NFL Nation: 2013 NFL Week 11 Double Coverage

Terrelle Pryor and Andre JohnsonUSA TODAY SportsHealth permitting, Terrelle Pryor will try to break the Raiders' eight-game road losing streak against Andre Johnson's Texans.
The 2-7 Houston Texans will host the 3-6 Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

The records might make this seem as if these teams are in similar positions, but in reality they aren't. Oakland wasn't expected to excel. The Raiders were ranked 29th in ESPN.com's preseason NFL Power Rankings. Some rankings had them as low as 32nd.

The Texans, on the other hand, started the season expected to be Super Bowl contenders and slowly fell apart. Houston is on a seven-game losing streak, the longest single-season streak in franchise history.

The Raiders are on a losing streak of their own. They have lost eight consecutive road games, dating to last season, but that isn't a franchise record.

Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez and Texans reporter Tania Ganguli take a look at this matchup.

Ganguli: So Paul, how is Shane Lechler's departure viewed in Oakland? It has been suggested by some, including Lechler, that his leaving affected Sebastian Janikowski's kicking. Do you think it has?

Gutierrez: When Janikowski missed four of his first 11 field goal attempts through six games, after missing three all of last season, the whispers that the man known as SeaBass was swimming upstream by missing his longtime running mate grew to shouts. But while the new holder/punter, Marquette King, shouldered the blame, even special-teams coach Bobby April intimated it was a mental hurdle for Janikowski, who had Lechler as his holder for 13 years.

This much is true: Every miss this season has come from the left hashmark for the left-footed kicker. And his misses against Indianapolis and Washington have been especially costly momentum shifts. Janikowski, though, has converted four straight field goals, so the comfort level seems to be growing between Janikowski and King. In fact, the youthfully exuberant King brought celebratory foil balloons into the Raiders' locker room to congratulate Janikowski after his 50-yard field goal against San Diego on Oct. 6. But yes, I believe trust issues and familiarity were at the root earlier ... even if it was not a Ray Finkle Laces Out situation (gratuitous "Ace Ventura" reference).

Speaking of Lechler, how has he adapted to being back "home" in Texas, beyond his stats?

Ganguli: Lechler has done great. He is the brightest spot on a special-teams unit that has struggled. He really has enjoyed being so close to home. He has visited his hometown. He definitely wishes his career hadn't ended with the Raiders, but I think this was a good second option. Of course, he probably also thought he was coming to a Super Bowl contender, as the Texans' other free agents did, and that hasn't worked out either.

Switching to offense, what has Terrelle Pryor had to learn about playing quarterback in the NFL before being able to contribute as he has been this year?

Gutierrez: Honestly, and this is by his own admission, he had to learn how to throw a ball properly. Pryor admitted this summer that he never really learned how to throw a ball up to NFL standards while at Ohio State. He also talks glowingly about working the previous two years with former Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer in how to read defenses. You can't question Pryor's work ethic. And up until about a month ago, Pryor was on the fast track to Most Improved Player status. But he has, many say, regressed the past four games. In that stretch, he has thrown eight interceptions and only one touchdown while completing 61 of 120 passes (50.8 percent) for 714 yards. Plus, he has been sacked eight times for 110 yards in losses. The offensive line is still banged up, and no doubt his receivers can be inconsistent. And keep in mind, Pryor suffered what he termed a sprained MCL in his right knee, so his mobility is limited.

Keeping on the "regression" theme, what has happened to the Texans? They were a Super Bowl contender coming into the season, and now they're in a seven-game tailspin. They'll be without Arian Foster, who has averaged more than 100 yards rushing and has caught eight passes for 172 yards in two career games against the Raiders, and Ed Reed, the mistake signing the Texans acknowledged this week, via your story. But they should be getting coach Gary Kubiak back. So how will they respond this weekend?

Ganguli: I don't know that the emotions will carry them. Not a lot changed without Kubiak there despite players wanting to win for him. His offensive philosophy is similar to that of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who ran the offense in Kubiak's absence. These players have pride, and the losing streak they're on was unthinkable at the beginning of the season. There was no reason to expect the struggles quarterback Matt Schaub had early this season. He didn't play consistently poorly, but he made some costly mistakes. The Texans were gaining a lot of yards on offense and weren't allowing many yards on defense. But their turnover margin was among the worst in the NFL, and their red zone offense and defense weren't good. After the poor start, things kind of started piling up. They lost inside linebacker Brian Cushing again, Foster dealt with injuries before being put on injured reserve, and while their right guard position has solidified finally after the loss of current Raiders guard Mike Brisiel, the Texans are still looking for improvement at right tackle.

They still have talent on the roster, starting with reigning defensive player of the year J.J. Watt. His numbers aren't what they were last year, but he is still playing well. He's disruptive. Last weekend, he forced and recovered two fumbles. Which Raider or Raiders will be responsible for minimizing his damage?

Gutierrez: If Watt is on the quarterback's blind side, that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of veteran left tackle Khalif Barnes, who had a rough go of it against the New York Giants' front seven in general and Jason Pierre-Paul in particular. Barnes was flagged three times for holding and another time for a false start. If Watt wants to try his hand on the other side, he'll find rookie Menelik Watson awaiting him. Watson also had a tough game against the Giants' Justin Tuck and showed his relative lack of in-game experience. I would expect the Raiders' running back, either Rashad Jennings or Darren McFadden, if he's healthy, to pick up some chipping assignments. If Pryor plays -- he missed practice Wednesday resting his sprained right knee -- he might welcome an overaggressive Watt, though he should be warned to be careful what he wished for in Watt, yes? If Pryor cannot go, expect a baptism by fire for undrafted rookie Matt McGloin.

Since we're on the topic of guys who have to step up, who will try to fill Foster's nimble-yet-powerful shoes? And can he make a dent against the Raiders' on-again, off-again defense?

Ganguli: The Texans have a very capable player to replace Foster -- Ben Tate. The issue for Tate will be that he's still healing from a painful rib injury he suffered Oct. 20 in Kansas City. Tate broke four ribs but hasn't missed a game. He's tough. Tate has led the league in yards after contact per rush for nearly the whole season. Coaches have tried to protect Tate to keep him fresh, but he wants to go more. Behind Tate are two younger players -- undrafted rookie Dennis Johnson and young veteran Deji Karim.
Patrick Peterson and Chad Henne AP PhotoCornerback Patrick Peterson, left, and the Cardinals could make life hard for the Jags' Chad Henne.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars finally took 0-16 off the table with their 29-27 upset of Tennessee in Nashville.

But that doesn't mean things are wonderful in Jacksonville. The team still ranks last in the NFL in total offense and rush defense and next-to-last in rushing offense.

To the Jaguars' credit, the players said those same things almost immediately after the game and have repeated them throughout the week. Finally getting that first victory doesn't change the fact that the team still has a long way to go.

The Arizona Cardinals have won back-to-back games for the second time this season and find themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot. The offense hasn't been especially productive, but the defensive front has been stellar, which is why the Cardinals are the NFL's third-best rush defense.

ESPN.com Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco and Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss break down Sunday's matchup at EverBank Field:

DiRocco: Josh, running back Rashard Mendenhall has really struggled this season. Rookie Andre Ellington has clearly outplayed him, yet coach Bruce Arians seems to be sticking with Mendenhall. What gives?

Weinfuss: If I had the answer to that question, I would sell it to Arians, retire and be living on a beach. Nobody really knows. There are a few guesses as to why, but the most common one is that Arians is simply loyal to players he brings in. Mendenhall was Arians' handpicked running back, and the coach will go with him through thick and thin. There's also the fact that Arians doesn't consider Ellington an every-down back. Arians would rather give Mendenhall the brunt of the carries -- especially between the tackles -- while he uses Ellington out in space. That said, Arians won't shy away from using Ellington more than Mendenhall throughout the game if the rookie has the rhythm.

After getting their first win, are the Jags feeding off that momentum, or are they basking a little bit in not being a winless team?

DiRocco: The Jaguars certainly enjoyed their first victory, but I would call it a tempered excitement. In the locker room after the game, players talked about fixing mistakes and staying humble. That message was reiterated Monday and Wednesday. The players remember what happened after the Denver game. They played relatively well against the Broncos, trailing 14-12 at halftime before eventually losing by 16 in a game in which they were 28-point underdogs. They figured the progress they showed would naturally continue, but they followed that performance by playing two of their worst games of the season, against San Diego and San Francisco. The players say they've learned their lesson and that won't happen again. We'll have to see Sunday if that's the case.

Like the Jaguars, the Cardinals are searching for a long-term answer at quarterback. But they're also in contention for a playoff berth, so they're not likely to be picking near the top of the draft. Louisville standout Teddy Bridgewater, Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel are probably out. So which quarterbacks to do you think they have their eyes on, and which would be the best fit?

Weinfuss: I think this draft could be the long-term answer to the Cardinals' quarterback situation. If the Cardinals end up in the playoffs, they won't be picking near the top, which means they might get their hands on a college veteran. I've liked Aaron Murray from Georgia for a long time, and I think he's the type of player who can come in and have the talent to play right away. Another guy who could benefit the Cardinals is LSU senior Zach Mettenberger. They are both pocket passers who have big arms and are smart. Mettenberger might pick up an NFL offense quicker than Murray, because he's been running an NFL offense under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Arians' offense calls for a big arm, but I think Arians is seeing what life is like in the NFC West, facing mobile quarterbacks like Seattle's Russell Wilson and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, who can run and have big arms. Both Murray and Mettenberger could benefit from playing behind Carson Palmer for another season, if the Cardinals bring Palmer back. If a slinger like Clemson's Tajh Boyd is available, I wouldn't be shocked to see him drafted. At the same time, I also wouldn't be surprised if Arizona waits on a quarterback until the second or third round, hoping a gem like Wilson is available then.

Speaking of quarterbacks, is Chad Henne the short-term or long-term answer, and what will the Jags do with Blaine Gabbert?

DiRocco: Right now, Henne gives the Jaguars a better chance to win than Gabbert, but Henne isn't the long-term answer for the franchise. The Jags' first pick in the 2014 draft -- whether it's No. 1 or not -- will almost certainly be a quarterback. That's a clear indication that the team is ready to move on without Gabbert, who was the No. 10 overall pick in 2011. I would be surprised if he's on the roster next season. Henne will be a free agent after the season and might opt to go somewhere else to compete for a starting spot. If he decides to come back to Jacksonville, it would likely be to serve as a mentor to whichever quarterback is drafted.

Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson has shadowed top receivers Calvin Johnson, Steve Smith and Andre Johnson and did a good job against them. I'm assuming he'll draw Cecil Shorts on Sunday. Is that the case, and where do you think Peterson ranks among the league's top corners?

