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Friday, October 12, 2012
Crunch time for NFC teams in crisis

By John Clayton
ESPN.com

Six weeks into a season may not be time to panic, but several NFC teams are hitting crisis points.

The Green Bay Packers are at a crossroads. They are 2-3 and scoring 12.6 points a game less than they did last year. They don't have a running game. Star WR Greg Jennings is out with a groin injury. Now they have to travel to Houston to play a Texans team that boasts one of the league's best defenses.

The Detroit Lions have underachieved and made too many mistakes in their 1-3 start. They've had a bye week to reflect, but they also have a tough assignment. They travel to the Philadelphia Eagles and have to find a way to stop Michael Vick and his three-receiver offense.

No one is running away with the NFC East, but the Dallas Cowboys have their concerns. They are 2-2 and their offense is averaging a mere 16.3 points a game, 8.8 points a game less than a year ago. They, too, have to hit the road against a top-level team -- the Baltimore Ravens.

NFC teams are winning more than 71 percent of its games in inter-conference play, which means more NFC teams are going to reach 10-plus wins than in normal years. Starts of 2-4, 1-4 and 2-3 are going to dig holes that good teams might not be able to overcome.

These three NFC teams face crucial tests.

Here are the top 10 trends for NFL Week 6.

1. Honing the no-huddle: The Ravens have successfully transitioned into a no-huddle offense that has made them a more substantial Super Bowl contender, but there are growing pains. Sometimes they don't get the most out of running back Ray Rice. There is a distinct difference in home and road performance. At home, Joe Flacco is completing 67.5 percent of his passes and throwing for 345.6 yards a game. In two road games, Flacco has watched his numbers drop to 50.7 percent and 209.5 yards. I spotted another issue. Jacoby Jones, the team's fast No. 3 receiver, played only 23 snaps in Philadelphia (Week 5) and 17 snaps in Kansas City (Week 4). Good man-to-man cover teams such as the Eagles and Chiefs can match up their best corner against Torrey Smith, who was limited to eight catches and 89 yards in those two games. Without that second fast receiver, the Ravens struggle because the tight ends and wide receiver Anquan Boldin aren't going to get the necessary separation. The Ravens play a Cowboys team blessed with good coverage players. A little dose of Jones could open up more things for the Ravens' offense.

Mario Manningham
Mario Manningham helped the Giants win the Super Bowl last season. On Sunday, he'll try to beat them.

2. Will 49ers call on former Giants? Despite going to the NFC title game last season, the 49ers needed a little bit more from their offense. On Sunday, they will see whether former Giants Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs can help put them over the top against the Super Bowl champs. Jacobs hasn't been used this year by coach Jim Harbaugh, and the veteran running back is getting frustrated. A chance to play against the Giants could bring out the best in him. Harbaugh is willing to exploit a situation. Against the Jets, Harbaugh rubbed Tebow-mania in his opponent's face by calling Wildcat plays involving Colin Kaepernick, gaining as much yardage in one game as Tebow had produced all season with his new team. Using Manningham, who has 19 catches and a modest 9.8-yard average, would make a statement. Harbaugh continues to push the envelope with his offense. Alex Smith, who has a minor middle finger sprain, is trying longer passes. The offense is averaging 29.8 points a game, 6.1 more than last year.

3. Running games absent: I know this is a quarterback-driven league, but things are getting a little out of hand. The Packers, who didn't have a running threat when training camp started, just placed veteran Cedric Benson on injured reserve with a sprained left foot. With little help from the run game, QB Aaron Rodgers has watched his passing numbers drop. His yards-per-attempt average has fallen from 9.2 last year to 6.9 this year. Drew Brees of the Saints is getting only 68.8 yards per game on the ground. His yards-per-attempt average has dropped from 8.3 to 7.3. Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions is seeing nothing but zone coverage, which is decreasing his ability to throw for big plays. Even Arizona's Kevin Kolb, who's clearly not elite and is barely a starter, is getting only 6.6 yards an attempt out of the passing offense and will see nothing but zones when he plays the Buffalo Bills. With BenJarvus Green-Ellis averaging only 3.3 yards a carry and 60 yards a game, more of the load is falling on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who struggled out of shotgun formation last week against the Dolphins. The good news for the Bengals is they face an 0-5 Cleveland Browns team.

4. What about the money backs? The Oakland Raiders had a bye in Week 5 to figure out why they can't get a running game going despite the presence of Darren McFadden. McFadden looked dominant in training camp and preseason, but he hasn't been close to great in the Raiders' first four games (201 yards). The Raiders play an Atlanta Falcons team that could easily outscore Oakland and put the Raiders in position to play comeback through the air. Another baffling running team is the Carolina Panthers. DeAngelo Williams makes $8.6 million a season. Jonathan Stewart makes $7.3 million a year. Mike Tolbert makes $2.5 million a year. Their leading rusher is quarterback Cam Newton. Combined, the Panthers are getting 77.4 yards a game and 3.6 yards a carry out of three backs who have a combined $89.5 million of contracts. Good thing they are on a bye week.

