Friday November 20th, 2009

One note before I start my Friday column: My sympathies -- and I'm sure everyone who reads this will echo my sentiments -- to the family of Chris Spielman this morning. His wife, 42-year-old Stefanie Spielman, died Thursday after a fourth recurrence of breast cancer. When the disease first appeared, Spielman took a year off from football in 1998 to be Mr. Mom, and I visited the family in Columbus and marveled at the adjustments and selflessness of both of them in dealing with the disease and the personal realities that intruded. My heart goes out to the Spielmans.


The game of the week matches teams with a combined 8-10 record. But I don't mind saying the Tennessee-Houston game Monday night fascinates me more than Colts-Ravens (the Ravens are 2-4 since September), Falcons-Giants (1-7, combined, in their last four games) or Chargers-Broncos (only a matter of time before the Chargers take over the AFC West). Five reasons:

1. The chance to see the new (and apparently improved) Vince Young on a national stage.

2. Chris Johnson. I still don't think the NFL's leading rusher through nine games is better than Adrian Peterson, but I do think -- right now -- he's more exciting.

3. The Houston defense, and in particular outside linebacker Brian Cushing, who's been more impactful than DeMeco Ryans and Mario Williams for a D that's held four straight foes to three touchdowns or fewer ... and should be fresh coming off the bye.

4. Matt Schaub playing a prime-time November game with playoff implications. If he's really good, these are the games in which he has to be really good.

5. The Titans, fighting for survival. Johnson said this week -- first to me, then to a few others -- that he thinks Tennessee can run the table and make the playoffs. No one believes that, but every week the Titans win, the story gains momentum. "We plan to win our last 10 games,'' Johnson said.

Johnson interests me Monday night as much as anything. He told me this week that he thinks if he hadn't gotten hurt last year in the divisional playoff match with Baltimore at home, "we would all have Super Bowl rings on our hands right now. I know last year would have ended differently.'' He also said he very much considers himself in the same league with Adrian Peterson, and it's important to him to compete for the rushing title. As of this morning, Johnson has a 109-yard lead on DeAngelo Williams (who has a game in hand because Carolina played last night), a 174-yard lead on Peterson, 176 on Steven Jackson, and 231 on Maurice Jones-Drew.

"I'm competing with the best, and I want to be the best,'' said Johnson, the Titans' first-round pick in the 2008 draft. "I know I'm competing with Adrian Peterson, and that's important to me.''

How that competition with the great Peterson looks since the start of the 2008 season:

Add in receptions, and this is the comparison:

Interesting, isn't it? Johnson's in the same league with Peterson through the first year and a half of his NFL career. It'll be good to see him Monday night before a national audience.

Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta

You know the old quarterback line: "The quarterback gets too much credit when you win, and too much blame when you lose." Most often, I buy it. But Ryan's getting bashed a little too much for my taste in the Falcons' precipitous slide, seeing that he's still put up 22 points a game in Atlanta's 1-3 skid.

But he's also not seeing the field as well, and part of being a great quarterback is finding a way to extend drives to keep a poor defense off the field. And make no mistake about it: The Atlanta defense has slid since a solid 4-1 start.

I also think as much as Ryan's gained with the addition of tight end Tony Gonzalez, he's lost with the subtraction of slot receiver Harry Douglas, who was a revelation as a rookie last year, as Ryan was. I think he needs to be checking down more, particularly if Michael Turner's out this week with his ankle injury. It's early in his career to have the weight of the team on your shoulders, but that's exactly what Ryan will feel Sunday in New Jersey.

What a transformation for Ricky Williams. He just might be the Dolphins' most valuable player.

The go-ahead touchdown reception in the second quarter, a touchdown dive at the pylon to make it 14-3 (amazing NFL Network stat: Williams never before has had a rushing TD and receiving TD in one game, and he did it here in one quarter), and the winning score late in the fourth quarter on a scintillating 46-yard run. What more can this remarkable football player -- once most famous for having a draft traded for him -- do? With Ronnie Brown out with his foot injury, the Miami offense is going to come down to whether Williams, a decade after being drafted to save the New Orleans Saints, can put the team on his back often enough in the final seven games to make the Dolphins a playoff team. His 122-yard rushing game last night was a good start.

