It feels like a bit of a strange season brewing so far in the NFL. We still have six undefeated teams a month into the season, which is a lot. That’s four more than made it through Week 4 unbeaten last year, when Cincinnati and Arizona (both 3–0) were the final two undefeateds.
But it’s a haves and have-not league as Week 5 arrives. Though there are six perfect records, there were only eight teams with winning records entering Week 5, just 25% of the league. That’s a lot of losing being done by somebody. The other 75% of the teams were at .500 or worse, with 13 losing clubs and 11 that broke even at 2–2.
More quirkiness? Just two divisions feature multiple winning teams: The AFC East, with New England (3–0) and the Jets (3–1), and the once-lowly NFC South, with Carolina and Atlanta both sitting pretty at 4–0. By comparison, two divisions had zero winning teams through four weeks, the NFC East and AFC South, although with the Colts’ win Thursday night at Houston, they are now north of .500 at 3–2. The remaining four divisions have just one winner each.
Both ends of the spectrum will likely move toward the middle in the weeks ahead, and that could start now. There are some challenging games for several of the unbeatens this week. The Bengals stay home to be tested by Seattle, a winner of two in a row. The Packers receive a visit from the dangerous but up-and-down Rams. And the Broncos and Patriots take to the road, heading to Oakland and Dallas, respectively, to try and ward off the upset and keep their records unblemished.
The next chapter in the NFL’s 2015 story is about to unfold as we pass the quarter pole. Now on to this week’s picks:
• Last week: 10–5; Season: 39–24 (.619).
• Best pick in Week 4: New Orleans 28, Dallas 24 (actual score: Saints 26–20).
• Worst pick in Week 4: Buffalo 30, N.Y. Giants 21 (actual score: Giants 24–10).
Have to believe this is a fairly big game in the Shanahan family, with Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in position to dole out a little revenge on the Washington organization that once employed—and fired—both him and his dad, Mike. The undefeated Falcons and Devonta Freeman probably won’t be able to run against Washington’s improved defense as easily as they did against Dallas and Houston the past two weeks, but Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are going to do their share of damage against that secondary, and that will be enough to keep the good times rolling for the turnaround team of the year in the NFL. So don’t go rocking the boat, Roddy White.
The Ravens still have plenty of issues to figure out this season—like do they have enough healthy pass-catchers to run a four-receiver set?—but they didn’t scratch and claw their way to that season-saving win at Pittsburgh last Thursday night just to undo its benefits by losing at home to the Browns, the team they momentarily share last place with. Cleveland put up a fight at San Diego, and they will again in Baltimore. But the Ravens will hang another L on Mike Pettine’s coaching record, his ninth in 10 games after last season’s hopeful 7–4 start.
Including neutral site games (you know the one, Seahawks fans), Seattle hasn’t tasted success anywhere but CenturyLink Field since Week 16 of last season, with a win at Arizona just before Christmas. And a trip to Cincinnati isn’t the easiest recipe for ending that trend. The Seahawks defense poses by far the toughest test for the Bengals’ well-balanced offense, but it’s that Seattle offensive line that makes it difficult to predict an upset. Teams with sub-par offensive lines never win big, because no matter how many weapons there are on offense, it’s hard to look good for long when there are problems up front. This isn’t a primetime game for Cincinnati, but knocking off the two-time defending NFC champions would still register as a signature win for Andy Dalton & Co.
After his “Hello, NFL” fourth quarter in Arizona, I’m looking forward to the next chapter of Todd Gurley’s introductory tour. We know the Rams play up to the pedigree of their opponent, so that spells seeing St. Louis’s best at Lambeau Field. But even if Janoris Jenkins channels his inner David Tyree again, I can’t see the Rams scoring enough to match points with the NFC’s best offense. The Packers are headed for their first 5–0 start since their 15–1 team of 2011.
Andy Reid and John Fox once coached teams that met in the 2003 NFC Championship game—Carolina over Philadelphia—and they’ve also had plenty of battles in the AFC West the past two seasons, when Reid’s Chiefs were chasing Fox’s division-winning Broncos. But now they’re just a pair of 1–3 coaches trying to stave off irrelevancy in 2015. Reid’s club will finally get the best of Fox’s club, but the stakes are a heck of a lot lower than most of their past meetings.
