The Playbook: Previewing Broncos-Chiefs, Saints-49ers, more Week 11 games
Kansas City (9-0) at Denver (8-1) — 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: The AFC West’s big day finally arrives. It seems a little screwy that the top two teams in a division would not play until Week 11. But because of that backloaded slate, the Chiefs and Broncos will meet twice in three weeks, with the rematch set for Week 13 in Kansas City.
What that game means depends on the outcome here. A Chiefs victory would put them in firm control of the West and officially set the league on 16-0 watch; if the Broncos hold serve, they could head into Week 13 with the AFC’s top record. (Kansas City hosts San Diego next Sunday, while Denver travels to New England.)
Either way, the stakes are high — mile high, actually — Sunday night in Denver.
The show-stopping matchup: Denver’s top-ranked offense vs. Kansas City’s top-ranked defense. The Chiefs have allowed just 12.3 points per game during their 9-0 start, with their defense actually accounting for six touchdowns on its own. Kansas City leads the league in sacks at 36, which is worth remembering as Peyton Manning hobbles into this game with two sore ankles.
Denver, despite being held under 30 points last week for the first time in 2013, remains on pace to break New England’s single-season record of 589 points.
The fate of Sunday night’s outcome may rest on the other side of the ball, though.
Many a skeptic of Alex Smith remains, in spite of his team’s perfect start. Smith has been decent but far from great thus far — nine touchdowns, four interceptions, fewer than 2,000 yards passing. The Chiefs also have not had to ask him to do all that much. That request may change Sunday, should Manning’s Broncos find a way to hang some points on the board.
Denver actually ranks fourth in the league against the run (in part because trailing teams have had to throw so much). So, how much space Jamaal Charles can carve out will be key to Kansas City’s hopes. Charles has more than 1,100 yards from scrimmage this season and may be pushing his way into the MVP race.
He’d likely trade that award for a division title and home-field advantage in the playoffs. Stealing a win in Denver would go a long way toward the Chiefs accomplishing those goals. – Chris Burke
New England (7-2) at Carolina (6-3) — Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Talk all you want about Cam Newton and the read-option — the real reason the Panthers are on track for a winning record for the first time since 2008 is a defense that currently ranks first in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics. And, as we detailed this week, Carolina’s front seven is as impressive as any in the NFL. Tom Brady doesn’t need convincing.
“They have a great front,” New England’s quarterback said Tuesday. “They rotate all these guys in. They can all rush the quarterback and they’ve got linebackers that can tackle. [Linebacker Luke] Kuechly is a great young player and makes tackles everywhere. If you miss a throw, it’s usually an interception. You just have to know the challenge, know what it takes, 60 minutes of great football. You’re not just going to go in there and put together 30 good minutes and think you’re going to win. We have to play well all night.”
The Panthers are enjoying a five-game winning streak and they’ve taken six of their last seven games because they’re playing the total game. Carolina ranks 10th in FO’s offensive metrics, the running game is working in ways it didn’t last year and Newton has been at his most efficient of late.
For the Patriots to pull this one out, they’ll need to stop that voracious defensive front. Guard Logan Mankins, who has allowed seven sacks in 2013 (the most for any NFL guard), understands that challenge implicitly — particularly Carolina’s ability to rotate as many as four ends and tackles per game.
“They have a lot of depth up front and a lot of good players,” Mankins said. “To rotate like that, they stay pretty fresh and there is not a huge drop-off when they do rotate.”
In short, the Patriots should not expect a repeat of the 55-point, 610-yard thrashing they put on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Nov. 3, before New England’s bye. Tom Brady threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns in that game as an inconsistent offense finally found its footing. The Panthers are all about making that footing as treacherous as possible. – Doug Farrar
San Francisco (6-3) at New Orleans (7-2) — 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: Is the shine off the San Francisco 49ers’ apple? That’s the lingering question out of Week 10, in a game in which Carolina absolutely stuffed Colin Kaepernick’s offense in a 10-9 Panthers win. The 49ers had scored 31 points or more in the previous five games, all victories, so it may not be time to panic just yet. Still, last Sunday marked San Francisco’s third game scoring in single digits — two coming in home losses.
