Legendary quarterbacks take center stage this week, as Brady-Manning XIII reminds us that times and teams may change, but storylines never die, no matter how hard we pummel them into the ground. You don't have to wonder how future generations will remember Drew Brees' pursuit of Johnny Unitas when you can travel through time to find out. Plus, an Internet legend (Jay Cutler), a rookie struggling to live up to his legend (Russell Wilson), some legendary footwear (Cam Newton's Pink Shoe Diaries) and David Archer. David Archer? Lowdown doesn't discriminate, legend-wise.
(All times Eastern; all Sunday games ranked by quality of matchup.)
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Broncos at Patriots
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Patriots by 7
Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning, a retrospective through the years:
2001: The heck with this Brady kid. America demands to see what Damon Huard can do.
2002-2005: There's no way Brady, whose chest ripples with the volcanic heart of an armor-plated elder dragon, will ever lose to that choking, stat-compiling, choketastic chokety-choke Chokezilla of a chokoholic.
2006-2007: This game is the most important thing that will happen in your life, so cancel all plans for Sunday. Unless you are Eli Manning -- in that case, just bide your time and wait for the last laugh.
2008: Matt Cassel replaces the injured Brady, runs the Patriots offense like a teenager who stole the keys to a Mustang, convinces Scott Pioli (and only Scott Pioli) he is a quality quarterback.
2009-2010: A series of 35-34 and 31-28 thrillers decided by controversial fourth-quarter decisions and gutsy team efforts, performances so breathtaking that they almost made you forget how deathly sick you were of this storyline.
2011: Brady faces Curtis Painter while Manning's disembodied head floats, ominous and translucent, in the skies over Foxboro, the late-autumn sun setting endlessly across his forehead.
2012: Two old quarterbacks lead troubled .500 teams into battle while the nation wonders just how often they will see a backup quarterback fake a handoff and run off tackle on Monday night. (Here's a more serious, in-depth look at the Manning-Brady rivalry.)
Prediction: Patriots 26, Broncos 20.
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Chargers at Saints
8:20 p.m. Sunday, NBC
Line: Saints by 4
Johnny Unitas' son sent Drew Brees a letter this week, congratulating him and assuring him that the Unitas family is rooting for him in his quest to break the record for consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass. The letter is a heartwarming acknowledgement that breaking a record does not erase, but rekindles memories of legend, and that few sports superstars deserve to achieve new plateaus as much as Brees. Either that or the letter was the greatest deadpan jinx in history, but it really sounds like the first thing.
Brees has two young sons, and in about 50 years one of them might have to write a letter congratulating some not-yet-born quarterback for breaking their father's record. And the Brees boys may be a little busy that week. So I took the trouble of composing a letter for them to save until the time is right. Because we can't expect Brees' sons to bookmark this page and re-load it a half century from now, I am also saving the letter in the most permanent format known to man: pottery shards. Archaeologists are always finding pottery shards. If I carve these Lowdowns onto some vases, future generations will think that Jay Cutler was our culture's Loki. Anyway, here's the letter:
Dear Geno Smith V,
I wanted to congratulate you on tying my father's record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass. Like my father, you are a great role model for today's youth. Just like Johnny Unitas before him, my father always said that records were made to be broken, and if Dad were here to write this letter, he would be proud of you. Unfortunately, he is stuck doing "College GameDay" with Erin Andrews-Thompson and the Mark Maybot.
Things were different when my father played at the turn of the century. It was before the Clone Lockout, before phase displacement technology made helmet through helmet hits safe and legal. It was long before President Kluwe forced us all to select character classes and alignments. My father didn't have the quantum screen pass in his arsenal. And, of course, there was weather back then.
But none of that matters, because records are always broken under unique circumstances, and it takes nothing away from the special players who break them. I am just saddened that you, like my father, are breaking the record during an otherwise lost season. You had nothing to do with your defensive coordinator's decision to disintegrate Pluto. The NFL let Sean Payton attend my dad's game, and I am sure that your former coaches can be released from the Phantom Zone for the occasion. If not, know that the whole Brees family will be rooting for you.
Baylen Brees, Lawful Good, Bard.
Prediction: Saints 33, Chargers 24.
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Eagles at Steelers
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Steelers by 3
Rashard Mendenhall has returned from his ACL tear, which means that he will either rescue a running game that is averaging just 2.6 yards per carry or become one more bowling pin in coordinator Todd Haley's increasingly incomprehensible juggling act. Jonathan Dwyer, one of the other pins, sounds like he is ready for the latter. "We're going to do what works at the time," Dwyer said on Wednesday. "If he has a hot hand, we'll keep going with the hot hand." This is all theoretical, of course: The closest any Steelers running back came to having a hot hand this year was when Dwyer grabbed a Pop Tart straight out of the toaster.
