Through 10 weeks, the 2014 regular season has left a lot to be desired. More than anything else, this year has been known for its bevy of prime-time blowouts and pockets of atrocious defense (see the NFC South), but with the arrival of Week 11, the NFL is about to get good. Maybe even great. This weekend shapes up as the season’s best individual slice of the schedule thus far, with four glamor matchups featuring a pair of teams winning games at a .667 clip or better.
The Eagles (7-2) and Packers (6-3) will renew their busy recent rivalry with a clash at Lambeau Field, where a dose of frosty winter temperatures will challenge those California-bred quarterbacks (Mark Sanchez and Aaron Rodgers), and both high-octane offenses are coming off productive home-field outings that overwhelmed their Week 10 opponents.
• Cardinals, Eagles hang playoff hopes on their backup quarterbacks
The Lions (7-2) and Cardinals (8-1) will meet in Glendale in their most meaningful encounter since, when, the 1940s? Positioning for the NFC’s coveted top playoff seed will be on the line, with the sub-plot of Drew Stanton’s re-ascension to starting quarterback status for Arizona adding even more to the game’s appeal.
The first-place Patriots (7-2) and first-place Colts (6-3) stage a rematch of their 2013 AFC divisional playoff game in Indianapolis, and with No. 12s Tom Brady and Andrew Luck squaring off at quarterback, what else do you need to make Sunday Night Football must-see TV?
And Pete Carroll’s defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks (6-3) will take to the road and try to continue their recent roll against an Andy Reid-coached Chiefs (6-3) club that has won six out of seven and is looking positively AFC wild-card worthy once again.
See, there’s a lot to like about Week 11. To be sure, this season has had its low points, but the best is yet to come. Sunday’s schedule looks ready to deliver in a way we haven’t yet seen in 2014.
• Last week: 9-4; Season: 99-47 (.678).
• Best pick in Week 10: Baltimore 23, Tennessee 10. (Actual score: Ravens 21-7).
• Worst pick in Week 10: Cincinnati 26, Cleveland 20. (Actual score: Browns 24-3).
Below are my Week 11 picks. And here’s my pick for Thursday night’s game between Buffalo and Miami.
I’m not sure the bumbling Bears even have a decent performance left in them this season, but if the majority of the roster hasn’t packed it in for the rest of 2014, now would be a very good time to win their first home game of the season -- at least to briefly quiet the angry mob in Chicago. If Marc Trestman’s team doesn’t respond to the humiliating back-to-back blowout losses at New England and Green Bay, imagine what Soldier Field is going to be like throughout the rest of the Bears’ ill-timed stretch of five home games in six weeks. Home-field disadvantage anyone?
All we need is for Matt Cassel and Damon Huard to show up, and this game could double as a convention of Tom Brady's former backups, with Ryan Mallett getting his first start for Houston and Brian Hoyer still large and in charge in Cleveland. Mallett adds a layer of intrigue because he’s such a blank slate for a fourth-year NFL quarterback, but on the road against the Browns is no easy way to get things started. Cleveland’s defense can get it rolling and shut it down on an offense against a rattled quarterback. Just ask Andy Dalton. The Texans won’t fare as badly as the Bengals did last Thursday night, but the first-place Browns will prevail, and improve to 7-3 for the first time since the franchise was relaunched via expansion in 1999.
Here’s hoping the Seahawks enjoyed that big fourth quarter and the win over the Giants at home last week, because that’ll be the closest thing to a breather Seattle gets for a while. In the coming six games, starting with the trip to Arrowhead, the defending Super Bowl champions face NFC teams that all either went to the playoffs or won 10 games last season, with every one of them still in playoff contention this year: At K.C., Arizona, at San Francisco, at Philadelphia, San Francisco and Arizona. That’s quite the gauntlet, but it will at least start out on a winning note against the red-hot Chiefs, with Seattle relying once again on its Marshawn Lynch-led ground game to gut out a narrow victory.
This might be the first game in NFL history where one team is 3-6-0 and the other is 3-6-1, and yet they’re both a game or less out of the division lead as mid-November arrives. The Panthers and Falcons have each won just once since September ended, and yet they’re alive and fighting it out with the first-place Saints (4-5) for the right to represent the not-so-mighty NFC South in the playoffs. Is this a great country or what? I contemplated picking the Panthers to win at home, but after watching Cam Newton hobble his way through their sack-filled blowout loss in Philadelphia on Monday night, there’s no way I can in good conscience try to make that case.
