Five weeks into the marathon that is an NFL season is far too early to make any determinations about which teams are heading where, but even at this early juncture this is a make-or-break weekend for a few of the downtrodden and a place where at least one bunch of upstarts can make a very loud case for themselves.
The surprisingly undefeated Denver Broncos (4-0) will get a thorough test of their abilities when they host the New England Patriots (3-1), the three-time Super Bowl winners, in what will be an examination not only of the team but of their rookie head coach. Josh McDaniels was taught everything he knows about the NFL by the Patriots' head coach, Bill Belchick, for whom he worked for the past eight years. But did the mentor teach the student all HE knows?
That may come more clearly into focus today, even though New England have lost their running back Fred Taylor for much of the season with an ankle injury that required surgery and are still trying to get their star quarterback, Tom Brady, fully comfortable after missing last season with a major knee injury. Brady, even if he is not 100 per cent, will test Denver's defence, 29th in the league a year ago but a revelation so far in this campaign having allowed a league-low 26 points. To put that into perspective, it is the fifth lowest total after four games since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. They are led by the defensive co-ordinator Mike Nolan, who has been given carte blanche to run things as he sees fit. Nolan chose to switch to a three-four front with added aggression that has so far produced 15 sacks and 10 turn-overs, both figures leading the AFC. The Patriots are sure to test that defence and may remind them they are not yet as good as their record.
The AFC North will see a showdown for first place when the Baltimore Ravens (3-1) host the Cincinnati Bengals (3-1) with the winner taking the lead in that division. Baltimore are still smarting from a 27-21 loss to New England when their last-minute drive died on the nine-yard line after the receiver Mark Clayton dropped a first-down pass when he was wide open. But even in defeat the Ravens proved their defence is no joke and their offence is for real.
The Ravens have had the best defence in the NFL for the past decand and do not seem to have slipped in that department. They are allowing only 59 rushing yards a game and stifling teams with their ability to get to the passer. That has long been their staple, but this year they also have an offence that is both balanced and dangerous. Their quarterback, Joe Flacco, has thrown eight TD passes with only two interceptions and the Ravens have proven to have a pounding running game when they decide to use it. All that will make life difficult for the Bengals, who have won three in a row after losing to Denver on the final play of their opening-day game.
Tony Romo has much to prove and is facing the right opponent to prove it against. Romo's Dallas Cowboys (2-2) have been criticised all week for their underwhelming play to date but should finally get going against the winless Kansas City Chiefs (0-4). Romo, for one, had better. "You have to have a stronger belief in yourself than the disbelief of others,'' Romo said during the week after being under fire for having thrown four interceptions and only one touchdown in the past three games.
Romo's mistakes killed the Cowboys in losses to the New York Giants and the Broncos. But today he faces opponents with a record of 27 losses in their last 29 games. The San Francisco 49ers (3-1) put quarterback Shaun Hill's unbeaten winning streak at home (7-0 as a starter) at risk today against the Atlanta Falcons (2-1), who are coming off a bye week well rested and well armed. The Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan is among the league's best young talents, having thrown five touchdowns and only one interception so far. The 49ers will try to counter that with the league's 28th ranked offence.
The undefeated Indianapolis Colts (4-0) can all but finish off the play-off hopes of their divisional rivals the Tennessee Titans (0-4) with a win in Nashville. That is never easy but Peyton Manning is completing nearly 71 per cent of his throws and has nine touchdowns to only three interceptions so you have to like their chances. The rallying Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2), who have scored 30 points or more for the last two weeks after scoring only 29 in their first two games, may have their hands full against the Seattle Seahawks (1-3), who should finally have their first-string quarterback Matt Hasselbeck back. They will need him with their protection problems and a defence that has given up an average of 27.3 points a game in their past three losses.
Brett Favre leads the Minnesota Vikings (4-0) against the winless St Louis Rams (0-4). St Louis are averaging six points a game and have lost 14 in a row. It will soon become 15. Around the rest of the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals (1-2) will try to find their missing offence against the Houston Texans (2-2) and will if their 38-year-old quarterback Kurt Warner has not suddenly lost the plot; the lowly Oakland Raiders (1-3) travel to face the undefeated New York Giants (4-0), which leads one to ask "Why bother?'' even if the New York quarterback Eli Manning's sore heel keeps him out; the only thing to watch when the Philadelphia Eagles (2-1) host the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-4) is how well the returning Eagles quarterback, Donovan McNabb, plays after missing several weeks with cracked ribs. He is coming back against the right team - Tampa are last in the NFL in defence.
The winless Cleveland Browns (0-4) have just traded their best wide receiver, Braylon Edwards, which will not help their new quarterback Derek Anderson beat the limping Buffalo Bills (1-3), whose offence is dreadful but still may win; the Pittsburgh Steelers (2-2) have been out scored 45-13 in the fourth quarter this season but the game against the Detroit Lions (1-3) should be long over by then, especially if the Lions' rookie quarterback, Matthew Stafford, is out with a sore knee; the struggling Washington Redskins (2-2) have won only against winless teams, so they should be pleased to be facing the Carolina Panthers (0-3), whose offence is terrible and defence worse; and tomorrow night the Miami Dolphins (1-3) face the New York Jets (3-1), who a week ago held the powerful New Orleans Saints' offence to 10 points.