Week 4: NFL Matchups

The Sports Xchange
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GAME OF THE WEEK

Carolina Panthers (1-2) at Atlanta Falcons (3-0)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Dick Stockton, John Lynch, Jennifer Hale

Last Meeting: The Falcons won, 31-23, at Carolina last Dec. 11, rallying from a 23-7 first-half deficit with QB Matt Ryan throwing four touchdowns.

Streaking: Ryan is 4-0 at home against the Panthers with a 107.7 passer rating.

Ground into submission: RB Jonathan Stewart (toe) is expected to return to the Panthers' lineup, and there is a reason they won the only game he played this season. With QB Cam Newton struggling with his decision-making and accuracy downfield, Carolina must control the tempo early on the strength of its ground game. The better the Panthers can neutralize the home crowd, the better chance they stand of sticking around. Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has done an excellent job of disguising his pressure packages, and S Thomas DeCoud is an emerging ballhawk Newton has to be careful of when attacking downfield.

Pick your poison: The Falcons have scored a touchdown on all three of their opening drives this season, while the Panthers have allowed a touchdown on each of their opening defensive series. Carolina can't afford to fall behind early and must find a way to protect rookie CB Josh Norman, who was abused by the Giants. CB Chris Gamble will have to hold his own on the other side, but Carolina has also struggled to cover backs and tight ends in coverage. The Falcons were also encouraged by the improved blocking and running by Michael Turner in the second half against San Diego last week.

Need to know: Newton's 16 rushing touchdowns has already set an NFL record among quarterbacks through the first two seasons of a career. ... Atlanta is 3-0 for the first time since 2004.

San Francisco 49ers (2-1) at N.Y. Jets (2-1)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa

Gameplan: The Jets' defense has a dilemma without CB Darrelle Revis essentially shutting down one half of the field. With the run defense allowing 4.6 yards per carry, it plays into the 49ers' blueprint of using RB Frank Gore to set up QB Alex Smith for the high-percentage play-action attack downfield. San Francisco's offensive line has surrendered 10 sacks, but that requires shutting down the ground game first. The Jets' own running game has received a bit of a spark from Bilal Powell, who is earning more snaps behind Shonn Greene, but the 49ers allow just 3.4 yards per carry. With QB Mark Sanchez completing a mere 50.5 percent of his passes the offense will sputter minus balance.

Need to know: Of Smith's 73 career touchdown passes, 30 (41.1 percent) have gone to TE Vernon Davis. ... The Jets have won four consecutive 1 p.m. ET home starts against West Coast teams.

Seattle Seahawks (2-1) at St. Louis Rams (1-2)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Ron Pitts, Mike Martz, Kristina Pink

Gameplan: Rams QB Sam Bradford is completing 64.2 percent of his passes, but has been unable to stretch the field with consistency. That will likely again be the case considering Seattle's solid run defense, physical outside cornerbacks and strong pass rush working against a banged up offensive line. RB Steven Jackson is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry this season and managed just 3.0 yards per carry in two meetings last season. Seattle's passing game is similarly lacking a big downfield presence. Rookie QB Russell Wilson's accuracy has been fleeting, and he quickly looks to break the pocket when he doesn't find an open receiver. If St. Louis can put the clamps on RB Marshawn Lynch, its defense could dominate field position.

Need to know: The Seahawks have won the past three meetings and 13 of the past 14. ...Rams DE Chris Long has 12 sacks in his past 13 games.

Tennessee Titans (1-2) at Houston Texans (3-0)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts

Gameplan: The Texans are plus-4 in turnover margin with the AFC's stingiest defense -- 14 points, 255.7 total yards and 188 passing yards per game. Titans QB Jake Locker hasn't been sacked since Week 1. His agility won't be a major factor if protection doesn't bolt down the pocket, a steep challenge against DE J.J. Watt (5.5 sacks) and a bevy of blitzes. Locker has been overburdened in an offense getting little from RB Chris Johnson (32 carries, 45 yards) and the Titans are last in the NFL in time of possession. They'll need to sustain drives to protect the defense from being pounded by Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The quandary is loading up to stuff that tandem: Matt Schaub has owned Tennessee, and the Titans can't leave their corners singled up on WR Andre Johnson.

Need to know: Schaub has 13 touchdowns and one interception with a 105.9 passer rating in his past six games in the series. ... Since 2011, Titans TE Jared Cook is third among AFC tight ends with 923 receiving yards.

