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Peek at the Week: Smith out, Cutler back -- what's next for Niners, Bears?

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Game of the week

San Francisco at New Orleans, 4:25 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: 49ers by 1½

The story: The 49ers are on top of their division, one of the best teams in the NFC ... heck, one of the best teams anywhere ... and they're doing what? Yep, they're this close to starting Colin Kaepernick at quarterback again, and maybe that makes sense based on what he did to Chicago last week. But, as Kaepernick so accurately pointed out afterward, "I don't think one game can be called a hot hand."

In fact, according to reports, he's expected to start, and it's against a New Orleans team that Alex Smith ... repeat, Alex Smith ... knocked off in last year's playoffs. I know, Smith is recovering from a concussion and not playing him is playing it safe. But coach Jim Harbaugh is responsible for igniting a quarterback controversy because he hasn't committed to a QB who leads the league in completion percentage and ranks third in passer rating ... and I'm talking about Smith.

Nevertheless, Harbaugh drafted Kaepernick to be the starter, and start he might ... against the league's 32nd-ranked defense. It's an enormous challenge, and my question is: What happens if he stinks? What happens if he loses? If the locker room is so energized by Kaepernick, as we've been told, what happens if the 49ers have to rally behind Smith again? I don't know, this just seems like a potential problem the team ... er, Harbaugh ... is creating.

Still, Harbaugh gets the benefit of the doubt. First of all, look at what he has done for the franchise. The 49ers are 21-6-1 since he took over and went to the NFC Championship Game in his first season. Second, look at his record with quarterbacks. They succeed wherever he goes. Third, it may make no difference who starts for these guys. Maybe Harbaugh's point is that he can win with either, and he's going to prove it.

Maybe. But it will be a challenge.

New Orleans isn't just hot, winning five of its past six; the Saints believe they're on track for the playoffs. Well, this is where they find out. Drew Brees is on a tear and hasn't lost to the 49ers during the regular season. Plus, a defense that had more holes than Bourbon Street is, if nothing else, improved since the return of linebacker Jonathan Vilma, not allowing more than 17 points in two of the past three wins.

Maybe it's a defense that Kaepernick can dissect. I mean, he shredded Chicago. But this game won't be nearly as easy to win.

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The back story: The 49ers have allowed opponents to score on just 24.1 percent of their possessions, the best of any NFL defense.

Three games I'd like to see

Minnesota at Chicago, 1 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Bears by ½

The story: The Vikings are only a game out of first place in the NFC North, yet we don't take them seriously as a contender. Why? Answer: The schedule. It's a killer. They have Chicago twice, Green Bay twice, Houston and St. Louis. The way I see it, they'll be fortunate to win two of those.

Of course, this could be one -- depending on what happens with Chicago's quarterbacks.

Jay Cutler is expected to return from a concussion that kept him out of last Monday's beatdown in San Francisco, and lucky for him. He missed getting clobbered by Aldon Smith. But tell me Jared Allen won't do the same thing to J'Marcus Webb that Smith did. Allen is a premier pass rusher and has 13 sacks in his past eight games vs. Chicago, including 3½ in his last start in Chicago, so it's possible.

That's why Chicago wisely decided to shake things up this week by shuffling its offensive line.

But it's not Cutler or Jason Campbell who concerns me as much as it is the Chicago defense. It stunk Monday, and maybe that was Colin Kaepernick, or maybe it was just a club that wasn't ready to play. I don't know. What I do know is that if the Bears tackle Adrian Peterson as they did San Francisco's cadre of backs, they're in trouble. Peterson will make it five straight 100-yard games, and Minnesota might have a chance for an upset.

Do I think that happens? No. Minnesota's Percy Harvin is iffy again and may not play, which is another issue. But all bets are off now that the Bears are sliding. The past two weeks they have a grand total of one touchdown and two field goals, and Peterson could eclipse that by himself.

The back story: Cutler is 5-1 vs. Minnesota, with a 100.8 passer rating. When Cutler has a passer rating of 100 or more, his teams are 26-0.

Atlanta at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Falcons by 1½

The story: Atlanta will win the NFC South. The question is: Who finishes second? For the moment, it's Tampa Bay at the Avis counter, but New Orleans is closing fast on the outside. And I don't know many people out there who believe the Saints get in line behind Tampa Bay in January.

