Alphabet NFL Preview: Week 11

Alphabet NFL Preview: Week 11
November 15, 2013, 3:00 pm
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It’s Week 11 in the NFL, and so many questions have been answered. Not all of them, of course, but the playoff picture is clearer than ever. There are teams that we know are for real. Teams that we know are toast. And that has both a positive and negative effect on the state of this week’s schedule.

Positive: There are some really great games, between bonafide contenders, with implications that run throughout each conference and the league in general.

Negative: There are some really bad games, between teams who have already closed the book on 2013, or are barely holding on to hope.

That’s just late-season life in the NFL.

And this is your Week 11 Alphabet Preview.

(Note: There will be no mention of Monday night’s Pats/Panthers game. That tilt gets its own preview on Monday morning.)


A1:  Sometimes it’s a struggle to pick the Game of the Week in the NFL, and with how often Sunday Night Football is covered in the stink of the NFC East, it’s very rarely that game. But in Week 11, we really will be waiting all day for a Sunday night. It’s the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs against the one-loss Denver Broncos.

Of course, even more compelling than the impressive records is perfectly conflicting brands of football that these two teams play.

Denver’s the highest scoring team in the league, averaging 41.2 points per game. Kansas City has the stingiest defense in the league, allowing only 12.3 points a game. This is like Miguel Cabrera stepping into the box against Clayton Kershaw. Or Lebron James clearing out and going one-on-one against . . . well, probably LeBron James.

On paper, it’s absolutely beautiful and while it’s so rare that these games ever live up to the hype, if this one does, it will go down as the most memorable of the season.

At least until the rematch two weeks from now in KC.


BYE WEEK BIG SHOT: The Broncos have the advantage in this one, both as it relates to the rosters and the fact that the game will be played in Denver. As a result, Peyton and Co. are favored by 8.5, and while that seems a little excessive it’s not too much of a surprise.

But if you’re looking for a reason to favor the Chiefs, look no further than last week’s schedule. While the Broncos were on the road battling the Chargers, the Chiefs were at home relaxing on a nice fat bye week.

I’m not sure how much this statistic actually matters on Sunday night but I’m sure you’ll here it a million times between now and kick off so I might as well mention it: Andy Reid is 13-1 all-time after the bye. He was actually 13-0 before last year’s disastrous Eagles team broke the streak.

That doesn’t guarantee any success in Denver, but at the very least, it leads you to believe that the Chiefs won’t lack focus when they take the field. The Bye can only be perceived as a positive, and there’s no doubt that it came at the perfect time for Kansas City.


CENTER OF ATTENTION: That’s Peyton Manning, every time he takes the field, or anytime he does anything in the public eye. But on Sunday Night there will be another center of attention within the center of attention: Peyton’s right ankle.

Manning will never let on that the injury is a problem and certainly never use it as an excuse, but the fact that he missed practice on Wednesday is very legitimate indication that he’s dealing with some pain (he never misses practices). There’s also the matter of his performance.

Peyton originally injured the ankle after taking a low hit on October 13 against the Jaguars, and ever since then, he’s been human. Five of his six interception on the season have come after the injury. In the weeks since that hit for Jacksonville’s Jason Babin, the Broncos leading receiver has been Knowshon Moreno — a sign that Manning hasn’t been all that comfortable and more likely to fall back on his safety valve.

Either way, the ankle will no doubt be something to watch against the dominant Chiefs D, which leads the league with 36 sacks and 23 takeaways.


DÉJÀ VU: Other than Monday night in Carolina, the next biggest game on this week’s schedule takes place in New Orleans, although it can’t hold a candle to what was on the line the last time the 49ers took the turf under the Superdome. That was last year’s Super Bowl, shortly before the lights went out and all hell broke loose. And if the Niners (6-3) are serious about getting back to the Big Game, it wouldn’t hurt to flex their muscles on Sunday against the Saints (7-2).

