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Week 11 Game Rankings: Two prime matchups altered by QB backups

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Brian Urlacher and the Bears visit the San Francisco 49ers in a key NFC battle. (US Presswire)  
Brian Urlacher and the Bears visit the San Francisco 49ers in a key NFC battle. (US Presswire)  


For most of this season, there has been little quarterback intrigue. Very few injuries at that most critical position, thankfully, and those who were hurt, like Kevin Kolb, already had a former starter just getting healthy again, in John Skelton (ditto for the Jake Locker/Matt Hasselbeck situation).

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So movement at the position has been at a minimum. Guys who had shown good promise, like Josh Johnson, got nary a workout opportunity. We haven't had a legit quarterback controversy to speak of outside of the Michael Vick watch in Philadelphia (and that was a stretch given Andy Reid's conviction in sticking with the veteran).

Some quacks might try to turn the Tim Tebow/Mark Sanchez situation into a controversy but it hardly qualifies when Tebow can't even get a snap in garbage time.

But suddenly last Sunday all of that changed. Vick was concussed, then Alex Smith and Jay Cutler. And by Monday, with Ben Roethlisberger racing from the stadium to the hospital for an MRI, we were in quarterback conundrum central. So this week, there is renewed uncertainty and intrigue now as we examine some of the marquee games for Week 11.

The Ravens and Steelers renew the game's best rivalry Sunday night with Roethlisberger sitting and Byron Leftwich starting. Monday night, for the Bears-49ers game, we are more likely to see Jason Campbell vs. Colin Kaepernick than we are to see Cutler vs. Smith. And the Eagles play yet another must-win, dire-straits game, this time against the Redskins, and with rookie Nick Foles making his first NFL start.

Yet another reason why you just never know in this league. It's also the final bye week, and while the schedule is short on games featuring two playoff-caliber teams, the playoff picture still stands to come into better clarity.

  
 

Baltimore Ravens  at  Pittsburgh Steelers

Baltimore at Pittsburgh
Sunday, Nov. 18, 8:20 p.m. ET (NBC)

Why to watch: Why wouldn't you watch? These games are always epics, generally coming down to the final play. They are among the heaviest-hitting games played each season, there is a real dislike between the teams -- though plenty of grudging respect. Even without Big Ben in the past, with Charlie Batch or Dennis Dixon starting, the Steelers have still given the Ravens a game. The stakes are higher here, as they meet for the first time with the AFC North on the line and both teams dealing with key injuries. Baltimore swept the series last year, is riding a winning streak within the division and has won four of the past six after struggling to get over the Steelers curse for the early part of Joe Flacco's career.

What to watch for: Will the Ravens finally find a consistent offense on the road that comes close to what they accomplish at home? And do they go up-tempo, no huddle, with Steelers safeties Troy Polomalu out and Ryan Clark likely out and top corner Ike Taylor a little dinged up? ... The Steelers finally have an abundance of rushing options and their ground game is peaking, while the Ravens can't stop the run. So with Byron Leftwich under center, expect a more conservative approach from coordinator Todd Haley. ... Figure the Ravens try to get TE Dennis Pita going early. ... The Ravens dressed Haloti Ngata last week but never used him for a snap; he is very beat up but will try to bring it for this one. Expect the Steelers to try to get him running side to side. ... Terrell Suggs has yet to take off since his return from an Achilles injury, but does have 13½ career sacks against the Steelers. ... Anquan Boldin has averaged nearly 100 yards per game against the Steelers. ... The Steelers will spend a lot of time on special-teams prep with Jacoby Jones on a tear this season (Jones has struggled with fumbles in big spots in the past, however).

Indianapolis Colts  at  New England Patriots

Indianapolis at New England
Sunday, Nov. 18, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: Tom Brady against the upstart rookie Andrew Luck, a kid who seems born to join the Manning/Brady stratosphere one day. This is a chance for Luck to get a true signature win on the road, against a brutal defense, in what looks like a wild, offensive game. Can you imagine the Colts at 7-3? They continue to fight for coach Chuck Pagano, battling cancer, and New England is lucky to have held off the Bills last week and the Jets a few weeks before that. This is no gimme, and could be the game of the week. This might as well be a divisional game by now; they are meeting for the 10th straight year, and though many of the names have changed it's usually worth tuning in.

