It's the midway point of the 2012 NFL season and Peyton Manning's Broncos are quietly lurking in the middle of the AFC conference standings with a 4-3 record. They've only won one game on the road, the Patriots and Texans each scored 31 points on them, and both of those teams seem to be getting a lot more media attention as the "teams to beat" out of the AFC this week.
But watch out for Denver. Its road to New Orleans -- Peyton Manning's hometown -- just got a lot clearer.
Let me explain.
Manning brings in the TV ratings. Add in the intrigue around the fact that he hadn't played in 18 months, and the NFL knew No. 18 -- in his new Broncos digs, no less -- would be a big draw come the start of the 2012 season. So, they front-loaded Denver's schedule with primetime games against big-time opponents.
Look at the Broncos' slate thus far:
Week 1 vs. Pittsburgh -- Sunday night
Week 2 vs. Atlanta -- Monday night
Week 3 vs. Houston -- 4 p.m. ET national CBS game
Week 4 vs. Oakland -- 4 p.m. ET national CBS game
Week 5 vs. New England -- 4 p.m. ET national CBS game
Week 6 vs. San Diego -- Monday night
Week 7 -- BYE
Week 8 vs. New Orleans -- Sunday night
The Broncos have played seven games and every single one has been on national television. They've yet to play in a single 1 p.m. ET game.
Their schedule is about to lighten up a whole bunch. Look at what's ahead for Manning and his Broncos teammates:
Week 9 @ Cincinnati (3-4)
Week 10 @ Carolina (1-6)
Week 11 vs. San Diego (3-4)
Week 12 @ Kansas City (1-6)
Week 13 vs. Tampa Bay (3-4)
Week 14 @ Oakland (3-4)
Week 15 @ Baltimore (5-2)
Week 16 vs. Cleveland (2-6)
Week 17 vs. Kansas City (1-6)
That is nine games in a row with eight of those nine coming against teams with losing records. The one team with a winning record -- the Baltimore Ravens -- are no doubt trending downward after the losses of Ray Lewis and Lardarius Webb. You can make a solid argument that not only will Denver be favored in every game from here on out, but that it will be a major upset if it does not "win out" the rest of the way. Now, the NFL's tough and there are strange things -- injuries, upsets, freak occurrences -- that happen on a weekly basis. I get that. But on paper? There's no reason Denver can't win its next nine games.
As for Peyton Manning? He's long since silenced any of his critics. At this point, he's just shoving it in their faces. Since throwing three interceptions in the first half of Denver's Week 2 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta, Manning has thrown just one interception. He's already tossed for more than 2,000 yards and has 17 touchdown passes on the year.
Is he back? Hell, he may be better than he ever was.
If you were tired of seeing the Broncos on national television every weekend over the first half of the NFL season, don't worry. Those days are over.
But the Broncos' run through the AFC? Well, that could just be getting started.
Week 8 record: 5-9
Overall season record: 67-54
WEEK 9 CHEAT SHEET TRIVIA QUESTION OF THE WEEK:
Three quarterbacks -- Eli Manning (27-5, .844), Tom Brady (34-11, .756) and Ben Roethlisberger (25-8, .758) -- improved their October winning percentages among starting quarterbacks (minimum 20 starts) in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) as all three led their teams to victory in Week 8. All three quarterbacks are among the top 5 quarterbacks with at least 20 career starts in terms of winning percentage. Daryle "The Mad Bomber" Lamonica is on the top 5 list, too. Which ex-Steelers and Bears QB is second all-time in October win percentage with a 16-4 career record as a starter in the season's second month?
See below for answer.
Week 9 Fantasy Football Waiver Wire Pickup: Ryan Broyles, WR, Detroit Lions
Thursday night Kansas City at San Diego: My initial reaction when I saw this one on the schedule for Thursday night? An old fashioned, "Ugh." If you've been looking for a night to catch up on "Homeland" or "The X Factor" (guilty pleasure), this might be the one. The Chiefs haven't led for a single second this entire NFL season and the Chargers have been outscored by their last two opponents 42-6 in their last six quarters. So, yeah, this isn't exactly an AFC Championship preview. Give me the bad Chargers over the worse Chiefs. Ugly, ugly game.
The Pick: Chargers 20, Chiefs 16
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET games Denver at Cincinnati: It'd be just my luck that the same week I write seven paragraphs about the Broncos running the table from here on out they'd go out and get beaten up by an angry, motivated Bengals team in Cincinnati. Anything's possible. I just don't see the Bengals' defensive backfield finding a way to stop Manning. Not with him playing the way he's been the past few weeks.
