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Ten Observations from Week 11 in the NFL

1. Losing Gronkowski is a killer for Patriots.
Bill Belichick always finds a way. When Randy Moss became a nuisance in 2010 and the Patriots eventually decided to trade him, Belichick revamped his offense to feature rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Instead of attacking teams vertically with Moss, New England started going down the seam to its tight ends while mixing in a variety of screens (a staple in the Pats offense). So losing Gronkowski for 4-6 weeks due to a broken forearm isn’t going to completely derail the Patriots. They’re going to win the AFC East and they’ll probably wind up hosting a playoff game come January. But make no mistake: losing Gronkowski changes a lot for New England. Including Sunday’s 59-24 win over the Colts, “Gronk” had 37 touchdowns in 42 career games. He’s solidified himself as one of the most dangerous red-zone threats in the game and is perhaps the best player at his position. Indianapolis didn’t have an answer for him on Sunday and most teams usually don’t. He’s too fast for tight ends and he’s too big for safeties or cornerbacks. Double him and you’ll leave Wes Welker open in space, or create holes for New England’s shredding running game. The Patriots didn’t just lose a playmaker – they lost the most productive player on their roster not named Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. Again, Belichick will find a way to keep his offense firing on all cylinders (the return of Herndandez will help). But he just lost one hell of a piston.

2. The blueprint on how to beat the Falcons has been revealed.
Coming into this week, the most interceptions Matt Ryan had thrown in one game was three. He matched that total in the first quarter of the Falcons’ fortunate 23-16 win over the Cardinals on Sunday, and threw two more interceptions before the completion of the game. It’s fair to point out that one interception went off Roddy White’s hands while two more were tipped at the line of scrimmage. But the other two picks were all Ryan, who perhaps had the worst game of his career. Ray Horton put together a brilliant game plan, dialing up a heavy array of blitzes while bringing pressure up the middle. Arizona only sacked Ryan once, but the Atlanta QB was constantly under duress and had someone in his face all game. With Julio Jones limited due to an ankle injury, the Cardinals were also smart to play bump and run on the outsides. Ryan threw for 301 yards but Arizona turned his five interceptions into 16 points. If the Cardinals had something even remotely resembling a NFL quarterback on their roster, they would have won the game easily. Instead, Horton handed other defensive coordinators a blueprint on how to corral the Falcon offense. Pressure Ryan up the middle, play physical on the outsides, and bracket Tony Gonzalez in coverage and you’ll limit what Atlanta can do. Granted, that’s easier said than done but thanks to the cemented-footed Michael Turner, it’s not as if the Falcons can lean on their running game in efforts to mix things up. Considering they may face aggressive defenses like San Francisco and Chicago in the playoffs, the one-dimensional Falcons have legitimate concerns despite being 9-1.

3. Manning is now the clear choice for MVP.
Save for his disastrous five-interception effort on Sunday, Matt Ryan has been phenomenal for the Falcons this season. He’s having a career year and if the MVP award were to be handed out tomorrow, one could easily make an argument that he’s deserving of the honor. But if you were looking for an MVP favorite right now, it would have to be Peyton Manning, who is having a career year statistically for the Broncos. The Chargers sacked him three times on Sunday and constantly pressured Manning inside the pocket. But he still wound up completing 25-of-42 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He has a 21-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last eight games and he’s put Denver in position to challenge for one of the top two seeds in the AFC. Thanks in large part to his production and the play of Von Miller (who’s a beast), the Broncos have now won five straight. And considering he missed all of last season due to multiple neck/back surgeries, what he’s been able to accomplish this season has been nothing short of remarkable. While his statistics have been impressive, you can’t measure what he’s been able to do for Denver this season. He’s going to make the Broncos a very tough out in the postseason.

