It’s hard to believe that most NFL teams have already played a quarter of their regular season schedule. Now through four weeks, we have a much better understanding of what is happening around the league.
Are the New Orleans Saints in real trouble? What about the remaining undefeated teams, will they continue to impress against quality opponents? Heck, Alex Smith is returning home to take on his former team in a game that is pretty darn big for both the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers.
These are some of the many storylines we are going to cover below.
Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers: Teddy vs Aaron for the First Time
This is going to be the first of many matchups between the young Teddy Bridgewater and a Super Bowl-winning Aaron Rodgers. While Teddy is still questionable to play, indications are that he will suit up in his first trip to Lambeau Field. And fresh off a huge performance against the Atlanta Falcons, a win here could go a long way in cementing his status as the quarterback of the future in Minneapolis. It also doesn’t hurt that both Minnesota and Green Bay are 2-2, which makes this a rather big early-season divisional game.
Can Teddy go into Lambeau and pull off the win or will Rodgers pick up where he left off last week in a dominating performance against the Bears? That’s a storyline in and of itself heading into Thursday Night Football.
Chicago Bears at Carolina Panthers: Both Teams Need to get it Together
Carolina has lost its last two games by a combined 46 points to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, Chicago is coming off a 21-point beat down at the hands of the division-rival Packers. Needless to say, both of these 2-2 teams need to get back on track in the NFC Playoff race.
For Carolina, it’s all about performing better on the defensive side of the ball without the services of Greg Hardy, who is still away from the team dealing with a legal matter off the field. Ron Rivera’s team also needs to find some more balance on offense. That won’t come in the form of DeAngelo Williams, who will miss Sunday’s game with a high-ankle sprain. Jonathan Stewart did return to practice on Wednesday, so he should be able to go against Chicago.
As it relates to the Bears, the issues are little more fixable. They struggled big time covering the likes of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb last week. Without the same receiving weapons in Carolina, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker should be able to mask the secondary issues they have. Either way, this is a huge early-October game for both teams.
Cleveland Browns at Tennessee Titans: Road Team Looks to Remain in the AFC North Race
Despite losing two of their first three games, the Browns have shown the ability to compete against superior teams. They now need to take on a weaker team and show domination in order to be taken seriously in the AFC North this year and moving forward. That opportunity comes against a Titans team that has lost three consecutive games by a combined 66 points.
If Brian Hoyer is able to continue finding Andrew Hawkins and Miles Austin in the passing game, it will allow the likes of Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell to run free against a Titans defense that is yielding an average of nearly 150 rushing yards during this three-game losing streak. In order to prove they belong, the Browns must dominate a bad Titans team on Sunday. If not, they will be seen as nothing more than your average football team in a NFL that’s defined by mediocrity today.
St. Louis Rams at Philadelphia Eagles: Rebound Game for Nick Foles and Eagles Offense
Philadelphia’s offense did not score a single point against the San Francisco 49ers last week. That’s not a sentence you normally read when it comes to Chip Kelly-led offenses. Still with an offensive line that’s dealing with a ton of injuries, Nick Foles is going to have his hands full against a beastly Rams defensive front. But in order for the Eagles to get back on track, their passing game needs to pick it up from the horrendous performance we saw last week.
The larger issue, if there is one, has been the lackluster production Philadelphia has seen from its running game. LeSean McCoy is averaging just 2.7 yards per attempt this season, which is nearly half of his average from a year ago. Without McCoy putting up big games, Foles will continue to struggle behind a makeshift offensive line. Simply put, the running game needs to get going in order for this team to have success.
Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants: Big Game for Two .500 Teams
The Falcons come into this matchup reeling from a 41-28 loss to the Minnesota Vikings and without the services of at least three offensive linemen. Sam Baker, Lamar Holmes and Joe Hawley are all out for the season. Meanwhile, starting right guard Justin Blalock has not practiced all week after suffering a back injury against Minnesota. This is a tremendous blow to Matt Ryan and the Falcons passing attack. It’s also something that’s going to be incredibly difficult for the 2-2 Falcons to overcome in what can be considered a mediocre NFC South.
For the Giants, this game is all about continuing the momentum we have seen over the past two weeks. They seem to have their act together on offense under new coordinator Ben McAdoo, and Eli Manning is playing the best football we have seen since the 2012 campaign. If the Giants can hold off Atlanta in this one, it will help them keep pace with the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys in a vastly improved NFC East.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: Season-Defining Game for Drew Brees and Co.
New Orleans was absolutely destroyed in its Week 4 matchup with the Dallas Cowboy. And now at 1-3 on the season, this team simply cannot afford to lose another game. The good news here is that the Saints return home where they are 9-0 over the course of the last two seasons. They do so against a Buccaneers team that hasn’t defeated the Saints in New Orleans since 2010 and have been outscored at the Superdome 83-17 over the last two games.
For the Saints, it’s all about tying up a lot of loose ends on the defensive side of the ball. They rank 27th in points against, 29th in passing yards allowed and 29th in total defense. That’s a far cry from a unit that played extremely good football under coordinator Rob Ryan last year.
Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys: Home Team Looks for Fourth Straight Win
Fresh off a dominating performance against New Orleans in Week 4, the Cowboys are looking for their first four-game winning streak since 2010. Is this team ready to take the next step towards true contention status in the NFC or is what we have seen over the past three weeks nothing more than a mirage? That’s the question that will be answered when Dallas hosts an equally surprising Texans team come Sunday.
DeMarco Murray leads the world in rushing yards and is an early favorite for Offensive Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Tony Romo has done a tremendous job managing the game and limiting mistakes since an embarrassing Week 1 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. With the talent that Dallas possesses on offense, it should be able to hold off a pesky Texans defense led by all-world defensive end J.J. Watt. With that said, a loss here could indicate that Dallas is nothing more than the 8-8 team we have seen over the past three seasons.
