3 Week 5 Storylines to Watch: Have the Bengals Taken the Next Step?
Yes, the 49ers have revealed themselves to be who we thought they'd be after coming out of the gate hot in Week 1. Yes, the Cowboys have struggled mightily since losing their two best players in Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. And yes, the Packers are still nasty even without Jordy Nelson, riding Aaron Rodgers' 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions to a perfect 4-0 record so far.
But there have been some surprises as well -- some good, and some bad. The Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons have made the NFC South relevant again, both starting their respective seasons 4-0. The Miami Dolphins, who we speculated might be a contender to finally dethrone the Patriots in the AFC East, have already fired their head coach due to the hot mess they are on both sides of the football. And the once high-octane Eagles offense has looked mostly stagnant (more on that later) through their first four games.
Perhaps most surprising has been the Cincinnati Bengals' swagger after jumping out of the gate 4-0.
Ahead, we'll explore whether they’ve taken the next step forward, as well as a couple of other storylines you should be following across the NFL in Week 5.
Is Cincinnati as Good as they Appear to Be?
The Cincinnati Bengals have made the playoffs four straight seasons, failing to move past the first round. This annual Groundhog's Day-like scenario has become as tiresome for Bengals' fans as it has burdensome for Bengals' coaching staff, who face louder and louder calls for their ouster with each subsequent playoff loss.
But the 2015 Bengals look different so far. With tight end Tyler Eifert bursting out on the scene in Week 1 after a couple of seasons battling injuries, 2013 breakout receiver Marvin Jones back in uniform after missing all of last season, and a fully healthy A.J. Green breaking dudes off again after an injury-riddled 2014, the Bengals are getting it done through the air, ranking as the fourth-most productive passing attack in the league after four weeks.
And Andy Dalton is looking more like an assassin than the bland quarterback of old, posting a 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and the second most efficient season among quarterbacks with at least 90 passing attempts per our signature on-field performance metric, Net Expected Points (NEP).
For the unfamiliar, NEP quantifies the number of points a player or team adds above-or-below expectation, determined by down and distance data from historical performance. Dalton's putting up a buckwild 0.50 Passing NEP per pass, meaning every two times he's thrown the ball this season, he's added a point to his team's expected point total. That's ridiculous, because throughout his career, he's never exceeded a 0.09 Passing NEP per drop back.
But the team is also getting it done on the ground, utilizing the two-headed tandem of Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill to pound the rock. While the dynamic emerging out of the backfield has probably enraged fantasy football owners, with Bernard outsnapping and outplaying Hill through four weeks, the timeshare has resulted in the Bengals being the 10th most productive ground attack in the NFL. They've also turned around their abysmal seventh-worst run defense from 2014 into the seventh-best unit so far in 2015, although they remain average in defending the pass ranking 19th among all NFL teams per our metrics.
The Bengals face a tough test against the Seahawks in Week 5, although the 'Hawks haven’t been as good of a defense on the road as they have at home the past few seasons. But with the Bengals having faced the Ravens, Raiders, Chargers, and Chiefs, the team finally will face an imposing defense that will help determine whether Dalton and the Bengals have really turned a corner from their previous playoff-bottom-feeder versions of recent seasons' past.
Did the Saints and Eagles Find Their Offensive Mojo?
The Saints and the Eagles were looking like dumpster fires heading into Week 4. The Eagles had come off of a win against the Jets in Week 3, but their newly acquired quarterback, Sam Bradford, still looked like he would eventually develop into a pariah in Philadelphia with his erratic play. And the Saints had just suffered their third consecutive loss to open the season against the Panthers, with Luke McCown at the helm due to Drew Brees’ shoulder injury.
But Week 4 brought about new fortunes for these squads. The Eagles didn't win their game, but they could finally come away feeling better about Bradford, who tossed three touchdowns without a pick in really windy conditions in Washington. Brees came back looking fairly underwhelming for the most part, but led the Saints to a what-would-have-been game winning-drive had their kicker not missed a chip-shot field goal, sending the team to overtime which he promptly ended with a strike to C.J. Spiller resulting in an 80-yard touchdown. At the end of the game, fantasy owners were clearly rejoicing at Brees’ 359-yard, 2-touchdown stat line.
The question coming out of Week 4 is whether or not the offensive successes that these teams finally found will carry forward and continue developing in Week 5 when they square up against each other. We currently project the Eagles to win this game with a 61.94% probability, but perhaps most important for both teams is that they keep the positive offensive momentum moving forward after such a disastrous beginnings to the season. We'll find out on Sunday whether they can.
Are the Lions Already Toast?
Man, you have to feel for the Detroit Lions. This is the team that hasn’t won an NFL championship since 1957. The team that had Barry Sanders retire on them out of nowhere when he was still highly productive. The team that went 0-16 in 2008 and has had the mediocre Matt Stafford as their signal-caller ever since.
And just last week, while playing in Seattle, with the deafening roar of the 12th man helping keep their thus-far underwhelming offense in check, the Lions were poised to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat when Stafford drove the lions into the red zone deep in the fourth quarter. Stafford delivered a strike to Calvin Johnson, who got within six inches or so of breaking the plane for a touchdown when Kam Chancellor miraculously punched the ball out of Megatron's grasp into the end zone for a turnover, which K.J. Wright batted out of the endzone to prevent the Lions from securing a loose-ball touchdown.
But even more heartbreaking, the ball should have been placed at the one-yard line as a result of Wright's intentionally batted ball, which would've given them four downs to put the ball in the end zone with about a minute-and-a-half left.
Yeah, the Lions are an unlucky bunch. And now they'll conclude their brutal three-game stretch going up against another NFC West opponent in the Cardinals. The Cardinals currently sit at the top of our team rankings throne, sporting the best overall offense and third-ranked overall defense per our metrics.
The Lions already had their work cut out for them, as only one team in NFL history has made it to the playoffs starting their season 0-4 (the 1992 Chargers). So if they go 0-5, they're either done, or they'll have to make history. We'll find out if they can avoid a lost season and avenge their heartbreaking Week 4 loss in a mere two days.