The Steelers cannot run the ball but insist upon trying; the Eagles are an excellent running team that refuses to do it. Andy Reid unveiled his annual I-formation rushing attack last week, the one he only uses against the Giants then hides in the back of the cabinet like the good silverware after Thanksgiving dinner. The only way to keep the Eagles offense balanced (and Michael Vick healthy, the turnover count low, etc.) is to convince Reid that he is facing the Giants every week.
That can be done. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie can print some fake schedules. When the team bus rolls through the Allegheny Mountains, players can assure Reid that they are just North Jersey landfills. Why is MetLife Stadium decorated in black and gold? Why, all teams are doing that for … Scurvy Awareness Week!
Unfortunately, the ruse falls apart when Reid takes a walk to get a pretzel and ginger ale, gets charged less than 13 bucks and realizes there is no way he is in the greater New York area.
Prediction: Steelers 19, Eagles 13.
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Seahawks at Panthers
4:05 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Panthers by 3
Getting swept up in Happy Frisky Scrambly Rookie Smile Time is a lot of fun when you are a fan. It is very dangerous when you are a head coach. Pete Carroll became smitten with Russell Wilson in the preseason, awarding the rookie the starting job over Matt Flynn, and has watched with horror as Wilson, like most rookies whose development plan consists of "throw him out there and see if he makes something happen," regressed quickly after a promising start.
Calls for Flynn accelerated after Russell's three-interception performance last week, but Carroll revealed that Flynn has a sore arm and is on a Stephen Strasburg-esque pitch count. Flynn is healthy enough for limited practice reps, and is available as a backup, but the sore arm prevents him from starting (though Wilson's 25-throw per game workload does not seem too taxing on the rotator cuff). "Matt's ready to play," Carroll said on Monday. "We just don't know what's going to happen if he gets a lot of work." Oh, that clears it up. Wait, no it doesn't.
Also, Carroll's assessment of Wilson changes the further along the coach gets in a paragraph. "The three turnovers were huge in the game, but all three of them were situations where he couldn't do a whole lot about them. The ball could have been a little sharper on the throw to Doug [Baldwin]. He could've gotten the ball off earlier on the blitz situation when he got hit. Then unfortunately Anthony [McCoy] fell down on the breakout route late in the game." So Wilson cannot do a whole lot about turnovers, except throw the ball sharper and earlier (in other words, be better), and Flynn is ready to play, except that his arm could detach on his 15th pass, and if we didn't know better we would think Carroll is flailing around trying to justify a decision that would only look worse if the replacement officials did not think Golden Tate had magical suction cup pinkies.
But none of this matters because Cam Newton's pink Breast Cancer Awareness Month cleats are extra pink. Yes, the guy who was satirized as a Hello Kitty-wearing softie last week will take the field wearing sneakers that look like they were made from melted-down Strawberry Shortcake dollies. Way to steer into the skid, Cam. Newton's shoes are bright enough to draw attention away from Wilson's shortcomings and loud enough to drown out Carroll's maundering.
Prediction: Panthers 22, Seahawks 13.
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Ravens at Chiefs
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Ravens by 7
Just when the Ravens were poised to return to their ploddingly effective, uninteresting ways, they suddenly got political. Brendon Ayanbadejo spoke out on the gay marriage issue a few weeks ago; Matt Birk offered a dissenting opinion this week and the usually quiet Ravens locker room became a battleground state.
Both presidential candidates campaigned heavily during team meetings in an effort to sway undecided voters in the secondary. Nate Silver of the New York Times blog Fivethirtyeight estimated Mitt Romney's support along the offensive line at 51.625 percent, while Barack Obama holds a comfortable lead on special teams (except in one poll with a higher margin for error because it does not include punters' cell phones). Analysts also noted that Joe Flacco's hometown of Audubon, N.J., has a Wal-Mart but no Starbucks, which is significant for some reason.
Representatives for both candidates said they would be thrilled to receive endorsements from Ravens players but would like to put as much distance as possible between their campaigns and Woody Johnson.
Prediction: Ravens 19, Chiefs 17.
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Dolphins at Bengals
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Bengals by 3
Jabar Gaffney is the Ted McGinley of NFL wide receivers, so the Dolphins' decision to sign him (after releasing Legedu Naanee, who fumbled after a critical reception on Sunday because he is Legedu Naanee and should not be expected to make critical receptions) can only be seen as a desperate attempt to prop up their offense until it is canceled.
