When picking Week 5's NFL games, the surprise teams aren't such a surprise anymore and the respectable teams have formed a football peloton, but the top-tier squads are still swimming beneath total domination.
After deciding to become a Bronco, Peyton Manning spoke with the NFL Network in praise of parity: "Let me tell you something, the NFL is in great shape." Last Sunday's games certainly bore that out. Well, except for Tampa Bay and Kansas City. And Jacksonville. Ah, but the Cleveland Browns are no longer the hapless and hopeless. And that's progress.
Thursday Night Football
Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams. Every time that it looks as if the Rams defense has arrived -- they end up surrendering 22.8 points per game.* The offense is only bringing 19.8 points. Last Sunday seven of those were from a special teams fake! WR Danny Amendola may wish to consider life as a thespian after fooling 90 percent of the stadium (and all of the TV cameras) into believing that he was jogging off the field. Three more points came from Greg Zuerlein's 6-yard field goal (his fourth of the day). Yeah, those are things you can count on every week. Former first overall draft pick, Sam Bradford, averaged 7.4 yards per pass last weekend, but he only tossed it 16 times.
The Cardinals have given up 15 on the scoreboard for the past three weeks. Watch DB William Gay, who was soundly beaten by Miami's Brian Hartline all afternoon.
Kevin Kolb isn't making anyone forget Kurt Warner, but he hasn't messed anything up so far. Arizona officially welcomed WR Andre Roberts, who may finally give Larry Fitzgerald some company for the first time since Anquan Boldin went purple. Ryan Williams must improve on an average of 77 yards. The Rams defense may be just the ticket, since they've surrendered over 150 rushing yards per game over three weeks.
Prediction: Cardinals by a field goal.
Sunday Early Games
Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City. Joe Flacco rides his no huddle/Ray Rice hybrid offense into Arrowhead. Flacco had an effective 28-of-46, 356-yard and one-score night in Week 4. A finally healthy Anquan Boldin dynamited the Browns with 131 receiving yards. This may be a "trap" game for Baltimore, but Chiefs' D-lineman Tamba Hali is the only thing standing between Kansas City and a similar fate.
Offensively, the weight of the KC franchise rests on RB Jamaal Charles' surgically repaired knee. So far, so good as he contributed 115 yards last week. Unfortunately, he also contributed two fumbles to the Chiefs six giveaways of the afternoon. Cassel has thrown seven interceptions and lost three fumbles through four games. Ed Reed can't wait.
Prediction: Ravens by a touchdown.
Philadelphia Eagles at Pittsburgh Steelers. Michael Vick is on the injury list. America is shocked. He is probable, but tackle King Dunlap's nagging hamstring isn't going to help. Behind a Swiss-cheesed O-line, the only reason that Ben Roethlisberger isn't in the same boat is that he is much bigger and had a week off.
Statistically, the Eagles offense has come up with less than 17 points per game over the past three contests, while the Steelers gained almost 26. Courtesy of both their mobile QB and one of the best running backs of his generation, Philadelphia has rolled up 144.3 yards each week recently while the Steel Town team has managed only 65 yards rushing.
However, despite trailing the Eagles almost 55 yards per game, the Steelers are still scoring almost ten more points. The increasingly dynamic Eagles defense must stop the increasingly dynamic Pittsburgh passing game. The Steelers defense is not the same ferocious unit without James Harrison, who may be back terrorizing quarterbacks this Sunday. See above on Vick.
Harrison and company (possibly including Troy Polamalu) can disrupt the entire Eagles offensive attack by focusing on "shady" No. 25.
Prediction: Steelers by a touchdown.
Green Bay Packers at Indianapolis Colts. The Colts are an extremely young football team whose head coach is fighting leukemia. The RBs must do better than 3.7 yards per tote if Andrew Luck is to have a shot at carrying the team. Surprisingly (and a capsule example of flawed statistics), Luck has averaged .2 more passing yards than Aaron Rodgers. Which may have something to do with Greg Jennings continuing groin problems. So much for stats.
Someone in this game must pick up a football and run with it. Both teams seem allergic to the rushing attack.
The biggest factor in this game will be a Green Bay D that is much stronger than many think. Despite last week's shootout, they only allowed 17 points/week over the last three games. To be kind let's just say that the Colts defense cannot claim nearly that level of success. The fact that both defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are questionable will not help.
Prediction: Packers by nine.
Miami Dolphins at Cincinnati Bengals. While not wanting to "jinx it," the Dolphins may finally have found the heir to you-know-who. Many analysts worried that Ryan Tannehill was too inexperienced to jump into a starting role as a quarterback in the NFL. Apparently not. He just made Brian Hartline look like Larry Fitzgerald. Okay, not quite.
If Reggie Bush can get back on the horse this week against a weak Cincy run D, Miami has a chance. However, the Bengals passing offense is on its way to the top ranks and 33 points per game on a regular basis.
Prediction: Bengals by ten.
