Although there were several impressive elements to the St. Louis victory Sunday -- which tied the Rams with the Seattle Seahawks for first place in the NFC West -- most notably, the win occurred on the road.
Mike Vrabel, Patriots LB
Defense ruled the day in Sunday's lowest-scoring contest, the 9-3 victory by New England against Cleveland, and no one ruled the overall defense like Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel. The seventh-year veteran, who just recently returned from a broken arm that sidelined him for three games, had six tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in helping the Pats hold off the Browns. His performance gives Vrabel four sacks for the season now and his career best is 4½. In fact, the three sacks Vrabel recorded on Sunday alone were as many as he recorded in four of his six previous campaigns. Vrabel is typical of the kind of compliant, role-player veteran coach Bill Belichick covets, and his return from the arm injury has been a welcome one for the New England defense.
Comments elicited from one AFC personnel director and one NFC pro scout:
"My scouts kept telling me last spring before the draft that (former LSU) tailback Domanick Davis could never hold up for a 16-game season. Maybe they'll be right, but that guy looks great right now (for the Houston Texans). He's slashy, has some burst, makes things happen. The last two games he has a ton of yards (335 total yards from scrimmage) and he and (Tony) Hollings give them something to build on."
"Of course, the Texans may need something to build on in the next couple weeks, if (quarterback) David Carr is out. I'm hearing he's got a high ankle sprain and those things are a real (problem) to deal with. You sure don't want (backup quarterback) Tony Banks having to carry the load for the offense."
"It will be a crime if (Tennessee linebacker) Keith Bulluck doesn't make the Pro Bowl team this year. They move him all over the place, including the middle, and he plays all three downs. He doesn't always make the attention-grabbing play, but he makes his share of key ones, and he really is solid."
"I saw the Dallas game, with (Bill) Parcells glaring at (left guard) Larry Allen, sitting him on the bench. It looked like Allen kind of took himself out of the game, then The Tuna gave him the evil eye for about five minutes after that. That wasn't exactly a match made in heaven to begin with, although Allen played better lately, but (Warren) Sapp abused him at times on Sunday. You can bet Allen is going to hear it from Parcells on Monday."
"Just a whisper, and you never know if guys in Oakland are being straight with you, but it could be that (quarterback Rich) Gannon ends up having shoulder surgery because he definitely has a tear in there."
"Now that (Oakland) defensive tackle Darrell Russell has been reinstated after his long suspension, look for the Jets to get defensive tackle Josh Evans back in the next week or so. That will help a front four that, despite the loss to the Eagles on Sunday, has been playing real well lately."
"The Raiders haven't even cut Russell yet, although that will happen no later than Tuesday, and already Washington is said to be ready to sign him."
"Watching the Patriots on Sunday, it occurred to me again just how good (Bill) Belichick really is on the defensive side. With all the injuries in the secondary, they've still given up just three touchdown passes, and that's amazing."
"Don't laugh, but (Cincinnati quarterback) Jon Kitna is playing some nice ball right now. When he doesn't turn it over, like the past couple weeks, he can be a guy you can live with."
"That kicker in San Francisco (Owen Pochman) might as well start packing his bags. He missed two more field goals Sunday (and is now eight for 15) and, to make things worse, hit the opening kickoff of overtime out of bounds. That gave Arizona the ball at the 40-yard line and they moved it enough for a winning field goal. The 49ers auditioned three guys last week and will sign one of them by Tuesday."
