Drew Brees-Peyton Manning V, Sunday night in Denver ... certainly a place neither man ever thought they'd meet for maybe the last time of professional careers likely to end, for both, in Canton.
The personal series is tied at two. Manning beat Brees the Charger in 2004, and then Brees walked into the RCA Dome in his third-to-last game as a Charger, when the Colts were 13-0 in 2005 ... and beat the mistake-prone Manning 26-17. The Colts waxed the defenseless Saints 41-10 on opening day 2007. And, of course, their last meeting: the Super Bowl three seasons ago. Saints up by seven, fourth quarter, Colts driving inexorably to tie, Manning throws and Tracy Porter steps in front of Reggie Wayne for the pick heard round the world. Super Bowl MVP Brees was 32-of-39 that day.
(Porter, the hero of that Super Bowl, plays for the Broncos now, as Champ Bailey's partner at cornerback. He's been sidelined recently after suffering some seizures, so the Broncos aren't sure if he'll play Sunday night.)
Back to the headliners Sunday night, Manning and Brees are friends, and Brees has become a good friend of the third Manning brother, Cooper, in New Orleans. In fact, when the Saints had a bye on Wild Card weekend of the 2006 playoffs, Brees watched the Giants-Bucs playoff game at Cooper Manning's house in New Orleans.
That Brees and Peyton will meet for perhaps the last time is a matter of schedule (because AFC teams meet NFC teams once every four years) and age (Brees is 33 and Manning 36). So this is not only for playoff relevance -- the Saints are trying to battle back in the NFC playoff race at 2-4, winners of two in a row, and the Broncos, 3-3 and coming off their bye -- but it's for the personal championship in the best-of-five playoff series between two great Super Bowl winners.
What I love about this game is the fact that both quarterbacks are playing so well. Brees had 317 yards passing and three touchdowns last week at Tampa Bay -- by halftime. And Manning, trailing 24-0 at the half of the Week 6 Monday-nighter at San Diego, had a near-perfect second half as the Broncos came back to win, 35-24.
Check out how well Manning has played in the past month:
I talked to Manning this week for a midseason NFL story in next week's Sports Illustrated, and the comeback at San Diego was still fresh in his mind, the kind of memory he wants to hold on to after he retires. He told me the game reminded him of a 2003 game in Tampa, when the Colts trailed by 21 with 5:09 to play and came back to win 38-35 in one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history (obviously). "Both games,'' he told me, "I got messages from friends during the game -- a voice mail in '03, a text message this time -- with the same thing. You know, 'Bounce back next week, hang in there, you're fine,' you know, all the clichés you can think of. This friend of mine sent the text at halftime of the San Diego game. He went to bed thinking, well, this is a lost cause. And you know, you appreciate things like that with the support. But it's funny we won both of those games.
"And this reminded me of that last game because of the locker room and the plane ride. Same kind of joy each time. Our locker room in San Diego, it was so great because we're so tight as a team. After the Bucs game, our plane ride home, everyone had sort of a permanent smile on his face. Same thing here. On this plane ride, everyone's kidding [wide receiver Eric Decker] because of his trip [Decker tripped over nothing in the first half in the open field]. And everyone, including Decker, had that same permanent smile.
"On the plane flight home, [coach] John Fox came back to the back of the plane to enjoy it with us. You know, you've got a game coming up that you've got to prepare for, but one thing I like about John is he embraces the moment and we enjoy the moments like that. It's important to enjoy the moment.''
I asked Manning about his health. A reasonable person might think: You're on pace to throw for more yards than you ever have, so you must be pretty close to 100 percent, if you're not there.
"That's how it might look like to someone on the outside,'' he said. "Some things are harder than they used to be. The game is harder. The whole goal was try to get better every week, even if only a little bit better every week. And I knew all along the nerve would take a long time [to heal], and you couldn't rush it. It'll be a tad better in two weeks, then a tad better two weeks after that. On game day, I get a little juice and feel pretty good. All I'm saying is, I still have strength to recover and rehab to do. But like Bill Parcells said to me in the off-season, talking about a baseball pitcher, 'Can you still get 'em out?' ''
He still can, obviously. And he'll be facing a second Sunday night that should allow his renaissance to continue.
