When we look back on this regular season, two weekends will stand out: this one and Week 17 (Lions at Packers, particularly if it’s for the division title and, better, for NFC home-field; Cards at Niners, Browns at Ravens, Bengals at Steelers). But this one, I think, will be the best. It’s the first time in NFL history, in Week 11 or later, that four games will feature both teams with winning percentages of .667 or better. In other words, four really good games—and another one that you could easily call the earliest playoff game of the season.
Week 11 has:
• A playoff eliminator to kick it off. That was Thursday night’s match between twin 5-4 teams on the edge of the playoff race—Miami 22, Buffalo 9. Winner stays in the chase, loser might have to go 6-0 down the stretch to make it. And, as we saw, Buffalo has no prayer of going 6-0—not with trips to Denver and New England left in the last six Sundays. (More on the Dolphins-Bills game on Page 2.)
• The Sanchize at The Franchise: Newly minted starter Mark Sanchez (assuming he’s digested that celebratory cheesesteak by Sunday) and the 7-2 Eagles travel to 6-3 Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers plays ridiculously perfect football.
• The power of Marshawn Lynch versus the wispy Jamaal Charles. For the third time in six weeks, Seattle (6-3) takes a multi-time-zone trip, and it’ll be a loud one—to Arrowhead Stadium to play the 6-3 Houdini Chiefs. Apparently, some teams still like to run in the NFL. Last weekend, the Chiefs and Seahawks won important games—with a combined 56 percent-44 percent run-pass ratio.
• A great game 85 percent of America without DirecTV will not see. Nine of America’s top 10 TV markets (Detroit is 11, Phoenix 12) will not get the 7-2 Lions at the 8-1 Cardinals. (San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose is the only one to air Lions-Cards.) And that’s a shame. But the league chose to make Philadelphia-Green Bay the FOX doubleheader game, changing it from the early- to late-afternoon window. The ratings will be very good, and so I doubt FOX will have doubleheader remorse. But this game’s too good to be seen by 15 percent of the country, or whatever the number is. Check out the viewer map of the late Sunday FOX window.
• Tom Brady versus the future. New England (7-2) is scoring 40 points a game in its five-game winning streak. Indianapolis (6-3) has the number one offense in football, with the most productive quarterback, Andrew Luck. The highest-scoring offensive season in history is sure to continue Sunday night in Indianapolis.
If you love football, this is a Sunday you want to find a good sports bar with all the games on, gorge on the early ones, and try to watch two at once in the late window. Then you’re permitted to go home and watch Brady-Luck III from your Man (or Woman) Cave on Sunday night.
I like the drama early Sunday too. The Bengals are on the verge of season-ruination, and a trip to play the desperate Saints in New Orleans won’t help. The Browns, in sole possession of first place this late in a season for the first time since 1994, need to keep Brian Hoyer relatively clean from J.J. Watt, which is never easy. Two defensive train wrecks try to get back on the tracks: the Giants against the 49ers in New Jersey, and the Bears against the Vikings in Chicago. I’m guessing the natives won’t be so friendly when Jay Cutler leads his team onto the field for the noon Central Time kickoff at Soldier Field.
The compelling game, to me, is Patriots-Colts. Luck has faced Brady twice—two years ago this weekend in the regular season, and last year in the divisional playoffs, both times in Foxboro. Game one: New England, 59-24. Game two: New England, 43-22. Walking off the practice field Thursday afternoon, star cornerback Vontae Davis knew what has to be different in round three Sunday night in Indianapolis.
“This is our third go-round in getting ready for Tom, and one thing we know is we’ve got to hit the ground running," Davis said. “We’ve just got to play better from the start. Defensively, I think we know what to expect in a game like this. We’re jelling as a group, and we’re more ready to play a game like this. I think our guys are buying into the [defensive] system now, and we have more experience in it."
Davis has had success against Brady early in his career as a Miami Dolphin. He intercepted Brady in each 2009 meeting.
