We’re a quarter of the way through the 2012 NFL season, and there are still some lingering questions. Can RG3 stay upright for the entire season? Is Cam Newton suffering from a sophomore jinx? Will the Jets score another point? Week 5 features some intriguing matchups and some “do or die” games for teams like New Orleans and Carolina. Here are Peter Schrager's 10 storylines to watch for the upcoming NFL weekend:
Brady vs. Manning XIII
Peyton Manning travels to Foxboro to play Tom Brady for the first time as a Denver Bronco, and we've seen this duel a million times. But here's a storyline no one's talking about — there’s a chance this is the last time they ever meet. I don’t mean to get all somber, but there’s no guarantee they’ll meet in the playoffs over the next few seasons and the NFL schedule might not line up the way the league (and CBS and NBC) obviously would like it to. So enjoy this one. Savor it. Manning turns 37 in March. Brady turns 36 in August. Both guys are coming off their best games of the season and it feels like it’s 2002. They can’t play forever and they certainly can’t play at this level for all that much longer. Let’s enjoy this one.
Mario Williams signed a $100 million contract this offseason. Though it’s not entirely his fault, per se, the defense shouldn’t give up 52 points and six straight touchdown drives when there’s someone making $100 million on it. Williams has seven tackles on the year. 1.5 sacks. The rest of the defensive line hasn’t done any better. This was supposed to be one of the most feared defensive units in the league. The Bills are currently ranked 30th of 32 teams in scoring defense.
Can Cam Newton channel his emotions and get a win?
Everyone loved Cam Newton last season. Big smile. Big arm. Superman. The media tide has turned on him this season. After sulking at the end of the bench with a towel wrapped around his head in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Giants in Week 3, he kept media and the team bus waiting as he took an extended amount of time to leave the locker room in Week 4. Seattle’s D is no joke. They fly. But this is a winnable game. Cam played valiantly in last week’s 30-28 loss to Atlanta. Can he bounce back and do it again, this time — notching a W?
Can the Saints turn things around?
Here’s a crazy stat: Of the 183 teams to start a season 0-4 in NFL history, only one — the 1992 San Diego Chargers — rebounded to make the playoffs. But I’m not ready to put a fork in the 2012 Saints just yet. The Saints play the Chargers on Sunday night in what should be a crazy scene. National TV, primetime, Drew Brees is angling to break Johnny Unitas’ consecutive games with a TD record — it’s all there. Win this one, play struggling Tampa Bay next week — and you’re suddenly 2-4 with Joe Vitt coming back to coach the team. This Saints season? It’s not over. Not yet, at least. Lose this one and ... well, yeah, then it’s over.
The sneaky Bengals and their quest to win the AFC North.
No one’s talking about the Bengals, but after getting blown out in Week 1, they’ve strung together three straight wins. They haven’t exactly played the toughest competition, but the offense and the defense appear to be improving each week. Andy Dalton’s fifth in the league in passer rating, A.J. Green is fifth in receptions, and Geno Atkins, who has five sacks, is ranked third in the NFL. They’ve won three straight games without their starting cornerbacks, Nate Clements and Leon Hall. This is a feisty, young team. If they get by Miami on Sunday, they’re looking at a 4-1 record with the Browns up ahead. Don’t sleep on Cincy.
The battle of Pennsylvania
How about these Iggles? They’re 3-1 and sitting pretty atop the NFC East standings after four weeks. They’ve also now won three games by a total of four combined points. The Eagles hadn’t won three games in an entire season by two points or fewer since 1990, and they’d never done it more than once under Andy Reid. This season, they did it before the start of October. Their point differential on the season is -17. For comparison’s sake, the 1-3 Dolphins’ point differential is -4. Who cares? Wins are wins. And the Eagles seem to find a way. I just don’t see them finding one at Heinz Field with the Steelers coming off a bye. Polamalu and Harrison are supposed to be back and Pittsburgh’s had 13 days to think over that Oakland loss.
The health of the Giants’ defensive backfield
The Jets’ injuries dominated newspaper headlines in New York this week, but the Giants’ defensive backfield has quite a few health issues, too. Terrell Thomas was lost to an ACL injury in August, rookie Jayron Hosley’s listed as questionable, Bruce Johnson’s out with an Achilles injury, Michael Coe’s hurt, Prince Amukamara can’t seem to stay on the field, and Corey Webster’s playing with a broken hand. On Sunday, Kenny Phillips — the Giants starting safety — hurt his ACL. He’ll likely miss Sunday’s game with the Browns. Will Hill and Stevie Brown — yes, those are real players — are going to see significant playing time.
Mike McCarthy, anonymous good dude.
My favorite story of the week came from Wednesday night’s “Inside the NFL” and it involved the replacement referee from the controversial Packers-Seahawks game in Week 4. Wayne Elliott went on the Showtime program and said that he got thousands of phone calls from “Wisconsin numbers”, many of them telling him to “commit suicide.” He also got a call from Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. "He called me at my house last week because he had heard I was having a rough week with all the calls and everything," Elliott said of McCarthy. "Wanted (me) to know that he thought what I did was controversial and maybe he didn't agree with it, (but he thought) I handled it with class." McCarthy never told this story. Elliott did. McCarthy — if you weren’t aware — is all class.
Can it get any worse for the Jets?
Umm, yes. Yes it can. Eight days after getting shutout 34-0 in their own building by the 49ers, the Jets face a Houston defense that’s been dominant through four games. The guy to watch? J.J. Watt. The AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month has 32 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 10 QB hurries, two fumble recoveries, 10 tackles for a loss and five passion deflections. This one could get very out of hand, very early. Buckle up for the Tuesday morning New York tabloids. They should be epic.
RG3 — Rookie of the Year? Obviously. The MVP? There’s a case to be made.
It’d be hard to argue against voting for Matt Ryan as the NFL MVP four weeks into the season, but I’d put Robert Griffin III in the conversation, too. Griffin’s done everything we possibly imagined he would for the Redskins and more. He’s won two games on the road, gotten better each week and thrown the ball exceptionally well. If Alfred Morris is the real deal — and he very well might be — watch out for Washington this season. The defense lost two of its top players to season-ending injuries, but had its best effort last week against the Buccaneers. Matt Ryan’s got the magic touch thus far this season, but I could see RG3 getting his first career victory at home and making his MVP statement game on Sunday.