Heard in the pressbox
It will be interesting, when the Washington Redskins return to work this week, to see how well the coaching staff has resolved some of its differences. Last week was certainly one of the most tension-filled weeks in quite some time at Redskins Park, although owner Dan Snyder was calmer than most outside reports would indicate. But late in the week, there was a pretty good battle between head coach Steve Spurrier and one of his assistants. The two vented on each other pretty well. ... The recent suggestion by commissioner Paul Tagliabue, in which he noted that it might be time to consider reducing the number of preseason games, is not on the official agenda for the league owners meeting that is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday in Chicago. There is even a chance it might not be raised informally, although some feel there is a desire on the part of the commissioner, even minus a groundswell of support, to gauge the sentiments on what certainly would be a dramatic move. ... Look for Tampa Bay to re-sign tight end Rickey Dudley sometime next month. Dudley reached an injury settlement with the club at the end of the preseason. Under league rules, he is eligible to return to the Bucs after the ninth week of the campaign, and there is still a stall in the Bucs locker room with his nameplate and number hanging over it. ... Veteran backup Shaun King has retained his No. 2 spot on the Tampa Bay depth chart, but rookie Chris Simms got a lot of snaps last week and is closing the gap. And starter Brad Johnson was beat up enough last week that he had to cut back the number of practice snaps he got. The Bucs staff is keeping a close eye on Johnson because Tampa Bay can't win without him. If he has to reduce his work during the week, to ensure being healthy for Sunday, then the Bucs will do it. ... For all the pass-rush opportunities the Dom Capers defense was supposed to create in Houston, the Texans have just eight sacks in seven games. That's a real dropoff from 2002, when they had 35 sacks. ... Although the NFL figures to come calling, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz might be the leading candidate at Penn State if Joe Paterno decides to exit. ... Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, with all his endorsements, is making a ton of money and some NFL team is going to have to pay dearly to land the guy. ... The Eagles probably have lost defensive tackle Hollis Thomas for a long time, maybe the rest of the season, to a biceps or triceps injury.
Sure, it was key that quarterback Marc Bulger again did our shared alma mater (Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School) proud, passing for 375 yards and avoiding interceptions. Wide receiver Torry Holt continued to tear up opposition secondaries, shredding the overmatched Steelers for 174 yards and demonstrating that he ranks among the premier players at his position. And coach Mike Martz continued to move toward centrism, NFL-style, with a balanced game plan and a blocking scheme that insulated his quarterback.
But notching a "W" away from home, especially for a franchise that has become the league's equivalent of a hot-house orchid, is no small feat, given that St. Louis has dropped nine of its past 10 road games. And, oh, yeah, given that Sunday's matchup at Heinz Field commenced a stretch in which the Rams play four of five contests away from the cozy confines of the Edward Jones (nee TransWorld) Dome. "If we're going to go deep (into the playoffs), we have to prove to people, and to ourselves, that we can win outdoors, when the weather gets bad and the wind is blowing," said wide receiver Isaac Bruce. "We have to get past the perception that we're just a 'dome team' and that we'll wilt once we have to go outside."
The win at Pittsburgh, then, was a nice start. But it was only a start because the Rams travel to San Francisco next Sunday, and then have road games at Chicago (Nov. 16) and Arizona (Nov. 2). Indeed, if the Rams can win consistently on the road over their remaining schedule, which still includes four home contests, they might be a viable Super Bowl threat. Right now, St. Louis is one of five franchises in the NFC with five victories. It certainly looks like the divisional battle is between the Rams and the Seahawks, who visit the Edward Jones Dome on Dec. 14. Of those five clubs, the Rams are playing as well as anyone, though their momentum won't mean much if they stumble every time they pack their travel bags.
There comes a time, late in the season, when an offense has to be able to grind out yards on the ground to survive, and "The Remaking of Martz," as we like to call it, has included the run, even with the Rams down to their No. 3 tailback. That the Rams are doing this without the superb but suddenly brittle Marshall Faulk is a plus. Because when Faulk returns, probably in a week or two, the offense is only going to get better. As we've noted before, most recently in last week's "Tip Sheet," the ingenious Martz seems to have finally decided that he is still able to create separation for Holt and Bruce, even without running the four- and five-wide receiver routes he once favored. Heck, from afar, it even looks like Martz, a guy whose passing game machinations we love to break down, is starting to get better at game management, a longtime bugaboo. So look out for the Rams, provided Martz continues to call a smart game, and that St. Louis displays the ability to win when it moves outside the shadows of The Arch.
One final item in this paean to the Rams offense: While Holt isn't generally mentioned in the same breath as Randy Moss or Terrell Owens, maybe it's time he get more credit. He has six more receptions than does Moss, just as many touchdowns and only 13 fewer yards. Good thing St. Louis management tied him up over the summer with that new contract extension because, with the market on Owens perhaps shrinking a bit because of his demeanor, Holt would have been a hot commodity in the unrestricted free agent market next spring.
Rough day for Dillon
To declare that Sunday was not a particularly good day for Cincinnati Bengals tailback Corey Dillon would be a gross understatement. First as he and his family trucked down to Paul Brown Stadium, there was the automobile accident that kept him out of the game.
