NFL Nation: Final Word NFC 091809

NFC West: Final Word

September, 18, 2009
9/18/09
4:07
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando


Five nuggets of knowledge about this weekend's games:

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Levi Brown needs to elevate his game for the Cardinals' passing attack to take off.
Laying it on the Cardinals' line. Kurt Warner hasn't suddenly become a mediocre quarterback. He moved the Cardinals down the field in Week 1 when he had protection. He simply didn't have good protection nearly enough of the time. That must change against the Jaguars in Week 2. But if Warner couldn't trust his protection at home against a 49ers team Arizona knew well, why should he trust it on the road against the unfamiliar Jaguars? This week tests Russ Grimm's powers as offensive line coach. We've debated on the blog -- and I cannot remember where -- whether the Cardinals' linemen tend to improve. Right tackle Levi Brown has the talent or else the Cardinals wouldn't have drafted him fifth overall in 2007. He must improve dramatically from Week 1 for Arizona to have a realistic chance at avoiding an 0-2 start.

Cooler heads must prevail. Rams guard Richie Incognito and 49ers tight end Vernon Davis (to a lesser extent) must prove they can keep their cool when emotions threaten to boil over. Incognito built up considerable equity with the Rams' coaches and front office by taking a professional approach his offseason work. He reverted to previous form under pressure in Week 1, committing three penalties -- including two personal fouls -- before coach Steve Spagnuolo benched him briefly. Incognito is now returning to FedEx Field, site of his historic and nearly catastrophic 2008 meltdown. He must do better or the Rams cannot trust him. Davis also has a chance to fend off a demon from last season. The last time the 49ers faced the Seahawks at Candlestick Park, Davis drew a personal foul and coach-ordered banishment to the locker room. No relapses allowed.

Inside job looming. Spagnuolo's knowledge of the Redskins from his extended stay in the NFC East should help the Rams prepare for what awaits at FedEx Field. The Rams were competitive with Seattle well into the second half. They were well coached defensively, unveiling a dozen new blitzes. A good plan for the Redskins can give the Rams confidence heading into the site of their only road victory last season. "The Dean" is what players are calling Spagnuolo, so apparently they are listening.

Headed off at the pass. The 49ers demonstrated in Week 1 their commitment to establishing their identity in the running game even when they weren't having success. Make no mistake, though: They beat the Cardinals because Shaun Hill ran the passing game with efficiency during the winning 15-play touchdown drive. I think the 49ers could surprise the Seahawks if they came out passing early. I'm just not sure whether Mike Singletary and Jimmy Raye would be willing to give it a try.

Backs against the walls. Speaking of ground games, Frank Gore and Steven Jackson went mostly nowhere in Week 1. These guys were supposed to have monster seasons from the beginning, but the Rams hardly considered Jackson as a receiver last week, and Gore took a beating. Both backs could use some help from their passing games. Jackson said as much this week when he predicted a steady diet of eight-man fronts.

NFC East: Final Word

September, 18, 2009
9/18/09
4:03
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Five nuggets of knowledge about this weekend's games:

The Cowboys better not peak too early in Sunday night's game: With the grand opening of Cowboys Stadium, owner Jerry Jones thinks his players will be more motivated than ever. And I actually think you'll see a lot of emotion from the Cowboys in the game. If the Giants can match that intensity and sort of hang around for three quarters, I like their chances late.
Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
The Giants will try to force DeMarcus Ware into pass coverage.

The thing to remember is that Tony Romo has all but owned the Giants during the regular season. He replaced Drew Bledsoe at halftime of the Cowboys-Giants game at Texas Stadium in '06. The Cowboys lost that game, but Romo's lit them up since then. Obviously, the huge exception is the divisional playoff game at the end of the '07 season. But still, I think that past success should give Romo a lot of confidence heading into Sunday's game. I talked to Justin Tuck via phone Thursday and he promised we'd see one of the most physical games of the year. The Giants want to keep Romo in the pocket and make sure he's not always side-stepping Tuck and Osi Umenyiora.