New England Patriots (1-2) at Buffalo Bills (2-1)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf

Gameplan: The Patriots must study three running backs, not knowing if injuries will bump C.J. Spiller (shoulder) and Fred Jackson (knee) out of the lineup, giving Tashard Choice the start. New England's defensive game plan hinges on pressuring Ryan Fitzpatrick; he has been sacked just once in 86 pass attempts this season. If Fitzpatrick gets in a groove, the Bills' balance has forced teams to gamble with blitzes and exposed wide lanes for big running plays. The Patriots were caught out of position often at Baltimore last Sunday, but have an assortment of weapons for Tom Brady to use. In his last game at Buffalo, WR Wes Welker had 16 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns.

Need to know: The Patriots have won 21 of the past 23 meetings. ... Bills PR Leodis McKelvin leads the NFL with a 29.7-yard punt return average.

Minnesota Vikings (2-1) at Detroit Lions (1-2)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, FOX, Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin

Gameplan: Christian Ponder hasn't made many mistakes and there are alleys everywhere to exploit in Detroit's ragtag secondary. WR Percy Harvin leads the NFL with 27 receptions, TE Kyle Rudolph had two touchdown catches last week and both are consistently beating single coverage. RB Adrian Peterson averages 99.1 yards in nine career games in the series. Detroit is minus-2 in turnover margin because the defense backs it into regular shootouts. The beginning of a remedy might've been discovered last week, when Mikel Leshoure rushed for 100 yards in his NFL debut. Leshoure isn't a home-run hitter but can break tackles and make the first man miss. That's a big deal for defenses panicked about containing WR Calvin Johnson, a fear that is quelled slightly if Shaun Hill steps in for a hobbled Matt Stafford (leg).

Need to know: Lions DE Cliff Avril has a sack in five straight games vs. Minnesota. ... Vikings DE Jared Allen has 6.5 sacks and an interception return for a touchdown in the past three meetings.

San Diego Chargers (2-1) at Kansas City Chiefs (1-2)

Sunday, 1:00 ET, CBS, Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots

Gameplan: The Chiefs rallied at New Orleans last week to avoid falling out of the AFC West race thanks to NFL leading rusher Jamaal Charles. Slow starts have hurt Kansas City in all three games. That won't change a conservative run-based attack. QB Matt Cassel has four interceptions and will need to hit on a few downfield throws to loosen the Chargers' fourth-ranked run defense. QB Philip Rivers can be rushed into poor decisions. He has been sacked an average of once every 18 passes, and OTs Mike Harris and Jeromey Clary require assistance to block OLBs Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Houston is coming off a game with three sacks and a safety against New Orleans.

Need to know: Rivers needs 27 passing yards to join Dan Fouts (43,040) and John Hadl (26,938) as Chargers with 25,000 career passing yards. ... The Chiefs are averaging 191.7 rushing yards per game.

Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2)

Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET, CBS, Marv Albert, Rich Gannon

Gameplan: Andy Dalton has back-to-back 300-yard games and is spreading the ball around to his unheralded receiving corps. The focus for the Jaguars is keeping A.J. Green in front of them, but Dalton's growing confidence in Andrew Hawkins, Armon Binns and TE Jermaine Gresham makes the West Coast offense less predictable. RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis won't pop many 10- or 15-yard carries but avoids negative runs. Cincinnati's porous run defense -- 155.0 yards per game -- guarantees a strong dose of Maurice Jones-Drew. He's averaging 104.33 yards per game on the ground and the Jaguars don't want to expose their offensive line to the strong pass rush of the Bengals.

Need to know: Dalton has an NFL-high 158.3 passer rating in the fourth quarter this season. ... Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts has three receptions this season; he's averaging 46.3 yards per catch with two touchdowns.

Miami Dolphins (1-2) at Arizona Cardinals (3-0)

Sunday, 4:05 ET, CBS, Bill Macatee, Steve Tasker

Gameplan: People waiting for the Cardinals' fast start to unravel should remember Arizona has won 10 of its past 12 games dating back to last season. The improvement came when coordinator Ray Horton's unit started to click for Dick LeBeau's protege. The Cardinals have excellent athletes on defense, enabling Horton to disguise where pressure is coming from. Dolphins rookie QB Ryan Tannehill is still learning to read NFL defenses, and this is a particularly big road test - especially without RB Reggie Bush as a threat on the ground as a receiver. QB Kevin Kolb is expected to start for the Cardinals, who need RB Ryan Williams to step up with Beanie Wells injured. The maligned offensive line has held up better than expected and the Dolphins' pass defense has struggled minus an effective pass rush.

Need to know: Miami has not allowed a 100-yard rusher for 17 consecutive games. ... The Cardinals are 3-0 for the first time since 1974.

