The Chicago Bears (7-1) and Houston Texans (7-1) will square off on Sunday night. It will be the third meeting between the two franchises and just the sixth time since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger that two teams with one or fewer losses have played one another in the second half of the season.
In prime time, in front of a national audience, two of the best teams in football, both fighting for home field in the playoffs, will clash. It's enough to get any football player excited, yet Texans safety Danieal Manning has had this contest circled since the offseason.
"To be honest with you, I circled this game as soon as the schedule game out," Manning said today. "I circled it and I was excited about it. At the beginning, it started to become personal."
Manning wants to win this one, and for good reason.
The Bears drafted him in the second round (42nd overall) of the 2006 draft and made him a starter his rookie season. He struggled for two years and was benched in 2008. Yet he earned his starting spot back in 2009, taking his game to the next level. By 2010, Manning was a bona fide NFL starter with five years experience in Chicago's system.
Here was a player, one of seven safeties former GM Jerry Angelo drafted in eight seasons, who finally had developed into a quality back-end starter. Year after year, the team searched for young safeties they could groom. At last, the plan paid off with Manning.
And on top of his development at safety, he was an outstanding kick returner who was named an All-Pro in 2008 for his return duties on special teams.
Set to become a free agent following 2010, Angelo approached Manning in December that season regarding a contract extension for two years, $6 million, numbers from which he was unwilling to budge.
Relative to Manning's value on the open market, it was a fairly insulting low-ball maneuver, one he promptly rejected. It was arguably one of Angelo's worst personnel decisions, non-draft related, during his tenure in Chicago.
After the season finished, Manning quickly looked elsewhere for employment, signing a four-year, $20 million deal with the Texans. The animosity at the way the team treated him before his departure is understandable, yet Manning says he's now over it and is trying to look at Sunday as just the next game on the schedule.
"Now, it's just like another game," he said. "You've got to prepare the same way. You have to step up. A lot of players got to step up. This team does pose a threat because they're good on offense, defense and special teams, so everyone has to step up their game and prepare to play. It's going to be a physical game."
Manning is familiar with Chicago's system and schemes, as well as the priority the defense puts on creating turnovers. The Bears lead the NFL with 28 total takeaways.
"I was telling [my teammates] in practice today that's what [the Bears] practice all the time. It's been one of their staples since I've been on that team and since Lovie's [Smith] era. He practiced that. He has stations where he sets up stripping and turnover drills. They believe in that. They bought into the system and it's obvious it's been working for them."
Manning knows the key to shutting down Chicago's passing attack is limiting Brandon Marshall, who is fourth in the NFL in receptions (59) and targets (90), second in yardage (797) and receiving touchdowns (7), and first in third-down receptions (19).
"Offense, now they've got some guys that have been around for a while and they've got some guys that have been familiar with one another in Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall. Those guys are going to hook up. Now, they feel like they're moving the ball. They can move the ball on offense and they're going to try to pose some threats here and there."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.