It is a week of feast or famine.
I see a lot of games that could end up being fairly epic and helping us to finally sort out this wacky NFL season, and a bunch that, well, I have a hard time promoting in good faith. Not a lot of middle ground, which, in the end, I'm fine with.
Some of these projected stinkers will end up surprising us and turning out much better than expected. With the Jaguars and Bucs earning their first wins last week and the Rams stomping a Colts team many of us figured might be headed to a top seed in the AFC, well, it doesn't matter what these things look like on paper. Plenty of them have turned out to be worth sitting through -- except, yeah, the prime-time games have pretty much been crap for the past month or so, haven't they?
Alas, we are into flex scheduling, where Sunday night truly becomes king, even more than before, and where the television contract rules already working heavily in the Peacock's favor take an even more pro-feather bent. They managed to get the Chiefs-Broncos flexed into prime time and the game will clearly be among the most talked about for a while, given the fact the teams have a single loss between them ... at least the most talked about until they meet again in two weeks in Kansas City, on CBS, where, by golly, they belong!
Anyway, we will all be eating well soon enough with Thanksgiving close upon us, and with just two teams on the bye this week (Dallas and St. Louis) we will be back to a full slate each week soon enough as well.
Why to watch: An old-school, classic drop-back passer, aging but fresh off a bye, faces an upstart, hybrid quarterback who epitomizes the new era of modern play from the position. Tom Brady, having a poor statistical season but continuing to win a lot of games, meets Cam Newton, no stranger to gutting out wins that often aren't very pretty either. The Panthers are the hottest team in the league besides the unbeaten Chiefs, and managed to overcome a 9-0 deficit to grind out a win in San Francisco a week ago -- their fifth straight. How much do they have left for this one? Have the Patriots figured out how to cull more from the passing game with the time off, and will more dependable receivers emerge? Can the Patriots withstand the physical test the Panthers present?
What to watch for: Brady's escapability, what he has, should be tested here. The Panthers simply swarm people up front and don't need to bring numbers to get after your quarterback. ... Panthers CB Drayton Florence is showing up all over the place, making big plays, anticipating where the ball is going. ... Would expect to see an even more active Rob Gronkowski out of the bye. He was starting to really rumble around like his old self last time out. ... Will Aqib Talib try to take Steve Smith out of the game, mano-a-mano? The Pats' top corner and the Panthers' top receiver know each other quite well from Talib's time in the NFC South with Tampa. ... Have to expect the Panthers, who can generate a power run game, run right up the gut with a multitude of weapons, to test the Patriots right away given the injuries to the spine of their defense. ... Expect to see plenty of Panthers FB Mike Tolbert. ... Do the Panthers play any games swapping around stud ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson? ... New England needs a big game out of Chandler Jones, who is big and athletic enough to try to keep an eye on Newton.
Why to watch: Peyton is ornery. Dude was irate that the low hit on him late in Sunday's win at San Diego didn't get called. You know, the hit that aggravated his ongoing ankle issues and showed, once again, how the loss of left tackle Ryan Clady might undermine Manning's health, and thus the team's Super Bowl destiny. So Manning is chafed and gimpy and he's facing the NFL's best defense in many statistical measures, and certainly one built to attack him off the edge and get him into compromising positions. First place in the AFC West is at stake, and the first overall seed in the conference, and the Chiefs come off the bye the lone unbeaten team in the league but one still struggling for respect given the relative merits of their opposition to this point. Broncos are also still adapting to life without coach John Fox as he recovers from heart surgery in North Carolina. Otherwise, nothing to see here.
What to watch for: How quickly does Manning get the red face, and go after the officials, if his tackles can't hold up against this defense? Does KC coordinator Bob Sutton throw crazy blitzes at him right away? Manning can usually carve up a defense that way, coolly finding his hot reads, but given his physical limitations now, you have to wonder. ... Jamaal Charles has to see a preponderance of touches. No two ways about it. Andy Reid calling plays or not, the run game should dictate this from the Chiefs side. ... Anyone else think this is the week Reid finally has Alex Smith air it out a little more, too? The Broncos have been suspect downfield. ... Should Dontari Poe establish inside penetration, as he has been so apt to do, it's all the more reason Manning could be off, unable to push and drive through the ball up into the pocket and dealing with ankle pain. ... Does Chiefs S Eric Berry draw the Julius Thomas assignment? Especially if the Chiefs do bring the heat, covering the tight end will be everything. ... Not that Dwayne Bowe was doing much of anything in this offense, anyway, but does his recent arrest have any impact here, for better or worse? ... Denver has to run the ball to protect Manning; the Chiefs are second worst in the NFL allowing 4.99 yards per carry.
