Week 9: Close encounters remain the norm
The NFL has never had such a close season after nine weeks.
There are no great teams, and Sunday proved there aren't many awful ones. The Cleveland Browns have now beaten the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals. The Detroit Lions almost upset the New York Jets. The Buffalo Bills lost a three-point game to the Chicago Bears, their third consecutive three-point loss.
The theme for this season has been close games, and Sunday was certainly no exception. The San Diego Chargers and Indianapolis Colts have lost most of their skill-position players to injuries, but the Chargers beat the Houston Texans and the Colts came up just short against the Philadelphia Eagles, losing 26-24.
So far, 72 of 127 games have been decided by eight points or fewer. Even more amazing is that 38 games (29.9 percent) have been determined by a field goal.
"They are all so hard fought in the NFL week in and week out," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "The games are going to be eight points or less the majority of the times."
That was the case in seven of the 11 games Sunday afternoon.
Here are five things I learned in Week 9.
1. Raiders spicing up AFC West: The Oakland Raiders are suddenly looking like a Raiders team we haven't seen in close to a decade. The Raiders have a tradition of winning big games and having big-time players make big-time plays in big games. They also have a tradition of winning in spite of themselves.
That was the case in Sunday's 23-20 overtime victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. The Raiders overcame 15 penalties that cost them 140 yards. Their defense did a great job even though they were without cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, and lost linebacker Rolando McClain and safety Tyvon Branch to injuries during the game.
Unknown Raiders receiver Jacoby Ford made two great catches, one late in the fourth quarter and the other in overtime, to set up the come-from-behind victory.
All of a sudden, the AFC West race is interesting. The Chiefs are 5-3. The Raiders enter a bye at 5-4, and the Chargers aren't giving up with a 4-5 record. Stay tuned for some interesting games and plenty of penalty flags.
2. Ryan solves Cover 2: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan passed a huge test during Sunday's 27-21 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He beat the Buccaneers' Cover 2 scheme by being patient -- and aggressive. In his first four games against the Bucs, dating to his rookie season, Ryan completed 56.4 percent of his passes, threw six interceptions and had a 56.3 quarterback rating. On Sunday, Ryan completed 24 of 36 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown (94.1 rating).
Ryan opened the game with a 13-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that went right off the script of plays planned during the week. Then he and the Falcons got a little creative. On the first play of the second quarter, Ryan, with Roddy White temporarily sidelined with a knee injury, had Michael Jenkins fake a skinny post and then give a double move that set him up for a 43-yard completion. Four plays later, Michael Turner broke a 10-yard run for his second touchdown of the game, giving the Falcons a 14-0 lead.
"Our offense is still a work in progress," Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "We're not where we want to be."
But the Falcons are 6-2 and lead the NFC South by a game after beating a Bucs team that Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris labeled the best in the division.
"If we beat the best, then I guess that makes us the best," White said afterward.
3. AFC East showing warts: The AFC East played like the AFC Least on Sunday. The Jets had to scramble in the fourth quarter and in overtime to beat the Lions, 23-20. The Patriots were blown away by the Browns, 34-14. The Miami Dolphins were manhandled by the Baltimore Ravens, 26-10. The Bills might have played better than any of the teams in the division, but they fell short against the Bears, 22-19.
"If we play the way we played today, we're not going to beat anybody," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said. "We just had an awful day."
It's becoming clear the Patriots' offense has trouble covering for the team's young defense on the road. The Patriots are 2-2 on the road and are giving up an average of 24 points in road games. On Sunday, the defense gave up 404 total yards to the Browns and rookie quarterback Colt McCoy. For the season, the Pats are giving up 386.5 yards a game.
The Jets were sloppy on offense and defense against the Lions. Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne picked the wrong time for a bad game. He threw three interceptions and once again had trouble getting the ball deep. His longest completion to Brandon Marshall was 21 yards. The Ravens pressured Henne most of the time with only a four-man rush. That allowed an extra player to drop into coverage and contain Miami's passing game. As for the Bills, they play hard but they can't get that elusive victory.
