We've reached the point of the NFL season that can make or break a team's year. Week 6 kicked off in the least expected manner, with the Saints handing the Falcons their first loss of the year and keeping their season from going up in flames. But will other teams follow suit?
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.
New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts (8:30 p.m., NBC)
Declaring that the Patriots will be extra motivated for Sunday night's post-Deflategate showdown in Indianapolis implies that New England adjust their effort level based on their opponent.
That is false.
Bill Belichick is a master week-to-week game planner and Tom Brady is as motivated a quarterback as this league has seen. Does New England still turn in a clunker from time to time? Lose a game here or there? Of course. Performance naturally fluctuates over a 16-game schedule, no matter how clear a team's focus remains.
So, the Colts do not need to worry that their rivals have been holding something back. They need to worry because the Patriots have dominated them physically the last few times these teams have met, including twice last season—a 42–20, Jonas Gray-led whitewash in the regular season and a 45–7 thumping in the AFC championship. In both of those games the Patriots ran the ball down Indianapolis's throat. Ball PSI levels aside, the January playoff meeting was all but over early in the third quarter. New England won going away, ripping off 31 unanswered points after the Colts scored their lone touchdown.
While New England may produce fewer yards rushing this season than it did in 2014, its rushing attack is arguably more lethal overall thanks to the presence of Dion Lewis. The former Brown and Eagle leads the Patriots with 180 yards rushing. He's been even more of a find through the air, adding 238 yards on 23 receptions. If New England chooses to go ground-and-pound in Indianapolis again, bruiser LeGarrette Blount is on call.
The Patriots lost durable starting left tackle Nate Solder to a season-ending injury this week. Sunday will mark just his second missed game since being drafted in 2011. Of course, an even more problematic injury issue looms for the Colts—that of QB Andrew Luck, who has missed the past two games with a sore shoulder. Early signs point toward Luck playing. Should he not, veteran Matt Hasselbeck would get the nod again, 10 days after fighting off an illness to push Indianapolis past Houston.
With Brady and co. opposing them, though, the Colts probably need Luck in the lineup to have a shot. Even that may not be enough if the Patriots pummel the Indianapolis defense as they did twice in 2014. —CB
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks (4:05 p.m., FOX)
The 2–3 Seahawks are dealing with problems on both sides of the ball, and in no way do they look like the team that represented the NFC in each of the last two Super Bowls. Players and coaches will remind you, though, after starting 3–3 last season, this team lost just one game before Super Bowl XLIX's thrilling (and for Seattle, agonizing) conclusion. That run last season started with a Week 8 trip to the Panthers' home stadium and a 13–9 win, so you'll forgive Ron Rivera's team if they aren't taking these Seahawks lightly, especially since this Sunday's game is at CenturyLink Field, where visitors still struggle to win.
The road has been the problematic place for Pete Carroll's team—they've held fourth-quarter leads in each of their first three road games of the season, and lost them all. But Carroll and the players take comfort in the thought that they're a few plays away from turning this around, as they frequently hear. But it's hard to hold up that hope after last Sunday's loss to the Bengals, in which Seattle held a 24–7 fourth-quarter lead before blowing up in every possible category and allowing a 27–24 Bengals victory.
The offensive line is still a major issue, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell still can't seem to find ways to get the ball to Jimmy Graham. But it's been Seattle's defensive lapses that have people confused. A loss to the undefeated Panthers takes the 3–3 narrative out of the way and may end Seattle's run as a postseason hopeful.
Those 4–0 Panthers are proud of their record, and they're a bit tired of hearing that they haven't played anyone significant yet. The team is winning despite the lack of depth at the receiver corps, no consistent pass rush with defensive end Charles Johnson hurt and a seriously over-performing offensive line. They're getting it done with Cam Newton's running ability and improved field vision, and a secondary that's very smart and opportunistic. They get linebacker Luke Kuechly back after a three-week hold in the NFL's concussion protocol, and they're the team with the momentum right now. A win in the Emerald city would go a long way to shutting their doubters down. —DF
Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
The outside world may still need a bit of convincing, but there is an absolute belief within the Browns' locker room right now that they can win games—perhaps a bunch of them—with Josh McCown at quarterback. Look no further than Cleveland's game plan in Baltimore last Sunday.
