Winning on the road is the hardest thing to do -- not just in the NFL but in all of professional team sports. The time-honored formula to be a good team is to win at home, split on the road, beat the teams you are supposed to beat and split with the ones you aren't. Do that, and you're just about guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.
Beating a team on the road that is supposedly better than you is extremely hard to do, as evidenced by the fact that no one did it in Week 2. Likewise, missing an opportunity to pick up a road win against a team you should beat is lethal: Like Baltimore losing at Tennessee in Week 2, or Tennessee losing at Jacksonville in Week 1. These types of wins or losses almost always end up being a factor late in the season.
This week, the Patriots and the Jets face similar trap road games on Sunday, with New England visiting Buffalo and New York traveling to Oakland. Even with the improvement the Bills have shown so far this season, let's face it, they've only beaten Kansas City and Oakland. Oakland has an excellent rushing attack, but its one win is against Denver, not the most intimidating team. So these are very winnable games for the Patriots and Jets. But with that said, and as evidenced by Baltimore last week, neither the Jets nor the Patriots can afford to overlook any road opponent, not this week, or ever.
Newton getting plenty of help
Cam Newton deserves the credit he is getting for his solid start in the NFL, but he is doing it with a lot of good help. Steve Smith is working as hard as I have seen in recent years to get open down the field, and it is paying off statistically. Smith currently leads the NFL in receiving yards with 334. Additionally, I really like what offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is doing to integrate an NFL style of play with the spread option Newton is accustomed to.
Newton shows a certain level of maturity on the field that isn't common for a rookie. During last week's game against the Packers, on the Panthers' first offensive possession, Newton hit Greg Olsen for a wide-open touchdown -- only to have it called back because of an illegal shift. More often than not, such a penalty is a momentum killer and an emotional roadblock, but Newton walked back to the huddle with poise and confidence. He came back with a quick screen, a first-down run, and then threw an outstanding touch pass to Brandon LaFell on a fade route in the corner of the end zone. That series of events is impressive for any offense, let alone from a quarterback with just one previous start under his belt.
This week, the Panthers are presented with their best opportunity thus far to get Newton his first NFL win. The Jaguars come to town with a first-time starter of their own, Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert was the 10th overall draft pick and is athletic in his own right. Like Newton, Gabbert also excelled utilizing the spread offense in college and I even had him ranked higher than Newton on my draft board. Gabbert has a strong enough arm and is very accurate on the short to intermediate throws, but really needs to work on his deeper throws.
With their defense being shredded by the Jets last week, the Jaguars actually need to employ the same offensive strategy that the Panthers used to remain competitive against the Packers. Gabbert and company need to play ball control offense by running the ball and converting on third downs. Conversely, Carolina won't be all that focused in the time of possession this week, but rather limiting turnovers and converting in the red zone. Down there, windows are tighter and running lanes are harder to recognize. I think the Panthers will have plenty of chances to work on their red-zone strategy this week.
All eyes on Grossman
Rex Grossman has been the model of consistency for the surprising 2-0 Redskins, but he also has shown signs of why he was pushed out of Chicago. Take an early first-quarter possession against the Cardinals for example. After driving the length of the field, Grossman threw a red-zone interception that was eventually converted into a touchdown on the ensuing Cardinals' possession. That is a 14-point swing in a game that came down to a last-second field goal.
Earning a divisional win will be tough enough against the Cowboys on Monday night, and the Redskins will need the Grossman of Week 1 to show up. With the Cowboys' second-ranked rush defense, and their depleted secondary, Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will be enticed to throw the ball. If they do, Grossman cannot force the ball to covered receivers, especially in the red zone.
» Matt Stafford's accuracy was the concern coming out of Georgia. That is no longer the case. Against Kansas City, he threw an inside vertical route to Nate Burleson versus a cover-2 defense that had to be perfect. That specific type of throw has to be exactly 20 yards deep approaching the hash but not far enough inside for the dropping linebacker to get there. Of all the throws Stafford has completed this season, that is as pretty as I've seen.
» I saw a note in Tuesday's USA Today that three players I had the good fortune of working with ranked among the top four all-time in career interception return yardage: Rod Woodson, Ed Reed and Deion Sanders. The most common characteristic of all three: they are among the smartest players I ever had the good fortune of working with. Now if only I could have had three QBs of a similar ranking.
» When the Vikings picked up Donovan McNabb, they looked to be trying to repeat the formula that took them to the NFC Championship Game two years -- bring in a veteran quarterback to go with Adrian Peterson and their top-rated defense. The question this time is if the Vikings defense can hold up. With Minnesota blowing a 10-point lead in Week 1 and a 17-point lead last Sunday, we may have our answer. It doesn't get any easier with the Lions coming to town.
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