As the postseason looms, scrums have developed in each conference for those six seats at the playoff table. Sunday’s games will go a long way toward determining who gets in — and where they’re seeded.
So here’s a look at every Sunday game for Week 11, with three questions and answers for each one.
No matter how ready you are for the games, you’ll learn at least something you didn’t already know if you keep reading.
For example, did you know that the duckbill platypus can store as many as six hundred worms in the pouches of its cheeks?
To learn more stuff that has slightly more relevance to football, keep going.
Falcons at Panthers
1. Is Cam Newton hurt?
Officially, Newton’s healthy; after getting banged up on Monday night against the Eagles, Newton’s name doesn’t appear on the injury report. But Newton has said he’s hurt. Which may or may not mean he’s injured. Which may or may not be evidence of a disconnect between the franchise and its franchise quarterback.
On one hand, it’s a mess. On the other hand, the Panthers have bigger problems than whether the quarterback and the team agree on the question of whether he’s injured. Or hurt. Or whatever.
2. Is the winner still alive?
Very much so. Despite being 1-6-1 over the last eight games, the Panthers have a bye followed by games against the Vikings, Saints, Bucs, Browns, and Falcons. Of that quintet, only Cleveland currently is at or above .500.
The Falcons, whose 4-6 record with a win would make them 4-0 in the division, have a tougher slate, with games against the Browns, Cardinals, at the Packers, and Steelers on the docket. If the Falcons can navigate those games and somehow still win the division, they’ll be ready to compete in the postseason, starting with the automatic home game they’d earn by winning the division.
3. Does Roddy White care about his upcoming milestone?
He says he’s not as concerned about getting to 10,000 receiving yards as much as he cares about team goals.
“[I’m] more interested in winning games,” White said this week. “Right now, we can put ourselves in position to kind of take off. So, that’s my main focus.”
White needs only 73 yards to become the 42nd player in NFL history to get to 10,000 receiving yards. Chances are he’ll get there sooner than later. The chances the Falcons get back to the postseason are a lot more remote.
Vikings at Bears
1. How bad is it for the Bears?
It’s pretty bad. From 1920 through three weeks ago, the Bears had never allowed 38 points in the first half of any game. Then, in the very next game after the Patriots scored 38 in the first 30 minutes, the franchise record for points allowed in the first half was broken again, with 42 given up to the Packers.
“Chicago Bears, Terror of the Midway,” as a man who liked crossword puzzles once said. “More like the Chicago Chipmunks, maybe.”
So, yeah, it’s as bad as it’s ever been. It’ll be even worse if the sub-.500 Vikings and their rookie quarterback come to town and send the Bears to 0-4 at home this year.
2. How much of a battle will Jared Allen and Matt Kalil have?
It could be a full-blown brouhaha. The left tackle and the right defensive end had some squabbles while teammates in Minnesota. Sunday’s game marks the first time they’ll face each other as foes.
Allen is struggling in his first season with the Bears. At times, Kalil has struggled to perform consistently at the level that made him the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft. Both could use a big day. They both know it, which will give this battle a little extra kick.
3. When will the Vikings have Adrian Peterson back?
They won’t have him for Sunday, but he could be back in time for the Week 12 game against the Packers. With a hearing set for Monday on the grievance filed against the NFL’s failure to reinstate Peterson from the Commissioner-Exempt list and the labor deal requiring a ruling within five days, Peterson could be back no later than Saturday, November 22.
Of course, the NFL also could expedite its consideration of Peterson’s penalty under the personal conduct policy, welcoming him back from the Commissioner-Exempt list with a suspension without pay.
So if Peterson returns, he may not be back for very long.
Texans at Browns
1. Why is Ben Tate unhappy?
When he signed with the Browns as a free agent, Tate thought he’d become the team’s workhorse tailback. Instead, the Browns have used a revolving door, with Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West getting plenty of work.
Hurting Tate’s case for more carries is a 3.4-yard average.
He shouldn’t be that upset. Fewer reps will help keep tread on the tires, allowing the player’s career to last longer than it otherwise would. For a guy who realizes that the modern tailback position entails a market so lukewarm that it would have made more sense to play safety, the longer the player can stay in the NFL, the better.
