Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The NFL Report

Two weeks into the NFL season, there already have been a few surprises. Let's breakdown each conference:


Colts Off To Quick Start:
After a disappointing finish in last year's playoffs losing again to New England, the Colts are one of seven remaining undefeated teams heading into Week Three. After handling the Ravens in Baltimore 24-7, they squeaked out a atypical 10-3 win over the stingy Jaguars in their home opener. With Jacksonville keeping two-time MVP Peyton Manning in check (no TDs, 1 Int), the Colts relied on something they rarely do to win. Their defense. A weakness in past seasons, the D has allowed just 10 points so far. They sacked Byron Leftwich six times- three by Montae Reagor. They also battered Leftwich several times forcing him out of the game with a gimpy knee. But Leftwich bravely returned and completed two passes on the final drive to give his team a chance to tie but the Colts held on. The Colts try to improve to 3-0 against Cleveland (1-1) at the RCA Dome Sunday.

Bengals Early Surprise: After a promising 2004 under then first-year coach Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati has come out of the gate fast, dominating their first two opponents Cleveland and Minnesota by a combined 64-21 score. Though their opening week win at Cleveland wasn't surprising, their 37-8 blowout of the Vikings was. Forcing Daunte Culpepper into a career worst five interceptions, the Bengals capitalized. Carson Palmer continued his progression, going 27-of-40 for 337 yards and three scores. This game was never close. In fact, on the second play from scrimmage, Palmer hooked up with Chad Johnson on a 70-yard touchdown in a game the Bengals never trailed. Rudi Johnson rushed for 90 yards. The Bengals take their perfect record to Chicago (1-1) Sunday.

Big Ben, Steelers Silence Doubters: Many people including myself wondered if Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers would have a downfall after how well they played last year. Losing just once in the regular season before falling to the Patriots in the AFC title game, Pittsburgh had a great 2004. But with Roethlisberger struggling in the postseason, doubts lingered. So far, Big Ben is an efficient 23-of-32 for 472 yards and four touchdowns in wins over Tennessee and Houston. In those games, Pittsburgh outscored its opponents by a combined 61-14. While Roethlisberger has been sharp, second-year running back Willie Parker has come out of nowhere to rush for back-to-back 100+ yard games with two TDs. Undrafted out of North Carolina, Parker signed with Pittsburgh last year. In limited action, he averaged 5.8 yards-per-carry, the same average he has thru two weeks. With Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley banged up, coach Bill Cowher named him the starter this week. Parker and company will have a big test against New England (1-1) at Heinz Field Sunday.

Revamped Chiefs D Paying Dividends: After a very disappointing 2004 which saw them miss the playoffs, Kansas City made changes to their D this offseason. In their Opening Day 27-7 win over the Jets, those newcomers helped sack Chad Pennington three times along with one interception and forced him into six of seven Jets fumbles recovering two. Sammy Knight, Patrick Surtain and Derrick Johnson all played prominent roles. Knight had a sack, forced fumble and seven tackles while Surtain had a 53-yard interception return along with a fumble recovery. Johnson led the way with eight tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. After an easy victory in Week One, the Chiefs followed it up with a 23-17 win at rival Oakland Sunday night. With the Raiders driving late for a potential go-ahead score, Kansas City's D held Oakland at the 10-yard line to secure victory. With both Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson rushing for TDs and Samie Parker becoming a big target for Trent Green, the Chiefs should be tough to beat. They face nemesis Denver (1-1) at Mile High in a Monday Night showdown.

New England Drops To 1-1: After cruising to a 30-14 victory over Oakland in the NFL Thursday night opener, the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Patriots ran into problems Sunday at Carolina. In a rematch of the 2004 Super Bowl in which they prevailed 32-29 on a last second Adam Vinateri kick, this time, fortunes weren't as kind to the Pats in a 27-17 loss in Week Two. Usually cool under pressure Tom Brady turned the ball over twice (Int, fumble) and Corey Dillon was limited to 36 rushing yards. They also committed 12 penalties for 86 yards in a sloppy defeat. While the defense shutdown Jake Delhomme limiting him to 154 yards and one interception, which was returned for a TD by Mike Vrabel, they allowed three rushing TDs to Stephen Davis. Davis became the first back to do that against them since the Jets' Curtis Martin in 2000. The Carolina D sacked Brady twice and rushed him into several bad throws in the second half. Out of synch, Brady let off some steam on the sidelines. The Pats will need a better effort when they travel to Pittsburgh (1-1) for an AFC title rematch Sunday.

