– This week’s games should be called the “Divisional Divide” as there will be seven in-division battles including the week’s marquee match-up on Monday Night Football between the AFC South’s Colts and Jaguars in Jacksonville.
I know one thing, all of these in-division games should help in the separation between “frauds” and “contenders”. Most of the divisions, except for the AFC East (Patriots sporting a five-game edge), are up for grabs with teams currently one to two games within the lead.
As we approach the halfway point in the NFL season, it is abundantly clear that the NFL is truly the “survival of the fittest”. This fact has caused weekly adjustments to constantly be made by coaches trying to gain an edge on their opposition while positioning their teams toward the playoffs.
Injuries are a major reason for the adjustments that coaches have to make in their weekly game planning as it seems each week every team has to deal with losing two to three key players, some for the year. So far this season we have seen injuries decimate teams (Rams and Bills) and entire units (Redskins O-Line, Bears D-Line, Bengals LB’s, Eagles DB’s, Cardinals QB’s, Bucs RB’s, and many others) all over the league.
Injuries have also caused personnel administrators to also make keen decisions on their 53-man roster, in the draft, and on their practice squads, because quality depth is paramount where every player (even the 2′s and 3′s on your depth chart) must be able to make a contribution.
A new wrinkle that has come forward the past couple of years, is specific game planning and adjustments around the return game. The return game can win a game or lose a game (just Andy Reid as the Eagles returners fumbled away a win in week one versus the Packers) and it is extremely important to find big plays on returns.
So far this season there has been 49 return scores (nine on kickoffs, seven punts, 16 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries), which is the second-most return touchdowns scored in a season’s first six weeks since 1970 (50 returns for TD’s after 6 weeks). If the NFL keeps up this pace, they would end with 140 return touchdowns, which would break the single-season record of 125 set in 1999.
One of the main driving forces around the emergence and emphasis on the return game is Bears returner extraordinaire Devin Hester (franchise record nine TD returns including five punts, three kickoffs, one missed FG). NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders, who played 14 seasons in the NFL and is the all-time leader in return touchdowns with 19, emphasized the importance of the return game on opposing coaches’ adjustments by saying, “You look at a guy like Devin Hester, he impacts the entire game”.
Prime Time added “He’s so dangerous with his ability to change field position. He changes the way you game plan. The whole complexion of the game is different, so his impact is far greater than the six points on the board”. The second year player’s presence (only needs five punt/kick touchdown returns to tie the mark held by 14-year veteran Brian Mitchell) is so great that teams are not only looking for their version of him, but they are also thinking of the “crazy” option of kicking out of bounds on kickoffs and punts rather than letting the electric player get his hands on the ball.
Another young player to keep an eye on this week is Minnesota Vikings rookie running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson currently leads the NFL with 607 rushing yards, including a franchise-record 224 last week at Chicago. The first-round draft pick out of Oklahoma is averaging 121.4 yards per game and is on pace for 1,942 yards, which would be the most by a rookie in history (Eric Dickerson holds the record at 1,808 in 1983 for the LA Rams). Peterson also is attempting to become only the seventh rookie since 1950 to lead the league in rushing yards.
Some personnel moves that have come forward this week are:
– PUP List Players
: By league rule, this is the first week that PUP players can practice. Teams have until Nov. 6 to have players on the physically unable to perform list begin practicing.
Once a player does practice, his team then has three weeks to determine whether to elevate him to the active roster or keep him on PUP for the rest of the season (ex. Patriots WR Chad Jackson and DB Eddie Jackson – both practiced this week).
– Suspended Players Getting a Second Chance
: Troubled receiver Koren Robinson was reinstated from his one-year suspension by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell this week. He returned to practice this week for the Green Bay Packers (On a bye this week) and he should back on the field in the upcoming weeks as a kick returner first and then as a third or fourth receiver. Also Goodell notified suspended defensive tackle Tank Johnson on Thursday that he can begin practicing with the Dallas Cowboys, but his eight-game suspension was not reduced. Johnson will be eligible to play November 11th against the New York Giants.
Can ‘chronic’ loving but talented Miami Dolphins running back Rickey Williams, who is currently suspended, be next (he applied for reinstatement a couple of weeks ago)?
– NFL Trade Deadline – To the surprise of many (usually there are no trades due to cap ramifications), the NFL trading deadline at 4 PM EST on October 16 brought two minor trades that I believe will upgrade their trading partners. Sorry to all the fans out there that thought Jets QB Chad Pennington, Lions RB Tatum Bell, or Falcons TE Alge Crumpler would be traded as the deadline passed with these players still on their rosters.
– The Chargers brain trust of GM AJ Smith and Head Coach Norv Turner decided that receivers Vincent Jackson and first round pick Craig “Buster” Davis were not enough to replace injured receiver Eric Parker (toe), so they grabbed former Pro Bowl WR Chris Chambers (31 receptions for 415 yards with 0 TDs in 2007) from the Dolphins for a second round pick. The move I believe will be good for both teams since the Dolphins are obviously going nowhere this year (currently 0-6) and our planning for the future. The Chargers on the other hand have brought in a legitimate receiver who should benefit from having so many weapons around him.