Why to watch: The 49ers have three losses, hardly an indictment of any team, but it just feels like people are doubting them. Sure, they just reeled off five straight wins before dropping a very tough game at home to the Panthers. The limitations on offense seem very real. They might be another Super Bowl-or-bust club that looks like it might not be built just well enough to grab a Lombardi. The Saints continue to state their case for a No. 1 NFC seed and are absolutely rolling after their 40-first-down outing against Dallas last week. But might Rob Ryan, now the toast of the town, be a little too high after his coronation against his former club Sunday night?
What to watch for: You would think 49ers coach John Harbaugh has spent plenty of time dissecting the Jets' dominant performance over the Saints from a few weeks back. How could he not? That template -- running the ball down their throats with limited passing attempts --dovetails with what he has been doing with Colin Kaepernick, given the daunting limitations in San Francisco's passing game. It would seem to be the Niners' best chance to get this done on the road. ... Is this the real Mark Ingram? Do the Saints now have a four-headed monster at running back? Would think he gets a decent look here. ... I think we see more of Kaepernick unleashed here, more read-option, more of him out in space, more of him stretching the defense. The 49ers don't have enough weapons to get the passing game going as it is right now, so it may take hitting things on the run to spark something. ... Does all of the travel the 49ers are forced to make catch up to them here? Might they be a little sluggish after having to head east again? Seems like they were just in London or Tennessee. And then it's back to Washington in Week 12, and a trip to Tampa is still looming, too.
Why to watch: Things went pretty well for the Jets in the bye week. The Chargers, a chic wild-card pick a few weeks back, continued their swoon. The Titans, who seemed to be able to hang around, lost to the Jags and lost their quarterback, again. The Dolphins are mired in a bizarre racism/bullying scandal that threatens to wipe out their facility and lost to a team that had yet to win this season, matching the Titans' accomplishment. Pretty good bye for Gang Green. So here the Jets sit, holding a wild-card spot if the postseason were to begin today, with the chance to keep getting it done against divisional foes. You have to like their chances to get after EJ Manuel, although you would also think that another week of practice could bode well for Manuel. He did top 300 yards in the first meeting between them in Week 3. New York can't afford to lose games like this, with Rex Ryan possibly going from coach most likely to be fired to Coach of the Year if they keep this up.
What to watch for: How tight is Manuel's footwork? Is he bouncing around too much in the pocket? Are his feet set? He looked pretty uncomfortable last week against the Steelers. ... Wonder about the division of labor between Jets running backs Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory. Ivory destroyed the Saints the last time out but Powell has been more of the bell cow. ... Any chance Stephen Hill comes out of hiatus to make a play this week? He and rookie QB Geno Smith were clicking a bit early, but that seems like a long time ago now. He has just 10 catches in the past six games for a measly 107 yards, and no catches over 20 yards for the guy who should be a downfield threat, if anything at all. ... Bills DT Marcel Dareus is mauling people right now. He had a slow start but keep an eye on him. ... Seems like Bills pass rusher Mario Williams always has trouble with Jets right tackle Austin Howard, ending up frustrated and in and out of the game. ... The Bills still trust veteran RB Fred Jackson more than C.J. Spiller overall, with Jackson continuing to get more work. I have a difficult time seeing the Bills moving the ball on the ground here, though.
Why to watch: Both of these teams are hanging around the playoff equation, but you kind of wonder how. Baltimore's offense is like something out of an old football follies video, and the Bears defense is just running out of capable players. Neither of these outfits seems capable of stringing together a series of wins, yet here they are, still with plenty of hope if not realistic credentials as a contending team. One of them will have even more reason to feel like the season still has meaning come Sunday evening. False hope or not, the specter of mere hope will get one of these fan bases into the holiday season with a fighting chance. Give the Bears credit though, they are still coming out swinging despite the mounting list of players out long-term.
What to watch for: The Bears' offense has been running even more smoothly with Josh McCown at quarterback than Jay Cutler, and I bet he shines here again, too. He isn't turning the ball over, he is using all parts of the field and he's rallying the team late in games. With Cutler out for a little while here, McCown could be in position to land himself a shot at a starting job for 2014, in Chicago or elsewhere. ... Will the Ravens complete a sequence of, say, five plays on offense, without succumbing to a negative play (be it a penalty, sack, run for a loss, botched snap ... you name it)? That would be some kind of building block for them. ... Ray Rice continues to say he's not injured and the offensive line continues to fail to block for him and he continues to get gang tackled behind the line of scrimmage. Scheme issues and blocking issues certainly have something to do with it, but I can't believe Rice isn't ailing, too. He's not showing up as well in pass protection, either . I think something is up, and, for now, the only chance of any "burst" out of the run game -- say a 3-yard gain -- is coming from Bernard Pierce. ... Guessing on a lot of quarterback pressure from the Ravens, because it's hard to fathom they can sit back and play coverage against Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey. ... Who steps up for Bears injured CB Charles Tillman? Will Torrey Smith get free deep enough to give the Ravens a semblance of a pulse on offense?
