For the first time, Peyton Manning will be wearing a Broncos uniform when he faces Tom Brady and the Patriots on Sunday
With the exception of the Colts and Steelers, every team in the National Football League has at least four games under its chinstrap.
So, what have we learned after hitting the quarter pole in 2012?
While the ball remains in the air, running the rock and/or playing good defense aren’t quite out of vogue yet.
We now know that officiating crews aren’t replaceable.
And neither are head coaches.
Compared to last week’s heavy divisional rivalry schedule, seven of this week’s 14 contests are head-to-head matchups between the AFC and NFC. After four weeks, the latter conference has prevailed in 10 of the 14 interconference meetings this season.
What can we expect over the next four weeks as we close in on the halfway point of the season?
No one really knows, and that is what makes this game, as well as this league, so very intriguing.
And by the way, if you do know, don’t tell anyone…
As the Falcons look for the first 5-0 start in the history of the franchise this weekend in Washington, there’s a matter that may have to be addressed.
Lost in Atlanta’s thrilling victory a week ago was the fact that quarterback Matt Ryan, the NFC’s Player of the Month for September, found himself under siege by the Panthers pass rush.
Despite the 30-28 win, Ryan was sacked seven times, which is quite surprise considering Mike Smith’s club allowed only four sacks in its previous three contests.
While the Redskins pass rush has been depleted by the season-ending injuries to defensive end Adam Carriker and, more significantly, former Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo, outside 'backer Ryan Kerrigan is the current team leader in this area, totaling exactly half (3.5) of Washington’s seven sacks this season.
And if Mike Shanahan’s club is going to hand the Falcons their first loss of 2012, Kerrigan may have to come up very big in his clash with right tackle Tyson Clabo and Atlanta’s offensive front.
After getting off to a slow start reception- and touchdown-wise this season, the Ravens speedster has caught fire as of late.
Yes, Torrey Smith caught four passes for 108 yards in the first two weeks, which included grabs of 52 and 40 yards. But in the wins over the Patriots and Browns, the Baltimore wideout certainly caught Joe Flacco’s eye, as he was targeted 10 times in each contest and would total a dozen receptions for 224 yards and three touchdowns.
Now, Flacco and company take aim at cornerback Stanford Routt and a Kansas City defense that may be ranked 12th in the league in passing yards allowed, but it has already allowed 10 scores through the air in four games, which makes two or more touchdown passes in each contest.
And considering that Romeo Crennel’s defenders have produced only eight sacks and a pair of takeaways (both interceptions) during the team’s 1-3 start, the odds may be in Smith’s favor.
It was a Thursday night of missed opportunities when last we saw the Browns.
Pat Shurmur’s club fell short at Baltimore, 23-16, but made things interesting for the defending AFC North champions. That’s because despite completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing a pick-six, quarterback Brandon Weeden just kept on pitching.
Unfortunately, talented wide receiver Greg Little had his good and bad moments. He was targeted 10 times but pulled in only four passes for 77 yards, with more than half of that yardage (43) coming on one reception.
But in particular, it was one grab that he failed to make that stuck out more than the others. On 3rd-and-14 from the Baltimore 34-yard line with just over six minutes to play, Weeden zipped a pass in the end zone to the perpendicular Little, who made a great effort but just couldn’t haul it in.
This week, the young passing combo hopes to do a little damage against a possibly shorthanded Giants secondary. And veteran corner Corey Webster, as well as Prince Amukamara and Michael Coe, could be busier than usual on Sunday.
Isn’t it amazing what any quarterback can do when he’s well protected, especially if he’s one of the premier players at the position?
That’s exactly what you saw from Aaron Rodgers last week against the Saints. The reigning league MVP went 31-of-41 for 319 yards and four touchdowns (one interception) in the one-point win over the Saints. The Packers signal-caller was not sacked in the 28-27 victory.
Of course, Rodgers may be getting used to that. After being dropped eight times in the first half at Seattle in Week 3, the Seahawks were held without a sack in the second half of that contest.
Speaking of without, Dwight Freeney (he of 102.5 career sacks dating back to 2002) is looking for his first this season, but with good reason. The standout pass-rusher hasn’t played since Week 1 due to injury, and the Colts were off last week.
