The First Fifteen: Week 11

Posted Nov. 15, 2011 @ 1:39 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

1. The Falcons and Titans have the same record. Once more: The Falcons and Titans are both 5-4. You can blame Mike Smith, who is aggressive by nature, for his fourth-and-one-foot call, but here's doubting that Falcons fans would have felt much better if the defense watched Drew Brees march down the field yet again for the winning score. The underrated killer Sunday for the Falcons, as it has been much of the season, is stupidity in the form of penalties. They are not the Raiders or Panthers, but the Falcons are undisciplined right now, picking up 10 penalties for 85 yards Sunday, which brought their season total to 58 penalties for 493 yards. That matches the Falcons' total of 58 flags last season, when they were the least-penalized team in the league. Most of their fouls Sunday were the avoidable type, and if they want to beat a Titans team that whipped the Panthers in all three phases in Week 10, they'll have to clean up their act. "It was very disturbing in terms of the personal-foul penalties," Smith said. "I believe that there were five in the first half. You can't have that."

2. The Titans are like a Tom Glavine fastball: sneaky good. They excel in only a few statistical ways, including keeping Matt Hasselbeck upright (tied for third in sacks allowed) and, interestingly, fourth-down conversions, which they rank No. 1 in the NFL. (An aside: Wouldn't Smith like his Falcons to have that ranking today?) What the Titans hadn't done well prior to Sunday was take down opposing quarterbacks. But they had a great game plan against Cam Newton, pressuring him on first downs and playing coverage on seconds and thirds. It worked: Newton was sacked five times, via both the blitz and four-man pressures. They'll have to take a different approach against the Falcons, but they have the defensive backs in CBs Jason McCourty and Cortland Finnegan and safeties Chris Hope (back from injury) and Michael Griffin to battle with the Falcons' weapons — WRs Roddy White (if he doesn't disappear), Julio Jones (if he's healthy) and Harry Douglas (if he's as big as he was against the Saints) and TE Tony Gonzalez.

3. It's getting to the point where we should expect the Ravens to win big games and lose small ones. Should we not have learned from Jacksonville and the close win over the Cardinals and the Titans loss in Week Two that this Baltimore team can't stay steady? It's that kind of herky-jerky pulse that worries you about them; either the Ravens will get white hot and start walloping teams or they will flame out. Sunday's game against the Bengals is a big one, so we expect the Ravens to be up for this one, right? Right? Maybe we just chalk up the loss in Seattle to lingering aftereffects (Lebowski reference) of the win over the Steelers and the long trip west and that all will be leveled off by the time the Bengals roll into town. If not and Bengals rookie QB Andy Dalton outplays Joe Flacco, the local chorus in Baltimore could turn ugly. "We have to (respond) next week against a division opponent (by) playing our best football," said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh. "But we'll take full responsibility for this loss. We know that."

4. The Bengals stood tall in their loss to the Steelers, but the biggest loss might have been that of CB Leon Hall, the best player in their underrated secondary who is out for the season. The preseason trade for CB Kelly Jennings now looms large, as either he or Adam Jones will replace Hall in the starting lineup. Also hurt, though apparently less so, was WR A.J. Green, easily the best rookie receiver in the land. He came down awkwardly on his leg during the process of making a touchdown catch against the Steelers and missed most of the rest of the game. The Bengals might need Green to play in this big contest because if he can get the best of Troy Polamalu, he might be able to do the same versus Ed Reed. If not, it might be (not Jerome Simpson or Andre Caldwell but) Andrew Hawkins, who has become a favorite of Dalton and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. It's hard to believe the WR-needy Rams couldn't find a place for this guy; Hawkins had some big catches against the Steelers and is someone to watch.

5. Andy Reid is in a real bind here. The Eagles might have suffered their deathblow when Cardinals LB Daryl Washington crashed into Mike Vick and broke his two lowest ribs, known as the floating ribs for those who are interested, on the second play of the Eagles' shocking Week 10 loss. And as the Eagles' season goes floating on down the river, Reid likely will have to place his fate in the hands of Vince Young or Mike Kafka (Reid wasn't tipping his hand), as Vick looks dicey to play Sunday against the Giants. Considering that the offensive line now sits as a mess again, with Evan Mathis and King Dunlap both battling injuries, and that DeSean Jackson has caused a distraction and put his head coach in a brutal conundrum, whoever plays QB will be hindered. It's par for the course. Oh yeah, and the Eagles feature a defense that appears completely dependent on the pass rush. Their best linebacker of late is undersized sixth-rounder Brian Rolle, and the secondary appears confused. On one play last week, Joselio Hanson was covering Larry Fitzgerald; on another it was Rolle; and on yet another it was Jaiquwan Jarrett, a box safety making his first start. Could that even be right? Good luck against Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz.

