Week 4 is a time when you realize just how short the NFL season really is, but also when you start to separate the contenders from the pretenders.
Thursday night’s game showed us just how deadly Aaron Rodgers can be at home, and how poor the Bears can be away from Soldier Field. Last night should be the last time we see Mike Glennon under center, but it probably won’t be. Mitchell Trubisky seems more than ready to go in, but the lack of talent at receiver could well convince John Fox not to throw his future out there to pass to Josh Bellamy and Zach Miller.
Moving on to Sunday, we have the second London game of the season with Miami and the Saints coming to town, but the headlines of the week are the divisional battles in the NFC North and AFC West, where a pecking order should be established between those that can contend for the division title and those who will have to scrap for a wild card. Let’s start in the NFC…
Lions & Vikings go to war
Both at 2-1, the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions have looked like teams that can go toe-to-toe with nearly anyone. The Lions could be 3-0, and the Vikings are putting up good offense with Case Keenum while their defense crushes opponents. Both teams are still chasing Green Bay (3-1), and as good as they are it is going to be very hard for both of them to make the playoffs. It seems odd to call a Week 4 game 'must-win', but this matchup has that kind of feeling around it.
Detroit took both games against the Vikings last year, which is a big reason why they got the wild card spot, but both games were decided by a touchdown or less, and the Vikings are much improved this season.
Dalvin Cook brings balance
Last year the Vikings were the worst rushing team in the league, this year they are middle of the pack thanks to a reshuffle on the offensive line and the introduction of rookie runner Dalvin Cook. The ability to keep defenses honest has opened space in the secondary for Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs to go to work and keep Case Keenum and Sam Bradford looking like legitimate NFL starters.
Speaking of Bradford, he has been ruled out of Sunday's game, leaving Keenum under center for the third game in a row, and facing an underrated defensive unit.
Teryl Austin's defense doesn't get the press it deserves, because while they give up yards in the middle of the field, they are actually very difficult to score on. Last year they were 13th in points against, and this year they are 15th, even with that game against Atlanta. When you take out the Matthew Stafford pick-six from Week 1 they improve to seventh in points per game.
Between Ziggy Ansah, Darius Slay, Glover Quin, and Jarrad Davis this defense is no slouch. Austin has a knack for bringing pressure at the right times and getting production from unlikely places. If he can do it against Minnesota and keep Thielen and Diggs under control then the Lions could well surprise a lot of people.
Purple people eaters
Minnesota's defense is almost certainly better though. With very good edge pressure, depth at cornerback and playmakers in the middle of the field it is very difficult to consistently move the ball against Mike Zimmer's men.
Stafford has been a master of the late drive and the fourth-quarter escapology, but Zimmer's defense has confounded Drew Brees and locked up both Antonio Brown and Mike Evans so far this season. There is not reason to think they won't be able to handle Golden Tate and Marvin Jones.
The one thing the Lions have going for them, like the Vikings, is an improved run game. Ameer Abdullah behind TJ Lang and Rick Wagner was a good weapon against the Giants in Week 2, and enough to keep the Falcons on their toes as well. However, Linval Joseph is not to be trifled with, and a deep rotation at defensive end means that the outside zone right might not be as productive as it has been recently for the Lions.
The wild west
The second big rivalry of the week is in the AFC West between the Oakland Raiders (2-1) and Denver Broncos (2-1). Both are coming off disappointing road losses in Week 3 and need to try and keep pace with the exciting Chiefs.
On Thursday's podcast we discussed just how much pressure Khalil Mack and Von Miller might be able to generate by themselves, but this game goes beyond two excellent pass rushers trying to send quarterbacks to the trainers room.
Can you run on Denver?
The Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills were the most successful rushing offenses of 2016. Between them they amassed 5,026 yards on the ground. Both have faced Denver this year, and both have struggled. The Broncos are holding opponents to 59.7 yards per game and just 2.6 yards per carry.
The Raiders offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, and certainly the biggest. They have an average weight of 322lb and compete every week for who can bury the most defenders in the turf in 60 minutes.
However, while their team yards per carry is a healthy 4.7, a lot of that is down to big plays from Jalen Richard and Cordarrelle Patterson. Their 'every-down' back Marshawn Lynch is at just 3.9.
A huge factor in determining the winner of this game will be if the Raiders can find success on the ground, allowing Derek Carr to pick his spots against the brilliant secondary, or if like Dallas they will have to abandon the run and leave themselves open to interceptions and sacks.
Who is Trevor Siemian?
Through the first two weeks Trevor Siemian looked like the answer for the Broncos. Last week he looked very much like just another guy. Is he just a Mile High specialist? Or can he provide a long-term solution to the quarterback position for the Broncos?
A quick look at his splits suggests he is purely a creation of home field advantage. Siemian is 7-2 in Denver, and 3-6 everywhere else. The rest of his stats show a strong difference as well.
