Articles By Nathan Rush
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 10, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Steelers (6-3) at Bengals (6-2)
Cincy is playing its best football since the late 1980s, with the rookie combo of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green leading the way. A brutal second-half schedule — featuring two games vs. Pittsburgh (Weeks 10 and 13) and Baltimore (Weeks 11 and 17) — starts this week at Paul Brown Stadium.
Steelers by 3
Raiders (4-4) at Chargers (4-4)
The Bolts have lost all voltage following three straight defeats. Philip Rivers looks lost, having thrown a league-worst 14 INTs and lost an eyebrow-raising 17 total turnovers. Then again, Oakland’s Carson Palmer is averaging more turnovers per game (3) than Rivers (2.125).
Chargers by 5
Bills (5-3) at Cowboys (4-4)
Dallas is 3–0 on the big screen at Jerry’s House and 1–4 on the road. However, those three wins came against Washington, St. Louis and Seattle, teams with a combined 6–18 record.
Cowboys by 6
Titans (4-4) at Panthers (2-6)
This offseason, Chris Johnson inked a six-year, $53.5 million extension; DeAngelo Williams signed a five-year, $43 million deal. Johnson and Williams have combined to rush for 729 yards and two TDs — less than league-leader LeSean McCoy’s 825 yards and nine scores.
Titans by 1
Texans (6-3) at Buccaneers (4-4)
The banged-up Bucs host a Texans team riding a three-game win streak in which they have outscored opponents 95–33.
Texans by 3
Jaguars (2-6) at Colts (0-9)
Indy is 5–1 in its last six meetings with J’Ville — but that’s with Peyton Manning at QB.
Jaguars by 3
Cardinals (2-6) at Eagles (3-5)
Kevin Kolb’s sprained foot and turf toe may sideline the Eagles’ former “quarterback of the future” in his return to Philadelphia. That leaves backup John Skelton (3–2 record as starter) to tangle with a desperate Eagles squad.
Eagles by 10
Saints (6-3) at Falcons (5-3)
New Orleans and Atlanta split the season series last year, with the road team taking both by a three-point margin — as the Falcons won, 27–24, in Week 3 and the Saints marched, 17–14, in a Week 17 rematch.
Saints by 2
Rams (1-7) at Browns (3-5)
Cleveland has lost four of its last five games, with the lone win coming in arguably the ugliest game of the season, a 6–3 win vs. Seattle.
Browns by 3
Redskins (3-5) at Dolphins (1-7)
Fresh off their first victory of the season, the Fins look to win back-to-back games for the first time since Weeks 1 and 2 last season.
Dolphins by 4
Broncos (3-5) at Chiefs (4-4)
Tim Tebow is 2–1 as a starter this season — with a 2–0 road record and brutal loss to the Lions at home. Arrowhead Stadium, look out.
Chiefs by 1
Ravens (6-2) at Seahawks (2-6)
The league’s No. 2 total defense (279.4 ypg) takes on the No. 29 total offense (296. 1 ypg).
Ravens by 7
Lions (6-2) at Bears (5-3)
The last time the Lions visited Chicago, quarterback Matthew Stafford injured his right throwing shoulder and wideout Calvin Johnson had a go-ahead TD reception reversed by a controversial instant replay in a 19–14 loss.
Lions by 3
Giants (6-2) at 49ers (7-1)
Jim Harbaugh’s Niners are 3–1 in San Fran and a road-tested 4–0 in the Eastern Time Zone. The G-Men have only played on the West Coast twice in six years — winning 41–7 at Seattle last year and losing 42–30 at Seattle in 2006.
49ers by 1
Patriots (5-3) at Jets (5-3)
New England is coming off of back-to-back losses to the Steelers (25–17) and Giants (24–20). Under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots have not lost three straight games since a four-game slide in October 2002.
Patriots by 1
Vikings (2-6) at Packers (8-0)
Aaron Rodgers completed 24-of-30 passes for 335 yards, three TDs and zero INTs for a season-high 146.5 passer rating in Green Bay’s 33–27 win at Minnesota in Week 7.
Packers by 13
Last week: 8-6 // Season: 88-42
At halftime of the 2011 NFL season and the stretch run about to start, Athlon Sports takes a look at the award-worthy performers of this year’s first half:
Most Valuable Player
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
The Super Bowl XLV MVP is on pace to set the single-season records for yards, completion percentage and passer rating. Through eight games, Rodgers has thrown for 2,619 yards, 24 TDs and three INTs with a 129.1 rating, while also scrambling for another 127 yards and two trips to the end zone for the undefeated Packers. Brett Favre won three MVPs during his heyday in Green Bay, A-Rodg’s award-winning run starts this year.
Offensive Player of the Year
Fred Jackson, RB, Bills
The heart and soul of Buffalo’s offense, Jackson has rushed for 803 yards (5.4 ypc) and six TDs, while hauling in 30 catches for 391 yards (13.0 ypc). Philly’s LeSean McCoy, Chicago’s Matt Forte and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson also deserve consideration for this award.
Defensive Player of the Year
Jared Allen, DE, Vikings
On pace to break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record (22.5), Allen has tallied 12.5 sacks and three forced fumbles through eight games. The Jets’ Darrelle Revis (four INTs for 184 yards, TD) is also making a strong case for himself.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
This has become a two-horse race between Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton and Newton, who has thrown for 2,393 yards, 11 TDs and nine INTs while rushing for 319 yards and a rookie-QB record-tying seven TDs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
If there were a Special Teams Rookie of the Year, Peterson (three punt return TDs) would be the clear winner. As it is, the athletic corner gets the nod for an award that is still very much up in the air.
Comeback Player of the Year
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions
Finally healthy, the strong-armed Stafford has thrown for 2,179 yards, a career-high 19 TDs and four INTs while leading the Lions to 6–2 start and a realistic shot at their first trip to the playoffs since 1999.
Coach of the Year
Jim Harbaugh, 49ers
Postgame handshakes aside, the former Stanford boss and brother of Ravens coach John Harbaugh has been a difference-maker in the Bay Area — firing up the Niners’ defense and calming quarterback Alex Smith.
Eli Manning, QB, Giants
The Super Bowl XLII rematch was deja vu all over again for the G-Men. Four seasons ago, Manning found Plaxico Burress on a 13-yard TD pass with 35 seconds to play for a 17–14 upset of the then 18–0 Patriots. This time around, Manning hit Jake Ballard for a one-yard score to take a 24–20 edge with 15 ticks on the clock, capping an eight-play, 80-yard game-winning drive. Although Manning’s final stat line was not off-the-charts (20-of-39 passes for 250 yards, two TDs and one INT), his heroic final drive could not have been better. As defensive end and team captain Justin Tuck said afterwards, “You can’t spell elite without Eli.”
Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
It was a good weekend to be an LSU Tiger. One day after Les Miles’ club won the “Game of the Century” over Alabama, 9–6 in overtime, the Bayou Bengals’ most recent top-five pick had the best game of his young NFL career. The rookie cornerback snagged his second INT of the season, winning a one-on-one jump ball against Brandon Lloyd on an underthrown pass by Sam Bradford. But the highlight of the night was Peterson’s 99-yard walk-off punt return TD — his third return TD of the year — giving the Cardinals a 19–13 overtime win over the Rams.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
The rookie out of Alabama hauled in three catches for 131 yards and two TDs, while also adding two carries for 33 yards on the ground during a 31–7 blowout of the winless Colts. Jones had scoring grabs of 50 and 80 yards — showing off the big-play ability that prompted the Falcons to trade their first- (No. 27 overall), second- (No. 59) and fourth-round (No. 124) picks in 2011, as well as their first- and fourth-rounders in 2012, to the Browns in exchange for the No. 6 overall pick and a chance to add Jones to an already impressive offense.
Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
Baltimore swept Pittsburgh for the first time since 2006, rallying for a 23–20 Week 9 win on Sunday night after an impressive 35–7 Week 1 victory to start the season. Flacco led a 13-play, 92-yard game-winning drive that ended with a 26-yard scoring strike to rookie Torrey Smith with eight seconds remaining. Smith went from goat to great after dropping a sure TD five plays earlier and being called for holding on the first play of the night, negating a 76-yard trip to the end zone by Ray Rice. The Ravens’ road win was especially sweet considering that two of their past three seasons have ended in playoff losses at Heinz Field.
Stanford’s Andrew Luck may be the best quarterback prospect since the forward pass was popularized. Or at least since Peyton Manning came out in 1998. Maybe since fellow Cardinal John Elway was drafted in 1983.
LSU at Alabama is the game of the century. The Tigers and Tide are clearly the top two teams in the country. Les Miles and Nick Saban have the most NFL talent, the best athletes and the scariest defenses in the land.
How great would it be to have everyone’s All-American take the ultimate test in a bowl game against either LSU or Alabama in his final collegiate game?
The Cardinal have a shot at playing the winner of LSU-Alabama in the BCS title game if they can survive Oregon (Nov. 12) and Notre Dame (Nov. 26) visits on the Farm. But there is an outside chance Luck could still square off against the LSU-Alabama loser if Oregon takes down Stanford and the Ducks fly to Pasadena as the Pac-12 rep in the Rose Bowl.
Luck has a 28–5 record as a starter at Stanford, but has never played a team from the SEC, and definitely hasn’t faced the type of next-level power and speed that both LSU and Alabama bring to the field every Saturday.
Win or lose, Luck vs. LSU or Alabama would be the perfect parting shot for the hyperbolic prospect.
Several NFL fan bases are hoping to “Suck for Luck” — or lose as many games as possible — in order to land the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and a chance to select the 6'4", 235-pound franchise quarterback whose off-the-charts measurables and intangibles are rarely seen even once in a generation.
The 22-year-old Houston native is the son of a former NFL quarterback, current West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck. He was also mentored by another former NFL signal-caller, former Cardinal coach and current San Francisco 49ers boss Jim Harbaugh.
Extremely advanced for his age, the fourth-year junior calls his own plays — a la Manning — for first-year Stanford coach David Shaw. Under the leadership of Luck, the Cardinal have won a school-record 16 straight games, which is also the nation’s longest active winning streak.
Last season, Luck was runner-up to Auburn quarterback Cam Newton in Heisman Trophy voting after completing 70.7 percent of his passes for 3,338 yards, 32 TDs and eight INTs — capping a 12–1 season with a 40–12 win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. This season, Luck has completed 71.9 percent of his passes for 2,218 yards, 23 TDs and four INTs, leading Stanford to an 8–0 start.
