Updated: September 18, 2006 12:54:28 PM PDT

Division races already taking shape


Divisions of power

This past weekend of college football was billed as Separation Saturday -- there were seven games pitting Top 25 teams against each other. Week 2 in the NFL could have been labeled Definition Sunday; with 11 divisional games contested, you could already see some races taking shape.

Normally, the NFL likes to ease itself into divisional matchups. Last season, for example, only 13 divisional games were played in the first three weeks. Since the NFL went to eight four-team divisions, divisional games were usually saved for later in the season. But throwing caution and conservatism to the wind, the NFL decided to come out with a bold, aggressive divisional schedule in the first three weeks of this season. There were five divisional games in Week 1 and 11 in Week 2, with nine on tap for Week 3. That's 25 in the first three weeks, almost double the total through the first three weeks of last season.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is in the AFC East. It's not a surprise that the Patriots are 2-0 in the divisional race. They've played and beaten the Bills and Jets. Those wins were expected. Most people figured the Patriots to be around 5-1 in AFC East competition if they split with the Dolphins. The surprise has been the bad start by the Dolphins, who are now two games behind the Patriots. Though it wasn't surprising the Dolphins lost a road opener in Pittsburgh, the stunner was Daunte Culpepper's seven-sack loss to a Bills defense that used five rookies in key roles, three as starters Sunday against the Dolphins. The Dolphins are in a big hole.

Bush
AP Photo/George Widman
Eli Manning led the Giants back from a 17-point deficit.

All four NFC East teams played divisional games Sunday and while not one put its stamp on the division, it was an important day. It was especially important for the Giants, who ran off 23 unanswered points to beat the Eagles. A loss would have put the Giants in an 0-2 hole with a brutal stretch of games coming up (at Seattle, vs. Washington, at Atlanta, at Dallas, and vs. Tampa Bay). The NFC East is going to be a fight all season, so it's no surprise to see three teams tied at 1-1 after two weeks.

The Falcons are already the big winner in the competitive NFC South. By the end of Week 3, the Falcons will have exhausted half of their six-game divisional schedule. If they beat the Saints on Monday Night Football, they will already be 3-0 in the NFC South with two road victories. They would have a three-game lead over the loser of next week's Panthers-Buccaneers game. As good as Tampa Bay and Carolina could be, that might be too large a deficit to make up.

Two things are going as expected in the NFC. The Seahawks and Bears are off to strong starts in their quests to lock up the top two seeds in the conference. Both teams are off to 2-0 starts as they try to repeat as division winners. A key early-season game will be next Sunday's visit by the Bears to Minnesota. The Vikings already have wins against the Redskins and Panthers to keep pace with Chicago. If the Vikings can beat the Bears, they could keep the NFC North race alive until late in the season. But if the Bears win their third consecutive NFC North game, the division is totally in their control.

As expected, the Broncos and Chargers are battling for the AFC West title, with each 1-0 in the division. The Colts have three AFC South home games in the first five weeks, putting the pressure on the Jaguars to keep winning. The Jaguars need big games against the Steelers on Monday and the Colts in Indianapolis next Sunday to stay in the AFC South race.

While it's still early in the season, you can start to see some definition thanks to so many divisional games.

Heard in the press box (in Atlanta)

• Although kicker Michael Koenen has missed six of eight field goal tries in two games, including all four attempts on Sunday afternoon, the Atlanta Falcons will not call on 12-year veteran Todd Peterson, whom they declined to re-sign as an unrestricted free agent, to rectify the situation. Peterson converted all but two of his 25 field goal tries in 2005, but it's almost as if Atlanta officials blame the blocked kick he had in the penultimate contest last year for extending the team's dubious record of never having posted consecutive winning seasons. At least for now, coach Jim Mora will rely on special teams coach Joe DeCamillis and kicking coach Steve Hoffman to figure out Koenen's problem. There was some concern in camp that Koenen, who attempted two long field goals in 2005 and converted a 58-yarder, might struggle with shorter field goals.

• Only two weeks into the season, and some teams may already be playing a little fast and loose with the league guidelines for injury reports. Tampa Bay cornerback Brian Kelly was listed as "probable" all week, then didn't even dress for Sunday's game against the Falcons.

• It's only been three games, but some scouts are starting to wonder about the downfield vision of Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn, the presumptive top overall pick in the 2007 draft. Quinn has missed some open receivers, hasn't thrown the ball well in general and seems rattled under pressure.

• The receiver in whom Falcons quarterback Michael Vick will always have the most trust is tight end Alge Crumpler. But when Crumpler missed much of the offseason program recovering from knee and shoulder injuries, Vick and third-year wideout Michael Jenkins developed a nice rapport. And it's Jenkins, not 2005 first-rounder Roddy White, in whom Vick has more faith now.

