Commentary

Observation deck: Patriots clearly a cut above

The Patriots' 56-10 victory in Buffalo drove home a point that needed no more driving home. In 2007, there's the Patriots, and then there's everyone else.

Originally Published: November 18, 2007
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

Anything you can do, New England can do better.

Hours after Dallas' Terrell Owens caught four touchdown passes against Washington, the Patriots' Randy Moss caught four in the first half against Buffalo. The Cowboys scored 28 points in their victory over the Redskins. The Patriots, 56-10 winners in Buffalo, scored their 28th point with more than six minutes remaining before halftime.

The two best teams in the NFC -- Dallas and Green Bay -- combined for 59 points in defeating their Week 11 opponents. New England scored its 56th point against the Bills barely a minute into the fourth quarter, enough for coach Bill Belichick to sit quarterback Tom Brady.

Only the Patriots are good enough to run up the score in the second and third quarters. Their victory, featuring the most points by a road team since 1973, drove home a point that needed no more driving home. In 2007, there's the Patriots, and then there's everyone else.

At 10-0, the Patriots could lose twice and still secure homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. But they won't need more than 12 or 13 victories, if Week 11 was any indication.

While the Patriots cruised in Buffalo, AFC mortals Indianapolis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh lived -- and died -- by high-drama kicks.

Phil Dawson needed a ricochet and an officiating reversal to help Cleveland get past Baltimore, while the Jets' Mike Nugent stunned heavily favored Pittsburgh with a 38-yarder in overtime -- the game's seventh field goal without a miss.

We couldn't fault Indianapolis for calling a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 from the Kansas City 3 with two minutes remaining in a tie game. Anything to forestall the drama of another Adam Vinatieri chip shot.

Vinatieri got his chance eventually, and this time the NFL's highest-paid kicker earned his $61,000 game check, lifting the Colts to a 13-10 victory over the Chiefs in the RCA Dome. Vinatieri's 24-yarder with four seconds remaining ended two unlikely streaks. The Colts had lost two in a row following a 7-0 start, while Vinatieri had missed four consecutive field goal attempts for the first time since 1996, his rookie season.

The Colts still aren't the team they were before a wave of injuries struck key players. New England, meanwhile, seems to be better than ever.

Ten more observations from Week 11:

1. Jags flatten Chargers

Jacksonville has the toughness San Diego lost when management fired no-nonsense coach Marty Schotteneheimer. The Chargers have the offensive talent the Jaguars need to become a championship contender.

Toughness prevailed over talent when the Jaguars took down the Chargers, 24-17. One third-quarter play was particularly symbolic. Diminutive Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew flattened hulking Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman to foil a San Diego blitz, giving quarterback David Garrard time to find tight end Marcedes Lewis for a 1-yard touchdown.

Jones-Drew set both feet, crouched and launched his 5-foot-7 frame into Merriman's upper body. The impact sent the 6-foot-4, 272-pound Merriman onto his back. Lewis' touchdown stretched the Jaguars' lead to 24-10.

The Chargers still are the best team in the AFC West, but that isn't saying much.

2. The better team won in Baltimore

Cleveland needed a fortunate bounce to force overtime during the Browns' 33-30 victory over the Ravens, but the Browns were the better team most of the way.

Baltimore converted only two of 12 third-down chances. Kyle Boller took six sacks and tossed two interceptions.

The Ravens' defense continued to do its part, and then some, but it's looking like coach Brian Billick might never field a dynamic offense.

Baltimore has thrown six more touchdown passes than interceptions (151-145) since Billick took over as head coach in 1999. The Ravens have finished with more interceptions than touchdowns in three of the six previous seasons, a trend that is continuing in 2007.

It gets worse. The Ravens have 27 touchdown passes in 26 games since the start of the 2006 season. Cleveland's Derek Anderson has 25 during the same span, despite starting only 12 games.

3. The worse team won in the Meadowlands

New England won't need any help securing homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, but Pittsburgh is lending assistance, anyway.

The Steelers' stunning 19-16 defeat at the hands of the Jets was remarkable on multiple fronts:

• The Steelers allowed a 100-yard rusher for the first time since Edgerrin James gained 124 yards for Indianapolis on Nov. 28, 2005.
• The Steelers lost even though Jets quarterback Kellen Clemens completed only 14 of 31 passes with a 58.8 rating.
• The Steelers allowed seven sacks to a team that had managed a league-low nine all season.

The book on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger says to keep him in the pocket and force him to read defenses. The Jets limited him to 5 yards on two rushes.

4. Another close call

The Dolphins fell to 0-10 after a dismal performance against Philadelphia in John Beck's first start, but they kept the final margin to 10 points or fewer for the seventh time. Miami has lost by three points five times this season, an indication the Dolphins probably will break through at some point.

That elusive first victory probably won't come at Pittsburgh in Week 12, but four of the five final games are against flawed opponents: the Jets (home), Buffalo (road), Baltimore (home), New England (road) and Cincinnati (home).

The Dolphins already have lost by three-point margins against the Jets and Bills. They'll struggle against the Ravens' defense, but the Bengals are flighty enough to lose any time, any place, under any circumstances.