4. At some point, the Rams need more from Bradford.
With how bad Sam Bradford was on Sunday, Brian Schottenheimer must have thought he was still calling plays for Mark Sanchez. Bradford completed just 23-of-44 passes for 170 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in the Rams’ 27-13 loss to the Jets. He completed just 52 percent of his passes for a dismal 3.9 yards per attempt and also lost a fumble while looking uncomfortable by what the Jets were doing defensively. One week after shredding San Francisco’s outstanding defense, Bradford put together a forgettable performance against a reeling Jets team that was without its best defender. Granted, the excuses for Bradford are still viable. He’s playing in his third offense and for his third offensive coordinator in three years. But at some point the Rams are going to have to see signs of sustained progress from their third-year QB. Right now the formula is too easy for opposing defenses: Contain Danny Amendola, shut down Bradford and the St. Louis passing game. There’s no question Bradford needs a better supporting cast and it’s not as if he hasn’t improved. At times this season he’s played with more confidence and has looked more poised than at any point in his career. But one major flaw that he lacks is the ability to create on his own. That’s what the best do. And while the New York loss shouldn’t solely be laid at his feet the Rams need more from their franchise player or the team’s success will remain sporadic.

5. The Bucs are legit playoff contenders.
There’s something special brewing in Tampa Bay this year. Down 11 points late in the fourth quarter, the Bucs mounted an impressive comeback to beat the Panthers 27-21 in overtime. It was the fifth straight game in which Tampa scored at least 27 points and over the last six weeks, Josh Freeman has thrown 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions while averaging 285.8 yards per game. Granted, it wasn’t all good for Freeman on Sunday. He threw a mind-numbing pick-six to Captain Munnerlyn at the end of the first quarter while displaying shoddy footwork for much of the game. But with everything on the line late in the fourth, he threaded the needle to Vincent Jackson between two defenders and with one Panther hanging on him to put the Bucs within a 2-point conversation of tying the game. He then found Jackson again on the 2-point attempt before orchestrating an 8-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in overtime to put Carolina out of its misery. After what they’ve been able to accomplish over the past four weeks, don’t for a second think that the Bucs can’t beat the Falcons next week. Atlanta has had major issues in Tampa for the better part of a decade, including last season when the Bucs beat the Falcons, 16-13. They also can’t stop the run (hello, Doug Martin) and they’re banged up defensively (Sean Weatherspoon missed his third straight game due to an ankle injury, Asante Samuel hurt his shoulder and John Abraham came up limping several times on Sunday). That said, the biggest thing holding Tampa Bay back right now is its pass defense. And while Atlanta has proven to be one-dimensional offensively, the thing the Falcons do well is throw the ball. Next week will be the Bucs biggest challenge to date. Beat the 9-1 Falcons and all of a sudden they’re in the driver’s seat to secure one of the two wild card spots in the NFC.

6. The Steelers are in trouble.
Following the most athletic play of his career, Byron Leftwich did a very Byron Leftwich-type thing: He tripped over his own two feet with nobody around him and somehow hurt his shoulder in the process. He went on to complete just 18-of-39 passes for 201 yards with one costly interception in the Steelers’ 13-10 loss to the Ravens on “Sunday Night Football.” To be fair, it was a gritty performance by the former Jaguar, who stayed in the game despite taking hit-after-hit from aggressive Baltimore defenders. But the same progrems that plagued him as a rookie continue to plague him in his 10th year. He holds onto the ball too long, his elongated release welcomes turnovers, and he’s too erratic as a passer. Pittsburgh’s defense played well enough to win but Leftwich couldn’t sustain drives and special teams let the Steelers down when Jacoby Jones returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown in the first half. Leftwich should be good enough to beat Cleveland next Sunday but two weeks from now the Steelers will have to travel to Baltimore to play the Ravens again. If they lose that game, they’ll almost certainly lose the division and will then have to compete with Indianapolis and Cincinnati for a wild card berth in the AFC. With Leftwich under center, there are no more “gimmies” on the schedule.

7. The Eagles have no choice but to hand Reid his walking papers.
The sensible thing for the Eagles to do is fire Andy Reid right now in order to get a jumpstart on finding his replacement. Why delay the inevitable? But considering he’s been one of the finest head coaches to not win a Super Bowl over the past two decades, Philadelphia may decide to let Reid finish out the season. Either way, the Eagles need to make a move. Following their 31-6 loss to the Redskins on Sunday, it’s apparent that there will be no miracle in Philadelphia this year. Despite having all of that talent, the Eagles don’t do anything well on either side of the ball. They can’t tackle. They don’t start fast. They don’t finish strong. No matter who’s under center they generate too many turnovers from the quarterback position. They don’t play with urgency, their game plans are often puzzling and injuries have decimated the offensive line. They’re just a bad football team, perhaps one of the worst in the NFL. And when a team has that much talent and is playing this bad, the head coach must go. It’s not as if the game has passed Reid by. The players have just stopped responding and when that happens, it’s best for all involved if there’s a change at the top. Reid will surely find work after this season, or in two years if he decides to take a year off. But his time in Philadelphia is coming to an end. It simply has to.

