Lang on NFL: Rivalry renewed

It's Championship Sunday and the final four teams battling for a chance to advance to Super Bowl XLVIII should come as no surprise (AP)
October 5, 2012, 7:33 PM

Now that the NFL has passed the quarter pole we’re going to find out a lot about a number of teams around the league.

For teams like the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers, these next four games will be especially crucial as they try to string together some wins and establish their status in their respective divisions.

With Week 5 already underway, let’s take a look at some of the key games this week.

Broncos (2-2) @ Patriots (2-2)

For over a decade the head-to-head battle between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady has been one of the annual highlights of the NFL schedule. The only difference this time is that Manning is wearing Broncos colours instead of his more familiar blue horseshoe. Both quarterbacks are coming off of near flawless performances that helped their respective teams win with relative ease in Week 4.

Including the post-season, Brady is 8-4 in head-to-head games against Manning. However Manning is 4-2 in their last six meetings and this Broncos team is far different than his old Colts team. During his last full year in Indianapolis, the Colts ranked 29th in running the football. This year’s Broncos team is 14th and Willis McGahee is a far more effective back than Joseph Addai or Donald Brown.

Led by Manning, the Broncos will be able to move the ball and put up points in the air. The big challenge lies with Champ Bailey and the Broncos secondary and how they’re going to stop Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. In last year’s playoff win over the Broncos, “Gronk” caught three touchdowns and was a menace all day long. As the Bills found out last week, the other thing the Patriots can unleash on the Broncos is a good old fashioned running game.

Eagles (3-1) @ Steelers (1-2)

I still think it’s odd that the Steelers would have had their bye week so early in the season. But if you’re Mike Tomlin, the early bye week might be a blessing in disguise as it allowed more time for James Harrison and Troy Polamalu to get healthy. Both defenders are expected to be back in the line-up as the Steelers try to contain Michael Vick and the Eagles offence.

One of the big questions people have around the NFL is how the Eagles are doing it? Lost in the hysteria over Vick’s turnovers is the effectiveness of running back LeSean McCoy. Since 2011, the Eagles are 7-1 whenever McCoy runs for 100 yards or more.

Titans (1-3) @ Vikings (3-1)

The Vikings have emerged as one of the early candidates for the surprise teams of the NFL season. Second-year quarterback Christian Ponder has yet to throw an interception and running back Adrian Peterson not only has come back sooner than anyone predicted from his serious knee injury, but he looks as strong as ever.

Led by Jared Allen, the Vikings defence has held the 49ers and Lions to combined 26 points the last two weeks. Facing them this week is a Titans team that has allowed 79 points the last two games.

The Titans will also be without starting quarterback Jake Locker after he sustained a shoulder injury in last week’s loss to the Texans. That means 37-year-old Matt Hasselbeck will be running the Titans offence this week.

Dolphins (1-3) @ Bengals (3-1)

There are two men with the last name Gruden that are hot coaching candidates around the NFL. Everyone knows about Jon Gruden as a Super Bowl winner with Tampa Bay and the lead analyst on Monday Night Football. However his brother Jay is quietly becoming a name a lot of team’s have on their radar as a potential head coach.

Jay is the offensive coordinator with the Bengals and the brains behind the offence led by with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. His first order of business will be to find a way to stop Cameron Wake. Wake had more than half of the Dolphins eight sacks in their overtime loss to the Cardinals last week. The Dolphins also possess the stingiest run defense in the NFL, allowing a mere 2.4 yards per carry. With all due respect to Reggie Bush, the most dangerous weapon on the Dolphins this year has been receiver Brian Hartline. Now in his fourth year out of Ohio State, Hartline leads the entire NFL with 455 receiving yards.

Bills (2-2) @ 49ers (3-1)

This is about the last team the Bills would like the play this week. The 49ers have returned home after running for 245 yards and shutting out the Jets at MetLife stadium.

The Bills were pounded last week by the Patriots in a game that saw New England run for 247 yards. Needless to say stopping the run is vitally important for the Bills if they are going to stand a chance. If there ever was a time to for high priced free-agent defensive end Mario Williams to have a big game, this is it.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Bills are missing two starting offensive linemen, Cordy Glenn and Craig Urbik, because of ankle injuries. So a patchwork line will try to keep Justin Smith and the 49ers front at bay while trying to put some points on the board.

