Saints-Dolphins, Texans-Seahawks among Week 4 must attend games
It will be two months, at least, before the playoff picture starts coming into focus. When it does, there's a good chance the Bears, Broncos, Chiefs, Dolphins, Patriots, Saints and Seahawks will be in it. Recent history tells us so.
All seven of those teams are 3-0, and 75.4 percent of teams (86 of 114) that began the season 3-0 since 1990 went to the playoffs. Two of those perfect teams will go head to head in a showdown that tops our list of must-see games for Week 4.
Miami Dolphins (3-0) at New Orleans Saints (3-0)
The sports fever is rising in South Beach -- and LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Heat haven't even opened training camp yet. The attention right now is on the Dolphins, who will be trying to go 4-0 for the first time since 1995 when they cross paths with the Saints on Monday Night Football.
Miami, which won its previous two road games (at Cleveland and at Indianapolis), has benefited from some key offseason moves by general manager Jeff Ireland, whose contract quietly was extended through the 2014 season by owner Stephen Ross. The Dolphins spent more than $100 million in guaranteed money to bring in wide receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brent Grimes --all of whom have contributed to the 3-0 start. Wallace has caught 12 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown, Ellerbe leads the team in tackles (30), and Grimes has one interception and 10 tackles.
The Dolphins are coming off a 27-23 comeback victory over Atlanta in which second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed passes to six receivers on a 75-yard, game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. Protection, however, has been a concern. Tannehill was sacked five times by the Falcons and has been sacked 14 times overall.
The key for Miami's offense has been advancing to the red zone. They are the No. 1 team in the league in red zone efficiency, with seven touchdowns and one field goal on eight possessions.
All is well again in New Orleans, where head coach Sean Payton is back at the helm after being banished for the entire 2012 season because of Bounty Gate. Without Payton's guidance, the Saints flopped last season. Their defense allowed an alarming 7,042 yards -- the most ever in a single NFL season -- and the Saints missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Thus far, the defense has dominated under new coordinator Rob Ryan, who orchestrated a switch to a 3-4 scheme. The Saints have surrendered only 38 points, and of their opponents' 33 possessions in the first three games, four ended in touchdowns, 20 ended in punts and six ended in turnovers.
Despite the season-ending loss of Will Smith (torn ACL), the Saints are getting their best defensive line performance in years from Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette, Akiem Hicks and John Jenkins. Jordan, who plays a 3-4 end on running downs and moves inside on passing downs, has three of the team's eight sacks. Overall, he has 17 quarterback disruptions (sacks, pressures and knockdowns).
Seattle Seahawks (3-0) at Houston Texans (2-1)
The offseason signing of former Lions defensive end Cliff Avril created a stir among Seahawks fans, but another acquisition has been more surprising. Even coach Pete Carroll has been surprised by the intensity shown by former Bucs D-lineman Michael Bennett, who was signed to a one-year, $4.8 million contract after four years in Tampa. Providing a much-needed inside pass rush, Bennett has 2.5 sacks, six quarterback pressures and seven tackles.
Defense has been the trademark thus far for the Seahawks, who have won their last eight regular-season games. They lead the league in fewest points allowed (27), have yielded the fewest yards (241.7 per game) and have forced 10 turnovers (five fumbles, five interceptions).
As if that's not enough bad news for opponents, the Seahawks got a boost last week with the return of end Chris Clemons, their leader in sacks each of the last three years. He suffered a torn ACL in last season's playoffs. Playing just 16 snaps against Jacksonville, Clemons was credited with two pressures of quarterback Chad Henne. And in two weeks, second-year end-linebacker Bruce Irvin will return from a league suspension.
Houston, which is aiming for its third straight AFC South championship, is coming off a disappointing 30-9 loss in Baltimore, a game in which it tied a franchise record with 14 penalties (two others were declined). While Houston's defense is giving up only 249 yards per game (second to Seattle) and has allowed only three touchdowns in the last two games, the Texans have forced only one turnover -- an interception that linebacker Brian Cushing returned for a touchdown in the opener against San Diego. The Texans finished the 2012 season plus-12 in turnover ratio; through three games this season, they are minus-3.
One of the key matchups in this game will be Texans All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt vs. Seahawks left tackle Paul McQuistan. Watt has three sacks, three pass defenses and six tackles for loss. McQuistan, an eighth-year veteran who started all 16 games at guard last year, is filling in for Russell Okung, who suffered a torn ligament in his left big toe in Week 2 and won't return until mid-November at the earliest.
Chicago Bears (3-0) at Detroit Lions (2-1)
Since quarterback Jay Cutler came to Chicago in 2009, the Bears have dominated this NFC North series with wins in seven of the last eight games. In those games, Cutler completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,802 yards with 12 touchdowns and only one interception.
Marc Trestman, the Bears' first head coach with an offensive pedigree since Abe Gibron (1972-74), seems to be bringing out the best in Cutler. In three games, Cutler has completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 693 yards, six TDs and three picks. After opponents treated him like a piñata in previous years, Cutler has been sacked only three times this season. That is a product of improved offensive line play and Cutler's quicker release.
The Lions come into this game woefully thin at receiver. Veteran Nate Burleson, who leads the team in receptions (19 for 239 yards) and is one of its primary leaders, will be lost for several weeks after breaking both bones in his forearm in a pizza-related, one-vehicle, automobile accident. With Burleson out, Detroit doesn't have a lot of experience behind Calvin Johnson. It may have to rely more on young wideouts such as Ryan Broyles, who is coming off an ACL injury from last year and played in his first game this season last week.
New York Jets (2-1) at Tennessee Titans (2-1)
Neither of these teams were popular preseason playoff picks, so one of them should be feeling pretty good about itself by early Sunday evening (barring a tie), having made it through the first quarter of the season with a 3-1 record.
The Jets have survived with Geno Smith, a rookie quarterback many didn't think was ready to be a starter but was forced into action because of an injury to Mark Sanchez. A second-round pick, Smith passed for a career-high 331 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 3 victory over the Bills. The Jets beat Tampa Bay in their opener and played New England tough in Week 2 before losing 13-10.
To beat the Tennessee, the Jets must stop running back Chris Johnson, the AFC's leading rusher with 256 yards on 69 carries. Johnson averaged 109.5 yards rushing in his last two meetings with New York.