1. Houston -- Wade Phillips is the best "free-agent" signing of the offseason. Even though it was against the Browns, the Texans continue to play aggressive defense. They are physical. You don't see receivers running free. They are doing this despite losing Mario Williams and Danieal Manning. Brooks Reed had two sacks subbing for Williams. He continues to show up every week making plays -- high-motor guys do that. The Texans are getting Arian Foster in a groove, too, with 124 yards. Ben Tate rushed for 115 yards, which gives Houston an excellent one-two punch in the backfield. This offense will really be potent when Andre Johnson is back. They are doing the smart thing being careful with him; they are going to need him to be able go anywhere in the playoffs.
2. New York Jets -- Solid victory against Buffalo. Once again, they emphasized the run. This allowed Sanchez to work the play-action game and have time to throw. On defense, the Jets used their two weeks off to prepare and did a good job of keeping the Buffalo offense in check. They jammed the receivers, kept the ball in front of them and limited the run after the catch, which is how you need to play Buffalo. Fitzpatrick is not a big-armed QB, so by playing tight coverage on his receivers, it makes it more difficult for him to throw to the outside.
3. Miami -- Congratulations to Tony Sparano and the Dolphins. They have been close before, but Sunday they won and very impressively. A team reflects their head coach and the Dolphins have fought hard for Sparano. After the game, he told the team, "See you Wednesday." I am sure there are people who didn't think he would be saying that after nine weeks. Also, he left Vontae Davis behind in Miami, but did not release the reason before the game. He should leave a player home more often! The reason I say that is every time I was with a team that left a player home for disciplinary reasons, we won the game! Teams seem to rally when a player is disciplined. Give Sparano credit: If it is a discipline situation -- which he did not say it was -- that shows he hasn't wavered from his beliefs, even though they have not won a game. The players respect that. Give some credit to Matt Moore (17 for 23, three TDs) and Reggie Bush (13 rushes, 92 yards) and also the defense, which contributed five sacks.
4. Atlanta -- Stayed with their winning formula of the previous couple of weeks, even with a healthy Julio Jones. They ran it 41 times for 163 yards, and threw it only 24 times. When they did throw, they spread it around with Roddy White getting targeted nine times, Tony Gonzalez six and Julio Jones four. Jones did show his big-play ability with three catches for 131 yards and two TDs.
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5. Dallas -- DeMarco Murray continues to impress running the ball. He shows speed to the outside and aggressiveness running inside. The Cowboys told me after his big game a few weeks ago that he was still getting a feel for working with his blockers while running the plays. He appears to be getting better at that. He ran 22 times for 139 yards. When Felix Jones comes back, this is an easy decision to me. Murray is the starter with Jones coming off the bench. I would get both of them carries, but I would lead with Murray and go with the hot hand. In comparing both backs coming out of college, Murray was a more complete back because he was a better inside runner, and that is still the case. That is why I would start him. He makes the Cowboys more unpredictable on offense.
6. Washington -- I believe the fans are going to be quite restless this week. John Beck was inconsistent once again. What people have to remember is the Redskins were missing five starters today and seven for the previous few games from their planned starting lineup this year, in addition to changing QBs and going with the inexperienced Beck. This is from a team that was projected a .500 team at best. At full strength, the Redskins lacked big-time playmakers. These are players whom the defense has to build their game plan around to stop -- players that can gain big chunks of yardage. Now they are playing without their best playmakers: WR Santana Moss, TE Chris Cooley and RB Tim Hightower. They have limited offensive firepower because of this. An example of this is the San Francisco game: their leading wide receiver gained only 10.0 yards per catch, and their longest pass play to a wide receiver was 13 yards. The Redskins have made progress with their defense and offensive line under the Allen-Shanahan regime. What is needed now is patience by everyone. I see enough progress over the oast year in improved personnel and team discipline to believe with a couple more years of drafts and free-agent acquisitions the Redskins can contend for a divisional title. Now is not the time to panic, but to show strength and patience.
7. New York Giants -- Great victory for the Giants; missing Ahmad Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks appeared to be too much to overcome, but they did. The Giants' plan on defense was to pressure Brady and hit him as many times as they could. Everyone wants to do that, but the Giants have the front four and depth to do it. General manager Jerry Reese believes you can never have enough good defensive linemen, and he never passes on a good D-lineman in the draft. It paid off Sunday versus the Pats. The other part of the Giants' plan was to limit big plays, which they did. On the offensive side of the ball, Brandon Jacobs ran like a back on a mission to prove something. He ran physical, hitting the hole hard and finishing runs. Victor Cruz once again played a solid game. Where is the cry to re-sign Steve Smith? Eli Manning showed his big-time talent taking the Giants on a game-winning drive in the final minutes of the game. The thing I see from Manning in every game is big-time throws downfield -- throws that require a strong arm and good accuracy. These are throws that challenge the defense and are hard to make. This is why I have always felt Manning is a top-10 QB. Certainly, he backed up his word on Sunday when he said he is in Brady's class.
