A division rises from the scrap heap

Updated: October 11, 2005, 2:52 PM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

LEADING MEN
Tom Brady
Quarterback Tom Brady is now 12-4 in games following New England losses.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Quarterbacks brought the battered AFC East back from the dead Sunday.

In Atlanta, this week's Michael Vick Experience was unexpectedly canceled. Viewers were treated instead to a repeat performance of the Tom Brady Show.

The Patriots still haven't lost consecutive games since 2002, simply because Brady won't let them. He's at his best a) under the postseason spotlight and b) when he's on the hot seat. With New England coming off a 41-17 home loss to San Diego, Brady threw for 350 yards and three touchdowns in leading the Patriots to a 31-28 win at Vick's crib.

Oh, Vick was home. He just didn't play (right knee). Backup Matt Schaub threw for close to 300 yards and three scores in his place. Anytime, any place, Adam Vinatieri is pretty much automatic. His 29-yard field goal with 17 seconds left won it.

It was yet another example of why Brady is the best QB out there. The guy went into the Georgia Dome with several of New England's stars sitting and the Patriots' defense helping make a star out of Schaub, yet he had only five incompletions against what is a good team with or without Vick. Brady simply sat back in the pocket and picked the Falcons apart, never mind that he had a rookie protecting his blind side against a rush that posted nine sacks last week.

Perhaps this is the year Brady adds a regular-season MVP award to that pair of Super Bowl MVPs.

While Brady saved the day for the Patriots, Vinny Testaverde and Kelly Holcomb helped the Jets and Bills salvage their seasons, at least for the time being.

New York beat previously undefeated Tampa Bay 14-12 at the Meadowlands to stop a two-game skid and improve to 2-3 in the logjam that is the AFC East. Buffalo stopped a three-game slide and also stands at 2-3 after knocking off visiting Miami (2-2), 20-14.

Testaverde did exactly what a Jets quarterback has to for New York to remain competitive without Chad Pennington: Just enough. He was 13-of-19 passing for 163 yards. Curtis Martin scored twice, the second time on a fourth-and-goal gamble by Herm Edwards. But the real story for the Jets was a defense that overcame three turnovers by the Jets' offense and allowed Tampa (playing without stud rookie Carnell "Cadillac" Williams) only two third-down conversions in 14 tries and four Matt Bryant field goals.

It wasn't pretty, but from here on out it won't be for New York.

Compared to how things were going with J.P. Losman, the Bills' offense looked outstanding against an undisciplined Miami defense, scoring on its first three possessions. The Bills' offense had a flow to it. Holcomb was an efficient 20-of-26, but the difference, as it was for the Jets, was Buffalo's defense coming up with five turnovers.

If the Bills' defense can somehow return to form, maybe Mike Mularkey's plan to push for the playoffs with Willis McGahee, strong D and special teams can come to fruition after all -- only with Holcomb, not Losman, as the manager at quarterback.


THE STOPPER


Brady does it again
In trumping the Falcons 31-28 on a 29-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri with just 17 seconds left, the Patriots used a battle-tested, two-pronged formula: Put the game in the right arm of Tom Brady and on the right foot of the player who currently reigns as the league's most clutch kicker. But if Vinatieri has ice water in his veins, then Brady's heart certainly must pump some sort of special coolant through his entire body.

PRIME TIME HQ


Three and out ...
• Like a lot of people I thought this might be the year the Cardinals turned the corner, but history shows that it usually takes three years to get your program where you want it.
• I don't think Vinny Testaverde is the answer, but at least he gives the Jets a chance.
• I was with Kelly Holcomb in Cleveland, and in the five years we were there, he never stayed healthy when he was asked to come in and play over an extended period of time.

PROVING GROUND


The real deal
The Broncos built an 11-point lead in the third quarter. Normally, a good Broncos team -- and this is a good one -- would pressure the quarterback for sacks and surgically and methodically end its opponent's misery with the run game. Against the Redskins, the Broncos couldn't. Mark Brunell kept dropping back and firing passes, with everyone but Joe Gibbs and Sonny Jurgensen protecting him.

PRIME TIME HQ


Three and out ...
• Brett Favre had a stong showing on Monday night in Carolina, and it looked to carry over this week. As long as he plays smart and eliminates some of the turnovers, the Packers could get on a roll.
• It seems like the Rams are going to be in a shootout every week. They will win their share of games, but you have to be able to run the ball and play solid defense to win consistently.


