The Playbook: Previewing Lions-Bears, Saints-Dolphins, more Week 4 games
Chicago (3-0) at Detroit (2-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Two seasons ago, when the Detroit Lions pulled off a surprising run to the playoffs, it was a raucous Monday night victory over the Bears that truly announced their presence as a contender.
Is it time for a repeat performance? Or is it the Bears' turn to make a statement?
Chicago has missed the postseason the past two years (despite a 10-win campaign in 2012), but it's off to a 3-0 start. The Bears have found success in a variety of ways thus far, too, from Jay Cutler's offense clicking to the opportunistic defense putting up points to Devin Hester breaking big returns. They needed every little bit of effort to survive challenges from Cincinnati and Minnesota in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively, before rolling Pittsburgh.
There will be intriguing matchups all over the field in this one. The best of all? Perhaps Bears corner Charles Tillman on Lions superstar Calvin Johnson. Tillman has more than held his own, keeping Megatron under 80 yards per game in the past two seasons. The Bears' defensive dynamo may be somewhat limited by a groin injury in this one, which could mean advantage: Johnson.
Also keep an eye on both lines. Chicago will have its hands full blocking Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle while Detroit's inexperienced tackles have to keep Julius Peppers and Corey Wootton away from Matthew Stafford. The latter may be easier than in years past -- Wootton and Peppers have combined for all of one sack through three games.
Detroit is expecting to have RB Reggie Bush back in the lineup after he sat out a win in Washington. Joique Bell more than picked up the slack in Bush's absence. Who exactly fills in for injured WR Nate Burleson remains to be seen. Burleson, the Lions' No. 2 receiver, broke his arm in a car accident this week.
The Bears could take complete control of the NFC North with a win, which would put them at least two games up on everyone else in the division. To do so, they'll have to handle the crowd better than in that 2011 visit to Detroit -- Chicago committed nine false start penalties that day. -- Chris Burke
Seattle (3-0) at Houston (2-1) -- 1 p.m. ET, FOX: This is an intriguing schematic matchup between teams that see things pretty similarly on both sides of the ball. Houston and Seattle each pass through the run game, with heavy play-action and power zone-blocking schemes that camouflage the occasional liabilities of their pass-protectors. One might have sold this as a Super Bowl preview before the season started.
The Texans are struggling on offense, and there are two injuries that bear watching. Left tackle Duane Brown, who missed the 30-9 loss to the Ravens last Sunday, is still dealing with turf toe, and Baltimore's pass rush pushed around replacement Ryan Harris. Receiver Andre Johnson looks to be a game-time decision with a bruised shin. Given the excellence of Seattle's defense, the decision will most likely be to get Johnson on the field as quickly as possible. The Texans are 2-1, but they're the only winning team in the NFL with a negative point differential, and the wolves have been baring their teeth in Matt Schaub's direction for months.
The Seahawks are starting to get their passing game together after a slow start, though Jacksonville wasn't exactly a stern test last Sunday. Quarterback Russell Wilson ranks eighth in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted rankings right now, but he's been erratic at times and he's still looking for consistency with his receivers against better defenses. He'll get all he can handle against J.J. Watt and Houston's furious front seven. Actually, both quarterbacks face pressure more often than they should, and they should each expect more of the same in this game. Watt will look to continue his barrage of batted passes against the 5-foot-11 Wilson, but it's Schaub who has the real problem with that this year -- two of his four picks have come off of tips this season, and two have been returned for touchdowns. He's walking into a field full of landmines in Seattle's secondary, which matches physical talent and disguised coverage as well as can be done. -- Doug Farrar
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New England (3-0) at Atlanta (1-2) -- 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC: "We have 13 more opportunities, but we have a long way to go," Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said after his team's disappointing Week 3 loss in Miami. "We have to find a way to win games and win them consecutively."
