Tom and Mike end their tour of the league with the conference champions and their respective courts.
09 Sep 2006
by Aaron Schatz
Are you ready for some football? How about some announcers forced to refer to players by their full names? The best games of the NFL's open weekend bring us two Mannings and five Johnsons, but there's still only one Houshmandzadeh.
(Sunday, 1:00 pm EDT, CBS)
This is a repeat of the final game of the 2005 regular season, but the circumstances are much different. Last year, the Bengals were resting their starters in preparation for the playoffs, and Kansas City walked all over them, 37-3. Cincinnati has a lot more on the line this time: the Bengals want to show the entire league that quarterback Carson Palmer is fully healthy after a postseason knee injury.
Palmer certainly looked healthy in the preseason, which means the Bengals will once again have one of the league's best, most balanced offenses. They have a great quarterback, one of the league's top offensive lines, and two outstanding star receivers in Chad Johnson and T. J. Houshmandzadeh (who may not get to play due to an injury). Rudi Johnson (running behind fullback Jeremi Johnson) has been the most consistent running back in the league over the past two seasons, with 1,454 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2004 and 1,458 rushing yards with another 12 touchdowns in 2005.
The Bengals are sure to score points, but they may not score as many as fans expect. After years of poor performance, there are many trends pointing to an improved Kansas City defense this season. The Chiefs' defense was better in the second half of the 2005 season, which often carries over to the next year. They were stronger in the red zone than elsewhere, which tends to carry over as well. The Chiefs have plenty of young talent in the front seven from recent drafts, including sophomore linebacker Derrick Johnson and rookie defensive end Tamba Hali. And in the secondary, while former Jets cornerback Ty Law made last year's Pro Bowl on reputation rather than performance, he is still a major upgrade over the departed Eric Warfield.
The problems for Kansas City this year are actually on offense, where the Chiefs have many older players and very little depth. Their vaunted offensive line was hit by the dual retirements of left tackle Willie Roaf and right tackle John Welbourn, and Kyle Turley, the player replacing Roaf, has not played a down since 2003 because of injuries.
Unfortunately for the Bengals, they are ill-equipped to take advantage. Cincinnati has almost no pass rush, and ranked 30th last year in Adjusted Sack Rate (sacks per pass play, adjusted for sitation and opponent). The Chiefs line should handle the Bengals without help from tight end Tony Gonzalez, which means he should be going out on plenty of pass patterns -- and taking advantage of a Bengals defense which ranked 27th in defending passes to tight ends for two straight seasons.
The Bengals are also missing middle linebacker Odell Thurman due to four-game drug suspension. Thurman excels in pass coverage, and before drafting him, the Bengals were one of the league's worst teams at defending passes to running backs; with him, they were the league's best. With Thurman gone, Chiefs superstar running back Larry Johnson may get to catch a few passes -- when he's not getting the opportunity to bulldoze one of the league's worst run defenses.
The Bengals may end up with the better record at the end of the season, after injuries expose Kansas City's depth problems. But right now, particularly at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs present a terrible matchup for Cincinnati. Kansas City won't gain 537 yards like they did against the Bengals second-stringers last year, but they should start the year with a victory.
(Sunday, 8:15 pm EDT, NBC)
Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and New York quarterback Eli Manning are brothers. Two or three people may not know this, so NFL commercials have been hammering the point home nonstop for the last five weeks. Sunday night, the Manning brothers face each other for the first time on a regulation football field instead of a sandlot.
The strategy for beating the Colts is simple, played to perfection by the Pittsburgh Steelers in last season's playoff upset. The Colts prefer faster, undersized players in their front seven, all the better to harass opposing passers desperately trying to match Peyton Manning's fireworks. Faster and undersized means weakness against the run, so the Colts play safety Bob Sanders up close to the line early in games to stop opposing running backs. To beat the Colts, you simply pass the ball deep early, forcing them to move Sanders back into coverage, and then run the ball down their throats in the second half.
The Giants would seem to be the perfect team for this strategy. More than any other team, the Giants prefer to throw deep and are willing to accept a lower completion percentage from Eli Manning as long as the passes he does complete add up to big gains. Jeremy Shockey runs deep patterns more often than any other tight end, making it almost impossible to play the safety up to stop the run. Tiki Barber isn't exactly a "run down their throats" kind of running back, but he's still one of the league's best, and if Brandon Jacobs looks anything like he did in the final preseason tune-up against the Patriots, the Giants are in good position.
That is, they will be in good position if their defense can somewhat contain Eli's big brother. The Steelers and Chargers harassed Peyton Manning because they run 3-4 defensive schemes, where pass rushers come from unexpected places. The Giants pass rush is one of the best in the league, but it comes from a very standard place: defensive end. The Indianapolis line can't stop Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora on every down, but it will look much more like the offensive line that led the NFL in Adjusted Sack Rate last year, and less like the line that disintegrated against Pittsburgh.
If Peyton Manning has time to throw, that's bad news for the Giants, as the secondary is the questionable part of their defense. If cornerback Sam Madison wants to prove that Miami made a big mistake by letting him leave, he'll certainly get his chance, but the odds of Madison and Corey Webster containing Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne are small. For the Colts, the questions revolve around the run: can rookie Joseph Addai and/or longtime backup Dominic Rhodes fill the shoes of the departed Edgerrin James? The Giants allowed less than four yards per carry on both first and second down last year, but they'll have to avoid the pitfall that faces all Colts foes: stopping the run, only to discover it's a play-action pass with an open Harrison streaking into the end zone.
Portions of this article appeared in Friday's New York Sun.
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