Week 7 Game Rankings: Main course? Peyton Manning's return
A rivalry game like Steelers-Ravens? No way does it, or any other game, have a shot at unseating Colts-Broncos atop Jason La Canfora's Week 7 NFL game rankings.
Thank goodness for the Peyton Manning reunion game. Thank heavens for Jim irsay.
Manning against Andrew Luck for the first time got even juicier this week. And, given how well the Colts are playing and the fact the Broncos suddenly seem more fallible the past few weeks, the timing of this could not be better. Overall, the divisional games this week are weak ( Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Atlanta Falcons for the right to be the third-best team in the NFC South!) and we are certainly at a lull before things pick up down the stretch. Call it the dog days of fall.
And, well, now we have the return of all the passive-aggressive games being played between Manning and Irsay, his former owner, who just can't help but poke the bear. We can relive all the late-night tweets and PR-spin games and awkward exchanges between the sides while Manning's tenure with the team was ending. Many had been forgotten before Irsay made his remarks about how all the Star Wars stats from the Manning era brought them only one ring.
It's a true sentiment and I have long said that the Manning tenure in Indy will be viewed by many as a failure of sorts, to not have won more big games after having him so good and so healthy for so long, and having a lot of regular-season success. Put them with baseball's Braves of the 1990s, with a bevy of Hall of Fame pitchers but only one title.
Sure, Irsay was trying in his own way to take a shot at Bill Polian more than Manning, but he didn't do nearly a good enough job of conveying it. Regardless, without Manning he doesn't even have that stadium his team is playing in. He isn't hosting Super Bowls. His team would have probably relocated -- again. No need to say anything at all publicly about Manning other than "thanks."
It's a losing proposition and it just might hasten the Colts' defeat Sunday. Regardless, it elevates this game beyond mere footlong status. It's a five-footer now.
In terms of storylines, Indy-Denver will dominate this week's slate of games, and really, nothing else comes close. The Monday night game is brutal -- more on that at the wee bottom of this column. Giants-Vikings is the last of the Sliders on display, and while Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers is still one of the best rivalries in all of sports, these teams have been difficult to watch as they attempt to matriculate the ball downfield. Both leave plenty to be desired.
But if last week taught us anything, it's that even games that look like they are destined to be lopsided eyesores very often turn out to be something far better to watch. The 4 p.m. ET games alone last week proved this, with the Jags giving the Broncos a game, the Tennessee Titans hanging with the Seahawks in Seattle and the Cardinals giving the San Francisco 49ers all they could handle.
Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts
Sunday, Sept. 29, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Why to watch: It's old guard vs. new guard with the quarterback who fell into the Colts' lap with the first overall pick facing the man he replaced. And let's not kid ourselves, if the Colts were looking at a draft without an Andrew Luck in it, then the Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis would not have come to such an abrupt end following his neck injuries. But the Colts have a way of being the league's worst team when a once-in-a-generation-type passer is going to be available, and now Manning returns to the dome he built leading one of the AFC's two unbeaten teams against what might be the conference's second-best club. There is no lack of drama here, and the reaction alone Manning receives from his former home fans will be worth tuning in for. Seems like all that angst and games Manning and Irsay went through a few years back is long forgotten, and the reality is both sides made a ton of money together and grabbed one Lombardi. Saying both have quickly landed on their feet would be quite the understatement.
What to watch for: Manning doesn't get to play in domes nearly as often as he used to, and lest we forget how sublime he can be in the climate-controlled fortresses, I'm sure he'll show us on Sunday. Still, he has started to turn the ball over the past two weeks and he keeps losing offensive linemen and the Colts are all about attacking the quarterback. Robert Mathis in particular is playing dominant football and he's being moved around and targeted against certain matchups -- see an in-depth look at it here by Pete Prisco -- by coach Chuck Pagano, and will be deployed all over the place in this one. ... How much of an impact will Denver's pass-rushing ace, Von Miller, make in his first game back from a six-game suspension? What's his conditioning like? Is he a situational player at the start? This team did go 6-0 without him, often in convincing fashion, so time is on their side. ... Denver's secondary has to be a bit of a concern at this point. Expecting a big push from corner Champ Bailey at this stage of his career looks like folly. ... Even though he hasn't been explosive, Trent Richardson is the kind of runner you need to keep slugging it out with Broncos DTs Terrance Knighton and Kevin Vickerson to control the clock and try to grind them down for the fourth quarter. ... Manning's maneuvers at the line of scrimmage presented challenges for Pagano's defense when he was in Baltimore; how does the defense adapt now? With two big physical corners, he can afford to gamble on the blitz some, and Vontae Davis and Greg Toler could probably toggle between Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas easily, but then again, stacking one of them on tight end Julius Thomas would make sense as well (similar to how the Pats used Aqib Talib on Jimmy Graham last week). ... Knowshon Moreno has to be the most improved player in the NFL this season. His nose for the goal line will be key in this one, with short-yardage conversions possibly a difference in this game. The Colts are a top-five third-and-short defense.
