The heavyweights threw their weight around with a vengeance.
Was there really ever any doubt that these teams would square off at the RCA Dome in Week 9 as the last of the league's unbeatens?
Sure, there might have been a fleeting thought that the Washington Redskins' talented defensive backs could somehow do what none of the Patriots' previous opponents have done this season and find a way to shut down Tom Brady and his absurdly productive and explosive receivers. Of course, it never came close to happening.
Oh, maybe there was a delusional daydream that 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde could somehow recapture enough of his youth to allow the Carolina Panthers to trip up the Colts. And, of course, that never came close to happening, either. Testaverde wasn't even able to finish the game because of an ankle injury.
No, the pieces have fallen into place perfectly to give us not only a potential preview of the 2007 AFC Championship Game but, for all practical purposes, the defacto Super Bowl XLII.
They are the two best teams in the NFL, period. Don't bother trying to make a case about any other club in the AFC (a list would begin and end with the Pittsburgh Steelers). And, please, please, don't even attempt to bring an NFC team into the discussion.
This is a two-horse race, and we're going to get a treat of a lifetime when these thoroughbreds go head-to-head.
We have an entire week to dissect the comparative skills of Brady, who threw for three touchdowns and ran for two against the Redskins, and Peyton Manning, who threw for two scores against the Panthers. Is there even an argument that Brady, with an NFL-best 30 touchdown passes for the season, is the best quarterback in the NFL? Would Manning, who was without injured Marvin Harrison against Carolina, be putting up similar numbers if he had Randy Moss in his arsenal?
We have an entire week to dissect the comparative talents of the Colts' and Patriots' defenses, which entered Week 8 ranked third and fourth in the league, respectively. Will Brady have his problems facing what was, entering Week 8, the top pass defense in the NFL? Is Manning going to be able to handle Bill Belichick's chameleon-like defensive scheme that always seems to adapt itself perfectly to each opponent and every situation while causing all sorts of confusion for the quarterback?
I can't wait to get started.
Who else is worth talking about?
OK, let's talk about the Steelers, who rebounded nicely from their Week 7 loss at Denver by beating the lowly Cincinnati Bengals, 24-13. It's fair to say that they are in firm control of the AFC North, with unlikely challenges from the Baltimore Ravens or Cleveland Browns. Ben Roethlisberger has his act together, and the Steelers' passing game has become as much of a threat as their Willie Parker-led rushing attack.
The Kansas City Chiefs play defense well enough to be taken seriously, but their offense is unlikely going to be able to keep pace with Chargers. Against Houston, Philip Rivers not only was able to connect for two touchdown passes with his favorite target, tight end Antonio Gates, but also had a scoring throw to newly acquired Chris Chambers. And LaDainian Tomlinson pitched in a solid 90 yards rushing. Meanwhile, San Diego's defense cranked up its game with four interceptions, swiping Matt Schaub and Sage Rosenfels twice each.
Beyond the Colts, the AFC South offers its share of intrigue, as well. The Jacksonville Jaguars pulled off a nice upset by beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 24-23. They did it without injured starting quarterback David Garrard. The fact Quinn Gray was able to get the win in Garrard's place was particularly impressive given his struggles after replacing Garrard in the Jaguars' Week 7 loss to the Colts.
But Jacksonville's strength goes well beyond its quarterback. The Jaguars' defense came up huge by intercepting three passes from Jeff Garcia, who had made 217 consecutive throws without a pick. And Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew did their part by rushing for a combined 116 yards to keep Tampa Bay's defense off-balance and help Gray turn in a solid 100-yard, one-touchdown passing effort.
Another AFC South team worth of attention is the Tennessee Titans. After their highly emotional win over Houston in Week 7, the Titans were able to hang on in another close one with a 13-9 victory over the Oakland Raiders. The Titans asked very little of Vince Young, who returned from a quadriceps injury. They were able to rely on a defense that kept Daunte Culpepper and the rest of the Raiders' offense in check. And they were able to lean heavily on LenDale White, who ran for 133 yards.
Don't look now, but ...
» The New Orleans Saints are back, so very back. They have won three in a row, making their 0-4 start seem like a distant memory. And they are winning games the way they won them in 2006, when they were the darlings of the league.
Drew Brees is a prolific touchdown-throwing machine again; he connected for four scores while throwing for 336 yards in a 31-10 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Three went to his most explosive target in '06, Marques Colston. It also is noteworthy that Reggie Bush generated more than 100 yards in total offense. Bush doesn't have to be a solely a dominant rushing force who can be as productive between the tackles as he is outside. He can be every bit as effective by combining his exceptional receiving skills with his running on the perimeter.
» The Detroit Lions have won two in a row and are halfway toward making good on Jon Kitna's public mention last March that the team was good enough to win at least 10. The Lions put together a complete effort in beating the Chicago Bears, 16-7. They intercepted Brian Griese four times and allowed the Bears little room to run. Kitna threw for 268 yards, and Kevin Jones rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown. Granted, the Bears are a bad team, but the Lions merit credit as a rising force in the NFC. Listening to Kitna, one gets the distinct feeling that this team has a firm belief in its ability to make a playoff run.
» The Browns have won two in a row, and their offense is beginning to command some serious respect. Derek Anderson continues to put together one of the most remarkable stories of the season, going from forgotten backup to dominant starting quarterback. He threw for 248 yards and three touchdowns, two to Braylon Edwards. Edwards did a fairly decent Randy Moss imitation, catching eight passes and looking virtually impossible to cover. The Browns' defense made plays when it needed to, including Leigh Bodden's interception of a Marc Bulger pass to seal the outcome with 37 seconds left.
» The Buffalo Bills have won two in a row and have a legitimate chance to go on a four-game winning streak. They beat the hapless New York Jets 13-3, with J.P. Losman replacing injured Trent Edwards and leading them to 10 points, including an 85-yard touchdown hook-up with Lee Evans. The Bills' next two opponents are the Bengals at home and the winless Miami Dolphins on the road.