Other Surprises: The Ravens are off to a miserable start. Having lost at home to the Colts in a Sunday night opener, they fell at Tennessee 25-10 in Week Two. Having added ex-Titans receiver Derrick Mason to an offense that featured Jamal Lewis and Todd Heap, coach Brian Billick was hopeful that things would improve. But so far, the Ravens have scored only 17 points and starting QB Kyle Boller was knocked out of action by Indianapolis with a hyperextended right toe, which kept him out Sunday and should for another two games. Backup Anthony Wright struggled against Tennessee tossing one touchdown and two interceptions. With Lewis held to just nine rushing yards and 57 total in two weeks, it's not surprising that the offense stalled. Fortunately for Baltimore, their bye comes at the right time.

While Baltimore had trouble scoring, the Chargers came up short for the second straight week. After losing by four to Dallas in their home opener, the Chargers lost a tough one at Denver 20-17 on a last second 41-yard field goal by Jason Elam. A game which San Diego led 14-3 at the half thanks to two LaDainian Tomlinson rushing TDs turned at the beginning of the third quarter when Drew Brees was picked off by Champ Bailey, who ran it back for a 25-yard score cutting the deficit to 14-10. The Broncos took the lead on a Kyle Johnson three-yard score. After how well things went last year, despite losing the first two games by a combined seven points, the Chargers find themselves in a must win situation this Sunday night against Eli Manning and the Giants (2-0). Manning shafted the Chargers at the 2004 Draft, indicating he wanted no part of them, forcing them to trade the number one overall pick to New York. It's the perfect motivation for San Diego to get their first win.

Though the Jets rebounded from an awful opening week loss to Kansas City with a 17-7 win over rival Miami in their home opener, the new offense under Mike Heimerdinger has not exactly made anyone forget Paul Hackett. Returning from offseason shoulder surgery, Chad Pennington has looked average. But after a six fumble (two lost) one interception performance in Week One, he was efficient in Week Two, going 19-of-30 for 190 yards and two TDs. This included a key 7-for-7 drive with a one-yard toss to Jerald Sowell putting the game out of reach. What should be troublesome is that Pennington threw several lolly pops. He still might be getting adjusted to the new system. One positive was he and Laveraneus Coles hooked up for a seven-yard score. Curtis Martin carried the ball 31 times for 72 yards. He strained his right knee but an MRI cameback negative, which is good news for the Jets Sunday against Jacksonville (1-1). If Martin needs rest, Derrick Blaylock will get the call.


Three Teams Are 2-0 And It's Not Who You Think:
The Giants, Redskins and Bucs are all off to perfect starts while Philadelphia, Atlanta and Carolina are .500 after two weeks.

After blowing out Arizona 42-19 in their home opener, the Giants took advantage of an extra home game, defeating New Orleans 27-10 Monday night. Though it was deemed a home game for the Saints due to Hurricane Katrina, Giants fans easily outnumbered Saints fans. The Giants fed off the energy of the crowd and also forced six turnovers including three Aaron Brooks interceptions. Tiki Barber had two TDs (one rushing, one receiving) and Eli Manning tossed for 165 yards and a score. Surprisingly, the Giants have outscored opponents 69-29 and it wasn't because of Manning. But an opportunistic defense and great special teams in Week One that produced two TDs. The schedule gets tougher this weekend when they travel to San Diego for a primetime match-up on ESPN.

In the second game of a special Monday night doubleheader that raised $5 million for Katrina, the Redskins stunned the Cowboys 14-13 in Big D. With 3:46 left, they trailed 13-0 and had yet to score a touchdown in seven-plus quarters. A week before, they snuck out a 9-7 win over the Bears on the leg of John Hall. Facing two critical fourth down situations, Mark Brunell kept the game alive by converting both. On fourth-and-15 from the Dallas 39, he found Santana Moss for a TD making it 13-7. After Dallas punted the ball back, Brunell hooked up with Moss for a 70-yard TD giving Washington the lead. Moss, who was acquired in the offseason for Coles came up big, helping his new team steal a game. Amazingly, it was the first time a Bill Parcells coached team had ever led by at least 13 points in the fourth quarter and lost. Previously, Parcells' teams were 77-0. When the game ended, the Skins mobbed excited coach Joe Gibbs. Despite scoring 23 points in their first two games, they have given up just 20 and head into their bye perfect.

