The Broncos and Packers are both perfect entering Sunday's matchup, but their quarterbacks are performing at opposite ends of the spectrum. Can Denver's defense boost its offense again? Plus, a Week 8 rundown
Unfortunate quirk of the NFL schedule: Peyton Manning, 39, in the midst of his 17th starting season, has started 286 games; Aaron Rodgers, 31, starting for the eighth season in Green Bay, has 121 starts. And they’ve played each other just once. Seven years ago, on a windy and cloudy afternoon at Lambeau Field, Rodgers and the Pack took it to Manning and the Colts, 34-14. It was Rodgers’ seventh game as Brett Favre’s heir.
Teams in opposite conferences meet once every four years, which is a shame because it means matchups like Manning and Rodgers occur so seldom. I’ve always felt it was the real weakness of the schedule, and that all non-division foes should be treated the same in scheduling. But, as it is, it makes this game Sunday even more special. Barring a Super Bowl meeting, this almost certainly will be the final time these two quarterbacks, certain to be among the all-time greats, meet on a football field.
What makes it more interesting: Green Bay is 6-0 and Rodgers is soaring, a tremendous player at the peak of his skills. Denver is 6-0 and Manning is playing the worst football of his life, struggling with his right shoulder and arm, the 31st-rated quarterback in football, and forcing the Broncos to rely on a great defense to keep them in games. It's been the kind of start that feels anything but perfect, the kind that left Manning this week at his scrum with the local press to still be talking defensively, even after a bye week. “I had an old coach who used to say that you're allowed until Wednesday to get out of the tank. You had Monday and Tuesday to be in the tank and then Wednesday of the next week, you have to move on. Look, I think if you don't win a game in any week, if it doesn't bother you, then something is probably not right,” Manning said.
And that’s from the quarterback of a 6-0 team.
What Manning has as his edge this week is the bye, and the rest and rejuvenation that comes with it, and DeMaryius Thomas and Owen Daniels coming back healthier, and having the edge of playing at a very loud and occasionally shaking stadium against such a premier opponent. But Rodgers’ beat-up receivers—Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery—also had the off-week healing powers working for them too. So it’s likely that home field will be the biggest edge for Denver, not the healthier roster.
There’s one other edge in this game that could make it harder for each quarterback. Aqib Talib, the star Denver cornerback who should see a lot of Cobb on Sunday night, told me about it Thursday night.
“The key to this game,” he said, driving away from the Broncos’ facility at about 5:30 p.m. Mountain Time, “is you better prepare your ass off. There is no question I’ve prepared a little more for this game. Coming off the bye helped.”
“Usually I watch the last three games of who we’re playing that week. This time, I watched all [six] of Green Bay’s games this year. That’s the fortunate part of the bye week. Last week I got to watch a lot of tape preparing for this one. Then I spent a little overtime watching certain situations for them.”
That doesn’t sound like a “little more” preparation. It sounds like a lot. Talib has played Rodgers three times—in 2008, 2009 and 2011, when he played for Tampa Bay—and he said he had to spend more time preparing because Rodgers has basically graduated to a different level of football.
“The difference,” Talib said, “is he's way more confident at this stage of his life, his career. Imagine playing in the same offense with the same coaching for four more years. Having four more years of experience in the same offense makes a man so much more comfortable. You can see it on the tape. Nothing confuses him. Nothing really frustrates him. Plus, you can plug in anyone as a receiver and do well. I mean, just watch the games. It’s Aaron Rodgers. The way he gets his team in the perfect spot, and his dummy calls, the cadence, making you show your hand so he knows what you’re doing before you want to show it .... Aaron Rodgers is what makes it all work.”
At some point, we expect to see that in Manning. There have been times—such as the 75-yard dart throw-and-run by Emmanuel Sanders late at Cleveland—that make you think we’ll see the real Manning more in the last half of the season. And we may. Wouldn’t it be great, for NFL Films, for posterity and for the national Sunday night audience, if we saw a Rodgers-Manning shootout for the ages?
