Week 9 turned into Separation Sunday.
In the AFC, the midseason playoff picture became clearer. The Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos might not have played great games, but they're established as the favorites to win their divisions. The idle New England Patriots were aided by a Miami Dolphins loss to the Indianapolis Colts that gave New England a one-game lead in the AFC East. The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New York Giants and proved they are going to be a major factor down the stretch.
In the meantime, the Colts have started to emerge as a wild-card team.
In the NFC, the Chicago Bears improved to 7-1 and the Green Bay Packers improved to 6-3 despite suffering more injuries. The Atlanta Falcons, the Giants -- despite their loss -- and the San Francisco 49ers have already made their cases as division leaders, while the Seattle Seahawks have set themselves up as serious wild-card contenders.
Week 9 featured great running, an emotional scene in Indianapolis, some crazy calls by officials and a big win by the Steelers in New York.
1. "Chuckstrong" and Luckstruck: Colts coach Chuck Pagano, recently released from the hospital where he has been undergoing treatment for leukemia, gave pregame and postgame talks to his team Sunday.
"I was taken by the moment," Colts safety Tom Zbikowski said about Pagano's initial speech. "He talked about where this team has come from. He talked about the struggle and how we were still standing in there."
Defensive end Dwight Freeney has been around 11 years and is honest. He says an emotional visit like that can carry a player's emotion for a quarter, maybe two quarters. Then it's up to the players to finish.
The Colts finished well in an emotional, 23-20 win over the Dolphins that makes Indianapolis a legitimate threat to get an AFC wild-card spot.
Pagano may be the Colts' inspiration, but rookie QB Andrew Luck is their new Peyton Manning. He was amazing Sunday, completing 30 passes for an NFL rookie-record 433 yards. He converted 13 of 19 third downs against the league's No. 1 third-down defense. The key for Luck is his mobility. He is not as big as Ben Roethlisberger or as fast as Michael Vick or Robert Griffin III, but he has a knack for keeping plays alive when defenders chase him.
"He's just a gifted athlete," Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said. "Ryan Tannehill's the same way. They can move around. They have a great feel for the pocket. He's so big and strong, he can throw guys off like Ben used to."
Arians' game plan Sunday was to try longer passes, hoping to get "chunk plays." Luck burned the Dolphins for 10 completions that gained at least 19 yards.
"He finally hit a deep ball," Arians said. "We've been close. We've been underthrowing and overthrowing but we hit a big one [a 48-yarder to Donnie Avery]. We talked all week about needing chunk plays against their defense."
Luck showed his resilience with an offense that kept losing starters. During the game, halfback Donald Brown injured his hip. Offensive linemen Samson Satele and Winston Justice and Avery went down with injuries. Tight end Coby Fleener was inactive.
The challenge this week is a Thursday night game in Jacksonville in which the Colts could be down six to eight players because of injuries. But the visit by Pagano has made them "Chuckstrong" (the name of a Colts campaign started to raise money for leukemia research and to support Pagano) and focused.
"Well for me, it's make sure we make the playoffs because he's got a great chance to be back at end of December," Arians said of what it meant to see Pagano. "We need to extend this season so he can be back on the sidelines with us, healthy."
Pagano told the team after the game he wants to dance with his two daughters, who are soon to be married, and rub the Lombardi Trophy. It was quite a scene.
2. Not-so-sweet home for Redskins: Redskins owner Dan Snyder bought the franchise because he was a season-ticket holder with the resources and desire to make the Redskins experience special. As hard as he tries, the process still isn't working. Even though he is spending $7 million a year for Mike Shanahan, the Redskins are 5-15 under Shanahan at FedEx Field.
Sunday's 21-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers was another disaster. Coming into the game, the Panthers were reeling (five straight losses) and seemed distracted. Their Redskins experience inspired them. The Skins invited several great players from their past to take part in festivities that included throwback uniforms. The Panthers felt they were being treated like it was a homecoming game, which in college often features a soft opponent.
"I've never been more insulted in the NFL until today," Panthers halfback DeAngelo Williams wrote on Facebook. "The Redskins scheduled us for their HOMECOMING game! This isn't college."
