September 28, 2001

Battles of the Unbeatens in Week 3: Bengals-Chargers; Dolphins-Rams; Broncos "O" Baces Ravens "D"

How `bout them Bengals?! And how about those Chargers?!

Those two clubs are undefeated in the young NFL season and meet this week, as do the unbeaten Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams.

Sure it's early - only Week 3 - but in the unpredictable NFL, where there were six new division winners last year, surprise teams can suddenly turn into winning ones.

And nobody so far this season has been more surprising than the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers. Both are 2-0 after winning a combined five games last year.

The Bengals come off a resounding 21-10 triumph last Sunday over none other than the Super Bowl XXXV-champion Baltimore Ravens. Opportunistic Cincinnati converted into points all six of the turnovers it forced to give the club its first 2-0 start since 1995. They go after their first 3-0 start since their 1990 AFC Central Division-winning season.

"We're building something here," says Cincinnati linebacker Takeo Spikes, who returned one of the Bengals' three interceptions against Baltimore for a 66-yard touchdown for the team's final points.

Cincinnati will travel to San Diego to face quarterback Doug Flutie - who threw for his second-most-ever yards (353) in a 32-21 victory over Dallas last Sunday - and the AFC's second-ranked defense (225.0 yards per game).

"Things are a lot different around here this year," says Chargers 12-year linebacker Juior Seau of a club that started 0-11 last season. San Diego has not been 2-0 since 1998, and 3-0 since its 1994 Super Bowl XXIX season (6-0).

The two other 2-0 teams that meet this week in St. Louis - the Dolphins and Rams — are not surprised to be at that mark, but are certainly smiling about it.

"We're 2-0," says Dolphins head coach Dave Wannstedt. "I know it's early in the season, but we've beaten two division champions (Tennessee and Oakland) from a year ago."

They won't be facing a division champion from a year ago, but will be taking on a Super Bowl champion from two years ago _ one that looks just as offensively potent as ever.

The Rams racked up 424 yards of offense in Week 2 against San Francisco, led by 184 scrimmage yards by running back Marshall Faulk. He's a key man the Dolphins' fourth-ranked AFC defense must stop.

Faulk handled the ball on nearly every play in the Rams' clock-killing, fourth-quarter, 12-play drive that protected their four-point lead in their 30-26 win over the 49ers.

"If my number is called, I'm going to perform," says Faulk, who is second in the NFC in scrimmage yards (304, to Ahman Green's 323). "That's all I'm going to do. If they put the ball in my hands, it's a collective effort to move it up the field."

Three guys he'll meet whether he's rushing or circling out of the backfield for a pass are the Dolphins' linebacker corps of Derrick Rodgers, Zach Thomas and Twan Russell. They'll be waiting.

"Whatever your job is, when it's your turn to get out there and do your job, that's what you have to do," says Rodgers. "If the team is depending on us to get out there and make a stop, then that's what we have to do."

The two quarterbacks in the game - St. Louis' Kurt Warner and Miami's Jay Fiedler - have never played against each other in the NFL, but one followed the other in the NFL Europe League.

Warner (coming off in Week 2 his usual 300-yard [321], three-TD game) in 1998 followed Fiedler (two-yard, game-winning run on Sunday against Oakland) as the '97 quarterback for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe. The two are part of a four-man former NFL Europe QB brigade that has combined for a 7-0 record as NFL starters in 2001 (Cincinnati's Jon Kitna and Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson [1-0]).

In Denver, this week, there's going to be a lot of great quotes flying around. Sharpe's in town! And so is one of the NFL's best defenses going against one of its top offenses.

It's the Denver Broncos hosting the Baltimore Ravens and tight end - and always talkative - Shannon Sharpe. A 10-year Bronco (1990-99) who helped the team to its two Super Bowl victories, Sharpe will be returning to the Mile High City for the first time.

"It's going to be strange being back in Denver," he says. "A lot of the fans I'm going to see along the sidelines were once cheering for me. All of a sudden, if you do something good, they'll boo you. It will be strange, but I'll be ready."

So should be the Broncos. They'll confront an irritable bunch of Ravens, who come off the first loss in their past 13 games (including postseason).

It should be a classic matchup of offense (AFC No. 2 Denver) vs. defense (AFC No. 1 Baltimore).

The Broncos are quarter-backed by the top-rated passer in the NFL, Brian Griese (134.9), fresh from a 22-of-31 (17 consecutive completions at one point) for 242-yard game against Arizona, with no interceptions on the year. And they're adjustable. They lose wide receiver Ed McCaffrey (leg) for the season, and his partner Rod Smith picks up the slack Sunday with a team-record 14-catch, 162-yard, two-TD performance. They lose running back Terrell Davis (knee) and Mike An-derson and Olandis Gary combine for 148 yards on the ground.

The Ravens "D" will be waiting. "We pride ourselves at stopping the run," says Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. "The Broncos have proven they can produce different 1,000-yard runners, which is a tribute to their offensive line and their balanced attack. If you commit one too many players to stopping the run, they'll beat you with the big pass."

Baltimore has the top-rated rush and pass defense in the conference. "It's one of the best front sevens ever to play," says Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan. "But the thing that can go unnoticed is that all the guys can cover one-on-one in the secondary. I think everybody knows what kind of team they are."

The Broncos certainly do. The Ravens defeated them in an AFC Wild Card game last December (21-3), allowing Denver to cross midfield only once, with Sharpe scoring on a 58-yard deflected pass.

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