“The plan going in, and I made a comment during the week, is that we may have to throw 50 times in this game,” coach Mike Pettine said in his postgame press conference, “because as stout as they are up front, we knew it would be tough sledding running the football. I knew it would be one of those games, so I thought we would put it in [Josh McCown’s] hands and let him throw the ball.”
McCown did the game plan one better, slinging it around 51 times for a franchise record 457 yards in an OT win. Next up for the Browns' surging passing attack: the deep and athletic Denver secondary, which has allowed a mere three touchdowns in five games.
Cleveland could choose to swing its offense back the other way, putting the ball in the hands of RBs Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson. Neither has had much success on the ground thus far in 2015, but they have combined for 28 catches and nearly 300 yards. Crowell is averaging 16.1 yards per catch.
While the Browns were busy lighting up the scoreboard last week, Denver notched its fifth straight win, much in the way it secured victories one through four—namely, thanks to its defense. The AFC West leaders forced three Oakland turnovers, including a crucial pick-six by Chris Harris in the fourth quarter.
DeMarcus Ware left that contest early with a back injury, and he likely will sit out vs. the Browns. Cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas also were limited in practice this week. On the other side of things, safety Tashaun Gipson, cornerback Joe Haden and Crowell all are battling ailments.
How much the Browns miss Gipson and Haden could depend on how often they force Denver into passing downs. The Broncos' run game has been almost nonexistent (30th in the league), but the Browns are allowing 149.5 rushing yards per game. —CB
Arizona Cardinals at Pittsburgh Steelers (1 p.m., FOX)
This is an interesting tale of swapped play-designers. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians was Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator from 2007–11, when his former team unceremoniously decided to move on. The Steelers replaced Arians with Todd Haley, who was the Cardinals' offensive coordinator in 2007 and '08. Now, it's Arians's team holding all the cards with their 4–1 record, gaudy offense and underrated defense.
Arizona recovered nicely from its Week 4 loss to the Rams by taking the Lions apart last Sunday in a 42–17 rout. The defense intercepted Matthew Stafford three times, and while Carson Palmer threw for three touchdowns, the offense was bolstered by the stout rushing attack. That's the real story of this offense—between Chris Johnson and David Johnson, Arians has two backs to help sustain drives and set things up for the play-action shot plays he loves to create, no matter the down and distance.
The Steelers are still reeling a bit from the loss of Ben Roethlisberger to a knee injury in late September, but they've been able to hold it together at 3–2 (4–1 if it wasn't for ex-kicker Josh Scobee's two missed field goals against the Ravens in Week 4) with a strong running game and a defense that's played well above expectations. A formerly toothless pass rush has benefitted greatly this season from the impressive efforts of ends Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward, and a secondary in need of all kinds of help last season has improved, especially safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Ross Cockrell.
Mike Vick's play has been decent when he's not forced to stay in the pocket and read the field, and when Haley doesn't get too creative with the play designs—in Monday night's thrilling last-second win over the Chargers, we saw the good and bad Haley, and correspondingly, the good and bad Vick. The Steelers will need more than a goal-line Wildcat package to pull this one off, though. —DF
Cincinnati Bengals at Buffalo Bills (1 p.m. CBS)
The Bills have more problems than how QB Tyrod Taylor's knee might keep him out of this tough game. Receiver Sammy Watkins, who this franchise traded up to pick fourth in the 2014 NFL draft, wants to get more targets in one-on-one matchups. He's one of the few complaining about Buffalo's offense under Greg Roman, but that crowd could grow if E.J. Manuel is the quarterback for any length of time.
The Bengals, coming off a histrionic comeback win over the Seahawks, probably see teams at odds as easy pickings—and they could very well be right. —DF
Washington Redskins at New York Jets (1 p.m., FOX)
As if this matchup, between New York's league-leading defense and Washington's three-headed run attack, did not promise to be physical enough, the Jets' Sheldon Richardson will make his debut Sunday after serving a four-game suspension. The Muhammed Wilkerson-Leonard Williams duo excelled in his absence.
