This weekend's NFL schedule is full of several intriguing matchups. We will get to watch the NFL's most physical receiver take on the league's most aggressive cornerbacks. We will also get to see one of the league's superstar passers challenge a very opportunistic defense. Here are my five must-follow matchups for Week 8:
Calvin Johnson has set the bar insanely high for himself. He is currently on pace for 101 receptions and 1,579 receiving yards, but the general consensus is that he is having a horrible season. The only area where he is struggling is the touchdown department. He has only produced one score in six games. Johnson and Matthew Stafford have struggled in the red zone. Last season, they torched opposing teams with goal-line fades and back shoulder throws, but they haven't found the same success in 2012.
Johnson will face a very tough challenge on Sunday when he lines up against two of the NFL's most physical cornerbacks. Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are arguably the top two press cornerbacks in the NFL. They maul receivers at the line of scrimmage, and if you ask San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, the mauling doesn't stop there. They have already combined to pick off five passes and break up 15 others. They are the main reason why Seattle's defense has allowed a league-low six touchdown passes this season.
2) Asante Samuel vs. DeSean Jackson
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I feel like I've seen this matchup over 100 times already. During my two years in the Philadelphia Eagles personnel department, I witnessed Samuel and Jackson line up against one another in practice on numerous occasions. Those battles were evenly split, but there will only be one winner when they square off in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. Samuel has been a very solid addition to the Atlanta Falcons' pass defense, and he's been a pleasant surprise in run support, as well.
Jackson leads the Eagles with 29 catches, but he hasn't put together many big games lately. I was stunned when I discovered that he has only had one 100-yard receiving game in his last 17 contests. Opposing teams are content to give Jackson some room underneath in order to avoid getting beat over the top. That strategy might change this week as a result of Samuel's penchant for aggressively jumping routes and trying to make plays on the ball.
3) Ryan Mathews vs. D'Qwell Jackson
The last time the San Diego Chargers took the field, they turned a 24-0 halftime lead over the Denver Broncos into a 35-24 defeat. One of the main reasons for their collapse in that game was the six-turnover performance by quarterback Philip Rivers. I fully expect the Chargers to focus on establishing their running game against the Cleveland Browns in order to relieve some of the pressure facing their veteran signal-caller. Mathews has shown glimpses of his potential during the past two games and he could have a big day against Cleveland.
Cleveland's run defense is currently ranked 24th in the NFL; the Browns are allowing 133.7 rushing yards per game. They will need to hold the Chargers below that total in order to have a chance at collecting their second win of the season. Jackson has battled some injuries this season, but he is a tackling machine when he's fully healthy. He has outstanding instincts and is a sure tackler in space. He will be the key defender in the Browns' efforts to slow down Mathews in this contest.
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Eli Manning and Tony Romo are the headliners in this key divisional matchup, but the big guys up front will decide the winner of this game. The Cowboys stunned the Giants in Week 1, largely because of the play of their offensive line. The Dallas O-line helped pave the way for DeMarco Murray's 133 rushing yards and gave Romo just enough time to carve up the Giants' suspect secondary for 307 yards and three touchdowns. The offensive line has done a good job of protecting Romo all season long (only nine sacks allowed), but the unit must be more consistent in the run game (97.2 yards per game).
The Giants' defensive line had two sacks against the Cowboys in the opener, but failed to consistently harass Romo the way it did in 2011. New York's defensive linemen are currently playing much better than they did at the beginning of the season. The Giants have collected nine sacks in their past two games, and Jason Pierre-Paul is back to playing at an elite level. If the G-Men can contain the Cowboys' running game, this is going to be a fun battle to follow.
5) Drew Brees vs. Jack Del Rio
Here's a quick heads up: Don't make any plans for Sunday night. It doesn't get any better than Drew Brees and Peyton Manning squaring off in Denver. I don't have any doubt that Manning will put up a ton of points against a leaky New Orleans defense, and that is going to put a tremendous amount of pressure on Brees to do the same against a much better Denver defense. Fortunately for the Saints, their quarterback has been locked in over the last two weeks. He led New Orleans to hard-fought wins over the Chargers and Buccaneers by throwing for a combined 731 yards and six touchdowns.
Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio will have the difficult task of slowing down Brees and his bevy of pass-catching weapons. Under Del Rio, the Broncos currently have the NFL's 10th-rated defense, and they are only giving up an average of 215 passing yards per game. I don't anticipate Del Rio's scheme limiting Brees to that number, but he will try and create enough pressure up front to force the Saints signal-caller into a few errant throws. Del Rio's troops picked off Philip Rivers four times in their last contest.