(Byes: Kansas City, New Orleans)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Spero Dedes, Solomon Wilcots
- Keys to the game: For all the attention paid to Mike Glennon and the Tampa Bay offense, two NFC South routs on the road — at Atlanta and New Orleans — have reduced the Bucs’ defense to 30th in the NFL in total yards per game 30th (412.4). Only Jacksonville has surrendered more points than the 31.2 average per game hung on Tampa Bay.
- Glennon has improved the vertical passing game, including eight connections with WR Vincent Jackson for 144 yards last week, even in the absence of a dependable running game. The Ravens thrive against one-dimensional schemes and invite Tampa to prove it can morph into a smash-mouth outfit.
- LB Lavonte David is playing at a Defensive Player of the Year level – he has 10 tackles for loss and leads the NFL in solo tackles — but does it in anonymity in Tampa. The Ravens will steer clear of him when possible, but QB Joe Flacco is learning to depend on TE Owen Daniels on third down and using his tailbacks more in the passing game.
- Ravens head coach John Harbaugh has come to expect A-plus performances from WR Steve Smith, whose matchup with Alterraun Verner deserves notice. But he said he doesn’t really care which running back steps up to balance the offense. Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro have combined for 607 yards and five touchdowns, giving Baltimore a solid rotation that serves to tire defenses and open up downfield tosses.
- Matchup to watch — Ravens NT Haloti Ngata vs. Bucs C Evan Deitrich-Smith: Ngata is one of the premier defensive tackles in the game and will be a tough matchup for the Bucs, whose running game is hurting with Doug Martin is averaging 2.5 yards per carry. Deitrich-Smith at least will be helped by the game being played at home, but will need an assist to contend with Ngata’s raw power and quickness.
- Player spotlight — Bucs LB Mason Foster: Back from a Week 2 shoulder injury, the run defense should get a boost if Foster is healthy. With Dane Fletcher filling in for Foster, the Bucs had too many breakdowns on defense. Coach Lovie Smith moved LB Danny Lansanah to MLB in nickel passing downs last week and left him on the field with David, who called all the defensive signals.
- Fast facts: The Ravens are third in the NFL with 25 plays of 20-plus yards, including an NFL-leading seven such running plays. … David has 41 solo tackles in five games.
Discipline and defense are not strong points for the Bucs at this point. One of the NFL’s most penalized teams, Tampa cannot overcome self-inflicted wounds in another defeat decided late in the game.
Our pick: Ravens 24-23
Carolina Panthers (3-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-1)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Chris Myers, Ronde Barber, Jennifer Hale
- Keys to the game: The Panthers’ vaunted ground game has been decimated due to injuries to their top three running backs and QB Cam Newton’s mobility being heavily restricted by nagging injuries. Carolina has rushed for fewer than 100 yards in four consecutive games for the first time since 2005, but some combination of Jonathan Stewart, if healthy, Fozzy Whittaker and whoever else the Panthers can stand up in the backfield must do some damage against the NFL’s 27th-ranked run defense. The Bengals expect to get LB Vontaze Burfict back, but the Panthers don’t want to fall behind and try to force the ball downfield against a defense with six picks and eight sacks.
- Conversely, Carolina’s once-stout run defense is ranked 23rd in the NFL allowing 121 yards per game. The Bengals will alternate RBs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill, looking to set up play-action. QB Andy Dalton is likely to be without WR A.J. Green (toe), but he has been sacked just once all season and is 11-0 with a 97.7 passer rating in his pass 11 regular-season home games. Dalton is highly efficient at home and will be content to play a field position game unless Carolina proves it can move the ball.
- Matchup to watch — Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin vs. Bengals CB Terence Newman: The 6-5, 240-pound Benjamin was a controversial first-round pick, but he has 24 catches for 367 yards and three TDs. He won’t line up exclusively against Newman, but does hold a seven-inch height advantage over the 12th-year veteran.
- Player spotlight — Panthers CB James Dockery: He failed to make the 53-man roster, but the veteran was brought back this week with Bene Benwikere and Josh Norman unable to man the nickel package due to injuries.
- Fast facts: The Panthers are 0-2 against the AFC North this season, losing by a combined 46 points to the Steelers and Ravens. … The Panthers have forced 10 turnovers in their three wins. They have no takeaways in their two losses. … Cincinnati seeks its 12th consecutive regular-season home win. … Carolina’s next five opponents all reached the 2013 playoffs and have a combined record for 15-8 this season.
