(1). Should we start taking the 49ers seriously? Even in the modern, pass-happy NFL, where quarterbacks put up video-game numbers and fantasy nerds obsess over wide receivers, at least one piece of the old conventional wisdom still holds true: A team that can run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense will generally be a contender. Meet the 2011 San Francisco 49ers, who are currently ranked sixth (out of 32 teams) in rushing yards per game and second in rushing yards allowed per game. Despite boasting a 5–1 record, San Francisco still seems underrated, perhaps because it is a member of the otherwise dreadful NFC West. After delivering the biggest “wow” performance of Week 5, when they routed Tampa Bay 48–3, the 49ers went on the road in Week 6 and handed Detroit its first loss of the season (while also becoming the first team in 2011 to keep Lions receiver Calvin Johnson out of the end zone). Fresh off their bye week, Frank Gore & Co. host Cleveland this Sunday. Hopefully San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh has reacquainted himself with the basics of NFL postgame etiquette.
(2). Will the Tebow critics have a chance to crow? A polarizing performance by a polarizing player: That’s one way to describe Tim Tebow’s wildly uneven game last week at Miami. In all likelihood, the former Heisman Trophy winner is neither as bad as he looked during the first 55 minutes nor as good as he looked during those final two drives. If you think his poor mechanics and accuracy woes will prevent him from ever becoming a successful pro quarterback, fine. If you think he “knows how to win” and has the athleticism to overcome his dearth of conventional QB skills, great. But before pronouncing him either a bust or a beast, let’s give Tebow at least a few more games to prove himself. His Denver Broncos host Detroit this week, and then play at Oakland, at Kansas City, and home against the Jets.
(3). Will “Megatron” get back on pace to shatter the touchdown-reception record held by Randy Moss? Speaking of athleticism: During his time at Georgia Tech, future Lions star (and 2006 Biletnikoff Award winner) Calvin Johnson was one of the most dazzlingly athletic receivers in the history of college football. (If you doubt that, just watch this video. Or this one.) Now he is a top-three NFL receiver — if not No. 1 overall — and perhaps even an MVP candidate. “Megatron” (as Johnson is known) snagged his league-leading tenth touchdown catch last week, and he is currently on pace to tie the single-season TD-reception mark (23) held by Randy Moss. Detroit fans just hope that Johnson can avoid the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. (They also hope that Lions QB Matthew Stafford doesn’t have a serious ankle injury.)
(4). Are the Cowboys the best team in their division? This has been a topsy-turvy year for the NFC East in general and the Dallas Cowboys in particular. At 3–3, the Cowboys have arguably the most deceptive record in pro football. Had they not blown a pair of double-digit fourth-quarter leads, they would be 5–1. Put it this way: Entering Week 8, Dallas has a combined point differential of +21, which places them ahead of the division-leading Giants (+7) and fifth overall in the NFC, behind only Detroit (+57), San Francisco (+70), New Orleans (+81), and Green Bay (+89). The other NFL teams with a 3–3 record have point differentials of 0 (Washington), -23 (Cleveland and Tennessee), and -45 (Kansas City). Dallas also has a better differential than the 4–2 Chargers (+5). The Cowboys won’t face New York until Week 14, but this Sunday they have an NFC East grudge match at Philadelphia. “Even if Dallas loses that game and falls to 3–4,” notes ESPN blogger Dan Graziano, “the weeks that follow offer piles and piles of hope. Only four of the Cowboys’ remaining 10 games are against teams that currently have winning records, and only one of those four (Nov. 13 at home against the Bills) comes before mid-December. They can split with the Eagles and the Giants and still get to 11 wins.”
(5). Will Tom Brady extend his four-game winning streak against Ben Roethlisberger? Big Ben’s career record against Brady is 1–4, with three of those losses coming at Heinz Field. His lone victory came in Week 8 of the 2004 season, a game that ended New England’s historic winning streak. In the 2004–05 AFC championship game, Brady threw two touchdown passes and had a QB rating of 130.5. In his last three matchups against Roethlisberger (dating back to 2005), he has thrown for an average of nearly 374 yards. A year ago, Brady torched the Steelers with 350 yards through the air, three TD passes, and one rushing TD. All told, he has racked up nine TD passes and just one interception in his four victories over Roethlisberger. “Bear in mind, Brady has done this while the Steelers have wreaked havoc against the rest of the league’s pass offenses,” writes Greg Bedard of the Boston Globe. This season, Pittsburgh is tied for the league lead in fewest passing yards allowed per game, while the New England defense is ranked dead last in that category.