Nothing is truly predictable when it comes to the NFL's Week 5 predictions, but I'll go out on a limb (again) anyway. High-flyers like Green Bay and Denver are both up against good defenses as they face Detroit and Dallas. Superstar Seattle is on the road against underrated Indy. Even one of the league's two worst teams will win -- since Jacksonville and St. Louis are playing each other. This week will test the "go with the strongest team no matter what" theory.
Quotes of the Week:
"We like to formation them to death." Drew Brees in an ESPN interview after Monday Night Football
"We're here chillin' with the Brits. Shout out to the Queen." Ike Taylor, mic'd by NFL Films (Showtime's Inside the NFL)
Buffalo Bills at Cleveland Browns. Lost in the Brian Hoyer/Trent Richardson hoopla is the fact that the Cleveland Browns' defense is giving up less than 300 yards per game, featuring less than 80 rushing yards allowed. Buffalo's D ranks 27th overall, but does seem to have awakened of late. Their best trick is turnovers, where they rank fifth. The Bills' secondary played remarkably well last week minus two of their starting DB's and keep an eye open for standout rookie LB Kiko Alonso. On the offensive side of the coin, rookie Buffalo QB E.J. Manuel may only be averaging 198 passing yards, but his calm and command are keeping the ship upright while Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller provide the rushing power to the tune of 152 yards each week (though both have injuries that could slow them Thursday night). See above on Brown's run D -- this is the matchup of the night.
With a new coach and QB, Buffalo probably won't be overlooking Cleveland the way that a more veteran team might. The Browns' locker room has decided to ignore that management publicly threw in the towel with the Richardson trade. They have rallied around former Tom Brady backup (and Cleveland native) Hoyer and their young offensive players from recent draft classes are putting up a fight. TE Jordan Cameron is having the breakout season fans have been waiting for and Josh Gordon has caught 14 passes in the past two weeks for more than 200 yards and a score. Whichever team runs the ball more effectively will win. Willis McGahee is the new starting rusher, but take note of Chris Ogbannaya. One of those guys always on the edge of making teams, Ogbannaya arrived in Cleveland a couple of years ago as the forgotten low rung on the rushing ladder. He has stuck around, morphed into a fullback and has now ended up catching TD passes!
Straight Up: Cleveland
Against the Spread: Cleveland -4 on the strength of the defense.
New England Patriots at Cincinnati Bengals. True to team traditions, the Patriots are playing better than they should and the Bengals are playing below their ability. Bill Belichick out-schemed and out-coached Mike Smith last week in the Georgia Dome. His defense finally shut down Tony Gonzalez and the Atlanta offense couldn't adapt. A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, consider yourselves warned. Then of course there's Tom Brady, who (after gaining control of himself following a petulant Week 1) is holding WR college in Boston. His young charges are improving weekly, bolstered by the always stout (sorry) O-line and some competent running. If they are undefeated with a bunch of kids at WR, how good will they be once Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola return? Just at thought.
The best news for the Bengals O is that Patriot Vince Wilfork, one of the best defensive linemen of the decade, is out for the year with an Achilles injury. Benjarvus Green-Ellis and rookie rusher Giovani Bernard started the season impressively, but have subsided into averaging 3.4 yards per run. That's not enough. Defensively, half of the very talented squad is on the injury report. The second-stringers need to step it up or Brady will carve them up.
Straight Up: New England
Against the Spread: New England +1.5
Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers. Cheeseheads nationwide hope that the Green Bay Packers found an O-line on their bye week. There's nothing whatsoever wrong with Aaron Rodgers, but he needs to stay healthy and a solid pocket once in a while wouldn't hurt. Even on the run he's throwing over eight yards per pass. With three RB's injured, the Pack turned to rookie Johnathan Franklin in Week 3, who made his debut with 13 carries for 103 yards and a score to go along with three catches adding another 23 yards. It looks like he'll get the nod this week as well, though Eddie Lacy may return from concussion. Here's a tip: "Look out for Ndamukong Suh and rookie Ziggy Ansah. They're the exceptionally large gentlemen directly in front of you."