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About Last Night …
New England 36, Miami 7. Maybe it was the competition (Tennessee, Houston), or maybe it was a Dan Campbell mirage, or maybe it was simply that the New England Patriots are far superior to every team in the AFC East except the Jets. But the upshot of the Thursday nighter is pretty simple: It’s not even Halloween and the AFC East, as seems the case every midseason in the Belichick/Brady Era, is just about over. New England (7-0) leads the Jets (4-2) by 2.5 games, and the Bills (3-4) and Dolphins (3-4) by four games. Where this game turned, to me, was on successive Miami series in the second quarter. Ryan Tannehill missed a snap from center and, under a heavy rush, settled for a safety. Then Tannehill was forced to throw early under pressure from linebacker Rob Ninkovich and the ball fluttered incomplete, headed for Rishard Matthews. Then Chandler Jones ended the next drive with a deke and inside rush on the Patriots’ line, sacking Tannehill and forcing a punt. The upshot, put simply, is that New England can win games even when Tom Brady has a bad day now, because the defense is so good. Not that Brady ever has a bad day.
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Player You Need To Know This Week
Adam Jones, cornerback, Cincinnati (number 24). Could this really be year six of the former Pacman in Cincinnati? Six years? True. This was supposed to be the 10th year of the Pacman in Tennessee, as one of the best cornerbacks in football, but things didn’t work out that way, despite the best efforts of former Titans coach Jeff Fisher. And Jones wasn’t a model citizen in his one year in Dallas, nor in his first year or two in Cincinnati. But now 32, he’s settled into a good life in Cincinnati, and, by the way, he’s playing great. Pro Football Focus stats say that quarterbacks who have thrown at Jones this season have a puny 55.3 rating, one of the best CB stats in football. And Sunday he’ll be the key cover guy in a Cincinnati secondary likely to see Ben Roethlisberger coming out firing in his return from a knee sprain. With all the weapons at Big Ben’s disposal, there’s no question Jones’ coverage ability will be vital if the Bengals leave Pittsburgh 7-0 on Sunday evening.
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Fantasy Player You Need to Know This Week
Alfred Blue, running back, Houston. Might be the easiest waiver claim you’ll make this year—if Blue’s still available in your league. Houston is home to Tennessee this week. The Titans are 29th in the NFL in run defense, allowing 129.2 yards per game. Arian Foster, of course, is out for the season, and Blue is likely to get the first shot to be the man. Oh, and Houston doesn't have a good passing game. Run, do not walk, to make this claim, keeping in mind that the Texans also have Chris Polk, an all-time explosive back who will get some carries too. Blue should get the most.
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Stat of the Week
This is un-Peyton-like, and odd for a team that’s 6-0. But the Broncos have held the lead for only 52.4 percent of their six games this year.
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Quote of the Week
“Guys, it’s like an Italian dining room table. Everybody’s sitting around the table and sometimes it gets heated, dishes get broken, people leave. Everybody’s got to come back to the table to eat. And when it’s all said and done, we’re hugging and kidding and eating good food again.”
—San Francisco coach Jim Tomsula, describing what he said to his players after they lost to the Packers earlier this month, prompting a team meeting in which emotions got high, reportedly. He made the comments on his KNBR radio show in San Francisco, and Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee passed them along. San Francisco is at St. Louis this weekend. I’m hoping no plates get broken at the Niners’ team breakfast Sunday morning.
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Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1.The end of the perfect streak. Never in league history have there been five teams with perfect records this late in the season. But with the Broncos and Packers playing Sunday, the perfectos will be down to four, at most. New England got to 7-0 Thursday night, and I would expect Carolina to beat Indy Monday and get to 7-0. Cincinnati, though, won’t have it easy in Pittsburgh, in its quest to run its record to 7-0.
