Peyton Versus His Past
There is only one game this weekend, one game that will draw every football-loving eye in America to it Sunday night: Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts. And some non-football eyes too, because Americans just love seeing drama, and Revenge on ABC and The Good Wife on CBS won't cut it. (Maybe Boardwalk Empire on HBO, but that's why man created DVRs.)
Eyes will be on Colts owner Jim Irsay, who threw a Molotov cocktail on the emotions of Peyton Manning this week for suggesting the organization is more smartly run and better built without the financial anchor of a veteran franchise quarterback. Irsay also pointed out that Manning's Colts were one-and-done in seven of 11 playoff years.
Eyes will be on the emotional Manning, who admitted this week he didn't know how he'd react when he stepped on the field in The House That Peyton Built. (And if you think that storyline is overplayed—that Manning is the key reason Lucas Oil Stadium exists—I can tell you you're crazy. Manning, and the success he keyed for a decade in Indianapolis, was the driving force behind the Colts getting their glitzy palace.)
Eyes will be on the moments. There are very few electric times in sports that you desperately want to see. No, HAVE to see. But Manning running onto the field, Manning during the in-stadium tribute (which is supposed to be a doozy), Irsay looking down from his box, crying people in the stands, scanning the stands for orange Manning jerseys, the occasional shot of Andrew (A Mellower Peyton Junior) Luck, and the game ... I mean, this won't be a singular moment you have to see. It's 3 hours and 15 minutes of them. Woe be to FOX if there's a Game 7 in the ALCS. The ratings would be swell in Boston and Detroit, but anywhere else? A very, very bad night for baseball drama, or any drama.
I've tried to think back at some of the great regular-season games in recent seasons. Denver and New England in Manning's first post-Denver game against Tom Brady last year was good, but the Broncos and Patriots were both 2-2, so the event was fun but not must-see. Cowboys-Giants for the playoff spot to end 2011 was good. Lots of games end up being ridiculously good (Pack 51, Cards 45, 2009 Wild Card; Steelers 37, Pack 36 in 2009; the Denver-Dallas 99-pointer this month), but really ... What game of recent vintage matches this one for story and football appeal?
"There's gonna be a lot of weird feelings in the crowd Sunday night, I can promise you that,'' said Jim Sorgi, the former Manning backup with the Colts who now is their radio color man. "The emotion will be raw. I went to my son's football game [in Indianapolis] the other day and found at least one mom who is going to be rooting for Peyton in this game [and not the Colts]. You'll see some Peyton 18 jerseys in orange in the crowd. That's because there's still so much allegiance to the man who made us an NFL powerhouse."
Sorgi is uniquely qualified to talk about Manning and Luck. How are they the same? How are they different?
"Their playing styles are different,'' Sorgi said. "But the coaches tell me they're checking now [changing plays] as much as they checked when Peyton played. No one studies like Peyton. But Andrew works very hard at it, too. What I really love about both of them is they never let one series affect the next one. When the series is over, no matter whether it ends in a touchdown, a punt or a turnover, they don't care; it's on to the next one. And the nine fourth-quarter comebacks by Andrew—who does that remind you of?''
The added bonus to this: Luck loved Manning as a kid. In eighth and ninth grade, Luck went to the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana, just hoping some of Peyton's greatness would rub off on him. Apparently it did. Luck won't be as emotional about this game as Manning will be. Who knows—that could end up being an edge.
"But,'' said Sorgi, "knowing Peyton, at kickoff, all the other stuff will be gone, and he will have only one thing in mind—getting to 7-0 with the Broncos. I have never in my life seen any outside thing get in the way of football with him. But again, that seems to be the same with Andrew. He just plays, and he doesn't let anything distract him either."
I like Denver, but not for any reasons of vengeance. It's just football. Manning's playing better than any quarterback right now. And with Von Miller coming back from his six-game suspension this week, the Colts are going to have do things differently than the previous six Denver opponents did. In the wild 51-48 game, the Cowboys played with an empty backfield on 19 snaps. No way the Colts can do that now. They'll have to keep an extra tight end or back in to account for the rangy Miller. And not only is Miller a terrific pass rusher, he's also a great quarterback spy. Look for Denver to have figured out when Luck is most likely to abandon the pocket, and watch for Miller to wait cagily for Luck to make his move.
