Everyone saw the play from Dallas’s Week 5 win over Cincinnati.
Left tackle Tyron Smith stood up Michael Johnson on the edge, guard Zack Martin redirected Geno Atkins ever so slightly, and TE Geoff Swain motioned from right to left before crossing the line again to block Carlos Dunlap. And with one quick, explosive cut, Ezekiel Elliott was off.
The Cowboys’s rookie running back then turned on the afterburners to split two safeties and race 60 yards to the end zone.
This is what opposing teams have come to deal with this season, and what the top-ranked Packers’s rush defense faces Sunday: a Dallas offense with a dominant line and a running back who might bypass the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation for the MVP line.
“The physicalness of our runs, the physicalness of our tight ends, of our fullback, of our runner ... that was the difference in the game offensively,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said after his team’s 28–14 win last Sunday, which bumped its record to 4–1.
For Green Bay to slow down Elliott, Alfred Morris and QB Dak Prescott on Sunday, it has to match the Cowboys’s physical presence up front. The Packers just might be able to do so, if their first four games are any indication. With veterans Letroy Guion and Mike Daniels plugging up the line, and a young group of linebackers (still led by Clay Matthews Jr., of course) growing up in a hurry, the Packers have yet to allow more than 50 yards rushing to any team this season.
“I think everything starts with the way our defense flies around,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “It starts up front with penetration and their ability to stop the run game and try to force them more into one-dimensional throwing. ... When you’re dictating when the ball is being thrown, it definitely helps you as a defense.”
Elliott’s outstanding start has kept Prescott out of those perilous third-and-longs. Prescott rarely has thrown the ball beyond 20 yards downfield, but he hasn’t had to. The Cowboys have been able to dictate the pace and style of their games during their ongoing four-game win streak. They have run more plays and have more time of possession than any other NFL team through five weeks.
In addition to Daniels—a star in his own right—and Guion, the Packers also this week enjoyed the return of 330-pounder Mike Pennell from suspension. Thanks in no small part to rookie Kenny Clark, Green Bay’s front thrived in Pennell’s absence. There’s no telling how good it could be with its full complement of talent.
This Sunday’s matchup will help render a verdict. Something has to give when the Cowboys try to run the ball right at the Packers’s stout front.
A quartet of players who could be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Niles Paul, TE, Redskins: Kirk Cousins loves throwing to Jordan Reed. Loves it. Reed led the team in targets (114) and receptions (87) last season and holds a substantial lead in both this year. So, it’s a problem if he is out of the lineup as he might be Sunday while dealing with a concussion. Vernon Davis is next up on the depth chart, but Paul (13.0 yards per catch last season) is a more dangerous weapon these days.
2. Ken Crawley, CB, Saints: To answer your question, yes, this is a player actually in the NFL. If you’re not a Saints or Colorado football fan, you might be unaware of the undrafted rookie. He is a starter now, though, in the Saints’s eternally depleted secondary. This week, that role means he’ll have to deal with Kelvin Benjamin at times. He won’t win the matchup when it happens, but holding his own would do wonders toward stopping Carolina.
3. Sio Moore, LB, Chiefs: Moore signed with the Chiefs on Friday; coach Andy Reid said he saw first-team reps Monday. He may not starter against his former team, Oakland, but Moore definitely has a path toward playing time along a thin Kansas City linebacking corps. The play that netted him 7.5 sacks over the 2013 and ’14 seasons would come in handy off the edge for a Chiefs team shy a consistent pass rush.
4. Laken Tomlinson, G, Lions: Jim Caldwell refused to admit that Tomlinson was benched in Week 5 (just as he wouldn’t say he had benched Golden Tate in Week 4), but that’s what happened. Tomlinson simply has not been effective since Detroit used its first-round pick on him in 2015. But he’s still the starter, according to Caldwell, which means he will be asked to slow Aaron Donald this week. Godspeed, Laken.
• Last week: 8–6 overall (46–32 season), 6–8 vs. the spread (39–39 season).
• Best pick in Week 5: Raiders 35, Chargers 27 (actual score: Raiders 34–31).
• Worst pick in Week 5: Bengals 24, Cowboys 16 (actual score: Cowboys 28–14).
Based strictly off last week’s games, the Patriots should be favored by however many points Tom Brady says he wants to score. Dallas throttled Cincinnati up front along both lines—an especially unexpected development when the Bengals had the ball; New England cruised past hapless Cleveland, in the process unleashing its Brady-to-Martellus Bennett connection for three touchdowns. Good news for Cincinnati: It has been stingy against opposing TEs, allowing just 13 catches this season. The Bengals also are still down their own standout tight end, Tyler Eifert, whose absence has hamstrung them in the red zone. Unless they’ve cleaned up a ton along the interiors, though, they might not get many chances down there anyway.
Watchability index: 7. Another chance to see what the 2016 Patriots offense can be. Let’s also not forget that the Bengals have been to five straight postseasons, so they’re not used to being on the ropes in October.
