Game of the Week
The story: The Ravens are struggling, and I'm not talking about just last weekend in Seattle. Look at the past month. They have one decent performance, and that was the defeat of archrival Pittsburgh. Other than that ... well, they stunk vs. Jacksonville, had to rally to catch Arizona and went to sleep in Seattle. So why shouldn't they be worried?
I'll tell you why. They're home.
The Ravens don't lose here. They have won their past six in Baltimore, and quarterback Joe Flacco is 23-5 with twice as many touchdowns (32) as interceptions (16). But Flacco is not the guy who wins this. Running back Ray Rice is. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron catches heat every time he forgets he has Rice in the lineup, and this is one of those times. His star running back had five carries last week and that's not how you win in Baltimore.
Neither, of course, is playing with a defense that allows Tarvaris Jackson and Marshawn Lynch to close out a game. If there was anything more disturbing than the loss last weekend, it was the failure of the Ravens' defense to get the ball back in the last six minutes. I mean, this isn't Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall we're talking about. These were the Seattle frickin' Seahawks, for crying out loud. Yet the Ravens couldn't make a stop, and keep that in mind as we head down the stretch.
Also keep in mind that linebacker Ray Lewis may not play this game. He has been sidelined this week with an injured toe and might not suit up -- which means Cedric Benson becomes more of a factor. The Bengals' running back has a history of success against Baltimore, averaging 92 yards rushing in his past four starts vs. the Ravens, and if Lynch can carve up the Ravens for 109 what happens if/when Lewis bows out?
I don't know, either, but I still like Baltimore's chances for a number of reasons. First of all, Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green is hurt and iffy for the contest. Second, the Bengals just lost star cornerback Leon Hall for the season. And third, it's Baltimore. Dating back to 2008, the Ravens have outscored opponents 726-372 at home, which means the learning curve is about to get steeper for rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.
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Good luck, Andy. You're going to need it.
Something to consider: Since 2002, opposing quarterbacks have an average passer rating of 62.9 at M&T Bank Stadium, the league's best defensive mark.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Falcons by 6½
The story: Atlanta's Mike Smith still stands by his decision to go for a first down in overtime vs. New Orleans, and good for him. He should. He made the call. Here's hoping he doesn't suffer a brain freeze here; the Falcons can't afford another loss.
That shouldn't happen, but then no loss should happen to these guys at home. Before this season they were near perfect at the Georgia Dome under Smith. Now they're 2-2, and that includes a come-from-behind defeat of Philadelphia where Michael Vick was hurt.
Basically, the Falcons aren't themselves, and it's time to figure out if they're playoff worthy.
This game should tell. Atlanta's Matt Ryan is making big plays, but he's making big mistakes, too -- already throwing more interceptions this season (10) than last (9). The addition of Julio Jones makes it tempting to air mail the ball, but Atlanta's identity is to set up the pass with the run, which means a lot of Michael Turner -- especially against the league's 22nd-ranked rush defense.
The Falcons are 23-1 when Turner carries 23 or more times, and draw your own conclusions.
Running the ball will be critical to both sides, with the Titans' Chris Johnson finally doing something last weekend for the first time in a long time. Johnson ran for a season-high 130 yards and maybe this is a wakeup call for Johnson and the Titans' offense. If so, it's the right time.
The Titans are only one loss behind Houston, so this is a huge game for both sides -- with the loser's playoff hopes moving to the critical list.
Something to consider: Under Smith, the Falcons are 15-3 following a loss and have won all three of their games this season after a defeat.
The line: Bears by 3½
The story: The Bears are hot. The Chargers are not. Yep, this one's as simple as that.
Once upon a time, I wondered what was wrong with San Diego. Then I spent a week out there and watched two games. Now I know: The club just doesn't have the players to go far. Its offensive line is crippled, its wide receivers can't separate, its running backs aren't terrific, its quarterback tries to make plays that aren't there and its defense desperately needs a playmaker that isn't there.
In short, it's an ordinary team playing ordinary football.
Yes, the Chargers are just a game out of first in the AFC West, but the Raiders just reminded us why San Diego is not their problem. They ran all over the Chargers without Darren McFadden. So imagine what happens when he returns. That should happen when the two meet in the season finale, and if I'm Oakland I'm confident.
In the meantime, there will be more losses -- and this looks like one. In a month, Chicago has gone from a struggling club to one that is a legitimate Super Bowl threat ... yes, I'm serious. I don't know who to credit -- coach Lovie Smith, offensive coordinator Mike Martz or offensive line coach Mike Tice -- but the Bears figured out how to protect Jay Cutler, Cutler figured out to play quarterback and the Bears figured out how to win consistently.
They have it all. They can throw. They can run. They play defense. And they have Devin Hester. Frankly, I'm surprised the line is so small here. I don't see how San Diego competes with these guys. The Chargers are 1-3 on the road, are trapped in a four-game slide and have so many injuries on the offensive line they wanted to audition Pete Prisco at left guard.
In short, they're in deep, deep kimchi.
Something to consider: The Bears' Matt Forte leads the NFL with 11 rushes of 20 or more yards and is second among running backs with five receptions of 20 or more yards.
