Ah, week 4. Usually, by the time this week’s games are over, most teams’ identities have been established and we know at least who absolutely won’t be in the playoffs. As they say, you can’t win it in September, but you can lose it (San Francisco). On the other side of the coin, the teams off to a good start can put even more air in their sails with a week four victory. 4-0 is a quarter of the season nobody can take back, and puts those teams firmly in line for a dance card come week 18. And, as if to emphasize the point, the NFL put together some first class matchups for our viewing pleasure this weekend. Let’s take a look, shall we?
FOOTBALLSICKNESS.COM GAME OF THE WEEK:
BALTIMORE RAVENS AT PITTSBURGH STEELERS: I watch this game every time, start to finish. As Mike Tomlin said, “I think it is unique because it is the BEST rivalry in the National Football League.” He’s right, you know. You can have your Dallas vs. whomever, your Raiders-Chiefs, your Packers-Bears for the one millionth time in history on the frozen tundra. Right now, real time, real talk? This is the one. Easily the two most physical teams in the league, the Ravens and Steelers legitimately hate each other. Mostly, I suspect that’s because Monday mornings after these games suck real bad for everyone involved, win or lose.
But it’s also because they’ve been battling for the division title for more than a decade now, with very little interference from the state of Ohio. Nobody wants to play either of these two on their home turf in the playoffs, and at least one home field game is the likely reward for whichever of these two comes out on top in the AFC North. So these guys will hit each other just a little harder than they hit everybody else, Hines Ward will smile a little wider, Ray Lewis will play a little more ferociously, and it will come down to the wire, as it always does. You don’t dare miss a moment. STEELERS 20, RAVENS 17.
BEST OF THE REST
WASHINGTON REDSKINS AT PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: I assume I don’t have to lay out the entirety of the McNabb/Kolb/Vick/Reid/Donuts storylines. Regardless, this is going to be a fascinating division battle. Can Vick maintain his high level of play against a more genuine NFL defense? (I think he can.) Can the Redskins go into a hostile environment and rally behind their new leader? How will Philly receive DMac5? Most importantly, who wins a key division matchup? Does Andy Reid do anything different to combat all the hours McNabb has no doubt spent in the Redskins’ defensive meeting room? I think the Eagles win a see-saw battle. EAGLES 27, REDSKINS 23.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS AT MIAMI DOLPHINS: If I’m the Patriots, I’m not sleeping well this week. The Dolphins have to feel like they let one get away at home this week, and they’re a good and proud team to begin with. Being the next team to hit South Beach, and a divisional rival at that, is not going to be a treat. The Dolphins have good balance in all phases, big-time playmakers on offense and a coach with the Big Tuna Seal of Approval. Of course, the Patriots, uh, have a few things going for them as well. But the defense is average, and they won’t get many easy victories this season playing as they have. Brandon Marshall just tore up a significantly better Jets secondary, and I have to assume he is licking his chops as he watches film of the New England corners. Another big day for the Beast, and the home team wins. DOLPHINS 27, PATRIOTS 24.
JUST “THE REST”
HOUSTON TEXANS AT OAKLAND RAIDERS: I don’t like this game one bit for the Houston Texans. They got smacked down by their home state big brothers last weekend, and the Raiders are going to be cheesed after Sebastian Janikowski’s dartboard kicking game cost them a win at Arizona last week. It’s a must-win game for Oakland, who had playoff aspirations three weeks ago. Now they’re holding on for dear life. The Texans need it almost as badly to re-convince themselves that they’re truly a contender, but who’s really the more desperate team? The Raiders. And they’re at home. If Louis Murphy doesn’t play I’m less confident, but I’m calling upset here on a 55-yard Janikowski redemption shot at the gun. RAIDERS 24, TEXANS 23.
CINCINNATI BENGALS AT CLEVELAND BROWNS: These two teams have had some crazy battles in recent years. Who can forget the 2007 barnburner won by the Browns 51-45? (I know. Most all of you have forgotten. Only Browns and Bengals fans would remember. But they’re also probably the only ones reading this paragraph.) In short, I think this is a trap game for the Bengals. They’re coming off two wins, one impressive (over the Ravens), the other not so much (a sloppy victory over Carolina this past Sunday), and they handled the Browns last year twice. The Browns, meanwhile, have reason to believe they should be 3-0. They’ve lost three times with one or two plays the difference in each game. But in week 3 at Baltimore they started to show that power running game that helped them roll off 4 straight wins to close 2009. Assuming Eric Wright decides to actually show up this week, I think the Browns win a close Battle of Ohio at home. BROWNS 23, BENGALS 17.
