I'm curious to see what kind of a defense Jacksonville puts up against Pittsburgh on Monday night. Will the Jaguars load up to stop Jerome Bettis and take their chances against Kordell Stewart's arm? Seems logical enough, since Bettis killed the Redskins two weeks ago, and so far the few passes that Stewart has connected on haven't bothered anybody. His 8.9 yards per completion is the third lowest in the NFL.
Will the Jaguars send the blitzers after him and try to force turnovers, hoping that he doesn't slash 'em with his scrambles, or will they drop their defenders into an exotic array of coverages, figuring they can take advantage of Stewart's inexperience? Will the Steelers let Slash go deep and create some shock effect? Oh, yes, an orgy of strategy is in store, and the snapper is that sooner or later Stewart is bound to break out. I don't think it's going to be this week. The Jaguars are too sound fundamentally.
The original forecast on Mark Brunell's knee injury was that he would return to lead the Jacksonville offense in eight weeks, but if he's back for this one, he will have missed only six. It could happen, or Rob Johnson could return from the sprained ankle that forced him to sit out the Week 2 win over the Giants, or Steve Matthews could have another career game. No, scratch that. Not against the Steelers' defense, he won't. Whoever the quarterback is, I can't see anything but a Jacksonville victory, and the deciding factor could be the Pittsburgh cornerbacks, the weakest part of the defense.
Miami at Tampa Bay is an intriguing game because this is the one in which the Buccaneers, riding high after three straight upsets, could suffer a letdown. For a Jimmy Johnson-coached team, the Dolphins are weirdly out of balance, throwing like crazy and basically giving up on the running game (six carries in the second half against Green Bay), and all this with a Greek chorus in the background murmuring that Dan Marino's days are numbered. So if it's bombs away on Sunday night, how will Tony Dungy's Bucs hold up?
I think they'll do just fine, and here's one reason: left cornerback Donnie Abraham, a second-year pro out of East Tennessee State. O.J. McDuffie, Marino's most reliable receiver, will be Abraham's personal challenge, just as the Vikings' Oris Carter was on Sunday. He attacked Carter, holding him to one 11-yard catch out of the five passes thrown to him when Abraham had him in man coverage. When the Bucs had the ball they came up with nothing but terrific plays, and yes, quarterback Trent Dilfer had his share. Warrick Dunn's the game-breaker, Mike Alstott's the hammer. I like the balanced offense to beat the lopsided one, which means the amazing Bucs will go to 4-0.
How much did that emotional overtime loss to the Patriots take out of the Jets? New York should have won it. Even without its only serious pass rusher, Hugh Douglas, the defense still had Drew Bledsoe's number. What beat the Jets was a blocked chip-shot field goal, a sustained rush on quarterback Neil O'Donnell and the unchartable element, Curtis Martin, who ran them into the ground and made the game a personal crusade. How does a team recover from that, especially against the Raiders, an outfit that always seems to give the Jets problems, especially when New York's at home?
Oakland hasn't lost to the Jets in New York since 1979. Since their famous defeat in the '68 AFL title game, the Raiders have taken six out of seven back East. But those were different Raiders teams. They played with passion. This one seems hollow, unless you're excited about the narrow victory over the Falcons. I think New York will recover just fine. The Jets will win it, as history suffers another reversal.
Blowout special: Buffalo, with its bruising pass rush, over Indianapolis, which has allowed 18 sacks in three games. It almost seems too easy, which makes me nervous. Tennessee over Baltimore, on the strength of the Oilers' ground attack. What a refreshing thing it is to see a team that refuses to give up on the running game. I do admire the Ravens' courage, though, especially that of quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who while playing with a painfully sprained thumb, rallied his team to 10 fourth-quarter points to beat the Giants.
Now those Giants travel to St. Louis to face a Rams team that has beaten them three out of the last four. New York coach Jim Fassel, fearing the Baltimore rush, had Dave Brown throwing short stuff out of a three-step drop. Brown had a career-high 28 completions, and the Giants still came up short when, for some reason, kicker Brad Daluiso went sour. The Rams can rush the passer, they can put up a sturdy defense at times, they can hang in with the tough teams for a while, but two things have beaten them—inconsistent quarterbacking (against San Francisco) and lack of manpower (against Denver).
The Broncos came out flat on Sunday, ready for a fall, but the Rams, minus wideout Isaac Bruce and two offensive linemen, and with Lawrence Phillips slowed by a turf toe, didn't have enough weapons. If they're still playing with a short deck, the Giants will beat them. If they've got all their people back, they'll win. It could go either way, but on a hunch, I'll take the Giants.