Peek at the Week: Giants-Eagles, Pats-Bills top slate of big division battles

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Game of the week

N.Y. Giants at Philadelphia, 8:20 p.m. ET

The line: Eagles by 2½

The story: Someone the other day asked if Philadelphia has the Giants' number, and it's a good question. Including the playoffs, the Eagles have scored victories eight of the past nine times these two met. The only loss? Last year in Philadelphia.

So the advantage is with the Eagles, except ... except, well, you never know what's going to happen with these guys. They have a league-high 12 turnovers. Coach Andy Reid this week had to correct himself on Michael Vick's status. Initially he told reporters that Vick was his quarterback "for now," backtracking later to insist there was no qualification; that Vick is his quarterback, period.

OK, maybe, but Vick won't be if he continues to take the beating he absorbed the first three games. Vick is a dynamic playmaker, not a piñata, but he's also a guy who has nine turnovers in three games. That must stop ... otherwise we may get a look at Nick Foles sooner than anyone anticipated.

I can't imagine the Giants will go easy on Vick, not with their pass rush, not after the way they handled Cam Newton and not with Demetress Bell suiting up at left tackle again. The Eagles must ... absolutely must ... protect the ball, and here's a suggestion: Let's see more of LeSean McCoy with the ball and less of Vick. In six career games vs. the Giants, McCoy has averaged 5.7 yards per carry and has three TDs.

More important, he didn't fumble.

So turnovers are an issue. So is the home-field disadvantage. Yep, you heard me right. In their past 12 games at Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles are 4-8. A quick start, then, is imperative. So is a good pass rush.

We all know what Eli Manning can do, and we all know what he did to Tampa Bay in the fourth quarter two weeks ago. The Giants expect Ahmad Bradshaw back for this one, which means they can juggle him and Andre Brown for their rushing attack, but let's get real, people: It's Manning who's the concern for the Eagles. He beat them here last year, and he can beat them here again.

Shut down the running game, squeeze the pocket, force the mistakes, and maybe you find a way to keep Manning from another come-from-behind victory.

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The back story: Under Reid, the Eagles are 42-22-1 in games following a loss.

Three games I'd like to see

New England at Buffalo, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

The line: Patriots by 4½

The story: When Buffalo hired pass rushers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, the Bills made it clear they were zeroing in on New England. Buffalo hasn't averaged more than two sacks a game since 2006, and if it is going to catch the Patriots it is going to have to catch Tom Brady. So the Bills invested in big-name pass rushers, and let's see what happens.

It took Williams and Anderson three games to produce a sack, but the Bills have nine in their past two starts -- and won both. That's not a coincidence. When Buffalo last had a winning season (2004) it had a pass rush, sacking opposing quarterbacks 45 times with the league's second-ranked defense.

Brady is impossible to stop if he's not hurried ... but he was hurried by Arizona and look what happened: He lost his first home opener at Gillette Stadium. New England's revamped offensive line is vulnerable to the pass rush, and it's up to Buffalo to discover how vulnerable.

Or else.

The Bills will probably be without C.J. Spiller who, until Ray Rice swung into action Thursday night, led the league in all-purpose yards. But Fred Jackson might be ready to return -- with Jackson declaring himself 70-75 percent ready to bounce back from a sprained knee. That's good because someone must take the pressure off quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. I know, he was terrific when Buffalo beat the Patriots here a year ago, but have you looked at his record against these guys? He's 1-4, with seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and that, folks, is not how you beat Tom Brady.

Then again, I'm not sure anyone beats Tom Brady now. It's rare for New England to drop consecutive games. But look at the last time it lost three straight. You have to go back to 2002, the only season when Brady started more than one game and New England failed to reach the playoffs.

The back story: Buffalo has scored touchdowns in seven of its 10 series inside the 20, second-best in the NFL.

Minnesota at Detroit, 1 p.m. ET

The line: Lions by 4½

The story: It figures that we would have a first-place team involved here. What doesn't figure is that it's Minnesota. OK, so we haven't even hit the one-quarter post, and it's way too soon to read anything into anything. I get it. Still, the Vikings look vastly improved over last year's doormat.

The defense is better. The quarterback is better. The kicker is better. And they're 2-1, tied with Chicago for first in the NFC North. That's supposed to change here, with Detroit flexing its muscle at home -- but that happens only if Matthew Stafford plays, and he not only returned to practice Thursday but appears set to start. If he doesn't, however, this game's a tossup.

