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Cullen: Week Four NFL Preview

Scott Cullen

9/27/2012 4:37:54 PM

Given that there are only three undefeated teams, along with two winless teams, it's no surprise that there is still much sorting out required this early in the NFL season.

Even this week, with 15 games on the schedule (enjoy your byes Indy and Pittsburgh), eight games have a spread of four points or less, so it figures to be competitive in many locations.

There are also a couple of 12-point spreads, including Thursday night's game, so it's not all balance everywhere, but it's probably going to be a while before there are clearer differences between the teams that aren't at the very top or very bottom.

And this week, the real referees return. Will that have any great bearing on the results? Will home teams lose what appeared to be an early edge under the replacement officials?

My take: the penalty calls will be more on the mark and interceptions will no longer count as touchdowns, but many (not all, sorry Cleveland) teams are still going to rack up prolific yardage totals and score a lot of points because that is how the game has evolved even under the watch of the regular officials.

A look at the Week Four matchups:

CLEVELAND (+12) at BALTIMORE
The winless Browns have their hands full no matter who the opposition is, but visiting the Ravens in Baltimore is a massive uphill climb. If the Browns are going to somehow pull off the upset they will need QB Brandon Weeden and/or RB Trent Richardson to come up with huge efforts.

Now, that's not impossible, since the Ravens do rank 28th in passing yards allowed (289.7 per game), but Weeden doesn't have the same calibre of receivers that the Ravens' first three opponents (Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New England) offered. That means at least one of Mohamed Massaquoi, Greg Little or Josh Gordon will have to provide a downfield presence.

From the Raven's perspective, they should be able to run Ray Rice when they need to, but their increased dependence on the passing game will test a Browns secondary that could really use (suspended) CB Joe Haden this week.

CAROLINA (+7.5) at ATLANTA
After getting pantsed on national television by the Giants last Thursday, the Panthers have to be much better to have any hope in Atlanta. The expectation is that RB Jonathan Stewart will be in the Panthers lineup and he played in the Panthers' only win so far this season, accumulating 68 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown against New Orleans.

With Stewart in the lineup, combined with DeAngelo Williams and FB Mike Tolbert, the Panthers may be able to run more effectively against Atlanta, which has allowed 128.7 yards per game on the ground, ranking 24th in the league, and that's Carolina's best chance to keep the Falcons' go-go offence off the field and grind out a road win.

The big challenge for Carolina will be covering the Falcons wide receiver duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones. Veteran Chris Gamble and rookie Josh Norman, the Panthers' starting corners, will be charged with that task and expect Norman, in particular, to get tested by Falcons QB Matt Ryan; such is life as a rookie cornerback in the NFL.

NEW ENGLAND (-4) at BUFFALO
Losing the last two games by a total of three points, the Patriots are on the wrong side of .500, yet have enough talent to be a road favourite against a Bills team that has won its last two games by 28 points.

At the same time, the Patriots are missing a few offensive contributors -- including TE Aaron Hernandez and WR Julian Edelman -- and QB Tom Brady has been relatively mediocre to this point. Brady ranks 14th in ESPN's Total QBR, 11th in QB Rating, numbers which are entirely fine but, compared to recent seasons, it marks a decline in his usually off-the-charts production.

Of course if the Patriots had made a field goal at the end against the Cardinals and the Ravens had missed one at the gun in the last two weeks, Brady merely playing well instead of superhuman wouldn't be noticed.

Buffalo was humbled in their opening day loss to the Jets, rebounding with a pair of encouraging wins, but taking down Kansas City and Cleveland still leaves some proving to be done.

The Bills' offensive backfield may have more shuffling. Fred Jackson, who was injured in the opener, could be back as soon as this week and C.J. Spiller, who has starred in Jackson's absence, might still be available despite suffering a shoulder injury last week. If either of the top two can't go, that will mean touches for Tashard Choice, who delivered 91 yards on the ground last week.