1. Darrelle Revis vs. Randy Moss. Revis said he covered Moss man-to-man in their first meeting in September, when Moss caught four passes for a measly 24 yards and no touchdowns. Moss said Revis had safety help. Then Revis said he did not. Then Moss said he did too. Then Bill Belichick said he had safety help. Then Revis said he did not. Then, thank the Lord, Revis said Wednesday, "That question is dead from now on.'' Play the game already.

2. Sebastian Vollmer. Never heard of him? Second-round Patriots left tackle. Took over when Matt Light went down a month ago with a knee injury. On Sunday night against Dwight Freeney, Vollmer allowed exactly one quarterback pressure and broke Freeney's nine-game streak with at least one sack. The Patriots had to help right tackle Nick Kaczur more on Robert Mathis on Sunday than they had to help Vollmer on Freeney.

German kid. Speaks English with a German-Texas twang after spending four years at the University of Houston. Faces an interesting challenge this week with the Jets' changeup pass-rush. At 6-foot-8 and with arms like a power forward, he's a very, very interesting long-term prospect.

3. Kurt Warner returning to the scene of his prime. Warner is 25-4 at the Edward Jones Dome. His 26th win is likely but not promised, because the Rams are playing hard and gave the Saints everything they could handle last week.

4. The beginning of the Bruce Gradkowski Era in Oakland. Well, it can't be any worse.

5. The beginning of the Perry Fewell Era in Buffalo. Actually, the Bills game is in Jacksonville, but Fewell and Gradkowski do have something in common: They have a puncher's chance of winning their jobs full-time in 2010.

6. The Saints secondary, just trying to survive. Other than Drew Brees, the one injury the Saints couldn't afford last week was one to a cornerback -- and what should happen but second-year standout corner Tracy Porter goes down for a month with a knee injury in St. Louis. With the other corner, Jabari Greer, already very questionable with a strained groin, the Saints signed a Ravens relic, Chris McAlister, to scotch-tape their secondary through the next few weeks. Suddenly, the game in Tampa against rookie QB Josh Freeman is not a gimme. By the way, this bit of good news for Gregg Williams' D: Tom Brady's coming to town next week.

7. The top of the 2005 draft, revisited. Mike McCarthy, putting his two cents in as offensive coordinator of the 49ers in 2005, voted for Alex Smith. Niner coach Mike Nolan and GM Scot McCloughan also voted for Smith. So Smith it was. A year later, McCarthy was in Green Bay with the booby prize, Aaron Rodgers, picked by the Pack with its first-round pick in '05. Funny business. Now it's Rodgers who's entrenched as the Packers' franchise guy and Smith who's fighting for his football life. They meet on the Frozen Tundra (well, not actually frozen; more like nippy, with temps around 52 in Green Bay) on Sunday afternoon.

8. The return of Aaron Ross. The Giants suffered two debilitating training-camp injuries -- to safety Kenny Phillips (for the year) and cornerback Ross (for two or three weeks, they hoped). Try three months. Hurt on the last practice of training camp (Aug. 25), Ross hopes to return against the Falcons 13 weeks after pulling the hammy. Thursday was his fourth straight practice without re-injuring it.

The New York D needs him badly. Jints allowed 71 points in their five games, all wins. Jints have allowed 123 points in their last four games, all losses. Very odd bit of good news for the Giants: On Thursday, the 53-man roster practiced in toto for the first time this year.

9. Jay Cutler, the Eagles and the Hex of Al Michaels. How will Cutler be greeted by the angry home crowd in Chicago, and how will he perform, on the heels of his five-pick nightmare at San Francisco? Philly's 0-7 on Sunday night since NBC took over the primetime package in 2006. I'm sure Andy Reid cares. Looking on the bright side, though, they're winless with Michaels on Sundays, but unbeaten with Cris Collinsworth.

10. T.J. Houshmandzadeh keeping his second-guessing to himself. "As of right now, it doesn't look like the best decision,'' Houshmandzadeh told Danny O'Neill of the Seattle Times, looking back on his pick of the Seahawks over the Vikes in free-agency. Though Houshmandzadeh said "it's early in the process'' and qualified it about 16 other ways, you can bet he regrets not being on the end of Brett Favre's aerials, and the pangs won't get better when Seattle visits Favreland on Sunday.

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