- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

As stunning as it is to see Super Bowl favorites St. Louis and Pittsburgh at 0-2, it's how they've gotten there that's more shocking.

Unlike their last post-Super Bowl season in 2000 when they were immediately bounced from the playoffs, the NFC champion Rams haven't been hurt by their defense. The problem is their world-class offense which managed 16 and 21 points in losses to Denver and the New York Giants, respectively. Only four NFC teams have scored fewer points.

The AFC runner-up Steelers, who crashed to 7-9 the year after their last previous conference title game appearance in 1997, have suddenly forgotten how to tackle. The NFL's top defense of 2001 was shredded for 807 yards by New England and Oakland. Only three AFC teams have allowed more yards.

On the flip side are the Broncos, who have shut down the high-powered attacks of St. Louis and San Francisco (24-14).

"We didn't look at how great the team coming in was," Broncos nickel back Tyrone Poole said. "We looked at how great we had to play. If we play at our level of expectations and perform like we know we can perform, it doesn't matter who we go against."

And the Giants, who many had pegged for the NFC East cellar after they lost five of their last seven games in 2001 and then didn't sign any free agents to replace the seven departed starters, are an equally surprising 1-1 after nearly upsetting the 49ers (16-13) and then stunning the host Rams (26-21).

Most Giants veterans were fiercely loyal to former defensive coordinator John Fox now Carolina's coach but they are enjoying playing for Johnnie Lynn, who moved up from secondary coach when Fox left in January.

"Johnnie is definitely a little more laid-back, smoother," said All-Pro defensive end Michael Strahan.

Lynn is less likely to gamble than Fox was and has simplified the playbook. Players said Lynn who got the promotion only after Wade Phillips opted for Atlanta's vacancy made the perfect blitz call on fourth-and-inches against the Rams to preserve the victory. Lynn deflected the credit to his players.

Overlooked matchup of the week San Diego defensive end Marcellus Wiley has used his quickness and his Ivy League smarts (he is a Columbia graduate) to become one of the NFL's top sack artists. But the 6-foot-4, 275-pound Wiley might not even be able to see Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer on Sunday when he's blocked by the mountainous Leonard Davis (6-6, 372 pounds), who moved from guard to tackle when Anthony Clement was hurt.

"I'll try to lift more weights this week, but I don't know how much that will help," Wiley said.

Said Davis, "Marcellus is pretty quick. He takes advantage of people's mistakes. If you open your shoulders, it's like opening a door."

Wiley is trying to make it seem as though he needs doors held open for him as a senior citizen even though at 27, he's only three years older than Davis.

"I'm like an old Buick, let me warm up for a while," Wiley said. "If you've got to be to work by 9 you've got to start me about 5 in the morning."

Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer was very impressed with Davis last season when he was with Washington and coached against him twice.

"That's going to be quite a battle, one you'd pay to see," Schottenheimer said.

As of yesterday, fewer than 30,000 had paid to see the battle set for Sunday in 73,014-seat Sun Devil Stadium even though the Chargers and Cardinals are a combined 3-1.

Arizona coming off its sixth losing season in seven years ruined the debut of Seattle's new stadium last week as Thomas Jones ran for 173 yards better than 21 percent of his total over his previous 31 games.

San Diego, which closed 2001 with nine straight losses, first clobbered Cincinnati 34-6 with an offense that put together scoring drives of 58, 64, 66, 78 and 95 yards as quarterback Drew Brees had the highest-rated first start since Jacksonville's Rob Johnson in 1997. And last week, the defense sacked David Carr nine times in holding Houston to 118 yards in a 24-3 laugher. The Chargers lead the league in seven defensive categories.

However, San Diego is used to good starts (and ugly finishes). The Chargers started 3-0 in 2001, 4-1 in 1999 and 2-0 in 1998, but never wound up with a winning record.

"We were 3-0 last year and the champagne was pouring out of our lockers," said Wiley said. "We won't do that this year. Marty is going to make sure our minds are right. We have to have our feet planted on the ground."

Remembering Bullet Bob Another Wednesday, another 1960s great departs. A week after Johnny Unitas' passing came the death of Bob Hayes. Once the world's fastest human, Hayes put that blinding speed to good use for 10 years as a Dallas receiver before a final season in San Francisco. Hayes' 20-yards-per-catch career average is the best ever for anyone with 300 receptions.

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