As always, Colts-Patriots still Must-See TV
Colts-Patriots. Manning-Brady. It doesn't get much better than this. Indy's trip to New England highlights an intriguing Week 9, writes John Clayton.
Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton's "First and 10" column takes you around the league, with a look at the best game of the week, followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 9.
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Last year was the first time the Colts showed they had caught up to or passed the Patriots.
Peyton Manning went to New England and beat the Pats 40-21. Bill Belichick went for it on fourth down early in the fourth quarter, signaling he knew the Colts were formidable. In Belichick's eyes, the Colts turned most possessions into points, so he had to do the same at all costs.
That's what's so fascinating about Sunday night's Colts-Patriots game in Foxborough. On paper, the Colts have caught up to the Patriots. They were unbeaten until the 15th week last season, and they are unbeaten this year. They can't fight the playoff fight until January, so the focus of Manning and the Colts is to use this as a test for the playoffs.
In many ways, the Colts continue to upgrade their roster with the Patriots in mind. They lost big games against the Patriots and others because of the inability to run successfully on goal-line and other short-yardage situations. So they let Edgerrin James go and drafted Joseph Addai in the first round. He's getting better and better every week.
Mike Vanderjagt is one of the most accurate kickers of his era, but Adam Vinatieri made more of the big kicks to win big games. Out goes Vanderjagt and in comes Vinatieri. Despite a groin injury, he hasn't missed a field goal and remains the sport's most clutch kicker.
While the Colts have major concerns about their run defense, they are at the top of their game because of Manning. He's getting better and better. Using the same plays he started practicing seven years ago, Manning carved up the best defense Mike Shanahan could offer in Denver.
The Colts scored on seven of nine possessions, taking advantage of the fact that the Broncos made a big mistake by not pressuring Manning. Manning faced only seven blitzes, so he had the time to wait for Reggie Wayne to break into the open on Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams. It was like watching a surgeon operate.
Belichick won't be passive. He designs the most imaginative, defining offensive and defensive schemes in football. Look what he did Monday night. Even though the Patriots let go of better receivers than they kept this offseason, Belichick spread the field on offense and left the Vikings defenseless. It was masterful and brilliant. The Patriots blew out the Vikings with ease.
The great matchup is Manning versus Tom Brady. It's like the Joe Montana-Dan Marino debate that rarely played out on the field during their era. Manning is like Marino, the ultimate pocket-passing quarterback. He had all the stats for the Dolphins. Montana had all the Super Bowl rings. Too bad they didn't meet very often.
This will be the eighth meeting between Brady and Manning. Brady is 6-1. He's never really had the stats. Those have gone to Manning. Sunday night's game should give one of these teams the edge in the AFC pecking order, but in the big picture, it won't matter until the playoffs, where they have a chance to meet again.
Both teams are running away with their divisions. The Colts lead the Jaguars by three games. The Patriots hold a 2½-game lead over the Jets. There's a great chance they will be the top two seeds in the playoffs, so the winner of this game could have the crucial tiebreaker for home-field advantage.
Sure, the Colts have holes and Belichick will try to exploit them. Bob Sanders is still fighting knee problems at safety, and Mike Doss is out for the season. Brady will try to work the middle of the Colts' defense. Stopping the run is a big problem for Indianapolis, and the Patriots have evolved into more of a running team.
Still, this game comes down to who has the ball last in the final minutes of the game: Brady or Manning. It should be a classic.
And 10. Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens traded for Steve McNair to give them a chance to challenge for the AFC North title. Sunday will be the test. If McNair can outwit the Bengals' defense, the Ravens will have a two-game lead on Cincinnati at midseason. A loss will send shockwaves through the division. Brian Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel even though the team was 4-2 and in good shape in the division race. That puts a lot of pressure on Billick, who is now calling the offensive plays. That's fine with Billick. He likes pressure. Now the team just has to win. Good playoff teams win home games against their top division foes, so this will be the true test of where the Ravens are in their return to the limelight. The Billick-called offense wasn't any different than the one called by Fassel, who was still calling Billick's plays. Now, everything is under one voice: Billick's. He's still going to use two- and three-tight end systems on occasion. He's still going to pound the ball on the ground with Jamal Lewis. He's still going to mix in the play-action passes. The Bengals are still struggling with their execution on offense. Carson Palmer is calling plays at the line of scrimmage, but either Rudi Johnson is complaining about not getting the ball enough or the receivers are saying the offense isn't going downfield enough. This is no time for talk. The AFC North lead is up for grabs Sunday, and one of these teams has to claim it.
9. Kansas City Chiefs at St. Louis Rams
Welcome to the Missouri Show Me Bowl. The teams enter with the same record (4-3) and the winner hits the midway point feeling like a playoff contender. In many ways, both teams are surprises. Scott Linehan has done a good job readjusting the offense and getting off to a good start. St. Louis' Jim Haslett has proven to be one of the best defensive coordinator hires, but he has to blitz to stop the run, and that sometimes leaves the Rams vulnerable. Herman Edwards has motivated the Chiefs. He's made them forget their problems along the offensive line, and he's made them believe in backup quarterback Damon Huard, who is playing like a playoff starter. Huard will go to the bench again once Trent Green recovers from his concussion, which could happen as early as next week. Huard has done a nice job. He's tall, has good pocket presence, and he knows the best way to get the Chiefs' offense going is to hand off to Larry Johnson. Johnson had thoughts of a 2,000-yard season until Willie Roaf retired. He'll still probably end up with around 1,400 yards, but the bigger mission is to make opponents believe the Chiefs are in the playoff race. The Chiefs have looked good at home but they haven't been able to carry their swagger on the road. Their last road game was a 45-7 loss to the Steelers. For the Rams, this is the most important two weeks of the season. They are tied with the Seahawks for the lead in the NFC West, and they travel to Seattle in Week 10. The Chiefs are chasing the Chargers and the Broncos, so they still have a lot to prove.
