Entering Week 7 of the NFL regular season, some teams are already resigned to their fates, while others are still fighting to keep playoff hopes alive. Matchups in Week 7 can be the final nail in the coffin for some, but they can help widen the crack of hope for others.
This week's slate of games doesn't feature the most interesting matchups between teams, but the specific individual matchups on display are as fascinating as ever.
In the matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions, two outstanding defensive lines will be on the field. While the Bengals have an outstanding offensive line to do battle with Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Ezekiel Ansah and the rest of the Lions rotation, the Lions offensive line is less proven. The Lions' offensive line has played well this year, but there is a key matchup between an All-Pro talent and an impressive rookie that will be decisive.
A battle between a perennial All-Pro and emerging youngster will also take place on Sunday night, when Peyton Manning returns to Indianapolis. Even though Andrew Luck and Manning will share the spotlight when the Indianapolis Colts face the Denver Broncos, it's one of the coaches on the sidelines who will have the biggest impression on this game.
Geno Atkins vs. Larry Warford/Rob Sims
Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins was unlucky not to be named the defensive player of the year last season. In any other year, when J.J. Watt wasn't having a crazy season, Atkins would have likely run away with the award. Atkins is still a relative unknown for your average NFL fan, but he quickly makes his presence felt in every game he plays.
Last week against the Buffalo Bills, Atkins showed off the variety and talent in his game.
Atkins is roughly 300 pounds and 6'1". His frame is built in such a way that he can be a dominant bull-rusher but also an evasive speed rusher.
Both of those aspects of his game were on display last week.
His height is crucial for using those physical traits. He is able to get leverage underneath most offensive linemen when getting around the corner or underneath a blocker's chest. Both the Lions' offensive guards are taller than Atkins, but not too tall; both stand at 6'3".
Rookie right guard Larry Warford and veteran left guard Rob Sims have been very impressive pass-blockers for quarterback Matthew Stafford this season. Stafford has been able to throw from a clean pocket consistently. Last week, the Cleveland Browns only sacked him once despite having a lot of talent in the trenches.
While Warford and Sims have played well this season, they haven't faced a player like Atkins.
Atkins not only brings those physical traits and a relentless motor to the table, he also understands how to use his hands to create separation from more technically gifted offensive linemen. This refined technique means that Atkins cannot be consistently contained in one-on-one situations against either guards, centers or offensive tackles.
There are a few ways to slow Atkins down and take advantage of his tendencies.
He likes to shoot gaps in the offensive line, so sometimes he can be too aggressive, which exposes him to draw plays or specifically designed running plays that draw him downfield.
Last week, the Bills were able to take advantage of Atkins' tendencies on a few occasions. The Lions should be able to do the same because they have the excellent Reggie Bush, who can excel running from the shotgun on delays or draws and catching screen passes.
Even though Stafford isn't mobile, the Bengals defensive line will have to always be wary of rushing down the field because they won't want to give Bush space over the middle of the field.
On a screen pass last week, Bush was able to score an 18-yard touchdown when the Browns' defensive line was caught in no-man's land.
Left guard Sims throws a key block to initially spring Bush free up the middle, while both Warford and center Dominic Raiola are running downfield to block on the second level. Considering the Lions have their own very aggressive and talented defensive line to practice against and design their game plan around, their offense should be able to handle the talented Bengals defensive front.
The winner of this matchup won't be determined by pure physical talent. It will be determined by who is smarter on the field and on the sidelines.
Pep Hamilton vs. Peyton Manning
When Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton opened last week's game against the San Diego Chargers with a flea-flicker, it appeared that he was set to unleash his quarterback on a less-than-stellar secondary.
Hamilton was brought to Indianapolis to replace Bruce Arians because he was Luck's offensive coordinator at Stanford.
Unlike Arians, who wanted to throw the ball down the field on a regular basis, Hamilton's offense limits how explosive his quarterback can be and focuses too much on establishing a power running game.
Head coach Chuck Pagano and the other decision-makers for the Colts came to the conclusion during the offseason that they wanted to build an offense that was reliant on running the football between the tackles.
They acquired running back Trent Richardson from the Cleveland Browns during the regular season to be the focal point of that rushing attack, but the unit still doesn't have the offensive line to run that type of offense consistently.
Regardless of whether the power run direction is the right move for the long term, it's definitely not helping the Colts win games in the short term.