THEY'RE NOT DEAD YET
Even at 1-4, Packers alive in NFC North
For the Green Bay Packers, a year doesn't make much of a difference.

Brett Favre The Packers earned their first win -- and their most lopsided since 1966 -- by thumping the visiting Saints 52-3. Lo and behold, the Pack, just as they were at this point last year, are 1-4. Green Bay then went on a nine-of-11 run to win the NFC North.

These Packers don't look capable of such a surge, but they've got just as good a chance at claiming this awful division as Minnesota (1-3), Detroit (2-2) or Chicago (1-3). The Lions beat up on Baltimore at home a week after nearly knocking off Tampa, but the Lions, as we all know, are quite capable of being on the other side of a 35-17 score in their next game. Chicago, meanwhile, went to Cleveland and lost 20-10. Other than Thomas Jones, there isn't much going right for the Bears' offense. The Vikings were off this week. Then again, they've been off all year.

There still is no clear-cut favorite in the North. Winless teams talk about "getting one." Well, Green Bay got one and got right back in the division race.

The Packers, however, will have to compete without a lot of their horses. Running back Najeh Davenport fractured an ankle and will soon join wideout Javon Walker on injured reserve. Green Bay also played Sunday without Ahman Green, Bubba Franks and Mike Flanagan. But Brett Favre threw three more touchdown passes, giving him seven in the past two games. It's going to be fun watching him try to carry this team.

THE TUNA'S LATEST TURNAROUND
Rebuilt Cowboys create a logjam in NFC East
With Washington winning close games, the Giants' Eli Manning playing more and more like his older brother and Philadelphia's offense flying high during a three-game winning streak, it was easy to overlook the rebuilt Cowboys in examining the resurgent NFC East.

Not anymore. The Eagles went to Big D and got done, 33-10.

It wasn't even competitive, folks. Dallas held the ball for nearly 40 minutes. Donovan McNabb finally looked like his many injuries might be bothering him, throwing for a mere 131 yards. We're talking about the top-ranked offense in football through the first month -- one that averaged more than 400 yards a game -- managing just 129. Bill Parcells rebuilt his defense hoping for days like this.

What do they say about "one man's trash"? Funny how the Bills didn't want anything more to do with Drew Bledsoe after last year, and now he's got plenty to do with the Cowboys' being 3-2. Bledsoe threw for 289 yards and three TDs Sunday. He was helped by a running game that ground out 161 yards. That's ideal balance. Parcells rebuilt his offense hoping for days like this.

Welcome back, good ol' days: The NFC East is the only division with four three-win teams.



TALKING POINTS
Sleeper in Seattle?
Seattle exorcised a demon Sunday by winning at shootout in St. Louis 37-31.

The victory was significant on two fronts. First, it isn't often the Seahawks win on the road. They came into the game 20-30 away from home in five-plus seasons under coach Mike Holmgren, including 0-2 this season. Second, while Seattle won the NFC West last year, the Rams won all three meetings between the teams in '04, including the first-round playoff game at Seattle. Before Sunday, the Seahawks had lost four in a row to the Rams.

Fact is, the Seahawks can play with anybody when they play like they did Sunday -- zero turnovers. Shaun Alexander (pictured) got his 100 rushing and Matt Hasselbeck his 300 passing, even without injured wideout Darrell Jackson. Last year Seattle was a popular sleeper pick. Perhaps this year they can sneak up on some people and actually earn the accolades.

Broncos win 'are-they-for-real?' bowl
Denver won the game, but the Broncos and Redskins both should have earned more national respect.

A 21-19 victory at Invesco Field made it four straight for the Broncos since they wilted in the South Florida heat back on opening day. Denver, as always, has a dominant running game, and now it has a quarterback, Jake Plummer (left), playing efficient football. The defense is there again, too. Know where the two-time defending champion Patriots are next week? At Denver, in what will be one of the marquee matchups of Week 6.

As for the Redskins, I thought they were for real even before they came within a two-point conversion of tying Sunday's game at Denver. The Redskins have doubters because they've won by the skin of their teeth (their three victories were by a combined six points) but the Patriots have built a dynasty on close victories. Why is New England praised for making plays at the end of games while Washington is knocked for it? Mark Brunell is authoring one of the best stories in the league this year. The 'Skins will be in this thing for a while.

