|Paul Sakuma / Associated Press|
|Mark Brunell, Jim Sorgi and Brian Hoyer comprise the backup plans in New Orleans, Indianapolis and New England.|
They know they're the NFL equivalent to emergency exit doors on an airplane. Everyone is aware of their location and purpose, but no one wants to see them used.
That's the reality when your job is to make sure you're ready to replace Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or Tom Brady at a moment's notice. The moment, that is, when one of them is injured and can't finish a game or make a start -- or multiple starts.
Take Manning away from the 8-0 Indianapolis Colts or Brees away from the 8-0 New Orleans Saints or Brady away from the 6-2 Patriots, and you would have nothing short of sheer panic from the respective fans of each team. That's because without Manning, the Colts would turn to Jim Sorgi. And without Brees, the Saints would rely on Mark Brunell. And without Brady, the Patriots would hope for the best with Brian Hoyer.
"(Panic) would be the initial reaction out of anybody," Brunell said. "If those guys go down, there's a thought like, 'Oh, boy, here we go.' That's just a fact."
It would be fair to say, then, that Sorgi, Brunell and Hoyer might very well be the league's most important players through the second half of the season. Because for as dominant as the Colts, Saints and Patriots have been through the first half, an injury to their starting quarterbacks means their hopes of maintaining that success would largely depend on a career backup (Sorgi), a 17-year veteran who hasn't been a starter since 2006 (Brunell), and a rookie (Hoyer).
Those aren't exactly the type of credentials that inspire confidence. Not when the job is to pick up the slack for Manning, a three-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP whose seven 300-yard passing games this year already is his career best for a single season. Or Brees, who has three straight seasons of more than 4,000 passing yards -- 5,069 last year --- and has five 300-yard games this season. Or Brady, an NFL MVP and two-time Super Bowl MVP whose three consecutive 300-yard passing games ties 2007 for the longest such streak of his career.
"When (Manning's) out there, everything seems to go well, everything seems to go smooth," Sorgi said. "Everyone's in the right position, the right place. And I can understand the worry if he wasn't out there. Nobody knows what would happen if that situation did arise."
The Patriots did find out last year what life was like without Brady after he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener. Matt Cassel took over and wound up leading the Pats to an 11-5 record, although they did miss the playoffs.
How much added pressure is there at the prospect of being thrust into the starting job during an undefeated season?
"I've kind of always applied that pressure to me whether it was last year, when we were 3-4 or 4-5, or whatever the situation was," said Brunell, who did spend the better part of his career starting for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "If you get called upon, your job is to go in there and win that game."
There is added difficulty to replacing the starter, however, and not only because your name is Sorgi rather than Manning, or Brunell rather than Brees, or Hoyer rather than Brady. Inherent with the backup role is almost no chance to practice the plays that will be called during the game or work with the starting lineup. That's reserved for the No. 1 quarterback.
"Backups, we're kind of just sitting and watching," Brunell said. "It's really a mental challenge because you've still got to know the game plan inside out."
Said Sorgi, who has spent his entire six-year career with the Colts and has never started, "I tell myself often that, 'If the situation ever arose where I had to go in there and play at a time where we needed to win or in the playoffs or somewhere along those lines, it might not be as pretty as it is when Peyton's out there, it might not be as efficient, but just go out there and get the job done.' I've got to be confident in what I can do, be confident in my abilities. I'm around this team for a reason."
So are those emergency exit doors on an airplane. You just hope they'll always remain closed.
» The Pittsburgh Steelers showed the nation on Monday night why it's going to be very hard to prevent them from getting the chance to win a third Vince Lombardi Trophy in five seasons. Against the Broncos, the Steelers displayed something that a lot of us weren't sure they still had: a punishing ground game. Rashard Mendenhall ran 22 times for 155 yards and is likely to assume an increasingly important role in the Steelers' offense through the second half of the season. Combine that with Pittsburgh's explosive passing game and dominant defense, and you have the makings of another Super Bowl run.
» The Steelers don't allow themselves to be bothered by bad plays. Ben Roethlisberger gives a hard yank to the buckles of his chinstrap and shows a look of exasperation. But then he bounces back by making something big happen. Pittsburgh's defenders react the same way after giving up a few first-down passes. It's as if everyone on the team says, "No biggie. We'll eventually get it right." And they do.
