Articles By Nathan Rush
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.
by Nathan Rush
One day after Quinton “Rampage” Jackson takes on Jon “Bones” Jones in a light heavyweight fight at UFC 135, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler goes toe-to-toe against the Green Bay defense in the heavyweight showdown that is Packers-Bears 183.
Both bouts could get ugly.
Many are already questioning whether Cutler will be able to walk away from the latest installment of a regional feud that spans 90 years and 182 games between two historic franchises separated by only 200 miles.
The 183rd meeting of the NFL’s oldest rivals is a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship Game, a contest in which Cutler was knocked out with what was later revealed as a sprained MCL in his left knee.
Still, for a variety of reasons, many felt Cutler simply quit after completing 6-of-14 passes (42.9 percent) for 80 yards, zero TDs and one INT for a 31.8 passer rating, while taking two sacks and countless hits from a vicious Packers 3-4 scheme directed by Dom Capers and led by headhunting linebacker Clay Matthews and sumo nose tackle B.J. Raji.
Sitting on the sideline making Cutler faces — which, to the layperson, are similar to Manning faces, just as smug, only less agitated and more apathetic — seemingly flipped a collective switch in the minds of fans across the country. Cutler became some sort of spoiled millionaire “Bartman” villain of the Chicago sports scene.
The national hate campaign against Cutler went viral faster than “David After Dentist.” Is this real life? Why is this happening to me? Is this gonna be forever?
A quarterback whose toughness had never been questioned — after all, the kid never even blinked while having his head ripped off on a weekly basis playing SEC comp at Vanderbilt — was suddenly labeled “soft.”
“Seems like the storyline has been about whether our quarterback is a tough guy,” said Bears coach Lovie Smith, after the 21–14 loss to the Packers in the NFC title game.
“Our quarterback’s a tough guy.”
Cutler enters this Week 3 fistfight against Green Bay having taken a league-worst 11 sacks through the first two games of the season, albeit against the Falcons and Saints, respectively.
“It’s just not good,” Bears icon Mike Ditka said on ESPN Radio’s Mike & Mike In The Morning. “There’s a lack of understanding on the offensive line on who’s supposed to block who. Or else, they’re just not very good. You can put it either way.”
After taking six sacks and a kick to the throat in a 30–13 loss at New Orleans last week, Cutler was asked whether or not he could make it through the rest of this season taking this type of punishment every week.
“I don’t know,” said a hoarse Cutler. “I don’t know.”
With Cutler’s good buddy Aaron Rodgers leading a high-octane Packers offense into Soldier Field, the Bears will have to put some points on the board in order to pull off an upset win as a 3.5-point home underdog. Keeping their 6’3”, 220-pound gunslinger on his feet is a good start. But Cutler has step up his game, too.
Last season, Cutler went 1–2 against Green Bay — with a 20–17 win in Week 3, a 10–3 loss at Lambeau Field in Week 17 and the previously mentioned 21–14 defeat in the Windy City in the NFC Championship Game — completing a combined 43-of-80 passes (53.8 percent) for 469 yards, one TD and four INTs, while taking seven sacks for 55 lost yards.
Worse, the Bears scored just one TD on 28 possessions led by Cutler in those three, er, two-and-a-half games.
On the bright side, Green Bay enters with the NFL’s 32nd ranked pass defense — having allowed Saints signal-caller Drew Brees to pass for 419 yards and three TDs, and Panthers rookie phenom Cam Newton to throw for 432 yards.
Will Cutler join Brees and Newton as the third straight quarterback to pass for 400 yards against the reigning Super Bowl champions from Titletown?
Or will he get knocked out?
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 2, along with the consensus pick of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Jaguars (1-1) at Panthers (0-2)
These 1995 expansion teams appear to be back to square one. Both teams have rookie quarterbacks, with Carolina’s Cam Newton taking the league by storm and Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert making his first NFL start following a four-INT effort by Luke McCown.
Panthers by 4
Lions (2-0) at Vikings (0-2)
The ship is sinking in Minnesota, but coach Leslie Frazier refuses to abandon quarterback Donovan McNabb in favor of rookie Christian Ponder. Regardless of who lines up under center, the Vikings must find a way to prevent second-half collapses. In two games, the Vikes have a 24–7 first-half edge and are trailing 41–3 after opponents’ halftime adjustments.
Lions by 5
49ers (1-1) at Bengals (1-1)
These two teams met in Super Bowls XXIII and XVI. Since the majority of both rosters had not been born yet, “Hey, isn’t that John Candy?” probably doesn’t mean as much as it once did between these two franchises.
49ers by 1
Dolphins (0-2) at Browns (1-1)
Since the NBA is in its own lockout, LeBron James could fly from South Beach to Lake Erie to see his hometown Browns. Or is he a Phins fan? Either way, both teams could use LBJ.
