- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Leaves are turning in certain parts of the country, and change is in the air on NFL rosters.
Week 6 is shaping up as a transition week. The Minnesota Vikings are making a major transition at quarterback. Christian Ponder has been cleared to play, having recovered from a rib injury, but Matt Cassel is getting the start Sunday. In the background, Josh Freeman is learning the offense and could start in Week 7.
Texans coach Gary Kubiak admitted it was a hard decision to stay with Matt Schaub as his starting quarterback. Schaub has thrown four pick-six interceptions in the past four games and the Texans are on a three-game losing streak. One or two more picks could get T.J. Yates behind center.
The Buffalo Bills are in survival mode for the next four to six weeks. EJ Manuel is out with a knee injury. Coach Doug Marrone had to turn to the practice squad to give Thad Lewis the start with Jeff Tuel as the backup. Cleveland is staying with Brandon Weeden until the Browns figure out something different.
Not all the changes involve quarterbacks. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin benched a left tackle and a defensive end to shake up the team after an 0-4 start. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has to make the decision whether to start Eugene Monroe at left tackle after acquiring him more than a week ago to put the offensive line on alert.
Here are the 10 trends for NFL Week 6.
1. Pondering changes in Minnesota: We've seen injuries open opportunities for quarterbacks. Tom Brady got a chance to start when Drew Bledsoe suffered an internal injury. Bledsoe never got his starting job back. Colin Kaepernick made Alex Smith expendable last year while Smith was recovering from an injury. But the situation in Minnesota is a pretty intriguing. Ponder helped the Vikings make the playoffs last season, but a rib injury opened the door for change. The injury gave coach Leslie Frazier the chance to use backup Cassel, who provided a spark in the Vikings' Week 4 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Vikings also signed Freeman, who is being coached up for a possible start against the New York Giants a week from Monday. So much for the Ponder era. Ponder never won over the fans and was unable to get the ball downfield consistently. Ponder wasn't a difference-maker. When the team cleared him to play but said Cassel was the quarterback, he had to know that he was being phased out. The Vikings play a Carolina Panthers team that has its own problems. A 1-3 start already has coach Ron Rivera on the hot seat. Quarterback Cam Newton remains consistently inconsistent. The loser of this game will be 1-4, a record that could promote more changes in the next few weeks.
2. Leaving themselves open for criticism: What were the Bills thinking going into the season with only two quarterbacks, both rookies, on their 53-man roster? Manuel looked the part of a good, young franchise quarterback, but he's expected to miss four to six weeks with a knee injury. His departure last week totally shut down the offense because Tuel, an undrafted rookie, looked lost filling in as the backup. The plan is to use Lewis, who has only one start in his NFL career. The Bills tried to find a veteran backup/transition quarterback in the offseason, but Kevin Kolb got hurt and Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Leinart didn't work out. That left them considering names such as Pat White and Dennis Dixon following Manuel's injury. The Bills host the Cincinnati Bengals and are struggling to sell out the game. Manuel might have promoted a good late sale of tickets, but the Bills could face a lengthy losing streak if Lewis can't bring stability in Manuel's absence.
3. Gronk no longer No. 1 tight end: Aside from helping his quarterback, Rob Gronkowski has plenty of incentive to play Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. Gronkowski, the league's highest-paid tight end, could try to steal some of Saints tight end Jimmy Graham's thunder. Gronkowski took the tight end position to a new level in his first few years with his downfield skills and consistency catching touchdown passes, but Graham is taking the position to newer heights. If he gets his fifth consecutive 100-yard receiving day, Graham will set a record for tight ends. Graham, who leads the league with 593 receiving yards, has been unstoppable. Brady is the one who is usually unstoppable, but his numbers have plummeted without Gronkowski and with him having to rely on a young group of pass-catchers. The return of Gronkowski, who is unlikely to play Sunday, could add a touchdown to the Patriots' offense, but will that be enough to hang with a Drew Brees offense that has been on a roll since the start of the season? This year the Patriots have only six touchdowns in 17 trips to the red zone.
4. Protecting Flacco: The best stat to illustrate Joe Flacco's struggles in the first five games is his interception total. Playing without the injured Dennis Pitta and Jacoby Jones or the departed Anquan Boldin, Flacco has thrown eight interceptions. Those eight interceptions were targeted for eight different pass-catchers. Torrey Smith remains Flacco's go-to receiver, but this offense might not start to click until Pitta returns for the second half of the season. Flacco may have lucked into a break with the timing of this home game against the Green Bay Packers. The Packers' best pass-rusher, linebacker Clay Matthews, is out for a month because of thumb surgery. Inside linebacker Brad Jones is out with a hamstring injury. The Packers' 3-4 is missing two key parts at linebacker and might struggle to pressure Flacco, who is off to his worst start. His QBR of 44.7 is his lowest since his rookie season.
