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Thursday, September 29, 2005 

Doctor, Doctor, Gimme the News

Injuries have been the big story this week in the AFC East. First, the New England Patriots saw S Rodney Harrison and OT Matt Light go down during their win at Pittsburgh on Sunday. Harrison is out for the year with a torn ACL, while Matt Light likely has a broken bone in his leg and is out for a while. A similar diagnosis may also apply to RB Kevin Faulk, who was apparently injuired in the closing moments of the game. So far, the Patriots have brought back OL Gene Mruczkowski and signed RB Amos Zereoue to try to fill the voids, with Guss Scott taking over for Harrison as he did on Sunday.

The Buffalo Bills lost LB Takeo Spikes with an Achilles' tendon injury which may derail their hopes of challenging the Patriots.

But the Jets may have the worst story of all, as QB Chad Pennington is done for the year with a rotator cuff injury and backup Jay Fielder is also hurt. Bet the Baltimore Ravens defense can't wait to line up against Brooks Bollinger on Sunday. New York has signed creaky veteran Vinny Testverde and former Patriots draft pick Kliff Kingsbury for some depth.

The end result is a big break for Nick Saban and the Miami Dolphins. Miami's defense looks much improved, and if Ricky Williams can give Ronnie Brown a break to prevent the rookie from hitting the wall, that will improve their chances in the division even more.

Monday, September 26, 2005 

Winning Drive

Even great teams shouldn't be expected to win games like the Patriots won yesterday. I felt that the Steelers already had a slight edge with the injuries in the Patriots secondary, and the early injury to Rodney Harrison appeared to be a decisive blow. But New England was able to regroup, and controlled the game in the second half en route to a 23-20 win. Both teams made plenty of mistakes, as the Patriots' Kevin Faulk lost two big fumbles in the red zone and Tom Brady had a tipped-ball interception, while the Steelers cost themselves 3 points on a penalty and fumbled away another chance when Antwaan Randle El foolishly tried to lateral to Hines Ward.

Pittsburgh nearly made up for their mistakes by making some big plays in the final few minutes. First, Ike Taylor stopped Kevin Faulk on a third down play to force New England to kick a field goal that only extended their lead to 7 points. Then, Pittsburgh got a great kickoff return to midfield - showing once again that the Patriots really need to work on special teams. Finally, Roethlisberger, who was just 6 of 17 at one point, completed 6 of his final 11 passes and made a good throw to draw a questionable pass interference call to set up the tying touchdown. In my opinion, if both players grab and/or push off each other, it shouldn't be a penalty, but it also depends on what the official can see from his angle.

But Tom Brady drove the Patriots right down the field again, as he did for most of the day, ending up 31 for 41 with 371 yards. Adam Vinateri then adding the game-winning kick with one second left, as the Steelers failed to call their last timeout to save more time.

Long term, the injuries to Harrison and Matt Light may be very costly, but for one day at least, the Patriots coaching staff was able to patch together a very solid effort.

Sunday, September 25, 2005 

Quick Slants

After last week's impressive slate of games, this week is a bit of a downer, with only two games between division rivals (Arizona at Seattle, Kansas City at Denver). Also, bye weeks have begun, as Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, and Washington get an early week off.

Sunday
Cincinnati (2-0) at Chicago (1-1)

It's a battle of (gulp) first place teams at Soldier Field as the Bengals vist the Bears. Cincinnati is the highest-scoring team in the AFC, but their 37-8 win over Minnesota last week was misleading - the Vikings are truly a terrible defensive team, second only to the 49ers for the most points allowed so far this season (61). That said, Bengals QB Carson Palmer has started the year red hot, completing 53 of 74 passes for 617 yards, 5 TDs, and 2 INTs, and RB Rudi Johnson has picked up where he left off to give the team great offensive balance.

