Doug Farrar gets 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 (9-1) at New England (7-3) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: This will be the 14th time that a team with Tom Brady as its quarterback has faced a team led by Peyton Manning, and Brady's Patriots have won nine of those battles. This is the second time Manning has faced Brady as a member of the Broncos. The Pats beat Denver 31-21 in Week 5 of the 2012 season, and the Broncos have a 20-1 regular-season record since that loss. Right now, it's tough to call this in favor of Brady -- even with the game in Foxboro. The Broncos would be undefeated were it not for a six-point loss to the Colts on Oct. 20, while New England has been inconsistent all season. Now it's Manning who has the reliable and explosive targets (including Wes Welker, Brady's former best buddy), while Brady is just now getting the receivers back on the field he hoped to have at the start of the season.
If either of these guys is overly aware of the legacy matchup, they're certainly not letting on.
"That’s a pretty general and broad question, I guess," Manning told the Boston media Wednesday, when asked how special it is to play against Brady. "I’m sure you can check some old comments and old quotes."
“Well, we’ve had some great games against them when he was with the Colts – and certainly last year," Brady told the Denver media, giving a standard pat answer. "We’ve had some pretty good teams that we’ve played with. The games are always enjoyable."
The question for Manning is whether he'll have Welker on the field. The indispensable slot receiver suffered a concussion in last Sunday's win over the Kansas City Chiefs, though interim head coach Jack Del Rio said Friday that Welker passed the protocol and has been cleared for the game.
Atypically, this could come down to a battle of defenses. New England's defense currently ranks 14th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, while the Broncos rank 17th -- and 21st against the pass. That said, it could be Denver's defense providing more pressure. In last year's game, the Pats opened up a 31-7 third-quarter lead, and Manning was sacked just twice, despite having to throw as much as possible to get back in the game. Denver, meanwhile, enjoyed four Brady takedowns. This season, Brady's 28 sacks are tied for fifth-highest in the league, while Manning has hit the ground just 13 times. Also, watch for running back Stevan Ridley, who gashed Denver's defense for 151 yards the last time around.
Dallas (5-5) at N.Y. Giants (4-6) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: Nobody would mistake Tony Romo for the NFL's all-time best quarterback, but he may look like that to New York's defense. The Giants haven't allowed a touchdown pass since Oct. 10 against the Chicago Bears. Since then, the G-Men have won four straight after an 0-6 start, and they've been feasting on empty calories. They've faced an amazing string of ineffective quarterbacks in the last month -- Josh Freeman in his one abortive start for the Vikings; Matt Barkley when Philadelphia was without Michael Vick and Nick Foles; a banged-up Terrelle Pryor against the Raiders; and Green Bay's Scott Tolzien, replacing the injured Aaron Rodgers.
Last time Romo faced the Giants, it was the season-opener for both teams. He threw for just 263 yards on 49 attempts while Eli Manning negated his 450-yard performance against Dallas' abysmal pass defense by throwing three picks in a 36-31 Dallas win. The Giants are confident going into the rematch, but they'll find out quickly enough if that winning streak can be chalked up to more than a series of easy fights.
"I'm counting on the same fervor that we've built up here over the last few weeks, that it just gets better," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said this week. "And that leadership group is in the core of pointing this thing in the right direction."
Another reason for that right direction is that Manning has reformed his turnover tendencies, throwing just two picks in the last four games after offering up 15 in the first six. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has switched things up and given Manning more quick reads. If he can mix that in with play-action and the occasional shot play, Monte Kiffin's defense will not likely have an answer. Dallas has allowed 313 passing yards per game, which puts it on track to break the NFL's single-season mark for futility in that department, set by the 2011 Green Bay Packers. The eternally optimistic Jerry Jones might point out that the 2011 Packers also won 15 regular-season games, but his quarterback ain't no Aaron Rodgers.
If the Giants can top the Cowboys, they'll square up with Dallas in the NFC East -- an unthinkable concept just a month ago.
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Indianapolis (7-3) at Arizona (6-4) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: Bruce Arians' old team is coming to the Valley of the Sun, but Indy's interim head coach through most of the 2012 season would like that narrative dialed down as much as possible. Arians did a masterful job filling in for Colts head coach Chuck Pagano when Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia in October 2012. That performance got him the head job with the Cardinals, who have surprised many with their current 6-4 mark.
"Yes, it's a huge game for both guys," Arians said this week. "They have a big division lead. Like I told our guys last week, we are in the playoffs right now. Every game is win or be done. We have to stay pace with everybody that we are tied with. We now got some help, so that we kind of control our own destiny in a way, but we have to win every week."
