the Comeback Player of the Year vote? They both deserve a trophy.
SEAHAWKS 30, VIKINGS 20: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• As good as Peterson's game was, he wasn't even the best running back playing on the West Coast on Sunday. That would be Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin, who looks like he'll make All-World after his two recent monster performances.
Martin rolled through the Raiders for an eye-popping 251 yards and four touchdowns in Tampa Bay's 42-32 win, with a Raiders comeback falling short. Martin has big-play potential galore, breaking scoring runs of 45, 67 and 70 yards against Oakland. Combined with his 135-yard rushing, 79-yard receiving game in the Bucs' win at Minnesota a week ago Thursday, the league has a new rushing star on its hands.
BUCCANEERS 42, RAIDERS 32: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• If you're Peyton Manning, I suppose the good news is that you've come so far, so quickly in your return to form that you can have a three-touchdown, 291-yard passing performance in a road victory considered something of an off day, due to having also tossed two interceptions.
But all that really matters is that Denver won 31-23 at Cincinnati and continues to look like the team that will run away and hide from everyone in the weak AFC West. It was Manning's fifth consecutive three-touchdown pass game, and his two picks were one more than he had thrown in his past five and a half games.
BRONCOS 31, BENGALS 23: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• I think we've seen enough of the Ravens by now to know that nothing is going to come easily this season in Baltimore. The Ravens are 6-2 at midseason, but I can't really recall a less impressive 6-2 club in recent memory.
Baltimore won 25-15 at Cleveland, but it was an epic struggle for much of the game. The Ravens raced to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, then went more than 29 minutes in the guts of the game without recording a first down. Give Baltimore credit for rallying from a 15-14 fourth-quarter deficit to to score the game's final 11 points and stave off Cleveland's upset bid, beating the Browns for the 10th time in a row dating to 2007. But this was not the kind of performance that erased the worries that surfaced when the Ravens were drubbed in Houston two weeks ago. Not by a long shot.
If Baltimore is to defend its AFC North title this season -- and it has a 1.5-game lead over Pittsburgh with eight to play -- it's going to have to scratch and claw and earn everything it gets.
RAVENS 25, BROWNS 15: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• Call off the Calvin Johnson watch. He turned up Sunday in Jacksonville, safe and sound. And fully integrated into the Lions offense for the first time in quite a while. Johnson had more than 100 yards receiving in the first half against the Jaguars and finished with a team-high seven grabs for 129 yards in Detroit's 31-14 conquest of the Jaguars.
The Lions (4-4) are back to .500 at midseason and might be a dangerous team in the second half. They are still in last place in the NFC North, but they've won three out of four after their 1-3 start, and they're even getting something out of their running game. Mikel Leshoure had three first-half touchdowns in Jacksonville -- from 7, 1 and 8 yards -- and no Detroit running back has ever been that prolific in the first half of a game. Nope. Not even Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.
LIONS 31, JAGUARS 14: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• The Jaguars wore cool all-black uniforms against Detroit, but maybe hunter's orange would have been the better choice, given that Jacksonville tends not to show up whatsoever when playing at home. With the 31-14 loss to the Lions, Mike Mularkey's punchless team is now 0-4 at EverBank Field, having been outscored 126-34, or by a whopping margin of 92 points. That's 23 points per game if you're scoring at home, something the Jags clearly don't do.
Jacksonville was down 24-0 to the Lions in the fourth quarter before breaking through for a couple of cosmetic touchdowns, but you can't pretty up the Jaguars this season no matter how hard you try. In a weak AFC, they're about as ugly as it gets, Kansas City included.
• That 18-yard first half Reggie Bush touchdown run against the Colts was something straight off his USC highlight reel. Bush really has forced us all to view him differently as a runner since arriving in Miami last year, and the moves he made on that cut-back scoring run were proof that he still has the play-making magic that prompted New Orleans into taking him No. 2 overall in 2006.
• Did I hear that right? The Redskins are 11 of 14 converting on fourth downs this season, including a pair of conversions on a second-quarter Washington drive in its loss to Carolina? Statisticians everywhere rejoice, but alas, the Redskins pushed it and later on that same drive the odds caught up with them. Washington went for it on fourth down a third time on that possession, on 4th-and-goal from the Carolina 2, and saw Robert Griffin get stuffed for no gain.
That's probably living a little too dangerously, Redskins.
PANTHERS 21, REDSKINS 13: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• The Redskins had some fun this season, but it's November now, and that means football season is essentially over in Washington. Here's the key stat: With the Redskins falling to 3-6 in the home loss to the Panthers, Mike Shanahan is now 2-6 in November in his three seasons in Washington. Since 2007, the Redskins have lost 15 of their past 20 games in the penultimate month of the NFL regular season.
• On a positive note in Washington, I have absolutely nothing but respect, admiration and deep-held appreciation for those 1937-era Redskins throwback helmets, the ones they painted to make them look leather-like. Faux leather helmets. Now that's a throwback look. Sammy Baugh would have been proud.
• Where in the world would the Packers be without Randall Cobb this season? The second-year receiver-return man was even a rushing threat on Sunday against Arizona (29 yards on three carries) and he has been Green Bay's offensive salvation with both Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson dealing with injuries. Cobb had two more touchdown catches in the 31-17 win over Arizona, both coming in the first half when the sluggish Packers needed a boost.
Cobb scored from 13 and 21 yards, and now has 45 catches for 500 yards and six touchdowns this season, and he's obviously the receiver quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks for first these days. The Packers, despite the Week 3 disaster in Seattle, have strung together four consecutive victories and steadied themselves at 6-3 heading into their Week 10 bye.
PACKERS 31, CARDINALS 17: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• I don't know exactly how the NFL will sort out the surprising Sean Payton contract situation. But I will wager some hard cash (at least $1) that at some point in the not-too-distant future Payton coaches Jerry Jones' Cowboys. That's been a marriage destined to happen for a while now. Maybe it's not next year for Payton in Big D, but it won't take five years either. Stay tuned.
• Heard a lot of chatter about the Chargers being back thanks to that 31-13 spanking of the Chiefs Thursday night. Really? You mean the Kansas City team that hasn't held a single lead all season in regulation play, turned the ball over four more times to boost their league-leading total to 29 giveaways, and have now dropped five games in a row to close out the first half of their season 1-7?
That game featured an uninspiring 10-6 Chargers lead into the fourth quarter, until the Chiefs gave the game away with a spate of turnovers. I didn't see anything to convince me San Diego fixed its problems with that victory. It was more of a survival win than anything else. Losing to the woeful Chiefs would have been catastrophic for Norv Turner and team, and very well could have immediately brought the curtain down on the current coaching regime.