A year ago, Green Bay was the hunted, spotless for three months before finally losing, but winding up 15-1 for the season.
Now, the Packers are struggling and have become the spoiler in Week 6 as they face unbeaten Houston.
When the NFL scheduled this game for prime time, it hoped to have a team with a perfect record. That it’s the Texans who are 5-0 for the first time in their history is a bit of a surprise.
That Green Bay is 2-3 and can’t find the dominant passing offense that it rode to such a gaudy record a year ago was not in NBC’s plans. Nor the Packers’.
“Being 2-3 isn’t where we expected to be, but we finally get a regular week where we have some time,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I know Houston’s coming off a Monday night game so they’ll have a short week.
“Ultimately, you have to have a short memory in this game. We let one get away from us last week (at Indianapolis), but we still have all the pieces of the puzzle and look forward to hopefully getting a victory this Sunday.”
The Texans have been the league’s most balanced team, and their defense, even without star linebacker Brian Cushing (on injured reserve with a torn left knee ligament), could give Green Bay fits. J.J. Watt is a force not only as a pass rusher with 7 1/2 sacks, but as a pass blocker. He’s been compared to a basketball center swatting away balls.
“You’re not going to get a sack on every play or on most plays,” Watt said. “So you find ways to do other things to help, and that’s something I can do.”
Also Sunday, Atlanta tries to remain unbeaten when it hosts Oakland; the New York Giants are at San Francisco; Dallas at Baltimore; Denver at San Diego; New England at Seattle; Minnesota at Washington; Detroit at Philadelphia; Buffalo at Arizona; St. Louis at Miami; Cincinnati at Cleveland; Indianapolis at the New York Jets; and Kansas City at Tampa Bay.
The week’s action began Thursday night, with Tennessee beating Pittsburgh 26-23 on Rob Bironas’ 40-yard field goal as time expired. Tennesse improved to 2-4, and Pittsburgh dropped to 2-3.
Off this week are Carolina (1-4), Chicago (4-1), Jacksonville (1-4) and New Orleans (1-4).
Oakland (1-3) at Atlanta (5-0)
The Falcons would appear to have the easier road to 6-0, a record they haven’t managed since, well, ever. Oakland comes off a bye, but was awful in a 37-6 loss at Denver before that. The Raiders have been outscored 72-19 on the road, this is a long trip, and Atlanta’s plus-10 turnover margin leads the NFL.
“We have an offensive mentality in terms of what we’re doing defensively,” coach Mike Smith said. “We’re attacking the football.”
Atlanta is off next week, so a victory here would make for a sweet break.
New York Giants (3-2) at San Francisco (4-1)
A rematch of the NFC championship game in January that the Giants survived in overtime before beating New England in the Super Bowl. The 49ers have upgraded their offense and are just as formidable on defense, while the Giants haven’t found the overpowering pass rush that catapulted them to the NFL title.
This one could be won on the ground, where San Francisco ranks first in yards gained as Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter each are averaging 5.4 yards an attempt, and backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick is contributing in the wildcat.
New York’s Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for 200 yards last Sunday to enliven the Giants’ run game. But Cleveland’s defense hardly resembles San Francisco’s.
Dallas (2-2) at Baltimore (4-1)
The Ravens never have lost to the Cowboys — it’s only three meetings — but they face a rested Dallas team coming off a bye with a bit of desperation. Dallas has been among the most erratic of NFL teams, plagued by turnovers and dropped passes on offense, and a mediocre run defense.
All of those ills can be exploited by Baltimore, which also has been inconsistent, yet still is winning, especially at home. The Ravens are after their 14th straight home victory in the regular season, and under John Harbaugh, who got the job over current Dallas coach Jason Garrett, they are 8-0 in Baltimore against NFC opponents,
Ravens guard Bobbie Williams came to Baltimore this year after spending eight years with division rival Cincinnati.
“From a visitor’s perspective, it is very hard, especially when you’re going against the Ravens’ defense,” he said. “And then there’s the fans. The stadium gets really loud. You’ve got a defense over there moving and shifting and swarming, and you’re trying to communicate with a guy you can barely hear. It can be a tad bit intimidating.”
Denver (2-3) at San Diego (3-2), Monday night
San Diego is one of the few teams Peyton Manning has struggled against in his illustrious career, and now he’s in the same division. The winner will lead the weak AFC West. The Chargers have won five of the last six matchups and twice knocked Indianapolis and Manning from the playoffs.
“From a personal standpoint Peyton has always been a favorite of mine, back when I was in high school in Alabama,” Chargers QB Philip Rivers said. “It’s always special playing a Peyton Manning-led team. We’re playing for a two-game lead in the division at the bye. If that doesn’t get you fired up, nothing will.”
