NFL Nation: Final Word 2011 Week 11

Final Word: NFC North

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
1:32
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge on Week 11:

Pursuing perfection: Traditionally, talk of a 16-0 season ramps up once a team gets to 10 victories. The Green Bay Packers will reach that milestone Sunday if they defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, losers of three consecutive games. The Packers also started 10-0 in 1962, a year they finished 13-1 and won the NFL title. Since the 1970 merger, 13 teams have started 10-0. Nine advanced to the Super Bowl and six of those teams won the title. It's worth noting that a victory Sunday would mean the Packers are 16-0 in their past 16 games, dating back to Week 16 of 2010 and including the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireIn two career starts against Tampa Bay, both losses, Aaron Rodgers has thrown six interceptions.
Rodgers revenge? Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has lost both career starts to the Bucs. He threw twice as many interceptions (six) in those two games as he has in all nine games of 2011 combined (three). Both games were played at Raymond James Stadium, but you would be fooling yourself if you didn't think Rodgers would use those performances as motivation this week. And I'm guessing Rodgers will find room for another chip on his shoulder after ESPN analyst Skip Bayless called him "thin-skinned" and questioned whether he will be a clutch player late this season. (Bayless was responding to Rodgers' criticism of him during this week's ESPN 540 radio show.)

Into the Bears' den: San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers had committed an NFL-high 19 turnovers this season, including 15 interceptions and four lost fumbles. No other player has higher than 10 at this point. Suffice it to say, the Chicago Bears aren't a good matchup for a turnover machine. After forcing six turnovers last Sunday against the Detroit Lions, the Bears are tied for No. 2 in the NFL with 20 takeaways this season. They'll miss ball hawk nickel back D.J. Moore, but recent history suggests Rivers will give them multiple opportunities to make plays Sunday at Soldier Field.

The truth shall…: The Lions blamed wind gusts for quarterback Matthew Stafford's inaccuracy last week, downplaying the role of his fractured right index finger. We should get a better idea of the injury's impact when the Lions host the Carolina Panthers at Ford Field, an indoor stadium free of all weather concerns. Stafford, who completed 52.3 percent of his passes and threw four interceptions against the Bears, continued to wear gloves in practice this week to help grip the ball. That alone speaks to the severity of the injury. Rare is a quarterback who prefers to wear gloves if they aren't absolutely necessary.

Something must give: The Minnesota Vikings have been outscored in the second half more than every other NFL team this season (155-56). The Oakland Raiders aren't that far behind, ranking third after giving up 148 points in the second half so far this season and scoring 84 points. What does that tell us about Sunday's matchup between the teams at the Metrodome? The Raiders have done a better job surviving second-half comeback attempts. They're 5-4 and the Vikings are 2-7.

Final Word: NFC West

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
1:31
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Skelton's opportunity. Arizona Cardinals quarterback John Skelton steps up in class when he faces the San Francisco 49ers' defense. The matchup figures to be a tough one from a protection standpoint, but the Cardinals have found ways to strike for big plays this season. They have seven pass plays of at least 40 yards this season, fourth-most in the league behind Detroit, Green Bay and Houston. The 49ers have given up seven such plays, tied for fourth-most in the league. That gives Arizona a puncher's chance against the 49ers. And if Skelton can somehow pull out a victory, his stock will rise considerably.

[+] EnlargeSteven Jackson
David Richard/US PresswireThe Rams' Steven Jackson has 30 career games with at least 100 rushing yards.
Ganging up on power backs. Steven Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, Beanie Wells and Frank Gore give the NFC West four running backs able to dish out punishment. All are physical runners. I'm most interested in seeing whether Jackson can top 100 yards rushing for the fourth game in a row. He has 30 career games with at least 100 yards, but none against Seattle. That's surprising given that Jackson has faced the Seahawks more times than he has faced any other team -- 14, counting playoffs.

49ers hold their ground. Every NFL team but the 49ers has allowed at least three rushing touchdowns this season. San Francisco has allowed zero. The 49ers are the first team since the 1999 Jacksonville Jaguars to go nine games into a season without allowing one, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Cardinals rank tied for 11th in the league with eight rushing scores, but they have zero in their past two games. Wells' injured knee has robbed power from him. Wells had only 10 carries for 29 yards against the 49ers last season. He did carry 15 times for 79 yards against them as a rookie in 2009.