Why to watch: The Bengals might not be headed for a freefall. They might have succumbed to a little two-week swoon but realize they still have the talent to win the division. Then again, the bottom might be falling out. They have allowed every other club in the AFC North to hang around, the offense is stilted again and failing on third down. Marvin Lewis feels like he has a mandate to go for it on fourth down all over the field. And now one of those teams that has been hanging around is the Browns, who at 2-1 have the best record in the division and who beat the Bengals in September and knocked off the Ravens in Week 9, before their bye. Don't look now, but if Cleveland wins here the Browns would only be a half-game out of the division lead, with a bunch of tiebreakers in hand. Big game.
What to watch for: Jason Campbell has given the Browns life on offense. His big arm is getting downfield action going, and the Bengals, without top corner Leon Hall, could have big trouble keeping Josh Gordon in check. ... I imagine offensive guru Norv Turner spent some time on the bye trying to get the tight end -- usually a fixture in his offense -- more involved with Campbell at the helm. Jordan Cameron isn't quite lighting it up as he was during the brief stint Brian Hoyer was under center. ... Bengals QB Andy Dalton is in the midst of a rough spell with six picks in the past two weeks. I suspect he'll have some issues here against Ray Horton's defense and the elaborate blitzes thrown his way. ... Not sure Bengals rookie Gio Bernard will see much light in the middle of the field with Phil Taylor anchoring the Browns defense. Bernard's tendency to reverse field resulted in some critical big losses of yardage a week ago. Teams are making a point to keep someone for backside contain. ... Have a feeling Browns free-agent signing Paul Kruger shows up in this one. Been a quiet season for the pass rusher in general. ... The Bengals need to find a way to get more out of their tight ends; that was supposed to be a focal point of their offense.
Why to watch: Who can't get enough of NFC East football? Does it get any better than this? Just get to .500 baby, and you're probably hosting a playoff game in January. Easy street! The Eagles, team of streaks, are now hot again and on the cusp of grabbing first place in the division. The Redskins are on life support and a loss here would basically doom them to the fate Mike Shanahan spoke about last year when they were 3-6: playing for next year. Should they drop to 3-7 here, there won't be a recurrence of last year's miracle finish, which will mean probing questions for Shanahan, whose deal is up after 2014. Who would have thought, say, even a month ago, that Nick Foles would be looked at as the more successful young quarterback of this coupling, with Robert Griffin III and the Redskins dealing with turnovers and breakdowns at critical times while Foles has yet to throw a pick. Oh, and the Eagles haven't won a game at home in like forever, so you have to expect that changes sometime soon.
What to watch for: Remember back in Week 1, where for one half of football in Washington the Eagles offense looked about as efficient and effective as any unit could? Are we in for a replay of that, this time with Foles in for Michael Vick? The Redskins had no answers for the running plays out of spread formations. ... Eagles WR Riley Cooper keeps showing up wide open around the end zone. Not sure that happens for a third straight week, but Foles certainly has a way of finding him. ... Connor Barwin is making plays for the Eagles, even when dropping into coverage, which hasn't been a strong suit of his in the past. ... Would expect a physical battle between Skins WR Pierre Garcon and Eagles CB Cary Williams, while Skins CB DeAngelo Hall always gets into it, physically and verbally, with Eagles WR DeSean Jackson. ... Not sure which of the Eagles linebackers or safeties is equipped to hang with Skins TE Jordan Reed. ... Washington's special teams unit has a way of letting the team down, badly, when needed most. ... RB Alfred Morris didn't see nearly enough of the ball in the first meeting of these teams, but the Eagles' run defense has looked better as the season goes on.
Why to watch: Sure, the Steelers defense rallied some last week against a struggling Bills offense, but what can they do against this Lions attack? It's a very different challenge and this is another chance for Pittsburgh to make a last stand on its season or perhaps be exposed again. Either way, the results will be telling. Detroit is making its case as a legit factor in the NFC postseason and is stringing together strong performances and showing it is not the same team that kept blowing winnable games last year. Few teams play more tight, exciting games than the Lions. Pittsburgh better unearth a consistent pass rush against this group or it could get out of hand quickly. Two old-school teams get together here, and if the Steelers are going to make any sort of positive statement this season it needs to start now and run through their game at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night.
