Clayton 1st and 10

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Monday, September 3
 
Circle the dates for these must-see games

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 matchup followed by 10 other games you should follow. Here's his look at the 2001 regular season:

First ...
Oct. 7 and Nov. 12: Baltimore Ravens vs. Tennessee Titans
Tennessee or Baltimore? Baltimore or Tennessee? The debate over which team is the NFL's best will probably linger into a third game sometime in January during the playoffs.

The Ravens won the last two games, 24-23, in the regular season, and, 24-10, in the playoffs in Nashville. Since that game, the rivalry has simmered. The Titans traded for defensive end Kevin Carter to get to the Ravens' quarterback. The Ravens signed right tackle Leon Searcy to be able to block Carter and Jevon Kearse, but they won't have him until midseason.

It seems inevitable that these teams will meet again in the playoffs, but the Ravens hold serve first with a crucial Oct. 7 game in PSINet Stadium. The rematch will be on Monday night, Nov. 12 in Nashville. They are probably the most anticipated matchups of the season.

The key for the Ravens is finding a running game before that Oct. 7 showdown. Each team knows they have significant homefield advantage even though it meant nothing last year. No home team won between the two last year.

With Jamal Lewis out of the season with a knee injury, the Ravens are scrambling for a running game. They know they can get by most defenses by hammering Terry Allen and Jason Brookins into the line, but the Titans aren't like most defenses.

The Titans angered the Ravens by doing well enough in the regular-season finale last season to sneak away with the No. 1 ranking for allowing the fewest total yards. That spoiled the Ravens' relative sweep of the top defensive stats.

If the Ravens can find the right running back to beat the tough-to-run-against Titans defense, they regain the edge early this season. In doing so, Baltimore will have the edge of having beat Tennessee three consecutive times. Plus, it gives the Ravens another month to get a running back they like.

And 10...
Nov. 5: Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders
The last time these teams met on Monday night, the Raiders gave Brian Griese a third-degree shoulder separation, but he stayed in the game to beat the Raiders in dramatic fashion. The Raiders may still hold the edge in the AFC West, but owner Pat Bowlen spent more than $90 million this year to close the gap between the two teams, which finished one game apart last year. It seems funny to predict that the Raiders will win the division over the Broncos even though the Broncos sweep the Raiders year in and year out. The Broncos have won the past seven meetings. Having a home game on Monday night might give the Raiders a chance to break their jinx against former Raiders coach Mike Shanahan. The rematch is Dec. 30 in Denver.

Oct. 22: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
To win the NFC East, the Eagles have to beat the Giants, something they couldn't do last year and have had trouble doing for the longest time. The Giants host the Eagles on Monday night, Oct. 22 with the division on the line. The Giants have a nine-game winning streak against the Eagles. A loss by the Eagles could be deflating. At least by playing this late in October, the young receiving corps of the Eagles will have six games to get in sync with quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Eagles will also be coming off their bye week, so they will have an extra week to prepare while the Giants will be coming off an emotional game against the Rams in the TWA Dome. Like the Raiders-Broncos series, the rematch won't happen until Dec. 30.

Oct. 28: New Orleans Saints at St. Louis Rams
The Saints won two of three games against the Rams last year and feels as though they are the better team. Against the Rams, Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks made a name for himself as one of the league's rising young quarterbacks. The Rams changed roughly eight starters on their defense to add more speed to be able to handle the challenges such as Brooks. Each team lives off quickness on defense, but the Saints have more experience because they came together last year. The key for the Saints will be how their cornerbacks hold up against the great Rams receivers. The rematch is on Monday night Dec. 17 in the Superdome.

Nov. 11: Miami Dolphins at Indianapolis Colts
It seems strange for the two top teams in the AFC East to meet so late, but it didn't spoil last year's showdowns. Their first game against each other was Nov. 26 last year. The Dolphins won two of three meetings, including the wild-card playoff game in Pro Player. The Colts dominated the first half, but lost a 14-0 lead thanks to drop passes and an inability to stop Dolphins halfback Lamar Smith. The Colts can only hope that their defense improved because they didn?t have cap room to do much upgrading. The rematch is on Monday night, Dec. 10 in Miami.

Sept. 30: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Minnesota Vikings
Tony Dungy needs to question the schedule-maker at some point. Why is it that their first meeting against the Vikings in always in the Metrodome. Every year, the Bucs hopes of passing the Vikings get off on the wrong foot when the Vikings score quickly in a home game and the Bucs rally but fall short. With Brad Johnson at quarterback, the Bucs hope they can get the jump on their undermanned defense. The rematch is Oct. 29 in Tampa where the Bucs usually bounced back, but the Vikings always seem to have the overall edge because it takes a week or two for the Bucs to recover from the first Vikings loss.

Nov. 26: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at St. Louis Rams: If indeed, the Bucs and Rams are two of the NFC's best, this could be an NFC Championship preview as it was two years ago. The Bucs have the ability to defend the potent Rams offense. Offensively, the Bucs feel as though Brad Johnson has the passing ability to put points on the scoreboard. A high-scoring Bucs-Rams game? Unlikely, but maybe it's possible.

Oct. 14: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tennessee Titans
This could be a Super Bowl preview, and yes, this one will be low-scoring. Both teams will try to run the ball because they knew their defenses are good enough to knock out the other team's quarterback. What will be fun is watching two of the league's best defensive schemes at work.

Sept. 30: Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
The Broncos sacked defensive coordinator Greg Robinson and fired some of the defensive starters because they couldn't stop Corey Dillon during the regular season and Ravens halfback Jamal Lewis during the playoffs. Now, the Ravens head to Denver without Lewis, so the Broncos will feel confident. They have their potent offense and three talented running backs. But will that make a difference against a defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 45 games.

Oct. 21: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
With Brett Favre being the old Brett Favre, the Packers feel primed to pass the Vikings a challenge for a playoff spot and second place or better in the NFC Central. To do that, though, they have to get past the Vikings. Favre has always had problems in the Metrodome. If he can overcome those difficulties and beat the Vikings, they will have great moment for a final stretch in which they have five home games in their final eight games. The Packers game comes before a bye week. If the Packers are 4-3 or 5-2 after the Vikings game, their playoff hopes are alive.

Oct. 7: Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
One of the sad parts of the Bucs moving out of the NFC Central is that rivalry between Warren Sapp and Brett Favre will fade. It's a great show. Sapp plays his best against Favre, and the plays are always memorable. Sapp is vying for another Defensive Player of the Year award. Favre feels good enough to go for another MVP.

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







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