The Playbook: A complete guide to Week 4 action around the NFL
It's a rare treat, one NFL fans probably too often take for granted. This Sunday, football will be on uninterrupted for approximately 14 hours, from the Jets and Dolphins’ 9:30 a.m. kickoff time in London's Wembley Stadium to the final whistle of Saints–Cowboys in prime time under the Superdome lights in New Orleans. In between, there will be countless storylines to monitor, a handful of games that could change the complexion of early division races and questions to be answered by some of the league's brightest stars if their slow starts to the season spill over into October.
Welcome to The Playbook, where Chris Burke and Doug Farrar preview every game of Week 4 and offer their viewing recommendations for your Sunday and Monday, along with numbers to know, matchups to watch around the league and, most importantly, a Tecmo Bowl prediction.
Giants at Bills (1 p.m., FOX)
It's been a long time since the Bills were the power team in New York state. They haven't made the playoffs in this millennium, but here's Rex Ryan's team, with his usual blend of power offense and aggressive, creative defense, along with a young quarterback in Tyrod Taylor who has taken the league by storm this season. A Week 2 loss to the Patriots set Ryan's team back, but even that loss showed this team what it was capable of—they were down 37–13 at the end of the third quarter, and then Taylor made a game of it with two passing touchdowns and a rushing score in the final 12 minutes.
When the Bills welcome the Giants to Ralph Wilson Stadium this Sunday, it's possible they'll be without injured starters LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins, which would be a problem for most teams. But Ryan has an ace in the hole in McCoy's understudy, rookie Karlos Williams, who has posted a 7.8 yards per carry average to McCoy's 3.4. Robert Woods and Percy Harvin are ready to fill in for Watkins if he can't play. Ryan hasn't had this kind of depth on offense since his early days with the Jets, when he led the team to two straight AFC Championship Game appearances, and his defense is among the best in the league. Cornerback Ronald Darby leads the NFL with a 31.8 opponent passer rating allowed and just won the AFC Rookie of the Month award for September.
The Giants are less concerned at this point with their status in their home state and more worried about how to avoid another fourth-quarter collapse. Tom Coughlin's team finally got off the schneid last Sunday with a 32–21 win over Washington, but that win was as much about the Redskins' propensity for gut-busting mistakes as anything. With Buffalo's impressive defensive line matched up with Big Blue's inexperienced offensive line and New York's history of giving up big plays to mobile quarterbacks vulnerable to Taylor's ability to pull it down and run, the Giants will have to have their A-game to pull this one out. — DF
Rams at Cardinals (4:25 p.m., FOX)
At this point, the Cardinals are so underrated, they're almost overrated—everyone's talking about why nobody's talking about them as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. The answer is pretty clear, actually. This is a team that went 8–1 until Carson Palmer was hurt, and then backslid to an 11–5 finish and a quick wild-card exit after Palmer was lost for the season. We've seen this before. Still, these Cardinals look as formidable as any NFL team right now, and it starts with Palmer. He ranks third behind Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted quarterback metrics, and their point differential of +77 is by far the NFL's best. Skeptics will say that the Cardinals haven't really played anybody yet, but that changes on Sunday. Palmer and the Cardinals will face a St. Louis defense led by Jeff Fisher and Gregg Williams that has as strong a front as you'll see in the league, and defensive tackle Aaron Donald is playing at a Defensive Player of the Year pace.
One difference for Bruce Arians's team this year is the consistency of the run game. Arizona has rushed for at least 115 yards in each of their first three games, which they've done just four times since moving from St. Louis to Arizona in 1988. The combination of Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington and David Johnson brings a new dimension for defenses to stop and allows Palmer the luxury of play-action as a legitimate tool. This season, Palmer has completed 15 of 24 passes for 304 yards, three touchdowns and no picks when using play-action. Quarterbacks who play Arizona's underrated defenseare less successful—especially Colin Kaepernick, who was picked off four times (two for touchdowns) by the Cardinals' opportunistic secondary last weekend.
