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Posted: Sunday November 8, 2009 7:03PM; Updated: Sunday November 8, 2009 10:20PM
Don Banks
Don Banks>INSIDE THE NFL

Snap Judgments: Divisions take shape, Palmer owns Ravens, more

Story Highlights

Bengals, Patriots, Colts and Cardinals established themselves in Week 9

The Bengals' win over the Ravens may have been the day's most telling result

Rookie Josh Freeman gives the struggling Bucs hope after a solid debut

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PHILADELPHIA -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we await the Cowboys-Eagles NFC East first-place grudge match to come tonight at Lincoln Financial Field ...

• Thank you, Week 9. Thanks for the dose of clarity. We needed that. We entered play on Sunday with most of the league's divisions in a jumble at the top, but we exited with considerably more definition to the NFL's pennant races as the season's second half looms. To wit:

-- In the AFC North, the first-place Bengals definitively proved themselves for real, beating the Ravens for the second time in less than a month, 17-7. Buoyed by a defense that's far better than anyone knew, Cincinnati improved to 6-2 for the first time since its most recent Super Bowl season (1988) and stayed unbeaten in the division at 4-0. It's now Cincinnati and Pittsburgh (5-2 entering Monday night's visit to Denver) at the top of the division, with the Ravens (4-4) forced to fall back and join the fight in the AFC wild-card heap. Next week: Bengals at Steelers, for control of the AFC North.

-- In the AFC South, the undefeated Colts barely survived a stern challenge from mistake-prone Houston, 20-17, but when the smoke had cleared, Indy owned a 3 game lead over the Texans (5-4) in the division. If you think the Colts (8-0) can lose a three-plus-game lead with eight weeks remaining, I've got some swampland in the Everglades I'd like to show you. Close doesn't count in the NFL, and that's why Houston, too, got thrown back into the AFC wild-card chase.

-- In the AFC East, the Patriots fended off those always tricky Dolphins, 27-17, in Foxboro. New England is now in command of the division at 6-2, two games ahead of the idle Jets (4-4), and three games better than Miami (3-5). Just in time for their annual blood feud next week in Indianapolis, the Patriots have won three in a row and have a Tom Brady-led passing game (332 yards against the Dolphins) that is rapidly rounding back into dominating form. As for the Jets and Dolphins, good luck in the crowded AFC middle of the pack.

-- In the NFC West, the Cardinals didn't beat a key division foe head-to-head like the home-standing Bengals, Colts and Patriots did, but their resounding 41-21 beatdown of the defense-less Bears served notice that Arizona is ready to assert itself at the midpoint of 2009. The Cardinals are now 5-3, but they're undefeated at 4-0 on the road, which bodes very well for their efforts at defending their NFC West title. Arizona destroyed Chicago in the first half, scoring four touchdowns and a field goal on its five possessions. A week after throwing five interceptions against Carolina, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner rebounded with five touchdowns against the Bears.

-- And Week 9's ability to clarify matters in the division races continued in the late-afternoon games. New Orleans improved to 8-0 for the first time in its 43-year franchise history and further solidified its stranglehold on the NFC South, rallying from down 14-0 to beat visiting Carolina 30-20. The Panthers (3-5) could have reached .500 with the upset and climbed back into contention in the division, but now the Saints lead the Falcons (5-3) by three games and Carolina by five, with a win over each of their rivals.

Lastly, Sunday night's Cowboys-Eagles showdown will leave just one 6-2 team atop the NFC East with eight games remaining in the regular season. With the fading Giants (5-4) losing their fourth in a row, the Cowboys-Eagles winner takes a huge step toward taking command in the division.

• There is one division that's not exactly put way just yet, and of course it's the one that most folks have assumed was over for weeks. Don't look now, but if the Steelers can get out of Denver with a win Monday night, the Chargers (5-3) will trail the Broncos (6-1) by just one game, having made up two games in two weeks.

San Diego never, ever does anything easily, but that was a mammoth 21-20 win at the Meadowlands on Sunday for the Norv-men. After losing at home to the Broncos three weeks ago, the Chargers at 2-3 appeared to be in their best underachieving form again this season. But San Diego is 3-0 since that game, and if it can beat the Eagles at home next week, then Week 11's showdown at Denver will be for at least a share of first place in the division.

