Week 11 is when we start talking about the “have’s” and the “have not’s,” as far as postseason aspirations. While one game in particular should draw the interest of NFL fans all over the country, each of the remainder of these games have significant playoff implications, as far as teams being right in the thick of a division race, or vying for one of the wild card spots in their conference. Here are our picks for Week 11 NFL Marquee Matchups.
Tennessee at Indianapolis (-2.5)
If the playoffs were to start today, the four division winners – New England, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Houston – along with the top Wild Card spot (Los Angeles) would already be set. So, with the race for that final wild card spot figuring to be something of a battle royal over the remainder of the season, there’s a good chance that this Tennessee vs. Indianapolis game has a “loser leaves town”-type of feel to it.
After A 1-5 start to the season, Indianapolis is riding a three-game winning streak into this game, which includes a win over division-rival Jacksonville last week. While their 4-5 record won’t impress anyone looking at just the standings on paper, this is one of those teams that has the right pieces in place to make a playoff run.
They have a franchise quarterback in place in Andrew Luck, who’s currently 2nd in the NFL in touchdown passes. After years of neglect, the offensive line in front of Luck has actually transformed into one of the best in the league, headlined by center Ryan Kelly and rookie first round pick Quenton Nelson, the latter of whom might already be one of the five best interior offensive linemen in the NFL. The defense is young, fast, and filled with talent.
Just as importantly, this team is well-coached. It won’t happen because of the work done by Andy Reid and Sean Payton (and possibly Matt Nagy and/or Anthony Lynn), but if the Colts somehow scratch their way to eight or nine wins, head coach Frank Reich deserves Coach of the Year votes.
All of that being said, let’s not overlook the fact that Tennessee was a playoff team last year, and sits only one game back of division-leading Houston, after thoroughly thrashing the New England Patriots last weekend in a game that was just as lopsided as the final score would indicate.
The Titans impressively shut down Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense last week. They got pressure on Brady with just four or five guys, and dropped everyone back in coverage, blanketing New England’s secretly-below-average group of pass catchers. In their last four games, Tennessee hasn’t allowed an opposing running back to gain more than 61 yards rushing (that includes Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon).
The question with Tennessee, even though they have more notable talent on that side of the ball, is around the offense. Is what we saw over the last two weeks closer to who they are, or just a function of going against two teams that played poorly? Marcus Mariota looked dead for the first half of the season, but has come alive over the past few games. Dion Lewis is averaging right around 20 touches per game, and they’re bringing in Derrick Henry as the change-of-pace guy or goal line back.
Considering these division rivals will have a home-and-home this year, and given the way Luck has been playing over the last few weeks, give the edge to the Colts in this game, mostly on account of having this game in the friendly confines of Lucas Oil Stadium.
Pick: Indianapolis (-2.5)
Dallas at Atlanta (-3)
Much like the Tennessee vs. Indianapolis matchup this weekend, the Dallas Cowboys vs. Atlanta Falcons matchup is another one where the two teams are right in the thick of the chase for the last wild card spot in the NFC, and a loss on Sunday would strike a major blow to the postseason hopes of either team.
Prior their loss this past Sunday, Atlanta was one of the hottest teams in the NFL; seeing the way they were dominated by the Cleveland Browns was one of the biggest shocks of the weekend. Their red-hot offense, scoring over 31 points per game over the past three weeks, was held to only 16 points by the Browns.
The Falcons finished with less than 400 yards of total offense, but what might’ve been the bigger story was the fact that they allowed 427 yards of offense to Cleveland, including a staggering 216 rushing yards. The winning made us forget about it for the most part, but Atlanta has the 31st-ranked rushing defense in the NFL, according to FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA metric.
That’s obviously not going to match up well against a Dallas offense which still features running back Ezekiel Elliott as its centerpiece (even if all the recent discussion has been around the future of quarterback Dak Prescott). After gashing the Philadelphia Eagles for 151 rushing yards this past Sunday, Elliott is now 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards. His success forces opposing defenses to worry about stopping him, thereby potentially opening things up for Prescott downfield.
As far as Prescott, the newest addition to Dallas’ offense will help Prescott attack any defense that’s selling out when committing to stop Elliott. Since arriving in Dallas, wide receiver Amari Cooper has 11 catches for 133 yards and a touchdown in two games, leading the Cowboys in targets and catches in both games. Whether you believe he can be a “star” receiver is immaterial, since he still gives Dallas a true “WR1” in general. Further, he has a chance to really tilt the game in Dallas’ favor, considering he’s going against a Falcons’ secondary that’s been plagued by underperformance.
