After nine weeks of games, we are finally starting to see separation in the NFL. I have a new team at the top, and it's in the NFC (and it's not the Packers). Five teams thrilled all of us with comeback wins. The bye has finally started to pay dividends. An attempt to make the game safer may have gone a bit too far. And who needs Randy Moss? Do you find it as ironic as I do that Brett Favre had the greatest yardage game of his 20-year career five days after his team released Moss?
1. Fine line between safety, bad calls
I applaud NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's mandate to make the game safer. Football in the NFL is played violently by very strong men who find themselves in big collisions every week. However, this area is not a perfect science and there's way more gray than black and white.
On Sunday, there were several questionable hits, including one in the night game that saw Packers safety Nick Collins launch himself at Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams, leading with his helmet into Williams' head. Collins heard from the league office on Monday and was fined $50,000.
Earlier in the day, I sat and watched the collision between Colts wide receiver Austin Collie and Eagles defensive backs Quintin Mikell and Kurt Coleman a dozen times. Granted, Collie was taken away on a stretcher and has since been diagnosed with a concussion, but was it a collision that warranted a penalty flag, or even worse, a possible fine later this week? I don't think so, because Collie was not in a defenseless position. He secured the ball, was into his third step on the ground, saw the collision coming and covered the ball while lowering his pads like a running back. Both defenders led with their shoulder and the first contact changed the body position of Collie as the second defender started his collision.
In my opinion -- and the opinion of men like Bill Cowher, Boomer Esiason and Shannon Sharpe, with whom I sat and watched the play over and over -- it was a clean hit that resulted in an unfortunate injury.
Go back and read my article from two weeks ago on collisions vs. the Cover 2 defense. Defenders are going to be in position for some big-time hits as players come through zones where defenders are lurking. In my opinion, this wasn't an illegal hit on a defenseless player.
After the Collins hit Sunday night, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth had this to say: "I personally have a bit of an issue with how the league is handling it. I don't think the answer is to fine the guys or suspend them after the fact. ... If Nick Collins is ejected from the game at this point you start to change the behavior of defensive players in a way that they're not doing now. When you do it after the fact all you're doing is benefitting the next opponent."
I can see Cris' point, but there has been so much hesitation by officials and then some overreaction by the league office -- so many players are being fined that weren't even flagged. With 45-man game-day rosters, it will be tough to eject a player even though it has been done in the past for fighting and things of that nature. If a two-time offender in a season gets a third one (James Harrison, for example), then eject him, but not before. I know the appeal process isn't really effective but ejecting a player takes the appeal process out of the mix."
I still would like to see a few former players (six?) that rotate two per week on the committee that issues fines. Guys like Ronnie Lott -- ones that can see and recognize intent -- could come into New York for the weekend, watch the games in the command center all day on Sunday, and then sit with NFL Vice President Ray Anderson and his group -- not to defend players, but to make sure all views of the issue are discussed.
2. Thrill of the comeback
Five teams rallied in the fourth quarter for victories. The Vikings, Jets and Raiders needed overtime to win and keep their playoff hopes alive. The Bears were down five points to the Bills in Toronto and Jay Cutler connected with Earl Bennett for the win. Oakland was down three points in the fourth, tied it up with three seconds to play and kicked a game-winning field goal in overtime. The other three teams were all in double-digit trouble in the fourth quarter and rallied for a win. The Jets came back from 10 down, the Chargers from 15 down, and the Vikings scored 17 unanswered points to beat Arizona.
Comeback victories usually need terrific quarterback play. For Mark Sanchez of the Jets, with 4:46 left in the game and coming off a bad series in which he went 0-for-5, he simply went no-huddle and connected on 9 of 10 passes for 130 yards. Jason Campbell of the Raiders did the same thing with a no-huddle package and went 8-of-9 for 120 yards. Of course, the master himself did it one more time as Brett Favre went 18-for-23 for 219 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime to keep the Vikings' hopes alive -- all without No. 84.
3. The bye weekend
Teams don't really like their bye coming early in the season and the records reflect that. Early-season byes did more to knock a team off its rhythm than recharge worn-out batteries. Prior to this week, teams were 8-8 following their bye. If you were lucky enough to have a home game off the bye, the record was 6-2, but if you had to hit the road, your record was 2-6.
There were six teams coming off a Week 8 bye and they hit a big home run, going 6-0. Teams playing at home after the bye are 10-2 and teams hitting the road are 4-6. Many of the teams used the bye week to get players healthy, and there was no greater example of that than the Philadelphia Eagles, who got back Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, Brodrick Bunkley and Brandon Graham. With just one week of byes left, keep a close eye on the six teams returning to action next week.
4. Keep playing 'hot' hand
A few teams have quarterback issues that cause them to think about which man should start. This week, it was great to see Michael Vick take over the Eagles' offense and lead the team to a win with his brains, arm, and his feet. If he keeps playing like that, Kevin Kolb will have to wait his turn. Same should be said for Campbell. He won his third straight game; as long as he's getting the job done, Bruce Gradkowski can wait. My favorite "hot hand" right now is Colt McCoy of the Cleveland Browns.
McCoy led his team to a win over the Patriots after doing the same thing to the Saints before the bye. He's got a great chance to be the future of this club and he needs to stay on the field even if the veterans, Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, are healthy. As for Derek Anderson of the Cardinals and whoever gets the call for the Panthers, it's a much tougher situation; this weekend did nothing to identify the hot hand.
5. Giant steps
This is the first week I can see an NFC team atop the league rankings. The Giants are that team. The G-Men came into the weekend ranked No. 3 on offense and No. 2 on defense. They can run the ball, pass it, get after the quarterback, and defend the pass. A cross-country road trip to Seattle, where the Seahawks have a tremendous homefield advantage, was not supposed to be easy. Granted, Seattle has lots of injuries and they had a quarterback making his NFL starting debut, but 35-0 at halftime?
The NFL is such a volatile place. If you can remember back to the end of Week 3, the Giants were 1-2 and people were calling for Tom Coughlin's head. The Giants haven't lost since, boasting the longest winning streak in the league right now at five. Dallas is next up in New York, and after watching the Cowboys against the Packers on Sunday night, it looks like six straight.
6. Coordinators of the week
Brian Daboll, offensive coordinator, Browns
Daboll always seems to be under scrutiny and criticism for the Browns' offense, but his unit backed up a 30-17 win over the Saints with a 34-14 victory over the Patriots this week. Daboll has a rookie QB under center, a running back who was cast aside by his former team, and a couple of no-name receivers. I hope Mike Holmgren sees the merit in keeping Daboll around for years to come.
Hue Jackson, offensive coordinator, Raiders
The Raiders won their third straight and Jackson's offense came through again -- this time without its leading receivers, tight end Zach Miller and wide receiver Louis Murphy. Oakland has scored 115 points in the past three weeks under Campbell. To run the ball for an average of 4.3 yards against the Chiefs is no easy task, and to get production out of a fourth-round rookie receiver like Jacoby Ford, who caught six passes for 148 yards, was impressive.
Sean McDermott, defensive coordinator, Eagles
McDermott is under pressure and rumored to be in jeopardy of losing his job, but he continues to work through the turmoil. His defense sacked Peyton Manning three times on Sunday with a mixture of pressure calls and straight rush. The Eagles also picked off two Manning passes, forced the Colts to punt five times and held the receivers to fewer than 10 yards per completion. Next week is the big rematch with the Redskins in D.C. The Eagles defense might just be rounding into shape.