• With so many franchises carrying only two quarterbacks on the roster, the league and game officials are being extra vigilant in watching that clubs don't attempt to skirt the rules regarding No. 3 quarterbacks on game day. Commissioner Roger Goodell last week sent club officials a memo listing all of the "bona fide" quarterbacks on every team's roster. A league spokesman said the memo was common practice, but one club official said he could not remember ever receiving such a reminder in the past.

• San Francisco officials made a savvy move in trading tailback Kevan Barlow to the New York Jets a month ago. The move cemented Frank Gore as the 49ers' starting tailback and he has responded well. Gore is the kind of player who doesn't like splitting time or looking over his shoulder, and the confidence that the San Francisco staff demonstrated in him will pay off.

• There aren't a whole lot of coaches in the league doing a better job in the early going than Dick Jauron of the Buffalo Bills. If the Buffalo offense can score some points, the Bills might steal a few wins in 2006. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has done a nice job and, obviously, isn't afraid to get the team's young players on the field. And Bobby April continues to be one of the NFL's elite special teams coaches.

• Another guy doing a terrific job is New Orleans offensive coordinator Doug Marrone, whose primary area of expertise is the offensive line. The Saints have a unit that's been cobbled together but, for the most part, the line has played well. That's especially true of fourth-year veteran right tackle Jon Stinchcomb, who had never started a game before this season, and who missed all of 2005 with a ruptured patella tendon. The Saints might even approach Stinchcomb, who can be an unrestricted free agent after this season, about a contract extension at some point this year.

• Cardinals tailback Edgerrin James is going to earn every cent of the $30 million contract Arizona gave him as a free agent this spring running behind the Cardinals' shaky offensive line. He'll get his 1,000-plus yards, but he'll struggle to come close to his 4.0-yard career average.

• What in the world was Detroit wide receiver Roy Williams taking about when he suggested the Lions could have scored 40 points last week? Detroit seems to move the ball at times, but sporadically, and there isn't a consistent rhythm in what the Lions do. Quarterback Jon Kitna is a solid caretaker-type guy, but that's about it.

• Baltimore is getting excellent play from its linebackers, and a guy to watch is Adalius Thomas, who is one of the NFL's most versatile defenders.

• No one should make too much of Thursday's so-called "drug summit" between NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw and commissioner Roger Goodell. The union chief used to meet pretty regularly with retired commissioner Paul Tagliabue about the drug program and no one ever referred to those sessions as summits.

Clayton's Quick Hits

• The Bengals might have had one of the costliest victories Sunday. Linebacker David Pollack, who has been battling injuries at the beginning of the season, suffered a neck injury that concerns the team. Though it doesn't appear to be a long-term injury, the Bengals may be without him for a couple of weeks. The other concern is a knee injury to center Rich Braham. Free safety Dexter Jackson suffered an ankle injury. Wide receiver Chad Johnson was so disoriented after the game from a late-game hit that sent his helmet flying that he didn't do interviews. For No. 85, that's being out of it.

• Art Shell will have a lot of thinking to do during the bye week. His team is 0-2 and looks horrible. First, he has to decide whether to keep Aaron Brooks as a starter. Brooks was sacked seven times in the opener and had a couple of fumbles and injuries that led to Andrew Walter going the distance. It wouldn't be a bad idea to see if he can trade Marques Tuiasosopo for a draft choice and bring in Jeff George as an insurance policy. This would also be a good week for Shell to talk Al Davis into trading Jerry Porter. Porter has been inactive for two games. If the Raiders can get two draft choices for two players they aren't using, that's building toward the future.

• Mike Nolan was right this summer when he said the team was getting better on offense. Antonio Bryant has been a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Frank Gore has made the 49ers forget about Kevan Barlow. Alex Smith looks better and better at quarterback.

-- Check out John Clayton's blog

Thoughts on Week 3

Bush
AP Photo/J. Pat Carter
Daunte Culpepper was sacked seven times by the Bills.

On the spot: If the Dolphins are going to bounce back from their 0-2 start, then Daunte Culpepper needs to get into a rhythm with his receivers. He didn't have enough time in the preseason to get into a rhythm because of his injury and we're seeing the results of that. It's extremely important for a quarterback to be in a rhythm with his guys because that can be the difference in a close game. A lack of cohesion on offense is the reason why this team is 0-2 after losing two winnable games to start the season. This isn't all Culpepper's fault, though, as the offensive line hasn't been able to keep him off his back. Culpepper was supposed to be the missing piece to the puzzle for the Dolphins, but right now he just looks like a misfit in this offense.

