Now this is more like it. This week is a monster: Six of the top eight teams in Frank Schwab’s power rankings face off head-to-head this week. It’s not as if the action hasn’t been good in the NFL, it’s just that prior to last week the matchups had been a bit … underwhelming. Not with three sledgehammer games on this week’s slate, including a classic divisional matchup, a great conference battle and an intriguing inter-conference tilt that will tell us a lot about both teams. Here are the biggest storylines as we look forward to the Week 11 games:
1. OK, this is the big one. Sunday night features the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs traveling to face the one-loss Denver Broncos in a game that not only has major ramifications on the division race, but also on the AFC’s totem pole (with the loser of the West likely getting a 5-seed and a road playoff game, thanks very much). This is the highest combined winning percentage (.944) of two teams meeting this late in a season since 1969. You have to start with the quarterbacks — check out what Archie Manning said about both guys — and their defensive matchups. Peyton Manning, his tender ankle and the Broncos’ offense (first in points scored) going up against a Chiefs defense (first in points allowed) that ranks among the best, and workmanlike Alex Smith and the Chiefs (fewer points scored than the Minnesota Vikings) attacking a semi-suspect Broncos unit (more points allowed than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Yes, these teams meet again two weeks from Sunday, and everything could change again, but imagine the statement the Chiefs could make with a victory. We just won’t even get into what Dwayne Bowe did leading up to the game. Sheesh.
2. Are we suddenly down on the San Francisco 49ers as they head to face the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome? The 49ers had won five straight, scoring 30-plus in each game, prior to Sunday’s 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Maybe that loss wasn’t so awful; after all, look at how the Saints picked themselves up after falling to the New York Jets, turning around to whip the Dallas Cowboys by 32 in Week 10. So the tasty matchup is Drew Brees (21 straight games at the Dome with at least two TD passes) against a Niners defense that hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in six games. Yes, it will be on their defense to crank it up, and maybe Aldon Smith can get back into form and attack vulnerable Saints left tackle Charles Brown. But it’s also on Frank Gore to quiet that crowd with a few physical first downs. Quite a matchup with major playoff implications. The 49ers hope this one turns out better in this building than when their lights were turned out in Super Bowl XLVII.
3. “Monday Night Football” hasn’t been blessed with the sexiest slate of games this season, even though there have been some good ones. But this one promises to answer some pressing questions we have about two intriguing contenders: New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers. You have the Patriots, coming off the bye and getting healthier, facing a Panthers front seven that Tom Brady calls the best in the NFL. And who are we to argue, given their recent results? The Panthers rank in the top five in total defense (second), rushing defense (second) and passing defense (tied for fourth). The Patriots are coming off a game in which they dropped 55 points and 610 yards on Dick LeBeau and the Pittsburgh Steelers. But don’t forget about what Cam Newton and the Panthers’ offense might be able to do against a sneaky-good Patriots defense — perhaps that’s the secret matchup that holds this game in the balance.
4. It’s Week 11, and the Cleveland Browns are in the playoff picture. With the Cincinnati Bengals’ two-game slide and spate of injuries, they no longer as the lock-it-in favorites in the AFC North, and they’ll have a tough game on hand this weekend with the visiting Browns, who have found some stability. The road has not been kind to the Ravens the past two weeks, with two close, ugly overtime losses, so they’ll be happy to return home where they are 4-0 this season and have outscored their opponents 116-55. Can Jason Campbell provide enough in the passing game against a beat-up Bengals defense? Will Andy Dalton break out of his two-game skid after a blistering first four games in October? This is a tough one to handicap.
5. The AFC South suddenly looks more meek following the disappointing losses of both the Indianapolis Colts and the Tennessee Titans in Week 10. Thursday night’s game in Nashville should provide some clarity, even though the Titans appear to be in rough shape following the season-ending injury to Jake Locker. The Colts have taken three straight against the Titans, and eight of nine head to head, but they are a flawed team right now that is far too dependent on Andrew Luck being perfect, or close to it. If the Colts want to be considered a Super Bowl-caliber team again, this would be the time and place to show it. They’ve been a bit up and down on the road.
6. Both the visiting Baltimore Ravens and the Chicago Bears are fighting for their playoff lives, and the quarterback battle is quite interesting. You have Joe Flacco, trudging through a tough season but hitting the month — November — when he has done his best work, with an 18-6 career mark. And on the other side, there is Bears replacement starter Josh McCown, who has been pretty sharp in his relief appearances this season. But there’s also an interesting contrast at running back, where the Bears are set with Matt Forte playing some of his best ball, but the Ravens are suddenly really concerned about Ray Rice’s loss of juice. Perhaps facing a porous Bears defense will help, but he hasn’t looked right all season and the shoddy Soldier Field turf might not be the surface to jumpstart his season.
7. The Green Bay Packers have said they’ll go with Scott Tolzien as the starting quarterback, with Aaron Rodgers still on the mend, in a game against the suddenly relevant New York Giants. The 26-year-old Tolzien acquitted himself well in his first regular-season action last week but will have a tougher-than-advertised task against the improving Giants defense. Still, Jason Pierre-Paul is questionable for this one, and the Giants must win the turnover battle. Eli Manning has been prone to some wild throws this season, but the Packers’ shaky defense has only three interceptions in 303 passes against them this season.
8. The Philadelphia Eagles have climbed out of their hole and thrust themselves into the volatile NFC East race, with a chance to put away their opponents, the Washington Redskins, from the chase this week. The problem: The Eagles are 0-4 at home, outscored by 35 points. The good news for them: The Redskins only have won once in four tries on the road, and the last time they had extra time to prepare for an opponent, the Cowboys blasted them coming off their bye. Turning the season around from a 3-6 start won’t be easy, even though they did just that last season and have done so in improbable fashion before. One way toward that end would be to crank up the pass rush against Nick Foles and his incredible 16-0 TD-INT ratio.
9. This is a dangerous time for the Miami Dolphins as they host the San Diego Chargers following one of the franchise’s worst weeks in recent memory. The Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin mess hanging over their heads, the Dolphins would cap things by allowing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to win their first game of the season. Now it’s a short turnaround for a Chargers team that knows it must capitalize on the situation amid its fading postseason hopes. Philip Rivers could be primed for a big game here if the Dolphins can't find a way to pressure him throughout the game.
10. And in the rest of the Week 11 action … It marks the return of Gary Kubiak to the Houston Texans’ sideline as they host the Oakland Raiders. … The Buffalo Bills are in danger of not selling out as they host the New York Jets in an interesting matchup of the first two quarterbacks drafted this April, with E.J. Manuel against Geno Smith. But Manuel might not have Robert Woods or Stevie Johnson to throw to. … First-place Detroit Lions at last-place Pittsburgh Steelers. It just sounds weird. … The dregs of the NFC South face off when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coming off their first win, host the Atlanta Falcons. … Defense and special teams helped the Jacksonville Jaguars earn their first win of the season, and they’ll go for two in a row with a home game against the 5-4 Arizona Cardinals, who must win this to keep any postseason hopes alive. … The expected return/debut of Percy Harvin for the Seattle Seahawks comes against an interesting visitor: his former Minnesota Vikings team. Think he wants to show them something?
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