2. What can we expect from Ryan Mallett?
No one knows, because he hardly has played in three-plus NFL seasons. Mallett has thrown four career passes, with one completion, one interception, and a passer rating of 5.2.
Known for having a strong arm, it’s unknown how he’ll read defenses in regular-season action. Whether he’ll stay calm in the pocket. Whether he’ll play better or worse throughout the course of four quarters of action.
The lack of knowledge about Mallett could allow for an artificially strong performance through his first few weeks. Then, once defenses have enough tape to figure out what he does well and how to take that away, things could change for the fourth-year pro who’s finally getting a chance to show the NFL what he can do.
3. When will Jordan Cameron return from his concussion?
Possibly, not at all this year. Which would be a huge problem for the Browns — and for Cameron. As he approaches free agency, an extended absence due to a head injury will do little to pry a significant amount of guaranteed money from a new team.
The good news for the Browns is that, with Cameron’s status uncertain, receiver Josh Gordon returns next week. The better news is that the Browns are 6-3 and sitting in first place in the division.
Seahawks at Chiefs
1. What has happened to Russell Wilson as a passer?
Wilson, whom many predicted would be even better in his third NFL season, has regressed in recent weeks. During the recent three-game winning streak against so-so foes like the Panthers, Raiders, and Giants, Wilson has one touchdown pass and three interceptions.
“I think my accuracy has been a little bit off for whatever reason,” Wilson said Thursday. “I keep believing in myself. I’m not going to doubt myself. I’ve played a lot of great football at times and I just believe every time I get the ball in my hands I’m going to make something happen.”
The problem could be the lack of weapons in the passing game. Golden Tate left via free agency and Percy Harvin abruptly was traded four weeks ago. While the Seahawks have been winning lately, the schedule gets a lot tougher, starting Sunday against the Chiefs and continuing with two games against the Cardinals, two games against the 49ers, and a trip to Philadelphia.
2. How has the Kansas City defense weathered the storm of injuries?
Pretty well. With linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive lineman Mike DeVito lost for the year in a Week One home thumping from the Titans (yes, the Titans), it was supposed to be a long year for the defense.
Since a close Week Two loss to the Broncos in Denver, the Chiefs have rolled to six wins in seven games. They have the top passing defense in the league and the No. 6 overall defense in yardage allowed — and No. 2 in points allowed.
So, yes, things have worked out well. While it’s easy to wonder how good the defense could have been with Johnson and DeVito, it’s better to think about how good the Chiefs eventually can be if they keep playing like they have in the team’s last seven games.
3. Will Tony Moeaki play in his return to Arrowhead?
Apparently, yes. With starting tight end Zach Miller (ankle) on injured reserve, the recently-signed Seahawk and former Chief is expected to be in the lineup on Sunday. Moeaki, who showed promise as a rookie in 2010 with 556 receiving yards and three touchdowns, was inactive in his first week with Seattle.
“Tony has to step up now and jump right in there,” Carroll said Wednesday. “We kept him out last week because we thought it was too soon. It’s still early, still really quick to put a guy in there and expect him to do everything but he is a veteran. He does understand it and he’s picked things up really well. He’s had a very good 10 days with us so far. We will see how far he can take it but we’re counting on him to play.”
Moeaki could be playing a lot. New starter Luke Willson (ankle) is questionable for the game against the Chiefs, and Cooper Helfet has a knee injury.
Bengals at Saints
1. Can Andy Dalton 2.0 rebound?
At this point no one knows. Primarily because no one can understand why Dalton played so poorly in prime time against the Browns.
Dalton was inaccurate throughout the evening, completing only 10 of 33 passes for 86 yards, with three interceptions. His passer rating was an abysmal 2.0.
And that was at home, where noise isn’t an issue. In New Orleans, it’ll be harder for Dalton to do everything that a quarterback does. Which doesn’t bode well for him or the Bengals, unless they’ve figured out what went wrong against Cleveland — and fixed it.
2. Why are the Bengals practicing in the cold?
Currently starting a three-game road trip, they play at New Orleans, at Houston, and at Tampa. Nevertheless, they were out in the elements on Thursday. The last four games of the season — Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Denver, at Pittsburgh — could each feature temperatures like the 23 degrees they endured on Thursday.
