Patriots struggle with difficult schedule

Posted: Friday, October 07, 2005

The New England Patriots are struggling with injuries.They’re also struggling with a difficult stretch of the schedule.

After losing to San Diego 41-17 last week, their first loss in 22 home games, the Patriots go to Atlanta Sunday to face one of the NFC’s best teams. Next week, it’s on to Denver, a rocky road for a team trying to become the first to win three straight Super Bowls.

But two years ago, the Patriots were an identical 2-2 and went on to win 15 straight, including the Super Bowl.

‘‘We’ve lost games before and we’ll move on,’’ Pats QB Tom Brady says. ‘‘We try to correct the mistakes and try to improve, but we won’t be throwing in the towel. There are too many great players in there to throw in the towel.’’

The Falcons, of course, have their own great players, primarily Michael Vick, who left Atlanta’s win over Minnesota last week with a knee injury. Vick says he’s fine and will play Sunday for the Falcons (3-1).

‘‘Just because I got injured doesn’t mean that my confidence level is going to go down,’’ Vick said. ‘‘The same thing happened to me against Seattle, and I came back and had one of my best games against Buffalo. Injury doesn’t scare me.’’

The Chargers took advantage of the absence of linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson and safety Rodney Harrison. Bruschi is sitting out the season after a stroke; Johnson retired; and Harrison is lost for the season with a knee injury.

Now the Patriots are trying to avoid their first two-game losing streak since late in the 2002 season. Even this early, another loss (or two) could hurt badly.

The Falcons claim to see few weaknesses in New England.

‘‘Being world champions, they have the respect of all of the guys on this team, because they’ve done it,’’ running back Warrick Dunn says. ‘‘We haven’t done anything, and they’ve done it three out of the last four years. They have our respect.’’

Pittsburgh (2-1) at San Diego (2-2) (Monday night)

The Patriots’ last two opponents meet in prime time.

After an 0-2 start, the Chargers have scored 86 points in two games, finally unleashing LaDainian Tomlinson. They are probably the NFL’s most explosive team and almost surely would be 3-1 had the front office not suspended Antonio Gates during his holdout, causing him to miss the opening-week loss to Dallas.

The Steelers had last week off after losing to New England, which for the second time in less than a year shut down Ben Roethlisberger. Ben is 0-2 against the Patriots in his career, 16-0 against everyone else.

Cincinnati (4-0) at Jacksonville (2-2)

This Sunday night game could be the Bengals’ first loss. They are coming off a lackluster home win over Houston and their offensive line is hurting in the middle, where the Jaguars’ defense is the strongest. Besides, they don’t seem good enough to be a 5-0 team.

Funny how perspective changes. After beating Houston, the Bengals were apologizing for their performance. That’s a long way from the days when any win was cause for celebration.

Tampa Bay (4-0) at New York Jets (1-3)

Like Cincinnati, the Bucs don’t seem good enough to be 5-0, and three of Tampa Bay’s wins are against teams from the woeful NFC North.

Now it gets the Jets with 41-year-old Vinny Testaverde at QB. Chad Pennington and Jay Fiedler are gone and Testaverde gets the start over third-stringer Brooks Bollinger, who played last week. Vinny was the first overall pick by the Bucs in 1987, when they wore orange and stunk.

Carnell ‘‘Cadillac’’ Williams, who set an NFL record for yards rushing by a rookie in his first three games, has a sore hamstring and sprained foot. But Michael Pittman, who starred in the Bucs’ Super Bowl win three years ago, is an experienced and capable backup.

Washington (3-0) at Denver (3-1)

Another team whose unbeaten run looks ready to end. The Redskins’ three victories are by a total of six points. But wins generate confidence and Mark Brunell is looking as frisky as he was a decade ago.

Spotlight: Washington RB Clinton Portis was traded to Washington by Denver last season for CB Champ Bailey in a rare star player for star player deal. Bailey is questionable after sitting out last week with a hamstring injury, the first game he’s missed in his seven NFL seasons.

Philadelphia (3-1) at Dallas (2-2)

The most important thing for the Eagles might be protecting the aching Donovan McNabb from the blitzes of Roy Williams. It was Williams who ‘‘horse-collared’’ Terrell Owens last season and Williams was the primary player cited when the NFL added a rule banning those tackles.

