Ben Roethlisberger, Deuce McAllister, Julius Jones, Nate Burleson, Andre Johnson, Roy Williams, and Tony Gonzalez. Would you have been happy with that squad after your draft back in early September? I probably would have been. Of course, I'd probably also be crying myself to sleep right now. Only one of these supposed studs (Gonzo) is a sure thing to play this weekend and even he has looked like anything but up to this point. My point? It's Week 6, folks. Forget what you thought you knew. Injuries and performance are our only guides from this point forward, which makes doing your homework that much more important as we head into the meat of the schedule. Shall we? Let's... .
Must Start: The Top 10
1. Peyton Manning v. STL We expected an explosion against the Niners' CFL-caliber secondary last weekend and instead got one measly touchdown pass and two picks. What gives? His owners may be less than enthused at this point but there are encouraging signs. To wit, he's completed over 74% of his passes in three straight contests and has been sacked only once all season. Gotta like his chances of recapturing the magic against an atrocious Rams bunch on Monday night.
2. Carson Palmer @ TEN - On the heels of their first setback, some are questioning whether the Bengals are truly for real. I'll tell you what nobody's questioning: whether he is. Palmer's late fumble against the Jags cost them any chance at a comeback but Cincy wouldn't have even been in the game if not for his big arm and pinpoint accuracy. Expect a nice bounce-back effort against the overmatched Titans' secondary this Sunday.
3. Tom Brady @ DEN - Nobody's EVER questioned whether he's for real. Good thing, too, 'cuz it would only make him mad. Atlanta found out the hard way what an annoyed Brady is capable of, giving up 350 yards and three TD passes to the three-time Super Bowl MVP last Sunday. The worst part? They weren't even the ones who set him off in the first place! The Mastermind would be wise to speak glowingly of the Pats this week.
4. Kerry Collins v. SD - Heading into Week 6, only two starting QBs have throw nary an interception this season. One of them is Big Ben, who's only attempted 86 passes. The other is Mr. Collins, a notoriously erratic rifleman who used to make a living out of throwing it to the wrong guys. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? Get him back in there.
5. Drew Bledsoe v. NYG - Speaking of new tricks! I doubt many of us (myself included) thought he was capable of setting career marks in this, his thirteenth season. Nevertheless, Bledsoe is currently on pace to throw 30+ touchdown passes, something he's never done before. This week, he faces a Giants squad giving up well over 300 passing yards per game. He'll need that many and then some because...
6. Eli Manning @ DAL - ...Eli and Co. are almost certain to put some serious numbers up, as well. Through four games, the G-men are averaging a shade over 34 points a game, the best per-game average in the league and almost double what they managed in Manning's first season at the helm. Guess he's getting the hang of this whole franchise quarterback thing, eh? Uhhh, yeah.
7. Matt Hasselbeck v. HOU - Hasselbeck's reign as the franchise QB in Seattle has been marked by inconsistency and unfulfilled promise. At least, it had been until he decided to stop throwing high-risk passes and start playing within himself. He hasn't turned it over since Week 1 and, not surprisingly, the 'Hawks are 3-1 since then. Make it 4-1 as he and his patchwork receiving corps keep the hapless Texans winless this Sunday.
8. Marc Bulger @ IND - I'm not a huge fan of projections but now that we're a third of the way through the season, it's time to point out he has a chance to set the single-season record for passing yards. He's on pace for over 5,200 of them at the moment, which would comfortably eclipse Dan Marino's record of 5,084 (in 1984). Of course, Marino did that while throwing the ball 564 times. Bulger's projected total? 688. My rotator cuff aches just THINKING about the possibility.
9. Michael Vick @ NO - Those arguing that Atlanta is better off with Matt Schaub under center should probably consider the following: since Michael Vick assumed the starting job (late in the 2001 season), the Falcons are 3-11 in games he's missed. 3-11. Criticize him for all those missed games if you must but never question how vital he is to his team's success. Expect a return to form this weekend against an opponent he historically devours, the reeling Saints.
10. Drew Brees @ OAK - The Chargers don't look like a 2-3 squad but looks don't really mean a whole lot in the NFL. Results do. Besides, they're not gonna get much sympathy from a similarly talented (and equally frustrated) Raiders bunch. If Brees and the Bolts want to avoid a 2-4 start, they'd better crank up the offense again. This one has all the makings of a wild AFC West shoot-em'-up.