New England (3-2) at Seattle (3-2)
New England’s top-rated offense (in yards gained) faces Seattle’s No. 1 defense in the same category, a rarity in the NFL. The last time this happened so late in the season was 2007, and it also involved the Patriots, who were setting all sorts of scoring and passing records. Now, the Pats are a force running the ball with Stevan Ridley, who is fifth in the league with 490 yards and has scored four times.
“A lot of people key on (Tom Brady) and our running back group has to get some pressure off him so he can be the quarterback he can be,” Ridley said. “If they’re sitting back there staring Brady in the face every play, we can’t be a one-dimensional offense.”
Former Patriots coach Pete Carroll (before he became a championship winner at Southern Cal) has built one of the most physical defenses around and a victory over New England would enhance the Seahawks’ reputation.
Minnesota (4-1) at Washington (2-3)
The Vikings visit the nation’s capital for the third straight year, and they won the previous two games in down seasons. Now, they appear to be on the rise, sparked by the rapid recovery of Adrian Peterson, who again is one of the league’s top runners after tearing knee ligaments near the end of 2011. With Chicago idle, the Vikes would be alone in first place in the NFC North with a win.
Washington expects to have rookie QB Robert Griffin III available after he sustained a concussion in last Sunday’s loss to Atlanta. The Redskins also have another rookie weapon on offense in running back Alfred Morris, averaging 4.9 yards a try for the league’s No. 4 rushing attack.
Detroit (1-3) at Philadelphia (3-2)
Expectations that these would be two of the most dynamic NFL teams have fizzled, although the Eagles are in first place in the NFC East.
Philly is damaging itself with sloppiness: 14 giveaways, including eight fumbles, and a minus-7 turnover differential. That has offset some solid defensive work.
Quarterback Michael Vick has been the main contributor to the turnovers with 11.
“I expect everybody who gets close to me to be reaching for the football,” he said. “It’s totally my responsibility to take care of the football and … it’s something that I (have to get) corrected. I set a goal for (reducing) interceptions and now I have to set another goal.”
Detroit’s goal is simply to get a win after three straight losses.
Buffalo (2-3) at Arizona (4-1)
After a horrible performance in San Francisco, the Bills headed to the desert. No, they weren’t being punished, just prudent, avoiding thousands of miles in travel back and forth.
“I had talked to a couple of teams who had done it like this before when you have back-to-back weeks on the (West) Coast,” coach Chan Gailey said. “They said that they felt like the trip back-and-forth twice took a lot out of you as a football team trying to adjust to time and all of that.
“I had never done it but it made sense to me that it takes some wear and tear off of your players being on that plane.”
They’ll face a well-rested Cardinals team that lost for the first time a week ago Thursday in St. Louis, but one with a severe hole in the backfield. Both starting running back Beanie Wells and backup Ryan Williams are out, although Wells could return around Thanksgiving.
St. Louis (3-2) at Miami (2-3)
What looked like a dog of a matchup when the schedule came out has a lot more interest as both the Rams and Dolphins have been better than anticipated. Miami isn’t far away from a 4-1 record, has the league’s stingiest run defense and has been surprisingly efficient on offense behind rookie QB Ryan Tannehill and a revamped receiving corps.
The Rams won two games a year ago, and new coach Jeff Fisher has them beyond that already. Anyone wonder why Fisher had his choice of jobs when he decided to return to the league this year?
“Everyone just feeds off of coach Fisher’s confidence,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “I think in this locker room this year, everyone believes, everyone thinks that if we go out and do our job, we have a shot to win.”
Cincinnati (3-2) at Cleveland (0-5)
The league’s only winless team keeps games relatively close, but youthful mistakes do in the Browns every week. They’ve already lost at Cincinnati, 34-27 in Week 2.
If this game is close in the final quarter, the Bengals are in excellent shape: Andy Dalton has the NFL’s best quarterback rating in the fourth period, 127.7. He’s also 3-0 against Cleveland, but the Browns have this going for them: They lead the AFC with seven picks.
Indianapolis (2-2) at New York Jets (2-3)
Fresh off one of the more emotional games — and wins — in team history, the Colts head to the Meadowlands, where the Jets’ found a little bit of fire last weekend, too. But they didn’t win.
Indianapolis rallied to upset Green Bay and paid tribute to ill coach Chuck Pagano afterward, dedicating the game and awarding the game ball to Pagano, who is battling leukemia. The way Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne were connecting in that one, New York’s secondary, minus All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, is in for a difficult test.
Kansas City (1-4) at Tampa Bay (1-3)
Here’s a couple of clubs with high hopes entering 2012 that now are teetering.
Kansas City turns to Brady Quinn, who replaces Matt Cassel after the QB was ruled out with a concussion sustained last week. The Chiefs have been their own worst enemies, leading the league in giveaways (19), fumbles lost (10), interceptions thrown (9) and at the bottom with a minus-15 turnover margin that is astoundingly inept for five games.
The Buccaneers are vulnerable in the air, ranking 32nd against the pass and 29th trying to complete them.