The Playbook: Previewing Seahawks-Colts, Broncos-Cowboys, other Week 5 games
Seattle (4-0) at Indianapolis (3-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: This isn't a trap game for the Seahawks -- more of a trap door. Though Seattle's road woes are somewhat exaggerated, it's true that they're not as dynamic when they travel away from the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field. And the Colts have constructed a new offense under Pep Hamilton that combines a fundamentally sound run game with several different deep passing schemes that frequently put defenses in impossible binds. The key to that is Andrew Luck, who is doing far more at the line of scrimmage this year than in his rookie campaign.
Seattle's defense is great, but the Colts have the capacity to challenge the Seahawks' one obvious Achilles' heel -- they can be run on, and their defensive line will bend against power. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane has played at an All-Pro level this season, but Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn try to combine multiple formation and blitz looks with gap soundness, and it doesn't always work. This may be the week that Indy running back Trent Richardson gets to eat with the big dogs. On the other hand, Seattle's defensive backs will challenge -- and may completely shut down -- the Colts' preference for deep routes off of play action. Look for Luck and Co. to try that more on Brandon Browner's side than Richard Sherman's.
Indy's defense faces challenges of its own against a Seattle offense that is streaky but devastating at times. Russell Wilson is starting to get his timing down with his cadre of receivers after a slow start, and Marshawn Lynch has the ability to take over a game at times. However, with both of their starting offensive tackles out due to injury, the Seahawks will have a major problem containing Robert Mathis, who is tied with Kansas City's Justin Houston for the NFL lead in sacks, with 7.5. This will be the key to a Colts win -- dominate on both lines. They have the personnel and schemes to get that done. -- Doug Farrar
New Orleans (4-0) at Chicago (3-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Though he caught a touchdown pass, Calvin Johnson was mostly kept under control by the Bears last week. What they could not do, however, was slow down either RB Reggie Bush (173 total yards) or TE Brandon Pettigrew (team-high seven catches). How, then, are the Bears going to keep New Orleans' Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham in check this week?
Solving that riddle may be priority No. 1 for Chicago as it prepares for its Week 5 showdown with the undefeated Saints. Sproles and Graham are coming off dominant performances Monday against Miami -- Sproles turned in 114 yards receiving in the first half, and Graham also hit the 100-yard mark while scoring twice.
The Saints have their own defensive headaches to worry about. Though Rob Ryan has coaxed a top-five performance out of his 11-man unit so far, Chicago may represent New Orleans' toughest test yet.
QB Jay Cutler slipped into his old, turnover-prone ways in a Week 4 loss to the Lions, coughing the ball up four times. But Chicago still managed to top 400 total yards and hung 32 points on the scoreboard. In Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, the Bears have a 1-2 combo at receiver that surpasses the hobbled version of Roddy White and Julio Jones the Saints saw in Week 1. Add in RB Matt Forte, TE Martellus Bennett and an improved line, and you can be sure the Bears will keep the Saints busy.
That said, New Orleans will do what it can to put heat on Cutler. The Saints have 12 sacks through four weeks, and Cutler's coming off a tough Sunday in which he was consistently harassed by Detroit's aggressive front. A rattled Jay Cutler is a far different quarterback than a comfortable, protected Jay Cutler.
This has the makings of a potential statement game for the Bears. If they can bounce back from a tough Week 4 by knocking off the 4-0 Saints -- especially if Cutler outperforms Brees -- then the NFC will have no choice but to take notice.
Of course, a Windy City win for New Orleans would only further cement its standing as a favorite in the conference. -- Chris Burke
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Denver (4-0) at Dallas (2-2) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, CBS: Completely shutting down Peyton Manning and the Broncos' juggernaut offense may not be a viable option. Slowing it down just enough to win a shootout, though, could be on the table.
Are the 2-2 Cowboys, currently sitting in first place in a struggling NFC East, capable of pulling off that trick? Well ... maybe. QuarterbackTony Romo owns a 72 percent completion rate and running back DeMarco Murray is averaging nearly 90 yards per game. Dallas' defense, meanwhile, played a substantial role in a Week 1 win over the Giants, forcing six turnovers and scoring twice. All in all, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's group is ranked 11th in points allowed and third against the run.
The flip side: Philip Rivers threw for 394 yards against the Cowboys in a 30-21 San Diego win last week. And only five teams in the league currently boast a worse pass defense overall.
That's a scary stat with Manning storming the gates Sunday. The future Hall of Famer has been remarkably good through four games, and is on pace for his best season by a wide margin. At age 37! Manning has thrown 16 touchdowns without a single interception, and he has found the end zone on a ridiculous 10.3 percent of his passing attempts. The last QB up near that success rate? Peyton Manning, in 2004 with Indianapolis.
Murray could be the key to Dallas' upset hopes. Denver is allowing only 74 yards rushing per game, lowest in the NFL, but at least some of that is attributable to the opposition needing to play catch up. Murray broke loose for 175 yards in a Week 3 win over St. Louis, and he's been far more successful at home (261 yards) than on the road (95).
