Thursday, October 1, 2009 Updated: October 2, 8:51 PM ET
Ravens, Patriots bracing for shootout?
By John Clayton ESPN.com
In the world beyond Brett Favre, there is some interesting football in Week 4, especially in the AFC.
The Baltimore Ravens-New England Patriots game is fascinating for reasons you wouldn't believe. Naturally, the quarterback matchup is interesting. Tom Brady is the headliner. Joe Flacco of the Ravens is an emerging star, completing 64.5 percent of his passes on an offense averaging 34.3 points a game.
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But what's really interesting about this game is the noticeable shift in strategic philosophies. So far, the traditional AFC powers have been emphasizing offense, not defense. That's right. The Ravens are averaging 35 pass attempts a game. Brady is throwing 47 passes a game. The Pittsburgh Steelers have forgotten how to run the ball, and Ben Roethlisberger is throwing 36 passes a game. The San Diego Chargers are throwing the ball 62.7 percent of the time.
Aren't these teams known for defense and running the football? A Bill Belichick game against the Ravens and Ray Lewis figures to be all about defense, right? But the Patriots aren't the same on defense without Richard Seymour (trade), Jerod Mayo (injured), Tedy Bruschi (retired), Mike Vrabel (trade) and Rodney Harrison (retired).
Belichick actually started to cover up for defensive problems two years ago during the 16-0 season. The idea was to ramp up the offense as much as possible to keep New England's defense off the field and fresh. He's doing the same this year, and it's working. Because the Patriots' offense is getting about 75 plays a game, the defense is averaging only 49.3 snaps a game. That's why the Patriots' defense has yet to allow an opponent to pass for 300 yards.
Who knows how long this trend will last? The Ravens' strategy last year, to buy time for Flacco to grow as a rookie, was to run the ball 37 teams and hope Flacco could execute 14 to 16 completions a game. The result was an 11-win season that ended in the AFC title game.
The AFC has great quarterbacks, but the conference is also known for its tough, run-stopping defenses. Many of the top teams use the 3-4. When the Ravens and Patriots meet Sunday, it will be interesting to see whether it will be a physical, defensive game or an offensive shootout.
Let's go to the rest of the First and 10:
1. Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: I know this is the best game of the week, but I wanted to give you a break from the Favre coverage to focus on something else. That's why the Ravens game is at the top.
What more can be said about this game? Favre wants some revenge, but so do the Packers. Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson have been caught up in the Favre soap opera for 19 months, but the spotlight is on two players in the game -- Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Favre legitimized every effort to get him to Minnesota with his 80-yard, game-winning touchdown drive against the 49ers in Week 3. The future Hall of Fame quarterback came through just as you thought he would. The interesting twist to this story is that Rodgers -- today -- is probably a better threat at quarterback than Favre for 58 minutes. He has a stronger arm and is more mobile in the pocket than Favre.
This matchup was one that Packers management wanted to avoid when it decided to trade Favre, which is why he was shipped off to the New York Jets last year. Left tackle Chad Clifton is expected to return from the ankle injury that sidelined him for a week. Without him, Rodgers would have had to see Vikings defensive end Jared Allen more than he would like.
A nagging ankle injury has prevented LaDainian Tomlinson from producing at his usual level.
2. San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers: What should be a great game doesn't feel like a potential playoff preview. The problem with the Chargers is injuries. LaDainian Tomlinson can't shake his bad ankle. Linebacker Shawne Merriman, who's still trying to return to form after last year's knee surgery, might miss the game because of a groin injury. Offensive line injuries have thrown off San Diego's offense, and the loss of Jamal Williams at nose tackle has contributed to the Chargers' slow starts in games. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has been making great halftime adjustments, but he needs a good start because the Chargers are on the road.
The Steelers' problems have been more internal. They aren't playing like a Super Bowl champ. The defense hasn't been as dominating, but part of that is the result of the knee injury sidelining safety Troy Polamalu. Defense isn't the real problem. The offense is. The inability to run the ball has allowed the Bears and Bengals to come back and beat Pittsburgh the past two weeks.
3. New York Jets at New Orleans Saints: Coach Rex Ryan, according to ESPN Next Level research, has the Jets leading the league in blitzes. They are blitzing 63.4 percent of the time. The next closest team is the Bears at 49.2 percent. Saints QB Drew Brees has a 145.1 passer rating against blitzes, burning defenses for 12 completions in 18 attempts for 212 yards and two touchdowns.
