Top storyline for each Week 5 NFL game

Now that the first quarter of the NFL season has come and gone, we’re starting to see the teams for what they are.

The Cleveland Browns have proven themselves unable to compete on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Rams have surprised the masses.

In New England, the Patriots will finally get Tom Brady back in the mix. And in Denver, the Broncos will tee off with another first-place team in an attempt to go 5-0 on the season.

These are among the top storylines for each Week 5 NFL game.

Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers: Battle out of the cellar

Bruce Arians

Most experts had San Francisco pegged to be competing for last place in the NFC West. Very few projected that Chip Kelly’s squad would be tied with the Cardinals for the bottom spot a quarter of the way through the season.

That’s where we are at right now in this all-important nationally televised game Thursday night after Arizona lost two consecutive games to inferior opponents.

The biggest issue for Arizona right now is the health of one Carson Palmer. He exited Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams after suffering a concussion and did not return (more on that here).

Now having to play on a short week, Palmer will not be under center Thursday night in Santa Clara. Instead, the starting duties will be left up to career backup Drew Stanton. Should Arizona lose this game, it will fall to 1-4 on the season and pretty much out of the NFC Playoff race.

For the 49ers, it’s rather simple. Following a 28-0 blowout win over Los Angeles in the season opener, Kelly’s squad has lost three consecutive games. During that three-game span, San Francisco is yielding an average of 35.7 points and 458 yards per outing.

Simply put, the 49ers are not good enough on offense with Blaine Gabbert under center to overcome this type of defensive performance. That’s going to be a key thing to watch with a backup under center for Arizona Thursday night.

Houston Texans at Minnesota Vikings: Vikings dominating defense

Minnesota finds itself as one of just two undefeated teams in the NFL heading into Week 5. And while some will want to credit Sam Bradford for this early-season performance, it’s the team’s defense that has dominated.

Overall, the Vikings are yielding an average of just 10 points per game. This is good enough to rank their defense No. 1 in the NFL in that category.

It’s really not one specific area that the Vikings’ defense is excelling in. Instead, this unit is dominating along all tiers. Its pass defense is yielding a 58.2 completion percentage and 67.4 quarterback rating.

Meanwhile, the Vikings are giving up an average of less than 83 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per attempt. From a pass-rush standpoint, Mike Zimmer’s defense ranks second behind the Denver Broncos in sacks and quarterback pressures.

All this comes with Minnesota taking on some rather good offenses over the first quarter of the season. Here’s a team that’s defeated the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Eli Manning over the past three weeks.

Unfortunately for the visiting Texans, none of this bodes well for their chances of handing Minnesota its first loss of the season. Brock Osweiler has played at nothing more than a replacement level over the first four games. Meanwhile, top receiver DeAndre Hopkins is catching just over 50 percent of the passes thrown in his direction.

Chicago Bears at Indianapolis Colts: Chuck Pagano’s job status

This seems like a reoccurring theme for the Colts. Is Pagano’s job safe? What will it take for Indianapolis to move on from him? Why wasn’t last week’s embarrassing loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London the final straw?

Now at 1-3 on the season and having to play a week after traveling across the Atlantic, Indianapolis once again finds itself in a precarious position.

Should the Colts lose Sunday to what might be an improved Bears team, it would place them behind the proverbial eight ball. Since 1990, only six teams that have started 1-4 went on to win their division that season.

Existing in an ultra-competitive AFC, there’s little chance that the conference’s southern division will boast a wild card team. If so, this week’s outing against the Bears become the closest thing to a do or die an early October game can offer.

The biggest question here is whether Indianapolis can justify keeping Pagano on the job should it fall to 1-4 on the season. A loss to the Bears, and we might know the answer to this in short order.

New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers: Is the Steelers’ offense back?

After putting up 347 total yards and four touchdowns in the season’s first three games, DeAngelo Williams attempted four carries against the Kansas City Chiefs last week.

