- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "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 2005 season.
Coach Andy Reid of the Eagles is at an interesting crossroads this season. The Eagles are 4-2 in the very competitive NFC East. Donovan McNabb is playing with a sports hernia that will require surgery after the season. But his run-to-pass ratio is all out of whack. The Eagles are throwing an incredible 73.4 percent of the time. Reid is calling only 18 running plays a game, and he's a got a running back (Brian Westbrook) complaining about his lack of carries.
Will the Eagles become more ground-oriented in the Mile High City? No one is holding his breath, but it's an interesting subplot for Sunday's game between the Eagles and the Broncos. Reid vows to be more balanced, but as a play caller, he has to react to the feel of the game.
Some of it might be directly tied to McNabb's injuries. It's taking McNabb longer to get going in the first quarter of games. Though his first-quarter numbers (36 of 61 for 422 yards) aren't bad, he's struggling in the opening series. He's had six three-and-outs and an interception in the first two possessions of games. In those possessions, he's completing only 40 percent of his passes.
The slow starts have put the Eagles into early comeback mode several times. They have been outscored 48-14 in first quarters, forcing more passes. Plus, the sports hernia has taken McNabb out of the running game. He's had 14 runs for 8 yards in six games. Last year he ran 41 times for 220 yards.
But can the Eagles' running offense get jump-started on the road in Denver? The Broncos have a good defense. They are giving up 89.6 yards a game on the ground. They are used to leading in first quarters, outscoring opponents 33-20 in seven games. Plus, other than Champ Bailey, the Broncos are using a group of young, small cornerbacks that the Eagles will be tempted to throw against.
It also will be interesting to see what game plan the Eagles will come up with to try to stop the Broncos' running game. Last week, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson came up with a magnificent blitzing package to throttle Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Often, he overloaded one side of the blocking scheme with an extra rusher and contained Tomlinson all day.
The Broncos haven't been forced into games in which they needed to pass much. Run blitzes may put the Broncos in a position to throw more than 26 times, something coach Mike Shanahan prefers not to do.
After a season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins, Shanahan took some of the air out of the Broncos' football, and they've become a smarter offense.
Jake Plummer relied more on the legs of Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell instead of his arm. The Broncos tried throwing less than 26 passes a game, and their win total rose dramatically. The Broncos won five straight and had a 13-point lead on the road Sunday against an improved Giants team. But by now, everyone knows how that game ended -- an Eli Manning-led rally and a New York victory.
This game will be an interesting chess match of great offensive and defensive minds.
And 10. Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots (ESPN, Sunday, 8:30 ET) | Scouting report This could have been a bigger Sunday night game if the Bills had a better record, but it's still an interesting matchup. First, Tedy Bruschi is back for the Patriots. All signs point to his being on the field, although no one knows for how long. He's coming off a mild stroke and a heart problem during the offseason. Everyone but Bruschi and the doctors he consulted thought he would wait until next season. There couldn't be a more emotional return to inspire the crowd. Bruschi's absence was noticeable on the Patriots' defense. The Pats haven't had good play at inside linebacker, particularly against the run, during the first six games. Richard Seymour's two-game absence because of a knee injury locked the Patriots into a 3-4, even though they have shown signs of being better in a 4-3. In their last game against the Broncos, the Patriots had to use Mike Vrabel as an inside linebacker for the first time in his career. Even though the Bills are 3-4, this game is huge because they are about the only thing that can challenge the Patriots in the AFC East. The Dolphins and Jets are falling. The Bills are regrouping their offense around backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb. Patriots halfback Corey Dillon is having trouble shaking an ankle injury, which could be a break for the Bills' defense. The Bills' defense continues to have trouble stopping the run, though it shouldn't be too much of a surprise. They let defensive tackle Pat Williams go in the offseason in free agency and they lost fellow tackle Ron Edwards and linebacker Takeo Spikes for the season. Sam Adams is getting extra attention and is bothered by sore shoulders. Overall, the Bills are giving up 159 yards a game on the ground. Despite the Bills' record, though, this should be a dandy.
