- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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But Michael Vick has stolen a good portion of that stage. Not only did he beat Manning in a game two weeks ago, but his game against the New York Giants on Sunday night might be even more important. The Eagles and the Giants are in a two-way battle for the NFC East lead, and Vick has become the hottest name in football.
Now, let's check out this week's big storylines and more.
1. Slowing Vick: The challenge for the Giants is stopping Vick, who has his entire game functioning. During his Atlanta days, Vick struggled throwing into the middle of the field. There, he was blessed and cursed with his skills. His speedy retreat from center made it tough to sync up with receivers on timing routes. His lack of height made it hard for him to see shorter receivers over the offensive line. Vick's recommitment to the game and Andy Reid's coaching fixed those problems. His game now works in the pocket. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Vick's has a 65.5 completion percentage with a 122.2 quarterback rating and 10 touchdowns inside the pocket. Out of three- and four-receiver sets, he's more than 10 percent better than his 52.3 completion percentage in those formations in Atlanta.
The Giants' linebackers and secondary now have to cover the perimeters of the line of scrimmage for the pass and the run. The problem facing the Giants is keeping up with the Eagles if Vick starts mounting touchdown drives. They could be down four starters on offense for a second straight week -- tackle David Diehl, center Shaun O'Hara, wide receiver Steve Smith and fullback Madison Hedgecock/ Also, their three-receiver set is shortened even more with the season-ending injury to Ramses Barden.
2. Brady vs. Manning: Brady has the edge on Manning, three Super Bowl rings to one, but lately, Manning has had the edge in the Patriots-Colts series. Brady holds the overall edge with a 7-4 record against the Colts, but including the playoffs, Manning has won five of the past six games and has completed 140 of 220 passes for 1,802 yards in those games. (Brady missed the 2008 Colts victory because of a knee injury.) Manning's success moving the football has forced Bill Belichick to gamble on fourth downs in order to keep the ball from Manning. Still, Brady holds a big edge in this game. First, he's home and could tie Brett Favre's NFL record of 25 consecutive home wins. Second, the Colts are still undermanned because of injuries. Austin Collie could be back in the slot, but Manning has lost Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez for the season. In the past three games without Clark, Jacob Tamme stepped up to catch 24 passes in November, tops among tight ends. But Tamme doesn't draw the safety as much in man as Clark did. In the past three games, according to ESPN Stats & Information, a fifth defender has rushed Manning 37.7 percent of the time compared with 21.6 percent in the first six games. The effect on those plays dropped his completion percentage from 61.1 to 54.2 and his quarterback rating from 107.9 to 66.5. Expect Belichick to send the extra rusher.
3. A Chilly ending? When discussing the Vikings' 3-6 season, Brett Favre keeps saying "we're running out of time.'' Time runs out Sunday if the Vikings lose to the Green Bay Packers. If the Packers sweep them, the Vikings would effectively be five games behind Green Bay (because of the tiebreaker) with six games to play. A 3-7 record would put owner Ziggy Wilf on the hot seat Monday morning to see whether he's going to fire Brad Childress. According to sources, the cost of firing Childress is high but not as high as most people think. Childress signed an extension through 2013, but the final year is the team's option. A source said Wilf would have to pay $6.6 million for 2011 and 2012. Childress is an unpopular figure around Vikings headquarters, but Wilf must decide whether he wants to try defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier as a possible replacement or keep Childress through the rest of the season. As for Favre, the only reasons he might want to continue playing for a 3-7 Vikings team are his love of the game and the chance to get 300 consecutive starts. (That streak is now 294.)
4. Go west, young men: The top three teams in the NFC South play three NFC West teams with the chance to pad their records. The New Orleans Saints host the Seattle Seahawks, giving Saints running back Reggie Bush the chance to face former USC coach Pete Carroll. The Atlanta Falcons travel to St. Louis in a matchup between Matt Ryan and Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, who is still developing. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to San Francisco, giving Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount the chance to explain to the 49ers why he changed his mind about signing with them after the draft. If the Falcons, Saints and Bucs pad their records at the expense of the NFC West, it's possible those three teams can get to 10 or more wins. The NFC South trio has a 5-1 record against the West, and the Falcons and Bucs are each 2-0. The Saints are the only one of the three teams to lose to an NFC West team. If that loss to Arizona leaves them one game behind the Falcons in the NFC South race, it's possible the Saints will be a wild-card team traveling to Seattle if the Seahawks win the NFC West.
5. Let the AFC West race begin: Despite their poor start, the San Diego Chargers believe the AFC West is still theirs for the taking. Starting Monday night with the Denver Broncos' visit, the Chargers host all three of their AFC West foes in the next four weeks. Even if they lose next week's game against the Indianapolis Colts, the Chargers would be 7-6 if they sweep those divisional games. Philip Rivers must feel good about getting some weapons back thanks to the bye week. Wide receivers Malcolm Floyd and Legedu Naanee should be back, while tight end Antonio Gates is 50-50. The team is starting to worry about halfback Ryan Mathews' slow recovery from ankle and leg injuries, but Rivers has been running the league's No. 1 offense regardless of his personnel. Starting next week, Vincent Jackson will be available for his final six games as a San Diego Charger. The Chargers are only a game behind Kansas City, which faces the Arizona Cardinals this week. The Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, come off the bye to renew their four-decade rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers must concentrate on stopping running back Darren McFadden, who, according to ESPN Stats & Information, leads the league with a 5.5-yard rushing average in the middle of the field. The Steelers rank second stopping inside runs at 2.7 yards an attempt. The Steelers know they can't take the Raiders for granted. Bruce Gradkowski came into Heinz Field last December and upset the Steelers 27-24, in a game in which the lead changed hands five times in the fourth quarter. In fact, the Raiders have won three of their past five games against the Steelers.
