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Luck, Tannehill headline battle of surprise playoff contenders

Two games match teams with winning records on the NFL's 14-game schedule this weekend. The marquee one is Steelers-Giants, a special game because it happens once every four years, and because of the first-round-quarterback matchup of Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning from the 2004 draft.

The other one? Miami (4-3) at Indianapolis (4-3).

"Interesting,'' Indy GM Ryan Grigson said this week. "All of a sudden this game means something."

"Nobody expected this,'' said Miami tight end Anthony Fasano.

Thirteen of the NFL's 32 teams are over .500 entering Sunday, and you're a better fan than I if you thought at the beginning of the season that Dolphins-Colts in Week 9 would have playoff implications. But this game certainly does. In fact, if the playoffs started today, Miami would be the fifth seed in the AFC and Indy No. 6 -- and the intriguing playoff matchups would feature Andrew Luck in Foxboro against Tom Brady, and Ryan Tannehill in Denver against Peyton Manning. Talk about the future meeting the present.

As impressive as both quarterbacks hitting the ground running as rookies is how each team has overcome serious obstacles to get to midseason contention. The Colts have been without their rookie head coach, Chuck Pagano, fighting leukemia for the past month. Somehow, Indianapolis is 3-1 playing for Pagano, including the inspirational first win over Green Bay and the overtime stunner over Tennessee last week. Miami's rookie coach, Joe Philbin, looked like the captain of a listing ship in the Hard Knocks series on HBO over the summer. My impression after watching that team on TV? See you in 2014. I thought they might be able to contend then. Might.

"We really didn't buy into the stigma of us as a bad team,'' Fasano said Thursday from South Florida. "We didn't care what other people thought of us. We knew we were building something pretty good. Ryan has been the key. Because he was familiar with the scheme from college [his coach at Texas A&M, Mike Sherman, is his Miami coordinator], he's been able to have less of a major adjustment to the pro game.''

I asked Fasano what he and the other veterans thought of Philbin, particularly watching him handle his first training camp with all the cameras around -- and then cutting Chad Johnson on the HBO Series. "I thought coach Philbin handled that about as well as a coach could,'' said Fasano. "He made a decision based on the parameters they'd apparently set up for Chad, and he stuck to his word. I think the players liked how he handled it.''

Grigson said he is most impressed with Miami's offensive line. "You don't hear a lot about that, but they've got a darned good offensive line,'' he said. "That Richie Incognito is a killer. A mauler. He's playing great. They all are. They're giving the quarterback time to make plays.''

Luck hasn't had the consistent time Tannehill has. Luck will be a far better passer than his current 55.6 completion percentage indicates, and he'll have a better touchdown-to-interception differential than his current 8-to-8. But it's a learning game. And playing a game with playoff implications in midseason is a tribute to both young quarterbacks. Sunday will be fun at Lucas Oil.

Encouraging game for the terminally up-and-down Chargers, the 31-13 win over the already-playing-out-the-string Chiefs. Encouraging, but hardly convincing. San Diego is 4-4 overall, and 2-4 since Week 2, with both wins over Kansas City.

Last night, I heard Herman Edwards say on ESPN that the Chargers are ready "to get on a roll,'' I believe is how he phrased it. Edwards may be right, if Philip Rivers continues to be as efficient as he was (18 of 20) Thursday, and if the pass rush can chase the quarterback the way it did Matt Cassel. But haven't we heard that 67 times before over the last six or eight years? The Chargers ready "to get on a roll?'' The same team that, before Thursday night, was outscored in the previous three halfs 42-6?

The AFC is eminently playoff-makeable this year, obviously, but I'll need to see more proof than a landslide fourth quarter against a 1-7 white-flag-waver before I even begin to believe in the Chargers. Next five games: at Tampa, at Denver, Baltimore, Cincinnati, at Pittsburgh.

Ryan Broyles, wide receiver, Detroit (No. 84). With Nate Burleson gone for the season, Matthew Stafford's learning curve with Broyles, the second-round rookie from Oklahoma, will have to accelerate. You can see Stafford getting more comfortable with Broyles. Last two weeks: Broyles, six catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns; Calvin Johnson, six for 80 and no touchdowns. Expect Stafford to use this game -- which should be a relative gimme at Jacksonville -- to continue the education of the rookie, particularly with a beat-up secondary waiting in north Florida.

1. How the NFL plans to help the hurricane victims. At the 13 Sunday and Monday games, before the National Anthem, there will be a moment of recognition -- not silence -- for first-responders and victims of Hurricane Sandy. All network telecasts this weekend will appeal for donations to hurricane relief through the American Red Cross, and run the information on a crawl at the bottom of the screen.

2. Tannehill-Luck. No. 8, Ryan Tannehill of the Fins, versus No. 1, Andrew Luck of the Colts, in a game with playoff implications sooner than anyone thought either would be playing. Asterisk: Tannehill's knee and quad may keep him out, but it looks like he'll play, even if gimpy.

3. Not-so-super Mario returneth. I'd be surprised if in Mario Williams' first game as a Houston opponent at Reliant Stadium -- the Bills are heavy 'dogs against the Texans -- generates much scorn. Indifference, yes. Anger, no. The Texans are better off without him. Houston's third in the NFL in team defense. In the last season Williams played the majority of games for Houston, 2010, the Texans were 30th in team defense.

4. All Day versus Wilson's magic. Adrian Peterson's on fire for Minnesota, rushing for 7.4 yards a lug in the last two weeks -- and still just 11 months removed from knee reconstruction. Minnesota hasn't faced Chicago or Green Bay yet, so winning games like this is a must if they're going to have legit playoff hopes. As for Russell Wilson: He's 3-0 at home, with six touchdowns and no picks. Fun game.

5. Ben-Eli III. If you don't know the story by now, it goes like this: The Giants were at the six-minute mark of their first-round choice in 2004, the fourth overall pick, and still hadn't done a deal with San Diego to acquire Eli Manning, who the Chargers picked No. 1. Midway through the 15-minute period, Chargers GM A.J. Smith called Giants GM Ernie Accorsi and said, "I thought you were going to call me."

Not Accorsi. He thought it would have shown weakness and maybe would have allowed the Chargers to hold the line on their demand for second-year pass rusher Osi Umenyiora. If Accorsi and Smith wouldn't have been able to agree to terms, the Giants would have traded down with Cleveland at No. 7, gotten Cleveland's second-round pick in return, and picked Ben Roethlisberger. Some story. They've split their two previous meetings, Ben winning in 2004, Eli in 2008.

6. Schedule Oddity of the Year. Bengals welcome Peyton Manning to town. Next Sunday, Bengals welcome Eli Manning to town. How odd that happens in two straight weeks -- one AFC team out of the division, and then one NFC team you host once every eight years?

7. Chris Johnson meets his match. The Titans running back is on fire, with 385 rushing yards in the last four games, but the Bears have the league's best run defense. Loosen up the arm, Matt Hasselbeck.

8. Can Baltimore play D? The NFL's 28th-rated defense -- Baltimore's allowing exactly 400 yards per game, including a shocking 143 per week on the ground -- should have a chance to get well Sunday. Cleveland's scored 20 points in the last two games.

9. Tony Gonzalez goes for 100. Ninety-nine touchdown catches for Gonzalez. Dallas has allowed seven, in seven games.

10. Which quarterback continues this run of greatness? On Monday, Alex Smith completed 18 of 19. On Thursday, Philip Rivers completed 18 of 20. Who's the bum who'll go 18 for 21 and feel totally inadequate? My money's on Peyton Manning.

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