Ten things we learned from an NFL Sunday heavy on road wins (7 of 14), great QB play from the Super Bowl stars (Brees, Brady, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Manning) and a lot of losing in the middle of the NFC pack.

1. And on Sunday, the NFC’s second tier rested.

There was so much sh-tting of the bed by the “best of the rest” contingent on Sunday that Sleepys was out of mattresses by Monday morning.
  • Atlanta: Could only muster 10 points in a loss at Houston.
  • Chicago: Caleb Hanie more or less got Donovan McNabb a job with a terrible three-INT outing vs. the Chiefs.
  • New York Giants: Eli Manning’s best efforts meant nothing in the face of Aaron Rodgers (and a suck-ass secondary).
  • Detroit: Last seen committing yet another dumb penalty in the loss to New Orleans.
  • Dallas: Jason Garrett’s second ultraconservative finish helped cost the Cowboys a win for the second time this year.
Wow. Five teams, all of which could have taken a major step forward as the No. 4 team behind Green Bay, San Fran and New Orleans, none of which did.

Really the only gutsy effort came from the Giants. But the story of that game came in the TV shot of Manning celebrating the game-tying points with 58 seconds left – he was literally in mid-leap when he looked up and across the field and saw how much time was on the clock … and his face fell like a soufflé.

Clearly, none of these teams is going to have anything for the Big 3 in the NFC – whichever of them decides it actually wants to show up in January and give it the old college try.

2. Gary Kubiak was the Coach of the Week.

It’s not a big surprise that in the Falcons-Texans matchup, the team that ran it 44 times and passed 25 (Houston) beat the one that ran it 18 times and threw 47.
Kubiak protected QB T.J. Yates masterfully, getting into third-and-manageable all day and going 9-for-18 on conversions. The Texans controlled the ball for 35:04, and kept the Falcons to 10 points despite no sacks. They frustrated Matt Ryan, who regressed to the worst version of himself, and as a result are still in the mix for the No. 1 seed in the AFC at 9-3.

With Tennessee (23-17 road winners over Buffalo) not going away, Kubiak deserves a whole lot of credit for avoiding the late collapses that have plagued his team. Three more wins with Yates at the helm, and you’d have to consider Kubiak a Coach of the Year candidate.

3. The Patriots’ defense is paying the karmic price for the offense never taking its foot off the gas.

We’re not saying that the New England defense is good. It isn’t. They’re playing wide receivers, special teamers and street free agents – and this is in the regular rotation. But Sunday was another example of the opponent gashing them for fourth-quarter yards that really didn’t have anything to do with the overall effort of the entire game.
  • Week 1: Miami, down 21 with 5:44 remaining, puts together drives of 74 and 63 yards.
  • Week 3: Oakland, down 21 with 1:16 remaining, goes 99 yards for a garbage score.
  • Week 10: The Jets, down 21 with 7:45 left, have drives of 41 and 52 yards.
  • Week 12: Philly, down 25 with 5:07 left, goes on a 90-yard drive.
  • Week 13: Indy, down 21 with 6:27 left, goes on three megadrives: 86, 93 and 90.
In none of these games did the Patriots ever have to worry about actually losing, and in all of them save the opener vs. Miami, they had played a solid 50+ minutes of football. Belichick, who has said “stats are for losers” clearly doesn’t care what the final score is as long as the Patriots win – although he must certainly be displeased with this latest fade.

But Belichick never takes his foot off the gas offensively, and maybe the Patriots’ opponents work that much harder to do the same as a response.
Either way, the Patriots are 9-3, look to be headed to 13-3, and have four more weeks to figure out if they can put up enough resistance to win in the playoffs.

4. San Francisco’s run defense turned in the most dominating performance of the season.

Admittedly, the St. Louis Rams’ offense is about as threatening as a ladybug on valium. But the Rams were still averaging a healthy 4.26 yards a carry and 104.7 yards a game heading to San Fran this week … and they absolutely went nowhere.

The Rams ran it 23 times at the 49ers’ front, for a total of 31 yards. That’s 1.3 yards per play, approximately what they would have gotten had quarterback A.J. Feeley just tried a sneak 23 times.

San Francisco came into the game allowing 3.49 a carry, and has only allowed 100 yards on the ground once this year (108 vs. the mighty Eagles’ run game in Week 4). They have managed to miss most of the league’s elite backs this year, but Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and the crew are getting it done up front.

5. When the Steelers blow someone out, the box score always looks the same.

Pittsburgh now has almost a full season worth of 20+ point wins under Mike Tomlin – 15 of them since the start of the 2007 season.

What do the wins have in common? Very few attempts for Ben Roethlisberger, even fewer mistakes, and usually a single-digit performance by the D.
In the 14 blowout wins prior to Sunday, Big Ben threw an average of 25.1 passes, and a total of four interceptions. And the defense allowed 7, 3, 16, 0, 7, 17, 10, 10, 0, 3, 3, 9, 0 and 17 points.

