Andy Dalton, Bengals show they belong among AFC elite; more Snaps

Monday October 28th, 2013

PHILADELPHIA -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight from a Week 8 schedule that was full of spectacular individual performances and didn't turn out to be as non-descript as feared. ...

• With apologies to Calvin Johnson, nobody made a more dramatic statement in Week 8 than the red-hot Cincinnati Bengals, who mean business and appear intent on putting the best collection of talent in the AFC to good use this year.

The Bengals dismantled the shell-shocked Jets 49-9 at Paul Brown Stadium, and believe it or not, Cincinnati arrives at its season's halfway point owning the largest division lead in the NFL. The Bengals are 6-2 and have a comfy 2½-game cushion over second-place Baltimore (3-4) in the once-proud AFC North. Only Kansas City (eight straight) and San Francisco (five) own longer active winning streaks than Cincinnati (four).

That's right, the Bengals. The team that last won a playoff game in 1990, and for far too long has lacked the maturity and killer instinct to finish off inferior opponents. But there was no letting the plucky Jets hang around in this one. Scoring 14 points in each of the first three quarters, Cincinnati buried Rex Ryan's club and stamped itself as a legitimate member of the AFC's elite at midseason. Even the Bengals defense outscored New York, returning two Geno Smith interceptions for touchdowns to bolster the offense's 35-point outburst.

MORE COVERAGE: Calvin goes for 329 yards | Dez melts down on sideline | Pryor makes history

It was a complete win for the Bengals, and the best news is that they never once let up and gave New York any hope of staying in the game. Behind Andy Dalton's career-high five touchdown passes and new receiving star Marvin Jones' team-record four touchdown receptions, Cincinnati sent a message that it belongs in the Super Bowl discussion.

Answering the challenge that had been put before him as he entered his third NFL season, Dalton continues to emerge as a big-time playmaker for Cincinnati, completing 19-of-30 for 325 yards, with those five touchdowns and just one interception. Remember the game manager label Dalton wore in 2011-12? That's gone, gone, gone.

Dalton has thrown for more than 300 yards with at least three touchdowns in three consecutive games, winning at Buffalo and Detroit narrowly, and blowing out the Jets. He has totaled 11 touchdown passes in the past three weeks, and just became the first quarterback to riddle a Jets defense for five touchdowns since Miami's Dan Marino in 1988.

More bad news for the AFC? Dalton has more than just A.J. Green to target at receiver. Jones had a monster, breakout game against New York, catching eight passes for 122 yards, including scores of 9, 6, 14 and 6 yards, and now has at least one touchdown in three consecutive games. Green did his part, too, hauling in two 53-yard receptions and finishing with 115 yards on just three catches.

The Bengals were my AFC preseason Super Bowl pick, but I honestly didn't expect them to cruise to the AFC North title because they rarely make things easy on themselves. Perhaps that's an outdated perception. Cincinnati is growing up before our eyes this season, winning both close games (it's 4-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer) and games against quality opponents. It earned victories over Green Bay, New England and Detroit, all of whom currently have winning records, and overwhelmed the Jets, who entered the game 4-3 and on a high after knocking off the Patriots last week.

The only downer for Marvin Lewis' Bengals on Sunday was the injury report, especially in light of losing No. 1 cornerback Leon Hall (Achilles' tear) for the season the previous week in Detroit. Cincinnati had linebacker Rey Maualuga, receiver Mohamed Sanu and safety Taylor Mays leave the Jets game with injuries. Fortunately the Bengals defense is superb and fairly deep. And Jones' emergence helps offset the loss of Sanu.

The Bengals take their four-game winning streak to reeling Miami Thursday night, but then should get the benefit of that 10-day gap between games as they prepare for a Week 10 showdown at Baltimore. Cincinnati should be in the race for the AFC homefield advantage, or at least a first-round bye. The Bengals play just two more teams that currently have winning records, with a Week 13 trip to San Diego (4-3) that falls after Cincinnati's bye, and a Week 14 home game against Indianapolis (5-2). Nothing too daunting about that.

Cincinnati was last 6-2 at the midpoint of a season in 2011, but those Bengals limped down the second-half stretch and barely made the playoffs as a 9-7 wild card, losing in the first round at Houston. But these Bengals won't repeat that pattern. These Bengals are built for bigger things than just a No. 6 seed. This Cincinnati team will not only make the playoffs for a third year in a row, establishing a franchise first, but also should keep making noise well into January. The Bengals finally have both talent and determination in equal supply.

FARRAR: Dalton sets new career-high with 5 TDs | Geno throws two pick-sixes

• The craziest thing about Calvin Johnson's monstrous game against Dallas is that the Cowboys tried to cover him for a good bit of the game with a single defensive back. That's just counterproductive.