Bengals players openly offered for fans upset with last week’s blowout loss at New England to jump off the bandwagon. An elite team with a chip on its shoulder is a dangerous obstacle for a beat-up team like Carolina.
Our pick: Bengals 26-19
Denver Broncos (3-1) at New York Jets (1-4)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J. – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
- Keys to the game: Peyton Manning returns to the site of February’s Super Bowl beatdown, but the Broncos will not see anything resembling Seattle’s dominant defense. The Jets lead the NFL in sacks, but are 30th in interceptions and minus-seven in turnover ratio. Denver works in a new starting running back — Ronnie Hillman, who was benched last season due to fumbling issues — added to Manning’s ability to strike from any angle.
- Manning says he’s not eager to prove the Broncos are fine without WR Eric Decker – who missed last week but is expected to play Sunday against his former team — but the numbers speak volumes. WR Emmanuel Sanders is on pace for a 128-reception, 1,740-yard season through four games. The offense is fine without Decker, and Manning is on pace for 48 touchdown passes.
- The Jets were the first NFL team to be shut out last week when Geno Smith was benched for the second half and the admittedly unprepared Michael Vick fanned the flame rather than sparking a rally at San Diego. If Denver builds a two-score lead, white flags could fly from the Mean Green huddle.
- Smith has eight turnovers (two fumbles) and has been sacked eight times with an average of 4.69 yards per pass in the team’s four losses. The Broncos are willing to lock up with the Jets’ receivers in man coverage with a single-high safety to stop the run, and the strategy that wins in that scenario takes the game.
- Matchup to watch — Jets RB Chris Ivory vs. Broncos linebackers: Ivory averages 5.4 yards per carry and Chris Johnson stands at 4.0. As a team, the Jets have averaged at least 4.0 yards per carry in every game this season. The linebackers will be responsible for preventing Ivory and Johnson from doing any damage at the second level, which will gradually suffocate the Jets’ wheezing offense.
- Player spotlight — Jets S Antonio Allen vs. Broncos TE Julius Thomas: Allen has flip-flopped positions because of his versatility but struggled badly against San Diego TE Antonio Gates last week. Thomas, the NFL leader in touchdowns, is more athletic and faster than Allen, who will likely work almost exclusively in single coverage as he did last week against Gates.
- Fast facts: Smith is 7-4 at home as a starter. … The last team to rebound from a 1-4 start to reach the playoffs was the Tim Tebow-led Broncos in 2011. … Denver last played at the Jets in 2008.
Manning should fling it at will and any type of lead will unleash a hellish pass rush on sitting duck Smith, who is powerless to rally the Jets from any real deficit.
Our pick: Broncos 34-12
Detroit Lions (3-2) at Minnesota Vikings (2-3)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Mike Goldberg, Brendon Ayanbadejo, Peter Schrager
- Keys to the game: WR Golden Tate picked a good time to play a leading role. The Vikings were manhandled at Green Bay in Week 5 and even if top playmaker Harrison Smith plays at free safety, he is hobbled by a bum ankle. Opponents complete nearly 68 percent of their passes and convert 48 percent of third downs against the Vikings for many reasons — primary among them is the extra attention being paid to mend a broken run defense. The Lions are committed to leading with the running game, which sets up play-action for QB Matt Stafford.
- While the Vikings would breathe a sigh of relief is WR Calvin Johnson sits, there is more focus on pulling big plays out of their own offense.
- Rookie QB Teddy Bridgewater topped 300 yards and led a fourth-quarter comeback in his debut and only start. He’s likely to play despite lingering discomfort from a high ankle sprain against a mean pass rush spearheaded by DTs Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Bridgewater thrived with three-step drops and quick crossers inside of 15 yards in the Week 4 victory over Atlanta and will be cognizant of rapid releases Sunday.
- Matchup to watch — Lions RB Reggie Bush vs. Vikings MLB Jasper Brinkley: Chad Greenway (hand) is expected to miss his third straight game, a concern for Minnesota after Antone Smith and Eddie Lacy put up consecutive big games. Lacy gained 55 yards before contact last Thursday and Smith ripped off two big plays in Week 4, including a 48-yard touchdown run.
- Player spotlight — Lions PK Matt Prater: The team’s third kicker in six games, Prater made 25 of 26 field-goal attempts in Denver last season but was warned he is on a short leash coming back from a four-game suspension that led to his release by the Broncos. He out-kicked veterans Connor Barth and Jay Feely in a tryout and should be an upgrade over Nate Freese and Alex Henery, who were combined 4 of 12.
- Fast facts: Detroit is 1-16 in its past 17 games in Minnesota. … Bridgewater hasn’t been intercepted in 99 pass attempts — 50 regular-season, 49 preseason.
If the Lions can take away the run, they will also be able to get to Bridgewater, who lacks the supporting cast to swap scores with Stafford.
Our pick: Lions 22-16
Green Bay Packers (3-2) at Miami Dolphins (2-2)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Sun Life Stadium, Miami – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Sam Rosen, John Lynch, Pam Oliver
- Keys to the game: The Packers are plus-six in turnover ratio, pinning Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill with more pressure to play keep away from Green Bay’s humming offense. Tannehill, 18-1 when his passer rating hits 90, is at the helm of a team planning to pound away with the two-headed rushing attack of Lamar Miller and veteran Knowshon Moreno. If the Dolphins can tire the Packers’ defense in anticipated high heat and humidity, Moreno gives them a finisher. The Dolphins rank No. 5 in the NFL running the football with an average of 142.3 yards per game, a strength that hits the Packers’ primary weakness (163 rushing yards per game allowed).
- Coming off a five-touchdown game and with 10 days between games, the Packers and Rodgers should be able to flourish against a shaky Miami secondary with the highly productive Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb as his primary targets. The Dolphins will be unpredictable with pressure. Rodgers would like to stay up-tempo with the no-huddle and create fatigue, but coach Mike McCarthy could be inclined to have halfback Eddie Lacy work up a lather in the first half to set the tone. Lacy finally busted out this season with his 13-carry, 105-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Vikings.
- Matchup to watch — Packers OLBs Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry vs. Dolphins LT Branden Albert and RT Ja’Wuan James: Green Bay’s pass-rushing platoon at outside linebacker was involved in three of the team’s six sacks against the Vikings, including two by Perry and a half-sack for Peppers. Miami’s reshaped offensive line, which includes their first-round pick at right tackle, has exceeded expectations.
- Player spotlight — Dolphins OL Mike Pouncey: He missed the first four games this season following hip surgery but was not on Wednesday’s injury report. Pouncey or Samson Satele would start at right guard, and the other at center, which is the natural position for both players. Satele has never played guard.
- Fast facts: Green Bay is 8-0 in October since losing 30-27 to the Colts in 2012. … Miami is expecting five players to return from injury or suspension this week.
The Packers fly out of 40- and 50-degree temps for the tropical environs of South Beach, where the Dolphins plot to grind the pace to a halt and let their ballcarries do the dirty work in an effort to slow the up-tempo visitors.
Our pick: Packers 27-23
Jacksonville Jaguars (0-5) at Tennessee Titans (1-4)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at LP Field, Nashville – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker, Steve Beuerlein
- Keys to the game: A total of six points separated the AFC South foes in two games split in 2013 and statistics indicate the game could be competitive. It took only a month for candidates to be surprise contenders to slide into the conversation for the No. 1 overall draft pick next April.
- The Titans took a big blow losing veteran leaders LT Michael Roos (knee) and S Bernard Pollard (Achilles) for the season. One component of Jacksonville’s fragile defense playing well is the defensive line, and that front will be eager to attack either Jake Locker (thumb) or Charlie Whitehurst. Locker didn’t practice Wednesday, and the Jaguars are preparing for a heavy dose of the Titans’ ground attack.
- Tennessee, which could also be without RB Shonn Greene (hamstring), needs to establish the run and stick with it, especially if Locker is unable to go. The Titans average 5.0 yards per carry. Last week, the Titans jumped out to a 28-3 lead, only to blow it. If Tennessee is fortunate enough to take a lead this week, then the Titans need to not let off the gas pedal and continue to keep the offense opened up. The Jaguars have given up the most points in the league this year, and the Titans should attack a vulnerable secondary with Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter.
- In rookie QB Blake Bortles’ second career road start, the Jaguars want to stress the run against a Tennessee defense that is ranked 26th in rushing yards allowed. The Jacksonville’s offense hasn’t had enough long drives to feature the run, rushing only 15 times the entire game against Pittsburgh last week.
- Matchup to watch — Jaguars RB Storm Johnson vs. Titans S Damion Stafford: Johnson debuted with five carries for 27 yards last week and Jacksonville wants to see more with Toby Gerhart spinning his wheels with only modest success. Stafford steps into a key playmaking role in coordinator Ray Horton’s defense and will be tested.
