We are now at the point in the season when contenders start to separate from pretenders. In the past, teams like the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos have stepped up in October to stake their claim as the best in the business.
It’s now up to other up-and-coming teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and potentially even the Cleveland Browns (imagine that) to put up season-defining victories as we speed towards the midway point of the season.
Much like we have done every week this season, it’s time to check in on the top storyline for each Week 6 NFL game.
Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans: Andrew Luck vs J.J. Watt
Two of the best players in the game going up against one another in a matchup that will decide who enters midseason with the best record in the AFC South. For the Colts, it’s all about Luck continuing the stellar play that has seen him throw a league-leading 14 touchdowns in five games. The third-year quarterback is now on pace to tally nearly 5,200 yards with 45 touchdowns this season. He also leads the league’s top-ranked scoring offense at 31.2 points per game.
On the other hand, Watt can seriously be looked at as the best overall player in the NFL. His pure domination from the defensive end position has put the Texans in position to contend for a playoff spot after winning just two games last season. Watt has put up 18 quarterback hurries and 15 quarterback hits in five games. To put that into perspective, he leads the former category by a full 10 hurries. That’s amazing in and of itself. If Watt continues this domination on Thursday night, the Texans could very well come away with an upset victory.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans: Battle of Rookie Quarterbacks?
There stands a good chance that Zach Mettenberger will start for the Titans on Sunday. If so, this means that these two AFC South bottom feeders will have rookie quarterbacks lining up against one another. Mettenberger, an uber-talented sixth-round pick from LSU, was seen as a project quarterback with a ton of upside when Tennessee selected him this past May. Now with another injury to Jake Locker and poor play from Charlie Whitehurst, the 6’5″ Mettenberger may get the call this weekend.
Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles figures to remain the team’s starter for the remainder of the season and into the future. Despite struggling big time in a 17-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last week, Bortles has shown the ability to put up big plays and lead the Jaguars offense in a way that former starter Chad Henne simply couldn’t do. In his three games (two starts) this season, Bortles is averaging 223 passing yards.
Baltimore Ravens at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Home Underdogs Need a Win
Even at 1-4 on the season, Tampa Bay isn’t completely out of the NFC South race. After all, the Carolina Panthers pace this division with a 3-2 record. However unlikely it may be that the Buccaneers do contend for a division title moving forward this season, a loss against Baltimore would pretty much put a cork in any hopes Lovie Smith and Co. may have. On the other hand, a solid home win here could put the rest of the lackluster division on notice.
Denver Broncos at New York Jets: The Geno Smith and Rex Ryan Show
Despite benching Smith last week after a 4-of-12 first half performance, Ryan made the decision immediately after the game to give the young quarterback another start. Now losers of four consecutive and without much hope of turning it around, Ryan needs his young quarterback to step it up big time. In fact, the head coach has even indicated that his job might rely on the team improving its play in the coming weeks. And to be brutally honest, that starts at the quarterback position.
Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings: Teddy’s Back
As much as some might want to focus on the health of Calvin Johnson and whether he will play in this one, that’s a story that promises to continue on a weekly basis around the NFL this season. Instead, I want to check in on Teddy Bridgewater’s return from an ankle injury that cost the rookie Minnesota’s matchup with the Green Bay Packers last week.
In his only start this season, Bridgewater completed 19-of-30 passes for 317 yards while adding 27 more yards on the ground. He now takes over under center for a Vikings team that is still in the NFC North race with a 2-3 record. A win against the Lions at home could go a long way in helping Minnesota prove that it is going to be in contention for the long run this year.
New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills: Battle for First
Imagine this. New England and Buffalo are entering this Week 6 matchup in Western New York with first place on the line. Buffalo is coming off an impressive road win against the Detroit Lions with Kyle Orton under center. Meanwhile, New England rebounded from a disastrous Week 4 performance by throttling the Cincinnati Bengals at home.
Can Tom Brady continue to improve under center or will journeyman backup Kyle Orton get the best of the future Hall of Famer? A win here by Buffalo, and you better believe that Bill Belichick and Co. will be put on notice.
Carolina Panthers at Cincinnati Bengals: Bounce Back Game for the Home Team
Cincinnati started the season with a 3-0 record and was considered the best team in the NFL heading into its Week 4 bye. Marvin Lewis and Co. responded by putting up a horrible performance in New England on Sunday Night Football. In order to avoid a losing streak, the Bengals need to come up big against a first-place Panthers team that is coming off a win they desperately needed last week against the Chicago Bears.
In reality, this could be a season-defining game for both teams. Will Cincinnati improve to 4-1 and remain in first place in the AFC North or are the Panthers about to pull away from mediocre competition in the NFC South. This question will be answered Sunday afternoon.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns: Statement Game for Brian Hoyer and Co.
Imagine the Browns pulling off a home win against a heated division rival and overtaking that team in the standings heading into Week 7. This is a real possibility, especially with the team coming off the largest road comeback in the history of the National Football League. Brian Hoyer is playing some darn good football under center, while a trio of talented running backs lead the league’s fourth-best rushing attack. Looking at the way these two teams played last week, there is a strong chance that Cleveland pulls off a season-defining victory against the Steelers. Then again, they are the Browns and we know how that story has played out in recent seasons.
