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O-line must protect Manning

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 … Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants: ABC may have a hit on its hand with the new series "Lost," but the NFL has a one-week glitch in the schedule. Call it "The Lost Weekend.''

Thirteen winning teams play 13 losing teams, either promoting a weekend of great upsets or predictable outcomes. The only game in which two winning teams meet is at Giants Stadium where the Giants host the Falcons.

That game became even more interesting with Giants coach Tom Coughlin's decision to start rookie quarterback Eli Manning. The Falcons have a hard-to-overcome three-game lead in the NFC South and the confidence of watching quarterback Michael Vick grow each week as the leader of the team.

At 7-2, the Falcons should cruise down the stretch into the playoffs. The Giants, meanwhile, are in crisis mode, so the decision to go with Manning is an interesting one.

In many ways, Coughlin didn't have a choice. Since their impressive win over the Vikings three weeks ago, the Giants have lost two games in a row. The offensive line had allowed 24 sacks in four games, and the next five games feature the four best sacking defenses and the Redskins, who have the most aggressive blitzing scheme in the league.

With Kurt Warner continuing to hold onto the ball too long, Coughlin knew keeping him at quarterback was only going to heighten the sack numbers and further slow down the offense. The decision was only partly based on Warner's play, though. The sack problems are a team failure -- not a Warner failure. Left tackle Luke Petitgout is having a horrible season protecting the quarterback because of a sore back and a recent concussion. Overall, the team has allowed a league-high 40 sacks.

Another problem is that the receivers aren't getting open. Warner has had to hold onto the ball until Amani Toomer and others broke into the clear and that had become increasingly more difficult each week. Still, benching a veteran quarterback with Super Bowl experience in favor of a rookie is tricky and could backfire.

With Warner, the Giants are 5-4 and in the wild-card hunt. Even though he's fumbled way too much, Warner has thrown only four interceptions. Except for the fumbles, he's done a good job of protecting the ball.

Manning does bring a quick release and the smarts of the Manning family, which has yet to fail on any level of football. Archie Manning, his father, was a Hall-of-Fame caliber quarterback on horrible Saints teams. Peyton Manning is arguably the league's best quarterback and on the verge of breaking numerous passing and scoring records in his seventh season.

The Eli Manning Era begins at an interesting time. It comes during the toughest part of the Giants schedule. Four of the next five games are against winning teams. If Manning can survive this, he will become a rookie sensation.

If not, he may find himself high in the sack totals like his predecessor, Warner.

And 10. Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals: With Duce Staley sidelined because of a hamstring pull, the Steelers are riding The Bus to make Ben Roethlisberger's job easier. Jerome Bettis has filled in for Staley with back-to-back 100-yard games and figures to follow the game plan if Staley can't play. Like a year ago, the Bengals are getting their second wind in the second half of the season, but the question is how much their defense has improved since their 28-17 loss in Pittsburgh on Oct. 3? Stopping the run is their problem. They are the third-worst rushing defense, allowing 142.7 yards a game. Both teams are banged up with long injury lists, and at some point, you figure the Steelers will start to feel the effects of those injuries. In fact, this could be the game the Steelers could be tested at nose tackle. Chris Hoke has done a nice job filling in for Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is out of the season with a knee injury. Rudi Johnson is the Bengals' no-nonsense inside runner. He hits those inside holes quickly and with efficiency. Johnson is 10th in the league with 785 yards on 206 carries. Without Hampton, the Steelers defense has been playing with decent first-half leads and haven't had to worry a lot about the opponent's ground game. Because opposing offenses have been so far behind, they have been forced to pass. With a division rivalry on the line, this could figure to be a much closer game if the Bengals can do something to stop the run. Roethlisberger is trying to go 8-0 as a starter in his rookie season.

9. Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings: Last week in defeat, the Vikings proved their offense can do well without Randy Moss. Daunte Culpepper passed for 363 yards and four touchdowns against the Packers. In fact, the Vikings tied the score against two playoff-caliber teams on the road in the fourth quarter before eventually losing on late field goals at Indianapolis and Green Bay. Now, the Vikings return home to play a Lions team that has suddenly become anemic on offense. The Lions rank last in the league with an offense generating 249.6 yards a game. Joey Harrington is edging ever closer to being benched, and the fear factor has left the Lions offense now that Roy Williams continues to play with an ankle injury that restricts his big-play ability. For the Vikings, this game is critical. A year ago, coach Mike Tice took criticism for a second-half collapse because he lost too many games to teams with losing records. He can't afford to lose to a Lions team that is 4-5 and going south. Moss returns next week, and that will be a big boost to the offense. A win over the Lions would also be a big boost. The Lions are so banged up on defense, it's going to be hard for them to contain Culpepper in the air and when he runs out of the pocket. Since they shouldn't fall behind early as they did against the Colts and Packers, the Vikings can concentrate more on pounding the football on the ground with Michael Bennett and Onterrio Smith.