- Player spotlight — Titans OL Taylor Lewan: On the field almost exclusively as an extra blocker, the Titans’ first-round pick will slide into a starting role this week either at guard or tackle. OG Andy Levitre has played poorly but with Roos down, he’ll likely hold onto a starting spot. “I’ve been preparing like I’m a starter every week,” Lewan said.
- Fast facts: Jacksonville is the only NFL team with two rookies to compile at least 200 receiving yards. … The Titans last lost five consecutive games in 2010, which included a 17-6 home defeat against Jacksonville.
The defense that controls the line of scrimmage should come out on top, and each team will have an opportunity to make plays downfield in what has potential to be a sneaky-entertaining game.
Our pick: Titans 25-24
New England Patriots (3-2) at Buffalo Bills (3-2)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Orchard Park, N.Y. – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
- Keys to the game: The Patriots’ offensive resurgence in their Week 5 blowout of previously-undefeated Cincinnati was fueled by the ground game churning out 220 yards on 46 attempts. It’s clear that New England’s offensive line is far more productive run-blocking, and with RBs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen setting the table QB Tom Brady isn’t so vulnerable in a pocket that tends to collapse quickly. But repeating that formula against Buffalo’s second-ranked run defense will be a tall task.
- Bills QB Kyle Orton is tasked with managing the game and avoiding turnovers. He was able to rally Buffalo last week despite throwing a pick-six. Orton doesn’t often stretch the field beyond 10 yards, but he’ll have to take a few shots to WR Sammy Watkins to keep New England’s safeties honest. Buffalo is averaging 4.0 yards per carry and the offense is most efficient when RBs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson are getting regular touches and creating manageable third downs.
- Matchup to watch — Patriots RG Ryan Wendell vs. Bills DT Kyle Williams: Williams hopes to return after missing last week’s game due to a knee injury, but Stefan Charles helped limit Detroit to 69 rushing yards in his place. Wendell is the Patriots’ former center who helped solidify the line play when re-inserted into the starting lineup at right guard against the Bengals.
- Player spotlight — Patriots DT Casey Walker: Signed off Carolina’s practice squad, Walker made his Patriots debut against the Bengals and played 14 snaps. Coach Bill Belichick hopes the youngster can continue to improve and play an increased role as a run-stuffer.
- Fast facts: The Patriots are 23-5 against the Bills under coach Bill Belichick, and have won 20 of the past 21 meetings. … Orton is one of five NFL quarterbacks since 1960 to throw for 300-plus yards in a game for five different teams.
The Patriots played with a considerable collective chip on their shoulder last week, and still have plenty of doubters to disprove. In a lackluster field position game, the Patriots take the blue-collar approach to yet another win over the Bills.
Our pick: Patriots 23-21
Pittsburgh Steelers (3-2) at Cleveland Browns (2-2)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at FirstEnergy Stadium, Cleveland – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Evan Washburn
- Keys to the game: The Steelers rank fourth in the NFL in total offense but only 18th in scoring because they have managed touchdowns on only 42.9 percent of their red-zone possessions. Pittsburgh should have little trouble moving the ball against a defense allowing an NFL-high 7.3 yards on first downs. Browns RB Le’Veon Bell rushed for 109 yards on 21 carries in the first meeting, a 30-27 Steelers victory in Pittsburgh to start the season, and Cleveland enters allowing 5.1 yards per carry.
- The Browns rushed for 191 yards in the opener and the offensive line is starting to hum in the zone-blocking scheme. They also had success keeping Pittsburgh’s defense on its heels with a no-huddle that enabled Cleveland to battle back from a 27-3 hole. Expect coordinator Kyle Shanahan to stay committed to the ground game after calling 36 running plays last week, including 25 after Cleveland fell behind by 25 points.
- Matchup to watch — Steelers WR Markus Wheaton vs. Browns CB Joe Haden: Wheaton caught six passes for 97 yards in the opener against the Browns, and has 14 catches for 147 yards in the past four games. Haden has been targeted by opposing offenses all season and is dealing with a hip injury that kept him out midweek.
- Player spotlight — Browns PR Jordan Poyer: Poyer replaces Travis Benjamin, who muffed a punt last week after making a poor decision to let a ball sail over his head the previous game.
- Fast facts: The Steelers are 25-5 against the Browns since Cleveland returned to the NFL in 1999. … Hoyer spent two weeks on the Steelers’ practice squad in 2012 before being released. … Roethlisberger, a Finlay, Ohio native, is 18-1 in his career against the Browns.
