• Bear with me here, but I think there's a case to be made for the Patriots' narrow victory over the New York Jets on Sunday being their most important of the year. And not just because it puts New England into sole possession of first place in the AFC East as we near midseason.
The Patriots (4-3) beat back the Jets 29-26 in overtime at Gillette Stadium in a game that was far more competitive and uncomfortable than New England fans would have preferred. But perhaps it was a blessing in disguise.
Let's face it: We've seen the Patriots win in a blowout this season, with a 21-point victory at Tennessee in Week 1, that 24-point humbling of the Bills in Buffalo in Week 4, and that not-as-close-as-it-sounds 10-point defeat of Denver in Week 5, a game New England led 31-7 at one point.
But until Sunday, New England hadn't been able to win the close ones, the tight, taut games that every playoff team seems to test itself in on the way to the postseason. The breaks hadn't gone the Patriots' way in those games, and New England hadn't made it happen when it mattered most.
There was the shocking two-point loss at home to Arizona in Week 2, capped by Stephen Gostkowski's missed field goal; the one-point loss at Baltimore in Week 3, and last week's shocking fourth-quarter meltdown in Seattle, which produced another one-point defeat.
The Patriots needed this win, and they needed it to unfold the way it unfolded: With New England fighting to hold off an upset-minded Jets (3-4) team that scored the first 13 points in the fourth quarter, took a three-point lead inside of two minutes and forced the Patriots to fight for survival both in late in regulation and in overtime. The Jets hurt themselves with some crucial mistakes, but when pushed, New England pushed back, and that's a good development in Foxboro.
Close wins can galvanize a team like nothing else, and create the kind of confidence that leads to even more clutch performances. But until Sunday, the Patriots hadn't proven themselves in such a crucible. Their wins were comfortable, and their losses agonizing. In terms of resiliency and perseverance, it may reap benefits down the road for New England to have finally flipped that script.
• I suppose after you've twice led game-winning drives in the latter moments of the Super Bowl, doing the same thing in the regular season must seem like child's play for Eli Manning. The Giants' steely-eyed quarterback drew upon his wealth of pressure-packed performances to rally New York to a 27-23 win over Washington, hitting Victor Cruz on a 77-yard touchdown pass with 1:13 to play, just 17 seconds after the Redskins had taken the lead.
Even at 1-2 in the NFC East, the Giants look like a team in the process of taking command in the division. They have losses to the Cowboys and Eagles, but next week they get their shot at revenge in Dallas, where they have yet to lose in the Cowboys' four-year-old football palace. New York can be a streaky team, but all arrows are pointing up for the defending Super Bowl champs at the moment.
GIANTS 27, REDSKINS 23: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• Imagine how good Robert Griffin III might be when he gets a top-notch receiver or two to throw to. Griffin was already getting it done in Washington without much help from his pass catchers, and now tight end Fred Davis, the team's leading receiver, goes down with a reported season-ending Achilles tear. No wonder Washington loves to run the ball, as it did with great success again in its narrow loss at the Giants. The Redskins had a gaudy 248 yards on 38 rushes, good for a 6.5 yard average, with rookie Alfred Morris leading the way with a career-best 120 yards on 22 attempts (his third 100-yard game in the past four weeks). Washington has a league-high 13 straight games with at least 100 yards rushing as a team.
• Santana Moss wasn't supposed to be the main guy in Washington, just a third-receiver type. But with Pierre Garcon still out with that puzzling toe issue, Moss and Griffin made the most of their opportunities against the Giants, hooking up twice for touchdowns, including a go-ahead 30-yard scoring pass with 1:30 remaining. Moss (three catches for 67 yards, two touchdowns) later fumbled to snuff out the Redskins' final shot at pulling the upset.
• Even with the loss, Griffin makes Washington (3-4) a much tougher out and more exciting than any Redskins team in recent memory. Three times in the game Griffin led drives that allowed them to re-take the lead from New York, and were it not for more Manning fourth-quarter heroics, Washington's late RGIII-led comeback would have been one of the biggest stories of Week 7.
Griffin wasn't perfect. He fumbled twice (losing one) and threw an interception, and absorbed three sacks by the rejuvenated Giants pass rush. But he keeps the Redskins in games, and his 20 of 28 passing for 258 yards was nicely complemented by his 89 yards on nine rushes, including a key 24-yard scramble on that go-ahead Washington touchdown drive. The Giants say they aren't happy he's in the NFC East, and after Sunday I think we all understand why.
