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Division races take shape in crucial week

Shorts and Shells: Week 10

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By Eric Edholm

The division races received some much-needed clarity. We think.

The Bengals came up a few plays short against the Steelers, who shockingly find themselves back in first place.

The Falcons couldn't stop the Saints and fell after a controversial call (more on that below) in overtime.

The Lions ... well, they lost their nerve — and their edge — against the mentally tougher Bears in Chicago.

And the Patriots reminded us they still exist — and that they never lose three in a row, not since 2002, anyway — with a massive win over the Jets in New York.

What a Week 10. Can you smell the playoffs?

For the losing teams, the answer is ... not yet.

The Steelers took a punch (several of them, actually) from the not-your-father's Bengals but earned their first divisional victory. Every time I watched the game, Ben Roethlisberger was taking a hit or Rashard Mendenhall had to fight through seven tacklers. The Bengals just send waves defensively. They're tougher than any of us really realized.

How tough will they be with their first real bit of bad injury news, though? It looks as if Leon Hall, their best cover corner, is out for the season with a torn Achilles. Your time to step up, Pacman Jones.

The Steelers hoodwinked the rookie, Andy Dalton, Sunday by baiting him into a throw (really two) he shouldn't have made. Dalton has avoided the prototypical rookie mistakes most of his first season in the NFL, but his late pick to William Gay was a teaching point.

Dalton stared down Jerome Simpson too long, and Gay, playing zone, just stepped in front of the throw and ended the Bengals' hopes. Dalton may not have read the defense properly, as the outside linebacker, Jason Worilds, dropped into coverage on the play out to the flat and Simpson inadvertently shielded his QB from seeing Gay.

Whatever happened, the Steelers head into their bye week with the best overall record in the AFC North, thanks to the Ravens' shocking and mysterious loss in Seattle. Ray Rice has five carries? Didn't they learn from their loss to Jacksonville in Week Seven? Fourteen touches, including his TD pass to TE Ed Dickson, just isn't enough for Rice.

And speaking of TD passes, Rice looked better in his one attempt than Joe Flacco did in many of his 52 throws, 10 of which were deflected by Seahawks defenders.

The NFC South, meanwhile, has become a two-team race as the Saints fired the first shot. Winning in Atlanta gives them a major edge in the division race, although the Falcons have some winnable games before the Saints rematch on Dec. 26 in New Orleans.

You'll have to scroll down to read about Mike Smith's decision to go for it on 4th-and-inches in overtime, but here's a hint: I actually liked it.

What I didn't like Sunday was the play of the Lions. Pretty much everything they did.

Here's a brief ledger of their missteps:

  • Kicking to Devin Hester, owner of the most punt-return touchdowns in history.
  • Matthew Stafford looking like he did in his first NFL game, throwing four picks, all in the second half.
  • Enhancing their reputation as a dirty team, fair label or not.

The Bears might have melted down with nine false starts in Detroit, but the Lions showed they are the more mentally fragile team right now with their lack of poise in Chicago.

The Jets didn't choke, per se, but you can't like a missed 24-yard field goal, a muffed punt, a dropped pass that turned into an interception and the litany of errors that plagued their 37-16 loss to the Patriots. That's two games Bill Belichick's Undrafted All-Stars have taken from Rex Ryan this season.

It should be concerning that Mark Sanchez still doesn't seem to have figured the Patriots out and, perhaps even more so, that the Jets' defense looked horribly vulnerable against the Patriots' no-huddle and quick-count offense. Early on, the bunch formations had the non-Revis defensive backs looking completely flustered.

The AFC East suddenly shifts back toward New England. Have you seen the Patriots' schedule? It's not, er, daunting.

Just another series of ebbs and flows in this fascinating season. The tides, they are a-changin'.


Controversial call of the week

Who said Mike Smith is boring?

In a Belichick-ian moment, Smith chose to throw out the football coaching manual and show which team was tougher on Sunday.

The problem with those decisions? It sucks when you are wrong.

Smith's Falcons got the ball back after they and the Saints traded three-and-outs in overtime in Atlanta. The Falcons had a 4th-and-inches from just inside their own 30-yard line and they trotted the offense back onto the field.

Surely, they'll hard-count and try to draw the defense offside? No. Not in this situation.

Instead, Smith essentially said, "Six inches? If we can't get that, then we don't deserve to win."

They ran Michael Turner, one of the best power runners in the game, right at the heart of the Saints' defense, which also has been its Achilles' heel. DTs Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers have been more down than up this season, and MLB Jonathan Vilma was not playing in this game following knee surgery.

That's why Smith's decision to run the ball up the middle against what was a defense that ranked dead last in yards per carry allowed coming into Week 10 was absolutely the right decision; it just wasn't blocked well.