New Orleans is favored by three points, which pretty much suggests that these teams are even, and all things considered that’s hard to argue. The 49ers are trying to bounce back from last week’s ugly loss to the Panthers, and Colin Kaepernick is looking to do the same from an assembly of criticism that’s come his way in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, the Saints destroyed the Cowboys, 49-17, and picked up 242 yards on the ground, which was their highest total in 23 years.

The running game won’t come as easy against San Francisco, which ranks 11th in rushing yards allowed per game, and 10th in yards per carry. But when you have Drew Brees, the absence of a running game is a little easier to overcome.


ESSENTIAL: That’s Vernon Davis. That is, if Colin Kaepernick has any chance of silencing the critics on Sunday.

The Niners have lost three games this season. The first loss came against Indianapolis, in a game that Davis missed with a hamstring injury. The most recent loss came against Carolina, a game that Davis left early with a concussion. In those two games, the Niners scored a total of 16 points and Kaepernick threw for a total of 218 yards.

Here are a few other Kaepernick/Davis stats courtesy of ESPN’s NFC West Blog:

Kaepernick’s QBR with Davis on the field this year is 81.7. Without Davis, it’s 13.1.

13.1!

Kaepernick has completed 61.1 percent of his passes while Davis is on the field. When he’s not, CK’s completion percentage drops to 43.1 percent.

43.1!

Davis has caught 78 percent of Kaepernick’s touchdown passes this season. That is the highest percentage by one player in the NFL by a margin of 21 percent.

21 percent!

Davis still hasn’t gained full post-concussion clearance for Sunday’s game, but he’s expected to. If not, I’d jump all over that three-point spread.


FREE ED REED: The Texans did it this week, and an NFL commotion followed. If you ask me, far too much for a 35-year-old with a bad hip who barely has much left as it is. But Rex Ryan stepped in and is ready to test that theory, and Reed will be on the field this Sunday in Buffalo, as the Jets look to take this unlikely run towards the playoffs to the next level.

But more important that Reed’s arrival is the likely return of Santonio Holmes. Certainly Holmes has seen better days, but take a look at the Jets receiving depth chart and there’s no question that he’s the best they’ve got.

Geno Smith can use the extra target on the road in the division. Even if the opponent is the struggling Buffalo Bills.


GRUMBLE GRUMBLE: The Bills are pissed off this week, and they have every reason to be. Buffalo’s been burned by the NFL schedule.

This Sunday, the rival Jets come to town, fresh off their bye week, having had two weeks to prepare for the Bills. This marks the league-leading sixth time this season that the Bills have faced an opponent coming off a long week (whether that’s a bye or a previous Thursday night game). That’s an incredibly bad set of breaks, for a team that would struggle regardless.

On the field, last week’s loss to Pittsburgh, Buffalo’s third straight, dropped the Bills to 3-7 and just about clinched their 14th straight year without a trip to the playoffs.

Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel is back, but he’s starting spot by no means guaranteed. Head coach Doug Marrone didn’t shy away from the question when asked if he might bench Manuel on Sunday.

“Yeah, I'm willing to make the call on that,” Marrone said this week. “I'm going to do whatever it takes to win. That's my job.”

Not doing it so far, Doug.


HAVE PERCY: You may have wondered what was taking Percy Harvin so long to get back on the field after being cleared to do so a few weeks ago, but now the answer is clear: He was waiting for the Vikings!

OK, maybe not. But there’s no doubt that Harvin has a little extra incentive to re-join the party this week, as his former team makes a visit to Seattle (9-1).

His return will be good news for Russell Wilson, who recently lost Sidney Rice for the year with an ACL injury, has watched his offensive line get ravaged by injury and hasn’t topped the 300 yard mark in seven weeks, after doing so in two of the first three weeks of the season.

It will be bad news for the Vikings (2-7), who have only known bad news from the very start of this campaign.


INCREDIBLES: While it may not be much of a game on the field in Seattle (the Seahawks are justifiably favored by 11.5), you can still enjoy a match-up between two of the more beastly and awe-inspiring running backs in football: Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch,

Peterson in the midst of having another year of his prime wasted in Minnesota, and even though he’s been nowhere near as dominant as he was last year, he’s still fourth in yards (786) and leads the league with nine rushing touchdowns. Lynch is second in yards (871) and third with seven touchdowns, but regardless of the numbers and anything else going on in this game, it will be a fun battle in the backfield.

At least until the Viking go down by a few touchdowns and are forced to throw the ball every snap.


JUST BARELY: The Atlanta Falcons (2-7) are one-point favorites on Sunday in Tampa Bay, and that’s too bad, because there would have been no better representation of this sad Falcons season than seeing them take the field as underdogs against the 1-8 Bucs. But the more important issue is this:

If you find yourself even thinking about gambling on this horrible game, stop reading immediately and please find some help. I’m serious. This is one step above gambling on preseason WNBA.

One interesting story to watch in this one, for the purpose of fantasy and NFL history, is the status of Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez injured a toe last Sunday against Seattle, and hasn’t practiced yet this week. Coach Mike Smith hopes that his tight end will be back out there on Friday, but he’s still very questionable for the Bucs game. Gonzalez has only missed two games over his 17-year Hall of Fame career, with the last one coming almost exactly seven years ago — November 19, 2006.


KNOWING HISTORY: The Ravens survived a brush with Hail Mary last Sunday, and beat the Bengals in overtime. The win improved Baltimore’s record to 4-5, and served as a much-needed step in the right direction after losing three of their previous four. But as they head to Chicago on Sunday, the Ravens know what’s on the line. If history’s any indicator, it’s their season.

Since the NFL expanded to it’s current playoff format in 1990, only seven percent of teams that began the year 4-6 finished it with a postseason berth. Teams that started 5-5 advanced 29 percent of the time, which isn’t great but obviously much better than the alternative.

Baltimore’s burden will likely fall on Ray Rice, the former juggernaut who’s in the midst of a wildly depressing season. Rice ranks 48th in the NFL with 2.5 yards per carry and 38th with 36.1 yards per game. He has only one more rushing touchdown (3) than he does fumbles (2) and has yet to break a run of over 20 yards.

On the bright side, the Bears give up more yards on the ground than any team besides the Jaguars .


LEAGUE LEADERS: Pop quiz, hot shots. Which receiving duo currently leads the NFL in total yards?

If you guessed Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, you’d be close; they’re second. If you guessed Cecil Shorts and Justin Blackmon, enough already with the LSD. If you guessed Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, then congratulations, you’re right! As a prize, please take tomorrow off from work.

Anyway, it’s no surprise that Marshall is among the league leaders in receiving yards. He’s been doing this for years, and this year, he’s ninth with 786 yards. But Jeffrey, the second year receiver out of South Carolina, is the real revelation. With one more catch on Sunday, he’ll double his reception total from last year. And he’s already doubled his yardage total with 735, which ranks 13th in the league. He’s also tied for fifth with 12 catches of 20 or more yards.

Bottom line: Whether it’s Jay Cutler or Josh McCown under center for Chicago (and it will be the latter on Sunday), these guys have been a menace to NFL society. Related: The Ravens rank 19th in the league in passing yards allowed.

However, the bigger issue for the Bears will be on the other side of the ball. I already mentioned their horrible run defense, but last week, they also lost All Pro cornerback Charles Tillman for (most likely) the season.

It’s not what we’re accustomed to with the Ravens and Bears, but we could be looking at a shootout in Chicago.


MR. PERFECT: With apologies to the late Curt Hennig, Nick Foles has been the picture of NFL perfection since taking over for Michael Vick — 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions. If he can throw five more TDs before his next INT, he’ll break the record set by Peyton Manning earlier this season.

OK, perfect might be an exaggeration. It is an exaggeration. Foles has actually thrown his fair share of bad passes, but has yet to pay the ultimate price. Either way, he has a fantastic opportunity to continue racking up the numbers on Sunday when the ‘Skins come to town on Sunday. Washington ranks 26th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (275), and 28th in passing touchdowns allowed (19).

