Prime-time stage keeps Rodgers under microscope

9/19/2008 - NFL

Aaron Rodgers gave a preview of coming attractions last fall in a 37-27 Thursday night loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Brett Favre was on the sidelines with an injury for one of the few times in his career. Against an aggressive Cowboys defense, Rodgers moved well in the pocket, completed more than 70 percent of his attempts and kept the Green Bay Packers in the game. That experience was invaluable. It gave Packers management confidence it had hit on a quarterback.

Now, prime time has returned, and Rodgers runs the Packers' offense. On Sunday night, the Cowboys come to Lambeau Field. Favre is gone. Rodgers will have a full game to compete with Tony Romo and
prove he's at the elite quarterback level.

This matchup featuresteams currently considered the best in the NFC. The Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers still are positioning themselves in NFC South. The Arizona Cardinals are rising on the arm of Kurt Warner in the weak NFC West, where the Seattle Seahawks are struggling to find healthy receivers who can catch Matt Hasselbeck's passes.

Coming off their Monday night victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cowboys are considered the team to beat. The Packers, who handled the rival Minnesota Vikings in their season opener, would like to wrestle top honors in the conference from the Cowboys.

Normally, a letdown follows a Monday night game that was that exhausting. The Eagles-Cowboys matchup was one of the best games in years. Both sides played at playoff levels in the 41-37 shootout. Coming back on a short week and trying to match that intensity will be tough for Dallas.

Making matters worse for the Cowboys are injuries. Tight end Jason Witten is attempting to play with a separated shoulder. Fullback Deon Anderson underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and will miss the game. The run defense won't be as strong because safety Roy Williams is out with a broken forearm.

Still, the pressure of this game is on the Packers. Rodgers has eased the worries of Packers fans with two solid performances. He's completing 70 percent of his passes. He hasn't thrown an interception. His quarterback rating is 117.8. Green Bay's offense is scoring 36 points a game.

The Packers' 2-0 start has temporarily quieted Packers fans who were angry to see Favre depart for the New York Jets. They have thrown all their support behind Rodgers and seem to be having a good time. Rodgers is hoping to let the good times roll past Sunday night.

Last year's Packers-Cowboys game was a warm-up act for Rodgers. On Sunday night, he's on center stage.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles: It's hard to call the Steelers and the Eagles rivals because they play each other only once every four years. Plus, they are so different in the ways they are put together. The Steelers are steel-town tough. They run a physical 3-4 defense. Ben Roethlisberger is a big, powerful quarterback who still directs a power running offense. Th
e Eagles have a massive offensive line, but they run the West Coast offense and prefer swing and screen passes to the power inside runs. They have a 4-3 defense built on speed.

The one thing these teams have in common is the blitz, and their schemes are some of the most elaborate in the sport.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is the guru of the zone blitz, which was designed to stop the West Coast offense. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson keeps quarterbacks guessing by bringing blitzers from all directions. This creates a game of human chess. The Eagles showed against the Cowboys they have a playoff-worthy team. The Steelers look like championship contenders, despite playing the league's toughest schedule. This should be fun.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts: In normal circumstances, Jack Del Rio would have a simple game plan for this desperation game against the Colts. Colts safety Bob Sanders is out for four to six weeks with a high ankle sprain. Without their top run-stopper and defensive player of the year, the Colts should be vulnerable to the run. After all, they currently are giving up 181.5 rushing yards a game.

Del Rio's problem is the interior of his offensive line. The Jaguars have lost three interior offensive line starters, and opponents are limiting them to 65.5 rushing yards a game. More pressure is being put on quarterback David Garrard, who has been hit more than ever and is making uncharacteristic turnovers.

Colts QB
Peyton Manning is having a hard time executing his play-action game because injuries to the Colts' offensive line have eliminated the running threats. But all the pressure is on the Jaguars, who can't afford to drop to 0-3.

3. New Orleans Saints at Denver Broncos: There is no truth to the rumors that the winner of this game will be crowned the Arena League champ. Still, everyone expects a high-scoring affair.
The Saints and the Broncos rank 28th and 29th, respectively, in pass defense, and the game features two of the hottest quarterbacks in the league, Drew Brees of the Saints and Jay Cutler of the Broncos.

Saints coach Sean Payton has been juggling cornerbacks because of injuries, but even at full strength, New Orleans' secondary doesn't match up well against Broncos receivers Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal.

