Ahh, the best part of the season. Divisional races are rounding into form but few teams are already, completely out of the playoff picture. Okay, that may be a bit of a stretch but this is truly the best part of the NFL season.
Some interesting games this weekend, culminating with the Ravens taking on Pittsburgh on Sunday night and the San Francisco-Chicago showdown on Monday. Strangely enough, quarterback injuries could play a huge role in the outcomes of both those games.
What questions are vexing me heading into NFL Week 11?
1. Can the Steelers win with Leftwich?
Maybe. But not against Baltimore. With Ben Roethlisberger at his best, this would be a tough, tough game for the Steelers to win. Without Big Ben, well... I like Byron Leftwich, to be honest. I think he's a gamer with a big heart and some talent. But... against a fired up Ravens defense that is smelling blood? That's smarting from the criticism it has received this season? Sorry Byron.
Ben's out for Sunday's game. My thought is that Pittsburgh holds him out of the Cleveland game the following week, even if his injury has mended well enough that he could go. Why? First, I think Leftwich and the Steelers can handle the Browns without Roethlisberger so why risk anything? And second, because the Ravens are on the sched again the following week and you will want to have a fully recovered starting quarterback for that match.
2. Does Michael Turner still matter in the Falcons' high flying offense?
I saw this question on the SI website and my first reaction was, What a stupid question. Turner is a game-changer, a work horse, a stalwart. Of course he fits into that offense. Then I looked a little closer and I thought...
What a stupid question. Of course he fits into the offense. Turner gives the Falcons an important alternative against the tough defenses of the league. With Turner, you're going to get your four yards a carry, no matter who you're playing against. He doesn't rely on finesse and fancy blocking to get his yards; he just hits the hole and keeps moving. Any team, no matter how up-tempo their offense, can put a back like Michael Turner to good use.
And I think we'll see some of his value this weekend, when the 8-1 Falcons take on a stout Cardinals defense. Ranked fifth in the league overall by SI, Arizona's defense is only 24th in the NFL in terms of yards given up on the ground per game (126.1). It's their pass defense (ranked number 2 in yards given up per game, 194.6) that makes them so good. Michael Turner should carry a load for Atlanta against Arizona this weekend.
3. Can the Bears win without Cutler? Can the Niners win without Smith?
To be honest, I don't think Monday Night's outcome will depend at all on who is behind centre for either team. It's going to be defensive plays that decide it. That being said, I have to admit I think Jay Cutler is more important to his team's success than Alex Smith is to his.
Here's what I think:
If it's Cutler versus Smith, the Niners win by 10;
If it's Cutler versus Kaepernick, the Niners win the game but maybe by a safety;
If it's Campbell versus Smith, yikes. San Fran by two touchdowns; and
If it's Campbell versus Kaepernick, I say it's the Niners by a touchdown.
In other words, San Fran will win this game no matter who is in at quarterback for either team.
4. Who is going to take best advantage of the Giants recent struggles in the NFC East?
Dallas can keep pushing New York with a win over Cleveland this weekend. If they can beat the Browns, the Cowboys will get back to 5-5, one game behind the suddenly faltering Giants. Why do I think, however, that Jason Garrett's Boys might just find a way to lose this one?
Meanwhile, Washington hosts Philadelphia with the loser basically falling out of the race entirely. Both teams are curently at 3-6 and, if they're not out of the playoff hunt already, a loss on Sunday will certainly spell their doom.
The Redskins have the Eagles, Cowboys, Giants and Ravens on their sched in the next four weeks, then finish their season with Cleveland, the Eagles and the Cowboys again.
Philly, meanwhile, has Washington, Carolina, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Cincy, Washington and the Giants left to play.
If the winner of Sunday's match can get on a roll, and I think both teams are capable of coming together and reeling off some wins, they have enough Divisional games left to get back into the race. Philly has winnable games against Carolina and Cincy (I think Tampa would prove a bigger problem) so if they can go on a tear against their divisional rivals, anything might happen.
The Redskins are in a similar boat but with one more Divisional game left. Imagine if Washington were to beat Philly this weekend, then win out against their divisional rivals: not a bad outcome, I think.
Big talk, of course. I'm certainly not going to go on the record with a prediction that either the Redskins or the Eagles are actually going to get on any sort of roll at this point. But this weekend's game is absolutely crucial to both teams. A loss here and they're done done done.
Let's just see if the Cowboys can take advantage with a win over the Browns. In a way, that's a must win game as well since Dallas still has to face the Bengals, Steelers and Saints this season, on top of their divisional games. That's no easy task either.