It may not feel like it, given the week-to-week pendulum swings and surprises that are commonplace in the NFL, but form is holding quite nicely so far in the 2014 regular season. Of the 12 playoff teams from last year, just two own losing records this season and have some ground to make up to climb back into the thick of things: Kansas City (2-3) in the AFC, and New Orleans (2-3) in the NFC.
Philadelphia, Green Bay, Carolina and Seattle all won their divisions last year in the NFC, and all are at least tied for first place this time around. In the AFC, the same goes for New England, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, with Denver sitting one-half game off the pace of 4-1 San Diego in the West.
It doesn’t feel like a status quo season as Week 6 arrives, but the standings say it has been for the most part. Dallas (4-1) has perhaps the only clear-cut turnaround season in the making, and we’ll find out just how legit the Cowboys are when they take on the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on Sunday. To varying degrees, Buffalo, Cleveland and the Giants have the chance to post statement wins as well in Week 6.
But so far, the familiar has reigned. Sometimes that’s the surprise in and of itself.
• Last week: 13-2; Season: 49-27 (.645).
• Best pick in Week 5: Dallas 23, Houston 20 (Actual score: Dallas 20, Houston 17).
• Worst pick in Week 5: Chicago 27, Carolina 20 (Actual score: Carolina 31-24).
Below are my Week 6 picks. And here’s my pick for Thursday night’s game between Indianapolis and Houston.
Karma has to favor the Bills, with local saviors Terry and Kim Pegula formally taking ownership of the team this week, after Buffalo’s stirring 17-point comeback and last-second win on Sunday at Detroit, the longtime home of former Bills owner Ralph Wilson. But New England had its own cathartic performance in that statement-game rout of the previously undefeated Bengals last Sunday night, and it could signal the beginning of New England returning to a semblance of the form that has allowed it to rule this division for so long. I hate to suggest this AFC East first-place showdown will be determined by anything quite so mundane as pass protection, but if the Patriots can adequately protect Tom Brady from Buffalo’s pass rush, New England will find a way to prevail for the 10th time in 11 seasons in Orchard Park.
I have to think after the Titans became the first home team in NFL history to lose a game in which they led by 25 points, having another game right away in front of the good folks of Nashville isn’t exactly what the club needed. The Titans could make use of one of those “Wanna get away for a while?" flights from Southwest Airlines based on their collapse last week against Cleveland. But losing to winless Jacksonville, the last-place team in the AFC South, would be even more galling. Prepare for a lower depth of hell, Tennessee, because the Jaguars and Blake Bortles are both due and desperate for a victory.
The Bucs should be wrapping up a three-game road trip on a nice little high, but they let one get away late in New Orleans last week, doing almost everything they wanted to do against Drew Brees and the Saints except for beating them. If nothing else, Tampa Bay "found" its quarterback, with Mike Glennon playing solid football in place of the injured Josh McCown. The Bucs haven’t won at home yet this season, while Baltimore’s road struggles continued last week in a loss at Indy. The Ravens have dropped seven out of 10 away from home from 2013 on, but the franchise did win a Super Bowl in Raymond James Stadium in January 2001, so at least a few remaining front office members have good memories of Tampa Bay. Baltimore will have to grind to get the win, but the Ravens have been pretty good at avoiding losing streaks in the John Harbaugh era.
Peyton Manning and the Broncos won big against the Giants at MetLife Stadium in Week 2 of last season, and they’ll win big against the punchless Jets at MetLife this Sunday. It’s that trip they took to East Rutherford in between that didn’t go quite so well. But by now, at least they’re very familiar with the trip and the surroundings, which is really helpful when it comes to small details like making sure your watch is set on the correct time zone. You wouldn’t want to miss a meeting or anything.
I’m starting to think Teddy Bridgewater has a decent amount of luck on his side. First he drifted down the draft board, avoiding the Jacksonvilles and Oaklands of the NFL world, and then when he got his shot in the starting lineup, he drew Atlanta at home, missed the trip to Lambeau Field with an injury, and is back in time to face the visiting Calvin Johnson-less Lions. Timing probably isn’t everything in the NFL, but it doesn’t hurt when it lines up in your favor. It took until Week 6, but in Matt Prater the Lions finally have a kicker who doesn’t consider 40 yards beyond his range.
If Cincinnati’s stated goal is to do to Carolina what the Patriots did to the Bengals, after New England got embarrassed on the road in a prime time game in K.C., well, then that’s not good news coming for the Panthers, now is it? Even though we were all trying to bestow it upon them, the Bengals seemed anything but ready to wear the mantle of the NFL elite in Foxboro, looking more like the club that has faded quickly in the playoff spotlight the past three Januarys. Cincinnati can’t afford to suffer any hangover effect against Cam Newton and Co., because with a trip to Indianapolis and the Bengals' home-field rematch against Baltimore looming in Weeks 7 and 8, this one needs to be safely tucked into the win column.
