If the NFL would like to suspend the regular season now and fast-forward directly to the Super Bowl, please do. Let’s savor what we’ve gleaned so far from what clearly are the elite two teams, then consider what would serve New York best for its inaugural Super Bowl, then proceed with months of hype that actually might be worth the flatulence for once. I’d prefer that nothing sabotages our precious story line, so I’m asking the other 30 teams — including the unbeaten Chiefs, Patriots and Saints — to excuse themselves from the big boys’ table and consider the Lingerie Bowl.
All this while Matt Schaub, the Houston quarterback whose jersey was subjected to a tailgate burning outside the stadium Sunday, considers a clipboard. Anyone know the identity of the Texans’ backup quarterback? Hey, T.J. Yates works. Johnny Football works better.
The killer pairing for the mass-media megalopolis matchup is Broncos vs. Seahawks. The delicious plots include Peyton Manning polishing his legacy in his brother’s town, with an adoring Madison Avenue cranking out new ads for our favorite moonlighting cornball comedian; Richard Sherman mouthing off every day in the press conference and every night in the city; John Elway trying to complete the rare championship double as a player and executive; and Pete Carroll attempting to complete the unprecedented NFL flop-to-college champion-to-NFL champion coaching reclamation story, while squeezing in a yoga session before kickoff.
I can think of no other potential drama that comes close, even if people in Manhattan view Denver and Seattle as villages from another solar system, even if they wouldn’t place either town on the famous New Yorker map illustration that depicts the rest of America as the hinterlands.
Queasy as I am about drawing such conclusions after Week 4, in a league that usually spooks us with unforeseen twists before Halloween, I’m emboldened by (1) the unprecedented early-season dominance of Manning, who has just completed the most prolific September of his career and any quarterback in league history; and (2) the resourcefulness of the Seahawks, who somehow won Sunday in Houston, against the championship-minded but flawed Texans, after they were dominated much of the game. Every indicator points to these 4-0 teams running off 14-2 or 13-3 seasons, such as Seattle owning the league’s most intimidating home-field advantage and soon receiving the gift of explosive playmaker Percy Harvin, and Denver being unstoppable in the Manning offense while knowing its defense will be reinforced in two weeks by the return of linebacker Von Miller, one of the league’s terrorizing pass-rushers (if also one of its off-field terrors). Sure, upsets happen in January, as the Broncos know, but the Manning we’re witnessing this season is a leader possessed.
He threw four more touchdown passes in just a little more than two quarters, giving him 16 for the year. Having beautifully developed four high-powered targets — Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Demaryius and Julius Thomas — Manning looks poised to break Tom Brady’s single-season mark of 50 scoring passes. He has yet to throw an interception, and facing the supposed challenge of Chip Kelly’s spread/bluroffense, he made life hell for the 1-3 Philadelphia Eagles in the same manner other opponents have — by exposing a bad defense with relentless scoring and diminishing whatever Michael Vick could muster on offense in a 52-20 crushing. The Broncos now have scored 49, 41, 37 and 52 points. They had 35 first downs Sunday. This is one of the most potent offenses you’ll ever see, and for all the preseason buzz surrounding Kelly, it was 37-year-old Manning who was doing the best high-tech lab work with as sharp an offensive mind as the game has seen.
“Might have to give old Thunder an IV after this one,” Manning told the media, referring to the white horse that celebrates with a romp after every Denver touchdown.
America might need an IV when Manning’s season is finished. Of course, this is the regular season, and, in the most backhanded of compliments, it has been said he’s the greatest regular-season quarterback of all. Though he’ll never admit it — he stuttered when a Denver columnist mentioned the GRSQOA label to him — Manning knows the math as a studious football historian. Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw have won four Super Bowls. Tom Brady, Manning’s rival in the ongoing best-of-this-era argument, has won three, same as Troy Aikman. Eli Manning, Peyton’s brother, has two.
Peyton has one. His teammates know what the deal is this season.
“We have high expectations for ourselves and want to go out there and score a lot of points,” Welker said, per the Associated Press.
“We find kind of our second wind,” Decker said. “That’s something we’ve trained for, to be able to play 60 minutes, to be able to finish in the second half. That’s what we do best. We have a lot of confidence coming out of the locker room that we’re going to score or shut them down defensively and put this game away.”
