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7 things to watch in NFL’s Week 5: Are the Cowboys already in must-win mode?

The Cowboys are looking to avoid a losing record while the Raiders hope that, unlike last year, they can win a game without Derek Carr.

Divisional Round - Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

This week’s matchup with the Packers should feel like a revenge game for the Cowboys. The last time these teams met, Dallas lost a 34-31 heartbreaker in the playoffs. Mason Crosby hit a field goal to put the Packers ahead with three seconds left to play in the NFC Divisional round.

This time around, there’s not a lot of buildup to this game. That may be due in part to the fact that Dallas is 2-2 and coming off a home loss to the Los Angeles Rams. There already has to be concern about whether or not the team can get back to the postseason in a competitive NFC East.

January’s matchup between the Packers and Cowboys was one of the most exciting games of a pretty wild postseason. The Cowboys lost, but they were expected to at least come close to replicating last season’s success. Now it looks like teams are starting to figure out how to slow down Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.

That puts more pressure on the Cowboys to get a signature win in Week 5. But this game is also a huge opportunity for the Cowboys to start to swing things back in their favor. The Packers are giving up an average of 111 rushing yards per game, which puts them 19th in the league. Elliott has looked like a shadow of his rookie self this year, with under 70 yards per game and just two touchdowns. If he can get going against the Packers, it gives the Cowboys a much better chance to win.

The defense is going to have its hands full with Aaron Rodgers, and the offensive line will have to protect Prescott effectively and open up lanes for Elliott. It may be a close game, but Dallas has a shot to get back on the right side of .500.

And the Cowboys could use the win now. In a few weeks, they start a tough four-game stretch with matchups against Washington, Kansas City, Atlanta, and Philadelphia.

2017’s winless teams all get winnable games in Week 5

Through four games, four winless teams remain. Somehow, the Jets are not one of them.

Instead, a pair of old standbys, the Browns and 49ers, are joined by the Chargers and Giants in the race for 2018’s top draft pick. The Browns and 49ers are smack-dab in the middle of a rebuild, replete with young rosters and uneven quarterback situations. The Chargers and Giants have potential Hall of Famers behind center, but each boasts his own unique problems.

For the Giants, it’s a rushing offense in which Eli Manning is the top scorer and a defense that’s given up nearly 24 points per game. In Los Angeles, it’s the looming spectre of 16 straight road games — de facto or otherwise — and an offense that looks great on paper but unable to execute.

Team owners, executives, and coaches on each side are saying all the right things, but it’s fair to begin wondering if these four 0-4 franchises have begun to plan for 2018. Week 5 will be a big indicator of which teams are still trying and which have slid into tanking mode.

All four have winnable games. The Browns host the Jets, who are awful but somehow staring at a potential 3-2 record through five weeks. The 49ers, who have lost three straight games by three points or fewer for the first time in franchise history, travel to Indianapolis. The Chargers and Giants are playing each other, and while a 13-13 tie is what the NFL universe deserves, someone will probably win that contest.

Sunday’s winners will shake up the early line in the draft order — and might provide a glimpse into which teams are still fighting in December and which might be playing assembly line football.

Will Myles Garrett be enough to inspire hope for the Browns in his debut?

Cleveland’s prize for last year’s 1-15 campaign was the right to draft Garrett, an athletic freak who terrorized opposing passers for three seasons at Texas A&M. Unfortunately, a severe ankle sprain kept him out of the team’s first quarter of the season — the aforementioned 0-4 start.

Without Garrett in the lineup, the Browns have fielded an average pass rush, ranking 16th in the league in sack rate. While the rookie’s gaudy numbers at Texas A&M were padded by big performances against non-Power 5 opponents, the man who lit the NFL Combine aflame with his ridiculous performance should be able to use that raw talent to put opposing tackles on roller skates en route to the pocket.

Garrett started practicing for the first time during the regular season last Wednesday and is set to finally make his debut this week. He looks ready to contribute against a Jets offensive line that ranks 26th in the league in sacks allowed — and then celebrate in style:

Can Malik Hooker, NFL’s leader in INTs, make it four picks in his last four games?

