Three things on my mind entering the line-of-demarcation week of the 2009 NFL season:
1. Beware Baltimore. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has an interesting philosophy about the schedule that's turning into the toughest in football. "We're in a stretch where we play seven of eight against teams that, right now, are either in first place or tied for first,'' he said. "But I've told our team that's exactly the way we want it. Because if we win, we gain a game on a team we're battling for the playoffs.''
When Baltimore beat Denver 30-7 on Sunday, a couple of things were evident: The Ravens are mixing up their blitzes better to try to get more pressure on the quarterback, so they can cover up their deficiencies at cornerback. Jarret Johnson, in particular, came alive, and if he and Terrell Suggs can be the bookend pass-rushers the rest of the year that they were against Kyle Orton, Baltimore will be a better defense.
Also, the Ravens' 2008 draft is panning out superbly. Joe Flacco is the league's 11th-rated quarterback and Ray Rice the ninth-ranked rusher. Rice has been a revelation. The Ravens thought knew he was a between-the-tackles back with a little burst; he's that, plus good at blitz pickup (excellent leverage) and receiving. The Ravens are certainly one of the best six teams in the AFC and should make the playoffs, but that depends so much on my next point ...
2. This is the time of year when the schedule starts to play a major role in who plays in January. The Chargers and Ravens have the same record, 4-3, and Baltimore won head-to-head in Week 2 at San Diego. But the Chargers have Kansas City, Cleveland, Tennessee and Washington remaining; Baltimore's relative gimmes are Cleveland, Detroit and Oakland -- and the Ravens have the unbeaten Colts and both division games with Pittsburgh in the final seven weeks of the season. If the Ravens do make the playoffs and aren't too injured when they get there, I think they'll be a very tough out.
3. "Do you think the Saints (or Colts) will go undefeated?'' The other night, on ESPN, Stuart Scott asked Matt Millen if he thought New Orleans would go undefeated. Millen said absolutely not -- which is the same thing I believe. But this is what we do in the media. We do stories too fast, before they make sense.
I think the Saints are the best team in football, and I understand the Saints have the easiest schedule down the stretch -- they face only three tough teams (New England and Dallas at home, Atlanta on the road). But the Saints, to me, don't pass the smell test of a 16-0 team, at least right now. Two weeks ago, New Orleans was down 24-3 to a decent Miami team. If the Saints get to 11-0, then we'll talk ... because then they'll have beaten the Patriots, and will have only two serious challenges the rest of the way. By the way, New England's margin of victory after eight perfect weeks of 2007: 26.4. New Orleans' margin through eight weeks: 17.0.
Matt Schaub, QB, Houston.
Schaub is playing in rarefied air through eight games -- in the Peyton Manning altitude, leading the NFL in passing yards (2,342) and touchdown passes (16, tied with Brett Favre), with one game in hand over Manning. But sooner or later the Texans -- 1-13 all-time against the big, bad Colts -- have to start beating them, and the only way they'll do that Sunday in Indy is by scoring 24 or more.
With the run game struggling, it's going to fall to Schaub. Houston didn't trade two second-round picks and give Schaub $8 million a year so he could play close games. They got him and Mario Williams and some good linebackers so they could beat the team that's dominated the division since the Texans were born seven years ago. Adding to the weight on Schaub this week: He'll be without tight-end targets Owen Daniels and James Casey, both injured.
1. The most important game of Miami's season. Although there's a soft underbelly of the schedule ahead, there's too much traffic ahead of a 3-5 team -- Miami's record if it loses Sunday in New England -- to have a serious chance at the playoffs. The Dolphins lose the Wildcat element of surprise here; they scored four times out of the direct-snap option formation at Foxboro to lead a rout last year.
2. The decision of Ryan Clark. The Pittsburgh safety has a rare blood disease that is exacerbated by playing in high altitude, and the Steelers are in mile-high Denver on Monday night. The Steelers appear to be leaning toward keeping him out of the game. "If I were him, I wouldn't play,'' said Hines Ward.
3. Dallas playing for its first significant road win in 14 months. Since winning at Green Bay in September 2008, the Cowboys have lost to Arizona, the Giants, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Denver away from home. A win at the Linc would go a long way toward the Cowboys making the playoffs.
4. Eli Manning trying to lift his team off the canvas. The Giants' season is spiraling out of control, as is Manning's. In the Chargers' first road game with the Giants in 14 years, New York needs to stop pointing fingers and start playing like a smart Tom Coughlin team.
5. An interesting battle for the NFL midseason rushing lead. I like this. Adrian Peterson's got competition. I thought it would come from Matt Forte (18th in rushing) or Steve Slaton (28th). But here's the top four rushers entering the weekend, with Peterson's Vikings having a bye: Chris Johnson 824, Peterson 784, Steven Jackson 784, Cedric Benson 720. Peterson could be 150 yards behind when he reports back to work Monday morning in Minnesota.
6. Ryan Moats wreaking havoc with Fantasy Football GMs nationwide. I hear the Texans are not only down on Steve Slaton because he's been turning it over. I hear they also think Moats runs harder and is a better option in a big game at Indy. Slaton: 3.1 yards per rush, five lost fumbles. Moats: 4.8 yards per rush, zero lost fumbles. I mean, what's the decision?
7. The Colts adjusting to defensive injuries. This week the Colts learned that safety Bob Sanders will be out indefinitely because of elbow surgery and that linebacker Tyjuan Hagler and cornerback Marlin Jackson are out for the year.This is not a good time to be facing, in order, Matt Schaub, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco and Schaub in the next 23 days.
8. What John Fox has up his sleeve. We're not supposed to talk about point spreads in this space, but I'll give you two hints about the line in the New Orleans-Carolina game, which has the Saints heavy favorites. It's a very lucky number. And A-Rod wears it. OK?
I'm not a big fan of this line because of what we saw last week in Arizona. The Cards were coming off a bruising win at the Giants, bruising in that the Giants couldn't get their vaunted running game going to win it. Now, if I were Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, I'd be a little worried about this game. Carolina rushed 44 times for 270 yards last week, and you can be sure the Panthers will have the same formula planned this week -- because it worked last week, and because they want to play keepaway from Drew Brees.
9. What Randy Lerner has up his sleeve. I'd be worried about making a positive impression on my new boss if I were Eric Mangini. The new boss is the next boss, the football czar Lerner intends to bring into the organization. Whether it's Ernie Accorsi or Mike Holmgren or someone else, you can be sure that person is going to have a lot of input on Mangini's future after this season.
10. Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Jackson versus the suspect Giants secondary.Norv Turner told me in August that other coaches wonder if he's fielding an NBA team when they look out in warmups and see the Chargers wideouts. Floyd and Jackson are 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds. And athletic. And Philip Rivers throws a very good deep ball. Don't say you weren't warned, Giants.