By the Numbers - Week 9

Week 9 in the NFL didn’t produce too many upsets but it was still a very entertaining weekend. For the most part, the teams who were supposed to win their contests took care of business.

One of the games that could have gone either way was the AFC battle between the Indianapolis Colts and the Miami Dolphins. In what was a highly entertaining game, the Colts won by a 23-20 scoreline.

Thanks to a well-positioned second TV screen in the Sky Sports studios on Sunday night, I managed to follow a lot of this game via RedZone and I continue to be mightily impressed by Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.

In leading the Colts to their fifth win of the year, Luck threw for a rookie record 433 yards and two touchdowns. And that was against aMiamidefense that has played tough for much of this season. What particularly impressed (and frustrated) me was Luck’s ability to convert on third down. Every time it looked likeMiamimight have him stopped, Luck would fire another completion downfield for a first down.

The Colts went 13 of 19 on third downs and converted 3rd and 10, 11, 12, 14, 16 and 20 – against the best third down defense in the league going into the game. That is mightily impressive from a rookie.

But I actually don’t look as Luck as a rookie – he certainly acts and plays like a guy who has already been in the NFL for five years. When I sat down and chatted with him inIndianaover the summer, that was my one main take-away from the interview – he looked and sounded like a veteran. And it was the same way when I watched him on the practice field. He was in total command of his team and it did not surprise me when Colts insiders told me he had the playbook nailed by May and was teaching it to the veterans!

Back to Sunday and Luck fired accurate passes all over the field. He also showed his mobility in keeping plays alive when it appearedMiamihad him stuffed in the backfield. He was sacked only once andMiamiwill be rueing the fact they couldn’t close out a lot of plays against the Colts.

But that’s what the great quarterbacks do – they not only inspire their own team, they frustrate the hell out of the opposition as they continue to turn seemingly lost situations into first downs and touchdowns.

Luck did that time and again on Sunday night and Colts fans have to be excited by his progress. It seems we have been talking about this game arriving on the NFL scene for years now and he is not disappointing on the big stage.

Peyton Manning is enjoying a renaissance with the Denver Broncos and won again on Sunday night, but it’s clear to me the Colts made the right move in going after Luck in this year’s draft. They’re set at the game’s most important position for the next 15 years.

More importantly, the Colts are at 5-3 and in the thick of the playoff race, especially with very winnable games coming up againstJacksonville,Buffalo,TennesseeandKansas City.

If the Colts go from being the worst team in the league in 2011 to a playoff club this season, that really will be one of the biggest stories of this 2012 campaign.

As a footnote to this part of the column, I want to give a nod to Ryan Tannehill, who also played well at quarterback for the Dolphins. And don’t writeMiamioff. Being 4-4 in the AFC is not a bad place to be as the second half of the season unfolds, especially with games againstTennessee,Buffalo(twice) andJacksonvilleto come.

And now onto this week’s numbers...

54-386-5... Those are the rushing numbers produced by Doug Martin, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, during back to back wins over the Minnesota Vikings and Oakland Raiders. The powerful and stocky Martin backed up his 135-yard day against the Vikes by rushing for a club record 251 yards and four scores during Sunday’s 42-32 win over the Raiders. Martin showed in scoring from 45, 67 and 70 yards that he is much more than a “three yards and a cloud of dust” kind of back. When he finds an opening, he has the speed to run away from defensive backs, making him a very valuable weapon in the backfield. Martin’s performance was all the more remarkable when you consider the Bucs are now without both starting Pro Bowl guards in Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph. In a year when rookie quarterbacks are rightly getting a lot of attention, Martin is flying the flag for first-year running backs and the Bucs are now well stocked at the skill positions with Josh Freeman at quarterback and Vincent Jackson teaming impressively with Mike Williams at receiver. With the NFC being so tough, the 2012 NFL playoffs may be a step too far for these Bucs, but they are undoubtedly heading in the right direction.

372... Worrying news for Minnesota Vikings fans... that is the passing yardage total for second-year quarterback Christian Ponder in the past three weeks. Ponder threw for just 58 yards in a Week 7 win over Arizona, he threw for 251 yards but played badly in a Week 8 loss to Tampa Bay and then on Sunday he struggled again, throwing for just 63 yards and 1 interception as the Vikings fell to a 30-20 loss in Seattle. Ponder looked like he had made significant strides forward early in the season but he has since regressed. The Vikings remain competitive thanks to some tough running from a fit-again Adrian Peterson, but they’re not going to the playoffs unless Ponder can step up and make more plays from the quarterback position. We should also keep an eye on the health of influential wide receiver Percy Harvin, who limped out of Sunday’s game with an ankle injury.

4... There are a lot of very good players on the Chicago Bears defense but it’s hard to find anyone playing better than cornerback Charles Tillman. Maybe fellow cornerback Tim Jennings. But I want to credit Tillman for his showing on Sunday as the Bears hammered the Tennessee Titans to the tune of a 51-20 scoreline. ‘Peanut’ forced 4 fumbles and continues to be a turnover menace this season. He is big and strong in coverage but it is his ability to take the ball away from the opposition that sets him apart. He has now forced 36 fumbles during the course of his career. The entire Bears defense has a Super Bowl look about it this season. They have scored 7 defensive touchdowns this term and have only allowed 10 touchdowns. When the 86-year-old Brian Urlacher is rumbling 46 yards for a score – as he did on Sunday night – you know the Bears have something special going on. Add in the fact that they are getting just enough offense and they look in good shape at the halfway mark of their season at 7-1. Sure, the Bears would love a bit more consistency out of Jay Cutler and the offense, but their mauling, opportunistic defense gives them a chance to win every weekend. This could yet turn out to be a very special season indeed for the new Monsters of the Midway. Flipping this weekend’s result back to the Titans, head coach Mike Munchak might want to avoid team owner Bud Adams for a few days. I have a feeling he might be in a firing mood!

Monday Musings...

  • I’m still not quite sure of all the contract ins and outs regarding Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints. And it is fair to say that the situation is fluid. But you can bet your bottom dollar that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is going to look long and hard at the possibility of Payton becoming a coaching free agent in 2013. Jason Garrett is simply not getting the job done in Big D and a more aggressive form of leadership might be in order. Payton would certainly fit that bill, although I find it hard to believe the Saints will let him skip town so easily.
  • It’s always a good story to write about how the Pittsburgh Steelers are finished. They’re old on defence, the offensive line is poor, the running game is washed up and there is too much pressure on Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. No matter how many times we write it, the Steelers continue to fight, scratch and claw their way to the playoffs. Sunday’s 24-20 win over the New York Giants had a real playoff feel about it and it came during the course of a long day in which the Steelers travelled to and fromNew Yorkwithout an overnight stay.Pittsburghwon with a smothering defence, a strong running attack led by Isaac Redman (147 yards and game-winning touchdown) and just enough accurate downfield passing from Big Ben. With five division games still to play and currently riding a three-game winning streak, the Steelers are very much alive in the playoff race. Of course, they could do without any more ridiculous fake field goal calls from head coach Mike Tomlin!
  • He did not exactly set the world on fire on Sunday night but Cam Newton delivered a decent win for the Carolina Panthers in Washingtonand it was certainly a step in the right direction for the embattled second-year passer. Camclearly won the head to head battle with Robert Griffin III and was, for the most part, decisive with the football in his hands. He threw for 201 yards and one touchdown and added a rushing touchdown in a much-needed 21-13 win. I still have my doubts about whether Ron Rivera will return as head coach in 2013 but there is clearly not going to be a move away from Newton. The Panthers have too much invested in him at this stage of his career and Newtonalso has the physical skills to be a superstar. He now just needs to buckle down and understand that the game’s very best players – guys like Jerry Rice, Peyton Manning and Marshall Faulk – worked their socks off away from the playing field in order to maximise their skills on Sunday. When Camconsistently ups his work rate and mental approach to the game, he will be ready to take that next step and become the star we all believe he can be.

Final Thought

I want to end by applauding the undefeated Atlanta Falcons, who improved to 8-0 with a hard-fought win over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night. I’m still not sure the Falcons are going to win it all come February. In fact, if you forced me to wager my house on the Super Bowl winner, I would haveSan Francisco,Chicago,Green Bay,New Englandand maybe the New York Giants ahead of the Falcons. I just haven’t seen the Falcons tested by an NFL superpower yet and I probably won’t until the playoffs begin. The Falcons have a soft schedule but they are holding up their end of the bargain. All they can do is beat the teams in front of them and in a parity-filled league, it is time to admit that any team opening with eight straight wins is pretty special. These Falcons are more explosive on offense than they have ever been since Matt Ryan took over at quarterback and they have some wonderful receiving targets in Julio Jones, Roddy White and the ageless Tony Gonzalez. But perhaps most impressively, the Falcons are more resilient and tougher than I can ever remember them being since Mike Smith took charge. They are winning on the road and they dug deep to see off the Cowboys on Sunday. So maybe they will be strong enough to succeed in the post-season. Given their playoff history of late, it is going to take some knockout stage wins in January in order for the Falcons to truly make believers of us all.