The other thing that jumps out at you about Johnson's 14-catch, 329-yard game? Detroit needed every last yard to rally from a pair of 10-point, fourth-quarter deficits and stun the Cowboys 31-30. No garbage time yards for Johnson in this one. He finished just seven yards shy of Flipper Anderson's 1989 single-game record of 336 receiving yards in an L.A. Rams overtime win, and Johnson didn't have an extra period to work on his stats.

BURKE: Johnson's 329-yard day helps Lions stun Cowboys late

Johnson had a mind-blowing seven catches of at least 20 yards against Dallas, the third such game of his career. Since he entered the league in 2007, Johnson is the only player with such a game. And he averaged 23.5 yards per grab on Sunday. That is not a typo.

• If you're thinking "Same old Cowboys'' after watching Dallas find a way to lose in Detroit, I'm right there with you. Sure, Jason Garrett's 4-4 team is still the class of the weak and woeful NFC East, but double-digit leads in the fourth quarter have to be protected if you're going to make anything significant of your season.

Up six points, Dallas let the Lions go 80 yards in the final 62 seconds, and it wasn't even particularly difficult for Detroit. It's the fourth time since 2011 that the Cowboys have lost a fourth-quarter lead of at least 10 points.

• That settles it. Atlanta officially is the biggest disappointment in the NFL through eight weeks, nosing out Houston for that dishonor. The Falcons have gone from 13-3, the NFC's top seed and the hosts of the NFC title game last season, to this year's 2-5 freefall in the NFC South. Atlanta got dominated at Arizona 27-13, and it really didn't even seem that close.

Matt Ryan clearly misses a healthy Julio Jones and Roddy White at receiver, but four interceptions and four sacks stand as one of the worst games of Ryan's six-year NFL career. And he got absolutely no help from the Falcons' continually feeble running game, with the returning Steven Jackson cranking out all of six yards on 11 attempts.

Don't hold out false hope, Falcons fans. There are 11 NFC teams that already have a better record than Atlanta, and that means any legitimate playoff chance just got extinguished in Arizona.

• I haven't taken the Cardinals too seriously this season, but maybe that's a mistake. Arizona is 4-4 as it enters its bye in Week 9, and has games against struggling Houston at home and on the road at Jacksonville in Weeks 10-11. If the defensively-led Cardinals take care of business in those games, they will be a pretty legitimate NFC wild-card contender.

And while we're at it, who is Andre Ellington, and what is the Arizona rookie running back doing rushing for 154 yards against the Falcons on a mere 15 carries? With an 80-yard touchdown run, the sixth-round pick from Clemson made headlines in his NFL starting debut.

EAGLE: Fans celebrate Halloween at stadiums across NFL

• Can we stop with all the has-he-lost-his-locker-room-yet speculation surrounding embattled Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano? I promise you, when it happens, you'll hear about it. And quickly. But let's let it happen first.

It reminds me of the kids in the backseat on vacation: Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

Losing a locker room is always a killer for a head coach, but losing games is ultimately going to settle the issue of Schiano's fate far quicker than anything else. And on that front, Schiano is 0-7, and the good ship Tampa Bay is sinking fast and furiously.

• My shocking stat of the day? That would be Kansas City, leading the NFL in sacks, getting to Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell just once all day, while the Browns' underrated defense dumped Chiefs starter Alex Smith six times for 30 yards.

Cleveland's defense is legit. It ranked seventh in yards coming into Week 8, and the Browns put a scare into the undefeated Chiefs, before falling 23-17. Don't think Brandon Weeden will get his starting QB job back in Cleveland this week. Campbell threw for 293 yards and a pair of touchdowns against Kansas City, without any interceptions or glaring mistakes.

• If Josh Gordon is on the trading block between now and Tuesday's deadline, the Browns' second-year receiver might have created a much more active market for himself Sunday in Kansas City. Gordon pretty much was Cleveland's entire offense in the first half against the Chiefs, accounting for 86 of the Browns' 131 yards in the passing game. Gordon had a 39-yard second-quarter touchdown catch, and later took a short Jason Campbell pass for 47 yards, helping set up a 44-yard Billy Cundiff field goal.

Gordon totaled five catches for 132 yards and that touchdown in the game, and it's the third time this season (in just six games) that he has produced at least 125 yards.

MOCK GM: Gordon to 49ers, more deals that should happen before deadline

• The Dolphins are clearly frauds as playoff contenders after coughing up a 17-3 second-half lead in New England. They had the Patriots on the ropes, but let an injured Tom Brady (see swollen hand) orchestrate 24 unanswered points to win 27-17 in a game that might have broken the Dolphins' spirits.

Miami has now lost four in a row after that hopeful 3-0 start, and is 0-2 in the AFC East. The Dolphins face a short week and a visit from the Bengals Thursday night, so things could easily get worse for Joe Philbin's young team. Especially if receiver Brandon Gibson is lost for the season, as feared, with the knee injury he suffered against New England. With both Gibson and tight end Dustin Keller sidelined, only Mike Wallace would be left from Miami's big three offseason upgrades to its receiving game.

