Commentary

McNabb, T.O. provide compelling backdrop to prime-time showdown

In a weekend full of rivalry games, the Monday night matchup between the Eagles and Cowboys -- thanks largely to the McNabb vs. T.O. backdrop -- is clearly the headliner, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: September 11, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Donovan McNabb and Terrell OwensGetty Images/US PresswireBoth Donovan McNabb, left, and Terrell Owens have a lot of momentum heading into Monday night.
Welcome to Rivalry Weekend in the NFL.

It doesn't get better than Eagles-Cowboys, Steelers-Browns and Jets-Patriots. Tom Brady's absence thanks to season-ending knee injury will bring the Patriots closer to their AFC East rivals. The Jets, who acquired Brett Favre on a wild-card whim, suddenly find themselves playing for the division title.

Related
The Patriots and Jets renew ties again Sunday. Learn more about today's rivalries:
Graham: More than a game
• Clayton: Best rivalries
• NFL Nation blog
• FB Today: Green, Clayton
Vote: Best divisionals
Five faded rivalries
• Scouts Take
AFC East Fans
The top Week 2 matchup, though, is on Monday night (ESPN, 8:30 ET). The Cowboys and Eagles probably were the most impressive teams in Week 1. The Cowboys went to Cleveland and blew out the Browns, 28-10. Tony Romo & Co. put up 487 yards of offense on the supposedly improved Browns' defense, making Jessica Simpson and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones proud.

The Eagles did their own offensive bludgeoning in a 38-3 rout of the Rams. Donovan McNabb continued his hot summer by throwing for 361 yards with mostly backup receivers.

Still, when you talk of an Eagles-Cowboys matchup, you can't get away from the nasty reunion of McNabb and Terrell Owens.

It has taken a few years for McNabb to win back the locker room in Philadelphia after Owens fractured it. Owens helped McNabb reach his only Super Bowl (after the 2004 season), but the price was steep. The next season, the two butted heads. Owens picked public fights with the quarterback and forced teammates to pick sides. Although most sided with McNabb, Owens pulled enough support from Eagles players to make life uncomfortable for McNabb in recent years.

To his credit, Owens has rebuilt his image in Dallas. Sure, he's brash with his comments and quick to celebrate his successes. But he clearly has found the quarterback of his liking in Romo. Never in his career has Owens seemed happier in an on-the-field relationship with a quarterback.

The Cowboys headed into the regular-season opener with only two healthy wide receivers, and no one seemed to care because Owens was so happy. Last year, Romo led the league with 191 completions out of two-receiver sets. As long as a happy Owens is one of those receivers, Romo and the Cowboys need little else to crank up their offense.

Although both teams have aggressive, playmaking defenses, this figures to be a high-scoring game that should go down to the end.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns
After finishing in a 10-6 tie with the Steelers atop the AFC North last year, the Browns were left with the bitter taste of missing the playoffs because of their two losses to Pittsburgh. Why is it always the Steelers who seem to break the hearts of Browns fans? Everyone in Cleveland knows that Sunday's game could mean everything for the Browns. They have lost nine straight to the Steelers, and winning in Pittsburgh for the Browns seems as tough as finding a winning scratch ticket in the Ohio Lottery.

A sloppy preseason and a blowout home loss to the Cowboys have Browns fans wondering whether their team entered the season overconfident. What the Browns don't need is the humbling experience of being 0-2 and giving the Steelers another chance for a sweep later in the season. This might be the Browns' biggest early-season game since re-entering the league.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cassel
AP Photo/Robert E. Klein With Matt Cassel now starting at QB, the Patriots need their defense to do the heavy lifting.
2. New England Patriots at N.Y. Jets
Favre was supposed to be a token of hope for Jets fans who thought their team could take a fling at a wild-card berth. Now, thanks to Brady's injury, the Jets have a significant quarterback edge for their showdown against the Patriots. Favre versus Matt Cassel? Advantage, Jets. Oddsmakers have even made the Jets 1½-point favorites.

But in reality, it's Favre versus Bill Belichick. The Patriots' coach is a master at coming up with great game plans. He knows Favre is still learning the Jets' scheme. Knowing that more pressure will fall on his coaching staff because of the loss of Brady, Belichick will rely more on his defense and his own mind to win games.

This is a fascinating showdown. If the Jets ever were to have a chance to catch the Patriots, the time is now. They are at home. They have Favre. Cassel hasn't looked great. The Jets are healthy. New York coach Eric Mangini has a chance to make a statement.

3. San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos
Are the Broncos for real, or were the Raiders simply that bad Monday night? Jay Cutler looked like John Elway. Eddie Royal, the talented second-round rookie, put on a rookie of the year performance, and he did it without the threat of Brandon Marshall on the other side of the field.

