Another week in the 2009 NFL season almost in the books. For Steelers fans, tonight's game between the Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers is quite important. I'm not quite sure how I feel about either of these two teams - they've both been fairly erratic all year. Both are dangerous though. I will say this - we'll learn a lot about Baltimore tonight. If they are able to go in to Lambeau Field and take down the surging Packers in front of an amped up MNF crowd, then I really like their chances to snag one of the final playoff spots in the AFC. Should be a good one.
On to some other thoughts and notes from this weekend's action.
Editor's note: I've included a few thoughts about Cincinnati that were not included in the initial post.
* Let's start in the AFC with a quick shout out to the Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins and the Jacksonville Jaguars. All three Wild Card contenders won this week - Miami over New England, Denver over the rival Chiefs, and Jacksonville over the fading Texans. By winning their past two games, Denver seems to have ended their mid-season slide. We'll see though what they're really made of...i.e. if they're to be taken seriously as a threat to do anything in the playoffs...when they travel to Indianapolis and to Philadelphia in the next few weeks. Same goes for Jacksonville. They're in plenty solid shape for now, but they must host Miami and Indianapolis the next two weeks before traveling to New England to play a Patriots team that is still quite tough at home. As for Miami, hats off to them for continuing to battle hard each and every week. They hung around, hung around, hung around, then capitalized late to take down the visiting Pats. Next week's game against the Jaguars should be very, very interesting, not to mention incredibly critical for both teams. Steelers fans should be rooting for Miami next week.
* I got this email from Josh, who does a very nice job comandeering things at Cincy Jungle, SBNs Bengals blog. Here's what he wrote:
The Steelers have always been known for having a great rushing offense and a strong as hell defense. The Bengals took that model and ran with it -- they're fourth overall on defense with a first scoring defense. The Bengals rushing offense has rushed for over 100 yards or more in nine of their 12 games this year -- three different RBs have 100-yard games in the past three games.
However, we're not blowing teams out that we should beat. Like the Brownies or the Lions.
My question is simple. When Pittsburgh used that formula for so long, were fans upset that they didn't blow out lesser teams?
Couple thoughts about that very interesting inquiry. First of all, a bit of context. The Bengals continue to win behind an amazingly strong commitment to the running game on offense, solid game management and timely passing from veteran QB Carson Palmer, and most impressively, behind a defense that continues to play tough each week. On Sunday, Cincy took down the Detroit Lions, 23-13. Cedric Benson rushed for 110 yards on 36 carries. Carson Palmer threw two picks that helped keep the Lions in the game, but conversely, C. OchoCinco had 9 catches for 137 yards and 1 TD. Meanwhile, the Bengals defense picked off Matthew Stafford twice, sacked him three times, and pressured him countless others. (Yes, I still contend Stafford should have been shut down weeks ago, but certainly no later than after his putrid performance against the Packers on Thanksgiving. He's going to get killed out there playing hurt like that. Shut.him.down.).
Back to the Bengals. They're 4th in total yards allowed, 1st in scoring defense, 1st in 3rd Down percentage. They shorten games with their commitment to the run, and they have a quarterback who may not be quite as lethal as he once was, but is still nevertheless one of the five, six, or seven best quarterbacks in this league depending on who you ask. They're a team to be reckoned with, for sure. More on them from me soon actually.
* The Tennessee Titans miraculous run back in to contention comes to an end in Indianapolis on Sunday. Tip of the cap to them for what they've accomplished but as I suspected last week, the Titans had dug themselves too big a hole to start the year to be considered 'contenders' down the stretch. I'll be curious to see now if they're able to drum up the same enthusiasm and competitive spirit in their final four games now that it appears they're once more in too big a hole to dig their way out of. The Titans actually played fairly well against the Colts, and the game could have been different had Nate Washington not dropped a perfectly thrown bomb that was going to be a guaranteed touchdown. But it was also their inability to manufacture touchdowns when they breached the redzone cost them. Can't win against Peyton Manning this year when you have to settle for FGs.