The other question for Philadelphia is balance — just 69 of its 269 offensive plays this season have been rushes by running backs. McNabb has thrown 174 times in four games.

Indianapolis (4-0) at San Francisco (1-3)

Peyton Manning will undoubtedly wait until after the game to console Alex Smith, who is making his first start. Like Manning, Smith was the No. 1 overall pick and, like Manning in 1998, he will struggle on a bad team.

Indy could be on track for badly needed home-field advantage in the playoffs. It has a dearth of power teams on the schedule and could be 7-0 when it goes to Foxborough on Nov. 7 hoping to end its drought against the Patriots.

San Francisco fans will get a reminder of the good old days if Manning and Marvin Harrison break the record for TD passes by a passer-receiver tandem. They are tied with Steve Young and Jerry Rice at 85.

Carolina (2-2) at Arizona (1-3)

The Panthers face the trap that cost Atlanta in Seattle — a long trip after a tough Monday night game. The added risk is that the Cardinals, who will start Josh McCown at QB again, seem invigorated by their first win, albeit an ugly one against the dismal 49ers.

Despite McCown’s career game in Mexico City, the offensive star for Arizona is kicker Neil Rackers, whose 16 straight field goals represent most of the team’s scoring. The Cards have just four touchdowns in four games.

Miami (2-1) at Buffalo (1-3)

With New England struggling, is it beyond reason to suggest that Nick Saban’s Dolphins might contend for the AFC East title? The Jets and Bills are having troubles, but the Dolphins have been OK with steady veteran Gus Frerotte at QB. Ricky Williams returns next week.

Buffalo has just 29 points in its last 14 quarters, so Kelly Holcomb is now the QB in place of J.P. Losman. The loss of Takeo Spikes was a big blow to the defense, and the pressure put on it by the lack of offense doesn’t help.

Baltimore (1-2) at Detroit (1-2)

Detroit will be without WR Charles Rogers, beginning a four-game drug suspension.

Steve Mariucci is also upset at the replay reversal of what would have been the winning touchdown in Tampa — with good reason. It could be one of the season’s critical calls (or miscalls), especially given the state of the NFC North, where a 2-1 record might represent an insurmountable lead.

The Ravens got their first win last week against the Jets with Bollinger at QB. Baltimore knows about QB injuries — Anthony Wright still starts for Kyle Boller, although there’s little difference.

Seattle (2-2) at St. Louis (2-2)

Nothing has really changed in the NFC West, where these two .500 teams seem to be the ‘‘class.’’ A sign of the division’s weakness: both lost last week to NFC East teams not named the Eagles.

Rams coach Mike Martz missed practice time again this week with an infection of the heart, but should be on the Rams sideline. St. Louis beat the Seahawks three times last season, including a playoff game in Seattle, and there’s been some minor woofing about it this week between the teams.

New Orleans (2-2) at Green Bay (0-4)

The Saints finally got a ‘‘home’’ game last week, albeit in San Antonio, and beat the Bills.

The one plus for the Packers, who began bad and got worse because of injuries, is that Brett Favre still has some of his old magic. He almost brought Green Bay back from a 19-point deficit in Carolina Monday night before the Packers lost 32-29.

Chicago (1-2) at Cleveland (1-2)

The Bears’ defense might be the best single unit in the NFC North, but it really can’t make up for the offense. Before the bye week, Kyle Orton threw five interceptions in Cincinnati. No rookie QB should be thrown in so early on an offensively challenged team.

The Browns’ rookie, Charlie Frye, has the good luck to be sitting and learning behind Trent Dilfer. Romeo Crennel, trained under Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, was asked last week if he would settle for 7-9 and replied: ‘‘I’m shooting for the stars.’’

Tennessee (1-3) at Houston (0-3)

David Carr just keeps taking a beating — he’s been sacked 20 times in three games. The Texans have never really replaced Tony Boselli, who never played for them but was taken in the expansion draft, despite injuries, to anchor an offensive line that has been bad from the team’s first season in 2002.

Steve McNair knows how Carr feels. He’s spent his whole career taking hits — and giving them.

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