What to watch for: Ben Roethlisberger is going to be fired up. After a bogus report about him wanting a trade emerged -- a "story" that was, as Ben put it, total BS -- I have a feeling Roethlisberger is up to whatever challenge Lions QB Matt Stafford comes up with. ... Can the Steelers defense shut down a rushing attack for a second straight week? Reggie Bush is going to be a real challenge for them and I think he breaks off a few long runs here. ... Yet another week where I sit back and wonder how the Steelers' offensive line will survive. ... Steelers CB Ike Taylor will be in a bad way against Calvin Johnson, who was targeted a mere 16 times last week. ... Check out how brutal the field conditions are in Pittsburgh. This is the time of year, right around Thanksgiving, where it's usually like playing on a dirt surface. ... I like Lions DT Nick Fairley to make something happen Sunday.
Why to watch: Do you know who Percy Harvin is? Do you really have any idea what he can do? And where he came from? Yeah, he has never played a game for a team other than the Vikings, except now he might actually make his Seahawks debut, and he gets to face his former team if he can convince coach Pete Carroll to dress him for Sunday. And I bet he does. Whether it's five snaps or 10 snaps or whatever, this guy is a beast and a playmaker and he has been held back since August, just waiting for his opportunity. I don't like how that sounds for the utterly predictable Vikings. Seattle, with just one loss, has had enough scares to not take a game like this lightly, and I don't see them losing a home game like this.
What to watch for: Seattle is still very short at tackle, so this could be an afternoon where Jared Allen shows up big for the Vikings. ... Marshawn Lynch is coming in off his best game of the season and the Vikings are vulnerable to the edge rush if Lynch is able to press things back from the outside. ... I really like Seattle slot receiver Doug Baldwin in this spot. ... Seattle tidied up the run game a week ago against lowly Atlanta, but could be in trouble here after getting gashed by St. Louis and Tampa in consecutive weeks. Very different test against Adrian Peterson. ... No matter who is playing quarterback for the Vikings, you tend to think it's an untenable situation, especially with Christian Ponder now nursing a shoulder injury. ... Could there be a John Carlson sighting two weeks in a row? I tend to doubt it against this Seattle defense, and against his former team at that. ... Few players make more spectacular one-handed catches than Seattle WR Golden Tate. Against this secondary, with limited ball skills, I bet Russell Wilson threads things more than usual. ... Have a feeling the Seahawks front looks a lot more stout if/when Red Bryant feels closer to 100 percent, which could be coming sooner rather than later.
Why to watch: They may be wounded and they may be reeling but these teams are in the hunt. The Packers need to pick up a win or two while Aaron Rodgers is out with his broken collarbone or it will be too late by the time he comes back. The Giants, through winning three very ugly games against weak teams, and barely surviving all three, are alive in the NFC East. But even with Scott Tolzien under center for Green Bay, this could be the one that effectively ends the Giants' season and renews talk about how they will handle Tom Coughlin's status in the offseason.
What to watch for: I'll take my chances with any young, hungry, willing quarterback prospect Mike McCarthy gets to work with for a week in practice. Just as Seneca Wallace, though aging, seemed ready to have a big game last week -- starting 5 for 5 before leaving with a groin injury -- I like what Tolzien can do against this defense here. ... Have to give it to Eli Manning; he is amazingly consistent, ending up on his back for another pick-six last week against the Raiders. He had gone two games without throwing a pick, and obviously needs to play mistake-free for the most part if the Giants are to truly climb out of their 0-6 hole. ... Have a feeling Hakeem Nicks finishes strong to close out the final year of his contract and head into free agency. ... The Giants are a top-five team against the run and Eddie Lacy is being asked to carry a very heavy responsibility for the Packers offense with Rodgers out.
Why to watch: I'm a huge Case Keenum guy. When he isn't totally battered and beat up and nursing a knee injury, you could get a lot of joy out of watching how Raiders QB Terrelle Pryor plays the game, too. But Pryor has clearly slowed down the past month. He has no one to throw the ball to. The Raiders could be looking at another trying offseason, and possibly big changes, if they don't win some games soon. Texans coach Gary Kubiak returns to the sideline after suffering a mini stroke a few weeks back, and his job security will be very much in question as we enter the final quarter of the season. Both of these coaches desperately need a few wins ASAP.
