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September 20, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Jets, Jaguars Highlight NFL's Early Surprises

BY SEAN LAHMAN
September 20, 2004

Four teams that missed the playoffs last year have started the season 2-0,and they've all looked impressive in the process. The Jaguars are winning with a ferocious defense that has allowed just one touchdown in its first two games. Teams can't run the ball against Jacksonville, and the addition of new faces in the secondary has helped compensate for a mediocre pass rush. When second-year QB Byron Leftwich finally gets the passing game in gear, the Jaguars will contend for a playoff spot.

The Atlanta Falcons have been sparked by the return of Michael Vick, who threw a touchdown pass and ran for 109 yards yesterday against the Rams. The real difference, though, is the improved play of the defense. The switch to coordinator Ed Donatell's 4-3 scheme helps the Falcons put more pressure on opposing QBs, transforming a run defense that ranked 29th last year into one of this year's best.

Lions fans have wondered for the past two years whether Joey Harrington was a bad QB or if his mediocre play was simply due to the lack of a supporting cast. With a revamped offensive line and the addition of rookies Kevin Jones and Roy Williams, Harrington has stepped forward to show his critics that he can succeed at this level. He threw three TDs in a victory against the Texans yesterday and has an impressive 93.8 passer rating after two games.

Meanwhile, all the pieces have come together for Jets offensive coordinator Paul Hackett. QB Chad Pennington has completed 75% of his passes and leads the AFC with a 124.3 passer rating. Curtis Martin is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has scored four touchdowns. The Jets defense has given up a lot of passing yards, but most of that has come late in the game as opponents frantically try to cut into the Jets' double-digit lead. They haven't been perfect, but after two weeks the Jets look like they could be one of the best teams in the AFC.

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When you've lost nine games in a row like the Giants had going into yesterday's game, you'll take a win anyway you can get it. Enter the Redskins. The beleaguered New York secondary snagged four interceptions and the defense recovered three of the Redskins' five fumbles yesterday to help the Giants eke out a 20-14 win. It wasn't pretty, but fans of Big Blue will take it.

The opportunistic Giants defense helped overcome another lackluster performance by the offense. Running backs Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne were held to 54 yards on 27 carries, and the team converted only one of 13 third downs. The passing game continues to be ultra-conservative, with quick short patterns that are low-risk but unlikely to produce a big play. Kurt Warner's only deep pass attempt found Tim Carter in the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

This win gives the team a psychological boost, but the Giants clearly need to improve many facets of their game before they can be consistently competitive.

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Kansas City started last season 9-0 before the Bengals exposed the gaping holes in their run defense. Since then, the Chiefs have gone 4-7 and given up an average of 176.6 rushing yards per game. Yesterday, Carolina's De-Shaun Foster rushed for 174 yards, marking the seventh time in eight games that an opposing back has rushed for more than 100 yards.

The Chiefs didn't pursue defensive help via free agency and they didn't draft any players who could help right away. Instead, they hoped to improve with the same personnel by changing their style of play. New defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has them playing a more aggressive, attacking style. So far, the new look hasn't helped, and the Chiefs will be 0-3 if they can't stop Baltimore's Jamal Lewis next week.

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Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger is on track to become the first starter among the four quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2004 draft. Roethlisberger took over for a struggling Tommy Maddox in the third quarter at Baltimore yesterday, and threw for 176 yards and two touchdowns. Maddox left with an elbow injury, but his poor play probably would have made a change necessary if he had remained healthy. In two games, Maddox has completed just 17 passes for 209 yards without a TD pass.

Most rookie quarterbacks get thrown into a situation where they don't have much talent around them, but Roethlisberger has a pretty good crew to work with. Receivers Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, and Antwaan Randle El are one of the most talented trios in the league, and the veteran tandem of Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis gives the Steelers a reliable ground attack.

Because he has a better supporting cast than the other quarterbacks taken in the first round this year, Roethlisberger is likely to have more success as a rookie than Phillip Rivers, Eli Manning, or J.P. Losman.

The knock on Big Ben is his lack of polish; he comes from a small college and hasn't faced the kinds of multifaceted defenses he'll see in the NFL. Yesterday, though, he held his own against a Ravens defense that is as tough as they come.

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Oakland WR Jerry Rice didn't catch a pass in the Raiders' 13-10 win against the Bills, snapping a streak of 274 consecutive games with at least one reception. The last time Rice played a game without catching a pass was December 1, 1985, midway through his rookie season. Art Monk had the second longest streak with 183 games, and Tampa Bay's Tim Brown has the longest active streak with 174.

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