Week 11 has some real gems on the schedule, but many marred by potential quarterback injuries. Here's a look at the slate as we head for the final third of the regular season:
1. Everything changed for Sunday night’s marquee matchup when QB Ben Roethlisberger was crunched on his shoulder against the Chiefs Monday night, perhaps suffering a season-altering injury. Already facing playing the Ravens without WR Antonio Brown, who could miss another game or two, the Steelers suddenly are in offensive straits. The run game stalled against the Chiefs after a three-game swell, and the Ravens have shut them down on the ground the past five meetings: 48, 84, 54, 66 and 70 yards allowed. In the first meeting back in 2010 between these teams, Roethlisberger was suspended and Charlie Batch gamely quarterbacked them to a 17-14 loss. Can the Steelers rebound from Monday’s woeful win over the Chiefs and stand up to their rivals? Amazing that only a few days ago, this game looked so handily in favor of the Steelers. That was until the Ravens dismantled the Raiders in every way possible and Big Ben got hurt. Story of the 2012 NFL season in a nutshell, really: Don’t assume squat.
2. "Just had a bad day," Ravens S Ed Reed wrote on his Twitter account after the Ravens’ 55-20 victory against Oakland. "Not perfect, though we try!" Seriously. Reed felt his play was sub-par in the game. John Harbaugh thought Reed was being too hard on himself. Nonetheless, it was a darned impressive defensive performance, even considering the opponent. DT Haloti Ngata was active but did not play, so coordinator Dean Pees rolled out the team’s “dollar” package consisting of two D-linemen (one of which was Courtney Upshaw, playing inside at tackle), three linebackers and six DBs on several snaps. The Raiders chewed up some yards (422) but gave up three sacks, two fumbles and an interception. QB Joe Flacco also had his best game in a month or more and the special teams scored two touchdowns. It will take that kind of three-phase operation — even with Roethlisberger potentially out — to win in Pittsburgh.
3. The Colts and Patriots are on even footing, 6-3 apiece. They’re not exactly mirror images of one another, but you might be surprised to find out how similar they are in some ways. The Patriots have outgained their opponents by 434 yards, the Colts by 331. Tom Brady has thrown for 2,645 yards, Andrew Luck for 2,631. Attempts? Brady: 358, Luck: 362. The Patriots’ third-down defense has been worse. They have fewer sacks. There’s not a lot separating these teams, especially a week after the Patriots allowed the Bills 481 yards, 31 points, 20 passing first downs and one glorious chance to win at Foxborough and when the Colts went on the road and stomped the Jaguars, a team that beat them once in their building in Week Two. Luck is not on Brady’s level yet, but Luck has beaten Aaron Rodgers and Brady has lost to Kevin Kolb and Russell Wilson. “They’re going to be very challenging,” Brady said Monday on WEEI Radio. “The thing that they do well that they’ve always done well is rushing the passer so you don’t have a lot of time back there to sit and figure things out.”
4. Luck has taken advantage of vulnerable secondaries this season. Will the Patriots’ be the latest? They add CB Aqib Talib, fresh off his suspension, from the trade they completed for him just prior to the deadline. This likely moves Devin McCourty to safety full time and means the Patriots can play more man defense now. But the Colts will have their chances. They have lost twice badly on the road, and barely beat the Titans another time, but they have been up for most big games this season. You can be sure Reggie Wayne, a Patriots killer who actually almost signed with them in the offseason before returning to the Colts, will be up for this one.
5. Alex Smith vs. Jay Cutler? Colin Kaepernick vs. Jason Campbell? Or some other QB permutation? We don’t know yet. Both Smith and Cutler suffered concussions on scrambles last week (get out of harm’s way, boys!) and are questionable for this very important Monday-night game in San Francisco. In Cutler’s case, it’s complicated by the fact that he has suffered at least six concussions in his football-playing career, dating back before the NFL. If he plays, he’ll have to face a Niners defense that remains elite despite getting pushed around a bit and caught off guard by the Rams in a strange tie last week. Cutler also will have to keep out of mind the five-INT nightmare he incurred at Candlestick in 2009. Smith has quietly had an excellent season, hitting on an incredible 39 of his past 50 passes for 444 yards since his one truly bad game of the season against the Giants in Week Six. Jim Harbaugh will be coaching against the Bears, his former team for seven seasons in the 1980s and ’90s, for the first time as a head coach. He said Smith has responded well from the post-concussion process.
