Week 10 of the 2011 NFL season features nine games between teams both very much in the postseason hunt. These contests will greatly affect the playoff picture, and some of the games could even be previews of upcoming January matchups.
Beyond that are intriguing storylines that you don't want to miss. The San Francisco 49ers host the New York Giants in a battle for the NFC’s second-best team. Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick go head to head on primetime television. The 6-2 Cincinnati Bengals host last year’s AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Andy Dalton’s first-ever meeting with James Harrison and Troy Polamalu.
Whether it is Drew Brees continuing his quest to break the single-season record for passing yards, Cam Newton stating his case to win Offensive Rookie of the Year or Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears trying to overtake the 6-2 Detroit Lions, this week of football is a good one.
The following slides break down the games for you. You’ll see who’s playing, what’s at stake for each team, which players are key to the outcome and who will win.
This contest opens a seven-week stretch of Thursday Night Football. It’s essentially a midseason playoff game for both these teams, as the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs are locked in a three-way tie for the AFC West lead.
Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers each had three-interception games last week and will be looking to get back on the right track. Palmer has thrown six picks in six quarters of play since joining the Raiders, while Rivers leads the NFL with 14.
Expect Rivers to bounce back with a strong game. The Chargers have the NFL’s ninth-ranked pass-blocking unit according to Pro Football Focus, and the Raiders have just 10 sacks as a team in eight games. The Chargers are also on their home turf, and they’ve historically excelled in the second half under Norv Turner.
A win in this game puts the Chargers in good position to capture their fourth division title in the last five years.
Prediction: San Diego 31, Oakland 21
This game was supposed to be billed as Kevin Kolb's big return to Philly, but it appears as if Kolb’s ankle injury will sideline him and give John Skelton the start. If so, Skelton will be under center for the second week in a row, and he played well enough in an overtime win against the St. Louis Rams last week to possibly spark a quarterback controversy in Arizona.
Skelton likely won’t see too much success against the Philadelphia Eagles though. The Eagles’ trio of highly touted cornerbacks is vastly underachieving, but the pass rush of Trent Cole and Jason Babin against tackles Levi Brown and Brandon Keith swings greatly in the Eagles’ favor.
The Eagles have proven this year they will only go as far as they allow themselves to go; the talent is there to beat anyone in the league but turnovers and fourth-quarter collapses have plagued them. At 3-5, the Eagles need to win at least seven of their final eight games to make the playoffs. Sunday’s game should be no problem, especially for a team that plays much better in November and December.
Prediction: Philadelphia 23, Arizona 16
When the NFL schedule first came out, it looked as if this game might put the top two quarterbacks from the draft head to head. Cam Newton is running an MVP campaign with the Carolina Panthers, but Matt Hasselbeck has played well enough in his first year in the AFC that Jake Locker has taken just three snaps.
Despite the gap in their win-loss records, these are two evenly matched teams. The Tennessee Titans have a point differential of minus-13, while the Panthers are at minus-20. The Panthers have suffered a slew of close losses (1-5 in close games) and have a QB-to-WR combo (Newton and Steve Smith) that can always strike with a big play.
The Panthers do have a terrible run defense—27th in the league in rushing yards allowed and 31st in touchdowns allowed—but it’s not as if Chris Johnson has been tearing it up this season. I expect this to be a ground game, with the edge going to the trio of Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.
Prediction: Carolina 24, Tennessee 16
This game has playoff implications for both teams, mainly the Houston Texans. At 6-3, the Texans are comfortably in the driver’s seat of the AFC South with a 1.5-game lead over the 4-4 Tennessee Titans.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hanging on at 4-4 in the competitive NFC South, but a minus-49-point differential suggests they are overachieving even at .500. Their 24th-ranked offense will square up against the No. 1-ranked defense of the Texans, which is riding a phenomenal coaching performance by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
The loss of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy for the Bucs was a huge one, especially since the Texans bring a pair of talented running backs in Arian Foster (656 yards, 4.3 YPC) and Ben Tate (623 yards, 5.7 YPC) against the 26th-ranked rushing defense in terms of yards per attempt.
Andre Johnson has missed five consecutive games nursing a hamstring injury, but if he returns, he gives the Texans even more of a mismatch against the Bucs pass defense (25th in passer rating).
Prediction: Houston 31, Tampa Bay 13
Set up your DVR for this game. John Beck makes his much-anticipated return to Miami, going against the team for which he threw one touchdown pass in five games during the 2007 season.