This is going to be an electric night and a very fun game. Thanks to Irsay's words and the reverberations in two cities, the theater might be as good as the game.
Sound Bite of the Week
"Me and him have been on the whole page the whole time since the beginning, and the decision will be made eventually."
—New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, to the media Thursday
Gronk once again threw tepid water on the confusing situation between him and Bill Belichick, and the status of Gronk's forearm (it was announced Friday morning that Gronk is medically cleared to play). I'm not sure what "the whole page'' is, but it fits in New England, where the less you say, and the more confusing you are, the better.
Player You Need to Know This Weekend
Peyton Hillis, running back, New York Giants (No. 44). The Giants have been struggling to run the ball well (what, exactly, have the Giants done well this season?), and their healthy incumbents this week to face the Minnesota Vikings are rookie Michael Cox and veteran Brandon Jacobs. So in comes Hillis, fresh from coaching a high school team in Tennessee, to provide another big body for the Giants to use. "It's good to finally get another opportunity,'' said Hillis, who was stuck behind Jamaal Charles in Kansas City last year and Doug Martin in Tampa Bay this summer before being cut. "In the past couple of years I really haven't had a shot.'' If you dress for the Giants and play running back, you'll get a shot. Because playing running back for the Giants has been a license to get hurt.
Ten Things I'll Be Watching for This Weekend
1. Sunday night in Indianapolis. The Manning Bowl outshines them all this weekend.
2. The pregame show game-within-the-game in Indianapolis. FOX, ESPN, CBS and NFL Network have approximately 3,439 hours of programming to fill Sunday morning/early afternoon. It'll be fun to see who knows what about mad Manning or irked Irsay or peeved Polian or dubious Dungy. This has really escalated quite nicely during the week, after owner Jim Irsay said the Colts had a smarter football model post-Peyton.
3. Josh Freeman's redemption tour begins. Freeman, who had a disastrous last 10 starts for the Bucs, will pilot the slumping Vikings against the defensively challenged Giants. It's one reason to watch Monday Night Football, featuring teams that are a combined 1-10.
4. Tony Gonzalez will not be traded—as of now. We're 10 days from the trading deadline, and Gonzalez appears to want to play out the string in Atlanta (barring a stunning turnaround by the disappointing and injured Falcons) rather than be traded to a contender. "I want to be with these guys,'' Gonzalez said Thursday. Whatever you say.
5. The Wideout Bowl in Detroit. Calvin Johnson versus A.J. Green ... and without great corners to cover them. Could be a touchdown-fest—and I don't mean by Joseph (Sent Me A Selfie) Fauria.
6. The Don't Take Out The Garbage Bowl in New Jersey. Fitting, isn't it, that a game of this title is played in Tony Soprano's waste-management backyard? Rex Ryan told his players to put their full concentration of beating the Patriots at home this week, and that includes no chores or other distracting evening pastimes (nudge, nudge). Nothing can stand in the way of beating the Patriots! I would advise Rex to see if he could do something about that Brady guy while he's at it.
7. Case Keenum's first NFL start. Let's see. The NCAA's all-time touchdown-passing leader (155) hasn't started a football game in 21 months, his final game at the University of Houston. He has the 2-4 Texans' 2013 fate in his hands due to Matt Schaub's inefficiency and injury, and Keenum's big chance will come at unbeaten Kansas City. A team, by the way, that had 10 sacks last week and has more sacks in six weeks than it had all last season. Wear the Kevlar flak jacket, kid.
8. The Rivalry That Used To Rock. The Ravens and Steelers meet Sunday in Pittsburgh, and they're a combined 4-7. Yikes. Even a year ago at this time, this was the best rivalry in football. Now it's a nice game between two teams desperate to stay relevant.
9. Nick Foles tries to win the job for good. Michael Vick was a 53 percent passer this year before popping a hammy and giving way to Nick Foles, who doesn't have the wheels but does have the accuracy—67 percent in his game and a half in relief of Vick, with five touchdowns, no turnovers and only two sacks. A good start against Dallas, and Foles won't have to look over his shoulder at Vick. He'll likely win the job.
10. The rushing race. a 99-yard lead