The game will be played in the loud Superdome, so this will be a big challenge for Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams also loves to blitz, and he'll be looking to rattle Sanchez.
4. Dallas Cowboys at Denver Broncos: Are the Broncos for real? Denver, the biggest surprise in football, is 3-0 under first-year coach Josh McDaniels. Denver's upset of the Bengals in Week 1 was a stunner, but the Browns and Raiders made the Broncos look elite on defense and solid on offense. This game is the first of eight major challenges for the Broncos against some of the best teams in football. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has pieced together a 3-4 defense with some castoff defensive linemen. He has patched the secondary with veterans.
The Cowboys won't have Felix Jones in the backfield because he's out with a PCL injury, and they aren't sure about Marion Barber, who missed the Monday night game versus Carolina with a quad injury.
5. Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts: The fun of this game would have been watching Walter Jones, one of the best left tackles of his era, going against Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, one of the best pass-rushers. But Jones still has pain despite two knee surgeries and is out. Freeney is going to miss the game with a quad injury.
To make matters worse for the Seahawks, QB Matt Hasselbeck will miss his second consecutive game, giving Seneca Wallace the start. Wallace, a mobile quarterback, usually produces around 19 points on offense. He's going against Peyton Manning, who looks sharper than ever. This should be a tough Sunday for the Seahawks.
The Chad Henne era is here -- about a year earlier than the Dolphins expected.
6. Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins: Maybe there is hope for the Bills, who have done more to hurt themselves this year than the opponents they've faced. They are catching the Dolphins in a quarterback transition. Chad Pennington is out for the season and maybe his career with his third major shoulder injury. Chad Henne will start, but he was being ticketed to be the starter in 2010, not this season. Henne will need a solid running game to make his life easier.
The Bills fired their offensive coordinator just before the season and have the youngest offensive line in the NFL. If that isn't enough, Terrell Owens is about ready to blow up emotionally after ending a streak of 185 games in which he caught a pass. Quarterback Trent Edwards is being criticized for not throwing the ball downfield enough. Only eight of his 91 attempts have sailed 21 yards or longer. Going against a young quarterback who might not put up many points, the Bills might take a few more chances this week.
7. Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars: Coach Jeff Fisher must keep the Titans focused after an 0-3 start, but they have a favorable matchup in Week 4. The Jaguars are transitioning to a 3-4 defense, but their talent may not be ready to stop top running offenses. The Jaguars have done a decent job so far, holding opponents to 100 rushing yards a game, but the Titans love to pound the ball on the ground. Fisher will give the Jaguars a steady diet of Chris Johnson and LenDale White and will try to work a few play-action passes with Kerry Collins.
No team since the 1998 Buffalo Bills has bounced back from an 0-3 start to make the playoffs, but the Titans have resolve. The key is getting to the Oct. 25 bye with at least two wins. After the Jags, the Titans host Indianapolis and travel to New England. A win over the Jags gets them to 1-3, but a loss could trigger a potential 0-6 start. After the bye, though, the Titans' schedule isn't too tough.
8. Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns: The Browns are hoping the switch to quarterback Derek Anderson will provide a spark. Anderson is a little bit of a rebel in a sense that he'll throw a long pass when it's not expected. Mangini is strict on details, but his meticulous game plans have the Browns at 0-3 and depressed. The unpredictability of Anderson could generate some excitement for the Browns.
For the Bengals, the game is huge because it could give them momentum heading into the Week 5 meeting in Baltimore against the Ravens. Going into that game with two AFC North wins and a 3-1 record could make the Bengals feel like playoff contenders.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Washington Redskins: Roger Goodell tried to make it easy for the Redskins and Jim Zorn. Sure, playing the Giants on the road to open the season wasn't easy, but a five-game follow-up that included St. Louis, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Kansas City couldn't have been a better gift. Those teams have a combined record of 1-14, with the only win being the Lions' upset of the Redskins in Week 3.
Bucs coach Raheem Morris is trying to jump-start his team by starting unproven QB Josh Johnson instead of veteran Byron Leftwich, who will be the third quarterback.
10. Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears: Former Lions coach Rod Marinelli has done a nice job with the Bears' defensive line. Chicago coach Lovie Smith, now calling the defensive plays, has gone away from the Cover 2 and is blitzing 49.2 percent of the time. Lions players like Marinelli, so the meeting should be a little emotional.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.