Here are the top 15 story lines as we head into Week Seven with fewer answers at this point of the season than we have had at any point with rookie QBs thriving, veterans struggling, supposedly good teams losing and bad ones winning:
1. By now, it’s widely known that Jim Harbaugh suffered his worst loss Sunday since taking over the 49ers before last season. Previously, one of his two other double-digit losses came in a short week, like this Week Seven game against the rival (and suddenly hot) Seahawks is. Happy Thursday night, Jimbo! Thankfully, for the Niners, the game is in San Fran. But in the negative column with the quick turnaround is the quarterback position. Any other week, we might be talking about a potential QB change from Alex Smith, who went from his best performance in years against the Bills in Week Five to perhaps his worst in years against the Giants in Week Six. Colin Kaepernick saw extended time in the loss and was the more effective of the two throwers. Perhaps he knows the offense enough to see more than the 26 percent of the snaps Kaepernick did against the Giants. But would Harbaugh make a dramatic change like this with only a couple days of practice? It’s a huge game with serious divisional ramifications.
2. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson has now taken down Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Tom Brady. Wilson has lost to John Skelton/Kevin Kolb and Sam Bradford. Does that make the Seahawks more likely to lose heading into a Smith/Kaepernick duel? Hmm. The Seahawks were swept by the 49ers a season ago, and there’s no question how much they set their sights on beating their division rivals in the heated (and talented) NFC West. Pete Carroll has summoned some magic this season, and Sunday against the Patriots they found a downfield passing game, too (of the non-Hail Mary variety, that is). The Seahawks are all jacked up at 4-2. That same record has the Niners steamed. We should have quite the donnybrook by the Bay.
3. Are the Ravens in trouble or what? Words not oft spoken of 5-1 teams, but the season-ending injuries to LB Ray Lewis and CB Lardarius Webb are big, with maybe — blasphemy alert — Webb’s injury hurting more than Lewis. I know, I know. Lewis’ value goes beyond his play, the franchise only has played 33 games without him on the field (incredible), and all of that. Fine. LB Terrell Suggs isn’t likely to return this week, but DL Haloti Ngata’s torn MCL might not cause him to miss time, including this game against the Texans in Houston. The secondary is the concern. Cary Williams and Jimmy Smith have been picked on most of the season, and Chykie Brown was victimized on a late pass-interference call that almost cost the team the win against Dallas. Losing Webb killed the team in 2009, and it could cost the team dearly in 2012. And defending the Texans’ play-action passing game Sunday will be a stiff early test.
4. The Texans come into this game hot. Not as in hot on the field, but definitely angered at the way the Packers undressed them Sunday night. They also have to feel like they have a score to settle with the Ravens, who not only beat them soundly in the regular season last year but also downed them in the playoffs to prevent Houston from having a shot in the AFC title game, the Texans’ sixth loss in six head-to-head meetings. Both teams are 5-1, and the winner not only moves to the top of the AFC standings but also earns what could be a key head-to-head advantage for playoff seeding. The Texans look to be in stronger shape, even coming off the loss, if the Ravens’ health is considered. One advantage the Ravens might be able to trump is on special teams. Ex-Texan Jacoby Jones pulled off the rare untouched 108-yard kickoff return for TD against the Cowboys and certainly will look to show up his old team in this one.
5. The Giants return home in an eerily similar place to where they were a year ago, at 4-2 heading into Week Seven and re-stoking the talk that they are one of the best teams in the NFL. But nipping at their heels in the NFC East are the pesky Redskins, who will bring the Robert Griffin III show to MetLife Stadium. Creature-of-habit Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has to be pleased with the 1 p.m. start at home, only the third time this season the Giants have had one. His team prepared well in a short week for Cam Newton, but Griffin is playing better ball right now than the Panthers’ QB. It should be a fantastic QB battle, the first between Griffin and Eli Manning, but it should be noted that the Redskins were the one team to truly crack Manning last season. They held him to zero TD passes and forced four interceptions in two games in 2011, both Redskins victories.
6. The Redskins’ defensive success against the Giants was somewhat surprising, and it certainly will be more of a shock if they can continue it in this game considering how much they have lost to injury on all three levels of the defense. But after some early bloodletting, the Redskins have tightened up pretty well on that side. Sunday against the Vikings they confused QB Christian Ponder, kept Percy Harvin from breaking any long plays and fairly well contained Adrian Peterson after it looked early like he might bust out for a big game. The secondary is still prone to allowing big plays, and Manning certainly will be able to take advantage, but the rush has been strong. Keep an eye on the trenches: The Giants’ O-line held up well against the Niners and will be in for another battle vs. the Redskins’ front seven, which can bring some pressure.
7. Jets-Patriots, a battle for first place, will be one of only two late-afternoon games, the other being Jaguars-Ravens, meaning most of the country will be watching what suddenly is an important game. Yeah, Rex vs. Belichick has been a great story for a few years now, and these teams have been rivals for decades. But this matchup lost a lot of luster even up until Sunday, when the troubled Jets throttled the Colts and the Patriots had the rug pulled out from underneath them by the Seahawks. The Jets performed their best interpretation of Ground’n’Pound this season, as Shonn Greene ran like a franchise back for maybe the first time as a pro. But the Patriots shut down Marshawn Lynch last week and have seemed to fix the run defense. Can Mark Sanchez pass the Jets to victory considering the Patriots’ youth and trouble at safety? We’re not even going to muse on what Tim Tebow’s role might be; the last time he was here was his final game as a Bronco, getting his dinner handed to him by the Patriots.
8. I openly wondered in my Sunday “Shorts and Shells” column if Tom Brady and the Patriots are still clutch. The facts suggest they are not a great fourth-quarter team these days. They have allowed leads to slip through their fingers in all three losses and are 3-3 (and not 6-0) despite outscoring opponents by 51 points. But one thing the Patriots consistently have been is vindictive after losses, seldom losing two in a row. And coming off a bad loss, you know they are going to be extra lathered up against their rival Jets. Maybe this is the week that the Patriots’ expected rise and the Jets’ anticipated crash come. But it’s far from a sure thing, either.
9. The Lions were fortunate to avoid a 1-4 start by stealing a game that some felt the Eagles gave them. (Ask Andy Reid, who fired his defensive coordinator following the game, how he saw things.) Now the test gets tougher, and more important, in Monday’s division battle in Chicago against the well-rested 4-1 Bears, who are coming off their bye. It appeared that Jahvid Best might make his season debut for the Lions, but he has been ruled out indefinitely, leaving the Lions’ limited run game, well, limited. These two teams split their two matchups, with each home team winning and the Bears throttling the Lions with a second-half flurry that turned things ugly in a 37-13 game. This much is clear in the matchup: If the Lions start out like they did against Philly, the Bears will not be as generous letting them back in it. C Dominic Raiola told me last week that the key for the Lions is starting with a touchdown on their first drive, that it tends to calm them down. That will be a key against the Bears’ resurgent defense.
10. The Packers allayed a lot of folks’ concerns with their beatdown of the Texans, but they travel to St. Louis Sunday for an intriguing matchup against the defensive-minded Rams. You read that correctly: The Rams have become a stout defensive team, holding the Dolphins to 192 yards (fewer than four yards per play) in the 17-14 loss at Miami. The Rams have spent a lot of time, money and energy rebuilding that side of the ball, and the Packers had better be prepared, even with Aaron Rodgers coming off a six-TD performance and Jordy Nelson (three TDs) finally breaking out. There will be a fascinating battle on the perimeter between Rams CBs Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins and Nelson and the Packers’ receivers. The controlled environment might be conducive to passing for Rodgers and Sam Bradford, but not if the defenses are as stingy as they were this past week. The Rams are unbeaten at the Edward Jones Dome, and the Packers are 1-2 away from home.