“Against Tom, you’ve got to disguise what you’re doing on defense till the last possible second," Davis said. “You’ve got to play mind games with Tom. He’s similar to Peyton [Manning]. Every tape I’ve watched this week—you can’t get a read on what Tom’s going to do. So you just have to play the best technique you can and play the defense the way it’s called, and trust it."
Continuing the ratings-bonanza trend of a season, I’ll be surprised if the FOX late window and the NBC Sunday night game don’t have monster numbers—unless, of course, there’s another 42-0 halftime score in one of the big games. No chance of that, though. Chicago’s playing in the crowded early window.
In Sunday’s Big Four, my picks:
• Seattle 23, Kansas City 20. Russell Wilson makes a couple of big runs late to win it.
• Detroit 19, Arizona 16. The Lions have won the last three by 1, 1 and 4. I like Matthew Stafford to find Corey Fuller (the Calvin Johnson understudy) on one big play late in the desert.
• Green Bay 37, Philadelphia 20. I just don’t think anyone’s stopping Aaron Rodgers right now.
• Indianapolis 41, New England 30. Andrew Luck’s revenge.
About Last Night …
Miami 22, Buffalo 9. I doubt sincerely that Peyton Manning was watching Thursday night and saying, That Miami defense is going to give me fits next Sunday. I don’t expect the Broncos to be tied up in knots by the Dolphins D, but here are a couple of sobering numbers: Miami has allowed five touchdowns and 11.2 points per game in their recent 4-1 run. And the pass defense is allowing foes to complete only 59 percent of their throws. After suffocating Kyle Orton on Thursday night (will the Bills ever find a quarterback to be a fitting heir to Jim Kelly?), the Dolphins showed they’re going to be a tough out in the last six weeks, and their 5-2 conference record is important too; Denver is the only AFC team with zero or one conference losses (5-1), so Miami is good in the tiebreaker department. My three other takeaways:
• Right tackle is a sore spot, obviously, with emergency starter Dallas Thomas getting turnstiled by Mario Williams for 3.5 sacks. With Ju’Wuan James having moved from right to left tackle to take over for the injured Branden Albert, Miami’s going to have to think long and hard about alternatives for the right side after Thomas proved too slow to keep up with a good speed-rusher.
• Ryan Tannehill misses some throws, but he avoids the big mistake and give Miami a chance on every series. I love the opportunities offensive coordinator Bill Lazor creates for his wide receivers downfield; now Tannehill just has to hit more of them.
• I was worried about the inexperienced Jamar Taylor making his first career start on the big stage Thursday night, with Cortland Finnegan out injured. But Taylor, the second-year cornerback from Boise State, was the best Miami secondary player in this game. He didn’t allow a big play all night, and he made a huge stop in run defense on the first series of the third quarter, penetrating on third-and-one with Buffalo up 6-3 to nail Brice Brown for a six-yard loss. What Taylor lacks in experience he makes up for in instincts.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Aldon Smith, rush linebacker, San Francisco (number 99). Coming off his nine-game suspension, Smith likely will play at least half the snaps and try to make Eli Manning’s life miserable in New Jersey on Sunday. Smith’s presence is sorely needed; the Niners have but 15 sacks in nine games, and the team has long figured that when Smith returns, so will the edge-rush presence Vic Fangio’s defense has lacked all season. “I would imagine he'd have an 'X' amount of plays and may very well be in there as part of their third-down package," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. At the very least.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, addressing concerns on whether or not he's injured:
“If the question is, ‘Is Cam hurt?’ No, it’s not affecting my game play. You know, I’m not gonna keep going back to reports that are saying that I’ve been hurt or things that I haven’t been saying. The truth of the matter is it’s not important. The more important thing is my main focus is to try to find a way to win. That’s the only thing that I’m worried about. So no matter how I feel, no matter how Coach feels, nobody really cares about that. The truth of the matter is that we’re losing. And somebody tries to point fingers and say this and that about why we’re not winning—if you wanna put the blame on me not being 100%, well, you know, so be it. But I know that if we were on a four-game winning streak, nobody really would care about that, so it’s all about worrying about how to get a win. When you win, everything else works out fine."
