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Houston Texans rule AFC, but don't dismiss Baltimore Ravens

HOUSTON -- Terrell Suggs sat at his empty locker, fiddled with his diamond earrings, and considered what the next few days will be like. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year had made a dramatic return just six months after suffering a serious Achilles injury, staying on the field for more plays than anyone imagined and registering a sack. It wasn't nearly enough.

His Baltimore Ravens had still suffered an ugly, 43-13 defeat to the Houston Texans, ceding control of AFC supremacy to their up-and-coming hosts from the South. It was the most points this defense had given up in the John Harbaugh era, the most points the Texans had ever scored, and another sign that losing future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis is every bit as damning as people feared.

Suggs pondered what the pundits will say. It's the same stuff they said about the Texans last week after the Green Bay Packers supposedly exploited them on national television.

"That we're no good," Suggs told NFL.com, explaining the likely reaction after the Reliant Stadium showdown that dropped his team to 5-2. "Hey, it wasn't good today. At all. But it wasn't the end of the world, either. Know what I mean? We lost to a really good Houston Texans team. We didn't lose to a team who don't know what their identity is. We lost to a really good team today on their home field. Take it for what it's worth."

The knee-jerk conclusion drawn by those who watched what was a matchup of the AFC's only two winning teams? The Texans (6-1) have arrived, while the Ravens are in trouble. Is this fair? Partially.

Yes, behind shot-blocking J.J. Watt and hard-running thinker Arian Foster, Houston appears to be the conference's most complete team. Today. But that doesn't necessarily mean the Ravens will head to the scrap heap. That's just not the way the NFL works.

While the race might be on to write off an old defense that is banged-up and without key stars in Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb, do so at your own peril. Learn from the rash judgments made about the Texans just one week ago.

"It's not good," Suggs said. "But it's not the end of the world, either. After seven games, we're 5-2. You're telling me that's a downside? There are some teams whose season is over now, can't get in the playoffs. But that's not us. We still can get the 1 or 2 slot."

Suggs, who hoped to fill the emotional void left by Lewis in an improbable return that was just finalized Sunday morning, is right. Life in the NFL often involves what the Ravens will go through this week. It's the same thing the Texans went through last week.

In a quiet moment in the locker room on Friday, Foster summed up his views on the NFL. The Texans running back noted the Green Bay-centric panic before the Packers beat them on the previous Sunday night, and then the coronation when Aaron Rodgers threw for six scores. He scoffed at those claiming Rodgers had come back, saying, "He didn't go anywhere!"

"It's just a big soap opera, this league is," said Foster, before he ran for 98 yards on 19 carries with two touchdowns, helping to secure the blowout win. "Drama sells."

It does. The narrative this week will include the Texans climbing to the No. 1 spot in the AFC, which is well-deserved. But it's worth noting that Houston had just endured a week's worth of skepticism.

On Sunday, Houston checked off another franchise first in a season full of them.

"Obviously, last week we came out and didn't look like us. I've never beaten the Ravens before, so that's a big deal," Watt told NFL.com, noting Houston's first ever victory over Baltimore. "Now, we're sitting atop the AFC alone, so that's a big thing going into the bye week."

Asked where his team stands, defensive lineman Antonio Smith (two sacks on Sunday) provided a quick -- but measured -- response: "Right now, we stand No. 1. I think it's a big win for us, deciding who is No. 1 right now. But it's a long season."

Yes, where will Houston be after the bye? That's a better question.

With a solid, well-rounded team, the Texans figure to stick around. It would be difficult to argue they are not among the NFL's elite. Just look at the way they coaxed Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco into a miserable performance (21-for-43 for 147 yards, one touchdown and two picks). The way Connor Barwin recorded his first sack of the year, which resulted in a safety. They way cornerback Johnathan Joseph responded after having a difficult game against the Packers, turning in a pick-six against the Ravens to make it 16-3 and cue the rout.

"If the season was over right now, it would be wonderful, but it is not," Texans owner Bob McNair said. "I'm very happy that we are playing as well as we are. I think that was quite an accomplishment to shut them down the way we did. I was really proud of it."

What of the Ravens? What of a defense that is now without Lewis and Webb? That has safety Ed Reed playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder? That has defensive tackle Haloti Ngata dealing with knee and shoulder injuries?

What of a defense that simply cannot stop the run?

"Right now, we're at the bottom," said Ngata, who longed for the upcoming bye week for healing purposes. "Only thing we can do right now is improve. Improve on all aspects. Run defense, pass defense and I think we'll have a good bye week and get back to the drawing board and do what we need to do to get better."