The aforementioned Washington backfield trio (Alfred Morris, Chris Thompson, Matt Jones) hit a bit of a wall in Atlanta last Sunday, accounting for just 50 yards on 22 carries. Without a better effort this week, the Jets' defense will pin its ears back on Kirk Cousins, likely resulting in a few short-field chances for its own offense. —CB
Kansas City Chiefs at Minnesota Vikings (1 p.m., CBS)
Kansas City's defense is about as strong as it's been in recent years, but the offense has sputtered to a dead stop under Andy Reid, and the season-ending torn ACL suffered by running back Jamaal Charles last Sunday certainly doesn't help. The carries now go to the delightfully-named Charcandrick West, the first in line to try and replace the one true franchise player the Chiefs have. An undrafted free agent out of Abilene Christian, West will try to do his thing against a very opportunistic Minnesota defense. Prediction: This will not be a great game for quarterbacks, as Teddy Bridgewater could be running for his life against Justin Houston and the Chiefs' estimable defensive line. —DF
San Diego Chargers at Green Bay Packers (4:25 p.m., CBS)
Eight different Packers have combined to produce 20 sacks this season, the second-highest team total in the NFL behind only Denver. Last week, St. Louis QB Nick Foles dropped to throw 33 times during his team's game at Lambeau Field and, per Pro Football Focus, was pressured on 19 of those attempts. The Packers' pass rush is fierce. And that is the last thing San Diego's laboring offensive line needs to deal with on a short week.
The Chargers also will face the little problem of defending Aaron Rodgers, and on a short week following a Monday night loss no less. Rodgers saw his home interception-less streak end at 586 passes against the Rams, but he still threw for 241 yards and two touchdowns in a win. —CB
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN)
Perception is a funny thing. Last Sunday against the 49ers, Eli Manning engineered a late comeback capped by a great touchdown throw to tight end Larry Donnell, which eclipsed the three near-interceptions he threw and bagged him the NFC Offensive Player of the Week award. The Eagles are starting to emerge from their own offensive doghouse after a 39–27 win over the Saints last Sunday, but all anyone's talking about is whether Chip Kelly is going back to college. If DeMarco Murray continues to log quality outside zone runs against the Giants and their depleted receiver corps and secondary, Kelly may realize that the NFL isn't so bad after all. —DF
Only For The Masochists
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions (1 p.m., FOX)
Chicago's defense looks far less like the free pass Detroit needs than it did a few weeks back. Vic Fangio's bunch held Oakland to 243 total yards, then kept Kansas City below the 300-yard barrier, as well, spearheading a two-game win streak. The Lions have been the lone winless team in the league since Week 4. —CB
Houston Texans at Jacksonville Jaguars (1 pm., CBS)
One of these teams has a dynamic quarterback on the rise, an estimable receiver corps, an exciting rookie running back and a defense on the way. And it's not the Texans, whose quarterback problems have Bill O'Brien's team going down the drain. The Jaguars still have work to do before they're taken seriously as anything but spoilers, but they have the momentum going into this game. —DF
Miami Dolphins at Tennessee Titans (1 p.m., CBS)
Dan Campbell steps into the spotlight as Miami's interim coach. It'd be hard to do much worse than Joe Philbin did in his final two games, with losses to the Bills and Jets by a combined count of 68–28. Expect both teams to test out their run games early and often—Miami because Campbell has vowed to make his team more physical; Tennessee because the Dolphins have the league's worst rushing defense. —CB
Baltimore Ravens at San Francisco 49ers (4:25 p.m., CBS)
These two teams met in Super Bowl XLVII in Feb. 2013, and neither squad seems anywhere near that hallowed ground right now. San Francisco's issues have been well-documented, but they're starting to coalesce a bit. On the other hand, the Ravens are one previously-mentioned Steelers kicker meltdown away from an 0–5 start. Injuries and attrition on defense have been problematic, but the real issue is how Joe Flacco isn't playing well in Marc Trestman's offense. John Harbaugh is staring a very long rest of the season in the face here. —DF
• Think defenses are playing Peyton Manning the way they always have before? Think again. Pro Football Focus has Manning as the NFL's most-blitzed quarterback this season (85 times), when the drumbeat through the league used to be that if you blitzed him, he'd kill you. Manning is 35-of-57 for 327 yards, five touchdowns and two picks when blitzed this season, per ESPN, but he threw the ball just 128 times when blitzed last season, with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions.