Most recently, Luck carried Stanford to a 56–48 triple-overtime win over USC at the L.A. Coliseum. Although the Trojans have an NFL coaching staff and a defense led by Tampa 2 legend Monte Kiffin, this is not Pete Carroll’s wall-to-wall first-round roster at USC. Even Lane Kiffin, whose SEC coaching career lasted just one season at Tennessee, would have to admit the Trojans don’t have the horses that the Bayou Bengals and Crimson Tide do.
In one of his more impressive outings, Luck completed 29-of-40 passes for 330 yards, three TDs and one INT, which was returned for a pick-six that gave Southern Cal a 34–27 lead with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter. But Luck rallied the troops, marching the Cardinal down the field on a 12-play, 76-yard drive to tie the game at 34–34 with 38 seconds remaining.
“We put the ball in our quarterback’s hands, put it on his shoulders,” said Shaw, “and the kid came through.”
Luck’s maturity and ability to handle adversity have fans across the NFL crossing their fingers for a passer and person that those around him can’t seem to praise enough.
“I’m running out of things to say. He’s like a vitamin. Once a day. Once a day, he does something that makes you say, ‘Wow.’ It’s been ‘once a day’ for four years,” said Shaw, who worked with the redshirt junior quarterback as an offensive coordinator before taking over as Stanford’s head coach.
“You get tired of saying, ‘Nice throw. You get tired of saying, ‘Good read.’ You get tired of saying, ‘Nice job in the pocket.’ ‘Nice job escaping.’ ‘Good decision.’ You know he gets tired of hearing it. We get to the point where I try not to compliment him too much. The problem is, there are not a lot of flaws.”
Phil Simms would disagree. The Super Bowl XXI MVP came as close to ripping Luck as anyone has when he spoke with Adam Schein and Rich Gannon on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
“I just don’t see big time NFL throws. I don’t care what anybody says. I’ve watched a lot of him. He never takes it and rips it in there. And you can say what you want but, man, you’ve got to be able to crease that ball every once in a while,” said Simms, a CBS analyst and father of two quarterbacks, Chris and Matt.
“There’s not a lot of rotation on the ball and there’s not a tremendous amount of power. Not that you need to have that power arm. I’m not saying you’ve got to have that exclusively but, man, it sure helps when you can do that because there’s four or five plays a game it is about arm strength. …
“What’s he going to do to match what they say he can do?”
How about marching the ball on an LSU or Alabama defense? Or zipping the pill past a closing first-round cornerback like Morris Claiborne or Dre Kirkpatrick? Or upsetting the heavily-favored Tigers or Tide? Maybe even for the BCS national title?
It’s early; but that could be the next “game of the century.”
by Nathan Rush
Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh is not a dirty player. Don’t believe the hype.
Suh’s meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during the Lions’ bye week says more about the state of the league’s inconsistent officiating, ruling and fining systems than it does about the perceived reckless play of the second-year All-Pro defensive tackle.
Suh is, by all accounts, the premier player at his position. He is reestablishing — if not redefining — what it means to be an elite interior defensive lineman. In doing so, he has clearly become the anti-Albert Haynesworth.
There should be no blurred line when making a distinction between King Ndamukong and the likes of Fat Albert, a convicted face-stomper who, although dirty, did once set a $100-million standard for 4-3 three-technique tackles — coincidentally, playing for Suh’s current coach Jim Schwartz, who was then the Titans’ defensive coordinator.
No doubt Suh has a non-stop motor and a mean streak; but if he is being labeled a “dirty” player, then there is something wrong with the NFL, not Suh. Outside of the entire Pittsburgh Steelers defense, Suh has been enemy No. 1 in Commissioner Goodell’s attempt to “clean up” pro football.
Since being selected No. 2 overall out of Nebraska in 2010, Suh has been fined a grand total of $42,500 — chunking $20,000 for giving Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton the redheaded stepchild treatment this preseason; $15,000 for a right forearm shiver on Chicago’s Jay Cutler in Week 13 last year; and $7,500 for a facemask-headlock slam of Cleveland’s overmatched old man Jake Delhomme last preseason.
Upon further review, all of those fines came on plays that were obviously aggressive and violent but certainly not “dirty” — at least by the traditional NFL definition of the word. Crotch-punching Conrad Dobler was downright below-the-belt “dirty.” Helmet-to-helmet, late-hitting, pile-spearing Rodney Harrison was notoriously “dirty.” Head-kicking, finger-snapping, face-spitting, jaw-breaking Bill Romanowski personified “dirty.” But Suh? No way.
Suh is a 6'4", 307-pound, 24-year-old physical freak ready to break the mold. As strange as it sounds, he is a man among boys even in the NFL, where the biggest, strongest, fastest and meanest reside. There has not been an athlete with the combination of size, speed, strength, technique and ferocious force that Suh possesses since the late, great Reggie White.
“I’m just a different breed. I hate to say that, but it’s kind of like, no athlete in the NFL is like any other,” explained Suh. “But there’s guidelines that everybody needs to follow.”
Suh’s timing couldn’t be worse. He walked onto the NFL gridiron just as the established rules of the sport were essentially being reinvented on the fly by Commissioner Goodell. The type of unabated physicality that made Suh a Heisman Trophy finalist with the Huskers was and is in the process of being minimized.
Protecting quarterbacks and ball-carriers is top priority; Suh will have to fall in line. And he’s trying. During his off week, Suh went to New York to watch film with Goodell, in an effort to clarify what about No. 90’s game is considered “dirty” by both the zebras who throw yellow flags between the lines and the zoot suits who levy fines with super-slow-mo, second-guessed certainty after the game is over.
Even though his meeting with Goodell went well, Suh is well aware he hasn’t written his last check to the league office. He is a target, ironically, because of his unique abilities to seek and destroy his own chosen targets. Blessed with physical capabilities matched by few humans — remember, the man ran a 4.98 in the 40-yard dash, posted 32 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and skied for a 35.5-inch vertical at the Scouting Combine — Suh knows all about playing by his own rules. And that sword cuts both ways.
“You look at Tom Brady. When he gets hit, you always wonder if there’s going to be a flag. There’s certain things that may be called for him that may not be called for other quarterbacks just because of his stature or whatever, how he is in the league,” Suh vented.
“That’s the same thing with defensive players. I think my hits may look a little different because of the type of strength and athleticism that I have, compared to some other defensive linemen. It’s just the way the world works.”
Then again, being the best has always been a “dirty” game full of name-calling from those who can’t keep up. But don’t expect Suh to slow down.
“I’m not going to change the way I play,” said Suh. “I feel that the way I’m playing and the way I have played in the past is continuing to play within the rules.”
by Nathan Rush
A quick preview of every game on the NFL schedule for Week 9, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Ravens (5-2) at Steelers (6-2)
The most physical rivalry in football resumes on Sunday night. Last season, these AFC North foes played a pair of defensive battles, both of which were won by three points by the road team. Baltimore won 17–14 in Week 4, Pittsburgh won 13–10 in Week 13. This season the Ravens have struggled on the road, while the Steelers are unbeaten at home and fresh off a 25–17 statement win over the Patriots.
Steelers by 3
Jets (4-3) at Bills (5-2)
Despite being winless on the road, the Jets are just one game out of first place in the AFC East with the two teams ahead of them — the Bills and Patriots — up next on the schedule. The Bills are 4–0 at “home” this season, going 3–0 at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., and 1–0 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Bills by 2
Browns (3-4) at Texans (5-3)
If this is in fact Houston’s breakout season, coach Gary Kubiak’s club must take care of its business against a scrappy Cleveland squad.
Texans by 9
Dolphins (0-7) at Chiefs (4-3)
Kansas City got lucky against San Diego on Monday night; winless Miami just wants Luck.
Chiefs by 5
Seahawks (2-5) at Cowboys (3-4)
Tony Romo has thrown seven TDs and six INTs (with one fumble at the goal line) in four losses, four TDs and one INT in three wins. The Boys go as Romo does, just like Jerry Jones promised.
Cowboys by 10
49ers (6-1) at Redskins (3-4)
No West Coast bias for Niners, who carry a 4–0 record in the Eastern Time Zone this season.
49ers by 6
Falcons (4-3) at Colts (0-8)
Indy has lost by a combined score of 78–63 in three home games. On the road, the Colts have been broken by a combined 174–58 tally.
Falcons by 11
Broncos (2-5) at Raiders (4-3)
One week after being thrown to the Lions, Tim Tebow enters the Black Hole hoping to regain the magic touch he had in his heroic comeback at Miami and his entire career at Florida.
Raiders by 7
Buccaneers (4-3) at Saints (5-3)
Drew Brees threw for 383 yards, one TD and three INTs during a 26–20 loss at Tampa Bay in Week 6. Three weeks later, Brees has a chance to redeem himself in an NFC South showdown that will determine which team takes the halftime lead in one of the league’s best divisions.
Saints by 6
Bengals (5-2) at Titans (4-3)
Cincy’s Cedric Benson will return from a one-game suspension. The real question is whether or not Tennessee’s missing runner, Chris Johnson, will return to form — or continue being serenaded with boos by the Music City crowd.
Titans by 2
Giants (5-2) at Patriots (5-2)
These two teams have met in Week 4 of the preseason every year since 2005. No one remembers those meaningless matchups. But the last two times the G-Men and Pats have played when it mattered are hard to forget. There was the 38–35 classic from Week 17 in 2007, when New England capped its perfect 16–0 regular season. And, of course, a 17–14 New York win in Super Bowl XLII shortly after.
Patriots by 7
Packers (7-0) at Chargers (4-3)
Fresh off a bye, California kid Aaron Rodgers returns to the West Coast to take on a flickering Chargers club working on short rest after a devastating Monday night loss in Kansas City. The past two seasons, Green Bay has been extremely sharp following its bye — outscoring opponents by a combined 57–3.
Packers by 7
Rams (1-6) at Cardinals (1-6)
St. Louis football migrates to the desert once again, as the franchise formerly known as the Los Angeles Rams takes on the old St. Louis Cardinals. These are decidedly different one-win teams. The Rams just won; the Cardinals are trying to stop a six-game losing streak.
Cardinals by 3
Bears (4-3) at Eagles (3-4)
Two of the league’s most unpredictable and polarizing passers — Chicago’s Jay Cutler and Philadelphia’s Mike Vick — take the field in a make-or-break game on Monday night.
