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Week 9 lookahead: Good teams need to separate from bad ones

In the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," Gordon Lightfoot sings "the gales of November come early," referring to the storms that happen on Lake Superior. Those words also apply to the NFL as we flip the calendar and head into Week 9 -- some teams will survive the gales, others will sink.

Eight weeks into the season, teams have separated themselves from one another. We have a few really good teams, a handful of good teams, too many bad teams and some really bad teams. When a good team like the Texans plays a bad team like the Browns in November, there cannot be any slip-ups. Houston clearly is the better team. The Texans should win and they need to win -- but will they win?

I once had lunch with former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight, Bill Belichick and the great Gil Brandt. Coach Knight was discussing how hard it is for good teams to always play well against the bad teams. He said it was never hard to get his team ready to play another good team or rebound off a bad outing, but maintaining the level of play against bad teams was a different story. These problems are not as difficult earlier in the season as teams, good or bad, are still fighting for an identity. But when the gales of November start, the problems begin.

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Belichick won't have any trouble getting his defense's attention after a bad outing in Pittsburgh. Saints coach Sean Payton will have no trouble getting his team to focus after a horrible showing in St. Louis. But what about the Texans, 49ers (at Washington) or Chiefs (vs. Miami)? With all three coming off wins, how will they handle their recent success? Can those teams continue to play well, continue to hear the message when the outside world is already counting the game in the win column? There are no easy wins in the NFL, home or away.

The solution to the problem, according to coach Knight, is to be even more demanding after a win, particularly when preparing for a game against a lesser opponent. Most teams adopt the personality of their head coach. If the coach is worried, the team will be worried. If the coach is working hard and doing some unique things in his preparation, then the team will sense his level of concern and respond.

The key to putting away the bad teams is to jump on them early. Establish the lead, not the run or the pass. Making the lesser team play from behind is a great way to avoid the upset. The Texans must treat the Browns as if they are the Titans. If they do, they will win.

