- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 10, 2009

STORY OF THE WEEK

The Dallas Cowboys made major changes after they lost three of their final four games last season - including a 44-6 humiliation at the hands of the Eagles in the finale - and missed the playoffs.

Terrell Owens wasn’t retained. Neither were controversy magnets Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson and Roy Williams (the safety, not the receiver).

The offseason didn’t prompt much talk of the Cowboys as a contender, either: They didn’t sign any top-shelf free agents or have a pick in the first two rounds of the draft.

In fact, the only buzz about the Cowboys centered on Jerry Jones’ gaudy new stadium.

So when the Cowboys lost in Week 4 to the Broncos to fall to 2-2, the lack of belief seemed justified. Follow-up victories over the winless Bucs and a bad Panthers team didn’t offer much reason get excited.

But folks now have an excuse to ask, “How ‘bout them Cowboys?”

Dallas has reeled off four straight victories, including a 20-16 triumph on the road over the Eagles in which Miles Austin continued his rise from afterthought to big-play receiver. Austin scored on a 49-yard touchdown pass to give the Cowboys the victory - his seventh TD of the season, which ties him for the league lead.

With two games left against the Redskins and one against the Raiders, the Cowboys appear solidly on course to win at least 10 games.

They should take a strong step in that direction Sunday against the Packers, whose NFL-worst pass protection is no match for DeMarcus Ware and the Cowboys.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Given that their division housed the lightly regarded Broncos, Chiefs and Raiders, the Chargers entered this season a clear favorite to win the AFC West a fourth straight year.

But the Chargers were trailing the Broncos by three games after a Week 5 home loss to Denver.

The situation seemed about to get worse Sunday, when the Chargers trailed the Giants 20-14 with just 2:07 to go. But Philip Rivers drove San Diego 80 yards in eight plays, hitting Vincent Jackson for the winning touchdown with just 21 seconds left.

The victory, the Chargers’ third in a row, drew them within striking distance of the Broncos.

Despite having the NFL’s worst running game, the Chargers moved ahead of Baltimore and Houston in the battle for the final AFC wild-card spot.

FIVE TRENDS FROM WEEK 9

UP: Maybe it was the throwback creamsicle jerseys. Maybe it was rookie quarterback Josh Freeman, who stayed cool in his first start. Whatever the reason, the Buccaneers no longer are the only winless team in the NFL. The Bucs earned their first victory Sunday, rallying from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Packers 38-28.

DOWN: Try to remember a time in September - not the old, sappy song but the time earlier this season when the Giants seemed to be marching toward a second Super Bowl title in three years. Those days must seem very long ago to Eli Manning and Co., who have lost four straight. Coach Tom Coughlin will be lots of fun to hang around this week.

UP: It’s a happy football fall in Cincinnati, where the Bearcats are 9-0 and the 6-2 Bengals lead the AFC North. Carson Palmer guided the Bengals to two first-quarter touchdowns against the long-fierce Ravens defense while the long-maligned Bengals defense pitched a shutout for the first 47:06. The result: a 17-7 victory that gave the Bengals a sweep over the Ravens and first place in the division.

DOWN: Think the Packers didn’t react well to being swept by the archrival Vikings and Brett Favre last weekend? Not exactly: The Packers scored just 2:15 into Sunday’s game and outgained Tampa Bay 404-279. The Packers lost because the Bucs returned a blocked punt and one of three interceptions for touchdowns.

UP: The Cardinals, 18-62 on the road the previous decade, posted a big win in Chicago that put them one win from a milestone campaign away from home. The Cardinals led 31-7 at halftime en route to a 41-21 romp over the Bears, a victory that bumped the NFC West leaders to 4-0 on the road. The Cardinals need just one more victory for their first winning road record since 1976.

NEXT MAN UP

Key injuries from Week 9:

WR Chris Henry (forearm), Cincinnati: The Bengals’ top deep threat broke his left forearm in a collision with Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington in the second quarter of Cincinnati’s 17-7 victory and is out for the season. That means more playing time for ex-Redskins receiver Laveranues Coles.

LB Ernie Sims (hamstring), Detroit: Just when the lowly Lions get their best offensive player, receiver Calvin Johnson, back from knee injury, they lose Sims. The linebacker injured a right hamstring during the third quarter of a 32-20 loss at Seattle. Rookie DeAndre Levy replaced Sims.

LB Thomas Davis, (knee) Carolina: The Saints led the Panthers 23-20 in the fourth quarter when Davis hurt his right knee. He didn’t return, and Carolina fell 30-20. James Anderson, who played at Virginia Tech, is Davis’ backup.

CB Charles Tillman (shoulder), Chicago: Perhaps it was all the wear and tear from chasing and tackling Larry Fitzgerald that finally got to Tillman. The Bears’ top cornerback left in the second quarter after Fitzgerald’s second touchdown and didn’t return for the rest of the 41-21 defeat. Nathan Vasher replaced Tillman.

C Dan Koppen (knee), New England: The key to the line that keeps Tom Brady upright injured a knee during the second quarter of the 27-17 victory over Miami that gave New England a two-game lead in the AFC East. Koppen was replaced by Dan Connolly, who helped Brady complete 25 of 37 passes for 332 yards and a touchdown.

NUMBERS GAME

Interesting stat about the Week 9 games

135

Yards for Titans running back Chris Johnson. The Titans held the AFC’s top record last season, but a second straight victory Sunday boosted their record to just 2-6 this year. The second-year back from East Carolina upped his league-leading rushing total to 959 yards. In just 23 career games, Johnson has 2,187 yards.

HOT SEAT

Whose performance in Week 9 puts them in the spotlight for next week?

TODD HALEY

This season has made for a tough debut for the Chiefs’ 42-year-old coach. The coordinator of the Cardinals’ superb passing offense the past two years, Haley helped his old team to the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs, in contrast, have the worst offense this side of the Browns and Raiders. Haley fired his offensive coordinator in August, demoted his receivers coach in October and cut star running back Larry Johnson on Monday.

At some point, Haley has to take responsibility for a unit that averages 3.5 yards a carry and has surrendered 30 sacks.

The 24-21 loss to the Jaguars on Sunday that dropped the Chiefs to 1-7 really wasn’t that close. Newly signed receiver Chris Chambers caught two touchdown passes in the final 2:32 to make it look respectable.

This week, the Chiefs look to avenge their home loss to the Raiders.


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