Weinfuss: If Shorts is the Jags' top receiver threat, then Peterson will most likely draw that assignment. Peterson prides himself on stopping the opponent's top receiver, as he has done in wins against Detroit and Houston -- despite two touchdowns by Andre Johnson that were barely inbounds. Peterson is no doubt one of the top two or three cornerbacks in the game, and depending on how you grade them, he could be the best. He's definitely the most athletic, but sometimes his fundamentals aren't as sound as they should be. He's shown that size doesn't matter as he takes on bigger players and makes them all but a nonfactor.

Is the Jacksonville defense better than people give it credit for, or is its 32nd ranking in stopping the run an accurate representation of the unit?

DiRocco: It's pretty bad. The defensive line, outside of Sen'Derrick Marks, has played pretty poorly. It has been physically handled way too often, has poor gap control and has had trouble with missed tackles. Linebacker Geno Hayes has been inconsistent, and there are three rookies in the secondary. Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny has been terrific, but he might not play this week because of a concussion.

Kevin Williams and Russell WilsonAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesKevin Williams' Vikings will face a challenge with Russell Wilson and the Seahawks playing at home.
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SEATTLE -- The Seattle Seahawks have amassed a 9-1 record despite playing with a patchwork offensive line and a receiving corps that lost one starter in Sidney Rice and never had its key offseason acquisition in Percy Harvin.

That's about to change. The offensive line could have all its starters on the field Sunday for the first time since Week 2, and Harvin could finally make his debut as a Seahawks receiver.

If Harvin plays, it would be against his former team, the Minnesota Vikings, adding more drama and intrigue to the moment. ESPN.com Seahawks reporter Terry Blount and Vikings reporter Ben Goessling discuss that, as well as the other storylines for Sunday's game.

Terry Blount: Ben, obviously, Seahawks fans are going crazy about the possible debut of Harvin and what he can add to the Seattle offense. But let’s look at this from the Minnesota side. The Vikings must feel like they got a pretty good deal out of this, don’t they?

Ben Goessling: I think they were pleasantly surprised to get as much for Harvin as they did. Everyone knew they were going to trade him, so for general manager Rick Spielman to get three picks, including a first-rounder, was quite the coup. He's done a good job over the years of creating a market for his players or picks, and the Harvin trade was no different. It will be a while, though, before we know if what they did with the picks worked. Xavier Rhodes, whom the Vikings took with Seattle's first-rounder, is being asked to play more zone coverage than he did in college, and he has struggled with that after coming out of Florida State as a press corner. He has the skills to be a good corner, but the learning curve is steep.

While we're on the subject of Harvin, how much of a factor do you think he'll be on Sunday? He probably wants to show up his old team, but will he get the opportunities to do so?

Blount: If he plays, I think it will be limited -- maybe 10 or 12 snaps, tops. We’re talking about a guy who hasn't played in an NFL game in more than a year. Pete Carroll has said over and over they will be very cautious with Harvin. They invested $67 million in the guy. They aren't going to risk everything in his first game back, especially in a game the Seahawks should win whether he plays or not. I know Harvin is fired up about playing against his old teammates, but the coaches want to hold him back a little. They probably want him to get his feet wet and save the real show for the New Orleans Saints on the Monday night after Seattle’s bye week.

Ben, there seem to be a lot of unknowns about the Minnesota quarterback situation, where the team is headed and with whom it’s headed there -- Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, Matt Cassel or maybe someone who isn't there yet. What's the likely answer for the future?

Goessling: I think in the long run it's probably someone who isn't here yet. Spielman liked Freeman in the 2009 draft -- the Vikings might have drafted him if he were still on the board when their pick came -- and the Vikings are now getting a chance to work with him on a daily basis, though they don't seem to think they need to put him on the field to evaluate him. Cassel is probably a backup at this point, and though Ponder has been better lately, he just isn't consistent enough to count on long term. The Vikings will have a high pick in what looks to be a pretty good quarterback draft, and it would be a surprise if they didn't use the pick to take another crack at getting a franchise QB.

Terry, it’s been hard to get a read on the Seahawks' run defense this season. One week, they'll completely shut down an opponent's ground game. The next, they're giving up 200 yards to the Rams or the Buccaneers. Why has it been so inconsistent, and can Adrian Peterson exploit it this weekend?

Blount: That’s a great question. I think the Seahawks are better against the run than they were in those two games. But there are times when the front seven get so focused on rushing the passer that they discount the run, get out of position and end up missing tackles. The other problem in those two games was middle linebacker Bobby Wagner coming back too soon from a bad ankle sprain and not being able to play up to his usual standard. But last week against Atlanta he had nine solo tackles. The Seahawks know they are facing the best of the best Sunday, so they’ll be at their best for Peterson.

Ben, the Vikings haven’t won a road game this season. What would it take for them to win this one?

Goessling: Boy, this one seems tough for the Vikings. As we've discussed, they might be able to run the ball effectively against Seattle -- Peterson had one of his biggest games there last year -- but I don't think Ponder will have much success against that defense. I could see Marshawn Lynch giving the Vikings trouble, and if Harvin is in the lineup, there's part of me that thinks he'll have a big game.

Terry, as I said, this matchup looks like a bad one for the Vikings. But time and again we've seen the Seahawks let inferior opponents hang around and nearly beat them. Do the Vikings have any reason for hope this weekend, or do you see this as an easy Seahawks win?

Blount: I think the Vikings are catching the Seahawks at the wrong time. The offensive line probably will have all five starters back for the first time in eight weeks. If Harvin makes his debut, it will add enormous energy and excitement for the team and the fans. And the Seahawks are coming off their best game of the season, a game in which they looked like the Super Bowl contenders everyone expected to see. This is their last game before the bye, so they will go all out to make sure they get there with their 13th consecutive home victory.

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Scott Tolzien and Mathias KiwanukaGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesNew Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien will face Mathias Kiwanuka and an improved Giants pass rush.
 
The New York Giants will be looking for their fourth win in a row following an 0-6 start. The Green Bay Packers will be trying to snap their first two-game losing streak since 2010. The two teams square off Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson (filling in for Packers reporter Rob Demovsky) break down the matchup for you.

Dan Graziano: Hey, Matt. Thanks for filling in while Rob's on the inactive list this week. The big question the Giants have this week is: Who is Scott Tolzien and what can we expect to see from him? So let's start with that one.

Matt Williamson: Well, Dan, that's a good question! I don't think we really know the answer, but he did move the team well in relief of an injured Seneca Wallace and was generally a smart distributor of the football. And we know Green Bay has weapons to get the ball to. We don't have a lot of tape to evaluate, but I think the Packers are better off with Tolzien over Wallace while Aaron Rodgers recovers from a broken collarbone.

While we are talking quarterbacks, what on Earth is going on with Eli Manning? Despite this winning streak, he really has not played well.

Graziano: Matt, my theory on Eli is that the protection issues at the beginning of the season were so egregious that he just fell into this zone of discomfort from which he's been unable to extricate himself. He just doesn't look right back there, and while the protection issues have improved some, they're still present. The Giants have had no blocking help from the tight-end position at all. They're vulnerable in the middle of the line, and I'm not sold on either tackle, to be honest. They haven't had reliable blitz pickup help from the running backs.

Downfield, Hakeem Nicks isn't playing wide receiver the way he used to play it. A lot has gone on around Manning to make him far less comfortable with his surroundings, and I'm not sure what it's going to take before he starts playing with that old Eli confidence again. Great quarterbacks make the best of bad situations, and Manning has not done that this year. As the Giants' situation improves, they will need him to play much better if they're really going to make this miracle run they still believe they can make.

They get another break this week with Rodgers out and Tolzien in, but they are already talking about that improved Packers running game. What do you see from Eddie Lacy & Co. and how do you think they'll attack the Giants, who have generally been pretty good against opposing running backs this season?

Williamson: This Packers' running game is terrific and should continue to excel even with less of a passing threat. The left side of the offensive line is playing great, but isn't healthy on the right side and has had to do a lot of shuffling of personnel there. Still, the rushing attack isn't easy to prepare for, as the Packers can run a wide variety of plays out of a wide variety of personnel groupings and formations. Lacy is quick to get downhill and is a punishing runner who can wear a defense down, and he also excels at reading his blocks and showing patience with the ball in his hands -- rare traits for a rookie running back. The Packers' ability to run the ball will probably be the most crucial component of this game.

Along those lines, I feel like the Giants might actually have a respectable rushing attack of their own now with Andre Brown carrying the rock. Do you agree?

Graziano: Yeah, the 30 carries and 115 yards for Brown on Sunday in his first game back off a twice-broken leg were eye-opening. I think the workload they gave him showed that the Giants knew just how much they were missing this season at running back. David Wilson never got going and then got hurt, and they patched it together with Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis. But watching Brown run with vision and power and gain yards after contact Sunday, it was obvious that he's the Giants' best option going forward and the best they've had all season.

The injury risk has to be considered, given Brown's history, but at this point the Giants need to win pretty much every game, and they're going to have to lean hard on Brown to do it. Even if he can't be as productive every week as he was against the Raiders, the legitimate threat he poses on film should open up the play-action passing game as a way for Manning to combat those protection issues.

So the Giants feel they can offer a balanced offensive attack against a Packers defense that couldn't get the ball back from the Eagles in the final 9:32 of Sunday's game. Was that a LeSean McCoy issue, or are the Packers really struggling on defense right now?

Williamson: The Packers are struggling on defense and allowing too many big plays. I expected last week's return from injury by Clay Matthews to pay off much more than it did. However, we know Matthews is a great player, and maybe he just needed a week to get back into the swing of things. I still expect Matthews to torment the Giants' tackles this week.

On the inside of their defensive line, the Packers have a lot of sheer mass and power with guys like B.J. Raji, Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett. I also expect the Giants' interior offensive line to have a difficult time moving this group in the running game. This could be a bounce-back week for Green Bay on this side of the ball.

The Packers' run defense had a difficult time when the Eagles stacked both of their offensive tackles on the same side of the formation. While I expect the Giants could use some personnel groupings with six offensive linemen, I don't see them duplicating what Philadelphia did to make room for McCoy.

Watching the Giants game from last week, I noticed they had a difficult time getting the Raiders' Pat Sims blocked. Sims is a big-bodied and powerful defensive tackle in much the same mold as the Packers' group. I think that bodes well for Green Bay this week.

And expect the Giants to have a difficult time blocking little-known Mike Daniels in the passing game. Daniels has taken over the Cullen Jenkins role -- a spot Green Bay drafted Datone Jones for in the first round -- as an interior pass-rusher, and he has excelled.

The Giants' defense is based entirely on great defensive line play. This is a deep group with a ton of important resources tied up in it, but it hasn't been an elite group. It is improving, however. Where do you see this unit right now and this week against the Packers?