Arians is an offensive mastermind, but it's not the offense that has the Cards rolling -- it's a defense that ranks first overall in FO's metrics. New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has done a masterful job putting his players in positions to succeed, both against the run and when facing an opponent's best receivers. Star cornerback Patrick Peterson has had a bit of a down season, allowing six touchdowns and an 88.7 opponent passer rating, but rookie defensive back Tyrann Mathieu has been an absolute revelation, and Arizona's front seven is allowing just 3.37 running back yards per play. Further: Twenty-nine percent of all rushing attempts against this defense end in no gain or negative yardage, and no other team has a higher mark.
This could be bad news for a Colts offense that has struggled to get out of the gate this season. Running back Trent Richardson, GM Ryan Grigson's high-priced trade acquisition, is averaging just three yards per carry this season, and 1.5 yards on average before first contact. Donald Brown has been more effective, but neither back should expect to make serious tracks against this front seven.
That leaves things up to Andrew Luck, whose explosive effectiveness has been affected by the switch in offensive coordinators, from Arians to Pep Hamilton. Luck led the NFL in 2012 with 101 passes traveling 20 yards or more in the air, throwing for 1,116 yards and nine touchdowns on such plays. This year, he's got just 33 deep passing attempts, for just 476 yards and four touchdowns. Yes, his pick total on downfield plays has gone down from six last year to just one in 2013, but a risk-averse strategy may not work this time around.
San Francisco (6-4) at Washington (3-7) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Last season at this time, San Francisco and Washington had two of the more interesting young quarterbacks in the game. Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers started his first game on Nov. 19, 2012, immediately giving his team an extra dose of mobility and downfield passing that Alex Smith never could. And on Nov. 18 of last year, Washington's Robert Griffin III started his team on the seven-game winning streak that took the Redskins from a 3-6 mark to an NFC East title.
Things are very different now. Kaepernick has struggled mightily in his third season, taking hits behind a regressing offensive line and struggling to make limited reads to limited targets. San Francisco ranks dead last in passing yards per game at 168, and the team's record can primarily be attributed to a power running game and solid defense. Kaepernick was the X-factor that put the Niners over the top in 2012, but he's anything but that now.
Griffin has regressed in similar ways -- left with an underperforming offensive line and inconsistent receivers, he's been exposed to a degree.
Neither quarterback has proven the ability to make multiple reads and improvise productively in a consistent fashion. The difference between the Redskins and 49ers is that San Francisco has a defense that earns respect, while Washington's defense has been one of the league's worst most of this season.
"I wish I knew what it takes to fix what is going on with this team," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said this week. "It seems like each week it's something different we're doing to try to dig out of a hole. We just seem to keep trying to get the right gameplan and we're running out of time ... We're a good team and just not doing the right things."
The Redskins have been scuttled to a degree by the relative predictability of the offensive schemes called by Mike and Kyle Shanahan. In 2012, Washington presented a plethora of pre-snap motions to enemy defenses, but those same Pistol formations and full-house backfields that worked so well before are getting bottled up now. Teams are spying Griffin more effectively, reducing him as a running threat and forcing him to do too much as a passer. If the 49ers are able to do this, they should come out with a fairly easy win -- and end any shot of another Redskins' late-season rebound.
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N.Y. Jets (5-5) at Baltimore (4-6) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Ravens were happy to see a breakout performance from Ray Rice in last Sunday's loss to the Bears, but that doesn't mean much against a Jets defense that has been outstanding against the run. Joe Flacco must turn his current regression around and test New York's inconsistent secondary if the Ravens are to have a chance.
Tampa Bay (2-8) at Detroit (6-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Neither quarterback in this game will have a good day if he can't handle interior pressure -- Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy have more total pressures this season than any other players at their position. That may favor Matthew Stafford, who's been far better at avoiding defensive pressure this season.
San Diego (4-6) at Kansas City (9-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: This isn't a good matchup for a Chargers team that can't afford any more losses in the NFL's most competitive division, and the Chiefs defense will be in a very bad mood after failing to get to Peyton Manning last Sunday. Philip Rivers has had an amazing season, but he'll have to play out of his mind to make up for a defense that has been a distinct disappointment.
Chicago (6-4) at St. Louis (4-6) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: When the Rams go to their sub-packages against the pass, defensive end Chris Long will sometimes slip inside to tackle. When he does so, Long could be facing younger brother Kyle, who's had a great rookie season as the Bears' right guard. If you need to put a little spice in a Kellen Clemens-Josh McCown matchup, that's a good place to start.