Matt Moore is coming off a surprising AFC Offensive Player of the Week award for his three-touchdown outing against the Kansas City Chiefs. Reggie Bush has been running more efficiently the last two weeks, and fortunately for the Dolphins, the Redskins don’t have a great group of receivers to challenge Miami’s 30th-ranked pass defense (in terms of passer rating).
The Washington Redskins will be able to get some pressure on Moore, as the ‘Skins have the league’s third-ranked pass-rushing unit against the Dolphins’ underperforming offensive line. The Redskins also have the advantage—believe it or not—of being the road team, as the Dolphins have lost seven straight home games.
Expect the streak to end Sunday. The Dolphins are significantly better than their 1-7 record, and the Redskins are mired in a four-game losing streak...about to be five.
Prediction: Miami 16, Washington 13
If you miss out on Miami vs. Washington, be sure to clear your schedule for this matchup. David Garrard and the Jacksonville Jaguars take on Peyton Manning and the Indianap…
No, that’s not right. Blaine Gabbert opposes Curtis Painter in a battle of the NFL’s 33rd- and 35th-rated passers.
The Colts’ league-worst run and pass defense will be refreshing for Gabbert, who seems to be regressing on a weekly basis. Maurice Jones-Drew and his surgically repaired knee are sixth in the league in rushing yards (740), and the Jaguars have the fifth-rated defense in total yards. They will be able to walk away with a win on Sunday, but it won’t be enough to save Jack Del Rio’s job at the end of the season.
Prediction: Jacksonville 24, Indianapolis 21
A month ago, this game seemed like a lost cause. Now, it actually has some impact on the AFC playoff standings.
The Kansas City Chiefs won four straight before losing last week to the Miami Dolphins. The Denver Broncos—two wins in three games under Tim Tebow—are just a game back in the division. Neither of these teams really deserves the postseason, but if the Broncos win this, the AFC West becomes even tighter.
Despite how you feel about Tebow as a quarterback, the Broncos don’t have the defense to stay in this game. Their secondary has allowed more touchdowns than any team in the league, and the defense as a unit is second-to-last in yards.
The Chiefs aren’t much better with the 26th-ranked scoring defense, and their equally ranked scoring offense makes it hard to believe they’re actually a .500 team. It’s a shame that this game will affect the playoff standings so much, but it will.
Prediction: Kansas City 21, Denver 20
Last time these two teams met, the Dallas Cowboys pulled off one for the ages—winning on not one, but two 53-yard field goals as time expired (a timeout negated the first one), overcoming five interceptions by Tony Romo.
This time, the surprising Buffalo Bills are smack-dab in the middle of the playoff picture. The Cowboys are underachieving as always, but a Dallas win and New York Giants loss would put America's Team just a game back in the NFC East.
The recent injury of Kyle Williams is a huge loss to the Bills, although rookie Marcell Dareus has been thriving at nose tackle. The Bills have been winning football games by forcing turnovers, quietly disguising the fact that Buffalo is 26th in total defense.
The Cowboys have a high-powered offense with Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten leading a strong passing attack, and breakout running back DeMarco Murray establishing a name for himself. The Bills will struggle to put up the points to match Dallas, although the Bills’ top-rated offensive line will buy protection for Ryan Fitzpatrick and Fred Jackson.
Offense will steal the show in this game, although it’s just a hunch that it will ultimately come down to Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey.
Prediction: Dallas 31, Buffalo 28
Surprisingly, the New Orleans Saints (not the Green Bay Packers) have the NFL’s top scoring offense—a unit that is on pace for a whopping 510 points on the season.
Drew Brees is continuing his assault on Dan Marino’s single-season yardage record, and he will be sure to pick on Dunta Robinson, the Atlanta Falcons’ $57 million cornerback who has allowed a passer rating of 130.6 in 34 targets.
Matt Ryan has regressed from an underrated 2010 season, but the Falcons should do some damage against the Saints rush defense. Michael Turner is seventh in the league in rushing yards, and the Saints are yielding an NFL-worst 5.3 yards per carry.
This game will be an offensive shootout between two teams fighting for the NFC South title. Each of the last five times they’ve met has been a one-score outcome. Expect Sunday to continue that streak.
Prediction: New Orleans 38, Atlanta 31
Normally, any team hosting the St. Louis Rams would be given an automatic win, but the Rams do have several things working in their favor.
Both Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty have been ruled out, meaning the Cleveland Browns will have to contend with Chris Ogbonnaya and Thomas Clayton running the ball. The duo combined for 38 ground yards on 18 carries last week, so the Rams’ last-ranked rushing defense catches a break in this category.
