A quarter of the way through the season, we are starting to see some trends developing. Here are the top 15 story lines as we take an early look at the Week Five games:
1. So many story lines this week with Broncos-Patriots. Dan Koppen vs. Vince Wilfork, practice battlers for parts of eight years, going head to head again. Josh McDaniels facing his old team, with some scars still likely raw. Brandon Lloyd, too. Gronk (Rob) vs. Gronk (Broncos FB Chris). A rematch of the playoff destruction from January, sans Tebow. And, oh yeah, Tom Brady-Peyton Manning. It’s the first time they have faced each other when it’s not Colts-Patriots, but that might only make it more intriguing. The Patriots jumped back into the contender fray after that unseemly 1-2 start, and given the dregs in the rest of the AFC East, they are the unquestioned favorites until further, unexpected notice. The Broncos might be in the same boat at 2-2 in a middling, unsettled AFC West, but their two losses — and a brutal remaining schedule — loom as worries.
2. Manning, who has thrown for more than 300 yards in each of his four Broncos games, will attack two safeties, Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory, who were pretty bad in the win at Buffalo, and of course, Manning will be locking mental horns with his old nemesis, Bill Belichick. Brady gets a rematch with the Broncos’ defense he tore up in the playoffs for six TD passes, but it’s a new coordinator in Denver, with Jack Del Rio replacing Dennis Allen. Interesting side note (on that note): The last time Brady faced a Del Rio-coached team in a meaningful game was against the Jaguars in 2009. If you are forgetting the game, Brady was maybe as on point as he ever has been: 23-of-26 passing, 267 yards, four TDs, untouched by the Jags’ defenders. Wes Welker was targeted 13 times that game, and he caught 13 passes for 138 yards. Yeah, now back to the present — and reality — here. Welker was supposed to be on the outs? He has now caught 22 passes for 366 yards the past three weeks. Cut that guy, will you, please?
3. The Eagles have three wins by a combined four points. Their one loss was by 21. They’re the first NFL team to win their first three games by a combined margin of four points. So do we make that much of Sunday night’s victory over the Giants? Well, we do in this regard: They were patient. They set a game plan and stuck with it. When the run was shut down in the first half (19 yards on 12 carries), they still went back to it. Result: LeSean McCoy was electric in the second half, the Eagles didn’t turn the ball over for the first time all season and they squeezed out a big divisional win over a measuring-stick rival. On top of that, they have a stout defense, which should make Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh so interesting.
4. The Steelers have had an extra week to ponder what happened to them defensively in Oakland. The secondary was a total mess, and once more we have to play the will-they-won’t-they game with Troy Polamalu and James Harrison. It sounds like Polamalu might be more likely of the two to go against the Eagles, and they’ll have their chances against Michael Vick and the Eagles, who had 12 turnovers in the first three games, even if they didn’t give the ball away against the Giants. On the other side, it’s the best sack-and-tackle-breaking quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger (sacked nine times by the Eagles the last time they played in 2008), against the Eagles’ electric wave of pass rushers (who need a nickname, collectively, by the way). Ben’s incredible strength against the speed of Trent Cole, Jason Babin and Co. What a fun matchup. It could also mark the season debut for RB Rashard Mendenhall, who could start.
5. So the Jets are back to being sad again. Forty-eight points feels like two months ago. Coming off the embarrassing 34-0 loss (and it easily could have been worse) to the 49ers, the Jets draw maybe the other best defense in the NFL in the Texans. Is this the low point in Rex Ryan’s tenure? QB Mark Sanchez struggled, WR Santonio Holmes suffered what might be a season-ending foot injury, the defense was gutted for 245 rushing yards and several of them came on “Wildcat”-type plays that the Jets were supposed to unleash on the NFL with Tim Tebow. What a mess. Now Ryan is facing questions about when to bench Sanchez and go to Tebow — all before the unbeaten Texans come to town. Have fun having the castle be stormed.
