This is the sort of thing that leads you to believe that Kyle Orton's success is no fluke, why you're willing to at least consider buying into the notion that he has emerged as the top quarterback in the NFC North and among the better quarterbacks in the NFL.
The Chicago Bears had a first-and-10 from their own 20 on Sunday. The Lions disguised their coverage in such a way as to entice Orton to throw to the tight end on the right side of the formation. But the tight end would have been covered so well, the play probably had little hope of going very far -- if the completion were even made. Orton immediately recognized that and went to the left where dynamic Devin Hester, working from the slot, was one-on-one with a cornerback. Orton made the throw for a 32-yard gain, and the drive ended with him connecting with Hester for a touchdown to give the Bears a 17-0 lead on the way to a 34-7 victory.
Orton rewards Smith's love
Bears coach Lovie Smith made the tough choice in the preseason in choosing Kyle Orton over Rex Grossman. His reward? A 3-2 record and first place in the NFC North. More ...
"That was a play, a couple of weeks ago, he might not have made," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "He's playing well and getting better each time out. The biggest thing is his confidence is growing every week. You can see it in the way he practices, you can see it in the way he prepares, and you can see it in his decisions."
Besides recognizing the long throw available to Hester, Orton made several other good decisions in helping the Bears win their second game in a row to improve their division-leading record to 3-2. He set career highs for passing yards (334), completions (24, in 34 attempts) and passer rating (121.4). He also threw for two touchdowns and had no interceptions.
But it was the Bears' coaches who made the best decision of all in the preseason when they chose Orton as their starter over Rex Grossman. Turner said it came from a "gut feeling" he shared with coach Lovie Smith that Orton would give them the consistency they had told both quarterbacks would determine a close battle that began in the offseason.
Now, Orton has made himself worth noticing as a long-awaited answer for a team perpetually seeking stability at quarterback. And he might very well be more than that. He arguably is playing his position better than any other quarterback in the NFC North, even if it isn't exactly overflowing with talent at the position.
Orton also is doing himself reasonably proud next to other quarterbacks in the league. In his last eight starts, including three in 2007, Orton has had a higher passer rating than every quarterback he has faced except Donovan McNabb. Among the others on that list are Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, and Jake Delhomme. Orton's five-game rating of 87.6 is quite a contrast to the league-low 59.7 he had in 2005, when he was pressed into the starting job as a rookie after a season-ending injury to Grossman.
Back then, Orton was seen as being mostly over his head, even though the Bears were 10-5 in the games he started. The perception of his talent has since changed dramatically.
"I hope I'm in that consideration," Orton said of having an elevated status in the NFL. "I determine it by wins. That's my number one goal every single game. I'm not unhappy if we win the game and we throw for 160 yards. I'm as happy as I was (Sunday) when we threw for 330. As long as we're winning football games, I feel like I'm doing my job."
"There's no question he's playing well, and the good news is he's getting better," Turner said. "The thing I like is he's utilizing everyone around him. I mean, every game we're throwing to seven, eight different receivers, getting everyone involved in the offense."
The Bears' coaches aren't the only ones who have faith that Orton can lead them a long way. Many of their players do, too. As center Olin Kreutz told reporters after the Lions game, "We see how hard he works, how hard he studies the game. He's there every day. He stays late. So we expect games like (the one he had against Detroit) out of him."
"I think (the trust of his teammates) was high to begin with," Turner said. "They know he's a very smart football player. They know he's going to get us out of bad plays, get us into good plays, and he's going to do that through his preparation."
According to Turner, the greatest improvements in Orton's game since he joined the Bears as a fourth-round draft pick from Purdue have been his accuracy and touch. Orton once was known has someone who only could throw the ball hard. Now, he does a much better job of altering the velocity of his passes, slowing them down on shorter throws.
"It's been a continual process since my rookie year," Orton said. "I've worked hard on the fundamentals of the game with Pep Hamilton, our quarterback coach. He's done a great job of fundamentally making me a better football player, which has, in turn, made me a more accurate passer ... I'm throwing the ball better than I ever have."
Hamilton's greatest point of emphasis to Orton is to remain relaxed throughout the entire throwing process, "from getting away from center to actually delivering the football, which, in turn, just makes me more balanced and more accurate as I'm delivering the football. And, really, just being in Coach Turner's system now for four years, I feel extremely comfortable with it and it allows me to make good, quick decisions on a regular basis. I just feel I'm in a good spot right now."
Sometimes it is passes that Orton doesn't complete that are every bit as important as the ones he does. As gaudy as his numbers might have been against the Lions, the stat that gave him the greatest sense of pride was zero interceptions.
"I always like to have two, three good throwaways in a game," Orton said. "We came out of that (Detroit) game with no turnovers on offense, which is always the No. 1 goal for us. Get the positive run plays, get the positive pass plays, and just try to execute the offense. That is my strength and hopefully it gets better."
The Bears' strength is a highly talented defense. They also have an impressive rookie running back in Matt Forte. There is reason to believe they could become a steadily growing factor in the NFC postseason race.
"We want to get on a long winning streak," Orton said. "We feel this is a critical part in our season, this stretch that we've got coming up. We've got a very tough game on the road against Atlanta. We've got our work cut out for us. We've got to show up.
"Each week we've practiced great. That's really the task at hand right now, to show up at work this week and stay hungry and get better. And if we do that, we're getting to being a really good offense."
Monday night musings
» No matter how it happened, the Vikings have to be extremely satisfied with scoring a crucial road victory. It wasn't an overstatement to say their season was on, or close to, the brink. High expectations had been followed by considerable disappointment, and allowing a game they led 20-10 at halftime to get away would only increase the doubts about all of the heavy spending that was done to make them a contender.
