Posted: Monday September 27, 2004 9:57AM; Updated: Monday September 27, 2004 5:05PM
ATLANTA -- Surprises of September:
a. Jacksonville being 3-0. b. Kansas City being 0-3. c. Donovan McNabb morphing into Joe Montana. d. Seattle looking like the '67 Packers. e. Atlanta winning because of defense, not Mike Vick.
I would argue, after being in the Georgia Dome to see The Game That Set Offensive Football Back Three Centuries on Sunday, that "e'' is the most surprising of all. Particularly the defensive line. When Jim Mora came in, he switched from the 3-4 Atlanta played in the Dan Reeves days to the 4-3, got a classic three-technique defensive tackle (quick enough to rush the passer, strong enough to hold up against the run) via free agency in former Raider RodColeman, and found seven quality defensive linemen to rotate. The result: In three games, Atlanta has held teams to an average of 293 yards, 13 points and 61 rushing yards, while collecting 4.7 sacks per game.
Last year, Atlanta allowed 382 yards, 26 points and 144 rushing yards per game, while collecting 2.3 sacks a contest. The defense, rated 32nd in the league in 2003 is rated first exiting September. "Believe me,'' defensive end Patrick Kerney told me after the 6-3 win over Arizona, "Michael [Vick] deserves everything they say about him. The attention he gets is well-deserved. But we'd like to be a big reason why we're winning, too. We want to establish ourselves as the dominant defensive front in football, and we've got 13 games left to prove it.'' Starting Sunday at Carolina. From what I've heard through the rumor mill, the Panthers have a fair defensive line, too. Even with Carolina's injuries, that's going to be a heck of a game.
I'm going to throw not a grain of salt, but a bag of rock salt, on this feel-good Falcon vibe for a minute. Arizona was on the other side of the line Sunday. It would be charitable to call the Cardinals' line leaky. But you had to see the ferocity of the Falcon front to know that any offensive line is in trouble when Atlanta comes to town. On two downs that I saw, the Cardinals devoted three blockers -- from left to right, guard Reggie Walls, center Alex Stepanovich and guard Cameron Spikes -- to blocking Coleman. Kerney is a relentless pass-rusher, made even better by being able to come wider off the edge in the 4-3 than in the 3-4, which, at 273 pounds, he just wasn't fit to play. Those two guys are the keys. On Sunday, they combined for five sacks (for 47 yards lost), two forced fumbles and a fumble recovered.
You had to feel for Arizona quarterback Josh McCown, who'd never seen anything like this at Sam Houston State. The poor kid was chased and swatted around and generally had to run for his life until his third fumble (all forced by the defensive line) got him pulled by Card coach Dennis Green. Mercifully.
Mora and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell have the luxury of numbers on their side. They shuttle seven guys in and out of the game, making sure Kerney and Coleman are in on all passing downs. Kerney, Brady Smith and Travis Hall rotate at end. Ed Jasper and Coleman start at tackle, with 308-pound 2003 free-agent Antwan Lake from West Virginia and 293-pound 2004 fifth-rounder Chad Lavalais from LSU doing some of the run-stuffing dirty work at tackle.
"It's the best line I've ever been on,'' said Coleman. "I've been with two good guys before, but three? Four? Everybody we send out there plays hungry. Just watch us. What helps our job is that we've got a good group of linebackers and DBs who cover long enough for us to get to the quarterback. We've got a pretty good combination going right now.''
"The biggest compliment I can give them is they're relentless,'' said Mora. "When you're getting penetration the way we've gotten from the tackles, it opens things up for the ends. And they can run.''
Yes they can. It should be a good showdown Sunday in Charlotte. If I were Panther offensive guru Dan Henning, I'd be max-protecting my rear end off in this one.
THE FINE FIFTEEN
1. New England (2-0). The Patriots haven't lost in 364 days.
2. Philadelphia (3-0). Eagles nip Seattle and Indy for this spot. I just like Philly's defense better.
Peyton Manning has thrown nine TDs and just one interception this season.
3. Indianapolis (2-1). This is how Indy's seven straight possessions from late in the third quarter at Tennessee last week to early in the second quarter Sunday against Green Bay ended: Peyton Manning 1-yard TD pass to Marcus Pollard, Edgerrin James four-yard TD run, James 30-yard TD run, Manning 36-yard TD pass to Reggie Wayne, Manning 28-yard TD pass to MarvinHarrison, Manning 34-yard TD pass to Brandon Stokley, Manning 27-yard TD pass to Stokley. I mean, these teams aren't pushovers.
4. Seattle (3-0). I am really starting to buy into that defense.
5. Atlanta (3-0). It's amazing when Mike Vick can stink and still have the highlight of the day in the NFL, with that 58-yard run, the longest of his career.
