Monday night proved to be a logical conclusion to an NFL weekend that was anything but logical.
It also is the perfect starting point to address the struggle so many of us share in trying to identify teams that have the look of a Super Bowl champion. Actually, putting such a label on even just one team is a chore of mammoth proportions.
The New York Giants had fit the profile as well as anyone. They weren't merely the defending champs. They were performing at a championship level in almost every way possible on the way during a 4-0 start.
Then they ran into that buzz saw in Cleveland.
In one night, all of the lingering doubts about the Giants' ability to successfully defend their crown came rushing to the surface. How good does anyone feel now about suggesting that Eli Manning had actually surpassed his big brother as a quarterback? He made enough bad decisions and bad throws in his three-interception disaster against the Browns to raise those familiar questions about his worthiness as a Super Bowl MVP all over again.
You think the Giants miss retired Michael Strahan and injured Osi Umenyiora? Derek Anderson proved a year ago that he has the ability to be a top-flight passer, so his 310-yard, two-touchdown performance shouldn't be a total surprise. But he operated with far too much comfort than a quarterback should against any NFL front seven, let alone one that (with Strahan and Umenyiora) made Tom Brady look mostly ordinary in the Super Bowl.
They are not alone.
Here's a closer examination of the rest:
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Tennessee Titans: Sure, they have a perfect record. They have a dominant defense. They have an excellent coach. But can you honestly say that Kerry Collins will guide this team to the top? I can't. Collins has been a Super Bowl quarterback, but there is a reason he hasn't been a full-time starter since 2005. At this stage of his career, he is more of a solid journeyman than a legitimate, 16-game starter for a championship team. At some point, Jeff Fisher will need to seriously consider putting Vince Young back in the No. 1 spot. Young could prove to be the dynamic offensive force his talent says he can be. But he could just as easily experience another meltdown.
Dallas Cowboys:Tony Romo's injured pinkie finger might very well have crushed whatever hope the Cowboys have of righting a ship that already looked to be headed for big trouble. Brad Johnson could bring some stability and efficiency to the quarterback position. But he probably won't bring enough big plays for a team that is supposed to be built to deliver them on a regular basis. That isn't likely to do a whole lot to keep Terrell Owens from being the divisive force he has a habit of becoming when he isn't the focal point of the offense. Another problem is Felix Jones' injury. Wade Phillips is a good coach, but his calm demeanor and folksy style are likely to be put to the test by what seems to be an ever-increasing combustible situation.
Washington Redskins: When you're in the thick of the title race in the league's most competitive division, you merit consideration of something more than a curiosity. The Redskins have been a model of offensive efficiency. The fact they have a rookie coach, Jim Zorn, has hardly been a drawback so far. But losing to the previously winless Rams is not something an elite club is supposed to do. Jason Campbell continues his remarkable run of avoiding interceptions, and that could go a long way toward allowing the Redskins to make it deep in the playoffs. Clinton Portis' rushing is another plus. But it would have helped tremendously against St. Louis if Campbell had thrown for a touchdown or two. It remains to be seen whether the challenge of going the distance is going to prove too large for Zorn and Campbell.
San Diego Chargers: Their Sunday night mauling of the Patriots was a reminder of why this team was a popular preseason pick to win it all. So, too, was their Monday night victory over the Jets in Week 3. However, the Chargers' defense clearly isn't the same without Shawne Merriman, and seems far too vulnerable to offer any sense that it can hold its own well enough for a championship run. Not to take anything away from the improved Dolphins, but the Chargers' loss at Miami was disturbing.
More Monday night musings
» The Browns have been waiting all season for a game like the one Anderson had against the Giants. They maintained all along that their patience would be rewarded. Still, they weren't likely to go a whole lot longer with Anderson struggling as much as he had through the first four games. Even his Week 4 effort at Cincinnati was far from spectacular. Although the coaches didn't necessarily believe a switch to Brady Quinn would bring much better results (he had apparently not been overwhelming anyone in practice), they might not have had much choice. Something was needed to shake up the offense, and Anderson finally provided it, along with Braylon Edwards.
» Considering the Browns were without Kellen Winslow, who was sidelined with an undisclosed illness, there is reason to think they might be able to show even more explosiveness once the dynamic tight end returns to the lineup. There are still some questions about whether they have enough discipline to get back into the AFC North race in a meaningful way. They continue to commit too many penalties and make too many other mistakes (such as dropped passes) at the least opportune times. Although they wound up with 35 points, they could have scored even more had they not squandered some red-zone chances. Another potential problem for the Browns: Their next two games are at Washington and Jacksonville.
Is success too hot for Panthers to handle?
It has been an all-too-familiar theme for the Carolina Panthers. Just when they show they might have what it takes to get on a serious roll and demonstrate they are a serious contender, they find a way to stumble. Badly.
In Week 5, the Panthers did exactly what they were supposed to do in pounding the hapless Chiefs. But on Sunday, they gave an atrocious showing in all phases on the way to a lopsided loss at Tampa that caused them to slip into a three-way tie with the Buccaneers and Falcons for first place in the NFC South.
For whatever reason, as the Panthers have shown in recent years, they are seemingly incapable of dealing with success. Time after time, they have treated sole possession of first place in the division like a wet bar of soap. One week, they are doing everything right. The next, they allow a punt to be blocked and returned for a touchdown on their opening possession. And their quarterback, Jake Delhomme, throws multiple interceptions. And their best receiver, Steve Smith, drops a touchdown pass with no defender in sight. And their defense can't do anything to stop Jeff Garcia from making a triumphant return to the starting quarterback job he lost after the season opener.
"I don't have an answer for you other than we played terrible," safety Chris Harris said. "We didn't execute in any phase of the game, and I don't know why. I wish I knew why."
Broncos scoring rut cause for concern
I was never quite sure that the Denver offense was truly as strong as its 38-points-per-game average indicated during a 3-0 start.
I did think, with his diabetes under control, Jay Cutler had made a significant transformation as a quarterback. Besides being bigger and stronger and more energetic, Cutler also had clearly made strides in reading defenses. With remarkably solid protection, he was able to take full advantage of his exceptionally powerful and accurate throwing arm.
But it was not realistic to expect the Broncos to sustain an offensive pace equal to the historic one the Patriots managed to keep up through most of the 2007 season. For one thing, Cutler is not Tom Brady, even if he does continue to be well-protected. For another, the Broncos, while hardly shy of receiving talent, don't have a pair of pass-catchers who can consistently do what Wes Welker and Randy Moss did last year.
In watching the Broncos average a little more than 17 points per game through a 1-2 stretch, it is fair to say that opponents have caught up to Denver's offensive talent and strategy. At the beginning of the season, the Broncos were able to confuse defenses with a number of different formations and personnel groupings. They also opened their playbook pretty wide for the first few weeks of the season, utilizing various plays that were mostly successful. Mike Shanahan and his coaches certainly can come up with new plays and new game plans to exploit the weaknesses of future opponents, but a good deal of their creativity has been studied and the antidotes have made their way around the league.