Game of the week
The line: Ravens by 3½
The story: Supremacy in the AFC North is at stake here, but it will be decided without Ben Roethlisberger. With the Steelers' franchise quarterback sidelined indefinitely, Pittsburgh's hopes are in the hands of backup Byron Leftwich ... and this is all you need to know about the guy: He hasn't won a start since 2006, with Jacksonville.
Leftwich is an immobile quarterback playing behind an offensive line that can have pass-protection issues, so look for the Steelers to rely on their running game, more hitches and screens and a heckuva lot of defense. In other words, anything but Leftwich.
The expectations for Pittsburgh are low because of Roethlisberger's injury, and I get it. Honestly, I would feel better if the Steelers were starting Charlie Batch. But they're not, and they have an uphill climb to beat a Ravens team beginning to flex its muscles and could have defensive linemen Pernell McPhee and Haloti Ngata back. Baltimore isn't the defensive team it has been in the past (they're ranked 27th overall, for crying out loud), but it's not the offensive team it has been either. It's better, much better, putting up 55 on Oakland last weekend in a game where Ray Rice didn't run for 40 yards.
The Ravens can beat you with Rice, they can beat you with Joe Flacco and, yes, they can still beat you with defense. Pittsburgh's hope is to exploit the holes in the middle of a run defense that hemorrhaged more than 200 yards in back-to-back games to Kansas City and Dallas and ranks 26th. In Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall (who could start), the Steelers have the backs to do it. They also have an offensive line that blocks better for the run than it does the pass.
If, however, the Steelers have to rely on Leftwich to dig them out of trouble, they're doomed. You're not going to win a shootout with Flacco with a quarterback who has a bigger windup than Warren Spahn and less accuracy than Dontrelle Willis. But the Steelers might survive if they minimize mistakes and rely on their defense not only to shut down Rice and Flacco but to create game-changing turnovers.
I saw it happen two years ago in Baltimore when the Steelers won a game they shouldn't have, except there are a couple of differences from what happened then and what you're about to witness. First of all, Roethlisberger, who engineered the game-winning drive, and Troy Polamalu, who forced the critical takeaway that led to that series, both aren't playing.
Polamalu not only is out, but the Steelers don't force turnovers. They have nine this season. Only Indianapolis (6) has fewer, and that, folks, is what makes this a tough sell for the Steelers.
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The back story: Baltimore has 11 straight division victories, second only to Indianapolis (12) since the 2002 realignment, and has won its past two in Pittsburgh. The Steelers, meanwhile, have won 11 of their past 13 vs. the division.
Three games I'd like to see
The line: Packers by 3½
The story: The Lions are in trouble, and they're home. That means they're desperate, which also means they're dangerous. But I would like their chances to pull the upset a lot better if they had a cadre of healthy defensive backs ... which, of course, they don't. So cornerback Chris Houston returned to practice this week. I still look for another shootout, with Matthew Stafford forced to keep up with Aaron Rodgers.
Normally, I wouldn't give him much of a shot. But the Packers are hurt, too. Clay Matthews won't suit up. Bryan Bulaga is out for the season. So is rookie Nick Perry. And Charles Woodson is still MIA. Green Bay is a club that has managed to overcome injuries and horrific officiating which, of course, is the mark of a playoff team waiting to happen.
I have no doubt the Packers make it to the postseason. As a matter of fact, I like their chances of catching Chicago in the AFC North, too. What I don't like is the number of quality players they can't suit up week to week.
Nevertheless, they still have Rodgers, and now that he has another weapon in Randall Cobb, the Packers are rolling -- winning four in a row and resembling the team we thought they would be. They can't run, but that won't matter here. The Lions' secondary is beaten up and porous, and look for Rodgers to exploit it.
I expect Stafford to do the same, especially since he doesn't have to worry about Matthews applying pressure from the outside. Detroit can run with Mikel Leshoure, but the rushing attack is nothing extraordinary. The passing attack can be, especially when Calvin Johnson plays as he has lately. Look for a lot of points here, and look for the Lions to press the attack.
