Two unbeaten teams remain in the NFL, and yet there is no clear, bulletproof contender running away with anything. Here's an early look at some of the best storylines as we get set for what should be an intriguing slate of action in Week 7:
1. The time is nigh. Peyton Manning in Indy. You know the story. You know the debate. Andrew Luck does, too. By the time the ball is kicked off Sunday night between the Denver Broncos and the Indianapolis Colts, it’s safe to say that both of them — and very likely you — will trade stories and hype for football. And luckily for us, this one has some meat to it. Sure, the Colts losing in San Diego took some veneer off the game. But it would stun few if this won’t be an AFC championship game preview if these two defenses get healthy and get better. So even if you’re not wild about the Manning hype, his talent and the quality of the two teams should be enough to make you forget about that.
2. From Rob Ryan last week, to Rex. The New England Patriots head on the road to face the New York Jets with a chance to beat both of Buddy’s sons in a seven-day period, but doing so will be tough with the team seemingly dropping (at least) a starter per week. History is on the Patriots’ side in New Jersey, as they’ve beaten the Jets by 21 and 30 points the past two seasons. But that was not with Geno Smith at quarterback, and this Jets defensive front might be the best run-stopping unit in the NFL. Smith had some strong moments against the Pats in New England before unraveling. It says here he bounces back in this one in a tight game.
3. The Dallas Cowboys apparently will be without DeMarcus Ware (it would be the first missed game of his career) and DeMarco Murray when they take on the Philadelphia Eagles in a game for first place in the NFC East — with both sitting at an uninspiring 3-3. The story of the week is Nick Foles, likely to start with Michael Vick on the mend and coming off a darned impressive performance last week against the Buccaneers. In the three road games the past three weeks, Foles has gone from one to two to three touchdown passes. He and LeSean McCoy are really going to tax a Cowboys defense that is giving up 409 yards a game, and is down one of the NFL’s best defenders.
4. The difference last between Seattle Seahawks in Week 1 — a 20-16 loss to the Arizona Cardinals — and Week 14 — a 58-0 Seahawks annihilation in Seattle — was, um, stark. Thursday night, the Seahawks will return to the scene of the early crime, which was Russell Wilson’s first NFL start, a mixed-bag performance that teased little of his later greatness. Now that he’s fully established, it’s going to be fun to see to watch his Seahawks offense take on what appears to be a stout Cardinals defense, especially now that Daryl Washington is back with two games under his belt. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer hasn’t faced the Seahawks, though, since 2007 — so he’s likely in for a big surprise. The Cardinals’ defense is good, but the Seahawks are at a different level.
5. Two 4-2 teams atop their respective divisions lock horns when the Cincinnati Bengals meet the Detroit Lions in more of a measuring-stick game than anything. We’ll but witness to two pretty familiar formulas, as two of the best wide receivers on the planet, A.J. Green and Calvin Johnson, take to the field, although neither has been in top form of late. Both teams also feature dominant defensive fronts and somewhat shaky secondaries. Also: quarterbacks whose clutch genes have been roundly debated, and exciting, shifty, multi-purpose backs in Giovani Bernard and Reggie Bush. Mirror images? Not quite. But remarkably similar, nonetheless. Which team is better? Are either a true contender? Good way to find out this week.
6. Colin Kaepernick now has 16 regular-season starts (11-5 record, plus that Super Bowl run) to his name, and yet he heads to Tennessee to face the Titans in a bit of a statistical slump since Week 1. Some of it is schematic; part of it must be blamed on his lack of explosive skill-position talent. He’ll be throwing against a secondary that features maybe the best cover corner Kaepernick has seen since Richard Sherman in the Titans’ Alterraun Verner — and some have argued that Verner is playing at an even higher level now than Sherman. The Titans might make it tough for Kaepernick to throw, but the tougher challenge might be for Ryan Fitzpatrick — filling in for Jake Locker at least another week — facing that 49ers defense. These are two tough, three-phase teams that are more evenly matched than you might think.
7. Can the Green Bay Packers keep sustaining losses like this? Even with the game at Lambeau, this is no cakewalk for the Packers against the Cleveland Browns, who have won three of four (losing last week) and feature a menacing front seven. The Packers will be without Randall Cobb, and could be without James Jones, meaning Browns corner Joe Haden could be locked up on Jordy Nelson, making it that much tougher for Aaron Rodgers to sustain drives. “It might be ugly at times,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on ESPN 540 Milwaukee. But you want ugly? Check out Brandon Weeden’s INT from last week. Can they win here with him? The mission this week, according to Browns head coach Ron Chudzinski, is to help his quarterback avoid “critical mistakes.” Might be too tall an order.
8. St. Louis Rams at Carolina Panthers — what in the heck do we make of these teams? The Rams are a 3-3 team that has been outscored by two touchdowns this season and yet are coming off their biggest win since last season. And the Panthers are a notch behind at 2-3, and yet their two wins have been by a combined 53 points. Are either as good as they showed last week? Likely no. The winner of this game is a de facto contender, at least by record, so it’s big in that respect. The major questions: Can Sam Bradford exploit a weakened Panthers secondary? And can Cam Newton build off his Minnesota success? Both quarterbacks appear to do better when they are not throwing so much.
9. Monday night looked decent on paper at the start of the season, with the Minnesota Vikings heading to face the New York Giants. So what happened? The Vikings were shell-shocked last week by the Panthers, and the death of Adrian Peterson’s son, but they'll hope that new starting quarterback Josh Freeman — yes, their third of the season — can galvanize them. The Giants fought tough in a Thursday night loss to the Chicago Bears but have yet to find victory this season. Crazy to say, but this game likely affects the draft order of the top 10 picks. Forget about the offenses a minute — neither the Giants nor Vikings are getting it done at all on defense. They rank 32nd (Giants) and 26th (Vikings) in points allowed. But the home atmosphere, even with their potential trouble stopping Peterson, could give them a good chance to earn a first “W.”
10. And now for the rest of the Week 7 slate … The Chicago Bears’ weakness defensively is up the middle, and the Washington Redskins — when they choose to — are very good running up the middle. We’ll see if the Skins can find a way at home. … The fast-sinking Houston Texans now must contend with the type of swarming defense they seem to have seen every few weeks, in the Kansas City Chiefs. The Sack Lunch Crew (I just nicknamed them that right now) has been getting after quarterbacks and has to smell ripe blood with a bruised Matt Schaub coming to town. … Can the Baltimore Ravens or Pittsburgh Steelers turn their seasons the right direction? The Ravens do come into town having won 13 of past 15 games against the AFC North, and they’ll be seeking their fourth consecutive win at Pittsburgh. … The heat is rising under the seat of Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano’s seat, and they head to Atlanta to take on the Falcons in a game between zero- and one-win teams. Could a loss mean curtains for the embattled coach? … The Miami Dolphins, coming off a bye, welcome in the Buffalo Bills for their first look at Thad Lewis, who stood tall in the loss to the Bengals but came out with a foot injury that could limit him. … Are the San Diego Chargers weekly teases or the real deal? We’ll find out when they head to face the 0-6 Jacksonville Jaguars, who showed some real life last week in Denver.
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