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If not his bravado, Jets replace Johnson's game


Are the New York Jets better off without wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson?

That's the soap-opera story line in today's showdown of unbeatens, the Jets at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which has been touted as "The Final Say by the Bay."

For Johnson, it's his long-awaited opportunity to stick it to the team that traded him to the Buccaneers in April for two first-round draft choices. For the Jets, it's their only chance to silence Johnson.

"I think you can always replace a guy statistically, but you can't replace that magic that he brings," Johnson said. "I think I bring a lot of magic."

The Jets have replaced Johnson with Dedric Ward, who is averaging 21.8 yards (10 catches for 218 yards) to Johnson's 12.9-yard average (14 for 180). Without Johnson, the Jets now go to Wayne Chrebet, whose 13 receptions for 154 yards nearly equals Johnson's numbers this season.

But Johnson took a jab at Chrebet trying to fill his role in New York.

"You're trying to compare a flashlight to a star," said Johnson, who referred to Chrebet as the "team mascot" in his book four years ago. "Flashlights only last so long; a star is in the sky forever. He's not even close to me, and anyone who knows football knows that."

Johnson has the unique physical tools of great size and reach. Although he didn't have tremendous speed, he creates big plays by leaping over defensive backs and using his size to break free on slants.

Nonetheless, the Johnson-less Jets are the only team in the AFC to have four receivers ranked in the top 20 in receptions and have three players in the top 20 in yards gained.

Miami's defense the best

While the defenses in Tampa Bay and Jacksonville may be among the NFL's most feared, the Sunshine State's other defense is the hottest.

Miami has given up 19 points through three games, the fewest by any NFL team since 1980. The Dolphins are one of only four teams in the past 50 years to give up one or less touchdowns in that span, joining the '62 Packers, the '80 Eagles and the '90 Los Angeles Raiders. All advanced to at least the conference championship game.

Their next two opponents are the offensively challenged New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals.

Titans lacking a receiver

The biggest decision for Tennessee is not whether Steve McNair or Neil O'Donnell will start at quarterback. It's who is going to be the target?

The Titans' leading receiver, Kevin Dyson, tore ligaments in his left knee during practice last week and is out for the season. Another receiver, Yancey Thigpen, is still working to recover from "tightness" in his hamstring.

That might lead to Chris Sanders starting alongside Carl Pickens today in Pittsburgh.

The Titans, though, won't be the only team trying to shore up their receiving corps. Dyson joined such high-profile receivers as Arizona's Rob Moore, Washington's Michael Westbrook, Chicago's Bobby Engram, Carolina's Patrick Jeffers, Dallas' Joey Galloway and Cincinnati's Darnay Scott as players who have been lost for the year with injuries by the fourth week of the regular season.

Giants spend less, well

Not only could the New York Giants gain a three-game edge over the Washington Redskins with a victory tonight, they also can lay the groundwork that money can't buy a division title. With the fifth-lowest payroll, the Giants spent $32 million less on their opening-day roster than the Redskins.

The Giants haven't shied away from the game's importance, either.

"You're always walking that fine line, because it is a huge game, I mean, it's a big game for us, a really big game," Giants coach Jim Fassel said. "This is not another run-of-the-mill game. I'll put that kind of pressure on it. It is a huge game, the biggest game we'll play in the first half of the season."

Jaguars miss Taylor

Jacksonville's running game has taken a nosedive from No. 2 last season to 27th this year. The return of star back Fred Taylor from a knee injury will help, but he can't open up holes for himself.

Right tackle Leon Searcy is out until at least November, and center John Wade just returned last week. All-Pro left tackle Tony Boselli is coming off knee surgery and is still not at full strength.

"I don't think you can just say that's the cure for everything," Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin said of Taylor's return. "We still have to block people. We still have to be efficient in assignments. The offensive performance last week wasn't good enough, and it has to improve."

Not a good reputation

It's hard to argue that Pittsburgh tackle Marvel Smith hasn't been consistent. His first two assignments, the Ravens' Rob Burnett and Cleveland's Courtney Brown, have both won the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award for games they lined up against Smith.

If that doesn't rattle Smith enough, he has to block the Titans' Jevon Kearse today.

Rams lacking defense

Now, St. Louis understands how the rest of the league feels. As the Rams seem unstoppable at putting points on the scoreboard, they can't stop opposing teams from doing the same.

The Rams are next-to-last in the NFL in total defense (387.7 yards a game) and pass defense (267), and tied with Dallas for second worst in points allowed (31.3). St. Louis hasn't faced the most prolific offenses either, failing to shut down Denver (36 points), Seattle (34) and San Francisco (24).

Quote of the week

"I don't want to wake up yet. If it's unreal and I'm dreaming, let me stay in this dream. It's a nice dream." - Broncos running back Mike Anderson, a 27-year-old ex-marine and the NFL's oldest rookie this season who is leading the AFC in rushing with 318 yards.

Full blitz

Jets (3-0) at Buccaneers (3-0): Keyshawn doesn't have to produce the game-winner, but he'd better have more catches than his number of news conferences this week (three).

49ers (0-3) at Cowboys (1-2): San Francisco has allowed at least 34 points in four consecutive games. So, rest another week, Troy.

Patriots (0-3) at Dolphins (2-1): New England's porous offensive line vs. Miami's relentless front seven. E-mail to Drew Bledsoe: Stock up on insurance.

Eagles (1-2) at Saints (1-2): Philadelphia is 2-23-1 in its past 26 road games. But with nearly 8,000 tickets unsold as of Wednesday, can the Saints really consider this a home game?

Titans (1-1) at Steelers (0-2): Tennessee has won 15 of its past 16 AFC Central games, and Pittsburgh has lost its past eight against division teams. It appears that the clock will be the least of Steelers coach Bill Cowher's worries this week.

End zone

Rams quarterback Kurt Warner is 197 yards shy of breaking Bledsoe's 1994 record of 1,417 yards passing in the first four games of the season. ... The Broncos' Anderson is looking to become the first rookie running back to begin a career with three straight 100-yard games. ... Kansas City's Elvis Grbac leads all quarterbacks with eight touchdown passes. ... The average quarterback rating is 80.3, the highest after three weeks since 1984 (85.1). ... Miami's Thurman Thomas needs 28 yards rushing to become the ninth player in NFL history to reach 12,000 yards. ... Of the 28 teams that have started 3-0 over the previous five seasons, 22 have made the playoffs, including the past five Super Bowl champions.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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