Maybe it's not just the quarterback after all.
No Tom Brady, no Rodney Harrison, and a fourth-string running back making big plays. Add it all up and it equals Bill Belichick's finest coaching job since winning Super Bowl XXXVI. And it just may be his finest coaching job ever.
Even the biggest critics of the New England Patriots head coach would be hard-pressed to deny the argument after Sunday's 20-10 win over the Buffalo Bills, which moved the Patriots to 6-3 this season. That record makes Belichick the biggest winner this Sunday. Despite losing arguably the best player in the NFL in Week 1, he has overcome one obstacle after another, propelling the Patriots back to the top of the AFC East with seven games left to play.
It certainly hasn't been a Picasso, but New England has found a way to persevere through both injuries and ineffectiveness. Forget Brady for a moment. Consider what else the Patriots have dealt with this season. Before losing their superstar quarterback, they lost their top two cornerbacks (Asante Samuel and Randall Gay) in free agency. Since then, they've lost a trio of running backs (Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and Lamont Jordan), their top safety and team leader in Harrison, and suffered through some of their worst offensive line play in years.
That's not even taking into account who has been on the field for New England. You have quarterback Matt Cassel, who hadn't started a football game since high school. You have Deltha O'Neal, a starting cornerback who was cut by the hapless Cincinnati Bengals. You have linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who has declined to the point of being average. And you have a potentially volatile Randy Moss, who has had his big-play ability negated by Cassel's inexperience.
Indeed, it's a collection that looks quite different from the 2007 team that went 16-0 in the regular season and established itself as one of the league's most memorable offensive juggernauts. Still, Belichick has worked his magic this year. The team has allowed a combined 51 points in its last four games, and three running backs – Morris, Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis – have each had at least one game with 100 yards from scrimmage this season.
Meanwhile, Cassel has gradually improved as more responsibility has been thrust upon him. He's 4-2 in his last six starts, a span in which he has averaged a robust 32.5 pass attempts per game. And while that has translated into some mistakes, he has been getting rid of the ball faster and taking fewer losses of late. He has only been sacked once in his last two games after averaging more than four sacks in his first six games.
Backing up and looking at the larger picture, you see a team that is gradually improving, and somehow remaining composed through lost opportunities (like last week's close loss at the Indianapolis Colts). All of which is a credit to Belichick, who has arguably lightened up under the stress of losing key players. Is he out-coaching his 2001 performance? That may be saying a little much, but Belichick has proven at least one thing through nine games: He can win games without Tom Brady.
Here are some of Sunday's other winners and losers …
• The Tennessee Titans
Even with Rex Grossman starting for Chicago, Sunday was a quality win on the road against a solid Bears defense. Tennessee's defense was its typical great self, but Kerry Collins was even more impressive moving the ball with Chicago gearing up to stop the running game (LenDale White and Chris Johnson combined for 22 rushing yards). If it is to be a Super Bowl favorite, Tennessee has to show it can win throwing in spots during the second half of the season, and it did just that against the Bears.
• The Jacksonville Jaguars
Yes, they put it all together against a pitiful Detroit Lions team. But considering the locker-room turmoil this week, the Jaguars could have very easily lost this game. Instead, they responded by ravaging Detroit's quarterbacks (seven sacks) and pounding Detroit's defense with 157 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Coach Jack Del Rio needed this kind of win.
• Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew
Jones-Drew (132 offensive yards and three rushing touchdowns against Detroit) has been off his game this season, but he's still a scoring machine as a hybrid running back – nine touchdowns in nine games. When the offensive line gets it done, he does, too.
• The Baltimore Ravens offense
Willis McGahee bounces back with a big game (112 rushing yards, two touchdowns against the Houston Texans), and Joe Flacco notches his fourth straight game without an interception. Imagine how much better this offense could be if Todd Heap (two touchdowns Sunday) can regain his Pro Bowl form.
• Cleveland Browns fans
Cleveland fans hammered me with a few hundred emails over the course of the week for wrongly criticizing Browns defensive tackle Shaun Rogers as "overrated and overweight." So much so that I hit the TiVo and watched the Browns' loss to Baltimore again and also spent Thursday watching Rogers against Denver. Although he's still clearly getting fatigued late in games, he's drawing key double teams and still plugging his gap and disrupting. You can't ask for much more. My mistake.
• The Miami Dolphins
Sunday's squeaker against the Seattle Seahawks wasn't exactly a brilliant win, but Miami has won three straight and scored 21 points or more in four of the last five games. Considering how absolutely inept this team was one year ago, it's an amazing accomplishment to be 5-4. Stopping that 2-point conversion late Sunday and holding on for the win shows some grit in the face of adversity.
• Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis
He notched his fourth straight game with a touchdown and added 105 rushing yards in a win over the Buffalo Bills. I'm not sure you could ask more of a guy who most people in the NFL didn't even know two months ago. Sammy Morris is still the guy if he ever gets healthy this season, but the Patriots have to feel safe if Green-Ellis is their running back the rest of the way.