Eagles by 7
Last week: 9-4 / Season: 81-35
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
Philly improved its record to 13–0 following a bye week under coach Andy Reid, with a 34–7 statement win over NFC East rival Dallas under the lights on Sunday night. “Shady” led the way, with 30 carries for a career-high 185 yards and two trips to the end zone. The Eagles outgained the Boys 495-to-267 yards, won the time of possession battle 42:09-to-17:51, snapped a five-game losing streak at Lincoln Financial Field and shut up Big D coordinator Rob Ryan — who previously called the team “all-hype” before admitting he was “outcoached” by Reid following the lopsided loss.
Steven Jackson, RB, Rams
After watching the hometown Cardinals win the World Series on Friday night, the Rams — who wore vintage 1999 throwback jerseys from the “Greatest Show on Turf” Super Bowl days — went out and earned their first win of the year, an improbable 31–21 upset over the Saints Sunday afternoon. Jackson had 25 carries for 159 yards and two TDs, his first 150-plus yard effort and multi-TD game since 2008. With his 28th career 100-yard effort, Jackson passed Marshall Faulk for second in franchise history and now trails only Eric Dickerson (38).
Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
A rookie quarterback shootout between the Vikings’ Christian Ponder and Panthers’ Cam Newton quickly became the A.P. show. Peterson bulldozed his way to 162 yards from scrimmage and two TDs — with 21 carries for 86 yards and a 9-yard score on the ground, as well as five catches for 76 yards and a 19-yard TD through the air — during a 24–21 win at Carolina. The NFL’s leading rusher and highest paid runner, Peterson has 798 yards and nine TDs through eight games so far this season.
Cliff Avril, DE, Lions
Tim Tebow was thrown to the Lions on Sunday and it wasn’t pretty. Detroit ended its two-game losing streak with a 45–10 blowout at Denver, in a game that featured several highlights — including Chris Houston’s 100-yard pick-six and Stephen Tulloch’s “Tebowing” celebration after sacking the Broncos quarterback. But Avril had perhaps the best overall game, recording two of the Lions’ seven sacks of Tebow, along with two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery returned 24 yards for a TD. Detroit’s defense applied constant pressure to Tebow, who only converted 2-of-17 on third and fourth downs.
by Nathan Rush
Albert Pujols’ last game as a St. Louis Cardinal is Game 7 of the World Series. The stage is set for a Michael Jordan or John Elway hero’s exit. But instead of retiring a champion, Pujols will dive into the free-agent pool in search of a 10-year, $300 million contract.
Still, winning a second World Series would be a walk-off home run for Pujols, who will be pursued this offseason by the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Miami Marlins, Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers and any other team that could use a first baseman whose average season over his first 11 years includes batting .328 with a 1.037 OPS, 40 HRs, 121 RBIs and 117 runs over 155 games. But he’s only won two Gold Gloves, so he’s not perfect.
Pujols is not an A-Rod regular season fantasy player who disappears in the clutch, either.
During the Cardinals’ unbelievable postseason run, Pujols has hit .364 with a 1.174 OPS, five HRs, 16 RBIs and 13 runs in 17 games. He single-handedly won Game 3 of the World Series for St. Louis, going 5-for-6 with three HRs, six RBIs and four runs in a 16–7 blowout at Texas. In the process, Pujols tied Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson for the World Series single-game home run record.
In St. Louis’ surreal Game 6 comeback, Pujols doubled in the bottom of the ninth inning to start a rally that ended with the three-time MVP and Lance Berkman crossing the plate to tie the game 7–7 following a David Freese triple. Pujols’ only hit and run-scored in the game came with Derek Jeter-type timing. Freese was the hero, for sure. But without Pujols, the Cardinals don’t pull off an 11-inning, 10–9 win for the ages.
What more do Cardinals fans want? Another World Series win? For Pujols to re-sign? Let’s not get greedy — or say that’s what Albert is.
Pujols was the 402nd overall pick of the 1999 MLB Draft. Since breaking into the bigs in 2001, he’s crushed for 445 HRs and 1,329 RBIs. The team that signs Pujols won’t get that type of production. They’ll curse the 40-year-old making $30 million a year and not producing in a major market. As painful as the thought of losing Pujols may seem to Cardinals fans, his next breakup will be worse.
Tonight, Pujols is in St. Louis, in his prime, with a chance to win the World Series. It doesn’t get any better than that.
“This is pretty special,” said Pujols. “This is what baseball is all about. Having an opportunity to go to a Game 7 in a World Series is unbelievable. Amazing. I don’t even know what to say.”
Say thank you, St. Louis. Put the champagne on ice and enjoy Pujols’ last game as a Cardinal. Win or lose, re-sign or walk, Albert Pujols has been worth every penny.
Whether he continues to be is another story.
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 8, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Patriots (5-1) at Steelers (5-2)
After this week’s Bibi Jones TwitPic drama, Rob Gronkowski is looking to repeat his 2010 three-TD effort against Pittsburgh. It could happen. Bill Belichick has a 9–2 record the week after a regular-season bye during his reign as coach in New England. Tom Brady has a 6–1 career record against the Steelers — including a 39–26 win at Pittsburgh in Week 10 last year. Brady threw for 350 yards and three TDs in his most recent matchup with the Steel Curtain. This year’s Pittsburgh defense has done less bending (9th in total yards) and more breaking (19th in points allowed).
Patriots by 5
Dolphins (0-6) at Giants (4-2)
Tony Sparano’s last stand heads to New York, where the Miami “Suck for (Andrew) Luck” campaign should continue. It’s unlikely the Dolphins losing streak will end against the Giants, who are well-rested coming off their bye week.
Giants by 10
Jaguars (2-5) at Texans (4-3)
These AFC South rivals are fresh off of huge wins, as Jacksonville stunned Baltimore, 12–7, on Monday night and Houston steamrolled at Tennessee, 41–7, to take sole possession of first place in the division. This is a must-win for the Texans, who are aiming for their first playoff berth since entering the league in 2002.
Texans by 10
Colts (0-7) at Titans (3-3)
On the flip side, these AFC South foes are both looking to bounce back from embarrassing losses, with Indianapolis losing to New Orleans by 55 and Tennessee falling to Houston by 34. Both teams are also missing their best player. Peyton Manning’s rehabbing a neck injury; Chris Johnson’s diagnosis is less certain.
Titans by 11
Vikings (1-6) at Panthers (2-5)
A showdown of rookie quarterbacks pits Minnesota’s Christian Ponder against Carolina’s Cam Newton. This will be Ponder’s first start on the road, while Newton carries a 2–2 record at home — losing close calls against the Packers (30–23) and Saints (30–27).
Panthers by 3
Saints (5-2) at Rams (0-6)
New Orleans’ No. 1-ranked scoring offense (34.1 ppg) hits the road to take on St. Louis’ 29th-ranked scoring defense (28.5 ppg) and 32nd-ranked scoring offense (9.3 ppg). The question is whether or not the Saints can one-up last week’s 55-point beatdown of the Colts.
Saints by 15
Cardinals (1-5) at Ravens (4-2)
Kevin Kolb is walking into the lion’s den. Or, an angry Ray Lewis’ house, same difference. The Ravens have questions that need answering following a shocking 12–7 loss to the Jaguars on Monday night. Kolb is headed to the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.
Ravens by 10
Cowboys (3-3) at Eagles (2-4)
Turn on the heat lamp and pressure cooker when Tony Romo and Michael Vick square off under the lights in prime time on Sunday night. This will be the first head-to-head matchup of America’s two most scrutinized quarterbacks; the road team won both games last year, with Philly winning Week 14 and Dallas in Week 17.
Eagles by 3
Lions (5-2) at Broncos (2-4)
Matthew Stafford limps to Denver, where Tim Tebow is on top of the Mile High mountain after his first start of the season. Detroit is on a two-game slide, however, and needs to end Tebow’s feel-good story in order to restore its own.
Lions by 4
Redskins (3-3) at Bills (4-2)
Buckle up, Toronto. Washington and Buffalo are ready to invade the Rogers Centre for the fourth regular-season game of a five-year deal. The Bills are 0–3 north of the border, however, with close losses to the Dolphins (16–3) in 2008, Jets (19–13) in ’09 and Bears (22–19) in ’10.
Bills by 5
Browns (3-3) at 49ers (5-1)
Braylon Edwards returns from injury just in time to face his former Cleveland club. Postgame? This pregame could get ugly.
49ers by 8
Bengals (4-2) at Seahawks (2-4)
Seattle must regroup vs. Cincy after last week’s 6–3 loss, which featured too many mistakes by the lake in Cleveland.
Bengals by 1
Chargers (4-2) at Chiefs (3-3)
Last season’s Monday double-header nightcap was a barn burner, with Kansas City stealing a 21–14 upset. But San Diego got its revenge, 31–0, in the Week 14 rematch.
Chargers by 5
by Nathan Rush
The Oakland Raiders did not overpay for Carson Palmer — they made the right move by trading for him.
Forget the 8-for-21, 116-yard, three-INT, one-pick-six performance in the second half of a 28–0 loss to the archrival Kansas City Chiefs in Palmer’s home debut. If Chris Johnson can get a six-game “preseason” after his contract holdout, then Palmer can get a two-quarter warm up refresher course.
After all, Palmer had just three practices with the Raiders under his belt and hadn’t played an NFL game since Jan. 2.
“It definitely is an uncomfortable situation to be in but it’s a good situation just to get your feet wet,” said Palmer, explaining his mindset entering the lopsided game trailing 21–0 in the third quarter.
“It’s been awhile since I played football. And to get the few reps that I got under my belt in live action, when the bullets were flying, will definitely benefit me when we have Denver coming in two weeks (after the Week 8 bye).”
That’s a solid reaction from a grounded veteran who has seen it all — from down days at USC under Paul Hackett, to laying the foundation for a Trojan dynasty under Pete Carroll, to carrying the Bengals from obscurity to mediocrity. Palmer has the easy-going California cool and the physical tools the Raiders need right now.
“Just win, baby.” That was the late, great Al Davis’ mantra for a reason; that is what the NFL, and especially the Oakland Raiders are all about.
Reject the popular opinion that the Oakland organization was robbed East Oakland-style. The Raiders definitely did not give up too much for Palmer, a 31-year-old two-time Pro Bowler who was wasting away due to the Cincinnati Bengals’ refusal to trade the quarterback who made their franchise relevant earlier this decade.
Remember, Cincinnati went to the playoffs twice (2005, ’09) in Palmer’s six seasons as the starter. Prior to drafting the 6'5", 236-pound Heisman Trophy winner from USC with the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, the Bungles had not made the postseason since 1990.
But who’s keeping score? Obviously not Mike Brown; but certainly the Raiders’ front office.
