The NFC, Packers' injuries, Big Ben and more in 5 Burning Questions.
Athlon's Steven Lassan, Nathan Rush and Braden Gall debate five burning questions for Week 6 in the NFL:
1. Who is the favorite in the NFC?
Steven: I really believe this is a wide-open conference, with no clear-cut No. 1 team. I thought Green Bay was going to be the team to beat, but the Packers are riddled with injuries and they are becoming a major concern. Brett Favre’s elbow is an issue and I’m not sure the situation will get any better as the year progresses. The team to watch is Atlanta. The Falcons were my pick to win the NFC South in the preseason and their only loss was to Pittsburgh in overtime. Atlanta also boasts a key NFC South win over New Orleans, and the schedule is pretty manageable the rest of the year. I get the feeling this is a race that will change hands several times over the next couple of weeks, but keep a close watch on the Falcons.
Nathan: Which team will lose Super Bowl XLV? That’s a tough one. It seems like the AFC has the three best teams in football — with the Ravens, Jets and Steelers. As far as the NFC goes, I don’t think there is a traditional “favorite.” The Bears and Falcons have the best records, but I have no faith in either team or coach. The Saints are the reigning Super Bowl champs, but are playing like they’re hung over from a long night on Bourbon Street. The Redskins and Bucs are flukes, plain and simple. The Packers and Cowboys are in the doctor’s office — the latter sitting in the psychiatric ward. That leaves the Giants and Vikings as the best teams in the second-best conference. For my money — which is straight cash, homey — I’ll take my preseason pick of the Vikings. If Brett Favre can keep his Wranglers on and the Vikes can pull to .500 with wins over the Cowboys and Packers, everyone will be back on the bandwagon that I refuse to get off.
Braden: I will stick with my pick in the preseason that the Saints will represent the NFC in sports' biggest game. I was also very high on Atlanta and they have not disappointed after reelling off four straight wins. A win over a tough Philadelphia team on the road would give them their longest winning streak since 1998, their Super Bowl season. Green Bay is decimated, the Bears might be the worst 4-1 team in history and the Vikings certainly have issues. The NFC West winner could be under .500, and if you think you have any idea who will win the East, your brain is picking up a radio frequency that the rest of us just don't have.
2. How does Big Ben fare in his return to the field this Sunday? And will it be better or worse than Colt McCoy's debut?
Steven: There’s no way to sugarcoat it – Colt McCoy is in for a long day if he starts against Pittsburgh on Sunday. The Steelers defense is one of the best in the NFL and has made plenty of veteran quarterbacks look foolish over the last couple of seasons. McCoy struggled in the preseason, and I’d be surprised if he threw a touchdown pass in this game. Big Ben’s debut should go much better and I expect him to get plenty of work with an important stretch of games upcoming for the Steelers – at Miami, at New Orleans, at Cincinnati and New England. There may be some early rust to knock off, but this should be a big confidence boost to Roethlisberger after his four-game suspension.
Nathan: This summer, there was a song — “When I grow up, I wanna be just like Colt McCoy” — that was sung at the rookie quarterback’s wedding. Well, this is the time in his life where no one should want to be Colt McCoy. Playing against the Blitz-burgh Steel Curtain defense, Colt will be lucky to make it through the entire game. Meanwhile, Big Ben will be the same guy who stands tall in the pocket, holds the ball too long, gets sacked but hits deep routes and ultimately wins in what should be an ugly blowout over the Browns.
Braden: These two debuts should be dramatically different experiences. Troy Polomalu, LaMaar Woodley and James Harrison are no way to welcome a rookie passer in the league — so have fun, Colt. Big Ben, on the other hand, has so much less pressure than I had expected for his return. The way the Pittsburgh ground game and defense played earned them an unlikely 3-1 start, and with Roethlisberger back in the fold now, they are one of the AFC's favorites again. Expect both teams to grind it out with the talent and experience of the Steelers prevailing in the end — by a wide margin.
3. In his 20th season in the NFL, will Brett Favre finally miss a start this year?
Steven: With the elbow tendinitis not getting any better, it seems likely Favre will miss a start. However, considering this is Favre’s last year and the Vikings are in a fight to win the NFC North, it would not surprise me to see him start every game. Minnesota’s upcoming schedule is brutal – at Green Bay, at New England, Arizona, at Chicago and Green Bay. The Vikings need Favre to get to the playoffs, but if the injury significantly affects his play, it’s time to let Tarvaris Jackson take the controls for a game or two.
Nathan: Let the “tennis elbow Jenn Sterger suspension” conspiracy theories begin. If Brett Favre misses time for a “sore elbow,” many will at least joke that Commissioner Roger Goodell has laid down the law over the sexual harassment of a then-employee of the Jets. Personally, I don’t think Favre will miss a start.
Braden: It has been since September 13, 1992 that NFL fans have not seen Favre suit up on a regular season weekend. His current streak of 289 might be the best single record in all of American sports, so there is no reason to believe that it is going to end now. Torn biceps, shredded ankles, concussions, shoulder issues and a myriad of other issues have never slowed the real, comfortable quarterback before, so how could a little elbow tendinitis?
4. JerMichael Finley, Nick Barnett, Nick Collins, Morgan Burnett, Clay Matthews, Ryan Grant and Aaron Rodgers are either out or banged up. Can the Packers make the playoffs without these key contributors?
Steven: There’s no doubt these injuries are becoming a major issue. One or two major injuries are difficult to overcome, but when the list gets longer each week for the Packers, you have to wonder how many more they can afford to lose. If Aaron Rodgers misses Sunday’s game against Miami, Green Bay will still be in good shape. Any extended absence by Rodgers will be a big blow to the Packers’ playoff hopes. As long as No. 12 is firing passes in Green Bay, this is a team that can contend for a playoff spot, and it certainly helps to have Minnesota struggling within the division. Any more significant personnel losses could make this a 9-7 squad that fails to reach the postseason.
Nathan: People are in panic mode way too early. Obviously, Green Bay needs Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. Everyone else can be replaced. If the Packers don’t make the playoffs, people will blame injuries, but they should point to Title Town’s inability to close out winnable games against inferior opponents on the road. Or, how about Ted Thompson’s refusal to go get A-Rod’s Cal running buddy Marshawn Lynch? But I’m sure the 2011 fourth-rounder is more important than contending for a Super Bowl — just like it was in 2007, when Brett wanted Randy for a fourth-rounder.
Braden: Aaron Rodgers' injury looks like one of the least serious, so as long as he is under center the Pack will have a chance to win any game. However, it was very clear in the second half of the Redskins game, that Green Bay seriously missed its starting safeties, two linebackers and defensive tackle. McNabb threw for 340 of his 357 yards after the first quarter (after the Pickett and Matthews injuries). The offense also clearly missed Finley and his ability to stretch the defense vertically. The NFL is a game of injuries, and this season does not look like the Packers' year.
5. The Chargers placed much-maligned linebacker Shawne Merriman on IR this week, and he must be released by the team when he is healthy. What will "Lights Out's" legacy be?
Steven: Merriman had an outstanding start to his career and was an explosive pass rusher, but knee injuries have sapped his speed and playmaking ability. In his first three seasons in the NFL, Merriman notched 39.5 sacks. After suffering a knee injury in 2008, he has only four sacks over the last two seasons. Had Merriman stayed healthy, he could have been one of the NFL’s most dynamic linebackers. As an experienced veteran, Merriman offers plenty of value as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but it will likely be in a limited role, and the production from early in his career won’t be around.
Nathan: For me, the “Lights Out” legacy is all about the fist-pumping wild-man sack dance. But for everyone else, Shawne Merriman is a poster boy for steroids. Fair or not, his 39.5 sacks over his first 42 games from 2005-07 and the four sacks over 18 games from 2008-10 have many feeling his performance and subsequent injuries are all steroid-induced. He will need to bounce back somewhere else to regain the respect he once commanded.
Braden: On one hand he will be remembered as a ferocious hitter who could intimidate any opponent. On the other, he is a head case, immature "PED-using" knucklehead who decided to live a lifestyle off the field that probably cost him a chance at greatness on the field. His first three years (2005-2007), Lights Out played 42 of 48 games, registering 39.5 sacks, going to three Pro Bowls while leading the Chargers to a 74% winning percentage (34-12). Since then, Merriman has missed 19 of 37 games, registered 4 sacks and been to zero Pro Bowls while his team won only 62% of its games (23-14). 'Waste of talent' is the phrase that comes to mind — and I didn't even have to use the word tequila!