Cornerbacks in focus. The St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks will play without cornerbacks Ron Bartell, Bradley Fletcher, Jerome Murphy, Al Harris, Walter Thurmond or Marcus Trufant, among others. The team best able to exploit issues in the secondary could prevail. Seattle feels better about its cornerback situation, but the raw talent is questionable. Two of the Seahawks' five players at the position were undrafted. Two others are rookies. None of the five was drafted earlier than the fifth round. That was partly by design, however. The team traded 2006 first-rounder Kelly Jennings and 2007 second-rounder Josh Wilson.

Explosive potential in return game. Patrick Peterson and Ted Ginn Jr. give the Cardinals-49ers game big-play potential on returns. Peterson has helped Arizona go from 27th last season to second this season in punt-return average. He leads the NFL in that category with a 17.6-yard average among players with more than 15 punt returns. His three touchdowns on punt returns also lead the NFL. The 49ers' Ginn ranks third in punt-return average and third in kick-return average among players with more than 15 returns in each category. He also has two touchdowns. The Cardinals' kick returner, LaRod Stephens-Howling, has been quiet this season. He scored three times on returns over the previous two seasons.

Final Word: AFC East

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Here are five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Prime-time Patriots: The New England Patriots will play their second prime-time game in a row and third this season. That's good news, because New England has stepped up this season when the spotlight is at its brightest. The Patriots are 2-0 in prime-time games and both were won in impressive fashion. New England outscored the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins in night games by a combined score of 75-40. The Patriots also will be heavy favorites at home against the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesTom Brady and the Patriots are looking to go 3-0 in prime time with a win against the Chiefs.
Pressuring Palko: Look for New England to do some heavy blitzing this week. Kansas City will start little-known backup quarterback Tyler Palko because of a hand injury to Matt Cassel. Palko has thrown just 13 career passes. The Patriots are ranked last in the NFL in total defense, but played a great game last week against the Jets. New England registered a season-high five sacks against New York. Starting defensive end Andre Carter had 4.5 of those sacks. The Chiefs were 27th in passing when Cassel was healthy. Don't expect it to get much better with Palko.

Gut check for Buffalo: The Buffalo Bills are falling out of the playoff race and running out of time. Buffalo is fortunate for its fast start. The Bills remain in the AFC East and wild-card race despite being 2-4 in their past six games. But Buffalo cannot afford to continue its slide and has a huge gut-check game Sunday against the Miami Dolphins. If the Bills (5-4) can't beat the 2-7 Dolphins, they're clearly not a playoff team this season.

Dolphins getting defensive: Last year's sixth-ranked defense finally showed up to play in the 2011 season. Miami’s defense has been lights out the past two weeks, allowing just six points per game in that span. Miami hasn't allowed a touchdown since Oct. 30. The Dolphins’ defense has gradually climbed up the rankings and is now at No. 20 in yards allowed. Miami also gets to face a Buffalo offense that has struggled as of late.

Wild-card watch: The Bills and Jets will be watching several teams of interest this weekend. The biggest game involves the AFC North battle between the Baltimore Ravens (6-3) and Cincinnati Bengals (6-3). If the season ended today, those teams would be the two wild cards in the AFC. Baltimore owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over New York. The Bengals own the head-to-head advantage over the Bills. Also in the mix are the Tennessee Titans (5-4), who play on the road against the Atlanta Falcons Sunday.

Final Word: NFC South

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11 (remember, the New Orleans Saints have a bye):

Crunch time: It would be a very long shot for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to go into Lambeau Field and defeat the Packers. But I’m going to be keeping a close eye on this one for reasons other than the final score. I want to see if the Bucs show effort in this one. In last week’s loss to Houston, a lack of effort was a serious problem. There’s been a lot of emphasis around One Buccaneer Place this week on getting a better effort. I’m real curious to see if that happens. If it doesn’t, coach Raheem Morris officially could move onto the hot seat. When a team isn’t giving much effort in the second half of a season, ownership -- and the rest of the world -- will look at that as a reflection on the coach.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireBucs QB Josh Freeman has thrown 13 interceptions this season.
Running away:The Bucs have started slowly on offense pretty much all season and have had a tendency to fall behind early. That’s become an even bigger problem in the current three-game losing streak. The Bucs have been quick to abandon the run after falling behind. In the past three games, they’ve averaged just seven running plays in the second half. When that happens, quarterback Josh Freeman is placed in a tough spot. Freeman, who only threw six interceptions last season, already has thrown 13 this season. That leads the NFC and is second in the NFL. The last Tampa Bay quarterback to have 13 interceptions through the first nine games of a season was Trent Dilfer back in 1996.

Road woes: The Carolina Panthers have lost their past 11 road games. That ties them for the second-longest road losing streak in the league since 2006 and it’s the longest active streak in the NFL. The only longer streak was by the Lions, who lost 26 straight road games from 2007 to 2010.

Home woes:The Falcons were dominant in the Georgia Dome in the first three years of coach Mike Smith’s tenure. But they’re 2-2 at home this season. A loss to Tennessee on Sunday would give the Falcons more home losses than they’ve had in any season since Smith took over. But it’s not like the Georgia Dome has suddenly become a friendly place for visiting teams. It was about as loud as I’ve ever heard it last Sunday. People who say the Falcons are struggling at home need to remember their two losses have been to the Packers and Saints.

Stay in your lane: The Atlanta linebackers are going to be a key in Sunday’s matchup. They need to keep Chris Johnson from turning the corner. After a very slow start, Johnson has come on the past two games. Through Week 8, he was averaging just 2.5 yards per carry when running outside the tackles. In the past two games, he’s averaged 5.7 yards when running to the outside.

Final Word: AFC West

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

[+] EnlargeKevin Boss
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIKevin Boss has not made much of an impact in the Raiders' offense this season.
The Oakland Raiders need to use the tight end more: With new Oakland starting quarterback Carson Palmer getting more comfortable, it will be interesting to see if the Raiders start utilizing their tight ends. Kevin Boss has been targeted just 11 times this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. However, Boss has caught 10 passes for 192 yards. He caught a huge pass from Palmer in a Week 10 win at San Diego in the fourth quarter. Boss has been slowed by injuries at some points of the season and he barely played in the Week 9 loss to Denver. Former starter Jason Campbell liked using the tight ends before he was hurt.

The Kansas City Chiefs will have to adjust to the left: In addition to getting used to a new quarterback Monday night at New England, the Chiefs must get used to a different spin of the ball. With starter Matt Cassel likely out for the rest of the season with a hand injury that will require surgery, the Chiefs are turning to Tyler Palko. He is left-handed, which is fairly rare in the NFL. In the offseason, Kansas City coach Todd Haley told me he was excited to pair Palko with new quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn, who was a successful lefty quarterback. I did a story on left-handed quarterbacks in 2010 shortlyafter Denver drafted lefty Tim Tebow. Many people who have experience being in a left-handed led offense said there is an adjustment period, but it is not impossible to get used to.

Will Philip Rivers' problems finally end? It seems every week, there is new statistical evidence about Rivers' less-than-stellar 2011 season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he has completed 44.7 of his passes in the red zone. That is the sixth worst percentage in the NFL. Rivers has 24 underthrown incompletions this season, and six of them have been intercepted. He had a total of 40 of those passes last year with just two interceptions.

Raiders can’t let Peterson run all day: The 5-4 Raiders should be able to stay in first place after Week 11 as they are favored over the Vikings. However, the Vikings can stay in the game if star running back Adrian Peterson can establish an attack. He is having another strong season and has 846 yards and while averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He also has 10 rushing touchdowns. Oakland has been vulnerable against the run this season and have allowed way too many big run plays. The Raiders are ranked 25th in the league against the run.