They can't afford another loss. Not now.
The back story: In seven career starts vs. the Lions, Rodgers is 6-1 with 16 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 115.7.
The line: Patriots by 9½
The story: The Colts are hot, winning their past four starts, but this is where we discover what they're all about. It's not just that they're up against one of the game's best quarterbacks in a stadium where he seldom loses; it's that they take on the defending conference champion, a five-time Super Bowl participant and three-time winner since Tom Brady took charge in 2001. No, I don't expect them to win, but I want to see how they hold up against a team we know will make it to the playoffs.
Because the Colts could get there.
In fact, they're the most logical choice as the second wild-card entry in the AFC. They have three opponents left with winning records, and this is one of them, and with 9-7 looking as if it gets you to January all the Colts must do is split the rest of their games.
This one won't be difficult to win; it will be damned near impossible. The Patriots score points in bunches, averaging an NFL-best 33.2 per game, which means Andrew Luck can start warming up now. Luck is the front-runner in NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year polling, and for good reason: He has a club that was supposed to be one step above an expansion team in the playoff mix.
The knock on Indianapolis, of course, is that the Colts haven't beaten anyone of consequence, but they beat Green Bay and they beat Minnesota -- and last time I checked the two were a combined 12-7, with Green Bay closing in on Chicago in the NFC North.
Anyway, this game will serve more as a barometer of Indianapolis than it will for New England. We know the Patriots are good, but the Colts? We're not sure. They can win in Jacksonville, but can they keep it close in New England? We're about to find out.
The back story: Including the playoffs, Tom Brady is 9-4 vs. the Colts, with 24 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 96.4.
The line: Broncos by 7½
The story: This is supposed to be Denver's chance to bury San Diego once and for all in the AFC West ... except the Broncos did that a month ago when they rallied from a 24-0 halftime deficit in San Diego. Denver is hot; the Chargers are not, and I don't expect a ballgame here as much as I do a statement -- with Denver and quarterback Peyton Manning holding the floor.
The Broncos aren't just better than San Diego; they're far better in almost every category. The Chargers haven't produced a fourth-quarter comeback victory since 2009 and haven't beaten a quarterback not named Matt Cassel since the second week of the season. Yeah, I would say the odds are against an upset here. Once upon a time, the Chargers had Manning's number, but that was in Indianapolis, and that magic disappeared in the second half of that meltdown in San Diego.
Still, the Chargers have something to fight for, and it's called survival. They're not going to win their division, but they could make it as a wild-card entry ... granted, the odds are long there, too. I'm just saying they could. But an awful lot has to go right that hasn't up to this point, and I'll start with Philip Rivers. He used to be one of the most accurate and dangerous quarterbacks out there, but now he's a danger to himself -- producing 40 turnovers since the beginning of 2011, the most of anyone in the NFL.
Then there's the Chargers' running game. There really isn't one. And the offensive line. It's not very good. And the defense. It can't make enough stops to give Rivers and the offense a chance to make comebacks. In short, there are too many shortages to topple Manning, especially with Denver gaining momentum with each weekend.
Look at the Broncos' schedule. Tell me where you find another loss. Baltimore? Maybe. Tampa Bay? Maybe. But there's also the possibility they don't lose again. And there's certainly the probability they don't lose here.
The back story: The Chargers have won their past three games in Denver, and Rivers is 5-1 there with nine touchdowns, two interceptions and a passer rating of 102.5.
Monday night lights
The line: 49ers by 5½
|Frank Gore leads all active players with 677 rushing yards on Monday nights. (AP)|
Of course, the quarterbacks aren't the centerpiece of this game; the defenses are. San Francisco and Chicago are two of the best anywhere, with the 49ers ranked third in yards and first in points allowed and the Bears ranked fifth in yards, second in points allowed and first in takeaways (30). Oh, yeah, they also have eight touchdowns off returns, including seven by interceptions. Nobody else is better.