The Chargers come to town facing the shocking reality that they could fall two games behind Denver if they lose. This is clearly the best rivalry in the AFC West. The Broncos usually win in Denver, and the Chargers come back later in the season to win at home. But Broncos fell on hard times and are now on a four-game losing streak against the Chargers. Things got a little nasty last season in San Diego. The Chargers thought Cutler and his teammates did a little too much talking, so Philip Rivers and his teammates waved bye-bye to Cutler & Co. as they walked off the field after a failed possession.

4. Indianapolis Colts at Minnesota Vikings
The Colts were uncharacteristically not ready for prime time in their Sunday night Week 1 loss to the Bears. Peyton Manning looked rusty with only one week of prep coming off his knee surgery. The receivers weren't in sync and dropped too many balls. The offensive line struggled without center Jeff Saturday and guard Ryan Lilja. Now, the Colts seem to be going into an urgency mode. Saturday, expected to miss six weeks with a knee injury, surprisingly returned to practice Wednesday and might try to play against the powerful interior of the Vikings' defensive line: tackles Kevin and Pat Williams.

Dwight Freeney and the Colts' defense know they must play with extra frenzy, and there is a hole in the Vikings' offensive line. Artis Hicks, filling in for suspended left tackle Bryant McKinnie, has a shoulder injury. That will force the Vikings to use more two-tight end sets and limit some of the things they might do offensively. Once again, though, the pressure falls on Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to make plays. That didn't happen in the Week 1 loss to the Packers, and he already is hearing criticism.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Stroud
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireFormer Jaguar defensive tackle Marcus Stroud of the Bills will face a depleted Jacksonville offensive line in Week 2.
5. Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars gave up on onetime D-line standout Marcus Stroud and traded him to the Bills. Now, the defensive tackle faces his former team, whose interior offensive line has suffered several injuries. Former backups will attempt to keep Stroud out of the backfield. Jaguars quarterback David Garrard, whom the Titans sacked seven times in Week 1, is coming off the worst physical pounding he can remember, and that might continue if Stroud leads a charge of Bills defenders. Stroud has a lot of friends on the Jaguars, and he can prove a point to Jacksonville's management if he has the upper hand in this game.

6. Chicago Bears at Carolina Panthers: Muhsin Muhammad, who played for the Bears from 2005 to 2007, has found new life on his old team in Carolina. He feels great because Jake Delhomme looks better than ever. Delhomme had Tommy John surgery, but it should be called Nolan Ryan surgery. Delhomme threw fastballs against the Chargers in a Week 1 win. His arm strength seems better than ever. With Panthers receiver Steve Smith suspended for two games, Carolina knew Delhomme would need to lead his team to at least a 1-1 record. A 2-0 start will raise hopes of a playoff run.

The Bears' defense, which had a miserable preseason, showed life in the Week 1 win against the Colts. Lovie Smith's biggest challenge is stopping the one-two running punch of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

7. New Orleans Saints at Washington Redskins: The Redskins have had a long time to linger over their Week 1 Thursday night loss to the Giants. Jim Zorn and Jason Campbell had a tough opener. Campbell didn't get off his throws quickly enough, and Zorn struggled with some of the play-calling. The 10-day gap between games gives the Redskins time to reflect and focus on their next challenge.

The Saints enter the game realizing their offense won't be the same without receiver Marques Colston, who is out four to six weeks after thumb surgery. Colston usually required double coverage. Now the Redskins can turn extra attention to containing Jeremy Shockey or Reggie Bush. The Saints have plenty of weapons to cover for Colston's temporary loss. Still, the first week of making adjustments could give the Redskins a chance to steal a victory.

8. San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks: Could things get any worse for Mike Holmgren's offense? Seattle is down four wide receivers after the season-ending loss of Nate Burleson. Holmgren had to pick two receivers (Samie Parker and Billy McMullen) off the street to get the Seahawks through the next month. Backup quarterback Seneca Wallace is trying to help out with some pass routes. To make matters worse, the offensive line lost right guard Rob Sims for the season. Division games against the 49ers, then the Rams in Week 3 (before a Week 4 bye) are critical for Seattle. As the NFC West favorite, the Seahawks would love to have a 2-0 start in division games. Holmgren must rely on the running game to make it happen.

9. Tennessee Titans at Cincinnati Bengals: Has a victory ever been so lost in controversy? The Titans had a huge win over the Jaguars in Week 1, but the Vince Young story has dominated headlines. Young damaged a knee and his psyche in the game. The knee will take two to four weeks to heal. His emotional state may need a season to heal. Young seemed to space out with the combination of a sore knee and a damaged ego from the booing he took from Titans fans Sunday. Jeff Fisher must keep the focus on winning the next few weeks with Kerry Collins' running the offense. The Bengals just want to do something right. Cincinnati's defense has struggled, and the offense looks terrible. That's not good news, because Carson Palmer & Co. face one of the NFL's most physical defenses this week.

10. Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jeff Garcia isn't himself, so he will sit and Brian Griese will start. That's Jon Gruden's decision after watching Garcia struggle with his throws against the Saints. Garcia has been slowed by calf and ankle problems, but Gruden is trying to make sure his team doesn't start 0-2 in the NFC South.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer