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Top 10 storylines of Week 11

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Top 10 storylines for Week 11

The regular season bye weeks are over and it is officially time to defend the top of a division, make a push to the playoffs, or take a look at a few young players to get ready for 2008.

When you think about it, every team fits into one of these three categories. Can a team like the Colts defend their division lead? Can the Browns climb into the top six spots in the AFC and get a playoff berth? Is it time to see what JaMarcus Russell is all about in Oakland?

Every team in the league is concerned about how many healthy players they have left to finish the season the right way. With virtually no one left on the street to fill a roster spot, look for many teams to sign practice squad rookies for immediate duty. The general managers and head coaches who built up the back end of the roster last spring and chose wisely when they signed their eight man practice squads have the best chance to make it through the next seven weeks.

With all of that in mind, here are my top 10 issues I will be keeping an eye on this week:

Chris Graythen / Getty Images
The Dolphins call on John Beck to attempt to deliver the team's first win of the season.

1. So many quarterback changes

There seems to be more quarterback activity than I can remember at this point in the season in a long time. John Beck gets his first start for the Dolphins, Brodie Croyle goes for the Chiefs and they're still very much in the playoff hunt. We could see JaMarcus Russell in a small package of plays for the first time. Rex Grossman (Chicago), J.P. Losman (Buffalo), Kyle Boller (Baltimore) get a second chance to save their careers. David Garrard (Jacksonville) and Matt Schaub (Houston) are back from injuries while Trent Dilfer (San Francisco) and Vinnie Testaverde (Carolina) play because of injury. There's a lot riding on the arms and brains of a number of guys who haven't done it before or failed before. No matter how much you do in the off-season, it always comes down to the quarterback.

2. Can Simeon Rice really help the Colts?

The lose of defensive end Dwight Freeney is devastating to the Colts. Freeney's value didn't always show up in individual sacks, but his presence dictated where the protections went on every pass play and it provided players such as Robert Mathis tremendous opportunities to get to the quarterback. Will Simeon Rice help repair the damage done by the Freeney injury? Rice was the best on the street, and the Colts were lucky to get a guy in November with his credentials and relationship with Tony Dungy.

However, the Colts have a long way to go to solve this problem. Some say his shoulder isn't right, some say if he had anything left he would still be in Denver. I think if the Colts limit his exposure to mostly pass situations, then they will get some rush out of him. Keep in mind the Colts often play with a lead and opponents have already thrown 45 more passes than the Broncos opponents did. He should get 15 to 20 decent shots at rushing the passer. Indianapolis doesn't like to blitz and expects the four-man front to get to the quarterback. Rice will be one of the key players I will be watching this weekend.

3. 82 years of quarterback take the field in Green Bay

They say pro football is a young man's game. No one bothered to tell Brett Favre (38), who is leading the NFL in passing yards, or Vinny Testaverde (44). The two men will face off at Lambeau Field this week when the Panthers play the Packers. The combined age of these two quarterbacks is 82, the oldest ever by a starting quarterback tandem. Compare that to the Tennessee-Denver game where the combined age of the starting quarterbacks is 52, or the Washington-Dallas game where the combined age is 53.

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4. There seems to be a few "great" returners in the NFL

Last year, we had nine kickoff returns for a touchdown and the same number in 2005. With seven weeks to go this season, we already have 16 kickoff returns for scores and are on pace for 26. The Bears' Devon Hester is always the first name mentioned when it comes to dangerous returns, but it's time to mention Leon Washington (Jets) 3, Josh Cribbs (Cleveland) 2, Darren Sproles (San Diego) 1 -- plus a punt return for a score -- with Hester, who also has two punt return for scores. The NFL is averaging close to two kick and/or punt returns for a touchdown a week, and that makes for very exciting football. Cribbs has had a return of 30 yards or more in nine straight games.

5. Is this the week we see a helmet-to-helmet ejection?

Last week, the NFL sent a memo out to teams stating that the officials had the right to eject a player from a game for a dangerous play with the intent to injury when using his helmet. No one got thrown out of a game last week, but it's going to happen sooner or later. The playoff pressure is mounting and someone is going to take a shot he should not take, but will. Coaches are concerned about the amount of power the officials already have on the field, and this could be a big story if a star safety gets ejected in the first quarter of a game with playoff implications.

6. Always beware of a rematch game or a team coming off a shutout

Last week, there were eight rematch games and three of the teams that lost the first round of the home-and-home division series won and split for the season. It's hard to beat an NFL team twice in a season. Keep a close eye on St. Louis, Baltimore and Buffalo as they get a second chance against a division opponent this week. As for shutouts, two teams suffered the embarrassment of being blanked last week. Since 2002, 50 percent of the teams shut out one week win the following week. So, is it Minnesota or San Francisco that rights the ship this week?

7. Who has the best pass-rush tandem?

There was a time when the best pass-rush tandem was Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker down in Carolina, but they're nowhere to be found now. Jared Allen and Tamba Hali aren't bad with 12.5 sacks, but the top five tandems right now are all from the NFC.

Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila has had a resurgence of sorts, threatening to approach his career high of 13.5 sacks.

5. Trent Cole and Juqua Thomas for the Eagles with 13 sacks.
4. Tommie Harris and Adewale Ogunleye for the Bears with 14 sacks.
3. Greg Ellis and DeMarcus Ware for the Cowboys with 14.5 sacks.
2. Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck for the Giants with 16 sacks.
1. The best tandem in the NFL is Aaron Kampman and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila in Green Bay with 17.5 sacks.

