The Saints and Packers each won consecutive games for the first time this season, both New York teams played games that went to the wire, and a pair of the league’s oldest veteran quarterbacks — Matt Hasselbeck and Carson Palmer — found ways to win late when it seemed unlikely early. And that's just scratching the surface. Here are my 10 takeaways from Week 7. — Peter Schrager
Remember the 0-4 Saints?
Well, they’re now 2-4 heading into their showdown with Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Jon Vilma’s return didn’t do much to erase the Saints’ defensive problems on Sunday, but who needs defense when you’ve got Drew Brees under center? For the second straight game, Brees threw the Saints on his back (or arm) and single-handedly willed New Orleans to victory. The result? The 2012 Saints that everyone wrote off after they lost their first four games are suddenly 2-4 and lurking in the NFC postseason race. Beat Denver next Sunday, and they’re suddenly the team no one wants to play from here on out. The Bucs outgained the Saints, had the ball for seven more minutes, and converted more first downs. It didn’t matter. Brees threw for 377 yards and four touchdowns and got the Saints another victory, 35-28. New Orleans is rolling.
The Vikings are going to keep on winning games this season
Though Green Bay is dominating highlight shows this week and Chicago is the team with all the buzz, the Vikings are now 5-2, are a game ahead of the Packers in the NFC North standings and have one more win than the Bears, who play Monday night. They play the way the Purple People Eaters teams of the ’70’s would have appreciated — they run, they defend and they don’t make mistakes on special teams. But most importantly, they win. Christian Ponder completed just 8 of 17 passes for 58 yards in his worst game of the season, but Adrian Peterson ran the ball 23 times for 153 yards and a score, Percy Harvin scored another touchdown, and rookie Harrison Smith took an interception back 31 yards for a score. For the third straight year, Larry Fitzgerald's visit to his hometown was ruined (four catches, 29 yards, no scores on Sunday; his fewest yards since Week 3 in 2010). The Cardinals haven’t won in Minnesota since 1977. Minnesota’s a contender.
The best story of the day didn’t happen on a football field
The Colts (behind two rushing TDs by rookie QB Andrew Luck, pictured) beat the Browns 17-13 on Sunday, giving Indy its third home win of the season. There was another big winner a few miles away. Head coach Chuck Pagano, who has been on indefinite leave as he undergoes leukemia treatment, got to watch the game from home. Pagano was released from Indiana University Health Simon Cancer Center before kickoff on Sunday, and was able to see the game from his couch. "We know what's important. His rest is important,'' star receiver Reggie Wayne said. "Whenever the time allows him to come and see us, we're ready to see him. Until then, we want him to get his rest and do the things he's supposed to do." The victory was right up Pagano’s alley: ball control (35-plus minutes time of possession) and defense (13 points).
RG3 played valiantly, but Eli’s still king of the division
Robert Griffin III did everything Sunday versus the Giants. Well, everything but leave with a win. Eli Manning’s 77-yard game-winning touchdown strike to Victor Cruz gave the G-Men a 27-23 win and marked his ninth fourth-quarter, come-from-behind victory since the start of the 2011 season. For most of the afternoon, the rookie had stolen the show from the two-time Super Bowl MVP. RG3 (far left) completed 20 of 28 passes for 258 yards, tossed two touchdowns, and ran for 89 yards. He left the MetLife crowd oohing and ahhing, and even impressed some of his opponents. "I'm pretty mad at the football gods for putting him in the NFC East," Justin Tuck said of Griffin after the New York victory. "Having to face that guy twice a year is going to be a headache.” Headaches aside, New York’s now 5-2, in sole possession of first place in the NFC East, and Eli’s still the QB to beat in the division.
