Coaches take center stage
It's Bill Parcells vs. Bill Belichick in the best matchup of Week 11.
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 11.
First ... Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots: One theme that has emerged in the first 10 weeks of the season is how difficult it is for a team to go on the road and beat a winning team.
Which brings us to the Dallas-New England game. It's billed as Cowboys coach Bill Parcells vs. Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The debate is which of the two coaches has the edge in Coach of the Year voting for the first half of the season.
The stats clearly point to Belichick even though Parcells has accomplished miracles with the Cowboys. No one expected the Cowboys to be 7-2, leading the NFC East by one game. Parcells won all of the winnable games. He's 4-1 at home, and has his talented young defense -- ranked No. 1 in the NFL -- playing well.
But the schedule has helped. The Cowboys played through an easy first six games and thrived with Quincy Carter leading an offense that was better than expected.
Well, the schedule is tougher now. The Oct. 16 game against the Bucs was the first test. It was on the road against a defending Super Bowl champ. Even though the Bucs are 4-5, they shut out the Cowboys 16-0. Though the defense is holding up and keeping the Cowboys in games, the offense is paying the price in these tough road games.
The offensive numbers have fallen. The Cowboys rank 12th on offense, 20th in passing the football. Parcells said earlier this week he's going to further simplify things on the offense, stressing execution more than schemes.
But Belichick merits the coach of the year for the first 10 weeks even more than Parcells. The Patriots have won twice against winning teams on the road (at Miami and at Denver).
Belichick accomplished that even though injuries have forced him to use 40 different starters. They are 4-0 against teams with winning records. The Cowboys are 1-0. The Patriots divisional lead of two games in the AFC East should hold up more than the Cowboys one-game lead on the Eagles.
The tough part of the Patriots schedule is over. Their only remaining road game against a winning team is against the Colts. They can clinch the division if they can beat the Dolphins Dec. 7 in Foxboro.
The Cowboys have to win the division by beating the Eagles in Philadelphia. That'll be hard and it will be equally as hard for the Cowboys to beat the Patriots on the road Sunday.
And 10. Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How the mighty have fallen? Two teams projected as division winners are playing a game of wild-card survival Sunday. The loser, believe it or not, will have six defeats. In the NFC wild-card race, six losses is critical. An NFC wild-card team probably has to finish 10-6. The Cowboys and Seahawks might quickly fall from division leaders to wild-card candidates with strong second halves by the Eagles and Rams, and both teams should have a good chance to get to 10 wins. That forces the loser of this Packers-Bucs game to go on a five-game winning streak just to get a wild-card berth. The problem for both teams has been their poor performances at home, which is unexplainable. Their crowds are noisy and educated. Yet, each team has lost three home games. The Packers problems have been on defense although the waiver claim of defensive tackle Grady Jackson added much needed help in the middle of the defense. The Bucs have fought through injuries in the secondary and bad play along the offensive line and can't get on a winning streak. In Week 11, these teams are playing a desperation game.
9. Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins learned last season that it's hard to rely on a backup quarterback to win and that notion has only been reinforced the last two weeks. Brian Griese didn't play as poorly as Ray Lucas a year ago, but in losses against the Colts and Titans, flaws were exposed. Griese is more accurate and throws a little deeper than Jay Fiedler, but he's not very mobile. Against active defensive front fours, the Dolphins have problems. Griese is more of a target than Fiedler. So while the thought was that Griese could take over the starting job for the rest of the season, the Dolphins are waiting for Fiedler to return. This is a dangerous matchup because the Ravens have the quickest 3-4 defense in football. The struggling Dolphins offensive line has to prepare for blitzes. Plus, the Dolphins will have a difficult time running the ball, which has been a big problem of late. Ricky Williams is having trouble getting even 50 yards a game let alone 100. The Ravens, meanwhile, have a tougher adjustment. They made it through the first eight games with a rookie quarterback making minimal plays, but the season-ending knee injury to Kyle Boller leaves them in bigger trouble. Chris Redman failed last week and now Anthony Wright is starting. The Ravens pretty much are down to a two-tight end, throw-it-short passing offense. Baltimore's change at quarterback will allow the Dolphins to play even closer to the line to stop Jamal Lewis.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers at San Francisco 49ers: There is no quarterback debate in San Francisco. Jeff Garcia is the starter when he's healthy, but his high ankle sprain is still healing, meaning that Tim Rattay will likely get another game as the starter. Rattay played well leading the 49ers to victory over the Rams two weeks ago. He distributed the ball to everyone and he didn't make many mistakes. The big thing is that he kept Terrell Owens happy. The Steelers have an easy second half schedule, but they know this is a tough assignment. For one, they have to fly across the country. They face a quick passing offense, and their pass defense has been horrible all year. They have difficulty putting pressure on the quarterback, and Rattay can pick apart a suspect defense if he's given time. Another problem is the Steelers offense. The 49ers love to blitz. If Tommy Maddox can't handle the blitz early, the 49ers will keep coming and try to force turnovers. Turnovers on the road translate into losses. This is a Monday night game the Steelers have to win, but so do the 49ers.
6. Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals: Chad Johnson, you're crazy. Confidence is one thing, but guaranteeing a victory over the unbeaten Chiefs is another. That's downright stupid. Marvin Lewis didn't need this kind of misguided confidence. The Bengals are a great story. Lewis has done all the little things to turn this long-suffering franchise into a respectable team. They have a chance to win the AFC North. They are playing with confidence. But the Chiefs don't need bulletin board material to help them win a road game. Dick Vermeil has the offense clicking after the bye week, and he's going to stress getting some turnovers. Johnson has helped the Bengals offense become more formidable and he's having a Pro Bowl season. But the Chiefs score enough points to make an opponent think that every possession is precious and that they need to score touchdowns. That leads to interceptions and fumbles, which play into the hands of the Chiefs' strategy.
5. Washington Redskins at Carolina Panthers: Steve Spurrier may have created a monster by winning a game with Hue Jackson calling the plays. Dan Snyder pays him $5 million to coordinate the Redskins offense. Jackson will be calling the plays again this week because he did such a good job beating the Seahawks last week. But will that magic continue on the road against a better defense? And if that's the case, what does Spurrier do? It must be humbling for Spurrier to find out that an offensive coordinator can better adapt his offense into the NFL. And if the Redskins get that sixth loss, how will the team handle it? The Panthers, meanwhile, may be in store for a little bit of a letdown following last week's game against the Bucs. A lot of emotion was spent in beating the Bucs. Their Week 2 win over Tampa Bay was followed by a bye week that allowed the Panthers to recharge their batteries. The Redskins may not make the playoffs, but they are certainly more challenging than a bye week.
4. San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos: Doug Flutie could lock up the starting job for the rest of the season if he can pull off this upset. The Chargers are no longer building for the future. They are in survival mode week to week, and Flutie bailed them out last week with a victory over the Vikings. His 42-point effort brought a spark to the offense. The Broncos have had a week off to reflect on losing three straight games, and they are excited to get Jake Plummer back as the starter. Danny Kanell couldn't rescue them from two of their tougher games -- losses to the Ravens and Patriots. This is the Broncos time to get things right. They have winnable games coming against the Chargers, Bears and Raiders, and they need to win all three to stay within four games of the Chiefs for the division lead. They've taken some tough hits on defense because of injuries. Linebackers Ian Gold and John Mobley are gone for the season. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal has played so poorly in coverage he can't be counted on as even a third cornerback. But Plummer's return could offer some short-term help -- if he's healthy.
3. New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts: Tony Dungy used the 41-0 playoff loss to the Jets that ended the Colts season as motivation for this year. Now, he needs to use that example to rally the team following a disappointing road loss to the Jaguars. The big story all week will be the hamstring injury to Marvin Harrison. The Colts proved they can win with Edgerrin James on the sidelines, but the offense looked different without Harrison for three quarters last Sunday. The Jets continue to look better. Their defense is playing better even though injuries have depleted the secondary. Herman Edwards is seeing weekly improvement with the offense. Whether it's the running of Curtis Martin or the big plays being supplied by wide receiver Santana Moss, the Jets are getting tougher to beat by the week. Too bad it's too little too late for a playoff run.
2. St. Louis Rams at Chicago Bears: The Bears came back to reality after back-to-back wins by losing on the road to the Lions. The Rams played horribly on offense Sunday night against the Ravens, but they won. Marc Bulger is going through his first mini-slump with teams blitzing him a lot in the past two weeks, so he needs to go against the Bears and get back into a rhythm. The Bears don't blitz much. They are also using more rookies, who might have a hard time staying with the pace of the Rams offense.
1. Minnesota Vikings at Oakland Raiders: The Vikings have lost confidence on defense, and they better get it back soon. No team has as little confidence on offense as the Raiders, so this is a timely matchup. But it's also on the road, so the Vikings better beware. Jerry Rice is complaining because he's not getting touchdowns. Rick Mirer is the quarterback. Charlie Garner is hurt. The Raiders are a mess. The Vikings need a good game to end their three-game losing streak, and the Raiders haven't played a good game all year. It will also be interesting to see how the Raiders cover Randy Moss. The Raiders don't have much pass rush, so Daunte Culpepper should have time to get the ball deep to Moss. This also could be a game in which Michael Bennett gets a few big runs. The Raiders have had difficult stopping the run.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Sources: UM optimistic at landing Harbaugh
- Reports: Manziel party led to Gordon's ban
- Sources: Some Bears coaches fear firings
- Murray, Bryant both set Cowboys records