|Could Sunday's meeting between Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger be a preview of Super Bowl XLIII?|
Here are some key matchups to watch in Week 8:
Giants QB Eli Manning vs. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
This week's Giants-Steelers game, which marks the 75th meeting in a series that dates back 75 years, could be a preview of Super Bowl XLIII. And with Pittsburgh's top-ranked NFL defense taking on a Giants offense that ranks second in the league, there are certainly a number of critical matchups in this game.
These teams first started playing each other on Sept. 20, 1933. It was a Wednesday night game, which was the equivalent of a Monday night game in the modern era -- a marquee matchup. The Giants won that game against a team that at the time was known as the Pittsburgh Pirates, a name they would use until 1941. The teams have played 74 times since, with the Giants holding a 43-28-3 advantage. This is the Giants' first trip to Pittsburgh since playing there on a Monday night in 1991.
Adding to the historic feel of this game, Pittsburgh players will be wearing the classic black jerseys with gold helmets that the team wore in the 1950s and '60s.
Of course, both Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger were first-round draft picks in 2004, and both have led their teams to a Super Bowl victory. They have faced off against each other once before, in 2004, with the Steelers winning, 33-30, in a game that featured seven lead changes. Manning threw for 2 TDs in that game, Roethlisberger one.
Roethlisberger has an easy throwing motion with great arm strength. He makes all the throws necessary, and is hard to bring down. He will scramble in the pocket and find open receivers,. He can feel the blitz and is a deceptive runner. When he gets out of the pocket, he likes to throw back to the middle. He has a habit of carrying the ball a little loose, and has it knocked away on occasion.
Manning was the first overall player selected in 2004 (by San Diego, which then traded him to the Giants). He is smart and athletic, with good arm strength. He is very good at recognizing the blitz and beating it, as he did versus New England in the Super Bowl. You can be sure Pittsburgh will blitz a lot from his backside.
While it's not an on-the-field matchup, this game also features two of the best owners in football -- the Rooney family in Pittsburgh and the Maras in New York. The families have always been very good friends.
Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning vs. Tennesee CB Cortland Finnegan
The Colts have won five straight AFC South titles but currently trail the Titans by three games. Tennessee was the last team other than Indianapolis to win the division, adding even greater meaning to this crucial contest.
The question is: Which Colts team will we see -- the one that scored 31 points against a very good Ravens defense, or the one that scored 14 against the 15th-ranked Packers defense? Either way, it won't be easy against a Titans defense that ranks third in the NFL in yards allowed and first in points allowed -- allowing just 11 points per game.
Finnegan, in his third NFL season, is tied for the NFL lead this season with four interceptions. As Tennesee's starting right corner, he shows very good awareness to the ball and is a very good zone player. When playing man, he will line up off the receiver and will burst and react to the ball. He plays with very good speed and quickness, and is a good tackler.
Manning loves to throw the ball from the pocket, and he has played well against Tennessee in the past. In 12 career games against the Titans, Manning has completed 70.6 percent of his passes for 3,079 yards and 20 TDs. In 11 Monday night games, Manning has thrown 23 TD passes and led the Colts to a 9-2 record.
While Finnegan patrols the secondary, he'll be aided by Tennesee's ability to collapse the pocket and pressure Manning from the inside. The Titans have an outstanding pair of defensive tackles, Albert Haynesworth and Tony Brown, both of whom are very good at coming off blocks and making a surge to the passer.
Cincinnati CB Leon Hall vs. Houston WR Andre Johnson
This was supposed to be a bye week for both teams but Hurricane Ike forced a change in the schedule. The Bengals and Texans are teams that don't get a lot of TV exposure, but these are two players worth watching. Johnson is one of the many good young players on the Texans team. He is their big-play man, with very good separation speed. He is very hard to stop on deep crossing routes and has the ability to drive off cornerbacks. Johnson is tied for third in the NFL with 45 receptions. The yardage total for his last three games: 131, 178, 141.
Hall, who lines up at right corner, was a first-round draft choice last season. He led the team with five interceptions as a rookie in 2007, making what was the biggest play of the year for the Bengals when he intercepted a Derek Anderson pass to set up the eventual game-winning points that kept the Browns out of the playoffs. He's a very good tackler along with having excellent coverage skills.
Atlanta QB Matt Ryan vs. Philadelphia DE Trent Cole
Ryan is coming off a bye week after completing 22 of 30 passes for 301 yards a TD, and setting up the game-winning FG in a home win over Chicago. A week before that, Ryan got his first NFL road win in Green Bay, but facing Philadelphia's seventh-ranked defense will be a tough road test for the Falcons' rookie. He will see just about every blitz known to mankind in this game.
It will be a similar challenge to the one Ryan faced in Week 2 at Tampa Bay, when he missed on his first nine passes But Ryan is playing with great confidence for a rookie. He has great arm strength and mobility, and he is helped by the fact that Atlanta runs the ball well (they are ranked No. 2 in rushing).
Cole is a very good pass rusher, working in this game against rookie LT Sam Baker. Cole relies on quickness to beat offensive tackles. He had 12.5 sacks last year and went to the Pro Bowl. This is an Eagles defense that had six sacks in one quarter in Week 3 against Pittsburgh. That tied an NFL record for sacks in one quarter (a record shared, by the way, with the Falcons).
Tampa Bay QB Jeff Garcia vs. Dallas QB Brad Johnson
With Tony Romo out, this becomes a quarterback matchup between a 38-year-old (Garcia) and a 40-year-old (Johnson). Johnson started 14 games for Minnesota in 2006. He's very smart and knows what to do with the ball. He will require great protection and a clean pocket, because he doesn't have much arm strength when he can't plant and use his lower body. He will provide much-needed leadership
The entire NFC South had just one player selected to the Pro Bowl last year -- Garcia. He's smart and understands the West Coast offense. He's able to move around and very seldom makes a bad pay.
Ironically, while Johnson played QB for the Buccaneers' Super Bowl-winning team team in 2002, Garcia will be throwing in this game to a pair of former Dallas WRs -- Antonio Bryant and Joey Galloway, who will most likely be the main targets.