You know it’s been a rough year for the NFL office when there are headlines about Prince Amukamara’s sex life and the mistaken penalty flag Husain Abdullah drew for bowing in prayer on the field Monday night, and that still passes as a good week for the folks who work at 345 Park Avenue. Even the string of blowouts on Thursday nights don’t seem like a big deal after the disastrous September the league just endured.
But October has arrived and we should soon start to see some definition in the standings. At the moment, there’s a mass of mediocrity out there in a 2-2 clump, with just two teams still undefeated (Cincinnati and Arizona, both 3-0) and two teams still winless (Jacksonville and Oakland, both 0-4).
Quarterbacks will be the spotlight this weekend, as Denver’s Peyton Manning needs one more scoring pass to join Brett Favre in the exclusive 500 touchdown club, and Kansas City’s Alex Smith gets a shot at winning some revenge against San Francisco. And let’s not forget Tom Brady at home against the Bengals on Sunday night. If he struggles again, who gets the honor of asking Bill Belichick another question about a potential quarterback change in New England?
• Last week: 6-7; Season: 36-25 (.590).
• Best pick in Week 4: Houston 23, Buffalo 16 (actual score Houston 23-17).
• Worst pick in Week 4: Washington 27, N.Y. Giants 20 (actual score N.Y. Giants 45-14.
Below are my Week 5 picks. And here’s my pick for Thursday night’s game between Minnesota and Green Bay.
The Panthers defense got burned last week by a small receiver with a big chip on his shoulder in Steve Smith. Carolina is hoping to fare better this week against taller receivers with less to prove in Chicago’s Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey and Martellus Bennett. The Panthers need to stop the bleeding of a two-game losing streak, but the Bears have been at home on the road this season, winning two and playing looser and easier when they’re not dealing with the sky-high expectation level present at Soldier Field. Let Ron Rivera’s team drop this one to fall under .500 and the Carolina crowd is a good bet to get quite vocal itself.
LeSean McCoy is simply too good to be a non-factor for much longer, but his struggles in the first month prove that a running back -- no matter how elite he is -- can be bottled up almost completely behind a shaky offensive line. There’s nowhere to run in Philly at the moment, but maybe the return of offensive tackle Lane Johnson from league suspension this week will start the Eagles’ comeback up front. Look for Chip Kelly to focus like a laser on establishing McCoy’s presence against the Rams, who have had major issues stopping the run this season. A ground game by Philadelphia will help ease some of the pressure on quarterback Nick Foles’ shoulders, and restore some of the balance that has been missing from the Eagles offense.
The Giants’ two-game winning streak should serve to remind us to show a little patience when it comes to our minute-by-minute assessment of all things NFL. When Eli Manning looked lost in New York’s new Ben McAdoo-coordinated offense throughout August and early September, almost everyone came to the same conclusion: Eli might be done as an elite quarterback. This offense is a horrible fit for his skill set. New York’s hiring of McAdoo already can be ruled a dismal failure. Then two impressive offensive showings by the Giants in a span of five days changed everything we thought we knew, and all that dead-wrong analysis just seems to float away into the ether. For myself, I’d like to issue a mea culpa. Sorry, Eli. Sorry, Ben. I probably won’t be able to practice what I preach, since I’m tasked with writing a column called Snap Judgments every Sunday, but I realize how silly we all look at times.
Raise your hand if you had the Bucs winning very late in Pittsburgh and the Saints losing very big in Dallas. Anyone? I want to believe New Orleans and Tampa Bay should both return to form this week in the Superdome, but these clubs have specialized in unexpected results thus far. The Saints defense desperately needs to start producing takeaways, with just one so far in the first quarter of Week 1 at Atlanta. And where’s the pass rush New Orleans got last year from Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan? This is the week both of those disturbing trends have to turn around, with the Saints giving Bucs quarterback Mike Glennon all he can handle amid the din of the dome. It’s not a stretch to say if the Saints intend to make the playoffs with a decent seed, they can’t afford anything less than an 8-0 record at home this season.
Well how 'bout them Cowboys? Maybe lowering the bar of expectation in Dallas was the masterstroke Jerry Jones was pursuing all offseason. Brilliant. Talking Super Bowl in the Metroplex hasn’t worked since the mid-90s, so why not? I keep hearing Cowboys players like Tony Romo and Dez Bryant give new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan tons of credit for the smart, run-heavy game plans he has crafted, so I’m giving the former Rams head coach my coveted Assistant Coach of the First Quarter of the Season award. Somebody deserves some serious hardware for Dallas being tied for first place in NFC East as October arrives. This was a team that was pegged for 3-13 potential this season.
So Buffalo rookie receiver Sammy Watkins says Bills pass-catchers have to adjust to new starting quarterback Kyle Orton because "he reads it quicker, the ball is coming out faster." Exactly. That’s a big reason why Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone benched EJ Manuel and went with the veteran Orton. Manuel’s inability to read the field and make quick, quality decisions was his undoing, and it has been the nagging concern about his game since he arrived via the first round in 2013. Orton will bring an increased level of execution and competency to the offense, but not enough this week to beat a surprising 3-1 Lions team that is starting to establish a well-disciplined identity under new head coach Jim Caldwell. I’m sure Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz dreams of getting out of Ford Field with a game ball in his return to Motown, but I don’t see a storybook ending unfolding for him.
