The Playbook: Previewing Broncos-Chiefs, Saints-49ers, more Week 11 games
Kansas City (9-0) at Denver (8-1) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: The AFC West's big day finally arrives. It seems a little screwy that the top two teams in a division would not play until Week 11. But because of that backloaded slate, the Chiefs and Broncos will meet twice in three weeks, with the rematch set for Week 13 in Kansas City.
What that game means depends on the outcome here. A Chiefs victory would put them in firm control of the West and officially set the league on 16-0 watch; if the Broncos hold serve, they could head into Week 13 with the AFC's top record. (Kansas City hosts San Diego next Sunday, while Denver travels to New England.)
Either way, the stakes are high -- mile high, actually -- Sunday night in Denver.
The show-stopping matchup: Denver's top-ranked offense vs. Kansas City's top-ranked defense. The Chiefs have allowed just 12.3 points per game during their 9-0 start, with their defense actually accounting for six touchdowns on its own. Kansas City leads the league in sacks at 36, which is worth remembering as Peyton Manning hobbles into this game with two sore ankles.
Denver, despite being held under 30 points last week for the first time in 2013, remains on pace to break New England's single-season record of 589 points.
The fate of Sunday night's outcome may rest on the other side of the ball, though.
Many a skeptic of Alex Smith remains, in spite of his team's perfect start. Smith has been decent but far from great thus far -- nine touchdowns, four interceptions, fewer than 2,000 yards passing. The Chiefs also have not had to ask him to do all that much. That request may change Sunday, should Manning's Broncos find a way to hang some points on the board.
Denver actually ranks fourth in the league against the run (in part because trailing teams have had to throw so much). So, how much space Jamaal Charles can carve out will be key to Kansas City's hopes. Charles has more than 1,100 yards from scrimmage this season and may be pushing his way into the MVP race.
He'd likely trade that award for a division title and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Stealing a win in Denver would go a long way toward the Chiefs accomplishing those goals. -- Chris Burke
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New England (7-2) at Carolina (6-3) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Talk all you want about Cam Newton and the read-option -- the real reason the Panthers are on track for a winning record for the first time since 2008 is a defense that currently ranks first in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. And, as we detailed this week, Carolina's front seven is as impressive as any in the NFL. Tom Brady doesn't need convincing.
"They have a great front," New England's quarterback said Tuesday. "They rotate all these guys in. They can all rush the quarterback and they’ve got linebackers that can tackle. [Linebacker Luke] Kuechly is a great young player and makes tackles everywhere. If you miss a throw, it’s usually an interception. You just have to know the challenge, know what it takes, 60 minutes of great football. You’re not just going to go in there and put together 30 good minutes and think you’re going to win. We have to play well all night."
The Panthers are enjoying a five-game winning streak and they've taken six of their last seven games because they're playing the total game. Carolina ranks 10th in FO's offensive metrics, the running game is working in ways it didn't last year and Newton has been at his most efficient of late.
For the Patriots to pull this one out, they'll need to stop that voracious defensive front. Guard Logan Mankins, who has allowed seven sacks in 2013 (the most for any NFL guard), understands that challenge implicitly -- particularly Carolina's ability to rotate as many as four ends and tackles per game.
"They have a lot of depth up front and a lot of good players," Mankins said. "To rotate like that, they stay pretty fresh and there is not a huge drop-off when they do rotate."
In short, the Patriots should not expect a repeat of the 55-point, 610-yard thrashing they put on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 3, before New England's bye. Tom Brady threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns in that game as an inconsistent offense finally found its footing. The Panthers are all about making that footing as treacherous as possible. -- Doug Farrar
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San Francisco (6-3) at New Orleans (7-2) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: Is the shine off the San Francisco 49ers' apple? That's the lingering question out of Week 10, in a game in which Carolina absolutely stuffed Colin Kaepernick's offense in a 10-9 Panthers win. The 49ers had scored 31 points or more in the previous five games, all victories, so it may not be time to panic just yet. Still, last Sunday marked San Francisco's third game scoring in single digits -- two coming in home losses.
