NFL’S HOTTEST TEAMS, AND THOSE ICE COLD

It’s natural to overrate or underrate NFL teams based on what happens in September and October, but the real litmus test lies in November and December. A look at which contenders have started to heat up as the weather gets colder, and which should prepare for a chill:

Hot

New York Jets. They are coming off a Week 8 bye, but you can bet they enjoyed Sunday in Week 9 a whole lot more. Their 27-11 win at AFC East rival Buffalo came with the bonus of New England being upset at home by the Giants. That pulled the Jets into a three-way tie for the division with the Patriots coming to East Rutherford next Sunday. Based on what we have seen out of Rex Ryan in his previous two seasons as Jets coach, it’s no surprise he’s making the right adjustments with scheme and personnel to restore his defense to its typical level of prowess.

The offense still has plenty of ugly moments—the first half against the Bills was full of them—but you can see signs of quarterback Mark Sanchez getting into a groove with his savvy wide receivers. Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes are back to assert themselves as clutch playmakers, and with the attention they draw, Sanchez has become more efficient in spreading the ball around. With the Patriots’ pass defense having trouble in the red zone, he has his top two targets in a good position to take advantage in Week 10. Emerging as the most complete team in the AFC East, New York is the easy new favorite in the division race.

Atlanta Falcons. They weren’t supposed to be challenged at Indianapolis, and their fast start Sunday proved they weren’t overlooking the Colts in a 31-7 rout before hosting the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints next week. Just like the Jets, the most important development for the Falcons was discovering much-needed pop in their passing game. Matt Ryan is now well-armed for his duel with Drew Brees. With rookie wide receiver Julio Jones back healthy after a hamstring injury, Atlanta didn’t hesitate in unleashing him as a downfield weapon. With Jones stretching the field on 80- and 50-yard scoring strikes from Ryan, it only made his veteran route-runners, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, more effective. It will take an aggressive offensive approach to trump the Saints, not only next week, but for the division title.

Cincinnati Bengals. If there were any remaining skeptics about them as legitimate playoff contenders going into Week 9, they silenced that with their fifth consecutive win, a 24-17 comeback job against a good Tennessee Titans team. What’s most impressive about their 6-2 mark is that they are 4-1 on the road, not a small feat with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton at the helm. The defense has been the backbone of the Bengals’ success, but Dalton made it clear in Sunday’s rally at Tennessee that he is ready for the meat of their schedule, starting with a home date with Pittsburgh next week. He continues to make decisions like a veteran, and made some terrific throws in maintaining his efficient play (22-for-39, 217 yards, three TDs). Facing Pittsburgh for the first time next week, don’t assume Dalton will be an overmatched counterpart to Ben Roethlisberger. The Bengals should feel very confident they can not only hang with Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North, over the next two months, but also finish ahead of at least one of them to nab a playoff berth.

Falling

New England Patriots. Last week they lost to a team they usually beat, the Steelers. This week it was a bad memory of Super Bowl XLII, as Eli Manning’s Giants got the better of Tom Brady where a team usually doesn’t— in New England. The Patriots now are not only vulnerable, but in position to fade out of the AFC playoff picture. It’s hard to imagine that based on how sizzling Brady and the passing game was early. Lately, it’s been a struggle for the Patriots to move the ball without critical mistakes. The Steelers and Giants excelled at delivering the necessary pressure on Brady to create turnovers, and the Jets are capable of doing the same. When you consider the Patriots’ significant concerns with their pass defense and an inconsistent running game, they may be asking too much of Brady to compensate for their weaknesses.

Oakland Raiders. They had a silver opportunity to claim first place in the AFC West with the Chiefs (vs. Miami) and Chargers (vs. Green Bay) losing at home, but then the Raiders allowed their defense to become a Black Hole on their own turf against what used to be a sputtering Broncos’ offense. The man that was supposed to make the difference in the tight division race, quarterback Carson Palmer, has had consecutive three-interception games in an Oakland uniform. Being without feature back Darren McFadden isn’t an excuse, either, as Michael Bush has provided plenty of good running in his absence. As much as Philip Rivers and Matt Cassel have been in similar funks this season, it’s still easier to trust San Diego or Kansas City over the Raiders with Palmer.