» Sure, a Week 10 Monday night visit to Cleveland will be exactly what the Baltimore Ravens need to feel better about themselves after a loss at Cincinnati. But the Bengals game will be hard to live down. The Bengals' offense did something you don't often see, and that was push around Baltimore's defense. Cincinnati was more physical at the point of attack, and the Ravens had no punch. Baltimore's offense, which seemed revitalized in the Week 8 humiliation of the previously unbeaten Broncos, couldn't handle the Bengals' front seven or their secondary. Even with an expected win over Cleveland, the Ravens aren't likely to gain much ground the following two weeks against the Colts and Steelers.
» After two losses in a row, the Broncos suddenly have to worry about fending off the San Diego Chargers, who have won three straight and finally are beginning to more closely resemble the team that a lot of us thought would be a Super Bowl contender. If the Broncos can't find a way to get their offense -- and especially their running game -- in gear, they could very well find themselves chasing the Chargers. Another thought about the Broncos' offense: Wasn't Kyle Orton looking a whole lot more efficient before he had to tangle with the Steelers' ultra-talented and highly aggressive defense?
They've got answers â¦
» The Tennessee Titans, because what originally looked like a bad idea is working out pretty well as Vince Young has used his arm and his magical feet to help the team to two straight wins after owner Bud Adams insisted Young replace Kerry Collins.
» The Steelers, because despite having free safety Ryan Clark sit out the game at Denver due to a rare sickle-cell trait that can become life-threatening when playing at a high altitude, they had a difference-making replacement in Tyrone Carter, who had two interceptions and returned the first 48 yards for a touchdown. Carter also held his own earlier in the season while filling in for injured strong safety Troy Polamalu.
» The Saints, because Anthony Hargrove is proving to be a solid fill-in for defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis. Replacing Ellis' dominance in the middle of the line isn't easy, but Hargrove has made an impact by getting to the quarterback and making dynamic plays like the fumble he forced and returned for the sealing touchdown vs. Carolina.
They've got questions â¦
» The Cleveland Browns, because (once again) they have no idea who should be their quarterback â¦ and they have nothing resembling a solid plan to fill the GM void created by the recent firing of George Kokinis. Does anyone honestly think someone as highly accomplished as Mike Holmgren would want to accept that position and then be forced to retain coach Eric Mangini, who by all accounts remains in the very good graces of owner Randy Lerner?
» The Chicago Bears, because injuries continue to mount with their already porous defense. And as if that wasn't enough, defensive tackle Tommie Harris does an inexplicably foolish thing by getting himself ejected four plays into the Arizona game for throwing a punch to prone Cardinals guard Deuce Lutui.
» The New York Giants, because in losing to the San Diego Chargers, Vincent Jackson beat their best cover man, cornerback Corey Webster, for both of his touchdown catches, including his 18-yarder to win the game with 21 seconds left. Webster also was on Jackson when he drew a pass-interference penalty that set up a third TD throw by Philip Rivers.
Four intriguing games for Week 10
» Chicago at San Francisco: Perhaps it's too soon to refer to it as a "Loser Goes Home Bowl," but that seems like a fairly apt description for a Thursday night matchup of teams that have dug deep holes for themselves. Certainly, the outcome could have significant tie-breaker implications for a playoff spot. What makes this game particularly daunting for the Bears, who have lost three of their last four games, is that they don't play well on the road and their defense has been horrible. Of course, given how careless 49ers quarterback Alex Smith has been with the ball, he could prove to be just what the Bears' D ordered.
» Atlanta at Carolina: This one figures to be all about talented runners and shoddy run-stoppers. The Falcons have Michael Turner, who has produced 317 rushing yards and has averaged 8.3 yards per carry in his last two games. The Panthers have DeAngelo Williams, who has generated 304 rushing yards and has averaged 6.9 yards per carry in his last two games. But between them, they don't offer much resistance vs. the run, with the Panthers giving up an average of 4.2 yards per carry and the Falcons yielding 4.5 yards per rush.
