Here are some key matchups to watch in Week 7 of the NFL:
Denver coach Mike Shanahan vs. New England coach Bill Belichick
Mike Shanahan has 150 career wins. Bill Belichick has 145. At some time in the future, these two will be together in Canton, enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I have had a relationship with both coaches for many years, and both are special people. Both have outstanding awareness of things going on outside of football -- they would be successful at anything they did. That said, only one of them will be successful when they meet on Monday night.
There is much more to this matchup than merely offensive mastermind versus defensive mastermind. Both were born in 1952 (Shanahan is just a few days younger than Belichick). Both are the face of their franchise. Both had been fired from their first head coaching jobs -- Shanahan in Oakland, Belichick in Cleveland.
Both men are risk-takers. Shanahan traded Clinton Portis after Portis had rushed for 3,099 and 29 TDs in two seasons. Belichick traded for Randy Moss, which was considered a big risk at the time. Between them, Belichick (3) and Shanahan (2) have won five Super Bowls as head coaches.
Shanahan is considered to be an offensive genius, going back to his days as a college coach at Minnesota and Florida. He's great at making offensive adjustments at halftime, and is an outstanding play caller. Belichick is the king of defensive matchups, going back to his days as defensive coordinator with the New York Giants when they won Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990.
Belichick's modus operandi is to identify the oppoent's top offensive threat and find a way to neutralize that player. That might be Broncos WR Brandon Marshall, so it will be interesting to see what Belichick does to take Marshall out of the game -- and what Shanahan does to counter.
These coaches have faced each other seven times, and Shanahan holds a 5-2 edge -- including a win in the 2006 divisional playoffs, which featured a 100-yard INT return that kept New England from taking the lead in the third quarter. Interestingly, the player who made that INT was Champ Bailey, who just happens to be the compensation from the Portis trade.
Indianapolis QB Peyton Manning vs. Green Bay CB Charles Woodson
This is a matchup that goes back a long way. After the 1997 college season, Woodson beat out Manning for the Heisman Trophy. A few months later, I recall a memorable boat ride in New York City the afternoon prior to the 1998 draft -- some good-natured banter between these two players was the highlight of the event.
Manning is coming off his best game of the season, having thrown three TD passes against Baltimore. The last time these teams played was in 2004, when Manning burned Green Bay for five TD passes. In two games versus Green Bay, Manning has passed for 687 yards, eight TDs and one INT. The Packers defense, meanwhile, played well last week against Seattle, and ranks seventh overall against the pass. Woodson is tied for the NFL lead with four INTs, and he's returned two of those for touchdowns.
Manning loves to step up into the pocket and throw, doing so with uncanny accuracy. Marvin Harrison, a favorite target, had a 67-yard TD catch last weekend and seems to be rounding back into shape. Woodson usually starts at left corner, has very strong hands and upper body. He is a good tackler and ball stripper. He likes to tackle low but will always go for the ball.
Woodson will always be around the ball, in position to make plays, and he loves to get his hands on the receiver as quickly as possible. Manning most likely will try to pump-fake him. It will be interesting to see where Woodson lines up -- will he be in the same place every down, or play on one receiver all over field, as he did with Terrell Owens a few weeks ago? I think he'll stick with WR Reggie Wayne, but we'll see.
Dallas G Leonard Davis vs. St. Louis defensive coordinator Rick Venturi
The Cowboys and the Rams have played 20 regular-season games, with each team winning 10. They have mostly been very close games -- four of the last six have been decided by four points or less. With the Rams coming off their first win of the season and the Cowboys coming into St. Louis wounded, this will probably be the loudest crowd for a Rams home game in recent years.
Rams defensive coordinator Rick Venturi and new interim head coach Jim Haslett think alike -- they love to bring pressure with blitzes. Brad Johnson starts at QB for the injured Tony Romo, and he'll need protection and a clean pocket to be able to drive the ball with an arm that is not exactly canon-like.
I expect the pressure to come from the inside, which is where Davis comes in. Davis is a massive man who has very good skills and plays a physical style. He can slide to pick up blitzes. Davis has endurance problems early in the season in hot weather, but that should not be a problem here in the controlled climate of a dome. How Davis handles Venturi's scheme will be a key to this contest.
San Diego OT Marcus McNeill vs. Buffalo DE Aaron Schobel
The Bills are coming off a bye, and they've won 13 of 19 after the bye. Under coach Dick Jauron, they are 2-0 off the bye. The Chargers, meanwhile, face the dreaded west-to-east, 1 p.m. ET kickoff. Since 2000, West Coast teams have a .340 winning percentage in such games.
Crowd noise will be a factor here, as the fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium will make it hard for McNeill to hear the snap count. Schobel, who plays extremely hard with great intensity and all-out effort, will benefit, if he plays. He sat out practice and is questionable for the game with a foot injury. The Bills defense is all about being explosive and running to the ball.
San Diego is not running the ball well these days, but the last time these teams met in 2006, LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 178 yards and two TDs. In six games this season, Chargers QB Philip Rivers has passed for 14 TDs and leads the NFL with a 109.4 passer rating.
For the Chargers to be successful, however, McNeill needs to protect Rivers. McNeill is huge (6-foot-7, 340) but has a tendency to get lazy with his hands. Still, he has been good enough to be selected for the Pro Bowl in each of his first two years.
Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson vs. Chicago LB Brian Urlacher
These two teams are tied for first in the NFC North at 3-3. Peterson had a career game against the Bears in Chicago last season, running for a then-Vikings record 224 yards. A few weeks later, of course, he broke that mark with an NFL-record 296 rushing yards against San Diego.
The Bears finished 24th versus the run in 2007 but are fifth this season. They were very successful last week in slowing down Michael Turner. Peterson has rare speed (4.4) and skills. He is able to change direction at top speed or run over people. He has unique ability to make people miss and has good hands, which makes him very dangerous on screen passes. There's a predominant thought that backs are better on turf, but Peterson is just as good on grass. He's willing to block, but is not very good at it, which is why he sometimes comes out on third downs. (Note: If you ever have a chance to meet him, don't shake his hand -- he'll crush you.)
Urlacher is the starting middle linebacker as well as the Bears' defensive signal caller. He has great size (250 pounds) and athletic ability. He's a "free access" player in their defense, with the ability to run sideline to sideline. He is solid as a pass defender, plays well, is able to break on the ball and read the quarterback.
In addition to a big game from Urlacher, the Bears also will need DT Tommie Harris to play well in order to slow down Peterson.
New Orleans QB Drew Brees vs. Carolina running game
Brees is on pace to shatter Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a single season, and in his last two games against Carolina he's passed for 609 yards and four TDs. The Panthers have been very good vs. the pass this season -- ranking second overall -- but I think the key for anyone to slow down Brees this season is to keep him off the field by controlling the clock with a strong ground attack. The Panthers couldn't run the ball very well last week at Tampa Bay, but they need DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to be effective here.