I know former NFL commissioner Bert Bell was fond of saying, "On any given Sunday, any team in our league can beat any other team." But he never watched the teams in the NFC West play. Too many Sundays, there has been some bad ball emanating from the West. But on Sunday, each team won. It was the first time that has happened since the four-team division was formed in 2002.
» Let's start with the biggest surprise, the Seahawks beating the Ravens. Since Week 5, I have been trying to figure out how the Seahawks beat the Giants on the road and then lost the next three. The Giants win did not make sense, even after watching the tape. However, this win against Baltimore does.
The Seahawks are always dangerous at home, with all the noise provided by their fans at CenturyLink Field. Opponents struggle to run the ball, and it's even harder to hear the snap count to pass protect. Seattle jumped on top early, taking a 10-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game. From that point forward, Baltimore could not get anything going offensively, especially getting Ray Rice involved, and the defense could not stop Marshawn Lynch from running the ball with power.
Seattle's total rushing yards do not look impressive in the final stats (42 carries for 119 yards), but running the ball controlled the game. It kept the Seahawks from having to drop back and pass 50 times, which plays into the strength of the Ravens defense. When a team can consistently jab at the Ravens with the running game, it keeps the Baltimore rushers from creating turnovers. Jacksonville proved this a few weeks back when it beat the Ravens on Monday night without a passing game. Seattle played hard, physical and most importantly better than the Ravens.
How does an apparent good team like Baltimore look so bad on the road in three games this year? The answer: when they don't make big plays down the field in the passing game. Last week in Pittsburgh, the Ravens offense averaged a modest 6.3 yards per pass attempt; yesterday in Seattle, 4.9. Hard to beat anyone throwing for less than five yards per attempt. And when the Ravens have no running game, especially on the road, there will be breakdowns. Baltimore is not a complex offense, or even a creatively designed offense. They rely on the run with Rice and big throws down the field. If neither are working, which was the case in Seattle, Baltimore is capable of losing to anyone.
» I've seen Cardinals QB John Skelton play over 20 college games. He went to school at Fordham, where my son attended and is now a proud graduate. Skelton led Fordham to the Patriot League title his sophomore season, demonstrating a big arm with above average athletic skills. Three years later, the Cards took a chance on him in the fifth round, which might prove to be a great pick.
In just two games, Skelton already looks better than Kevin Kolb, the player the Cards traded for this summer. Skelton looks better in terms of his command, his poise, and his ability to make deep throws. Sunday in Philadelphia, the Cards pulled off a huge upset, handing the Eagles their sixth loss of the season (much more about the Eagles later in the column). Now the Cards have won two in a row with Skelton under center, and if they go back to Kolb they are nuts. Skelton can grow into the job as he proved Sunday. He can make all the throws and seems to have a sense of rhythm with Larry Fitzgerald. I realize Skelton will make his share of mistakes, like he did throwing an out in front of Asante Samuel, but eventually he has to learn. Once he does, he might pay huge dividends.
Winning in Philadelphia is never easy, even this season. A 300-yard effort and leading the Cards to a fourth-quarter comeback should be good enough for Skelton to keep the job, regardless of what it cost Arizona to get Kolb.
» The Niners beat the Giants in the best game of the day. The win had to be sweet for the 49ers as they beat the Giants without having consistent success running the ball. Alex Smith took a huge step forward. The game had a playoff-type feel and Smith proved he is capable of making quality throws when the situation presents itself.
Wyche: Smith proves capable
Outside of Green Bay, the 49ers have the best record in football at 8-1, but Sunday's home win was different than the other seven. The Giants made the 49ers play left-handed, taking away their signature style, but still San Francisco was able to pull through. This is significant. Now teams will have to respect Smith and the 49ers passing game as they prepare their game plan.
What makes the 49ers hard to beat is they are so physical and fast with their front seven on defense. Navorro Bowman, an inside linebacker next to Patrick Willis, has played well all season, and every outside 'backer can set the edge hard and rush the passer. Winning in the trenches against the 49ers is tough because they have good players and they are so well coached.
Now I realize the Giants do not have a great secondary, but Smith made some clutch throws and the team had confidence in his ability to lead them. With each win, that confidence will continue to grow. The 49ers are playing playoff-formula football -- protect the ball, be physical and force the other team to beat themselves. They will be a very tough out come playoff time.
