Sunday NFL Preview: Week Four

By Lloyd Vance
Updated: September 27, 2008

NFL PHILADELPHIA — Around the NFL this weekend is “Separation Sunday II” as we will continue to find out who are the contenders and pretenders as first quarter report cards are issued. Autumn has arrived bringing football type weather and you can feel and smell football in the air each weekend.

Fridays are filled with high school games under the lights, Saturdays give you the excitement and pageantry college football, and Sundays are can’t miss television for NFL fans.

In fact, NFL games topped the local ratings in 29 of 29 NFL markets last week and the Sunday night Dallas-Green Bay game on NBC was the most-watched show of the week with 22.2 million viewers, which was almost double the Emmys’ number of 12.3 million.

Speaking of high school ball, USA Football announced its annual list of high schools with the most NFL players with two schools Dillard HS in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (ex. Carolina DB Chris Gamble) and Tustin HS in Tustin, California (ex. Falcons OT Sam Baker) leading the way with six players.

To me, it is still too early to make long-term observations based on the first three weeks of the NFL season. But one thing is clear, this season has shown that there are distinct tiers within the NFL.

There are the undefeated teams looking down from the top (Cowboys, Bills, Giants, Broncos, Ravens, and Titans), winning teams fighting to get to the elite level (Eagles, Falcons, Packers, Steelers, Patriots, Cardinals, Redskins, Buccaneers, Niners, and Panthers), teams hanging on to the ledge in hopes of getting back in the race (Chargers, Saints, Bears, Colts, Jaguars, Vikings, Jets, and Seahawks) and some teams that just plain stink (Raiders, Browns, Lions, Bengals, Rams, Texans, and Chiefs).

No matter where your team stands in the tiers there clearly is optimism in the air around the NFL as almost every team except for the bottom rung (0-3) teams still has a chance to be in the playoff hunt. Sure, you’d rather be undefeated — as six clubs are — or at least have a winning record as the last weekend of September looms.

But all those teams on the downside of the won-loss ledger should remind themselves of the 2007 San Diego Chargers, who began last season at 1-3, won their final six and took an 11-5 record into the playoffs, advancing all the way to the AFC Championship Game.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo recently said of the marathon like NFL season, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re the favorite now or the least favorite, the reality of it is you’ve got to keep playing games. You’re not trying to be the favorite now, you’re trying to be the favorite at the end of the year.”

Some tidbits for this week include.

Scoring Surge – I don’t know if it is Swiss cheese defenses like the Broncos, Rams, or Saints, but scoring is almost at all-time highs. NFL games are averaging 44.1 points per contest through three weeks of the season – the highest such mark at this point since 2002 (44.7) – the highest season total is from 2002 with 45.3 points. Last week, 747 points were scored in 16 games, the 10th-highest point total in history in a single weekend.

Surprises around the NFL aplenty - The rise of the Bills (3-0), Falcons, (2-1), Niners (2-1); Some of my playoff team picks stumbling out of the gate (Colts, Jaguars, Browns, Chargers, and Vikings); The Patriots continuing their winning ways without Tom Brady; The benching of “franchise” quarterbacks Tarvaris Jackson, Marc Bulger, and Vince Young for journeyman backups; Aaron Rodgers leading the Packers with missing a beat validating Ted Thompson’s hunch.

A few “I told you so” moments from the first three weeks - Dallas being a strong team in the regular season (3-0) with a huge playoff shadow looming; Head coaches Scott Linehan, Herman Edwards, and Lane Kiffin sitting on the hottest seats in the NFL; The Lions finally firing former Lions GM Matt Millen; The meteoric rise of impact rookies (DeSean Jackson, Darren McFadden, Matt Forte and others); Officials blowing calls despite the assistance of instant replay;

Playoff Teams from ’07 still in the hunt - I know that every year is different — just ask Romeo Crennel in Cleveland — but the 12-playoff teams from 2007 are making a pretty good showing in ’08. Ten of the ’07 playoff teams have winning records including three undefeated teams (Titans (u), Cowboys (u), Giants (u), Patriots, Redskins, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Steelers, and Packers. The other three teams (Chargers, Colts, and Jags), I believe will jump right back into the mix by the midpoint of the season in week 8. Of the three former playoff teams currently with losing records, I believe the Colts led by stalwart quarterback Peyton Manning, after a bye week to get healthy, will return to the playoff hunt as they chance the Titans in the AFC South.

