Thursday, October 29, 2009
The pressure is on the Packers
By John Clayton ESPN.com
While the pregame focus is on Brett Favre's return to Lambeau Field in a Vikings uniform, let's focus on what happens if Minnesota can pull off the victory.
A Vikings win would all but seal the fate of the NFC North. The Vikings would be 7-1. The Packers and the Bears, if they win an easy game against the Browns, would be 4-3, 2½ games behind. Packers fans and management would have to live with the reality that Favre's ability to get out of his Jets contract and sneak up to Minnesota cost them a chance at the NFC North title for a second consecutive year.
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That won't be easy to digest. Favre and the Packers were 13-3 when they were last together. They played host to the NFC Championship Game. The push to get an early retirement decision from Favre turned into a disaster. A bigger disaster for the Packers could be if Favre decides to come back and play again next year at the age of 41.
It's not out of the question that he will torture the Vikings this winter with indecision while deciding whether to come back for another year. Favre loves football. If his body is willing, he might try to play another year. Vikings ownership is clearly in favor of that because they are the biggest Favre fans outside Green Bay.
Face it, the Vikings wouldn't be 6-1 without Favre. He stepped up in the fourth quarter against the 49ers, Packers and Ravens. Against the Steelers, he put drives in the fourth quarter that almost won that game. The Vikings are the most talented team in the division and probably the conference, and the presence of Favre has them destined for a 12-win season or better.
The Packers have the right replacement for Favre in Aaron Rodgers. He's smart, tough and has a strong, accurate arm. Teammates respect him. I still contend the way the Packers should have handled Favre's decision to come out of retirement in 2008 was to let him play one more season and then control his exit if he still wanted to play in 2009.
The future of the Packers was Rodgers. The present in 2008 was still Favre. He was good enough to get the Jets off to an 8-3 start. While Rodgers was good in 2008, he didn't have that knack of winning close games in the fourth quarter, and consequently the Packers fell to 6-10.
If the Packers lose, their focus will be on scrambling to win a wild-card spot. On Sunday, the pressure will be on the Packers to beat Favre and not let him have his way.
Now on to the rest of this week's First and 10
1. New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles: Heading into the regular season, the Giants looked like a No. 1 seed in the NFC. They could run the ball. They could stop the run. Eli Manning was a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. Their defense could pressure quarterbacks. A 5-0 start against an easy schedule gave the Giants a swagger, but losses to the Saints and Cardinals are troubling. Tom Coughlin must try to regain momentum in a tough road challenge against the Eagles. Andy Reid put aside the disappointment of the loss to the Raiders two weeks ago with a relatively easy victory over the Redskins on Monday night. They aren't sure if halfback Brian Westbrook will play because of a concussion. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson is banged up. These two cities are also in a battle for the World Series. This game is just as big.
After starting 3-0, Joe Flacco and the Ravens have lost three straight.
2. Denver Broncos at Baltimore Ravens: Before their bye week, the Ravens lost to the Vikings, but not before rallying with a 21-point fourth-quarter effort that spoke well of the team's heart. Now 3-3, the Ravens must do what they did last season -- start winning. It's hard to believe the Ravens are on a three-game losing streak with quarterback Joe Flacco, who has six fourth-quarter touchdown passes and is having a Pro Bowl season. The Broncos have had the bye week to reflect on their amazing 6-0 start. Ravens coaches have had extra time to study the Broncos. We'll see if they found ways to stop the Broncos, something no one else was able to do in Denver's first six games.
3. Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints:Matt Ryan and the Falcons must adjust to Michael Turner's struggles running the ball. After a 376-carry season, Turner is averaging only 3.4 yards a carry and his inability to break big runs has created a problem for the Falcons. Last year, the Falcons averaged 4.46 yards a run on first downs, giving Ryan a lot of easy second-down plays. This year, the Falcons are averaging only 3.06 yards on first down, setting up tougher second-and-longs and eventually longer third-down plays for Ryan. On the flip side, everything is going right for the Saints' offense. Their run offense surprisingly ranks third in the league. If the Saints win this game, they could coast to a 12-to-14-win season. Their remaining schedule, including the Falcons game, is the second-easiest in football.
