and the 49ers
will play host to the New York Giants
on Sunday in a rematch of last season's NFC Championship game. (Peter Read Miller/SI).
When you look back on the New York Giants' run to a Super Bowl title last season, it's easy to find spots where that train could have derailed.
Had the Giants not rallied against Dallas in Week 14 ... had Mark Sanchez not taken a safety in a close Week 16 game ... had Wes Welker caught Tom Brady's pass in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl ...
And, of course, the big one: Had San Francisco return man Kyle Williams not fumbled twice in the NFC championship game, including once in overtime, the Giants' fate might have been different.
San Francisco gets a chance Sunday to exact some revenge for that letdown, as the Giants come to town. That's one of the better games of the Week 6 schedule, though there are plenty of intriguing and important matchups coming up this Sunday and Monday.
Here's what to look for as Week 6 unfolds:
• Who has the edge in an NFC title game rematch?
Last season's NFC championship game was epic, with the Giants escaping San Francisco victorious, thanks to multiple 49ers' mishaps on special teams. Through five weeks of the 2012 season, the 49ers look more than ready to challenge for a Super Bowl bid again. The Giants have been a little tougher to pin down so far, but at 3-2, they're right in the thick of things too.
Both teams enter Sunday's rematch in San Francisco tied atop their respective divisions, so the winner of this one could take a big step toward a playoff bye and home-field advantage down the line.
The key matchup, as in that NFC title game: the Giants' offense against San Francisco's stubborn defense. Eli Manning threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns in his team's playoff win over the 49ers, but he needed 58 passes to do that.
• Now or never for Cowboys, Lions
Dallas and Detroit both had Week 5 off, which gave them a little extra time to ponder their difficult situations.
The Cowboys headed into their bye off a nightmarish Monday night home loss to the Bears, in which Tony Romo tossed five interceptions and their home stadium was overrun by Chicago fans. At 2-2, Dallas is just a half-game back in the NFC, but the upcoming schedule is daunting: at Baltimore on Sunday, then at Carolina, home against the Giants, at Atlanta, at Philadelphia.
To stay in the division race, the Cowboys probably need to go at least 3-2 -- it'll take a much better effort than than Monday nighter to do so.
Detroit, meanwhile, is in worse shape at 1-3 and looking way up at the 4-1 Bears and Vikings. The Lions visit Philadelphia Sunday, then head to Chicago next week. A 1-5 start would leave Detroit likely needing to finish 9-1 down the stretch to have a playoff shot.
• Any playoff contenders in here?
The Cowboys and Lions are not alone in being on the fringes of the playoff race. In fact, a handful of games match up teams that have some work to do before they can think postseason.
The most intriguing of those might fly under the radar: St. Louis at Miami. The 3-2 Rams are back in the NFC West race after back-to-back victories, but they've yet to win on the road this season; Miami, at 2-3, is coming off an impressive victory in Cincinnati and has a schedule that sets up nicely.
Also in the "they coulda been a contender" category: Kansas City (1-4) at Tampa Bay (1-4), Indianapolis (2-2) at the Jets (2-3) and Buffalo (2-3) at Arizona (4-1).
Of those teams, keep an eye on the Colts and Cardinals. Indianapolis might be a year or two ahead of the curve with Andrew Luck playing as well as he is, and even though Arizona is a bit of a mess right now, we can't write a team off that sits atop a division.
• 6-0, here we come ...
The Falcons have had to traverse some tricky moments over the past two weeks, narrowly escaping upset bids from the Panthers and Redskins to keep their undefeated start alive.
On paper, Sunday's game should provide some relief -- and a terrific shot at a 6-0 start. The Falcons welcome the 1-3 Raiders to Atlanta in Week 6, the Falcons' last game before their bye week. Atlanta has hung 148 points on the board this season, while Oakland has coughed up 125 (in just four games). Unless the Raiders can get their act together on defense, this could get ugly.
• 0-6, here we come?
The Browns have to win one sooner or later, right? They should have a shot on Sunday, with the 3-2 Bengals visiting for an AFC North clash. It's an important game for the Bengals, who want to stay close to Baltimore in the division and can put some space between themselves and the Steelers.
For Cleveland, though, it represents an opportunity to get off the schneid. Helping that cause: Joe Haden, who returns from a suspension Sunday and should bolster Cleveland's secondary.
• Will one hit change RGIII's game?
That's the lingering question in D.C., right now. Robert Griffin III, the Redskins' superstar rookie QB, left a loss last week with a concussion. Now we're left to wonder if Griffin will force himself to stay in the pocket longer or avoid running as aggressively in hopes of avoiding another injury. He certainly cannot ease himself back in, not with the 4-1 Vikings and their aggressive defensive front visiting Sunday.
• Strength meets strength in Seattle
When I chatted this summer with University of Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez about the future of football offenses, he predicted that the next wave to hit the NFL would involve teams really ratcheting up the speed of their attacks.
Turns out, he hit the nail on the head. New England's offense is all the rage right now, with the Patriots having run more plays than any other team thanks to their up-tempo, no-huddle system. That approach has paid off in spades, with New England leading the league in scoring as well.
There are not a ton of teams out there that look to be tough matchups for Tom Brady's bunch, but Seattle is one of them. The Seahawks are a surprising 3-2, due mostly to their suffocating defense -- Seattle has allowed just 70 points in five games, second-best in the NFL behind only San Francisco.
If any team can slow down New England's offense, it might just be the Seahawks, especially in front of their home crowd.
• A wounded animal can be the most dangerous
People have been quick to write off the 2-3 Packers, especially since they have to visit 5-0 Houston on Sunday night. We've seen plenty of times in the past, however, that Green Bay tends to turn in its best efforts when the chips are down.
The Texans have looked like world-beaters thus far in 2012, but they're reeling a bit after losing linebacker Brian Cushing to a season-ending knee injury. While Houston's pass rush should test Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, the Packers' QB might be overdue for a breakthrough game.
Feel free to ignore Green Bay's record heading into this one -- it could be the most entertaining game of the weekend.
• Anyone interested in an AFC West title?
The first few weeks of the season have not been kind to the AFC West. San Diego is the only team that sits above .500 (3-2), and the division currently carries a combined record of 7-12. That mark might be 7-14 by the time San Diego and Denver meet on Monday night.
But it seems more and more likely that those two teams are the class of the West, making their showdown in Denver an important one. If Peyton Manning
and the Broncos
are going to take charge of the division, like most people expected they would, now would be a good time to start.