The quarterbacks don't play against each other, not technically at least, but when the Denver Broncos play the New England Patriots on Sunday, it will be impossible to separate the two, their shared history, their rivalry and their greatness. Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady, maybe for the final time.
Enjoy it. Savor it. Watch every play. This could be it, a final farewell to the best matchup of the past decade, one the National Football League recognized and fostered and treated us to for 10 seasons, just because it could. Every regular season since 2003. Three postseasons. Two AFC title games. The four-time MVP versus the two-time MVP. Seven Super Bowl appearances between them. Four Lombardi Trophies. A combined 269 wins, 714 touchdown passes and 97,196 passing yards. When the time comes, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will have its doors wide open.
Talk about two football lives forever linked, arm in arm, bound together by their success, different as they might be. Quarterbacks. Leaders. Pitch men. The two biggest stars in this country's most popular sport. One more time.
This one will look different than the previous 12 times Manning and Brady have faced each other, for obvious reasons. Manning is no longer an Indianapolis Colt. But even in burnt orange, Manning is still Manning, and the offense Denver is running with Manning at the helm is, in Bill Belichick's rather educated opinion, "identical" to the one Manning ran in Indianapolis for 13 seasons. Manning is still the master of the pre-snap read. He is still dissecting defenses and changing plays and making his wide receivers better. He might not be the Manning of 2006, the season the Colts won the Super Bowl, but he's still good, still a player to be feared.
Belichick fears no one, yet he so feared Manning in 2009 that with a six-point lead and just more than two minutes to play in Indianapolis, he opted to go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 28-yard line, just to keep the ball out of Manning's hands. Talk about exposure. The Patriots got a questionable spot and turned it over on downs. Manning won the game, and Belichick's true regard for Manning was revealed.
In the beginning, before Brady was Brady and the NFL realigned its divisions, Manning lost five of his first seven games against the Patriots. In 2001, after Drew Bledsoe got hurt, Brady got his first career start in Week 3 against the Colts. He helped the Patriots dominate the series, winning his first six starts against Indianapolis, including the 2003 AFC title game and a 2004 divisional playoff game.
And then things changed. The Colts won five of the next seven games. All but one of those seven games were decided by a touchdown or less, including the 2006 AFC Championship Game that Indianapolis won 38-34 at the old RCA Dome. In 2007 when the teams met, New England was 8-0 and Indianapolis was 7-0. Brady missed the game in 2008 because of a torn ACL. Manning missed the game last season because of his neck.
Neither quarterback this week has been interested in waxing poetic about the other. They are friends, sure, but they don't talk during the season and certainly not this week. There has been work to be done.
"At the end of the day, it's the Patriots versus the Broncos," Brady said Wednesday. "I have a job to do [and] the defensive guys have a job to do. You're not blind to the fact that there's a great player on the other side of the ball that is capable of having a great performance. I think you realize that that's a part of the game. He's going to complete passes. They're going to gain yards. It's just a matter of us playing a better 60-minute game, being good on third down, being good in the red area, situationally being good. And if we have an opportunity to win the game at the end, that's what you've got to do.
"It seems like it has always come down to the end against [Manning]."
This rivalry is coming to its end. Manning is 36. Brady is 35. This could be it, so enjoy it.
If Houston defensive end J.J. Watt was the defensive MVP of the first quarter of the season -- and there seems to be little disagreement that he was -- then Matt Ryan was the offensive MVP. The fifth-year quarterback has thrown 11 touchdown passes and just two interceptions as the Falcons have dominated three of their four games and started 4-0.
Last week, Ryan led Atlanta on a last-minute, game-winning drive against Carolina that started on the Falcons 1-yard line. According to ESPN Stats and Information, it was Ryan's 17th career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime. Since 2008, Ryan's rookie season, no other quarterback -- not even Eli Manning -- has orchestrated more game-winning drives.
The Falcons have an opportunity to improve to 5-0 for the first time in franchise history with a win at Washington on Sunday.
• • •
With the first month of the season as the guide, here's what you can expect this weekend: high-scoring, close games between monster passing offenses with super-reliable kickers.
One month into the regular season, trends have developed. According to ESPN Stats and Information, 2,986 points have been scored, the most in any four-week stretch in league history. Thirty-six games have been decided by eight points or fewer, tied for the third-most through the first four weeks of a season. Teams are combining to average 487 passing yards per game, well above the NFL record of 459.4 net passing yards set last season. And kickers have made 89.5 percent of their field goal attempts, putting them on pace to finish a season at better than 85 percent for the first time.