5. Reid makes first venture into AFC West: Andy Reid, who has 14 years of experience coaching in the NFC East, didn't have any problem running the table against the teams he knows. In his 5-0 start with the Kansas City Chiefs, Reid went 3-0 against the NFC East. On Sunday, Reid turns his attention to his new division when the Chiefs host the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders haven't made the playoffs since 2002, but the Chiefs haven't done well against them lately. The Raiders have won six of their past eight games against the Chiefs, and head coach Dennis Allen swept the Chiefs in 2012, when the Raiders won only four games in the entire season. Reid has put together a perfect formula for victory. People around the league believed the Chiefs needed only a good quarterback to win. Reid is proving those forecasts right. Smith is running an offense that makes very few mistakes or turnovers. The Chiefs have forced 15 turnovers and turned them into 43 points.
6. Action in other divisions: In one of the two other divisional matchups in Week 6 (the other being Washington-Dallas), the Arizona Cardinals travel to San Francisco, which probably isn't good news for Carson Palmer. The Cardinals have lost seven of their past eight meetings against the 49ers and haven't won in San Francisco since 2008. Palmer is doing his usual stuff. He usually throws for 4,000 yards a season, and he's only 15 yards a game off that pace. He usually throws a lot of interceptions, and that trend continues. He has nine picks in five games. The surprise is his struggle to get the ball to Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has only 24 catches in five games, his slowest start since his rookie season in 2004, when he started with 22. The Palmer-Fitzgerald union was supposed to put Fitzgerald closer to the 100-catch-a-season level. Palmer is having trouble getting the ball downfield. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Palmer is 3-for-20 on throws longer than 20 yards. That's the worst in football this season. The deep pass had been Palmer's staple.
7. What happens if the game is close? The Monday night game pits Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts against Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers. In close games, Luck has been unreal. He's had nine fourth-quarter comeback wins in his first 21 NFL games. Luck is 11-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer since coming into the league. Rivers has become inconsistent in close games, often making costly fourth-quarter mistakes. Statistically, Rivers has been great. He's completing 73.7 percent of his passes and has thrown for 1,610 yards in five games. But the Chargers are 2-3 and are having trouble selling tickets. The Chargers headed into the week knowing they needed to sell 15,000 tickets to prevent a blackout, not only in San Diego but in Los Angeles.
8. The Schaub decision: Has the NFL figured out Schaub and the Kubiak offense? Something isn't right. Schaub's game is bootlegs and accurate passes. In five games, he's thrown nine interceptions, including four taken back for touchdowns. Andre Johnson hasn't caught a touchdown pass in five games, something that hasn't happened since 2005. Fans have given up on Schaub. What will it take for Kubiak to make a switch? It won't help that the Texans play the St. Louis Rams. Jeff Fisher is the former coach of the Tennessee Titans, a team that played Schaub twice a year. If defenses are reading Schaub's mind, Fisher should have an even better idea of what to do against him. It's starting to look as though the Texans might have to consider replacing Schaub after the season.
9. Interesting matchups of young QBs: Glennon might be able to do well against the Eagles' struggling defense. But how well will the Eagles' offense do with Foles starting? Vick might not be winning games for the Eagles, but the Chip Kelly offense is putting up big numbers. The Eagles are averaging 27 points and 454.8 yards a game. The Bucs are averaging only 11 points and 274.8 yards a game. Jets QB Geno Smith shocked the NFL by beating the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. Will he continue to surprise against a rested Pittsburgh Steelers team? The Steelers are 0-4, and their playmakers aren't making plays. The Steelers' offense knows it will struggle against Rex Ryan's defense. But Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau usually does well against rookie quarterbacks. That will be Smith's challenge.
10. Can the Broncos cover? Las Vegas established the Jaguars as 28-point underdogs against the Denver Broncos. According to Elias, this is the sixth game in which a 5-0 team has met an 0-5 team. Three times, the 5-0 team won by more than 30, and the other two won by 18 and 21. Each winner covered the pregame spread. The challenge for the Broncos and John Fox may be figuring out how long to keep the starters in the game. The Jaguars enter with their backup quarterback, Chad Henne. Henne, believe it or not, has played worse than the injured Blaine Gabbert. This one won't be pretty, but it could be historic.
15mDianna Russini and Adam Schefter
11hEric D. Williams
1dBy Dan Graziano
2dMatt Walks, ESPN.com