This is a matchup of division leaders, in case you needed a reminder. The Cowboys could be two up in the East by the end of Sunday, but it will require a complete effort against what is arguably the NFL's best team. -- CB
Houston (2-2) at San Francisco (2-2) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: Texans quarterback Matt Schaub has been through a tough season so far. He's thrown pick-sixes in three straight games, and angry fans are burning his replica jersey in the Reliant Stadium parking lot. It's not all Schaub's fault, though -- the Texans tend to run predictable route concepts out of their trips and bunch formations, and defenses are catching on. Schaub has vowed to "cut it loose" against San Francisco's defense, which is an interesting strategy.
The 49ers currently rank 18th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive metrics, and 18th against the pass. That's down from third and sixth, respectively, in 2012. Losing Aldon Smith to rehab is one issue, but the real problem lies with San Francisco's coverages. The 49ers' ferocious pass rush in 2012 hid the fact that this team doesn't have a dominant defensive back, and that's coming home to roost right now. Carlos Rogers ranks 44th in Pro Football Focus' coverage metrics, allowing an opponent passer rating of 85.6, and Tarell Brown has been even less impressive.
Another problem for the 49ers right now is that in three of four games this season, their formerly dominant offensive line has been pushed back far too often. That changed in Week 4 against the St. Louis Rams, when Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman went back to basics with power/counter/wham concepts, and left the more advanced offensive conceits for another time. Harbaugh and Roman will want to stick with that script against Houston's amazing front seven, which is led, of course, by J.J. Watt, who may be playing even better than he did last season. For the 49ers to pull this one off, they'll need to manage Colin Kaepernick in and out of the pocket. The Texans, on the other hand, need to diversify their passing concepts -- because you can bet that whatever they've been running this season, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has it on lock. -- DF
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Kansas City (4-0) at Tennessee (3-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: A legitimately compelling early-season matchup between a pair of AFC upstarts was downgraded slightly when Tennessee QB Jake Locker injured his hip in Week 4. His absence will push ex-Bill Ryan Fitzpatrick into the lineup for the next several weeks. Fitzpatrick will have his work cut out for him Sunday against the NFL's stingiest defense in terms of points allowed. The Chiefs have held two opponents to single digits already. -- CB
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Detroit (3-1) at Green Bay (1-2) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Few had the Lions pegged as potentially the best overall team in the NFC North, but through four games, that's what they've looked like. Not only has Reggie Bush had a transformative effect on that offense, but also the Lions' front seven is playing lights-out. Note: The Packers don't cover running backs well on pass routes. Note: Reggie Bush is pretty good at that kind of stuff. -- DF
New England (4-0) at Cincinnati (2-2) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Could this be an AFC playoff preview? The Patriots certainly appear en route to a postseason berth, thanks to a 4-0 start. They are not planning to have Rob Gronkowski back Sunday, but WR Danny Amendola could rejoin the lineup. The Bengals are 2-0 at home and 0-2 on the road thus far in 2013. So they'd sure like to pick up a win here, since four of their next five are away from Cincinnati. -- CB
Baltimore (2-2) at Miami (3-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: The Ravens traded for left tackle Eugene Monroe this week, but Baltimore's problems on offense go far beyond protection. They're not running the ball, Joe Flacco isn't working play action and his targets aren't winning downfield battles. The Dolphins are looking to recover from their Monday night beatdown at the hands of the New Orleans Saints, and this could be just the cure. -- DF
Philadelphia (1-3) at NY Giants (0-4) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Giants are running out of chances to get their season turned around. Now at 0-4 after back-to-back blowout defeats in Carolina and Kansas City, New York really finds itself in a must-win situation. The Eagles also have dropped three straight, and Chip Kelly's offense has bogged down a bit the past two weeks, averaging just 18 points. That's put a lot of pressure on an overwhelemed defense -- one that currently ranks 31st in the NFL. -- CB
NY Jets (2-2) at Atlanta (1-3) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: One thing's for sure -- Matt Ryan will target Tony Gonzalez early and often in this game because the Jets rank dead last in Football Outsiders' coverage rankings against tight ends. However, Ryan has to deal with a Jets defense that can bring the heat and stop the run. Geno Smith's iffy play should keep the Falcons out of a 1-4 hole, but this is no gimme. -- DF
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Only For The Faithful
Jacksonville (0-4) at St. Louis (1-3) -- 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Is this the Jaguars' best chance at a win yet? The 1-3 Rams are reeling with three straight losses (the last two in particularly ugly fashion). St. Louis has scored a grand total of 18 points in its previous two outings combined; Jacksonville put up 20 in Weeks 3 and 4 combined and has scored just 31 points all year. -- CB
Carolina (1-2) at Arizona (2-2) -- 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX: The Cards traded left tackle Levi Brown to the Steelers after head coach Bruce Arians called his own offense "putrid," but replacement Bradley Sowell has an odiferous task in his first NFL start -- facing a Panthers front that has bedeviled quarterbacks all season. -- DF
San Diego (2-2) at Oakland (1-3) -- 11:35 p.m. ET, NFL Network: This one's really for the NFL diehards -- at least on the East Coast -- because it won't kick off until 11:35 p.m. ET, due to an Oakland A's home playoff game. Terrelle Pryor should return to the Raiders lineup after sitting out Week 4 with a concussion. Can he keep pace with a red-hot Philip Rivers? -- CB
(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus.)
