Broncos, Bengals open some eyes with impressive Week 5 wins
Thoughts on Broncos, Michael Crabtree, Deion Sanders, Peyton Manning
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer coach of the week
Minnesota moves to the top of Fine 15; Coaches on the hot seat
Football Insiders: Check out Stewart Mandel's College Football Overtime column.
NEW YORK -- One of the great things about any NFL season is how it doesn't matter what we all think out here in media- and fan-land. Just after Labor Day, teams are going to play, and truths will soon be self-evident, and some of the damndest things are going to happen.
Like, this year:
The Bengals can play defense.
Kyle Orton is good.
Josh McDaniels is a genius. A pretty emotional one, as it turns out.
Miles Austin just had a better game in his first NFL start than any of the 199 games Terrell Owens or Michael Irvin ever had for the Cowboys.
The Titans are pitiable. Let me expand: Two of the first-round-bye playoff teams last year, Tennessee and Carolina, are a combined 1-8 this year. And the Panthers had to come back from a 17-2 deficit at home Sunday for that one measly win.
Let me take a couple of those and dig in, starting with the Friendly Revenge Match in Denver.
As impressed as I am with Josh McDaniels in the wake of his 20-17 overtime victory over his mentor, Bill Belichick (I detailed much of that in last week's column), I'm just as impressed with Orton. Will it last? I don't know. Will the bubble burst? I don't know. But right now, he's every bit the surprising find to McDaniels' Denver team as Tom Brady was to the Patriots in 2001.
Underline this and put it in your mental bold print: I'm not saying Orton is as good as Brady or ever will be; what I am saying is that he's doing for the Broncos in 2009 what Brady did when Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury in 2001. Brady led the Patriots to a Super Bowl win no one saw coming. Can you sit there right now and say Orton might not do the same thing?
Exhibit A: Sunday at Invesco Field at Mile High (what a silly stadium moniker), Orton led the Broncos on scoring drives of 90, 66, 98 and 58 yards. With 10 minutes left in the game, New England led 17-10, and Denver was starting at its own 2. The Broncos weren't going to have many more chances -- two, maybe -- and Orton knew the significance when he went out to the huddle.
"We'd had a 95-yard drive earlier,'' Orton told me last night. (Actually, it was 90.) "And after we scored on that drive, I never had so much confidence in us as an offense before. It was a big game and we made a big drive. So here we were at the 2, and I got in the huddle and said, 'We did it once for 95 yards. What's three yards more?' '' And that was it for the inspiration.
The Patriots D looked gassed, even though it had been on the field for a reasonable 46 snaps to that point. But Orton only needed one third-down conversion and four and a half minutes to buzz down the field. He got 27 yards on a smart screen to Knowshon Moreno to put Denver into New England territory. On first down from the Pats' 11, New England thought Brandon Marshall would run a fade in the end zone. Instead, McDaniels called for a fade/stop, with Marshall selling the fade and stopping short. Orton threw it to him near the goal line, and Marshall used his leverage to pry away from a defender and score.
"It was a big win,'' Orton said, "but what I liked was we prepared like we'd prepare for any game, like it was any other week. Josh does a good job of that. They create a lot of problems for an offense, and we spent the whole week on that, not on any of the stuff surrounding the game. We put a plan together this week to try to beat New England, which is different from the other game plans we've had, and I'm sure this coming week will be different. That's the way we play, the way we prepare.''
I reminded Orton of his first game with Denver, when the city was apoplectic after he threw three first-half interceptions in a Broncos' preseason game at San Francisco. Joe Bronco was petrified that they'd gotten shafted in the trade with Chicago, and the franchise would never recover from losing Jay Cutler. Well, here we are five weeks into the season. Cutler's a 64-percent passer, averaging 225 yards a game, with a plus-three TD-to-interception differential and passer rating of 89.3. Orton: 63 percent, 247 yards a game, plus-six, 97.4 rating.
