The playoffs are here. Okay, I lied. But take a look at the Week 11 schedule and it’s loaded with de facto playoff games. The margin of error for those on the cusp of the playoff scene (think: Bears, Ravens, Jags, 49ers), is preciously thin, and many of those clubs face something close to must-wins for their season to go as planned. All of the bye weeks are behind us. The playoff push is on:
Chargers at Broncos: Putting this one at the top, because it could straight up decide the AFC West. The Chargers are suddenly looking like the Broncos did at the start of the season — by finding ways to win games. Philip Rivers is playing outstanding football. Denver, meanwhile, suddenly isn’t impenetrable on defense and could be playing without Kyle Orton. Losing him for even a week or two would be a massive loss, with the team riding a three-game skid, including one defeat to lowly Washington. The Broncos are not running the ball well. It could be just like last season, when Denver flopped in the second half and the Chargers came on to win the AFC West.
Colts at Ravens: People in Baltimore haven’t forgotten about the Colts leaving town in Mayflower moving vans under the cloak of snow and darkness. Throw in the Colts beating the Ravens at Baltimore in the playoffs a few years back, and this atmosphere is gonna be nuts. The Colts are still undefeated after that miracle win over the Patriots, and the Ravens need to beat teams like Indy and Pittsburgh to get back into the postseason. This will be fun. Peyton Manning generally has his way with Baltimore’s once-vaunted defense. Watching Ray Lewis try to match wits with him in pre-snap machinations is almost as good as the game itself.
Eagles at Bears: Chicago might already be doomed after that loss to San Fran, and Jay Cutler needs to make a mental recalibration after throwing five more picks. He’s actually been very good at home, but this is another night game (Cutler has thrown 11 picks in three primetime games this season). The Eagles are suddenly vulnerable after leading their division just a few weeks back. Brian Westbrook might be gone for quite some time, and Philly needs to figure out a running game without him (throwing for 450 yards wasn’t enough for a win last week). This game is loaded with possible tiebreaker implications, and both teams should be utterly desperate for a win.
49ers at Packers: The loser of this game is not likely going to the playoffs, while the winner will have put together consecutive wins over NFC foes and be right in the heart of the wild card scene. Green Bay will give up four sacks — it’s who they are — but could win anyways. Alex Smith faces Aaron Rodgers in a draft-class reunion, and if Smith commits the kind of turnovers that have plagued his career, Green Bay should be in good shape. Expect another 25-30 carries from Frank Gore.
Falcons at Giants: Is this starting to feel like a qualifying tournament yet? It’s like the MEAC basketball tourney and only by surviving will a team have a chance to get to the big dance. Not quite the NCAA play-in game, but close. Both of these ailing teams, at one point not too long ago considered favorites to win their divisions, are reeling. Matt Ryan is in a funk, and Eli Manning is spiraling too. Perhaps the bye week allowed his foot to heal some. Atlanta losing Michael Turner for at least a week is a crushing blow, as he was back in top form. The Giants must reestablish Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs as a potent one-two punch.
Jets at Patriots: Seems like a long time ago since the Jets smothered the Pats to remain undefeated atop of the AFC East. New York has fallen apart on both sides of the ball since then, and the Patriots looked like the best team in the league recently before Bill Belichick‘s bizarre fourth-down call on Sunday night. How his team responds to that decision — and specifically how it affects the psyche of that young defense — will be huge. I expect the Pats to roar back with a statement game and run up the score any way they can on Rex Ryan‘s defense, especially after Ryan’s preseason talk about not kissing Belichick’s rings. Mark Sanchez is likely to have a much rougher go of it this time around against the Pats.
Dolphins at Panthers: Both of these teams were left for dead about five weeks back, but are back in the hunt, giving us a nice backdrop for NFL Network’s Thursday night game. Both teams have gotten very hot in the last six weeks, each by running the ball with alarming effectiveness and employing multiple threats out of the backfield. Problem for the Dolphins is Wildcat general Ronnie Brown is hurting and will miss this game. Joey Porter is set to return. Since Jake Delhomme has stopped giving the ball away, the Panthers have been a very formidable team, and their defense has improved on the fly this season, led by a strong linebacking unit. Both of these teams should have beat the undefeated Saints and have much in common. This will be a ground-heavy game and, once again, the winner will be thrust deeper into the playoff equation.