Graziano: Well, the sack numbers have come up. The Giants had only six sacks in their first seven games, but then got eight in their past two games. So they've moved from last in the league in sacks, where they spent most of the season, to a tie for 30th in that category. Odd thing is, of the eight sacks in their past two games, only four have come from defensive linemen. Safety Antrel Rolle has as many sacks (two) in the Giants' past two games as defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has in their past 16.

The line has been very good, as I mentioned, against the run this year. But over the first seven games of the season, opposing quarterbacks did a good job of unloading the ball before the Giants' pass-rushers could stop them from doing so. Not sure they get the full test this week against Tolzien, but at some point we're going to find out whether the front four really has improved, or whether it has just been feasting on lesser competition.

Thanks again, Matt. Catch you online in one of our game chats soon, I'm sure.

 
Tony Gonzalez and Darrelle RevisAP PhotoIt has been a disappointing season for Tony Gonzalez's Falcons and Darrelle Revis' Bucs.
When the season started, the Atlanta Falcons were a trendy Super Bowl pick and a lot of people thought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could make the playoffs. As it turns out, both NFC South squads are floundering. They've combined for only three wins.

But these two teams are rivals and that means Sunday's meeting will be about pride.

Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas examine the matchup.

Yasinskas: Vaughn, I was one of those people who picked the Falcons to win the Super Bowl. Obviously, I was way off base. I know injuries have played a big role, but what else has gone wrong for this team?

McClure: Pat, I talked to Tony Gonzalez extensively after the last game and he was adamant about this all being about the injuries. I agree with him to a certain extent because you just can't lose a receiver as dynamic as Julio Jones and expect the offense to click in the same manner. It drastically changes the way defensive coordinators attack and allows them to focus more on shutting down guys such as Gonzalez.

The other injury I thought was significant was linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who is expected back this weekend after being sidelined since Week 2 because of a Lisfranc sprain. The defensive intensity hasn't been there throughout the season, and Weatherspoon would have provided a spark just from his fiery speeches alone. Not saying that he would have totally helped the Falcons avoid giving up 14 plays of 40-plus yards, but they would have been better with a healthy Weatherspoon.

Speaking of injuries, it looks as if both top running backs are out for Tampa Bay. Can Brian Leonard step in and run the ball effectively?

Yasinskas: I agree that getting Weatherspoon back should be a big boost for the Atlanta defense and the first priority whenever you play Tampa Bay is stopping the running game. Even with Doug Martin and Mike James lost to season-ending injuries, the Bucs still will be a run-first team. Leonard is going to be a big part of the offense now. He's a dependable veteran, who can do a little bit of everything. But I think the Bucs will try to use a combination of Leonard and second-year pro Bobby Rainey. The Bucs want to get Rainey a fair amount of touches because he's more of a home-run threat than Leonard.

Speaking of home-run threats, even without Jones, the Falcons still have some playmakers. Are Roddy White and Steven Jackson now healthy enough to make a significant impact?

McClure: Jackson said he was 100 percent now coming off a hamstring injury, and White continues to have his snaps monitored coming off a hamstring pull and high-ankle sprain. I thought Jackson showed signs of his old self with some tough runs against the Carolina Panthers. He then regressed against the Seattle Seahawks, but head coach Mike Smith blamed that on poor blocking. Jackson has a lot of pride and wants to show Falcons fans he was no fluke. But he can only do so much if the holes aren't there for him. He's averaging a mere 3.2 yards per carry.

As for White, he had one catch for 20 yards in his return against the Seahawks. More than anything, he wants to establish a rhythm so he can be back to his old self. The Falcons just need him to be the same type of playmaker when Jones returns next year. Shouldn't the Buccaneers have a new head coach by then?

Yasinskas: It's pretty obvious that Greg Schiano is on the hot seat. He has won only one game this season and two of his past 15 dating to last year. Ownership does like the way Schiano cleaned up the culture of the locker room that was established under predecessor, Raheem Morris. Schiano, who has three more seasons remaining on his contract, might have bought himself a bit more time by benching Josh Freeman and going with rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. But ownership also wants to see some wins. I don't know that there's a magic number, but my guess is Schiano needs to win more than half of his remaining games if he's going to stick around for next season.

I know Smith has had five straight winning seasons since taking over as head coach in Atlanta, but this year hasn't gone as planned. Since expectations were so high, is owner Arthur Blank's patience wearing thin?

McClure: I've watched Blank's reaction after the past two losses and he has been very supportive of Smith. He even embraced Smith like a long-lost son after a road loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Smith has been a winner since taking over in 2008 (58-31 record) and guided his team to the NFC Championship Game last season, although he's 1-4 in postseason games. I talked to general manager Thomas Dimitroff after last Sunday's game and he said Smith's going "nowhere" in reaction to speculation about maybe Jon Gruden being the team's next head coach.

Smith should get a pass on this season because of the injuries alone. But there are bound to be some staff changes in the offseason to correct some of the on-field problems plaguing the team.

 

Double Coverage: Chargers at Dolphins

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
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Philip Rivers and Cameron WakeUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoPhilip Rivers and the Chargers travel to face Cameron Wake and the Dolphins as both teams try to reach a 5-5 record.
Teetering on the edge of the AFC wild-card picture, the San Diego Chargers travel across the country to face a Miami Dolphins squad embroiled in turmoil.

Both teams sit at 4-5 and a game behind the New York Jets (5-4) for the last wild-card spot in the AFC. A setback on Sunday could drastically affect the losing team's playoff fortunes for the rest of the season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, nine teams playing in Week 11 are either 4-5 or 5-4. Under the current playoff format which began in 1990, only 7 percent of teams to start 4-6 went on to make the playoffs. That number jumps to 29 percent for teams starting 5-5.

So the team that improves to the .500 mark has much better odds of grabbing a postseason berth.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Dolphins reporter James Walker break down the matchup.

Walker: Eric, with Philip Rivers' numbers, you would think San Diego would have a better record. What's gone wrong?

Williams: That's a fair question. Rivers is having one of his best seasons of his 10-year career. He's first in the NFL in completion percentage (71.6 percent), second in quarterback rating (72.6), fifth in total passing yards (2,691) and fifth in passing touchdowns (18). Where San Diego has struggled is finishing games and playing consistently on the defensive side of the ball. Three of San Diego's five losses have come in the final 15 seconds of the fourth quarter or in overtime. The Chargers are allowing a league-worst 6.4 yards per play. Opponents are converting 42 percent of the time against San Diego's defense on third down, which is 27th in the league. And San Diego's defense has forced a league-low six turnovers this season.

The Dolphins are losers of five of their past six games, and appear to be struggling in dealing with the distraction created by the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation. James, what's the situation like in the locker room? And can Miami's players solely focus on playing against San Diego on Sunday?

Walker: The Dolphins are trying to put a good face on the situation. But truthfully, it's weighing on them. More than anything, players are constantly peppered with questions about Martin and Incognito, who are currently not with the team. There have been reporters here from CNN, ABC News and other major news outlets to find out what is going on in Miami's locker room.

On the field, Miami lost two of its top starters on the offensive line. It's not a coincidence the Dolphins rushed for a franchise-low 2 yards in Monday's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Dolphins' offensive line was dominated. I also don't think it's a coincidence Miami started the game flat and fell behind 15-0 early. I think the Dolphins are shaken up right now, and I'm not sure which team to expect on Sunday.

Is it possible Miami is a trap game for San Diego with the Chiefs coming up next?

Williams: The Chargers are not in a position to overlook anyone. San Diego has defeated just one team with a winning record this season -- Indianapolis. And with the loss to Denver, the Chargers are in the middle of a two-game losing streak for the first time this season. West Coast teams traveling to the East Coast traditionally struggle, although San Diego is 2-1 in those contests this season. The Chargers understand if they want to hold on to postseason aspirations they have to win games like this one on Sunday, so the Dolphins will have their full attention.

What's your evaluation of the progression of Ryan Tannehill in his second season?

Walker: Tannehill got off to a fast start during Miami's 3-0 run. But since then he's been average and too turnover prone. Tannehill has most of the tools you want in a quarterback. But he also has some weaknesses that are concerning. Tannehill's deep ball and pocket presence must improve if he wants to take the next step.

However, I sometimes refrain from fully evaluating Tannehill because his supporting cast is so inconsistent. As I mentioned earlier, the running game produced all of 2 yards on Monday. How can a quarterback win with that kind of production? The offensive line is the weakest unit on the team, and Tannehill has been sacked 37 times already this season. Both of those factors have led to a lot of his mistakes.

How much will the time change to 4:05 p.m. ET help the Chargers?

Williams: It should help players adjust their body clock to the time change. The Chargers usually travel on Friday for East Coast games, and will do so again this week. San Diego coach Mike McCoy also holds morning practices, so the players are used to getting up and practicing around that time. Although it's sunny in San Diego, there will be more humidity for the players to deal with in Miami. So players are making sure they drink enough water this week so they do not get dehydrated on Sunday. The late afternoon kickoff could help with that.

At 4-5, Miami is one of a handful of teams fighting for a wild-card spot in the AFC. In his second season, does coach Joe Philbin have what it takes to lead the Dolphins to the team's first playoff berth since the 2008 season?

Walker: An NFL head coach usually gets three years to implement his program and prove his worth. But due to extenuating circumstances with the Incognito-Martin scandal, the time is now for Philbin. How Philbin handles these final seven games and leads Miami through adversity will say a lot about his future. He is 11-14 as a head coach since taking over in 2012, which is not good enough. The NFL investigation also is a huge concern for the entire organization. If Philbin and his staff were part of any wrongdoing, jobs could be lost. The Dolphins remain in the playoff hunt. But it's hard to view them as a serious contender after they just lost to the winless Buccaneers.

New England versus Carolina looked like a prime-time bust two months ago. Could it now be a Super Bowl preview?

The Panthers (6-3) have won five straight games and six of their past seven after an 0-2 start to emerge as a contender in the NFC. New England (7-2), as usual, is one of the top teams in the AFC.

There hasn't been a game of this magnitude between these teams since they met in the Super Bowl at the end of the 2003 season. New England won that one 32-29 on a last-second field goal.

Panthers team reporter David Newton and Patriots team reporter Mike Reiss are here to break down this "Monday Night Football" matchup in Charlotte, N.C.:

Newton: Mike, New England will have had 15 days to prepare for Carolina. Does that give the Patriots an advantage?

Reiss: The Patriots have been excellent in games after the bye under coach Bill Belichick, with a 10-3 record. The main thing the bye did for New England was allow more time to heal for some banged-up difference-making players, such as cornerback Aqib Talib, who has missed the past 3½ games with a hip injury. Belichick gave the players six straight days off, which is a bit rare but was a reward after 13 straight weeks of games going back to the preseason.

As it relates to the Panthers, the big question many in New England have is how much of their success is a result of their pre-49ers-game schedule. How do you assess it?

