By Danny Cox
Going into Week 6 of the NFL season, some teams are already beginning to separate themselves from the pack — especially in the AFC — while others are falling behind. The AFC isn’t the same as it’s been the past few years, and that’s evident by how some teams are winning, or not.
The Denver Broncos visit San Diego to play the Chargers on Thursday Night Football. In this all-important AFC West matchup, the Super Bowl champion Broncos are coming off their first loss. Their rock-solid defense couldn’t ground the high-flying Falcons offense, while its offense sputtered behind backup Paxton Lynch. Can the Broncos stop veteran Philip Rivers, who is having another great year, even as his Chargers struggle to win?
Rich Gannon, CBS Sports analyst and former NFL quarterback, took some time to look at Thursday night’s game and other important AFC matchups in Week 6.
Denver Broncos vs. San Diego Chargers – Oct. 13, 8:25 p.m. ET – CBS
CBS Local Sports: Whether it is Paxton Lynch or Trevor Siemian, the Broncos have to protect the quarterback better… could that end up being their downfall this season?
Rich Gannon: Possibly, but the big challenge here is having two inexperienced quarterbacks playing. They tend to hold onto the ball a little bit more, and that puts more stress on the protection unit. Last year, whether it was Brock Osweiler or Peyton Manning in there, the emphasis was on running the football. The Broncos have got to do a better job with that.
They want to become that team. There are growing pains that come with starting young quarterbacks. They may hold onto the ball too long or not recognize the blitz or not see the pressure, and that changes with experience.
CBS Local Sports: Many thought the Chargers had finally surrounded Philip Rivers with the talent needed, but they are now 1-4. What is their biggest problem so far this season?
Gannon: The biggest problem is that they are the worst team in football with four minutes left in a game. They simply cannot close out games… I don’t know if they get tired or what, but they simply aren’t finishing.
San Diego’s other big problem is that the injuries are continuing to pile up. The Chargers have lost a number of big players at key positions. A number of them have landed on injured reserve in the first few weeks… Danny Woodhead, Jason Verrett. Going back to training camp and losing Stevie Johnson. Brandon Oliver is another. Injuries to key components at offensive skill positions are hard for any teams to get past, and it affects Rivers’ trust in his protection.
They are a very good football team, despite their record, but they can’t finish. San Diego has lost four games by a total of about 14 points, so they aren’t being blown out.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. New England Patriots – Oct. 16, 1:00 p.m. ET – CBS
CBS Local Sports: Tom Brady is back and looks better than ever; how do the Bengals even begin to stop him?
Gannon: It’s no real big secret formula. The Bengals have to get him off the spot and get Tom Brady out of rhythm. Cincinnati needs to disguise defenses and have Brady make as many post-snap reads as pre-snap reads. If Brady knows what you’re doing ahead of the snap, it won’t work out for any defense. Cincinnati needs to change it up and bring pressure, but not overdo it as that exposes teams on the back end.
CBS Local Sports: Even with great talent in the receiving game, the Bengals seem insistent on working the running game. With talented receivers like A.J. Green, are they doing the right thing?
Gannon: Playing against Tom Brady, every single possession is magnified. On the flip side of the field, opposing offenses need to score on every single possession. Teams like the Bengals must run the ball, eat the clock and leave Brady on the sideline as long as possible. They are going to have to use Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, but if they get behind by a couple of scores early, they won’t be able to do that.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Oakland Raiders – Oct. 16, 4:05 p.m. ET – CBS
CBS Local Sports: This is a different Raiders team than has been seen for years. What has been the biggest difference-maker for them this season?
Gannon: Derek Carr, no question. He has been incredible, and his numbers are up there. People [are] even talking about him being an MVP after just five weeks. The defense isn’t playing well at all, and it has been their Achilles’ heel, so he has had to play even better. The offense has a lot of firepower, so with a defense ranked 32nd in the league, they have had to put up a lot of points.
CBS Local Sports: Injuries have really hurt the defense of the Kansas City Chiefs, and it has led to big-time struggles. Could the recent signing of linebacker Sio Moore change things?
Gannon: I don’t think so. There are reasons the Colts moved on from Sio Moore, so I don’t feel as if he is going to be a real difference maker. Tamba Hali is a different player than he has been in the past few years. He simply is not the same player without Justin Houston in there, and Houston is a couple of weeks away from returning. So that will help.
They’re playing without a lot of key players. They have to play better in the secondary, as that’s been the area where they’ve given up a lot of explosive plays through the air. Against the Raiders, that is going to seriously hurt them if they allow Michael Crabtree or Amari Cooper to get behind them.
Danny Cox has been covering the NFL for the past decade and has been watching it for two more. From injury reports to playoff races, he follows every single team and longs for the months of July to February.