There are always games within the games in the NFL, and often they're one-on-one matchups. But only rarely are we treated to a full-fledged confrontation between a premier offensive player and a premier defensive player, each as good as anybody in the league at his position and each looking to prove something at the expense of the other. Football reputations are made in moments like these. The 2007 NFL calendar provides but a handful of such showdowns. Here are eight that promise to be great.
2 of 9Al Tielemans/SI, Bob Rosato/SI
Carson Palmer vs. Ed Reed
Week 1 - September 10<br><br>In 2004, Palmer's first year as an NFL starter, he threw for 698 yards and three touchdowns in a two-game split with the AFC North--rival Ravens. He also threw four interceptions, three of which landed in the hands of Reed, the Ravens' two-time All-Pro. The following year Reed missed both Bengals games with an ankle injury, and Palmer threw five TDs against just one pick in two victories. Last year the two played each other even. "You have to know where he is at all times," Palmer says of Reed. "You have to play a chess match with him." And a rematch, too: Palmer and Reed will meet again in Week 10, in what's sure to be a tight division race.
3 of 9Peter Read Miller/SI, Bob Rosato/SI
LaDainian Tomlinson vs. Adalius Thomas
Week 2 - September 16<br><br>When the Patriots danced after knocking off San Diego in the 2006 playoffs, the normally stoic Tomlinson called them out for lacking class. Whether or not the Pats added that in the off-season, they surely added firepower with free agent Adalius Thomas, who tried his hand at nearly every defensive position as a Raven. Says Tomlinson, who rushed for 98 yards but no TDs against Baltimore last year, ''The guy is just a freak of nature.'' LT's a do-it-all guy himself. Not only did he score a record 31 TDs in '06 -- 28 on the ground, three through the air -- but he also tossed two TD passes. In this matchup of AFC Super Bowl contenders, may the best slash win.
4 of 9Al Tielemans/SI, John W. McDonough/SI
Larry Johnson vs. Shawne Merriman
Week 4 - September 30<br><br>The legends of Johnson and Merriman each date to a ferocious hit on Oct. 30, 2005. Merriman, then a Chargers rookie, laid out Chiefs running back Priest Holmes, giving LJ, then languishing in Dick Vermeil's doghouse, his chance. Over the next nine games Johnson rushed for 16 TDs; Merriman, meanwhile, was named defensive rookie of the year. Since then, Johnson has done some of his best work versus the stout Chargers, averaging 116 yards and a TD. He'd be even better in those games if not for Merriman. In three head-to-head matchups, Merriman has ridden Johnson to the ground 15 times. Rematch: Week 13.
5 of 9Bob Rosato/SI, Simon Bruty/SI
Marvin Harrison vs. Champ Bailey
Week 4 - September 30<br><br>Such is the game of back-and-forth in the NFL. The Broncos traded for Bailey in '04 as a means of stopping Harrison, who'd torched them for 32 catches and four TDs between 2001 and '03. Since then Bailey has limited Harrison to an average of five catches and 41 yards in three games. Of facing the six-time All-Pro, Peyton Manning has said, "That's why you throw a lot in the off-season, with nobody covering. You pretend it's Champ Bailey covering. You have to throw a perfect throw and run a perfect route." Harrison doesn't have much left to prove in his career, but regaining the upper hand on Bailey, the NFL's best cornerback, would be sweet.
6 of 9John Biever/SI, John Iacono/SI
Vince Young vs. Julius Peppers
Week 9 - November 4<br><br>Young's most famous unscripted scrambles last year -- a 19-yard fourth-down run against the Giants and a game-winning 39-yard dash against the Texans -- went to the right, where he can see what's ahead. What he'll see if he does that against the Panthers is the league's best defensive end. With the wingspan of a 7-footer, Peppers is the type of player who can snuff out a highlight-reel scramble with the swipe of one beefy arm. He's never faced Young, but he has played often against the comparable Michael Vick, so Young might want to break out a tape of the last Falcons-Panthers meeting, in December. Peppers had two sacks.
7 of 9Peter Read Miller/SI
Marcus McNeill vs. Dwight Freeney
Week 10 - November 11<br><br>Is Freeney finally slowing down? The man with 56 1⁄2 sacks over the last five years had a mere 5 1⁄2 last year. It's a deceptive stat. According to <i>Pro Football Prospectus 2007</i> , Freeney hurried quarterbacks 33 times, tops in the NFL. In Week 10 he'll try out his nonpareil moves on San Diego's second-year left tackle, the 6-foot-7, 336-pound McNeill. The two didn't face each other in McNeill's rookie year, but rest assured the league's most promising line prodigy knows what he's up against. "I usually watch a lot of tape of defensive ends," McNeill says. "I just catch him on his highlight film." And what does he see? "Speed, speed, speed. Spin, spin, spin."
8 of 9Damian Strohmeyer/SI, Brad Mangin/SI
Steve Smith vs. Nate Clements
Week 13 - December 2<br><br>In a game that should have playoff implications, Clements -- the former Bill newly anointed as the highest-paid defender in NFL history -- will face his sternest test in Carolina's Smith. They've met once before, in '05 at Buffalo. Smith had only three catches, but the brash wideout doesn't credit Clements with shutting him down. "[They used] Cover Two, safety over the top. They were reluctant to put him singled up." The 6-foot, 215-pound Clements should see more of Smith this time, employing his physical style to knock the lightning quick 5-9, 185-pound Smith off his game. One missed jam, though, and Smith has a way of popping up in the paint.
9 of 9David Bergman/SI, Heinz Kluetmeier/SI
Reggie Bush vs. Brian Urlacher
Week 17 - December 30<br><br>The scene will be familiar -- Soldier Field, wintry weather, Saints visiting Bears in a game with Super Bowl implications. In such a setting last year, in the NFC title game, Bush, a callow rookie, took a short pass and scampered 88 yards for a touchdown, infamously wagging his finger at the pursuing Urlacher. Final score: Bears 39, Saints 14. "What did he do, point back?" Urlacher said afterward. "I'm sure he wishes [he'd] won the game instead." One year later a more mature Bush gets a chance for atonement. And NFL nation gets treated to the second installment of what could be a premier grudge match for years to come.
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