Newton: Yeah, the first five wins did come against teams that didn't have winning records. But the key is the Panthers didn't just slip past those teams. They beat them by 15 or more points, averaging more than 30 points a game. What beating up on down teams did was allow a Carolina team that hadn't had a winning record since 2008 time to grow confidence -- particularly on offense.

The defense has played well enough to win every game, and that is the one constant that makes this team dangerous every week. Sunday's 10-9 victory at San Francisco was no fluke, and it should quiet the critics of the schedule that, ironically, was rated the toughest in the league before the season. Speaking of the Carolina defense, it ranks second in the league against the run. How will a New England team that is using the run more attack it?

Reiss: Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels often talk about having an identity as a game-plan offense, meaning they morph their approach weekly to hit at what they perceive to be the weakness of the opposition. So if they view the Panthers' front seven as a strength, and it sure looks like it to many, I don't think they'll just run it for the sake of running it. They instead would attempt to spread things out a bit and possibly use the short passing game as an extension of the running game while picking their spots in the running game to maintain some semblance of balance. The potential return of running back Shane Vereen (wrist), who is eligible to come off the injured reserve/designated to return list, would be a boost as he is a versatile option as a rusher and a pass-catcher. How do you think the Panthers will approach things offensively?

Newton: They won't change much, if anything. Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula are committed to the run. They keep coming at you with fresh backs -- DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, Jonathan Stewart -- and a dose of quarterback Cam Newton running and throwing. They're best when Newton is hitting the short passes and making quick decisions. It's all about consistency and keeping the chains moving, which is why they lead the league in time of possession. If the Patriots commit to keeping Newton in the pocket, that could open up the edges for short passes to the backs.

Speaking of consistency, I see Tom Brady's completion percentage is below 60 percent for the first time in his career. What's happening there?

Reiss: The hallmarks of Brady's play over 13 seasons (not including his rookie 2000 campaign) have been accuracy and decision-making. Those have been a bit sporadic this season, for a variety of reasons -- Brady himself, all the changes around him and injuries.

But, for the first time this season, it all came together in the 55-31 win over the Steelers on Nov. 3, which was the Patriots' most recent game. They scored seven touchdowns, and six came out of different personnel groupings and we saw the impact of what tight end Rob Gronkowski (three games played this season, averaging 44 snaps per game) rounding into form means to this offense.

While we're focusing on the quarterback of the Patriots' offense, I wanted to ask you about the "quarterback" of the Panthers' defense, linebacker Luke Kuechly, because many in New England are familiar with him from his time at Boston College. A star in the making?

Newton: No. He already is a star. He proved that last season when he was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. He's not having to make as many tackles this year because the front line is much improved and is stopping many plays before they get to him. But the St. Louis game tells you all you need to know. The Rams revamped their blocking scheme from what they had done all season to account for Kuechly. When teams devise a game plan for you, you've arrived. Kuechly is the heart of this defense not only in that he makes plays but also because he plays without an ego. His unselfishness spills over onto the rest of this defense, which has helped create the chemistry that makes the Panthers effective.

Back to the quarterback on offense: How have the Patriots fared against mobile quarterbacks such as Newton?

Reiss: They've seen their fair share of mobile quarterbacks this year, with EJ Manuel (Bills), Geno Smith (Jets) and Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) most notable, and one would think the plan against Newton will be the same as it was against them: Keep him in the pocket and see whether he can beat you from there.

Belichick was miked up in the Steelers game, and that strategy was the theme of the clip shown on NFL.com -- he kept stressing the importance of keeping Roethlisberger in the pocket. So, rush-lane integrity, particularly from ends Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Andre Carter, likely will be a crucial part of the New England plan.

Those quarterback scrambles can be backbreakers, sort of like a special-teams return that swings momentum. I've noticed a few of those from Ted Ginn this year, and, given some Patriots coverage struggles of late, I'd imagine the Pats are concerned about him.

Newton: The Panthers added a small wrinkle to their return game this past Sunday in the positioning of a second deep man for blocking, and Ginn averaged more than 21 yards per punt return. He almost broke a couple. But where I believe Ginn is a bigger threat to New England is as a receiver. He didn't get deep against San Francisco, but he has really become a threat, not only on the go route but on the slant and on short passes in the flat. He has the speed to blow past defenders and has shown the ability to catch passes in traffic, something he hasn't done before. If the Patriots stack the defense to stop the run, he could be a game-changer.

Darren Sproles and Patrick WillisUSA TODAY Sports, Icon SMIThe Saints and Darren Sproles, left, will try to control the ball against Patrick Willis and the 49ers.
The New Orleans Saints are heading into this week’s showdown against the San Francisco 49ers as the much hotter team. They just totaled 49 points, 625 yards and an NFL-record 40 first downs in a 49-17 rout of the Dallas Cowboys this past week, and the 49ers' offense fell flat in a 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

However, the Saints (7-2) aren't about to take this game lightly. Not only does it have huge playoff implications in the NFC race, but the 49ers (6-3) have proved to be an extremely difficult matchup for the Saints the past two years. They beat the Saints 36-32 in a playoff game at San Francisco after the 2011 season, then beat the Saints 31-21 at New Orleans in the regular season last year.

San Francisco's physical defense has been able to disrupt New Orleans' potent offense with sacks and turnovers, and the 49ers' rushing offense has been able to keep Drew Brees & Co. off the field.

ESPN Saints reporter Mike Triplett and 49ers reporter Bill Williamson break down the clash of styles in this week's Double Coverage:

Triplett: Bill, the 49ers' offense looks pretty one-dimensional this season. I know the Saints will be wary of their rushing attack, since New Orleans' defense has been inconsistent against the run. But what happened to San Francisco's passing attack (ranked 32nd in the NFL at 173.9 yards per game)? I expected a lot more from Colin Kaepernick.

Williamson: I can see your point, Mike, especially this week. Take a glance at Kaepernick's yardage numbers and you'd have to be disappointed. But, in a pure football sense, he is playing well overall. His Total QBR is a whopping 81.7 in the 49ers' six wins. He plays well within the system, and he has been efficient. He has suffered from being without his top 2012 target, Michael Crabtree, all season, and Mario Manningham has played just one game.

Still, there is no doubt Kaepernick could improve in his progressions, and he needs to start taking over some games. In Week 10, the entire offense faltered and Kaepernick was unable to impose his will. Great quarterbacks do that. Mike, do you anticipate the Saints being able to control Kaepernick?

Triplett: I'm curious to find that out. The Saints haven't been tested much by the read-option yet this season, but they're about to play Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Cam Newton (twice) in the next six weeks. The Saints' run defense, in general, has been a little shaky in recent weeks. The Saints aren't getting pounded up the middle, but they have had a handful of breakdowns in recent weeks that led to big gains by opposing runners. They lost a game at the New York Jets two weeks ago because they let Chris Ivory get loose too many times -- even though they knew he was coming. So they'll need to be a lot more disciplined against the 49ers' dual threat of Kaepernick and Frank Gore.

On the flip side, Bill, few defenses have beat up on the Saints the way the 49ers have the past two years. Do they still pack the same punch this season? Can they slow down a Saints offense that was on fire the other night?

Williamson: What does "slow down the Saints' offense" mean? Holding them to 30 points? I'm sure the Saints will make their share of big plays. The always do. But this San Francisco defense will also make some plays of its own.

This defense is stellar. It was dominant against Carolina in a loss. The Panthers had one broken play for a touchdown and a 53-yard field goal. In the past six games, the 49ers have given up a total of 71 points. The 49ers are a ball-hawking, smart, tough defense. It will give the Saints all they can handle, especially if rookie safety Eric Reid -- of nearby LSU -- is cleared to play after suffering his second concussion of the season last week. Mike, do you think the 49ers' defense can slow this first-down-machine offense?

Triplett: Well, we've seen the 49ers do it in each of the past two years. Last season they sacked Drew Brees five times and intercepted him twice. In the 2011 playoff game, they had three sacks and forced five turnovers overall. So if they just do that, they’re in good shape, right?

Obviously the Saints will make ball control a huge priority. And they've proven they can do that this year. They're tied for second in the NFL with only 10 giveaways. And their patient game plan in a victory at Chicago in Week 5 comes to mind as a good blueprint. I'd expect them to feed Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Jimmy Graham a lot in the passing game. The offensive line has been more inconsistent this season, allowing 20 sacks. But it played its best game the other night.

How worried should they be about pass-rusher Aldon Smith? I know he was limited in his return last week. How much impact should we expect from him Sunday?

Williamson: I can't say for certain, but I expect Smith to play a full game Sunday. He played about a dozen snaps -- mostly as an inside down pass-rusher -- against Carolina after missing five games while seeking treatment for substance abuse. The team wanted to ease him back in. Smith has said he is ready to be a full-time player again, and the 49ers will need all the reinforcements possible against Brees. So, I'd be surprised if Smith makes another cameo appearance.

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Double Coverage: Redskins at Eagles

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
12:00
PM ET
DeMeco Ryans and Alfred MorrisAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesExpect a closer game this time around between DeMeco Ryans' Eagles and Alfred Morris' Redskins.


Remember the Chip Kelly revolution? It was televised, on "Monday Night Football" no less, back in September. The first half of Kelly's first game as an NFL head coach looked more like the running of the bulls, and FedEx Field was Pamplona.

Things settled down considerably after that. As Washington comes to Lincoln Financial Field for the rematch, both teams look different at quarterback. Robert Griffin III was tentative that night in his first game back after knee surgery. Nick Foles was on the sideline as Michael Vick ran Kelly's uptempo offense.

The teams meet again with much on the line. The Eagles are 5-5 and, with the 5-5 Dallas Cowboys on their bye, can slide into first place in the NFC East with a win. Washington is 3-6 and can get within one game of the division leaders. ESPN.com Eagles reporter Phil Sheridan and his D.C. counterpart, John Keim, dig a little deeper.

Phil Sheridan: The Eagles haven't seen RG III & Co. since the season opener. They were able to do a good job of disrupting the rusty Griffin and bottling up Alfred Morris. How far have those two and the rest of the offense come since? Is RG III all the way back?

John Keim: The offense has come a long way because Griffin's legs are once again a part of the equation. Without his legs he's an ordinary player and it's an ordinary offense. But with the threat of his legs and with Alfred Morris' running ability, the Redskins can use play action. When the Redskins can use play action their offense can be dynamic and explosive. When they can't? It's what you saw in the opener. Morris has had a terrific season and the only thing holding him back is more opportunities. I think Robert is back to being able to make plays and hurt teams in the pass game, except during times when you know they must throw the ball. Griffin isn't quite as explosive, but unlike in the opener he's now willing to run at any point and keep the ball on the zone read. He still has to develop as a passer, something that was true last season as well. He needs a full offseason.