The First 15

  1. The Eagles looked like the "Dream Team" last Sunday against the Cowboys, operating on all cylinders offensively, defensively and on special teams. Watching the tape of the game, I'm amazed that teams continue to match personnel with Philadelphia's offense and create disadvantages for themselves. No matter what offensive personnel is on the field, the Eagles are a nickel finesse team. They could have three tight ends and one receiver, but all the plays will be nickel plays -- which means they have no power. What the Eagles want a defensive unit to do is keep their big, slow guys on the field so the Greatest Show On Grass can exploit the matchups and run its fast break offense. The smart teams will play the Eagles in nickel and not care about the down and distances.
  1. Not since the 2002 Buccaneers has a team won the Super Bowl running the pure West Coast offensive exclusively. Seattle was a Super Bowl participant in 2006, but this long drought begs the question: Is the West Coast offense dead? Some teams, like the Saints, Eagles and Packers, run concepts of the West Coast, but they are not an exclusive West Coast team. The only team remaining that is exclusively West Coast is the Browns, and they might want to expand their package to include a more diversified system. The Browns need more playmakers and a better quarterback, but more importantly they need to add to their offense.
  1. Writing about Cleveland's offense leads me to a game I play every week at NFL Films. I sit in my office in Mt Laurel, N.J., put the Browns' attack on my screen and call a friend who was a coach in the league, but is now in between successes. I tell my friend the personnel group, the formation, where the ball is located on the field and what hash mark and describe the motion -- if there is any -- and ask him to tell me the exact play that will be run. He is correct about 95 percent of the time. No lie. The Browns are so integrated into the West Coast system that their predictability is becoming legendary around the league.
  1. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is a Raider because coach Hue Jackson, and not quarterback Carson Palmer, made it so. Jackson said he wanted Houshmandzadeh in July but was overruled by owner Al Davis. And trust me, if Mr. Davis was alive today, Hue Jackson would have been overruled once again. There is no way that Davis would have allowed one of his fast receivers to be taken off the field for Houshmandzadeh. I was hoping the Raiders would keep their standards of the type of players they want on their team, but clearly Jackson wants the players he wants, not caring -- or perhaps not knowing -- the importance placed on speed that has been the Raiders identity. Each time the Raiders get away from their standards, they get away from their core principles and beliefs. Yes, the Raiders need change, but not at receiver where they have really good young players who are capable of making big plays.
  1. Watching Joe Flacco play in the second half last Sunday, when the Ravens were down 24-3 and the offense ran out of the shotgun, it made me feel the best offense for Baltimore is the spread. Flacco looks more comfortable in the spread, which in turn makes him more decisive. Now what he needs to do is handle the pass protections calls from the line of scrimmage and not rely on center Matt Birk to make them.
  1. The Jets plan to use running back Joe McKnight more in their base offense against Buffalo, attempting to utilize his play-making skills. But before McNight can become a full-time player, he must prove he can pass protect, something he has not done well up to this point in the season.
  1. The Bills will be wearing their white jerseys at home this weekend, signifying the importance of their game with the Jets. The last time the Bills wore white at home was on Oct. 19, 1986, against the Colts. The Bills won 24-13 in Jim Kelly's first AFC East victory. Think the fans will be crazy for this one? I hope the Jets worked hard on their silent count this week.
  1. The Falcons have to deal with starting left tackle Sam Baker missing some games with a hip injury. Baker is a good left tackle, not great, but still this injury will force the Falcons to stay more with the running game and not try to be a passing team. The Falcons are best when they play this tempo, not when they play a fast break passing style.
  1. Watching Peyton Manning call plays from the sideline, trying to help Curtis Painter, is really impressive. I'm told reliably from a league source that Manning has been great on the headsets with Painter and incredibly accurate with his play calls. He has devoted preparation time to be an asset on the sideline, which is awfully nice of him.
  1. With the Steelers playing so much man coverage on the Patriots, it's clear that Chad Ochocinco is still not in sync with the offense. It is hard to change systems so late in a player's career and Ocho does not appear to be playing with confidence, which often means he is unsure what to do. The Patriots offense is complex and it relies on each receiver being in the right place at the right time, something Ochocinco has a hard time doing.
  1. One of the keys for quarterback Andy Dalton's success in Cincinnati has been the team's ability to start fast offensively and defensively. The Bengals have outscored their opponents 40-14 in the first quarter. Dalton has played well, but the Bengals' ability on defense has helped his development.
  1. Tim Tebow is the lightning rod for all that is wrong with the Broncos. But what keeps getting overlooked is that the Denver defense is no better now than it was last season. In fact, it's worse. And this has nothing to do with Tebow. The Broncos last season allowed an opposing quarterback rating of 93 and 7.8 yards per attempt. This year they are allowing a 107.1 rating and 8.1 per attempt. This is with Elvis Dumervil back in the lineup and adding excellent rookie rusher Von Miller. Tebow has played poorly, but so have most of the Broncos.
  1. The way the Saints play their front, they are vulnerable to the outside run game, something the Rams exploited. New Orleans must find a way to adjust defensively during the game. They also must set the edge stronger to keep teams from running outside. The defense now is a liability, struggling to play run defense, cover and rush. If the offense does not carry the team, controlling the pace, the Saints will struggle to win games.
  1. We keep track of every statistic in football except all the holding penalties called against a defensive lineman. On a pass play when an offensive lineman is holding a defender, thus keeping the rusher from a sack, there is rarely a mention of which player is held. But these calls are critical and we should keep a record. While I'm at it, missed field goals should be placed in the turnover category and factored into the turnover/takeaway ratio.
  1. The Titans might be making a few changes to their offensive line at center and right guard. Guard Jake Scott and center Eugene Amano have not played well this year and are part of the reason the Titans haven't been able to run the ball effectively. Both players are on the hot seat and it will be interesting if the Titans make any changes.

Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi

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