In the NFL, first impressions matter.
With so many teams sitting at critical junctures in their journey, here's who matters most in Week 6:
Any Patriots player tasked with erasing Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce in Sunday night's colossal fray: The Patriots have experience minimizing Kelce, given that they've held Kansas City's frenetic pass-catching tight end to 63 yards over their past two encounters (including playoffs), but this Chiefs offense is a new creation with Patrick Mahomes at the controls. Hill's MVP-level production, meanwhile, has tailed off in recent weeks, but he remains one of the conference's most powerful weapons.
We're accustomed to the Patriots robotically towering over the rest of civilization, but Sunday night feels pulled from somewhere else. Kansas City houses the requisite firepower to torch all challengers, leaving it up to Bill Belichick's gang of Manchurian yes-men to do what nobody has pulled off yet: detonate the Chiefs.
Bengals quarterback disruptor Carlos Dunlap: One of the AFC's top pass rushers out of the gate, Dunlap has been nothing short of a change agent for the Bengals. His strip-sack of Ryan Tannehill last Sunday -- resulting in a touchdown by rookie teammate Sam Hubbard -- was the final push behind Cincy's 27 unanswered points in a comeback win over Miami.
Pittsburgh's Mr. Everything while Le'Veon Bell lounges on the couch: That same divisional showdown offers a compelling character in James Conner. While Bell sits out amid a thorny contract dispute, his cancer-beating understudy has dazzled as a hard-running, pass-catching wonder -- enough to make it clear the team has a next-man-up answer when Bell invariably bolts in free agency come March.
With Le'Veon planning his convenient re-emergence into the locker room during, according to ESPN, the team's Week 7 bye, it's fair to wonder what will happen to Conner's touches. None of those concerns linger for Sunday, though, with the back looming as a high-volume necessity against a Cincy defense that has allowed teams to run for an average of 150 yards over the past three weeks.
Pittsburgh has long owned the Bengals, but this season feels different. Cincy has rolled through opponents, while the Steelers -- my deeply ill-fated AFC Super Bowl pick -- float on the outskirts. A win against the Bengals would change the narrative, but it doesn't feel viable unless Conner is established early and often.
Denver cover man Bradley Roby: Call me emotional, but the Broncos feel on the brink of utter chaos. The quarterback is a dangerous disappointment, while the coaching staff remains plastered to the proverbial hot seat. Vance Joseph must yank the Broncos back on track, but Denver's coach -- sitting at 2-3 -- lingers in troubled territory, with the supersonic Ramsrolling toward Colorado.
The game itself calls for potential snowfall, an unusual scenario for a Rams team that typically operates in 75-degree bliss out West. No matter the mountain climes, Los Angeles arrives with one of the league's more devastating aerial assaults. With Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupptrending upward from concussion concerns, Denver's fortunes hinge on slowing down the best offense in the NFL.
No better time for a Roby bounce-back routine.
Browns rookie wonder Denzel Ward: From afar, Cleveland doesn't fit the boom-or-bust category. The Browns are smack dab in the middle, mathematically, with a 2-2-1 record -- and there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Sunday's bout with the Chargers, though, serves as the doorway for multiple pleasing possibilities:
(1) The Browns have a chance to move to 3-0-1 at home, further transforming a venue that for ages served as a place where visiting teams systematically enjoyed box-score-bursting wins. Taking out a talented Chargers outfit would further enforce one new, mind-bending reality we weren't expecting in 2018: The Dawg Pound is back.
(2) Climbing to 3-2-1 would thrust Cleveland directly into the AFC playoff hunt, with manageable upcoming road dates against the Bucs and Steelers. Not too shabby, considering most expected coach Hue Jackson to be haunting the breadline by now.
(3) A win against Los Angeles, quietly one of the league's premier passing attacks, would require yet another starry display from Ward. The talented cover man -- who recently won Rookie of the Week honors -- wound up as the AFC Special Teams Player of the Week after blocking a Ravens field-goal attemptthis past Sunday. Long gone are the snickers from those who couldn't fathom why the Browns went with Ward at No. 4 overall in April's draft. He's shaping up as a shining light on a Browns defense that doubles as one of the NFL's stingiest at home.
Their lone win against the Panthers was promising, but Atlanta's rash of defensive injuries have led to the club allowing 43, 37 and 41 points over its past three affairs. This unit feels beyond repair, leaving Matt Ryan to milk the most out of star pass-catcher Julio Jones in a critical showdown with the Buccaneers.