Bad memories for Brady: This is the first time New England quarterback Tom Brady will face the Chiefs since he was lost for the season on opening day of 2008. Brady was shelved for the season on a hit by former Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard. The hit would end up affecting the Chiefs as well. Cassel, Brady’s backup, went on to have a good season as Brady’s replacement. After the season, the Chiefs hired New England executive Scott Pioli, who made trading for Cassel his first major priority in Kansas City.

Final Word: NFC East

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Cowboys going conservative? According to ESPN Stats & Information, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is throwing downfield with much less frequency over his past four games. In the Cowboys' first five games of the season, Romo averaged 6.6 passes of 15 or more yards downfield per game and had a completion percentage of 48.5 with three touchdowns and two interceptions on those throws. But in the past four games, he's averaging only 4.5 such attempts per game and completing 61.1 percent of them with five touchdowns and just one interception. So while he's still taking his shots downfield, Romo seems to be doing so more judiciously and with greater effectiveness.

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireDallas running back DeMarco Murray has 601 rushing yards over the past four games.
Run game a team effort: A big part of the reason Romo hasn't had to go downfield as much is the emergence of rookie running back DeMarco Murray, who has 601 rushing yards over the past four games. But it looks as though improvements on the offensive line have had more than a little bit to do with Murray's success. Stats & Info says Murray's 3.3 yards per carry after contact on runs between the tackles is the best such average in the NFL this season, and his 4.0 yards per carry before contact on runs between the tackles is also the best. So he's hard to bring down, sure, but they're also opening up nice holes for him.

Bag the blitz: The Cowboys ought to be able to pressure Washington Redskins quarterback Rex Grossman into mistakes out of their base 3-4 defense. Of Grossman's 11 interceptions this season, nine have come in situations when the opposing defense sends four or fewer rushers. The Cowboys have nine interceptions as a team this season when rushing four or fewer, which is the fourth-best figure in the NFL. With DeMarcus Ware coming off the edge, they don't need much help getting to the quarterback. And it appears Grossman is the kind of quarterback who will force a throw and make a mistake even when faced with minimal pressure.

Home away from home: Counting playoff games, the Philadelphia Eagles have won four straight road games against the New York Giants. That's their longest road winning streak against the Giants since they rattled off eight in a row from 1974-81. Eagles fans and Giants fans alike will remember the last time these teams met in the Meadowlands as the game in which the Giants blew that huge second-half lead and DeSean Jackson ran a punt back with no time left on the clock to deliver a victory that propelled the Eagles to the division title and helped dash the Giants' playoff hopes. This season, though, it's the Eagles who blow the fourth-quarter leads (in five of their six losses), and Jackson has been a non-factor in the return game as well as the passing game.

Two-minute Manning: Giants quarterback Eli Manning has four touchdown passes so far this season in the final two minutes of either the first or second half of a game. ESPN Stats & Information says that's tied with New England's Tom Brady for the most such touchdown passes in this league this season, and that since the start of 2008, no quarterback in the league has more touchdown passes in the final two minutes of halves than Manning, who as 20. That puts him one ahead of his big brother, Peyton Manning, who has 19, two ahead of the Saints' Drew Brees and four ahead of Romo and the Bears' Jay Cutler. Interesting list.

Final Word: AFC South

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Good matchup: Cleveland has an anemic offense and an unbalanced defense. On paper, the Jaguars’ burgeoning defense should be able to have a good day against quarterback Colt McCoy. The Jaguars’ offense should be able to really ride Maurice Jones-Drew against the 30th-ranked run defense, which allows 142.8 yards on ground per game. The Browns are No. 1 in pass defense, in part because of a Joe Haden-led secondary, in part because when opponents run that well against them, they don’t need to throw it as much. Doesn’t seem like a potential breakout day for Jags QB Blaine Gabbert.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Matt Sullivan/Getty ImagesChris Johnson was effective last week with the Titans protecting a big lead. Can he keep it up against the Falcons?
Running without a lead: Chris Johnson had a breakout game last week in Carolina. But the Titans were very quickly in position where they could force-feed him. A quick 14-0 put the team into position where it was easy to hand the ball off and work the same run plays over and over. And that was healthy for the Titans. But in a game like Sunday’s at Atlanta, the question is whether the Titans can run Johnson effectively from the start in a game where the Titans probably don’t jump out to a big, early lead.