When Oakland traded for Palmer, the team had a 4–2 record in a wide-open AFC West division that includes the bi-polar San Diego Chargers, imploding Kansas City Chiefs and the John Elway-Tim Tebow soap opera that is the Denver Broncos.
Coming off of an 8–8 season — the Raiders’ first non-losing campaign since 2002 — hopes were high for Hue Jackson’s team. Then, quarterback Jason Campbell went down with a broken collarbone and the Silver-and-Bleak reality of starting backup Kyle Boller or rookie supplemental draft pick Terrelle Pryor set in. Action was necessary.
“It’s a good young team. It’s still hungry,” said Palmer, assessing his new club’s potential. “We have really good coaching and we have really good players.”
The Raiders needed a signal-caller and didn’t want to wait until the 2012 NFL Draft — which is expected to include Stanford’s Andrew Luck, USC’s Matt Barkley and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, just to name a few — to acquire one.
Plus, Oakland hasn’t had an eye for quarterbacks lately. Since winning Super Bowl XVIII following the 1983 season, the Raiders have drafted JaMarcus Russell (No. 1 overall), Andrew Walter, Marques Tuiasosopo, Billy Joe Hobert, Todd Marinovich, Major Harris, Jeff Francis, Steve Beuerlein, Rusty Hilger and Randy Essington.
Oakland’s hand was forced when Campbell was lost for the year. Instead of sitting in the Black Hole taking losses, the Raiders went all-in by trading their 2012 first-rounder and a conditional 2013 pick for Palmer.
It was bold. It was right. Davis would be proud.
“One thing I know about Coach (Davis), he loved tall, athletic quarterbacks from USC. That’s for sure,” said Jackson. “One thing he loves, guys that can throw the ball down the field. And this man can. I think he’d have been very excited, very happy.”
DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys
The Rangers beat the Cardinals 4–0 in Game 4 of the World Series. The real home run hitter of the day was Murray, who took 25 carries for a franchise-record 253 yards and a 91-yard TD, the second-longest run in the Cowboys’ storied history, during a 34–7 victory over the Rams. The rookie out of Oklahoma owns a single-game rushing record previously held by Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett — who still boasts the longest run in Dallas (and NFL) history, with a 99-yarder in 1983.
Arian Foster, RB, Texans
The state of Tennessee is Foster’s second home. Whether he’s playing in Knoxville or Nashville, the former Volunteer is ready to run. The top-ranked player in fantasy football this preseason, Foster looked the part during a 41–7 road win over the Titans — with 25 carries for 115 yards and two TDs, as well as with five catches for 119 yards and a 78-yard TD. The Texans moved into first place in the AFC South with the largest margin of victory in franchise history.
Matt Forte, RB, Bears
“Pay Forte” is a popular sentiment on both sides of the pond following 25 carries for 145 yards and one TD during a 24–18 Bears win over the Buccaneers. The 6'2", 218-pound fourth-year running back out of Tulane ran all over the pitch at Wembley Stadium in the NFL’s fifth annual regular season trip to London, England.
Brandon Flowers, CB, Chiefs
Kansas City’s ball-hawking defense hauled in six INTs for 113 return yards and two TDs in a 28–0 skunking in the Black Hole at Oakland. After picking off Raiders quarterback Kyle Boller three times in the first half, the Chiefs turned their attention to the recently acquired Carson Palmer, who promptly threw three INTs of his own. Flowers picked off Boller early on, then took Palmer’s first INT back for a 58-yard TD.
Drew Brees, QB, Saints
New Orleans set a franchise record for points during a 62–7 Big Easy win over Indianapolis. Brees led the march, completing 31-of-35 passes for 325 yards, five TDs and zero INTs in a lopsided game that was viewed a must-see Sunday night rematch of Super Bowl XLIV and a homecoming for Peyton Manning when the schedules were released in April. The Saints’ balanced attack also had 236 rushing yards — led by the running back trio of Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas — winning the time-of-possession battle, 38:19-to-21:41.
by Nathan Rush
Superman saved the day again. Tim Tebow led the Denver Broncos to an 18–15 overtime win over the Miami Dolphins.
With Urban Meyer watching on the sideline and a sea of blue No. 15 jerseys — both Broncos and Florida Gators — in the stands, Tebow led Denver to 18 unanswered points in a come-from-behind victory that was sealed by a 52-yard field goal from Matt Prater.
It may have taken chants of “We want Tebow!” from the crowd at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, a massive digital billboard reading “Broncos Fans to John Fox: Play Tebow!!” north of downtown Denver at the intersection of 58th and Logan, and a miserable 6–21 record in the last 27 starts of Kyle Orton, but it has finally happened — Tebow was named the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos for Week 7.
Why it took so long for owner Pat Bowlen, two-time Super Bowl champion-turned-executive VP of football operations John Elway and Coach Fox to turn to the No. 25 overall pick of the 2010 NFL Draft, who knows?
Presumably, the decision-makers want to distance themselves from all moves made by Josh McDaniels, who was fired after a 3–9 start to last season. McDaniels is, after all, the slash-and-burn emperor with no clothes who traded away Jay Cutler and drafted Tebow.
But after a 1–4 start to the 2011 season, pride should be thrown out the window in favor of production. That is, unless Stanford legend Elway wants to lose as many games as possible in order to ensure the No. 1 overall pick to draft current Cardinal icon Andrew Luck.
But even if the Broncos don’t get the top pick, Luck could always pull an “Elway” and demand a trade to Denver — which is what Elway did to the Baltimore Colts in 1983.
If the Broncos want to win this year, Tebow is the only way to go. And Sunday afternoon in South Florida was just another example of that fact — which the fans in Miami seem to have an easier time accepting than the decision-makers in Denver.
Tebow was the main attraction on “Gator Day” at Sun Life Stadium, where the 2008 BCS national title-winning Florida team was honored at halftime.
A slow start put the Broncos in a 15–0 hole. But the powerful 6'3", 236-pound dual-threat lefty leader lifted the team to a 15–0 fourth-quarter run — commanding touchdown drives of 80 and 56 yards to force overtime and ultimately hand the winless 0–6 Dolphins their 12th loss in their last 13 home games.
“It’s tough to say, but man, Timmy did a great job,” said Miami rookie center Mike Pouncey, a teammate of Tebow’s at Florida.
“Hopefully the critics will get off him about what he can’t do and talk about the things that he can do, and that’s figure out a way to win the game, no matter what.”
Tebow finished the game with 161 passing yards, two TDs and zero INTs, as well as eight carries for 65 yards and the overtime-forcing two-point conversion on the ground. He has now thrown for 894 yards, eight TDs and three INTs, while rushing for 329 yards and seven TDs in 13 career games.
Rightfully labeled a “winner,” Tebow has a 2–2 record in four NFL starts. The Broncos are 4–14 in all other games since drafting Tebow.
Still, there seems to be a league-wide reluctance to acknowledge Tebow’s success and potential. Worse, there is an eagerness to shoot down or pick apart the young signal-caller — whose simultaneously brutish and instinctual skills admittedly resemble a leather-helmeted old school throwback more than a radio-headset-wearing modern day pocket passer.
But, as anyone who has met the remarkable 24-year-old can attest, the Tebow aura is real, his “it” factor is off the charts and his winning enthusiasm is contagious. Elway may continue to lead the Tebow doubters, but it would be hard to find a Denver teammate who isn’t standing loyally behind their new quarterback.
“First off, I have to thank my lord and savior, Jesus Christ, and my teammates … they believed in me for more than 60 minutes,” said Tebow, immediately after the win.
“You can’t lose confidence in yourself or you’ve lost already. When you get knocked down, you’ve got to keep getting back up.”
After this week’s win in Miami, it’s Tebow time in Denver — even if Elway doesn’t believe in Superman.
by Nathan Rush
The Green Bay Packers do not need to wear throwback jerseys, re-created 1929 uniforms, the Acme Packers’ 1921-22 jackets, or any other gimmicky on-field merchandise used to move product at the local mall.
But the reigning Super Bowl champions will do just that, donning their hideous blue unis with mustard-yellow numerical circles, tan pants and brown wannabe-leather helmets in Week 6 against the St. Louis Rams — a team that also wears blue and yellow, by the way.
Other than conformity, there’s no reason for the Packers to stoop to the level of every other team. Green Bay is lucky enough to have a “tradition unlike any other” — meant to be said in Jim Nantz’s Masters voice — and should treat its own franchise with the respect it has earned and rightfully deserves.
The Packers’ green and gold jerseys have been “uniform” for the club since Vince Lombardi decided so in 1959. The block “G” helmets were added in 1961. But throw history to the wind when the “re-created” 1929 blue-mustard-tan-and-brown disgraces mix with 1921-22 “Acme Packers” coach’s jackets once again this weekend.
Presumed good intentions aside — the 1929 jerseys are meant to honor the team’s first-ever world championship, when co-founder Curly Lambeau led a 12–0–1 squad to the first of three straight titles — this is no tribute.
The Packers should be the only team in the NFL without a throwback, third-jersey alternate. Coach Lombardi wore a suit, tie and dress hat; quarterback Bart Starr — the MVP of Super Bowls I and II — wore green and gold every game of his NFL career.
Granted, the Indian Packing Company funded the team’s blue jerseys and leather helmets upon its arrival in pro football back in 1921. And current quarterback and Super Bowl XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers appears to enjoy playing in the burlap-inspired pants.
“Love them, love them, love them,” said Rodgers, who completed 21-of-30 passes for 298 yards, three TDs and zero INTs during a 34–16 win over the 49ers the last time he wore the throwback jerseys, in Week 13 last season.
“I’ll be honest, I looked at the picture (of the uniforms) last year, and I was a little bit wary of, ‘What’s that going to look like?’ But I’ll tell you what, and you’ll probably hear it from some other guys, the pants that we have are the most comfortable pants.
“I’ve been looking forward to this game all year because of those pants. I don’t know what the problem is, why we can’t get the same material during every other game. But, I’m telling you, these brown pants — whatever, tan — are so comfortable.”
But for a Packers franchise that honors its rich tradition by wearing classic uniforms every week of the season, this ridiculous attempt to make tradition some sort of special occasion in Green Bay seems to cheapen the spirit of the entire throwback concept — which serves a valuable purpose in every other NFL city.
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 6, along with the consensus pick of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Bills (4-1) at Giants (3-2)
The Wide Right Bowl will feature countless replays of Scott Norwood’s infamous 47-yard missed field goal at the end of Super Bowl XXV — which resulted in the second Lombardi Trophy for the Giants and the first of four consecutive Bills’ losses on Super Sunday. This time, New York state supremacy is on the line.