The line: Giants by 4½
The story: Michael Vick almost certainly is out, so now what? Well, now it's next man up, and that man is backup Vince Young. The last time I saw him he was killing worms with horrific passes at training camp in August. A lot of time has passed since, and, for the Eagles' sake, I hope Young has, too.
Funny, I thought Philadelphia would be a perfect spot for him, and maybe it will be. So far, though, he hasn't done anything other than throw one pass that was intercepted and hand off. And that's not going to cut it here, people.
That's why Mike Kafka makes more sense to me, but people close to the club say Young took most of the snaps this week. I still want Kafka. At least you have a chance to throw the ball with him. With Young, it's Tim Tebow, Part II, except Tebow knows how to get to the finish line. The Eagles do not.
All I know is that Philadelphia absolutely, positively cannot afford to lose again. Few expect the upset here, but Andy Reid has been down this road before and won with backups. He did it with Koy Detmer. He did it with A.J. Feeley. He did it with Jeff Garcia. And he did it with Vick. This might be the greatest challenge of all, especially with the club in such a funk and teetering on the brink of collapse.
That doesn't mean the Giants don't have problems, too. They're without linebacker Michael Boley and running back Ahmad Bradshaw. But they still have Eli Manning, and he always seems to dial up his A game for Philadelphia. In fact, in his past two starts vs. the Eagles, he has thrown four touchdown passes and achieved passer ratings of 100 or better and produced a season-best 145.7 rating against them earlier this year.
The Eagles are three games back in the NFC East. Another loss all but eliminates them from the playoff picture. Color them desperate.
Something to consider: In the Eagles' nine playoff seasons under Reid they were 87-7 when leading after three quarters. This year they're 3-5. But don't be so quick to finger defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. The club has three fourth-quarter touchdowns this season, averaging just three points in that period.
Monday night lights
|Tom Brady faces Kansas City for the first time since Week 1 of 2008, when his season ended in the first quarter. (Getty Images)|
The story: Jets coach Rex Ryan all but conceded the AFC East (again) to New England, and here's why: The schedule works in its favor. There's not one opponent with a winning record left on the Patriots' schedule until Buffalo on Jan. 1 ... and that game's in Foxborough.
Included in that group are Indianapolis, Washington and Miami, three of the worst teams in the league. With a combined record of 5-23, they give New England and its fans every reason to believe that maybe this is the season they return to the Super Bowl.
But you're not going to find out with opponents like Kansas City, especially with Tyler Palko quarterbacking the Chiefs. The Patriots still have the worst pass defense out there, and while the numbers will improve against backups like Palko, Curtis Painter, Matt Moore and Tim Tebow, the problem remains the same: Namely, they don't have the players on the back end to defend big-time quarterbacks.
That's not the issue here. In fact, there are no issues here. This is simply an early tuneup for January, with the Patriots in no danger of an upset. Tom Brady last week demonstrated why he's one of the game's best quarterbacks ever, delivering when he absolutely, positively had to. Brady doesn't have a lot of support, but he has more than enough to coast here.
And Kansas City? The trouble just started for Todd Haley. The poor guy gets poked by injuries, then the schedule and tell me he's not in trouble. There's New England this week, Pittsburgh next, then Chicago and Green Bay -- and all with Tyler Palko calling signals. Anyone find a win in there? Neither can I.
Something to consider: The Patriots have won nine of their past 10 on Monday night.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Jags by 1½
The story: I wish the NFL would devise a mercy rule and apply it here: First one to 10 wins. Then again, that may make for a long afternoon. The Jags can't pass, the Browns can't run and neither can score. The Browns are 29th in points. The Jaguars are 31st. Together, they have six victories and 246 points -- or 74 fewer than Green Bay.
Cleveland's best weapon is kicker Phil Dawson, but even he couldn't overcome the bad karma of the Browns last week when they botched a slam-dunk field goal. The Browns go another week without Peyton Hillis, and let's just call this one like it is: A distraction that never, ever should've happened. A year ago, he carried the club; now he can't get on the field.
Which is how I would describe the Jacksonville offense. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert looks like a rookie feeling his way through the dark, ranked 33rd among passers with a completion percentage under 50. That's not easy to do in a passer-friendly league, and it's why Jacksonville should ride Maurice Jones-Drew, not Gabbert, here. Another reason is this: The Browns have the league's No. 1-ranked pass defense; they're 30th against the run. What part of this is hard to understand?
If there's something positive here it's this: The game will be close. If you like defense, come to Cleveland. Next to the Michael Stanley Band and Sokolowski's, this is the best game in town.
Something to consider: Dawson is an NFL-best 6 for 6 on field-goal attempts from 50 yards and beyond.
Upset of the week
Cleveland over Jacksonville | Week 11 Expert Picks
The story: OK, this isn't much of an upset, but I'm not about to take a flier on Washington over Dallas or the Vikings over Oakland. I just don't trust the quarterbacks in either of those games.
That's not to say I have a lot of faith in Colt McCoy, but I'll take him over a struggling Blaine Gabbert. That's a long way of saying I'm taking the easy way out and not only choosing Cleveland to break a three-game skid, but to score a touchdown.
