It only took a couple of minutes of discussing Peyton Manning and Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing was sounding as if Sunday in Denver couldn't come fast enough.
The elixir of excitement and angst is built on the great progress the Texans have made on defense in the past year, along with a decidedly bleak history the team has when it comes to Manning. To say that Manning, a division rival of the Texans while he was with the Colts, has owned Houston over the course of his career is an understatement.
Up until last season, when Manning was out with a neck injury, he treated the Texans the way an auto engineer uses a crash test dummy. In 18 career games (16-2), Manning has posted a quarterback rating of 110.6, including a 70.4 completion percentage, 42 touchdown passes, eight interceptions and 5,122 yards.
Houston isn't Manning's second home, it's his tool shed in the backyard. The only teams Manning has a better quarterback rating against are teams he has played three times or fewer (Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals).
Of course, that was before last season, when defensive coordinator Wade Phillips showed up and changed the attitude around Houston.
"Our whole mentality is different," Cushing said, referring to the difference between where the Texans' defense was the last time it faced Manning (Nov. 1, 2010). "When we played Peyton in the past, it was that bend-but-don't-break mentality. Let's just try to keep him contained as long as we can and see if we can beat him in the end.
Nov. 1, 2010
Colts win 30-17
Sept. 12, 2010
Texans win 34-24
Nov. 29, 2009
Colts win 35-27
Nov. 8, 2009
Colts win 20-17
Nov. 16, 2008
Colts win 33-27
Oct. 5, 2008
Colts win 31-27
Dec. 23, 2007
Colts win 38-15
Sept. 30, 2007
Colts win 38-20
Dec. 24, 2006
Texans win 27-24
Sept. 17, 2006
Colts win 43-24
Nov. 13, 2005
Colts win 31-17
Oct. 23, 2005
Colts win 38-20
Dec. 12, 2004
Colts win 23-14
Nov. 14, 2004
Colts win 49-14
Dec. 28, 2003
Colts win 20-17
Oct. 26, 2003
Colts win 30-21
Dec. 1, 2002
Colts win 19-3
Sept. 22, 2002
Colts win 23-3
"What we do now is the complete opposite. We set the tone. We attack, we come after people. What Wade has done since he got here is change everything about the way we approach the game. We have so much more confidence and confidence is a huge part of how you play."
In a little more than a season, Houston's defense has gone from one of the worst in the league to one that appears capable of carrying the Texans to the Super Bowl. Last season, if not for injuries to both quarterback Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart, the Texans might have gotten past Baltimore in the second round of the playoffs. That's how good the defense became.
Armed with Cushing, fellow linebacker Connor Barwin, and defensive linemen J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith along the front seven, the Texans are simply dominant at times. That said, the group has yet to be truly tested this season, having beaten Miami Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the opener and Jacksonville Jaguars second-year man Blaine Gabbert last Sunday.
Manning, even in a weakened state, is a whole different matter. So far, Manning has looked brilliant in one week (the opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers) and decidedly more human the next (three interceptions in the first quarter against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night). The interesting part of this challenge is whether the Texans' front seven can do some of the same things that Atlanta did or if Manning can resume his mastery.
While Phillips doesn't put much stock in past seasons, he's intrigued by the Falcons' strategy. Early in the game, the Falcons consistently baited Manning into throwing the ball down the seams of the field. Whether the interceptions were a matter of Manning not being able to make that sharp pass or the fact he doesn't have a great tight end to help him, Phillips isn't sure.
"But he eventually figured it out and adjusted," Phillips said. "If you look at it, even after all those interceptions, he nearly brought them back to win. That's a pretty great player right there."
STATE OF CONFUSION
These are confusing times in the NFL for Mike Adams. Sometimes he gets a game ball he never earned. Sometimes he gets text messages about a trade that didn't affect him. Sometimes he even gets complaints over the internet from women he has never met.
"Yeah, that was bad, man," said Michael Adams, the one who plays cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals. "I'm like, who are these women talking bad about me?"
Fact is, there are three Mike Adams in the NFL these days. There's the Adams in Arizona, a safety in Denver and a rookie offensive lineman in Pittsburgh. Throw in the Texas Rangers' relief pitcher and the former NBA three-point shooting specialist, and you have plenty of potential confusion.
Like the time that the Steelers rookie, who is 6-foot-7 and 323 pounds, walked into the Pittsburgh locker room for the first time. The second-round pick had never even put on a practice jersey, let alone play in a game, and there was a decorated game ball sitting in his locker, commemorating the interception he had against the Steelers in 2011 (when Denver's Adams was playing for Cleveland).
Bemused by the idea that he might ever get to even touch the ball, Adams quickly realized the mistake. He sent the ball back. Then, in the season opener, Adams joked with his Denver namesake about the confusion.
"He told me between plays and I just started cracking up," said Denver's Adams, who is all of 5-11 and 200 pounds.
At this point, Adams takes the constant confusion in stride. In 2007, he started getting text messages from friends congratulating him on signing with Arizona. Wrong guy: it was the cornerback joining the Cardinals.