The Panthers played more motivated than they had all season. Williams, who is having his worst season, had a 30-yard touchdown run. Cam Newton slightly outplayed RG3. He ran for 37 yards, passed for 201 yards and had a 100.1 passer rating. He didn't have a turnover. RG3 accepted the responsibility for the loss, but he has to feel abandoned. His receivers continue to drop passes, although it wasn't as bad as last week, when they dropped 10.
At 3-6, the Redskins clearly aren't going to make a playoff run and Shanahan is already talking about the season becoming an evaluation for next year. That's not what Redskins fans want to hear.
Instead of football, Redskins fans can start focusing on Tuesday's presidential election. Since 2004, when the Redskins lose before an election, the incumbent loses. Could that mean Mitt Romney can pull off the victory?
3. Bring back the replacement officials? Three weeks of replacement officials were brutal. But everyone knew the regular officials would make mistakes, and Week 9 featured several. In the first half of the Steelers-Giants game, Roethlisberger had a ball knocked from his hand that appeared to be awaiting a Tuck Rule call. Instead of an incompletion, the officials ruled it was a fumble that Giants linebacker Michael Boley ran back 70 yards for a touchdown.
In the third quarter of the Minnesota-Seattle game, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll ran onto the field screaming because the Vikings were allowed to kick a 55-yard field goal after the 40-second play clock had expired, which replays confirmed. The Vikings got their field goal even though they shouldn't have.
There was a funny scene in the Indianapolis-Miami game. With 5:22 remaining in the fourth quarter, referee Tony Corrente asked for a conference following a penalty for the Colts having 12 men on the field. There was a problem with a spot of the ball. Questioned by another official, Corrente, who left his microphone on, asked "what [expletive] are you guys doing." The crowd in Lucas Oil Stadium heard it, but it didn't make it onto television. CBS announcer Kevin Harlan apologized regardless.
Fox officiating analyst Mike Pereira said Williams' 30-yard touchdown against the Redskins shouldn't have occurred because an official blew a whistle inadvertently while Williams was trying to keep his feet in bounds. Williams was clearly in bounds, but the whistle, according to Pereira, should have resulted in a dead ball call and no score. Oh well, I guess the regular officials are human.
4. Running backs re-emerge: Everyone knows this is a quarterback-driven league, but halfbacks were the stars Sunday. In the 11 Sunday afternoon games, there were eight 100-yard rushers compared to only three 300-yard passing efforts.
No game showed the value of the backs more than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 42-32 victory over the Oakland Raiders. Rookie Doug Martin rushed for 251 yards on 25 carries. The Raiders lost running backs Darren McFadden and Mike Goodson to injuries and had to go exclusively through the air with Carson Palmer.
The best matchup of the day was in Seattle, where Marshawn Lynch battled Adrian Peterson, the league's top two backs entering Week 9. Peterson had an early 74-yard run and finished with 182 yards on 17 carries. But Lynch's 124 yards on 26 carries gave rookie QB Russell Wilson the ability to make play-action passes and put 30 points on the board.
Isaac Redman's 147-yard game helped the Steelers come back and beat the Giants 24-20. Arian Foster's 111-yard day was enough to help the Houston Texans get an ugly 21-9 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
5. Steelers are big winners: The Steelers had the best "fly-by" victory of the season. Hurricane Sandy caused a power failure at the New Jersey hotel the team was scheduled to stay in Saturday night. With the league's permission, the Steelers flew into New York and stole a victory over the Giants. The Steelers' defense frustrated Eli Manning and the Giants' offense. Roethlisberger generated 14 fourth-quarter points in what was billed as a battle of two of the best fourth-quarter QBs in football.
Mike Tomlin might take gambles, but his ability to keep his team focused at the end of games is legendary. With Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer out, the Steelers were down to two running backs -- Redman and Baron Batch. In the second half, rookie back Chris Rainey suffered an injury. The Steelers needed a tough effort out of Redman, who responded with 147 yards on 26 carries.
You could hear the frustration in Giants coach Tom Coughlin's voice after the game. He was furious two illegal procedures cost them two field goal chances in the first half. After the game, Manning talked about how the offense couldn't get in sync. Credit the Steelers. They had several controversial calls against them but won a huge game on the road.
