There’s one game in particular on the Week 5 NFL docket that should be of real interest for the casual fan.
It comes Sunday afternoon in Denver with the defending champion Broncos playing host to the high-flying Atlanta Falcons. The league’s best offense going up against an historically good defense.
This game also makes up three of our top-10 individual matchups of the fifth week of regular season NFL football.
Check out that and a whole lot more below.
1. Julio Jones vs Aqib Talib
There’s not an individual matchup thus far this season that’s been better. There’s not a matchup in a specific game that’s pitted this much strength against one another. That’s why the Atlanta Falcons and Denver Broncos find themselves on this list three times.
For this particular one-on-one duel, it pits the league’s leading receiver up against a corner that’s coming off a two-interception performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week.
That right there is where sexiness in and of itself is brought to life. Jones recorded the sixth-most receiving yards in single-game history with a whopping 300 against the Carolina Panthers last week. He did so while catching 12-of-15 targets in a blowout Falcons win.
Meanwhile, Talib and his Broncos have continued to dominate on the defensive end.
Aqib Talib was targeted 4 times. He caught more passes himself (two) than he allowed Bucs receivers to catch (one). https://t.co/J1h6R9HiWT
— Rand Getlin (@RandGetlin) October 3, 2016
That’s an absurd stat right there. Talib was targeted by Jameis Winston four times. He allowed one reception for six yards while picking Winston off twice. It simply doesn’t get any better than that.
While Atlanta boasts a ton of talent at other skill positions, Jones is the one that must step up against the league’s top defense and one of its best corners. That’s only magnified with Tevin Coleman potential having to sit this one out.
If this doesn’t happen, the NFL’s top scoring offense will likely find itself struggling to gain any momentum for the first time all season.
2. DeAndre Hopkins vs Xavier Rhodes
Hopkins has struggled big time connecting with new Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler. It was so bad this past week against the Tennessee Titans that Nuke caught just one pass for four yards on six targets.
Thus far this season, Hopkins is recording a 52 percent catch rate and averaging 6.9 yards per target. That’s down from a 58/13.7 split last season. While Houston might be in first place with a 3-1 record, this connection needs to start getting it going big time. That’s magnified by what promises to be wholesale regression on defense with J.J. Watt out for the season.
It’s not going to be easy taking on a Minnesota Vikings defense that’s been among the most dominating in the NFL this season. Following Minnesota’s 24-10 win over the New York Giants in Week 4, its defense is yielding a mere 10 points per game. That tops the entire league.
While the Vikings’ pass rush has had a lot to do with this, the team’s secondary hasn’t disappointed either. This past week alone, Rhodes and Co. held Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to a career low three receptions for 23 yards on nine targets.
Eli picked by @XavierRhodes29_.
— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) October 4, 2016
Over the course of the past two games, Rhodes has held OBJ and Kelvin Benjamin to a combined three receptions on seven targets. That’s some absurd stuff right there.
In order for Houston to hand the Vikings their first loss of the season, it is going to need Hopkins to step up here. Recency bias tells us it’s unlikely to happen.
3. Matt Ryan vs Denver Broncos pass defense
Here we are with the second of three matchups in the best game Week 5 has to offer. We couldn’t just go with one specific area of the Falcons’ passing game outside of Julio Jones.
Instead, the focus needs to be on Ryan himself and what he’s accomplished through the first quarter of the season.
#Falcons QB Matt Ryan leads the league in:
Completion % (72.1)
Pass yards (1,473)
Yards per attempt (10.52)
Passer rating (126.3)
— Rand Getlin (@RandGetlin) October 3, 2016
These are some astounding statistics right here. Though, it must be noted that the Falcons have not necessarily faced the top defenses the NFL has to offer through the first four weeks.
Matt Ryan has put up some great numbers, but it hasn't come against great defenses. pic.twitter.com/myaM4vDtbV
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 5, 2016
Going up against a dominant Broncos defense, Ryan has an opportunity to prove to the skeptics that his early-season success is not a fluke.
Through the first four games of the season, the Broncos are yielding a 55.4 completion percentage with two touchdowns and five interceptions to quarterbacks. That adds up to a NFL-best 61.3 rating for opposing signal callers.
