Clayton 1st and 10

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Wednesday, September 18
Updated: September 20, 3:32 PM ET
 
First ... And 10: Something has to give

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 3.

First ... New York Jets at Miami Dolphins: As the Dolphins jumped to a 21-3 lead over the Colts last Sunday, momentum started to shift. Officials started throwing flags for defensive holding or interference against the Dolphins defensive backs.

Suddenly, the Colts started to come back.

Minds flashed back to the Dolphins incredible loss to the Jets two years ago when the Jets scored 30 fourth-quarter points and overcame a 30-7 deficit to win in overtime. Against the Jets, the Dolphins know no lead is safe. Until they win a game against the Jets, the Dolphins know this is the one game that constantly bugs them.

Ricky Williams
Ricky Williams has 243 yards rushing in two games with the Dolphins.
That's why it's so important for the Dolphins to end their eight-game jinx against the Jets. The Dolphins are off to a great start. Ricky Williams leads the NFL in rushing. Jay Fiedler is effectively operating Norv Turner's offensive scheme. The defense may not be the greatest stopping the run this year, but it's perfect when it needs to be.

Conversely, the Jets are searching for their identity following a 44-7 home loss to the Patriots. They made six starting changes in the offseason to improve the defense. During the exhibition season, everything looked great. In two regular season games, the Jets have surrendered 75 points to division opponents and rank No. 28 in yardage allowed.

Things have been so disappointing that general manager Terry Bradway issued a letter of explanation to Jets fans on their Web site saying that there were no excuses and the New England game is a wake-up call. Since 1998, though, no matter what struggles the Jets have had, the Dolphins game usually fixes things.

The Dolphins eight-game losing streak to the Jets is one of the weirdest in football. The Dolphins usually dominate the first half and even though they have the more talented defense, the Jets seem to come back in the second.

Last year, the Jets were down, 17-0, and the Dolphins dominated the stats in the first half. The Dolphins held the ball for 22 minutes in the first half. Yet, the Jets won, 21-17. Ray Lucas outdueled Dan Marino in a 1999 game. Lucas is now with the Dolphins.

So even if the Dolphins dominate the first half of Sunday's game, they can't let up. Coach Dave Wannstedt has called more coverages in which cornerbacks Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain play off receivers. This isn't a change of strategy. The Dolphins run the tightest bump-and-run coverage in football, but they are mixing in different plays.

Whenever the Dolphins play tight, they usually get penalties. But they also make plays. Finding the right balance is going to be the most difficult challenge. That's the scary part for the Dolphins. They can't feel comfortable if they are ahead by 10 to 20 points.

This is a critical game for both teams. For the Jets, the Dolphins game represents their third game in the AFC East, and under the new division realignment, they don't want to be 1-2 in a competitive division knowing that they only have three division games left.

The Dolphins certainly want to end their jinx. Their offense looks outstanding. They are clicking. For them, they believe this is the time to end the losing streak.

And 10. St. Louis Rams at Tampa Bay Bucs: Going into the season, this was a marquee game because it featured what was expected to be the two top seeds in the NFC. Now, it's a game of survival for the Rams. Could you imagine the panic if the Rams are 0-3? They've had 6-0 starts for the past three years. They scored 500 points a season for the past three years. While it has to be said that the Rams are too talented to be 0-3, they enter this Monday Night game with the reality that the Bucs know how to play defense against them. This will be a supreme challenge to Rams coach Mike Martz. First, he needs to get Terrence Wilkins more involved as the third receiver. They also need to beat the "Cover 2" with big plays and touchdowns. And, like they did against the Giants, the Rams need to run Marshall Faulk. The other problem is that the defense hasn't hit its stride. Part of that goes back to the injuries that robbed the defensive linemen out of practice and playing time during the preseason. The Rams rank No. 22 on defense. They need to be around No. 15 to be good, but if the offense is only getting 18 points, then the defense needs to pick up its game. Still, a win in Tampa would start to take some of the pressure off of the Rams. Bucs fans, meanwhile, will be expecting a victory. The opening home loss to the Saints stunned them, and allowed the Saints to hold the early edge in the new NFC South. Playing the Ravens last week was helpful because the game gave the offense and the defense confidence. The Bucs play well with confidence.

