Four slow starters keep fast company

Now they're all on top of their games, standings

Pro Football

NFL Week 13 in review

December 02, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Panic rampaged through the streets of Philadelphia in September. The Eagles were 0-2, their marquee quarterback looked like a raw rookie, and their injury list was extensive.

Just shows what September means in the NFL. Not much.

As December arrives, we find a different scenario unfolding. The Eagles have won seven straight games, Donovan McNabb once again is playing with abandon and their devastated defense has been bolstered by the return of Brian Dawkins and Bobby Taylor.

The Eagles, in fact, might be poised to accomplish this year what they couldn't in either of the past two seasons - win the NFC championship game and reach the Super Bowl.

It's not how you start in September, but what you do with that start that matters in the NFL. The Eagles worked through their problems and came out a stronger team with more options. They face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday with a chance to establish a two-game lead in the NFC East.

They aren't the only team to rebound from a slow start this season:

The St. Louis Rams began 1-2 with a quarterback change and now threaten the Eagles for home-field advantage in the NFC at 9-3.

The Cincinnati Bengals opened the Marvin Lewis era 0-3, but have come back to challenge the Ravens for the AFC North title at 7-5.

The New England Patriots have won eight in a row since a 2-2 start and can establish a stranglehold in the AFC East with a win over Miami this week.

That's the setup. Here's the synopsis.

Philadelphia: Brian Westbrook's stunning 84-yard punt return for a touchdown to beat the New York Giants in Week 7 likely was the season's turning point for both teams. The Eagles haven't lost since, and they've had a fair share of good fortune. How else can you explain Carolina's normally capable kicker, John Kasay, missing three field goals and an extra point in a nine-point loss at home to the Eagles?

The Eagles are defying conventional wisdom. Good run defense is considered a requisite for a Super Bowl run. Yet they have allowed four straight 100-yard rushers and five in the past six weeks - and haven't lost any of those games.

Here's one more point. The Eagles are 8-9 in September in Andy Reid's five years as coach, but 29-7 from the bye week until the end of the season under Reid.

St. Louis: Since taking over for two-time MVP quarterback Kurt Warner in Week 2, Marc Bulger has thrown 18 interceptions. But the Rams under coach Mike Martz have always treated turnovers like gnats on offense - a minor annoyance. The Rams' defense has reciprocated with a league-high 36 takeaways to balance the turnover scale.

Sunday's 48-17 romp over the Minnesota Vikings sent a message: At home, the Rams are unbeatable. That's why they need home-field advantage in the playoffs; they're just 3-3 on the road.

A showdown with the Eagles looms, but where?

Cincinnati: The Bengals' ascension is storybook stuff. Had they beaten Oakland and Pittsburgh - both win-able games - in September, they would have a commanding lead over the Ravens. As it is, the Bengals' best chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 1990 is to beat the Ravens on Sunday and win the division. A wild-card entry from the AFC North seems improbable.

The key factor in Cincinnati's rise is the inspired performance of quarterback Jon Kitna. Cast off in Seattle, Kitna has thrown for 19 touchdowns and only four interceptions since that 0-3 start. He hasn't been intercepted the past three weeks.

New England: The Patriots cut team captain Lawyer Milloy and then were inundated with injuries to begin the season. They have started 11 different offensive lineups in 12 games.

Yet, they not only survived that 2-2 start, they thrived. They are remarkable at protecting late leads, as they did in Indianapolis this past week. The Patriots have won 23 consecutive games when leading at the end of the third quarter and 18 straight games when leading at halftime.

Resilient defense, great special teams and timely offense was the formula when they won the Super Bowl two years ago. It could be again.

Best and worst

Highlights and lowlights from Week 13:

Best return: QB Michael Vick, Falcons. Never mind that he didn't pull out a win against the Texans. Just having Vick back on the field after a broken leg was good for the NFL.

Worst return: RB Emmitt Smith, Cardinals. One carry, 3 yards lost in a lopsided loss to the Bears after returning from a shoulder injury.

Best fake-out: RB Marshall Faulk, Rams. Surrounded by Vikings behind the line of scrimmage, Faulk escaped with a dazzling spin move and bolted 29 yards down the sideline to set up St. Louis' final TD in a 48-17 rout.

Worst play-calling: Colts. From the Patriots' 2-yard line, they ran three dive plays and a fade pass to rookie Aaron Moorehead that was never close. No imagination, no Marvin Harrison, no win. QB Peyton Manning walked away holding his head, and rightfully so.

Best finish: Bengals. A game-winning 52-yard, four-play touchdown drive in the final minute earned their fourth straight win.

Biggest tank job: Giants. No one should be safe on that roster after the way the Giants have bombed.

Ken Murray

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