Depending on your view of the NFL's preseason, this week or next stands as the most entertaining action. The fourth and final week of the exhibition schedule usually features extended playing time for those bottom-of-the-depth-chart guys, who are fighting tooth and nail for a spot on the 53-man roster. No doubt, there is some inherent drama in those battles.
But Week 3 of the preseason is when we get the best idea of how teams will look come the regular season. The projected starting units generally see a half or three quarters of action this weekend, as teams begin to put in their game plans for September's real games.
There's plenty to keep track of across the league this week. Here is a taste of what each game has in store:
Green Bay at Cincinnati: Cedric Benson sees his first game action as a Packer, and it just happens to be against his old team. Green Bay's pass defense continues to be suspect, so the Bengals could use the matchup to help sort out their receiver depth chart behind A.J. Green.
Jacksonville at Baltimore: Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson combined for 11 catches, 220 yards and two touchdowns against the Ravens' pass defense over the first two weeks of the preseason. Is the stage set for a big Justin Blackmon breakthrough? Baltimore simply needs a better showing all the way around -- the Ravens have been very lethargic thus far in losing to Atlanta and Detroit.
Arizona at Tennessee: Jake Locker started for Tennessee last week, but now he enters this game as the starter. Will he respond better now that some of the pressure is off? Arizona has its own QB issues -- John Skelton will start Thursday -- but the offense might get a boost with Beanie Wells returning to action.
Philadelphia at Cleveland: In a bit of odd scheduling, these two teams also open the regular season against each other in Cleveland, so don't expect either to reveal much here. Do expect to see lots of Nick Foles at QB for Philadelphia, since he and Trent Edwards are the Eagles' only two healthy quarterbacks.
Atlanta at Miami: Atlanta's offense has been in high gear early this preseason, but Will Svitek's season-ending injury has the line scrambling for depth. Can third-round pick Lamar Holmes, who makes his debut Friday, aid the cause? Like Locker in Tennessee, Miami's Ryan Tannehill enters this game as the official starter at QB.
New England at Tampa Bay: These two teams will have a pair of joint-squad practices under their belts before Friday, so there may not be a lot of new wrinkles. The Patriots have yet to announce if newly-signed speedster Jeff Demps will see any action, but New England also should have most of its first-team units back after playing it safe against Philadelphia. Tampa Bay is getting healthy too, with LeGarrette Blount OK after a scare last week and starting left tackle Donald Penn rejoining practice this week.
Seattle at Kansas City: It's the Russell Wilson show for Seattle this week, as the underrated rookie gets his crack at winning the Seahawks' quarterback job. He won't have Marshawn Lynch to hand off to, but should enjoy Sidney Rice's presence at receiver. Kansas City will have Dwayne Bowe back, too, even though he will be limited a bit Friday. The Chiefs also have to figure out who will start in place of suspended LB Tamba Hali in Week 1.
San Diego at Minnesota: The Vikings played well last week against Buffalo, so the goal is to maintain some momentum. The focus obviously falls mainly on QB Christian Ponder, but keep an eye on safety Mistral Raymond -- he was all over the field against Buffalo and could be a key in stabilizing Minnesota's defensive backfield. Philip Rivers is off to a slow start in the preseason, a horrible sign for Chargers fans fed up with their teams September stumbles.
Chicago at New York Giants: This is a huge test for Chicago's offensive line -- and for Jay Cutler's confidence in said line. The first goal is keeping Cutler healthy through this one, but the Bears would love to see a solid showing up front. The good news for Chicago is that New York won't be at full strength: Jason Pierre-Paul will sit with back spasms.
Indianapolis at Washington: Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III. Do you need to know anything else? This game obviously doesn't count for much in the long run, but it will provide an early gauge for where the 2012 draft's top two picks are at this point.
Pittsburgh at Buffalo: Will Isaac Redman suit up for Pittsburgh? Either way, the Steelers will still have questions to answer at running back. Buffalo's defense needs a bounce-back performance after being kicked around in Minnesota last week.
Detroit at Oakland: Speaking of defenses ... the Raiders' remains a work in progress as it learns the system of new coach Dennis Allen and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Detroit's explosive passing game will provide a good measuring stick. The Lions, meanwhile, are still trying to piece together their starters at safety and cornerback.
St. Louis at Dallas: Rams center Scott Wells returned to practice this week and could play Saturday, so St. Louis can start to get a better idea of what its offense might look like come September. This game marks a big opportunity for the Cowboys' receiving corps -- with Dez Bryant and Miles Austin sidelined, who will step up and earn regular season playing time?
Houston at New Orleans: Houston defensive starters Brian Cushing, J.J. Watt and Shaun Cody all missed practice time this week, which likely means more time for the reserves in this game -- not the worst thing in the preseason. New Orleans' defense was shredded by Jacksonville last week, thanks to missed assignments and terrible tackling. The Saints will have their hands full with Houston's offense.
San Francisco at Denver: Maybe (probably?) our last glimpse of Peyton Manning this preseason comes against the 49ers' attacking, high-pressure defense. We'll have a better idea of what to expect from Manning this year after seeing how he does against San Francisco's scheme. Carolina at New York Jets: The Jets badly need to generate some positive momentum, especially after last week's stinker against the Giants. They'll will have a new right tackle (Austin Howard) after Rex Ryan benched human turnstile Wayne Hunter on Thursday. Steve Smith won't suit up for Carolina, so Cam Newton will have ample opportunity to develop a rapport with some other targets.