Neil Reynolds hails Andrew Luck's class and Chicago's hopes, but isn't sure on Atlanta Falcons
Last Updated: 05/11/12 11:37am
Luck: caught the eye against Miami
Week 9 in the NFL may not have produced a headline-making upset, but it was still a very good slate of games as a number of teams who were expected to emerge victorious over the weekend took care of business.
A couple of games that could have gone either way were the Miami Dolphins against the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Giants versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. Those contests turned into victories for the Colts and Steelers, who are now in pole position to claim wild card spots in the AFC.
Here is what caught my eye while watching the Week 9 action unfold from the Sky Sports studios on Sunday night.
Inspired Colts on the rise
The Indianapolis Colts were already playing well heading into Sunday's game against Miami. Buoyed by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, Indy had won three of their previous four.
They were provided with further inspiration and confidence on Sunday as head coach Chuck Pagano, who has been sidelined while he battles leukaemia, paid his team an emotional visit. Pagano watched the game from the stands and addressed his team in the locker room afterwards. Judging by the reaction of his players, it was clear they had been willing to run through walls for him on Sunday.
But sheer passion is never enough in the NFL and the much-needed class came from Luck, who shone throughout the game in the face of pressure from what has been a tough Miami defence. Luck set a new rookie record by throwing for 433 yards and two touchdowns and brought out the best in the offensive talent around him. The result was a 23-20 win for the Colts.
The worst team in the NFL last season now looks like a playoff contender with five wins from eight. That shows the importance of the quarterback position and just how quickly things can improve for a team in today's NFL.
Bears look Super
If they were being really picky, the Chicago Bears would probably hope for a bit more offensive consistency in their run towards the playoffs. But, for now, it's hard to complain about this team too much as they reach the halfway mark of their 2012 campaign with seven wins and one loss.
The Bears hammered the Tennessee Titans 51-20 on Sunday night in a game that should have been called off at half-time. Chicago added two more return touchdowns - one on special teams and one on defence - giving them eight for the season. That is the most in league history through eight games.
Chicago's defence may give up big yardage at times, but this is an opportunistic group that thrives on creating turnovers. But they are proving to be extra special - they're not only creating scoring opportunities for the Bears offense, they're converting the turnovers into points themselves.
If they can maintain that form, and get enough production on offence from quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte and wide receiver Brandon Marshall, the Bears could be en route to a very special season indeed.
Falcons remain undefeated
There are quite a few pundits in American football circles who remain to be convinced by the Atlanta Falcons - count me as one of them! They are the last undefeated team in the NFL this season but I have too many memories of tame playoff exits floating around in my head.
I do think this is a different Atlanta team, though. They are more explosive than ever before and have opened up the offence for quarterback Matt Ryan, who is benefiting from the outstanding receiving duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White. They are also playing much better on the road than they have ever done under head coach Mike Smith.
But their schedule is soft and we won't see them tested by a San Francisco, Green Bay or Chicago before the end of the season. I applaud what the Falcons have done so far this season - the latest being Sunday's hard-fought 19-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys - but I still have my doubts that the confetti will be raining down on them in the Louisiana Superdome on Sunday February 3.
Rodgers back to his best
Despite a slow start to the season for the Green Bay Packers, I have to say that I never doubted Aaron Rodgers and I remain convinced that he is the best quarterback in the NFL.
His current form would suggest that to be the case as he led the Packers to a 31-17 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Rodgers threw for 218 yards and four touchdowns as Green Bay won for the fourth week in a row to improve to 6-3 on the year.
During those four wins, Rodgers has looked pure class, throwing for 15 touchdowns and just one interception. With their star man in that kind of form, the Packers have to be considered Super Bowl contenders, even with a raft of injuries on both sides of the ball.
Pittsburgh show their steel
It's always a good story that seems to do the rounds about this time of the year - the Pittsburgh Steelers are finished. They're old on defence, the offensive line is poor, the running game is washed up and there is too much pressure on Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.
The same thing gets written every season and the Steelers continue to fight, scratch and claw their way to the playoffs. The lesson to be learned is that we should write the Steelers off at our absolute peril.
Sunday's 24-20 win over the New York Giants had a real playoff feel about it. Pittsburgh won with a smothering defence, a strong running attack led by Isaac Redman (147 yards and game-winning touchdown) and just enough accurate downfield passing from Big Ben. With five division games still to play and currently riding a three-game winning streak, the Steelers are very much alive in the playoff race.
Martin runs all over the Raiders
Much is being made of the rookie quarterbacks in the NFL this season and rightly so, but let's take a moment to applaud a first-year running back who is tearing up the league.
Doug Martin rushed for a club record 251 yards and four touchdowns on 25 carries on Sunday as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recorded a 42-32 win over the Oakland Raiders.
Martin has been sensational in recent weeks - and for much of the season, to be fair. His showing on Sunday was all the more remarkable given that the Bucs were playing without All-Pro offensive lineman Carl Nicks.
Powerful, stocky and with enough speed to race away from defenders, Martin is the real deal and the Bucs are suddenly becoming loaded with playmakers at the skill positions. The NFC is a tough conference this year, but Tampa are heading in the right direction, even if the playoffs is a step too far in 2012.