Reggie Bush left the Saints, publicly proclaiming "I'm an every down back who can carry your team." Recently, Lions' fans are heard to exclaim, "Where has this guy been for the last five years?" If Bush can get and stay healthy, the Lions will make the playoffs. It's been so long since defenders had to account for a Detroit rusher that they haven't figured out that they had better take someone off of Calvin Johnson or Bush will just walk it in. Of course that leaves Calvin Johnson one-on-one. You see the problem.
Straight Up: Green Bay as long as Rodgers can outrun Suh
Against the Spread: Green Bay -6.5
Seattle Seahawks at Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck's new favorite teammate is power rusher Trent Richardson, whose mere presence has opened up passing opportunities Luck hasn't seen in the pros. Richardson is probably pretty popular with WR Reggie Wayne, too. The only thing we really learned from the Indy thrashing of Jacksonville last weekend is that the Colts are susceptible to the letdown. Their first half was dismal offensively -- something they cannot get away with against Russell Wilson and the 'Hawks monumentally good defense.
In a second road game in a row, Seattle's mental focus will be tested. If they experience any slump from the battle in Texas, Indy will win. The offensive line is struggling with injuries, while Indy's secondary has some guys questionable on the report. If the former can hold up, the latter will get torched.
Straight Up: Seattle
Against the Spread: Seattle -2.5
Baltimore Ravens at Miami Dolphins. Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco completed only 50 percent of his passes in Week 4, on his way to completing five passes to the opposing team. Flacco and Tom Brady should form their own support group: "Star quarterbacks missing their favorite slot receiver." Though the INT's are out of character, the shocker of the day was that the Ravens attempted only nine rushes in the entire game. Nine. Seriously? They must do better than that on the ground or the Miami D is going to have Flacco doing a repeat performance -- even if the new OT (Eugene Monroe from Jacksonville) can improve on the protection.
Defensively, the Ravens need to figure out how to rush the passer. They used to know. They won a Super Bowl knowing. It cannot be simply the lack of Ray Lewis.
Miami defensive end Cameron Wake is out due to injury, which was probably the only smile Flacco had all week. The 'Fins defenders were roundly thrashed by the Saints' insanely varied offense on Monday night. They should fare better against a Ravens' attack that has yet to find their feet in 2013. The teams match up evenly across almost all statistics, but the Ravens' defense should find a way to manhandle a Miami O-line that was thoroughly exposed by Rob Ryan's new/old look New Orleans' D.
Straight Up: Baltimore
Against the Spread: Baltimore +3.5
New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears. Bet you wouldn't have thought that the Saints' D would be giving up 80 fewer yards per game than the Bears. While the Bears are a stellar group, they can sometimes sell out in an attempt to get one of their signature turnovers. Though first in turnovers, the unit is only 26th in the NFL when it comes to allowing points. They had better show some discipline on Sunday or Drew Brees will throw for even more than his usual ho-hum 300-yard game. The caveat is that there are thunderstorms in the forecast. If it's raining -- advantage Bears.
After a tremendous start to the year, Bears QB Jay Cutler reverted to type last weekend against the Lions' mountainous defense. It may not be much easier this week when facing the revamped and rejuvenated N'awleans' D. This group is still third in points scored even after last week's debacle. They'd better "punch it in" every time they cross midfield if they want to keep up with Brees.
The Bears' toughness and the weather win out. If the weather is calm and sunny, switch to the Saints.
Straight Up: Chicago
Against the Spread: Chicago -1
Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants. If Big Blue can get their hands on a RB who can keep his hands on the ball, they could have a good day against an Eagles' D coughing up 122 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry. In fact, if the G-men can't score against a Philly group surrendering practically 35 points each Sunday, the situation may be unsalvageable. Lest the Eagles' offense lose heart, the Giants are giving up almost 37 points per contest. Oh dear.
