With five undefeated teams remaining, the elite class is deeper than ever this late in the season.
All those late lead changes in Week 5 were fun in a mind-blowing sort of way, and when the smoke cleared, eight of the 14 games on the schedule were won by the road team, with the Falcons, Bengals and Giants having to furiously rally at home just to keep it from being even more lopsided in favor of the visitors.
All told, seven teams won despite trailing in the fourth quarter, and I can’t help but wonder when the last time we saw quarterbacks such as Matt Hasselbeck, Michael Vick, Josh McCown and Sam Bradford all win in the same week.
And still this 2015 season defies easy description, because with five undefeated teams remaining after Atlanta’s loss in New Orleans on Thursday night, the elite class is deeper than ever this late in the season. It’s the first time in NFL history that six clubs made it to the beginning of Week 6 without a blemish.
All five of the remaining undefeated teams—the Patriots, Packers, Broncos, Bengals and Panthers—are in action this weekend, with four of them facing challenges on the road (Green Bay is home against San Diego). Carolina is the only team I had projected to fall this week among that group—the Panthers travel to Seattle for a rematch of their 2014 NFC divisional playoff meeting—so the 1972 Dolphins should keep that champagne cooling on ice for now.
More than a third of the regular season will be in the books once Week 6 concludes, but we don’t have much figured out just yet. Now on to this week’s picks ...
• Last week: 9–5; Season: 48–29 (.623).
• Best pick in Week 5: Bengals 23, Seahawks 19 (actual score: Bengals 27–24).
• Worst pick in Week 5: Chiefs 33, Bears 17 (actual score: Bears 18–17).
Now we get to see if the Bengals know how to handle midseason success and a round of back slaps. Sitting 5–0 for the first time since 1998, Marvin Lewis’s team has been lauded all week for its statement-game 27–24 comeback win at home against Seattle, and wouldn’t it be just so Cincinnati to come out flat on the road against a tough Bills team that might be missing starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor with a knee injury? This is a tricky little spot for the Bengals, because Buffalo’s defense can dirty up Andy Dalton’s passing pocket, and its secondary might be able to play a physical style of coverage on A.J. Green & Co. And with Cincinnati facing its bye in Week 7 and then an important trip to Pittsburgh in Week 8, there’s a trap-game quality to this date with the Bills. But if the Bengals are who we think they are, they’ll saddle Buffalo with a third consecutive home loss and cruise into their week off on an undefeated note.
For those Browns fans old enough to remember the three Denver–Cleveland AFC title game meetings in the late 1980s—all three won by the guys in the wrong shade of orange—be advised that John Elway is headed back to northeast Ohio. But fear not, he’ll probably never leave his seat in the press box or suite. Even with Peyton Manning now in charge of the Denver offense, the worst news for Cleveland is that the Broncos’ defense is also making the trip, and the forecast calls for tough sledding for Josh McCown. These Browns can move the ball, but do they have what it takes to punch it in against a Denver D that has been very good in the red zone? I really want to pick the Browns in an upset here, but the Broncos are doing just enough to get the job done week in and week out.
The Lions were almost the consensus choice to take a step back after their surprise 2014 playoff trip, but I don’t know how many of us saw the bottom falling out in Detroit this season. The Lions look lost, and the problem is, I’ve never thought Jim Caldwell was the kind of coach who knows how to stop the bleeding once it starts. Detroit never lost more than two in a row last season, but I can’t help but think back to 2011, when Caldwell’s Colts played without the injured Peyton Manning and proceeded to start 0–13 and post a 2–14 record that got the coach fired two years after he and Indy went to a Super Bowl. If not the Bears, who might the Lions beat at Ford Field this season?
I thought both Houston and Jacksonville got their most recent head coaching hires right, but here are the Texans and Jaguars, both 1–4 and bringing up the rear in the pitiful AFC South. Bill O’Brien can’t seem to figure out his quarterback situation or push the right buttons to get his Texans to play with any consistency. Gus Bradley talks a great game and has the respect of his team, but getting results from his players is another story. And it can’t help Bradley’s case that just up the road from Jacksonville sits Atlanta, where the Falcons hired a different ex-Seahawks defensive coordinator (Dan Quinn) who has delivered instant success. Someone is going to own sole possession of last place after this barn-burner.
We’ll find out quite a bit about Mike Zimmer’s Vikings—and if they do indeed have playoff berth potential—in the coming five weeks. Fresh off its bye, Minnesota sits 2–2, preparing to play five games against opponents that currently have losing records. The Chiefs (1–4), Lions (0–5), Bears (2–3), Rams (2–3) and Raiders (2–3) are a combined 7-18, and the Vikings could well be favored in each game, even if they have to travel to Detroit, Chicago and Oakland. Can they take care of business and win the games that are theirs to be had? If so, the Vikings could roll into their Week 11 showdown at home against NFC North-leading Green Bay at 7–2 with a significant tailwind. But easier said than done, and first up is a matchup with the injury-addled and desperate Chiefs, who have lost four in a row and don’t even have running back Jamaal Charles (season-ending ACL injury) to threaten a defense with anymore.
