WHEN THE BRONCOS are drawing up their defensive plan for Sunday's big game with Indianapolis, I think they'll get out the films of last season's Colts-Steelers divisional playoff. Indy-Denver is the best matchup of the season, and anyone who's ever had an opinion about football knows that the key element is whether the Broncos' defense can stop the Colts' offense.
Pittsburgh started with a dazzling array of blitz schemes, mostly aimed at the middle of Indy's line, to create some confusion up the gut. And so there was. Normally Peyton Manning is not a good person to blitz because he goes to his hot reads so quickly and so accurately. But the Pittsburgh blitzes took Manning out of his game at the start. After he settled down, the ferocious rush abated. I think Manning's struggles against Pittsburgh will have a seductive effect on Denver's brain trust, and the Broncos will throw all manner of exotic pressure packages at him early on. Presumably the Denver running game will put something on the board before Manning settles, and the Broncos will be dealing from strength.
Denver's defense is quick and smart. The Baltimore game pointed out how much faster the Broncos' unit is than the Ravens'. And when it became a slugfest, Denver was tougher. After watching the way Indy put away Washington on Sunday, my instincts say go with the hot offense. But I can hear the thunder from Invesco at Mile High, I can see a missed pick-up of a signal here, a dropped pass there. I'm going with the defense. Broncos to win it.
The enormity of Indy-Denver dwarfs other good games on the card. I have to go with Kansas City in a mini-upset over a Seattle team missing its premier runner and starting quarterback. I picked both the Atlanta and Cincinnati games wrong last week, but this Sunday they're playing each other so I can only lose once: I like the Bengals in a high-scorer. Carolina's D-line rushed Carson Palmer like crazy at the outset, then tired; against Dallas, the early heat put on Drew Bledsoe will swing it for the Panthers.
Philadelphia is staggering, mysteriously, but so is Jacksonville—even worse. I like the Eagles. Here's another upset: the Jets to keep it going in Cleveland, a most unfriendly place, but I like the way Chad Pennington is running New York's offense. St. Louis, coming off a bye week, is a most intriguing pick in San Diego. But intriguing picks have been my downfall this season, so one boring vote goes to the Chargers. I love the Saints at home over the Ravens, ditto New England visiting Minnesota in the Monday nighter.
Last week 3--5 Season 26--27
Dr. Z writes for the Web every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at SI.com/nfl.
BLITZ WARNING Manning will face a mad rush in Denver.