Browns by 1
Patriots (2-0) at Bills (2-0)
There is no undefeated home team commanding less respect than Buffalo in Week 3. In fact, the Bills are the only unbeaten home team; if they can keep Tom Brady under 400 yards passing, it will be a success, right?
Patriots by 10
Giants (1-1) at Eagles (1-1)
Michael Vick’s concussion and Vince Young’s hamstring have the “Dream Team” worrying that Mike Kafka could be the starting quarterback against the NFC East rival G-Men.
Eagles by 4
Broncos (1-1) at Titans (1-1)
CJ2K hasn’t even looked like CJ1K so far. But, on the bright side, he’s still been better than fantasy peers Arian Foster and Jamaal Charles. And this week, he’s facing the Broncos, who have the NFL’s 28th-ranked rush defense.
Titans by 5
Texans (2-0) at Saints (1-1)
Houston has notched wins over the gimpy Colts and the floundering Dolphins. This week’s trip to New Orleans is a much-needed test for a team whose questions outnumber its answers.
Saints by 4
Jets (2-0) at Raiders (1-1)
California kid Mark Sanchez will bring a little sunshine to the Black Hole — for his USC fans, not for the NFL fans in Oakland.
Jets by 3
Ravens (1-1) at Rams (0-2)
Baltimore’s defense has shut down Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson in consecutive weeks. The Ravens run defense (70.0 ypg) will likely do the same against a banged-up Steven Jackson. The Rams’ lack of run D (177.5 ypg), on the other hand, should let Ray Rice run wild.
Ravens by 6
Chiefs (0-2) at Chargers (1-1)
Just when K.C. thought it couldn’t get any worse, a trip to San Diego is on the horizon.
Chargers by 14
Falcons (1-1) at Buccaneers (1-1)
The Birds swept the Bucs last season, taking two close calls — a 27–21 victory in Week 9 and a 28–24 road win in Week 13. Tampa Bay hopes Atlanta is still buzzing about taking down Mike Vick; but expect the Falcons to be ready.
Falcons by 1
Cardinals (1-1) at Seahawks (0-2)
A birdbath matchup between two teams that, unfortunately, will be in playoff contention for most of the year due to the NFC Worst division.
Cardinals by 2
Packers (2-0) at Bears (1-1)
The NFL’s oldest, most historic rivalry kicks off for the 183rd time since 1921. Last season, the Packers earned the final Wild Card berth into the playoffs with a win over the Bears and then punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLV with a win at Soldier Field. Chi-town owns a 92–84–6 edge in the all-time series; but Titletown owns the bragging rights until further notice.
Packers by 5
Steelers (1-1) at Colts (0-2)
This game was circled when the schedule came out; now it looks like one of the most lopsided matchups of the week. The Hits-burgh defense will have a field day against Colts graybeard Kerry Collins, who has accounted for two TDs and four turnovers (one INT, three lost fumbles) against the Texans and Browns.
Steelers by 14
Redskins (2-0) at Cowboys (1-1)
Tony Romo rides into Big D trying to catch his breath after coast-to-coast road trips from New Jersey to San Francisco, where he suffered a fractured rib and punctured lung. If Romo can’t go, the Skins will tee off on backup Jon Kitna, who threw two INTs in 10 attempts last week before Romo regrouped and returned to action.
Cowboys by 3
Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall made waves by saying he was going to target Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo’s injured ribs and running back Felix Jones’ sore shoulder when the Redskins play the Cowboys on Monday night:
“I want a chance to put my helmet on whatever’s hurt,” Hall said. “Romo’s ribs, I’m going to be asking for some corner blitzes. If I know Felix Jones’ shoulder’s hurt, I’m not going to cut him. I’m definitely going to try to hit him up high, so that’s just part of it.
“If you know something’s wrong with an opponent, you’re going to try to target in on that. We’re going to try to definitely get as many hats on that team as possible.”
Was Hall wrong in saying that? Athlon Sports editors weigh in.
DeAngelo's trash talking is refreshing because the Redskins and Cowboys are supposed to hate each other. And in this day and age of vanilla soundbites and press conferences full of the same trite cliches (I'm looking at you Eli Manning), it's nice to hear a little truth before a big game against division rivals. I don't think we need to go all the way back to the days when Bronco Nagurski would poke someone's eye out underneath a pile of players, but a little hatred within a division just makes for a better football. Hall's quotes serve one real purpose: To make Romo hesitate for just a split second longer than normal or make him a little more apt to throw a ball away if he's hearing footsteps. Hall has one sack in his career (and it's actually just two half sacks put together), so he's trying to get into his head much more than he's trying to go for his ribs. But in the end, it makes this match-up much more fun for the fans.
