What are some of the big questions heading into this week in the NFL?
1. Can Matt Leinart save the Texans’ season?
You almost have to feel bad for the Houston Texans. Now that they’re finally knocking on the door of their first postseason appearance, they lose starting quarterback Matt Schaub (Lisfranc surgery) for the season. The good news is that the Texans are still two wins up on the Titans in the AFC South and hey, it’s not like the NFL has never seen a backup quarterback resurgence before. Don’t forget that in this very division, Kerry Collins once stepped in for Vince Young and led the Titans to a 12-3 record and a No. 1 seed in the AFC. That said, Collins had already taken a team to the Super Bowl earlier in his career and had some success as a starter. Matt Leinart has not. He may have won a bunch of games at USC but he’s done nothing in his four years in the NFL to make you believe that he’s going to one day wake up and put it all together. In fact, he hasn’t even attempted a pass since 2009. Maybe the question for the Texans isn’t whether or not Leinart can save their season, but whether or not the duo of Arian Foster and Ben Tate can rise to the challenge. Houston’s running game will be relied upon even more than it already has this season, although at some point Leinart will have to make plays. Like most people, I have my doubts about his potential to lead.
2. Can the Titans capitalize?
Tennessee has kind of gotten lost in the midst of Houston’s current four-game winning streak. But now that Leinart is taking over under center, the Titans have a realistic chance to win the division if they can play well in the second half. Chris Johnson is coming off a 130-yard effort against the Panthers and is showing signs of life for the first time all season. Matt Hasselbeck has also stayed healthy and is managing the game like the seasoned vet he is. The defense, however, has regressed. While the Titans have been stout against the run and good (not great) in coverage, their pass rush has been non-existent at times. For the Titans to beat teams like the Saints, Falcons and Bills over the next month, they’ll need to be able to rush the quarterback. But with games against the Bucs, Colts, Jaguars and Texans left on their schedule, there’s no reason the Titans can’t steal the AFC South right from under Houston’s nose. It’s really up to Tennessee to step up and string some wins together if Leinart falters.
3. Can Mike Smith and the Falcons bounce back?
That was a nasty way to lose last Sunday. While some have argued that Smith’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 29-yard-line last weekend against the Saints was a risk worth taking, the bottom line is that the move backfired. It cost the Falcons a potential victory and now they sit a game and a half back of the Saints in the NFC South. Smith’s decision is something that could come back and bite the Falcons later on once the NFC playoff picture takes shape. That said, the toughest part of Atlanta’s schedule has already been played. Tennessee, the Falcons’ opponent this Sunday, is certainly beatable, as are Minnesota, Houston, Carolina and Jacksonville (Atlanta’s four opponents before taking on New Orleans again on December 26). The Falcons close the season out at home against a Bucs team that is presently floundering, so there’s a chance they could win out if they play to their full potential. But not if they can’t put “the decision” behind them. To Smith’s credit, he hasn’t backed down from taking responsibility for the fourth down call and his players have come out in full support of their head coach. Now they just have to prove that they’re over the loss on the field.
4. Can the Chargers shake out of their funk?
The Chargers pissed away a golden opportunity to take their lead back in the AFC West when they lost to a banged up Oakland team last Thursday at home. Now they have to travel to Chicago to take on a red-hot Bears team that is playing with a ton of confidence right now. The Bolts have lost four straight and Philip Rivers isn’t carrying the team like he did a year ago. Norv Turner’s passing attack is still explosive but Rivers can’t stop turning the ball over and the running game is nowhere to be seen. On the other side of the ball, San Diego’s secondary has been suspect all season, which isn’t good considering Chicago likes to put the ball in the air. Fortunately for the Chargers nobody in the AFC West seems ready to pull away. But for confidence sake, the Bolts need to pick up a huge road win this Sunday.
5. Will the Ravens’ rebound from their horrendous loss last week?
I didn’t think the Ravens could play any worse than their 12-7 loss to the Jaguars in Week 7. And then they came out last Sunday and lost 22-17 to the Seahawks in a game they never led. The Ravens have clearly played to the level of their competition this season. They played inspired football in wins over Pittsburgh (twice), the Jets and Houston, but in losses to Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle the Ravens clearly thought their inferior opponents would just roll over. So how will they perceive the Bengals this Sunday? Cincinnati didn’t have what it takes to beat Pittsburgh at home last week but it did fight to the end. They’ve also played solid defense this year, although they just lost star cornerback Leon Hall to a season-ending injury. Will Baltimore view Cincinnati as a tough divisional opponent and play up to its potential or will the Ravens not take the banged up Bengals seriously and drop consecutive games for the first time all season?
6. Are the Bills finished?
If they’re not, they better be able to beat a 2-7 Miami team this Sunday. Buffalo has lost two in a row and has looked really bad in the process. The Dolphins may have started the year 0-7 but their confidence is rising with two straight wins. Still, they’re the Dolphins. They’re beatable. They’re certainly beatable when you’re a 5-4 Bills team that is trying to keep pace with the Jets and Patriots in the AFC East. This is a must win for Buffalo, especially considering New York and New England should beat Denver and Kansas City, respectively. If the Bills lose for a third straight week, then chances are this fairytale season is about to have a horrendous ending.