Although neither Dillon nor his family members were seriously injured, the fender-bender might pale in comparison to the dent that the veteran running back took to his industrial-sized ego. The Bengals, after all, won a game minus Dillon in the lineup. And if you think the fans of Cincinnati, about as weary of Dillon's silly griping as they are of losing seasons, didn't take notice of that, well, think again. Ditto team management and the coaching staff which, in its maiden voyage, probably wishes it had tossed Dillon overboard months ago.
Filling in for the Bengals' star, Rudi Johnson rushed for 101 yards on 27 carries, turning back the clock to his Auburn days, when he was one of the country's best power runners. Entering the contest, Johnson had just 55 career carries and 192 yards. Johnson is a tough inside contact-type runner, a guy who gets his pads down and can nudge the pile forward. Plus he's five years younger, and considerably cheaper, than Dillon (uh, no, Corey, team management didn't have to point out those facts to us). Given his run-amok self-esteem, it had to be killing Dillon to see someone else toting the rock in a big win. And it's got to stick in his craw, too, that explosive wide receiver Chad Johnson is slowly becoming an offensive centerpiece.
Don't look now but the Bengals, riding a modest two-game winning streak, are only one game off the lead in the ramshackle AFC North. Then again, you'd better look now, if you want to see Dillon in orange and black stripes. Winning without Dillon on Sunday figures to further convince Cincinnati management it might be able to do so on a fairly regular basis. And let's be honest: It's not like the Bengals have been to the playoffs at all with Dillon in the backfield.
No second-guessing Haslett
OK, football fans, in this installment of "you be the head coach," here is the knotty dilemma you face: Your team has just tied the game on a field goal with 41 seconds left in regulation and, in overtime, the offense has moved the ball well. It's fourth-and-one at the opposition 37-yard line and, while your kicker has been a clutch performer through most of his career, a 54-yard field goal is just beyond the edge of his envelope. You've got a tailback who has rushed for over 100 yards for the fourth straight game, an offensive line you trust, a right side that is capable of collapsing defenders. So what's the call, all you wannabe coaches out there, huh?
Yep, be honest now, you'd do precisely what New Orleans coach Jim Haslett did on Sunday against Carolina. You run Deuce McAllister, figure he's going to get that puny yard, and you'll eventually either score a touchdown or get into range for a John Carney field goal. All right, so maybe you don't run him straight at Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, who keeps making big plays at key times. Then again, you don't count on defensive end Julius Peppers, who is not to be confused with any of the great strong-side run anchors of all-time, submarining through bodies, hitting McAllister and forcing a fumble.
Maybe a poor play-call, doubtless shoddy execution, we agree. But, c'mon, all the folks who second-guessed Haslett when he lined up to go for it on fourth down -- and who were cursing him when the Panthers held and then drove to a winning field goal -- would have done the same thing. The only alternative was punting, since a Carney miss would have turned over the ball to Carolina at the 44-yard line. As it was, they got it pretty close to there anyway. But don't knock Haslett's strategy. Unless, that is, you first-guessed him as he kept his offense on the field and held back Carney on the sideline.
If you screamed, "What the hell is Haslett doing here, going for the first down?" before the snap, OK, you've earned the right to criticize. If not, keep your traps shut, folks.
It was, no doubt about it, a devastating defeat for Haslett and for the Saints. A victory would have pushed them to .500, to 4-4, and back into the thick of the playoff chase. What's more, it would have brought the Panthers closer to the pack in the NFC South, and maybe further eroded their confidence with a second consecutive loss. But no one needs to tell Haslett how hurtful the loss was. And no one needs to suggest much, either, that he should have tried the field goal.
Chiefs keep rolling
So now, having seen enough of the Kansas City-Buffalo game on Sunday night through bleary eyes and operating on very little sleep, we are prepared to concede that the Chiefs are hitting on just about every cylinder. Not that we felt they were a flawed team for the first seven weeks of the season. Just a team where no one seemed to notice that the wide receivers and tight end Tony Gonzalez weren't catching many balls, that trusty Trent Green wasn't exactly thrilling fantasy football fans with scads of touchdown passes, that Dante Hall was offering a near-weekly bail-out.
But in crushing the Bills on Sunday night, coordinator Al Saunders had his unit rolling, and the long touchdown pass to Hall that wiped out an early 2-0 Buffalo lead was a stroke of genius. If Green can stay as hot as he was on Sunday night, and the defense remains as stingy, the Chiefs could run out this winning streak a pretty long way. Fact is, Chiefs fans, history indicates that you can now start saving for that Super Bowl trip. Since 1970, 10 other teams have begun a season 8-0, and eight of them advanced to the championship game.
