We're in the homestretch of the preseason. Many teams will break camp later this week and finish preparations back on their home turf. I'm sure NFL veterans will miss dorm living.
The number of hankies tossed over the first two weeks is disconcerting to players and fans alike. Most contests saw upwards of 15 penalties. With young players still getting reps and continuity lacking in third-string offenses, games are taking on the length of television mini-series.
Here's a look at this past weekend's action and the players making waves.
Carolina Panthers 27, New York Giants 20
The rebirth of Ron Dayne continues. The slimmer, 2004 version of the Heisman Trophy winner rumbled for 63 yards on 12 carries for the Giants, including a one-yard touchdown. This is starting to develop into a committee situation with Tiki Barber.
Eli Manning performed well against the repeated blitzes of the starting Carolina defensive unit. He audibled at the line and took control of the game much like older brother Peyton. There were a couple of rookie gaffes, but all told he played quite well. Kurt Warner fell prey to the blitzes that the line failed to pick up and threw an interception that was returned for a TD. That said, he still finished the night 9-for-11 for 71 yards. This battle isn't over yet, although Eli is now picking up steam in recent fantasy drafts.
For the Panthers, there were two main stories. First, the return of Mark Fields to the Panthers lineup after battling Hodgkin's Disease is truly an inspiring tale. He flew around the field, contributing two sacks and terrorizing the Giants.
Also, Jake Delhomme was impressive, completing 11 of 13 passes for 144 yards and one touchdown by air and another on the ground. Delhomme has turned in two solid outings and pushed his way up my QB rankings to the No. 15 slot.
Jacksonville Jaguars 14, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6
There wasn't a whole lot to get fired up about in this contest, unless you're really eyeballing the strength of team defenses. Fred Taylor had put everyone's mind to ease by playing in 32 straight regular season games, but now comes word of a foot injury that will sideline him for this weekend's exhibition contest. He missed most of last year's preseason, so there's no need to panic … yet.
Greg Jones received the bulk of the work against Tampa Bay, carrying the ball 18 times for 62 yards. With LaBrandon Toefield still trying to get back on the field after suffering a high ankle sprain, he'll get every chance to impress Coach Jack Del Rio and must be handcuffed to the selection of Taylor at this time. Eventually Toefield will push to reclaim his backup role, but that's still some time away.
Atlanta Falcons 27, Minnesota Vikings 24
I liked the look of Atlanta backup Matt Schaub last week and he validated my first impression with a stellar performance in Week 2, tossing three touchdown passes (16-for-19 for 205 yards). This offensive scheme clearly agrees with him. Oh yeah, Michael Vick completed five of nine passes for 35 yards as his reps expand. He was held out of practice on Monday with a tight hamstring. At this point, it's clearly a precautionary measure.
Rookie Michael Jenkins got past his Week 1 jitters, pulling in two passes for 63 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown catch.
Minnesota's Kelly Campbell made his case for the No. 3 receiver position by catching three passes for 100 yards, with a huge 83-yard touchdown from Gus Frerotte. Frerotte is efficient and has the deep touch, which makes you rest easier in drafting the Vikings receivers and backs.
Mewelde Moore received more touches with Onterrio Smith's looming suspension on the radar. He rushed for 38 yards on seven carries, but make no mistake, its Michael Bennett early and often to start the season with a heavy dose of smash-mouth football in the trenches courtesy of Moe Williams.
"Freddie Mitchell did his best to match T.O. with a 62-yard reception of his own. He's super-sleeper material this season, folks."
Terrell Owens snubbed the Ravens this offseason and forced a trade to Philly. He stuck it to them again with an 81-yard touchdown reception on Philly's first offensive play. That's a sure-fire way to endear himself to the home fans. Donovan McNabb finished with seven completions in 14 attempts for 158 yards. Freddie Mitchell did his best to match T.O. with a 62-yard reception of his own. He's super-sleeper material this season, folks.
While the electricity generated by Owens' catch and end zone celebration made the highlights, the loss of Correll Buckhalter for the season with a knee injury sent fantasy owners scurrying. Brian Westbrook's stock immediately rises to the mid-teens in fantasy drafts.
I dismissed Dorsey Levens as an option since the seemingly desperate Miami Dolphins failed to seal a deal, but the former Eagles back answered Philly's call shortly after the injury to Buckhalter and signed a one-year deal on Monday. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry with the Eagles in 2002 and immediately slides into the No. 2 position. Reno Mahe and Eric McCoo will vie for the third spot.
