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Top matchup for each Week 4 NFL game

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

All but two teams will conclude the first quarter of their season in Week 4. It’s been a surprising and somewhat eye-opening start to the season around the NFL.

The New England Patriots head into Week 4 with a 1-2 record and could fall three games behind the division-leading Miami Dolphins with a loss on Sunday. What’s the biggest matchup in that game?

Over in the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings must now face a red-hot Los Angeles Rams team on a short week after being blown out by Buffalo. Is there a matchup here that favors Minnesota? These are among the top matchups for each Week 4 NFL game.

Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Rams: Brandin Cooks vs Xavier Rhodes

Like pretty much the entire Rams’ offense through the first three games, Cooks has been cooking. He caught seven passes for 90 yards in last week’s win over the Chargers and has hauled in 75 percent of his 26 targets thus far on the young season. With Jared Goff getting the likes of Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp involved in the passing game, it makes it hard for defenses to scheme against Cooks.

Coming off a brutal loss to Buffalo and having to take on the Rams on a short week, Minnesota’s scheme is going to be a bit watered down here. That should include Rhodes shading Cooks throughout the evening in Los Angeles. Rhodes has been as close to a shutdown corner as we’ve seen in the NFL this season. He’ll need to be up to his old tricks for Minnesota to rebound from an ugly Week 3 loss.

Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck vs Texans pass defense

Houston’s pass defense has not done its team any favors during a three-game losing streak to start the season. After allowing Eli Manning to complete 25-of-29 passes for nearly 300 yards last week, the Texans are yielding an absurd 119.9 passer rating thus far this season. Manning’s performance came despite the fact that J.J. Watt recorded three sacks.

While the Texans’ season is pretty much done, Indianapolis finds itself in a must-win situation heading into Week 4. The team is 1-2 on the season and is coming off a lackluster offensive showing in a loss to Philadelphia last week. That game saw Andrew Luck throw for just 164 yards on 40 attempts. This should be a get-right game for him.

Buffalo Bills at Green Bay Packers: Josh Allen vs Packers pass defense

In one of the most-shocking developments we’ve seen in modern NFL history, Allen went into Minnesota and outperformed Kirk Cousins. He did so against one of the league’s best defenses en route to a 27-6 Bills win. Whether Allen’s performance was an outlier remains to be seen. But he did complete 15-of-22 passes without an interception. To put this into perspective, Minnesota entered Week 3 with the sixth-best pass defense in the NFL.

For the Packers, this offers them an opportunity to take advantage of a rookie quarterback being tasked with playing at Lambeau. It comes after the team allowed Alex Smith to be efficient as all get out in a Week 3 Redskins win over the Packers. Relying on Jaire Alexander and other unproven commodities in the secondary has led to a Green Bay pass defense that ranks in the bottom 11 of the NFL and has yielded a 103.1 quarterback rating.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Chicago Bears: Ryan Fitzpatrick vs Bears defense

I couldn’t care less that Fitzpatrick threw three first half interceptions Monday night against the Steelers. What he did in an attempt to lead the Buccaneers back after falling down 30-10 at halftime was legendary. For a while there in the second half, Tampa’s offense looked like the Greatest Show on Turf. After becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 400-plus yards in three consecutive games. He will be the starter over Jameis Winston moving forward.

On the other hand, Chicago’s defense has been stingy as all get out during a 2-1 start to the season. In a game pitting two surprise playoff contenders against one another, it’s going to be quite the matchup between Fitzmagic and a Bears defense, led by Khalil Mack, that ranks in the top five in total yards and has yielded just north of 18 points per game.

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski vs Dolphins linebackers

As we saw last week against the Detroit Lions, defenses are shading multiple defenders in Gronkowski’s direction as a way to take the uber-talented tight end out of the game. At times during New England’s shocking loss to Detroit, Gronkowski found himself triple-teamed. It makes perfect sense given that Tom Brady has been forced to rely on the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett at wide receiver. All said, Gronkowski has caught six passes for 66 yards over the past two weeks.

We’re fully expecting an undefeated Dolphins team to employ this same strategy come Sunday. In a game that could give them a stranglehold on the AFC East through the first quarter of the season, Adam Gase’s squad isn’t going to let Gronkowski win it for New England. That’s where linebackers Kiko Alonso, Jerome Baker and Raekwon McMillan come into play. Miami has allowed just 15 completions to tight ends in three games.

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott vs Lions pass defense

Just how bad was Dak Prescott last week against Seattle? He did not attempt a single pass of 15-plus yards down the field in an ugly loss for the Cowboys. In fact, Prescott is just the fifth quarterback in league history to throw for less than 200 yards while attempting 25-plus passes in five consecutive games. That list includes the great Rick Mirer. Needless to say, something has to change here…and fast.

Unfortunately for Prescott, he’s now being tasked with taking on a Lions defense under head coach Matt Patricia that held Tom Brady to 133 passing yards last week and has yielded the fewest passing yards in the NFL this season. Good luck with that, Dak!

Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons: Ryan Schraeder vs Carlos Dunlap

Pass protection just hasn’t stood up in front of Matt Ryan thus far this season. Outside of a relatively clean pocket in a Week 2 win over Carolina, he’s been sacked seven times in two games. The former MVP has also been hit an average of seven times through three games. Given the fact that Ryan isn’t the most mobile of quarterbacks, this is an unfortunate trend.

In order for Atlanta to rebound from last week’s overtime loss to New Orleans and find itself at .500 at the quarter point of the season, this offensive line must do better. It won’t be easy pickings against a Bengals defense that’s on pace for about 40 sacks this season. That’s where Schraeder has to step it up against Dunlap at right tackle.

