A season is rarely made or lost in early October, but a number of struggling NFL teams—including both NFC Championship Game participants from last year—are entering Week 5 of the 2016 season facing must-win games.
Here are five teams who are in desperate need of a victory this week:
The Cardinals have already matched their loss total from a year ago, and it will now rest in the hands of backup quarterback Drew Stanton to keep Arizona from suffering its fourth defeat in five games to start 2016. Carson Palmer is officially ruled out for the game with a concussion, leaving Stanton—who has a 66.5 career passer rating and two interceptions already this season—to deal with the 49ers on Thursday night.
The Cardinals can’t afford to fall to 1-4, even with Stanton making an emergency start. Following Week 5, Arizona has back-to-back primetime home games (versus the Jets, Seahawks) and a daunting road trip to play the Panthers in consecutive weeks. The Cardinals’ second win in 2016 has to come now.
Playing in the AFC South gives the Colts some wiggle room, but a 1-3 start—which includes last Sunday’s loss to the Jaguars in London—has highlighted how flawed Indianapolis is around quarterback Andrew Luck. The season is only four weeks old, but the Colts’ roster is already in shambles.
Luckily, Week 5 features a Super Bowl XLI rematch with the beat-up Bears. Chicago is entering Sunday with injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Jeremy Langford, receiver Kevin White, nose tackle Eddie Goldman, linebacker Pernell McPhee and cornerback Kyle Fuller, among others. The Colts can’t afford to squander the opportunity to get to 2-3, especially with road trips inside the division (at Houston, Tennessee) coming up.
New York Jets
New York’s 1-3 start has included a win over the Bills and three losses to 2015 playoff teams. Week 5 sends the Jets to Pittsburgh, which presents a fourth opportunity to beat one of last year’s postseason participants. More importantly, the Jets have a chance to erase the horrors of the last two weeks and get back into the win column. Back-to-back losses to Kansas City and Seattle saw the Jets commit 11 turnovers, including nine interceptions from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
However, the Jets are 1-9 all-time in Pittsburgh, and the Steelers are coming off an impressive 43-14 win over the Chiefs. Can New York fall to 1-4 and still make the playoffs? It seems unlikely, especially with six AFC teams at 3-1 or better, and upcoming games against Arizona and Baltimore.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers could easily be 4-0, but three blown leads in the fourth quarter and a hoard of major injuries have left San Diego on the brink of a lost season. A fourth defeat—especially at the hands of the Raiders in Oakland—could all but end it.
While Philip Rivers is leading the NFL’s second-highest scoring offense, a 1-4 start would likely be too much to overcome for a team that has already lost receiver Keenan Allen, running back Danny Woodhead, linebacker Manti Te’o and cornerback Jason Verrett to season-ending injuries. Even a win in Week 5 might not matter, as the Chargers have two games against the Broncos and a trip to Atlanta following Sunday’s showdown with the Raiders.
A team that won 15 regular-season games last year is just 1-3 to start 2016, with an ailing quarterback and a defense fresh off a roasting from Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. While the disappointing Panthers get the 1-3 Buccaneers in Week 5, quarterback Cam Newton (concussion) might not get a chance to help Carolina snap its two-game losing streak.
If the 2015 NFL MVP can’t go, veteran backup Derek Anderson will get the rare start. He’ll need to outplay Jameis Winston, who threw six interceptions in two losses to the Panthers last year. Beat the Bucs on Monday night, and the defending NFC champions can finally start getting their 2016 season on track. Lose at home, and the Panthers could be in big, big trouble.