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The Quest for Perfection Ends Sunday

The Quest for Perfection Ends Sunday

Week 5 offers a few interesting matchups, none of which are more compelling than the possibility of one  — if not all  — of the five remaining unbeaten teams losing their contests on Sunday. If all five teams were able to pull out a victory this weekend, it would tie an NFL record for the most undefeated teams (five) to start the season 5-0. The only five teams to meet this mark were the 2009 Broncos, Colts, Vikings, Saints, and yes, the Giants. Chances are this won’t be the case for all five remaining undefeated teams this season. With that being said, let’s see which teams head into week 6 with a loss on their record, and some of the matchups to keep an eye on.

New Orleans at Chicago

Matchup to watch: New Orleans offense vs. Chicago’s secondary

We knew going into the season that having Sean Payton back at the helm calling plays was going to have a positive impact on Drew Brees and the Saints’ offense. And up to this point, it has. I’m not a big fan of using yardage totals to judge offensive performance, only because it doesn’t take into account the scoring as a result of those yards, but it’s hard to overlook 1,678 yards of total offense, 419.5 yards per game, and an average of 27 points per tilt. New Orleans isn’t just putting up gaudy numbers with no substance, though, since they currently rank as the third best passing offense in the league, per Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA rankings.

Part of New Orleans’ success in the passing game can be attributed to the play of Brees and his plethora of offensive weapons (how in the hell do you cover Jimmy Graham?), but it’s also a function of their opponents’ defense. In their first four games of the season, the Saints have only faced one opposing defense that ranks within the top-ten in pass defense – Tampa Bay (4). Their three other opponents Atlanta (27), Arizona (21) and Miami (19), all rank in the bottom-half of the league defending the pass, per Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA.

That brings us to Sunday’s matchup against the Bears at Soldier field. Chicago’s pass defense — historically one of the best over the past several seasons — ranks 16th defending the pass, which places them smack-dab in the middle of the NFL. Last week, the Bears lost to the Lions 32-40; this is relevant because Detroit’s offensive weaponry is similar to what the Saints possess. Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush are a matchup nightmare in any situation because of their versatility and athletic ability. The same could be said about Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles. Linebackers can’t cover Jimmy Graham because of his speed, and corners have trouble with his size. Darren Sproles is not your typical between-the-tackles type of runner, but is a handful out of the backfield. These are the two matchups Chicago’s defense must key on if they stand any chance of coming out of this game with a win. I expect the Bears to be in a lot of cover 3 and force the Saints to beat them in the interior of the defense. By taking away vertical routes, and limiting Jimmy Graham’s downfield capabilities, the Bears should be able to funnel everything inside and take advantage of the strength of their defense – turnovers.

There is luck involved when it comes to turning teams over, but the Bears seem to have made it a skill. Last season, Chicago scored 9 touchdowns on defense and, through four weeks of the 2013 season, have turned over opposing offenses fourteen times, for the highest total in the league. By playing a cover 3, zone-type defense, and forcing New Orleans to play possession football, Charles Tillman will have plenty of opportunities to do what he does best – strip the ball from receivers and running backs. If the Bears can turnover the Saints’ offense, and contain Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles for most of the game, then Chicago’s chances of winning go up exponentially, especially with a forecast of rainy weather that will more than likely slow down the Saints’ high-powered offensive attack.

Bears 28, Saints 24

 

New England at Cincinnati

Matchup to watch: offensive and defensive lines  

For years, the New England Patriots have feasted off of a weak schedule and an even weaker division. That hasn’t changed much this season. The Patriots are 4-0, and they deserve it. But it’s hard to evaluate this team as a whole considering the level of opposition they’ve faced so far in 2013. After a disappointing loss to the Browns last week, the Bengals are reeling and looking to get back on track as the AFC North is now wide open. A win by either team could have ramifications on the seeding arrangements if both clubs were to make the playoffs.

