8:00 PM PST, November 4, 2012
Lots of talk these days about swing states and which way they're leaning.
So it's fitting that the most intriguing NFL stories are those teams and players that are in a dramatic state of swing.
Take the Indianapolis Colts, for instance. At the end of the Peyton Manning era, they appeared headed for a long rebuilding phase. But rookie quarterback Andrew Luck has been even better than advertised, and Sunday he led the Colts to a 23-20 victory over Miami with a record-setting passing performance.
Chicago collapsed last season without Jay Cutler, losing five of its final six games. Now, not only is Cutler back, but so is the team's havoc-wreaking defense, which forced five turnovers in a 51-20 drubbing of Tennessee that took the Bears' record to 7-1.
And then there's the swingingest of the NFL's swing teams. Arizona won its first four games — the club's best start since 1974 — only to lose its next five, including a 31-17 defeat at Green Bay on Sunday. More bad news for the Cardinals: Their next game is at Atlanta.
"If you look at the five games that we've lost — which is extremely disappointing — the one thing that's consistent is that we've had opportunities to make plays and we haven't done it," Arizona Coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "Green Bay's a good football team. But today, in my opinion, was as much about what we didn't do as what they did do."
The Bears? They charted their own destiny — and did it in vintage defensive style. Cornerback Charles Tillman forced four fumbles, linebacker Brian Urlacher returned an interception 46 yards for a touchdown, and the Bears blocked a punt for another score.
Chicago forced three turnovers in the first 13 minutes, parlaying those into two touchdowns. The 51 points were the most by the Bears since they beat the Packers, 61-7, in 1980.
The Colts (5-3) haven't enjoyed a blowout win this season. All of their victories were by six points or fewer. Still, no one in Indianapolis is complaining. The team has won three in a row, and Luck set a league rookie record by throwing for 433 yards. That broke the mark of 432 set by Carolina's Cam Newton last season.
Luck also became the second rookie quarterback to notch four 300-yard passing games in a season.
The first rookie to accomplish that feat?
Manning, of course.
My favorite Martin
Seattle's Marshawn Lynch ran for 124 yards and a touchdown. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson ran for 182 and two touchdowns. Detroit's Mikel Leshoure ran for three touchdowns.
Exceptional performances, all. But none will be the NFC's offensive player of the week.
That honor will surely go to Tampa Bay rookie Doug Martin, who torched the Raiders for 251 yards in 25 carries with touchdowns of 45, 67, 70 and one yard(s). That came 10 days after Martin gained 214 total yards and scored two touchdowns in a win at Minnesota.
The Buccaneers kept giving Martin the ball at the end of the Oakland game instead of taking a knee to secure the 42-32 victory. The league single-game rushing record was just out of reach, though, and still belongs to Peterson, who in 2007 ran for 296 yards against San Diego in the eighth game of his career.
Martin did walk away with one piece of history. According to NBC, he's the first NFL player to run for three touchdowns of 40 yards or longer.
Running the table
The least popular athlete in Cincinnati? It has to be Manning, who improved to 8-0 against the Bengals after his Denver Broncos picked up a 31-23 victory there Sunday.
That's the fourth-most career wins without a loss against an opponent among quarterbacks who entered the league after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. (Of course, that NFL-generated stat is based on the notion that quarterbacks have starting records like pitchers, which they don't. But play along.)
Baltimore's Joe Flacco tied the record in that category Sunday when the Ravens beat Cleveland, 25-15, pushing Flacco's "record" against the Browns to 10-0. Denver's John Elway was 10-0 against New England, and also owns the fifth spot on that list with a 7-0 record against Cincinnati.
Just ahead of Manning on the list is former Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who was 9-0 against Detroit.
What really matters
The highlight of the Colts' victory over Miami came in the Indianapolis locker room afterward, when Coach Chuck Pagano, who has stepped aside while he battles leukemia, delivered an emotional speech to his players.
"I've got circumstances. You guys understand it, I understand it," Pagano said, choking back tears. "It's already beat. It's already beat. My vision that I'm living is to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings and then lift the Lombardi Trophy several times. I'm dancing at two more weddings and we're hoisting that trophy together, men. Congratulations, I love all of you."
Browns' baby steps
What Cleveland has done so far might not be enough to save the job of Coach Pat Shurmur, but it should be.
Once again Sunday, the Browns narrowly lost, but the home defeat against Baltimore was closer than the 10-point margin indicates. Cleveland heads into its bye at 2-7, with only one of those losses a blowout.
But that doesn't mean the Browns are stuck in the mud. They have a rookie quarterback in Brandon Weeden, a rookie running back in Trent Richardson, and a rookie majority owner in Jim Haslam.
Haslam was a minority owner in Pittsburgh, and he might want to take a page from the Steelers' book when it comes to being patient with head coaches. Yes, the Browns are 6-19 in two seasons under Shurmur, but they're competitive, and they might be on the road to becoming more.
For the Ravens, Sunday was more of the same. They're now 5-0 after the bye under Coach John Harbaugh.
Smooth move by the Washington Redskins. They deemed their matchup against 1-6 Carolina their "homecoming" game, inviting back dozens of past players and donning their 1937 throwback uniforms (with doorknob-looking rust helmets).
Naturally, the Panthers didn't appreciate being classified as homecoming doormats. So for them, that made the 21-13 win even sweeter.
"I look on there and it says 'homecoming,'" said Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, referring to the "Game Day" program in his locker. "And I'm thinking to myself: This is the National Football League. Are you serious? Homecoming. And it's not like you tried to hide it — you blatantly put it on the front of the Game Day. And you're talking about somebody fired up today?
"It was the whole team. That was definitely motivating. You don't say you're going to have a 'homecoming' in the National Football League. You do it in college. It's one of those teams that's just terrible. You don't book, like, a good team for homecoming."
Payton's new place?
Sean Payton was banned from coaching the New Orleans Saints this season for his role in the bounty scandal. Now, there are questions about whether he'll ever return.
According to an ESPN report Sunday, the NFL has voided the multiyear contract extension Payton signed in 2011, meaning the coach will be a free agent after this season. The report cites unnamed league sources and says the contract was nullified because of a specific clause that would have enabled Payton to walk away if Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis were suspended, fired, or left the team.
Payton has long been linked to Dallas, where he was an assistant coach. It's entirely possible that he could ultimately replace Jason Garrett as Cowboys coach.
Beating the Giants was huge for Pittsburgh, and not just because it was meaningful for the Steelers to knock off a good team heading in the right direction (as opposed to the downwardly mobile Redskins or Eagles).
The Steelers showed that their defense could stiffen in the fourth quarter, something it didn't do earlier in the season . . . and against Eli Manning, maybe the best clutch quarterback in the game. What's more, Pittsburgh now has options at running back — Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman have stepped up for the injured Rashard Mendenhall — and its offensive line has gone from patchwork to productive.
With two games against Baltimore in three weeks later this month, this is the time the Steelers need to be ramping up their level of play. And Sunday, they did.
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