QBs make their mark on eventful Week 11, for both good and bad
Through 11 weeks, it's clear that there's no single-best team in the NFL this year
With Aaron Hernandez returning, Patriots should survive Rob Gronkowski's injury
Josh Freeman's resurgence; Fine Fifteen; Ten Things I Think I Think; and more
Eleven main characters from an eventful Week 11 that had its share of drama.
1. Baltimore defensive keystone Terrell Suggs, who was supposed to be in his seventh month of rehab for an Achilles tear right now, prancing off Heinz Field, savoring a three-game winning streak against the team he loves to hate. "Weird night,'' he said from the bus leaving the place. "No 52 [Ray Lewis], no Lardarius Webb, no Ben [Roethlisberger], no Troy Polamalu, no Hines Ward. Times are changing. But winning's all that matters.''
2. The Gronk, New England tight end Ron Gronkowski, out for a month or so with a broken right forearm, suffered when the Patriots had a 34-point lead over the Colts late in the fourth quarter. There are some opinions on this. Before you freak too freakishly, Patsland, you'll have Aaron Hernandez and Visanthe Shiancoe this week to sub for Gronkle (the Gronk, Gronkle, Gronkie ... all nicknames NFLNet's Ian Rapoport is trying to trademark on Mr. Gronk). About 31 other teams in the league would kill for Hernandez.
3. Andrew Luck, Colts quarterback, who turned the ball over four times in a game he knew he couldn't afford to once.
4. Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson, 31, one of the great receivers of this era (132 games, 766 catches) tells me he thinks Sunday's game was his best.
5. Ben Roethlisberger and his dislocated first rib missed the 13-10 loss to Baltimore, and boy, was he missed. I'm not optimistic about him returning soon, and neither is a leading thoracic surgeon.
6. The sixth playoff seed in the NFC. Look at the combatants for it: Seattle, Tampa Bay and Minnesota, all 6-4, and a pair of 5-5s: New Orleans (the Saints may not lose again this season) and Dallas.
7. Andy Reid. Close to the end, barring a miracle stay by Jeffrey Lurie. Could Oregon coach Chip Kelly, his national title hopes dashed, be waiting in the wings? I believe he'll be a candidate to take the Eagles job after leaving the Bucs at the altar last year.
8. Norv Turner. We know the odds of San Diego making the playoffs after losing five of six. Not good. Turner and GM A.J. Smith likely had to make the postseason to stay. I'll be interested to see if club chairman and president Dean Spanos chases Reid, a southern California guy.
9. The strange case of Matt Ryan and the Falcons. A win's a win, I guess. But I watched much of the 23-19 game. Atlanta survived five interceptions by Ryan and won because the Cardinals have the worst quarterback situation known to man. (Cue the Larry Fitzgerald weeping sound effect.)
10. Robert Griffin III just had a game for the ages. Anyone notice?
11. Matt Schaub did too. He threw for 527 yards as the 9-1 Texans survived the 1-9 Jags. This is one strange league.
The stories of the week:
1. There is no best team in the NFL. I say it's New England, but let's be honest: If the Patriots played Houston or Baltimore or Denver tomorrow, how confident would you be? And the AFC is supposed to be the weak conference this year -- remember that. The NFL has America right where he league wants it: with the clicker in hand, or calling a cable provider asking to buy the Red Zone Channel for the last six weeks of the season.
2. Of New England, Gronk and the Belichick substitution rules. Gronkowski suffered his broken forearm Sunday in the 59-24 win over the Colts -- and the internet was abuzz Sunday night with news that the injury apparently occurred on the 59th point of the game, the extra point after the final garbage touchdown of the game. Why keep a valuable player in the game at that stage, some asked; others wondered why the increasingly valuable Gronkowski should be risking injury on any special teams unit.