The 49ers likely will need to find their AWOL offense this week against a New Orleans team that's climbed into the top five defensively and which averages 35.2 points per game at home.
Carolina's win in San Francisco actually complicated life for the Saints in the NFC South. Despite a strong 7-2 start to the year, New Orleans has 6-3 Carolina breathing down its neck in the division. Of course, the 49ers have their own problems on the standings front, namely that they're barely clinging to a wild-card spot. They currently sit 2.5 games back of the Seahawks in the NFC West, with just one game left against their arch-rivals. A loss Sunday, which would be San Francisco's fourth, would all but cement the division for Seattle.
We mentioned Alex Smith's shaky numbers earlier in the Playbook. Well, Colin Kaepernick's are worse: 56.4-percent completion rate, 186.1 passing yards per game and nine touchdowns to six interceptions. As with Smith's Chiefs offense, the 49ers like to live and die with their run game and defense, but they still need a more consistent effort from their quarterback.
That said, it may be in the Frank Gore-led run game that San Francisco can hang with the Saints. Though Rob Ryan has turned his team's pass defense into a force, the Saints are 23rd against the run and allowed the Jets to pile up 198 yards on the ground in their last loss. The 49ers remain capable of posting a comparable effort, one that would help keep Drew Brees on the sideline.
If Chiefs-Broncos is the headliner this week, 49ers-Saints may be the undercard. If nothing else, the stakes are lofty enough that both teams could use a win in the bayou. -- CB
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Baltimore (4-5) at Chicago (5-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bears had quarterback Jay Cutler back for the better part of one game Sunday against the Detroit Lions, and a 21-19 loss was the result. Cutler had missed the previous game against the Green Bay Packers with a groin injury suffered against Washington, and after the Lions game, head coach Marc Trestman confirmed Cutler's status had become complicated by a high ankle sprain.
"I went through the tape closely this morning and watched Jay's performance, and I thought he did well into the fourth quarter," Trestman said Monday. "But at the end of the day, if we had to do it all over again, maybe it would be one series before the two-minute drill [that we removed him]."
In Cutler's stead, the Bears will go back to backup Josh McCown, who performed credibly against the Packers and Redskins. McCown has completed 42-of-70 passes this season for 538 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. McCown does not have the same potential for shot plays that Cutler does, but the way receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey are playing this season, that doesn't matter too much. Marshall and Jeffrey are huge targets, and they've been winning matchup battles all season. That's a serious challenge even for a Baltimore defense that ranks 10th against the pass in FO's metrics. Underrated Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb will be tasked with covering Marshall, and that's a great duel.
"Now you're starting to see him get back to that form," Marshall said of Webb, who is playing very well now after recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in 2012. "He's playing lights-out. There are things where I can see he probably wants to work on and not give up, but this guy has the potential to be the best corner in the league."
The Ravens will try to get running back Ray Rice going against Chicago's injury-plagued defensive front. Rice has been hurt this season and Baltimore's line is underperforming, and the result has been an atypical year for Rice -- 289 yards on 115 carries (a 2.5 yards per carry average) and three rushing touchdowns. He ran 18 times for just 30 yards in Baltimore's 20-17 overtime win against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
"If I doubted myself, I wouldn't be where I am today," Rice said this week. "I'm at full strength. The Ravens are going to need me at full strength late in the year. It might be a blessing in disguise that I went through something early. Now, we're trying to get back on track, so I can get myself back to whatever you call 'full strength.' I know I'm able to make plays. I leave the doubt and the naysayers out there. When there's opportunity, you'll definitely see it. We just haven't had the opportunity to show it."
This would be the week to do it. Next Sunday, Rice will be running against the New York Jets' awesome defensive front. -- DF
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Cleveland (4-5) at Cincinnati (6-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Believe it or not, this is a massively important game in the AFC North. Back-to-back OT losses (and Geno Atkins' season-ending injury) have brought the Bengals back to the pack. For the Browns to close the gap further, they'll need QB Jason Campbell to repeat his three-TD showing from Week 9 vs. Baltimore. Cleveland's D dominated an early meeting between these teams, a 17-6 Browns win. -- CB
NY Jets (5-4) at Buffalo (3-7) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: -- The Jets are riding an outstanding defensive front, while the Bills are treading water in a sea of quarterback injuries. Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone said this week that he loves being in a position of accountability -- but with a three-game losing streak in his back pocket. the coach may change his tune very soon. -- DF
Detroit (6-3) at Pittsburgh (3-6) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Which Steelers defense will the Lions find Sunday? The one that has allowed an average of just 250 yards per home game or the one that New England torched for 55 points in Week 9? The Lions' offense loaded with Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and a suddenly confident Brandon Pettigrew, and their O-line has allowed just 10 sacks of Matthew Stafford -- five in Week 5 when Megatron was out. -- CB
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Washington (3-6) at Philadelphia (5-5) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Redskins will be looking for revenge against a Philly team that took their defense apart in Chip Kelly's NFL coaching debut. Washington closed that loss to a 33-27 margin after trailing 33-7 in the third quarter. Problem is the Redskins haven't proven able to stop any offense, and the Eagles still lead the league in explosive plays. -- DF
Green Bay (5-4) at NY Giants (3-6) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: My, how quickly things can change in the NFL. Three weeks ago, the Packers were 5-2 and atop the NFC North, while the Giants had just claimed their first win. Now? Green Bay's reeling with Aaron Rodgers out and New York's threatening to get back in the NFC East race. The X-factor here: the run games. The outcome of the Eddie Lacy-Andre Brown matchup could tip the scales. -- CB
San Diego (4-5) at Miami (4-5) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: After presenting the Buccaneers with their first win of the season on Monday night, the drama-fractured Dolphins now welcome a Chargers team that has alternated between effective and anemic. Given everything going on in their backyard, this is one team that might have preferred to go on the road. Handling San Diego's league-worst defense will be key if Miami is to right the ship in a purely football sense. -- DF
Only For The Faithful
Oakland (3-6) at Houston (2-7) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Will either Terrelle Pryor or Case Keenum be in place as his team's starting QB next season? Pryor's health status is up in the air for Sunday. And Keenum might not even hold the job next week if he can't step up his game -- Gary Kubiak said that Matt Schaub's pushing to get back on the field. Something's gotta give here: Oakland's 0-4 on the road, Houston's riding a seven-game skid overall. -- CB
Atlanta (2-7) at Tampa Bay (1-8) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Could the Bucs actually win two in a row for the first time since last November? They've been looking good in recent losses and outplayed the distracted Dolphins on Monday night. Mike Smith's team actually looks like the underdog in this case. -- DF
Arizona (5-4) at Jacksonville (1-8) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Jaguars secured their first win, but they still have the league's worst run defense. That's potentially great news for the Cardinals, with Rashard Mendenhall and the emerging Andre Ellington back together in an underrated backfield. Arizona, at 5-4, is a surprise playoff contender in the NFC. -- CB
Minnesota (2-7) at Seattle (9-1) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: While the Seahawks are playing for home field throughout the playoffs, the Vikings are looking to the future and trying to figure things out. If Seattle is able to get former Minnesota playmaker Percy Harvin on the field for this one, the visitors could be in for a very long day -- DF
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(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus).
• Before we get into this week's PFF numbers, Brian Billick has an interesting piece on NFL.com about a metric he calls "Toxic Differential." It's a total of turnovers given and allowed, and explosive plays created and allowed. NFL teams often use metrics based on play factors given and allowed, so this is an intriguing look into what some front offices see. Billick's stat favors those teams creating big plays while preventing them, and those that can avoid the big mistake. The Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers are the top three teams in Toxic Differential, while the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills are at the bottom. It's not a be-all, end-all stat (opponent adjustments would help), but it's a worthwhile discussion point.
• There's been a lot of talk about Peyton Manning's declining arm. The narrative seems to be that Manning is throwing shorter passes and letting his receivers do a lot of the work after the catch. Manning, however, ranks fourth this season in deep passing, with 47 throws traveling 20 or more yards in the air -- only Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco have more. However, Manning's efficiency on those deep throws isn't world-beating -- he's completed 20 passes for 660 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Dalton, however, has been surprisingly impressive with airing it out. He leads the league with 52 deep passes, with eight touchdowns and just two picks.
