Season not defined by rocky beginning

Rams, Eagles, Bengals, Patriots show mettle in rebound from slow starts

NFL Week 8 in review

October 28, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Back from the brink, the St. Louis Rams have moved past the Kurt Warner era, into the Marc Bulger era and into a first-place tie in the NFC West.

If the transition was painful in an emotional sense, the Rams nevertheless are finding the Bulger era as invigorating as they found Warner's MVP era. After Sunday's victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, they are 5-1 this season with Bulger starting, and 11-2 over parts of two seasons.

More importantly, St. Louis has rebounded from a 1-2 start to forge a tie at 5-2 with the Seattle Seahawks in the division. Can you spell playoffs?

The Rams aren't the only team on the rise, though. Three other teams also have survived shaky beginnings to approach the halfway point of the season with a head of steam.

At 4-3, the Philadelphia Eagles outlasted the hysteria of an 0-2 start to pull within a game of the Dallas Cowboys in the topsy-turvy NFC East.

New coach Marvin Lewis brought the Cincinnati Bengals back from an 0-3 start to win three of their past four and move within a game of the Ravens in the AFC North.

The New England Patriots shook off a 31-0 drubbing in Buffalo in their season opener, and a 2-2 start, to win four in a row and capture the AFC East lead.

Each team accomplished the turnaround in a slightly different manner. Bulger's poise in the pocket and his accurate passing revived the Rams. Since their 0-2 start, the Eagles have run the ball more (151 times) than they've thrown it (131).

The Bengals' rejuvenation has centered on defensive turnovers and big-play offense. And the Patriots have run just enough to complement quarterback Tom Brady and their patchwork defense.

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who had his best passing game of the year in a 24-17 win over the New York Jets, spoke for all of the turnarounds when he addressed Philadelphia's rise on Sunday.

"I think we have taken a big jump," McNabb said. "You look all across the league, at all the teams that started out 2-0, 3-0, 4-0; they are starting to lose now.

"The teams that started out as you guys call it `struggling,' are starting to win. So it is all about winning, and I think you look across the league and you'll see that no one cares who is doing what or how guys are looking. It is all about wins and losses."

During Warner's fall from grace a year ago, the Rams slid to 7-9 and out of the playoffs. But Bulger's numbers are looking Warner-esque already. He's thrown for at least 300 yards in five of his 13 starts, including a 375-yard performance against the Steelers' No. 2-ranked pass defense on Sunday.

The Rams' big-play capability was back in full force in the 33-21 win in Pittsburgh. Bulger threw a season-high 11 completions of at least 20 yards. In the team's first six games, the Rams had 20 plays of 20-plus yards.

This resurgence comes even with running back Marshall Faulk out since Week 3 because of a broken hand and knee surgery. Faulk dressed in Pittsburgh but wasn't needed, as third-stringer Arlen Harris rushed for 81 yards and three touchdowns.

With McNabb in a horrid passing slump, the Eagles have leaned on their running game in recent weeks. They punched out 194 rushing yards against the Jets. After they lost running back Brian Westbrook to a high ankle sprain on Sunday, Correll Buckhalter came on to gain 100 yards on 15 carries.

McNabb completed 17 of 23 passes for 73.9 percent, the second-best mark of his career. All this came on a day when the Eagles' defense was pushed around for a season-high 377 yards.

In Cincinnati, wide receiver Chad Johnson is fast becoming the team's new star. His 53-yard catch-and-run provided the Bengals with the winning touchdown in a 24-17 upset of the Seahawks.

While the Bengals' defense has cranked out eight turnovers in the past two weeks, it's the inspired play of quarterback Jon Kitna that has made the biggest difference. In the past four games -- three of them wins -- Kitna has thrown for eight touchdowns and only one interception.

New England not only recovered from its Week 1 loss to the Bills and former Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy, but it also has overcome a slew of injuries, particularly on defense.

For all their setbacks, the Patriots have not allowed a 100-yard rusher or receiver and have allowed just one touchdown in the past three games.

Best and worst

Highlights and lowlights from Week 8:

Best stand-in for a starter:RB Rudi Johnson, Bengals. With Corey Dillon out for personal reasons, Johnson carried 27 times for 101 yards and a touchdown in an upset of the Seahawks.

Worst flub of an opportunity: QB Danny Kanell, Broncos. Two interceptions, one costly fumble and now the Broncos might even call Jeff George.

Biggest comedown:49ers. How can they beat the Bucs and lose to the Cardinals?

Best bounce-back:Bucs. A week after losing to the 49ers, the Bucs turned the Cowboys into pumpkins.

Worst job under fire:K Owen Pochman, 49ers. After missing three field-goal attempts last week, Pochman missed two more Sunday. Then he dribbled the overtime kickoff out of bounds, launching the Cardinals' winning drive.

Best rush to judgment:RB Marcel Shipp, Cardinals. His 165 rushing yards showed why he should've been starting all along and why Arizona didn't need Emmitt Smith.

Strangest scene:Bucs WR Keyshawn Johnson getting jeered by his home crowd and going over to shake the hand of Cowboys coach Bill Parcells.

Oddest touchdown:49ers OT Kwame Harris' 1-yard fumble recovery when QB Jeff Garcia lost the ball at the goal line and it popped into Harris' hands.

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