Week 5 got underway with a scene few could have seen coming a month ago: Matt Hasselbeck leading the Colts to victory in Houston as Andrew Luck watched from the sidelines. There has been no shortage of the unexpected through the season’s first four weeks, but as the small sample sizes begin to even out in October, the league’s elite teams are looking to separate from the pack as slow starters ratchet up their desperation levels with a quarter of the season in the books.
Welcome to The Playbook, where Chris Burke and Doug Farrar preview every game of Week 5 and offer their viewing recommendations for your Sunday and Monday, along with numbers to know, matchups to watch around the league and, most importantly, a Tecmo Bowl prediction.
Seahawks at Bengals (1 p.m., FOX)
How exactly do the Seahawks plan to protect Russell Wilson against the Bengals’ defensive front this week? Their apparent plan against the Lions last Monday—“Hey, Russ, you're on your own”—didn't quite cut it. Wilson used his legs and creativity to turn a couple of near-disasters into big plays, but Detroit still sacked Wilson six times while forcing a pair of fumbles.
The Bengals chalked up five sacks of their own in Week 4, all of Kansas City’s Alex Smith in a 36–21 win. It was the best 2015 performance to date for a talented defensive line.
The Cincinnati defense as a whole has more margin for error these days, thanks to an offense that has come out hot this season. The run game, led by Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill, is formidable yet again. It's the passing attack, though, that has generated significant play after significant play. QB Andy Dalton has fired nine touchdown passes to just one interception; his 15.2 yards per completion and 11.4 yards per attempt both lead the league by comfortable margins.
This matchup will be a test for him, as well. The much-maligned Dalton has looked like a new man through four weeks, playing with a moxie he hasn't often maintained during his career. Since getting Kam Chancellor back from his holdout, though, the Seahawks’ defense has allowed a combined three points in two games. (Detroit's defense also scored off one of those Wilson fumbles.)
A.J. Green vs. Richard Sherman would be must-see television, but the Seahawks actually used Cary Williams—with help over the top from Earl Thomas—to keep Calvin Johnson in check for much of last week's game.
Seattle will need another brilliant showing defensively if its offense cannot find any space. They again will be without Marshawn Lynch, who will miss his second straight game.
Because of the Bengals’ consistent playoff disappointments, skeptics remain in spite of their impressive 4–0 start. Giving Wilson fits and knocking off the Seahawks would quiet a few more. — CB
Rams at Packers (1 p.m., CBS)
The Packers are 4–0, they're in firm command of the NFC North, Aaron Rodgers is playing perhaps his best football ever (a scary thought for opponents), and their oft-maligned defense is holding up pretty well. Right now, outside of the Cardinals, there doesn’t seem to be an NFC team better set up for a Super Bowl berth.
The Rams are coming to town Sunday fresh off their 24–22 win at Arizona. Jeff Fisher’s team brought the Cards down from the ranks of the undefeated with a newly dynamic offense and a defense that presents all kinds of problems for opponents. Rookie running back Todd Gurley ran all over Arizona’s estimable defense in his first extended NFL action, rushing for 146 yards on 19 carries, mostly in the second half when Arizona knew exactly what was coming. Teams have run the ball just 95 times against the Pack this season—usually because they're playing catch-up against Rodgers—but Green Bay's defense is also allowing 4.8 yards per carry. Gurley will be a problem with his dynamic rushing style, because the Rams will give him the ball no matter what.
As for Rodgers, he's really hoping that star right tackle Bryan Bulaga can return from the knee injury that's kept him out since Week 1. Replacement Don Barclay has allowed three sacks and 22 total pressures in just 115 passing snaps, which is not a good place to be when Chris Long and Robert Quinn are coming to town. Of course, the real test for Green Bay's offensive line is in the interior, where Aaron Donald will be ready to wreck whatever he sees. The St. Louis defense is playing with confidence and will likely rock Rodgers off his spot more than once. The 49ers manhandled Green Bay's line last Sunday in an ugly 17–3 Packers win.
Of course, it's not like that matters. Moving Rodgers out of the pocket is asking for trouble, as he's arguably a better thrower on the move than he is in the pocket. It's one of several reasons he hasn't thrown an interception at home since Dec. 2, 2012. But Rams quarterback Nick Foles has played well at Lambeau Field, too: He threw three touchdowns and no picks in a 27–13 Eagles win in November 2013. The Packers will probably extend their winning streak (and Rodgers his interception-less streak), but it probably won't be easy. — DF
Redskins at Falcons (1 p.m., FOX)
You can say that the Falcons haven’t really played anyone yet, and that's entirely possible. But 4–0 is 4–0, and a team that won a grand total of 10 games in 2013 and 2014 will take wins however they can get them.
