What a difference a week makes. Just seven days after one of the poorest performances in the Butch Davis era, the Browns were nearly flawless in thoroughly pummeling the archrival Steelers before a national television audience. Amazingly, the Browns have now won seven of their last eight regular season road contests under Butch Davis.
The Browns looked like a different team than the one we saw limp out to a 1-3 start. The same offensive line that allowed twelve knockdowns of Tim Couch versus the Bengals gave him all day to throw Sunday night. While not dominant in the run game (3.1 yards/carry), William Green also was able to run for 115 yards behind the much-maligned unit. There were no dropped passes, and just two penalties. The play calling was less predictable. Defensively, the Browns applied constant pressure, forcing Tommy Maddox into three turnovers, and holding the Steelers to just sixty yards on the ground. The young linebackers were all over the field, and the cornerbacks took Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress completely out of the game.
And at quarterback, Tim Couch was phenomenal. Due to the nature of Holcomb's injury (fractured bone that will take a while to heal 100%), Butch can avoid a full-blown controversy for the time being by suggesting that he won't even considering starting Holcomb until he is 100%. In my opinion, Couch was just as efficient against the Bengals, but had no time whatsoever to throw. If he continues to play this well, there's no way Butch can sit him down. Couch is in better shape, is more decisive, has more confidence, and has more zip on the ball than we've seen from him in the past four seasons. I still contend just one of the two signal callers will be on this team next season, and while I don't want to overreact quite yet and guarantee that it will be Couch…I think that he will be the guy. If given job security, would Couch renegotiate his contract down to a more manageable yearly figure? If so, and he continues to be productive, he just may still be the future at quarterback for us. Who would have believed that three weeks ago?
Which version of the Browns is closer to the one we'll see for the rest of this season? The answer lies somewhere in the middle, and we will know a lot more after playing Oakland and San Diego at home over the next two weeks. The team must start playing better at home, and thee next two games are very crucial. Even though the AFC North is likely the weakest division in football, the chances are very high that it will still take at least nine wins to finish atop the standings and secure a playoff berth. With three losses already, the Browns still have road games at New England, Kansas City, Seattle, and Denver left on the schedule. It's imperative that the Browns win at least two of their three games that lead them into their week nine bye, with the trip to New England being their week eight match-up after the Raider and Charger home games.
- Indianapolis Colts (5-0, ranked #2 last week): Wow. Thirty-eight points against Tampa Bay in their crib on national television without Edgerrin James? The Colts and Peyton Manning left no doubts who the league's top offense, and top team is right now.
- Kansas City Chiefs (5-0, ranked #3 last week): Dante Hall, the NFL's unlikely leading MVP candidate at the quarter pole, leads the Chiefs to victory over the Broncos with one of the most amazing punt returns I've ever seen. Another big test looms at Lambeau this week.
- Minnesota Vikings (5-0, ranked #5 last week): The offensive machine just keeps on a ‘rollin without Daunte Culpepper and Michael Bennett. Improving young secondary took a step backwards this week though.
- Carolina Panthers (4-0, ranked #8 last week): Starting to resemble the '00 Ravens more and more each week. Big plays from the special teams are starting to become the norm.
- Denver Broncos (4-1, ranked #4 last week): The Broncos had done just about everything necessary to go into football's most hostile environments and beat one of the league's best teams before they got Dante Halled. This is one of the best teams in the NFL.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-2, ranked #1 last week): Snake bitten late on Monday night, and all of the sudden two games behind the Panthers…who they also lost to already. Does Tampa have the second best defense in their division? Or maybe even the second best team?
- Miami Dolphins (3-1, ranked #9 last week): Picked off three Kerry Collins passes and held the Giants to just 77 yards rushing en route to a tough road win. Allowing just 12 points per game and atop the AFC East.
- Seattle Seahawks (3-1, ranked #7 last week): Improved defense self-imploded, allowing five consecutive touchdown drives to the Packers in the before and after halftime in loss at Lambeau. Sunday night game vs. the 49ers this week is a big game for this team.
- Tennessee Titans (3-2, ranked #6 last week): Despite losing to the Patriots in Foxboro, I still favor them as the better team in my power rankings. The Titans must fix their run game or they will be home in January.
- Philadelphia Eagles (2-2, unranked last week): I give the last spot in my top ten to the Eagles over the Cowboys, Packers, Redskins, Bills, and Patriots because I feel they are turning the corner, and are getting healthy. Big game in Big D vs. The Tuna and his Cowboys this week.
The Hot Seat
Dick Jauron and Kordell Stewart got off the hot seat (for at least one week anyway) with a big win, as did Dennis Erickson and Terrell Owens. Travis Henry and David Boston also silenced the critics with fine week two performances. Mark Brunell no longer has a seat to get hot. The Hot Seat has a different look to it this week…
- Tommy Maddox: Was on the cusp of being on this list last week, but vaults to the top with yet another turnover laden performance…this one on national television against the team's arch-rivals.
