Though two records stand exactly the same, and equally unblemished, one just doesn’t have the same feel as the other.
While the Green Bay Packers remain a favorite in the NFC, questions swirl around the Denver Broncos despite an identical record on the opposite side of the league.
Which team is a true contender might become more clear Sunday night when the conference powers come off bye weeks to meet in Denver.
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This is just the fourth time in NFL history that two undefeated and untied teams have met this deep into a season, the last happening in 2007 when New England (8-0) beat Peyton Manning and Indianapolis (7-0). Minnesota and St. Louis met with 6-0 records in 1973 with the Vikings winning, and the Akron Pros (7-0) and Buffalo All-Americans (6-0) played to a scoreless tie in 1921.
It just doesn’t feel like a dominant season for Denver (6-0), which posted a 26-23 overtime victory at Cleveland on Oct. 18 that was fueled again by a defense that ranks toward the top of the league in most major categories.
That unit has scored a touchdown in four of six games while racking up 18 takeaways and 26 sacks by a dozen players.
”You’ve got two good defenses and two great quarterbacks,” defensive end Antonio Smith said. ”Our job is to stop their quarterback. Their job is going to be to stop ours. It will be a battle of the defenses when you bring it back to the beginning.”
Denver is one point behind Green Bay for fewest allowed, but 20 of its 102 have come on a trio of pick-6s by Manning.
That’s where the concern has crept in.
Manning has slumped with two touchdown passes and seven interceptions in the last three games. He hasn’t thrown for 300 yards and his passer rating hasn’t floated above 70 during that stretch.
”Hey, I want to play better every single week and I promise like all my teammates we’re out here working hard, we’re trying to get better and we want to do our part,” Manning said. ”We know we need to play better, especially starting this week against Green Bay. Our defense has their hands full. Green Bay’s going to make some plays offensively. We’ve got to do our part to score some points."
A rushing offense that ranks 30th at 85.0 yards per game hasn’t helped. C.J. Anderson has been largely ineffective, and Ronnie Hillman seems to have taken over the No. 1 job after running for 111 yards against the Browns. The bye week should help the Broncos’ banged-up offensive line return to form.
But with a grueling November ahead – including games against Indianapolis and New England – it remains to be seen if the Broncos can keep their pace. Denver’s first six opponents hold a combined record of 13-27.
”We’ll worry about Aaron Rodgers and then when Andrew Luck comes up, worry about him,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said. ”If you can just focus on one game at a time, when you look up at the end you’ll be right where you want to be.”
The Packers (6-0), who have won three straight against the Broncos, held off San Diego 27-20 on Oct. 18 and might feel a bit more comfortable where they are. It’s not due to how well they’ve played, but instead because of what they might get back this week.
Wide receiver Davante Adams (ankle), nose tackle B.J. Raji (groin), safety Morgan Burnett (calf) and outside linebacker Nick Perry (shoulder/hand) returned to practice this week after missing the win over the Chargers.
”You definitely have to be very optimistic, knowing that we feel we haven’t played up to our full potential as a team yet, but we’re sitting here at 6-0,” right guard T.J. Lang said. ”Obviously a lot of momentum on our side, a lot of confidence, and getting a couple key guys back for us this week is going to be huge.”
A player that might not suit up is James Starks, who has led Green Bay’s ground game while Eddie Lacy has been hampered by an ankle injury. Starks was injured while rushing for 112 yards and a touchdown against San Diego, and his status is uncertain.
The good news is what coach Mike McCarthy says about how Lacy looks in practice. Lacy has started slow, totaling 260 yards on 67 carries, though he hasn’t missed a game. He rushed for three yards on four carries against the Chargers.
”Well, he looks good, just watching him work out and watching his work Monday,” McCarthy said before Wednesday’s practice. ”Particularly in the individual stuff, that’s where you try to really stress each position, so I don’t think the injury is affecting him anymore.”