* Wow, kind of like the Steelers, the Washington Redskins continue to find new and amazing ways to lose football games this year. Watch the highlights of their late meltdown against the undefeated Saints here if you haven't already seen them. Last week I wrote that I'd be surprised if they didn't take down either the Giants or the Cowboys down the stretch and subsequently hurt one of their respective playoff chances. I'm sticking by that - the 'Skins are still a very competent 3-9 team and a great value for quite some time now as frequent underdogs.
* Just might be the Saints year. If it's not the Steelers - which certainly appears to be the case - than my personal preference would be for them to win it all. We'll see though - they continue to show vulnerability on defense at times.
* What an impressive win by the Arizona Cardinals over Minnesota last night. I was impressed by just how well they played on both sides, but I wasn't all that surprised by the outcome. I thought Ken Whisenhunt would get them focused on the task at hand immediately following their loss to the Titans the previous week:
I trust Ken Whisenhunt & Co. to not implode in any way, shape, or form. But by losing that nailbiter in Nashville, the Cards suddenly have a smaller margin for error this next couple of weeks. We'll learn something about this Cardinals team this next two weeks. I like their chances to shut the door early and often on San Francisco, beginning with a statement win this coming weekend against the Minnesota Vikings.
Well, thanks to the 49ers losing a close one at Seattle, the Cards extended their lead out West back to 3 games. Congratulations to Whiz and Grimm for turning a once-hopeless franchise in to one of the more well-rounded and impressive teams in all of football. It helps to have Kurt Warner playing at a ridiculously high level these past two years...and to have some of the most electric and skilled playmakers in all of sports in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, but the work the coaching staff and player personnel department has done in Arizona has made that team far from a 'one-trick-pony.' Do not at all be surprised to see them back in the NFC Championship Game.
* So long Gary Kubiak. I actually feel the Texans have been wise not pulling the cord on him the past few years, but given the talent on their roster this year and the way they've been hanging touch most weeks only to collpase late in ballgames, I think he's probably earned himself a pinkslip out of his duties coaching the Texans. Mike Shanahan would be wise to take that gig over the Redskins job if you ask me. Clearly not the same level of prestige attached to the position, and perhaps the paydays will be a bit smaller, but their roster is in much better shape than is Washington's. Plus, in D.C., he'd be hamstrung by other entrenched front office folks. No, I'm not talking about Dan Snyder. He's actually learned to not meddle and to be more patient. It's Vinny Cerrato that's the problem there and he'd still want tight control over player personnel decisions, I'd guess. In Houston, Shanny would be granted much more control over building a program in his own vision.
* Stat of the week #1: Number of trips inside Carolina's redzone for Tampa Bay - 8.........Number of points scored by Tampa on those 8 trips: 6.
* Stat of the week #2: By throwing a TD pass Sunday in the Colts win over the Titans, make it 12 straight seasons that P. Manning has thrown at least 25 TD passes. Grrr, hate having to acknowledge his greatness, but that's pretty absurd.
* Quick thought to conclude about Rex Ryan of the Jets calling out Mark Sanchez for not sliding in the 2nd half of their win over Buffalo last Thursday. Ryan's point was essentially this: the team has invested so heavily in him and believes so much in his ability to take them to great places for many years, that he has to do a better job of knowing when and how to protect himself out there in this mind bogglingly violent game. Remember, Ryan even had brought in Joe Girardi to help Sanchez learn how to slide.
Anyway, as it relates to the Steelers - I've heard it a million times on here that people think it's impossible for competitors like Big Ben or Troy Polamalu to play a bit more intelligently in terms of protecting their bodies. Well, Rex Ryan - a total 'football guy' from one of the league's great football families - disagrees. I do too. I think Big Ben in particular has to learn how to avoid taking some of the hits that he does each week if he is interested in accomplishing the future goals I know he still has for himself.