6. Carolina (1-1). On the bye week, Julius Peppers sacked some groceries. Just to keep in football shape.
7. Denver (2-1).Jake Plummer played a terrific game (25-36, two TDs, no picks, 294 yards), but how does a quarterback get noticed in this league with Manning and Donovan McNabb and Brett Favre going off like they did?
8. Jacksonville (3-0). I am doing some severe self-flagellation for jumping off their bandwagon three weeks ago.
9. Minnesota (2-1).Onterrio Smith puts up 200 yards (94 rushing, 106 receiving) and no one notices.
10. New York Jets (2-0). On the bye week, Herm Edwards had the NFL Films cameras over to the house. Just to keep in football shape.
11. Tennessee (1-2). What would an NFL season be without a daily SteveMcNair injury update?
12. Baltimore (2-1). Key line in the Raven-Bengal gamebook, under the Baltimore "Not Active'' heading: CB 37 D. Sanders.
13. Dallas (1-1). Get ready for a long game tonight, America. Vinny had his arm oiled and tuned up last night.
14. Green Bay (1-2). Favre plays against the 2-1 Jints Sunday unless he has to have that leg cut off.
15. New Orleans (2-1). Saints won't be in this spot for long. Next Sunday, at Sauna Devil Stadium, it's Arizona 19, Saints 16.
THE AWARDS SECTION
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Philadelphia QB Donovan McNabb. So I'm in the press box at the Georgia Dome Sunday, with the monitor on above me on the FOX feed, and occasionally the highlights come up, and every highlight is a McNabb one. Running for a score. Passing for one to Terrell Owens. Passing for one to MikeBartrum, who I always thought was a long-snapper. Late in the first half, against the previously unbeaten Lions, he was 17 of 19 for 211 yards, two touchdowns, no picks and one rushing TD. Gosh, is he playing great. I hereby award McNabb the NFL's Most Valuable Player Award for September: eight touchdown passes, no picks, two TD runs.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
Atlanta DT Rod Coleman. What a man. The best player on the field in the Falcons' shaky 6-3 win over Arizona had two sacks and two forced fumbles in an 11-minute span, essentially ending any hope the Cardinals had of winning. Coleman had two sacks in the last four minutes of the second quarter, both ending Arizona drives. The second was an incredibly athletic play for the 285-pound free-agent from Oakland who signed with the Falcons in the offseason. Dodging Arizona right guard Cameron Spikes, Coleman dove and swatted away the ball from Card quarterback JoshMcCown, then recovered it for the best trifecta a defensive lineman can have: sack, forced fumble, recovered fumble. In the third quarter, he stripped McCown again -- this time inside the Falcons' 10-yard line as Arizona threatened to take a lead -- and the Falcons recovered.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Atlanta WR Jimmy Farris, a 6-foot wisp of a second-year kid from Montana, who played special-teams gunner about as well as it can be played on a vital fourth-quarter punt play against Arizona. With the Falcons' offense stalled for the zillionth time against the Cards, Chris Mohr punted high and deep to Arizona return man Karl Williams at his own 9. Ferris, bearing down from the right, ankle-tackled Williams on his first step after receiving the punt. No gain. Great, great pursuit.
COACH OF THE WEEK
Jacksonville coach Jack DelRio. Somehow, some way, he's gotten his team ready to play three playoff contenders (well, I'm being generous with Buffalo, but I thought they'd be a playoff contender), had them in the game late in each fourth quarter and pulled out wins each time. Say what you want about winning ugly and all that blather, but the fact is that a coach builds a mindset within a team, and Del Rio has built a mindset that his team is going to scratch and claw and play well down the stretch.
FACTOID THAT MAY ONLY INTEREST ME
Last week, on the 21st night of September, defensive back Earthwind Moreland, named after the R&B group Earth, Wind and Fire, was signed to the New England Patriots' practice squad.
Which brings to mind the 1975 Earth, Wind and Fire song September, which begins:
Do you remember The 21st night of September? Love was changing the minds of pretenders, While chasing the clouds away.
STAT OF THE WEEK
The Atlanta-Florida baseball game Saturday night took one hour, 58 minutes.
The first 33 minutes of the Atlanta-Arizona football game Sunday took one hour, 58 minutes.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"They ought to boo us the whole time. Why would you pay for a ticket to see us?''
-- Miami linebacker Zach Thomas. The Dolphins have lost 17-7, 16-13 and 13-3 in the first three weeks.
ENJOYABLE/AGGRAVATING TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK
Terminal C security, Newark Airport, all of August and early September: No shoes removed while you go through the X-ray machine.
Terminal B security, Newark Airport, Saturday: "All shoes must be removed!" Security Gal says. "All laptops out of their cases!'' Woman in front of me has $4 el-cheapo beach flip-flops on. She points to them. Security Gal says, "All shoes.''