The Pick: Broncos 31, Bengals 23
Baltimore at Cleveland: My big upset special of the week! The script last week for San Diego-Cleveland was the following: "Bad loss, but they've had a bye week to prepare and a trip to Cleveland where they can right themselves." Sure enough, the Browns didn't exactly roll out the red carpet and have some cookies and milk waiting. Cleveland is tough as nails. They're a 2-6 team, but they've lost only one of those games by more than two scores. They played Baltimore tough in Week 4 and they'll play them tough in their own building on Sunday. Trent Richardson can run all over this beleaguered Ravens D. Give me the Browns.
The Pick: Browns 24, Ravens 20
Arizona at Green Bay: My, how times have changed. Just three seasons ago, the Packers and Cardinals played in the highest-scoring playoff game of all time. The two teams combined for 96 points and a mind-boggling half of the 124 plays called from scrimmage went for first downs. We're dealing with a slightly different Cardinals offense this time around. That game nearly topped 100 total points. I'd be surprised if this one topped 40. I like the Packers in one with slightly less offensive fireworks.
The Pick: Packers 24, Cardinals 10
Chicago at Tennessee: Talk about a tale of two teams from a week ago. Chicago trailed the Panthers at home for an entire game, only to find a way to rally late in the fourth quarter and steal a win from Carolina's grips in Soldier Field. Down in Indy, the Titans held a touchdown lead late over the Colts, only to give what looked like a sure-fire win away in overtime. The Bears are first in the league against the rush. I don't see Tennessee's offense finding much success against this unit. Chicago's dream season keeps on keepin' on.
The Pick: Bears 24, Titans 13
Miami at Indianapolis: If the playoffs were to start today, these two teams would be the AFC's two wild-card squads. Who saw that coming back in August? The Dolphins had their way with the Jets last weekend and the Colts just seem to find ways to win in dramatic fashion. Who are your three AFC Pro Bowl quarterbacks this season? Manning? Yes. Brady? Yes. The third? You can go with Ben Roethlisberger or Matt Schaub. Give me the rookie, Andrew Luck. I think Miami wins this one, but the two teams are still in the thick of the playoff hunt come December.
The Pick: Dolphins 27, Colts 23
Carolina at Washington: Everybody loves the new baby. Go on Facebook and you'll see the latest newborn baby getting hundreds of comments and likes on any/all photos. But what about the baby that's now a year old? Those comments and likes seem to dwindle down quite a bit, right? Well, Cam Newton was the new baby last year. RG3 is the guy everyone's falling in love with this season. Just how well you perform when those likes and comments dwindle down show me a lot. There are very few in Cam Newton's corner these days. I'm one of them. I'm with you Cam. Last year's baby is going to have a rare day to relish in some media love on Sunday. He's going to tear up this horrendous Redskins defense.
The Pick: Panthers 34, Redskins 24
Detroit at Jacksonville: The Lions may have some fight in them, after all, huh? I prematurely wrote Detroit off after looking sloppy, shaggy, and ragged against Chicago in its Week 7 Monday night loss. Down three points at home to the Seahawks on Sunday, Matt Stafford led the Lions on a 16-play game-winning drive that started at Detroit's 20 with 5:27 remaining, and ended with a Titus Young touchdown reception. The Lions converted first downs on 12 of 16 third downs on Sunday and Stafford actually looked like the guy who threw for 5,000 yards a season ago. He should have another big day against Jacksonville. Watch out for the Lions. The media spotlight -- bright, large and looming back in August -- has long moved on to other teams. Some teams thrive on that.
The Pick: Lions 34, Jaguars 23
Buffalo at Houston: The Mario Williams Bowl! The NFL's first $100 million defensive player left Houston for Buffalo this offseason, but the Texans haven't missed him. Houston's D has moved on just fine, while Buffalo's D has been roasted continuously this year. The Bills defensive line -- a $200 million investment that looks like a worse way to spend money than marketing for that "John Carter" movie last summer -- can't stop the Houston running game. Give me the Texans.
The Pick: Texans 35, Bills 20
Sunday, 4 p.m. ET games Tampa Bay at Oakland: Way back when, these two teams played in a Super Bowl. Way, way, way back when. I loved what I saw out of the Buccaneers -- this team, not the 2002 version -- last Thursday night. Coming off a tough loss to the Saints in Week 7, the Bucs bounced back on four days rest and beat the Vikings in Minnesota. Doug Martin, Mark Barron and Lavonte David -- the first three picks of Tampa Bay's tremendous 2012 NFL Draft -- are all playing huge roles. I'm all about the Baby Bucs. Give me the Bucs in another road game they're listed as underdogs.