The words "Belichick'' and "karma'' kept coming back from the ether, and I cannot argue. I've always thought the capriciousness of Belichick's early- and mid-fourth-quarter lineups in Patriot routs were his only weak points as a coach. It's bizarre to me that with a 28-point lead and 7:37 left in the fourth quarter Tom Brady was in the game -- and throwing twice -- to stretch the lead to 35. With a 31-point lead midway through the fourth quarter against the Rams in Week 8, backup Ryan Mallett entered the game. Good for him, and good for the Patriots long-term, to get the raw backup some playing time. So you'd think, then, that I'd view Gronkowski's injury in that same critical light. I don't.
Coaches have 45 active players each game. They don't have a "second team'' of the point-after-try unit. The PAT is one of the most risk-free plays in football. Rodney Harrison, the former Patriots safety now in the NBC studio with me on Sunday nights, didn't get taken off the kickoff team in routs. And Tony Dungy, who coached the Colts and Bucs, told me: "Jeff Saturday was my right guard on the PAT team, and I'd never think of taking him off. All my years in football, I never heard anyone, never heard Chuck Noll saying, 'Well, we better get Jack Ham off the PAT team.' It's not something I'd question."
Whatever, the Patriots lose Gronkowski for an important stretch (at Jets, at Dolphins, Houston, San Francisco), and from the looks of it, even if they do appear to be the best team in football right now, it's going to be tough to move past Baltimore and Houston and get a first-round playoff bye in the AFC.
3. Heal, Ben, heal. I'm told Ben Roethlisberger still has pain with many simple movements, seven days after he suffered shoulder and first rib injuries in the Monday-nighter against Kansas City, and anyone forecasting a week for him to return is guessing. Roethlisberger has no sense when he'll be able to return. But according to Dr. Clark Fuller, the director of Thoracic Surgery at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., Roethlisberger has to be careful about returning too soon because of damage it can do to nerves in the right shoulder and arm, major blood vessels in the area, and, as Roethlisberger admitted last week, the aorta around the heart.
"This is not about being a tough guy,'' said Fuller, who has neither examined Roethlisberger nor seen his X-rays or scans. So he made it clear he was speaking generally about the dislocation of the first rib, which is connected to the breast bone on one side and the spine on the other. A throwing motion, he said, would not allow the rib to heal, and he would not recommend it any time soon. "Playing football with a dislocated first rib would put you at severe risk. There are many things to be concerned about, including destroying the nerves in the arm.''
Fuller said he thought Roethlisberger would miss a minimum of four weeks. "I do remember their coach, Mike Tomlin, not allowing that safety [Ryan Clark] to play in altitude in Denver because of his sickle-cell disease,'' Fuller said. "That is a good sign, to me. I believe he won't risk the health of Roethlisberger."
Meanwhile, back at Heinz Field ... Ravens 13, Steelers 10. They meet again in 13 days, and from what we saw of Byron Leftwich after the first drive of the game (he suffered a bruised rib at some point in the contest), Baltimore will be a confident group if Roethlisberger doesn't play. Pittsburgh's last 12 drives featured eight punts, a fumble, an interception and a field goal.
I kept watching Sunday night and thinking about what the game must have been like for Suggs, who tore his Achilles in April, was told it'd be nine to 12 months before he could put full pressure on the Achilles and sprint, only for Suggs to return after six. "Tonight,'' he said an hour after the game, "I was very emotional. I got to the stadium early and went out before the circus started. You know how these games are, and I just thought, 'Prayer really does work. I'm here. I'm playing.' Because when it first happened and I saw the doctor, he said nine months to a year, and the world just shook. I wasn't thinking about Ravens-Steelers, I was just thinking, 'How am I going to get back faster than that?' ''
It was a classic Steelers-Ravens game. Ray Rice, 20 carries, 40 yards. Just 511 total yards of offense in 126 plays ... everything a battle. Suggs got two pressures of Leftwich in his 70 plays -- he played all but two defensive snaps. I was surprised to hear what he said when I asked him what this win, even against a depleted Steelers team, said about the Ravens. "It doesn't say nothing,'' Suggs said. "They got what we want -- all the championships. Nothing means anything to us 'til we get those. We gotta catch 'em in the ring race, then we'll be able to talk."
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