It's only Week 11, yet somehow we have a team facing a must-win situation, with the Packers needing a win against the NFC-North leading Vikings to stay in the race for the division title. Around the league, the Panthers and the Patriots—two remaining undefeated teams—face tricky matchups, and backup quarterbacks take the field in place of the injured starters.
Welcome to The Playbook, where Chris Burke and Doug Farrar preview every game of Week 11 and offer their viewing recommendations for your Sunday and Monday, along with numbers to know, matchups to watch around the league and, most importantly, a shocking Tecmo Bowl upset prediction.
Packers at Vikings (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
The concept of a ‘must-win’ game in Week 11 is generally tinged with a bit of hyperbole, but it's hard to see this as anything else for the Packers. While the seemingly by-default NFC champions have lost three straight games with an offense that seems to be in crisis, the Vikings have climbed to the top of the divisional ladder—with their 7–2 record, they sit a game ahead of Green Bay, and could establish some serious distance with a win.
Something else Minnesota could establish with a win is respect. Right now, they're lightly regarded given their record, for a couple of reasons: They haven't beaten a team with a record over .500 all season, and QB Teddy Bridgewater hasn't exactly been a statistical marvel. Bridgewater has thrown for more than 200 yards in just four games this season, and over 300 yards only once. Not that it matters to Mike Zimmer's team, who are winning with Adrian Peterson's MVP-level performances and a defense that's really coming into its own. After this game, the Vikings have the Falcons, Seahawks and Cardinals on their schedule—if they can stay above .500 through that stretch, the regular-season finale rematch against Green Bay could be little more than a warmup for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Packers are wondering how to fix their offense, which is a highly unusual position for them. The passing-game schemes put forth by coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements have done little good for Aaron Rodgers, and it's starting to affect the quarterback's consistency in some never before seen ways. Rodgers has been balky under pressure, uncomfortable in the pocket and rushed in this throws.
Minnesota's defense, led by linebacker Anthony Barr, tackle Linval Joseph and safety Harrison Smith, is a smart, aggressive unit built just like the defenses that has given Rodgers fits of late. Rodgers has also been struggling with shoulder issues due to all the pressure he's been getting, and the Vikings will be coming after him (especially with the A-gap blitzes head coach Mike Zimmer calls so adeptly) with everything they've got. McCarthy has said over and over that he'll stay the course with the current offensive philosophy, but if something doesn't change soon, it won't matter.—DF
Redskins at Panthers (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Carolina is one of two remaining undefeated teams, sitting at 9–0 overall. Washington has yet to win on the road in 2015, wearing an 0–4 albatross outside of FedEx Field.
So, this is simple enough, right? Carolina rolls at home.
Could be, but Washington is convinced that this is the game it turns the corner away from home. The Redskins are coming in hot, having hung 47 points on the Saints last week for a runaway victory. QB Kirk Cousins was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for the second time this season off that performance—he passed for 324 yards and four touchdowns.
"I think noise is a difference as far as our mechanics as an offense," Cousins said this week of the road environment. "We’re going to be able to have a little bit better command when we're at home and don’t have to deal with the noise. The noise is something you expect, and you have to operate well in it."
No matter the volume level, Carolina's defense will pose problems. That unit has faded at times late in games—both Indianapolis and Green Bay rallied for near victories against the Panthers. Overall, though, few opponents have found consistent success against the NFC South frontrunners.
Cousins will have to be at his best Sunday, which will mean avoiding mistakes. Carolina doesn't mind surrendering yardage because its opportunistic defense thrives on forcing turnovers. The Panthers have produced a league-high 14 interceptions this season, and there's also the presence of veteran CB Charles Tillman, arguably the best ever at forcing fumbles.
Washington's run game has been a non-factor on the road, too. In those four road losses, it has averaged just 52.5 rushing yards per game, a showing that has placed more pressure at Cousins' feet.
Consistency is the name of the game for the visitors, on both sides of the ball. Prior to its Week 10 win, Washington had surrendered 400-plus yards in four consecutive games. Carolina does not get credit for having as explosive an offense as it does: third in the league in points and in rushing. Should those rankings translate into Sunday, Washington will find it very difficult to keep pace.—CB
Bengals at Cardinals (8:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
For all the incessant chatter regarding now Arizona QB Carson Palmer meeting his former team, the important Sunday night matchup between the AFC North-leading Bengals and NFC West-leading Cardinals could come down to the play callers.
Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has to figure out exactly what went wrong in a surprising home loss to Houston—one that again raised questions about the Bengals' (and specifically, QB Andy Dalton's) ability to win on a big stage. Jackson showed creative motion and design early in that 10–6 loss, only for his offense to bog down entirely, as Dalton lost all connection with his receivers.
Arizona's defense may not be tremendous in the trenches, but a secondary featuring Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson and Tony Jefferson has been opportunistic. The versatility of hybrid safety/linebacker Deone Bucannon also provides a weapon against both the run and pass. He will play a role in slowing down tight end Tyler Eifert, who dropped multiple passes in Week 10 but leads the Bengals with nine TDs.
To say that Bruce Arians has his work cut out for him is a bit disingenuous, because it makes it sound like Palmer and co. have been struggling. That's far from the case. Arizona has the league's second-ranked scoring offense, which just hung 39 points on Seattle, in Seattle. Palmer is playing like an MVP candidate, as well, posting 23 touchdown passes and 2,749 yards over his first nine starts.
The Bengals do still sport the NFL's No. 1 defense. They haven't allowed more than 24 points in any game this season, and their last three opponents (Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Houston) have mustered just 10 each.
"You want to go into a big game with a loaded gun," Palmer said this week, via the Cardinals' website. "We’re definitely banged up, beat up and guys have to make plays. Guys have to step up."
That could be Arians' challenge: finding playmakers sans a couple of obvious options. Bank on Larry Fitzgerald seeing plenty of targets, and ample attention from the Bengals' DBs.—CB
Bills at Patriots (Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Before taking the field against the Patriots, Rex Ryan alternates between hero worship for Bill Belichick and disdain for the New England empire—never mind that Ryan's teams generally play Belichick's squads pretty close, though Ryan's teams have lost eight of nine games, including a 40–32 win in Week 2 of this season. The Bills scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter of that contest to keep it close, but Tom Brady threw for 466 yards—the second-most in his career—and Buffalo's effort was too little, too late.
"The only reason I talk about them is because they’re the No. 1 team in our division and that’s where we want to be," Ryan said Thursday. "I know that you guys always say that I’m obsessed with them and all that. But you’re obsessed with them, not me. I want to beat them, but you’re the ones who talk about them every single day. I’ll tell you this, we prepare for them the same way we prepare for every team that we face, but do we want to beat them? Absolutely. Do I want to beat them more than any team? Yeah, because they’ve won. They’re the ones who have won the division so to me that’s why. But do I obsess with them and all that? You guys write about it—I’ve lost seven of eight so why are you even talking to me? I obviously have no clue how to attack them or defend them, so you guys should talk to someone else that has a better record than I do against them."
So, there's that. Rex's slightly exasperated attitude aside, the Patriots have a few issues of their own. Injuries to running back Dion Lewis, receiver Julian Edelman and seemingly the entire offensive line have reduced Brady's options, but as is their wont, the Patriots were able to overcome all obstacles in a 27–26 win against the Giants last Sunday, which blew away ghosts from seasons past.
This team is led by its defense as much as by Brady, and that makes them dangerous in completely new ways. Their run defense ranks 12th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, and that's an important point for improvement, because in those same metrics, there's no better run game in the NFL than Buffalo's. New England's best bet to sweep the Bills and add to Ryan's Belichick-related paranoia is to make this a shootout and put it all on Tyrod Taylor's shoulders. They may be less well-equipped to handle a clock-killing ground battle this time around.—DF
Broncos at Bears (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Heading into this game, everyone is focused on the dawn of the Brock Osweiler Era, which could last anywhere from a couple of games to the next 10 years. Though it's pretty clear that Osweiler is a better fit for Gary Kubiak's offense than Peyton Manning, I'd still bet the under. The story that will define the game, however, is the improvement of the Bears' offense—Jay Cutler is thriving in former Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase's system, which makes one think that there was more to Denver's great offense over the last few prior seasons than Manning audibiling at the line.—DF
Colts at Falcons (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Colts were the darlings of the NFL preseason—after a trip to the AFC title game last year and a summer spent adding big names, they were favored to reach the Super Bowl. The Falcons' bandwagon filled up rather quickly, too, thanks to a 5–0 start.
