The gradual shift in pro football's contenders pulling away from the pretenders is in full force.
Teams like the Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers all won games they were supposed to win. That's what great teams do, and some changes occurred inside the top 10.
Elsewhere, teams like the Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins all got key wins to get back on track. With the sixth week of the 2012 season coming up fast, significant challenges await for those needing to make a statement.
That said, here are grades for each team through five weeks of play.
The Browns have fought hard each week, but unfortunately a victory remains to be seen.
Had the rock simply bounced Cleveland's way, this team could easily be at least 3-2.
If anything, though, blowing a 17-0 lead to the New York Giants sums Cleveland up in a nutshell. On the bright side there is good news. According to the Associated Press via ESPN.com:
Haden will move right back into the starting lineup when the Browns (0-5) host the Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) on Sunday. Dimitri Patterson, who filled in for Haden during the suspension, injured his ankle on Sunday and said he expects to miss "a couple weeks."
Despite being 0-5 the Browns aren't getting slammed every game. Still, reducing turnovers and improving the ground game must happen for any shot at winning.
The flood gates are about to open on the Kansas City Chiefs.
Sitting at 1-4 and at the bottom of the AFC West, K.C. would be 0-5 had it not been for Jamaal Charles 91-yard touchdown run versus New Orleans.
Week 6 just doesn't appear to provide much hope. Per the Associated Press via Sports Illustrated:
Matt Cassel sustained a concussion in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against Baltimore and is unlikely to play in next weekend's game at Tampa Bay, which means Brady Quinn is preparing to start an NFL game for the first time in nearly three years.
In short, anticipate a heavy dosage of Charles against Tampa Bay this week.
And expect the Buccaneers to stack the box, because forcing Brady Quinn to throw will be their best odds at winning. The Chiefs played Baltimore well defensively, however, there's not much hope outside of Charles getting fed between the tackles.
It just keeps getting worse and worse for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Playing quite well in the first half on Sunday, the Jags were tied at three with the Bears through two quarters.
Then the second half began and Jacksonville ultimately lost, 41-3. This team simply has no offense outside of Maurice Jones-Drew and Mel Tucker's defense is drastically underachieving. The Jags can't force turnovers because there's literally no quarterback pressure.
Having only three sacks on the year, we're seeing what would have happened to Jacksonville in 2011 with no defense. It's ugly and not appearing to improve whatsoever.
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are straight up inconsistent.
Scoring just 10 points in Week 1, the Panthers put up 35 on New Orleans and got a win courtesy of Charles Godfrey's pick-six.
Then the Cats get pummeled by the Giants at home, but push the Falcons to the brink in Week 4. Hosting the Seattle Seahawks in Week 5, Carolina certainly fielded the more potentially explosive offense, but needless to say the Panthers offense failed miserably and Seattle won, 16-12.
This season the Panthers are 2011's version of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Carolina's defense is scoring and keeping Ron Rivera's team in games. The offense is unreliable, though, and Newton continues to disappoint.
If there's one team capable of sneaking up on the AFC in 2012 it's the Oakland Raiders.
Yes, the Raiders are 1-3 but we saw their potential after upsetting Pittsburgh at home.
Darren McFadden remains a stud ball-carrier, so the passing game just needs to become a bit more consistent. One thing to also keep in mind is Oakland's schedule: It's not overly difficult.
Outside of the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens, Oakland has a fighter's chance to make some noise. Both games against Kansas City are potential wins, as well as the Saints, Buccaneers, Panthers, Bengals and Jaguars.
Provided the defense steps up against the pass and doesn't give up big plays, a .500 or slightly better season is possible.
The Detroit Lions' bye week came right on cue.
After the disappointing loss at home to Minnesota where the Lions allowed two special teams scores, Detroit didn't score itself until less than three minutes in the game.
Calvin Johnson and the offense just haven't found and rhythm and the defense remains a concern as well. Although the Lions have allowed an average of only 315.8 total yards per game, a big part of that attributes to giving up field position on special teams.
Not to mention the running game is still one of pro football's worst and the schedule hits a gauntlet this week. Playing at Philadelphia and Chicago in consecutive weeks, Detroit hosts Seattle in Week 8 and then goes on the road for two more against Jacksonville and Minnesota.
Include others such as Green Bay (twice), Houston, Atlanta and Arizona, and 2012 is shaping up to be quite frustrating for the Motor City. The passing game is elite, but a team can't expect to consistently win by being one-dimensional.
One thing noteworthy of the Tennessee Titans is their schedule.
Obviously being 1-4 doesn't warrant much, but this team has faced a brutal team nearly each week.
