A little form is showing

Posted: Tuesday, September 23, 2003

On the opening Sunday of the NFL season, the biggest shock was Miami's home loss to Houston, a game that left South Florida fans clamoring for coach Dave Wannstedt's job.

Two weeks and two wins later, the Dolphins are back in their expected spot at the top of the AFC East and the Texans have dropped two straight.

Yes, there seems to be a sense of order developing after three weeks, from defending champion Tampa Bay at the top down to Chicago, Detroit and Arizona a win over Green Bay notwithstanding.

Take the Bucs, who erased bad memories of a 12-9 overtime loss to Carolina last week by traveling to Atlanta and beating the Falcons 31-10.

''Last year, when we stubbed our toe and lost, we always came back and won,'' safety John Lynch said. ''And there's no doubt losing last week was on our mind. To win today like we did? That's what champions do.''

The Bucs (2-1) have allowed only one touchdown, and don't even lead the NFC South. They're a half-game behind Carolina, which had Sunday off and is 2-0 off a very good defense and solid running game.

The biggest question mark among the unbeatens is Minnesota. The Vikings are 3-0, all against division opponents, but their division, the NFC North, is the weakest in the league Green Bay's loss proves the point.

Yes, the Vikings have a running start toward a division title after beating the Packers, Lions and Bears. But the non-division schedule includes the 49ers, Rams, Seahawks, Giants, Raiders, Broncos and Chiefs, and the playoffs are still a long way off.

And the injury jinx hit Sunday when quarterback Daunte Culpepper broke three bones in his spine and cracked another. Culpepper says he can play, but how effective he can be?

Still, 3-0 is pretty good.

''I think it's big because we've been on the low end of the stick,'' said the new ''mature'' Randy Moss, who seems to have taken over for Harvard man Matt Birk as team spokesman. ''Being 3-0 in the division gives us the confidence that we can be a playoff team. We're not cocky about being 3-0, but we're confident all the hard work we put into the offseason is paying off.''

A look at some other surprises:

Seattle (3-0). Now that he has no other duties but coaching, Mike Holmgren is thriving and his team has a two-game lead over everyone else in the NFC West, most notably the Rams and 49ers. The big improvement is the defense under new coordinator Ray Rhodes.

Buffalo (2-1). Another legitimate team. Yes, Drew Bledsoe was stifled by the Dolphins on Sunday night, but that won't happen often. And the defense is so much better that the Bills have to be viewed as a legitimate threat in what looks like a three-way race in the AFC East with Miami and New England.

Washington (2-1). Despite the naysayers, Steve Spurrier is a good NFL coach even if owner Dan Snyder doesn't want to get out of the way. Proof? The Redskins came from 17 points down to win in Atlanta and from 18 points down to tie the Giants on Sunday before losing in overtime. Philadelphia's problems make the Redskins a challenger in a much more balanced NFC East.

Indianapolis (3-0). Not a total surprise, but the defense has stood up surprisingly well. Reggie Wayne's 10 catches for 141 yards on Sunday bode well for Peyton Manning, who also has his main men in Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James.

Kansas City. (3-0). The additions on defense, notably linebacker Shawn Barber, have made the Chiefs a complete team. For now, they are the favorites in the AFC West.

Baltimore (2-1). The Carolina formula is defense and handing off to Jamal Lewis. The Ravens might challenge Pittsburgh, but a lot depends on quarterback Kyle Boller's development.

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