This weeks AFCE games:
Pittsburgh @ Miami, 1 p.m.; Jets BYE, next @ Miami; Buffalo BYE, next v. New England; New England BYE, next @ Buffalo
The Super Bowl Champion Patriots, winners of 17 in a row and one short of the NFL record get a bye in week three before they travel to Buffalo to play the disappointing Bills in two weeks. While most players and coaches would have preferred a bye in week 8 or 9, it does give the Pats a chance to get a few players healthy for their divisional games, coming up in October.
Barring any setbacks or injuries in practice, the Patriots should get Ty Law, Troy Brown, Deion Branch, Kevin Faulk, Ben Watson and Dan Koppen back to 100% health by the time they kick off against those aforementioned, bumbling Bills. While Faulk has yet to participate in the 2004 campaign, Watson was inactive for last Sunday's game against the Cardinals and Deion Branch appears to have avoided a major injury, when he got clipped chasing a defensive back on an interception return.
So what have we learned about our World Champions through the first two weeks of the season? We've learned that the Patriots, for the first time since Curtis Martin was taking handoffs from Drew Bledsoe, under the direction of Bill Parcells, finally have a legitimate running back. Corey Dillon has shown Patriot Nation and the rest of the NFL that teams can no longer disregard their running game, with a bruising, 32 carry 150+ yard performance in the sweltering heat of Arizona, on Sunday.
Granted, while neither the Colts, not the Cardinals are famous for their respective run defenses, it's clear that Dillon is a substantial upgrade over anyone the Patriots have had in nearly 10 years. Dillon will not only allow the Patriots to utilize more play-action passes, but he should get plenty of 4th quarter carries, as the Pats try to eat clock and keep their opponents off the field.
Suddenly, it appears the Patriots have the makings of a very young, diverse and effective offense. Consider that the Patriots "skill" position players; Tom Brady, Deion Branch, David Givens, Bethel Johnson, Daniel Graham and Ben Watson are all 26 or younger. Bill Belichick and VP Scott Pioli have obviously made a conscious decision to surround Brady with a supporting cast that can learn and grow with him. Only Dillon and Troy Brown can even be considered to be on the "other" side of their careers.
The Patriots (for the first time in recent memory) actually rank in the top 6 offensively in 2004, while their vaunted defense finds themselves in the middle of the pack, statistically after the first two weeks of the NFL season. Remarkable, indeed, although having witnessed the Indianapolis Colts whip up on the Titans, in Tennessee, it appears that Indy will (once again) be able to generate offense against whomever they please.
Defensively, the Patriots also boast a number of young, talented players and with the exception of an aging linebacking corps, seem well prepared for 2005 and beyond with people like Richard Seymour, Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Jarvis Green, Tully Banta-Cain and others. Though I do think LB and CB will be a priority for the Pats in the 2005 draft as they seek (eventual) replacements for Ty Law, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest, Roman Pfiefer and others.
Much of the Patriots success (they are now a remarkable 42-12 in their last 54 games) can be attributed to the attention to detail and game planning skills of coach Belichick. When he unveils his game plans each Wednesday, the players have supreme confidence that the game plan will work. Their team first concept is now legendary, epitomized by their running onto the field for pre-game introductions in their two Super Bowl wins, as simply a "team" with no individual introductions.
The Pats are also in excellent salary cap shape and will have many millions of dollars available to them in the 2005 campaign and beyond, with very little "dead" money to concern themselves with. One would be hard pressed to find an organization, in any sport that can compare with the Patriots recent successes and their template for future achievements. If the Patriots beat the Bills next Sunday they will come home to play the Dolphins with the chance to set the all-time NFL record with 19 consecutive victories.
With two Super Bowl titles and an NFL record 19 consecutive victories, one would have to consider this team to be among the four or five greatest teams in NFL history, especially when one considers the unique challenges of the salary cap and free agency, that the Packers of the 60's, Steelers of the 70's and 49ers of the 80's never had to contend with. If Bill Belichick were running for the Presidency, he'd have my vote and millions more in Patriots Nation for sure.
In Bill we trust.
Analyst: Craig Natale; firstname.lastname@example.org
The Jets started off schooling a bad Chargers team but committed the mistake of letting them get up off the mat before putting them away. Credit Herm Edwards with motivating his team to come out hard and dictate the pace of an obvious trap game, and while the team lost any semblance of aggressiveness on the field and in its play calling for a long stretch between 3rd and 4th quarters they did responded strongly when the game got close. They did sustain a couple of important injuries that we'll know more about in the coming week.