The Falcons have a terrific opportunity to string a few together right now, with three straight at home followed by trips to Arizona and Carolina. Step 1, however, will be tricky. The 3-0 Patriots are starting to get a little healthier, not to mention that they're coming off an impressive 23-3 win over Tampa Bay. TE Rob Gronkowski could make his 2013 debut Sunday, which would tax an Atlanta pass defense that sits 27th in the league.
New England is not just Tom Brady and 52 random guys, however. The defense, coming off that shutdown of the Bucs, has allowed a mere 34 points in three games -- that's less than all but the Seahawks thus far.
Atlanta will counter with an offense that has been inconsistent and banged-up. RB Steven Jackson will miss Sunday's game (and likely several beyond it), while WRs Julio Jones and White both sat out practice Wednesday. Jones and White should play Sunday, meaning Matt Ryan will take to the air frequently against the Patriots' suddenly stout defense.
The return of Gronkowski would be a game-changer for the Patriots, even though Brady finally found a little connection with rookie WRs Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson in Week 3. Gronkowski not only opens up the passing attack, but also his blocking makes life easier for Steven Ridley and the Patriots' backs.
The desperation level will be far more palpable on the Falcons' sideline than that of the Patriots. A Falcons loss could leave them three back at the quarter mark of the season, given that New Orleans has a chance to move to 4-0 on Monday night vs. Miami.
The road is set for Atlanta to orchestrate a quick reversal of fortune. Finding a way past New England would be a sensational start. -- CB
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Miami (3-0) at New Orleans (3-0) -- Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: We all know how great Drew Brees is, but the quarterback with the hottest hand in this game might be Ryan Tannehill, who has risen from the shadows of last year's amazing rookie class to transform himself into something pretty special. The light has come on for Tannehill after a streaky rookie campaign, and he's performed very well in three wins over three solid defenses. The challenge New Orleans' defense presents? Well, that could be a bit tougher. Atypically for this team under Sean Payton, defense is leading the way in the Big Easy right now, and Rob Ryan's schemes are the key. He's turned end Cameron Jordan into one of the most effective linemen in the NFL, and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro is thriving in a system that asks him to play in multiple slots and roles.
Brees will have a couple of advantages against Miami's impressive defense in that linemen Paul Soliai and Cameron Wake are not expected to play. This defense did not manage a sack against the Falcons last week, and Brees will carve any defense up if it doesn't present a consistent pass rush. But giving Brees time to throw has been an issue for the Saints this year because although Brees makes his line look better than it really is, he's already been sacked 10 times in just three games, a primary reason for the offense's relatively slow start. Brees was sacked just 26 times last season.
Right guard Jahri Evans, one of the game's best at his position, saw his 122-game starting streak snapped Sunday due to a hamstring injury. Brees was sacked four times by Arizona, but the offense did start to roll in New Orleans' 31-7 win. Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle may have to get seriously creative to disturb Brees. One thing's for sure -- Tannehill will see things from Ryan's defense that he hasn't seen before. -- DF
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NY Giants (0-3) at Kansas City (3-0), 1 p.m. ET, FOX: The Chiefs could double their 2012 win total by dropping the Giants to 0-4. If New York's going to make a stand, its offensive line will have to be much better than in Week 3, when Carolina sacked Eli Manning seven times. Kansas City's Justin Houston leads the league in sacks with 7.5 (4.5 against the Eagles in Week 3), and the Chiefs' 15 team sacks are tops in the NFL. -- CB
Arizona (1-2) at Tampa Bay (0-3), 1 p.m. ET, FOX: Apparently, this is the battle of teams who looked to sign Carson Palmer in the offseason. The Cards won that one, but the Bucs went heavy after Palmer, and Greg Schiano's continued dissatisfaction with Josh Freeman blew up this week when he replaced Freeman with rookie Mike Glennon. It's a bad time to break in a new guy, because Arizona's defense is multiple and opportunistic. Good news for Glennon? He'll have a bye next week to figure out whatever happens to him in this game. -- DF
