There are seven teams — nearly a quarter of the league — with identical 4-5 records heading into Week 11. Since 1990, 16 clubs with a losing record after nine games have made the playoffs. Most recently, the Tim Tebow-led 2011 Denver Broncos won four of their last seven games, clinched a division title and won a playoff game. All seven 4-5 teams are in action this weekend. A win puts them in the thick of the playoff hunt. A loss? Well, the odds aren’t nearly as good. The “on the bubble” teams are just one of several storylines to watch this weekend. Here are my Top 10. — Peter Schrager Watch: Schrager and Marvez debate Week 11 topics.
Luck vs. Brady — Part I
If the playoffs were to start this weekend, both the Patriots and Colts would be playing in the wild-card round. No one in their wildest dreams ever thought a Patriots-Colts game would get more intriguing after Peyton Manning left town. But this one has all the intrigue of Manning-Brady and more. Indianapolis has won four straight games, the Patriots haven’t exactly been lights out at home this season, and Andrew Luck should be able to tear apart New England’s struggling defensive backfield. I love this game. Short of Denver-Indianapolis, I can’t imagine a more delightful first-round playoff matchup in the AFC. Watch: Billick previews Pats-Colts
Is this the start of a crucial 3-game home win streak for Dallas? It has to be.
Unlike the Jets’ anonymous source this week, I put my name next to a bold proclamation in my Week 11 Cheat Sheet: The Cowboys are playoff bound. To do that (and help avoid making me look like a fool), they absolutely have to win their next three games: home against Cleveland, home against Washington, home against Philadelphia. Cleveland’s played well on the road in both Cincinnati and Indianapolis, but the Browns shouldn’t be able to score enough to beat Dallas on Sunday. This is it for the Cowboys. It started last week with the win in Philadelphia. It has to continue on Sunday.
Can the Bears avoid another second-half swoon?
People forget that the Bears were 7-3 last season after 10 games, only to lose Jay Cutler to injury, then lose five of their last six games and finish outside of the NFC playoff picture. Chicago’s 7-2 and still in command of the division, but that chokehold could dissipate quickly with a few losses and a few Green Bay wins. The Packers play five divisional games in their next seven, while Chicago finishes with seven NFC opponents, all currently with a 4-5 record or better. Cutler’s health, of course, will play a major role. Then again, there’s a reason they spent big money on signing backup Jason Campbell this offseason.
Is Sunday’s Broncos-Chargers game Norv Turner’s last stand?
It’s doubtful that the Chargers would fire Turner in the middle of the season, but it’s also tough to imagine him being back next season if San Diego doesn’t make a miracle run to the playoffs. It all looked great for San Diego at about 7:30 p.m. PT on Oct. 15. Up 24-0 and smacking around the rival Broncos, the division title and a playoff run all seemed within reach. Then came the second-half collapse. Thirty-five straight Broncos points, a loss and a critical blow to the team’s momentum. After a bye week, San Diego lost 7-6 to Cleveland, and two weeks later fell to the Bucs. A loss to the Broncos on Sunday would put the Chargers three games behind Denver in the AFC West, with a 0-2 mark against the division leaders. A win? Well, a win would be a shocking development. It’d also put the Chargers right back in the thick of the AFC playoff mix.
The revenge of Wayne Hunter and Brian Schottenheimer.
A story about a seldom-used backup quarterback, a 3-6 team and mysterious “unnamed sources” stole a bit of the spotlight away from an even better storyline this Sunday in St. Louis. Brian Schottenheimer was cut loose from the Jets coaching staff at the end of the 2011 season. Scapegoat No. 1. A few months later, Wayne Hunter, a starting offensive tackle who struggled in the preseason, was traded after a horrendous August performance against the crosstown rival Giants. Scapegoat No. 2. Both Schottenheimer and Hunter have resurfaced in St. Louis and are having career revivals of sorts. The Rams offense isn’t lighting up the scoreboard by any means (26th overall), but it’s head and shoulders better than Rex Ryan and Tony Sparano’s “Ground and Pound” attack. Don’t be shocked if the Rams come out and smoke the Jets. It’s personal for a few guys in St. Louis.
It’s the start of the Nick Foles era in Philadelphia. Can he stay upright for four quarters?
You can look at the Washington defense and say, “Well, this is the perfect unit to get your first career start against,” and you wouldn’t be wrong. Of course, any quarterback starting behind Philadelphia’s offensive line is at risk. They — and by “they," I mean the fans, the media and the coaches — love Foles. He’s got a grasp of the offense, a lively arm and a quiet confidence. The potential is through the roof. Let’s just hope he makes it through four quarters on Sunday. The Philadelphia offensive line is that bad.
Just how badly will the Texans pound the Jaguars?
Still alive in your survivor pool? Well, it goes without saying, but this is your pick for this week. I watched the film from Jacksonville’s loss to the Colts last Thursday night. I wish I hadn’t. It was like watching a poorly shot movie with amateur actors. The offense is stagnant, Blaine Gabbert checks down on nine out of 10 passes and first-round draft pick Justin Blackmon doesn’t stand out whatsoever. It’s a shame. We heard a lot about the Jaguars this summer. They had a new coach, a new offense and their quarterback had all sorts of new weapons at receiver. Typical summertime hype, and yet, we all fell for it hook, line and sinker. With Maurice Jones-Drew or without, this is not a winning football team. Houston should have no problems putting this game away early.
Can the Packers overcome their injuries and escape Detroit with a W?
The Packers offensive line has had its issues this season and could have even more on Sunday vs. the Lions. Bryan Bulaga, the reliable right tackle, already has been placed on the IR and listed out for the season. Clay Matthews Jr. has been listed as out, Charles Woodson and Greg Jennings aren’t back and Jordy Nelson will be a game-time decision. The Packers should be fresh off their bye week, but they’re anything but fully healthy. Detroit has struggled mightily against Green Bay in recent years. Defending its home turf and beating a beaten-up Packers squad would make a statement. It’d also keep the Lions in the NFC playoff mix.
Forget the 8-1 Falcons. The Cardinals absolutely need a win Sunday at Atlanta.
This is it for Arizona. After starting the season ablaze with a 4-0 record, the Cardinals have lost five straight, dropping them from atop the NFC West to outside the playoff picture. Arizona’s offensive line is a joke, the quarterback situation is barely any better and the running game is nonexistent. Now they’ve got to go into the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons have lost just twice since 2010, and upset an angry Atlanta team. A win puts you at 5-5 and keeps you in the postseason hunt. A loss knocks you to 4-6. In the crowded NFC? That means you can get a head start on 2013 draft preparation.
Can Joe Flacco break out of his road game funk and beat the Byron Leftwich-led Steelers?
Sure, Ben Roethlisberger is out with an injury physicians say is so rare that they haven’t seen it since 1998. And yes, Flacco led the Ravens to a win in Pittsburgh on a Sunday night last season. And sure, Baltimore's 4-0 against the Steelers without Roethlisberger in the lineup since 2004. But Flacco’s been a different player at home and on the road this season. Baltimore is 2-2 in games played outside of Baltimore, with those wins coming against woeful Cleveland and the dreadful Chiefs. Leftwich, who has a delivery so slow that a shot clock should go off every time he finally throws the ball, is not Roethlisberger. But he might not have to be on Sunday night. This one rides on Flacco beling able to deliver in a big spot on the road, not Leftwich’s arm.