Cleveland Browns 17, Detroit Lions 10
Joey Harrington completed a 10-yard touchdown pass to Charles Rogers to cap the Lions' first possession. With the additions of Roy Williams and Kevin Jones to Mariucci's attack, expectations are high for Harrington, the former No. 3 pick in the draft. He's moved into the mid-teens among QB selections as a top fantasy backup choice.
For the Browns, Lee Suggs continues to let his play do the talking in his bid to be the top choice in the Cleveland backfield. He rushed six times for 63 yards and two touchdowns. The extra gear he hits once he breaks through the interior defensive line has me thinking of Batman firing up the Batmobile: "Atomic battery to power. Turbine to speed." It's his job, leaving William Green (six carries, 24 yards) in the backup role and James Jackson (two carries, 17 yards) as tantalizing trade bait.
Tennessee Titans 16, Buffalo Bills 15
Travis Henry left the game clutching his side. The diagnosis was bruised ribs, which will sideline the stout tailback and give Willis McGahee (11 carries for 28 yards and a touchdown) his first start this weekend. If this was a regular-season contest, there's no question that Henry would be in pads. He played hurt all of last season and put up solid numbers (although he scored only two touchdowns in the second half).
This development adds fuel to the ongoing drama in the Buffalo backfield, with both players now with both players rumored to want out of town if the other starts. Let's get a reality show going.
Drew Bledsoe is becoming more comfortable in Mike Mularkey's system and tossed an efficient seven completions on 10 attempts for 67 yards. After a dismal 2003 campaign, fantasy owners are staying away in droves, but the addition of the speedy Lee Evans to complement Eric Moulds (much like when Peerless Price manned that spot) makes Bledsoe a solid play to return to his pre-2003 form.
Tennessee's Tyrone Calico continues his development as he tries to wrest the No. 2 spot away from Drew Bennett. He caught six balls for 86 yards and a touchdown. He's a sleeper selection primed for a big year taking over for Justin McCareins and can be had in the 13th round of most drafts.
New York Jets 31, Indianapolis Colts 7
Chad Pennington was nearly perfect on the night, completing 10 of 11 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown. Chris Baker is making a charge at tight end to displace the incumbent Anthony Becht and offseason acquisition Mikhael Ricks.
Note: For those concerned about drafting skill position players for the Jets with no experienced backup QB in place, the Jets have signed former Cowboys QB Quincy Carter. The latest word is that he does not face a suspension at this time. While this isn't the equivalent of having a Gus Frerotte or Kerry Collins at the ready, it is more reassuring than hearing "Bollinger in for Pennington." After all, Carter did win 10 games last year without a running back.
For the Colts, it was more about going through the paces, trying some different things and keeping the stars from getting hurt. The only thing we learned here is that Mike Vanderjagt is not a good punter.
Pittsburgh Steelers 38, Houston Texans 3
There's still a little tread on the tires. Jerome Bettis rolled to 48 yards on 10 carries and found the end zone, one of four Pittsburgh running backs to do so in this contest. Tommy Maddox was solid in a short night, completing four of seven attempts for 80 yards and a touchdown to Hines Ward. Ben Roethlisberger was also solid, connecting on eight of 14 pass attempts.
The Pittsburgh run defense dominated the Texans, who played without starter Domanick Davis. As a team, they rushed for 54 yards on 21 carries, including a pathetic nine yards on 14 carries for backup Tony Hollings.
Cincinnati Bengals 31, New England Patriots 3
The story here is Carson Palmer. He was superb in this outing against Bill Belichick's ever-changing defensive packages. Palmer completed 12 of 19 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is making a push to crack the receiver rotation along with second-year man Kelley Washington. With Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick in tow, Palmer will have plenty of options this fall, provided the line can adequately protect him.
Washington Redskins 17, Miami Dolphins 0
Nothing to see here. Clinton Portis had a touchdown on seven carries and there was a nice effort from Rock Cartwright (14 carries for 33 yards and a touchdown). Mark Brunell was a solid seven for nine and 79 yards as he looks to fend-off Patrick Ramsey for the starting nod.
The Dolphins offense was awful, as fully expected. Travis Minor gained all of 15 yards on eight carries and last week's star Fred Russell accounted for negative two yards on four attempts. Antonio Freeman did make one catch for 19 yards.
The cavalry is coming in the form of Marty Booker via a trade with Chicago. Booker's value jumps upon the move to Miami, as he'll quickly settle into the No. 2 role. The Bears had too many young receivers in the fold for Booker to break free. Running opposite a star in Chris Chambers makes him a better option. I still have to question why they didn't pull the trigger on a deal to bring in a back like Anthony Thomas or James Jackson before going to a receiver.