» Cincinnati at Pittsburgh: After sweeping the Ravens, the Bengals are looking to further prove they're going to have a major say in who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl. And a sweep of the other participant in the 2008 AFC title game, as well as the defending world champions, would do exactly that. The Steelers' pass-happy offense faces an enormous challenge, considering the Bengals have held four opponents to 14 points or less this season. It remains to be seen how much success revitalized Cincinnati RB Cedric Benson will have against one of the best run defenses in the NFL.
» New England at Indianapolis: This could very well be a preview of the AFC Championship Game. As much as the Patriots would love to hand the Colts their first loss of the season, their larger goal is to try to avoid traveling through Lucas Oil Stadium to get to Super Bowl XLIV. Despite mounting injuries, the Colts remain formidable because Peyton Manning won't have it any other way. If the Pats were playing any other team, this stat probably would be more daunting to the opposition: Since 2001, they're 71-17 in games played after Nov. 1, including playoffs.
Top Five Teams
1. New Orleans: The Saints continue to show they can find that higher gear whenever they need it.
2. Indianapolis: Are injuries starting to catch up with the Colts? Sunday night vs. the Patriots should be very telling.
3. Minnesota: OK, it's a cheap shot, but it's irresistible: The Vikings might still feel as if they're in their bye when the Lions come to town in Week 10.
4. Pittsburgh: Winning at Denver made a loud statement. Beating the Bengals to take sole possession of first in the AFC North would make an even louder one.
5. New England: As all-time great QB matchups go, Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning sits at the very top.
Top five offensive players
1. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona: Even without Anquan Boldin to help draw coverage, he caught nine passes for 123 yards and two TDs to help the Cardinals beat the Bears.
2. Dallas Clark, TE, Indianapolis: Reggie Wayne might be Manning's most explosive outside target, but nobody does a better job of working the middle than Clark, who caught 14 passes for 119 yards vs. Houston.
3. Michael Turner, RB, Atlanta: As was demonstrated in their easy win against Washington, the Falcons are a much better team when they get a dominant rushing effort from Turner, who had 166 yards and two TDs.
4. Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers didn't want to push the kid into the lineup this soon, but he responded beautifully with a big-time performance vs. Green Bay (three TD passes, including the go-ahead score on fourth-and-4).
5. Hines Ward, WR, Pittsburgh: He's on this list largely because of his two touchdown catches (among seven receptions) vs. what is supposed to be a strong secondary. But it was his second score, when he made an incredible leap over CB Champ Bailey on the way to the end zone, that made his inclusion a must.
Top five defensive players
1. David Hawthorne, LB, Seattle: Filling the void created by the season-ending torn pectoral muscle suffered by Lofa Tatupu is one thing. Giving a Tatupu-like effort is another, but that's what Hawthorne did with nine tackles and two interceptions vs. Detroit.
2. Jerod Mayo, LB, New England: Looking healthier than ever since the season-opening knee injury that sidelined him for three games, he has been a key factor in the Patriots allowing only 24 points in their last three outings. Typical of Mayo's play since his return was the 12 tackles he generated by flying all over the field vs. Miami.
3. Jonathan Babineaux, DT, Atlanta: In leading a dominant showing by the Falcons' defensive line vs. the Redskins, he had a mammoth game with nine tackles, including 2.5 sacks.
4. Jay Ratliff, DT, Dallas: He led a sterling performance by the Cowboys' defensive line vs. the Eagles. Besides helping to stop a diving Donovan McNabb short on fourth-and-1, he was credited with five tackles, two sacks and a pair of tackles for loss.
5. Troy Polamalu, SS, Pittsburgh: He contributed an interception and was generally a catalyst in the Steelers' ability to smother the Broncos' offense for most of Monday night's game.
Top five coaches
1. Sean Payton, New Orleans: His steady hand allows his team to overcome the challenges that its opponents, driven to be the first to ruin a perfect season, present.
2. Jim Caldwell, Indianapolis: See above.
3. Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati: He and his coaching staff put together a superb game plan on both sides of the ball for which the Ravens had no answers.
4. Wade Phillips, Dallas: Can we put to rest, once and for all, the silly talk that this guy doesn't know what he's doing and that the Cowboys must replace him as their coach?
5. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh: Call him the Master of Monday Night Football, on which he is 5-0 for his career. Call him Mr. Prime Time, too, because he's 12-1 in those games.