Titans fans already are wondering when they’ll know Tennessee’s first-round draft slot? The Titans have lost their past three games by a whopping average of 22 points, giving up 26 points to Dallas, 33 to Cincinnati and 41 to Indianapolis. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter who winds up playing quarterback this year for Ken Whisenhunt’s club if the defense can’t muster more resistance than that. This is a game you figure the Titans have to win if they hope to be a factor in the AFC South discussion. But I can’t see it happening as well as Brian Hoyer and the Browns are playing. Cleveland has been a tough out, with all three of its games coming down to a last-second field goal. Hoyer has made all the Johnny Manziel hype go away with some solid, mistake-free play, but the Browns still haven’t won a road game since Week 3 of last season, at Minnesota. So that’s the next hurdle for Mike Pettine’s improved team, and it is about to clear it.
Artificial crowd noise, huh? That’s the best pre-game story line this one could produce? Ravens coach John Harbaugh makes a light-hearted reference to the belief that long ago the Colts were suspected of occasionally piping in extra crowd noise back at the old RCA Dome, and Indy coach Chuck Pagano takes offense and calls it an "insult" to Colts fans. Yawn. Wasn’t Pagano Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator in Baltimore not all that long ago? Can’t two old friends share a little joke these days? Here’s what’s not so funny for the Ravens: They’ve played at Lucas Oil Stadium twice so far, and lost 31-3 and 20-3. They’ll finally experience the end zone on their third visit, but the bottom-line results will be the same. Oh, look for the Colts to feature a loud crowd.
Figuring out how a certain team will fare from week to week is difficult enough in the unpredictable state of today’s NFL, but the Steelers at home take it to another level. Twice already this season it’s been impossible to know which Pittsburgh team will show up from quarter to quarter at Heinz Field. The Steelers in Week 1 dominated Cleveland in the first half and then did almost a 180 in the second half, nearly kicking the game away. Last week at home against Tampa Bay, another strong first half led to a reversal of fortune in the final 30 minutes, with the Bucs rallying to 10 fourth-quarter points and snatching the game from the stunned Steelers in the final seconds. Seems like a good time for a road trip to Florida for Mike Tomlin’s team.
The Cardinals don’t seem to realize they shouldn’t be one of the league’s remaining two undefeated teams with all those personnel losses on defense and their backup quarterback holding down the top job for the time being. And that’s exactly the way head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles want them thinking, that they belong on the field no matter who the opponent might be that week. I see Peyton Manning and the Broncos putting up too many points for a Drew Stanton-led offense to match, but would a win at Denver by Arizona be any more shocking than the Cardinals going into Seattle last December and coming away with a victory? Upsetting both of last year’s Super Bowl teams on the road in the span of six regular-season games would be a neat trick, but Arizona won’t be able to pull it off.
Alex Smith returning to face the Santa Clara 49ers isn’t getting nearly enough attention this week on a national level, but that’s kind of typical for the perennially underestimated and understated Smith, San Francisco’s former starting quarterback. He’ll never say it, but you can bet Smith burns to beat Colin Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh head to head, in an echo of Joe Montana besting the 49ers’ Steve Young and George Seifert on behalf of Kansas City 20 years ago last month. Kansas City's offense has turned explosive in the past two games, scoring a combined 75 points in wins over Miami and New England. But Kaepernick and the 49ers will be motivated to prove the correct quarterback choice was made two years ago, and I think San Francisco’s offense is about to play its most complete game of the season. With four of their next five on the road, including trips to Denver, New Orleans and the Giants, the 49ers can’t afford to drop this one.
Cussing out fans and getting short with the media when the Michael Vick questions start coming isn’t a good look for Jets second-year quarterback Geno Smith. It can’t be easy to be on the receiving end of the heat he’s getting, but Smith is only making his job more difficult by letting everyone see him sweat. And the temperature will again be rising as the Jets head for Southern California and a showdown with the red-hot Chargers. Nobody is playing better at quarterback than San Diego’s Philip Rivers, who is carrying the Chargers offense on his shoulders. San Diego has the league’s worst run game (a 2.4 yard average rush), but you wouldn’t know it thanks to Rivers sensational passing stats. Former Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt left for the Tennessee head coaching job this year, but Rivers and new San Diego OC Frank Reich haven’t missed a beat.
I fully acknowledge there’s no logical explanation for picking the Patriots to win this game. No one in the NFL is playing better football than Cincinnati at the moment. The well-balanced Bengals are rested and coming off their bye. New England has had a short week and suffered its worst beating in nine years in that debacle at Kansas City Monday night. The Patriots offense is completely out of sync and looks overmatched on multiple fronts. Cincinnati has been offensively efficient and innovative with new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, and the Bengals are staying on the attack and dictating to opposing defenses. But isn’t it all set up for the Patriots to summon their pride and somehow find their footing when everyone is ready to finally declare the dynasty undeniably dead? That’s what I keep thinking, anyway. With Arizona losing earlier in the day in Denver, the Patriots -- of all teams -- will do the 1972 Dolphins a favor by letting them pop the corks on some late-night champagne as the league’s last unbeaten team in 2014 goes down to defeat.
Monday, Oct. 6
Can we stop with the fairly laughable premise that Seattle’s suffocating pass defense has been "exposed," now that San Diego’s Philip Rivers threw to Richard Sherman’s side of the field, and Peyton Manning executed an overtime-inducing final-minute touchdown drive against the Seahawks? Rivers and Manning are the key words in that sentence, and it’s no real embarrassment to give ground to those two veteran quarterbacks. One is playing like this year’s early MVP front-runner, and the other won the award last year. If Washington’s Kirk Cousins carves up Seattle’s pass defense, we can revisit the issue. The last time the Seahawks were at FedEx Field, for that 2012 first-round playoff game, the landscape in Washington changed dramatically with Robert Griffin III’s devastating knee injury. And the reverberations of that day are still being felt in D.C.