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Five Questions for Week 14 in the NFL

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett (L) talks with quarterback Tony Romo in the second half of their NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks in Arlington, Texas November 6, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Every Tuesday I’ll take a look at the five biggest questions surrounding NFL teams for that week. In Week 14 I tackle the decimated Bears and their quarterback situation, the race in the NFC East and of course, the Tim Tebow-led Broncos.g

1. Which team will step up in the NFC East?
Last week I wrote that it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Cowboys choke with a golden opportunity to take a two-game lead over the Giants in the NFC East. They were on their way to Arizona to play a very beatable Cardinals team while New York hosted the undefeated Packers, so naturally the Cowboys lost (when Jason Garrett essentially froze his own kicker) and didn’t create more separation between them and the Giants. That’s okay though, because the Sunday Night Football tilt this week becomes an even bigger affair because if the Giants win, then things will be tied again in the division. It’s tough to know what to make of either team. The Cowboys are healthier and have a slew of explosive weapons on offense to exploit a banged up New York defense. But Dallas always seems to kill itself with dumb mistakes and penalties. For all intents and purposes, they should beat the Giants at home this weekend and build a two-game cushion with just three games left to play. But it’s always a crapshoot when it comes to the ‘Boys.

2. What will the Bears do at quarterback?
Following Caleb Hanie’s brutal performance against the Chiefs on Sunday and the injury that will sideline Matt Forte for the next 2-3 weeks (if not the rest of the regular season), the Bears are now entertaining the idea of signing a free agent quarterback. Donovan McNabb is available and Brett Favre seems ready to whore himself out again, but will Chicago actually pull the trigger? The terminology in Mike Martz’s system is supposedly hard to grasp in a short amount of time so it would appear as though Hanie is still the Bears’ best option under center. But Chicago can’t keep rolling him out there every Sunday only to watch him produce a field goal worth of offense. It would, at the very least, make sense to sign McNabb and see how much he can learn in a week. Maybe he can produce just enough points to win while the defense and Devin Hester does the rest. Nobody is saying McNabb is a shoe-in to save Chicago’s season but if the playoffs started today the Bears would own the fifth seed in the NFC. GM Jerry Angelo owes it to his team to at least see if he can catch lightning in a bottle.

3. Will the Broncos take control of their own destiny?
As noted in question No. 2, the Bears are in serious trouble. Not only is Jay Cutler out for the rest of the year, but Matt Forte won’t play this Sunday and might miss the remainder of the season as well. Caleb Hanie couldn’t generate more than a field goal last week against Kansas City, which has an underrated defense but zero offense. Denver has an even better defensive unit and an offense that has made clutch plays with the game on the line for the past four weeks. Thus, the Broncos should win this week at home against Chicago. But there are many people that are still waiting for the wheels to fall off the Tim Tebow joy ride. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Detroit traveled to Denver and absolutely harassed Tebow into huge mistakes in a blowout victory. The Bears still own a relenting defensive unit that’s capable of putting its beleaguered offense in good field position, or scoring themselves with opportunistic plays. Thus, it’s important for Denver to continue to take things one game at a time. With Oakland in Green Bay this Sunday taking on the undefeated Packers, the Broncos have a massive opportunity to control their own destiny from here on out with a victory over the Bears.

4. Which Wild Card hopefuls will start to emerge from the pack?
Outside of the Steelers who seemingly have the fifth seed in the AFC sewn up, there are a lot of flaws when you look at the Wild Card contenders in each conference. In the AFC, the Bengals were just trounced by the Steelers and still have to play the Ravens one more time. Although the Titans have won two in a row, they nearly lost to the hapless Bucs two weeks ago and host powerhouse New Orleans this Sunday. Miami proved last week that Oakland has a couple of underlying issues, namely its run defense and lack of explosives offensively. The Jets have experience making late-season runs but it’s hard to trust Mark Sanchez not to muck things up over these next four weeks. In the NFC, the Bears’ issues are well documented and the Lions look like a team ready to implode thanks to a lack of composure and injuries. The Falcons have more than enough talent on both sides of the ball to secure a postseason berth but their offense has been stuck in mud all season and if the Giants can’t beat the Cowboys this Sunday, then it’s hard envisioning them playing past Week 17. Will somebody please step up?

