NFL Week 4: The Big Six National Games

There are six games on the NFL Week 4 schedule that will be seen by either all, or at least good chunks of the country, with the AFC East dominating the early Sunday window, and the NFC East ruling the roost in the prime-time Sunday-Monday slots.  After previewing the undercard games yesterday, let’s dive into a preview of the national TV six-pack…

New England-Buffalo: This has turned into a big game, with the Patriots hoping to avoid falling to 1-3, and dropping two games behind the Bills, and possibly the Jets. On the one hand…you don’t want to get too concerned about New England, because both losses have come on the last play of the game, and the Arizona loss suddenly doesn’t look so bad anymore. But on the other hand…the New England offensive line has serious problems with pass protection and they are playing a defense that’s been built to pressure the quarterback.

Buffalo is getting excellent gut pressure in its 4-3 front, with tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus collapsing pockets, and that frees up free-agent acquisition Mario Williams to work his magic on the outside. Williams, after a slugging first two games, opened up last week in Cleveland and he needs to do so again here. New England needs to counter the aggression of the Bills’ front four by running between the tackles with Stevan Ridley. The Patriot back is shifty enough to cut back and make defenses pay for overpursuit. If this works and allows Tom Brady to get some time, Buffalo will be in serious trouble.

If not, then it’s up to the New England defense to get some heat of their own and force Ryan Fitzpatrick into mistakes. Buffalo will probably be without C.J. Spiller (in spite of some recent noise the last day or so that the multi-talented back might get on the field), but they may get Fred Jackson back, and if nothing else, young Tashard Choice ran for 91 yards last week after Spiller went to the sidelines. The odds are, the Pats won’t be able to get comfortable teeing off on the quarterback and disregarding the run.

The issue I have is with Fitzpatrick’s ability to take real advantage of any protection he gets, and while Buffalo won its home game with New England last year, that wasn’t again a desperate Patriots’ team. This one is, and though I think its close—the Patriots (-4) line is too high for my taste—New England gets out of Rich Stadium with a win.

San Francisco-NY Jets: Rex Ryan’s team has a lot of problems right now, and while the loss of corner Darrelle Revis to a torn ACL is the biggest, it doesn’t stop there. The Jets’ linebackers have yet to record a sack, something hard to do in a 3-4 set led by a coach who likes to attack. There’s no real offensive identity here, as Mark Sanchez does not fare well when he has to really open up—in part, because Santonio Holmes is his only consistent receiver. There’s just not a lot of reason to think this Jets’ team can get San Francisco out of its game plan and force Alex Smith to throw the ball under pressure, and thereby create some big-play situations for the defense. Furthermore, San Francisco is going to be in an angry mood after losing in Minnesota last week.

There are still reasons this game can be compelling. Frisco’s style lends itself to close games, even when they’re the team in control of the proceedings. They’re traveling to the east coast, and that always invites body clock issues for a West Coast team, especially when you kick at 1 PM local time. But those are more cautionary notes than they are a reason to actually pick against the Niners. The fact Jim Harbaugh’s team is giving four on the road to a winning team with a recent history of playoff success shows how far public perception of the Jets has fallen.

Oakland-Denver: The Raiders saved their season with the come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh last week, but this team is still doing a very poor job playing pass defense—as expected—and a very poor job defending the run—not expected. They can’t get the ball to their receivers consistently and are completely dependent on Darren McFadden to carry the offense.

On Denver’s side, they’re 1-2 and its clear Peyton Manning doesn’t look like his old self. At this point I’m not ready to sound any alarm bells—remember when Brett Favre had his magical season in 2009 at the age of 40 for Minnesota, it was late September/early October before he really kicked in. However, if Manning doesn’t prey on this Oakland defense, then I think pulling those alarms would be appropriate. For now though, the Denver defense is playing pretty well—they rank in the middle of the league in spite of playing Atlanta & Houston—this game is at home, and I would expect Denver to win. The solid 6.5 points they are favored by suggests I’m not the only one.

New Orleans-Green Bay: A Rodgers-Brees quarterback showdown in the main national game on Fox couldn’t have worked out better for the network. Both teams are in must-win spots, the Packer fans that gather in Lambeau are still fuming over Monday Night and the prospect of a lot of points is quite real, as evidenced by Las Vegas setting the Over/Under at 53.5, the highest on the board for Week 4.

The expectations of points are based on last year’s performance by both teams. Brees has not looked sharp in his first three games, and one has to assume it’s because he’s playing on a team using its third-string head coach. Rodgers has not looked sharp because it’s difficult to throw a pass when one is being planted in the turf repeatedly. There’s no evidence that Green Bay’s pass protection issues are going away anytime soon, but there is plenty to suggest that this matchup works better for them. The first three Packer opponents—Frisco, Chicago and Seattle—all played a very physical brand of defense, both up front and on the corners. New Orleans is much  more finesse, thus presenting the Packers with the opportunity to open the field more. It the game opens up, Green Bay will win, although the fact they are favored by more than a touchdown seems on the excessive side.

NY Giants-Philadelphia: Everything about the matchup, with the exception of the venue, scream New York. The Giants have the front four that can pressure Michael Vick without blitzing and we’ve seen how that can produce turnovers, with Vick being forced into mistakes by similar defenses in Baltimore and Arizona. While the Eagles’ own front four is doing an admirable job getting edge pressure from Jason Babin and Trent Cole, the run defense is substandard, and New York can capitalize on that. The Giants get Ahmad Bradshaw back this week and in his absence, they found Andre Brown can carry it in his absence. Hakeem Nicks also returns at wideout. Eli Manning, after years of getting undue credit for riding the wave of his defense and running game in the postseason, is playing like someone who can really be an honest-to-goodness elite quarterback and league MVP.

But…in spite of how it all looks on paper, the Eagles have played well against the Giants in recent years. In spite of both teams being 2-1, it’s the Birds who will bring the urgency, with Andy Reid dropping veiled hints about Vick’s future as the starter and the media dropping not-so-veiled reminders that this team is two plays from being 0-3. While a certain amount of mistakes are a part of the Vick package and a part of what comes with this freewheeling offense, you have to believe it can’t go on the current rate. Top-to-bottom, Philadelphia has more talent than their division rivals. Whether that will translate into the consistency needed to win the NFC East remains to be seen, but I’m ready to bet it translates into a win on Sunday night in a game they’re a narrow 2.5 point favorite in.

Chicago-Dallas: I see a very ugly game on Monday Night. Chicago plays the same brand of defense Seattle does, and we saw how much the Cowboy offense struggled when they played the Seahawks. This game will be in the comfort of the Palace In Dallas, so I’m sure they’ll score more than seven points. But I see little reason to think the Cowboy offensive front can successfully block Israel Idonjie, Julius Peppers and the rest of a Chicago front four that looks outstanding early on. On the flip side, have we seen anything from this Bears’ offense that implies they are going to block outside linebackers Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, the lead havoc-wreakers in Rob Ryan’s defensive scheming?

Dallas is at home, and their new corners, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne have taken away the big flaw in this unit, so I’ll take Dallas to win. But the guess is that while last Monday the big postgame story was the officials, this week’s morning-after fare will be about how many hits Tony Romo and Jay Cutler took.