In changing-of-guard season, Patriots take deepest plunge

Week 11 In Review

November 17, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

With one exception, the balance of power has shifted perceptibly in the NFL this season.

So much so that, six weeks from the finish line, none of last year's six division champions is currently in first place. Two (New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs) have played their way out of contention. Two more (New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers) have positioned themselves for a major fall.

The Green Bay Packers, who won the NFC Central the last three years, trail the Minnesota Vikings by two games.

The San Francisco 49ers, who have won the NFC West 12 of the last 15 years, surrendered first place to the upstart Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Of course, the one exception in the revised power structure is the Denver Broncos. They won the Super Bowl a year ago as a wild-card team and still appear to be the class of the league.

Of all these developments, perhaps the most curious shift has affected the Patriots. A Super Bowl team two years ago, they have lost four of five to fall into fourth place in the AFC East at 5-5. They face the second-toughest finishing schedule (behind Miami) of any of the four division contenders.

Injuries are the most convenient explanation in New England. The Patriots were missing eight regulars in a 13-10 loss to Buffalo in Week 11. Among the wounded were linebacker Chris Slade, defensive end Willie McGinest (four snaps) and wide receiver Terry Glenn.

The Patriots gave up 213 rushing yards to the Bills, and produced a season-low 206 total yards in offense. With all its absentees, the defense played admirably; the offense did not.

In fact, since Glenn went out with a hamstring pull four games ago, quarterback Drew Bledsoe has completed just 49.6 percent of his passes (66-for-133), with few big plays.

The running game, with rookie Robert Edwards, is averaging just 42.3 yards per game since a Week 7 loss to the New York Jets. That loss, to former coach Bill Parcells, continues to represent the Patriots' turning point in a season gone sour.

"This team isn't going to go in the tank," coach Pete Carroll said after Sunday's game. "We will keep battling."

Parcells had his own problems in Week 11, but one cannot help but suspect that the Patriots' injury list might have been much shorter under their old coach. Glenn learned that hard lesson as a rookie.

Injuries are not Carroll's fault, either. But in the end, he will pick up the tab.

Air McNair takes off

Slow to develop as a passer in the NFL, Tennessee Oilers quarterback Steve McNair took a giant step this month, beating the Steelers twice and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a three-week stretch.

The four-year veteran's numbers weren't gaudy, but they were efficient. McNair completed 41 of 68 throws (60.3 percent) for 524 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. He also had a clinching, 71-yard touchdown run against the Bucs. But then he always could run.

Burning Rice

Sometimes, even a superstar can't get any respect in the NFL. Take the 49ers' Jerry Rice.

Rice had 10 catches for 169 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown, in the 49ers' 31-19 loss in Atlanta. But it was two drops, one in the end zone, that got the attention of Falcons linebacker Cornelius Bennett.

Bennett said Rice suffered from "alligator arms" -- slang for not wanting to stretch out for the ball -- and suggested the All-Pro receiver was intimidated. Maybe Bennett forgot that Rice has 29 career touchdown catches against the Falcons.

Defense on the offensive

Atlanta's defense physically whipped the 49ers on Sunday and, adding insult to injury, threw in a defensive touchdown. Shane Dronett's sack and forced fumble against Steve Young resulted in a 1-yard fumble recovery touchdown for Jessie Tuggle.

Atlanta's fifth defensive touchdown ties the Falcons with New Orleans and Seattle for the NFL lead. The Saints picked up their fourth and fifth defensive scores in a 24-3 rout of St. Louis.

Dialing long distance

Tampa Bay's unsinkable defense is suddenly taking on water. The Bucs have allowed only six runs of more than 20 yards this season, but three have come in the last two weeks. Injuries robbed the Bucs of five defensive regulars in those games.

A week ago, they gave up the 71-yard run to McNair. On Sunday, it was a 70-yard touchdown run by Fred Taylor to give Jacksonville a 29-24 win. The Bucs are 1-11 under Tony Dungy when they allow a 100-yard rushing game.

By the numbers

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