"I just thought about that this week,'' Orton said. "And I actually took that as a positive. I'm serious. There was a lot of doubt about me locally, but not from the coach. It was great to have a game like that and have the coach back me the way he did, with no reservations. That's the first time in my career that ever happened to me. I know my game. I'm not a turnover guy. Now I had a coach who knew I wasn't either.''
As long as he's not a turnover guy -- Orton's first pick of the year came on a Hail Mary throw at the end of the first half Sunday -- the Broncos will be a contending offense.
In Baltimore, the Bengals completed the AFC North Hat Trick. Three Sundays, three AFC North wins. And good things, evidently, come in threes, as in three-point wins: Bengals 23, Steelers 20; Bengals 23, Browns 20; Bengals 17, Ravens 14.
If you watched Hard Knocks on HBO this summer, you saw the softer side of a very hard defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer -- his wife, Vikki, made cookies for the defensive players. She'd tell her husband to not be so hard on the players. On Thursday, Vikki died suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving Zimmer and three children without a wife and mother. Mike Zimmer, after much deliberation, decided to coach the team Sunday.
"I was at their house Thursday,'' coach Marvin Lewis said over the phone from Baltimore after handing Zimmer the game ball for a strong defensive performance. "And Vikki had post-it notes all over the kitchen, reminding her about what she had to bake for the players. It obviously was very, very tough for Mike and his family. We told him to do whatever he thought was best -- coach, not coach, bring his family, stay with his family, fly in Saturday night on a private plane, fly in Sunday on a private plane. He decided to just come and coach. It was an amazing thing he did. I told him, 'I don't know how you did it, but you know I love you.' ''
Lewis has done the unthinkable (at least to me) in Cincinnati: He's won as many as he's lost (50-50-1), and he's done it rebuilding on the fly. Three reasons Cincinnati's better on defense, finally:
One: Most important is the Bengals have established a physical presence, led by punishing rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga. "He hits you like a cinderblock wall,'' Lewis said.
Two: The first-round starting corners, Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall, are healthy in tandem this year and maturing into a pair of corners Zimmer's not afraid to put on islands with good wideouts.
Three: They're getting consistent pressure on the quarterback, led by Antwan Odom, tied for the league lead with eight sacks; after gaining 30 pounds in the offseason, Odom's able to play outside on run downs, then move inside to a Kevin Williams-type three-technique role as defensive tackle on passing downs.
The Bengals could have been the same old Bengals a couple of times Sunday. Ed Reed picked off Carson Palmer and ran 52 yards with a second-quarter interception for a touchdown, sending the crowd into a frenzy with the first points of the day. On the last drive of the game, Ray Lewis hit Chad Ochocinco coming across the middle so explosively that it tore his helmet off; Lewis got hit with a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness on a defenseless receiver.
"You could have folded then,'' I said to Marvin Lewis.
"We don't get intimidated by anyone,'' the coach said. "It was funny. The Ravens always introduce the defense here. I'm sure they like to get the crowd fired up. And so I told our players, especially our young guys, 'Make sure you get a good seat for it and get a good view.' They all saw it. They saw Ray Lewis do his thing. Then we went out and played pretty good defense too.''
For a pretty good defensive coordinator and for themselves.
I'd planned to write 800 words or so on the Browns and where they stand in the wake of their three big deals this year -- trading Kellen Winslow, the draft day trade-down that netted the Jets Mark Sanchez, and trading Braylon Edwards -- but decided to save it for the top of the Tuesday column instead, barring major news breaking. There are some interesting developments in Cleveland, with the scratch-and-clawing 6-3 upset of the Bills Sunday, following Adam Schefter's report on ESPN that the Browns willingly allowed a rookie running back, James Davis, to practice recently without pads against fully padded defensive players, resulting in a season-ended shoulder injury for Davis. Hopefully we'll get to that tomorrow.
Now for some other items of interest around pro football over the past few days:
NFL Truth & Rumors