Nevertheless, there's a reason to respect these Bucs, and it's called offense. You heard me. Offense. Over the past six weeks, the Bucs have 205 points, and nobody in the NFC has more.

They beat you with Josh Freeman. They beat you with Doug Martin. They beat you with timely defense. OK, so their pass defense stinks. They had enough to overcome Carolina last weekend and to hold off San Diego the week before, with an interception return for a touchdown as the decisive play.

A fluke? Nope. Tampa Bay this season has 83 points off of turnovers, third only to the Giants (96) and Bears (88).

"They do a really good job when they take the ball away," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said.

But the Bucs will be challenged here because Atlanta doesn't make mistakes. I know, Matt Ryan made plenty of them last week. He threw five interceptions -- or nearly as many as he had the first nine games (7). But the Falcons are a disciplined team that Ryan is driving to an early division title, and while they win ugly (see Carolina, Oakland, Arizona), they win -- the sure sign of a Super Bowl candidate.

The back story: Freeman has won five of his past six, with 16 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 106.1 passer rating.

Green Bay at New York Giants, 8:20 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Giants by 3½

The story: We know Green Bay is a Super Bowl candidate, and we think the defending champion Giants are, too. But Big Blue is on a two-game skid, and what was once a 6-2 club standing tall is now a 6-4 division leader bogged down by all sorts of questions.

One, of course, is: Can they repeat as division champions? The answer is yes, but not if they don't snap out of their funk. That leads us to Eli Manning, with the question: What's wrong with this guy? Over his past four games he has one touchdown pass and six interceptions, prompting Phil Simms to question his credentials as an elite quarterback.

I think Manning has answered that, but what we don't know is how he could go three starts without throwing a touchdown pass. One guy I consulted told me he thinks Manning's arm is "dead." All I know is that Manning this week acknowledged the arm felt more "lively," and that's what happens when you have a week off.

But there's more happening with Manning, and let the record show that since 2008, he's 4-0 in games immediately following byes, completing 68.1 percent of his passes, averaging 322 yards per game and throwing 10 touchdown passes, with one interception.

The Giants are going to need Manning at his best to keep up with Green Bay and red-hot Aaron Rodgers. Though the Packers have lost several of their key playmakers, including wide receiver Greg Jennings and linebacker Clay Matthews, they keep pushing forward, winning five of six and catching Chicago for first place in the NFC North.

Not having Matthews is nothing new. He missed the last weekend's game vs. Detroit, and Green Bay won. But not having him here kills the sidebar. Remember, it was Matthews who earlier this year said the Giants didn't beat Green Bay in last year's playoffs, saying the Packers beat themselves.

Yeah, sure.

Jennings' absence is nothing new, either. The guy has missed all but three games, yet Green Bay keeps beating up opponents with Randall Cobb. Cobb has seven touchdowns in the past six games, and expect more from him. You might even expect one or two from Jennings, too. He returned to practice this week and could play.

"I don't feel I'm a long shot," said Jennings, who has missed seven of the past nine games.

The Giants will be if Manning doesn't come around. But remember his record in games immediately following byes: The guy hasn't lost since 2007.

The back story: In his past seven starts, Rodgers is 6-1 with 24 touchdowns and four interceptions. He's 2-0 vs. the Giants, with eight TDs, one interception and a passer rating of 121.2, and aims for his third straight regular-season game against them with at least four TD passes.

Monday night lights

Carolina at Philadelphia, 8:30 p.m. ET | Preview

The line: Panthers by 2½

DeAngelo Williams carries a strong history vs. the Eagles into Monday. (Getty Images)  
DeAngelo Williams carries a strong history vs. the Eagles into Monday. (Getty Images)  
The story: There aren't many teams worse than Philadelphia. Carolina might be one of them. The Panthers keep blowing games they could win, with last weekend's overtime loss to Tampa Bay the latest example, and now they're beginning to suffer the consequences ... like Charles Johnson's criticism of teammates.

Of course, that's nothing compared to the heat the Eagles are feeling. Coach Andy Reid and quarterback Michael Vick have been skewered most of the season, with Vick bashers backing off when he was sidelined by a concussion. Nick Foles will start again, and expect LeSean McCoy to sit down. McCoy suffered a concussion last week and has not practiced this week. Backup Bryce Brown is expected to take his place.

