Lots to talk about this week. LetÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s get right into it.
As the Saints and Colts chase perfection, theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re doing it in a different fashion than the Patriots two years ago, and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s probably a good thing, as theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re experiencing adversity.
The Patriots soared through the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs last season, only really being tested by the Giants in Week 17. As a show of force, that was excellent. But they had no test of their character. There was no time that they found themselves down three touchdowns or needing a last-second drive to come from behind.
As a result, when the Giants came and hit them in the mouth in the Super Bowl Ã¢â‚¬â€œ rushing Tom Brady until his head spun, and then taking a late lead Ã¢â‚¬â€œ they didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have the requisite experience to know how to answer back.
(EditorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s note: Thanks to sports genius Tom B. for his input Ã¢â‚¬â€œ given that I wrote the majority of this on a bus, I failed to mention three very close games for the Pats against the Colts, Eagles and Ravens, won by a combined total of 10 points. In fact, New England was down 10 to Indianapolis in the fourth quarter and won However, take out those games and the aforementioned Giants game, and they won the other 14, including playoffs, by an average of 23 points. So the Patriots were tested, but not very often.
Meanwhile, the Saints are coming off a stretch with 5-of-7 games in which they were tested and could have conceivably lost. The Colts have a one-point win, a three-point win, and a pair each of two-point and four-point victories. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll stick to my guns in general.)
The Saints and Colts wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have that problem. It seems like New Orleans is on the precipice of losing every single week but they find ways to pull it off, albeit often times with help from their opponents being able to handle prosperity (i.e. the Dolphins squandering a 24-3 lead, the Redskins this week with several blunders). And, of course, they received an absolutely brilliant play by Robert Meachem against Washington.
And the Colts had to answer a serious charge from these same Dolphins, and then thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the Belichick Bowl, when hidden behind peopleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s desires to criticize the PatriotsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ coach was a strong showing at the pivotal times by both the Indianapolis offense and defense. Plus, they threw a bucket of ice water on the red hot Titans this week.
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s like training for a marathon. Going out and having an easy run is encouraging. But itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s completing a run when you just donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have it that day, when the breathing isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t coming easy or you have tired legs, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what gets you ready for whatever comes when race day arrives.
While their close games show vulnerabilities Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the Saints have been on the verge of defeat weekly, while the Colts show none of the dominance of a prospective unbeaten team Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the benefits from having to deal with various struggles should prove extremely helpful.
By no means am I guaranteeing, or even predicting, unbeaten seasons. One of these weeks Ã¢â‚¬â€œ perhaps in the playoffs Ã¢â‚¬â€œ the Saints simply wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get off the mat when hit with an early haymaker. And though itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a down year for the AFC with the Steelers not looking Super, the Patriots or Chargers on a given day could probably defeat the Colts, though theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re going to have to do it on the road.
But if Indy and New Orleans meet in the Super Bowl as unlikely undefeateds, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll know why. And if one of these teams runs the table, or simply wins it all, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the experience of looking failure in the face that will have them prepared for success.
- Chris Johnson didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have his usual superman cape on this week, in part because the Titans trailed the Colts right from the beginning, but he did crack 100 yards once again. CJ needs to average 150 yards over the final four games to break Eric DickersonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s record, and I wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t put it past him to accomplish that daunting task. Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson was held mostly in check by the Cardinals, though he did show burgeoning skills in the passing game. Note that while IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been attempting for several weeks to demonstrate that CJ is better than Peterson, I would gladly take either one of them on my team.
- Earlier in the season, I considered whether Tom Brady has lost his edge. If he has lost anything, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not much. But despite that, the Patriots look less like a Super Bowl team by the week. TheyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve always had issues in Miami, even in years when the Dolphins were terrible. But what weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve seen a few weeks in a row is that their secondary can be had. For example, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a reason that even the Browns and Lions gave up on Leigh Bodden. To allow a rookie in Chad Henne Ã¢â‚¬â€œ whoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s good, not great Ã¢â‚¬â€œ to even be allowed to throw more than 50 times is absurd. A few weeks ago, when they barely lost to the Colts, I simply assumed the Patriots would defeat them if they played in the postseason. But the way their secondary has looked, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d have to think Peyton would simply carve them up. And so would Philip Rivers. And with the Jets and Dolphins just a game back in the division, it makes for some tenuous times in New England concerning whether they could even get to that point.
- In a very winnable game against the reeling Giants, the Cowboys came up small, starting the drumbeat that they again simply cannot win in December. As good as Tony Romo has been, there were just a few more plays he could have made, and it is inexcusable to give up both a return touchdown and a 70-plus yard touchdown to plodding Brandon Jacobs. Personally, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve always liked Romo, but with DallasÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ schedule getting much harder very shortly Ã¢â‚¬â€œ they play the Saints in New Orleans coming up, for instance Ã¢â‚¬â€œ they really needed to win this game in New Jersey. As it stands, with Michael Vick perhaps emboldened by the inexplicably warm reception he received in Atlanta, the Eagles look like theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re in the driverÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s seat despite the vast uncertainty around running back Brian Westbrook.
- And what of VickÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s return? I actually saw articles indicating that it was some sort of great redemption tale. Give me a break. For Falcons fans to give Vick the treatment normally reserved for a returning hero is simply mind-boggling. I have a close friend who pulls for the Falcons who still worships Vick, and IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve never understood it. Not only did the man commit various atrocities against animals, but what exactly did he do to earn that adulation? The man won one playoff game. If Vick had won multiple Super Bowls and then killed a bunch of dogs, then I can understand wanting to show appreciation for his football career, if not his sadism. But he won the same number of playoff games as Jay Fiedler. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not begrudging him the ability to play football again after heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s paid his debt to society and came out with amazing amounts of contrition, apparently. But even if I were an Eagles fan, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m simply not sure how I would be able to bask him in cheers. I understand that the Atlanta sports scene isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t exactly phenomenal, but come on here. Save your cheers for Josh Smith and Joe Johnson.
HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s my latest top 10:
1. Saints (12-0) (Last week: 1) Making plays when it counts, getting a little bit of luck.
2. Colts (12-0) (LW: 2) Addai defying skeptics by becoming solid end-zone threat.
3. Vikings (10-2) (LW: 3) Rare flat game against Cards, have to think itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just a blip on radar.
4. Chargers (9-3) (LW: 4) Real threat to Colts if they cross paths in postseason.
5. Cardinals (8-4) (LW: 6) Welcome back, Anquan Boldin! Statement win vs. Minnesota.
6. Bengals (9-3) (LW: 7) Win over Lions proves little, but loss would have proved much more.
7. Packers (8-4) (LW: 9) Rodgers helps fend off Ravens on MNF. No running game to speak of.
8. Patriots (7-5) (LW: 5) Not looking good, but schedule light the rest of the way.
9. Eagles (8-4) (LW: NR) Back on track with chance to carve own destiny down stretch.
10. Broncos (8-4) (LW: NR) Parity lands them here; modest two-game streak has them in it.