The Designed Rush, Week 4: As Always, There's Turnover at the Top

Excluding the Giants, the other three teams that received first-round byes in last year's playoffs are a combined 1-8 so far this season. And that one victory was when one of those three teams, the Steelers, eked out an overtime victory over the Titans, another of 2008's struggling top seeds.
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↵Obviously it's yet another reiteration on the point that it's exceedingly difficult to stay at the top tier in the NFL. Of these three teams, only the Titans lost a significant free agent in Albert Haynesworth. The Panthers and the Steelers, however, are falling prey to weaknesses that were evident even as they excelled last season. For the Panthers, it's the fact that Jake Delhomme is consistently mistake-prone. For the Steelers, it's an inability to run the ball that has kept them from being able to put teams away when they have them on the ropes. And as anyone who watches the league knows, letting a team hang around will come back to hurt you more often than not. As for Tennessee, the loss of Haynesworth is felt keenly, as is the frequency with which teams are able to disrupt Kerry Collins, who excelled in 2008 much the way David Garrard did for a run-first defense-heavy Jacksonville team in 2007 -- by not turning the ball over. It doesn't help that the Titans receivers are still plagued by frequent drops. ↵

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↵Aside from the Panthers, who made a large and very questionable financial commitment to their biggest liability in the offseason, these other teams have fixable problems that could be overcome with the right adjustments from the coaching staff. But obviously the rest of the league isn't standing pat waiting for that to happen. In their place have already arisen a number of viable contenders for the throne. ↵

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↵Giants: The crack on the G-men was that the offense was kaput without a tall receiver to catch Eli Manning's persistent overthrows. But Eli looks more polished than he has at any point in his pro career, while Mario Manningham has emerged as the threat in the passing game that the team was going to need to compete. Of course, they're also capable of beating people up in every other facet of the game. ↵

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↵Saints: Winning ugly in Buffalo had to be pleasing to Saints fans (so long as they aren't Drew Brees fantasy owners). Criticism of the Saints has suggested that on any game where Brees isn't on target that the team doesn't stand a prayer. With Carolina and Tampa having fallen off hard, only Atlanta poses a threat to them in the NFC South. ↵

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↵Ravens: Shoring up the tackle position has improved the offense dramatically by freeing up Todd Heap, who's not much of a blocker to begin with, from those commitments to do what he excels at - pass catching. The defense finally gave a suffocating performance Sunday, albeit against a Browns team that's as offensively inept as any in the league. ↵

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↵Colts: Everyone was prepared for this to be a huge dropoff season with the departure of Tony Dungy, but Peyton Manning has been devastating every time he gets the ball this year. The rest of the offense, outside of reliable weapons in Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne, looks rejuvenated. Pierre Garcon has huge playmaking ability and Donald Brown makes a convincing case for more touches each week. The run defense is going to be a continuing concern, however. ↵

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↵Eagles: The only team of the group with a loss. They're treading water until Donovan McNabb returns. Should he come back and remain healthy (never a sure thing with Donovan) they're still a very, very dangerous team. But so long as they're chasing down the equally dominating Giants, each week could represent a huge amount of ground to make up. ↵

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↵I hesitate to add the Jets to the list, even though I'm fairly certain that they will be a playoff team, because at some point in the postseason Mark Sanchez will be exploited as a weak point. The 2004 Steelers, along with the 2008 Falcons and Ravens, proved you could have a highly respectable season with a starting rookie QB, but there's still a defined limit to how far you can go. Otherwise, if Brady ever returns to form, the Patriots could be a threat, as could San Diego if the rush defense can congeal even a little bit, ditto the Steelers if they deal with some offensive problems and keep steady until Troy Polamalu's return. The Vikings picture will never be clear until Favre runs into his inevitable fatigue in December. And the Broncos are paper tigers at 3-0. ↵

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↵These perimeter teams are operating on contingencies coming to fruition, most of which probably won't. Meanwhile, the top five have made convincing cases for why, save an unforeseen crisis, that they have already accepted the baton that last year's stalwarts have let slip from their grasp. Now we can only sit back and see who stumbles. ↵

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↵Five games to watch even if you don't have a rooting interest or fantasy players involved ↵

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↵Baltimore at New England (Sunday, 1 p.m.) ↵

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↵Most people recall the Monday night game in 2007 in which the unbeaten Patriots came into Baltimore and narrowly escaped with a victory after an epic late-game meltdown by then-Ravens linebacker Bart Scott, who threw an officials flag into the stands and almost went after a referee. Now the Ravens arrive in Foxboro unbeaten, while the Patriots have renewed confidence following a needed victory against the Falcons. The Patriots relied heavily on Fred Taylor to pound away against Atlanta, but likely won't be able to duplicate that success against the Ravens front seven. The Baltimore secondary, however, has looked shaky so far this season. If New England is to prevail, it's going to have to be on the arm of Tom Brady. In years past, the Pats would take that scenario every single time. This season, it's a slightly more perilous proposition. ↵

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↵New York Jets at New Orleans (Sunday, 4:05 p.m.) ↵

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↵Surprising 3-0 teams with storylines that run deeper than just a matchup of the unbeaten. You have Drew Brees, arguably the best passer in the game today facing off with another rookie quarterback following the Roethlisberger-Ryan-Flacco blueprint for success. Rex Ryan also seems like a guy who's good for some inappropriate behavior on Bourbon Street. ↵

