Commentary

Early NFC showdown could determine Bears' fate in 2007

Things remain unsettled for the 1-1 Bears, who face their first major NFC test when they play host to the Cowboys on Sunday, John Clayton writes.

Updated: September 22, 2007, 12:12 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Opening in San Diego, the Bears weren't given any favors by the schedule-makers. Although Chicago stayed with the Chargers for three quarters, the Bears lost a low-scoring game and two defensive starters (Mike Brown, Dusty Dvoracek) to season-ending injuries.

But a loss to a top AFC team won't destroy the Bears. The real pressure for Chicago begins Sunday night when it hosts Dallas in a game that could determine whether the Bears will repeat as NFC champs.

Things remain unsettled in Chicago. Players still support quarterback Rex Grossman, but fans seem to believe the team wins despite his inconsistent play. Although it's early, the Bears' offense has regressed dramatically. Chicago is averaging just 11.5 points, about half as much as last season. Cedric Benson continues to get off to slow starts in the first half as the lead running back, and Grossman's numbers are weak. He is averaging a puny 4.46 yards an attempt, and Chicago's time of possession is one of the NFL's worst at 27 minutes, 59 seconds a game.

Terrell Owens
Joel Auerbach/US PresswireChicago must keep a close eye on Dallas' Terrell Owens, who is averaging 23 yards a catch.

Hope is on the way if tight end Greg Olsen, coming off knee surgery, makes his NFL debut. Chicago hopes the tall, speedy tight end from the University of Miami can stretch the field and pull a safety away from the line of scrimmage, opening running lanes for Benson and taking pressure off Grossman. It's possible offensive coordinator Ron Turner was waiting for Olsen's return to get Devin Hester into the game in packages with him. Hester has hardly been seen as a wide receiver in the first two games. Wide receiver Bernard Berrian, who has 10 catches for 148 yards, is the only big threat on offense so far.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys continue to excite. Whenever Tony Romo is on the field, the Cowboys seem to score. Romo completed 65.3 percent of his passes last season for an offense that averaged 26.6 points. With receiver Terry Glenn sidelined with a knee injury, Romo's completion percentage has dropped off more than 10 points, but Dallas has scored a league-high 82 points. Romo is willing to take chances downfield, but he does so without risking interceptions. Terrell Owens seems content with the scheme and hasn't been a distraction. Obviously, the Bears must figure how to slow him.

The weird part of this game is that both quarterbacks are playing for contracts. Romo has all but convinced Jerry Jones that he is the quarterback of the present and future. The more he plays, the more he potentially earns. Grossman has Bears fans wondering whether the team will make a play for Donovan McNabb after the season in a trade -- if he's available.

1. Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: It appears the Texans did the right thing in acquiring Matt Schaub from Atlanta. Although he hasn't had the impact that Drew Brees had last season in New Orleans, Schaub is pretty close. He's the right fit because of good coaching. Gary Kubiak is growing as a young head coach, and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman does a great job. He is re-establishing himself as a potential head coach.

But just when you thought it was safe to embrace the Texans, they lose wide receiver Andre Johnson with a knee injury. Johnson, who has 14 catches for 262 yards three touchdowns, is the passing offense, but he'll miss this game. The rest of the team has 22 catches for 190 yards and no touchdowns. The Texans went into the season knowing they would probably have to wait until next year's draft to find a receiver good enough to pair with Johnson. Now, they must pull Andre Davis off last week's inactive list and hope he or Kevin Walter will be the No. 1 wide receiver.

Clearly, Schaub's safety net will get getting the ball to Ahman Green on swing and screen passes and to tight end Owen Daniels. Expect a dramatic dropoff in Schaub's yards per attempt of 9.04. Also expect the surprising Colts defense to keep safety Bob Sanders near the line of scrimmage to help stop the run and force Schaub to try to win the game through the air. The Texans beat the Colts last season by running the ball and keeping Peyton Manning off the field. Without Johnson, that might be tough.

2. San Francisco 49ers at Pittsburgh Steelers: The 49ers are 2-0, but few are embracing them. They have five new starters on defense, but the offense is unsettled. The loss of offensive coordinator Norv Turner has hurt, but Mike Nolan thought he had enough talent to get by. The 49ers sit near the bottom of NFL offensive stats and some players are frustrated. Tight end Vernon Davis has complained publicly about not getting the ball and talked with Nolan about his lack of involvement in the offense.

Alex Smith has been great in closing games, but he's done little before that. He's barely generating enough first downs to keep the offense on the field. The 49ers average just 52.5 offensive plays and are generating only 99.5 net passing yards a game. In a town that boasts Barry Bonds, Smith been a singles hitter. Expect the Steelers, who cruised against the Browns and Bills, to gear the defense to stop running back Frank Gore.

3. San Diego Chargers at Green Bay Packers: The Chargers, embarrassed in New England, can't afford a repeat. This is a pressure game for Norv Turner, who hasn't pushed the right buttons with the Chargers' offense, although no one expected the numbers to be pretty with opening games against the Bears and Patriots.

San Diego's offense doesn't seem to have a personality yet. LaDainian Tomlinson has 68 yards on 35 carries, his worst start ever. Tomlinson and tight end Antonio Gates have 27 of the team's 42 receptions, but they are being hounded by defenses. Philip Rivers looks uncomfortable against the blitz and hasn't gotten into a passing rhythm. He'll have trouble doing that against the Packers, too.

Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson have built a pretty good defense in Green Bay, but injuries are a concern. Fifteen Packers are on the injury report. Brett Favre continues to run the offense well despite a lack of a running game. Where's Ahman Green when you need him?

4. Tennessee Titans at New Orleans Saints: The Saints have looked awful in two road losses. Restricted free-agent acquisition Jason David has been beaten for four touchdowns at cornerback. Devery Henderson has regressed as starting receiver on the other side of Marques Colston. Defenses have bottled up Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, and Drew Brees' numbers have dropped dramatically.

Perhaps the scariest number is the 137.1 quarterback rating against the Saints' defense. Another scary number: Opponents are averaging 11.54 yards a pass attempt against the Saints.

Tennessee responds well against good teams. The Titans fought back from a 19-6 second-half deficit against the Colts last Sunday and were a first down away from positioning themselves for a winning field goal. This game features Vince Young going against Reggie Bush, and no one will forget how well Young did against Bush when Texas played USC in the national championship game in 2006.

5. Cincinnati Bengals at Seattle Seahawks: The Bengals gave up 51 points to a bad Browns team last week. Imagine what could happen against a Mike Holmgren offense that prides itself on execution. Marv Lewis must rekindle the confidence of his defense, which might be tough. The linebacking corps is a mess because of injuries. Players have been caught out of position consistently, which is why the team is giving up 166.5 yards a game on the ground. Lewis is too good a coach to allow performances that bad to persist.

The Seahawks are coming off a tough loss to the Cardinals in which they overcame a 17-point deficit and needed only to drive for the game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. But Shaun Alexander didn't hear an audible call correctly and crashed into quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, causing a fumble that lost the game.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars at Denver Broncos: It's hard to get a read on the Broncos, who are 2-0 but have struggled against two of the worst teams in the NFL, Oakland and Buffalo.

The good news for the Broncos is quarterback Jay Cutler looks like the real deal. He performs well under pressure and looks particularly good in the final minutes. Travis Henry appears to be set for a 1,500-yard season. The defense is only giving up 218.5 yards and 17 points a game, but it has allowed a few big plays. Now, the schedule gets tougher. Jacksonville is a nice test before the Broncos face a three-game stretch in four weeks in which they face the Colts, Chargers and Steelers.

The Jags still have a good defense despite injuries in the secondary and linebacking corps, so this figures to be a low-scoring game. The key for Denver is how the defense will contain David Garrard, Jack Del Rio's starting quarterback. Teams have been ganging up to stop the run against the Jaguars, who are averaging only 94 rushing yards. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew should do better than that.

7. Miami Dolphins at N.Y. Jets: The loser of this AFC East matchup will be 0-3 and probably trailing the Patriots by three games.

For New York, the problem has been the schedule. The Jets, who have yet to get a sack or turnover, opened against the Patriots and Ravens, both better teams. Plus, the Jets have injury concerns at quarterback. Chad Pennington is expected to return this week as starter after missing last week with an ankle injury.

The Dolphins are a puzzle. Trent Green arrived late, and the offensive line is in its tossed salad mode. The real disappointment has been the defense. Geared to stop the run, Miami is giving up 178.5 yards a game on the ground. No wonder linebacker Zach Thomas has migraines.

8. Detroit Lions at Philadelphia Eagles: The pressure is building on Donovan McNabb, who needs a good season as the Eagles study his long-term future with the team. He admits he must play better, but the guy is coming off knee reconstruction and is going to be inaccurate at times because of bad mechanics. Starting with the receivers, who have trouble getting open, the Eagles must step up for him. Andy Reid also must commit more to the running game. A 63-to-37 percent pass-to-run ratio isn't right for a quarterback coming off major knee surgery.

The most interesting matchup will be how Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, who has great blitzing schemes, does against Mike Martz's aggressive offense. It would help if the Eagles had cornerback Lito Sheppard, but he is out with a knee injury. The Eagles might have difficulty matching up against Detroit receivers.

9. Arizona Cardinals at Baltimore Ravens: This is the third of three NFC West-AFC North games. This one could be tough for the Cardinals, who have taken two games down to the final two minutes. The Ravens will try to confuse Matt Leinart, who bounced back from a poor opener to play well against the Seahawks.

For Baltimore, Steve McNair should be back at quarterback after missing a start with a groin injury. He must get the running game going with Willis McGahee, who needs to pick up his game a little.

Normally, the Cardinals' defense could drive teams crazy with its wild blitzing packages, but those schemes won't intimidate the Ravens. They face the Steelers zone blitzes twice a season and Rex Ryan's wild blitz schemes in practice every day. Because both teams like to be creative defensively, it should open things up for big plays if a defender makes a mistake.

10. Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders: We had to have a 10th game to complete First and 10. Most of the remaining games were mismatches. This one could be interesting because of the Browns' wild game last week against the Bengals and the pressure on the Raiders to win.

Like Romeo Crennel a week ago, Raiders coach Lane Kiffin needs a win or an 0-4 September is looming. Don't count on Oakland winning in Miami next week. To their credit, the Raiders bounced back and almost beat the Broncos on the road last week.

Derek Anderson put up 51 points on the Bengals but should have problems against Rob Ryan's blitzes. There will be plenty of mistakes in this one, but it could be fun. The Bengals-Browns game turned out to be more entertaining than billed, and this game could be a sick delight.

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