Look for Freeney to be on. And Marshall Newhouse will do his best to keep the star defender out of the Green Bay backfield.
No team in the NFL has given up fewer rushing yards per game than the Miami Dolphins.
However, only two clubs in the league have allowed more passing yards per contest than Joe Philbin’s club.
So is this a case of “why fly when you can drive?"
It’s hard to tell so early in the season. But what we do know is that the ‘Fins do have the potential to get after the quarterback. Witness last week’s performance in Arizona.
After totaling only four sacks in their first three contests, Miami defenders doubled that total in one afternoon against the Cardinals. And the big man on campus in that contest was defensive end Cameron Wake, who totaled 4.5 of the team’s eight sacks of quarterback Kevin Kolb.
This week, Wake squares off against one of the more underrated left tackles in the league in Andrew Whitworth, who anchors a line that has surrendered a dozen sacks during the team’s 3-1 start. But it’s also worth noting that the Bengals gave up 10 of those sacks in the first two weeks of 2012.
With Wake coming off a monster game and Whitworth and company starting to come together up front, this should be a very interesting clash.
A year ago, the Philadelphia linebacking corps had its issue, and most of their problems were based on a lack of experience.
Enter former Texans Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans.
The Eagles’ new man in the middle this season has given the Birds 22 total tackles (21 solo) and added a sack and an interception in four games in 2012. Ryans is one reason Juan Castillo’s unit ranks sixth in the NFL in total yards allowed.
Meanwhile, the Steelers are certainly licking their wounds a bit following a 1-2 start, but they have had an extra week to get ready for this intrastate clash. One issue has been the absence of a ground attack that ranks next-to-last in the league in rushing yards per contest.
Enter Rashard Mendenhall, who is expected to make his first start since injuring his knee in the 2011 season finale at Cleveland. If Pittsburgh’s offense is to develop any kind of rhythm and consistency, the ground game must get back on track.
It seems like a pretty simple formula. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done.
And so far, it’s been so good in the Windy City—for the most part.
The one-time Broncos and Dolphins Pro Bowler leads Chicago with 23 receptions for 352 yards and a pair of scores this season. He has been targeted a total of 39 times in those contests.
Those numbers include his performance at Lambeau Field in Week 2, when he totaled season lows in targets (five), catches (two) and yards (24). Coincidentally, it’s the lone loss for Lovie Smith’s team to date in 2012.
So can Jacksonville’s defense, which has not played up to par this season to date, shackle Marshall and Cutler? That may be up to Aaron Ross and the remainder of the Jaguars secondary more than they realize. The back end hasn’t gotten a lot of help from the men up front this season. Mel Tucker’s defenders have totaled a mere two sacks in four contests, including zero in their last three outings.
Things may get a little unbearable for Mike Mularkey and company on Sunday.
Talk about coming into a game from different perspectives...
Last week, the Bills appeared to be in control at home against the visiting Patriots, owning a 21-7 third-quarter lead over the defending AFC champions. But an astounding 45-7 run later, Chan Gailey’s club was on the short end of a devastating 52-28 setback.
There were no such issues for the Niners last week, as they took out the frustrations of a 24-13 loss at Minnesota in Week 3 by skunking the Jets, 34-0, in New Jersey.
Now both teams go from east to west, with the Bills hoping their season isn’t headed south. Their supposedly improved defense surrendered 580 total yards to New England, including 247 yards on the ground. That’s only two fewer yards rushing than the 49ers managed against the Jets last week (245).
But let’s not forget what Vernon Davis brings to the table. Quarterback Alex Smith has completed 76 passes this season, five for touchdowns, and 15 of those receptions and four of those scores belong to the talented tight end. It will be interesting to see how coordinator Dave Wannstedt opts to handle Davis, especially inside the 20, be it with veteran Nick Barnett or any number of options.
With so much attention on quarterback Cam Newton’s struggles and emotions on a weekly basis, it may be forgotten that the second-year signal-caller is still throwing the football to one of the best wide receivers in the game.
While he has yet to score in 2012, veteran Steve Smith remains one of the best big-play options in the game. In four outings this season, the speedster has totaled 17 receptions for 348 yards, an imposing 20.5 yards per catch.