Some teams, like the Titans, have three defensive linemen with five sacks each, while a team like the Giants have another 9.5 sacks from Michael Strahan and Mathias Kiwanuka. But when you watch the Packers' tandem crush the pocket and get after the quarterback, it's hard to argue that there is a better tandem in the league.

8. Will the AFC South and NFC East continue their dominance?

Have you noticed that the AFC South and NFC East are both 16-6 outside their division and are tied for the best non-division record in the NFL? All eight teams have winning records in non-division games. Well, six of the eight teams are playing out of the division this week, and if recent success holds up this should be another big weekend for these teams. There are tie-breaker implications for future playoff spots at stake too. The Giants meet the Lions, the Jaguars face off with the Chargers, and the Titans play the Broncos with playoff ramifications on the line and history on their side.

9. How hard is it to "make a run" this time of year?

It seems like all we hear this time of year is "it's time to make a run." By definition that means have a winning record in the second half of the year and make the playoffs. Keep in mind only 10 teams had winning records in the second half of the season last year. Three of those 10 (Green Bay, Tennessee, and Pittsburgh) made a run, but it was too little too late. Meanwhile, the Giants faded with a 2-6 record and still made the playoffs. Surprisingly, the Colts went 4-4 down the stretch and won the Super Bowl. For a few teams their record is padded enough that they don't have to make a run. For other teams, even a 6-2 finish won't be enough. This week should be the second step of the run and for teams like the Eagles who won last week, there is still a chance but it is now or never. Last year, they finished 6-2, so it can be done. A 3-5 start with a 6-2 finish is a 9-7 season and that should make it in the NFC.

10. It seems harder to win on the road than ever

Every team in the league has either three or four games left to play on the road this season. Outside of the Patriots, the other 31 teams really have to win away from home. At this point in the season only 10 teams have winning road records. The NFC West doesn't have a team with more than one road win. The biggest road-game concerns this weekend belong to Cleveland (1-3) heading into Baltimore, San Diego (1-3) heading across country to Jacksonville, Tampa Bay (1-3) heading up to Atlanta, and the Cardinals (1-4) flying east to Cincinnati. Unless these playoff hopefuls change their road behavior, their playoff dreams start to fade this week.

 
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Matchups to watch
Here are some interesting matchups to watch in Week 11:

Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams vs. Cowboys QB Tony Romo: Romo is on pace to break just about every single-season passing record in Dallas history -- pretty impressive for a guy in just his second season as the starter. Defensive coordinators have tried to confuse him by showing different looks, but Romo has exhibited a tremendous learning curve.

Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Bills DE Aaron Schobel: Through nine games, Brady is playing as good as any quarterback I can ever remember -- but playing Sunday night in Buffalo will pose a problem for Brady on two fronts: Wind might be a factor in the passing game, and the crowd can make it tough.

Panthers CB Ken Lucas vs. Packers QB Brett Favre: Few teams have been able to slow down Favre, who leads the NFL in passing yards. Lucas, meanwhile, is the leader of a secondary that has allowed just eight TD passes on the season, third-fewest in the NFL.

Cardinals LB Karlos Dansby vs. Bengals QB Carson Palmer: Perhaps because he was injured earlier in the season, Dansby has been under the radar -- he's probably one of the better players in the NFL we haven't heard a lot about.
More matchups to watch
Start 'Em & Sit 'Em
Start of the week: Chester Taylor -- In less than a week's time, Taylor has gone from a fantasy afterthought and even waiver-wire fodder in some leagues to one of the most attractive options at his position.

QB to start: Kurt Warner -- Warner posted his best stat line of the season last week with 259 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Arizona, and he should make it two monster performances in a row in Cincinnati.

QB to sit: Vince Young -- It's apparent coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Norm Chow want Young to throw the football more often, as he had a season-high 41 pass attempts in last week's loss to Jacksonville.
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Injury Report
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Bills: Ankle, did not practice

Todd Heap, TE, Ravens: Thigh, did not practice

Travis Henry, RB, Broncos: Knee, did not practice

Mark Tauscher, OT, Packers: Ankle, did not practice

Plaxico Burress, WR, Giants: Ankle, did not practice

Shawne Merriman, LB, Chargers: Ankle, did not practice
More Injuries
Ask Vic: Favre for MVP?
Question: What do you think the chances are of Brett Favre winning a fourth MVP? Many people say that Tom Brady or Tony Romo should receive the MVP, but through Week 10, Favre is on one of the winningest teams with the least star power. -- Isaac L., Austin, Texas

Favre has a chance, but I don't think he will end up as league MVP. Brady is the clear-cut leader at this point, and I find it hard to believe he won't dominate the balloting. More times than not, the voting comes down to individual numbers. Brady's are off-the-charts.

Nevertheless, all of the points you make about Favre are valid. He is doing more with less on one of the NFL's top teams. That should count for plenty, but I don't see it ultimately making enough of a difference when it comes to the MVP voting.
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Week 11 games
Sunday
Miami at Philadelphia, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Tampa Bay at Atlanta, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Cleveland at Baltimore, 1 p.m. (CBS)
San Diego at Jacksonville, 1 p.m. (CBS)
New Orleans at Houston, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Kansas City at Indianapolis, 1 p.m. (CBS)
N.Y. Giants at Detroit, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Carolina at Green Bay, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Oakland at Minnesota, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Arizona at Cincinnati, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Pittsburgh at N.Y. Jets, 4:05 p.m. (CBS)
Chicago at Seattle, 4:15 p.m. (FOX)
St. Louis at San Francisco, 4:15 p.m. (FOX)
Washington at Dallas, 4:15 p.m. (FOX)
New England at Buffalo, 8:15 p.m. (NBC) Monday
Tennessee at Denver, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

» Complete schedule

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