- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Thanks to the NFL schedule makers putting 25 division games in the first three weeks, the 2006 season has structure.
Races have some definition, something that had been missing for years when division games were staggered through the middle and late part of the schedule. The Titans are the only team that hasn't played a game in their division, which doesn't skew things because they have started so terribly. The Bears, Falcons and Bills have played half of their six division games, which has helped to give a preview of how this season should go.
It's pretty clear that the competition committee's fears that recent defensive drafts might decrease scoring (to fewer than 40 points per game) are merited. The average game has totaled 37.6 points. Although it's clear that defenses came out of training camps ahead of offenses, it's hard to shake the notion that the enhanced speed of these defenses is making it tougher for offenses to prosper. There are more early-down blitzes, and backs are having a tougher time getting around the corners against speedy defenses.
To counter, more teams are going to quicker offenses or the no-huddle to get an edge.
So what have we learned as September turns into October?
1. The AFC East is so far the biggest disappointment. It's still hard to shake the image of Tom Brady in Sunday night's loss to the Broncos. He looked depressed, and he should be. The offseason cost him Deion Branch and David Givens and left him struggling to find outside receivers. Despite a $19 million spike in the cap, the Patriots' only roster additions outside the draft were wide receiver Reche Caldwell and inactive defensive tackle Jonathan Sullivan. With wins over the Jets and Bills, the Patriots still have the best chance to win the AFC East because of the light nature of the division, but look at the scoring. The lowest-scoring teams in the division are the Patriots (16.7 points a game) and Dolphins (12). The Dolphins' loss to the Bills was stunning. Daunte Culpepper is naturally off to a slow start after having the "triple lindy" surgery on his knee ligaments. Jets QB Chad Pennington came off his second shoulder surgery and has established himself as the offensive whiz of this weak division with his no-huddle and 22.7 points a game. We expected more.
2. The Bears and Seahawks are destined to be the NFC's top two seeds, which is what most observers expected. The Bears entered the season with the league's easiest schedule (a .445 opponents' winning percentage). The Seahawks had the third easiest (.457). By beating the Vikings in the Metrodome, the Bears have a stranglehold on an easy division. They are 3-0 in the NFC North and have two remaining division home games. With the Bucs -- who play the Bears and Seahawks -- facing a potential losing season, the Bears and Seahawks each should face only 10 winning teams. Usually good teams go 10-0 or 9-1 against losing teams. That means if the Seahawks and Bears just split against teams with winning records, they should each win at least 12 games. Pencil these teams in for the top two seeds in the NFC. Just as planned.
3. Despite their loss to the Saints, the Falcons are the team to beat in the NFC South, even though the Panthers were the favorites. That doesn't mean the Panthers won't win the division. Still, that home loss to the Falcons in Week 1 was devastating. It puts the Panthers in comeback mode all season and makes their Christmas Eve visit to Atlanta a must-win game. Once again, Michael Vick proved unstoppable against the Panthers. What we learned about the NFC South, though, is that the Saints have to keep surprising everyone to make this a three-team race. The Bucs seem to be destined for a horrible season after QB Chris Simms lost a spleen and the defense lost some speed.
4. In the well-balanced NFC East, the biggest story is QB Donovan McNabb. He's lighter. He's stronger. He's saner without having to deal with the daily distractions of Terrell Owens. With some help from an unstoppable no-huddle offense, McNabb is throwing for 320 yards a game, has a 105.3 quarterback rating and has thrown seven touchdown passes. If coach Andy Reid decided to run the ball to ice a lead against the Giants in Week 2, the Eagles could be 3-0. McNabb looks super-sharp. He spreads the ball around and is getting enough big plays from Brian Westbrook in the running game. On the flip side, the strangest story involves the Giants. How verbal mutiny could set in after their 17-point comeback against the Eagles is amazing. Coach Tom Coughlin hasn't lost the team yet, but he could. It seems players might be pushing to go to a no-huddle offense that puts points on the board in the fourth quarter, but what about the defense? The linebackers look lost in coverage. The cornerbacks are getting torched. The Giants are playing the league's toughest schedule. To battle the coach and show panic could make them spiral into a long season.