The losses have come to New England, San Diego, Houston and Minnesota which all combine for a record of 16-5. Interestingly enough, running back Chris Johnson hit 141 rushing yards against the Texans so the potential to score points does exist.
Unfortunately, inconsistency across the board remains a major concern. The passing attack hasn't been impressive and it has clearly affected the ground game. Defensively, Tennessee just can't stop anyone, allowing an average of 36.2 points per game.
Despite some of those points coming from the opposing defense scoring off an interception, it's unlikely the Titans would have stopped the offense anyway: They give up almost 424 total yards per contest.
Sunday night was definitely a big win for the New Orleans Saints.
To that end, the bye week is hitting at the perfect time.
Going on the road to Tampa Bay in Week 7, the schedule gets rough thereafter. From Week 8 through Week 14 the Saints play Denver, Philadelphia, Atlanta twice, San Francisco and the New York Giants—with the Raiders sandwiched between.
That's one helluva stretch to endure and Steve Spagnuolo's defense must significantly improve versus the pass and run. New Orleans can certainly get another win by defeating Tampa Bay; however, dropping seven straight is realistic considering how many yards and points the Saints allow per game.
The Buffalo Bills have given up 97 points in their past two games.
Plus, the offense hasn't helped the defense as it's scored just 31 points in that same span, and hit 35 in just one game this season (Kansas City).
Buffalo is simply in dire straits and both wins have come over the Browns and Chiefs. Although the ground game is the offensive strength, it has been inconsistent thanks to durability issues and the unreliable passing game.
Ryan Fitzpatrick has tossed eight picks this season despite only getting sacked five times. So unless the defense improves and the offense controls the game tempo better, don't expect Buffalo to be in the mix any time soon.
The good news about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is that they're competitive.
All three losses are by a combined 15 points and a rather favorable schedule awaits.
Still, Tampa must make adjustments defensively. Sure the Buccaneers may rank No. 4 against the run, but Greg Schiano's defense is dead last versus the pass. So teams just aren't running the ball against Tampa Bay, because success via the air is much easier.
Therefore, when playing teams such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Denver and San Diego the pass rush has to make an impact. With eight sacks this season Tampa's front seven isn't terrible, but elite quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning will tear the Bucs apart.
Offensively, the ground game needs more production to set up the pass.
Tampa Bay isn't strong enough in one area to win by being one-dimensional. However, presenting a more balanced attack is a great advantage thanks to a receiver like Vincent Jackson and a quarterback with Josh Freeman's arm strength.
Flip the overtimes losses to wins and the Miami Dolphins are 4-1.
Nevertheless, 2-3 isn't a bad spot for Miami right now as Ryan Tannehill continues to develop.
The running back tandem of Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas is emerging and the array of receiving targets bodes well for the passing attack. In Week 5 against the Bengals, Tannehill completed 17 balls to seven different players and six had two-plus catches.
When a rookie can spread the field like that and utilize all dimensions of the defense's coverage, it's no surprise Miami won in Ohio. Combine this progression with a defense that has recorded 15 sacks and the AFC East better watch out.
And just imagine how far Miami can go if the pass defense continues to improve. The Dolphins are already the best against the run, so add that to their pass rush and a solid secondary is the last step to fielding a complete unit.
The New York Jets put on a valiant effort Monday night versus Houston.
And although the end result wasn't a win, the Jets took a step forward after their abysmal performance from Week 5 against San Francisco.
Despite the front seven being still vulnerable against the run, Gang Green's pass defense remains solid with Antonio Cromartie on one side. The offense is balanced, but there just isn't any kind of big play explosion to force a defense on its heels.
As the year progresses, though, it wouldn't be surprising to see Tim Tebow get utilized more. He has made a nice impact when given opportunities and New York is desperate for a win as well.
Given the circumstances and facing a rough schedule coming up, the Jets are running out of options and have to figure something out quick.
Defending the pass remains a big concern for the Washington Redskins.
Ranked No. 31 and allowing 328.6 pass yards per game, that unreliability is hurting the front seven against the run.
In short, it's no surprise the Redskins have given up over 22 points per game. The offense may be strong when running well, but their consistent explosiveness remains to be seen. What we will get, however, is a more telling story of this season's Redskins in Week 6.
For one, the injury to Robert Griffin III may become a factor. According to ESPN.com:
Griffin has not experienced any dizziness or headaches on Monday, and Shanahan said that the star rookie is "feeling good."
Optimism aside, Washington hosts the 4-1 Minnesota Vikings and pass-rusher Jared Allen. Therefore, don't expect a whole lot from the Redskins regardless of RG3's status. Minnesota is talented and plays old-school smashmouth football on both sides.
