Separating the boys from the men...that's what Week 6 of the 2011 NFL season is all about.
Are the San Francisco 49ers for real, or will they be exposed as pretenders against the Detroit Lions? Are the Baltimore Ravens ready to take their place atop the AFC, and can they beat a Houston Texans team that needs a big win this weekend?
The biggest questions surround the Lions and the Green Bay Packers. Will either team lose this week?
Find out who will win, who will lose and what each team must do to secure a victory in Week 6.
When Carolina Has the Ball
The Carolina Panthers are an exciting offensive team to watch. Whether it's an option run with Cam Newton and DeAngelo Williams or a bomb to Steve Smith, the Panthers are fun to watch with the football.
Fun and games have their place, but to win games the Panthers must learn to get a lead and then control the clock and pace of the game with a power run game. Too often the Panthers have found themselves playing from behind, which allows them to unleash Newton's rocket arm. It doesn't result in wins, though, and at the end of the day that's what matters.
Atlanta will bring the heat off the edge, especially if John Abraham is back this week. The Atlanta linebackers are fast enough to spy Newton, but they'll have to play double duty in covering tight ends Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen. If Newton can hit his tight ends early and get the Atlanta safeties creeping up, he'll have his shots downfield.
When Atlanta Has the Ball
The Falcons have struggled to run the ball this year. This should be the week Michael Turner breaks out.
With two rookies at defensive tackle and two starters missing at linebacker, the Carolina secondary has a giant hole in the middle of the field. Atlanta will let Turner lose behind Joe Hawley and co. on the inside of the Falcon offensive line.
Carolina has to find a way to get ahead and force Atlanta into passing situations. If the Panthers can force the ball into Matt Ryan's hands, they have the talent to pressure him in the backfield. If they cannot stop Turner, though, the game will be lost.
Prediction: Atlanta 35, Carolina 28
When Jacksonville Has the Ball
The Jacksonville Jaguars should ask their fans to spend a little extra time in prayer for rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert this week.
The Jaguars know they will have to throw the football this week. The secondary for the Pittsburgh Steelers is their weak link defensively, and they can be picked apart by a solid zone passing game. That actually favors the strength of Gabbert, who does well in a shotgun set at throwing underneath.
The bad news is that the Steeler strength is their ability to rush the quarterback. The Jaguars have an underrated offensive line, but they do not have an answer for LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
The game plan for the Steelers should be to turn and hand the ball to Mewelde Moore and Rashard Mendenhall as much as possible.
This is a game the Steelers shouldn't play around with. Line up and smash the football down the Jaguars' throat. That's the recipe for success this week. If the Steelers get cute and try to play finesse football against Jacksonville, they will lose. No ifs about it. The Steelers have to run the football to win this week.
The Jaguar defense is improved this season, especially against the run, but they have struggled to get their defense off the field. If the Steelers commit to lining up and running the ball, Jacksonville won't be able to stop them.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 24, Jacksonville 3
When Philadelphia Has the Ball
Forget about Michael Vick. Forget about Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson and Steve Smith. Write this name down: LeSean McCoy.
How do the Eagles end their slump and start living up to expectations? By ignoring the Andy Reid offense of the last five seasons and pounding the rock with their most talented offensive player. Yes, that's McCoy, not Vick.
Michael Vick should be a complementary factor in the Philadelphia offense, not the focus.
The Redskins have been stingy on defense, but they are allowing 4.3 yards per carry and have been over-aggressive on screen packages. The Eagles should bootleg Vick to get Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan upfield and then slip McCoy in behind them on shovel passes and screens.
When Washington Has the Ball
The Eagles, on paper, have a defensive line that few offenses could handle. Same goes for their secondary. The reality is that both units have their issues. One area that is worry-free is defensive end. The Eagles will unleash Jason Babin on a Washington offensive line that will struggle with the speed rush.
The Redskins offense follows a "we'll do what we have to" approach. Each week one player rises up to the moment and makes the big contribution to win. Against a defense as fast as Philadelphia's, there will be natural running lanes, which means a big week should be in order for Tim Hightower and/or Ryan Torain.
Will it be enough, though?
Prediction: Philadelphia 31, Washington 20
When St. Louis Has the Ball
NFL history and popular media have taught us that on any given Sunday, any team can win. That doesn't apply to this game.
The Rams can hope their offensive line will hold up against the fierce Green Bay pass-rush, but once the game starts we'll see the equivalent of a junior varsity team playing against the upperclassmen. Green Bay is the senior class.
When Green Bay Has the Ball
If the Atlanta Falcons couldn't stop the Green Bay Packers, the St. Louis Rams won't either. If the New Orleans Saints couldn't keep up with the Packers, the St. Louis Rams won't have a snowflake's chance in hell.
Green Bay has dominated each week, and Week 6 will be no different. The biggest question is, who will be the featured player this week?
Aaron Rodgers will have his options against a St. Louis secondary that is sorely missing Ron Bartell at cornerback. Expect huge days from Rodgers and his stable of pass-catchers.
Prediction: Green Bay 44, St. Louis 9
When Buffalo Has the Ball
The key to the Buffalo Bills moving to 5-1 will be the play of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Sure, talking heads will tell you that you have to establish a run game, and I'm not discounting the play of Fred Jackson, but the Bills will need Fitzpatrick to keep up with Eli Manning in a game that could quickly turn into a shootout.
The Bills have the NFL's fourth-best run game, and they'll have their chances to get outside the Giants pass-rush. The reason Fitzpatrick must have a great game is the Giants defensive line.
Against a front four that can be as good as any in the NFL, Fitzpatrick will have to make plays with his arm and his feet this weekend.
When New York Has the Ball
You can bet that Tom Coughlin knows the Bills are allowing the most yards per carry of any team in the NFL. You can also bet he knows the Bills are 4-1 for a reason.
The Giants will be tempted to run Ahmad Bradshaw into the Buffalo defense early on, but I expect Buffalo to put points on the board early, which will force New York to rely on Eli Manning and his trio of receivers.
Looking for a difference-maker? My new favorite player, safety George Wilson, has been all over the field this season. Wilson will be an annoyance to Manning all day long.
Prediction: Buffalo 38, New York 27
When San Francisco Has the Ball
The Detroit Lions are known for their defensive line. With a slew of first-round draft picks and studs lined up across the front four, the Lions are capable of disrupting the backfield and scaring opposing quarterbacks. They're also susceptible to the run game and a good screen.
The 49ers will use Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter as their featured players this week. Gore and Hunter are both tough inside runners, but they are also both excellent receivers out of the backfield. Look for Jim Harbaugh to take advantage of the Lions' aggressive pass-rush by working to get the ball to Gore, Hunter and tight end Vernon Davis underneath.
Speaking of Davis, the Lions may have a very good defense, but they have no one to match up with the NFL's most talented tight end.
When Detroit Has the Ball
Maybe you've heard, but Calvin Johnson is having a historic season at wide receiver. The San Francisco 49ers are next on Johnson's list of teams to dominate.
The Lions are winning with a great combination of passes short to Johnson versus passes deep to Johnson. By force-feeding the ball to Megatron, Matthew Stafford is opening up the running lanes for Jahvid Best on delays and draws, as was evident in the Monday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears.
The 49ers are playing inspired football, especially on defense, but they don't have an answer for Johnson on the roster. Even Carlos Rogers, who has quietly been one of the best corners in the league this season, will be outmatched.
Prediction: Detroit 28, San Francisco 21
When Indianapolis Has the Ball
Curtis Painter has been good enough the last two weeks to win games, but the Indianapolis Colts have not been able to play a complete football game on either side of the ball. The blame can't fall exclusively on Painter, but he shares some of the responsibility.
The Colts actually match up very well against the Cincinnati Bengals. Cincinnati has struggled to rush the passer, but it is allowing just 3.2 yards per carry against the run. This works out well for Indianapolis, as the Colts have struggled to run the ball all season.
Cincinnati needs a big game from second-year defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Now is the time for Dunlap to turn it on and live up to his rookie season potential.
When Cincinnati Has the Ball
Without looking, name the starting secondary for the Indianapolis Colts. OK, how about at least two starters in the secondary? Not many people outside Indianapolis could do it.
The point: Cincinnati should have a field day throwing the ball. Cedric Benson will get things started with his power running, but look for Andy Dalton to have fun with A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham this weekend.
The Colts need to bring as much pressure as possible. The trouble is the Bengal offensive line is playing pretty damn good football lately. Dwight Freeney versus Andrew Whitworth will be a key matchup this weekend.
Prediction: Cincinnati 31, Indianapolis 21
When Cleveland Has the Ball
Playing in Oakland following the passing of owner Al Davis will be hard enough. Trying to match up against the speedy Raider defense without a true No. 1 receiver or a committed Peyton Hillis will make it almost impossible.
Cleveland would ideally lean on Hillis this weekend, as the Raider defense has been weak against the run this year. Hillis, and his partner in crime Montario Hardesty, have been less than stellar this season. Blame the injury to Eric Steinbach or Hillis' contract issues, but the problem is there no matter how you spin it.
The Raiders weakness is in their secondary, but even the back four played well against the Houston Texans. If Oakland can stop the Cleveland run game, it should be able to tee off on Colt McCoy when the Browns drop back to pass.
When Oakland Has the Ball
That's all you need to know about what the Oakland Raiders will do this weekend to beat the Cleveland Browns, who start two rookies along the defensive line.
The Browns secondary is better than most think, which is actually good new for the Raiders, as they'll have a solid reason to not put the ball in Jason Campbell's inconsistent hands this week.
McFadden will have a 200-yard day as the Raiders win one for Al.
Prediction: Oakland 34, Cleveland 18
When Houston Has the Ball
The Texans will most likely be without wide receiver Andre Johnson again this week, which means more Arian Foster.