It’s not that Williams’ performance wasn’t up to snuff. It’s not that Pittsburgh suddenly had to abandon the running game.

No, this was a direct result of Le’Veon Bell returning from suspension. Bell would respond by putting up 178 total yards on 23 touches en route to leading Pittsburgh to a dominating 43-14 win over Kansas City.

This came on the heels of the Steelers being absolutely blown out by the Philadelphia Eagles 34-3 the previous week.

Can one player make this much of an impact? If one week is an indication, that’s definitely the case with Bell.

Now slated to take on a Jets team that struggled in the first quarter of the season, Pittsburgh has an opportunity to move to 4-1 with another dominating offensive performance.

And while all focus might be on Bell in his second game of the season, look for Antonio Brown to take advantage of what has been a disastrous Jets pass defense (more on that here).

Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins: Are the Titans ruining Super Mario?

Both of the quarterbacks selected at the top of the 2015 NFL Draft have struggled big time during their sophomore seasons.

For the Titans and Marcus Mariota, this is a troubling theme. It potentially tells us a story of a coaching staff, led by Mike Mularkey, that is not putting its quarterback in the best position to progress.

Through four games, the former Heisman winner has seen his completion percentage and yards per game drop from his rookie season. More than that, he’s thrown four touchdowns compared to five interceptions after tallying nine more touchdowns (19) than interceptions (10) last season.

What is the deal here? Should Mariota be the one that’s primarily blamed for his own struggles? Well, there’s a lot more to look at here outside of that one possibility.

Mularkey himself has a reputation. It’s not a reputation that shows him in the greatest of lights. The last time he attempted to help a young quarterback progress, it resulted Blaine Gabbert being led down the path of ruin with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Prior to that, he led failed experiments with Joey Harrington and Daune Culpepper in Miami as well as J.P. Losman in Buffalo.

No matter who is to blame here, Tennessee needs to find away to get Mariota going again.

If it doesn’t happen against a Miami Dolphins defense that’s yielding a 66.1 completion percentage and a 98.4 quarterback rating on the young season, we’re not too sure what to say.

Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions: Carson Wentz looks to dominate bad Lions defense

The schedule-makers couldn’t have drawn this up any better for Wentz and his Eagles. Following a splendid early-season display that saw the rookie lead his team to a 3-0 record while not turning the ball over a single time, he now gets to go up against a horrible Lions pass defense.

Thus far on the young season, Detroit is yielding a 71.2 completion percentage, 120.2 quarterback rating and 12 touchdowns compared to one interception. Yeah, that’s not terribly great.

Should Wentz take advantage of this favorable matchup, it might be time to start thinking about the Eagles as a legitimate contender in what has to be considered a watered-down NFC this season.

If not, some will surely conclude that Wentz’s early-season performance was nothing more than a fluke and came primarily against bad teams.

New England Patriots at Cleveland Browns: Tom Terrific’s return

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Patriots head coach Bill Belichick might want to focus solely on the team’s Week 5 opponent. That’s more than fine. He’s the head coach of a squad that’s coming off a shutout loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Unfortunately for Belichick, it’s topic that’s going to keep coming up between now and Sunday’s game against the lowly Browns.

Tom Brady is returning from his league-mandated four-game suspension, and it couldn’t possibly come at a better time for the Patriots.

They were absolutely manhandled by an inferior Bills team last week. A team that took advantage of New England having to run a rookie mid-round pick out there at quarterback.

Hue Jackson and the Browns know very well this game won’t be fun (more on that here).

They are also looking for their first win of the season against an angry Patriots team that will be starting a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Not only that, it’s no secret Brady wants to re-enter the fray with a dominating performance.

This has all the looks of a blowout in the Patriots’ favor. Anything short of that in Brady’s return will lead to questions about where the team is headed moving forward on the season.