8. New England -- One thing that is becoming more evident with New England each week is the absence of a quality speed receiver. Brady, for whatever reason, has been off his game some the past two weeks. I watched his game tape against Pittsburgh, and even though the Steelers did a good job on defense, Brady missed throws he has made in the past, and it appeared that way on Sunday, too. On defense, the Pats' deficiencies were evident again. They can't generate a pass rush without blitzing. Their secondary is very weak, especially against a good passing team. All three of these won't get better this season. What I am interested in seeing this week when I look at tape is what the Giants did on defense. Is it similar to what Pittsburgh did, more press coverage to disrupt the Pats' timing on their routes? This is not a new strategy against New England, but it might be having more success than in the past. The Pats defense recently has had the same problems it has had in the past, but over the past two weeks, the offense has not been good enough to overcome them.
9. Oakland -- Tough loss against Denver at home. Carson Palmer showed flashes of what he could be. I think the Raiders must get back to their running game being the focus of their offense. Of course, it will help when Darren McFadden can get back in the lineup. Against Denver, Oakland threw more than it ran, even though Michael Bush gained over 5.0 yards per carry. Palmer at this point needs to feed off the running game. Even though he has worked hard to get his timing down with the receivers, it will be a slow process. Still, it was two big plays that cost them the game that had nothing to do with Palmer -- an Eddie Royal 85-yard punt return and a Willis McGahee 60-yard run on an option play.
10. San Diego-Green Bay -- A few things showed up in this game. From Philip Rivers' standpoint, his first touchdown pass showed everything he does right. He read single coverage on Vincent Jackson without deep-safety help and threw to him for a TD. On his two interceptions, the first one he forced the ball to Gates, a receiver who rarely practices. Two problems to deal with there for the Chargers: Rivers has forced some balls, and how do you get your timing down with a player who can't practice? His second interception could have happened to anybody. The Packers defender appeared to guess on the throw, and guessed right for an interception he returned for a TD. Rivers recovered to throw three more TD passes. Green Bay's defense gave up 38 points to an offense missing its starting running back and one starting receiver. Detroit will have an excellent chance to beat Green Bay on Thanksgiving. If Stafford has time -- and that's a big if -- Detroit's passing game can put up points. The Lions secondary will have trouble keeping up with the Packers receivers, but their pass rush could take over the game and give Rodgers fits.
What I didn't talk about on The NFL Today
1. Philip Rivers -- I studied his previous three games on tape at NFL Films last week. I saw far more positives than negatives. The positives I saw were: excellent field vision, and very good ability to find the second and third options. He can and does make many big-time throws downfield, he's accurate on a number of timing throws, has good poise and patience in the pocket, and very good touch. On the negative side, he did force some balls and was inaccurate at times when under pressure. You can't underestimate the fact that he has not had a lot of practice with his receivers. The other point you have to understand is that Rivers is asked to do a lot more than most QBs in the NFL, both physically and mentally. He makes all the protection calls. In their passing game, he is asked to make a lot of downfield throws -- more than most QBs have to -- and he is still doing that well. Many of his bad stats that bring his numbers down are not all his fault, and some are just plain bad luck.
2. Peyton Manning -- Both sides are hopeful Manning will have a clean bill of health before his March 12 deadline for his $28 million bonus. This would extend his contract four years with salaries of $7.4 million in 2012, $8.4 million in 2013, $9.4 million in 2014 and $10.4 million in 2015. If Manning is not healthy on March 12, then they can push back that deadline. Manning has indicated he wants to stay a Colt, and the Colts have told Manning they want to keep him. When the deal was done with these numbers, the idea was the Colts were signing a healthy Manning. It remains to be seen if the Colts want to adjust these numbers depending upon Manning's condition in March. If for some reason the two parties cannot come to an agreement on the adjustment of the date or contract amounts on March 12, Manning would become a free agent on March 13, but as I said, both parties want to continue the relationship, so I believe things will work in some way.
3. Alex Smith -- By playing against the Redskins, Smith clinched playing more than 40 percent of San Francisco's snaps this year, which will earn him a $500,000 bonus. My reasoning is there are normally about 1,000 plays during the course of the season. Entering the Washington game, he had played 402 plays. In the Washington game, he played 60 offensive plays giving him 462 for the season, which would put him at about 46 percent.
4. New officiating policy -- The idea was to have the officials look at only obvious situations where players were stumbling or staggering back to the huddle. If a player went back to the huddle, the officials were not going to enter the huddle to look into the eyes of the players to check them to see if there was something wrong. They want to make it simple for the officials. In the Jets game, Dustin Keller appeared on TV to be stumbling and staggering after a hit. It looked like the officials signaled to the Jets to take a look at him. Keller was taken out of the game and did not return until the second half. This appeared to be an example of how the system should work.