NFL Analysis: The National TV Games Of Week 4

Week 4 of the NFL season kicks it off on Thursday night in St. Louis and concludes on Monday night in New Orleans. TheSportsNotebook’s weekly preview of the games begins with a focus on the four major national TV games that almost everyone will see—the prime-time games on Thursday, Sunday and Monday, along with late Sunday afternoon’s doubleheader game on Fox.

TheSportsNotebook will pick each game on the moneyline, and the prices for each team are listed in parentheses, with the home team listed second. After working my way to small profit the first two weeks, a tidal wave leveled me in Week 3 and I’m working my back from a (-958) hole as we resume play in Week 4.

San Francisco (-175) St. Louis (+155) (Thur, 8:25 PM ET, NFL Network): The 49ers come into this game on the ropes at 1-2 and facing a team that both beat and tied them a year ago. Furthermore, San Francisco’s got some major personnel problems on defense.

Nnamdi Asomugha is doubtful and even if the corner does play, he’ll be slowed by ankle injury. Justin Smith will probably play, but is beat up. Aldon Smith has been suspended and sent to rehab for alcohol abuse. Patrick Willis is questionable at linebacker. At every level of defense, Frisco is hurting.

I like St. Louis, but I was disappointed with their play in Dallas last week, and I also wonder if this is the right matchup for them, in spite of last season’s success. The Rams are at their best when they can turn the defensive line loose on the pass rush, but that’s the last thing you want to do against Colin Kaepernick.

The 49er quarterback is struggling, and you want to keep him contained and make him hit some throws down the field. That means a more controlled pass rush, aimed at securing the edges rather than knocking down the quarterback.

I won’t say I can’t see San Francisco losing in this spot, especially being on the road. But I can’t see actually picking it in advance. I expect Kaepernick to play reasonably well if he’s in the pocket and to be great if the Rams pass rushers lose containment. The Ram offense isn’t good enough to keep up.

Philadelphia (+450) Denver (-600) (4:25 PM ET, Fox):  The Eagles are the biggest underdog on the board, as they head to the Rocky Mountains to take on the team that has easily looked the best of anyone in the season’s first three weeks. What Philadelphia has going for them is the great running of LeSean McCoy in the early going. If you can run, you can control the pace of the game and if you control pace you can win.

Of course that presumes that the Eagle defense can slow Peyton Manning and the Bronco attack and that requires a huge leap of faith if you’re a Philadelphia fan. Denver is hitting on all cylinders, with Ronnie Hillman and Monte Ball running effectively, so much so that they were caught on camera playing rock-paper-scissors on Monday night against Oakland to see who would get a touchdown carry. Giving Manning some balance in the offense qualifies as an unfair advantage.

And then there’s this—the Denver rush defense currently ranks as the best in the NFL, a sample that includes a game against Baltimore and the tandem of Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce back in Week One. There’s no reason not to pick the Broncos at home, even at this hefty price tag.

New England (+115) Atlanta (-135) (8:30 PM ET, NBC): The Falcons have lost two of their first three, but still remain a home favorite against the Patriots, something attributable to the bad schedule New England has played in compiling its 3-0 record (Bills, Jets, Buccaneers), the quality of the Falcon losses (close games on the road to the Saints and Dolphins) and the fact Tom Brady’s supporting cast is still holed up in the trainer’s room.

It sounds strange to say about a Brady-led team, but the Patriots cannot let this game turn into a shootout. With Danny Amendola still out and Rob Gronkowski vague about his status, Brady can’t make enough big plays to keep up with Matt Ryan if the latter starts hooking up with Julio Jones and Roddy White down the field.

Don’t let the focus on the quarterbacks obscure that New England is doing a good job defensively this year, and that includes rushing the passer. Atlanta might be a much better team overall than the previous three Patriot victims, but the Falcon offensive line is not very good and they can’t led Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich get into the pocket and preventing Ryan from creating the free-flowing play that would favor Atlanta.

I’m going to go ahead and take Atlanta, even if the prospect of getting Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as a moneyline underdog is a little enticing. But I expect the Falcons to play like a desperate team and to get the win. Both fan bases hope this game is a foreshadowing of another battle between the Boston and Atlanta sports markets, as the Red Sox and Braves currently hold the best records in baseball as they approach the postseason.

Miami (+250) New Orleans (-300) (Monday, 8:30 PM ET, NBC): It’s a surprise matchup between 3-0 teams, at least a surprise as far as the Dolphins are concerned. They’ve got wins over Indianapolis and Atlanta in the early going.

And don’t look now, but New Orleans is winning, at least in part, thanks to some better defense. While a running game it would be nice, it will be a big load off Drew Brees shoulders if, at the very least, he doesn’t have to score every possession.

The Dolphins are going to be without top pass rusher Cameron Wake, and it’s just asking too much for them to come into Brees’ backyard and win without pressuring the pocket. What’s more, Miami has not run the ball very well, which will put a lot of pressure on Ryan Tannehill in a loud and noise environment.

Tannehill, of whom I’ve been very skeptical, has led a couple nice late drives in the Indy and Atlanta games, but he hasn’t shown he can win if he has to carry the load. He will on Monday night and I expect the Saints to win this game fairly decisively.

TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis looks at the rest of the Week 4 undercard