Sunday September 21st, 2008

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take in the Keystone State's smash-mouth showdown between the Steelers and Eagles at The Linc ...

• In honor of Ronnie Brown and the Dolphins' story-of-the-day upset of the suddenly not-so-scary Patriots, we're calling for nothing but direct-snap judgments today. Direct snaps got the job done for Miami against New England, so that's plenty good enough for us.

** Want to get a real-life sense for just how long it has been since the Patriots lost a non-playoff game? Consider that when New England last lost in the regular season, Sarah Palin was six days removed from being the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. The GOP vice-presidential candidate was sworn in as the governor of Alaska on Dec. 4, 2006, and the Patriots on Dec. 10 of that year lost 21-0 at Miami, in Week 14 of the season.

New England pretty much went on to bigger and better things from there, winning their next 21 regular season games, an NFL record. Come to think of it, you could say the same thing about Palin.

** I promise I'll never doubt Joey Porter again. What did he know about Matt Cassel that the rest of us didn't, and when did he know it? That was the Cassel we watched all throughout the preseason, not the one who looked capable of nicely holding things together for the Tom Brady-less Pats this season. Perhaps we were all a bit hasty on that call.

** Miami's Brown could play another 20 years in the NFL and never have a better game than he did Sunday. A team-record four rushing touchdowns on just 17 carries (113 yards), with a pretty 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Fasano on a roll-out halfback option play. He was the best player on the field, times 10, and looked like the kid who dominates in Pop Warner League, making all the other parents crazy with envy.

** If you're wondering what it looks like when New England's Bill Belichick gets badly out-coached, this might be Exhibit A. The Dolphins called six direct snaps to Brown, and those bits of trickery resulted in four touchdowns, proving the Patriots had absolutely no answer for Miami. Other than what the Giants defensive line did to the Pats' pass protection in the Super Bowl, when's the last time we saw New England at a complete loss to counter an opponent's moves?

** Okay, I'll say it. Miami has itself a quarterback controversy. Do you play Chad Pennington in the Dolphins' next game, at home against San Diego, or just line Brown up the backfield and direct snap everything to him? I'm kidding. I think.

** In all seriousness, it's in this kind of game where the Patriots are going to miss Brady most of all. New England might do pretty well playing from ahead with Cassel in game-management mode (see last week against the Jets), but let the Patriots fall behind as they did against the Dolphins, and it's probably not going to be pretty (see Sunday, from mid-second quarter on).

Cassel and this offense simply lack the explosiveness to erase a significant lead. New England still seemingly doesn't have much confidence in its running game; and against the Dolphins, the lack of a deep passing game -- like the one that Brady orchestrated last year -- was a killer. No Patriots receiver had a catch for longer than Wes Welker's 21-yard catch, and Randy Moss was almost a complete non-factor with four receptions for 25 yards, with a long of seven. When the Patriots don't stretch the field, they probably don't win.

** Maybe the bigger concern in the wake of the debacle against the Dolphins? Brady doesn't play defense, so how exactly did Miami shred New England's veteran-laden unit for 461 yards of offense, 23 first downs, an 8.1 average gain per play and five touchdowns? The Dolphins, a team that finished just 15 games behind the Patriots in the AFC East last season, just beat the defending AFC champions on their own home field. Badly.

That's closing the gap ... and darn quickly.

** I predict it's going to be a very long bye week for the humbled Patriots, with no extra days off awarded to the players by Belichick. For New England, that Week 5 trip to San Francisco cannot come soon enough.

• For a while there on Sunday, Week 3 looked like one of those You-Don't-Know-Anything Days in the NFL. I was watching as three very bad teams went on the road and were having their way with some clubs I thought were playoff material.

The Dolphins were dismantling the Patriots in Foxboro, the Raiders were stunning the Bills in Orchard Park, and the bumbling Bengals were actually giving the defending Super Bowl champion Giants all they wanted in East Rutherford.

But you know the rest of the story. The Raiders and Bengals eventually woke up and realized where they were, with only the Dolphins finishing the road upset they had started.

• What a huge season veteran defensive end John Abraham appears headed for in Atlanta. Abraham had two more sacks and another forced fumble in the win over the Chiefs, giving him a league-leading six sacks and two forced fumbles in three games.

• Until they prove me wrong, here's my big-game rule of thumb about the Cardinals and quarterback Kurt Warner: Don't ever count on them. They'll let you down. It's official now: There will be no one running away and hiding in the weak, weak NFC West this season.