8. The Packers have very quietly won five in a row.
Last year the Packers sprinted through the regular season while lighting up opponents along the way. But they’ve traded in style for grit this year and they’ve very quietly put together a five-game winning streak. In their 24-20 win over the Lions on Sunday, Mason Crosby missed two field goals, Aaron Rodgers spent most of the day not being on the same page with his receivers, and Mike McCarthy questionably stuck with a running game that simply wasn’t working. It was the second time in three games that the Packer offense struggled, although Rodgers remains on a pretty good tear. He now has 24 touchdown passes in his last seven games and was clutch Sunday when it mattered most, hitting Jermichael Finley for a 40-yard pass play to set up the game-winning 22-yard touchdown to Randall Cobb. Green Bay is far from being the juggernaut that it was last season but just like in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl, they’re having to grind out victories. That could serve them well down the road.

9. The Bengals still have a pulse.
Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have revived a Bengals team left for dead two weeks ago. At 5-5 there’s still time for Cincinnati to mount a comeback in the AFC, especially with Ben Roethlisberger likely to miss sufficient time due to injuries. With games versus Oakland, San Diego, Dallas and Philadelphia coming up, it’s realistic that the Bengals could be 9-5 heading into Pittsburgh on December 23. The key is whether or not Dalton continues to play with the confidence that he’s exhibited over his past two games. Following his four-touchdown, zero-interception performance versus the Giants, the second-year QB completed 18-of-29 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns and no picks in Cincinnati’s 28-6 win over the Chiefs on Sunday. Green also caught a touchdown pass in his ninth straight game, leaving him one TD shy of tying Carl Pickens’ franchise record. At some point they need to prove that they can beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh if they want to be taken seriously. But suddenly the Bengals are in position to compete for that sixth and final wild card spot in the AFC.

10. Quick-Hits from around the league…
Even though they eventually lost the game, Jaguar fans had to be thrilled with their team’s effort on Sunday. That said, big picture-wise it’s not good that Chad Henne lit Houston up for 354 yards and four touchdown passes while once again being forced into action because of an injury to Blaine Gabbert. Henne was exposed in Miami as a full-time starter and he’s not the long-term answer in Jacksonville. But through a season and a half, Gabbert doesn’t appear to be either…Speaking of Houston, what a day for Matt Schaub (43-of-55, 527 yards, 5 TDs, 2 INTs). On a rare day when he had to pick up his defense, Schaub and Andre Johnson (14 catches, 273 yards, 1 TD) were sensational…The Cowboys are in trouble if they’re barely squeaking by the Browns at home. How can anyone in Dallas be confident that the Cowboys will make the postseason when Green Bay, Tampa Bay, Seattle New Orleans and Minnesota are all playing better?…The Colts proved in New England that they’re not quite ready for primetime but Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton are starting to become a nice little duo. Hilton now has three 100-yard games this season and has emerged as a true deep threat in Indy’s offense. And while New England took two of Luck’s interceptions back for touchdowns, the rookie QB continues to show great pocket presence and toughness. He’s not afraid to stand in the pocket and deliver a strike in the face of charging defenders…. Mike Mularkey did wonders for Roddy White’s career in Atlanta and he could do the same for Justin Blackmon in Jacksonville. While receiving a team-high 13 targets as the focal point of the Jaguars passing game, Blackmon broke out with a seven-catch, 236-yard performance. He also caught an 81-yard touchdown pass while snatching the ball in triple coverage. It was the game Jacksonville fans have been waiting for since April…If Matthew Stafford ever decides to go back and review his performance from this season, he won’t like what he sees. Too many times this year he would be careless with the football, including on Sunday when he threw a side-armed interception just before halftime, killing whatever opportunity Detroit had to sustain momentum versus Green Bay. He’s also taken some bad sacks in crucial moments of games, hasn’t always secured the ball properly and often halted drives with poor decision-making. After throwing for over 5,000 yards in 2011, this season has been a bust for the fourth-year QB…Forget the Cardinals’ record – Ray Horton is going to be a hot name this offseason when it comes to coaching vacancies around the NFL. On most Sundays, his defense has played well enough to win games, even though Arizona’s offense constantly puts his players in horrible situations…The Saints’ victory over the lowly Raiders was impressive, but their playoff hopes firmly ride on the next four weeks: vs. 49ers, at Falcons, at Giants, vs. Bucs. If they can win three of four they can make the playoffs with a two-game sweep of the Cowboys and Panthers to close out the regular season…There’s not much going right for the Chargers these days, including a reckless Philip Rivers. But former Ram Danario Alexander is making the most out of a second chance. Limited by a hamstring injury in training camp and preseason, having five weeks off to heal up did wonders for Alexander’s career. He now has 15 catches for 291 yards and three touchdowns in his last three games.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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2012 NFL Playoffs: Quick-Hit Reactions from Bengals vs. Texans

