My weekly look at key matchups and storylines to watch in one game at each time slot. (All times Eastern).
Sunday, 1 p.m.Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens
Who would have thought before the season that the battle for first place in the AFC North would be taking place without the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5? It's still early, of course, but whoever wins this matchup will be in sole possession of first place in this black and blue division.
Most prognosticators expected to see the Ravens in this situation, though they appear to be much improved on offense from last season. But the Bengals? These Cardiac Cats have had each game go down to the wire, winning all but the Brandon Stokley miracle catch play in the opener against Denver.
The matchup I will be watching in this one as I call this game for the SportsUSA Radio Network is the Bengals pass protection unit, which includes the backs and tight ends. There are rumblings that this Baltimore defense is not nearly as intimidating under new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison as it was under Rex Ryan. In last week's game against the Patriots, the Ravens sacks came purely as a result of defensive end Trevor Pryce and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs winning their one on one matchups as opposed to anything exotic the Ravens threw at New England schematically. In fact, when the Ravens did blitz it was generally ineffective, and several of their pressure packages actually led to big plays for the Patriots.
It will be interesting to see whether Mattison dials up some more Rex Ryan specials against a young offensive line that has only one starter back in his position from a year ago -- right guard Bobbie Williams. Cincy's new line has been solid thus far, especially on the ground, helping reclamation project running back Cedric Benson average 4.4 yards a carry. Benson's numbers will likely dip against a Ravens defense that hasn't had a back rush for over 100 yards against it in 39 straight games. That means the Bengals will have to find a way to keep Carson Palmer clean so he can throw against a secondary that has been surprisingly susceptible.
Sunday, 4:05 p.m.Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers
These teams are beginning to mirror their head coaches, which should bode well in their in their pursuit of division titles and playoff wins.
The Falcons have had a difficult time getting running back Michael Turner going this season and spent most of the bye week working on their fundamentals in the running game. Problem is, the Niners have one of the most physical front sevens in all of football.
"I really think this is going to be our toughest challenge to date," right tackle Tyson Clabo told me recently on Sirius NFL Radio, which is saying something considering the Falcons faced New England in their previous game. "You put on the tape and every one of their guys is exactly where they are supposed to be, doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. And they're strong up front. Really strong."
Sunday, 8:20 p.m.Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans
The Titans can't possibly be this bad, right? I mean, this is pretty much the same team that went 10-0 on its way to 13-3 a year ago. Well, it is primarily the same cast of characters as a year ago with the rather large literal and figurative exception of Albert Haynesworth, who only happened to be their best player the last two years. No big deal.
Even though the Dolphins lost to the Colts in Week 2, the recipe for potentially beating Indy was on display. Pound, pound, pound the rock and then pound some more in an effort to keep the football away from the seemingly flawless one, Peyton Manning. That may be the Titans only hope in this contest given that they made Jaguars quarterback David Garrard look like a future Hall of Famer last week. This week they're actually playing against a future Hall of Famer.
Monday, 8:30 p.m.New York Jets at Miami Dolphins
This is a dangerous spot for the Jets because they are going against a team that is bludgeoning opponents to the tune of over 180 yards per game on the ground. Maybe more impressive is that both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams are averaging at least five yards a carry. That is virtually unheard of in the NFL and a testament to the push the Dolphins are getting up front from their young offensive line. The Jets, for their part, have not been nearly as stout against the run as one would expect from a Rex Ryan defense; they're giving up over 100 rushing yards a game and rank 13th in the league in that category.
Ryan is no dummy; he won't allow Brown and Williams to beat him. That means a lot of eight-man fronts designed to stop the run and force Chad Henne to beat them in only his second NFL start. Henne has a capable arm to make those plays but his wide receivers are average and he showed a propensity to take sacks a week ago, not a good sign when going against the Mad Scientist and his extremely unique blitz schemes. Henne will see multiple pressure combinations that he has never seen before, and how he reacts to those should be the difference in this one.
Mail time ...
Two things: 1. In searching for a nickname for Joe Flacco, how about Unflappable? 2. Why not two bye weeks during the season -- one in each half and reducing the preseason to three games?--Gus, Fort Worth, Texas
I like "Unflappable Flacco" -- let's see if that sticks. May be too many syllables but we can give it a shot. How about just "UnFlaccable" as coined by my co-host on Sirius NFL Radio Bryan McGovern. Or maybe just "J Smooth"?
As for the two bye weeks and three preseason games, you are preaching to the choir. I have been pushing for that with a 17th game for each team being played on a neutral site, either domestically or internationally.
Ross, love your perspective. I have a simple question. When a speed back takes his time to let the O-line create a hole, they are called "patient." When a big back like Brandon Jacobs takes his time, he is called "timid." Isn't that inconsistent?--David, Brookfield, Conn.
That's a great question. It seems to me that whether the runner is described as being "timid" or "patient" is more a function of how the rest of the play turns out. In other words, if the back runs for a solid gain, he will be praised for his patience. If he gets tackled in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage, then he is running timid. In other words, I think it has more to do with the results or the production than whether the runner is a big back or speed back.
Ross, you have some familiarity with the team, so what the heck is wrong with the Cleveland organization? They keep blowing up the team every three to five years and they start from scratch. I do not claim to have any football management or coaching expertise, but that cannot be a good way to run an organization and it must be horrible for locker room morale. Your thoughts?--Jim, Stokesdale, N.C.
I don't really have a great deal of familiarity, having only been a member of the team for about a month in 2006, but it seems to me that the blame needs to start at the top with owner Randy Lerner. It just seems like he can't get it right when it comes to the important hires of general manager and head coach, and if you consistently swing and miss with those two, you are going nowhere fast. So, as a result, they are stuck in a three-year cycle of change that certainly doesn't appear to be heading in the right direction under Eric Mangini.