Glad to see we've got some consistency in the shoe situation, TSA.
TEN THINGS I THINK I THINK
1. I think if Emmitt Smith has an ounce of petrol left in the ol' gas tank, I certainly didn't see it Sunday. I realize he's running behind a terrible offensive line, but I didn't see him slam one time up into the hole.
2. I think, and I don't mean to inundate you with Arizona Cardinals information, that Dennis Green will be making a mistake if he yanks Josh McCown from the starting lineup for his inconsistent play. Yes, he fumbled three times at Atlanta. Yes, he cost his team a chance to win the game with the last fumble. But this is a spunky, athletic, passionate, strong-armed, potential-filled player. He's learning. He's going to make mistakes. Cripes, he cut his teeth at SMU and Sam Houston State. He needs time. The Cards aren't going anywhere this year anyway. Give the kid his on-the-job experience, Denny. You won't regret it. Your gut feeling about the kid -- that he's going to be really good -- will be affirmed by this time next year. I promise.
3. I think that is one grim-looking ballclub you've got there, Jon Gruden. If you're not going to renegotiate with Keenan McCardell, then for God's sake, throw him to Kansas City for a draft choice, will you?
Jerry Rice's streak of 274 consecutive games with a catch ended Week 2 of this season.
4. I think, just for the record, I don't give a flying darn about that silly consecutive-games-with-a-reception record of Jerry Rice. What a dumb record. To me, it's a major upset when any star starting receiver doesn't catch a ball in a 60-minute game. And how about the righteous indignation of the TV pundits who said it was terrible that Rich Gannon didn't get him a pass -- any kind of pass, like turning around at the line of scrimmage and just hitting him with a gimme -- in four quarters? Stupid. This is what happens when people start thinking about things like records more than football games. Records should occur in the natural flow of the game. If they are forced, or if people specifically set out to extend records late in a game in such a way that would not have happened under regular game conditions, the record is a sham. If Norv Turner or Rich Gannon would have knowingly called a play in a game that was 13-10 for the final 11 minutes, just to get Jerry Rice a record, that would have been despicable. I hand it to both of them. Whether they knew the record was going down the tubes or not, they didn't see fit to address it. They played the game the way they thought they should play it to give the Raiders the best chance to win.
5. I think the Vikings are starting to get too many injuries to be a January factor.
6. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. I just wish I knew what kind of trance a manager gets put into when he manages Pedro Martinez. The man is not Jesus. You're allowed to take him out of games when he struggles, or when he gets over 100 pitches, or both. And so last Friday, when the Red Sox nursed a 4-3 lead over the Yanks and Pedro was at 101 pitches, Terry Francona left him in the game -- which is exactly what I would have done. When Hideki Matsui (incredibly underrated, if that's possible in New York) jacked a home run off Martinez, it was time to pull him. But Francona had no one even warming up in the bullpen. Then Bernie Williams hit a laser double. Still no Francona. With two out, Ruben Sierra punched one into right-center. Base hit. Run. Ballgame. Now, there is a difference between September 2004 and October 2003. I was in favor of Martinez starting the eighth inning of game seven of the ALCS with a 5-2 lead. But I said at the time, sitting right there in Yankee Stadium, "One baserunner. Just one.'' The Sox bullpen had a microscopic playoff ERA at the time. If Martinez got one runner on, that meant the bullpen would not have to come in the game with the tying run at bat. But of course, Grady Little left Martinez in to give up three runs in the stupidest display of non-managing cowardice in major-league history. Francona, this year, has just an OK bullpen. Mike Timlin and Alan Embree have been hit much more this year than last, ScottWilliamson, a terrific closer in October last year, has a bum elbow and KeithFoulke has been an arsonist in the last week. So Pedro deserved to start the inning. But he didn't deserve, in any way, to stay past Matsui's homer. And now, listen to the sniveling Pedro. "I wanted to bury myself out on the mound,'' he said after the game. "I wish the Yankees would disappear. Disappear, and never come back. I would probably like to face any other team right now.'' That's what you like to hear from your number two pitcher two weeks before you might be facing the same team in the playoffs.
b. Just for the record, in the last two years, Boston and New York have played 45 times. You'll never guess the series result. Red Sox 23, Yanks 22.
c. Certainly this is not the popular view in CBS-bashing America right now, but I applaud Dan Rather for standing up and saying something we in the media don't say nearly enough: I screwed up. Blame me. This is my show, and I put on a flawed story, and the buck stops with me.
d. Speaking of mea culpas, I have one. In the Sports Illustrated NFL Preview issue, I was running down the Lions' recent drafting woes, and I referred to the lack of production Detroit was getting from its top picks like Andre Ware, and I threw Reggie Brown in there as an example of a bust. Brown, of course, was paralyzed in his second NFL season. Why did I do it? Brainlock. Not thinking. Idiocy. All of the above. So I'd like to apologize to the readers who were offended by this. Shoot, I'm offended by it, and I wrote it. My fault.