At 18-1 against Cleveland in his career, Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t lose to the Browns. But that’s assuming the Browns are the Browns and the Steelers are the Steelers, and you can’t really can’t make either one of those cases so far this season. Pittsburgh barely hung on to beat Cleveland 30-27 at Heinz Field in Week 1, so I’m flipping the script and giving the Browns the three-point edge at home this time. Cleveland’s four games have been decided by a total of eight points, and you can see more than a few similarities with the undersized Brian Sipe and the 1980 Kardiac Kids in the Browns offense Brian Hoyer is leading. Not everyone knows this, but Cleveland rookie head coach Mike Pettine actually had a full head of hair when this season started, but these close games have really done a number on him.
I almost forgot these two teams were still in the league. Miami hasn’t played in two weeks, and the Packers are coming off a mini-bye of sorts, having routed Minnesota at Lambeau two Thursdays ago. Both teams had momentum-building wins when they last suited up, but that tends to happen when you’re facing teams quarterbacked by Oakland rookie Derek Carr and former Minnesota third-stringer Christian Ponder. Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin knows all about the damage Aaron Rodgers can inflict from his days on the Green Bay coaching staff, but that knowledge may be useful or it may be meaningless when No. 12 has the ball in his hands leading a two-minute drive to win the game.
Burying the ball, Tony Sparano? Really? That’s the best motivational ploy you got? I know it’s been done by other coaches, some of them successful, but it’s going to take more than a little dirt-tossing to turn the Raiders around. They’re a major excavation project, and you’re going to need a permit for that. At least no one got hurt with the shovel, a’la coach Jack Del Rio’s unfortunate “Keep chopping wood’’ brainstorm in Jacksonville in his rookie season of 2003. That one cost the Jaguars their Pro Bowl punter, Chris Hanson, for the rest of the season when the ax slipped and gashed his non-kicking leg. Once upon a time the Chargers seemed to play down to the level of their opponent, but they didn’t seem to struggle with that issue in last week’s 31-0 lambasting of the woeful Jets. More of the same is on the way for San Diego, which is gearing up for a Week 8 trip to Denver.
Welcome to the Underwhelming Bowl. Both of these clubs inspired some early season buzz with 2-1 starts, but they’re a combined 0-4 since then, and the loser of this game is legitimately in danger of going into complete free-fall. We’re always talking about the passing-game talent the Bears and Falcons can throw at teams, but they’re not known for stringing together consistent performances and neither team ever seems to have the killer instinct to put away opponents. Both teams took leads into the fourth quarter last week on the road, but the Bears couldn’t bury the Panthers and the Falcons couldn’t finish off the Giants. The result was getting outscored by a combined 23-0 against Carolina and New York in the final quarter.
Credit the surprising Cowboys for winning the games they had a shot to win, and even humbling the struggling Saints when New Orleans was (or is) vulnerable. But it would represent a sizable step up in weight class to go into Seattle and hang with the Seahawks for four quarters. Dallas isn’t ready for that, but that’s okay. The Cowboys have their first two division games coming up at home against the Giants and Washington, and taking care of business in those are much more important to the trajectory of Dallas’s season than this week. The Seahawks, having survived in Washington on Monday night thanks to the ridiculous play-making talent of Russell Wilson, will make it 2-0 against the NFC East.
The only thing that really sticks with me from the Cardinals loss at Denver last week was that Arizona head coach Bruce Arians has been coaching for 37 years. The rest is kind of hazy. But no matter who plays quarterback this week for Arians’ team, there’s a return to winning form just ahead. Why? Because Washington has become losing central again. Since the start of last season, Dan Snyder’s star-crossed club is 4-17, the worst record in the league over that span, with Oakland next at 4-16. You don’t want to be lumped together with the Raiders for any reason. Ever.
Just win, baby, isn’t the mantra of Eagles fans. The Birds are 4-1 and tied for first place in the NFC East, but mostly the chatter is what’s wrong with LeSean McCoy, what’s wrong with Nick Foles, and where are the explosive plays Chip Kelly’s offense produced last season? There’s a lot of angst in Philly, and I hear it every time I turn on talk radio these days. Giants fans are considerably more satisfied at the moment, because after New York’s dismal 0-2 start, its current three-game winning streak feels like a revelation. The Eagles certainly aren’t clicking yet, but their running game will return to prominence at some point, and when it does, Kelly’s offense will put a lot of those questions to rest.
Monday, Oct. 13
I’m trying to figure out if the 49ers and Giants will both go into St. Louis this week and come out on top against the Rams and Cardinals, respectively, or if I like the hometown teams to sweep this little baseball-football doubleheader? The Rams have given the 49ers all they’ve wanted of late, but the St. Louis defense hasn’t been the force we thought it would be, and that spells another close-but-not-quite effort for Jeff Fisher’s club, which is about to play four of its next five games against its NFC West rivals. The 49ers defense, by comparison, is getting it done despite playing at considerably less than full strength. Unless the dormant St. Louis pass rush suddenly appears and swarms Colin Kaepernick all night long, San Francisco will head to Denver next week at 4-2 and on a nice little roll.