By Clark Judge
The Sports Xchange
THE WEEKEND'S BEST
Kansas @ Denver
The time: 8:30 p.m., EST
The line: Broncos by 7 1/2
The story: This is all about Peyton Manning and how effective (hurt?) he'll be. He missed Wednesday's practice with a sore ankle, and stop if you've heard this before. The same thing happened the week before the Broncos' Oct. 27 game with Washington, and Manning responded with four TD passes the next weekend. One big difference here: This isn't the Washington defense. Instead, it's a unit that hasn't allowed more than 17 points in any game this year and leads the league in sacks with 36.
The Chiefs will hit Manning; we know that. So the Broncos must prevent a multitude of blows with quick deliveries, bubble screens, crossing patterns and a rushing attack that can slow down pass rushers like Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.
When he's right, Manning is hard to solve -- with an 8-0 record vs. the AFC West since he joined Denver (22 TDs and four interceptions) and a 9-1 mark in his career vs. Kansas City. But that's the problem: He's not right. He's hobbled, and look for the Chiefs to waste no opportunity to bang him -- even if the ball is out.
"When you get there," linebacker Derrick Johnson said, "you've got to do some damage."
Their hope is that pressuring Manning rattles him and makes him inaccurate, and, remember, he had three interceptions in that Washington game, too. I mention that because the Chiefs thrive on opponents' errors. They're a league-best plus-15 in the turnover differential, while the Broncos are minus-2.
Something to consider: Andy Reid is 13-1 in games immediately following byes.
FOUR OTHER GAMES WORTH WATCHING
Baltimore @ Chicago
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Bears by 3
The story: Jay Cutler is down again, which means Josh McCown is up, and is it just me, or do the Bears look more effective with him over center? He hasn't thrown an interception in 70 attempts, and maybe that's it. He doesn't have Cutler's arm, but he doesn't make the mistakes he does, either -- and that counts for plenty against a team like Baltimore.
The Ravens have trouble scoring and try to win the old-fashioned way -- with defense and Ray Rice. The defense has been sound. But Ray Rice? Not so much. In fact, in his last two games he has 47 yards rushing, averaging 1.6 yards a carry, and has been so ineffective there's talk of his splitting carries with Bernard Pierce.
Don't believe it. The Ravens must get Rice untracked to have a shot at making the playoffs for the sixth straight time. The Bears? They have to plug holes in a leaky defense, and the timing might be right. Baltimore hasn't scored more than 20 points in any of its last four starts, three of which it lost.
Something to consider: Chicago's Brandon Marshall aims for his seventh straight home game with a touchdown. In his last six he has eight TDs.
Cleveland @ Cincinnati
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Bengals by 6
The story: Normally, this game doesn't make the liner notes because normally the Browns stink. But there's nothing normal about them now. They have a pulse, mostly because of a defense that held the Bengals to six points in their first meeting and partly because Jason Campbell -- who hasn't thrown an interception all year -- seems to have settled down a sputtering offense. That, plus a two-game Bengals' skid, makes this a must-see because another Cincinnati loss, and the unimaginable happens: Cleveland is a heartbeat out of first in the AFC North.
The question here is not so much which Browns' team shows up; it's which Andy Dalton does. The guy's been in a two-game funk where he's been so inaccurate he's thrown six interceptions. The concern for Cincinnati was supposed to be with a defense that lost starters Geno Atkins and Leon Hall ... but it's not. It's Dalton and an offense that won't find much daylight against a defense that allows an NFL-low 4.51 yards per play.
Nevertheless, there's hope. Dalton is home where he hasn't lost in four starts this season, where he won seven of his last eight and where he has 17 touchdown passes and four interceptions in those eight starts.
Washington @ Philadelphia
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Eagles by 4 1/2
The story: In his power rankings this week, Washington linebacker London Fletcher put the Redskins at the bottom of the NFC East, which isn't extraordinary -- but his explanation was. "The great thing about this year is that the NFC East is so terrible," he said. "So even at 3-6 we're conceivably still in this thing."
Let's hear it for honesty. Fletcher is right: The NFC East does stink. But so do the Redskins. Their defense hemorrhages yards and points with the frequency of Beltway traffic jams. Six times they've allowed 31 or more points and twice they've eclipsed 40 -- one reason they're ranked 31st in points allowed.
Only Jacksonville is worse.
And that's a problem. Quarterback Robert Griffin III can complain all he wants about taking too many hits, but the hits sabotaging Washington are the ones made on a porous defense -- and good luck vs. Nick Foles. All he has done is thrown 16 touchdown passes, with no interceptions, and put Philadelphia back on top of the NFC East.
That's the good news. The bad: The Eagles are home, where they haven't won in 10 games. They scored 26 points their last three starts at home, and that ... not adequate line support ... should comfort RG3.
Something to consider: The Eagles have held NFC East quarterbacks to a combined 70.4 passer rating this season, intercepting them seven times in four games.
San Francisco @ New Orleans
The time: 4:25 p.m., EST
The line: Saints by 3
The story: Shortly after the 49ers got stiffed by Carolina, some people in the Bay Area suggested the 49ers might've made a mistake by trading away Alex Smith. Puh-leeze. This is no time to panic.
Nobody had a problem with Colin Kaepernick when he led the team to the Super Bowl, and nobody had a problem when the 49ers won five straight prior to Carolina. If there's a problem it's that Kaepernick played so well a year ago he raised expectations to such an unreasonable level that ESPN's Ron Jaworski, normally not prone to hyperbole, said Kaepernick "could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever."
Slow down, people. Let the guy exhale. Kaepernick goes to a stadium where he scored a huge victory a year ago, but that was then and this is now, and now the Saints have Sean Payton and a solid defense back. Plus, they're in their comfort zone. The Saints not only haven't lost at home; they're coming off a beatdown of Dallas where they produced 40 first downs, 625 yards and big plays galore.
Something to consider: Brees won five of six regular-season starts vs. San Francisco, with 15 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 103.5. He has 15 touchdown passes in his last five games against the 49ers.
MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
New England @ Carolina
The time: 8:40 p.m., EST
The line: Panthers by 2 1/2
The story: The Carolina Panthers were supposed to be the NFC South doormat. They're not. They're not only in New Orleans' rear-view mirror and closing fast; they just scored a huge upset, besting San Francisco on the road for their fifth straight victory.
It's that momentum, plus a defense that ranks in the NFL's top five in rushing (second), passing (tied for fourth) and overall (second), that have the Panthers thinking playoffs ... and, no, that's not a misprint. They already beat the defending NFC champion. Now they take on the 2011 AFC champ, and, guaranteed, another win gains the attention of New Orleans -- a club they still must play twice.
If there's a problem it's this: Tom Brady. The Panthers not only tackle one of the game's all-time greats; they do it after Brady and the Patriots have a week off, and good luck. New England is 10-3 immediately following a bye under Bill Belichick.
With players given six straight days off, the Patriots should be healthy -- with injured cornerback Aqib Talib getting more rest for a sore hip. No question, Carolina has something to prove here. But so does New England.
Something to consider: The Patriots have at least one takeaway in their last 36 games, the longest active streak in the league.
CRUMMY GAME OF THE WEEK
Atlanta @ Tampa Bay
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Falcons by 1 1/2
The story: Quick, class, two plus one equals what? You are correct: The total number of victories for these two disappointments.
Make Tampa Bay the hot club, with the Bucs on a one-game roll, but they're a mess and playing for next year. The Falcons aren't a mess; they're just not very good. Injuries crippled them, their defense leaks like the Costa Concordia and Matt Ryan is throwing more like Meg Ryan, with seven interceptions the past three weeks.
The Falcons say they want more out of running back Steven Jackson, but let's be honest: It's over. Jackson was a failure, and so is this season. At least Tampa Bay is looking to the future, giving Mike Glennon experience at quarterback, but that won't make this game worthwhile.
Something to consider: Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez is only three catches short of joining Jerry Rice as the only two receivers in league history to have 16 50-catch seasons.
FIVE GUYS IT'S GOOD TO BE:
--1. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco. In his last four starts vs. NFC opponents he has eight touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 114.9. In his only appearance against Chicago he threw for four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 31-7 victory.
--2. Houston defensive end J.J. Watt. He aims for his fourth straight game with a sack. Watt had two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries last weekend vs. Arizona.
--3. Jacksonville defensive end Jason Babin. He has 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble in three starts vs. Arizona.
--4. Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan -- He has four sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recoveries in his last three games against Philadelphia.
--5. Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. In his past eight home games, he has seven interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two touchdowns (one by interception, another on a blocked field goal).
BELIEVE IT ... OR DON'T
--1. Dating back to 1966, the Pittsburgh Steelers won eight straight home games vs. Detroit. The Lions last won in Pittsburgh in 1955 and haven't scored more than 21 points in any of their last nine starts there.
--2. Arizona earlier this season beat Tampa Bay in Tampa but never won two games in Florida in the same season. In fact, the last time the Cardinals won two games in the same state in one season was 2001 when they beat San Diego and Oakland.
--3. Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is 12-0 at home, with 24 touchdown passes, six interceptions and a passer rating of 114.5.
--4. The combined winning percentage of Denver and Kansas City (.944, 17-1) is the highest for two teams playing each other after nine games since the 1970 NFL merger. The previous best was a 2007 game between Green Bay (10-1) and Dallas (10-1).
--5. The Baltimore Ravens have two or more sacks in each of their last 17 games, the NFL's second-longest streak since 1990. Only the 2003-04 Philadelphia Eagles (19) had more.
--6. The Giants' Andre Brown has a rushing touchdown in each of his last six games and nine of his last 10.
--7. Since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990, 18 teams with losing records after nine games reached the postseason -- including Cincinnati and Washington last season.
--8. With one touchdown, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson will tie Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson as the only players in NFL history to rush for at least 10 TDs in seven different seasons.
--9. The Chicago Bears won their last 10 when scoring a defensive touchdown and are 24-2 since 2005 in games where their defense scores.
--10. Four of Green Bay's top five rushing performances since 2009 occurred in the last seven games.
TEN NUMBERS THAT MIGHT MEAN SOMETHING:
--1 -- Rushing touchdowns allowed by Baltimore this season.
--7-2 -- Rex Ryan vs. Buffalo.
--12 -- DeSean Jackson career touchdown catches of 50 or more yards.
--13-1 -- Cincinnati when Andy Dalton has a passer rating of 100 or better.
--13-4 -- Tom Brady on Monday Night Football.
--14 -- San Diego scoring drives of five minutes or longer, the most in the league.
--61 -- Philadelphia plays of 20 or more yards, tops in the NFL.
--78 -- Negative plays produced by Buffalo's defense, most in the league.
--88 -- San Francisco points off takeaways, best in the NFL.
--173 -- Consecutive Nick Foles passes without an interception.
-- Clark Judge, a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange, has covered pro football since 1982 and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selections Committee.