5. Can the Chargers get back into the AFC West race?
The focus in the AFC West has largely been on the Broncos and Raiders, which makes sense given how their odds of winning the division are the best among the four teams. But while everyone continues to analyze, dissect, and agonize how Tim Tebow continues to win despite usually only playing one quarter of good football, I have a sinking suspicion that the Chargers aren’t finished quite yet. Maybe that’s because we’ve seen Norv Turner’s teams underachieve before, only to swoop in during the final weeks and pull a postseason berth right out from under someone. Granted, it came against a decimated Jacksonville secondary but Turner’s offense was firing on all cylinders Monday night. For the first time in over a month Philip Rivers played with confidence and was making throws that he used to make on a weekly basis in 2010. Winning breads confidence and when a team plays with confidence it becomes dangerous. Given how the Chargers still have to play Baltimore, Detroit, and Oakland to finish out the season, it’s probably too little too late for Rivers and Co. But if their defense overachieves and the offense finally starts playing with some consistency, you never know how things will play out down the stretch.

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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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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2011 NFL Week 12 Primer

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) leads his team on the field before their game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field on November 14, 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. UPI/Brian Kersey

Packers @ Lions, 12:30PM ET, Thursday
I truly believe that it’s Green Bay and then everyone else when it comes to the power structure of the NFL. But don’t think for a second that the Lions can’t beat the Packers on Thanksgiving Day. They’ve been waiting a long time to be strong enough to finally punch the bully back and they’ll have their opportunity tomorrow. The key for Detroit is its front four. If they can rush Aaron Rodgers with only Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch, then they’re going to be fine. And with how suspect Green Bay’s defense has been this year, if its still a game in the fourth quarter then the Lions have a shot to pull off the upset.

Dolphins @ Cowboys, 4:15PM ET, Thursday
This is definitely the weakest of the Thanksgiving matchups but this game still offers plenty of intrigue. The Cowboys are now tied with the Giants for first place in the NFC East but they’ve turned in inconsistent performances all season. And during Miami’s three-game winning streak, the Dolphins haven’t allowed a touchdown in 12 quarters. This is going to be a bigger challenge for Tony Romo and Co. than people think.

49ers @ Ravens, 8:20PM ET, Thursday
Forget the Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh stuff – this is a great matchup between two physical teams that will fight for four quarters. The Ravens have been playing up and down to their competition all season and their offense has sputtered at times. On the other side, San Francisco’s defense has been a rock for nine straight weeks but Baltimore’s run defense is outstanding so it’ll be interesting to see how the Niners fare when they have to lean on Alex Smith and the passing game. There doesn’t figure to be much scoring in this game but if you like hard-nosed football, then it doesn’t get better than this.

Vikings @ Falcons, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
This isn’t a very exciting matchup with Adrian Peterson out with an ankle injury but it’ll be interesting to see if the Falcons stay with their no-huddle attack on offense. They ran the no-huddle exclusively in their 23-17 win over the Titans last Sunday and had great success with it (outside of settling for field goals when they reached the red zone, that is). Matt Ryan looks most comfortable running that offense but will OC Mike Mularkey make it Atlanta’s identity on offense? He’s been hesitant to ditch his “smashmouth” approach but at some point the Falcons need to develop more consistency on offense. Maybe running the no-huddle full-time is the answer.

Texans @ Jaguars, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
It’s time to see if Matt Leinart has matured as a quarterback. He failed in Arizona because he wasn’t ready to lead a young team with potential (unlike Kurt Warner, who prospered in the situation). Now Leinart is at the controls of a veteran club that has an outstanding running game and a sound defense. Can he manage games and make plays when his number is called or will he crumble under the pressure? In Jacksonville’s defense, he’ll face a stiff test right out of the gates.

