Sunday September 14th, 2008

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we behold maybe the grittiest, guttiest Colts comeback victory in the entire 11-year points-apalooza that has been the Peyton Manning era, that 18-15 slugging match with the shellshocked Vikings....

• Last week, rookie quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco kind of stole the show in the process of making their debuts, but Week 2 was all about the NFL's new blood at running back. I'd say it was a dose of pretty impressive instant impact turned in by the freshest sets of legs in the league.

Oakland's Darren McFadden was the headliner on Sunday, leading the way for a Raiders offense that racked up an eye-popping 300 yards rushing in a 23-8 beatdown of the Chiefs in Kansas City. The ex-Arkansas Hog accounted for more than half that total, with 164 yards on just 21 carries (a 7.8 average), including the first touchdown of his NFL career, a 19-yard burst in the third quarter that put the Raiders in command at 13-0.

On the drive he capped with his score, McFadden was a virtual one-man wrecking crew of the Chiefs, accounting for 89 of the 95 yards Oakland gained on that seven-play march and flashing tons of his big-play potential. McFadden touched the ball on five of those plays, clicking off runs of 21, 1, minus-2, 50 and finally, the 19-yarder for the touchdown. It was the Raiders' first meaningful touchdown of the new season, following their two garbage-time fourth-quarter scores in Monday night's 41-14 humiliation at the hands of visiting Denver, a game they trailed 27-0 after three.

McFadden had the gaudiest afternoon statistically, but he was far from alone in finding the rookie running back spotlight. Joining him were:

• Carolina's Jonathan Stewart, whose two short second-half touchdown runs helped lift the 2-0 Panthers to a comeback 20-17 win at home against the surprising Bears. Stewart scored from 1 yard out late in the third quarter and his 4-yard touchdown with 3:52 remaining provided the winning points for a Carolina team that appears intent on returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Stewart totaled a team-high 77 yards on just 14 carries, and the touchdowns were the first two of his NFL career.

• Tennessee's Chris Johnson, who continued creating a major early-season buzz with the first 100-yard rushing game of his nascent career, totaling 109 yards on 19 carries in the 2-0 Titans' 24-7 road dismantling of Cincinnati. Johnson, an explosive talent whose 4.2 speed isn't just the stuff of NFL Combine legend, ripped off a 51-yard gain against the Bengals and now has a team-leading 202 yards rushing in his first two pro games.

• And Chicago's Matt Forte, who continued to impress even in defeat, running 23 times for 92 yards and catching three passes for 21 more yards in the Bears' painful missed opportunity at Carolina. It wasn't equal to Forte's showing last week at Indianapolis -- when he sparked the Bears' upset of the Colts with 123 yards and a 50-yard touchdown scamper on 23 carries -- but it also proved that his sparkling debut was hardly a fluke.

On a day when last year's ultimate impact rookie -- Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson -- was gouging the Colts defense for 160 yards on 29 carries, McFadden and Co. gave us a preview of what big things might come from the rookie running back class of 2008.

• Now that we've had one full start to study the Matt Cassel era in New England, that's about what I expect from Tom Brady's replacement, the kind of solid if unspectacular showing he turned in for the Patriots' 19-10 conquest of the Jets. Cassel completed an efficient 70 percent of his passes (16 of 23) for 165 yards, and most importantly, took care of the football (no interceptions, no fumbles).

As I said a couple times last week, the Patriots can definitely still win 10 games and maybe even the AFC East with that kind of showing. Especially with New England's defense playing so tough against New York. I think we're in for a number of Patriots games this season that follow the same basic script as we saw Sunday.

• The more you see of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the more you realize that Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson just might have known what they were doing when they drew the line at the notion of Brett Favre marching back into the starting job during his un-retirement saga.

Pressure? What pressure? Rodgers has looked like a four-year veteran rather than a novice starter through two weeks, and his performance at Detroit on Sunday should even have the Favre loyalists leaning his way: 24 of 38 (63 percent) for 328 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a cool 117.0 passer rating in the Packers' 48-25 win. In a span of less than a week, Rodgers has proven himself capable of handling what two of Green Bay's three division rivals -- Minnesota and Detroit -- had to throw at him.

Rodgers' biggest test, so far, will likely come next Sunday night when Dallas visits Green Bay, but if he keeps this up, how long until we see our first "Brett Who?'' t-shirt at Lambeau?

• So tell me again how Lions head coach Rod Marinelli has molded a defensive unit in his own tough-guy image? If these particular Lions supposedly all fit his style of defense, imagine how desultory the results would be if there were just a collection of mismatched parts.

There will be no hope-inspiring but ultimately letdown-inducing 6-2 start in Detroit this year. Nope. The 0-2 Lions appear to be headed back to the truly bad old days of 4-12-ville, which you figure would finally trigger the demise of both the general manager with nine lives, Matt Millen, and Marinelli, too.