Though New England's run defence has been better than their pass defence thus far, the Bills need a stable ground game in order to ease the pressure on QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has been more effective the last couple of weeks, throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions, the kind of play that the Bills need if they are going to keep their winning streak, and the Patriots' losing streak, alive.

MINNESOTA (+4.5) at DETROIT
Following up their stunningly-convincing win at home against San Francisco, the Minnesota Vikings travel to Detroit, trying to prove that they are worthy of concern in the NFC North. RB Adrian Peterson is the engine that drives the Vikings offence, but the development of second-year QB Christian Ponder will play a huge role in how soon they might be considered a legit playoff contender.

Ponder has unabashedly given WR Percy Harvin his attention in the passing game, targeting him 32 times in the first three games, but Ponder has also found room for TE Kyle Rudolph, who has three touchdowns and, this week, Ponder gets WR Jerome Simpson in the lineup.

Simpson was suspended for the first three games, but is a nice complentary receiver who had 50 catches for 725 yards and four touchdows in Cincinnati last season.

If the Vikings have a viable passing game, that may pose a problem for a Detroit secondary that has struggled, though could be improving with CB Chris Houston returning to the lineup last week when the Lions, admittedly, gave up 378 passing yards to Jake Locker.

Detroit is hoping to have QB Matthew Stafford running the show on Sunday, despite suffering strained muscle in his leg last week. Stafford has practiced this week, which makes a Sunday start seem likely, but if he can't go, Shaun Hill will take over, as he did effectively in Tennessee.

Whomever is quarterbacking the Lions has the benefit of a quality receiving corps and, apparently, an improved running game now that Mikel Leshoure has taken over as the primary ball carrier.

TENNESSEE (+12) at HOUSTON
If Tennessee can't run the ball effectively, and to this point in the season there has been no indication otherwise, then they are left with one-dimensional offence going up against on the league's best defences.

However, in terms of productivity, if it's reasonable enough to expect the Titans to be trailing, then there may be plenty of opportunities for QB Jake Locker to throw to his improving cast of receivers, particularly if WR Kenny Britt (ankle) and TE Jared Cook (shoulder) aren't too limited by injuries suffered last week.

The Texans are the top team in the TSN.ca NFL Power Rankings and are still awaiting their first real challenge of the season (last week's late surge by the Broncos notwithstanding).

That doesn't appear to be coming this week, as running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate could both have productive days against a Titans team that is 30th in passing yards against and 29th in rushing yards against.

SAN DIEGO (+1) at KANSAS CITY
The Chargers, coming off a flat effort at home against Atlanta, go on the road for a divisional game against the Chiefs who, after last week's win at New Orleans, have averaged a league-best 191.7 rushing yards per game. Even if RB Peyton Hillis remains injured, Kansas City will have Shaun Draughn as a capable backup to complement Jamaal Charles as they face San Diego's fourth-ranked run defence.

San Diego's running game ought to be better too, now that RB Ryan Mathews has a game under his belt, but the Chargers are also trying to manage an offence despite TE Antonio Gates, potentially their most dangerous receiver, recording seven catches for 65 yards in two games this season, as he battles through a rib injury.

Until Gates is a difference-maker again, the Chargers need someone to rise up and take the leadership mantle offensively.

SAN FRANCISCO (-4) at N.Y. JETS
After being unceremoniously handed their first loss of the season last week, the 49ers visit the Jets and hope that they might be able to avoid the pitfalls that cost them in Week Three.

Working in the Niners' favour, the Jets will be without CB Darrelle Revis, though that might be a bigger issue for a team with a more prolific passing attack. Revis' absence should create better matchups for 49ers wide receivers Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, but that's rarely the primary plan of attack for San Francisco.

That means the 49ers are still more apt to target TE Vernon Davis in the passing game and focus on running the ball against a Jets team that ranks 28th in the league in rushing yards allowed (148.7 per game).