Beck will have to show he's worthy of the coaching staff's trust. He completed only nine of 22 passes against the Eagles.

Trailing 17-7 midway through the fourth quarter, the Dolphins opted for a running play on fourth-and-goal from the 1. The play lost 13 yards. Philadelphia had to know the Dolphins wouldn't trust their rookie quarterback in that situation.

5. Sure-handed Packers

Brett Favre tossed three more touchdown passes on his way to another glimmering passer rating (126.8) as Green Bay pounded Carolina, 31-17.

Favre's unlikely revival at 38 has provided the NFL with one of its leading story lines for 2007, but his little-known receivers also deserve credit. The Packers had dropped a league-low 3.2 percent of on-target passes heading into Week 11. They had no drops against the Panthers.

With Bubba Franks and his slippery fingers safely on the injured list, the Packers are getting consistent play in the receiving game. Donald Lee caught two touchdown passes against the Panthers. Greg Jennings and Donald Driver combined for 12 receptions and 131 yards.

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesBy wreaking havoc against the Saints, Mario Williams made the Texans look smart.

6. Williams steps up

Houston's decision to draft defensive end Mario Williams over running back Reggie Bush has forced Williams to answer a seemingly unending supply of questions about his relative worth.

Although only time will tell whether the Texans should have made Bush the No. 1 overall choice in 2006, Houston wasn't regretting its decision Sunday. Williams finished with six tackles, one sack and a forced fumble during a 23-10 victory over Bush and New Orleans.

The stats told only part of the story. On one play, Williams pressured Saints quarterback Drew Brees after running through Bush's attempt at a chip block and decking guard Jahri Evans. The Saints, playing without injured left tackle Jammal Brown, had no answer for Williams.

Bush carried 15 times for 34 yards against the Texans. He caught 12 passes for only 70 yards, a 5.8-yard average.

New Orleans and San Francisco are the only teams without a 100-yard rusher this season.

Drafting a running back first overall isn't always a wise move. George Rogers went first overall in 1981, ahead of Lawrence Taylor. In 1995, Ki-Jana Carter went first overall, ahead of Tony Boselli.

7. Aging Eagles

Brian Westbrook's 148-yard showing against Miami carried Philadelphia to victory, but Donovan McNabb's latest injury reminded us of the Eagles' advancing age at key positions.

Seven of the team's 10 players with Pro Bowl experience are at least 30 years old. Six are at least 32. One of them -- 31-year-old defensive end Jevon Kearse -- wasn't even active against the Dolphins.

McNabb's injury (sprained right ankle) ended one of the worst performances of his career. He completed three of 11 passes for 34 yards, with two interceptions and a .4 rating. McNabb turns 31 this month, but injuries have aged his body at a faster rate. Coach Andy Reid said McNabb will remain the starter if his right ankle allows him to play, but backup A.J. Feeley was better against the Dolphins.

8. Holmgren wasn't blowing smoke

Coaches generally avoid tipping their hands to reporters, but Seattle's Mike Holmgren meant it when he talked about relying more heavily on the passing game.

Matt Hasselbeck attempted 44 passes during Seattle's 30-23 victory over Chicago, the quarterback's third consecutive game with at least 40 attempts. Hasselbeck hadn't attempted 40 or more passes in a regular-season game since doing it once in 2005. He had two such games in 2004, two in 2003 and four in 2002.

The Seahawks no longer have the offensive line or tailback to run the ball on their own terms.

Hasselbeck has supplanted Shaun Alexander as the team's best option on offense. He's on pace for career highs of 4,220 yards and 27 touchdowns. He'll surpass those numbers if Holmgren keeps calling passes as frequently as he has in recent weeks.

Holmgren also will face pressure to stick with Maurice Morris at running back once Alexander returns from injury in the next week or two. Alexander is the former league MVP, but Morris is better suited for a pass-oriented offense. He finished with 106 total yards against the Bears.

9. Rolle call

Arizona cornerback Antrel Rolle lost his starting job and fell off the NFL map this season, but Cincinnati won't forget him anytime soon.

Rolle returned two interceptions for touchdowns during a 35-27 victory Sunday. A penalty against the Cardinals negated what would have been Rolle's third pick for a touchdown.

Rolle was the eighth player chosen in a 2005 draft checkered with low-impact players. Six of the first 17 players chosen that year were either on injured reserve or out of the league heading into Week 11. Alex Smith and Troy Williamson went ahead of Rolle in 2005, the year Cincinnati selected David Pollack in the 17th spot.

10. The Cowboys are dangerous

Dallas' Tony Romo and Terrell Owens would be enjoying MVP-caliber seasons if New England wasn't racking up even better numbers in the passing game.

Romo already has 27 touchdown passes. Owens topped 1,000 yards receiving with a 173-yard, four-touchdown performance in Dallas' 28-23 victory over Washington.

Owens was a big-game performer the last time he played on a championship-caliber team, in 2005 with Philadelphia. That's what he's become for the Cowboys. Owens, Randy Moss and other high-profile receivers can become disinterested when their teams aren't playing at a high level. The opposite is true when their teams are thriving. Owens could become more dangerous as the stakes grow higher.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

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