The Denver Broncos will be sweating this week on the fitness of quarterback Peyton Manning, who led them to their eighth win of the season on Sunday but saw his injury-prone ankle targeted in the process.
Despite only one loss this year and boasting one of the best attacks in the NFL, their push for a first Super Bowl in 15 years could well be derailed over the next couple of weeks as they head into three crucial games against AFC rivals.
Next Sunday night, the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs will visit Denver and if Manning can come through that unscathed, he will bring his team to the New England Patriots and then the return game at the Chiefs.
All this will be without head coach John Fox, who watched Sunday’s 28-20 win over the San Diego Chargers from his off-season home in North Carolina, after heart surgery last week.
Of course it won’t have helped his recovery too much to have seen Corey Liuget’s low tackle late in the game which left Manning in pain after throwing a game-winning pass to secure a vital first down.
“I was trying to get to him because I knew how critical it could be to us as a defence to get to him,” Liuget said. “I’m not sure how I caught him but I hope he is okay. It’s not anything that is going to stop him from being Peyton Manning.”
The leading teams in the NFC, meanwhile, made big statements on Sunday, with the New Orleans Saints bouncing back from a defeat to the New York Jets with a relentless 49-17 home win over the Dallas Cowboys while the Seattle Seahawks piled further misery on the Atlanta Falcons, their impressive 33-10 victory realigning their prospects for February glory.
With the Saints and the Seahawks now clear leaders in the NFC, attention has turned to which team will secure the all-important home advantage in January’s play-offs, with both outfits proving to be beyond reproach on their own turf.
Russell Wilson threw a pair of touchdowns passes for Seattle while Marshawn Lynch ran for 145 yards in a contest that was basically decided before half-time when Wilson’s touchdown pass was caught athletically by Golden Tate with one second remaining.
With the New York Giants winning their third game in-a-row — 24-20 at home to Oakland — and the Philadelphia Eagles beating an injury-ravaged Green Bay Packers, the Dallas Cowboys could well find themselves in trouble in the NFC East while the Detroit Lions took advantage of the Green Bay skid by overcoming the Chicago Bears, courtesy of a late Calvin Johnson touchdown which secured a narrow but crucial 21-19 result for the NFC North leaders.
Elsewhere, the Indianapolis Colts lost in a shock defeat at home to the Tavon Austin-inspired St Louis Rams while the Baltimore Ravens enjoyed an exciting overtime victory over divisional rivals Cincinnati.
The Carolina Panthers had a huge win over the reigning NFC champions San Francisco in a dour defensive game while the Jacksonville Jaguars finally won their first game of the season, a 29-27 over the Tennessee Titans.
There were also morale-boosting wins for the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Buffalo Bills and the Arizona Cardinals over the increasingly demoralised Houston Texans while on Thursday, Minnesota beat Washington.
No pain, no gain for Matthews
Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews returned to the NFL at the weekend after a four-game absence wearing a bizarre cast protecting his surgically repaired right thumb.
“Obviously it’s going to hurt, but that wears off,” he said of his first game since breaking his thumb. “They assured me it would be very difficult to re-injure the hand being in a club with the protection I have and how it’s casted down. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean the pain goes away. So that’s just a by-product I need to continue to push through.”
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