If the Jets are going to duplicate last week's success of the Minnesota Vikings, they're going to have to run the ball against a stout Niners D, but that's hardly a Jets strength at the moment. Top runner Shonn Greene has 2.8 yards per carry on the season (backup Bilal Powell is at 4.0) so the Jets' best hope for running success could rest with -- gasp -- QB Tim Tebow.

That's not the likely scenario, but the Jets winning this game isn't necessarily the most likely scenario either. So, something unusual -- a big passing game for Mark Sanchez, special teams scores, turnovers -- may be required.

SEATTLE (-2.5) at ST. LOUIS
While their Monday night win might come labeled with an (unofficial) asterisk, the Seahawks have asserted their defensive front early in the season, sacking Aaron Rodgers eight times Monday and ranking second in the league with 58.7 rushing yards per game allowed.

That poses definite challenges for St. Louis, whose offensive line is a work in progress and that leaves a lot of responsibility on RB Steven Jackson, who will have to pick up some yards after contact if he's going to be productive.

At the same time, if QB Sam Bradford is going to be under heavy pressure, look for WR Danny Amendola to get a lot of looks on short routes and Jackson could also come into play on screen passes to held slow the Seahawks' rush.

Seattle's offence isn't quite as fully developed as their defence. Rookie QB Russell Wilson might be touted as a playmaker, but that hasn't really been in evidence thus far. Seattle ranks 32nd in the league in passing yardage as Wilson has thrown for a total of 434 yards in three games.

The Rams have playmaking corners, veteran Cortland Finnegan and rookie Janoris Jenkins, so expect the Seahawks to focus on their running game with RB Marshawn Lynch.

MIAMI (+6.5) at ARIZONA
RB Reggie Bush has returned to practice for the Dolphins, after missing the second half last week with an apparent knee injury, and if he's able to play that will give the Dolphins a better shot at handing the Cardinals their first loss.

If Bush can't go, Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller are serviceable fill-ins, but aren't necessarily going to push the Cardinals back on their heels.

Arizona's running game turns more to Ryan Williams now that Beanie Wells has been sidelined by turf toe. Miami's run defence is ranked third (66.3 yards per game), so it's not an easy touch for Williams, but it could also be the first game of his career in which he gets 20 touches (he had 95 yards on 14 touches against Philly last week).

On the other hand, Miami has allowed 307.3 passing yards per game, 29th in the league, so WR Larry Fitzgerald may get loose for a big game, even with Kevin Kolb directing the Cardinals' offence.

OAKLAND (+6.5) at DENVER
The Raiders could be undermanned, particularly in the passing game, if TE Brandon Myers (concussion) and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (neck, looked like it could be a concussion) aren't recovered from injuries suffered in the win over Pittsburgh. That means a lot of responsibility falls on wide receivers Denarius Moore and Rod Streater.

If the Raiders can't throw down the field, then they'll have to generate a running game and that has been a problem -- their 62.3 rushing yards per game ranks 31st in the league.

Denver has spent the last two weeks getting thumped for three quarters before rallying in the fourth quarter to make the final margin more respectable, but that's also been against Atlanta and Houston, the top two teams in the Power Rankings. Hosting Oakland is a better matchup and the Raiders' 26th-ranked pass defence should be vulernable against Peyton Manning.

It's not as if the Raiders' run defence is special, but with Denver's running game a question mark -- Willis McGahee has a rib injury, leaving Knowshon Moreno, Lance Ball and Ronnie Hillman if McGahee can't go -- that may not be as problematic as trying to keep Manning under wraps.

CINCINNATI (-2.5) at JACKSONVILLE
Neither team can stop the run, so expect running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Maurice Jones-Drew to go for big days, but the advantage lies with the Bengals passing game, which is more than competent, particularly compared to the Jaguars' passing game, which is not.

Cincinnati has a star in second-year wideout A.J. Green, but he has support from Andrew Hawkins, Armon Binns and Brandon Tate, while the Jaguars have an already-thin group of receivers getting downright emaciated with Laurent Robinson potentially out with a concussion. Cecil Shorts, Justin Blackmon and TE Marcedes Lewis could get more looks, though those looks are coming from Blaine Gabbert so, what ya got, MJD?