Why am I the only guy in the country who thinks Kevin Kolb will play well against the Saints? It's not like the Saints have a juggernaut defense. Starting linebackers Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle still read this blog on a daily basis, but that doesn't mean they'll be able to account for Brian Westbrook coming out of the backfield and tight end Brent Celek running down the seam. I think the Eagles' defense will force at least two turnovers and second-year wide receiver DeSean Jackson will have a big game. I don't trust the Saints' corners against Jackson -- especially Jabari Greer.

Santana Moss is about to go off on the Rams: There, I said it. I think Jim Zorn will take more shots downfield, in part, because Jason Campbell should have more time against the Rams' front four. Leonard Little and Chris Long aren't slackers, but they aren't Umenyiora and Tuck. Can we agree on that? The only thing that gives me pause is the memory of Steve Spagnuolo's defenses dominating the Redskins last season. But the Redskins will roll in this game. Clinton Portis goes for 115 yards and a touchdown and Moss goes for six catches for 127 yards. Trust me on this stuff.

I'm worried about the Giants' lack of depth in the secondary: The Redskins didn't put much pressure on the Giants' injury-depleted secondary last week -- yet Antwaan Randle El still managed 98 yards receiving. Starting safety Michael Johnson (burner) returned to practice Friday, but Kenny Phillips (knee) wasn't able to go. The Phillips injury is the bigger concern. He has the athleticism to cover Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett. And he's also capable of doing a good job on the Cowboys' receivers. If one of those players is out, C.C. Brown would have to start. That would be a dicey situation for the Giants. And nickel corner Kevin Dockery missed practice Friday. That means the Giants could go into the game with undrafted rookie corner Bruce Johnson "starting" at the nickel. He did fine against the Skins, but the Cowboys have more offensive firepower. Tough situation for the Giants.

The Giants' offensive game plan will account for DeMarcus Ware at all times: Ware's emerged as the best defensive player in the game. He got dinged up early against the Bucs last week and wasn't himself. On Sunday night, he'll be relentless. He'll move to both sides of the line and I think his athleticism is too much for Giants left tackle David Diehl. The Giants will have to max protect at times -- and they'll also chip on Ware with Kevin Boss. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride will do everything in his power to force Ware into coverage. It's not like that's a huge weakness for Ware or anything, but it takes him out of the pass rush. Of course, every team tries that. Eli Manning needs to anticipate where the rush is coming from. Wade Phillips does a nice job of changing those calls up, but Manning has the ability to make him pay.

NFC South: Final Word

September, 18, 2009
9/18/09
4:02
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas


Five nuggets of knowledge about this weekend’s games:
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Jake Delhomme needs to have a solid game against Atlanta in Week 2.
Carolina’s season truly is on the line in Week 2. That may seem like an over-the-top statement this early, but it fits. Teams that start 0-2 rarely make the playoffs and Carolina has tough games with Dallas and Washington following this one. If they lose to Atlanta, the Panthers could get out of control in a hurry. Jake Delhomme has had two horrendous games in a row and another one probably would leave the Panthers no choice but to pull the plug on the guy who’s been their quarterback since 2003. Delhomme doesn’t need Drew Brees-type numbers to keep his job. He just needs to come out and manage the game the way he used to. If he can do that, he can save Carolina’s season.

Kroy Biermann is the best NFC South player you’ve never heard of. The second-year defensive end already has two sacks. That’s two more than starter Jamaal Anderson. Biermann is undersized at 260 pounds, which is up about 15 pounds from last year. You’re going to hear a lot about Biermann before too long. He’s been underrated so far, mostly because of his size and the fact he didn’t exactly come from a football powerhouse at the University of Montana. Heck, Biermann’s high school wasn’t even a football powerhouse. Hardin High is known as a basketball school, so much so that legendary Crow Indian player Jonathan Takes Enemy was featured in a Sports Illustrated story by Gary Smith that, for my money, is the best sports story ever written.

