Why the month of November will make or break the Saints
2:53 | NFL
Why the month of November will make or break the Saints
Thursday November 6th, 2014

Quarterback changes are the topic du jour, with three more teams making moves this week due to either injury or ineffectiveness. Mark Sanchez is in the starting lineup for the injured Nick Foles in Philadelphia; Tampa Bay is going back to Josh McCown and benching Mike Glennon; and Houston, while on its bye, promoted the untested Ryan Mallett ahead of veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in anticipation of a Week 11 start at Cleveland.

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All told, 13 of the league’s 32 teams will have started more than one quarterback by the close of Week 10, and if Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton lays another egg like the one he produced Thursday night at home against Cleveland, that number might increase by one any minute now. Raise your hand if at the start of the season you had the Browns’ Brian Hoyer having the most job security of any quarterback in Ohio by November? Anyone?

There are as many unanswered questions still hanging out there at quarterback as any time in recent memory. Are Geno Smith, EJ Manuel and Sam Bradford already done in New York, Buffalo and St. Louis, respectively? Who’s the guy going forward in Tennessee with Jake Locker benched and rookie Zach Mettenberger just now getting a shot? Can Hoyer force the Browns to re-sign him and trade Johnny Manziel? Is the long-term answer at quarterback on Washington’s roster? Do the Eagles’ invest in Foles or Sanchez, or neither?

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And which version of Jay Cutler, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning and Cam Newton do the Bears, Falcons, Giants and Panthers own as 2015 looms: the quarterback who has taken those teams to the playoffs in the fairly recent past, or the less-impressive 2014 models? The season’s final eight weeks are all about sorting some, if not all, of those issues out. There’s never a shortage of topics at quarterback, and this season’s volatility at the position is as plentiful as ever.

• Last week: 11-2; Season: 90-43 (.677).
• Best pick in Week 9: Cleveland 24, Tampa Bay 17 (Actual score: Browns 22-17).
• Worst pick in Week 9: San Diego 26, Miami 24 (Actual score: Dolphins 37-0).

Below are my Week 10 picks. And here was my pick for Thursday night’s game between Cleveland and Cincinnati.

This might be the biggest meeting of these two former AFL rivals since the 1993 AFC Championship Game, when Jim Kelly and the host Bills resoundingly stopped Joe Montana and Kansas City’s playoff run, earning a mind-boggling fourth consecutive Super Bowl trip for Buffalo. At the moment, the 5-3 Chiefs stand as the No. 6 seed in the AFC, with the 5-3 Bills just out of the money at No. 7 in the conference standings, so the winner gets a considerable boost in the playoff picture. You might have forgotten, but Kyle Orton, who is an impressive 3-1 as the Bills' starting quarterback, went 2-1 as the Chiefs’ No. 1 in 2011. So if Orton needs any extra motivation for this one, he’s facing one of his four former teams, with an even bigger matchup against another one (at Denver) looming in four weeks.

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Heard from some unhappy Dolphins fans this week after my NFL midseason report, with a few of them claiming I slighted the 5-3 Fish because I have something against Miami. Oh, the irony. I grew up in Florida when the Dolphins were the only NFL team in the state, and I could show you the scrapbooks I kept of the 1970-73 early Shula-era Dolphins. So no bias exists. I just don’t quite believe in Miami yet, even though, as one Twitter follower pointed out, the Dolphins are scoring a healthy 26.4 points per game and the defense has been stout. A win at Detroit would make a big statement in my estimation, but the Lions' defense has been even better than the Dolphins’, especially at home. Come to think of it, I probably didn’t give enough credit in my midseason review to the job Detroit defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has done this year either. So limited mea culpas all around.

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I don’t know if Tony Romo can and will play with his banged-up back on Sunday in London, but I am convinced Dallas won’t win if he doesn’t (see Weeden, Brandon). And the Cowboys desperately need this win if they intend to make the playoff math work for them. With four road games and tough home matchups against Philadelphia and Indianapolis waiting after its Week 11 bye, Dallas can’t afford to give away any winnable games from here on out. A little Romo and a lot of DeMarco Murray is just what the doctor should order this week against the Jaguars. And by that, I mean Dr. Jerry Jones, of course.

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Proving that not all 4-4 starts are created equal, I give you this week’s 49ers-Saints matchup. San Francisco is riding the down escalator, while New Orleans should top the .500 mark for the first time this season. The 49ers haven’t had a losing season this late in the year since 2010, just before Jim Harbaugh arrived. Job No. 1 for San Francisco this week is protecting Colin Kaepernick, who endured a career-high eight sacks last week against the Rams and has been dropped 14 times in the past two games. That’s bad timing, because the Saints' pass rush has gotten it together of late, after being nearly invisible early on in 2014. New Orleans has 12 of its 17 sacks in its most recent four games, and you know Rob Ryan will have some blitzes dialed up given the 49ers' recent protection problems.

