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Week Nine Monday 10-pack

Bernard Pollard, Hines Ward, Ray Lewis

Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard (31) and linebacker Ray Lewis (52) hit Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, center after he made a catch in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, in Pittsburgh. Ward was injured and helped from the field. (AP Photo/Don Wright)


Midseason report cards and awards be damned, Week Nine is the exact middle of the football season. And if the second half of the season is anything like the second half of Sunday’s action, it’ll be a year to remember.

So what better way to wrap up the day than by looking at 10 things we’ll remember from the ninth Sunday of the season?

Then again, we do it every week.

1. Helmet-to-helmet hits should be subject to replay review.

It would be easy to blame the officials for the inconsistencies in the decisions to throw flags -- and to not throw flags -- when assessing whether an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit occurs against a defenseless receiver. But the truth is that the players are moving far too fast to permit consistently accurate assessment of the plays to be made in real time. There’s only so much that the men in black and white stripes can do to accurately split hairs at top speed.

So why not support the officials by making these critical calls subject to replay review? Too much is at stake, with 15 yards of field position hanging in the balance. In a game of inches, awarding -- or not awarding -- 540 of them based on whether a big hit crossed the line is too much to entrust to the naked eye, especially since mistakes are being made.

The league wants the officials to err on the side of protecting players by throwing the flag, which only contributes to fan and player discontent when an error is made. In the Dolphins-Chiefs game on Sunday, safety Yeremiah Bell drew a flag when replays showed that it wasn’t an illegal hit. In the Sunday night game in Pittsburgh, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis got away with an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit on Steelers receiver Hines Ward (which knocked Ward out of the game), which made even more glaring a later decision to flag Steelers safety Ryan Clark for a 15-yard penalty based on what appeared to be a clean, unavoidable, incidental helmet-to-helmet hit.

Despite concerns that games will last too long (one way to speed up the review process would be to dispense with the requirement that the referee trot to the sidelines, put on a headset, and review the play at field level), the helmet-to-helmet play has become such a hot-button issue that it makes sense to expand the list of reviewable plays to include this increasingly important and controversial call.

2. Sometimes, press coverage prevents victories.

As the cliche goes, prevent defense prevents the defensive team from winning games. But when the Ravens did the unthinkable and drove 92 yards in the waning moments of Sunday night’s game in Pittsburgh, it was the Steelers’ insistence on playing bump-and-run coverage that contributed to the loss.

With Baltimore facing third and 10 from the Pittsburgh 26, the Steelers ultimately weren’t defending the sticks. They were defending the end zone. But, as Tony Dungy pointed out as we were on the FNIA set waiting for the post-game show, the Steelers opted to play the receivers tight off the line, running with them down the field instead of giving them a cushion.

As a result, Ravens receiver Torrey Smith got behind his man and obtained redemption for a holding penalty that wiped out a Ray Rice touchdown and a dropped touchdown pass only a few plays earlier.

Though it’s too early to rule the Steelers out of anything this season, it’s a dark day for the black and gold whenever an otherwise stifling defense gives up 92 yards of turf with the game, and possibly the division title, on the line.

3. Chris Johnson gets his yards, but something still isn’t right.

As explained early Sunday morning, the Titans can -- and possibly will -- walk away from running back Chris Johnson’s contract before owing him another $8 million in guaranteed money come next March.

The numbers from Tennessee’s Week Nine game against the Bengals suggest that Johnson got the message, given that he generated 110 yards from scrimmage.

But Johnson still isn’t the guy he was in past seasons. He lacks that trademark bottle-rocket burst, which would have turned some of his modest gains from Sunday into an eye-popping highlight involving Chris Johnson sprinting past defenders who appeared to be race-walking through a muddy minefield.

Eventually, the Titans will have to ask themselves where it went, how he can get it back, and whether it makes sense to continue to pay him big money to be a good but not gamebreaking threat.

4. Time for Pats to say farewell to Ochocinco.

After yet another disappointing performance from receiver Chad Ochocinco (he had zero catches for a third straight game), the Patriots need to begin thinking seriously about whether it’s time to move on. Even though they gave him a $6 million signing bonus after the trade that sent him from Cincinnati toe New England, he’s simply not getting it done, as evidenced by the fact that, for the season, he has nine catches for 136 yards and no touchdowns.

After Sunday’s game, quarterback Tom Brady reportedly said regarding Ochocinco, “We’ll keep working on it. No other choice.” But there is another choice. The Patriots can admit that they made a mistake, and the Patriots can rectify it by cutting Ochocinco loose.

Ochocinco told Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald that Chad and Brady are “missing it by this much,” holding two fingers close together. In order to be accurate in his self-assessment, Chad needs to use two hands when illustrating the disconnect, and he needs to spread them as far apart as he can.

It’s unclear why it’s not working. The Patriots’ attempt to stifle Chad’s individuality could be keeping him from getting truly comfortable. Or maybe he just doesn’t have it anymore. Either way, what Chad proclaimed to be heaven has steadily become something far less perfect than that.

Fittingly, the team that Chad was so desperate to leave is now 6-2, one game better than a Patriots squad that isn’t nearly as good as past versions of the franchise.

5. The wild, wild AFC West.

Every week, we think we’ve figured out the AFC West. Then, a week later, it’s wide open all over again.

Two weeks ago, wins by the Broncos and Chiefs and losses by the Raiders and Chargers for the first time created a sense that it’s more than an Oakland/San Diego proposition. Last week, the Chiefs grabbed the driver’s seat as the Broncos settled into the basement.

On Sunday, the Chiefs, Chargers, and Raiders all lost, with only the Broncos coming away with a win. The end result? Three teams are knotted at 4-4, and the Broncos sit only one game behind, at 3-5.

Good luck identifying a favorite. Some still believe in the Chargers. The Raiders could be dangerous, if/when Carson Palmer stops throwing three interceptions per game. And the Chiefs have shown that they can string together wins, even if they found a way to get blown out by a previously winless team.

The only team that seems ill-equipped to capture the crown are the up-and-down Broncos, whose quarterback is riding broad pendulum on a week-to-week basis. But the Broncos become their most dangerous when they’re counted out, and it’s impossible to assume that Denver won’t somehow find a away to win the division title.

6. Eli really is elite.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning caught plenty of flak before the season for injecting himself onto the list of elite quarterbacks. Wildly out of character for a guy who otherwise goes wildly out of his way to avoid controversy, Eli is backing it up.

On pace for more than 4,700 passing yards and with a 16-to-5 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, Manning has become as effective as his big brother this year. On Sunday, Eli delivered arguably his biggest win since the last time he beat the Patriots, on a slightly smaller stage.

Still, beating the Patriots in Foxborough is no small feat. They don’t often lose at home, and even less often do they lose two games in a row. Both happened on Sunday, thanks to Eli.

Of course, he was helped by some sure-handed receivers, including Jake Ballard’s full-speed, leaning back, one-handed grab that happened too quickly to be properly appreciated.

The end result is that the Giants now sit firmly atop the NFC East at 6-2. Though the Eagles will continue to attempt their charge to the top on Monday night, Eli seems to be willing his team toward greater heights than anyone would have imagined for this team.

So what’s gotten into Eli? It could be that he realizes the fleeting nature of a football career, given the health issues that are preventing Peyton from playing. It could be that Eli finally has figured out how to replicate his incredible performances from the 2007 postseason. Either way, it’s working for Eli like never before. Though he may not be able to overcome Aaron Rodgers for league MVP honors, Eli could be one of the only men who can lead a team to victory at Lambeau Field in January.

Just like he did four years ago.

7. Players still need to be careful about throwing off their helmets, even after the game has ended.

At the end of the Giants’ unlikely win over the Patriots, New York safety Antrel Rolle jumped to his feet, unfastened his chinstrap, and threw off his helmet.

There was no time on the clock, and the game was over. But it instantly conjured memories of former Browns linebacker Dwayne Rudd, who infamously threw off his helmet with no time on the clock in a 2002 Week One game against the Chiefs.

Rudd thought the game was over, but Chiefs quarterback Trent Green had managed to unload the ball to lineman John Tait, who rumbled deep into Cleveland territory before being tackled. Neither Tait nor anyone else realized that the Chiefs would get one more untimed down -- plus 15 yards of field position -- thanks to Rudd’s faux pas.

The difference in this case is that another lineman who ended up with the ball had indeed been tackled before the helmet came off. “Game is over,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told PFT by email. “Not a penalty.”

Though this interpretation seems to support the notion that, once the final gun sounds and any active play ends, players can throw helmets (or fists) without any fear of being flagged, the safest approach for every player is to continue to honor all rules on the books until clear of the playing field.

8. Big tests coming for Bengals.

I’ve yet to get too caught up in the success of the Cincinnati Bengals, despite their six wins in eight games. They’ve yet to play the Steelers or the Ravens, and we’ll all learn a lot more about the Bengals when they do.