6. Now, to be fair, let’s assume both Cutler and Smith can’t go. Cutler struggled badly against the Texans, and Campbell was only marginally better. He has a deliberate throwing motion, which could be a problem against a defense that can collapse the pocket (although the Niners rank only 24th in sack percentage, interestingly) quickly. But Campbell was signed for just this scenario: being better than Caleb Hanie if/when Cutler got hurt. Helping the passing game could be the return of WR Alshon Jeffrey, who has been surprisingly hard to replace since getting hurt Week Five. Brandon Marshall has been Pro Bowl-caliber great with 67-904-7 receiving; the problem is that the Bears’ next four receiving targets (including RB Matt Forté) have combined to tally 68-727-3. Kaepernick has been sprinkled into the 49ers’ lineup far more liberally than a certain dynamic Jets backup, and he played relatively well against the Rams. After misfiring on five of his first seven passes, he finished the game completing 11-of-17 passes for 117 yards and rushing eight times for 66 yards and a seven-yard score. The only other true running QB the Bears have faced, Carolina’s Cam Newton, gave them a few fits but they still beat him and picked him off twice. It’s fairly obvious how important this game is — the top seed tiebreaker in the NFC could be at stake — and it’s crazy to think that the game could be manned by two backups.
7. Another week, another starter on injured reserve for the Packers. ORT Bryan Bulaga became victim No. 5 in that category when he was placed on I.R. with a hip ailment. Versatile T.J. Lang steps in — Evan Dietrich-Smith will fill Lang's spot at left guard — and just in time to face the Lions’ defensive line that’s coming off a disappointing game in which they collected only one sack (by DT Nick Fairley, who might have had his best game as a pro) and allowed Vikings RB Adrian Peterson to rush for 120 of his 171 yards in the fourth quarter. The Packers have no one like that but did rush for a workmanlike 176 yards on 39 carries prior to the bye against the Cardinals, with Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb helping out RBs Alex Green and James Starks with the production. The Lions and Packers have not faced since the Matt Flynn game (45-41 in Week 17 last season) and not in Detroit since the nightmare that was Thanksgiving a year ago, when DT Ndamukong Suh stomped on Dietrich-Smith's leg. Jim Schwartz is really irritated right now by his team’s play, but he knows he has three straight games at home. That said, losing to the Packers puts them at 4-6 and way back in the playoff picture in the NFC.
8. The Bills will have a sellout when the Dolphins come to town Thursday night. Both teams are slumping now: The Bills have dropped five of six games (including Sunday’s knife-twister at New England), and the Dolphins have dropped two straight, including the Week 10 stunner to the Titans, 37-3. The prime matchup — at least in trying to determine which team will win — is the Dolphins’ bad offense against the Bills’ poor defense. Something must break. The Bills rank dead last in points allowed and second-to-last in yards permitted. The Dolphins’ run game has stalled, Ryan Tannehill is second from the bottom among starting QBs in touchdown passes (ahead of only John Skelton) and the offensive line has taken a step back. The weak link up front is rookie ORT Jonathan Martin, who has been surviving, but barely. Bills DE Mario Williams has been looking for fresh meat to go after in a rough first season in Buffalo, so this could be his opportunity to silence his critics. On the other side of the ball, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick might be past that point. He’ll be without Fred Jackson, so the Bills’ coaches might be forced to (sarcasm alert) play C.J. Spiller more. Why he hasn’t been on the field more than 50 percent of the offensive snaps is stunning — for whatever reason, Spiller has not played more than half the snaps since Week Two, when Jackson was out with a knee injury, and even deferred the lion's share of the carries to Tashard Choice in Week Three.
9. Saints-Raiders. Thinking 58-51 final, maybe. Actually, the early Vegas line is only 54.5, so they are thinking about half of that. The Saints are the epitome of the NFL’s strange equality this season, having lost to arguably the worst team in the league (the Chiefs) and having beaten the best (the then-8-0 Falcons). But the reason they have improved is because they are running the ball with power courtesy of Chris Ivory and Mark Ingram and are making two or three key plays per week on defense. It’s a formula that could work with their explosive passing game. Especially in this game — the Raiders have allowed 97 points the past two weeks, which speaks to their defensive ineptitude, although to be fair, the offense and special teams are nearly as culpable. RB Darren McFadden might not be ready to go in this one. Uh oh. “When you start 0-4 and now get the opportunity to get to 5-5, a .500 record, that’s a big deal,” Saints QB Drew Brees said.
10. Have the Rams become what the Jets were supposed to be? You know: Hard-nosed football in the trenches and outside at corner; smart, efficient power football on offense, with some trick plays and great special teams mixed in. The teams will face off in St. Louis in a pretty intriguing game, but you have to think that Jeff Fisher’s Rams are the better squad right now despite both teams having three victories. He’s coaching his team better than Rex Ryan is coaching his this season. Last week’s tie at San Francisco was unsatisfying, perhaps a symbol of both the progress and work left to do with this team, with several golden opportunities missed to earn a win. At 3-5-1, the playoffs remain just out of touch but tantalizingly close. The Jets never had a chance last week, and yet it remains status quo: Mark Sanchez starting, Tim Tebow relegated to uninspiring QB draws on “trick” plays that trick no one. The Rams have the chance to step on the Jets’ necks this week and have been good in St. Louis: 3-1, with the one loss to the Packers.