Regular Old Quote of the Week
“The quarterback, to me … he makes me sick to my stomach. His footwork is atrocious at times. You see him back there in the pocket, he’s throwing off his back foot. He’s all over the place. He’s got happy feet. He doesn’t set his feet. He’s throwing off balance, and it’s an accident waiting to happen. He’s part of the problem — he’s not the whole problem, but he’s certainly part of it … I don’t know what to make of Jay Cutler, guys. It’s almost like he’s convinced that this isn’t going to work, and he’s just kind of going through the motions, to me, at times. I don’t see the fight. I don’t see the passion. I don’t see him in the huddle challenging guys."
—Rich Gannon, NFL analyst and former NFL MVP, on Jay Cutler, in remarks to WSCR radio in Chicago.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The continued implosion that is the Chicago Bears. It’s not just the wooden performance of Jay Cutler. This is a defense that has played atrocious football. The Bears have allowed 179 points in the first half of their nine games. The Browns have allowed 172 points in their nine games.
2. A nice matchup for Jimmy Graham to dominate. All you fantasians would be playing Jimmy Graham as long as he doesn’t have a broken leg. But he’ll be matched on many snaps against Cincinnati backup linebacker Emmanuel Lamur. Could be a 150-yard day for Graham on Sunday.
3. Andy Dalton in an important second act. Last time we saw Dalton, he was putting up a 2.0 rating against the Browns eight days ago. There is no one who roots for the Bengals who is not scared witless about Dalton’s ability to be the long-term quarterback solution in Cincinnati. Your move, Andy.
4. Not a gimme for Peyton Manning. St. Louis linebacker Alec Ogletree is coming off the best game of his 1.5-year NFL career, and no one can block rookie Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. The Rams-Broncos game is in St. Louis, so that will give the locals a home-field noise edge too. But I can’t see Shaun Hill beating Peyton Manning. You?
5. Adrian Peterson predictions. The NFL has no idea what is fair punishment for Peterson, and his hearing to get off the NFL’s commissioner exempt list is Monday. My idea: Ban him one more game, without pay (a $691,176 fine), and let him play the last five games of the seasons for the Vikings, starting Nov. 30 against Carolina. That is, if the Vikings want him. The NFL needs to put the ball in Zygi Wilf’s court.
6. The Tom Brady Heir Bowl. It’s Ryan Mallett making his first career start for Houston against Brian Hoyer of the Browns. When Mallett was a Patriot rookie in 2011, he used to carry to shoulder pads and helmets of Brady and Hoyer—the two quarterbacks above him on the New England depth chart—off the field after training-camp practices. Cute. How times have changed.
7. The Giants, trying to recapture their manhood. After one of the worst defensive days in New York’s storied history (Seattle rushed for a team-record 350 yards on the G-Men last Sunday), the Giants see Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde and Colin Kaepernick come to Jersey on Sunday. Over-under on the Niners’ rushing total: 188. I’ll take the over.
8. Noise. Think it's loud in CenturyLink? Arrowhead begs to differ. Let’s see if the Kansas City crowd can beat up the Seattle crowd in Decibel Competition Sunday starting at noon in the frigid Midwest.
9. Drew Stanton versus the team that gave up on him. In 2007, the Lions made Michigan State Spartan Stanton the 43rd pick in the draft. But after five years employing him, the Lions gave up on him—pretty obvious once Matthew Stafford got drafted number one overall in 2009—and now, in a huge game with playoff implications out the wazoo, Stanton faces the team that gave up on him. “I’d be lying if I said that doesn’t make this a little more special," Stanton told me this week. Special, meaning the significance of taking over for Carson Palmer and all.
10. Who’s blocking Barwin? The sneaky sacker, Connor Barwin of the Eagles, will be used as a chess piece Sunday by Philadelphia defensive coordinator Bill Davis, moving him all over the field to find weak spots of the Packer offensive front. Davis and Barwin have combined to do a good job so far—10.5 sacks in nine games.
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