3 Week 9 Storylines to Watch: Peyton's Last Ride in Indy?

Will Peyton Manning fly back to Denver with his final win at Lucas Oil Stadium?

Well, everyone, we've finally reached the official halfway point of the 2015 season. This is a bit disconcerting to me because I felt we spent many moons awaiting the beginning of the season, only to have half of it gone in the blink of an eye. But such is life when you're an NFL junkie.

As I mentioned last week, the NFL has a knack for strategically scheduling important games in the latter half of the season so that critical games with playoff implications, or games with intriguing backstories are more meaningful as we get closer and closer to the end of the regular season. And to that end, once again, Week 9 is here to deliver the goods.

The primary storyline worth following in Week 9 is the return of Peyton Manning to his former stomping grounds in Indianapolis. Manning's made only one return in to Indianapolis while serving as the signal caller of the Denver Broncos, but this game has a feel to it that it could be his last visit as a player in Lucas Oil Stadium. And it's worth noting that both Manning, and the quarterback who was drafted as his replacement following his neck surgeries, Andrew Luck, are both struggling this season, truly unfamiliar territory for both.

But the drama of the Broncos verses Colts game alone figures to make for an exciting NFL weekend. Combine that with a few of the other storylines you should be following this weekend, and my advice is for you to get your popcorn ready. So without further ado, let's dig deeper into the Colts versus Broncos and other NFL action you should be watching in Week 9. 

Will Peyton Shine in His (Perhaps) Final Return to Lucas Oil Stadium?

To say Peyton Manning was the Football God of the Midwest for over a decade would be putting it lightly. Manning’s 13 seasons with the Colts were littered with accomplishments, including 11 trips to the playoffs, two trips to the Super Bowl, and one Super Bowl championship.

But when we look at Manning's performance as a Colt through numberFire's signature performance metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), the numbers back up how good he was. For those unfamiliar with NEP, each play carries with it a performance expectation based on down-and-distance data, field positioning and other variables. NEP measures a player's performance above-or-under expectation-level on each play. For purposes of illustration (using numbers off the top of my head), if a quarterback throws for 15 yards on a 3rd-and-8, they may have added, say -- depending on where it happened on the field -- an additional 1.2 points to the team's expected point total for that drive. If they don't complete a pass, they'd accrue negative NEP for that play because it'd result in a punt. NEP adds up the positive and negative contributions of player over the course of a season to quantify how many points they added to a team's expected point total. You can check out more about NEP here in our glossary

Of the 20 best seasons by a quarterback in terms of Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) since 2000, Manning is responsible for eight of them, and five of them came with him as the signal caller of the Colts. That's bonkers. Moreover, in 2011, when Manning's career was legitimately in questions due to his four neck surgeries, the Colts happened to have the worst record in the NFL at 2-14, which led them to Andrew Luck. Luck has been good thus far in his short tenure as the Colts' quarterback, but his best season in 2014 registers as the 58th most productive since 2000 among quarterbacks in terms of Passing NEP. So yeah, he has a long way to go to reach Manning-era productivity in Indianapolis.

But this season, things have entered unfamiliar territory. Both Luck and Manning are struggling mightily, registering as the 23rd and 24th most efficient quarterbacks on a per drop back basis this season. In fact, things have gotten so bad in Indianapolis that Luck's offensive coordinator, Pep Hamilton, was just fired. And Manning has a host of problems as well. He's had difficulty hitting his receivers on the timing routes we're so used to seeing him connect on with ease. And his offensive line, while decent in pass protection, isn't opening holes for the running game, which is making Manning have to beat defenses with his arm, the exact opposite of the vision John Elway had when the season began and he brought in Gary Kubiak to serve as head coach.