Baltimore at Pittsburgh
Sunday, Oct. 20, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: Even with both teams struggling some, and the Super Bowl champs unable to muster any sustained offense each week, these games are always compelling, hard-hitting and end up helping shape the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, who finally won last week, could be right back in the hunt in the AFC North with a second straight victory, and their fans get especially fired up for the Ravens. Baltimore needs to avoid falling below .500, and it has looked particularly vulnerable away from home this season. These two teams know each other inside out, and their mutual respect is coated in a thick layer of disdain. Throw in the fact both clubs are wounded and not where they expected to be, and the fact this could be a season-shaping contest for the loser, and there should be no shortage of emotion on display. You can pretty much expect these games to go down to the final drive regardless of what the standings would suggest.
What to watch for: Baltimore is blowing opponents up with just a four-man pass rush and the Steelers' offensive line is in shambles. Ben Roethlisberger is holding the ball too long and Ravens edge players like Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil could end up being the deciding factors. Pittsburgh is going to have to keep extra people in to protect, so those bunch packages and spread formations that have given the Ravens trouble in the past might not be much of a factor here. This is especially true if the Steelers continue to throw the ball 68 percent of the time -- fourth most in the NFL. Problems will arise. ... Ray Rice seems to be getting frustrated by the lack of holes in the run game, and if new LT Eugene Monroe doesn't quickly raise his play, it's hard to imagine this team making headway as the weather turns worse. ... Ravens corner Jimmy Smith is showing steady development, though change-of-direction guys like Emmanuel Sanders could be a problem. ... Pittsburgh's pass rush finally woke up last week and Troy Polamalu, coming out of the bye, was more active and involved than he had been in quite some time. ... It's clear Joe Flacco is not afraid to thread the ball into tight spots for rookie WR Marlon Brown. With CB Ike Taylor likely to try to take Torrey Smith out of the game, Brown could be a key figure in the passing game.
Cincinnati at Detroit
Sunday, Oct. 20, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: Both of these teams appear to be making moves forward and have a path before them that could lead to a division title. But there is something about them that makes some not want to believe. They both tend to let leads slip away, fail to put teams away and games just end up seeming closer than they need to be. Both young quarterbacks are susceptible to doing something that ends up swinging momentum the other way and both have freak-of-nature receivers -- Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green -- who tend to languish at times and don't show up in the end zone nearly as much as you would think. Both teams rebuilt by pumping assets into their defensive lines and both are capable to assaulting the opposing quarterback without having to devote numbers to do so. There are plenty of similarities at play here, and, with the winner moving to 5-2, the game could help leapfrog one of these clubs on to a true hot streak.
What to watch for: How hobbled is Calvin Johnson, and how much is he just a decoy? Regardless, he has to demand the attention of Leon Hall, the Bengals' top corner -- himself just back from injury. That could mean more targets for rookie TE Joseph Fauria, who leads the team with five touchdown catches after bagging three last week. ... Can Reggie Bush get to the edge and rip off those big runs down the sideline for Detroit? They'll need it, but Bengals DE Michael Johnson, in particular, could make that quite difficult. ... Geno Atkins is going to be a factor here, and Matthew Stafford has had issues when stepping up into the pocket in the past. Collapsing things from the inside could turn this game. ... Lions LBs will have problems negating Bengals rookie RB Gio Bernard in the screen game. ... Andy Dalton has struggled against the blitz, earning just a 70 passer rating. ... The Bengals rank 30th in the NFL in average field position (just outside the 23-yard line), and I'm not sure how many long drives they figure to execute against this defensive line on the road in a dome. ... Lions DE Willie Young continues to show up big in passing downs. With so much attention given to the tackles, he has 14 combined hurries and QB knockdowns already, and rookie Ziggy Ansah's speed on third down must be accounted for as well.