Carolina (7-3) at Miami (5-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Dolphins have stayed at .500 despite all their dysfunctions, but this is a test they haven't seen before. Miami is not well-suited to deal with the Panthers' multi-faceted run game -- they have Football Outsiders' 30th-ranked run defense -- and the Dolphins' depleted offensive line will have its hands full with a Carolina front seven that might be the league's best.
Tennessee (4-6) at Oakland (4-6) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: The Raiders have given undrafted rookie Matt McGloin another start after his three-touchdown performance against the Texans. Tennessee's defense has two guys the kid will want to avoid. Cornerback Alterraun Verner has five picks, has allowed no touchdowns and opposing quarterbacks have a 23.0 passer rating against him, by far the lowest among all cornerbacks. And defensive tackle Jurrell Casey has been a one-man wrecking crew all season. This defense has what it takes to provide McGloin with a severe reality check.
Only For The Faithful
Jacksonville (1-9) at Houston (2-8) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Texans head coach Gary Kubiak has said that Case Keenum will be his starter this week. Hopefully, Kubiak won't pull Keenum for no good reason like he did against the Raiders. The Jags are getting sprightly lately -- they've scored 33 percent of their league-low 129 points in their last two games.
Pittsburgh (4-6) at Cleveland (4-6) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Here's an eye-opener for you: The Browns have just one rushing touchdown this year. Per Pro Football Reference, that's on pace to be the worst single-season total ever. The 2005 Arizona Cardinals managed just two rushing touchdowns all year. The Steelers have allowed 13 rushing touchdowns this season, so take your shot, Browns!
Minnesota (2-8) at Green Bay (5-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Vikings will pit Christian Ponder against a Green Bay defense that has been bad all season, and Minnesota's defense gets Scott Tolzien instead of Aaron Rodgers. If Ponder has any hope of salvaging a future as an NFL starting quarterback, he'll have to step it up in this game.
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(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus).
• One of the many reasons for failure in Atlanta's offense is that Matt Ryan has been pressured at a record pace. Through 10 games, he faced 172 snaps under pressure this season, compared to 194 in all of 2012. Ryan was sacked 27 times last season and threw seven touchdowns to six picks under pressure (he was pressured on 29.3 percent of his dropbacks). Heading into Thursday's game against the Saints, he had been sacked 19 times, had faced pressure on 40.2 percent of his dropbacks and had thrown seven picks to just five touchdowns. Receiver injuries don't help, but when you add the moribund state of Atlanta's run game, the team's offense line seems to be the major issue.
• Other quarterbacks are not as bothered by pressure or receiver injuries, though. Seattle's Russell Wilson has been under fire behind an underperforming offensive line all season, and he's never had his starting receiver corps in the same game all season. Wilson has been pressured on 46 percent of his dropbacks (only Oakland's Terrelle Pryor has a higher pressure rate), and he's thrown a league-leading 10 touchdowns to five picks under those circumstances.
• It shouldn't come as a surprise that Philly's DeSean Jackson is the NFL's most effective deep receiver this season, and here are the numbers -- he's got 23 targets of 20 or more yards in the air, with 12 catches, no drops, 458 yards and six touchdowns. He's a big reason Nick Foles has thrived in Chip Kelly's offense.
• It's time to give Detroit's offensive line more credit. Not only is this unit terrific at blocking downfield when Reggie Bush gets the ball, but also it has an amazingly low sack rate. The Lions have the NFL's fourth-most passing plays (438, behind Cleveland, Cincinnati and Houston), and Matthew Stafford has been sacked just six times. In total, Detroit's line has allowed the league's fifth-fewest total pressures with 102, behind only San Francisco, Denver, Green Bay and Carolina.
• The Eagles' defense is starting to turn things around a bit, and defensive lineman Fletcher Cox is a big reason. The second-year man, who plays 3-4 end and kicks inside to tackle in sub-packages, ranks third in the league in total quarterback pressures at his position, behind Houston's J.J. Watt and New Orleans' Cameron Jordan. It was Cox's pressure that forced Robert Griffin's game-ending interception last Sunday.
• Cowboys. The 'Boys face the New York Giants on Sunday, and would slip to third in the NFC East with a loss. Another year without a playoff berth (they haven't been to the postseason since 2009) should have Jerry Jones asking some hard questions about the direction of his franchise ... at least, that's what one would assume.
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