Surprise contenders shaping NFC landscape
The list of surprise teams in the NFC continues to grow, writes Mike Sando in his Week 5 observations.
Originally Published: October 7, 2007By Mike Sando | ESPN.com
Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars. Three of the NFC's oldest franchises joined the Jags in celebrating renewal in Week 5. Each is having just enough fun to qualify as dangerous. • The Giants, 3-2 after beating the New York Jets, showed what a team can accomplish when a stubborn old coach loosens up. Their defense, though flawed, scored nearly as many points (seven) as it allowed (10) on a day when the Jets scored twice on returns. • The Cardinals, 3-2 after keeping the St. Louis Rams winless, inched ahead of the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West. Holding off a desperate division rival on the road qualifies as progress for new Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt. Arizona, an upset winner over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4, lost these types of games in the past. • Redskins owner Daniel Snyder isn't known for patience, but you had to figure Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs would rebound this season. Jason Campbell completed 79 percent of his passes with a 125.3 rating during a 34-3 pounding of the Detroit Lions. The Skins are 3-1, with a QB to build around. • Jacksonville (3-1) has won three in a row, including two on the road, after shutting down theKansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. The Jags were 2-6 on the road and 8-8 overall last season. Here are 10 observations from Week 5:
1. Chargers find a pulseBeating the Broncos in Denver isn't as tough as it used to be, but San Diego's 41-3 rout re-established the Chargers as the team to beat in the AFC West. And for the first time since the opener, Norv Turner can exhale. One game can change everything in the NFL, and this could be the outcome San Diego needed to regain lost confidence. San Diego beat the Broncos by forcing two fumbles and gashing Denver's defense with the big play. Michael Turner (147 yards of total offense) and LaDainian Tomlinson (140) nearly outgained the Broncos (296) in Denver's worst home defeat since 1966. Philip Rivers also avoided the mistakes that marred previous performances. But a closer look at the victory shows the Chargers still aren't the team that struck fear into opponents with a dominant defense last season. San Diego finished the game with one sack and no additional hits on the quarterback, despite 36 pass attempts by the Broncos. San Diego still has room for improvement. That's not necessarily a bad thing coming off a 38-point victory.
2. Finesse takes a beatingPittsburgh and Washington showed what tough, physical defenses can do to finesse-oriented offenses. The Steelers shut out Seattle 21-0 while holding Shaun Alexander to 25 yards. The Redskins held Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna to 106 yards passing and 3.65 yards per attempt, near impossibilities given the structure of the Lions' offense. The Seahawks and Lions need mistake-free performances from their quarterbacks to beat good teams on the road. Neither team has proved it can run the ball. The Steelers played without nose tackle Casey Hampton and playmaking safety Troy Polamalu, but it didn't matter. They picked off Matt Hasselbeck in the red zone right before halftime, a pivotal play in the game. But the Seahawks' inability to run the ball has to trouble them at least as much. Alexander's running style has suffered while he attempts to play with an injured left wrist. The Steelers stopped his NFL-record streak of 67 consecutive games with a run of at least 10 yards. Backup Maurice Morris has been banged up; the Seahawks might be wise to explore other alternatives while Alexander gets back to full strength. As for the Lions, they'll have to go 7-4 the rest of the way to uphold Kitna's prediction of 10 victories.
3. The draft is kingElvis Dumervil is Denver's only starting defensive lineman drafted by the organization. A few more defensive performances like the one Denver gave Sunday might convince the Broncos to start building through the draft instead of the free-agent scrap heap. Only Washington has fewer of its own draft choices on its roster, a tough way to build a team in the salary-cap era. The Broncos and Redskins always seem to squeeze veteran salaries under the cap, but the approach could be catching up to the Broncos on defense. Consider: Second-year Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy has more of his own draft choices on the Packers' roster than Denver's Mike Shanahan claims on the Broncos' roster after 13 drafts with the organization.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images After injuring his collarbone, Matt Leinart (pictured) watched Kurt Warner rally the Cardinals.
4. Quarterbacks down for the countOfficiating crews called 138 offensive-holding penalties through the first four weeks, down from the four-week totals put up in 2006 (159) and 2005 (232). Hits on quarterbacks also have declined, but there's only so much the league can do to protect its most important players. Miami's Trent Green, Arizona's Matt Leinart and Kansas City's Damon Huard were among the Week 5 starters who left with injuries and did not return. Green's concussion had the look of a career-threatening setback as he left a stadium on a stretcher for the second time in less than 13 months. Leinart injured a collarbone, perhaps clearing the way for Ken Whisenhunt to hand over the offense to the more productive Kurt Warner, who also has been prone to injuries. Huard suffered a shoulder contusion while throwing an interception.