“I think one more time in it I think our guys will know what it’s about,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. “For the young guys it’s maybe different for them, but the veterans they know it, they know [the cold is] around the corner and it’s coming.”
3. Will Mark Ingram continue to carry the load for the Saints?
He’d surely like to, given that he’s in a contract year. But eventually Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas will return from injury, and Ingram will apparently see his touches reduced.
“It’s hot topic: philosophically when the backs are healthy, is he going to go back to rotating all three runners or keep giving Mark the ball? I get it,” coach Sean Payton said this week.
But that doesn’t mean the Saints will ignore what Ingram is accomplishing in a contract year.
“Obviously we pay close attention to what Mark is doing right now,” Payton said. “He’s doing real well. Shoot a year ago, there were a ton of people [asking] for his head, including a few of you here.”
Now, the folks who were asking for Ingram’s head are arguing that the Saints should keep him around.
49ers at Giants
1. Is Michael Crabtree upset about his role?
Coach Jim Harbaugh thinks Crabtree isn’t unhappy, but Crabtree’s comments in the aftermath of his critical 51-yard fourth-down catch against the Saints suggest he’s not thrilled.
“I’m a third-down receiver,” Crabtree said. “I mean, I’m like the third option. So I come in and I do my job.”
If Crabtree isn’t happy, it’s no surprise. He’s in a contract year, and he has a mere 424 receiving yards in nine games. Which projects to 753 yards for the season. Which is 47 yards less than what Hakeem Nicks
generated in his contract year.
2. How much will Aldon Smith play?
It’s unclear, given that he missed nine games to start the season. Last year, he missed seven week in rehab. When Smith returned, he participated in only 12 snaps.
Predictably, the 49ers won’t say what Smith will do, but it’s hard to imagine Smith playing extensively, especially based on what happened last year. The biggest difference is that Smith’s deal with the NFL allowed him to work out at the team facility, which means he’s likely in better shape now than he was after his missed nearly two months in 2013.
3. Can Eli duplicate Peyton’s 2014 success against 49ers?
Peyton Manning’s blowout win over the 49ers from October 19 arguably has given Eli clues on how to go about beating the 49ers.
“If you can run the ball decently and have good pass protection, that’s always helpful in being successful against any defense,” Eli said this week. “[The Broncos] protected well. They ran the ball decently. And they were able to hit big plays in the passing game because the protection was solid. . . . That’s always a pretty good blueprint to have. It’s just a matter of if you can execute it.”
Based on the differences between the Giants’ roster and the Broncos’ roster, it’s going to be difficult for Eli to execute it the way Peyton did.
Broncos at Rams
1. Why is Shaun Hill starting again for the Rams?
Who knows? Hill was “the guy” entering the season. And then, at halftime of the first game, he wasn’t “the guy” anymore. Then, Austin Davis was “the guy.” Up until the moment he wasn’t “the guy” anymore.
The broader question is who will “the guy” be in 2015? Sam Bradford has one year left on his contract, but it’s non-guaranteed and the Rams may not want to commit $12.985 million to a guy who has torn the same ACL twice.
2. Why did the Broncos take a look at Richie Incognito?
They’re not as happy as they would like to be with their interior offensive line play. While it’s not hurting their ability to contend, the Broncos realized the hard way in Super Bowl XLVIII the downside of not being able to protect Peyton Manning’s blind side, or his front side.
There’s a chance the visit from Incognito was aimed at simply getting the current players to step it up. If they don’t, Incognito could be a short-term option aimed at helping ensure the Broncos will contend for not just another Super Bowl berth, but a victory once they get there.
3. How good is the rest of the Denver offense?
Very good, in the assessment of Rams coach Jeff Fisher. In fact, the man who dealt with Manning and the Colts for more than a decade as head coach of the Tennessee Oilers/Titans believes Manning has never had a better group of weapons on offense.
