We all know about the can't-miss return of Peyton Manning to Indianapolis; following this storyline is a must. But there are several other key matchups and stories heading into Week 7 of the NFL that are definitely worth paying attention to.
We have new faces in new places looking to give a struggling team a spark. There's the return of a deadly red-zone threat in New England. Plus, find out which team is ready for a big upset.
Does anybody know who Matt Ryan is going to throw to this Sunday?
Find out what's worth watching in the NFL this weekend and why Week 7 is going to be critical for some players and teams.
This is unquestionably the main storyline of the weekend. It’s the story of a legend among legends returning to the place where his NFL story began. To make this juicy story more intriguing, we have the audacious comments by Colts owner Jim Irsay earlier in the week.
All eyes should be on Peyton Manning, as he’ll undoubtedly struggle with a wide range of complex emotions Sunday night.
The fascinating element to watch for is how he performs under such a unique and emotionally charged scenario.
On the flip side of the coin, Andrew Luck will certainly be highly motivated himself when the unshakable shadow of Mr. Manning returns in a head-to-head matchup. Could this be the opportunity for Luck to send a message of his own and solidify his place among Colts fans?
Perhaps the pressure is predominately on Peyton, who is clearly blessed with the more complete team. But on Sunday, against the Colts, this might be more of a curse than anything else. If he were to lose by the very quarterback who replaced him, his reputation and legacy in Indianapolis could take a significant hit.
Manning is not particularly well known for playing his best football during the most pressure-filled scenarios. His playoff record is an alarming 9-11. This is partly the issue Jim Irsay so candidly touched upon.
Will Manning respond by lighting up his former team, or will the moment be too big for him?
Well, the day has finally arrived—Rob Gronkowski is ready to play.
Gronk is officially listed as questionable on the Patriots injury report, according to ESPN Boston, but Rex Ryan will not be fooled by that waste of paper. Not only is he convinced that Gronk will play Sunday against his Jets, but he also wonders whether or not Bill Belichick was saving his best receiver for this division rivalry.
I’m sure if/when Belichick’s confronted by this question, he’ll casually brush it off and smirk at the idea that the Patriots seem threatened at all by the New York Jets, even with the mounting injuries on both sides of the ball.
Gronkowski‘s apparent return should give the often frustrated Tom Brady something to smile about, as his best red-zone weapon returns to the lineup just when defensive side of the ball is getting dangerously thin.
The defense will be without Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, while top cornerback Aqib Talib is listed as doubtful.
Yet these setbacks could easily be offset if Gronkowski is the same man we’ve grown accustomed to watching before issues with his back and forearm caused him to miss significant time. Just how valuable is this happy-go-lucky tight end?
Well to put it into perspective, Gronk has started in 38 of his 43 NFL games and already has amassed 38 touchdowns.
Look for the Jets defense to center its attention on the 6’6” tight end, especially around the end zone. It would be wise to force the Patriots to beat you with their other weapons, which is something the team has become quite good at this year.
Josh Freeman, formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was recently benched in favor of rookie Mike Glennon after he and the team struggled mightily. Freeman was granted his release October 3 and signed a one-year contract with Minnesota (1-4) nearly five days later.
In less than two full weeks since signing with the Vikings, Freeman will already start on Monday night against the New York Giants.
Both he and the Vikings hope the struggles from earlier in the season are not replicated with his new team. He currently has the lowest completion percentage in the league at 45 percent.
If Freeman ends up thriving in his new home, we can almost guarantee Greg Schiano will not be returning as head coach of the Bucs next year. The second-year coach has nearly worn out his welcome with both players and fans alike in Tampa Bay.
Head coach Leslie Frazier is hoping Freeman can provide the spark the Vikings need to change their 2013 season around.
With a nice cast of talent on both sides of the ball, Freeman would be running out of excuses should he fail to improve his situation in Minnesota.
It seems like decades ago that Chris Johnson rushed for over 2,000 yards in a season. His best asset, aside from his speed at this point, has also been perhaps his most surprising one as well. Durability is one thing we must give Johnson credit for as an NFL running back under 200 pounds who has yet to miss a single game in his entire career.
However, his production this year is at an all-time low, as he’s averaging an abysmal 3.1 yards per carry through six games and has yet to score a rushing touchdown.
Before the start of the 2012 season, I wrote an article in which I detailed the reasons why Johnson has failed to recreate his success from 2009. In that same article, I also predicted the ceiling of his NFL production from here on out.
Here’s an excerpt from that piece:
It's doubtful that Johnson will ever receive 300-plus carries in a season again. He should continue to slow down yet still be relatively fast for his position for the next three years at least. Johnson most likely will never rush for over 10 touchdowns again, but he will continue to be a great pass option on screens and check-downs.
I don’t expect him to rush for more than 1,400 yards in a season, nor is he likely to average more than five yards per carry for an entire season ever again.
Considering Johnson has never been very good at breaking tackles, speed was his No. 1 ally for avoiding contact. Without that unmatched speed, he should be forced to deal with tacklers on a much more frequent basis, thus contributing to his fatigue.