The 49ers likely will need to find their AWOL offense this week against a New Orleans team that’s climbed into the top five defensively and which averages 35.2 points per game at home.
Carolina’s win in San Francisco actually complicated life for the Saints in the NFC South. Despite a strong 7-2 start to the year, New Orleans has 6-3 Carolina breathing down its neck in the division. Of course, the 49ers have their own problems on the standings front, namely that they’re barely clinging to a wild-card spot. They currently sit 2.5 games back of the Seahawks in the NFC West, with just one game left against their arch-rivals. A loss Sunday, which would be San Francisco’s fourth, would all but cement the division for Seattle.
We mentioned Alex Smith’s shaky numbers earlier in the Playbook. Well, Colin Kaepernick’s are worse: 56.4-percent completion rate, 186.1 passing yards per game and nine touchdowns to six interceptions. As with Smith’s Chiefs offense, the 49ers like to live and die with their run game and defense, but they still need a more consistent effort from their quarterback.
That said, it may be in the Frank Gore-led run game that San Francisco can hang with the Saints. Though Rob Ryan has turned his team’s pass defense into a force, the Saints are 23rd against the run and allowed the Jets to pile up 198 yards on the ground in their last loss. The 49ers remain capable of posting a comparable effort, one that would help keep Drew Brees on the sideline.
If Chiefs-Broncos is the headliner this week, 49ers-Saints may be the undercard. If nothing else, the stakes are lofty enough that both teams could use a win in the bayou. – CB
Baltimore (4-5) at Chicago (5-4) — 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bears had quarterback Jay Cutler back for the better part of one game Sunday against the Detroit Lions, and a 21-19 loss was the result. Cutler had missed the previous game against the Green Bay Packers with a groin injury suffered against Washington, and after the Lions game, head coach Marc Trestman confirmed Cutler’s status had become complicated by a high ankle sprain.
“I went through the tape closely this morning and watched Jay’s performance, and I thought he did well into the fourth quarter,” Trestman said Monday. “But at the end of the day, if we had to do it all over again, maybe it would be one series before the two-minute drill [that we removed him].”
In Cutler’s stead, the Bears will go back to backup Josh McCown, who performed credibly against the Packers and Redskins. McCown has completed 42-of-70 passes this season for 538 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. McCown does not have the same potential for shot plays that Cutler does, but the way receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey are playing this season, that doesn’t matter too much. Marshall and Jeffrey are huge targets, and they’ve been winning matchup battles all season. That’s a serious challenge even for a Baltimore defense that ranks 10th against the pass in FO’s metrics. Underrated Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb will be tasked with covering Marshall, and that’s a great duel.
“Now you’re starting to see him get back to that form,” Marshall said of Webb, who is playing very well now after recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in 2012. “He’s playing lights-out. There are things where I can see he probably wants to work on and not give up, but this guy has the potential to be the best corner in the league.”
The Ravens will try to get running back Ray Rice going against Chicago’s injury-plagued defensive front. Rice has been hurt this season and Baltimore’s line is underperforming, and the result has been an atypical year for Rice — 289 yards on 115 carries (a 2.5 yards per carry average) and three rushing touchdowns. He ran 18 times for just 30 yards in Baltimore’s 20-17 overtime win against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
“If I doubted myself, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Rice said this week. “I’m at full strength. The Ravens are going to need me at full strength late in the year. It might be a blessing in disguise that I went through something early. Now, we’re trying to get back on track, so I can get myself back to whatever you call ‘full strength.’ I know I’m able to make plays. I leave the doubt and the naysayers out there. When there’s opportunity, you’ll definitely see it. We just haven’t had the opportunity to show it.”
This would be the week to do it. Next Sunday, Rice will be running against the New York Jets’ awesome defensive front. – DF