6. The Texans are not perfect. Yeah, their record is 4-0 for the first time in franchise history, they rank first defensively in yards and points allowed, their quarterback only has been sacked three times in 128 dropbacks and they have perhaps the most disciplined team in football (42.8 penalty yards per game, two turnovers total). There’s still stuff they’d like to, you know, clean up. Steady-as-she-goes head coach Gary Kubiak is on the cold seat these days for his ship guidance, though, and he considers the Jets to be just the next tough opponent on the schedule. “You just keep playing,” Kubiak said. “I think we understand every week is a new week. … We had a good month, good September. It’s a new day. … We’re just focused on each opportunity we have to win. The next one is in New York so we’ll have to go on the road and play very well.” One thing, Coach: Anything you can do to lighten Arian Foster’s load? He’s on pace for a Jamal Anderson-esque 412 carries, and you do have Ben Tate (even if he’s a bit nicked up right now) and all … “He looks fine to me,” Kubiak said. “He’s holding up fine.” So there you have it. It’s good to be on top of the NFL world.
7. The Saints might not be on the very bottom, but their record certainly says they are. Sunday night will be their fifth chance this season to win their first game, but even if they can’t take down the Chargers at home, a very special league record — NBC promo alert! — is on the verge of falling. With a TD pass against San Diego, Drew Brees would take down the mighty Johnny Unitas and his record of 47 straight games with a touchdown pass. And here’s a nice item: Unitas’ son wrote a letter to Brees (posted on the team’s Facebook page) wishing him well and that his father, who passed away in 2002, would have wanted Brees to break the mark. That’s cool. And how about this? It appears that Sean Payton will not request to the NFL to see his QB break the mark. Sunday, Gregg Williams, the other suspended principle in the Bounty scandal, was able to attend the Rams game as a fan to watch his son coach. Payton told the Times-Picayune that he’s "kind of got a full plate here." Payton continued, "A handful of people texted me that. Right now, I'll be able to watch it, and shoot, just being able to watch it on TV is no different than being there in person. It's just an honor to be connected to this." NBC appreciates this, Sean, and our guess is that the NFL does, too.
8. Who are the Chargers? Are they the team that whisked their way to margins of eight and 17 points in two road victories and 28 in one home win, or the one that was smoked at home by the Falcons? They’ll head to New Orleans confident after their six-turnover barbecuing of the Chiefs in Kansas City, but are they perhaps ripe for the upset? The Saints bounced back with their best four-quarter effort of the season, losing by a point at Lambeau. Scary for the Chargers is that Brees got way hot (446 passing yards) and the defense, perish the thought, actually created multiple turnovers. But the Chargers are talking confidently ahead of their trip to the Big Easy, and the returns of OLT Jared Gaither and RB Ryan Mathews should make them better over time. The last time the Chargers and Saints met, it was in London’s Wembley Stadium in 2008.
9. Anyone remember a barnburner of a game between the Bills and 49ers just over 20 years ago? It was 1992 when the teams met in Candlestick and it was the first NFL game with zero punts. For the Bills, it was Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed. For the Niners, it was Steve Young, Jerry Rice and John Taylor. The final: 34-31. So why the history lesson? Well, besides it being a cool side note, shame on you if you so quickly dismiss the scoring potential of an Alex Smith-Ryan Fitzpatrick tilt as these teams meet again for only the fourth time in San Francisco since that famed contest. The Niners dropped 34 (and Colin Kaepernick’s charity, going down before the endzone, spared the Jets of having 41 hung) on them last week. The Bills rolled up 28 points and 438 yards against the Patriots. So what if the offenses are best when they keep it on the ground and that, at least in the case of the 49ers, the defense is a big reason why they scored that much? The Bills come in battered and they were battered the last time they traveled to the West Coast (a 37-10 dusting by the Chargers in Week 14 last year). The Niners are 3-1 and haven’t lost at regular-season game at home since Week Two of a year ago.
