Even though receivers have been wiped out at a scary rate in recent weeks, the scoring didn't suffer in Week 9.
Teams averaged 51.7 points a game Sunday. The league average entering the week was 46.2. Still, it was a little surprising seeing an increase in scoring after Sidney Rice, Travis Benjamin, Brandon Gibson, Reggie Wayne and Mike Williams of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were lost for the season. Miles Austin, Marques Colston and other receivers were inactive Sunday.
It was a Sunday in which the banged-up New England Patriots receiving corps keyed a 55-31 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. That's the most points scored on the Steelers in franchise history. Tom Brady spread 23 completions for 432 yards to six different pass-catchers, including three wide receivers.
Somehow, Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson was able to come back from a 21-point deficit and throw for 217 yards in a 27-24 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, adjusting to the season-ending loss of Rice.
There were some shifting statistical winds Sunday. After a couple of weeks in which only two running backs had 100-yard games, 10 backs had 100-yard games Sunday. That's only one short of the 11 100-yard games put up by receivers.
Here's what we learned in Week 9:
1. Changing of the guard in NFC South: The Carolina Panthers' 34-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons was a statement game. For years, the Panthers have been staring up at the New Orleans Saints and Falcons. Sunday's victory put them at 5-3, three games ahead of the Falcons and only a game behind the division-leading Saints. After four straight non-winning seasons, the Panthers are back to being a player.
All of a sudden, the Panthers have an edge in personnel over the Falcons, who had won seven of the previous nine games against Carolina. The Panthers have a defensive front seven that can overpower the Falcons' offensive line. Cam Newton may not put up the same numbers as Matt Ryan, but he can compete with him, particularly when the Falcons don't have Roddy White and Julio Jones.
Things can't be more positive for the Panthers. Jonathan Stewart came off the physically unable to perform list last week and led the team with 43 rushing yards Sunday. The Panthers, who had 131 rushing yards total, once again have a one-two punch of Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Newton, the only player in NFL history with 53 touchdown passes and 26 rushing touchdowns in his first 40 games, had to run only five times.
The Falcons are 2-6 and out of it. "We have many different problems," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. Indeed they do.
2. Changing of the guard in AFC North: Despite a disappointing loss to the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night, the Cincinnati Bengals own the rapidly changing AFC North. The surprise is the Cleveland Browns are matching the level of play of the Baltimore Ravens and Steelers, the two teams that have dominated the division.
The fact that the Patriots beat the Steelers wasn't a surprise. The fact that New England won 55-31 was stunning. It was the worst defensive day in Steelers history. And this is turning into one of the team's most disappointing seasons in several decades. The Steelers are 2-6 and could see major changes ahead. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is angry. He said if he sees players not playing hard, he's going to bench them.
As for the Ravens, their 24-18 loss to Cleveland ended an 11-game winning streak against the Browns. It also shows how far the Super Bowl champions have fallen. The problem starts along the offensive line. The Ravens' blockers haven't taken well to offensive line coach Juan Castillo. Joe Flacco was sacked five times and the running game once again wasn't there. Ray Rice had 11 carries for 17 yards. The Ravens had only 55 yards rushing against the Browns.
Sure, the Bengals' loss at Miami hurt -- it could make them a No. 3 or a No. 4 seed instead of getting a playoff bye -- but they will win the division while everyone tries to figure out its bigger disappointment -- the Steelers or Ravens. "We've got our work cut out for us," Harbaugh said.
3. Road problems for Brees, Saints: Have you seen the NyQuil commercial in which a rain-drenched Drew Brees is fighting a flu bug in a road hotel? As it turns out, the road can be tough for Brees. His home record during the regular season is 56-32, but his road record is 49-40 after Sunday's 26-20 loss to the New York Jets. The loss could ultimately cost the Saints the chance to have home-field advantage during the playoffs, which might mean the difference between an early postseason exit and going to the Super Bowl. Brees is 0-3 in playoff road games.
After the game, Jets coach Rex Ryan said he wasn't worried about Brees having the ball at the end of the game. Down by six with 1:58 remaining, Brees stared what could have been a game-winning drive from his 19-yard line. He completed one of four passes and was pushed back by a holding penalty. "We felt like our opportunities were there,'' said Brees, who completed 30 of 51 passes for 382 yards. "We weren't able to take advantage of them.''
The Saints were their worst enemies all day against the Jets. Brees burned his three first-half timeouts before the end of the first quarter. He had two delay-of-game penalties in the first quarter.
