- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 6, 2009

STORY OF THE WEEK

Josh McDaniels wasn’t a popular man in Denver this spring and summer. Not only had he replaced Mike Shanahan, the only man to coach the Broncos to a title (two, actually), but the baby-faced 33-year-old also traded talented but volatile quarterback Jay Cutler and replaced him with the less-accomplished Kyle Orton.

But in October, McDaniels is right up there with Jim Tracy, manager of the comeback Rockies, and Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony in the Colorado sports pantheon. That’s because the Broncos are 4-0 for the first time in five years after holding off Dallas 17-10 with a last-minute goal-line stand. Denver had taken the lead on a 51-yard pass from Orton to Brandon Marshall, whom McDaniels suspended in the preseason after the tempestuous receiver tried to pout his way out of Denver.

Battering lightweights Cleveland and Oakland didn’t say much, and the Broncos were lucky to escape Cincinnati with a 12-7 victory on a fluke 87-yard touchdown late in the game.

But holding the potent Cowboys to 10 points and 315 yards while recording five sacks and forcing two turnovers showed that new coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense - 29th last year under his predecessor - isn’t second in the league by accident. Denver has a league-best 15 sacks - eight by linebacker Elvis Dumervil - and 10 takeaways.

The Broncos take on New England, McDaniels’ former team, this week before the Oct. 18 showdown at San Diego and dates with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. But for now, McDaniels is a mile high in Denver.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

This could have been the Cincinnati Bengals, who are a bad bounce away from 4-0; the NFC West-leading San Francisco 49ers (see five trends); the New England Patriots (who held off the Baltimore Ravens); or the New Orleans Saints (who are 4-0).

But how about the Pittsburgh Steelers? After blowing fourth-quarter leads against Chicago and Cincinnati to lose consecutive games for the first time since Weeks 14 and 15 in 2007, the Super Bowl champions built a 28-7 lead over San Diego and held on for a critical 38-28 victory behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (333 yards in the air) and backup running back Rashard Mendenhall (165 on the ground). With Detroit and Cleveland up next, Pittsburgh should be 4-2 and back on track in the AFC race before ending October with a date with Minnesota. But coach Mike Tomlin has to fix the fourth-quarter woes.

FIVE TRENDS FROM WEEK 4

UP: San Francisco, which hasn’t finished above .500 since winning the NFC West in 2002, is clearly the best in the division. It may not be the old days yet, but Sunday’s 35-0 rout of St. Louis was the 49ers’ first shutout since the 2001 finale. The Niners’ three victories are more than their three NFC West rivals have combined.

DOWN: Life had been great for quarterback Mark Sanchez, whom the New York Jets took fifth overall despite a thin college resume. Sanchez’s 3-0 start included an upset of AFC East top dog New England. On Sunday, the rookie was sacked four times and intercepted three times in a 24-10 loss at New Orleans. Welcome to the NFL, kid.

UP: Jacksonville’s comeback from an 0-2 start continued with a 37-17 spanking of Tennessee, the Jaguars’ second straight AFC South victory. Quarterback David Garrard had 371 yards of offense and three touchdowns to launch Jacksonville into a stretch against struggling Seattle and winless St. Louis, Tennessee and Kansas City.

DOWN: The Titans, Chiefs and Bucs have achieved something that no team did in 2008. They’re all four games out of first place in their divisions just four weeks into the season. Tennessee has lost more games than it did all last season, and Tampa Bay has lost eight in a row. Kansas City is 6-30 the last three seasons.

DOWN: Seattle simply can’t compete with aging left tackle Walter Jones and former Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck out of the lineup. Jones, 35, has been out all season. Hasselbeck has been out since the last play of the first half of Week 2. Backup Seneca Wallace was sacked five times in Sunday’s 34-17 rout by Indianapolis.

NEXT MAN UP

List of big injuries from Week 4:

QB Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants (heel): He left the fourth quarter of the 27-16 victory at Kansas City with plantar fasciitis. Manning said that while there was some discomfort, he could “move around” on his right foot and expects to play this week against Oakland.

QB Matthew Stafford, Detroit (knee): The No. 1 pick left the 48-24 defeat at Chicago with what is being reported as a dislocated right kneecap. That likely would mean Daunte Culpepper would start at least this week against Pittsburgh.

LT Jared Gaither, Baltimore (neck/shoulder): The former Maryland offensive lineman was carted off the field at New England after colliding with Joe Flacco. X-rays on his neck and shoulder were negative, and Gaither could play Sunday.

WR/KR Devin Hester, Chicago (neck/shoulder): Hester ended the victory over Detroit with a neck brace after being injured in the second quarter. The good news for Hester is that the Bears have a bye week to heal before heading to Atlanta on Oct. 18.

NUMBERS GAME

Interesting stat about the Week 4 games:

8-6 Record for the NFC against the AFC through four weeks. The NFC, which hasn’t won the series outright since 1995, went 2-2 in Week 4. Could the NFC, which has won just two of the past nine Super Bowls, be regaining a semblance of parity vs. the Patriots, Steelers, et al?

HOT SEAT

Whose performance in Week 4 puts him in the spotlight for next week:

TRENT EDWARDS

The kid who shoved aside the kid (J.P. Losman) who supplanted Drew Bledsoe as Buffalo’s quarterback has had a horrible couple of weeks. The 2007 third-round pick from Stanford was sacked six times while throwing three interceptions in the Bills’ 38-10 shellacking by previously winless Miami on Sunday.

Add Edwards’ numbers in the 27-7 home defeat by New Orleans in Week 3, and his passer rating the past two weeks is 50.4. Edwards has two things going for him: His backups, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Gibran Hamdan, aren’t exactly threats to his job, and the Bills should get well this week when winless Cleveland visits.


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