We hear coaches talk about toughness all the time, and I am sure most of you probably think, how can a team not be tough, certainly a player has to be tough to play in the league. But being tough is not for just one moment, it requires being able to overcome adversity and still focusing on the task at hand. It means being able to not worry about the future and doing your job. Toughness encompasses many things, as Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell once said, "Concentration and mental toughness are the margins for victory."
At this point of the season, we are finding out which teams have mental and physical toughness to overcome bad starts, bad series, bad halves and bad results. All over the league Sunday, you could find the teams that have the toughness to focus, concentrate, fight through adversity and win the game.
In New England, the Patriots faced another tough team in the Baltimore Ravens and the game had a playoff feel. The Patriots are young, but in the last two weeks they had to overcome poor starts, plays and mistakes to win. This was a huge win for the young Patriots, because beating a tough team like the Ravens requires mental and physical toughness something they have worked all off season to achieve.
The Dolphins had to overcome a bad spot, a hostile crowd along with memories of their blowout loss two weeks ago to win their third road game. Those memories can come back to haunt a team if it is not mentally tough enough to block out past failures. The here-it-goes-again mentality can kill a soft team. The Dolphins might be inconsistent with their play, but they are extremely tough, determined and have the mental fortitude to keep fighting even when things do not go well. The result was a victory in Green Bay.
Conversely, the Falcons could not muster the mental or physical toughness to even play a competitive game with the Eagles. They were dominated from the first play of the game to the last and there was never a time that you felt Atlanta was going to be able to win the game. The Falcons were perceived to be the best of the NFC, but based on how they played they looked like a possible wild-card team, and will lose when they have to play on the road. Atlanta continues to be a team with two personalities -- one that plays well at home and the other that struggles to beat good teams on the road. (Had Garrett Hartley made the 29-yard field goal, the win in New Orleans would have been a defeat).
The Chargers walked into St. Louis expecting an easy victory and they walked out trying to find their own toughness. The Cowboys are another example of a team lacking the mental and physical toughness to win. Tony Romo and Co. left Minnesota wondering what happened to their season and everyone asking whether Dallas can turn things around.
But saying we are going to turn the year around is different than actually doing it. To become a tough team is not an overnight sensation. It takes hard work, tough practices, the ability to overcome difficult times and focus on what is the most important task at hand. It also requires the commitment to do it every week and not rest on any past success.
At this point, we have some playoff teams from a year ago that are facing the toughness challenge, specifically the Chargers and the Cowboys. Can they rise to the occasion? It will be a test and will require that every day there is a commitment to improvement, not winning. This is not going to be a quick fix for either team and will take the mental and physical toughness Russell talked about.
» What a day Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons had against the Browns. He was all over the field with two sacks, an interception and 11 tackles. He is having a great season, and his ability to run makes the already fast Steelers defense faster. Remember, when a team's inside linebacker is slow, the defense looks slow.
» The Dolphins' Cameron Wake is having a Pro Bowl year and harassed Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on most every down. Wake had three sacks to go with numerous hurries and was one of the main reasons the Dolphins got another road victory.
» Vikings middle linebacker E.J. Henderson overcame a serious leg injury last year and has returned to his old form. He was sensational against the Cowboys as he was involved in nine tackles and had two interceptions, which turned the game around.
» Give Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg some serious credit for putting quarterback Kevin Kolb in the position to throw the downfield and avoid holding onto the ball. They designed many play-action passes and misdirection plays to force Kolb to only look in one direction. Kolb performed well and the big play returned to the offense as the Eagles won their first home game.
» The journey to the NFL was not an easy one for running back Chris Ivory. After being dismissed from the Washington State team, he transferred to Tiffin University in Ohio and then fought his way onto the Saints as a free agent. Sunday, he looked outstanding, running with power and toughness and helped the offense find balance in spite of all the injuries in the backfield. In just fifteen carries, Ivory had 158 yards and looked outstanding.
» The Bears' offensive line is just the worst. They cannot run block or pass protect, even when they play at home. The offense was 0-12 on third down and the line allowed six more sacks -- not all of them the unit's fault. The line looks like it will be the reason the Bears finish around .500. Chicago is not a playoff-caliber team -- not with that line, or the problems in the secondary.