The Jets stumbled at home against a visitor from the NFC East in Week 3, losing a game that was there for the taking against Philadelphia. They can’t afford to make that mistake again if they hope to stay within reach of division-leading New England and set up a battle for first place in the AFC East next week in Foxboro. I’m not saying Mike Shanahan’s over-the-top praise of Kirk Cousins as a Super Bowl-worthy quarterback has been validated, but Cousins is a decent fit for what Jay Gruden is trying to do with Washington’s offense. Cousins still needs to cut down on his interceptions (six this season), but he by no means has embarrassed himself in his first five weeks as the guy in D.C. This statistic is glaring, however: Cousins has been the starting and winning quarterback on the road just once in his four-year career, and that was in December 2012 at Cleveland.
If there’s anyone paying attention out there, this game should feature Larry Fitzgerald and James Harrison meeting at midfield for the pre-game coin flip, in a tip of the cap to their starring roles in that fantastic Super Bowl XLIII pairing of seven seasons back. The Cardinals don’t have Kurt Warner anymore, and Ben Roethlisberger is still injured, but Arizona quarterback Carson Palmers knows a little something about winning at Heinz Field, having done it a few times as a Bengal. The Steelers will scratch and claw to keep it close, but Pittsburgh doesn’t have the offensive firepower to keep up with Arizona if the Cardinals are on their game. Back downhill goes the Mike Vick-coaster.
I’m intrigued to see what this Dolphins team has to show after a couple weeks of the intensity that interim coach Dan Campbell brings to the job. I’d be surprised if Miami doesn’t look and play more crisply, with a sense of urgency that always seemed lacking under the fired Joe Philbin. The Titans should feel their sense of urgency to get something done, given that they haven’t won since Week 1 in Tampa Bay and let the Bills get out of town with an ugly W last week in Nashville. The Dolphins are actually better off playing on the road this week, buying themselves some time to hone their new identity before returning home to face struggling Houston in Week 7.
The Seahawks have plenty of time to rally and still make this another playoff season in the Pacific Northwest, but watching Pete Carroll’s club lose yet another fourth-quarter lead in Cincinnati last week makes it clear to me that the air of invincibility has escaped in Seattle. This team had a swagger, a mystique and tons of mojo the past two or three seasons, but ever since that excruciating turn of events at the end of the Super Bowl, the Seahawks have been transformed into a team hoping to win rather than knowing it will win. And the difference is very noticeable, with the fourth quarter of games now a series of mis-steps and land mines rather than a display of championship might and will. Once that type of belief and confidence has been punctured, can it be recaptured? Usually not. Seattle’s test this week will again be formidable, against an unbeaten Panthers team that always plays the Seahawks tough, despite coming up short in all their recent meetings.
This matchup was my preseason Super Bowl pick, but after watching the Chargers refuse to put the shorthanded Steelers away at home Monday night, I am reminded that San Diego’s history of failing to live up to expectations (at least mine, in this case) is almost as old as the franchise itself. I still believe the Chargers will make a run at some point this season, but falling three games behind first-place Denver just five games into their schedule doesn’t strike me as the shrewdest route to division supremacy. Back in Wisconsin for the first time as an NFL player, maybe this is the week that Chargers rookie running back Melvin Gordon, the ex-Badger, wakes up and resembles the impact player San Diego thought it was drafting at No. 15 overall.
In commemoration of their thrilling Super Bowl matchup of less than three years ago, the Ravens–49ers loser at 1–5 will all but officially have the lights turned out on their disappointing 2015 season. Just like that memorable night in the Superdome, when the NFL forgot to pay its power bill in time.
Sure, Tom Brady, this is just another game. Nothing special about Week 6. Whatever you say. But just watch the Patriots’ play-calling in the second half, should they build a lead. Will they pour it on, or pull it back? What do you think? New England’s revenge tour has arrived at its most meaningful stop, and I have no reason to believe the Patriots won’t be trying to make the Colts regret ever bringing up that whole messy ball inflation issue last January. With or without Indy quarterback Andrew Luck at his best, the Colts won’t be able to hang around in this one if they play like they did in just squeaking past AFC South opponents like Tennessee, Jacksonville and Houston the past three weeks. Indy needs to bring its A game, and we haven’t seen it yet this season.
The Eagles haven’t won consecutive games since late November of last season, but if they have any hope of being a factor in the NFC East race, they can’t afford to start 0–3 in the division, with a loss to each of their three division rivals. The Giants are playing well and starting to look like the team to beat in the East, and Eli Manning has been near the top of his game during this three-game winning streak. That probably makes Giants fans a bit nervous, because New York has been very inconsistent the past three seasons, and the only thing that can be counted on from Tom Coughlin’s club is that an upswing will be followed by a downturn. Based on their productive second half against the Saints (with their admittedly horrible defense), the Eagles should be able to muster just enough offense to fight their way back to .500 and a share of first place.