How they’ve gotten them so far is with a completely different team mindset under new head coach Dan Quinn, and a far more versatile offense under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Everyone from stars like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to projected bit players like running back Devonta Freeman and receiver Leonard Hankerson are finding new life in Shanahan’s offense, but there’s a bit of an old story here. Shanahan was also the Redskins’ offensive coordinator from 2010 through 2013 before the organization cleaned house. There’s no doubt that he’s in a better place, so it’s easy for Shanahan to focus on the here and now.
Washington would also like to focus on the here and now, with wins over the Rams and Eagles sandwiched in between losses to the Dolphins and Giants, and Kirk Cousins looked a bit more like the franchise quarterback that coach Jay Gruden desperately wants him to be against Philly, completing 31 passes in 46 attempts for 290 yards and a touchdown, and engineering a late drive to win the game. The problem for Gruden is more on the defensive side of the ball, as cornerback DeAngelo Hall is still out with a toe sprain and fellow cornerback Chris Culliver may miss this game with a knee injury. That depleted secondary will struggle mightily to deal with Jones, Freeman and Hankerson, and it’ll be even more important to put pressure on Ryan against a vastly improved offensive line.
The key to a Washington upset will be to pound the rock, and with new line coach Bill Callahan, the Redskins are doing that well. They lead the NFL with 139.5 yards per game on the ground and have an impressive battery of backs in Alfred Morris and Matt Jones. That keeps the time of possession in Gruden's favor—his team leads the league with 3:22 in game-clock time per drive—and the one sure way to keep Shanahan's offense from scoring is to keep it on the bench. — DF
Patriots at Cowboys (4:25 p.m., CBS)
Those responsible for voting on Hall members are wary of declaring anyone a sure thing—though Gronkowski’s quarterback Tom Brady would fall under that umbrella—but Witten must be darn close. A 10-time Pro Bowler (and counting), he should move into the top 10 all-time in receptions by the end of the 2015 season.
Gronkowski has work yet to do, but he is among the most dominant TEs the NFL has ever seen. His 58 career touchdowns place him just one behind Witten, in seven fewer seasons.
The offenses of the these two transcendent talents find themselves in very different places headed into Sunday. Gronkowski is en route to his second straight 1,000-yard season and is on pace for 21 touchdowns as a central piece in a top-ranked attack. Pay extra attention to him, and Brady will find Julian Edelman or Dion Lewis or any number of other options in a mix-and-match attack. To say the least, the Cowboys will have their hands full, especially because Brady can be so difficult to pressure.
Witten, meanwhile, is trying to hold Dallas’s offense together until reinforcements arrive. Despite being banged up himself, Witten leads his team in targets, receptions and yards receiving—all categories normally dominated by Dez Bryant.
But Bryant remains out of the lineup with the foot injury he suffered back in Week 1. Also missing again this Sunday will be Dallas QB Tony Romo, whose return from a broken collarbone cannot happen until Week 11 at the earliest. So, the ‘Boys are left with Witten, running back Joseph Randle, backup quarterback Brandon Weeden and anyone else who feels like stepping up.
It will have to be all hands on deck for Dallas to upset the unbeaten Patriots. Defensive end Greg Hardy does join the lineup after serving a four-game suspension, but he already stirred the pot this week with comments about Brady’s wife. We'll see if it comes back to haunt him.