Steven Jackson—coming off 159-yard and 130-yard performances in consecutive weeks—will have another strong day against the Browns’ poor rush defense. I never like to take a bad team on the road, but I have a hunch with the Rams.
Prediction: St. Louis 20, Cleveland 13
If you correctly predicted before the season that this matchup would be between a pair of six-win teams, I tip my hat to you.
The Cincinnati Bengals have been the surprise of the AFC through eight games. Their pass defense ranks first in yards per attempt, and the pass rush is strong enough to cause trouble for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ subpar offensive line.
The Bengals minimize mistakes on offense, and the Steelers rank dead last in the league in turnovers forced. What Pittsburgh does do is play tough, physical football, though, and Andy Dalton will be in for a rough day against the third-ranked defense.
The winner gets an edge in the AFC North race, although the loser is still very much alive. After a tough loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday Night Football, the Steelers will bounce back strong.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Cincinnati 20
Each of these squads is in second place in its respective division, but in far different positions in the playoff picture. The Baltimore Ravens are tied with the Bengals in record but lose the tiebreaker. Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks are five games behind the San Francisco 49ers and all but out of contention.
The Ravens will be riding into Seattle on an emotional victory against the Steelers. The numbers all point to a Baltimore win, and I see no reason to disagree with the mathematics: The Ravens have the No. 2 scoring defense, and the Seahawks bring just the 28th-ranked scoring offense.
Don’t expect much production from Tarvaris Jackson and Marshawn Lynch against the tough Ravens defense.
Prediction: Baltimore 24, Seattle 3
Call this the NFC’s game of the week, as the 6-2 New York Giants battle the 7-1 San Francisco 49ers for the right to call themselves the second-best team in the conference.
Jim Harbaugh has done wonders in San Francisco, turning the defense into the NFL’s No. 1 unit in scoring. Ahmad Bradshaw’s stress fracture in his foot may keep him out next week, which will leave it up to Brandon Jacobs to make plays against a team that hasn’t given up a touchdown on the ground this season.
Eli Manning will have to compensate for a shaky running game against a tough unit, and Manning is coming off arguably his best day as a pro.
The Giants also have an elite group of players who can get to the quarterback, making the recipe for a brute, physical contest between two teams that could very easily meet again in January.
Prediction: New York Giants 27, San Francisco 24
This game seems like an easy Detroit Lions win: a tremendous pass-rushing unit against an offensive line that has had Jay Cutler running for his life in the first eight games.
Don’t forget, though, that the Bears didn’t allow a single sack against the Philadelphia Eagles’ elite group of defensive ends.
Cutler has had an underrated season under center, but he will have his work cut out for him—not only in the mismatch between the lines, but also throwing against the Lions’ surprisingly successful pass defense.
Last time these teams met, Jahvid Best rushed for 163 yards on just 12 carries, but he will likely miss this coming game, as he recovers from his most recent concussion. That leaves the job to Keiland Williams and Maurice Morris, neither of whom can be counted on as a starter. Meanwhile for the Bears, Matt Forte is a playmaker, and he will be used both as a runner and a receiver.
I expect a tremendous game between two teams that desperately need a win. With the Green Bay Packers in prime position to lock up the division, both the Lions and Bears will need to make it via a wild-card spot. The Lions get the nod because they are coming off a bye week.
Prediction: Detroit 31, Chicago 28
This game is a battle not only for a playoff spot and an advantage in the AFC East race, but also for pride. These two coaches—Bill Belichick and Rex Ryan—hate each other, and the Patriots-Jets rivalry is quickly becoming one of the best in the sport.
The game pits the Patriots’ high-scoring offense against the Jets’ strong defense. The Patriots won the first matchup by nine points, totaling nearly 200 more yards. Mark Sanchez had a strong day against the Patriots’ depleted secondary, and this is a unit for the Patriots that seems to get thinner every week.
Quite simply, I see the game coming down to passing: Tom Brady against Darrelle Revis & Co., and Sanchez against the NFL’s worst passing defense.
The edge goes to the Jets because they are home, and I think they will enact revenge for their early-season loss.
Prediction: New York Jets 24, New England 23
Through eight games, the 2011 Packers offense is looking much like the 2007 Patriots team that went 16-0 in the regular season.
No team has been able to slow down Aaron Rodgers in 2011. He has posted a passer rating of 110 or more every single game, and that streak should continue against the 2-6 Minnesota Vikings.
Adrian Peterson had a 171-yard outing against the Packers back in Week 7, but even that shouldn’t be enough for the Vikings to overtake the NFL’s lone undefeated team.
Prediction: Green Bay 45, Minnesota 23