• If E.J. Manuel does indeed replace the injured Tyrod Taylor for the Bills this Sunday, expect a precipitous drop in deep passes. Taylor has been one of the NFL's best when throwing it 20 yards in the air or more this season, with 10 completions in 23 attempts for 328 yards, an NFL-high five touchdowns, and two picks. Last season, Manuel completed four of the 18 deep passes he threw, for 155 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
• It's hard to imagine Tom Brady getting even better in any category, but he's much, much better under pressure this season. In 2014, the pressured version of Brady completed just 70 of 154 passes, with four touchdowns and six interceptions. This year? A completely different story. If you come after the king, you best not miss, as he's completed 23 of 35 passes, with four touchdowns and no picks.
• Todd Gurley has 314 rushing yards on just 55 carries in two games this season, but he's already become a major factor in downfield yardage. He's already tied for third in the NFL with five runs of 15 yards or more, and a league-leading 57% of his total—180 yards—comes on those breakaway runs. Gurley is a good sustaining back, but he's also become St. Louis's one consistent big-play threat. Not bad for a rookie who suffered a torn ACL less than a year ago.
• If Gurley has the Offensive Rookie of the Year award sewn up (and he does, according to our Jump to Conclusions Rankings), it's tough to argue for anybody but Bills cornerback Ronald Darby in the same position on the other side of the ball. Darby was taken 50th overall out of Florida State, but he's playing like a blue-chip first-rounder so far. Only three NFL cornerbacks have allowed a lower opponent passer rating than Darby's 38.3, and he's given up just 19 catches on 42 targets for 185 yards, no touchdowns and two picks. We'll see how he does this Sunday against Cincinnati's estimable receivers. —DF
Player with the most to prove
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions. Beating a mediocre Bears team (even one with two straight wins) probably will not silence Stafford's critics. Coming off a game in which he was benched for Dan Orlovsky, though, Stafford has to show some mettle and respond.
The Lions continue to back their 27-year-old quarterback, who currently is signed through the 2017 season. Financially, it would be extremely tough for the franchise to cut bait before at least the end of '16—Stafford has a cap hit of $22 million next season and would count $11 million in dead money if removed from the roster. In other words, Detroit has little choice but to hope he snaps out of his funk. —CB
Underrated player to watch
San Diego CB Patrick Robinson. Robinson, another Florida State cornerback, has really turned his game around with the Chargers after five up-and-down years in New Orleans. The Saints could use him right now with their woeful pass defense, but it's safe to say that Robinson is a better fit for John Pagano's disciplined unit.
Playing in a cornerback rotation with Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers (who's been a relative liability this year), Robinson has allowed just seven receptions on 14 targets in 127 total snaps for 62 yards, no touchdowns, an interception and a paltry 32.4 opponent passer rating. He's also been a stud in the slot, which is very important in today's NFL with the expansion of the three- and four-receiver passing formations. He'll certainly be tested outside and in the slot against the Packers this Sunday. —DF
The Cincinnati Bengals have never started a season with seven straight wins. They've also never lost game No. 6 after getting to 5–0. Granted, it's only happened twice—in 1975 and '88. Both of those years, the Bengals made it to 6–0 before losing their seventh contest. —CB
Minnesota. If the Vikings have any designs on hanging around the playoff race, they cannot afford to let the Chiefs up off the mat Sunday. The Vikings did just play at Denver, prior to a Week 5 bye, but the schedule starts to get really nasty ahead—four of their next six are away from home, followed by a back-to-back with Seattle and Arizona. —CB
Seahawks. Pete Carroll's team holds on to last year's 3–3 start and the subsequent run to the Super Bowl as some sort of talisman, but reality is coming in the form of the undefeated Carolina Panthers, who would very much like to send the defending NFC champs to a 2–4 mark and a season on the brink. Carroll held a team meeting this week to address the defensive breakdowns that have had the Seahawks looking like a Division III squad in the fourth quarter this season, but he should also have blocked out time to form a search party for Jimmy Graham in an offense that seems to have no use for him. —DF
Tecmo Super 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:
Well, well. Not only did the Colts win this game, they stormed back from a deficit with 20 fourth-quarter points. Most of the damage came, apparently, courtesy of the Andrew Luck-to-Donte Moncrief connection. Not even 110 yards from Rob Gronkowski and a solid day on the ground could help the Patriots hold on. —CB