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Coming-Out Party

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Carson Palmer, the Cincinnati Bengals' new quarterback from USC, can run his new winning streak to two in a row next Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. But it won'tbe easy. The opponent is a Baltimore Ravens team with a famous defense originally constructed by Bengal Coach Marvin Lewis and still led by linebacker Ray Lewis.

To win his first pro game Sunday night, Palmer solved one of the NFL's other great defenses, Miami's, striking late in the fourth quarter. To beat Baltimore,he will have to strike earlier. The Ravens are particularly difficult in defenseof a late lead.

So the question of this game is, does Marv Lewis have enough faith in Palmer to send his new quarterback out throwing against his old defense?

The question Sunday was whether Palmer could bring the Bengals back.

In the final moments he did, completing short pass after short pass to start Cincinnati's final 59-yard drive — hitting six of seven — and then throwing a 20-yard bullet to former oregon State wide receiver Chad Johnson, who completed an out pattern with two seconds left. That positioned kicker Shayne Graham for the deciding 39-yard field goal, 16-13.

The game was like a coming-out party for the NFL's next great quarterback. Witha pass release that seemed even quicker than Tom Brady's in New England, Palmer repeatedly spiraled hard, sharp, straight ones. In only his second pro start, helooked as comfortable and composed as if he had been doing this for years.

The NFL's Most Lopsided Team?

The Dolphins are a candidate for the most lopsided team in the league. To go with their superb defense, they have hardly any offense now that running back Ricky Williams has deserted. Most of their runners and receivers are ordinary, and their offensive line is a disaster area.

In time, their new quarterback, A.J. Feeley of oregon, will probably help out.He has that look, and he has the personal tools. But on Sunday night his offensive line rarely gave him a chance to show what he's got. What's more, he's the most inexperienced starting quarterback the NFL has had. His next start will behis 13th since high school. That's high school.

Still, Miami's defense played impeccably, as usual. It held Cincinnati to 25 yards rushing in 20 carries and it gave Palmer no open targets and almost no time to throw, in spite of which he completed 21 of 38 passes for 147 yards. If he had a running back and an offensive line, Palmer might even beat Baltimore.

McNabb Was Monday Night's MVP

Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles, one of football's greatquarterbacks, won a tough battle of passing teams Monday night. He threw on firstdown every time, without exception in the second half until, in the final minutes, the Minnesota Vikings were 17 points down and out.

McNabb ran 20 yards for one touchdown and passed for two more to win by an eventual 27-14 on a night when Andy Reid, Philadelphia's coach and play caller, relied on the speed of his newest star, wide receiver Terrell owens, to set up every play in the game plan. For the Eagles' final touchdown Reid called a bomb, McNabb to owens, that landed in the receiver's hands on the sideline at 45 paces.

Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper also threw the ball regularly and expertlyon all five of his team's longest drives into the vicinity of Philadelphia's goalline. There, all five times, the Vikings — who might have had the better players if not the better team — self-destructed. In order:

• When penalties and an ill-timed running play lost ground at the Eagle 9 to kill a Minnesota passing drive, the Vikings settled for a field goal.

• After Culpepper's passes moved the Vikings to the Eagle 3, Minnesota Coach Mike Tice wanted three runs, which (a) killed another touchdown chance and (b) setup another field goal.

• After Culpepper's passes moved the Vikings to the Eagle 1, he fumbled the ball away at the 1-inch line on first down. With three more downs in sight, a fumble is always an inexcusable blunder.

• When two big Vikings penalties canceled a touchdown and another big play at the Eagle 20, they settled for another field goal.

• After Culpepper's passes and scrambles moved the Vikings to the Eagle 15, penalties moved them back out of good field-goal position and, this time, the kick missed.

In a miscarriage of justice, several media people mistakenly made a Philadelphiapass rusher the game's MVP. The pass rush didn't beat the Vikings. They beat themselves. The MVP was McNabb.

Raiders Cost Rice His Streak

The Oakland Raiders have clearly improved under Coach Norval Turner,who, however, erred the other day when he let an important streak lapse. For 18 years — an eternity for NFL athletes — Jerry Rice, the second-best receiver of all time, had caught at least one pass in each of 275 consecutive games. (The best some of us ever saw, Don Hutson, played for Green Bay long ago.)