It’s safe to say we’ve seen what the Seahawks defense is capable of this season. Pete Carroll’s club has allowed only 58 points and five touchdowns during its 2-2 start. And in Week 4, it took a little trickery on the part of the Rams to dent the Seattle end zone, as St. Louis’ lone touchdown coming on a fake field goal.
Browner is an imposing corner, and it will be interesting to see how often Newton tests the Pro Bowl defender with Smith, who hopes to hit pay dirt for the first time this season.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Last season, when the Colts visited New England, it was Dan Orlovsky vs. Tom Brady; hence, we missed out on this fairly annual battle between two of the top quarterbacks to ever play this game.
Peyton Manning is in a different uniform, but that doesn’t make this reunion any less enticing.
What’s interesting is that both quarterbacks and teams have followed a similar path to this collision. The Broncos and Patriots both won in Week 1, dropped consecutive games and then rebounded against divisional opponents in Week 4.
For the record (including their three postseason encounters, including a pair of AFC Championship Game tilts), Brady owns an 8-4 edge in this NFL version of Ali vs. Frazier. But it’s worth noting that Manning prevailed in four of the last six clashes between these field generals.
Simply sit back and enjoy this rivalry renewed.
Clash of the champions?
Yes, we’re aware that neither the Titans nor Vikings have ever won a Super Bowl. In fact, Tennessee hasn’t been to the playoffs since earning the AFC’s top seed in 2008. And Minnesota finished 6-10, then 3-13 the two seasons after reaching the NFC title game in 2009.
No, we’re specifically talking about Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson, the latter the league’s leading rusher in 2008 and the former gaining 2,006 yards on the ground a year later, also tops in the NFL.
While Peterson has rebounded from last December’s knee injury to rank 10th in the league in rushing this season, 102 of his 332 yards coming in last week’s win at Detroit, Johnson ran for 141 yards in a loss to the Texans last Sunday in what had to be a sigh of relief considering his first 33 attempts of the season netted 45 yards on the ground.
Of course, we’re not breaking any new ground here. But given the state of the Titans defense this season, don’t be shocked if it’s Peterson and not Johnson who has the much bigger afternoon at the Metrodome.
Just over a decade ago, the Chargers made Drew Brees the first pick in the second round of the 2001 NFL draft.
Three years later, the Bolts made Eli Manning the first overall selection in April of 2004, but later that day, they would trade his rights to the Giants for Philip Rivers and other considerations. And by ’06, Rivers would be the choice at quarterback, while Brees took the free-agency path to New Orleans.
It's safe to say it’s worked out well for the San Diego, but even better for the Saints, who have made four playoff appearances and won a Super Bowl in large part due to one of the most prolific passers of this or any generation.
And on Sunday night in front of Rivers and against the Chargers, Brees can set a new standard for consecutive games with a touchdown pass, breaking Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas’ streak of 47 straight contests over five seasons with the Colts from 1956-60.
Ironically, the same Unitas played the final game of his NFL career with the Chargers in 1973.
The last thing the reeling Jets need these days is a visit from the only remaining undefeated team in the AFC.
Over the last two games, Rex Ryan’s team has lost its Pro Bowl cornerback (Darrelle Revis) and big-play wide receiver (Santonio Holmes) to season-ending injuries. And we got a glimpse of what could happen to this shorthanded team a week ago when the 49ers strolled into town and pitched the only shutout in the league this season.
Getting off to a good start against the Texans will probably be essential if the Green and White is to pull off the victory. And that means keeping the Houston offense off the scoreboard, especially early, as Gary Kubiak’s club has outscored the opposition 31-8 in the first quarter and a combined 76-21 in the first half this season, allowing just one touchdown in the game’s first 30 minutes.
Now in his 10th NFL season, Andre Johnson remains the one of the best in the business at his position despite some recent injury issues. And Houston’s ability to run the ball with Arian Foster and Ben Tate makes the former Pro Bowler even more dangerous when it comes to play-action.
It will be interesting to see how many times Antonio Cromartie bites on Monday night. And the talented defender will certainly have some sort of impact in this clash in the secondary.