Bitter rivals stage drama to savor

The Baltimore Sun

This is what we have come to expect from the biggest rivalry of the decade, from the two best teams in the NFL, from the two best quarterbacks in the league.

Another masterpiece in a gallery of greatness.

The Indianapolis Colts push and make the New England Patriots better. The Patriots push back and make the Colts stronger.

Fierce rivals, they produce epic games and enduring drama.

Not surprisingly, the pendulum swung back toward New England yesterday after the Colts had won the previous three meetings. In his season of outrage and indignation, Patriots coach Bill Belichick gained his measure of revenge on the Colts in the titillating 24-20 victory.

The dour look on his face when he met Colts coach Tony Dungy ever so briefly on the field after the game was one more example of how consumed Belichick is to win. Everything seems to be an affront to the game's best coach, and Indianapolis' Super Bowl victory must have wounded him deeply.

So, the Patriots are the greatest team of the half season. They are 9-0 going into their bye week. They are still in position to make perfect history.

They passed their biggest test of the season even though they drew 10 penalties worth 146 yards, trailed the Colts by 10 points with nine minutes to play and saw Tom Brady throw two interceptions. They might be on the road to perfection, but they still have flaws. They had a tough time stopping Joseph Addai and the running game.

They passed the test because they had Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth and Wes Welker, all of whom made big plays down the stretch. Last season - when they had Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Troy Brown at receiver - they couldn't beat the Colts.

But yesterday, their defense squeezed two turnovers out of Peyton Manning, and the Patriots were fortunate they didn't have to contend with injured Marvin Harrison.

This round went to the Patriots.

If there's another round this season, it will be in Foxborough in the postseason. Expect another masterpiece.

Around the league

At 4-4, the San Diego Chargers might be the surprise team in the league for the first half of the season. Nobody expected them to go 14-2 again, but getting shredded by the Minnesota Vikings, 35-17, is a sign of big problems. They couldn't handle rookie sensation Adrian Peterson (296 yards, three touchdowns rushing) on a team that played Brooks Bollinger at quarterback. Just as alarming is the continued downward spiral of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (19- for-42, two turnovers). He never found rhythm against the Vikings.

Another major surprise is the Detroit Lions, who routed the Denver Broncos, 44-7. The Lions (6-2) forced Denver into a four-turnover fiasco, staying a game back of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. The Lions have a Thanksgiving date with the Packers that could be interesting if they keep playing well.

The New Orleans Saints got back in the NFC championship equation with a 41-24 thrashing of the Jacksonville Jaguars, turning the table on the AFC's interconference dominance. Drew Brees threw for 346 of his 445 yards and two of his three touchdown passes in the first half, when he passed the Jaguars silly. At 4-4, the Saints are in prime position to reclaim the NFC South. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the only team left on their schedule with a winning record right now. In a conference with no great teams, who's to say they don't get back to the championship game?

Now the Carolina Panthers know why the Houston Texans dumped quarterback David Carr in the offseason. Carr never had a great grasp of Houston's offense - that led to a lot of sacks - and he doesn't have a clue with Carolina. He threw for 107 yards, was sacked seven times and never had any presence in the Panthers' 20-7 loss to Tennessee. Unless Vinny Testaverde can play a lot this season, Carolina is in deep trouble.

On a team with LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates, Chargers defensive back Antonio Cromartie has become San Diego's best playmaker. He had a tantalizing 109-yard touchdown return of a missed Minnesota field-goal attempt yesterday. A week ago, he scored touchdowns on fumble and interception returns.

Tomlinson, last season's Most Valuable Player, might as well have surrendered his unofficial title as the league's best running back in Minnesota, where Peterson is the only thing keeping the Vikings from a top-five draft pick. Tomlinson had 40 rushing yards and 37 receiving yards against Minnesota's suspect defense. Peterson trashed the Chargers' vaunted defense.

How bad are the Cincinnati Bengals? They gave up 295 passing yards to J.P. Losman and 153 rushing yards to Marshawn Lynch in a 33-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills that should signal another rebuilding era in Cincinnati. Even coach Marvin Lewis might not be safe after this collapse.

The Cleveland Browns scored a huge victory against the Seattle Seahawks in overtime, 33-30. Jamal Lewis rushed for only 37 yards but still managed to score four touchdowns. A Ravens win over the Steelers in Pittsburgh tonight would create a three-way tie for the AFC North lead, and the biggest surprise is Cleveland.

For what it's worth: After Week 1 - when the Ravens lost in Cincinnati and the Arizona Cardinals lost in San Francisco - the visiting team has won seven consecutive Monday night games.

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