New England Patriots at New York Jets
Sunday, Oct. 20, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: Rex Ryan will never kiss Bill Belichick's rings, just so you know. That will never change and the Jets, in whatever incremental progress they make, will always be measured against the bullies from Boston, at least as long as Tom Brady is there. These games, like the Ravens/Steelers rivalry, are generally close, even if there is a talent imbalance. Ryan's ability to mix blitz packages and coverages has been particularly effective against this team. Brady ended up barking at his young receivers the first time these teams met, and the New England passing attack is still anything but a smooth operation. The Jets need a win to stay within range of a wild card or to have any chance of giving the Patriots some degree of opposition in the AFC East. These two teams just do not get along, and there was a sideline fracas -- resulting in numerous fines -- at the end of their previous meeting. There are long memories on both rosters and coaching staffs, so it could get chippy again here.
What to watch for: Belichick gets a second crack at rookie quarterback Geno Smith, and I would tend to think that doesn't bode all that well for the youngster. However, with Vince Wilfork and LB Jerod Mayo out for the season and top corner Aqib Talib possibly out for this game as well, last week's miracle win over the Saints may have come at a price for the Patriots. Are they a little vulnerable to an inferior opponent here, and if this is another close, scrappy game, does Brady's fourth-quarter brilliance again decide the game? ... You might think Smith would be more at home in the shotgun given the way the college game is played, but he has six TDs to seven INTs in the gun, with 12 sacks. The pounding run game setting up play action is probably more his bread and butter at this point. ... The Pats' inexperience at receiver -- heightened again with Danny Amendola suffering a concussion last week -- shows up most in the red zone. Brady is completing less than half his passes in the red zone, which seems beyond belief. The Jets are in the top third of the NFL in red zone defense. ... New England has been very balanced on offense but do the Pats come out throwing here? The Jets allowing just 76 rushing yards per game and under three yards per carry; chucking it around early and building a lead could lead to Smith forcing things in front of the home crowd.
Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles
Sunday, Oct. 20, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: First place in the NFC East is at stake and someone is going to be back over .500 in that pedestrian division, barring a tie. Hooray! OK, so lately a lot of wins within this division have come at the expense of other teams within this division -- and/or against winless teams outside the division (Tampa Bay), but by NFC Least standards the Cowboys and Eagles are on fire. The Eagles could be teetering on a quarterback controversy with Michael Vick's hamstring improving and coach Chip Kelly saying the veteran wouldn't lose his job to a short-term injury, but youngster Nick Foles is now thriving in his absence. The Cowboys bounced back from their heartbreaking loss to the Broncos but consistency always seems to allude them -- they have yet to win consecutive games this season -- while the Eagles are vying for a third straight win, which would vault them into first place with games against the Giants and Raiders ahead -- an opportunity to actually build their lead.
What to watch for: The Eagles' looks out of the read option aren't going to be as effective without the threat of Vick breaking off huge runs downfield. Teams are closing in on LeSean McCoy in those situations. Over time, and against decent defenses, that could be a problem. ... The Cowboys are just pulling guys off the street to play defensive line. That was OK against the Skins. But with DeMarcus Ware now hurt and against Philly's athletic, hard-nosed offensive line, it could be a very difficult outcome for Dallas in that regard Sunday. ... The Eagles don't have a corner who can come close to slowing down Dez Bryant. Hot-headed Cary Williams may get the call, but there could be fireworks and more than a few penalties if he goes jaw-to-jaw with Bryant. ... Brian Waters is adding bite to the Dallas offensive line, but the run game is still brutal and with DeMarco Murray banged up, how much can the Cowboys improve here? ... Which Tony Romo shows up? I foresee a heavy dose of pass plays, with him having to throw all four quarters in a shootout. ... Miles Austin has to have at least one more big play in him. ... Brandon Carr, I suspect, draws a heavy dose of DeSean Jackson, a matchup that will go a long way to deciding how many big plays the Eagles can execute. ... Sean Lee is playing out of his mind, and the Dallas LB will have to be at his best to try to slow down the NFL's top rushing attack.
San Francisco at Tennessee
Sunday, Oct. 20, 4:05 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: The Titans don't do anything other than play close games. You don't get a sense that either A) they are going to pull away from anyone and hide, or B) their defense will ever let them fall more than a possession or two behind. It is football in its simplest form as they don't give up big plays. It's three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust on offense and look for a chance to create a big play on special teams. So, even though they face the difficult task of hosting the 49ers one week after a physical encounter out in Seattle, they have a bye looming in Week 8 and the chance to salvage their shockingly strong September. The 49ers try to remain on the heels of the Seahawks in the NFC West, but everything has been a bit more of a struggle than you would think for the near Super Bowl champs, and this looks like another afternoon that could be full of fits and starts for them in a four-quarter battle.
