Six teams enter Week 11 knowing they will have short weeks on the horizon with Thanksgiving games next Thursday. Will those teams try to rest a few starters this week in hopes of having them ready for the holiday clash? There are a few running backs that should touch the ball 30 or more times this weekend. There's a two-man race being waged for the single-season sack record. There are a couple of desperate teams in must-win situations. And home teams look to rebound after not faring too well in recent weeks.
Here are some of the storylines worth watching this week:
Feed them the ball!
The days of the "bell cow" running back -- a guy that got 25 to 30 carries a game and stayed in on all down-and-distance situations -- are long gone. The top backs today average 20 carries a game and may get a pass or two. Many come out in third-down situations. This is a week for several teams to turn back the clock and feed a back the ball 30 times. Their respective teams need the production. The defenses they face this week don't look capable of stopping a steady rushing attack and we are at the point in the season where it's worth the risk.
I expect the following running backs to get a heavier dose of runs than they usually get week in and week out, and I wouldn't be surprised to see these four backs finish Week 11 with more than 125 yards each if their clubs feed them the rock close to 30 times:
»Adrian Peterson: Peterson at home is always a terror, and this year is no exception. In four home games, he has 95 carries for 495 yards. The Oakland defense surrenders 5.16 yards per carry.
The race is on
I would be surprised if the NFL sack record didn't fall this year. There is more passing this season -- with more five-man protection schemes that leave offensive tackles with no help -- and some very good pass rushers. What makes it even more intriguing is the fact that it is at least a two-man race for the single-season sack record.
Jared Allen (13.5) and DeMarcus Ware (13) have seven games left to top Michael Strahan's mark of 22 sacks. Allen and the Vikings are home, where he does most of his sack damage, and he will be blocked by Raiders offensive tackle Jared Veldheer. Carson Palmer likely will attempt more than 30 passes against a suspect Vikings secondary, so Allen will have his chances. Ware is on the road, where he does most of his damage (10 sacks), and he faces left tackle Trent Williams, who is trying to protect Rex Grossman. Ware will move around if he isn't experiencing success against Williams, and he does have four sacks in his last three games against the Redskins. I expect both pass rushers to get at least one sack this week to stay on pace for the record.
Thoughts of home
Road teams have dominated over the past few weeks. In fact, in the last two weeks, road teams went 20-10 -- a bit unusual to say the least. This week, I like home teams in a big way to regain their home-field advantage. The Broncos already kicked things off with a win over the Jets Thursday night. I wouldn't be surprised to see home teams go 10-3 the rest of this weekend. Road warriors with the best chance to take home a "W" include Dallas (at Washington), Oakland (at Minnesota) and maybe Jacksonville (at Cleveland).
More runners than usual
Each week I check to see if any teams actually run the ball more than they pass it during the season. Some weeks, there are no teams with more runs than passes; usually there are one or two. This week, four teams enter Week 11 with more run plays called than pass plays for the season. That is notable in a league that as a whole runs 42 percent of the time and passes 58 percent.
Houston, Jacksonville, Oakland and San Francisco all are over 50 percent run. The Texans are on a bye, but it will serve them well when they return now that they have lost QB Matt Schaub. Jacksonville has no choice but to pound the run with rookie Blaine Gabbert under center and will continue to protect the young QB with a strong run game. The Jags play Cleveland, which has given up 568 rushing yards in the last three games. San Francisco has a winning formula right now and on first downs alone averages 5.19 yards a rush. It does appear that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is starting to grow the passing game, realizing that in the playoffs Alex Smith will probably have to pass more. Finally, the Raiders run it well, but the emergence of Carson Palmer may eventually tilt the run/pass ratio in favor of the pass, and it could start this week against the Vikings with their beat-up secondary.
Hope they build their sub package
Bill Walsh, the great 49ers coach, once told me that you better build a great sub-defense if you are going to be a high-scoring team. It was more important in his eyes to find the nickel corner and the pass rusher than building a base defense. The reason was that teams playing catch-up football against his team would force his team into substantially more sub-defenses than base defenses.
The average team in the NFL has seen 334 pass plays against it so far this season. Here's a look at the five teams that have seen more than the average and will continue to see more passing from their opponents this weekend: Chicago (408 pass plays against), San Francisco (387), Oakland (384), New England (383), Green Bay (375).
Pay attention to their sub defenses as they typically take a lead and force the opposition to throw the ball.
Can these teams stop the bleeding?
Six teams come into the weekend on losing streaks and if they don't stop the bleeding now, the season is done. Washington (five-game losing streak) has gone back to Rex Grossman at QB and Mike Shanahan is dealing with a losing streak he has never experienced before. The Cowboys come to town after beating the Skins earlier in the year and now have red-hot DeMarco Murray in the backfield, while the Skins don't have WR Santana Moss or RB Tim Hightower. The Chargers (four-game losing streak) visit the streaking Bears, who are on a four-game winning streak. The Chicago defense has nine interceptions in its last three games and Philip Rivers can't stop throwing picks. Tampa Bay travels to Green Bay on a three-game losing streak. The Packers average 40 points a game at home… enough said. Buffalo, Philadelphia and Kansas City are all on two-game losing streaks and there are real doubts about where their seasons are headed.
At the end of the day, I don't think more than one of these six teams is going to stop its losing streak this weekend.