Out of all NFL rookies, somehow Malik Hooker was flying under the radar until last week when he got his third interception in as many games. The first-round pick showed during his time at Ohio State that he was more than capable of doing this, and the Colts are one of the teams that needed him most.

Last week against the Seahawks, Matthias Farley pulled a Romo and said that Hooker would get an interception during the game. He got it two plays later:

Hooker’s past 16 games, dating back to his final season at Ohio State, have been quite impressive:

Hooker is currently leading the NFL in interceptions, and there’s no reason he can’t get that fourth pick this week — the Colts face Brian Hoyer and the 49ers. It would be quite an accomplishment for Hooker, who was often compared to Ed Reed prior to the 2017 NFL draft.

The Bengals’ resurgent offense gets its biggest test yet

In the first two weeks of the season, it was almost like a protection spell had been cast to ward off the Bengals from stepping foot in the end zone. Even when it looked like they had scored, nope, that’s not a touchdown:

After two weeks of winless, touchdown-free football, the Bengals fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor. Since then, the offense has looked revived, especially quarterback Andy Dalton:

We should find out if the offense has truly rebounded on Sunday, when the 1-3 Bengals host the surprising 3-1 Bills. Through the first month of the season, the Buffalo defense ranks No. 1 in DVOA. No team in the league has given up fewer points, either. In their only loss so far this season — a 9-3 field goal fest against the Panthers — the Bills didn’t surrender any touchdowns. They’ve allowed just four all season.

Both teams are coming off their best games of the year. The Bills held the high-powered Falcons offense to just 17 points in last week’s win. The Bengals got their first W of the season, a 31-7 beatdown of the Browns.

But yes, that was against the Browns, who look like they’re regressing each week. The Bengals have a real challenge this week against the Bills — and a chance to prove that their slow offensive start is behind them.

The Bills can’t keep winning without any help from their wide receivers

After the first month of the season, the Bills are the class of the AFC East. To stay on top of the division, they’ll need a depleted receiving corps to step up.

Buffalo’s wideout depth chart took a hit this offseason as Robert Woods left for the Rams in free agency and oft-injured impact player Sammy Watkins was traded to the same destination. The team brought Jordan Matthews in from Philadelphia to help offset the loss, but the young veteran is out with a thumb injury, a common ailment in Buffalo right now:

That puts pressure on a position group that’s been mostly invisible in 2017. Matthews, the team’s top wideout, ranks third on the roster in receiving yards behind tailback LeSean McCoy and tight end Charles Clay. With four catches and 57 yards, rookie Zay Jones is the team’s next-most effective receiver. That is dire.

Buffalo’s inability to stretch the field with its wideouts has played a major role in Tyrod Taylor’s slow start; the QB has thrown for only 186 yards per game to begin season. Fortunately for the Bills, his accurate passing and the team’s stout defense has kept them afloat.

Can the Raiders survive without Derek Carr?

Almost no one expected the Raiders offense to look this bad. They are just 2-2 and struggling to score points or generate yards. To make matters worse, quarterback Derek Carr will miss two-to-six weeks due to a back fracture he suffered last week against the Denver Broncos.

When Carr broke his fibula in Week 16 of last season, the Raiders looked horrible without him. Carr didn't play in Week 17 or in the AFC Wild Card game. In those two matchups, the Raiders averaged only 10 points per game and backup quarterbacks Matt McGloin and Connor Cook both struggled.

Now, the Raiders will have to depend on EJ Manuel to make plays in the passing game. Last week when Carr got hurt, Manuel came in and looked steady, throwing for 106 yards and a late interception.

Manuel, who signed with the Raiders this offseason, is only 6-11 as a starter in his career. But Oakland’s offensive coordinator thinks the change of scenery has benefited Manuel:

This Sunday, the Raiders host the Ravens, who have a tough defense but are also struggling on offense right now. At the very least, Manuel is a better quarterback than McGloin and Cook. He has a chance to lead the Raiders to victory, especially if the rest of the team steps up.

More than anything, the Raiders need the offensive line to start doing its job. The rushing attack, led by Marshawn Lynch, ranks just 24th in the league. The offensive line isn’t creating holes for Lynch, and it hasn’t done a good job of protecting the quarterback. A strong effort from them could have a snowball effect that would help keep the team survive Carr’s absence.


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