Look, Minnesota is hot. Detroit barely won its opener. The Vikings have a quarterback who doesn't throw interceptions and is good at last-minute comebacks. Detroit might not have Stafford. The Vikings get Jerome Simpson back from a three-game suspension. The Lions have the league's ninth-ranked pass defense.

I think you get the idea. Detroit is the favorite if Stafford plays, and, yeah, I know what Shaun Hill did against Tennessee. But Minnesota isn't the 30th-ranked pass defense. Tennessee is. Plus, the Vikes are a last-second field goal from being 3-0, while Detroit is 10 seconds from 0-3.

Trust me, this will be closer than you think.

The back story: Minnesota's Blair Walsh is the first rookie kicker to nail field goals of 50 or more yards in his first three games.

San Francisco at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m. ET

The line: 49ers by 4½

The story: No, I don't read much into San Francisco's loss last weekend. It happens. Now the club tries to do what it did the last time it spent the week working out in Youngstown, Ohio -- win a game on the East Coast. It happened last year in Philadelphia, and it should happen again at MetLife Stadium.

Normally, traveling cross-country is a big deal for West Coast teams, but not this one. Under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers last year were 4-1 in the Eastern time zone, with their lone loss on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore -- after the 49ers had to fly cross-country to play their second game in five days.

That was tough. This is not: They meet a Jets team that just moved from Revis Island to Paradise Lost. Without their best defensive player, the Jets are in trouble ... so much trouble, in fact, that they turned running back Joe McKnight into a cornerback this week with Darrelle Revis out for the season.

Sure, that should solve things.

But defense isn't the problem here. Offense is, and the Jets just lost rookie wide receiver Stephen Hill for this game with a sore hamstring. They want to run the ball but good luck against San Francisco. Not only are the 49ers the league's eighth-ranked run defense; they are allowing opponents an average of 3.4 yards per carry.

So that means it's up to Mark Sanchez again, and good luck. He's short of playmakers, with Santonio Holmes ... and ... and ... and ... OK, so at 2-1, the Jets are on top of the AFC East with Buffalo. That's great. But let's see how long that lasts -- maybe for both. The Jets were stymied by Pittsburgh, and a Steelers defense without Troy Polamalu and James Harrison isn't close to what San Francisco offers.

Unless the Jets can do what Minnesota did -- force turnovers -- they're in deep kimchi.

The back story: Since 2009, the Jets have held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 69.3. Nobody is better. Furthermore, since Rex Ryan took over as head coach opposing quarterbacks have completed an NFL-low 52.6 percent of their passes vs. New York. Of course, that's when Revis was playing.

Monday night lights

Chicago at Dallas, 8:20 p.m. ET

The line: Cowboys by 2½

The story: Both offenses struggle. Both offensive lines have holes. Both defenses are superb. Both quarterbacks will be under fire, but only one will survive ... and take your pick. Tony Romo has been more effective than Jay Cutler, but the Cowboys have two touchdowns in their past two starts.

Of course, the Bears have three, one by defense.

DeMarco Murray's solid start hasn't helped boost the Cowboys' running game as a whole. (US Presswire)  
DeMarco Murray's solid start hasn't helped boost the Cowboys' running game as a whole. (US Presswire)  
Look for this one to be close, and maybe the difference isn't the QBs. Maybe it's the running backs. DeMarco Murray has been effective, but the Cowboys' run game hasn't -- ranking 29th. Chicago checks in at 13th, but Matt Forte, who missed last week's game with an ankle injury, said he's good to go.

We'll see. If so, give the advantage to Chicago there.

Now let's turn to the pass defense, where Dallas ranks second and Chicago sixth. I expect both units to frazzle these quarterbacks, with the inside of the Cowboys' line having to deal with Julius Peppers on obvious passing downs and the outside of the Bears' front wall trying to hold off DeMarcus Ware.

Romo has been more effective than Cutler making plays outside the pocket because ... well, because that's what he does. But at some point Jason Witten must become the security blanket he's supposed to be for his quarterback. The seven-time Pro Bowl tight end has dropped six passes the past two weeks, and, sorry, that's not Jason Witten. Something has to give.

The back story: In his only start at Dallas, Cutler had three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 136.7. He also has won four of his past five starts on Monday night. Of course, in his past four Monday night games where he threw 10 or more times, Romo is 4-0.