DeAngelo Hall is not going to hit anybody. Those quotes will be the hardest hits he lays on the Cowboys all week. Now if the late, great Sean Taylor threatened to go after Tony Romo and Felix Jones, then I’d be concerned. Hall was stating the obvious. It’s like a boxer opening up a cut above the eye of his opponent and then hitting that eye the rest of the night. Obvious weakness will be exploited in the NFL. But one thing Hall forgot is that hitting isn’t a part of the new NFL; Roger Goodell will be watching and the refs will be quick with their whistles and flags. What Hall really did was bring unnecessary scrutiny to his Redskins teammates who will actually be hitting — because it won’t be DeAngelo putting his “hat” on any Cowboys.
I have no problem with DeAngelo Hall’s comments that he plans to go after not only Tony Romo’s ribs but also Felix Jones’ shoulder when the Redskins and Cowboys meet on Monday night. Hall is simply playing mind games with his opponent, trying to give the injured Cowboys something extra to think about. It will be up to the officials to determine if Hall does something malicious; they can’t and shouldn’t penalize him for a legal hit to Romo’s ribs or Jones’ shoulder. Football is a very rough sport. If players choose to play injured, they have to realize that their opponents will try to take advantage of those injuries in any way possible.
It is morally, ethically and professionally reprehensible. But you are simply being ignorant if you think these types things aren't heavily talked about and possibly even rewarded in meeting and locker rooms on a regular basis. Hall is just dumb enough to let it go public — which still actually wouldn't be that big of a deal if he was more than just a mediocre NFL cornerback. It must be a lot easier to run your mouth when Dez Bryant and/or Miles Austin might not be on the field.
Conceptually, I have no problem with what Hall said. Finding weakness and exploiting it? That’s Football 101. It’s a harsh NFL reality that fans may prefer not to think about, but injured players are vulnerable to extra attention from their opponents. My problem is that he was dumb enough to come out and say it. The league is hyper-sensitive to injuries, particularly to its star players, and Hall’s comments make the Skins vulnerable to personal foul flags that might not otherwise fly. After putting the refs on notice that he’s gunning for Romo, Hall had better tread extra lightly around the Dallas QB, or he’ll find his wallet a little lighter come Monday.
I have no problem whatsoever with DeAngelo Hall’s comments on going after injured Cowboys. He did not advocate anything dirty. The controversial Redskins’ cornerback just said he would hit Dallas quarterback Tony Romo in his injured ribs – that’s football. Hall also said that he would not “cut” running back Felix Jones, instead wanting to hit him high in his injured shoulder. Once again, that’s football. As long as he is not chopping anyone’s knees or going to the head, I applaud Hall for being honest. If he thinks he’s tough enough to go roughing up opponents — while also making himself a target for Dallas blockers — then more power to DeAngelo Hall.
By Nathan Rush
Panthers rookie Cam Newton held the NFL record for passing yards in Weeks 1 and 2 for about three hours, before Patriots three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady raised the bar even higher later in the afternoon.
Newton’s 854 passing yards in his first two games topped the previous NFL mark of 827 yards — set by the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” orchestrator Kurt Warner in 2000 — until Brady finished his day’s work, having compiled a gaudy 940 yards over the first two weeks of the season.
In the process, Newton and Brady became the sixth and seventh quarterbacks in NFL history, respectively, to record back-to-back 400-yard passing games — in Weeks 1 and 2 of 2011, or any weeks of any season. The two join Dan Fouts (1982), Dan Marino (1984), Phil Simms (1985), Billy Volek (2004) and Matt Cassel (2008) in the prolific “400-400” club.
The fact that Newton is being mentioned in the same historical breath as sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer Brady speaks volumes. But it should not come as a complete surprise.
Newton’s meteoric rise has been astonishing. He is on an unprecedented three-year run, leading Blinn (Texas) College to the NJCAA national title in 2009; raising both the BCS national championship crystal and the Heisman Trophy at Auburn in 2010; and becoming the No. 1 overall pick of the Carolina Panthers and the face of Under Armour in 2011.
Newton has shown no signs of slowing down. He now owns the NFL single-game rookie passing yards record (432) and is the first Panther with back-to-back 300-yard passing games since Steve Beuerlein in 1999.
Newton’s NFL debut was widely publicized. The 6'5", 248-pounder completed 24-of-37 passes for 422 yards, two TDs and one INT, while scrambling for another TD during a hard-fought 28–21 loss at Arizona.
But his home debut in Charlotte may have been even more impressive, as Newton completed 28-of-46 passes for 432 yards, one TD and three INTs, while tucking the ball 10 times to run for 53 yards and a trip to the end zone in a 30–23 loss to the reigning Super Bowl champion Packers.
Despite jumping out to a 13–0 lead, Newton could not lead Carolina to victory, a fact that frustrated Newton, who was quick to point out that these are not last year’s 2–14 Panthers; Cam’s team doesn’t just hope to “compete,” they expect to “win.”