2. The end of the AFC North race? A Cincy win Sunday would put it four-plus games up in the division with nine to play. (A four-game lead, plus the tiebreaker edge over Pittsburgh.) That would give Pittsburgh a fourth loss, with Cleveland and Baltimore starting play Sunday with five losses each. Been a long time since the AFC North was without drama at the top with two months left in the season. Like, never.
3. The end of the London games for 2015, which will make fans of crummy football upset. The football lovers on the continent are howling, “Send us better games, mates!” The final NFL game in London in 2015 pits the Lions and Chiefs (combined record: 3-11) kicking off Sunday morning at 9:35 a.m. Eastern, before an appreciative Wembley Stadium crowd of 83,000. Of the six teams to play in London this season, only one—the Jets, 2-1 in Week 4—entered the game with a winning record.
4. The beginning of career phase two for Jason Pierre-Paul. There is peace in our time between the Giants and the player who was a recluse for a long time after his infamous fireworks accident robbed him of a good portion of his right hand. Teammates say he has come back humbled from the incident, and now the Giants go about the business of finding out when he can physically play. “He’s in excellent condition,” coach Tom Coughlin said Thursday, before putting Pierre-Paul through his first few practice plays. He’ll play at about 268, Coughlin estimates, about 10 pounds down from last year’s weight, which Coughlin is pleased about. Big question is when he’ll play. He’s likely at least two weeks away, and that would be a dramatic comeback game if it happens: Nov. 15, at home, against the world champion Patriots, trying to sack Tom Brady.
5. Dez to the rescue? The Cowboys are on a four-game losing streak, and Tony Romo cannot return until Week 11, at the earliest, against Miami. But Dallas got Dez Bryant back to practice this week from the broken bone in his foot, and he’s reportedly felt good enough to play Sunday against Seattle. No sure thing, but he’s itching to play and the Cowboys are itching to have him play. Matt Cassel’s certainly up for his addition against the rejuvenated Seattle secondary, which played better eight days ago against the Niners.
6. The intriguing game of the weekend. Jets at Raiders. Jets coming off a competitive game in Foxboro, Raiders off a 37-point, three–touchdown-pass mashing of San Diego. Really interesting to see if the Raiders can hang with a very good defense.
7. The strangest game of the weekend. Chargers at Ravens. Combined record: 3-11. Combined losing streak of the two teams: six games. Combined hair pulled out by coaches on the two staffs: uncountable strands.
8. The Ravens and the refs. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh was angered at three calls in the Monday nighter at Arizona, and it looked like on two of them he had every right to be. After the game, the Ravens’ team website wrote about the calls, and said of Harbaugh: “His team had to battle not only the Cardinals, but those in stripes, too.” The league told Pro Football Talk it had no issue with the Ravens’ airing of grievances. But in letting this slide, the league may be opening the door for more teams to beef publicly about officiating.
9. The ratings. As Chris Russo, the Mad Dog himself, pointed out during my appearance on his drivetime talk show Thursday, the baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, can't be happy that the NFL is putting up very likely the best matchup of the year, Denver-Green Bay, against the fifth game of the World Series on Sunday night. (If there is a fifth game.) Obviously, the NFL couldn't have known the Broncos and Packers would enter the game a combined 12-0, but the league surely knew each team was likely to be great, and with two of the three or four marquee quarterbacks in the game. Interesting point, mindful of the Mark Cuban “pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered” comment about the greedy NFL.
10. Whether the Colts can take the heat. Indy’s in first place in the AFC South, by a game over the 2-5 Jags and Texans (that is not a misprint), and have a very tough assignment Monday night at 6-0 Carolina … and that’s followed by Denver coming to town on a short week. It’s entirely possible the Colts could be tied for the lead of the AFC South at 3-6 just 10 days from now. And that is not going to make Jim Irsay very happy. I’m not sure he’s one to whack a coach at the bye, but don’t put anything past a seething owner.
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