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Best vs. Best

Sept. 03, 2007
Sept. 03, 2007

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Sept. 3, 2007

SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
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Best vs. Best

There are alwaysgames within the games in the NFL, and often they're one-on-one matchups. Butonly rarely are we treated to a full-fledged confrontation between a premieroffensive player and a premier defensive player, each as good as anybody in theleague at his position and each looking to prove something at the expense ofthe other. Football reputations are made in moments like these. The 2007 NFLcalendar provides but a handful of such showdowns. Here are eight that promiseto be great.

WEEK 1 ||| SEPTEMBER 10

This is an article from the Sept. 3, 2007 issue

Carson Palmer

CINCINNATIBENGALS
QUARTERBACK

VS.

Ed Reed

BALTIMORERAVENS
SAFETY

In 2004, Palmer'sfirst year as an NFL starter, he threw for 698 yards and three touchdowns in atwo-game split with the AFC North-rival Ravens. He also threw fourinterceptions, three of which landed in the hands of Reed, the Ravens' two-timeAll-Pro. The following year Reed missed both Bengals games with an ankleinjury, and Palmer threw five TDs against just one pick in two victories. Lastyear the two played each other even. "You have to know where he is at alltimes," Palmer says of Reed. "You have to play a chess match withhim." And a rematch, too: Palmer and Reed will meet again in Week 10, inwhat's sure to be a tight division race.

WEEK 2 |||SEPTEMBER 16

LaDainianTomlinson

SAN DIEGOCHARGERS
RUNNING BACK

VS.

Adalius Thomas

NEW ENGLANDPATRIOTS
LINEBACKER

When the Patriotsdanced after knocking off San Diego in the playoffs, the normally stoicTomlinson called them out for lacking class. Whether or not the Pats added thatin the off-season, they surely added firepower with free agent Adalius Thomas,who tried his hand at nearly every defensive position as a Raven. SaysTomlinson, 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. Notonly did he score a record 31 TDs in '06--28 on the ground, three through theair--but he also tossed two TD passes. In this matchup of AFC Super Bowlcontenders, may the best slash win.

WEEK 4 |||SEPTEMBER 30

Larry Johnson

KANSAS CITYCHIEFS
RUNNING BACK

VS.

ShawneMerriman

SAN DIEGOCHARGERS
LINEBACKER

The legends ofJohnson 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 ninegames Johnson rushed for 16 TDs; Merriman, meanwhile, was named defensiverookie of the year. Since then, Johnson has done some of his best work versusthe stout Chargers, averaging 116 yards and a TD. He'd be even better in thosegames if not for Merriman. In three head-to-head matchups, Merriman has riddenJohnson to the ground 15 times. Rematch: Week 13.

WEEK 4 ||| SEPTEMBER 30

Marvin Harrison

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
WIDE RECEIVER

VS.

Champ Baily

DENVER BRONCOS
CORNERBACK

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 4TDs between 2001 and '03. Since then Bailey has held Harrison to an average offive 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, withnobody covering. You pretend it's Champ Bailey covering. You have to throw aperfect throw and run a perfect route." Harrison doesn't have much to provein his career, but regaining the upper hand on Bailey, the NFL's bestcornerback would be sweet.

WEEK 9 |||NOVEMBER 4

Vince Young

TENNESSEE TITANS
QUARTERBACK

VS.

JuliusPeppers

CAROLINAPANTHERS
DEFENSIVE END

Young's mostfamous unscripted scrambles last year--a 19-yard fourth-down run against theGiants 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 thePanthers 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 withthe swipe of one beefy arm. He's never faced Young, but he has played oftenagainst the comparable Michael Vick, so Young might want to break out a tape ofthe last Falcons-Panthers meeting, in December. Peppers had two sacks.

WEEK 10 |||NOVEMBER 11

MarcusMcNeill

SAN DIEGOCHARGERS
LEFT TACKLE

VS.

DwightFreeney

INDIANAPOLISCOLTS
DEFENSIVE END

Is Freeneyfinally slowing down? The man with 561‚ÅÑ2 sacks over the last five years had amere 51‚ÅÑ2 last year. It's a deceptive stat. According to Pro FootballProspectus 2007, Freeney hurried quarterbacks 33 times, tops in the NFL. InWeek 10 he'll try out his nonpareil moves on San Diego's second-year lefttackle, the 6' 7", 336-pound McNeill. The two didn't face each other inMcNeill's rookie year, but rest assured the league's most promising lineprodigy knows what he's up against. "I usually watch a lot of tape ofdefensive ends," McNeill says. "I just catch him on his highlightfilm." And what does he see? "Speed, speed, speed. Spin, spin,spin."

WEEK 13 |||DECEMBER 2

Steve Smith

CAROLINAPANTHERS
WIDE RECEIVER

VS.

Nate Clements

SAN FRANCISCO49ERS
CORNERBACK

In a game thatshould have playoff implications, Clements--the former Bill newly anointed asthe highest-paid defender in NFL history--will face his sternest test inCarolina's Smith. They've met once before, in '05 at Buffalo. Smith had onlythree catches, but the brash wideout doesn't credit Clements with shutting himdown. "[They used] Cover Two, safety over the top. They were reluctant toput him singled up." The 6-foot, 215-pound Clements should see more ofSmith 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 away of popping up in the paint.

WEEK 17 |||DECEMBER 30

Reggie Bush

NEW ORLEANSSAINTS
RUNNING BACK

VS.

BrianUrlacher

CHICAGOBEARS
LINEBACKER

The scene will befamiliar--Soldier Field, wintry weather, Saints visiting Bears in a game withSuper 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 atouchdown, infamously wagging his finger at the pursuing Urlacher. Final score:Bears 39, Saints 14. "What did he do, point back?" Urlacher saidafterward. "I'm sure he wishes [he'd] won the game instead." One yearlater a more mature Bush gets a chance for atonement. And NFL nation getstreated to the second installment of what could be a premier grudge match foryears to come.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERPHOTOROB TRINGALI/SPORTSCHROME PHOTOROBERT BECK TWO PHOTOSBOB ROSATO PHOTOSCOTT SEWELL/ICON SMIPHOTOJEROME DAVIS/WIREIMAGE.COMPHOTODAVID J. PHILLIP/AP PHOTODEHOOG/TDP PHOTOBRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOSTEVE JACOBSONPHOTOKEVIN TERRELL/WIREIMAGE.COMPHOTOANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGESPHOTORICHARD SHIRO/US PRESSWIREPHOTOBRAD MANGINPHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER