There is no such thing as an easy win in the National Football League. Last week was a great example. The Atlanta Falcons (8-1) fell to the New Orleans Saints (4-5) and the San Francisco 49ers (6-2-1) tied the St. Louis Rams (3-5-1). This weekend's schedule features a few potential upsets, as well.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-4) will have their hands full as they travel to Carolina to take on the Panthers (2-7). This has been a disappointing season for Cam Newton and the Panthers, but they are still a dangerous team. Another team that needs to be careful this week is the Green Bay Packers (6-3). They will visit a hungry Detroit Lions (4-5) team that is desperate for a big win to turn around their season.
In order for the Panthers and Lions to knock off their divisional opponents, they will need to win key individual matchups. The Panthers will need their stud rookie linebacker to contain the hottest rookie running back in the NFL. The Lions will need their second-year defensive tackle to get the best of the 14th-year center of the Packers.
Here are five key matchups for Week 11:
Nick Fairley vs. Jeff Saturday
Nick Fairley failed to live up to expectations during his rookie year, but he's playing much better in his sophomore campaign. His performance last week against the Minnesota Vikings was arguably the best of his young career. He recorded four tackles, one sack and three tackles for loss. He was consistently disruptive versus both the run and the pass. This week, he will spend a lot of his time matched up against one of the NFL's most experienced blockers.
This past offseason, the Packers signed long-time Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday to anchor the middle of their offensive line. The 37-year-old is incredibly intelligent and tough, but he isn't nearly the same player he was earlier in his career. In pass protection, he really struggles to bend his knees and anchor versus powerful defensive tackles. In the running game, he lacks the strength to create movement at the point of attack.
EDGE: Fairley. This is a bad matchup for Saturday because of the raw power Fairley possesses.
DeMarcus Ware vs. Joe Thomas
DeMarcus Ware is having another outstanding season. He has recorded at least a half sack in eight of the Dallas Cowboys' nine games. Despite constantly getting double-teamed and chipped, he still finds a way to get the quarterback. He also does an outstanding job of holding up against the run. He plays with perfect technique and excels at shedding blocks and getting to the football. He will need to be at his best again this week as he faces off against one of the NFL's elite offensive tackles.
Joe Thomas has been one of the lone bright spots for the Cleveland Browns since his arrival via the third overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft. Each of his five NFL seasons has culminated with a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. He isn't a physically dominant player, but he utilizes perfect technique and is an excellent athlete. He has had a few rough moments this season, but overall he's still playing at a very high level. For the Browns to win this game, Thomas must keep Ware from harassing Brandon Weeden and forcing errant throws.
EDGE: Ware. The perennial Pro Bowler will use his length and quickness to beat Thomas for at least one sack in this game.
Doug Martin vs. Luke Kuechly
Doug Martin is making a strong case for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He's already closing in on 1,000 rushing yards (862) and he has produced over 100 yards from scrimmage in five straight games. He has the speed to turn the corner on perimeter runs, but he also has the power and balance to rack up yards between the tackles. He's going to face another Rookie of the Year candidate this week.
Luke Kuechly was a tackle machine in college and he hasn't had any trouble making the transition to the NFL. He's currently the NFL's third-leading tackler (87 tackles) and he has also recorded one interception and five pass breakups. He has outstanding instincts and range. Kuechly is at his best against perimeter runs because of his ability to burst to the sideline and cut off the running back before he squares his shoulders to the line of scrimmage.
EDGE: Martin. Kuechly will limit Martin's effectiveness on the outside, but Martin should have a big game running between the tackles.
The Indianapolis Colts' offensive line was a major concern heading into the 2012 season. The team was relying on several journeymen and a few disappointing young players. Fortunately for Andrew Luck, this group has come together nicely and played much better than anyone could've predicted. Colts offensive linemen aren't very talented individually, but they work well together and compete hard from the snap to the whistle.
The New England Patriots hit the jackpot with their first-round selection of Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones. He has provided consistent quarterback pressure because of his quickness, length and motor. He also benefits from the inside pocket push created by defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. They will need to both play well on Sunday afternoon in order for the Patriots to slow down Luck and the Colts' passing attack.
EDGE: Patriots defensive line. The Pats will be able to push the pocket from the interior and that will allow their defensive ends to collect a few sacks.
Matt Ryan vs. Ray Horton
The Atlanta Falcons suffered their first loss of the season last Sunday, but it was hardly the fault of quarterback Matt Ryan. He threw for more than 400 yards and continued to make a case for MVP consideration. He is completing over 68 percent of his passes this season and he's spreading the ball around to all of his different weapons. Ryan has been nearly unbeatable at home during his NFL career, but he will face a stiff challenge on Sunday afternoon.
The Arizona Cardinals have numerous issues on offense, but their defense has been rock solid behind the guidance of coordinator Ray Horton. The unit's ranked ninth overall and second against the pass, allowing just 194.6 passing yards per game. One of the reasons for their success against the pass is the blitz package that Horton has designed. He loves to create mismatches with his linebackers against opposing running backs and it's been extremely effective.
EDGE: Ryan. The Cardinals will generate a lot of pressure on Ryan, but he will get the ball out quickly to his assortment of weapons.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.