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5 surprise questions in Week 5

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The Sports Xchange

Five weeks into the NFL season and several of the most critical questions from the offseason were emphatically answered.

Yes, the Patriots are that good.

No, Peyton Manning isn’t thriving without his usual autonomy at the controls of the offense Denver Broncos. And, no, Robert Griffin III has not turned the corner in his second season under Jay Gruden.

Of course, the NFC South could produce two playoff teams, a prediction few made after the 7-8-1 Panthers won an abysmal tortoise crawl to the division title in 2014.

Some questions posed in August are to be determined. We won’t know, for example, if the Seattle Seahawks can extract the stinger from the demoralizing Super Bowl defeat and if their division rivals, Arizona and St. Louis, are ready to take the West until much later in the season.

While waiting on those incomplete grades to play out, the batch of questions we didn’t expect to be asking in October are plentiful.

Can the Falcons win 14 games? Is Dan Orlovsky a better option for the Lions? Did we really fall for another Rex Ryan guarantee? Are the 49ers a contender for the No. 1 overall draft pick?

Here are five surprise queries through Week 5:

1. Are the Bengals the best team in the NFL?

The game was at home, and Paul Brown Stadium was raucous. But the Bengals’ rally from 17 down to beat the Seahawks in overtime lends credence to those talking up Cincinnati as the most overlooked team in the NFL. Andy Dalton, surrounded by a few stars — WR A.J. Green — and many excellent role players, has a 115.6 passer rating and 11-2 TD-to-INT ratio. All the while, shrines are being constructed in honor of the undefeated New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady (121 rating, 11-0 TD-INT).

The next three weeks will say a lot about the Bengals, who don’t play another home game until Nov. 5. The depth of the roster — including an NFL-best 41 homegrown players, three more than the heralded personnel masters in Green Bay — says Cincinnati isn’t about to lose its stripes. Not in a division where Cleveland could presently be the closest team in the standings at the midway point as the Pittsburgh Steelers figure out life without Ben Roethlisberger.

2. How did the Atlanta Falcons get here and how high can they climb?

Kudos to the Carolina Panthers. They’re better than we thought. Cam Newton is willing the offense to places we didn’t know could be reached with Ted Ginn and Philly Brown as his leading wide receivers. But the Panthers aren’t the story in the NFC South. They are 4-0 by beating up on teams with a combined 5-15 record.

Atlanta has two solid wins on the road — Giants, Cowboys — and manhandled the Texans 48-21. Carolina beat Houston 24-17. The difference for the Falcons under Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is two maligned position units in recent seasons, the defensive secondary and offensive line, are getting it done. Having one the NFL’s best run defense (78.4 yards per game) doesn’t hurt, either.

As for the schedule, it’s looking sweet as cupcakes for the Falcons. Not until Nov. 22 against the Colts will Atlanta see another team with a winning record based on the current standings with the Saints, Titans, Buccaneers and 49ers up next. Quinn could be 9-0 by the time he has to plan for Andrew Luck and Indianapolis.

3. Has Seattle forgotten how to finish?

The second-half rally by Brady and the Patriots will long be remembered as a great comeback, even if Russell Wilson and the Seahawks collapsed at the doorstep of back-to-back Super Bowl titles. The Seahawks rose to dominance playing with the lead — forcing opponents to become one-dimension knowing all too well that to pull off any kind of comeback, it would have to reach into the teeth of Seattle’s snarling secondary and pass rush and take it.

Now in the course of five weeks, Seattle has skated to 2-3 and could easily be 1-4 had Kam Chancellor not returned and made a superb individual play to prevent a Calvin Johnson touchdown and potentially Lions’ victory in Week 4.

As stated above, the Bengals are for real — as are Seattle’s root concerns.

This isn’t entirely a defensive issue for the Seahawks, who give up 3.5 yards per carry, 92.6 rushing yards per game and 214.2 passing yards. Let’s investigate, shall we?

With a third-and-3 in the third quarter and the running game clicking and ragtag offensive line gaining some rhythm — Thomas Rawls’ 169 yards was the most by a Seahawks running back since Shaun Alexander — the Seahawks called a pass play that failed, and at the very least helped to ignite the comeback.

It wasn’t a slant pass on second-and-goal in the Super Bowl, but it was game and clock management. Harken back to Week 1, when tight end Jimmy Graham was a $10 million chip-blocker, the Seahawks “failed to execute” the overtime kickoff that looked like a failed onside kick to the trained eye and the Rams outlasted Seattle.

4. Why did we believe in AFC East miracles?

From the same keyboard that allowed a Chiefs-Packers Super Bowl, count me among the many tricked into believing the spending of the Dolphins and the unbridled bravado of Rex Ryan in Buffalo could make the AFC West the best division in the NFL. It’s not too late for either team mathematically, but tread cautiously before considering either team capable of showing up in January.

Ryan’s defense is one of the biggest disappointments in the NFL with nine sacks in five games and opponents averaging 282 passing yards per game. He took over the most talented defensive line in the NFL, but those high-dollar horses are being corralled by teams who have nothing to brag about on the offensive line. The Patriots, for example, played three rookies and put 40 points on the Bills.

With three wins, the Bills shouldn’t be discounted entirely, but there’s an identity crisis and multiple key injuries to overcome before Buffalo shows up in the playoffs.

5. What should we make of Peyton Manning’s ride in Denver?

If this is Peyton Manning’s final season in a Hall of Fame career that has produced only one Super Bowl ring, how will the last act be judged? So far, it’s a success for the 5-0 Broncos but Manning has only one hand on the wheel.

Manning has more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (6) for the first time since 1998, when the Colts rookie was learning the offense through extra time in meeting rooms with Marshall Faulk. He’s averaging 6.5 yards per pass attempt. It was 8.3 per attempt when the Broncos scored 606 points in 2013.

It’s a different view of Manning than we’re accustomed. He never had a dominant defense in Indianapolis, which fed the style of play that came to be his trademark — cerebral, coordinator on the field, 40 pass attempts per game. He was granted the same freedom when he came to Denver.

Doing it Manning’s way made him a star. It didn’t make him a Super Bowl champion.

Now behind a stumblebum offensive line, the Broncos aren’t able to run the ball (3.3 yards per carry) and defenses are devouring Manning, who has been hit more in five games than he was all of last season. He has 17 interceptions in his last 14 games.

In the NFL, Manning never had to learn the old adage “if you want to be great, learn to play second fiddle first.”

Considering the many mitigating factors — age, running back woes, offensive line challenges — having a defense take the first chair might be just the tune Manning needs.


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