• There's no question that New Orleans' Jimmy Graham is one of the league's best deep targets, but among tight ends, San Francisco's Vernon Davis has surpassed Graham in a few categories this season. Davis has 14 targets of 20 yards or more to Graham's 10, and eight such catches to Graham's six. Both players have four deep touchdowns, but Davis has accounted for 300 yards on deep passes to Graham's 244.
• Add Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison to the list of people who believe that sacks are not the only indicator of pass-rush productivity. Robison has just three sacks on the year, but he ranks third in the league in total pressures, because he has an amazing 44 quarterback hurries -- far and away the most in the NFL. Hurries aren't splash plays, but they affect the rhythm and timing of quarterbacks, and that's why they're important. -- DF
• Matchup to Watch: Stevan Ridley vs. Luke Kuechly.
The Panthers cemented their status as a playoff contender with last week's win in San Francisco. They can really open some eyes Monday by taking down the Patriots.
Doing so is not as simple as merely keeping Tom Brady in check. (Though, granted, that's a huge piece of the puzzle.) Prior to their Week 10 bye, the Patriots had managed to get their run game rolling, with Stevan Ridley leading the charge. He's scored in four consecutive games (six TDs in all) and churned out 115 yards on 26 carries against Pittsburgh. The Panthers have allowed just one 100-yard rusher this season: C.J. Spiller, way back in Week 2. If Ridley can come even close to the century mark, it should open the doors for Brady.
Working around Kuechly will be the challenge for Ridley -- and finding him will be task No. 1 for New England's offensive line. A possible Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Kuechly holds down the middle of Carolina's front seven (with help up front from rookie Star Lotulelei.) He's leading the team with 75 tackles and has the proverbial "nose for the football." Ridley may have to beat him in some one-on-one battles to move the chains ... and very few backs have won that matchup so far.
• This Week's Sleeper: Bobby Rainey, RB, Buccaneers.
The Falcons and Buccaneers have three wins between them, so their game Sunday is a Week 11 afterthought. But for Rainey, undrafted in 2012 and on his third NFL team, it may represent an opportunity. With Mike James out for the season, Rainey should split carries in Tampa Bay's backfield with Brian Leonard -- and Rainey could be the bigger threat. He had eight carries for 45 yards and a TD last week after James left with an injury.
• Pressure's On ...: Robert Griffin III, QB, Redskins.
It's likely now or never for the Redskins, who would fall three games back of first place if Philadelphia completes its season sweep Sunday. Griffin struggled to get into gear during the first matchup, a 33-27 Eagles win in Week 1. He then tossed a pair of TD passes in the second half, nearly completing a dramatic 26-point comeback.
Nick Foles has been scorching hot over the past two weeks, with wins in Oakland and Green Bay. Washington's defense does not figure to hold the line all that well Sunday, so Griffin will have to respond.
• Rookie to Watch: Damontre Moore, DE, Giants.
Eddie Lacy continues to run toward Offensive Rookie of the Year for the Packers, meaning he will be in the crosshairs Sunday at New York. The Giants will load up to stop Green Bay's rookie and attempt to force Scott Tolzien to the air.
Moore may be an X-factor in that aim. With Jason Pierre-Paul's status for Week 11 still uncertain, both Moore and Mathias Kiwanuka would be in line for increased snaps. Moore has a pair of blocked punts this season, but he's yet to make much of an impact on D. He could get a shot Sunday. -- CB
• Washington. The Redskins keep tossing out teases that they might be players in the NFC East. Sunday's game at 5-5, first-place Philadelphia is the fork in the road. -- CB
• Philadelphia. In an NFC East division that nobody seems to want to win, the 5-5 Eagles start to look like an interesting play. Taking the Redskins down for the second time in 2013 could start a roll of momentum -- especially since it's at Lincoln Financial Field, and Philly hasn't won at home in four tries this season. -- DF
[si_video id="video_68A4079A-41D1-5E9C-AB5C-580E4694D9E5" height="470"]SI.com Week 11 Betting Guide: Trust Saints at home, avoid inconsistent Jets