TORONTO - Mike Ganter takes a look at the big games and big players heading into Week 5 on the NFL schedule:
Philadelphia at Buffalo
Few teams have confounded the experts like this pair. The greatest team money can buy is 1-3 and the Philly natives are restless. The home loss to the San Francisco 49ers was downright embarrassing. Michael Vick should quit whining to the league about protecting him and demand more of his offensive line. Itís Week 5 and the Eagles are in a must win already. The Bills, at 3-1, are well ahead of anyoneís predicted pace. The problem is they just let a very winnable game slip through their fingers against Cincinnati. A return to Ralph Wilson Stadium should help but Buffalo clearly overlooked a tough Bengals defence. For the first time this year Bills tight end Scott Chandler was a non-factor. They need to get him involved again.
Tampa Bay at San Francisco
Jim Harbaugh could run for mayor of San Francisco today and win. Somehow he has this misfit bunch out to a 3-1 start with Alex Smith as his quarterback. If Smith is the starting quarterback of my Division II college team Iím worried. Harbaugh though has this group buying in and the fact they came back from 20 down in front of that hostile Philly crowd is impressive. Frank Gore returning to form with 127 yards and a big touchdown is huge for the Niners who have done a nice job of protecting the football as they lead the league with the fewest giveaways. Tampa, meanwhile, is at a disadvantage, having played a Monday night game last night followed by a west coast game on Sunday. Still, Tampa appears to be further along the development line than the Niners.
NY Jets at New England
You just know Rex Ryan is going to be one grumpy head coach all week with his Jets on a two-game losing skid thanks to losses in Oakland and Baltimore. But Rex, if history repeats, will also have his team pumped to face the Patriots team they took out of the playoffs last season. What is going to be interesting is how the Jets choose to defend Wes Welker, the most productive receiver in the league this year in terms of yards gained. Pay too much attention to Welker and tight end Rob Gronkowski can burn you. The Jets though have their own problems including a ground game that is 30th in the league. Mark Sanchez isnít advanced enough to win a game by himself and averaging just 71 yards a game on the ground isnít going to help his cause.
The added bonus in this matchup is listening to Ryan as he tries to get under Bill Belichickís skin.
Green Bay at Atlanta
This looked like a potential NFC championship preview before the season began but only the Packers are holding up their end of the bargain. Atlanta finally managed to give Matt Ryan a sack-free afternoon but even then had to watch as the decision came down to the final play of the game against a previously inept Seattle team. If the Falcons defence had trouble containing Tarvaris Jackson, what are they going to do against the gold standard of quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers? Weíve knocked Atlanta for failing to make more use of Michael Turner but the offensive line isnít doing enough to warrant an even split in the run/pass game. Turner saw a lot of the ball in the first half of Sunday but was mostly a spectator in the second half as Seattle made a game of it. This will be a stiff test for the Falcons but they do have home field advantage.
Chicago at Detroit
The first Monday Night Football visit for the Lions in over a decade is well deserved. Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson, not to mention Ndamukong Suh are must-see NFLers on a weekly basis. The 4-0 record ó the only other undefeated team is Green Bay ó is well earned as the Lions have come from behind by 20 points in each of the past two weeks to keep that 0 in the loss column. These days it doesnít matter who Detroit plays, the game is worth watching. The Bears provide the opposition and appear to have figured out that a little more Matt Forte running and a little less Jay Cutler throwing is a good thing. Granted that formula barely provided a win over the upstart Carolina Panthers but at least it gave Cutler a break from picking himself up off the turf. He was sacked just once in the game which could go a long way to keeping him healthy the rest of the season.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Tony Romo has many scratching their heads this week and not for the right reasons. For example, this tweet from Hamilton Ti-Cats running back Avon Cobourne: #Romo be point shaving. Cobourneís probably not the only one thinking it. But the man in charge says Romo remains king.
ďThereís no issue about faith in Romo in any place in this organization period ó any place,Ē Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. ďThere is no issue regarding Tony ... Weíve got a lot of faith in Romo. This doesnít touch it.Ē
Perhaps the video of Romo seemingly giving Jones the brush off on the sidelines will alter that faith now that itís gone viral.
STOCK FALLING: Romo is too easy so weíll go with Sam Bradford although not with any zeal. The shine has come off Bradford four weeks into the season but in fairness, itís hard to say itís all him. The Rams have been hit hard by the injury bug and they werenít all that deep to begin with. Bradford, like too many quarterbacks this year, is basically running for his life on every play. But we praised Bradford up and down in his rookie season when the wins came so itís only fair that he take some of the blame when theyíre not winning.
STOCK RISING: As recently as last week, Johnsonís stock was in serious decline, but he served notice that heís back this past week with a 101-yard rushing game. Good thing too because Matt Hasselbeck is running out of receivers. He only put it up 21 times so Johnsonís talents are more needed than ever. Johnson told reporters last week that he was finally in football shape after missing training camp. Sunday he backed up those words.
HYPE WEíRE BUYING: OK, weíre reversing ourselves, but we can no longer deny that Matt Hasselbeck has found a real comfort zone in this offence. Even without his most potent receiving weapon in Kenny Britt, Hasselbeck went out and led the Titans to a road win. CJís return certainly helped but the combination of the steadying hand of Hasselbeck and a defence that is allowing a league-low 14 points a game has us buying in.
HYPE WEíRE NOT: The San Francisco 49ers may in fact be 3-1 but we donít believe they will finish the year with a winning record. Ball protection has been huge for the Niners so far but we donít trust Alex Smith to keep that up. Smith has thrown one pick in four games. Over the past two seasons he has averaged one a game. Frank Gore had a good day in Philadelphia but he hasnít been healthy for a full 16-game schedule since 2006 and heís already banged up this season.
ON THE HOT SEAT: Andy Reid has plenty of backers in the Eagles front office but the Philly fans are calling for his head with more intensity than ever. A 1-3 start after making the kind of costly additions the Eagles did has the locals up in arms. Losing to a west coast team playing under a rookie head coach didnít help matters. A loss in Buffalo Sunday and Reidís backers may back right away.
WEEK 4 POPPER: A.J. Green has already had some big moments in his rookie season and we could have easily given this one to his quarterback Andy Dalton, but the Bengals wideout gets the nod for a few remarkable catches in the win over Buffalo. Julio Jones, the other big wideout in the 2010 draft, also had a big week, but Greenís catches (4 for 108 yards) were more pivotal to the outcome. And Green has been in the end zone twice already this year. Jones has yet to get there.
Week 4 FIZZLER: Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert has a steep learning curve but heís actually regressed since he got the job. Gabbert, with a proven running game, put the ball in the air 42 times on Sunday and completed just 16. He handed off to Maurice Jones-Drew just 11 times despite only being down 14-10 at the half. It may be the play calling or it could be Gabbert changing things up at the line. For his sake, we hope itís the former.