Against another weak defense the offensive line set the tone early with big running lanes and great protection which allowed the Jets to dominate the clock as they ended up controlling the ball for more than 36 minutes. Pennington was very efficient once again, directing 2 touchdown drives to open the game, and they should have been 3-for-3 in the red zone except a glitch in the replay booth didn't allow officials to overturn a bad call which took a touchdown away. While I would have preferred to see the Jets go deep a few more times to take advantage of the strong running game, they did connect on a couple of bombs again, and this has to register with defensive coordinators who gameplan to stop Martin. After 2 weeks the Jets have the top scoring offense, the league's leading rusher and Pennington has a big QB rating without having been sacked once.
Having said that I have a few beefs, and most of it centers on the playcalling. Yeah people are going to say "34 points" but when the Jets face a good defense and they don't get 4 turnovers it's not going to look as rosy. While you have to give credit to Coordinator Paul "Can't" Hackett for the efficiency of the offense to start the season he has certain tendencies which are easy to spot (he'd lose a fortune at the poker table) and he was guilty of some bad play calls on 3rd down and in the red zone once again. He overused Curtis Martin, and underused Lamont Jordan, Justin McCareins and Wayne Chrebet.
I don't care if they have a bye next week, you don't make a 31 year old back carry the ball 20 times in the first half in 80 degree heat when you're already dominating the game. Not when you have someone with Jordan's talent available. Clearly the team is angry with Jordan (who was used as the 3rd back in preseason and barely has touched the ball in 2 games), but they are spiting themselves by not using him - he now he looks rusty every time he handles the ball which is mostly on special teams. Consider the Chargers subbed for Tomlinson more than the Jets did for Martin. That's ridiculous and will come back to hurt the Jets at some point later in the year if it's not corrected soon.
Let's go back to the play calling which got a lot of praise last week when some of it simply should have gone to the O-Line. Martin's first 3 carries went for 10+ yards, and he was running well through the second quarter while Pennington had lots of time to throw. This should have been a formula for setting up big plays, but the Jets rarely took advantage. In fact virtually all the Jets offensive plays happened between the first bomb to Carter and the last one to Moss, so Hackett's idea of changing things up was to shift from running Martin (32 carries) to passing to Martin (leading receiver with 6 receptions). Also consider that 15 of Pennington's 22 completions went to backs or tight ends. How is this stretching the field and taking advantage of 8 men in the box who are trying to stop the run?
I will give him credit for 2 misdirection pass plays and a bomb on the final drive which resulted in a touchdown to win the game, but where was this when they could have put a weak team out of its misery? Martin predictably stalled in the second half and the Chargers had an opening to mount a comeback attempt that never should have occurred. One play they should just rip out of the playbook is the pass to the RB in the flat - this is one of Hackett's most obvious play calls in 3rd down and in the red zone when teams are typically stacked at the line of scrimmage, and it never works. It's also disturbing that Pennington rarely uses the middle of the field, and McCareins seemed like an afterthought while Chrebet and Cotchery might as well have been wearing Jordan's jersey.
They started out strong, generating turnovers and containing Tomlinson for the 1st half. In fact of the 28 points allowed, one TD came from special teams while the other was in semi-garbage time with the defense playing a soft zone, so it wasn't as bad a performance as the point total indicates, especially with 3 turnovers generated. The biggest bright spot of the past 2 weeks has to be the play of DeWayne Robertson, who showed nothing in preseason and last year, but is starting to make his presence known.
Despite the heat and a shorthanded tackle rotation with Josh Evans out, the Chargers were never able to get yards up the middle - a big weakness for the Jets last year. Robertson also shared a sack, caused a fumble by penetrating the backfield and was in on multiple tackles. The fact the Chargers put up marginally better running stats than the Bengals did is a tribute to Tomlinson. There were a few times that 2 or 3 players got through unblocked and Tomlinson still managed to get 5 yards on the play, but this won't happen every week and the gang tackling is sign of a swarming defense.