6. Assuming the Giants can overcome the hamstring injury to LB Michael Boley, who is having a comeback season, they should rebound nicely from the loss out in San Francisco. They came up a few plays short against an 8-1 team in a playoff-like atmosphere. This is a close-knit group. Considering the job the defense did against Frank Gore (zero rushing yards Sunday after a string of five straight 100-yard contests he had coming in), you can bet they'll take similar measures to contain Eagles RB LeSean McCoy. If Vick is out, the deep passing game is minimized, and McCoy stands as the biggest concern on the field by a long shot. Plus, they could get reinforcements in the form of DT Jimmy Kennedy, who was reinstated after a four-game suspension on Tuesday. We also could see the debut (stop us if you've heard this before) of first-round CB Prince Amukamara, whose presence might be needed with Aaron Ross (thigh) leaving the 49ers game.

7. Two teams heading in opposite directions meet when the Chargers head to Chicago in the first of the Bears' four-game barnstorm through the paper-thick AFC West. The Bears looked about as dominant as a team can in racking up only 210 yards of offense as possible, the kind of club that might (just might) be able to provide some Kryptonite for Superman (Aaron Rodgers) and the Packers. The Chargers, though, look like just your garden variety Jimmy Olsen right now. They have come unglued at key times, especially when it comes to discipline and communication in the secondary. That's not a good formula against a Bears team that has won four straight and five of six and appears to be coming together as a family following their emotionally charged win over the Lions. And if Chargers OLT Brandyn Dombrowski has to block Bears DE Julius Peppers 60 times, say goodnight, Irene.

8. More Thursday football! If anyone has an appreciation for 1960s football, it has to be Rex Ryan, and as he semi-famously said — second only to his "snack" comment, naturally — on "Hard Knocks," "If I want to stop your run, I can stop your run." Well, coach, enjoy Tim Tebow and the 4-5 (not to mention second-place) Broncos. The question is probably who will be alongside him in the backfield. Knowshon Moreno is done for the season with an ACL, but Willis McGahee might fight through his hamstring injury to play in this one. Otherwise, it's Tebow, Lance Ball and a turning back of the clock. Their 55-rush effort against the Chiefs was impressive in its execution. The Jets were not able to establish their version of "Ground and Pound" against the Patriots, perhaps falling into their trap of overthrowing. If Mark Sanchez can't beat a faulty Patriots defense at home, do you trust him to throw against the Broncos in a trap game?

9. Sticking with the AFC West, the Raiders are the least trustworthy of the NFL's division leaders at 5-4 and ripe with questions. But they are far more of a sure thing, even if Darren McFadden can't play, than the Vikings, who will have a short week of work after their Monday undressing in Green Bay. It will have been 10 days of rest for the Raiders, who could use some rest for McFadden (foot), PK Sebastian Janikowski (hamstring; he hasn't been himself the past few games) and others such as C Samson Satele and FS Michael Huff. For the Raiders, it's clear what they need to do: stop the run. The Raiders held the Chargers to 75 rushing yards and have allowed an average of below 70 per game on the ground in the five wins; in the four losses, the average has been a shocking 211 per game. Adrian Peterson remains the Vikings' best hope offensively, as the disheveled offensive line could get manhandled trying to pass block the Raiders 40 times. An idle thought: Wonder if people in Los Angeles will be watching this game, wondering if one of these two teams could end up in their fair city one day?

10. The Lions return home with their tails between their legs to prepare for the Panthers, both cats of prey having been blown out last week for the first time all season. The battle of former No. 1 pick quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford, makes it an attractive game, but each are both coming off poor games. Stafford threw four second-half INTs against the Bears, raising doubts about the health of his index finger, and Newton was held to three points for the first time since ... well, he said after the game he never has been held to three points. As in, ever. The Lions clearly have more to lose, and they can't afford to peek ahead at the Thanksgiving date with the Packers and overlook the explosive Panthers. Luckily for Detroit, the Panthers lack special-teams explosion (unlike the Bears) or a capable defense (unlike the Bears) so the emphasis will be rushing Newton and taking him down. The Titans did so five times Sunday, and it really killed any kind of passing rhythm as Steve Smith (5-33-0 receiving) was held in check.

