Who Matters Most  

 

Week 11's key characters: Amari Cooper, Andrew Luck and more

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For a handful of teams on the outside looking in, Sunday looms as a day of reckoning. The wiggle room to blow another game simply doesn't exist for postseason hopefuls on the fringe.

Indy fits the bill. Left for dead weeks ago, the Colts are breathing again after first-year head coach Frank Reich flipped the switch on an offense now roaming as one of the juiciest league-wide. With five losses, though, they cannot afford to stumble again when the Titans come to town.

The Colts aren't alone, as Week 11 offers a handful of players and coaches living on the outskirts, but angling to mine their way back into the playoff picture. Here's my (totally subjective) list of who matters most this Sunday:

Traded-for Cowboys wideout Amari Cooper: Dallas paid a heavy price for its new lead receiver, shipping a first-round pick to Oakland in the hope that Cooper would open up the offense. He's aided the cause with 11 catches over his first two games in Big D, while helping the Cowboys notch the league's 15th-most passing yards per tilt (after ranking 29th before Cooper's arrival). Dak Prescott set a season high in completions (26) and completion percentage (72.2) in Sunday's win over the Eagles, but the key here is balance. With defenses forced to pay attention to Cooper, the field is opening up for Ezekiel Elliott, the game-changing rumbler who scorched Philly for 151 rushing yards at a healthy 7.9 yards per clip.

I don't buy the Cowboys as a threat beyond a potential playoff berth certain to end in doom. Still, they did their part against the Eagles and now must take out a Falcons squad coming off an embarrassing loss to the Browns. Atlanta pours on the points in their comfortable dome, meaning Cooper must make an impact from wire to wire. His ability to separate from covermen -- he's done this well over the past two weeks -- is a core factor as Dallas attempts to go punch for punch with the Falcons.

Atlanta signal-caller Matt Ryan: In that loss to Cleveland, Ryan was frustrated for much of the game by a Browns secondary that took away looks with well-schemed zone coverage. Julio Jones piled up 100-plus yards, but Ryan went into the fourth quarter with just one completion of 20 or more yards through the air. His wideouts lost the battle to Cleveland's defensive backs, while Atlanta's ground game never quite achieved liftoff.

Now Ryan and company face a Dallas defense waltzing into town allowing the third-fewest points in the NFL. Since 2011, Ryan is 1-11 against top-three scoring defenses. Come Sunday, he'll be tasked with toppling the efforts of star rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who notched a franchise-record 19 tackles against Philly, including a rash of key stuffs on third down.

With both teams sitting at 4-5, the Falcons and Cowboys sit in desperate territory. It's impossible for me to take the loser seriously in a stacked NFC.

Marcus Mariota and Andrew Luck: Was there a more powerful, perception-changing victory last Sunday than Tennessee deep-sixing the Pats? While Mariota put together another strong showing -- tempering the alarm bells over his slow-developing career -- the football community is now abuzz about the bit-by-bit decline of Tom Brady. The Patriots quarterback and his entire offense were stumped by a phenomenal Titans defense allowing the fewest points per game in the NFL. It's a classic strength vs. strength tussle Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, as that Tennessee unit is now tasked with slowing the best version of Andrew Luck we've ever seen. The back-from-injury passer has flung three-plus scoring strikes in six straight games, while the Colts' ground game has come to life with 162.5 yards per outing since Week 6 (including a pair of 200-plus yard affairs).

Next Gen Stats points out that Reich is scheming the attack beautifully around his star quarterback, with Luck going from an average time to throw of 2.88 seconds in 2016 -- his last on-field action -- to 2.61 seconds this season. For the first time in Earth's history, Luck is being protected well by Indy's beefed-up line, resulting in some of his sauciest performances to date.

With Jacksonville in meltdown mode, the South boils down to Houston and Tennessee, but also a surging Colts outfit playing with more fire on offense than anyone in the division. Reich and Titans coach Mike Vrabel -- both in their inaugural campaigns -- will clash for the first time in what appears to be the start of a tantalizing rivalry.

Two AFC North defenses searching for answers: When Baltimore (4-5) and Cincinnati (5-4) square off, we need one of these clubs to give us something to believe in. The Bengals have been drilled in two of their past three outings, allowing 43.3 points per game since Week 7 and forcing coach Marvin Lewis to take over the defense. They were a hot mess in allowing 51 points to the visiting Saints -- failing to stop them once all game -- while getting close to nothing from their largely unwatchable, A.J. Green-free offense.

With Joe Flacco battling a hip injury, the Bengals appear teed up to face Robert Griffin III or Lamar Jackson -- or a smattering of both. That said, does it matter who plays quarterback against a Cincy defense that would give up 30-plus points to a squad armed with Raggedy Ann under center? I put much more trust in Baltimore's defense, but that unit was savaged a few weeks back by the Panthers, before the Ravens fell to the rival Steelers in Week 9. With coach John Harbaugh whispered to be on the hot seat, the Ravens -- who've generated just one takeaway and two sacks over their last three games -- must channel the defense that shut out the Titans and held the Steelers to 14 points before the wheels spun off into the godless abyss.

Super Bowl-winning coach Doug Pederson: Carson Wentz is Carson Wentz again, but too many Eagles drives stall or spiral into field goal tries -- not touchdowns. The ground game hasn't been the same, but neither has Philly's run defense over the past month. This looks more like the Eagles team from two years ago, not last season's streaming wonder-ship.

It's fair to wonder if this coaching staff misses a pair of offensive minds who bolted for new opportunities after hoisting the Lombardi. Reich grabbed the Colts job, while John DeFilippo took over as Minnesota's play caller. Watching Indy rise, Reich's absence seems especially critical for an Eagles staff that has yet to flip the switch.

No rest allowed, though, as Pederson is now being asked to cook up his finest game plan yet against a roaring Saints offense putting up 30-plus points in all but two games this season. Only one of these clubs looks like a Super Bowl offering right now -- and it's definitely not the Eagles. Time is ticking away on their bid to return to glory.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @marcsesslernfl. Listen to Marc on the "Around The NFL Podcast" three times a week.

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