The speculation and projection starts in earnest every year about this time, but as we reach mid-November, I can distinctly hear a consensus-building for a Giants-Titans Super Bowl XLIII matchup. And it may come to pass for those two teams, whose profiles seem to grow in stature each and every week.
But I also think we'd be mistaken if we continue to discount what the small-market and, at times, small-ball Carolina Panthers are up to these days. While nothing about their 31-22 conquest of winless Detroit on Sunday screamed greatness, the Panthers are now 8-2, and only the aforementioned Giants and Titans have better records. Carolina is an impressive 6-0 at home this season, after enduring a nightmarish 2-6 record at Bank of America Stadium in 2007.
For the record, the Panthers have been 8-2 only once before, and that was in 2003. You know what they did that year. They went to the Super Bowl for the one and only time in franchise history, losing a three-point game to the Patriots.
Yes, Carolina needs more from quarterback Jake Delhomme and its passing game than it has gotten the past two weeks. The Panthers somehow won last week at Oakland despite four Delhomme interceptions and just 72 yards passing. And against the Lions, Delhomme threw for just 98 yards and a touchdown on 10 of 19 passing.
But Carolina's running game and defense are strengths, and those can be ridden a long way in the run-up to the playoffs and in the postseason. The Panthers ranked 10th in rushing with 119.1 yards per game coming into Week 11, and then they exploded against the Lions, gaining a franchise-record 264 yards on 32 carries (8.3 average). Rookie Jonathan Stewart gained a game-high 130 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, and the other half of Carolina's backfield tandem, DeAngelo Williams, chipped in with 120 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 rushes.
On defense, the Panthers entered Week 11 holding opponents to just 14.8 points per game, second only to top-ranked Tennessee (13.0). The Lions' 22-point outburst upped Carolina's points-allowed average to 15.5, but that's still the NFC's best showing in perhaps the game's most vital statistical category.
The Panthers are balanced on both sides of the ball, and they're healthy and well-coached, with no real glaring holes to cover up and disguise as the season's final six-week homestretch begins -- making them a dangerous potential playoff team to contend with.
Carolina has spent most of its season slightly off the radar screen in terms of national exposure, and it's not scheduled to play its first and only primetime game until Week 14 at home against Tampa Bay. Let's watch and see what John Fox's team does with it.
Make no mistake, the Titans and Giants deserve the attention that has come their way, and they look like they'll rightfully enter the postseason as the favorites in their respective conferences. But the Panthers shouldn't be going little noticed these days. They're too good for that, and in the weeks ahead, I expect the obscurity is about to end.
• Bad night for the Cowboys haters out there. Dallas saved its season -- for now, at least -- with that gutty 14-10 win at Washington and considerably tightened the NFC wild-card picture. At 6-4, with upcoming home games against San Francisco (3-7) and Seattle (2-8), the Cowboys are going to hit Dec. 8 at 8-4, riding the momentum of a three-game winning streak.
Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett gets half of my game ball, for his shrewd decision to ride running back Marion Barber to either victory or defeat in the fourth quarter. With apologies to both Tony Romo and Terrell Owens, Barber is the Cowboys' best offensive weapon right now, and with Dallas facing a must-win, it had to be No. 24 with the ball in his hand at crunch time.
As for the Redskins, some of the air has definitely escaped from the balloon with Washington's second consecutive home-field loss after a 6-2 first half. But all is not lost in D.C. because the Redskins still have road games at Seattle, Cincinnati and San Francisco looming in the final six weeks (combined mark of 6-23-1).
• Maybe that's as rough as it'll be for Romo in his battle to play through that broken pinkie, but the ball just didn't come out of his hands with the same authority Sunday night. If Dallas would have needed to rely on just the passing game to win at Washington, the Cowboys would have been 5-5 and dead in the water in the NFC East.
• I'll tell you how long it has been since the NFL last had a tie prior to Sunday's Eagles-Bengals 13-13 sister-kissing. Almost six years to the day, that 34-34 Atlanta-Pittsburgh Week 10 tie on Nov. 10, 2002, which featured Tommy Maddox (Steelers) and Michael Vick (Falcons) as the respective quarterbacks. That's how long ago.
• Even better, if you ask me, how long has it been since a team found itself 1-8-1 after 10 games? That's the so-ugly-it's-beautiful record the Bengals have built for themselves.
The Eagles-Bengals tie was only the NFL's 17th since it instituted the sudden-death overtime format in 1974. There have now been just two ties in the last 11 NFL seasons.
• It's hard for me to consider the 5-4-1 Eagles a serious playoff contender at this point. If the Cowboys can win at Washington Sunday night, seven different NFC teams will have a better record than Philly, including all three in its division. Keep in mind, the Eagles still have to play at Baltimore, home against Arizona, at the Giants, at Washington and home against Dallas.
That ghastly four-turnover performance by Philly quarterback Donovan McNabb in Cincy might end up being the Eagles' Waterloo in '08.
• Where has that Ryan Grant-led Packers run game been all year? Green Bay hung up 200 yards on the ground against the Bears, more than doubling its season average of 98.1 yards per game entering Week 11. Grant, who has been MIA most of the year, finally busted out with 145 yards on 25 carries, just his second 100-yard game of the season. Grant had 105 of those yards in the first half, against a Bears run defense that had averaged just 74.9 yards allowed per game -- fourth in the NFL.