There is no doubt Brees and New Orleans coach Sean Peyton will exhaust their energies trying to fix the problems. They know what is at stake. They are in a mad scramble with Seattle, San Francisco and Green Bay for the NFC's No. 1 seed and home-field advantage. The Saints are 6-2. On Nov. 17, they host the 49ers. On Dec. 2, they travel to Seattle. By then, they have to figure out why things aren't as sharp on the road. The organization still remembers going against what should have been a beatable 7-9 Seattle team in the playoffs following the 2010 season. The Saints lost that game like they struggled against the Jets on Sunday.
4. Sometimes, the best offense is a great defense: With a new slate of young, inexperienced quarterbacks and veteran quarterbacks such as Matt Schaub and Eli Manning throwing pick-sixes at an alarming rate, it is important to have an opportunistic defense.
The Kansas City Chiefs were the classic example Sunday. As it has been for the past month, the Chiefs' offense was bottled up. The Buffalo Bills limited the Chiefs to 210 yards and only one touchdown drive in a 23-13 loss. But as we've seen so often this year, a pick-six changed the game.
Undrafted rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel had a chance to give Buffalo a 17-3 lead with a third-and-goal at the Chiefs' 1 with 11:14 left in the third quarter. But Tuel threw a pick at the goal line that cornerback Sean Smith returned 100 yards, tying to game and changing all the momentum. Linebacker Tamba Hali sealed the victory by returning a T.J. Graham fumble 11 yards for a score in the fourth quarter.
The Chiefs, at 9-0, are averaging 23.7 points a game, but nine of those points are coming from the defense. As the Chicago Bears found out for years with their Cover 2, defense can produce offense. As Bills coach Doug Marrone found out Sunday, a pick-six can change the outcome of a game. Responding to the Smith interception, Marrone said, "Do you question the play call? No. Do you question the execution? Yes."
5. Stalwarts stay on track: Brady had a laugher. Wilson had one of the biggest comeback scrambles of his career. Regardless, the Patriots beat Pittsburgh and the Seahawks rallied to beat Tampa Bay. By winning, both teams stay near the top of their respective conferences. After the game, Wilson didn't seem opposed to making such an incredible comeback.
"I expect these [close game] situations to happen," Wilson said. "I want these situations to happen." Wilson threw an interception at the Bucs' goal line but overcame that to get the victory. The Seahawks are 8-1 and play at struggling Atlanta in Week 10.
Brady goes into the bye week at 7-2 and feeling great about the Patriots. They put up 610 yards and 55 points against the Steelers. "It was our day for execution," Brady said. "You don't wake up in the morning thinking it would go like that." Brady said some elements of the offense are starting to click. That definitely appeared to be the case Sunday.
Rex Ryan made a good point after the Jets' 26-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints. "Marty Mornhinweg should be offensive coach of the year," Ryan said. "That's obvious." Mornhinweg has done a remarkable job with rookie quarterback Geno Smith. The Jets knew they would have no chance to win if Smith committed a turnover. He didn't. Mornhinweg had Smith throw passes for an average of 7 yards, according to ESPN Stats & information. He completed eight passes for 115 yards. Josh Cribbs had the longest throw out of a Wildcat for 25 yards. By not screwing it up, the Jets are 5-4 and would be in the playoffs if the postseason started Sunday. … Despite a respectable showing in a 27-23 loss to Dallas, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier remains in jeopardy of losing his job before the end of the season. He's fine this week. The Vikings have a Thursday night home game against Washington. There's no time to make a change. But the quarterback position remains a mess. Christian Ponder did OK but he remains the starter only because of the short week. Other problems are creeping into the team. Defensive linemen Kevin Williams and Brian Robison said the Vikings were too conservative with the pass rush during Tony Romo's game-winning, 90-yard touchdown drive. … The Dez Bryant roller-coaster continues. Bryant was called for two penalties on one third-down play toward the end of the third quarter. First, he got an offensive interference and then got an unsportsmanlike penalty for ripping off his helmet. Bryant said he didn't know that rule. Jason Witten had to escort Bryant to the sidelines while trying to calm him down. Bryant caught six passes for 64 yards but also had two drops. … Tennessee Titans halfback Chris Johnson usually does well in November and his 150-yard game against St. Louis in a 28-21 win was right on schedule. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Johnson averaged 6.5 yards a carry outside the tackle compared to 2.9 for the first seven games. … Eagles coach Chip Kelly wouldn't commit to Nick Foles as a starter for next week's game against Green Bay, but you'd have to figure he's going to start. Foles became only the seventh quarterback in NFL history to throw seven touchdown passes in a game. How can he be benched? … The AFC holds a 23-19 edge over the NFC in interconference play after Sunday.