- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's "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 3 of the 2006 season.
First Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts
NFL fans are getting spoiled by the start of the 2006 season.
Last week, there were 11 division games. This weekend, there are nine, including three of the most compelling division games of the season: Jacksonville at Indianapolis, Cincinnati at Pittsburgh and Chicago at Minnesota.
More than even Week 2, Week 3 deserves to be called Separation Sunday. By Sunday evening, these games will define who has control of these three divisions.
As hard as it was not to pick the Bengals-Steelers rivalry as the top game, the Jaguars-Colts game is the top draw this week. The reason is the Colts. A victory over the Jaguars could give the Colts the momentum to start another long winning streak. You remember last season's 13-0 start.
With their next two games against the Jets and Titans, a win over the Jaguars should have the Colts on their way to a 5-0 start and a 3-0 record in the AFC South. A bye in Week 6 will give their weary roster (21 injured players) a rest.
On the flip side, the Jaguars are trying to make the case that they are ready to dethrone the Colts in the AFC South. Jack Del Rio's team slugged it out with defensive victories over the Cowboys and Steelers at home to open the season. The defense has allowed only 57 rushing yards a game on only 3.17 yards a carry.
For the past couple of seasons, Del Rio has added speed to the defense to try to slow down the Colts' fast-paced offense. But the Jaguars are pretty beat up coming into this game. They have 13 players on the injury list, including 10 who couldn't practice Wednesday. They already have lost their best pass rusher, defensive end Reggie Hayward, for the season. Defensive tackle Marcus Stroud has been battling an ankle injury for weeks, and linebacker Mike Peterson somehow made a quick recovery from a knee injury.
Even though Byron Leftwich continues to develop at quarterback, the Jaguars aren't built to get into a touchdown-for-touchdown showdown with the Colts. The key to this game is how well the Jaguars' defense can contain the Colts' offense.
Although it could take until late October for the Colts' rushing attack to fully develop, they are gaining more confidence in their ground game. Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes are running hard. Manning is as sharp as ever. With the help of Sunday's blowout of the Texans, the Colts are averaging 331 yards passing and 33.5 points a game.
These teams are always hard hitting and this game should stand out in a week full of great games.
And 10. Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson already has called out Steelers linebacker Joey Porter. Carson Palmer has gone on record saying he hates the Steelers and he hates Pittsburgh. Johnson may say the Ohio rivalry against the Browns is better, but he's wrong. This is evolving into one of the best rivalries in football. These teams don't like each other. The Steelers were angered when the Bengals came into Heinz Field and beat them last season and celebrated by waving Terrible Towels. The Bengals will never forget Kimo von Oelhoffen's hit that tore up Palmer's knee and ended last season's run to the Super Bowl. Though the Bengals carry the banner of being the defending AFC North champ, the Steelers are the reigning Super Bowl champions. But a victory by the Bengals could send shockwaves through the Steel City. First, a victory would give the Bengals a two-game lead in the division with a home game against Pittsburgh awaiting them on New Year's Eve. Palmer is still getting his timing down with his receivers, while Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger has played only one game since suffering a horrible motorcycle accident and undergoing an appendectomy. Of the two teams, though, the Bengals have the biggest concerns about injury. They are down two linebackers (David Pollack and Odell Thurman). Safety Dexter Jackson is out, as is center Rich Braham. Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh is trying to come back from a heel injury that sidelined him for two games. The Bengals have a no-huddle offense that is hard to stop, and it's already worked well in noisy Arrowhead Stadium. Heinz Field will be buzzing because it's perhaps the biggest game of the season.
Everyone predicts an easy ride for the Bears. They have one of the league's best defenses, as well as the league's easiest schedule. But their control of the NFC North will be dependent upon how well they do against the Vikings, and it doesn't help that the game is in Minnesota. Brad Childress has established the personality of his team in victories against the Redskins and Panthers. The defense is hard-hitting. The offense isn't going to be high-scoring, but it will try to wear down a defense with the running of Chester Taylor and the power of its offensive line. Historically, big offensive lines with good running games are problems for light, Cover 2 defenses such the Bears'. QB Rex Grossman will have to have another big game for the Bears to overcome that potential problem. Grossman is off to a good start. He averaged 273 passing yards in victories over the Packers and Lions. The pressure is on the Vikings in this game. If they lose to the Bears, the Bears may be hard to catch. The Bears would be 3-0 in the division and have a home game against the Vikings on Dec. 3.
