What more could you want?
Who would have thought bye weeks for Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Washington and Tampa Bay would lead to perhaps the best NFL week of the season?
The Vikings and Redskins made the playoffs last year. Until this year, the Steelers have been perennial playoff contenders. Using ESPN.com's Power Rankings as a barometer, Week 5 features six games in which teams in the top 15 face each other. The Dallas Cowboys' bad performance against the San Diego Chargers last Sunday dropped them to 18th, but they have the seventh interesting matchup.
Week 5 has it all. Russell Wilson versus Andrew Luck is a headliner. Tom Brady has been working on offense minus his five top pass-catchers from last year, but his Patriots face a Cincinnati team with perhaps the league's deepest group of pass-catchers. The Houston Texans face the San Francisco 49ers. Miami hosts Baltimore. Kansas City travels to Tennessee. The best divisional game is Detroit against Green Bay.
September was a strange month. It's always brought up that five or six different teams make the playoffs each year, and September put a lot of 2012 playoff teams on notice. The Redskins, Falcons and Vikings are 1-3. The Packers are 1-2. Teams such as the Steelers and New York Giants may be out of it already with 0-4 starts.
Since the start of the season, more than half of the games have been decided by one score. This weekend should be equally close, and the games could be memorable.
Here are the 10 trends for NFL Week 5.1. Solving the Cover 2: In 2007 and 2008, Saints quarterback Drew Brees struggled against the Chicago Bears in losses. At the time, the Bears' Cover 2 under Lovie Smith was in its prime. Brian Urlacher patrolled the middle of the field at middle linebacker. Defensive backs kept plays in front of them and made it tough for Brees to complete passes and mount drives. Saints coach Sean Payton fixed that, and now the Bears have to worry. The first step was drafting tight end Jimmy Graham to work the middle of the field. The final Cover 2 beater was getting Darren Sproles to catch passes out of the backfield if Graham, Marques Colston and other receiver options are covered. The Saints' Monday night win over the Miami Dolphins could be a preview of a coming disaster for the Bears. Brees connected with Graham and Sproles on 11 of 12 passes for 214 yards. In 2011, Brees found Graham and Sproles for 14 receptions in a 30-13 victory. For the sake of continuity, new Bears coach Marc Trestman kept the Cover 2 as the team's base defense. Sunday could be tough.
2. Cover 2, part II: Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones made a dramatic move this offseason by junking the 3-4 defense and going with Monte Kiffin's Cover 2. The early reviews are positive. The Cowboys are getting more turnovers and an improved pass rush, but Sunday will be their toughest test yet. The fear is how many points Peyton Manning could put up on the Cowboys' massive scoreboard. The Broncos are averaging 44.8 points a game. The Cowboys have had two games in which their defense has given up more than 400 yards passing, including last week's 401-yard performance by San Diego's Philip Rivers. A year ago Jones invested $10 million a year for cornerback Brandon Carr and used a first-round pick on cornerback Morris Claiborne to create a solid man-to-man coverage tandem. The switch to zone coverage has derailed Claiborne. He's been so bad that Orlando Scandrick has taken over as the starter. So far, quarterbacks have completed 15 of 25 passes against Scandrick for 332 yards. Manning will be looking for him.
3. Luck versus Wilson: Last year, Luck was considered perhaps the best quarterback prospect to enter the league in decades. Wilson, only 5-foot-10, has been perhaps the biggest surprise of all the quarterbacks from the 2012 draft. Both quarterbacks took their teams to the playoffs last year as wild cards. In their second seasons, they are trying to become front-runners in divisional races. Unless they meet in the Super Bowl, this meeting will occur only once every four years because the Colts and Seahawks are in different conferences. Both are running similar style offenses. Seattle's Pete Carroll believes in a power-running, play-action passing attack. The Seahawks run the ball 36 times a game and let Wilson do his magic in a 24-pass attack model. The Seahawks are averaging 27.3 points and 352 yards a game. New Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was brought in to call a more physical game, and that has worked. He averages 30 runs and 32 passes a game, lessening the number of hits on Luck. As a result, the Colts are 3-1, averaging 26.3 points and 374 yards a game.
4. More out of less and less out of more: The Patriots face the Bengals at an interesting time. The Patriots have gone from scoring in the 30s to having a 22.3-point offense without Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Danny Amendola and others. Gronkowski is close to coming back, but there is no guarantee it will happen this Sunday. Nevertheless, the Patriots are 4-0. Brady hasn't changed his approach despite working with rookies, a journeyman tight end and slot receiver Julian Edelman. He's running a fast-paced offense and getting off 71.7 plays a game. That's only 2.7 fewer than last season. The pace opens 30 running chances a game, which creates a little more balance. On the flip side, the Bengals are loaded. Running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert are two of this year's better rookie offensive rookies. They are part of an offense that has A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and others. But quarterback Andy Dalton is getting less out of more. The Bengals are averaging only 20.3 points and 327.5 yards a game. It has caused many to wonder whether Dalton is getting exposed as an average quarterback in a better offense. Dalton has gone to the playoffs twice in two years, but so did Mark Sanchez. Last week, Dalton targeted Green 15 times but completed only seven of those passes for 51 yards because Cleveland Browns cornerback Joe Haden had Green blanketed.
5. Judging the value of a left tackle: When Bill Parcells ran the Miami Dolphins, he decided to rebuild the franchise around left tackle Jake Long and a second-round quarterback, Chad Henne, instead of building around quarterback Matt Ryan. The Falcons made the playoffs in four of Ryan's first five seasons. The Dolphins made the playoffs in Long's first year (2008) but haven't had a winning season since. Sunday's Baltimore-Miami game comes at an interesting time. After allowing seven sacks in Week 4, the Ravens traded fourth- and fifth-round picks to Jacksonville for left tackle Eugene Monroe. If they like him, the Ravens could pick Monroe over Michael Oher as the franchise's left tackle of the future. Both players are free agents after the season. The Ravens obviously value protecting the blind side of their $20.1 million-a-year quarterback, Joe Flacco. The Dolphins opted not to re-sign Long and let him go to St. Louis. They moved Jonathan Martin from right to left tackle. Martin has graded out decently, but he is among the league leaders in sacks allowed with four. Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 18 times in four games, a pace that could lead to an injury if it isn't fixed. Flacco has been sacked 12 times. The team that better protects the quarterback may be the winner in this AFC showdown.6. Schaub in the crosshairs: Matt Schaub's recent interception problems may or may not have affected his confidence, but they have clearly damaged the confidence Houston fans have in him as a franchise quarterback. The schedule doesn't give him a break. After blowing a 17-point lead to the Seahawks last week, the Texans have to play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night. The book on Schaub is that his play can drop off if he's under duress, and that's exactly the game plan and personality of the 49ers' defense. San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis returns after missing last week's game. Texans coach Gary Kubiak continues to support Schaub, and the drop-off to the backup quarterbacks is too pronounced to think Schaub will be benched. But the organization will make a judgment at the end of the season. After this year, Schaub's contract of $15 million-plus annually is clean of guarantees. The pressure is on him now.
7. Road test for Lions: Winning on the road has always been a big problem for the Lions. Since 2001, the Lions have won only 28.6 percent of their road games, worst in football. Matthew Stafford has given the franchise the type of quarterback who can win on the road, but Sunday is a tough assignment. The Lions travel to Green Bay, where they have a 21-game losing streak. That's the longest such streak in NFL history. The Packers have had a bye week to figure out their 1-2 start. They've had too many hamstring injuries and have struggled with their pass-blocking. But this game should be a high-scoring one. The question is going to be whether the Lions can be confident enough to win at Lambeau Field.
8. Remedies to problems: Sometimes the schedule is the best solution for problems. That's where the Atlanta Falcons and St. Louis Rams have breaks. Each franchise is concerned with a 1-3 start. The healing process begins with two interconference matchups. The Falcons play the offense-starved New York Jets on Monday night. The game couldn't come at a better time. The Falcons lost a home game to New England last week. The roster is still aching from five injuries suffered in Week 3 and wide receiver Roddy White's slow start because of a high ankle sprain. Although the Jets' defense is good enough to give Ryan problems, the Jets' offense isn't much of a threat. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith holds on to the ball too long, forcing him into turnovers. Wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill may not be available for Smith, who will be hard-pressed to do well with just backups. Everyone feels good about playing the Jacksonville Jaguars. Though they play hard, the Jags have been uncompetitive in their first four games. The Jaguars game comes at the right time for the Rams, who haven't run the ball well and have struggled on defense. A lot of things can get fixed for the Rams in a game such as this.
9. Five 4-0 teams on the road: The Seahawks play the Colts. The Patriots have a tough one against Cincinnati. New Orleans is at Chicago. Denver visits Dallas. An interesting matchup is Kansas City at Tennessee. The Chiefs have been solid as Andy Reid has created an interesting model of success. Quarterback Alex Smith doesn't make many mistakes and doesn't lose games with turnovers. Over the past three seasons, he's 23-5-1 as a starter. The Chiefs' defense does the reverse. It forces mistakes. The Chiefs have 18 sacks and have forced 12 turnovers in four games. The Titans are switching from quarterback Jake Locker to backup Ryan Fitzpatrick because of Locker's hip injury. Fitzpatrick lost his gig as the Bills' starting quarterback because he threw too many interceptions. Over the past five years, Fitzpatrick's 3.7 interception rate is the highest in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
10. The rest of the story: Pity the NFC East team that loses the New York Giants-Philadelphia Eagles meeting. The Giants are 0-4 and losing faith in everything. The Eagles' defense can't get anyone off the field to sustain their fast-paced offense. Giants coach Tom Coughlin continues to sift through a long injury list to see what he has to combat the Eagles. ... The Arizona Cardinals picked a strange time to trade left tackle Levi Brown to Pittsburgh. The Carolina Panthers have one of the best front fours in football. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer continues to have problems with interceptions. Palmer, according to ESPN Stats & Information, has thrown six interceptions when he's hit or under duress. ... Because of a Saturday night baseball playoff game involving Oakland A's, the Oakland Raiders have a late Sunday night start. They play the Chargers in an 8:30 p.m. West Coast start. The Raiders hope to still be in the game by 9 p.m.