6. A defenseless position: During the first half of the season, the Houston Texans had one of the worst defenses in league history, giving up approximately 400 yards a game. Now, they have competition. Unable to stop Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, the Washington Redskins bolted past the Texans, 415.3 yards a game to 409.7. The 1981 Colts gave up the most yards in NFL history (6,793, or 424.6 a game). At least this week, both teams face offenses that shouldn't go over 400 yards. The Redskins play a Tennessee Titans team that doesn't throw the ball much with Vince Young. He completes roughly 10 of 17 passes a game, although it's not out of the question that running back Chris Johnson could go for 200. The Texans play a New York Jets offense that averages 362 yards a game. Gary Kubiak said he doesn't plan to make any changes on defense. The young secondary is giving up 301.3 yards a game, a pace that would shatter the passing yardage record (4,541) set by the 1985 Atlanta Falcons.
7. Skip the backup and go to the third-stringer: Colt McCoy of the Browns and Troy Smith of the 49ers were supposed to be third-string quarterbacks this season, given a uniform, a headset and a clipboard. But third-stringers are doing better than many of the backups. McCoy, the Browns' third-round choice, just came out of a four-game stretch in which he faced the Steelers, Saints, Patriots and Jets. Against those four playoff-caliber teams, which have combined records of 26-10, McCoy was 2-2. He completed 64.6 percent of his passes and had an impressive 85.2 quarterback rating. According to ESPN Stats & Information, McCoy has been the master of passes between 11 and 20 yards. He's completing 72 percent of those throws and is second only to Vick with a 127.5 quarterback rating on those passes. The Browns play the Jaguars on Sunday. Troy Smith, who was third behind Alex Smith and David Carr, has brought the long ball into the 49ers' offense. He has hit 6 of 10 passes of 21 yards or more in his two victories. According to Stats & Info, his 137.5 rating is the best in the league on passes of 21 yards or more. His challenge will be throwing against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Cover 2 defense Sunday.
8. Familiar faces in strange places: Week 11 features interesting reunions. The sight of Albert Haynesworth in Nashville in Redskins colors will be one of the strangest of the weekend. The Titans had conversations with the Redskins about reacquiring the disgruntled defensive tackle, but they weren't willing to give up a second-round pick. Haynesworth wants out of Washington, and Mike Shanahan wouldn't mind his departure either, but everything is on hold until the end of the season. Should Haynesworth ever get back to the Tennessee Titans, he might be able to regain his dominating style of play. Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley gets together with Ken Whisenhunt and the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in Arrowhead. Haley called the plays for Whisenhunt during the Cardinals' Super Bowl season. The third familiar face is Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams, whom Jerry Jones thought was the final piece to a Super Bowl offense. Williams faces a Detroit Lions team that traded him for a No. 1, a No. 3 and a No. 6 draft pick. In his past three games, Williams has finally become an 1,100-yard receiver. Unfortunately, it's taken three seasons and 34 games for Williams to get 1,160 receiving yards as a Cowboy.
9. Bye-bye to the bye weeks: The NFL settles into the final seven weeks of the season with no more bye weeks remaining. The bye weeks give teams the ability to recover from injuries and rethink strategies. They also give coaches extra time to prepare for opponents. Teams coming off the bye are 18-10, and there is a good chance last week's bye teams could go 3-1. The Chargers (who host Denver) and the Saints (who host the Seahawks) are favored by more than a touchdown. The Packers are favored on the road against the Vikings. The toughest post-bye assignment is Oakland's trip to Pittsburgh, where the Raiders are 7½-point underdogs.
10. Bottom-feeders: The Dallas Cowboys didn't look like a bottom-feeder Sunday when they responded to Jason Garrett's leadership style by blowing out the New York Giants, 33-20. But the Cowboys ARE 2-7, matching the record of their Sunday opponent, the Detroit Lions. Detroit and Dallas annually host games on Thanksgiving Day, so it's rare that these two turkeys get together before the traditional Thanksgiving game. The Bengals' season is over at 2-7, but even if they cancel the Terrell Owens-Chad Ochocinco show, the Bengals' show must go on against the Buffalo Bills, who are coming off their first win. A loss by the Bengals would start to move them into top-three territory for next year's draft, an amazing fall for a 2009 division winner. The Carolina Panthers, who officially became the league's worst team after losing to the Bills last week, play a well-rested Baltimore Ravens team. In last week's Thursday night season-opener, the Falcons exposed problems in the Ravens' secondary by spreading the field with receivers and passing the ball. No worries. John Fox rarely goes into three-receiver sets and a concussion to Jimmy Clausen has led to Fox using Brian St. Pierre at quarterback even though St. Pierre's only been with the team a little more than a week. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Panthers are the league's least productive team out of three-receiver sets with 914 yards in a mere 191 plays.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2hJohn Keim and Adam Caplan