8. New York Giants at Seattle Seahawks
The Giants saved their season by coming back from a 17-point, second-half deficit to beat the Eagles in overtime. For Eli Manning, it was yet another sign he's moving into the elite group of quarterbacks. Despite being sacked eight times, he stayed calm and didn't make mental mistakes. Players believe in him and that's important going into Seattle. Last season, Plaxico Burress was displeased with his quarterback following a 24-21 overtime loss to the Seahawks -- a game the Giants should have won. Manning overthrew or couldn't find Burress in critical moments, and Burress was noticeably upset. Now, Burress is in tune with Manning and the offense is hard to stop. But so is the Seahawks' offense. The Giants have trouble with no-huddle offenses because receivers can get behind the linebackers in passing situations. Matt Hasselbeck doesn't run a lot of no-huddle, but he has a quick pace to his offense. He gets to the line of scrimmage quickly, makes his calls and gets plays off in short order. The Seahawks usually don't get their offense kicked into full gear until mid-October, so the Giants are catching them at a good time. Shaun Alexander is off to a slow start, and Mike Holmgren is still trying to find the replacement for Steve Hutchinson at guard. But the biggest problem for the Giants will be Seattle fans. For whatever reason, the Giants' offense has had false start penalties and mental blunders even at home. To beat the Seahawks, the Giants will have to beat the team and the fans.
7. Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What was supposed to be a three-way race in the NFC South could turn into a two-way race after this game. The loser will be 0-3. Of the two teams, the Bucs appear to be the most panicked, but they have the advantage of being at home. That might not be a good thing. Chris Simms' poor start at quarterback has everyone worried. What Jon Gruden doesn't want is for the fans to turn on him at the most critical juncture of the season. For whatever reason, Simms is losing confidence on the field. A few weeks ago, it was a simple problem of having passes batted down at the line of scrimmage on three-step drops. Now, he's having trouble finding his receivers and he looks uncomfortable in the pocket. Bucs halfback Carnell Williams isn't running as fluidly because of back problems. The offensive line is struggling and the defense is showing a little age. The Panthers still don't know if Steve Smith will be on the field because of his nagging hamstring injury. The Panthers played hard and should have won against the Vikings last week. Coach John Fox apologized for making a bad call on special teams that resulted in a turnover and cost the Panthers the lead. For the Panthers to win, Fox will need another big game from Julius Peppers, who usually wins battles against Bucs tackle Kenyatta Walker.
6. Denver Broncos at New England Patriots
In normal weeks, this game would be atop First and 10. This isn't a normal week, but NBC has a great one Sunday night. Despite the Deion Branch holdout and problems at receiver, the Patriots have been businesslike in beating the Bills and Jets. With the Dolphins two games behind, this contest is theoretically between two potential division winners, although the Broncos have to hold off the Chargers. It sure helps to be at home, and a 3-0 start would calm any concerns about the Patriots being in decline. Denver coach Mike Shanahan knows the problem his offense faces. New England's Bill Belichick is the master of devising defense game plans to frustrate quarterbacks. The book on Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer is that 3-4 defenses have a tendency to make him more of a pocket passer. From the pocket, Plummer is a 50 percent passer. Last week, the Patriots used more of a 4-3 look to stop the Jets. Expect them to use the 3-4 to contain Plummer because his best game is getting outside of the pocket and throwing on the run. Plummer needs a good game because fans are calling for Jay Cutler to be the quarterback. That won't happen. Shanahan is clearly behind Plummer and won't go to a rookie quarterback this season. Plummer has to make the best of a tough situation. This is a big game for him.