What to watch for: Chris Johnson isn't showing any signs of a breakthrough. The Titans running back isn't going to see much daylight against this defense in particular, especially with the passing game even more limited and mistake-prone since Ryan Fitzpatrick took over. Do we get more Jackie Battle (and eventually Shonn Greene)? ... Colin Kaepernick, even when winning, seems overwhelmed at times and he's having trouble getting into a rhythm. Against this aggressive defense, and veteran playcaller Gregg Williams, I doubt he looks all that much more comfortable. ... Vernon Davis accounted for half of Kaepernick's completions and nearly all of his yards last week, so the Titans defensive focus won't go far from him. ... Since catching 13 balls for 208 yards in Week 1, Anquan Boldin has 16 catches for 213 yards in five games. He had nine first downs in the opening week and 11 since and has averaged 6 yards or less a catch in four of the past five games. Getting downfield is an issue. ... The 49ers are fourth worst in the NFL in red zone passing -- the failure of players to separate is part of the issue -- with a 57 rating. The Titans have the NFL's fifth-worst red zone passing defense. Something has to give.
Houston at Kansas City
Sunday, Oct. 20, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: The Kansas City Chiefs , the worst team in the NFL a year ago, are one of just two unbeaten teams remaining in the NFL. They are pulling away from the wild-card pack in a diluted AFC (I am going to go ahead and give the Broncos the AFC West) and they have a chance to pretty much kill off the Houston Texans on Sunday. The Texans have became a punchline with fans burning jerseys and creeping out Matt Schaub around his house with some even cheering when injury forced Schaub from the game last week. Their 2013 season is starting to feel eerily similar to the Chiefs' 2012 campaign (remember the applause when Matt Cassel was knocked out?), with a coaching change perhaps on the horizon as well. The stumbling Texans come in off a week with the quarterback position in the hands of Case Keenum, so when it comes to high anxiety in October this is pretty much off the charts.
What to watch for: The Chiefs' pass rush -- 10 sacks last week! -- against new Texans quarterback Case Keenum, with a crowd that just set some sort of Guiness world record for noise last week. ... Kansas City is pretty thin at tackle all of a sudden and at some point J.J. Watt is going to have one of the massively disruptive games he made a weekly habit of a year ago. ... The Chiefs still don't even pretend to think there is a threat of making a play downfield. They have attempted just eight passes that traveled 21 yards or more in the air all season, and completed only three. The team with the next fewest attempts? Yeah, Houston. Forget about the need for deep safety help here. ... Watching how handcuffed Smith is, I still can't help but think the Chiefs might be taking a quarterback in the first round this spring. ... Texans T Derek Newton tied for the NFL lead with five holding calls already (to go with two false starts); expect that number to soar against this front seven.
Chicago at Washington
Sunday, Oct. 20, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: Jay Cutler came oh so close to being a Washington Redskin. Owner Dan Snyder had long had his eyes on Mike Shanahan to be his head coach and he knew Shanahan coveted Cutler -- Shanahan drafted him in Denver -- so when Cutler asked to leave the Broncos and the team was more than willing to accommodate, few clubs worked harder to get him than the Washington Redskins . In the end, much to their shock and dismay, they lost out to the Chicago Bears , which led to failed experiments with Donovan McNabb and that season with the Beck/Grossman combo at quarterback and then, ultimately, the Redskins giving up a gaggle of top picks to move up and take Robert Griffin III. So, yeah, there's some bromance stuff going on between the Bears QB and his old coach, while the Shanahan/RG3 relationship remains under a microscope. Shanahan doesn't turn things around ASAP and his job security will once again be a hot topic.
What to watch for: RG3 looked more comfortable running and being himself last week than he had all season, which was natural coming out of the bye, but how long does it last? Will running more lead back to the type of kill shots he was absorbing last season? ... TE Jordan Reed could be in for a big second half of the season. Teams seem to be taking away Pierre Garcon deep and with few proven options to throw the ball to, the quarterback is looking frequently at the young tight end. He clearly understands the offense better and his athleticism leaps out at you. ... With the Cowboys and Giants, TE Martellus Bennett always seemed to make big plays against the Redskins, even in a limited role. ... Alshon Jeffery could go off again this week. The Skins are thin in the secondary and have to put a lot of attention on Brandon Marshall. ... I don't see the kind of sustained pass rush out of Brian Orakpo the Redskins want and need.