The Texans defeated the Bengals 31-10 on Saturday to notch their first playoff victory in franchise history. Here are a couple of quick-hit reactions from this Wildcard contest.

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster rushes for a gain against the San Diego Chargers in the first half at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas on November 7, 2010. UPI/Aaron M. Sprecher

- Many times during the postseason we see a defensive line take over a game and that’s exactly what Houston’s front four did on Saturday. Outside of one or two passes, Andy Dalton simply didn’t have enough time to go through his progressions and get the ball down filed because the Texans’ D-line was up his ass every play. The Bengals’ running game didn’t do him any favors but credit Wade Phillips for putting together a great game plan. (A game plan that turned A.J. Green into a ghost.) Dalton had some success moving the ball in the first quarter but once the Bengals got further off of their opening script, their offense crumbled.

- You say defensive tackle J.J. Watt was a former tight end in college? Huh, could have fooled me on that ridiculous catch he made on that game-changing pick-six right before halftime. It‘s hardly surprising that he turned out to be such a good player in his first year. He’s a fellow Central Michigan Chippewa and those guys can just…flat…out…play.

- Speaking of Watt, how annoying was Mike Mayock when he kept boasting about how he thought Watt should have been a top-10 pick back in April? We get it Mike, you were high on the kid coming out of college.

- Speaking of Watt x2: What were Watt’s odds for the prop bet, “What rookie will score first in Saturday’s Bengals-Texans game?” Andy Dalton 5/1. T.J. Yates 6/1. J.J. Watt 100,000,000/1.

- It’s amazing to think that Arian Foster was once on Houston’s practice squad. You watch how elusive, athletic and powerful he is and it makes you wonder how the hell he wasn’t considered one of the Texans’ top 3 running backs during a given year. That said, Foster has even admitted that he wasn’t motivated until finding out that practice players could be called up, so it’s probably not the Texans’ fault that he wasted some time when he first arrived in the NFL. And boy has he arrived.

- I hate to be critical because the kid is doing the best he can in a difficult situation, but T.J. Yates wasn’t very impressive. On one drive in the second quarter, he overlooked open receivers on two separate pass plays in order to throw to guys that were covered, and Chris Crocker nearly had a pick-six late in the third when Yates threw across his body. (Crocker inexplicably dropped the gift.) But again, how critical can you be of a fifth-round rookie quarterback who won his first postseason game of his career? Peyton Manning didn’t accomplish that feat and neither did Eli Manning or Matt Ryan. I only mention the fact that Yates wasn’t impressive because Baltimore’s defense is a) better against the run than Cincinnati and b) will likely score more than 10 points. Thus, Yates might not be able to step into the shadows and allow Foster and Houston’s defense to take over.

- One thing that was impressive about Yates was the double-move he put on Pacman Jones to burn the corner on Andre Johnson’s touchdown catch. Houston‘s o-line gave him great protection and Yates calmly juked Jones out of jockstrap. (On a related note, it’s easy to forget that Pacman is still in the NFL when he’s not being arrested every week.)