• One hidden aspect to the New England Patriots' offense this season is the increasing use of play-action and how Brady is just killing defenses with it. He's completed 28-of-47 passes for 441 yards (9.4 yards per attempt) out of play-action, while just 65-of-111 for 573 yards (5.2 YPA), five touchdowns and two picks without it.
• Yes, Peyton Manning is playing at a ridiculous level this season, but there's also another AFC West quarterback doing things at an MVP level right now. While Manning has an Accuracy Percentage (completions plus dropped passes minus throwaways and spikes) of 85.1 percent, Rivers' sits at 84.3. And Rivers has that kind of deadly accuracy with a few more downfield throws -- he's attempted 17 passes of over 20 yards and completed eight of them, while Manning has attempted 14 and completed seven.
• One thing we're seeing more of these days is elite receivers in the slot -- it's no longer just the domain of the athletically challenged. The Lions, for example, have thrown to Calvin Johnson eight times from the slot, and he's caught two of his four touchdown passes from there.
• There's a runaway (sorry) leader in yards gained after contact this season, and it isn't Adrian Peterson -- it's Ben Tate of the Texans. Tate has averaged 4.47 yards after first contact on his 34 carries, while Peterson ranks second with 3.48 YAC on his 94 carries. Last year, Peterson led the league at 3.93.
• Jamaal Charles is the Chiefs' leading receiver with 23 catches this season, but he's been too prolific in one regard -- he leads all running backs with five dropped passes on 33 targets. Tampa Bay's Doug Martin has four drops on just 17 targets. Watch out, Martin -- Greg Schiano might trade you to the Estonian Football league if he's in a particularly bad mood.
• Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Month for September, the first player at his position to grab the award. It's well-deserved, too -- Graham has four catches on passes of 20 yards or more for 155 yards and three touchdowns. To put that in perspective, Baltimore's Torrey Smith leads all receivers with 18 deep targets. He's caught five of those passes for 206 yards and no touchdowns. -- DF
• Matchup to Watch: Anthony Castonzo/Gosder Cherilus vs. Seattle's pass-rushers.
Few teams can send the sheer variation of defenders at the QB like the Seahawks. The 3-1 Colts have thus far done an admirable job of keeping Andrew Luck upright (10 sacks), but this is a different animal they're facing in Week 5.
Seven Seahawks have recorded sacks so far in 2013, and 14 defenders have registered QB hurries. Pete Carroll's group not only gets into the backfield, it does so from a number of different looks and pressure points. So the Colts' interior line will be pressured, as well. But it's Castonzo and Cherilus who have the responsibility to pin down the corners, no matter what sort of unique attack may head their directions.
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• This Week's Sleeper: Brandon Jacobs, Giants.
The veteran running back's tank may be on empty these days, but the Giants sound as if they're prepared to test that theory. The New York Daily News speculated this week that Jacobs "is going to get plenty of chances over the next few weeks," as the No. 2 back behind David Wilson. There may not be a better foe to start against than Philadelphia.
The Eagles' defense (which has been on the field more than any other defense so far, by the way) has displayed very little resistance through the air or on the ground. The last three of Philadelphia's opponents have topped 100 yards rushing, and both Kansas City and Denver rolled past 140 yards.
If Wilson and Jacobs are going to kickstart the Giants' run game, now is as good a time as any.
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• Pressure's On ...: Jim Caldwell, Ravens.
Baltimore's play-caller tossed out an interesting, and ultimately unsuccessful, gameplan in Buffalo last week: 50 passes from Joe Flacco to nine combined rushing attempts by Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. Everyone involved with the Ravens' offense made it clear that such an inability to run the football is unacceptable -- and GM Ozzie Newsome hammered that point home by trading for OT Eugene Monroe.
Caldwell has to find a better balance against Miami on Sunday. Otherwise, Rice and Pierce are simply going to waste.
• Rookie Spotlight: Geno Smith, Jets.
Jets coach Rex Ryan sounds closer and closer to sounding the alarm on his rookie QB, who continues to have all sorts of issues with turnovers. Smith's up to 11 turnovers now (eight interceptions, three fumbles), compared to just four touchdown passes. A Monday night spotlight in Atlanta offers Smith another chance to prove that he is progressing as a starting quarterback.
• Green Bay: The Packers have won 21 straight at home vs. Detroit. If they cannot push that streak to 22, they will find themselves in a world of hurt in the NFC North -- 2.5 games back of the Lions. -- CB
• Atlanta Falcons: Taking the 0-4 teams out of the equation, who needs a win more than the 1-3 Falcons? This team is far too talented to be desperately seeking answers, and if it can't beat the Jets -- well, it won't be pretty. -- DFBURKE: What's next for Josh Freeman?