By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Break up the Oakland Raiders! One of the league’s most reliable laughingstocks is in the midst of its first three-game winning streak since 2002 and sits comfortably just a half-game out of first place in the AFC West through nine games. It’s sort of unbelievable, really. The owner is still delusional looneytune/Skeletor lookalike, Al Davis. The coach is still Tom Cable, who is most famous for breaking an assistant’s jaw with his fist during training camp last year. But the results, which have been as bad as it gets since a Super Bowl appearance in ‘02 (29-83, four coaches, not a single single-digit loss season over that stretch) are decidedly different.
Look at last week’s win over Kansas City if you need some hard evidence that things are different in Oakland. Trailing 10-0 at the half, the Raiders came roaring back, forcing overtime in the waning seconds and winning in the end, 23-20, while getting important production in all three phases of the game. QB Jason Campbell, benched in Week 1 but now back at the controls thanks to an injury to his replacement Bruce Gradkowski, passed for 229 yards and a score in leading both a game-tying and a game-winning drive. Old buddy Richard Seymour, who has to have been absolutely flummoxed by the majority of his time out west since being traded by the Pats right before last season, turned in a vintage performance (eight tackles, two for a loss, a couple QB hits, a lot of general disruption). And rookie Jacoby Ford was immense in the kicking game (see below). In a season chock full of stunning developments, the Raiders playing well, challenging for the playoffs and just being relevant overall, is near the top of the list.
There’s still plenty of time for Oakland to return to its embarrassing ways. Davis, who may or may not still be alive, habitually sticks his nose into situations he’d be much better off avoiding. Cable can’t seem to publicly support Campbell even though he’s led the win streak in place of Gradkowski. Running back Darren McFadden, fourth in the league in rushing (757 yards in seven games) has never played more than 12 games in a season and has already missed time with nagging injuries this year. But of their seven remaining games, only a Week 11 trip to Pittsburgh and a Week 133 game at San Diego look truly scary. They still have three divisional games left with which to pad their 3-0 record in the AFC West. And their defense, so often hideous over the last eight years of utter futility, is ranked seventh in the NFL and looking strong. The Raiders are right in the thick of things and appear equipped to stay there. Will wonders never cease?
This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Pittsburgh: What looked like a typical Steelers rout of the lowly Bengals on Monday night got a little hairy down the stretch thanks Pittsburgh’s underwhelming pass defense, which made 35-year old Terrell Owens look like he did in his 49er days. Still, given their experience and their balance on both sides, if you had to pick one team in the whole league to win a big game on a neutral field tomorrow, wouldn’t it be them?
2. New York Giants: The Giants keep on rising as they continue to put their inauspicious start to the season further and further in the rearview. The other New Jersey team went out to an extremely tough place to play in Seattle’s Qwest Field and smoked the Seahawks, rolling out ot a 35-0 halftime lead thanks in no small part to another huge week from the tandem of Eli Manning 21-of-32, 290 yards, three TDs) and Hakeem Nicks (6 catches, 128 yards, TD).
3. Baltimore: The Ravens looked really sloppy headed into their bye week but came out of it on fire with a very convincing, 26-10 win over a tough Miami squad. It’s been interesting to see this team morph from a defensive juggernaut to an offensive powerhouse, which is what happens when you’re as loaded (Ray Rice, Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, Willis McGahee, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Donte Stallworth, Todd Heap and the ever-improving Joe Flacco) on that side of the ball as Baltimore is.
4. (tie) New England/Atlanta: Man, did the Pats come crashing down to earth in Cleveland last week. It was likely an aberration – they are still the most well coached and well prepared team in the league. How they fare the next four weeks (at Pittsburgh, vs. Indy, at Detroit, vs. the Jets) will probably determine their entire season. On another note, it was a really good win for the Falcons over the Bucs at home last week, giving them a bit of separation in the NFC South. In the end though, the division will be won or lost for them based on whether they can win any big games on the road and whether they can hold off the Saints.
5. New Orleans: Speaking of which, the defending champs are not only starting to get hot, they are getting healthy too. It may have been against the awful Panthers, but the Saints posted their second straight dominant performance on defense last week, are clicking offensively as well as they have all year and have this week off to get Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas (not to mention Drew Brees and his mysterious knee ailment) back to full strength.
This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Dallas: The Cowboys rolled over and quit during last week’s 45-7 humiliation in Green Bay for now ex-coach Wade Phillips one last time. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett takes over on an interim basis but in this week’s edition of the Broken Record Dept., this team will never, ever win as long as owner Jerry Jones plays an active role. Maybe, if he strips himself of the organization’s GM title and gets someone to do that job who actually, you know, knows how to do it, Dallas will have a chance.