Carolina came up short in the fourth quarter. Again
For the third straight game, the Panthers failed to get it done with the game on the line, and as a result have lost a league-worst four straight. Receiver Brandon LaFell had maybe the line of the week, telling reporters after Carolina’s 19-14 loss to the Cowboys, “If we keep playing like this, we're not going to make the playoffs.” Umm, at 1-5, it’s very likely you won’t be making the playoffs, Brandon. Blame Cam Newton (pictured) if you must pin it on somebody, but the entire Panthers offense came up empty when it mattered most on Sunday. The Panthers were without starting middle linebacker Jon Beason and cornerback Chris Gamble on defense and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil on offense, but still had their chances to come out victorious. They didn’t. With the NFC as loaded as it is, it will be next to impossible for Carolina to salvage its season at this point.
The Texans defense got back on track — and Houston’s the class of the AFC
Though Jets-Patriots and Bengals-Steelers got more national attention, Sunday’s Ravens-Texans bout in Houston was the only game between AFC teams with better-than-.500 records entering Week 7. Actually, those were the only teams in the AFC better than 3-3 entering Week 7. Houston wiped the floor with Baltimore, the team that eliminated the Texans from the playoffs last season. The Texans outgained the Ravens 420-176, outrushed the Ravens 181-55 and dominated the clock, holding the ball 38:16 to 21:44 for Baltimore. Stats aside, the Houston defense rattled Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and showed that the Texans are going to be an awfully tough team to beat come January. Now 6-1 with the tiebreaker over Denver and Baltimore, Houston is in the pole position for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Aaron Rodgers is locked in — good luck, NFC
Rodgers has been downright scary the past two weeks. In two road wins over the Texans and Rams — a pair of top-10 defenses —Rodgers threw nine touchdown passes and zero interceptions. After scoring just five touchdowns in their first three games (and one of those on a fake field goal), the Packers have scored 17 touchdowns in their last four — and 16 of those 17 touchdowns were Rodgers passes. The Packers, a 15-1 team last regular season, are now above .500 for the first time in 2012. They’ve got struggling Jacksonville and Arizona at home up ahead. Watch out.
Matt’s The Man in Tennessee. It’s his job to lose now
Despite a subpar preseason and a less than spectacular training camp, Jake Locker was given the nod as the opening day starter in Tennessee this season. First-round picks don’t sit on the bench for their first two seasons anymore and it was time to give Locker the rock. The second-year gunslinger got injured in Week 4 and Hasselbeck’s been the guy ever since. After finding a way to beat Pittsburgh at the gun in Week 6, the 37-year-old, 14-year veteran led Tennessee to its first road win of the season Sunday in Buffalo, hitting Nate Washington on a game-winning 15-yard touchdown pass with 1:03 left in the fourth quarter. Locker will be healthy and ready to go soon enough. First-round pick or not, it shouldn’t matter. As long as he’s winning, Hasselbeck should be the man in Tennessee.
Mark Sanchez appeared way too pleased after a tough divisional loss
Call me a masochist if you must, but I watched the Jets’ postgame news conference after their 29-26 overtime loss in New England. Rex Ryan, believe it or not, was humble, respectful and completely rational in his postgame comments. Sanchez? You’d think the Jets had just won a playoff game. Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but the smiles, the laughing and the overall appearance of acceptance and satisfaction with a loss in what would have been an incredible divisional win just seemed off.
The Patriots got the win, but you can’t ignore yet another 4th-quarter collapse
With their 29-26 win over the Jets in overtime on Sunday, the Patriots improved to 4-3 on the season and moved into first place in the AFC East. They could be 7-0 if they finished games the way they typically start them. The fourth quarter’s become a weekly adventure for New England fans this season and Sunday was no different. The Patriots, who’ve been atrocious in the fourth quarter in all three of their 2012 losses (outscored a combined 45-28 in the second half of those losses) entered Sunday’s final quarter with a double-digit lead at home. They promptly let the league’s 30th-ranked offense entering the game score 13 straight points in the fourth before Stephen Gostkowski saved the Pats and nailed a field goal in the final seconds of regulation to force overtime. New England found a way, but it was a lot more stressful than it had to be. The fourth-quarter play-calling of Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels — curious at best this season — has left a lot to be desired seven games into the 2012 campaign.