Physical secondary gives Skins fighting chance
Before the Patriots set their sights on the Colts in Week 9, they have to deal with a Redskins team that's capable of causing a lot of problems, writes John Clayton.
Success is becoming more challenging for coach Bill Belichick.
He won three Super Bowls preaching the team concept. His players still completely buy into the concept and are positioning themselves for a fourth ring. The Patriots are 7-0 and everyone is jumping onto their bandwagon.
The latest supporters are the oddsmakers. For Sunday's game against the Redskins, the oddsmakers are installing the Patriots as 16½ point favorites. That's right, 16½ points. Thanks to Jason Campbell's development as a quarterback and coach Joe Gibbs' recommitment to being a running team, the 4-2 Redskins are an NFC playoff contender.
To be treated like Temple going against Ohio State is a great motivating tool for Gibbs, a Hall of Fame coach. Making it worse is that most NFL observers outside the Patriots' organization are looking past the Redskins game to New England's Week 9 showdown against the Colts, perhaps the most anticipated regular-season game since the start of the millennium.
Each morning, Belichick must load up a dozen "We're focused on the Redskins" answers for his news conferences. He's having enough trouble getting the world to stop focusing on the individual and offensive records the Patriots could break.
Even though he believes his team is focused on the task at hand, Belichick knows Sunday could be a trap game. The Redskins are good, and they are physical. They may not have the best secondary in football, but they present a lot of headaches for the Patriots coach.
Gibbs can line up former high first-round picks against the Patriots' talented group of receivers. Shawn Springs and Carlos Rogers are first-round corners still in their prime. Fred Smoot is a second-round choice working as the third corner.
Mobile, physical safeties LaRon Landry and Sean Taylor present other problems. Taylor lost a lot of weight and leads the league with five interceptions. Landry has enough range to be a force against the run and help out in coverage.
The big fear for Belichick is how physical the Redskins will be with his receivers. The Patriots' receivers haven't faced a lot of bump-and-run man coverage. And because Brady has been so accurate, New England's receivers have received very few hits in the middle of the field.
As much as Belichick wants to win the game, he doesn't want to come out of it with a banged-up team. Despite what the oddsmakers think, Belichick has to be a little worried about the Skins.
Here are 10 more key Week 8 matchups:
1. Indianapolis at Carolina: Even though coach Tony Dungy is 6-0 for a third straight year, he has to thank the Patriots for letting his Colts slip under the radar. Indianapolis is the defending Super Bowl champ, but the NFL world is talking Patriots. Like Belichick, though, Dungy must make sure his Colts focus on the trip to Carolina and not the Week 9 showdown against the Patriots.The Panthers, who surprisingly will start Vinny Testaverde at quarterback, can't be too insulted by being seven-point underdogs, even though they're playing at home. For whatever reason, the Panthers stunk it up at home in losses to the Texans and Bucs. Carolina coach John Fox must find a way to get Julius Peppers' pass-rush going in this game.
2. Jacksonville at Tampa Bay: The Jaguars embark on a three-game road trip with Quinn Gray as their starting quarterback. David Garrard will be out for a month with a high-ankle sprain. If Gray takes the Jaguars into a four-game losing streak, Jack Del Rio could be in trouble.
By the time Garrard gets back, the season could be over for Jacksonville. Apparently, Del Rio didn't get the memo about having a solid backup ready in case of injury. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden learned from seeing how the loss of Chris Simms last year turned a promising season into a 4-12 mess.
3. Detroit at Chicago: Rod Marinelli has turned around the Lions' fortunes. Players like him. The hiring of Mike Martz as offensive coordinator has struck fear into opposing defensive coordinators and excited Lions fans.His next challenge is improving team energy on the road. The Lions' defense comes out sluggish on the road. The Lions surrendered 90 points in the last two road losses to teams that average 19 to 20 points a game. This trip to Chicago will be a defining moment, though. The Bears are fighting to climb back in the NFC North race despite injuries and a shaky offense. A Bears victory would get them to .500 and thinking they are shaking the Super Bowl losers jinx.