The process gets started next week, when the Steelers invade Cincinnati for the Bengals’ first sold-out home game of the season. Then comes a trip to Baltimore.

Split the next two games, and the Bengals will be taken seriously. Win them both, and it’ll be time to start talking about the Bengals as a potential No. 1 seed. Lose both, however, and the Bengals will be viewed as a group of overachievers who benefited from a fairly soft schedule in the early part of the season.

9. Jets inject much-needed transparency into concussion diagnosis.

Early in Sunday’s game between the Jets and Bills, New York tight end Dustin Keller exited with what appeared to be a concussion. Labeled questionable with a head injury, Keller surprisingly returned to the game after halftime.

In the hopes of getting a better understanding of the manner in which the Jets handled the delicate and, for many fans, confusing process of determining whether or not a player has suffered a concussion, PFT sent a series of questions to the Jets. To their credit, the Jets provided substantive answers to every one.

Each question and answer appears below.

1. Who examined Keller and what is the person’s title?

Dr. Damion Martins, team internist, sports medicine specialist trained in concussion evaluation. The results of the testing, along with additional player evaluation, were all reviewed and cleared by the head team physician, Dr Kenneth Montgomery.

2. What tests were imposed?

The NFL League sideline evaluation form was utilized -- passed. Balance testing (BESS Testing) -- passed, exercise stress test -- passed. Dustin returned only after all tests passed as good or better than baseline testing, and symptom free.

3. Where did the evaluation occur?

The evaluation occurred in the locker room to assure a quiet and distraction-free environment.

4. When was the decision made that he would return?

Once it was confirmed that the player passed all tests and felt absolutely normal. If he was not perfect, he would not have returned. We are very conservative and the players we have held out so far this year were Donald Strickland, Garrett McIntyre, and Matthias Berning.

5. Was there any suspicion that he’d suffered a concussion?

He felt “dizzy” immediately after the play but felt fine by the time he reached the sideline. He denied symptoms on sideline evaluation and passed a simple sideline questionnaire on the bench. Out of respect for the injury, we took him to the locker room to perform a thorough evaluation to be sure. We were concerned enough to perform the testing, but all signs and tests suggest that he did not have a concussion.

6. The was questionable to return with a “head” injury -- what was the specific injury to his head?

He hit his head and was dizzy for several seconds. That is why we listed it as his head. He was questionable only during the time he was being evaluated. His symptoms cleared immediately. It happens to several players in every NFL game.

7. Was any testing conducted at halftime? If so, by whom and what were they?

The extensive testing above occurred before half time. He participated in team meetings at halftime with his teammates. We checked on him several times after each offensive series and he remained symptom free.

8. Were further tests conducted after the game?

We evaluated him after the game and he remained symptom free. We will continue to check on him as the week progresses.

This is precisely the kind of transparency that is needed, if fans and the media are going to properly understand the manner in which teams decide whether a player has suffered a concussion. The fact that the release of this information is not required by the league’s injury-reporting rules makes the team’s decision to share the data even more admirable.

10. The Steelers, on the other hand, choose secrecy.

On Sunday night, Steelers receiver Hines Ward sustained a helmet-to-helmet hit. He left the game and didn’t return, remaining on the sidelines throughout the rest of the game. NBC’s Michele Tafoya reported at one point that Ward had suffered a “stinger,” and that he was questionable to return to the game. Michele also pointed out that Ward’s helmet had been taken from him.

After the game, coach Mike Tomlin admitted that Ward suffered from “concussion-like symptoms,” a term that the Steelers first coined several weeks ago in connection with safety Troy Polamalu.

So PFT sent several questions to the Steelers: (1) Was he evaluated for a concussion?; (2) If so, by whom?; (3) Was he at any point diagnosed with a concussion? If so, when?; (4) Who diagnosed him with a stinger?; (5) Was his helmet taken from him?; (6) What were his specific symptoms?

In response, the team opted to provide no information beyond Coach Tomlin’s post-game comments.

Hopefully, the league office will pose those same questions to the Steelers, and maybe a few more. Last year, the Steelers concealed a concussion that Ward had suffered during a Sunday night game, calling it a neck injury and keeping him on the sidelines for the balance of the contest. After the season, the NFL mandated that all concussed players be taken to the locker room for the balance of the game, based in part on the Steelers’ handling of Ward’s concussion.

The Steelers apparently have now crafted a new loophole based on the use of the term “concussion-like symptoms.”

At least they didn’t try to say that Ward had dirt on his face.