So the Indianapolis Colts don't have Peyton Manning. Fortunately, being without the future Hall of Famer has turned out for the better thus far.
The 2011 season was basically a one-year hiatus, because Andrew Luck is living up to the standards and his performance in Week 5 was quite impressive.
Prior to that, Luck and Co. would be 3-2 had it not been for an 80-yard touchdown by Cecil Shorts of Jacksonville. The defense has gotten better with each new week and the win over Minnesota gets more validity with every Vikings victory.
Luck knows how to find his No. 1 receiver Reggie Wayne and the complement of targets is proving reliable. In turn, the passing attack sets up the ground game which fields a balanced attack to let the defense rest.
Expect this formula to keep rolling, because Indy's next five games are against the Jets, Browns, Titans, Dolphins and Jaguars. All are winnable games and the Colts may be 7-2 when squaring off against the Patriots in Week 11.
The San Diego Chargers are frustrating to watch right now.
Although they're 3-2, the Bolts' wins have come against Oakland, Kansas City and Tennessee: All have losing records.
Include San Diego getting steamrolled by Atlanta at home and then upset by New Orleans on Sunday and 2012 isn't looking good. The pass defense has yet to really shut anyone down and the offense isn't explosive enough to keep pace.
Just as we saw against New Orleans, pass protection is concerning and it's affecting everything else. The only way the Bolts will make a statement is by defeating a solid team.
This week the Broncos come to town and fortunately for San Diego, the remaining schedule isn't too difficult. Nevertheless, losing a game the Chargers should win only makes them vulnerable to more upsets—which is quite possible against teams like Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Carolina.
Week 6 is judgement week for the Dallas Cowboys.
Sitting at 2-2, Big D goes on the road to play the Baltimore Ravens who are 4-1.
Coming off a bye week, Dallas was stomped by the Chicago Bears and barely beat Tampa Bay in Week 3. Inconsistency is this team in a nutshell, beginning with their Week 1 win over the Giants in New York, only to crumble against Seattle in Week 2.
The ground game still must prove itself and Tony Romo can't be turnover prone. Last season he threw just 10 picks and he already has eight this season. Now yes, his receivers must become more reliable as well, because this offense possesses excellent talent.
Rob Ryan's defense is carrying the Cowboys right now, but until the offense finds a rhythm and rolls off some production, Dallas will miss the postseason. Not to mention the schedule isn't too nice either.
After winning three straight the Cincinnati Bengals were upset at home against Miami.
In an eerily similar comparison to San Diego, the Bengals have yet to beat a team with a winning record.
Obviously, had Cincy beat the Dolphins then Miami would be 2-3, and it would have displayed that the Bengals win games they're expected to win. Well, the rushing offense continues to be a problem and the defense is significantly underperforming compared to last season.
The Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green connection is working and Andrew Hawkins has definitely stepped up. So the Bengals have a passing game to rely on. However, being one-dimensional will cost them in the AFC North and especially so with a vulnerable defense.
Include Cincinnati's next four games versus Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Denver and the New York Giants and a 3-6 record isn't out of the question before Week 11 (bye in Week 8).
Although the Seattle Seahawks field the NFL's worst passing game, the Great Northwest is 3-2 and in arguably the toughest division.
That's right, the NFC West is arguably the league's toughest division because all four have winning records through five weeks.
Seattle unfortunately is 0-2 in the division but 3-0 against other NFC opponents. Courtesy of a stellar pass rush and suffocating pass defense, the Seahawks will be in every game. The offense goes as Marshawn Lynch goes, so provided Russell Wilson minimizes turnovers Seattle will be fine.
The next two weeks, though, will truly test Seattle's ability. Home against New England and then at San Francisco are rough back-to-back contests, and the hungry Lions wait in Week 8. This team is improving—how much is the next question.
The Pittsburgh Steelers got a big win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5.
However, let's not get ahead of ourselves with the Steel City just yet.
We first have to remember that this is the same team that lost to the Oakland Raiders in Week 3. In addition, Pittsburgh did have two weeks to prepare for Philadelphia thanks to the bye week.
The win over Philly, though, gets Pittsburgh back on track to remain AFC playoff contenders. Defeating the Jets was an expected win, and we'll find out more in this short week: On Thursday, the Steelers play at Tennessee and the Titans are starving for a legitimate win.
Also, according to Will Graves of the Associated Press via FOX Sports:
Coach Mike Tomlin ruled [Troy] Polamalu out of the lineup this week after the All-Pro aggravated his strained right calf in the first quarter of a 16-14 win over Philadelphia on Sunday.
Pittsburgh isn't in deep water, although three of its next four games are on the road.
If there's one reason why the Green Bay Packers are disappointing right now, it's because they have no reliable running game.
And unfortunately, the remainder of 2012 doesn't look good.
According to Adam Schefter of ESPN:
Cedric Benson has a Lisfranc foot injury expected to sideline him eight weeks and could end his season if doctors determine he needs surgery— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) October 9, 2012
Now it's not like the Packers are down and out. Aaron Rodgers has the ability to lead despite orchestrating a one-dimensional offense. The concern remains with a defense that gave up 27 second-half points to the Colts.
Even with an improved pass rush, Green Bay's defense still fails to consistently defend well against the pass. Going up against teams like Houston, St. Louis and Jacksonville in the coming weeks, the Pack must shut down the run, otherwise Rodgers will be limited and Green Bay's 2012 campaign will continue to stumble.
Jeff Fisher is looking like the 2012 NFL Coach of the Year right now.
Exclude Week 1 and the St. Louis Rams are 3-1 in their past four games and riding a two-game win streak.
Fielding a defense that has emphatically improved against the pass, St. Louis' pass rush has only benefited as a result. The cornerback tandem of Cortland Finnegan and rookie Janoris Jenkins is quite impressive and everything else has fallen into place.
Offensively, Sam Bradford is managing games quite well and Steven Jackson continues to slam on the ground. Had St. Louis played Detroit right now the Rams would win, because since Week 1 both teams have been going in opposite directions.
They square off against the Dolphins in Week 6, and this game will change the complexion of St. Louie's season.
Down 14-0 to the Cleveland Browns at home, the New York Giants showed why nothing fazes them.
Even more impressive prior to Week 5 was New York's Week 3 win over the Panthers in Carolina, because it came after a short week in a comeback win over Tampa Bay.
Eli Manning possesses that rare knack for winning games, making comebacks and conducting an efficient offense. Ahmad Bradshaw is rolling well on the ground and Manning is simply making everyone around him better.
The defense is also becoming more reliable through each week, despite the extreme level of adversity regarding injuries. And although Big Blue hasn't beaten a team with a winning record, they have taken their game to another level since Week 1.
Being 0-2 in the NFC East is concerning, though, so we'll learn quite a lot about New York over the next five weeks (at 49ers, versus Redskins, at Cowboys, versus Steelers, at Bengals).
Before we get all scared about the Denver Broncos starting 2-3, we have to take with great consideration their schedule.
The losses have come at the hands of Atlanta, Houston and New England, two of which were on the road.
And all three combine for a record of 13-2 through five weeks. Had the Broncos not been turnover-prone in those games at least one would have gone their way. Looking at Denver's two wins, both were over teams it was anticipated they'd defeat.
Week 6, however, is a crucial matchup in southern California. The Chargers desperately need a win as does Denver. As for production, the Broncos are decently balanced offensively and the defense still presents a good pass rush.
Along with turnovers, the pass defense certainly must improve, and shutting down the run is imperative. The Broncos are in no way impressing us right now, but they have yet to get soundly beaten by an inferior opponent.
The Philadelphia Eagles are in a similar boat as the Denver Broncos: turnovers.
Michael Vick has turned the ball over nine times in five games and it finally cost Philly in Week 5.
With a clean path to the end zone Vick fumbled at the 1-yard line and the Eagles lost to Pittsburgh, 16-14. The good news is that figuring out this issue will only help Philly down the road.
For starters, don't give Vick designed running plays; and when in scoring position, just feed LeSean McCoy. The Eagles defense is playing extremely well right now, so the loss to Pittsburgh won't affect them too much.
We saw how effective the Eagles can be when not turning the ball over—versus Giants—and the remaining schedule isn't too rough. Challenging games come against Atlanta, at the Giants and Dallas twice but nothing extreme in regard to consecutive weeks.
Cut down on the turnovers and this team wins the NFC East.
Don't fall asleep on the Arizona Cardinals.
After an emotional overtime win against the Dolphins, the short week and going on the road against a divisional opponent is beyond difficult.
Plus, the Rams are much better than they're given credit and it was only three weeks ago that Arizona won in New England. Most certainly, the pass protection has to improve, because the Cards offensive line has allowed 23 sacks this season.
And when a team presents a defense like Arizona's, as well as explosive special teams potential—namely Patrick Peterson—anything can happen. Larry Fitzgerald and the receiving corps are reliable, so it's just a matter of adjusting to quicker developing plays and maintaining pressure when on defense.
The Chicago Bears are really hitting their stride.
