This is what an elite team is supposed to do: Win decisively against a banged-up, inferior opponent.
This is what an elite team, or at least one on the fringes of elite, cannot afford to do: Lose against a bottom-dwelling club playing for next year.
The Packers did exactly what they were supposed to do by beating the Carolina Panthers, 31-17, in a game that was not as close as the score indicated. The Steelers? They raised some serious questions about where (or even if) they belong with the NFL's best by losing to the lowly New York Jets, 19-16, in overtime.
It was the same old story for Green Bay. For the fourth time this season, Brett Favre threw for three touchdowns, two to Donald Lee. His incredible groove is a testament to his freakish skills and ageless body. He still possesses one of the strongest and most accurate arms in the game. And there isn't a coverage or any defensive wrinkle seemingly capable of throwing him off stride. The Panthers tried, and failed, just like most of the others on the Packers' schedule so far.
Green Bay played its usual sound defense, intercepting Vinny Testaverde twice and forcing a fumble. Corey Williams had two sacks and forced two fumbles. Of the Panthers' 12 possessions, five ended in punts and three ended in turnovers. Testaverde did manage a pair of meaningless late scoring throws.
They have an excellent defense. They have a superb running game. They have a top-level quarterback.
What the Steelers (7-3) apparently don't have is the ability to consistently win on the road, where all three of their losses have occurred. And all have come against beatable teams. The Steelers already were having a difficult time living down their losses at Arizona and Denver. Now they carry the stigma of becoming only the second team to lose to the Jets this season.
The Steelers' defense actually did its part, even though Thomas Jones' 107 yards rushing made him first back to crack the 100-yard mark against them since Edgerrin James did so in 2005 for Indianapolis. The story of this game was Pittsburgh's inability to produce more than a Ben Roethlisberger touchdown pass and three Jeff Reed field goals. Willie Parker was limited to 52 yards on the ground.
In short, they left plenty of doubt as to whether they should be mentioned in the same sentence as the league's big three -- New England, Dallas, and Green Bay.
Sorting out the wild cards
Jacksonville 24, San Diego 17: The Jaguars' physical, punishing defense did the job in this one. It intercepted Philip Rivers twice in the fourth quarter, the second ending a drive for a potential tying score with 1:26 remaining. It held LaDainian Tomlinson to 62 rushing yards, although one did result in a touchdown. David Garrard, playing his first game in nearly a month since suffering an ankle injury, was sharp. He threw a pair of touchdown passes and performed efficiently. At 7-3, the Jaguars are only a game behind the Indianapolis Colts, so they are very much in contention to win the AFC South. Otherwise, they are in the strongest position to capture a wild-card berth in the AFC.
Cleveland 33, Baltimore 30 (OT): It was a crazy ending, with Phil Dawson's 51-yard field goal that tied the game at the end of regulation first being ruled no good before replays showed that the ball actually bounced behind the crossbar after careening off the left upright. (No one believed that could happen once, but a similar field goal actually was scored from 52 yards by Buffalo's Rian Lindell in the Bills' Sunday Night Football loss to New England.) That the Browns put themselves in position for Dawson's 33-yard winner is a reflection of the grit they showed throughout the game. Despite their struggles, the Ravens did come to play and put up a surprisingly good fight. But the Browns, whose defense intercepted Kyle Boller twice (returning one for a touchdown), ultimately proved they were the better team, as their series sweep confirmed. At 6-4, the Browns are in solid shape for an AFC wild-card spot, although they face strong competition from Jacksonville and Tennessee.
N.Y. Giants 16, Detroit 10: At 7-3, the Giants are in excellent position for a wild-card spot, especially with a win against one of their primary challengers for one of the two NFC berths. Although the Giants allowed Jon Kitna to throw for 377 yards and a touchdown, they did intercept him three times. Eli Manning's numbers weren't spectacular, but he was solid, throwing for 283 yards and a score. The Giants are not out of the running for the NFC East title, although losing twice to Dallas will make it difficult to catch the Cowboys. It could be even tougher for the Giants after linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka suffered what figures to be a season-ending broken leg and running back Brandon Jacobs suffered a hamstring injury.
Philadelphia 17, Miami 7: Facing the winless Dolphins, the Eagles didn't necessarily need to be at their very best. Donovan McNabb certainly wasn't. He completed only three of 11 passes for 34 yards and threw two interceptions before leaving the game with an ankle injury. His replacement, A.J. Feeley, threw for a score and was also intercepted. For the second week in a row, Brian Westbrook was the Eagles' offensive catalyst, rushing for 148 yards. Philadelphia's defense was solid, not allowing a score; the Dolphins' touchdown came on Ted Ginn's franchise-record 89-yard punt return. At 5-5, the Eagles, along with the Redskins, are in the hunt for a wild-card spot in the wide-open NFC.
Houston 23, New Orleans 10: Watch out for the Texans. At 5-5, they have crept into the AFC wild-card playoff picture. Their defense did a number on the Saints, who are back to the bungling ways that caused them to open the year 0-4. They intercepted Drew Brees twice. Mario Williams, the defensive end the Texans selected with the first choice of the 2006 draft rather than Saints running back Reggie Bush, finished with six tackles, including a sack. He also forced a fumble. Bush finished with only 34 rushing yards, but did have 70 yards receiving.
Arizona 35, Cincinnati 27: At 5-5, the Cardinals can have realistic thoughts about a wild-card playoff berth. They're not out of the running for the NFC West title, trailing Seattle by a game. In scoring their second win in a row, the Cardinals upped their takeaway total in their last two games to 10. They intercepted Carson Palmer four times. Kurt Warner was highly efficient in throwing for 211 yards and a pair of scores.
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