The Saints are missing go-to receiver Marques Colston, but they still have the explosiveness of RB Reggie Bush and the steady middle-of-the-field threat of TE Jeremy Shockey. Expect big offensive numbers in this one.

4. Carolina Panthers at Minnesota Vikings: Coach Brad Childress made a desperate move in benching struggling QB Tarvaris Jackson, but he had to do something to save the Vikings' season. Childress' next challenge is keeping 37-year-old Gus Frerotte upright as the team's starting quarterback. Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers is matched up against fill-in left tackle Artis Hicks. Peppers is smart enough to know a tight end will be attached to Hick's left hip for blocking support and there probably will be a running back hanging behind in case Peppers slips through double-team blocking.

Carolina coach John Fox's toughest assignment in this game is figuring out how to operate his running offense. It's hard to run up the middle against Vikings defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. The Panthers average 128 yards a game on the ground with the one-two punch of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but both might be running into walls trying to hit those inside runs.

5. N.Y. Jets at San Diego Chargers: Once he gets to the stadium Monday night, Chargers coach Norv Turner needs to make sure the replay machine is functioning and inadvertent whistles aren't heard. Officials blew the Week 2 game against the Broncos, so the Chargers enter this game with an 0-2 record and a sense of urgency. Their week schedule can be an aid as long as the Chargers take advantage of the opportunities. After the Jets, the Chargers' next two games are against the Dolphins and the Raiders, teams that combined to go 5-27 in 2007. That gives San Diego a chance to take a 3-2 record into its Week 6 game against the Patriots.

Favre is still shaking his head over this past weekend's loss to the Patriots. The Jets didn't take enough offensive chances and fell short of victory. The Chargers' defense, which is off to a slow start, can't allow Favre to get confidence in New York's ability to get the ball downfield.

6. Arizona Cardinals at Washington Redskins: Could this be the Cardinals' year? They are 2-0. Dating to last season, Warner has been the league's top quarterback. That's right -- in the second half of last season, he was just as hot as Tom Brady. Over his past eight games, Warner is averaging more than 300 passing yards a game.

Warner has yet to commit a turnover this season, but the Redskins present a tough challenge. Road trips usually are tough for the Cards, who haven't won more than two road games in any season since 1998. Since then, they've compiled a 16-57 road record. To counter that, coach Ken Whisenhunt is keeping the team on the road after this game because Arizona plays at the Jets in Week 4. The Cards are fighting the odds, but they are doing it with a quarterback who has beaten the odds for years.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Chicago Bears: Bears defensive players couldn't be more delighted. They can't believe Bucs coach Jon Gruden benched the mobile Jeff Garcia for Brian Griese. Garcia was a Pro Bowler last season. Griese had been a Bears backup until he was traded to the Bucs for a sixth-round draft choice. Maybe they are being overconfident, but the Bears want a six-sack day against Griese. It's not that they don't like him, but they don't think he has the agility to avoid their aggressive pass rush. Still, it will be an embarrassment for the Bears if Griese plays well and drops them to 1-2.

8. Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers: The Lions fired offensive coordinator Mike Martz because he didn't run the ball enough. Martz improved Detroit's offense three points a game in each of his two years in Detroit, but his pedestrian running game supposedly put too much pressure on the Lions' defense, which went from 21 points a game allowed to 27 points a game over the past two seasons.

The Lions' plan this year was to run the ball more to take pressure off the defense. Here are the results. The Lions are averaging 25 fewer yards a game on the ground because they trail in games. The defense ranks 31st, giving up 460.5 yards and 41 points a game. Martz, now offensive coordinator of the 49ers, might try to give Frank Gore 30 carries just to rub it in.

9. Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens: Suddenly, the thrill of the Browns' 10-win Cinderella run last season is turning into a nightmare. They lost their first two home games and haven't played well in any game, including the preseason. The pressure is building, and the injuries are mounting. Well rested and healthier after a surprise bye week because of Hurricane Ike, the Ravens would love to put the Browns at 0-3 and in crisis mode.

10. St. Louis Rams at Seattle Seahawks:
New Rams kicker Josh Brown expects a hostile reception at Qwest Field. Although he was known for consistently making the big kick at home, he left in free agency without giving the Seahawks a chance to bid on him. That angered fans. In the meantime, the Seahawks kept Olindo Mare and rookie Brandon Coutu to replace Brown, which seems strange because they're cutting corners at other positions to fill out their depleted receiving corps.

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