The Pick: Buccaneers 32, Raiders 23
Minnesota at Seattle: I see these two teams playing and I can't help but wonder if Tarvaris Jackson -- the one-time "franchise quarterback" for both teams -- sneaks in a glance of the score while his Bills wrap up their 1 p.m. ET game with the Texans. Jackson has come and gone from both teams, as both have attached themselves with new, younger quarterbacks. Minnesota had a nice start to the season, but the schedule gets a lot rougher starting this weekend. Trips to Seattle are never easy. After this, Minny plays Detroit, Chicago twice, and Green Bay. It was a nice story for a while, 2012 Vikings. We'll see you next year.
The Pick: Seahawks 24, Vikings 16
Pittsburgh at New York Giants: The Giants got out of Dallas and beat Hurricane Sandy back to Newark late Sunday night, but it was by no means a regular work week for the Giants. Any other team? I'd doubt them. Too much distraction. Too much agony. The Giants? They thrive on this. And so do their fans. Sunday will be a welcomed distraction for Big Blue and the crowd at MetLife. Give me the Giants in an inspired effort.
The Pick: Giants 27, Steelers 23
Sunday night Dallas at Atlanta: Both of these teams fascinate me. Everyone is expecting the Falcons to suddenly come back down to Earth and lose, while most watching the Cowboys this year expect them to wake up and snap back out of this funk at some point. I don't see either happening on Sunday night. The Falcons are 7-0 for the first time since in franchise history, they've scored at least 23 points in each game, and they've won both close games and blowouts. I don't see the Cowboys beating them in Atlanta.
The Pick: Falcons 30, Cowboys 24
Monday night Philadelphia at New Orleans: Philly's in a tailspin. The Eagles have now lost three straight games and the callers are lighting up the WIP phone lines. From a friend down in Philly, there was this exchange on Monday afternoon:
Caller: "I'd rather have Donovan McNabb than Michael Vick."
Host Angelo Cataldi: "If I had to choose between Vick and McNabb I'd choose tennis."
These aren't fun times to be an Eagles fan. It'll only get worse. I'm taking the Saints.
The Pick: Saints 34, Eagles 27
OH, AND BY THE WAY...
1. Love him or hate him, Mike Shanahan's usually pretty good for a quote. His thoughts on putting Robert Griffin III at wide receiver on Sunday? "After looking at that play, you feel like a complete dumbs***," Shanahan told reporters during the team's media conference call on Monday. Don't change, Shanny. Don't ever change.
2. Though I'm sure some health and wellness folks have a problem with Peyton Manning -- one of the most recognizable athletes in the country -- buying 22 Papa John's franchises last week, I'm cool with it. But I'd have a huge problem if they didn't give him unlimited garlic sauce, crushed pepper packets, and jalapeno peppers in the deal. Huge.
3. There have been several low moments for Chiefs fans this season, but it almost got really, really bad on Sunday. The NFL did away with its long-standing "Emergency Quarterback" rule last offseason, meaning that teams could carry just two quarterbacks on their game day rosters. Sure enough, Brady Quinn went down with an early injury. When backup Matt Cassel went down hard in the second half, there were questions of "Umm ... OK, so who now?" The Chiefs had no answers. CBS producers asked the Chiefs PR staff. Their answer? "No comment." Yikes. Fortunately, Cassel got up and finished the game. Though, based on Cassel's 2012 campaign thus far, perhaps a run with Dexter McCluster at quarterback for a few drives wouldn't have been the worst thing.
4. J.J. Watt's "I've eaten bigger burritos than you" line about Ray Rice two weeks ago was pretty funny. But on a serious note, I'd like to try one of those burritos. I think I'd really enjoy a human-sized burrito. Sour cream, guacamole, the whole thing.
5. There was a lot frustration from Giants fans over the fact Dallas managed to get three plays off in 10 seconds. Why not add a tenth of a second to the clock? They have it in basketball and it seems to work. There's no reason a clock operator should have so much power when the technology is so advanced. And I also think robots should ref the games, too. But I'll keep that suggestion in my back pocket until the 2034 owners' meetings.
WEEK 9 CHEAT SHEET ANSWER: Kordell Stewart owns the second-best career winning percentage in games played in October for any starting quarterback with at least 20 career starts in the month. With the Steelers and Bears, "Slash" was 16-4 as a starter in the season's second month.