Week 7 features several fascinating matchups, including battles between some of the NFL's most physical linemen, talented quarterbacks and dynamic skill players. Here are my top five matchups to follow this weekend:
Nick Mangold vs. Vince Wilfork
The New York Jets enter this game with some momentum following last week's thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts, while the New England Patriots are still licking their wounds from a tough loss in Seattle. The main reason for the Jets' sudden improvement is their re-commitment to the running game. Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold is one of the NFL's top interior run blockers. He will be less than 100 percent because of an ankle injury, but he is still expected to play.
Mangold will have his hands full, squaring off with familiar foe Vince Wilfork. The Patriots' mammoth defensive tackle will match up with all three interior Jets blockers throughout the game, but I'm most looking forward to his clashes with Mangold. The Patriots have the NFL's sixth-ranked run defense, and Wilfork's ability to clog lanes is a major reason for their success. If the Patriots can control the Jets' ground game, they will cruise to victory in this key AFC East contest.
Percy Harvin vs. Patrick Peterson
Not many pundits predicted that the Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals would both be sporting 4-2 records heading into their Week 7 battle. Quarterback Christian Ponder has rightfully received plenty of praise for the Vikings' hot start, but wide receiver Percy Harvin deserves his share of credit, as well. He currently leads the NFL with 49 receptions and he's already racked up 540 receiving yards. He is an excellent route runner and his explosiveness after the catch is extremely rare.
Harvin will face a very difficult challenge this week when he lines up opposite Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. He is much bigger than Harvin and has the speed to match him step for step. Peterson has quickly developed into one of the league's top cornerbacks and he's been very productive this season, having already picked off three balls and broken up eight other passes.
Robert Griffin III vs. Eli Manning
The Washington Redskins and New York Giants are both coming off impressive wins. Eli Manning and company demolished the 49ers on the road, while Griffin and the Redskins cooled off the red-hot Minnesota Vikings at home. Manning and RG3 will face off for the first time this Sunday, when the Giants head to D.C.
Griffin's transition from college to the NFL has been smoother than anyone could have anticipated. He is the NFL's third-best passer (100.5 passer rating) and he's also rushed for 379 yards and six touchdowns. Manning is currently third in passing yards (1,772) and he's also tossed 11 touchdown passes. Despite some injuries to key offensive weapons, Manning has the Giants atop the NFC East because of his steady play. Manning is still only 31 years old and this figures to be the first of many meetings with the 22-year old Griffin.
The Green Bay Packers' offense finally returned to 2011 form by putting up 42 points against the Houston Texans last week. Aaron Rodgers erupted for 338 passing yards and six touchdowns through the air. One of the keys to Rodgers' outburst was the improved play of the offensive line. The Packers have allowed 23 sacks (second-most in the NFL), but only two of those occurred in Week 6. The offensive line will need to play well again this week against one of the NFL's most underrated defensive fronts.
The Rams have invested several high draft picks on the defensive line and it is finally starting to pay off. They are currently tied for fourth in sacks (18) and their outside duo of Chris Long and Robert Quinn is one of the best in the NFL. Quinn has already recorded six sacks, while Long has notched four. If the Rams' defensive line can create consistent pressure on Rodgers, this game could be much more competitive than most folks anticipate.
Sean Lee vs. Cam Newton
The Cowboys and the Panthers both desperately need a win. Despite high preseason expectations, these teams are currently sitting in last place in their respective divisions. Cam Newton has regressed following his record-breaking rookie season, and his leadership skills have been called into question by the media and even his teammates. There is still plenty of time for Newton and the Panthers to turn things around, and a win against the Cowboys would be a good start.
Newton is at his best when he's able to create plays outside the pocket with both his arm and his legs. That will be a challenge this week, as he will have to avoid one of the top linebackers in the NFL, Sean Lee. The Cowboys' middle linebacker is very explosive and has sideline-to-sideline range. If Lee can run down Newton and keep the Panthers from producing explosive plays, the Cowboys should pick up their third win of the season.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.