10. Thursday’s Cardinals-Rams game is suddenly more intriguing following the Rams’ upset of the Seahawks and the Cardinals BP-raising overtime win to remain perfect. The Rams had been knocking on the door with a close loss at Detroit and a win over the Redskins in which they were the more composed team before last week’s special-teams-led victory over a Seattle team coming in from a charter flight on Cloud Nine. Although the Rams have not moved the ball well consistently, and the Cardinals have brandished a good defense, that unit took a step backwards against the Dolphins, allowing Ryan Tannehill and Brian Hartline to bring back memories of Dan Marino and Mark Duper. And this was the same “D” that confused and harassed Tom Brady and Michael Vick? Odd. The Cardinals go for 5-0, but it will not be easy against the Fighting Amendolas.
11. Our thoughts go out to the family of Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, and all of us at PFW will be behind him as he battles leukemia. The Colts will have to soldier on Sunday with a tough matchup against the battered Packers, who emerged from a grind against the Saints with a one-point victory, the referees and Graham Harrell be damned. Aaron Rodgers might have to attack the Colts’ secondary without WR Greg Jennings, whose groin is said to have not improved. Still, it should be an entertaining QB battle with Andrew Luck, despite the rookie’s tepid start. He has had two weeks now, coming off the bye, to study the Packers’ defense, which had started strong the first three games but took a big step backwards against the Saints on Sunday. This one could be close in what should be an emotional Lucas Oil Stadium.
12. The Dolphins have suffered back-to-back overtime losses and head to Cincinnati a bit battered from the experience. They had the Jets on the ropes and couldn’t finish them off. They had the unbeaten Cardinals dead to rights and folded in the fourth, despite some fireworks from the rookie quarterback. Tannehill and Andy Dalton have been mostly terrific this season, and they’ll each have a chance to score some points this weekend provided that the pass rushers — Cameron Wake for Miami; Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and others for Cincy — don’t take over. But take note of the Bengals, please, folks. They are getting better defensively, and their slew of talented wide receivers is quite the tough bunch to defend. Win this one and the Bengals will move to 4-1 with two division games ahead of them.
13. Could Robert Griffin III be the one to end the Falcons’ unbeaten run? The Redskins have their share of warts for sure, but Griffin has been mostly magnificent. Here’s a great point passed on from esteemed friend of the program and PFW Redskins correspondent John Keim: In four games, Griffin has completed 12-of-14 passes (not counting two spikes) for 126 yards and has run four times for 55 yards in his final drives of the game. As Keim notes, that’s heady stuff. We saw quarter-pole NFL MVP Matt Ryan drive his Falcons from their own 1-yard line into (game-winning) field-goal range on Sunday against the Panthers. Could Griffin pull a reversal of fortune against these Falcons at Washington on Sunday? He has taken a beating almost every game but has given the 2-2 Skins a legit chance to be 4-0 at this point, despite the occasionally putrid play of the injury-riddled defense.
14. Flashpoint game in Charlotte this weekend. The 2-2 Seahawks head to Carolina for a game against the 1-3 Panthers on Sunday, and there’s a good chance we’ll be coming out of this one talking about one of the quarterbacks needing to be better. Cam Newton has been off to an up-and-down start, even with a decent game Sunday against the Falcons, and Seattle’s Russell Wilson has shown that he’s not fully developed yet. Could a Seahawks loss lead to a change to Matt Flynn? It’s not out of the question, although the blame clearly also lies with an offensive line that has started four different combinations in four games and a WR group that has failed to make plays on a regular basis. Yes, the Fail Mary is what we would consider an outlier.
15. Could the Vikings be 4-1, ladies and gentlemen? Hang on a moment. First, Chris Johnson no longer is subject to cute variations on his CJ2K nickname, having ginsu-ed the Texans’ talented defense for 141 rushing yards on Sunday. The Titans mixed in a lot more sprint draws in favor of the zone series, and it seemed to work. But what will the passing game look like? Jake Locker almost certainly is out for this one with a left shoulder injury, and WR Kenny Britt (ankle) also could be out. Matt Hasselbeck would then be left to attack a Vikings defense that battered around Lions WR Calvin Johnson Sunday and rattled QB Matthew Stafford with five sacks and four additional QB hits. He never looked comfortable. Hasselbeck threw for two TD passes in relief of Locker but also accounted for three turnovers. The Vikings are 6-1 against this franchise, going back to the Houston Oilers days.