Do you think somebody at the league office knew a lil somethin' somethin' this summer when they put this schedule together? Like, even more than usual?
I'm wondering if Howard Katz, the NFL's scheduling guru and a fairly prescient and brilliant individual in general, had a particularly big crystal ball when he finalized the Week 5 schedule. Because it spares us so much of the least attractive football being played through the first quarter of the season, in one fell swoop. Perhaps, a few months back, you might have heard Mike Shanahan or Greg Schiano or Mike Tomlin grumbling about a bye that began in September, but trust me, they'll be singing a different tune these next few weeks.
As if by divine intervention, the winless Steelers and winless Bucs are off this week. And the Vikings, whose only win came at the expense of the Steelers last Sunday in London, well, they are off too, just in time to continue working in Matt Cassel as their starting quarterback (despite the tepid protestations of coach Leslie Frazier). And the Redskins, who were winless until just getting by Oakland in an ugly affair on Sunday (with the Raiders minus starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor), well, they are still hobbling, look nothing like the team that surged to the NFC East title late last season, and getting some rest for Robert Griffin III and the creaky knee seems like just what the doctor ordered (assuming Shanahan and James Andrews could get on the same page about that).
The only winless teams not on a bye -- Giants and Jaguars -- will have to wait a month, until Week 9, for a break (and how relieved we'll be for that if both are still winless we get a reprieve from them at the end of this month. Hooray!). This means if nothing else the 2008 Lions might have to remain glued to their couches through every weekend this month, seeing if New York and Jacksonville are actually able to flirt with the kind of perfection only they have previously mastered.
The Giants, obviously, will win a few games, but those pesky Jags just might be up to Matt Millen's challenge, and served notice by compiling an impressive minus-98 scoring margin through four weeks (those Lions were a mere minus-81 through four weeks; the 2013 New York Football Giants rest at minus-85, lest Big Blue need any perspective on its misery).
So we won't be completely bereft of brutal football teams on display this weekend, but luckily, enough are on hiatus to make this an intriguing enough week of football all around. Sometimes, it's best to be thankful for what you don't have, in the case of Week 5 hoagies.
Seattle at Indianapolis
Sunday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: It's another quirky week where most of one division meets most of another division, and its between divisions that don't exactly face off all the time. Last week it was AFC West (trouncing) the NFC East. This week it may be NFC West trouncing AFC South. And of these games, this is the best of the bunch. The Colts look ready to make a power move past the skidding Texans, and the Seahawks are trying to maintain a nice lead over the 49ers. Seattle showed it can do some special things on the road by rallying to shock Houston. The Seahawks go a little further east this time to Indy. Can the Colts plow through the brutally physical Seahawks the way they overpowered the 49ers in San Francisco a few weeks back? Can the Seahawks, labeled homers for so long, start 3-0 away from Seattle, all trips that have sent them a time zone away or more? If so, then things set up nicely for them down the stretch.
What to watch for: You could have made the case for either Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck as NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year last season -- personally I would have gone for Wilson -- and they get a chance to face off here in what could be the game of the week. Wilson's ability to run on third down could give the Colts fits. Luck hasn't had the passing game as cranked up as it was last season, especially vertically -- I'm discounting anything teams show against the Jags this season -- and against this physical group of corners, I'm not sure it starts here. ... Is this the week Marshawn Lynch gets it going? I think it just might be. ... Robert Mathis is still a force at this stage of his career, and I would try to get him over the tackles with Seattle Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung still out. Protection was an issue last week and this dome will be rocking. ... Seattle ball-hawking corner Richard Sherman, who turned the Texans game with a pick six, should have a pretty good book on Luck from their time together at Stanford. ... Seattle pass rusher Bruce Irvin returns from his four-week suspension and will see the field. These conditions could benefit him, with the Colts' tackles still a work in progress.
Houston at San Francisco
Sunday, Oct. 6, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Why to watch: The Texans are being doubted again, big time, from their quarterback on down. If they end up feeling sorry for themselves here it could be a long, long evening. The 49ers came out flat and lost to Indy in their previous home game, and now are refreshed after a mini-bye, having last played on a Thursday night. Texans QB Matt Schaub's psyche has to be wounded some from the crucial mistakes he is making, and the possibility of him throwing a pick-six in a fourth straight game adds a train-wreck appeal to this contest. San Francisco's schedule sets up nicely from here on out, so I would expect a singular focus to getting this win. The 49ers have had a little distance now from Aldon Smith's entry to rehab, and you know coach John Harbaugh will do anything in his power to have them motivated to go on their first real winning streak of 2013.
What to watch for: The 49ers got back to basics last time out, dropping the cutesy stuff and using a straight-ahead power run attack to plow through the Rams. I wouldn't expect that to change much here, even against what is normally a stout Texans defense. Frank Gore will be fed, especially with Colin Kaepernick still lacking playmakers on the outside. ... How much pressure do the Texans dial up? I suspect they single up Anquan Boldin, double TE Vernon Davis, and try to get Kaepernick antsy by bringing safeties and corners off the edge. Wade Phillips going conservative here might not make sense. ... J.J. Watt was so pissed off after that loss to Seattle, I have to think he shows up real big Sunday. ... Houston's walking wounded are badly needed now. If there is any way LT Duane Brown and CB Jonathan Joseph can play -- and Andre Johnson can stay healthy and effective through an entire game -- now is the time they need it. ... If the Texans build a lead, just how conservative do they get? I suspect very, given the events that unfolded to blow that lead last week. ... The 49ers are allowing just 2.92 yards per rush on first down, and they should have star LB Patrick Willis back for this one; that keeps up Sunday night and Schaub will be in down-and-distance situations where guys can jump routes and play for the pick.
New England at Cincinnati
Sunday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: Andy Dalton picked up a win over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers earlier this season in what, debatably, could be his first signature victory as Bengals quarterback. But he remains pretty vanilla for the most part, and the big plays aren't there with nearly enough regularity even with A.J. Green running around. Could he take a step up here against undefeated Tom Brady? If New England keeps rolling up wins as it has, and does so against AFC North favorites, then they could settle into that second seed behind Denver pretty comfortably. The Bengals need an offensive awakening here after the Browns suffocated them this week, and they need Dalton to stop telegraphing throws, too.
What to watch for: If the Bengals' secondary comes in anything close to as banged up as it was a week ago, Brady will feast on matchups. And if the secondary is depleted and coordinator Mike Zimmer sprinkles in his normal array of blitzes, the problems could be compounded. The Bengals' front four will have to win individual battles here. ... Aqib Talib vs. A.J. Green will be great theater and Bill Belichick is willing to leave Talib on an island against elite wideouts, as evidenced against Julio Jones last week. Can Dalton exploit a mismatch elsewhere on the field? And expanding on Green's average of 11.5 yards per catch is a must. ... The Bengals are sure to test the interior of the Pats defense right away, with stud nose tackle Vince Wilfork out with a torn Achilles. In the short-yardage role, and inside stuff, they still lean on former Pats RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis. ... Most likely we see TE Rob Gronkowski in Week 6, and not here. ... I smell a big game for Chandler Jones, maybe getting his hands up to knock down some passes, chasing Dalton around some. ... The Bengals are having some contagious fumbling issues early on, so expect plenty of effort to strip balls from the backs and receivers.
Kansas City at Tennessee
Sunday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: There will be blood. This is an old-fashioned brawl here. Neither team is really fancy in the pass game, and both ask quarterbacks to manage the game. They want to beat you into submission with the run game and swarming defense. They are winning games through force, will and a dedication to simple football. As a result, these two doormats from 2012 are a collective 7-1 (the Titans' only loss a heartbreaker they gave away to Houston and lost in overtime). We could be looking at a crucial AFC wild-card tiebreaker here. It may not be super exciting if you get off on the pinball offenses of the day, but the study in pragmatism and patience from a coaching standpoint -- the desire to not give a game away -- has a certain appeal, and these defenses do a pretty good job of scoring themselves.
What to watch for: Few running backs can take it to the house like Jamaal Charles and Chris Johnson, but there hasn't been much of that this season for either. Johnson is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and his longest rush is 23 yards -– his only carry over 16 yards all season. Charles is averaging a mundane 4.1 yards per carry -– many thought he would explode in Andy Reid's system -– with a long of 24. Can either sprint to the second level on Sunday? ... Chiefs rookie RT Eric Fisher is battling injuries and inconsistent play. A game like this is no place for rookies who aren't quite there in the trenches. ... Titans corner Alterraun Verner is having an exceptional start to the season. He is maintaining his coverage deep down the field, making great plays on the ball in the air and has been a difference maker so far. ... The Chiefs come in allowing a staggering 6.4 yards per carry to opponents on first down; with starting QB Jake Locker out, expect Titans coach Mike Munchak to be very conservative and run-heavy. ... Keep your eyes behind the line of scrimmage -– both defenses send plenty of bodies forward in the run and pass defense. The Titans have created 156 negative yards for opponents this season, tops in the NFL, and the Chiefs are third with minus-139. ... LB Zach Brown and DT Jurrell Casey are worthy of your attention. Watch how the rest of the Titans defense feeds off them. … Sticking with the run game started to open things up downfield for the Titans last week. Nate Washington ran free a few times and Kenny Britt should be back for this game. ... Ryan Fitzpatrick has been turnover prone the past few years, and that might show up Sunday.
New Orleans at Chicago
Sunday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: Give Jay Cutler credit for never being boring. Just when he has the Bears 3-0 and people want to discuss how soon he deserves a new contract, he goes ahead and turns it over a bunch and we're back to questioning exactly what he is. His red zone stats pretty much capture the spirit of Cutler -- he's tied for second in the NFL with seven red-zone TDs, but is completing just 44 percent of his passes there and has thrown a red-zone pick. In what could be a shootout, both of these quarterbacks are known to try to thread balls into areas where most dare not. I have a feeling these two gunslingers bring out the Wild West in one another. And who doesn't love that? The winner of this one is even better positioned for a real run in the NFC.
What to watch for: Charles Tillman is a difference-making cornerback, but he has been banged up the past two weeks, has had to come in and out of games. That Bears secondary is not the same without him. If he is vulnerable, or absent, Drew Brees will strike. ... Opposing teams are completing 33 percent of opportunities on third-and-10 or longer against Chicago -- an area where Brees thrives. ... The Bears have already allowed 21 quick-strike drives -– scores that come in four plays or fewer. Chunk plays are a problem if the pass rush isn't quite right (Chicago has allowed 24 plays of 20 yards or more, second most in the NFL), and Julius Peppers appears to be slowing down. ... Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan loves to blitz; Cutler has a 113 passer rating against the blitz. ... Darren Sproles could have some fun against this secondary, and I foresee the Saints running no shortage of wheel routes and screens against this defense after gutting Miami that way Monday night.
Baltimore at Miami
Sunday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: The Super Bowl champs have been chumps on offense. They had better figure something out fast, because upstarts like the Dolphins and Chiefs just might end up crowding them out of the postseason after five straight appearances. Even in their wins, they were shut out by Cleveland for the first half and needed a defensive score and a return score to beat Houston. The offensive line is getting swallowed up, Ray Rice is going nowhere and besides Torrey Smith, there isn't a dependable pass catcher on the roster. Oh, and Joe Flacco threw five picks last week at Buffalo. I'm not sure how much better these guys will get in the short term, but they better win some games away from home at some point soon. Miami's defense has former Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe in the middle now, and it has been stout thus far. Another chance for the Dolphins to make a statement after getting knocked down a peg or two in New Orleans.
What to watch for: The Saints' Sproles was a handful for Miami on Monday night. One would think the Ravens would try to mimic some of that with Rice and get the passing game going with a healthy dose of designed screens. ... Elvis Dumervil hasn't exactly been taking games over for the Ravens defense since coming aboard. Terrell Suggs will get a ton of attention as the Dolphins slide protections to help out LT Jonathan Martin. Dumveril needs to clean up on the other side. ... The Ravens had difficulty bottling up WR Mike Wallace with Pittsburgh, and breakdowns with their revamped safety group have been hardly uncommon. ... Ravens LT Bryant McKinnie continues to struggle, leading to Baltimore acquiring T Eugene Monroe from the Jags. Dominant Dolphins pass rusher Cam Wake missed last week with a knee strain but could end up back for this one, and this is a short and tough adjustment for Monroe to a new offense and new surroundings. ... Ryan Tannehill is taking more command of his huddle, getting people into the right spots and barking out instructions. He is taking more ownership of this offense by the week. He also tends to be a little too willing to rush up the gut as if on a designed draw, however, and when he does he tends to lose his handle on the ball.
Detroit at Green Bay
Sunday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: These two teams really don't like each other. Think back only to Ndamukong Suh stomping on people on Thanksgiving 2011 for an indication of how it can go. The Lions are showing signs of being a real factor in the NFC North after giving games away in 2012, and coming in off a beating of Chicago. The Packers come off the bye week trying to get their red-zone attack back in order after a meltdown in Cincy. Green Bay has been losing shootouts, and this sets up to be another one. The Lions are finding ways to win even with Calvin Johnson being held in check, but consider that big receivers Anquan Boldin (13 catches for 208 yards and 1 TD) and Pierre Garcon (8 for 143 and a score) have already feasted on the Packers secondary.
What to watch for: Green Bay seems dedicated to re-establishing a run game regardless of who lines up at running back. Eddie Lacy should be in line for heavy work here, and the Lions are allowing a league-worst 7 yards per carry on first down. ... Reggie Bush has been one of the five most exciting players in the NFL through the first quarter of the season. ... The Green Bay defense could be just what the Lions' red-zone offense needs to see. Detroit is still trying to get over its propensity to settle for short field goals, but the Packers have allowed nine TDs on 11 trips in the red zone, second worst in the league. ... The Lions may suffer on first down, but they have the best third-down defense in the NFL, and Suh has been a massive part of that. ... Green Bay needs to improve its tackling in the secondary. The Packers are allowing 7 yards of YAC/reception, second worst in the NFL. Bush, in particular, is a guy who could exploit that. ... Any more dustups on the sideline between Aaron Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy?
Denver at Dallas
Sunday, Oct. 6, 4:25 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: The Peyton Manning show is on, people. Tune in. The weather will be perfect inside Jerry's World and the conditions will be conducive to chucking it around. The Cowboys couldn't capitalize on a depleted Chargers offensive line last week. If they can't make Peyton uncomfortable he will shred them even worse than Philip Rivers did as he barely threw an incompletion en route to over 400 yards passing last Sunday. No team is playing better than the Broncos. No team seems more complete. But they're going to lose eventually, right? And isn't this just the kind of game where the Cowboys put it all together for a few quarters and surprise people (only to then lose to a really crappy team like the following week)?
What to watch for: Knowshon Moreno has become the go-to back for the Broncos but with Dallas allowing fewer than 80 yards rushing a game, I'm not sure the Broncos run the ball all that much until/unless they build a lead. ... So I guess Trindon Holliday still hasn't lost a regular-season game, huh? The Cowboys have thrived so far though in coverage, so we'll see if they can keep the Broncos' special teams ace in check. ... No one is talking about it nearly as much as Manning completing 75 percent of his attempts, but Tony Romo is completing more than 72 percent of his. ... Will we ever see Cowboys WR Miles Austin make a big play again? ... As great as Dez Bryant is, Dallas is lacking the kind of big plays many expected. Romo has completed just three passes of 20 yards or more. ... Cowboys TE Jason Witten has slowed down considerably from his three-TD performance to open the season. I expect the Broncos to double Bryant and take their chances with whoever wants to run from the slot. ... Did I mention Manning has 16 TDs and no INTs through four games? The only thing he hasn't been sparkling with is throwing the back-shoulder fade, as Phil Simms pointed out to me this week when I asked him to nitpick one "flaw" with Manning this season. And you just know Peyton will be trying to complete a few of those Sunday.
N.Y. Jets at Atlanta
Monday, Oct. 7, 8:40 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Why to watch: It's Monday night, man. Come on, we're all watching. Yes, this is actually a Monday night game. No kidding. And, well, while it's hardly the best prime-time game, and the Jets clearly still have plenty of issues on offense and Geno Smith looks raw, it is worth noting they come into the game with the better record. This is pretty much a must win, I figure, if the Falcons want to keep any sort of pressure on the Saints, and try to recapture the form that had them on the cusp of doing big things the past few years.
What to watch for: The Jets have a great front three and I expect them to remain stout against the run. That secondary is showing signs of faltering and they are still getting little from recent high picks Kyle Wilson and Dee Milliner. They lack the kind of impact safeties Rex Ryan prizes. And they have to go into this dome against a desperate Matt Ryan. ... Smith is going to have all kinds of trouble handling his surroundings, and with Stephen Hill and Santonio Holmes battling injuries, all the more reason for concern. ... The Falcons are still unsettled at right tackle, and Matt Ryan seems to be taking more abuse this season than I recall in quite some time. Rex Ryan will find a way to make that flare up, and look for Sheldon Richardson and Mo Wilkerson to make their presence felt. ... Julio Jones is having difficulty breaking free from double coverage after a torrid start to the season. ... The Falcons are going to have to keep shuffling around running backs with Steven Jackson still trying to work his way back from injury.
San Diego at Oakland
Sunday, Oct. 6, 11:35 p.m. ET (NFL Network)
Why to watch: If not for Peyton Manning playing like he is from planet Perfect Passer Rating, we would be talking an awful lot more about Philip Rivers, who is playing better than he has in years. Rivers has obviously clicked right away with new coach Mike McCoy, and the Chargers have surprised me with their ability to keep grinding even when things don't go their way -- which has happened quite a bit in recent years. Rivers is second in the NFL with 11 TDs, he has thrown just two picks and he has the second-best rating in the league. And with this game's kickoff now moved to 11:35 p.m. ET, if you aren't already asleep, watching Rivers is about the best you can do in terms of late-night TV options.
What to watch for: Expect the Raiders to play with a little more confidence and to be more loose if QB Terrelle Pryor is back under center after missing last week with a concussion. His ability to extend plays with his legs changes the complexion of this offense. ... Same ol' story for these two teams at running back -- Ryan Mathews can't get it done and you have to wonder if he's gone when his rookie contract expires, if not sooner; Darren McFadden is hurt again and you have to expect he is gone when his rookie contract expires after this season. Can either of them flick a switch and change their fate? ... Shocked at how well a makeshift Chargers offensive line held together last week, but over time those cracks generally begin to show. ... San Diego's pass rush has to be crushed by the loss of Dwight Freeney, who was clearly the leader of this defense and remained someone who demands additional blocking responsibilities.
Philadelphia at N.Y. Giants
Sunday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: If you have been aggravated by all the hyperbole and attention given to the NFC East for years, here is your chance to bask in what it has become -- where teams are in must-win situations come the start of October, with their only saving grace the fact that the other teams in their division are pretty much equally miserable. The Giants seem generations removed from their Super Bowl days and Chip Kelly is starting his Eagles career with a whimper. With everyone hanging 30 points on the Giants you would expect Kelly's offense to have a pulse here and return to its warp-speed ways, and, if you recall, that unit did look superb in its first game this season … which happened to be against another hapless NFC East team (Washington). Still, whichever team wins here will be right back in the mix to win the worst division in football, and, sadly, one of these four teams will be hosting a postseason game regardless (but, quick, let's expand the postseason!).
What to watch for: Eagles WR DeSean Jackson is taking a fair amount of physical abuse with teams not having to fear anyone else getting vertical in this offense. Without other speedsters in the pass game, he is going to continue to see blanket coverage, and given his temper, you wonder if that frustration flares up with so much football still to be played. ... LeSean McCoy is in great position to add to his NFL rushing lead. The Giants have already allowed 16 rushing plays of 10 yards or more -- third worst in the NFL -- and McCoy leads the NFL with 13 of those rushes (three more than any other player). The inside zone stuff should gash the Giants defensive tackles, who have been struggling. ... Anyone seen a pass rush from New York lately? In 33 attempts the Giants blitz, opposing quarterbacks have been sacked just once. Overall, the Giants are tied for last in the NFL with four sacks (tied with the Steelers, at that, another sentence I never thought I would write). ... If the Eagles' slide continues, at what point do the spare Michael Vick his weekly beating behind five-man protections and take a look at youngster Nick Foles?
Jacksonville at St. Louis
Sunday, Oct. 6, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
Why to watch: Eventually the Jags will keep a game within a few scores. I mean, let's not get all crazy and start talking about them winning one, but playing competitive football would be a start. St. Louis has been an awful first-half team and you would tend to think that changes here with so much time since last playing on a Thursday night. This has to be the week where Sam Bradford resembles an establish NFL starter, much less a first overall pick, and maybe, finally, the Rams get something going on the ground, where they have been brutal. Otherwise, let's keep it real. These are two teams some have pegged for greener pastures at some point, whether it be London or Los Angeles, and neither has been able to put on much of a show for their home fans yet this season.
What to watch for: This Rams team has nothing to lose and has plenty of pass-rushing options. I'm not sure Jags QB Blaine Gabbert is going to make it through this game. ... Rams TE Jared Cook been a little MIA since exploding in Week 1, with fellow TE Lance Kendricks seeing more targets. ... Rams rookie WR Tavon Austin is going to have a hard time running laterally for 30 yards on a return and thinking he can catch the edge with the speed of the pro game. Not quite as easy as it was back at West Virginia. ... Have a feeling second overall pick Luke Joeckel is going to take his lumps. ... Not that Gabbert will be able to do much downfield, but the Rams are short of anyone who can do much in the secondary aside from CB Janoris Jenkins.
Carolina at Arizona
Sunday, Oct. 6, 4:05 p.m. ET (Fox)
Why to watch: I don't envy Carson Palmer here. That ferocious Panthers front seven comes in off an early bye, and they are already young and hungry to begin with. The Arizona offensive line is already being held together by gum, staples and a slinky. No bueno. Palmer's mobility was never a strong suit, and what's left of it stands to be tested here. Coming off the bye, I wonder if the Panthers have recalibrated even more on their offensive philosophy. They finally let Cam be Cam in their trouncing of the Giants and get Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert in the backfield together, giving teams multiple options to consider.
What to watch for: The Cards found a way to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald in the second half last week, but that has hardly been the rule. ... You get the sense watching the Cards play that Patrick Peterson could line up at probably six different positions -- on defense alone, not even counting special teams -- and make a legit impact. Against the Panthers they may not be inclined to move him around that much, given the limitations of their pass catchers, but he will be trying to bait Cam Newton. ... Williams is quietly having a strong season for the Panthers after slipping in recent years. He's 11th in the NFL in yards -– everyone else in front of him has played one more game -- and has a hefty average of 4.7 per carry, well above the league average. ... Panthers rookie DT Star Lotulelei will be in Palmer's nightmares after this one, I figure, given the issues in the interior of the Cards line with all their injuries.