Surprise of the day: I expected the Bears to beat the Lions. But, if you'd said that Rex Grossman would throw four touchdown passes then I would've said you were crazy. That's how improbable his play was. The Bears are rolling right now and Grossman is playing lights out. He's being patient and working the ball to all of his receivers while also taking shots downfield when he gets the chance. He's doing an outstanding job and the Bears have to be exceptionally happy with his play and the way this season has started.

Disappointment of the day: The Eagles were up big and should've just put that game away. But instead they let the Giants back in and lost a game that could have put them in the driver's seat in the NFC East. They have to look at what went wrong in the second half of that game and figure out how they could allow a division rival to come back from such a huge deficit. It's even more appalling that they dropped that big of a deficit to the Giants. The Eagles know how dangerous the Giants are and knew how important this game was. For them to lose in such a manner is very troubling.

Scouts Inc. Takes

• After falling behind 13-0 in the first quarter, QB Drew Brees settled down and got into rhythm. He finished with 353 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers' game plan defensively was to shut down the Saints' running game and force Brees to attack through the air. Again, RB Reggie Bush was a big factor in the passing game along with WR Joe Horn. Brees found new targets in the passing game as Marques Colston and Devery Henderson combined for seven receptions for 109 yards receiving and two touchdowns.

• For a second consecutive week against an NFC North division opponent, the Bears dominated. Chicago controlled all phases of the game. Chicago's defense took over early, causing a Jon Kitna fumble inside the Lions' 5-yard line. QB Rex Grossman led an explosive Bears offense with the best game of his career. If there is an area of concern for Chicago it's the running game.

• In their home opener, the Bengals sent a message that they are truly an elite team in the division. The score didn't always reflect it, but the Bengals handled Cleveland the entire day without a lot of resistance. Cincinnati's offense came out of the gates quickly and moved the ball at will, through the air and on the ground with Rudi Johnson. Johnson pounded the Browns' defense and put the victory away for Cincinnati in dominant fashion in the second half.

-- For more from Scouts Inc., check out the Briefing Room and all of their divisional blogs: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West, NFC East | NFC South | NFC North | NFC West

The Green Room

Question: Falcons are looking good. Are they that good or are the Bucs and Panthers just playing that bad?
Green: No, they are that good. Michael Vick looks sharp in this new offense, they have a great run game and these new additions on defense have improved their pass rush and more important their run D. When Vick plays this well, the Falcons are as legit as anyone.


Question: Are the Bears for real?
Green: I think the Bears are for real. They have a top three defense and the offense looks good under Rex Grossman. If the offense can continue to play at this level, they will be dangerous because you know the defense is going to show up every week.


Question: Do you think Joseph Addai will become the No. 1 back in Indy this year?
Green: Yes, I do think he will eventually be the guy. He just needs to get a little more comfortable in the system. He did a nice job with his blitz pick-ups last week. It is just a matter of time before he takes over as the No. 1 guy.

Pasquarelli's Game Ball
Manning
Manning
His critics have suggested that, if Eli Manning performed more consistently in the first three quarters of games, the New York Giants wouldn't need so many of the cliffhanger comebacks for which he is now becoming so well known. Maybe so. But it's hard to argue with the performance of Manning, who had 29 fewer passing yards than his older brother but a lot more excitement on Sunday in the fourth quarter and overtime of the Giants' stirring rally against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Manning completed 31 of 43 passes for 371 yards, with three touchdown passes, one interception and a passer rating of 111.7 for the game. But trailing 24-7 entering the fourth quarter, the third-year veteran saved his best resuscitation act for a team that seemed to be down to its last gasp. In the fourth quarter and the extra stanza, Manning connected on 20 of 26 passes for 233 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He led New York, which was in peril of starting the season 0-2, to four scores, completed his last nine attempts, including the 31-yard game-winner to wide receiver Plaxico Burress, and connected on 14 of his final 16 passes. His efficiency rating in the fourth quarter and overtime was 113.4.

WEEK 2 RUNDOWN
• Bills 16, Dolphins 6
  Buffalo's underrated defense keeps Daunte Culpepper and Co. off-balance all day.

• Vikings 16, Panthers 13
  New Vikings coach Brad Childress showed guts and creativity with a fake field goal that resulted in key TD.

• Bengals 34, Browns 17
  Some key injuries (David Pollack, Rich Braham and Dexter Jackson) take away from Cincinnati's convincing victory.

• Bears 34, Lions 7
  The Rod Marinelli era in Detroit is already looking a lot like the Marty Mornhinweg and Steve Mariucci eras.

• Colts 43, Texans 24
  The Texans are better (we think), but they're still no match for power teams such as the Colts.

