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Hawks ready to take Rams
By John Clayton
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 5.
First … St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks: Even in this era of parity in which franchises can go from worst to first, division takeovers don't always happen overnight.
The Eagles have ruled the NFC East the past three years. Despite the Vikings being the favorites to win the NFC North this year, the Packers have won the past two division titles. And the Patriots seemingly now have the AFC East by the throat. But the longest divisional success story is the St. Louis Rams, who have either won or tied for the divisional title four of the past five years.
Since joining the division in 2002, the Seahawks have set the Rams in their sights and structured their team in preparation for Sunday's game against St. Louis. If the Seahawks win at Qwest Field, they take control of the division with a 2˝-game lead. If they lose, the Rams would hold an edge because the Seahawks have a tough road trip to New England next week. Back-to-back losses by Seattle could give the Rams a half-game lead and the confidence of knowing the Seahawks would have to come to St. Louis on Nov. 14.
On paper, the Seahawks have done all the right things to overtake the Rams. They've built an offense that can annually rank in the top seven in various statistics and play high-scoring games to counter the Rams' high-powered offense. They might have made the single biggest offseason move to weaken the Rams and strengthen themselves by signing former St. Louis defensive end Grant Wistrom.
One player doesn't make a defense, but Wistrom is a player who makes this defense work. For one, he's a hustling player who creates a lot of energy. Second, he's a leader. Third, he gives the team a pass-rushing threat on the other side of Chike Okeafor to put pressure on quarterbacks.
His absence has caused adjustments on the Rams defensive line, which also lost defensive tackle Brian Young and is missing injured defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy. Defensive end Leonard Little is being moved around to avoid the double-team blocking -- a strategy that worked well last week against the *****. In past years, Little drove right tackles crazy by rushing from the left side while Wistrom got his usual eight sacks from the right.
In the past three years, the Rams haven't finished lower than 16th in defense. This year, they are 27th and are giving up 137.3 yards a game rushing. They are also giving up 21.5 points a game.
While Arizona and San Francisco are in rebuilding mode, the NFC West is a two-team race. Sunday will determine which team has the edge.
And 10. New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys: Who would have thought this would be a big game, but it is. With the Redskins underachieving, this is a battle to determine the second-best team in the NFC East. What the game comes down to is which team did the best job of picking the quarterback to lead them. Vinny Testaverde and Kurt Warner have been the comeback stories of 2004. Testaverde, at the age of 40, is carrying the Cowboys offense, and with the running game not being a factor, he has to do things few quarterbacks his age have been asked to do. He's averaging 38 pass attempts and almost 300 yards passing a game. The loss of tight end Dan Campbell, who is a mauling type of blocker, ended Bill Parcells' faith in being a running team, wondering why keep running the ball if you are only going to get three and out? So he's letting Testaverde handle the pressure. The Warner story is another feel-good adventure. He signed with the Giants knowing he was a transition into the Eli Manning era. A 3-1 start along with his calm leadership under pressure could push Manning's debut as a starter into next season. Warner's road victory over the Packers last week kills any chance of a quarterback change during the bye week that follows. Unlike Testaverde, Warner gets to work in a more balanced offense. Tiki Barber leads the NFC with 455 yards and he hasn't fumbled once. It should be a hardnosed game because Giants coach Tom Coughlin is going against his NFL mentor, Parcells.
9. Baltimore Ravens at Washington Redskins (8:30 ET p.m., ESPN): Both teams enter this Sunday night's game with shaky confidence. There is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Ravens. First, they don't know how many more weeks they will have halfback Jamal Lewis, who faces a likely suspension once he enters a plea bargain to a drug-related charge. Lewis is okay for this week's game. Their defense can't shake the disappointment of being pounded physically by the Chiefs on Monday night. The Ravens couldn't contain Priest Holmes, but the Chiefs offensive line so dominated the game that the retired Christian Okoye could have gained more than 100 yards. Expect an angry Ravens defense. At the moment, the Redskins don't look like a Joe Gibbs-coached team. They aren't defined enough on offense and the confidence isn't there for the moment. Last Sunday against the Browns, Gibbs used some no-huddle to get the offense going and that didn't work. Clinton Portis isn't excelling after his first-game success at the featured halfback. An impatient runner, Portis has 305 yards on his last 91 rushes. That's an Eddie George-like average, and he's among the league leaders in being trapped in his backfield.