Expect the 49ers to crowd the line of scrimmage, bottle up Matt Forte and Michael Bush and force Campbell to beat them. Of course, expect the Bears to do the same against Frank Gore who, by the way, is looking for his third consecutive 100-yard game against Chicago. Both teams are solid vs. the run, and both want the opposing quarterback to try to beat them.
If that quarterback is Smith for San Francisco, the 49ers have the edge. If it's Kaepernick, I'm not so sure. Campbell has started and won before. Heck, he was 11-7 with Oakland, and tell me the last guy not named Rich Gannon who can say that. But Kaepernick hasn't started once, and it doesn't appear he'll start here.
The back story: The Bears are 9-2 on Monday Night Football under Lovie Smith, including seven wins in their past eight appearances.
Crummy game of the week
The line: Rams by 3½
The story: There hasn't been much talk about this game this week in New York. Instead, it's all about Tim Tebow, a quarterback who almost never plays, and that should tell you something about these Jets. They make more headlines than they do plays.
And I don't just mean now. Dating back to Week 15 of 2011, the Jets are 3-9. Only two teams, Jacksonville and Cleveland, are worse, and now you know why it's not just Tebow who's "terrible." It's the entire team. The Jets can talk about playoffs all they want; the reality is they stink. They're the fourth-best team in a four-team division.
Embattled quarterback Mark Sanchez isn't the problem, and Tebow isn't the solution. The Jets simply don't have enough playmakers on either side of the ball to make a difference. So they keep losing and telling themselves that, no, the sky isn't falling when in fact it has been raining trouble for weeks at Florham Park.
The Jets have little offense (ranked 30th), and the Rams are decent on defense (ranked 15th). I know, New England buried them in London. That was the Patriots. These are the Jets. St. Louis is 3-1 at the Edward Jones Dome; the Jets are 1-3 on the road. St. Louis can run; the Jets can't stop the run. St. Louis can pass; the Jets can't.
You figure out what happens.
The back story: Rams defensive end Robert Quinn has six sacks in his past four games at the Edward Jones Dome and at least one sack in each of those contests.
Upset of the week
The story: This is a reach, but the field is thin for possible upsets. Cutler isn't playing. That means you're trusting Campbell to beat the 49ers, and, yeah, I would say the chances are slim -- especially if Smith plays. He may not be Joe Montana, but he doesn't commit the mistakes that Chicago can and will exploit.
Nevertheless, the Bears can match the 49ers in virtually every department, including a defense that can score. The last time the 49ers played a top-five defense they had a close call with Seattle. Yes, they won, but it was close. That was against a rookie quarterback; Campbell is a veteran. And Lovie Smith is 7-1 in his past eight Monday night games. It's a stretch, but I'll take it.
Five guys I'd like to be
1. Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman: Not only is he aiming for his sixth straight start with a passer rating of 100 or better, but he's 3-1 in his past four starts vs. Carolina, with six touchdown passes and one interception.
2. Atlanta WR Roddy White: In his past eight games at home he has 60 catches for 932 yards (an average of 116.5 per game) and seven touchdowns.
3. Carolina WR Steve Smith: He has seven 100-yard games vs. Tampa Bay, and this year's Bucs have the league's worst pass defense.
4. New Orleans QB Drew Brees: He has won his past six starts vs. Oakland, completing 70.4 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 120.7.
5. Denver QB Peyton Manning: In four home games he's 3-1, with 10 touchdown passes, no interceptions and a passer rating of 115.3.
Five best matchups
1. Jets coach Rex Ryan vs. St. Louis offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer: Schottenheimer was the Jets' scapegoat in last year's collapse, shuffling off to St. Louis after he was fired in New York. Lucky for him. In St. Louis, he has a quarterback with a future; in New York, new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano has a quarterback with a problem. He can't complete more than 52 percent of his passes. For Sanchez, playing against Schottenheimer this week is kind of like playing against former Southern California coach Pete Carroll last week -- and that's not good. The Jets lost 28-7, without scoring an offensive TD.