Cincinnati (2-1) at Cleveland (1-2), 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Brian Hoyer surprised a lot of people in his second NFL start, at times looking like a franchise quarterback against the Minnesota Vikings. He'd better hold on to that memory. Mike Zimmer's Bengals defense has what it takes to upend any hot QB, and Cleveland's offensive line might be the league's worst from a protection perspective. However, Ray Horton has redefined Cleveland's defense, so it could be an equally difficult day for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. -- DF
NY Jets (2-1) at Tennessee (2-1), 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS: Last week, the Jets put up some historical numbers on offense but also set a franchise record with 20 penalties, yet they managed to beat the reeling Bills anyway. The Titans have their own inconsistencies, but quarterback Jake Locker is starting to improve, and Gregg Williams' defense could set rookie Geno Smith back a few steps. Rex Ryan is right to be happy about his Sanchez-free offense, but he can't lose sight of the little things. -- DF
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Dallas (2-1) at San Diego (1-2) -- 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: Two of the game's biggest lightning rods at QB, Dallas' Tony Romo and San Diego's Philip Rivers, mix it up here. Want to know a little secret? They're both playing exceptionally well so far, despite a few tough losses between them. Romo is hitting on 72.2 percent of his passes, Rivers on 70 percent of his, and they have a combined 14 touchdowns to two interceptions. -- CB
Philadelphia (1-2) at Denver (3-0), 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: Can anyone stop Denver's offense? We may not find out until Denver faces the Chiefs' ravenous defense twice in the second half of the season. The Eagles have allowed a 96.9 opponent passer rating, and any feelings of superiority they may have about limiting Alex Smith should vaporize when they start rolling Peyton Manning tape. Chip Kelly may find himself out-hurried by the current master of NFL offenses, and it could be an expensive lesson. -- DF
Washington (0-3) at Oakland (1-2), 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX: You think Washington fans are panicking about Robert Griffin III now? What happens if he gets outplayed by another mobile QB in Terrelle Pryor on Sunday? Unfortunately, the concussion Pryor suffered late Monday night against Denver could rob us of that intriguing matchup. Of course, for RGIII, losing to Matt Flynn probably would be even worse. -- CB
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Only For The Faithful
Indianapolis (2-1) at Jacksonville (0-3), 1 p.m. ET, CBS: One of the Jaguars' two wins in 2012 came against the Colts (in Indy, no less). Could the 0-3 Jags catch their division rivals sleeping again after Indy's hard-fought statement win in San Francisco? -- CB
Pittsburgh (0-3) at Minnesota (0-3), 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Great Britain and America have lived in relative peace since the end of the War of 1812, but sending this game to London could increase tensions. Showing the Brits Matt Cassel playing quarterback and Todd Haley running an offense might set the international football initiative back 50 years. -- DF
Baltimore (2-1) at Buffalo (1-2), 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Rookie QB EJ Manuel had a bit of a rough outing against the Jets in Week 3. Will being back in front of his home fans help him and the Bills get back on track against a Baltimore defense that's growing more dangerous by the week? -- CB
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(Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from our friends at Pro Football Focus).
• Who says you need QB veteranosity to make things happen with defenders all around you? After three weeks, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson lead the league with three touchdown passes each while under pressure. In the meantime, Carson Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger have each thrown three picks with no touchdowns when they're pressured.
• How good is Peyton Manning this season? He's completed 89 passes on 126 dropbacks for an utterly ridiculous league-leading 84.3 percent accuracy rate -- and that includes a league-leading 13 dropped passes from his targets.
• Green Bay's Jordy Nelson has been the NFL's most underrated deep target in recent years, and he's doing it again in 2013. Nelson has caught five passes over 20 yards in the air on six targets for 157 yards. Yes, it helps to catch passes from Aaron Rodgers, but James Jones and Randall Cobb have only caught two deep passes this season. If Rodgers is looking to air it out, Nelson is his man.
• We focus on J.J. Watt's skill as a pass rusher and pass deflector, but it's his play against the run that makes him the NFL's most complete defender. On 78 run snaps this season, Watt has 11 solo tackles, all of which were losses for the offense.