Either way, this game still goes back to which offense can impose its will on the opposing defense. If Atlanta can get its offense rolling against an admittedly stingy Cowboys’ defense, Dallas simply can’t score enough points to keep up. But if the Cowboys borrow Cleveland’s blueprint from last week (controlling the game via a consistent rushing attack), that’ll get Atlanta out of any potential rhythm.
The deciding factor might be that Dallas is 1-3 on the road this year, whereas Atlanta has a 5-3 record at home over each of the past two seasons. Expect the Falcons to beat the Cowboys, and the one-week reprieve we received for questions around the job security of head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s jobs to be rekindled.
Pick: Atlanta (-3)
Houston (-3) at Washington
Unfortunately for most NFL fans, outside of those with teams in these two divisions, some team has to win the NFC East and AFC South, which are quickly becoming the two least attractive divisions in the NFL.
Even though they continue to be treated as an NFL outpost by the majority of the rest of the NFL, the Washington Redskins not only lead the NFC East at the moment, but have a full two-game lead over their closest rival (Dallas).
The major question for them is whether they can hold on to it. Washington was the most injury-plagued team in the NFL last year (according to FootballOutsiders.com), and they’re close to repeating that title again this year. For the second straight year, Washington’s offensive line has been absolutely decimated by injuries, already losing two starters for the remainder of the season, and their best offensive lineman – Trent Williams – likely through the end of November. They were literally signing guys off the NFL unemployment line last week, and starting them the following Sunday.
Even with those injuries, they were able to hold up against the toothless Tampa Bay defense last Sunday, but expecting this group of backups to hold up in the same manner against a Houston defensive front seven that features JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus is an entirely different matter. Further, Washington’s offense goes as running back Adrian Peterson goes, and between the lack of blockers up front for Peterson, and the fact that Houston is ranked #1 in rushing defense DVOA this season, it could be an even uglier state of affairs for the Redskins’ offense (Houston has all but said they’re coming into this game with their main focus being on stopping Peterson).
Houston’s offensive line hasn’t suffered as many injuries as Washington’s line, but they suffer from a different affliction – they’re just plain terrible. They’re the second-worst pass-blocking line in the NFL (according to FootballOutsiders.com), with offensive tackle Julie’n Davenport allowing more pressures than any other offensive tackle in the NFL.
If Houston’s offensive line can simply give quarterback Deshaun Watson time to throw the ball, he should be in for a good afternoon. Expect Washington to blitz the living chutney out of Watson, meaning there’s also a chance the could get gashed downfield as there is to get a sack on Watson. The Redskins passing defense has been a sieve over the past couple of weeks, and since the start of October, Deshaun Watson has thrown 10 touchdown passes, though he’s cracked 240 yards passing just once. Washington also had trouble corralling Ryan Fitzpatrick last week, and Watson might be the most elusive QB in the league.
Washington’s strength is the defensive line, and they’ll likely come into the game saying they can live with Houston trying to make a living handing the ball to Lamar Miller. But at a macro level, Washington has a terrible habit of laying an egg after a “good win.” Of course, last Sunday was not a good win — they just let Tampa Bay beat themselves, without the Redskins making any mistakes of their own.
In cases like this, we’ll go with the home underdog.
Pick: Washington (+3)
Minnesota at Chicago (-3)
Even if it’s a key midseason matchup between two teams in the NFC’s ‘black-and-blue’ division, the chess match on both sides of this Minnesota Vikings vs. Chicago Bears matchup has the potential to be fascinating.
The headliner for this game will be the duel between Minnesota’s offense vs. Chicago’s defense.
Vikings’ quarterback Kirk Cousins is 7th in the NFL in passing yards and 8th in passing yards per game. He’s on pace to have two different wide receivers go for more than 1,000 yards receiving in Adam Thielen (he’s third in the NFL with 940 receiving yards) and Stefon Diggs (on pace to finish with more than 1,100 yards). Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo will be one of the hottest coaching candidates available this fall.