The Bears are tied with the Lions at 1-1 but routed them 38-6 last week. Chicago has allowed only 15 points this season, but they've played one-dimensional or poor offenses so far. Washington ran for 164 yards against the Bears in Week One (121 by Clinton Portis) but passed for just 159. In contrast, Chicago held Detroit to 29 yards last week, but Joey Harrington's 5 INTs and Chicago's 31-0 halftime lead were mostly to blame for that. Unless Palmer has his first bad game of the year, it's hard to see the Bears winning this one.

Cleveland (1-1) at Indianapolis (2-0)

The main point of interest in this game is whether Romeo Crennel can stop Peyton Manning like he did when he was with the Patriots. I don't think that is going to work - the Browns have a surprisingly porous defense, and had to hang on for dear life against the Packers last week.

New England (1-1) at Pittsburgh (2-0)

This is the game of the week, but as a Patriots fan, I'm worried. Not about the whole season, but this game is another tough spot. Pittsburgh is 2-0 but hasn't been tested yet, with easy 27-7 and 37-7 wins over Houston and Tennessee, respectively. Ben Roethlisberger has been incredibly efficient, going 9-for-11 last week with two TDs after a 14-21-0-254 2TD performance in the opener. Even with Duce Staley (probably back today) and Jerome Bettis hurt, their running game has been stellar, with 73 carries for 341 yards.

The only edge the Patriots have is an emotional one - yes, the Steelers want "revenge" for last year's AFC title game, but the Patriots played very sloppy last week while the Steelers may be a bit over-confident. The injuries to the Patriots secondary make me lean toward the Steelers in this game, but it still isn't time to panic. Every team in the AFC East is 1-1, and you can make a case that all of them could be 1-2 after today.

Sunday Night
New York Giants (2-0) at San Diego (0-2)

San Diego absolutely needs this game, and I expect them to win. The Giants are off to a terrific start, leading the league in points (69), but they've only played Arizona and New Orleans. By comparison, San Diego's close losses against Dallas and Denver look impressive. The Chargers have yet to get a big game from LaDainian Tomlinson in terms of yardage (19-72; 19-52) but he's scored 3 of San Diego's 5 TDs. More disturbing is how shaky Drew Brees has looked. After completing just 18 of 35 passes and throwing a pair of picks against the Cowboys, Brees was more accurate last week (15-23) but his one interception was a killer. The Chargers had the ball and a 14-3 lead to start the third quarter, but Champ Bailey intercepted Brees and scored on a 25 yard return just 11 seconds into the period. Now trailing 14-10, the Broncos defense picked up the spark and nearly shutout the Chargers the rest of the way, setting up Jason Elam's game winning kick for a 20-17 win.

Monday Night
Kansas City (2-0) at Denver (1-1)

Speaking of Denver, this will be a good test for the Kansas City defense as they play their first tough road game after opening up against the Jets and Raiders. Denver slowed down Tomlinson last week, but the 1-2 punch of Larry Johnson and Priest Holmes won't make things any easier Monday night.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005 

Coaching Matters

At least Bill Parcells can look forward to a trip to San Francisco. His Cowboys spent 55 minutes building and protecting a 13-0 lead against the Redskins Monday night, then gave up 2 touchdowns in 71 seconds on a pair of TD passes from Mark Brunell to Santana Moss. The winning score came on a 70 yard bomb with 2:35 remaining, and Dallas couldn't even get into field goal range after that.

Jim Haslett didn't exactly cover himself with glory in the Saints 27-10 loss in New York. Why would you try a reverse on the opening kickoff? On such an emotional night, just play it straight and hope your team can overcome the atmosphere. Instead, the Giants were able to grab an early 7-0 lead, and the Saints ended up with 6 turnovers on the night, including 3 Aaron Brooks interceptions.

And on Sunday, the Vikings must have wondered why they didn't fire Mike Tice already. Minnesota isn't just losing - they are getting crushed, outscored 61-21 by two teams not known for their offense, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati. The turnover ratio tells most of the story, as Minnesota is -10 (8 INTs, 4 fumbles; 2 INTs forced), but their offensive game planning has been awful. Their 21 points include an 88 yard interception return against Tampa Bay, so the offense had scored just 2 field goals before Culpepper scored on a 5 yard run with 3:17 left on Sunday. That's nearly 117 minutes without a offensive TD.

