Defense is supposed to be irrelevant in the modern NFL, but this season it?s alive and well. In the NFC, four?of the division leaders (two teams are tied in the NFC West) -?Philadelphia (3-0), Minnesota (4-0), Los Angeles (3-1) and Seattle (3-1) – rank in the top 10 in scoring defense. In the AFC, division leaders New England (3-1) and Denver (4-0) rank No. 4 and 5, respectively, and Houston (3-1) ranks eighth. The Eagles have been the most surprising team, allowing just nine points per game, and while they?ve had some soft opponents, they held the high-scoring Pittsburgh Steelers to three points. If ever there was a measure of defense prevailing over offense it was in that game. The Rams and Vikings are teams whose offenses are the two worst in the NFL statistically yet they keep winning games. The Rams actually have scored fewer points (63) than they?ve allowed (76), but their defense keeps them in every game. If the Vikings ever hit their stride with quarterback Sam Bradford, look out. The most any team has scored against them is 16 points. Who says defense doesn?t matter?
Last season there were two teams that?started 1-3 and made it to the playoffs (Houston, Kansas City). This year there were 13 teams that stood 1-3 heading into Week 5. After Arizona?s victory over San Francisco, there are 11. It?s pretty easy to write off Jacksonville, Tennessee, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and Tampa Bay. But the list includes the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers, Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints. Two of those teams are guaranteed to be 1-4 because the Titans play at the Dolphins and the Buccaneers play at the Panthers. The Jaguars and Saints have a bye so they at least can put off 1-4 for another week. Two teams in big trouble are the Jets and Chargers. Unless both teams win on the road this week, New York at Pittsburgh and San Diego at Oakland, their seasons are all but over. Since 1990, 37.5% of the playoff teams started 2-2, but 1-4? Not this year.
Is there anyone who can win at U.S. Bank Stadium? The Vikings have allowed 24 points in two games there and now face the Houston Texans, who aren?t exactly an offensive juggernaut. Houston ranks 25th in offense and passing and quarterback Brock Osweiler is carrying a 74.8 rating. The Vikings will have their hands full with the Texans? defense, but they probably need to score only 14 to 17 points to win at home. The Bears are coming off a nice division victory over the Lions, but they?re paying the price. Injuries are devastating them. Wide receiver Kevin White (leg) is out for the year again and the defense has multiple injuries to starters and is being held together by string. The Lions are on the verge of collapse after the loss at Chicago. Now they get the undefeated Eagles, who have had a week of?rest and will be flexing their defensive muscles. Detroit?s season is on the line Sunday.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Atlanta Falcons?(3-1) at Denver Broncos?(4-0)
When: 3:05 p.m. Sunday.
Key injuries: Falcons ? LB De’Vondre Campbell (ankle), LB Deion Jones (ankle) and LB Paul Worrilow (groin) are out. Broncos ? LB DeMarcus Ware (forearm) and CB Kayvon Webster (hamstring) are out; TE Virgil Green (calf), S Shiloh Keo (knee), QB Trevor Siemian (left shoulder) and T Donald Stephenson (calf) are questionable.
Player to watch: Falcons receiver Julio Jones leads the league in receiving yards and is averaging 22.2 yards per catch.
Recent history: Atlanta has won two of the past three, the last meeting a 27-21 victory in Week 1 of 2012.
Key statistic: Broncos?cornerback Aqib Talib?s nine career interceptions returned for touchdowns is tied for fourth all-time and the most by an active player.
Bottom line: The NFL?s best offense goes up against the No. 4 defense in what should be a good indication of whether the Falcons are for real and the Broncos can still compete without a veteran quarterback. The Falcons are averaging 478.8 yards per game and are coming off a 48-33 pasting of the Carolina Panthers. Jones will find it tougher going against Talib and Chris Harris Jr., so don?t expect another 300-yard day, but if Atlanta?s improved offensive line can hold up against the Broncos? pass rushers, quarterback Matt Ryan still can?do damage. The Broncos are hoping to have quarterback Trevor Siemian (left shoulder) back this week, but rookie Paxton Lynch did lead them on three scoring drives last week after Siemian went out. Denver could use a little more help from its running game, which has managed 141 yards the past two games.
BY THE NUMBERS
8-2 The team?s record coming out of bye weeks under coach Mike McCarthy.
5.9 Yards the team has averaged on punt returns since the start of the 2015 season.
27.5 Average distance of the six passing touchdowns the defense has allowed.
12 Longest run against the defense, the shortest of any long run by an opponent in the NFL.
87.59 New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning?s passer rating in his five career games against the Packers.
10 Touchdowns the Detroit Lions have scored, the most of any team in the division.
120.2 Opponents? passer rating against the Lions defense.
97 Consecutive passes this season that Chicago quarterback Bobby Hoyer has gone without an interception.
0 Consecutive passes this season that Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler has gone without an interception.
58.2 Percent opponents are completing passes against the Minnesota Vikings defense, tops in the division and seventh overall.
1 Regular-season victories Eli Manning needs to reach 100.
10.5 Yards per pass attempt Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan is averaging, tops in the NFL and 2 yards more than the No. 2 qualifying quarterback.
0 Turnovers the Philadelphia Eagles have committed, the only team without a giveaway.
102.1 Passer rating New England Patriots quarterbacks have combined for during starter Tom Brady?s four-game suspension.
5-1?The?Oakland Raiders? record in their last six road games.