5. No. 1 versus No. 1: The Patriots have the league's top-ranked offense in yards per game. The Seahawks have the league's top-ranked defense. Something has to give when the Patriots visit Seattle on Sunday. The Pats have the edge because they have Tom Brady, who is playing his first game in Seattle. But there are a few factors that give Seattle a chance. The Seahawks' defense plays press man-to-man coverage and that could slow down the Patriots. The Seahawks have big defensive linemen who could collapse the pocket and get around Brady's feet, making him uncomfortable. Crowd noise could make it tough for Brady to call plays. After all, Rodgers and Tony Romo combined for only 19 points in their visits to Seattle. The key will be Wes Welker, who matches up in the slot against Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant. If Welker makes big plays, the Seahawks could be in trouble. With Russell Wilson at quarterback, the Seahawks can win only if the game is low-scoring.

6. Good Luck, bad Jets: By allowing Andrew Luck to unveil his version of the no-huddle offense, the Indianapolis Colts upset the Green Bay Packers in Week 5. Luck threw for 362 yards in the 30-27 victory. About 80 percent of the Colts' snaps were out of no-huddle. They visit a Jets team that has no clue about its identity on offense. It's hard to estimate how much longer Mark Sanchez can remain the starter in New York. but it doesn't seem like it will be for long. The drums are sounding for Tim Tebow to get the nod. What's not known is whether anyone can turn around an offense that doesn't have a No. 1 receiver (Santonio Holmes on injured reserve) and whose featured running back (Shonn Greene) is averaging 2.9 yards a carry. You knew Luck was going to be great. You knew he would have a good chance to win five home games because of the easy schedule. But if Luck beats the Jets, the Colts might have an outside chance at a .500 record and the Jets might move into a position to draft Matt Barkley or Geno Smith.

Peyton Manning
The Chargers have befuddled Peyton Manning in the past. What will Monday night bring?

7. Do the Chargers still have something on Peyton Manning? The Monday night game is one of the most compelling games of October. First, it's been a pleasure watching Manning re-establish himself as an elite quarterback after missing a season and having four neck operations. He's completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,499 yards in five games. In his prime, though, Manning had problems with the Chargers. San Diego has won five of its last six games against Manning. Defensive coordinator John Pagano has been on the staff through that successful stretch, which started in 2005. One of the secrets to the Chargers' success was getting Manning uncomfortable in the pocket. Sacking Manning is hard. He gets rid of the ball so quickly. The Chargers have improved their athletic ability on defense and can put better pressure up the middle than in the past couple of seasons. Still, the pressure is on the Chargers in this game. They can't afford to lose a home game to the Broncos. It would be their third loss in four games.

8. Rise of Tannehill: Thanks to Jeff Fisher, the St. Louis Rams are off to a 3-2 start. But the 2-3 Miami Dolphins may have something going with rookie Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. The Dolphins beat the Cincinnati Bengals last week and all of a sudden Tannehill is looking like this year's Andy Dalton. Although he commits a few too many turnovers, Tannehill is still on a 4,000-yard passing pace despite not having a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver. He's making Brian Hartline (29 catches, 514 yards), who's in contract extension talks, a potentially rich man. The Rams' Sam Bradford is the more seasoned quarterback of the two, but Tannehill is showing he's for real.

9. No defense for these defenses: Last year, the Packers won 15 games with a defense that gave up too many yards, and the Patriots went to the Super Bowl despite having their share of defensive struggles. Things are a little different this year. The combined record of the eight defenses that are giving up at least 400 yards a game is 8-30. The Bills are giving up 35.2 points and 449 yards a game. They hope to change those numbers against the Cardinals. The Browns are surrendering 423 yards a game and hope to get better against the Bengals. Tampa Bay hoped to solve some of its defensive problems during the bye. The Bucs are giving up 419 yards a game and host the Kansas City Chiefs. Oakland has major problems at cornerback and has to go up against Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.

10. Concussion watch: Brady Quinn will replace Matt Cassel at quarterback for the Chiefs because of Cassel's concussion. If he does well, though, he could end up getting the starting job. The Redskins' Robert Griffin III is coming off a mild concussion but will probably start against the Minnesota Vikings. Some are questioning whether he should play, but his concussion last Sunday was mild. He was cleared by an independent doctor early this week. Still, he needs to watch himself. Like Michael Vick, RG3 risks his body to get first downs. He has to make some adjustments in his game or he will get injured again.