Going into Week 7, there are several intriguing storylines. The biggest one: Will the Colts and Patriots remain undefeated on their way to a potentially colossal Nov. 4 game in Indianapolis? I'm sure CBS hopes so.
While New England, looking for its first 7-0 start in franchise history, isn't expected to struggle this weekend against winless Miami, the Colts certainly could have their hands full on Monday night in Jacksonville. If the Colts win, they would become the third team in NFL history to start 6-0 three consecutive seasons -- joining the Rams (1999-2001) and the Packers (1929-31).
Here are some key matchups from those and other Week 7 games to watch:
Colts S Bob Sanders vs. Jaguars rushing offense
These teams play different styles of offense, and while Jacksonville QB David Garrard has thrown 136 passes this season without an interception, it's no secret the Jaguars want to run the ball first with their tandem of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. In two games against the Colts last season, they ran for 566 yards -- with 375 of those coming in the game at Jacksonville.
Taylor is not much of a factor in the passing game, but he's a touchdown waiting to happen every time he runs the ball. Jones-Drew is short but not little -- he's got the biggest lower legs you've ever seen. He can make an explosive play any time on screens and draws. For the Colts to have a chance, they must win the first-down battle -- amazingly, the Jaguars average almost seven yards per play on first down. Secondly, they have to keep Sanders on the field. The Colts run defense is so much better against the run when Sanders is in the lineup. But he has been banged up this season.
|Al Messerschmidt / Getty Images|
|John Henderson and the Jaguars interior line hold the key to stopping Manning and the Colts.|
Colts QB Peyton Manning vs. Jaguars interior DL
Jacksonville has played well versus Manning the last two years -- in four games, Manning has failed to complete 50 percent of his passes twice, and was exactly 50 percent on another occasion. His TD-INT ratio for the four games is 2-4. Normally, Manning is amazingly accurate and unaffected by edge pressure. He does have some trouble, though, with inside pressure that prevents him from stepping up in the pocket - and that's where Jacksonville's excellent DT tandem of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud come into play. Of course, in addition to pressuring Manning, those guys will make it hard for the Colts to run as well.
Buccaneers QB Jeff Garcia vs. Lions QB Jon Kitna
These two quarterbacks, with a combined 20 years of NFL experience between them (not including Garcia's five years in the CFL), seem to be heading in opposite directions. After a fast start, Kitna has failed to get his team into the end zone nine of the last 10 quarters. The Bucs' Tampa 2 defense, meanwhile, doesn't give up big plays. It has allowed five touchdown passes on the year and averages just under 195 passing yards allowed per game. It doesn't hurt that they have three pretty good cornerbacks. Garcia joins Garrard as the only other starting QB this season without an interception. The Bucs want to run the ball but after losing their top two backs, they are forced to pass more. Detroit allows 263 passing yards per game and has yielded 10 TD passes in five games.
Detroit has a winning record but has been outscored by a total of 38 points in five games. The winner of this game is actually set up nicely to make a playoff run.
Cowboys defense vs. Vikings RB Adrian Peterson
Coming off his best game as a pro, rookie Adrian Peterson makes a timely return to his home state -- and you know he'll be psyched for this contest. Peterson, who is on pace for 1,942 yards (which would shatter Eric Dickerson's rookie record of 1,808), played high school ball in Palestine, Texas. He rushed for 2,000 yards in each of his junior and senior seasons. And as a freshman for Oklahoma, he rushed for 225 yards in his first collegiate game in Dallas -- the Sooners' annual battle with Texas.
Peterson made most of his rushing yards last week against the right side of Chicago's defensive line, running at Mark Anderson. Minnesota also had a tight end on that side most of the time. The Cowboys will certainly attempt to stop Peterson and make QB Tarvaris Jackson beat them. Jackson has two touchdown passes and five INTs, and is completing less than 50 percent of his passes.
Look for linebacker Bradie James will be the key - and he's quietly had a very good season so far. Dallas has not allowed a running back to gain 100 yards in a game this season. I think Peterson will break that string here. Whether it will be enough to spark an upset is the real question.
Titans QB Vince Young vs. Texans defense
This is a matchup of two ascending teams, and they will have many good battles over the years. As long as these teams continue to play twice a year, this will always be a huge matchup because of Houston's decision to pass on Young in the draft. It will be especially big when the game is in Houston, Young's hometown -- don't be surprised if there are more Young jerseys in the crowd than Texans jerseys. Young started as a rookie last year in Houston and ran for 130 yards and two touchdowns -- including a 39-yard score in overtime to win it. He'll be pumped for this game -- but his quad muscle injury means it will most likely prevent him from making an impact in the rushing game. Look for the Texans to load up on the run and force Young to beat them with his arm.
Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Dolphins defense
What a difference a year makes, as they say. New England might be the biggest road favorite ever in this game, and it's a fantasy owner's dream if you have Patriots players on your roster. Miami allows 352 yards per game, 168 on the ground. They've allowed 10 rushing TDs in six games after allowing seven in all of 2006. When these two teams played in Miami last year, the Dolphins registered their first shutout in six years - and New England never even crossed Miami's 30-yard line! Tom Brady was 12 of 25 for 78 yards -- don't expect a repeat of that game! In three road games, Brady has completed nearly 74 percent of his passes, with 11 touchdowns and a passer rating of 130.
New England is plus-7 in turnovers, tied for best in the league, while Miami is minus-6. New England averages more than 38 points per game. One plus for Miami: In six losses, they are quietly averaging over 21 points per game. So if the defense can rise up to slow down the Patriots, maybe they can stay in the game.
Chiefs RB Larry Johnson vs. Raiders defense
Last week it was LaDainian Tomlinson who continued his traditional dominance over Oakland. Johnson has similar numbers against the Raiders: In six career games versus the Silver and Black, Johnson has 634 rushing yards, 147 receiving yards and 9 TDs. Johnson broke out last week against Cincinnati, a team that has struggled against the run. Guess what? So have the Raiders.
Bears QB Brian Griese vs. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb
This is a matchup of two playoff teams from 2006 that are struggling and desperate for a win. Griese passed for 381 yards in a losing effort last week. For the Bears to win, they need another big day from him. McNabb will be playing in his hometown, and he would love to have big game against the suddenly vulnerable Bears defense. After finishing fifth in total defense last year, they rank 30th this season.
For the second consecutive year, there were two trades made before the deadline, and second-round picks were included in both. ... Scoring is up an average of one point per game. Rushing is down 10 yards per game. Passing is up 20 yards per game. ... If the playoffs started today, seven of the 12 teams that would be in were not in the postseason last year. Here's how the seedings would look: AFC: 1. Patriots; 2. Colts; 3. Steelers; 4. Chiefs; 5. Jaguars; 6. Ravens. NFC: 1. Cowboys; 2. Packers; 3. Buccaneers; 4. Cardinals; 5. Panthers; 6. Giants.