Don’t sit Michael Turner in your fantasy league. Yeah, the Atlanta running back was bottled up a bit by Miami last week. But the Falcons aren’t going to stop handing him the ball, especially when they’re going up against a Carolina defensive line that doesn’t have a true run stuffer. Atlanta is going to be the kind of offense where you pick your poison. With Matt Ryan throwing to Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, defenses aren’t going to be able to put all the attention on Turner. His numbers will bounce back.

We’re going to find out Sunday if New Orleans’ defense is for real. Yeah, it’s looking like the Saints will face a quarterback making his first NFL start for the second straight week. It appears there’s a good possibility Philadelphia’s Kevin Kolb will start in place of the injured Donovan McNabb. But this still will be a much bigger challenge than Matthew Stafford and Detroit last week because the rest of Philadelphia’s offense is good. The Saints have shown some good things and created some turnovers. But the true test of a defense is if it can stop a good running game. Here comes Brian Westbrook.

Sammie Stroughter is going to make the most noise of Tampa Bay’s rookie class this year. He was a seventh-round draft pick and dealt with some personal issues in college. But this guy already put that behind him when he claimed the No. 3 receiver job in the preseason. With Antonio Bryant’s knee acting up, Stroughter might be the closest thing Tampa Bay has to a downfield threat and the one thing Byron Leftwich does best is throw the deep ball.

NFC North: Final Word

September, 18, 2009
9/18/09
4:01
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert


Five nuggets of knowledge about Sunday’s games:

Hate to break this out right off the bat, but I know you’re thinking about it. Chicago wants to beat Pittsburgh on Sunday for all sorts of reasons, obviously. But here’s a big one: Going back to 1990, only 13.8 percent of NFL teams have made the playoffs after starting 0-2. (We won’t even go to 0-3 unless we have to.) It happened as recently as last season, when Minnesota won 10 of its final 14 games to clinch the NFC North. But suffice it to say, you don’t want to put yourself in that position -- especially in what most of us believe is a much-improved division. Here’s one bit of history: The Bears are 11-1 all-time against the Steelers when playing in Chicago.

The Chicago Park District re-sodded Soldier Field this week after it got torn up by a number of high school games as well as a U2 concert. While it’s better than the alternative -- dirt -- it’s hard to imagine the new sod will be anything other than loose for this game. We’ve already heard a cascade of complaints about the surface, most notably from Bears tight end Desmond Clark. Ironically, Clark isn’t expected to play because of a cracked rib suffered last Sunday at Green Bay.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Adrian Peterson had a big game against Cleveland and may be poised to post similar numbers against Detroit in Week 2.
If you’re into probability, you (probably) know that Sunday’s matchup with Detroit bodes well for Minnesota tailback Adrian Peterson. He has surpassed the 100-yard plateau in three of his four career games against the Lions. Moreover, Peterson has done a disproportionate amount of his career damage in the month of September. Last week’s 180-yard performance in Cleveland was his sixth 100-yard performance in nine career September games. When you combine Peterson’s fresh legs, his history against Detroit and the Lions’ weak defensive performance last week in New Orleans, you can safely count on another big game Sunday.

A loss would extend the Lions’ streak to 19 consecutive defeats, which would tie them for the second-worst losing streak in NFL history. (The longest, in case you’re wondering: Tampa Bay went down 26 consecutive times between 1976-77.) That said, the Lions usually play Minnesota tough at home. Of the nine games the teams have played this decade in Detroit, seven have been decided by a touchdown or less. The Lions have won two of them. The Vikings swept the Lions last year but only by a total of five points. And this week, Minnesota coach Brad Childress specifically warned his team against taking the Lions lightly. “Call a spade a spade,” Childress said this week.

There will be quite a collection of former USC linebackers Sunday at Lambeau Field. Cincinnati starts two of them, second-year player Keith Rivers and rookie Rey Maualuga, while the Packers are using rookie Clay Matthews in a number of sub packages behind starter Brady Poppinga. I was actually surprised at how much Matthews played Sunday against Chicago, considering how his sore hamstring limited him in training camp, but coach Mike McCarthy said: “He responded very well.” It will be interesting to see if Matthews will soon be challenging Poppinga for the starting job.

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