Normally, I would say that cramps the Philadelphia offense, but everything these days cramps Philadelphia's offense. It can't pass protect. It commits too many turnovers. It commits too many penalties. It has trouble running. It has trouble scoring. It has trouble doing much of anything, period, which is why it's only a 2½-point favorite over a team that has only two wins.

The Eagles are in disarray, and Carolina isn't far behind. Both coaches not only are on the firing line; both are expected to have new addresses at this time next year. Once upon a time this looked like a promising meeting of playoff hopefuls; now it may serve as a job interview for ESPN's Jon Gruden.

The back story: DeAngelo Williams aims for his third straight game vs. Philadelphia with a touchdown. In his last start at Philadelphia, Williams had seven catches for 101 yards and a score.

Crummy game of the week

Denver at Kansas City, 1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Preview

The line: Broncos by 10½

The story: Denver is hot. Kansas City is not. Denver is on a five-game winning streak. Kansas City has lost seven in a row. Denver is one of the best teams in the league. Kansas City may be the worst. Denver has Peyton Manning. Kansas City has Brady Quinn. Denver has a Coach of the Year candidate. Kansas City has a coach waiting to be fired.

I think you get the idea. This has landslide written all over it.

There is nothing about Kansas City I like here, beginning with Quinn. The guy is a career backup who didn't make it in Cleveland or Denver because he's not accurate. So he's suddenly going to turn into Drew Brees here? Nope. The Chiefs have a better shot with Matt Cassel, and that's not much of one. They have no shot here.

The back story: Denver's Eric Decker has eight touchdowns in his past seven games.

Upset of the week

San Diego over Baltimore, 4:05 p.m. ET (CBS) | Preview

The line: Ravens by 1½

The story: Is Baltimore the better team? Absolutely. Are the Chargers stuck in a rut? Yep. Are they going down the chute? That's a big 10-4. So why do I like them here? Easy. They're catching Baltimore at just the right time, between dates with Pittsburgh. Plus, they're catching them after a cross-country road trip.

I remember the last time Baltimore had to go to San Diego. It was last year, and the Ravens got torched. Not only were the Ravens the better team in 2011; they came within a Lee Evans catch of reaching the Super Bowl. They had the better defense. They had the better offense. Yet they got smoked.

Granted, San Diego is in freefall. Philip Rivers is getting clobbered behind a makeshift line that may include Mike Harris and Rex Hadnot on the left side this weekend, and the results speak for themselves: Rivers has an NFL-high 43 turnovers since the beginning of last year and is 21-22 over his past 43 starts, including the playoffs. But the Chargers are desperate, and desperate teams at home are dangerous teams. San Diego has beaten these guys before; it can beat them again.

The back story: Baltimore's Torrey Smith had a touchdown catch the last time these two played. When he scores Baltimore is 9-1.

Five guys I'd like to be

1. Pittsburgh WR Mike Wallace: He has averaged 21.6 yards per catch vs. Cleveland.

2. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan: He has wins in six of his past seven starts vs. Tampa Bay, and in his past five division starts he has 13 touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 107.6

3. St. Louis RB Steven Jackson: He was limited in practice Thursday, but he is expected to play. And if ... no, when ... he does he'll aim for his third straight 100-yard game vs. Arizona. He has 232 yards and two touchdowns in the past two against the Cards.

4. Giants WR Hakeem Nicks: In his past three starts vs. Green Bay, including the playoffs, he has 18 catches for 346 yards and five TDs.

5. New Orleans QB Drew Brees: He's 5-0 vs. San Francisco in the regular season, with 12 TDs and two interceptions and a passer rating of 107.2.

Five best matchups

1. Carson Palmer vs. his past: Palmer was the first-round draft pick who took Cincinnati to the playoffs twice. Then he was the disgruntled veteran who demanded to be traded or else. So the Bengals accommodated him, and now he returns ... to a hostile audience, I would imagine. Palmer was 27-22 with the Bengals, and he returns on a three-game roll of 300-yard starts. That's the good news. The bad is that he has to throw early and often with a team that has been outscored 135-69 the last three, all of them losses.