What to watch for: The Colts' pass rush is finally getting healthy and the Patriots could be without Logan Mankins. ... I would have to think Reggie Wayne gets doubled with great regularity here by New England's brutal defensive backs. ... Luck's getting better throwing on the run and from awkward positions each week, and you can see his confidence growing. ... This smells like another game with versatile back Danny Woodhead in a hero role for the Pats. ... Wes Welker has been a little quieter the past few weeks, but I expect Brady works the slot pretty heavily in this contest. ... Jerry Hughes is actually starting to show up for the Colts on the pass rush, and Robert Mathis has six sacks in five games. ... Look out for Donnie Avery running free out of the slot against this porous defense.

Chicago Bears  at  San Francisco 49ers

Chicago at San Francisco
Monday, Nov. 19, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Why to watch: These are two teams with designs on the NFC's top seed, both with wounded quarterbacks in what could be one of the true defensive gems of the season. San Francisco has slipped some lately, and needs to attack a middling offensive line. The Bears just keep creating turnovers and pressuring teams into mistakes, and no defense has been more exciting to watch this season. It could be a tiebreaker for first overall, although both of these teams have also displayed enough vulnerability to keep teams like Green Bay and Seattle believing they could catch either one in their respective divisions as well.

What to watch for: If Kaepernick, a superior athlete, can get it done against a defense like this, does it open the door to more playing time even when Smith returns? Watch how much more vibrant and dynamic he looks back there. ... Can Kaepernick, again, if he plays, awaken TE Vernon Davis? His heft in this offense has been waning. ... Can Jason Campbell quickly get in sync with Brandon Marshall the way Cutler had been? ... 49ers WR Michael Crabtree has four TDs in five career Monday night games. ... Randy Moss has been better as the season goes on, and he has 86 career receptions against the Bears, his most against any opponent. ... The Bears screened the 49ers to death last time they met, with RB Matt Forte catching eight balls for 120 yards.

  
 

San Diego Chargers  at  Denver Broncos

San Diego at Denver
Sunday, Nov. 18, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: Who will forget the first time they met a few weeks back, with San Diego blowing a 24-0 lead and the calls for Chargers coach Norv Turner's head afterward? Well, it has pretty much been downhill since while the Broncos are poised to run away with the AFC West and contend for the top seed with a very favorable schedule. This is it for the Chargers. Philip Rivers will be under just as much scrutiny as Turner, with his penchant for back-breaking interceptions still very real. It's also the last meaningful AFC West game played this season, particularly if Denver wins it. It would render the rest of the divisional schedule essentially obsolete.

What to watch for: The Chargers are still seeking answers at left tackle with Jared Gaither always injured and Von Miller will exploit that (with or without Elvis Dumervil, who is battling injury). That matchup will be telling. ... Champ Bailey is pretty good at baiting Rivers. ... See if the Chargers' receivers are waiting on the ball to get to them -- it has been a telltale sign with Rivers this season. ... Wanna bet Trindon Holliday keeps two hands on the ball every time he takes a return chance for the Broncos? ... Might be able to count the number of times a Manning pass hits the ground. In four home games he has 1,226 passing yards with 10 TDs vs. zero INTs and a 115.3 passer rating. ... Chargers back Ryan Mathews has gone over 100 yards three times in his four career games against the Broncos. ... Pretty good chance Demaryius Thomas comes out of this game over 1,000 receiving yards for the season.

Green Bay Packers  at  Detroit Lions

Green Bay at Detroit
Sunday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why to watch: One of the few divisional games featuring two legit teams. Green Bay, off a bye, faces a Lions team reeling and desperate after getting swept by Minnesota. Detroit tends to manifest a lot of quarterback pressure against the Packers, and Green Bay's offensive line is in tatters right now. Detroit's physical run approach with Mikel LeShoure could give the Packers some problems as well, and this shapes up to be an NFC North brawl with so much at stake, and the Bears looking vulnerable atop the division.

What to watch for: Did the bye do enough to get guys like Clay Matthews and Jordy Nelson and Charles Woodson and Greg Jennings and the rest of Green Bay's injured stars back, and if so, how close are they to being themselves? ... Calvin Johnson will get force-fed the ball, but will another 200-yard game be enough if this becomes a total shootout? ... The Lions aren't the same team without safety Louis Delmas, and if he can't go here Aaron Rodgers will pick apart matchups back there. ... If the Lions can keep it close they tend to have a flair for the dramatic in the fourth quarter.

New York Jets  at  St. Louis Rams

N.Y. Jets at St. Louis
Sunday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: Oh the drama! Maybe after this debacle, Jets players will rip the water boy, or a beer vender! Because for as little as Tim Tebow plays, it's patently ridiculous that anyone would be commenting on his play one way or the other. What a beautiful disaster this team is, and against a very active defensive front they could be in for another beating here. Maybe they won't let someone get on the team plane afterward? Maybe someone will take a shot at third quarterback Greg McElroy, off the record? Looks like, if nothing else, the final days of the Tony Sparano offense.