Few fireworks: The Jaguars and the Browns have each scored more than 17 points only once this season. Jacksonville averages 12.8 points (31st in the NFL) and Cleveland averages 14.6 (28th). Want more? These are the two worst teams in the league in yards per play, with the Jaguars averaging 4.0 and the Browns 4.4. But beware. Often when we pile up a list of stats indicating there won’t be much offense or many points, we get a 40-38 game. Also note the Jaguars have won only once on the road this season.

Safe and sound: The Titans have gotten just what they envisioned from QB Matt Hasselbeck when they signed him. They thought with good protection he’d return to his best form, and he has. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Hasselbeck has been sacked, hit while throwing or under duress on the lowest percentage of drop-backs this season -- 15.9. When he’s not under duress, he’s completed 65.2 percent of his passes. (Sometimes he rushes things; something to keep an eye out for.) Atlanta has 15 sacks, with right end John Abraham and tackle Corey Peters having three apiece.

Bye week thoughts: I’m not sure there is much the Colts can be thinking or doing during their weekend off that will do much to change the course of their miserable season and a potential 0-16 record. Houston, meanwhile, should allow itself some degree of satisfaction over its 7-3 record and No. 1 defensive ranking. When the Texans return to action, they’ll need to make things as easy as possible for Matt Leinart as he steps in at quarterback to replace the injured Matt Schaub. The Jaguars' defense will be a stiff challenge for him, but Houston’s rushing attack and D should give it a good chance at win No. 8 on Nov. 27 in Jacksonville.

Final Word: AFC North

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
1:30
PM ET
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 11:

Struggles against Bengals: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has yet to figure out the Bengals' Cover 2 defense. In his past four games against Cincinnati, he's thrown two touchdowns and nine interceptions. His quarterback rating against the Bengals during that stretch is 52.8. The worst regular-season game of his career came at Cincinnati a year ago when he was picked off four times. What works in Flacco's favor this time is the Bengals' cornerbacks are different. Johnathan Joseph went to Houston as a free agent, and Leon Hall went down with a season-ending injury last Sunday. He'll be throwing against Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeMaurice-Jones Drew
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesThe Browns' 30th-ranked run defense will face a stiff test against Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew.
Struggles against the run: If you're the Cleveland Browns, one of the last running backs you want to face is Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew, who has gained 100 yards rushing in two of his past three games. Comparatively, the Browns have allowed an NFL-worst six running backs to crack 100 yards in eight games this season. No other defense has allowed more than four running backs to do this, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The struggles on run defense are surprising because the Browns have been so strong up the middle with defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Phillip Taylor along with middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. Cleveland ranks 30th in run defense.

Protecting the rookie: A major reason why Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has succeeded this season has been his offensive line. The Bengals have allowed 13 sacks for the season, which is tied for third fewest in the NFL, and have given up just two over the past four games. The Bengals' protection will get tested by the Ravens, one of the most aggressive defenses this year. Baltimore has recorded the third most sacks in the league with 27. At Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, where teams are often forced to use the silent count, the Ravens have had 16 sacks in four games.

Not cooking at home: The Browns have gone back-to-back home games without scoring a touchdown, and the last time they've gone three straight without reaching the end zone at home was the end of the 2008 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The last Browns touchdown at Cleveland was seven weeks ago against Tennessee. The touchdown drought at Cleveland Browns Stadium has lasted 25 consecutive drives. That's only four short of the winless Colts, who have the NFL's longest current one at home (according to STATS LLC). Cleveland plays Sunday against the Jaguars, who have allowed the sixth-fewest points in the league (18.4 points).

Grounded by the 4-3: The Ravens are 1-3 against teams that play the 4-3 defense (the only win coming at St. Louis). The biggest problem has been running against the four-man front. In losses to Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle -- all of which run the 4-3 -- Baltimore's running backs have averaged 38 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. The Ravens have yet to score a rushing touchdown against a 4-3 defense this season. Now comes the showdown with the Bengals, who just happen to line up in the 4-3 defense. Cincinnati has the NFL's second best run defensive, holding teams to 86.8 yards on the ground.

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