Of big concern is the status of Sam Cowart who had 5 stops in the first half and a couple for minimal gain. He left the game with a strained MCL. The play of rookie safety Erik Coleman is also very encouraging as he grabbed his second interception, recovered a fumble, forced another and almost got his hands on 2 other passes. He should start to show up on those top 10 rookie lists pretty soon.
The defensive concerns are twofold: pass rush and coverage. First, John Abraham and Shaun Ellis are putting minimal heat on the quarterback. This was more understandable against the Bengals who have excellent offensive tackles, but inexcusable against the Chargers who were starting 2 rookies on the O-Line, including the right tackle. Even when they sent the blitz they had a hard time getting through. I have to wonder if the changing fronts between 4-3 and 3-4 is causing more problems for the Jets than it's solving. With the Jets cornerback situation being soft they are going to need Abe and Ellis to step up if they want to have any chance against the Patriots and other explosive offensive teams. In fact, the Jets best weapon against the Chargers passing game seemed to be Brees who repeatedly overthrew his receivers. The few times he put the ball on the mark Gates and Co dropped more than their fair share.
Again, Special Teams is was a weak link. They deserve credit for generating a turnover that led to points, but they gave it right back on a kickoff return for a TD which sparked San Diego and the fans. The Jets should also rethink using Santana Moss as a punt returner. I don't believe this is under consideration, but Moss has grown into a pro bowl caliber receiver and he's clearly not taking chances when returning punts. The Jets keep getting 5 yard returns where Moss runs it out of bounds rather then trying to turn it upfield and when it's a 50 yard punt that just doesn't cut it. Mike Westhoff is considered a top special teams coach but his units have been subpar for over a year. Time to get it in gear.
This is an awful lot of complaining for a road win, and I want to acknowledge that right now. It's early in the season and the Jets are 2-0. Fans should be happy, but they should also recognize they've played against one very weak team and another which has an awful defense and started a rookie QB. The schedule is going to get tough in the second half. If all you are looking for is a team that competes for a playoff spot, then no one should complain. But I see enough talent for the Jets to become a factor in the post season if they tighten things up.
Looking forward, the Jets pass rush is going to be a big key against the Dolphins after the bye week. The Dolphins have a patchwork offensive line, but 2 very good receivers (3 if you include the tight end). If the Jets can get pressure on Feeley it should be a long day for the Dolphins. If not, that game is going to be a battle as you can't count on the offense putting up 30 points.
Cowart missed the second half with a sprained MCL which can cost him 2-6 weeks. Vilma played fine in his absence but I'd still rather have Cowart in there for the big games considering how he was playing. Mawae has a broken 4th finger on his right hand which snaps the ball. Players are saying he won't miss a game, which is possible since he's played over 150 in a row, but we'll have to see. There is very little depth behind him.
Analyst: Nick Romano
Bengals Grill Dolphins 16-13
The Dolphins fell to 0-2 for the first time since 1988 with an embarrassing 16-13 loss Sunday night to the upstart Cincinnati Bengals. In one of the most boring Sunday night ESPN games in recent memory. Miami's biggest weaknesses were exposed for all the country to see. From the non-existent offensive line and running game coupled with the lack of a quality NFL caliber signal caller, the Dolphins simply put forth a miserable effort. The defense, which did everything they could to keep things together, collapsed on the Bengals final drive as Carson Palmer displayed the poise that made him the #1 overall pick in 2003.
Offensively, the Dolphins failed to gain a rushing first down and A.J. Feeley took a pounding all night long. When he wasn't running for his life, Feeley extended his streak of throwing an interception returned by the defense for a touchdown to two games. By the third quarter the offensive line became a source for criticism and jokes by the Sunday night broadcast crew.
While the play of LT Wade Smith was singled out, RG Taylor Whitley and RT John St. Clair were equally ineffective. The one bright spot on offense was the continual improvement of TE Randy McMichael and WR Chris Chambers and their development as team leaders. Chambers leaping reception off a deflection accounted for Miami's only TD of the night.
MLB Zach Thomas continued to demonstrate All-Pro caliber play and was ferocious all night. DE Jason Taylor should be joining Zach in Hawaii after his athletic interception off a deflection and sack after blowing through the Bengals offensive line. The Dolphin defense was stellar through 3 1/2 quarters but ultimately wilted in the end and allowed Cincy to march down the field and kick the winning field goal with 2 seconds remaining.