Washington Redskins at Baltimore Ravens: New running back situation for home team

Now that Justin Forsett is unemployed and looking for a job on Twitter, the Ravens move forward with two interesting characters prepared to shoulder the load.

Terrance West is coming off a 113-yard performance in a loss to the Oakland Raiders last week. At this point, he has to be seen as the primary ball carrier.

Though, rookie fourth-round pick Kenneth Dixon will also be making his NFL debut after missing the first four weeks due to a torn MCL. Dixon wowed the Ravens in camp, and is seen as the long-term solution at running back.

It’s not too often that a team releases it starting running back a quarter of the way through the season. It’s also not necessarily bad thing for a Ravens offense that heads into Sunday ranked in the bottom half of the league in rushing and averaging just 3.7 yards per attempt.

Atlanta Broncos at Denver Broncos: The elite versus the elite

We covered this extensively in our weekly matchups piece. It truly is one elite unit going up against another elite unit.

Averaging a league-best 38 points per game and coming off a record-setting performance against the Carolina Panthers last week, Atlanta has an opportunity to prove naysayers wrong. Can Matt Ryan actually perform at this absurd level against a good defense?

This is the biggest question we will see answered come Sunday in Denver. After all, the Broncos’ defense also ranks among the league leaders in pretty much every category.

Here’s a unit that’s racked up 17 sacks and 38 quarterback hits while putting pressure on the opposing signal caller nearly 50 percent of the time in four games.

There’s so many backstories here. How will left tackle Jake Matthews hold up in what promises to be one-on-one protection against Shane Ray? Can the Falcons send enough help to the right side in order to fend off Derek Wolfe and Shane Ray? How will the Julio Jones-Aqib Talib matchup play out?

It likely wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that this could be the best game on the early-season docket. The defending champs are looking to make a statement while an up-and-coming Falcons team wants to prove skeptics wrong. Grab a bag of popcorn and have some fun here.

Cincinnati Bengals at Dallas Cowboys: Dak’s continued excellence

Maybe we should forget the potential of a quarterback controversy taking hold in Dallas for a second. Instead, let’s just sit back and appreciate the excellence we’ve seen from Dak Prescott during his first four NFL games.

By now you already know that the rookie fourth-round pick holds the record for most pass attempts without an interception to start his career. That’s a nice little tidbit, and something stat nerds will enjoy.

More than this, Prescott has his Cowboys with a 3-1 record through four games. It’s only the second time that Dallas has started 3-1 since 2008. He also has the Cowboys ranked in the top 10 in scoring offense through the first quarter of the season.

Though, the team will now face its most difficult test of the season against a Cincinnati Bengals squad looking for its sixth consecutive playoff appearance. This game in and of itself should tell us a lot about where the Cowobys are heading.

It will also surely play a role in the team’s quarterback decision once Tony Romo returns from injury.

San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders: The disappointing and the surprising

Derek Carr, Michael Crabtree

At 1-3 on the season, San Diego faces the real possibility of falling four games back in the AFC West this week. Heck, Mike McCoy and Co. could find themselves three behind the second-place Raiders. That’s how important this game is to the Chargers.

Unfortunately for San Diego, it will be without top corner Jason Verrett. There had been fears that the team’s top corner was playing through ligament damage in his knee.

That fear was realized on Wednesday when the Chargers announced that Verrett is suffering through a partially torn ACL (more on this here).

This is just the latest in a whole host of injuries — injuries that have cost Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead their seasons.

Taking on a surprising Raiders squad that’s 3-1 for the first time in well over a decade, the Chargers find themselves in a less-than-stellar situation.

Without Verrett in the mix, the onus is going to fall on an otherwise lackluster secondary to stop the likes of Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree in the Raiders’ passing game. That likely won’t end too well for San Diego here.

Buffalo Bills at the Los Angeles Rams: The first-place Rams

The first-place Los Angeles Rams. Someone stop us from checking to see if frogs are flying from the sky and on to the Hollywood sign. This is unquestionably one of the most-surprising developments of the young NFL season.