Monday, September 19, 2005 

Turnabout

It's been an interesting two weeks for Bill Belichick and his former coordinators. Last week, the Patriots won, as did Nick Saban in Miami and Charlie Weis in Notre Dame, while Romeo Crennel lost his debut for Cleveland. This week, Crennel got his first win as an NFL coach, a very impressive win at Lambeau Field, while the other three all lost.

 

Gone in Carolina

In hindsight, it's easy to understand why the Panthers defeated the Patriots yesterday, 27-17. New England has not been sharp in either of its first two games, but Carolina is a tougher opponent than Oakland. However, even with the 12 penalities and the erratic performance of Tom Brady, the Patriots still had the ball, down by only 3, late in the third quarter. Brady's subsequent fumble deep in his own territory ended their chances.

The defense played well again forcing Jake Delhomme into a subpar performance, but the offense and special teams giving Carolina very good field position. In the battle of big plays, the Patriots had two - Troy Brown's long run after a short pass from Brady, and Mike Vrabel's interception return for a TD - while the Panthers had three: 1) Ricky Proehl's long catch and run, 2) Chris Gamble's punt return, and 3) Forcing Brady's fumble. Those big plays translated into a 21-14 Carolina advantage, which was essentially the difference in the game.

Sunday, September 18, 2005 

Quick Slants - Week 2

The NFL has designated this weeekend as Hurricane Katrina relief weekend. If every NFL fan in the United States donated even a small amount, it could make a huge impact. Please consider giving what you can.

Sunday
New England (1-0) at Carolina (0-1)

We'll start in Carolina as the Panthers play another emotion-filled game at home. Last week, they faced a very determined New Orleans team and lost on John Carney's last-second field goal. But Carolina outgained New Orleans 350 to 291, including a 141 to 101 edge on the ground (with 8 fewer attempts).

This week, it's a rematch of Super Bowl XXXVIII, and the Panthers are doing a lot of talking to try to gain an emotional edge of their own. This could be a very high-scoring game, as the Patriots, who have linemen Richard Seymour and Jarvis Green nursing injuries, may be hard-pressed to control the Panthers 1-2 running punch of Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster. On the other hand, Carolina let Aaron Brooks play a very clean game (18-24, 192 yards, no TDs or INTs, 1 sack), and they should have a much tougher time against Tom Brady. The Patriots rarely blow anyone out, and as the Saints found out last week, Carolina's defense keeps them in most games. Look for a close win by the Patriots.

Jacksonville (1-0) at Indianapolis (1-0)

Here we go again. In one of the league's newer rivalries, the Jaguars travel to the RCA Dome to play the Colts. Last season, the teams split two competitive games, with the road team winning both contests (24-17 Indy Week 4, 27-24 Jacksonville Week 7). This year, the second meeting of the two clubs won't be until Week 14 (Dec 11), so fans will have to wait a little longer for the rematch.

Both teams won their season openers in traditional fashion. Jacksonville won 26-14 as Josh Scobee hit 4 of 5 field goal attempts. and Byron Leftwich threw two TD passes to Jimmy Smith. The Jaguars offense must be frustrating to watch every week. They had to settle for two first quarter field goals, including a 23 yarder, and trailed 14-13 at halftime after surrending a touchdown with 47 seconds left. But in the second half, the defense pitched a shutout. The Colts won 24-7 Sunday night as they shut down Kyle Boller and Anthony Wright, picking off the Ravens QBs 3 times. A close win by Jacksonville is likely, but with one big caveat. All Indianapolis needs is a couple of big plays on their home turf to blow this one open, since I don't trust Jacksonville to come back from a big deficit.

