- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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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 of the 2005 season.
This visit wasn't as much a scouting trip as it was an education. Palmer and Johnson wanted to see why the Colts' players work so well together on offense. The Colts' offensive success is more than just talent. Sure, quarterback Peyton Manning, wide receiver Marvin Harrison and running back Edgerrin James are are among the best at their positions in the NFL, but so much of their game is timing and how well they work together.
Palmer and Johnson picked up some tips. To them, the Colts are the standard for offensive execution. On Sunday, Palmer and Johnson and the rest of the Bengals' offense will test their development against the Colts in the one of top games of the year.
The Colts are 9-0, while the Bengals are 7-2. While the Bengals have to take some criticism for an easy schedule -- they've beaten only one winning team (the Chicago Bears) -- the Colts have played an easier schedule. The undefeated Colts have played against teams with a combined winning percentage of .321, while the Bengals' opponents have a combined winning percentage of .407.
Don't get too caught up in those stats, though. The 1972 Dolphins went unbeaten against one of the easiest schedules in NFL history. The champagne Don Shula and his Dolphins tip back every year when the last unbeaten team falls isn't cheapened because their schedule was easy.
And the Colts won't have to apologize for anything that happens this season, because five of their final seven games are against winning teams.
The Colts-Bengals matchup is fascinating. After throwing an NFL-record 49 touchdown passes last season, Manning has had to adjust to nine games of defenses dropping back into deep zones and trying to take the big play away from the Colts. Often, seven or eight defenders dropped into coverage. Manning has become accustomed to handing off to James and letting him be the star this season (1,027 yards and nine touchdowns so far).
But retreating isn't the personality of the Bengals' defense. They love to attack. Cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and Tory James attack the ball and have combined for 10 interceptions. The Bengals lead the league with 20 interceptions and a plus-20 giveaway/takeaway ratio.
The chess game between Manning and the Bengals' D will be the story of this game. The Bengals have struggled against good running teams, allowing 124.2 yards per game on the ground. But the Bengals used their 27-13 loss to the Steelers last month as an education. The Steelers came into Cincinnati and dominated the Bengals' defense on the ground.
In this matchup, Cincy head coach Marvin Lewis must find a way to toughen up the middle of his defense. He knows the Colts' offensive line is playing as well as any line in football. The Colts have allowed only six sacks in nine games, and only two defensive linemen have gotten to Manning in the backfield all season.
Will the Bengals' corners gamble for interceptions? And if they do, will Manning try to fake them out and get them out of position? This has the potential to be a very high-scoring game.
Palmer and Johnson would pay to see a game like this, but they don't have to pay. This is their showcase game.
And 10. Philadelphia Eagles at N.Y. Giants | Scouting report The Eagles' season is in about the same shape as Donovan McNabb's health. McNabb is spending the next few days visiting specialists to see if he can play the rest of the season with a sports hernia and a worsened groin-muscle injury. But there might be no season to come back to if the Eagles lose to the Giants. A loss would put the Eagles at 4-6. While the NFC East playoff contenders will be knocking themselves off with losses during the final weeks, it's still clear that it'll take at least 10 wins to capture the division. Going 4-6 (and 0-4 in NFC East games) would mean the Eagles probably would need to win their final six games to make the playoffs. A loss could put an official end to McNabb's season. He might as well have the surgery. It's been a troubled season from the start in Philadelphia. Jerome McDougle was shot this summer when someone tried to steal his car. The situation around Terrell Owens has been a circus that won't leave town. Meanwhile, Eli Manning is coming off a four-interception game against the Vikings, and the Eagles should be able to pick up a few pointers. Manning's interception totals have increased lately, and the Giants can't afford to give away a game to a division foe. The Giants could effectively put an end to the Eagles' season. The Eagles are still dangerous because of their talented defense, but it's a different team with Mike McMahon at quarterback instead of McNabb.
9. Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears | Scouting report It's trendy to be a Bears fan. Their defense is sensational. Brian Urlacher is having a Defensive Player of the Year season. At 6-3, the Bears have far exceeded expectations. But their schedule through nine games (.407 opponents' winning percentage) is among the NFL's easiest. Things get tougher now. Starting Sunday, the Bears have three games remaining against the three winning teams in the NFC South -- the Panthers, Bucs and Falcons. If the Bears can't win against the NFC South, they could be staring at the Vikings in Week 17 in a game to win the NFC North. The Bears' road through the NFC South gets off to an extremely tough start Sunday against the Panthers. Wind could be a factor, as it was last week, so the team that runs the ball the best could be the winner. The Panthers average only three yards per rush, but they wear opponents down with their running attack. The Bears should have Thomas Jones back as the starting running back, but he's banged up. With Cedric Benson out three to six weeks with a knee injury, this is Jones' most important game with the Bears. As Jones goes in this game, so goes the Bears' offense. The Panthers' D will try its best to get rookie quarterback Kyle Orton off his game. Defensive ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers will put pressure on Orton from the corners. It will be interesting to see how the Panthers cover wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who spent nine years with the Panthers before going to Chicago in the offseason. Muhammad is Orton's only true receiving threat and is a great downfield blocker on running downs.
Is Chris Simms for real? If he is, the Bucs' season might be saved. The Simms of Week 10 against the Redskins was sensational. He had great touch on his long passes. He had no trouble getting the ball to Joey Galloway and other receivers, something that had been missing since he took over for the injured Brian Griese (out for the season). Of all the defenses in the NFC South, the Bucs' is the one to match up against mobile Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. The Bucs have won four of their past five games in Atlanta. One of the reasons the Bucs do so well against Vick is the speed of their defense. Age, though, is starting to creep into the legs of Bucs defenders. Derrick Brooks has been mobile enough to get to the hash marks and stop Vick, but his leg problems are limiting his ability to turn. Straight ahead, he's fine, but Brooks needs to move side to side to stop the elusive Vick. Indoors, on the carpet, Vick is hard to stop. He's 21-6 in dome games. This will be a defining game for the Bucs. If they are going to stay with the Panthers and Falcons in the NFC South, they have to start this weekend with a win over Atlanta.
7. Buffalo Bills at San Diego Chargers | Scouting report Bills coach Mike Mularkey should start J.P. Losman at quarterback against the Chargers. Losman threw two touchdown passes to Lee Evans to beat the Chiefs on Sunday. This season was supposed to be all about the development of Losman, but he wasn't ready for the starting job in September. He hesitated throwing long passes because he had to see the receiver break free before he released the ball. That slight delay led to overthrows or sacks. Starter Kelly Holcomb has suffered a concussion, and his status is up in the air. The Bills have a veteran defense, and with just a little help from the offense they can be a playoff team. Holcomb kept the season alive, but it's up to Losman to show where he is as a quarterback. Meanwhile, the Chargers used the bye week to rest some injured players and get ready for a tough stretch run. They are more talented than their 5-4 record, but the schedule has worked against them. While the Chargers can point to how hard it is playing perhaps the league's toughest road schedule, it could be the losses at home that seal their fate. The Chargers have lost at home to Dallas and Pittsburgh and can't afford another home loss the rest of the season if they hope to make a run at Denver in the AFC West.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens | Scouting report QB Ben Roethlisberger took a physical pounding the last time he faced the Ravens. The Ravens' defense ignored the run and tried to force Roethlisberger to win the game. He did, but it came at a price. Roethlisberger's knee still aches following the arthroscopic surgery that resulted from the last time these teams met (he is listed as questionable for this game). Backup Tommy Maddox would start in his place. It's an interesting decision for coach Bill Cowher. The Steelers face the Colts next week on the turf in the RCA Dome, and it would be nice to get Roethlisberger a start to get back his timing. Plus, the Steelers don't have the luxury of losing many games because they'll probably need 12 wins to beat the Bengals for the AFC North title. The doctors said Roethlisberger would be out 10 to 14 days, and the Steelers were wise to keep him out of two games. But should they keep him out for one more? QB Kyle Boller returned for the Ravens last week, but he showed no progress. People who watched the first Ravens-Steelers game were surprised how low-scoring and competitive it was. But they are division rivals, and they usually play low-scoring, competitive games. Don't expect anything different this weekend.
5. Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys | Scouting report With five minutes to go against the Eagles on Monday night, the Cowboys' season looked like it was going to take a turn for the worse. They trailed by 13 and could have fallen a game behind the Giants in the NFC East race. But two quick touchdowns changed their season, and suddenly the Cowboys have a great chance to win the division. The Cowboys take a break from their division games to play two home games in five days (against the Lions and Broncos). The Lions shouldn't be too hard. QB Jeff Garcia is expected to be back, but his timing probably will be off. He's still not 100 percent, and he's not the only Detroit player with injury issues. Lions WR Roy Williams is a tremendous talent, but he's hurt and playing at less than 80 percent. WR Mike Williams is hurt. RB Kevin Jones is banged up. The Cowboys also have some injury issues. RB Julius Jones says his high-ankle sprain hasn't completely healed, so he's not at 100 percent. Because of his durability issues, Jones will share the halfback job with Marion Barber.
Randy Moss sure didn't give coach Norv Turner a big vote of confidence during an ESPN interview this week. When asked about his coach, Moss paused for 18 seconds before giving Turner a tepid endorsement. Turner is an offensive coach, and Moss, an offensive star, likes offensive coaches. But given the Raiders' 3-6 record, Moss doesn't have a lot of good things to say. The season has been a major disappointment. Moss ranks 47th in the NFL with 32 catches. WR Santana Moss, who went to Washington from the New York Jets, has been more of an impact player (53 catches for 935 yards). That has to nag at Randy. Cross-country trips are tough for West Coast teams, and this is a game the Redskins can dominate.
3. Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (ABC, Monday, 9 p.m. ET) | Scouting report The Vikings are building momentum. They have won three of their last four games, and they have battled through a lot of problems. The Vikings didn't do much on offense against the Giants on Sunday, but they made enough big plays to win. At 2-7, the Packers are playing the role of spoiler, and they would love nothing better than to beat their division rival. In the past two games, the Packers somehow have given QB Brett Favre a running game in undrafted rookie Samkon Gado (165 yards rushing and four TDs). As long as Favre has a running threat, he can truly get Mike Sherman's offense working. The key for the Vikings is taking away the run and forcing Favre to make risky throws. The Vikings won the first meeting 23-20, and this figures to be another close game.
In some ways, coach Jack Del Rio is using the Jaguars' current run of games against losing teams to tweak his strategy. He's trying to making the passing offense less dependent on WR Jimmy Smith. He's resting Smith a bit to get other, younger receivers on the field. Last week, rookie Matt Jones had his best game in the NFL, with five catches for 106 yards and one touchdown. RB Fred Taylor is hurt, so Del Rio is developing Greg Jones as a running threat. As long as the team wins, the strategy is fine. The Jaguars' second-half schedule is a joke. The Colts (Dec. 11) are the only winning team they face. In three of the next four games, the Jaguars face teams that currently have two, two and one victory each. The Titans can be dangerous because they know the Jaguars so well. At 2-7, the Titans were too young for prime-time play, but this game is at home and the team is coming off a bye week. It could be a trap game for the Jaguars.
1. Miami Dolphins at Cleveland Browns | Scouting report Coming off last season, the three worst teams in football -- the Dolphins, Browns and 49ers -- all hired new head coaches. This game will be a test to see if two of those new coaches (Romeo Crennel and Nick Saban) have their teams heading in the right direction. The Dolphins and Browns are competitive. Saban has an older defense, but it plays hard and keeps the team in games. Crennel has patched together a 3-4 defense that is giving up a respectable 18.9 points a game. The biggest issue for the Dolphins is the quarterback position: Gus Frerotte may miss the game because of a finger injury. The Dolphins don't know what they have in backup Sage Rosenfels, and that could be a big advantage for the Browns at home.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Bengals will get a chance to test their development against the Colts in one of the best games of the season.