Thursday, October 2, 2003 Updated: October 5, 1:54 PM ET
Early lead in AFC West on the line
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 5.First ... Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs: Dick Vermeil and Mike Shanahan think in terms of Super Bowls.
Jake Plummer has thrown seven TDs and three INTs in four games.
Vermeil came out of retirement to turn the Chiefs into a Super Bowl team. Shanahan reconfigures his Broncos team each season to put them in the best position to make a Super Bowl run. Sunday's showdown in Arrowhead will give the winner a good indication whose decisions were the best.
Of course, there is a little more urgency for Vermeil, who is in the last year of his contract and could be making his final coaching tour. Shanahan signed an extension through 2008 but he will never settle for second best.
If anything, though, the pressure is more on the Chiefs than the Broncos. Each team is 4-0, but the Chiefs can't afford to lose a home game within the division. Sunday's game begins their toughest month of the season, a month in which Vermeil should find out whether or not this team is special. Ahead are road games in Green Bay and Oakland and a home game against Buffalo.
If the Chiefs come out 6-2 or 7-1, they will be thinking Super Bowl. Last week's 17-10 victory over the Ravens was important because it showed the Chiefs can win a low-scoring game on the road.
The additions of defensive end Vonnie Holliday, linebacker Shawn Barber and cornerback Dexter McCleon dramatically improve the league's worst defense from last season. Ryan Sims has become a force at defensive tackle. Statistically, the Chiefs rank in the middle of the pack (No. 18), allowing 313 yards a game. But they're only allowing 14.5 points a game. When you give up under 15 and score 31.8 a game like the Chiefs, you win games.
The Broncos look great statistically, but they haven't been tested. Three of their wins are against the Chargers, Bengals and Lions, who are a combined 1-11. In the other, the Broncos caught the Raiders at the right time and blew them out at home.
A win on the road in Kansas City would legitimize their start. Defensive players believe in the new schemes of first-year defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, who has the Broncos ranked fourth in the league allowing 269 yards a game. Jake Plummer has had more good moments than bad so far and is completing 64.5 percent of his passes and ranks fifth in the league with a 95.1 quarterback rating.
Shanahan and Vermeil each reached the 100-victory milestone last Sunday. The winner of Sunday's game reaches the honor of being considered the best team in the AFC to date.
And 10.Indianapolis Colts at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tony Dungy's return to Tampa will be emotional. He started the resurgence of the Bucs, but Jon Gruden came in last year and finished the process by winning the Super Bowl. Dungy moved on to Indianapolis and is doing a lot of the same things he accomplished in Tampa. Last year, Indy's defense statistically ranked eighth, but they played more like a middle-of-the-pack unit. In Year 2 of Dungy's system, they have more of the look and feel of a Dungy defense. Their defensive line isn't big, but it is disruptive. David Thornton more than adequately replaced departed outside linebacker Mike Peterson. But this matchup is all about Peyton Manning versus the Bucs pass defense. Manning comes in after a six-touchdown game in New Orleans, and he might have to do it again without Edgerrin James, who may need another week to rest a sore back. The next two games will be Manning's hardest tests this season. He faces the Bucs and the Panthers, two disruptive defenses. Though the main stories will be Dungy-Gruden, Manning-Bucs defense, the subplot might be how well Dungy's defense does against the Bucs offense.
9.Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles: For Donovan McNabb, thank goodness it's October. September was a disaster. His Eagles lost two games. He completed only 45 percent of his passes in those games, and critics came down on him, saying he was overrated. He was a victim of comments made by Rush Limbaugh prior to last week's victory over Buffalo, statements that ended up in Limbaugh resignation from ESPN late Wednesday night. McNabb can right a lot of wrongs Sunday by beating the Redskins and pulling Philadelphia back into the NFC East race. Last week, he starting running out of the pocket and looking like the McNabb of old in beating the Bills. A home game against the Redskins would seem the simple cure for what ails the Eagles, but the injury list isn't going to cooperate. Safety Michael Lewis might be the only regular starter in the secondary. Free safety Brian Dawkins is out and cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent are very, very questionable. And they are facing a Steve Spurrier offense that is much smarter than a year ago. Spurrier is doing a nice job of mixing the run with the talented passing of Patrick Ramsey. A road victory by the Redskins could turn the Eagles into more pretender than contender. A lot is at stake.
Mike Holmgren and the Seahawks head to Green Bay with a 3-0 record.
8.Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers: Mike Holmgren's return to Green Bay is always special. He coached one of his best games as the Seahawks coach when he went into Lambeau during his first season in Seattle. Nothing less than coaching excellence is expected Sunday. Holmgren has three major edges in this game. First, the Seahawks have a lot of weapons on offense, receivers Koren Robinson and Darrell Jackson, halfback Shaun Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Second, he's had a bye week to rest team's injuries. Third, he's catching the Packers on a short week following a Monday night victory over the Bears. The Packers secondary was banged up at the end of that game so much that linebacker Marcus Wilkins had to play cornerback. Though none of those injuries are bad enough to sideline a player in this game, each member of the secondary is sore. Brett Favre needs a big game against a Seahawks defense that loves to force turnovers.