• The Atlanta Falcons
Sunday might have been Atlanta's best win this season, even with previous victories over Chicago and Green Bay. The Falcons had to show they could hang with one of the league's elite offensive teams, and they beat the New Orleans Saints punch for punch Sunday. It's still a running team, but it's impressive that rookie quarterback Matt Ryan is getting something out of former first-round pick Michael Jenkins the last four weeks (244 receiving yards and two touchdowns in those games). Not surprisingly, the Falcons are 6-0 in games that Ryan takes 30 or fewer pass attempts.
• Saints wideout Marques Colston
His numbers (seven catches for 140 yards) were inflated by the fact that the Saints threw the ball 58 times against Atlanta, but Colston clearly still has the ability to dominate opposing cornerbacks with his size and strength. It looked like New Orleans might have brought him back too early against San Diego, but Colston didn't miss a beat this week.
• Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams
Prodded on by backup Jonathan Stewart, Williams is quietly having the best season of his career. He saved Carolina on Sunday, putting up 140 rushing yards and a touchdown as Carolina staved off Oakland. Williams has 248 rushing yards and two touchdowns in his last two games.
• The Colts
Back-to-back wins over New England and Pittsburgh is impressive no matter how you break it down. Peyton Manning got lucky with a couple of tipped passes, but the breaks are starting to go Indy's way. Bob Sanders is back and the defense seems to be playing better. All that is missing now is Joseph Addai getting himself into gear.
• The San Diego Chargers
They pulled one out of the fire when Kansas City couldn't convert their 2-point attempt to win the game. But considering this division is bound to go down to the wire, every win is critical.
• Former Chargers defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell
San Diego's defense didn't look much better under new coordinator Ron Rivera. They allowed Tyler Thigpen to throw three touchdown passes, and sacked him only once. And that sack came from a safety, no less. At what point do you start blaming the players?
• Kansas City quarterback Tyler Thigpen
Six touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games, and all three of them have been very winnable for the Chiefs. He's only 24 years old. Maybe Kansas City has found its quarterback.
• Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson
He redeemed himself after calling for the ball on that ridiculous fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter – a play in which Peterson fumbled. His 64 total yards and touchdown on Minnesota's winning drive were spectacular. Peterson now has 563 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his last four games. Clinton Portis might want to look in his rearview mirror. He's about to lose his spot as the league's leading rusher.
• Viking coach Brad Childress
Seemingly always on the verge of a locker room mutiny, Childress pulled himself off the hot seat after starting 1-3. The Vikings have gone 4-1 since and continue to keep the pressure on the Bears in the race for the NFC North title. Still, considering the schedule the rest of the way, this team needs to win in Tampa next week if it is going to be considered a serious playoff contender.
• The New York Jets
They've gone 5-1 since their 1-2 start, albeit with wins over cupcakes like St. Louis, Kansas City and Cincinnati. Still, this team isn't just about Brett Favre anymore. The defense is respectable and the running game is strong. If the Jets win Thursday against New England, you can practically punch their postseason ticket.
• The Jets running game
It's hard to get too excited when they did it against the Rams, but the Jets dominated the line of scrimmage Sunday. The offseason pickups on the offensive line are playing well the last two weeks, and fullback Tony Richardson is paying dividends. Thomas Jones (149 rushing yards and three touchdowns Sunday) and Leon Washington have combined for eight offensive touchdowns in the last four games.
• The Lions
They start Daunte Culpepper after offensive coordinator Jim Colletto says he doesn't want to start Drew Stanton because Stanton might embarrass himself. Then Culpepper – who had all of three practices – comes out and looks mediocre at best. Stanton wasn't a heck of a lot better, but he was the right play in this situation. There are some internal politics about Stanton being a Matt Millen draft pick, but this is just another situation that displays why this organization is so messed up.
• The Bears' pass rush
The linebackers were selling out against the run, allowing Kerry Collins to nick the Bears to death. Collins rarely looked flustered against a largely nonexistent pass rush. This was a team that used to be able to get pressure with just the front four. That's just not true anymore. If Chicago had generated even serviceable pressure from its defensive line, it could have won this game.
• Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey
Now we're starting to see why the New York Giants felt better off without him. He's a blocking liability and, as his sideline antics showed Sunday, is still prone to being a distraction in games. Frankly, the offense has been better off with Billy Miller.
• Texans quarterback Sage Rosenfels
Baltimore's defense is a brutal assignment, but Rosenfels made some monumental mistakes Sunday with his four interceptions. Considering Matt Schaub can't stay healthy and Rosenfels makes so many critical errors, where does this team go with the quarterback position in 2009? How long before a young guy is drafted to groom?
• The Bills
They are definitely reeling, having lost four of their last five. It just doesn't look the same when teams take away wideout Lee Evans and quarterback Trent Edwards starts forcing the issue. Edwards has seven turnovers in the last three games, and Evans has caught six passes for 63 yards in the last two losses. It doesn't help that the defense has been thumped by injuries, but the Bills have to find another playmaker beyond Evans.
