November 2, 2001

Races Tight as NFL Heads Into November

The weather's getting cooler. But in the NFL, the climate is blazing hot.

Surprise teams…see-saw games…tight races. They all have melded together after seven weeks of the schedule to produce, once again, your typical cauldron of an NFL season.

In five of the six divisions, no more than 1½ games separate at least the top three clubs. Fourteen teams are over .500. The "unbeatable" St. Louis Rams are now beaten. The surprising Chicago Bears are now 5-1 after rallying from a 19-point deficit Sunday to defeat the equally-surprising San Francisco 49ers in overtime. That was one of four NFL games last week that saw double-digit comeback wins.

And the season's mid-point doesn't come till next week (November 11-12)!

"That's the NFL now," says 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci. "Don't we say that every year now? It's just crazy. It's hard to pick winners from week to week, which means the margin for error in every game is very small."

A perfect example of that slim NFL error margin was the 49ers' game against Chicago. On the first play from scrimmage in overtime, San Francisco quarterback Jeff Garcia threw to wideout Terrell Owens. The ball bounced off Owens and into the hands of Bears safety Mike Brown. Bingo! A 33-yard interception TD return by Brown gave Chicago its fifth consecutive victory in the shortest NFL overtime game ever (:16).

The NFC Central-leading Bears have won five in a row for the first time since 1991 and are off to their best start since 1990 (9-1), when they finished 11-5.

"Every Sunday we go in thinking we're going to win, expecting to win," says Brown, the team's second-round draft choice from Nebraska last year. "That's the difference between this year and last year."

This week, Chicago hosts a similar "this year/last year" team — the Cleveland Browns. It'll be "throwback" football. It's the black shoes of the Bears, the orange helmets of the Browns. It's Soldier Field. Real grass. A late fall day next to Lake Michigan. Just the way George Halas and Paul Brown would have liked it.

The 4-2 Browns have already won one less game than they did in the past two years combined, and sit in second place in the AFC Central behind the 5-1 Pittsburgh Steelers.

"This is a different team," says Browns wide receiver Kevin Johnson, who has a TD catch in each of the club's last three games. "We're not the old Browns anymore. This is a new team with a new feeling."

It's also a team with a new coach, Butch Davis, who tells his players that preparation (as in the weight room and film study) is as important as playing. In that vein, Davis had his coaching staff span out across the country last week during the team's bye to scout next year's draft-eligible college crop. "They saw 47 players at 14 schools," Davis says proudly.

In Pittsburgh in Week 8, it will be for both teams one more crucial AFC Central matchup in a long line of such games. The Steelers, fresh off a 34-7 defeat of Tennessee Monday night, are playing their second in a string of five divisional games, the visiting 4-3 Baltimore Ravens their third of six consecutive AFC Central contests.

Three of the past four games in this series have been decided by seven points or less, including the last time the teams met (last October 29), the last loss for the Ravens in the season as they went on to capture the Super Bowl XXXV title.

But this is a different year — as it always seems to be in the NFL — and the Steelers now boast the defense allowing the league's fewest points and top overall defense (241.3 yards per game).

Defensive end Kimo Von Oelhoffen thinks he knows why _ Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, the AFC's fifth-leading rusher with 612 yards who averages 5.5 yards per carry, highest among the conference's top 10 rushers.

"The big reason we're No. 1 on defense is because of Jerome and the offensive line," says von Oelhoffen. "They keep the ball away."

Bettis and his running mate Amos Zereoue will go against the NFL's No. 1 rush defense (65.7).

In Green Bay this week in an NFC Central Division matchup, there'll be some definite attempts at "retaining."

The third-place Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-3) will seek to maintain the momentum of their 41-14 victory over division-rival Minnesota Sunday. The hometown Packers (4-2), coming off a bye, want to forget their last game (a 35-13 loss to Minnesota) and revert to their three-wins-in-a-row dominance with which they opened the season.

These two rivals (it's the last game they'll play as division opponents due to next year's realignment) from such different climates always seem to play close games no matter what the temperature. Five of the past six meetings between the two have been decided by seven points or less, including this past October 7 _ a 14-10 Bucs win in 90-degree Tampa heat.

That day, in the Packers' first loss in eight games, Tampa Bay intercepted quarterback Brett Favre three times, with one pickoff being returned 98 yards for a TD by linebacker Shelton Quarles. A 95-yard Bucs scoring drive _ the longest in team history _ produced the winning touchdown (a Mike Alstott rumbling 39-yard romp).

But that was then. This is now…in Green Bay _ Favre's lair. And although there's no predicting whether the temperature will fall to 34-or-below so Favre can extend his perfect 27-0 home record in that clime, he is the NFL's winningest home quarterback in the Super Bowl era (since 1967). The top five records in the category:

The Bucs know what they're facing in Wisconsin _ Favre at home and the NFC's top defense. But they bring with them the fresh memory of a 446-yard, 38:04 time-of-possession performance in Week 7.

"We've got to take that feeling, that effort, and we've got to bottle it and take it with us to Green Bay," says Alstott, who had 28 carries for 129 yards and three rushing TDs against Minnesota. "If we don't, the win won't mean anything. We've got to build off this."

The same can be said for both teams in this week's Sunday night game (ESPN, 8:30 PM ET), the New York Jets at the New Orleans Saints. Both come off important victories. Both want to make it two in a row.

The Jets edged Carolina on the road 13-12 in a win without an offensive touchdown, but one that nonetheless lifted them to 4-3, a half-game behind AFC East-leading Miami (4-2).

"Sometimes you have to win ugly," says Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde. The standings don't count style points.

The Saints pushed arch NFC West-rival St. Louis from their perch Sunday as the NFL's lone unbeaten team by coming back from an 18-point deficit on the road to win 34-31.

To conclude the week on Monday night in Oakland, the "Raider Nation" will be decked out in its finest face-paint even though Halloween will be long over.

It's the Raiders hosting the Denver Broncos. What a way to top off the week!

It's the Raiders' first home Monday night game since 1997. It's an AFC West battle. It ties Dallas-Washington as the most-contested series in Monday Night Football history (12th game). It's Gannon vs. Griese. It's the NFL's leading receiver Rod Smith vs. the NFL's all-time top receiver Jerry Rice (along with Tim Brown). It's the Raiders trying to snap a streak of seven consecutive losses to the Broncos, and five losses in a row to Denver on Monday night.

It's two teams "in the toughest division there is," according to the Broncos' Smith. And it's a matchup of two clubs that are certainly evenly-matched in offenses run by quarterbacks Rich Gannon of Oakland and Brian Griese of Denver.

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