Peek at the Week: Manning-Brady, Keystone State showdown, Brees chasing Unitas

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Game of the week

Denver at New England, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

The line: Patriots by 6½

The story: Another year, another Manning-Brady showdown. Appreciate it while you can, folks. These are two of the best in the game, and watching them reminds me of, oh, say, when John Elway and Dan Marino took on each other. Your job is to simply sit back and enjoy what you're watching.

Peyton Manning is one of the best quarterbacks ever. So is Tom Brady. Manning has been to two Super Bowls. Brady has been to five. Manning won four MVP trophies. Brady has two. Manning is fourth in career regular-season wins. Brady is fifth. Manning is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. So is Brady.

Every year, it seems, the two meet either during the season or the playoffs, with Brady holding an 8-4 edge. But look what happens when he faces Denver: He's 3-6, including the playoffs, with last year's playoff win his first defeat of the Broncos at Gillette Stadium.

Moreover, Denver is the only NFL team with a winning record vs. Brady, and no more than four points separated Brady and Manning in any of their past four meetings. So what happens now that Manning quarterbacks the Broncos?

That's why we're here.

Denver is in the midst of a torturous schedule that features six 2011 playoff teams in eight games. Manning has looked good (Pittsburgh, Oakland), and not so good (Atlanta), and maybe that's the new normal with this guy. My guess is that he starts a track meet here, with the Patriots' secondary the target. It was a problem last year, and it's still a problem, and if you don't believe me run the videotape of the first half of last weekend's defeat of Buffalo.

The Bills exploited gaping holes. The problem for them was that Brady exploited more in the back end of their defense. Both teams can run, with the Patriots producing two 100-yard backs last week, but both teams will do what they do best -- which is throw.

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It's hard not to side with Brady. He has won twice as many as he has lost vs. Peyton, and he's 0-1 at home this year. Tell me the last time he dropped back-to-back home games, and I'll tell you that's another reason I like Brady here. The Patriots are looking for a signature win to launch them to another AFC East title. Maybe this is the game.

The back story: In their past three wins over the Broncos, the Patriots have averaged 42.3 points, going over 40 in each contest.

Three games I'd like to see

Philadelphia at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Steelers by 3½

The story: This is the Ed Rendell Bowl, or something like that, and Pittsburgh has the advantage for a number of reasons. First, the Steelers are home. Second, they're coming off a bye. Third, the Eagles are not. In fact, they're coming off an emotional and physical defeat of the New York Giants. Fourth, the Steelers could have Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall back. And fifth ... and most important ... when is the last time you remember the Steelers being 1-3?

Try 2006. What's more, it has been 38 games since they lost two straight.

So the edge goes to Pittsburgh, but I would be careful not to undersell Philadelphia. The Eagles are winning games this year they didn't last season, in the fourth quarter -- where their defense has held opponents in check, and their offense has scored three come-from-behind victories.

I just returned from Dallas, where tight end Jason Witten told reporters that teams that turn the ball over as the Cowboys did Monday can't win. Normally, that's true. Except the Eagles have. They had 12 turnovers in their first three games and were 2-1. Then they practiced ball security last week, not losing the ball once, and nudged out the defending Super Bowl champions.

The Eagles are supposed to be an offensive machine, but check the numbers, people: Only Cleveland and Dallas have scored less. Quarterback Michael Vick has been erratic and too often serves as a piñata for opponents. But he looked more like himself last weekend, and so did the Eagles -- maybe because they remembered they had LeSean McCoy in the backfield.

Anyway, I would look for more McCoy and less Vick, especially with the Steelers (ranked 14th) no longer invincible against the run. And the Steelers' defense doesn't force turnovers. In fact, it has fewer (3) than all but two teams.

That's the way it has been in Pittsburgh, where the team seems tilted more toward offense, with Ben Roethlisberger the ring leader of a multitalented unit that can beat you with deep threats and tight end Heath Miller. The key for Pittsburgh, as it usually is, is keeping Roethlisberger upright. He gets hit way too much, and he might have trouble avoiding a pass rush that last year tied for the league lead in sacks.