Giants by 3
Colts (0-5) at Bengals (3-2)
Normally, a two-hour drive down I-74 to Cincy would be a welcome road trip for Colts fans. But there may be fewer blue jerseys in the stands this year, as winless Indianapolis has shown few signs of life so far. Meanwhile, the Bengals are hopeful that the rookie QB-WR duo of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green can win again and match the team’s 2010 win total.
Bengals by 3
Jaguars (1-4) at Steelers (3-2)
The final leg of Pittsburgh’s four-game tour of the AFC South, which has already included a close call win at Indianapolis, a late loss at Houston and a blowout of Tennessee.
Steelers by 9
Eagles (1-4) at Redskins (3-1)
The heat is on Andy Reid and Michael Vick to stop Philly’s downward spiral. “Dream Team” never happened; “Redeem Team” still can.
Eagles by 1
49ers (4-1) at Lions (5-0)
Jim Harbaugh’s Niners hope to catch Motown hung over from a weeklong Monday night party following the team’s first MNF win since 1998.
Lions by 3
Rams (0-4) at Packers (5-0)
When a winless team visits an undefeated club this late in the season, odds are both squads exit with zeros — as opposed to ones — in the respective columns that were already blank. Just a roundabout way of saying St. Louis will almost certainly lose at Green Bay this week.
Packers by 14
Panthers (1-4) at Falcons (2-3)
Local legend Cam Newton — who was born in College Park, Ga., and attended Westlake High School in Fulton County — returns to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome for the first time since leading Auburn to a 56–17 win over South Carolina in the SEC title game. The Panthers’ rookie will be playing in front of friends and family as he looks for the first road win of his career.
Falcons by 4
Browns (2-2) at Raiders (3-2)
Expect an emotional scene at the Black Hole, as Al Davis (July 4, 1929 – Oct. 8, 2011) is honored by the Raider Nation in the first home game since the three-time Super Bowl champion owner’s passing. The Browns are fresh off a bye week but are walking into an even more hostile environment than usual in Oakland.
Raiders by 6
Texans (3-2) at Ravens (3-1)
Houston has problems following the loss of linebacker Mario Williams (torn pectoral) and the likely absence of receiver Andre Johnson (hamstring) — arguably the team’s top playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Ravens by 7
Saints (4-1) at Buccaneers (3-2)
Drew Brees has made the Tampa-St. Pete area his home away from home the past two years — throwing for a combined 450 yards, six TDs and one INT during 38–7 and 31–6 road wins.
Saints by 6
Cowboys (2-2) at Patriots (4-1)
New England has the league’s best offense (495.2 ypg) and worst defense (433.0 ypg). Dallas has a quarterback, Tony Romo, who has been hailed as the best (playing through injury vs. 49ers) and the worst (throwing away win vs. Lions). After what must have felt like an excruciatingly long bye week, the eyes of Texas are on Romo in this high-profile matchup.
Patriots by 9
Vikings (1-4) at Bears (2-3)
This Sunday night tilt features the only two teams in the NFC North that are not unbeaten. Last season, Chicago cruised to a pair of wins against Minnesota — with a 27–13 victory in Week 10 and a 40–14 blowout in Week 15.
Bears by 4
Dolphins (0-4) at Jets (2-3)
Rex Ryan’s club is in desperation mode heading into this Monday night AFC East fight. After suffering losses to the Patriots, Ravens and Raiders, the Jets are in a must-win mindframe against the winless Dolphins — who will give Matt Moore his first start against the No. 5 pass defense (203.0 ypg) in the league.
Jets by 7
by Nathan Rush
Al Davis was born in Plymouth County, Mass., on the Fourth of July in 1929, just three months before the start of the Great Depression. From that day until his passing on Saturday, Oct. 8 of this year, Davis was the personification of the American dream — fighting his way to the top through hard work, savvy business moves and an unwavering belief in himself and the team he assembled.
“Just win, baby,” Davis’ famous motto, served him well on his rise from college assistant coach at Adelphi, The Citadel and USC, to vertical passing game guru as the head coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders, to his brief stint as the commissioner of the AFL, and finally as the principal owner of the Raiders.
His “commitment to excellence” and “the will to win” — two other well-known Davis mantras — were undeniable. The Raiders earned three Vince Lombardi Trophies — winning Super Bowls XI, XV and XVIII — with Davis steering the ship as owner. But his impact went beyond the field.
“In my eyes, so much of his legacy will be defined by the loyalty he had for the men who played for the Raiders and the love that they had for him. That was a bond that extended beyond the playing years and lasted lifetimes,” said Dallas’ Jerry Jones, rumored to be Davis’ closest friend among NFL owners.
“His contributions and expertise were inspiring at every level — coach, general manager, owner and commissioner. There was no element of the game of professional football for which Al did not enjoy a thorough and complete level of knowledge and passion. …
“We will miss him deeply and we are thinking of (son) Mark and (wife) Carol at this difficult time.”
Never was the Raider Nation’s bond with Davis more evident than this past weekend, when coach Hue Jackson’s team went on the road to upset the Texans, 25–20. With black “AL” decals on the back of their helmets, the Raiders carried heavy hearts during an emotional come-from-behind win that ended in a game-clinching interception in the end zone by safety Michael Huff.
“One thing coach (Davis) always taught me was, he said: ‘Hue, don’t believe in plays, believe in players. And eventually the players will make plays for you,’” Jackson said.
“And that’s what I did. I could just hear him saying that to me the whole time. ‘Believe in your players and not the plays.’”
Controversial Davis draft picks like wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (99 yards, TD) and kicker Sebastian Janikowski (three 50-plus-yard FGs) came through in the clutch for the man whose fierce, familial loyalty permeated the franchise during his 48 years of service. In the end, the players Davis believed in made plays.
“We know he’s looking down on us right now,” said Huff. “This win is for him. I appreciate everything he’s done for this organization. He’s never gone in our eyes. We’ll never let him go. He’s with us.”
An American icon in the truest sense, Davis’ signature look of black shades and white jumpsuit will almost certainly be a popular Halloween costume in the Bay Area and across the country — likely challenging the Steve Jobs’ black turtleneck and blue jeans fashion statement, in terms of tribute popularity.
Davis was more than stylish maverick with memorable catch phrases; he was a groundbreaking pioneer. Davis’ Raiders made Tom Flores the NFL’s first Latino coach in 1960, Art Shell the first black coach in modern NFL history in 1983 and Amy Trask the league’s first female CEO in 1997.
An NFL head coach at 33 years old himself, Davis had an eye for young talent in the coaching ranks, hiring 32-year-old John Madden in 1969, 35-year-old Mike Shanahan in 1988, 34-year-old Jon Gruden in 1998 and 31-year-old Lane Kiffin — who remains the youngest hire in NFL history — in 2007.
Strategically, Davis’ teams were known for their dedication to an aggressive vertical downfield passing game on offense and excessively physical play — highlighted by bump-and-run coverage and brutal (often helmet-first and/or late) hits — on defense.
“I don’t want to be the most respected team in the league,” Davis famously stated. “I want to be the most feared.”
And with a list of Raider alumni that includes Shell, Gene Upshaw, Howie Long, Ted Hendricks, Willie Brown, Mike Haynes, Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson, Fred Biletnikoff, Dave Casper, Tim Brown, Kenny Stabler, Steve Wisniewski, George Blana, Ray Guy and Jack Tatum, it’s safe to say that the Silver-and-Black — a color scheme Davis selected for intimidation purposes — were a feared franchise to be reckoned with.
More than any owner in any sport, Al Davis was representative of his team. The Oakland Raiders were, and will continue to be, an extension of Davis, as his brainchild in action. And, in more ways than many realize, so will the entire NFL.
“Al Davis’ passion for football and his influence on the game were extraordinary. He defined the Raiders and contributed to pro football at every level. The respect he commanded was evident in the way that people listened carefully every time he spoke,” said Commissioner Roger Goodell, in a statement following Davis’ passing.
“He is a true legend of the game whose impact and legacy will forever be part of the NFL.”
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
Playing behind a patchwork offensive line and walking with a noticeable limp, Roethlisberger produced an heroic effort during a 38–17 win over the Titans. Big Ben completed 24-of-34 passes for 228 yards, five TDs — tying the Steelers’ record held by Terry Bradshaw and Mark Malone — and one INT. Roethlisberger also took just one sack, despite the makeshift O-line and sprained left foot, on which he wore a shoe one size larger than normal with a steel plate insert on the bottom to prevent bending.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
After downplaying a few of Brett Favre’s backhanded compliments early in the week, it was business as usual for Rodgers on Sunday night. Storming Atlanta, Rodgers completed 26-of-39 passes for 396 yards, two TDs and zero INTs in a 25–14 victory on the road. En route to leading the Packers to a 5–0 start, Rodgers has thrown for 1,721 yards, 14 TDs and only two INTs for a league-best 122.9 passer rating this season — and an NFL-record 100.9 career passer rating.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
There was no lack of carries this week for A.D., who got the ball “All Day” during a 34–10 win over the Cardinals. Peterson had 29 carries for 122 yards and three trips to the end zone. The three scores — covering 4, 24 and 14 yards — all came in the first quarter, as the Vikings built a 28–0 edge they would not relinquish. After letting several big first-half leads slip away earlier this season, Minnesota finally earned its first victory of the year in Week 5.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Patriots
The “Lawfirm” made the outcome of the Jets game an open-and-shut case, with 27 carries for a career-high 136 yards and two TDs in the 30–21 victory over the Patriots’ AFC East rivals. New England never trailed, cruising to its 19th consecutive regular-season win at Foxborough and 13th straight regular season game with at least 30 points scored, while handing New York its third straight loss in the process.
Nick Barnett, LB, Bills
Buffalo’s defense forced Philadelphia’s Michael Vick into four INTs — two of which were picked off by Barnett — and one lost fumble during a thrilling 31–24 upset of the “Dream Team.” The middle linebacker made the most of his first two INTs of the season, with 47 total return yards — including a 31-yard pick-six. The 4–1 Bills are off to their best start since 1999, the last time the franchise made the playoffs.
The winless Miami Dolphins took their worst loss of the season when quarterback Chad Henne was sent to the injured reserve with a separated left (non-throwing) shoulder. The fourth-year quarterback suffered the season-ending injury on a half-hearted scramble following a botched handoff to Lex Hilliard during a busted play in the first quarter of a 26–16 loss at San Diego.
“It’s really disappointing,” said embattled Dolphins coach Tony Sparano. “The kid’s got a lot invested in this thing with this team.”
The 6’3”, 230-pound 26-year-old was a second round pick (No. 57 overall) out of Michigan in 2008. But after posting a 13–18 career record as a starter — including an 0–4 start this season — and throwing 31 TDs and 37 INTs for a 75.7 passer rating, the South Florida sun has likely set on Henne’s career in Miami.
Where is Earl Morrall when you need him?
These are not Don Shula’s Dolphins. While Henne was clearly no Bob Griese, the backup plan is nowhere near the quality of Morrall — who famously went 11–0 as a starter subbing for Griese on the 1972 Dolphins squad that finished with a perfect 17–0 record.
Following a Week 5 bye, Matt Moore will become the 16th different quarterback to start for the Dolphins since Dan Marino retired following the 1999 season. Veteran Sage Rosenfels and practice squad rookie Pat Devlin are also options. But Moore is the new man in Miami.
“It’s Matt’s job. We’ve got to get Matt ready to go,” said Sparano. “He’s a confident guy; a little different swagger to him when he gets in the huddle.”
Moore will be 16th different quarterback to start for Dolphins since Marino retired following the 1999 season. The 6’3”, 203-pound Moore arrived in Miami this season with a 7–6 record in 13 career starts for Carolina. The fifth-year pro brings a Henne-like 16 TDs and 18 INTs along with a 73.5 passer rating in his career.
Moore’s not the worst option in the world; but with a little offseason planning, the Dolphins could have had a much better situation at quarterback:
Matt Hasselbeck, Titans (via free agency, Seahawks)
The recently-turned 36-year-old was recruited to Tennessee by first-year coach and Hall of Fame offensive lineman Mike Munchak based primarily on the selling point of the team’s O-line — especially left tackle Michael Roos. The Fins are one of the few teams in the NFL with a better blindside blocker than Roos, as former No. 1 overall pick and three-time Pro Bowler Jake Long is arguably the best in the league.
Hasselbeck has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,152 yards, eight TDs and three INTs for a 104.7 passer rating and a 3–1 record for the Titans — proving he can still get the job done (if he has his blindside protected).
Vince Young, Eagles (via free agency, Titans)
This was a perfect match. V.Y. may not be able to throw a five-yard crossing route, but he sure can unload a 50-yard bomb — perfect for Brandon Marshall, who is a rich man’s Kenny Britt. Young also brings a winning track record (30–17 as a starter) and an exciting boom-or-bust style that fits the city of Miami. A one-year rental of Young offered high reward in exchange for little risk.
Ryan Mallett, Patriots (via NFL Draft, Arkansas)
Miami traded its third- (No. 79) and seventh-round (No. 217) picks to Washington for the No. 62 overall selection, which was used on Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas. Quarterback, however, was a more pressing need than running back for the Dolphins. And the 6’6”, 238-pounder with the million-dollar arm and ten-cent head was worth the risk in the third round — or at least Bill Belichick thought so at No. 74 overall. The Fins did their research but did not pull the trigger on the Hog with the cannon right arm.
“I have spent a lot of time with him,” said Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland. “He’s a nice young man, very talented kid, got a bright future.”
David Garrard, Free Agent (via Jaguars)
The Jaguars cut Garrard just days before kickoff of the 2011 season. Following Henne’s injury, Garrard (39–37 record as starter) worked out for the Dolphins, along with fellow free agents Trent Edwards (14–19) and Brodie Croyle (0–10). Reportedly, Miami was willing to sign Garrard for veteran minimum (roughly $800,000; with $425,000 counting against the cap). The 33-year-old Garrard, however, wanted no less than $1 million and negotiations broke down.
With several other teams in need of an upgrade at quarterback — namely the Colts — there will still likely be a Garrard sighting in the NFL this season.
Andrew Luck, 2012 NFL Draft (via Stanford)
Maybe this was the plan all along. “Suck for Luck” to get the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, then draft the most pro-ready passer since Peyton Manning. After all, Hasselbeck, Young, Mallett and Garrard — even Henne, for that matter — were stopgap, band-aid solutions, at best. Luck is a franchise quarterback worthy of being the heir to Marino, albeit a decade late.
On second thought, Henne’s injury might turn out to be the best thing to happen to the Dolphins since Marino fell all the way down the board to the No. 27 overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 5, along with the consensus pick of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Saints (3-1) at Panthers (1-3)
Carolina rookie quarterback Cam Newton has passed for 1,386 yards, five TDs and five INTs for an 84.5 passer rating, while scrambling for 133 yards and four scores. Still, the Panthers have only one win to show for it. That is not likely to change this week, as Drew Brees and the mighty Saints march into Charlotte with the NFL’s No. 2 total offense (454.0 ypg) and No. 5 scoring offense (31.8 ppg).
Saints by 5
Raiders (2-2) at Texans (3-1)
Darren McFadden and the Raiders’ top-ranked running game (178.8 ypg) heads to Houston to take on the Texans’ No. 4 run game (148.5 ypg) and a healthy Arian Foster. This fantasy football field day will keep the clock ticking.
Texans by 4
Cardinals (1-3) at Vikings (0-4)
Kevin Kolb takes on Donovan McNabb in the battle of quarterbacks who the Eagles traded so they could give Mike Vick $100 million.
Vikings by 2
Chiefs (1-3) at Colts (0-4)
On paper, this looks like a winnable home game for Indy. But nothing has come easy for the Colts without Peyton Manning. Third-string quarterback Curtis Painter exceeded low expectations (281 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) in a loss to the Bucs on Monday night. Unfortunately he’ll have a short week to prepare for just the second start of his career.
Colts by 1
Seahawks (1-3) at Giants (3-1)
Seattle has a 1–11 record in games played in the Eastern time zone since 2007.
Giants by 7
Eagles (1-3) at Bills (3-1)
The Dream Team has turned in a nightmare start to the season. Mike Vick and Co. are in must-win mode heading into this week’s matchup against the Bills, a two-faced team that beat the Patriots but lost to the Bengals.
Eagles by 4
Bengals (2-2) at Jaguars (1-3)
These two coaches on the hot seat — Cincy’s Marvin Lewis and J-Ville’s Jack Del Rio — each need to capitalize on a winnable catfight.
Jaguars by 2
Titans (3-1) at Steelers (2-2)
The Steel City needs a welding torch and a wide-belt sander to fix its football team. Ben Roethlisberger is limping with a left foot injury, the offensive line can’t field a healthy five and now linebacker James Harrison is “out for a number of weeks” with an eye injury. But coach Mike Tomlin’s team seems to find a way. And the Steelers weren’t exactly 100 percent when Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch beat the Titans 19–11 in Nashville last year in Week 2.
Titans by 1
Buccaneers (3-1) at 49ers (3-1)
The Tampa 2 defense blanked San Fran 21–0 in Week 11 last season for the Bucs’ first win at Candlestick Park since 1980. But these Niners are Jim Harbaugh’s, not Mike Singletary’s.
49ers by 3
Jets (2-2) at Patriots (3-1)
Last year these AFC East rivals each defended their home turf in the regular season — with the Jets winning 28–14 in Week 2 and the Pats rolling to a 45–3 victory in Week 13 — before New York took down New England, 28–21, at Foxborough to advance to its second straight AFC title game. Mark Sanchez and the O-line struggled against the Ravens; the Jets will need a healthy Nick Mangold at center if they hope to keep the Sanch-ise on the field.
Patriots by 9
Chargers (3-1) at Broncos (1-3)
It’s looks as if Denver fans are more likely to see Tim Tebow on a digital billboard than on a football field. The 2010 first-round pick took one snap — a one-yard loss on a designed run — in a blowout loss at Green Bay last week. Meanwhile, the Bolts have no such drama and are content with their best “first quarter” of the Norv Turner era, after starting 1–3 in 2007 and going 2–2 out of the gate from 2008-10.
Chargers by 9
Packers (4-0) at Falcons (2-2)
Last season, Green Bay split its trips down south to Atlanta — losing 20–17 in Week 12 and winning 48–21 in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers played nearly flawless football against the Falcons, combining to complete 57-of-71 passes (80.3 percent) for 710 yards, four TDs and zero INTs, while rushing for 64 yards and two TDs. Is that all? Rodgers accounted for six TDs in Week 4 alone.
Packers by 7
Bears (2-2) at Lions (4-0)
Hank Williams Jr. may not be among the rowdy friends coming over to watch this Monday night party between black-and-blue NFC North rivals — after a few politically charged comments got the Grammy Award winner in hot water — but everyone else will be tuned in. This will be the most meaningful game in Detroit since Barry Sanders was running circles around the league. Expect the pass-catch duo of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson to attack a Bears defense that struggled against the pass in losses to the Saints and Packers this year.
Lions by 3
by Nathan Rush
It’s time for the Dallas Cowboys to look in the mirror and be honest: Tony Romo is the problem.
Life was simpler when Jessica Simpson was the jersey-chasing scapegoat in Dallas. Or when Wade Phillips was on the sideline wearing a look of confused disappointment — like someone just told him the iPhone 5 won’t be out until next summer. Unfortunately for Cowboy Nation, there are no obvious fall guys to blame this time.
Sure, Romo is easy to root for. He wears his hat backwards, does a great Brett Favre impression and inspired a Carrie Underwood song. And he’s quick to apologize, take the blame and promise to get better after a loss.
He’ll even play hurt, saying there’s “only 16 days a year you’re called upon to do your job” and he doesn’t want to miss any of them due to injury. But let’s get real, Tony Romo is the reason the Cowboys only play 16 games and not the 19 or 20 that Super Bowl contenders play.
Romo carries a 3–7 record over his last 10 games — with four games coming in 2011 and six contests before his season-ending collarbone fracture of ’10. During that time, Romo has thrown for 2,878 yards, 18 TDs and 12 INTs, while taking 14 sacks. Mediocre, but not terrible numbers.
But in the fourth quarter of close games — in which the Boys are either leading or trailing by seven or fewer points — Romo has been terrible, throwing a combined two TDs and five INTs while also losing one fumble at the goal line and completing just 58.8 percent of his passes over the past two seasons.
But who cares about winning or split-stats? Certainly not Jerry Jones.
“There’s no issue about faith in Romo in any place in this organization, period. Any place. There’s no issue regarding Tony,” said the Cowboys owner, general manager and No. 1 fan. “The most important thing, the very individual — Tony Romo — that we are criticizing this week gives us our very best chance to have a championship.”
Failure to acknowledge a problem doesn’t eliminate it.