Before we move onto our featured game, I just wanted to say that I am really excited for the games this upcoming week as there seven divisional games highlighting the schedule with some wrapped around a couple of bitter rivalries (Dallas-Washington, San Diego-Oakland, Cleveland-Cincinnati, and Baltimore-Pittsburgh). Also remember that scheduled byes start this week, so watch your fantasy football lineups.

Featured Game

Texans (0-2) at Jaguars (1-2) 1:00 PM ET (CBS)

Broadcast Team: Dick Enberg and Randy Cross

One of the more intriguing games from the slate of seven divisional games is this AFC South battle featuring two teams that are desperate to get back on track in order to catch the streaking undefeated Tennessee Titans. The last time these two met in December 2007, the Texans pulled the upset fueled by kick returner André Davis (2 KR-TDs 28 seconds apart) surprising the favored Jaguars 42-28. The win established a Texans team scoring record of 42 points and allowed them to finish the season with franchise-record 8 wins while forcing the Jaguars to get ready for the playoffs on a down note.

Surprisingly the former expansion Texans hold a 7-5 edge in this series and have won three of the last four meetings. After having to miss their game in week 2 due to Hurricane Ike, the Texans still have a chance to join all of the 0-2 teams, including last year’s Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, that turned their season around after starting with a couple of losses. Last week it was the Chargers, Vikings, and Jaguars leaving their non-win selves behind and this week it could be Houston’s turn.

However if last week is any indicator, it maybe a long day for the Texans versus the Jaguars. The Texans allowed the physical Titans to rush for 154 yards and we know that running the ball is the Jags calling card as shown by there 236 yards of rushing while holding the ball for over 40 minutes in a 23-21 win over the Colts.

After recording just 97 total yards in Jacksonville’s first two games, Taylor and Jones-Drew combined for 228 yards on 45 carries against the Colts. To say the least, the Texans ability to stop the Jags ground game is the biggest key to this game as the Jags are 14-4 (.764) when gaining 150+ rush yards since 2002.

Conversely the Texans will look to their rejuvenated running game led by their leading rusher rookie Steve Slaton (last week he had career highs of 18 carries for 116 yards and 1 TD in the Texans lopsided 31-12 loss to the Titans. Hopefully Slaton will be able to help struggling quarterback Matt Schaub (last week was 17-37, 188 yards, 0 TDs w/ 3 INTs and 2 Fumbles w/ 1 lost) as the former Falcons signal caller is struggling enough that there have been whispers that Sage Rosenfelds may get a look. Whomever is the quarterback they will need to find ways to get former Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson involved as the big play receiver only has 11 catches and no touchdowns.

Shockingly Jaguars quarterback David Garrard (56-85,547 yards, 1 TD, and 4 INTs) has also been ineffective this season while throwing one more interception than all of last year. Garrard’s patch work offensive line will need to protect him versus a pass-rush that loves to get after the quarterback led by former 2006 first player selected DE Mario Williams, who had 14 sacks in 2007 and already has 2 sacks in two games this season.

If Garrard does get protection it could be a long day for the Texans, who have yielded 69 points in their two games (average of 34 + points). The Texans do not want to get in a scoring match, because they have had little success finding the endzone (only 3 TDs) and they are ranked 31st in scoring with only 29 points, which ties them with the lowly Rams.

LV’s Pick: I believe the Sage Rosenfelds era will be upon us as Texans quarterback Matt Schaub continues to struggle to find his rhythm and turns the ball over some more due to intense pressure from the Jaguars front four. Expect to a lot of running from Jones-Drew and Taylor against the Texans young defense, especially if they get the lead early and their line can block tackling machine linebacker Demeco Ryans. Also watch for Jaguars spectacular playmaking corner Rashean Mathis to grab at least one Schaub pick and when he does, you know he wants to score a touchdown. If Mathis does grab pick then that is a good sign for the Jags — team is 12-6 (.667) when Mathis has INT. Weather may play factor in this weekend in Florida, so expect the Jags to pound the rock to a 24-13 win.

Week 4

Sunday’s Games

Atlanta at Carolina, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Cleveland at Cincinnati, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Houston at Jacksonville, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

Denver at Kansas City, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)

San Francisco at New Orleans, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Arizona at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Green Bay at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

Minnesota at Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET (FOX)

San Diego at Oakland, 4:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

Buffalo at St. Louis, 4:05 p.m. ET (CBS)

Washington at Dallas, 4:15 p.m. ET (FOX)

Philadelphia at Chicago, 8:15 p.m. ET (NBC)

Monday’s Game

Baltimore at Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Bye week:

Detroit, Indianapolis, Miami, New England, N.Y. Giants, Seattle.