Having Mendenhall back might perk up a rushing attack that is stuck in neutral, averaging a league-worst 2.6 yards per carry. But the pressure here is not on Mendenhall; it's on a defense that needs to shape up, stop McCoy and produce takeaways for the Steelers to move forward.

The back story: Under coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers are 9-1 at home vs. the NFC and 4-1 in games immediately following a bye.

Atlanta at Washington, 1 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Falcons by 3½

The story: Four games into the season and the Falcons' Matt Ryan is the front-runner for MVP while Washington's Robert Griffin III is the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. So what? Well, so we can figure on a spate of points when these two finish Sunday.

Ryan is the league's top-rated passer, Griffin is fourth, neither is guilty of many turnovers. Ryan has only two interceptions, RG3 has one and both teams are tied for the league best with two giveaways.

Griffin, of course, is the more dangerous runner, and I mean frighteningly dangerous. Rewind the videotape to the Redskins' final drive last weekend and the weekend before, and the first thing you notice is the guys flying around on defense ... because that's all they're doing. They can't seem to stop Griffin.

He makes the Redskins interesting. He may not make them successful -- not in the short run -- because there are so many shortcomings on defense, particularly in the secondary, where they have allowed an NFL-high 11 touchdown passes. Ryan has Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez as receivers, and quick question: Which of these guys is Washington going to stop?

But that's why RG3 is here. He had to rally his team against Cincinnati, and he nearly succeeded, and he probably has to rally it again here. But so what? He's at his best when improvising, is difficult to tackle, is an accurate passer and can throw the ball a mile -- which means Atlanta better be on alert.

I could see the Redskins pulling the upset here if it weren't for that pass defense. I just don't know how the Redskins defend a quarterback as accurate as Ryan and wide receivers as dangerous as White, Jones and Gonzalez. RG3 could make this close, but, last time I checked, football was still a team game ... and the Falcons have the superior team.

The back story: Under Mike Smith, the Falcons are 37-9 when they score first. They're also 37-1 in games where they lead after three quarters.

San Diego at New Orleans, 8:20 p.m. ET

The line: Saints by 3½

The story: The Saints are 0-4. The Chargers are 3-1. Yet the Saints are favored by more than a field goal, and it's not because they're home -- they are 0-2 there this year. Nope, it's because of Drew Brees, who can ... and will ... eclipse Johnny Unitas' NFL record of 47 straight games with a touchdown pass.

Brees finally looked like himself last weekend, as did the slumbering New Orleans offense. OK, so Jeff Triplette's crew served as the 12th man, making so many bad calls it seemed replacement refs never left. But Brees was terrific, and had Darren Sproles cradled that third-down pass in the fourth quarter, New Orleans might be working on a one-game win streak.

But it isn't, because the defense stinks. It's slow and can't force takeaways. Plus, it doesn't have an elite pass rusher. In the past, Brees and the offense masked the warts on the Saints' defense, but not this year ... at least, not until last weekend.

To say these guys are due is an understatement. There is talent galore on offense, and, yeah, the Saints miss deep threat Robert Meachem who, it just so happens, is catching passes for San Diego. Sooner or later they must wake up, and this just might be the game.

Though San Diego has lost only once, it's hard to get a read on the Chargers. The opponents they've beaten are a combined 3-9, with none having more than one victory. So make this a litmus test for a defense that last week forced six turnovers in Kansas City and ranks 12th overall. Brees will get his yards and his touchdowns, but when do the Saints break through? Oddsmakers say here and now, and given the circumstances, it's hard to argue with them.

The back story: Since 2006, the year Brees arrived from San Diego, the Saints have been the league's top-ranked offense, averaging 401.2 yards per game, and in the past five years they were ranked first in offense four times.