- This game was yet another example of what happens when a team doesn’t have enough offensive weapons. The Texans took Green out of the game and Dalton essentially didn’t have anyone else to throw to. You see this type of thing all the time in the playoffs and you understand why teams like the Saints and Packers load up on playmakers during the offseason.

- The coaches upstairs for the Bengals should have done a better job of telling Marvin Lewis not to challenge Owen Daniels’ first-down catch late in the first half. Had they done their jobs, Lewis wouldn’t have blown Cincinnati’s second timeout and more importantly, the team’s final challenge on a call that obviously wasn‘t going to go their way. That said, it’s ultimately up to Lewis to make sure he still has a challenge in his back pocket for the final 30-plus minutes of the game. That’s just bad coaching all around for Cincinnati.

- That’s a bad half of football, Chris Crocker.

- Despite this bitter ending, it was a hell of a season for the Bengals. I know fans wanted their team to advance but looking at the big picture, nobody expected Cincinnati to make the postseason back in August.

Fade Material: NFL Wildcard Weekend Predictions

Pittsburgh Steelers James Harrison sacks Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton for a lost of six yards in the second quarter at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 4, 2011. UPI/Archie Carpenter

My predictions for the college football regular season were 31-23-2 against the spread and my picks for the NFL regular season were 33-32-3 ATS after a 3-1 effort in Week 17.

Is that enough intro foreplay for you? Good – let’s get to the Wildcard Weekend predictions.

Bengals @ Texans, 4:30PM ET, Saturday
Andy Dalton has officially hit the rookie wall. As I noted in my Wildcard playoff preview, he’s topped 200 yards passing in just one of his final five games and he missed practice earlier this week after being hospitalized with the flu. He should play but how effective he’ll be after spending the week with his face presumably hovering over a toilet bowl instead of the Bengals’ playbook remains to be seen. I fully expect Wade Phillips to throw a few wrinkles at the rookie and for Houston’s defense to take over this game from the start. The Texans can worry about the fact that T.J. Yates is their starting quarterback next week when they travel to Baltimore.
THE PICK: TEXANS –3

Lions @ Saints, 8:00PM ET
I truly believe that the Lions have a shot at upsetting the Saints this weekend in New Orleans. They have a legit quarterback in Matthew Stafford, one of the best players in the game in Calvin Johnson, and a pass rush that can get after Drew Brees. But betting against the Saints at home is the equivalent of sticking your hand in a circular saw and expecting there not to be blood. (Too much?) Thus, I’m taking the easy way out and going with the over. New Orleans’ defense is a much better unit at home than on the road, but Detroit’s passing game is explosive. Points won’t be an issue in this game but both teams will probably have to get into the 30s for the over to hit. No problem – I’ll take that bet.
THE PICK: OVER 58.5

Falcons @ Giants, 1:00PM ET
A lot of people are expecting a shootout for this game but I just don’t see it. Both teams have a tendency of playing things close to the vest and conservative in big games, which is why the under is an attractive play. Even though striking a balance offensively should be their main goal, Atlanta will likely lean on Michael Turner in attempts to avoid New York’s nasty pass rush. On the flip side, the Giants haven’t been able to run the ball much this year but that doesn’t mean they can’t. The Falcons will be without starting strong-side linebacker Stephen Nicholas (knee), who is one of their better run defenders. In his place will be 2009 sixth round pick Spencer Adkins, who has mainly been a special teams contributor throughout his short career. Those, look for the Giants to pound the rock as well in what should be a close game throughout.
THE PICK: UNDER 47

Steelers @ Broncos, 4:30PM ET
The total is sitting really low but I’m not going to over-think this one. Tim Tebow is going to have a hell of a time figuring out Pittsburgh’s defense and Denver’s D is good enough to slow down a Steelers’ offense that has been in a major funk the past couple of weeks. Without Rashard Mendenhall (season-ending knee injury), the Steelers will rely on Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game, which is worrisome seeing as how Big Ben is dealing with an injury of his own. If Pittsburgh was at full strength I wouldn’t hesitate to lay the nine points but at this point the under is the safer bet.
THE PICK: UNDER 34

Check out the most current NFL Betting Lines.

