Friday, October 12, 2007

Five That Matter: 10-14-2007

With the season well underway, each week we at TiT will be picking five games that we feel advance the narrative of the epic story that is the 2007-2008 NFL seasons, giving you reasons why you should be watching these contests unfold.

5. Carolina (3-2) at Arizona (3-2)

Everything old is new again for these two teams, with two potential starters well past their prime set to face off. On the one hand, we see Vinny Testaverde marching out to helm the Panthers. If he can mesh his veteran savvy with Steve Smith’s singular talent, one has to wonder whether or not we may be on the verge of an offensive renaissance courtesy of a man who ought to be looking into ordering a Rascal. On the other side, everything has changed for the Cardinals now that Kurt Warner has taken the helm. Where the team looked beaten under the uninspired leadership of Matt Leinart, a me-first playboy who wants to become a franchise face without embracing the franchise, they look positively rejuvenated under the guidance of a quarterback who seems to genuinely enjoy throwing the ball again. With both teams in the hunt for their divisions, this game looks to be one of those forgotten pieces of seasons that will either be playoff journeys or near misses.

4. Houston (3-2) at Jacksonville (3-1)

Of the four teams playing high caliber football over the first month, I’m willing to hand the Cowboys, Packers, and Patriots their respective divisions. Even though I believe they may be better than two, if not all three of those teams, I am nowhere near ready to do the same for the Colts. The AFC South is proving to be a crucible, with every team playing above .500, and no team showing a glaring weakness yet. That’s what makes this game so important for both teams.

The Texans, having looked impressive early, are struggling through a rash of injuries that have caused them to play too closely with sub par teams. Coming off of a loss to a less talented Falcons team in which they were missing their starting running back, their split end, and the elite receiver that, thanks to a career resurgence from Randy Moss, nobody is talking about, the Texans eeked by an incompetent Dolphins team. A victory against division rival Jacksonville would seem to send a clear message: The Texans are not going away quietly. Meanwhile, the Jaguars are doing for Jack Del Rio what no suit and tie combination could ever have done: Make him look smart. Let other teams show off their shotgun spreads and high flying pass game; the Jags are going to pound, scrape, and downright ugly other teams to death, and they may very well resurrect conservative football while they’re at it. Quarterback David Garrard has yet to throw a single interception, and Fred Taylor and MJD have given up just two fumbles between them. Should this methodical, mistake free system move to 4-1, the Jags will be sending a message of their own: If you want to beat them, you’d better not make a mistake, because they won’t. With both of these teams putting up similar stats on both sides of the ball, a solid contest will send a message regardless of the victor: Nobody is messing with the AFC South.

3. Tennessee (3-1) at Tampa Bay (3-2)

As for the yet to be discussed member of the AFC South playing this week, the Tennessee Titans have been the great mystery of this NFL season. They don’t have the offensive talent to overwhelm defenses, and they don’t have the defensive names that should intimidate offenses. Yet my friend Ben, a football purist at heart, absolutely loves this team because they win the grimey, unseen battles at the line that determine whether plays develop or fall apart. On defense, the front four are mean, anchoring the league’s second best defensive unit. REAL mean, generating 8 sacks and helping force 11 tackles for a loss. If your defense can’t stop a play, well then I guess you’d better not let it happen in the first place. On offense, the line is opening up holes for nameless backs and giving Vince Young the only thing that can make him deadlier: Time. Without it, VY is a slower Michael Vick. With it, he’s able to combine his athleticism with a Norm Chow inspired discipline Vick never had to take defensive focus away from his supporting cast (a mistake) or ignore him at their peril (an even worse mistake). Of all of the Peyton Manning imitators quarterbacking in the AFC South (a future column), VY is the one with his knack for making defenses adapt to him, rather than the other way around.