Following a blowout 28-0 loss to San Francisco in Week 1, the Rams have won three consecutive games, including wins over the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.

More than anything, this is a sign that both Seattle and Arizona are on the verge of taking a step back. Then again, we simple can’t discount the Rams’ early-season performance.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Buffalo lost its first two games of the season. It was at this point that offensive coordinator Greg Roman was fired. Talk about Rex Ryan’s job security also heated up.

Since then, all the Bills have done is defeat the Cardinals and New England Patriots by a combined score of 49-18. One really has to wonder if the Bills have hit their stride. Shutting out New England last week magnifies this presumption even more.

In one of the Week 5 games we did not expect to have playoff implications, here are two teams taking on one another firmly in the race for a division title. Whether that lasts into the season’s second half remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it does make this game more interesting.

New York Giants at Green Bay Packers: Another tantrum from Beckham Jr.?

The noise coming out of New Jersey over the past week has been loud. It comes on the heels of OBJ blowing his lid once again Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings.

It also comes with multiple members of the Giants, head coach Ben McAdoo and quarterback Eli Manning included, calling the enigmatic receiver out.

In what is a serious soap opera that the Giants desperately wanted to avoid this season, OBJ is now saying he’s not having fun playing football (more on that here).

Could this be playing a role in his lack of recent success? If so, what is going to happen moving forward?

These are the questions that both the Giants and their star receiver must answer. His actions on the field are not acceptable. He’s acting like an immature child out there, and it’s surely impacting his overall performance.

On the same note, it seems members of the Giants are going out of their way to call OBJ out publicly. As another enigmatic wide receiver in the form of Brandon Marshall just recently noted, this might not be a great plan.

“Those guys (the Giants) over there need to be really careful. They don’t need to be speaking out on their teammate. They need to keep that in-house, because they can lose him,” Marshall said, via the NY Daily News. “They need to rally behind him and give him the support he needs and handle that stuff in-house, whether good or bad. Because whether they like it or not, he’s the best player on that team.”

That’s the crux of the issue. Depending on OBJ’s own temperament, this whole thing could blow up in the Giants’ face. They certainly need to tread lightly with him.

On the same note, Beckham Jr. is obviously being a distraction. And coming off a career-worst 23-yard performance, it surely is impacting his on-field performance.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers: A battle for last

shocking NFL developments, Vikings

No one expected these two teams to be tied with the New Orleans Saints for last place. Carolina, the defending NFC champs, seemed primed to pick up where it left off last season.

Meanwhile, with new head coach Dirk Koetter at the helm, most anticipated the Buccaneers would take that next step after a surprisingly competitive 2015 season.

Neither of this has happened. And now, heading into the second quarter of the season, this is pretty much one of those games that will define each team moving forward.

Of course, the question surrounding Carolina here is whether it will have reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton under center after he suffered a concussion last week.

The battered franchise quarterback has been hit 30 times while finding himself subjected to 13 sacks in less than four games. Overall, Newton has been hit on 21 percent of his drop backs.

If the Panthers’ starter is unable to go here, Derek Anderson would be under center. As an older and less-mobile version of Cam, that wouldn’t bode well for the Panthers’ ability to protect him.

It’s in this that Tampa Bay might have a fighting chance to break out of its early-season funk.

Then again, the Bucs have their own issues on both sides of the ball. They have put up the most pass attempts in the NFL, but rank just 14th in passing offense. A lot of this has to do with the struggles of Jameis Winston under center.

He enters Week 5 having thrown the most passes in the NFL. Not necessarily a coincidence, Winston has also thrown eight interceptions in four games.

Despite Carolina’s struggles defending the pass last week, the Bucs are going to have to find some balance on offense. Should that not happen, and no matter who is under center for the teal, Tampa Bay will fall to 1-4 on the season.