NFC battle has its own suspense

The Baltimore Sun

While the New England Patriots play for a place in history, the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers are playing for home-field advantage.

Perfection notwithstanding, the battle between the Cowboys and Packers for NFC supremacy might yield the most riveting competition of the NFL's second half.

They both reached 8-1 yesterday in decisive fashion. The Cowboys whipped the New York Giants, 31-20, to take a two-game lead in the NFC East. The Packers pounded the Minnesota Vikings, 34-0, to move two games ahead of the Detroit Lions, who lost, in the NFC North.

Neck-and-neck for the top seed in the NFC, the Cowboys and Packers will rendezvous in Dallas on Nov. 29 in what could be a showdown between 10-1 teams.

The Cowboys appear to have a scheduling advantage with their next three games at home, having won at Philadelphia and New York the past two weeks. But they also play three of their remaining four on the road.

After a home date with the foundering Carolina Panthers, the Packers go on the road for four of their next five games.

Those schedules will test the playoff mettle of both teams, even in the meek NFC. It's reminiscent of the days when the Cowboys were dominant and a young Green Bay quarterback named Brett Favre was trying to break through.

Maybe in the NFC, history does repeat itself.

Around the league

Eli Manning muffed another chance to show he was worthy of the first pick of the 2004 draft when the Giants were thumped by the Cowboys. While Tony Romo - undrafted free agent, 2003 - threw for four touchdowns, Manning threw two interceptions.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, taken 11th in the 2004 draft, showed in Week 10 that he's not just a pretty passer. He rumbled out of the pocket for a 30-yard touchdown run to help bring the Steelers back from a 15-point deficit to beat the Cleveland Browns, 31-28. The ad-lib run came on third-and-10. Eight minutes later, he threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Heath Miller.

Romo delivered perhaps the most peculiar play of the day on the Cowboys' first drive against the Giants. With the pass rush closing, he started to run up the middle, looked momentarily for a receiver, then ducked a would-be tackle and at the last moment floated a pass to Tony Curtis in the end zone for a touchdown. Made it look easy.

Worst play of the day was Packers cornerback Al Harris low-bridging Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson on an 11-yard pass play. Peterson, a rookie and already the NFL's most exciting runner, limped off the field and did not return.

Nine road teams won yesterday, and six of the victories were upsets. It sounds like a lot until you consider this was a big day for division rivalries. Nine of the day's first 12 games featured division opponents, so familiarity - and not record - weighs more heavily.

It was also a tough day for quarterback job security. Aside from the Ravens' Steve McNair, other quarterbacks who might have played themselves into a bench role include Damon Huard with the Kansas City Chiefs, Brian Griese with the Chicago Bears and Josh McCown with the Oakland Raiders. Huard was dazed and replaced by Brodie Croyle in a loss, Griese was hurt and replaced by Rex Grossman in a win, and McCown passed for 108 yards and six points in a loss.

Terrell Owens loves playing in the NFC East, where he gets to face the Giants twice a year. He had six catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns yesterday for the Cowboys. In nine career games against the Giants, he has 53 catches for 881 yards and 11 touchdowns. That's 97.9 yards a game and 16.6 per catch. And he has won eight of the nine.

Doesn't Don Shula have anything better to do than whine about the Patriots' pursuit of perfection? If anyone deserves an asterisk, it's the Miami Dolphins from their perfect season in 1972, when they played one of the lamest schedules of all time. Wouldn't it be fitting if the Patriots matched Shula's old team this season, while the Dolphins became the first team to go 0-16?

The Tennessee Titans gouged the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense for 282 rushing yards in Week 1. Yesterday, the Titans got 62 and the Jaguars didn't even have defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, suspended for steroids

Priest Holmes' first start since Oct. 30, 2005, was a mixed bag. He rushed for 65 yards on 20 carries, which wasn't bad. But he also lost 14 yards when he tried to reverse his direction on a play that started at the 5. That ended with a field goal, not a touchdown, in the Chiefs' 27-11 loss to the Denver Broncos.

In a game that featured nine turnovers, the Arizona Cardinals beat the Lions, 31-21. It was a typical performance for Detroit under offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who gave up on the running game as soon as the Lions fell behind. Detroit had eight rushes for minus 18 yards while quarterback Jon Kitna threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles.

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