We’re five weeks into the 2012 NFL season and just two undefeated teams remain. One just lost its Pro Bowl starting middle linebacker and the anchor of its defense and the other is 0-3 in its last four playoff games. Are you picking the Texans and Falcons to play in Super Bowl XLVII? Or are you going with the 4-1 Vikings? The 4-1 Cardinals? The 4-1 49ers? The 3-2 Patriots and Giants look awfully dangerous, too. All of those teams and seven more are taking the field this weekend. Here are Peter Schrager's 10 storylines to watch:
So, about that Lions defense.
Everyone is focusing on the Saints and Packers, but the Lions could be the most disappointing team in the NFC this season. They’re a last-second miracle win over the Rams in Week 1 from being 0-4 and in full panic mode. The Lions have gone 6-10 since starting the 2011 season 5-0, and have gone 1-6 since their Week 17 loss last year to Matt Flynn and the Packers. The offense looks sloppy, the special teams has been awful, but it’s the defense that has me most concerned. Remember all those puff pieces we read about that mighty defensive line the past two years? That mighty unit that was so deep and dangerous? Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, and the rest? Well, they’ve been absent. The Lions are at the very bottom of the NFC North and have the Eagles, Bears and Seahawks up ahead. The defense needs to step up this weekend in Philly. They’ve had a full bye week to prepare. It’s time to start delivering on the hype.
Can the Rams win on the road?
The Rams are an impressive 3-0 at home, looking good on offense and downright stout on D. It’s been a different story, however, in their two road games. Detroit threw all over the Rams in the second half of a Week 1 loss to the Lions and Chicago beat up St. Louis in a 23-6 defeat up in Chicago in Week 3. Miami has one of the best front-seven's in the league and Ryan Tannehill is quietly becoming the franchise quarterback the Dolphins fans have so sorely missed since Dan Marnio hung up his spikes. St. Louis won’t make the playoffs with an 8-8 record. They need to win some games on the road. Sunday’s game will be a good litmus test whether this team is for real or just a strong dome team that wins at home.
Will the Packers snap out of their funk? Another week could be too late.
Let’s be honest. The Packers haven’t looked the same since they lost to Kansas City in late November last season. Since that loss — their only in the regular season — the offensive production has been nowhere near what it once was with Aaron Rodgers under center. Dating back to the Packers’ January playoff loss to the Giants, Green Bay is now 2-4 in its last six games. The Packers have the rare Week 6 must win on Sunday night. Lose to the Texans and the Super Bowl XLV champs are in danger of being a full three games behind the Vikings in the NFC North standings. They’d also be 2 1/2 games behind the Bears. The schedule doesn’t get much easier, either. Wake up, Pack.
Will the Bills’ $200 million defensive line do anything versus the worst offensive line in football?
When you spend $200 million on something, you’d like to hope it’s at least somewhat above average. Alas, the Bills’ $200 million defensive line is something way, way below average. Buffalo’s D is arguably the league’s biggest disappointment five weeks into the season, surrendering an AFC worst 449 yards per game. Since going ahead on the Patriots 21-7 two weeks ago, Buffalo’s been outscored 90-10. The defense has given up 1,200 yards in that span. These are heinous numbers. The Buffalo D goes up against the Arizona offensive line, a unit that gave up nine sacks to the Rams a week ago, on Sunday. If they can’t generate a pass rush against the Cardinals, it might be time to put up the white flag on the 2012 season. Unfortunately, Ralph Wilson and general manager Buddy Nix don’t get any of that guaranteed money they doled out this offseason back.
The fast-paced Colts offense versus the maddeningly slow-paced Jets offense.
The Colts’ inspiring Week 5 comeback victory caused a lot of folks to take notice — this Indy offense is no joke. Andrew Luck may be just four weeks into his NFL career, but he already looks like he’s four years into it. Consider this — there’s been a ton of media ink spilled on the fact that the Patriots ran 87 plays from scrimmage last week. Indy ran 89, too. They ran ten in the final minute of the first half! This Colts offense — led by a rookie QB and featuring rookies at wide receiver and tight end — is high-octane, high-tempo, and full of playmakers. The Jets are the complete opposite. New York was forced to call two timeouts because of their inability to mix and match and shuffle and shake their packages mid-drive on Monday night. They’re offense is slow, deliberate, and void of gamebreakers. The Colts ran 89 plays from scrimmage last week. The Jets ran just 58.
