- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

By now, a month into the NFL season, the wheat is usually distinguishable from the chaff. Not this year, though. So many contenders have had chaff-like moments, it’s hard to tell who’s Really Good. Consider:

The Seahawks got blasted 37-6 by the Bears.

The Bengals were waxed 38-13 by the Patriots.

The Eagles blew a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead to the Giants.

The Giants were down 42-3 to the Seahawks.

The Patriots’ offense couldn’t do anything in a 17-7 loss to the Broncos.

Neither could the Steelers’ offense in a 9-0 loss to the Jaguars.

But then Jacksonville turned around and gave up 36 points to the Redskins — after the Redskins’ offense had managed only a field goal against the Cowboys.

Here’s my favorite, though: Since that 42-3 lead against the Giants, Seattle has been outscored 64-6.

I wouldn’t want to be a Super Bowl handicapper right now. Even the Colts and Ravens, two of the three undefeated teams left, seem lacking in gravitas. Indianapolis, which led the league last year in blowouts, has won three of its four games by a touchdown or less — and only survived a last-second lateral-fest by the Jets on Sunday because the Stanford Band wasn’t there to run interference. Even more telling: The Indy defense is allowing 155 rushing yards a game.

Baltimore, meanwhile, is trying to make it back to the Super Bowl with the same formula that worked in 2000: A killer D … and just barely enough O (15 points in Week 3 and 16 in Week 4). But can the Ravens pull it off again with Steve McNair cast in the role of Trent Dilfer? Heck, I’m still trying to figure out how they pulled it off the first time.

Then there are the Bears, the least suspect of the bunch, who, given the modest demands of their schedule, should be 8-0 when they play the Giants at the Meadowlands on Nov. 12. Watch the media hype machine shift into overdrive as that clash approaches. Of course, maybe Chicago will deal with the Undefeated Circus better than the Colts did a year ago — and flirt even more seriously with a perfect season. (Nah. The Pats will stop them at 11 in Foxboro.)

The unpredictability of the first month suggests more Strange Tales are in the offing. In just the last two weeks, after all, a quarterback (the Bucs’ Chris Simms) has had his spleen removed and a center (the Cowboys’ Andre Gurode) has had his head stomped on (by the Titans’ Albert Haynesworth). Where do you go from there? I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

A few other observations about Weeks 1 through 4:

• The preseason buildup of the Dolphins was ridiculous — and This Space said as much in early September. Yes, Nick Saban did a nice job last year, coaching a modestly talented team to a 9-7 record and winning six straight at the end. But the streak was accomplished against most second-rate competition and often by the scantest of margins (one point once, two points twice and four points another time).

So, no, I’m not at all shocked that the Fins are 1-3. I am mildly surprised, though — amused, even — that new quarterback Daunte Culpepper isn’t playing much better than the man he replaced, old friend Gus Frerotte. Indeed, in the first four games last season, Frerotte threw seven touchdown passes and led Miami to victories over Denver and Carolina, both of whom reached the conference finals. Culpepper has thrown for only two TDs, and his one “W” has come against the winless Titans.

• But how ‘bout them 3-1 Saints? They’ve added not one but three significant offensive pieces — quarterback Drew Brees, running back Reggie Bush and wideout Marques Colston — and a fourth, Deuce McAllister, is up and running again after missing much of last year with an injury. In a single offseason, the unit has gone from terrible to troublesome, an amazing transformation.

Colston, who already has 20 catches for 336 yards and three touchdowns, is looking like the steal of the draft. How did everybody miss on this guy? He was the 252nd player picked — four from the bottom — but he was so impressive from the get-go that New Orleans figured it didn’t need Donte Stallworth and traded him to the Eagles.

I just dug up a pre-draft scouting report on Colston. It described him thusly: “Tall, physical receiver [who doesn’t] come off the ball quickly every time. Did not look [like he could run] 4.5 in the 40 in the Shrine [Game] practices. Picks up speed as he goes down the field. Not a nifty-footed receiver. Not sharp in and out of routes. Gets open with his size mismatch.”

And now he might give Bush a run for Rookie of the Year. This Colston kid is why the Stopwatch Set is always saying, “Scouting is an inexact science.”

• The Patriots could wind up with two 1,000-yard rushers in rookie Laurence Maroney (294 yards/1,176 pace) and Corey Dillon (236/944). So could the Falcons with Warrick Dunn (365/1,460) and Michael Vick (333/1,332). Sharing the ball carrying duties, which fell out of fashion for about 20 years, is becoming popular again. McAllister and Bush are a nice tandem in New Orleans, as are Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew in Jacksonville and LaDainian Tomlinson and Michael Turner in San Diego (among others).

The last team, by the way, with a pair of 1,000-yard runners was the 1985 Cleveland Browns (Kevin Mack 1,104, Earnest Byner 1,002).

Finally, this foot note:

• The Chargers’ Mike Scifres is netting 43.9 yards a punt (punt yardage minus return yardage). Last season he grossed less than that (43.7). It can’t possibly continue, can it?

And if it does, will Albert Haynesworth step on his head?

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