Peyton Manning (left) and Andrew Luck face off for the first time Sunday. (Tony Gutierrez/AP; Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Chris Burke and Doug Farrar get you ready for the weekend with The Playbook, a detailed weekly preview that gives you everything you need to know about the upcoming slate of games.
Denver (6-0) at Indianapolis (4-2) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: It's a game TV networks dream about. NBC won the battle for the Peyton Manning-Andrew Luck showdown, slotting this one for Sunday night.
Manning's highly anticipated return to Indianapolis already had folks abuzz without Colts owner Jim Irsay adding fuel to the fire. He did so anyway, with a comment that we may or may not have taken the wrong way.
"We’ve changed our model a little bit," Irsay said of his franchise's post-Manning approach, before pointing to his Super Bowl ring, "because we wanted more than one of these."
Manning has refused to address that comment -- or the response from his current coach, John Fox. It no doubt will be in the back of his mind as he takes aim against his former team for the first time.
The Broncos may have been caught looking ahead to Sunday's showdown last week, a sleepy 35-19 win over Jacksonville. The Colts definitely appeared to be readying for Week 7, an approach that cost them in a disappointing Week 6 setback at San Diego. Rather remarkably, though, the 4-2 Colts still have a one-game cushion in the AFC South, while the 6-0 Broncos are mired in a first-place tie with the Chiefs.
Denver will be celebrating the return of Von Miller from a six-game suspension. He may be just what an ailing defense needs (Denver allowed 48 points to Dallas in its last road game). The Broncos do have the league's stingiest run defense ... but it may be because they currently boast an NFL-worst pass D. Luck will test the latter all over the field, while Trent Richardson will try to grind out what he can against the former.
As for Manning, he continues to be on record-setting pace this season, even with an interception in each of the past two weeks. Indianapolis could not get Philip Rivers and the Chargers' offense off the field last week, so there is definite cause for concern with the Broncos' incredible cache of talent rolling through town Sunday night. -- CB
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Dallas (3-3) at Philadelphia (3-3) -- 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX: If there's one guy who has to be nervous about this game, it's Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. The venerated veteran coach had problems with wide-open offenses when he was USC's defensive coordinator from 2010 through '12, and the offenses put together by Oregon's Chip Kelly really gave him fits. Kelly's Ducks totaled 62 points and 730 total yards against Kiffin's defense in their meeting in 2012, and that wasn't much worse than the average over those three seasons -- 50 points and 601 yards per game in three meetings.
"They're just good," Kiffin said of Kelly and the staff he's now put together in Philadelphia. "Chip Kelly is the best. Some coaches talk a lot, but they don't put it on tape. Coach Kelly puts it on tape. They know what they're doing."
However, Kelly said this week Kiffin isn't running the same schemes in Dallas that he remembers from the Pac-12.
"He does a really good job of mixing things up. They play a good amount of man, man‑free and they mix in some Cover-2 in there and play a lot of three-deep, four-under. So he gives you a lot of problems in terms of how he presents it."
Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis has his own issues to deal with. While Philadelphia leads the league in rushing and is coming around in the passing game, no team has given up more passing yards than the Eagles' 2,521, and only the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars have allowed more points than Philly's 179.
So, it's fair enough to expect a barnburner at Lincoln Financial Field. As such, the game may swing on which quarterback is able to drop the final hammer in a furious scoring contest. Tony Romo is coming off a wild two-game swing in which he set a franchise record with 506 yards and five touchdowns against the Denver Broncos one week before managing just 170 yards and one score the next against Washington's generally porous defense. With Michael Vick's hamstring still an issue, Dallas' defense will see Nick Foles, who had perhaps the best game of his young career last Sunday against Tampa Bay -- 22-of-31 passes for 296 yards, three touchdowns, no picks and a rushing touchdown against a Buccaneers defense that has been surprisingly good at times. -- DF
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Cincinnati (4-2) at Detroit (4-2) -- 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS: There are a ton of similarities in the roster of these two teams, both of whom are trying to find a way to get over the top within their own divisions, as well as in the NFL landscape as a whole.
