- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Editor's note: ESPN.com 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 8 of the 2006 season.
First Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos
After 2003 and 2004, Mike Shanahan thought outside the box when making plans.
While most coaches rebuild their teams to win the division, Shanahan went beyond the AFC West. He worried about the Indianapolis Colts, and he did it with good reason. In the 2003 season, the Broncos went 10-6 but lost to the Colts in the playoffs 41-10. So, trying to keep up with the Colts, Shanahan started to work on his defense.
He picked up Champ Bailey, the game's best cornerback. The Broncos went 10-6 in '04 but lost to the Colts 49-24. For 2005, the Broncos grabbed every Cleveland Browns defensive lineman they could and the strategy worked well enough for the Broncos to advance to the AFC title game. What also helped was not playing the Colts.
Sunday's home game against the Colts is the ultimate test for Shanahan's defense, which has given up only two touchdown drives in 65 possessions. The success can be attributed more to the talent than the scheme. Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer abandoned a lot of the successful blitzes of last season and concentrated on winning with talent.
In many ways, Sunday's game is a playoff preview for the Broncos, and it's an important one. But there isn't as much pressure as you would think. The Broncos are 5-1 and lead the AFC West by a game. Sure, a win over the undefeated Colts would give them a tiebreaker against the Colts for possible home-field advantage, but the idea is to see how good this defense really is.
The Colts enter with the league's third-ranked offense, but it really hasn't kicked into gear yet. The running game is just starting to click as backup Joseph Addai gets more comfortable making the jump from college to the NFL. Third receiver Brandon Stokley has missed most of the season with injuries, so the three-receiver offense hasn't really gotten going.
Slow starts have put the team in a position in which Peyton Manning has had to orchestrate second-half comebacks, but a lot of those problems were attributed to the defense's inability to stop the run early. The addition of defensive tackle Anthony McFarland helped solve that problem. The Colts will have an interesting test trying to stop Shanahan's efficient run scheme.
This season, it's offense that worries Shanahan. Jake Plummer has generated only seven touchdown drives in 69 possessions. While Plummer has the complete support of Shanahan, fans are calling for a quarterback change. Plummer's problem has been starting slowly. His first-quarter passing statistics have been virtually nonexistent. One of Shanahan's formulas for success is getting a lead and letting the defense pressure opposing quarterbacks.
This game is a fascinating matchup, a test of elite AFC teams. Shanahan just wants to see how well he's done in catching up on defense to what the Colts' offense can do.
Whether Bill Parcells made a panic move or not in benching Drew Bledsoe, Tony Romo has to make the best of a bad situation. Parcells is asking a lot. He wants Romo, who has never started an NFL game, to take over the starting quarterback job at the beginning of a three-game road trip. Good luck. Romo's first start is in Carolina, where fans are loud and the defensive line can tear apart struggling offensive lines. The poor play of the Cowboys' line helped lead to Bledsoe's benching, and the bad news for Romo is there aren't any changes along the line. Left tackle Flozell Adams appears to be playing hurt. Guard Marco Rivera is struggling. Right tackle Marc Colombo has had trouble against some pass-rushers. And while Bledsoe was a statue in the pocket, he still was able to lead an offense that scored 28 points a game. Can Romo do the same? Parcells is going to have to rely more on his defense to help make the job easier for Romo. He can't ask Romo to win high-scoring shootouts on the road. Romo has a strong arm and he has a swagger about him. But these next three games will determine whether the Cowboys are going to be in the playoff race or just an also-ran. The Panthers are trying to put their three-point loss to the Bengals behind them. They had won four in a row and seemed to be gaining momentum. The most motivated player in this game could be Keyshawn Johnson of the Panthers. He was let go by Dallas so the Cowboys could bring in Terrell Owens. Johnson has been more productive than Owens. It would make him feel good to come out with a better record than his former team.