So far my predictions are 100 percent accurate.
With that said, his current struggles seem to be worse than anything I would have imagined, and he should be looking to turn things around against a 49ers defense that is without its best two nose tackles, Ian Williams and Greg Dorsey. Plus, defensive end Ray McDonald will be trying to play with a torn muscle in his bicep. This should make San Francisco’s run defense more vulnerable than usual.
With the quarterback situation in flux and Jake Locker not 100 percent healthy, the Titans must establish a running game Sunday if they hope to pull off the upset against the 49ers and end a two-game losing skid.
For the first time in Roddy White’s career, he will not suit up for the Atlanta Falcons. His timing for missing the first game of his NFL career couldn’t be worse for quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons are trying to rebound from a disappointing 1-4 as they come off their bye week.
This leaves Harry Douglas as their leading receiver heading into their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After Douglas, the Falcons don’t have a wide receiver on the roster with more than one catch in 2013.
For Matt Ryan, who has been one of the few bright spots for the Falcons this year, his biggest test of his career will be these next few weeks, as he looks to make the most of a very limited receiving corps.
Tony Gonzales should be doubled-teamed on every play until the return of Roddy White, who is suffering from both a bad ankle and hamstring.
If Matt Ryan is able to generate anything more than 200 yards through the air under these circumstances, it should be applauded. But his primary focus for Sunday will just be trying to sneak by with a much-needed victory.
Few things will be more interesting to watch this Sunday than the quarterback position for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Second-year quarterback Nick Foles will be making his second straight start of the season while Michael Vick recovers from a pulled hamstring.
Last week, Foles made things interesting when he led the Eagles to their third win of the season with stunning precision and accuracy through the air. He currently has a passer rating of 127.9 with six touchdowns and no interceptions on the season.
His impressive performance so far is undoubtedly stirring up a quarterback controversy in Philly that Chip Kelly is attempting to get in front of by having a joint press conference with both quarterbacks.
This cordial display between Vick and Foles should subdue any media perception of a locker room rift over whose team this is or how the quarterbacks are getting along. Both guys seemed genuinely fond of one another and appear to be handling the developing dilemma in the best possible way.
Consider the joint presser a stroke of genius for Coach Kelly, who hopes to undercut the media on any negative stories about his quarterback situation.
In any case, the Eagles will be hosting a beat-up Cowboys defense Sunday, which should bode well for Nick Foles and the rest of that explosive offense. If he manages to put up huge numbers for the second week in a row, along with a victory over a division rival, it will be difficult to bring Vick back into the starting lineup.
Vick has played well this season and does bring a unique dynamic to the offense that Foles does not. But it’s hard to ignore the high level of play by his backup, especially when it comes without turnovers and ends in victories.
This is what makes this game so interesting—we could be witnessing the beginning of a new era at quarterback for Chip Kelly and the Eagles. Unless Foles completely falls apart on Sunday, don’t expect any decision at quarterback to come without heavy scrutiny and second-guessing.
Few people seem to realize that the Houston Texans match up pretty favorably against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Texans are allowing the fewest yards per game (252.8) in the NFL on defense despite allowing 29 points per game, which is mostly the result of turnovers by quarterbacks Matt Schaub and T.J Yates. It might be to their advantage that neither one of these guys will be starting come Sunday. Instead, the Texans will turn to an inexperienced, local product out of the University of Houston—Case Keenum.
When looking at the matchup, the difference in their overall standings is somewhat misleading for the Chiefs to be such overwhelming favorites.
By comparison, Houston's offense is better than Kansas City's in rushing yards (136 versus 119), passing yards (258 versus 207) and total yards per game (395 versus 326). They also have the edge in time of possession (20:92 versus 19:20).
On defense, the Texans are allowing fewer yards through the air (131 versus 190), although the Chiefs have the best third-down defense in the league (24.1 percent).
Both teams can be run on, but the Chiefs are allowing 5.1 yards per carry, while the Texans are allowing 4.2 yards per carry. This should play favorably for what Houston will try to do offensively, which is run the ball as much as possible to set up easy reads on play-action plays as the Chiefs try to stack the box against an inexperienced QB. This game plan should also help slow down Kansas City’s deadly pass rush.
Alex Smith has not been playing that well despite the Chiefs' unblemished record. His best asset to the team has been avoiding turnovers, which happens to be the exact weakness of the Texans. However, look for a conservative style of play by the Texans offense this week that should mirror the Chiefs in terms of throwing downfield.
This should make the game a run-focused endeavor that plays right into strengths of the Houston Texans.
Perhaps the most important thing to consider here is this—football is a game of emotions, and the Texans will be fighting for their lives come Sunday. They need this win to stay viable in 2013, so expect a highly motivated group to come into Arrowhead Stadium.
Another recent development that plays into the emotionality of the game is that defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, will be coaching with a heavy heart after the loss of his father and iconic coach, Bum Phillips.
I would imagine that the defense will play inspired football with the hope of giving its respected coordinator something to smile about in the wake of his recent loss.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and current Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.