It doesn't take much for coaches to keep a receiver's streak alive if they wish to. Particularly now, when teams like Oakland employ seven offensive coaches. All they have to do is assign one of them to spend three or four minutes a week — at most — thinking about it and conferring briefly with Rice and the starting quarterback.

You decide on a plan for a sure-fire completion — of which there are several in the playbook — and get it in the first-quarter game plan, aiming to call it in the first four or five minutes before the confusions of the game confound coaches and players alike.

Such a strategy isn't doing anything special for a player like Rice, who, evenat 41, is a threat to go for a first down or more with any completion. Nor can ithurt the team. Indeed, the Raiders are more likely to win whenever they get the ball in the hands of dedicated, polished pros like Rice. And the Raiders and the NFL, both public-relations-conscious organizations, will always value the achievement.

Vick Comes All the Way Back

The Atlanta Falcons can be expected to run down Arizona next Sundayin the Georgia Dome. And quarterback Michael Vick can be expected to do most of the running on this team with ordinary ballcarriers. Expect to see called quarterback carries, carefully controlled by his new coaching staff.

Vick took off only 12 times last Sunday, including scrambles, producing109 ground yards against the St. Louis defense to complement his 179 yards passing in a 14-for-19 pass-play performance that was also carefully controlled.

Routing the Rams, 34-17, Vick returned from his injury year to what he was before he broke his leg: the most exciting runner/passer in the league and a candidate formost exciting player.

At 6 feet and a listed 215 pounds (dimensions that are doubtless overstated),Vick — like Clinton Portis of Washington — seems too small and fragile to do what he does. He has the speed, quickness and talent to keep doing it only if he doesn't expose himself needlessly or too often to the NFL's numerous bruisers. The Rams, with the league's least physical defense, couldn't hurt him.

What's new in Atlanta this year are the coaches, and what they're doing is movingVick in and out of the pocket to throw, or fake a throw and scoot.They're also sending in timely draw plays along with other deceptive, modern calls.

The Falcons may be turning a corner with the season's most astounding leadershipchange, having replaced the conservative Dan Reeves with the progressive Jim Mora,who hired the sport's best line coach, Alex Gibbs, and two gifted coordinators, Ed Donatelli (defense) and Greg Knapp. The principal beneficiary is their man Vick.

More Than Ever, NFL Shares Talent

The Jacksonville Jaguars, still undefeated and stillleading Peyton Manning's team, Indianapolis, as well as Steve McNair's team, Tennessee, in the AFC South, will see if they can go 3-0 next Sunday at Tennessee after outscoring Denver in a Week 2 upset, 7-6.

In another memorable, improbable upset Sunday, Chicago beat Green Bay, 21-10 — at Green Bay — to herald another season of extreme parity in pro football.

Of the 32 teams, 18 are now at .500 (each with a 1-1 won-lost record). What'sgoing on here?

Seven possible answers:

• Most important, there's a nucleus of exceptional talent on each of the 32 teams.

• At the same time, 31 of the 32 (all but New England) have at least one definite weakness that, if found, can be exploited and rendered fatal (for seven days at least) by any opponent.

• Franchises which in Vince Lombardi's day averaged five coaches per side nowhire 20-man coaching staffs; and with all that help seeking opponents'tendencies and weak points, many seekers succeed.

• Almost any pro club can upset almost any other if it gets a couple of timely breaks in what amounts to a scant 60 minutes of football in what is, annually, a better and more balanced league — a league that equitably divides the best of the college football players.

• The player draft and free agency obviously work.

• The experts who scout college players and free agents have been increasingly successful despite the maddening inconsistency of high draft choices and many free agents.

• Television networks (and by extension television football fans) have been coming up with the billions of dollars that underwrite all this.

And even though pro football's total revenue may be off someday due to America'sincreasing diversity of entertainment options — and variety of TV outlets — the NFL, by comparison with competitors, will remain wealthy enough so long as it remains America's favorite sport.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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