Well, who saw 37-16, Tampa, coming? Not me. But the one thing that is patently obvious about the way the Bucs play is the emphasis on the run. Greg Schiano is using Doug Martin the way he used Ray Rice at Rutgers. Using a 53 percent-47 percent run-pass ratio, the Bucs ran Martin 29 times and passed to him six times (completing three, including a 64-yard touchdown catch-and-run). Schiano is defying the rest of the league -- I have a feeling that's going to be a recurring theme -- by running so much with Martin, but why wouldn't he? If he's going to have a quarterback completing 50-something percent of his throws, which Josh Freeman has in each of his last three games, why not move the chains the way your grandfather did?
A coach, actually:Todd Bowles, defensive coordinator, Philadelphia. The Eagles canned Juan Castillo because the defense had become predictable, and because the pass-rush had gotten stale, and two excellent rushers, Jason Babin and Trent Cole, weren't getting home enough. Bowles said all the right things this week about how he didn't feel pressure as a first-time coordinator, and it's all about getting the job done as a unit. And he's right, of course. But if the Eagles don't pressure Matt Ryan more than they've pressured their past six quarterback foes, all eyes will focus on Bowles for not figuring a way to knock the passer around.
1. The hook for Mike Vick. With 13 turnovers in six games, Vick may not be looking over his shoulder at Nick Foles, but he won't have to. A couple more turnovers in a game against Atlanta and the fans will remind him of it -- and Andy Reid will have to strongly consider playing the rookie with his season, and maybe his Eagles career, on the line.
2. Jordy Nelson. Randall Cobb. Ted Thompson. Nelson could miss Sunday's walkover against the Jags, which would mean Nelson and Greg Jennings (groin), Aaron Rodgers' two faves, would both be out. Thanks heavens Cobb got plucked in the second round last year by Thompson, because he looks like a long-term star, and certainly the short-term savior for a battered receiving corps.
3. Cam Newton trying to save Carolina's season in a very bad place. Panthers at Soldier Field. Voracious Chicago defense. Newton with battered confidence. Franchise on alert. Angry owner just fired the longtime general manager. This is where franchise quarterbacks step up and win games they have no right to win.
4. The Bounty story. America says: Wake me when it's over.
5. RGIII vs. Big Ben. Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning so far, and now Ben Roethlisberger. Robert Griffin III has played some giants of the game so far and been ahead of each in the second half. Now the aging Steelers defense, which hasn't allowed a 270-yard passing day to a quarterback this year, will see what tricks they can use on the calculating Griffin.
6. The London Experiment continues. But it's not one game a year that will tell the tale, particularly one game (St. Louis-New England Sunday, 6 p.m. London time, 1 p.m. Eastern) with Tom Brady and the great Bill Belichick there for the British press to pump up. The NFL's test in Europe will come when multiple games are played with some mediocre teams. The Jags next year, for instance.
7. Colts going for four. Peyton Manning won three as a rookie phenom in 1998. Andrew Luck matched that by Week 7 of 2012. The Titans stand in the way (and should be able to run freely Sunday) of allowing Luck to pass Manning.
8. Kansas City plays for Pioli, whether the players like it or not. The Chiefs were the trendy pick of a few idiots (like me) to win the AFC West. And here we are on Oct. 26, and they haven't held a lead in regulation yet this year. (Their lone victory came in overtime.) Owner Clark Hunt has to decide whether to allow GM Scott Pioli (22-33 in his fourth season as GM) to continue in the job after the season, and it might be a tougher decision than you think -- because whoever is the GM is likely to pick the Chiefs' next quarterback. And if Pioli decides to make a coaching change ... well, anyway, you can see why it'll be a tough call for Hunt, who would want to be loyal to Pioli, but may figure it's time to start everything new.
9. Eli's coming, hide your heart, Dallas. Eli Manning's 3-0 at Jerryworld (aka Dallas Cowboys Stadium, aka Somebody Please Pay Jerry Jones $25 Million A Year To Put Their Name on That Huge Spaceship), and he's put up 37 points a game in those outings. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, this is one of those games you were brought to Dallas to win.
10. Red Zone fans in mourning during the late games. Again. Last week there were two late games. This week there two late games. One has stunk each week (Jags-Raiders last week, Chiefs-Raiders this week). So if you're sitting home hoping to have a magic-carpet ride from 4:15-7:30 ET, the league sked's letting you down.