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Ravens-Steelers, Packers-Lions, Colts-Patriots top Week 11

The NFL will unveil its version of a street fight on Sunday. Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers. They should hold it in an alley. A dark one.

It seems the AFC North always goes to one of these teams, and the Sunday night showdown will go a long way in dictating the division this year. Remember that in 2011, Baltimore wonboth battles, helping land the Steelers in wild-card weekend and, eventually, Tebow Hell.

What will make the 2012 debut of this rivalry different? Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is going to miss it with an injured shoulder. Ravens-Steelers simply won't look the same without Ravens defenders hanging all over Big Ben while he throws downfield.

And yet, that only marginally dampens my enthusiasm for this game. Because the Steelers' burly group of running backs will still pound it. And big-armed replacement quarterback Byron Leftwich will still fling it. And in the end, the NFL's bullies will still go at it. And not even Big Ben's absence can get in the way of all that.

Here is your Week 11 primer, with games ranked in order of intrigue, from 1 to 14:


Why this game is No. 1:

Both sides have suffered through key injuries while listening to doubters tell them they're over the hill. It was that way when the Ravens lost linebacker Ray Lewis and cornerback Lardarius Webb, allowing boatloads of rushing yards in the process. It was that way for the Steelers when their offensive line began to crumble and their running backs were injured -- and it's that way again now that their quarterback is down. But when you're tough-minded, sometimes adversity doesn't really matter. That's been the case with the Ravens and Steelers. On the field, the most intriguing battle will be between Baltimore's offense and Pittsburgh's defense. That high-flying no-huddle look has kept the Ravens winning, but will it pass the stiffest test? In unfriendly Heinz Field, against the No. 1 defense, can quarterback Joe Flacco still come out firing? These are all the reasons -- even with Roethlisberger sidelined -- this is must-see TV. #BALvsPIT *

Why this game is No. 2:

Is it just me, or are the Detroit Lions the strangest team in football? They're talented, have plenty of big names and can spark all sorts of fireworks in the fourth quarter with quarterback Matthew Stafford. And yet, they do things like lose to a vulnerable Minnesota Vikings team just when it seemed like they were perfectly set up to begin a late-season run. The Lions have another big-time chance Sunday against another rival from the NFC North, one of the NFL's most intriguing and surprising divisions. In come the Green Bay Packers, bringing their precision-based offense to the loud environment in Detroit, ready to face a Lions defensive line that should be more disruptive than it is. Oh, and did we mention that the Packers are fresh off a bye, likely having cleared up many of those nagging injuries? If the Packers win, the Lions will have to bid good night to their hopes of pulling themselves out of a season-long malaise. There are a lot of X's-and-O's reasons to like this game, like seeing how the Packers cover Calvin Johnson. But the real reason to watch is that the outcome of this one will have far-reaching consequences for both teams. #GBvsDET *

Why this game is No. 3:

Just like old times, right? Indianapolis Colts vs. New England Patriots, a former No. 1 pick at quarterback vs. Tom Brady. Kicking off in the coveted 4:25 p.m. ET time slot, so most of America can watch it. If this was Brady vs. Peyton Manning, it'd be ranked No. 1. But rookie Andrew Luck still has a ways to go before he earns such lofty status, or can be expected to duel with Brady. In fact, while there are plenty of facets that make this game interesting, this core question is at the top: Can Luck engage Brady like Manning has? Can he walk onto the field at Gillette Stadium knowing that his own offense had better score and keep scoring? Against the in-progress Patriots defense, Luck will have a chance. The feel-good story of the NFL has been that of the Chuckstrong Colts. Indianapolis has thrived to the tune of a 6-3 record -- same as the Patriots. The Colts have taken down the Packers and put themselves in position to have a real chance at the playoffs. But how real are they? How ahead of schedule are they? That's what we should get to see. That, and some aesthetically pleasing passing heroics. #INDvsNE *

Why this game is No. 4:

This is an upset-alert special. Why? Because the Atlanta Falcons are coming off a stinging loss to the Saints that ruined their undefeated season. And they're trying to recover from the insulting way New Orleans dispatched of them -- turning them away three straight times after they got to the 1-yard line. At home against the reeling Arizona Cardinals, this is another chance for Atlanta to show it can hang physically. Easier said than done. The Cardinals' offense is bad, mostly because of their quarterback play. But if their defense takes it to Atlanta, this has a chance to be interesting. The main challenge for any team facing Atlanta is disrupting Matt Ryan, keeping him from having the time to find receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White deep. Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell and his front seven, coupled with impressive cornerback Patrick Peterson, have a chance to do just that on Sunday. #AZvsATL *