Ngata believes in his defense. He believes in the pride of his teammates, in their resiliency. He doesn't believe it's all over without Lewis, Webb, etc. And he's not alone.

Did the Ravens look bad on Sunday? Absolutely. Harbaugh described the experience by saying, "Sometimes you get tossed out of the bar."

But perhaps the eulogies are best saved for another day.

"We're a fighting team," Reed said. "We're prepared to make this journey that we're on."

******

What else is going on? Here is a rundown:

Is it just me, or are the Jets even more impressive now?

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I know it wasn't a win. The New York Jets went to Foxborough without their two best players -- Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes -- and took the New England Patriots to the limit. They overcame a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, making key plays when they needed to: quarterback Mark Sanchez hitting tight end Dustin Keller to draw them within three in the fourth quarter; Lex Hilliard forcing a fumble by Patriots kick returner Devin McCourty to give the Jets a go-ahead field goal.

In my eyes, the fact that they lost in overtime doesn't ruin what the Jets accomplished. As relieved Patriots color analyst and former backup quarterback Scott Zolak tweeted about the Jets, "They're better than people give them credit for, me included."

Is it possible, without a headache like Holmes, that the Jets have come together? Or that without Revis, the collective effort has increased?

Or that coach Rex Ryan is once again flashing his defensive genius when his team needs it most, doing enough to keep Tom Brady off-kilter? (Ryan, clearly, is a fantastic coach.)

Whatever it is, the Jets are far from done. It's what every team hopes for after devastating injuries. Like the Patriots without Brady in 2008, like the Texans without Mario Williams and Matt Schaub in 2011, Gang Green is proving -- even in defeat -- that this team's character is strong enough to win games.

A real win for the Colts

It's nice that the Indianapolis Colts won against the Cleveland Browns, holding on for the 17-13 victory. It's cool that they've already eclipsed last year's win total with a 3-3 record, and that their defense was impressive enough to completely stifle Trent Richardson, leading to a second-half benching for the banged-up rookie running back.

All of that is good for a franchise that's on its way back even quicker than anticipated. I don't mean to minimize that ... except I do. Because everything the Colts do this season will take a back seat to coach Chuck Pagano's battle with cancer. And that's not just because life is more important than football, although it is. It's also because every win this team has will be tinged with his impact.

And so, it was fantastic news postgame when Colts owner Jim Irsay announced to the team that Pagano had been released from the hospital, where he had been undergoing treatment for leukemia. He watched the game from home.

"That's probably as big as the win today," said interim coach Bruce Arians, who improved to 2-1 as head man in Pagano's absence.

The players had no idea beforehand about Pagano's release. Quarterback Andrew Luck, who ran for two scores, offered a priceless reaction.

"I'm more thrilled about that than the win," he said.

The Colts' transformation from awful to respectable has been fun to watch this year, and the fact that they've continued to improve without Pagano is impressive. It's also possible that, along the way, the team has learned perspective. In the long run, Pagano's influence will be overwhelmingly positive in far-reaching ways.

The unflappable RG3

In the preseason, I fully expected Robert Griffin III to have a stellar rookie season; a No. 2 overall pick who was set to live up to the hype. How is it possible he's already surpassed it?

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The Washington Redskins are far from perfect. In my mind, they are a long shot to make the playoffs, especially with their defensive issues. But RG3 gives them a chance every week. The poise he shows is as rare as his astonishing throwing and running skills.

Down four with 2:07 left, the Redskins faced fourth-and-10. All Griffin did was dart and dash, making New York Giants defenders miss multiple sack opportunities, before completing a 19-yard pass to extend the game. Then a mad scramble down the sideline. Then, on second-and-10 from the 30-yard line, his perfect rainbow to Santana Moss to give the 'Skins the lead.

Unfortunately, Washington left Eli Manning too much time. But it's not Griffin's fault his team's defense doesn't understand the concept of keeping Victor Cruz in front of it. And it's not his fault Moss fumbled as they drove for a final comeback.

In the end, the Giants won, but the Redskins made the impression. Yes, even on the Giants. As Osi Umenyiora told USA Today, "That sonofabitch is legit, ain't he?"

Defensive end Justin Tuck added to that sentiment, telling USA Today, "Two times a year?! That's just, that ain't right!"

That says it all. RG3 adds spice to an already special rivalry.

Some rapid-fire takes:

» What in the world do we make of Chris Johnson now? Speaking of eulogies, many were written for the Tennessee Titans electric running back. Well ... can we hit delete? Will those fantasy owners who cursed him now offer hugs? Johnson torched the Buffalo Bills with a blistering 83-yard run, finishing with 195 yards and his first two scores of the season. At 3-4, Tennessee isn't dead yet.