The Eagles (5-5) have won two straight games to pull even with the Cowboys for first place in the pathetic NFC East. With Dallas on a bye, Philly has a chance to take sole control of the top spot, with their own bye on tap for next week.


NOT DONE YET: As for Washington, they’re 3-6, and after last week’s sad loss the Minnesota, are barely holding on to any hope of making something of the season.

Working in their favor, RGIII looks like he’s finally back on track after a rough start. Over his last two games, he’s completed 68 percent of passes, and more important than his arm, his legs are once again a major threat. He looked better outside of the pocket against the Vikings than he has all season. Running back Alfred Morris is hitting his stride as well, on the heels of his first back-to-back 100-yard games of the season.

Still, it will be an uphill battle for Washington to make it back to the playoffs. Even if they beat Philly, they play two of their next three against San Francisco and Kansas City.


OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: We’ve had so many chances to bury the Browns this season, and even now, it seems so unlikely that this team is good enough to win a division title or even just make the playoffs. But here they are, at 4-5, in second place in the AFC North, fresh off their bye and heading to first-place Cincinnati (6-4) with a chance to crawl within half a game of the reeling Bengals.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. Even if the Bengals (losers of a two straight and ravaged by injury) are struggling, they’re still, on paper, a better team than Cleveland, and have beaten the Browns eight of their last nine tries at home.

But with Jason Campbell feeling better after the bye and their defense rested, the Browns have a huge opportunity to make a statement on Sunday and ensure that this unlikely visit into the ranks of playoff contention will last for at least another few weeks.


PRAYERS WASTED: When the Bengals connected on that Hail Mary last week, you would have sworn they’d make good in overtime. What with momentum and all. But then Giovanni Bernard decided to run backwards for a bunch of yards and you remembered that momentum doesn’t exist.

Anyway, the Bengals don’t quite need an answered prayer to beat the Browns at home on Sunday. In fact, they haven’t lost at home all season. But as I typed about an inch above this, there’s no quit in these Browns. And injuries have built up in Cincy to the point where their 6-4 past is hardly indicative of their present-day reality.


QUESTION OF THE WEEK: Will Miami win another game?

That might be a crazy question, but with the world crumbling around them and the way they played on Monday night in Tampa, it’s fair to wonder if the once 3-0 Dolphins are about to roll over and lose out.

This Sunday, they host the 4-5 Chargers. If they lose, the Dolphins will have six games left. Three at home, against the Panthers, Patriots and Jets — all in playoff contention and in a much better place than Miami. And three on the road, in New York, Pittsburgh and Buffalo. That’s not the most imposing trio, but that’s three very difficult places to play, and anyway, the Dolphins haven’t won a road game this year since Week 1 in Cleveland, which at this point must feel like 10 years ago.

Either way, Joe Philbin and Jeff Ireland aren’t making it out of this season alive.

 
RODGERS REDUX: That’s what they’re calling Scott Tolzien in Green Bay.

No, no they’re not. But Tolzien will be back under center this Sunday on the road against the Giants.

I’d say that’s a big problem, but regardless of how bad Tolzien might be, he can’t be any worse than the guy playing quarterback for the Giants.


STILL ALIVE: Yes, the Giants sure are, despite every attempt by Eli Manning to sabotage the season, New York is only a game and a half behind the Cowboys/Eagles for first place in the NFC, and are favored by 4.5 on Sunday against the beaten down Packers — who themselves are still fighting to tread NFC Wild Card water while they wait for the real Aaron Rodgers to return.

These teams have fallen quite a ways since the 2007 NFC Championship Game, but talent be damned there’s still plenty of playoff implications.


TRADE HIM!: Lots of talk in and around Pittsburgh these last few weeks about Ben Roethlisberger’s future with the Steelers. Did he ask for a trade? Big Ben says no, and is adamant about that fact. Did the Steelers maybe make up/leak the trade request to make it easier to potentially trade Roethlisberger down the line? They’re obviously denying that, too.

