NFL Week 11 storylines: Redemption song
A number of playoff contenders head into Week 11 wounded and demoralized. Buffalo, Baltimore, Cincinnati, San Diego, Kansas City, the Giants, Detroit, Atlanta and Tampa Bay -- all teams still in the mix -- suffered setbacks in their last outings.
Letting one bad loss turn in to a losing streak at this time of year can be deadly, so the pressure is on those teams to fight back before it gets too late.
Which of those postseason hopefuls are we putting in our Week 11 spotlight? Read on and find out:
The AFC North continues to be a jumbled mess, but Week 11 might mark a fork in the road for Cincinnati and Baltimore. The surprising Bengals missed a big chance to make a statement last week, dropping a close on at home to Pittsburgh. That dropped them into a second-place tie with the Ravens, who fell flat on their faces and were upset by Seattle. The loser here would find itself in third place, a game back of the division co-leaders (Pittsburgh has a bye at 7-3; both Cincinnati and Baltimore are 6-3) and would be in a tough spot.
• Pressure rising in the Motor City
Jim Schwartz tried to keep his team from getting too high after a 6-2 start to the season. Now, the challenge will be to keep the Lions from bottoming out after a 37-13 embarrassment in Chicago. If Detroit still plans to head to the postseason, losing at home to 2-7 Carolina Sunday is not an option -- especially with games against New Orleans, San Diego, Oakland and two against Green Bay remaining on the schedule. Matthew Stafford will have to key any Lions' recovery. He threw four picks in the loss to Chicago and nearly incited a brawl with his face-mask takedown of D.J. Moore.
• Next step for Oakland: maintaining momentum
With a 24-17 win in San Diego last Thursday, the Raiders got a leg up in the underwhelming AFC West race. The Broncos, however, are hot on the chase after Thursday's win moved them to 5-5. For Oakland to keep Denver at bay -- not to mention possibly open some breathing room on San Diego and Kansas City -- it has to duplicate its Week 10 effort in Minnesota Sunday. The Vikings are banged up, but they'll bring a strong effort to the table, which makes this a tricky game for the Raiders.
• Playoff contenders clash in Atlanta
The way the playoff races in the AFC and NFC are shaping up, the five-loss mark could be a cutoff point for any team hoping to claim a wild-card spot. The loser of Sunday's Tennessee-Atlanta game will be right there, at 5-5 with six weeks left and facing the potential prospect of needing to win out. The Titans could have a little more wiggle room, but it will depend on how Matt Leinart places in Houston -- if the Texans collapse without Matt Schaub, Tennessee would be next in line in the AFC South. But regardless, both teams need a "W" on Sunday.
After slipping to 3-4 with a 34-7 loss in Philadelphia (the Eagles' last win), Dallas took care of business at home against Seattle and Buffalo to pull within a game of first-place New York in the NFC East. In other words, the Cowboys are still very much alive in the playoff chase. Washington, on the other hand, is a dead team walkin'. The Redskins have lost five in a row, can't decide who their quarterback is and seem less interested each passing week. Given that this is a rivalry game, though, Dallas needs to be on upset alert so its season doesn't turn back in the wrong direction.
Look out for the Bears. They've won four straight, including that thumping of Detroit in Week 10, and -- at least at home -- look dangerous enough to stay in contention. Chicago has a test this week, with San Diego visiting, though the 4-5 Chargers don't look nearly as imposing as everyone expected they might this season. Still, they tend to get hot in the second half of the season and somehow remain right in the hunt for the AFC West crown.
• (Likely) Vick-less Eagles visit New York
Will Michael Vick play Sunday night against the Giants? It sure didn't sound like it as of Thursday, with the Eagles' QB still feeling the effects of a rib injury suffered during a Week 10 loss to Arizona. New York's coming off a tough loss in San Francisco -- there's no shame in that, with the 49ers at 8-1 on the year. But it did put Dallas back on the Giants' heels and, at least in theory, keep the Eagles' hopes of a miracle late-season run alive. Whether it's Vick or Vince Young, Philadelphia's absolute last gasp hope comes Sunday night, but New York will be just as hungry for a victory.
• How ugly will Monday night's game get? As far as the ideal circumstances go for Tyler Palko to make his first NFL start, this is not at the top of the list. The 28-year-old journeyman will be forced into the lineup by Matt Cassel's hand injury, just in time to meet the AFC East-leading Patriots. New England is coming off a clutch win over the Jets and can start putting the hammer down on the division title. Palko might find some relief in a New England pass defense that's still worst in the league, despite a strong effort in New York last week. But it's hard to believe that will be enough to keep this one close.