Buffalo at Miami
Sunday, Oct. 20, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: If there is an AFC East team that is going to challenge the Patriots -- and every year analysts and fans try to create one -- then that team had better go something like go 5-1 within the division. That means running the table everywhere but in Foxboro. So that makes this game huge, to the extent that you are one of the true believers who actually believes a threat to New England lurks somewhere in this division (I don't). The Buffalo Bills , for all of their quarterback injuries, don't strike me as being as bad as their record, and we'll see if the Miami Dolphins are as good as that 3-0 start signaled. They come out of the bye with questions being asked about their legitimacy while the Bills generally play opponents tough but just can't find a way to win nearly enough.
What to watch for: Beware going under center for the Bills. Going back to Kevin Kolb's freak injury in the preseason, it has been akin to taking the drumming gig with Spinal Tap. EJ Manuel has gone down a few times and remains out, Thad Lewis got hurt last week in his first start and Matt Flynn might get rushed into action Sunday depending on how Lewis holds up -- and if we know anything about quarterbacks it's that Flynn tends not to stay anywhere too long. ... Look for a renewed intent to run the ball by the Dolphins coming out of the bye, trying to better protect QB Ryan Tannehill. But given the collection of offensive linemen and running backs at their disposal, will anything really change in terms of production? I have my doubts. ... No truth to the rumor Mike Wallace pouted about the number of targets that came his way during the bye week. With Buffalo's secondary getting healthier, I wonder if he's less of a factor here than someone like WR Brian Hartline. ... Look for Cameron Wake -- healthier than he has been in a month or so -- to be a big factor in this game against an offensive line that has had to continue shifting around parts.
Cleveland at Green Bay
Sunday, Oct. 20, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: The Green Bay Packers are seriously short of receivers and the Cleveland Browns have the goods to slow you down. They could be catching the Packers at the right time, with James Jones and Randall Cobb beat up, though Aaron Rodgers found a way to get it done in Baltimore despite being down to two receivers. Still, the AFC North teams -- Cincinnati and Baltimore -- have held the Packers' passing attack largely in check and continued the woes of Green Bay's red zone offense. How quickly can Rodgers create new heroes? It looks like the Packers are about to go on a roll to become one of the NFC's elite, as expected, and the Browns don't look like the upstart bunch that was surging before Brian Hoyer got hurt. But, again, they can play some defense.
What to watch for: Jarrett Boykin. Packers receiver. He had some issues catching on to long balls from Rodgers but shined in the screen game in the second half against the Ravens. ... People continue to sleep on the Packers' run game. It's better than it has been in years. Green Bay has rushed for 641 yards in its past four games, a hearty 160 per game. The Browns are one of only five teams allowing less than 3.5 yards per carry. Phil Taylor is a beast on the inside and his presence should deter some of that yardage on the ground. ... With the Packers' receiver injuries, Joe Haden vs. Jordy Nelson is the mano-a-mano situation to watch in this one. ... The Packers are getting very thin at outside linebacker -- QB Brandon Weeden needs to find a way to be somewhat accurate getting balls to TE Jordan Cameron, who has a chance to pick up chunk yards here. ... Packers TE Jermichael Finley becomes the most valuable weapon for Rodgers over the middle, especially if Haden locks up exclusively on Nelson.
Tampa Bay at Atlanta
Sunday, Oct. 20, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: It's a battle for last place in the NFC South, a division where, if things continue on the path it's going, maybe three coaches are looking for work come January. Their demise will be hastened by losses within this division. If the Falcons are going to have any chance of salvaging their season it must start here, coming out of the bye against a hapless outfit that has yet to win. This is a must-win game in mid-October. How many of those can you legitimately point to in this league?
What to watch for: Can the Falcons win low-scoring games? Are they built that way? Without Julio Jones and without offensive balance -- they don't have a healthy feature back or a running game -- that might be the way they have to win. ... Time for a bunch of jump balls to Vincent Jackson for the Bucs. With a poor pass rush and suspect cover corners on the Falcons, no reason to make the game plan too cute. Feature your best players. They've completed just 11 of 25 targets to him the past two weeks; force QB Mike Glennon to get it just a little closer to him, because if it's anywhere close he can make a play on it. ... The Falcons' defense is shockingly bad on third-and-long, worst in the NFL, allowing 44 percent of conversions. And the lack of natural pass rush is an acute problem in the red zone. ... Few teams are struggling to tackle runners after the catch like the Falcons as well. ... The Bucs simply can't score. They're incapable. Even against a sagging Atlanta defense, they don't seem capable of much. They have 11 scoring drives all season (worst in the NFL), with five of them coming via a field goal. The NFL average is more than double that (23 scoring drives). When you consider they have one of the more explosive running backs in the NFL and one of its most dominant receivers, it's hard to grasp just how ineffective they have been. Not much has changed to this point with Glennon at quarterback. Not sure it will.
St. Louis at Carolina
Sunday, Oct. 20, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: I can't figure either of these teams out. Few clubs take such drastic ebbs and flows on a weekly basis. They could blow someone out or lose by 30 any given week. At times they have looked to be utterly clueless on offense, and at other times they have seemed potent, at least for small stretches. So this is the ultimate head-scratcher for me. I have no idea which side of either team will show up here, but the reality is despite all of their missteps, the Rams are .500 and the Carolina Panthers would be .500 with a win. So there could be some lingering meaning coming from this affair, at least in terms of either St. Louis or Carolina hanging around the periphery of the playoff scene.
What to watch for: There will be no shortage of young defensive stars on the field here. The front seven of both clubs is loaded with individual talent, any of whom could end up starring on Sunday. The Rams seem to have rediscovered some continuity on defense, and more of a pulse, since re-signing LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar. ...With the Rams able to manage the game, not fall behind and curtail Sam Bradford's attempts, the QB has responded with six TDs, no INTs and a rating of 135. It's just two games, and they have come against Jacksonville and Houston, but coming off that Thursday night debacle at home against the 49ers, it's worth noting the groove he's currently in. ... The Rams are also finally finding ways to get first-round pick Tavon Austin more involved in the base offense. ... Steve Smith could turn back the clock against this Rams secondary. ... The Rams shined against the read option a year ago, but cannot stop the run this season and Cam Newton will be a problem to contain.
San Diego at Jacksonville
Sunday, Oct. 20, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: The Jacksonville Jaguars gave the Broncos a game. That was a one-possession contest for the better part of the day, it was a two-point game at halftime and this is as close as the Jags have come to a confidence-building week all season. Now they get a San Diego Chargers team that has lost quite a few tough, winnable games in recent years having to travel all the way to Florida. I'm not calling for the upset, but I am looking for spots where the Jags can avoid 0-16.
What To Watch For: Chad Henne gives the Jags a chance to at least not fall totally out of games in the first quarter. That alone is a step up from Blaine Gabbert. ... Jacksonville's defense is quietly making some strides each week, but allowing 150-plus yards per game on the ground (22 more yards than anyone else in the NFL) is enough to undermine any team, and might be enough to make Ryan Mathews look like a viable running option this week for San Diego. ... Jags WR Justin Blackmon has been a force since returning from suspension. Defending him will be a problem for the Chargers and expect plenty of safety help on him. ... The Jags would love to see Maurice Jones-Drew have a big game, which would help create some trade value. ... Can Ryan Mathews put together back-to-back strong weeks? ... Chargers K Nick Novak is in a strong run of form and his ability to kick from distance has increased in recent years.
Minnesota at New York Giants
Monday, Oct. 21, 8:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Why to watch: It's Monday night. There is no other discernible football-related product up against this on the boob tube. This is it. And, well, we're looking at Josh Freeman's first appearance as a Viking -- a happy ending for him to what had been quite a saga the past month -- and, did I mention it was on Monday night? So it's the only football game on TV. Oh, I covered that already, too, didn't I? Well, on the bright side, you will almost certainly be spared the chore of having to watch Christian Ponder or Matt Cassel play quarterback, at least from the start. Otherwise, well, these two teams have one win between them, and even that was one the Minnesota Vikings tried like heck to give back to the Steelers, who finally won their first game last week.
What to watch for: Eli Manning cannot possibly keep up this dizzying, maddening, stupefying pace of turnovers, can he? And if he does, at some point will Tom Coughlin turn the keys over to Curtis Painter? Dare I ask it? ... The Vikings will look to get the ball deep with Freeman at the helm. Look for more two-tight-end sets with both getting vertical and a real effort made to get Greg Jennings involved early. Freeman can throw a heck of a long ball, and do so with a moving pocket. ... Will Brandon Jacobs be able to run as hard as he did last week again this week? ... Could this be Hakeem Nicks' last game as a Giant, with other teams coveting him as a potential trade target?
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