Bad break for the Bengals that the Saints took an overtime home loss last week against the 49ers, because that’s going to make New Orleans that much more focused and more unlikely to drop a second straight in the Superdome. But if Cincinnati can get the good Andy Dalton to reappear and keep it close into the fourth quarter, the Bengals will have a shot against a Saints team that has lost the ability to win the close ones. In four of its five losses, New Orleans has led inside of two minutes of regulation remaining, but the Saints simply cannot finish the deal and it makes you wonder what’s missing? One theory I’ve heard is that all the record-setting offensive fireworks of the Drew Brees-Sean Payton era has left New Orleans too accustomed to winning by big margins, and taken away its killer instinct when games get tight. This one shouldn’t be real close in the fourth quarter, with the Saints scratching their way back to .500.
• On tape, Andy Dalton is regressing in every aspect of the game
At this point of the season for Washington, it’s all about getting Robert Griffin III back on track as the quarterback of the future, and hopefully climbing past the Giants and out of the cellar in the NFC East. The Bucs defense has been beyond disappointing in Lovie Smith’s first season as head coach, and the talent level isn’t the problem. It has just been a matter of execution, and a continual pattern of making key mistakes when the game is on the line. In a battle of new head coaches, Washington’s Jay Gruden will have his guys ready to keep the one-win Bucs sinking fast.
With Rams head coach Jeff Fisher reversing his field and benching Austin Davis this week in favor of veteran quarterback Shaun Hill, it tells me that Davis might have started losing some confidence after his three-turnover fourth quarter performance in a 31-14 loss at Arizona last Sunday. Hill might not make as many mistakes as the lightly experienced Davis, but he also won’t give St. Louis the same upset shot as Davis would have. Davis already owned a win over the other Super Bowl team from last season, in Seattle, but Hill won’t match that feat by besting the Broncos.
The 49ers were supposed to be dangerous once they got all their stars back on defense in the season’s second half, but things aren’t really working out as planned. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith returns this week after his nine-game suspension, but now inside Patrick Willis, one of the team’s most valuable talents, is gone, lost for the season with an injured left big toe that requires surgery. Add in that fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman still hasn’t finished rehabbing the knee he blew out in January’s NFC title game loss at Seattle and San Francisco isn’t as primed on defense to make that big playoff push as we anticipated. The 49ers should still be able to handle the swooning Giants, but nothing has come easily in San Francisco this season.
Welcome to the year-to-year-stadium-lease bowl, with both the Chargers and Raiders being among the teams (along with the Rams) that could conceivably apply for relocation to that always tempting Los Angeles market for the 2015 season. That’s not the most interesting topic, I know, but it beats any buzz these two have generated on the field in quite some time. San Diego has lost three in a row and was off last week, and the Raiders are more than halfway through a history-tying 0-16 season.
In one of the premier games of the week, the Packers and Eagles are both fresh off a primetime home-field mauling of an outclassed opponent. Which one will carry over to this week, Green Bay’s 55-14 destruction of the lifeless Bears on Sunday night, or Philadelphia’s 45-21 shellacking of the woeful Panthers on Monday night? Loved most of what I saw from Mark Sanchez in his first full game running the Eagles offense, but I’ll take Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field every time.
The Cardinals aren’t just whistling past the graveyard when they say they can win with Drew Stanton, who’s now the No. 1 quarterback in Arizona with Carson Palmer lost for the season due to an ACL injury. They really believe it, and I think it’ll show starting with this unlikely glamor matchup of these rarely glamorous teams. Detroit’s stout defense will keep it close in the desert, but Arizona seems to find a new hero or two every week, and the Cardinals’ Super Bowl express will roll on to an eye-popping 9-1.
The Colts are playing really well, but the Patriots have been even better of late, and giving Bill Belichick two weeks to prepare for any team is patently unfair. Andrew Luck and Co. have already lost to Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger this season, and this week, another Super Bowl-winning quarterback will get the best of them. In fairness, the Colts and Luck have beaten the likes of Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and the Giants’ Eli Manning, so this is the rubber match on the Super Bowl quarterback front.
• Colts-Patriots matchup may come down to running backs, not quarterbacks
Monday, Nov. 17
Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt used to coach Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when he was Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher. And the way Whisenhunt’s luck with quarterbacks has gone in both Arizona (post Kurt Warner) and Tennessee, I’ll bet he wishes he still had Big Ben in the pocket. The Steelers can’t afford another letdown like the one they suffered against the Jets last week, so look for Roethlisberger to fill the Nashville sky with footballs.