Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Well, the first quarter of the NFL season is over now (at least it is for most teams). It is abundantly clear that the three remaining undefeated teams, the Bears, Colts and Ravens, have received far too much attention. The real class of the NFL are the 3-1 teams who faced off in Super Bowl XXIX, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots.

In fact, I insist that we start referring to the Bears as 4-1, anticipating their inevitable defeat at the hands of the Patriots in Foxboro on November 26. Alas, Rex Grossman, we hardly knew ye. By the time Bellichek's insane clown posse gets through with him, he'll wish he were injured. Of course, there is just a slight chance that the suddenly vaunted Patriots' defense might be more than a step older and slower than in the salad days. Then again, it might be the No Name defense of this generation.

I favor the less optimistic view, which could be summed up in this paraphrase (and bowdlerization) of Winston Wolf from Pulp Fiction. It might be a little premature to offer the gift of oral gratification all around.

After all, while they may have played the most impressive collection of teams that have only won one game apiece at this point in the NFL season, the Eagles have beaten the Texans, the Forty-Niners and the Packers. Those three teams might not wrest the number one pick away from the Titans (who look more and more like a prohibitive favorite as each week progresses, or regresses as the case may be), but they'll most likely be in the top ten come April. They lost in Week 2 to the Giants, when they blew a sizeable lead in the fourth quarter. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but the Giants are the only playoff team from last season the Eagles have faced thus far. Dallas, on the other hand, played Jacksonville in Jacksonville and beat the Redskins convincingly in Texas Stadium.

We probably should start assuming that the Eagles will be 4-1 come Sunday evening. Dallas can't hope to compete with the Eagles this week. The only reason Mike Patterson is left out of the conversation for the most dominant defensive lineman in football is his dearth of bigtime talent. But he'll crush the Cowboys offensive line. I admit that the Cowboys are suspect up front, but the Eagles aren't exactly the Steel Curtain. NFL teams are often only as good as their last game, a fact that should be remembered when we consider that the Eagles sack totals have come against the Texans, Giants, San Fran and Green Bay (all units are even shakier than the Cowboys).

Donovan MacNabb has put up numbers this season, but I am not as impressed with them as some. For instance, in this week's Vent SportsNation poll on ESPN.com, we are invited to vote on whether this group of Eagle wideouts is the best McNabb has had and whether he is a better QB without TO. Perhaps it might be too early to ask questions like that. After all, according to the stats on ESPN's website, the Giants are the 29th ranked passing yardage allowed. Green Bay is ranked 31st and the Texans are dead last. San Francisco is slightly better at 24.

I just wish someone would come out and say that Philadelphia might have the number one offense as far as passing yardage is concerned, because they've played four of the eight worst defenses in that regard in the NFL. Dallas, by comparison is currently ranked 8th in passing yardage allowed. And as for the shaky Dallas offensive line, they've only allowed 3 sacks this season, tied with Chicago for second in the NFL. McNabb has been sacked 9 times, tied for 17th in the league. Maybe they'll play a game in Philadelphia this Sunday, instead of just handing the win to the home team, after all.

As for the Patriots, anyone who knows football (and by that, I mean the exact opposite) knows that the Patriots are better than the Bears across the board on defense. Vince Wilfork is easily better than Tommy Harris, and every other player in the defensive tackle rotation in the Windy City. Teddy Bruschi and Junior Seau aren't a step slow after age and debilitating injuries, and they make Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs look like chumps. Rodney Harrison isn't fully recovered from last season's injury, but he singly handedly thwarted the Broncos passing attack. It's not like Javon Walker tore up the Patriots downfield.

That's the problem with football fans in this fantasy football/24 hour news coverage/internet generation. Every tool gets too excited about a big win, and too down after a big loss. Cincinnati cannot stop the run. Denver could, and did. Cincinnati lost, Denver did not. It also helped that there were two high profile arrests involving Bengals players in the week leading up to the game. Say what you want about how much or little these things effect a particular team in a given week, Boomer Esiason did. His take is interesting, if slightly sanctimonious. These incidents couldn't have helped.

There are also a number of significant injuries on the Bengals, depleting their linebacking corps. David Pollack is out for at least 2 seasons, and probably for ever with a broken vertebra in his neck. An injury like that has to weigh heavily on the minds of his teammates. It's certainly depressing me right now.

During the football season, I'm going to be running a new feature after each week's games. It's my favorite running debate of the season. Are the Bears good enough to win the NFC championship? They hung a pretty solid beating on the defending NFC champs this week. Their defense looked unbelievably good, and very fast. But they were playing a game at home, and Seattle was playing without the reigning NFL MVP.

Would Shaun Alexander have made that much of a difference? I think he would have been worth at least one TD, maybe 2 when you factor in Jeremy Stevens and the red zone flexibility that might have afforded the Seahawks. I doubt that it would have been enough, especially since Alexander was not playing like an MVP when he was injured. Obviously, one can discuss the would haves, should haves and could haves for hours and not resolve anything.

The answer to my "Are the Bears Good Enough?" debate: not right now. They have played much better on offense than anyone expected. Rex Grossman looks dangerously close to becoming a serviceable quarterback, like Trent Dilfer in 2000, but better, younger and not bald. Their defense is at least as good as it was last year. But like I said about Philly, what is their competition so far?

Green Bay is not good. Detroit was stifled by the Bears and Roy Williams was ridiculed for his wild predictions, but they came alive against the Rams in a big way. Minnesota is the second best team in the NFC North, but there's a big gap between first and second here. The Bears did beat them in the Metrodome, where they've always had trouble in the past. And they did beat Seattle convincingly, especially when you figure that the Kyle Orton edition of the Bears needed 4 weeks to score 37 points during last season's doldrums. But as I mentioned, Shaun Alexander and Jeremy Stevens were out of the lineup.

Looking ahead, it is very possible that the Bears could go undefeated in the North. I won't say it will happen, but they do have Green Bay and Minnesota at home and Detroit may fall apart at any moment. 12-4 or 13-3 aren't outside the realm of possibility and may indeed be a very probable outcome for this team. With the way things are going that just might be good enough for home field throughout the NFC playoffs.

Soldier Field in January should be a big advantage, but you never know. Just look at last year. I never expected Carolina to win there in the winter. And they had beaten Carolina at Soldier Field earlier in the season, sacking Jake Delhomme 8 times. I'm sure that fed into an arrogance that caused them to cover Steve Smith with Charles Tilman one on one. Obviously, that didn't work too well based on the result. To make a long story short, it might be something to consider in the back of your minds should Seattle play Chicago again in the postseason.

Of course, the above scenarios depend on the vain hope that the inevitable beating at the hands of the Patriots doesn't utterly devastate their fragile psyche. One can only hope the Belicheck puts some compassion inside that grey hoodie. We all know that the Jedi master will frustrate and bedevil Grossman just as though the Bear QB were a younger, more articulate (he'd almost have to be more articulate than Junior Simple) version of Peyton Manning. On a serious note, I think the Bears can beat the Patriots even in Gillette Stadium. More than that, I think they will beat the Patriots. But I'm not sure that they can win it all.

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