These are the biggest early storylines as we look ahead to Week 5, ranked in order of significance:
1. We’re way too far away from the playoffs to be talking about seeding, but New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears could help shape the NFC picture a little more, with the two teams combining for a 7-1 mark. The Bears’ setback Sunday exposed their defensive weaknesses, which had been masked up to that point, as well as the semi-imminent Jay Cutler meltdown. That could be the most fascinating tete a tete in this game: Cutler vs. Saints madman defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who orchestrated another beaut in Monday’s victory over the Miami Dolphins. Can Cutler rebound? For that matter, can the Saints win on the road in a tough environment? Chicago hasn’t always been the friendliest destination in the past for them.
2. The first-place Detroit Lions (how about that?) face off against the third-place Green Bay Packers (even more stunning?) at Lambeau on Sunday afternoon. And in a season in which the Lions already have slayed the Washington jinx, winning there for the first time ever, maybe Lambeau is next. The last time they won there? December 15, 1991 — a streak of 21 straight losses. The past three — decided by seven, four and two points — have been extra painful. The Packers had extra time to rest after their bye and are getting healthier, with running back Eddie Lacy and safety Morgan Burnett expected to play.
3. The Seattle Seahawks might end up liking this whole road-game thing after all, as they take on their second straight AFC South opponent away from home, but the Indianapolis Colts are hitting their stride. They outslugged the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3, and then thrashed the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 4. In fact, the Seahawks (plus-62) and Colts (plus-53) are second and fourth in the NFL in point differential, and they have but one loss between them. Can a dicey Seahawks O-line hold up another week? It barely held up last week vs. Houston, and now it must contend with NFL sack co-leader Robert Mathis, with 7.5. Everyone will be ready for Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck in a battle of the 2012 QB draft class.
(USA Today Sports Images)4. No one is quite sure how the New England Patriots are 4-0, and there are no obvious solutions to how they’ll replace Vince Wilfork on what already is a thin interior defensive line. They’ll begin the challenge Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, who can’t be happy with their 2-2 mark after leading the league in misplaced preseason Super Bowl love. If you’re looking for a prime matchup, check out the Patriots’ strong offensive line against the Bengals’ excellent defensive front. That D-line, led by Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins, can’t be blamed for the two losses, and the banged-up secondary needs to get healthy quickly with Tom Brady coming to town.
5. The Houston Texans must pick themselves off of the turf following Sunday’s heartbreaker against the Seahawks and deal with a new kind of challenge, equally tough: the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick. If you think the Patriots-Bengals game will feature good line battles, then make sure to spy the Texans’ front vs. the 49ers’ offensive line. That said, there’s little question that the Texans will need more from Matt Schaub, whose pick-six streak now has run to three games. The 49ers’ defense typically eats up struggling, mistake-prone quarterbacks such as this.
6. The Denver Broncos now have run their regular-season win streak by at least seven points to 15 games, and they’ll put it on the line in an interesting Sunday afternoon game on the road against the Dallas Cowboys. The record, by the way, is 16 by the 1941-42 Chicago Bears, so history is at stake. Can the Cowboys’ defense find a way to band together, play far better than in the loss to the San Diego Chargers and hope to stop an offense that has rung up 179 points (43 more than the Jaguars, Buccaneers and Giants combined)? The Cowboys’ mode for success this season has been forcing turnovers. In the two wins, they have forced seven; in the two losses, they have forced only one. And Peyton Manning has zero interceptions to go with his 16 TD passes. The Cowboys know they have to change that to have a chance to win.
7. The Miami Dolphins know they are still in decent shape at 3-1, as they return home to face the Baltimore Ravens, who mysteriously abandoned the run and were shocked by the Buffalo Bills in Week 4. It has been a strange start to the season for the Ravens, and Joe Flacco is coming off a mind-bending five-pick effort in Buffalo. The Dolphins were keeping pace early with the Saints, and Ryan Tannehill was throwing pretty well, but turnovers were their undoing. Both teams know they can’t win by losing the turnover battle so dramatically.
(USA Today Sports Images)8. All hail the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns, who meet in a suddenly fascinating (for the diehards, anyway) Thursday night game in Cleveland. Both teams are 2-2, and the stunning Browns have turned things around since the Trent Richardson trade, winning twice against 2012 playoff teams with one-time No. 3 quarterback Brian Hoyer at the helm. He’ll be trading throws with Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel, who became the first rookie QB to beat the defending Super Bowl champs in September. That said, the Browns might be the best defense the Bills and Manuel have faced this season — seriously. Don’t overlook this terrific unit, which could make it a long night for the visitors.
[NFL Power Rankings: A changing of the guard at the top after Week 4]
9. If you’re stunned that the Kansas City Chiefs are 4-0 and the Tennessee Titans are 3-1, you shouldn’t be. It’s no coincidence that both teams are tied for first in the NFL in turnover differential at plus-9. The Titans have not turned it over at all this season, and the Chiefs had their first ones in Week 4. But the Titans’ challenge became tougher, even with the game in Nashville, when Jake Locker went down with a hip injury. Thankfully, it’s not considered serious, but he almost certainly will miss this game. The Chiefs, only the second NFL team to start 4-0 after 13 or more losses the season before, are for real. As long as they can continue their formula, they can keep marching on with what would be a nice road victory.
10. And now for the rest of the Week 5 slate ... For the second straight week, the Falcons will host a primetime game against an AFC East slate. The chaotic Jets hope their tough defense can rebound against the beat up Falcons, who hope to avoid a 1-4 start. … So, do you plan to stay up late Sunday night? Good! Then you can enjoy Chargers-Raiders, which kicks off at 11:35 ET, featuring Terrelle Pryor (if he’s cleared) against a reborn Philip Rivers. … The Panthers come off bye to face the Cardinals in Arizona, the site of Cam Newton’s memorable NFL debut. … The Jaguars head to St. Louis to face the Rams, one of the few teams left on the schedule they might have a chance of beating. … The Eagles meeting the Giants used to mean battle. Now it’s a battle to see which team can avoid the NFC East cellar.