4. Green Bay at Denver: Despite the 5-1 start, critics continue to harp on the Packers' inability to run the ball. They let the offseason and the trade deadline slide by without finding any new running back options. Now there is a chance they could give Ryan Grant a little bit more playing time in the backfield.The dangerous part about this Monday night game is that the Packers can't take advantage of the Broncos' inability to stop the run. Brett Favre is feeling the effects of Green Bay's struggling running game. Each week it's becoming increasingly tougher for him to go downfield. Defenses can stay in Cover 2 the entire game because they don't have to commit an eighth defender to stop the Packers' running attack. Favre is having a phenomenal year. It will be compelling watching him throw against cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Dre Bly.
5. Houston at San Diego: The Chargers have every incentive to play their best game of the season. The California wildfires were a week-long distraction, forcing more than two dozen players to evacuate their homes and the entire organization move to Phoenix. Now, the worst appears to be over. The team regrouped and had good practices in Phoenix and wants to give the Chargers fans a show.That's probably not good for Texans quarterback Matt Schaub. The guy is beat up. Along with a badly bruised hip, he has a sore ankle and an aching thigh. Now he understands what Carr went through for five years. A two-game winning streak has renewed the Chargers' spirits. The trade for Chris Chambers added more substance to their offense. The adversity of this week could have rallied them as a team and organization.
6. Philadelphia at Minnesota: Brad Childress learned a lot from Eagles head coach Andy Reid when he worked for him as an assistant. They went to four NFC title games together, including one trip to the Super Bowl. The relationship and the success turned Childress into the first choice for the Vikings' head-coaching choice last year.
Football can be a cruel world. Either Childress or Reid will put a dagger into the other's season. Both teams are 2-4. A fifth loss might not kill the playoff hopes of the loser, but it sure will make it hard to bounce back.
Donovan McNabb continues to struggle with the Eagles' offense, which is averaging only 19.3 points. Childress put his faith in Tarvaris Jackson, but his injuries are getting as scary as his low completion percentage. Now, he has a broken index finger that will hurt his throwing. Expect Kelly Holcomb to start, which would make it tougher for Eagles fans to handle a loss to the Vikings. Reid traded Holcomb to the Vikings before the start of the regular season.
7. Pittsburgh at Cincinnati: If rumors of an offseason trade of Chad Johnson aren't extinguished soon, Bengals fans might start to revolt. Clearly, the Bengals couldn't have thought it was going to take just one season to clean up some of the selfishness and behavior in the locker room. Until this year, they brought in a lot of players with questionable character.
Trading Johnson would be a huge mistake. Sure, he's selfish, but he's popular among his teammates and he's fun for the fans. Injuries have forced QB Carson Palmer to work without a legitimate three-receiver offense the first half of the season and his best runner, Rudi Johnson, for a couple games. The Steelers are coming off a tough loss on the road to the Broncos, so they could use a divisional rivalry to refuel their tanks.
8. Buffalo at N.Y. Jets: Talk about meaningless honors. The battle for second place in the AFC East is about as anonymous as being the backups to Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Brett Favre. At 2-4, the Bills trail the Patriots by 4 1/2 games. If the Jets lose and fall to 1-7, they could be officially eliminated from the AFC East race by Week 9.
Whether he was right or wrong, Bills coach Dick Jauron has hitched his wagon to rookie QB Trent Edwards for he rest of the season. Unless Edwards stumbles, J.P. Losman probably will be traded after the season.
Jets head coach Eric Mangini is within a week or two of making a similar move. Chad Pennington is barely holding on to his starting job. One bad quarter or one bad half will bring Kellen Clemens off the bench to show his skills.
9. New Orleans at San Francisco: 49ers QB Alex Smith is trying to play with a separated shoulder. The Saints are trying to recover from a dislocated start. Sounds like compelling drama in San Francisco.
Smith has a third-degree separation. Players are giving offensive coordinator Jim Hostler the third degree for his questionable play-calling. The 49ers are averaging only 13 points and 213.8 yards a game on offense.Despite an 0-4 start, there is hope in New Orleans. The Saints have won two in a row. Their closing schedule against teams with a combined record of 26-40 is one of the easiest in the league. Saints head coach Sean Payton has done a nice job of finding ways for Reggie Bush to use his running skills in the past couple of weeks.
10. N.Y. Giants at Miami (in London): Football fans in Europe thought they were getting a regular-season game. Instead, they get a "friendly.'' The Dolphins come to town with an 0-7 record, a lemon at quarterback (Cleo Lemon) and no Ronnie Brown at halfback.Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who was almost run out of New York for being too stern, brings a 5-2 team to London. He's become more likable to his players. A 6-2 start would even make him even more friendly.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.