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NFL Preview - Philadelphia (1-2) at Denver (3-0)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - ESPN has been treating the Manning family like Greek Gods in the network's latest special, "The Book of Manning."
All of the Manning men are documented by the media conglomerate that calls itself the worldwide leader in sports, but Peyton Manning seems to garner most of the attention. He deserves the recognition and will try to keep the Denver Broncos unbeaten Sunday afternoon, when the Philadelphia Eagles put their high-octane offense to the test at Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Manning is off to an MVP start and has thrown 12 touchdown passes, an NFL record through Week 3 of an NFL season. He surpassed Tom Brady's previous record of 11 set back in 2011 and added three TD passes in Monday night's 37-21 rout of the AFC West-rival Oakland Raiders. Manning has yet to throw an interception and has eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark each week.
The success Denver has achieved in the passing game has been a reflection on the ground attack the last few weeks. After Baltimore held the Broncos to 65 rushing yards in the season opener, they ripped off 107 yards in Week 2 against the New York Giants and ran for a season-high 164 yards versus Oakland.
"We've worked hard on the passing game, starting with the offseason and training camp," Manning said. "We knew it was going to play a pivotal role for us this year. But I still think you strive for balance. I think we averaged four yards-per-carry in the run game, 4 1/2 yards or so, and when you can do that, that can certainly help your passing game and help put their defense in a little bit of a bind."
Denver's offense, which is averaging an league-high 374.7 passing yards per game, has been harassing defenses to an NFL-best 486.7 total yards per game, just ahead of Philadelphia (461.7 ypg). Fortunately for Manning he has the weapons around him to make the Broncos a dangerous club and an early frontrunner to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas and Wes Welker all have at least 14 receptions and 190 yards receiving in only three weeks.
And Manning is the one who gets them the ball. A few years removed from a nagging neck issue, Manning seems re-born and ready to give it another shot at winning a Super Bowl. He was just named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for shredding the Raiders and extended his streak of games with a passer rating greater than 90.0 to 15 with a 135.8 rating.
"I think guys are doing a good job getting open on time. I think guys have a good clock in their head about when to come out of the break versus different coverages," Manning said. "Protection has been good, so it gives you a chance to see the field and try to throw accurate footballs."
Manning's poise in the pocket and precise timing with his receivers are the main reasons why the Broncos are one of seven teams with an undefeated record at 3-0. Chicago, Kansas City, Miami, New England, New Orleans and Seattle are the other unbeaten teams around the league and the Broncos haven't started 4-0 since a 6-0 mark to open the 2009 campaign. The Broncos have won 14 straight in the regular season dating back to 2012 -- one shy for most consecutive regular-season victories in team history -- and are searching for the franchise's 12th 4-0 start.
"We've started the season 3-0 and there aren't a bunch of those 3-0 teams out there," Broncos head coach John Fox said.
Fox's team has scored 127 points, tied for the second-most in the first three games of a season in NFL history.
Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis has his work cut out for him and his unit this week and it could get ugly fast. The Eagles are near the bottom in every defensive category, including points allowed (28.7), rushing yards (115.3), passing yards (323.0) and total yards (438.3).
After turning heads in a Week 1 victory at Washington, Philadelphia has dropped consecutive home games to San Diego and Kansas City. In last Thursday's 26-16 loss to former head coach Andy Reid and the Chiefs, the Eagles fell behind 10-0 and never recovered. The defense showed flashes of brilliance, but failed to come up with stops in crucial moments. Kansas City converted 6-of-19 on third down and Chiefs wide receiver Donnie Avery looked like Jerry Rice.
Avery killed Philly's defense on some third down chances and finished with 141 yards on seven receptions. Still, Eagles first-year head coach Chip Kelly believes the defense is improving.
"I think our defense has always played with great effort," Kelly said. "They're starting to get familiar with each other it's the same thing. We've got a lot of new players over there, new faces and a brand new scheme. They're starting to get comfortable with it but the one thing I've told them and told them since we started, if you play with great effort, good things will happen to you."
Kelly's offense stole headlines in Week 1 and now opposing defenses are finding a way to slow the Eagles down. That's what Philadelphia's defense will be in charge of against Manning and the high-powered Broncos. Applying pressure up front with linemen Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox will be huge, while linebackers Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans must play smart. Manning is a cerebral player and can sense when a blitz or stunts are coming. Linebackers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin have to play with urgency in order for the Eagles to avoid a 1-3 hole.
Cole remembered a 2010 meeting with Manning, who was a member of the Indianapolis Colts and suffered a 26-24 loss at the Linc.
"I just remember that we were getting back there (into the backfield)," Cole said. "We were hitting (Manning), but he was getting the ball off so fast. I can remember him just reading the whole (defensive) backfield, I could see his eyes flicking back and forth. He didn't even stand up (from under center), he was just looking (side to side). I saw his eyes cranking back over, he was just trying to disguise what he was reading. It was crazy, but ... and I can't give away the secret ... I remember we did jump on him for a minute. We did something to distract him, and, I remember it now, I'm going to go tell (defensive coordinator Bill Davis). I think you can get on him if you apply pressure, disguise (your looks) and get after it."
While Cole urges the front line to distract Manning, the Eagles' secondary has the toughest job in containing Thomas, Decker and Welker and also making tackles.
"That's huge, being able to tackle, because he does get the ball out (quickly)," Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin said. "It might be a one-on-one situation in the flat or across the middle ... a broken tackle can take it from a 5-yard gain to a 25- or 30-yard gain, and that has happened a lot of times. (Tackling is) very important for us, knowing that (Manning) will get it out quick. The rush might not get there, but we have to trust ourselves to make those tackles."
The Eagles lead the all-time series against the Broncos, 7-4, but have lost three of five matchups in Colorado. Philadelphia won the most recent meeting, a 30-27 win back on Dec. 27, 2009 at Lincoln Financial Field. Manning is 3-1 in his career against the Eagles, posting eight touchdown passes, three interceptions and a 104.5 passer rating.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
While it's known the Broncos have the top passing offense in the league, the Eagles are first in rushing yards with 209.0 per game. Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who gave fans a scare with a mild leg injury in the loss to the Chiefs, leads the league with 395 rushing yards and 514 yards from scrimmage. McCoy is a dangerous back and can make practically any defender miss. He is posting an average of 171.3 scrimmage yards per game and has two 100-yard rushing performances this season to go along with a 100-yard receiving effort.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick can run, too. Although he is injury-prone and tends not to slide when escaping the pocket, Vick has to learn how to protect his body so he can last a full season and give his team the best chance to win. Vick has always been a threat passing and running and the Broncos are aware of what he can do from his earlier days with the Falcons.
"I think it's a different offense," Fox said of Vick with the Eagles. "In Atlanta he was kind of a run, play-action quarterback as well. I think with the advent of the read-option in college football and now coming to our league, it fits him perfectly. He's explosive. He's going to have as many explosive runs as any quarterback in the league I would expect. I guess they're the number one rushing team now ... two weeks in a row for us. But he's operating that offense very well."
Vick has only faced the Broncos once back on Oct. 31, 2004 with the Falcons and passed for 252 yards with two TD strikes and no interceptions. He also ran for 115 yards. For how well the Eagles run the ball, Vick must get DeSean Jackson, Brent Celek and the rest of the passing offense back in gear. Jackson was completely shut down by Kansas City, which played press coverage and had a safety over the top so the speedy wideout couldn't break through.
Philadelphia's unstoppable force that is its running game meets Denver's immoveable object or run defense. The Broncos rank first in rushing yards allowed (43.3) and rushing average (2.3) in three games.
The Broncos also rank fifth in the NFL in third-down defense with a 31.1 percentage (14-of-45). When the Eagles' offense isn't clicking, and that has happened at times in the past two games, Denver will be able to get Manning on the field with plenty of time. Since the Eagles like to score quickly, giving Manning more than 40 minutes to work with isn't a bright idea.
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard is back to his old tackling tricks and leads Denver with 25 on the season. Danny Trevathan is right behind his fellow linebacker with 20 stops and the middle of Denver's defense has to eliminate Philly's quick routes and timing plays. Kansas City did a good job of taking away the middle and also the deep route. After Jackson, the Eagles don't have much of a receiving threat with Jason Avant and Riley Cooper.
Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, who has two interceptions in his last three games, said the key to stopping the run is pressure up front from the line.
"I expect that with the big boys up front," Harris said. "We don't think anybody can run on us. We expect to make teams one-dimensional and make them throw on us, and with the offense putting up points, that's what teams are going to have to do. If we stop the run, it's going to be a long day for teams."
Former Eagles defensive back and current Bronco Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ranks second in the NFL with 86 passes defensed since he entered the NFL in 2008 and will take on his former teammates. The Broncos lead the AFC with six INTs. Also keep an eye out for Broncos speedy return man Trindon Holliday setting up Manning and the offense with good field position.
Manning and Fox both complained the Eagles had more than a week to prepare for Sunday's game and they're coming off Monday night's recent affair. But Denver has to realize the Eagles just played three games in 11 days.
"We're on to Philly," Fox said Tuesday. "They've had 10 days (to prepare), we're on six. All our focus is on Philadelphia."
The way Manning has this offense rolling it's not necessarily an advantage for Philadelphia, which is showing signs of fatigue and a few cracks in Kelly's offensive foundation. The Eagles, who will play three straight and five of the next seven games on the road, can keep pace with the Broncos, but it will be turnovers, penalties and mistakes that will send them to 1-3 on the season.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 33, Eagles 21
09/26 12:18:25 ET