• I saw absolutely nothing in Week 3 to dissuade me from the conviction that Texans head coach Gary Kubiak continues to play his team's second-best quarterback. Starter Matt Schaub had another rough day in Houston's 31-12 loss at Tennessee, completing just 17 of 37 for 188 yards, with no touchdowns, three interceptions and a paltry 27.8 passer rating.

With the Texans at 0-2 and facing games at Jacksonville and home against Indianapolis, this is the week the start-Sage Rosenfels drumbeat begins in earnest, right?

• Add Steve Slaton's name to the ever-burgeoning list of this season's impact rookie running backs. The ex-West Virginia star turned in a big game Sunday in Houston's loss, picking up his first-ever 100-yard game (116 yards on 18 carries, including a six-yard touchdown and a 50-yard burst).

• Not sure I ever saw Bills fullback Darian Barnes play before Sunday -- and he's been with five different teams in his seven-year NFL career -- but what a load that guy is to bring down. The roster says he's 6-foot-2, 240, but that's a mere suggestion. Against the Raiders, Barnes did quite a bit of bumbling, and stumbling and way too much fumbling.

• So much for Thigpen Fever. Who's next on the Kansas City quarterback carousel? Steve Fuller? Bill Kenney?

Tyler Thigpen was atrocious in his first NFL start, completing just 14-of-36 passes for 128 yards, with three interceptions and a touchdown in the Chiefs' 38-14 beatdown at the hands of the improved Falcons. And he had to rally to get there, after starting just 3 of 16 with two picks. Thigpen didn't complete his first pass for positive yardage until nine minutes left in the first half.

But hey, it wasn't all gloom and doom for the woeful Chiefs. At least Larry Johnson got 24 carries for 121 yards and a touchdown -- his first 100-game since Week 12 of last year. So he's happy this week. And that's absolutely all that matters tofor LJ.

• Quite the statement game for St. Louis, down 17-0 at Seattle almost before the first TV timeout. I guess rallying around their embattled head coach, Scott Linehan, isn't really something the Rams have a lot of enthusiasm for about now.

I'd say the odds now favor St. Louis making an in-season coaching change, which would be the Rams' first such move since 1962, when Bob Waterfield resigned after eight games. To repeat, I like offensive coordinator Al Saunders' chances of getting the interim job over defensive coordinator Jim Haslett.

• Good move, Brad Childress. Going with Gus Frerotte at quarterback told your team you recognized the desperation that Week 3 held for the Vikings. With a superb run defense and a running game that can do most of the heavy lifting, there's no reason Minnesota can't win a bunch of games, as long as it gets even-decent production from its passing game.

Are you paying attention, Tarvaris Jackson? Frerotte's 16-of-28 showing, for 204 yards and a touchdown wasn't flashy. Just effective.

• It wasn't exactly up to the standards he established in the Super Bowl, but Eli Manning can apparently do almost anything he wants from the fourth quarter on. Ever since that Week 17 moral victory against undefeated New England last December, No. 10 refuses to let the Giants lose.

• The Raiders nearly pulled the upset at Buffalo, but I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that if JaMarcus Russell continues to finish with less than 10 completions a game -- he was 9 of 19 this week for 156 yards, 6 of 17 last week for 55 yards -- Oakland's going to struggle offensively.

Russell has all of 31 completions in three starts this season, or 10.3 per game.

• That's two straight weeks the Bears have let one get away in the fourth quarter. What happened to the dominating, opportunistic team we watched humiliate the Colts in Indianapolis in Week 1?

Chicago was up 24-14 over Tampa Bay with about 6½ minutes left Sunday and let the Bucs score the game's final 13 points to win in overtime. It was the same basic story at Carolina last week, a game Chicago led 17-3 with less than six minutes remaining in the third quarter, but wound up losing 20-17.

• Tampa Bay quarterback Brian Griese threw more passes on Sunday in Chicago (67) than three whole teams combined -- by far. Minnesota (21), Oakland (19) and Atlanta (18) put up 58 passes between 'em, nine fewer than the air-happy Bucs.

Usually, when a team throws as much as the Bucs did against the Bears, victory is not their reward. But form didn't hold in Tampa Bay's 27-24 overtime win, in which Griese went 38 of 67 for 407 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Maybe the most amazing statistic of all? The Bears defense didn't sack Griese even once all day.

• Must admit, every time the Bills trot out their throwback uniforms, I fall in love all over again with those old-school, AFL-era helmets, with that nice red buffalo on the side.

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