• • •
After getting knocked out during Cleveland's game at Baltimore last Thursday night, Josh Cribbs told the Cleveland Plain Dealer this week that his wife and brother want him to retire.
"Everyone was calling and couldn't stop crying," Cribbs said. "My brother, who's the reason why I'm playing football, even wants me to stop. ... They're saying, 'I know you love the game, but we don't want you to play anymore.' They're like, 'Family's more important. You've got so many years of your life. You've showed enough good football.'"
Cribbs is 29 years old and in the final year of his contract. In eight years in Cleveland, he has absorbed at least three major blows to the head, including the one delivered by Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe on a punt return. Despite his family's pleas to retire, Cribbs has no intention of hanging up his helmet. He returned to practice this week and said he had "no idea" if he would start against the New York Giants on Sunday but was "working to get in the game plan heavily again like I was last week."
• • •
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy called the replacement referee, Wayne Elliott, who blew the call at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game on "Monday Night Football" that ultimately led to the NFL settling its labor dispute with the regular officials.
"He called me at my house last week because he had heard I was having a rough week with all the calls and everything," Elliott told Showtime's "Inside the NFL." "[He] wanted [me] to know that he thought what I did -- controversial and maybe he didn't agree with it -- [but he thought] I handled it with class."
Talk about class. That was a classy move by McCarthy, whose team lost a game because Elliott made a mistake. It was also a classy move by Elliott to admit that given a second chance, he would call the play as an interception by Green Bay, not a touchdown by Seattle.
• • •
Can the NFL please do away with the childish practice of coaches calling a timeout the second before a team attempts a field goal, otherwise known as icing the kicker? It doesn't work. Statistics show that when a coach attempts to ice the kicker by calling a timeout, the kicker is more likely to make the ensuing field goal than miss it.
Miami coach Joe Philbin tried to ice New York Jets kicker Nick Folk before an attempt in overtime in Week 3 and ended up negating his team's block of the kick. Given a second chance at the kick, Folk made it to give the Jets a 23-20 win. In Week 4, Philadelphia coach Andy Reid called timeout right before the ball was snapped for New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes' attempt. Tynes missed wide left. His second attempt at the 54-yarder was short, but Reid could have cost the Eagles a division win.
"I don't believe in icing the kicker," Michael Vick said afterward. "You give everything. You let them kick it, and if it's good it's going to be good. If not, you can't play games. I don't know who started that, but we have to end that tradition."
Agreed. If anything, institute a rule that the opposing coach can call a timeout only before the field goal unit lines up. If the idea is to give a kicker a little bit more time to think about a kick, calling a timeout 15 seconds before the kick would serve that purpose. Calling one a split second before an attempt is just juvenile.
There are a lot of factors playing into the New York Jets' struggles right now. Mark Sanchez is limited as a quarterback. The offensive line has not protected well. The Jets aren't running the ball consistently. And the defense lacks playmakers. It certainly doesn't help that New York has lost its two best players, cornerback Darrelle Revis and wide receiver Santonio Holmes, for the season.
In their shutout loss to San Francisco in Week 4, the Jets faced third-and-at-least-7-yards six times. They failed to convert all six times, including in the third quarter on third-and-7. Off play action, Sanchez rolled right and, with a 49ers defender in his face, threw deep to Holmes. The ball was batted down for another incompletion.
"You're putting your quarterback in a position in which he can't really succeed consistently," said Greg Cosell, the executive producer of ESPN's "NFL Matchup" show. "The other factor, with the possible exception of Santonio Holmes, is they don't have receivers that can win against man coverage. Even when they play shot plays on first down -- they tried that a few times last week against the 49ers and no one was open -- they don't have receivers who can win against man.
"So you've got a quarterback who's purely a timing, rhythm player. He needs to hit his back foot and the ball need to come out. If that doesn't happen, the later in the down you go, the less effective he is. There are a number of things conspiring to take a quarterback who's not a top-level talent to begin with and needs a certain structure, to make him even worse."
All of which doesn't bode well for the Jets, who face Houston on Monday night. According to Cosell, the Texans have played a dime package exclusively on third-and-long (defined as at least 7 yards to go) this season. Their opponents have converted only 4 of 30 attempts.
"Anything can happen and often does, but if you just look at this matchup based on what's transpired this season, you'd have to believe the Jets will struggle to generate any consistent offense and you'd really have to believe they'll struggle if they get to third-and-long," Cosell said.
STATS & INFO
After opening the season with nine turnovers in three games, Michael Vick did not turn the ball over last week against the New York Giants. Instead, Eli Manning made the crucial mistake, throwing an interception in the end zone.