Buccaneers @ Titans, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
One of these teams will keep its playoff hopes alive on Sunday while the other could be looking at a long offseason. The Titans remain two games behind the Texans in the AFC South but with Matt Schaub out for the season, Tennessee has a golden opportunity to get back into the divisional race if it can string some wins together. On the other side, the Bucs continue to fall further behind the Saints and Falcons in the NFC South. In some respects, this might as well be an elimination game for these two teams (although more so for the Bucs).

Cardinals @ Rams, 1:00PM ET, Sunday
Steve Spagnuolo and Billy Devaney’s jobs seem safe for now in St. Louis. But any more displays like last Sunday and the Rams could be searching for a new head coach and/or general manager this offseason. Sam Bradford and Co. were pitiful on offense in their 24-7 loss to Seattle last weekend.

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Sunday Quick-Hitters: Reactions from Week 11 in the NFL

Every Sunday throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler warms up before the game against the San Diego Chargers at Soldier Field on November 20, 2011 in Chicago. UPI/Brian Kersey

- December 25th – mark it down. That’s the day the Bears get their rematch with the Packers and it’s going to be a spectacle to watch. There might not be a team playing with more confidence right now than Chicago, which hasn’t lost since its ugly effort in Detroit on Monday Night Football back in early October. Jay Cutler didn’t light the stat sheet on fire today but he made big plays all day. And his lone mistake (an interception to Antoine Cason), wasn’t a mistake at all because Johnny Knox slipped on the play. Besides, the Bear defense picked off Philip Rivers in the end zone on the next possession, basically nullifying Cason’s interception. With guys like Cutler, Matt Forte and Devin Hester, as well as a physical, unrelenting defense, the Bears look playoff ready…

…whoops! Talk about timing. About a millisecond after writing that paragraph I saw a report that Jay Cutler’s season might be over due to a fractured right throwing thumb. If that’s the case, then the Bears could be finished. Caleb Hanie has had his moments, such as leading Chicago to a touchdown on his first series against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game last year. But as B.J. Raji’s interception in that same game can attest to, Hanie is also very inexperienced. If Cutler is indeed out (he’ll undergo more tests on Monday), then his injury dramatically changes the Bears’ offense (and season, for that matter).

- The Falcons would be foolish not to keep Matt Ryan in the no-huddle from here on out. Atlanta ran its no-huddle almost exclusively today in its 23-17 victory over the Titans and Ryan had is second-highest QB rating of the season (110.9), threw for over 300 yards for only the fourth time all year, and didn’t throw an interception for only the third time in 10 games. While they did have issues inside the red zone (they settled for three field goals and Michael Turner coughed the ball up once to allow Tennessee to get back into the game), the Falcons only punted twice in the victory. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey has been hesitant to run the no-huddle on a full-time basis but it’s the offense that Ryan is clearly most comfortable running.

- Jake Locker showed why he was once considered a slam-dunk No. 1 overall draft pick. Matt Hasselbeck has done a fantastic job managing games for Tennessee this year but Locker sparked a punchless offense and nearly brought the Titans back from 20 points down in the second half. He only completed 9-of-19 passes but those nine completions went for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He also picked up a first down with an 11-yard rush on a third-and-long and showed good zip on most of his passes. Mike Munchak already backed Hasselbeck as the starter in his post-game press conference but with Matt Schaub now out for the year in Houston, it might be time for Tennessee to roll the dice with the kid. Locker was fun to watch today.

- I watched Chris Johnson very closely today and from my point of view, there’s nothing wrong with him. He just doesn’t have anywhere to run as Tennessee’s run blocking is abysmal. Atlanta’s run defense is very sound but Johnson was bottled up almost immediately after receiving the hand off.