8. Carolina Panthers at Denver Broncos: It's becoming a scary trend for the Panthers. For the second time this season, they have to go on the road against a good AFC West team to rebound from a disappointing home loss. The Panthers rebounded from their season-opening loss to the Packers by beating the Chiefs. Last week's home loss to the Falcons hurt even more, so this game against the Broncos is critical. Carolina coach John Fox is looking for better play from the league's best defensive front four. The Panthers as a team only have five sacks in three games -- four of them by defensive linemen -- and the defense hasn't been as dominating in the second halves of game. Opponents are running at Julius Peppers, a strategy the Patriots used in the Super Bowl. Overall, teams are running more on the Panthers and averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Because the defensive line is thin at the backup spots, opposing offenses tend to have more success in the second halves. Though the Panthers know they don't have much explosiveness on offense while Steve Smith is out with a broken leg, they face a much tougher defense than Kansas City's. The Broncos have a shutdown cornerback in Champ Bailey and a defense with two great, mobile linebackers in veteran Al Wilson and rookie D.J. Williams. Expect this to be a low-scoring game with both teams trying to establish their running offenses.
7. Minnesota Vikings at Houston Texans: Vikings coach Mike Tice knows this could be a trap game for the Vikings. The Texans are tough at home where the crowd noise has caused 17 disrupted offensive plays in two games, including 12 false-start penalties. A lot will be put on the shoulders of quarterback Daunte Culpepper. First, he's working with his fourth-string halfback, fourth-round choice Mewelde Moore, as his starter because of injuries. A second rookie, Nat Dorsey, starts at right tackle for the injured Mike Rosenthal. Putting a rookie at tackle in that noise almost invites the likelihood of two false-start penalties. If Culpepper can handle the noise issue, he will try to work big plays against a Texans secondary that has allowed eight touchdown passes. Though the Texans expect to give up some yards to the Vikings, they hope to hold down one of the league's most potent offenses once they get in the red zone. Quarterback David Carr is gaining more confidence running the Texans offense, and he will try to exploit the height advantage receiver Andre Johnson has on the Vikings' relatively short cornerbacks.
6. Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: The Patriots are trying to break an NFL record with their 19th consecutive win. The Dolphins are just glad they aren't evacuating families because of hurricanes. Jay Fiedler continues as the team's quarterback for an offense that has been nonexistent all season. Even though this would appear to be a one-sided game featuring a winless team versus an undefeated one, the game expects to be low-scoring. Despite having the league's worst offense, the Dolphins are allowing only 250.5 yards a game and 15.8 points a game. What's killing the Dolphins is the offensive turnovers. Even though the Dolphins' defense is forcing a turnover a game, the Dolphins are minus-10 in turnover ratio. What might slow down the Patriots is three of their best wide receivers are banged up. That makes them a little more reliant on the running of halfback Corey Dillon along with the leadership of quarterback Tom Brady.
5. Oakland Raiders at Indianapolis Colts: The Raiders are being like too many Raiders teams in the past. They are killing themselves with mental mistakes. Last week, they had eight false starts against the Texans. They lead the league with 39 penalties. Because they are breaking in so many young players at receiver and don't have a pure featured running back, the Raiders offense isn't good enough right now to overcome their many blunders. Quarterback Kerry Collins knows the crowd may actually be louder in the RCA Dome. This is a dangerous game for the Raiders defense because their cornerbacks -- Charles Woodson and Phillip Buchanon -- love to be aggressive and go for interceptions. Such plays in a game like this could result in defensive or offensive touchdowns. The Raiders put in some longer pass plays late in the week for Collins prior to the Texans game, but the timing wasn't down. Expect them to have some better timing and try more deep passes. The Raiders are giving up 21 points a game, the Colts 23 points. This doesn't figure to be a 6-3 defensive tussle.
4. Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: Cleveland coach Butch Davis knows this game is important. The Browns-Steelers rivalry is one of the best in football. Browns fans judge coaches by how they do against the Steelers. For Davis, it's important to win. He's 1-6 against the Steelers and the Steelers have won 12 of their last 15 meetings against the Browns. Why this game is more important than ever against the Steelers is the offense is at its most vulnerable position. This is Ben Roethlisberger's third game as a starter, and he's 2-0. Roethlisberger is only going to get better so if the Browns are going to do their best against him, it will be now. Davis' defense may have to gamble and take chances to force Roethlisberger into making turnovers. Even though the Browns have the 31st-ranked offense, averaging only 254 yards and 14.8 points a game, they have a plus-2 number in give-away/take-away. Duce Staley is carrying the offense with his powerful running, and the Browns have to do everything to stop him.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: The Chris Simms era begins in the worst of times for the Bucs. Though it's a little bit of a surprise the Bucs made this move, coach Jon Gruden is in the midst of a youth movement. Over the past two weeks, they have made starting lineup chances that made the offense younger at quarterback, tight end, wide receiver and along the offensive line. Something was needed because the Bucs are averaging only 12.3 points and 81 rushing yards a game. The Saints have had major problems stopping the run, so figure Gruden to use Michael Pittman more as a running back to test that problem. The Saints are allowing 159.5 yards a game on the ground and a 4.8 yard average. For a defensive line that has five first-round choices available, those are unacceptable numbers. At least the Saints can get motivated a little more than their first four games, which were played in the NFC West. This is their first division game and it's at home.
2. Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons established themselves as one of the league's most improved teams after winning their first three against 1-8 teams, but their victory over the Panthers last week made it official. The Falcons are a legitimate playoff contender. Now the Lions will try to do to the Falcons what the Falcons did to the Panthers. Unfortunately, the bye week didn't help their offense. They don't have wide receiver Charles Rogers for the season and they've lost halfback Kevin Jones for a couple of weeks with an ankle injury. Artose Pinner is a big back with speed. So far, though, his longest run has only been eight yards, and that's not going to be good enough against the Falcons. Though the Falcons are only averaging 11.8 completions a week, they are moving the football because of Michael Vick. Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney will try to harass Lions quarterback Joey Harrington all day. At 2-1, the Lions are trying to show that they are legit. This would be the type of win that gives them a chance to win a few believers.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars at San Diego Chargers: The Jaguars continue to gain respectability even though they lost last Sunday's home game against the Colts. They hung in there until the fourth quarter and had a couple chances to tie the score a second time and maybe take the game into overtime. Holding the Colts to 24 points isn't bad now. The Chargers surprised everyone last week blowing out the Titans, 38-17, and showing they are getting better stopping the run. Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme is starting to take shape. They've allowed 85.3 yards a game rushing. Still teams can exploit the Chargers by hitting them with passes. Quarterbacks are completing 70.9 percent of their passes on the Chargers, but the Jaguars don't have much of a passing offense yet. Even though Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich is lining up more and more in shotgun formation, he's averaging fewer than 30 pass attempts a game. Jaguars games are weird. In the first three quarters of four games, the Jaguars have been outscored, 36-26. That's the equivalent of playing 10-9 games for three quarters. In the fourth quarter, they've outscored teams, 26-16. Their best offense is the two-minute offense. Unfortunately, little else is done offensively over the first 58 minutes.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
Re: Hawks ready to take RamsSunday will determine which team has the edge. --J. Clayton
FYI: Weather here in the Northwest ... past few days have been cool and, at times, rainy. Forecast for tomorrow, Sunday, is partly sunny, low 60s for a high so it shouldn't be a factor either way.
I hope we have a football day like last year against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Last edited by RealRam; -10-09-2004 at 11:32 PM.
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