• Much like the Saints themselves this season, Malcolm Jenkins refused to give up on Sunday, registering the play of the year with his rundown and tackle of Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson at the 1-yard line. Jackson had already covered 95 yards on the completion, but he needed 96 and didn't get it. When the Bucs failed to score despite four cracks from the 1, the Saints took the ball and ripped off a 95-yard scoring drive to tip the game their way. Will New Orleans' 35-28 victory at Tampa Bay prove to be a turning point for the Saints? Time will tell, but for now they're 2-4 and still alive in a season that appeared doomed not long ago.
If Jenkins' inspiring hustle play had been made in a playoff game or even a Super Bowl setting, they'd be writing books about it some day. As is, his effort should help set a tone for the season's final 10 games in New Orleans. When Joe Vitt ends his suspension tonight and begins his stint at the Saints interim head coach, at least he'll be taking control of a team that still has a pulse.
SAINTS 35, BUCCANEERS 28: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• Speaking of superlative efforts, that was one for the highlight reels turned in by Saints receiver Joseph Morgan on that 48-yard game-tying touchdown against Tampa Bay in the second quarter. I still don't know how Morgan kept his feet after a Bucs defender slammed into him, or how, Matrix-like, he flipped Tampa Bay cornerback Eric Wright over his head and shoulders like a special effects-created stunt. That might have been the moment when the Bucs knew they were in trouble.
• Am I the only one who thinks the Saints players probably won't be thrilled to see Joe Vitt show up at the airport Sunday night to meet them, so eager is he to get back to football and start the clock on his interim head coaching gig? I'm guessing Monday morning, after some sleep, would be plenty soon enough for the restart of the Vitt era in New Orleans.
• Good thing we were all up in arms about the play of Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers a few weeks back. I think they're both going to make it.
Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the Bucs on Sunday -- in the first half alone. As for Rodgers, he was on target with 20 of his first 22 passes, for 232 yards and two touchdowns. He finished Green Bay's 30-20 win at St. Louis with 342 yards and three touchdowns on 30 of 37 passing.
The rule when great quarterbacks fail to dazzle us for a time? Don't go making snap judgments about them based on a week or three of results, unless you're prepared to look silly.
• Dallas avoided the desperate straits that would have come with falling to 2-4, but even at 3-3, the Cowboys did little to impress in their 19-14 win at Carolina. Next week's showdown at home with the first-place Giants (5-2) is the game Dallas must be measured by. The Cowboys, of course, beat New York in Week 1, on the road, so if the result is different next week, we'll know that these teams are indeed heading in opposite directions, as it appears.
COWBOYS 19, PANTHERS 14: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• I think we can safely say this now looks like a lost season in Carolina. The Panthers will likely rebound and win a few games at some point, but a 1-5 start almost certainly means they won't be playing truly meaningful games in December. Carolina has to figure out its offensive identity and then get busy recreating itself. The Panthers seem to run the ball better than anything else at times, but that part of their game is not always there when it's needed.
Carolina's failures aren't all Cam Newton's fault, of course. But he's going to continue to get most of the blame, because his second season in the league has been a wildly different ride for last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Panthers aren't going to the playoffs, but they do have 10 games to figure out what they intend to be on offense in 2013.
• Watching the wheels come off for Baltimore in Houston, I'm struck with the realization there might not be a quality team in the entire AFC North this season. Somebody has to win the sucker, of course, but it's hard to see the makings of a Super Bowl contender in the only division that sent three teams to the playoffs last season.
Baltimore looks anemic on the road, and simply can't seem to figure out why Joe Flacco plays like a Pro Bowl quarterback at M&T Bank Stadium and a journeyman away from it. Pittsburgh got its first road win of the season in Week 7, and its defense seems finally to be showing its age. The Bengals have a pretty impressive passing game, but their defense had underachieved heading into Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati inspired no confidence with back-to-back losses to Miami and Cleveland in recent weeks. As for the downtrodden Browns, they've got some talent, but they're starting over again with new ownership, a new front office and a rookie quarterback. It's going to take some time to build something on that front.
TEXANS 43, RAVENS 13: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• If you're the Titans, on a two-game winning streak and climbing to within a game of .500 at 3-4, do you dare sit Matt Hasselbeck back down next week at home against Indy if Jake Locker's shoulder is fully healthy as expected? I do, but I'm willing to bet my opinion will not be popular among the majority of Tennessee fans.
Hasselbeck does give the Titans their best chance to win right now. But you kind of know where his ceiling is, and last year's 9-7 finish in Tennessee is about it. If you're going to find out whether Locker is the franchise quarterback he was drafted to be (going 8th overall in 2011), you have to play him. End of story.
