On the Road. Week 10 in the NFL may be seen as the moment that some teams with true Super Bowl aspirations stepped up, winning tough road assignments. In the early set of games, the main focus was on the NFC South match, in which the New Orleans Saints faced the preseason-hyped Atlanta Falcons. The Saints haven’t had a November loss since 2008, but the Falcons (and specifically coach Mike Smith) must regret not putting them away at the end of the fourth quarter when in the red zone, but having to settle for a game-tying field goal. The Falcons won the toss in overtime but went three-and-out. They did get the ball back, but going for it on fourth-and-inches (deep inside their own half) backfired with Michael Turner unable to move the chains. The Saints didn’t need any more chances and won with a field goal of their own, making the final score 26-23 to open a two-game lead over their rivals. “I know it will be scrutinized all week long,” Smith told the Associated Press. “I want everybody to understand I take full responsibility.”
Elsewhere, the Pittsburgh Steelers held off Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals by a margin of 24-17, intercepting Dalton twice in the fourth quarter, to end the Bengals’ impressive (and somewhat surprising) five-game winning streak. And with Baltimore’s later defeat to the Seattle Seahawks, the Steelers were back atop the AFC North. And in the late game, the New England Patriots did the regular season double over the New York Jets, with an utterly dominant 37-16 road victory to assume sole control of the AFC East. The Jets’ coach Rex Ryan believed his side was better than during its recent defeat at the Pats (30-21) but now doubts his charges can win the division. New England looked like it wasn’t in the mood to suffer its first three-game losing streak since 2002.
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Wide Right (and Left). They say that a twin can sense when something is happening to their sibling. Perhaps the NFL’s field goal kickers share that trait, because they were spectacularly awful on Sunday. An incredible 12 field goals were missed, as well as an extra point (which hardly ever happens). The worst offender was the Cleveland Browns’ Phil Dawson, who missed what might have been a 22-yard winning effort to put away the St. Louis Rams (who instead held on to win 13-12). To make him feel slightly better, Jay Feely missed a makeable 37-yarder for the Arizona Cardinals, and Neil Rackers of the Houston Texans mucked up from the same distance (he was guilty of the point after flub too). But their teams won, against the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers respectively. And Nick Folk’s 24-yard miss for the Jets clearly didn’t matter much, seeing how they were schooled by the Pats.
Surprise Packages. When are we going to start taking the Houston Texans seriously? They have all the attributes for a deep playoff run after their utter dismantling of the Bucs, 37-9, with Matt Schaub throwing for two long touchdowns, and the likes of Arian Foster, Ben Tate and Derrick Ward coming to the party. They’re also the NFL’s top-ranked defense, which augurs well for the rest of the season, and currently have a 1.5 game lead in the AFC South (which admittedly is missing Peyton Manning).
But that lead’s not a patch on the San Francisco 49ers’ five-game cushion in the NFC West, though at 8-1, they are on everyone’s radar. Alex Smith and his crew continue to roll, defeating the New York Giants 27-20 and doing it without relying on running back Frank Gore, whose franchise-record streak of five straight games with 100 yards rushing ended with a knee injury and his first career game with zero yards. At this rate, the 49ers will have a first-round playoff bye. And though they’re not leading the NFC North, thanks to a certain team in Green Bay, keep your eye on the Chicago Bears. They dominated the division clash with the Detroit Lions, 37-13, sealing their fourth win a row, putting them at a 6-3 tie with the Lions, behind those perfect Packers, who should go 9-0 at home to the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night. Bears QB Jay Cutler sure would like another crack at the playoffs and sports always offers the opportunity for redemption.
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