We used to good-naturedly jab our close friend Peter King of Sports Illustrated about how he predicted the past two seasons that Denver quarterback Jake Plummer was going to be the league's Most Valuable Player. This year, Peter did not choose Plummer as his preseason MVP, but probably not because of the kidding he absorbed.
And, voila, Plummer stopped throwing interceptions.
So, hey, Peter, maybe this would have been the season to climb back up on the suddenly crowded Plummer bandwagon. In one season, Plummer has become both hairy (he might never shave that beard) and scary. He is not only managing the game well -- and feeding the ball to his terrific tailback tandem of Mike "Mr. Inside" Anderson and Tatum "Mr. Outside" Bell -- but also has dramatically reduced his turnovers. And that's a big part of why Denver is 6-2, leads a tough AFC West by 1½ games, and might actually be a threat to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs this year.
We're not ready to buy into the oft-articulated prediction of Woody Paige of "Cold Pizza" fame, who insists the Broncos will keep Indianapolis out of Super Bowl XL, mostly because we've seen the last two playoff matchups between the two teams. And, while Woody lives in New York now and is a lot smarter than us (the only Cold Pizza we merit is the stuff that's left in the fridge on Saturday mornings), he's still a Denver homer, let's face it. That said, the Broncos are doing what they always do, which is run the ball better than just about everyone else in the league.
More important, they're doing a couple things they almost never do, which is play stout defense and not have their quarterback cough it up.
Plummer threw four touchdown passes Sunday -- he had managed only eight in the first seven games -- against what used to be considered a superb Philadelphia secondary. He now has 12 touchdown passes for the season, just three interceptions, and he hasn't tossed a pick since the second game of the campaign. This from a guy who came into the year with more career interceptions (141) than touchdown passes (132) and who typically suffered fourth-quarter meltdowns.
Some quarterbacks tend to be late bloomers, and maybe it took growing that beard for Plummer to flower in his ninth season. If he keeps playing with the degree of efficiency he has demonstrated through the first eight games, the Broncos could be a legitimate contender and might even get coach Mike "The Mastermind" Shanahan his first playoff victory since John Elway retired.
Maybe, too, freed from those lofty expectations, Plummer will garner some consideration for Most Valuable Player honors.
The great Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll was one of the game's finest teachers, and one of his most-articulated lessons to his Pittsburgh Steelers teams that captured four Super Bowl titles in six years in the '70s was that emotion only carries a team so far in a game.
Essentially, what Noll preached was a gospel of dispassion and a work ethic based on execution, not exultation. His feeling was that every Steelers opponent would come into every game sky-high because of who they were playing. And Noll always felt that if his Steelers could weather that initial emotional wave and get through the early portion of the game, foes would eventually run out of steam and Pittsburgh's superior talent would be its advantage. Noll was, as usual, on the nose. The Steelers almost never lost to an inferior opponent during their memorable six-year run because they played an even-keeled game and allowed everyone else's emotions to wane.
Until Sunday, we pretty much believed unwaveringly in the Noll axiom that emotion doesn't win many games. Truth be told, we still feel he was right. But then, in two games, one viewed in person and one on television, we saw raw emotions impact the outcome. The first was in East Rutherford, N.J., where the New York Giants were clearly a team on the emotional edge just five days after the death of beloved franchise patriarch Wellington Mara and, make no mistake, their heightened sense of what the game meant carried throughout.
That was no more obvious than in the performance of tailback Tiki Barber, who ran for a career-best 206 yards and jump-started the rout of the much-despised Washington Redskins with a 57-yard run on the first snap of the afternoon. You don't think the Giants desperately wanted the shutout, the first-ever regular-season blank job laid on Redskins coach Joe Gibbs? Well, think again. "It was the perfect way to honor Mr. Mara," said Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who defected from the Skins this summer as a free agent. "The win was special. The shutout was like a dream."
Later in the day, the presence of inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi provided the floundering New England Patriots a boost they desperately needed. Bruschi played on 64 snaps, far more than coach Bill Belichick had planned on, and had seven tackles. It's hard to recall even one spectacular, game-alterting play that Bruschi authored in returning to the field less than nine months after suffering a stroke. His presence alone, though, was pretty much a game-altering event.
Bears on the prowl
The NFL's best salary-cap manager, Philadelphia Eagles team president Joe Banner, opined to us this summer that the Chicago Bears had quietly done an excellent job in administering the spending limit. Banner specifically cited the Bears' defense as a unit that was well-constructed, not just on the field but contractually, too.
After Chicago took "control" (strictly a relative term, in this case) of the embarrassingly limp NFC North on Sunday, toppling Detroit on corner Charles Tillman's interception return for a touchdown in overtime, we recalled Banner's assessment. And while we didn't have all the salary resources with us on the road Sunday night, just a glimpse at where the Bears stand on defense seems to indicate the ever-analytical Banner was on target.