9. Washington Redskins at San Francisco 49ers: Steve Spurrier was humbled in Monday night's loss to the Eagles, and now they have to make a cross-country trip to face a tough 49ers defense with little rest. Shane Matthews will be playing quarterback with a bum shoulder, so it's possible that Danny Wuerffel and maybe even rookie Patrick Ramsey will get some action if Matthews struggles early. Face it, the Redskins concede a lot of talent to playoff caliber teams because they aren't as gifted in the skilled areas on offense. To his credit, though, Spurrier does get the most out of this offense. He's only had three three-and-outs in two games, and that's a respectable stat for the amount of talent he has. The 49ers game is a bad matchup for the Redskins because the 49ers are good at defensive tackle with Bryant Young and Dana Stubblefield and the Redskins have major holes at the guard position. Poor guard play last Monday made Darwin Walker of the Eagles look like Warren Sapp. Perhaps the most disappointing unit for the Redskins has been their defense, which ranks No. 21 for yards allowed and No. 25 for points allowed. Defensive tackle Daryl Gardener is expected to play despite a bad back and they need him because Dan Wilkinson is banged up. Because they aren't getting pressure from the defensive line, the Redskins are having more teams throw at their cornerbacks. The 49ers come into this game with a struggling passing offense. Jeff Garcia hasn't been able to get into a rhythm.

Deuce McAllister
McAllister scored two TDs against the Packers in Week 2.
8. New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears: With the NFC having a slow start, this is the battle for the No. 1 seed. The Saints are on a roll. They play most of their tough games early, and this one is one of their toughest. Fortunately for coach Jim Haslett, they are catching the Bears at a good time. The defense, which is the heart of the Bears, is playing without three of its better starters -- defensive tackle Ted Washington, defensive end Phillip Daniels and cornerback R.W. McQuarters. Without Washington anchoring the defensive line, the Saints might be able to slip a guard or center to block middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and slow him down. The Saints have three fast receivers -- Joe Horn, Donte' Stallworth and Jerome Pathon -- who will cause matchup problems for the surviving Bears cornerbacks. And Deuce McAllister, weighing 233 pounds, has been overpowering defenses with his inside running, and for the first time in more than a year, the Bears might be more vulnerable to an inside running game. If that wasn't bad enough for the Bears, quarterback Jim Miller is playing with a bad ankle that has been swollen in parts of the past two weeks. Chris Chandler has been put on alert if Miller can't move well with the ankle. Bears fans have complained that the Bears have won ugly in the first two weeks. Dick Jauron's biggest challenge Sunday is trying to find a way to win against the NFC's hottest team.

7. Cleveland Browns at Tennessee Titans: In some ways, it wasn't surprising that the Titans lost to the Cowboys last week because of how physical they played in their opening victory over the Eagles. That was one of the most physical games of the early season, and sometimes it's hard to bounce back quickly. Because the Titans lost, though, they must bounce back against the Browns. Some lingering concerns could affect their play. First, there is the weird foot problem of halfback Eddie George. To say that he went to the hospital was a little more alarming than necessary because that was the only place he could see one of the doctors on a Sunday night. But the problem is that the foot was so sore that George was held out of practice Wednesday. He has been in a boot and in crutches because of the pain. Quarterback Steve McNair is also missing practice time because of a sore neck, but he should be fine. Another worrisome injury is Randall Godfrey's ankle problems that may cause him to miss a second week. The Browns expect quarterback Tim Couch to return, but he may be a little rusty after missing two games because of torn scar tissue in his elbow. Kelly Holcomb did a decent job replacing him and had a 111 quarterback rating in his two starts. The Titans know that and will try to put enough pressure on Couch early to affect the confidence of the offense.

6. Buffalo Bills at Denver Broncos: The Broncos defense caught everyone by surprise and is one of the best in football. To come out of the first two games against the Rams and 49ers ranked No. 11 is remarkable. Mike Shanahan's roster maneuvers of moving Trevor Pryce to defensive end and bring in Lional Dalton at defensive tackle have made the Broncos defensive line a hard unit to contain. Those linemen make the speed at linebacker that much more effective. Stopping Drew Bledsoe will be a supreme challenge, but the Broncos contained Kurt Warner and Jeff Garcia, so it almost seems common place to them. Bledsoe is completing 69.3 percent of his passes and is averaging 8.34 yards per attempt. That's remarkable. He has three great receivers -- Eric Moulds, Peerless Price and Josh Reed -- and each of them have had 100-yard days. Bledsoe will be throwing in the Mile High air and trying to test that defense. For Broncos quarterback Brian Griese, his job will be not to screw things up. As long as he can run an error-free offense as he did last week against the 49ers, he won't have to look over his shoulder at backup Steve Beuerlein.

