The first quarter of the season is over and report cards are out for all the NFL teams.
The Indianapolis Colts (4-1), New Orleans Saints (5-0) and Denver Broncos (5-0) have passed with flying colors, while the New York Giants (0-6), Pittsburgh Steelers (0-4), and Atlanta Falcons (1-4) have flunked their way out of contention. The jury is still out on the Dallas Cowboys (2-3), Chicago Bears (4-2), and Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) who have impressed some weeks and fallen flat others.
This week, the must-see games feature a battle of two of the strongest teams in the league, a reborn quarterback facing one the emerging talents at the position, and two contenders who have struggled out of the gate.
Rob Gronkowski could return to the lineup for the New England Patriots as they look to hand the undefeated Saints their first loss of the season, while the Jekyll-and-Hyde Baltimore Ravens host the Green Bay Packers and the Colts look to stay hot against the resurgent San Diego Chargers.
The featured 1 p.m. Eastern time game this week is a battle of two Super Bowl hopefuls looking to turn their season in the right direction as the Packers (2-2) travel to Baltimore to take on the Ravens (3-2).
The Packers are coming off a big win against division opponent Detroit (3-2), dominating the Lions on both sides of the ball. In the past, Green Bay’s offense has relied heavily on Aaron Rodgers. But this year the Packers are showing great balance through Week 5, featuring the fourth-rated passing offense and the fifth-rated rushing attack.
There’s been nothing balanced about the Ravens season thus far as the team has been a party to surprising wins and shocking losses over the first five weeks. The key to the game, and the Ravens offense, will be to see how effectively Baltimore uses star running back Ray Rice in the early parts of the game. The team admitted to under-using Rice in the early part of the season, and it showed.
In the first three game of the season, excluding the one Rice sat out for injury, Rice touched the ball only 14 times a game on average contributing to the team’s 1-2 record in that time. Last week in Miami, Rice had 33 touches and scored twice to beat the Dolphins (3-2). Following a loss in Week 4, Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh discussed Rice's importance to the offense.
“We need to get Ray involved in every single way," Harbaugh explained to NFL.com. “Passing game, run game, every single way. It's definitely important for us, we want to do that every week ... ” The Ravens will look to continue to give Rice a big number of carries, keeping the ball out of Rodgers’ hands and dictating the pace of the game.
At 4:25 p.m. Eastern time, the Saints (5-0) travel to Foxborough to take on the Patriots (4-1). The Patriots are coming off of a tough loss in Cincinnati where Tom Brady’s streak of having thrown a touchdown in 52 straight games was snapped.
The Patriots are nearing the light at the end of the injury tunnel; however, as they hope to welcome back All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski from a long injury absence. The whole league will be watching to see what level “Gronk” is at, and the Saints will be keen to make Gronkowski’s comeback a forgettable one.
The Saints emerged from Chicago with a big victory and while their passing offense has been as good as ever, it is their defense that is being under appreciated around the league.
New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, brother of Jets head coach Rex, has pulled off a miracle job turning the historically bad 2012 Saints defense into the staunch unit they currently feature. Thus far through the season, the Saints’ 14.6 points per game is fourth in the league, while the team is first in time of possession, limiting opposition to only 25 minutes per game.
“He’s good in the running game, good in the passing game, good on situation football. He’s got a good energy; he installs a solid confidence within his players because he’s always prepared,” Belichick said.
The Patriots themselves feature a strong defense, holding opponents to only 14 points per game, so while in the past this match-up might have yielded big offensive numbers, do not be surprised to see a low-scoring defensive contest.
Week 6 games come to an end Monday night when the red-hot Indianapolis Colts (4-1) travel to San Diego to take on the Chargers (2-3). The Colts were touted by many this preseason as prime candidates for regression, but have surprised their doubters by winning four of the first five with two huge wins against the 49ers (3-2) and the Seahawks (4-1).
Andrew Luck continues to show signs that he might be the next great NFL quarterback, managing the team’s difficult schedule masterfully while limiting his mistakes to just 2 interceptions. The Chargers are looking to stay relevant in the playoff picture as their offensive resurgence has done enough to keep them in games, but not win them.
Philip Rivers, who has struggled for long stretches in the past two seasons, shot out of the gate this year and looks revitalized. Rivers has accumulated the fourth-most passing yards in the league while tossing the second-most touchdowns and completing 73.7% of his passes.
On NFL Network's "NFL GameDay First," Sterling Sharpe, a former NFL All-Pro wide receiver, was asked who the most underrated quarterback was this season. His answer? “Philip Rivers, by far," Sharpe said. "He's got 75 wins, he's completing 74 percent of his passes and, I mean, he has done it very quietly out west.”
While the offense has done its part, the defense continues to struggle and it will need to limit the effectiveness of Andrew Luck if the Chargers have any shot of winning this game.