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NFL 2011 Season – Week Five Preview

Calvin Johnson
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The NFL enters week five of its 2011 season — its first bye week — with just two unbeaten teams: the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and the upstart Detroit Lions. Both teams will play in the primetime games on Sunday and Monday, respectively. Meanwhile, Baltimore, Dallas, Miami, St. Louis, Washington and Cleveland are all off this week.

Here’s a look at the NFL schedule for Sunday, Oct. 9:

Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers – 1:00 PM

Tennessee (3-1) will be tested by Pittsburgh (2-2), whose defense is the best in the NFL against the pass and allows the second fewest yards per game with 277. Only New England’s Tom Brady has a higher passer rating in the AFC than Tennessee veteran Matt Hasselbeck’s 104.7. One key to Hasselbeck’s success has been a Titans offensive line that has only allowed him to be sacked four times. Pittsburgh expects quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to play, despite the left foot injury he suffered in last week’s loss to Houston. Roethlisberger has been sacked an AFC-high 14 times. He’ll get few breaks from a Tennessee defense that allows the fewest points per game in the league (14.0).

Seattle Seahawks at N.Y. Giants – 1:00 PM

The New York Giants (3-1) have won three consecutive games since a season-opening loss to Washington. Credit the play of Giants quarterback Eli Manning for the turnaround. Manning has an NFL-best 139.5 4th quarter passer rating. He has also thrown 90 straight passes without an interception, the NFL’s longest current streak. Seattle’s defense hasn’t been able to pressure many quarterbacks into mistakes. The Seahawks have just two interceptions on the year and are tied with Atlanta with an NFC-worst five team sacks. Seattle (1-3) used a no-huddle offense to great effect to come back on Atlanta late last week, but they fell short of a win. If Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch can’t improve his 35.3 yards per game output, expect a similar adjustment against the Giants.

Cincinnati Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars – 1:00 PM

Quarterback Andy Dalton of Cincinnati (2-2) faces fellow rookie starter Blaine Gabbert of Jacksonville (1-3), but the key matchup is how Gabbert will perform against the Bengals defense, which gives up the fewest yards per game in the NFL (275.5). Gabbert’s 62.9 passer rating is the league’s worst. The Jaguars will need running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the NFL’s second-leading rusher with 391 yards, to help them control the ball. Dalton will look for wide receiver A.J. Green, the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, to burn a Jacksonville defense that likes to cause turnovers and takes risks to do so.

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers – 1:00 PM

This NFC South matchup features quarterbacks Drew Brees of New Orleans and Cam Newton of Carolina, who rank second and third in the NFL, respectively, in passing yardage. However, Brees’ Saints are more productive, scoring 31.8 points a game versus the Panthers 22.3. New Orleans (3-1) will attack the Carolina defense and hope to force rookie star Newton into trying to play catch up on the scoreboard. Carolina (1-3) is converting less than a third of its third downs and taking too many costly penalties. The inconsistent execution by the Panthers results in games like last week, when they rolled up a franchise record 543 yards, but still lost to Chicago.

Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans – 1:00 PM

After a big victory against the Jets in week three, Oakland (2-2) was brought back to reality when New England handed them a convincing 31-19 defeat last week. The Raiders will need to refocus quickly to beat a very strong Houston (3-1) team that has played as well as anyone in the AFC. Pairing a healthy Arian Foster with Matt Schaub, the league’s sixth-best passer, gives the Texans cause to think they can beat any team, even without receiver Andre Johnson, who is sidelined indefinitely with a hamstring injury. Houston’s swarming defense, which features an AFC-leading 12 team sacks, makes teams work for every yard. While quarterback Jason Campbell’s interceptions hurt the Raiders against the Patriots, the greater overall issue for Oakland may be that they allow the second-most points per game (28.3) in the league. Oakland will continue to lean on Darren McFadden, who leads the NFL with 468 rushing yards this season, but defenses are already starting to key on him. Coach Hue Jackson will eventually need to vary his plays for the Raiders to succeed.

Philadelphia Eagles at Buffalo Bills – 1:00 PM

Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick had a career-high 416 passing yards against San Francisco last week, but he couldn’t help the Eagles (1-3) defense from coughing up another big lead in the 4th quarter. Having been outscored 36-0 in the final quarter over the past three weeks — all losses — Philadelphia must close out Buffalo if they get ahead. The Bills defense, which allows 33.3 points per game, may have difficulty containing Vick and LeSean McCoy, the NFC’s second-leading rusher. Despite a last-second field goal loss to Cincinnati, Buffalo (3-1) knows all about scoring late. They used 4th quarter rallies to defeat Oakland and New England in week two and three. Bills running back Fred Jackson, who has 369 yards rushing in four games, will create problems for a Philadelphia defense that is third-worst in the league against the run. Eagles’ coach Andy Reid’s critics are starting to hold him accountable for that deficiency.

Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts – 1:00 PM

Having beaten a winless Minnesota team last Sunday to record their first victory, Kansas City (1-3) faces another in Indianapolis (0-4). The Colts have gotten close to a win in late losses to Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay the past two weeks, but it’s clear that the team badly misses the leadership of sidelined quarterback Peyton Manning. Whether quarterbacked by Kerry Collins, who lost the first three games, or Curtis Painter, who lost last week, Indianapolis must find a way to sustain drives and keep its defense off the field. The Colts rank 25th in the NFL in yards allowed. Fortunately, the Chiefs offensive attack has been unspectacular. Kansas City gains only 110.8 yards rushing per game. If veteran Thomas Jones can gain more than his paltry 2.8 yards per carry, it may set up quarterback Matt Cassel to occasionally look downfield.

Arizona Cardinals at Minnesota Vikings – 1:00 PM

Both starting quarterbacks are former Eagles, but Donovan McNabb is under more scrutiny in Minnesota than Kevin Kolb is in Arizona. The Vikings (0-4) are next-to-last in the NFL in passing offense. They have not been able to tack on points to lock down wins, having lost second-half leads in all four games this year. The Minnesota defense will pressure Kolb. If Arizona (1-3) gets into the end zone, it will probably be on the legs of running back Beanie Wells, who has five scores and averages 107 yards per game on the ground. The more that the Vikings defense has to key on Wells, the better the chances are that Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald may have a big catch.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at San Francisco 49ers – 4:05 PM

San Francisco (3-1) seeks to win a key NFC game against Tampa Bay (3-1) in a matchup of division leaders. The 49ers would love to grind down the Buccaneers defense with running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, who combined for 165 yards on 24 carries last week. Quarterback Alex Smith passes better without pressure, but he’s been sacked 14 times in the last three weeks. Look for Tampa Bay to register a few more hits on Smith. On offense, the Buccaneers will look for running back LaGarrette Blount to continue to develop into a threat. He had 127 yards rushing against the Colts on Monday. The more the 49ers need to stop Blount, the less they’ll be able to force Josh Freeman into mistakes.

N.Y. Jets at New England Patriots – 4:15 PM

The rivalry between New England (3-1) and the N.Y. Jets (2-2) has become one of the NFL’s best. While the Patriots are off to the better start this year, the Jets may be hungrier for a win. The matchup to watch is the New England offense, led by quarterback Tom Brady and his 1,553 passing yards, versus the Jets defense, which allows the second-fewest passing yards per game in the NFL at 180.3. Brady and New England also would like to put the memory of last January’s playoff loss to New York behind them. After suffering through a four-turnover performance against the Ravens Sunday night, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez must find a way to limit mistakes against the Patriots, who are tied for third in the NFL in interceptions with seven. The good news for Sanchez and the Jets is that New England gives up the most yards per game in the league: 477.5.

San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos – 4:15 PM

This AFC West showdown features a San Diego team that is in first place because of its defense. The Chargers (3-1) allow 297.8 yards per game, which ranks sixth in the NFL. They’ll try to stop a Denver offense led by the inconsistent Kyle Orton, who threw three touchdowns and three interceptions last week in a 49-23 beating at the hands of Green Bay. Denver (1-3) will rely on Willis McGahee to assist Orton’s efforts. The veteran running back has a pair of 100-yard games in three weeks. San Diego must overcome its challenges in the red zone. They rank 16th in the NFL in touchdown efficiency inside the 20-yard line. Kicker Nick Novak had four field goals last week, but the Chargers want him kicking extra points rather than field goals.

Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons – 8:20 PM

Green Bay (4-0) averages a league-high 37.0 points per game behind the play of MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. The NFL’s top-rated passer will create issues for Atlanta (2-2), whose defense is 24th in the league in passing yards allowed. The Falcons must find a way to put pressure on Rodgers and keep him from converting third downs into first downs and drives into points. Green Bay’s defense will look to get Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan on the turf. Ryan’s been sacked 13 times this year. Falcons running back Michael Turner has been productive with 76 yards rushing per game, but he needs to be more of a game-breaking threat and force Green Bay to pay attention to him, along with receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White.

Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions – 8:30 PM

Monday, Oct. 10

Thanks to furious rallies and the play of quarterback Matthew Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson, Detroit (4-0) has become a legitimate force in the NFC. They’ll send Johnson out to add to his eight touchdown catches against a Chicago defense that is 29th in the league against the pass and 31st overall in yards allowed. Meanwhile, with 15 sacks allowed, the Bears (2-2) haven’t figured out how to consistently protect quarterback Jay Culter. If Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh can break loose, it could be a long evening for the Bears on both sides of the ball. Chicago must hope to control the clock with running back Matt Forte and a smart, turnover-free game from Cutler.

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