Week 9 wrap-up
Ravens 16, Titans 10: Maybe I will be told differently, but I think referee Bernie Kuchar got it right Monday night. That's a gut-wrenching thing for the Titans, who could have won 17-16 (which, by the way, would have hit my prediction right on the mark) and evened their record at 4-4. But Kuchar's job is to get the call right. Regardless, the Titans got a final shot from one foot out.
Everybody knew Steve McNair would try another QB sneak. Ravens DT Sam Adams knew and made a play worthy of his Pro Bowl status a year ago (though he's not playing to that level this season). Adams dug in, penetrated, stuffed the hole and forced McNair to desperately adjust his path, where Corey Harris and Ray Lewis finished the play -- and the game.
|Baltimore's defense stopped Titans quarterback Steve McNair on a sneak from inside the 1-yard line to end the game.|
Yeah, I feel for the Titans. They fought hard. They spilled their guts. Still, they had their chances and fell short, primarily because their special teams flubbed two chip-shot field goals.
The Ravens (6-3) still fall short. It is so evident that they are in dire need of a running game. Terry Allen was injured again. Jason Brookins wasn't a factor, and it was clear that coach Brian Billick was frustrated with Brookins' inability to help with pass protection. QB Elvis Grbac was pretty miserable for the first half, but he regrouped and moved his team into position to win. It is obvious that the Ravens are destined to play close games -- their only hope is that Grbac and his receivers raise their level. What they need is for the defense to repeat its dominance from 2000. That hasn't happened yet, but for one play on the goal line Monday night, it was super again.
Packers 20, Bears 12: This Green Bay team has a chance to be special, and clearly has enough potential to present a worthy challenge to the Rams in the NFC. The defense is doing so many good things against the run and pass -- a credit to defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and secondary coach Bob Slowik. The offense is complete in every phase, too. How many times can I point this out -- the O-line has become the foundation of the Packers. They absolutely stoned the Bears' defense, whether it was opening holes for RB Ahman Green or again giving Brett Favre near-flawless pass protection. Let's not forget the overall play of William Henderson, who should be everyone's leading Pro Bowl candidate at fullback. WR Bill Schroeder was back in the lineup and continues to prove he is a playmaker.
The Bears competed well, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. As they continue this six-game march against NFC Central foes, they must find a way to go 3-3 or 4-2 to be a true playoff contender. They're probably good enough, but a win on the road in Tampa this Sunday will go a long way to reassuring their fans that the first half was for real.
Steelers 15, Browns 12 (OT): Maybe the Steelers can do this all season (the Ravens did a year ago), but it sure can't be comfortable. The Steelers dominated this game, especially after the first quarter, when the Browns accumulated 88 of their 187 total yards. Butch Davis' offensive line just isn't up to the task of holding its own against a defense as complete as the Pittsburgh front seven.
Everybody is pushing Steelers rookie LB Kendrell Bell for Pro Bowl honors, even mentioning Bell as a defensive player of the year candidate. He might be worthy of discussion, but he might be getting a little too much credit. The guys around him are really good. He's one-fourth (as opposed to one-third in a 4-3 defense) of arguably the best linebacking corps in the NFL. So don't forget Jason Gildon, Joey Porter and Earl Holmes. Their experience and performance doesn't overexpose Bell's vulnerability as a rookie.
The Steelers' offense was not as impressive as in recent AFC Central games against the Titans and Ravens. But when Jerome Bettis needed to crank it up, he cranked it up. Sure, it would be nice for Steelers fans to see Kordell Stewart lighting it up through the air, but this is a formula that is proven. I have a suspicion that he is going to have to make a few more plays when the Steelers host the Jaguars -- the only team to truly outplay Pittsburgh this season in a 21-3 season-opening decision.
Dolphins 27, Colts 24: More than anything, the Dolphins wanted to make sure the Colts knew that they were not playing the Chiefs and Bills. Translation: The Dolphins' defense intended to make this an incredibly physical game. The message was delivered. The Dolphins' intensity paved the way for a couple of turnovers and a blow to Colts QB Peyton Manning that provided a crucial AFC East win. True, Lorenzo Bromell's blow to Manning was a penalty and subject to fine, but a courageous Manning was not the same when he returned with a broken jaw in the final minutes.