8. St. Louis Rams at Buffalo Bills: Since 1995 when the Rams moved to St. Louis, they are 4-9 in games played in temperatures below 50 degrees. Though it may not be freezing this weekend in Buffalo, wind has to be a concern for the Rams offense. In the past three home games, increasingly bad winds have restricted offenses playing in Buffalo. St. Louis coach Mike Martz is still cracking the whip by having the team practice in pads and having live hitting Wednesdays, but he still subscribes to a pass-first, run-second philosophy. The Rams passed 13 consecutive times to start the game against the Seahawks and that later opened up things on the ground. The Rams ended up with more than 200 yards rushing against the Seahawks. Of course, the Rams play in the climate-controlled Edward Jones Dome, so it may be tougher to establish the pass if they are throwing into the wind. The Bills have been able to take advantage of the wind conditions and win the past three home games, particularly with Willis McGahee doing a great job of bouncing off tacklers and establishing the running game. For quarterback Drew Bledsoe, this is a crisis week. His bad performance against the Patriots puts him in a position in which he could be benched this week and J.P. Losman could be given the job soon. The Rams defense was more aggressive against the Seahawks last week, forcing two turnovers. Though the unit hustles to the ball, it had forced just seven turnovers prior to Week 10. The Rams' defensive mission is to put pressure on Bledsoe and force him to make mistakes, but if their run defense -- which has been vulnerable all season -- struggles, they could be in trouble.


7. Green Bay Packers at Houston Texans (8:30 ET, ESPN): The Packers have won four in a row and are on a roll. Packers coach Mike Sherman can't call a bad play, and Brett Favre is in one of his best November throwing rolls. It also doesn't help the Texans that their defense played two of its worst games on the road against the Broncos and the Colts. Still, at home, the Texans have confidence, which could make this a tough game for the Packers. Texans cornerbacks have been affected by the rule adjustment that prohibits contact five yards past the line of scrimmage, and they tend to give up more big plays than expected. The defense also has to worry about the Packers' running offense now that Ahman Green has regained his confidence and is putting up big numbers. Green is even trying to run a little bit more with the ball in his right hand because he has been fumbling with his left. Quarterback David Carr of the Texans has started to drop his delivery a little more sidearm, so he may have to make a mechanical adjustment or two before this game. Houston's Dom Capers is a great coach at motivating and he may be able to use the Packers game as a rallying point. If not, the finish to the Texans' season could be tough.

6. Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles: Maybe the week could pass without Terrell Owens being involved in some kind of controversy. This might be the week because all eyes will be on the Redskins. Washington coach Joe Gibbs finally changed over to Patrick Ramsey at quarterback. Mark Brunell was so bad that it's been amazing to think Gibbs waited 10 weeks into the season to bench him. Brunell worked an offense that averaged only 14 points a game and his 49.8 completion percentage was embarrassing. Gibbs had enough last week when Brunell was even less accurate on short passes. Brunell was averaging only five yards a pass attempt. Clinton Portis might be averaging five yards an attempt were it not for the defenders playing closer to the line of scrimmage because they didn't fear Brunell's arm. Maybe the break will give Brunell a better chance at a later time this season, but Ramsey does bring a strong arm and a little energy to the offense. Eagles coach Andy Reid wasn't happy with the defense before their victory over the Cowboys on Monday night and he made a couple changes that worked. Sam Rayburn got more playing time at defensive tackle, taking some time away from Darwin Walker. Jeremiah Trotter moved back into his old spot at middle linebacker and his bigger body seemed to help in stopping the run.