Packers (2-2) @ Colts (1-2)

Before the Colts could start thinking about game planning, they got hit with the brutal news that Chuck Pagano has been hospitalized for the treatment of Leukemia. Bruce Arians has taken over as the interim head coach while Pagano undergoes treatment to fight the disease.

Needless to say, emotions will be sky high for Andrew Luck and the Colts when they take to the field on Sunday. One can only imagine how bad they want to beat the Packers and give the game ball to Pagano as he lies in the hospital.

As if dealing with the emotion inside the stadium wasn’t enough for Aaron Rodgers to worry about but he also won’t have his best receiver, Greg Jennings, in the lineup because of a lingering groin injury. There’s no question that the Packers offence isn’t quite as explosive as it was last year. Last year after four games, Green Bay had already scored 148 points and this year they’ve scored only 90. This is another case where Clay Matthews and the pass rush are going to have to get in Luck’s face, keep him out his comfort zone and hopefully take the crowd out of the game.

Falcons (4-0) @ Redskins (2-2)

This has the potential to be one of the most exciting games of the week as the red-hot Matt Ryan goes up against the Redskins’ outstanding rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.

Led by Ryan, the Falcons are the highest-scoring team in the NFC and are far and away the class of the NFC South. Led by Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris, the Redskins possess the best running attack in the NFC. That’s what makes this such an intriguing and challenging game for the Falcons. Every time they drop back into pass coverage they’re going to have to assign someone to “spy” on RG3.

Falcons coach Mike Smith has a great deal of respect for the skill of RG3; “Everyone talks about his ability to run. He’s a 4.35 guy at the combine. He runs extremely well.”

Chargers (3-1) @ Saints (0-4)

A desperate Saints team fell short of their first win of the year last week in Green Bay. The Saints are sure to be even more desperate this week so they can win their first game of the year. To help motivate them even more, Drew Bress has received permission from the NFL head office to allow Sean Payton attend the game. Brees is on the verge of breaking Johnny Unitas’ record of 47 straight games with at least one touchdown pass.

As desperate as the Saints are, they still have the worst run defense in the NFL, giving up an average of 186.8 yards a game. The Chargers are one of the great mysteries in the NFL. Don’t forget they started last year by going 4-1 then proceeded to lose their next six games. This year the Chargers defence hasn’t given up a lot of points and they’ve been able to capitalize on other team’s mistakes.

Other games:

-Ravens (3-1) @ Chiefs (1-3): This is not a good match-up for the Chiefs. Quarterback Matt Cassel throws a lot of interceptions and has been generally ineffective this year. Now he gets to face Ed Reed and the Ravens after they’ve had extra time to rest and prepare.

-Bears (3-1) @ Jaguars (1-3): This could be a long and difficult day for Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert. While Gabbert continues to struggle, the Bears will focus the majority of their attention on stopping elite runner Maurice Jones-Drew.

-Browns (0-4) @ Giants (2-2): You can be sure Tom Coughlin and the Giants aren’t about to take the 0-4 Browns lightly. Coughlin would never allow his team to take anyone for granted and the Giants need a win to keep pace in the NFC East. After playing the Browns, the Giants have a tough stretch facing teams like the 49ers and Steelers before their bye in Week 11.

Seahawks (2-2) @ Panthers (1-3): There aren’t many secrets in this game. The Seahawks will unleash the NFL’s leading running back, Marshawn Lynch, against a porous Panthers run defense. The Panthers are still waiting for Cam Newton to have one of the special games that made him such a star in his rookie season.

I will delve into Monday night’s game between the Jets and the Texans more in-depth during my weekly re-cap.

But after the utter train wreck last week, the Jets stadium could turn into a downright ugly mob if Mark Sanchez and the New York offence can’t get their act together quickly.

Of course the Jets will attempt to do all of this without their best receiver. And no, Tim Tebow is not capable of fixing all of the problems plaguing the Jets right now.

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