Sunday, it was 23 passes, no interceptions and seven points allowed, right in the Steelers’ wheelhouse. The game was a bit less one-sided in reality than it looked on paper, but it still fits right into the body of work like a glove.

By the way, Roethlisberger’s career won-lost record is 78-32 in the regular season and 10-3 in the playoffs … yet the pro-football-reference.com “Fan EloRater” (worth spending a few hours with) has Big Ben ranked 412th all time between linebacker Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds and former Falcons RB William Andrews.
If there’s a more underrated huge star than Big Ben, we don’t know who it is.

6. Drew Brees is going to turn in the best season ever by a guy who gets zero MVP votes.

On November 11, 2009, Drew Brees and the Saints turned in one of their most important and best wins in franchise history, a 38-17 win vs. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. That game was significant in another way – it was the last time Brees dropped back fewer than 30 times in a game. He’s done it 36 straight times since, and his worst game passer rating over that stretch is a 65.8 that came when he was asked to throw 56 times in a 2010 loss to Cleveland.

That’s Brees for you.

Aaron Rodgers is having the better year, and is going to win the MVP without dissension, but the Saints would be a bloody, God-awful mess without Brees.
On Sunday night, the Saints rushed for a pedestrian 100 yards and allowed 466 net yards of offense … but Brees’ near-perfect 26-of-36 day for 342 yards, three TDs and no picks was plenty. It came on the heels of a twin effort vs. the Giants (identical 129.6 rating), and put him over 4,000 yards in 12 games.

The most amazing part of Brees’ season? He’s fumbled a lot over his career, an average of one every 2.5 games or so and at least eight in five of the last six seasons. This year? None.  

7. OK, Geico, time to retire the cavemen.

We’re happy enough for Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo that his agent has managed to land him another national ad campaign despite a pretty low profile, but his “Words With Cavemen” ad for Geico is not making us want to save money on our car insurance.

Yes, the cavemen are done. What was a pretty funny joke about five years ago is now as annoying as that know-nothing 20-something from work who always wants to talk fantasy football with us. Dude. Get a life.

As for the cavemen, we will NOT be attending the pancake social with you. The lizard is still likeable, but the cavemen are gross and unfunny. Side note: We’d totally bang Flo from the Progressive ads. Oh yeah, baby. Tell me how much I’m going to save.

 8. The 2011 Minnesota Vikings: Best 2-10 team ever.

Arizona (five wins), Cleveland (four wins) and Washington (four wins) have about as much talent combined as the Vikings (two wins), which doesn’t speak well to coach Leslie Frazier’s future.

How does a team with Adrian Peterson, Percy Harvin, Steve Hutchinson and Jared Allen lose 10 of 12? And this is with some fairly decent quarterback play (79.1 rating, No. 19, sandwiched between 9-3 Baltimore and 7-5 Chicago).

The answer: a remarkable ability to lose close games. The Vikings are 1-8 this year when it’s decided by seven points or fewer, 0-5 against Quality Teams in close games.

In the long run, a year spent developing Christian Ponder and getting into the top three of the draft order on their own merits for the first time since 1984 is going to be a good thing. But that’s not helping Frazier much – hard to see him keeping this job in 2012.

9. The Super Bowl combination of Indianapolis in February and Madonna at halftime is the worst since Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s tit in Houston.

Listen, we’re glad that the Super Bowl has moved away from the weird, “Up With People”-type musical entertainment that was served up in the 1970s and 1980s. And yes, Madonna is a star worthy of the halftime spotlight. And sure, Lucas Oil Stadium is a really nice stadium.

But have you ever been to Indianapolis? No? Neither has any other tourist in the history of the earth. And have you seen Madonna in the last 20 years? She looks like “Ghoul No. 2” from one of the Harry Potter flicks. And she talks with a fake British accent to boot.

This would have been great when she was hot and young and writhing around the floor in a wedding dress, but 53-year-old, stringy, gap-toothed Madonna? We’ll have to wait and see on that one.

10. Cam Newton wrapped up Rookie of the Year Sunday … and so did an injured Von Miller.

Andy Dalton is a nice rookie, and could still get his Bengals into the playoffs, but there should be no discussion about him beating out Newton for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Newton is averaging 8.0 yards per attempt inheriting a team that was the worst thing to happen to offense since body armor.  Add in his 13 rushing touchdowns and 518 yards, and you have one of the greatest first-year performances by anyone in any sport.

Dalton is a nice story, and does deserve plenty of credit for Cincy’s turnaround, but Newton has made a mountain from a molehill. Give him the Bengals’ defense, and this team is playoff bound.

But the best rookie this season has been Miller, whose impact was seen in his absence Sunday. Without his all-around play, Minnesota rolled up almost 500 yards of offense and 32 points … before His Tebowness won the game, as he is prone to do.

San Francisco rookie Aldon Smith could sneak into the conversation, with 9.5 sacks now for a ferocious 49ers defense, but he’s really been just a situational player. Same goes for Patrick Peterson, who is a solid corner (for a rookie) but is really making his reputation off returns. You’d think that even if Miller had to miss the rest of the games, he’d still win it based off his 11-game body of work.