4. Miami Dolphins at New York Jets: This game is the supreme test for Rex Ryan and his coaching staff. In Week 5, Ryan let the Dolphins and their Wildcat offense run all over his proud defense in a 31-27 loss. Ryan expressed his embarrassment after the game and put the pressure on himself and the coaching staff to come up with solutions. It won't be easy. Since that game, the Jets lost nose tackle Kris Jenkins, their best run-stopper. The Dolphins kept their season alive by beating the Jets. They once again face the danger of falling too far behind if they lose this game. The Dolphins lost cornerback Will Allen and must contain the Jets with two rookie cornerbacks, Sean Smith and Vontae Davis. The Jets counter with rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez.
5. Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys: The Seahawks may have said goodbye to future Hall of Fame left tackle Walter Jones this week, placing him on the injured reserve list because their injury-plagued roster needed spots. Jones said he wants to come back, but you get the feeling his body just can't handle the pain. Now Seattle must focus on salvaging the season. Damion McIntosh will become the fourth left tackle to try to replace Jones unless Sean Locklear makes a quick recovery from a high ankle sprain. McIntosh must keep DeMarcus Ware away from banged-up QB Matt Hasselbeck. Ware just received a $78 million contract extension, so he will want to pay immediate returns on the investment made by owner Jerry Jones. Ware is coming off back-to-back two-sack games. That's not good news for Hasselbeck's health, or the Seahawks' hopes.
LaDainian Tomlinson ran for only 55 yards in the opener against the Raiders before getting hurt.
6. Oakland Raiders at San Diego Chargers: This used to be a rivalry. No more. The Chargers have won the past 12 games against the Raiders. This is a good test to see if LaDainian Tomlinson is still explosive. Usually, he'll get 120 or more rushing yards against the Raiders, but in the opener against Oakland, he had 55 yards on 13 carries before getting hurt. Tomlinson is healthy now. The Chargers' defense, which played well against the Chiefs in Week 7, will boost its stats now that Tom Cable has decided to stay with struggling quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Oakland has no better options at QB.
7. San Francisco 49ers at Indianapolis Colts: The 49ers knew going into the season that they couldn't compete with Shaun Hill at quarterback if they fell two touchdowns behind in any game or if they got into a shootout. After the 49ers had 28 three-and-outs and saw stacked defenses against the run, head coach Mike Singletary benched Hill and went with Alex Smith, who has a stronger arm and more athletic ability. Don't expect Hill to keep up with Peyton Manning, who has 22 touchdown drives in 61 offensive possessions this season. Smith might not get 22 touchdown drives the rest of the season. In his first NFL start in 2005, Smith threw four picks against the Colts.
8. Carolina Panthers at Arizona Cardinals: The cruel twist to John Fox's decision to stay with Jake Delhomme as Panthers starting quarterback is that Delhomme must play the team that cost him his confidence. In last season's NFC playoff game against the Cardinals, Delhomme threw five interceptions and lost a fumble. Since then, he has thrown 13 interceptions and lost two fumbles. That's an incredible 21 turnovers in seven games. His body language after each mistake gets worse, and endorsements for Delhomme are hard to find. Fox still believes Delhomme gives the Panthers the best chance to win, but 53 percent of the points allowed by the Panthers have been the result of turnovers. That's hard for any team to overcome.
9. Houston Texans at Buffalo Bills: This is a good test for the Texans. Houston QB Matt Schaub is on pace for a 4,740-yard passing season, and if he throws for 168 yards against the Bills, he will be at his second-highest passing yardage mark of his career. Will his quick passing offense work in Buffalo? If the Texans win, they will be 5-3 and set up the biggest game in franchise history in Week 9 against the Colts. Bills owner Ralph Wilson's patience has been rewarded. He didn't fire Dick Jauron a couple of weeks ago, and the Bills (3-4) went on the road and won two ugly games.
10. St. Louis Rams at Detroit Lions: For both teams, this game is one of the few they can win the rest of the season. Unfortunately, neither team gets a shot at Tampa Bay. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford, recovering from a knee injury, practiced Thursday and is expected to play for the first time since Week 4.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.