Why this game is No. 5:

The last time these teams met, the enduring image was of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers kneeling on the sideline, waving coach Norv Turner's instructions off after throwing a game-changing pick. It was ugly. In the first sign that San Diego was meltdown city, the Chargers coughed up a 24-0 lead in a flurry of miscues, poor defensive play and turnovers. San Diego has lost four of its last five games (including that epic choke job), while Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos have emerged as one of the NFL's most electric teams. The Broncos, it seems, are off and running to a cushy seed in the playoffs. A loss would be a bump in the road for them. But if desperate San Diego can somehow win, that would be the kind of victory that could turn around its season. A stellar Chargers showing would exorcise some demons. #SDvsDEN *

Why this game is No. 6:

If you believe in schadenfreude, this is the game for you. Two intensely devoted fan bases with such high hopes entering the season, yet both teams are looking into the abyss at campaigns that have fallen apart. And yet, in the rugged NFC East, drama never dies. Both teams have a chance to kick a rival when it's down. For the Washington Redskins, coming off a bye that followed three straight losses, Sunday's game is the first of three straight against NFC East opponents. For the Philadelphia Eagles, the matchup is almost certainly a chance to get a good look at rookie Nick Foles, with starter Michael Vick (concussion) likely out. Can the Eagles' would-be savior actually become one? In the unfriendly atmosphere of FedEx Field, Foles' task won't be easy. But if he thrives, all bets are off regarding the Eagles' starting quarterback job. #PHIvsWAS *


Why this game is No. 7:

At one point, this looked like it would be a battle between AFC East teams duking it out for a wild-card spot. Now? Not so much. Instead, Miami and Buffalo represent a long line of long shots, with both teams hoping to elbow their way into the playoff mix. At the least, this figures to be a high-scoring matchup, with Dolphins running back Reggie Bush hoping to erase a bout of fumble-itis and the humiliation he found recently on the bench. As for the Bills, they'll have to do it without their veteran running back, Fred Jackson. Given the prominent stage provided by NFL Network, this might be the world's opportunity to see C.J. Spiller, one of the league's most underrated superstars ... if, that is, he can run against Miami's stingy D. #MIAvsBUF *

Why this game is No. 8:

The Backup Bowl? It might be. If a pair of concussions hadn't struck last week, this matchup might have been at the top of the list, or at least in the discussion for that spot. Now, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith might not be the starters on Monday, and that makes this one lose its luster. "Jason Campbell vs. Colin Kaepernick" doesn't get the juices flowing. Still, this is a big game, and there is some intrigue. If Kaepernick is the starter, watching that nasty Bears front try to chase him around will be fun. On the other side, can the Bears gain any traction running the ball against Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and company? #CHIvsSF *

Why this game is No. 9:

On paper, this looks like a dud. And the Dallas Cowboys, suddenly full of life, need to hope it is. After blowing out the Eagles in Philly last week, Dallas stands at 4-5 with a fairly open schedule. A playoff push, unbelievably, does not seem crazy. And yet, the Cowboys need the win. They should get it against Cleveland, but the Browns won't be pushovers. They lack talent and they might not always play smart. But they play rugged and hard. When Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson hits you, it hurts. And one of the few cornerbacks who can cover Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant is Joe Haden, the emerging Browns star. I'll love watching those two tussle. #CLEvsDAL *

Why this game is No. 10:

What began as a game last week between NFL royalty and an unknown upstart nearly served as the St. Louis Rams' coming out party. Instead, they ended up tying the 49ers. But the Rams nonetheless proved they're growing up faster than we thought they were. Veteran runner Steven Jackson looks rejuvenated, quarterback Sam Bradford's got game, and the Rams nearly pulled it off. Having gathered up all that momentum, they'll host ... the New York Jets. No momentum there. The calls for Tim Tebow will grow louder the more Mark Sanchez struggles, and there is no greater storyline surrounding Gang Green than that. If the Jets' offense is woeful again on Sunday -- and there's no reason to think it won't be -- watch the Rams' sideline for shots of former Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer (who has the same job with St. Louis) ... just to see if he's smiling. #NYJvsSTL *


Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.

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