Fascinating matchup in San Diego, more to watch this weekend
Ravens-Chargers will be a measuring-stick game for both teams
Texans' offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is under pressure
Can Jake Delhomme salvage his career? We may find out this week
There's a lot to look forward to this weekend in the league -- Jake Delhomme and Jay Cutler trying to redeem themselves, the debut of the new Dallas stadium and its 168-foot-wide high-def TV hanging over the field, Rex Ryan putting up or shutting up, and the Lions trying to make me look smart for picking them to beat the Vikings. But the game that fascinates me is Baltimore at the beat-up Chargers in San Diego's home opener.
It's a measuring-stick game for both teams. "Playing Baltimore is a great gauge for where we are as a team,'' said left tackle Marcus McNeill. Especially because San Diego has pressure teams Miami and Pittsburgh in the next two weeks. Two years ago in San Diego, that measuring stick was a big factor in propelling the Chargers into the playoffs. Philip Rivers had one of the best games of his career, completing 25 of 35 passes with three touchdowns and no picks. And no sacks. San Diego routed Baltimore 32-14, and the Chargers went on to a first-round upset of the Colts in the playoffs.
This game should be tighter, and I'd be stunned if the Chargers score that many points, considering that injuries will likely disable Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick (huge loss, with Kelly Gregg back and playing well at the Baltimore nose) and limit LaDainian Tomlinson. The Chargers had a sputtering opening night in Oakland, doing nothing on six of their first nine drives and escaping with a win.
The Ravens, with new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison changing little from predecessor Rex Ryan's take-no-prisoners schemes, had a good, but misleading opener. Kansas City put up 24 points, but there was a blocked punt for touchdown, a Joe Flacco interception preceding a six-yard touchdown drive, a 55-yard drive to a field goal, and an 80-yard touchdown drive. For the game, the Chiefs had the ball for 20 minutes and gained 188 yards. Typical Baltimore defensive day.
"I didn't notice much different from what the Ravens always do,'' Rivers told me Thursday . "There's a ton of similarities with what coach Ryan did. Maybe Terrell Suggs isn't moving around as much as he used to, but he still lines up on either side. I still see them mixing it up like crazy.''
They'd better on Sunday at Qualcomm. Rivers needs to be hit and bothered for Baltimore to win this game. While America was rhapsodizing about the great Patriot comeback Monday night (I'm Mr. Guilty Rhapsodizer Number One), most of the country was asleep when Rivers did what he's paid to do in the fourth quarter at Oakland. He led the Chargers on 77- and 89-yard touchdown drives -- completing 10 of 12 throws for 144 yards in the process -- to win. He did it with his high-energy style, but whereas some quarterbacks can't channel their energy well late in a game, Rivers' touch passes seem to get better when it matters most.
We've all made a big deal about the other two quarterbacks in his draft class -- Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning -- winning three Super Bowls between them while Rivers has won none. That's fair, and championships might be more important than touchdowns in measuring quarterbacks historically. But with each player maybe 40 percent into his career, it's not smart to rush to judgment on them.
Roethlisberger and Manning have the hardware. Rivers, who has the numbers, sounded driven to add a Lombardi when we spoke.
"You're never satisfied 'til you win a championship,'' he said. "I'm pleased with how my game has improved each season and how we've improved, but I won't feel I've done what I was brought here to do 'til we win a title.''
In 15 days starting Sunday, we should start to get a good idea whether the Chargers can handle the kind of adversity championship teams handle (a green Scott Mruczkowski likely fills in for the mauling Hardwick). I like the Chargers, narrowly, but I expect this game to go down to the two-minute warning like so many Charger games do.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Houston. Who can believe the Texans were the NFL's third-rated offense last year? In what? Girl Scout cookies sold? No team laid a Week 1 egg as big as the Texans in their 24-7 loss to the Jets: 189 yards, 2.9 yards per rush, 21 minutes of possession time. It's not going to be easy to rebound at rough-and-ready Tennessee, but Shanahan simply has to get Steve Slaton involved more than his nine carries and three catches against the Jets. I once asked Mike Shanahan, Kyle's dad, what he liked about his son's coaching ability. "He's smart, and he listens to new ideas,'' Mike Shanahan said. He'd better have something smart up his sleeve in Nashville.