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↵Green Bay at Minnesota (Monday, 8:30 p.m.) ↵

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↵Hmm. What could be the obvious hook with this one? A fight for the top of the NFC North standings? Can Adrian Peterson rebound and go over 100 yards again after an off week? If only there were an oft-retired, attention-seeking quarterback facing his longtime former team for the first time. That could spice it up a bit. ↵

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↵Dallas at Denver (Sunday, 4:15 p.m.) ↵

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↵The Bengals' success has complicated the claim that the Broncos have coasted on an easy schedule to a 3-0 record, however the Browns and the Raiders won't be mistaken for worldbeaters anytime soon. Denver will be tested again with the Cowboys coming to town, even though reports are emerging that the knee injury Felix Jones sustained last night might be a serious one. Tashard Choice filled in admirably in his place, but Dallas can't afford to be this thin at running back again after what happened late last season. ↵

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↵San Diego at Pittsburgh (Sunday, 8:20 p.m.) ↵

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↵The defending champs have witnessed the opposition drive on their vaunted defense to claim winning scores each of the past two weeks, which has landed the Steelers at a precarious 1-2 start. A victory against the visiting Chargers - who are winless all-time in the regular season in Pittsburgh - would right the ship just in time for back-to-back games against the Lions and Browns. At that point, the Steelers could see a return of their Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu (who had one of his most memorable interceptions in the snow last season at home against San Diego) in time to host the Vikings in their final game before the bye week. A fall to 1-3, however, could send the season into a tailspin from which they would have a difficult time recovering. ↵

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↵NFL Player Tweet of the Week ↵

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↵"I got a question? Can someone tell me what kind of fish is that they sell @ mcdonalds?????? Please tell me" -- Vernon Davis, Sept. 26 ↵

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↵Normally you'd want your players to be dwelling on other things than the contents of McDonald's Filet-O-Fish the day before a game on the road against an undefeated team. But then Vernon went and turned in his best performance in some time - seven receptions for 96 yards and two touchdowns. Clearly in retrospect this fast food item is the key to unlocking all of the former No. 5 overall pick's vast store of wasted potential. That or having a disciplinarian for a head coach. ↵

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↵By the way, Vernon, the answer is hoki, pollock, a little cod and a combination of other less-known fish. Though I wouldn't be shocked if sawdust and cigarette filters figured prominently in there as well. ↵

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↵Truth About Advertising ↵

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↵I've disliked every Old Navy ad campaign since as far back as I can remember. The forced kitsch aesthetic twinned with overly cutesy stabs at humor has always rubbed me the wrong way. And the latest spot for their $20 Cardi Coats is no different. They bring out those creepy talking mannequins (not with mouth movement, mind you, but with a voiceover while showing their motionless faces) they've had before standing by an airport luggage claim. One is grousing because her disembodied legs have yet to arrive from the baggage handlers, even though she made sure to secure her collection of OLD NAVY CARDI COATS, NOW ONLY $20! At least she seems mildly disturbed when her legs eventually arrive horribly mangled. I know if I were a sentient mannequin that that would get me down. ↵

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↵Dispatches from Madden Nation ↵

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↵In the loading screen prior to online ranked play, when the strengths of the two teams is being compared graphically, I don't think I've seen a single team with pass defense to be assessed better than one of three possible bars. How is that? Have the Madden programmers decreed this to be a historically inept period for pass coverage? If so, I think it's unfair to take DeAngelo Hall's unmistakable suckiness out on everybody. ↵

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↵A Delicious Bundle of Gripes ↵

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↵- An industrious soul has put together a mash-up of father-son Mora media tantrums. Sorry though, the son has not surpassed the father in this respect. A few cuss words and some bitter sentiments does not a "PLAYOFFS!?" make. ↵

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↵- I'm one of the poor saps who ponies up for DirecTV's Sunday Ticket, but too cheap to throw in the extra money for the Superfan package. While I've learned to live with my stupidity, DirecTV doesn't make it easier by giving everyone the full package during Week 1. Every game in HD, Game Mix, RedZone Channel. Then they pull the rug out from under you after tantalizing you with the possibilities. I'm sure it's a canny business move. People realize what they're missing and upgrade. For the rest of us, it's a cruel, cruel tease. ↵

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↵- Did someone actually praise those godawful neon green Seahawks alternate jerseys? Do you secretly desire for FUBU to get the rights to design NFL jerseys? ↵

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↵- Jon Gruden is quickly wearing out his welcome in the Monday Night Football booth. Granted, he's still not as bad as Tony Kornheiser was, but he's still good for at least one facepalm worthy statement each week. And that doesn't even take into account the aggravating nicknames. Last week, he was calling Peyton Manning "The Sheriff", last night he pronounced that Jake Delhomme "leads the league in grit" when Jake doesn't stand a chance at leading the NFL in anything but picks for six. Toss in the hefty dose of apologizing for Delhomme's mistakes last night and the mute button will be getting some work, especially next week when the gushing over Favre will undo us all. ↵

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↵- Ben Roethlisberger will be hosting WWE's Monday Night Raw next week, which is smart, because there's probably not a player in sports more likely to believe wrestling is real. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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