2. Dallas CB Morris Claiborne vs. the next QB on the schedule: It doesn't matter who it is. All will be looking for Claiborne, and why not? Last weeek, he had five penalties -- including two for offsides -- and surrendered a touchdown pass. With Brandon Carr on the other side, Clairborne is a marked man. "I've got to make the best of the situation," he said this week. "Seize the moment and go make a play." I would say that about sums it up.
3. Detroit QB Matthew Stafford vs. the first half: Stafford isn't just struggling in the first two quarters. He stinks. He has completed 61.4 percent of his passes, with two touchdowns, six interceptions and a 68.5 passer rating this season. Now compare that to what happens afterward, with Stafford's completion percentage jumping to 65.7, his touchdowns up to nine, his interceptions down to two and his rating up to 99.0, and you understand why Detroit relies so heavily on comebacks.
4. Baltimore Ravens vs. their emotions: Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton said the Ravens "hate" the Steelers, and he's probably right. He's also getting warm when he says the reason is the playoffs; the Ravens can't seem to climb over these guys. Though Pittsburgh has won only six of its past 11 vs. Baltimore, the Steelers are 2-0 in the playoffs.
5. Washington vs. rookie quarterbacks: Philadelphia's Nick Foles seems ready for his first pro start, and that's not good for the Redskins. They have lost their past eight to opponents starting rookie QBs, and that's not good for a club that is surrendering an average of 301.7 yards passing per game and has been gashed for eight passes of 40 or more yards.
Five things that may interest only me
1. Through the first 10 weeks, 21.9 percent of all games have been decided by points scored in the final two minutes or overtime. That's the highest percentage since 2003.
2. San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh has the league's best record in one-score games (contests decided by eight or fewer points) among current coaches at 10-2-1, with Atlanta's Mike Smith (27-11) second.
3. San Francisco has only 19 turnovers the past two seasons, best in the NFL, and none in 11 of its 25 games under Harbaugh.
4. Since the current playoff format was introduced in 1990, 16 teams below .500 after nine games qualified for the playoffs, with the 2011 Broncos the most recent. Of that group, two (1996 Jaguars, 2009 Jets) made it to conference championship games.
5. Sunday's Pittsburgh-Baltimore game marks the seventh time in the past eight seasons these two made it to prime-time TV -- with five of those starts at Pittsburgh. Expect a close game. Five of the past six have been decided by three points each.
Numbers to remember
5: Vincent Jackson touchdowns in his past six starts
8: Consecutive games with an A.J. Green TD catch, the second-longest streak in Bengals history
9: Cam Newton touchdowns in three career games vs. Tampa Bay
13: Points New England has allowed off turnovers, fewest in the NFL
20-3: Tony Romo's record in November
29-1: Atlanta's record when Matt Ryan has a passer rating of 100 or more
77: Number of games this season decided by eight or fewer points
677: Frank Gore rushing yards on Monday night, the most among active running backs
• Atlanta: Dome
• Charlotte, N.C.: Partly cloudy, high of 54
• Arlington, Texas: Partly cloudy, high of 67 (retractable roof)
• Detroit: Dome
• Houston: Sunny, high of 73 (retractable roof)
• Kansas City, Mo.: Partly cloudy, windy, high of 57
• Foxborough, Mass.: Sunny, high of 49
• St. Louis: Dome
• Landover, Md.: Partly cloudy, high of 52
• Oakland, Calif.: Few showers, high of 59
• Denver: Partly cloudy, high of 58
• Pittsburgh: Sunny, high of 53
Where we will be
• I'll be in Denver to teach Peyton Manning how to slide, then fly to San Francisco Monday to order takeout from Gira Polli in Mill Valley.
• Pete Prisco will be in Pittsburgh to persuade Byron Leftwich to return to Jacksonville.
• Mike Freeman will be in Foxborough to tell us why the Colts are going to the playoffs.
• Gregg Doyel will be in Detroit to share a pizza with Aaron Rodgers.