Ten Things I'll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Whether Jake Delhomme can salvage his career. After Delhomme turned it over on 11 of his last 22 possessions, it's not too dramatic to say he is playing for his professional life against Atlanta. Best thing for Jake: The game's on the road, and the Panthers don't have a home game until Oct. 11.
2. Punters avoiding the videoboard in Arlington. I don't expect either punter -- Jeff Feagles (Giants) or Mat McBriar (Cowboys) -- to hit the board Sunday night, Feagles because he doesn't have the leg and McBriar because he knows who's signing his checks. But I do expect the 5,500-square-foot beer storage room (that's right, Jerry Jones' beer room is bigger than all of our homes) to be busy.
3. Leodis McKelvin moving on with his life. First, clarity on what happened Monday night. When McKelvin fielded the ill-fated kickoff in Foxboro late in the fourth quarter, he didn't know if he'd caught the ball at the 1- or 2-, or whether he got it in the end zone, so he felt he had to bring it out, not wanting to risk a safety. As for dinging him for not going down at first contract and avoiding the risk of a fumble, that's fair criticism. But he didn't kill the Lindbergh Baby, or even interrupt Taylor Swift's MTV speech.
Let's go easy on saying he cost the Bills the game. The defense had the chance -- twice -- to cover Benjamin Watson or harass Tom Brady down the stretch, and didn't. Redemption comes Sunday in Orchard Park against Tampa Bay. Schedule quirk of the year: The Bucs and Bills have met eight times, and all eight times the games have been in Tampa. Seems impossible that the Bills and Bucs have been in the same league for 34 years and have never played in western New York.
4. The officials getting the Tom Brady Rule right. There's no question in the little DVD officiating czar Mike Pereira sends out each week clarifying, amplifying and correcting calls from the previous week that he included ref Scott Green's Brady Rule roughing-the-passer call on Trent Edwards Monday night. Wilfork contacted Edwards at the thigh, clearly above the knee; the rule states a defender cannot hit the quarterback in the knee area or below. I'm all for protecting The Franchises, but come on. Call it right.
5. The Lions breaking their schneid. They're 1-24 in the last 22 months. Minnesota's coming to Ford Field. With the emotion of the new regime and a quarterback who I don't think will be bullied by the strong Viking front, I like the Lions to win. I might need to be committed.
6. How Arizona rebounds ... and travels. In the 2008 regular season, the Cards were 0-5 in Eastern Time, losing by 7, 21, 4, 28 and 40. Thank God they've only got three of these jaunts this year, beginning with Sunday's against Jacksonville. But the Cards had a feeble opener. I want to see the Warner-to-Fitzgerald explosions happen again.
7. What team takes the upper hand in the weird NFC West. Seattle and San Francisco meet at Candle3Monsterstick -- whatever it's called. Winner starts 2-0 and takes early control of a division no one has a handle on.
8. Jay Cutler's psyche. Sullen and biting on and off the field after a horrible debut, Cutler's got more than the rush of the almighty Steelers to worry about Sunday at Soldier Field. He's got a city of rush-to-judgment fans apoplectic, as well as a hovering media mob. Jim Mora of NFL Network said Cutler looked "completely immature'' at Green Bay -- and just think: He's one of the media pussycats.
9. Whether Cutler's the most important Vanderbilt product on the Bears roster Sunday. Hunter Taverner Hillenmeyer (3.8 GPA, double-major in economics and human/organizational development) replaces Brian Urlacher as the nerve center of the Bear defense. A career strongside 'backer, he's had 56 career starts. The Bears need him to rise to the occasion.
10. The Tom Brady-Rex Ryan set-to. Tom Brady hates the Jets. He has a special vitriol for the team 188 miles to the southwest, and I expect the idea that Kerry Rhodes intends to try to "embarrass'' the Patriots Sunday has been digested quite well by Brady. If the Patriots make a big play on the Jet secondary, CBS, keep an iso camera on Brady, because I believe he might be chirping at Rhodes.
NFL Truth & Rumors