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Pass game clearly defines today's NFL; plus 10 things to watch

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Judy Battista highlights the storylines and factors to pay attention to in Week 11, beginning with the NFL's aerial evolution and continuing below with 10 more things to watch.

When Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts face the New England Patriots on Sunday night, the quarterback will need 342 yards passing to remain on pace to break the single-season record for passing yards (5,477) -- which was set last season by Peyton Manning.

When the Green Bay Packers host the Philadelphia Eagles earlier on Sunday, Aaron Rodgers will try to notch another six-touchdown game. There have already been three this season, as many as there were in the entire decade of the 1990s.

Entering Week 11, 6,862 points have been scored, the most through the first 10 weeks in NFL history. The previous high? Set last season (6,836). Passers have thrown 499 touchdown passes this season, the most ever at this point in the season. The old record was set last season, too -- and has been shattered by 37 touchdown passes.

For all the dazzling contributions of a running back (DeMarco Murray) and a pass rusher (J.J. Watt), 2014 is again the year of the quarterback, a seemingly annually renewed title whose qualifications inch ever upward. If it appeared that last season -- when there were 24 400-yard passing games -- might have established a quarterbacking benchmark that would stand for at least a few years, you haven't been paying close enough attention to the NFL these days. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the league is close to or ahead of record-setting pace in nearly every significant passing statistic per team game this season: completion rate (62.9 percent), passing yardage (242.2), touchdown rate (4.8 percent) and quarterback rating (88.8) are at record highs. The interception rate (2.5 percent) is at an all-time low, and the sack rate (2.3) is close to it. It has never been better to be a quarterback.

"There are still some people that like 7-6 games," Arizona Cardinals assistant head coach Tom Moore said. "But I think the average fan that turns on the TV set, I think he likes to see a lot of scoring."

The conventional wisdom among many players and coaches is that the rules emphasis on downfield contact this season has made a pass-happy league downright giddy, freeing receivers from some of the extra grabbing and bumping that used to barely impede them. Through Week 10, the number of illegal contact penalties has spiked, from 27 last season to 94 this season. Ninety-nine more defensive holding penalties have been called through the first 10 weeks, this year over last year; calls for defensive illegal use of hands have more than tripled.

Combine that with a more prepared caliber of quarterback and receiver emerging from the increasingly pass-intensive college game -- consider the significant contributions rookie receivers are making this year -- and the league has the foundation for its high-flying attacks. After all, the first time the average completion percentage per team game was above 60 was in 2007. So far this season, 26 quarterbacks are above 60 percent.

"It is the rule emphasis and rules changes," said Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has posted a 500-yard passing game and consecutive games of six touchdown passes in the past month. "I think it's just the way offenses are. The NFL wants to see Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Drew Brees set all these unbelievable marks because fans love it."

Members of the Competition Committee have said they merely wanted the existing rules enforced correctly and that there was no effort to boost passing numbers by telling officials to focus on defensive contact. Whether they get credit for the passing surge or blame for creating a passing bubble that could ultimately devalue the records is in the eye of the beholder. But there is also a school of thought among some in the league -- especially coaches -- that the mandated reductions in practices under the collective bargaining agreement have contributed much more than the rules emphasis to the continued dominance of offenses.

What do the limitations mean? Teams rarely work on live tackling, they don't get to practice run blocking and there is little opportunity to hone bump-and-run defense (because cornerbacks can't touch receivers for months during the offseason). It all conspires to make it easier to pass than to run, and more likely to be successful once the ball is in the air.

Whether we might eventually encounter a tipping point, when even fans find so much offense overkill, remains to be seen.

"The game is an ever-changing game," Moore said. "It's evolutionary and it has its tides come and go. Who can predict what's going to happen in the future?"

For now, it seems likely the future will hold more of the same -- more passing, more touchdowns and more questions about whether an offensive ceiling will ever be reached.

"I think the league ownership has the game the way they want it -- they want a lot of scoring," former Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said. "They think that's exciting for the fans. That may well be true. I don't know. I'm a defensive coach at heart. I think there are some things, some of the nuances of the game I grew up appreciating, that are on the back burner now. I was always interested in the kicking game, how you could control field position with that. To help the preservation of the players is an honorable intent, but it has changed the game to a degree. I think that's what the business model has deemed to be appealing."