Two-for-one prediction for this one: Steelers fans will account for about 40% of the crowd in Miami ... and this game will be closer than a lot of people think. It probably shouldn’t be a contest. The Dolphins have been horrific against the run (No. 32 ranking) and can’t cover on the outside, so Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are primed to have a field day. The home team also comes in with a combined 422 yards of offense the past two weeks—fewer than what the Steelers have produced in three individual games this year. So, why does Miami stay in it? Mainly because the Steelers turn in a handful of frustrating, inexplicable performances per season. With the Patriots up next for them, this is a trap game, albeit one they still should win.
Watchability index: 4. Bell and Brown will be worth the price of admission. The Dolphins, on the other hand, might be the league’s least watchable team right now.
Playing in the perennially tough AFC North does not make the Browns’s rebuilding project look any closer to completion. If they were in the AFC South, however ... let’s just say they would not have the same mountain to climb. To wit: With a win Sunday and Houston loss Sunday night, the Titans would sit in a three-way tie for first place. They’ve found their moderate success via the ground game, where DeMarco Murray checks in as the league’s No. 2 rusher through five weeks (461 yards) and Derrick Henry and QB Marcus Mariota have added another 283 yards. Statistically, the Browns not been awful vs. the run, but that’s mainly because teams can pass all over them. Most teams. Tennessee doesn’t have an offense built to do that, so Hue Jackson’s club takes another run at an upset.
Watchability index: 2. The Browns are bad, but they’re not 0–16 bad. Is this the week they finally pick up a W?
These teams (and head coaches) sort of deserve each other. The Lions lost to the Titans and Bears, only to turn around and beat the Eagles. The Rams knocked off the Seahawks and Cardinals, but were demolished by the 49ers—THE 49ERS!!! The matchup between Detroit’s passing attack and Los Angeles’s defense does have some potential. Matthew Stafford thrives on getting the ball out of his hands quickly—the Lions have 751 yards after the catch, more than all but Atlanta and New England—so he has a scheme that can negate Aaron Donald and the Rams’s pass rush. It didn’t work that way last year. The then St. Louis Rams sacked Stafford four times and turned in a pick-six during a December win.
Watchability index: 4. Thus far, both teams project closer to .500-level teams than true playoff contenders.
One starting QB in this game has yet to throw an interception this season, has a QB rating of 108.5 and is on pace to break the NFL’s single-season record for completion percentage. The other quarterback is Blake Bortles. And while it’s easy to inflate stats like that completion rate, any metric that has Brian Hoyer outplaying Bortles helps highlight Jacksonville’s woes. The Jaguars are coming off a must-have win, two weeks ago in London over the Colts. Allen Robinson found the end zone in that game, giving him three scores over his last two outings. Chicago RB Jordan Howard has yet to score on the ground (he has a receiving TD), but he did top 100 yards in both Weeks 4 and 5 as the Bears’s starter. His performance Sunday could dictate the outcome.
Watchability index: 1. This is a game that will happen. That’s about all I’ve got.
These two offenses might not look all that different Sunday, each with a go-to back (downhill runner Carlos Hyde for San Francisco, the ever-shifty LeSean McCoy for Buffalo) and a QB that can offer dual-threat options. The differences are that Buffalo’s quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, is backed by an emerging defense and has, at times, shown he can beat defenses through the air. Colin Kaepernick does not have the former luxury. Can he provide the latter? He, like Taylor, can deliver a big play yet struggle with more remedial duties. If nothing else, Kaepernick at least will make deep threat Torrey Smith feel like he’s actually part of the offense now—he and Gabbert connected just nine times in games one through five. Kaepernick will have flash exciting potential a couple of times, but this is a tough draw for his first start back.
Watchability index: 7. One of the hottest teams in football draws the league’s most divisive player in his first start of 2016.
Cam Newton is on track to play Sunday, a rare piece of positive news for the Panthers. A loss here and their playoff hopes for 2016 would be almost dead in the water. The Saints aren’t far behind, with only a fortuitous fourth quarter in San Diego saving them from an 0–4 start. New Orleans lost both its games with Carolina last season but managed to post 60 points and 700-plus yards of offense in the process, and that was with Josh Norman around. Drew Brees should be able to move the ball again Sunday. The question, then, is if the Saints can come up with any stops. Newton’s return, and that of RB Jonathan Stewart, points the arrow towards “no,” meaning Brees & Co., will have to win a shootout.
Watchability index: 8. While the records aren’t there, this figures to be a back-and-forth affair—one of those “last team to have the ball wins” days.
After losing in Green Bay, the Giants lamented their inability to get their receivers open against Cover-2 defensive looks. They can expect to see plenty of them again Sunday, so Ben McAdoo has to create opportunities for Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz. Blocking or running the football would help. Baltimore’s Joe Flacco has had issues with the Cover-2 himself, particularly earlier in his career vs. Cincinnati. But for the moment, scheme-specific headaches pale in comparison to the Ravens’s general mediocrity on offense—they canned coordinator Marc Trestman and promoted Marty Mornhinweg this week. The Giants are tough against the run, so Mornhinweg might have to get Flacco going first before he can establish any balance.
