SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Colts, Bears are on the upswing in the NFL

The least popular athlete in Cincinnati? It has to be Manning, who improved to 8-0 against the Bengals after his Denver Broncos picked up a 31-23 victory there Sunday.

That's the fourth-most career wins without a loss against an opponent among quarterbacks who entered the league after the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. (Of course, that NFL-generated stat is based on the notion that quarterbacks have starting records like pitchers, which they don't. But play along.)

Baltimore's Joe Flacco tied the record in that category Sunday when the Ravens beat Cleveland, 25-15, pushing Flacco's "record" against the Browns to 10-0. Denver's John Elway was 10-0 against New England, and also owns the fifth spot on that list with a 7-0 record against Cincinnati.

Just ahead of Manning on the list is former Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who was 9-0 against Detroit.

What really matters

The highlight of the Colts' victory over Miami came in the Indianapolis locker room afterward, when Coach Chuck Pagano, who has stepped aside while he battles leukemia, delivered an emotional speech to his players.

"I've got circumstances. You guys understand it, I understand it," Pagano said, choking back tears. "It's already beat. It's already beat. My vision that I'm living is to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings and then lift the Lombardi Trophy several times. I'm dancing at two more weddings and we're hoisting that trophy together, men. Congratulations, I love all of you."

Browns' baby steps

What Cleveland has done so far might not be enough to save the job of Coach Pat Shurmur, but it should be.

Once again Sunday, the Browns narrowly lost, but the home defeat against Baltimore was closer than the 10-point margin indicates. Cleveland heads into its bye at 2-7, with only one of those losses a blowout.

But that doesn't mean the Browns are stuck in the mud. They have a rookie quarterback in Brandon Weeden, a rookie running back in Trent Richardson, and a rookie majority owner in Jim Haslam.

Haslam was a minority owner in Pittsburgh, and he might want to take a page from the Steelers' book when it comes to being patient with head coaches. Yes, the Browns are 6-19 in two seasons under Shurmur, but they're competitive, and they might be on the road to becoming more.

For the Ravens, Sunday was more of the same. They're now 5-0 after the bye under Coach John Harbaugh.

Homecoming?

Smooth move by the Washington Redskins. They deemed their matchup against 1-6 Carolina their "homecoming" game, inviting back dozens of past players and donning their 1937 throwback uniforms (with doorknob-looking rust helmets).

Naturally, the Panthers didn't appreciate being classified as homecoming doormats. So for them, that made the 21-13 win even sweeter.

"I look on there and it says 'homecoming,'" said Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams, referring to the "Game Day" program in his locker. "And I'm thinking to myself: This is the National Football League. Are you serious? Homecoming. And it's not like you tried to hide it — you blatantly put it on the front of the Game Day. And you're talking about somebody fired up today?

"It was the whole team. That was definitely motivating. You don't say you're going to have a 'homecoming' in the National Football League. You do it in college. It's one of those teams that's just terrible. You don't book, like, a good team for homecoming."

Payton's new place?

Sean Payton was banned from coaching the New Orleans Saints this season for his role in the bounty scandal. Now, there are questions about whether he'll ever return.

According to an ESPN report Sunday, the NFL has voided the multiyear contract extension Payton signed in 2011, meaning the coach will be a free agent after this season. The report cites unnamed league sources and says the contract was nullified because of a specific clause that would have enabled Payton to walk away if Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis were suspended, fired, or left the team.

Payton has long been linked to Dallas, where he was an assistant coach. It's entirely possible that he could ultimately replace Jason Garrett as Cowboys coach.

Steely resolve

Beating the Giants was huge for Pittsburgh, and not just because it was meaningful for the Steelers to knock off a good team heading in the right direction (as opposed to the downwardly mobile Redskins or Eagles).

The Steelers showed that their defense could stiffen in the fourth quarter, something it didn't do earlier in the season . . . and against Eli Manning, maybe the best clutch quarterback in the game. What's more, Pittsburgh now has options at running back — Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman have stepped up for the injured Rashard Mendenhall — and its offensive line has gone from patchwork to productive.

With two games against Baltimore in three weeks later this month, this is the time the Steelers need to be ramping up their level of play. And Sunday, they did.

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