All four of the Browns’ games have been decided by three points or less, and this shapes up as another heart-stopper for coach Mike Pettine. Cleveland’s ground game controls the tempo while also cashing in more drives for touchdowns — a potentially fatal flaw of Pittsburgh’s offense.
Our pick: Browns 27-23
San Diego Chargers (4-1) at Oakland Raiders (0-4)
Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, at o.Co Stadium, Oakland, Calif. – TV: CBS
- TV announcers: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon
- Keys to the game: The Raiders’ chances of being competitive could hinge on San Diego’s injury report. The Chargers could be down to their fourth options at running back and center as well as their backup left tackle, which could seriously curtail any semblance of a ground game. Despite the mounting injuries, San Diego continues to lead the league in time of possession, in part due to building big leads and also because QB Philip Rivers is getting the ball out quickly in a passing game more reliant on moving the chains than taking vertical shots.
- Raiders interim head coach Tony Sparano is pleased with the progress of rookie QB Derek Carr, who is expected to start despite still being less than 100 percent on his sprained ankle. The main issue, however, is the striking lack of support from the ground game, which has contributed just 12 first downs through four games. Sparano’s history indicates he’ll give the ground game every opportunity to produce as Oakland attempts to run the ball, shorten the game and avoid turnovers.
- Matchup to watch — Chargers C Rich Ohrnberger vs. Raiders DT Antonio Smith and NT Pat Sims: Ohrnberger hopes to return from his back injury. If not, Trevor Robinson could get the call just five days after being signed off Cincinnati’s practice squad. Sims finished with a career-high 54 tackles last season, but has gotten off to a slow start and is being pushed by Justin Ellis, who started the previous game and played 35 snaps to Sims’ 27.
- Player spotlight — Chargers RB Ronnie Brown: Re-signed this week, Brown could be in line for significant action with Donald Brown (concussion) questionable and Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead sidelined. Brown spent last season with San Diego, so he knows the offense.
- Fast facts: The Chargers’ past three victories have come against opponents with a combined 3-11 record. … In 37 possessions with Carr at quarterback, the Raiders have 22 punts, five touchdowns, three field goals and seven turnovers (four interceptions three lost fumbles not involving Carr).
There might not be anyone in the NFL playing at a higher rate than Rivers, and there is certainly no team playing at a lower level than the Raiders. Even a heated division rivalry and a spark from a coaching change can’t overcome Oakland’s massive deficiencies on both sides of the ball.
Our pick: Chargers 33-19
Chicago Bears (2-3) at Atlanta Falcons (2-3)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Georgia Dome, Atlanta – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Justin Kutcher, David Diehl, Laura Okmin
- Keys to the game: High-scoring affairs are the norm for Atlanta, as would be expected for a team with the 29th-ranked defense. QB Matt Ryan remains effective from the pocket (8.0 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns) with five receivers tallying at least 12 catches through the first five games. WR Julio Jones has been targeted more than 11 times per game, averaging eight receptions and 110.4 yards. Rookie CB Kyle Fuller plays physical, but is not a match one-on-one for Jones, and the Bears don’t have an ideal shadow for WR Roddy White. They’re even less equipped at nickel, where Isaiah Frey was released.
- Bears QB Jay Cutler found himself on the move in last week’s second-half collapse and while he leads the NFC with 12 touchdown passes, his inability to cope with pressure and deliver when the pocket bursts contributed in all three losses this season. RB Matt Forte could bust loose given Atlanta’s woes against the run — 147 yards per game and 10 rushing TDs allowed — but offensive line play remains a concern under the weight of more injuries. Atlanta’s best chance is to roll the dice with blitz packages and get the ball out of Cutler’s hands quickly before a suspect defense becomes a defenseless target.
- Matchup to watch — Bears defensive line vs. Falcons offensive line: Chicago invested early and often in defensive improvements, including lucrative free agent deals for DEs Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen, who have combined for zero sacks.
- Player spotlight — Falcons RB Antone Smith: Playmakers at every turn has made touches hard to come by for Smith, but another score last week, he has 277 yards and four touchdowns on 17 touches (16.3-yard average), all but forces the Falcons to acknowledge he’s ready for more work in a mix-and-match backfield.
- Fast facts: Ryan has a 142.2 rating at home this season and is 38-10 at Georgia Dome in his career. … The Bears averaged 31.8 points in eight victories last season and are scoring 23.2 per game in 2014.
Ryan is unstoppable at home and even with a turnstile defense gets the Falcons to .500.
Our pick: Falcons 33-26
Dallas Cowboys (4-1) at Seattle Seahawks (3-1)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at CenturyLink Field, Seattle – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Thom Brennaman, Troy Aikman, Charissa Thompson
- Keys to the game: The Cowboys’ newfound dominance on the ground will face easily its stiffest test to date in a Seahawks’ top-ranked run defense that is giving up just 62.2 yards per game and has not allowed any single back to gain more than 38 yards this season. Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray is averaging 26 carries and 134 yards per game and while meeting that yardage might not be attainable, Dallas needs a consistent presence on the ground. The Seahawks’ physical defense swarms at full speed in the din of CenturyLink Field, and third-and-longs could prove perilous to QB Tony Romo.
- Seattle’s offense is ranked fifth in the league, largely on the legs of QB Russell Wilson, who prefers not to scramble but will take advantage of what defenses give him. It will be vital for the Cowboys’ edge rushers to not push past Wilson and create running lanes to exploit. Seahawks coordinator Darrell Bevell continues to tinker with new formations and putting WR Percy Harvin in motion — too often seeking to rely on misdirection and confusion rather than lining up and feeding RB Marshawn Lynch to establish a physical presence and set up play-action. Seattle’s offensive line is a far better run-blocking unit and struggles when playing on its heels.
- Matchup to watch — Cowboys C Travis Frederick and RG Zack Martin vs. Seahawks DT Brandon Mebane: Called an “immovable object” by CB Richard Sherman, Mebane is the heart of the Seahawks’ run defense, clogging up running lanes and clearing the linebackers to make plays near the line. Frederick is already one of the league’s best and the rookie Martin has displayed great promise as a run-blocker.
- Player spotlight — Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner: Primed for a big payday this offseason, Wagner is coming off an excellent game at Washington in which he helped limit Alfred Morris to 29 yards while also making multiple plays in coverage.
- Fast facts: The Cowboys’ four victories have come against teams with a combined 7-12 record. … Wilson is 17-1 in his career at home. Only Danny White and Matt Ryan have begun their careers with an 18-1 home record in NFL history.
This is a true litmus test for the Cowboys, who will find their defense is still a good distance away from competing with the truly elite NFC teams — especially on the road.
Our pick: Seahawks 30-20
Washington Redskins (1-4) at Arizona Cardinals (3-1)
Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz. – TV: FOX
- TV announcers: Dick Stockton, Brady Quinn, Kristina Pink
- Keys to the game: The secondary was supposed to be the strength of Arizona’s defense, but the Cardinals enter with the league’s 31st-ranked pass defense in large part due to the unit registering just four sacks through five games. The lack of pressure has left the secondary too exposed, and veteran CB Antonio Cromartie was repeatedly victimized by Denver last week. While Redskins QB Kirk Cousins found WR DeSean Jackson for two big gains against Seattle on Monday night, Washington needs to re-establish the ground game after RB Alfred Morris was held to 29 yards by the Seahawks. Arizona enters with the NFL’s fourth-ranked run defense.
- Cardinals fans can’t feel buoyed by coach Bruce Arians’ declaration Wednesday that, “We’ll formulate a game plan to beat Washington and then see what quarterback’s available to be able to do that.”
- With Carson Palmer (shoulder) and Drew Stanton (concussion) ailing, fourth-round rookie Logan Thomas took all the midweek reps with the first team. The coaching staff won’t admit it publicly, but Arizona’s offensive game plan will be significantly curtailed if the raw Thomas is forced into his first NFL start. Washington’s defensive weakness has been in the secondary, with S Brandon Meriweather particularly struggling in coverage, but will Arizona have a quarterback capable of exploiting him?
- Matchup to watch — Redskins RT Tyler Polumbus vs. Cardinals DE Kareem Martin: Coach Jay Gruden conceded that Polumbus has struggled in protection at times this season and while he is dealing with a dislocated finger, Polumbus is still far more reliable than backup Morgan Moses. The rookie Martin starts in place of Calais Campbell (knee).
- Player spotlight — Redskins LB Will Compton: A former undrafted free agent who made his NFL debut in last season’s finale, Compton could get his first career start if Perry Riley is sidelined by a sprained MCL. Riley has had his struggles in coverage, but is key to the run defense.
- Fast facts: The Redskins have four takeaways on the season. Only New Orleans (two) and the New York Jets (three) have fewer. … NT Dan Williams is the only healthy starter from the Cardinals’ starting front seven in 2013 expected to start Sunday.