Heading into the preseason, both of these teams had hopes of staying with the Seahawks in the NFC West. But last week, the Cardinals lost to the Seahawks at Qwest Field, and the Rams suffered a setback by losing to the 49ers. Though neither team will concede the division yet to the Seahawks, this is a battle to stay in the race. The Cardinals should have an edge. The Cardinals' offense is ahead of the Rams' offense at this point. Kurt Warner is averaging 266 yards passing and the Cardinals can put points on the board. The Rams are the lowest-scoring team in the division at 15.5 points per game. That's a surprise. Marc Bulger is one of the league's most accurate quarterbacks and Steven Jackson is off to a good start running the ball. New head coach Scott Linehan is still trying to get his players comfortable with the changes in the offense. Bulger will have to adjust to the Cardinals' wild, blitzing schemes and the Rams have issues along the offensive line. Orlando Pace is doubtful with a concussion and Richie Incognito has taken over for Andy McCollum at center. This will be a tough assignment for Linehan and the Rams.
4. Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions
The best you can say about this one is that it's a division game. The Lions showed great hustle and hard play in their opening loss to the Seahawks at Ford Field. That was a plus to first-year coach Rod Marinelli. But the Lions looked like the Lions of old getting blown away by the Bears. Which Lions team will show up Sunday? Marinelli, who runs the Lions like the former marine he is, will make sure it's the Lions of Week 1. Marinelli knows he can't afford to give the Packers confidence. The Packers are the NFL's youngest team. Their defense can't stop anyone. Brett Favre had success against the Saints last week, but the Lions will be a tougher test. The loser of this game will be at the bottom of the NFC North. That puts a lot of pressure on both teams.
3. New York Jets at Buffalo Bills
The Bills' victory over the Dolphins last week came out of nowhere. The Bills generated only 171 yards of offense. Quarterback J.P. Losman passed for only 83 yards. But credit Dick Jauron for getting his young defense fired up and keeping pressure on Dolphins quarterback Daunte Culpepper all game. The Jets are riding the surgically repaired shoulder of Chad Pennington on offense. He gives them hope. Though he doesn't throw the deep ball, Pennington moves the chains. The Patriots shut him out until the third quarter last week, but Pennington hung in there and generated 17 second-half points to show the Jets have some fight. Jauron has a knack of getting solid execution from his teams. Though the Bills have a lot of holes and probably won't have a winning season, the defense showed a lot of progress in the Dolphins' victory.
2. Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints (Mon., 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
How can a game of unbeaten teams be buried so far down? Well, the Saints whipped up on the Browns and the Packers, so let's not anoint them playoff contenders yet. This Monday night game will be the test to see if the Saints are for real. They have 27 new players and a new coach in Sean Payton. Their linebacking corps is filled with castoffs from throughout the league. The challenge is stopping Michael Vick and the NFL's most dominating running game. Vick and the Falcons have reached into the college ranks for the spread option, and the Falcons are averaging 279 rushing yards a game. It's like watching an old Nebraska team run through the Big 12. The Falcons have established themselves at the team to beat in the NFC South. This game will have plenty of emotion with the Saints returning to the Superdome, but they might not be quite ready to compete with the Falcons.
1. Philadelphia Eagles at San Francisco 49ers
The Eagles still can't believe they blew a 17-point lead to the Giants. Donovan McNabb looked like an MVP coming out of a no-huddle offense, which the Giants simply couldn't stop. You hope Andy Reid learned a lesson. The absence of a power running game bit Reid and the Eagles hard last week. What will be interesting to see is if the Eagles come out in a no-huddle this week and try to run up an early lead on the 49ers, whose defensive personnel don't match up well with the the Eagles' offense. Niners quarterback Alex Smith has shown improvement through two weeks. With Norv Turner calling the plays, the 49ers might be able to get into a few shootouts with teams. Reid's mission this week is to get a lead and figure out a better way of holding onto it.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
John Clayton discusses the best games of Week 3, highlighted by the Colts playing host to the Jags in a key AFC South battle.