That last number, yards per attempt, is the most worrying for Denver fans. At home, Siemian is able to make plays down field and pick up chunks of yards. Away from home he simply isn't doing that.
With the Broncos having a bye and a home game against the Giants before a three-week road trip that includes a trip to Arrowhead, it is vital that the Broncos offense shows the same level of potency they did against Dallas in Week 2 and that they find a formula for Siemian that allows some production to come with them away from Mile High.
Key player battles
This week is full of interesting one-on-one matchups and games within the game. From slowing star receivers to working around destructive linemen, coaches are going to have their hands full this weekend dealing with some of the talents on display.
Aaron Donald vs Chaz Green & Zack Martin
Despite missing the entire preseason in a holdout, Aaron Donald has maintained his status and the chief disruptor on the inside. He ruins play-designs on a regular basis, and while he only has one sack so far he has added two tackles for loss and three QB hits.
His main role this weekend though will be to try and keep a lit on the Cowboys run game and blow up as many plays as he can. Dallas need to get Elliott and their ground game working, so they can keep Dak Prescott out of obvious passing situations and keep the play action game working. If they can't run, then it will make life a lot easier for the whole Rams team.
Luke Kuechly vs Rob Gronkowski
Unfortunately, these two aren't at the peak of their game like in 2013 when they went toe-to-toe. Gronkowski is slower, and Kuechly more injury-prone, but they are still among the very best at what they do in the NFL.
Gronk has been killing safeties not named Eric Berry with his size and precise route-running. Namely running deep in-cuts and getting separation by leaning into the safety and then breaking away from him. With Kuechly he faces someone a lot stronger but with similar movement abilities, and while they are unlikely the matched up in man coverage a lot on Sunday, Kuechly will be dropping into the lanes where Gronkowski usually prowls. He already has one interception this season and will be itching to add one off Tom Brady to his list of accomplishments.
JJ Watt vs Jack Conklin
Watt has not been his all-conquering self since returning from multiple back surgeries, and the NFL is a lesser place for it. He has been held sackless so far this season, though he does lead the Texans in QB hits (4). He also picked up his first tackles for loss against New England last week, taking advantage of Marcus Cannon's absence.
This week he faces All-Pro second-year right tackle Jack Conklin for the first time in what should be a battle for the ages.
Conklin has been a monster since entering the league. He is an especially nasty run blocker, with a guard's mentality but inside a tackle's frame. He has bullied almost every defensive end he has come up against, but Watt isn't like every other end. Even if he is still knocking some rust off and working his way back to his explosive best, Watt is positionally incredible and has the best hands in the business.
The Titans' success has come from consistently opening running lanes across the line and keeping Marcus Mariota clean. Conklin needs to continue his stellar work, but it will be very tough going.
Vernon Hargreaves vs Odell Beckham Jr
The Giants offense, or what is left of it, runs through Odell Beckham and his big play ability. Even if he is just catching one of the millions of slant variations Ben McAdoo likes to call, Beckham is capable of breaking it for 30+ yards.
Trying to cover him for at least some of the day will be second-year corner Vernon Hargreaves, who has struggled this season. Last week both Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs put the moves on him to get open downfield, and both of them lack the top-end speed of Beckham.
Eli will look for #13 regularly, and if Hargreaves can't handle him then the Bucs gameplan may well go up in smoke.
The biggest underdog this weekend are the Indianapolis Colts, who are getting 13 points as they go to Seattle for the Sunday Night Football game. As poor as the Seahawks offensive line has looked, they just don't lose at home against poor teams. While the Colts will likely cover, picking up the win is unlikely.
The other big 'dogs this weekend are the Bills (@ Atlanta, +8) and Carolina (@ New England, +9). While neither seem likely to win, if there is one thing that could make Cam Newton look good again it's the Patriots defense.
With a lack of edge pressure and a secondary in flux, there should be holes a plenty for Newton to exploit, and with New England lacking any obvious answer for Christian McCaffrey and upset could certainly be on the cards there.
Elsewhere, the Rams are six-point 'dogs in Dallas and seem to have created some production from Jared Goff, and most importantly Todd Gurley, this season. Dallas' secondary is thin and while their pass rush has looked good it has feasted mostly on very poor offensive lines. Sean McVay seems to have done wonders for the Rams offense this season, and while it's maybe a little early to be banking on them, if I had to pick one underdog to win outright this week it would be the Rams.
What will be the game of the week?
If you can only watch one game this weekend, firstly you need to organize your weekend better! But if you are busy and only have time to sample one NFL game I would go with the Lions and Vikings.
Both teams have looked like they can beat anyone when they play their cards right, and despite GreenBay's big win last night I think both are capable of winning the NFC North this season. There is a lot of talent on both teams that don't get the attention they deserve because they don't play on traditional powerhouse teams, but Golden Tate is as good a slot receiver as you'll find, and Everson Griffen is an elite pass rusher. Darius Slay is among the best corners in the league right now and Harrison Smith has become criminally underrated.
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