5. Marvin Lewis sits atop the list of Coach of the Year candidates. Lewis brought the Bengals into the 21st century by adding enough credibility to the organization to convince free agents to come. His strength, though, has been an ability to stay ahead of disasters. Since the Bengals don't put a lot of resources into scouting, Lewis is dealing with six players who have been arrested. He was ready for the challenge. Lewis prepared the defense for not having middle linebacker Odell Thurman all season. Despite the distractions, Lewis has strengthened the inner core of leaders. The team's 3-0 start can be attributed to the quick return of QB Carson Palmer from major knee surgery, an overload of offensive talent and great leadership from Lewis.
6. The Jaguars might be closing the gap on the Colts, but they are not there yet. Sunday's loss to the Colts was defining. The Jaguars overpowered the light Colts' defense on the ground. That ground game kept the defense fresh to harass Peyton Manning. But the Jaguars didn't convert time of possession into points, and they let the Colts take back the game in the second half. Now things get tough for the Jaguars. The Colts could easily get off to a 5-0 start, and if the Redskins beat the Jags, coach Jack Del Rio spots the Colts two games in the AFC South and doesn't get to play them again until Dec. 10.
7. What we've learned about the Terrell Owens experience in Dallas is that the Cowboys appear to be able to handle it. Owens' emergency-room visit this week, and everything that surrounded it, didn't seem to faze the team. Coach Bill Parcells seems to have his players in the right frame of mind for Owens. QB Drew Bledsoe doesn't necessarily need Owens to succeed because he has wide receiver Terry Glenn and tight end Jason Witten. Anything they get from Owens is a bonus. Yes, Owens has been even more of a mess than expected. He missed most of camp with a hamstring injury. He broke a ring finger, and he's not able to handle the pain medication. It's always going to be something with him. However, the Cowboys seem to be able to handle the circus.
8. In the offseason or even before, coaches better have a good backup-quarterback plan. The league has lost one starting quarterback per week. Aaron Brooks (Raiders), Trent Green (Chiefs) and Chris Simms (Bucs) are out. Brooks got crunched by the Chargers and then hurt his shoulder reaching for two fumbled snaps. The worrisome incidents are the hits on Green and Simms; coaches can't rely on referees to protect their quarterbacks with the threat of a flag alone. Green suffered a major head trauma on a legal hit by Bengals defensive end Robert Geathers when he scrambled out of the pocket for the third time in four plays. Simms lost his spleen, and he too was scrambling. Coaches have to take advantage of the running abilities of their quarterbacks. But defenses are getting faster. Hits are coming with higher impact. Carson Palmer blew out his knee in last season's playoffs on what was considered a legal hit by Kimo von Oelhoffen. I don't know where the balance is for running too much or risking the quarterback too much, but the league can't afford to lose a starting quarterback a week.
9. Once again, teams are learning the value of a quarterback. If you look at the 10 worst teams from last year, most of them are among the top 10 this year. The only teams with hope are those with quarterbacks. Chad Pennington (Jets) and Drew Brees (Saints) have taken teams considered to be at the bottom of the league to winning starts. Alex Smith is averaging 271 yards a game and is making the 49ers look respectable. Much was made of Cardinals coach Dennis Green's possible quarterback switch this week, but at least he had the option to go to Matt Leinart. Teams no longer can justify passing on good, young quarterbacks when they have the chance to draft them. The only way to get out of the bottom of the league is with the help of a quarterback's arm.
10. Finally, a piece of advice to top offensive players. Don't be too good. The "Madden Curse" is for real. Running back Shaun Alexander suffered a broken foot after his MVP season and will miss about a month. From Donovan McNabb to Marshall Faulk to Daunte Culpepper to Michael Vick to Ray Lewis, each has been cursed since making the cover of the Madden video game. Maybe now we understand Barry Sanders' sudden retirement in 1999. It was his only way of beating The Curse.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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