These are the biggest early storylines as we look ahead to Week 4, ranked in order of significance:
1. Ok, so everyone had the New Orleans Saints-Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football as the biggest game of Week 4, right? Of course. Sure, the networks will play up the Ryan Tannehill-Drew Brees battle because quarterbacks are sexy. And nothing against those guys. But a moment for the defenses, shall we? The Saints (38) and Dolphins (53) have allowed a combined 91 points, which is fewer than four teams have given up all by themselves. You know Rob Ryan, the Saints’ defensive coordinator. But — and don’t cheat — can you name the Dolphins’ DC? It’s Kevin Coyle, who has these boys flying around. One worry, though: Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake’s knee is a balky, and he could well miss this game.
2. Naturally, the second-most important game of the weekend is Chicago Bears-Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Both teams passed big tests in Week 3 — Bears winning on the road in a tough place in Pittsburgh, and Lions winning where they never have before (in Washington/Maryland), and without Reggie Bush. His status will be closely watched all week. But we must mention that one reason these teams are atop the NFC North is because of the offensive lines. The Bears and Lions have given up the fewest sacks in the NFL to date. Go figure.
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3. The Seattle Seahawks are making a case for being the most impressive team in football, and the Houston Texans are a confounding 2-1, hitting a crossroads following a throttling at the hands of the Ravens. The biggest question for the Texans is likely with Matt Schaub. Can he step up? Against this defense? At least the game is in Houston. They can make a big statement by beating the Seahawks. Or they'll be subject to more questioning if they lose. These are the two stingiest defenses in terms of yards allowed. We might be looking at 17-13, or the like, here.
4. The New York Giants are a stunningly bad 0-3, with the Kansas City Chiefs cruising to 3-0 and having extra time for Andy Reid to re-familiarize himself with the Giants. It shouldn’t be too hard. They ran him off the field in Reid’s final game as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, but expect Reid to play down the revenge angle for a second straight week. There are two interesting storylines with matchups here. The Giants’ weak pass rush will look to get revved up against a Chiefs O-line that struggled last week (especially No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher) and hasn’t dominated. Also, the Giants’ turnover-prone offense must find ways to string drives together against one of the most virile young defenses in the league in the Chiefs.
5. A pair of 1-2 teams does not a tantalizing matchup make, but this is an interesting, delicate time for both the San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Rams. The Niners come in thoroughly humbled by back-to-back 20-point losses, the last one at home to the Colts. And they’ll make the trip to St. Louis on Thursday night without pass rusher Aldon Smith, who will enter rehab and has no timetable for his return. The Rams will try to rebound on both sides of the ball, but after Sunday’s six-sack debacle inflicted by the Dallas Cowboys, that offensive line (hello, Jake Long?) must step up. You don’t want to wake up that sleeping-giant defense all of a sudden. At least Long won't have to face Smith.
6. Which is more surprising: That the New England Patriots are 3-0 given how feckless their offense has been, or that the Atlanta Falcons are sitting at 1-2? The latter will have home field against Tom Brady on Sunday night, but with all the injuries the Falcons have suffered, can they cope? Brady at least is making strides with his young receivers, and Rob Gronkowski might be back for this one. Interesting game with teams that approach team building and coaching in similar ways.
7. The Cincinnati Bengals escaped their matchup against the Green Bay Packers with a season-defining win, although it was one replete with mistakes. The Cleveland Browns proved to the world — for a week, anyway — that they aren’t tanking squat. We’re not sure yet which quarterback Rob Chudzinski will go with, but there is some temptation to stick with Brian Hoyer over Brandon Weeden. If you can live with the occasional wild throw, Hoyer seemed to be making plays out there against the Vikings. Upset alert in Cleveland? That might be a stretch, and the Bengals certainly won’t take their division rivals lightly. Right?
8. We’ve presented you with three of the four Week 4 matchups pitting teams with winning records against each other. Can you name the fourth? Pat yourself lightly on the head if you said New York Jets at Tennessee Titans. Neither team can say for certain that is has locked down its quarterbacks of the future, but Geno Smith and Jake Locker each made big throws last Sunday — none bigger than Locker to Justin Hunter for the win over the Chargers. Smith and Locker, in fact, combined for 630 passing yards and 9.6 yards per attempt. Prediction: Not happening this Sunday. The Jets lead the league in fewest first downs and yards per attempt defensively. The Titans allow about 4.5 points per quarter. Two underrated defenses here.
9. We need to look up the record for most plays run in a game, because Philadelphia Eagles at Denver Broncos could break it. Is this fast-break offenses stuff getting a bit silly? Oh, yeah. But if you like pace to your games, this one is for you. Perhaps the high altitude will slow down the visiting Eagles, although they’ll be plenty rested, wounds well licked, since their home loss to Reid and the Chiefs last Thursday. We also could be on serious alert, given the expected pace, for Peyton Manning and the all-time passing mark of 554 yards in a game by Norm Van Brocklin. The Eagles have allowed an average of 323 per game, and Manning is averaging 381 per.
10a. The NFL will be on loan to London for this week, and we are sending them some pretty lousy leftovers — 0-3 Pittsburgh Steelers vs. 0-3 Minnesota Vikings. Sure, they were 8-8 and 10-6, respectively, a year ago, but we know how short expiration dates can be in the league. The Steelers can’t score or move the ball consistently. The Vikings can’t get off the field defensively unless it’s by turnover, and they still have that whole Christian Ponder thing plaguing them, even as game as he looks at times. One of these teams will come back 0-4, and that coach might start to feel awfully itchy (especially if it’s Leslie Frazier) even without the benefit of one of those weird airline blankets.
10b. And now for the rest of the Week 4 slate ... The Baltimore Ravens now haven't allowed a touchdown since giving up seven of them in Week 1, so that's bad news for a Buffalo Bills team that has been pretty cool offensively. ... The Jacksonville Jaguars will be going back to Blaine Gabbert this week against the Indianapolis Colts, who are flying high after their big win in San Fran and are not likely to choke this one away. ... Not much to say about Arizona Cardinals at Tampa Bay Buccaneers other than we could be on Josh Freeman watch, with Mike Glennon warming up in the wings, even though Freeman will start this week. ... The Washington Redskins will have to travel three time zones to try for their first victory, heading to face the Oakland Raiders, who were trounced Monday. ... The Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers face off on the West Coast with both teams fighting for the claim of hardest team to figure out this season.