11. The Buccaneers’ three-game homestand (enjoy it while it lasts) will come to a close Sunday against the Saints, a team the Bucs beat last season when the Saints were very good and the Bucs were very bad. In fact, it was their final victory of the season, despite the game happening in Week Six. The Saints will be coming into this game rested (perhaps mentally as much as physically), but the bounty news keeps on rolling. Jonathan Vilma has told the world that he plans to play in this game. The Saints can move out of last place with a victory, and Vilma has been dying to get back on the field. And after a slow start in which it appeared he tried to shoulder all the team’s problems, Drew Brees (10-2 TD-INT ratio the last three games) has been much better of late. That said, the Bucs seem to have had his number over the years. Coming off their best defensive performance of the season (against the Chiefs, who somehow beat the Saints), can the Bucs come up big again?
12. Sunday night will feature a key battle for second place in the AFC North between the Bengals and Steelers. Both missed huge opportunities to keep pace with the Ravens, each suffering major losses to the Titans and Browns, who have a combined three victories now. The Bengals were undressed in prime time against the Ravens in Week One, and if they want to avoid the same fate under the lights against the Steelers, they’ll have to play better defensively. QB Ben Roethlisberger is off to a strong start, and he’s doing a great job avoiding pressure; the Bengals’ m.o., as one of the leading sack teams, is taking down the quarterback. The Steelers might be at their most vulnerable in a few years with injuries and age plaguing the team, but they have won four straight against the Bengals, including at Paul Brown Stadium, where this game will be held. The Bengals might be the better team, and they are a game up in the standings on Pittsburgh, but they might as well consider themselves the underdogs until they earn a victory over the Steelers or Ravens. They are 1-8 against those teams the past two-plus seasons.
13. All signs point to John Skelton being the quarterback for the Cardinals when they head to Minnesota to face the Vikings Sunday, given the gruesome injury Kevin Kolb suffered in the Cards’ OT loss at home to the Bills on Sunday. Depending on how you look at it (Skelton was the Opening Day QB), it’s the second replacement quarterback the Vikings have faced. Last week, they were torched by a starter when Robert Griffin III overcame his concussion the week prior and ran and threw his way to victory. The Vikings had been good defensively, not previously allowing more than 23 points in a game, but they were undone by the swift feel and laser arm of Griffin. Can the somewhat wooden Skelton have the same success? The Vikings’ pass rush had to be slowed down with a few blitzes last Sunday, but you can bet the boilers will be turned up this week against what has been the worst pass-blocking offensive line (five more sacks allowed in Week Six), bar none, in the NFL this season.
14. The Cowboys will be on the road three of the next four games, with a visit from the champions in the middle, starting with Sunday’s game at Carolina. The Panthers are coming off a bye in which they have tried to solve their defensive issues and reestablish their offensive identity. Are they a power-rushing team or a vertical-passing outfit? Ron Rivera asked that same question, rhetorically, a few weeks ago. He has yet to receive an answer. The Cowboys have lacked big plays in the secondary, but the defense hasn’t been the biggest source of blame. The run game was ironed out at Baltimore last week, but now it appears RB DeMarco Murray could miss time with a sore foot. Felix Jones had a big game against the Panthers a few years back and likely will get the call here, too. But Jason Garrett and Dez Bryant will have to answer questions coming off their late-game failures in the loss to the Ravens.
15. New Browns owner Jimmy Haslam said Tuesday that he plans no immediate changes to the coaching staff, which celebrated its first win in 11 months on Sunday against the Bengals. The site of this week’s game (Indianapolis) is also the site of the Browns’ last road victory. The Colts beat the Packers and Vikings at home but also lost to the Jaguars and were blown out, quite shorthanded, at the Jets in Week Six. Can the Colts rekindle the Chuck Pagano fire and get the team back on track? Or will the Browns string two together for their new owner? They might be without rookie RB Trent Richardson (abdomen), but rookie QB Brandon Weeden threw for 231 yards and two TDs last week and has been (at times) as impressive as Colts QB Andrew Luck, who struggled last week.