The Bengals defense is built around its front, starting with Geno Atkins (one of five former Georgia Bulldogs set to start in this game, by the way, along with Matthew Stafford, Kris Durham, A.J. Green and Clint Boling). Offensively, they have a dominant star at wide receiver in Green, flanked by an improving run game and an off-and-on quarterback.
That's pretty much the exact recipe at play in Detroit, too. The Lions D-line garners much of the Motor City's attention -- Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have developed into a top-flight duo, while rookie DE Ziggy Ansah has shown flashes of brilliance. And on offense, of course, the world revolves around Calvin Johnson, who has been battling a lingering knee injury.
But the real successes for these 4-2 teams have come courtesy of the complementary pieces. The Bengals actually boast one of the most under-the-radar secondaries in the league, plus have seen the RB duo of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Gio Bernard take huge strides in recent weeks. Detroit, meanwhile, offers up Reggie Bush at RB and turned to Durham and undrafted rookie Joseph Fauria last week in Cleveland.
If there's an X-Factor in this one, it may be a Lions' linebacking corps that has far exceeded expectations in 2013. DeAndre Levy, a player the Lions essentially opted to re-sign over Justin Durant, is off to a Pro Bowl-worthy start -- Pro Football Focus has him rated as the top 4-3 linebacker in football right now, way up from his No. 41 ranking in 2012. Levy, Stephen Tulloch and Ashlee Palmer will be responsible for trying to keep in check the Green-Ellis/Bernard duo and the Bengals' 1-2 TE punch of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. -- CB
BANKS: Detroit ekes out a win to start a run for an NFC North title; more picks
Baltimore (3-3) at Pittsburgh (1-4) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: For all the talk about Matt Schaub's disastrous season, Joe Flacco hasn't been much better -- a 57.9 completion percentage to Schaub's 64.4, 1,702 yards to Schaub's 1,552, seven touchdowns to Schaub's eight, and eight interceptions to Schaub's nine. Yes, Schaub has Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, but Baltimore's Torrey Smith has been the league's best deep receiver all season. Flacco's 342 passing yards and two touchdowns weren't enough to take down the Green Bay Packers at M&T Bank Stadium last Sunday, but such a game could very well be the ticket to win against a reeling Steelers team whose offense has been on hold all season. It would help if the Ravens could figure out a way to get running back Ray Rice on track -- the former fulcrum of Baltimore's offense ran for a season-high 74 yards against the Miami Dolphins two weeks ago but managed just 34 yards on 14 carries against the Pack.
"He was banged up for a couple weeks, and this is really his first couple weeks back," Flacco said this week of Rice, who has struggled with a hip flexor injury this season. "So, anytime you get a little banged up and aren’t 100 percent, you have to take a little bit of time before you can really expect to be back there and have full explosion.”
The Steelers will take any break they can get. They come into this game at 1-4, marking the first time in over a decade that neither team has a winning record when facing off in this usually great rivalry. The Steelers are also struggling to make anything happen on the ground, and the team's usually spotty offensive line play has been even more questionable than usual this season. Left tackle Levi Brown, recently acquired in a trade with the Arizona Cardinals, is already on injured reserve. That puts tackles Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum on the hot seat -- not a good thing for Ben Roethlisberger.
"I don’t think records are as important in this game, from an intensity standpoint," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said this week. "If nothing else, I think it heightens it. There’s a certain sense of urgency based on the position that the team is in.”