• Saints 34, Packers 27
  Can't blame this one on Brett Favre. D just couldn't stop Drew Brees and Co.

• Giants 27, Eagles 24
  Eli Manning has some flaws, but his late-game heroics are becoming his trademark.

• Ravens 28, Raiders 6
  They didn't do it against offensive powers, but the Ravens have given up only 304 yards in two games.

• Falcons 14, Buccaneers 3
  The Falcons just continue to gash teams on the ground, rushing for 306 yards Sunday.

• Seahawks 21, Cardinals 10
  The Seahawks move to 2-0, despite fizzling after a fast start in their home opener.

• 49ers 20, Rams 13
  Mike Nolan appears to be getting the most out of his undertalented 49ers squad.

• Broncos 9, Chiefs 6
  Denver wins, but Jake Plummer did little to get the Jay Cutler-clamoring fans off his back.

• Patriots 24, Jets 17
  Jets put a serious scare into the Patriots, who looked like they were going to coast to an easy win.

• Chargers 40, Titans 7
  Shawne Merriman was a popular preseason pick for Defensive Player of the Year and so far he's living up to that hype.

• Cowboys 27, Redskins 10
  Drew Bledsoe was better, but win is costly as Cowboys lose Terrell Owens with a broken finger.

-- ESPN.com

COACH RATINGS
Childress
Childress
Brad Childress used some gutsy play-calling to help lift the Vikings to a 2-0 start. How would you rate Childress' coaching in Week 2? What grade would you give Art Shell, whose Raiders have only scored six points in dropping their first two games?

Our Coach Ratings give you a chance to cast your vote for all 32 coaches.

• Coach ratings

WRITER'S BLOC
Buccaneers at Falcons
For the second straight week the Falcons dominated on the ground. It's still early, but two impressive divisional wins have put the Falcons in the driver's seat in the NFC South, writes Len Pasquarelli. Story
Giants at Eagles
Saddled with the toughest schedule in the NFC, the Giants might have saved their season Sunday with a huge comeback win over the Eagles in OT, writes John Clayton. Story
ONE TO GO
Steelers at Jaguars (8:30 ET, ESPN)
It should be a close, hard-hitting contest as the Jaguars host the Steelers on Monday Night Football. For the Steelers, all signs point to Ben Roethlisberger being back behind center at quarterback.

• Monday Night Surround
OUCH, BABE
Terrell Owens, WR, Cowboys
Suffered a broken finger and will have surgery Monday.
Jevon Kearse, DE, Eagles
Injured left knee vs. Giants and will have MRI Monday.
Orlando Pace, OT, Rams
Left game vs. 49ers with a concussion.
David Pollack, LB, Bengals
Left game vs. Browns with a neck injury.
Rod Smith, WR, Broncos
Left game vs. Chiefs with a concussion.

• Week 2 infirmary report

MOTION
Season-saving win for the Giants?
ELIAS SAYS …
• Warrick Dunn (134) and Michael Vick (127) both rushed for more than 100 yards for the Falcons. It was the first game in NFL history in which a starting quarterback and a running back both reached the 125-yard mark. Two other such pairs had 100-yard games, both for the Eagles: Donovan McNabb and Duce Staley in 2002, and Randall Cunningham and Heath Sherman in 1990.

• The Chargers were less than four minutes from becoming the first team in 61 years to record shutouts in their first two games of a season when Vince Young threw his first NFL touchdown pass in San Diego's 40-7 victory over the Titans. But the Chargers did become the first team since John Madden's 1977 Raiders to hold their opponents scoreless for the first seven periods of a season. San Diego's streak of 60 unanswered points to open the season was the longest since the Lions scored 78 points before allowing an opponent to score in 1970. Detroit won its first two games that season by scores of 40-0 against the Packers and 38-3 over the Bengals.

• Elias says

MOTION
Saints head home with 2-0 record.
WEEK 3
Sunday, Sept. 24
Carolina at Tampa Bay, 1 ET
Chicago at Minnesota, 1 ET
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, 1 ET
Green Bay at Detroit, 1 ET
Jacksonville at Indianapolis, 1 ET
N.Y. Jets at Buffalo, 1 ET
Tennessee at Miami, 1 ET
Washington at Houston, 1 ET
Baltimore at Cleveland, 4:05 ET
N.Y. Giants at Seattle, 4:15 ET
Philadelphia at San Francisco, 4:15 ET
St. Louis at Arizona, 4:15 ET
Denver at New England, 8:15 ET

Monday, Sept. 25
Atlanta at New Orleans, 8:30 ET, ESPN
Bye: Dallas, Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego

• Complete 2006 schedule

 

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