However, both teams have crashed back to earth. Indianapolis is still tied atop the AFC South, but it's still lacking much of an identity. Worse yet, starting QB Andrew Luck is out of the lineup again, leaving 40-year-old veteran Matt Hasselbeck to hold down the fort as he did earlier this year. Atlanta, meanwhile, has lost three of four, all to teams below .500. Its potent offense has not topped 21 points since Week 5.—CB
Cowboys at Dolphins (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Cowboys& have lost seven straight games without the injured Tony Romo, a fact which brings to light that Greg Hardy wasn't the savior Jerry Jones thought he would be. With Romo's return, the 2–7 'Boys are just trying to salvage a season that's gone off the rails for all kinds of reasons. The question is, how much can Romo do with a flatlining receiver corps, a simplistic offensive design, and an offensive line that isn't what it was last season?
They'll try to set things right against a Dolphins squad that did Dallas a small favor last Sunday with a close win over the Eagles. Even though Miami is also in last place in its division, Ryan Tannehill is maintaining his leadership on offense, and Ndamukong Suh is showing more power with his new team. This looks like the game that could knock Dallas out of the box once and for all in 2015.—DF
New York Jets at Houston (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
After suffering a concussion (and reporting memory loss after the fact) during the Texans' upset of the Bengals, Brian Hoyer ceded the ball to& T.J. Yates, who threw a game-winning touchdown pass to the incredible DeAndre Hopkins. Can Yates beat anyone other than the Bengals, though? Counting the playoffs, Yates has three career wins a a starter, with two coming against Cincinnati (Monday's result counts toward Hoyer's W-L totals).
The Jets will come in a little desperate, following a disappointing 22–17 home loss to Miami. Their offense vanished for much of that game, resulting in a four-turnover performance.—CB
49ers at Seahawks (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
There have been all kinds of attempted explanations for Seattle's obvious decline this season. Russell Wilson has regressed, the defense hasn't performed up to par, the play-calling by the offensive coaching staff has been criticized... all these things are true. It's also possible that the 4–5 Seahawks never really recovered from the gut-punch loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX.
Whatever the case, Pete Carroll's team isn't walking around with the same level of toughness it's had the last two seasons, and all of a sudden, a loss to the depleted, Blaine Gabbert-led 49ers doesn't seem impossible. It would probably end Seattle's status as a playoff contender, and legitimately send the team into a spiral of self-questioning.—DF
Chiefs at Chargers (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
Shaking off a five-game losing skid, the Kansas City Chiefs now find themselves just a game back in the AFC wild-card race. The 2–7 Chargers stand firmly in their way. The Chiefs and Chargers will meet twice in the next four weeks, with San Diego hoping to play spoiler.
To do so, its battered offensive line will have to step up. Kansas City's fearsome pass rush has found its stride—five sacks in Denver last week, six of Matthew Stafford back in Week 8. The Chiefs' offense still runs hot and cold, but it doesn't take much to win when the defense is playing as it is.—CB
Only for the masochists
Rams at Ravens (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The Ravens just lost at home to the Jaguars and are 2-7. The Rams are a healthier 4-5, but they've dropped back-to-back contests and will start Case Keenum in this one. Todd Gurley will have to be worth the price of admission.—CB
Raiders at Lions (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Raiders were riding high until they slammed into a 30-14 reality check at the hands of the Vikings last Sunday. Now, they face a Lions team that is simply playing out the string, but there's a lot for Oakland to play for. They need to prove that, as the NFL's up-and-comers, they can take care of business against the teams they're supposed to beat. The Lions certainly qualify.—DF
Bucs at Eagles (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Neither team will be satisfied with a 4-5 record, but the rebuilding Buccaneers should be pleased with their progress. They may need Jameis Winston to snap out of a two-game drought without a TD pass (he has scored on the ground in three straight games). His QB counterpart will be Mark Sanchez, who takes over for an injured Sam Bradford. Sanchez went 4-4 as a starter last year.—CB
The Vikings have made their offensive intentions clear—only the Rams have a higher rate of first-down runs than Minnesota's 63%, and it's a pretty good strategy, because no running back in the NFL has more rushing yards on first-and-10 than Adrian Peterson's 678. Peterson is averaging 8.1 yards per rush in the fourth quarter, which makes him the most effective non-quarterback closer in the game. So, it's pretty easy to see why Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have faith in their approach. Question is, when the Vikings play teams capable of lighting up the scoreboard, can they keep up?