“We’re going to get it right. I’m not the person to just sit up here and say, ‘Well, we have next time.’ I’m not that type of person. I want it right now and I’m going to get it right now.”
And Newton’s attitude and aura were not lost on the Packers.
“I think someone said in the locker room that I’m kind of glad we played him early in the season,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “because when he figures it out fully, he’s going to be even tougher to stop.”
Tony Gonzalez, TE, Falcons
With all eyes on quarterbacks Michael Vick and Matt Ryan, it was the 35-year-old future Hall of Fame tight end Gonzalez who stole the show in Atlanta on Sunday night. The 15-year veteran had seven catches for 83 yards and two acrobatic TD receptions — the 89th and 90th of his illustrious career — during an especially sweet 35–31 victory over the Eagles.
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
The three-time Super Bowl champion completed 31-of-40 passes for 423 yards, three TDs and zero INTs in a 35–21 win over the Chargers, one week after passing for 517 yards, four TDs and one INT in a 38–24 victory against the Dolphins. So far this season, Brady has completed 71.6 percent of his passes for 940 yards — a new NFL record for Weeks 1 and 2 combined — seven TDs and one INT with a 128.0 passer rating and a 2–0 record. If Brady keeps up this pace for 16 games, he’ll throw for 7,520 yards, 56 TDs and eight INTs.
Kenny Britt, WR, Titans
It didn’t take long for new Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck to find his go-to receiver. The 6'3", 215-pound Britt was a one-man offense — hauling in nine catches for 135 yards and one score — during a shocking 26–13 upset win over the rival Ravens. Hasselbeck finished the game with 358 yards through the air, the seventh highest total of his 13-year career. Meanwhile, after an offseason full of controversy, Britt has 14 catches for 271 yards and three of the Titans’ four total TDs this season.
Charles Woodson, CB, Packers
Panthers rookie quarterback Cam Newton recorded his second straight 400-yard passing game but the No. 1 overall pick was also schooled by a few veteran moves from fellow Heisman Trophy winner Woodson. The former Defensive Player of the Year had five tackles, two INTs and one forced fumble — while Pack safety Morgan Burnett added seven tackles, one sack, an INT and a forced fumble — during a closer-than-anticipated 30–23 win at Carolina.
Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
One week after losing two costly fourth-quarter turnovers in a season-opening loss to the Jets, Romo bounced back to lead the Cowboys to a 27–24 overtime victory over the 49ers. The scapegoat-turned-hero returned to the field after suffering a franctured rib and punctured lung, completing 20-of-33 passes for 345 yards, two TDs and zero INTs in a winning effort. “I know what he had to do to get back on the field,” said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. “But, boy, did he come back. That was inspirational.”
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 2, along with the consensus pick of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Seahawks (0-1) at Steelers (0-1)
The Hawks will fly cross-country for an early kickoff in the Eastern Time Zone. To make matters worse, Seattle is headed for a Super Bowl XL rematch in Pittsburgh — where an angrier-than-usual James Harrison and the Hits-burgh defense is waiting, after suffering an ugly 35–7 loss to rival Baltimore. Steelers by 12
Raiders (1-0) at Bills (1-0)
It doesn’t take a Harvard man like Ryan Fitzpatrick to know that Buffalo’s quarterback (133.0 passer rating) is the real deal. Bills by 2
Cardinals (1-0) at Redskins (1-0)
Kevin Kolb was bailed out in his Arizona debut, while Rex Grossman appeared to luck out in his first start of the year in D.C. Redskins by 4
Buccaneers (0-1) at Vikings (0-1)
These former black-and-blue NFC Central foes meet again. The young Bucs are desperate to prove last year’s 10-win season wasn’t a fluke, while the veteran Vikings are eager to prove their six-win ’10 was just that. Buccaneers by 2
Jaguars (1-0) at Jets (1-0)
Luke McCown earned his first win as a starter since 2007 against the Titans — who had a first-year coach, new quarterback and running back who held out the entire preseason. The Jets will provide no such luck. Jets by 8
Bears (1-0) at Saints (0-1)
The Big Easy faces a tough NFC North road, with the Packers and Bears in back-to-back weeks. After falling just short at Lambeau Field last Thursday night, Drew Brees will look to avoid an 0–2 start in the Superdome opener. Saints by 3
Browns (0-1) at Colts (0-1)
Kerry Collins needs to show the restless locals that he still has a few TD throws left in his 38-year-old right arm. Cleveland’s defense made Andy Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski look good in a loss to Cincy. If Collins can’t produce this week, call Brett Favre. Colts by 2
Chiefs (0-1) at Lions (1-0)
Kansas City fell flat on its face, getting stampeded by Buffalo at Arrowhead Stadium. Now, the Chiefs head to the Motor City to take on a young Lions squad with playoff ambitions. Lions by 9
Ravens (1-0) at Titans (0-1)
No “ghosts, demons, monkeys” were ripped off Baltimore’s back following a win over Pittsburgh, but the 28-point trouncing has to make Ray Lewis want to dance. Chris Johnson and the Titans can only hope to catch Ray’s Ravens basking in last week’s success. Ravens by 10
Packers (1-0) at Panthers (0-1)
Last season’s worst meets the first, as 2–14 Carolina takes on Super Bowl XLV champion Green Bay. The No. 1 overall pick, Cam Newton, was poised in his NFL debut; but he wasn’t facing Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and the Packers’ attacking 3-4 defense. Packers by 13
Cowboys (0-1) at 49ers (1-0)
This matchup was a mid-1990s NFC title game tradition. Now, the Boys ride into the Bay Area hoping to forget last week’s trip to New York — when Tony Romo and Co. lost after giving up a 14-point fourth-quarter lead for the first time in the franchise’s storied history. Cowboys by 4
Bengals (1-0) at Broncos (0-1)
If Cincy starts Andy Dalton (wrist) and has any success early, expect the boo-birds to come out and chants for Tim Tebow to return. Broncos by 3
Texans (1-0) at Dolphins (0-1)
The hype is deafening, as Houston appears poised to take the next step in the AFC. But a Phins squad that hung tough with the Patriots could give fans the first sign that these are still the “same old Texans.” Texans by 2
Chargers (1-0) at Patriots (1-0)
Tom Brady was in rare form against Miami, passing for 517 yards and four TDs on Monday night. Meanwhile, the Bolts continued their special teams troubles — allowing an opening kickoff return for a TD vs. the Vikings before losing kicker Nate Kaeding to injury. Patriots by 4
Eagles (1-0) at Falcons (0-1)
Don’t mention bird-fighting in Michael Vick’s return to Atlanta, where he was the No. 1 overall pick of the Falcons in 2001 and started until 2006, when dog-fighting charges sacked the mobile lefty. The new face of the franchise, Matt Ryan, needs to bounce back after a tough opening week at Chicago. But Matty Ice is 19–3 at the Georgia Dome. Eagles by 4
Rams (0-1) at Giants (0-1)
The walking wounded stagger into this Monday night matchup. St. Louis may be without running back Steven Jackson (leg), while quarterback Sam Bradford (finger) will play hurt against a Big Blue defense whose best defender, Justin Tuck (neck), missed Week 1. Giants by 7
By Nathan Rush
Like it or not, Michael Vick still owns “Matt Ryan’s House” at the Georgia Dome. Vick is more popular than Ryan in Atlanta and always will be.
In fairness, Ryan would be the most exciting, charismatic CEO of Home Depot that Arthur Blank could ever dream of.
But the clean-cut, by-the-book pocket-passer is nowhere near the magnetic force that the Michael Vick Experience was when he was the face of Nike and a preternatural phenomenon, No. 1 overall pick out of Virginia Tech, not so long ago.
With respect to Dominique Wilkins, Dale Murphy and Deion Sanders, in Vick’s prime he was the most beloved athlete in Atlanta sports history.
Vick was the personification of Atlanta’s ideal self-image — a groundbreaking, stylish, successful young black leader. The dual-threat quarterback with a cannon left arm, running back moves and track star speed was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. And while Vick captivated America’s imagination, he was Atlanta’s very own to treasure.
Ryan, on the other hand, is the prototype NFL quarterback — professional in every way, intelligent, reliable, tall, white and right-handed. Not trying to reinvent the wheel; just trying to perfect a proven blueprint for the position.
The Boston College product is sold as Tom Brady lite —without the Brazilian ubermodel wife, Hollywood hair, NFL records and Super Bowl jewelry. But without all of that, what’s left? Ryan is methodical, where Vick is mercurial; Ryan is borin’, while Vick is ballin’.
Matt Ryan is who the Falcons need; but Michael Vick is who Atlanta still wants.
And that will be crystal clear when the Philadelphia Eagles fly down to the Georgia Dome to play the Atlanta Falcons on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. The most prominent jersey in the stands will be Vick’s No. 7, in all shades and sizes.
In reality and symbolically, Ryan will be No. 2 when Vick comes back to a city whose love affair may have taken a break, but certainly never died. Vick’s absence has only made Atlanta’s heart grow fonder.
It was clear in 2009, when Vick was given a roaring ovation by the Georgia Dome crowd. Then a backup, Vick went 2-of-2 for 48 yards and one TD through the air, while rushing for 17 yards and another TD on the ground in mop-up duty at the end of a 34–7 Philly win at Atlanta.
“I just remember being in the (Georgia) Dome and the crowd chanting my name, which is special,” Vick recalled, in an interview with Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
“All my teammates thought it was the greatest thing in the world. Everybody on our sideline came to me and said they were excited that they could be a part of that situation and being there to witness it because they had never seen it before.