The Eagles surprised the Redskins in that first game a little bit. How has the Eagles' offense changed or progressed since that game? And how much of that is because of the changes at quarterback?

Sheridan: The Eagles' offense has had major growing pains. That first half at Washington got everyone excited about how Chip Kelly could revolutionize the NFL. And it has been more evolution than revolution since. With Nick Foles at quarterback, obviously there is less threat of the quarterback running 40 yards as there was when Michael Vick was in there. At the same time, Foles seems to keep the tempo up where Chip Kelly wants it, makes quick, smart decisions and generally runs the offense as it is designed. Vick is great or terrible. With the still mysterious exception of the Dallas game, Foles is reliably good and, at times, better than that. He doesn't fire the imagination the way RG III does, but he's a smart quarterback.

This offense had the huge advantage of sucker punching Washington in the opener. No film, no tendencies. Now that defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has had weeks of film to analyze, how do you think he'll approach the Eagles this time?

Keim: I think the plan will be to stop running back LeSean McCoy and they felt good about how they played him in the second half of the opener, mainly by how they aligned their defensive linemen. They focused hard on stopping Adrian Peterson last week, but in doing so got hurt badly by play action, which the Eagles do well. I think more than anything the players will be less surprised by what they see. Those packaged plays destroyed the Redskins in the first half; you can talk all you want about keeping your eyes on your keys, but when you get in the game it's tough. They won't yet share their game plan with me (I hate that!). They went a lot off Oregon tape in the first game and a little off the preseason; now they have their own game against them and nine others. The problem they'll still encounter is trying to handle all those weapons.

So much talk about the offense, but how has the Eagles' defense progressed? Where have they struggled? What have they done well?

Sheridan: Progress is exactly the right word, John. The Eagles got humiliated in Denver by that Peyton Manning guy. The final score was 52-20, but Manning could have scored another 20 if he'd been inclined and remained in the game. Since then, no team has scored more than 21 points against the Eagles. They've gotten some breaks. No Aaron Rodgers or even Seneca Wallace for most of Sunday's win in Green Bay. Mike Glennon and Terrelle Pryor aren't striking fear into defenses, either. But they also acquitted themselves well against Eli Manning and Tony Romo. Mostly, they have focused on fundamentals and the run game, with solid success. They did well against Morris in the opener and feel like they can force Griffin to beat them. I guess the difference is that this time, he can.

Bigger picture this time: Is there still a sense Washington is on the rise under Mike Shanahan or has this season lit a fire under his chair? Put another way: Does Washington still feel like it's in the division race in the wretched NFC East and is that a firewall for the head coach?

Keim: I think they still feel they have a shot, which is probably different than saying they're in the race. To be in a race you have to win a couple of games and I think they understand that. Last year's streak is fresh on their minds, too, so they know it can be done. I think this season has to call into question more about Shanahan and the direction of the franchise. I think the offense is on the rise because they have excellent young talent. Some will point to the salary cap penalty and Griffin's injury to explain all their ills. Those do explain some problems and prevented them from addressing certain areas. (I think some people forget that free agency does not solve everything and never has in Washington.) But they clearly don't explain all of the issues. I also know in the summer the head coach was rather excited about what this team could do, knowing both the cap and Griffin's injury situation. Shanahan has one year remaining on his contract, so these next seven games could determine his future . I don't think he'll get fired, but will he be given an extra year? If they go, say, 5-11 can you give an extension? What helps Shanahan is that he has changed the culture at Redskins Park and I have a hard time seeing his players quitting on him. It gives them a chance to finish better than they started.

Because the NFC East is down and the Eagles are 5-5 they have to be viewed as contenders. But do you think they're a good team on the rise or do they have a ways to go?

Sheridan: Maybe a little bit of both. Some of the offensive numbers are ridiculously good. We take 450-yard games for granted with Kelly's offense. Foles has thrown 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions. McCoy leads the NFL in rushing. The defense is solid, which is more than half the league can say. And yet the Eagles haven't won a home game, went two weeks in a row without an offensive touchdown and have gotten wins against pretty suspect quarterbacks. So a good team? Probably close. On the rise? That's where it all gets interesting. They are young on defense but getting a little older on the offensive line. The offensive stars aren't that old -- McCoy is 25, DeSean Jackson 26 -- but they have wear on their treads. So much depends on Foles, I guess. If he's the real deal, then this team should continue to improve. If Kelly still feels he needs to find The Quarterback, then this season will feel more like a one-off than a stepping stone.

Calvin Johnson and Troy PolamaluGetty ImagesCalvin Johnson's Lions look to continue their success against Troy Polamalu's struggling Steelers.


The respective histories of the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers suggest that the latter would be 6-3 and the former 3-6 heading into their game Sunday at Heinz Field.

But it is the Steelers who have scuffled this season, and they are still trying to dig out from an 0-4 start. The Lions, meanwhile, sit atop the NFC North and have the pieces to make a lengthy postseason run assuming they can keep up their winning ways.

The Steelers have little margin for error as they try to stay on the fringes of the AFC playoff picture, and the Lions will try to maintain their grip in first place in the NFC North when the teams meet at 1 p.m.

ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Scott Brown (Steelers) take a closer look at the first matchup between the two teams since 2009.

Brown: Michael, I'm not surprised that the Lions are playing so well this season, and my question for you is, what has the signing of running back Reggie Bush done for the offense?

Rothstein: It's been huge, Scott. Bush's signing in the offseason spreads defenses out and forces teams to make a choice. Either double Calvin Johnson or continuously roll safety coverage Johnson's way or bring a defender down into the box to stop Bush -- but that leaves things open for Matthew Stafford to find Johnson. He has the ability to take a dump-off play and turn it into a massive touchdown -- something he has done twice on screens this season. While he doesn't change the offense the way it would if Stafford or Johnson were missing, he's a massive cog there.

Speaking of that -- and I feel as if I've asked this question weekly -- how do you think Pittsburgh handles that matchup against the Detroit offense?

Brown: Michael, it's hard to like the matchup if you are the Steelers. Speed in their secondary has been an issue this season, particularly at safety, and I'm not sure anyone can run with Bush if the Lions isolate him on linebacker or safety as a receiver.

The Steelers are going to have to pay Johnson the extra attention he demands, and last I checked they will only be allowed to have 11 defensive players on the field. Assuming the Steelers use a combination of double and bracket coverage on Johnson, there are going to be some one-on-one matchups that the Lions may be able to exploit.

The Steelers haven't generated a consistent pass rush this season, but it will be absolutely essential that they do so against Stafford. If he is allowed to get comfortable in the pocket Sunday it will be a long day for the Steelers.

The best thing the Steelers can do for their defense is to control the clock, but it won't be easy to run on Detroit's front seven. Does it start on the Lions' defense with tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and how have other teams tried to neutralize those two?

Rothstein: Yes, most of what Detroit does defensively starts with Suh, and to a lesser extent, Fairley. Suh is having one of the most consistent seasons of his career, this despite the constant presence on double teams each week. The attention Suh is given opens rush lanes for Fairley, but he hasn't been completely consistent taking advantage of them.

For every game he has like Sunday's against Chicago, he has a game where he disappears. But the pressure Suh, Fairley and the defensive line put on quarterbacks has led to incomplete passes and interceptions often.

If there is a concern with the Detroit defense, it is with its cornerbacks, who have been inconsistent. Can Ben Roethlisberger take advantage of this with his current crop of receivers?

Brown: Antonio Brown has really emerged as a No. 1 receiver and made the Steelers look smart for not overpaying for Mike Wallace. That said, Emmanuel Sanders has not been consistent enough to give the Steelers a receiving option to pair with Brown.

Sanders has a ton of talent, and he is a big-play threat. I keep waiting for him to break out. This could be the week for him to do it as the Steelers are going to have to score their share of points to keep up with the Lions. Lost in the Steelers' 55-31 loss at New England a couple of weeks ago is how much success the Steelers had attacking the Patriots' cornerbacks.

If the Lions' cornerbacks are vulnerable, the Steelers will go after them, and Detroit has to be mindful of the middle of the field where tight end Heath Miller and Jerricho Cotchery work and are trusted by Roethlisberger.

Michael, I don't see the Steelers winning this game unless they score a lot of points. What needs to happen for the Lions to lose?

Rothstein: That's an interesting question, Scott, and with the Lions you just never know. I'd probably start with if any of the Lions' starters in the secondary went down with injury. That would necessitate playing either an inexperienced safety or rookie Darius Slay if one of the corners goes down. Roethlisberger is good enough that he'd pick on that side of the field consistently.

Another would be to force turnovers. Stafford has been quite good this season, essentially throwing less than two interceptions per 100 attempts (he has a 1.9 percent rate), which is in the top 10 of the league and tied with Drew Brees. If Detroit's offense can hold on to the ball and everyone is healthy, it'll score points.

I'll close out with this: You mentioned Pittsburgh trying to establish the run first. What's been going on there? It seems as if there has been a rotating cast of players because of injuries and other issues. Do the Steelers even have a reliable running attack?

Brown: Depends on the week, it seems, when it comes to the Steelers' running game. It has gotten a lot better since Le'Veon Bell became the feature back, and the Steelers have rushed for over 100 yards in their last two games.

To put into perspective how important it is for the Steelers to establish the ground game, they have run the ball just over 51 percent of the time in their three wins and around 30 percent of their time in six losses.

The Steelers have to run the ball against the Lions, and a big component of that is not falling behind early, something that has been a problem this season.

Double Coverage: Chiefs at Broncos

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
10:00
AM ET
The Denver Broncos (8-1) are the highest-scoring team in the league, so much so that not only are they the only team in the league averaging at least 40 points a game -- 41.2 after nine games -- but they are the only team in the league averaging at least 30 points a game.

The Kansas City Chiefs (9-0) have the league's best record, remain the NFL's only undefeated team and lead the league in several major defensive categories, including fewest points allowed per game (12.3), sacks (36) and turnover margin (plus-15).

And after the two have feasted on many of the league's downtrodden over the season's first 10 weeks -- they are a combined 17-0 against teams that do not currently have a winning record this season -- they will finally get down to some serious AFC West business Sunday night in Sports Authority Field at Mile High. ESPN.com Chiefs team reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold break down this game.

Legwold: Adam, let's get right to it: How do you think the Chiefs will come after Peyton Manning, who has been battered over the past four games?

Teicher: I would think Kansas City would test Denver's protection and Manning's ankle right off the bat. The Chiefs still lead the league in sacks, but they've cooled off considerably. They have just one sack in their past two games. On the back end, the Chiefs feel they have the corners who can match up with Denver's big receivers. They signed 6-foot-3 Sean Smith as a free agent from Miami in the offseason in large part so they could have a cornerback who can look Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in the eye. We all remember how Manning picked apart Kansas City's two 5-9 corners last season. Smith is big and physical and runs well enough to stay with either receiver. The Chiefs picked rookie Marcus Cooper off waivers from San Francisco at the start of the season, and he has been a real find. At 6-2, Cooper is also capable of matching up with Thomas or Decker. The Chiefs also have Brandon Flowers to cover Wes Welker in the slot. The tight end, Julius Thomas, could be more of a problem for the Chiefs. Strong safety Eric Berry has done a nice job of covering the tight end this season, but Thomas is a size mismatch.

