As we do every week, let's take a swing around the NFL, looking at a bunch of random things ...
So, what's been up?
1. The 49ers defense got game. Serious game. Four of the past five games, they've allowed fewer than six points. Of course, the only irregularity is the ugly, 26-3 loss to the Giants in Week 6, but other than that, they've been nearly perfect. It's no surprise that halfway through the season, they are ranked No. 1 in total defense. That's a point I brought up to Niners star linebacker Patrick Willis, while we talked on the phone during his campaign to raise awareness for Duracell's ProCamps scholarship donations, which can be done by using the #TrustYourPower hashtag. Willis had no idea where his group was ranked. "That goes to show you," Willis told me, "We don't go into our defensive meeting rooms and have coach say, 'This is where we are statistics-wise and all that.' Nah, we don't even talk about that." What they do have is goals. Simple goals each week. Like holding the opponent to 17 points or fewer. And having a certain number of three-and-outs. Oh, and Willis said they just want to destroy all of those goals.
"Well, we try not to hope," Willis told me, when I asked what kind of performance he hopes for every week. "We try to go out there and make it happen. We have a goal we're shooting for, goals we have to meet, whether it's a particular player or plays or whatnot that we have to stop and all that. For us as a defense, we know we have those goals, and we want to reach all those goals. But I mean, if we can blow them out the water, we want to do that. If we can keep a team to zero points, we want to do that. We're not settling. If a team scores 17 points, it's cool? No. We're not about that. We don't want them to score any points. We just go out there with the mindset on defense that we don't want to allow anything."
2. It could be worse for Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Instead of constantly being measured against Peyton Manning, he could be compared to JaMarcus Russell or something. So, it's not all bad. What keeps me coming back, though, is how much he sounds like Peyton. Sorry, I can't help it, but he does. And that's a good thing. No one manages his own situation better than Manning. Forget the fact, for a moment, that Luck has lived up to the hype. He also deals with it so well. Heading into a strangely under-the-radar, yet completely compelling showdown featuring two No. 1 picks in Luck and Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill, Luck is ready. Sure, it's cool that both teams would be on the precipice of the playoffs if they started today. But... eh. Luck noted that, "This is the biggest game to date and that's how we'll approach it because it is." But he's also quite level-headed. "Who cares if the playoffs started today?" Luck said. "They don't. It doesn't matter what your record is now. It matters what it is after that last week. ... It's great that people say nice things about us, great if people said bad things about us, whatever. It's part of playing this game. We are just worried about trying to win football games."
3. Things have gotten incredibly serious in Arizona. The quarterback-deficient Cardinals, are headed in the wrong direction. Once the NFL's darlings thanks to a 4-0 start that included a win over the Patriots on the road, they are now reeling. Losers of four straight. No quarterback play. On the heels of a beat-down by the 49ers. So, all bad stuff. Yet to me, coach Ken Whisenhunt is making the right call again. Seems this happens a lot. Before we slam this team, let's consider just how insanely impossible it was to even get to 4-0 given their schedule and their weaknesses. Yet, that's where they were. It all makes me think that it's not quite time to cancel their season just yet. Anyway, what I liked was how Whisenhunt broke character. He's not really a stern, screaming and yelling guy. He doesn't curse out his players. Usually, he doesn't need to. But, according to The Arizona Republic this week, Whisenhunt went off. He asked for more effort in a fiery address. "He called out some guys in the training room that we need on the field," Darnell Dockett told the paper. "Hopefully the message got to some guys. ... We're going to need some guys to suck it up to win this game and then they've got a whole week off. Hopefully that message rings a bell to a lot of players." Think that woke up a bunch of guys? Think some may be a bit nervous about their jobs now? Me too. I don't know if the Cardinals will beat the Packers in Lambeau. Gonna be tough. But I bet they bring it.
4. I get that I'm supposed to be outraged by Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall calling for a moment of silence before his press conference this week. No, he didn't do it in honor of those affected by Hurricane Sandy... though that would have been nice. Instead, he took a moment of silence for the way they played last week while beating the lowly Panthers, 23-22. OK, so I was offended. Just not for the reason you think. See, I don't really care that Marshall doesn't understand the difference between a real tragedy and a fake one. I think it's pretty ridiculous, but I haven't gotten all worked up about it. Some people just don't get it. Whatever. What I do think is wrong is not taking pride in the win. The Bears played terribly last week. They should've lost to Cam Newton and company. To turn in that performance at home was abysmal. But they won. It's a W. In the NFL, and in every sport but college football, they all count the same. The only reason you should ever be upset is if you lose. There's no room for a description about how pretty it was in the standings -- same as on my golf scorecard. Marshall should be thrilled. It's easy to win when you play great. It's much harder when you play terrible. If the Bears are going to have a special season -- and I think they are -- you need to have games like that. Marshall should have been celebrating.