For the Dolphins, Dave Wannstedt continues to shake the skeletons from his coaching closet. He has proven he can coach. Sunday, it was again evident that the personnel flaws that haunted him in Chicago are being transformed in Miami. The Dolphins' 2001 draft is proving to be spectacular. Rookie receiver Chris Chambers caught three passes for 113 yards and two TDs. Rookie RB Travis Minor hit a 56-yard scoring run. Rookie corner Jamar Fletcher came up big when he replaced injured Sam Madison. Rookie linebacker Morlon Greenwood had six tackles and a sack. Then again, kudos still go to the heart and soul of the defense -- MLB Zach Thomas, who made a clutch interception of Manning that reversed the team's fortunes.
Offensively, the Dolphins are more explosive. As Chambers pushes his way into the rookie of the year picture, Minor might steal some carries from veteran Lamar Smith. The Dolphins drafted Minor thinking he would be an ideal third-down back. In training camp, they thought he could spot Smith on first and second downs, if necessary. As Smith slips, it might be necessary.
The Colts are hurting. Edgerrin James is probably out for the season with his knee injury. Manning will play the next few weeks with a broken jaw. OLB Mike Peterson is out for more than a month, and G Steve McKinney will miss at least two weeks. Still, the most disturbing part of Sunday's game was a dreadful performance by the defense when it needed to make plays. Miami receivers inexplicably were running wide open at critical times. Give partial credit to the design of Dolphins offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, but it was more indicative of a confused secondary.
Seahawks 34, Raiders 27: A pretty informed source says that Raiders coach Jon Gruden was livid in the postgame locker room after watching Shaun Alexander rip his defense for 266 yards and three TDs. He was especially upset with Raiders DT Darrell Russell, the source said. He should have been -- Russell is wasting his considerable talent. Still, this was a set-up game for the Raiders. They are beat up. They were coming off an emotional Monday-night win over the Broncos. And the Seahawks were at home and desperate. It should be pretty evident that Alexander will relegate Ricky Watters to permanent reserve status. QB Matt Hasselbeck was very efficient for the Seahawks, too, and Darrell Jackson looks like a receiver ready to make the tough catches.
Jets 27, Chiefs 7: As impressive as the Jets' win in New Orleans was, this domination of the Chiefs validates their status was a playoff contender. The Chiefs had played their best football in recent weeks and coach Dick Vermeil thought -- or hoped -- they might be turning it around. But Vermeil's former pupil, Jets coach Herm Edwards, has his team playing impressive football.
Kudos to Edwards' coordinators -- Paul Hackett on offense and Ted Cottrell on defense. Hackett has not blinked in the face of criticism and stuck to his goal of being a team totally committed to the run. Curtis Martin, who is in a pool of MVP candidates, enjoyed a 113-yard day with three TDs. The Jets' 175 yards rushing takes the heat off QB Vinny Testaverde, who has been very efficient. The Jets' defense stayed fresh because of the offense and controlled the Chiefs, picking off three Trent Green passes. Speaking of Green, he sure looks ordinary without the Rams' talent or the coaching of Mike Martz (in St. Louis) and Norv Turner (in Washington).
49ers 28, Saints 27: 49ers QB Jeff Garcia -- not Brett Favre, not Donovan McNabb, not Kurt Warner -- is playing the most consistent quarterback in the NFC. Heck, he's been more consistent than any quarterback in the NFL, along with Oakland's Rich Gannon. His four TD passes -- including a 10-yarder to Eric Johnson that provided the winning margin -- proved the point again. The 49ers also saw miracle-man Garrison Hearst preserve the victory with four rushes for 58 yards in the final minutes. Hearst's 145 yards on 17 carries was probably more troublesome to Saints coach Jim Haslett than Garcia's four TD passes. On a day where the Saints needed a win, QB Aaron Brooks played well enough to do the job.
|Garrison Hearst's two long runs late in the fourth quarter helped the Niners kill the clock.|
If Brooks can build on this game and the Saints get their act together, they still have a chance to salvage the picture. It's getting late, though.
Eagles 48, Vikings 17: The goal of Eagles coach Andy Reid was to get his team back to the balance it needs to become a Super Bowl challenger. Duce Staley finally gave them a spark with 146 yards on 17 carries while the Eagles embarrassed the Vikings. And that's the problem. The Vikings' defense is so bad (30th in the NFL) that we will need to see Staley and the Eagles do it again. At least the Philly schedule opens the door -- there is no dominant defensive team on the horizon for a very long stretch.
