Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 9, beginning with Manning-Brady XVI and continuing below with 10 more things to watch.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The less glamorous reality of one of football's greatest rivalries is that, very often, it has not been Tom Brady or Peyton Manning who determined the outcome of their meeting. It was the team that had the better defense (that helps explain how the New England Patriots won the first six meetings, from 2001 to '04) or, even more counterintuitively, the better running game (the Denver Broncos had more rushing yardage in last season's AFC Championship Game).
That's not why everyone will watch the 16th installment of this rivalry, of course. But it is why the teams engaged in what John Elway dubbed an "arms race" to add parts during free agency, many of them designed to foil the other quarterback. The result is that Brady, 37, and Manning, 38, will lead much more complete teams than they did last season -- the Broncos came into this week ranked first against the run and sixth in scoring defense; the Patriots hit midseason slotted second against the pass and 14th in scoring defense -- and meet for just the second time in the regular season when their squads hold the AFC's two best records. And, in what gives this game its glow, when they are playing, remarkably, some of the best football of their respective careers.
In their last four respective games, Manning and Brady have combined for 28 touchdowns, 2,588 yards and a passer rating of 128.2. Since Week 5, they are the league's top two quarterbacks in passing touchdowns, completion percentage and passer rating. It is a testament to how routine their greatness has become that we forget perhaps the most underappreciated statistic for all athletes: their age.
Bill Belichick, whose sentences grow shorter when the games get bigger, had few reflections on the rivalry this week, although he said that Manning is the toughest quarterback he has ever coached against, surpassing even Joe Montana, Dan Marino and Elway. A greater indication of Belichick's respect for Manning came after Peyton broke Brett Favre's career touchdowns record, though. Belichick is not one for self-deprecation, but he said that Manning might have had to wait a lot longer to break the record if he hadn't played so often against Belichick's teams, because his defenses had yielded so many of those scoring strikes.
Brady and Manning, though, are friendly rivals. They have, in years past, talked over everything from injuries to strategies. Manning is a fan of the small, special fraternity of quarterbacks -- he often asks visiting reporters for updates on his out-of-town counterparts -- because he believes there are few other people who can understand their jobs. On Wednesday, Brady narrowed it to an even more exclusive group, the quarterbacks who play at a high level year after year. In his appreciation of Manning, Brady also revealed what has made it, for more than a decade, essentially a group of just two.
"You just count on a great performance from him every week," Brady said. "It's not an easy thing to do. There are a lot of people who have played that don't do it on a consistent basis, so when you see someone who does it at a high level, I have a lot of appreciation for that. I understand what it takes, and it's not just a daily commitment; it's a life commitment. Every decision you make is a conscious decision to try to help your team win, whether that's in March or that's in September or whether that's in November. You can't just flip the switch when it matters. You've got to try to communicate that to all your teammates that the competition is always on. It never goes away. You're either getting better or you're getting worse, and I've always respected him because he's always someone who has chosen to get better."
Brady was in a playful mood this week, cracking Halloween jokes -- a marked contrast from just a month ago, when, in the wake of a blowout loss to the Chiefs that exposed the Patriots' instability on the offensive line, he darkly left unanswered the question of if the Patriots had enough talent to win. Since then, he has played with a fury, as if each pass was a pointed response to those who, just a few weeks ago, wondered if he was in inevitable decline. Manning, of course, is familiar with those questions, too. And while he and those close to him privately wondered if he would ever play again after his neck injury, Manning bristled this week when asked about what Brady might have been feeling.
"It all depends on how much credit you give to quotes, sources, 'they,' 'people.' I've always wanted to meet 'they,' and I've always wanted to meet sources because they seem to say a lot," Manning said. "I'm not speaking for Tom, but my guess is he didn't give 'they' or those people a lot of credibility."
Neither of them have to. The game they will play Sunday could determine home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, a not-unfamiliar scenario in the Brady-Manning series. Each season it seems more improbable that we will have many more of these momentous games and even more unlikely to have another when Brady and Manning are still at the very top of their games. It has come to feel like an NFL birthright. But really, it's all a bonus.
Brady was asked this week if having a peer as successful as Manning has spurred him on to his own heights, the way great rivals like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson or Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus did for each other. Brady took the moment to tweak Manning, but hidden in the joke was an acknowledgement that the masters are still at work, even with the end somewhere on the horizon.
"He's always been someone I've really looked up to and studied and admired," Brady said. "I mean, he is older than me and has more playing experience than me. Maybe when I'm his age, I'll be playing as well as that."