San Diego (0-1) at Denver (0-1)

The subtitle of this game should be "The Frustrated against the Angry". The Chargers had their chances against the Cowboys but couldn't disrupt Drew Bledsoe and Julius Jones, while the Broncos wilted in the fourth quarter in the Miami heat. San Diego should win this game, but Denver's defense was better than the final stats of their game show. Denver gave up 151 yards rushing, but 61 were on a reverse by Chris Chambers. The bigger problem for the Broncos was that they couldn't run the ball (just 70 yards on 20 carries). They'll need to do a better job to win their home opener.

Monday Night
New York Giants (1-0) hosting New Orleans (1-0)

New Orleans will continue to be one of the top stories of the year. This week they play a home game in New York, with a special 7:30ET start on ABC with the normal ESPN Sunday Night crew calling the action. The Giants are trying to be generous hosts, and I think the Saints have a great chance in this game even though I'm worried about a letdown after such an emotional roller-coaster over the past few weeks.

Yes, the Giants beat the Cardinals 42-19 last week, and held Arizona to just 31 yards rushing, but that's where the good news ends. First of all, the Cardinals are still terrible. Second, in spite of that, the Cardinals had more first downs (20-14), a big edge in passing yards (287-154), and over 35 minutes of time of possession. And remember, Arizona led that game 13-7 at halftime, so it wasn't like the Giants had a big early lead and were sitting on it. If the Saints can overcome all of the distractions, they can give their fans another reason to smile.

Washington (1-0) at Dallas (1-0)

Finally, it's a rematch of the 1995 AFC Championship game as the Redskins play the Cowboys. Well, sort of. Former Patriots Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn, and Bill Parcells will be on the Dallas sideline, while former Jaguar Mark Brunell makes the start for Washington. Dallas looked terrific against San Diego last week, though you wonder if Washington can get more pressure on Bledsoe. They'd better, since their offense is terrible and can't win a high-scoring track meet.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005 

Rumble in the Dome

The Falcons defeated the Eagles 14-10 last night, as a pre-game fight between Kevin Mathis and Jeremiah Trotter led to ejections for both players. Trotter was a much bigger loss, as Atlanta rolled up 200 yards on the ground, including 117 for Warrick Dunn and 68 for Michael Vick. Vick also looked sharp in the passing game, going 12-for-23, while Donovan McNabb struggled and completed just 24 of 45 passes. Terrell Owens had 7 catches for 100+ yards, but it wasn't enough.

The officials handled the pre-game fight the right way. You can't have players brawling on the field with fans in the stands. I'm sure every coach in the league is going to talk to their players about this today.

One footnote: I just heard on ESPN that the team who lost the previous year's Super Bowl has now lost 7 consecutive opening week games. Sounds like a coincidence to me, but I'll have to take a deeper look.

 

Kicking for Joy

The New Orleans Saints won an emotional game over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday on a last-second FG by John Carney. It looked like my prediction of a late win by Carolina was going to come true, but New Orleans held the Panthers to a pair of field goals in the fourth quarter, the second one coming with 1:04 left to tie the game. That gave the Saints plenty of time to drive for the winning score. Now that their "home" schedule is set (next Monday night in New York, then 3 games in San Antonio and 4 at LSU) it will be interesting to see if the emotions from this game have any carryover effect.

As usual, there were a few big injuries over the weekend. Green Bay WR Jevon Walker is out for the year with a knee injury, Carolina's DT Kris Jenkins is also out for the season, and Baltimore's Kyle Boller will miss at least one game after being hurt in the Ravens 24-7 Sunday night loss against the Colts.

There were also some big surprises - who would have guessed that Drew Bledsoe and Gus Frerotte would combine for 5 TDs and two victories? Frerotte had a little help from the heat and two Broncos injuries (Champ Bailey and Mike Anderson), while Bledsoe was 18-24 for 226 yards and 3 TDs against the Chargers. The Dallas defense certainly looked improved over last season, but you have to wonder if their young draft picks will hit the wall at some point. Keeping Julius Jones healthy (26-93 yds) will also be important.