5. Indianapolis Colts at Chicago Bears: The Bears are talking playoffs even though they are 4-5, but this could be a wakeup call. While the Bears defensive line is coming on strong, they face a quarterback who has been pretty much unstoppable this season. Peyton Manning has a quarterback rating of 122.7, has been sacked only six times and has thrown only six interceptions. The Bears defense lost its biggest playmaker last week when middle linebacker Brian Urlacher needed surgery for a deep contusion that had too much internal bleeding. He's out 4-6 weeks, and that should open the middle of the field for Manning to pick apart. This is a bad matchup for the Bears. The Colts offense has been the most consistent in football. Manning has produced 37 touchdown drives in 94 possessions. He has 31 touchdown passes and has been impossible to stop in the red zone. The Bears, meanwhile, are scoring more on defensive plays than offense. Craig Krenzel has done a good job of decision-making in his three wins since taking over for the ineffective Jonathan Quinn, but he isn't very accurate and doesn't have a very strong arm. If the Colts jump to an early lead, the Bears won't have much of a chance to catch up. The only way they can win is if they can make this a low-scoring game. That will be tough.

4. Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars: Things just get worse for the Titans. They lost left tackle Brad Hopkins and safety Tank Williams last week on a team already starving for healthy players. Though there is a good chance Steve McNair should return as the starting quarterback this week, the line blocking in front of him might make that dangerous. Chris Brown fumbled three times last week and is really struggling with his toe injury. Meanwhile, the Jaguars did a nice job of rallying against the Lions around backup quarterback David Garrard. He threw for two touchdowns, and even though his completion percentage was only slightly above 50 percent, he did a nice job of managing the offense. His arm is strong. He's hard to bring down at 244 pounds, and he's got great quickness for a big quarterback. The Jaguars stunned the Titans early in the season by beating them, 15-12, in Nashville. A loss to a Jaguars team operated by their backup quarterback would only further add to Tennessee's miserable season.

3. New York Jets at Cleveland Browns: Jets coach Herman Edwards took a lot of criticism this week for not getting in enough plays in the final minutes of regulation in what turned out to be an overtime loss to the Ravens. A loss to the Browns would send Jets fans into pure panic mode. These next three games are vital to the Jets. Their final four games are against teams with combined records of 26-10. Over the next three weeks, the Jets play three losing teams -- the Browns, Cardinals and Texans. Winning those three would keep the critics off them after fading from a 6-1 start with losses the past two weeks against the Bills and Ravens. Jets quarterback Quincy Carter did a nice job last week. He kept the running game moving, and completing his first eight passes against the Ravens in the first half was impressive. The trick play in which LaMont Jordan tried a halfback option that was intercepted killed momentum after opening a 14-0 lead, so the Jets may stay away from the trickery and concentrate on running the ball with Curtis Martin. It seems apparent major changes will occur in the Browns organization. Coach Butch Davis acknowledged that the organization is down eight or nine key executives and needs to bring in a bigger brain trust. Owner Randy Lerner wants to hire a general manager, which would take power away from Davis. A loss to the Jets would even further add to the rumors that Davis is in trouble as a head coach after the season.


2. San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders: The Chargers beat the Raiders three weeks ago 42-14 with halfback LaDainian Tomlinson only at 80 percent because of a groin injury. Tomlinson feels the rest from the bye week has allowed him to return to 100 percent. Suddenly, the Chargers offense is scaring people. Few have had answers for tight end Antonio Gates. Keenan McCardell has been a big addition, giving Drew Brees a possession receiving option. With Tomlinson healthy, the Chargers can play great games with defenses. Gates is so good he almost demands double coverage. But double covering Gates takes away that extra defender to help stop Tomlinson at the line of scrimmage. And here comes the Raiders, who aren't sure if they are a 3-4 or a 4-3. The Raiders are also coming off a bye, so it will be interesting to see what changes they make on defense. Will there be massive changes in starting personnel? Will the Raiders simply switch to a 4-3?

1. Denver Broncos at New Orleans Saints: The Broncos regained their swagger with the 31-13 victory over the Texans before the bye week. Jake Plummer had a four-touchdown game and most importantly didn't thrown any interceptions. He has 19 touchdown passes for the season. Reuben Droughns has rested his body and should be set for a 30-carry game against a defense that is allowing 149 yards a game on the ground. Still, this is a dangerous game for the Broncos. The Saints edged the Chiefs last week at home and could cause problems for the Broncos, who won't have Luther Elliss at defensive tackle and may or may not have strong safety and leader John Lynch. One worry for the Broncos could be the pass rush with defensive end Trevor Pryce out. Given time, Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks can pick a defense apart, and coach Mike Shanahan hasn't been pleased at some of the big pass plays allowed by the defense. This isn't going to be a Big Easy one for the Broncos.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.