We’re now getting to the point in the NFL season where contenders are separated from pretenders. It starts on Thursday night, with the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers taking on one another in a battle of two four-win teams.
Later in the week, the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings will battle it out in the old black and blue division. How will each team’s running back situation help determine the outcome of this huge game?
And over in the AFC, there’s two relatively huge games set to kick off. It starts with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots traveling to New York to take on the surprising Jets in a battle for first place in the AFC East. Does New York stand any real chance here?
Not to be outdone, the first-place Jacksonville Jaguars will play host to another surprising first-place squad in the form of the Los Angeles Rams. How will that game ultimately play out? Oh, and a future Hall of Fame running back makes his debut with a new team.
These are among the top storylines for NFL Week 6.
Philadelphia Eagles at Carolina Panthers: Finding the legit contender
Both Philadelphia and Carolina suffered through disappointing 2016 campaigns only to open this season on absolute fire. Heading into Week 6, each team is in first place in its division. Both Carson Wentz and Cam Newton are playing at elite levels. That’s not a coincidence.
For his part, Wentz has thrown 10 touchdowns compared to three interceptions on the season. He’s also on pace for 4,358 passing yards. After starting the season sluggish, Newton has looked like the former NFL MVP that he is recently. Over the course of his past two games, Cam has completed 77 percent of his passes for north of 700 yards and six scores. In a game pitting two teams tied for NFC’s best record against one another, we’re going to be privy to a great one on Thursday Night Football.
Chicago Bears at Baltimore Ravens: “Biscuit” Trubisky looking to progress
Bears rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky put up an uneven performance in his NFL debut last week against Minnesota. He started out strong, completing 5-of-6 passes out of the gate, only to connect on 7-of-19 from that point on. The No. 2 overall pick also threw what ultimately was a game-ending interception in a one-score affair against the Vikes.
Trubisky will look to improve off this performance in Week 6 against a Ravens defense that has yielded a 53.7 completion mark and 66.1 passer rating to date. In order for Trubisky to take the reigns under center and live up to his nickname, he’ll have to put up a solid performance here. More than that, a talent-stricken Bears pass-catcher group must help him out.
Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings: The curious case of these running backs
With injuries to Ty Montgomery and Jamal Williams, the Packers were forced to go with rookie fifth-round pick Aaron Jones as their starter last week. He responded by putting up 125 yards and a touchdown on 19 attempts in a thrilling win over the Cowboys. Could it be that Jones is the final answer at a position that’s struggled with stability since Eddie Lacy’s sophomore season back in 2014? If so, it would be a major boon for Aaron Rodgers and Co.
On the other side, Minnesota was dealt a major blow back in Week 4 when Dalvin Cook went down with a season-ending knee injury. Cook had awed onlookers early in his career and seemed to be more than capable of being the focal point on offense. With him sidelined, the Vikings turned to former Oakland Raiders Pro Bowler Latavius Murray and an enigmatic Jerick McKinnon last week. The two responded by tallying a combined 189 yards on 36 touches in Week 4.
How this situation plays out for the two teams will play a major role in determining whether Green Bay acquires further breathing room in the NFC North after a 4-1 start to the season. A win here by the Vikings would force a tie atop the division heading into Week 7. Yeah, it’s a pretty darn big game.
San Francisco 49ers at Washington Redskins: Kyle Shanahan vs former quarterback
We all know the backstory here. Kirk Cousins started flourishing in Washington with the younger Shanahan calling the shots on offense. It’s a relationship that led to the quarterback taking over under center for Robert Griffin III in the nation’s capital.
It also led to widespread speculation during the offseason that Cousins wanted to join his former offensive coordinator in San Francisco. That’s something we can very easily conclude is a distinct possibility following the 2017 season. It’s also going to be interesting to see Shanahan — now the 49ers’ head coach — scheme to stop his former quarterback. He knows the tendencies. He knows the type of passing game Cousins likes to run. Whether that plays a role in helping San Francisco earn its first win of the season remains to be seen. But it’s definitely a very interesting story heading into this one.
Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints: Gauging where each team stands
We’re not too sure what to make of either the Lions or Saints right now. Detroit put up a clunker of a performance against Carolina last week, yielding 355 yards and three scores on 26-of-33 from Cam Newton in a loss to the Panthers. How will this suddenly maligned defense perform against Drew Brees and the Saints’ prolific passing game?
On the other side, New Orleans comes out of its bye with a 2-2 mark. It’s in the midst of a two-game winning streak that has seen the team outscore Carolina and Miami, 54-12. Is the Saints’ defense for real after showing itself to be among the worst in the NFL over the past two seasons? Matthew Stafford and Co. will test that on Sunday. In a game between two potential wild card contenders, there’s definitely a whole lot to look at here.
Miami Dolphins at Atlanta Falcons: Jay Cutler’s short leash
Over the course of the past three games, Cutler is averaging less than 180 yards with a horrible 69.9 passer rating. During that very same span, the Dolphins have scored a combined 22 points. That’s bad. That’s really, really bad. Sure head coach Adam Gase continues to show confidence in his veteran quarterback. But at 2-2 on the season, Miami might have to make a change here soon.
The good news is that these Dolphins have a valuable and experienced backup in Matt Moore. Should Cutler falter Sunday against an improved Falcons defense on the road, it would not be a shock to see Gase turn to Moore. After all, despite seeing their offense struggle big time, the Dolphins are just a half of game out of first in the AFC East.
Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson’s brilliance
After benching DeShone Kizer for Kevin Hogan, Cleveland is almost certainly questioning its decision to allow the Texans to trade up for Deshaun Watson. That’s definitely magnified by the fact that Watson has been on absolute fire recently, tallying 10 total touchdowns en route to leading his Texans to 91 points over the past two games. Some perspective here: Cleveland has put up 77 points all season. That’s just brutal for an organization better known as the Factory of Sadness.
As it relates to the Texans, Watson’s tremendous recent performance has not helped the team gain much traction. It stands at 2-3 on the year and just lost J.J. Watt as well as Whitney Mercilus for the season. Watson must continue playing at this level if Houston hopes to earn its third consecutive AFC South title. The good news here is that Watson and Co. are going up against a Browns defense that’s yielding a 112.4 passer rating on the season. It will be feast time for the youngster Sunday.
New England Patriots at New York Jets: An odd battle for first
There’s no way New York takes out the Patriots for their fourth consecutive win. That’s not possible, right? After all, this is a team that entered the year with questions about whether it would win one darn football game. That’s how crazy the AFC East has been through the first five weeks of the season.
For the Patriots, they continue to dominate on the offensive side of the ball. Tom Brady is on pace to throw for 5,446 yards with 35 touchdowns and three picks. New England also ranks third in the NFL in scoring. Unfortunately, the team’s pass defense has been an unmitigated disaster. It is yielding a 66.5 completion percentage and 109.2 quarterback rating while giving up the most passing yards in the NFL. Is it possible that career journeyman Josh McCown could take advantage of this while leading the Jets to a major upset? We’ll find out Sunday.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Arizona Cardinals: Adrian Peterson’s debut
Boasting the league’s worst rushing offense, Arizona sent shockwaves through the NFL by adding Peterson in a trade with New Orleans earlier this week. It’s a move that reeks of desperation, but one the team simply needed to make. The Cards have yet to put up more than 83 rushing yards in a game this season and are averaging 2.6 yards per rush. Ouch.
Whether Peterson and the 81 yards he put up in four games with the Saints makes a difference here remains to be seen. But it will be tough sledding Sunday against a Buccaneers defense that is yielding just 3.4 yards per rush on the season. In order for Arizona to bounce back from last week’s blowout loss to Philadelphia, it will need to perform at a higher clip on the ground. We’re just not sure that’s in the cards (pun intended) this week.
Los Angeles Rams at Jacksonville Jaguars: Two surprising teams clash
Both the Rams and Jaguars are squarely in playoff contention heading into Week 6. In fact, Jacksonville finds itself in sole possession of first place in the AFC South while Los Angeles is tied for first in the NFC West. More than anything, Sunday’s game will be determined by how an improved Jared Goff performs against what could be considered the best pass defense in the NFL.
Through five weeks, Jacksonville is yielding the third-fewest passing yards in the league. Both A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey are giving up less than a 40 percent completion mark. Meanwhile, the Jags have held opposing quarterbacks to a league-best 56.8 passer rating. Should Goff struggle here, the Rams will likely move to 3-3 with the Jaguars finding themselves at 4-2 for the first time since 2007.
Los Angeles Chargers at Oakland Raiders: Just a blip or more struggles?
The Raiders have lost three consecutive games, and the issues now reside on both sides of the ball. Sure getting Derek Carr back into the mix after he missed last week will help, but Amari Cooper continues to struggle on offense. Through five weeks, Cooper has caught a grand total of 13 passes for 118 yards. He’s also catching just 39 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. Comparatively, Raiders quarterbacks are completing 71 percent of their passes to the rest of the team.
Defensively, the Raiders just allowed Mike Wallace to destroy them through the air. That’s most definitely not a good sign. It starts in the secondary, where Oakland has yielded a 68.7 completion percentage and 106.6 passer rating on the season. If these two areas are not fixed in short order, a season that started with Super Bowl expectations will soon go down the drain.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs: Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles
We really have no idea what to make of the Steelers heading into this matchup with NFL’s only remaining undefeated team. Big Ben himself is coming off a five-interception performance against Jacksonville. That came after we noticed considerable regression on his part earlier in the season. There seems to be a growing rift between Roethlisberger and star receiver Antonio Brown, the backstory behind said rift being potentially damaging to their relationship.
More than this, Pittsburgh simply has not put it all together on offense. Boasting one of the best skill-position groups in the league, there’s no reason why this offense should be averaging under 20 points per game and rank 19th in the league in scoring. It’s going to be a major test at Arrowhead on Sunday. Should the Steelers falter again, drama will likely continue to be the name of the game in the Steel City.
New York Giants at Denver Broncos: Eli’s future in Jersey
Things have turned into an unmitigated disaster for the winless Giants. From losing Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall for the season to injury to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie finding himself suspended, there’s no real hope of a turnaround in Jersey. And with Manning entering the twilight of his career, rumors are suddenly ramping up that he might be dealt prior to Halloween’s trade deadline.
While a trade still seems highly unlikely, it might make sense for Manning himself. Let’s say the Jaguars come calling, wouldn’t they provide him with a better opportunity to contend? He’d surely be an upgrade over Blake Bortles. As it is, Manning and his under-manned Giants now head to Denver to take on the No Fly Zone. Good luck with that, Mr. Manning.
Indianapolis Colts at Tennessee Titans: Staying relevant
With Jacksonville boasting a one-game lead over the other three teams in the AFC South, this game between two division rivals could have wide-ranging ramifications. For the Colts, they stand at a somewhat surprising 2-3 on the season with Andrew Luck still sidelined. That’s primarily been due to the play of Jacoby Brissett under center, who dazzled to the tune of 320-plus yards in a win over the 49ers last week.
Tennessee’s trajectory is pointing somewhat downward. The team blew a golden opportunity to defeat Miami last week with Marcus Mariota sidelined. It continues to struggle finding a nice run-pass mix, as evidenced by Week 5’s abhorrent game plan. With Mariota set to return, the hope here is that Tennessee can get back on track. Should that not happen, the Titans will fall to 2-4 on the season after starting the campaign with clear division title aspirations.