• Not sure the Patriots have ever smoke-and-mirrored their way to a 6-2 record at midseason quite like this year's club. New England just doesn't look dangerous, but somehow keeps winning enough to live up to the Patriots' standards.

Brady's swollen hand may be "perfect'' as he claims, but something caused him to play like Brandon Weeden for much of Sunday. Brady was just 6-of-8 for 25 yards and an interception in the first half, his lowest total in a first half since 2003. He rallied a bit, but finished just 13-of-22 for 116 yards overall, with one touchdown and one pick. That's his lowest one-game output since throwing for only 115 yards in a December 2009 win at Buffalo.

FARRAR: Patriots overcome Brady's rough first half, beat Dolphins

• That was simply the most artistic and athletic interception ever in the NFL, the one that Patriots cornerbacks Devin McCourty and Marquice Cole combined for in the win over the Dolphins. The tip drill will never be the same, and McCourty must have some volleyball in his background.

McCourty kept the ball alive, tipping it back in Cole's direction as he was falling backward out of bounds, and Cole caught it and kept both feet inches inbounds. Somehow. If they told me they worked on that in practice, I'd almost believe them.

• Maybe it was a salute to the recently deceased Titans owner Bud Adams, but I doubt it. In Oakland's home win over Pittsburgh, Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver was captured flipping the bird to the officials after a personal foul penalty on Oakland cornerback Mike Jenkins, and I'm sure the league will take note of his gesture and be in communication this week.

The always colorful Adams was fined a few years back by the league after flipping off some fans with a double-bird. Ex-Titans defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil earned a $40,000 fine from the NFL in 2010 for letting his temper get the best of him and flashing an illegal hand signal to the officials.

• The debate on whether the Raiders need to take a first-round quarterback next spring, or stick with the still-developing Terrelle Pryor, isn't likely to die down after Oakland's 21-18 win over the Steelers.

Pryor was spectacular with an NFL-record 93-yard touchdown run on the first snap of the game, but he failed to match that production all night in the passing game. He was just 10-of-19 throwing the ball, for a measly 87 yards, with two picks and a 25.4 passer rating.

How exactly did the Raiders win?

FARRAR: Pryor starts game with longest QB run in history

• It's a great sign that Denver showed the resiliency to score on five-of-six possessions after falling 14 points behind Washington in the third quarter of the Broncos' 45-21 win. But we knew Peyton Manning and Co. could light up the scoreboard.

The better development was probably linebacker Von Miller strip-sacking Washington's Robert Griffin III, with Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe recovering and setting up a field goal that put Denver up 10 points. Miller making an impact play in his second game back in the lineup is a boost the beleaguered Broncos defense needed.

• It's silly to get too caught up in the Giants' modest two-game winning streak, even if they do reside in the awful NFC East. But facts are stubborn things, and the reality is New York still has plenty to play for this season, even at 2-6 nearing the midseason. With Dallas leading the division at 4-4, a two-game deficit with eight games to play isn't overly daunting.

And let's not forget, the Giants defense that has been so ridiculed this season has now gone 10 quarters without allowing a touchdown. That's the longest streak in franchise history since 2005. New York also broke its eight-game road losing streak, beating an Eagles team that had largely dominated the Giants just three weeks ago at MetLife Stadium.

• What an embarrassment of riches the Saints passing game enjoys. Drew Brees threw five touchdown passes in New Orleans' 35-17 beatdown of the visiting Bills, and the only drama was which Saints receiver was more open?

Brees completed 26-of-34 passes for 332 yards, and I didn't even think he was at his sharpest. He found rookie receiver Kenny Stills for scoring bombs of 69 and 42 yards, mixed in a couple of touchdowns to all-world tight end Jimmy Graham (who played pretty well with a partially torn plantar fascia) and also fed a touchdown to returning receiver Lance Moore. All told, Brees connected with 10 Saints' receivers.

And to think New Orleans started sluggishly, and only had 64 yards of offense with roughly five minutes remaining in the first half against the Bills.

• The Jets may never win two in a row again. They've alternated wins and losses in all eight weeks of this season, and haven't put a winning streak of any kind together since Weeks 13-14 of last season, when they beat Arizona and won at Jacksonville.

• That looked like a walkthrough practice for the 49ers against the out-manned Jaguars in London. I'm sure Jim Harbaugh, taking a page from John McKay's best material, probably told his players to take postgame showers if they were needed. It is, after all, going to be a long flight home.

Maybe Jacksonville playing in London for four consecutive years will work after all. As one press box veteran noted Sunday, the Europeans used to love Jerry Lewis, so slapstick does tend to play well across the pond.

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