NFL THIS WEEK: Pats, Bucs had shaky starts
Tampa Bay can’t close out games, losing twice already on last-second field goals. New England can’t seem to find the magic on offense, yet has pulled out two close victories.
When the Bucs visit the Patriots today, it will be a study in contrasts.
Tom Brady is squarely in charge of the Patriots when they have the ball, but is surrounded by mediocrity in skill positions. Josh Freeman has been the center of turmoil for the Bucs, struggling despite being surrounded by talent.
New England has made key plays at key moments; the Bucs have not.
“There’s constant communication, so I think there’s a lot of trust that’s built up in the quarterback-receiver group,” said Brady, who will be without injured receiver Danny Amendola but might get back tight end Rob Gronkowski. “I said after the game (against the Jets) the burden’s on all of us. It’s not the receiver position. It’s the quarterback position most importantly. That’s what I need to focus on. The better I am out there, the better we’re going to be as an offense. So I’ve got to focus on doing my job as best I can.”
The focus on Freeman has involved everything but quarterbacking: missed meetings, supposed trade requests, questions about his leadership and speculation about a strained relationship with coach Greg Schiano, which both parties deny.
“Josh is going to be just fine,” Schiano said of the fifth-year pro, who was 9 of 22 passing for 125 yards, one touchdown, an interception and a fumble against New Orleans last week. “We just need to keep practicing and get better, get in the groove. It will come.”
Freeman has plenty of help with running back Doug Martin and wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. But Freeman is 30th in the NFL in passer rating and 33rd in completion percentage.
“It’s not just one player, it’s not just one play, it’s a combination of a collective group of men going out and executing. To this point, we haven’t done that,” offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said.
ATLANTA (1-1) AT MIAMI (2-0): The team the Dolphins host is not what the Falcons hoped to field, with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, DE Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing on injured reserve, although Weatherspoon can return in Week 11. Running back Steven Jackson, Atlanta’s key offseason acquisition, is out today with a thigh injury.
Miami’s best work has come in pressuring the quarterback, and without Jackson, how much of a threat is Atlanta’s ground game to provide any balance? The Dolphins have nine sacks, but also have allowed nine on Ryan Tannehill.
INDIANAPOLIS (1-1) AT SAN FRANCISCO (1-1): Andrew Luck goes up against his coach at Stanford, Jim Harbaugh. Look for lots of pressure from San Francisco’s defense against Indy’s suspect offensive line; Luck has been sacked seven times already.
San Francisco comes off one of its sloppiest efforts at Seattle: five turnovers and no touchdowns for just the third time since 1979.
Matchup to watch: 49ers tight end Vernon Davis against younger brother cornerback Vontae Davis.
But Vernon is nursing a hamstring injury.
JACKSONVILLE (0-2) AT SEATTLE (2-0): A humongous spread on this game threatened to keep growing.
The Jaguars are banged-up, and even when healthy they aren’t much trouble for opponents. They remained on the West Coast after a loss at Oakland and practiced at San Jose State, where some students might have mistaken them for the school team.
Seattle, on the other hand, could have a defense to rival some of the best of the last 30 years, including the 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens.
What the Seahawks did in dominating a solid 49ers offense was mesmerizing, and the Seahawks still are missing key players like end Chris Clemons, cornerback Brandon Browner and linebacker Bruce Irvin.
ARIZONA (1-1) AT NEW ORLEANS (2-0): Could be plenty of points scored in this one, although Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s hamstring problem is very worrisome for Arizona. He missed a key portion of last week’s victory over Detroit.
“You lose an unbelievable player, first of all, and also a great leader,” coach Bruce Arians said. “Someone who plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played: full tilt.”
New Orleans has its own top-notch receiver in Marques Colston, who has been battling through a foot injury. His 58 TD catches trail only Fitzgerald’s 59 since 2006.
DETROIT (1-1) AT WASHINGTON (0-2): The Redskins will struggle until Robert Griffin III gets back to being the RG3 of 2012 — top offensive rookie, dynamic playmaker, all-around threat.
Just as alarming is a defense that has been a sieve, allowing Philadelphia and Green Bay to pull away to big leads that Griffin couldn’t overcome.
Detroit remains among the most schizophrenic teams in the NFL, and must find a way to transfer its solid work at home to road games.
SAN DIEGO (1-1) AT TENNESSEE (1-1): After the Chargers blew a huge lead at home to Houston, then had to travel cross-country to Philadelphia, they seemed doomed to another loss. Instead, they gutted out a 33-30 win.
It won’t be so easy moving the ball against the Titans, whose defense was putrid a year ago but is much more competitive now, thanks to the teachings of Gregg Williams.
San Diego has won nine straight in this series.
ST. LOUIS (1-1) AT DALLAS (1-1): After getting six takeaways in their opening win against the Giants, the Cowboys handed last week’s game to Kansas City through sloppiness, especially dropped passes, penalties and bad time management. Dallas is struggling to run the ball, and its pass defense is leaky.
Those issues play right into the Rams’ hands: St. Louis ranks fourth in passing and sixth in stopping the run. This could be an aerial show.
NEW YORK GIANTS (0-2) AT CAROLINA (0-2): The Panthers now are 2-14 in games decided by seven points or less under coach Ron Rivera, including 0-2 this season.
Turnovers have been the Giants’ bugaboo: a league-high 10, including seven interceptions of Eli Manning. New York also can’t find that vaunted pass rush and coach Tom Coughlin is afraid to use RB David Wilson for fear he’ll keep putting the ball on the ground.
BUFFALO (1-1) AT NEW YORK JETS (1-1): There’s actually a worthwhile reason to watch this one: the two rookie quarterbacks.
EJ Manuel, the only QB selected in the first round of this year’s draft, guided the Bills on a last-ditch drive to victory against Carolina. His poise has been admirable.
Even though New York’s Geno Smith has been picked off four times already, he showed moxie in the rain at Foxborough in a Thursday night defeat.
OAKLAND (1-1) AT DENVER (2-0): This looks like a mismatch, except the one thing the Raiders have done well so far is get pressure on the quarterback. Oakland has nine sacks spread among seven players.
Denver has given Peyton Manning strong enough protection that he already has nine TD throws, and the Broncos have scored 90 points. Manning has connected with nine receivers and the running game made a big difference last Sunday as Knowshon Moreno was outstanding.