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Sunday, October 21
Updated: October 24, 12:13 PM ET
Plenty of intrigue in Patriot games now

By Joe Theismann
Special to

ESPN's Joe Theismann answers some key questions on Week 6 of the NFL season:

Can the Patriots make a run at the AFC East title?
David Patten
David Patten scored the first of his four TDs on this 29-yard run against the Colts.
I think they can. Why not? A lot of people picked the Colts to walk away with the division, but now the Patriots have beaten them twice. Still, the Dolphins look like the most complete team in the AFC East.

When I talked to Bill Belichick in 2000, he said he needed a year to evaluate the talent he had -- and the Patriots would be a much better team this season.

Now, with the emergence of Tom Brady since Drew Bledsoe's injury in Week 2, Belichick has a brewing quarterback question. The Patriots are paying Bledsoe a lot of money, but Brady has established a standard in his substitute QB role. Brady's record as a starter is 3-1 after New England began the season 0-2. Meanwhile, the emergence of running back Antowain Smith has given Brady and the Patriots a tremendous lift.

Someone might point out that Bledsoe hasn't had the running component, but Brady is still getting it done in the passing game. Brady has done exactly what a backup is supposed to do.

Bledsoe will likely get his job back when he's healthy, but he'll need to produce -- and as long as Brady is successful, there will be added pressure on Bledsoe to perform well when he returns. Otherwise, the Patriots will have a tough decision to make: investment vs. production? As the season progresses, Brady will be a great story to watch.

New England hosts the Rams on an ESPN Sunday night game Nov. 18 -- which now looks like a much more interesting game than it did a few weeks ago.

Are new Monsters of the Midway emerging in Chicago?
As long as Jim Miller remains the Bears' quarterback, they will be a good football team.

The Bears were a good defensive team last season. Brian Urlacher stepped up and learned the middle linebacker position and has become a leader on that defense. Now the offensive component is in place.

Last season, the defense would keep Chicago in games, but the offense would make mistakes -- Cade McNown would throw an interception or whatever. Now the offense is complementing and protecting the defense, making the Bears a more complete football team.

By the way, here's a trivia item: Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache was a quarterback with me at Notre Dame. So Blache understands offenses and how to stop them.

Who's the best team in the AFC Central right now?
Joey Porter
Joey Porter had four of the Steelers' team record-tying 10 sacks in a 17-10 win over the Bucs.
Right now -- and this is so ironic -- it's either Cleveland or Pittsburgh. If I had to pick a favorite to win the division (as of Week 6), I'd go with the Steelers.

What a great job coach Butch Davis has done turning the Browns around. This is what a healthy quarterback can do for you. The Browns' defense played pretty well last year, but their offense was horrible -- and that's because quarterback Tim Couch was out all last season.

This season, Couch is playing at the level you expected him to play when he came into the NFL with the outstanding quarterback class of '99 (along with Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper). Couch does it differently than the guys who can run and pass, but he gets it done nonetheless.

Regarding Pittsburgh's strong start, I had the chance to talk with Steelers running back Jerome Bettis during the offseason at a charity golf tournament. I asked him how things were going -- this was just before he went to training camp -- and he said, "We're gonna surprise some people this year. You'll be surprised to see how good we really are." So he believed it right from the beginning.

Now the NFL better take notice. Guess who has the league's No. 1 defense? No, it's not the Ravens -- it's the Steelers.

I can't wait for that Browns-Steelers game (Nov. 11 in Cleveland, then Jan. 6 in Pittsburgh to close the season). You wouldn't have picked that as a marque matchup when the season began.

When will the Rams lose and the Lions win?
Last season, the week after I said the Rams would go undefeated, they lost. So I won't make another prediction about St. Louis.

Still, the Rams are 6-0, and now they've unveiled another weapon in Trung Canidate -- who did his best to imitate injured running back Marshall Faulk, the reigning NFL MVP, in a backup role.

The Rams' defense has been much-improved this season, and it's continuing to improve each week. As the season moves along, I expect them to get even better. Faulk will come back healthier. The Rams are clearly the team to beat.

Last season, if the Rams had gotten by New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs, I think they were the team to beat then. In my view, one fumbled punt (against the Saints) cost the Rams a run to another Super Bowl crown.

With his offensive wizardry, coach Mike Martz makes it fun to watch the Rams play. Option passes, halfbacks at the quarterback position, onside kicks -- Martz will do whatever it takes to score as many points as he possibly can.

And the Lions? They were so close Sunday against the Titans. But now it looks like they've lost wide receiver Germane Crowell, who injured his left knee and could be done for the season. That hurts, because Detroit has no depth at wide receiver. It's hard to find big, fast receivers who are play-makers, and that's the type of receiver the Lions have lost in Crowell.

When you look at the Lions' NFC Central schedule, you see Chicago, Green Bay, Minnesota and Tampa Bay. Maybe when the Lions play the Buccaneers they'll have a chance, because the Bucs have been playing more poorly than most people expected. Barring an upset or two along the way, as things stand now two other games might realistically be winnable for Detroit: Arizona (away on Nov. 18) and Dallas (at home in the season finale on Jan. 6).

A game analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football, former NFL QB Joe Theismann won a Super Bowl and a league MVP award. He reviews the NFL each week for in Cup o' Joe.

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