NFL Week 11: AFC Showdowns Await

Quarterback injuries, big divisional showdowns and key AFC games mark the TV listings for NFL Week 11, and no game brings those all together like NBC’s Sunday Night battle between Pittsburgh and Baltimore (8:20 PM ET). So that’s where TheSportsNotebook will begin it’s NFL Week 11 previews.

The Steelers will go to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore (check that, the game is in Pittsburgh) without Ben Roethlisberger and coming off playing a poor game on Monday Night, where the only way they could have won is if they were playing the Chiefs at home. Fortunately they were, and Pittsburgh’s 16-13 overtime win kept them at 6-3 and a game back of Baltimore in the AFC North. The question we have to ask is whether Pittsburgh’s resurgent running game will stall now that the threat of the pass is drastically diminished without Big Ben.

While the Baltimore defense is not what it used to be, those problems are more in the secondary, where corner Lardarius Webb is gone for the year. The Ravens can still defend the run, so if Pittsburgh can’t make anything happen down the field, it’s tough to see how the generate any offense—at least enough offense to beat Baltimore, which is 4th in the NFL in scoring.

If you’d have asked me to pick this game a week ago, I’d have taken the Steelers, even on the road (true, but not relevant). Baltimore has played shaky football against a weak schedule and the defensive vulnerabilities leave them ripe to be picked. But without Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh can’t do the picking and while Baltimore may have had their struggles, a 7-2 record tells us they can still close games they should. This is now in the category of one they should win, and the Ravens are good to bet to win and cover a 3.5 point spread. (Final editor’s noteWith the game in Pittsburgh, I wouldn’t lay the 3.5 with Baltimore–going outside the field-goal margin is a little too risky in this rivalry–but I’ll still lean Baltimore. And my apologies to readers for the factual error on game venue).


CBS has the doubleheader this week, and they’ve split their coverage east and west, between Indianapolis-New England on one side and San Diego-Denver on the other.

Colts-Patriots: We covered Indy in some depth earlier this week, and noted that controlling possession is a key to their success. Does it have to be emphasized the importance of that when they go to Foxboro? New England’s offense ranks first in the NFL and they do everything well, from controlling the ground game with Stevan Ridley, to opening it up with Tom Brady.

What neither team does very well is defend the pass. New England’s run defense hasn’t been their problem—a reason they often play three quarters of decent defensive football and then struggle to hold fourth-quarter leads. With Indy’s Andrew Luck gaining confidence each week, will the Colts let him open it up early and often? If they do, they can create a shootout and win. If not, the Pats can probably survive. Either way, for New England to be giving 9.5 points at the betting window is too steep.

Chargers-Broncos: I know we should expect Denver to just walk over the Bolts here and solidify their hold on the AFC West. But one of the surest maxims in the NFL seems to be to jump on the team that everyone is going against. And as an eight-point underdog, the Chargers fall in that category. San Diego’s run defense is doing a good job, so if they could just get some plays from the outside linebackers on the pass rush, they could win. With Tracy Porter doubtful in the Denver secondary, can Philip Rivers finally get himself untracked? I can’t actually pick San Diego to win—that would require real game management skills from Norv Turner and an ability for the team to not make dumb mistakes. But this has the markings of a game that’s closer than the experts think, and San Diego knows a win gets them to 5-5, back in the AFC playoff picture and back within a game of the Broncos.


Chicago-San Francisco (8:30 PM ET, ESPN, Monday Night) was expected to be a defensive war even before Jay Cutler was knocked out with a concussion last week against Houston. With Jason Campbell expected to start at quarterback for the Bears, the Over/Under for this game is down to 37.5, even lower than the Steelers-Ravens game (at 40).

San Francisco having homefield and a quarterback edge would make this a no-brainer to pick the 49ers. We should also note that their defense is more complete than Chicago’s—the Bear run defense ranks only 17th in the league in rushes-per-attempt. The quality of their pass coverage, their pass rush and (+14) turnover ratio make up for it in most instances, but the 49ers will be able to run the ball and the absence of Cutler means Chicago probably can’t jump out on top and force Frisco out of its offense. I don’t know that I’d give six, as taking the Niners requires, but San Francisco should get the bounceback it needs off the tie to St. Louis.


Fox will send the Joe Buck-Troy Aikman broadcast team to Detroit, where Green Bay will be paying a visit in a big NFC North game at 1 PM ET. CBS doesn’t have a lot of choices for the early game it will show to most of the country—not with Baltimore-Pittsburgh, Indianapolis-New England and San Diego-Denver already gone. That’s the excuse I’m giving the network for inflicting Cleveland-Dallas on anyone who doesn’t have a local team playing on CBS in this time slot.

Packers-Lions: Green Bay’s injuries overshadow this one, as the bye week wasn’t enough to get Clay Matthews’ hamstring healed. The Packers were already missing outside linebacker Nick Perry and strong safety Charles Woodson. It’s very difficult to see where this defense gets big plays from, and as long the Lions don’t self-destruct (always a possibility), they should be able to move the ball. What I want to see from Detroit is if this underachieving defensive line—ranked just 17th in sacks despite great talent at each position—can exploit bad Packer pass protection. If Aaron Rodgers can’t throw down the field, and Detroit doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot, they’ll win. Take the Lions and the three.

Browns-Cowboys: Cleveland’s played Baltimore tough twice, so we can’t dismiss their chances of being competitive. But even Dallas has to be able to take care of business in this spot. Cleveland has no offensive punch and the only way they can win is if Tony Romo has a turnover-fest. But in that regard…while Dallas’ best strength offensively is throwing the ball downfield, stopping the same is Cleveland’s one defensive strength. Joe Haden is a good ballhawk at corner and with Demarco Murray doubtful, the Cowboys won’t be able to run. Enough that Cleveland could make it intriguing and justify taking them with the (+8). But win? If that happens, Jason Garrett needs to be fired immediately.


Arizona-Atlanta: With the Falcons mad, the Cardinals still missing Kevin Kolb and having top pass-rusher Calais Campbell at least beat up (and possibly out) what reason is there to think an upset might happen?

Cincinnati-Kansas City: The Chiefs’ near-miss in Pittsburgh is the answer to that previous question for the rest of the season, but even KC still came up short. But kudos to the Chiefs for not mailing it in on the season. If they can bring similar effort here, they can pull an upset, but the Bengals have to be cognizant of the fact that a win gets them to 5-5 and possibly back in the playoff race if the Colts and/or Steelers lose.

Philadelphia-Washington: If my ‘Skins can’t win this game, it’s time for a full-scale revolution in Washington, with citizens of all political stripes involved.

Tampa Bay-Carolina: How often does an upstart playoff contender like Tampa come up short because they blow a game like this one? I don’t like the Bucs’ pass rush—or lack thereof—and I’ll take Cam Newton to have a redemption-performance, at least for one week.

Jacksonville-Houston: It’s the NFL and anything can happen. That’s really the best analysis anyone can offer.

NY Jets-St. Louis: The Rams showed last week they always bring the effort. The Jets have shown they’re a walking disaster. I want to see St. Louis’ maturity level in seeing how they handle a game they really should win, as St. Loo comes in an unlikely three-point favorite (at least unlikely at the beginning of the year).

New Orleans-Oakland: I expect this game to be pretty good, as Carson Palmer has lit up bad defenses this year, and the Saints are certainly that. But Drew Brees has got some momentum rolling and I don’t think his team will let their playoff hopes basically die in a game like this. Take New Orleans to win, but if you’re betting, take the Over, even with the 54.5 totals line being the highest on the board this week.