As teams start to divide themselves into two categories — the playoff types and the Andrew Luck sorts — we make sure to cover both of them in this early Week Six preview.
1. Everyone wants to know what is wrong with the Eagles. I attempted to diagnose their problems Monday, but sometimes it goes beyond statistics and coaching and talent. I thought NBC's Cris Collinsworth had a pretty good way of summing it up: "All their hood ornaments look great. The paint job is beautiful. The problem is the engine's broken." I can safely report that this season is driving the Eagles' coaches absolutely crazy, much in the way that 2010 was a walking, breathing nightmare for the Cowboys' coaches as they struggled to come up with reasons why their immensely talented team was losing games. The difference, I think, between the two situations is that Andy Reid, unlike Wade Phillips, isn't going to lose his job. Not yet. Reid unquestionably deserves some blame, and his miscalculation on Juan Castillo figuring things out on the fly is costing his team dearly. It's very likely that Reid will give Castillo help in the form of a veteran defensive consultant, but we know how those things tend to work out: not well. Besides, the players are in a position to make plays — they just are not doing it. If Sunday's game against the Bills was critical, then this week's Redskins game is an absolute must-win.
2. Everyone wants to know what is right with the Redskins. And while everyone was trying to figure out how Mike Shanahan was going to win with Rex or Beck, what few noticed was that the defense and running game were going to make the biggest difference. Especially the "D" — Jim Haslett finally has the pieces he needs to run his 3-4 attacking defense in the mold of the Steelers, and for a fine, in-depth look at that group, be sure to read PFW correspondent John Keim's excellent feature in this week's PFW print edition. Offensively, the Redskins are going to be a tough test for the Eagles. Philadelphia is exactly the kind of team they want to face right now. The Redskins can keep things simple with a zone running game and a play-action and rhythm passing game. On the ground, the hard running of Ryan Torain has invigorated the offense, and Roy Helu might throw the fantasy footballers for a loop with the big game he appears to be on the verge of having. Look for the Redskins to make the Eagles tackle them near the line of scrimmage ... over and over and over.
3. With Sunday's hard-fought win over the Jets, the Patriots improved their home regular-season win streak to 19 games, tied with the 1996-99 49ers for the fifth-longest of all time. A win over the Cowboys this week would tie them for fourth with Curly Lambeau's 1929-32 Packers, who actually played back then at Old City Stadium on the campus of Green Bay East High School. (Who could forget their 27-12 win over the Frankford Yellow Jackets in the fall of '30?) I know Bill Belichick, the history buff, would take special pride in that mark. But more than that, Belichick would appreciate beating a good Cowboys team that has gotten a bit of a bad rap. It just might be the most dangerous team in the NFC East. The Patriots have not been the type of team to have a letdown game, but don't be shocked if this one is ultracompetitive and down to the wire.
4. I don't know what the Cowboys' offensive coaches did during their bye week, but I am guessing that they spent time breaking down extra tape of their supremely talented but eminently frustrating QB, Tony Romo. Assuming they did, there is one thing they are sure to have noticed: He hasn't played four good quarters — at least not consecutively — this season. The good news is that he has made a lot of All-Pro throws, and he very well could carve up the Patriots with a few well-scripted drives early. That secondary had looked pretty ripe before Sunday's improvement against the Jets, relatively speaking considering the state of the Jets' passing game. But what does Jason Garrett do the first time Romo makes a mistake? And based on the early results, he will. Garrett doesn't want to manage Romo, doesn't want to handcuff him or baby him. But dialing it back some might do both of them some good. The Cowboys need to stick to their game plan if it's working early against New England's defense — opposite from the way the Falcons got away from theirs Sunday night against the Packers.
5. As if the Falcons weren't frustrated enough after their 2-3 start, losing games in which they led, now they have to face a very talented and very angry Cam Newton, whose team is coming up a play or two short in each of the four losses. Adding to the drama is that Newton is an Atlanta native who grew up idolizing the Falcons. You can bet there will be a number of No. 1 Panthers jerseys in the crowd (and maybe a few Auburn shirts, too), and Newton is just plain raw from losing 4-of-5. The joke on the Panthers beat is that with each successive loss, it takes him an additional five minutes to emerge from the shower and talk to the media. And when he does? He is not a happy young man. Will he be able to earn that big win he has been so close to getting? Don't be surprised if the Falcons are a bit shell-shocked by how good he is.
6. Much as with the Redskins, there is growing fascination with the way the 49ers have surged to a 4-1 mark, their one loss coming in overtime to the Cowboys. Want to know where it starts? It's with one man: Jim Harbaugh. And PFW's Nolan Nawrocki wrote an excellent analysis on Harbaugh and the 49ers in his "Scout's Eye" story from Monday morning. Read that and you'll get an idea of what this team is made of. What I think Harbaugh has done an excellent job of is identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the roster and not trying to be something they are not. I worry about the Niners' offensive line going up against Detroit's front four, but you can bet that the crowd noise (which generated nine false starts) won't be as raucous as it was in the Monday-night win over the Bears. Besides, the 49ers' offensive line isn't nearly as sad as the Bears'.
7. The Lions (5-0 for the first time since 1956) are getting used to winning, and dealing with the weekly ebbs and flows is one of the challenges of a young team. So is handling being a front-runner. Detroit will be favored against the 49ers, but is it clearly the better team? This one screams "trap game" with about four exclamation points, if the Lions are not careful. They are a dangerous offensive outfit, and Jahvid Best's running temporarily assuaged fans' fears about the lack of a run game. But those gaping holes will not be there against a suddenly disciplined 49ers defense, so they'll have to earn their yards one at a time. Could Carlos Rogers be the first corner to have success against Megatron (nine receiving TDs in five games, a record)? Rogers is playing at a Pro Bowl level this season, and he fared OK against Calvin Johnson last season while playing for the Redskins. He certainly will have safety help all game if he needs it. Another cool subplot: Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was this close to getting the 49ers' job in 2005, one that went instead to Mike Nolan. Schwartz might be telling his team this week how big this game is for him, in an attempt to keep his team up after the big win Monday night.
8. Is it curtains for the Texans? Mario Williams is out for the season, and it will take more than rookie Brooks Reed to replace him. It, of course, hurts more that Andre Johnson likely remains out another game or two, and you can only guess if Arian Foster will suffer another hamstring or groin injury. But let's be positive: This is a great test for a team trying to find its mettle. Gary Kubiak was outcoached by Hue Jackson on Sunday, and he'll have to be on his toes against the Ravens' sharpie, John Harbaugh. Harbs is 3-0 with the team coming off a bye, and he smells blood.
9. More on Harbaugh: Give him an extra week, and he'll come up with a wrinkle or two. Back in 2008 (with Rex Ryan as his defensive coordinator), the Ravens played a little rope-a-dope defensively and were very vanilla before they turned on the glitz with an array of blitzes against Derek Anderson, which worked to perfection. In 2009, the defense simplified things dramatically on defense and really put the clamps on a red-hot Kyle Orton (152 yards in 37 attempts). And in 2010 against the Dolphins, Harbaugh called for a fake punt that he sat on for almost three quarters and used to perfection late in a tight game. The Ravens will have something extra for the Texans, and the way they were playing before the bye, it could spell doom for Houston.
10. The Bills get a chance Sunday to take one step toward making a claim they haven't been able to make in about eight years: best team in the Empire State. The Giants had won three straight prior to Sunday, but the Seahawks loss undercut a lot of that. It was a very Giants-esque loss in that it felt like a loss and a half. They gave the game away, and it was wild to watch the ride of Victor Cruz, who went from hero to goat to hero to goat in about 36 real-time minutes. With Eli Manning throwing three picks against the Seahawks and being prone to that kind of game a few times a season, it's important that we note the Bills have become quite the pass thieves. They now have 12 interceptions, one more than all of last season. I still find it crazy that Jairus Byrd, who had nine interceptions as a rookie, has but one pick in his past 21 games. But he's playing well, along with fellow safety George Wilson (three interceptions this season; a monster game Sunday). Three of those 12 picks have been brought back for scores, too. Giants fans say the team throws too much. Be careful here.
11. Saints-Buccaneers lost a little luster with the Saints coming back to win at Carolina (stay with me here) and the Bucs getting manhandled in Frisco. Had the opposite results happened, we'd be talking about the first-place Bucs playing the second-place Saints in Tampa. Now it's more about how the Bucs can gather themselves after such a lopsided loss. They can, but what is happening with Josh Freeman this season? He was rightly praised up and down for taking care of the ball last season, but it was just the opposite Sunday when he threw two dreadful picks, one that was run back for a score. Freeman says he is seeing things better this season and throwing the ball better. He takes chances and lives with them, much the same way the Panthers' Newton does, and we saw how well he played at times against these Saints last season. Expect Gregg Williams to tweak some of his looks but use the same general approach Sunday.
12. Last season in Week Six, the 3-2 Dolphins beat the Packers, dropping them to 3-3. The 4-2 Texans beat the 3-2 Chiefs. And there were several close games: The Colts nipped the Redskins, the Jets edged the Broncos and the Seahawks beat the Bears in Chicago. So, it should remind the Rams that all hope is not lost in their matchup against the best team in football right now in the Packers. It's almost silly to ask if the Rams have a chance of slowing down QB Aaron Rodgers and that passing game right now, even if OLT Chad Clifton (hamstring) is out. So what to do? Zone the heck out of them and hope the Packers shoot themselves in the foot. Not likely.
13. There's not much new to say about these Packers. Down 13 at Carolina, they figured to respond. Down 14 at Atlanta, you thought they would, but it's the calm and poise with which Rodgers and the offense execute that makes you just marvel at how good they are. And a few words on Dom Capers: How well did he adjust in the second half? The Falcons held the upper hand early, but it was almost as if Capers knew the Falcons couldn't stay patient for four quarters offensively. They itch and itch and they have to scratch it by throwing the ball. In the first half, the Falcons had a 13-14 pass-run split (with two Ryan scrambles); in the second, they were 20-8 (with one Ryan scramble). Capers knew, adjusted his defense and held the Falcons to 107 yards on 28 plays. The chore against the Rams' broken offense will be far easier a test.
14. Three bye teams could use the break. The Broncos, Cardinals and Chiefs have their share of issues, although the Chiefs at least have shown some life the past two weeks. The Broncos named Tim Tebow their starter on Tuesday, but does anyone really think John Fox (or John Elway) is convinced that Tebow is the long-term answer? And now, sadly, that same question is being asked of fans out in Arizona, who are tired of Kevin Kolb not playing better. Sometimes it's best to take a step back and just breathe.
15. The other three teams on bye are the Titans, Chargers and Seahawks. It's funny because they all find themselves in the thick of their division races, but all three have to feel dramatically different about themselves following Week Five. The Seahawks turned in an inspired defensive effort (five takeaways, a safety and four three-and-outs) but must wait to hear about the status of Tarvaris Jackson, who has answered some critics the past two weeks. The Chargers barely hung on against the Broncos, and normally everyone in San Diego would be positively giddy about a 4-1 start, but the product hasn't matched the record. The Titans are right now a bit of a mystery, and some would say they were exposed in Pittsburgh. But they got to 3-1 without big contributions from Chris Johnson and they can win more games in what suddenly is a very wide-open AFC South.