Much depends on who lines up behind center for Arizona. If it’s Carson Palmer or Drew Stanton, the Cardinals have enough firepower to exploit the Redskins’ undisciplined defense. If rookie Logan Thomas is forced into the equation, all bets are off even for the extremely resilient Cardinals.
Our pick: Cardinals 20-16
New York Giants (3-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (4-1)
Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia – TV: NBC
- TV announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
- Keys to the game: The Giants found nice balance on offense, with the ground game contributing to improved pass protection for QB Eli Manning despite averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. A bigger load falls on rookie RB Andre Williams (3.1 yards per carry) with Rashad Jennings sidelined. The Eagles have struggled equally defending the run and pass this season, but want to limit Williams and force Manning into the long passing downs that leave him prone to mistakes. For his part, Manning is showing vastly improved confidence in his footwork and decision-making in coordinator Ben McAdoo’s offense.
- The Eagles still need to get RB LeSean McCoy (2.9 yards per carry) untracked, especially with the Giants’ surging defensive line recording nine of its 10 sacks over the past four games. QB Nick Foles will also look to stretch the field and test CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (knee), who would likely be replaced by 5-9 Trumaine McBride if he’s unable to go or is limited as he was last week. The Giants have allowed at least one reception of 20-plus yards in every game and have allowed eight of 30-plus yards.
- Matchup to watch — Giants linebackers vs. Eagles RB Darren Sproles: According to Pro Football Focus, Sproles has caught 10 out of 11 pass targets in the middle of the field for 163 yards. Expect the Giants to involve a safety in keeping tabs on Sproles out of the backfield.
- Player spotlight — Giants WR Odell Beckham, Jr.: The rookie engineered a smashing regular-season debut last week, catching four passes for 44 yards and a touchdown among his 35 snaps. He’s expected to see an increased role.
- Fast facts: Of the teams’ seven combined victories, only two — one each — have come against teams with a winning record. … The Giants are tied for fourth in the NFL with 41 points off takeaways.
Both teams have managed to post winning records through five games, though substantial questions remain about just how good either one is. In the absence of enough data to confirm the upper hand, the Eagles squeak out a key divisional tilt at home.
Our pick: Eagles 24-23
San Francisco 49ers (3-2) at St. Louis Rams (1-3)
Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, at Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis – TV: ESPN
- TV announcers: Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters
- Keys to the game: The 49ers’ offense has finally started to show some rhythm, starting with the play-calls getting to QB Colin Kaepernick quicker so he can make adjustments at the line without stressing the play clock. Most important has been a re-commitment to RB Frank Gore after an early season influx of four- and even five-receiver sets. The Rams have an excellent front four, but the run defense ranks 29th in the NFL, allowing 152.5 yards per game on 4.9 yards per carry. As confident as San Francisco is, the easiest way to keep the Rams in the game is to get pass-happy and open Kaepernick up to St. Louis’ pass rush.
- There is no questioning the impact of QB Sam Bradford’s season-ending injury on St. Louis’ offense. At the same time, Austin Davis has led a pass-heavy attack, throwing for a combined 702 yards and six touchdowns over the past two games. However, his inexperience shows and he has not had the luxury of a solid ground game. RB Zac Stacy isn’t finding many running lanes as opponents challenge Davis to beat them.
- Matchup to watch — 49ers RT Jonathan Martin vs. Rams DE William Hayes: Martin has quietly performed well in Anthony Davis’ absence, but he won’t receive much help against Hayes with Robert Quinn charging from the other side. Hayes has just five tackles and no sacks on the season, but had 12.0 sacks over the previous two seasons combined.
- Player spotlight — 49ers OLB Aaron Lynch: A first-round talent who dropped to the fifth round following a tumultuous college career, has elevated to the 49ers’ left outside linebacker on passing games the past two games. He has eight quarterback hits and 14 pressures on the season, ranking second on the team to perennial Pro Bowl pick Justin Smith.
- Fast facts: The 49ers have allowed 1,045 yards through the air this season vs. just 369 on the ground. … Quinn has four sacks in three career Monday night games.
Despite outside noise, coach Jim Harbaugh has a crew that has shown intense focus in beating the Eagles and Chiefs the past two weeks. Facing a Rams team wounded without its starting quarterback, the 49ers use the primetime venue as another opportunity to show the country they’re about football first.