That’s a bit of a problem for the 1–2 Rams, who haven't been able to build on their impressive opening-week win over the Seahawks. A Week 2 loss to the Redskins was especially embarrassing, and last Sunday's 12–6 loss to the Steelers was the worst sign yet for an offense that's still under development. Fisher spends a lot of time touting his young offensive line, saying that rookie running back Todd Gurley is just an inch away from breaking long runs and insisting that quarterback Nick Foles—who hasn't broken the 200-yard barrier since Week 1—is ready to pop. That's all well and good, but if you don't have all your ducks in a row against these Cardinals, a blowout is entirely possible. — DF
Vikings at Broncos (4:25 p.m., FOX)
Shotgun, pistol, under center ... at the end of the day, no matter where he lines up, Peyton Manning is still Peyton Manning. Sure, he might be on the downside of his career—with the incessant critiques of his arm strength to prove it—but Manning has long been a savant at quarterback.
“I think he looks pretty similar,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said, per The Denver Post, comparing Manning in 2015 and earlier in his career. “He’s been throwing the ball down the field vertically I think more in the last couple weeks. He’s made a bunch of plays at the end of ball games to win really all three of them. He looks the same to me. ...
“The Hall of Fame quarterbacks are always really tough, it doesn’t matter who it is, but he’s extremely tough to go against, he’s tough to beat, you’ve got to be on top of your game.”
The Vikings can use last Sunday's performance as a starting point. Behind a second consecutive physical effort from their defense, they whitewashed the visiting Chargers, 31–14. San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers left that game banged up, just as Matthew Stafford did a week earlier following a Lions loss in Minnesota.
Protecting Manning, as always, will be critical for Denver. In the Broncos’ Week 3 win, Gary Kubiak dropped Manning into a pistol formation on most snaps—meshing the traditional under-center looks Kubiak favors with the comfort of the shotgun setup Manning has utilized for years.
“We operated cleaner,” Kubiak said during a press conference earlier this week. “That's the best we have protected our quarterback. There was some progress from that standpoint.”
The Vikings will ride their own forward momentum into Sunday's matchup, not just on defense but in the run game. Those waiting to declare Adrian Peterson “back” after nearly a full year off the active roster now have their evidence: Peterson rushed for 134 yards against Detroit and 126 yards and two TDs against San Diego, the latter being a particularly explosive showing.
Denver's defense obliterated the Lions’ hopes of establishing their run game last Sunday night, holding Joique Bell and Ameer Abdullah to 29 yards on 18 carries. Asked to pick up the slack behind a struggling line, Stafford faltered.
Will Teddy Bridgewater fare better if handed a similar task? The Vikings have not needed him to throw all that much in their past two wins; Bridgewater completed a combined 27 passes in Weeks 2 and 3, with one touchdown and one interception.
Minnesota has dropped four in a row away from home, dating back to last season. To snap that skid, the Vikings will have to make Manning uncomfortable, just as they did Rivers and Stafford beforehand. Easier said than done.
Jets at Dolphins (London, 9:30 a.m., CBS)
As mentioned by Doug Farrar on this week's Audibles Podcast, the Raiders gave coach Dennis Allen the boot immediately after losing in London last season. Could the Dolphins take a similar tack with an embattled Joe Philbin if they fall to 1–3 on the year? Philbin will have a hard time answering his critics if the Dolphins roll over as they did in a 28-point home loss to Buffalo last week. Their revamped offense is averaging just 17 points per game in 2015, and a matchup with the Jets' top-ranked scoring defense does not seem likely to reverse that trend. But the Jets have their own issues, coming off a 24–17 loss to Philadelphia. Which Ryan Fitzpatrick will make an appearance at Wembley Stadium? The Week 3 version was careless with the football. — CB
Texans at Falcons (1 p.m., CBS)
Under new head coach Dan Quinn, the Falcons are a very different team. They're 3-0, and they've overcome fourth-quarter deficits in each of their victories. An offensive line that was a liability is now a relative strength, and new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan has opened up the passing game to the great benefit of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. Running back Devonta Freeman has become a star, and Quinn's defensive acumen is showing on that side of the ball. Beating these Falcons will be a tall order for a Texans team still trying to figure out who will be its franchise quarterback, even in the short term. — DF
Raiders at Bears (1 p.m., CBS)
The Raiders are road favorites. Let that sink in for a moment—it hasn't happened since Week 2 of 2012 (when they promptly lost by 23 in Miami). They deserve the nod this time around based on their performances the past two weeks, especially on offense. The Derek Carr–Amari Cooper combo has been lethal, while Latavius Murray is averaging nearly five yards per carry. Chicago showed minimal signs of life in a 26–0 loss at Seattle last week. Getting one of Jay Cutler or Alshon Jeffery back would help. The latter is on track to play Sunday, and Jimmy Clausen should lean on him against a leaky Raiders secondary. — CB