• For my money, nobody had a more crucial fourth-quarter success story on Sunday than Washington and its fourth-year quarterback Jason Campbell. Down 24-15 to visiting New Orleans after Reggie Bush returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, the Redskins looked dead and headed for a depressing 0-2 reality.

But Washington punched across two fourth-quarter touchdowns -- an 8-yard Clinton Portis run and a pretty 67-yard Campbell to Santana Moss pass -- to give Redskins rookie head coach Jim Zorn his first NFL victory. As lost as Campbell looked in Zorn's West Coast Offense in Week 1 at the Giants, nobody needed a bigger Week 2 showing than the Redskins' quarterback.

Campbell's 321-yard passing day (24 of 36 completions) had to be a relief to 'Skins fans who were ready to start calling for veteran backup Todd Collins any day now.

• The quasi-big day turned in by Bears receiver Brandon Lloyd had to drive Redskins fans absolutely nuts. Lloyd scored a touchdown in the first quarter of Chicago's loss when he recovered a blocked Panthers punt and ran it in from nine yards out, and then he wound up with a team-best five catches for 66 yards.

In his two full seasons in Washington (2006-07), where he was a costly and foolish free-agent acquisition, Lloyd caught just 25 passes in 23 games, never once scoring a touchdown. He had all of two catches for the Redskins last season.

• For a Carolina team that went just 2-6 at home last season, that was a huge rally -- down 14 in the second half -- against the Bears, in which the Panthers never led until there were less than four minutes remaining in their 2008 home opener.

• Two weeks and two Brett Favre touchdown passes to Jets second-year receiver Chansi Stuckey. That figures, because some would say most of Favre's passes these days tend to be Chansi throws.

• Looks like the Bears have yet another special teams weapon in linebacker Darrell McClover. The fifth-year veteran got Chicago off to a big start at Carolina by blowing past up-back Nick Goings and blocking a Jason Baker punt in the first quarter. McClover's special teams promise apparently made Chicago okay with the notion of losing Brendan Ayanbadejo in free agency.

• It only took the season's opening five quarters for Kansas City to play all three of its quarterbacks -- Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard last week at New England, and Huard and Tyler Thigpen this week at home in a loss to the Raiders.

What bottom-less supply of mediocrity could be in store for the rest of the Chiefs' season at the game's most pivotal position? Thigpen completed just 14 of 33 passes (42 percent) for 151 yards against the Raiders, whose secondary looked anything but like world-beaters at home against the Broncos Monday night.

• Speaking of mediocrity, that's just not going to cut it, JaMarcus Russell. Oakland's second-year quarterback started out 3 of 14 against the Chiefs, and rallied to finish 6 of 17 (35 percent) for 55 yards, with a 45.0 passer rating. In other words, Thigpen out-played him.

• On the flip side, what's not to love about Bills' second-year starting quarterback Trent Edwards? He completed 80 percent of his passes at Jacksonville, going 20 of 25 for 239 yards and a 119.8 passer rating in Buffalo's 20-16 upset of the 0-2 Jaguars.

These Bills are for real, folks. This is not a mirage of a 2-0 start in western New York.

• If you're scoring at home, the 0-2 Rams have now been outscored 79-16 in their opening two games, with just a combined 367 yards of offense and 21 first downs. I know it's early to start the 0-16 talk, but at this rate, who do they beat? It's entirely possible that they might not be favored in any game between now and a Week 16 home game against the 49ers.

• And to think San Diego's Darren Sproles was stuck behind both LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner on the Chargers running back depth chart the past few years. How ridiculously deep is the talent level in San Diego?

• Get the feeling this Mike Holmgren swan song season in Seattle just isn't going to have a happy ending? Me too. The Seahawks are playing virtually receiver-less so far, but something besides a few quality pass-catchers appears to be amiss in Seattle.

• Could you lose consecutive games in more heartbreaking, last-minute fashion than San Diego has the past two weeks against Carolina and Denver? Things are not starting out this season like the Chargers are bound for the Super Bowl trip I have predicted for them. No killer instinct for the Norv-Men so far in 2008.

Mike Shanahan going for two at home in the final minute when an extra point would tie and buy you the safety of overtime? I love it. What a bit of moxie! But in this case, the gamble paid off brilliantly for the 2-0 and suddenly dangerous Broncos.

• I guess you could say Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall didn't get too rusty serving that one-game league suspension last week. Marshall's 18-catch, 166-yard performance against San Diego more than made up for his one-week absence.

• Taking nothing away from the Broncos' comeback, I wouldn't want to be referee Ed Hochuli about now. His premature whistle-blowing on that Jay Cutler fumble that wasn't a fumble cost the Chargers their first victory of the season.

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