Commentary

Pressure is on the Dolphins

The Colts and Dolphins meet in Miami in the best matchup of Week 9.

Updated: July 14, 2008, 5:49 PM 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 9.

First ... Indianapolis Colts at Miami Dolphins: When Brian Griese signed with the Dolphins in June, no one envisioned a potential quarterback controversy unless Jay Fiedler suffered an injury.

Brian Griese
The Dolphins will likely release Brian Griese to save money.
Well, Fiedler sprained a knee, and now his starting job may be slipping away. Griese beat the Chargers on Monday night and completed 20 of 29 passes and yes, there is a quarterback issue.

Suddenly, it's Griese's job to lose. Dave Wannstedt says he believes in making personnel decisions that help the team win week by week and won't just give an injured starter his job back. That's bad news for Fiedler, who has a 33-15 record as a starter.

This could be a dangerous position for the Dolphins. Fiedler had some difficulty completing downfield passes before the knee injury and left himself vulnerable to being replaced. His completion percentage was a modest 56.9. He had six touchdowns against seven interceptions.

What Wannstedt has to worry about playing against the Colts on Sunday is if Griese's three-touchdown performance was more a result of bad play by the Chargers than great play by Griese.

Griese is the more accurate of the two quarterbacks. He also has a slightly stronger arm than Fielder. Still, Fiedler has won a lot of games in a Dolphins uniform and he's going to want his starting job back.

The Colts come to Miami with the league's fourth-ranked offense and a healthy Edgerrin James, who returned last week after missing three games because of broken bones in his back. Peyton Manning is having an MVP season, completing 69 percent of his passes and leading the league with 15 touchdown passes.

The Manning battles against the Dolphins defense have been legendary from their days together in the old AFC East. Manning knows how hard it is to pass against the Dolphins man-to-man defense. Patrick Surtain and Sam Madison are having Pro Bowl years at cornerback, but Marvin Harrison has been bolstered by the advancement of Reggie Wayne as the second receiver.

The pressure is on the Dolphins, though. They have lost two home games this year and the Colts are an improved road team because of the improvements in their defense.

And 10. New England Patriots at Denver Broncos: The Broncos need a quarterback. This is an important game for Danny Kanell, who couldn't generate much offense last Sunday against the Ravens. The Broncos are getting down on numbers because of injuries. They are down two quarterbacks (Jake Plummer and Steve Beuerlein), two receivers (Ed McCaffrey and Chris Cole), two linebackers (Ian Gold and John Mobley) and one tackle (Ephraim Salaam). Of course, no one can complain about injuries when they play the Patriots. They've been down as many as nine starters at different points of the first half of the season. Bill Belichick has done a masterful job of getting this team to 6-2, and they know pulling off a road victory against the Broncos hurts Denver in the playoff tiebreakers. This could end up turning into the Broncos' third AFC loss, and could drop them to 5-4, three games behind the Chiefs. Belichick's biggest mission is stopping the Broncos running game, which is one of the most sophisticated and best coached in football. Not fearing the threat of the pass, the Ravens held Clinton Portis to 86 yards Sunday. The Broncos need more than 100 from Portis to get the victory.

9. St. Louis Rams at San Francisco 49ers: The Rams started their current run of five wins in six games with a 27-24 overtime victory over the 49ers in St. Louis. That's when Marc Bulger took over for Kurt Warner and the team hasn't looked back. A lot of things came together for Bulger and it should even get better now that Marshall Faulk is getting back on the field. Bulger may need another week or two to get Faulk more involved coming off his broken wrist and knee injury. Bulger has been so efficient passing behind the great blocking in front of him that he's completing 65 percent of his passes and is about as good as there is in football getting the ball to the wide receivers. He's also among the league leaders in big passing plays. In other words, he's on a roll, which everyone kind of expected when he was given the starting job. Bulger is accurate and sits well in the pocket. The protection is another plus that makes him more effective. Still, the 49ers came out of the first game against the Rams with confidence that they could compete against them. Unfortunately, the 49ers have struggled in close games. They are 0-4 in games decided by three points or less, which may be one of the reasons the 49ers have moved on to a third kicker, Todd Peterson. The 49ers have missed eight field goals this year. The Rams may be a little more beatable along the defensive line because of injuries that may sideline defensive end Leonard Little and defensive tackle Damione Lewis. It will be interesting to see whether the 49ers go to more of a ground game with Jeff Garcia playing injured or try to exploit the possible absence of Little by passing the ball more.

8. Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: It's bad enough Brett Favre has to play this vital NFC North game in a dome stadium where he's 11-20 as a regular-season starter. What makes matters worse is that he's doing it with a hairline fracture in his right thumb. Still, what choice do the Packers have? This is a critical Sunday night game. If they lose, they fall four games behind the Vikings and will be playing for a wild-card spot. Because they lost the regular season opener to the Vikings at home, they would have to make up five games because they would lose the division tiebreaker. You have to wonder if the Vikings were looking past the Giants last Sunday when they lost at home in a strange game. Though the Vikings have been one of the league's most focused teams this year, owner Red McCombs went nuts after the game and called out his team's performance in the locker room by saying the players embarrassed the franchise in the loss. Imagine what he'd say if the Vikings weren't 6-1. On paper, the Vikings match up well against the Packers. Their huge offensive line gives them an advantage in establishing the run and protecting Daunte Culpepper. Where the Vikings have to worry is if they let Favre get hot. The Vikings rank No. 30 in the league in pass defense, allowing 244 yards a game. Mike Tice doesn't mind allowing yards as long as they can get two or three interceptions. If that happens, the Vikings should win.

7. Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys: The pressure is on Steve Spurrier to turn the Redskins' season around. The Redskins have lost three straight games. Consultants are being hired to see what's wrong, LaVar Arrington is frustrated and owner Dan Snyder can't be too happy either. This team is too talented to hit a three-game losing streak in which they've only scored 45 points. The bye last week should have provided Patrick Ramsey a chance to rest a body that had been pounded during the first seven games. The problem ahead for Ramsey is that the Cowboys are tough to throw against. Pass defense is Dallas' specialty. Terence Newman is already establishing himself as a premier coverage cornerback and Bill Parcells' schemes don't allow many big plays. Spurrier came out of the bye week saying he was going to go back to his old ways of flinging the ball through the air. Of course, he doesn't have many options because running backs Trung Canidate and Ladell Betts are hurt. Still, Parcells loves one dimensional teams. It plays right into his hands, and he knows this game is important because a Cowboys victory will give his team a psychological edge and the two teams meet again Dec. 14.

6. New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Bucs: In the past, the Saints have matched up well against the Bucs. One of the Saints specialties is running the football, and Deuce McAllister is cranking out 100-yard rushing games every week. The Bucs secondary got even more banged up Wednesday when safety John Howell pulled a hamstring. Still, the Bucs are playing at home and they have the seventh-ranked offense. The pressure is on the Saints because if they lose this game and fall to 3-6, their chances of making the playoffs are all but over. Jim Haslett usually gets his team to respond, though, in rivalry games, and there is a good rivalry between these teams from last year. What's hurting the Saints is their inability to stop the run. They are giving up 138.6 yards rushing, and if the Bucs establish any kind of running game, it will be tough for the Saints to win. Surprisingly, though, this could be a high scoring game. Aaron Brooks can get hot for the Saints at quarterback, and Brad Johnson is having one of his best years.

5. Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons: Donovan McNabb may not be 100 percent, but he looked a little better throwing the football last week. He got the ball to his outside receivers better than in his past six games. He needs a big game to build confidence and the Falcons might be that team. The Falcons defense is terrible. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips sacked the entire starting secondary during the bye week and he might have to switch to a 4-3 because he's short on linebackers. The Falcons are giving up 416.6 yards a game, 266.9 through the air. If McNabb doesn't have a 250-yard game, he's not doing his job. If the Falcons defense looks bad early, McNabb needs to open things up. He hasn't thrown a touchdown to a wide out yet this season. If he can't do it against the Falcons, who have given up 13 touchdown passes, he might be struggling to do it the rest of the season. Still, this is a dangerous game for the Eagles. Phillips is a good coordinator who knows how to rally the troops.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers at Seattle Seahawks: Ray Rhodes is shaking up his 12th-ranked defense to help the team stop the run. The Seahawks are now allowing 115 yards a game on the ground, which is a dramatic improvement over last year, but it's still troubling. They gave up 101 yards to unknown Bengals running back Rudi Johnson last week, so Rhodes juggled some personnel. Of course, the Steelers aren't confident they can run the ball against bad run defenses. The move to Jerome Bettis last week produced more positive running yards, but not enough to stay with the high-flying Rams. If they can win this game, the Steelers have a chance to turn around their season. Their final eight games are against teams that are 20-37. They could get hot and get to eight or nine wins, but they have to get better on offense and defense. Cornerbacks Chad Scott and Dewayne Washington are having horrible years. If the Steelers can put pressure on Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, they could win this game.

3. Carolina Panthers at Houston Texans: For the first time in franchise history, the Texans will line up without quarterback David Carr. That's good news for the Panthers because Carr made a dramatic jump from his rookie season. He was completing 59.8 percent of his passes and getting 7.3 yards an attempt. His quick release also cut his sack totals to 11 in seven games. But his injured ankle means Tony Banks gets the call at quarterback this week. With Banks at the helm, the Texans will be more reliant on their hot running back, Domanick Davis. Davis is establishing himself as one of the top rookies in the NFL. He's had back-to-back 100-yard games and is averaging 4.7 yards a carry.

2. New York Giants at New York Jets: The Jets playoff chances took a big hit last weekend, while the Giants kept their playoff hopes alive with a big road win against the Vikings to get to 3-4. A victory over the Jets propels them back into the NFC East playoff race. Even though this is considered a road game for the Giants, they are playing in the Meadowlands, which is Giants stadium. Chad Pennington knocked his rust off last week and he should be closer to his 70-percent completion percentage in his first full start. Santana Moss has finally developed into a big-play threat and he's becoming the Jets go-to receiver. Curtis Martin is getting better and healthier each week. Martin is back on pace for a 1,000-yard season and has his rushing average back to a respectable 4.0 per carry. In other words, the Jets are a dangerous team for the Giants. Kerry Collins can't afford to throw interceptions and Tiki Barber can't afford any fumbles. The Giants do get a break because defensive end John Abraham is out with a groin injury, but the offensive line still has to worry because defensive end Shaun Ellis leads the NFL with nine sacks.

1. Oakland Raiders at Detroit Lions: This might be the last time the Lions are mentioned in First ... And 10 because they are so bad. But it will be intriguing to see how the Raiders respond with Marques Tuiasosopo at the helm. Tuiasosopo gets his first start because Rich Gannon's torn right labrum will sideline him two to three weeks. Unlike Gannon, Tuiasosopo did a better job of getting the ball to wide receivers. That had been a problem for Gannon all season. The matchup against the Lions is good because the Lions have lost four cornerbacks this season to injuries. The Raiders are 2-5 and pretty much out of the playoff race, but they have a chance to get to 4-5 if they can beat the Lions and Jets in the next two weeks. If Tuisasosopo can get two wins, he might be designated the quarterback of the future in Oakland.

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

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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