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The Top Three

One team is as good as another in pro football this year with three possible exceptions: the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, and Indianapolis Colts. Injuries may have lately somewhat weakened the Steelers (4-2), and especially the Patriots (3-3), so how good are the streaking Colts (7-0)?

That isn't easy to say. In fact, nobody can know until next month, when Indianapolis, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, will play in the two biggest football games of November — at New England Nov. 7 and at home to Pittsburgh Nov. 28 for the prime sports event in Indianapolis' history.

During the first half of their season, the Colts, the NFL's only unbeaten people this year, were hardly bothered anytime. Anywhere.

Week in and out, they breezed through one of the softest schedules of the season, which gave them, notably, their Week 7 victim, 0-6 Houston, a team that put up a 38-20 fight.

Otherwise, the Colts have knocked off undistinguished Baltimore (now 2-4), Cleveland (2-4), Tennessee (2-5), San Francisco (1-5) and St. Louis (3-4). The only winning team Manning has encountered, Jacksonville (4-2), can boast about its defense — which Coach Jack Del Rio keeps strengthening — but hardly its offense.

In September, the Colts outlasted the Jaguars, 10-3, a low-scoring result that made it seem like 1972 all over again. That was the year the Miami Dolphins went 17-0, when they didn't always look as good as they did later, in retrospect. Maybe Manning knows something.


Big Ben Is the Difference for the Steelers

THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS restored order in the NFC North as soon as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger came back from injury, which was in Week 7 — when they schooled the youthful Cincinnati Bengals. Winning a 27-13 game, they taught Carson Palmer how far it is from the back row to the head of the class.

Almost surely, the Steelers will next give the Baltimore Ravens a similar lesson in what figures to be the most lopsided Monday night game of the season.

Palmer, who gets Green Bay at Cincinnati Sunday, had been playing like the best and most consistent quarterback in the league for many weeks, and he still has the 5-2 Bengals atop their division, a half game ahead of Pittsburgh.

The schedule he's played, however, closely resembles Manning's at Indianapolis. So the Palmer story today is: If beating the teams you should beat is the first sign of progress in the NFL, he's a comer.

Roethlisberger is already there. What he does for the Steelers — just with his presence on the field, even when hurt — is provide a passing threat that makes their running attack succeed against teams like Cincinnati. He doesn't throw often, but when defensive teams overload against the Steeler run, Roethlisberger can hit them with the pass, which he did in the second quarter Sunday.

As Pittsburgh rookie Heath Miller, a 256-pound blocking tight end, came open in the end zone by 10 yards in all directions, Big Ben flipped him a two-yard touchdown that finally put the Steelers up at halftime, 7-6. Palmer had done most of the early damage on Bengal drives that against Pittsburgh predictably ended only in field goals.


Pittsburgh Has the NFL's Best Balanced Team

THE STEELERS, whose defense is far more powerful than that of the Colts, are at the moment the NFL's most reliably well-balanced team. They feature besides Roethlisberger two kinds of runners, Willie Parker, an eager, big-boned breakaway threat who comes in at 209 pounds, and Jerome Bettis, 255, who in his 13th NFL season is still breaking tackles, left and right.

At Cincinnati, it was Parker who stole away on the game's longest touchdown play, a 37-yard run, but it was Bettis who as usual produced the most characteristic Pittsburgh run. This one gained four yards on third and three, a passing down, particularly with Roethlisberger under center. When instead Big Ben handed Bettis the ball, he shortly disappeared under a pile of Bengals and seemed to have been stopped but kept burrowing away. If Parker is the Steelers' can't-miss kid, Bettis is their can't-quit vet.

Their hope, however, is Roethlisberger, when he returns to full good health. As a running team, the Steelers have been coming up short in the playoffs because that's what happens to running teams in the playoffs. Their rangy sophomore has the talent to make the Steelers a passing team if they can give him some experience in the rest of the regular season. Their postseason depends on it.


Parcells Played the Wrong Percentage

THE DALLAS COWBOYS, held to 10-10 going into the last 40 seconds of a game they lost at Seattle Sunday, 13-10, were a much better bet to win the overtime coin toss than to throw the long pass they had to have in regulation time to get into field-goal range.