Last week against the Chargers, Luck finished the game with 30 pass attempts. Their backs carried the ball just 13 times. However, 11 of Luck's attempts came in the fourth quarter when his team was playing from behind and desperately needed to score.
Below is Luck's passing chart for the first three quarters of the game. The blue checks are completions, the red crosses are incompletions and the yellow circles are drops.
Luck attempted just four passes that went more than 10 yards down the field.
For a quarterback who made arguably the best throw of the season deep down the field the previous week, that is not acceptable. Luck showed as a rookie that he was an aggressive passer who loves to push the ball downfield, so the safe presumption is that Hamilton's preference for West Coast concepts is making him play a more conservative game.
Much worse than not throwing the ball down the field, Hamilton treated Luck like he was a quarterback who couldn't read defenses or make every throw in critical situations last week.
On the very first drive of the game, Hamilton relied on Luck to bring the offense down the field. Luck made multiple throws to get the offense to the red zone.
At that point, Hamilton came out with a tight, run-inclined formation that only put one wide receiver on the field and had four receiving options in tight.
Hamilton has called a bootleg play action to the wrong side of the field for a right-handed quarterback. He may have been hoping to surprise the Chargers defense by going to this side, but because the Chargers have no respect for the Colts' weak running game, they simply stay back in coverage and are aided by the play call of the offense.
This is the type of play that works perfectly with a young quarterback who struggles to read the defense. It puts all of the receivers in one area of the field and in a line so that he can see each player without moving his head.
Luck doesn't need to do this. He can read through progressions as well as most of the top quarterbacks in the NFL already, and he can make every throw.
All this play call serves to do is make any throw Luck makes more difficult because he has to throw across his body and it takes away more than half of the field. If the secondary has less ground to cover, it's tougher for receivers to come free.
None of Luck's receivers come free here, so he is forced to scramble for a two-yard gain.
This wasn't just a one-time thing either. Later in the game on 3rd-and-1, in a prime position for Hamilton to make a statement with his power running game or spread the field and allow his athletic quarterback to run for the first down if his receivers can't come free in their routes, Hamilton again ran Luck to the left side and took away all of the strengths of his quarterback.
Not only did he take away space for his receivers again, this time he allowed the defense to force Luck to throw the ball away as he had no hope of getting to the first-down marker.
Taking this approach against Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers cost them a victory. Taking this approach against Manning and the Broncos would be inexplicable.
Slowing the game down won't work against the Broncos offense. By trying to give them fewer possessions, you are putting the pressure on your offense to be more efficient than theirs.
Instead, the Colts need to unleash Luck by allowing him to carry the offense and create big plays down the field. If the Colts can get big plays on either side of the ball, they can come away with the upset victory.
Trying to grind out the clock against Manning is like trying to rope-a-dope Mike Tyson in his prime.
Larry Fitzgerald vs. Richard Sherman
On routes in man coverage against each other last season, Richard Sherman came out ahead of Larry Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald only beat Sherman four times on 17 routes run, but Fitzgerald doesn't need to create separation to beat defensive backs. It wasn't a fair fight last year between the two because Fitzgerald didn't have a quarterback who would trust him to go up and get the ball.
Carson Palmer has struggled to start the year, but he played very well in 2012. If he can recover some of that form, then Fitzgerald could cause some major problems for Sherman.
Mike Glennon vs. Mike Nolan
The Atlanta Falcons will be without Steven Jackson and Julio Jones for this game. Both are injured, and both were supposed to be pivotal players for the Falcons offense this year. With Roddy White underperforming this year because of his own health issues and a porous offensive line, the Falcons offense isn't built to survive a shootout.
Therefore, if Mike Glennon can put points on the board against a mediocre defense, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should win the game easily.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is a very impressive coach, though, so he could have a few surprises for the rookie quarterback.
Brandon Marshall vs. DeAngelo Hall
The Dallas Cowboys easily dispatched the Washington Redskins last week, but star wide receiver Dez Bryant finished the game with just five receptions for 36 yards. Bryant was mostly fighting off the attention of DeAngelo Hall, but he also received help from elsewhere, so it will be interesting to see how Brandon Marshall fares this week.
Marshall has been frustrated this year as defenses focus on him, but if he gets the better of the Redskins secondary in this game, there should only be one clear winner of the game.
Dallas Cowboys Defensive Line vs. LeSean McCoy
Defensive end DeMarcus Ware is a game-time decision for the Dallas Cowboys this weekend according to Calvin Watkins of ESPN Dallas.
