4 Storylines for Week 5: The Battle for Texas

The Cowboys and Texans battle it out this weekend for bragging rights and playoff position.

For most NFL teams, the first quarter of the season is over, and reality is setting in about just how good most rosters are across the league. But in a league with only 16 games on the schedule and such a vast and deep talent pool, anything can happen in any matchup.

So which games have the most intriguing storylines to watch this week, as we start the second quarter of the NFL season?

Can Joe Flacco Continue His Hot Start?

Last season, Joe Flacco was one of the most disappointing quarterbacks in the NFL, failing to live up to his massive contract and posting career lows in all of our metrics for quarterbacks. This meant Flacco was among the worst values at the quarterback position, providing a lower return-on-investment than virtually every other NFL signal-caller.

But what a change 2014 has brought, as Flacco currently sits fourth in among quarterbacks our Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) rankings, and is on pace to more than double his previous career highs in our NEP data. The addition of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels has provided him with new targets, and an improved offensive line has helped both the passing and running efforts of the Ravens.

He has a chance to keep up his strong start to the season with a game against the porous Indianapolis Colts defense, who rank among the 10 worst according to our Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP (adjusted for strength of schedule). The Ravens have been one of the surprise teams so far this year, and another good day from Flacco could see them move to 4-1 and stay within arm's reach of the Bengals.

Will the Giants Be Able to Slow Down the Atlanta Passing Game?

There will be at least one battle of a top passing offense and a top passing defense this weekend, as the eighth-best passing defense, the Giants, take on the third-best passing offense, the Falcons.

Both teams have stumbled a bit out of the gate, looking impressive at times, and depressing at others. Both teams are 2-2, with blowout Thursday night wins over division rivals in their rear view mirrors. So which team will have the advantage when the Falcons are on offense?

After allowing Matthew Stafford and the Lions to move the ball at will in Week 1, the Giants have improved every week on defense, seeing notable improvement in their Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP every week after their debut disappointment. They face a tough test this weekend, as they'll have to find a way to pressure Matt Ryan and slow down Julio Jones and Devin Hester.

The Falcons are banged up on offense, as evidenced last week when they were forced into playing a tight end at right tackle just to field a five-man offensive line, but have playmakers in the passing game that can break down the New York defense the same way the Lions did in Week 1. Did the Giants learn their lesson, or will Julio Jones be able to recreate Calvin Johnson's performance against the New York defenders.

Which Rookie of the Year Candidate Will Shine This Weekend?

It's rare to see such a key early-season matchup of Rookie of the Year candidates, but just a month into the season, the leading candidates for offensive and defensive Rookie of the Year will line up against each other in Carolina.

Kelvin Benjamin currently sits in sixth in our Reception NEP rankings among receivers, as the FSU rookie has put concerns about his catching ability behind and is proving to be an unstoppable force as the featured receiver in the Carolina offense. He's on pace to have one of the best seasons for a rookie receiver in NFL history, so will the Bears be able to slow him down?

They might if they call upon Kyle Fuller to defend him. The Virginia Tech rookie has already defended four passes, intercepted three, and forced two fumbles in his young career, and appears to be the second coming of Charles Tillman for the Chicago defense.

This should be a fantastic one-on-one battle, and may go a long way to determining whether or not these players are worthy of Rookie of the Year honors.

Who Will Win the Battle for Texas?

The most intriguing matchup of the weekend is one that no one would have expected a month ago, as the 3-1 Dallas Cowboys host the 3-1 Houston Texans in a battle for Texas bragging rights, and more importantly, a battle for an important fourth win as both teams track improbable playoff berths.

The Texans, led by All-World defensive lineman J.J. Watt, have the best defense in the NFL through four games, even with star rookie Jadeveon Clowney sidelined due to injury. Their offense has been good enough to win them games, led by the often underrated Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has a better per-drop back NEP this season than Jay Cutler, Nick Foles and Eli Manning.

The Cowboys will bring their dominant running game to the table against their in-state rivals, as DeMarco Murray has been the most productive back in the NFL this season by a wide margin. He currently ranks third among backs with 50 or more carries in our NEP per Rush data, which is impressive considering his high volume so far this season. Backs who carry the ball often for their teams aren't often efficient as well, which speaks to just how good Murray has been.

Both teams are looking much better than expected, and one could take a big step towards playing January football with a win this weekend in Dallas.