4. Defense hindering Houston: The Texans were a trendy preseason playoff pick because of the emergence of Matt Schaub as an elite quarterback and a promising young defense. Schaub has played well, but the defense has been the downfall of this team. At 4-4, the Texans are in trouble. Down to practice squad wide receivers and castoff tight ends, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers threw four TD passes and put up 295 passing yards in a 29-23 victory. For the season, the Texans are giving up 399.5 yards a game and are on pace to go down as one of the worst defenses in NFL history statistically.
"We gave up some big plays," Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. "The first touchdown [a 55-yard score] was a huge play and their last touchdown [a 28-yarder] was a huge play. Then we settled down and did some good things too. There were opportunities for us to finish this game and we didn't do that."
The Texans have the youngest secondary in the league and the team is paying a heavy price for its youth. Kubiak said after the game he's going to stay young with the secondary. It looks as though the Texans will finish third in the AFC South and just shy of the playoffs.
5. Here's the catch: The officials' technical interpretation of receptions in the end zone will be a hot topic during the offseason. Remember Calvin Johnson's Week 1 end zone catch that was ruled incomplete because Johnson let the ball come out of his hand as he hit the ground? Well, Texans RB Arian Foster lost a touchdown in a similar fashion Sunday.
With 28 seconds left in the first half, Foster had a 3-yard touchdown reception. Officials ruled it a touchdown, but as Foster hit the ground, he didn't complete the reception. The way the league wants officials to react is to have the mental image that the pass-catcher could get up and hand the ball to the officials instead of just leaving it on the ground. After a booth challenge, the call was reversed. The Texans had to settle for a field goal and a 20-14 lead instead of a 24-14 lead.
Kubiak didn't gripe about the call. "You've got to finish the catch all the way to the ground," Kubiak said. "That's something we've shown to our players, the league has shown to our players. You have to finish the catch all the way through the act of falling. The ball came out. When the ball hit the ground it came out. I do understand that."
It was the right call under the current rules, but, like the Johnson catch, it looked like a touchdown.
Listening to Lions coach Jim Schwartz after his team's loss to the Jets, you start to wonder if he might shut down quarterback Matthew Stafford, who reinjured the right shoulder that sidelined him for five weeks. "We're going to take a pretty serious look at it," Schwartz said. It would be a big blow if Stafford is out for the rest of the season. He has already missed 11 of his first 24 games. The Browns continue to make the Broncos and Josh McDaniels look bad for the Peyton Hillis trade. Hillis had 184 yards against the Patriots, and the Broncos are struggling to find a running game. Charlie Whitehurst's bad first start -- 12-of-23 for 113 yards and two INTs -- shouldn't come as a surprise. According to sources, the Seahawks quarterback had been struggling in practice. The Giants, who beat the Seahawks 41-7, just made him look worse. What a strange day for kickers. Chargers punter Mike Scifres had to struggle through his three punts after suffering a left leg injury on his fifth blocked punt of the season in the first quarter. Good thing the Texans' defense can't stop anyone because he was asked to make only three punts. Lions kicker Jason Hanson injured his right knee when Jets defensive end Trevor Pryce stumbled into him on a short field goal attempt in the third quarter. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh became the Lions' emergency kicker. Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker had to take over for kicker Stephen Gostkowski after Gostkowski suffered a thigh injury. Good thing the Pats' offense took the day off. Welker was asked to attempt only one extra point. He made it. It was a great day for postgame anger. Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder accused Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain of spitting in his face. Crowder had profanity-laced comments directed at McClain, who denied the accusation. Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason, informed of Crowder's comments, said, "He can't play." Earlier in the week, Crowder called Mason "the old guy." After the Jets' victory over the Lions, Jets linebacker Bart Scott told Bob Glauber of Newsday, "They're by far the dirtiest football team since I played the Titans. I swear to God I hope I see them again in life." Not only were the Chargers without tight end Antonio Gates, wide receivers Legedu Naanee and Malcolm Floyd, and kicker Nate Kaeding, but Pro Bowl guard Kris Dielman was also out because of injuries. It's amazing Philip Rivers can do so well throwing the ball. The Chargers have five Pro Bowl offensive players on their roster, but the only ones who suited up Sunday were Rivers and tackle Marcus McNeill. The Panthers will be in a great race with the Buffalo Bills for the first pick in the NFL draft. Quarterback Matt Moore had to leave the 34-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints because of a shoulder injury. Rookie Jimmy Clausen was benched after he threw an interception for a touchdown, forcing John Fox to go to rookie Tony Pike. The Panthers were without running back DeAngelo Williams (foot injury), then halfback Jonathan Stewart had to be carted off because of a concussion following a hit from Darren Sharper. Who said Sharper can't hit? Although the Cardinals' loss to Minnesota was disappointing, Cardinals quarterback Derek Anderson finally was able to connect with wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was targeted 10 times for seven completions and 107 yards.
John Clayton's game balls
• Offense: After the Vikings' amazing 27-24 come-from-behind overtime victory over the Arizona Cardinals, Brett Favre was asked if he was playing for Brad Childress' job. "I felt like I was playing for mine," Favre told reporters after the game. Favre played as if there was no tomorrow because -- for the Vikings, Favre and Childress -- there is no tomorrow. Not only did Favre direct two touchdown drives in the final 3:34 of regulation, but he hit Bernard Berrian on a 22-yard completion to move the Vikings into position for the game-winning field goal. For the game, Favre completed 36 of 47 passes for a career-high 446 yards and two touchdowns. He was sacked three times, intercepted twice and hit nine additional times. Still, only Favre, who has 46 fourth-quarter and overtime comebacks, could have pulled this one out.
• Defense: Cardinals linebacker Joey Porter edged Vikings defensive end Jared Allen for the defensive game ball in a Vikings 27-24 overtime victory. Porter vowed he would have a big game and he did. He had six tackles, two sacks and five additional hits on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre. Allen had four tackles, including one for a loss, 2½ sacks and six hits on Cardinals quarterback Derek Anderson. Why Porter over Allen? Porter is doing this at the age of 33. Allen is in his prime at 28.
• Special teams: Were it not for Micheal Spurlock, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers might have been blown out by the Atlanta Falcons. Spurlock's kickoff return ability and his pass-catching skills kept the Bucs in the game until the end. The Falcons won 27-21. Trailing 14-0 in the second quarter, Spurlock had a 66-yard kickoff return to the Falcons' 32 that set up a short touchdown drive by Josh Freeman. Down 27-14 in the third quarter, Spurlock took advantage of poor tackling by the Falcons' kickoff coverage team and ran 89 yards for a touchdown. That cut the lead to 27-21 and kept the Bucs' hopes alive that Freeman could engineer the seventh fourth-quarter comeback of his career. Spurlock also helped with his two catches for 46 yards. Spurlock is part of Buccaneers history as the team's first player to return a kickoff for a touchdown. He did it in 2007.
Week 9 rundown
• Cleveland 34, New England 14
Who saw this one coming? The Browns probably aren't a playoff team, but they've already done plenty this season to shed their laughingstock status.
• Minnesota 27, Arizona 24 (OT)
The Vikings ended a tumultuous week with a spirited comeback victory. But let's be real: The soap opera in Minnesota is far from over.
• Baltimore 26, Miami 10
The first road loss for the Dolphins, who keep coming up short against the AFC's elite. (They're 0-4 versus Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New England and the Jets.)
• San Diego 29, Houston 23
Houston's porous pass defense was victimized yet again. After a promising start, the 4-4 Texans now have a very mediocre feel to them. What else is new?
• N.Y. Giants 41, Seattle 7
The Qwest Field noise wasn't much of a factor in this one. Hakeem Nicks (6 catches, 128 yards, TD) continued his breakout season in what was probably the Giants' most complete performance of 2010.
• Green Bay 45, Dallas 7
Well, that should pretty much seal Wade Phillips' fate. Four more turnovers. More defensive breakdowns. The Cowboys have managed to sustain a stunning level of ineptitude.
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL• Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (ESPN, 8:30 ET)
An early look at next weekend's biggest games:
• Baltimore (6-2) at Atlanta (6-2): Is the Thursday night special a Super Bowl preview?
• N.Y. Jets (6-2) at Cleveland (3-5): The Mangini Bowl.
• New England (6-2) at Pittsburgh (5-2): Is it too early to think about home-field advantage in the playoffs?