Griffin faces test of early success in first NFC East showdown
Robert Griffin III is only quarterback in NFL completing 70 percent of passes
Opposing QBs have played well against Ray Lewis replacement Dannell Ellerbe
Steelers face a must-win game at Cincinnati to stay in race for AFC North
This may not be the biggest story of the week, but it's my favorite. This is the first game Robert Griffin III will play in the NFC East. Think of it: If he's the Washington quarterback for the next 15 years, he'll play 90 division games, and this is the first. If you've been watching him in his first six games in the NFL, you know there's going to be a little bit more than the normal New York-Washington buzz in the stadium Sunday afternoon at the Meadowlands.
Now, as much as Griffin flings his body around and puts himself in harm's way, it'd be an upset if he does play 90 NFC East games. However many he plays, they're going to be a thrill ride.
He sprinted up the left sideline for a 76-yard touchdown run last week, looking as fast as Deion Sanders ever was. With 379 yards on the ground, Griffin is outrushing Darren McFadden, Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson and Michael Turner through six weeks -- and his six touchdowns are more than those four star backs combined. While it's correct to think of the 218-pound Griffin as the next run-pass threat among young quarterbacks, he's not your garden variety runner and thrower. Griffin is the only quarterback in the NFL completing at least 70 percent of his passes through six weeks.
His game-by-game completion percentages: 73.1, 69.0, 61.8, 74.3, 66.7, 77.3. What's makes those all the more impressive is that Griffin hasn't played with a clean pocket this fall. He's often on the move because of a work-in-progress offensive line.
Griffin's accuracy, really, is mind-boggling, considering how he's had to adjust to a new offense and the pro game. Steve Young eventually became the most accurate passer in the game, but early in his career he struggled mightily. In Young's first full season as a starter, 1986, playing for Tampa Bay, he completed 53.7 percent of his throws
"You don't see players come into the league performing like that,'' Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora said this week. "So they've got a really good player on their hands, and we've got a problem on ours."
The logical thought for Griffin this week, at least the first thing I thought of, is this: You're going on the road to play the Super Bowl champions, a team with a ferocious pass rush, in your first division game ever. There has to be a few butterflies about this. Right?
"Nah, nah,'' said London Fletcher, linebacker and Griffin teammate, over the phone from Virginia, with a bit of a chuckle. "He'll be fine. He won't be intimidated by their pass-rush. In fact, noting intimidates him that I've seen. The kid's unflappable. None of this stuff with the NFL affects him. You can see it in his preparation and then in the games -- he understands the NFL's a great challenge, but in the end, he also understands it's football.
"I also think the great thing about our schedule, even though this is the first division game, is that I think his first game got him ready for anything. We played New Orleans in New Orleans, with that crowd, with Sean Payton and the suspensions, with all the stuff about the bounties, and the crowd was crazy. With all due respect to all the crowds in the NFC East, I don't think he'll face a tougher environment in any other game. The intensity won't be any higher than it was that day.''
Griffin was 19-of-26 for 320 yards and two touchdowns that day, for a 139.9 rating. And off he went. He's treating this game like any other, and we'll see if the Giants can hem him in.
"It's going to be a heated game, very competitive,'' Griffin said this week. "I'm looking forward to my first taste of divisional action."
Griffin, obviously, has already learned quarterback-speak.
San Francisco 13, Seattle 6. Three points about the 49ers continuing a fairly remarkable streak in the 25-game NFL coaching career of Jim Harbaugh (notable because he has yet to lose two games in a row):
1. Harbaugh made the right coaching decision in refusing the safety at the end of the game and taking the ball instead with a seven-point lead. The situation: 43 seconds left, San Francisco up by seven, Seattle with no timeouts left. The Niners had a choice: take a safety and a nine-point lead after an offensive penalty in the end zone for Seattle, with the Seahawks then having a free kick; or take the ball at the Seattle 20, knowing that all they had to do to win was to take a knee twice. Harbaugh choose to take a knee twice. Game over.
The Vegas crowd went nuts, because, according to reports, a nine-point win in a game with a betting line of 7 or 7.5 points meant a swing of $75 million in bets. Plus, how in the world could Seattle score twice in 43 seconds to either tie or win the game? Answer: The Seahawks almost certainly couldn't. But Harbaugh knew Alex Smith could take two kneel-downs easily, which would run the clock out. And, almost as important, he knew he wasn't risking injury on one more melee of a play, which the free kick surely would have been, with Seattle players clawing and scratching for the ball. Why risk injury and the infinitesimal chance Seattle could score twice in 43 seconds?