Flying under the radar in the NFC South is Tampa Bay. After upsetting Minnesota 24-13 in Week One, the Bucs manhandled the Bills 19-3 in their home opener. With impressive rookie Carnell "Cadillac" Williams pasting Buffalo for 128 rushing yards and a TD, Tampa Bay cruised to an easy win. Brian Griese was an efficient 16-of-22 with 136 yards and no turnovers and second-year wideout Michael Clayton had six receptions for 84 yards. Short-yardage back Mike Alstott had a one-yard score and the Bucs' defense shutdown J.P. Losman, holding him to 113 yards passing with two sacks including a safety that opened the scoring. Willis McGahee was held to just 34 yards on the ground and Eric Moulds and Lee Evans had only three catches for 20 combined yards. Tampa looks to improve to 3-0 at Green Bay (0-2) Sunday.

Vikings Off To Miserable Start: Much was expected of the Vikings entering 2005. Even with the trade of star receiver Randy Moss to Oakland, many so-called experts picked them to make the Super Bowl. But so far, they have been a colossal bust. It all starts with Daunte Culpepper, who was in favor of the trade. The leader of Minnesota has been awful, tossing a career worst five interceptions in a blowout loss to the Bengals in Week Two. He has yet to throw a TD and has a league leading eight picks. While he's struggled, new number one receiver Nate Burelson has just six catches on the year while Travis Taylor paces them with 10. In the backfield, both Michael Bennett and Mewelde Moore have combined for a paltry 64 yards. Combine this lack of production on offense with a miserable D that's allowed 61 points and there's little to be excited about. Two weeks in, Minnesota desperately needs a win over New Orleans (1-1) Sunday. It won't be easy.

Favre Era Coming To End: Brett Favre has been one of the all-time greatest QBs in the NFL. The Super Bowl winner and three-time MVP ('95-97) could be in his final season. At age 35, he has been the standard for the past decade, throwing bullet passes for touchdowns and showing a desire to be the best. Unfortunately, his career could end without the playoffs. Favre and the Packers lost a tough game to Cleveland 26-24 at Lambeau Field in an emotional home opener. At halftime, Green Bay retired recently deceased Reggie White's number 92. White's 17-year-old daughter Jecolia sang the national anthem before the game. But even all that couldn't lead to a Green Bay victory. Favre tossed three TDs, joining Dan Marino and John Elway in the 50,000 passing yard club. But the Packer D couldn't stop Trent Dilfer, who hit Steve Heiden for a 62-yard score that put the game out of reach. Outscored 43-27 in the first two weeks by Detroit and Cleveland, it's gutcheck time for the Packers this Sunday against Tampa Bay (2-0).

NFC North Could Have New Champ: With Green Bay and Minnesota off to rough starts, the division could be up for grabs. Both Chicago and Detroit enter the weekend .500 but after the Bears' 38-6 dismantling of the Lions in Week Two, Chicago would have to be considered the frontrunner. They intercepted Joey Harrington five times including a 41-yard TD return by Mike Brown. Nate Vasher had two picks and Brian Urlacher added two sacks. Thomas Jones ran for 139 yards and two scores while rookie Kyle Orton was 14-of-21 for 150 yards with no interceptions. Bobby Wade also had a 73-yard punt return for a TD. With Chicago's D permitting just 15 points so far, if the offense keeps turnovers down and contributes, the Bears could be the NFC darkhorse.

Other Surprise: While there haven't been many others, the way Dallas lost to Washington Monday night is the other. As noted earlier, they blew a 13-0 lead in the final 3:46 to lose by a point, giving up two big plays from Brunell to Moss. On both, All-Pro Roy Williams was victimized. Ex-Bill Drew Bledsoe has thrown four TDs and second-year back Julius Jones has rushed for 174 yards and a score. Bledsoe has also renewed chemistry with ex-Patriot teammate Terry Glenn, who caught a game high six passes for 157 yards and a score Monday. They'll hope for that kind of success to continue Sunday at San Francisco (1-1).


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