What to watch for: Can Keenum, whose verve and improvisation outside the pocket seem to stun teams early, put together a second half to match it? The Texans have lost all three of his starts -- hardly on him -- and have been in all three games but unable to get much going in the second half. He's completing 58 percent of his passes in the first half with six TDs and a 126.2 rating. In the second half he has completed 52 percent of his passes with one TD and an 80.5 rating. He has also been sacked seven times in the second half to just once in the first, in part to holding the ball, but also with his protection sagging late. ... Figure Dennis Johnson continues getting more of the ball in the Texans' run game. ... J.J. Watt no longer J.J. Swatt -- just one pass defended in his past seven games. ... Shame the Raiders have not been able to keep first-round pick D.J. Hayden on the field. The corner has looked very good in flashes and this is a homecoming game for him, and a return to Houston, where in college he managed a remarkable recovery from a life-threatening blow to his heart.
Why to watch: The banners are back in South Florida. The money has been collected, the flyovers are bought and paid for, and the people who do bother showing up for this game will be expressing their displeasure with the Fins, and GM Jeff Ireland in particular, who may just become the face of this Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito scandal before it's all said and done. The folks down there will be having banners flown over begging owner Stephen Ross to fire Ireland, as they have in the past. Under the backdrop of this season, and the brutal loss to previously winless Tampa on Monday night, they just might get their wish soon enough. It wasn't that long ago both of these teams looked like they would have a chance to stick around the wild-card scene. After the Chargers' run of heartbreaking losses and the Dolphins' organizational implosion, well, not so much.
What to watch for: Will the Dolphins have a pulse after their listless start in Tampa? How do they respond to the growing scrutiny there and the media storm that will not subside until commissioner Roger Goodell eventually rules on the Martin/Incognito thing? ... Could they possibly run the ball as poorly as they did Monday night, when they literally could not get back to the line of scrimmage? ... Ryan Tannehill is taking on the look of a battered quarterback. The Dolphins have to find a way to reverse it, whether by max protecting or just sticking with their crappy running game or whatever, because that toll tends to linger, and can start to send a career sideways. He is getting sacked on a staggering 10 percent of his pass plays. ... Any chance Ryan Mathews shows enough down the stretch to get himself a starting job somewhere in 2014?
Why to watch: Do you like receiver/quarterback miscommunication? Are you a fan of blatantly errant passes that don't seem to have any rational reason for landing where they do, but then end up cradled right in a defensive back's arms? Because that's what we could be looking at here. Bucs QB Mike Glennon is prone to funks, but overall is showing up well, and this team has nothing to lose now after finally winning a game and getting that off its back. And Falcons QB Matt Ryan isn't so much Matty Ice as he is Matty Melting Down these days, with the pressure he is under. For the first time in his career, a lack of dynamic weapons around him is wrecking his season. So, yeah, we have a couple of truly troubled NFC South teams here, and the loser will be all that much closer to a possible Black Monday scenario as much as their general managers might try to deny it and pretend there is nothing to see here.
What to watch for: Ryan needs to have himself a bad-ass first quarter, because a strong start seems like a stretch in and of itself. This team is not constructed to play catch-up, as much as we might be programmed to believe they are. ... The Falcons' linebacker group should be about as healthy as it has been in a long, long time, for whatever that's worth. ... The Bucs remain committed to the run game despite their injuries there. That should carry the day here if they are truly patient given the Falcons' severe transgressions against it. ... Neither of these teams manage to do much of anything to force certain matchups in the power run game. ... LB Lavonte David is a destroyer for the Bucs. ... Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff can do his best to be proactive and stave off the kind of reports we have on his possibly open head coaching job, and that's totally understandable. But if this is a 3-13 team -- and it has many of the makings of one -- does anyone think owner Arthur Blank wouldn't really consider eating whatever salary he needs to eat in order to bring in a new regime if he so desires? It will be very interested to see how this group fares down the stretch.
Why to watch: Arizona has a chance to stay right in the thick of things in the NFC race and show it won't fall prey to potential trap game. The Jags have a chance to go on a two-game winning streak, which given how the first half of their season went, would be quite the accomplishment. I don't like the odds of them holding up, though, against this defense and withstanding the kind of pressure coordinator Todd Bowles will dial up for the Cardinals.
What to watch for: John Abraham continues to find ways to get to the quarterback. The Cards' front four is blowing people up. Matt Shaughnessy is creating havoc as well, with his massive frame, and the Jags could be overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage. ... Jags coach Gus Bradley will have a decent idea of the Cards' personnel from his time in Seattle, though the schemes have changed considerably under the new staff there. ... Credit to Carson Palmer, who has been better after a very rough start to the season. Still, Palmer has thrown at least one pick in all nine games, but "only" two in his past two contests, ending a streak of five straight games with two picks or more. ... Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu both seem primed to do something pretty special given the issues the Jags have moving the football. Could see them each taking one to the house.