PACKERS vs. FALCONS
6:20 p.m., NBC
ATLANTA — Tramon Williams' end-of-half interception return for a Green Bay touchdown against Atlanta at the Georgia Dome in last season's playoffs might be remembered as a turning point in NFL history.
The Falcons were the better team entering the game, and although the Packers held a 21-14 lead before the play, the Falcons were driving and appeared likely to score. Williams' interception turned the game into a rout, and the Packers (4-0) — who face Atlanta tonight at 6:20 p.m. — have been unbeatable ever since, while the Falcons (2-2) have replaced them as the team with a young quarterback and a lot of talent that cannot quite get its act together.
Of course, for some that turning point arrived a little late.
"I'm really surprised that it kind of took him so long," Brett Favre said of the three interminable years it took Aaron Rodgers to lead the Packers to the Super Bowl. Who knew that through all of those quasi-retirements, through his stints with the Jets and the Vikings, Favre was impatiently waiting for Rodgers to close the deal? Favre did not sound as if he was trying to insult Rodgers — he has simply lost the ability to compliment people who are not him — but teammates and analysts have rushed to Rodgers' defense, which he does not really need.
It had been several peaceful months since the last self-serving Favre rant. What took him so long?
SAINTS (3-1) at PANTHERS (1-3),11 a.m.
The proper transitional form between terrible and great for an NFL team is not average, but interesting. Average teams are stuck at average, or worse, are stuck in the NFC West. Interesting teams, with great strengths but fascinating flaws, are usually on the fast track up or down. Carolina is going up; the road down goes through Philadelphia.
The Panthers are interesting because Cam Newton has settled into his role as the league's hottest prospect. His developing skills in the pocket make him more than a scrambles-and-bombs playground passer, though the scrambles and bombs remain frequent and fun. Steve Smith has been rejuvenated by Newton's presence and is averaging 22.1 yards a catch. The supporting cast — running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey — is deep and multitalented. Defensively, the Panthers do not have much, but that keeps things entertaining.
The Saints are always interesting, except when they play the Jaguars, who take the bland with them. The Panthers are no match for the Saints yet, but they are now game for a 34-29 or 40-33 final score, which is the next best thing to winning after a year of watching Jimmy Clausen throw 2-yard passes to Tony Fiammetta.
RAIDERS (2-2) at TEXANS (3-1), 11 a.m.
Last week Oakland coach Hue Jackson guaranteed that the Raiders would win the AFC West. Boy, Joe Namath starts chirping, and suddenly everyone wants to be like him. Jackson based his reasoning on these facts: 1) The Raiders are pretty good; 2) the Broncos are committed to starting Kyle Orton until this entire generation of fans is too old to remember that they drafted Tim Tebow; 3) the Chiefs cannot beat the Vikings by five points without their coach and quarterback nearly coming to blows on the sideline; and 4) the Chargers' 330-pound nose tackle, Antonio Garay, drives a Hello Kitty Smart Car, removing him as a potential threat.
The Texans have made no guarantees, despite lingering in the national spotlight longer than usual and having an Indianapolis-free path to the AFC South title. Houston received some good news when it learned wide receiver Andre Johnson will miss a maximum of three games with a right hamstring injury that looked far worse when he crumpled to the ground, untouched, against the Steelers last week. Even better news for the Texans: They now have enough talent in other areas to survive three games without Johnson.
EAGLES (1-3) at BILLS (3-1), 11 a.m.
Las Vegas likes to bill itself as the wildest place on Earth, but it is really an old-fashioned, conservative town that still reveres the Rat Pack, the 20-ounce steak and traditional powerhouse teams facing longtime doormats. That explains Philadelphia as a road favorite: It is an idea as current as a Fremont Street piano bar set list. Perhaps our friends in Vegas know that Buffalo is starting a rookie left tackle (Chris Hairston, in place of the injured Demetrius Bell) and that the Eagles, despite the panic that has set in during their three-game losing streak, have an overwhelming talent advantage and some easy-to-fix flaws. More likely, the gambling line is catering to those in the buffet line who think the Eagles are due. Philadelphia is indeed due for something, though no one is sure quite what.
TITANS (3-1) at STEELERS (2-2), 11 a.m.
Matt Hasselbeck is the new definition?of cool. Who wants to be young, strapping and handsome like Jake Locker when you can look, sound and exhibit the overall athleticism of the frontman of a Buffalo Springfield tribute band? Hasselbeck is the mentor quarterback that general managers dream of when they venture onto the free-agent market in search of some rickety former starter who can impart Crash Davis wisdom to the first-round pick. He is a sage who still has his stuff, a drama-free knuckleballer who still gets some tough outs.
Let us hope we have a few more weeks to enjoy Hasselbeck before he is injured by the shock waves emanating from the coin toss, or worse, by an opponent. The Steelers are smarting from their loss to the Texans, and they are not known for internalizing their frustration. They also have a habit of body-slamming Tennessee quarterbacks to the turf (see Vince Young in last season's game). Linebacker James Harrison is out with an eye injury, but Pittsburgh still has plenty of pass rush power and pent-up frustration. Get warmed up, Locker. Just in case.