Drew Brees was herculean in the Saints' win over Dallas, playing through his shoulder injury and keeping his team's season alive with an overtime win. But we should not expect him to carry the entire offensive load for New Orleans each and every week. Can it be that less than two years ago these teams met in the playoffs in Philly, with the Saints prevailing? The postseason seems so far out of reach for both of these puzzling teams right about now. For being offensive geniuses, Sean Payton and Chip Kelly have known their share of humblings in 2014–15. The Saints are about to endure one more, as the Eagles finally show a little life at home after not winning at The Linc since before Thanksgiving last season.
Having beaten the Dolphins at home in Week 2, the Jaguars can wrap up the mythical State of Florida NFL championship with a road win at Tampa Bay. But honesty compels us to again point out that the state of Florida has been in a state of disrepair in the NFL for at least the past seven or eight years. The Bucs and Jaguars both last made the playoffs in 2007, then dropped off the map. That isn’t changing again this year, but so far the Jaguars have more reasons to feel good about second-year Florida-schooled franchise quarterback Blake Bortles than the Bucs do about rookie Florida-schooled franchise quarterback Jameis Winston. Jacksonville ends its three-game road trip with a much-needed win.
After an exciting and eventful first three weeks of his rookie season, Titans QB Marcus Mariota got a chance to catch his breath during Tennessee’s bye week. Now comes a grueling 13-game season-ending stretch, or roughly the equivalent of playing an entire college football season without any byes. The Bills defense isn’t any picnic to start with and Rex Ryan’s guys are going to throw everything they have at Mariota in an effort to rattle him. He won’t flinch, but that doesn’t mean the Titans have enough weapons to keep the Bills back on their heels all day. Buffalo rebounds after its penalty-strewn loss at home to the Giants in Week 4.
The Lions handled the late-game events of Monday night in Seattle with unusual grace and perspective. By the book, they were the victims of a bad call that probably decided the game. But they also know that by fumbling a foot away from the goal line, Calvin Johnson put himself in the position of needing the officials to do their jobs, and that’s not always going to work out so well. In losing at home to the Rams last week, the Cardinals found out that the NFC West isn’t going to be a two-team race this season, with just them and Seattle duking it out. Arizona is too good to let a losing streak materialize this early in the season. Carson Palmer against that Lions secondary should be a mismatch.
This is not the centerpiece game we thought we were getting. Even when it was maybe no Tom Brady, we thought we’d have Tony Romo. Now that there’s no Romo, we get Brady versus Brandon Weeden. And I’m not picking on Weeden when I say that. It’s just that the D in Dallas is starting to stand for decimated, and the Cowboys can’t be expected to hang with the defending Super Bowl champions in their current condition. When you add in that Dallas doesn’t have much of a homefield advantage in their seven-year-old stadium, this should be another points-palooza for the high-scoring Patriots.
Had the Raiders taken care of business last week in Chicago against the winless Bears, I would have been tempted into thinking they were perhaps ready to slay the giant of the AFC West at home this week. But Oakland found a way to lose, and that’s a sign of a team that isn’t ready to take a significant step up in weight class. This is Jack Del Rio’s first chance to coach against the Broncos since he departed Denver after his stint there as defensive coordinator. Not that his experience there will decide this one. Denver’s defense will make the difference, and Denver’s offense will again do just enough to get the victory and stay perfect.
I predicted in the preseason that the 49ers would start the season 0–8, and when they won their opener against Minnesota, I apologized for my lack of faith to those who reminded me of my transgression. But one of these weeks, if the situation keeps going south in San Francisco, I expect to hear back from a 49ers fan or two with their own mea culpas to offer. It’s looking bleak for Jim Tomsula’s club, and they’re not going to talk their way out of Colin Kaepernick’s troubles. It has to happen on the field, where he has shown very few signs of progress. New York is suddenly the trendy pick to take command in the NFC East, and not without reason, as they'll be at 3–2 after beating San Francisco this week. But the Giants seldom make it easy on themselves, so just keep that in mind when first place is attained by the Men of Coughlin late Sunday night.
The Chargers are 2–0 at home and they have to keep winning at Qualcomm if this season is to meet expectations. Other than a Week 13 home game against division leading Denver, this should be San Diego’s toughest test of its home schedule. And to face the Steelers when Michael Vick is subbing for the injured Ben Roethlisberger means it has to go into the win column for the Chargers all the more. Some people are saying Pittsburgh kept Vick under wraps too much against Baltimore and need to let him do more in the offense. Not me. I’d make sure Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams and Antonio Brown had about 80% of Pittsburgh’s touches and take my chances with that plan. The more Vick plays, the more his flaws show up.
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