The Steelers are in a position to either rise out of their worst start in 45 years, or watch their season tank far sooner than expected. -- DF
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Buffalo (2-4) at Miami (3-2) -- 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS: Miami's revitalization hit a snag with back-to-back losses to New Orleans and Baltimore before a Week 6 bye. With the trade deadline approaching, Miami's reportedly looking around for help on its offensive line and possibly at running back, too. Buffalo could use a boost of its own at the quarterback spot. Thaddeus Lewis seems on track to start for a second straight week; if not, it'll be time for a Flynntervention ... as in, Matt Flynn's Buffalo debut. -- CB
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New England (5-1) at NY Jets (3-3) -- 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS: Next man down? For the Patriots, the latest injury was linebacker Jerod Mayo, the longtime play-calling captain of a defense that has kept New England afloat when the offense can't. Aqib Talib, who had put every opposing receiver on lockdown, is dealing with a hip injury. If there's one time for the Jets to flash their great defensive line and get Geno Smith on a consistent path, it would be now. -- DF
BURKE: Rob Gronkowski 'cleared by all his doctors,' according to agent Drew Rosenhaus
Chicago (4-2) at Washington (1-4) -- 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX: The spotlight always falls on Robert Griffin III when Washington plays (and he may be able to find some success against a worse-than-people-realize Chicago defense). But the key matchup here is Washington's D against Chicago's high-powered attack. The Redskins have yet to show they can stop teams consistently. How will they deal with Brandon Marshall, a rising Alshon Jeffery and the rest of the Bears' offense? -- CB
St. Louis (3-3) at Carolina (2-3) -- 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX: Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is taking heat for his gameplans, but something's working -- St. Louis ranks third in the NFL with a 66.7 percent touchdown rate (12-for-18) in the red zone. Cam Newton will have to exploit the Rams' surprisingly weak overall defense with increasing consistency to pull this one out. -- DF
BURKE: Rams climb seven spots in this week's Power Rankings
San Francisco (4-2) at Tennessee (3-3) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: This marks the end of a brutal three-game stretch for the Titans, which featured games with the Chiefs, Seahawks and now 49ers. To date, Tennessee is 0-2 in this stretch. The 49ers have regained a lot of their 2012 swagger lately, topping 30 points and winning by double digits in each of their past three outings. Both teams boast top-10 defenses, and Tennessee will need a stout effort on that side of the ball to give Ryan Fitzpatrick's offense a chance. -- CB
Cleveland (3-3) at Green Bay (3-2) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: The Packers lost receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb and pass rusher Nick Perry during last Sunday's win over the Ravens. Dom Capers' remaining defenders should suffice against a struggling Brandon Weeden, and Aaron Rodgers still has Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley and a rejuvenated run game against a Cleveland defense that has struggled to stay in its gaps. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton has had this issue before -- the multiplicity he draws up occasionally leaves his own defenders out of position. -- DF
Houston (2-4) at Kansas City (6-0) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: For a team like the Texans that cannot stop throwing interceptions, the Chiefs loom as a horrible matchup. Kansas City's defense leads the NFL in takeaways with 18 and has scored in four of six games so far. Houston has decided to throw second-year QB Case Keenum to the wolves; he'll make his first career NFL start for the desperate Texans with Matt Schaub banged up. -- CB
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Only For The Faithful
Tampa Bay (0-5) at Atlanta (1-4) -- 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX: The two most woebegone teams in the NFC South face off. The Falcons are struggling with injuries, clock management and roster attrition on defense. The Bucs are struggling with ... well, everything. The bright side for Tampa Bay fans is that Greg Schiano is setting his replacement up for a very high draft pick. -- DF
San Diego (3-3) at Jacksonville (0-6) -- 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS: Is this the week Jacksonville finally breaks into the win column? That all depends on which Chargers team shows up. San Diego has alternated losses and wins (with a victory last week) since opening the year with a setback against the Texans.-- CB
Minnesota (1-4) at NY Giants (0-6) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Josh Freeman era begins for the Vikings against a New York Giants defense that has allowed 14 passing touchdowns -- tied with Dallas and Jacksonville for the NFL "lead." Minnesota's secondary has allowed big plays, but they've also been opportunistic with turnovers, and nobody's been in a more giving mood than Eli Manning this season. -- DF
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(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus).
• Here's one way to go 0-6 even with a lot of talent on your football team: The New York Giants have ended 28.6 percent of their drives this season with an offensive turnover. Last season, that number for the G-Men was just 11.8 percent. The Arizona Cardinals rank second-worst at 19.7 percent. The Tennessee Titans are the most efficient team in this regard with just 5.8 percent of their drives ending in the worst possible way.
• With Randall Cobb out of their offense for 6-8 weeks, the Packers may struggle to find slot performance. Cobb had 34 of the team's 40 slot targets, 26 of its 31 catches, 369 of its 445 yards and the only two touchdowns.
• It might be time for opposing offensive lines to keep a sharper eye on Michael Brockers, the Rams' dynamic second-year defensive tackle. In his last three games, Brockers has four sacks, two quarterback hits and 13 total stops.
• The Kansas City Chiefs can't seem to stop creating stars in Bob Sutton's impressive defense. Last week, it was reserve cornerback Marcus Cooper, who played in Brandon Flowers' stead in all 80 defensive snaps. He's picked off passes in each of the last two weeks, and the seventh-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers -- picked up on waivers on Sept. 2 -- has limited opposing quarterbacks to a 28.1 rating on 140 snaps and eight targets. Not bad for a rookie...
• It appears that the 49ers offense is getting a bit more explosive. Vernon Davis now leads the league in deep targets (passes of 20 yards or more) among tight ends, tallying six catches on 10 targets for 245 yards and four touchdowns. Frank Gore also leads the NFL with 11 runs of 15 yards or more on just 103 attempts.
• Rookie yips for some offensive linemen who should be pretty special when they figure it out: Titans guard Chance Warmack has allowed four sacks and 16 total pressures on 222 pass-blocking snaps, and Chiefs tackle Eric Fisher has allowed three sacks and 17 total pressures on 194 snaps. -- DF
BURKE: Looking at the best and worst NFL red-zone offenses
• Matchup to Watch: LeSean McCoy vs. Dallas' depleted D-line.
The Cowboys won in Week 6 with an all-hands-on-deck approach to defense, especially once DeMarcus Ware exited with an injury. They'll need that and then some in Philadelphia this Sunday. The Eagles have found ways to move the football on most of their opponents, doing yeoman's work on the ground. LeSean McCoy's 630 yards has him leading the league in rushing by nearly 100 yards over the next closest competitor.
Another start at QB from Nick Foles, rather than a hobbled Michael Vick, will give the Cowboys a tiny bit more leeway with how they attack McCoy. Foles, though, ripped the Tampa Bay pass defense last week, and Dallas has really struggled to stop teams through the air.
Keeping McCoy somewhat in check would give the Cowboys more of a chance to get after Foles on passing downs. Easier said than done.
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• This Week's Sleeper: Jarrett Boykin, WR, Packers.
Even if James Jones can gut it out with a knee injury Sunday, Boykin is likely to see the field frequently. And if he is going to be out there, Aaron Rodgers will need him to get open at least a couple times so that all the passing-game pressure does not fall on Jordy Nelson.
Boykin did make one catch last week in Baltimore, a 43-yarder that led to a field goal. But that's his lone catch in 2013 after a five-reception 2012. The chances have not been there yet in Boykin's career. Sunday could bring a different plot.
• Pressure's On ...: Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce.
Are the Ravens ever going to get their run game figured out? They rushed for all of 47 yards in a loss to Green Bay last week, marking the fifth time in five games that they've failed to reach the century mark on the ground. Neither Rice nor Pierce has found any traction -- they're sporting matching (and miserable) 2.8 yards-per-carry averages. Another putrid performance in Pittsburgh would put Baltimore in danger of falling to 3-4 and letting the once-buried Steelers back into the division race.
• Rookie Spotlight: Eric Fisher, OT, Chiefs.
To put it mildly, Fisher has been a massive disappointment thus far. The 2013 No. 1 overall pick has allowed 12 QB hurries and three sacks (both team-highs) while often looking overmatched on the right side of Kansas City's line. He'll be tested Sunday by the aggressive Houston defense, and the Chiefs would love to see him begin to raise his game. -- CB
• Atlanta Falcons. Enough's enough. Either the Falcons start their turnaround by knocking off a winless Tampa Bay team, or they ought to start considering blowing up parts of their roster. (Trading Tony Gonzalez to a contender would be a start.) -- CB
• Washington Redskins. The 1-4 Redskins are looking for any kind of answer on defense, and they've been hanging around doing goodness knows what while the Cowboys and Eagles are looking up. Washington has the Bears, Broncos, Chargers, and Vikings in its next four games. Expecting a second-half turnaround like last year? It might be too little, too late. -- DF
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