With that in mind, how is Chris Clark doing at left tackle for injured Ryan Clady and how equipped is he to deal with the Chiefs' combination of pass-rushers that includes Justin Houston and Tamba Hali?

Legwold: At the time, folks were looking at the winless Jacksonville Jaguars as one of the biggest underdogs in league history when they came to Denver last month. But it was the Jaguars who gave defenses a glimmer of hope. They were more aggressive in attacking the Broncos' protection schemes, especially when Denver was in its favored three-wide set, and got physical with the Broncos' receivers. People have followed suit as Manning has progressively taken more punishment and a long line of defensive backs have tried the rough stuff against the Broncos' wideouts. That said, the Broncos have remained in their three-wide set much of the time, which often leaves Clark or right tackle Orlando Franklin working the edge solo. The Broncos are far more comfortable letting Clark do that because he has quality movement skills, but he doesn't have Clady's recovery skills -- few do -- and, when a rusher gets the corner, it's often difficult for Clark to get himself back in the play. Hali would give him more trouble because Hali never really stops working back to the quarterback and has worked more effectively to the inside from time to time.

I know folks haven't really talked on a national scale about Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, but what has his role been in their 9-0 start?

Teicher: He isn't the reason the Chiefs are 9-0, but Smith hasn't messed up a good thing. One key to their defensive success this season is that the Chiefs haven't put their defense in many bad situations, and much of that has been Smith taking good care of the ball. He has only four interceptions. An underrated factor in his play has been his running ability. Sometimes through scrambling and sometimes by design or off the option, Smith has been able to run to make many big plays for Kansas City at crucial times. That said, Smith needs to play better. He's completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes, and he's capable of much better. He completed 70 percent for the 49ers last season. The Chiefs are scoring touchdowns on only 48 percent of their trips inside the red zone, and Smith deserves at least some of the blame.

The Chiefs are allowing 5 yards per carry, and, although a lot of that damage has been done by scrambling quarterbacks, they've still been vulnerable at times against the run. Do you think the Broncos will make more frequent use of their running game against Kansas City?

Legwold: Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase has his roots in Mike Martz's "Greatest Show on Turf" offense -- Martz tutored Gase in stints in Detroit and San Francisco -- and that offense always had a hefty run component. The Broncos would like to run more and more efficiently, if for no other reason than to protect Manning better. That said, they ran just 22 times Sunday against a Chargers team that tried to play keep-away on offense for much of the day. But the real impact of their run is when they get their play-action going. Manning was 9 of 9 passing for 187 yards and three touchdowns on play-action plays in San Diego. The Broncos have leaned on Knowshon Moreno more and more of late as their two young running backs -- Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman -- haven't always handled things the way the team would like them to. Denver wanted more of a rotation, but the gap in performance between Moreno and the other two backs has made Moreno the go-to guy. Ball has gotten more carries of late, but the Broncos figure to gauge the Chiefs' defense by pounding away at it a bit. But nose tackle Dontari Poe will be a tough matchup inside, especially when Denver runs the ball out of a three-wide set with Manning in the shotgun.

The Broncos have plenty of speed on defense, but how much do you expect the Chiefs to try to muscle up and run it at them?

Teicher: That strategy makes sense on a lot of levels, not the least of which is that, if the Chiefs are successful running the ball, they'll burn some clock and keep Denver's offense on the sideline. But Kansas City's play calling has been puzzling at times this season. The Chiefs have attempted a lot of passes for a team that has spent a lot of time in the lead, and I don't expect Andy Reid to change his methods just because he's calling plays against the Broncos. That approach is somewhat problematic for the Chiefs, as well. They've squeezed about as much from Jamaal Charles as they reasonably can. He already leads the Chiefs in rushing yardage and receptions. Kansas City doesn't seem to trust either of its other backs, Knile Davis and Cyrus Gray. So, even more of the burden would go to Charles if the Chiefs rely more on their running game against the Broncos.

Everybody knows about Demaryius Thomas, Decker and Welker. But tight end Julius Thomas seems to have come out of nowhere. Is his development a surprise, or did the Broncos see it coming?

Legwold: Many defensive coaches will say they can deal with three targets in an offense, that there are ways to double-team, or at least have help in the area, against three primary targets in the passing game if things are done right. But a fourth player who can consistently win one-on-one matchups stretches a defense thin and becomes an issue. That's what Julius Thomas has been, especially in the scoring zone. He is tied for the team lead -- with Demaryius Thomas and Welker -- with nine red zone catches and is a matchup dilemma for linebackers and for safeties because of his size and speed. The Broncos always saw flashes of this in offseason workouts -- Julius Thomas was one of the regulars at the on-your-own workouts Manning had right after he signed in 2012, so he meshed with Manning quickly -- and in training camp, but this is the first season he has been healthy enough to show it on game days. As you would expect from a player who had just one season of college football after his hoops career was over at Portland State, he has struggled at times with some of his blocking responsibilities, especially in some of his footwork. But he has worked to get better, and, in the passing game, he already is just the kind of receiver they Broncos had hoped he would be.

In the Chiefs' offense, Charles has already had so many touches in the first nine games. Can he stay healthy at this pace, and what effect would it have on the offense if he doesn't?

Teicher: That to me is the key to Kansas City's season. Charles is the Chiefs' MVP, in my opinion. He's only about 200 pounds, so he's not built to carry the workload the Chiefs have given him. He was in for all but one offensive snap of their last game in Buffalo, for instance. They need to find ways to lighten his load because the odds are he will wear down, but the fact is no one else has stepped forward to be a consistent playmaker. The options at running back are Davis and Gray, and the Chiefs aren't comfortable with either one. Kansas City drafted Davis in the third round for this very purpose, but he's been a prolific fumbler who, at least early in the season, had trouble grasping the playbook. The coaches say he has made progress; if true, he needs to play more. He's big and fast and is one player the Chiefs can reasonably grow their offense around.

Some of the numbers suggest the Broncos are pushovers defensively. But how many of the passing yards and points they give up stem from the fact that teams are usually desperate to play catch-up against Denver?

Legwold: Initially, at least through the first month of the season, that was certainly the case. However, the 506 yards Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo put up Oct. 6 came in a tight game the Broncos trailed 14-0 early on. The Broncos have had flashes of being a game-changing, speed defense, but then they will have lapses at times, and opposing quarterbacks have consistently pounced on those for big plays. Denver already has surrendered more pass plays of at least 20 yards (43) than it did all of last season (38). Certainly, the Broncos missed Von Miller during his six-game suspension, and Champ Bailey has played in just two games so far because of a foot injury, but they have not consistently pressured quarterbacks when the game is still in the balance as they did last season. Denver had several late-game sacks in 20-point wins that aren't quite as valuable as a second-quarter sack to stop a drive in a three-point game. It can potentially be far better, and, if the team wants to go deep into the postseason, the Broncos will have to reach that potential.

Overall, in all that has gone right for the Chiefs in the 9-0 start, how big an impact has Reid had on all of that?

Teicher: This sounds simple, but Reid brought a professionalism and instilled the attitude that the players are individuals and should be treated like men. That was a huge change from the way Kansas City had been run under the previous general manager, Scott Pioli. Then, the Chiefs were run like a circus. Different people had different agendas and were pulling in different directions. Reid walked in the door with an impressive résumé and ended all of that. Players were tired of the losing and the constant paranoia and being treated like kids, and so, when Reid -- with his history of success -- arrived, they were willing to listen and follow. He got players to put aside personal goals for the greater good. It certainly helped his cause that the Chiefs haven't lost yet. If they had been losing from the start, players might have already bailed on him.

Kansas City has been solid on special teams, but Denver's return specialist looks like he's the real deal. Give us a little scouting report on Trindon Holliday as a punt and kickoff returner.

Legwold: Holliday might be one of the better waiver claims the Broncos have ever had. In 20 games with the team, including a playoff game since being claimed five games into the 2012 season, Holliday has six return touchdowns: three punt returns for scores and three kickoff returns for scores. Holliday is just 5-foot-5 and graciously listed at 170 pounds, but the eight-time track All-American at LSU is a football player who just happened to have run, and been very good at, track. He has an inherent toughness about him that enabled him to play running back at LSU and a fearlessness with the ball in his hands. And then there's the speed -- Bailey called him the fastest player he has ever had as a teammate -- and Holliday was the NCAA 100 meters champion in a field that included Jacoby Ford. Now, he can be an adventure handling the ball at times, but he has worked hard to improve and the Broncos let him field more punts deep in their own territory this year than they did last season. Teams have taken to kicking away from him of late, but, in his short tenure with Denver, he already has changed some games.

That's a look at this week's matchup, enjoy the game.

James Ihedigbo and Brandon Marshall USA TODAY SportsJames Ihedigbo and the Ravens' secondary face a challenge in Bears receiver Brandon Marshall.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If the playoffs started today, the Chicago Bears and the Baltimore Ravens would be out. There are still seven games left in the season, but none of them can be squandered, so this matchup Sunday will see both teams fighting to get into contention in their respective conferences.

The Bears enter the contest without quarterback Jay Cutler and two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman, while the Ravens are coming off their first victory in more than a month. ESPN.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley break down the matchup.

Michael C. Wright: Last weekend, Baltimore snapped a three-game losing streak. Does the win restore any faith in the defending Super Bowl champions' ability to return to the playoffs?

Jamison Hensley: The Ravens believe Sunday’s overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals was a good start to getting back to the postseason for a sixth straight year. Even though the Ravens knocked off the AFC North leaders, no one is boasting that this is a playoff team because it was far from a statement game. The Ravens' offense can’t run the ball, and the defense can’t get opponents off the field late in the fourth quarter. The defending Super Bowl champions definitely have some serious flaws this season.

Baltimore’s attitude would change if they can win in Chicago. The schedule suggests that this is a pivotal game. If the Ravens can change their fortunes on the road and beat the Bears, they will be at .500 entering a stretch of three straight home games against the Jets, Steelers and Vikings. The Ravens have had great success under head coach John Harbaugh in November and December, and things are set up for them to do it again this year. That is, if the Ravens can get the franchise’s first victory in Chicago.

Speaking of attitude, how are the Bears dealing with losing Cutler again?

