4 Week 7 NFL Storylines: Peyton Manning Pursuing History
Watching sports history unfold on television or live at the stadium is one of the most memorable experiences of a fan's life. Even though the records being set or milestones being reached aren't really that meaningful to the everyday life of those watching, there's a shared sense of accomplishment and pride that makes these moments so special.
When I was in middle school, my friends and I would hang out and talk about the home run record chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. "I watched Sosa's home run live!" one of us would exclaim, and the others would have an odd sense of envy. None of us were fans of the teams involved, but we were obsessed with this pursuit of a record.
This weekend will be the same for NFL fans, as Peyton Manning is on the verge of history. Will middle schoolers be able to head to class on Monday morning with a story about how they watched Peyton Manning break Brett Favre's all-time touchdown record?
Peyton Chasing History
In case you weren't aware, Peyton Manning currently has 506 career touchdown passes, two shy of the career total of Brett Favre. They're the only two quarterbacks in NFL history with over 500 career touchdown throws, and with a three-score game this weekend, Manning would take sole possession of first place with at least half of a season left to go in his career.
Manning has reached this milestone with around 1,500 fewer pass attempts than Favre, and a much better quarterback rating. He's thrown 114 fewer interceptions, has a completion percentage nearly four points higher, and has been sacked significantly less often.
Last season, Manning had the most impressive statistical campaign for a quarterback, shattering our Net Expected Points (NEP) record for a quarterback while the Denver offense rolled to the most productive passing output since the beginning of our records. This season he ranks third among NFL quarterbacks in Passing NEP, with Philip Rivers and Andrew Luck currently ahead of him.
His matchup against the 49ers this weekend presents a tougher challenge to find the three scores he needs to become the all-time leader, as the Niners have the seventh-best defense according to our opponent-adjusted Defensive Passing NEP rankings. But with Peyton at home, in primetime, with a record on the line, you'd better believe that this record is going to fall on Sunday night.
Will Denver and San Diego Run Away with the AFC West?
Last season the Chiefs and Broncos got off to scorching hot starts and put the rest of the AFC West in the rearview mirror, and it appears this year that the Chargers and Broncos will do the same. This weekend is a pivotal juncture in the season for all three top teams (the Raiders don't factor into the discussions here after their slow start), as the Broncos face a tough 49ers team, and the Chargers and Chiefs play one another.
A Chargers win and a Broncos win would leave those teams way ahead of Kansas City as the teams near the halfway point of the season, and would leave Kansas City fighting for the second wild card spot in a loaded division with a losing record. But The Broncos may not win, and the Chargers have a tough task on their hands against the Chiefs.
Our team rankings actually prefer Kansas City despite their slow start to the season, as they rank 9th, while the Chargers are 11th. All three AFC West contenders have top-10 offenses, but the Broncos are the only team with a top-10 defense (they rank 10th) of the group.
If the Chargers are legitimate contenders this year, they need to prove it this weekend against the Chiefs, and position themselves atop the division and build up tiebreaker advantages by beating the division rivals. And if the Broncos want to repeat their Super Bowl run this year, a win over San Francisco could be crucial in what should be a top-heavy AFC playoff chase.
Can DeMarco Murray Keep Up His Incredible Pace?
DeMarco Murray has started this season with six straight 100-yard games, putting him in rare company when it comes to consecutive games reaching that milestone. Reaching the century mark this weekend would put him in the top-10 all-time for streaks of 100 yards or more, yet he's still a good distance behind the record holder, Barry Sanders, who had 14 straight 100-yard games during one stretch of his great career.
Yet in an NFL so focused on the passing game, it's an accomplishment to be so dominant as a running back, and it's especially noteworthy for a player like Murray, who has always been on the verge of stardom but has been held back by his teammates and his own health.
Among backs with 60 or more carries this year, Murray has the best Success Rate, which is the percentage of plays during which a runner gains positive Net Expected Points for his team. This is absurd considering his volume, which is currently more than 40 carries ahead of the next closest back. He's been tasked with carrying the offense, and he's done just that, playing the most consistent football of any back in the league despite seeing more work than some team's have given all of their backs combined.
The Giants are his opponent this weekend, and they have a middle-of-the-road run defense (per our data), so a healthy Murray should be able to move to seven straight 100-yard games. Can he keep up the pace against top-11 run defenses from Washington and Arizona in the weeks to come? That will be the true test of just how long Murray can keep his impressive streak alive.
Can the Browns Keep Up With the AFC North Leaders?
The Cleveland Browns were thought to be in total rebuilding mode this offseason, firing their coach abruptly and changing philosophies on the fly. They drafted a quarterback in the first round and seemed to be playing for the long-term, setting up young talent on both sides of the ball to grow into Mike Pettine's system.
But they currently sit at 3-2, well within striking distance of the Bengals at the top of the AFC North. This weekend Cleveland takes on Jacksonville, the worst team in our team rankings by a very wide margin, with a chance to move to 4-2. Assuming they're able to hold off the Jags, can they keep it up and contend for the division?
Strangely enough, it's been the offense that has led the way for the Browns this year, as they rank ninth in our opponent-adjusted offensive rankings, while sitting 27th in defense despite a Rex Ryan disciple running the show at the head coach position. Pettine's influence has been seen on the offense, however, as the team is running the ball often (second-highest run to pass ratio in the NFL) and with success (seventh-best rushing offense in the league). The passing offense has been efficient, as well, which has helped mask the team's deficiencies on defense.
Will they improve on defense as they buy into Pettine's schemes? Can the ball-control offense continue to set the defense up in good situations that hide their flaws? Games against Oakland and Tampa Bay follow this week's Jacksonville matchup, so if the Browns are able to avoid a breakdown they should be neck-and-neck with the Bengals when the teams meet in early November.