Like Glenn Close's whack-job character in Fatal Attraction, never make the mistake of assuming the Chargers are dead, even if they look submerged in the bath tub.

• Speaking of comebacks, the Saints have now trailed in their past three games, and won them all. That style of tightrope-walking might catch up to 8-0 New Orleans, but it's also building a confidence in Sean Payton's team that no game is over, no matter the situation.

• I'll be interested to see how much patience the Lions show with quarterback Matthew Stafford. I get rookie growing pains and all, but five interceptions, and the wasting of a 17-0 Lions lead, which kept Detroit from winning its first road game since 2007? Stafford had a few promising moments early this season, but he's been either injured or ineffective for quite a while now.

• C'mon, Jeff Fisher, be honest. Wishing you had gone to Vince Young at least two losses before you did? Suddenly Young is one of the more efficient and mistake-free quarterbacks in the league, going 12 of 19 for 172 yards passing, with a 7-yard touchdown run. And most importantly, Tennessee (2-6) is 2-0 since he re-entered the starting lineup, replacing the struggling Kerry Collins.

• Bet you can't wait for Thursday night's Bears at 49ers game. Talk about two teams headed in the wrong direction. San Francisco has dropped four in a row after its hopeful 3-1 start, and Chicago can't stop anyone as its 3-1 beginning has given way to a 4-4 reality that seems far worse than it sounds.

• I thought last week's head butt by Packers defensive lineman Johnny Jolly on Vikings running back Chester Taylor was the height of stupidity, but I do believe it got topped Sunday by Tommie Harris's brainless punch to the helmeted head of Cardinals right guard Deuce Lutui.

The Chicago defensive tackle got himself ejected from the game just four plays into the action in the Bears' blowout loss to visiting Arizona, because referee Ed Hochuli happened to be standing just a few feet away when Harris decided to go all Joe Frazier on the prone Lutui. It's just another brick in the wall of what has already been a disappointing season for Harris, who will definitely be fined and could draw a suspension for his cheap shot.

Tell me what exactly do you think you accomplish by swinging either your fist or your head at an opponent wearing a helmet?

• And speaking of brainless, how transparent was it of Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall to go over and mix it up on the Atlanta sideline after Washington safety LaRon Landry got flagged for a late out of bounds hit on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan?

Hall, the ex-Falcon who left Atlanta for Oakland in 2008 with bruised feelings intact, wound up pretty much tussling with Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who's never afraid to mix it up. And here I thought it was Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff that Hall had a grudge against, given his pointed comments of last week.

• Got to hit those, Kris Brown. If you're the Texans, coming within a missed 42-yard Brown field goal attempt of forcing overtime at Indy has to make you wonder what it's going to take to ever get over the hump against the Colts. Houston is now 0-8 in its history at Indianapolis, and 1-15 against the Colts overall.

The Texans committed a mind-boggling 13 penalties for 103 yards. That's the mark of a young team that just proved it's not ready for its close-up.

• I'm starting to think Carson Palmer owns the Ravens. He's now 8-3 in his career against Baltimore, and the Bengals quarterback looks like he'd love to play the Ravens every week. No fear. No hesitancy. Just execution. Palmer was even better than his 20-of-33, 224-yard day would indicate.

• Remember when nobody, and I mean nobody, rushed for 100 yards against the Ravens defense? Now it's a practically a weekly occurrence. Cincy's Cedric Benson had his second 100-yard rushing game in five weeks against Baltimore, grinding out 117 tough yards and a touchdown on 34 carries (3.4 average). He had 120 yards in Week 5 and now joins Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis as the only backs who have twice topped triple digits in the same season against the Ravens.

I thought the Ravens swagger on defense was back after last week's smackdown of the Broncos, but apparently I was misinformed, because the Bengals were the more physical, aggressive team again on Sunday.

• As much as the kudos to Palmer and Benson are deserved, it's the Bengals defense that's one of the stories of the year. Baltimore came into this week averaging 28.4 points per game, but the Ravens were shut out in the first half and managed just seven points all day. That means Baltimore has scored 21 points in two games against Cincinnati this season (10.5 average), and 185 points in its other six games (30.8).

Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer might just be my NFL assistant coach of the year at midseason. The Ravens finished with 215 yards of offense Sunday, and the Cincinnati sacked Joe Flacco four times and picked him off twice.

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