• Speaking of underrated defensive assets, how about Denver's cornerbacks? Champ Bailey has missed the first three games of the 2013 season with a foot injury, but Tony Carter and Chris Harris have each allowed a passer rating under 50 (42.7 for Harris; 45.3 for Carter), and neither defender has allowed a touchdown. Not bad on a defense that has faced 142 opponent pass attempts, the most in the league.
• We'll continue to beat the "Jason Hatcher is criminally underrated" drum as long as we have to. Last year, Hatcher was the NFL's most disruptive 3-4 end in Rob Ryan's Dallas defense, and though he's moved to tackle in Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme, he's still attacking quarterbacks with abandon. He's got three sacks, two quarterback hits and 10 hurries, and his 15 total pressures is second in the league among tackles, trailing only Ndamukong Suh's 21. Of course, Suh has a few more years at that position under his belt. Next time you're watching the Cowboys, keep a sharp eye on No. 97. You will be impressed. -- DF
• Matchup to watch: Kyle Long vs. Ndamukong Suh. Bears offensive line coach Aaron Kromer revealed way back in May that the Bears drafted Long almost specifically to deal with Detroit's surly defensive tackle. "Suh plays over the right guard and we have to win the division first," Kromer told the Chicago Tribune.
Long has been even better than advertised thus far, starting with an impressive showing against Cincinnati's Geno Atkins-led front. The Lions defense revolves heavily around the abilities of Suh and fellow tackle Nick Fairley to generate push into the backfield. If Long, Matt Slauson and Roberto Garza hold their own on the interior of Chicago's line Sunday, the Bears could walk out of Detroit with a stranglehold on the NFC North.
• This week's sleeper: Rod Streater, Oakland. Washington's defense is, to put it gently, not good. That goes for both the rush defense and the pass defense, but it's the latter in the spotlight here.
Streater currently sits tied for Oakland's team lead in catches with 11, and the Redskins simply cannot stop anyone through the air. Last week, Washington focused much of its attention (and top CB DeAngelo Hall) on trying to contain Detroit's Calvin Johnson. So the Lions' No. 2 receiver, Nate Burleson, went off for seven grabs and 116 yards. (Johnson still had 115 yards and a TD of his own.)
If Hall draws the assignment of Denarius Moore this weekend, that will leave Streater free to roam the oft-uncovered field elsewhere in Washington's secondary. He should find some receptions regardless of who (Pryor or Flynn) starts at QB.
• Pressure's on ...: Matt Ryan, Atlanta. His complementary weapons have been dropping like flies -- Steven Jackson's out several weeks, and both Julio Jones and Roddy White have been hobbled all year. And making matters worse, the Falcons have let two games -- Week 1 at New Orleans, Week 3 at Miami -- slip away in the closing moments.
Now, a Sunday night showdown with the 3-0 Patriots awaits in Atlanta. A loss could drop the Falcons three games back in the NFC South (New Orleans hosts Miami on Monday night). That would make for a long road back over the final 12 games.
• Rookie spotlight: Justin Hunter, Tennessee. Was that sensational Hunter TD grab in Week 3 just a one-shot blip or was it a tease of bigger things to come? The Titans certainly would prefer it to be option No. 2, especially with the Kenny Britt drama continuing to drag on. Hunter may see increased time against the Jets in Week 4. As the Chargers can attest to, he looks ready for it. -- CB
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• Indianapolis Colts. There's some upset danger here, with the Colts headed to take on slumbering Jacksonville. A loss would erase all the momentum of Week 3's stunner in San Francisco. Oh, and the Colts' next four? Seattle, at San Diego, Denver, at Houston. -- CB
• San Diego Chargers. The 1-2 Chargers have the Cowboys in their own backyard. If they want to make any impact in an AFC West the Broncos and Chiefs have on lock right now, they'd best overcome their fourth-quarter collapses and find ways to finish on the right side of the scoreboard. -- DF TROTTER: The new-look, same old Chargers continue to choke in close games