Monday night lights

Houston at N.Y. Jets, 8:30 p.m. ET

The line: Texans by 8½

The story: Once upon a time, the Jets were supposed to be all about Mark Sanchez vs. Tim Tebow, with the former Denver quarterback pushing Sanchez for the starter's job. Only that's not the story. In fact, it never was. The story is that the Jets don't have the playmakers it takes to make Sanchez ... Tebow ... Broadway Joe ... you name it ... successful, and that's apparent now more than ever with the loss of wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

Andre Johnson is a prime-time star, averaging 98.2 yards on Monday night. (Getty Images)  
Andre Johnson is a prime-time star, averaging 98.2 yards on Monday night. (Getty Images)  
Holmes is the team's most reliable playmaker ... maybe only playmaker ... on offense. He's gone. Cornerback Darrelle Revis is the team's best playmaker on defense. He's gone, too. So the Jets subtract their best player, period, and their most dangerous player on offense, and what do you think happens?

Uh-huh, trouble.

Rex Ryan's hope is that the Jets can somehow summon something from their defense to beat opponents, but that didn't exactly work vs. San Francisco ... and the 49ers aren't one of the game's best offenses. Houston is, with only New England producing more points so far. Good luck trying to stop Arian Foster, Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub.

Of course, the Texans are loaded on defense, too, where they rank first overall and second vs. the pass, and I think you can see where this is going. It looks like a mismatch waiting to happen.

Naturally, it's up to the Jets to make sure it's not. At some point Houston will lose, and maybe this is the night. But common sense tells you it won't be because ... well, because the Jets just don't have the talent and because Schaub hasn't lost once in his past eight starts. I mean, Houston went to Denver and held off Peyton Manning, so what do you think the chances are that it overcomes Sanchez when his best wide receiver is his tight end?

The back story: Andre Johnson is bothered by a groin injury that limited him in Thursday's practice ... and that's good news for the Jets. Johnson is a Monday night monster, averaging 98.2 yards per game in four appearances, not only scoring each time but producing two 100-yard performances. His five TDs in Monday night games rank first among all receivers since 2008, the year of Johnson's first prime-time appearance.

Crummy game of the week

Texans at Jets

The story: One team hasn't lost, while the other lost two of its best players and just got waxed by San Francisco. OK, so the 49ers can make you look bad. But the Jets were shut out in their own stadium, and now they're back for an encore without Revis and Holmes. I don't know, this sure looks like Blowout City to me. I know Ryan's defense should be ticked off after what Carlos Rogers said, but at some point, it's not about emotion; it's about players. And Houston has more good ones ... a lot more ... than the Jets.

Lock of the week

Buffalo at San Francisco, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

The line: 49ers by 10½

The story: I'll be honest: Normally, you would find the upset of the week here, but my upset happened Thursday night and I don't have enough conviction about Kansas City to pick the Chiefs over Baltimore. So without any trust in any of the remaining games I'm taking the slam-dunk of the week ... and you tell me what happens when a club loses a starting guard, gives up 52 points, then makes a cross-country trip to play one of the best defenses anywhere.

That's why the line is what it is.

I think the impact of what happened last week is going to cripple the Bills, which means they would have a tough time vs. anyone. But San Francisco isn't just anyone. It's one of the best teams in the NFL, and it is home where it is a tough out. Yeah, the Bills can run. But how good do you think they'll be vs. the league's second-ranked rush defense? I can't see this being much of a game for more than a half ... if that.

The back story: The Bills haven't won in an NFC stadium since beating Carolina in Charlotte on Oct. 25, 2009.

Five guys I'd like to be

1. Indianapolis LB Robert Mathis: He aims for his seventh straight game with a sack. Mathis has four in his past three starts vs. NFC opponents.

2. Philadelphia DE Jason Babin: He has seven sacks in his past four games vs. the AFC.

3. N.Y. Giants QB Eli Manning: Including the Super Bowl, he has beaten the AFC seven consecutive times.

4. San Francisco WR Randy Moss: In 10 career games vs. Buffalo he has 12 touchdown catches -- including four in one game. Then again, he did most of that damage with Tom Brady as his quarterback.

Fan Poll

What will be Week 5's best game?

