Truths starting to emerge as season approaches midway point
Once considered washed up, the 6-2 Steelers now look almost unbeatable
Rams cared more about winning than celebrating World Series champ Cardinals
The Fine Fifteen; Ten Things I Think I Think; Weekly Awards and more
So we're on the verge of the season's midpoint -- 115 games down, 141 to go -- these 10 truths have become evident as we head to November:
1. Green Bay's the best team.
2. Second-best: I don't totally trust anyone. Niners? Steelers? Patriots, assuming they can play a shootout? Or everyone's not-so-darkhorse this morning, Philadelphia?
3. The Colts are 0-8. Miami's 0-7. St. Louis, Denver and Arizona might be in play before the Race for Andrew Luck concludes on New Year's Day. To me, there's one clear leader in the clubhouse for the top pick in the 2012 draft, because the Dolphins are just too darned competitive for their own good: Indianapolis.
4. The Niners' magic number to win the NFC West is six. Not since Nixon-McGovern has there been less drama in a race two months before it ends.
5. This is how playoff races get fun: There's one unbeaten team (Green Bay) in the league this morning, one one-loss team (San Francisco) and 16 two- or three-loss teams.
6. The Giants may have a two-game lead in the NFC East over everyone else, but if they met on a neutral field in Wichita this afternoon, I bet the Eagles would be a seven-point fave over New York.
7. First-place team in the AFC East: Buffalo (5-2, by virtue of a tiebreaker edge over 5-2 New England.) Legitimately. How bizarre would either of these two scenarios be: The Patriots having to play a Wild Card game for the right to travel to Buffalo to play a divisional playoff game ... or a Cincinnati-Buffalo Wild Card game -- with Marvin Lewis and Chan Gailey coaching, and Rex Ryan and Jim Caldwell home watching on TV?
8. Andy Dalton has more wins (five) than Philip Rivers, Mike Vick, Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan and Josh Freeman. Cam Newton has more passing yards (2,393) than Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning.
9. It doesn't look like Tim Tebow's good enough to prevent Denver from making Matt Barkley or Landry Jones its first pick next April. But he sure is a nice guy.
10. Different offseason program. Same old in-season one. Saints beat the winless Colts by 55 one week, lose to the winless Rams by 10 the next.
And now on to the most interesting developments of Week 8:
The Steelers are going to be very tough to beat ... if they don't keep losing defensive players.
I like what Mike Tomlin said to his team before the Steelers played nemesis New England. Cliché, but true. "History's history,'' he told his team with a bit of disdain. "You can write tomorrow's history today.''
In the last four meetings with Tom Brady, the Steelers were 0-4, allowed 34 points per game, and watched as Brady threw nine touchdowns and one interception. So the old dog learned a new trick. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a fan of funky zone blitzes and coverage on the back end; on Sunday, the Steelers instead pressed the Patriot receivers at the line of scrimmage, never let them get comfortable in their routes, and blanketed reliable slot receiver Wes Welker with cornerback Ike Taylor.
"Followed him everywhere -- inside, outside, in the slot,'' safety Ryan Clark told me after the game. "You can tell Welker was getting a little frazzled by it." And, Clark said, the Steelers played more press coverage "than any game I've ever seen here.'' Brady threw for 198 yards and didn't turn it over, but Welker's lack of impact (six catches, 39 yards) told the tale as Brady just couldn't generate consistent downfield offense. New England's 17 points were half its normal output in this recent series.
So now no team in the AFC has fewer than two losses, and Pittsburgh, which looked so old in September, looks revived now. The only scar on this game was the loss of LaMarr Woodley, who sacked Brady twice, to a strained hamstring. He Tweeted Sunday night he'd definitely be back for Sunday night's showdown at home with Baltimore, but that may depend on today's MRI of the hammy. On offense, Pittsburgh's almost immune to a slump, as long as Ben Roethlisberger stays upright.
"We knew we had to control the ball to keep them off the field,'' Mike Tomlin said after the game, and Roethlisberger's 50 passes did the trick. The fate of the division could turn on the next two weeks, with Pittsburgh hosting Baltimore and playing surprising Cincinnati on the road.
And here come the Ravens.
Trailing 24-6 at halftime, the Ravens were booed off their home field, and deservedly so. At the half, Anquan Boldin told the ineffective Joe Flacco he had a favorable matchup on the outside, to the left of the offensive formation. "Come to me,'' Boldin said. Flacco knew this wasn't just Ochocinco-like bravado. And so on the first series of the quarter, he found Boldin for 37, then later threw to him when Boldin drew an interference call in the end zone. That led to one touchdown. On the third series of the quarter, Flacco targeted Boldin seven times, completing four for 80 yards; Boldin drew another interference call, leading to another short Ray Rice score.
"The thing with Q,'' said Flacco afterward, "is that he might look covered, but he's physical enough to win some battles -- and I can throw back-shoulder to him too. I just had to get the ball to our playmakers.''
Flacco threw some excellent balls in the second half, particularly on the two drives where he zoned in Boldin. I asked him about his 52-percent completion rate coming in, and why that had regressed this year. "I don't think it's an accuracy issue,'' he said. (Maybe not, but completing passes does require that one little trait.) "It comes down to us executing better. There's some throwaways in there, and we've got to get a lot of new guys going. It takes time, but we'll be okay.'' The problems Sunday were special teams and a sputtering first-half offense. Not much time to work on them, with four tough defensive teams ahead -- Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati and San Francisco.
Now this was a little awkward.
The Rams hosted the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals inside the Edward Jones Dome Sunday, but truth be told, the timing wasn't great. The Rams were 0-6, coming off a skunking last week at Dallas, and then watched all week as the Cards played one of the great World Series in recent history and stunned baseball by winning it. Meanwhile, the Rams had earned every last boo. They had a huge hole to dig out of. Pardon them if they weren't in much of a mood to pat their neighbors on the back as the Cards paraded the World Series trophy around the stadium before the game, and pitcher Chris Carpenter went to midfield before the game for the coin flip against the Saints.
"Make sure you say this the right way, because it's awesome for the city and we couldn't be happier for the Cardinals,'' said Rams running back Steven Jackson. "But this was an all-business day for us. I can't say all of that stuff didn't bother us. It was just a little strange, really. We couldn't be concerned with all of the other stuff going on. We had to punch the Saints in the mouth today. If you've ever been in a fight and tasted your own blood, that's what we were feeling -- and if you're a man, you fight back.'' That's what the Rams did.
Jackson himself recovered an early fumble that led to a Rams touchdown, and rushed for a steely 159 yards on the day. Along the way, he issued a rousing pre-game speech about being professionals, and barked at his own teammates, the opposition ... and even a half-hour after the game, still seemed totally on edge. "We had a mindset today that no matter who the other team was, we were going to kick the hell out of them,'' said Jackson. "I don't care who we played, the result was going to be the same.''
The Rams have Arizona twice, Cleveland and Seattle once over the next four weeks. It's highly, highly unlikely they could get back in the pennant race ... but weren't their neighbors 10.5 games out of a Wild Card spot with five weeks to play?
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