By Sam McPherson
Going in to Week 5 of the 2016 NFL regular season, we have a good sense what every team has to offer. It’s clear the Denver Broncos are still the team to beat, while the surprising Minnesota Vikings also have the attention of football fans everywhere. From the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC to the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks in the NFC, plenty of 3-1 teams are also showing they have the mettle to contend. The question now becomes: how will it all play out?
Thursday Night Football kicks things off from Levi’s Stadium, the site of the Broncos’ Super Bowl victory last February. The Arizona Cardinals take on the San Francisco 49ers as rivals look to contend in a tough NFC West. The Cardinals, who hoped for better than 1-3, will be tested by a 49ers team that always plays tough at home.
Bill Cowher, CBS Sports analyst on THE NFL TODAY and former head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he won Super Bowl XL, looks at Thursday night’s matchup and other key Week 5 games.
Arizona Cardinals vs. San Francisco 49ers – Oct. 6, 8:25 p.m. ET – CBS
CBS Local Sports: Arizona was a preseason favorite for a playoff spot. Now the Cards are 1-3. What do they need to do to right the ship?
Bill Cowher: There are a couple glaring things when you look at them. The first two weeks they were 1-1 and lost to New England on a missed field goal. But they had zero turnovers. The last two weeks they’ve had 10 turnovers. You look at that along with penalties at inopportune times, and they’re beating themselves. If they go back and take care of the little things and don’t beat themselves, then they’re still a playoff-caliber team.
CBS Local Sports: After four games and three losses, the 49ers probably are right where we expected them to be. What are reasonable season goals for Chip Kelly’s first year in San Francisco?
Cowher: Progress is what you’re trying to do in your first year. Chip is trying to look at his football team and see where they are. They’ve played better than a lot of people thought in this first quarter of the season. Chip is trying to understand what he has on offense and defense, the quarterback situation with (Colin) Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert. For him, it’s about progress and making sure he finds out exactly where they are and sees what areas they really need to upgrade.
CBS Local Sports: The 49ers play better at home, but how will the defense handle the loss of NaVorro Bowman?
Cowher: You’re not going to replace him. Other players are going to have to step up. You’re looking at Antoine Bethea and (Eric) Reid, two safeties. They have a chance to step up. It’s going to be just a case of everyone else around picking up their game. The biggest thing they have to do is to be able to put four quarters together, not just one.
New England Patriots vs. Cleveland Browns – Oct. 9, 1 p.m. ET – CBS
CBS Local Sports: Tom Brady makes his 2016 debut for the New England Patriots. What can we expect to see differently out of the Patriots offense this week against a struggling Cleveland defense?
Cowher: You’ll see them throwing the football and doing some of the things we’ve seen New England do in the past. I think you’ll see them spread it out, utilizing the matchups he has with (Julian) Edelman and (Danny) Amendola on the inside. (Rob) Gronkowski hopefully will get better with his health; this will be his third game back. Tom has full command of the offense, and you’ll see more of an open offense than what we’ve seen in the first few weeks with the young quarterbacks.
New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers – Oct. 9, 1 p.m. ET – CBS
CBS Local Sports: The Jets have lost two straight games, and Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t looking good. Is there a QB change on the horizon for New York?
Cowher: They know what their options are better than we do. They’ve played some very good football teams. Ryan Fitzpatrick has had some tough breaks. He’s made some bad throws at times, but there’s been a lot of tipped balls and missed communications for whatever reason. Sometimes when you see an interception, we automatically go right to the quarterback, but sometimes there’s more to it than that. Todd Bowles and Chan Gailey are going to put the quarterback out there that they feel gives them the best chance of winning games.
CBS Local Sports: The Steelers got back on track against Kansas City last week with the return of Le’Veon Bell. What weaknesses does Pittsburgh still need to address?
Cowher: As with every football team, what you want to do is become a consistent football team in all three phases. They’ll continue to grow, and with each week it’s a different challenge. The biggest thing they want to look for is trying to string together good performances in all three phases and doing that on a more consistent basis.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Dallas Cowboys – Oct. 9, 4:25 p.m. ET – CBS
CBS Local Sports: The Bengals are 2-2 with losses to Denver and Pittsburgh. Are they still a team with playoff potential?
Cowher: Absolutely, they’ve been there for the last five years, so there’s no reason to believe they won’t this year. They’re in a tough division certainly with Pittsburgh, and Baltimore is off to a very good start as well. They have experience at quarterback, a top receiver in the game, a good running game, and their defense is very solid. They’re 2-2, but they’ve lost to two pretty good football teams.
CBS Local Sports: The Cowboys still could be considered a mystery, without a “signature” win yet this season. Would a win over Cincinnati at home make a statement for Dallas in 2016?
Cowher: Ezekiel Elliott has given them elements in the running game similar to what they had two years ago, and I love what Dak Prescott is doing. He did this last week without Dez Bryant, and they’ve made a pretty good statement at this point being 3-1. They’ve won road games. They’ve played very consistently week in and week out. The fact they’re able to not turn the football over and they’re running the football — that helps a defense. If they can beat Cincinnati and go to 4-1, the record will speak for itself.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf and fantasy sports for CBS Local. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach. Follow him on Twitter @sxmcp, because he’s quite prolific despite also being a college English professor and a certified copy editor.