Chiefs at Bengals (1:00 p.m., CBS)
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh has said that the Bengals have the NFL's most talented roster. Only Aaron Rodgers has a higher passer rating than Andy Dalton's, and there's a belief that Dalton has finally overcome the inconsistencies that famously show up in the postseason. On the other side of this matchup, the Chiefs are a team with a great defense and an offense that can't get out of its own way. Both head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith are taking more and more heat as Reid's conservative offense fails to pay dividends. They'll need to open it up against a Cincinnati defense that looks pretty formidable this year. — DF
Panthers at Buccaneers (1 p.m., FOX)
Despite managing just nine points, there were reasons for the Buccaneers to feel decent about their offensive performance at Houston last week. Namely, they did not allow J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney & Co. to sack Jameis Winston even once. Were it not for three missed field goals and a missed extra point by Kyle Brindza, Tampa Bay could have swiped a road win. A more daunting task looms Sunday: solving Carolina's No. 2-ranked scoring defense. The Panthers' offense has been on the uptick each week, too, increasing both its yards and points in all three of its wins. — CB
Packers at 49ers (4:25 p.m., FOX)
On paper, this looks like a rout for the Packers. It doesn't seem to matter how many skill players Green Bay loses to injury—Aaron Rodgers can turn any target into a league leader. Receiver James Jones, on the roster cuts scrap heap before the season began, has four touchdown catches. One wonders how Jones would fare in a San Francisco offense that can't get out of its own way. Colin Kaepernick has unquestionably regressed, and linebacker NaVorro Bowman was openly frustrated on several occasions during the 49ers' blowout loss to Arizona last Sunday. — DF
Cowboys at Saints (8:30 p.m., NBC)
Of all the Cowboys' matchups during Tony Romo's prolonged absence, Sunday's trip into New Orleans appears to be among the most winnable—whether or not Drew Brees suits up for the Saints. Brees missed Week 3 with an injured shoulder, leaving backup Luke McCown to nickel and dime his way to 310 yards passing in a loss at Carolina. Romo's replacement, Brandon Weeden, started hot himself last Sunday, even breaking the Cowboys' mark for consecutive completions (21). But he, and his team, fizzled in the second half of a 39–28 defeat. The Saints' sagging run defense might allow the Cowboys to minimize Weeden's responsibilities. — CB
Lions at Seahawks(8:30 p.m., NBC)
The Seahawks got two important things settled last Sunday against the Bears. They picked up their first win of the season in a 26–0 shutout, and strong safety Kam Chancellor returned from his holdout. Still, a victory over perhaps the league's worst team doesn't do much to ease concerns about Seattle's pressing issues, and the 0–3 Lions present a tougher test. Detroit's offense has underperformed relative to its start power this season, especially in the run game, and going from Denver's great defense to the Legion of Boom won't help. That said, the Lions' defense should tee off on a Seattle offensive line that has looked completely overwhelmed and outmanned this season, despite Pete Carroll's insistence that things are improving. — DF
Only for the faithful
Eagles at Redskins (1 p.m., FOX)
Definite implications on the NFC East race here, but, well, are they even going to play? Hurricane Joaquin could bump this game to Week 8. If not, count on a battle of the backs: Alfred Morris and Matt Jones for Washington against Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles for Philadelphia, which will look to build on its DeMarco Murray-less showing from last Sunday. — CB
Browns at Chargers: The Chargers are limping along a bit, off back-to-back road losses in Cincinnati and Minnesota. They could start the healing process by getting Melvin Gordon on track against Cleveland's league-worst rush defense. Browns QB Josh McCown threw for 341 yards last week, but most of that total came after his team had fallen into a 17-point hole. — CB
Jaguars at Colts (1 p.m., CBS)
If you bet before the season started that Blake Bortles would have a more impressive stat line so far than Andrew Luck ... well, your last name is probably Bortles, too. And there's no guarantee Luck will even play in this game, as he's struggled to make it through practices this week with a shoulder injury. The Jags have a legitimate shot to raise their record to 2–2 against the reeling Colts. — DF
• If you haven't jumped on the Tyrod Taylor bandwagon yet, now might be a good time. Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman has done in many ways for Taylor what he did for Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, creating a passing offense predicated on play-action looks and open receivers based in part on run concepts. It's working exceedingly well through three games. Taylor has completed six of his 15 deep passes for four touchdowns and two interceptions, he's completing 83% of his passes with play-action and he's been a stud under pressure with 18 completions in 24 pressured attempts.