Wright: Well, after all the second-guessing about when head coach Marc Trestman should’ve pulled Cutler or about whether the quarterback should have played in the first place, I’d say there’s a fair amount of confidence in backup Josh McCown. Before being thrust into action on Oct. 20 at Washington when Cutler tore a muscle in his groin, McCown was already one of the favorites in the locker room. General manager Phil Emery has called McCown a “glue guy,” and other players consider the 34-year-old quarterback a father figure.

In three games filling in for Cutler, McCown has completed 42 of 70 passes for 538 yards and four touchdowns, with no turnovers and a passer rating of 103.1. Obviously, in his first full start, McCown played a major role as the Bears upset the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. He has demonstrated mastery of Trestman’s offense, and the quarterback attributes that to the fact he learned the scheme from the ground up, and actually had some input in the implementation of it.

Joe Flacco received the huge contract, but clearly hasn’t been playing like a $120.6 million quarterback. What has been his biggest issue, and do you see him turning things around this season?

Hensley: Flacco takes a lot of heat because he hasn’t put up the expected numbers after signing one of the richest contracts in NFL history. But he is in a tough situation. He lost his two favorite targets when Anquan Boldin was traded and Dennis Pitta went down with a dislocated hip. Flacco has been sacked 30 times (only Ryan Tannehill and Ben Roethlisberger have been sacked more). Harbaugh applauded Flacco for making plays while scrambling. But Flacco is really running for his life.

While Flacco hasn’t had the strongest supporting cast, he also hasn’t been the same quarterback he was during the Ravens’ championship run. The biggest change is his inability to connect deep. On Sunday, Flacco was 0-for-7 with an interception on throws at least 15 yards downfield, which qualifies as the most deep attempts without a completion he has had in his career. With all of the problems on offense, the Ravens desperately need more big plays out of Flacco.

What’s the biggest concern for the Bears’ pass defense?

Wright: Where would you like to start? There are several. But the most significant right now is how the Bears will perform without one of their best players in Tillman, who on Monday was placed on the injured reserve/designated to return list. Tillman, with three interceptions and three forced fumbles, was one of the main reasons the Bears are tied for fifth in the league with 20 takeaways. Since coming into the league in 2003, Tillman ranks in the NFL’s top 10 in interceptions (36), interception-return yards (675), defensive touchdowns (nine), forced fumbles (42) and passes defended (133). That level of production is difficult to replace. But the Bears are confident in backup Zack Bowman’s ability to get the job done. Bowman started 12 games in 2009 and led the team with six interceptions. When Bowman has played this season, he has been adequate (one INT). He has size (6-foot-1, 196 pounds) similar to Tillman, which allows him to match up well with bigger receivers.

The Bears have struggled against the run, and you’d think they could be in for a long game against someone such as Ray Rice. But from what I’ve seen so far, he hasn’t been the Rice I remember from last season. What’s the deal with him?

Hensley: Rice injured his hip in Week 2 and hasn’t been the same since. He insists he’s at full strength, but the numbers say otherwise. Rice’s average of 2.5 yards per carry is worst among qualified running backs. But you can’t put all of the blame for the NFL’s 30th-ranked rushing attack on Rice. The Ravens’ offensive line has struggled to open holes, and because Flacco can’t throw the ball deep, defenses are stacking the box with eight players.

Getting some semblance of a running game is key to turning around the season, which is why the Ravens need to commit to the ground game against Chicago. Under Harbaugh, the Ravens are 45-12 when they gain more than 100 yards rushing. That’s the fifth-best mark in the NFL, which shows how important a running game is to the Ravens.

Baltimore has been up and down in terms of run defense. In their five losses, the Ravens have given up an average of 124.4 yards rushing. The Bears’ Matt Forte had good back-to-back games before he was shut down against the Lions. What’s the key to him rebounding against the Ravens?

Wright: The No. 1 key would be better blocking from the offensive line. For the first time all season, the Bears on Sunday probably lost the battle at the line of scrimmage on offense. At best, Trestman said he would call it a draw. The Bears know it’s unacceptable for Forte to average 1.9 yards per carry on 17 attempts, and Trestman said one of the major contributors to the performance against the Lions was that several players missed assignments on key plays. Going into that game, the Bears knew they wouldn’t put together a strong rushing game, but thought they’d have a chance to pop three or four explosive runs against Detroit’s dominant front. Obviously that didn’t happen. But if the Bears clean up some of the execution issues up front, Forte should be able to rebound. Going into Sunday’s game, he was averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He’ll have to get back on track if Chicago expects the offense to run smoothly because it is by establishing Forte that the Bears set up their play-action passing game.

Double Coverage: Jets at Bills

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
10:00
AM ET
Chris Ivory and Jairus ByrdGetty ImagesJairus Byrd, right, and the Bills aim to keep their faint playoff hopes alive vs. Chris Ivory's Jets.
It has been two months since the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills last played, a 27-20 Jets win in New Jersey on Sept. 22. Each team was 1-1 and was starting a rookie quarterback. Geno Smith got the better of EJ Manuel, passing for 331 yards and two touchdowns.

But now the Jets sit at 5-4 and are in the hunt for a playoff spot. The Bills are 3-7 and their playoff hopes could essentially be gone with a loss to the Jets. After Sunday, the Bills will play only once more at Ralph Wilson Stadium this season, giving them greater urgency to avoid a four-game losing streak.

ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak and ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini discuss the matchup:

Rodak: Rich, the last time the Bills and Jets met, we discussed some of the similarities between these two teams. Each has a rookie quarterback, an offense that can grind out some yards running the football, and essentially the same defensive scheme. What have the Jets done well that has led to their 5-4 record?

Cimini: The Jets are 3-3 since the first meeting, with signature wins over the Patriots and Saints. They've evolved into more of a Rex Ryan-type team, meaning they rely on defense and a ball-control rushing attack. They're not airing it out as much as they did early in the season, and there are a couple of reasons for that: injuries at wide receiver (mainly Santonio Holmes) and turnovers by Geno Smith.

Smith is experiencing a serious case of rookie growing pains -- sounds familar, right? -- and the coaches decided to dial it back a little bit to ease some pressure on him. He has 16 turnovers -- way too many, obviously. Chris Ivory, a non-factor early in the season, has been carrying the running game. Get this: In the win over New Orleans, Smith threw for a total of one yard in the first and fourth quarters. I have a feeling they may open it up a little this week with Holmes finally healthy and Kellen Winslow back from suspension. They also could try to exploit the Bills' man-to-man coverage, as they did in the first meeting, but this isn't the same Buffalo secondary, is it?

Rodak: It certainly isn't the same secondary that was lit up that afternoon at MetLife Stadium. A few weeks after that meeting, the Bills got cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd back from injuries. Byrd was eased back into action and had his first interception of the season last Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Gilmore, on the other hand, is back to a full workload but having some issues. The Bills' first-round pick last season, Gilmore was picked on by the Chiefs two weeks ago and had his worst game yet against the Steelers. Doug Marrone said Gilmore played very well in the preseason and appeared to be on the rise, so it's a disappointment for Buffalo that he isn't playing better right now. He said Sunday that his wrist, which he fractured in the preseason, still isn't right, but his troubles have extended beyond that. He admitted that he was "lulled to sleep" on Jerricho Cotchery's 5-yard touchdown catch Sunday, and as you know, Mike Pettine's defense requires its top cornerback to play better man-to-man coverage than that.

Rich, there's a lot of talk around here about Kiko Alonso, who could be one of the favorites for Defensive Rookie of the Year. His toughest competition, though, might come from Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Why is he deserving of that award?

Cimini: I'm not ready to hand the award to Richardson, but he's definitely in the conversation. To me, the most impressive thing about him is that he has been starting from Day 1 and can play multiple spots along the defensive line. That allows him to play every down, which explains his 80 percent play time -- a high total for a rookie defensive lineman.

I criticized the pick (13th overall) because I didn't think Richardson would be able to play in a 3-4 front. As you know from covering Pettine, this defensive system is based on multiple fronts. But Richardson has blended in nicely, and it helps that he's a freakish athlete. For a 295-pound man, he can do some remarkable things. He also has a non-stop motor and makes hustle plays. He has leveled off in recent weeks (he's stuck on 2.5 sacks), but I still think we're looking at a future star.

Speaking of rookies, Mike, what the heck is going on with EJ Manuel? Is it injury rust or are there other things at play?

Rodak: It's more than just rust, Rich. The problems that we saw from Manuel on Sunday in Pittsburgh were there in his first five games, before the knee injury that sidelined him for a month. He appears hesitant to throw downfield, settling for check-down options more than an NFL quarterback should be. And even on some of those shorter throws, his accuracy has been inconsistent. One notable throw against the Steelers, intended for Fred Jackson over the short middle, hit Jackson in the feet.

We're not seeing wild, perilous throws from Manuel or streaks of interceptions and turnovers that will cause coaches to squirm. Manuel has always shown a calm, controlled demeanor on the field. It's just that, sometimes, it's too controlled. He's not trying to do too much. Instead, he's usually trying to do too little, even for a rookie, and that has hurt him.

Rich, are the Jets a serious playoff contender? How do you see them playing down the stretch, and can Geno Smith really take them anywhere in January, if they are still playing?

Cimini: The Jets are a contender, for sure. In the watered-down AFC, why not? They're crazy inconsistent -- they haven't won two in a row -- but that might be good enough to snag the second wild-card spot. I have them finishing 8-8 because, frankly, I think their lack of experience will bite them in the long run. By that, I mean Smith, mostly. He's hard to figure, Mike. There's no question he has the physical tools, but his decision-making is suspect. Quarterbacks coach David Lee said Smith tends to stray from the game plan, especially late in games. He's the opposite of Manuel; Geno tries to do too much.

The Jets are a feel-good story, and I think Rex Ryan is on his way to a contract extension, but there are too many holes to take them seriously in January. I think Sunday's game will be telling. There's every reason to believe they'll beat the Bills, a team they've owned in recent years, but something tells me they'll have one of those "Same Old Jets" days.

What kind of vibe do you get from Marrone? Is he the long-term answer?

Rodak: I still think he is, Rich. Despite their bad loss to the Steelers last weekend, the Bills still appear to be on the upswing. On Wednesday, during a radio interview, CEO Russ Brandon said communication "has never been better" at One Bills Drive, and from an outside perspective, there looks to be good chemistry between Brandon, Marrone, and general maager Doug Whaley.

Ultimately, though, the fate of the head coach is often tied to his quarterback, and Marrone knows Manuel needs to play a lot better. Marrone expressed a high level of confidence in Manuel on Monday, part of an impassioned speech where he told reporters he wasn't asking for patience or time in the rebuilding process. That approach could put some stress on the organization, but I think it's the right message at the right time.

 
Joe Haden and A.J. Green AP PhotoJoe Haden, left, and A.J. Green will likely see plenty of each other on Sunday.
Stop us if you've heard this before: The eyes of the entire AFC will be upon Cincinnati this weekend for a key, late-season conference clash between the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns.

