The defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens have struggled in two straight outings, the more serious one being Sunday's loss to Cincinnati. If you want to put an optimistic spin on things, you could say that they had even bigger problems last year, when they were 5-4 and hadn't scored a touchdown in five games. But they righted themselves by playing great defense.
If you want to look at the downside, though, you could say this is a team that's out of character, that it's hardly Baltimore's style to throw 64 times a game (as the Ravens did against the Bengals), that the offensive line didn't knock anyone off the ball and the whole team was outhit and outhustled. They can turn things around this week in Denver. The Ravens will be mad enough, but the Broncos also have a score to settle after Baltimore humiliated them in last season's wild-card playoffs. Brian Griese was out of action that day, and now he and Indy's Peyton Manning are the league's hottest quarterbacks.
The Broncos let the bigger, heavier Cardinals shove them around for a while on Sunday night, but then the big boys tired in the 103� Arizona heat, and Denver turned the game into a rout. Griese is in a Kurt Warner-type rhythm; the ball seems to have eyes. But Griese's foundation is an effective run game, and the Ravens devour ground games.
I've come up with good reasons that both sides should win, but it's time to make a pick. The Broncos have the hot hand; the Ravens are still unsettled. Denver's the choice.
Cincinnati- San Diego, which in the preseason figured to be a dog of a game, is suddenly intriguing: two unbeaten Cinderellas going at it. Are they for real? Is one of them for real?
The Chargers, under quarterback Doug Flutie, have come alive offensively, and I'm wondering, When's the last time they had anything like the 480 yards they ran up against the Cowboys? Air Coryell days, maybe? Joe Pascale's defense can be counted on; even in the gloom of last year's 1-15 record, it finished in the top half of the league (13th).
As for Cincy, running back Corey Dillon has always been scary, but the defense usually screwed things up somehow. Against the Ravens, though, the defense was fierce, turning up the intensity a notch when things went wrong. Could be that this young group, averaging 26.4 years per starter, is coming of age. I kind of believe in the Bengals. Call this my upset special.
The Rams dropped too many passes against the 49ers, committed too many penalties, lost their concentration too often, almost blew the game but finally won on pure talent. They won't beat the Dolphins that way. In fact, I don't think they'll beat them at all. Miami's the pick in upset number 2.
There are two interesting matchups at the Meadowlands. The Niners are due for a letdown against the Jets in the Monday-nighter, but I think San Francisco has enough offensive punch to spring still another upset. A day earlier the Giants take on the Saints, who are coming back from a two-week layoff. The rust will show. The Giants will win it in a low-scorer.
Quick picks: Kansas City over Washington, Tampa Bay to add to Minnesota's miseries, Arizona to get on track against Atlanta.