New York Jets at Jacksonville Jaguars: Sam Darnold vs Jaguars pass defense

After a stirring regular season debut against the Lions in Week 1, Darnold has hit that proverbial rookie wall. Unfortunately, it came a lot sooner than most people expected. Over the course of the quarterback’s past two games (both losses), he’s completing less than 56 percent of his passes with one touchdown and four interceptions. That’s led to a downtick in production from the Jets’ offense during this losing streak.

Despite dropping last week’s game against Tennessee (thanks Blake Bortles), Jacksonville still boasts one of the top pass defenses in the NFL. It heads into Week 4 ranked No. 3 overall and is yielding an 83.9 passer rating. It might be a bit of a regression from last season, but Darnold promises to be in for a long day here.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans: Dallas Goedert vs Kevin Byard

Oh, this one is going to be an absolute blast. No matter what Deion Sanders thinks, Byard has more than proven himself to be among the game’s best centerfielders at the free safety position. His range and ability to make plays is second-to-none in the AFC. In fact, Earl Thomas is likely the only other NFL safety who stands above him in this regard.

Byard himself is going to have one heck of a matchup against an Eagles rookie tight end in Dallas Goedert who caught all seven of his targets from Carson Wentz for 73 yards and a score last week. It was a coming-out party for the second-round pick after he struggled with Nick Foles under center. At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds and with the athleticism of a wide receiver, he’s nearly uncoverable when it comes to linebackers. That means Byard is going to have his hands full here.

Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders: Baker Mayfield vs Raiders pass defense

Now officially the Browns’ starting quarterback after a dazzling regular season debut last week, Mayfield will look to lead his team to a second consecutive win. His presence under center last week electrified a long-downtrodden fan base and has expectations at a modern-era high for the Browns’ franchise. A win here, and the Cleveland will find itself winners of multiple games in a row for the first time since November of 2014.

The better news for Mayfield and the Browns? They’re going up against a winless Raiders team that’s on the verge of unraveling under first-year head coach Jon Gruden. Even better? Oakland is yielding a 105.1 passer rating through three games. Even with the Raiders having some tape on him, we’re expecting the reigning Heisman winner to show out here in a big way.

Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals: D.J. Humphries vs Frank Clark

Outside of having their best offensive player on the field on third-and-short, there’s going to be one major key for Josh Rosen as he makes his first NFL start Sunday. Pass protection has to be top of the line for the young signal caller as he prepares to replace Sam Bradford under center.

Cardinals quarterbacks have been hit a total of 20 times on 94 dropbacks thus far this season. Given his inexperience, we’re expecting for Rosen to hold on to the ball longer than he should. That’s where Humphries comes into play against a pass rusher in Frank Clark who has a sack in each of the first three games.

New Orleans Saints at New York Giants: Saquon Barkley vs Saints run defense

New York finally decided to use Barkley appropriately in last week’s win over the Houston Texans, the team’s first victory of the season. The rookie put up 82 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts while catching 5-of-5 targets for 35 yards. That came after he was targeted an absurd 16 times in a Week 2 loss to Dallas. It’s this type of balance that New York was looking for when it selected him No. 2 overall back in April. It also led to Eli Manning’s best statistical performance in years.

The onus here is going to be on the Giants’ offensive coaching staff to make sure they don’t abandon the run early in hopes of beating a lackluster Saints pass defense through the air. New Orleans ranks 30th in the NFL against the pass and has yielded an astronomical 141.7 passer rating. Meanwhile, it’s run defense is giving up just three yards per attempt.

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Chargers: C.J. Beathard vs Chargers pass defense

The season of Jimmy Garoppolo came to an end after less than three games when he suffered a torn ACL late in the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs last week. Common logic also seems to suggest that this puts an end to San Francisco’s playoff aspirations after it entered the season with high expectations. But as is the case in the NFL, it’s all about the next man up.

Beathard started five games as a rookie last season, completing less than 55 percent of his passes with four scores and six interceptions. He’s the next man up. And the Iowa product will be tasked with going up against a Chargers pass defense that ranks in the bottom seven of the NFL while yielding a passer rating of north of 107. With both teams boasting a 1-2 record, this matchup could tell us a larger story moving forward on the season.

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown vs Marlon Humphrey 

Antonio Brown just has not been himself through the first three games. He caught just 6-of-9 passes for 50 yards against a young and injury-depleted Buccaneers secondary Monday night. All said, Brown has hauled in 57 percent of the passes thrown in his direction thus far this season.

Brown will have to step up against a Ravens defense that ranks No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and has yielded less than 170 passing yards per game to go with a 67.6 quarterback rating. It’s certainly going to be tough sledding against a corner in Humphrey who has proven himself to be Baltimore’s best cover guy this season.

Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos: Patrick Mahomes vs Broncos pass defense 

Following another bad outing from their secondary, the Broncos are looking to make some changes. Meanwhile, star cornerback Chris Harris Jr. is not a fan of the team’s current scheme. That’s what happens when you have yielded a 70 percent completion percentage and a 102.2 quarterback rating through three games. Given how dominant this pass defense had been in the past, it has to be of concern.

It won’t get any easier on Monday Night Football when Denver welcomes in Patrick Mahomes and the undefeated Chiefs in an all AFC West matchup. Mahomes has tossed 13 touchdowns compared to zero interceptions through three games en route to leading his Chiefs to nearly 40 points per outing. He’ll have a chance to mark his territory against Von Miller and Co. here.