7-on-7: Star-studded rushing performances

Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee, Denver Broncos. Tebow (12 carries for 117 yards) and McGahee (163 yards, two touchdowns) combined to spearhead Denver’s 298-yard rushing effort in its stunning 38-24 upset of Oakland. They each were treated to wide-open running lanes, and McGahee proved that although he has a broken right hand, there’s nothing wrong with his refreshed legs.

Bengals rookie QB Andy Dalton continued to impress Sunday; now comes a difficult matchup against the Steelers. (AP Photo)

Arian Foster and Ben Tate, Houston Texans. Foster (19 for 124, TD) and Tate (12 for 115, TD) sounds like a ’60s advertising firm, and they continue to make a strong pitch as the league’s most powerful 1-2 backfield punch. They kept Houston’s offense chugging along in a 30-12 home rout of the Cleveland Browns while Andre Johnson, arguably the game’s best wide receiver, remained on the shelf with a hamstring injury.

Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers. Not to be outdone by fellow former Miami Hurricane McGahee, Gore posted his fifth-straight 100-yard day (19 for 107), as the Niners, leaning as usual on their stellar defense and ball-control offense, made simple work of the Washington Redskins, 19-11, to move to 7-1 on the season. There’s nothing fancy about San Francisco’s formula, but why mess with an old-school approach if it keeps working?

DeMarco Murray, Cowboys. Without Felix Jones healthy and with Tashard Choice gone, the rookie Murray has quickly provided the consistent running game Dallas has been sorely missing. In his third consecutive productive game, he was unfazed by a tough Seattle run defense (22 for 139) in an important 23-13 rebound victory.

Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles, New Orleans Saints. It didn’t matter that rookie first-round pick Mark Ingram missed his second consecutive game with a heel injury, because this familiar trio worked just fine in helping New Orleans run all over Tampa Bay in a 27-16 home victory. Sproles and Thomas combined to produce 190 yards from scrimmage, while Ivory (15 carries for 67 yards) helped whittle the clock late.

Reggie Bush, Dolphins. Miami is finally using the former Saint the right way in the running and passing game, and after breaking out for his first 100-yard rushing game of the season in Week 8, Bush racked up 92 yards on just 13 carries Sunday. He also provided 50 receiving yards to help his team finally get its first win of the season, a 31-3 rout at Kansas City.

Aaron Rodgers and James Starks, Green Bay Packers. It wasn’t easy to hold off the surging Chargers in a 45-38 shootout victory, and the legs of Green Bay’s quarterback and second-year running back played a big part of it. Rodgers (eight for 52) and Starks (13 for 66) set up Rodgers and the passing game for another Super-efficient afternoon.

Injury report

Miles Austin, WR, Cowboys (hamstring). It’s been an unfortunate season for Austin, who has battled problems with both hamstrings—first the left and now the right. His injury issues have prevented Tony Romo and Dallas’ passing game from meeting their promise for this season. Fortunately, Romo has other talented targets, such as Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson who can help fill the void.

Dallas Clark, TE, Colts (leg). The injury bug has bitten into almost every part of Indianapolis’ roster during its still-winless season, and it’s gotten to Clark again. Losing a familiar safety valve for any amount of time would further limit a sputtering offense.

Tracy Porter, CB, Saints (neck). The timing of Porter’s injury, which he suffered after getting tangled up with Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Williams, isn’t good considering what the combination of Falcons wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones did against Indianapolis. Now, the Saints have to match up with them next Sunday in Atlanta. It will be tough to replace Porter’s coverage and ballhawking skills in the short term.

Gerald McCoy, DT, Buccaneers (arm). In the same game, the Bucs saw their 2010 first-round pick get hurt again—and there are reports that he might be done for the season. His absence hurts the Bucs’ pass rush as much as their run defense. If he can’t play again this season, Tampa is headed for major woes up front.

Dustin Keller, TE, Jets (head). He was an effective target for Mark Sanchez against the Bills, and he is expected to be good to go against New England next week.

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