NEW YORK JETS AT BUFFALO BILLS: The Jets are rolling and the Bills are the team that just cut their opening day starting quarterback after week 3. I will say this: it worked for the 2007 Browns, who traded Charlie Frye and allowed Derek Anderson to have the basically-mediocre-but-statistically-skewed season on which he still survives to this day. But is really the kind of precedent you’re looking to follow? Aaaaanyway, the J-E-T-S roll in this one, having found their stride by allowing Mark Sanchez to play football. JETS 27, BILLS 13.
ARIZONA CARDINALS AT SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: I’d say now is about the time for the Chargers to wake up. Philip Rivers is not letting Derek Anderson come to the Q and beat him. No way, no how. CHARGERS 31, CARDINALS 17.
DENVER BRONCOS AT TENNESSEE TITANS: A horrible Vince Young performance against the Steelers in week 2 notwithstanding, the Titans look to me like a playoff team. They have the best pass defense in the league at the moment, and that plus Chris Johnson means you’re in every game. When Vince Young plays well, they’re an outstanding team. The Broncos put all kinds of yards in the box score but very few points on the scoreboard against the Colts in a week 3 loss. They look totally discombobulated in the red zone, with constant miscommunication between Kyle Orton and his receivers. To my untrained eye, it looks like Orton’s indecision (or, if you prefer, slowness of decision-making) is the primary issue. Denver is without Knowshon Moreno this week and they are not equipped to stop CJ. Titans in a walk. TITANS 30, BRONCOS 17.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS AT JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: The Jaguars cannot score regularly or stop anybody in the passing game, and the Colts have Peyton Manning. COLTS 34, JAGUARS 10.
CHICAGO BEARS AT NEW YORK GIANTS: While I have no choice but to acknowledge that the Bears are, in fact, 3-0, I don’t have to give them mental credit for it. In my mind, they’re 1-2. Calvin Johnson caught that pass, and the Green Bay Packers lost that game. The Bears do get some credit for not losing them, but I don’t see an elite team. I might see an elite defense. Julius Peppers makes a huge difference and Brian Urlacher looks like he got younger this offseason. Lance Briggs is still the most under-noticed defensive star in the league. But I’m not convinced by the offense. Maybe Martz will work magic with Cutler but he still just forces the ball places he ought not do at this level, which is at least partially a result of the fact that his receivers just aren’t open all that often. The Giants aren’t a great team anymore, but they are a proud one, and they’re not going to lose all their games. This one’s at home against what I’m still calling a paper tiger. I can’t even promise I’ll be impressed with 4-0. But hey, they don’t have to impress me to make the playoffs. They just have to surprise me. GIANTS 20, BEARS 17.
DETROIT LIONS AT GREEN BAY PACKERS: The Packers gave away a game in Chicago and are going to take it out on the Lions, who have played valiantly and will do so again only to accept a beat-down as their reward. I still like Detroit’s direction, but they’re not good enough to hang with an angry Pack squad at Lambeau, especially if Jahvid Best can’t go. PACKERS 37, LIONS 20.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS AT ATLANTA FALCONS: Sorry, Niners. Jimmy Raye or no Jimmy Raye, you now have to prove it to me. Alex Smith continues his enigmatic/mediocre ways and everyone else seems deflated by it, and Mike Singletary’s particular brand of motivational speech is not having the desired effect. The Falcons handled business at New Orleans last week, taking advantage of Saints mistakes for a win. They run the ball, they pass the ball, they defend. I’m taking them. FALCONS 20, NINERS 17.
CAROLINA PANTHERS AT NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Another “uh-oh” game. The Panthers are a bad team and have to travel to maybe the toughest building in the league right now to face a defending Super Bowl champ who hasn’t played a complete game by a long shot yet and who just lost a game to a division opponent at home on a missed chip shot field goal. Get off the tracks, Jimmy. JIMMY. JIMMY!!!! SAINTS 24, PANTHERS 9.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS AT ST. LOUIS RAMS: Sam Bradford got his first win at home against a decent Redskins team, so the days of just counting the Rams as a W on the schedule appear to be over. But I’m not sure they’re ready to start stringing them together, particularly if Steven Jackson isn’t entirely right. The Seahawks are the better team here, and should win. On the other hand, their last road trip produced quite the mess in Denver, and I’m not sure the ‘Hawks are ready to grab this opportunity by the throat, either. I think they win it, but it’ll be a battle. SEAHAWKS 23, RAMS 20.