Finally, there's really a D in In-D
The Colts, 5-0 after a ho-hum win over San Francisco, are scarier now than they've been since Tony Dungy (left) arrived and made them a perennial playoff team.

Why? Used to be you could run over Indianapolis' defense, and the offense would have to win a shootout. Now the Colts are winning with defense. They're allowing a meager 5.9 points per game. You know Indy is capable of outscoring teams when it has to. What they've learned about themselves (and shown the rest of us) is that they can win playing ball-control offense. The Patriots were always tougher in the playoffs. That won't be the case next time.

THE RUNDOWN
• Tennessee 34, Houston 20
  Feel-good: Jarrett Payton scores first NFL TD. Feel bad: David Carr sacked seven more times.

• Green Bay 52, New Orleans 3
  Sooner or later, the Packers were bound to take their frustrations out on someone.

• Seattle 37, St. Louis 31
  Shaun Alexander had another big day, but Seattle's star was Joe Jurevicius (137 yds, 1 TD).

• N.Y. Jets 14, Tampa Bay 12
  Vinny comes back; the Jets win. All is right in N.Y. ... at least for the time being.

• New England 31, Atlanta 28
  Stop me if you've heard this before: Brady engineers drive; Vinatieri kicks last-second FG.

• Buffalo 20, Miami 14
  QB Kelly Holcomb does nothing fancy, but Bills take a 17-0 halftime lead and snap slide.

• Detroit 35, Baltimore 17
  All you need to know: Ravens flagged 21 times for 147 yards and two ejections. Ugly!

• Cleveland 20, Chicago 10
  Nothing cute from Romeo Crennel's crew. Just a hard-earned victory and a 2-2 record.

• Indianapolis 28, San Francisco 3
  Colts remain perfect; 49ers top pick Alex Smith is far from it: 9-of-23, 74 yards, 4 INTs, 5 sacks.

• Carolina 24, Arizona 20
  Favorite target? Steve Smith accounted for nearly half (119) of Jake Delhomme's passing yards.

• Dallas 33, Philadelphia 10
  The Eagles can't expect to keep spotting foes 17 points on the road and win.

• Denver 21, Washington 19
  Broncos win fourth straight by ending Redskins' late-game magic -- and perfect record.

• Jacksonville 23, Cincinnati 20
  Jags contain (sort of) Bengals' offense, leaving the Colts as NFL's only unbeaten team (5-0).

Bye: Kansas City, Oakland, N.Y. Giants, Minnesota.

ONE TO GO
Steelers at Chargers, (9 ET, ABC)
Despite flying cross-country, the Steelers should be fresh, healthy and ornery after 15 idle days following their crushing home loss to the Patriots. Thanks also to the bye week, Pittsburgh will gain more offensive re-enforcements. RB Jerome Bettis will see his first action of the season, and RB Duce Staley will be even healthier for his second game back from injury. However, after rushing for 327 yards in three games, expect former undrafted free agent Willie Parker to continue to carry the heaviest load against a Chargers run defense that is surrendering just 91.5 yards per game.

On the flip side, the Chargers will look to keep the ball rolling following a momentous road victory at New England. Running back LaDainian Tomlinson will try his luck against a similarly stout Steelers run defense, which is surrendering only 96.7 yards per contest. With so much beef up front for both of these defenses, this game will likely be decided by the quarterback -- Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) or Drew Brees (Chargers) -- who makes the most plays and fewest mistakes.

• Complete Coverage | ABC's Enhanced TV

SOME THINGS TO SLEEP ON
• Adam Vinatieri is playing this season under the "franchise" tag. That's appropriate, because his right leg, along with Tom Brady's right arm, is going to carry the franchise this year. As bad as New England's defense is right now -- and there's really no other way to describe it -- the Patriots are going to have to resort to winning a lot of games in the final seconds.

• Ugliest stat of the day: The Texans did not convert a single third down in 13 tries. David Carr averaged 4.9 yards per pass attempt. Guess the more things change ...

• See why the Falcons are so in love Matt Schaub? He's some leader. And tough. Mike Vrabel nailed him, and Schaub still completed a perfect sideline throw to Brian Finneran. He's got a bright future. Somewhere.