In the end, the heat was turned up even more on Dave Wannstedt and the coaching staff. South Florida is a pressure cooker and Dave is under the gun for not only his coaching...but past personnel decisions which are coming back to haunt him as well. This Sunday the Tommy Maddox-less Steelers come to town. The Dolphins lost DT Larry Chester for the season due to an ACL tear but bring back Tim Bowens...will he be able to help stop the bleeding on defense? Can he help Zach and Jason park the Bus and fold the Duce? Can the D disrupt rookie QB Ben Rothlisberger?....And on offense?...well, ANY improvement would positive.
If the Dolphins fall to 0-3, with the Jets and Patriots on the horizon, 0-5 is a serious possibility. Expect the Dave to circle the wagons and pull out a squeaker by beating Pittsburgh by 3. If the Dolphins fall, the death watch for this coaching staff will really take off and candidates for the head coaching job can start preparing their resumes.
Analyst: Chris Dellapietra
The wheels are about to come off the cart in Buffalo over the next month. Why? Because the Bills are 0-2? No. In fact the particulars of last game are the least of the Bills franchise worries at the moment.
The reason why things are getting precarious in Buffalo is due to numerous team dynamics. First, the front office and coaching staff both promised to have this team competitive for the playoffs this season with at minimum a winning season forthcoming. Clearly this does not appear as if it will unfold as such this season at this point in time. The Bills are 0-2 at this point and considering the circumstances surrounding the two games that they have played, those two losses were clearly among the winnable games that were necessary to actually win if such high hopes were to come to pass. At present the Bills appear to be more a team fortunate to achieve their last season's mark of 6-10 than a winning team. Any wins during the Donahoe-Bledsoe era figure to once again come as a result of playing weak opponents, the hallmark of this era.
The second thing is the play of Drew Bledsoe. At the beginning of the season new quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche insisted that Drew Bledsoe was in the company of Joe Montana and Boomer Esiason skill and talent wise. Those statements were supported by new head coach Mike Mularkey and new offensive coordinator Tom Clements. With that statement however come some extremely large expectations which have done anything but come close to being met.
Given that it was the coaching staff making them, they have unintentionally placed themselves into a predicament of sorts. Bledsoe clearly has done nothing to support their promises much less their suggestions. Barring the ability of Wyche, Mularkey, and Clements to turn Bledsoe into something he's never been, let alone Montana-like, they will have heaped upon themselves scrutiny that was unnecessary. But they will have also already proven to Bills fans and NFL fans, that either their assessments of Bledsoe were drastically off or that their abilities to correct him were drastically off. Either way, it's a lose-lose situation. Needless to say that this is no way for a new coaching staff to start off a new campaign as head coaches and it figures to create a serious uphill battle for them and one that they don't need with fans and media now comparing them to the Williams/Gilbride leadership that was just booted out of Buffalo due to incompetence.
Third, the reason that this entire thing has unfolded the way it has this season, waxing more strategic, is because GM Tom Donahoe insisted that the woes of the team over the past two seasons during the Bledsoe era had essentially little to do with Bledsoe, but more a less than adequate offensive line and a lack of receivers, particularly those of the speed variety. Donahoe's approach as a result was to once again ignore the line for the second straight season, place the entirety of the line woes into the coaching category prior to hiring Jim McNally, one of the best line coaches in the game, and to draft a "speed receiver" with the Bills first round 13th overall pick in the draft.
The problem with that approach is the same problem that the coaches now face. The premises for it were incorrect. Bledsoe is much more the issue than Donahoe sold the fans and media on. So too was the offensive line beyond a simple coaching-only correction. So now Tom Donahoe, along with being 17-33 since his hire as GM four years ago, now has credibility and confidence perceptions, justifiable ones, to deal with. Those things all added up have placed Tom Donahoe on a downward spiral and one that, barring a very significant improvement over the rest of the season, would make it all but impossible to retain him into his fifth and last year of his contract.
The fourth problem is that there are already rumors about defensive players expressing dissatisfaction about the offense and in particular Bledsoe. This would not be a good sign at all. Given why this is occurring coupled with the lack of options in correcting it, this type of issue is usually a harbinger of things about to go awry. Even if the rumors are not true at this point, to envision them as coming to pass in the future certainly is no reach. Such issues can destroy a team's unity which is the last thing that the Bills would need and likely the only missing ingredient to an abysmal season much worse than last year's and a situation which would likely thrust the Bills into the role that the Bengals have played for a decade now and until recently.