- Eddie George: 15 carries for 35 yards, and the team was handing the rock to Robert Holcombe in the clutch. A longtime favorite of mine…Eddie may have hit the end of the road. I hope I'm wrong.
- Jim Haslett: Losses keep mounting for Haslett, who amazingly still has a job. Dead man walking.
- Kelly Holcomb: Won the job when pressed into action due to Couch injuries, he may be losing the job back due to an injury of his own.
- Dave McGinnis: Has been dealt a crappy hand in the desert, but a head coach can only accumulate so many losses before the hammer is dropped on them.
- Herman Edwards: Bye week leaves Edwards at #6. The same guy hailed as a genius last year will start to draw the ire of the NY media should the Jets go too many more games without posting a W.
- Curtis Martin: Remains right behind his coach due to diminishing skills, diminishing surrounding talent, and fresh legs behind him on the depth chart.
- Kyle Boller: Now atop the AFC North, Billick can only stay with the youngster for so long if he continues to struggle
- Marty Schottenheimer: At what point should Marty worry? The Chargers are 0-5 in a hurry.
- Bill Callahan: Despite last year's Super Bowl appearance (and subsequent slaughtering), someone will be made to pay if the Raiders finish below .500.
Looking Ahead: The three biggest games on this weekends slate feature the rekindling of an old and nasty division rivalry and two huge games pitting some of the top teams in the AFC and NFC against each other. Philadelphia will travel to Dallas where first place in the NFC East will be on the line. The Chiefs visit Lambeau in a rematch of the first Super Bowl in NFL history, and the undefeated Panthers travel to the RCA Dome to take on the Colts. Other games of note see Tampa Bay play at Washington, the Giants visit Foxboro to play the Patriots, and the bumbling Steelers play at Denver. The prime time games have San Francisco at Seattle on Sunday night, and the Falcons at the Rams on Monday night.
The College Ranks
Road To The Sugar Bowl: Tennessee's loss at Auburn coupled with Navy's upset of Air Force left just eleven undefeated Division I programs, several of whom have very tough games this week. Here are the remaining unbeatens:
Nine of these eleven teams play teams that either were or are presently ranked in the AP Top 25.
Michigan and Kansas State both wrecked any chances they had of winning a national championship this season by dropping their second game. USC, Georgia, and Texas are all very strong one-loss teams that still have a legitimate chance to get to New Orleans in January.
Heisman Watch: Frank Gore (injury) and Shaud Williams (another ‘Bama loss) are out of the race, and Larry Fitzgerald and Rashaun Woods fall out of my top six. Charging hard towards the top are Steven Jackson, Jason White, and B.J. Symons.
- RB Steven Jackson, Oregon State: Dropped 227 yards and 3 scores on Cal this week. 10 TD's on the year, leads the nation in rushing yards, and he's topped 100 yards rushing in every game running the ball at about five yards a clip. The frontrunner…for now.
- QB Phillip Rivers, North Carolina State: Despite another Wolfpack loss, Rivers threw for another 334 yards with 2 TD's and 0 INT's. Statistically speaking, he and B.J. Symons are well ahead of the rest of the pack at QB.
- QB Jason White, Oklahoma: Threw for 385 yards and 5 scores against Iowa State this week. Thought to be a question mark by some heading into the season…White has skillfully directed the Sooners to five impressive wins. We'll know a lot more about his Heisman campaign after playing at Texas this week.
- QB B.J. Symons, Texas Tech: Posting absolutely sick numbers taking over the Red Raider offense for Kingsbury. Threw for 505 yards and 8 touchdowns (with no INT) this week against rival Texas A&M…a school known for defense.
- RB Kevin Jones, Virginia Tech: The Hokies weak early season schedule has had Jones on the bench by the 3rd quarter and unable to pad his stats and kick start his Heisman campaign.
- RB Cedric Cobbs, Arkansas: 562 yards and 5 TD's for the undefeated Razorbacks has Cobbs right in the hunt.
Others to watch: WR Larry Fitzgerald / Pitt, WR Rashaun Woods / Oklahoma State, WR Reggie Williams / Washington, WR Roy Williams / Texas, WR Mike Williams / USC, QB Brad Smith / Missouri, RB Chris Perry / Michigan, RB Walter Reyes / Syracuse, RB Derrick Knight / Boston College, RB Michael Turner / Northern Illinois, RB Darren Sproles / Kansas St., QB Ryan Dinwiddie / Boise State, QB Ben Roethlisberger / Miami (Ohio), QB Eli Manning / Mississippi, QB Cody Pickett / Washington
The Games That Matter: HUGE week for college football looms with several big time showdowns between ranked teams. Be sure you have fresh batteries in the remote this Saturday.
- #2 Miami of Florida Hurricanes at #5 Florida State Seminoles: The ‘Canes must get out to a better start than they did vs. Florida in what is Brock Berlin's first tough road game.
- #1 Oklahoma Sooners at #11 Texas Longhorns: The Sooners have owned Texas and Mack Brown under Bob Stoops.
