Week 11 had its share of major upsets, gutsy and prolific performances and, of course, more playoff intrigue.
Here are six observations I took away from Sunday:
1. Making a case for Minnnesota
The Colts are fighting through multiple injuries in the secondary and the run offense is just adequate. The Saints can do it all with a great passing game, a solid run game and an aggressive defense. But for the first time this season, I am hearing more football people whom I respect mentioning the Vikings as the best team in the NFL.
Brett Favre has the same number of TD passes as Peyton Manning in 78 fewer attempts, one TD pass fewer than Drew Brees in 10 fewer attempts and he has the No. 1 passer rating in the NFL. In Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, the Vikings have the best running back tandem among these three teams. The pass rush for the Vikings is tops in the NFL with 36 sacks.
It may be premature, but the Vikings' win over Seattle on Sunday, when Favre was done midway through the third quarter, made a case for them as a candidate for the top spot.
2. AFC North went south
A week ago, it was easy to make the argument that the AFC North was the best division in football and three teams from that division would make the playoffs. A lot of people thought the Bengals, Steelers, and Ravens all had a solid shot for the postseason. Things change fast in the NFL and when the entire AFC North went down this weekend, it didn't help the division's image.
Three of the division losses were hard to watch, while one was more understandable. The Bengals, Steelers and Browns faced three teams with a combined 5-22 record heading into the weekend, and all lost. The Ravens were the only AFC North team with a home game, but they faced the undefeated Colts, and lost to Indianapolis for the seventh straight time. Right now, it's hard to make a case for the once-mighty AFC North.
3. Gradkowski told a bigger story
The Raiders' win over the red-hot Cincinnati Bengals was one of the biggest stories of Week 11, but the story within the story is even bigger. Gradkowski exposed how bad the situation really is with JaMarcus Russell. Gradkowski is no superstar -- he now holds a career 4-9 record as a starter -- but he did play behind the same offensive line and throw to the same receivers with which Russell had an opportunity to play.
Russell has been sacked once every nine attempts this season; Gradkowski was not sacked once in 34 attempts Sunday. Russell threw two touchdown passes in nine starts; Gradkowski equaled that in one game. Russell did not throw more touchdown passes than interceptions in any game this year; Gradkowski did it in his first start.
After Sunday's win, I had to wonder how many games the Raiders would have won if Russell wasn't the starter all season long. It's too bad some top draft picks get to play because of their contracts, as opposed to earning the job.
4. Kudos to three offensive lines
It's very difficult for any offensive line to not permit a sack while also helping your team rush for more than 100 yards and, of course, win the game. This week, three teams were able to achieve that triple crown, and I tip my hat to the great efforts made by the O-lines of the Dolphins, Saints and Chargers.
Miami didn't give up a sack in 29 pass attempts, rushed for 154 yards and beat the Panthers. New Orleans was perfect in 29 pass attempts, rushed for 183 yards and beat the Buccaneers. The Chargers protected Philip Rivers on all 22 of his throws, cranked out 203 yards on the ground and beat division-rival Denver.
5. Re-thinking expanded schedule
I am in favor of playing more real games and less preseason games, but Week 11 really brought to my attention that a lot of things have to go into the formula to make it work. Injuries to quarterbacks Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford served as a reminder that all three quarterbacks on a roster should be active at all times with no 46th player rule.
There were so many running backs injured heading into this weekend's games that roster expansion for at least another back is necessary. In fact, two former NFL head coaches I spoke to Sunday concur with me that the right roster size for an expanded season should be 58, with 54 active on game day.
Have you noticed how inconsistent special teams -- particularly the coverage units -- have been recently as the injuries mount? As one GM pointed out, imagine if there were seven more regular-season games left before the playoffs, instead of five.
The best time to consider an expanded season is not in the offseason, when the subject is dealt with using charts and statistics, but rather in the last month of the season -- when all the potential issues are fresh in the minds of those struggling to keep a good team on the field.
6. A tough balancing act
The 2009 version of NFL offense is all about the passing game, but smart coaches and good teams realize that a balanced offense is a dangerous offense. This week, three good teams that have been heavily pass oriented made statements that the run game is becoming a factor -- and that makes them contenders to go far in the postseason.
The Chargers ranked 29th in rushing offense in the NFL, but Sunday we got a glimpse of their old run game when LaDainian Tomlinson almost hit the 100-yard mark. San Diego absolutely pounded the Broncos with 43 rushing plays for 203 yards and two touchdowns. They will not be down at the bottom of the league for long with that attitude adjustment.
The Arizona Cardinals started their campaign to improve the running game two weeks ago, climbed out from the bottom of the league and now sit in the 27th spot after rushing 30 times for 183 yards and one TD this week. In the last three games, they now have rushed 84 times for 454 yards.