First ... And 10: AFC South collision

The Colts host the Titans on Sunday in a huge AFC South matchup.

Updated: September 11, 2003, 11:45 AM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

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 2.

First ... Tennessee Titans at Indianapolis Colts: The Colts and the Titans are a tough matchup. The Titans are physically opposing along the offensive line, a tough challenge for the light, quick Colts defensive line.

Steve McNair
Steve McNair passed for 269 yards and two TDs in the Titans' Week 1 win.
Titans quarterback Steve McNair is a master of moving out of the pocket and making accurate throws, a problem for any defense. Home-field advantage for the Titans because of the loud, smart crowd in Nashville is one of the best in football. Just ask the Raiders who lost on Sunday night. So, for the Colts to establish themselves in the second year of the AFC South, Sunday's home game against the Titans is a must win.

The Titans swept the Colts last season, which produced the one-game difference in their records that handed the division to the Titans. Figuring the Colts are built to be an artificial turf team and will have a tough time winning in Nashville, Tony Dungy can't lose an opportunity to get at least a split in this series.

It could end up being the difference between being a high seed in the playoffs with home games or being a wild-card team that will have to go on the road to reach the Super Bowl. Remember, I've had the feeling all along that the AFC champ could come from this division. But the Colts will have a hard time winning the division if they can't beat the Titans at home.

Dungy labeled Sunday's 9-6 opening victory over the Browns an extension of the preseason. Too many mistakes. A lot of teams experienced that during the first NFL weekend. The Colts blew more than 20 points in scoring chances by mistakes. Mistakes along the offensive line cost the team more than 40 additional rushing yards.

What pleased Dungy and Colts management was the defense. It held the Browns to 271 yards and picked off two passes from Kelly Holcomb. That's a good start for a defense breaking in a rookie (Mike Doss) at free safety and a new outside linebacker (David Thornton).

Two other rookies started and survived on offense -- tight end Dallas Clark and right guard Steve Sciullo. The Colts started three rookies, most in football on opening week.

This game comes down to each team's secondary. Both offenses use mixtures of two-tight-end and three-receiver sets, so the nickel defenses expect to be on the field more than 65 percent of the time. The best coverage team should win.

McNair is coming off his healthiest offseason since 1998, but he suffered his first injury of the season Sunday night. After running around to kill the clock against the Raiders, McNair banged his knee and suffered some swelling on Monday night. He'll miss a couple days of practice, but that's not new. He missed months of practices last season.

It was telling, though, that the Titans no longer have the power running attack to kill the clock. As much as Eddie George and Robert Holcombe tried to wear down the Raiders, who switched between a 4-3 and a 3-4 scheme on defense, the Raiders stopped conventional running plays until the final seconds of the game. To break a key run, McNair had to do it himself.

If the Titans have the lead this Sunday, they must try to wear down the Colts front seven. If not, they might leave Peyton Manning time to pull off one of his eight-for-10 last minute drives to come up with a victory.

And 10. San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams: The 49ers exorcised the demons of frustration last Oct. 6 when they beat the Rams in San Francisco, ending a six-game losing streak against the Rams. Quarterback Jeff Garcia stepped up big and showed he can win key games. The 49ers parlayed that victory into a division championship, but now the demons of the past return. Can they stay atop the division by beating the Rams on the road? At home, the Rams have the edge but it's been a strange week for the Rams to say the least. Kurt Warner suffered a concussion early in the Giants loss and the Rams will turn to backup Marc Bulger this week. Bulger has the talent to be a starting quarterback, but this will be his biggest start. The pressure is on, and he's not going to have a full complement of receivers. Rookies Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald are out until October. Dane Looker and Mike Furrey are the backups. There is no pass-catching tight end unless Cam Cleeland steps up big. The 49ere are vulnerable at cornerback because of injuries to Jason Webster and Rashad Holman. Jimmy Williams is now the third cornerback. But are the Rams deep enough at wide receiver to take advantage of the 49ers thin cornerback position? We'll see.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs: It was easy to figure that the revamped Steelers pass defense could survive the first week of the season. They were at home and they were facing a rookie quarterback (Kyle Boller). The Steelers dispatched the Ravens with little trouble. Now, they face one of the hottest offenses in the NFL. And they have to do that in the sea of red Chiefs fans. Big games will be needed from cornerbacks Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington. The quicker secondary, which uses safeties Mike Logan and rookie Troy Polamalu for more range, will be tested. Quarterback Trent Green can pick apart a secondary. Even if coverage down field is good, he can throw a "checkdown" pass to halfback Priest Holmes for good yardage. The positive thing for the Steelers going into this game is their three-receiver set is potent enough with Tommy Maddox to have a shootout type of game. Another big test for the Steelers will be how their offensive line, which is banged up and trying to come together, can handle the revitalized Chiefs defensive line. Chiefs defensive end Vonnie Holliday, who had three sacks in the opener, goes against Steelers left tackle Marvel Smith. For the Chiefs, this game is a good test because they go three straight weeks against 3-4 defenses.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady threw four interceptions in the Patriots' Week 1 loss.
8. New England Patriots at Philadelphia Eagles: Want a frightening reality? The loser of this game will be 0-2 in cities where sports talk shows are hot and quick to be critical. Both teams came into the season being touted as potential division winners and playoff teams. Sure, playoff teams can bounce back from 0-2 starts. The Steelers were prime examples last year. But the heat will definitely be on the loser. Patriots coach Bill Belichick is still stinging from his blowout opening loss to the Bills. His mission this week is to quiet down the unrest from the release of safety Lawyer Milloy five days before the opener. That won't be as hard as realizing that his offense was pathetic and needs to be looked at more than the defense. Antwan Harris didn't do a good job at filling in for Milloy. A coach as smart as Belichick can cover for that. But what about the offense? Tom Brady was horrible in the opener. Virtually all of the offensive moves -- except for the signings of fullback Larry Centers and suspended halfback Mike Cloud -- were made for the defense. How good is this offense? Sunday will be a good test. The Eagles are in trouble because of injuries. They are down to N.D. Kalu and defensive tackle Darwin Walker at defensive end. The secondary won't have cornerback Bobby Taylor and free safety Brian Dawkins. But the player under the gun is quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Bucs defense made him look bad Monday night. He needs to move out of the pocket more and be more accurate with his passes. McNabb is the Eagles offense. This is a game he needs to step up.