Grab A Helmet:
Ben Roethlisberger v. JAX - San Diego wouldn't BE 2-3 if it weren't for this guy. Before causing a city's collective heart to stop (breathe, Pittsburghians!), Big Ben ran for one score and threw for another in the scintillating Monday night victory. He's not a lock to play by any stretch but the Curtain could sure use him with the upstart Jags coming to town. Expect the usual 200 yards and a score or two if he's out there.
Jake Delhomme @ DET - After a slow start to the season (what else is new?), Delhomme is starting to heat up of late, throwing seven TD strikes in his last three games. I'd still like to see him diversify a bit (what if Steve Smith gets hurt again?) but it's hard to argue with the numbers right now. Start him against a middling Lions D that hasn't been tested much.
Jake Plummer v. NE - I'm sure the other Jake's supporters would love to blame the driving rain for his sub-par performance last weekend (10 of 25 for 92 yards). Just one problem: his opponent, Mr. Brunell, played in the stuff, too, and tossed for 300+ yards and a couple scores. Chalk it up as one of those occasional Jake stink bombs and give him another ride this weekend. The Pats are coming to town and they've packed light (just five healthy DBs, none of them named Harrison).
Daunte Culpepper @ CHI - The frying pan probably sounds downright cozy to Coach Tice right now. If he wants outta the fire, he'd better get something from his main man, Mr. Culpepper, this weekend. The Vikes are still in the NFC North race (who isn't?) and a win this week and next would go a long way toward advancing their goal of a division title. There's no better way to assuage the critics than by winning a division title.
Kelly Holcomb v. NYJ - The Bills obviously think they can still win their division or they wouldn't have jettisoned young Losman so soon. Holcomb is now the man and if his Week 5 numbers are any indication (20 of 26 for 169 yards and a touch), Buffalo could stay in the race 'til the very end. They've certainly got the defense and the running game to give it a go.
Brian Griese v. MIA - So does Tampa. Unfortunately, they're going to need a better effort from Griese if they want to grab the NFC South crown. He's been spotty at best thus far and hasn't been able to get anyone but Joey Galloway involved in the passing game. Expect that to change this weekend against the Fish, as Coach Chucky has publicly vowed to get Michael Clayton more looks.
Grab A Clipboard:
Aaron Brooks v. ATL - It's getting ugly for the league's nomads and most fingers are pointing squarely at him...as well they should be. He's only thrown two touchdown passes through five weeks (to go with five picks) and now faces an Atlanta secondary that was dressed down by Tom Brady and the Pats last Sunday. If you think they're not licking their chops to make amends against a punchless (and Deuce-less) Saints O, think again.
David Carr @ SEA - Punchless? Try punch-drunk. The constantly harried Carr absorbed seven more sacks last Sunday, upping his total to a mind-numbing (literally) 27 on the year. If he doesn't get some more protection soon, he'll be eating his training table meals through a feeding tube. Sit him down against a Seattle D that gets plenty of pressure on opposing QBs.
Vinny Testaverde @ BUF - Vinny was nothing if not efficient on Sunday, completing a modest 13 of 19 passes for 163 yards in the Jets' surprising victory over the previously undefeated Bucs. Efficient. Modest. Not words we usually associate with top-tier fantasy signal-callers. Give him a rest against the Bills #1 ranked pass defense this weekend.
Joey Harrington v. CAR - Things don't get any easier for my boy, Joey, this Sunday. Facing a good Carolina squad minus his top two receivers, he's almost certain to be facing eight-man fronts on a regular basis. One of those eight, Julius Peppers, could even become a close personal acquaintance by game's end. The former Tarheel is sack-less, angry about it, and ready to exploit an absurdly overmatched Kelly Butler on the edge. Look away, Mrs. H. Might not be pretty.
Mark Brunell @ KC - I'm starting to feel like one of those Flat Earth Society bozos at this point, constantly proclaiming how crappy Brunell is despite significant scientific evidence to the contrary. Well, they don't call me stubborn for nothing. I trust my eyes more than the numbers and the eyes still tell me he sucks. Don't be tempted by the juicy matchup. The Chiefs have been game-planning for the 'Skins since Week 4.