“With all due respect to the Colts and that system, the system is completely different now,” Fisher said this week. “Everybody is moving around, as compared to Marvin [Harrison] playing one side and Reggie [Wayne] on the other. [Manning] just made those plays and would put his offense in the best position all the time because he knew exactly what you were doing defensively. This offense is completely different. They’ve done an outstanding job of putting outstanding players around him. I think this is the best of cast of playmakers that he’s ever had, and obviously the results are showing that.”
While the current quartet of pass-catchers is indeed excellent, with Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Wes Welker, Manning’s Colts had potential Hall of Famers in Harrison and Wayne. Indy also had tight ends Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard.
The biggest difference comes at running back. With the Colts, Manning started out with Marshall Faulk. The following year, Edgerrin James arrived as a rookie. Yes, the quality of the tailbacks tailed off later in Manning’s tenure. Still, Manning currently doesn’t have a stable of superstars in Denver.
Buccaneers at Washington
1. Is it time for Charles Sims‘ to shine?
Possibly. The Bucs love the rookie who was on injured reserve (with designation to return) after suffering a broken ankle. Last week, Sims picked up eight carries for 23 yards and two catches for 17 yards. But he lost a fumble, which could keep the Buccaneers from fully trusting him.
If his role increases, it would be gradual.
As long as the fumbling doesn’t persist.
2. Could Bucs punter Michael Koenen be on the outs?
On Thursday, the Bucs signed punter Jacob Schum to the practice squad. It has sparked speculation that veteran Michael Koenen may be in trouble.
“I wouldn’t look too much into it,” coach Lovie Smith said. “We wanted to take a look at somebody else. He’s a punter that we knew something about and we’re constantly rolling guys in.”
But the Bucs rolled in more than just Schum. He won a Gong Show tryout with Jacob Dombrowski, Tom Hornsey, Charley Hughlett, Chase Tenpenny, per a league source. So keep an eye on Koenen, who may be on the way out.
3. How will Washington use receiver Leonard Hankerson?
No one seems to know. Sunday’s game will be the first in which Hankerson is available this year, due to rehab from a torn ACL. And it’s unclear how he’ll be integrated into the offense.
It’s also unknown whether he’ll even play.
“We typically have dressed five receivers,” coach Jay Gruden said. “It could be four; it could be six. Right now it’s up in the air as far as who we’re going to dress for this game. . . . We haven’t decided. But Hank has looked very good since coming back to practice from his injury. Since we activated him, he’s running around good, making plays all over the place. So, it’s going to be a tough decision.”
Raiders at Chargers
1. How bad are the Raiders, historically?
Pretty bad. They’ve lost 15 in a row, dating back to last year. Finish the season 0-16, and they’ll have 22 straight losses.
If that happens, the question becomes whether they can win one of their first four in 2015. If not, they’ll match the 1976-77 Buccaneers for the longest losing streak in the NFL’s modern era at 26.
The Raiders finish with a trip to San Diego, a visit from the Chiefs on a short week, a trip to St. Louis, a trip
across up the Bay from the 49ers, a visit to the Chiefs, a visit from the Bills, and a game at Denver.
Only one of those teams currently has a record below .500. Which could mean that the Raiders are destined to become only the second team in league history to finish 0-16.
2. How bad is it for Antonio Smith?
Even worse than it is for the Raiders. Smith, who played for the Texans last year, brought a 14-game losing streak to Oakland. Add nine, and Smith is at 23 straight losses.
So if the Raiders lose the next seven, Smith with finish the year with 30 straight losses.
Factoring in his Week One suspension last year and the Texans’ collapse in December 2012, Smith has a record of 3-27 in his last 30 games.
3. Is Ryan Mathews ready to go?
He appears to be. Listed as probable after suffering a Week Two knee injury, Mathews will have a chance to prove to the Chargers and anyone else who may be interested in him that the 2010 first-round pick deserves the standard veteran tailback contract worth $3.5 million or so per year.
To do that, he’ll have to show that he’s able to leapfrog Donald Brown and Branden Oliver. Which, after nine weeks off, may not be easy to do.
Mathews also will need to stay healthy for the rest of the year. That’s something he hasn’t consistently done in his NFL career.
Lions at Cardinals
1. Does Calvin Johnson own the Cardinals?
The paperwork says “Bidwill,” but recent history says “Megatron.”
Last year, he caught six for 116 and two touchdowns. The year before, 12 for 110.