7.Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: Panic hasn't yet set in for the Steelers after losing to the Titans last week, and it shouldn't. As long as the Steelers go 6-0 or 5-1 in the AFC North, they can still win 10 or 11 games and make the playoffs. The concern is outside of the division, where the Steelers have been 4-7-1 over the past two seasons. That's why they can't lose to the Browns or any team in the division. This is an emotional rivalry, but the Steelers should have the upper hand. The Steelers defense ranks second and the Browns offense is the third worst in football. Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton created all kinds of trouble for Titans center Justin Hartwig last week, and this week he'll go up against Browns rookie first-round choice Jeff Faine. Tim Couch starts his second game for the injured Kelly Holcomb, and a loss could send Cleveland into a losing-season abyss.
6.Tennessee Titans at New England Patriots: Bill Belichick isn't making excuses. His banged-up Patriots were down nine expected starters because of injuries and the release of strong safety Lawyer Milloy. Despite that, the Patriots were in position to tie or win the game last Sunday against the Redskins. Belichick doesn't know what to expect Sunday as far as his roster. A dozen players fill out his injury list. He's hit hardest on the offensive line and at linebacker. That's not a good combination going against the Titans. Jeff Fisher's defensive line destroys good offensive lines, and the Patriots may be patching things with a rookie center, Dan Koppen, and a seldom used tackle, Tom Ashworth. Steve McNair is the league's top quarterback and probably the MVP for the first month of the season. Belichick must devise enough schemes with his remaining role players to frustrate McNair. It won't be easy.
5.Miami Dolphins at New York Giants: Jim Fassel can't figure out what's wrong with his pass defense. Cornerbacks Will Allen and Will Peterson are among the league's best five cornerback tandems. He's got a great pass-rusher in Michael Strahan. Yet his pass defense is allowing 314 yards a game. That's ridiculous. If Jay Fiedler can put up a 300-yard game on them, the Giants might need to call for reinforcements. Each team is coming off a bye so injuries aren't much of a question. The Dolphins righted a lot of wrongs before the bye by playing solid defense and letting Ricky Williams run the ball 42 times against the Bills. Seeing the Giants pass defense may force the Dolphins into more of a passing mode.
4.New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: Jim Haslett is running out of bodies. He's down sevens starters on defense. That's right seven. The latest added to the mix are free safety Tebucky Jones and defensive tackle Kenny Smith. The problem for the Saints is those injuries have hit in the most critical areas. Haslett's defense requires great play on the defensive line and aggressiveness in the secondary. The Saints have been hit hardest along the defensive line and the secondary. Now, injuries are creeping in on offense. Wayne Gandy, the team's left tackle, is out with a hamstring injury, and no offensive line wants to concede any player going against the Panthers $127 million defensive line. The Panthers hope to have middle linebacker Dan Morgan back to solidify the linebacking corps. He's missed two games with a hamstring injury.
3.Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons: It's all falling apart for the Falcons. Cornerback Tyrone Williams, one of the league's most attacked cornerbacks, gets suspended for this game for conduct detrimental to the team. After weeks of trying to juggle the safeties and one outside linebacker spot because of injuries, the Falcons go into this game without their top three cornerbacks and two outside linebackers, Sam Rogers and Will Overstreet. And now it looks as though Michael Vick might not be back until November. The Falcons have gone from a playoff team to a team in which opponents can play and rest top players. The Vikings feel as though they can get by with Gus Frerotte at quarterback, giving starter Daunte Culpepper another Sunday and the bye week to rest up from his broken back. The Falcons can't stop the run, so the Vikings big, physical offensive line plans to pound the ball with Moe Williams. The Falcons have to find a way to stop Randy Moss with an injured secondary.
2.Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers: Steve Mariucci had to quietly laugh at hearing Terrell Owens pop off against his teammates and offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. Mariucci's relationship with Owens in part led to his exit in San Francisco. Maybe it wasn't actually Mariucci. Unfortunately, Mooch doesn't come back to the Bay Area with a good team. Joey Harrington is struggling with a 63 quarterback rating and a 51.2 percent completion percentage. The 49ers love to blitz and will try to make Harrington's visit miserable. For the 49ers, this might be their most important game of the season. They have to turn around their 1-3 start. Things are falling apart. Dennis Erickson sat down Owens and told him the next outburst will be penalized. The Lions could be the cure for what ails the 49ers.
1.Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys: During the preseason, the Cardinals physically outplayed the Cowboys, and that infuriated coach Bill Parcells. There is no doubt he's been showing tape of that game to his team as a reminder. Play hard. Play well. But don't lose the physical battle. Emmitt Smith's return is something special. He's averaging only 3.3 yards a carry, and he needs a big game against the Cowboys. But the Cowboys won two games in the Meadowlands and are starting to believe they are a solid team. For Emmitt, it's a chance to get reacquainted with old friends and prove he made the right move in going to Phoenix. For Parcells, this game is a stepping tone to having a decent season.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.