Most underrated Chiefs player, at least by the football fans outside of Kansas City, must be linebacker Scott Fujita. He just keeps getting better and, at some point, he'll starting getting more attention.
Don't look now but Sunday's rousing victory over a previously undefeated Minnesota Vikings team could be the beginning of the latest Jim Fassel initiative to again save his job. That's probably hyperbole, since there is nothing to yet suggest the New York Giants will now get on a roll. But you've got to admit that, when the wolves are all but through his front door, Fassel has an incredible ability to stop the howls for at least a while.
There haven't been any of the Fassel trademark guarantees yet but, after Sunday, can a declaration of playoff expectation be very far behind? Fassel is a good guy, one of the coaches you like to see succeed, but he's got to have some pact with the devil. Every time the New York media starts shoveling dirt on him, every time there is a hint general manager Ernie Accorsi has begun drawing up a short list of potential replacements, Fassel manages to push back the stone that is covering his grave. Sunday was merely the latest example.
It's notable that, of the head coaches in the league with 80 or more regular-season contests on their resumé, Fassel remains the only one who has never experienced a four-game losing streak. The victory at the Metrodome halted the seventh three-game losing streak of Fassel's tenure with the Giants.
And this factoid: Giants quarterback Kerry Collins is now on pace to toss 670 passes in 2003. The league record is 691 attempts, set by Drew Bledsoe in 1994, while playing for New England. If Fassel is to pull off another miracle, he might need every one of those 670 attempts.
Time up in Cleveland for Couch?
Here's betting the right ankle of Cleveland Browns quarterback Kelly Holcomb gets a whole lot better in the next few days. I mean, even if it doesn't get better, it's going to get better. Get our not so subtle drift?
Tim Couch has a bum thumb and for the second week in a row, he played like one, and got thumbed. Sez here that Couch, with a great chance to secure the job for the rest of the season, squandered his opportunity with subpar outings in losses to San Diego and at New England. Just when it seemed the Browns were going in the right direction, it now looks like Cleveland could be Couch Potatoes instead for the playoffs.
Someone needs to get inside Couch's head and figure out what the heck is going on in there. He's a bright guy, blessed with physical skills (all right, not the strongest arm around but strong enough), a hard worker. But maybe it is time for a change of scenery in 2004. Given the past two weeks, it's certainly looking like Couch will be elsewhere, trying to rehabilitate his career.
The good news is that there figures to be plenty of teams making quarterback changes in the offseason. And as for that perception that Couch is a better player on the road, these numbers: Through the Sunday loss at New England, he has a passer rating of 77.2 on the road and of 74.3 at Cleveland Stadium. That difference, folks, is not significant.
By virtue of its 9-3 victory over Cleveland on Sunday afternoon, New England has concluded its first undefeated October since the 1978 season. The Patriots were 0-3 in October a year ago.
In his two appearances against the New Orleans defense this year, Carolina tailback Stephen Davis carried 61 times for 337 yards and three touchdowns. The teams for which Davis has played are 19-4 in games where he rushed for 100 yards or more.
With the league cracking down on players who even accidentally bump into a game official, look for Denver offensive tackle Matt Lepsis to be fined. Lepsis was ejected in the fourth quarter Sunday after nudging a zebra. The going rate on these fines, it seems, is $25,000.
Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson now has eight 100-yard performances in his past 15 games.
The AFC South has been in existence now for 25 weeks, after the realignment of 2002, and Indianapolis has either led the division or shared the lead for all but two of those weeks.
Detroit has now lost 20 consecutive road games, the third longest such streak in NFL history.
In a rarity, there were no scores via interception or fumble recovery this weekend. At least not on defense. San Francisco offensive tackle Kwame Harris did recover a Jeff Garcia fumble for a touchdown.
Vikings free safety Brian Russell failed to get an interception Sunday, snapping his streak at six games with a pickoff. Minnesota strong safety Corey Chavous, however, had his sixth interception of the season, tying Russell for the league lead.
The Steelers' Tommy Maddox has already thrown 11 interceptions in seven games. He threw only 16 interceptions all of last season.
With two more overtime games this weekend, the NFL is now on pace for 27, which would break the record of 25 set last year.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.