THE WEEKEND'S BEST
Dallas @ New Orleans
The time: 8:30 p.m. EST
The line: Saints by 7
The story: New Orleans is the best team in the NFC South ... we think. And Dallas is the best in the NFC East ... we think. So this is an opportunity for one of them to flex its muscles and show a national-TV audience why it deserves to go to the playoffs, with the edge to New Orleans because it's home and trying to rebound from a stunning loss to the New York Jets
The key here is how Dallas pressures the pocket, and having pass rusher DeMarcus Ware back is a start. Holding New Orleans down is critical because Dallas wide receiver Miles Austin isn't practicing, and Dez Bryant's back issues won't go away. So the Cowboys can't afford to get involved in a tennis match.
Memo to Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator: Put Rex Ryan on the speed dial and do what the Jets did to New Orleans a week ago -- namely, harass Brees with a mix of pressures and disguises.
Of course, there was a difference then. The Saints didn't have a third-down playmaker and Brees' safety valve, Darren Sproles, for most of that game. He practiced this week, could play Sunday and, if he does, makes the uphill climb for Dallas that much steeper.
Something to consider: New Orleans won seven of the last eight games between these two. Brees is 40-20 there and 18-8 everywhere in night games.
FOUR GAMES WORTH WATCHING
Cincinnati @ Baltimore
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Bengals by 1 1/2
The story: A week ago Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger
proclaimed the Steelers' upcoming game vs. New England a "must-win," and he was right ... only the Steelers didn't win. Nobody with Baltimore made a statement like that this week, mostly because they don't have to. The Ravens know the drill: They must stop the bleeding and must stop it now.
They've lost three straight. They're 2 1/2 games behind front-running Cincinnati. They're third in their division. Their offense is out of synch. Their quarterback is in a slump. In short, they must pull out of their funk now.
Must-win? You bet.
While Joe Flacco
historically hasn't been stellar against Cincinnati (nine TDs, 10 interceptions) he's been good enough to produce a 6-4 record. Getting him ... and the entire offense ... untracked is critical. If the Ravens fall any farther behind Cincinnati the vultures will start circling the Inner Harbor.
Something to consider: November has been good to the Ravens ... and Flacco ... under coach John Harbaugh. Since Harbaugh took over in 2008, the Ravens are 17-6 and 8-1 at home in November. Flacco has been the Ravens' quarterback for all nine home dates, with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also has a streak of six straight November home games with a passer rating of 100 or better. The Ravens won all six.
Detroit @ Chicago
The time: 1 p.m., EST
The line: Lions by 2 1/2
The story: The good news for Chicago is that quarterback Jay Cutler
has been cleared to start. The bad news is that Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson
have been, too.
They're the bazookas in a blitzkrieg offense that puts up lots of yards and points and that earlier this year shredded the Bears in a 40-32 victory. It's not so much Cutler the Bears need to return (Josh McCown did a credible job in Cutler's absence); it's a defensive playmaker like linebacker Lance Briggs.
Granted, the Bears are coming off an upset victory in Green Bay where they produced five sacks. But the Packers played all but one series without Aaron Rodgers. The Bears must stop Reggie Bush
, make this a one-dimensional game and hope Stafford makes crippling mistakes their defense can turn into points or short fields for Cutler, who's 7-2 vs. the Lions.
Something to consider: The Lions have the league's second-best defense on third-down conversions, allowing opponents to convert 29 percent of their attempts.
Carolina @ San Francisco
The time: 4:05 p.m. ET
The line: 49ers by 6
The story: Carolina is on a roll, but now we find out if the Panthers are legit. Not only do they play the defending NFC champion this weekend; they take on New England Nov. 18, and tell me they wouldn't be overjoyed with a split.
Carolina is hot, winning 10 of its last 14 starts, and quarterback Cam Newton is playing the best football of his career. Furthermore, the Panthers produced 30 or more points in their last four games, all of them victories.
Nice, huh? San Francisco can top that. The 49ers are on a five-game winning streak, with 31 or more points in each of those contests, and led the league in yards rushing (700) in October when they were 4-0. Their defense is strong, too, but so is Carolina's. Both teams allowed only 20 or more points once in their last five starts.
Basically, these teams are similar. Both are run by promising young quarterbacks, both like to run the ball, both play solid defense and both are unbeaten the past month. One difference: We trust only one of them, and it's not Carolina. Like the 49ers two years ago, the Panthers need a signature victory, and the opportunity is now.
Something to consider: The Carolina offense ranks first in time of possession (34:00), first in drives of five-plus minutes and tied for seventh in 10-play drives. One explanation: third-down conversions. Carolina converts 47 percent of them, third-best in the league.
Denver @ San Diego
The time: 4:25 p.m. EST
The line: Broncos by 7
The story: So the Chargers were beaten in another photo finish, and what's new? Three of their four losses this season occurred in the last 15 seconds ... and two were on the game's last snap. San Diego is better than its record says, but haven't we been saying that for years?
Denver is the best team in the AFC and one of the best teams, period. The Broncos won in San Diego a year ago after overcoming a 24-point halftime deficit, so they know they're never out of a game with the Bolts ... which is another way of saying they're confident no matter where they play them.
Former Denver offensive coordinator Mike McCoy coaches the Chargers, and Jack Del Rio takes over Denver as its interim coach ... with the advantage to McCoy. He coached Manning, so he knows what makes him tick. Now the question: Is that enough to make this game competitive? Not if San Diego can't force Manning into mistakes, and good luck.
Something to consider: Denver is a fast finisher, outscoring opponents by 101 points in the second half. Since the beginning of the 2012 season the Broncos outscored opponents by 262 points in the third and fourth quarters.
MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Miami @ Tampa Bay
The time: 8:40 p.m. EST
The line: Dolphins by 2 1/2
The story: Few people outside of Miami and Tampa Bay care what happens on the field. The focus here is on the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito saga, with the story not only refusing to go away but gaining legs with each day.
Count on it being Topic A here.
That means the interest here is not so much in the number of empty seats in Tampa or the bag heads calling for Greg Schiano's ouster. It's seeing how Miami responds to a distraction/embarrassment/disgrace and what effect it has in either fracturing the club or pulling it together.
The Dolphins pulled off an improbable overtime defeat of Cincinnati last week, and while they've had 11 days between games they've also had to put out fires that threaten to pull down their season. Maybe this is where we find out what they ... and their head coach ... are all about.
Something to consider: Tampa Bay's Mike Glennon has five touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last three starts.
CRUMMY GAME OF THE WEEK
Buffalo @ Pittsburgh
The time: 1 p.m. EST
The line: Steelers by 3
The story: If the Steelers lose this one, look for coach Mike Tomlin to turn off the showers and take away players' car keys. Tomlin once banned table games from the team's locker room, and that didn't seem to work. So maybe he needs to pump up the volume, with the loss of Christmas stockings not that unimaginable.
What he should do is straighten out a defense that is a mess. Unfortunately, that's not that easy -- not when you have a unit that doesn't rush the passer, can't force takeaways, can't tackle and hemorrhages way too many big plays. The problem with Pittsburgh is not Big Ben and a porous offensive line; it's a defense that is on life support.
EJ Manuel returns for Buffalo, and that complicates the recovery for Pittsburgh. Reason: no more 99-yard interception returns with Jeff Tuel. Look for Buffalo to try to control the clock, with equal parts C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson
hammering away at the league's 31st-ranked run defense, and harass Roethlisberger with a furious pass rush that demands someone, anyone, get in front of Mario Williams and stay there.
Something to consider: The Bills' defense has forced 68 plays of negative yardage, most in the NFL.
FIVE GUYS IT'S GOOD TO BE
--1. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. He's 3-0 vs. Seattle (including the playoffs), with three or more touchdown passes in two of those three games.
--2. Baltimore RB Ray Rice. He has eight rushing touchdowns in 10 games vs. Cincinnati, the most for Rice against any opponent.
--3. Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck. He's 10-2 at home, including 5-1 vs. the NFC, and has 20 touchdowns and six interceptions.
--4. Denver quarterback Peyton Manning
. He's 7-0 vs. the AFC West, with 18 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 117.0 passer rating.
--5. Chicago wide receiver Brandon Marshall. He aims for his sixth straight home game with at least one touchdown.
BELIEVE IT ... OR DON'T
--1. In every year since 1987 at least one team with a sub-.500 record after eight games reached the playoffs, including three (Cincinnati, Washington and Seattle) last year.
--2. Seven of the eight divisions have teams that lead or are tied for the lead that did not win the division a year ago. The lone exception? New England.
--3. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald needs 117 yards receiving to become the youngest player (30 years, 71 days) to reach 11,000 for his career.
--4. Since 2012, the Detroit Lions
exceeded 500 yards in total offense five times. Prior to 2012 they didn't put up over 5,000 yards more than once in any year.
--5. Baltimore has 16 straight games with at least two sacks in each start. It's the longest NFL streak of that kind since the New York Giants
went 16 straight with at least two sacks in every game in 2010-11.
--6. It's a passing league, and you don't need me to tell you. The numbers prove it, with an average of 482.1 passing yards per game, the most in league history.
--7. With six catches Sunday, Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez joins Jerry Rice as the only two receivers to produce 16 seasons with at least 50 receptions.
--8. Denver is on pace to score 686 points, by far the most in NFL history. The 2007 New England Patriots
hold the record with 589.
--9. It's more than Andrew Luck that has Indianapolis at the top of its division. The Colts lead the league in fewest turnovers (six) and penalties (31). They also have only 41 plays that result in negative yardage, second fewest in the AFC and fourth in the NFL.
--10. Only two quarterbacks threw 10 or more touchdown passes this season without an interception. Peyton Manning (20) is one of them. And the other? If you guessed Nick Foles with 13 get in line for a free cheese steak at Tony Luke's. Foles has thrown 155 passes without an interception.
TEN NUMBERS THAT MAY MEAN SOMETHING
--0-4 -- Pete Carroll vs. Atlanta.
--4-1 -- Joe Flacco at home vs. Cincinnati.
--6-0 -- Pittsburgh at home vs. Buffalo since 1979.
--7.7 -- Andre Ellington's yards-per-carry average.
--18.6 -- Average number of points Eagles allowed over their last five games.
--22-0 -- New Orleans' record under Sean Payton when it commits no turnovers.
--22-4 -- Tony Romo
--53 -- Philadelphia plays of 20 or more yards, most in the NFL.
--158.3 -- Eli Manning
's passer rating last time he faced Oakland.
--545 -- Eddie Lacy rushing yards since Oct. 1, most in the NFL.
-- 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.
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