October 5, 2001

Chargers, Packers, Rams Unbeaten as NFL Hits Quarter Mark

Two of them won a combined 19 games last year. One of them won one.

But as the NFL enters the quarter-mark of its 2001 season this week, all three - the Green Bay Packers, St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers - sit at 3-0 and are the last of the "unbeatens."

They are wary, though, especially the surprising Chargers, who went 1-15 last year. For San Diego knows better than most that in the NFL, it is a long season.

"We're not going to be kids and holler that we're No. 1 in the AFC," says Chargers 12-year linebacker Junior Seau, one of the few players still with the team the last time it opened 3-0. "We're going to let it go."

Good thing. Because this week on the road San Diego will seek its first 4-0 start since its 1994 Super Bowl XXIX season

(6-0) against another surprise AFC team, the 2-1 Cleveland Browns, who come off their first win ever over Jacksonville.

The "new-look" Chargers capitalized on solid performances in Week 3 from three of their newest players _ quarterback Doug Flutie, rookie running back La Dainian Tomlinson and cornerback Ryan McNeil.

Flutie, coming off a 353-yard performance in Week 2, directed a controlled game against Cincinnati and threw only 19 passes (completing 12) for 133 yards. He didn't have to throw, because Tomlinson _ who has the most carries in the league (84) — did the clock-eating work.

The team's first-round draft choice out of TCU, Tomlinson rushed 21 times for 107 yards (his second 100-yard game of the year) and three second-half touchdowns. He became the first Charger to score three TDs in a game since Natrone Means in 1994.

"He is a fabulous back," says San Diego center Kendyl Jacox. "He's just scratching the surface." That "scratching" makes Tomlinson the AFC's leading rusher with 310 yards.

The game against the Browns could be a low-scoring affair, because two of the top defenses in the AFC will go at it. The Chargers rank second and the Browns fourth in total defense. Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch, fresh from a 24-of-34, 249-yard outing, will face the conference's top passing defense (143.7 yards per game).

Couch will also confront the league's leading interceptor, McNeil (5) _ a nine-year NFL veteran new to the Chargers this year — who is the first player since 1965 to open a season with five interceptions in his first three games (Charley Warner, Buffalo). McNeil's cornerback cohort is a rookie, Tay Cody. San Diego's third-round selection from Florida State, Cody has one pickoff, and his tipped ball in the second quarter on Sunday led to a Seau interception that in turn produced the Chargers' first touchdown.

The 3-0 Packers travel to NFC Central-rival Tampa Bay this week for a renewal of one of the NFL's best rivalries as well as perhaps the best-known player-vs.-player duel in the NFL today - Favre vs. Sapp.

Although they don't technically line up against each other, Packers quarterback Brett Favre and Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp always seem to be a focal - and vocal - point of every "Bay vs. Bay" meeting.

They're two guys who love to jaw - sometimes at each other. One is a QB known to throw a block (see Week 1 against Detroit's Alonzo Spellman), the other a DT known to elude them. Favre is the NFL's seventh-ranked career TD passer, Sapp the man with the most sacks (29.0) in the league the past three years. They once playfully head-butted each other after a game. The quarterback Sapp has sacked the most in his six NFL years? Favre - eight times.

And how does Sapp feel about Favre? "I love him," he says. "I love to play against him. He's one of those quarterbacks you love to chase for four quarters. It's a great personal challenge. He's a difference-maker, no doubt about it."

Favre certainly was in Week 3 in his NFL-quarterback record 144th consecutive start, which gives him a greater margin of separation, 24.1 percent, between him and the former record-holder (Ron Jaworski, 116 consecutive starts) than the 23.6 percent margin of baseball 's Cal Ripken, Jr. (2,632 consecutive games) and Lou Gehrig (2,130).

Favre threw for 308 yards on Sunday - his 29th career 300-yard game — and three second-half touchdowns (becoming the NFL's seventh-ranked TD thrower with 263) in taking the Pack to a 28-7 win over Carolina and its first 3-0 start since '98 (4-0).

The 11-year veteran, who turns 32 on October 10, is having a heck of a good time this year. "I really enjoy playing with this football team," he says. "I've enjoyed the 10 years I've played here, but this year it seems like more so than ever."

Any why not? Favre, in addition to throwing to wideout Bill Schroeder and tight end Bubba Franks, the receivers with the most TDs in the NFC (three apiece), can hand off to the league's leading rusher, Ahman "Batman" Green (326 yards).

A childhood fan of the comic-book character, Green has the symbol of the "Caped Crusader" tattooed on his left calf, and has been nicknamed "Batman" since his youth-football days. In leading the NFL in rushing this year for all three weeks, Green joins John Brockington (Weeks 9-10, 12 in 1971) as the only Packer since 1970 to top the league in rushing for that many weeks in a season.

"He can really be something some day," says Favre. "He can be as good as anyone in the league."

The key to the matchup could be in the teams' defenses. The Packers boast the league's top defense, the Bucs are No. 4 in the NFC. They rank second (GB, 31) and third (TB, 33) in the NFC in first-downs allowed (behind New Orleans, 25), and have surrendered the conference's fewest (GB, 7) and third-fewest (TB, 23, behind New Orleans' 20) points inside the 20.

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