Sometimes a win means so much more
As we approach the midseason mark, teams are starting to settle into form. Sure, they will deal with the fluidity of injuries and roster changes at any given point in the NFL season, but teams have now established an identity (positive or negative) and a foundation to build on for the remainder of the season. As the season moves along, each week becomes that much more critical and a win puts you that much closer to the playoffs.
Every coach will tell you that they play 16 one-game schedules during the course of the season and that each game is just as important as the next, but inwardly they know that isn't always true. For example, there is no way that Chuck Pagano could convince me that the Colts' win over the Broncos on Sunday wasn't more important than beating the Jaguars in Week 4. A win is valuable no matter who the opponent, but in the grand scheme of things, beating the undefeated Broncos can be an emotional confidence boost that can push the Colts through the rest of the season, something beating a winless Jaguars team could never do.
In Week 7, there were three such wins -- signature wins that teams can hang their hat on and coaches can use to build momentum moving forward. The most obvious was the aforementioned Colts win over the Broncos, but the Packers and Bengals also posted big wins that can help define or establish a successful season.
As for the Colts, the win was significant because of their opponent. Forget the emotional return of Peyton Manning; that only carries weight for one week. Beating a previously undefeated team that had an average winning margin of more than 17 points is invaluable. Not only did the Colts win, but they held the Broncos to a season low in points and their own quarterback proved that he was ready to shine under pressure.
Let's not forget, for all the emotions that Manning had to be feeling returning to his home of 14 years, Andrew Luck was feeling as much or more pressure as the heir apparent. He finished the game with 228 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and added another 29 yards rushing, including at least one critical third-down conversion and another touchdown.
But what's more impressive and a little ironic given Jim Irsay's comments this week is the Colts won with a total team approach as the defense came up with timely stops and turnovers. Robert Mathis, the league's leader in sacks and longtime teammate of Manning, had two sacks, one of which was a forced fumble that went out of bounds in the end zone and led to a nine-point swing -- clearly the turning point in the game. By the way, not only does Mathis lead the league in sacks, but that sack-fumble was the 39th of his career and ties him with Jason Taylor for the most since 1982. It's time we start including him in the conversation of the best pass rushers in the game right now -- a list he is often unfairly absent from.
The opponent you beat isn't the only criteria for a signature win. For example, the Packers beat Brandon Weeden and the Browns on Sunday, a far cry from Manning and the Broncos. But it was the adversity they had to overcome that made this win so special.
Aaron Rodgers had his third game of the season in which he threw for at least three touchdowns and posted his fourth game with a passer rating above 100. While 260 yards seems pretty pedestrian for a quarterback like Rodgers, he was throwing to a patch-work group of receivers as Green Bay has been decimated with injuries at the position. James Jones and Randall Cobb, the reasons why the Packers were comfortable parting with Greg Jennings this offseason, were both inactive with injuries and Jermichael Finley was carted off the field with a neck injury during the game.
So what did Rodgers do? He found Jarrett Boykin, who was starting his first career game, eight times for 103 yards and a touchdown. The Packers also converted a season-best seven third downs on 13 attempts.
And while the Browns are the Browns, their defense is no joke. They entered the game as the seventh-best total defense and the eighth-best passing defense. Joe Haden had been successful at shutting down some of the best receivers in the game, including Mike Wallace and AJ Green, but Rodgers and company still found a way to put up 31 points -- their second highest total of the season. With the win, the Packers match the win totals of the Lions and Bears at the top of the division, but have one less loss with only two.
The Bengals' signature win came at the hands of those Lions and while they didn't have the adversity to overcome, it was the implication in the AFC North that made this so significant. The Bengals now hold a two-game lead over both the Ravens and the Browns in the division and they did it in a shootout. The Bengals allowed a 300-yard passer for the first time in 20 games and Andy Dalton put up his third-best passing totals in his career.
The Bengals have plenty of weapons and many were starting to question if Dalton was the appropriate quarterback to bring them all together. Well, he has answered the call in the last two games with 702 passing yards and six touchdowns while leading the Bengals in back-to-back road wins. In this game, the Bengals lost Leon Hall to a season-ending Achilles injury, so this probably won't be the last shootout that Dalton has to win this season. This outing, combined with last week, will give them the confidence that he can do it.