Buffalo Bills at Detroit Lions: Is Kyle Orton Really the Answer?
Buffalo made some intriguing news this week by benching second-year quarterback EJ Manuel in lieu of veteran Kyle Orton. A move that was first met with skepticism around the football world now seems to have some merit to it, as some players within the Bills (mainly Sammy Watkins) have come out and criticized Manuel to an extent following his benching.
The idea behind starting Orton is to give Buffalo the ability to push the ball down the field, something that Manuel simply didn’t do in four games under center. Even at 2-2 and coming off two straight losses, the Bills are in prime position to challenge for the AFC East Title. Absolutely no one is running away with that division anytime soon, and Buffalo possesses the necessary talent to earn its first trip to the playoffs since the Clinton Administration. Could the promotion of Orton from clipboard holder to starter the be key here? Time will tell.
Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts: Early-Season Barometer Game
At 3-1, the Ravens are playing some darn good football. Over the course of their last three games (all wins), Joe Flacco is completing 68 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and one interception for a 108.7 rating. It’s not a coincidence that Flacco has seen Baltimore’s offensive attack resemble some sort of balance over these past three games. Since throwing 62 passes in Week 1, Flacco is averaging just 30 passes per game during this three-game winning streak. That’s Baltimore’s formula for success moving forward.
After losing their first two games of the season, Indianapolis has dominated it last two opponents by the combined score of 85-34. The issue with taking anything from those outings that that they were against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. Now going up against a hot Ravens team, Joe Flacco and Co. have an opportunity to prove that they can hang with some of the more talented teams in the league. A loss here, and there will be more questions raised about the Colts ability against opponents that are considered anything more than mediocre, at best.
Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars: Steelers Need a Win Following Week 4 Performance
The good news here is that Pittsburgh is going up against a Jaguars defense that ranks dead last in the NFL in points against and total yards allowed. The bad news is that Pittsburgh is coming off a home loss to a previously winless Buccaneers team. There is absolutely no way to tell whether this team is going to show up like it did in Week 3 against Carolina or last week in that loss to Tampa Bay.
When clicking, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers passing attack is nearly unstoppable. Receivers Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton have taken the next step, which provides the veteran quarterback with consistent weapons. Couple that with the emergence of Le’Veon Bell on the ground and you have the makings of a dynamic offensive attack. This needs to show up Sunday against a hungry Jaguars team and young quarterback Blake Bortles. Otherwise, the Steelers may fall victim to a surprise loss on the road.
Arizona Cardinals at Denver Broncos: Statement Game for the Cardinals
At this point it doesn’t seem like Carson Palmer will be able to go Sunday in Denver. Instead, veteran backup Drew Stanton will get his third consecutive start for the team. While Stanton hasn’t necessarily played great football in his two starts, he has led the Cardinals to wins in both.
Now going up against the defending AFC champions on the road, Arizona has a chance to prove that it can win against an elite team away from home without the services of its starting quarterback. Just think of how big that would be for Bruce Arians’ squad in the NFC West with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
Kansas City Chiefs at San Francisco 49ers: Alex Smith Returns to ‘San Francisco’
Could there possibly be another storyline here? Smith returns “home” to take on a 49ers team that has struggled to a 2-2 start this season. He does so following an impressive performance against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots last week. He does so with Colin Kaepernick struggling to an extent for the 49ers.
What if Smith outplays Kaepernick and the Chiefs come out of Santa Clara with a victory? Just imagine the narrative that would bring in the coming weeks. On the other hand, if the 49ers come out on top and Smith plays poorly in front of his former home crowd, it will be some sort of vindication for the many who believe San Francisco made the right decision in trading its former No. 1 overall pick.
New York Jets at San Diego Chargers: Rivers Looks to Continue MVP Season
Rivers’ performance thus far this season is completely out of this world. And just when you think the Chargers are about to revert back to pre-2013 form, much like they did early against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, Rivers responds by throwing three touchdowns in the second and third quarter, leading the Chargers to another impressive victory.
The veteran now has nine touchdowns compared to one interception and boasts a league-leading 114.1 quarterback rating on the season. He now has a chance to continue this stellar performance against a Jets defense that has yet to intercept a pass in four games this year.
Cincinnati Bengals at New England Patriots: Tom Brady Looks to get Back on Track
A lot has been made about Brady’s struggles this season. He has thrown for less than 800 yards in four games and boasts a quarterback rating of under 80. He’s leading a Patriots offense that ranks 30th in passing yards and 24th in scoring. And to be perfectly honest, he’s a major reason for these struggles. Brady simply isn’t the same quarterback we have seen in the past.
Now looking to get back on track and show that he’s not a shell of his former self, the future Hall of Famer lines up against a Bengals defense that has allowed a 56.9 quarterback rating to opposing teams this season. If Brady and the Patriots lose convincingly at home here, it will tell us a lot about where this team is at.
Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins: Defending Champs on the Road
There is absolutely no reason to believe that Seattle is going to fall victim to an upset here against a Redskins team that struggled so much last week in a blowout loss to the New York Giants. But in order to prove that they can win on a consistant basis on the road, the Seahawks must do much more than win a game, they have to dominate an inferior opponent in the eastern time zone on national television.
What if Seattle stumbles out of the bye and puts up a less-than-stellar performance against Washington, even in a win? That could go a long way in giving other teams confidence that the defending Super Bowl champions are not invincible this season. After all, Seattle’s last road game didn’t go too swimmingly.
Photo: CBS Sports