- The Falcons offense is flying high, but will Denver's defense finally put an end to its run? Will the Eagles remain undefeated against the Lions? Predictions for every Week 5 game.
I have to thank the folks over at NFLPickWatch.com for monitoring all the “expert” selections during the NFL season. How else would I know that my overall record thus far (38–25) is the same as Bill Cowher, one correct result behind the freaking fan-poll picks on NFL.com? And of equal importance, where else would you be able to see that Steve Mariucci (37–26) is tied with former adult film actress/Fansided columnist Mia Khalifa through four weeks?
Nowhere, that's where.
While I'm within striking distance of the top 10, I do hope that you're not using my picks against the spread for anything ... ya know ... that might be frowned upon outside of Las Vegas. Granted, the 32–31 season-long spread record does look a lot better than last week's 4–11 nightmare.
Enough about that. Onto Week 5.
A quartet of players who could be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Golden Tate, WR, Lions: Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter promised Thursday that Tate, who was benched in Chicago, would have a “huge week” against the Eagles. If it happens, will it be at the expense of the Matthew Stafford-Marvin Jones connection, or in addition to it? If it's the latter, then the Lions' offense might finally start to resemble the dangerous attack they thought they had.
Stafford will have to be as quick as he's been all season at getting the ball out with Philadelphia's front pinning its ears back. Tate was brilliant as a yards-after-catch option last season. He hasn't shown up yet in 2016.
2. LaRoy Reynolds, LB, Falcons: A bit more on the Falcons' linebacker woes below in their game preview, but suffice it to say that the situation is not good. Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell and Paul Worrilow all landed on the injury report this week. Reynolds, with four tackles this season and four starts in five NFL seasons, is the leading in-house option to pick up snaps if several LBs sit.
If that happens Reynolds will face a Denver run game not afraid to run right at him.
3. C.J. Uzomah, TE, Bengals: Tyler Eifert now has a back injury to go with the ankle issue that kept him out Weeks 1–4. So, assuming Eifert misses yet another game, Uzomah would have another opportunity to continue developing his role.
The 2015 fifth-round pick out of Auburn has 11 grabs for 144 yards this season, including a 4–45 line last week. But he hasn't found the end zone yet, which is how Eifert did massive damage for Cincinnati last season. Andy Dalton could use Uzomah's help near the goal line on Sunday.
4. Leonard Williams, DE, Jets: Williams is leading the Jets with 4.0 sacks, so he draws top billing here. Really, any New York defender who will be out there against the Steelers on passing downs could be in the spotlight. The secondary is undermanned and outmatched headed into its game against Pittsburgh, where Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a five-TD outing. The only shot will be to slow Le'Veon Bell and then make Roethlisberger miserable.
The Jets have opted to roll with Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Steve McLendon on the majority of snaps, choosing that quartet over young pass rusher Lorenzo Mauldin. So if that's the approach again Sunday, the front four has to live in the Steleers' backfield.
• Last week: 8–7 overall (38–25 season), 4–11 vs. the spread (33–31 season)
• Best pick in Week 4: Raiders 28, Ravens 27 (actual score: Raiders 28–27).
• Worst pick in Week 4: Cardinals 31, Rams 10 (actual score: Rams 17–13).
If the Dolphins plan to make anything of their 2016 season, the push really has to start on Sunday. They were backed into a corner by a brutal early schedule—road games at Seattle, New England and Cincinnati (on a Thursday) all resulted in losses. To snap out of it Sunday, they'll have to stop Tennessee's DeMarco Murray-led run game. The Titans don't have the receivers to exploit the Dolphins's weak secondary, but no defense has faced more rushing attempts (34.8 per game) than Miami so far. Will the Tennessee defense focus on DeVante Parker or Jarvis Landry. It held DeAndre Hopkins to one catch for four yards last week but allowed 250 yards passing elsewhere.
Watchability index (out of 10): 2. Games between below-average teams tend to produce exciting finishes, so maybe save this one for the fourth quarter.
If you have either of these teams figured out, please share your thoughts with the rest of us. Baltimore is 3–1, but in its games against the Bills, Browns, Jaguars and Raiders, has not yet had a game decided by more than six points; Washington had to scratch and claw its way past Cleveland to a .500 record. It'll be tough for the Redskins to win this game, or any more road outings, without improving up front defensively. Football Outsiders has Washington ranked as the league's worst run D; its 4.9 yards per carry allowed is 31st in the league, better than only Oakland. Of course, the game itself is a sideshow to the real showdown: Josh Norman and Steve Smith trash talking each other.
Watchability index: 7. Hall of Fame baseball manager Sparky Anderson once said that you can't really tell anything about a team until after 40 games—about a quarter of the season. If football abides by the same breakdown, we're to the point where teams start defining themselves. I doubt both these teams make the playoffs, but either could.
The Bears will be without Jay Cutler, Jeremy Langford and Kevin White. They could also be down Alshon Jeffery, Eddie Royal and Ka'Deem Carey, on top of myriad defensive injuries. So the mere fact that I have the Bears covering the spread here tells you all you need to know about my confidence level in the Colts. On Sunday, Indianapolis will become the first team to play the week after a London trip, without a bye. That does afford the Colts the opportunity to wipe their loss to Jacksonville from their memory, but they're still an injury-plagued mess themselves. Andrew Luck should have a big day through the air...but the same thing was said about Matthew Stafford last week.
Watchability index: 3. Every Colts game is more or less the same—early deficit, frantic comeback attempt, close-up shot of Andrew Luck's beard.
Antonio Brown has been saying for weeks that Darrelle Revis is the “best corner in the NFL.” That was true at one point, but not early in 2016. Revis has been picked on by opposing QBs, and the Steelers might do the same if Revis (hamstring) suits up Sunday. With or without their supposed No. 1 CB, the Jets do not look like they have any capability of stymieing Pittsburgh's passing attack. The run game is another matter. New York has yet to surrender 100 yards in a game on the ground, so Le'Veon Bell will have to work for space. Pittsburgh has allowed 65 receptions by opposing receivers this season, the second-highest number among all 32 defenses. But which Ryan Fitzpatrick will show up?
Watchability index: 8. The Jets have the horses, even with an injured Eric Decker, to make this an up-and-down affair.
Opponents are scoring on 19.6% of their possessions against Minnesota this season, per Pro Football Reference. They're turning the ball over 21.7% of the time. Considering that Houston QB Brock Osweiler still has more interceptions (six) than TD passes (five), those are troubling trends for the visitors. That said, if Osweiler can keep it together Sunday, the matchup of Minnesota's secondary against DeAndre Hopkins, speedy Will Fuller and Houston's passing game will be enthralling. J.J. Watt could have done some damage when Minnesota had the ball, but alas he's not coming to the rescue. Without him, the Texans have to find a way to rattle Sam Bradford—a task at which the Packers, Panthers and Giants all failed.
Watchability index: 7. The Vikings' defense is a joy to watch, week in and week out. And this is first place-vs.-first place.
A breakdown of this game is about as useful as 200 words spent explaining why it's fun when Santa Claus comes to town. Tom Brady makes his 2016 debut and—love him or loathe him like you've never loathed anyone before—NFL fans everywhere will be interested to see how he plays. His matchup is ... uh ... favorable. Cleveland has allowed 10 touchdown passes against it this season, at least two each game. Oh, and the Browns are mediocre against the run, too, so LeGarrette Blount can move the sticks if Brady can't. This marks Cody Kessler's first home start as the Cleveland quarterback. He'll have the ball in his hands less than the trio of Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson and Terrelle Pryor, as the Browns try to keep this one close. Good luck.
Watchability index: 5. That's an average of 10 points for the first quarter, to see how Brady fares, and the 1 it scores for the second half when New England is rolling.
Back before the season began, this looked like a winnable game for Detroit to kick off a three-game homestand. It's still a game the Lions can take, but the mountain's a lot taller these days. When last we saw Jim Schwartz's Philadelphia defense, it was dismantling the Steelers during a 34–3 win. This doesn't figure to be the game where Detroit suddenly unleashes its run game (Bennie Logan and Fletcher Cox will make sure of that), so Matthew Stafford will be under pressure throughout. Meanwhile, Carson Wentz could thrive via his TEs and RB Darren Sproles. The Lions remain thin at linebacker with DeAndre Levy ailing, and they have allowed a tight-end touchdown in every game this season (three in the opener at Indianapolis).
Watchability index: 6. With Chip Kelly and Calvin Johnson around, Matthew Stafford torched the Eagles last Thanksgiving. A repeat performance will be tough, but seeing him and Wentz trade blows should be entertaining.
Matt Ryan has been playing at his highest level in years, maybe even ever. If we're still saying that on Monday, the Falcons will have scored a massive road victory and established themselves as an NFC favorite. Julio Jones isn't going for three bills in this one, though. The Broncos won't erase Jones entirely, but something like their effort vs. Cincinnati's A.J. Green could be in the cards—Denver limited him to 77 yards on eight catches and 11 targets in Week 2. Where Atlanta really could be in trouble is on defense, against the run. The Broncos are unsure as of yet whether Trevor Siemian (shoulder) or Paxton Lynch will be under center, but you can bank on C.J. Anderson & Co., seeing tons of carries. Atlanta just signed LB A.J. Hawk off the street to help a depleted linebacking corps.
