Sports Illustrated's Don Banks tackles three issues from around the league:
If the NFL handed out a postseason award for unheralded impact rookies, who would be in line for the defensive honor?
Marques Anderson Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Nobody's going to catch Carolina's Julius Peppers in the Defensive Rookie of the Year race. Peppers is making a run at Jevon Kearse's 1999 rookie sack record. But great things were expected of Peppers, who was the draft's second overall pick.
The name to know among defensive rookies who lasted past the first round is Green Bay's Marques Anderson, a third-round selection from UCLA who was the 20th safety taken overall. Despite being deactivated for the season's first two games, Anderson already has three interceptions -- including two returned for touchdowns, both against Detroit rookie quarterback Joey Harrington -- and two fumble recoveries.
Anderson, who has been nicknamed "Playmaker" by his appreciative Packers teammates, also picked off reigning Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady. His interceptions against Harrington produced scoring returns of 78 and 14 yards, and he's playing a solid starting strong safety role after being thrust into the position by the surprise offseason retirement of Green Bay veteran LeRoy Butler.
Anderson has been selected NFL Rookie of the Week twice this season, and he's up for that honor again this week. Against Detroit on Sunday, Anderson contributed four tackles and one pass defensed, and his second-quarter interception and 14-yard touchdown return gave the Packers a 23-7 lead en route to a 40-14 win. Green Bay (8-1) has the NFL's best record, and the Packersí defense, after a shaky start to the season, has allowed just three touchdowns in its past three games.
Anderson started two games in place of injured free safety Darren Sharper, then moved to strong safety once Sharper returned to Green Bay's lineup. "He's rare for a rookie," Sharper said. "A lot of guys will make plays, but then they'll make a mistake and give up a big play. Marques hasn't done that."
Anderson has made headlines in the past -- but for the wrong reasons. At UCLA, he was one of the Bruins caught using a handicapped-parking pass in 1999. That mistake cost him the '99 season, when he was suspended for the fall quarter. He attended Compton College in California during the UCLA suspension and was expected to go higher in the draft.
But his reputation is on the rise in the NFL.
What offensive lesson did the Raiders successfully relearn Monday night?
Rich Gannon Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
If defenses aren't going to stop the pass, there's no reason to stop passing. Just as they did in Week 2 at Pittsburgh, the Raiders won at Denver despite essentially ignoring the running game. With Denver dropping as many as eight or nine men into pass coverage, Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon sat back unmolested in the pocket and picked apart the Broncosí defense.
In the first half, the Raiders called just four traditional running plays, which gained a total of two yards. Three of those were on Oakland's first drive, which led to a field goal. Gannon also ran three times for 12 yards in the first half.
But in one mind-boggling stretch that spanned from the final snap of the first quarter until 8:42 left in the game, 33 of Oakland's 35 plays were passes, with one of the two rushes being a 2-yard gain on an end-around by receiver Jerry Porter. In that span, the Raiders used their pass-only attack to blow open the 10-0 game, taking a 34-10 lead.
For the game, Oakland rushed 14 times for 27 yards, with just 10 of those carries coming on traditional running plays. Gannon, meanwhile, finished a career-best 34-of-38 for 352 yards, three touchdowns and a 131.6 quarterback rating, with at least two completions to seven different Oakland receivers.
His 21 consecutive completions set an NFL single-game record and fell just one short of Joe Montana's 1987 record for 22 completions in a row, set over two games. On a third-quarter, 96-yard game-sealing touchdown drive, Gannon was 11-of-11 for 94 yards. Overall, Gannon completed 29 of his first 30 passes, and even his one incompletion didn't hit the ground, as running back Charlie Garner caught the ball with one foot out of bounds.
"We needed to throw," said Raiders head coach Bill Callahan of Oakland's pass-happy approach. "We respected Denver and their ability to stop the run. We felt that we could mix it up and really wanted to be more balanced in this attack. We wanted to get in some runs, but we just took what we wanted to take throwing the ball."
In the process, the Raiders jump-started an offense that had averaged just 16 points per game in the course of a four-game losing streak, after averaging 40.5 points per outing in its season-opening four-game win streak.
"We were having a lot of success with the underneath throws," Gannon said. "They were dropping eight guys back and didn't want to give us anything deep. I don't really worry about those kind of numbers. I knew we were having success, and we wanted to keep our aggressive approach."
Another slew of passing records could fall if the Raiders keep that approach for at least another week. Don't look now, but Oakland plays host this week to New England in a rematch of last January's Snow Bowl. With the Patriotsí offense also falling in love with the pass at times this season, these two teams just might combine for the fewest rushes ever in one game.
Which NFC heavyweight has been a mild disappointment despite holding down first place in its division?
Andy Reid Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
If you had polled the experts in the preseason for a list of favorites for NFC home-field advantage in the playoffs, St. Louis and Philadelphia probably would have been the top two choices. And while the Rams' struggles in 2002 have been well chronicled, less noticed has been the Eagles' puzzling pattern of underachievement, especially against teams they were favored to beat.
Though Philadelphia is 6-3 and in first place in the NFC East, with a one-game lead over the second-place Giants, whom the Eagles have beaten, Philadelphia's record is only fifth best in the conference. If the playoffs started today, the Eagles would be seeded fourth in the NFC, entitling them to just one home game in the wild-card round.
That's not the blueprint for postseason success that the Eagles had in mind, especially after coming within a touchdown of making the Super Bowl last year. Philadelphia still has time to climb over Green Bay (8-1), New Orleans and San Francisco (both 7-2) in terms of playoff seeding. But to do so, the Eagles are going to have to put an end to their pattern of consistent inconsistency.
Philadelphia has lost, won three in a row, lost, won three in a row and lost. All three defeats came at the hands of teams in the AFC South -- at Tennessee, at Jacksonville and home against Indianapolis on Sunday -- a division that might be the least regarded in the NFL. The Eagles' only win against an AFC South member was at home in Week 4 against expansion Houston.
After this week's home game against slumping Arizona, the Eaglesí schedule stiffens, with back-to-back tests at San Francisco and home against the resurgent Rams. In the season's final four weeks, Philadelphia has just one home game -- against Washington -- with trips to Seattle, Dallas and the Giants mixed in as well.
Philadelphia probably needs a 6-1 finish to secure at least the NFC's No. 2 seed, which would require them to go on the road only in the conference title game. Of course, that trip could be to Green Bay's Lambeau Field in the dead of winter, a trip that no Super Bowl hopeful is eager to take. If such a scenario plays out, the Eagles, oddly enough, will have the AFC South to thank for that.