» After Sunday's performance, it is extremely clear that Bruce Gradkowski is the man to lead the Raiders, not Jason Campbell. Campbell really struggled do anything well and the offense looked bad with him at the helm.
» I am not sure what the Falcons' offense was trying to do, especially when they got behind 14-0 early. QB Matt Ryan was not accurate or precise, especially on third down, where Atlanta was 4-14. The Falcons played their worst game of the season on both sides of the ball at a time when they need to be their best.
» Colts QB Peyton Manning is tough to defend and when Joseph Addai is running well, as was the case Sunday, it compounds the problems, but the Redskins did not look good and from watching tape are clearly not built to be a 3-4 defense. Washington allowed Indy to accumulate 469 total yards in just 27 minutes with the ball.
On the lookout
Slowly the Giants have turned their season around and right now appear to be the best team in the NFC. They still struggle to defend the pass, but when they are rushing the quarterback with this kind of intensity their corners and safeties are not as stressed. For the Giants, winning starts and ends with their defensive line, and the unit is playing well. Watch out for first-round pick Jason Pierre-Paul as he looks like he will develop into another talented rusher.
Off the beaten track
Sam Bradford continues to prove every week that he is the real deal. For all those who thought he should sit and learn the game, his play serves as evidence that being on the field is the best way to improve. Bradford has already won three games in his young career and continues to work without a great supporting receiver group. Even last week, in losing at Detroit, Bradford still played well and showed Rams fans the future is bright.
»We know who the best team in the NFC North is this year, clearly the Dolphins, who have beaten both Green Bay and Minnesota on the road. If the Dolphins fail to make the playoffs and win all their games against the NFC North, with Chicago and Detroit left at home, they will wish they were in that division. ...
» Pierre Garcon made one of those plays that I could watch over and over again -- in fact I have done that already and I am still amazed he comes down with the ball. He has strong wrists, and did you notice the ball stopped moving once it hit his hands? That means wrist strength and all great catchers of the ball have strong wrists. ...
» In one Sunday, Deion Branch caught the same amount of passes that Randy Moss had in four games with the Patriots. But more important than the amount of catches, was the location of those completions that makes the biggest difference. Branch is not in New England to replace Moss, but rather to help run routes that enhance the playbook. ...
» Once again, the Texans proved no lead is safe with them as they scored 21 fourth-quarter points in their amazing come-from-behind win against the Chiefs. The Texans are bad, and I mean bad on defense. The best way they can improve is to spend more time on their red-zone defense and hold teams to field goals, because they are never going to be able to slow anyone down. This defense makes even bad offenses look good. ...
» Green Bay losing Jermichael Finley and having no running game makes the offense easier to defend. The Packers must find a way to run the ball and take some of the pressure off Rodgers as they wait for some of their starters to return. ...
» Drew Stanton had some impressive numbers as he filled in against the Giants for an injured Shawn Hill, who has been starting for Matthew Stafford. The Lions are much better than their record, but their lack of depth keeps holding them back. ...
» Yes, Devin Hester you are ridiculous. ...
» The Jets are a tough team. They fought hard to stay in the game against the Broncos and made the plays down the stretch to win the game. The pass interference call was horrible, but that is not why the Broncos lost. Denver had more than enough chances to put the game away. ...
» How can Brett Favre, without another week off, make it through the season? Following every hit, he looks like Joe Frazier after George Foreman kept knocking him down. ...
» The Patriots' secondary was extremely physical and these young players are starting to grow up. ...
» The Saints averaged 8.2 per pass play, up from their 7.1 they had for the season. With New Orleans, its success stems from its ability to make big plays. ...
» DeSean Jackson took an incredible hit, and Dunta Robinson, who delivered the explosive hit, was knocked out as well. Jackson is going to miss some time as he tries to recover from being knocked out on the field. ...
» What was wrong with Texans running back Derrick Ward in Tampa? He looks like the back that left New York.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi.