Rob Doster offers his thoughts on the Chargers' struggles and more.
The First to Four
There are no unbeaten teams in the NFL, but three teams are sitting at 4–1. Of course, all 4–1 records are not created equal. In the AFC, the Ravens look like the Super Bowl favorites. As usual, Ray Lewis & Co. are stifling opposing offenses and zealously guarding the end zone, allowing only 14.4 points and 156.6 passing yards per game. Running back Ray Rice broke out of his mini-slump yesterday with 133 yards and two touchdowns in a 31–17 win over Denver, and Joe Flacco has thrown one interception in his last 12 quarters of football. In the NFC, the Falcons are riding a four-game winning streak and are an overtime loss to the Steelers away from being undefeated, thanks to a stout defense and the offensive one-two-three punch of Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and Roddy White. And then there are the Bears, an ugly 4–1 that only a mother could love. In the last two weeks, the Bears have turned the ball over seven times and surrendered 13 sacks. Yesterday, creaky 38-year-old Todd Collins stepped in for a concussed Jay Cutler and had possibly the worst day an NFL quarterback has ever had — 6-of-16, 32 yards, four interceptions, a passer rating of 6.2, the fourth game since the merger in which a QB has thrown four interceptions and averaged two or fewer yards per attempt. But the Bears are doing something right — namely, they’re forcing turnovers, 14 of them through five games. I’ve been tempted to dismiss the Bears, but I’d be doing so at my own peril. Lovie Smith has nine NFL lives, and he apparently hasn’t used them all just yet.
Save Us, Bill Cowher
Carolina Panther fans are casting a longing glance toward the NFL Today studio set, where Raleigh resident and possible franchise savior Bill Cowher shares his insight with millions of fans while he could be leading his home-state team out of the football wilderness. Cowher-to-Carolina is probably a long-shot scenario, but changes are clearly on the horizon in Charlotte. The Panthers are the worst of the three remaining winless teams. They’ve already been outscored by 58 points on the young season, they’re playing a rookie quarterback (Jimmy Clausen) who threw for 61 yards and an interception against the Bears, they suddenly can’t even run the ball, they’ve implemented a cost-cutting youth movement — in other words, the decks are cleared for a new regime to save this beleaguered franchise. It may not be Cowher, but the Panthers’ next hire had better be a home run.
Parity’s Poster Children
There’s a four-way tie for first in the AFC South. Or, if you prefer, a four-way tie for last. This quartet of enigmatic teams — alternately potent and inconsistent — is set to wage a season-long battle for supremacy. The AFC South is the poster child for this season of parity. It may not be the most talented division, but it’s the NFL’s most competitive foursome, thanks in part to the fact that the Colts have clearly retreated to the pack. Despite yesterday’s 19–9 win over the previously unbeaten Chiefs, the Colts are not what they’ve been in recent seasons. They already have division losses to the Jags and Texans on their ledger, and their characteristic struggles in the run game — they rank 28th in the league at 79.8 ypg — could finally prove their undoing over the long, difficult march to the finish line. The Jags and Texans are 3–2 despite having been outscored by their opponents, while the Titans have mixed flashes of brilliance with stretches of offensive futility. The season-long sorting-out process, which takes an important turn with Tennessee’s Monday visit to Jacksonville, should be fun.
Mistakes Doom the Chargers
On paper, the San Diego Chargers have everything — talent at every position, playmakers all over the roster, a strong-willed veteran leader at quarterback. They should be dominating their division, as they have done for the last few years. But something is clearly missing, and yesterday’s 35–27 loss to the Raiders, a team that the Chargers had beaten 13 straight times, revealed some shocking weaknesses. The obvious culprit is special teams; the Chargers have allowed four special teams touchdowns in their three losses, including yesterday’s disgraceful showing in which the Raiders blocked two punts, turning one into a touchdown and the other into a safety. Another issue is ball security; the Chargers have coughed it up 13 times in five games, including three turnovers against the Raiders — one of which, a Philip Rivers fumble, turned into a Tyvon Branch clinching touchdown. But let’s face facts. A fish rots from the head down, and the blame for San Diego’s start lies with Norv Turner. There’s still time for the Chargers to come back and win a shaky division, but if they don’t, it may be time for a fresh start.
The Niners Could Still Win Their Division
That’s not just me saying that; the 49ers owner, Jed York, came strong with a Namath-style guarantee. “We’re going to win the division,” he texted to ESPN Monday morning. Sounds crazy, but it’s not. This division is a bad joke; the 3–2 Cardinals, who sit atop the standings, have been outscored by their opponents by 50 points. St. Louis is coming off a 44–6 pasting at the hands of the winless Lions. Those same Rams had their way with the Seahawks the week prior. The Niners have five more games against this motley assortment of also-rans, and they also play Oakland, Denver, Tampa Bay and winless Carolina. Are you ready for a 7–9 division champion? Could happen.