• He couldn't quite manage the fairytale ending that would have ensured him being the NFL's comeback story of the season thus far, but was there a more unexpected and captivating Week 7 plot twist than the spectacular return to NFL relevance of San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith, the all-but-forgotten 2005 first overall pick who had gone almost two full years between appearances in a regular-season game?
There's not a shred of hyperbole in saying Smith might very well have resurrected his floundering NFL career on Sunday in Houston, even though he wasn't quite able to bring the 49ers all the way back against the Texans, who hung on to beat visiting San Francisco 24-21 after leading 21-0 at the half.
Taking over for the ineffective Shaun Hill after halftime, Smith led the 49ers to touchdowns on three of their first four second-half drives, with all of them culminating on touchdown passes to tight end Vernon Davis. Smith, who hadn't even played in an NFL game that counted since Week 10 of 2007, finished a sizzling 15 of 22 for 206 yards and those three scores, for a passer rating of 118.6
And with that, the 49ers might have finally found their long-term answer at quarterback -- a scant four and a half years after first deciding to build the franchise around him in 2005. Can anyone at this point doubt that Smith at the very least has earned another shot at being the guy in San Francisco and deserves an extended chance to build on his boffo showing against Houston?
Smith's desperation pass on 4th and 10 from the 49ers 38 was picked off by Texans safety Eugene Wilson with three seconds remaining, but his three second-half touchdown passes were more than he had thrown in the past two full seasons combined (two). Smith's last touchdown pass before Sunday came in Week 8 of 2007, in a 31-10 loss against New Orleans, and he hadn't had a three-touchdown game since Week 5 of 2006, in a 34-20 win against Oakland.
What will the second Smith era in San Francisco be like? For one thing, it'll be devoid of the huge expectations that Smith had to deal with the first time in took over as the team's starter. Smith seemed to play free and easy on Sunday against the Texans, like a guy who knew he really didn't have anything to lose at this point in his five-year NFL career.
The 49ers have been searching for a viable option at quarterback since Jeff Garcia left town after the 2003 season, and Smith didn't seem likely to ever be that guy after losing a quarterback competition with Hill this preseason. But Hill started 6 of 11 for just 45 yards in the first half against the Texans, with San Francisco punting or turning the ball over on downs on all five of their first-half possessions. But once Smith entered, and completed 8 of his first 9 passes, for 96 yards and a pair of scores, it quickly became apparent that he had provided the needed spark.
After its promising 3-1 start, San Francisco has now lost two in a row to slip back to .500, with a challenging trip to undefeated Indianapolis (6-0) looming next week. But the makings of a pretty potent passing offense in San Francisco is starting to come into view. There's Smith hopeful re-birth, and then there's Davis, who became the first 49ers pass catcher to record three receiving touchdowns in a game since Terrell Owens in 2001. Davis finished with 7 catches for 93 yards, with scoring catches of 29, 14 and 23 yards, doubling his touchdown total in what has been the breakout season of his four-year NFL career.
Receiver Michael Crabtree's NFL debut was overshadowed by Smith's comeback, but the rookie out of Texas Tech caught 5 passes for 56 yards to make a solid contribution for San Francisco. When you toss in the four catches for 62 yards by second-year receiver Josh Morgan -- who like Smith, Davis and Crabtree is a 49er draft pick -- San Francisco's offense suddenly looks like a lot more than just Frank Gore and a grind-it-out running game.• After watching the ease at which they wiped out a 21-point Miami lead, can anyone possibly expect to stay on the field with the Saints offense this season? The Dolphins took a 24-3 second-quarter lead over shell-shocked New Orleans, but no matter. The Saints simply proceeded to score 43 of the game's final 53 points to win their sixth in a row, 46-34. No sweat, other the kind that comes from playing in South Florida's heat and humidity.
Other than maybe the Colts, I can't see another offense that would really have a prayer of matching Drew Brees and Co. point for point.
There's never been three undefeated teams this late in an NFL season, and I think it has definitely helped the Saints that they're not the league's lone remaining unbeaten, in that the singular spotlight and accompanying pressure that usually comes with that role has been divided among the Broncos, Colts and, until Sunday's loss at Pittsburgh, the Vikings. But my sense is that New Orleans has begun to separate itself even among their fellow undefeateds.
The Saints have scored a ridiculous 238 points through six games, two points shy of averaging 40 per game. New Orleans is on pace to score 635 points this season, which would obliterate New England's 2007 NFL record of 589. With impressive wins over the Jets, Giants and Dolphins in the books in their past three games, the Saints look like they have a bit of a breather coming between now and rolling into their Week 12 Superdome showdown with New England at 10-0.
In its next four games, New Orleans plays Atlanta (4-2) and Carolina (2-4) at the dome, and then travels to winless St. Louis (0-7) and Tampa Bay (0-7). The Falcons, who are in second place in the NFC South, two games behind New Orleans, could give the Saints a game of it. But it's hard to imagine anyone shutting down New Orleans and all its offensive weapons this season. There's simply too many of them.
These Saints have just begun to march.
• It's not really fair to put the Vikings first loss of the season entirely on Brett Favre's shoulders, but he did after all have a hand in both fourth-quarter turnovers (a fumble and an interception) that led to two long Pittsburgh defensive touchdowns in the final seven minutes and provided the difference in the Steelers' 27-17 win at Heinz Field.
Favre's interception went right through the hands of running back Chester Taylor and into the arms of Steelers reserve linebacker Keyaron Fox, who took it back 82 yards for the game-clinching score. Favre was little more culpable on his fumble, which was recovered and returned 77 yards for a touchdown by LaMarr Woodley.