5. More evidence Del Rio was rightJacksonville's defense held Kansas City to 10 yards rushing and 14 first downs, but strength on that side of the ball has never been enough for the Jaguars. David Garrard's development remains the key, and his 109.8 rating in Kansas City provided more evidence coach Jack Del Rio made the right call when he parted with Byron Leftwich. Del Rio probably could have handled the situation a little more cleanly, but the bottom line is what matters now. Garrard has completed 67 percent of his passes without an interception this season, all while averaging a healthy 8.3 yards per attempt. Not bad for a guy without top-flight receivers.
6. Breakthrough for the TitansThe Titans won't be skyrocketing up the power rankings after an unconvincing home victory over Atlanta, but their performance was significant for another reason. A year ago, the Titans overachieved because Vince Young bailed them out with miraculous plays. They had a hard time winning games without his magic. This week, Tennessee beat the Falcons almost in spite of Young, whose three interceptions matched a career high. Young's only previous three-pick showing, against Jacksonville last season, came during a 30-point defeat. Young can inspire teammates even when he isn't at his best. He nearly ran down Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall during a 56-yard fumble return.
7. Super slo-mo in San FranciscoAge and injuries have reduced Baltimore's Steve McNair to the role of reluctant scrambler. Sometimes the bulky protective gear under his jersey makes us wonder if he's got a personal flotation device under there. With the Ravens sinking into a sea of injuries in San Francisco, McNair did just enough right for Baltimore to eke out the ugliest of victories against the 49ers. He completed two-thirds of his passes for 214 yards without a turnover. The Ravens were down to their final five healthy offensive linemen and their only healthy tight end, leading coach Brian Billick to label his team's 9-7 victory "very, very satisfying" despite artistic shortcomings. Billick also found meaning in Trent Dilfer's pregame cease-fire offer. Dilfer, starting for the 49ers in place of the injured Alex Smith, had ripped Billick ever since the coach cast him aside following the Ravens' Super Bowl victory. Dilfer decided this week to get past the bitterness. "Very, very rewarding conversation," Billick said. "I really appreciate him reaching out that way."
8. Another step for the TexansHouston's Kris Brown became the first kicker in NFL history to hit three field goals of at least 54 yards in a game. His 57-yard game-winner in the fourth quarter left the Texans with a 3-2 record this season, but the victory also featured another defining performance by their emerging quarterback. Matt Schaub moved the Texans from their own 3 to the Miami 38 in the final 93 seconds. He completed passes of 19, 14 and 19 yards during the drive. Houston never even got to third down on the drive until Brown kicked his winner on third-and-4 with six seconds remaining. Those types of experiences are crucial for franchises seeking to establish themselves, no matter the opponent. The Texans are 6-5 at home under coach Gary Kubiak and pointing in the right direction.
9. Insult to injuryThe Dolphins might need to find another quarterback after Trent Green's latest concussion. That shouldn't come as a shock, given Green's medical history. The big surprise Sunday was the treatment Green's conqueror gave the fallen quarterback after the injury. Green suffered the injury while attempting to block for Ted Ginn Jr. following a botched play. Green tried to take out Texans defensive lineman Travis Johnson with a block at the knees. Johnson's knee struck Green in the helmet, at which point Johnson stood over Green and taunted him. Johnson apologized for drawing a 15-yard penalty but nothing more. He called Green's block "malicious" and accused the quarterback of being a "scarecrow" seeking "courage while I wasn't looking." The treatment seemed misplaced under the circumstances.
10. Colts state their caseNew England might be the best team in the league, but Indianapolis deserves some consideration for the top spot. The Colts blew out Tampa Bay despite playing without Marvin Harrison and Joseph Addai. Anthony Gonzalez, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark caught seven passes apiece for the Colts. Tampa Bay's Jeff Garcia played about as well as a quarterback can play from a statistical standpoint, completing all but five of his 23 passes with two touchdowns and a 121.6 rating. His team lost by 19 points. The Nov. 4 game between the Patriots and Colts can't get here quickly enough.
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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