• Regardless of whether it should have been ruled an incomplete pass, the Ravens have to know better than to leave a loose ball lying on the turf and allow Kevin Jones to pick it up and run with it. Was anybody besides Jones awake?

• Tennessee's Jarret Payton, son of the late Walter Payton, scored his first career touchdown against Houston. Hopefully it was the first of many.

• A week after Detroit was robbed late in a loss, it was the Falcons' turn. Matt Schaub clearly had that first down when he was ruled out of bounds. Worse, Atlanta couldn't challenge. Bummer.

• Ask DeAngelo Hall next time you see him: Deion Branch might be as tough a cover as there is in the NFL.

• Branch's teammate, tight end Daniel Graham, played as good a game receiving-wise as I've seen from him in three-plus seasons.

• Who would have imagined that at this point the Browns (2-2) would have a better record than the Ravens (1-3)? Romeo Crennel is giving the good people of Cleveland a team of which to be proud.

• Miami went up to Buffalo and committed a team-record 18 penalties and turned it over five times. Not exactly the disciplined brand of football Nick Saban was hired to instill in the Dolphins.

• On the bright side, at least the Dolphins weren't as bad as the Ravens, who were assessed 21 penalties -- one short of the league record -- at Detroit. (As an aside, I don't know what's more ridiculous: Baltimore committing that many infractions or the crew calling that many?) It was all supposed to come together for the Ravens this year. Could it be coming apart already?

• Arizona's receiving duo of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald is nothing short of dynamic. Both went over 100 yards for the second week in a row.

• Coaches talk about playing the guys who give the team the best chance to win. Even though the Cardinals blew a 10-point lead and lost Sunday to the Panthers, I still say Josh McCown is that guy for Dennis Green: 394 more yards. Gotta find a way to eliminate the three picks, though.

• If Jeremiah Trotter and Kevin Mathis can be ejected before the game for allegedly throwing punches, will someone please tell me why Ronde Barber wasn't kicked out after he swung and missed at Kevin Mawae -- and hit an official?

SUNDAY'S PLAYMAKERS
Passers
Josh McCown, Cardinals: 29 of 46, 394 yds, 2 TDs
Tom Brady, Patriots: 22 of 27, 350 yds, 3 TDs
Marc Bulger, Rams: 26 of 40, 336 yds, 2 TDs
Mark Brunell, Redskins: 30 of 53, 322 yds, 2 TDs

Receivers
Anquan Boldin, Cardinals: 10 rec., 158 yds, TD
Joe Jurevicius, Seahawks: 9 rec., 137 yds, TD
Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals: 9 rec., 136 yds, TD
Torry Holt, Rams: 8 rec., 126 yds, TD

Rushers
Thomas Jones, Bears: 24 att., 137 yds
Domanick Davis, Texans: 19 att., 130 yds
Tatum Bell, Broncos: 12 att., 127 yds, 2 TDs
Shaun Alexander, Seahawks: 25 att., 119 yds, 2 TDs

• Week 5 leaders

OUCH, BABE
Roy Williams, WR, Lions
Left game vs. Ravens in the second quarter with a left quadriceps injury.
Ed Hartwell, LB, Falcons
Left in third quarter with what was later diagnosed as an Achilles injury.
Najeh Davenport, RB, Packers
Left game vs. Saints in the second quarter with a broken right ankle; out for the season.
Michael Boulware, S, Seahawks
Carried from the field on a stretcher after injuring his lower back; X-rays were negative.
Derrick Blaylock, RB, Jets
Diagnosed with a broken foot after Sunday's win over Tampa Bay; out for the season.

• Week 5 infirmary report

WEEK 6 SCHEDULE
Sunday, Oct. 16
Carolina at Detroit, 1 p.m.
N.Y. Giants at Dallas, 1 p.m.
Minnesota at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Atlanta vs. New Orleans at San Antonio, 1 p.m.
Cincinnati at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Cleveland at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Miami at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Jacksonville at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Washington at Kansas City, 1 p.m.
N.Y. Jets at Buffalo, 4:15 p.m.
San Diego at Oakland, 4:15 p.m.
New England at Denver, 4:15 p.m.
Houston at Seattle, 8:30 p.m.
Monday, Oct. 17
St. Louis at Indianapolis, 9 p.m.
Open: Arizona, Philadelphia, Green Bay, San Francisco

• Complete schedule

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.