How will the Texans defense perform without Brian Cushing? Tim Dobbins is the next man up.
J.J. Watt may very well be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player five weeks into the 2012 season, but Brian Cushing is the coach on the field for the Texans’ defense. Wade Phillips looks to Cushing to call out the defensive schemes and keep the unit on the same page. Replacing him will be a capable inside linebacker in Tim Dobbins. Dobbins is a man of few words, but is confident he can get the job done. He made a huge play in last year’s AFC Divisional Round playoff game, stopping Ray Rice on a crucial fourth-and-1. All eyes will be on him against the Packers this weekend. “I’m not (Cushing), of course,” he told reporters this week. “But I’ll try my best to fill his shoes. It’s a great system we have here, and I’ve been running it for years. I know a bit about the ins and outs of it. I plan on doing what I do, and definitely that’s trying to stop the run.”
That Patriots ground-and-pound offense.
Before the season began, there was genuine concern from the media about the Patriots’ running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had just signed with the Bengals for big money, Kevin Faulk looked like he was on his last legs, and the pair of young backs they drafted in 2011 didn’t appear to be ready for the big stage. Could Danny Woodhead carry the load? Well, he hasn’t had to. Those young running backs, Woodhead, and rookie Brandon Bolden have combined to be everything the Human Law Firm was and more. New England’s won its last three games and in the last two, the ground game has surpassed 200 yards both times. It’s the first time a Patriots offense has broken the 200 yard mark in consecutive weeks since 1978. The Seahawks boast an incredibly young, deep, and talented defense and arguably the loudest home crowd in the league. Don’t expect this to be some Wild West shootout. Expect it to be a throwback, old-school game won on the ground.
Can the Vikings keep this up?
Why not? Minnesota travels to Washington this weekend where they’ll go up against a 2-4 Redskins team that’s missing two of its top defensive players. The key to stopping the Vikings is pretty simple — stop Adrian Peterson and Percy Harvin. Good luck with that. Both guys are having career years despite major injury concerns this offseason. The D is stout, the special teams are among the league’s best, and Christian Ponder’s having a better sophomore season than both Andy Dalton and Cam Newton. No one had the Vikings doing anything this season. They’re about to go 5-1. That’s the beauty of the NFL.
If the Browns don’t win this one…
If you just saw the score, watched the highlights, or read the game recap, you’d think the Browns gave the Giants a fight on Sunday. They didn’t. Despite jumping out to an early 14-0 lead, New York wiped the floor with Cleveland. The Browns’ offense is stale, the defense is porous, and the coaching just isn’t up to snuff. Brad Childress’ offense is too predictable and Dick Jauron’s D leaves a lot to be desired. Though rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson are playing well for first-year players, there’s simply not enough depth at skill positions or strong enough coaching staff to overcome the brutal lack of talent on the roster. Cleveland is 0-5 and has a new owner in town. If they don’t beat the Bengals at home this weekend, there’s a possibility they won’t win another one this season. Look at Cleveland’s schedule. It’s anything but easy.
Kyle Williams’ chance at redemption versus the Giants.
The 2011 NFC Championship Game will long be remembered as a brutal, old-school clash of two physical, defensive teams. It’ll also be remembered as “The Kyle Williams Game.” Two gaffes — an inadvertent touch of the ball on a second half punt and a stripped ball on a return in overtime — were the difference in the 49ers’ season ending in Candlestick that evening and finishing in Indianapolis two weeks later. Fast forward eight months and Williams is not only still a 49ers player, but he’s taken on an even larger role. A factor on the offense at wideout — Williams scored a TD on a long pass last week — and a special teams fixture, Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams’s son gets another chance against the Giants on Sunday night.