CHIEFS (1-3) at COLTS (0-4), 11 a.m.
How to win football games, the Kansas City way. Step 1: Play the Vikings. Step 2: Engage in a coach-versus-quarterback shouting match on the sideline in the middle of the game because Todd Haley is a longtime proponent of the succeed-despite-me school of management. Step 3: Hope Ryan Succop kicks field goals from 51 and 54 yards. Repeat until December. As of this week, Peyton Manning of Indianapolis is officially retired from these game previews until he does something more interesting than provide reaction shots from the coaches' booth. If all he can now do is make uncomfortable-looking faces, he should join the cast of "The Office."
JETS (2-2) at PATRIOTS (3-1), 2:15 p.m.
This short, understated game capsule is our way of modulating the volume level on our national discourse. Think of it as a "Sounds of the Ocean" generator with a noise-canceling function that makes all of the trash talk and bluster surrounding this game sound like the distant lapping of waves against a forgotten fishing pier. Are you serene yet? Good. No, that is not Antonio Cromartie, Plaxico Burress or Santonio Holmes you hear trying to bait New England with senseless trash talk. It is three far-off seagulls cawing over a crushed oyster shell.
BENGALS (2-2) at JAGUARS (1-3), 11 a.m.
It's the non-Newtonian edition of the quarterback rookie battle, with Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton battling for second place in our hearts. While Dalton putters through his weeks, launching occasional bombs to his fellow rookie A.J. Green and doing his best to keep things close, Gabbert tries to wrap his impressionable young mind around Jack Del Rio's pretzel logic. Gabbert threw 24 passes in the first half against the Saints last week, with star running back Maurice Jones-Drew carrying the ball only three times in a neat inversion of Jaguars philosophy, cosmic balance and common sense. Then, late in the fourth quarter with the Jaguars trailing by 13 points, Del Rio reintroduced the running game, calling four handoffs to Jones-Drew on one drive. Gabbert would call the former Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard for advice, but he does not want to get Garrard's hopes up by making the phone ring.
CARDINALS (1-3) at VIKINGS (0-4), 11 a.m.
The winning quarterback in this game gets to be the Eagles starter in 2009. Opposing defenses are not the only ones ganging up on Donovan McNabb: Old-time quarterbacks have gotten into the act. Joe Theismann said Minnesota should start Christian Ponder. Fran Tarkenton said the Vikings should start Christian Ponder. Brett Favre wondered why Ponder has not taken the Vikings to a Super Bowl yet. Joe Namath was too busy ripping the Jets to offer an opinion, and Ron Jaworski may have said something, but we are still on a seven-second delay. McNabb is aging so rapidly that by next week, he may start criticizing himself.
SEAHAWKS (1-3) at GIANTS (3-1), 11 a.m.
The Giants won their last two meetings with the Seahawks by a combined score of 85-13, but Seattle has a new wrinkle: the no-huddle offense. The Seahawks increased their tempo in the second half against the Falcons, scoring three touchdowns in a near-comeback victory. What makes the no-huddle click for the Seahawks? "I guess it takes the thinking out of it for us," quarterback Tarvaris Jackson told reporters. "I know for me, being a young player, I tend to think a little too much." When your 28-year-old, sixth-year quarterback claims that he is young and needs to think less, you have problems that a change of pace are not going to solve.
BUCCANEERS (3-1) AT 49ERS (3-1), 2:05 p.m.
This is a battle between the league's two ugly-win champions. Tampa Bay committed 14 penalties Monday night, had a touchdown and a field goal nullified by penalties, and played the first half as if it had one eye on the Rangers-Rays game.?San Francisco played two impressive quarters against the Eagles, but the previous week's 13-8 slog against the Bengals was much more in character. The 49ers have not scored in the first quarter this season, and the Buccaneers have just three first-quarter points in their last three games, so it is safe to tune in late.
CHARGERS (3-1) at BRONCOS (1-3), 2:15 p.m.
John Fox finally rolled out the Tim Tebow Wild Horse package last week — for one play. Denver lost a yard, and Tebow disappeared again. "We did it once and we lost yardage," Fox said after the game. "It didn't prove to be beneficial, so we went in a different direction." Fox also took a multivitamin before the game, but since he did not feel instantly better, he stopped taking them, right after removing all of the insulation from his home because it did not provide immediate energy savings. Tebow resurfaced on the reality television program "The Biggest Loser," where he offered this advice: "Hard work beats talent when talent does not work as hard." Given only one chance a month, though, both hard work and talent are likely to lose a yard.
BEARS (2-2) at LIONS (4-0), Monday, 6:30 p.m.
This is the week that Detroit finally fakes the pass to Calvin Johnson at the goal line, then hands off to Jahvid Best. Best walks untouched into the end zone as 11 defenders (12, if Rob Ryan has any say) claw and drag Johnson to the ground.
Then, Ryan and the three other defensive coordinators who allowed two touchdowns a week to Johnson get to call Lovie Smith and say they told him so.