“I will always remember that day, not for the plays I made on the field — because that was a fracture of the joy that I felt that day. The appreciation from the Atlanta fans that I had, even though I was in a different uniform.”
Now that Vick has worked his way out of the darkness — following 19 months served in prison on a federal felony conviction stemming from a dog-fighting ring run on his Virginia property — he is back in the spotlight as a Pro Bowl franchise quarterback with a $100 million contract, a Nike spokesman and a renowned redemption story.
This is no backup arriving in Atlanta to hear chants and cheers at the end of a blowout. This is Atlanta’s pride, its once-prodigious turned-prodigal son returning home.
“That’s not my house,” Vick says, politely and politically. “That’s Matt Ryan’s house. I’m just a visitor.”
Atlanta will weigh in on Sunday night when the Eagles face the Falcons in the Georgia Dome — the house Ryan is renting but Vick still owns.
Like it or not, Peyton Manning and the high-octane Indy 500 offense has been replaced by Kerry Collins and the horseshoes.
The question now becomes: When will Manning return to the Colts? Late in the 2011 season? Week 1 of 2012? Or, God forbid, never again?
Will Peyton Manning’s nagging neck injury end a career that was largely taken for granted due to its metronome consistency of video game statistics and playoff berths?
The Colts suffered a humiliating 34–7 defeat on the road against the Texans days after Manning underwent his third neck operation in 19 months. The single level anterior fusion surgery is “performed regularly throughout the country on persons from all walks of life” but “there will be no estimation of a return date at this time,” according to the team’s official press release.
As a result of Sept. 8 surgery, the 35-year-old four-time league MVP and Super Bowl XLI MVP missed the first start of his 13-year career — snapping a streak of 227 straight starts (208 regular season, 19 postseason) dating back to Sept. 6, 1998, Manning’s rookie debut after being the No. 1 overall pick out of Tennessee.
When it became clear that rumors of No. 18’s demise were anything but exaggerated, Indianapolis signed the 38-year-old Collins — effectively replacing the NFL’s third all-time leading passer (54,828 yards) with the 11th-ranked yardage man (40,441).
Since Collins had recent success against the Texans — going 3–2, with the losses coming by a combined four points, as the off-and-on starter of the Titans since 2006 — many felt he was a capable stop-gap solution for a crucial Week 1 AFC South showdown.
But after watching Collins struggle — completing 16-of-31 passes for 197 yards, one TD and zero INTs, along with two lost fumbles on botched center exchanges — in the 27-point season-opening loss in Houston, most fans and pundits have written off this year’s Colts, whose run of nine consecutive playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.
Still, the stoic Collins doesn’t seem fazed by one loss to a familiar division foe.
“You’ve got to be undaunted by anything that happened in the game and that’s win or lose, good game or bad game,” said Collins, a 17-year veteran with two trips to the NFC title game and a Super Bowl XXXV loss to the Ravens on his resume.
“You’ve got to be able to compartmentalize it, learn from it, deal with it and move on.”
This is Collins’ third week in town, after all. There should be some learning curve expected. Even Tom Brady would have trouble replacing Manning, who (as the running joke goes) will earn his fifth MVP award this season by proving just how valuable he is, and has been, to the Colts.
With a game under Collins’ belt and the Browns coming to Lucas Oil Stadium for the Colts’ home opener, things should get a little easier for the new-look offense. After an 0–1 start, Indy has to make sure there is no Houston hangover.
“This is the first ball game,” said Colts coach Jim Caldwell. “We’ve got 15 more to go.”
Caldwell is right; the Texans loss was the first ball game without Manning under center. But are there only 15 more to go? Or is this the beginning of a new era altogether in Indy?
Those people who just shrug and say, “Of course Peyton will play again,” are the same people who said, “Of course Peyton will start Week 1.”
In the NFL, there is no sure thing — not even Peyton Manning.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
The Super Bowl XLV MVP picked up right where he left off last postseason, completing 27-of-35 passes for 312 yards, three TDs — a 7-yard strike to Greg Jennings, a 32-yarder to rookie Randall Cobb (who also had a 108-yard kickoff return TD) and a 3-yard fade to Jordy Nelson — and zero INTs during a 42–34 shootout victory over the Saints on the season’s opening Thursday night.
Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens
Baltimore’s black-and-purple defense bruised AFC North rival Pittsburgh in a 35–7 statement victory. The Ravens forced seven turnovers — including an INT and forced fumble by Lewis, two forced fumbles (and three sacks) by edge-rushing linebacker Terrell Suggs, two INTs by ball-hawking safety Ed Reed and one forced fumble by 330-pound anchor Haloti Ngata, who was also responsible for the tipped Ben Roethlisberger pass that was intercepted by Lewis.
