Top storyline for each Week 4 NFL game

By Vincent Frank
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The first three weeks of the 2018 NFL season has told us many stories. Out west, the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs appear to be the top dogs in the NFL. Both face difficult games in Week 4.

Back east, the two-time defending AFC champion New England Patriots are in the midst of a two-game losing streak. Can they take out the undefeated Miami Dolphins at home on Sunday? If not, New England will find itself three games behind the men from South Beach through four weeks.

These are among the top storylines for each Week 4 NFL game.

Minnesota Vikings at Los Angeles Rams: Short week, statement game 

Kirk Cousins and the Vikings don’t have any time to wallow in their sorrows following an humiliating 27-6 home loss to a hapless Buffalo Bills squad. In some ways, the NFL schedule gods have decided to go 50 Shades on the long suffering organization. This time, it comes on a short week against an undefeated Los Angeles Rams squad that’s outscoring its opponents by an average of 22 points per game.

We’re really not too sure what to make of what happened Sunday in Minnesota. Taking on a Bills team that some thought would go winless, Cousins and Co. laid a complete egg. It was a nightmare scenario for a squad that has Super Bowl written all over it. Now, with three days of rest, their goal has to be short term. Can a previously dominant Vikings defense impose its will against one of the most-dominant offenses in the NFL? If not, will Cousins return to form after one of the worst performances of his career? Without any real answers, I guess it’s good that Minnesota gets this one out of the way quickly.

Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts: Bill O’Brien’s future in Houston 

Now at 0-3 on the season following last week’s loss to the Giants, there’s very little reason to believe Houston is going to rebound. Dating back to 1980, only five teams that started the season losing their first three games went on to make the playoffs that season. Losing on the road against two playoff teams (New England and Tennessee) is one thing. Getting dominated at home against a winless Giants squad with a previously inept offense is a completely different thing.

One now has to wonder if O’Brien’s job is safe in Houston. He had been on the hot seat prior to the 2018 season. And with high expectations heading into Week 1, the Texans are one more loss from complete irrelevance. Should that take hold Sunday against Indianapolis, we might see O’Brien be the first coach to get his walking papers.

Buffalo Bills at Green Bay Packers: Was Week 3 just a fluke?

We’re asking this question as it relates to both teams. How in the world did Buffalo go into Minnesota as 16-plus point dogs, only to come out on top against a Super Bowl contending Vikings squad, 27-6? So much went right for the Bills. Nothing went right for Kirk Cousins and the home team. One has to chalk this up as a mere fluke, right? After all, Buffalo had looked like one of the worst teams in modern NFL history through the first two games.

On the other hand, a hobbled Aaron Rodgers led Green Bay to a clunker of a performance on the road against the Redskins this past Sunday. The team lost 31-17 and allowed Adrian Peterson to go off for 120 yards and two scores on the ground. Was that performance also an exception to the rule? We’ll find out Sunday at Lambeau.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Chicago Bears: Matchup of surprise teams

Despite seeing their undefeated aspirations come to an end this past Monday night, the Buccaneers still find themselves in a good spot heading into Week 4. Dirk Koetter might not want to admit it publicly, but Ryan Fitzpatrick will start this outing against another surprising team in the Bears. He’s compiled 11 touchdowns in three games en route to leading the Buccaneers to a No. 1 ranking in total offense and a No. 3 mark in scoring.

Chicago’s success has been vastly different in that it’s relying on an elite-level defense and an early MVP candidate in Khalil Mack to do damage. Mack has already racked up four sacks and three forced fumbles. Meanwhile, Mitchell Trubisky continues to struggle under center. In a game between two surprising squads, the optics couldn’t be any different here.

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: Marking their territory in the AFC East

If the Dolphins somehow come out of Gillette Stadium with a win, they’ll be three games ahead of a struggling Patriots team through four weeks. That might not lead to panic for Tom Brady and Co., but it would be darn close. There’s no justification for the Patriots losing this game. Even with a lackluster group of receivers on offense and a struggling defense, New England needs to rebound from its two-game losing streak to get back on track here.

It won’t be easy. Riding a defense that’s yielding a 65.6 passer rating and a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill playing the best ball of his career, Adam Gase’s squad heads into Week 4 as only one of three undefeated teams. It’s going to want to make a statement here. Unfortunately, the recent AFC East track record suggests New England will dominate when all is said and done Sunday.

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys: Where has Dak Prescott gone?

To infinity and beyond? Honestly, the regression we’ve seen from Prescott over the past two years is simply remarkable. His recent stats compare to that of a disgraced former Houston Texans and Denver Broncos quarterback. Last week against Seattle, Prescott did not attempt a single pass of 15-plus yards. He’s the fifth quarterback in league history to fail to throw for 200-plus yards while attempting 25-plus passes in five consecutive games. It’s ugly. Really ugly.

Taking on a Lions defense that’s given up 152 passing yards per game this season, we’re not expecting Prescott to light the world on fire here. It’s the longer-term ramifications. Continued struggles on Prescott’s part will lead to renewed questions about his status as a franchise quarterback and the job security of Jason Garrett on the sidelines.

Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons: Must win for the home team

Shockingly, Atlanta heads into Week 4 in last place in the NFC South. It boasts a 1-2 record and is one game behind the other three teams in what is among the best divisions in football. Last week’s loss was just brutal for the Falcons. It came in overtime against the Saints after Matt Ryan tossed five touchdowns in a flawless performance.

