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Midway through the season, it looks as if the Super Bowl could be transformed into the biggest pickup football game two brothers ever played in their backyard.
Super Bowl XLVII is waiting for Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in New Orleans, the city in which they were raised.
It could happen. When Denver erased a 24-0 halftime deficit at San Diego in Week 6, the Broncos didn't just win a game; they unofficially won a division. It would be difficult for the Chargers to bounce back from that loss to overtake a quarterback who seems to improve each week.
Just as he elevated the play of everyone around him in Indianapolis, Peyton Manning is doing the same in Denver. Demaryius Thomas has become one of the NFL's top playmaking wide receivers. Eric Decker has become Manning's security blanket. When Manning plays quarterback, the Broncos look better. Denver's remaining schedule -- starting Sunday in Cincinnati -- sets up for the Broncos to be one of the AFC's primary threats. Denver's nine remaining opponents have a combined record of 22-42, and only one, Baltimore, has a winning record.
Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine an NFC East team catching the Giants. The Giants already have a 2½-game lead in the division. Even though their second-half schedule, which starts with Sunday's game against Pittsburgh, is daunting, the Giants are playing like the defending champions they are. Leading the way is Eli Manning, who has developed into football's most clutch quarterback.
The Broncos and Giants are set up to win their divisions, play at least one home playoff game and be that close to making a Manning Super Bowl happen. New Orleans, punished by the NFL in the offseason, could get its grand consolation prize in the postseason. This could be the most high-profile meeting of brothers in sports history.
The Mannings' high school, Isidore Newman, would be overrun with reporters. Archie and Olivia Manning would be declared homecoming king and queen. Peyton's and Eli's brother, Cooper, would be more in demand than Bradley Cooper.
At this point, a Broncos-Giants showdown is as logical as any other potential Super Bowl matchup. And it means this: Although Philadelphia is known as the City of Brotherly Love, come February, the title, at least for a week, could belong to New Orleans.
1. Eerie reminders: Although Green Bay has struggled to look super, this season is starting to take on an uncanny resemblance to the Packers' last Super Bowl year. The 2010 Packers were 5-3 through Week 8, just as this year's Packers are 5-3 through Week 8. The 2010 Packers had their bye in Week 10, just as this year's Packers will after Sunday's game versus the Arizona Cardinals. The 2010 Packers had an ugly Week 8 win, 9-0 over the Jets, just as this year's Packers had an ugly Week 8 win, 24-15 over the Jaguars. The 2010 Packers had to make do with a stack of players on injured reserve halfway through the season, including running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley, safety Morgan Burnett and linebackers Nick Barnett and Brady Poppinga. This year's Packers on injured reserve already include running backs Cedric Benson and Brandon Saine and linebackers Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith. Wide receiver Greg Jennings and defensive back Charles Woodson also have been out for extended periods. These Packers have to show signs of improvement to match the 2010 Packers, but it's not as if this team hasn't overcome obstacles in the past.
|As former Panthers general manager Marty Hurney found out, job security is low for the coaches and GMs of underperforming teams.|
2. The heat is on: Later this season, hot seats will become hotter and pressure on coaches -- already high -- will intensify. But some around the league already believe there will be a high turnover of head coaches this offseason. One NFL source sent a text this week that read: "I have 8 new head coaches: TENN, CLEV, SD, DALLAS, PHILLY, KC, JETS, CAROLINA." Some of those predictions will turn out to be right, some not, but that illustrates how volatile this offseason could be. If there were eight head-coaching changes -- and there always is a surprise or two -- it would represent the highest number since 2009 (11). But it won't just be coaches under pressure. Increasingly, general managers have come under fire. Last season, the Bears fired Jerry Angelo and the Colts got rid of Bill Polian, and those two had strong reputations. Already this season the Panthers have fired general manager Marty Hurney. Winds of change are blowing in Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Kansas City and San Diego. Again, some GM moves will be made, others won't. But at a time when the pressure on coaches and executives has never been greater, owners and fans demand more than ever. It creates an uneasy combination. As another NFL executive recently texted after his team's come-from-behind win: "The highs like we experienced are euphoric and the lows seem to be catastrophic. In the Twitter age, it's hard to find middle ground or reasonable expectations."
3. Wave of the future: Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton square off Sunday in Washington. No one can prove it, but there are people around the league who believe that Newton helped make it possible for Griffin to become the second overall pick in this year's draft and that Griffin inadvertently has made life more difficult for Newton this season. When Newton exploded during his rookie season, teams sought the next player with Newton's type of talent. Griffin, although a smaller player, had it and more. Multiple teams coveted the second overall pick Washington eventually acquired from St. Louis and used to draft Griffin. Ironically, Griffin has been so good this season that he has been used as a measuring stick for Newton, who has struggled. Now the people who wondered whether Griffin could become another Newton wonder whether Newton can be as good as Griffin.