2012 NFL Playoffs: Wildcard Weekend Preview

New York Giants Eli Manning gets set to pass in the first quarter against the Seattle Seahawks in week 5 of the NFL season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on October 9, 2011. UPI /John Angelillo

Bengals @ Texans, Saturday, 4:30PM ET
The biggest concern for the Bengals right now might be the fact that rookie Andy Dalton has hit a wall. He’s topped 200 yards passing in just one of his final five games and he missed practice on Wednesday after being hospitalized with flu-like symptoms. In his Week 14 matchup against Houston, he went 16-of-28 for 189 yards and one touchdown, which wasn’t enough as the Texans rallied for a 20-19 victory. For all the talk surrounding Houston’s quarterback situation this week, Dalton may be the key to this game. The Texans’ pass rush is one of the best in the league and their run defense has been stout as well. Cedric Benson was limited on Wednesday because of a foot injury and he’s also been dealing with a back issue. If the Bengals can’t get their running game going, Dalton will become the focus. Wade Phillips will surely throw a few wrinkles at the rookie in his first postseason game, so it’ll be interesting to see how Dalton responds to his biggest test as a pro. Win or lose, Dalton has had a great year and performed well beyond expectations. But for the Bengals to advance to the Divisional round, he’ll have to raise the level of his play.

Lions @ Saints, Saturday, 8:00PM ET, Saturday
The key to this game isn’t Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson or Detroit’s secondary. Believe it or not, it isn’t Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham or Sean Patyon either. The key to this game is Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Corey Williams and the rest of the Lions’ defensive line. You don’t beat an elite quarterback by blitzing him on every play. You beat him by dropping defenders into coverage and rushing him with your front four. Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady – they’re all the same. They can beat a blitz because they know their respective offenses like the back of their hand and they know exactly where to go with the football to burn a defense. But like any quarterback, they struggle the most when under pressure. Granted, it’s easier said than done to only bring four down linemen on a given play. If Suh and Co. don’t reach Brees, he’ll have plenty of time to wait until his receivers get open before delivering those accurate passes of his. Plus, a big reason why Brees is so good is because his offensive line has been excellent in pass blocking this season. Opponents try to overload with blitzes because Carl Nicks, Jermon Bushrod and Jahri Evans have been immovable objects up front. But it’s gut-check time for the Lions. They certainly have enough offensive weapons to match Brees and Payton, but if they can’t bring heat using their front four then they’ll be dead upon arrival.

Falcons @ Giants, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
While most of the national focus this week is on the explosive battle in New Orleans and whether or not Tim Tebow has any magic left in that inaccurate left arm of his, this Falcons-Giants matchup might be the most even of the four Wildcard games. Both teams are built to run the football and therefore, fans may be treated to a heavy dose of Michael Turner, Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. But it’s been the play of Matt Ryan and Eli Manning that has gotten the Falcons and Giants as far as they are. Ryan’s 92.2 QB rating is his best in four seasons as a pro and in his last four games he has a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10:0. Manning, meanwhile, has compiled a QB rating of 92.9 this year, which is only bested by his 93.1 mark in 2009. He also set franchise records for passing yards (4,933), attempts (589) and completions (359), and has set an NFL record by throwing 15 of his 29 touchdowns in the fourth quarter. He’s one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest reason, that the Giants have five wins this season in which they erased fourth-quarter deficits. While Atlanta’s ability to slow New York’s pass rush will be a huge factor this weekend, this game will likely come down to the basics: penalties, turnovers, and execution (or lack thereof).

Steelers @ Broncos, 4:30PM, Sunday
With how pitiful Tim Tebow and the Denver offense looked last week at home versus Kansas City, there are plenty of NFL observers who envision a blowout this Sunday at Sports Authority Field. But as I wrote earlier this week in my “Five Questions…” piece, the Steelers aren’t exactly steamrolling into the playoffs. In their last four games Pittsburgh is averaging just over 14 points per game, which includes a 27-0 win over the hapless Rams in Week 16. It’s no coincidence that the Steelers’ offense started to struggle when Ben Roethlisberger hurt his ankle in a Week 14 victory over the Browns. But even two weeks prior to that when Big Ben was healthy, the Steelers managed just 13 points in a 13-9 win over the Chiefs. For as bad as Tebow has looked the past two weeks, Denver’s defense certainly has the capability of keeping things close, especially if the Steelers can’t run the ball without Rashard Mendenhall (season-ending knee injury). Granted, the Broncos aren’t going to win if they only manage a field goal like they did last Sunday, but this might not be the rout that many people expect.