9. New England Patriots at Minnesota Vikings (Mon., 8:30 ET, ESPN)
In an easy division, the Patriots don't really get many tests this season. They are winning the AFC East with one hand tied behind their backs -- limited help at wide receiver -- but these next three games will clearly define their season. They visit a solid Vikings team and then have home games against the Colts and Jets. The Vikings looked great last week against the Seahawks. Brad Johnson was sharp, Chester Taylor had a career day at running back and the defense was energized and aggressive. Knowing he's going to have to rely more on the run this season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick will need some good schemes to work against the Vikings' run defense. Teams are averaging only 2.5 yards a rush in the middle of the line going against defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams. The Patriots have a great running attack but may be forced to take runs to the outside. The interesting injury to follow this week is Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour. He's the Patriots' best defensive player, but he hurt his elbow last Sunday. The Patriots guard their injuries like government secrets. Seymour did some things in practice to hint the injury isn't bad, but only the Patriots know for sure. The Patriots need Seymour on the field to be a good defense, particularly in a key Monday night road game.
8. Baltimore Ravens at New Orleans Saints
Brian Billick had a bye week to make his offensive adjustments after the firing of offensive coordinator Jim Fassel. Now the pressure is on him to bring excitement to an offense that ranks 28th and is scoring only 18.3 points per game. In Baltimore, fans won't look at the Saints' 5-1 record and give Billick much slack. This is a game the Ravens must win even if it's on the road against the league's surprise team, and the offense has to look better. Steve McNair is back at quarterback despite a sore neck from a hard hit by the Panthers two weeks ago. The Saints have surprised everyone this season. They play well emotionally at home. Their defense has been a surprising 13th in the league. How will Billick open up the Ravens' offense? You know he had to have some ideas when he made the change to put everything on his shoulders. He's a coach who had a 500-point season in Minnesota. He can't be too conservative now because so much of the spotlight is on him. It should make for an interesting show.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars at Philadelphia Eagles
Jack Del Rio is a smart coach. He sees the season slipping away faster than expected. His defense has struggled because of injuries. He's lost defensive end Reggie Hayward and linebacker Mike Peterson for the season and hasn't had defensive tackle Marcus Stroud for the past couple of weeks because of an ankle injury. Safety Deon Grant struggled and was benched for a half. But his concern has carried over to offense, and being three games behind the Colts, he can't afford to fool around. He's contemplating a change at quarterback. Byron Leftwich played with an ankle injury last week and looked like he was stuck in cement. Del Rio doesn't have the luxury of being nice to his starting quarterback. He has to get wins, and if that means benching Leftwich for a week for David Garrard, so be it. Garrard is getting half the snaps this week while Del Rio watches Leftwich's mobility. The Eagles still can't believe they are losing so many close games. Last week's last-second loss to the Bucs still causes them to shake their heads. They've blown three fourth-quarter leads in the past six games despite having an aggressive defense and Donovan McNabb being as sharp as ever.
6. Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs
All of the sudden, the Seahawks' season has hit the crisis stage. Seneca Wallace has to take over at quarterback for the next three games while Matt Hasselbeck recovers from a medial collateral knee injury. But those aren't the only problems for the Seahawks. They still haven't successfully filled the left guard position after the departure of Steve Hutchinson. Chris Spencer tried, but he's sharing time in practice this week with rookie Rob Sims. Shaun Alexander is a week away from returning to the starting lineup. The defense has given up 18 pass plays of 20 yards or longer and Mike Holmgren made a change in his secondary, benching Michael Boulware at safety for Jordan Babineaux. The Chiefs have won three of their past four games with backup Damon Huard at the helm and seem to be gaining some momentum. Larry Johnson looks as though he's going to start getting hot at running back. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is coming off his best game of the season. Herman Edwards is starting to establish an identity with his new team. The Seahawks may be picking the wrong week to visit Kansas City.