The only thing the Eagles are doing quickly their last 3 1/2 games, after a breakout first half in Week One, is nose-diving. Kelly tried to cop the Manning defense plea, saying, “You’re also playing against an offense that four teams have tried to stop, and they haven’t yet. I don’t have an answer.” Does anyone have an answer for Manning?
A game at Indianapolis, his emotional homecoming against Colts successor Andrew Luck, might be interesting for a while. Then there’s a three-week stretch starting in mid-November when the Broncos play the Chiefs twice in three weeks, with a Sunday night game at New England in between. They’ll lose one of those, then they go to Houston three days before Christmas. But it’s hard to envision the Texans recovering from Schaub’s latest display of self-destruction, this one perpetuating his rep as a quarterback who gags in big moments. That is no way to reach a Super Bowl, certainly not in an AFC that belongs to Manning.
When he faked a handoff and rolled out with less than three minutes left, Schaub was protecting a 20-13 lead. If you’re Texans coach Gary Kubiak, maybe you don’t have him throwing in that situation, a sad commentary. After all, Schaub already had thrown two pick-6s this season. But there he was, eyeing tight end Owen Daniels as the blitzing safety, 6-foot-3 Kam Chancellor, entered the space of his face. Schaub threw anyway as he was shoved to the ground. There was Sherman — undeniably the league’s best cover cornerback, now that Darrelle Revis has been burned by Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald in a play that dropped hopeless Tampa Bay to 0-4 — reacting as his film study taught him last week. Jumping the route as he had in practice Friday, Sherman hijacked Schaub’s pass and ran 58 yards for the game-tying touchdown. The Texans had strangled Seattle in the first half, jumping to a 20-3 lead. But Schaub and the offense did almost nothing after that, including the overtime period, when the Seahawks used a unnecessary roughness flag against Houston’s Kareem Jackson to win on Steven Hauschka’s 45-yard field goal.
“It’s a high-risk, high-reward play,” Sherman said, per the AP. “You have to jump in, and you might get beat over the top for a 20- or 30-yard gain if he gets the ball down there. But if you make the play, you might get a pick-6 and change the game for your team.”
Typically, the flamboyant Sherman said he knew “what was coming.” Carroll confirmed it, saying, “We had practiced exactly that.” The attention to detail — and the way the Seattle’s monstrous, playmaking secondary is performing — is something to remember while chop-licking a potential showdown against Manning.
All you need to know about Schaub was his body language after the Sherman pick. He looked beaten, pounding the turf with his bare hand. “It hurts,” he said, per the AP. “This one hurts real bad.” If you’ve seen this drill before, consider a stat from ESPN.com: Seven times since joining the team six years ago, Schaub has thrown an interception with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter — and the Texans are 0-8 in those games. But while fans afterward were literally torching his jersey and pleading for Yates, the Texans have bigger problems. Arian Foster looks worn down and is not the All-Pro running back of recent seasons, meaning it might be time to prioritize the fresher legs of Ben Tate, except he fumbled to start the unraveling in the second half. Linebacker Brian Cushing, their spiritual leader, has a concussion. And the defense is ticked off at the offense, never a good sign. “We were dominating the whole first half … and the second half we just didn’t finish the game,” star defensive end J.J. Watt said angrily, per the AP. “It’s very, very frustrating.”
But then, great teams survive such games. The Texans pulverized Russell Wilson, who was playing behind an offensive line minus three starters (and two Pro Bowlers). Yet as usual, he found another way to survive, using his legs during a critical 98-yard drive that cut the lead to 20-13 midway through the fourth quarter. The margin for victory was very small for the Seahawks. They found the crack in the door and crawled through.
“This team is something special,” said special teams captain Heath Farwell, per ESPN.com. “Today showed the difference between a good team and a great team. I’m just so proud of all these guys.”
“It wasn’t the prettiest win in the world,” Wilson said. “But it sure looks pretty now.”
“They handed it to us in the first half and we didn’t have any answers to stop it,” Carroll said. “But to play the way we did in the second half and overtime was crazy good. This is a fantastic team.”
So is Denver.
Feb. 2 in the Meadowlands awaits.
And may no one screw it up before then.