Titans at Texans: Titans owner Bud Adams is a Houston man with deep Houston roots, facing the eventual expansion team that came to Houston after the Oilers left for Tennessee. Beating Houston means a lot to him (heck, after his two-handed salute to the Bills, you have to wonder what he’d come up with on the sidelines should his club win its fourth straight game in Houston of all places). Tennessee’s rushing attack is dominating and Chris Johnson is Vince Young‘s best friend in the passing game, too. Young has made excellent decisions with the football and that’s enough to keep the Titans competitive. The Texans are coming off a bye, and are still trying to find a consistent running game. Houston needs this game badly to prove it can get over the top and earn its first postseason appearance. The Titans will give them plenty to handle, though, perhaps too much.
Redskins at Cowboys: It’s a rivalry game if nothing else. Who would have thought a week ago that the Redskins would be coming in off a win and the Cowboys off a loss? Washington’s first trip to Dallas’ new stadium puts the Redskins in the role of possible spoilers. Washington’s running game looks more powerful with Ladell Betts in place of Clinton Portis. Dallas should be able to exert its will against a threadbare offensive line, and the Cowboys’ pass rush has been humming. But if the ‘Skins find a way to stick around into the third quarter, and the Cowboys get a little tight, and Tony Romo starts to try to do too much …
Bengals at Raiders: As long as the Bengals learn to manage their success and not take this game too lightly, it should be an easy win. Oakland’s quarterback situation rivals Cleveland’s for the worst in football. If the Bengals take care of games like this, they are going to win the AFC North. Even having a banged up Cedric Benson shouldn’t be too much of a setback. Heck, I’d rest him here if at all possible. Maybe I’d dress him, but only use him if absolutely necessary.
Saints at Buccaneers: New Orleans hasn’t looked like that complete football team of early on, but the Saints can beat you so many ways. Even if they start slowly, they have shown they can roar back against inferior teams like the Bucs. Josh Freeman has given Tampa Bay fans something to feel good about and they have been much more stout defensively since the bye. The Saints’ defense has owned young quarterbacks this season however, turning Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and Chad Henne into mistake machines. It very well could do the same to Freeman, a rookie, here.
Seahawks at Vikings: Brett Favre will likely be listed with various ailments throughout the week on the injury report, then go out and carve somebody else. He’s making guys like Sidney Rice develop at a quicker pace, and the Seahawks are going to have a heck of a time controlling the Vikings’ run game as well. You know Matt Hasselbeck will be game for a chance to go against a legend, and him taking to the air to try to keep pace with the Vikings’ offense could make for compelling theater. Ultimately, this should be a chance for Minnesota to move one step closer to what’s looking like an inevitable NFC North title.
Cardinals at Rams: Steven Jackson gives the Rams their best/only chance to win, but loading up to stop the run is something the Cards do very, very well. Kurt Warner is on a tear and Arizona is now getting Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald involved at the same time. The Cardinals have to use this game much like the Bengals — as a must-have to pull away in the division. Warner returning to St. Louis, where he went to the Super Bowl twice, is always fun and he knows how to use that dome and fast track to his advantage.
Steelers at Chiefs: Hard to project anything other than the Steelers taking care of business here. Jamaal Charles had a nice game rushing the ball for the Chiefs with Larry Johnson out of the picture, but the Steelers will be highly motivated after losing to the Bengals and they could very well swarm Matt Cassel and force him into mistakes. This should be the perfect bounce-back tonic for Pittsburgh.
Bills at Jaguars: Buffalo is pretty much falling apart. Too many injuries and a lot of youth will do that. Nevertheless, the Bills cut ties with coach Dick Jauron on Tuesday. Jacksonville has a way of taking one step forward, then two steps back, and must reverse that trend here. This should be an opportunity for them to pick up essential ground, while other AFC wild card hopefuls face a more stern challenge. Sticking with the run game should be just about enough to get that done. The Bills’ inexperience shines through the longer the game goes on.
Browns at Lions: Wouldn’t a tie somehow seem fitting? This game has bearing on draft-pick order tiebreakers, and nothing else. At least it’s not on Thanksgiving.