11. The Falcons are still crowing? Tony Gonzalez and others complained about not getting respect after an 8-0 start, and Roddy White in essence said the Falcons gave the game Sunday to the Saints. Not exactly encouraging words from Team Atlanta, and if they are not careful they could be caught with their muzzles down by losing to the Cardinals. Lesser teams (the Panthers and Raiders) have given the Falcons big scares at home this season. Surprising note: The Cardinals have lost four of their five post-bye games under Ken Whisenhunt, although it was right about this point last season that they ripped off five wins in six games to close out the season. Which way will this season go after starting out 4-0 then losing five straight? Whisenhunt is not opposed to rattling some cages and benching some starters if need be. "When you are what we are, after we started and the way we've been the last five games, I certainly hope (the players) understand that, because that's what this business is all about,” he said. The Cardinals will be without OLB O’Brien Schofield (injured reserve) and could miss DE Calais Campbell, who hurt his calf during the bye. This is a good test, even if Campbell misses. The Falcons need to show they can win the matchups up front and get a surge in the run game. If not, even more people will question the Falcons. They have not lost at home in a calendar year and haven’t lost consecutive regular-season games there since December 2009.
12. The Buccaneers opened eyes in Week One with their defensive performance against the Panthers, shutting down their feared run game. Turns out, it might not have been that novel an achievement — the Panthers have continually gotten behind the 8-ball and ditched the run in a lost season that could cost their coaching staff their jobs. But the Bucs have remained meaningful a year after they ran off the previous staff by quitting on it. There’s no quitting on new head coach Greg Schiano — The Sporting News poll’s least-liked coach would likely have them cut if they did — and there’s no doubting what he has done to revive this squad. Since that first meeting, the Bucs’ offense has caught fire, first with the deep passing game opening up and then with Doug Martin and the run game firing on all cylinders. Actually, the Panthers’ defense has played some of its best ball since GM Marty Hurney was hacked and CB Chris Gamble and MLB Jon Beason went down for the season — quite the surprise. Might be a better matchup than it appears on paper, with the Panthers losers of six of their last seven games.
13. The Cowboys kick off a three-game homestand against three teams — Sunday’s opponent, the Browns, followed by the Redskins and Eagles — with a combined record of 8-19. With one game in Dallas since October 1, the Cowboys finally can sleep in their own beds for a long spell, but there’s more worry at hand than that. At 4-5, they remain on the outskirts of the playoff race but still in the picture. The Giants are suddenly vulnerable, and the Cowboys must start the winning now if they want to have any chance. Starting with Nick Foles taking over for Michael Vick in the second quarter last Sunday, the Cowboys could have a stretch of more than 200 minutes of football against rookie quarterbacks. Something tells me DeMarcus Ware has taken notice. Although he hasn’t received his typical amount of praise, Ware has had at least half a sack (nine total) in seven of nine games, but the two games he was shut out? At Seattle with rookie QB Russell Wilson and Week 10 against Vick and Foles. Watch out, Browns OLT Joe Thomas.
14. With Vick likely out (maybe for his Eagles career) with what appears to be a fairly serious concussion, it could be Foles vs. Robert Griffin III in a battle of rookies in D.C. when the Eagles meet the Redskins in what probably amounts to a who-finishes-last battle in the NFC East. Andy Reid is likely coaching out the string this season in what could be his final seven games with the club. They have lost five straight, and the Redskins have dropped four of five. If you like good defense and sound tackling, look elsewhere. Both secondaries have been a mess all season, allowing short plays to turn to medium gains and medium plays to turn into home runs. However, both teams have talented backfields. The Redskins have rushed for more than 125 yards as a team (led by Griffin and RB Alfred Morris) in eight of nine games. The Eagles have LeSean McCoy but continually overlook him. When he gets a chance, as he did against the Saints in Week Nine, he produces: 119 rush yards on only 19 carries. But McCoy had only four touches in the fourth quarter of the loss to the Cowboys. It makes no sense. Then again, little has for the Eagles this season.
15. If the Chargers want any chance of taking down the Broncos in the AFC West, this is it — they have to win at Denver. Who could forget the tale-of-two-halves game at San Diego in Week Six, one that sprung the Broncos upward (winners of four straight) and the Chargers into a tailspin (losers of four of five). The Broncos cruised in what could have been a classic trap game at Carolina, and the Chargers — despite leading in the second half — gave the game away in Tampa last week, as a Philip Rivers pass was picked off for a TD, turning what could have been the go-ahead score into a 10-point deficit. Afterward, Norv Turner launched into a rare tirade (he’s usually pretty buttoned up, no matter the situation) and perhaps admitted the cracks in the dam that others have seen in this team since September. The Chargers are 4-5 and losers of three straight on the road, two games back of the 6-3 Broncos in the AFC West. What has been so strange about Rivers’ past two games is both his efficiency and his maddening propensity for error: He has completed 47-of-57 passes over that span and yet has thrown three unexplainable picks. Big edge to Peyton Manning and crew coming into this one.