Friends and lovers: Prepare yourself for a juicy playoff race in the AFC.
Let's start in the frisky North, where the surging Steelers (6-3) sit atop a division housing four squads above .500. Pittsburgh's decisive win over the Ravens on Sunday night serves merely as the appetizer for what comes next: With the suddenly relevant Browns visiting the Bengals on Thursday Night Football, Cleveland (5-3) has a chance to share first place in the division in November for the first time in roughly 214 years. A Cincinnati (5-2-1) win would give Andy Dalton and Co. sole possession of first place.
Beyond the North, the surprising Bills (5-3) remain a factor while the white-hot Dolphins (5-3) have our attention as a sneaky playoff contender following Sunday's 37-0 dismantling of the once-promising Chargers. The Colts (5-3) can beat anyone with Andrew Luck at the wheel while the Chiefs (5-3) deserve more attention: Following their Week 1 dud against the Titans, Kansas City has played well in seven straight games.
In short: The AFC remains a beautiful web of dreams. Hang on tight.
Here's what else you need to know from Week 9:
- A scorchingBen Roethlisberger has more touchdowns over the last two games (12) than the first seven (10) combined. This matchup turned in the second quarter, as the Steelers converted two Ravens turnovers into touchdowns. They went from down 7-0 to up 22-10 in an eight-minute span, proving for the third consecutive week that the quick-strike offense has the capability to run away with the game by capitalizing on opponents' mistakes. With Antonio Brown playing better than any wide receiver in the league, this aerial attack is as dangerous as any. At 6-3, the Steelers are in the driver's seat for a playoff spot.
- James Harrison has found the Fountain of Youth. After recording two sacks on Andrew Luck last week, he was the best defensive player on the field Sunday night, adding a couple of more sacks. Jarvis Jones is eligible to return from injured reserve-designated for return in Week 12, but he might not get his starting job back.
-- Chris Wesseling
-- Dan Hanzus
- No team is winning uglier than the Browns. Sitting at 5-3 for the first time in seven seasons, Cleveland squeaked by the Bucs despite a washed-up ground game and another hot-and-cold effort by Brian Hoyer. We thought the Browns passer would be benched at halftime for Johnny Manziel, but Hoyer fought through his two-interception afternoon to become the first Browns quarterback to throw for 200-plus yards in each of Cleveland's first eight games since Brian Sipe in 1983. It wasn't pretty, but Hoyer -- who also tossed two touchdowns -- does enough weekly to keep the gig.
- Mike Glennon leaves plenty to be desired, but Tampa's young quarterback made his share of plays downfield. He punctured Cleveland's secondary for throws of 34, 31, 27 and 22 yards, including a pair of scoring passes to rookie Mike Evans. Glennon also tossed an outrageous first-half pick that saw him badly overthrow Evans to erase a possible scoring drive. Unless Glennon fends off Josh McCown and shines down the stretch, Tampa remains a candidate to draft another quarterback.
-- Marc Sessler
- Arizona's defense only gave up three points on the day. The Cowboys' other seven came on an early pick six by Carson Palmer. It typified most of the day for the Cardinals' offense. Palmer had a lot of errant throws, and his receivers did him no favors with five drops. There were also key drive-killing penalties. Arizona pulled away with two late touchdowns, but this could have been a blowout much earlier. They looked like the far superior team.
-- Gregg Rosenthal
- This was one of the single most devastating games of the season injury-wise. DeMeco Ryans was carted off the field, and NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reports, via a source who spoke to the player, that the Eagles believe it's a torn Achilles, which would end his season. Arian Foster left the game with a non-contact injury on his leg, with the pain seemingly serious enough to make Foster spike his helmet on the ground. Eagles guard Todd Herremans re-injured his elbow and, above all else, Nick Foles was ruled out of the game with an injured collarbone. This is the type of brutal game that could very well change the course of two separate divisional races.
- Mark Sanchez was capable in his relief appearance, which not only suggests the brilliance of Chip Kelly's scheme in Philadelphia, but also the fact that Sanchez was a better quarterback than he was given credit for in New York. Sanchez started off the game with a bomb to Jeremy Maclin and placed the perfect amount of touch on a touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews. Of his two interceptions, only one was his fault. How much of a step down is he from the 2014 version of Foles at this point? We'll likely find out.
- Foster's injury issues are a disappointment, and not because we're misguided fantasy owners. He is really a joy to watch when he's on the field and is one of the greatest running backs of all time when it comes to total yards per game. Foster converted a third-and-18 on a draw and scored on a 56-yard touchdown pass. The double move he threw on Connor Barwin was brilliant.
-- Conor Orr
- The Chiefs have won three in a row and five of six. The consistent play of Alex Smith is a major reason why. The veteran quarterback was extremely efficient against Rex Ryan's overmatched and undermanned secondary, throwing for 199 yards with two touchdowns and no turnovers. Sunday marked the fourth time Smith has posted a passer rating north of 98 since Week 3.
- Michael Vick was unable to raise the Jets' offense from the dead. The veteran passer put up some respectable numbers, but the offense struggled to finish drives in a 10-point effort. Vick also missed a series after suffering a head injury in the third quarter. There's more reason to believe we'll see Geno Smith back in the lineup sooner than expected, but for now, Ryan revealed after the game that Vick would return with the first team next week against Pittsburgh.