Of the 11 players who started on defense in Sunday's 19-13 victory -- which nudged Chicago to 4-3, the lone winning mark in a bad division where the three other competitors have posted an aggregate 6-15 record -- all but one, strong-side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, is under contract through at least the '06 season. And Hillenmeyer, a third-year veteran, can be retained just by making him a restricted free-agent qualifying offer next spring. It should be noted that Jerry Azumah -- a starting-caliber cornerback who lost his No. 1 job to Nathan Vasher when injured and is now coming off the bench and playing as a "nickel" defender -- is eligible for unrestricted free agency. Azumah is a solid player, and Chicago management would probably like to keep him around, but technically he's not currently a starter. Seven starters from the Sunday lineup are under contract to the Bears through the 2007 season and a half dozen through 2008.
Looking at their base salaries, it appears most of Chicago's defensive starters have palatable salary-cap charges for upcoming seasons. And there is this element, too: The 11 starters against the Lions on Sunday average only 3.4 seasons of NFL tenure and 24.8 years of age. Just two players, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and strong safety Mike Brown, have more than five seasons in the league. Only four starters are older than 25 years and none is older than 28.
Oft-criticized general manager Jerry Angelo has done a nice job of looking to the future and ensuring that defensive-oriented head coach Lovie Smith has foundational players on whom he can count for several more seasons. That Smith can coach up a defense, along with coordinator Ron Rivera, was quickly obvious in 2004. It's become even clearer this season, though, as Chicago has allowed 13 points or fewer in five of seven games. The Bears rank high in most statistical categories -- they entered the weekend No. 3 in total defense, second in scoring defense and fourth-best in third-down conversion rate -- and they play hard.
Tillman, viewed as an emerging star coming into the season, hadn't played up to expectations in the first six games. But he redeemed himself Sunday, jumping in front of a poorly thrown Jeff Garcia pass that was directed toward wide receiver Mike Williams and racing 22 yards for the winning score.
There have now been just five overtime games played this season and, amazingly, two have ended on "walk-off" interceptions. The first came by Jacksonville cornerback Rashean Mathis in an Oct. 16 victory at Pittsburgh. Entering this season, just 15 of 377 overtime games had ended on an interception return for a touchdown. Ironically, safety Mike Brown achieved the unusual feat in consecutive weekends for Chicago in 2001.
The Bears now face New Orleans Sunday in Baton Rouge and then host San Francisco on Nov. 13 -- two teams with a combined record of 4-11. Might it be possible for the Bears to open up a workable lead in the woebegone NFC North? It might be if their defense keeps playing at its present level.
Can't trust the Jaguars
We're convinced the Jacksonville Jaguars just don't know how to handle prosperity. Or, more accurately, a favorable schedule. If the Jaguars are to mature into the outfit coach Jack Del Rio believes they can be, they have to stop losing games as they did Sunday to a St. Louis Rams team that played without coach Mike Martz, starting quarterback Marc Bulger and Pro Bowl wide receivers Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.
No offense to the Rams, who played hard and got a standout performance from second-year tailback Steven Jackson, but there is no acceptable excuse for such a dismal Jacksonville loss. The Jaguars are, by now, supposed to be beyond such letdowns. Apparently, though, they are not. At least not yet. It's something Del Rio addressed in training camp, a basic lack of consistency, not being able to follow up what should be a significant victory with another strong effort. His players must not have listened very well to the message.
Jacksonville defeated Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in overtime on Oct. 16, had a bye week, and then came back and frittered away the momentum that should have been generated by the victory over the Steelers. We've seen that act before and, alas, so has Del Rio. Last year, the Jags lost twice to the hapless Houston Texans and were outscored 41-6 in those contests, with the second loss coming one week after Jacksonville had scored a huge must-win game on the road at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The follow-up to the victory over the Packers, which was supposed to have been a springboard into the playoffs: A 21-0 loss to the Texans in Alltel Stadium.
You look at the statistics from Sunday -- with Fred Taylor running for 165 yards, wide receiver Ernest Wilford grabbing six passes for 145 yards, middle linebacker Mike Peterson notching 10 tackles and a sack and star cornerback Rashean Mathis with two interceptions and three other passes defensed -- and you wonder how the Jaguars could have lost. But they did. And that's why it's still difficult to put a lot of faith in Jacksonville, despite the fact the Jaguars have one of the least daunting schedules in the league, with eight of their final nine opponents currently sporting losing records.
Those nine opponents have a combined record of 21-43. Indianapolis, which Jacksonville hosts on Dec. 11, accounts for one-third of the victories rung up by the Jaguars' remaining opponents. Jacksonville still has two games each against the Texans (1-6), including a home tilt next week, and Tennessee (2-6). They get Baltimore, Arizona, Cleveland and San Francisco. Going into Sunday's game at St. Louis, there were a lot of pundits suggesting that Jacksonville, which now trails the Colts by three full games in the division, could be penciled in as a surefire wild card. But Sunday demonstrated again why you just can't trust this team.