2011 NFL Week 13 Primer

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees take the ball up the middle for 8 yards and a touchdown during second half action against the New York Giants at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome November 28, 2011. UPI/A.J. Sisco

Eagles @ Seahawks, 8:20PM ET, Thursday
Philadelphia is just the latest example of what usually happens to everyone’s preseason chic pick. Granted, there’s still time for the Eagles to turn things around and if they win out, there’s a chance they could sneak in the back door of the postseason. But I’m not so sure they’ll even win tonight against the Seahawks. Although they lost to Washington last Sunday, Seattle is usually tough to beat at home and the Eagles have been sleepwalking all year. That’s a very undisciplined, unfocused team that Andy Reid is running these days.

Raiders @ Dolphins, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
Just when positive things start to happen in Miami, Brandon Marshall finds himself in handcuffs. Apparently police in Broward County, Florida briefly detained the receiver after he was accused of fleeing a $142 cab fee around 5:00AM on November 14. The rest of the details are fantastic. The cab driver said that Marshall “didn’t know where he wanted to go” and “When I woke him up and told him he had to pay, he said he wasn’t and started arguing for me to take him home.” Get this, Marshall blamed the “misunderstanding” on the cab driver’s “accent,” although it sounds as if he wouldn’t have understood anyone given the condition he was in. How good of shape are you when you’re falling asleep in the back of cabs at 5:00AM?

Broncos @ Vikings, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
Von Miller underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair torn ligaments in his thumb and may not play on Sunday for the Broncos. That’s bad news for a Denver team that has had to rely on its defense and the one-quarter of magic from Tim Tebow every week. Miller is a runaway candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and if he can’t go, the Broncos defense will be down one of its biggest playmakers (if not the biggest playmaker). Of course, if Adrian Peterson doesn’t suit up for Minnesota then Denver only really has to worry about Percy Harvin.

Falcons @ Texans, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
Don’t be surprised if T.J. Yates surprises this Sunday. First and foremost, he played in a pro-style offense under John Shoop and Butch Davis at North Carolina and Atlanta will be down two of its top three corners (Brent Grimes and Kelvin Hayden). Christopher Owens, who will start for Grimes (knee), was the poor lad that was repeatedly torched by Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Divisional Round last January and Dominique Franks (who will start at nickel in place of Hayden), has received very little PT the past two years.

Titans @ Bills, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
While I think the Texans can survive thanks to their running game and defense, this is the time for the Titans to take the governor off and amp things up. Tennessee has a legitimate shot of catching Houston in the AFC South because of T.J. Yates’ inexperience. But the Titans need to win, including this weekend against a struggling Buffalo team. The Bills are without Fred Jackson and Ryan Fitzpatrick is reeling right now. Tennessee has to take advantage.

Bengals @ Steelers, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
It’s put up or shut up time for the Bengals this weekend in Pittsburgh. If they can’t prove that they can beat the Steelers, then nobody is going to consider them legit contenders. On the flip side, if Andy Dalton and Co. pull off the upset then Cincinnati will very much remain in the thick of things in the AFC North. This game could provide a very clear picture of how the rest of the season will play out for the Bengals.

Panthers @ Bucs, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
What a complete role reversal for Tampa Bay. While the Saints and on a smaller scale, the Falcons, improved their rosters this offseason, the Bucs rested on their laurels outside of signing a punter (Michael Koenen). The Tampa front office, which has always been cheap anyway, figured it didn’t need to make any upgrades after the team won 10 games last year and now the Bucs are paying for it. They’re clearly overmatched and lack playmakers to compete with New Orleans and Atlanta in the division. If they lose at home to the upstart Panthers this Sunday, it’ll officially be the lowest point of the season for the Bucs.

Colts @ Patriots, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
There’s really not any point in breaking this game down, right? I mean, not even a little bit. The Colts haven’t played well all season and while a quarterback change may bring a little optimism to Indy’s locker room, the switch is Curtis Painter for Dan Orlovsky. That’s only about a droplet of optimism right there.

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