The problem in Buffalo in attempting to deal with all of this is that the Bills have had actually no "plan B" for either Bledsoe or the offensive line. At present, five of the Bills nine linemen on the 53-man roster are former (or recent) 7th round draft picks or undrafted free agents. The other four are a completely and utterly underachieving 1st rounder Mike Williams, above average but not stellar 3rd rounder Jonas Jennings who has perennial injury concerns, Trey Teague an average but durable center, and Chris Villarrial at 31 who played through seven nagging injuries last season and once again has shown injury concerns again this season with two injuries already this season.
There is no depth at all let alone a viable fifth starter. At QB, I am of the opinion that "power hungry manager" Donahoe did not want a proven veteran on the roster so as not to seriously challenge his pet project Drew Bledsoe in any real sense. If true, then he has done well. Travis Brown was not that backup and he was placed on IR regardless. Losman is out and as a rookie was also not that player. Shane Matthews is also not that QB. So while if my speculation is true, Donahoe may have succeeded in his personal strategy, it certainly has left the team with its pants down around its ankles. Jeff Blake or Jeff Garcia would have been very nice viable options with no future value due to their ages. But Tom Donahoe seems to kick conventional wisdom in the groin with every opportunity and smile smugly while doing so.
The bottom line is this is where the Bills currently stand. They have a GM who quite frankly should be on the outs but regardless, one with no credibility any longer. They have coaches who drank the kool-aid brewed by Donahoe and hitched their wagon to him and to Bledsoe and a woeful line insisting that there were no issues while ignoring reality, and who now also have serious credibility issues of their own making as a result. They have a team which is on the brink of chaos and infighting, and understandably so, in the lockerroom. Lastly, they have a QB on the outs and who should have been released scot-free during the offseason freeing up $8 million for offensive line signings, but who instead was resigned increasing the minimal cap hit by nearly another million dollars and pushing over $4 million of cap money into next season when the team will need it the most now given their absence of a first round selection in next year's tackle-rich draft.
But the kicker to all of this is that other than what the coaches may or may not be able to do, there are precious few options due to mismanagement of this team. When your head coach states that "our best chances of winning are with Bledsoe at QB" and when he bases that on the alternatives, things are not looking good!
They will have an additional week to figure this all out and to have a "second home opener" vs. the Patriots who are also on a bye week. It will be interesting to see what happens within the team during this stretch. But there are no player options for Bledsoe or the line. So the hand that the coaches and Donahoe have dealt themselves is the one that they'll have to stand on.
As I stated prior to the season starting, any injuries on the offensive line and this situation goes from the frying pan into the fire. Surely hosting the Patriots will not be any help either in week four. It will give fans a good look at what this staff is truly capable of however. But recent history suggests that this next game will end up a severe loss on both sides of the ball. The Bills were unable to shut down decent offenses last season in spite of their inflated defensive rankings. New England with Dillon now brings one of the best offenses in the game to the Bills. Other than in the home opener last season for which the Pats were flat, in the other three games played vs. the Bills over the past two seasons, they have averaged 32 points. If that happens, and I'm penclin' in the Pats for 34, then that should be the point at which the wheels come off the cart.
The Patriots will not show up to this game the way they did for the Bills home/season opener last year with looks on their faces as if their preference was to simply get back on the bus and go back to the airport. No, they'll come looking for their league record tying 18th straight win. The Bills will not be the team to halt that streak. If it is halted, it will be halted at setting a new record by Miami in week five. Yet even that seems equally unlikely.
The one thing that this game will showcase is a complete and utter difference in management styles. Belichick and Pioli vs. Donahoe. There is absolutely no mistaking who has done the better job with these two sets of management on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Pats management must still be having a good chuckle over the "steal" that we got in Drew Bledsoe who was a two-fold whammy for them not only taking our draft picks, but also rendering us less competitive in games vs. decent teams of which they are among. Belichick's mentor, Bill Parcells, has also recently come to the table to take advantage of Tom Donahoe. Please Ralph, after this season, please stop the pain and bleeding!
For further details on the Bills, Bledsoe, or other things impacting the Bills, view my other pieces at BillsReport.com.
Analyst: Mark Weiler; mweiler.billsreport@cox..net