More than that, quarterbacks are averaging just 5.6 yards per pass and 10.1 yards per completion against Denver on the season.
As you can see above, Ryan is among the league leaders in pretty much every category known to man. Simple stats tell us this story. But it’s the advanced stats that should give Falcons fans some confidence here.
Ryan leads the NFL with a 10.5 yards per attempt average and is averaging a league-best 14.6 yards per completion.
This is quite literally the best quarterback in the NFL this season taking on a defense that’s been the best in the league over the past season-plus. Whoever comes out on top here will dictate which team starts the second quarter of the season with a win.
4. Mike Evans vs James Bradberry
Two players that struggled a great deal last week but are extremely important to their respective team’s success.
Evans caught 5-of-11 passes thrown in his direction in last week’s loss to the Denver Broncos. Though, only one of those catches came against Aqib Talib. In fact, two Jameis Winston’ passes intended for Evans was intercepted by Denver’s top corner.
All said this season, Evans is catching just over 50 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. That pretty much matches up with his career 53 percent catch rate heading into the season.
This is a number that Winston and Evans need to improve on in order for Tampa’s offense to take the next step.
For his part, Bradberry was among the top corners in the NFL through the first three weeks. The rookie had allowed an absurdly low 40 percent completion rate during that span.
It all went down in flames this past Sunday against what was a dominating Falcons offense. All said, Bradberry allowed four receptions for 94 yards against Julio Jones … In the first quarter of the game alone.
2nd-round rookie James Bradberry is shadowing Julio Jones.
4-94 through first quarter.
— Adam Pfeifer (@APfeifer24) October 2, 2016
Shadowing Jones, he was one of the primary reasons the Pro Bowl receiver put up 300 yards.
With both Tampa Bay and Carolina at 1-3 on the season, it’s safe to say Monday night’s outing is an elimination game. Since 1990, only six teams have won their division after losing four of their first five games.
It’s in this that one specific matchup could have a huge role in where each team is headed moving forward on the season.
5. Amari Cooper vs Jason Verrett
Verrett is among the few corners in the NFL that shadows the other teams’ top receiver. Whether that’s still Amari Cooper in Oakland remains to be seen. But this is a matchup that took hold a great deal last season with Cooper getting the best of his divisional rival in the first outing.
Then a rookie, the former first-round pick caught 5-of-6 targets for 133 yards and a score in a 39-27 Raiders win over the San Diego Chargers in Week 7. Interestingly enough, Verrett would then go on to hold Cooper to two receptions for 10 yards in their final meeting of the season.
It’s pretty clear whoever Verrett is not covering will be able to expose a Chargers secondary that lacks talent outside of its top corner. After all, San Diego ranks in the bottom six of the NFL against the pass and is yielding a 67 percent completion rating to quarterbacks.
This means Verrett is going to have to continue finding a way to shut down his guy in order for the one-win Chargers to break out of their early-season funk.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t always been the case this season. Verrett allowed five receptions for 135 yards to T.Y. Hilton in a Week 2 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. He’s sandwiched that performance up with two tremendous outings.
6. Bryan Bulaga vs Jason Pierre-Paul
Once the Green Bay Packers’ starting left tackle, Bulaga was moved to the right side due to issues in pass protection. This came rearing its ugly head when he allowed two sacks of Aaron Rodgers in a Week 2 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
When Rodgers isn’t getting the necessary protection, Green Bay’s timing-based west coast offense struggles to move the ball. Yards after the catch are impacted, and defenses can simply sit back in zone. That’s especially true when four men are able to put consistent pressure on the former NFL MVP.
For his part, Pierre-Paul seems to be back to pre-injury levels. He played all but one defensive snap against the Vikings on Monday night. That in and of itself is the issue for New York. Worn down throughout the game, JPP recorded just two tackles and one quarterback pressure.
This came on the heels of him recording his first sack of the season in a Week 3 loss against the Washington Redskins. Now, a quarter of the way into the campaign, the former Pro Bowler still ranks in the top-10 among 4-3 defensive ends in pressures.
If JPP can find a way to put consistent pressure on Rodgers, it will be huge for the Giants’ defense. If not, expect Rodgers to have a field day against an injury-plagued secondary.