Brian Urlacher, LB, Bears
The Monsters of the Midway took out an offseason’s worth of frustration on the preseason media darling Falcons in a 30–12 shocker at Soldier Field. As usual, Urlacher led the way with 10 tackles, one INT and a fumble recovery — forced by end Julius Peppers on a strip-sack of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan — which he returned 12 yards for a TD. Peppers also added a second sack and a fumble recovery of his own.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
Philly’s offense scorched the turf at St. Louis, converting 8-of-11 on third down and reeling off 16 plays of 10 or more yards while cruising to a 31–13 road win. McCoy had 15 carries for 122 yards and a 49-yard TD, while hauling in two catches for 15 yards and another trip to the end zone. Michael Vick passed for 187 yards and two TDs, and rushed for 97 yards.
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
Norm Van Brocklin’s 60-year-old single-game passing record of 554 yards was in jeopardy on Monday night, as Brady completed 32-of-48 passes for 517 yards, four scores — including a fantasy football field day on a 99-yarder to Wes Welker — and one pick in a 38–24 victory at AFC East rival Miami.
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
The Heisman Trophy-winning No. 1 overall pick returned to the site of his BCS national title win and dazzled in his NFL debut. The controversial dual-threat quarterback out of Auburn completed 24-of-37 passes for 422 yards, two TDs and one INT, for a 110.4 passer rating, while scrambling for another TD on the ground during a disappointing 28–21 loss to the Cardinals. Both scoring strikes went to Steve Smith, who had eight catches for 178 yards (22.3 ypc).
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 1, along with the consensus pick of Athlon Sports editors Mitchell Light, Rob Doster, Nathan Rush, Patrick Snow and Steven Lassan:
Saints (0-0) at Packers (0-0)
The Thursday night opener pits the last two Super Bowl champions against each other in prime time. Two of the top passing offenses — the Saints ranked third (277.6 ypg) and the Packers ranked fifth (257.8 ypg) last year — take on two of the top passing defenses around — the Saints ranked fourth (193.9 ypg) and the Packers ranked fifth (194.2 ypg) in ’10. Packers by 4
Falcons (0-0) at Bears (0-0)
Atlanta has become a trendy Super Bowl pick this preseason, while Chicago ended last year’s playoffs as the team taking all the cheap shots. Maybe everyone is right on both fronts; or this could be a classic Week 1 spoiler special. Falcons by 1
Colts (0-0) at Texans (0-0)
Indy fans think the sky is falling now that four-time MVP quarterback Peyton Manning is missing the first start of his career. But backup Kerry Collins — the off-and-on starter for the division rival Titans since 2006 — has had recent success against the Texans. Collins threw for 237 yards, two TDs and one INT for a 102.3 passer rating in a 31–17 win last year, and for 216 yards, two TDs and one INT for a 90.0 passer rating in a 34–31 loss in 2009. Texans by 8
Bills (0-0) at Chiefs (0-0)
Even if last season was a fluke, Kansas City should be able to take down staggering Buffalo at Arrowhead Stadium in the opener. Chiefs by 4
Titans (0-0) at Jaguars (0-0)
Two rookie quarterbacks — Tennessee’s Jake Locker (No. 8 overall pick) and Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert (No. 10) — will watch patiently from the sideline as two Pro Bowl-caliber running backs carry the load on the field. Titans by 1
Bengals (0-0) at Browns (0-0)
The Buckeye State Bowl will feature two of the worst teams in football. Of the two, the Browns have homefield and hope; the Bengals have… well, they’re undefeated headed into the year. Browns by 5
Eagles (0-0) at Rams (0-0)
Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson and Co. could turn the tables on St. Louis and provide a “Greatest Show on Turf” of their own. But don’t count out the young Rams, as second-year signal-caller Sam Bradford will have Tom Brady’s old play-caller, Josh McDaniels, calling the shots this season. Eagles by 7
Steelers (0-0) at Ravens (0-0)
Easily the most physical and arguably the best rivalry in the NFL. Both of last year’s meetings in this bruising black-and-purple battle were three-point defensive showdowns — a 17–14 Ravens win at Pittsburgh in Week 4 and a 13–10 Steelers victory in Baltimore in Week 14. Steelers by 1
Lions (0-0) at Buccaneers (0-0)
Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman bring two of the strongest arms and lead two of the youngest, most energetic teams — including the coaches, Jim Schwartz (45) and Raheem Morris (35) — to the gridiron. Buccaneers by 1
Vikings (0-0) at Chargers (0-0)
The Bolts look to end their early-season trouble against an aging Vikings club whose ship may sink in Coronado Bay before this one is over. Chargers by 8
Giants (0-0) at Redskins (0-0)
What little hope the Hogs have will likely be crushed by the Big Blue Wrecking Crew. This could get ugly — even for fat guys in dresses. Giants by 7
Panthers (0-0) at Cardinals (0-0)