Across the field, the Buccaneers are playing like a collective last gasp. Their coach, their quarterback, their star receiver, and much of their defensive unit all understand that this could be their last chance at success. As such, there’s a ruthlessness to this team that could only come from a coach who could kill the pupil he’d adopted as his own. They don’t excel on either side of the ball, but they play well enough to stay within shooting distance, and are crafty enough to take kill shots when they can. A win here goes a long way toward getting control of the NFC South and burying the evidence of what was the promising career of Chris Simms; both are things Jon Gruden and Jeff Garcia’s careers desperately need to survive. Expect this game to be a matchup of wits, with the team holding the last trick up their sleeve coming out ahead.

2. Washington (3-1) at Green bay (4-1)

Unless you’re a reader of TiT, both of these teams have been surprises this season. Of course, as I’ve said time and time again, the success of the Packers, a product of veteran urgency and young talent coming of age, is something we all should have seen coming. The question remains, however, whether or not the team can continue to survive without a real running game, particularly in the coming winter months. In short, how far can Brett Favre’s stubborn refusal to submit to nature carry this team? Still, there’s something fun about watching this team work. Rather than looking like a standoffish, out of place old man, Favre seems to be embracing the youthful energy that surrounds him. If he’s only just now entering Act II of his career, we may be looking at a vastly more talented Vinny Testaverde. A win here, particularly following a division loss to the Bears, would recapture the joyful momentum we’ve seen from this team all year thus far, while a loss may shake our confidence in this team to the point of doubt. As any dreamer will tell you, nothing kills a dream faster.

The more interesting surprise to us are the Redskins. As I said in our preseason review, this team certainly had the talent to win games, but they just felt too forced together, too desperate to win now at all costs to really come together. Yet with each win, the Redskins march onward in direct defiance of everything that we believe about what a team needs to succeed. Football pundits who talk about team unity should be terrified of this squad, a Visigoth army that doesn’t speak their language or believe in their gods, built instead on a mercenary defense that loves brutality and offensive disciples of Al Saunders’ 900 page bible. Initially I hated this team because I believed they willfully denied the existence of chemistry as a factor in victory. Six weeks in, I’m starting to love them for the fact that they don’t refute the concept at all; they simply don’t understand what it signifies. It’s like explaining Christianity to an untamed tribe, and missionaries are getting slaughtered left and right.

I like this game because it pits these two ideologies directly against one another. This is Green Bay, Brett Favre, and everything we hold to be true about team sports versus barbarians at the gates, helmed by a behemoth quarterback, understanding nothing but the raw numbers of victory and defeat.

1. New England (5-0) at Dallas (5-0)

The obvious choice for game of the week, and yet not for the obvious reasons we all think. As Alex pointed out, the undefeated records are hardly relevant to how we should view these teams; everyone loses eventually in the modern NFL. What is important, however, is the emergence of a new wrinkle in what has traditionally been a two person story: Colts versus Pats, Good versus Evil, Cunning versus Wisdom. Now, having watched them perform at an offensive level completely unmatched by any opponent, save for a Bills team whose pass rush finally decided to play to its potential, I’m ready to add the Cowboys to the list of elite teams this season. What this creates is an interesting relationship between three divergent personalities, with the Colts, Pats, and Cowboys looking like the older, middle, and younger siblings in a family, respectively.

This matchup pits the middle and younger siblings against each other, perhaps the most fitting start to this rivalry. After all, having always had the “we get no respect” underappreciated chip on their shoulder so indicative of middle children, the Pats have to be resenting the attention being lavished upon this season’s OTHER great looking team. Where the Colts have seemed to value the pursuit of perfection, the Patriots, largely due to the entitled anger with which they play, seem more interested in the pursuit of the markings of perfection, trophies they hope to impress dad with.

Which makes the precociousness of the Cowboys all the more difficult to understand. Are they legitimate threats to the status of the Patriots? Tempered by the steady hand of Wade Phillips, can their fiery talent translate into consistent production? At the crossroads of his career, will Tony Romo evolve into the second coming of Favre, or will he be a more mobile Rex Grossman? Even in the face of such tough competition, these questions will go a long way toward being answered. Having worked for the WWE, a part of me would like to see a triple threat match where we also involve the quiet, easygoing joy of the Colts, but I’ll settle for two out of three.

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