Broncos-Colts, Patriots-Jets among Week 7 must attend games
For only the second time since the NFL adapted a divisional alignment in 1933 and the first time since 1934, two teams from the same division are 6-0. Given their respective schedules, there's a good chance both the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs still will be unbeaten when they meet head-on in Denver in Week 11 (they'll play again two weeks after that in Kansas City).
But wait, we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before we delve into a game that is a month off, let's look at the must-see matchups for Week 7.
Denver Broncos (6-0) at Indianapolis Colts (4-2)
By now, you've heard the hype from almost every football talking head about the fervor surrounding the return of Peyton Manning to Indianapolis, where he played 13 seasons, won four MVP titles and led the Colts to a victory in Super Bowl XLI. Colts owner Jim Irsay has promised there will be a stirring tribute to Manning inside Lucas Oil Stadium before kickoff. Seemingly talking out of the other side of his mouth, Irsay also implied that one of the reasons the Colts cut ties with Manning after the 2011 season was that, despite all of his gaudy passing stats, he and his teammates couldn't put a second Super Bowl ring on Irsay's hand.
The Broncos are more likely to win the Lombardi Trophy this year with the 37-year-old Manning than the Colts are with 24-year-old Andrew Luck. That's not to demean Luck, the second-year wunderkind QB from Stanford who certainly has made Manning's absence in Indy more palatable and could become a Super Bowl winner one day. But look at the facts, Jack.
Manning has thrown 22 touchdown passes, the most by an NFL quarterback in his first six games, and ranks first in just about every quarterback category. The Broncos are a scoring machine -- their 265 points are the most by a team in its first six games -- and have won 17 regular-season games in a row since dropping a 31-21 decision to New England on Oct. 7, 2012.
Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback, returned to the field for Denver last week after missing the first five games while recovering from a sprained foot. Now the Broncos get back linebacker Von Miller, their best defensive player (18.5 sacks last year), who was suspended for the first six games after violating the league's drug policy.
Although they still lead the AFC South, the Colts are coming off a stinking 19-9 loss in San Diego on Monday night. Indianapolis will have to step up its run defense to have any chance of beating the Broncos. The Chargers gouged the Colts for 147 yards on the ground, including 102 from Ryan Mathews.
It also will help if the Colts can pressure Manning, who has been sacked five times and thrown only two interceptions. Indianapolis defensive end Robert Mathis, tied for the league lead in sacks (9.5), is one player who will be champing at the bit to get to Manning. When Manning was in Indianapolis, he was persona non hitta in practice, which meant a hands-off policy for the team's defense, which Mathis has been a part of for his entire career. Sacking Manning has to be near the top of Mathis' bucket list.
New England Patriots (5-1) at New York Jets (3-3)
For the second week in a row, Tom Brady has a chance to break the heart of a Ryan brother. Last week, Brady led the Patriots on a 70-yard drive late in the game, culminated by his 17-yard scoring pass to first-year, free-agent wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins. The touchdown allowed for a come-from-behind victory over New Orleans and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. On Sunday, the New England quarterback will try to knock off the Jets and coach Rex Ryan for the second time this season and the sixth consecutive time overall.
The Patriots will be missing another key cog in their defense, however. Linebacker Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral muscle), the team's leading tackler and one of the few defenders who played on every down, joins nose tackle Vince Wilfork on the season-ending injured reserve list. At least one name is finally off the injury list now that tight end Rob Gronkowski has finally been medically cleared to play.
This looks like a must-win game for the Jets, who lost at New England 13-10 in Week 2, if they want to have a chance to win the AFC East. Rex Ryan hasn't bested Belichick since a 2010 divisional playoff victory. It will be critical for rookie quarterback Geno Smith, who was intercepted by New England three times in the fourth quarter back in Week 2, to play a clean game. After his first turnover-free game in Week 5, he was intercepted twice last week in a 19-6 loss to Pittsburgh and now has been picked off 10 times for the season.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) at Detroit Lions (4-2)
The Bengals, who hold a one-game lead in the AFC North, begin a stretch of three road games in four weeks. They are coming off a 27-24 overtime victory over Buffalo in which they rang up 483 offensive yards, tied for the most in Jay Gruden's three years as coordinator. Detroit must keep quarterback Matthew Stafford out of the clutches of Cincinnati's Geno Atkins, who since the start of the 2011 season has more sacks (24) than any other defensive tackle.
Detroit has uncovered a new receiving weapon in undrafted rookie tight end Joseph Fauria. The nephew of former NFL tight end Christian Fauria, Joseph has to be the most efficient receiver in the league at this moment. Targeted nine times, he has seven catches for five touchdowns, including three in last week's win over Cleveland. The Lions will need Fauria to continue coming up big as long as wide receiver Calvin Johnson is hampered by a sore knee that limited him to 51 percent of the offensive snaps last week.
Dallas Cowboys (3-3) at Philadelphia Eagles (3-3)
Somebody has to take control of the mess that is the NFC East, where no team has a winning record. The winner of this game will have a leg up in the challenge by taking first place to itself. The Cowboys' defense faces a huge challenge in trying to stop the prolific offense of first-year Eagles coach Chip Kelly -- particularly since it will be without defensive end DeMarcus Ware (strained quadriceps), who will miss the first game of his career since coming into the league as a first-round draft pick in 2005. Dallas likely will also be without DeMarco Murray, its leading rusher, who has a sprained MCL.
Nick Foles is expected to start at quarterback for the second straight week for Philadelphia in place of Michael Vick (hamstring). With 1,628 passing yards and 1,071 rushing yards, the Eagles are the first team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to eclipse 1,600 yards in the air and 1,050 yards on the ground in the first six games. After proving they wouldn't compete in the AFC West -- they lost successive games to San Diego, Kansas City and Denver -- the Eagles are looking for their third win in a row.