A quick preview as Week 5 rolls on in the NFL …
Who’s hot: Tom Brady. Sure, this is a bit speculative. But with the New England Patriots quarterback returning from his Deflategate suspension to begin his “Revenge Tour” against the winless Cleveland Browns – and undoubtedly with a huge chip on his shoulder – the expectations for a statement game are immense. Sans Brady, New England was shut out by Buffalo last weekend, which represents another bad omen for Cleveland. No, the Patriots don’t often lose back-to-back games. But rebounding from a shutout? It’s happened twice during the Brady era, and in winning both previous cases the Patriots outscored opponents 71-17.
Fire vs. Ice: Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, et al vs. Von Miller, Aqib Talib, et al. It’s the classic match-up of the weekend, with the red-hot Atlnta Falcons offense (at least 35 points three weeks in a row) facing the championship-proven Denver Broncos defense. So often, these types of encounters result in the defense inflicting its will, and with Denver bringing an NFL-high 17 sacks, it will be difficult for Ryan to stay on his spot. Then with Talib – long, rangy and athletic – as capable as any cornerback of disrupting Jones, there will be no 300-yard game this week while entering Denver’s “No Fly Zone.” But Atlanta still has a chance because of a running game powered by Devonta Freeman. The Broncos’ 22nd-ranked run defense might be the soft spot that the Falcons can exploit.
Pressure’s on: Odell Beckham, Jr. There has been so much scrutiny on the antics of the New York Giants’ diva receiver, and he surely deserves some heat for igniting so much drama. But the thrust of this attention is off the mark. Football is emotional. See Ray Lewis, Michael Irvin, Dan Marino. Passion matters. The bigger issue should be what the Giants, heading into Green Bay, can do to get their best player more involved earlier in the game. In each of the past two weeks – losses to Washington and Minnesota – Beckham didn’t have a catch in the first quarter. There’s something to be said for Eli Manning managing the game better to get Beckham in an early rhythm, which might help him keep his head in the game. Some players need that. Even so, the whiny crybaby act must stop as it can be a distraction.
Key matchup: Vontaze Burfict vs. Ezekiel Elliott. The Dallas Cowboys’ rhythm with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has gone hand in hand with the effectiveness of Elliott, the rookie running back who leads the NFL in rushing with 412 yards on a league-high 94 carries. This was the idea of pairing Elliott with a talented O-line. Declared Cincinnati Bengals corner Adam “Pacman” Jones this week: “Some of the holes are so wide open my little girl could run through there.” On Sunday, Burfict, the middle linebacker, is just the tackling machine to close the holes. Cincinnati ranks 14th against the run, but that is so misleading when considering that Burfict missed the first three games while serving a suspension. He’s back, and suddenly the Bengals field one of the league’s best run defenses.
Rookie watch: Joey Bosa. The long-awaited debut of the San Diego Chargers’ rush end, the first defensive player taken in the draft, is on tap for Sunday at Oakland. After a contract stalemate kept Bosa out of training camp, the big injury fear associated with his lengthy absence was realized when a hamstring injury sidelined him for the first quarter of the season. Now that Bosa’s ready to go, a key marker beyond whatever pass-rush punch he can provide for John Pagano’s defense will be his effectiveness in the fourth quarter with the question of how long it will take for him to get into top shape. That figures to come into play on Sunday considering the Chargers (1-3) have faltered in crunch time this season, losing fourth-quarter leads in each of their losses, while the Raiders (3-1) have thrived behind the late-game magic of quarterback Derek Carr.
Next man up: Derek Anderson. Cam Newton is out for Monday's game against Tampa Bay following a concussion last week. Anderson is capable, but losing Newton is just one more blow that illustrates the tough sledding for the defending NFC champs. When the defense was shredded at Atlanta last weekend, the decision to allow cornerback Josh Norman to walk as a free agent was haunting. But perhaps even more debilitating to Carolina’s rocky start (1-3) has been the absence of running back Jonathan Stewart, who hasn’t played since injuring a hamstring in Week 2. Stewart was the engine for a running game that allowed Carolina the tempo that made Newton more complete, but also helped keep the defense fresh. Without the effectiveness of the running game, so many of Carolina’s deficiencies – like spotty pass protections and the lack of explosiveness to rally from behind – have been exposed. Yes, Anderson’s task has its challenges.
Stomach for an upset? Eagles at Lions. The table seems set for Philadelphia (3-0) to keep rolling. The Eagles have won each game by at least two touchdowns. Carson Wentz, the hot rookie, hasn’t thrown a pick. They are well-rested, coming off a bye. The defense, fresher since Chip Kelly’s departure, is producing big plays while under the direction of new coordinator Jim Schwartz, the former Lions head coach who returns to the Motor City with a chance for an in-your-face statement. But this is the NFL. As much as Detroit (1-3) can be overlooked, they can spring a surprise. The Eagles should be wary. The Lions have remained competitive amid a three-game losing streak, losing each game by a single possession. And there’s always a chance that Matthew Stafford gets hot, like he did last Thanksgiving, when he lit up the Eagles for five TD passes in a 45-14 romp.
If the playoffs were today … The Los Angeles Rams would be NFC West champs and the No. 3 seed in the NFC. And just when you wrote them off after an ugly Week 1 loss at San Francisco. Defense has been the ticket, but Case Keenum is also 6-2 in his past eight starts, dating to last season, realizing that if he protects the football they have a chance to win. Now comes Buffalo, bringing a two-game winning streak to the Coliseum. Will this be the week that Rams running back Todd Gurley has his breakout game?
Whatever happened to … Ryan Fitzpatrick. Since his big night in Buffalo in Week 2, the New York Jets quarterback has thrown nine picks. That’s no way to win. And just think of all the drama that persisted during the offseason regarding his elongated contract dispute. Jets coach Todd Bowles has thus far dismissed the question of giving Geno Smith a shot at the job – the job that Smith actually won over Fitzpatrick last year before his jaw was broken up by a since-departed teammate. The question could get louder if Fitzpatrick has another lousy game at Pittsburgh, which could hinge on out-gunning the red-hot Ben Roethlisberger.
Did you notice? Bucking a trend, no one was fired after last weekend’s game in London, when the Jacksonville Jaguars edged the Indianapolis Colts 30-27. The Colts, though, are bucking another trend by actually playing on Sunday when they host the Chicago Bears. Indianapolis, at its request, is the first team following the 17 games the NFL has staged in London, to play the next week rather than to go on a bye week. Which means that with Andrew Luck getting battered (15 sacks) and the team sputtering at 1-3, at least they don’t have a bye week to wallow in misery.
Stat’s the fact: The undefeated Minnesota Vikings (4-0) head into Sunday’s game against Houston having not allowed a point in the third quarter, which is one reason that Sam Bradford hasn’t taken a snap while trailing in the fourth quarter.
Say what? “Our goal is to shock the world.” – Browns nose tackle Danny Shelton on the prospects of facing Tom Brady in his first game back from the Deflategate suspension.