Vikings coach Dennis Green asked his team to pause and reflect before it implodes. It's difficult to envision a turnaround. Coming into this season, Green was 9-1 after bye weeks. Now, after a bye and an off week (following Sept. 11), the Vikings have lost twice.
Rams 48, Panthers 14: If Marshall Faulk had not gotten ill on the sidelines, he might have had a 300-yard rushing day. He finished with 183 yards on 15 carries, but the Rams blew open the Panthers for 337 yards on the ground as Trung Canidate added 145. So as the Rams actually expand their offense via the ground, Marshall Faulk is apparently 100 percent healthy and Kurt Warner is expected to recover from a thumb injury, it will be interesting to see if anybody can beat this team again. As for the Panthers, forget that they had to go with third-string QB Matt Lytle. He wasn't playing defense, was he?
Broncos 26, Chargers 16: Broncos coach Mike Shanahan rolled up his sleeves and went to work with his defense last week. This is what being a head coach is all about. It's fine to delegate, but the head coach is accountable. And as good as Ray Rhodes is as a defensive coordinator, Denver players say that Shanahan provided some fresh ideas that worked. Four interceptions by Chargers QB Doug Flutie were testimony. Yes, Flutie has looked less than ordinary in half his starts this season. It's unlikely the Chargers will panic if the trend continues, but make no mistake -- Drew Brees is ready, willing and able if he is ever given the chance.
Jaguars 30, Bengals 13: Last year when the Jaguars were struggling at about this point in the season, there were rumblings in the locker room that Tom Coughlin was losing the team. Now, it's clear Coughlin is holding his team together. A five-game losing streak was halted with the Jags knowing they should have won recent road games in Baltimore and Tennessee. This win over the Bengals shows there's plenty of heart, and still enough talent, for the Jaguars to build on. QB Mark Brunell can still make plays. If Fred Taylor is indeed on his way back (this week in Pittsburgh would be a nice spot for him), the Jaguars cannot be ignored by anybody. The Bengals are now 4-4. Still better than I thought.
Patriots 21, Bills 11: Tom Brady wasn't great against the Bills, and it will be interesting to see how he plays in the next couple of weeks while Drew Bledsoe tries to get back in playing shape. Nevertheless, the Pats climbed above .500, and they can measure themselves against the best Sunday night when they play host to the Rams. The Bills lost Rob Johnson again, this time with a broken clavicle. How long do you stick with him? The question might be, how long do you stick with an inexperienced offensive coordinator (Mike Sheppard)? It can be a cruel league, but at some point there must be improvement, plus results. The Bills aren't getting them on offense.
Bucs 20, Lions 17: Brad Johnson didn't play very well for the Bucs. But he played well when they needed him at the end by driving the team into winning field-goal range. Now the Bucs can make another statement at home -- where they already have beaten the Packers and Vikings. This Sunday, it's the Bears. If the Bucs win, they're 5-4 and still breathing. The Lions? Yes, they're on life support.
Giants 17, Cardinals 10: Other than Michael Strahan's 15th sack, I'm not sure there was much to be encouraged by if you're a New York fan. Well, Tiki Barber did have 118 yards rushing, and if they can just find a way to make a few big plays, they can still turn it around. Lucky them. The Vikings are next. The Cardinals now have the most uncomfortable game on their schedule -- the winless Lions (0-8) come to town Sunday.
Falcons 17, Cowboys 10: Rookie QB Michael Vick looked very young and raw in his first start. Falcons coach Dan Reeves finally started rotating Vick with second-year QB Doug Johnson, which is what he expected to happen. "I just think it gives a young quarterback like Mike a chance to calm down," said Reeves. "He's got a lot to learn, but we knew that. But he is willing, and when you look at his talent, that's why it's exciting to have him." The real heroes for the Falcons were RB Maurice Smith (143 yards), middle linebacker Keith Brooking (a Pro Bowl candidate who wows opposing coaches) and defensive end Patrick Kerney, who now has eight sacks. Ryan Leaf started at QB for the Cowboys. I couldn't tell. He throws it well sometimes, but it's probably not fair to judge him too much, given his circumstances.