While the thrilling finale to Week 9 felt oddlyfamiliar, the Seahawks' victory over the Bills also provided a jolt for an NFL season that needed it. Tyrod Taylor and Russell Wilson were both spectacular examples of how the quarterback position has evolved. LeSean McCoy and Jimmy Graham took turns showing off individual brilliance. Two of the game's best talkers, Richard Sherman and Rex Ryan, both had their say.
On the eve of a day that will change American history one way or another, it was a welcome distraction to be entertained, exasperated and immersed in a game. May all our prime-time windows have so much to look at.
Teams back from the dead
1) Detroit Lions: At the precise moment the Lionsclimbed over .500 on Sunday, Golden Tate's legs were above his head, left arm outstretched with football in hand, butt colliding with such force against Andrew Sendejo's helmet that it knocked the Vikings safety over. This was the first winning touchdown in NFL history to come with a finishing move.
Tate's WWE-style takedown was a fitting capper to an upside-down few weeks in the NFC North. The Vikings have been knocked back, with defensive leaks springing up as the team attempts to spackle its other holes. The Packers are a one-dimensional team on both sides of the ball when that one dimension isn't that good. That leaves the Lions, who were all but forgotten at 1-3, squarely in the division-title mix at 5-4.
I give the Cardiac Caldwells the best playoff odds in this group of teams back from the dead, because they already have a winning record and they play in a vulnerable NFC North. Unsung heroes like tight end Eric Ebron and defensive end Kerry Hyder have played important roles, but this turnaround is primarily a Matthew Stafford production. He's the first quarterback since the 1970 merger to direct winning fourth-quarter drives in his team's first five wins, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
2) Miami Dolphins: Weeks after coach Adam Gase said he had to keep "reminding myself" to stay with running back Jay Ajayi, Gase has now committed to Ajayi for life.
"He knows exactly how I want to call the game," Gase said after Sunday's roller-coaster win over the Jets. "I'm never going to go away from him."
This approach limits Ryan Tannehill's weekly exposure, which we suspect Gase enjoys. Ajayi's emergence is no fluke. His lateral movement and ability to cut at full speed is so rare for a runner his size. He wore down the Jets on the way to 111 yards against the league's top rushing defense. Now 4-4, Miami heads to San Diego for a fun "win or go home" game.
3) New Orleans Saints: As they capped the journey from 0-3 to 4-4, the Saints' ball-control offense was in full bloom against the 49ers with 248 rushing yards. Signing old friend Jahri Evans at guard has solidified an improving offensive line for the league's No. 2 scoring offense. Getting their top cornerback, Delvin Breaux, and their top draft pick, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, back makes the Saints a serious playoff threat in the NFC, where the wild-card spots are wide open.
Narratives that were busted
Seattle gave up 425 yards to Buffalo one week after allowing the Saints to score on six straight drives. Teams are moving the ball up and down the field on the Seahawks by playing patient football. Cliff Avril is playing like a man possessed, but Bennett has been the most important player on this defense for a while (and quite possibly one of the five most valuable defensive players in football). The Seahawks have survived without safety Kam Chancellor before, but they clearly aren't the same with Bennett on the sideline for another week or two. Next up: A trip to Foxborough on a short week.
2) No one sold Melvin Gordon as a workhorse. The second-year Chargers back was supposed to be a big playmaker who forced second-level defenders to gasp for air. After 104 carries and 14 catches over the last four weeks, the NFL leader in rushing attempts and rushing/receiving touchdowns has buried those scouting reports like he did the Titans' defense Sunday.
On the decisive snap of San Diego's 43-35 win, Gordon took the ball on third-and-7 late in the fourth quarter. That's a "give-up" call by coach Mike McCoy, which would have been booed for lack of aggression had it come up short. Instead, Gordon shook Titans cornerback Perrish Cox and broke two tackles on a 47-yard gallop to ice the game and cap his 261-yard effort.
It's easy to forget that Gordon was coming off microfracture surgery this season. He has run like a back who is far superior to the one we saw in September -- a more rugged, complete, three-down bell cow than his draft profile suggested.
Sure, Blair Walsh and the Vikings' inept running game are bigger issues. But the Vikings' defense couldn't close out the game in regulation, couldn't get off the field on three different third-and-longs in overtime and couldn't stop a 9-minute, 45-second Lions drive before halftime, the longest Detroit drive since 1998.
Sam Bradford was given the ball with 4:14 left needing a touchdown to win the game, and he delivered the touchdown, draining the clock in the process. Minnesota's formula only works if Mike Zimmer's defense is special -- which it hasn't been the last two weeks.
4) The Eagles have won four games by a combined 76 points. They have lost four games by a combined 19 points. They are the best 4-4 team in football but can't seem to manage late-game situations or convert in the red zone.
5)Ben Roethlisberger couldn't stop Pittsburgh's annual midseason swoon on his own. The Ravens' defense deserves credit for confusing Big Ben and limiting the Steelers' offense to a pair of first downs on its first 12 drives, but many of the mistakes Sunday were self-inflicted. It's jarring to see an offense including Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell put up one of the worst showings by any team all season.
6) The Broncos are no longer the toughest team in the AFC West. Oakland held the ball for over 41 minutes Sunday night, rushing for 218 yards while only giving up 33 on the ground to a hapless Denver ground attack. The dominance of the Raiders' offensive line was set to be on my "storylines that deserve more attention" this week, but the football world knows after that showcase on NBC.
The notion that Oakland's defense is some huge weakness should also be put to rest. Their yardage rankings don't reflect the team's in-season improvement. Big-ticket signee Bruce Irvin has delivered the goods, Khalil Mack has taken off after a slow start and street free-agent pickup Perry Riley has made a huge impact stabilizing their inside linebacker position.
Storylines that deserve more attention
1)Frank Gore runs with a lot of juice for a 33-year-old veteran. On pace to be the oldest 1,000-yard runner since John Riggins in 1984, Gore has shown impressive burst on his three touchdown scampers in the last two weeks. He won't break many big runs, but Gore has helped Andrew Luck by keeping the Colts' offense on schedule and keeping the Colts' defense off the field. Indy is tied for second in the NFL in drives of 10 plays or more, and Gore's ability to get 4 yards when the line blocks for 2 yards is a huge reason why.
Sunday's performance against the Packers was typical of Gore's season. He kept the Green Bay defense honest with smart first-half running. With the Colts on the Packers' 9-yard line and looking to put the game away in the fourth quarter, they called Gore's number twice in a row. He made a defender miss in tight quarters on his 4-yard touchdown, which is perhaps the defining skill of Gore's career. As the President of the Inconvenient Truth Appreciation Society, this season has been a treat.
2)Cameron Wake is the Frank Gore of defensive ends. Annually overlooked, Wake was one of the five best players at his position for the prime of his career. It's been amazing to watch how reliably the 34-year-old Wake, who is coming off Achilles surgery, gets to the quarterback. Despite playing limited snaps for most of the season as a situational pass rusher, he leads the Dolphins in sacks (five), hurries (23, according to Pro Football Focus) and forced fumbles (three). On a team with Ndamukong Suh and Mario Williams, Wake is still Miami's best pass rusher. He can occasionally throw a right tackle aside, but he's mostly wreaking havoc with his trademark speed around the edge.
3) It's strange for anything in Dallas to deserve more attention, but the job the Cowboys' coaching staff has done this year qualifies. No defense flies to the ball more consistently and with more energy outside of Seattle. That starts with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's coaching. The job he's done in Dallas (and other stops as an assistant) should be his NFL legacy, not the 0-16 Lions in 2008.
No head coach has grown on the job more than Jason Garrett, especially in handling game-management situations. Jerry Jones' patience with Garrett early in his tenure after a penchant for mishandling close games is reminiscent of former owner Clint Murchison's long leash early in Tom Landry's career. (And that's where I'll stop with the Landry comparisons, before the football gods strike me down for heresy.)
5) The Falcons' defense is less than the sum of its parts, which qualifies as progress. At least they have parts. Adrian Clayborn and Vic Beasley Jr. are finally giving the team a legitimate pass rush. Rookie first-round safety Keanu Neal looks the part as an enforcer. After an injury-plagued start, rookie linebacker De'Vondre Campbell is giving the team quality snaps like fellow rookie Deion Jones. It's easy to imagine this defense rounding into form in December, making the Falcons a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
6)Tyrod Taylor had been building to his scintillating Monday night performance against Seattle for a while. Last week's game against the Patriots aside, he's been accurate and careful throwing the ball for Buffalo. His combination of fantastic plays on the run and his allergy to big mistakes has been working since Anthony Lynn took over as the Bills' offensive coordinator.
Stick a fork in them ...
New York Jets
Sunday's Jets-Dolphins melodrama had the feel of a "loser goes home" matchup for two teams looking to extend three-game winning streaks. New York's sixth loss all but extinguishes hope for a Jets squad that has two games left against the Patriots and player-development issues that date back a few general managers.
It was encouraging to see young receivers like Jalin Marshall and Robby Anderson make plays, because this organization has struggled to coach up young talent, especially on offense, for too long. Veteran acquisitions like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte and Ryan Clady will be long gone before the Jets are a Super Bowl contender again. It wouldn't be a shock if homegrown talents like Darrelle Revis, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are all gone next season. General manager Mike Maccagnan deserves patience, because this is one of the most difficult rebuilding jobs in the sport.