The Vikings (6-1) have had some good fortune in some of their wins this season, and maybe Sunday's loss was an indication that the worm inevitably has begun to turn a bit on that front. Minnesota played well enough to win for the most part, but if you're a Vikings fan, it has to be a little concerning that Favre had season highs in both pass attempts (51) and yards (334).
Wasn't that the fear, that Favre would want to load it up at some point and throw it 50 times, even if this was supposed to be Adrian Peterson's team to lead offensively? Minnesota ran just 23 times for 89 yards (Peterson had 69 yards on 18 carries), and wound up throwing the ball more than twice that amount. Favre had no touchdowns, the one costly pick, the fumble, and was sacked four times. The Vikings offense produced just 10 points, with the other seven coming on Percy Harvin's 88-yard fourth quarter kickoff return.
• With the Packers demolishing the hapless Browns 31-3 on the road, now we have a real race in the NFC North as we approach Week 8's showcase game: Minnesota at Green Bay, when Favre makes his much-ballyhooed return to Lambeau Field.
The Packers (4-2) are just 1½ games behind the 6-1 Vikings, and can close to within a half game if they can protect their home field next week against Minnesota. The Bears, coming off back-to-back losses at Atlanta and at Cincinnati (in Sunday's most shocking score), are starting to look too flawed to make a serious run at the division title.
The best news for Green Bay, which has now won consecutive games over the Lions and Browns by a combined score of 57-3, was easily that quarterback Aaron Rodgers was protected for the first time all season. Rodgers was never sacked after coming into play with an NFL-worst 25 sacks. Green Bay didn't punt until late in the fourth quarter, and scored 31 unanswered points after Cleveland grabbed a 3-0 lead.
Don't count the Packers out when it comes to the NFC elite. They looked to be in shambles after that Monday night loss at Minnesota dropped them to 2-2, but they steadied themselves in their Week 5 bye and now are heading into the rematch with the Vikings in firm possession of real momentum.
• Robert Kraft told me last month that the league's research showed that his Patriots were the most popular NFL team in Britain, and that stands to reason, given the decade that Bill Belichick's club has had.
I guess it doesn't hurt either that the Patriots are from New "England.'' After all, what NFL team do you expect a bunch of Londoners to root for?
• This just in: In light of Tampa Bay's 35-7 meltdown against the Patriots in London's Wembley Stadium, I believe that makes the Bucs the first team in NFL history to be winless on two continents at the same time.
I'd say the Patriots did their part to sell the NFL's game in Europe. Tampa Bay? Not so much. For the English fans, I imagine it was a little like watching a 5-1 soccer game.
• When New England raced out to that 21-0 lead against the Bucs, it meant the Patriots had put together an 80-0 run over a six-quarter span against their past two opponents: Tennessee and Tampa Bay. Dating back to last week, the Patriots' streak marked the most consecutive points by a team since Buffalo scored 86 in 1992.• If you're the Bucs, don't you have to go to Josh Freeman now? Tampa Bay (0-7) has its bye next weekend, and then a game at home against Green Bay in Week 9. Why not see what the rookie quarterback has to offer? It's not like Josh Johnson has provided a spark or convinced anyone that he's the future in Tampa Bay.
Your move, Raheem Morris. What have you really got to lose at this point?
• Did you see that punishment that Peterson handed out to Steelers cornerback William Gay on what could charitably be called an attempted tackle? Gay might be still feeling that teeth-loosening collision on Wednesday.
• So, if you keeping score at home, it's Crabtree with five catches for 56 yards in one game this season, Oakland's Darrius Heyward-Bey four receptions for 64 yards in seven games.
It's pretty clear Crabtree is considerably ahead of Heyward-Bey, who was taken ahead of him in April's first round. In fact, after just one game, it's apparent Crabtree is already the 49ers most dangerous receiver.
• I'm starting to think nobody really wants the NFC West again. Unless the Cardinals (3-2) pull the upset at the Giants on Sunday night, nobody in the division will have a winning record. San Francisco (3-3) might actually end the weekend with a share of first place even though it last won a game in Week 4.
• That one had to feel good for Cedric Benson, eh? I wouldn't think it's coincidental that the Bengals running back rumbled for a career-high 189 yards against the Bears, the team that gave up on him after taking him in the first round of the 2005 draft. Just to make sure Chicago got his point, Benson ran the ball a whopping 37 times. Revenge is apparently best served repeatedly.
All in all, it was a pretty good day for Smith and Benson, who went first and fourth overall in '05.
• I wonder if Richard Seymour still thinks the Raiders are playoff-bound after that 38-0 butt-kicking the previously struggling Jets laid on them? Wasn't it just last week, after upsetting Philadelphia at home, that the Raiders talked about how motivated they were thanks to being insulted by the Giants?
Guess that motivation had a one week expiration date. Maybe Oakland needs to be insulted more often.
• Did I hear that right, Vikings head coach Brad Childress donned a dress, wig, lipstick and blue nylons on the team charter to Pittsburgh on Saturday? That's an image I don't wanted seared into my brain.
• Now that's the Cowboys pass rush we've been waiting all season for. Dallas sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan four times in a 37-21 win over the Falcons, picking him off once and forcing him to lose a fumble.
This one has the makings of a pivotal turning point victory for the Cowboys, who are now 4-2 and firmly in the hunt in the NFC East.
• Turns out the replacement for T.O. in Dallas was Miles Austin, not Roy Williams. Proving that his monster game at K.C. two weeks ago was no fluke, Austin put up another 171 yards receiving and two touchdowns on six catches against the Falcons. And not even Jason Witten can compete for the title of being Tony Romo's favorite target after the best showing ever by a Cowboys receiver in consecutive games.• With 11 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions through his first six games, it's getting tougher all the time to make the case that Jay Cutler has been a difference maker in Chicago.
At the very least, he's no Kyle Orton.