As for the other side of the deal, the trade of Adewale Ogunleye deals a major blow to the Miami defense. Gone are 15 sacks and the double-team decisions that offensive coordinators agonized over. Jason Taylor will now face a double-team on every down.
Green Bay Packers 19, New Orleans Saints 14
Here's another game without much to note. Green Bay's Tim Couch continues his abysmal play, completing only six of 17 attempts for a measly 64 yards. Ryan Longwell's leg is in shape after five field goal attempts. He connected on four of five attempts, including three from 40-plus yards.
The Saints' lone story was the 70-yard touchdown completed to rookie Devery Henderson. Granted, it came in the final stages of this contest, but shows his big play potential.
Chicago Bears 20, San Francisco 49ers 13
San Francisco's Ken Dorsey was solid, playing in place of the injured Tim Rattay. He completed 15 of 24 passes, including a five-yard TD toss to No. 1 target Brandon Lloyd. Cody Pickett connected on 10 of 18 passes, as the 49ers look to sort out a jumbled passing game.
Chicago's Rex Grossman is solid but unspectacular in the starting role. He completed eight of 16 passes before exiting for Jonathan Quinn. Bobby Wade takes over the starting job vacated by Marty Booker and will see more reps and looks as the preseason concludes. Adrian Peterson is making the most of Anthony Thomas' injuries, pouring on 54 yards and a touchdown in seven attempts.
Dallas Cowboys 21, Oakland Raiders 20
Two young running backs put on good performances in this one, as both Dallas' Julius Jones and Oakland's Justin Fargas hit paydirt. Raider QB Kerry Collins hit on one of five attempts in his stint behind Rich Gannon. Granted, he got to show off his arm strength in connecting on an 89-yard touchdown with Doug Gabriel. Gabriel is officially the No. 3 receiver behind Jerry Rice and Jerry Porter, but rookie Johnnie Morant continues to impress (only one catch for 12 yards in this one).
All three of the Cowboys quarterbacks played efficiently in Bill Parcells' offense. Vinny Testaverde was 13-for-17 for 124 yards as the starter. Drew Henson finished the game 7-for-9 for 53 yards as he continues on the fast track. One player to watch is third-year receiver Antonio Bryant. He has big-play potential and has seemingly worked his way out of Parcells' doghouse (five catches for 51 yards).
San Diego Chargers 38, Arizona Cardinals 13
Did Drew Brees' dominance in the first two preseason games scare the Philip Rivers camp? OK, so it's still his gig once he's ready to roll, but Brees has been awfully impressive in two starts. Unfortunately, the receiver situation remains murky, as 14 different players caught passes for the Bolts in this one. None of these receivers snagged more than two.
Arizona's Josh McCown continues to improve, tossing 10 completions in 16 attempts. He combined with two other quarterbacks to complete passes to 16 different targets.
Denver Broncos 19, Seattle Seahawks 3
Quentin Griffin finally showed he was human, getting stuffed in the red zone on two carries. Mike Anderson had a big night, rolling for 120 yards on 21 attempts. Watch out for a potential touchdown vulture in Anderson if you've drafted Griffin.
For Seattle, Kerry Carter continues to get work as a backup to Shaun Alexander. Second-string QB Seneca Wallace has proven to be a serviceable backup to Matt Hasselbeck, displaying great elusiveness in the wake of an unending pass rush.
Note: This offseason, the Seahawks took steps to bolster the defense with the signing of Grant Wistrom. He's been shelved all preseason with a foot injury. Now, Seattle will start the regular season without Chad Brown, who must recover from a broken leg. He'll miss the first four-to-six weeks. So much for getting out of the bottom five defenses against the pass with a better rush up front.
Kansas City Chiefs 24, St. Louis Rams 7
Marc Bulger owners have to be concerned with the continued struggles of the Rams' first unit. He completed eight of 15 passes, but the timing was off on all patterns. The makeshift offensive line is giving Bulger happy feet. One positive note for the Rams is the continued success of rookie Steven Jackson. He put up 53 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.
Kansas City's Trent Green and company made short work of the Rams defense, which lost starting cornerback Travis Fisher to a broken arm in the process. Larry Johnson and Derrick Blaylock were both impressive in their bids to back up the incomparable Priest Holmes. The fantasy darling at wideout in 2002, Marc Boerigter is also trying to work his way back up the depth chart and fend-off competition from the speedy rookie Samie Parker. Boerigter hauled in four balls for 50 yards in Monday's victory.
Week 3 kicks off on Thursday with a battle for Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and culminates with a Monday-night showdown between Dallas and Tennessee. We'll be there for all the snaps, ups and downs and analysis of the tight position battles as we continue to close in on the regular season.