This week, Philadelphia faces a Pittsburgh team that likes to send pressure. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Steelers send at least five pass rushers 47.3 percent of the time, more than any team in the NFL. Against such pressure, Vick has completed 45.8 percent of his passes, the third-worst percentage in the league, and has been under duress, sacked or hit while throwing on 48.2 percent of his drop backs, the most in the NFL.
"Thank you to Joe Unitas, son of Johnny Unitas, for the very kind letter. I'm honored & humbled to continue the legacy he established for all"
The New Orleans Saints quarterback can capture another career NFL record if he throws a touchdown pass against San Diego on Sunday. Having thrown a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, Brees is tied with Johnny Unitas for the longest streak in NFL history. Certainly he would forgo setting the record in exchange for a win.
"Pile on Tony Romo all u want. Deserves criticism for 5-INT game. But SB-winning QBs Brady, Peyton, Brees and Eli had similar, made playoffs"
-- Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) October 3, 2012
The Cowboys have a bye this week, which means Romo bashers will have an additional week to stew over the quarterback's performance against Chicago on Monday night. Romo has thrown five touchdowns and eight interceptions in four games this season.
"Prayers out for Chuck Pagano and family. Coach is a very good man and he will battle this leukemia all the way."
-- Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) October 1, 2012
The former Indianapolis Colts coach echoed sentiments from around the league after news broke that the current Indianapolis coach has leukemia.
"Just watched 30 for 30 on Espn........Be smart with your $"
-- Michael Vick (@MikeVick) October 2, 2012
The Eagles quarterback knows of what he speaks. He filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and continues to pay off creditors.
All games Sunday unless otherwise noted. All times ET.
Philadelphia (3-1) at Pittsburgh (1-2), 1 p.m.
How to beat the Eagles? Get the quarterback to turn it over. Philadelphia is 7-2 when Michael Vick doesn't commit a turnover and 11-9 when he does. Eagles 24, Steelers 17.
Green Bay (2-2) at Indianapolis (1-2), 1 p.m. The Colts want to give coach Chuck Pagano, who is hospitalized and fighting leukemia, a winning game ball after this one. They'll have to slow down Green Bay's offense. Packers 31, Colts 21.
Cleveland (0-4) at New York Giants (2-2), 1 p.m. With Hakeem Nicks still dealing with an injury, the Browns could really use Joe Haden this week. Unfortunately, he won't be back until next week. Giants 24, Browns 10.
Atlanta (4-0) at Washington (2-2), 1 p.m. The Falcons have never started a season 5-0. If Matt Ryan plays the way he has been, with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions, they will this year. Falcons 31, Redskins 21.
Miami (1-3) at Cincinnati (3-1), 1 p.m. The Bengals are looking for a signature win, but they can play only the teams on the schedule. Dolphins this week. Browns next week. And then the Steelers. Bengals 24, Dolphins 14.
Baltimore (3-1) at Kansas City (1-3), 1 p.m. Give John Harbaugh extra time to prepare and he takes advantage of it. The Chiefs won't be able to keep up with Baltimore early. It could get ugly. Ravens 35, Chiefs 20.
Seattle (2-2) at Carolina (1-3), 4:05 p.m. The Seahawks are not a good road team. They've lost three straight on the road and 20 of 26 since 2009. Panthers 21, Seahawks 13.
Chicago (3-1) at Jacksonville (1-3), 4:05 p.m. It should be a crime what the Bears did to Tony Romo. Look out, Blaine Gabbert, whose Jaguars are dead last in the NFL in scoring. Bears 31, Jaguars 9.
Denver (2-2) at New England (2-2), 4:25 p.m. Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady. What could be better? Manning is 2-8 lifetime at New England. Brady is 69-13 at home in the regular season. Patriots 35, Broncos 27.
Buffalo (2-2) at San Francisco (3-1), 4:25 p.m. Against Vic Fangio's defense, Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick must be more careful with the football. He's thrown seven picks in four games. 49ers 30, Bills 24.
Tennessee (1-3) at Minnesota (3-1), 4:25 p.m. The Vikings have beat two quality opponents the past two weeks, and now they get a Titans team without its starting quarterback. Vikings 17, Titans 14.
San Diego (3-1) at New Orleans (0-4), 8:20 p.m. Drew Brees will be playing for another bit of history, but certainly he would trade throwing another touchdown for getting a much-needed win. Saints 28, Chargers 24.
Houston (4-0) at New York Jets (2-2), 8:30 p.m. Monday. Talk about a recipe for a blowout. Yikes. Texans 41, Jets 3.
Idle: Dallas, Detroit, Oakland and Tampa Bay.
Last week: 11-3. Season: 37-23.