– The Chiefs sent former Pro Bowl RB Michael Bennett (best season in 2002 running for 1,296 yards for the Vikings) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 2008 and 2009 late round draft picks. Bennett had been buried on the Chiefs’ bench behind workhorse Larry Johnson and he will provide a much needed boost to the injured Bucs running back stable (Lost Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman for significant amount of time). Bennett is a fast cutback runner who should benefit from Jon Gruden’s love for screens and pounding the rock.
A fun game note to pass along is that this Sunday will be Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee’s 26th birthday and he will be celebrating it in Buffalo of all places. McGahee was less than complimentary about his time in Buffalo saying “It was a relief to be traded” and criticizing the city’s night life and suggesting the Bills would be better off in Toronto.
Now he will be facing the music of the 80,000 Bills’ faithful that will have much more to say to him than “Happy Birthday”, there is even a website called “WILLISisTrash.com”. Having gone through a similar situation in Philly last year with the return of mouthy receiver Terrell Owens and the shenanigans around the event, (ex. Jersey Burnings, a Casket in the Parking Lot, etc) I can only caution Bills fans to have fun within reason, but remember it is just a game.
Now onto the games.
Games and Notes
Chiefs (3-3) at Raiders (2-3) 4:05 PM EST McAfee Coliseum – CBS: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
This week’s feature game is a divisional battle that was picked for a couple of reasons. I love old-time rivalries (Chiefs lead all-time series 49-42-2 with them winning the last 8) and this one goes back to the AFL heydays of the 1960′s when the Chiefs led by jovial Head Coach Hank Stramm (I can still see him in the red Chiefs vest and blazer) had many classic battles for AFL supremacy against “Just Win Baby” Al Davis and his band of renegades. Both teams came into the NFL and proved that they were worthy by competing in Super Bowls and later winning them.
I also love teams that “pound the rock” as these two are at the top of the NFL in rushing. The Raiders under O-line coach Tom Cable and his new zone-blocking scheme are currently ranked third in the league in rushing offense (164 yards per game). Raiders young head coach Lane Kiffin has turned his stable of backs Lamont Jordan (466 yards with a 4.6 ypc and 2 TDs), Justin Fargas (Career high 179 yards in a week 4 win over the Dolphins), and Dominic Rhodes (former Colt RB, who just was reinstated) loose on the NFL.
Kiffin also knows the best way to help new quarterback Daunte Culpepper get acclimated to his new team and playbook is to control the clock and grind out yards on the ground. The scheme has worked so far putting the Raiders into the thick of the AFC West race at 2-3 after finishing 2006 with only two wins and picking first in the NFL Draft this past April. The Raiders also have a playmaker in their linebacking core in Thomas Howard, who has an AFC leading four interceptions.
After being written off after an 0-2 start, the Chiefs have climbed back into the AFC West race and they are now trying to get over the .500 mark. They will be seeking their 3rd consecutive AFC West road win dating back to ’06 and expect them to be led by RB Larry Johnson, the No. 2 rusher in the league last year. The big back looks to be back in his old form pounding his way to 152 yards on 31 carries last week in a win over the Bengals. LJ regaining his form is not good news for the Raiders, because Johnson has 634 rushing yards in six games against the Raiders and nine TDs, his highest totals against any opponent.
The last time these two teams met in December of 2006, Johnson rushed for 135 yards and 1 TD as Chiefs stayed alive in Wild Card playoff hunt. With the trade of RB Michael Bennett to the Bucs, the Chiefs may also feature the return of veteran RB Priest Holmes, who has not played since 2005. Also look for TE Tony Gonzalez (38 catches, 440 yards and 3 TDs — New all-time leader for TE touchdowns) to get his catches in the redzone and first-round draft choice WR Dwayne Bowe, who leads all rookies in catches (26), receiving yards (415) and receiving TDs (3) to get his touches. On defense for the Chiefs sackman Jarred Allen will look to continue to get pressure (6 sacks — leads AFC).
Sunday’s NFL Schedule
Baltimore at Buffalo, 1 pm (CBS)
Tampa Bay at Detroit, 1 pm (FOX)
Tennessee at Houston, 1 pm (CBS)
New England at Miami, 1 pm (CBS)
San Francisco at N.Y. Giants, 1 pm (FOX)
Atlanta at New Orleans, 1 pm (FOX)
Arizona at Washington, 1 pm (FOX)
N.Y. Jets at Cincinnati, 4:05 pm (CBS)
Minnesota at Dallas, 4:15 pm (FOX)
Chicago at Philadelphia, 4:15 pm (FOX)
St. Louis at Seattle, 4:15 pm (FOX)
Pittsburgh at Denver, 8:15 pm (NBC)
Indianapolis at Jacksonville, 8:30 (ESPN)
Bye: Cleveland, Green Bay, San Diego, Carolina.