Is it time to accept that the Falcons are for real? After their 23-12 beatdown of a supposedly desperate New Orleans team last night, I think it might just be.
Talk about the perfect opening drive! Complete your first pass to convince the defense you're going to be airing it out, then let your two talented running backs take it the rest of the way. Ryan to Gonzalez for 9, then Turner rips off a 35 yards run, followed by two Rodgers' dashes for 14 apiece and then Turner finishes it off with a 3-yard TD run.
You couldn't script it any better than that. Your home crowd's going nuts and you're up a major before Drew Brees has even touched the ball.
And then to use five interceptions and a steady if unspectacular offensive performance from there on out to ice a tough, desperate opponent: beautiful football.
So Atlanta really does have the goods. That question has been answered. What other questions stand to be answered with this weekend of football?
1. Can Chad Henne solidify his hold on the starter's position in Jacksonville?
I have always liked Henne, ever since he started for Michigan in the only game of American College ball I've ever attended. He's been steady throughout his career and maybe, just maybe, Jacksonville will be the place where he grows into a solid starter in the NFL. He's facing Buffalo this weekend and that's not a bad defense against which to show your stuff.
2. Will the Giants take charge of the NFC East or will the division disintegrate into mediocrity?
The division will be featured prominently this weekend, with Dallas hosting Philly in the Sunday Night tilt and New York travelling to Washington on Monday Night. With a win over the Redskins, the Giants can move to 8-4 and put some distance between themselves and the field. If Washington wins, however, we've suddenly got a 7-5, 6-6 battle at the top. And if Dallas beats the Eagles? Well, then the division is 7-5, 6-6, 6-6 with a lot of divisional games left. Scary. My thinking? Whoever wins between the Giants and Redskins will go on to win the division; no other team from the NFC East will make the playoffs.
3. Who will emerge as a leader in the AFC wildcard race?
With the Dolphins (5-6), Steelers (6-5), Bengals (6-5) and Colts (7-4) leading the current race for the two wildcards, we've got some key games this weekend. But I think by Monday morning we'll have a pretty good idea of who willl be there playing in January.
Indy has a winnable game in Detroit, though I wouldn't underestimate the talented Lions. If the Colts can win this one, however, they're practically a lock for the wildcard. Meanwhile, Cincinnati faces a Chargers team that has continually failed to live up to expectations. Talent-wise, this game is a tossup. But the Bengals have been playing inspired ball of late and should win. That, plus a Steelers loss to Baltimore (and Pittsburgh appears to be without Ben Roethlisberger again) will put Cincy in the driver's seat for the second wildcard.
The Dolphins absolutely must win at home against New England to retain even a hope but, to be honest, I think that would take a miracle and a half. We'll see Miami drop off the list with a loss, and a bad one, to the Patriots.
4. Can the Seahawks stay in the race?
Seattle couldn't have picked a better time to make the trip to Soldier Field to take on the Bears. The Chicago offensive line, never overpowering when healthy, is banged up and then some, with both starting guards sitting with injuries. The Seahawks desperately need this one to move to 7-5 and keep pace in the NFC. But Jay Cutler is back from a concussion and, even with a makeshift line in front of him, he seems to thrive in adversity. My pick is Chicago in this one but my heart is with Russell Wilson and that tough Seattle defense.
5. Why don't more teams make their offensive line a priority?
I just don't get the thinking of many general managers and coaches in the NFL. Even with late round back, receivers and defenders thriving all across the league, many team planners still use their first and second round picks almost exclusively to take so-called "skill players". The truth of the matter is, unless there's something very special going on (and, by special, I mean a Peyton Manning), an NFL team cannot be consistently successful without a superior offensive line (and the D-line is pretty important too).
Look at what's happening in Arizona. A great defense and an offense that got off to a fast, and surprising, start, despite weakness in their O-line. That weakness started to take its toll, however, on the Cards quarterbacks and runners and suddenly the team is sinking fast, in spite of that great defense.
Pittsburgh's another example. Ben's special and seems to be able to win without top calibre protection. But that's only when he's healthy and the beating he has been taking has finally caught up with him. In his first game replacing Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich gets pounded into dust and now the Steelers are down to their third string pivot. Pittsburgh's losing and that's despite a strong defense and some excellent skill players on offense.
Now we have the Bears. They knew they had a weakness up front coming into the season but don't seem to have addressed the problem successfully. The result, star quarterback Jay Cutler is in and out of the lineup, Matt Forte is nursing injuries and the Bears are suddenly struggling. They're still in games because that defense is so great but, the fact of the matter is, you can't win if you don't score.
Help me to understand why teams aren't making their offensive lines their number one priority year in and year out. A powerful offensive line, with lots of strong backups, makes good skill players into great ones. It's a rare skill player, on the other hand, who can win without a strong O-line in front of him.