His standard stats aren't bad either.
Tyrod Taylor is top 5 in the NFL in: -Completion %age -Yards/attempt -Passing TDs -QB rating -25+ yard completions pic.twitter.com/0JPlneZd5j— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) September 28, 2015
Not bad for a sixth-round pick of the Ravens in the 2011 draft, who had thrown a total of 113 regular-season passes through four seasons in Baltimore. It could be argued at this point that he's playing better than Joe Flacco, the man he was never going to get a chance to replace.
• Last season, the Falcons' offensive line was one of the NFL's least effective, leaving Matt Ryan under nearly constant heat with 200 total pressures allowed, third-worst in the NFL. Now, under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, that same line has allowed just 13 pressures through three games, the lowest mark in the league. Left tackle Jake Matthews, who allowed seven sacks and 51 total pressures in his rookie season, has allowed one quarterback hurry in 223 total snaps this season. No sacks, no hits, one hurry. That's it. Matthews has overcome injuries and is thriving in Shanahan's zone-blocking schemes.
• The Wade Phillips factor is a real thing in Denver. The Broncos' defense looks totally rejuvenated in Phillips' 3–4, one-gap base and hybrid looks, and pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are two of the primary beneficiaries. They're currently tied for the league lead in total pressures at any position with 21 each. Last season under defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, Ware had 51 total pressures in 13 games, and Miller had 71 in 16 games, but this is a very different pace.
Player with the most to prove
Colin Kaepernick. The vultures are circling after the 49ers' QB turned in another ugly performance—two pick-sixes, four interceptions overall and a 40-point loss. SI's Greg Bedard wrote in this week's Blanket Coverage that Kaepernick's “constant prayer throws off the back foot and bailing in the face of pressure is just not acceptable for a quarterback with 51 starts,” then suggested the 49ers might have to give Blaine Gabbert(!!!) a start in the near future.
Although Kaepernick signed a $114 million extension a year ago, the financial penalties San Francisco would face by getting rid of him start dwindling rapidly after this year. That's the worst-case scenario, but a possible one if Kaepernick continues to show no tangible progress. — CB
Underrated player to watch
Dion Lewis, RB, Patriots. A fifth-round pick of the Eagles out of Pitt in 2011, Lewis had been out of the league in '13 and '14 recovering from injuries and tried to land on another roster. The Patriots signed him to a futures contract on the last day of 2014, and 2015 has been all gravy. Lewis has gained 146 yards and scored two touchdowns on 30 carries, adding 15 receptions for 179 yards. He's become a key cog in the NFL's most explosive offense, and if he can cut down on the fumbles, he's got a real chance to put up big numbers in a system that wants its backs to do everything from running power to lining up wide in the formation. Some say Lewis reminds them of Kevin Faulk, who parlayed his own versatility into a 13-year career and three Super Bowl rings with the team. — DF
Atlanta is one of 12 NFL road venues where the Texans have never won during their 14-year existence. This is just their second stop there—the Falcons scored a 26–16 win on Houston's previous visit, in 2007. The worst spot away from home for the Texans? Indianapolis. They are 0–13 there. — CB
Burke: Chargers. San Diego's Week 1 rally past Detroit made the subsequent losses in Weeks 2 and 3 less devastating. The Chargers are still sitting at 1–2, two back in the AFC West, with games against Pittsburgh and Green Bay looming after Sunday. A slip-up at home against the Browns would all but bury the Chargers' division chances early.
Farrar: Chiefs. At 1–2 and in the basement of the AFC West, the Chiefs are in more than a bit of trouble. Andy Reid's offense was sputtering throughout the team's Week 3 loss to the Packers, and that's fairly emblematic of the overall picture. Reid has talked about going back to fundamentals, but the Chiefs will need more than the basics to beat a very game Bengals team. Falling to 1–3 with a popgun passing game is not a prescription for success.
Tecmo Super Bowl Upset Special
We’re simulating the entire 2015 season using updated rosters on the classic Tecmo Super Bowl video game. (Download the game at TecmoBowl.org.) Each week, The Playbook will spotlight the most surprising result:
A pair of overtime upsets from this week's action ...
The Colts and Jaguars also needed extra time to find a winner. Jacksonville got it done in the AFC South's battle for first place, riding a stellar 395-yard day from Blake Bortles and limiting Andrew Luck to fewer than 200 yards passing. — CB