Cleveland Browns at New York Giants. The Giants Sunday loss is the Cleveland Browns, um, loss. Even with second-string WRs, motivated Eli Manning should adversely impact a secondary lacking Joe Haden at CB and T.J. Ward. New York won't have to insert multiple WR sets to force Cleveland into nickel--the Giants roll that way naturally. Big Blue's multiple rushers should come up with at least 100 yards against the NFL's 19th run D. The only question will be whether Manning improves his chemistry with new TE Martellus Bennett.
Cleveland rusher Trent Richardson needs to have a heart-to-heart with his offensive line: 47 yards isn't enough. It would be nice if coach Pat Shurmur called more than 14 runs. He's hardly taken Richardson out of the garage! Rookie Brandon Weeden is coming along with 320 yards in Week 4--with "little" thanks to Greg Little. Dude, go find some stick 'em or sit down.
Prediction: Giants by ten points.
Atlanta Falcons at Washington.# Matty Ice is all grown up. Michael Turner and his rushing partners have averaged 4.1 yards per run while Washington is giving up 4.3 yards per attempt. Ryan has gained 7.3 yards per pass and Washington gives opponents 8.5 yards per pass. So Ryan and his offense could look even better by the end of Sunday.
How Washington is fielding a defense at all is amazing considering the injuries. The only household name still suiting up for Washington's D is Energizer Bunny London Fletcher. That may not be enough.
Washington's offense is a wild card named Robert Griffith III. The kid ran that winning two-minute drive without helmet communication with the coaches. Do you think Andy Reid could teach Vick how to do the "hands up" thing?
Washington's only chance in this game is for Alfred Morris and his numerous rushing brethren to eat up turf and clock on an ongoing and protracted basis.
Prediction: Falcons by a Field Goal.
Sunday Late Games
Chicago Bears at Jacksonville Jaguars. It's officially time for everyone in America to stop analyzing Jay Cutler's every move. He may be a complete hot-headed jerk. He may be the best teammate anyone ever had. His own teammates come to his defense without exception. After many years in the entertainment industry I can assure every reader of one thing: none of us knows anything about what Cutler is "really" like unless we know him personally or work for the Chicago Bears. So give it a rest and concentrate on his play. Which has been generally excellent. He has completed almost 14 yards per pass and almost 60 percent of his passes.
The Bears defense, meanwhile, looked youthful and terrifying in Philly. They made Demarco Murray irrelevant and Tony Romo look like an interception machine. Romo may have his issues, but on Monday night they were mostly caused by the Bears D.
Unfortunately, a Jaguars offense that has averaged 256 yards per week hardly needs help losing a game. If Blaine Gabbert doesn't step it up, Shahid Kahn will start cruising colleges. Maurice Jones-Drew can save the day--when they remember to use him.
The Jacksonville D has been uneven. They have some talent (most notably G.I. Joe clone Paul Posluzny), but Matt Forte can't wait to face a unit that's given up almost 160 yards weekly in recent weeks.
Think what you wish about Cutler, I've decided that he shall be the somewhat bemused fellow from the women's T-shirt ad. I'm happier that way.
Prediction: Bears by a touchdown.
Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers. Both teams have talented young quarterbacks who look--young. Seattle's leading WR was running back Marshawn Lynch. That's not ideal. Nor are Russell Wilson's three interceptions.
Cam Newton is one of the brightest stars in the NFL firmament. He went 15-of-24 for 215 yards and two passing touchdowns with nine rushes for 86 yards and one score. His team almost beat the contender Falcons. However, he has to get a grip on his emotions before they destroy the locker room. Self-control cost the Panthers four penalties that could have won the game.
The over-looked Carolina defense held Falcons WR Julio Jones to one catch. Okay, Roddy White had eight for 169 yards, but still... Against Seattle they cannot give up the 136.3 yards per game they've surrendered the past three weeks. Marshawn Lynch is salivating--and it's not the skittles.
Prediction: Home team Panthers by a touchdown.
Buffalo Bills at San Francisco 49ers. Is Jim Harbaugh using Colin Kaepernick as a change-up--or is he paving the way for the next Niner quarterback? Alex Smith was only 12-of-21 for 143 and no passing scores, leaving super-weapon Vernon Davis virtually bored. Randy Moss may be an old former diva, but he was still drawing multiple DBs his way! Which is the only reason Michael Crabtree caught anything.
Sunday belonged to Frank Gore and the running game. Not to mention the utter domination of the New York Jets offense by Patrick Willis and his defensive banner men.
The Buffalo Bills may still be on oxygen after being hit by Hurricane Brady in Week 4. Ryan Fitzpatrick's Harvard ego will come in handy this week as he tries to rally the troops. He could start by avoiding the four interceptions and three sacks of last Sunday. Surprisingly athletic TE Scott Chandler's coming-out party was utterly spoiled by the Pats second-half stampede. Whether either Bills running back is healthy enough to go up against that San Francisco D is the lynchpin.
Prediction: Niners by ten.
Tennessee Titans at Minnesota Vikings. Sophomore QB Christian Ponder is completing almost 69 percent of his passes. That's not bad, but the engine in Minnesota is the almost unbelievably courageous Adrian Peterson. This rusher has his team achieving 122.7 yards per weekend.
His counterpart, rusher Chris Johnson, finally came up with a statement game last week after 19 dreadful outings. Matt Hasselbeck and the few healthy WRs hope that he can make it two in a row against a Vikings D allowing only 76 yards on the ground. When it comes to facing Vikings pass rusher Jared Allen, Hasselbeck probably has mixed feelings about stepping back under center. However they achieve it, the offense has to stay on the field. Last Sunday the Titans gave up almost a five-minute advantage to, of all teams, the Houston Texans.
The Titans also need to stop depending upon their special teams to score half of the points. Ditto Minnesota.
Prediction: Vikings by three.
Denver Broncos at New England Patriots. New England suddenly appears to have become a haven for unknown rushers. Who the heck is Brandon Bolden and how did he run for 137 yards? (He's from Louisiana and went to Ole Miss--that's all I got.) Stevan Ridley had two scores. For the first time ever a team had two 100-yard rushers and two 100-yard receivers in the same game. When Brady starts scoring on the run, you know you're in trouble. If he comes up with 22-of-36 passes completed for 340 yards and four touchdowns, even a John Fox defense that held Darren McFadden to 35 yards won't win this game.
Peyton Manning is bringing his WRs along quite well, but it will be old man Willis McGahee who might lead the way to victory. McGahee is nipping at Steven Jackson's heels as the studliest rusher in the NFL.
Since Bill Belichick is probably aware of Mr. McGahee's abilities, the key to this game will not be the HOF passers--it will be the Patriots linebackers versus the Broncos rushers. (Oh, and the Broncos will be playing with a backup center.)
Prediction: Broncos by two.
Sunday Night Football
San Diego Chargers at New Orleans Saints. Picking the Saints has become somewhat a matter of principle these days. Besides, the Crescent City bars need the business. Apparently when the Saints are losing, people go home early. Speeding the exodus is a defense allowing over 30 points per game.
The Chargers defense will try to get the good folks of N'awleans in bed by 10 o'clock. Emerging third-year linebacker Donald Butler is a leading tackler who can also cover. Rookie Melvin Ingram is turning out to be an excellent pass rusher while safety Eric Weddle continues to earn his big contract extension.
Philip Rivers may not be considered a top-five QB these days and yet he is completing almost 70 percent of his passes. Unfortunately, both sides of the ball are terribly inconsistent. Norv Turner started Jackie Battle at RB last week instead of shaky Ryan Mathews. Whether that was a psychological ploy against Battle's former team, the Chiefs, or a new world order remains to be seen.
Drew Brees will probably set a new record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass. That will thrill him when he's retired, but right now he'd probably prefer a win.
The New Orleans Saints will go down in history as the definitive case for coaching value. Many of us thought that Brees and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo could pick up the reins. Coaching, leadership, management have always been intangibles that are, by definition, immeasurable. Maybe not anymore. Maybe they are measured as 0-4.
Prediction: Saints by a field goal or less on the strength of the Super Dome.
Monday Night Football
Houston Texans at New York Jets.
Houston is currently playing the best defense in the NFL and J.J. Watt is hands-down the Defensive Player of the season's first quarter. The Texans have averaged almost 155 rushing yards over the last three weekends on their way to 31.5 points per game. Gang Green's defense has allowed more than 165 yards on the ground in the past three contests. So fans should expect the NFL's first 320-yard running game, right?
Why is anyone surprised by the Jets' woeful 2012? Rex Ryan's insistence that Shonn Greene is even a decent professional RB, much less a power rusher capable of carrying a team, borders on delusion. And those fans calling for Mark Sanchez' head may wish to remember that, in addition to no run support and precious little pass protection--he is also playing with second-string WRs.
The team swears that they won't sign T.O., Chad Whoever or Plaxico Burress to replace Santonio Holmes. Now you decide you don't want to add to the circus? Guys - that ship sailed in July. The team totaled 145 yards of offense last week; bring in a dancing elephant if he can run the football.
Prediction: Texans by nine points.
Quote of the Week: Wes Welker on Tuesday's Mike and Mike in the Morning (ESPN), when asked about the mostly historical rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, "I think Tom always feels like he's going up against Peyton Manning." And that is far more than Mr. Brady would ever admit.
* Statistics are courtesy of pro-football-reference.com, nfl.com, espn.com, NBC's Sunday Night Football and ESPN's NFL Primetime and usatoday.com.
+ Injury information is courtesy of CBSSports.com
# In support of the points raised by the Kansas City Star ("[There is] no compelling reason for [anyone] to reprint an egregiously offensive term as a casual matter of course"), the team in the nation's Capitol will be referred to as Washington.
Follow Barbara Bruno on Twitter: www.twitter.com/allprofootball