GAME OF THE WEEKEND
Seattle at Indianapolis
The line: Seahawks by 2 1/2
The story: Not only do these teams look like playoff clubs in the making; both already destroyed defending NFC champion San Francisco. Seattle did it at home; Indianapolis did it at Candlestick Park. The point is: Four games into the season, each scored significant victories.
Seattle is favored because it has not lost in its last nine regular-season starts, outscoring opponents 302-107 (an average of 33.6-11.9). But the Seahawks are in the middle of a brutal schedule, with four of five games on the road, and away games historically are a problem. Plus, Indianapolis won seven of its last eight at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Yes, the Seahawks are 2-0 away from Seattle this season, but they won by a combined score of 35-27, narrowly escaping Houston in overtime last weekend in a game where the Seahawks trailed 20-3.
So this is a measuring stick for them, as well as the Colts. But it is a measuring stick for the two quarterbacks, too. Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck are second-year pros, with both winning 11 games their rookie seasons. Luck has been lights-out at home, winning eight of 10 there, with 15 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. But this is Seattle, and the Seahawks' fourth-ranked pass defense is tough to solve.
Just ask Matt Schaub.
Something to consider: Luck is 14-6, tying him with John Elway for most victories in his first 20 starts by a quarterback chosen with the first overall draft pick.
FOUR MORE YOU SHOULDN'T MISS
Kansas City at Tennessee
The line: Chiefs by 2 1/2
The story: Five weeks ago this looked like a stinker, but listen to what your mother told you: Looks can be deceiving. The two are a combined 7-1, with both tied for first in their divisions, and you do not have to go far for an explanation: Turnovers. Neither commits them. Kansas City did not have one through its first three games, and Tennessee is still pitching a shutout. The two are tied for first in the NFL's takeaway/giveaway department at plus-9 each, and that explains why this is a meaningful game.
The edge here would seem to be with Tennessee, simply because the Titans are home, but not so fast. They are playing without quarterback Jake Locker. That means Ryan Fitzpatrick takes over, and what is meaningful about him is this: He is 23-41-1 in his career, with almost as many interceptions (81) as touchdown passes (93). OK, so he is 4-1 lifetime vs. Kansas City, with eight touchdowns and two interceptions. This still looks like the week Tennessee turns the offense over to running back Chris Johnson.
The timing is right. The Titans just subtracted their quarterback, and while the Chiefs are solid vs. the pass they rank 24th vs. the run. Figure this to be a low-scoring game, with turnovers and special teams determining the outcome.
Something to consider: Dating back to 1999, Tennessee is 22-9 with backup quarterbacks who step in when the team has a winning record. In all but one of those six seasons, the Titans made the playoffs.
--New Orleans at Chicago
The line: Even
The story: This is a bigger game for Chicago than it is New Orleans for this reason: We are not really sure who the Bears are ... and they may not be, either. They squeezed past Cincinnati. They squeezed past Minnesota. They pulverized Pittsburgh. Those opponents are a combined 3-9, while Detroit -- the club that hammered them a week ago -- is 3-1.
New Orleans is unbeaten, which is not all that unusual considering Sean Payton and Drew Brees are reunited. They were 4-0 in 2009, too. Brees is Brees, but it is the Saints' defense that has the attention of opponents -- with Rob Ryan's unit ranked sixth overall, fifth against the pass and fifth in points allowed.
The challenge here is for Jay Cutler to solve a unit that held off Matt Ryan in the season opener and frazzled Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill gave way to constant pressure, and if there is an edge that may be where the Bears have it. For the first time in years, they are protecting Cutler, with the quarterback sacked just six times this year.
Plus, the Saints are coming off a short week and were forced to leave home early because of Hurricane Karen.
Still, Cutler commits too many turnovers (he has eight, including six interceptions), and trying to defend Brees with a short field is the NFL's version of professional suicide. Worse, the Bears are battling injuries, with four players -- including wide receiver Brandon Marshall and cornerback Charles Tillman --- sitting out Thursday's practice.
Something to consider: Dating back to 2012, Cutler has an NFL-best fourth-quarter passer rating of 114.5. Cutler's teams are 26-1 when he has a passer rating of 100 or better.
--Detroit at Green Bay
The line: Packers by 7
The story: Relax, Cheeseheads. Yes, Green Bay is 1-2, but it started 1-2 a year ago, too, and wound up winning the division. Now the Packers are playing division-leader Detroit, but here is why that may not be all that bad: They have a history of success against the Lions, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers never losing.
Of course, the Bears had a history of success against them, too, with Jay Cutler producing staggering numbers in his history against Detroit ... and look what happened last week. The Packers are vulnerable to the pass (see San Francisco and Cincinnati), and few quarterbacks are better throwing the football than Matt Stafford. But one of them is Rodgers, and he has produced big numbers against Detroit.
That should give you an idea of what this game looks like: a tennis match, with a raft of points. The key will be turnovers. If Green Bay can avoid them, it has the advantage ... not just because it is home but because it has the ammunition to outscore Stafford & Co.
Something to consider: Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy is 13-1 vs. Detroit.
--New England at Cincinnati
The line: Bengals by 1
The story: People cannot figure out New England. The Patriots lose a slew of receivers, do not suit up Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski, are not sure if running back Stevan Ridley can play Sunday, yet they keep on winning. But what is so hard to understand? As long as Tom Brady is standing, New England is one of the toughest outs in the NFL.
This is the Patriots' second straight road game, and while the opponent is not as formidable as Atlanta it will be tough to overcome. Let the record show that Cincinnati won five of its last six at home, with quarterback Andy Dalton throwing 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. Let it also show that New England just lost defensive tackle Vince Wilfork -- a team leader and its best defensive player -- for the season.