9. Washington Redskins at New York Giants | Scouting report The NFC East is exciting but a little bit strange this season. In a division featuring Reid, Tom Coughlin, Bill Parcells and Joe Gibbs, you'd expect a lot of balanced offenses. The Eagles are throwing the ball almost three-quarters of the time and the Giants are throwing 58.6 percent of the time. The Redskins got a little bit more balanced last week and brought their percentage down to 53.3, but Mark Brunell is dropping back to pass 37 times a game, which seems like a lot. Still, these NFC East games are fascinating and should make for great drama as the season continues. The Giants have been tough to beat at home. Sure, their defense is challenged against the pass. They are giving up 295.8 yards a game through the air, which must drive Coughlin crazy. The Redskins love to max protect and send only Santana Moss and David Patten into routes, a strategy that has worked all year. Gibbs went with Moss and Patten because of their speed and downfield ability. The max protection has bought Brunell time to get the ball to those receivers, and their run-after-the-catch ability has given the passing offense more big plays. Giants cornerbacks either have to stay with their coverages longer and better or it could be a tough day. On the flip side, the Redskins have a lot of defensive tackle injuries, which forced them into a 3-4 last week. Linebacker LaVar Arrington responded with his first great game in a long time. The winner will be atop the NFC East at 5-2 in what figures to be a hot race over the next two months.
8. Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers | Scouting report The Chiefs couldn't feel better about life. Last Thursday, they went to the practice field knowing there was a chance to jump on the plane the next day and head to Miami for a football game moved up because of Hurricane Wilma. Things couldn't have gone better. The Chiefs won the game and earned two extra days of rest and more time to prepare for this crucial AFC West game. The Chiefs turned adversity into a benefit. The Chargers, meanwhile, can't catch a break. They are already in the midst of a schedule in which they play four of five teams that had a bye week to prepare for them. Philadelphia's extra time cost them because Johnson came up with a great game plan to stop Tomlinson. He had 7 yards on 17 carries against Eagles run blitzes. The Chiefs have had extra time to study that game plan and see what they might use. For the Chargers, this game is crucial. A fifth loss could virtually kill any chances of getting a wild-card playoff berth. Easy schedules should give the Bengals and Jaguars 10 or 11 wins, and a fifth loss by the Chargers through October would make it impossible for them to catch those teams in the final two months. The Chargers just want to get to .500, try to beat the Jets next week and get to their own bye week at 5-4.
7. Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions | Scouting report Hey, this game is highly referenced only because it settles a first-place tie. Somebody has to win the NFC North, so why not one of these two teams? The Bears won the first meeting 38-6 in Week 2. Of course, that was during the Joey Harrington era. That mistake-filled loss started to seal the eventual fate of the doomed quarterback. Now Jeff Garcia is in charge. With his leadership alone, the Lions squeaked out a road victory over Cleveland. It's the only road win for an NFC North squad. That's right, NFC North teams are usually considered road kill. The Bears clearly have the best defense in the division, and that isn't anything to laugh about. They are also hitting the Lions at a good time. The Lions are without their best two cornerbacks, their best three wide receivers and might not have defensive tackle Shaun Rogers healthy enough to play. With rookie Kyle Orton at quarterback, the Bears aren't going to vary from their game plan. They are going to run Thomas Jones, even though he's fighting through a multi-week knee injury. If the Bears win, suddenly it's starting to look like it could become their division to lose.
6. Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (ABC, Monday, 9 ET) | Scouting report When the season opened, this looked like a sure bet to be one of the best Monday night games of the year. The Ravens were supposed to make a Super Bowl run coming off their 9-7 season in 2004. The Ravens have disappointed. Kyle Boller got hurt, and the passing offense is just trying to get by with backup Anthony Wright. The offensive line has been a big disappointment. Jamal Lewis can't get the running game going. Now the Ravens' defense, which ranks second in the NFL, heads into Pittsburgh without its best two players: free safety Ed Reed and linebacker Ray Lewis. These two teams are physical teams, so hitting should be intense. The problem for the Ravens is they will be more prone to make turnovers, something that will be fatal in a road game in Pittsburgh. The Steelers look even stronger as a team than their 15-1 squad in 2004 even though their record isn't going to be as good. The Steelers' formula works perfectly. They pound the ball with the running game and great blocking. Willie Parker has added a different element to the running game with his quickness and elusiveness, but this is an AFC North game, so expect to see more of Jerome Bettis. Parker might be fast, but these are games for The Bus.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars at St. Louis Rams | Scouting report Interim coach Joe Vitt has to settle into his job for the remainder of the season now that Mike Martz is taking off the final nine games because of his heart infection. Vitt has done great work. He motivated the team to jump to a 17-0 start against the Colts, even though Indy eventually won. The Rams won an emotional game last week against the Saints. Once again, Vitt doesn't get the full benefits of being the Rams coach. He won't have Marc Bulger, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Leonard Little, four Pro Bowl-caliber player. That should give the big edge to the Jaguars in what appears to be a playoff season. Still, this could be a trap game for them, as the Saints found out last week. The Rams are still tough at home and their offense has enough talent to score points. They will need more running from Steven Jackson to get moving, and the Jaguars have been spotty at best against the run. They've had bad games stopping the run, which is a surprise for a defense based around defensive tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. The Jaguars are giving up 120.8 yards a game on the ground. The Jaguars still do things on defense at a playoff level because they are giving up only 16.8 points a game and have victories over the Steelers and Bengals. For whatever reason, though, they can't get their offense to score more points. They are averaging 18 points a game, and if they don't get more than that against the Rams, they'll have a tough time winning.