e. Coffeenerdness: I am not even remotely exaggerating this. Last Wednesday, in the city to tape the HBO show Inside the NFL, I saw a 6-foot-8 woman in a business suit at the Starbucks at 23rd and Park, near the HBO studios. In heels. I came up to her shoulders, barely. She was Cosmo Kramer-sized, except chunky.
f. We are all pulling for you, Tory Ranalli ... in Dormont, Monongahela, Montclair, Hamilton, N.Y., and Boston. Beat this thing. Get well soon.
g. If you'd have told me that Mark Prior and Kerry Wood would start against the horrifically punchless Mets Saturday and Sunday (with Craig Brazell, Victor Diaz and Eric Valent the 4-5-6 hitters), and the Cubs, fighting for their playoff lives, would come away 0-2, I'd ... well, I'd have had to question your baseball sanity.
7. I think, after talking to someone very close to Ricky Williams a few days ago, it seems right to think Williams would solve all his financial problems by coming back to football, especially after an arbitrator ruled Friday that he had to pay the Dolphins $8.6-million in reparations for bailing out on them before the end of his contract. Regarding the logic of Williams returning to football to pay his debt, SVCTRW told me there's only one problem with this scenario, and that is that Ricky doesn't want to play football. "Well, any reasonable thinking person would think he should come back,'' said SVCTRW. "But I have to tell you that his mind is just not there yet. And anyway, un-retiring triggers another positive drug test, so where does that leave us?'' With a year's suspension, maybe. But that is not set in stone.
8. I think all you need to know about the influence of Bill Belichick in his locker room is how he sets the tone for his team every week. The tone now is to forget the longest winning streak in NFL history. New England's at 17. Five teams have won 18 in a row. The Pats had the bye this week, then Buffalo at Buffalo and Miami at home. Belichick said: "All we care about is winning one game in a row," and so his players, suitably programmed, followed in lockstep. WillieMcGinest said: "It's all about one game, taking one game and trying to win. Who cares how high the streak goes?'' Rodney Harrison said: "All we care about is one victory. You have to think about one game. Who cares about the streak?'' Tom Brady said: "Everything we do is centered on winning one game. No one here thinks of the streak.'' To me, this is a sign. It shows that even the biggest stars on this team, even after winning two Super Bowls, are programmable and still buy what Belichick is selling. They speak almost like Belichick is pulling a string behind them.
9. I think it's hard to see how Norv Turner can't start Kerry Collins next week.
10. I think I don't want to rub it in to Dick Vermeil this morning, but his Chiefs have allowed the most points, 86, in the league so far, and this is their next five weeks: at Baltimore (2-1) on Monday night, bye, at Jacksonville (3-0), Atlanta (3-0) and Indy (2-1). Whew. Even the game against bye should be a tough one.
WHO I LIKE TONIGHT AND I DON'T MEAN AL MICHAELS
The angle of the game will be the renewal of the Parcells-Gibbs rivalry, which is a good one. I covered the Giants during some of the great Parcells-Gibbs years, mostly when Parcells was 11-3 against Washington in their last 14 meetings. Two scenes I remember clearly. On the Joe Theismann leg-breaking night, a young radio reporter enraged Carl Banks in the losing Giant locker room after the game with some question I can't recall. And Banks wanted to kill the reporter. Screaming and venomous, Banks finally had to be restrained by Parcells, who hustled from the shower, one hand holding a towel around his waist, to quell the disturbance. Imagine that sight. Real pretty. The other game: Oct. 27, 1986. Two nights after the ball rolls through Buckner's legs in Game 6. The Giants and 'Skins are playing for NFC East supremacy at the Meadowlands, with Game 7 of an epic Series going on simultaneously 20 miles away in Queens. Tense games. Sox go up 3-0. Giants go up 20-3. Football crowd with radios. Mets rally. Gary Clark catches a long throw from JaySchroeder, gets up, and ... a roar from the crowd! Clark looks around in wonderment. The Mets have taken the lead. And so it goes, the football crowd cheering the baseball game. Schroeder throws for 420. LT sacks him three times. Joe Morris runs for the winning touchdown with 80 seconds left. Giants, 27, Redskins 20.
The tables have turned. Now the Redskins have the back. Dallas doesn't, unless Parcells runs the shifty ReShard Lee more tonight than he has so far this year. Look for Parcells, though, to say the exact same thing to Gibbs as he used to: You won't beat us running -- we just won't allow it.
If the shaky Washington passing game isn't very good tonight -- and I don't think it will be -- I like Dallas. For old time's sake, Parcells 27, Gibbs 20.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.