- #8 Georgia Bulldogs at #13 Tennessee Volunteers: Two very talented one-loss teams battle for SEC East supremacy. The winner will be the clear frontrunner to oppose LSU or Arkansas in the SEC Championship Game.
- #3 Ohio St. Buckeyes at #23 Wisconsin Badgers: The Buckeyes first road game will be a tough one, before a raucous Madison crowd in a 9 PM start.
- #29 Auburn Tigers at #7 Arkansas Razorbacks: After a tough start to the season, Auburn looks to slay their second undefeated conference foe in a row.
- #20 Michigan Wolverines at #17 Minnesota Golden Gophers: Minnesota's joke of a non-conference schedule makes it tough to gauge how good they are heading into the meat of their schedule. A Wolverine loss here could mean the end for Lloyd Carr.
Other games of note: Syracuse at Virginia Tech, Notre Dame at Pitt, Nebraska at Missouri, Kansas State at Oklahoma State, Florida at Louisiana State
I split right down the middle in this column last week, going 2-2 in the NCAA and 1-1 in the NFL thanks to Washington's backdoor cover against Philly. In the Saturday morning newsletter, I had a nice day in college, going 4-2 ATS. Philly deprived me of a winning day in the NFL, and I ended the day at 2-3. Anyone who would like to be added to the mailing list of my Saturday morning handicapping newsletter, complete with all my late picks…just drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'01-'02 bowl games: 18-7 (72.0%)
'02 "Swerb's Blurbs" selections: 25-24-2 (51.0%)
'02 Saturday morning newsletter selections: 46-40 (53.5%)
'02-‘03 Bowl games: 14-12 (53.8%)
'03-'04 Saturday morning newsletter: 4-2 (67%)
'01-‘02 playoffs: 7-4-1 (63.6%)
'02 "Swerb's Blurbs" selections: 21-24-1 (46.7%)
'02 Saturday morning newsletter selections: 30-29-1 (50.9%)
'02-‘03 playoffs: 8-6 (57.1%)
'03-'04 Saturday morning newsletter: 2-3 (40%)
Just a couple interesting tidbits on the first five weeks of the NFL against the spread before I get to this week's early selections:
- In addition to both being 5-0, Minnesota and Indianapolis have also both covered the point spread in each of their five games.
- The Raiders are 0-5 ATS, and the Jets are the only other team yet to cover at 0-3-1 ATS.
- The Texans have gone over the total in each of their four contests, while the Bengals have gone under it in their first five games under Marvin Lewis.
Michigan –1 at Minnesota
Minnesota plays a junk non-conference schedule every season, and every season they pay for it when they get into the meat of their Big Ten schedule. The Wolverines are a wounded dog, still deadly enough to bite off the hand of the undefeated Gophers. Lloyd Carr knows his job is on the line, and the Wolverines can still salvage their season if they can win out going into the Ohio St. game. Michigan beat Minnesota 41-24 last season in the Metrodome, and won the '01 contest by 21 at the Big House. Despite the opposite directions of their seasons so far, Michigan is the far more talented team and they win this game easily.
Illinois +5 vs. Michigan State
Michigan State is just 2-10 ATS as a favorite over the past two seasons, and this team is nowhere near as good as they played in their win over Iowa. It's been the same story every year as of late for the Spartans. A couple impressive wins, and ten weeks of disappointments. This week they get stung by an angry Illinois team that just caught one on the chin from Purdue. The Illini are 5-1 ATS in the last six in this series and could easily have won games against Missouri, Cal, and UCLA…all worthy opponents. Illinois outright in this one.
Kansas +7 at Colorado
This is one of those games where the odds makers haven't caught up. Point spreads are derived to garner equal action, and people will bet Colorado here because they are Colorado…and they are used to thinking Kansas is a terrible football school. The reality is that Kansas may be the better team here, and anything above 3 points here is a gift. I wish Colorado would have pulled out that win against hapless Baylor last week…because this number would have been 11 or 12 points. Kansas is a well-coached team loaded with JUCO talent, and may be the better team in this contest…so I'll gladly take them getting 7.
New Orleans –5 vs. Chicago
Last week's comeback win over the Raiders left me with the same feeling about the Bears that I had before the game: that they are the second worst team in football behind the Cardinals. As bad as the Saints have been, they at least have some firepower offensively. And they've played a tough schedule…the combined record of the four teams they've lost to is 15-3. The only weak team they played was Houston, who they blew out and I expect nothing less here at home from them against the hapless Bears. If they lose here, Haslett is gone and he has to know that.
NY Jets +3 vs. Buffalo
I'll take the Jets here getting a field goal at home against a Buffalo team not quite deserving of the hype they received after their 2-0 start. The Jets have responded well to adversity under Herm Edwards, and this is an absolute must win home game if they want to attempt to resurrect their season like last year. Buffalo is 3-9 ATS at New York over the past twelve years and 1-6 ATS over that same span when they are road favorites. The Jets pummeled the Vikings last year in the game after their bye week, setting the team off on a 5-1 stretch that saw them get back in the playoff hunt and I like them to win outright here.