7. New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Ravens broke the glass slipper of the Cinderella Saints in Week 8. The Bucs will try to further step on the glass in this interesting home game. The Saints surprised the Bucs 24-21 on Oct. 8 in the frenzied Superdome. After a 5-1 start partially propelled from surprise wins such as that, the Saints came back to Earth after being suffocated by the Ravens, 35-22. Drew Brees was pressured more than he has been at any time this season. The running game was stopped. Say what you want about the Bucs, but they still have a defense that is talented and proud. Sure, it's getting old. That happens. But it held the Giants, Bengals and Eagles to an average of 17 points in the past three weeks. Monte Kiffin's Cover 2 still works, and it should work reasonably well against the Saints. The bigger question will be the Bucs' offense. Bruce Gradkowski isn't committing turnovers, but he needs to make a few more big plays on offense. He doesn't have the experience to exploit the holes in the Saints' defense. It's still hard to believe the Saints come to Tampa with a three-game advantage over the Bucs. Jon Gruden has to make sure the Saints don't leave with a four-game edge. If they do, the Bucs' season is officially over.
6. Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers
The NFL wanted a rematch of the Denver-Pittsburgh AFC title game for the opening Thursday of the season. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen told the league no. He still hadn't gotten over the championship loss to the Steelers, so why would he want to start the season in Pittsburgh and get the next season off to a potential bad start? Maybe the timing will work in Bowlen's favor. The Steelers aren't going to the Super Bowl. They are 2-5 and their playoff hopes are just about dead, but they still have hopes of turning around the season and maybe getting to 9-7. While the Steelers can be dangerous, the Broncos will have to rebound on defense, which sounds like a surprise. The defense that gave up only two touchdowns in 65 drives to open the season was carved up by Peyton Manning for 34 points. The Broncos were angry after the game and would like to take it out on the Steelers. Bill Cowher is going to use this game as one last-ditch effort for the season. Ben Roethlisberger has to cut down on his dumb interceptions. If he does, this could be an interesting game.
Green Bay Packers
4. Minnesota Vikings at San Francisco 49ers
The Vikings had a wakeup call Monday night. After beating the Seahawks, the Vikings were blown out by the Patriots. Bill Belichick knew it would be hard to run against the stingy middle of the Vikings' defense, so he spread the field and passed on them. The Vikings couldn't respond. Even worse, they may have lost two of their better defenders in the middle in defensive tackle Kevin Williams and middle linebacker Napoleon Harris. Harris dislocated his wrist and Williams suffered a high ankle sprain. The 49ers could be a great get-well card, though. The 49ers have been outscored 89-29 in their past two games. Their defense can't stop anyone. Even though Alex Smith is showing improvement with Norv Turner calling the plays, the defense puts him in such a big hole. He's been forced into a comeback mode so early that the turnovers are mounting. The Vikings need to use a simple game plan, get a victory and come out healthy. The 49ers need to just play better football.
3. Oakland Raiders at Seattle Seahawks
Seneca Wallace played much better than expected Sunday as Matt Hasselbeck's replacement. He moved the ball well against the Chiefs and kept the offense competitive. But what is up with the Seahawks' defense? On paper, the defense is faster and more talented than the one that went to the Super Bowl last year. But this underachieving defense hasn't given up fewer than 28 points in a game since Sept. 17. If they give up 28 points to the Raiders, the Seahawks might as well raise the white flag instead of the 12th-man flag on Monday night. Even though the Raiders are on a two-game winning streak, the offense is regressing. Andrew Walter is really struggling at quarterback and the running game has been nonexistent. The Raiders concluded their preseason in Seattle and their hopes were high. They were 4-0 in the preseason and riding high. But the Seahawks dominated them, and the Raiders went into a funk that saw them start the regular season 0-5. For the Seahawks, this is a must-win game.
2. Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars
Jack Del Rio has created a small quarterback controversy in Jacksonville. David Garrard will start again, but Byron Leftwich believes his ankle is healthy enough to play. It's a bit of a mess. The good news is Fred Taylor ran his hardest in recent memory Sunday, and the Titans don't come in with a potent offense. Jeff Fisher is making the Titans more competitive. Vince Young is showing great leadership even though he's not putting up big numbers. This figures to be a physical game. Maybe Del Rio can come out with a better idea of who his starting quarterback will be for the second half of the season.
1. Cleveland Browns at San Diego Chargers
Shawne Merriman made the right decision in taking his four-game suspension now. But the Chargers can't afford to lose this game without him. Even though it's against the Browns, it won't be easy. They will also be without starting outside linebacker Shaun Phillips. Philip Rivers and LaDainian Tomlinson have made it easy for the defense by putting up 30 points a game, and the Browns could be vulnerable to that type of punishment. The Browns are down to their second- and third-string cornerbacks. They can't stop the run. The offense is getting better under Charlie Frye, but it still makes a lot of mistakes. Marty Schottenheimer needs to play a little Marty Ball this week: eat time off the clock and come out with an easy victory.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.