7. Miami Dolphins at New York Jets: The Dolphins have had too many nightmares in the Meadowlands against the Jets. They've lost big leads. They've lost critical games. Coming off an opening home loss to the Texans, the Dolphins are in a must-win situation. For the Jets, the question is can they win because a loss could put them in position for a possible 0-3 start. Next week, they go to New England. Offensive coordinator Paul Hackett must find a way to open up the offense for quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Watching Testaverde throwing pass after pass short of the first down marker was sickening in the opening game of the season against the Redskins. Halfback Curtis Martin also needs to have a big game to show he's still among the elite backs. For the Dolphins, this is a game in which they need to rally. Coach Dave Wannstedt brought in veterans such as Junior Seau, Jeff Zgonina, Sammy Knight and Terrell Buckley to create big plays and leadership on the road and for late in the season. But that leadership has to step up now or those December games won't mean much.

6. Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The good news for Jake Delhomme is that he's finally an NFL starting quarterback. The bad news is that his first start this year is against the Bucs defense, which can turn $100 million quarterbacks into quarterbacks with 48 ratings. They've been doing it for a year. This has all the looks of a low-scoring game unless the Bucs can force turnovers from Delhomme and the Carolina offense. The Carolina front defensive seven is good. It was good enough last season to limit the Bucs to two offensive touchdowns in two games. The Bucs won both games last year, but it wasn't easy. For Delhomme to win, he will have the ride the back of halfback Stephen Davis. But can the Panthers pound the ball against the Bucs?

5. Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers: Talk about pressure? Jake Plummer took as much criticism as any quarterback in the NFL following Week 1 and his team won, 30-10. Plummer wasn't very accurate. He completed only five passes to a wide receiver (Rod Smith). That's two more than he threw to Bengals defenders. Not a good stat. Ashley Lelie started in the two-receiver set ahead of Ed McCaffrey, but neither caught a pass against the Bengals. Not a good stat. Against the league's youngest secondary in San Diego, Plummer needs to do well now because this secondary will get better as the season progresses. Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer will focus on containing Broncos halfback Clinton Portis, who is the bulk of the offense to start the season. Being at home, Chargers quarterback Drew Brees should feel more comfortable. If the defense doesn't let the Chargers fall behind early, the Chargers can use halfback LaDainian Tomlinson, who only had 13 carries in the opening loss to the Chiefs.

4. Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants: The Giants should win because the Cowboys are in the rebuilding mode. Dallas lacks a consistent running attack. Guard Larry Allen is struggling with a hamstring injury. Quarterback play with Quincy Carter is spotty. But what's the over-under on the number of catches for tight end Jeremy Shockey, who called Cowboys coach Bill Parcells a "homo?" My guess is it would be a bigger upset for Shockey to catch more than three passes. The Cowboys secondary has great speed with Roy Williams. Expect some man coverage against Shockey, who caught three passes in the opener against Rams safety Adam Archuleta. The Giants have a chance for a 2-0 start and an early edge in the NFC East, so this is an important game.

3. Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens: Here's the surprising scouting report from the Browns opener. The linebackers, all second-year guys taken during the 2002 draft, did well. The bad news is that the high-priced defensive line didn't do as much. The Browns got only seven tackles and one sack from the defensive line against the Colts. Ravens coach Brian Billick knew that rookie quarterback Kyle Boller would have a tough time in his opening road game against the Steelers, but even the Steelers concede that Boller is going to be a good one. He completed 22 of 43 passes and he threw only one interception. For the Ravens to win, they have to establish a first-half lead and run powerful halfback Jamal Lewis until the Browns defense wears down.

2. Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals: Talk about an infomerical. With the opening victory over the Saints blacked out, the Seahawks are on television for the first time and need to win just to sellout next week's crucial home game against the Rams. The tough part of this game will be the heat. The Cardinals have the advantage in playing a 1 p.m. game in the Phoenix sun. Will the Seahawks wilt? The Seahawks started to hydrate early in the week in anticipation for this game. Seahawks defensive tackle Norman Hand proved his point and held Saints halfback Deuce McAllister to 99 yards. The Seahawks run defense -- worst in football last year -- has improved under Ray Rhodes. That's not good news for Cardinals halfback Emmitt Smith.

1. Houston Texans at New Orleans Saints: Dom Capers proved one thing with his opening victory over the Dolphins. You don't want to play a Capers team in an opener. Capers is not only the established master of making expansion teams good, but he's the undisputed leader in winning openers. Give him an offseason and a training camp, and he will bring a focused unit to the field and win the opener. He did it last year against the Cowboys. But winning in Week 2 won't be as easy. The Saints are angry following their disappointing loss to the Seahawks. Wide receiver Donte' Stallworth dropped five balls. The offense wasn't in sync. The defense fell apart for a little piece of the second quarter, and the team didn't recover. Coach Jim Haslett will rally the troops and try to win his home opener, but the Texans are a tough, physical team with an improving franchise quarterback in David Carr, who gets rid of the ball quickly.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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