NFL Week 11 storylines: Andrew Luck's arrival revives Colts-Patriots rivalry
For years and years the Colts-Patriots rivalry was one of the NFL's best, with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning dueling on an annual basis. Last season, the ninth straight in which those two AFC foes met, the luster lacked. The Colts entered the early December contest at 0-11 and with Dan Orlovsky running the show at quarterback.
Indianapolis still made a game of it, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter to lose by seven, but the national excitement waned.
Eleven months later, it's back.
We can thank Andrew Luck and the resurgent 2012 version of the Colts for that. As Luck churns his way toward Rookie of the Year honors, the Colts are one of the NFL's biggest surprises -- their 6-3 record has them firmly in wild-card position and matches New England's start to the 2012 season.
On Sunday Luck leads his team into Foxboro for his first meeting with Brady and the Patriots. The start time of the game was bumped from 1 p.m. ET to the less-crowded 4:25 slot, a nod to the interest in the first Luck-Brady showdown.
If the AFC continues to play out as it has so far, though, the second meeting of those quarterbacks could come in the postseason. Of course, as the playoff picture stands right now, it would not be the Patriots that Luck's Colts would draw in Round 1.
It would be the Denver Broncos ... and Manning.
• Checking in on the quarterback infirmary
Week 10 was none too kind to the NFL's signal-callers. Three of them (Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, Michael Vick) exited their games in the first half with concussions, then Ben Roethlisberger suffered an extremely unusual and serious injury in the Monday night game.
Of the four, only Alex Smith is in line to play in Week 11. That's bad news for the Bears, San Francisco's Monday opponent, who announced Friday that they'll hold Cutler and start Jason Campbell. The Eagles also declared Michael Vick out for their game Sunday in Washington, turning things over to the backup -- Nick Foles, in this case.
Roethlisberger's timetable, meanwhile, remains very much up in the air. At the least his injury will sideline him for Sunday night's crucial AFC North showdown against Baltimore, giving Byron Leftwich his first start since 2009. The Ravens and Steelers meet again in Week 11; will Roethlisberger be available for the rematch? It is possible. Unfortunately for the Steelers, it is also possible that Big Ben has to shut it down until next season.
The NFC South race remains relatively drama-free for now, with the 8-1 Falcons still in cruise control, despite a loss to New Orleans last week. A visit from Arizona this Sunday should not cause Atlanta too much consternation.
Below the Falcons in the standings, though, are a pair of teams rapidly making up for lost time. The Saints, thanks partially to that emphatic win over Atlanta, have won four of five to get back within a game of .500; the Buccaneers have reeled off three straight wins to improve to 5-4, placing them just a half-game back in the NFC wild-card race.
New Orleans heads to Oakland this Sunday, while Tampa Bay visits Carolina. Should both teams win, we may have to start talking about the NFC South as a potential three-playoff-team division.
• San Diego's last shot in the AFC West
Technically, the earliest the Broncos can clinch the AFC West is in Week 13. Ostensibly, however, they can put a bow on the division race Sunday afternoon.
That's if the Broncos can take down San Diego for a second time this season. Manning's team already did just that back in Week 6, rallying from a 24-0 halftime deficit to send the Chargers spiraling. If Denver repeats that outcome Sunday, it will push its AFC West lead out to three games and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over San Diego. In other words, one divisional race will be over.
• Does Detroit have any fight left?
The Lions have spent the past two weeks batting off insults from anonymous sources -- first, center Dominic Raiola was in the crosshairs, then Ndamukong Suh endured his turn this week. Just the latest in a long string of unwelcome distractions for Jim Schwartz's club.
The on-field product has not been much better. Coming off a playoff appearance in 2011, the Lions have failed to meet expectations thus far in 2012, slumping to a 4-5 start. Their fading hopes are on the line Sunday, when the Packers visit Motown. The Lions have knocked off the Packers just once in the past six seasons -- and that win came in a game that saw Aaron Rodgers leave with an injury.
• The Tim Tebow saga refuses to go away
The Jets are 3-6, barely with a pulse in the playoff race. And yet, more of the NFL news cycle has been devoted to their backup quarterback than maybe any other topic this season.
Suffice it to say, Tebow's arrival in New York has not exactly sparked the Jets as they hoped it might. He has seen the field only sporadically (unless you count his work as a blocker on punts), and now this week, several of his teammates ripped Tebow in the press.
All the while, Mark Sanchez has wallowed in underachievement as New York's starting quarterback, unable to get the offense going with a shaky line and depleted receiving corps at his service. The Rams could put a dagger in the Jets' season on Sunday by knocking them off in St. Louis. The downside of that? Once the Jets are eliminated officially from contention, the cries for Tebow to play will grow only louder.