Week 5 brought back the thrills.
In Week 4, eight of 13 games were decided by 19 points or more. It was a weekend of blowouts and duds. Week 5 delivered close games, thrills and, in some cases, upsets.
Nine of the 13 games were decided by eight points or less. There were some classics. The Cleveland Browns overcame a 25-point deficit on the road to beat the Tennessee Titans 29-28. Buffalo Bills QB Kyle Orton made several key plays in a 17-14 victory over the Detroit Lions. Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys gutted out a 20-17 overtime win over the Houston Texans.
There was plenty of offense and plenty of big plays. The fun was back. Here are five things we learned Sunday.
1. Thanks to stout D, Orton switch worked: The Bills' thrilling, 17-14 victory over Detroit proved that a smart quarterback can take advantage of a good defense and pull out a close victory. The Bills, despite missing defensive tackle Kyle Williams with a knee injury, have a top-10 defense that hits hard. They limited a potent Lions offense to 263 yards. Even though Williams didn't play because of a knee injury, the Bills pressured mostly with four-man rushes and got six sacks and eight tackles for a loss.
"We wanted to make [Lions QB] Matthew Stafford uncomfortable," said Marcel Dareus, who led Buffalo with three sacks.
By holding the Lions to 14 points, the defense allowed Orton to do his thing. Orton wasn't pretty. He completed 30 of 43 passes for 308 yards and stared into the eyes of Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis for an easy pick-six. Thanks to the defense, though, Orton needed only a couple plays to come back from a 14-0 deficit. With 9:23 left in the fourth quarter, Orton found Chris Gragg for a 2-yard touchdown. On the two-point conversion, Orton made the veteran move of recognizing the Lions' coverage and audibling to a Fred Jackson run to tie the game.
The game-clincher came with 21 seconds left with Buffalo at the Detroit 40-yard line. Orton caught the Lions in a blitz, but instead of going to the "hot" route, Orton waited for rookie Sammy Watkins to get past single coverage into the middle of the field and hit him for a 20-yard gain.
"He wasn't the hot read, but he knew he was pretty warm," Orton said.
Two plays later, Dan Carpenter hit a 58-yard field goal to put the Bills at 3-2. Sure, it helped the Lions that were thin at the skill positions because of injuries. Sure, it helped that kicker Alex Henery missed three field goals and will probably end up being the second kicker to be cut this year by the Lions. But the Bills battled adversity and took advantage of their veteran quarterback's experience.
2. Things still not right in Carolina, New Orleans: The Saints rallied from a 24-13 deficit in the third quarter to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 37-31 in overtime. The Panthers overcame a 21-7 deficit to beat the Chicago Bears 31-24. Those were emotional victories, but both teams had to come out of those home wins with concerns.
Where's the defense? Sure, Rob Ryan's defense showed improvement from the first four games in which the Saints allowed an average of 396 yards and 27.5 points. The Bucs gained 314 yards, but the Saints allowed the Mike Glennon-led Tampa Bay offense to drive for a go-ahead touchdown with 13:28 left in the fourth quarter.
"I thought defensively, without looking at any film, we played with a lot of emotion and did a good job," Payton said. "At the end of the half, the turnover hurt us offensively and kind of got them back in it, but we fought back in the second half. Fortunately, we were able to get a few possessions together and close the gap to tie it and then win it in overtime. We still have a lot of things we have to work on."
That's an understatement. Once again, Drew Brees threw an interception returned for a touchdown. Tight end Jimmy Graham injured a shoulder and missed most of the second half and all of overtime. The Saints go into a bye week with a 2-3 record. That puts them one game behind the Panthers, who looked totally out of sorts in the first half against the Bears.
"We got punched in the mouth early but stopped the bleeding and kept going." Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said.
The Panthers are going through a tough stretch. They are missing their top two running backs -- DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Plus, Newton is playing despite a tender ankle that puts him in jeopardy of further injury.
The Bears helped Carolina's cause by Jay Cutler throwing two interceptions and Robbie Gould missing a 35-yard field goal. But the Panthers helped themselves with an improved pass rush in the second half, which had been missing all year.
"We rediscovered a lot of things,'' Carolina coach Ron Rivera said of his pass rush and overall defensive effort in the second half.
3. Playoff-caliber victory for Colts: Facing Baltimore was a big test for the Colts, and they passed with a 20-13 victory. Once again, Andrew Luck was great. He was 32-of-49 for 312 yards and a touchdown, his 14th of the season. In close games, those decided by eight points or less, Luck has been money. He entered the season with a 15-2 record, but there was some concern when he opened the 2014 season with close losses to Denver and Philadelphia.