7. T.J. Clemmings vs Jadeveon Clowney
Now that he has enough snaps to qualify, Pro Football Focus ranks #Vikings T.J. Clemmings as the NFL's worst tackle. He's 77th out of 77.
— Chris Tomasson (@christomasson) October 4, 2016
That’s less than ideal for Minnesota. Though, it must be noted that offensive line coach Tony Sparano continues to do a good job masking weaknesses on this unit. Whether this rings true in Week 5 against Houston remains to be seen.
What we do know is that Clowney is being tasked with replacing J.J. Watt as the Texans’ starting left defensive end. He responded by recording three quarterback pressures and a sack against Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans last week.
One of the primary reasons Sam Bradford has had a ton of early-season success in Minnesota is that he’s simply not being pressured at an alarmingly high rate. He’s been sacked just six times in 101 drop backs on the year.
The immobile Bradford needs to continue seeing a clean pocket in order to have success as the season progresses. That’s where the Texans are going to look to exploit his weakness. And in reality, it will come with Clowney going up against the weakest link on the Vikings’ offensive line.
8. Antonio Brown vs New York Jets secondary
One has to wonder when the New York Jets will finally make the decision to mask Revis’ obvious shortcomings in the defensive backfield.
Here’s a future Hall of Fame corner that simply doesn’t have it anymore. It’s not fair to the team or the player to keep throwing him out there in less-than-stellar situations.
The veteran is allowing a whopping 81 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed this season. On top of that, he’s currently dealing with mild hamstring strain.
If Revis is good to go against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, it will be interesting to see if Todd Bowles and Co. decide to shadow one of the league’s top receivers with a corner that’s clearly regressed.
For his part, Brown ranks third in the NFL in receptions and targets as well as fifth overall in yards. He’s catching 62 percent of the passes thrown in his direction and is on pace for nearly 1,600 total receiving yards.
If it’s not Revis, someone else is going to have to contend with these gaudy numbers. Unfortunately, the Jets have not yet proven themselves capable of stopping the pass on the young season.
The Jets' defense hasn't really stopped anyone this season. pic.twitter.com/OTjWuROpz7
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 5, 2016
More struggles on Sunday, and there’s no reason to believe the Jets will find a way out of their early-season rut.
9. Ezekiel Elliott vs Cincinnati Bengals run defense
Over the course of the past two games, Elliott has put up 317 total yards on 56 touches. Not only is he being relied on early in his career, the rookie first-round pick is producing at an extremely high level.
1 month into the NFL season, here are the yardage leaders… pic.twitter.com/J9DtvLmVse
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 4, 2016
This definitely bodes well for a young Cowboys offense that’s relying on fellow rookie Dak Prescott under center and will likely be without Dez Bryant once again come Sunday.
Though, there has to be a question about whether the Cowboys are relying on the rookie too much. He’s touching the ball on over 36 percent of the team’s offensive snaps — a mark that ranks him third in the NFL.
He also ranks second behind only Lamar Miller with 100 touches in four games.
Taking on a Cincinnati Bengals defense that is giving up an average of less than 100 rushing yards per game this season, the Cowboys’ dependence on Elliott will surely be tested.
Knowing this, we can expect the Bengals to attempt to put the game in Prescott’s hands while making the Dallas offense one-dimensional.
10. Atlanta Falcons offensive line vs Denver Broncos pass rush
If we thought the Broncos dominated on defense last season, it’s hard to imagine just how to explain this unit’s performance in 2016.
Denver has racked up 17 sacks and 38 quarterback hits in four games. Overall, it is putting pressure on the quarterback on 45 percent of passing plays on the young season.
Meanwhile, the Falcons’ offensive line has allowed nine sacks of Matt Ryan in 140 drop backs. Not horrible numbers considering the team’s vertical passing game.
Whether it’s Ryan Schraeder having to take on Derek Wolfe and Von Miller or starting left tackle Jake Matthews having to fend off Shane Ray, this will play a huge role in the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Ryan is going to need the protection to find open receivers on the outside. If not, the likes of Aqib Talib and Co. will be jumping routes all game. Ask Jameis Winston how that turned out for him last week.