Did the Saints outplay them for much of the night? Yes. Did they benefit from controversial officiating calls, including a missed flagrant grab of Reggie Bush's facemask that led to a fumble by the Saints' running back? Yes. Did they prosper from fluky plays, such as Antoine Winfield's return of a blocked field goal for a touchdown ... and a deep scoring catch that came after two receivers oddly ran the same route and collided at the goal line ... and a missed field-goal attempt? Yes, yes, and yes.
Still, the Vikings won. And along the way they gained some faith in their tough, gritty veteran quarterback, Gus Frerotte. On a night when the Vikings saw a stunning shutdown of Adrian Peterson, Frerotte stepped up and made some clutch throws, all while taking a severe beating from the Saints' pass rush.
» Bush offered a reminder of why so many of us thought he was one of the most dynamic players ever to emerge from the college ranks, why we second-guessed the Houston Texans' decision not to select him with the first pick of the 2006 draft. You want a dominant, every-down running back? Okay, maybe he simply is too small to ever give you that on a regular basis. What he will give you, however, is incredible playmaking when he gets the ball in space. For some reason, the Vikings gave it to him on two punts he returned for touchdowns and a third that nearly went the distance.
The doubters will continue to say that Bush's modest rushing production doesn't equal his hype or salary. But those punt returns, along with his pass-catching, are why the Saints made Bush the second overall pick of the draft. It also is why, on top of Drew Brees' passing, the Saints will rebound and stay in the thick of the NFC South battle.
» The Vikings are going to be nagged by the troubling fact that they could never get Peterson going against a Saints defense missing one of its best run-stuffers, rookie tackle Sedrick Ellis, and seemingly overmatched against one of the best offensive lines in the league. Somehow, the Saints managed to control the line of scrimmage and scramble to the ball. They gave Peterson virtually nowhere to go. And, for a change, he wasn't able to create his own running room.
The guess here is that Peterson won't have many more such duds in the future. Expect a dramatic improvement in Week 6 against Detroit.
Broncos go hybrid on Bucs
Denver's best defensive showing of the season had plenty to do with some strategic moves that kept the Buccaneers' offense guessing throughout the game.
Carucci's quarter-season superlatives
Top offensive player:Jay Cutler, QB, Denver
Top defensive player: Albert Haynesworth, DT, Tennessee
Top offensive rookie:DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia
Top defensive rookie: Chris Horton, S, Washington
Comeback player: Marcus Stroud, DT, Buffalo
Top coach:Jim Zorn, Washington
Biggest surprise: Miami
Biggest disappointment: Cleveland
The Broncos alternated between their 4-3 scheme and a 3-4 look, using what defensive tackle Kenny Peterson described as a "hybrid" look. They also did more frequent rotating of their defensive linemen. Consequently, for the first time this season, they generated a pass rush that had teeth. Besides sacking Brian Griese three times and eventually knocking him out of the game, the Broncos also forced Jeff Garcia to hurry a half-dozen throws. The Broncos were having so much defensive success up front, they began calling more blitzes than they intended to use.
The Buccaneers were clearly caught off-guard by Denver's defensive game plan. They had pretty much prepared an offensive scheme that didn't account for so many varied alignments on the other side of the ball, and apparently couldn't make an effective adjustment to it.
Falcons fly over tall hurdle
The inclination might be to flag Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking for an overstatement after he told reporters Atlanta's victory at Green Bay was the kind of game that could "define a season." After all, the Falcons are 3-2 and it's hard to gauge exactly how far they're going to be able to go this year with a rookie quarterback, Matt Ryan, and a rookie coach, Mike Smith.
But when a team is still trying to find its identity, certain accomplishments do have a way of becoming milestones that can provide much-needed confidence for the rest of the season. The Falcons now believe they can win on the road, something they hadn't done previously this year and something they've only done twice in their last 13 away games.
Perhaps no player's psyche will benefit more from the outcome than Ryan, who performed poorly in the Falcons' two road losses. He was solid against the Packers, throwing for 194 yards and a pair of touchdowns while posting a passer rating of 94.1. He did have an interception, but seems to be showing greater comfort with what he sees before and after the snap and is adjusting well to the speed of the NFL game.
It also doesn't hurt that Ryan has gotten outstanding rushing support from Michael Turner, the former Charger who is proving to be one of the league's best offseason acquisitions.
Warner wise to reconsider retirement
Quitting after what proved to be one of the worst days of Warner's career would have been a rash decision that he probably would have regretted. Understandably, he was upset about watching Anquan Boldin suffer a frightening hit while trying to catch a late throw from him in the end zone. He no doubt was crushed by the fact he turned the ball over six times and looked like an aging quarterback rather than someone with enough left in his tank to keep young Matt Leinart on the bench.
But Warner showed the mental strength to gather his emotions and focus on rebounding from the nightmare in the Meadowlands. He did it by working hard all week at making sure he wouldn't turn the ball over Sunday against the Bills. Warner even had his two youngest children chase him around his house, trying to separate him from a football that he made a point of holding with two hands.
Not only did he avoid losing the ball against Buffalo, he made enough big plays while operating a quick-paced offense that emphasized short throws to lead the Cardinals to a stunning rout of a previously unbeaten opponent. It was especially impressive that he was able to stand tall against the Bills' strong defensive front and complete passes to nine different receivers.
And Warner showed his customary toughness by not being the least bit fazed after a helmet hit from Kawika Mitchell opened a cut under his chin. It was the same toughness he displayed by reconsidering retirement.