The NFL season reached the three-quarter pole, as they say in horse racing, and I don't know if there's ever been a year with more excitement and surprises when it comes to both team and individual performances. Turnarounds by teams such as Miami, Baltimore and Atlanta have been almost unbelievable. We have seen new stars come to the forefront every weekend, and Week 13 was no exception.
There is no doubt that the next four weeks will provide a stretch run that will be equally exciting. Competitive balance has really taken hold this season.
Here's what we learned in some key games from Week 13:
Last week, I said the key to this game would be New England quarterback Matt Cassel versus Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's blitzes thrown in for good measure. This was a very close game in the first half -- tied at 10 after two quarters -- but Pittsburgh's defense took over from there.
Coaches will tell you that the opening drive of the second half is always so important in a close game. Well, the Patriots received the second-half kickoff and, thanks to Pittsburgh penalties on two of the first three plays, they had the ball at the Steelers' 40-yard line. On first down, Cassel completed a pass to Kevin Faulk for nine yards. On second-and-1, Casey Hampton sacked Cassel for a 6-yard loss. On third-and-7, Cassel threw incomplete, forcing a punt. The Patriots of 2007 never missed out when given a scoring opportunity, and they needed to convert on every shot to have a chance against a Steelers defense that has not allowed more than 290 yards in a game all season. Cassel had two things going against him in this game -- it was the first time he's ever started a game in bad weather, and it was tough going against Pittsburgh's blitzing defense.
The Patriots did manage to run for 122 yards, but they were forced to pass more in the second half, which led to two sacks and strips of the ball -- both by linebacker James Harrison, each time against Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light. Cassel was sacked five times in all, and he committed turnovers on four consecutive drives -- the last one resulting in an 89-yard interception return by Lawrence Timmons to the New England 1-yard line. The Steelers want to force turnovers and control the clock. In addition to the turnovers, they had the ball for 35 minutes.
With a victory Sunday, the Falcons doubled their win total from 2007 -- doing it with a first-time head coach and a rookie quarterback who a year ago at this time was getting ready to play Virginia Tech in the ACC title game. And they've also done it with a free-agent running back in Michael Turner who rushed for just 316 yards and one touchdown last season. Playing against his old team, Turner rushed for 120 yards, giving him 1,208 yards for the season. He failed to score in San Diego, but he's already got 13 TDs this season, 12 more than he had last year.
And while Mike Smith, Matt Ryan and Michael Turner get most of the attention, don't forget about the Atlanta defense. In 2007, the unit ranked 29th overall, allowing an average of 355.5 yards per game while the offense had an average time of possession of less than 29 minutes. On Sunday, Atlanta held the ball for 34:58 and allowed 201 yards on defense. The run defense held LaDainian Tomlinson to 24 yards rushing, the second-lowest total in his career.
The game was not as close as the score indicated -- the Chargers' only touchdown of the second half came on an 86-yard fumble return by safety Eric Weddle. The play of Ryan was unbelievable. He's got 13 TD passes and just six interceptions on the season, with a passer rating of 91.2. To show you what a complete player he is: On Weddle's 86-yard return, Ryan shoved official Mike Carey out of the way in an attempt to prevent the score.
Atlanta already has scored 39 more points than it did all of last season. The Falcons play Tampa Bay, one of the two teams ahead of them in the NFC South, at home on Dec. 14. The other team ahead of them, Carolina, finishes on the road against the Giants and the Saints. You can be sure a lot of national media will be asking directions over the next month from Atlanta Hartsfield Airport to Flowery Branch, Ga., where the team is headquartered.
How good are the Giants? Until this week, only four teams have ever won the Super Bowl and then posted a better record the following season. The Giants became the fifth team to accomplish that feat when their victory in Washington gave them 11 wins in 2008. The Giants have scored 362 points in 12 games and are on pace to break the team record of 448. On defense, they held the Redskins to seven points for the second time this season -- the lowest two-game total for the Redskins against their division rival since 1993.
The weather was bad and the Redskins dared Giants quarterback Eli Manning to beat them passing. Manning completed 21 of 34 passes for 305 yards and a touchdown. For Manning, it was his first 300-yard game of the season. The Giants controlled the ball for more than 35 minutes, and the defense held the NFL's leading rusher Clinton Portis to 22 yards on 11 caries. In light of the off-field problems with Plaxico Burress that undoubtedly caused distractions, this win gives you an idea how good this team is playing right now. One of the many unsung players on the team is second-year tight end Kevin Boss, both as a blocker and receiver. Boss has five TD receptions this year -- matching the total for the Giants' tight ends as a group last season.
What a difference a week makes. Last week, the Broncos were embarrassed at home by the Raiders, while the Jets scored a huge road win over the previously unbeaten Titans. Denver QB Jay Cutler had completed less than 50 percent of his passes against Oakland while talk of a "subway Super Bowl" was all over New York.
So what happens? Sunday in the rain, Cutler passed for 357 yards and two TDs. Against a strong Jets run defense, Peyton Hillis became the 11th rookie running back this season to post a 100-yard running game. Earlier in the week, one national media outlet suggested Denver shouldn't even bother making the trip to New York. Just another case of competitive balance.
Jets running back Thomas Jones saw an impressive streak come to an end. Jones' teams had won 16 consecutive games in which he scored at least one touchdown. Jones scored twice Sunday in the loss.
The Broncos attacked the Jets by throwing to tight ends Tony Scheffler and Daniel Graham, who combined for 13 catches and 149 yards between them. Meanwhile, Brett Favre faced the NFL's 28th-ranked defense, a group that was allowing 27.5 points per game, and was held without a TD. Favre was not very accurate passing in the bad weather. Denver now has a three-game lead with four to play in AFC West -- despite the fact they have been outscored by 27 points for the season.
Miami kicker Dan Carpenter, an undrafted rookie out of Montana, has converted 11 consecutive field goal attempts. … In 2007, Baltimore RB Le'Ron McClain had eight carries for 18 yards in 16 games. In Sunday's win over Cincinnati, he ran for 86 yards, giving him 545 for the season, with six TDs. … Cincinnati, in its first six possessions, ran 18 plays for a total of 20 yards. … Green Bay has lost four games this season by four points or less. … After Chicago QB Kyle Orton threw his 206th consecutive pass without an interception Sunday night in Minnesota, three of his next seven attempts were picked off. … The 99-yard TD pass from Gus Frerotte to Bernard Berrian was the 11th such completion in NFL history. Former Eagles QB and current ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski is one of the previous 10 to throw a 99-yard TD. … LaDainian Tomlinson became the fifth player in NFL history with both 10,000 rushing yards and 500 catches. His TD in the loss to Atlanta tied him with Marshall Faulk for fifth on the all-time list with 136. … Miami used the "Wildcat" formation only twice Sunday, gaining a total of two yards on two carries. … Denver coach Mike Shanahan won his 153rd career game, tying Steve Owen for 16th all-time. … Carolina RB DeAngelo Williams set a team record with four rushing TDs.