-- Dan Hanzus
- Miami looks like a playoff team. San Diego does not. If not for missed opportunities, the Dolphins could have carried a 54-0 lead into the fourth quarter. The Chargers have lost three straight after a five-game winning streak. They will enter the bye week in third place in the AFC West, hoping to get cornerback Jason Verrett, linebacker Manti Te'o and running back Ryan Mathews back to turn their season around starting in Week 11. The defense has allowed an average of 31 points over the past four games after holding all of their first five opponents to 21 points or fewer.
- Outside of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Andrew Luck, no AFC quarterback has played better than Ryan Tannehill ever since coach Joe Philbin publicly flirted with the idea of turning to backup Matt Moore in late September. This is the best stretch of his young career. Only Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton have more rushing yards this season. If Tannehill keeps this up, the Dolphins will reach double-digit wins for the first time since 2008.
- The Chargers announced a hand injury late in the third quarter for Rivers, but he could have played if the game was close. His passer rating has been below 100.0 in each of the past three weeks after the first five-game streak in NFL history over 120.0. Sunday marked just his fourth career three-interception game and the 31.0 passer rating was his third-lowest ever. The offensive line woes are sabotaging this offense.
-- Chris Wesseling
- Robert Griffin III's return got off to a booming start. He was 6-of-6 passing to begin the game. However, he went 12 of 22 from there. He totaled 251 yards passing with a touchdown and an interception -- the latter on a putrid pass at the end of the first half that led to a Vikings score and completely changed the game.
Griffin's mobility wasn't an issue whatsoever. He ran seven times for 24 yards. He also displayed his ability to shimmy out of pressure, a talent few in our planetary system possess. His struggles were similar to the issues he displayed before the injury: He held onto the ball waaaaaaay too long in the pocket and was off-target on too many easy throws.
- Teddy Bridgewater threw a whopping 42 passes. He started out shaky and badly missed on some deep balls but adjusted in the second half. The rookie is still brutally streaky with his intermediate and long accuracy, but Norv Turner got the ball out of Bridgewater's hands quickly in the final two quarters. Bridgewater finished 26 of 42 for 268 yards and a touchdown. The rookie never made a big mistake. He utilized his feet to get out of the pocket and went through his progressions well, hitting wide-open receivers jaunting through the Redskins' secondary.
- When Matt Asiata scores a rushing touchdown, just mark him down for three. The running back recorded the third three-touchdown game of his career. He has zero rushing touchdowns in every other game he's played. Jerick McKinnon displayed again that he is by far the more talented running back and was vital to the Vikings' comeback. McKinnon helps drag the Vikings to the goal line and Asiata scores the touchdowns, apparently.
-- Kevin Patra
- The game was decided when Colin Kaepernick didn't field the snap cleanly on a quarterback sneak with nine seconds to play. The quarterback appeared to briefly gain possession before diving into the scrum, where the ball became dislodged and was recovered by the Rams. After an official review, the call on the field stood.
-- Dan Hanzus
- Marshawn Lynch piled up 143 total yards and two rushing touchdowns as the unquestioned centerpiece of Seattle's offensive game plan. Beast Mode ran with fresh legs and helped offset a Russell Wilson-led passing game that generated just 45 yards at the half. For all the hand-wringing over Seattle's perceived departure from a run-first philosophy, we're much more concerned with their paltry air attack.
- Wilson's scant numbers -- 17-of-35 passing for 179 yards -- had plenty to do with Oakland's active pass rush. Taking advantage of a Seahawks line missing tackle Russell Okung and center Max Unger, the Raiders repeatedly flushed Wilson out of the pocket and forced the Super Bowl-winning quarterback into a bevy of bubble screens and throws into the flats. His 5.1 yards per attempt were Wilson's second-lowest total all season.
- Raiders quarterback Derek Carr continues to impress with each start, but the rookie made too many mistakes out of the gate. After throwing a first-quarter pick six to Seahawks pass-rusher Bruce Irvin, Carr ended Oakland's next drive with a Richard Sherman interception that helped Seattle carve out a 17-3 lead they wouldn't lose.
-- Marc Sessler
- It's fitting that Brady and Peyton Manning combined for the most pass attempts ever in a non-overtime game. With a lot of help from Bill Belichick's creative defensive schemes, the former outplayed the latter in their 16th career matchup. The Broncos entered the game with the NFL's second-best defense, according to Football Outsiders' metrics. They couldn't slow down the league's hottest offense, as Brady overcame a handful of drops by his wide receivers to convert a series of key third downs and pull through in the red zone. The Patriots have averaged 40 points per game since the Week 4 blowout at Kansas City while Brady has entered the MVP discussion.
- The wind seemed to affect Manning's throws more than Brady's. Both of Manning's interceptions led to quick Patriots touchdowns. The second was the result of a Wes Welker drop, preventing a potential comeback in the third quarter. Welker took a shot to the back on the play and was later ruled out for the game. It's been a rough season for the slot receiver.
- Rob Gronkowski continued his torrid play, turning in one of the plays of the season with a one-handed, "Bionic Arm" catch to set up his own 1-yard touchdown. Gronk became the fifth player in NFL history with 50 touchdown receptions in his first five seasons. His 516 yards in the last calendar month are the most over any five-game stretch of his career. He's as dominant as ever.
-- Chris Wesseling