Then, this offseason, when it was revealed that Adams the offensive lineman had tested positive for marijuana use at the NFL scouting combine, Adams of Denver got even more texts.
"I'm like, 'Come on, people, the combine? I'm a little old for that,' " said Adams, who is the elder statesman of the group at 31.
Each of them laughed at the suggestion that they should meet one night for dinner.
"We'd have a lot to talk about," Arizona's Adams said. Then again, sorting out the credit cards could be a disaster (or a really cool idea for a commercial).
"The confusion happens all the time," Arizona's Adams said. "You can't even [do an internet search for] me without the other ones coming up first. That offensive lineman comes up all the time with his picture. I'm like, 'Man, my head is not that big.' "
1. San Francisco 49ers (2-0): Alex Smith is making progress from game-manager status to play-making passer.
2. Houston Texans (2-0): After ho-hum wins over Miami and Jacksonville, things get interesting Sunday at Denver.
3. Atlanta Falcons (2-0): Cool passing game, but you have to be able to burn the clock in the fourth quarter.
4. San Diego Chargers (2-0): Chargers are off to a 2-0 start under Norv Turner? Are we in an alternate universe?
5. Philadelphia Eagles (2-0): Talent and potential are there for Eagles to win a title, if they can reduce turnovers.
28. New Orleans Saints (0-2): I don't believe Saints will end up in the bottom five, but they deserve it right now.
29. Kansas City Chiefs (0-2): Like Saints, Chiefs defense has yet to show up in two games so far this season.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-2): Negative passing yards in the first half of an NFL game? Wow, that's really ugly.
31. Cleveland Browns (0-2): Either Trent Richardson's knee is better or Bengals defensive is really bad. Maybe both.
32. Oakland Raiders (0-2): It was predictable that the Raiders would lose, but losing this ugly is atrocious.
[Power Rankings: NFL's Bay Area teams are light years apart]
THIS AND THAT
• This is a good week to be a Dolphins fan. Not only did the team get its first victory under rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill, beating Oakland on Sunday, count Houston's Wade Phillips among those in the league who are impressed with the No. 8 overall pick. "I told our team after we played him in the first week, 'Oakland is going to be surprised at what they're up against,' " said Phillips, whose unit nabbed three interceptions against Tannehill in the opener. Two of the picks were on deflections, but Phillips said he never saw Tannehill lose confidence. "He has a swagger to him, mistakes aren't going to get him down," said Phillips, who noted that he thinks it's better for young quarterbacks to throw interceptions rather than take sacks while in the learning stages. "Both of those plays are bad, don't get me wrong. But if you don't learn to get rid of the ball and figure out where it has to go, you never make any progress," Phillips said.
• To anyone who is really following the NFL-to-Los Angeles story line, please take note: AEG President Tim Leiweke is a brilliant salesman. If anyone in Los Angeles is going to get a downtown stadium built, Leiweke is at the top of the list. That said, much of the information coming out of Los Angeles is Leiweke's agenda, as two sources noted Wednesday. "Tim wants everyone to believe that he's the guy who's at the center of this whole thing getting built," the source said. "That could end up being the case, but it's not really up to Tim."
• If you want an early take on the best free-agent signing of the offseason, consider the work of St. Louis cornerback Cortland Finnegan. In the opener at Detroit, Finnegan had an interception return for a touchdown that helped the Rams nearly beat the Lions. In the second game, Finnegan did a great job of baiting Washington Redskins wide receiver Josh Morgan into that critical unsportsmanlike conduct penalty at the end that pushed the Redskins out of reasonable field goal range as the Rams hung on to win.
• Speaking of Morgan, these death threats he received on Twitter are almost too stupid to dignify with a response, particularly after what San Francisco wide receiver Kyle Williams went through after the playoffs last season. Almost. To anyone who thinks that's an appropriate response, you need help. Serious help, and that's not a joke.
• How impressive is San Francisco's start? There were four teams that scored 474 points or more last season. Green Bay led the league with 560 points. Detroit had 474. The teams combined for 43 points against the 49ers in this season's first two weeks, including a punt return touchdown by Green Bay. The best part, the 49ers still have games against New Orleans (547) and New England (513) later this season.
• For all those who continue, somewhat justifiably, to complain about the officiating and question why the NFL didn't find a way to use better refs from at least the NCAA Division I level, consider this mistake from the USC-Stanford game on Saturday. The point is that officiating mistakes happen everywhere. For the most part, they can be fixed. The rash of defensive holding calls that were missed in pass coverage situations Sunday can be fixed by doing one simple thing: Tell the replacement refs to call it more. Again, the biggest difference between the replacement refs and the established refs is simply experience.
• Congrats to the Indianapolis Colts on their first win under the new regime of general manager Ryan Grigson, coach Chuck Pagano and quarterback Andrew Luck. Somehow, the moment reminded me of a remark by Grigson from training camp. When asked how he balances his job with having five children all under the age of 10, Grigson said of his wife Cynthia: "My wife is a rock star, she's a saint. She's a rock-star saint, if that's possible."
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