The Cam Newton and Kevin Kolb eras begin on the same day. Last year’s Heisman and BCS title winner returns to the site of Auburn’s title game victory to face the man who started last season ahead of Michael Vick in Philadelphia. Cardinals by 7
Seahawks (0-0) at 49ers (0-0)
Is this a USC-Stanford game? College football’s top two converts — Seattle’s Pete Carroll, who left USC in 2010, and San Fran’s Jim Harbaugh, who bailed on Stanford for the NFL this season — will meet again. Surprisingly, Harbaugh’s Cardinal were 2–1 against Carroll’s Trojans. 49ers by 2
Cowboys (0-0) at Jets (0-0)
The Ryan Brothers go toe-to-toe, as Jets coach Rex Ryan hosts twin brother Rob, who enters his first game as the Big D coordinator. There will be no love lost between the sons of Buddy — who was recently diagnosed with cancer — during this Sunday night showdown. Jets by 4
Patriots (0-0) at Dolphins (0-0)
There was a time when Tom Brady struggled in South Florida. And while Jason Taylor is back in Miami, these are not Taylor’s vintage Phins. Don’t expect an upset on Monday night. Patriots by 10
Raiders (0-0) at Broncos (0-0)
Many thought Tim Tebow would make his MNF debut here. Instead, Kyle Orton hosts the nightcap of a double feature vs. the rival Raiders. Raiders by 2
Peyton Manning’s second neck surgery won’t impact his time-of-possession on television this weekend.
No, the pain in the neck won’t stop the No. 1-ranked Nielson Co. ad man, who will continue to dominate the airwaves in spots for MasterCard, Oreo, Gatorade, Sony and DirecTV. (Although, there is serious concern as to how the recent setback will impact this season of “Football Cops.”)
The fact that Manning just underwent his second neck operation since May 23 will, however, almost certainly sack an Indianapolis Colts squad that was charging towards its 10th consecutive playoff appearance before the rumors of No. 18’s demise proved to be anything but exaggerated.
The 35-year-old four-time league MVP and Super Bowl XLI MVP had a “single level anterior fusion” on Thursday, Sept. 8, and will miss the first game of his career — ending a streak of 227 consecutive starts (208 regular season, 19 postseason) dating back to Sept. 6, 1998 — in Week 1 on the road against the AFC South rival Houston Texans.
According to the Colts’ official press release:
“(Single level anterior fusion) is performed regularly throughout the country on persons from all walks of life, including professional football players. Two former Colts players had this same procedure last winter and have fully resumed their careers. Rehabilitation from such surgery is typically an involved process. Therefore, there will be no estimation of a return date at this time. We will keep Peyton on the active roster until we have a clearer picture of his recovery process.
“Peyton will immediately begin the rehabilitation regimen mapped out by the surgeon. We anticipate no further updates or availabilities beyond those required by the NFL Media Policy for the immediate future.”
Recovery time for this “routine” surgery generally takes around three months — meaning Manning will likely miss the entire 2011 season.
On the bright side, the Colts are replacing the NFL’s third all-time leading passer (54,828 yards) with the 11th-ranked yardage man (40,441 yards), 38-year-old graybeard gunslinger Kerry Collins. And after serving as the off-and-on starter of the Titans since 2006, Collins is familiar with the Texans heading into the season opener — in which the Colts are a nine-point underdog.
As the Titans starter, Collins went 3–2 against the Texans and 1–1 in Houston. And his two losses came by a combined four points. Last year, Collins directed a 31–17 win in Week 15. As a game manager, Collins has a proven track record — which includes two trips to the NFC title game (1996 Panthers, 2000 Giants) and a loss in Super Bowl XXXV — and he expects to add to that resume this week.
“I expect to run the offense, bottom line,” said Collins. “Make plays when they’re there, be smart with the ball, make good reads, good decisions, get us into the right plays when the situation calls for it.”
Manning is clearly the face of the franchise in Indy and arguably the most important player in the entire NFL. And after making the playoffs in 11-of-13 seasons with Manning under center — including every season since 2002 — the Colts will likely stagger without their laser-rocket-armed leader.
It’s audible time and the man who calls the shots isn’t there to make the most important adjustment in recent Colts history.
“To say I am disappointed in not being able to play is an understatement,” Manning said in an official release from the Colts.
“The best part about football is being out there on the field playing with my teammates. It will be tough not to be out there playing for the organization and our fans. I simply am not healthy enough to play, and I am doing everything I can to get my health back.
“The team will do fine without me, and I know for sure that I will miss them much more than they miss me.”
It will be hard to miss Peyton. Just turn on the TV, where a mustachioed Manning will armed or dangerously speed-eating Oreos with little brother Eli, the NFL’s new “Iron Man” at 110 straight starts (103 regular season, 7 postseason).