• The Saints defense
Opponents have scored 30 or more points in five of the last seven games. Defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs is supposedly renowned for the discipline he instills in his players, but you just haven't seen it in New Orleans since he took over the defense in 2006. It might be time to look elsewhere after this season.
• The Green Bay Packers
They are blowing their chance to seize the NFC North. They frittered away a chance at a huge momentum-building win last week against Tennessee, and then only moved the ball 25 yards after a great kickoff put them at their own 41-yard line with 2:15 left Sunday. In back-to-back weeks, the defense has failed to make a key stop late in a game, and the offense hasn't been able to convert a final drive into a winner. The 184 total yards of offense Sunday was troubling.
• The St. Louis Rams quarterback situation
Nothing much is going right with the Rams, but the issues at quarterback are going to be long term. Marc Bulger has now been benched by two different head coaches this season, and Trent Green isn't a realistic option for the future. Maybe the only positive is that St. Louis will have a high enough draft choice to look at a future signal-caller.
• Fans watching the Raiders vs. Panthers
Six interceptions between Jake Delhomme and Andrew Walter, 23 total points and three second-half field goals. Hopefully most fans turned if off after DeAngelo Williams' 69-yard touchdown run. After that, it was the essence of viewing brutality.
• Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme
It's saying something when you look worse than two Oakland quarterbacks, which Delhomme did Sunday. Delhomme completed seven passes for a measly 72 yards and had four interceptions. Even with his touchdown pass, this might be one of his poorest showings ever. Thank goodness for the Panthers that it was against the Raiders. Any other team in the league, and this would be a loss. Even in Detroit.
• The Oakland Raiders
Keep the counter going: Nine straight quarters without an offensive touchdown.
• Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
His three interceptions in Sunday's loss to Indianapolis seemed to all come at critical times. But none hurt as much as the one in Steelers territory with 4:44 left. And I don't want to hear any nonsense about them not starting Byron Leftwich. Roethlisberger's shoulder looked fine. He just made some bad throws.
– Minnesota coach Brad Childress, on whether he was fretting after watching Green Bay score two touchdowns in a span of 2:12, to take a 24-21 lead in the third quarter.
The number of plays in New England's game-clinching, 92-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown drive against Buffalo. The drive consumed 9:19 off the clock and put the Patriots ahead 20-3.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: Watching New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson at work. If you want to see why Thomas Jones has his highest yards-per-carry average of his career, spend a game watching Richardson. He'll be 37 years old in December, and he's still blowing holes open.
Loathed: Listening to ESPN's Mike Ditka lavish praise on San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary during Sunday Countdown. I don't mind Ditka interviewing Singletary – friends interviewing friends often leads to some insight. But I don't trust Ditka's opinion of Singletary simply because of their past relationship. When he says he believes Singletary will be a great coach, why is that of any value? Do you expect him to say otherwise?
Loved: Seeing Ted Ginn's 39-yard touchdown catch between Seattle's Marcus Trufant and Brian Russell. It reminded me of Willie Mays snagging a fly ball over his shoulder. I'm still not sure how Ginn saw the ball, let alone got both of his feet into the back of the end zone.
Loathed: ESPN's Sunday Countdown feature on the pass rush success of Miami's Joey Porter. The tidbits on technique were fine, but why no interview with Porter? And why no talk about his lack of success last season? If you do a feature on him, I want to know why he wasn't getting to the quarterback in 2007, and I want to see him sitting down with one of your analysts.
Loved: Seeing Jared Allen gut it out with an injured shoulder and sack Aaron Rodgers for a safety Sunday – and in a game in which those two points meant everything in a 28-27 win. With six sacks in his last four games, Allen is finally paying off big.
Loathed: Fox's "Sounds of the Game" feature, in which they go to shots of players warming up before Sunday's kickoffs. They should call it "Clichés of the Game." It's the television version of empty calories. How many times in a row do I have to hear players say "It's a big game this week!" No kidding. Please find more compelling clips.
Loved: Watching Charles Woodson play. He notched his fifth interception (tied for league lead) Sunday and has quietly shut down some big-time players this year like Terrell Owens and Reggie Wayne. He's been consistently one of the NFL's top cornerbacks since signing with Green Bay in 2006.
Loathed: Watching the Houston Texans try to throw the football into the end zone on first-and-goal from Baltimore's 1-yard line. Sage Rosenfels was intercepted on the play, and it showed a lack of toughness on Houston's part. I realize Baltimore has the league's No. 1 rushing defense, but Steve Slaton is tough enough to get one yard. Maybe Owen Daniels was open on the play, but throwing it was a terrible call.
Loved: Watching Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward come back and take a ball away from Indianapolis safety Bob Sanders on a blown flea-flicker. The play was the epitome of why his teammates love him. He's not the quickest or most athletic wideout you'll ever see, but Ward squeezes everything out of his ability to make big plays.
Loathed: Seeing that St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson wasn't on the field in the loss to the New York Jets, and hearing that he likely won't play next week, either. After signing a six-year contract extension that could be worth over $49 million, he's not doing a heck of a lot this season to justify his payday.
- Bill Belichick
- Matt Cassel