At the end of the day, the only way to quiet that talk is for the Steelers (3-6) to rack up a few more wins, and that won’t come easy this week with the first place Lions (6-3) coming to town.


UPSET OF THE WEEK: Got off the snide last week with Baltimore’s overtime win against Cincy, and this week, I’m staying in the AFC North. I think the Steelers WILL beat the Lions.

Detroit’s only favored by 2.5, so it’s not like I’m picking the Jets to win Super Bowl III here. Still, and upset is an upset, and that’s what we’ll see on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

For one, because the Steelers, led by Mike Tomlin and the embroiled Big Ben will not give up on this season. They have too much pride. Especially playing in front of their home crowd. Meanwhile, the Lions are coming off a pair of highlight emotional wins against Dallas and at Chicago, and are due for a let down. Especially with Megatron currently struggling with an assortment of “maintenance issues.”

Final score: Steelers 27, Lions 24.


VALUE THAT D: Carson Palmer has thrown 12 touchdowns for the Cardinals this year, compared to 15 interceptions. He also has a season QB rating of 74.5. On top of that, Arizona does’t have a running back who averages more than 50 yards a game or a receiver with more than 40 catches on the year and only the Giants have more turnovers Arizona. The offense has scored more than 25 points in a game only once. Yet, the Cardinals are somehow 5-4 and in the thick of the NFC playoff race.

Well, it’s not a matter of somehow; it’s their defense. Top 10 in points allowed; top three in takeaways; top three in interceptions; top three against the rush.

They’re in Jacksonville on Sunday.


WINNING STREAK!: And this isn’t just any game for Jacksonville. It’s their first game after their FIRST WIN of the season. But now comes the hard part: Winning another one.

Weeks 13 and 14 of the 2010 season are the last time the Jaguars won back-to-back games. That’s almost impossible to believe until you remember that you’re talking about the Jaguars.

Can they do it? Well, Vegas doesn’t think so. The Cardinals are favored by 8.5 points. But on the other hand . . . ah, who am I kidding. No one thinks they can do it.


X-Factor: Yeah, X-Factor again. Sue me! In this case, we’re not talking about an X-Factor as it pertains to this season, because the Raiders season is already over. We’re talking big picture right now, and the future of Terrelle Pryor.

My seat on the Pryor bandwagon has been filled for a while now, but with the Raiders having lost three of four with Pryor under the center, and with the young QB struggling in the process, there are some questions as to whether Oakland is comfortable building around him moving forward. With the biggest question being: Does he have an NFL caliber arm?

You’d think that Pryor would have these next few months to prove that, but with a lingering knee injury that’s worse than anyone is letting on, he might not get a fair shot. Either way, his performance (assuming he can stay on the field) is the most interesting story to watch as the Raiders play out the tail end of another lost season.

Speaking of lost seasons, on Sunday, Oakland (3-6) travels to Houston (2-7). Gary Kubiak will be back on the sidelines only two weeks after suffering a mini-stroke on Sunday Night Football, and many believe that he’s doing so in an effort to save his job. Doesn’t seem like the healthiest choice for Kubiak to make, but that’s just par for the course in the NFL.


YESTERDAY’S NEWS: Close call for the Colts last night, but in the end, their 30-27 win over Tennessee says more about the Titans than it does Indianapolis. It means that the Titans are done. Yet another AFC team that can let go of this season and officially turn the page to 2014. Not that they hadn’t already once Jake Locker went down, but now there’s no debate.

As for Indy, they’re now at 7-3 and have just about wrapped up the AFC South; they’re also in a decent position to make a run at a first round playoff bye. The Colts have three home games left against Tennessee, Houston and Jacksonville. Those are three wins. Their three road games are tough (at Arizona, at Cincy and at KC), but the first two are very winnable. Bottom line: 12-4 is a real possibility, which easily puts them in the running for the No. 2 seed.


ZIP THROUGH: Kind of wish we could just do that with all these games and go directly to Monday night’s action, but hey what can do?

Enjoy you Sunday.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine