Friday, September 12, 2008

Five That Matter 2008: Week 2

Every week, Throwing Into Traffic picks the five games of the weekend (and Monday) that you should be watching, because they're great, because they're important for the teams involved, and because they advance the storyline of the season

Ravens at Texans (4:15 PM, Sunday)

Joe Flacco looked capable, confident, and able to manage the game, which puts him well ahead of schedule for most rookies starting their first regular season game. But the real test comes this week, when the angel food cake D-line of the Bengals is replaced by Super Mario and the Boy Wonder (Amobi Okoye is a young’n). The question isn’t whether or not Flacco is going to get hit, but how he’ll respond to his first real hard shots courtesy of an elite pass rush. If he panics, the team will (wisely) hand the reins to Troy Smith, but if he can get back up from the one or two assured crushings coming his way and maintain the same workmanlike performance he showed last week, the Ravens may very well have found the cornerstone of the future. Because really, there are teams that thrive, and then there are teams that get by; the NFL rewards both with the same exact prize at the end fo the day. And that’s coming from a big Troy Smith fan…

Eagles at Cowboys (8:30 PM, Monday)

The Cowboys have the most talented team in the NFC East, which seems to be making this the season where they really are the most talented division. They’re loaded on both sides of the ball, with an offense that can kill teams both ways. Meanwhile, when they play on Monday, we’ll all get to see the two most talented players in the division…playing for the other team. If you don’t know about Brian Westbrook’s greatness by now, there’s really no fixing you. The man is easily the prototype for versatility in the backfield. But this is the year that Donovan McNabb reminds us all that he’s the man; yes, shorty, he’s the man. What he did to the Rams last week was certainly the result of bad defense, but it was also the result of a great quarterback with the ability to beat teams with his smarts, power, and speed. When McNabb is on, there’s not a defense in the league that’s built to stop him. Watch this game, watch him work (with nobody but Westbrook really helping him out), and wonder whether we missed the real revolution looking for the flash.

Patriots at Jets (4:15 PM, Sunday)

The times, they are a’changing. Last week, with one unfortunately low hit, Bernard Pollard changed the face of the AFC East by taking out Tom Brady. When the dust cleared, the Jets had to be happy with the fact that they emerged the obvious favorites to win the division. But three things stand in their way. First, the Bills are an absolute wild card (and Canadian, to boot, so they just scare the chilly right into my balls). Second, does anyone know whether this team is actually coming together? After all, there are a lot of new toys for this team to get used to. The defense, which got great pressure all day against the Dolphins, still let Handsome Chad keep the Fins in the game last week right until the last throw. Then there’s Big City Brett, who put up a great stat line, but anyone who watched that game knows that second TD pass could have landed anywhere. The fact that it came down to one throw doesn’t bode well, but anyone who expected anything less than gut wrenching heart attacks from #4 under center was lying to themselves.

And, third, there’s the Patriots. Yeah, those guys with the hurt quarterback. Before you start dancing on their graves just yet, let me throw some names out there for you: Trent Dilfer, Rex Grossman, Kerry Collins. All three of those guys have played in a Super Bowl. Are you that sure that Matt Cassel is any worse than those guys? And he has WAY better tools around him than any of them. The fact of the matter is that Belichick was coming into this season with a game plan built to prove he was still the man. The fact that he lost his most important piece? Awful…but if that’s not the kind of challenge that separates great coaches from coaches with great talent, I don’t know what is. I don’t know whether they can overcome the Brady thing, but I’m a little nervous about my team having to see them twice as they try to prove they can.

Bears at Panthers (1:00 PM, Sunday)

So which one of these two teams is legit, and which one beat a fraud? Personally, my money is on the Bears getting exposed, but if they can pull off a win here, there’s reason to believe that this blue collar offense can let Matt Forte (and his sidekick, Kevin Jones) run rampant on opposing defenses. QB Kyle Orton’s willingness to spread the ball around and make use of his talented pass catching tight ends has to be a comforting sign to fans used to Rex Grossman’s penchant to air it out regardless of the consequences. A victory here would put the Bears at least toe to toe with anyone in their division, something nobody can claim they expected.

As for the Panthers, they might be arriving at destiny’s door a few years late. The defense looked as punishing as expected (Jon Beason arrived while you were looking elsewhere), but the offense’s ability to move the ball into scoring territory and convert was what Panthers fans really missed last year. Considering it was his first regular season game back under center, Delhomme’s performance was admirable. Considering he was without his favorite target, it was damn near inspiring. If this team can survive one more week without its competitive compass, then they may be ready to take the division that was supposed to be theirs two years ago. In any case, one of these two comes back to reality when all is said and done.

Steelers at Browns (8:15 PM, Sunday)

Is the dream dead? Before a single down of football had been played, the Browns had been built up as the David to the Steelers’ Goliath. Derek Anderson was the less corporate Big Ben. Jamal Lewis was the gritty alternative to Willie Parker’s smooth speed. Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow were the angry, flash antagonists to Madden favorite Hines Ward/ Problem is, nobody told the Browns that they should probably show up. Last week’s showing against the Cowboys was awful, and regardless of how good the Cowboys are, the Browns were supposed to hang with anybody this year. Instead, the pass offense was pathetic (4.8 YPA), the defense showed none of the strength up front that they paid for so dearly, and the ground game never really got the chance to get going. An embarrassing opening day loss dealt a blow to the Browns’ high hopes for the season; another bad loss to the team that was supposed to be their only divisional competition could send things back to the organizational chaos we all thought the Browns had left behind.

But don’t think that the Steelers don’t have high stakes for this game as well. Sending a reality check to the Texans proved that the rumors of the Steelers’ demise were greatly exaggerated. If Pittsburgh can put their foots on the necks of the Browns, they can take an early step toward transcending the divisional much and staking claim to the AFC as a whole. That kind of focus has worked wonders for teams like the Colts and Patriots in the past. This year, it could be time to talk about the Steelers in the same vein.

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