Should he be absent, he'll join fellow starting defensive end Anthony Spencer, who was already ruled out for the season earlier this year. That, combined with the recent release of Jay Ratliff, means the Cowboys front is already very depleted.
Losing talent is inevitable when you suffer injuries to starters, but most importantly, there is also a lack of continuity. Against the Philadelphia Eagles more than any other offense, the defensive front must be very disciplined and play as a cohesive unit.
Josh McDaniels vs. the New York Jets' Defensive Line
Todd Haley, the Pittsburgh Steelers' oft-maligned offensive coordinator, called an almost perfect game against the New York Jets last week. Outside of one end-around wide receiver pass with Antonio Brown in the red zone, Haley was able to repeatedly knock the Jets' front off-balance with misdirection and timely play calls.
Unlike Haley, McDaniels of the New England Patriots is unlikely to dramatically alter his offense against the Jets. But he will need to make adjustments during the game if Muhammad Wilkerson takes over as he has at times during this year.
Mario Williams vs. Jonathan Martin
The Miami Dolphins' Jonathan Martin isn't very strong. He has shown that on many occasions, none more notable than when Aldon Smith ran right over him late last season.
Against the Bills' Mario Williams, a lack of strength is a major issue. Williams should be able to push Martin back into the quarterback throughout the game. He is in position to rack up multiple sacks and pressures.
Martin needs to play better than he has in the past if the Dolphins offense is going to function.
Chad Henne vs. Inconsistency
Many outside of Jacksonville wonder why Chad Henne isn't the clear choice to be the starting quarterback over Blaine Gabbert. Henne has had some very good performances for the Jaguars. He proved to be a big fantasy player at times last year.
However, the problem with Henne is that he has no consistency.
Henne can play well, like he did last week against the Denver Broncos, but he can also look worse than Gabbert at times. He needs to string consistency together to keep this starting job for the remainder of the season, but more importantly, a good display in this game could lead to an upset victory with the San Diego Chargers coming off a short week.
Zac Stacy vs. the Carolina Panthers' Front Seven
Zac Stacy was very impressive against the Houston Texans last week, but he has already missed some practice time this week. Stacy isn't overly explosive, but he has excellent balance, vision and patience, which allows him to get the most out of what his blockers give him. His ability to run the ball consistently should allow the St. Louis Rams to be more balanced on offense.
Balance is crucial for the Rams offense because teams have primarily played with two safeties deep against them this year. That is because most teams could rely on their front seven to shut down the Rams' running game.
Stacy doesn't need to have a huge game; he just needs to be efficient enough to keep the Panthers' defense honest.
Chance Warmack and Andy Levitre vs. Justin Smith
Rookie Chance Warmack has struggled this season, while veteran Andy Levitre is coming off a game when he wasn't at his best in Seattle last week. Warmack and Levitre need to have a big game if the Tennessee Titans are to upset the San Francisco 49ers.
The Titans can't rely on Ryan Fitzpatrick to carry them through this game. They need to get Chris Johnson going, and the first step in doing that is winning in the trenches.
Eugene Monroe vs. Jason Worilds
Rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones is dealing with a concussion, so the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to rely solely on Jason Worilds this weekend against the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens have had major issues on the left side of their offensive line this year, which is why they acquired Eugene Monroe two weeks ago to be their new starting left tackle.
Monroe has a huge talent advantage over Worilds, so Worilds will need to be at his best to create some disruption in the backfield. Forcing turnovers from Joe Flacco will be pivotal if the Steelers are to come away with a victory.
Joe Haden vs. Jordy Nelson
The Cleveland Browns' Joe Haden has had a good season. He hasn't been as dominant as some have suggested, but he has shown up well under new defensive coordinator Ray Horton's guidance. Haden has followed receivers around the field and is likely to do that again this weekend against the Green Bay Packers.
James Jones and Randall Cobb were injured for the Packers last week. Cobb definitely won't play this weekend, and it's unlikely that Jones does either. That means the Packers will have a primary receiving target for the first time in a long time: Jordy Nelson.
Nelson is an outstanding player, so he should be up to the task of fending off Haden's attention.
Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis vs. the Minnesota Vikings' Defensive Front
There are many issues with the New York Giants on offense, but most importantly, they have no running game. The signing of Peyton Hillis this week reflects how desperate the Giants are for a viable running game.
If Hillis and Jacobs can blow open some holes and keep Eli Manning out of obvious passing situations, the offense should be able to put itself back on the right track.