What to watch for: The post-game press conferences, silly! What could top that? ... The Rams are finally healthy and gave the 49ers all they could handle a week ago. I suspect they come out strong here and watch how much energy they show in the first quarter ... Can Kahlil Bell jumpstart New York's run game? ... Any chance Tebow seems more time, finally, in a mop up role, or does the coaching staff hunker down even more against this notion in the wake of the rip-job this week? ... take a drink every time you see a recent Jets draft pick blow a tackle, get undressed by a pass rusher, get beat in coverage or look generally overwhelmed. Only take a bite of any available food when one such player actually makes a positive play. See how long it takes before you are either drunk and/or starving.

  
 

Miami Dolphins  at  Buffalo Bills

Miami at Buffalo
Thursday, Nov. 15, 8:20 p.m. ET (NFL Network)

Why to watch: Will either of these teams show signs of life after crushing defeats last week that likely derailed their playoff hopes? Can Ryan Tannehill shake off his worst rookie outing in a good six weeks and get back to mistake-limiting play? And will the Dolphins open the offense some given the Bills' ability to score points? C.J. Spiller is crazy exciting to watch, and with Fred Jackson out with a concussion, there is no excuse not to feature Spiller here. Reggie Bush should be fired up running the ball for the Dolphins after being benched following a fumble last week.

What to watch for: The Bills can run the hell out of the ball, and watching Chris Johnson go off on the Dolphins defense a week ago should mean plenty of ball control. ... Watching Ryan Fitzpatrick's game-ending pick in the end zone should also reaffirm to Chan Gailey that he might not want to chuck the ball all over the place. ... Limited preparation in a very short week for Tannehill could be a problem for the novice. Are there communication issues with receivers? ... Keep track of how many times you see Mario Williams flash or make a play. Can you count them on one hand?

Cincinnati Bengals  at  Kansas City Chiefs

Cincinnati at Kansas City
Sunday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: The Bengals have a chance to get to .500 and make a push for a playoff spot after falling into a rough patch. Andy Dalton to A.J. Green is heating up again and everybody shines against the Chiefs these days. It might prove tough for the Chiefs' revolving quarterback door, due to injury, to withstand a powerful Bengals front, and if you aren't familiar with Geno Atkins' work, this would be a great time to get to know one of the game's dominant interior defenders.

What to watch for: At this point nothing would surprise me in Kansas City -- fan walkouts, players getting cut for fumbling. Pretty soon Arrowhead might join Miami as a place where you can have no trouble catching entire rows of empty seats when the cameras pan out. Expect enthusiastic chants taking aim at ownership, management and the coaching staff. It may prove more compelling than the action at times. ... The Chiefs are firmly in the hunt for the first overall pick, but the problem for them is it might be in a year when no QB warrants that selection (oh, if Andrew Luck had just been a year later).

Philadelphia Eagles  at  Washington Redskins

Philadelphia at Washington
Sunday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why to watch: The Nick Foles Appreciation Society finally gets its wish. The kid is starting, Vick is concussed. Though the Eagles' season is effectively over, the drama lives on. We're likely in the waning days of Reid's long regime and the sparring with the fans and the media will probably go on to the bitter end. It's doubtful Foles will hold on to this job for any length of time, but if he holds up as well as he did when rushed into relief against Dallas on Sunday, it bodes well for him. The Eagles seemed to pass protect better with him back there for whatever reason, and can that continue here? Also, we get a refreshed Robert Griffin III coming off the late bye, so that alone is worth keeping an eye on.

What to watch for: The Redskins' pass rush is pretty limp, and Ryan Kerrigan doesn't seem like the same player without Brian Orakpo on the opposite side. ... Hotheads DeSean Jackson and DeAngelo Hall stand a pretty good chance of mixing it up at some point. ... Can Santana Moss keep his nose for the end zone coming back from a concussion? ... Will the Wide 9 put the Eagles' edge defenders in better position to handle Griffin in that read option, and will he continue to slide more readily as he seems to be learning? ... Might another afternoon of Redskins stumbles lead coach Mike Shanahan to pronounce he has also given up hope for 2013 and is evaluating players for the 2014 campaign?

Cleveland Browns  at  Dallas Cowboys

Cleveland at Dallas
Sunday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: Dallas has a fairly conducive schedule for late-season success. Though I don't see them reaching the postseason, they must win games like this to have any chance at all. Of course, slipping up and wasting opportunities isn't exactly out of character for them. They catch a Browns team coming off a bye that has played quietly decent football, that nearly beat the Ravens a few weeks back and that has been further energized by the return of defensive lineman Phil Taylor.