Our pick: 49ers 27-20
Indianapolis Colts (4-2) at Houston Texans (3-3)
HOUSTON — Andrew Luck addressed the mental fortitude required to muster a focused effort during a short week of preparation, the process of deceiving the mind in order to open a game with zeal instead of lethargy a mere four days after last taking the field.
The Indianapolis quarterback came out firing Thursday, pacing the Colts to a four-score, first-quarter lead before they held off a furious Houston Texans rally for a 33-28 victory at NRG Stadium.
Luck passed for 370 yards and three touchdowns, and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton just missed eclipsing the franchise record with 223 receiving yards. The Colts (4-2) led 24-0 after the first quarter before Houston mounted a comeback, showing the value of their preparation.
“We treated those walkthroughs with the same enthusiasm as we treat any other practice,” Luck said. “And when you look at the recent history of Thursday night games, teams go on the road and struggle, and we didn’t want to do that. I think we were good enough to get off to that fast start, which always helps.
“It takes focus. It takes a belief that this isn’t a short week; this is a regular week. You almost have to trick yourself into it, and guys bought in and did it.”
Luck and Hilton connected on a critical 33-yard touchdown late in the third quarter, a scoring play that supplied the Colts with a 33-21 lead following a failed two-point conversion attempt.
The cushion proved vital, especially after Texans defensive end J.J. Watt returned a Luck fumbled snap 45 yards for a touchdown with 10:46 left in the fourth quarter. Watt finished with seven tackles, four quarterback hits, three passes defensed and two sacks, but it was his third touchdown of the season that pulled Houston within 33-28.
The Texans (3-3) fumbled to cap their final two drives.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson lost the ball in Colts territory with 4:38 to play. Indianapolis cornerback Vontae Davis forced the fumble, and safety Mike Adams recovered.
With just under two minutes remaining, Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was stripped by Colts rush linebacker Bjoern Werner while scrambling in the pocket. Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson recovered to seal the victory.
“Frustrated but optimistic,” Watt said of the comeback and defeat. “You give a team a 24-point lead like that, it would be pretty easy to shut it down and say, ‘OK, that’s a tough loss.’ But we fought, we gave it a good shot, a good run, but in the end we didn’t make enough plays.”
The Colts extended their AFC South winning streak to 10 games while improving to 8-0 on Thursday NFL Network contests, 7-0 on the road.
“We’re in first place, I know that,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Sole possession in the (AFC) South, which is a great feeling.”
Texans running back Arian Foster rushed 20 times for 109 yards and two touchdowns. Fitzpatrick went 15-for-23 for 212 yards and a score, while Johnson had seven receptions for 99 yards and a touchdown.
Luck completed 25 of 44 passes, nine of them to Hilton. He has passed for 1,987 yards and 17 touchdowns, both NFL-leading totals this season.
While the Texans amassed just 2 total yards in the first quarter, the Colts scored to cap each of their four possessions and set the stage for a blowout victory. Kicker Adam Vinatieri closed the first drive with a 27-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead before the Colts caught the Texans napping with an onside kick recovered by punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee.
The Colts followed with three consecutive touchdown drives, the final two ending with Luck scoring strikes of 5 and 4 yards to running back Ahmad Bradshaw and tight end Coby Fleener, respectively. Running back Trent Richardson gave the Colts a 10-0 lead with his 5-yard run one snap after Hilton hauled in a 49-yard pass following the onside kick.
Houston initiated its comeback by covering 80 yards in 11 plays as Johnson snagged a 4-yard pass from Fitzpatrick for a touchdown with 9:43 left in the half.
Just over one minute later, the Texans cut into that 24-7 deficit when linebacker Justin Tuggle picked off a deflected Luck pass three snaps before Foster dashed 12 yards for a touchdown.
“I still think we should have won the game,” Johnson said. “I think my turnover was probably the biggest mistake of the game, took the momentum that we had going down. I really thought we were going to go down and get points.”
NOTES: WR Raymond Berry set the Colts’ single-game receiving record with a 224 yards in 1957 against the Washington Redskins. … With his PAT at the 10:40 mark of the first quarter, Colts K Adam Vinatieri became the first player in NFL history to score 900 points with two different teams. Vinatieri tallied 1,158 points over 10 seasons with the New England Patriots (1996-2005). … Texans WR Andre Johnson became the 15th player in NFL history to eclipse 13,000 receiving yards with his 9-yard reception midway through the second quarter. … Texans LB Mike Mohamed was lost to a calf injury in the first half and did not return.