- Blaine Gabbert threw for 210 yards and didn’t turn the ball over in the Jaguars’ 14-10 loss to the Browns. He also threw a perfectly placed ball that Jason Hill couldn’t haul in with three seconds remaining in the game that could have won it for Jacksonville. But Gabbert’s overthrow to a wide-open (and I mean WIDE-OPEN) Hill in the end zone with just under seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter really cost Jacksonville a huge opportunity to tie the game at 14-14. Those are the types of plays that Gabbert hasn’t been making all season. Now, he’s only a rookie and deserves time to develop. But I firmly believe that Jacksonville screwed up by releasing David Garrard and forcing Gabbert onto the field before he was ready. The kid should be holding a clipboard right now.

Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten hugs kicker Dan Bailey after Bailey kicked a game winning 39-yard field goal in overtime against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Washington on November 20, 2011. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

- I’m sorry, I know a win is a win and they very well could wind up being tied for first in the NFC East before the night is over (the Giants are currently losing to the Eagles as I type). But that was not a very impressive win by the Cowboys today. The Redskins’ offense has been putrid for over a month and the Cowboys were one 52-yard field goal by Graham Gano away from losing. Jason Witten and Tony Romo made some great plays today and hey, divisional games are usually close. But count me among the people who keep waiting for the ‘Boys to put together that signature win and yet, it still hasn’t come. I picked the Cowboys to win the NFC East this year so I’m not surprised that they’re 6-4. It’s just not a very impressive 6-4 to me.

- Andy Dalton made some big mistakes today, which included throwing three interceptions and being flagged for intentional grounding on the Bengals’ final possession. But it’s clear that he and Cincinnati have a very bright future. This was a team that was without its best offensive playmaker (A.J. Green) and its top cornerback (Leon Hall) and still hung with the Ravens on their home field. On paper, Baltimore should have cruised to victory and it almost did. But thanks to Dalton and the Bengals’ perseverance, they had a chance to at least tie the game in the closing minutes. Assuming Dalton doesn’t go backwards from here, I see no reason why the Bengals won’t continue to challenge the Ravens and the Steelers in the AFC North.

- It was good to see Cam Cameron let it rip today. Sometimes the Ravens’ offense looks like a Ferrari but drives like a Pinto. Joe Flacco took a couple of deep shots, Ray Rice was heavily involved and Torrey Smith (6 receptions, 165 yards, 1 TD) had a breakout performance. Speaking of Smith, if he maintains his confidence week in and week out, he’s going to be a star in this league. That 49-yard catch that he hauled in today was a thing of beauty.

- If I’m a Lions fan I’m ecstatic that my team scored 49 points as Matthew Stafford threw for five touchdowns and Kevin Smith rushed for 140 yards and two scores. But I would be extremely concerned about the number of times they’ve had to stage a big comeback because they’ve dug themselves a huge hole in the first half. Three of the Lions’ seven wins this year (Dallas, Minnesota and Carolina) have come after they’ve fallen behind by 20 points or more and while it’s impressive that they’ve been able to persevere, it would be more impressive if they figured out a way to play four quarters more consistently. Because this is obviously a very dangerous team when they’re firing on all cylinders.

- Cam Newton is extremely fun to watch and he’s making a lot of pundits look very stupid for doubting him (and the Panthers for that matter) back in April. That said, he certainly helped his team lose today. Carolina’s defense turned in a brutal second-half effort against Detroit but Newton’s inaccuracy was a major issue as well. He often missed high to his receivers and wound up throwing four interceptions in the loss. Recklessness simply can’t be a part of his game.

- Kellen Winslow (9 receptions, 132 yards, 1 TD) had a monster game but he cost the Bucs’ twice in their 35-26 loss to the Packers. First he was flagged for an obvious pass interference call in the end zone on a third-and-3 from the Packers’ 4-yard-line, which led to a Tampa Bay field goal instead of a potential touchdown early in the third quarter. Then he dropped a pass on a two-point conversation attempt that would have tied the game at 21-21 early in the fourth. Granted, the Bucs’ defense couldn’t come up with that one big stop in the fourth but they were also trailing by nine points virtually that entire quarter because of Winslow’s mistakes. Still, Tampa certainly gave Green Bay all it could handle. There are no moral victories but the Bucs finally showed some punch on offense (including LeGarrette Blount’s unbelievable touchdown run).