Manning did seem to look a bit more spry coming off of the bye last week against the Packers as he threw for 340 yards, but he still didn't connect on a touchdown pass, and still managed to throw an interception, a statistic which Luck (12) and Manning (11) currently rank first and second in the league respectively. So this game may be looked at as the turning point for whether or not Manning was able to emerge as a positive complimentary force to Denver's swarming defense, or whether the defense will continue to be required to do more to make up for his deficiencies.

However the Broncos' season unfolds, this week's game may be the last time we get to see Peyton Manning square up against his old team, in his old stadium, against the quarterback they brought in to replace him. And that, my friends, is must-see-TV.   

Can the Packers Offense Start Humming Again?

Last week showed why the Broncos might still be able to win the Super Bowl with a Peyton Manning in decline. No ordinary defense holds Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards through the air. But the Packers, for the past few weeks (even before the Broncos demolishing), have looked relatively pedestrian on offense despite their 6-1 record. And the numbers bear this out too.

Aaron Rodgers, the reigning MVP, currently ranks 8th among quarterbacks with an 0.21 Passing NEP per drop back. While that's nothing to sneeze at, it would be his lowest mark per that metric since his 2009 season if it continues. Randall Cobb, who in 2014 put up the second-most efficient season among wide receivers targeted over 100 times with a 0.94 Reception NEP per target, is putting up a very inefficient 0.55 Reception NEP per target, signaling that the loss of Jordy Nelson to help divert attention away from him, combined with the shoulder injury he suffered in the preseason is helping to sap his productivity thus far. And Eddie Lacy, while running at an above-league average 0.00 Rushing NEP per rush, has been battling a nagging ankle injury forcing a timeshare at the running back position in Green Bay, and lowering his overall productivity thus far this season. All of the team's more recent struggles have dropped the Packers down to 13th in our power rankings, which no one would've believed possible a few short weeks back.

To be fair, the Packers have had a slew of tough matchups that culminated in Denver, but they do face a tough opponent in the undefeated Carolina Panthers this weekend, who, through Week 8, sport the second-best passing defense in the league behind the Broncos. This weekend will provide a good test as to whether or not the Packers offense can square up with and stare down the elite defenses they'll need to beat in the postseason to emerge as the NFC representative in the Super Bowl that so many thought they'd be before the season began. 

Are the Vikings or the Rams For Real?

Two perennial cellar-dwelling teams, the Vikings and the Rams, are emerging this year in the NFC, making legitimate threats for playoff contention. The Vikings have benefited from a balanced team on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Their offense, while middling, ranks 17th in the NFL but has been on a steady climb, which, surprisingly has nothing to do with Adrian Peterson, whose average -0.02 Rushing NEP per rush and very unimpressive 38.57% rushing success rate has, on net, negatively contributed to the Vikings offensive production.

The real culprit for the team's (relative) recent offensive success is rookie Stefon Diggs, who looks crazy legit. Through four games of action, he's currently sporting a ridiculous 0.94 Reception NEP per target, ranking fourth in the league among receivers with at least 30 targets. Diggs' precise route running and ability to get open has given Teddy Bridgewater a legitimate weapon that he can trust, allowing the not-bad-but-not-great defense, currently ranked 13th in the league, to keep games close enough.

The Rams have also been the benefactor of an insanely good rookie in Todd Gurley, whose 0.15 Rushing NEP per rush ranks second among running backs with at least 70 carries this season. Gurley has straight lit up opposing rush defenses the past four weeks to the tune of 566 yards on the ground alone. His 36.17% Success Rate is troubling, however, because it means he's had to rely on the big runs thus far to maintain his efficiency. But he's yet to play in a game (besides his NFL debut where he only got six carries) where he hasn't been able to break out at least one long run out yet.

And the Rams' defense remains as stout as many analysts thought they'd be with the fifth-ranked rush defense and third-ranked pass defense combining to form the second-ranked overall defense in the league per our numbers. The Rams versus Vikings tilt could go a long way to determining which team is further along in their development with their relatively young stable of players, and which team could potentially vie for a final wild card spot in the NFC.