I went into the weekend worrying about Ben Roethlisberger's health against that crazy New York Giant pass rush. I should have had more faith. The Steelers figured out how to take away New York's strongest weapon and perhaps showed the way for the rest of the league on how to beat the Giants.
Not by keeping backs in to block for your QB: by sending the backs out with the ball in their hands time and time again, until the Giants defensive linemen got so caught up in trying to stop the run they had no time or energy to rush the passer.
Yes, New York sacked Big Ben four times and harried him for much of the night. But Roethlisberger (21-30 for 216 and two TDs with one interception) performed well enough to give Isaac Redman a chance to win the ballgame for Pittsburgh.
Redman turned in a stalwart 147 yards on 26 carries and gave the Steelers' coaches the confidence to rely on the ground game in the 4th quarter with the game on the line. In fact, Pittsburgh's play calling in the fourth quarter (13 rushes, including the final three kneeldowns, and only six passes) may just be a blueprint for stalling the Giants' pass rush and beating New York for the rest of the season.
Of course, forcing a terrible performance out of Eli Manning (10 of 24 for 125 and an INT) has to help as well.
Meanwhile, the big showdown between last year's first-year phenom, Cam Newton of Carolina, and one of this year's outstanding rookie QBs, Washington's RGIII, lived up to the hype. Although the Panthers emerged with the win, 21-13, both pivots played well. Newton hit on 13 of 23 passes for 201 yards and a TD while adding 37 yards on 8 carries on the ground. Griffin went 23 for 39 for 215, with an additional 53 yards rushing.
The big difference? Carolina managed to sack Griffin four times; the Panthers gave up 0 sacks of the quarterback. That and the fact that Newton averaged more than 14 yards per completion while Griffin was closer to six yards per turned the game in Carolina's favour.
Indianapolis took another step toward legitimacy with a hard-fought 23-20 win over Miami. Both clubs came in with 4-3 records and a chance to push themselves into the AFC playoff race. The game was tied at 20-20 in the fourth quarter. I don't think it could have been any closer without going to overtime. And we have to give some credit to the Colts' defense that held Miami to just three second-half points to secure the win. Miami isn't out of it at 4-4 but Indy's 5-3 record sure puts them in a nice position moving into the second half of the season.
And finally the Falcons... what does one say about the Falcons? I don't think I can recall an undefeated record that seemed so precarious. After pummelling the Eagles last week, Atlanta barely eked one out over Dallas. The score was tied 6-6 at the half and, after Dallas scored a major with 5:31 left in the game to pull within three, the Falcons turned to runnng back Michael Turner and his offensive line to save the day.
Turner's running ran the clock and put Atlanta in the position to kick a field goal with 22 seconds left, extending its lead to 19-13. Good thing, too, because Tony Romo was moving the Cowboys up the field in those final 22 seconds. If he'd had any more time, Dallas might have been able to score the go-ahead touchdown. If the Falcons hadn't gotten that last field goal, Dallas would have been in a position to kick a game-tying field goal.
I'm still not sold on the Atlanta Falcons, despite their 8-0 record at the half-way point in the season. The Falcons struggled to beat the Broncos (early), the Panthers, Redskins, Raiders and Cowboys. Their only convincing wins came over the hapless Chiefs, the struggling Chargers and last week against Philadelphia, a good team struggling to find itself.
What does the future hold? Atlanta faces New Orleans twice in their last eight games, Tampa Bay twice, as well as the Giants, Lions, Cardinals and Panthers. I think there is a very good chance the Falcons will lose at least four of those matchups and perhaps even six. They'll make the playoffs, almost certainly, but I just don't see them making much noise once they get there.