5. Carolina Panthers at Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings have been good enough to be 2-0. The Panthers have played two of the worst teams in football -- Detroit and Baltimore -- and are 2-0. But fate should start to turn around for both of these teams. The Panthers have major problems at cornerback. Terry Cousin, Reggie Howard and Terry Fair have to contain Randy Moss, D'Wayne Bates and Derrick Alexander. Advantage, Vikings. The Panthers won't ask Rodney Peete to do much other than run an offense that provides maximum pass protection and not make turnovers. The Panthers can't get into a scoring shootout with the Vikings because if they do, they can't keep up. John Kasay suffered a potentially serious re-injury to his groin Wednesday afternoon and will have to be replaced, taking away another sure element of their offense.

4. Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots: Finally, the odds makers are favoring the Patriots, this time by eight to eight-and-a-half points. The Patriots are no longer underdogs. Their blowouts of the Steelers and Jets make them the NFL's top dogs. Tom Brady looks more effective at quarterback because the Patriots have explosive new additions such as Donald Hayes, tight end Cam Cleeland and rookie Deion Branch. It's good to be a Patriot. The Chiefs are coming off a disappointing home loss to the Jaguars that has critics aiming their complaints against quarterback Trent Green. Green has thrown three interceptions this season and he goes against one of the most complex defensive schemes in the league. If he has a three-interception day, the Chiefs are in trouble. Playing the Patriots couldn't come at a worst time for Green. He was Dick Vermeil's handpicked choice to run the offense, but he needs an efficient effort against one of the toughest defensive schemes.

3. Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles: Quincy Carter found ways to get the ball to wide receiver Joey Galloway in beating the Titans last week, but can he do the same against the tough Eagles secondary? In Dallas, it's all about Carter. If he plays well -- and he did against the Titans -- the Cowboys have a chance. Still, he's the third lowest quarterback in the NFC and has completed only 50 percent of his passes. Last week, though, was a major step forward because he took over a bigger leadership role in the offense. The Cowboys will try to get Emmitt Smith a 100-yard rushing day to get him closer to Walter Payton's rushing record, but the Eagles and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will have a few run blitzes to stop him. The Eagles showed a lot of maturity and savvy on offense Monday night in destroying the Redskins defense. The Cowboys are better on defense than last year, but they might not be as talented as the Redskins. Stopping McNabb won't be easy.

2. Seattle Seahawks at New York Giants: That was a huge win for coach Jim Fassel last Sunday in beating the Rams. The Giants need to get a big running performance against the struggling Seahawks defense, which is allowing 235 rushing yards a game. Tiki Barber will be going for 100. So will Ron Dayne, who again is off to a slow start with only 28 yards in 17 carries. What are the Seahawks to do with the run defense. Injuries have cost them defensive tackle John Randle and outside linebacker Anthony Simmons and they haven't found the bulk and mass to replace departed Levon Kirkland at middle linebacker. The offense will get a boost with the return of left tackle Walter Jones after a ridiculously long holdout. Jones won't block Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, who will go against Jerry Wunsch at right tackle. The Seahawks offense is potent with Trent Dilfer returning from his knee injury, but offense can't keep up with a defense that can't stop the run. The Seahawks can't afford to be 0-3, but the Giants also can't lose this type of home game.

1. Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions: Can Joey Harrington save the Lions? Probably not. They are the league's worst team after two weeks long with being the league's second oldest. Harrington, in two games, has completed only seven of 18 passes and could be exposed to a few boos from the dissatisfied fans at Ford Field, which opens Sunday. The plan was for Harrington to get a start by mid-season, but the fact he is moving in early, shows how desperate the Lions are for a spark. Bill Schroeder, who injured ribs going for a tough catch last week, may be out and replaced by Scotty Anderson, making it tougher for Harrington to success. To get through this game, Harrington needs a big game from halfback James Stewart, but that might be tough. The Packers rank 30th on rushing defense, and they know they have more talent than to have those terrible numbers. On the flip side, the Packers won't have halfback Ahman Green and will rely more on Brett Favre's arm.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.










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