The AFC may own primetime this weekend with the third edition of Tom Brady vs. Andrew Luck on Sunday Night Football, but the rest of the week's biggest storylines come from the NFC. To get you ready for a loaded Week 11 slate, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss which surprising NFC division leader has the best shot at the Super Bowl, which disappointing NFC contender needs a win more in Week 11 and whether or not the Packers have the best wideout duo in football.
Chris Burke: Lions. A week ago, I probably would have said the Cardinals. Right now (and even though I think the Cardinals beat the Lions on Sunday), I'd roll with Detroit. That is not necessarily meant as a slight against Drew Stanton -- to echo head coach Bruce Arians, I think this team can keep winning with Stanton because it is built on an aggressive defense and a strong run game.
Come December and January, though, every team has to turn to its quarterback for a big play or two. Stanton is a great fit as a hold-down-the-fort type of guy. Can he be more?
The same question probably could be asked of Matthew Stafford, but he's shown some late-game chutzpah this season. He also at least has one playoff game under his belt, plus some experience in pressure situations.
There are a lot of similarities elsewhere between these teams: sturdy defenses built on impressive front sevens, quality at running back, worlds of talent at wide receiver and tight end, as well as some questions along the O-line. The glaring advantage for Detroit is under center.
Doug Farrar: Lions. It seems that nobody's talking about the Lions' shot at the NFC's top seed, which was lost in the wake of Carson Palmer's season-ending knee injury. The Cards hope that Drew Stanton can pick up the slack, and Stanton does have a great deep ball, but asking a career backup who has completed less than 50 percent of his passes this season to navigate a tough divisional schedule down the stretch is a tall order.
Meanwhile, the Lions have the NFL's best defense, per Football Outsiders, and a passing game that is really coming around. It's taken Matthew Stafford a while to get the hang of new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's concepts, but now that Calvin Johnson is back to full health and Golden Tate has established himself as the 1A receiver the Lions have been seeking for years, Stafford will enjoy his best set of targets ever down the stretch. After their Sunday game in Arizona, the Lions have two games remaining against the woeful Bears, one game against the Buccaneers, one against the Vikings and a Week 17 matchup against a Packers team they've already beaten this season. Outside of a trip to Foxboro on Nov. 23, there's nothing ahead of the Lions that should prove to be especially problematic.
True or False: Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are the best 1-2 wideout punch in the league.
Burke: False, but it's close. This all boils down to where you would place Cobb along the spectrum of the league's best receivers, because Nelson has proven himself time and again to be among a small handful of upper-tier players at his position. Nelson makes Aaron Rodgers look even better than he is, which is an incredible feat. He constantly hauls in extremely difficult catches and has the added ability to get open early or take any pass to the house.
Alongside him, Cobb is playing the best football of his career, with seven touchdowns over the past six games and 650 yards receiving for the season. His versatility helps open up the Green Bay offense, and Rodgers himself has praised Cobb's improvement.
By next season, there might not be any question that this is the top 1-2 tandem. Right now, there is a lot of competition for that honor (Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders; Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson; Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, despite the Bears' struggles).
Cobb is the process of evolving from a good receiver to a great one. If he keeps progressing at the rate he has this season, the Packers' duo will jump to the front of the line.
Farrar: True. What makes them so dangerous is Cobb's performance in the slot. We all know that Nelson is a special receiver on the outside -- his combination of hands, speed and strength make him as productive as anyone on any given day. But it's Cobb who has blossomed in his return from the broken leg that caused him to miss more than half the 2013 season. He has 10 touchdowns from the slot this season; no other receiver has more than five. And as we discovered last season when Cobb was hurt, Nelson can also ball out from the slot. When healthy, there's simply no more dangerous duo at that position, through Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate may give them a run for their money before the season is out.
Who needs a win more in Week 11: Bears or 49ers?
Burke: San Francisco. Chicago could use a win, obviously, but that playoff ship probably has sailed. The 49ers, on the other hand, are right in the middle of the wild-card race at 5-4. Coming off a clutch win at New Orleans, San Francisco has two of its next three at home (Washington, Seattle on Thanksgiving Day, at Oakland).
In other words, this is a chance for the 49ers to really make hay en route to the postseason. But a letdown against the Giants would leave them in an almost do-or-die situation for the rest of the season -- 10-6 might get to the playoffs in the NFC; 9-7 won't. They can ill afford to cough away this winnable game. They've already missed too many opportunities in 2014.
Farrar: San Francisco. The Bears are out of playoff contention; the only question now is whether head coach Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker will keep their jobs for the rest of the season. As for the 49ers, they're getting Aldon Smith back from the suspended list but have lost inside linebacker Patrick Willis for the rest of the season, and fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman may have to wait until 2015 to return from the knee injury he suffered in the 2013 NFC Championship Game. However, the Cardinals are now suspect as division leaders with Palmer's injury, the Seahawks are dealing with serious injuries of their own, and the Rams can't even decide who their starting quarterback is. At 5-4, and with a tough schedule ahead of them, the 49ers need to make a serious statement against the Giants and Redskins in the next two weeks. Their season is not at all lost.