• You think Bengals Fever is raging now? Just wait. As good as things look for Cincinnati in the wake of its 18-12 overture-of-a-win at Pittsburgh, the first-place Bengals haven't begun to reach their peak. The hard work is mostly done for Cincinnati, now 5-0 in the division, having swept both Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the same season for the first time since 1998. Thanks to holding tiebreakers over their division rivals, the 7-2 Bengals lead the Steelers (6-3) by what amounts to two games, and the Ravens (4-4) by 3½.
The Bengals' next three opponents are among the league's Awful Eight this season -- at Oakland next week, then home against Cleveland and Detroit -- and this is finally a Cincinnati team that's mature enough to take care of business against teams it should beat. The Bengals will be 10-2 and about to wrap up a playoff berth by the time they travel in Weeks 14-15 to Minnesota and San Diego -- their only remaining games against winning teams. Cincy suddenly looks like 12-4 or 13-3 material to me, and a first-round bye is definitely in play.
• The NFL's next biggest early season surprise (Bengals aside) is, at this point, the proverbial helium balloon flying around the room backwards. Unlike Cincinnati, Denver looks like its season has already lasted too long. Having lost three straight after that 6-0 start, the Broncos are in real trouble in a division they seemed to own just four weeks ago. What is it about Denver and three-game leads in the AFC West that just doesn't work?
Ironically, the Broncos finally got quarterback Kyle Orton to stretch the field on Sunday, with two long touchdown passes (40 and 75 yards) to Brandon Marshall on their first two possessions. Orton had 193 yards passing in the first half, and looked primed for maybe his best game of the season. But he injured an ankle on a late first-half Brian Orakpo sack, and Denver's shot at a seventh win quickly evaporated with backup Chris Simms under center.
The Broncos had better hope Orton is healthy for next week's AFC West showdown against visiting San Diego, or Denver's decline will continue. The Broncos had minus-8 yards passing in the second half, with Simms, the onetime Bucs starter, going 3 of 13 with one interception.
• There are no bigger frauds in football than Rex Ryan's big-talking Jets (4-5), losers of five of their last six games after that 3-0 start. And let me quickly remind everyone that I had fully bought into New York before it got off to a fast getaway, predicting in the preseason it would be an AFC wild-card qualifier. Missed that one.
Ryan keeps talking up his team, but it sounds like so much hot air now that the Jets have lost three consecutive home games to AFC opponents Buffalo, Miami and Jacksonville, none of whom played the Jets with a winning record. The Jaguars were the latest opponent to expose New York's once-boastful defense, rolling up 347 yards against the Jets and their shoddy tackling, including 139 on the ground.
Mathematically, the Jets remain in the AFC wild-card picture. Realistically, they're done for the year. That loss to Jacksonville was basically an elimination game. And don't look now, but New York is headed to New England next week. The Patriots, no doubt, have a bit of revenge on their minds.
• Sunday was the most painful day of the NFL season. Like dominoes, the injured players just kept falling on Sunday for playoff-contending teams. Orton went down for the Broncos with that ankle problem. The Steelers lost safety Troy Polamalu for the second time this season with a left knee injury. Bengals running back Cedric Benson left in the first half with a bum hip. Atlanta running back Michael Turner had a monster day at Carolina cut short by a right ankle sprain.
The Panthers saw offensive tackle Jordan Gross felled by a broken ankle. The Saints' already thinned secondary lost play-making cornerback Tracy Porter to a knee injury. And early in Dallas's game at Green Bay, right offensive tackle Marc Colombo was forced out with a broken fibula, while the Packers guard Daryn Colledge left with an ankle injury.
The only word that seems to fit is ouch.
• If the Titans are determined to trade Vince Young this offseason, I figure his market value is going up approximately one round per week, in terms of what draft picks he'd yield in return. The Titans are 3-0 since Young took over for Kerry Collins, and his 68 percent completion rate in Sunday's 41-17 win over Buffalo was certainly eye-opening. Young was 17 of 25 for 210 yards with one interception and one touchdown. He looks once again like a quarterback who has a future worth investing in.
• It's been apparent for a while now that Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew is a better NFL running back than the player who was his more celebrated collegiate cross-town rival and fellow member of the 2006 draft class: New Orleans' Reggie Bush. But on Sunday in that win over the Jets, Jones-Drew became a personal favorite of mine for being both smart and selfless in a way that far too few NFL players would have been.
Headed for an easy touchdown inside the game's last two minutes, Jones-Drew didn't worry about his stats when he intentionally took a knee at the New York 1, thereby allowing Jacksonville to run out the clock on the Jets, who were out of timeouts. How many players would have had the judgment to make the same choice just before Josh Scobee's game-winning 21-yard field goal in the 24-22 final? You might be able to count them on one hand.
• With four of their next five games played in the relative obscurity of their home stadium, don't forget about these Jaguars, who are now tied with the Texans for second in the AFC South. Check out Jacksonville's final seven games and you can see a path to 10 wins. It's certainly plausible for the Jaguars to win home games against Buffalo, Houston and Miami, with road victories within reach at San Francisco and Cleveland.
But don't worry Jaguars fans, it's still a long shot that you'd have a playoff home game to get blacked out.
• So that's why the Bengals put the franchise tag on kicker Shayne Graham. He made four huge field goals for Cincinnati in the second half at Heinz Field, which is only the NFL's worst stadiums to kick in. Hard to believe, but the Bengals are a cool 4-0 on the road this season, with respect-generating wins at Lambeau Field, Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium and the Big Ketchup Bottle in Pittsburgh.
• Nobody in the NFL has executed a bigger in-season renaissance than Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, who just logged his third consecutive game without an interception in the Panthers' 28-19 win over Atlanta. Delhomme was a turnover machine earlier this season, and if there was one NFL analyst who said Panthers head coach John Fox was right to stick with him as his starter, I didn't hear it.
Carolina has won four of its past six games after starting 0-3, and the Panthers are still dangerous in an NFC wild-card race that remains wide open and considerably shy of can't-miss contenders.
• Unlike Delhomme, Matt Ryan is going in the wrong direction on the turnover front. Ryan threw two more picks against Carolina, and now has at least one interception in his past six games, with 11 overall in that span. He has 12 interceptions on the season, which is more in nine games than he threw for all of his rookie season (11). It's not a huge sophomore slump at this point, but Ryan's accuracy isn't up to his 2008 standards.
• I'm sure his fantasy football owners have long since given up on him, but Panthers receiver Steve Smith proved he can still find the end zone occasionally. Smith had a pair of touchdown catches against the Falcons. When Carolina runs the ball like it did with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, Smith catches touchdowns and Delhomme stays away from interceptions ... it's easy to remember how the Panthers won 12 games last year.
• The Vikings looked sluggish at home against the Lions coming off their bye week, but you can't blame deep-threat receiver Sidney Rice, who's starting to do his Randy Moss impersonation in the Metrodome. His seven catches for a career-best 201 yards were spectacular, and I don't know how defenses are supposed to account for him, rookie receiver/return man Percy Harvin and running back Adrian Peterson at the same time.
No wonder Favre just had to come out of retirement again.
• It was so predictable, and you can see it happening. Everybody the undefeated Saints play these days is giving New Orleans its best shot. The Rams came just a play away from upsetting the Saints at home on Sunday, losing 28-23 when quarterback Marc Bulger threw incomplete into the end zone on the final play.
Saints fans are probably getting nervous, but keep in mind that New Orleans was playing without three starters in its secondary for some of the game. Free safety Darren Sharper sat out with a knee injury, cornerback Jabari Greer missed the game with a groin problem and cornerback Tracy Porter, as we noted earlier, left with a knee injury in the third quarter.
It's the nature of the beast, though. From here on out, everybody's playing their Super Bowl against New Orleans.
• Joey Porter got to sit and watch on Sunday. Miami's Tony Sparano called it a coach's decision to de-activate his loquacious outside linebacker. I think it had plenty to do with the fact that Porter got stoned on the stat sheet last week at New England, and his paltry 2½ sacks this season is 15 fewer than his AFC-leading total of a year ago.
• Boil it all down, and while Jay Cutler may be an undeniable talent at quarterback, he hasn't been a winner so far in the NFL. And there's a very big difference between those two labels within the league. Maybe it explains why Denver rookie coach Josh McDaniels was even open to the idea of someone else quarterbacking his Broncos.
Cutler didn't win in Denver, and you could blame the Broncos defense. And now he's not winning in Chicago, and the Bears woeful offensive line deserves its share of fault for that. But the bottom line is the same: Cutler hasn't won, and at some point, that's absolutely the only measuring stick that matters.
• And one more Cutler rant before we move on: I don't know how long it has been since I've seen two worse red-zone interceptions than the ones he threw Thursday night at San Francisco. One of those per season is probably too many for a quality NFL quarterback. Two in the same game? Mind-boggling.
• Let's just admit it: The Bucs' magic was gone this week at Miami because those red and pewter uniforms were back. The power of the creamsicle orange was missing.
• Maybe we should call him "Hunter the Passer'' instead of "Hunter the Punter.'' Did you see that beautiful 35-yard touchdown pass launched by Redskins punter/holder Hunter Smith on a fake field goal in Washington's upset of Denver? Jason Campbell probably had spiral envy.
And Smith is no Hunter-come-lately. In Week 1 at the Giants, he rushed for an eight-yard touchdown on another fake field goal. If I'm Smith's agent, I'm seeking more money for my client. He's a triple threat.