Week 5 in review: Lack of elite teams means Super Bowl hopes aplenty
The 1972 Miami Dolphins weren’t the only ones who should be popping corks as Week 5 of the NFL season concluded.
Most of the league could raise a champagne toast toward their own Super Bowl dreams with how the season is unfolding.
The last two remaining unbeaten squads — Cincinnati and Arizona — suffered lopsided losses last Sunday to New England and Denver, respectively. But let’s look beyond the chase for perfection that remains futile now for 32 seasons and counting. Those defeats were also a reminder of how few “elite” teams the NFL is fielding this season in what is unfolding as a wide-open race for the Lombardi Trophy.
The way I see it, only three clubs have stood head-and-shoulders above the rest from the season opener until now: Seattle, Denver and San Diego. There’s no clear-cut favorite among that trio, either. The Seahawks beat the Broncos, but lost to the Chargers. San Diego fell in Week 1 to Arizona, which was smoked by Denver. And the Broncos and Chargers don’t play the first of their two AFC West matchups until Oct. 23.
There are 15 other squads that currently sport winning records. Here’s a look at the most burning question that must be answered by each to determine whether they’re playoff contenders or pretenders.
Philadelphia (4-1): Will the running game kick into gear?
Eagles running back LeSean "Shady" McCoy set the bar high last season when winning the NFL’s rushing title. Philadelphia, though, is averaging 61.8 yards less a game than the league-best mark of 160.4 the Eagles set in 2013. Much of the problem stems from injuries that have ravaged the offensive line, but McCoy admits he hasn’t found his groove yet either. “I have to do a better job of breaking more tackles,” McCoy said after a season-best 81-yard effort in last Sunday’s 34-28 victory over St. Louis.
Dallas (4-1): Can the defense hold up over the long haul?
The Cowboys rank 21st in the league in yards allowed but have compensated by surrendering 20.6 points a game, which is the NFL’s eighth-lowest total. The defense also has gotten a huge boost from the new ball-control approach spearheaded by NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray. Still, there’s only so much coordinator Rod Marinelli can do to camouflage his unit’s weaknesses if the Cowboys suffer any more linebacker or cornerback injuries.
Cincinnati (3-1): Can Bengals win the big one?
We won’t get the answer during the regular season. But getting routed by the Patriots invoked painful memories of Cincinnati’s past three playoff losses where the Bengals looked ill-prepared for a game of that magnitude. Cincinnati failed to match New England’s intensity from the onset on a prime-time platform when the Bengals should have been amped to prove their 3-0 record was no fluke. Cincinnati, though, has the chance to quickly rebound in its bid for home-field advantage during the postseason with four of its next five games at home.
Arizona (3-1): How many more injuries can the Cardinals withstand?
Arizona lost two more defensive starters (end Calais Campbell and outside linebacker Matt Shaughnessy) to multi-week injuries against Denver and was forced to play third-string rookie quarterback Logan Thomas when backup Drew Stanton suffered a concussion. Stanton was starting in place of Carson Palmer, who may still need another week to recover from a nerve problem in his throwing shoulder. Arizona is already playing without two key members of their defensive front seven in outside linebacker John Abraham (concussion) and end Darnell Dockett (knee), both of whom are on injured reserve. And because their bye came in Week 4, the Cardinals won’t have any additional time for players to recover the rest of the season.
New York Giants (3-2): Is the offense for real?
Don’t blame Giants fans for pinching themselves. New York hasn’t scored 30-or-more points in three consecutive games since Weeks 13-15 of the 2009 season. Heck, the Giants hadn’t even hit the 30-point plateau since the 2013 season opener until this current tear began in Week 3 against Houston. The keys to keeping the momentum going: Competent offensive line play and prudent decision-making by quarterback Eli Manning, who has thrown only one interception the past three games after tossing a league-high 27 in 2013.
Green Bay (3-2): Are the Packers’ early rushing woes a thing of the past?
Green Bay averaged 73 yards in their first four games before the Packers rushed for more than double that mark in last Thursday night’s 42-10 rout of Minnesota. Running back Eddie Lacey will have the chance to show he’s rounding into his 2013 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year form with Green Bay’s next three opponents (Miami, Carolina and New Orleans) each surrendering at least 3.8 yards a carry.
New England (3-2): Is Tom Brady truly back to being Tom Brady?
