- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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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 7.
First ... Denver Broncos at Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are rested and have had time to reflect on their 5-0 start.
They know it wasn't a fluke. Through free agency and the draft, the Vikings upgraded the offensive and defensive lines. They play a physical brand of football, which allows them to run when necessary and hit the big pass plays. Gus Frerotte, the team's backup, came off the bench as a big surprise and gave Daunte Culpepper a three-week rest while he adjusts to playing with three fractured bones in his back.
The Vikings have depth, but, more important, they have great coaching. Defensive coordinator George O'Leary preaches aggressiveness along the defensive line and smart, opportunistic play in the secondary. It works. And so do the solid passing schemes of Scott Linehan, who mixes the run well with the pass.
But the biggest reason for the Vikings rapid start is Mike Tice. He works the Vikings. His newest mission is to make sure they don't read too many press clippings and become complacent. They shouldn't. The team that won only six games last season can equal it if they beat the Broncos.
Though the schedule grows more difficult in the next three weeks, the Vikings have a rare opportunity. Their next three games are at home. They play the Broncos Sunday, the Giants the next week and the Packers on Nov. 2 in a second meeting that could allow them to gain more distance in the NFC North race.
Tice keeps bringing out the pads and making practices more physical to keep the players into the power of the game. At camp, he had more scrimmages than most teams because he wanted to establish a physical presence along the offensive and defensive lines. He wanted his linebackers to smack running backs. The extra hitting improved the team's tackling skills.
Part of his camp agenda was borrowed from Joe Gibbs, the former Redskins coach who once employed Tice as a backup tight end. Gibbs was imaginative with his offense, but he stressed execution and would run plays over and over again until they were right. Tice has one of the biggest and tallest offensive lines and is using it to the Vikings advantage.
This week is a statement game more than anything else to the Vikings. They have a chance to go into the Packers game 7-0. Chuck Knox taught Tice that winning the division was the most important thing in developing a playoff caliber team.
The Broncos will be without quarterback Jake Plummer, who is actually suffering more with a foot injury than the shoulder injury that was initially bothering him.
Steve Beuerlein draws the starting assignment for the second consecutive week, and he will try to execute Mike Shanahan's creative plans. Each week, Shanahan adds a whole new section of plays so teams don't pick up on Denver's tendencies. Two weeks ago, it was the Wishbone. Last week, he ran completely opposite the team's tendencies on certain running plays.
Even though the Vikings are playing in the day, they are now a prime-time team. They can't afford a retreat.
And 10. New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins defense is hot. Red hot. They've allowed only four offensive touchdowns this season, and they are getting better each week. Their defensive ends put on a show last Sunday against Jacksonville and that's a concern because of the injuries that don't seem to be going away for the Patriots offensive line. Everyone expects a good defensive game because these AFC East rivals have good defenses. But the winner might come down to which team has the better quarterback this Sunday. Even though these are considered playoff caliber teams, neither is getting playoff caliber quarterbacking. Tom Brady has an excuse. He's had shoulder problems dating back to last season. Brady has a 72 quarterback rating, is completing just 58.1 percent of his passes and his 6.3 yards a pass attempt is one of the worst in the AFC. Many believe his lingering shoulder problem is worse than the team wants to admit. He's not throwing the ball downfield. Against the Giants last Sunday, he threw only one completion in the first half. For Fiedler, there is no mechanical excuse. He's just missing on the longer throws. The inaccuracy is slowing down the Dolphins' passing offense. Fiedler has completed only 56.8 percent of his passes and has a 74.2 quarterback rating. With a running back as potent as Ricky Williams, Fiedler should have a rating near 90. Fiedler's inability to get the ball downfield is allowing more defenders to stay near the line of scrimmage and limits Williams to 3.4 yards a carry.
9. Tennessee Titans at Carolina Panthers: What an interesting matchup. Steve McNair is everything to the Titans offense. He's going against an aggressive, young defense that loves to hit. McNair has been forced to carry the load because Eddie George isn't getting consistent running yards and the Titans have had injuries to as many as two tight ends. It would help McNair if Frank Wycheck could come back from his seasonlong concussion problem and give the Titans another receiving threat. The Titans best formation is three-receivers and one tight end. Against the Texans, McNair had a career 421-yard day mostly out of that formation. The Panthers defensive line is great at beating blockers, but McNair's specialty is making plays on the run. The other great part of the matchup is how good the Titans are at stopping the run. The Panthers run the ball 58.5 percent of the time. Stephen Davis will pad up a bruised forearm and try to hit the Titans defense. As an outside threat, the Panthers will continue to develop powerful 220-pound threat DeShaun Foster.
8. Green Bay Packers at St. Louis Rams: The Rams righted their offense by whipping up on bad teams. They outscored the Falcons and Cardinals, 73-13. They had 897 yards of offense in those two games, more than twice the amount their opponents gained. They are controlling the clock and controlling the game. No wonder the Packers are concerned. They are having difficulty stopping good offenses. And now, the Packers defense has to try to stop the Rams in St. Louis. Ouch. The Packers rank 30th in pass defense, allowing 248 yards a game. And to make matters worse for the Packers defense, they are thinner with the loss of defensive end Joe Johnson for the season. They will have to shift tackles to ends and weaken their inside defense. You would think this would be a great showdown for two great passing offenses, but there is a big caveat. Brett Favre is playing in a dome. He's 11-19 in domes with 44 touchdowns and 48 interceptions. Bad things happen to him in domes. He had six interceptions the last time he was in the Edwards Jones Dome.
7. Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders: This is the Raiders' last stand. If they lose, they will fall five games behind the Chiefs. Nothing is working for Oakland. It entered the week with 14 injuries, many so serious that those players won't practice all week. And no team needs more practice than the Raiders. They committed 19 penalties in last Sunday's loss to the Browns. The only hope is the return of wide receiver Jerry Porter, who's been out after sports hernia surgery. Porter is the Raiders only true deep threat, and Rich Gannon needs something. He's standing back in the pocket watching no one get open. The Chiefs can whip the Raiders so many ways. The Raiders are the league's worst run stopping team, and Priest Holmes is second in the AFC in rushing. He has 564 yards on 123 carries. Trent Green got the passing offense going last week, and the Chiefs can attack the battered Raiders secondary with Eddie Kennison, Johnnie Morton and Tony Gonzalez. And the Raiders have had special teams problems all year, while Dante Hall, the Chiefs returner, has been unstoppable.
6. Washington Redskins at Buffalo Bills: Talk about falling stars. That talented Steve Spurrier offense of the first four weeks has dropped dramatically. Patrick Ramsey is holding the ball too long. He's getting sacked four times a game and hit way too many times. Changes might be brewing along the offensive line, but they might also need some review of strategy here. Spurrier loves to send everyone into routes. Maybe he'll keep a back in to chip block, but that isn't going to be good enough to stop a top defensive end. The Redskins are also fading defensively where more changes are brewing. Bruce Smith will play less at defensive end and Regan Upshaw will play more. For the Bills, it's even more baffling. One of the league's most improved teams is getting very little out of their offense. They are averaging a league-low 261 yards a game of offense. Think about it. A league low with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback. It's time to bench Josh Reed and replace him with Bobby Shaw, but Eric Mould's groin injury means that can't happen. The loser of this game could go into serious depression.
5. Tampa Bay Bucs at San Francisco 49ers: The Bucs are starting to get real thin in the secondary. Brian Kelly is considering playing despite a torn pectoral muscle. They need him because they are losing trust in third corner, Tim Wansley, who is late for meetings and sometimes irresponsible. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp is steaming about his $50,000 fine for harassing officials and conduct on the field. Watch him try to take it out on the 49ers. Meanwhile, the 49ers are a mystery. They are 0-3 in one-point games. Part of the problem has been bad special teams. This is a critical game for the 49ers. Terrell Owens is frustrated, and he hasn't been the same receiver since being hit by Aeneas Williams of the Rams several weeks ago. He's dropping passes and short-arming the ball. He needs a big game. Lost in all the talk about the Bucs and their defense is the great season being had by quarterback Brad Johnson. He's completing 65.8 percent of his passes and has 12 touchdown passes compared to three interceptions. His 101 quarterback is more than compensating for the lack of a running game.
4. Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants: Is it time to bench Donovan McNabb? Maybe it is. McNabb's career isn't overrated. But we aren't seeing the real Donovan McNabb, and finally, it was revealed he has a sore thumb. McNabb wasn't good against the Cowboys last week, and the Eagles can't keep losing division games. McNabb's completing just 49.1 percent of his passes and has a QB rating of 54.2 -- worst in the NFC. If you're Andy Reid, you should keep the bullpen active. Giants coach Jim Fassel vows some changes in the offense, which isn't working. Sounds like a year ago, except Sean Peyton, now an assistant in Dallas, can't be used as a scapegoat. Kerry Collins isn't hitting the long passes and his interception total has risen to nine.
3. New York Jets at Houston Texans: The Texans built their defense around the expansion selections of cornerback Aaron Glenn and defensive linemen Seth Payne and Gary Walker. Walker has a bad shoulder, Payne is out for the season and Glenn is expected to miss his second consecutive game. No wonder Dom Capers defense has dropped to 30th. That gives Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde a chance to maybe have a 200-yard day. Yes, it's possible. The Jets even have a chance to get out of their early season funk, but this is still a dangerous game for them. They are on the road. Capers does a great job motivating his team. And David Carr will be throwing against a Jets secondary that is almost a skeleton because of injuries. Andre Johnson will be hard for the Jets cornerbacks to handle.
2. San Diego Chargers at Cleveland Browns: Marty Schottenheimer returns to his old stomping grounds in Cleveland with a lot on his plate. The pressure is on in San Diego, and while Schottenheimer isn't going to lose his job during the season, he needs to start turning things around. The 0-5 start has a lot of people uncomfortable in San Diego. Schottenheimer is sticking to his plan of working the players hard and having them prepared. But the Chargers need a victory to take some of the pressure off. Butch Davis has responded to Cleveland's 1-3 start by winning two games. The underachieving defensive line is starting to play well. Sure, the Browns allowed Jamal Lewis to run for 295 yards, but the defense has played pretty well since that game. Davis' biggest concern is along the offensive line where they will be down two more starters -- Shaun O'Hara and center Jeff Faine. For the Chargers to win, they need a good day along the defensive line. This line is rested from the bye week. The Browns are thin. There are no excuses if the Chargers can't pressure the Browns.
1. Chicago Bears at Seattle Seahawks: Everyone who has been clamoring for change at quarterback in Chicago might get it this week. It looks as though Chris Chandler will play for Kordell Stewart, who has a leg injury. Chandler is a smart quarterback, but he's playing behind one of the league's worst offensive lines in a system that really only allows him to throw short. The Seahawks aren't great pressuring the quarterback, but if they can blitz Chandler, they could cause him a lot of problems. Ray Rhodes, the Seahawks defensive coordinator, should find ways to diagnose the Bears short-passing defense. To make matters worse for the Bears, halfback Anthony Thomas, who has been running well of late, probably won't play because of a foot injury. The only reason this game made First and 10 is to see what the Bears offense looks like with a different quarterback.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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