The Packers are running out of bodies because of injuries. Good thing for them they have a bye in Week 10. Six starters, including Greg Jennings and Charles Woodson, were inactive for their 31-17 victory over the Cardinals. During the game, the Packers lost linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring), wide receiver Jordy Nelson (ankle) and tight end D.J. Williams (hamstring). They couldn't return. Guard T.J. Lang had to move to tackle to help out. Wide receiver Randall Cobb suffered a shoulder injury but was able to return. The Packers are concerned about Matthews' injury. The Colts added six injuries that could leave them vulnerable to an upset Thursday night in Jacksonville. It's too early for interim coach Bruce Arians to assess the statuses of offensive linemen Samson Satele and Winston Justice, halfback Donald Brown, cornerback Jerraud Powers, linebacker Robert Mathis and wide receiver Donnie Avery. They may not have enough time for cornerback Vontae Davis and tight end Coby Fleener to get healthy by Thursday. Both missed Sunday's game. After the loss, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said changes could occur after the bye week. During the game, Whisenhunt benched left tackle D'Anthony Batiste and replaced him with rookie offensive tackle Nate Potter, a second-round choice. They are starting rookie Robert Massey, a fourth-rounder. That means two rookies could be starting at tackle, which is a little scary. Even though the Chicago Bears blew out the Tennessee Titans 51-20, it was the defense and special teams that excelled. Jay Cutler threw for 229 yards, but his offense wasn't sharp. At one point, Cutler yelled at quarterback coach Jeremy Bates. Washington's Robert Griffin III and halfback Alfred Morris became the first rookie quarterback and running back on the same team to have more than 500 yards rushing apiece. Peyton Manning's patience on short passes and success out of shotgun were too much for the Cincinnati Bengals to handle. He completed 18 of 18 passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He had three touchdown passes out of shotgun, and was in that formation 89 percent of the time. The Bengals are on a four-game losing streak and don't have the look of a playoff team. Their defense is leaky. Quarterback Andy Dalton has been inconsistent getting to ball to anyone except A.J. Green. I know Sean Payton could leave the Saints after the season because his contract extension was voided, but I can't see him leaving Drew Brees to be with Tony Romo. Plus, I believe he will be loyal to the Saints. Texans defensive end J.J. Watt became only the 11th player in NFL history to record 10 sacks and 10 pass defenses in one season. The Ravens' offensive problems on the road continued. Joe Flacco threw for only 153 yards in a 25-15 victory over the Cleveland Browns. "We just couldn't convert," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We just couldn't get enough on first down. We couldn't convert on third down." Where they made progress is getting 25 carries for Ray Rice. He had 98 yards, but the Ravens sometimes forget about him in the second half of games. He had 15 second-half carries. Here's a strange one. Steelers safety Ryan Clark was flagged for a personal foul hit to the head on wide receiver Victor Cruz. It was announced Cruz suffered a rib injury. The key to the Detroit Lions' easy win over Jacksonville was Matthew Stafford hooking up with wide receiver Calvin Johnson seven times for 129 yards. Still, Stafford is having a hard time getting the ball to him in the red zone. You wonder with a 1-7 record and the chance for a top-five pick if the Jaguars would draft a quarterback next year. Blaine Gabbert didn't do poorly Sunday, completing 27 of 38 passes for 220 yards, but he's not winning. Of course, it would help if the front office would stop taking receivers away from him. Why they traded Mike Thomas, a good slot receiver, was anyone's guess. With Christian Ponder completing only 11 passes for 63 yards in the loss to the Seahawks, it looks as though teams have figured him out. He's had 10 consecutive quarters of bad quarterback play. Carson Palmer continues to baffle everyone. He's talented enough as a passer to get 414 yards on 61 attempts in the Raiders' 42-32 loss to Tampa Bay, but he threw three more interceptions. If teams show a single safety, Palmer is almost always going to throw a deep pass that could get picked. The NFC won three of four games against the AFC and is now 23-13 for the season in interconference play. The NFC North went 3-1 Sunday. It is 7-4 against the NFC West and 8-3 against the AFC South.