Here are 10 more things to watch as the rest of the Week 11 schedule plays out:

1) In a game with significant playoff seeding implications, two of the league's best offenses meet in Indianapolis. Can the Patriots disrupt Andrew Luck as they disrupted Peyton Manning? Can the Colts defense, which was shredded by the Steelers when cornerback Vontae Davis was out, slow down Tom Brady, who's thrown 18 TD passes against one interception over the past five games? The most critical matchup to watch: Who does Chuck Pagano assign to cover Rob Gronkowski? In the past two games, Brady has completed 18 of 19 passes to Gronk for 254 yards and four touchdowns.

2) The Eagles have nine return/defensive touchdowns this year, and they might need a few more to keep up with Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. He has thrown 26 touchdowns and no interceptions in his past 10 regular-season home games and the Packers are averaging 37.2 points per game since Week 4. A revived Mark Sanchez (332 yards, two touchdown passes on Monday) has to hope that an Eagles pass rush that sacked Cam Newton nine times can get to Rodgers, too.

3) The post-Carson Palmer era begins for Arizona against the league's top defense. This game against Detroit, the only team allowing fewer than 300 yards per game, might provide an early answer to the question of whether Drew Stanton can keep the Cardinals atop the NFC. Stanton was 2-1 in his earlier starts this season, but completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes. One test: Bruce Arians likes to throw deep (Stanton leads the league with 12.7 yards in the air per attempt), but the Lions have allowed just 26 plays of at least 20 yards, tied for second fewest.

4) A battle of two of the league's best running games and defenses might tell us if Seattle and Kansas City are playoff-ready. Don't look for much passing, though. The Chiefs and Seahawks rank 30th and 31st, respectively, in passing, Alex Smith doesn't have a touchdown pass to a wide receiver this year, and Russell Wilson has had a career-worst three-game span, completing just 56 percent of his passes, with one touchdown and three interceptions.

5) Does the Bengals' offensive meltdown help the Saints stay atop the meager NFC South? Cincinnati has been outscored 70-17 in its past two road games, and Andy Dalton has a league-worst 52.3 completion percentage since Week 7. He also has the NFL's fifth-highest interception rate on the season. Four of the Saints' five losses have come by three points or fewer.

6) The Brady Backup Bowl might have both Ryan Mallett, in his first start for the Texans, and Browns QB Brian Hoyer under duress. Houston's J.J. Watt has 29 quarterback hits, most in the NFL, and Cleveland's defense is the only one in the league that has more interceptions (13) than passing touchdowns allowed (12). The Browns' D is holding opposing teams to a completion rate of 56.9 percent, lowest in the league.

7) If the 49ers want to reclaim their running identity, they might have the perfect opponent in the Giants. The Giants gave up 350 yards rushing to the Seahawks last week. The 49ers rush on 52.3 percent of plays in their victories. The Giants are last in total defense, and after struggling to contain Russell Wilson's runs, they face Colin Kaepernick, who has 822 rushing yards since last season. The Giants' defense ranks last since 2010 in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and rushing plays of at least 10 yards by opposing quarterbacks.

8) Jeff Fisher announced Shaun Hill will start at quarterback against the Broncos, with the Rams' defense playing well. St. Louis has 16 sacks in its past four games. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown for 16 touchdowns and four interceptions against the Rams. The Broncos have allowed just nine sacks, and if Fisher dreads the sight of Manning, he can't be blamed. Manning is 14-6 against Fisher-coached teams, with 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

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9) The winless-season watch is about to start for the Raiders, but the Chargers haven't won in more than a month. And with a brutal final four games against 2013 playoff teams, San Diego faces a significant challenge to keep pace in a crowded AFC wild-card field. During the current three-game losing streak, Philip Rivers is averaging nearly 100 fewer yards passing and his completion percentage has dropped by more than seven percent. He is really struggling on passes of at least 15 yards in the air.

10) Two teams going nowhere, two quarterbacks under pressure. Will Josh McCown or Robert Griffin III look better as their respective teams try to calculate for next season? The drama that surrounds Griffin will only grow if he can't take advantage of the Bucs' 31st-ranked scoring and passing defense. In his three games this season, Griffin has completed 72 percent of his passes, but has just one touchdown and has been sacked nine times.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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