But the Cardinals ultimately have owned the Lions; Arizona won both games, despite Johnson’s performance.
2. Can Drew Stanton thrive at quarterback?
Why not? He threw the deep pass to John Brown that put the Cardinals ahead for good last week, and Stanton was 2-1 during Carson Palmer’s absence due to a dead nerve in his shoulder.
Coach Bruce Arians expects replacements to play like starters, regardless of position. It’s one of the qualities that makes Arians a great coach — and that makes the failure of any other NFL team to identify him as head-coaching material a lot earlier in his career even more baffling.
3. Can the Cardinals stifle Suh?
Few have been able to do it yet this year, and the Cardinals don’t exactly have a strong interior offensive line. Which will make it critical for Stanton to make quick decisions and get rid of the football, or roll to the left or right, away from any pressure coming up the middle.
Eagles at Packers
1. Does Clay Matthews like playing inside?
He says he does. His brother, Casey, says Clay doesn’t.
Either way, it’s not Clay’s call. The coaching staff moved him inside last week, and it worked. So it could happen against against the Eagles.
Whether Clay likes it or not.
2. Will the Packers try to take away the run?
The Panthers did on Monday night against the Eagles, and it didn’t work. Sure, LeSean McCoy gained only 19 yards on 12 carries. But the Panthers dared Mark Sanchez to beat them — and beat the Panthers he did.
For the Packers, who like Carolina have a subpar rush defense, it still makes sense to load up against McCoy. Unlike the Panthers, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers, who can outscore Sanchez if it becomes a shootout.
Also, shutting down the run keeps the Eagles from playing keepaway, using longer drives to keep Rodgers on the sideline.
3. Why’s Connor Barwin having such a big year?
With 10.5 sacks and 3.5 on Monday night, Barwin credits his teammates and coaches.
“It’s really a by-product of what we do on defense, because that gives me the opportunity to make plays,” Barwin said. “We really do have a team concept here, and the guys up front sacrifice so that guys like me can make plays. I couldn’t do what I do if they didn’t do what they do. So, it all has to work together, or it doesn’t work at all.”
It’s all working together, but there will be plenty of extra pressure on Sunday against the Packers.
Patriots at Colts
1. With both teams emerging from a bye, who has the edge?
Given two weeks to prepare, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is hard to beat. The extra time allows him to craft strategies that stifle and confuse the opposing offense.
“You’ve got to expect something unexpected,” quarterback Andrew Luck said this week regarding the Patriots.
The last time these two teams played, the extra time allowed the Pats to easily overcome the surge the Colts acquired via a comeback for the ages against the Chiefs. This time, the Colts had an extra week, too. Based on Belichick’s history, there’s a good chance it won’t matter.
2. What does Bill Belichick think of Reggie Wayne?
Belichick raved this week about the veteran Colts receiver, calling him “really one of the best route runners obviously in the game now maybe ever in the game.”
The respect is mutual, at least as it relates to the players Wayne primarily will be facing.
“This secondary here, in my 14 years playing New England, is probably the best complete secondary,” Wayne said this week. “I think it allows them to do more things up front with their front seven games, that they probably haven’t done in the past years. They’re talented. They’re ball-hungry. It gives them a little bit of where they can be risk-takers with blitzes and things of that nature.”
It also allows them to mix up coverages in a way that will confuse Wayne and his quarterback, Andrew Luck. Throw in the extra time to prepare, and the chances for confusion increase.
3. What does Bill Belichick think of Aaron Dobson?
Apparently, not much. The 2013 second-round pick continues to miss game after game, inactive in six of nine.
At one point, reports suggested that Dobson’s benching flowed from a squabble with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Belichick denied that, and Dobson promptly played in the next two games. In each of the three games after that, Dobson hasn’t played.
“What I’m going through or what I went through is all happening for a reason,” Dobson said this week. “It’s building my character stronger for another reason that I don’t really know what it is yet. I’m trying to think of everything happening for a reason and trying to stay positive with it.”
It’s all Dobson can do. The Patriots have him under contract through 2016. Unless they trade him or cut him, they can continue to pay him to not play. Which still remains better than neither playing nor getting paid.