Like Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 back in 2009, Smith had the guts to go for the win.

Punt, and Drew Brees probably dices you up. He had all game. You can call me a contrarian, call me an idiot, but I stick by it.

"We were going to punt the football, then had a change of heart,'' Smith said. "I wanted us to go for it. I thought the ball was inside half a yard and we could get it. Did not want to give the ball back to the Saints. In previous games, close games that we've played them, we've punted the ball with three minutes to go in the ballgame. We never saw it again, and they ended up winning the ballgame. That was the decision-making process that I went through.''

The Falcons now know this: They need to be tougher. Smith gave his team a chance to prove it was, but the Falcons didn't back up their coach.


The wow factor

This week's edition is devoted to the Chargers' strange mess:

The talk of the Chargers' struggles has centered around Philip Rivers and the offense.

Yet, there are other forces at work that need closer inspection following the team's Thursday-night loss and subsequent 4-5 record.

One is the defense. What has happened to this group? The secondary is a mess, the linebackers are not playmakers and the defensive line is inconsistent at best. Can we say that Greg Manusky has struggled to coordinate this group?

Last season, Ron Rivera led this group, which is mostly the same players from a season ago, to a No. 1 ranking in yards allowed, fourth in rushing yards allowed, first in passing yards allowed, second in sacks, fourth in opponents' third-down conversions and 10th in points given up.

This season? Manusky's group ranks 10th in yards allowed, 24th in rushing yards allowed, 25th in passing yards per play, 13th in sacks, 32nd in opponents' third-down conversions and 27th in points allowed.

His units struggled statistically during his four seasons in San Francisco, and now replacement Vic Fangio has taken the 49ers and turned them into a viable force in short order. Manusky had a fine playing career, but his record as a coordinator so far has been shaky at best.

Sources say that he has asked the defenders to do things they are not comfortable doing and that he has messed with some players' confidence, especially in the secondary.

Several Chargers must fear for their jobs if the team doesn't make the playoffs. Head coach Norv Turner and Manusky are not the only ones. There's something possibly brewing with GM A.J. Smith, who has gone underground a bit as rumors regarding his status have been simmering.

No move likely would be made on Smith or the coaches until after the season. The AFC West remains a total crapshoot, with an emphasis on the crap.


Entertainers and icons

This one goes out to the ones I have not loved (until now):

If you have read anything I have written this season, you'd know I have been suspicious of the Bears this season. I questioned their offensive line, their secondary, their coaches, their goal-line offense, their receivers, let's see what else ...

Basically, if they had it and it was not named Peppers, Hester or Forté, I had my doubts.

No more. The Bears are a steely bunch, one that really could challenge the Packers in the NFC North. Yes, really. They have everything you want in a playoff contender: a quarterback with guts; a run game (behind an improved O-line); a capable and occasionally dominant, turnover-producing defense; and perhaps the best special teams in the NFL.

Who wants to play against that formula? Not the Eagles or Lions, who were mentally crushed by the Bears in two playoff-like atmospheres.

Everyone has focused on the Lions-Packers Thanksgiving game as the marquee North matchup, but my money goes on the Bears as being the real test for the Packers when those teams meet on Christmas night. Something tells me gifts will not be exchanged beforehand.

And leading up to that game, the Bears play the dysfunctional AFC West in order the next four games and should be in good shape by then. Don't rule out the Bears as a real contender and a dangerous threat to the Packers' well-being.

I panned them early but can overlook them no more. The Bears are legit.


Ten takeaways of the week

Here are 10 things I took from Week 10, and really this list could have been 20 or 25 long:

1. The Browns and Rams played a brutally unwatchable game in Cleveland, one that was capped by a shocking missed field goal from 22 yards out. Browns LS Ryan Pontbriand essentially rolled the ball back to holder Brad Maynard, and though he plucked it, PK Phil Dawson's momentum was stunted. He missed the chippy. "I actually didn't see it on the ground," Rams DE Robert Quinn, who blocked a field-goal attempt last week to force overtime, told me after the game. "I was just trying to get past the tight end I was on and get a little penetration. I really don't know how it happened." Sometimes you just have to say it like this: The Browns happened.

2. Credit to the Dolphins and Rams for winning games after their respective coaches were put on the hot seat. That's two convincing wins in two weeks for the Dolphins. And the Rams might have had a third straight win Sunday had it not been for a Patrick Peterson 99-yard punt return last week. The defense isn't there yet, but it has improved as a group the past three games, allowing 21, 19 and 12 points. "We know we have talent here," said Quinn, who has sacks in two of the past three games, by phone. "Everybody was just trying to figure everybody out early in the season. We've worked hard to correct some things, and now it's starting to show."