NEW ORLEANS (+7.5) at GREEN BAY
The Saints are 0-3 and have no defence, which opens the door for the Packers, who have frankly underperformed offensively thus far (though, to be fair, it's been tough sledding against San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle defences), so look for QB Aaron Rodgers -- along with wide receivers Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones and Ramdall Cobb -- to put up big numbers when they finally get a shot against the subpar Saints defence.

New Orleans has been able to score at a decent level but, even with Drew Brees at the helm, they could have problems against a Packers defence that has allowed a league-low 125.3 passing yards per game. For the Saints to win, they need TE Jimmy Graham and/or WR Marques Colston to perform.

While the Packers' offensive performance was measured against strong defences, it's also fair to note that their pass defence has been tested by the trio of Alex Smith, Jay Cutler and Russell Wilson -- none of whom has Brees' pedigree.

If the passing game isn't working, though, then the Saints will have to churn out yards on the ground, perhaps leaning to more touches for Pierre Thomas, since Mark Ingram has done little early in the season and Darren Sproles is used at least as much as a receiver as a ball carrier.

WASHINGTON (+3) at TAMPA BAY
Tampa Bay's league-best run defence (47.1 yards per game) presents a challenge for Redskins RB Alfred Morris (87.7 rushing yards per game) and, to some extent, QB Robert Griffin III, who has 204 rushing yards to lead all quarterbacks.

If the running game gets bottled up, Griffin III will have to throw more and, with WR Pierre Garcon still out with a foot injury, that could mean more looks for TE Fred Davis and WR Leonard Hankerson.

While Griffin is a dangerous double threat, passing and running, the Bucs hope they have their own in Josh Freeman, even if Freeman's early-season production gives little indication that he's prepared to take advantage of Washington's 31st-ranked pass defence. But, since that seems like a sensible approach, Vincent Jackson and Michael Williams are both capable of putting up some numbers.

N.Y. GIANTS (+1) at PHILADELPHIA
Coming off opposite results -- the Giants impressively destroying the Panthers last Thursday, the Eagles getting stomped by Arizona -- the Giants also appear to be getting healthier, with the expectation that RB Ahmad Bradshaw and WR Hakeem Nicks should be able to play after missing Week Three.

If they can't, maybe it's not a big deal, since RB Andre Brown and WR Ramses Barden were more than adequate fill-ins. The Giants have thrown for 325.7 yards per game, second-most in the league, so that poses a good match-up against Philadelphia's third-ranked pass defence (172.7).

For the Eagles to rebound, they need more production and -- most importantly -- fewer turnovers from QB Michael Vick, who has thrown six picks and fumbled three times. WR Jeremy Maclin, who has been dealing with a hip problem, does expect to play this week, giving Vick a better opportunity to exploit a Giants secondary that has struggled.

CHICAGO (+3) at DALLAS
In the first week of the season, it looked like the Bears had a new-look passing attack, with QB Jay Cutler given an array of weapons, including veteran Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall, rookie Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester, but the passing game has gone quiet the past couple of weeks and faces a tough task against Dallas' secondary, which has allowed 137.0 yards per game, second-best in the league.

The Bears could get RB Matt Forte back after he missed last week's game, which would certainly open up more options offensively.

Dallas' running game has had its share of problems. Really, aside from DeMarco Murray going off in the second half against the Giants, it's been ineffective and the Bears have been strong against both the run and the pass, so Dallas may have to turn to QB Tony Romo, who at least has plenty of options in the passing game now that Kevin Ogletree has joined Miles Austin and Dez Bryant as a contributor at wide receiver.

If the Cowboys are going to take advantage against Chicago, they could also use more from TE Jason Witten. Witten suffered a lacerated spleen in training camp, so it's understandable that he would be off to a slow start, but eight catches (on 21 targets) for 76 yards is a long way from his typical production.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.