Longtime writer Bob Oates shares his commentary on the NFL.
OATES ON FOOTBALL
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Colts Going for 19-0
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o NFL Week 9: Manning's Team Better Than Old 17-0 Dolphins . . . Eagle Error: Owens Plays Hard . . . Bears Bore, Win . . Chiefs Not Tough Enough.
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By Bob Oates
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The sports fans who were stunned Monday night when the Indianapolis Colts routed defending-champion New England, 40-21, haven't seen anything yet. With Peyton Manning at quarterback, the 8-0 Colts are en route to 19-0, I'd say, as the second NFL team to ever win them all. They've been sneaking up on the NFL this year --- beating clearly outmanned opponents in the first half of the season. But the Patriots, though injury-ravaged, aren't stiffs.
Offensively, and even defensively, the Colts are much more powerful than the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who won all 17 games they played in a shorter NFL season. And this year, Manning's lone remaining regular-season opponent with the resources to put up a fight is Pittsburgh, whose quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, has been in and out of the lineup with injuries all season.
The Colt-Steeler game is set for Indianapolis on Monday night, Nov. 28, with, after that for the Colts, only Tennessee, Jacksonville, San Diego, Seattle and Arizona.
In New England the other night, the turning-point play was Patriot tailback Corey Dillon's second-quarter fumble at the Indianapolis 18-yard line.
That was shortly before halftime, when Patriot quarterback Tom Brady, down by just seven points, 14-7, was driving toward the tying touchdown.
Instead, Manning, taking advantage of the break --- and also of a New England defensive team that was minus its best players --- instantly began driving the other way, moving the fast-moving, no-huddle Colts 73 yards to a halftime lead of 21-7. And Brady never came close to catching up --- in large part because New England's patched-together defense couldn't slow down the Colts and get him the ball.
The Patriots played with recently promoted second- and third-stringers in key pass-defense positions and without their two great defensive leaders, safety Rodney Harrison and 310-pound defensive lineman Richard Seymour. Over the years, the good pro club with the fewest major injuries has usually won the Super Bowl, and in 2005 that's the Colts.
SUBHED Eagles Err on Owens: He Plays Hard:
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The Philadelphia Eagles (4-4), the NFC's best team when quarterback Donovan McNabb is comparatively free of injuries, made two major wrong-headed moves the other day, suspending their second best player, receiver Terrell Owens, and then banishing him for the rest of the year.
These are actions that make sense only if the Eagles are giving up on the season and hope to save a few millions of dollars. For their problem isn't Owens but McNabb, whose several internal injuries have crippled him and them, creating a 4-4 start for Philadelphia this year after last year's Super Bowl season with the same comparatively young players.
If the Eagles have decided that McNabb isn't physically able to contend again --- and clearly they can't win without the real McNabb --- anything they do is pardonable. Otherwise, to fire Owens is to make a gross error of judgment.
Though he says and does many crazy things, nothing Owens has said or done has slowed him down at gametime. Nobody plays football harder or with more devotion. And nobody trains harder.
Though Eagle Coach Andy Reid said his decision was based on a "large number of (harmful) situations,'' the timing of his announcement suggests that he was stung into action by Owens' public criticism. In a free country, you can criticize the president --- but not a football team?
Who cares what Owens says? He's been criticizing McNabb for six months, but when the whistle blows, he's a joy to be around --- particularly if they throw him the damn ball. And McNabb selflessly does that.
The Eagles knew exactly what they were getting when they hired Owens. He's the same jerk he was in San Francisco, a supremely talented jerk who gives every game everything he's got. And now you don't like what he says? Well, then, as a Secretary of Defense once said, don't listen to what he says, just watch what he does.
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SUBHED Boring Bears Wait for the Breaks
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THE CHICAGO BEARS (5-3), the NFC North's best team with Purdue rookie Kyle Orton as their 6-foot-4 quarterback, plan to win their fifth game in a row Sunday when San Francisco comes in. Although after that their schedule gets tougher, the Bears so far, under Coach Lovie Smith, have been beating teams they should beat and some they shouldn't.
Orton made the big play again in Week 9, a third-down pass for 22 yards setting up the winning field goal as the Bears won a 20-17 game in Baton Rouge, La., from the discouraged New Orleans Saints --- whose New Orleans fan contingent totaled under 30,000.
