- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

After four straight losing seasons, 2-0 Jacksonville can establish itself as a serious playoff threat by beating perennial contender Tennessee on the road today. After a 2-7 start last season under first-year coach Jack Del Rio, a former Baltimore assistant, the Jaguars won three of their last five and finished sixth on defense, second against the run.

The defense is even more formidable this year. After edging host Buffalo 13-10 in its opener, Jacksonville allowed just two field goals to a Denver offense that had rung up 34 points on Kansas City the previous week.

Also, that defense — which is strong down the middle with tackles John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, linebacker Mike Peterson and safety Donovin Darius — hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 17 games heading into the matchup with Titans new No.1 running back Chris Brown, who has begun with a pair of 100-yard games.

“This defense will remind you of the Baltimore defense the way they tackle,” said coach Jeff Fisher, whose Titans were just 2-5 against the Ravens during Del Rio’s tenure in Baltimore.

While the Jaguars are on the rise, the Titans (1-1) were outscored 21-0 in the fourth quarter at home in losing to Indianapolis 31-17 last week. Tennessee’s pass defense isn’t that sturdy, and Edgerrin James ripped the best run defense of 2003 for 124 yards.

Packers-Colts — The most dominant quarterback of the 1990s and arguably its best of this decade meet for just the second time today.

Reigning co-MVP Peyton Manning is off to another sensational start for the Colts with 510 yards, five touchdowns and an interception compared to three-time MVP Brett Favre’s 395 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions for the Packers. Manning starts his 99th straight game, 93 behind Favre’s quarterback record. With a touchdown pass in their 28th consecutive games today, Manning and Favre will be third in that category behind Johnny Unitas (47) and Dan Marino (30).

“Peyton’s as good as they have in the NFL right now, the way he’s handled himself, the way he’s played, the way he’s led that team — he’s what the NFL needs,” Favre said.

More important is that Indianapolis came close to ending Super Bowl champion New England’s year-long winning streak and thrashed Tennessee, both on the road, while Green Bay split at home, beating NFC champion Carolina before being stunned by lowly Chicago.

Also, the Packers are just 4-10 indoors since Favre’s last MVP season in 1997. And while Green Bay can at least counter the banged-up James with running back Ahman Green, it doesn’t have a receiver in the class of Indianapolis’ Marvin Harrison. Neither team has a super defense, but that side of the ball is Colts coach Tony Dungy’s forte.

Saints-Rams — The Saints, seeking their first playoff berth in four years, lost their opener 21-7 to visiting Seattle and rallied to beat lowly San Francisco 30-27 at home while losing standout running back Deuce McAllister for a month with a high ankle sprain.

The Rams, with high hopes for a third NFC title in six years, survived their opener against downtrodden Arizona at home even though allowing ancient Emmitt Smith to average 5.4 yards a carry, then were trampled in Atlanta. The Falcons held do-it-all running back Marshall Faulk to 41 yards on 17 touches and sacked quarterback Marc Bulger five times. Meanwhile, Falcons quarterback Michael Vick outgained the entire Rams offense 288-280.

Though McAllister’s absence should enable opposing defenses to focus on quarterback Aaron Brooks, that might not be good news for the Rams, who have moved 36-year-old Aeneas Williams from safety back to cornerback because of their injuries and inexperience at the latter spot for their first game with their former longtime NFC West rivals since 2001.

“I want to kick the living tar out of these guys,” said Rams tight end Cam Cleeland, who was glad to leave the Saints in 2002 after four unhappy seasons. “Coach [Jim] Haslett … if there’s a chance for me to be on the sideline on a flat route, let’s just say he’ll be looking for me probably. I know what they’re preaching down there, that we’re soft, we’re weak, ‘We’ve beat ‘em up before. They’re going to turn the ball over a ton.’”

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