Originally Published: October 31, 2010

Week 8: Young Bucs emerging in wide-open NFC

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Chris Morrison/US PresswireFourth-quarter heroics are becoming commonplace for Josh Freeman and the Buccaneers, who blew a 17-point lead but rallied late to beat Arizona 38-35. Week 8 leaders

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris left himself open to criticism last week when he said his team was the best in the NFC.

Someone has to be the best in one of the strangest NFC races in years. Morris' team won its fifth consecutive road game on Sunday (dating to last season), beating the Arizona Cardinals 38-35. And he has a young quarterback, Josh Freeman, who shows the ability to come back in the fourth quarter.

Although it's hard to endorse a team that was blown out in home losses to Pittsburgh and New Orleans, the 5-2 Bucs have a lot going for them. They are one of the few teams stepping up now that the Dallas Cowboys are essentially out of the playoffs at 1-6, the San Francisco 49ers still look flawed at 2-6 and the Minnesota Vikings, at 2-5, look as wobbly and beaten up as Brett Favre's ankle and bloody, stitch-filled chin.

Looking at the NFC overall, the New York Giants are about the hottest team and the Atlanta Falcons look good when they are playing in the Georgia Dome. The Green Bay Packers pulled off a huge road win over the New York Jets, but no one knows how long the Packers can hang in there with a defense that is riddled with injuries.

The Bucs have a supreme test in Week 9 when they visit the Falcons. After that, though, they have winnable games against the Carolina Panthers and 49ers. Morris' team may not be the best, but at least it will hang around longer than the Vikings, Cardinals and Cowboys, three NFC playoff teams from 2009 that seem to be vacating their spots in the tournament.

Here are five things I learned in Week 8.

1. Overthink tank: The lesson learned during the Packers' 9-0 victory over the Jets is not to overthink, just play. Packers coach Mike McCarthy learned that lesson, and was able to get away with it. McCarthy admitted that he adjusted his offense too much in trying to prepare for Rex Ryan's blitz packages and the Jets' strong man-coverage cornerbacks.

"You can't go out there and try to be right all the time," McCarthy said of a game plan that was arguably too conservative. With 26 running plays and a puny 3.1-yard average, the Packers had so many third-and-long situations they converted only two of 14 third downs. "You need to just play," McCarthy said.

Ryan, meanwhile, should also be found guilty of overthinking. He tried a fake punt by Steve Weatherford in the first quarter that came up just short and handed the Packers their first of three field goals. Ryan made two debatable replay challenges (he lost both) that exhausted his chance to challenge in the second half, when he could have successfully overturned a Charles Woodson interception. After the Jets drove to the Packers' 37-yard line in the fourth quarter, Ryan and the offensive staff called for three consecutive intermediate-to-long passes to Jerricho Cotchery, all three of which went incomplete.

Perhaps the worst decision came during the week. Ryan released defensive lineman Howard Green, knowing Green would probably end up in Green Bay. Green helped limit the Jets' running attack to 119 yards on 29 carries. With defensive end Ryan Pickett out with an ankle injury for a second consecutive week, the Packers were signing linemen off the street.

"We were having training camp during the week," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.

Give Capers credit for putting together the Packers' first road shutout since 1991. His defense was down four linemen and three linebackers. When Capers noticed the Jets were lining up in three-receiver, two-back sets, he called off the blitz and dropped more players into coverage. That allowed the Packers' secondary to hold Mark Sanchez to only 16 completions in 38 attempts.

2. Continuing the theme ... New Meadowlands Stadium wasn't the only venue that had some overthinking. For Mike Shanahan to bench a healthy Donovan McNabb in the fourth quarter with the Washington Redskins down by only six was amazing. McNabb has 25 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career and his presence in the fourth quarter has been one of the reasons the Redskins already have won as many games as they did last year. Rex Grossman entered and immediately fumbled, giving the Detroit Lions an easy touchdown in a 37-25 win.

"I thought Grossman gave us the best chance to win," Shanahan told reporters. If that's the case, why did the Redskins make the trade for McNabb? According to Shanahan, Grossman is more comfortable with the team's two-minute offense.

In Carolina, the Panthers opened their 20-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams with a flea-flicker that was picked off by linebacker James Laurinaitis. It gave the Rams the ball at the Panthers' 37. After a three-and-out, the Rams tried a 51-yard field goal that was wide left, but it sure set a bad tone for the Panthers' offense.

"Well, it didn't hurt us," Panthers quarterback Matt Moore said. "They ended up missing a field goal, so we kind of started fresh after that. It's not how you want to start, obviously, but we got over it quick."

Not that quickly, though. The Panthers tried another gadget play later in the game and lost 12 yards on a David Gettis reverse.

You also have to think Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is overthinking the quarterback position. Undrafted rookie Max Hall is playing like an undrafted rookie. He's not a factor. Whisenhunt may not trust Derek Anderson, but Anderson gave the Cardinals a spark during the second half of their loss to the Buccaneers. With Matt Leinart gone, the Cardinals have only one option -- Anderson. Whisenhunt and the Cardinals have to live with that fact.