He was for at least one game. Brady dissected Cincinnati’s defense for 292 passing yards and two touchdowns in last Sunday’s 43-17 rout. He also received plenty of help from two aspects of New England’s offense that were lacking — excellent protection by his offensive line and strong tight end production from Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright, who combined for 11 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns. What we don’t know is whether Brady & Co. can keep humming. A good amount of New England’s success against the Bengals stemmed from how well the Patriots funneled anger about the outside criticism that was enshrouding the team into on-field intensity and greater attention to detail. It would be unrealistic to expect such emotion from New England for every game. One other reason for pause: The performances of great quarterbacks who start to decline in their late 30s can fluctuate wildly from week to week. Let’s see how the 37-year-old Brady responds in upcoming games starting with Sunday’s road matchup against a Buffalo defense that is best in the NFL against the run and tied for the league lead in sacks with 17.
Buffalo (3-2): Is Kyle Orton at least the short-term answer at quarterback?
In a 17-14 upset of Detroit, Orton was everything Bills head coach Doug Marrone had hoped when making the decision to bench second-year starter E.J. Manuel. Orton stayed composed when Buffalo fell into a 14-0 hole early in the second quarter. He passed for 195 second-half yards and one touchdown as the Lions imploded with three missed field goals. Orton, who didn’t sign with the Bills until the end of the preseason, should grow increasingly comfortable as he gets the reps with Buffalo’s first-team offense that once went to Manuel. Even if Orton doesn’t develop into the second coming of Jim Kelly, competent quarterbacking with throws that stretch the field and minimal turnovers could be enough to get the job done on a team with the second-best run defense in the NFL.
Detroit (3-2): Can the Lions find a competent kicker?
The stability that Detroit enjoyed for 21 seasons ended when Jason Hanson retired following the 2012 campaign. The Lions still haven’t found even an adequate replacement and already have cut two kickers who missed a combined total of eight field-goal attempts. Alex Henery was axed following his 0-for-3 performance in the second half against Buffalo.
Indianapolis (3-2): Can the defense complement the offense?
For at least one week, Andrew Luck wasn’t the star of the show. The distinction fell to a Colts pass rush that generated four sacks in last Sunday’s 20-13 victory over Baltimore. The line will get a boost when end Arthur Jones returns from an ankle injury but the back seven remains suspect. The Colts can’t always count on Luck putting up enough points to win games, especially in the postseason.
Houston (3-2): Is Ryan Fitzpatrick a playoff-caliber quarterback?
In his 10 seasons, Fitzpatrick has never been part of a team that reached the postseason. Whether that streak ends depends on if he steps up in what is likely his last gasp as a full-time NFL starter. The Texans need some juice in the passing game to complement running back Arian Foster, who is back to his All-Pro form. Fitzpatrick has thrown two touchdown passes and six interceptions in the past three games. If his “Fitz-magic” continues to disappear, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien may be inclined to give former New England backup Ryan Mallett a shot.
Carolina (3-2): How will the Panthers generate a consistent pass without Greg Hardy?
Hardy is out indefinitely while waiting for his Nov. 17 trial appealing a domestic violence conviction. If he is exonerated, there is a chance the Panthers will reinstate their 2013 sack leader. Carolina, though, can’t count on Hardy playing again. It’s also unknown how long it would take him to round into football shape after being placed on a paid leave of absence last month. Hardy’s presence was sorely missed when the Panthers generated only one sack in blowout losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Carolina rebounded last Sunday by taking down Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler four times in a 31-24 victory. Generating heat is a must with the Panthers facing a six-game stretch against the following quarterbacks — Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, Seattle’s Russell Wilson, New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Philadelphia’s Nick Foles and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.
Baltimore (3-2): Will the Ravens start sacking the quarterback?
Baltimore ranks 25th in the NFL in that category with five through five games. Although he has done a nice job against the run, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs is in the worst slump of his 12-year career with only a half-sack to his credit. The Ravens have done a decent job overall getting pressure but head coach John Harbaugh is hoping for more. “Our guys are rushing the passer hard . . . but we’re looking for more ways to do that,” Harbaugh acknowledged during his Monday news conference with Ravens media.
Pittsburgh (3-2): Can the offensive line keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger healthy?
The Steelers have done a nice job rushing the football, but pass protection is shaky at best. Roethlisberger has gotten sacked 15 times, which is the NFL’s third-highest total behind Detroit’s Matthew Stafford (17) and Jacksonville’s Chad Henne (16). Nine of those sacks have come in the past two games against mediocre defenses — Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. Although his toughness is unquestioned, Roethlisberger is human and the odds of injury rise each time he’s popped.
San Francisco (3-2): Will media speculation about head coach Jim Harbaugh’s future affects the 49ers?
FOX Sports NFL insider Jay Glazer reported Sunday that he doesn’t “see any way” Harbaugh returns in 2015 even if the 49ers “hoist the Lombardi (Trophy).” The previous week, NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders claimed from talking to his sources that 49ers players want Harbaugh “out.” San Francisco has won both its games since then as the Harbaugh controversy has swirled. The key for Harbaugh and 49ers brass is to keep players focused on the present and maybe even adopt an “us-against-the-world” mentality that would galvanize the franchise. Otherwise, it’s easy for players to tune out a head coach if they don’t think he’ll be around for long a la Dennis Allen in Oakland.
WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THIS WEEK
NFL owners meeting: The league’s fall meeting normally features a rubberstamp agenda of business matters. But this isn’t a normal year. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will speak to the media Wednesday after he briefs owners on steps being taken to address the aftermath of the domestic violence scandals that rocked the league last month.
Geno Smith: Over the past nine days, Smith has: A) Lost two more starts as the New York Jets dropped to 1-4; B) Missed a team meeting after becoming confused about a time zone change; C) Drawn a $12,000 fined for cussing at a heckling Jets fan following a 24-17 loss to Detroit; D) Gotten benched at halftime of last Sunday’s 31-0 loss to San Diego after having completed only 4-of-12 passes for 27 yards and one touchdown. Can it get worse? You bet. Smith may lose his starting job to Michael Vick permanently if he doesn’t show some improvement in Sunday’s home game against Denver.
Adrian Peterson: The running back’s stunning fall from grace continued Monday when the Minneapolis Star-Tribune provided sordid details about his personal life and misappropriation of funds from his charity. The report included a claim funds from his All Day Foundation were used to pay for hotel rooms used in a 2011 orgy that led to a police investigation stemming from a rape accusation. It was noted that charges were never filed and Peterson cooperated with authorities. But combined with child-abuse allegations filed against Peterson last month, the damage to his reputation is irreversible. Peterson posted a response on Twitter late Monday night that read, “It’s SAD how people these days will believe anything reported by media sources that don't take the time to be GREAT!!!” At this point, I’m wondering if Peterson will ever have the chance to show his greatness on a football field again.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW: Maybe it’s the personal ethics of Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin, concerns about public outrage for off-field player misconduct or a combination of both. But how the franchise handled the weekend arrest of defensive end Derrick Shelby shows how radically things have changed for the Dolphins in the past four years.
Shelby was charged early Sunday morning with two misdemeanors (trespassing after a warning and resisting arrest without violence) stemming from an incident at a South Florida nightclub. A police report states the incident started when Shelby began allegedly touching women without their permission.
Shelby’s attorney Daniel Rosenberg told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that his client would plead not guilty and “there’s a lot of conflicting information about the arrest.” That didn’t matter to the Dolphins, who suspended Shelby indefinitely “for conduct detrimental to the team.”
In comparison, three Dolphins players — cornerback Will Billingsley and defensive linemen Phillip Merling and Tony McDaniel — were arrested on domestic violence or battery charges against women in a seven-month span between October 2009 and May 2010. The team took no disciplinary action against any of the three.
Charges were dropped against Merling and Billingsley after their respective girlfriends refused to cooperate with authorities, which is a common problem in prosecuting abuse cases. McDaniel was suspended one game by the NFL after pleading no contest to an amended charge of disorderly conduct, according to USA Today’s player arrest database.
The Shelby situation also is proof that more teams are adopting a “guilty before proven innocent” approach toward players who get into legal trouble.
HOT SEAT: Rex Ryan thought he was being fired last December when the Jets were set to miss the playoffs for a third straight season. In retrospect, the Jets should have put Ryan out of his misery rather than have him return for what has proven a disastrous 2014 campaign. Ryan’s decision to stick with Geno Smith as his starter has contributed to this season’s demise. Ryan, though, can contend that he was set up for failure, anyway, when general manager John Idzik refused to spend on more veteran free-agent talent, especially in the secondary where the Jets have generated just one interception. The situation is so bad that Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning may throw the six touchdown passes he needs to break Brett Favre’s all-time record of 508 in Sunday’s matchup. Whenever Ryan goes, team owner Woody Johnson must decide whether Idzik should get shown the door as well.
NUMBERS TO NOTE: Should he top the century mark Sunday at Seattle, DeMarco Murray will join Jim Brown as the only running backs in NFL history to open the season with six consecutive 100-yard rushing games. But what was most impressive about Murray’s latest performance were what he calls the “dirty yards” he produced against Houston. The Texans tackled Murray for a loss only twice during his 31-carry, 136-yard effort. That allowed Dallas to enjoy manageable down-and-distance situations for the most part in its 20-17 overtime victory. “A lot of the runs that probably won’t make the highlight film put us in great positions to make plays and get some points,” Murray said afterward.
THURSDAY NIGHT PICK: Indianapolis 24, Houston 17. On paper, this should be a far more competitive game than the Thursday night dreck from the past four weeks. If the Colts’ improved offensive line can keep Texans defensive end J.J. Watt from being too disruptive, Luck should continue to flourish against Houston’s ailing secondary.