Saints-Rams is perfect warm-up act for main event: Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers

A quick glance at items of interest as Week 9 rolls on …

Who’s hot

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Fitting, that on the weekend featuring the season’s most alluring collection of marquee matchups (and not because Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield will be slinging in Cleveland), the NFL’s “winningest quarterback” faces off against the man many declare as the NFL’s “best quarterback” in the Sunday night showcase.

It’s just the second time that Brady and Rodgers square off (Rodgers 1, Brady 0, Lambeau Field). Maybe the next time it will happen in a Super Bowl. Sure, Brady doesn’t have to personally defend Rodgers as member of the secondary, and vice versa. But it’s head-to-head nonetheless because points add pressure to the other quarterback. With neither of these megastar quarterbacks supported by a dominant defense, it looks like a shootout waiting to happen at Gillette Stadium. And it feels so dramatic, like maybe … last man with the football wins.

Pressure’s on 

Case Keenum and John Elway. Whatever Elway, the Broncos’ football architect, thought he would get in signing Keenum for $18 million per year hasn’t happened. Chances are it never will. Keenum’s history of turnover problems has followed him to Denver; he’s had more turnovers (11) than TD passes (10). As Houston visits on Sunday, reminders will be in the wind. Keenum started his journeyman career with the Texans – who just obtained one of Keenum’s primary weapons, Demaryius Thomas, in a Tuesday trade.

Key matchup

Cooper Kupp vs. P.J. Williams. Kupp had a huge game (eight catches, 116 yards) when the Rams beat the Saints in L.A. last December, and now he’s returning after missing the past two contests with a knee sprain. Williams — picked on and victimized early by the Vikings last weekend before rebounding with a couple of big plays — could draw a significant amount of work against Kupp in the slot.

But recently obtained Eli Apple is an option, too. It won’t be as simple as assigning Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore to the task because of Jared Goff’s other receivers – Brandin Cooks (returning to New Orleans) and Robert Woods. These match-ups will be critical for the showdown on Sunday, when the Saints try to knock off the NFL’s only undefeated team. And the Saints realize the coverage on the back end begins with the rush up front.

Next man up

Gregg Williams. With Hue Jackson and O-coordinator Todd Haley shown the door this week, Williams is essentially the last man standing from the trio of alpha dog personalities handling the Browns’ top coaching posts. Guess you can never say never. When Williams was banned from the NFL a few years ago for playing a leading role in the Bountygate scandal, it seemed safe to suggest that the intense-but-disgraced defensive ace would never land another head-coaching gig. Now he’s the interim coach of the Browns. Odd how a 3-36-1 record – Jackson’s mark during his Browns tenure – will lead to an opportunity. For somebody.

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Rookie watch

Orlando Brown Jr. The son of a former Raven, the late namesake who was nicknamed “Zeus,” Brown will start again at right tackle, subbing for the injured James Hurst for the intense A-North rivalry game against the Steelers. A third-round pick from Oklahoma, Brown is starting his NFL career exactly where he wanted – expressing as much in a heartfelt letter to Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome before the draft.

Baltimore didn’t particularly plan for such a fast ascent to the lineup, but Brown has demonstrated gradual improvement and reduced some of the body fat that represented a pre-draft concern. And circumstances have dictated some quick adjustments, which also apply at left tackle as second-year swing man Jermaine Eluemunor subs for the injured Ronnie Stanley.

If the playoffs were today…

The Seahawks (4-3), hosting the Chargers on Sunday, would be in as the sixth seed in the NFC. With a two-game winning streak and the only loss during a five-game span being a two-point setback against the Rams, Seattle has quietly emerged as a wild-card contender. It will be a crowded race, with two of the three NFC North teams (Chicago, Minnesota, Green Bay) and Philadelphia (if it can’t catch Washington) in the mix. For the Seahawks to hang on for a playoff berth, they will have to survive a gauntlet of a schedule that includes a three-game stretch against the Rams, Packers and Panthers and a late-December matchup against the Chiefs.

Stomach for an upset

Atlanta at Washington. The NFC East title is Washington’s to lose … or win. No, this isn’t the same Jay Gruden team that in 2016 was positioned for a playoff push at 6-3-1 in mid-November, then faded down the stretch and finished 8-7-1. This team has a better defense, an Adrian Peterson-inspired running game and steady Alex Smith at QB.

Then again, Washington (5-2) still needs to prove it won’t squander its lead as Philadelphia regroups. The last time the R’s faced a potent passing attack, the Saints ran them out of the Superdome. This time, playing on grass at home, should help. And Peterson gets a crack at an injury-depleted Atlanta defense. Yet the Falcons (3-4) are desperate, which might be one reason the home team is favored by just two points.  

Stat’s the fact

With a big game at Cleveland, Chiefs QB Mahomes could become just the second thrower in NFL history to pass for 300 yards in eight consecutive games within a season. Andrew Luck was the first in 2014. Think about that: Marino, Favre, Elway, Montana, Manning, Brady, Moon. None of them hit that mark, though Drew Brees had a streak of seven straight 300-yard games in 2011. And Mahomes is in his first year as a starter.

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