Gaffney started his career with some very happy days as a member of the expansion Texans, spent a few weeks trying to replace Terrell Owens as Donovan McNabb's foil in Philly, then became a recurring bit player for the Patriots after their championship years, earning his biggest role as Matt Cassel's pass-dropping buddy in the best-forgotten 2008 season. (Gaffney's Patriots tenure is equivalent to McGinley's run on "Dynasty.") From there, it was off to Josh McDaniels' unloved sitcom in Denver for two years. The Patriots picked up Gaffney for a preseason nostalgia tour with Donte' Stallworth (the Joey Lawrence of NFL receivers), then released him, and Gaffney squeezed a brief stint as a Twitter shock comic in there somewhere before beaching himself on Jeff Ireland's inviting shores. A bit role in an HBO series is the perfect thing to revitalize his career; it's a shame Gaffney is two months too late.
The Bengals were without three of their starting defensive backs last week and still crushed the Jaguars. Those starters are due to return this week, so don't expect any heroics from Gaffney, as if you were.
Prediction: Bengals 24, Dolphins 16.
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Titans at Vikings
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Vikings by 5½
The Titans are better at building rhetorical labyrinths than playing football right now. After his best game (by far) of the season, Chris Johnson was quick to give credit to those he previously blamed. "I'm going to be as good as my offensive line," he said, after making 100 percent sure that no contract renegotiations are on the immediate horizon. As for the offensive line, Leroy Harris was pleased with his performance against Texans pass rusher J.J. Watt, who recorded two sacks: "I locked him out for most of the game except for those two plays." We are all successes once we make exceptions for our failures.
Matt Hasselbeck will start this week, and Hasselbeck will be fine as long as Johnson is running well, which will happen if Harris plays well. The Titans' defense will not get worn down by the Vikings' rushing game as long as Hasselbeck plays well, which depends on Johnson, who depends on Harris and the line. And the Titans will turn things around once the goat they swallowed catches the dog that chased the cat that caught the bird that ate the spider that captured the fly that flew down Harris' throat after he allowed a sack.
Prediction: Vikings 17, Titans 14.
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Falcons at Redskins
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Falcons by 2½
The Falcons are 4-0 for just the third time in team history, and D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote a fine piece comparing the team's past 4-0 starts to this year's effort.
The 2004 Falcons rode the consistent quarterback play of Michael Vick and even-keeled coaching of Jim Mora into the NFC Championship Game. Yep, that really happened. The 1986 Falcons worked running back Gerald Riggs like a rented wood chipper but went on a five-game losing streak as soon as opponents realized that David Archer-to-Sylvester Stamps was not a very threatening touchdown tandem (and things only got worse when Archer got hurt). Riggs admits that the 1986 team "didn't have the pieces to make that kind of run," but these Falcons do, and like the 2004 team, they also enjoy the benefits of a weakened division.
And now for a Paul Harvey ending. The 1986 Falcons learned that a 4-0 or 5-1 does not guarantee success, especially when there is an overtime victory or two in the mix and the rest of the division is tough. Perhaps their tight end took some wisdom from that experience that will help him avoid a similar collapse. That tight end's name? Ken Whisenhunt.
Prediction: Falcons 28, Redskins 20.
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Browns at Giants
1 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: Giants by 10
The Giants' midweek injury report, as usual, read like a cross between "Who's Who in American: Pulled Hamstrings" and a biblical genealogy. "And lo, did Hakeem beget Jayron, who begat Baas, who begat Antrel, and the Mighty Ramses was stricken low with a concussion because of his interference." The longer the injury report, the better the Giants will play, and several of the injured players (like cornerback Jayron Hosley) were likely held out as precautions. The Browns have now improved to the point where they make it look like they are keeping games close, which is the first step toward actually keeping games close, which is a few steps from actually winning a game, which probably won't happen until about two weeks from now.
Prediction: Giants 26, Browns 10.
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Bears at Jaguars
4:05 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Bears by 7
So, what is scarier: Jay Cutler ignoring offensive coordinator Mike Tice on the sideline, or Cutler wholeheartedly embracing the "Tao Tice Ching?" Ignoring Tice has its benefits. You never know when you are being blamed for a loss, for example, and you are not pestered about selling your extra game tickets. On the other hand, there's knowing the game plan and respecting your coaches, but Bears offensive linemen have listened intently to Tice for years, and look where it got them.
"It's an emotional game and Jay and I are fine," Tice told the Chicago Tribune, brushing off the televised sideline exchange where Cutler got up from the bench when Tice sat down like the cool kid escaping a nerd at a cafeteria table. "I wish they would have got the clip at the end of the game when he smacked me on the rear end. They didn't show that one. And I smacked him back." OK, that's scarier.