Unfortunately for the Falcons, they’re going to have to move forward this season without three starters on defense. Safety Ricardo Allen suffered a torn Achilles last week. He joins Deion Jones and Keanu Neal on the sideline for Atlanta. Whether this defense can overcome these losses after a disastrous performance last week remains to be seen. We’ll find out soon enough on Sunday.

New York Jets at Jacksonville Jaguars: Will the real Jags please stand up?

In previewing last week’s game against the Titans, we noted that the Jaguars are good for one or two flops per season. It came out in a big way in Week 3. Blake Bortles was horrible under center. Jacksonville sorely missed Leonard Fournette in the backfield. And in the end, Jacksonville lost to a Titans team with a quarterback that couldn’t feel his fingers by the score of 9-6. That’s just ugly.

Now set to take on another inferior team in that of the Jets on Sunday, the hope here is that Doug Marrone’s squad can rebound from last week’s loss. It comes against a rookie quarterback in Sam Darnold who has thrown four interceptions in the past two games, both losses. This should be a get-right game for the Jags.

Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans: Dusting off the rust

Carson Wentz wasn’t anywhere near perfect in his first action since December of 2017 last week against the Indianapolis Colts. He completed 25-of-37 passes for 255 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was just 18-of-30 targeting anyone not named Dallas Goedert in the narrow win.

It will certainly be interesting to see how Wentz performs against a Titans pass defense that ranks in the top 10 of the NFL. Last week showed us Wentz was still rusty in a winning effort. In his first road action since returning, Wentz needs to dust that rust off.

Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders: Baker Mayfield, baby

It’s official. Baker Mayfield will make his first regular season NFL start Sunday on the road against the Oakland Raiders. This comes after the reigning Heisman winner led Cleveland to a resounding comeback win over the New York Jets last Thursday, its first win since Christmas Eve of 2016. The Browns will now turn to Mayfield in hopes of their first winning steak since 2014 and their first victory on a Sunday since December of 2015.

In all honesty, Cleveland should have the advantage here. No matter what Hue Jackson says, Derek Carr is playing some horrible football for the winless Raiders. Meanwhile, Jon Gruden’s defense is yielding a 100-plus passer rating on the season. Look for another big-time performance from Mayfield in his initial NFL start.

Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals: Josh Rosen gets the call

Arizona showed its hands in a big way last week against the Chicago Bears. Trailing by less than a touchdown and just north of four minutes remaining in the final quarter, Steve Wilks replaced expensive veteran acquisition Sam Bradford with this rookie top-10 pick. While Rosen failed to lead the winless Cardinals back, he was anointed the starter moving forward.

It won’t be easy Sunday against a surprising defense that dominated Dak Prescott and Co. last week and has yielded a 74.4 passer rating with seven interceptions through three games. Even if Rosen does struggle, this has to be seen as the start of a new era in the desert.

New Orleans Saints at New York Giants: Saints offense is just absurd

What we’ve seen from the Saints’ offense through three weeks is nothing short of extraordinary. They are averaging a whopping 34.7 points per game. Drew Brees is completing 80.6 percent of his passes after breaking the single-season mark in that category last year. Meanwhile, stud wide receiver Michael Thomas boasts a 95 percent catch rate on 40 targets. Not to be outdone, reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara has put up 430 total yards while catching a whopping 30 passes.

New Orleans has needed all of this and more during a 2-1 start to the season. Its defense ranks dead last in points allowed at 34.3 per game. Opposing quarterbacks have torched this unit to the tune of a 74.2 completion percentage and a 141.7 passer rating. Needless to say, Sunday’s game against Eli Manning, Saquon Barkley and Co. should be a high-scoring affair.

San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Chargers: Battling for relevance in California

The C.J. Beathard era in San Francisco is upon us. Following the season-ending ACL injury to franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the 49ers turn to this second-year signal caller to help save their season. At 1-2 on the year, things certainly are not looking up for Kyle Shanahan’s squad. Such is the nature of the beast in an NFL that’s been defined by injuries far too often in recent seasons.

Further south, the Chargers also enter Week 4 with a 1-2 mark. Philip Rivers and Co. couldn’t hang with the Chiefs or Rams in both losses. A season that started with Super Bowl expectations could ultimately go down in flames should the Chargers lose “at home” against San Francisco Sunday. It’s that simple.

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers: Are the Steelers finally right? 

Relying on a great game from Ben Roethlisberger to overcome another shoddy performance from its defense, Pittsburgh earned its first victory of the season this past Monday night. It wasn’t a great overall performance, and discipline has become a major issue under head coach Mike Tomlin. After all, Pittsburgh has been penalized 12-plus times in each of its first three games.

While last week’s win might have been a start, there’s a chance Pittsburgh is grounded in a big way against the division-rival Ravens on Sunday Night Football. Baltimore boasts the No. 2 pass defense and No. 2 overall defense through three weeks. For his part, Big Ben has thrown just seven touchdowns compared to six picks in his past five starts against Baltimore. He’ll have to fix this in order for Pittsburgh to avoid finishing the first quarter of the season with just one win.

Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos: Is Kansas City NFL’s best team?

Yes and no. That’s the right answer after three weeks. Sure the Chiefs’ offense, led by a history-breaking Patrick Mahomes, has shown out. But the team’s defense has also been a complete and utter disaster through three games. During that span, Kansas City is averaging a league-best 39.3 points per game. It’s also yielding nearly 31 points per outing.

Last week was a prime example of these splits. Kansas City opened up a 35-7 lead over San Francisco late in the first half. While the team did come out on top, it took an injury to Jimmy Garoppolo for the 49ers not to make this a one-score affair late in the fourth. Kansas City might be fun to watch. That’s great. But its defense needs to step up moving forward.