"The Bears are kind of boring to watch, but it's still NFL football,'' a Bear fan said afterward. "What they do is wait for the breaks. Once in a while, they get one, and then they hit with the play they've been saving.''
Smith's real problem in Chicago is that his best quarterback, Rex Grossman, seems injury-prone. Smith and New York Jet Coach Herman Edwards are in that boat together, for the Jets, as usual, have also lost quarterback Chad Pennington. How many years can you sit and wait for a good man? In football, it's a difficult question.
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SUBHED Packers Let Favre Down Again
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THE GREEN BAY PACKERS (1-7) are implausibly four games behind the Bears in the NFC North going into Atlanta Sunday after dropping a 20-10 game to a Pittsburgh team that was playing without quarterback Roethlisberger.
One second-quarter interlude summarized the season for the snakebit Packers at a moment when they were on the Pittsburgh goal line and threatening to take a 10-6 lead. On first down, a Packer offensive lineman jumped offside. On second down, another Packer lineman, again interfering with his own quarterback, Brett Favre, jumped.
And on third down, Favre extended a wholly inept series of plays with a sack fumble that Steeler safety Troy Polamalu picked up and returned the other way for a touchdown.
Polamalu, the former Trojan, was the first blitzer in the two-man Pittsburgh attack that trapped Favre, who usually gets out of a blitz by turning sharply away and scooting off. This time when he turned sharply and scooted off, he scooted directly into the arms of the second blitzer, rookie cornerback Bryant McFadden, who provoked the fumble that fell conveniently in front of Polamalu.
It was a rare cornerback-safety rush, with both Steelers blitzing from the same side --- a defensive play apparently designed especially for Favre --- but entirely characteristic of Pittsburgh defensive coach Dick Lebeau.
For years, LeBeau has been dreaming up new blitzes that surprise the best quarterbacks in the league. The wonder is that other NFL coaches don't model their blitz packages on LeBeau's, though Favre isn't wondering, just recovering.
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SUBHED The Chiefs Aren't Tough Enough
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THE KANSAS CITY CHIEFS don't look physically tough enough to catch the flying Denver team --- which will indeed be hard to catch if it wins in Oakland next Sunday --- but their coach is plainly nerveless.
That's Dick Vermeil, who, instead of kicking a field goal in Week 9, imported a good idea from USC Coach Pete Carroll and went for it with the running play that beat Oakland, 27-23.
At USC, it could be that Carroll has changed big-time football forever. In the last-moment pressure of the recent Notre Dame game --- when Carroll had the courage to call for a Matt Leinart quarterback sneak, spurning a safe kick --- it's probable that he influenced other coaches to also spurn the safe way out.
For now there are two examples, Carroll's and Vermeil's, making it twice as obvious now to fling the label "uncourageous'' at coaches who are afraid to go for it.
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SUBHED Chief Second-Stringer Johnson Emerges
THE ONE TOUGH CHIEF is Larry Johnson, the second-string tailback from Penn State, who took the winning last-moment high dive into the Oakland end zone. Johnson plays behind Priest Holmes, or rather waits behind him. Only when the Chiefs rest Holmes, usually for an injury, is his rugged understudy in their lineup.
So the Oakland game was something of a coming-out party for Johnson, a 231-pound sprinter who was in for every snap and had a 107-yard day as Holmes' replacement.
He and Holmes are of different types. Now injured, Holmes, one of the NFL's finest at 213 pounds, is cute or clever. Johnson, an assertive runner, can get the tough yards.
Trent Green, who led the winning rally --- throwing the pass that Johnson carried 40-plus yards to the Oakland one-yard line on the play before he dove in --- has never been known as one of the NFL's toughest quarterbacks
Nor is toughness the quality that defines 6-5, 251-pound tight end Tony Gonzales, who is a regular Pro Bowler all the same. And the Kansas City defense, which doesn't rival the Pittsburgh defense for toughness, has had its troubles for years
At last, though, there are two tough Kansas City employees, a player, Johnson, and the coach, Vermeil. In Missouri this week, the hope is that their approach will rub off on other Chiefs before their next date with Denver on Dec. 4.
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ITAL Bob Oates is at email@example.com. For previous columns see latimes.com/oates