Crystal Ball (cont.)
Shaun Alexander's signing in Washington won't make everyone wonder why the former league MVP's return to the NFL took so long. With Ladell Betts injured, Alexander makes for a decent insurance policy behind league-leading rusher Clinton Portis.
But rather than a return to greatness, Alexander's tenure in D.C. will ultimately conjure up something closer to Eddie George in Dallas: A once-great running back well past the point of being able to carry a team's offense on his back.
If the wheels do come off the Cowboys season -- and I still think they win 10 games and get into the playoffs -- it won't be because their passing game disappeared once Tony Romo broke his pinkie. It'll be because they couldn't stop anyone else's passing game with a secondary that's being held together by hope and scotch tape.
Without cornerbacks Terence Newman (sports hernia) and Pacman Jones (self-inflicted suspension), the Cowboys are going to have to try to hold things together for a few weeks with rookie defensive backs Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick getting far more playing time than Dallas would prefer.
Veteran quarterback Brad Johnson will find enough ways to keep the chains moving on offense, even if his more controlled passing game isn't as esthetically pleasing to watch as Romo's gunslinger approach to the position. But if there's a demise coming in Dallas, it'll be brought on by what opposing quarterbacks are able to accomplish when they drop back in the pocket.
The once-maligned defense that's getting ready to put together a stretch of solid play and occasional dominance is the one that hails from Indianapolis. For most of this season, the Colts defense was getting gouged by the run and couldn't force turnovers or keep teams from converting on third down. Injuries and the inability to get their vaunted pass going plagued the Colts throughout most of their first four games.
But the turnaround began in those frenzied final five minutes of Indy's game at Houston in Week 5, when the Colts defense forced three turnovers by the Texans, returned one for a touchdown, and wound up overcoming a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 31-27. Indy followed that up with a dominating 31-3 win over Baltimore, and has now given up just three points in its most recent four-plus quarters, creating eight turnovers in that span.
The Colts defense is also starting to get healthy. Defensive end Dwight Freeney is still rounding into form after last year's Lisfranc foot injury, safety Bob Sanders (ankle) should return in a couple weeks, and outside linebacker Tyjuan Hagler (pectoral muscle tear) resumed practicing this week for the first time since his injury in July. Add in the emerging performances of safety Melvin Bullitt, linebacker Clint Session and cornerback Tim Jennings, and the Colts defense looks like it has weathered its early season storm.
Matt Cassel will continue to ride the week-to-week rollercoaster he climbed onto in the opening quarter of this year's season opener, but the Patriots won't give up on him and switch to rookie Kevin O'Connell as their starting quarterback because Cassel won't give them the two to three straight rough performances that it would take for them to bench him.
Cassel will look good enough and do a satisfactory and sometimes strong job of game management in the games New England gets out to an early lead. But when the Patriots fall behind and have to play catch-up, Cassel's lack of experience will be on full display, and it won't be pretty. Add it all up and it'll still amount to an uneven but somewhat still surprising nine- or 10-win wild-card berth season for the Patriots with Cassel under center.
Not Brady-esque to be sure, but not bad for a guy who hasn't been a No. 1 of anything since high school.
With both Lane Kiffin and Scott Linehan already canned, the 49ers Mike Nolan will rise to the consensus top spot in the coaches on the hot seat list as the second half of another disappointing season unfolds in San Francisco.
What about Detroit's Rod Marinelli or Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis, you say? Yes, they're both winless and seemingly in greater jeopardy than Nolan, whose 49ers are 2-4 and still in the race in the mild, mild NFC West. But in the case of both the Lions and Bengals, you never know where team owners William Clay Ford and Mike Brown will lay the blame for a losing season, so there's a survivability factor there for Marinelli and Lewis.
Not so in San Francisco, where Nolan was effectively put on a win-or-else notice when ownership debated for several days last offseason before bringing him back for a fourth year. That move at least provided clarity to Nolan's situation. Another non-playoff season -- the 49ers' sixth in a row -- will mean someone else gets to try their hand at turning San Francisco around.