The way the NFL is going this season, the best way to improve your reputation is to not play.
Everyone is vulnerable. The Saints lost at the Jets. The Seahawks were horrible for a half and needed overtime to beat the woebegone 0-8 Buccaneers. The Chiefs were outgained 470-210 by a Bills team quarterbacked by undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel, and miraculously won. Cincinnati lost on Thursday night. Indianapolis didn't look too sharp early on against Houston.
We think more highly of the 49ers, Broncos and Packers right now than we did before Sunday's games, just because they didn't have a chance to look bad. San Francisco and Denver had a bye, and the Packers play on Monday night (and the Packers might look terrible against the Bears ... the way it's going, who knows).
This week showed how wide open the second half of the season will be. Is there any team that looks dominant? A Broncos team that has played a weak schedule and lost to the only good team it played (Colts)? The Seahawks after how they've looked the last two weeks? Maybe the Chiefs can be if they can keep playing second- and third-string quarterbacks the rest of the season.
Everyone is vulnerable. If you're still hanging around in the playoff race, you should feel pretty confident. At this moment, there's no reason to fear any other team in your conference.
Here are the rest of the Week 9 winners and losers:
Return of Gronk: Of all the good teams in the NFL, the one that looked best this week was probably New England. Not coincidentally, tight end Rob Gronkowski looks fully healthy again.
Gronkowski had nine catches for 143 yards and a touchdown, and the Steelers never could guard him. He has helped open up the rest of the offense. Gronkowski's return won't fix the injury issues in the middle of the defense, but he adds a unique element. He has played two great games in his three back from forearm and back injuries, and you'd figure he'll continue to improve. That makes the Patriots, who are flying under the radar a bit at 7-2, pretty interesting going forward.
Chris Johnson and the Titans: Johnson has been dead and buried a few times over the last few years, only to go on a hot streak. Is another one coming?
Johnson rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns, and looked like his prime self. The Titans won 28-21 at St. Louis, and are right in the AFC playoff race at 4-4. The Titans were on a three-game losing streak after losses to the Chiefs, Seahawks and 49ers, and two of those games were without quarterback Jake Locker. No shame in any of that. With Locker back, Johnson rejuvenated and the schedule a bit easier, don't rule out Tennessee yet.
Marty Mornhinweg: At what point does a 5-27 career record get excused, and you get another shot? Mornhinweg went 5-27 with Detroit in 2001-02. It was brutal. But what he has done this season as the Jets' offensive coordinator should get him a few serious looks by NFL teams with head coaching vacancies this offseason.
Before Sunday, the Saints had given up more than 18 points in a game just once this season, against New England. The Jets put up 26 points in a huge 26-20 victory Sunday against New Orleans, which was 6-1 before Sunday.
The game against New Orleans wasn't the best from the Jets offense, but through the entire season Mornhinweg has done wonders with rookie quarterback Geno Smith and a very nondescript cast of skill position players. The Jets are an unlikely playoff contender at 5-4, and Mornhinweg is a major reason.
"Riverboat Ron" Rivera: You might be fond of the "Riverboat Ron" nickname or like the #NewRon Twitter hashtag, but whichever you prefer, a new aggressive approach is working for Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers.
Logically, the Panthers' resurgence is more about a fortunate streak of inferior opponents than Rivera suddenly going for it on fourth down more often, but what fun is the former storyline? Rivera went from ruinously conservative to gambling a bit more on fourth down lately, and he did it again on Sunday.
On fourth and 1 from Atlanta's 14-yard line in the second quarter, the Panthers went for it. That seems like an obvious call, but it wouldn't have been for Rivera before he became "Riverboat Ron" a few weeks ago. And the move paid off, as the Panthers ran a bootleg and Cam Newton found a wide-open Greg Olsen for a touchdown.
The Panthers are now 5-3, and only a game back in the NFC South. This latest streak revived the Panthers, and might have saved Rivera's job too.
Philadelphia's offense: Chip Kelly's offense has taken plenty of heat the past couple weeks as it struggled to score just 10 points, but it deserves some credit after Sunday's fireworks.
Nick Foles threw a NFL record-tying seven touchdown passes in a 49-20 rout of the Raiders. The Eagles don't have a great talent base. Andy Reid couldn't win with that roster last year, and he's showing in Kansas City this year that he's still a heck of a coach. The talent deficiency means that Kelly will have some rough spots too. But as Sunday showed, there's a reason the Eagles hired him from Oregon.
Steelers defense: No matter if Pittsburgh has been great, average or bad, it always plays strong defense. That's one of the few constants in the NFL. But this season, the Steelers are bad and the defense has hit rock bottom too.
The Patriots scored 55 points and gained 610 yards on Sunday. Both marks are the most ever by a Steelers opponent. And this was a Patriots offense that had been struggling badly, especially quarterback Tom Brady. Brady had 432 yards and four touchdowns against the Patriots.
Pittsburgh is 2-6. The Steelers can be forgiven for a terrible season every decade or so. Something Pittsburgh fans won't tolerate very long, however, is a defense that plays this soft.
Russell Wilson: At halftime against Tampa Bay, Wilson was 4-of-8 for 28 yards. Wilson was much better in the second half, and made some nice plays to lead the Seahawks back for a victory, but let's be honest: Wilson hasn't looked right for a couple weeks.
Maybe it's that he has nobody to throw to, with Percy Harvin still out and Sidney Rice done for the year. Or he's worried about being under constant pressure behind a beat-up offensive line. Perhaps it's just a bit of a sophomore slump, and he snapped out of it with a nice second half on Sunday. But it bears watching. The 49ers are playing very well, and the Seahawks have little margin for error in the NFC West. They're lucky to be 2-0 the last two weeks. Seattle can still be a Super Bowl team, but they'll need Wilson to play a lot better.
Ray Rice: You never know when a running back will lose it. And it usually happens suddenly. You have to wonder if Rice has hit that wall.
There are many things wrong with the Ravens, and Rice's lack of productivity doesn't help. He had 17 yards on 11 carries in a 24-18 loss to the Browns. Rice now has 259 yards on 97 carries for a 2.7-yard average. He hasn't had a run longer than 14 yards all season. It might not be just him, considering backup Bernard Pierce has looked bad behind the Baltimore line as well, but after 1,300 career regular-season carries, it's possible Rice is near the end.
Chargers, especially when you see their upcoming schedule: The Chargers seemed like a good candidate to take the sixth playoff seed in the AFC, which would have been a great accomplishment in coach Mike McCoy's first season. But a devastating loss to the Redskins leaves the Chargers at 4-4, and it's possible nobody in the NFL has a tougher second-half schedule:
Week 10: vs. Broncos
Week 11: at Dolphins
Week 12: at Chiefs
Week 13: vs. Bengals
Week 14: vs. Giants
Week 15: at Broncos
Week 16: vs. Raiders
Week 17: vs. Chiefs
That's five games against three of the top seven or eight teams in the NFL (Broncos, Chiefs, Bengals) and a tough cross-country trip to face the Dolphins. If the Chargers end up making the playoffs, it will be well earned.
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