The Falcons are 8-0 for the first time in franchise history, the Bears and Texans improved to 7-1 behind dominant defensive performances, and rookies Doug Martin and Andrew Luck had career days (for now). The Cowboys fell two games below .500, the Jaguars lost yet again, and the Ravens and Steelers both won tough contests on the road. That's just scratching the surface. Here are my Ten Takeaways from Week 9. — Peter Schrager
In an era when offense is king, the Bears and Texans are winning the old-fashioned way
Atlanta’s 8-0, but the league’s only 7-1 teams are in Houston and Chicago. Though both teams feature star wide receivers and dynamic running games, both teams have done it with defense this season. Houston’s 21-9 win over Buffalo was a clinic in stopping the run, while Chicago’s 51-20 victory in Tennessee was a case study on turning takeaways into points. Teams like Green Bay, New Orleans and New England have gone to the Super Bowl with big passing offenses and questionable defenses in recent years. Houston and Chicago are all about the D. J.J. Watt, Lance Briggs and Peanut Tillman are all in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. Hell, you can put Watt in the conversation for MVP.
Quietly, the Bucs are 4-4 and in the thick of the NFC playoff picture
Tampa Bay started the season 1-3 with tough losses to the Redskins at home and the Giants in New York on the resume. They lost a heartbreaking 35-28 shootout to the Saints at home in which they had more yards and first downs, and held the ball longer, than New Orleans. It would have been easy to write Greg Schiano’s “Baby Bucs” off after that one. But here we are, a few weeks later, and Tampa Bay’s 4-4, a winner of two straight road games. Doug Martin’s incredible day will dominate headlines and fantasy football message boards this week, but Josh Freeman’s in the midst of an incredible run, too. Freeman’s thrown 11 touchdowns and just one interception in Tampa’s last four games. Awfully quietly, the Buccaneers are 4-4 and in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt.
Chuck Pagano's postgame speech is one of the better things you'll watch this week
Having a bad start to the day? Looking for some Monday morning inspiration? Watch the postgame locker room speech from Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano after the Colts’ 23-20 win over Miami. Pagano’s not only an inspiration to the Colts. He’s an inspiration to us all.
The Raiders are a nightmare in the third quarter this season
The Buccaneers entered Sunday’s second half down 10-7 to the Raiders in Oakland. Against any other team, being down three on the road at the half would appear to be a tough situation. But the 2012 Raiders aren’t any other team. They’re special. Tampa Bay promptly scored three touchdowns, making the score 28-10 entering the fourth. The Bucs would go on to win 42-32. On the season, the Raiders have been outscored 88-24 by opponents in the third quarter. Whatever Dennis Allen is doing at halftime, it needs to change.
The Lions offense has woken up. Finally
So it took seven weeks. Big deal. The last two games, Detroit’s offense has looked awfully darn good. The Lions won for the fourth time this season on Sunday, beating a bad Jaguars team, and did so with offensive fireworks. This was the offensive production we expected to see from Detroit back in August. Matt Stafford completed 22 of 33 passes for 285 yards, while running backs Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure combined for 143 yards and four touchdowns. Calvin Johnson came into the game dinged up and still caught seven balls for 129 yards. The Bears and Packers are getting the headlines, but Detroit’s quietly 4-4 and looking like the 2011 outfit the past two weeks.
The Broncos are going to win out the rest of the way
I wrote about this in my Cheat Sheet last week and certainly didn’t change my mind after Denver’s fourth quarter comeback victory in Cincinnati on Sunday — the Broncos aren’t going to lose another game this season. Look at that schedule. Aside from a December game with the Ravens, the Broncos don’t play a team currently better than .500 the rest of the regular season. Peyton Manning threw two interceptions — and then rebounded to lead Denver to a W in its first 1 p.m. EST start this season. He’s hitting a groove and so are the Broncos. Watch out: they’ve won three straight and they’re just getting started.
The Packers enter the bye week in quite a groove
Charles Woodson’s out, Greg Jennings is out, and Jordy Nelson left early in the first quarter of Sunday’s 31-17 win over Arizona. But Green Bay’s looking awfully good as it enters its much-needed bye week. Winners of four straight, the Packers have won all four games by at least nine points. Running back James Starks made an appearance on Sunday, running the ball 17 times for 61 yards and Randall Cobb was everywhere. The Packers are all sorts of banged up and are winning anyway. They’ve got two crucial road games when they come out of their bye week against the Giants and Lions. Win those and Green Bay — despite Chicago’s record — will be the team no one wants to face in the playoffs.
Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress continue to confound in the fourth quarter
Jason Garrett gets beat up by the media for his fourth quarter game management skills (or lack thereof). Shurmur (pictured) and Childress have been just as bad, if not worse, for Cleveland. The Browns were overly conservative late in the game in a 17-13 loss to the Colts two weeks ago and were oddly overly aggressive in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Ravens. Down 22-15 with 3:53 left in the game and facing a fourth and 2 on their own 28, Shurmur opted to go for it instead of punting the ball away. The play call? A deep pass over the middle to Greg Little. Incomplete. Baltimore promptly kicked a field goal, icing the game en route to a 25-15 win. The Browns defense had kept Cleveland in the game all afternoon. The running game had kept the score close. The decision to go for it, deep in their own territory, with less than four minutes to go — and not run the ball with Trent Richardson? I’m still scratching my head.
Andrew Luck might not just be the Rookie of the Year. He could be the MVP
My favorite stat of the day? Through Week 9, the Broncos are 5-3 and Peyton Manning’s thrown for 2,404 yards. Umm. . . and the Colts? Well, they’re 5-3 and Andrew Luck’s thrown for 2,404 yards. Luck’s not only the first rookie QB taken No. 1 overall to lead a team to a 5-3 record in its first eight games, but he’s doing it with an offense he didn’t run in college. Luck’s 433 yards in the Colts’ 23-20 win over Miami on Sunday was the most ever for a rookie in an NFL game. All five of the Colts’ wins have been by less than seven points. Luck’s doing tremendous things. The Colts were 2-14 last season and pretty much cleaned house both on the field and with the coaching staff. If the playoffs were to start today, they’d be in the AFC’s final six.
The Steelers are winning ugly — and that’s OK
The Steelers are winners of three straight games following Sunday’s 24-20 slugfest over the Giants. Pittsburgh’s been anything but pretty during its run and that’s just fine. On Sunday, the Steelers’ special teams and running game carried them to their fifth win of the season. After starting the season 0-3 away from Heinz Field, the Steelers have won their last two road games — at Cincinnati and at New York — behind big performances from unlikely running backs. Jon Dwyer was the guy in Week 7 (122 yards), but Isaac Redman (No. 33) was the workhorse on Sunday, gashing the Giants for 147 yards and a TD. Baltimore’s got a one-game lead in the AFC North standings, but Pittsburgh — after a rocky start to the season — currently looks like the better team.