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The Ravens need a bounce-back performance after two consecutive division losses, and along come the struggling Titans, who once were Baltimore’s rivals in the old six-team AFC Central that existed for only three years, from 1999-2001. One of Tennessee’s most galling losses ever came when the top-seeded Titans fell 24-10 to No. 4 seed Baltimore in the 2000 AFC Divisional round, the win that served as the centerpiece of the Ravens' first Super Bowl run. This one won’t be quite so meaningful, but Baltimore will almost duplicate that final score of almost 14 years ago.

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I have to admit, the toy helicopter flyover at Jets indoor practice on Thursday was pure genius on Rex Ryan’s part. The man does have a gift for lightening the mood. But the doldrums will return to New York’s sideline by Sunday, because even without the injured Troy Polamalu and Ryan Shazier on defense, the Steelers should be able to generate enough offense against the Jets' depleted secondary to send Ryan's team to its ninth consecutive defeat.

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Lovie Smith is switching back to Josh McCown at quarterback this week, and that might be enough to jump-start a season that has come off the rails -- but maybe on behalf of Atlanta, which hasn’t won since pummeling McCown and the Bucs 56-14 in Week 3 at the Georgia Dome. McCown got hurt in the first half of that game and hasn’t started since, but the Falcons are probably happy to see him, given the Bucs played slightly better on offense with Mike Glennon under center that night. The Smith on the other sideline, Atlanta coach Mike Smith, probably can’t save his job at this point, but a win will stop the bleeding and at least take the focus off that blown 21-0 lead against Detroit in London a fortnight ago. That had to be a very long bye week in Hotlanta.

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Earlier this week I made the "bold" prediction at midseason that Oakland would go winless to join the 2008 Lions and 1976 Bucs in infamy, so the drama has been removed from my Raiders picks for the rest of the season, if there was any to begin with. The Broncos will be eager to take out the frustration of their 22-point loss at New England, and the Raiders will be in position to bear the brunt of that. I’m not sure he’d be interested in the dead-end Oakland job, but if I’m the Raiders, I’d have Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase very high up on my head coaching hire wish list. And yes, I know bringing in a youthful Denver coordinator didn’t work out so well for Oakland in the case of Dennis Allen.

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The Rams’ eye-opening 13-10 win at San Francisco suited Bruce Arians’ purposes beautifully, because the threat of an upset is just what the Cardinals head coach needed to keep his first-place team focused and fighting off complacency after its back-to-back statement wins against Philadelphia and Dallas to move to 7-1. For two years running now, St. Louis has been the best last-place team in the NFL, but that’s really not a title you want to aspire to. This is always a confusing game on some level, because the Cardinals were once in St. Louis and the Rams were once in Los Angeles -- and from what I hear, might be again.

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New York looked like a mess Monday night at home against the Colts, and the Giants’ plight won’t get dramatically better at Seattle on Sunday. I wrote this late last year and I’ll write it again now: Tom Coughlin is a Hall of Fame-bound coach, and he deserves to go out with much appreciation, respect and his head held high whenever his Giants tenure is over. But I firmly believe he has already done his best work in New York and won’t remotely approach reaching those heights again with the Giants. New York ownership giving him another year in 2014 hasn’t changed my opinion; it has only strengthened it. The Giants are headed for a non-playoff season for the fifth time in six years, and the time is right for Coughlin to declare his tenure a success and leave on his own terms. Not that I think he’ll make that choice. But he should.

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If the Bears had hired Bruce Arians as coach when they had the chance early last year, there’d be a steakhouse with his name on it in Chicago already. He would have been a blunt-talking, quarterback-fixing, cocktail-drinking Chicago icon. A Mike Ditka without the sideline histrionics and the black mustache, wearing a Kangol instead of a sweater vest. But it was not to be. And now Chicago might be in search of another head coach in the coming offseason. Even in the best of times, the Bears struggle to beat the Packers at Lambeau Field. And these are clearly not the best of times in Chicago. Green Bay will roll to a fifth win in six games.

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Monday, November 10

Had the Eagles lost the 2013 version of Nick Foles to injury, with only last year’s inconsistent backup, Michael Vick, to pick up the pieces, that would be cause for real concern in Philadelphia. But losing this season’s Foles (13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions, with three fumbles lost) and having him replaced in the starting lineup by Mark Sanchez is not going to change anything in regards to where the Eagles are headed in 2014. In Kelly’s quarterback-friendly offense, Sanchez is going to resurrect his career and quite possibly work his way into Philly’s long-term plans. It’ll be another dagger in the hearts of Jets fans, because while Michael Vick does little to alter the death spiral that is New York’s season, Sanchez will be front and center on a winning, playoff-bound team while wearing a different shade of green.

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