Kirk Cousins' four-touchdown game against the Saints last Sunday had people wondering if he could be the Redskins' franchise quarterback for the future. Set the fact that New Orleans has the NFL's worst defense aside, because Cousins has been getting it done in a better way in an offense increasingly designed to play to his strengths. He currently ranks ninth in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, which adjust for opponent. What may hold him back is that he's still not an efficient deep passer at all—of his 14 touchdowns, none have come on passes thrown more than 11 yards past the line of scrimmage, and five of his nine picks come on those deep passes.
If you want a great deep-ball thrower, you won't do much better than Carson Palmer. Not only does Palmer rank second behind Ben Roethlisberger in yards per attempts with 8.93, he's also got 14 touchdowns to four picks on balls thrown more than 10 yards in the air. Roethlisberger has more picks (six) and far fewer touchdowns (five) on such passes.—DF
Player with most to prove
Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals: Is it fair to toss out Dalton's first eight games because he played poorly vs. Houston? Not really. The Texans at least deserve more credit than they received for turning in a stalwart defensive effort.
And yet, the Dalton debate has been renewed yet again. Can he come through when it counts? Does he have what it takes to lead Cincinnati when a national TV audience is watching? He'll get his third straight prime-time shot this week, on Sunday in Arizona. A strong performance vs. the Cardinals would silence a lot of Dalton's critics, at least for the time being.—CB
Underrated player to watch
Markus Golden, OLB, Cardinals: Golden toiled in relative obscurity at Missouri as a pass-rusher behind the more prominent Michael Sam and Shane Ray, but he put up 8.5 sacks and nine quarterback hurries in 2014, prompting the Cardinals to take him with the 58th pick in the 2015 draft. In 213 passing snaps this season, per Pro Football Focus, he's amassed 28 total pressures, leading all rookies. In addition, he's been a real asset in coverage with his ability to break off from the edge and cover curl/flat and short seam routes.
“You’re a do-all guy,” defensive coordinator James Bettcher said of Golden and his ability to adapt to the pro game in late October. “You’re an outside linebacker, you’re a third-down rusher, you play nickel on the edge. That role and that position here for the last few years has been one of many hats, and he’s really worked at really learning what he has to do. We all know when he’s rolling. He’s playing fast and he’s playing violent so that’s the thing with him.”
Bettcher and the Cards throw a ton of different looks at enemy offenses, so expect Golden (jersey number 44 in your program) to keep making an impact off the edge.
Miami interim coach Dan Campbell vs. the Cowboys. Campbell never caught a pass from Tony Romo, but the two were teammates together during the 2004 and '05 seasons in Dallas. Campbell's Cowboys career actually started in 2003, a year before Romo arrived as an undrafted free agent. He caught 20 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown that season, as the Cowboys finished 10-6 behind QB Quincy Carter.—CB
BURKE: Kansas City. The Chiefs have won three in a row, counting Week 11's cruise-control win at Denver. Suddenly, they're back in the wild-card chase and might even be able to make a little noise in the AFC West, should the Broncos keep reeling. A loss to the Chargers would be an ill-timed step in the wrong direction.
FARRAR: Packers. It's pretty simple—if Green Bay loses to Minnesota this Sunday the way they're playing, they can pretty much throw the NFC North title out the window as a pressing concern. And with the Bears, Raiders, Cardinals and Vikings again on the schedule, a postseason appearance looks like less and less of a certainty.
Tecmo Super upset of the week
We’re simulating the entire 2015 season using updated rosters on the classic Tecmo Super Bowl video game. (Download the game at TecmoBowl.org.) Each week, The Playbook will spotlight the most surprising result:
So much for the Chiefs' hot streak. They had no answers for Philip Rivers here, in a 367-yard afternoon from the San Diego quarterback. Those 212 yards of total offense by Kansas City probably didn't help much either.—CB