Lastly, San Diego RB LaDainian Tomlinson will be going for a new NFL record for most consecutive games with a rushing TD. On Sunday, he tied the record of 13 set by John Riggins and George Rogers. The Chargers will be visiting the Broncos next week, and while Denver surrendered 151 yards rushing to Miami in their opener, 61 of those came on a Chris Chambers reverse, and I'm sure Mike Shanahan will have his team fired up after their embarrassing opener.

Sunday, September 11, 2005 

Quick Slants

Welcome back to football season! Thursday night's opener was nice, but there's like a Sunday full of football to look forward to. Unfortunately, the schedule makers didn't cooperate. There are only 3 games this week featuring two teams with above .500 records last season and 2 of them are the prime time games. I think I'll spend part of Sunday watching Red Sox-Yankees instead...

Sunday
New Orleans (8-8) at Carolina (7-9)

The Saints are an obvious sentimental favorite, and this is going to be a surreal year for them and their fans. But the Panthers are a popular pick to go deep into the playoffs if they avoid last season's injury bug. Look for Carolina to pull away in the second half of this game.

Seattle (9-7) at Jacksonville (9-7)

This is a matchup of two trendy picks over the past few seasons. Mike Holmgren is on the hot seat this uear, as the Seahawks have been plagued with inconsistency and execution problems. Fewer dropped passes would help Matt Hasselbeck's confidence, and he's played well this preseason. The Jaguars surged to a 5-2 start, but Byron Leftwich's injury slowed their momentum, and a 21-0 loss at home to Houston on the next-to-last week of the season eliminated them from the playoffs. With Indianapolis in the same division, they might have to settle for another wild card fight. However, there is lot to build on from their first winning season since the Coughlin/Brunell glory days.

Dallas (6-10) at San Diego (12-4)

The past and the future of the NFL meet in the Drew Bowl. Bill Parcells added Drew Bledsoe in the off-season, but unless Julius Jones stays healthy and productive for the whole year, the Cowboys will have to rely on a retooled defense to win games. In San Diego, Drew Brees is out to prove that 2004 was not a fluke, and Marty Schottenheimer needs to show that he can win a playoff game. LaDainian Tomlinson gives them great balance offensively, and their defense should continue to improve.

Sunday Night
Indianapolis (12-4) at Baltimore (9-7)

Baltimore just doesn't excite me this year. The defense is good, but not great. I also have a hard time rooting for Ray Lewis or Jamal Lewis due to their checkered pasts. By comparison, Indianapolis is gaining strength on defense while their trio of Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, and Edgerin James is still one of the best in the NFL. This will be the most entertaining game of the weekend.

Monday Night
Philadephia (13-3) at Atlanta (11-5)

This rematch of last year's NFC Championship is the best game of the weekend. McNabb and Vick should provide plenty of fireworks. I'd expect a closer game than last year, but the same final result - the Eagles are a much more complete team.

 

9/11

It's been four years since the September 11 attacks, and now we're coping with another national disaster along the Gulf Coast. As a country, we'll be judged by how we respond, and the outpouring of assistance has been extraordinary. Unfortunately, the tug-of-war and finger-pointing between local, state, and federal government officials continues. There is plenty of blame to go around, but the federal government has the ultimate responsibility of coordinating the response to major disasters. They shouldn't be expected to do everything, but they need to bring everyone to the table, and some cases, save mayors and governors from themselves.

I understand that overseeing a rescue and recovery effort in the face of such widespread destruction is a daunting job, but while there is an excuse for being a little slow out of the gate, there is no reason why the chaos continued for so long. When the head of FEMA is learning about the conditions in the Superdome by watching NBC news, we have a problem. It makes you wonder if our leaders really learned the right lessons from those terrible days in 2001.

Friday, September 09, 2005 

Brady's Bunch

It wasn't pretty, but the Patriots pulled away in the fourth quarter last night for a 30-20 win over the Raiders. Corey Dillion struggled in the first half, but Tom Brady responded with 212 yards and 2 TDs on 14-20 passing. But in the second half, Dillion's two TDs helped put the game out of reach. Brady finished with 306 yards but failed to convert on a bunch of third downs that could have made the final score more comfortable.

