Thursday, October 5, 2006
T.O.'s return overshadows importance of the game
By John Clayton
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's "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 of the 2006 season.
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
He helped to take the Eagles to a Super Bowl in 2004. His selfishness helped to rip the team apart in 2005. A former hero to the Eagles fans, Owens is now public enemy No. 1. Owens even jokes that fans will twist his recent hospitalization for a bad reaction of pain medication to "O.D., O.D." cheers.
Terrell Owens' return to Philadelphia is the most anticipated scene of the 2006 season.
Yet, the game itself might even exceed the hype. Both teams have emerged as the early front-runners to win pro football's most competitive division. For the Cowboys, it was expected. In the last two years, Bill Parcells has put together one of the most physical, aggressive 3-4 defenses in the league. Despite the loss of Owens, Donovan McNabb has spread the ball to receivers in no-huddle sets and is averaging 312 passing yards a game and leads the league with nine touchdown passes.
Though the focus will be on Owens, who is coming off recent ring finger surgery in his right hand, the pressure is on the Eagles. They haven't won an NFC East game since 2004, losing all six last season and their home opener this season against the Giants after blowing a 17-point second-half lead.
The Eagles' schedule was favorable early with games against the Packers and 49ers, but that just means the Eagles need to start strong in the division because they have one of the toughest closing schedules in the league. Plus, a loss to the Cowboys would mean they would have lost two of their three home NFC East games.
Injuries are a concern for the Eagles. Cornerback Lito Sheppard is trying to come back from an ankle injury that sidelined him the past couple of weeks. Third cornerback Roderick Hood is doubtful with a heel injury. For this game, the Eagles could get by without a top third cornerback because the Cowboys use more two tight end-two receiver sets, but having Sheppard back is vital.
The Eagles receivers are banged up. Donte' Stallworth is doubtful with a hamstring injury and Reggie Brown is questionable with a shoulder injury. If neither can go, McNabb will be without his starting receivers going against a defense that could frustrate a tight-end dominated offense.
Another key injury to follow is to Brian Westbrook, who is considered the X factor in the Philly offense. Eagles coach Andy Reid revealed Tuesday Westbrook has a bone bruise on the knee and that some cartilage might be damaged. The Eagles don't have a bye week until Nov. 5 so it's not as though they could scope the knee and get him back without a missed game.
Reid made Westbrook a last-minute scratch for Monday night's game against the Packers, hoping he could make it to the Cowboys game. So far the swelling is down, which is a good sign. But if he can't play, the Eagles could head into this key matchup understaffed on offense. Which is just what Owens wants to see.
10. Washington Redskins at New York Giants
|Have you heard? Terrell Owens is returning to Philadelphia.|
With six divisional games on the schedule, this is the last big divisional weekend for a month. You have to wait until Nov. 12 for a weekend in which there are more than four such games, which makes these divisional contests even more special. Any weekend in which the four NFC East teams are playing each other is special because they keep knocking each other off. For the Giants, this could be the crossroads of their season. While tight end Jeremy Shockey has called out the coaching staff, Tom Coughlin still has control over this team. But this is a must win as another loss could cause more players to turn critical. The Giants are giving up 30.7 points a game and they can't get their defense off the field. Opponents are averaging 71.6 plays a game against the Giants and quarterbacks have kept their linebackers off-balance with quick offenses and no-huddle plays, leaving huge gaps in their pass coverage. Coughlin had the bye week to fix the problem, but he faces a Redskins' offense that is gaining momentum after starting slowly. Two opening losses had everyone wondering about the offensive changes of Al Saunders but the Redskins scored 67 points in the past two weeks and Mark Brunell is one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league. Critics are silenced. Further complicating Coughlin's mission is the slight pectoral tear that will sideline linebacker Carlos Emmons for a couple of weeks. The Giants already were struggling at linebacker and losing Emmons' leadership isn't going to make it easier.
9. Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots
What was supposed to be the key matchup in the AFC East is a major downer. The Dolphins have been horrible. At 1-3, their pass protection is non-existent. Receivers seem slow. Daunte Culpepper has been a sitting duck at quarterback. The running game has been spotty. Heading into the season, this looked to be the year Nick Saban was going to challenge the Patriots for the AFC East title but if the Dolphins lose, they will be three games behind the Patriots. Despite a secondary that lacked cornerback Ellis Hobbs and Randall Gay, Bill Belichick did one of his rabbit-out-of-the-hat coaching jobs last week as the Patriots routed the Bengals 38-13. Belichick is 3-1 despite a lack of threats at wide receiver and an offseason of personnel losses instead of gains. Win this one and the Patriots all but claim another AFC East crown and can start printing playoff tickets since they will have beaten everyone in the AFC East once. With a relatively easy schedule, the Patriots could start coasting to the playoffs. For the Dolphins, this is crisis time. Saban works his players hard and losing this game could kill the hopes of this team because it's rare for a 1-4 team to make the playoffs. There hasn't been a 1-3 team make the playoffs since 2002. Saban is fighting the odds and he knows it.
8. Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
|Miami's Daunte Culpepper has already been sacked 21 times this season. |
Thanks to Steve McNair, the Ravens believe. It's been long time since the Ravens had this much belief in a quarterback. Against a tough Chargers' defense, McNair led the Ravens to a come-from-behind win last Sunday. That's the mark of a great quarterback. He can play poorly for three quarters, but if the game is close, the best quarterbacks can step up and win it. His leadership is allowing the Ravens' defense to fly around the field with even more confidence. At 4-0, the Ravens feel on top of the world, but winning in the Mile High City is a tough task. The Broncos have one of the best home-field advantages in the NFL. Playing at home Monday night is even more of an advantage. That's good and bad for Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer. While the players believe in him like the Ravens believe in McNair, the fans are skeptical. Should Plummer have a tough half against the Ravens, Broncos' fans might turn on him, which is why it's important for the Broncos to get a first-quarter lead. The big concern for the Ravens is the offensive line. The right side of the line was already a problem and now the left side is hampered by the loss of guard Ed Mulitalo to a season-ending triceps injury. Jason Brown takes over, but the line could be vulnerable to a deep Broncos defensive line that is augmented by a sophisticated blitzing scheme.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers at San Diego Chargers
Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer took a lot of heat the past couple of days for playing too close to the vest in last Sunday's loss to the Ravens. With a young quarterback, Philip Rivers, Schottenheimer is back to playing "Marty Ball." With the lead, Schottenheimer is taking the air out of the ball and just running it. That backfired against the Ravens when a couple of mistakes led to the Ravens getting field position in the fourth quarter and scoring nine points to win the game. Going against his close friend Bill Cowher, Schottenheimer isn't going to turn the Chargers' offense into Air Coryell. Expect a close game. This is a critical game for the Steelers. If they fall to 1-3, they could fall out of the hot AFC North race. Hines Ward has been slowed by a hamstring injury that won't go away. Ben Roethlisberger made it through the bye week without a surgery, so that's a good starting point. But Roethlisberger is at the bottom of the NFL starters with a 34.3 quarterback rating and he knows it's time for him to step up.
6. New York Jets at Jacksonville Jaguars
Of the first-year coaches, Eric Mangini is doing one of the best jobs. At 2-2, his Jets have been surprisingly competitive and they might be catching Jacksonville at the right time. The Jaguars are on a two-game losing streak and coach Jack Del Rio has major problems along the defensive line. He played defensive tackle Marcus Stroud the past couple weeks with a bad ankle. But the injury has gotten worse so Stroud might sit out this week. The Jaguars already lost defensive end Reggie Hayward for the season. Backup end Marcellus Wiley probably won't play because of a groin injury. Those problems leave the defensive line thin and unable to sustain much of a pass rush. That plays into the hand of Jets quarterback Chad Pennington. Pennington doesn't have a running game yet to bail him out, but he's had success working the short passing game and his heady leadership has kept the Jets' offense moving. Though they looked to be a two- or three-win team in the preseason, the Jets might now have a chance to get to seven or eight wins this year. For the Jaguars, it's a must win because if the Colts beat the Titans and the Jaguars lose, the Jags could be three games out of first in the AFC South.
5. Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
Rod Marinelli's Marine approach hasn't pulled the Lions out of the bunker. Most disappointing is the defense. Brought to Detroit to establish discipline, Marinelli is watching his defense go into freefall after surrendering 106 points in the past three games. The only good news for the Lions is the offense is starting to get the feel for what offensive coordinator Mike Martz wants and is performing much better. That doesn't necessarily mean the Lions will get into a shootout with the Vikings. Whether they play good teams or bad teams, the Vikings play close games. They have a very good defense that can dominate an offensive line, and the Lions' D-line is battered with injuries. The Vikings' offense just hasn't been scoring. It's averaging only 15.8 points a week. Chester Taylor has been a success as a running back, but his running totals are rather anemic in the first three quarters. Once the offensive line wears down a defense, Taylor starts breaking the big runs. If the Lions lose, Marinelli could start losing some of the players. They played hard for him early this season, but at 0-5, the fate of this season would be pretty well set. Marinelli was brought in to eliminate the losing atmosphere surrounding this franchise, but a winless start would only keep that aura in place.
4. Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears
Blowing out the Seahawks Sunday night has confidence in Chicago at an all-time high. It should be. Everyone knew the Bears' defense was going to be good. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris has been unblockable and the Bears are giving up a league-low 7.3 points a game and only 257 yards a game. The surprise has been the offense. Rex Grossman has a 100.8 quarterback rating, completing 62.4 percent of his passes and throwing for eight touchdowns. The plan going into the season was to find a way to score 21 points a game. The Bears are averaging 29. They beat the Vikings on the road and have the NFC North in pretty good shape. They beat the Seahawks and have a tie-breaker in their back pocket for home-field advantage in the playoffs. They just have to make sure the Bills game isn't a trap game for them. Dick Jauron, the former Bears coach, returns with a young Bills teams that has been a surprise. The Bills are giving up only 16.3 points a game and J.P. Losman is gaining confidence at a quarterback. Still, watching the Bears defensive line go against the Bills offensive line could be a little ugly.
3. Kansas City Chiefs at Arizona Cardinals
Dennis Green grew impatient with the fumbles and turnovers with Kurt Warner at the helm, so the Cardinals are going with rookie Matt Leinart as the starting QB. That might not solve the problem, though. Protection has been the big problem for the Cardinals. Leinart isn't mobile so he's going to need better play from the offensive line. Things were so bad, Green got on the radio Monday and called out the team's best linemen. Though he didn't use their names, he talked about guys making $3 million and griping instead of playing. If the line doesn't start playing better, the Cardinals' season will set in the West and Green's job might be looked at by ownership. Heck, if the Cardinals can't handle the Chiefs' defensive line, imagine the problems they will have with the Bears next Monday. The Chiefs are two weeks away from Trent Green's return at quarterback. Damon Huard did a nice job last week against the 49ers, but the Cardinals present problems because of their complicated blitzing scheme.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints
|Matt Leinart takes over the league's 24th-ranked offense known for its porous O-line.|
Who would have thought the Bucs would come to the Big Easy as the underdogs? They made the playoffs last year. Now, they are 0-3, starting rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, their offensive line is a mess and their defense seems old. What's even more surprising is that the Saints could be 4-1 after this game after tearing up half the roster. Go figure. The Bucs had a bye week to lament their woes. They haven't played since Chris Simms had his spleen removed and then they find out right tackle Kenyatta Walker's chronic knee problems needed a reconstruction. Jon Gruden is a great motivator and has some of the most imaginative schemes in the league but he needs one of his best coaching days to prevent an 0-4 start for the Bucs.
1. Oakland Raiders at San Francisco 49ers
Of course, this game is a dog, but it's an intriguing dog. It's the battle to see which is the worst team in the Bay Area. It's only natural the 49ers are favored by a field goal. Despite last week's shutout in Kansas City, the 49ers appear improved on offense. Former Raiders coach Norv Turner has done a nice job making Alex Smith seem more comfortable as the franchise quarterback. Sure, the 49ers are a draft or two away from having a decent defense, but at least they have an offense. The Raiders have nothing. Andrew Walter is the league's lowest-ranked quarterback at 29.2. He's been sacked 12 times and has released only 55 passes. Randy Moss is talking about how the Raiders' players show up for work and don't seem to care about the 0-3 start. Jerry Porter shows up for work each day and doesn't even get a uniform for games. The winner captures bragging rights for the Bay area. The loser gets begging rights, as in trying to beg fans to show up for the rest of the season at home games.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.