However, Jones isn’t the only one quick to share an opinion on the Romo roller-coaster ride that has taken place this year — peaking when the Cowboys’ signal-caller was viewed as a hero after reportedly playing with fractured ribs and a punctured lung in a 27–24 comeback win at San Francisco in Week 2, and crashing down following a 34–30 meltdown loss to Detroit, a game in which Romo through pick-sixes on consecutive second-half possessions en route to losing a 24-point lead.
“I don’t understand this guy. Just when you want to believe in him, heroic effort, came back against San Francisco, they said punctured lung and everything,” said current NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders, a Hall of Famer who won Super Bowl XXX as an All-Pro cornerback for the Cowboys.
“We praised him. We said, ‘Yeah, he’s that leader. He’s their guy.’ And then you come and do this. What are you thinking? …
“Statistically he’s great. But you can’t trust him.”
Redskins rival Chris Cooley chimed in on the LaVar and Dukes Show earlier this week with a critique worthy of a cage fight.
“It’s amazing, amazing to watch him choke like that. I’m just saying, I’m up 24 points in the third quarter, if I’m the head coach, I feel like I could probably just take a knee for the rest of the game, punt it away and there’s no way that Detroit’s gonna drive on you that many times,” said Cooley, whose Skins lost to the Boys 18–16 in Week 3, by the way.
“The only way you’re gonna give up that many points is turnovers, right? It’s hilarious to watch him throw pick-sixes, too, back-to-back. I loved it.”
Even those trying to stand up for Romo are becoming victims of collateral damage. Dallas Mavericks 7-foot uberstar and 2011 NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki tweeted his support for all to see.
“Dear tony romo. Don’t worry abt all the critics. I heard the same garbage for a long time. Keep working hard and keep improving.”
But Nowitzki’s personal comparison was quickly shot down by legendary Cowboys receiver and Super Bowl XII champ Drew Pearson, who ripped into both Romo and Dirk on local KESN-FM’s Ben & Skin Show.
“Hey Dirk, this is football, this ain’t basketball. This is a real game where a lot of emotions play a lot more heavily into what you’re doing out there as a professional. I respect Dirk, there’s no question, and I know where he’s coming from because he has sustained the criticism and now the criticism has stopped because they won an NBA championship,” Pearson ranted.
“What he should be telling Tony is if you want to stop the criticism, quit making those kinds of mistakes and lead your team to a championship.”
Clearly, the Cowboys’ Romo-mentum is in an uncontrollable downward spiral — teaming division rivals with Hall of Fame, Super Bowl-winning former Cowboys in a unified front against Dallas’ reigning world champion and the $1.3 billion landlord of Cowboys Stadium.
And this time, it’s not as easy as asking Jessica or Wade to stop coming to games. This time, it’s all on Tony.
“However we go, we go with Tony,” Jones told ESPN Dallas. “As Tony goes, we’ll go.”
by Nathan Rush
Finally healthy, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is leading the race for Comeback Player of the Year by leading Detroit on a series of comebacks.
It looks like the Lions have finally found Bobby Layne’s replacement. And guess what? He’s a Dallas native who went to Highland Park High School, just like the Hall of Famer who led Detroit to three NFL titles in the 1950s.
In Stafford’s Dallas homecoming, Detroit was down 20–3 at halftime before bouncing back to outscore the Cowboys 31–10 in the second half for a dramatic 34–30 victory.
The week before, the Lions were trailing 20–0 at halftime in Minnesota before rallying for a 23–3 edge after the break to force overtime and ultimately win 26–23. It was their first victory at the Metrodome since 1997.
As a result, Detroit is 4–0 for the first time since 1980 and aiming for its first 5–0 start since the Layne-led Lions started 6–0 in 1956. In order to do so, the pride of the Motor City will have to take down the NFC North rival Chicago Bears in Detroit’s first appearance on Monday Night Football since 2001. The Lions will also be battling the Sports Illustrated cover jinx — a problem they haven’t had since 2002.
Don’t expect the national attention — or a 20-point halftime deficit — to faze this year’s squad.
“What people think of us is probably about the least important thing when it comes to Sunday,” said coach Jim Schwartz, who has turned the franchise around after inheriting history’s only 0–16 team when he took over in 2009.
“We have confidence in ourselves. We have some good players. We have a good scheme. We have players who fit that scheme. It’s a hard-working crew. If we keep all those things in mind we’ll be fine. We don’t need to worry about what anybody else thinks about us.”
It’s easy to buy into the hype, however. The Lions have plenty of pieces. Stafford has thrown for 1,217 yards, 11 TDs and three INTs for a 100.3 passer rating. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft has arguably the game’s top wideout as his go-to target. The 6'5", 236-pound Calvin Johnson is the first receiver in history to open the season with four straight games with two touchdown catches — his last two coming in the fourth quarter at Dallas.
Defensively, terrorizing 300-pound tackle Ndamukong Suh is among the most-feared players in the game. But Schwartz — a defensive guru who paid his dues coaching under Jeff Fisher and Bill Belichick — also has a strong supporting cast capable of stepping up in big games, which Bobby Carpenter and Chris Houston did with back-to-back pick-sixes in the comeback against the Cowboys.
The Lions don’t want to get ahead of themselves. The team has not had a winning season since 2000 and has not made the playoffs since 1999. But the comeback is off to a good start.
“Being 4–0, it doesn’t get any better than that after the first four games,” said Stafford.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
The Super Bowl XLV MVP broke out his title belt celebration six times during a 49–23 blowout of the Broncos. Accounting for a half-dozen TDs during the rout, Rodgers completed 29-of-38 (76.3 percent) passes for a career-high 408 yards, four scoring strikes and one pick, while scrambling nine times for 36 yards and another two trips to the end zone on the ground. The Packers lead the NFL in scoring (37.0 ppg), while Rodgers has thrown 12 TDs and two INTs for a league-leading 124.6 passer rating.
Matt Forte, RB, Bears
With Jay Cutler and the Windy City air attack continuing to struggle, Chicago stayed on the ground during a 34–29 win over Carolina. Forte put the offense on his back, with 25 carries for 205 yards (8.2 ypc) and one trip to the end zone, while also adding four catches for 23 yards in a winning effort. The fourth-year all-purpose back out of Tulane currently leads NFL running backs in total yards per game (158.5) in the final year of his rookie contract with the Bears.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions
Megatron continues his transformation into arguably the game’s most dangerous receiver. The 6'5", 236-pound wideout had eight catches for 96 yards and a pair of TD grabs — including the go-ahead score on a jump ball in the end zone with 1:39 left — as Detroit pulled off a 24-point comeback to steal a 34–30 victory at Dallas. Johnson has now caught two TDs in each of the first four games of the season, for an NFL-leading eight receiving scores this year.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, Giants
After combining to record seven receptions for just 63 yards and one TD in Weeks 2 and 3, Eli Manning’s go-to guy hauled in 10 catches for a career-high 162 yards and a game-winning TD in a 31–27 win at Arizona. The winning drive was nearly ended by a controversial play in which rookie receiver Victor Cruz dropped the ball and jogged back to the huddle after going down untouched. The letter of the law allowed the G-Men to retain possession, however, and Manning hit Nicks for the TD on the next play.
Mario Williams, LB, Texans
Super Mario recorded two of the Texans’ five sacks and several of the team’s numerous hits on Ben Roethlisberger — who reportedly left Houston wearing a walking boot on his foot — during a 17–10 win over the Steelers. Playing through a knee injury that caused Williams to miss considerable time in Week 3, the defensive end-turned-linebacker was once again the focal point of Wade Phillips’ stop-unit, which held Pittsburgh to just 5-of-13 (38.5 percent) on third- and fourth-down conversions.
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 4, along with the consensus pick of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Lions (3-0) at Cowboys (2-1)
Is it Thanksgiving already? These traditional Turkey Day hosts square off in the NFC’s game of the week. Big D better be ready for Dallas native Matthew Stafford — who has thrown for 977 yards, nine TDs and two INTs this season.
Lions by 1
Steelers (2-1) at Texans (2-1)
Houston continues to have a problem closing out high-pressure games against elite teams. Last week, Gary Kubiak’s club allowed a Texas-sized 23 fourth-quarter points during a 40–33 loss to Drew Brees’ Saints. This week, Wade Phillips’ defense will look to apply pressure on Big Ben Roethlisberger, who will be playing behind a severely banged-up O-line.
Texans by 1
49ers (2-1) at Eagles (1-2)
Mike Vick’s headache is gone but he has a bruised hand; Vince Young’s hamstring feels better but he has a doppelganger on the loose. Regardless of QB issues, Philly needs this win.
Eagles by 5
Vikings (0-3) at Chiefs (0-3)
The Vikings’ ship just won’t hold water. In three losses, Minnesota has a combined 44–7 lead in the first half but trails 67–6 after opponents’ halftime adjustments. Meanwhile, the Chiefs are falling apart without running back Jamaal Charles and safety Eric Berry, arguably the team’s top two playmakers. On the bright side, one of the NFL’s five remaining winless teams will earn a victory this week.
Vikings by 4
Redskins (2-1) at Rams (0-3)
Sam Bradford’s sophomore slump has to end. Catching Washington on a short week after a tough loss could be just what St. Louis needs.
Rams by 1
Bills (3-0) at Bengals (1-2)
Cincy coach Marvin Lewis gave the roaming Buffalo some bulletin board material this week. “At the end of the week, when we’re 2–2,” Lewis said, implying the guaranteed victory vs. a Bills squad fresh off a win over the Pats.
Bills by 5
Titans (2-1) at Browns (2-1)
Two of the top left tackles in the game today — Tennessee’s Michael Roos and Cleveland’s Joe Thomas — will be on display in what could be an ugly, grind-it-out contest. Titans veteran Matt Hasselbeck has taken only four sacks; Browns second-year gunslinger Colt McCoy has hit the turf for lost yards only three times.
Titans by 2
Saints (2-1) at Jaguars (1-2)
These two squads have gone in opposite directions since Week 1. New Orleans has looked like a Super Bowl contender since losing at Green Bay; Jacksonville has looked lost since taking down Tennessee.
Saints by 9
Panthers (1-2) at Bears (1-2)
First-year Carolina coach Ron Rivera returns to Chicago, where he won Super Bowl XX as a linebacker and coached for five seasons.
Bears by 7
Falcons (1-2) at Seahawks (1-2)
Matty Ice and Co. are in desperate need of a road win after losing at Chicago and Tampa. This battle of the birds should cure their jetlag.
Falcons by 7
Giants (2-1) at Cardinals (1-2)
Big Blue returns to the University of Phoenix Stadium, where they won Super Bowl XLII. But it shouldn’t take any miracle helmet-catches to secure a victory this time around.
