Halfway there, almost nothing is clear. That's the unpredictability of the NFL.
"The task at hand is the next game," says head coach MIKE SMITH of the 7-0 Atlanta Falcons, the NFL's lone remaining undefeated team. "You can't concern yourself with what has taken place the week before. It has no bearing on what's going to take place the next time you go out there on the field and play."
Highlighting the unpredictability have been exciting finishes and down-to-the-wire contests.
Through Week 8, there have been 31 games in which the winning points were scored in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.
Of those 31 games, 10 have been decided in overtime and 11 have seen the winning points scored in the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter.
In each of the first eight weeks, there have been at least two games in which the winning points were scored in the final two minutes or overtime, including three in Week 8.
There have been 12 games this season in which the winning points were scored via touchdown in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, including two of at least 77 yards (Jacksonville's BLAINE GABBERT to CECIL SHORTS, 80 yards in Week 3 and the New York Giants' ELI MANNING to VICTOR CRUZ, 77 yards in Week 7).
There were two more such games in Week 8, as Detroit's MATTHEW STAFFORD threw a one-yard TD pass to TITUS YOUNG with 20 seconds left and Indianapolis' ANDREW LUCK connected with VICK BALLARD on a 16-yard TD pass in overtime.
"We always talk about playing 60 minutes and it really did come down to that," says Chicago head coach LOVIE SMITH, whose team improved to 6-1 when ROBBIE GOULD converted a 41-yard field goal as time expired to give the Bears a 23-22 come-from-behind win over Carolina. "You've got to really just fight to get a win, but the good teams, at the end, find a way to win. No matter how you start, it's about how you finish and that's what the guys will take from this game."
There's plenty of football still to be played, so don't count anyone out.
Since 2000, 29 teams have reached the halfway point of their season with a .500 or below winning percentage and proceeded to the playoffs, including at least one in each season. Of those 29 clubs, five have advanced to the Conference Championship Game, including the 2001 New England Patriots, who won Super Bowl XXXVI.
So as the season's midpoint approaches, it's all still to be decided. The Week 9 action gets underway on Thursday night when the San Diego Chargers host the Kansas City Chiefs (NFL Network, 8:00 PM ET) in an AFC West showdown.
Some of the key games this week:
Miami Dolphins (4-3) at Indianapolis Colts (4-3)
(Sunday, CBS, 1:00 PM ET)
Two streaking teams will meet at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Dolphins have won three in a row, including last week's 30-9 victory at the New York Jets, and the Colts, who knocked off Tennessee 19-13 in overtime, have won their past two.
Miami's special teams played a major role in last week's division win over the Jets. The Dolphins became the first team in 20 years to block a punt, block a field goal and recover an onside kick in the same game.
"You have to give a lot of credit to (special teams coordinator) DARREN RIZZI and (assistant special teams coach) DAVE FIPP," says Dolphins head coach JOE PHILBIN. "Number one, they had an excellent game plan. Number two, the players obviously studied the plan, practiced the plan hard and executed it well. It was impressive to watch. I was really delighted with what they did; I thought our plan was good and the execution was good."
Colts rookie quarterback ANDREW LUCK passed for 297 yards and threw the game-winning touchdown in overtime last week against the Titans. Luck has guided the team to a 4-3 record, the highest winning percentage (.571) by a rookie QB selected No. 1 overall through Week 8 in NFL history. Luck's game-winning 16-yard TD pass in overtime was only the third touchdown pass thrown by a rookie in OT since overtime was instituted in 1974.
"To get a win against a very good team, especially being in the division, is big," says Luck. "To get two wins in a row is big as well. It's something we've talked about, stacking wins together. We'll come back next week with more focus, more intensity and hopefully get another win."
Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) at New York Giants (6-2)
(Sunday, CBS, 4:25 PM ET)
Two storied NFL franchises will meet in Week 9 when the Steelers visit the Giants. Pittsburgh has won two games in a row while the defending Super Bowl champion Giants are seeking their fifth consecutive victory.
Pittsburgh looks for its second consecutive win over an NFC East foe after knocking off Washington last week 27-12. Steelers running back JONATHAN DWYER rushed for 107 yards in his second career NFL start and quarterback BEN ROETHLISBERGER passed for three touchdowns. In his career, Roethlisberger is now 14-0 in starts against a rookie quarterback, a list that includes his opponent this week, ELI MANNING.
"It's fun having so many options and being able to throw to anybody," says Roethlisberger, who completed 24 passes to nine different players.
Manning and the Giants have won four in a row and have surged to the top of the division with a 6-2 record. In Week 8, New York built a 23-0 lead at Dallas but had to rally late and hold on for a 29-24 victory. The Giants are the first team since 2007 -- and only the fifth since 1950 -- to lose a lead of at least 23 points but still win the game.
"We have good leadership and good people," says New York head coach TOM COUGHLIN. "They're fighters in that locker room. Sometimes it comes out differently than it was designed."
Brian Billick previews the Steelers - Giants
Dallas Cowboys (3-4) at Atlanta Falcons (7-0)
(Sunday, NBC, 8:20 PM ET)
The Falcons aim to stay the NFL's lone unbeaten team when they host the Cowboys on Sunday night.
Dallas climbed back from a 23-0 deficit last week against the New York Giants only to fall by a fingertip in the game's final minute. Quarterback TONY ROMO passed for 437 yards and the Cowboys had three 100-yard receivers: JASON WITTEN (18 catches for 167 yards), MILES AUSTIN (9 for 133) and DEZ BRYANT (5 for 110). Witten's 18 receptions are the most by a tight end in a single game in NFL history. Witten shared the previous record of 15 with Pro Football Hall of Famer KELLEN WINSLOW.
Atlanta's MATT RYAN recorded his 50th career victory in his 69th start last week in the Falcons' 30-17 win at Philadelphia. Among active quarterbacks, only TOM BRADY (65) reached 50 wins faster.
"In this league, it's going to be different week to week and you're going to have to win games in different ways," says Ryan.
Philadelphia Eagles (3-4) at New Orleans Saints (2-5)
(Monday, ESPN, 8:30 PM ET)
A pair of NFC teams looking to get on track will face each other on Monday night. Both the Eagles and Saints are attempting to bounce back from Week 8 losses and climb back into the division and conference races.
"This is fixable and we're going to get it right," says Philadelphia head coach ANDY REID. "We have the talent. We have to do a better job. I only know one way and that's to keep going forward and trying to get better."
In the Saints' Sunday night loss at Denver, quarterback DREW BREES threw two touchdown passes, his NFL-record 50th consecutive game with at least one TD pass. He also reached 300 career touchdown passes (301), accomplishing the feat in his 161st game. That is tied with TOM BRADY for the third-fastest in NFL history, trailing only PEYTON MANNING and Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO, who both reached 300 TD passes in 157 games.
"I don't know what 2-5 means other than we just have to win a lot of games down the stretch, but one at a time," says Brees. "We're going back home to face Philadelphia on Monday night and this has got to be our time to bounce back."
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