- All of those weapons on offense and the Packers’ first two touchdowns today came on a 1-yard B.J. Raji run and a Tom Crabtree five-yard reception, respectively. As if opposing defenses don’t have enough to worry about when it comes to Green Bay, now they have to try and tackle 337 pounds of B.J. Raji and defend some guy named Tom Crabtree.

- Want to know the biggest reason why the previously 0-7 Dolphins have won three games in a row? Try the fact that they haven’t allowed a touchdown in 12 quarters now. Miami’s defense absolutely stifled the Bills today, allowing just 41 rushing yards in a 35-8 rout. They also stuffed Buffalo at the goal line early in the fourth quarter and intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick twice. And who needs Andrew Luck? Matt Moore has thrown six touchdowns in his last three games.

- Somebody stick a fork in the Bills because they’re done. They made believers out of a lot of people earlier in the year but they’ve looked absolutely horrendous the last three weeks. Do you think the front office is regretting signing Ryan Fitzpatrick to that extension? He signed his new deal on October 28, beat the Redskins two days later and hasn’t won since.

- His play is indicative of a rookie quarterback but Christian Ponder is absolutely maddening to watch sometimes. One minute he’s using his athleticism to make a big throw downfield and the next he’s literally throwing the ball directly to a defender (see his interception to Stanford Routt in the fourth quarter today). He did extremely well to lead the Vikings from 20 points down against the Raiders without Adrian Peterson (who left the game early with an injury), but Ponder made some really bad decisions. Again, this is what you expect out of a rookie but he’s liable to make Leslie Frazier and Bill Musgrave insane.

- Some teams don’t have one capable starter at running back and Oakland has two. It must be nice when Darren McFadden goes down with an injury to have Michael Bush step in and take his place. Bush has lifted the Raiders into sole possession of first place in the AFC West the past two weeks. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the Chargers are absolutely imploding.

San Francisco 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh (R) discusses a call with Line Judge John Hussey during play against the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on November 20, 2011. The 49ers defeated the Cardinals 23-7. UPI/Terry Schmitt

- Perhaps the most impressive thing about Jim Harbaugh is not the fact that he has gotten Alex Smith to play well or that the Niners’ defense is one of the best in the league. Albeit, those things are impressive but not nearly as impressive as the focus and discipline that he’s instilled in this San Francisco team. The Niners were a talented squad under Mike Singletary but the problem was that he was completely overmatched as a football tactician. And because he was so overmatched both on and off the field, his team began falling apart at the seams. But under Harbaugh, the Niners have played sound football, don’t beat themselves and not once have they been caught looking ahead. With a Thanksgiving Day matchup with his brother’s Ravens coming up in just four days, Harbaugh and the Niners could have easily overlooked Arizona today. Instead, they nearly shut the Cardinals out. Again, under Harbaugh they’ve been highly impressive.

- Considering how brutal their schedule was in the first half and the amount of injuries they’ve had to suffer through (particularly in the defensive backfield), it’s not surprising to see the Rams sitting with only two wins. That said, that’s a pitiful football team they have in St. Louis and if Billy Devaney doesn’t have a better offseason than the one he did this past year, the Rams will continue to lose. Devaney better find some gems in next year’s draft; I’m talking about finding a couple of guys that can make an impact right away or else both he and Steve Spagnuolo will be out of jobs very soon.

- I just can’t wrap my head around the play of Philip Rivers this year. This can’t be the same guy who almost single-handedly kept the Chargers in the playoff hunt last year without his top two playmakers. It just can’t. The interception he threw at the end of the game to Corey Graham was one of the worst throwaway attempts I’ve ever seen. And this came after Major Wright picked him off earlier in the quarter when San Diego’s defense put the Chargers in great field position with an interception of their own. Brutal. Philip Rivers has been brutal this year.

A Six-Pack of Questions: NFL Week 11

Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub (8) signals his offensive line against the Indianapolis Colts during the third quarter of their NFL football game in Indianapolis November 1, 2010. REUTERS/Brent Smith (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

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.

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