Giants by 6
Broncos (1-2) at Packers (3-0)
Denver’s 28th-ranked rushing game (76.0 ypg) should fit in against Green Bay’s top-ranked run defense (55.0 ypg).
Packers by 15
Patriots (2-1) at Raiders (2-1)
Expect to see a few dozen “Tuck Rule” replays of the infamous Charles Woodson sack on Tom Brady in the snow in the 2002 AFC Playoffs. While Bill Belichick has led the Patriots to four Super Bowl appearances since that game, the Raiders are on their sixth coach, Hue Jackson.
Patriots by 5
Dolphins (0-3) at Chargers (2-1)
The notoriously slow-starting Bolts face a Fins club that has seemingly yet to start its season. Miami’s Tony Sparano needs a win more than San Diego’s Norv Turner — but not by much.
Chargers by 8
Jets (2-1) at Ravens (2-1)
In Week 1 last year, Ray Lewis’ Ravens won a defensive battle, 10–9, quieting Rex Ryan’s Jets — whose “Hard Knocks” trash talk had grown out of control over the course of the summer. There will be plenty of yapping this week, as Ryan — who coached in Baltimore from 1999-2008 — faces his former team.
Ravens by 3
Colts (0-3) at Buccaneers (2-1)
The Tony Dungy Bowl is not what it once was. With Peyton Manning in the booth play-calling, Kerry Collins questionable after a concussion and Curtis Painter (5-of-11 for 60 yards, one lost fumble, 62.7 passer rating vs. Steelers) shaky at best, the Colts are staggering into Tampa Bay as arguably the NFL’s worst team.
Buccaneers by 8
by Nathan Rush
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!
Well, really it’s only a giant digital billboard of the Denver Broncos’ Tim Tebow.
“Broncos Fans to John Fox: Play Tebow!!”
That message is as crystal clear as the thin Rocky Mountain air in Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Multiline International Imports purchased the billboard at the intersection of 58th and Logan, north of downtown Denver.
The plea alternates with a photo of Tebow pointing skyward — presumably to two-time Super Bowl champ-turned-executive vice president of football operations John Elway and owner Pat Bowlen in the owner’s box — while coming out of the tunnel pregame.
As a rookie last season, Tebow threw for 654 yards, five TDs and three INTs for an 82.1 passer rating, while tucking the ball to rush for 227 yards, on 5.3 yards per carry, and six TDs on the ground in nine games (three starts). That playing time, however, came under coach Josh McDaniels — who was fired after a 3–9 start last year — and lame duck interim coach Eric Studesville, a.k.a. the “old regime.”
McDaniels was, in fact, the slash-and-burn emperor with no clothes who traded away proven (albeit flawed) Pro Bowlers like quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall. Then, the over-eager, wannabe Bill Belichick traded a second-, third- and fourth-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens in exchange for the No. 25 overall pick to draft Tebow.
As a result, Tebow, by no fault of his own, became a member of a select group — headlined by running back Knowshon Moreno (22 rush yards in ’11) and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (PUP list in ’11) — of players who were hand-picked in the first round by McDaniels and are now viewed as radioactive by the “new regime” of Captain Elway (Mile High salute!) and his first-year silver Fox coach.
The Johns (Elway and Fox) — presumably with the consent and/or support of Bowlen — have decided that Kyle Orton is their one and only quarterback. Through three starts, Orton has thrown for 672 yards, five TDs and three INTs for a 79.1 passer rating, while also coughing up two lost fumbles and posting a 1–2 record.
Orton’s passing stats are very Tebow-like. Unfortunately, King Neck Beard doesn’t bring the additional dimensions — scrambling, improvisation and popularity unparalleled by anyone since Elway — of No. 15, the former Florida Gator Heisman Trophy-winning BCS national champion.
Not only will the Johns not start Tebow but Fox won’t even play him when strategy calls for it, which it did during a bang-your-head-against-the-wall turnover on downs at the goal line during a 17–14 loss against the Tennessee Titans in Week 3.
Instead of using the dual-threat talents and run-pass-option ability of the 6’3”, 236-pound 24-year-old when it is the right time — at the goal line — Fox has chosen to undermine (intentionally or inadvertently) Tebow and question (through actions) his ability to play quarterback in the NFL by playing the Broncos’ leading jersey-seller at wide receiver.
Following injuries to Brandon Lloyd (groin), Eddie Royal (groin) and Julius Thomas (ankle), Fox gave Tebow his first playing time of the season in a 24–22 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2. Tebow played three snaps, seeing no targets from Orton, as an “emergency No. 3 receiver.”
Rather than throw Tebow into the deep end to let him sink or swim as an NFL quarterback, Fox let Tebow flop around as a fish out of water and a player out of position. Jeff Fisher never liked Vince Young; but he never forced him to line up as a wide receiver, either.
But Tebow continues to show the patience and poise he preaches, telling the Denver Post, “I’m going to relish the opportunity and I’m going to go out there and make the most of it,” in his typically team-first tone, after the game.
It appears not everyone in Denver has the temperament for the Tebow treatment currently en vogue with Bowlen, Elway and Fox. The fans want Tebow, for better or worse. After getting a taste of the wild child paradigm-shifting lefty late last season and this preseason, the Mile High faithful were not happy just seeing No. 15 standing on the sideline — chanting “We want Tebow!” on Monday Night Football in the 23–20 loss to Oakland in Week 1.
And they’re right. Only one team wins the Super Bowl; but every team can sell jerseys, tickets and create a high-energy, exciting atmosphere within the fan base. Tebow brings every marketing intangible known to Mad Men — and, who knows, he might even be able to play quarterback.
The people of Denver have spoken. The Broncos should listen.
by Nathan Rush
Make room, Jim Kelly and Jack Kemp, there’s another quarterback who has the Buffalo Bills charging in the win column.
Ryan Fitzpatrick rallied Buffalo from a 21–0 deficit to a thrilling come-from-behind 34–31 win over AFC East rival New England — snapping a 15-game losing streak that dated back to 2004 against the Pats.
More important, the Week 3 win improves the Bills’ record to 3–0 overall and 1–0 within the division, thanks in large part to their bearded signal-caller with the Ivy League pedigree but an everyman’s approach.
The seventh-year veteran out of Harvard has completed 64.9 percent of his passes for 841 yards, nine TDs and three INTs for a 103.5 passer rating this season. And although No. 14 jerseys are flying off the racks now, the 28-year-old’s path to NFL stardom has been a circuitous one.
Raised in Gilbert, Ariz., Fitzpatrick was an economics major at Harvard — where he led the Crimson to a 10–0 record in 2004 en route to being named Ivy League MVP.
“His intangibles were probably the best I’ve ever seen out of any college football player at any position in my 25 years as a head coach,” Harvard coach Tim Murphy told USA Today.
From there, the 6'2", 225-pounder became a minor celebrity in NFL Draft circles when it was reported that he recorded a perfect score on the famed Wonderlic test. Those reports were false, however, as Fitzpatrick admitted to leaving one answer blank and settling for a 48 out of a possible score of 50.
To date, fellow Harvard alum Pat McInally holds the only perfect score on record in Wonderlic history.
Despite his on-field success, obvious intelligence and prerequisite size and arm, Fitzpatrick fell to the seventh round as the 250th overall pick — the sixth-to-last overall selection — of the St. Louis Rams. Fitzpatrick was the 14th and final quarterback taken, behind Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers, Jason Campbell, Charlie Frye, Andrew Walter, David Greene, Kyle Orton, Stefan LeFors, Dan Orlovsky, Adrian McPherson, Derek Anderson, James Kilian and Matt Cassel (a career backup who had started zero games at USC).
Fitzpatrick played two season with the Rams before being traded to the Cincinnati Bengals, where he played two seasons. In 2009, Fitzpatrick signed with the Bills.
After throwing for 3,000 yards and 23 TDs last year, Fitzpatrick entered this season under the radar. No more. The low-key leader who wears his wedding ring on the field has taken on tall tale status in Buffalo.
Even if he wasn’t around for the prior 15 losses to the mighty Patriots, Fitzpatrick knows how rewarding it is to take down a rival.
“I never lost to Yale, so I don’t even know what that feels like,” he said. “This one was probably sweeter.”
Darren McFadden, RB, Raiders
Run DMC ran wild against the visiting Jets, with 19 carries for 171 yards and two trips to the end zone — a 2-yard power dive and a 70-yarder that showed off McFadden’s burst to the edge, open-field moves and long-stride long-distance speed (as well as the downfield blocking of a few Raider receivers). Oakland’s 34–24 upset victory served as sweet revenge for New York’s 38–0 win in the Black Hole two seasons ago. Meanwhile, McFadden continues to establish himself as one of the best backs in the game — with 477 total yards and four TDs in ’11.
Eli Manning, QB, Giants
Peyton may be sidelined, but Eli is making sure the Manning family continues to set the standard for quarterback play. The Super Bowl XLII MVP picked apart the Eagles’ secondary during a 29–16 victory in Philly. The NFL’s new active Iron Man started his 113th consecutive game (106 regular season, 7 postseason), completing 16-of-23 passes for 254 yards, four scores — two to second-year wideout Victor Cruz — and zero INTs in a winning effort.
Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Titans
Hasselbeck celebrated his 36th birthday in style, completing 27-of-36 passes for 311 yards, two TDs and zero INTs during a thrilling 17–14 win over Denver. The 13-year veteran lost wideout Kenny Britt (knee) in the first half and received little help from Chris Johnson (21 rush yards). As a result, Hasselbeck took the Titans on his shoulders — completing passes to 11 different receivers, the last connection being a 4-yard score to tight end Daniel Graham, a former Bronco whose first catch of the season proved to be a game-winner.
Jermichael Finley, TE, Packers
After playing in only five games last year, Finley is making up for lost time early on this season. The 6'5", 247-pounder — who Aaron Rodgers calls the “best tight end” in football — had seven catches for 85 yards and three acrobatic TD grabs during a 27–17 victory at Chicago in the 183rd meeting of the NFL’s oldest rivals. The Packers have won three straight against the Bears dating back to Week 17 of last season.
Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers
The shampoo pitchman cleaned up several of the Steelers’ offensive mistakes with one play that would be called “unbelievable” if made by any safety other than the routinely high-flying Polamalu. After Colts’ third-string quarterback Curtis Painter entered the game, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year got off to a running start on a perfectly-timed blitz, then seemingly jumped over an Indy O-lineman to recover a fumble forced by James Harrison and return the ball 16 yards for a crucial fourth-quarter TD in a 23–20 victory on Sunday night.