Indianapolis Colts running back Vick Ballard dives into the end zone for… (Joe Howell / Associated…)
Back in the spring, when the NFL released the 2012 schedule, not many people would have guessed Miami at Indianapolis would be a meaningful game at this point in the season.
Yet here we are, heading into Week 9, with the Dolphins and Colts — both led by rookie quarterbacks — hanging tough at 4-3 and in sole possession of second place in their respective divisions.
This very easily could have been a situation in which one or both of these teams were still looking for their first victory. Instead, each is relevant and coming off an impressive road victory within the division — the Dolphins winning at the New York Jets on Sunday, and the Colts winning at Tennessee.
The most pressing question about the Dolphins concerns the health of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who suffered a hyperextended knee and quadriceps contusion on the second possession against the Jets and left the game. Matt Moore replaced him, and Tannehill spent the rest of the game watching from the sideline and keeping his legs loose on the stationary bike.
Dolphins Coach Joe Philbin sidestepped questions about Tannehill's injury Monday but did say the rookie quarterback is "optimistic" about making a speedy recovery.
The Colts' Andrew Luck is off to a better start than any other quarterback taken No. 1 overall in NFL history. He threw a screen pass in overtime against the Titans that fellow rookie Vick Ballard turned into a 16-yard, game-winning touchdown.
"I threw it and I saw a Titans uniform flash and said, 'Oh, God, this may be the end of the game in the wrong way,'" Luck told reporters after the game. "I saw Vick catch it, I saw I don't know who it was driving a guy, and what a wonderful individual effort by Vick Ballard to get in there."
Luck doesn't sound like a rookie, nor does he play like one. Put simply by teammate Pat Angerer: "We've got four more wins than everybody thought we would have, so that's good."
San Diego has lost three in a row, and Kansas City has lost four in a row, but even that doesn't describe the shared desperation of these AFC West rivals.
The Chargers, who play host to the Chiefs on Thursday night, took another big step down the ladder Sunday with a humiliating 7-6 loss at Cleveland. Maybe the only thing saving Norv Turner at this point is that there doesn't appear to be an interim-coach-in-waiting on his staff. But even slow-to-boil owner Dean Spanos has to be near his wit's end.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, are on historic ground. They're the first NFL team since 1950 to have gotten this deep into the season without ever leading a game in regulation. That's almost inconceivable.
When the Chiefs play the Chargers, it will be about which team wants to lose more — and both are excellent at it.
We meet again
Two reunions to watch are Buffalo's Mario Williams returning to Houston to face his former team, the Texans, and Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice playing Minnesota.
Williams, who has had a disappointing season, is six days removed from arthroscopic surgery on his sprained wrist. The league's highest-paid defensive player thinks that will make the difference.
"Nobody wants me to do better than me. So definitely, with this procedure, it's definitely given me a lot of hope and a different mind-set," Williams told reporters Monday. "I feel like I was stagnant. That's why I'm very excited to have been able to go clean it out and being optimistic about things."
Rice, who spent his first four seasons with the Vikings, leads Seattle with 28 receptions and three touchdowns. So far, the Seahawks are a far better team at home (3-0) than on the road (1-4).
Keep your eyes on what happens with a couple of struggling, big-name quarterbacks in the NFC East — Dallas' Tony Romo and Philadelphia's Michael Vick.
Romo, coming off a four-interception performance in a 29-24 home loss to the New York Giants, plays Sunday at the undefeated Atlanta Falcons.
Cowboys executive Steven Jones, son of team owner Jerry Jones, conceded Romo "is obviously going through a little bit of a tough stretch in terms of turnovers" but reiterated the club's confidence in him.
"I think it would've been real easy for a quarterback who doesn't have a strong mental makeup to really struggle, but he brought our team back and gave us a lot of opportunities there at the end of the game to win the game," the younger Jones said Monday in a radio interview with 105.3 The Fan. "I think in the long haul Tony's going to be just fine."
In Philadelphia, there were rumblings of speculation Coach Andy Reid would bench Vick in favor of rookie third-round pick Nick Foles. Vick said as much after Sunday's home loss to Atlanta.
The Eagles play at New Orleans on Monday night, and Vick probably gives them the best chance to win. Still, the picture will come into clearer focus this week.