2. Onside kicking a free kick is legal. Which means Seattle not only could have recovered the ball and Hail-Mary-ed a couple of throws downfield, but also a Seahawks recovery would have meant three or more plays with three or more chances for San Francisco defenders to be injured.
3. The Seattle receivers did Russell Wilson no favors. Robert Turbin and Evan More dropped passes with leads on defenders that would have been big gains or, in the case of Turbin, a touchdown; Ben Obamanu tripped over air after a catch, and the ever-yapping Golden Tate dropped a key pass in the fourth quarter when Seattle still had a chance. When you play a great defense, you can afford one or two major mistakes in your passing game. Not four.
Baltimore inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (No. 59): The fourth-year player from Georgia has started eight games previously, but none under the microscope he'll be examined with Sunday in Houston when replacing Ray Lewis. The Ravens love Ellerbe's hustle and his football IQ, but he's going to have to play better as a starter than he has in part-time work, particularly in pass coverage. According to ProFootballFocus.com, opposing quarterbacks are completing 83.3 percent of their throws with Ellerbe in coverage (20 or 24) for an ugly 119.8 rating.
1. Best early game of the season: Ravens at Texans. I know this matchup is injury-plagued, and I wish Ray Lewis, Brian Cushing and Lardarius Webb were playing, but the best thing about this one could be the bombs-away aspect of it. Joe Flacco will need to throw for 300 to win, and I think he has it in him.
2. Too much talk of gamblers. You lost money on the Niners-Seahawks? That's God's way of telling you, "Don't bet, stupid."
3. The Cards falling to earth. A win in Minnesota will keep Arizona tied with San Francisco atop the NFC West, but -- and I don't know why on earth I'm raising this possibility -- I'm skeptical after the Cardinals' home losses to the Rams and Bills, and with John Skelton taking over the starting quarterback job.
4. The lack of buzz in Foxboro for the latest visit of Rex Ryan. The lead-up to Jets-Pats used to be fun (remember Wes Welker clowning Rex Ryan, and Bill Belichick sitting him for it?), but this week it seemed like an I Love Lucy' rerun. No juice.
5. The Steelers trying to hang on for dear life. A Sunday night loss in Cincinnati would leave the Steelers at 2-4 and, depending on the outcome in Houston, up to 3.5 games behind the Ravens after seven weeks of the season. Not good, particularly with the shaky health of defensive centerpiece Troy Polamalu, who will miss another game with the strained calf, and the absence of running back Rashard Mendenhall.
6. Browns news. The new owner, Jimmy Haslam, lords over his first game, Browns at Colts. There won't be many more chances this year for coach Pat Shurmur to impress Haslam (translation: "get a win"), so for Shurmur's long-term security, I think he'd better have one heck of a Knute Rockne-like pregame speech in his hip pocket.
7. Just a week or so until the trading deadline ... And now we can start wondering if the bad teams will clear salaries and looming big-money free-agents (Kansas City with Dwayne Bowe, perhaps), and whether some of the bottom-dwellers (Chiefs, Raiders, Browns, Jags) will try to deal for mid-round draft choices with the season appearing so hopeless. With the moving of the deadline back two weeks, at least now there's a chance of a decent trade day Oct. 30.
8. Shhhhhhhhhhh. Don't tell anyone, but the Packers had their best offensive game since the New Year's Day strafing of the Lions on Monday night, and Aaron Rodgers seems to be getting his mojo back. Big question is, when will he get his favorite receiver, Greg Jennings (going strain), back? The Pack should be able to beat the improving Rams without Jennings.
9. Must win for the Saints. With a roadie at the rested Broncos coming next week, New Orleans can't have any serious playoff hopes (they barely have them anyway) if they lose at the Pirate Ship Sunday. America will have an eye on No. 51 for the Saints, Jonathan Vilma, to see if he makes his season debut, but the only number that matters much is 9, and Drew Brees should have a big day against a secondary missing its best cover guy, Aqib Talib.
10. Stuck in the middle with you. One unbeaten team after six weeks, 6-0 Atlanta. No winless teams. The NFL is smiling at the marvelously large middle class of the 2012 season.
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