The Colts have little to worry about when they have a defensive effort as strong as Sunday's. The Ravens had only 287 yards. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco converted only one first down in 11 third-down attempts.
"It's just answering the bell, stepping up regardless of where the ball was and the situation," linebacker Jerrell Freeman said. "The team was just rattling around all that energy, feeding off the energy from the dome. It was a great thing out there to see everybody coming tougher and playing as a team."
The Colts sacked Flacco four times and it could be argued that his longest completion, a 26-yarder to Justin Forsett, happened while he was almost in the grasp of a Colts defender. ESPN Stats & Information counted only one completion in seven attempts for Flacco when he was under duress. If the Colts' defense keeps the score close, Luck can pull out wins. Luck was 8-of-9 for 129 yards in the fourth quarter.
4. Home-field advantage? The Cowboys (4-1) earned a terrific 20-17 overtime win over Houston, but Texans fans made so much noise at Jerry Jones' palace that quarterback Tony Romo had to use a silent count. "That's the first time that happened," Romo said. Dallas scored only three points in the first half.
"I was a little surprised at the number of Houston fans out there today," Romo said. "We have to get our fan base to understand what a big difference it is playing at home. We are tough to beat when we have that home-field advantage."
Maligned in the preseason, the Cowboys are playing well, especially on defense, which figured to be a problem in 2014 after last season's No. 32 ranking (415.3 ypg.). Dallas gave up way too many rushing yards (176 on 31 carries), but it did a good job containing Ryan Fitzpatrick, who completed 16 of 25 passes for 154 yards.
When asked if he must buy tickets to give Dallas a true home-field edge, Romo laughed and sounded as though he would consider it. "We need to tighten things up selling our tickets," he said. In Week 6, the Cowboys play at Seattle, which has the greatest home-field advantage of any team in the league.
5. 49ers are back: Although it's not Jim Harbaugh football to settle for five field goals in a 22-17 win over the Kansas Chiefs, the victory was a good one for the 49ers. They are 3-2 and starting to look like a team competing for the NFC West title and a playoff spot. It also didn't hurt that the Arizona Cardinals lost to the Denver Broncos and suffered plenty of injuries.
Here are the good things for the 49ers. Guard Mike Iupati had a good game. Iupati struggled last year playing on a broken leg, and he wasn't off to a great start this year. Now, he's blocking better. That usually shows when Frank Gore puts up big numbers. Gore had 107 yards on 18 carries. The defense limited former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith to 17 completions and 175 yards passing.
While outsiders are thinking the 49ers are imploding in the locker room, they are actually coming together under Harbaugh. Most people believe this is Harbaugh's last year with the 49ers. He's nowhere close to a contract extension. After this win, Harbaugh said, "My destiny lies between these walls with these men." Wow.
Rex Ryan had no choice but to bench Geno Smith at halftime of the New York Jets' 31-0 loss to the San Diego Chargers. Smith was again awful. The Jets are on a four-game losing streak. Smith struggles to score 20 points a game and the Jets are on a schedule facing quarterbacks who put up 24 to 31 points a game. Smith has thrown interceptions in 17 of his 21 starts. The surprise is that Ryan said Smith will start next week against Denver. Smith versus Peyton Manning. Who you got?. ... Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles had little chance of success against Pittsburgh in a 17-9 Steelers victory. Rookie quarterbacks are 2-18 against Dick LeBeau defenses. Bortles was sacked once and had two interceptions. Rookies against LeBeau have been intercepted 23 times and sacked 65 times. ... Johnny Football is being topped by Brian Comeback. Brian Hoyer's comeback from 25 points down in a 29-28 victory over the Tennessee Titans was amazing. He almost had a similar comeback in the opener against Pittsburgh. "I think our fans are excited," Hoyer said. "Hopefully none of them are in the ER." ... Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt is facing a tough decision. What should he do with quarterback Jake Locker, who got hurt again Sunday? This time, Locker, who just back from a wrist injury, hurt his hand and had to be replaced by Charlie Whitehurst. The Titans are also concerned safety Bernard Pollard injured his Achilles. ... The Arizona Cardinals may have hit the wall with injuries. Quarterback Drew Stanton was injured, and he was replacing Carson Palmer, who has a dead nerve in his shoulder. Cornerback Patrick Peterson limped off the field. Defensive end Calais Campbell suffered an MCL injury and will be out three to four weeks. "I'm more concerned about the injuries than the score,'' coach Bruce Arians said after the 41-20 loss to Denver. Arians thought the chop block on Campbell was cheap.