5. Through seven games, no quarterback has thrown more interceptions than Cowboys QB Tony Romo. Unbelievably, that even includes Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel, who has made a living of it. Dallas is 3-4 heading into tonight with the Atlanta Falcons, and Romo has become the team's symbol. Not inconsistent and talented Dez Bryant, but Romo. He's the one who helped the Cowboys dig a deep hole last week, and he's the one who helped them climb out of it. He giveth, and he taketh away. Why does the team flash brilliance and look like they are playing fantastically, only to stumble? Because Romo does. Yet the Cowboys belief in Romo hasn't wavered, which COO Stephen Jones said this week. Jones described his confidence level in Romo as "high." A reporter mentioned that the Joneses had called Romo their QB of the future and were in contract negotiations with him. "Still feel that way," Stephen Jones said. Let's take that at face value. That Dallas really does believe, as Jones said, that Romo "is not the problem." Who is? All reasonable analysis says that the Jones are confident in coach Jason Garrett, as well. That may be true. But with the time management issues in Baltimore, the lack of situational football awareness and a below-.500 mark, Garrett is in focus. Jerry Jones, in particular, is slowly starting to become frustrated by him. It's early, the Cowboys can still come back, and the playoffs are in reach as the schedule opens up. But from my view, Garrett is the one to watch if it all falls apart, more so than Romo.
6. The honeymoon is over in Buffalo for pass-rusher Mario Williams. The play of the $100-million man has been lackluster so far, and then his odd claims of a wrist injury didn't help. You'd think things were heading in the right direction when he had surgery on his wrist to relieve discomfort, especially because he's not going to miss a game. But... according to a report this week, Williams texted -- not called -- the Bills with the news he was having surgery on his wrist. Yikes. Not what you want to do for a team that invested so much in you, only to have you play far below expectations. Buffalo and it's U-G-L-Y defense needs much more from Williams. Maybe that starts this week against the Houston Texans (though I'd be surprised if it does). But what stood out to me this week was the reaction. I thought Chan Gailey, the even-keeled coach, struck the right chord. He's clearly pissed, and he didn't mind showing it. Gailey was asked about Williams and his return to Houston. The shrug of an answer he gave made me raise my eyebrows. His response was, "You have to ask him about that. We do not talk about that. Not something I have had a conversation about with him." Um... OK. A brush off from Gailey is something. The other side of this thing is, I don't blame Gailey and the Bills brass for thinking, "What the heck?" They did the research, spent the money, then haven't gotten what they've needed from him... and Williams hasn't been as accountable as they need him to be. I'm just saying, it needs to start now.
7. Those Falcons wide receivers ... they're pretty good. No denying that. Both Julio Jones and Roddy White are in the top 20 in receiving, with White having 591 receiving yards and Jones having 499. Both big-play guys, it has been heaven for quarterback Matt Ryan. Everyone knows they are going to go deep, they can't run the ball well enough so you can protect against it... and they still throw it over your head. I asked White yesterday how in the world that happens? "When we do get expected coverage, and we have the play call, we do a good job of just hitting it," White told me. "We haven't missed a lot of them this year, which is really good." OK, fair point. What was also cool about Jones and White? They work together. I was impressed with the insightful Jones during our conversation, listening to him detail the battle to figure out double-coverage. He discussed how he works with White to diagnose what a defense is doing. But in the next breath, Jones responded, "I don't care, personally," who is covering him. Let him explain. "I get doubled (a lot)," Jones told me. "One game, I can recall I got doubled the whole game -- versus Denver. They kept doubling me. We went into halftime, me and Roddy talked. We were saying, 'They're going to start doubling you,' since he was getting some catches. But we came out the locker room, and they were still doubling me. Week-in and week-out, both of us come to play. We're both like No. 1 receivers. Him or me -- it depends on whatever the defense wants to do. We can take over the game. Last week was my week, I had a lot of one-on-ones, they were rolling to him, and I took advantage. We're ready for anything, because we don't know. Both of us come to play."
8.Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gets criticized a lot. Sometimes, rightfully so. His history, let's say, is not great. But on the field, criticism is hard to come by. And in the locker room, I've really grown to appreciate Roethlisberger because he says what he thinks. Sometimes, people don't like it. Sometimes, I don't like it. But you gotta respect it. That was the case this week when Big Ben was asked about the 2004 QB class. He said, "When we get done playing, I want them to say that's the greatest quarterback class of all time. Philip Rivers, myself, Eli, Matt Schaub, so of course you root for the other guys." First of all, hilarious that he left off J.P. Losman. An accidental slight? Maybe. But I laughed. Then, Roethlisberger defended his words when someone said brought up the celebrated 1983 class. "I think the championships in ours is a little more than theirs." What a crazy thing to say, right? Except... it's not that crazy. It's about winning. Big Ben has two Super Bowl rings. Eli Manning has two. Matt Schaub... we'll see how many he has after this year. Yes, 1983 was awesome. Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, John Elway... But, especially if Schaub and the Texans win a title, I like what Roethlisberger is saying. It's not like he or Eli or Schaub is a game-manager. All are slingers. At the least, he made me think. Is he right?
9. There are a lot of issues going on with Sunday's Giants-Steelers game, and having a football game in the middle of a recovery from major storm flooding obviously makes you consider all of them. The fact that no resources for recovery will be lost to put this game on is a good thing. So, I'm kinda with running back Ahmad Bradshaw on this one. He told reporters, "We feel like we can spark New York. What we do, what we've done. I think we can also help everybody in New York and New Jersey that's going through this." I want to do this without actually comparing the tragedies of 9/11 and superstorm Sandy. They are not similar. But perhaps the role of sports can play similar-ish roles. I was in New York for 9/11 and the Mets and the Yankees had such key contributions when it came to healing. They honored the firemen and policemen, they put the spotlight on first-responders, they gave New York something to smile about. Maybe the Giants can do the same for NY/NJ. I hope so. Either way, I'm glad the game will be played. For three hours, fans can take their mind off reality and enjoy a game.Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.