You already know about Chicago’s defense, which has had a vintage “monsters of the midway” feel since acquiring Khalil Mack – who’ll be playing against the Vikings – early on in the season. Chicago has been air-tight on defense, currently ranked #1 in overall defensive DVOA, and 4th in passing defense DVOA. After a two-week absence, due to recovery for his injured right ankle, Mack made an instant impact upon his return last week, tallying two of the Chicago Bears’ six sacks in their win over the Detroit Lions. It was Mack’s 11th multi-sack performance of his career.”
Simply put, after beating up on three teams who look rudderless, everyone is talking about Chicago. But this feels like the game where Minnesota starts to surge ahead in the NFC North standings — and nobody is talking about it. Even with the slow start, where they stumbled out to a 1-2-1 record, Minnesota has won four of their past five, with their only loss coming to the white-hot Saints.
They looked like a sieve early on in the season, but the Vikings have once again tightened things up on defense, with the group looking far more like the unit we expected to see early on. Minnesota is 3rd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (88.9) and tied for 5th in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (five).
Minnesota is close to breaking the NFL record they set just last year for overall defensive efficiency on third down (25.2). They’re #1 in the NFL right now on third down (allowing opponents to convet only 26 of a total 101 attempts), thanks in part to their pass rush “getting home” on opposing quarterbacks. Defensive end Danielle Hunter is 2nd in the NFL in sacks, which is tops among all edge rushers.
Minnesota feels like they’re waiting in the weeds, and ready to pounce. We’ve gotten excited about Mitch Trubisky, but this fees like the week Mike Zimmer’s defense brings him back down to Earth.
A win against Chicago — in Chicago — would give them incredible momentum, especially considering they’ll get Green bay at home the week after.
While you should definitely consider these selections for recreational purposes only, if there was “bet the mortgage”-type of wager for this week’s games, it would be this one. Get ready to listen to a week of discussion about whether Minnesota has now surged ahead of Chicago in the NFC North race.
Pick: Minnesota (+2.5)
Kansas City at Los Angeles Rams (-2.5)
In the weeks leading up to this matchup, we believed this game was a potential teaser for the two teams that would appear in Super Bowl LIII. While that still very well might be the case, we’re starting to see a few warts on each team that we otherwise wouldn’t have noticed while they outclassed all of their opponents.
With head coach Sean McVay overseeing the offense of the Los Angeles Rams, we know they’re capable of putting up a lot of points in a hurry, and/or scoring every time they touch the ball. We also know that they effectively pushed all their chips into the center of the proverbial poker table, going all-in this past spring in free agency.
But during said spending-spree, several people around the league astutely pointed out that they lacked a bonafide edge rusher and a centerpiece middle linebacker. They don’t even have a true patrol-the-field weakside linebacker to make up for the latter.
While the Rams are capable of building up early leads such that opponents are more apt to abandon their running game early on, Kansas City has the patience and resolve to where they won’t need to do so. So the wrinkle in this game might be how the Rams are able to deal with Chiefs’ running back Kareem Hunt.
The Rams are allowing 122 yards per game so far, which is 24th in the NFL right now. The advanced metrics paint an even bleaker picture, with Los Angeles being ranked 29th in rushing defense DVOA. In their loss against the Rams, the New Orleans Saints ran for 141 yards, and even though Los Angeles beat the Seattle Seahawks this past Sunday, they still surrendered a whopping 273 yards on the ground. The Rams’ defensive line of Ndamukong Suh, Aaron Donald, and Michael Brockers were supposed to eliminate those types of numbers from ever taking place, but it’s clearly not working.
Ironically, some of the same can be said about the Kansas City Chiefs. Last week, the Arizona Cardinals – whom the Chiefs beat by just four points – showed opponents something of a blueprint to beat Kansas City: control the time of possession (Arizona had the ball for over 31 minutes), attack the Chiefs cornerbacks (Kansas City still has one of the three worst groups of defensive backs in the NFL), and keep running the ball to slow the game down; Cardinals running back David Johnson had 21 carries for 98 yards (and 181 yards of total offense overall). If Johnson was able to do that, imagine what Rams’ running back Todd Gurley could be capable of.
In the end, we think Kansas City actually pulls off the “upset” here, even though the game will now take place in Los Angeles. Kansas City can binge-score – they have five straight games with 30 or more points. Expect them to go after Rams’ cornerback Marcus Peters, who’s been a disaster this year. If the Chiefs can get receiver Tyreek Hill lined up on Peters, that could make for a long afternoon for Rams fans.
Pick: Kansas City (+2.5)