In the off-season the one September game you'd have circled in red would have been Jacksonville at Indianapolis this Monday night. The Colts were the consensus choice to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The Jaguars had the conference's best record in '99, a gaudy 14-2. But things have changed.
Jacksonville began losing offensive linemen in the preseason. Then the Jaguars' premier running back, Fred Taylor, went down. Star defensive end Tony Brackens was a camp holdout, and since he rejoined the team in late August, all we've been hearing is that he's "playing himself back into shape." Then Baltimore, an average offensive team (despite all the talk about coach Brian Billick's strategic brilliance), scored 32 points on Jacksonville in the second half to win a Week 2 shootout.
The Colts? They're everybody's darling, except the people who take defense seriously. Giving up 31 unanswered points in the second half of a home loss to the Raiders took away some of Indy's luster.
So who are the real Jaguars? The team that was overrun by the Ravens or the one that shut out the Bengals in a rainstorm on Sunday? Are the real Colts the ones who put the clamps on Kansas City at Arrowhead in the opener or the guys who collapsed against Oakland?
One statistic jumps out of the Jacksonville- Cincinnati affair: Mark Brunell's measly average of 8.8 yards per completed pass. The Bengals showed little respect for the running game. They came out in a double zone, designed to cut off the long ball that had tormented Baltimore, and forced Brunell to go underneath. I think the Colts will do the same, and unless Taylor makes an unexpected recovery from his sprained left knee, the Jaguars will put up paltry rushing stats. Brunell will complete a lot of passes, but Peyton Manning will too. The Colts will win as the sky—make that the Dome—is filled with footballs.
My favorite game on the board is Giants-Redskins. Who is the unsung hero behind the Giants' 3-0 start? Offensive line coach Jim McNally, who ranks with Denver's Alex Gibbs as the best in the business. Against the blitz-happy Eagles in Week 2, McNally's guys had their schemes down perfectly and gave quarterback Kerry Collins time to pick apart the defense. Against the Bears, the Giants ran the ball. Power sweeps, pulling guards, with 312-pound Glenn Parker looking positively nimble. Somewhere Vince Lombardi was smiling.
This is a revenge game for New York, which remembers last year's 50-21 humiliation at home. Make it a win for the Giants, and give 'em about 160 yards on the ground.
I'm glad Jets-Bucs is being played in September, so we can get those Keyshawn quotes out of the way. Against the Lions, though, he showed us what Tampa Bay was lacking last year: a bailout receiver for Shaun King. The Jets are a resilient team that refuses to back down. On the Bucs' home turf, though, I have to go with the form chart and pick Tampa Bay.
I refuse to get off the Eagles, even though Donovan McNabb seems to be regressing. I'll go with Philadelphia in a mini upset over New Orleans. The home team has won the last five Detroit- Chicago games, which leads me to the Bears. There's an interesting matchup in the desert heat between Arizona and Green Bay. The Cardinals will be rested, coming off their bye. I'll still take the Packers now that Dorsey Levens is back.
Despite Elvis Grbac's flurry of touchdown passes against the Chargers, I like the Broncos to win big over the Chiefs. The Seahawks will squeak one out in San Diego, which forgot how to play defense against K.C. Finally Miami, which turned in a competent night's work against the Ravens, will win at home against New England.