Prediction: Bears 27, Jaguars 13.
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Bills at 49ers
4:25 p.m. Sunday, CBS
Line: 49ers by 11½
Mario Williams has just 1½ sacks this season and was held sackless in three of the Bills' four games. Williams blames a wrist injury he suffered in the preseason. "I'm a hands-on player and it's all about power in my game," Williams said on Wednesday. "It's just been a little odd having a little nick or whatever and not being able to use it to the full extent, but you know, you gotta play."
Top pass rushers are rarely affected by little nicks, so there is something subtler at work here. When the Texans selected Williams over Reggie Bush in the first round of the 2006 draft, it created a cosmic disturbance that prevents Williams and Bush from being good at the same time: When one is productive, the other must be an overpaid bungler who makes excuses for his poor play. The ethereal scales tipped in Bush's favor last year the moment Williams got hurt. Unfortunately, no one in the Bills front office was in tune to the music of the spheres before signing Williams to $50 million of guaranteed money, but the cosmos has been conspiring against the Bills for years, anyway.
A quick note: This prediction assumes some Bills garbage-time touchdowns, because the Bills excel at garbage-time touchdowns.
Prediction: Niners 31, Bills 21.
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Texans at Jets
8:30 p.m. Monday, ESPN
Line: Texans by 9
As the sports world's designated cautionary tale, the Jets are doomed to suffer humiliation after humiliation at the hands of teams that do what the Jets purport to be doing, only successfully. The 49ers are just the Jets, plus brains, minus hubris: blustery coach, quarterback tandem, power running game, great defense, a goofball receiver for a dash of volatility. The Texans are more buttoned-down, but they also have Jets qualities without descending to Jets quality: stout running game, attack-oriented defense and a defensive coaching guru who is the son of a beloved NFL eccentric.
It's important, however, that a team does not become the Jets while beating them. Texans coach Gary Kubiak gave Arian Foster 24 more carries last week, seven of them in a fourth quarter of a blowout, upping Foster's league-high workload to 103 carries. Kubiak brushed away suggestions that Foster should get more breathers in blowouts so he is fresh for the playoff run. "He can handle it," the coach said. One minute, you are basing your game-in-hand decisions on what your personnel can "handle," the next minute, you are closing practices to the media to install a top-secret wildcat package that looks exactly like every other wildcat package except that it lacks the element of surprise. It's a slippery slope, coach. And the Jets are at the bottom of it.
Prediction: Texans 27, Jets 9.
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Packers at Colts
1 p.m. Sunday, FOX
Line: Packers by 7½
When tragedy strikes someone in the NFL, we are reminded that most football teams really are family businesses. They may not be mom-and-pop fruit stands, but they have more in common with the local coffee shop than with some faceless global conglomerate. Each team still has an owner with his own personality and some connection to both the football organization and the community in which it is based. That owner walks through the front door of a team headquarters staffed by players, coaches, secretaries, cafeteria servers and guys who wipe down the weight machines. The degrees of separation between the powerful executives and the lowliest employees are not great, and everyone spends many stressful hours together in training camp dormitories, cramped planes and buses and sweaty locker rooms.
When a coach like Chuck Pagano is stricken seriously ill, the repercussions are felt in Jim Irsay's office and in the equipment supply shed, on the practice field and in the media workroom, across the city of Indianapolis and around the nation. Football lifers like Pagano give all of themselves to the NFL. The league reciprocates with money and fame, but also insecurity, stress, staggering expectations and inhuman work hours. That trade does not seem to be worth it, but the NFL also offers a palpable sense of fraternity, a close connection to the other men (and women) who give so much of themselves for our entertainment.
We saw that sense of family when Myra Kraft passed away last year, and when Andy Reid's son died in August. We saw and heard it this week, as Rob Ryan scribbled a get-well message to Pagano on his play sheet, and Ray Lewis called his former coach a "man among men." Irsay can come across as a nutty uncle, but an uncle is still family, and Irsay is the kind of boss you hope to have in a personal crisis, a man who can say he cares about more than the bottom line and truly mean it. The NFL has an opportunity to inspire us now, not with amazing touchdowns and hard hits, but with compassion and an affirmation that there are many things that matter much more than wins and losses.
Best wishes to Chuck Pagano and his family. From the NFL family.
Prediction: Packers 27, Colts 17.
(Tip of the hat to @Bryan_Nichols and @instreamsports for helping me select terrible actors for the Dolphins segment!)