The Eagles have to score in the red zone. They are second in yards and only 12th in points. Since Eli Manning is out there with a bunch of old linemen, inept RB's and apparently only one WR who is paying attention, we won't rub salt in the wound by quoting Giants' offensive stats. (30th in points. Oops.)
Straight Up: New York
Against the Spread: New York -1
Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans. This would have been so much more interesting a game had Jake Locker not been injured. It's not that Ryan Fitzpatrick is a bad quarterback; he's just got that Ivy League "this is just my hobby job" attitude, which is probably going to make Tamba Hali want to ring his neck. Not that Tamba needs extra motivation in that department. Rusher Chris Johnson may have some success against a Chiefs' D giving up 5.4 yards per rush, but in general I wouldn't want my worst enemy facing the Chiefs' defense right now. (I hope the fans remember to thank Romeo Crennel for putting this group together for them.)
The Titans' defense has refound its toughness this year, so Alex Smith and company will find it a bit rougher going than against the hapless Giants. But the new Alex Smith doesn't turn the ball over and he's always got Jamaal Charles to dump off to -- as long as Andy Reid doesn't run the guy into the ground the way he likes to do with his all-purpose backs. Charles already has severe blisters on his feet. Uh-huh. As long as the offensive line can do their job, the Chiefs should make it to a jaw-dropping 5-0. But it could be close on the road.
Straight Up: Kansas City
Against the Spread: Kansas City -2.5
Jacksonville Jaguars at St. Louis Rams. Really? Do we have to think about this game? Frankly, Jacksonville should pay former TB QB Josh Freeman the 6.whatever million dollars left on his contract and have him suit up for the Jags. He couldn't possibly do worse. Assuming that Maurice Jones-Drew has not followed Tackle Monroe out the door (like to the Giants, maybe?) he will once again represent the entire Jags' offense. Yes, I know that WR Justin Blackmon is back from suspension. See, that's the thing about wide receivers -- someone has to actually throw you the ball. Aye, there's the rub. The defense started the year battling gamely, but the doldrums are taking their toll.
The Rams' offense isn't much better at less than 18 points per game. The 30th-ranked St. Louis D is not good enough to overcome that. Neither quarterback has much to work with, but then neither quarterback has shown fans any reason to think that they will improve, even if they did get better pass protection and some A-level WR's. Unless Bradford can turn the corner, Jacksonville may not be the only team QB-shopping next April.
Straight Up: St. Louis
Against the Spread: Jacksonville +12.5
Carolina Panthers at Arizona Cardinals. The Cards also traded away a tackle this week. Levi Brown is now a Steeler. Second-year player Bradley Sowell is now up on the blind side. Yikes.
Both defenses are good, ranking 4th and 6th in the NFC. Arizona is actually first against the rush. Take note, DeAngelo Williams and Cam Newton. The Cards are not as strong against the pass, so now would be a good time for Newton to pass for more than his average 170 yards in a game. There are, believe it or not, five WR's on this team not named Steve Smith. Surely, one of them can get open a couple of times!
Carson Palmer has the quality problem of having Larry Fitzgerald on his team. That's translating into 241.5 passing yards, but only 17.3 points each week. Not enough, particularly when facing the Panthers' defense, which is allowing less than 13 points each Sunday and is coming off a bye.
If Arizona can generate a running game, the Palmer/Fitzgerald connection might do the rest. The Cardinals defense has looked good, but they haven't seen anything like Cam Newton.
Straight Up: Carolina
Against the Spread: Carolina -1.5
Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys. Monte Kiffin's tough Dallas D against Peyton Manning the Magnificent. No, that's not his formal name. Yet. Don't miss it. And on the flip side, watch Tony Romo against a surprisingly strong Denver defense. Let's see how the Denver DB's fare against the truly phenomenal Cowboys' WR Dez Bryant, whose season is so "breakout" that a better word would be "spectacular, astounding, brilliant." Yes, that's more than one word.