4. Green Bay Packers at Cincinnati Bengals | Scouting report The Bengals have to put aside the frustrations of being overpowered by the Steelers last week and get back to business. They can't look back. Their schedule is one of the easiest in football. If no one emerges in the NFC North with a winning record, the Bengals could have as many as 11 games against losing teams. They are 5-0 against losing teams so far. They have this game and next week's game against Baltimore before the bye, and the Bengals aren't going to apologize for being 7-2 if they can win both. Still, coach Marvin Lewis has to worry about a letdown. The Packers come to town without Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport and Javon Walker, who are out for the season. Robert Ferguson is out for a month. Brett Favre has played an incredible month of football, but can that continue when he's throwing to a double-covered Donald Driver, two tight ends and a bunch of training camp receivers? Carson Palmer's streak of nine straight games in which he had a passer rating of 100 or better ended against the Steelers last week. He might want to put on a show against the Favre.
3. Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys | Scouting report These teams met in the preseason, and the Cardinals looked like the better club. The Cardinals' defense was flying. Kurt Warner seemed to be in control of the offense. The Cowboys were still adjusting to Drew Bledsoe at quarterback and problems at the right tackle position. Plus, the defense was adjusting to a 3-4. What a difference a couple of months have made. The Cowboys are a 4-3 team that shows playoff ability. The Cardinals, well, look like the Cardinals. Injuries have devastated the Cards, who have had to put 11 players on injured reserve this year. Josh McCown continues to start over Warner, who is coming off a groin injury. While the defense is playing OK, it's not at the level everyone thought it would be in what has turned into a typical 2-4 Cardinals season. The Cowboys' defense looks great. The 3-4 has been a big success. In five of the Cowboys' seven games, opponents have scored less than 20 points. The baffling thing is how the Cowboys have lost three games. The problem has been the fourth quarter. Teams are getting a third of their yards against the Cowboys in the fourth quarter. They gave up two touchdown passes to the Redskins in the final four minutes of one game. Last week, they gave up 10 points in 40 seconds to the Seahawks. Parcells needs to work on the big finish.
2. Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers | Scouting report The Panthers are worried because they know teams that make big comebacks for wins in the previous week are dangerous. The Vikings came back from a 17-0 deficit against the Packers last week and won 23-20 in a dramatic game. Daunte Culpepper threw for 280 yards and didn't have an interception, but the offense still has to stop the fumbles. What the Vikings can't afford to do is get off to a bad start on the road. Their first quarters have been decent. They've outscored opponents 24-21 in the fourth quarter. The second quarters have been unbelievably bad. They've been outscored 77-10. If that trend continues, it will be hard for them to win any road games. Fall behind in Carolina and the Panthers will wear down the defense with running plays. Stephen Davis is pounding the ball well. The offensive line is rested from the bye week.
1. Oakland Raiders at Tennessee Titans | Scouting report LaMont Jordan was right in one sense. He needed more than 20 carries to get going. His two 20-plus carry games have resulted in more than 100 yards in each contest and have been part of the team's two victories. But the Raiders haven't won on the road. The Titans are the NFL's youngest team and they get Steve McNair back after missing a game with a back injury. The Titans knew heading into this season this was going to be a long year. They have so many young players on defense, it was going to take until November to settle down. The numbers aren't bad, though. They rank 13th overall giving up 306.7 yards a game, but it's the points allowed (25.7) that is killing the team. The Raiders scored 38 last week against the Bills, but a lot of people weren't happy the Raiders went for a score instead of kneeling down toward the end. Norv Turner wanted to get his team in the habit of scoring. After averaging 20 points a game last year, the Raiders, despite the additions of Randy Moss and Jordan, had averaged just 18 points through their first five contests. The late touchdown against Buffalo jacked up their scoring offense to 21.3. Moss played through three injuries to be on the field and was available for 14 snaps against the Bills. The defense has some worries. It lost Charles Woodson and Derrick Gibson and now has to go with one of the youngest secondaries in football, maybe even younger than the Titans'.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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