Since losing to the Green Bay Packers, Chicago has run off three straight and the defense has allowed just 27 points.
To this point the Bears defense has capitalized the best on all turnovers and the bye week will only help with preparation. Jay Cutler and the offense are finding a strong connection regarding balance and there's a lot more confidence in that unit.
After the bye week, Chicago plays at home in six of the next nine games. That alone is a distinct competitive advantage, and key matchups are slated against Houston, San Francisco and twice against Minnesota.
Certainly the surprise team of 2012, the Minnesota Vikings continue to impress with each win.
Christian Ponder is proving to be a reliable game manager behind the ground attack of Adrian Peterson, and the receiving weapons are answering the call.
Percy Harvin and tight end Kyle Rudolph pose as strong a threat to any coverage and this balance keeps Minnesota in control. Lest we forget about the potential of special teams, the Vikings are one of the most complete teams in the league.
Defensively, Minnesota has allowed only 33 points the past three games and it's shutting down key teams and players. Traveling to Washington this week and then getting two straight home games versus Arizona and Tampa Bay, the Vikings could definitely be 7-1 at the midway point.
The New England Patriots may be 3-2 and gaining momentum, but Bill Belichick's pass defense remains the Achilles Heel.
Ranking No. 30 against the pass, New England almost gave up a big lead versus the Denver Broncos.
Thankfully, Tom Brady and the offense can still virtually score at will and don't show any signs of slowing down. Week 6, though, is not a cakewalk because the Seahawks play well at home and have one of the NFL's best defenses.
In a pass-heavy league nothing is automatic when the defense can't stop the pass.
The Pats have playmakers like Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington at cornerback. But the pass rush is still inconsistent and the defense has given up an average of almost 27 points per game the past three weeks.
Fortunately, they do know how to cause turnovers and get Brady additional possessions.
Uncharacteristically, the Baltimore Ravens defense is the concern.
Despite giving up only six points to the Chiefs on Sunday, Baltimore allowed Jamaal Charles to rush for 140 yards.
On the flip side, the Ravens blanketed K.C.'s weak passing offense. Still, the Ravens aren't playing like a Super Bowl contender right now. Yes they are 4-1, but it's something new each week that has gotten exploited.
Brandon Weeden of the Browns threw for 320 yards and is a few dropped passes away from pulling that upset. Additionally, Joe Flacco has been sacked 13 times, four of which came from K.C.
What Baltimore is doing, though, is winning in different ways. Over the next two weeks we will find out how Baltimore matches up with the best, because they play at Houston just before the bye.
The road loss to the Minnesota Vikings is looking better each week.
One reason is because the Vikings continue to win; the other reason is because the San Francisco 49ers have slammed the hammer down the past two weeks.
Outscoring the Jets and Bills 79-3 the past two games, San Francisco is not only winning but doing so in convincing fashion. The defense is dominating against the run and pass, and Alex Smith is controlling the tempo on offense.
Backed by a strong ground game in Frank Gore and some reliable receiving targets, Smith is quietly putting up impressive numbers. Hosting the Giants in Week 6, look for the 'Niners to avenge the NFC title game loss and keep rolling when divisional play begins thereafter.
Great teams find ways to win no matter what.
That is exactly what the Atlanta Falcons are doing right now, because this team could easily be 3-2 instead of 5-0.
The final drive against the Carolina Panthers was indicative of pure composure by Matt Ryan and the amount of confidence he encompasses. One area where the Dirty Birds must improve, though, is the line of scrimmage.
Atlanta allows an average of 142.8 rushing yards per game and gains only 94.8 rushing yards each week. When playing ground and pound teams such as Philadelphia, the Falcons can't afford to get worked in the trenches.
Luckily, Atlanta doesn't line up against many run-oriented teams and the NFC South is extremely weak. What we then must go by is how the Falcons win, because getting upset or winning ugly won't bode well for postseason confidence.
As if anyone else is more deserving of the No.1 spot.
The Houston Texans faced a trap game on Monday night, because the Jets were desperate for a win and literally tried everything possible to steal a win.
Houston is just too good on both sides of the ball and more impressively, Gary Kubiak's squad didn't bring its A-game to New York either. Special teams and red-zone offense nearly cost Houston this game, but J.J. Watt and the defense are straight up ridiculous.
The offense feeds off Arian Foster's production, and Matt Schaub doesn't get enough credit for his impact under center. Week 6 and 7 are revealing games, however. This week it's a big matchup on Sunday night versus the hungry Packers and then the Ravens.
Provided that Houston is 7-0 heading into its bye week, a 13-3 record is quite realistic.
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