• No more calls, we have a winner. With apologies to the giddy 5-0 Denver Broncos, the Cincinnati Bengals are officially the surprise team of the NFL's 2009 season after five weeks, and their 17-14 win at Baltimore in an AFC North first-place showdown convinces me of their legitimacy once and for all. Consider this: At 4-1, the Bengals have already matched their victory total from their entire 2008 season (4-11-1).
Facing an Ravens team intent on making someone pay for last week's embittering loss at New England, the Bengals traded punches with Baltimore and then -- as they've done in all four of their victories this season -- found a way to get it done when the game went down to the wire. These Bengals don't do anything easily. All five of their games this season have been decided by seven points or less, and they've won three in a row by scoring in the game's final minute. In the process, they've developed a tough, resilient whatever-it-takes mentality, and suddenly their earlier wins at Green Bay and home against Pittsburgh don't seem the least bit fluky.
In beating their third different division opponent by three points in consecutive weeks -- Steelers, at Cleveland, at Baltimore -- the Bengals have proven they're not going to beat themselves like so many Cincinnati squads in the past. And at 4-1 overall, 3-0 in the AFC North, and 3-0 on the road, Marvin Lewis' club has plenty of ceiling room remaining.
The Bengals now return home to Paul Brown Stadium and they won't leave for more than a month. Houston, Chicago and Baltimore all make the trip to Cincinnati in the coming four weeks, with the Bengals' Week 8 bye sandwiched in there as well. Cincinnati doesn't play again on the road until Nov. 15 at Pittsburgh, meaning it has a shot to be 7-1 and maybe even in command of the division by the time its rematch with the Steelers rolls around.
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer did his part once again, hitting receiver Andre Caldwell for the game-winning 20-yard touchdown pass with 22 seconds remaining to cap an 80-yard, 11-play drive that began with 2:15 left. But the Bengals defense, playing their hearts out for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, whose wife, Vikki, died suddenly Thursday night, deserves so much of the credit for this nail-biting win.
Zimmer's unit held Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to just 186 yards passing, picked him off twice and sacked him twice. Baltimore, which had resembled an offensive juggernaut in racing to a 3-0 start this season, produced just 12 first downs, with 82 yards of rushing and 257 total yards. The Ravens were just 3 of 12 on third and fourth downs.
Another reason to believe in the Bengals? They can run the ball, and control the clock. The re-born Cedric Benson continued his renaissance with 120 yards rushing on 27 carries, including a late-third quarter 28-yard touchdown run that gave Cincinnati its first lead at 10-7. That snapped Baltimore's streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher in 39 games, dating to December 2006. Not since the Bengals' Rudi Johnson gouged the Ravens for 114 yards in late November 2005 had Baltimore given up triple digits in rushing against an AFC North opponent.
When you throw in Cincinnati's season-ending three-game winning streak last December, the Bengals have now won seven of their past eight games, and maybe the best thing that ever happened to them was that unlucky Week 1 bounce of the ball at home against Denver. Rather than demoralize them, it served to remind them to play 60 minutes each and every week. For a month now, that every-second-counts approach has been the winning formula for Cincinnati.
• All of us who smugly predicted gloom and doom in Denver this season owe the Broncos and rookie head coach Josh McDaniels a super-sized mea culpa. That was a belief-inducing win over the Patriots on Sunday, and if there are any Broncos doubters at this point, they're a rapidly dwindling group.
I know I've cited Denver's brutal October-November schedule for the last time this season. The Broncos are now 2-0 with wins over the Cowboys and Patriots at home during that challenging eight-game stretch, and I don't think they're going to fear any opponent at this point.
And while we're at it, Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton has been everything so far that McDaniels thought he would be when he made the Jay Cutler trade with Chicago. Orton just wins games, and not many people were willing to buy that rationale when the more talented Cutler was sent packing.
• With consecutive losses to the Patriots and Bengals, John Harbaugh's Ravens (3-2) face their first true stretch of adversity since an early-season three-game losing streak last year. Baltimore is starting to pay heavily for a pass defense that continues to be porous, and the Ravens defense uncharacteristically surrendered 142 yards rushing and 403 yards of total offense. Can it be that we've all lived long enough to see Baltimore's defense as the Ravens' weaker link?