2. Carolina: I know they have one more win than the Bills. But consider this little factoid about the team that is on pace to score less than 200 points for the entire season: All three of the Panthers QBs played in last week’s 34-3 blowout loss to New Orleans in which the team had 195 yards, total. Combined, they were 17-for-36 for 68 yards. That’s 1.9 yards per pass attempt. That’s also sickeningly awful.
3. Buffalo: 0-8, but still working hard. Poor Buffalo has now lost three in a row by a field goal. Last week, in losing to the Bears, it was a missed extra point that forced them to have to chase points earlier than they should have in a eventual 22-19 loss. Their kicker had made 321 straight extra points prior to the miss. Yikes. Anyway, this week they get the Lions, who haven’t won a road game since 2007, at home. Something’s gotta give!
4. Denver: How merciful was last week’s bye for the Broncos? Now 2-14 under Josh McDaniels since starting last season 6-0, the former Pats offensive coordinator is likely coaching for his job for the remainder of this year.
5. Cincinnati: Same old Bengals. To their credit, they showed a lot of heart and resolve in coming within eight yards of a 20-point, fourth quarter comeback against the Steelers on Monday night. But as has always been the case, they couldn’t remotely handle last season’s success, have too many malcontents as usual and will be at home for the playoffs for the 19th time in the last 21 seasons.
- Philip Rivers, Chargers: It was easy to shrug off the drum beating of support for Rivers to be this year’s league MVP when San Diego was 2-5. But after he threw for 295 yards and four TDs last week against Houston without his top four receivers (the No. 1 target was practice-squader Seyi Ajirotutu) in the team’s second straight win and with a bye this week, I’m starting to believe.
- Peyton Hillis, Browns: Remember that part a minute ago about the ongoing failure of Denver coach Josh McDaniels? Well one reason for it may be his trade of this human bowling ball Hillis, whom he called exactly 17 plays for last season, for third-string QB/massive draft bust Brady Quinn in the off-season. Hillis gashed the Pats previously stout run defense for a career-high 189 yards and two TDs on 29 carries last week. The Broncos are dead last in the league in rushing (67.2 YPG).
- Jacoby Ford, Raiders: In that Raiders win over the Chiefs last week, which was only the franchise’s biggest victory in eight years, the previously mentioned rookie Ford became the second player ever to have over 140 yards receiving and 150 yards on kick returns. He ran one kick back 94 yards for a score, caught a 29-yard pass to set up the game-tying field goal at the end of regulation, then capped it off with a 47-yard catch that set up the game-winner in overtime.
- Chad Henne, Dolphins: Henne became the next guy in the long Miami line of QBs who aren’t Dan Marino when he was benched on Wednesday in favor of brittle, string-armed veteran Chad Pennington. The Dolphins need a spark – they are 4-4, without a win at home all year and score TDs less that 40 percent of the time the get inside the red zone. So Henne, just over a full season’s worth of games into his career after being drafted in the second round out of Michigan last year, gets the hook.
- Matthew Stafford, Lions: When last year’s No. 1 overall pick plays, he’s pretty good (60 percent completions, six TDs against one INT, 91.3 passer rating). But such occasions are rare. Stafford has played in just three games this season after playing in just 10 last year; now, he’s potentially out for the season after suffering his second major shoulder injury of the year against the Jets last week. A huge bummer for Detroit.
- The Texans: Another week, another lousy defensive effort, another brutal home loss for Houston, which is exactly the same as it always is. It looked like this was the season for the Texans to break out of their perpetual .500-ness after their Week 1 blowout of the Colts and their stirring Week 2 comeback at Washington. But since then, they are 2-4, they can’t cover practice squad wideouts and appear destined for yet another 8-8, non-playoff season.
You’re not gonna believe what I saw last night! I went to ESPN mobile on my phone to check a couple things only to find a massive, red, highlighted banner that said, “BREAKING NEWS.” Right beneath, the text read, “Vikings Quarterback Brett Favre Tells NFL Network He Won’t Return in 2011.” I was shocked. How could this be? Favre announced publicly that he’s retiring? And in the middle of a season in which he’s currently playing? And on a night when the league is premiering it’s Thursday night showcase game on its house network with a game between two first place teams neither of which is the Vikings? “You’re kidding,” I said to no one in particular.
I don’t know what was more predictable – that BrettFavre, king of all attention whores, queen of all drama queens, would decide to peddle this completely meaningless information while everyone was looking at something other than him, and that was infinitely more interesting and important to boot, or that ESPN would breathlessly, instantaneously make it their top story. The nightmare continues.