3. Paging Roddy White! That player you could argue was the best wideout in football last season has been a missing man, at least in relation to his highly set standards. He was flagged for two really silly penalties, caught only four passes, dropped one that turned into a Saints interception and did not come up big in crunch time when Julio Jones was hurt.

4. Two elements to the Titans' thumping of the Panthers in Charlotte: One, the front seven dominated. Two, the secondary did an outstanding job. Interesting approach the Titans took, blitzing a lot on first downs and playing coverage on second and third against Cam Newton. Wonder if other teams will follow suit. Asked if he ever had been held without a TD in a game, Newton said, "Never." Jason McCourty quietly has had an excellent season, and he and Cortland Finnegan did a tremendous job on Panthers WR Steve Smith, smothering him every time he caught a short pass.

5. Want a secret to the Texans' success under Wade Phillips? Their dime defense has been outstanding. They have kept things simple defensively and finally have some depth in the secondary and a pass rush, even without Mario Williams. ILB Brian Cushing plays all three downs and makes the calls now. CB Kareem Jackson has more confidence and had a great pass defended on a high fade near the end of the first half. The group is playing confidently, and the entire defense has not allowed more than 231 total yards in any of the past four games. One reason why Phillips can be aggressive? The Texans have outscored opponents 77-16 in the first quarter and 164-48 in the first half. Get out to leads and you can take more chances defensively.

6. Empty seats at Arrowhead? It's the latest bit of bad news for Todd Haley, who was on the hot seat with a three-game losing streak to start the season, off it completely with the four-game win streak that followed and now back on because of bizarre losses at home in back-to-back weeks to the Dolphins (quarterbacked by Matt Moore) and Broncos (quarterbacked — if that's what you call 55 runs and eight passes — by Tim Tebow). Do they have a chance next week against Tom Brady?

7. Is this the death march for the Bills? Thankfully, they get one week off before they face another Ryan, but opponents have started to figure out the spread offense, and even teams with average offensive lines (e.g., the Cowboys) can barrel through parts of that front seven. It was a nice run, but holding on might be too much to ask of this team.

8. Can it get worse for the Redskins? First, they lose to the Dolphins. Then they watch 49ers CB Carlos Rogers, a former teammate having a Pro Bowl-type season out in San Fran, pick off two passes for an 8-1 team against the Giants. Hey, at least the 'Skins were right (the second time) about Albert Haynesworth and Donovan McNabb, right?

9. The Seahawks' four-minute offense turned into a six-minute beat-down of the Ravens' defense in one of the shocking developments of Week 10. The Ravens had all the momentum in the fourth quarter and easily could have pulled it out, putting Joe Flacco in another game-winning situation. Instead, the typically reliable defense wilted late on the road, not able to make a stop or pry the ball loose. We've had our issues with the Ravens' offensive play-calling and execution. But now the defense raises some issues.

10. Want to know why the Eagles suffered back-to-back crucial losses? Hint: It's the same reason they stumbled to a 1-4 start. They are terrible in the fourth quarter, having been outscored 74-27 in the final frame. In Monday's loss to the Bears, the Eagles blew a 24-20 lead and were outscored 10-0 in the final 15 minutes. In the loss to the John Skelton-led Cardinals in Week 10, the Eagles blew two leads in the fourth and were outscored two touchdowns to one field goal. Twice, Eagles defenders allowed easy interceptions to go through their hands, one of which landed in Larry Fitzgerald's for a touchdown. (And here's a question for the coaches: With all the money they have paid out to their cornerbacks, why in the world do you have Joselio Hanson covering Fitz?) It comes down to mental and physical toughness, and the Eagles lack it. Talent gets you paid, but toughness wins games. And that's why Michael Vick has as many wins this season as Tim Tebow.


Top five, bottom five

My top five and bottom five NFL power-ranking votes this week:

1. Packers — Eying the Bears. Very carefully.

2. 49ers — Biggest test yet. They won in another playoff-like atmosphere. Go ahead, keep doubting them.

3. Texans — Dominating lately, but what will happen when Matt Schaub has to win one for them?

4. Steelers — Outplayed Bengals, but they didn't out-tough them.

5. Patriots — Biggest win for Belichick this year. Period.

28. Panthers — Their issues are not just on defense. Special teams, offense have horrible Sunday following bye.

29. Jaguars — Was it a big win? Or just a must-win?

30. Dolphins — Have to love the starch they have shown in back-to-back games. Good for Tony Sparano and that defense.

31. Rams — Defense improving, but Sam Bradford didn't win this game for them. He remains off.

32. Colts — The dreaded bye week descends. But will there be changes now?

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