Their coach, Bill Parcells, watching closely from the sideline, should have noted that. He needed to halt the ambitions of his offensive staff, which kept sending in pass-play calls to quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

Normally, attacking aggressively is the percentage way to proceed in NFL games — but not in the last 40 seconds with Bledsoe at quarterback when there's a reasonable alternative: an overtime tie. The percentages were against Bledsoe's completing a big one as the clock wound down in Seattle because he's an immobile target for pass rushers when obliged by clock considerations to throw pass after pass.

As Parcells has to know, when there's no time for even one running play, the pass rush will eventually close in on Bledsoe — if he keeps dropping back to pass — forcing him to throw wild and, all too often, for an interception.

So when he was told to keep firing away in a hopeless cause, the situation shortly changed from hopeless to doomed when he was indeed intercepted, whereupon Seattle kicked the winning field goal.

All season, Parcells has been bringing Bledsoe along carefully, restoring his confidence, which was shattered in Buffalo. Cautiously, Bledsoe had taken the Cowboys to the top of the NFC East. Now, back in the cellar, the danger is that his confidence is gone again. The gamble Parcells took in Seattle wasn't worth it. In the parity-driven NFL this year, the players sometimes make the difference, but often it's a coach.


Schottenheimer is One Charger Problem

THE SAN DIEGO CHARGERS have also learned that a coach can make damaging decisions when a game is on the line in the last few minutes, but San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer's error at Philadephia in Week 7 was the opposite of Parcells'.

Schottenheimer's was an error of timidity after the Chargers, with a four-point lead, advanced into scoring position on quarterback Drew Brees' passes. There, their coach, a longtime conservative, watched approvingly as his people — following Schottenheimer's instructions — grounded Brees and gave LaDainian Tomlinson three more running plays.

As he had throughout the game, Tomlinson failed to pick up a first down. And it was following Tomlinson's final futile run that a San Diego field-goal attempt was blocked, setting up the long, deciding touchdown return by swift Eagle cornerback Matt Ware, an NFL sophomore from UCLA, who changed a Charger victory into a 20-17 Philadelphia win.

San Diego fans have been saying that their team has had hard luck this season, and there's some truth in that, but their setback in Philadelphia shouldn't be attributed to hard luck. It was at least the second time this year that Schottenheimer's timid behavior has cost the Chargers a winning result.

Their root problem is that in a passing era, their coaches don't unanimously realize that Brees is an underrated passer. He's as underrated as Tomlinson is overrated. But more than that — worse than that — they're saddled with coaches who, instead of playing to win, play not to lose.

On first down, after Brees' long drive into scoring position, the right call was a play-action pass. It should have been a carefully calculated play, not just any old play-action play, climaxing in a Brees throw to tight end Antonio Gates, preferably. If Gates were too closely covered, Brees could be relied on to find a secondary target.

For Brees isn't Bledsoe. In a panic situation, Brees doesn't panic. The San Diego coaches must know by now that they can depend on Brees to throw a ball away if there isn't a safe place for it — particularly on first down. The problem in San Diego Sunday wasn't Brees. It wasn't Tomlinson, who did the best he could. The problem was a lack of courage on the coaching staff.


No Pro Club Should Suffer a Blocked Kick

THE EAGLES, as an Andy Reid team, didn't leave this game to chance. They were ready with a play that gave them an opportunity to block the kick. Plainly visible were their actions when the field-goal try became imminent. At that moment the Eagles sent in a larger contingent of replacements than usual.

And it was one of these players, Quintin Mikell, a reserve safety from Boise State, who got his hand on the kicked ball. Rushing inside the wingback on that side, Mikell broke through cleanly when the wingback, with two responsibilities, overplayed the outside rush. That is almost always a mistake. The outside rushman only has to be slowed down, often with no more than an extended arm. It's the inside man who has to be stopped.

The Eagles played as if they knew all this about the San Diego kicking team, gaining the insight from the game tapes that every NFL team is required to furnish its opponents.

All this is a reminder that no team should ever block a field goal or a conversion kick in a pro game if the snap, the hold, and the kick are correctly executed. There isn't enough time for any would-be kick blocker to get through an NFL line when the kicking team's linemen are properly interlocked and when the wingbacks are properly instructed and stationed. They're all professionals.

Bob Oates can be reached at oatesinla@aol.com. Previous columns are available at latimes.com/oates.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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