We've reached the one-third mark (or thereabouts) of the season, and some trends are starting to crystallize. Then again, the first-place teams at this point of the season last year included the Bears, Chargers, Cardinals and Eagles. None made the playoffs. The Broncos, Redskins, Packers and Colts were a combined 8-11. All four of them made the postseason.
With that in mind, let's try to sort through the confusion and take an early look at the top 10 storylines, in order, for Week 6 of the NFL season:
1. The New Orleans Saints have to feel like they can march into Foxboro and win there for the first time since 1995. They are coming off two statement victories and now have a four-game win the NFC South. You can try to take away Darren Sproles, or focus on Jimmy Graham (few have succeeded in stopping him), but then there's Marcus Colston, Pierre Thomas, Kenny Stills and the rest of the gang. Drew Brees is in a great zone. The New England Patriots, meanwhile, are struggling to generate big pass plays, and they can't lean too much more on a solid defense. The Saints could stress them in too many ways, even with the possible return of Rob Gronkowski.
2. The Denver Broncos are still the best team in the NFL until further notice, even with their defensive deficiencies seemingly exposed in the win over the Dallas Cowboys. Time to get healthy: The Jacksonville Jaguars limp to town having lost 19 of their past 21 games, and all five this season, and the sharps in Vegas have installed them as four-TD underdogs. Not shocking: They are without their Week 1 starting offensive tackles, and their quarterback. For the Broncos, this game is expected to be the last one before Von Miller returns from suspension. They won't need him. Please, Peyton Manning: Don't show off Sunday.
3. The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys will meet in a game that will have big early implications on the NFC East race, which has gotten off to a ridiculously bad start. The Cowboys are 2-3 and the Redskins are 1-3, but someone has to win this division — perhaps by default. But we can't forget what Robert Griffin III did less than a year ago in this stadium (before AT&T bought the naming rights) on Thanksgiving. Perhaps another primetime game on Sunday night, with Griffin having a week to rest his knee, could be exactly what the Skins need to get going. And the Cowboys' defense has been a sieve the past few games. Oh, and Tony Romo. (We figured we needed at least to mention his name after last week's epic/crushing performance.)
4. The Chicago Bears will get a primetime home game on Thursday night against an 0-5 New York Giants team to get back on track. The Bears have dropped two straight, both in frustrating fashion, and there have been whispers about the motivation of Brandon Marshall and Julius Peppers, two of their three or four best players. If they come out flat against a Giants team swimming upstream with a deflated ball for a paddle, then there will be trouble. The Giants will start Brandon Jacobs, who wasn't on the roster three weeks ago, for the injured David Wilson. They also plan to start Jon Beason at middle linebacker, days after he arrived via trade. With a banged-up roster and a quarterback trying to do too much, the Giants are a wayward ship right now.
5. The Indianapolis Colts looked like a Super Bowl-caliber team in beating the Seattle Seahawks in a playoff-like atmosphere at Lucas Oil Stadium, and now the Colts will take their show on the road Monday against the San Diego Chargers. The Chargers took a step back with their late late late Week 5 loss to the Oakland Raiders in which the defense was the main culprit. How can this unit hope to stop Andrew Luck and Co. even after the tough news that Colts running back Ahmad Bradshaw is done for the season? Even a shootout with Philip Rivers trading blows might not be enough; he tried to do that at Oakland and was picked three times, despite a 400-yard game. Critical time to stop the bleeding for Mike McCoy's team, which had been off to a fairly auspicious start.
6. The AFC West has been a pleasant surprise on the competitiveness meter, and the 5-0 Kansas City Chiefs should expect a worthy battle from the suddenly relevant Raiders, who belie their 2-3 mark. Terrelle Pryor has come of age, and the defense is at least making some plays to keep the team in most games. The Chiefs' offense, at best, has been opportunistic, but they have to feel a bit fortunate in the field position and extra possessions the defense and special teams have granted them. This is the week to get Dwayne Bowe more involved in the passing game and let Alex Smith take a few more shots. They need to get more explosive plays eventually.
7. The Green Bay Packers finished off the Pyrrhic victory over the Detroit Lions, finding out that Clay Matthews would be out for an extended period, although they hope not for the season. As a result, Aaron Rodgers has said it's the offense's onus to score more points. This should frighten a Baltimore Ravens defense trying to stop Rodgers on Sunday, a group that has been a good chunk better than it was in Week 1 but perhaps still not dominant enough to offset Rodgers' quick release. He only has been sacked 11 times this season, and the Ravens' improved pass rush must be in top form in this one.
8. If new Buffalo Bills starter Thad Lewis can perform with the same guts and smarts he did for the Cleveland Browns last season in Week 17 against the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 1-ranked defense, the Bills will have a shot at home to shock the Cincinnati Bengals. This is a Bengals team that, yes, is coming off a statement victory at home in holding Tom Brady to six points. But it would be oh-so-Marvin Lewis-like to see a team he is coaching to fall back to earth the week after a big victory. Who knows? Maybe this group is different. It's very tough to tell so far this season, given how up and down the Bengals have been.
9. The Detroit Lions hope to have Calvin Johnson back against on of the budding defenses in this league in the Cleveland Browns. We already can savor the thought of Johnson vs. N. 1 receiver eraser Joe Haden, who is having a great season. The problem for the Browns, naturally, is on offense and one solid half of football is not enough to convince anyone that Brandon Weeden can take on all comers. The Lions' menacing defensive front could be a real detriment for a quarterback who too often holds onto the ball too long and is flummoxed when his first option is covered. Memo to Detroit: Cover Weeden's first option.
10. And now for some quick hitters on the rest of the Week 6 slate ... Matt Schaub returns home hoping to end his pick-six streak at four games, but it should be noted that the Houston Texans face the St. Louis Rams, who intercepted the Jaguars twice (one run back for a score). ... Josh Freeman will sit for a week and watch his new Minnesota Vikings take on the Carolina Panthers, who are coming off a horrible loss to Arizona. Maybe not a lot of points in this one? Who knows? Tough game to read. ... Geno Smith should get a hero's welcome when he comes home and his New York Jets take on the underdog Pittsburgh Steelers, who will blitz the kid and test his knowledge of protection schemes. ... It might be a battle of the third-round picks as Nick Foles (likely) takes on Mike Glennon in Tampa Bay, site of Foles' only career victory with the Philadelphia Eagles. ... Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Tennessee Titans going to Seattle with the Seahawks angry after losing to the Colts? This might be an afternoon to forget for him. ... Have you noticed how good the Arizona Cardinals' defense has been of late? They could give the San Francisco 49ers a little more trouble than many people realize, even at Candlestick.