Things I loved
» I love Tom Brady's look of determination before certain games. Last year, he had that look on Monday night in Miami, and he had it Sunday against the Jets. When Brady is that focused, that tuned in, the Pats are hard to beat. Even after having an inconsistent start throwing the ball in the first half, Brady came back in the second half and made every throw. He was pinpoint with his accuracy and the ball came off his hand smoother, with excellent velocity. Since the playoff game last January, the Jets are supposed to have the formula to beat Brady -- play tight man-to-man and take away the short passing game. In sweeping the series, the Pats averaged more than 400 yards total offense against the Jets and proved that plan is flawed. When Brady has that look, the Pats are really hard to beat.
» I loved watching Devin Hester take over the game against the Lions. Hester was on the injury report all week, questionable he would play, but he toughed it out and once again dominated. Hester took back his 12th punt return for a touchdown. The Bears are finding their groove offensively and defensively and will always have their groove in the kicking game as long as Hester is fielding the ball. Hester has the unique ability to make the first defender miss and then play off his blocks with his speed. The surest way to stop Hester is to kick the ball out of bounds and force another player from the Bears to score points.
» I love watching Ben Roethlisberger take over games with his incredible ability to move around in the pocket, keeping the play alive and driving the ball down the field. Roethlisberger was great Sunday as the Steelers went into Cincinnati and earned a huge win. Coupled with the Ravens' loss, the Steelers are back in a first-place tie in the AFC North. When Roethlisberger is able to keep the play alive, he is extremely dangerous. And he now has two blue-chip receivers in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, who is quickly emerging as my new favorite receiver. Don't count out these Steelers. As long as Roethlisberger is under center, the play will always stay alive, and so will his team's chances to win the North.
Things I hated
» I hated watching the Eagles play Sunday, as did most of the city of Philadelphia. The Eagles were expected to beat the Cardinals, especially since they were starting a backup quarterback. Even without receiver DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia should have had enough to put away the Cards. Yeah right. The Eagles just cannot show up and expect to win. They have had problems all season and they all showed up again. The Eagles on offense cannot convert third downs, cannot score unless they make a big play, cannot extend their leads and cannot consistently execute. This was the second week in a row where Michael Vick had the ball in his hands at home with a chance to win the game, but he never even got the ball to the red zone. On defense they cannot handle the wheel route, cannot cover when the game is on the line, cannot make in-game adjustments and cannot play well in the red zone. They might have the worst collection of linebackers in the league. Each week, their 'backers never seem to improve or make plays. The Eagles are a collection of talented players, but are not a talented team.
» I hated the decision of Atlanta head coach Mike Smith to go for it on his own 29-yard line. I know it was 4th-and-inches and any good team should be able to convert that. But why take the risk? All a first down would have meant was the Falcons would be entitled to three more plays. But not gaining the inches meant the Saints would most surely win, barring a Philip Rivers-like fumble on a snap. Yes, I know Bill Belichick once tried this to keep the ball away from Peyton Manning, but it's hard to compare because the Pats were leading that game and it wasn't in overtime. At first, I thought the Falcons were going to try to get the Saints to jump offsides, but clearly they intended to win the game on this drive. At midfield it might make sense, but at their own 29, I hated it. Losing to the Saints put the Falcons two games behind them in the win column as the second half of the season starts.
» I hated that I picked the Redskins to win the NFC East. I am an idiot for making that pick. It looked good this summer, but now with injuries, it looks really bad. The 'Skins stink. When I made my pick, I thought the Skins were good on defense and would be able to manufacture points on offense, since Mike Shanahan is an offensive guru. Unlike the 49ers who are dominating on both lines, the 'Skins cannot dominate anyone. Their offensive line looks like a high school line -- soft, without power and unable to pass protect. I realize that Shanahan wants a line that is quick and agile, but power normally rules in the NFC East. This rebuilding project in D.C. might have been more than Shanahan thought when he took the job. I mentioned on Friday that it is going to be an interesting offseason in D.C., and I wonder what Shanahan's rebuilding plan will be to turn this team around because his plan so far is not working.
Things on my mind
» The Texans enter their bye week with a 7-3 record after a convincing win on the road against the Bucs. It only took 15 pass attempts from Matt Schaub for the Texans to win the game. Lately they have been winning in easy fashion, dominating opponents. And they are doing all this without their best player, Andre Johnson. Are the Texans the best in the AFC? They just might be.
» Pop Warner must be a Broncos fan as essentially they are running the formation he invented -- the single wing. The Broncos, without a passing game, have won two in a row. Tim Tebow completed just two passes in eight attempts, but he had a 102.6 quarterback rating. It might not look pretty, but it has won. One thing about Tebow, he makes the team tougher.
» Rich Gannon said on the CBS broadcast that the Bucs had a horrible Friday practice and they played just like they practiced. The Bucs' passing game is really suspect from design to execution. But more than anything, the Bucs are undisciplined, as they are the most penalized team in the NFL.