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Week 12 Lookahead: Brock Osweiler crashing storied QB rivalry

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The key phrase when the Denver Broncos announced Peyton Manning's injury status on Tuesday was that he would be out at least two weeks. With it already official that Manning would not face the New England Patriots on Sunday -- scuttling a matchup that is annually one of the most highly anticipated and perhaps ending one of the greatest rivalries the NFL has ever seen -- the Patriots were sent searching for the scant video of Brock Osweiler. Manning fans, meanwhile, were left with a disconcerting possibility: With Manning out at least through mid-December, might he have already played his final game this season?

There is no way to know when -- or if -- Manning will be healthy enough to play again. (NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported Thursday that the most realistic date Manning could be back is Dec. 20 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.) And the Broncos need only look across to the other sideline Sunday night for an example of how a young upstart seized an opportunity to start over an injured veteran and never gave up the job. Drew Bledsoe was not a legend like Manning, and it is absurd to suggest Osweiler could have Tom Brady's career arc, but in Bill Belichick's 2001 decision to stick with the hot hand and the quarterback he had wanted to try even before Bledsoe got hurt, he might have provided a precursor to the Broncos' own very public, very delicate -- though perhaps inevitable -- distancing from Manning.

It was lost on no one Sunday that Denver coach Gary Kubiak noted Osweiler's ability to bootleg helped the running game against Chicago. That is how Kubiak wants to play. Kubiak's system was always an awkward fit for late-career Manning and their attempts to piece together an offense on the fly resulted in a pastiche that included Manning playing out of the pistol and the ungainly sight of Manning occasionally trying to throw while rolling to his left. Osweiler is simply more capable at this point of doing what Kubiak wants done.

Still, that was against the Bears. And for all the positives -- most notably, that Denver did not turn the ball over for the first time this season -- the Broncos scraped together just 17 points, almost six full points fewer than they averaged with Manning. Osweiler's audition figures to get significantly more difficult this week and it carries extra weight. Sunday is Denver's opportunity to see how a post-Peyton Broncos team with a formidable defense and running Kubiak's offense would stack up in the playoffs.

Can the Broncos play complementary football -- the defense holding Brady and an injury-riddled offense in check, while Osweiler leads a running game-centric offense -- to stay competitive with the Patriots? And, more to the point, will John Elway and Kubiak come away from the game believing that Osweiler gives them at least as good a chance to beat the Patriots and other likely playoff teams in January as Manning does? With a three-game lead in the AFC West, that is really what these next few weeks are about.

The answer might not be easy to define. The Broncos and Patriots both have exceptional defenses and New England's offense is currently battling injuries to skill-position players and a near-constant shuffle on the offensive line. And there was no guarantee that Manning, playing as he had been, would have beaten the Patriots anyway -- Brady has won four of the last five games in their epic series.

But Osweiler faces a steep climb nonetheless. Quarterbacks making their first start against Belichick and the Patriots are 24-68. And quarterbacks who make their first or second career starts against Belichick and the Patriots are 1-8 with 15 touchdowns passes and 13 interceptions. To complicate matters for the Broncos, the Pats also have the league's second-ranked rushing defense -- New England's defense in general has been excellent and largely overlooked -- which means that Belichick, whose hallmark is taking away what an opponent does best, is likely to try to put the game into Osweiler's hands and let his defense, which came into this week ranked second to the Broncos in sacks this season, handle the rest.

"They ran the ball very well and I think that's what they're trying to get back to, is running the ball well and then setting up the play-action and boot game with it," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. "Peyton Manning obviously has a great system in the pass game that he's been able to incorporate there. Osweiler definitely did a good job with the game plan pass patterns that they've put in, hit some receivers downfield, hit some big plays and then, from a skill standpoint, once you get the ball in the hands of their skill players, it's very dangerous. They break a lot of tackles."

