Key matchups to watch in Eagles-Broncos tilt

Key matchups to watch in Eagles-Broncos tilt

DeSean Jackson vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

John Gonzalez had a nice story some days back about these two flashy stars renewing their rivalry. Not only were they going at each other in practice every day over the previous two seasons, they actually have some history on the field.

DeSean Jackson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie crossed paths twice as rookies in 2008 when DRC was with the Arizona Cardinals. In the Eagles’ Week 13 win, DJacc hauled in six receptions for 76 yards and a touchdown. Then in the NFC Championship, Jackson pulled down six more balls for 92 yards, including a 62-yarder where he beat Cromartie.

DRC seems to be rejuvenated in Denver, and when he’s in the right frame of mind he has the ability to be a top corner. He also still has a propensity for giving up the big play though, as seen last Monday when Raiders WR Denarius Moore shook Rodgers-Cromartie for a huge 73 yard score.

Jackson has looked better so far this season than he has since he made All-Pro in '09, entering Week 4 second only to Atlanta's Julio Jones in receiving yards. The Eagles are going to need big plays to keep up with the Broncos, so expect Michael Vick to look for those big plays down the field.

Lane Johnson vs. Shaun Phillips

The rookie right tackle had the worst game of his young NFL career in Week 3, playing his part in allowing Kansas City’s Justin Houston to rack up 3.5 sacks of Vick. Lane Johnson looks like a strong run blocker already, but veteran pass rushers have been able to give him trouble.

Meanwhile, Denver may be without their best pure rusher in Von Miller (suspension), but the Broncos do have a presence at outside linebacker Shaun Phillips. Phillips notched 2.5 sacks working against Baltimore’s right tackles in Week 1, and is averaging 7.7 sacks over nine seasons in the league. He's not somebody to take lightly.

Phillips is a guy that could give Johnson problems if the rookie is left to handle him one-on-one for much of the contest. Considering we’re talking about Vick’s blind side, the Eagles may want to roll backs and tight ends to the right side to either help with or at least slow down the tackle’s assignment. Otherwise it could be a long day.

Trent Cole/Brandon Graham vs. Chris Clark

At least the Eagles are catching something of a break this week, as Denver as a Mile High injury report. A lot of the key players on the report were game-time decisions, particularly in the secondary, but one absence we can confirm is that of Ryan Clady, left tackle for Peyton Manning.

I watched Clady's replacement Chris Clark a little bit on Monday night against the Raiders, and he looked fine. Then again, Peyton was getting the ball out so quickly, often times it didn’t matter – that’s how a good quarterback can protect his offensive line instead of the other way around (hint hint).

Also, Oakland doesn’t necessarily have any pass rushers as good as Trent Cole or Brandon Graham coming off the edge either. True, Cole has looked a tad lost out there when trying to get after the QB both in the 3-4 this season and going back to last. Graham on the other hand has been very effective in rush situations – according to Pro Football Focus, his score is second on the team only to Fletcher Cox despite the fact that linebacker hasn’t played more than 19 snaps in a game yet.

If the Eagles can get Manning into obvious passing situations, I’d like to see what Graham can do against this Clark at left tackle. They need to throw the kitchen sink at this offense today.

Peyton Manning vs. Earl Wolff

Patrick Chung made the trip to Denver and is a game-time decision, but is listed as doubtful on the injury report. That means in all likelihood rookie Earl Wolff will get the start at safety opposite Nate Allen. I expect Peyton Manning to walk out on to the field with kitchen utensils and wearing a bib.

There is no place where Philly defensive coordinator Bill Davis can hide Wolff that Manning won’t find him. If the fifth-round pick is out of position, that’s where the ball is going. If he takes a bad angle against the Broncos’ fleet of 1,000-yard receivers, they will pop off for big gains. As far as first career starts go, this is not the ideal situation to make one.

Of course, Peyton is in such a zone and the Birds’ defense – especially the safeties – so questionable that I’m not sure he really needs to go out of his way to pick on Wolff. The plays may be there to be made all over the place regardless. That said, keep an eye out for how many balls go in the rookie’s direction, as Manning isn't usually one to let a good matchup go to waste.

Prediction

I really think the Eagles have a shot to win today if only based on some of the circumstances surrounding this encounter, but am much to lame to actually call it myself. I’ll put them down to cover the 11-point spread though, and make the game much closer than a lot of folks believe it has any right to be.

Broncos 41, Eagles 38 in a very entertaining back-and-forth battle.

The Sixers are the perfect distraction from the Sixers

The Sixers are the perfect distraction from the Sixers

There's your Philadelphia 76ers season in a nutshell, huh? Nerlens Noel gets traded for an all-lemon pack of Starbursts, Ben Simmons' right foot is still apparently stuck in a beartrap, Joel Embiid can't get himself dismissed from the nurse's office, and Jahlil Okafor is forced back into +1 status after everyone else passed on going to the concert with Bryan Colangelo -- and the Ballers still go out and beat one of the best teams in the East in their first game back from the All-Star break. Nearly everything about the Sixers is depressing right now, except for the team themselves. They're cool. 

Kudos to Brett Brown, man. The team is playing with such fluency and energy right now that it can withstand some losses in personnel without the drop-off being particularly dramatic -- at least for the moment. Replacing Embiid and Noel with Okafor and Holmes for as long as we'll have to do it will catch up with us in time, but for now, all you can do is marvel at the pace, cohesion and (with some mildly glaring moments of exception) discipline that Brown has the guys playing at the moment. I doubt there are five coaches in the league having a more impressive season than him right now. 

But the players were pretty good in this one, too. Dario Saric had 20-11-4 in his first start in three weeks, continuing his unlikely Rookie of the Year surge with his third-straight double-double and fourth game of 20-plus in his last six games. The All-Star Break hasn't cooled Robert Covington's hot hand, as the shooter went 5-9 from deep last night and is now 17-31 on threes over his last four games, also posting a 20-10 night with his 25 points and 11 boards. (Also three assists and four steals, whatever.) Richaun Holmes dunked over some people and reminded a handful of fans why they've gotten way too excited about him at various points earlier in the year. Good times were had by all. 

Games like last night's also just remind you how marginal the difference between winning and losing is. As they've been wont to do forever, the Sixers blew their considerable lead to the Wizards late in this one, which would've undoubtedly resulted in a tragic loss in years past. But these days, the leads are a little bigger going into the Sixers' fourth-quarter tailspins, and their defense is just a little tighter on critical possessions, and that's the difference between losing on a Bradley Beal buzzer-beater and hitting just enough free throws to squeak out a mildly secure 120-112 victory. 

Anyway, after an impossibly discouraging week of Sixers happenings, it turns out some actual Sixers basketball is just what we needed. Hopefully their level of play will continue to get better as news of their off-court developments invariably keeps getting worse .

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

Best of NBA: DeRozan scores career-high 43 points in Raptors' win

TORONTO -- DeMar DeRozan scored a career-high 43 points and the Toronto Raptors rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat the Boston Celtics 107-97 on Friday night.

DeRozan shot 15 of 28 from the floor as he surpassed his 42-point effort against the Houston Rockets on March 30, 2015, helping the Raptors overcome the absence of fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry. Lowry sat out with a right wrist injury.

Serge Ibaka, acquired by trade from the Orlando Magic last week, scored 15 points in his debut, while fellow newcomer P.J. Tucker, picked up from the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, had a game-high 10 rebounds and nine points in his first game for his new team.

Isaiah Thomas scored 20 points for Boston, which also got 19 points each from Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart (see full recap).

Westbrook triple-double lifts Thunder over Lakers
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook scored 17 points in his 28th triple-double of the season, and his new teammates fit in seamlessly as the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 110-93 on Friday night.

Westbrook also had 18 rebounds and 17 assists for the 65th triple-double of his career.

It was the first game for new Thunder players Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, acquired Thursday in a trade with the Chicago Bulls. Gibson scored 12 points and McDermott added eight, even though they arrived Thursday night and weren't even available for shootaround on Friday.

Alex Abrines and Andre Roberson each set a career high with 19 points, and Steven Adams added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Thunder.

D'Angelo Russell scored 29 for the Lakers (see full recap).

Pacers beat Grizzlies to snap six-game skid
INDIANAPOLIS -- CJ Miles made five 3-pointers and scored 17 points, Paul George had nine points and nine rebounds after remaining with Indiana following the trade deadline, and the Pacers snapped a six-game losing streak with a 102-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

Monta Ellis finished with 16 points, Myles Turner scored 12, and Lavoy Allen, Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young each added 10 for the Pacers.

The Pacers outscored the Grizzlies 64-42 across the middle two quarters and never relinquished their lead, leading by as many as 27 points in the second half. The Grizzlies finished the game shooting 41 percent from the floor (35 for 84).

Troy Daniels had 13 points for Memphis and Marc Gasol scored 12. Indiana outrebounded Memphis 50-39 and scored 29 points off 17 Grizzlies turnovers (see full recap).