Crummy game of the week

Washington at Tampa Bay, 4:25 p.m. ET

The line: Buccaneers by 2½

The story: It's RG3 vs. the kneel-down defense. Robert Griffin III is a sensational quarterback with a sensational arm and a rotten pass defense. So the question is: Does he have enough arm to outscore Josh Freeman? You would like to hope so. And in this case, I hope so ... because I want to see that Kneel-down Defense again and see how Mike Shanahan handles it.

Dallas coach Jason Garrett had his players prepared, but someone please clue in Greg Schiano. When an opposing team goes to the kneel-down, the outcome is resolved and THE GAME IS OVER. This isn't Joe Pisarcik all over again, for crying out loud. Those days are gone. The kneel-down is a quarterback's way of saying we quit ... as in, we quit kicking your defense's keister.

Just a hunch, but I would bet a week's salary that Schiano has a different opinion of that play if Freeman were hurt by some yahoo bursting through the line.

Anyway, Tampa Bay is better than its record but is still a club looking for an identity. Washington is intriguing because of RG3 but destined for another last-place finish in the NFC East. Someone has to win this game. Please make it the kneel-down.

The back story: The Redskins' 99 points this season represent their best three-game output since the final three starts of 2005, when they scored 101.

Upset of the week

St. Louis over Seattle, 1 p.m. ET

The line: Seahawks by 2½

The story: I'll tell you why this call makes me nervous: Because Steven Jackson didn't practice again Thursday, and without Jackson the Rams lose their best playmaker. But let's be honest, people: Both teams here will be handicapped on offense. There won't be many points, and there will be a lot of defense.

I know Seattle is coming off an emotional lift, but I also know the Seahawks are coming off a short week. St. Louis has the better quarterback, and it is at home where it held off Washington two weeks ago. That was RG3. This is Russell Wilson, and let's just say it's more difficult to defend Griffin.

If there's a concern, it's this: The St. Louis run defense. It's not Wilson the Rams must stop; it's Marshawn Lynch. But the Rams rank 22nd vs. the run, with opponents averaging 4.5 yards a pop. One reason: The Redskins ran up 176 yards against them, and that can happen when you play Griffin. But the Rams' other two opponents? They averaged 3.6 yards per rush.

The back story: Sam Bradford's 73.9 percent completion rate on third downs is second only to Ben Roethlisberger.

Five guys I'd like to be

1. Atlanta QB Matt Ryan: He's 4-0 at home vs. Carolina, with a 107.7 passer rating.

2. Philadelphia RB LeSean McCoy: He aims for his ninth straight game at home with at least one TD. Good, huh? Try this: McCoy has 11 scores in his past eight home starts.

3. New England QB Tom Brady: So what is better in Buffalo than the wings down at Duff's? You're looking at him. Brady is 18-2 vs. the Bills, with 46 TD passes, 17 interceptions and a passer rating of 102.4.

4. Minnesota DE Jared Allen: Someone better watch this guy. He's aiming for his third straight game vs. Detroit with three or more sacks.

5. Green Bay WR Greg Jennings: He has scored the past three times he played New Orleans.

Five best matchups

1. Oakland coach Dennis Allen vs. Denver coach John Fox: It was Fox who last year made Allen his defensive coordinator in Denver. And it was Fox who this week was talking up his former pupil. "He's a guy with what I call the 'it' factor," said Fox. For Allen, it will be his first return to Denver since taking the head-coaching job in Oakland, and he has spent much of the week trying to downplay the significance. "It will be a different feel," he said, "but that's another one of those distractions you can't let take over." So he won't.

Fan Poll

What will be Week 4's best game?

Giants at Eagles
43%
Patriots at Bills
12%
Vikings at Lions
12%
49ers at Jets
12%
Bears at Cowboys
20%

Total Votes: 41,925

2. Philadelphia RB McCoy vs. N.Y. Giants DE Osi Umenyiora: In an ESPN interview that aired this week, McCoy called Umenyiora "a ballerina in a Giants uniform," saying that Osi was no better than the Giants' fourth-best defensive lineman. "Well," Umenyiora told ESPN, "he's probably right. I might be a ballerina in a Giants uniform. I'm lucky I've got the contract. I'm lucky to be playing 10 years in the league, to have won two Super Bowls." These two teams don't like each other, and McCoy said he doesn't much care for Umenyiora. You want proof? Tune in Sunday.