3. Big things for Dolphins, finally: In baseball terms, the Miami Dolphins' offense has played too much "small ball" this year. The Dolphins simply don't make big plays even though they have Brandon Marshall, one of the most dangerous receivers in football. In a 22-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the big plays finally came and when they did, they changed the fortunes of this 4-3 team.

Leading 15-14 in the fourth quarter on five Dan Carpenter field goals for the second straight week, the Dolphins' offense finally enjoyed some big plays. From the Dolphins' 4, Chad Henne hit Marshall down the right sideline for 25 yards. On the next play, Brian Hartline took a short pass and turned it into a 24-yard gain. Three plays later, Hartline caught a 30-yard pass. Halfback Ricky Williams set up his 1-yard touchdown with an 18-yard run.

Before that drive, the Dolphins had only seven plays of 18 yards or longer in 27 quarters this season. The lack of big plays has forced the Dolphins to settle for 18 field goals.

4. Raiders for real? The AFC West is getting interesting. The Kansas City Chiefs are 5-2 and appear to be the team to beat in the division unless the San Diego Chargers prove they can win on the road. But the Oakland Raiders are making their presence felt. They have scored 92 points in their past two games. In Sunday's 33-3 victory over the Seahawks, Jason Campbell completed 15 passes for 310 yards even though wide receivers Chaz Schilens and Louis Murphy were inactive because of injuries. The Raiders entered the game with only 43 receptions going to their wide receivers. Campbell completed five passes to Darrius Heyward-Bey for 105 yards on Sunday, and rookie Jacoby Ford, a fourth-rounder, had two catches for 22 yards.

All of a sudden, the Raiders, who are 4-4, look like the surprise team some expected at the beginning of the season. Next Sunday's home game against the Chiefs -- believe it or not -- is huge.

5. Third-down woes: Have you ever seen a Sunday as bad as this one was for third-down conversions? The Redskins and Lions went a combined 6-for-31 on third down. The Packers were 2-for-14 against the Jets. The Seattle Seahawks were 1-for-16 in a loss to the Raiders. The Raiders won despite going 5-for-17. The Denver Broncos have been having third-down problems of late and were 2-for-10 against the 49ers. In the 11 games played before the Sunday nighter, teams converted only 116 of 317 third downs (36.6 percent).

Part of the problem is the increased number of holding penalties, which are setting up longer first and second downs for offenses. More teams have either offensive line problems or bad running attacks. That's a problem. Two of the success stories were teams with losing records. The Chargers were 12-of-18 on third downs, best of the day. The Buffalo Bills had an incredible 23 third-down opportunities. They converted 11.

Short Takes

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

The Bengals' secondary was thin Sunday, which may have been the reason it wore down in the fourth quarter of a 22-14 loss to the Dolphins. With Adam Jones on injured reserve and Johnathan Joseph out with a hamstring injury, the Bengals were down to Leon Hall and fourth corner Morgan Trent as the starters. They were also down three safeties with Roy Williams and Chinedum Ndukwe inactive because of injuries and Gibril Wilson out for the season. Tom Nelson and Chris Crocker had to handle the safety work. … The Chiefs rushed for 274 yards on 45 carries, their third consecutive 200-yard rushing day. They haven't had a three-game running stretch like that since 1978. One problem, however, with running so much and not getting touchdowns is that the strategy eats up the clock, but leaves bad teams like the Bills in the game. The Bills came back and took the game into overtime, forcing Todd Haley & Co. to scramble to win. … The Broncos, who have injuries at linebacker, started in a 4-3 defense for the second time in the past month. They lost 24-16 to the 49ers. … Although they didn't do it much, the Dolphins used the Wildcat for a couple of plays Sunday. It was the first time since Oct. 4 they've used the formation. … 49ers tight end Vernon Davis left the win over the Broncos after he re-injured his ankle. It ended a streak of 427 consecutive plays for the tight end. He hadn't missed a play before Sunday. … Jaguars safety Don Carey violated Roger Goodell's edict to avoid helmet hits by making a helmet-to-helmet hit on Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, but Carey paid the price -- he was injured. He was flagged for unnecessary roughness and he'll be fined this week. Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton took a legal blow to the head, but he didn't miss much time. … The Chargers' special teams continue to be a laugher. They opened the game by having a punt blocked. It was their fourth blocked punt of the season. … Brett Favre's health isn't the only thing declining on the Vikings. According to ESPN Stats & Information, teams are averaging 3.8 yards a rushing attempt up the middle against the Vikings. The Vikings last year allowed only 3.0 yards a carry up the middle. … So this is how the Cowboys rallied around Jon Kitna. Three receivers had balls bounce out of their hands for interceptions. … Terrell Owens has five touchdown receptions in his past four games. For the season, he has 45 catches for 629 yards. But the Bengals continue to lose even though his numbers are great.

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