1) Tony Romo could be limited by his painful back, and even if he plays the whole game, he might spend a lot of time on it. The Cardinals have not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, which could force the game into Romo's hands. He was sacked five times -- the most among all quarterbacks in Week 8 -- when facing a Washington blitz. Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles blitzes non-stop, 137 times this season (most in the league). And the aggressive approach has proven effective -- opposing quarterbacks have a rating of just 74.5 when facing a Cardinals blitz.
2) Has Ben Roethlisberger stopped throwing touchdowns yet?Big Ben threw six -- against zero interceptions -- in his 522-yard masterpiece against the Colts. So, can the Ravens slow him? Baltimore has held five of seven opponents to 20 or fewer points, and the defense has nine takeaways in the last five games. With their defense lagging, the Steelers' offense is carrying the load, averaging 25.6 points per game (ninth in the league entering Week 9).
3) Giants general manager Jerry Reese publicly said he wants the offense to be more aggressive. If Colts cornerback Vontae Davis' knee injury compromises him, this could be New York's week to let it rip and try to go toe-to-toe with Andrew Luck. Indianapolis' defense was just shredded by Pittsburgh, in part because Davis got hurt in the first quarter. According to Pro Football Focus, Davis has allowed 15 receptions for 183 yards on 33 targets. That 45.5 percent clip (of receptions allowed) is third-best in the NFL, and Davis' opposing passer rating of 37.8 is also third-best.
4) Philadelphia QB Nick Foles has to protect the ball better this week. He has accounted for 12 turnovers this season -- after committing just four during the entire 2013 campaign -- and his overall play is down considerably from last year, with a completion percentage under 60. Houston's four wins have come against Washington, Oakland, Buffalo and Tennessee, but the defense has a takeaway in every single game, with 17 total (second-most in the NFL).
5) Desperately seeking Beast Mode.Russell Wilson isn't throwing downfield as well, and Seattle's defense has had a significant drop-off in almost all categories. Even though the Raiders might cure all this week, the storyline to watch could be Marshawn Lynch's lessening impact on the Seahawks' game plan. He has failed to reach 100 yards in any of the past six games. He finished the 2013 regular season on a six-game drought, too. So he has rushed for at least 100 yards only once in his last 13 non-postseason games.
6) While Michael Vick starting for the Jets might produce drama, the state of Kansas City QB Alex Smith's shoulder sprain is more important in the playoff chase. Smith was injured last week, perhaps explaining why he threw only one pass that went more than 10 yards down the field. In fact, Smith's passes on Sunday averaged just 2 yards in the air, bringing his season average down to 5.6 air yards per throw (lowest in the NFL). Thus, the Jets' beleaguered secondary might get a break.
7) This seems like a week where Cincinnati's offense can get itself right again, no matter how A.J. Green's toe is. The Bengals have just 81 plays of at least 10 yards this season, third-fewest in the NFL. The Green effect is part of it: Andy Dalton's passer rating with Green on the field is 98.5; without Green, it's 79.8. But the Jaguars have allowed 24 completions of at least 20 yards in the air, the most in the NFL.
8) After a blowout loss to the Broncos and a bye, can San Francisco correct its offensive woes against the Rams? The 49ers averaged 75.5 rushing yards in their last two games, after having a 145-yard average in their first five. Colin Kaepernick has a completion percentage of 63.8 with five interceptions, after having eight all of last season. Fortunately the Rams are allowing the league's highest completion percentage (70.2) and the second-most rushing yards (144.7 per game).
9) We knew this was a very deep draft class of receivers last spring, but wow! In Week 8, nine rookie receivers (all taken in the first four rounds) had at least 75 receiving yards, the first time that's happened in league history. While two -- Buffalo's Sammy Watkins and Green Bay's Davante Adams -- have byes, Indianapolis's Donte Moncrief, who had 113 yards against the Steelers last week, could be poised for another big game Monday night. The Giants have given up 28 passes of at least 20 yards this season, tied for sixth-most in the league.
10) Is it really a surprise we are seeing outlandish quarterback performances this year? Not with the penalty emphasis. Games are averaging two more penalties called over last season, with an average of just one more accepted call per game. But illegal-contact calls have more than tripled, from 25 to 84 through Week 7, defensive holding is up from 109 to 196 and defensive illegal use of hands is up from 27 to 79. Meanwhile, offensive pass interference is up slightly, from 45 to 62.