Randy Moss had the flashy 73 yard TD, but was held to just 5 catches overall (albeit for 130 yards). However, Deion Branch, who didn't play at all in the preseason, had 7 catches for 99 yards and a TD of his own. Too bad that isn't getting as much air time on the highlight shows.

Defensively, Vince Wilfork's interception set up one score, but the big news was that the Patriots switched to a 4-3 defense after Chad Brown was injured late in the first quarter. It certainly worked to shut down the run. After getting shredded by LaMont Jordan for 42 yards in the opening period, he gained just 28 yards the rest of the way.

The best news for the Patriots is that they get a nice early-season break before traveling to Carolina next week.

Thursday, September 08, 2005 

Kicking Off

The Patriots host the Raiders tonight in the NFL's season opener. While New England raises another championship banner, Oakland is trying to rebound from a slide that began after their loss in Super Bowl XXXVII. Since then, their offense has struggled while their defense has fallen over a cliff:

NFL Offense Defense
Rank Yards Pts Yards Pts
2002 2 2 12 2
2003 25 27 30 25
2004 20 18 30 31
Source: Pro Football Reference

Even worse, the Raiders defense was last in the NFL in third down conversions allowed - a whopping 47.4 percent. They've converted to a 4-3 this year, but they are still aging up front with Warren Sapp, Ted Washington, and Bobby Hamilton expected to play major roles.

The hiring of Norv Turner improved the offense a bit last year, but I'm still not sold on Kerry Collins. With Randy Moss joining Jerry Porter, Collins certainly has enough weapons in the passing game. Their other big free agent acquisition, LaMont Jordan, is a question mark at running back because he's never been a featured back. But he'll have a pretty solid line in front of him, and could be poised for a big season.

It should be a fun night in Foxboro.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005 

Happy Retirement

Jerry Rice retired yesterday, ending his Hall of Fame career after 21 seasons. Rice was one my favorite players when I was younger, partly because of his talent, but also because of his demeanor. His "gunfighter"-esque determination reminded me of Larry Bird. You knew he was getting the ball, and he knew he was going to hit (if they caught him). Rice combined toughness with the speed and grace his position demands. He is not only the greatest receiver in NFL history, he is also one of the greatest athletes in American sports history.

Sunday, September 04, 2005 

Survivor Sunday

While some recognizable names were cut yesterday, plenty of players are breathing a sigh of relief this morning. Most of the Patriots 17 cuts were expected, but I was surprised that undrafted free agent Mike Wright made the team over Rodney Bailey. Wright's advantage is that he can play nose tackle, while Bailey seems more suited to the 4-3 and was caught in a glut of linemen on the Patriots who can play outside. Wright also helped himself with a good game Thursday night.

In other cuts around the league, a few "big name" players like Hugh Douglas and Ashley Ambrose were let go, but they are both past their prime. Denver finally said goodbye to Quentin Griffin, who burst onto the scene with 156 yards and 2 TDs in last season's opener, then did next-to-nothing over the next few weeks before suffering a season-ending knee injury. And in a move that will make football announcers everywhere a little bit happier today, Jacksonville released RB Chris Fuamatu-Maafala.

Thursday, September 01, 2005 

New Blog - Extra Points

I'm pleased to announce that I'm expanding the Onside Kicks family and creating a "sister" blog called Extra Points.

Even though I haven't been posting as often as I'd like, I have two reasons for starting a second blog:

1. I want to write more NFL history-related stuff. I've been working on a project in this area, and was planning to include it in this blog, but I thought it might get confusing.

2. The new blog uses Wordpress and is hosted on Blogsome, which gives me a few more options, like categories. It also gives me the chance to learn something new.

So please check out Extra Points. First up is a week-by-week review of the 1985 season, to help Bears and Patriots fans remember the 20th anniversary of their first Super Bowl appearances.

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