We may well end up remembering Week 9 as a Sunday of Separation on the NFC, a week in which a host of competing teams established themselves as legitimate threats to advance a deep and dangerous trust. The afternoon sunscreen game featured the Saints and Rams fighting in New Orleans, with Drew Brees and Co. knocking out the last invincible NFL team convincingly.
You can read more about, but now, let's look at the second tier of NFC contenders who stepped up and made some statements about their interest in competing this week.
The situation: Coming from a brutal loss to Santos, Minnesota host the Lions in a critical break, while attempting to soften the stars on both sides of the ball back into the game.
How they dealt with it: The Vikings went well, went very well and erased the Detroit offense to win 24-9.
More weeks 9
Greatest strength: A talented defense who has fought during the first half of the season and now looks ready to take off, thanks to the return of Everson Griffen. Danielle Hunter has been great in the past few weeks. The Vikings are getting a week goodbye at the right time as well. The Vikings may be the most complete team in the NFL when they play well on both sides of the ball, and showed on Sunday.
Greater weaknessThe Minnesota offensive line is not yet ready, but you should expect the racing game to improve after seeing Dalvin Cook come in and accumulate more than 100 yards in 14 touches, including a good 70-yard race. It's not unreasonable to expect him to be healthy after good-bye.
On 5-3-1, Minnesota will take a break and then make it to a series of games – three of their next four are on the road, including the 11th week in Chicago, the 13th week in New England and the 14th week in Seattle . . Rest at home? Week 12 against a Packers team who may be playing for his life in the playoff. This stretch can decide the season, although sweeping the bears would put them in good shape.
The situation: Biggest disappointment for the Panthers who crushed the Ravens last week and stayed home against a questionable Buccaneer team with a terrible defense and an active offense in their 12th quarterback of the season. The Panthers catch the Steelers on the road next Thursday too, so it was also kind of a lookahead.
How they dealt with itThe Panthers came out and trampled the Bucs before finally holding the 42-28 and moving to 6-2.
Top strengths: Now it's Cam Newton. The MVP candidate is negotiating, completing 75% of his passes for the second consecutive week on his way to a 19-25 with 247 yards and two touchdowns. He has what Greg Olsen legitimately called Newton's best group of weapons had since the tight end arrived in Carolina.
Greater weakness: Interestingly, defense has been a problem for the Panthers, although they are starting to get back to form. Tampa's offense is legitimate and points out – Carolina has to generate more pressure at the front if she wants to compete with teams like Saints and Rams.
Carolina has four of his next five road games, including this Thursday in Pittsburgh. After that, they receive the Saints twice over a three-week period.
The situationMitchell Trubisky scored 10 points and played a top-10 defense on the road in a game that the Bears had to win to keep pace in the division and have to do it without Khalil Mack in defense.
How they dealt with itThe Bears have lost 40 burgers in the Bills and have never come close to not winning or not covering.
Greatest strength: Mack, who turned Vic Fangio's defense into one of the best in the NFL. Bears' concern with this defense, which has been extremely good this season, is depth. But they made Nathan Peterman pass 49 times (!) On Sunday, which obviously is not an ideal recipe for success. The defense scored twice in the first half, which would be enough to win alone.
Greater weakness: Trubisky, who still has his moments when he seems completely off and runs away. He may be able to continue developing as the season progresses. This game may not be a perfect way to look at Trubisky: he was on the road, against a dangerous defense, in a situation where the Bears wanted to accumulate points and leave Dodge.
The Bears eventually beat the AFC East 2-2 (it is believed that, even though it was 3-1) and now receives three straight division matches, with Lions and Vikings visiting Soldier Field. Great trio of three games but they are lucky enough to catch the Lions a little hurt twice in three games now.
The situation: Off bye, heading for a dangerous defense from Washington, needing a win to reach 500 and to keep alive the hope of a playoff.
How they dealt with itThe Falcons climbed the top of the Redskins, with Matt Ryan playing for 350 yards and four touchdown passes.
Greatest strength: Ryan, who is at a better pace than his MVP season this time. Atlanta will have to win with an attack because their defense suffered many injuries to really be the dominant unit we thought it could be this season. Credit Dan Quinn for not giving up when things went south – Atlanta is very much back on the playoffs now.
Greater weakness: This defense can give up points for explosive teams, and everyone on the NFC South is extremely explosive. The Redskins do not seem to be too explosive.
The Hawks must win in the next two weeks (Browns, Cowboys) because they have Saints, Ravens, Packers and Panthers remaining on schedule.
We're not mentioning Washington (lost), Philly (by a bye) or Dallas (Monday night) here, but obviously those three teams also deserve our attention.
The horn sounds
The millennium generation will not remember that, but there was a period of time in the early 2000s when the explosion of wide diva receivers created this unbelievable series of landing celebrations. Terrell Owens and my guy Chad Ochocinco were the leaders in insanity in the field, but many other receivers went into it. The turning point for the NFL to suppress the celebrations may have been Santos's receiver Joe Horn hiding a cell phone in the upholstery of the goal post and pulling him out after a touchdown. It was a shot at his shooting moment that no one watching would ever forget.
Current Saint Saints receiver Michael Thomas celebrated Sunday to honor Horn by keeping an old-school flip at the goal post andthis gave the Saints a 10-point lead.
Peep the combination of celebrations here:
Thomas apparently put a ton of work into this celebration.
But he was also aggressively punished by Troy Aikman for the act, which cost the Saints 15 yards position on the field in a critical game. You could make a case, it was not the smartest move in the world at the time, but it was fun and the Saints won anyway. Expect a fine, and be glad there are no complaints about it this week.
Training in fear
The Broncos entered on Sunday with home favorite favorites, needing a win to keep the AFC hopes alive. They left Sunday with a 3-6 team that may have been broken after Brandon McManus missed a 51-yard field goal. Do not put everything on McManus's leg – Vance Joseph deserves a lot of criticism for training in the final minutes of the game.
Denver recovered the ball 14 with 3:40 to the left and losing by two points. It's not the ideal situation, but more than enough time for Case Keenum to move the ball and either score a touchdown or stay well within range of McManus. For whatever reason, the Broncos waited until the fourth play of the car to increase their offense. They made six games, got a first down and advanced the ball to their own 40-yard line while burning 1:40 on the clock.
The Broncos finally crossed the midfield with 40 seconds remaining in the game, after fighting 1st and 25th and converting a couple of fours downs. In other words, this was an extremely inefficient use of the watch.
It got worse. After an 18-yard pass from Keenum to Emmanuel Sanders in the fourth and eighth place in the Broncos, Joseph used his second time with 43 seconds to go. Credit where credit is due to Keenum: he completed a pass with the Texans receiving strong pressure and Sanders charging doubly.