Fan Poll

What is Week 12's best game?

49ers at Saints
36%
Vikings at Bears
9%
Falcons at Buccaneers
10%
Packers at Giants
46%

Total Votes: 19,037

2. San Diego LB Jarret Johnson vs. his former team: That would be the Ravens, Johnson's employer for nine seasons. Johnson left after last season to sign a free-agent deal with San Diego, and now he faces his ex-teammates for the first time. It will be an emotional reunion for Johnson, who played in a team-record 129 straight games for Baltimore, but, hey, it happens. "I'm definitely going to give him a hug," said former roommate Terrell Suggs. "It's definitely going to be a little emotional."

3. Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck vs. illegal hits: Luck has taken shots from six defenders who were fined for illegal blows, and interim coach Bruce Arians isn't surprised. He said he routinely sends in videos of questionable hits on Luck -- including a helmet-to-helmet shot from New England's Kyle Arrington last weekend. "That one wasn't even flagged," Arians said.

4. The Saints' offensive line vs. San Francisco's Aldon Smith: Smith has a league-leading 15 sacks, including 5½ last Monday, and he may go up against a line in repair. Tackle Bryce Harris last week had to replace the injured Zach Strief (groin), and if Strief can't make it Sunday (he was limited in this week's practices), look for Harris to dial 911.

5. Cincinnati's Hue Jackson vs. his former team: The Raiders were 8-8 last year in Jackson's first season as head coach. Then they fired him. So he winds up in Cincinnati as a Bengals assistant, working with a secondary trying to stop the quarterback (Palmer) he acquired to push the Raiders over the top. Of course, that didn't happen, and it cost Jackson his job. Now he faces Palmer in what he describes as just "another football game." Yeah, sure, and Tom Brady is just another quarterback. "You can't get caught up in the emotional part of it," said Jackson, "because that's not what this is all about. This is about winning and losing." No argument there.

Five things that may interest only me

1. With a touchdown vs. San Francisco, Drew Brees becomes the third quarterback in league history (Brett Favre and Peyton Manning are the others) to throw for 30 or more touchdowns in five seasons.

2. With a touchdown catch Sunday, Cincinnati's A.J. Green extends his scoring streak to 10 straight games -- fourth longest in league history, tying Carl Pickens and Randy Moss. Jerry Rice has the longest streak with 13 straight games with a touchdown reception.

3. Tampa Bay's Doug Martin leads the league with 1,319 yards from scrimmage. If he finishes as the NFL leader, he would join Marcus Allen and Eric Dickerson as the only rookies since 1970 to lead the league in scrimmage yards.

4. San Francisco's Aldon Smith has 29 sacks in 26 career games. With one vs. New Orleans he reaches 30 career sacks faster than anyone who began his career since 1982, when sacks became an official statistic. Reggie White currently owns the record, gaining his 30th sack in his 28th start.

5. Baltimore is tied with Denver for the most pass completions of 25 or more yards. Each has 27.

Numbers to remember

0: Red-zone TDs allowed by Baltimore the past three weeks
3-1: Joe Vitt's record as Saints interim head coach
5-1: Miami at home vs. Seattle
11: Consecutive games with at least half a sack by Jared Allen
13: Points off New England turnovers, lowest in NFL
13-3: Green Bay's record in its past 16 road games, including the playoffs
19: Teams that have rallied from deficits of 11 points or more to win
38-10: Atlanta's record when it scores first
43: Philadelphia points on its first possession of the second half, most in the NFL

Sunday's weather

 Chicago: Partly cloudy, high of 45
 Cincinnati: Partly cloudy, high of 47
 Cleveland: Snow flurries, high of 37
 Indianapolis: Partly cloudy, high of 46 (retractable roof)
 Jacksonville, Fla.: Sunny, high of 65
 Kansas City, Mo.: Sunny, high of 56
 Miami: Sunny, high of 74
 Tampa, Fla.: Sunny, high of 69
 San Diego: Sunny, high of 68
 Glendale, Ariz.: Sunny, high of 82 (retractable roof)
 New Orleans: Dome
 East Rutherford, N.J.: Sunny, high of 43

Where we will be

 I'll be at MetLife Stadium to ask Phil Simms if you can really spell elite without Eli.

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