As the regular season shifts into the third quarter, change is all around. Seven of the eight divisions are led by teams that did not finish in first place last year. The only constant is the AFC East, where the Patriots are in position to win the title for the fifth straight season and the 10th time in the last 11 years.
This week's focus is on the AFC West and Sunday night's much-anticipated collision between Kansas City and Denver, a matchup that could help determine both the division standings and the AFC playoff seedings. That contest heads the list of must-see games for Week 11.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-0) at Denver Broncos (8-1)
That was no Chinook blowing out of the Rocky Mountains earlier this week. It was a collective sigh of relief from Bronco Nation upon learning that an MRI revealed there was no structural damage to their quarterback's high right ankle sprain, which had been aggravated by a hit late in last Sunday's win over San Diego. Even if Peyton Manning had to miss some practice time during the week, there's no doubt he will be under center Sunday night in Denver.
When it comes to being Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. has nothing on Manning. Except for when he had to sit out the 2011 season because of neck surgeries, Manning missed only one snap -- one -- because of injury during 14 seasons in Indianapolis (253 games, including the postseason). He has been playing hurt this season. He originally injured his ankle against Jacksonville on Oct. 13, and then aggravated the injury the following week against Indianapolis and again against San Diego.
Protecting Manning with a line that has been without All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady (season-ending foot injury) since Week 2 will be vital for the Broncos. Kansas City leads the league in sacks (36), and outside linebackers Justin Houston (11 sacks) and Tamba Hali (nine) are pass-rushing forces.
If he can stay upright, Manning can throw daggers into any team's defense. His 33 touchdown passes tie him with New England's Tom Brady (2007) for the most through the first nine games of a season. Denver's 371 points are the most by a team through nine games in league history, and the Broncos are averaging a league-high 458.7 yards per game.
Stopping Manning will be a major task for the Chiefs, who have faced only three top quarterbacks (Tony Romo, Michael Vick and Eli Manning) thus far but whose defense has dominated opponents. In coordinator Bob Sutton's first season in K.C., the Chiefs have allowed a league-low average of 12.3 points per game, given up only nine touchdown passes and rank first in third-down efficiency (25.8 percent).
Perhaps no 9-0 team in NFL history has been picked apart more than the Chiefs, however. Skeptics question their schedule (Kansas City's nine opponents are a combined 30-54 and none has a winning record). They wonder if Kansas City can come back if it falls behind by 14 or 17 points (the biggest deficit it has had to overcome this season has been seven points, twice). And many think Alex Smith is nothing more than a caretaker quarterback, even though he has a 29-6-1 record in his last 36 starts for the 49ers and Chiefs.
If the Chiefs can beat Manning and the Broncos in Denver, no one should doubt them. If not, they'll get another chance in two weeks when the teams meet in Kansas City.
San Francisco 49ers (6-3) at New Orleans Saints (7-2)
With NFC South rival Carolina suddenly hot on their heels, the Saints are compelled to stay a step ahead before they play the Panthers twice within a three-week span in December. New Orleans rang up an NFL-record 40 first downs en route to a TKO over Dallas last Monday night.
While quarterback Drew Brees continues to play at an elite level -- he passed for 392 yards and four touchdowns without an interception, completing 19 passes in a row in the first half -- New Orleans showed a recommitment to the running game against Dallas. The trio of Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles combined for 242 rushing yards (145 by Ingram alone), the most by a Saints team in 23 years.
Last week's loss to Carolina snapped a five-game winning streak by San Francisco. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick had the worst performance of his short NFL career in that game, passing for a meager 91 yards and getting sacked six times. It hasn't helped that Kaepernick has been strapped by a less-than-stellar wide receiver corps -- the 49ers rank last in the league in passing yards -- and now tight end Vernon Davis, his top target, is coming off of a concussion.
New England (7-2) at Carolina (6-3)
The Patriots went into their bye last week riding high after running up 610 yards of total offense in an impressive 55-31 victory over Pittsburgh. Although his statistics are down somewhat, quarterback Tom Brady still finds ways to carve up opponents. And now that tight end Rob Gronkowski is back on the field, the New England passing game will continue to get better.
Defensively, the Patriots should be ready to defend Cam Newton, Carolina's mobile quarterback. They already have faced two similar type quarterbacks in Jets rookie Geno Smith (twice) and Bills rookie E.J. Manuel.
The Panthers are on the rise, riding a five-game winning streak that included a 10-9 road win over the 49ers last week. Led by second-year middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who former NFL coach Brian Billick calls the best cover linebacker in the league, Carolina has allowed an average of only 12.7 points a game (second in the league behind Kansas City), including 9.5 points in its six victories.
Baltimore Ravens (4-5) at Chicago Bears (5-4)
The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens are down but not out. However, they can't afford too many more setbacks and still hope to return to the playoffs, especially since they must face New England (at home) and Cincinnati (on the road) in their final two regular-season games.
Baltimore has struggled to run the ball all season and ranks 30th in the league in rushing. Injuries have contributed to the ground woes; Ray Rice (115 carries for 289 yards) has been bothered by a hip injury since early in the season, and Bernard Pierce (93 for 261) still is feeling the effects of a hamstring injury. The line also needs to do a better job of blocking. Maybe playing against the Bears' 31st-ranked run defense will be an antidote.
Backup Josh McCown will make his second start in place of quarterback Jay Cutler, who suffered a high-ankle sprain last week and is out indefinitely. Including a relief appearance of Cutler (torn groin) in Week 7, McCown has completed 42 of 70 passes for 538 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions.