San Diego's Philip Rivers looks to be the ideal man to run that high-poweredoffense, and in Kansas City, Damon Huard, after nine years as a backup, hasdone a magnificent job filling in for Trent Green. Huard is among the league'stop-rated passers, but will he make the Pro Bowl? First he has to keep thestarting job when Green returns.
Stop Frank Gore, and you stop the 49ers. Seldom do you see a top runner on ateam that's always playing catch-up.
Oversized Saints rookie Marques Colston has become Drew Brees's go-to guy.Scouts say little Wes Welker is the Dolphins' most feared offensive threat. InHouston, Andre Johnson is having a breakout year, and it's surprising that theColts' exceptionally gifted Reggie Wayne has never been to the Pro Bowl.
With the great exodus of Patriots wideouts, Ben Watson has become Tom Brady'sfavorite receiver.
A pair of left tackles who are playing big this year are Buffalo's Jason Petersand San Diego's Marcus McNeill, who's arguably the best of the rookie linemen.The Patriots' quick, heady Dan Koppen is staking a claim as the league's topcenter, but my favorite to watch is the Rams' Richie Incognito, a tough youngman who backs down from nobody and is one of the few centers who fought theChargers' Jamal Williams to a standstill.
Aaron Kampman of the Packers is a lunch-pail type who suddenly burst out in asacking frenzy this season. Bears tackle Tommie Harris has been a terror. Onthe nose, the Vikings' Pat Williams is practically unblockable, and thePatriots' Vince Wilfork is approaching that level. New England end Ty Warrenhas become consistently effective, and New Orleans's Charles Grant has becomeequally formidable against the run and the pass. Then there's 5'11",250-pound Elvis Dumervil, who's been called too short forever--and is leadingDenver in sacks. Philly tackle Mike Patterson has earned a contract extensionafter only a year and a half, evidence of his value to the Eagles. The Giants'top pick, Mathias Kiwanuka, came to the rescue in fine style when two defensiveends got hurt, and their tackle, Fred Robbins, has quietly emerged as one ofthe league's soundest. In K.C., defensive end Jared Allen is a constantforce.
Chicago's Lance Briggs and Baltimore's Bart Scott are standouts on two of theleague's premier defenses. Brandon Short has made a terrific comeback with theGiants, whose D is well run by middle man Antonio Pierce. Arizona's GeraldHayes is an active and fiery leader. In Seattle, Julian Peterson is back to theform of his glory days with the 49ers.
The league's interference rules have made young shutdown corners rare, but theCowboys' Terence Newman has been consistently good in man coverage, and theCardinals' Eric Green catches your eye with his tenacity. At safety, I likeBills rookie Donte Whitner for his smarts and Adrian Wilson of the Cardinalsfor his violent approach to the game.
Dr. Z's Forecast:Bears Down
THE NFC'S game ofthe year, Giants-Bears, would have been much more intriguing if Chicago hadcome in unbeaten to face one of the league's hotter teams, but the Dolphinsnixed that. Now the question is, How banged up are the Bears? Deep threatBernard Berrian suffered a rib injury, and All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlachersprained his toe. The Giants lost a third defensive end, All-Pro MichaelStrahan, with a mid-foot sprain, on Sunday. Everybody's game plan against theBears is heavy pressure on Rex Grossman, but that might not be possible unlessthe Giants get inventive with their blitz package. Its hard to argue that a7--1 team is struggling, but I think the Bears are. My pick is New York. TheEagles are 7--0 following their bye week under Andy Reid, which is as good areason as any to take Philly over Washington. I simply can't get the Bengalsright, but what the heck. I'll give Cincy one more shot, at home against theChargers. The same with the Steelers against the Saints. The Rams can't stopthe run, but the Seahawks still don't know when their varsity QB and runningback will return. Rams are the pick. And the Monday-nighter: Carolina over thestruggling Bucs.
RICH KANE/US PRESSWIRE
The Giants' Pierce isn't the league's best-known middle backer--but he is oneof its best.