Not sure if you have heard the news, but arguably New England's best player on one side of the ball will return from his four-game suspension this week when the Patriots visit the Cleveland Browns. Of course I'm talking about defensive end Rob Ninkovich. He was suspended after testing positive for a banned substance. Ninkovich had played 116 consecutive games (including playoffs) for the Patriots since signing with the team as a free agent on Aug. 2, 2009. Ninkovich had 52 tackles and 6.5 sacks last year.
Oh yeah, Tom Brady's back too.
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Perhaps just in time as New England's offense looked very mortal in Sunday's surprising 16-0 home loss to Buffalo, although I think the Patriots would have gladly taken a 3-1 record in the four games without Brady if given the chance to accept that before the season began. With Jimmy Garoppolo still out with a shoulder problem, third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett started for the second straight week and was 17 of 27 for 205 yards while fumbling twice (one lost). New England finished 1-for-12 on third downs and managed 277 total yards. The Patriots drove into Buffalo territory all of four times. It was the first time New England had been shut out at home since way back in 1993 at the old Foxboro Stadium. It gave Bills coach Rex Ryan his first regular-season road victory over Bill Belichick in eight tries -- Ryan is now off the coaching hot seat with the Bills' second win in a row.
Brady did play more than usual this preseason with the suspension looming, going 19-for-35 for 242 yards and two scores. I'm pretty excited that this will be the last time I type the word "Deflategate." And it's not like Brady was all that punished. Hey, if you want to give me four weeks off from work to hang out with Gisele Bundchen, sign me up. But I'm sure Brady will be playing with a mega-chip on his shoulder this season to stick it to Roger Goodell. I am not a Patriots fan, but I almost want to see Goodell hand the Super Bowl MVP trophy to Brady in Houston on the first Sunday in February.
The Patriots are the biggest early favorites on the board for Week 5 at -10.5 in Cleveland. This was supposed to also be the season debut of Browns receiver Josh Gordon off his suspension, but he had a slip-up last week and is in rehab. He'll never play for Cleveland again or probably in the NFL this year now. One team I could see taking a chance on him eventually? These Patriots. They tend to turn those types of guys around. Cleveland (0-4) lost 31-20 in Washington on Sunday despite outgaining the Redskins 380-301. But the Browns gave it away three times and had 101 yards in penalties. To sum up how sorry the Browns are, it sure looked like running back Duke Johnson recovered his own fumble in the fourth quarter of that loss and even held up the ball to show the official. Yet it was ruled Redskins ball. I swear that could only happen to Cleveland, which is the only winless team left.
Here are some Week 5 early lines that caught my eye. I won't touch on Thursday's game (Cardinals-49ers), the marquee Sunday matchup (still debating that one) or the Monday night matchup (Bucs-Panthers) as I will be previewing them here individually. The Chiefs, Saints, Seahawks and Jaguars are on the bye. That two-year streak of NFL teams firing their head coach after a Week 4 loss in London will end as the Jags were able to squeak by Indianapolis, so Gus Bradley will keep his gig through the bye.
Falcons at Broncos (-4.5, 47): This is probably the best game of Sunday, but I'll be previewing Denver's Thursday game in Week 6 so I'll pass on doing this one in depth this week. I wasn't real high on Atlanta this season because the Falcons' defense wasn't any good and quarterback Matt Ryan regressed the second half of last season. Ryan is an MVP candidate this year with his Falcons leading the NFC South at 3-1. He leads the NFL with 1,473 passing yards and 11 touchdowns (tied with Ben Roethlisberger) following a 503-yard, four-touchdown game in Sunday's upset of Carolina. Julio Jones caught 12 of those passes for 300 yards and a TD. Both yardage marks aren't just franchise records but the first time in an NFL game that teammates had 500/300 outings. It was the 19th 500-yard game in league history and sixth 300-yard game. I doubt we see those types of numbers this week against that excellent Denver defense. But will the Broncos have starting QB Trevor Siemian? Not looking promising after he left Sunday's 27-7 win at Tampa Bay with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder. Rookie first-round pick Paxton Lynch played well in his spot and we might not see Siemian again regardless because Lynch is the future of the franchise. The pick: Broncos and "under."
Chargers at Raiders (-4.5, 50.5): My pick for first NFL coach to be fired this season was the Bills' Ryan but now I'm thinking it might be San Diego's Mike McCoy. The Bolts are legitimately only a few plays from being 4-0, but they keep imploding in close games. They had no right losing Sunday at home to previously winless New Orleans, 35-34. The Chargers were up 34-21 with about five minutes left but had two crucial turnovers that Drew Brees, in his first regular-season game back in San Diego after leaving following the 2005 season. made them pay with two touchdowns, the last with 1:57 to go. Then Philip Rivers was picked off trying to drive for the potential winning field-goal attempt. McCoy threw a temper tantrum after the game, but he should look at himself. In the past two years, San Diego is 3-12 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Perhaps the Raiders should move to the East Coast instead of Los Angeles or Las Vegas. They are 0-1 at home but improved to 2-0 in the Eastern Time Zone with a 28-27 win in Baltimore on Sunday behind four TD passes from Derek Carr, three to Michael Crabtree. The Raiders are 3-0 on the road overall for the first time in 16 years. The pick: Raiders and over.
Jets at Steelers (-7, 48.5): All the Jets players are saying the right things publicly, but I don't know how New York head coach Todd Bowles could actually start quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick again this week. He followed up a six-interception game in a Week 3 loss to the Chiefs with three more picks in Sunday's 27-17 loss to the Seahawks, a game I thought New York might win at home. Going back to the 2015 finale, he has had 11 fourth-quarter interceptions in the past five games. If the Jets had someone other than turnover-machine Geno Smith as the backup, they probably would make a move. But Fitz is likely on a short leash this week. Pittsburgh looked like the best team in the NFL in Week 4 as Le'Veon Bell returned from his suspension and had 144 yards rushing and 34 receiving in the Steelers' 43-14 blowout of Kansas City. Despite missing 13 games since the start of 2014, Bell has more games (five) with at least 175 yards from scrimmage than any other player during that span. Ben Roethlisberger threw five TD passes, or as many incompletions as he had. The pick: Steelers and over.
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