Seeing Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson go against Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall might be the best show of the day. The two have been playfully jawing at each other since the Pro Bowl. Johnson struck the first salvo by calling the Atlanta corner DeAngelo Fall, and promised a two-touchdown game against him. Hall will spend the next several days verbally sparring with his friend. Both will be talking trash to each other during the game. Johnson had been quiet until late. He's been banged up and the Bengals have been going with only three healthy receivers. Johnson and his teammates are hoping Marvin Lewis will reinstate wide receiver Chris Henry, who's missed the past three games with team and league suspensions. For the Falcons, it's pretty simple to see why Michael Vick looked better. His timing in passing situations looks so much better out of the shotgun. Even though his stats say he's only about a 50 percent thrower out of the shotgun, that strategy gives him a better chance to time up with his receivers. With injuries starting to mount on the offensive line, Vick may have to stay in the shotgun, which could be dangerous. Everyone knows Vick and the Falcons can run the ball. If Vick can get hot as a thrower, the Falcons will be a big headache for their opposition the rest of the season.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New York Giants
This will be the last time the Barber twins will be on the field together. Tiki Barber is retiring in his prime. Ronde Barber is coming off a two-touchdown game against Donovan McNabb. For the Giants, it's a dangerous game. They exhausted a lot of emotion in their victory over the Cowboys Monday night. They also lost a lot a players to injury. LaVar Arrington blew out his Achilles and was lost for the season. The front seven may be without defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck and linebacker Carlos Emmons. Cornerback Sam Madison has a tight hamstring. The Tampa Bay defense, meanwhile, seemed to regain a little confidence during a two-game homestand in which the Bucs beat the Bengals and the Eagles. Jon Gruden has been doing a nice job of game planning for rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, but his success has been more at home than on the road. Giants Stadium is a difficult venue for the most experienced of quarterbacks.
3. St. Louis Rams at San Diego Chargers
Shawne Merriman can play the next two weeks as if there were no tomorrow. "Tomorrow" for Merriman is a four-game suspension. He'll play the next two games and then have an appeals hearing in New York City. Merriman cares about his public image. He wants to be considered the league's best defensive player. He doesn't like the suspension and even though he has little chance of winning, he's fighting the suspension. But in the meantime, he can try to wreak havoc and that could be bad news for the Rams. With Shaun Phillips out with a calf injury and Steve Foley done for the season, Merriman will draw extra blocking attention, but the pressure will be on him Sunday to have a great game. The Chargers can't afford another loss so this is an important game. They are trying to stay with the Broncos in the AFC West. Philip Rivers has done his part at quarterback. He's completing 66.3 percent of his passes and ranks sixth in the league with a 96.4 quarterback rating. The offense is scoring 29.7 points a game. The Rams are coming off a bye week. They are healthy. All 53 players are on the practice field. Their offensive line will be challenged, though, to stop the Chargers' front seven.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers at Oakland Raiders
The Steelers have to stop talking about turning things around. They have great leadership. They showed that last season when they went to the Super Bowl after a 6-4 start. They have great talent. Bill Cowher is the master motivator. But a fifth loss this early in the season could kill their chances of returning to the Super Bowl. No one expects them to run the table as they did a season ago. If they go 10-6, they have a decent chance of making the playoffs, but that would be hard to do at 2-5. What they can't afford is losing to the Raiders, a team still struggling to find an identity. The Raiders finally got their first victory by beating up on the Cardinals last week. Ben Roethlisberger (concussion) will probably be back at quarterback. The guy's come back from a motorcycle accident and an appendectomy. Chances are he's not going to let a concussion hold him back. He looked good against the Falcons last week before getting hit. He needs to carry over that passing momentum against the Raiders.
1. New York Jets at Cleveland Browns
It's hard to believe the Jets are 4-3. If they win this game, they would be 5-3 heading into the bye week and a meeting with the Patriots after the bye. That's an amazing accomplishment for Eric Mangini, a young coach who truly isn't in over his head at this level. In fact, the Jets have been playing over their heads. Sure, the easy schedule has helped them, but they were supposed to be the easy win for the four teams they've beaten. Mangini's schemes have been sound, and he's been able to experiment with a lot of different roster combinations to get the team to this level. Conversely, Romeo Crennel is still trying to find the right combination in Cleveland. Cleveland fans aren't patient. But they are going to have to be patient with this Browns team. Quarterback Charlie Frye is a work in progress. The defense can't stop the run. This is the type of game the Browns need to win. If not, it's going to be a long, cold winter.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
16hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo