Here are the top 15 story lines in a Week Six that includes some interesting non-conference matchups:
1. The Packers are in deep trouble. The Packers are just fine. About half the folks out there think all is fine and good in Dairyland, and the rest of the people think the world is caving in around them. There’s evidence for the latter in advance of their Sunday-night game against the Texans: RB Cedric Benson is out a reported eight weeks or longer, and NT B.J. Raji and TE Jermichael Finley could join WR Greg Jennings on the sideline. QB Aaron Rodgers is frustrated, but Mike McCarthy is doing his best to keep this ship afloat at 2-3. We have noted ad infinitum that the Packers were 3-3 the year they won it all in 2010. And you can say they got jobbed in Seattle and that Sunday’s loss in Indy can be explained away by a higher power. All that sounds fine. Except that there’s something off with this team right now.
2. Did the Packers watch Texans DE J.J. Watt go all Mark Eaton against the Jets? And if so, what does their sometimes-maligned offensive line plan to do about him? Right now, Watt and Packers OLB Clay Matthews would appear to be the frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year award, but is anyone not voting for Watt after Monday? "J.J. Watt is the real deal," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said. “You’d think the Knicks would pick him up after all the shot-blocking he did tonight.” The Texans didn’t exactly shine their way otherwise through the 23-17 Monday-night victory, but it was good enough. Even great teams win ugly. But great teams also face off, toe to toe, with desperate teams that come into their building. That will be the setup when the Packers arrive in Houston, and they will be without LB Brian Cushing, who suffered a torn ACL on Monday. Interesting note: The Texans don’t leave home again until Nov. 11.
3. Has 49ers QB Alex Smith ever played better than he did Sunday? The 49ers as a team haven’t — not statistically, anyway. No one named Montana or Rice was ever a part of an offense that put up 621 yards of offense (how symmetrical: 311 rushing, 310 passing), but this Niners unit accomplished that Sunday against the Bills. The last time Sunday’s opponent, the Giants, came to town back in January, it was a totally different story. It was the NFC Championship game, and the Niners had one reception to a wide receiver in a game that lasted more than 72 minutes, and that one catch went for three yards. Smith and the 49ers will be seeking revenge, and they have tried to stake their claim as the NFC’s best team so far this season with an impressive start, save for a loss to the Vikings that smacked of the Niners coming in overconfident. That won’t be the case Sunday at Candlestick. They know the Giants well from their two meetings a year ago — a 27-20 49ers victory in Week 10 and the 20-17 overtime epic that sent the Giants (and not the Niners) to the Super Bowl, where they would go on to win it all.
4. Of course, the Giants should be in the discussion for best team in the NFC, too. Despite two divisional losses, they have handled adversity well, have received some great out-of-nowhere performances (who needs Mario Manningham anyway?) and will be very much prepared for the 49ers’ toughness and strength in the trenches. The Giants ran the spots off the ball against the Browns — a season-high 243 yards as a team, and a career-best 200 for Ahmad Bradshaw — but they know the challenge will be tougher against the 49ers, who allow a mere 3.5 yards per run. “We need to build on (the Browns game),” Giants C David Baas said. “We’ve just got to continue to work toward that and have that same rhythm. We know it’s going to be a challenge going out there. They have a really good defense.” A fun but irrelevant note: It will be the Niners’ third straight (and final, at least until the postseason) game against a New York-based team. There are no more New York-based teams left.
5. The Vikings are hearing the same questions the Cardinals heard: Namely, are they for real? This we know: Percy Harvin is for real. And he might be the best athlete on the field Sunday when the Vikings travel to face the Redskins — and yes, that counts rookie QB Robert Griffin III (more on him, and whether he plays Sunday, below). Harvin’s jaw-dropping, hip-shaking, tackle-breaking touchdown was one for the highlight reels. He’s doing everything for this team — why has he not blown the Gjallarhorn to date? — including taking pressure off of RB Adrian Peterson and QB Christian Ponder. And we can’t wait to see him catch passes against the 31st-ranked secondary and return kicks against the sometimes-dysfunctional Redskins special teams.
6. Griffin tweeted Sunday night, following his new facial tattoo from Falcons LB Sean Weatherspoon, that he’d be good to go for this coming Sunday. That’s nice, kid, but this is not Baylor. There are rules here. (Kidding — Baylor is a fine place with many fine rules.) But it’s serious stuff, this concussion business. The NFL has a procedure Griffin must go through, and go through it he will. Otherwise, it’s Kirk Cousins, who threw a 77-yard TD pass in relief of Griffin but then tossed a pair of picks in the loss to the Falcons. No matter who is under center, there’ll be a good matchup of Alfred Morris running against an improved Vikings defensive front. Morris and Eric Dickerson (nice company) are the only men to rush for 75 or more yards in their first five NFL games. With Morris on one side and Adrian Peterson on the other, we could see some serious collisions happen.
7. The Broncos are 2-3 but very much locked in a tight AFC West race with the 3-2 Chargers, their opponent in San Diego on Monday night. Monday typically is Peyton Manning Day, as he is 11-4 in those games with a 96.3 QB rating. Of course, his opponent, Philip Rivers ain’t so shabby himself: a 7-3 Monday record with 17 TDs and a 105.2 rating. Rivers and the Chargers have been better early in the season than they typically are, but Sunday night’s loss to the Saints — with a shot to win at the end — was a painful one, especially with OLT Jared Gaither getting nicked up on the final drive. Gaither’s health is not known for this game, and neither is the strength of this team; they’re a tough bunch to get a read on, but Rivers feels good about where they are at. “This team is close,” he said. “I hate losing, but the way we fought (against the Saints), that’s something good.”
8. Manning has dominated the Broncos talk this season, but the defense has cut into that talk a bit following the loss to the Patriots in which a trend has started to formulate. They are capable of big plays and still rank fairly well in a number of categories on that side of the ball, but the Broncos’ inability to get stops on third downs is becoming painful. They rank 29th in that department (facing a Chargers offense that is tied for 10th) after allowing the Patriots to convert more than 50 percent of their third-down chances, including a ridiculous 4-of-5 with 10 or more yards to go (excluding a 3rd-and-12 kneeldown on the game's final play). That has to get better.
9. The Patriots and Seahawks will lock horns Sunday in a fun matchup — especially with the Patriots’ newfound run game (more than 200 yards each of the past two games) going against the Seahawks’ stout run defense (66.6 yards per game allowed). But there will be a distinctly college-like feel in the game. Along with Seahawks head coach (and former Patriots head coach) Pete Carroll having his best defense since the USC days, he might have to come up with something special to stop the Patriots’ Oregon-esque no-huddle offense that is starting to become deadly. Could TE Aaron Hernandez (knee) be back, adding to the edge? Perhaps. On the other side, the Patriots’ defense has been pretty stout against the run, but it will have plenty of work to do to stop RB Marshawn Lynch, who pretty much is the Seahawks’ offense these days.
10. The Steelers have to be excited that RB Rashard Mendenhall ran the way he did — 81 yards, a TD and a long play called back by a questionable penalty — in his first game back from knee surgery, but in this giveth-taketh league we’re in, they likely will be without (again) Troy Polamalu. His calf injury sounds pretty serious, and he might even miss a few more games. But these are the Titans they’re playing on Thursday night, and few teams have gone from competent to near complete dysfunction so quickly. RB Chris Johnson, who should refrain saying pretty much anything that doesn’t start with criticism of his own play first, said his Titans are not contenders at the moment. "I don't believe we're close right now,” he said. “You look at the games and how we're playing, we don't look like a good team. I wouldn't sit here and say we're close." Nothing like a nice dose of reality in a short week. At least they are at home, where they won their only game, against Detroit in Week Three.
11. Suddenly, the Rams and Dolphins, who meet Sunday in Miami, are to be respected. They have limited offenses in some respects — especially the Rams in the wake of the Danny Amendola injury — but strong defenses that have played well in recent games. The Dolphins, for instance, have allowed a mere 11 rushing first downs, which is incredible, and rank first in both rushing yards and yards per carry allowed. Consider yourself warned, Steven Jackson. Of course, Dolphins rookie QB Ryan Tannehill had better heed these numbers, too: The Rams rank fourth in interception percentage, seventh in yards per pass play allowed and, following their nine-sack assault of Cardinals QB Kevin Kolb, 11th in sack percentage. Of course, that defense has not been as effective on the road, where the Rams are 0-2. The Dolphins should be 2-0 in Miami but somehow lost in overtime to the Jets in Week Three.
12. The Colts are coming off one of the more emotional victories in recent franchise history. The Jets are mired in a slump that has tickled the columnists and back-page cartoonists to no end. Here are the two questions we must ask as these teams face off Sunday: Will the Colts crash following their sky-high win? And can the Jets find some kind of identity? The Jets at least fought hard in the 23-17 loss to the Texans, but cranking up the energy if they get off to a slow start in this game again could prove difficult. The offense was erratic. The defense has become shockingly sloppy. No wonder Rex Ryan pulled out every trick in the book Monday night. The Colts can't match the Texans’ talent on either side of the ball, but they appear to have an electric passing combo with Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne. What a performance Sunday.
13. The Lions did some soul-searching during their bye week. They heard the fan and media calls that they are frauds and will return to action Sunday against the Eagles in Philadelphia aimed at proving a lot of people wrong. The numbers don’t lie: Including the playoffs, the Lions have now lost 10 of their past 16 games and six of their past seven road games. To do so, they’ll have to beat an equally talented Eagles team that also must find itself. They are similar in a fascinating way — the Lions and Eagles both rank in the top 11 in offense (third and 11th, respectively) and defense (ninth and eighth) and yet rank in the bottom third of the league in point differential (21st and 22nd). Michael Vick’s season-long watch, minus a brief respite following the Giants victory, continues. With each turnover (he’s up to 11 on the season) he slowly walks the plank towards his own end. Will Andy Reid nudge him off the edge? It might be just a few picks or fumbles away. Stay tuned …
14. The Cowboys also spent their bye week reliving their strange, topsy-turvy first month of the season, but Jason Garrett is staying the course in at least one way: There won’t be any major lineup changes that aren’t injury-predicated. They had better have gotten some rest, because four of the Cowboys’ next five games will be on the road, starting with Sunday’s game at Baltimore. The Ravens know they got away with one at Kansas City on Sunday and that they’ll have to be finer in the passing game than they were against the Chiefs. Although the Cowboys were torched by the Bears the last time they took the field, this is still a pass “D” that has played mostly well this season and has the cornerbacks to stick with the Ravens’ receivers. The Ravens also must pass block better, having allowed four sacks in each of the past two weeks. The Cowboys have a top-10 pass rush, and DeMarcus Ware could tee off on OLT Michael Oher.
15. Take away RB Bernard Scott’s 29-yard run Sunday, and the 3-2 Bengals averaged a mere 2.8 yards on the ground in the loss to the Dolphins. And with Scott taken away for good (he’s on I.R. now), the Bengals will have to find someone to step up other than BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who has lost two fumbles and is becoming well known for his penchant for two-yard runs. Luckily, the Browns are Sunday’s opponent in Cleveland, and they just allowed 243 yards on the ground to the Giants, 200 of them to Ahmad Bradshaw. On the bright side, the Browns’ offense is steadily improving — even if Brandon Weeden is still learning the NFL’s passing rules. But the Browns also come in with some serious incentive to win: Losing would mean 0-6 and 12 straight losses dating back to last season, both of which would be team records for futility. By the way, Pat Shurmur, the new owner officially arrives next week. Just in case you had not heard the news.