The Atlanta Falcons stand on the verge of blowing open the NFC South race before it even begins, with their 4-0 record having built up a three-game cushion and inspiring hopes that this could finally be the year Matt Ryan’s teams translate regular season success into postseason wins. The Washington Redskins have been given new hope with the play of Robert Griffin III, and are at 2-2. The Falcons-Redskins matchup keys TheSportsNotebook’s look at the NFL Week 5 undercard (defined as games not seen much outside the local area, plus the Thursday night game).
This has the potential to be a big week for the cities of Atlanta and Washington. If the Braves win the National League wild-card game on Friday, they’ll start a best-of-five series with the Nationals on Sunday, shortly after the Falcons and Redskins finish hostilities. It’s got the potential to be the highest-stakes Atlanta-Washington weekend since Grant matched up with Lee. Although they wouldn’t be in the same city—the NFL game will be in D.C. while a potential baseball playoff series would open in Atlanta.
Anyway, on the specifics of the Falcons-Redskins. Writing as a partisan Washington fan, I see little reason to think the ‘Skins can slow down Ryan and the Falcon offense, particularly if Atlanta is patient enough to work Michael Turner into the running game into the mix. The Redskin secondary is porous, and the pass rush—without Brian Orakpo—just isn’t there.
Short of inclimate weather, I don’t know what’s going to slow the Falcons down and bad weather in D.C. in early October isn’t exactly common. RG3 will make it exciting and the Atlanta defense has to get tougher themselves, but it’s going to take a lot going right for the rookie quarterback to get his first home win.
Other games on the Week 5 undercard…
Arizona-St. Louis: This is the Thursday night game and it’s turned out, rather surprisingly to be a compelling matchup in the NFC West. Las Vegas is looking for an ugly game, as the posted Over/Under total of 36 is the lowest on the board this week. The Cardinals need to be able to show they can the run ball consistently and get Ryan Williams involved in the offense.
They’re also a little nicked up on the defensive front and while it doesn’t look like a long-term problem, I think it’s questionable that they can take advantage of a bad St. Louis offensive line and get to Sam Bradford. Arizona’s due for a loss, and a road game on a short week when they can’t run the ball looks like a good spot to pick it.
Baltimore-Kansas City: Opposing quarterbacks have picked apart the Kansas City secondary and there’s no reason to think Joe Flacco doesn’t have a big day here. The Chiefs have disappointed because outside linebacker Tamba Hali hasn’t been the difference-maker they need him to be, and when they fall behind it forces them to go away from the running game. Baltimore’s a solid favorite and rightly so.
Miami-Cincinnati: The Dolphins did everything they needed to do last week in Arizona and still lost. Cincinnati has won three in a row and seems to have its offense clicking with both the run and pass, while the defensive front seven has been as good as advertised. The secondary remains a sore spot, literally on Sunday, with both corners nursing injuries, but I’m not ready to bet on Ryan Tannehill to have two good games in a row. The Fish’s own pass defense has been awful and it’s all set up for Andy Dalton to have a big game lead Cincy to 4-1.
Seattle-Carolina: Both defensive fronts would seem to be in position to have big days rushing the passer, and both offenses have reasonable counter-measures in their running games. Thus, it comes down to Cam Newton. He’s got the big-play capacity that Russell Wilson lacks and that can be the difference. Or, Newton could make the key mistakes that lead his 1-3 team further downhill. Wilson made those mistakes last week, throwing three interceptions at St. Louis, but I don’t think that will happen again. I was a believer in Carolina at the start of the year, and while that belief is shaken, I’m not ready to write them off, and picking against them at home in a winnable game would be just that.
Chicago-Jacksonville: There’s no reason on paper to pick against the Bears here, who are giving six on the road. The Chicago defense is third in the NFL against the run, and that’s no surprise. Jacksonville is completely dependent on Maurice Jones-Drew if they’re going to win, and have no real way of forcing the Bears to not key on him. It’s realistic to think Chicago, playing a second straight road game on a short week, might lose a little focus, or that Jay Cutler might be due for a interception-heavy game. But those are just guesses. The percentages say it’s a decisive Chicago win in what’s one of three NFC North-AFC South matchups.
Tennessee-Minnesota: Minnesota is running the ball and stopping the run, and that’s a good formula for success against a Tennessee team that got a resurgent effort from Chris Johnson last week, but saw Matt Hasselbeck throw key interceptions. We don’t yet know if it’s going to be Hasselbeck again or if Jake Locker’s bad shoulder will allow him to play. Picking this game is a nightmare—the Vikings strike you as a team that will win as long as nobody believes in them. So unfortunately for them, I’m sold on their ability to win this one at home.
Buffalo-San Francisco: Ryan Fitzpatrick is productive for Buffalo when no one pressures him, and he becomes a turnover machine when the heat is on. So what’s likely to happen in San Francisco? The Over/Under on the game is 44.5, and that might as well be the number of Bills’ turnovers we’re betting on. I don’t see Buffalo being able to run consistently and take the pressure off Fitzpatrick, thus freeing up the Niner defense to tee off.
The bye weeks in Week 5 are for Dallas, Detroit, Oakland & Tampa Bay. Tomorrow’s feature of the main national TV games will start with three games in the early window that will be seen by large chunks of the country–Green Bay-Indianapolis, Philly-Pittsburgh and Cleveland-NY Giants. Then the late afternoon marquee is Denver-New England, and from there we’ll preview the prime-time games of San Diego-New Orleans (Sunday) and Houston-NY Jets (Monday).