That said, the urge to win now is always powerful in the NFL and the right thing to do isn't always the easy thing to do. But I would be surprised if Titans head coach Mike Munchak puts the future on hold in favor of today.
TITANS 34, BILLS 34: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• The Bills simply can't be taken seriously. If Buffalo can't rise to the challenge of beating Tennessee at home, how can Chan Gailey's club ever hope to push the Patriots in the AFC East, or make any real noise in the AFC wild-card chase? The Bills scored 34 points, ran for 166 yards, got an 89-yard kickoff return touchdown from Brad Smith and a decent game from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick -- and still lost due to some more inexplicably shoddy defense.
Buffalo (3-4) is off next week, but things don't get easier after that. The Bills travel to Houston in Week 9 for the Mario Williams homecoming game, and then head for Foxboro, for a rematch with the Patriots team that embarrassed them at home in Week 4.
• Chris Johnson probably wishes he could play the Buffalo defense every week. It looked like vintage 2008-2010 era CJ at Ralph Wilson Stadium. He had 103 yards after his fourth carry, and he finished with a season-best 195 yards on 18 carries, his best showing since a 228-yard game against Jacksonville in Week 8 of 2009.
Johnson had touchdown runs of 16 and 83 yards in the first quarter against the Bills, just when we had almost forgot what a big play by him looked like. Entering Week 7, Johnson's longest rush of the season had gone for just 19 yards, and he had been held without a touchdown on the ground.
• That's three straight two-pick games for Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder, after he started the season without throwing an interception in the Vikings first four games. Minnesota survived Ponder's mistakes on Sunday, hanging on to beat Arizona 21-14 at home, but it was by far his worst showing of the season. Ponder was just 8 of 17 for a measly 58 yards, with one touchdown and the two interceptions.
The worst part about Ponder's slump has been that he has started to force a few passes again, and struggle in terms of reading the field, just as he did last season as a rookie. The surprising Vikings are 5-2 and that's far better than anyone in Minnesota had a right to expect, but Ponder's sloppy, declining play is a troublesome development that Leslie Frazier's team can't afford.
VIKINGS 21, CARDINALS 14: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• The rollercoaster ride that this season has been in Arizona continues unabated in the all-out plummet stage. The once 4-0 Cardinals dropped their third in a row, 21-14 at Minnesota, and it suddenly doesn't take much to beat Arizona. In the course of the three-game losing streak, Arizona has lost to quarterbacks who completed just seven passes (the Rams' Sam Bradford) and eight passes (the Vikings' Christian Ponder) -- a statistic pointed out Sunday by the Arizona Republic.
With Kevin Kolb banged up, John Skelton doing little to help the cause, and rookie Ryan Lindley apparently not ready to play, no wonder the Cardinals are reportedly interested in free agent Vince Young. What could it hurt at this point? Especially with the Cardinals' losing streak likely to continue with games against San Francisco, Green Bay and Atlanta coming up, the latter two on the road.
• The bizarre call of the day was made by Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, who opted to go for it on 4th-and-2 from the Packers' 15-yard line, despite being down 10-3 less than five minutes into the second quarter. I get that St. Louis probably wasn't going to beat Green Bay by kicking field goals, that's true. But to pass up the easy three points at that stage seems like it was doing the Packers a favor. St. Louis didn't convert on the gamble, and went on to lose 30-20 to Green Bay, falling below .500 at 3-4 in advance of its long trip to London for next week's showdown against New England.
PACKERS 30, RAMS 20: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• And we thought Robert Griffin III was the dual-threat quarterback in this year's first round. Tell that to Andrew Luck, he of the two rushing touchdowns in the Colts' 17-13 home win over Cleveland.
Luck already has three rushing touchdowns this season (RGIII has six), and he became the first Colts quarterback since 1988 to score twice on the ground in the same game. And if you're wondering, Peyton Manning has only scored 17 rushing touchdowns in his entire NFL career.
COLTS 17, BROWNS 13: RECAP | BOX SCORE | HIGHLIGHTS
• Stickum, huh? The Chargers are being investigated by the league for using the long-ago banned substance in last Monday night's meltdown against Denver, according to Fox Sports. But it sure didn't help San Diego "hold onto'' to that 24-0 halftime lead against the Broncos, now did it?
What is it with the AFC West and its history with Stickum? It was the Oakland Raiders who made the stuff popular back in the 1970s, when cornerback Lester Hayes and receiver Fred Biletnikoff used to coat themselves in the goo on game days. I suppose everything old becomes new again at some point.