Thursday, November 9, 2006
Battle of NFC's best tops Week 10
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Editor's note: ESPN.com 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 9.First Chicago Bears at New York Giants
The Bears and Giants finished the first half of the season as arguably the NFC's top two teams.
Despite Rex Grossman's struggles, the Bears are the class of the NFC.
No one is surprised about the Bears. They have the best assemblage of young Pro Bowl defensive players. Quarterback Rex Grossman opened the season red-hot. They have one of the league's best offensive lines. Plus, they entered the season playing the league's easiest schedule. Their 7-1 record came against teams with a 23-41 record and they faced only two teams with .500 records or better.
The Giants are a little bit of a surprise. Though everyone considers them a playoff-caliber team in terms of talent, many have wondered how they'll handle the league's toughest schedule. Eli Manning opened the season against teams projected to be great on defense. He has put up 24.3 points a game, and the Giants rank eighth in offense. Their 6-2 record can be attributed to great coaching and great play.
But can it hold up?
The Bears and Giants head into their Sunday night game with plenty of questions. For the Bears, the questions involve Grossman. Aggressive and creative defensive game plans by Arizona and Miami gave him fits. With the Cardinals and Dolphins putting constant pressure on Grossman, he made poor decisions and threw the ball into the air for interceptions. His quarterback rating has dropped to 81.1 and his 10 interceptions are third most in the league.
Obviously, he's going through growing pains. This is his first full season as a starter. How he handles the next month against the toughest part of the Bears' schedule could be a preview of how well he will do in the playoffs. The running game has been off to a slow start, so Grossman has to handle the pressure better.
Still, no one in Chicago is panicking. Why should they? The Bears have a three-game lead over the Vikings in the NFC North and they still are outscoring teams by an average of 17 points per game. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris suggested last week's loss was one that originated earlier in the week, with the Bears losing focus in the meeting rooms and on the practice field because of their success.
The Giants are another story. Injuries are destroying their roster. They keep winning games and losing players, and pretty soon, that has to catch up to their performance. On Sunday, for example, the Giants lost wide receiver Amani Toomer for the season with a knee injury and defensive end Michael Strahan indefinitely with a Lisfranc foot injury.
In the victory over the Cowboys on Oct. 23, the Giants lost defensive ends Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and cornerback Sam Madison. They haven't played since that game. Linebacker Brandon Short has been on and off the field because of a knee injury.
By taking care of business in the first half of the season, the Giants hold a two-game lead in the NFC East. Sunday night will be a big test of their capacity to withstand their injuries.
And 10. St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks
There are seven divisional games this week, one of the better weeks of the second half of the season for divisional play. For various reasons, though, the games aren't as hot as you would like. Even this matchup of the two best teams in the NFC West is tainted. The Seahawks are playing without Matt Hasselbeck, Shaun Alexander and most likely four other starters. The Rams come to town giving up 141.3 yards a game on the ground. Still, the fate of the division will play out in Qwest Field. If the Seahawks win, they should run away with the NFC West. They would have a two-game lead and a sweep of the Rams. Over the final seven weeks, the Hawks are expected to get back most of their injured starters. Hasselbeck could return Nov. 19 against the 49ers and Alexander could be back at the same time. Rams coach Scott Linehan has done a great job gaining the confidence of the Rams' offensive players and the defensive players love Jim Haslett's aggressive schemes. What's baffling the Rams is a three-game losing streak in which they are giving up 33 points a game. During that stretch, the team may have started pressing a little more on offense. Marc Bulger rarely throws interceptions but fumbles are cropping up as offensive players try to get an extra yard or two.
9. San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals
It's time for the Bengals to show some maturity. Their season is slipping away. Offensive players have to put their frustrations behind them and concentrate on execution. Receivers and halfbacks have to rally around Carson Palmer instead of giving him the cold shoulder. Trying to do that against one of the most physical defenses in football, however, might be tough. The Chargers come to town giving up only 85.3 yards a game on the ground and 16.8 points per game. They should have linebacker Shaun Phillips back after he missed a couple of games with a calf injury. It's clear Palmer isn't playing his best football because of his knee injury from last January. Defenders are diving for his knee, and that hurts his throwing mechanics. When Palmer doesn't stride out far enough on his left leg, a lot of his passes sail high and incomplete. With injuries along the offensive line, protecting Palmer has been difficult and the Bengals have struggled to get a consistent running game going as well. At 4-4, the Bengals have no time to complain. They either start playing better now, or they can forget about the playoffs.
8. New York Jets at New England Patriots
Eric Mangini has done a great job of making the Jets competitive. He's put together well-planned schemes. Chad Pennington has done an excellent job with the no-huddle offense. At 4-4, the Jets are one of this season's surprises, but few think they have a shot at the AFC East title. This is their only chance. The Patriots beat the Jets, 24-17, earlier this season in the Meadowlands. New England leads the Jets by two games in the division race and should be able to run away with the division with a victory. Odds certainly favor that. The Patriots are good, but not great. They have lost home games to the Broncos and Colts, but losing a home game to the Jets would send shock waves throughout the AFC. Tom Brady struggled against the Colts' defense, but he's going against a Jets defense that ranks 31st in the league, giving up 359.1 yards a game. No doubt, Bill Belichick is going to call for a running attack. The Jets are allowing 143 rushing yards per game. It's starting to look as though many of the divisional races will be wrapped up before Thanksgiving.
7. Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles
It's another do-or-die game for the Redskins. Last week, they were ready to die, but a blocked Cowboys field goal in the final seconds gave them second life. Now, it's up to Joe Gibbs to do something with that second chance. The victory over the Cowboys lifted the spirits of the team and gave it hope. The Eagles, meanwhile, are baffled. They are on a three-game losing streak and are coming off a bye. They had a 4-1 start but haven't won a game since Oct. 8. Before the bye, frustration was evident. Receivers weren't getting separation from cornerbacks. Drops were skyrocketing. Donovan McNabb is having a great season statistically, but he needs better support from his receivers because it's not as if he can rely on a running game to make life easy. The Eagles aren't much of a running team. Despite Andy Reid's statements about being a more balanced team, the Eagles throw the ball 61 percent of the time.That's an improvement but it would be nice in cold weather if they could occasionally rely on the run.
6. Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans
As a matchup, this is one of the worst of the day. The Ravens are 6-2. The Titans are 2-6 and making do with a rookie quarterback. But for the backstory, it's going to be tough to top this game this season. Steve McNair is returning to Nashville. McNair was a symbol of the good times for the Titans. He's the quarterback who took them to the Super Bowl. He's the quarterback who made them a playoff contender. And he was supposed to be in Tennessee this season, but Titans management couldn't come to a salary cap relief solution with McNair. He had a $23 million salary cap number after the team opted to void the final years of his contract and make him a free agent after this season. The next move was trading him. Making matters worse was the move to ban him from team facilities until they figured out what to do with him. McNair had to file a grievance just to get in the building. Earlier this year, the Titans honored Warren Moon, who made the Hall of Fame. This should be an emotional game for McNair, who is trying to get the Ravens a seventh victory.
5. Kansas City Chiefs at Miami Dolphins Damon Huard was a backup quarterback in the Dan Marino days. He jokes about his low-profile career. Huard said it's no surprise few around the NFL know much about him. He's played behind Marino, Tom Brady and Trent Green, three of the more durable quarterbacks in the sport. Huard has been an amazing story this season, going 5-2 filling in for Green while he recovers from a severe concussion. He's put the Chiefs back in the playoff race. This will be a scary game for the Chiefs, though. The Dolphins are a dangerous team, even though they are just 2-6. Ask the Bears, who lost to the Dolphins last week at Soldier Field. As disappointing as they have been this season, the Dolphins do have a tough, physical defense. People forget the Dolphins rank fourth on defense, allowing 278.5 yards a game. Nick Saban finally broke through and will try to pull off a home victory. The Chiefs' strength is the running of Larry Johnson. The Dolphins are good against the run, allowing only 102.3 yards a game. This could be a tough game for the Chiefs.
4. New Orleans Saints at Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers' collapse is as surprising as the Saints' rise to 6-2. Turnovers. Turnovers. Turnovers. That's what has killed Pittsburgh. The Steelers' minus-11 turnover ratio is the worst in football. Ben Roethlisberger can't stop throwing interceptions. He leads the league with 14. Halfback Willie Parker didn't help matters by saying Steelers players aren't trying hard enough. Pittsburgh is a mess. On the flip side, things can't be any better for the Saints. Despite offseason shoulder surgery, Drew Brees shows no sign of wear. Seventh-round pick Marques Colston is the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year and the team also has the most talented rookie in the draft, Reggie Bush. Coach Sean Payton has pushed all the right buttons in his first season in New Orleans. The question facing him is whether he's catching the beleaguered Steelers at the right time or the wrong time.
3. Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
Bill Parcells is preaching better focus from his team for the second half of the season. At 4-4, the Cowboys are mediocre, but Parcells still sees some good things. He likes what he sees from quarterback Tony Romo after two starts. But Terrell Owens' drops have to stop. Naturally, Owens dismisses the drops, just like he came up with an excuse for why he sleeps in meetings. He says every receiver drops balls, but in two games, Owens has made key drops that contributed to Cowboys losses. Though he can't totally take the blame for the losses, he hasn't been able to push this team over the top to be a winner. That's what he was brought to Dallas to do. The Cardinals had a natural rivalry with the Cowboys when both of them were in the NFC East. Fans in Arizona are frustrated by the Cardinals' 1-7 start, so look for a lot of Cowboys fans to end up in the stands. It could sound like a Cowboys home game.
2. Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings Brett Favre has cut down on his interceptions, and the young offensive line is starting to come together. Believe it or not, the Packers could move into a tie for second place in the NFC North if they beat the Vikings. This is a good rivalry game. Darren Sharper left the Packers to go to the Vikings. Even though he still has a lot of friends on the Packers, he wants to do everything in his power to beat his old team. Offensively, the Vikings have done nothing since their 31-point effort against the Seahawks in Week 7. Scoring seven points against a good Patriots defense is excusable. But scoring only three points against the 49ers -- that's just bad. Favre has managed to do well with Donald Driver and a bunch of rookie receivers. He hopes to have rookie Greg Jennings (ankle injury) back this week. With that in mind, the Vikings have to find a way to score points.
1. Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders
Mike Shanahan has resisted the temptation to blitz a lot this season because he has so many good defensive players. But he may change that strategy against the Raiders. Andrew Walter is a standing target in the Raiders' backfield. Blitz him and you get him. He's been sacked 37 times and the Raiders have allowed 44 sacks overall. This could be a 10-sack game if Shanahan turns on the green light. The way these Raiders games have gone lately, defenders are just taking numbers to go through the line to get to the quarterback. It's a stats game. Plus, Shanahan certainly won't show the Raiders any sympathy.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.