NFL Week 9 highs & lows: Steelers, Ravens are best in AFC


View Photo Gallery: Mark Maske assesses the league’s top teams.

1. Let me be the last to remark on the eerie resemblance between Sunday’s Giants-Patriots matchup and their classic 2007 Super Bowl game. Two last-minute Giants comebacks led by Eli Manning throwing to receivers who happened to be wearing the same number. Two failed, last-second attempts by Tom Brady to turn the game around again. It’s contests like that one that make the NFL as wildly popular as it is these days. In what other pro sport can you see a game as exciting as that in the middle of the season? (Answer: None.)

2. Have you noticed that no one’s talking about the Texans? Granted, their rise to the top of the AFC South has been aided and abetted by the Indianapolis Colts’ anchor-like drop to the bottom of the league, but the Texans are finally starting to play like everyone thought they could. Arian Foster is proving last year was no fluke, Matt Schaub looks like a leader, and their signing of Johnathan Joseph was the steal of free agency.

3. Speaking of Joseph, when was the last time a team lost its two best-known players (arguably, their two best players, period) and improved? I’m speaking of course of the hideously attired Cincinnati Bengals, who lost Joseph to the Texans and Carson Palmer to petulance. In case you haven’t noticed, the Bengals are tied for the lead in the AFC North. For now.

4. And I do mean, “For now.” Thanks to the schedule makers, the Bengals have somehow played the entire first half of the season without facing division rivals Pittsburgh or Baltimore even once. What does that mean? It means that the Bengals play four of their final eight games against the Steelers and Ravens. If they can split those games, the Bengals will be in the playoffs. But they won’t split them.

5. Speaking of the Steelers and Ravens, see the first comment above. There is no other pro sport where you can see a game like Sunday’s Steelers-Ravens matchup in the middle of the season. I don’t mean just two great teams matching up. I mean two great teams playing a meaningful game that would have even a casual observer on the edge of his proverbial seat. I understand that Steelers fans are distraught about the Ravens last-minute comeback. But unless the Steelers fall apart in the next eight weeks, they should get another shot at the Ravens in the post-season. At this moment, the two teams are the best of the AFC.

6. Sorry about that last comment, Patriots and Jets fans. But anyone who had the TV on yesterday would be hard pressed to believe that the Patriots or Jets could knock off the Steelers or Ravens right now. That said, you have to be impressed with the Jets’ defense. They aren’t back to the standard they set last year, but they look far sharper than they did at the beginning of the season.

7. I did an interview last week about my new novel, Everybody Says Hello , which will be out next spring. The interviewer was a lovely young woman who was baffled by my enjoyment of the NFL. I was tempted to text her in the middle of the Steelers-Ravens game to say, “This is why,” but I don’t know how to text, and then there were a couple of monstrous hits that non-fans would point to as evidence that the sport is barbaric. In particular, I’m thinking of Ray Lewis’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Hines Ward that had Ward looking glassy-eyed every time the camera spotted him for the rest of the game. No one wants to turn the NFL into flag football, but given what we know now about concussions, it’s disturbing that anyone still cheers hits like that. If I had the answer to the NFL’s head injury problem, I’d tell you, but hits like that, and the cheers that follow, are hard to justify.

8. Thanks to the Dolphins’ somewhat surprising victory over the Chiefs — sorry, but the Chiefs’ recent winning streak always seemed like something of a mirage — the Colts are that much closer to getting a chance to draft Andrew Luck. And if they in fact get a chance to draft Luck, they will. And that will be the inevitable first step toward saying goodbye to Peyton Manning, potential future quarterback of the Redskins (or Cowboys or Seahawks) if they in fact draft Luck. Even the Colts fans seem more excited about drafting Luck than getting Manning back, which is a sad comment about how fickle fans can be because Manning is one of the greatest of all time.

9. I’m referring to Peyton Manning, not Eli Manning. But for the comebacks he has led against the Patriots in the Super Bowl and again on Sunday, Eli might be considered a bust. Don’t forget that the Giants traded Philip Rivers and some additional draft picks to get Eli in the first place.

10. Rivers doesn’t look quite right this year, does he? And it’s not just all of the interceptions, either. If you saw the last quarter of the Chargers-Jets game last month, he looked unfocused, and his arm strength seemed to have diminished.

11. You don’t need me to tell you that the Packers are the best team in the NFC, do you? I agree that they look unbeatable right now. If anyone is going to knock them off, it will be the Atlanta Falcons.

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