Watchability index: 10. Not all that far removed from the Super Bowl 50 matchup—great defense and great offense in a head-to-head showdown. We know how that one ended.
Call it The Existentialism Bowl, because we're all trying to figure out what is real. Are the Bills the team that started 0–2 or the one that steamrolled Arizona and New England? Is Los Angeles, at 3–1, a legitimate NFC West frontrunner? This will be won in the trenches—Todd Gurley is still averaging 20-plus carries per game despite finding very little room, while Buffalo has attempted exactly 32 rushes each of the past two weeks. The Rams's defensive game plan probably will look a lot like their approach vs. Seattle and Russell Wilson. They have had success limiting Wilson's big plays outside the pocket, including during a Week 2 win with Wilson hobbled by a high-ankle sprain.
Watchability index: 6. Two of the more fascinating teams of the NFL's first quarter. Will they be in the mix come November and December?
The Raiders are flying high, having already banked three road wins. The Chargers' players are dropping faster than a family that caught dysentery on the Oregon Trail. Add CB Jason Verrett (ACL) to the list of San Diego wounder, and that's a huge loss ahead of this game—Verrett had been performing well. Without him, the defense will be scrambling to cover Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree on Sunday. Oakland also has a top-five run game in its back pocket. The Chargers, as always, will ask Philip Rivers to carry them. He might just be able to do so, at least until his team's inevitable fourth-quarter meltdown. Rivers is averaging 277.5 yards per game this season, and he has seven TDs to just one INT. They're asking too much of him here.
Watchability index: 5. San Diego keeps finding ways to set up thrilling finishes, for better or worse. There should be ample points scored in this one.
Cincinnati held Denver to 52 yards rushing in Week 3 (but lost) and limited Miami to just 64 last Thursday. Is this a game where Ezekiel Elliott might find the sledding a tad tough? The Bengals are going to have to dictate things up front, because Dallas's offense is operating exactly the way it wants to—the 'Boys are averaging upwards of 35 minutes of possession per game and running 7.3 plays per drive (most in the NFL). Dak Prescott's passing capabilities also have expanded each week; he threw for 245 yards and two TDs last Sunday despite being without Dez Bryant. But this will be the best team, and best defense, he has faced. Cincinnati doesn't mind grinding the clock, either, be it via Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill or the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green connection. The deciding factor could be the Bengals's red-zone production—they have the worst TD percentage (30.8) inside the 20 of any team right now.
Watchability index: 8. An intriguing test for the Cowboys, who head to Green Bay next week. The Bengals haven't lost six games since 2012. They'd be halfway there if they slip Sunday.
A Monday night in Minnesota followed by a Sunday night in Green Bay? Do the Giants owe one of the NFL schedule makers money? The Giants could not maintain anything offensively against the Vikings, and the Packers no doubt will try to replicate that get-Odell-mad strategy that Minnesota used. At just 42.8 yards per game, Green Bay also boasts the league's stingiest run defense. Might I suggest a little more Paul Perkins in response this week, New York? Shutting down Aaron Rodgers is going to be problematic for Ben McAdoo's team. Lost in all the Beckham hubbub is that the Giants's high-priced defense has been awful for much of the year. If Sam Bradford can throw for 265 yards without any harassment in the pocket, what's Rodgers going to do?
Watchability index: 6. The Giants are little overexposed on national TV given their struggles since 2013. Lots of star power in this one, though, plus a chance for Rodgers to run off back-to-back big games.
No line for this game (as of Thursday night) because the status of Carolina QB Cam Newton (concussion) remains TBD. His backup, Derek Anderson, nearly brought Carolina back from a huge deficit in Atlanta last week before a killer pick-six late. Tampa Bay's secondary could use a break. It has picked off just one pass this season, while allowing nine TDs. Jonathan Stewart (hamstring) remains out, so the combo of Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen again will have to do the heavy lifting, with or without Newton. Similar story for Tampa Bay, which will have its QB in Jameis Winston but has not found a run game in Doug Martin's hamstring-related absence. Mike Evans (26 catches for 360 yards this season) will try to repeat Julio Jones's work vs. Carolina.
Watchability index: 4. Bump it up a couple spots if Newton plays, if only because a Winston-Newton matchup brings its own mojo. Winston-Anderson isn't quite the same.
Surprise star of Week 5: Jalen Richard, RB, Raiders. Latavius Murray (toe) is out, but that doesn't change the aforementioned awful San Diego run defense. Richard will split carries with DeAndre Washington. He's proven to be a home-run threat.
Upset of the week: Tennessee (+3.5) over Miami. The Titans have been close the past two weeks. They get their prize Sunday.
College upset of the week (Season: 2-2): Syracuse (+2.5) at Wake Forest. The Syracuse defense is a dumpster fire, but its offense can light up the scoreboard.