Division battles shift into high gear

BY foxsports • November 14, 2011

Last week I dissected each division as we sat at the halfway point of the NFL season, but this week included four defining matchups. The outcome of three of those games established a sole leader in the division. The fourth thrust a certain team right back into the NFC wild-card race.

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons

In the most talked-about game of the weekend, the New Orleans Saints held off the Falcons in what could have ended with both teams tied atop the NFC South. It was the way the Falcons lost that is all the buzz.

After a holding penalty wiped out a John Kasay field goal and forced the Saints to punt, the Falcons drove the length of the field in the final minutes of regulation. On the final plays of that drive is when the true drama began. Matt Ryan was looking for Tony Gonzalez on a seam route up the middle, overthrew him and instead hit Roman Harper right in the hands. That should have ended the game right there, but Harper dropped the easy interception. Then, Ryan fired a strike to Roddy White, who was streaking across the front of the goal line -- but the ball slipped right through the fingertips of the typically sure-handed White. Each team had the opportunity to win this game on the final drive, before the Falcons forced overtime with a chip-shot field goal.

The Falcons won the coin toss and went three-and-out on the first possession, and then forced the Saints to go three-and-out. On the Falcons’ second possession, they were originally awarded a first down on a third-down swing pass to Mike Cox out of the backfield, but a subsequent challenge would place the ball just shy of the marker on their own 29-yard-line. Then, coach Mike Smith sent his punt unit on the field, but called a timeout prior to the play. During that timeout, Smith convinced himself into going for the half-yard to convert the first down. As you know by now, they were stuffed and gave the ball to the Saints, who were already in field-goal position for the win.

It was a gutsy call that could be argued either way. The traditionalist will tell you that you always punt in that situation and let your defense do its job, just as it had on the first possession of overtime. Others will say you have a 250-pound running back that can just fall forward and get the inches needed for the first down. What can’t be argued is that it was a decision that could be the deciding factor in the NFC South.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals

In a game that was much closer than I anticipated, the Bengals, even in a loss, proved that they are capable of playing with the elite. While there are no moral victories in the NFL, Marvin Lewis and young quarterback Andy Dalton have to be pretty happy with how they played against a very stingy Steelers defense. They sent a clear message to the AFC North that both the divisional title and potential wild card are very much up for grabs.

Ben Roethlisberger is an elite quarterback and he has put this offense on his back and carried the Steelers to victories. That was no different on Sunday. Even in the strong winds, he threw the ball 33 times and his arm made it look like the wind wasn’t even a factor. The Steelers’ quick passing attack has become what they use as a running game, it just starts with a short pass rather than a handoff.

On the flip side, I was concerned going into the game that Dalton would struggle to throw the ball accurately in the wind. In watching him at the Senior Bowl, his ball flight was affected by the wind there and he doesn’t have the strongest of arms. While he did start slowly, he was able to spark his team with a 35-yard jump ball touchdown to A.J. Green and then later a pass to Jermaine Gresham to tie the game at 17-all. In the end, it was a great defensive play by William Gay that ended the Bengals’ comeback attempt, but the Steelers’ should be ready for a slugfest during the Week 13 rematch.

Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears

Detroit came into this with a firm grip on the NFC wild card, but left with only bumps and bruises. In what ended up being a very physical match-up, the Bears stopped the run and roughed up Matthew Stafford with two sacks and four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Less than a month ago, the Bears’ defense had lost its identity and completely reshuffled the back half of the secondary by replacing Brandon Meriweather and Chris Harris with rookie Chris Conte and second-year player Major Wright. Because of that, I thought that Stafford would find some holes in the secondary, but it was Wright who got the better of Stafford by jumping a curl route and returning it for that second touchdown. With the Bears offense finding a balance, and the Bears defense playing at its normal dominating fashion, this team has set it sights on the playoffs.

As for the Lions, they seem to be regressing after starting the season 5-0. Even with a healthy Jahvid Best, they struggle to have a consistent running game, and now Stafford’s hand appears to be more of an issue than he is letting on. On defense, a team that was built to stop the run is actually the fifth-worst rushing defense in the entire league. While they are obviously still in the wild-card race, they are going in the wrong direction. Luckily for them, the Falcons lost too, and it will be a three-way race for the final wild-card spot.

New England Patriots at New York Jets

With their impressive win over the Jets, the Patriots find themselves in familiar territory – alone atop the AFC East. Tom Brady was back to his typical self, but what was most impressive in this win was how the Patriots’ front seven applied pressure on Mark Sanchez. We hadn’t seen that out of the New Enlgand defense all year. A Bill Belichick-coached defense is eventually going to make the necessary adjustment and get the job done. This defense will continue to be tested over the final weeks of the season, but another thing that is just as concerning is their inability to run the ball on offense. Yes, Brady is a surgeon in the passing game, but if teams don’t respect the running game it will be increasingly difficult. The Jets’ linebackers were dropping back into their zones just as the ball was being snapped.

As for the Jets, they now find themselves in the thick of an AFC wild-card race that features nine teams all within two games, excluding the current divisional winners. While I still think one wild card will come from the AFC East, the Jets will need to be more consistent on offense to be that team. They run too hot and cold to possibly predict at this point.

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