The Patriots still have the irrepressible Brady, but he cannot play defense, too. Subtracting Wilfork is an enormous blow, and it is here we find out how ... or if ... the Patriots' defense can survive his loss.
Something to consider: Dating back to 2012, New England has 12 wins in its last 13 regular-season games.
MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
N.Y. Jets at Atlanta
The line: Falcons by 10
The story: Geno Smith is a) talented, b) error-prone, c) an accurate deep passer, d) an inaccurate intermediate passer, e) all of the above. If you answered e) all of the above, go to the head of the class.
The New York media is not sure what to make of Smith, one week hailing him as a hero and the next asking coach Rex Ryan if the guy is going to get benched. Puh-leeze, people. He is not getting benched, not when Matt Simms is the next best option. Phil Simms? Maybe. Matt. Uh-uh.
The Jets will rise and fall with Smith, and get ready for a bumpy ride. He commits a zillion mistakes, which is what happens with rookie quarterbacks, but he makes plays, too. That may not get you beaten against someone like, say, Tampa Bay, which handed Smith and the Jets an improbable victory in Week One, but it will here.
Reason: Atlanta is desperate. It must stop the bleeding now, and the Falcons are in the right place at the right time. They seldom lose at home, and they never lose three straight under Mike Smith -- with a 14-game winning streak following losses broken by New England last weekend.
Something to consider: Ryan is 34-6 at home, including wins in 12 of his last 14.
CRUMMY GAME OF THE WEEK
Jacksonville at St. Louis
The line: Rams by 11 1/2
The story: Any game involving Jacksonville is going to make it here, with people beginning to wonder where the Jags find a victory ... any victory. Coach Gus Bradley pledges his support for embattled quarterback Blaine Gabbert, but that is because his next-best option is Chad Henne, and there is only one guy there with upside -- albeit a limited one -- and it is not Henne. The league's lowest-rated passer, Gabbert, is Jacksonville's quarterback until next year's draft when, with the first pick, the Jags find their next starter -- mercifully ending the Blaine Gabbert tenure.
In the meantime, they suffer another loss against an opponent that desperately needs a wake-up call, and talk about timing. Quarterback Sam Bradford is under fire, there is no running game and what should be a decent defense is, in the words of lineman Chris Long, "disgusting." That is why the Rams re-signed linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, and he will not make the biggest difference here.
The opponent will.
Something to consider: The Rams allowed 30 or more points twice last year. They have allowed 30 or more the past three games.
FIVE GUYS WHO ARE GOOD TO BE THIS WEEKEND
--1. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He is 8-0 vs. Detroit, with 18 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 114.9. He has a passer rating of 100 or more in seven of those eight starts.
--2. N.Y. Giants quarterback Eli Manning. In his last four starts vs. Philadelphia at home, he has 13 TDs, two interceptions and a 115.2 passer rating.
--3. St. Louis defensive end Robert Quinn. He has six sacks in his past five games and four in the past two at home.
--4. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo. He is 4-1 in his last five at home, with 14 touchdown passes and one interception.
--5. San Diego tight end Antonio Gates. He has 11 career TDs against Oakland, the second-most for Gates vs. any opponent.
BELIEVE IT ... OR DON'T
--1. Since the current playoff system was adopted in 1990, 23 teams with losing records through the first four games went on to reach the playoffs, with the 2011 Denver Broncos the most recent.
--2. Seattle, Kansas City, Denver, New England and New Orleans are undefeated through four games. If all make it to 5-0, it would mark the second time in league history there were five unbeatens through five games. The last time was 2009, with two of those teams (New Orleans and Indianapolis) reaching the Super Bowl.
--3. With 179 points (44.8 points per game), Denver has more than all but one team (the 1966 Dallas Cowboys) in modern NFL history. If the Broncos score 39 vs. Dallas, they set the record for most points through five.
--4. Tennessee is only the second team in the Super Bowl era to go through the first four games of the season without committing a turnover. The 1995 Rams are the other.
--5. The Jets (-10) and Giants (-9) are a combined minus-19 in the takeaway/turnover ratio.
--6. Baltimore's Joe Flacco has a habit of rebounding from losses. In 27 regular-season games following defeats, Flacco completed 64.2 percent of his passes, with 40 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. The Ravens are 20-7 in those contests.
--7. Detroit's Matthew Stafford plays his 50th career game Sunday but already has more passing yards (14,069) than any NFL quarterback in his first 50 contests. Kurt Warner, with 13,864, is second.
--8. With one TD catch Sunday, New Orleans' Jimmy Graham ties Mike Ditka and Antonio Gates for most scoring catches (seven) by a tight end through a team's first five games.
--9. The top eight rushers in the NFL are from the NFC. Houston's Arian Foster and the Jets' Bilal Powell are tied for first in the AFC with 292 yards each ... or 176 fewer than NFL leader LeSean McCoy.
--10. Denver has seven consecutive road victories. With a victory Sunday in Dallas, the Broncos set a franchise record, breaking the previous mark held by the 1976-77 Broncos.
TEN NUMBERS THAT MAY MEAN SOMETHING
--0-4 -- Marvin Lewis' record vs. New England
--1-3 -- Sean Payton's record vs. Chicago
--3-9 -- The New York Giants' record over their last 12 starts
--3 -- Consecutive games with a Matt Schaub interception returned for a touchdown
--11 -- Geno Smith turnovers
--15 -- Consecutive regular-season victories by Denver, all by seven or more points
--16 -- Dez Bryant TD catches dating back to 2012, the most in the NFL
--21 -- NFL fourth-quarter comeback victories, the second-highest through four weeks
--30.7 -- Blaine Gabbert's passer rating, worst in the league
--44 -- New York Jets' penalties, an average of 11 per game
--Clark Judge, a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange, has covered pro football since 1982 and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selections Committee.
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