4. Defenses hit hard: Each NFL season is a war of attrition. But defenses have been hit especially hard this season. The NFL's All-Injury Defense would be as formidable as any of the league's top defenses. Injured linemen include Ty Warren, Phil Taylor and Adrian Clayborn. Injured linebackers include Brian Cushing, Ray Lewis, Jon Beason, Sean Lee and Brian Orakpo. Injured defensive backs include Brent Grimes, Darrelle Revis, Lardarius Webb, Woodson and Barry Church. This Band-Aid of Brothers defense would be able to shut down just about any offense in the league.
|Lineman Haloti Ngata has been playing with a knee injury for a banged-up Ravens defense.|
5. Baltimore bothered: Rarely has a 5-2, first-place team generated more concern than Baltimore. Through seven games, the Ravens have allowed 1,000 rushing yards -- more than the 970 rushing yards their eventual Super Bowl champion team allowed during 2000's 16-game regular season. In the past three games, Baltimore has surrendered 622 rushing yards, including two games of more than 200 rushing yards, something they had done in only one game the previous 14 seasons. Injuries have hurt, no doubt. Lewis is out, and linebacker Terrell Suggs returned only last game. Defensive linemen Haloti Ngata and Ma'ake Kemoeatu have played through pain. But opposing offenses have run the ball almost at will against the Ravens. It is a troubling sign for a first-place team whose grip on the spot might not be as tight as Baltimore would like.
6. No resistance from the Saints: As much as the Eagles have struggled offensively and turned over the football, they have a matchup Sunday night they can win. Philadelphia and embattled quarterback Michael Vick take on a Saints defense that has not just been bad, but historically bad. The Saints are the first team in NFL history to allow 400-plus total yards in seven straight games, and New Orleans has allowed 3,323 total yards, the most in the first seven games of any season in NFL history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. This is not all related to being without Sean Payton or any players suspended due to the bounty scandal. This is a convergence of factors that will make it difficult for New Orleans to turn around its season and make the postseason run many Saints fans expected their team to make. It will be just one more disappointment for the Saints in a year full of them.
7. Odds favor Falcons: Few teams unbeaten this late in the season have gotten less attention than Atlanta. Though some question the merits of this team, there's no denying that the Falcons are set up for a successful postseason. Of the 25 teams to start 7-0 and be the league's last unbeaten team in the Super Bowl era, eight won the Super Bowl (32 percent), 13 reached the Super Bowl (52 percent) and 24 reached the postseason (96 percent). Once it reaches the postseason, Atlanta will need to be sharper at home, where it will host Dallas on Sunday. The Falcons have won their three home games by a combined 11 points, whereas they have won their four road games by 15 points per game.
|Joe Philbin has the surprising Dolphins in playoff contention in his first season as head coach.|
8. Give Philbin credit: No franchise has invested more money in hiring big-name coaches and executives than the Dolphins. Since Hall of Fame coach Don Shula stepped aside, the Dolphins have brought in such big names as Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, Nick Saban and Bill Parcells. Yet one of the men who has had the biggest impact on the franchise has been Joe Philbin, a longtime NFL assistant coach whom Miami turned to once it could not hire Jeff Fisher. Philbin is in the early running for NFL Coach of the Year. He has taken a team no one thought could win and helped transform it into a challenger in the AFC East. Philbin leads his team into Sunday's matchup with one of the league's other surprising 4-3 teams, the Colts.
9. Answering the call: Some players squander their talent; others squeeze every ounce of it from within themselves. Giants safety Stevie Brown, who has been called upon to replace the injured Kenny Phillips, is one of those overachievers for whom it is difficult not to cheer. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound Brown has maximized each opportunity he has received this season and made other teams regret getting rid of him. Enough did so. Oakland cut him. Carolina cut him. Indianapolis declined to re-sign him. Brown found his way to the Giants, and New York has discovered this season what Brown can do for you. He intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble against the Cowboys and in his four starts has turned into one of the Giants' most valuable players. Brown leads the NFL with seven takeaways. He has five interceptions, second in the NFL behind Chicago cornerback Tim Jennings, and two fumble recoveries. Even when Phillips returns, it will be difficult for the Giants to keep Brown off the field.
10. Home groan: If the Jaguars want to sell more tickets, they need to perform better in Jacksonville, starting Sunday when they host the Lions in their first home game since Oct. 7. In their first three home games this season, the Jaguars have gone 0-3 while being outscored 95-20. But there were some encouraging signs last week against Green Bay. The Jaguars moved the ball, wide receiver Cecil Shorts made some plays, and Jacksonville made do without injured running back Maurice Jones-Drew. If Jacksonville can play the way it did against Green Bay and not the way it did in its first three home games, it will have a chance to hand the Lions a loss Sunday.
• Game of the week: Pittsburgh at N.Y. Giants -- Two of football's most storied franchises and the two top quarterbacks from the Class of 2004 face off.
• Player of the week: Panthers quarterback Cam Newton -- He has been questioned and criticized, and he is bound to produce big in the nation's capital.
• Upset of the week: Cincinnati over Denver -- The Bengals had a bye week to scheme for one of the game's hottest players, Peyton Manning.