Green Bay Packers at Miami Dolphins: Joe Philbin vs Former Team
Philbin spent nine seasons with the Packers in a variety of roles. His experience with one of the most stable franchises in the NFL caught the eye of the Dolphins, who hired him away from Green Bay prior following the 2011 season. Unfortunately for Philbin, stability is not a term that he can use to define his tenure in Miami. From Jeff Ireland getting the boot to the entire bullying scandal, a lot has gone wrong for the head coach in Miami.
And now less than three years after being hired, Philbin finds himself on the hot seat. He also finds his Dolphins team in the midst of an AFC East division race that is almost certainly going to last into the late stages of the season. At 2-2, can Miami pull off a big win against a superior opponent and stake its claim as a contender for the division? That’s the storyline here.
San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders: Tony Sparano Raiders Coaching Debut
A storyline here could be just how long the Raiders will remain within one score of one of the best teams in the NFL. But that really wouldn’t be much fun to write about. Instead, let’s focus on whether Sparano can get more from this talent-stricken team than Dennis Allen got in the first four games of the season. Even as an interim head coach, Sparano has an opportunity to prove that he can be a part of the Raiders future. With that said, it’s a near impossible task for him to put up many wins over the course of the rest of the year. And to be honest, it’s hard to imagine Mark Davis and Co. expecting much more than improvement from young players and an ability to compete on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen on Sunday against Philip Rivers.
Chicago Bears at Atlanta Falcons: Must Win for Both Teams
At 2-3, both of these teams are currently in the midst of tough stretches. Chicago has lost two in a row by a combined four touchdowns, while Atlanta is coming off lossess in three of its last four games. While this matchup might be more important for a Bears team that plays in a rather difficult NFC North, the Falcons need to prove that they are not the same team that fell completely apart around this time last year. And in reality, the issues are more widespread in Atlanta. Without the services of multiple offensive linemen and absolutely no pass rush on the defensive side of the ball, Mike Smith’s squad could really be in trouble with a home loss against Jay Cutler and Co.
Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks: Statement Game for the Cowboys
Seattle has won 19 of its last 20 home games by an average of over two touchdowns per outing. To say that Pete Carroll’s squad is dominating at CenturyLink would be an understatement. And despite a less than stellar performance against the Washington Redskins last week, you can bet the Seahawks will show up and be ready to play against a vastly improved Cowboys team.
As it relates to the Cowboys, they have now won four consecutive games for the first time since 2010 and are looking to make a major statement heading to the Pacific Northwest this weekend. As eight-point underdogs, no one really expects Dallas to compete in this one. But make no mistake about it, this isn’t the same Cowboys team of the past three years. They have a dominating running game with DeMarco Murray. And even more than that, the Cowboys defense is vastly improved from a season ago. A win here and Dallas will put the rest of the NFC on notice. It’s a huge game for Jason Garrett and Co.
Washington Redskins at Arizona Cardinals: Logan Thomas in at Quarterback for Arizona?
With Carson Palmer still unlikely to play and Drew Stanton coming off a concussion against the Denver Broncos last week, there is a really strong chance that rookie quarterback Logan Thomas will get the start for Arizona in this game. Thomas completed just 1-of-8 passes after replacing Stanton last week and is considered a major project. In reality, the Cardinals cannot feel good about throwing him to the wolves this early in his career. And it just so happens that it comes against a pretty bad Redskins team in a near must-win game for the Cardinals, who could fall to third place in the ultra-competitive NFC West with a loss. If Thomas does indeed start, expect a ton of Andre Ellington and the ground game.
New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles: Big Divisional Matchup
It’s pretty obvious at this point that New York is playing better football than Philadelphia. Though, that’s not necessarily going to matter in a rivalry game in Philadelphia on Sunday Night Football. These two teams normally play hard-fought games down to the end, which will put pressure on both Eli Manning and Nick Foles to make plays when it counts the most.
As it relates to Foles, his numbers don’t exactly tell the full story this season. The young quarterback has struggled a great deal with accuracy and is among the worst signal callers in the NFL when it comes to throwing down the field. With a much improved defensive front in New York, Foles will have to push the ball down the field in order for the Eagles to pull off the win here.
On the other hand, Manning just needs to continue what he has been doing as of late. The veteran has thrown eight touchdowns compared to one interception for a 115.2 quarterback rating over the past three games (all wins).
San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams: Austin Davis’ Biggest Test of the Season
Don’t look now, but Austin Davis might in fact be the real deal here. The former undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi has put up over 930 passing yards in his three starts this season. And while the Rams are just 1-2 in those starts, Davis is impressing a ton of people by his ability to shoulder the load on offense.
Monday’s game against a stout 49ers defense will be Davis’ toughest test of the young season. Vic Fangio’s unit ranks seventh in the NFL in passing yards against and is allowing a 78.0 quarterback rating through five games. While Perrish Cox and Antoine Bethea continue to surprise in the secondary, the 49ers front seven should also be able to limit the league’s 26th-ranked rushing game with a run defense that is yielding less than 74 yards per game. This means that the Rams will rely heavily on Davis to pull off the upset on Monday Night Football.
Photo: Fox Sports