We know what Tom Brady is capable of, even with a rookie free-agent and a second-round draft pick as his main targets, and with Danny Amendola back in the lineup for Sunday, the Patriots’ offense should be able to pass the ball effectively. Currently, New England’s offensive line ranks 4th in the league, allowing a mere 6 sacks. That’s pretty damn good, and they’ll need that type of production to continue this Sunday. The strength of Cincinnati’s defense is at the tackle position, where Geno Atkins roams.  If Atkins can be effective clogging up the middle, and force the Patriots to send extra help to aid center Ryan Wendell, it will allow defensive ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap to be singled up on the outside against New England’s tackles – a matchup any defensive end covets.

But I’m not worried so much about New England’s offensive line as much as I am about their defensive line. Losing Vince Wilfork for the season completely alters how the Patriots play defense. It’s the equivalent of losing Tom Brady on the offensive side of the ball. Wilfork has been so vital to what Bill Belichick likes to do schematically on defense, as noted by Chris Brown of Grantland. Similar to Atkins, Wilfork has the girth and the quickness to occupy two holes, allowing Chandler Jones and Jerod Mayo to take advantage of the numbers game on the outside. Joe Vellano or Chris Jones will be the likely replacement for Wilfork in the lineup on Sunday. You may also see the Patriots play more of a 3-4 scheme on defense, since Wilfork was so important to what they did in their 4-3 shell. I expect the Bengals to exploit the absence of Wilfork by running the ball up the gut with either BenJarvus Green-Ellis or rookie Giovani Bernard. The Bengals’ offensive line will also benefit from not having as much push from the Patriots’ interior defense, which will allow Andy Dalton ample time to find A.J. Green or Tyler Eifert down field.

Bengals 21, Patriots 17

 

Seattle at Indianapolis

Matchup to watch: Indianapolis’ passing game against Seattle’s secondary

The Seahawks are 4-0 for the first time in franchise history after a 23-20 overtime victory over the Texans this past Sunday. In the fourth quarter against Houston, Richard Sherman, the games best cornerback and trash-talker, picked off Matt Schaub for a game-tying touchdown to send the game into overtime. Seattle’s pass defense ranks number one in the league, and Sherman is a major reason why. Seattle’s cornerbacks allow Pete Carroll the luxury of sending extra rushers on blitzes because the coverage in the back end is at a premium. No other team in the NFL can do what Seattle can do defensively; they just don’t have the pieces. This is what Andrew Luck and the Colt offense will have to deal with on Sunday.

So far in 2013, Andrew Luck is completing 63.8 percent of his passes. His rare combination of size, speed, and ability to run when necessary makes it hard for teams to defend him. He ranks 12th in DYAR, a statistic used by Football Outsiders to evaluate a quarterbacks performance, and has thrown 5 touchdowns against 2 interceptions. These aren’t fantastic numbers by any means, but Luck has the skill set to carry a team with his arm and has proven he can win in the final minutes of a contest. The question is: how will he play against Seattle’s smothering defensive secondary? If Luck is forced to drop back and sling the ball in the area of 40 times on Sunday, then I think it plays right into Seattle’s hands. The key for the Colts is to get the running game going, and going early.

Surprisingly, the Colts are ranked second in the league in rushing offense, right behind the Eagles. Trent Richardson’s arrival in Indianapolis certainly has helped, but the production out of Ahmad Bradshaw has been the main reason. With Bradshaw out for two weeks, it will be up to Richardson to keep Seattle’s defense on their toes (specifically the linebackers). If he’s able to do so, the Colts could exploit single coverage on the outside with play-action, or just simply capitalize on more seven or eight man defensive fronts. Seattle is likely to play man coverage regardless of the success Indianapolis has on the ground, but it would put more pressure on Seattle’s safeties to cheap up and protect against the run. The Seahawks have the tenth ranked rushing defense in the league, so it won’t be easy. But if the Colts are successful rushing the ball, it will open the door for Reggie Wayne and Coby Fleener to find holes in the defense.

Colts 31, Seahawks 28

Follow Matt on Twitter: @OGDelicious