Big deal, you say. Well, yes, as a matter of fact, it is. Because the Browns haven't scored a touchdown at home in a month-and-a-half, last finding the end zone Oct. 2 vs. Tennessee.
That's an issue because when Cleveland made a coaching change this year it hired a former offensive coordinator to replace Eric Mangini, with the idea that he would rejuvenate the Browns. At least that was the intention. The reality is that through nine games the Browns have 41 fewer points (131 points) than they did at this time last year.
"What's important," said coach Pat Shurmur, "is that we don't lose our focus. We believe in what we're doing."
Good. They should. So focus on the end zone, and beating Jacksonville. I think they will, if for no other reason than the time and opponent are right.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton: He's 4-1 on the road, with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.
2. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford: Three times in his past eight home games he has thrown for four or more touchdowns.
3. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo: He has won four of his past five vs. Washington and is 17-2 in November.
4. San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith: He has three straight wins over Arizona, has won nine of his past 10 starts and has 14 touchdowns and two interceptions in his past eight home games.
5. Atlanta running back Michael Turner: He has 10 rushing touchdowns in his past 10 games at the Georgia Dome.
Five best faceoffs
1. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers vs. Chicago's Jay Cutler: These two battled for three years when Cutler was in Denver, with Cutler saying some not-so-nice things about Rivers after one game. Both downplayed the incident this week, with Rivers calling it "one little incident that got blown into a big deal." We'll see.
2. Philadelphia wide receiver Steve Smith vs. angry Giants fans: Smith was one of the Giants' top receivers. Then he defected to the other side. He doesn't expect Giants fans will be compassionate when he returns for the first time since joining Philadelphia. "The reception might not be that good," he said. "New York fans are pretty brutal." So that would make Philadelphia fans ... what?
3. Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson vs. coach Andy Reid: This has the potential to fragment this team, just as the Terrell Owens Challenge took down Philadelphia in 2005. Reid sat Jackson last weekend after he missed a meeting, but Jackson told NFL Network he believes he was treated differently than others who missed meetings. Uh-oh. What we have here is failure to communicate. Jackson is a terrific player, but he doesn't run this team; Andy Reid does. Reid gets paid to make decisions like this; Jackson gets paid to perform ... and show up for work on time.
4. Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers vs. San Diego left tackle Brandyn Dombrowski: Dombrowksi is in line to start over the injured Marcus McNeill, and that could be a problem. It's not just that Peppers has four sacks in his past three games vs. AFC opponents; it's that Dombrowski allowed four sacks last week to Oakland's Kamerion Wimbley in a game where Rivers was sacked six times and hit another six.
5. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman vs. a sprained right thumb: There must be a reason the Bucs are floundering, and maybe it's that thumb injury on Freeman's throwing hand. He hurt it in the club's Oct. 23 loss to Chicago, a game where Freeman threw four interceptions, and he reinjured against New Orleans. Freeman admits it has affected him "maybe a little bit," and you can only hope. Something has to explain the bad football we're seeing from the Bucs.
Five things that may interest only me
1. Don't panic yet, Eagles fans. Since 2000 there have been 15 teams with records below .500 through nine games that made the playoffs.
2. Since 1970 the most touchdowns by a rookie quarterback-receiver combination is nine. It was the Patriots' Jim Plunkett and Randy Vataha. Any idea who checks in at second with eight? Try Tim Couch and Kevin Johnson of the Browns. Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have five.
3. Through the first 10 weeks there have been 13 punt returns for touchdowns, including seven of 80 or more yards. The seven are the most through 10 weeks since the 1970 merger.
4. The AFC North has three of the league's five top defenses -- Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati -- both in yards and points allowed. Baltimore is third in points allowed, with Pittsburgh fourth and Cincinnati fifth. The Steelers are second in overall defense, with the Ravens third and Bengals fifth.
5. Cleveland rookie Phil Taylor leads all rookie defensive linemen with four sacks.
Numbers on the wall
3: Consecutive games where Aaron Rodgers has a passer rating of 140 or better
11-5: Miami in November under Tony Sparano
13.3: Average number of points per game Baltimore has allowed at home since 2008, best in the NFL
19: Return TDs for Chicago's Devin Hester
28-1: Atlanta's record since 2008 when it leads after three quarters
31: Consecutive games without opponents scoring a rushing touchdown on San Francisco
• Atlanta: Dome
• Baltimore: Mostly cloudy, high of 66
• Cleveland: Showers, high of 56
• Detroit: Dome
• Green Bay, Wis.: Partly cloudy, high of 37
• Miami: Scattered showers, high of 80
• Minneapolis: Dome
• Landover, Md.: Mostly cloudy, high of 64
• St. Louis: Dome
• San Francisco: Rain, high of 56
• Chicago: Mostly cloudy, high of 44
• East Rutherford, N.J.: Mostly cloudy, high of 62
Where we will be
• I'll be at Met Life Stadium to see if Eli's coming or going.
• Pete Prisco will be in Baltimore to reunite Ray Rice and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.