Broncos at Patriots
49%
Eagles at Steelers
27%
Falcons at Redskins
13%
Chargers at Saints
8%
Texans at Jets
4%

Total Votes: 35,280

5. Houston DE J.J. Watt: He's looking for a sack in his seventh straight game, including the playoffs.

Five best matchups

1. Philadelphia CB Brandon Boykin vs. Pittsburgh WR Antonio Brown: Brown's the guy who told (Washington and Greene counties) that the rookie was "the candy bar" of the Eagles secondary, meaning he's the guy Pittsburgh can exploit. Boykin brushed off the comment, saying he appreciated "the attention," and let the game begin.

2. Denver QB Peyton Manning vs. New England QB Tom Brady: What's not to like when you have these two playing each other? The past four times they have met no more than four points separated their teams in any game.

3. N.Y. Giants vs. the Super Bowl jinx: The Giants play winless Cleveland, so that's a slam-dunk, right? Not so fast. While the Browns have won only 18 games since the start of the 2008 season, three have been vs. defending Super Bowl champions -- including the 2008 Giants.

4. Cincinnati RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis vs. fumblitis: He didn't let one slip in 589 touches; now he has dropped the ball three times in the past 28. "Obviously," Green-Ellis said this week, "there are ball-security issues I have to tighten up. It has been terrible the last couple of weeks." Not exactly. The Bengals didn't lose.

5. Kansas City LB Tamba Hali vs. Baltimore RB Ray Rice: According to Hali, Rice talks more trash than any running back he has encountered in his pro career. "Usually, running backs are quiet and get their jobs done," he said, "but [Rice] is one of those guys ... he's a mouthful." Apparently, Hali was referring to an incident that took place in the Ravens' 2010 playoff rout of the Chiefs when, as Rice acknowledged, one of the Chiefs "was playing very dirty. Talking is usually not part of my game."

Five things that may interest only me

1. The Ravens lead the league with 26 plays of 20 or more yards, including a league-high 24 by pass.

2. Since the current playoff system was adopted (1990), 23 teams with losing records through the first four weeks qualified for the playoffs -- including four that made the conference championship games and one (the 2001 New England Patriots) that won a Super Bowl. In five of the past 11 years, a team that started 2-2 or worse advanced to the Super Bowl, with three of them winning it.

3. The Houston Texans have not given up a lead this year while leading opponents for a combined 194:27 out of 240 minutes. The team has trailed for only 18:52.

4. During his 47-game TD streak, Unitas threw 102 scoring passes -- with Raymond Berry (38) at the head of the pack. Seven players caught TD passes from Unitas, including Jerry Richardson with two. You might know of Richardson. He's the owner of the Carolina Panthers.

5. Since the 2003 season, the New England Patriots are 32-6 in October, winning 23 of their past 26 starts during the month. They're 18-1 at home during that time and 14-5 on the road, with their only home loss a 41-17 defeat by San Diego in 2005.

Numbers to remember

5: Career kickoff returns for touchdowns for Percy Harvin
7: Baltimore touchdowns when the Ravens start a drive inside their 20, best in the league
8: Ravens TD drives of 80 or more yards, also best in the NFL
9-3-1: Andy Reid's record vs. the AFC North
10-2: Green Bay's record in its last 12 road games, including the playoffs
14-3: Michael Vick's record in his past 17 starts vs. the AFC
25-0: Jay Cutler's record when he has a passer rating of 100 or better

Sunday weather

 Cincinnati: Few showers, high of 54
 Indianapolis: Partly cloudy, high of 51 (retractable roof)
 Kansas City, Mo.: Sunny, high of 59
 Minneapolis: Dome
 East Rutherford, N.J.: Rain, high of 53
 Pittsburgh: Showers, high of 49
 Landover, Md.: Showers, high of 58
 Charlotte, N.C.: Few showers, high of 65
 Jacksonville, Fla.: Isolated thunderstorms, high of 85
 Foxborough, Mass.: Showers, high of 57
 San Francisco: Sunny, high of 62
 New Orleans: Dome

Where we will be

 I'll be in Pittsburgh to offer pregame glue samples to the Eagles.
 Mike Freeman will be in New England to collect early Hall of Fame ballots for Manning and Brady.
 Pete Prisco will be in New Orleans to drive the welcome wagon for Sean Payton.

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