3. The Dallas offensive line vs. the flag: Maybe having regular refs back makes a difference, I don't know. What I do know is that it can't hurt. The Cowboys have 12 false-start penalties through the first three games. They didn't hit 12 last year until Game 11. "We're not going to sugarcoat anything," said offensive line coach Bill Callahan, who blamed the penalties on cadence issues. "We're not pleased where we're at."

4. Chicago LT J'Marcus Webb vs. Dallas LB DeMarcus Ware: We all remember how Ware and the Bears' offensive line did against Green Bay, and it wasn't good. Quarterback Jay Cutler was sacked seven times, with three coming over and through Webb and Cutler berating his left tackle on the sidelines. Question: If Webb couldn't control Clay Matthews, how is he going to slow Ware? "It's a different challenge," he told reporters this week, "because of the size difference [with Matthews] and the talent level. [Ware's] a little better, definitely. I have to bring my A-game." A week ago, the Bears gave Webb help, sometimes having running back Kalil Bell assist in protecting against Rams defensive end Robert Quinn. Look for something similar.

5. Minnesota vs. an NFC North skid: At some point, the Vikings will win a division game, but the odds aren't with them this weekend. Maybe it's because it's Detroit, or maybe it's because they can't beat anyone in the NFC North. The Vikings have lost their past 11 games vs. division opponents, with their past win against ... you guessed it ... these Detroit Lions in 2010.

Five things that may interest only me

1. Don't tell me defense doesn't matter. The league's only undefeated teams -- Arizona, Atlanta and Houston -- rank in the top five in fewest points allowed. Arizona is second (40), Houston third (42) and Atlanta fourth (48). Seattle leads everyone with 39, and its only loss was to the Cardinals.

2. Nobody is better in the fourth quarter than Denver, which has a point differential of plus-39. The Broncos have outscored opponents 45-6 in the fourth period. That's the good news. The bad? Opponents have outscored them 71-32 in the first three quarters.

3. Tennessee played back-to-back games without allowing a sack for the first time since November 2009. The last time they went three straight games without allowing a sack was 2008.

4. If it seems there are more close games this year than normal, go to the head of the class. There have been 28 decided by eight or fewer points, the most through the first three weeks since 1988. If there are 10 more this weekend, we will have a record for the most through the first month of any NFL season.

5. You already know that Kansas City's Jamaal Charles last weekend became the second back in league history to rush for 230 yards twice (Jim Brown did it three times). What you may not know is that he played San Diego following his first effort, rushing for 92 yards and scoring a touchdown in a season-opening victory. Now he plays the Bolts again, and he has a difficult act to follow to make history. O.J. Simpson has the most yards rushing (203) following a 230-yard effort.

Numbers to remember

0: Second-half touchdowns allowed by Philadelphia
1: Sacks allowed by Buffalo
1: More game with a touchdown pass for Drew Brees to tie Johnny Unitas' NFL record of 47 straight with at least one scoring pass
4: Consecutive games with at least 150 yards rushing for Washington
11: Michael Turner touchdowns in his past seven games vs. Carolina
24: Throws of 20 or more yards by Baltimore's Joe Flacco, which leads the league
23: Reggie Wayne catches, the most through his first three games of any season
2003: The last time New England was under .500, a streak that spanned 145 games

Sunday weather

 Atlanta: Dome
 Buffalo: Showers, high of 59
 Detroit: Dome
 Houston: Scattered thunderstorms, high of 83 (retractable roof)
 Kansas City, Mo.: Mostly sunny, high of 83
 East Rutherford, N.J.: Partly cloudy, high of 70
 St. Louis: Dome
 Glendale, Ariz.: Sunny, high of 103 (retractable roof)
 Jacksonville, Fla.: Cloudy, high of 84
 Denver: Partly cloudy, high of 73
 Green Bay, Wis.: Sunny, high of 63
 Tampa, Fla.: Partly cloudy, high of 85
 Philadelphia: Partly cloudy, high of 70

Where we will be

 I'll be in Dallas to keep Jerry Jones awake for the second half of Monday Night Football.
 Pete Prisco will be in Philadelphia to solicit an invitation from Tom Coughlin to his next golf tournament.
 Mike Freeman will be in New York to spend time on Grievous Island.

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