Whatever happens Sunday night, it is hard to imagine it will top some of the extraordinary games the Patriots played against Manning, when he was in Indianapolis and then in Denver. At its best, the rivalry between Brady and Manning produced brilliant shootouts, unorthodox coaching decisions, a nearly annual battle for home-field advantage in the playoffs and, less than two years ago, a free agency arms race designed to enhance the teams' chances of success while Brady and Manning were still at their peaks.

It worked out better for the Patriots and Brady, who not only leads the career series against Manning, but who won that arms race in the form of a fourth Super Bowl title. That the Patriots prevailed just as Manning's physical travails undermined the skills that made him, as Belichick said last year, the toughest quarterback the head coach had ever faced is ironic. And, for Manning and the Broncos, maybe a bit cruel.

Now, with Manning out, perhaps for good, it is entirely possible Brady and Manning will never share a field again. If they do not, it would be a sudden and sad end to an extraordinary series that, in 16 meetings dating to the third game of the 2001 season -- Brady's first career start came against Manning's Colts -- had come to seem like an NFL birthright. In fact, those games were just a gift.

Three more things to watch around the NFL in Week 12

With just six weeks remaining in the regular season, these are three more games with significant playoff implications for every team:

1) Defense is the name of the game for Steelers at Seahawks. Yes, Seattle has the second-ranked defense in the league, and yes, the passing defense is second overall, too. But Carson Palmer also threw for three touchdowns and the Cardinals scored 39 points on the Seahawks just two weeks ago. Enter a rested Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, who is second in the league in receptions and receiving yards and has helped the Steelers to the second overall ranking in yards per play (6.3). The Steelers do have multiple giveaways in each of their last four games, and Roethlisberger has thrown an interception in four straight games. Richard Sherman is allowing a passer rating of 110.2 and hasn't had an interception in 11 games, and Seattle already has given up 34 pass plays of at least 20 yards, more than they did in all of 2014 or 2013. The magic number for the Seahawks is 20: They are 5-0 when holding opponents to 20 points, and 0-5 when allowing more than 20. That's partially due to the struggles of the offense, which has improved in the last two weeks but has still allowed the second-most sacks in the league (35). Russell Wilson and Co. now face a Steelers D that, although it entered this week tied for eighth in the league in sacks, is on pace to give up the most yards per game in team history.

2) The talking point around the Giants this week was that, while they are now relevant and leading the division by one game, they have to finish. The stretch run begins in Washington, which would take over the NFC East lead with a victory Sunday. All four of the Redskins' victories have come at home, the most recent of which was a win over the Saints where Drew Brees and company were held to just 14 points. They'll have their hands full with the Giants, who are fourth in scoring offense, with Eli Manning playing better than in either of his two Super Bowl seasons, throwing 10 touchdown passes in his last three games. But it is New York's defense that could make the difference. The Giants entered this week leading the league with a plus-13 turnover differential, and have forced at least two turnovers in each of the last five games. One key to watch: Will the Giants' blitz Kirk Cousins, who has never beaten them in his career? He completes 73 percent of his passes against the blitz, best in the league, but also has thrown five interceptions when blitzed, the most in the league. The Giants have blitzed on just 21.3 percent of pass plays this season, the sixth-lowest figure in the NFL, but a healthier secondary could free up the blitz.

3) All the attention will be on the battle between old (Matt Hasselbeck) and young (Jameis Winston), but the real focus should be on the Colts' defense. Indy's D is ranked 27th overall and has to contend with a Bucs offense that exploded for 45 points last week and Winston, who threw five touchdown passes. The Bucs have the league's second-best running offense (142.2 yards per game). This game has unexpectedly significant playoff implications. The surging Bucs are just a game behind the Falcons for the NFC's last wild-card spot, and the Colts are tied atop the AFC South and trying to hold on without Andrew Luck. Hasselbeck has been more efficient than Luck, winning all three of his starts, but Indianapolis has scored at least 30 points just once this season. Watch for potential tweaks from new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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