What to watch for: DeMarcus Ware vs. Joe Thomas is a pretty good battle and I expect the Browns tackle to hold up well -- unless Ware moves around as much as I expect. Can Cleveland rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz withstand that kind of pressure? ... Tony Romo had best stay away from corner Joe Haden, or he will be baited into a mistake or two. ... Expect lots of pre-snap motion and odd looks from Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan against rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. ... Josh Gordon, a Texas native, has been emerging for the Browns. ... If DeMarco Murray is finally back for the Cowboys, what kind of immediate boost can he provide to the rushing attack?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at  Carolina Panthers

Tampa Bay at Carolina
Sunday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why to watch: Who would have thought at this time last year that in this game, Josh Freeman would be the all-world young quarterback you can't wait to see, and Cam Newton would be looking like an overwhelmed kid? It's another chance for Freeman to make a statement, and if he keeps this up and the Bucs keep this up, I wouldn't hesitate to throw his name into the MVP conversation. It's a chance for another vital NFC win for the Bucs and a chance to go 6-4. Tampa is just 2-4 within the conference, and that is a key tiebreaker in what could be a wild race for the final wild-card spot.

What to watch for: Vincent Jackson and Steve Smith trying to outdo one another in the vertical game. Both secondaries are very vulnerable right now. ... Will the boo birds/apathy/anger in the Carolina fan base intensify if this keeps up? ... The Panthers employed a hard-nosed, run-heavy approach to beat Tampa late last season but I'm not sure that will work again. ... I like Doug Martin in the screen game here against a depleted linebacker corps.

New Orleans Saints  at  Oakland Raiders

New Orleans at Oakland
Sunday, Nov. 18, 4:05 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why to watch: The Saints could put up a 60-burger here without breaking a sweat. The Raiders defense is getting gashed, they are coming off giving up 55 to the Ravens. With a beat-up Richard Seymour and no pass rush, it's hard to imagine much changes against a Saints attack that is getting back to peak form. New Orleans could pull off something magical if it keeps stringing wins together after the brutal start, and interim coach Joe Vitt clearly has the Saints believing anything is possible.

What to watch for: Chris Ivory seems primed to plow through a Raiders front that is accustomed to giving up big runs. ... Are there any changes in Steve Spagnuolo's defense, and do the Saints seem more comfortable in it? Swarming to the ball? Safeties keeping play in front of them? ... Carson Palmer's stat line likely to be pretty big again, but keep track how much of it comes in garbage time in the second half. ... Oakland fullback Marcel Reece will remain a focal point in the offense with so many running backs still ailing.

  
 

Jacksonville Jaguars  at  Houston Texans

Jacksonville at Houston
Sunday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Why to watch: If we're lucky, something happens that gets Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey apoplectic, like the rushed (faux?) replay review on Andrew Luck's rushing "touchdown" last Thursday night. Because short of a sideline tirade that spills onto the field, there may not be much to see in this apparent mismatch. It would seem to be a survivor pool special, but then again, any given Sunday and all. And the Texans are riding high after a gutsy win in Chicago.

What to watch for: It would be a nice time for the Texans to get Ben Tate back, so they could limit Arian Foster's carries in what should be a blowout. ... Andre Johnson has been kinda quiet, not as many explosive plays, but all of that could change here. ... J.J. Watt seems like the kind of dude born to terrorize Blaine Gabbert in the pocket. ... The Jags' defensive front could get steamrolled by the Texans' nasty offensive line. Any stains, sweat or wrinkles on Matt Schaub's jersey at game's end?

Arizona Cardinals  at  Atlanta Falcons

Arizona at Atlanta
Sunday, Nov. 18, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Why to watch: This would appear to be the perfect opportunity for Atlanta to get healthy again after finally dropping a game against a collapsing opponent. Matt Ryan pads those MVP stats -- though he is facing a solid defense. The Falcons will try to restore their balance offensively and, perhaps, keep making excuses about why they aren't unbeaten anymore. Focus on Matty Ice's award credentials because there might not be a whole lot else to see in this one.

What to watch for: Does Julio Jones seem limited at all after missing a good chunk of the loss to the Saints due to injury? Does Atlanta start to monitor the playing time of guys like Tony Gonzalez and John Abraham, who are nearing the end but remain so vital to this team? ... Can the Cardinals get more creative with ways to get the ball in Larry Fitzgerald's hands?


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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