Don't recall when you heard that? That's OK. If you weren't alive 20 years ago, you probably never have.

Indeed, with the AFC North race now tightened following the Bengals' loss at Baltimore this past weekend, Sunday's showdown between old in-state nemeses finally means something. With a Browns team eager to finally prove it isn't a fluke and a Bengals bunch desperate for a win, the 81st edition of the "Battle of Ohio" could be one of the best yet.

To get set for the ballgame, check out what ESPN.com Browns reporter Pat McManamon and ESPN.com Bengals reporter Coley Harvey have to say about the matchup.

Pat McManamon: Coley, the Bengals were sitting pretty two weeks ago, but they've lost two games in a row they should have won if they are truly a good team. Can they recover from this?

Coley Harvey: Pat, I have a feeling the Bengals will be able to recover from this little funk they've fallen into. The good thing they have going for themselves is that after Sunday's game, they finally go on a bye and will have time to rest up, recharge and get set for the final five-game stretch. Although they honestly haven't shown it, you have to imagine the lateness of their bye, coupled with the awkwardness of a short week of preparation before last week's Thursday night game, made it tougher to adjust to the endless stream of injuries they've had in recent weeks. Before coming out of Sunday's game at Baltimore injury-free, in the previous three games the Bengals lost their top cornerback, their best defensive player, a starting linebacker and their most versatile defensive back to serious injuries.

The biggest key for Cincinnati is to get better play from Andy Dalton. He's been the hidden link. During the Bengals' four-game winning streak last month, he put together the best stretch any quarterback in Bengals history has enjoyed. In the past two games, he's thrown six interceptions and was part of a fumble. You have to believe Dalton will turn it around eventually. If he does, this team will do the same.

Quarterback play perpetually has been a hot-button issue in Cleveland. How much do you think the week off will benefit a banged-up Jason Campbell, Pat?

McManamon: Without a doubt, Coley. The Browns downplayed his injury during the bye week -- this is the NFL, after all -- but it's tough for a quarterback to stand in the pocket with bruised ribs, which can be as painful as broken ribs. The one person the Browns cannot afford to lose is Campbell. He's a bit of a mystery because in two games he's probably played better than he has his whole his career. So while folks in Cleveland are excited about him, there's also a bit of a question as to whether he can maintain what he's done. That being said, Brandon Weeden seems to have lost all his confidence, and if he has to return to the field it could be tough, both for Weeden and for the team around him to believe.

Coley, the Browns were pretty proud of the way Joe Haden played against A.J. Green in Week 4. Haden did a good job, and he really seems to have grown up and grown into a different person and player this season. That being said, Green is one of the best. Does he take a game like that personally, and should we expect a big game from him this weekend?

Harvey: Green definitely takes games like that personally. I think five of the last six weeks have been evidence of just how annoyed he gets by such comparatively poor personal performances. In addition to the job Haden did covering him in Cleveland, Green was blanketed the following week by New England's Aqib Talib. Through those two games, he had a combined 12 receptions for 112 yards. In the five games since, he has 34 receptions for 652 yards, helping him become the league's current receiving yards leader. Part of the reason for that success has to do with the fact that he simply hasn't faced cornerbacks as good as Haden and Talib. It also has to do with the fact that the Bengals have finally gotten other receivers involved in the passing game, shifting some of the attention on Green. All of that said, A.J. still has the utmost respect for Haden, dating back to when they played collegiately at Georgia and Florida, respectively.

While the Bengals are very well aware of the potential danger Haden presents, they also are aware of how good the Browns' defensive line is. What do you think it was it that worked so well for the front in getting after Baltimore's Joe Flacco in the Browns' last game?

McManamon: Thanks for the question with the relatively easy answer. The reason: aggressiveness. That's the way the Browns want to play, and that's the way Ray Horton had the defense playing -- until they faced Detroit and Green Bay. For whatever reason -- probably respect for the quarterbacks they were facing -- Horton backed away from being aggressive. Against Baltimore and Kansas City he returned to his attacking ways, and it worked. The Browns all watched Sunday's game in Baltimore, and they saw the pressure the Ravens brought on Dalton. If Horton doesn't repeat the pressure, it would be a shock.

Coley, I've always had great respect for Geno Atkins, the way he plays and acts. Yet in the first game without him the Bengals' defense didn't even give up 200 yards. How big is his loss, and will this weekend be a major struggle for Campbell?

Harvey: Since we're talking about a two-time Pro Bowler who could be considered the best player on the team, his loss is one that will be felt. Still, his replacement, Brandon Thompson, had a very impressive first game getting so many defensive tackle snaps. It should be noted, though, that before Atkins' injury, Thompson played regularly, and well, as part of a rotation the Bengals had.

Last question for you, Pat. What are the Browns saying about this weekend and the relative importance it has, not only on the division race, but the balance of power in the state of Ohio? A win for the Browns, a loss for the Ravens against Chicago and all of a sudden, the AFC North is a real all-Buckeye battle.

McManamon: It's not being looked at from the standpoint of the state of Ohio, but more from the city of Cleveland. The Browns' futility almost has to be seen on paper to be believed. No winning record in the AFC North. Averaging almost 11 losses per season over the previous 10 seasons. Six years since they've swept any AFC North team, 11 years since they swept the Bengals. To the fans of Cleveland, the state of Ohio is an NFL Death Valley. That's why people in Cleveland are actually calling this game "huge," and the players are looking at it as a chance -- as Phil Taylor said -- to show there's a new team to think about in the AFC North. It's a bit over the top, but it's what happens when a team has been this bad for this long.

Double Coverage: Colts at Titans

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
10:00
AM ET
Robert Mathis and Ryan FitzpatrickGetty ImagesEven though the Colts defense is struggling, Ryan Fitzpatrick will still have to contend with Robert Mathis -- the league leader in sacks.
The game could have meant a lot more. Had the Tennessee Titans not lost to the previously winless Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Thursday night's game could have been for first place in the AFC South.

Still, there is a great deal at stake.

If the Titans win, they close the gap to one game. If the Indianapolis Colts win, it's a three-game lead with a rematch in just 17 days.

ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Colts reporter Mike Wells discuss the game ahead of kickoff.

Mike Wells: Paul, you’ve covered the Titans for a long time (I’m nervous to ask for a specific number of years), where does Sunday’s loss to Jacksonville rank on the list of disappointments in the organization? It seemed as though the Jaguars were going to go the entire season without winning a game. But the Titans graciously helped them out last weekend.

Paul Kuharsky: I’m not ashamed of my tenure, Mike. I’ve been around the team since its last year in Houston. That’d be 1996, when you were in elementary school, I am guessing. That was a bad loss at a crucial point in time. Make the 0-8 Jaguars 0-9 and the Titans would have been playing for first place in the AFC South Thursday night. Instead, they lost their third game in the past three years to the Jaguars, who have won eight games in that span. (And Colts fans will remember in 2011, the Titans made sure Indy didn’t go winless.) It’s not with playoff losses to Baltimore or anything quite like that, but it’s up there.

The Colts under Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson haven’t lost consecutive games. What has been the key to their ability to bounce back so consistently?

Wells: I would like to say it’s because they’ve always played a weak opponent each time after a loss. But that’s not the case. They went on the road and won at San Francisco after losing to Miami earlier this season. One of the things I've learned in my short time covering the Colts is that they don’t dwell on what happened in the previous game. They say it doesn’t do them any good. Pagano refers to it as the “24-hour rule.” That was the case Monday in the locker room after the Colts were embarrassed by St. Louis. The players knew they played a bad game. They addressed it one final time and then shifted their focus to the Titans. That mindset has worked for Pagano and his players so far. I was about to say that the Colts will have an advantage Thursday because quarterback Jake Locker is out for the rest of the season. But I caught myself. The Rams had a backup quarterback Sunday -- Kellen Clemens -- and they won by 30 points. Does Tennessee’s offense change much with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback?

Kuharsky: Fitzpatrick can scramble around and make things happen. But they won’t send him on many designed runs. He was fine in relief against the Jets and even against the Jaguars, though his late fumble was a killer. But in starts earlier this season against Kansas City and at Seattle, he was bad. Those are two tough defenses, but the Titans had a chance in both games and he really hurt them. I spoke to Bill Polian in the press box at Jaguars-Titans and he said if Fitzpatrick protects the ball, he's as good a backup as there is. It's a big if. Fitzpatrick is a streaky player. The Titans' hopes are now that he can get on a good streak.

The last time the Titans saw this defense, it was still a hybrid working toward being a 3-4. Has it graduated into what Chuck Pagano wants? How do you characterize the way they play?

Wells: The defense showed signs of possibly being a top-10 defense earlier this season. Notice I said earlier this season. The secondary has struggled the past two weeks. Houston’s Andre Johnson (229 yards) and St. Louis’ Tavon Austin (two catches for 138 yards) had big games against them. Part of the problem is that cornerback Greg Toler has missed the past two games with a groin injury. Linebacker Robert Mathis is one player the Titans will have to account for at all times. He has found his comfort zone in Pagano's 3-4 scheme. Mathis leads the league in sacks with 13.5 and should easily surpass Dwight Freeney’s team record of 16.

The Colts are giving up 126.6 yards a game rushing. Running back Chris Johnson had 150 yards rushing against St. Louis a couple of weeks ago. Is it safe to assume that the Titans will hand the ball off to him as much as possible?

Kuharsky: They are always going to try to run it. They’ll be missing center Brian Schwenke (ankle), who has added a lot since joining the starting group Oct. 20. They’ve got Shonn Greene for short-yardage stuff, finally healthy, and he makes them better and gives them a second kind of back. They've seen a lot of 3-4 schemes and seem to feel as if it's hopeless to run to the edges against them. But that’s where CJ is best and I think it's a mistake to surrender it without trying. Scheme it up and get your guy where he's most comfortable and typically best.

It's too early to judge the Trent Richardson trade, but he has not been good. Are the Colts over-determined to run it considering the things they can do with Luck? Shouldn’t they try to throw it first, build a lead and then slow things down with the backs at the end?

Wells: The Colts have tried to run the ball in the first half of each of their past two games. But the inability to sustain drives and large deficits forced them to do away with the running game. The Colts were brutal running the ball last week against St. Louis. They gained 18 yards on 14 attempts against the Rams. And what makes it even worse is that Luck accounted for 17 of those yards. I’m not pointing the finger strictly at Richardson. Yes, he has looked pretty bad so far, but the offensive line hasn’t done him any favors with poor blocking up front. Richardson is often hit a yard or two behind the line of scrimmage. He should feel fortunate that he's even averaging 2.8 yards a carry. The Colts will continue to try to establish the run early in the game because Pagano said they can't be a one-dimensional team, but offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton won’t hesitate to put the ball in Luck's hands and let him throw it.

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