|While Drew Brees has posted astounding numbers, Matt Ryan has astounded with poise beyond that of most rookies.|
Here are some key matchups to watch in Week 10 games:
New Orleans QB Drew Brees vs. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan
This is a big game for both teams in terms of winning the NFC South, or at least staying in the wild-card race. In four starts for the Saints against Atlanta, Brees is 4-0 with seven TD passes and one interception. Ryan as a rookie is 3-0 at home, with three TDs and a completion percentage of 70.5. In each of those those three home games, Ryan's passer rating has been 115 or better.
The Saints do a great job protecting Brees -- he's been sacked just seven times in eight games. Brees is very athletic, and he understands the nuances of the passing game as well as anyone in the NFL, including Peyton Manning. He can make all the throws and remains on pace to set single-season records for passing yards (5,104) and 300-yard games in a season (12).
Ryan, who benefited greatly from staying in school his senior year, manages the game very well. Very few rookie QBs throw more TDs than INTs. Troy Aikman's TD-INT ratio as a rookie was 9-18. John Elway was 7-14. After eight games, Ryan is 9-5. To say he's been a surprise would be an understatement. He showed great poise in leading the Falcons to a last-second win earlier this year against the Bears, and he has a great understanding of defenses for a first-year quarterback. Ryan also benefits from an Atlanta running game that averages 153 yards per game.
Another good matchup to watch in this game: Atlanta DE John Abraham, who has 10 sacks in eight games, versus New Orleans OT Jamaal Brown, who is playing at an All-Pro level.
Tennessee OT David Stewart vs. Chicago DE Adewale Ogunleye
The AFC South leaders -- and last unbeaten team in the league -- take on the NFC North leaders. The last time these teams met in Chicago was in 1995, when the Titans were still the Houston Oilers. Titans coach Jeff Fisher was drafted by the Bears in 1981 (seventh round, 177th pick overall) and was a cornerback and kick returner. After suffering an injury, he started his coaching career with the Bears in 1985 by working with defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan during the Bears' Super Bowl run.
In fact, this rivalry goes back to 1960, when the AFL Oilers raided the Bears by signing their star end Willard Dewveall, who played two season in Chicago before Oilers lured him away.
As for this key matchup, Stewart is a soft-spoken player, nicknamed "Big Country." He was raised on an Alabama farm and is an intense competitor who mauls his opponents in the run game and does a solid job in pass protection. He is very tough and aggressive.
Ogunleye -- "Wally," as he likes to be called -- leads the Chicago defensive linemen in tackles this season. He entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent after sustaining a knee injury midway through his senior year at Indiana. Scouts didn't think he'd completely come back from that injury but he did. Ogunleye is hard to pass over because of his long arms. He is good at jumping the snap count, using quickness and natural speed to make plays. He has very strong hands, and is a good tackler in the pocket. He likes the hump move to get inside the tackle.
Indianapolis TE Dallas Clark vs. Pittsburgh S Troy Polamalu
Peyton Manning, in three games vs. Pittsburgh, is 1-2 with four TD passes and four INTs. Pittsburgh leads the NFL in total defense, ranks third against the run and first against the pass. The Steelers lead the NFL with 32 sacks.
Perhaps the most frequently asked question of the season is this: Is Manning 100 percent healthy? I think the answer is no, but with injuries to the offensive line, it's hard to tell. The Colts most likely will be starting two rookie linemen this week against Dick LeBeau's blitzing defense.
Clark will line up in various positions on the field -- sometimes as the tight end, sometimes wide, sometime in the slot. He has great hands and will catch any ball thrown to him. He has an amazing ability to be in sync with Manning, and also does a good job blocking on the edge for outside zone plays. Clark does a good job running after the catch, and is good in and out of cuts. In the Colts' 2005 playoff game agasint Pittsburgh, Clark had four catches for 84 yards and one TD.
Polamalu is the Steelers' leader on defense -- he's an explosive run/pass blitzer, explosive as a tackler, creating turnovers. He's good in the box and can be very effective in the short zone. He'll break on the receiver, and he leads the team with three interceptions.
Another good matchup to watch in this game: Pittsburgh LB James Harrison, who has 10 sacks, vs. Indianapolis LT Tony Ugoh.
Green Bay CB Charles Woodson vs. Minnesota WR Bernard Berrian
These teams have met 94 times, and the Packers have won the last five to take a 49-44-1 overall edge in the series. Ten of the last 14 games have been decided by seven points or less, with six of those games decided by three or less. In Week 1 at Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers made his first NFL start and passed for one TD and ran for another in the Packers' victory. This is an important game for both teams; the Packers and Vikings both have four remaining home games and both close the season at home.
Woodson is tied for NFL lead with four INTs, and he has returned two of those for touchdowns. He likes to play press coverage and get his hands on the receiver. He has strong hands, and is always around the ball. His strong upper body makes him a good tackler and also helps him strip the ball.
Berrian has very good speed down the field, giving him the ability to make big plays in the vertical passing game. He is at his best when he has a free release -- that is, when he's not jammed at the line of scrimmage. He loves to head fake and will double-move more with his head fake than by stopping and starting. He's been very hot over the last four games -- catching 19 passes for 426 and four TDs in that stretch. For his career, he has 13 TD catches of 30-plus yards.