Brady and Manning are each as valuable to their teams this year as they've ever been, even though neither is re-writing the record book. The complementary players at the skill spots aren't explosive, and both are breaking in new tight ends, Brady with two rookies and Manning with Jacob Tamme in for the injured Dallas Clark. Neither team has a really strong running attack. Both quarterbacks have to run high-precision short routes and both do it with their usual excellence. The game then logically falls on which gets more help or you defer to New England as the home team. The Colts have the potential to disrupt the Patriots' pass protection with Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney on the ends, and tackle Sebastian Vollmer will have his hands full trying to block Mathis one-on-one, presuming Freeney draws extra attention. I'm looking for a defensive-oriented game, as the quarterbacks play cat-and-mouse with the defenses looking to see who breaks first. In a nail-biter, I'm going with the home team. I'm also going with Brady, who I would pick ahead of Manning if I had to start a team, and Bill Belichick, who's my favorite coach in any sport. Let's call this one 23-20 for the Pats.
Indy-New England then gives way to a Sunday Night game between Philadelphia and the New York Giants that's not giving in on any argument about what the best rivalry is, or what game today is biggest. These teams are tied for first place and Lincoln Financial Field should be rabid in Philly for the NBC audience. And the game should be worthy of the attention. The Giants are a more complete offensive team, able to go to a variety of receivers and run the ball with Ahman Bradshaw. But Philadelphia has the explosiveness of Michael Vick and are less mistake-prone than their rival. I look for Eli Manning to throw a couple interceptions and Vick to make enough plays for the Birds to a win at home 21-17, a game that will be great nightcap after the Colts-Patriots appetizer and complete a rough day for the Manning brothers.
One of the better matchups of the early games is Oakland's visit to Pittsburgh. A bad Raider team won here last year, so it's feasible to think a decent one can do it again this time out. Oakland has what's needed to make Pittsburgh's blitzing defense pay for aggressiveness, and that's a shifty running back who can make big plays in space, in Darren McFadden. What's more questionable is whether Jason Campbell will keep his cool under pressure on the road. Pittsburgh needs to do a better job up front in establishing their running game, and it won't be easy against a Raider front four that's playing well right now. As ridiculous as it still seems, Oakland is the team playing better than Pittsburgh and I lean their direction to win again here, 26-21.
The Steelers are tied for first with Baltimore in the AFC North, and the Ravens have an easy date at Carolina. Panther quarterback Jimmy Clausen is already struggling with the blitz and now gets the privilege of seeing Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis come to town. Good luck with that kid. And Oakland is tied with Kansas City, who's at home against Arizona. I don't think the Cardinal defense can stop the Chief running game and I don't think they can keep up with anyone offensively. Kansas City stops its two-game slide with a win.
Over in the NFC, the top matchup early on will be Seattle-New Orleans, with the Seahawks leading the West and the Saints a game back of Atlanta in the South. This is a very bad matchup for Seattle, who relies on bringing pressure and faces Drew Brees, who's adroit in beating blitzes. The Seahawks need to make sure Matt Hasselbeck stays protected in this game, and healthy for the long haul. If they can't keep Gregg Williams' waves of pressure away, I could see Pete Carroll cutting his losses early here and pulling Hasselbeck. New Orleans wins easy, 30-13.
The rivals of Seattle and New Orleans play each other in what the NFL must have deemed NFC South-NFC West challenge week. Atlanta goes to St. Louis, a game the Falcons can't overlook and have no excuse for doing so, having played last Thursday. Tampa Bay goes west to play suddenly hot San Francisco. I think the Falcons are too focused and too balanced to lose, though the Rams turn in another respectable outing, and I expect San Francisco's good interior run defense to contain Tampa's running game and now that Troy Smith seems to be settling in at quarterback, to take advantage of homefield and win their fourth straight.
The fade of Minnesota and the impending end of Brett Favre's career has taken the steam out of the Green Bay-Minnesota rivalry, at least on a national scale, where it enjoyed a brief run as the Hottest Rivalry In Sports. But I won't try and sell anyone back home in Wisconsin on that. The Packers want to jam one last knife in their old star. Favre could make a win here his final signature moment before riding off into the sunset. And on a by-the-way note, Green Bay needs to keep pace with Chicago who won on Thursday night in Miami. I really don't know what to think of this game. I don't know where Minnesota's at mentally and I don't know where Favre's at physically. Let's settle on this key--watch whether Green Bay can establish Brandon Jackson on the ground. He doesn't have to put up huge numbers, just enough to make the Vikes respect the run. If that happens, Aaron Rodgers will be able to pick the secondary apart. Even so, if Minnesota's head is in the right place, they should win at home...but I don't think it is. Green Bay wins it 31-20.
The AFC South teams chasing Indy have key games, led up by Jacksonville who's at home against suddenly feisty Cleveland. The Jaguar defense is inconsistent and I expect Peyton Hillis to put up big numbers and Colt McCoy to continue his efficient play. The Browns get the road win. Tennessee hosts Washington, where the main issue is whether the Redskins can get away with committing an extra defender to stop Chris Johnson on the ground and not be beaten deep by Randy Moss and Nate Washington. And then whether that would enable them to win if they do it. The answer is maybe on the first count and no on the second count. The 'Skins offense is too inept right now to beat a good team on the road. And finally, the Texans head to New York to face the Jets where if nothing else we'll see a great showdown on the outside, with Andre Johnson and Darrelle Revis locked up one-on-one. Houston's been a disappointment, but I'm going to take a flyer on the notion that their offensive creativity causes a lot of problems for the Jets' blitzing style, with screens and the running of Arian Foster, and NYJ's tendency to let teams hang around too much finally bites them. Houston pulls the upset and keeps their season alive at least one more week.
Only two games don't touch the playoff race at all and that's Buffalo-Cincinnati and Detroit-Dallas. I'm giving the Cowboys the benefit of the doubt and thinking that last week showed they're ready to get serious about playing football. And I'm really sold on Buffalo as an improving spoiler with Fred Jackson running the ball, and Ryan Fitzpatrick hooking up with Steve Johnson. Buffalo pulls the upset on the Ohio River and wins its second straight.
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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.