* I believed this even last week, when the Packers lost their second nail-biter in a row and dropped below .500, but now that we have a three-way tie (5-5) atop the NFC North, I love Green Bay's division-title chances more than ever. The Packers are the North's most complete team, and there's little about the Vikings or Bears that inspires confidence. Green Bay won last year with defense and a running game, and I saw both of those components show up -- finally -- on Sunday at Lambeau Field. That bodes very, very well for the Packers in the stretch run.
• There's such a tendency to take a week-by-week temperature reading on the Aaron Rodgers versus Brett Favre debate in Green Bay, but you just can't chart the most controversial decision of the 2008 season so myopically. Yes, Favre's Jets are 7-3 and in first place in the AFC East, and Rodgers' Packers are 5-5 and tied for first in their division.
That doesn't mean Green Bay made the wrong call, or that the Packers would necessarily be 7-3 with Favre still under center. It doesn't work that way, but so many people make that kind of (snap) judgment. And yes, I was going for irony there.
In the long run, Rodgers was the right call, I believe. And in the short run, on this Sunday, he looked a lot like the quarterback best positioned to dominate the NFC North for the foreseeable future. His 23 of 30 passing performance for 227 yards and a pair of touchdowns was a clutch game for a Green Bay team that had to win to keep its season from spiraling out of control.
• I don't remember anyone talking about Joe Flacco's running skills during the long pre-draft scouting process last winter and spring, but the Ravens rookie quarterback is starting to look positively Steve Young-ish at times. Flacco was easily Baltimore's leading rusher on Sunday against the Giants, taking off six times for 57 yards, 38 yards more than the next most successful Ravens runner. Flacco had double-digit rushing gains of 11, 14 and 30 yards against New York, and don't forget it was his 38-yard scoring scramble in Week 1 against the Bengals that made the difference in Baltimore's 17-10 win.
After watching New England quarterback Matt Cassel lead the Patriots in rushing against the Jets Thursday night -- eight carries for 62 yards -- I'm starting to think the AFC is the place for young, running quarterbacks.
• The Ravens defense loves to talk like no one can run on it -- Ray Lewis, we're looking in your direction -- but the Giants' Earth, Wind and Fire rushing attack absolutely shredded it in Week 11. Baltimore entered play allowing a league-low 65.4 rushing yards per game, and hadn't given up more than 76 to any team all season. The Ravens gave up more than that on one play alone Sunday, when Ahmad Bradshaw ripped off a 77-yard gain midway through the fourth quarter.
New York finished with 207 yards on just 33 carries, a gaudy 6.3-yard average. The Giants, or course, can run on anyone. New York's 168.9 yards rushing yards per game led the league entering Week 11, and that figure just jumped to 172.7. Baltimore did manage to keep intact its streak of not allowing an individual 100-yard rushing performance in 29 games, but who cares when Bradshaw finishes with 96, Brandon Jacobs rumbles for 73 and a pair of touchdowns and Derrick Ward chips in with 41 yards.
* Remember how the Giants absolutely couldn't win at home last season, finishing a woeful 3-5 at the Meadowlands? That was one of the worst home records ever for an eventual Super Bowl champion. But that was then, and this is now. New York has already won twice as many home games this season than it did last year, improving to 6-0 at Giants Stadium after Sunday. New York only plays two of its final six games at home: Philadelphia in Week 14, and Carolina in Week 16.
• There's nothing quite like that first really cold, snowy Sunday of the regular season. The snow that was flying in the San Diego at Pittsburgh game said that the serious time of year has arrived in the NFL.
• Welcome back to the land of the play-makers, Brian Urlacher. That second-quarter interception of Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau was the first time all season I could remember the Bears middle linebacker showing up in the game highlights.
And that leaves Chicago still wondering when Devin Hester will announce his presence in 2008?
• I've gotta start giving some credit to the Broncos, who have now put together consecutive fourth-quarter comeback wins on the road: at Cleveland and at Atlanta. I keep expecting Denver to fold up and go away this season, but Mike Shanahan's club is hanging tough at 6-4 and in first place in the AFC West.
That was a scrappy win at Atlanta the Broncos put together. Rookie fullback Peyton Hillis had 70 total yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns for the Broncos, which is two more than his more-celebrated former Arkansas Razorbacks backfield mates -- Darren McFadden and Felix Jones -- have scored of late.
• How cool was it that Broncos rookie Spencer Larsen started on both offense and defense against the Falcons? He lined up at fullback on offense and middle linebacker on defense, also finding time to put in some special teams duty.
Now that's a Throwback Sunday.
• It always happens this way. Just when the hype surrounding Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco had reached full throttle, both rookie quarterbacks lost in Week 11. That will cool the full-scale media blitz down a bit, and we'll move on to our next Big Thing.
• Not that it's doing any good for ex-Miami head coach Cam Cameron or former Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller, but Ted Ginn Jr. is starting to really become a factor in the Dolphins' winning formula. Ginn had 166 total yards in Miami's over Oakland and is now being used in creative ways, like his 40-yard end-around run against the Raiders.
• In the mind of Giants fans, does Sunday's 30-10 thrashing of Baltimore salve the wound at all from Super Bowl XXXV?
Yeah, I didn't think so.