Brown running past Cadillac
To no one's surprise, a former Auburn tailback, a big-time talent chosen among the top five picks in the draft, leads all NFL rookies in rushing yards after the first eight weeks of the season. It might surprise some, however, to discover that the rookie in question is Ronnie Brown of the Miami Dolphins, not the Tampa Bay Bucs' Carnell "Cadillac" Williams.
We haven't changed our mind that Williams, an intriguing blend of deceptive power and jaw-dropping explosiveness, was the best rookie we saw firsthand at any offensive position in any of the 15 training camps we visited this summer. And through the first three weeks of the season, the workhorse Williams, who carried the ball 88 times for 434 yards and two touchdowns in that span, was on pace for one of the all-time great debut campaigns. But the workload imposed upon him caught up to Williams and, largely because of injuries, his total for the past four games is 24 attempts for a paltry 33 yards. Williams missed two of those games, of course, to various lower-body ailments.
But his return to the field on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, after having been sidelined for two weeks, hardly demonstrated that the fifth overall pick in the 2005 draft is fully rehabilitated. Williams carried 13 times for 20 yards. He had just two carries for more than four yards, one for more than five yards, and five of his 13 attempts netted minus yardage. Nine rushes went for one yard or less. In his last two appearances, 19 of Williams' 24 carries netted two yards or less and 15 of them went for one yard or less, with eight of them for losses. His longest run in those two games was for 15 yards, this after having five explosive plays -- runs of 20 yards or more -- in his first three outings.
Williams didn't make it through the entire Oct. 2 victory over the Detroit Lions, his last appearance before returning Sunday from injuries, and he wasn't on the field for the fourth quarter of the loss at San Francisco. Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered, since the Bucs, trailing 12-3 after three quarters, ran only one running play in the final period. Even after closing the deficit to 12-10, Tampa Bay finished the game with seven straight pass plays.
As for Ronnie Brown, well, he's played in all seven of Miami's games and now has more carries (114-112), rushing yards (544-467) and touchdowns (three-two) than his former Auburn teammate. After starting slowly, Brown, the second overall pick in the draft, has now rushed for 95 yards or more in four of his last five games. In that stretch, Brown has carried 80 times for 452 yards, an impressive 5.65-yard average. Even factoring in his first two games, Brown is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He has demonstrated that he can pound the ball inside and can also make the home-run play (with runs of 28, 35, 58 and 65 yards). Most important is that Brown has stayed away from the bumps and the bruises that plague every back and thus has been able to line up every week.
There's an old league adage that "you can't help the club when you're in the tub." It's not Williams' fault that he has spent more time in the garage, actually in the whirlpool, than on the field lately. But while The Cadillac has been up on blocks most of the past month, his onetime Auburn running mate has zipped past him for the rookie rushing lead and maybe into the favorite's spot for offensive rookie of the year honors.
Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce had a huge game against his former Washington Redskins teammates, with 11 tackles, one interception and a pair of passes defensed. Pierce also provided the New York offensive staff some keys for helping to read the Washington defense. ... The Redskins, who unveiled a 3-4 look last week, used the front on 18 of 78 defensive snaps Sunday. Linebacker LaVar Arrington played nearly all the 3-4 snaps and participated in 35 snaps overall. ... When the Houston Texans scored on their opening possession Sunday, it marked the first time they led all season. ... Houston quarterback David Carr was sacked only twice, his fewest sacks in a game this year. ... Since October 2000, Minnesota is 9-32 on the road. That includes an 0-4 record on the road this season. The Vikings have been outscored by an average of 24.8 points in their four road losses this season. ... Oakland defensive tackle Warren Sapp turned back the pages on Sunday with one of his best games in a couple years, collecting six tackles, 2½ sacks and a big forced fumble. ... It took overtime, but the Bears became the first NFL franchise to post 650 victories. ... San Diego tailback LaDainian Tomlinson now has three pass attempts, all for touchdowns, this season. ... Chargers tight end Antonio Gates set career bests for receptions (10) and yards (145) Sunday, and he tied his career best with three touchdown catches. ... Philadelphia has now been outscored 79-30 in the first halves of its last four games. ... Steven Jackson of St. Louis has now had four 20-carry games in his career and the Rams are unbeaten in those contests. St. Louis has outscored its opponents 88-51 in those games. ... Arizona lost its 14th straight regular-season game at Texas Stadium. ... The Cardinals recorded zero passes defensed in the loss at Dallas. ... The Cowboys likely lost starting strong-side linebacker Al Singleton (broken collarbone) for the year. ... The Cincinnati defense recorded five interceptions for the third time this season, the first time it's been done since Kansas City achieved the feat in 1970. With 20 pickoffs, the Bengals now have as many interceptions through the first eight games as they recorded all last season.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.