» You can't help but love Reed's professionalism. First, he takes a cleat to the chest and briefly leaves the game, thinking he's broken a rib, only to return a few plays later. Then, after a humbling loss, he spies a group of reporters waiting for him at his locker. With a shrug, he says to an onlooker, "Part of the job." He then fields about 10 minutes worth of questions.

» The Dallas Cowboys continue to tease us with sparkling plays and immense talent ... mixed with some frustratingly inconsistent results. They somehow managed a go-ahead field goal against the hapless Carolina Panthers, then got a fourth-down stop from rookie Morris Claiborne when they had to have it. It's a win that keeps them in the mix, yet nothing that inspires confidence. Perhaps this week's showdown with the Giants will answer a few questions.

» The Browns should think of nothing but the future this year, considering they won't be winning much, anyway. Sure, Pat Shurmur and Co. are coaching for their jobs, but as an organization, long-term focus trumps all. That said, even if Montario Hardesty gives them the best chance to win right now, cutting into Richardson's playing time is the wrong move. He'll make mistakes, but the reps will help in the future.

On NFL Network
NFL Replay
will re-air the New England Patriots' 29-26 OT win over the New York Jets in Week 7 on Tuesday, Oct. 23
at 8 p.m. ET.

" NFL Network schedule

» Football giveth; football taketh away. Devin McCourty had an exhilarating, 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Jets and ... hero! Then, after his fourth-quarter fumble? Goat! It pays to collect players who can handle adversity, and McCourty is top-notch. That will pay off. Asked for his reaction to the win, McCourty said, "Thank you, thank you."

» It looks like the Arizona Cardinals' feel-good ride is over, and not just because they lost to the Minnesota Vikings, 21-14. OK, partially because of that. It takes smoke and mirrors to win in the NFL without a quarterback, and Arizona has run out of smoke. That's three straight losses after the 4-0 start.

» How much did the Buffalo Bills pay for their defensive line again? Refund?

» I don't quite get the rule that came back to burn the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, resulting in Mike Williams' game-tying touchdown being nullified. If a receiver gets pushed out of bounds, why can't he be the first player to touch the ball upon reestablishing himself in-bounds? That seems to be penalizing him for something that's not his fault. With that rule, it seems like a defensive back should try to push everyone out of bounds. As it stands, it takes a player being forced out of bounds by an illegal play (i.e. holding or pass interference ) to allow the offensive player to be the first to touch it. And so, no overtime on Sunday. Under Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay has shown remarkable progress after its woeful 2011 campaign. But too often, the Bucs have come up on the short end. Looks like this won't be the year of the turnaround, just the upward strides.

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» Big win for the New Orleans Saints over the Bucs, but it would be a stretch to say all is right with them. Allowing inconsistent quarterback Josh Freeman to drop 420 yards on your head doesn't bode well. The Saints still have tackling issues, but at least their 2-4 record gives them a fighting chance. And you know they will keep fighting.

» The Patriots have taken pride in their ability to run the ball, adding balance to an already potent offense. Except, as Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole pointed out, they have failed to do so to close out games. They haven't been able to put together a four-minute drive. Six rushes for 15 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime convinces me nothing has changed. The Pats still will only go where Tom Brady takes them.

» I think Aaron Rodgers has figured it out. Ho hum, 30-of-37 for 342 yards and three scores. It's almost like all this time without star receiver Greg Jennings has allowed the Packers to shrug off his absence.

» Oh, Jacksonville Jaguars. Lose Blaine Gabbert. Lose Maurice Jones-Drew. Blow a big lead. Lose in overtime. Could Sunday have gone worse?

» Jerome Bettis must have been smiling watching Pittsburgh Steelers back Jonathan Dwyer bust through the line in the win over the Cincinnati Bengals, blowing through arm tackles. Bettis was the bus. Is Dwyer the minivan?

» No one gets hit by an opposing defensive line upon receiving a handoff quicker than Oakland Raiders back Darren McFadden. But 2.8 yards per rush? Can't believe that's even possible for a player that talented.

» Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green is one of the league's prime talents at his position, but he needs to grow. When opponents are doubling and roughing him up all over the field, as was the case against the Steelers, he needs to find a way still to come through on third down. That's the next step.

» I don't know how the Minnesota Vikings won, and neither do you. But Leslie Frazier has to be an early candidate for Coach of the Year.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.

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