The defending Super Bowl-champion Ravens have struggled in two
straight outings, the more serious one being Sunday's loss to
Cincinnati. If you want to put an optimistic spin on things, you
could say that they had even bigger problems last year, when
they were 5-4 and hadn't scored a touchdown in five games. But
they righted themselves by playing great defense.
If you want to look at the downside, though, you could say this
is a team that's out of character, that it's hardly Baltimore's
style to throw 64 times a game (as the Ravens did against the
Bengals), that the offensive line didn't knock anyone off the
ball and the whole team was outhit and outhustled. They can turn
things around this week in Denver. The Ravens will be mad enough,
but the Broncos also have a score to settle after Baltimore
humiliated them in last season's wild-card playoffs. Brian Griese
was out of action that day, and now he and Indy's Peyton Manning
are the league's hottest quarterbacks.
The Broncos let the bigger, heavier Cardinals shove them around
for a while on Sunday night, but then the big boys tired in the
103[degrees] Arizona heat, and Denver turned the game into a
rout. Griese is in a Kurt Warner-type rhythm; the ball seems to
have eyes. But Griese's foundation is an effective run game, and
the Ravens devour ground games.
I've come up with good reasons that both sides should win, but
it's time to make a pick. The Broncos have the hot hand; the
Ravens are still unsettled. Denver's the choice.
Cincinnati-San Diego, which in the preseason figured to be a dog
of a game, is suddenly intriguing: two unbeaten Cinderellas going
at it. Are they for real? Is one of them for real?
The Chargers, under quarterback Doug Flutie, have come alive
offensively, and I'm wondering, When's the last time they had
anything like the 480 yards they ran up against the Cowboys? Air
Coryell days, maybe? Joe Pascale's defense can be counted on;
even in the gloom of last year's 1-15 record, it finished in the
top half of the league (13th).
As for Cincy, running back Corey Dillon has always been scary,
but the defense usually screwed things up somehow. Against the
Ravens, though, the defense was fierce, turning up the intensity
a notch when things went wrong. Could be that this young group,
averaging 26.4 years per starter, is coming of age. I kind of
believe in the Bengals. Call this my upset special.
The Rams dropped too many passes against the 49ers, committed too
many penalties, lost their concentration too often, almost blew
the game but finally won on pure talent. They won't beat the
Dolphins that way. In fact, I don't think they'll beat them at
all. Miami's the pick in upset number 2.
There are two interesting matchups at the Meadowlands. The Niners
are due for a letdown against the Jets in the Monday-nighter, but
I think San Francisco has enough offensive punch to spring still
another upset. A day earlier the Giants take on the Saints, who
are coming back from a two-week layoff. The rust will show. The
Giants will win it in a low-scorer.
Quick picks: Kansas City over Washington, Tampa Bay to add to
Minnesota's miseries, Arizona to get on track against Atlanta.
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SABAU/PACIFIC TRADING CARDS Dillon makes the Bengals' offense go, but he'll face one of the NFL's steadier defenses in San Diego.