Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss whether or not the 1972 Dolphins will be popping champagne this weekend, if the Patriots are still favored to win the AFC East and which team is the hardest to read after a quarter of the season.
Which team is more likely to emerge from Week 5 undefeated: Bengals or Cardinals?
Chris Burke: Cincinnati Bengals. This is a pick based almost entirely on the schedule, though Carson Palmer's lingering shoulder problem does not help the Cardinals' case, regardless of how steady Drew Stanton has been.
While each team come off its bye with a road game, the Bengals have the luxury of facing the in-flux Patriots (I discuss them more below), who have a short week of preparation thanks to the Week 4 Monday night game. The Cardinals have to visit Denver, where odds are that Peyton Manning can find a way to score enough to put some pressure on Stanton. In Stanton's first two starts this year, Arizona allowed a total of 28 points.
Matchup-wise, Cincinnati is in better shape this week.
Doug Farrar: Cincinnati Bengals. Nothing against the Cardinals, who have played surprisingly well through a number of injuries, including Carson Palmer's shoulder nerve issues. But when you're playing in Denver, odds are your quarterback will have to win a shootout with Peyton Manning, and Drew Stanton doesn't appear to be able to do that.
Meanwhile, the Bengals travel to play the Patriots on Sunday night, and New England really isn't set up to deal with Cincinnati's stressors on opponents. Cincinnati's offensive line doesn't really allow pressure at all, and New England isn't bringing it consistently. Their coverage concepts don't match up well against the Bengals' cadre of receivers (cornerback Logan Ryan has really fallen off this year) and the Bengals' defense excels at coverage and situational blitzing -- exactly the kinds of things that New England's receivers and offensive line find hard to manage.
Are the Patriots still the favorites to win the AFC East?
Burke: Yes. This is a flawed team in a flawed division, but the Patriots also still have enough talent, at least on paper, to traverse through the muck.
Obviously, a defense that was bolstered this offseason by the signing of Darrelle Revis expects more than to allow 400-plus yards and 34 points, as it did Monday at Kansas City (the Chiefs scored another seven on a Tom Brady interception). It is Brady and that offense, though, (specifically Brady and his offensive line) that holds the key to getting this thing headed in the right direction. The 37-year-old quarterback has found himself facing constant pressure behind a struggling front -- he appeared downright shaken against the Chiefs. Should those issues persist, the Patriots will be fortunate to get to 8-8.
Still, where is the obvious threat from within the East? The Bills just switched to Kyle Orton at quarterback, the Jets have lost three straight and there was some belief that the Dolphins might make a coaching change had they lost in Week 4.
The division is up for grabs. Until someone actually wrestles it from the Patriots' grasp, however, it remains theirs to lose.
Farrar: Not if Kyle Orton plays at a league-average level. It may have finally happened -- Bill Belichick and his front office have deprived Brady of legitimate weapons for enough time that Brady is finally feeling it. It seemed that the future Hall-of-Famer could make things happen no matter the talent drain around him, but this season, the offensive struggles seem like the Saints squared, and the defense hasn't been consistent, either.
Meanwhile, the Bills have been playing very respectably despite EJ Manuel, who may have been the league's worst overall position player through the first four weeks of the season. Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone made the call to start Orton in Week 5, and while nobody expects Orton to light it up over time, I think we're about to find out how much Manuel was holding back the Bills' offensive talent.
The Bills have the best defensive line in the division, veteran cornerback Corey Graham has been a revelation in his first season in Buffalo and that receiver corps from Sammy Watkins on down deserve a lot better than what they've had. Not to mention that the Dolphins -- while flawed at a few crucial positions (i.e., quarterback) -- look vastly improved overall, which makes an AFC West that appears to have legitimate contenders outside of Foxboro for the first time in eons.
Which team is the hardest to read four weeks into season?
Burke: Chicago Bears. Had the Bears found a way to pull off an overtime win over Buffalo in Week 1, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. That sloppy game could have been chalked up to season-opening jitters, and in turn Sunday's 21-point loss to Green Bay would look like a mere disappointing performance -- albeit a costly one against a division rival.
Instead, Chicago is 2-2 with one brilliant half in San Francisco, a solid 60 minutes against the Jets and 10 or so quarters of highly confusing inconsistency.
The Bears have dealt with injuries on both sides of the football, to key players like Charles Tillman and Brandon Marshall (though Marshall has played on). Their defense, ranked 30th last season, was expected to be a bit of a roller coaster again; the offense has slipped to No. 18 in points scored, though, falling shy of 300 total yards twice already.
"We've shown signs, both running and throwing the ball, of being able to do it very effectively," head coach Marc Trestman said this week. "We haven't finished enough drives to be able to score enough points to win games that we haven't been able to win."
Is this team a contender? An average 8-8 squad? So far, the answer is the latter, but Chicago has shown the promise of more.
Farrar: New Orleans Saints. Last season, the Saints put up an 11-5 record with a typically excellent offense and a defense that improved greatly under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. This season, the defense has fallen off severely, dropping from fourth to 27th in points allowed and from fourth to 29th in yards allowed. That's fairly typical of a Ryan defense -- his schemes aren't sustainable without specific personnel -- but it's the struggles of the Saints offense that seem so confusing.
The Saints are 1-3 heading into this weekend, and in last Sunday night's loss to the Cowboys, Drew Brees' receivers were unable to separate from coverage. That's been an issue all season, and it comes down to one issue -- for the first time in the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era, there isn't a satellite back to put stress on that third linebacker or slot corner, and opposing defenses are able to play the Saints straight. Trading Darren Sproles to the Eagles was a mistake -- both because Sproles still has a lot in the tank, and because the Saints didn't have a reasonable replacement. The supposed idea was to take rookie receiver Brandin Cooks and make him that guy, but it hasn't happened.
Will Payton and Brees turn this around? It's difficult to imagine this offense struggling all season as long as Payton is designing the plays and Brees is under center, but so far, this team is about as confusing as any I've seen this year.