Manning is going to have to shoulder the load even more than usual this week, since Dallas has held opposing rushers to 77.8 yards on average. Ole No. 18 will figure out which defensive back he wants to victimize -- and that player will wish he'd never been signed. My money is on Morris Claiborne as the unlucky fellow.
Romo will be under similar pressure since the Broncos' defense is only allowing their adversaries to gain 74 yards per game. Guess we won't be seeing that much-rumored balanced Dallas offense this week either.
And will Jason Garrett have learned the all-important lesson: do not kick the ball to Denver return man Trindon Holliday? I'm thinking probably not.
Straight Up: Denver
Against the Spread: Denver -7.5
Houston Texans at San Francisco 49ers. Houston should have won last week. Fans are burning QB Matt Schaub's jersey in effigy, but he didn't let the Seahawks offense storm back in the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, he has to stop turning the ball over. With one All-Pro WR, one promising rookie WR, a terrific TE and two of the best rushers in the league, this team shouldn't be leaning so heavily on its defense. It's a very good defense, but they haven't responded well to stellar quarterback play. Colin Kaepernick isn't Russell Wilson, but he's capable of creating unpredictable sparks. The Texans may be missing their defensive heart since MLB Brian Cushing is recovering from a concussion. We'll see whether Houston can dig up some red-zone grit this week after an embarrassing collapse against Seattle. Thus far, the team has proved incapable of championship fortitude, despite their talent.
As long as Jim Harbaugh runs the offense through Frank Gore, everything goes along swimmingly by the Bay. TE Vernon Davis is no longer on the injury report, which is good news. If Kaepernick would throw him the ball, it would be better news. However, the Niners' D rose to the occasion admirably last week even without passrusher Aldon Smith. They rank fifth overall and fourth against the pass, giving up only 191.8 yards per game this year.
Straight Up: San Francisco
Against the Spread: Houston +6.5
San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders. Philip Rivers has always been a top-tier quarterback; now he's getting a chance to remind us of that fact. The Chargers' offense is currently ranked eighth in yards and seventh in points. Unfortunately, star wideout Malcom Floyd is on IR. However, Vincent Brown, Eddie Royal, Keenan Allen and the rejuvenated Antonio Gates seem to be picking up the slack just fine. And diminutive rusher Danny Woodhead is proving that his New England production wasn't just a function of playing with Tom Brady.
The defense seems destined to operate without passrushers as yet another one (former Colt Dwight Freeney) ended up on IR this week. They are hovering around 21st in the league in points allowed at 25.5 per game. That may be more than a Raiders' squad minus center Stefen Wisniewski, FB Marcel Reese and possibly both starting QB Terrelle Pryor (concussion) and starting RB Darren McFadden (hamstring). I certainly hope that no one in the Raiders' front office has prorated McFadden's salary according to healthy time on the field of play. It would just depress them. And they have enough to depress them.
Straight Up: San Diego
Against the Spread: San Diego -4
New York Jets at Atlanta Falcons. Everyone expected the Jets to be a football train wreck. They are 2-2. Everyone expected the Falcons to make another Super Bowl run. They are 1-3. They'll be 2-3 after this week since Jets WR Santonio Holmes is out and WR Stephen Hill is doubtful. Unless some guy from the practice squad suddenly starts catching deep balls from rookie QB Geno Smith, they won't be able to generate offense (with all due respect to plucky RB Bilal Powell, who will do his best on the ground).
However, Gang Green's defense is kicking some football behind. They rank second overall and have held opposing QB's to just over 200 yards per game. With WR's Roddy White and Julio Jones both nursing injuries, Matt Ryan's targets are shrinking fast and an offense that should have been loaded is reduced to essentially Tony Gonzalez. Great as the future Hall of Fame TE is, he can't catch them all.
Straight Up: Atlanta
Against the Spread: Atlanta -9
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