And don't look now, but things don't get easier for the Ravens in their next three games: at Minnesota, bye week, Denver, and the rematch at Cincinnati. Baltimore is tied with the Steelers (3-2) for second place in the AFC North, a game behind Cincinnati. But the hang-tough portion of the season has arrived for the Ravens.
• My brain can't even really fully process this, but the Browns actually won a game Sunday in windy Buffalo in which their starting quarterback, Derek Anderson, was 2 of 17 for 23 yards passing with one interception. Cleveland had one of its two field goals on the board even before Anderson had completed a pass.
A lifetime contract in Cleveland no doubt awaits Anderson. But if you're Browns backup Brady Quinn, where's your self-esteem level about now? You can't beat out that guy?
• I would say losing 6-3 to the hapless Browns at home is your basic firing offense if you're the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Who knows, maybe Bills owner Ralph Wilson holds off on lowering the boom on Dick Jauron until Buffalo's Week 9 bye, and maybe Jauron survives all season.
But could anyone blame Wilson if he says enough's enough after Sunday's debacle, which dropped the beleaguered Bills to 1-4? Good luck to the Bills in whipping up interest in that Week 13 home game against the Jets in Toronto. This might just be the low point of Buffalo's entire lost decade.
• Speaking of embattled coaches who lost to winless teams on Sunday, Jim Zorn's Redskins did nothing to strengthen his case for more time in Washington. Washington let a 17-2 second-half lead get away at Carolina, meaning that, for a third time in five weeks, the Redskins have provided their opponents' first win of the season: Week 1 at the New York Giants, Week 3 at Detroit and Week 5 at Carolina.
• And it's a good thing his Cowboys escaped in overtime at Kansas City, or the bye week might have turned into bye-bye week for Wade Phillips in Dallas. Receiver Miles Austin, making the start for the injured Roy Williams, might have single-handedly saved the Cowboy season -- at least for now -- with touchdowns of 59 yards late in the fourth quarter and the game-winning 60-yarder in overtime.
It's kind of fitting that a guy named Austin played such a huge role in a game pitting the Cowboys against a Chiefs team wearing the 1960-era helmets they featured when they were the AFL's Dallas Texans. Austin set a team record with 250 receiving yards, and he had three of his 10 catches for 153 yards in the fourth quarter alone.
• I think I speak for Jerry Jones and others in Dallas when I say I would like to see at least one game this season where running backs Marion Barber, Tashard Choice and Felix Jones are all healthy, active and rotating in and out of the Cowboys backfield. Has that happened even once yet this year?
• Matt Cassel to Mike Vrabel on that 1-yard touchdown pass in Kansas City had to elicit at least a small wave of nostalgia in New England. I hope all you fantasy owners started Vrabel at receiver on Sunday.
• I couldn't help but think that if the mid-'70s San Diego Padres had played in the NFL, they would have looked a lot like the 1960 throwback uniforms that Denver wore Sunday at home.
You thinking what I'm thinking? That this whole 50th AFL anniversary celebration might have just gone a bit too far with Denver's get-up against New England?
• That's exactly the kind of game a healthy-again Donovan McNabb needed against Tampa Bay. There will be no wiggle room for a McNabb-KevinKolb quarterback debate in Philly this week. McNabb's efficient 16 of 21 passing for 264 yards and three touchdowns quickly re-asserted No. 5's place in the Eagles' QB hierarchy. And just to prove that he can still get it done with his feet -- and those recently healed broken ribs -- McNabb carried twice for 30 yards.
McNabb asked the Eagles to get him some new offensive weapons, and on Sunday he developed an instant big-play rapport with rookie first-round receiver Jeremy Maclin, hitting the former Missouri star with touchdown bombs of 51 and 40 yards. Maclin had his NFL breakout game, with six catches for 142 yards and the pair of scores. Together with second-year man DeSean Jackson, the Eagles offense has more speed than I can ever recall.
• If you're keeping track, it was another game of very, very low impact for Michael Vick. Four carries for 10 yards, and 1 of 3 passing for 1 yard isn't going to have anyone beating down his door for 2010 and beyond.