To have any chance at disrupting the Brady-Gronkowski connection, the Cowboys will need a furious pass rush on defense. And they'll need Witten to make a few plays on offense, just like always. — CB
Saints at Eagles (1 p.m., FOX)
Does momentum mean anything week to week in the NFL? The Saints and Eagles will put it to the test Sunday—the former off a dramatic OT victory; the latter seven days removed from giving up a 90-yard game-winning touchdown drive in Washington. Neither team's offense has clicked into full gear yet this season, though C.J. Spiller’s presence pushes the Saints in that direction. DeMarco Murray’s return in Week 4 did not provide Philadelphia the same boost. Murray rushed for 30 yards on his first carry, then for six yards on seven carries the rest of the way. — CB
Bills at Titans (1 p.m., CBS)
The Bills might be great at times, but they’re also a very confusing bunch. With new quarterback Tyrod Taylor occasionally riddling enemy defenses with long passes and a stout defense, Rex Ryan's team looks like a playoff contender at times. But in their two blowout losses against the Patriots and Giants, they couldn’t get out of their own way, with boneheaded penalties, head-scratching incompletions or interceptions and defensive lapses. Rex Ryan has talked a lot about improved discipline, but it isn’t always showing on the field. The key to this game will be to pressure Marcus Mariota into making the wrong throw, though the Titans rookie has been pretty good under pressure so far, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Which Bills team will show up? It’s always a legitimate question. — DF
Cardinals at Lions (4:05 p.m., FOX)
Tyrann Mathieu said on a conference call this week, via the Detroit Free Press, that he has been “very, very, very surprised” by the Lions’ offensive struggles this season, noting how “out of sync” the operation looks. He and his Arizona teammates would love to keep Detroit off-kilter for at least one more Sunday. It could happen, too, if the Lions continue to insist on feeding their league-worst run game. The Cardinals’ opportunistic defense thrives when it can be aggressive, and Matthew Stafford has had all sorts of issues in obvious passing situations. — CB
Broncos at Raiders (4:25 p.m., CBS)
This is not Peyton Manning’s team anymore. The Broncos are 4–0, but at this point, Manning may as well sign the deed over to defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, because the defensive side of the ball is where Denver’s greatness now lies. Phillips has DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller rushing the passer as never before, and the cornerback trio of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby may be the NFL's best. Safety T.J. Ward was just named the AFC's defensive player of the week, and it's a very tall order for the Raiders and coach Jack Del Rio, who ran Denver's defense before Phillips took over this season. The key to an upset for the Raiders is to get the ground game going with Latavius Murray, which has not happened consistently this season. — DF
Steelers at Chargers (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
The Steelers sure have not been able to ease Mike Vick into the starting lineup. He was forced into action mid-game at St. Louis in Week 3, started with minimal practice reps the following Thursday and now draws a tough Chargers team on the road. Of course, San Diego surrendered 356 yards passing to Josh McCown last week, so Vick should have opportunities, especially if he is more vigilant about finding Antonio Brown.
San Diego is still waiting on a real breakthrough from its run game and rookie Melvin Gordon. This is as good a time as any. Pittsburgh's D has been steady, but Justin Forsett found 150 yards against it last week. — CB
Only for the masochists
Bears at Chiefs (1 p.m., FOX)
That these teams are tied with matching 1–3 records has to be far more disappointing for the Chiefs than the rebuilding Bears. Thought to be a contender in the AFC West, Kansas City now has dropped three straight (a brutal stretch of Denver, Green Bay and Cincinnati). Meanwhile, Jay Cutler played fairly well last week in his return from injury, completing 28 of 43 passes for 281 yards, two TDs and an INT. — CB
Browns at Ravens (1 p.m., CBS)
If you were betting that the Browns would look more formidable than the Ravens through a quarter of the 2015 season was over, you’d be cashing in now. Joe Flacco has been uneven at best, Steve Smith is dealing with a back injury, and Baltimore’s secondary has been picked apart by opposing offenses. Were it not for Pittsburgh’s bumbling special teams play last Thursday night, the Ravens would be 0–4 and looking ahead to the draft. The Browns are also 1–3, coming off close losses to the Raiders and Chargers, and they're looking for their identity on offense. Pass rush may decide this one, which tilts things in Cleveland’s favor. — DF
Jaguars at Buccaneers (1 p.m., CBS)
Is this a Hunger Games for head coaches? Could very well be. The Jaguars have lost 11 straight games on the road under Gus Bradley, and the Bucs have lost 11 straight games at home—they’ve never won at Raymond James Stadium through the Lovie Smith era. The coach that keeps his losing streak alive after this game will have a lot of explaining to do. Both teams are 1–3, and while both coaches have talked a lot about growth and development, neither team has provided results. Miami’s Joe Philbin was the first head coach fired this season, and it’s entirely possible that the league’s next vacancy could also have a Florida address. — DF
49ers at Giants (8:30 p.m., NBC)
The Giants’ defense has found some life over the past two weeks—it forced three turnovers in a win over Washington, then held the Bills to 313 yards and 10 points last Sunday. That's bad news for the 49ers’ offense ... er, “offense.” San Francisco averaged 176 yards and five points during back-to-back losses to Arizona and Green Bay. Jim Tomsula’s team is on the brink. — CB
• Perhaps it's the confidence they get from their woefully undermanned and underprepared offensive line in practice, but Seahawks defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are off to a torrid start this season. Avril and Bennett rank first and second among 4–3 ends in total pressures, Avril with 19 and Bennett with 18. And while Avril has been nearly unblockable off the left edge, Bennett continues his work as a uniquely versatile player. At 6'3" and 274 pounds, Bennett lines up everywhere from wide-9 to nose tackle and gets after the quarterback.
• Many things have led to the downfall of Andy Reid's offense in Kansas City, but pressure allowed from the line has to be right up there on the list of causes. Per Pro Football Focus, the Chiefs’ line is responsible for a league-high 14 sacks through four games, with 55 total pressures. Left guard Ben Grubbs is the primary culprit, with four sacks allowed in 284 snaps, including three against the Packers in Week 3. Grubbs allowed just one sack in 1,152 snaps last season for the Saints.
• Why did the Dolphins fire defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle? Lots of reasons, but Ndamukong Suh's disappointing numbers were certainly a part of that. In 2014, Suh led all 4-3 tackles with 57 pressures and tied for the lead with Buffalo's Kyle Wiliiams with eight sacks. In a new system where he's often assigned to soak up blockers as opposed to attacking a line, Suh has no sacks, one quarterback hit and nine hurries. Interim DC Lou Anarumo has said that he'll be proactive about putting his best players in the right places to succeed, and that'd be an ideal place to start.
• Is Vikings safety Harrison Smith developing his own island? It appears to be so, because opponents aren't targeting him much, and when they do, bad things tend to happen. Smith has been targeted four times this season, and he's allowed one catch for 11 yards, one pass defensed, and one interception. Last season, he was targeted 40 times, allowing 26 receptions for 332 yards, two touchdowns and five picks. Opponent passer rating then: 67.9. Opponent passer rating now: 0.0. — DF
Player with the most to prove
Kamar Aiken, WR, Ravens. Aiken went undrafted back in 2011 and did not make his first NFL catch until last year. Now, with Breshad Perriman out of commission indefinitely and Steve Smith also hurt, Aiken steps into the de facto No. 1 receiver role for the Ravens. Smith was targeted 47 times by Joe Flacco during Baltimore's first four games. At least a healthy chunk of those available looks will find their way toward Aiken, whether he's ready for them or not. — CB
Underrated player to watch
Gabe Jackson, LG, Oakland Raiders. A third-round pick out of Mississippi State in the 2014 draft, the 6'3", 336-pound Jackson has been a mauler for Oakland’s strong left side of the line ever since he came into the NFL. The Raiders felt that he could make an immediate impact, and he did just that, startingfrom his first NFL game. In 836 total snaps last year, Jackson gave up just one sack, two quarterback hits and 16 quarterback hurries. He's been even better this season, with no sacks, one hit and one hurry in 269 total snaps through four games.
He's the point man for Oakland's running game with his mauling blocking style, but don’t be fooled into thinking that he's just another plodder. Jackson also has surprising agility, especially when he's asked to move vertically. He is technically sound in pass protection and just about impossible to move at the point of attack. With all the talk these days about young offensive linemen struggling with the transition from college to the pros, it's important to take note of players like Jackson, who are definitely bucking that supposed trend. — DF
The Lions have lost six straight games to the Cardinals, their second-longest ongoing slump against another franchise, behind only the nine in a row they've dropped to San Francisco. Detroit's last win over Arizona came on Nov. 13, 2005, when Joey Harrington and Roy Williams connected on three TD passes. Arizona's leading receiver that day, one decade ago? Larry Fitzgerald. — CB
Burke: Eagles. Even in the lethargic NFC East, opening with four losses in five games could put the Eagles in too deep a hole. Plus, with games against the Giants, Panthers and what should be a healthier Cowboys team on the horizon, righting the ship will be awfully difficult if Philadelphia cannot do so this week, at home, against the 1–3 Saints. — CB
Farrar: Vikings. After their upset loss to the 49ers in Week 1, the Vikings notched wins against the Lions and Chargers, only to fall back to .500 after a heartbreaking loss to the Broncos last Sunday. Outside of the offensive line, Minnesota doesn’t have a huge weakness in any position group, and the Lions and Bears have fallen out of the NFC North race. Beating the Chiefs at home would help this team’s legitimate case as a playoff contender; another loss makes it an uphill battle.
Tecmo Super Bowl Upset of the Week
We’re simulating the entire 2015 season using updated rosters on the classic Tecmo Super Bowl video game. (Download the game at TecmoBowl.org.) Each week, The Playbook will spotlight the most surprising result:
Ready to buy Washington yet? With DeSean Jackson in the lineup (he’s questionable to play in real life), the passing game took off on the road—Kirk Cousins ripped off 118 more yards than the red-hot Matt Ryan. Washington’s defense also held Ryan to just a 50% completion rate, his worst of the season. — CB
GALLERY: 50 best shots from the first month of the NFL season