Foster has looked good since returning from a hamstring injury two weeks ago, putting up 223 yards in two games. Foster will be the focal point again this week, but he won't see the same success against a tough Baltimore Raven defense.
The Houston Texans have, in my opinion, the NFL's best offensive line. The battle up front this weekend will be must-see football.
When Baltimore Has the Ball
The Ravens have the NFL's No. 9 offense, led by a run game that has averaged almost 124 yards per game this season. Ray Rice will see his share of the load this weekend too.
Rice and the Ravens will look to run at the left side of the Texans defense now that outside linebacker Mario Williams is out. The Texan defense won't roll over without a fight though, and their three defensive linemen are playing as well as any in the league right now.
Michael Oher versus J.J. Watt should have you excited about Sunday.
Prediction: Baltimore 28, Houston 17
When New Orleans Has the Ball
The NFL's No. 2-ranked offense in yards per game is powered once again by the right arm of Drew Brees. So far this season, Brees is nearly unstoppable.
Marques Colston was out with a broken collarbone, but even without his best receiver in the lineup, Brees is finding ways to win—and win impressively. The young front seven in Tampa Bay won't know what to do with Brees, Darren Sproles or Jimmy Graham. This one could get ugly.
If Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers scored 48 points against Tampa, the Saints could score 70 without trying.
When Tampa Bay Has the Ball
The Buccaneers have struggled to find their identity this season. They've won when pounding the ball with LeGarrette Blount, but they have also shot themselves in the foot with penalties, turnovers and repeated three-and-out series. That won't fly against the Saints.
New Orleans has the defense the Buccaneers want. A disruptive front four is supported by a back seven that is aggressive enough to create turnovers. It helps that Gregg Williams, one of the league's best, is calling the shots.
The pressure will be on Tampa Bay to prove it is a contender, but it isn't ready to beat the Saints.
Prediction: New Orleans 42, Tampa Bay 23
When Dallas Has the Ball
Dez Bryant should be the go-to guy for the Dallas Cowboys this week, as Tony Romo and Jason Garrett's offense look to exploit the Patriots weakness in the secondary.
Dallas has the NFL's third-best passing attack, and they'll face off against the worst passing defense. A 10-year-old could tell you what the game plan should be this week.
Dallas will be able to move the ball against the Patriots, and it should be able to score a good number of points. But will the Cowboys be able to outscore the Patriots?
When New England Has the Ball
Teams are scoring on the Patriots, there is no refuting that. But they aren't outscoring them.
New England has won four games with the NFL's No. 1 offense (yards and passing yards) and the third-most points scored. Tom Brady and Wes Welker are on track for historic seasons, with even the best defenses in the game failing to shut them down.
Brady will get his, as will Welker, against a Dallas secondary that is too aggressive for its own good.
Prediction: New England 45, Dallas 37
When Minnesota Has the Ball
You don't think of the Chicago Bears as having a weak defense, but Jahvid Best and the Detroit Lions had their way with the Monsters of the Midway on Monday Night Football. You can bet the Vikings and star running back Adrian Peterson were watching.
Peterson will be used early, often and 'til the end this weekend. If Minnesota has a chance to win this game, it will be on the back of a huge day from Mr. All Day.
Chicago will aim to shut down Peterson, and after the Bears were embarrassed by Best in giving up the most yards in team history, they'll be amped up for a big day defensively.
When Chicago Has the Ball
The Bears have the NFL's worst offensive line, and I'll hear no arguments otherwise. How will they stop Jared Allen? They won't. They'll go around him.
The Bears are smart on offense, even if they are lacking nine starters to support Matt Forte and Jay Cutler. Mike Martz will get the ball to Forte on stretch runs designed to trap Allen, and he'll work him into the passing game as the Bears let Allen come free and then throw the ball in the area he vacated.
The Vikings must resist the urge to over-pursue this weekend. If they play straight-up, assignment football, they can keep up with the Bears.
Prediction: Chicago 24, Minnesota 17
When Miami Has the Ball
Let me first say that after a week that brought us an intriguing matchup between the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions, it is a huge letdown to see the Dolphins and Jets on the MNF slate this week. But on to the game.
The Dolphins are relying on Matt Moore at quarterback with Chad Henne out for the season. Moore will get to ease himself into the lineup against a Jet defense that has the NFL's best cornerback, Darrelle Revis.
The Dolphins should be able to run the ball against New York—everyone else has—but Moore will be advised to not throw near Revis Island. At all.
When New York Has the Ball
The Jets offense has been such a major disappointment this year, and I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.
The Jets' lack of a run game and their reliance on Derrick Mason and Plaxico Burress to pick up the slack left by Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith has backfired. Mark Sanchez has struggled, the run game is nonexistent and the team has looked worse each week.
The good news is that New York should have no trouble beating the Dolphins...unless Sanchez is forced to make plays. Then all hell could break loose.
Prediction: New York 7, Miami 0