While true Super Bowl contenders slugged it out at the RCA Dome Sunday, a serious pretender might have unofficially excused itself from all Super Bowl discussions.
The San Diego Chargers could very well win the AFC West and qualify for the playoffs – though at this point, the AFC Worst looks more like it'll be decided by default than by someone getting hot in the second half and asserting itself as a true force. However, to envision San Diego beating the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts – in the playoffs and on the road – is just too much to fathom.
The Week 2 blowout in New England aside, San Diego's 35-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday might be the franchise's most disturbing defeat of the season. Disregard Adrian Peterson's record-setting day (details below) on the ground. The leading candidate for offensive rookie of the year proved against the Chicago Bears that he can slice and dice any defense in the league.
More troubling is that the franchise deemed as the league's "most talented" coming into the season was again taken apart on both sides of the ball by units that have significant flaws. Minnesota's passing attack, 30th in the league, was efficient against San Diego's seemingly improving defense. Tarvaris Jackson, eventually sidelined with a concussion, and Brooks Bollinger combined for 13-of-22 passing for 158 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. And new second-fiddle tailback Chester Taylor broke a 34-yard run that nearly matched the ground production of reigning MVP LaDainian Tomlinson (16 carries, 40 yards).
Even more, Philip Rivers (19-of-42, 197 yards, one interception) struggled so mightily that the Vikings looked like a team possessing the league's best defense – not just one of the better defensive fronts. And to make matters worse, the Chargers converted just four of 16 opportunities on third down and were penalized 10 times. A latter occurrence prompted broadcaster Dan Dierdorf to say, "I don't understand why all coaches aren't bald. (Situations) like that make you want to pull your hair out."
About the only thing Norv Turner should grab for these days is yet another way in which reach his team.
Here are some more winners, losers and other observations from Week 9:
• Chances are, New England will have to beat Indy again to reach Arizona for Super Bowl XLII, but the Pats illustrated tremendous drive and persistence even when they lacked poise and discipline during their 24-20 victory. The Patriots were penalized a franchise-high 146 yards and Tom Brady threw a pair of interceptions, matching his total through the team's first eight games. However, the Patriots overcame their first real test of adversity, with Brady throwing the latter two of his three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter for the come-from-behind win and, more importantly, a leg up for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
• Antonio Cromartie suddenly has become the Chargers' most prolific scorer. One week after scoring his first two career touchdowns, Cromartie set an NFL record with a 109-yard return for a touchdown following a missed field goal attempt by Minnesota's Ryan Longwell to end the first half.
• Cromartie had plenty of company around the league in the "return" game. Glenn Holt of the Cincinnati Bengals and Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars each had kick returns for 100 yards, the Seattle Seahawks' Nate Burleson scored from 94 yards following a kickoff, and Leon Washington of the New York Jets brought one back 86 yards. Strangely, all four players, like Cromartie, were on the losing side of their games. Conversely, Detroit Lions defensive linemen DeWayne White and Shaun Rogers, Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson and New Orleans Saints cornerbacks all scored in their teams' victories.
• At least for one week, the NFC doesn't have to hear about being the league's inferior conference. Not after a weekend in which the NFC wiped out its AFC counterparts. The NFC was 5-2 in inter-conference games Sunday, including the NFC North completing a 3-0 sweep of the AFC West. Perhaps more impressive than the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints' spankings of the Denver Broncos and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, was the Green Bay Packers' win over the Kansas City Chiefs. Green Bay twice overcame fourth-quarter deficits to win its second straight road game against an AFC West foe in six days.
• Cris Collinsworth might have temporarily forgotten about Brady when he made this statement, but it probably wasn't a stretch any other year to suggest that Adrian Peterson is having a season worthy of MVP consideration. Not only did Peterson eclipse Jamal Lewis' single-game mark of 295 yards by one, he also became the first-ever rookie to gain 200 yards in a game twice in one season. Throw in his three scores against the Chargers and he now leads the league in TDs (nine) among running backs.
• Parity is alive and well in the NFL. The Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers – second through fourth selectors, respectively, in April's NFL draft – all are above .500 and have surpassed their win totals from last season. The Bucs are in first place in the NFC South and the Browns will have a share of the AFC North lead if the Baltimore Ravens knock off the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night.
• Not only did every active team in the West – AFC and NFC – lose on Sunday, but Chiefs running back Larry Johnson (ankle sprain) and Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler (left leg injury) were carted and/or helped off field in their losses.
• Tim Couch might be the one person preventing us from deeming David Carr as the worst overall No. 1 draft choice among quarterbacks since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970. Carr, a sack waiting to happen while with the Houston Texans, has been unable to grasp a very simply principle with the Carolina Panthers – get the ball to Steve Smith. In the three games Jake Delhomme or Vinny Testaverde started and finished, Smith has caught 25 passes for 407 yards and five touchdowns. In the five games in which Carr has appeared, the All-Pro receiver has combined for a paltry 15 catches for 122 yards and one touchdown. Call it a hunch, but don't be surprised if Matt Moore soon gets the call to connect with Smith. Also, Carr was sacked seven times on Sunday.
• Ken Whisenhunt may have the scheme and personnel in place, but the Arizona Cardinals continue to sputter along on offense. After getting a field goal on their opening possession, the Cardinals were held to 14 yards on 17 plays during the next six possessions of the first half. Considering the talent at wide receiver (Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin) and running back (Edgerrin James), the riddle clearly hasn't been solved with the offensive line or at quarterback.
• The Bengals' season just keeps getting worse as receiver Chad Johnson was carted off after suffering a neck injury.
Flare for the dramatic: There must be some prerequisite prior to every Patriots game that Randy Moss must be featured in at least two spectacular highlights. Every week, in addition to out-leaping at least one defender for a touchdown, he keeps making incredible one-handed grabs that make you mutter, "How the heck did he come up with that?"
Receiving some help: Regardless of what happens the remainder of this season, the Washington Redskins should have wide receiver at the top of their "offseason needs" list. Jason Campbell has yet to throw a touchdown pass to a wideout this season and his first six completions against the Jets on Sunday were to tight end Chris Cooley and running back Mike Sellers.
Not-so instant replay: This is not a new observation, but certainly an irritating one nonetheless. More and more, networks seemingly refuse to show great plays (for instance, Bucs receiver Joey Galloway's unbelievable first-half scoring grab between two Cardinals defenders) prior to commercial breaks. Instead, viewers are forced to watch the smiling recipient, the PAT, a sideline shot and then a commercial before getting another glimpse at the score. Even more frustrating was Packers safety Nick Collins emphatically suggesting that his bobbled catch on the sideline was indeed an interception. All the viewers got was one replay, from a bad angle, before Kansas City quick-snapped to keep Green Bay from challenging. Since the point then became officially moot, no other replays were shown as if the instance never occurred.
Rules de-emphasis: At that start of each season, we constantly hear about old rules in which the officials will apply particular emphasis. Well on Sunday, it was made clear the "football move" emphasis as it relates to fumbles no longer exists. Jets receiver Jerricho Cotchery lost the ball after being sandwiched by a pair of Redskins defenders. Whereas in the past the play would have been ruled dead since Cotchery didn't take a step after clutching the ball, Cotchery's catch and subsequent fumble stood after a replay challenge.