11. The Packers get to drive a stake into the Buccaneers' season. They were dominant again on Monday, and this time the defense came to play. It was around this time last season that the Packers' "D" really cranked it up a notch and helped round off the team into its Super Bowl form. Everyone expects something similar this season, and the group might feast on a Bucs offense that fell flat against the Texans with a mere 231 yards, many coming in garbage time. If you get a lead on the Bucs, it eliminates their run game and turns the ball into the hands of Josh Freeman, who was picked off three times, sacked four times and who completed under 50 percent of his passes on Sunday. His strange season continues; look for the Packers to go for interceptions and challenge the shaky-handed Bucs receivers.

12. Don't look now, but the Cowboys are 5-4 and the schedule, starting with the Redskins this week, is a bit fluffy. In order, they face Rex Grossman (or John Beck if Mike Shanahan pulls another stunning change), Matt Moore, Kevin Kolb (or John Skelton, if Kolb isn't healthy yet), Eli Manning (six INTs last three games vs. Dallas), a struggling Josh Freeman, Michael Vick (with broken ribs, or Vince Young or Mike Kafka) and Manning again. Can they go 5-2? Sure can. It's amazing what Tony Romo can do with a running game, and what a difference this defense makes when it is staked to a lead. Meanwhile, the Redskins have a rough schedule where now every game looks nearly unwinnable. If you don't believe me, take it from Redskins DT Barry Cofield, who was one of the few Redskins still out there gutting it out late in the 20-9 loss to the Dolphins, who hadn't won at home since 2009. "There's no guarantee that we can win another game," Cofield said. "We just don't have a team on our schedule that's just going to lay down and, you know, let us beat them." He continued: "If we don't play better, there's no reason to expect to win any games. The ball's not going to just bounce our way. It could get very ugly. It could get historically ugly."

13. Just as Kevin Kolb couldn't play against his former Eagles team in Week 10, the Chiefs' Matt Cassel (hand injury) apparently will not be fit enough to start in Foxborough, where he once called home. That almost certainly means Tyler Palko will be one of two lefty relievers who will start this week (keep reading), facing a Patriots defense that finally gave itself some confidence in a havoc-wreaking game against the Jets. Yet to be determined is if Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty will be healthy enough to face Palko and prevent the Patriots from having to field a secondary made up completely of undrafted free agents. For Chiefs defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, it will be a homecoming as well, and he once came up with the blueprint as the Browns' head coach that the Giants copied against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Expect him to ask his fine corners to get physical with the Patriots' wideouts and play more coverage than pressure. It has worked against Tom Brady before.

14. Don't assume the Texans are playoff goners without Matt Schaub. He wasn't playing badly, no, and yes, he was winning games, but was it really Schaub doing the heavy lifting? He had a first-class offensive line, the best one-two RB punch in the game and a defense that was night-and-day different from last season's adventure in the secondary. Sure, Schaub was doing it recently without Andre Johnson (who'll be back after this week's bye), but his passing totals were not anything impressive. Enter Matt Leinart, the other southpaw whom I believe will make the most of his opportunity down the stretch with his career in the balance and free agency looming. He's not a game-changer, but he's smart, confident and apparently has learned from Schaub's best attribute, which is his work ethic. The Steelers, a chief AFC contender battling the Texans for playoff seeding, can't be upset at the news that Schaub has gone down. Pittsburgh, though, will have to monitor the status of Ben Roethlisberger's broken thumb during its bye week. He suffered the injury in the win over the Bengals, but he believes he will be able to play in Week 12 vs. the Chiefs.

15. It wasn't long ago that the Saints and Colts, also on bye in Week 11, staged one of the better Super Bowls in recent years. The Saints remain viable; the Colts are dead. They are as big of favorites to land the first pick in the draft as the Packers are landing the top seed in the NFC postseason. The Saints will spend their bye week getting healthy and prepared for a pair of big home games against the Giants and Lions. The Colts, meanwhile, are left to ponder their QB situation and the misery that comes along with Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. There remains the chance that Peyton Manning comes back at some point, but what would the point be? It's looking more and more as if the Colts will draft Andrew Luck No. 1 and release Peyton Manning. They can't afford both feasibly. Luck would be a Week One starter, although count me among those who think he's a poor man's Matt Ryan at best right now. (Not that that is a bad thing.) Instead, the Colts likely will release Manning (trading him is too financially costly) and he'll end up a ... Redskin. How's that for a bold prediction?