Watchability index: 5. The Ravens and Giants are a combined 1–5 the past three weekends. The loser Sunday might not pull of its tailspin until next season.
Kirk Cousins played some of his best football last season against the Eagles: 290 yards passing in an October win, 365 and four touchdowns in a critical December game. The 2016 version of the Eagles is much more formidable, really on both sides of the ball. It did, however, finally show signs of being mortal last week in Detroit—the defense was gashed in the first half, then both Carson Wentz and Ryan Mathews committed crushing turnovers late. There’s still more good than bad for Philadelphia, especially with Wentz showing (until his game-clinching INT) that he can play from behind. The decisive variable Sunday could be Reed’s health.
Watchability index: 9. A crucial game in the NFC East, and both teams face daunting stretches on the schedule ahead.
The Chiefs are promising to get Jamaal Charles more involved this week—he was limited to two carries for seven yards in a blowout Week 4 loss. The more weapons Kansas City has with which to test Oakland’s defense, the better. Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Oakland’s offense has rolled into the top five in scoring (28.4 points per game), but the Raiders have allowed 28 or more points in four of five outings. Covering tight ends has remained a glaring issue, too, which bodes well for the Chiefs’s Travis Kelce. Neither defense has been able to get to the QB—Oakland has seven sacks and Kansas City five, good for 30th and 31st, respectively.
Watchability index: 8. The Raiders’s surge toward contention would receive significant validation with a win Sunday (although they’re in the hunt regardless of what happens). The Chiefs will bring their “A” game.
Atlanta is now an impressive 3–0 on the road this season, its latest victory coming over the defending champion Broncos. The Matt Ryan-led offense is attacking defenses in a variety of ways, from Julio Jones’s dominance to Tevin Coleman as a pass-catcher. This matchup is arguably the toughest the Falcons will face the rest of the season. Seattle has the athleticism at linebacker to succeed where Denver failed in covering Coleman across the middle, and with Russell Wilson healthy again it certainly brings more to the table on offense than Denver did behind Paxton Lynch. The weather could play to Seattle’s advantage, as well, with rain and high winds expected Sunday. Tough conditions for a pass-happy Atlanta offense.
Watchability index: 10. We have to consider the Falcons a Super Bowl contender in the NFC until someone proves otherwise. The Seahawks have the pieces to do so Sunday.
Already rolled through the key showdown in this game: Dallas’s run game vs. Green Bay’s front seven. Meanwhile, the Packers have done enough offensively to get to 3–1, but aside from the first half against Detroit it’s hardly been pretty. The Cowboys’s front was nonstop vs. Cincinnati, leaving Andy Dalton behind the chains. Aaron Rodgers’s passing attack is not playing well enough to be in those tough spots often Sunday. Can James Starks or Eddie Lacy (ankle) provide the necessary spark on the ground?
Watchability index: 10. Quite the late-game lineup this week. The Packers are the toughest test Prescott and Elliott have run into this season, and vice versa.
Picking against the AFC South winner in the opening round of the playoffs is going to be borderline unanimous. Houston currently holds the top spot with a 3–2 record but, like, how is the offense this bad? The Texans paid up for Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller, then drafted Will Fuller, who leads team with 327 yards receiving, yet somehow are regressing as a unit. Only the Seahawks have scored fewer points than Houston’s 82, and they’ve played one fewer game. The Colts’s defense gives the Texans as much a chance as they’ll get to snap out of their malaise. Heads up for the pass rush on the other side—Andrew Luck has been sacked a whopping 20 times already this season.
Watchability index: 6. It’s a big game, but it’s a big AFC South game.
This had the makings of a dandy when the NFL schedule came out. Now? Well, you can buy a headstone for the 2016 Jets if they fall short, and the outlook wouldn’t be much rosier for a losing Cardinals team. Arizona has, despite its other problems, continued to force turnovers this season—12 total and at least one per game. You don’t really need the Ryan Fitzpatrick interception numbers here, do you? Fitzpatrick will have to take some shots against a suspect Cardinals cornerback group. However, his team’s chances will depend on how much it can limit Arizona RB David Johnson, thereby forcing Carson Palmer to win with his arm.
Watchability index: 6. The desperation level will be high, so that’s at least something. Which quarterback will implode?
Surprise star of Week 6: Paul Perkins, RB, Giants. When asked this week if he was thinking about getting Perkins more reps, New York coach Ben McAdoo replied, “We’re looking and evaluating everything.” Hardly a guarantee. But it has to happen at some point. The run game has been stuck in mud, especially since Shane Vereen’s injury, and Perkins also has proven to be a dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Upset of the week: Jaguars (+3) over Bears. Jacksonville has the talent to be better than what it’s been through four games. Chicago can’t really say the same.
College upset of the week: Arkansas (+7.5) over Ole Miss. The Razorbacks are a substantial home dog because a) Ole Miss is better across the board, on paper; b) The Rebels sat on a bye last week while Arkansas got knocked around by Alabama. That said, Arkansas has the offensive firepower to pull off a stunner.