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NFL: Battle Of Texas Tops Weekend Schedule

football

Week five of the NFL is coming at us this weekend, with a number of tantalising matches between potential contenders to choose from. The likes of Arizona, Cincinnati and Denver are coming off byes and return fresh, while still in a strong position in their divisions. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of teams who appear in early-season crisis mode. Whether it is a crisis of confidence, a leaky defense, an underwhelming offense or just a team struggling in transition, there’s still time to turn things around. Let’s look ahead to this weekend’s clashes.

Arizona Cardinals at Denver Broncos

You would think the Denver Broncos, playing at home and coming back from a bye week, would be comfortable favourites to beat just about any NFL team right now. This game will be no cake walk for them, though. The Broncos have struggled running the ball, ranking 27th overall in the league. This is an offense that can cope if they focus on the aerial game, with Peyton Manning still delivering at a phenomenal level. But, by his own admission, Demaryius Thomas is not “playing at my highest potential right now”, so a few extra yards on the ground would ease the pressure on Manning. Their pass defense also needs a lot of work, with only the Jacksonville Jaguars’ secondary giving up a higher average of yards through the air. The Broncos bye week came at a good time, and how effective their adjustments are may be seen on Sunday.

The Arizona Cardinals also come into this one on the back of a week off, presumably nullifying the on-field fatigue advantage that would normally be expected. They return to competition still undefeated, but that record will be a hard one to maintain through week five. The Broncos have a roster capable of returning them to the Super Bowl, and the altitude advantage of playing at Mile High is not insignificant. This is a tough Cardinals side though, one much improved since Bruce Arians arrived as coach. They play the NFC West way, and their fifth ranked defense is suitably tough. They stuff the run about as well as anyone has so far, but their pass defense will get tested time and again against the Broncos. The passing attack has done pretty well, despite Carson Palmer’s offense, and how Drew Stanton holds up in the Denver climate may have a big bearing on the game. Neither quarterback has thrown an interception so far this season, and if they can continue that while feeding their array of weapons out wide, they will have a chance.

Verdict: Denver

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Cincinnati Bengals at New England Patriots

These are curious times for the New England Patriots. Coming in to this one off the back of a serious beating on Monday Night Football, there are concerns over how competitive this team can be in the Super Bowl race. Tom Brady looks unwilling or unable to throw the ball deep. Now, there are no shortage of explanations for this; an underperforming offensive line, a lack of genuine deep threats, and Bray’s age. Are any or all of these valid? The line play certainly has collapsed since Dante Scarnecchia’s retirement, with players being moved around and benched with great frequency. The other two questions will have clearer answers at season’s end, but it is easy to see now why Bill Belichick tried to swap a third-round pick for Emmanuel Sanders last season. The defense was supposed to have seen serious upgrades, but that has not always been the case this year. Teams have found a lot of success throwing the ball at Darrell Revis, with rookie quarterback Derek Carr targeting the veteran repeatedly. Brandon Browner returns from suspension this weekend, which will give the secondary a lift. Both their losses have come away from home, but if their run defense doesn’t improve, they may well find themselves with a losing record after five games.

The Cincinnati Bengals are the other remaining undefeated team, but an away trip to New England is never likely to be easy. The Bengals have added a dynamic running unit, having spent high draft picks on Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill in successive drafts. They have been rewarded for that strategy, with the backs averaging over a hundred yards per game between them. Andy Dalton has been secure with the ball, allowing the Bengals to rack up a +6 turnover rate so far, which has undoubtedly helped them win all three games. Their defense remains very tough, and the bye week has given them the chance to get some players healthy. They look strong heading to New England.

Verdict: Cincinnati

Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts

The Indianapolis Colts come into this game on the back of two comprehensive victories, but the calibre of their opposition made them little more than cannon fodder. Andrew Luck has been throwing the ball exceptionally well again this year, but he is operating with a run game in absentia. Can he continue winning games while running for his life? With no run game and sub-par pass protection, he may well have to. It is worth noting that Indy’s two losses so far came against playoff-calibre sides.

The Baltimore Ravens have returned to form in recent weeks, recording big wins against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers. Steve Smith ran wild against his old side last week, and it will be interesting to see if he can come close to replicating that form this weekend. He won’t be facing a top-tier defense, so he and Torrey Smith may have a big say on the final result. It would be hard to back Joe Flacco in a shootout against Luck, so how much pressure Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs can lay down is tied to Baltimore’s chances here.

Verdict: Indianapolis

Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys

The battle of Texas is here, and both teams have started the season surprisingly well. The Dallas Cowboys have taken a long, hard look at their strengths and weaknesses and come up with a very good strategy- run the ball. Despite their roster being a mess over the past few years, they have put together a very solid offensive line. DeMarco Murray has always been a capable running back, and their success on the ground has taken the pressure off of Tony Romo. The Cowboys lead the NFL in rushing, but they are also in the top ten through the air. Allowing Romo to throw the ball less often has seen him cut down on the mistakes (if you exclude the season opener against San Francisco). The defense has outperformed expectations, in as much as it isn’t the worst in the league. They still give up nearly 400 yards per game though, which is a big burden to place on the offense every week.

The Houston Texans have raced out to an early lead in the AFC South, but they haven’t really had a difficult schedule either. The offense hasn’t put up any huge numbers, and they are very limited with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. But their defensive front is extremely strong, even with the number one overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney missing almost all game time thus far through injury. JJ Watt has rarely let up his ferocious pressure for a single down, and constantly requires double-teaming. This frees up space for the other players on Houston’s line, and the battle between them and the Cowboys offensive line may well be the deciding factor here.

Verdict: Dallas

Chicago Bears at Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers are reeling, having suffered successive thrashings against AFC North opponents. Cam Newton has acknowledged that he is struggling with his recovery from surgery, and his ability to escape the pocket has been limited. The Panthers have been banged up, with injury problems to their top four running threats depriving them of their main offensive strength. They are still very much in the race for the NFC South title, but they must stop the rot this weekend to avoid falling back.

The Chicago Bears lost a critical divisional shootout against the Green Bay Packers last weekend, with Jay Cutler throwing two crucial interceptions. Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall look fitter, but they are still struggling with injuries to the secondary and both offensive and defensive lines. This one could go either way, but neither team can afford to lose it.

Verdict: Chicago

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