Oakland Raiders (1-2) at Denver Broncos (1-2)

Sunday, 4:05 ET, CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms

Gameplan: Raiders head coach Dennis Allen returns to Denver, where he was the defensive coordinator last season, with an offense showing signs of jelling under new coordinator Greg Knapp. Expect to see a fast tempo on both sides with Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer leading a well-balanced attack out of the no-huddle last week. The key for both offenses is avoiding the slow starts that have plagued them. The Raiders finally received a spark from RB Darren McFadden last week and want to attack the league's 23rd-ranked run defense to avoid Denver's pass rush. Oakland's defense has just three sacks and the secondary is extremely thin, so this could be a game for Peyton Manning to pad the stat sheet.

Need to know: The Raiders' four-game winning streak in Denver is their longest since 1974-77. ... Only three projected starters on the Broncos' defense Sunday started on Allen's unit at the end of last season.

New Orleans Saints (0-3) at Green Bay Packers (1-2)

Sunday, 4:25 ET, FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver

Gameplan: The Packers addressed their poor pass protection at Seattle on Monday night by featuring their "Tank" personnel in the second half with one wideout, two tight ends and two running backs. Such measures to protect QB Aaron Rodgers from a barrage of hits might not be necessary against the Saints, who have a modest six sacks on the season and rank 25th against the pass and 32nd against the run. With New Orleans' defense under constant attack, the offense needs to do a better job of controlling the clock on the road. RB Mark Ingram is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and the Saints have more than a nine-minute disparity in time of possession.

Need to know: Saints QB Drew Brees has thrown a touchdown pass in 46 consecutive games, one shy of Johnny Unitas' all-time record. ... Green Bay is allowing an NFL-low 125.3 passing yards per game.

Washington Redskins (1-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2)

Sunday, 4:25 ET, FOX, Chris Myers, Tim Ryan, Krista Voda

Gameplan: Already concerned with the physical pounding on rookie Robert Griffin -- six sacks and 12 carries last week -- the Redskins will roll back the option looks and let Alfred Morris and possibly newcomer Ryan Grant do the dirty work in the zone-running scheme. Griffin covets the speed Pierre Garcon would offer outside, but he has missed the past two games with a foot injury. If LT Trent Williams (knee) is out, the Redskins might go with more "heavy" personnel against the Bucs' active front. The matchup Tampa Bay wants to exploit is 6-5, 230-pound WR Vincent Jackson, averaging 20.4 yards per catch, on CBs DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson. Watch for more of LeGarrette Blount to breathe life into a stagnated running game.

Need to know: The Redskins lead the NFL scoring (33 points per game) and are second in turnover margin (plus-6). ... Bucs DE Michael Bennett has five sacks in his past six games.

N.Y. Giants (2-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (2-1)

Sunday, 8:20 ET, NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya

Gameplan: Eagles coach Andy Reid attempted to diffuse a simmering quarterback controversy this week, but the heat will only intensify unless Michael Vick starts taking better care of the football. Granted, he's playing behind a beleaguered offensive line and Reid called only four rushing plays for RB LeSean McCoy in the first half last week. The Giants' defensive line hasn't been getting after the quarterback much early in the season, but Vick has been taking a weekly pounding and was blitzed on nearly 40 percent of the snaps in Arizona last week. The Giants get RB Ahmad Bradshaw back and he'll be complemented by Andre Brown as they attempt to slow the Eagles' strong pass rush. Giants QB Eli Manning has an improving corps of wideouts, and TE Marcellus Bennett is proving to be a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties.

Need to know: Bennett has three touchdowns in three games after catching none the past three seasons in Dallas. ... The Eagles have 12 turnovers, their most through three games since 1977.

Chicago Bears (2-1) at Dallas Cowboys (2-1)

Monday, 7:30 ET, ESPN, Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters

Gameplan: The interior of the Cowboys' offensive line has been wrecked repeatedly since the opener and the Bears can pressure with Julius Peppers -- he owns two three-sack games in the series -- sliding inside alongside DT Henry Melton. Head coach Jason Garrett believes a strong running game is the best counter to a beastly pass rush, and QB Tony Romo handing off to DeMarco Murray or getting the ball to Jason Witten on short flat routes or screens should also help. When Romo looks downfield, CB Tim Jennings (five INTs in past four games) can be toasted but has been a ballhawk of late. Keeping OLB DeMarcus Ware away from Jay Cutler won't be tasked to LT J'Marcus Webb alone, though the Bears don't want to go overboard throwing the ball against a bloodthirsty defensive coordinator. The Bears would receive a significant boost if RB Matt Forte (ankle) is able to play.

Need to know: Cutler is 4-1 for his career on Monday Night Football. ... Romo is 4-0 in his past four MNF games.

--By Derek Harper & Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange

Copyright (C) 2012 The Sports Xchange. All Rights Reserved.

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