Week’s biggest questions and predictions: Playoff implications abound

Taking a spin around the NFL to get you ready for Week 11:

The big questions

Can Dak slay the first-place Eagles without Zeke?

From the moment Dak Prescott began tasting success in this league, he has had his share of doubters who ask: Is he really that good, or is he being lifted up by one of the best offensive lines and running backs in the game?

Sunday night presents a perfect opportunity to silence the skeptics, as Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys host the 8-1 Philadelphia Eagles without the services of Ezekiel Elliott (suspension) and perhaps left tackle Tyron Smith (groin). Missing both players last week, Prescott was sacked eight times and Dallas was handled by the Atlanta Falcons 27-7. The loss dropped the Cowboys to 5-4 on the year.

One thing they do have going for them is that they’re 2-0 in the NFC East, and with two games remaining against Philly, they have a chance to single-handedly pull the division leaders back to the pack. It won’t be easy. Smith is a major question mark for Sunday. His replacements, Chaz Green and Byron Bell, yielded a combined six sacks last week. The news isn’t much better on defense, with standout linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) expected to miss multiple games.

Prescott’s counterpart, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, has been arguably the biggest breakout player of 2017. He leads the league with 23 touchdown passes and has been downright lethal in the red zone (15 TDs, 0 INT, 0 sacks).

This is the third installment of a budding rivalry. Prescott (18 wins) and Wentz (15 wins) have 33 combined career wins heading into their Week 11 matchup. That is the most combined wins by quarterbacks entering a meeting within their first two seasons in the Super Bowl era.

If Prescott can find a way to outduel Wentz and carry the Cowboys to victory Sunday, he’ll keep Dallas in the thick of the playoff race while showing that he is quite capable of shouldering the load.

Which playoff hopeful — the Seahawks or Falcons — will take the hit?

In a Week 11 slate filled with big games, Monday night’s matchup between the Seattle Seahawks (6-3) and Atlanta Falcons (5-4) is near the top of the heap.

The game will have a major impact on the NFC playoff race. Consider the following from ESPN’s Football Power Index: A win by the Falcons would put their playoff chances at 40 percent, while a loss in Seattle would drop the defending conference champions’ odds to 16 percent. Seattle, meanwhile, would soar to an 81 percent playoff probability with a victory, compared to about a 50-50 shot should it falter at home.

These teams met last season in the divisional playoffs, with the Falcons winning 36-20. Atlanta has been fighting a Super Bowl hangover this season, however, and has struggled to find the tonic in the absence of former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, now the head man in San Francisco.

This is the end of a rough stretch of games for the Falcons, who have played four of five on the road. The final stop is a daunting one. The Seahawks are an NFL-best 37-7 (.841 winning percentage) at home since the start of the 2012 season. Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll are 10-1 in home prime-time games. Since 2012, that’s tied for the most wins by a quarterback-head coach combo. But Seattle will be operating without cornerback Richard Sherman (Achilles) for the first time since January 2011.

Numbers that matter

270: Career wins for New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. He is tied with Tom Landry for the third-most wins by a head coach in NFL history. He’ll move ahead of the Cowboys legend with a victory over the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City this week. Belichick trails only Don Shula (347) and George Halas (324) on the all-time list.

2006: The last time the Green Bay Packers dropped three straight at home. They’ll have to take care of business against the Baltimore Ravens this week to avoid matching that rare Lambeau Field slide. This is a critical game for the Brett Hundley-led Packers. A loss moves their chances of making the playoffs down to 8 percent, according to FPI.

4-7-1: The Packers’ record without Aaron Rodgers since 2008. They are 94-47 when Rodgers starts.

98.5: The Jacksonville Jaguars‘ chances of making the postseason. They are favored to win all seven of their remaining games, including this week’s matchup against the woeful Cleveland Browns. Jacksonville’s overall point differential of plus-92 is the best in the AFC. Don’t sleep on the Jags.

11: The consecutive number of wins for the Seahawks on Monday Night Football, which is the second-longest streak in history behind the Raiders’ 14-game streak from 1975 to 1981. Talk about a trend.

What we’ll be talking about after Week 11

The Saints making history

The New Orleans Saints have won seven straight following an 0-2 start. According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the only team in NFL history to win eight straight immediately after a start of 0-2 or worse was the 1947 Bears. The Saints can match that feat with a home win against the Washington Redskins on Sunday. They are eight-point favorites.

An 8-2 start would be one of the best in franchise history. The Saints have made the playoffs each of the other three seasons in which they opened with a record of at least 8-2, including their Super Bowl season in 2009 when they won 10 straight out of the gate.

It’s not just the hot streak, but the way the Saints are finding success that makes them interesting. Quarterback Drew Brees, typically the team’s bellwether, has thrown for 2,398 yards in nine games, putting him on pace for 4,263, which would be his fewest in a season since 2005 when he was with the Chargers. And yet the Saints have the No. 2 offense in the NFL.

They’re getting it done on the ground. Led by Mark Ingram (672 yards, 7 TDs) and Alvin Kamara (6.5 yards per attempt, 4 TDs), New Orleans boasts the No. 3 rushing attack in football (142 yards per game). Couple that with a defense that ranks fifth in points allowed per game (18.3), and you have a reinvented Saints team that seems well equipped for late-season football.

The race for the NFC’s No. 1 seed

The four NFC division leaders all are at 7-2 or better (the Eagles are 8-1, while the Vikings, Saints and Rams are 7-2). According to Elias Sports Bureau research, this is only the second time that all four leaders had this high of a winning percentage in Week 10 or later since the NFL went to four divisions in each conference in 2002.

Two of the teams will square off this weekend when the Vikings host the Rams. It’s the first time that two teams with at least seven wins and no more than two losses will meet in the regular season since Week 12 in 2015, when the Patriots (10-0) lost to the Broncos (8-2) in an AFC Championship Game preview.

The Rams have been one of the real surprises of 2017. Credit goes to first-year head coach Sean McVay, quarterback Jared Goff (16 TDs, 4 INTs) and others for the turnaround. But it’s going to get tough for them from here out. They have played the second-easiest schedule in terms of opponent winning percentage (.398) to this point, and they have the second-toughest remaining schedule (.609 opponent winning percentage). With the 6-3 Seahawks right behind the Rams in the NFC West, there’s not a ton of room for error.

The Eagles have been out in front just about all season, but a loss in Dallas will quickly change the dynamic, especially with games at the Seahawks and Rams highlighting a challenging homestretch.

With the 4-5 Redskins on the docket, the Saints are the only NFC division leader not facing an opponent with a winning record this week. It’s shaping up to be one heck of a competitive finish for home field in the conference.

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