• You can take DeMarcus Ware's picture off the milk cartons. The NFL's sack leader (20) from last season finally registered his first two quarterback drops of the season, getting to Kansas City's Cassel twice in the second half of the Cowboys' overtime win at Arrowhead.
• And the stars and planets must have been aligned just so in Carolina as well, because another missing-in-action defensive end, Julius Peppers, logged just his second and third sacks of the season, against Washington.
What's next? A two-touchdown game from Terrell Owens?
• I knew it. I told someone this week that Eli Manning could beat the Raiders with one heel tied behind his back.
• Just wondering, but when Oakland takes its bye in another four weeks, will anyone notice? The Raiders haven't really shown up in any game since their opener against San Diego, and Sunday's 44-7 mail-in job at the Giants was the worst effort of the bunch.
At one point on Sunday, the Giants led the Raiders 13-0 in first downs, 262-9 in total offense, and 173 to -2 in passing. Even Giants backup quarterback David Carr picked Oakland apart in relief of Manning.
And what exactly does JaMarcus Russell have to do to earn a benching? He was sacked six times, lost three fumbles, and led Oakland to seven punts and seven first downs.
Oh, yeah, we almost forgot. In an interview this week with CBS, Russell confirmed he weighs 275 pounds, and has been fined by the Raiders for being overweight. Nice week, J.M.
• Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger had to like this trip to Detroit a lot better than his last visit. Big Ben's 23 of 30 passing, for 277 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Lions might have just wiped out a bit of the sting of his so-so Super Bowl performance in the Motor City.
• Hard to believe, but Brett Favre is 5-0 for the first time in his 19-year NFL career with the Vikings' rout at St. Louis. And a day after his 40th birthday, Favre still could have passed for 35 or so, at least until he took off his helmet and flashed all those gray bristles.
• Nice seeing those old yellow and blue Rams throwback uniforms, the ones Kurt Warner and the 1999 Rams won their Super Bowl in 10 years ago. But that's not going back far enough in the uniform archives if you ask me. The old Rams uniform that should be brought back is that navy blue and white combination that the L.A. Rams wore in their "Fearsome Foursome'' heyday of the 1960s.
• That said, Kyle Boller didn't exactly do his Kurt Warner impersonation in those Rams throwbacks. It's a good reminder: You can change the uniform, but not necessarily the player or the results.
• It's been a big six days for Jared Allen. The Vikings defensive end scored on a 52-yard recovery and return of a Boller fumble, and later recovered a Steven Jackson fumble at the Vikings 2. Add in his 4½ sacks of Aaron Rodgers in the Monday-night win over Green Bay, and my pick for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year has been a big-play machine the past two games.
• What was up with all the Steelers fans in Detroit? It was like watching Red Sox Nation take over Camden Yards in Baltimore. I know there are tickets available in the hard-hit Detroit market, and the Lions are a local blackout threat every home game, but after Rashard Mendenhall scored a first-quarter touchdown, Ford Field looked and sounded like Heinz Field West.
• While drawing the Week 4 bye isn't real popular in the NFL, it apparently did some good for the teams that were forced to take last week off. The Panthers finally got their first win of the season; the Eagles rolled at Tampa Bay; the Falcons went on the road and destroyed first-place San Francisco; and struggling Arizona beat Houston on the strength of a last-minute goal-line stand.
• What a night and day difference for the Seahawks when Matt Hasselbeck is healthy and in the pocket. He's not going to throw for four touchdowns without an interception in a 41-0 win every week, but his presence alone is the difference between contention and also-ran status in the NFC West for Seattle.
• I guess we can all back off on those Jacksonville-is-better-than-we-thought pronouncements. Back-to-back wins in the tough AFC South didn't amount for much in Seattle. The Seahawks dismantled any notion that the Jaguars offense is starting to come together.
• Enjoy your bye week, 49ers. But I wouldn't want to be anywhere near Mike Singletary this week in the wake of visiting Atlanta's 45-10 humiliation of San Francisco. The 49ers win our frauds-of-the-week award, and they played as if they were starting to believe all the hype that had surrounded their 3-1, first-place start to the season.
I'm willing to bet San Francisco's demonstrative head coach will spend time this week removing any illusions of grandeur. The 49ers are slow in both the secondary and at receiver, and the Falcons exploited those weaknesses in ways no one had been able to yet this season.