As early as it might be in the NFL schedule, several division games could be considered relatively critical in Week 4.
That includes the best rivalry in the league, the Steelers against the Ravens.
“This game is crazy,” Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger notes. “It’s a special game. I’m still here and (linebacker Terrell) Suggs is still over there. We’ve got a lot of respect for each other in this rivalry. C.J. Mosley, Jimmy Smith, (Brandon) Carr, and (Eric) Weddle now.
“I think we’ve got enough guys here that have played this physical AFC North game. Both there and here, playoff game or whatever it is. I don’t think it will take long if the young guys don’t know now what it’s going to be about.”
Among other things, it’s for first place in the division. Maybe that doesn’t sound significant at this point of the season, but with both teams 2-1, and Cincinnati and Cleveland both winless, the victor at Baltimore takes quick control in the AFC North.
Since the start of 2008, 12 times this game has been decided by three points or fewer.
Suggs, Big Ben’s buddy — well, not exactly — echoes the quarterback’s sentiments.
“You have to get an extra lift in the weight room,” says Suggs, who has more sacks on Roethlisberger (16 1/2) than anyone. “This is, I would say, the biggest rivalry in the NFL. It is definitely the most physical rivalry in the NFL, and it is because of the two teams’ style of play. You don’t cross paths without some things in common. We respect them, but we also know what it is.”
The week’s action began Thursday night with injury-riddled Green Bay’s 35-14 home victory over mistake-prone Chicago.
Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdown passes for the Packers (3-1), who lost two more key players to injuries. Receiver Davante Adams left the field on a stretcher after getting hit in the head in the third quarter. Running back Ty Montgomery was knocked out in the first quarter with a chest injury. Mike Glennon threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles for the Bears (1-3).
Oakland (2-1) at Denver (2-1)
Another terrific rivalry.
With the Chiefs off to such a brilliant start, and both of these teams coming off stinkers, the loser here could be doing lots of chasing in the AFC West.
The juiciest matchup is the Raiders’ dynamic offence against a Denver D that is at a Rocky Mountain high at home.
Denver’s No. 4 overall defence ranks first against the run after shutting down Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, and LeSean McCoy. Good luck, Beast Mode.
Detroit (2-1) at Minnesota (2-1)
Detroit’s opportunistic defence, which leads the NFL with a plus-6 turnover margin, has seven interceptions. Minnesota has not thrown any.
Perhaps the spotlight should be on the kickers. The Lions’ Matt Prater made field goals of 55 and 57 yards last week, becoming second only to Sebastian Janikowski in NFL history with 10 career 55-plus makes; Janikowski has 13. Kai Forbath has made all 21 field goals attempted since joining the Vikings for the final seven games of last season.
Over that 10-game span, he’s tied with Prater and Jacksonville’s Jason Myers for the most makes.
Tennessee (2-1) at Houston (1-2)
One reason Houston has controlled the AFC South in recent seasons is winning five of the past six with Tennessee. Its defence must slow down the ground-eating tandem of DeMarco Murray, who had a 75-yard touchdown last week, and Derrick Henry.
Surprisingly, J.J. Watt has no sacks thus far. But he’s gotten to the QB in eight straight matchups with Tennessee.
Carolina (2-1) at New England (2-1)
No one feels sympathy for the Patriots, but Tom Brady well knows the previous time they faced the Panthers, a controversial noncall on star linebacker Luke Kuechly preserved a Carolina victory .
“Might have got away with one there,” Kuechly acknowledged this week. “I’m not even gonna act like I didn’t. I might have got away with one.”
Told of Kuechly’s comments, Brady shrugged.
“Oh, man. Let’s replay that one then, too,” he said. “That was a tough game.”
Washington (2-1) at Kansas City (3-0), Monday night
The Redskins’ only win in nine meetings was 34 years ago. Washington has been outscored 191-69 in six games since.
Although both defences have looked strong recently, this could be an offensive showcase. Each team has a dynamic back: the Redskins’ Chris Thompson (13.0 yards per touch) and Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt (9.6) are tops at the position. KC leads the NFL in rushing.
But Washington didn’t allow Oakland to convert a third down last week in 11 tries.
Buffalo (2-1) at Atlanta (3-0)
Although they are 3-0, the defending NFC champs have had two way-too-tight escapes on the road to go with a romp past Green Bay at home. If Matt Ryan repeats his three-interception performance at Detroit, the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium might not be so comfortable for Atlanta.
Buffalo’s defence has been staunch under new coach Sean McDermott, allowing two touchdowns to match a franchise low through three games. The Bills need more from LeSean McCoy than he managed in the win over Denver, but he has scored four times in his past three meetings with the Falcons.
Los Angeles Rams (2-1) at Dallas (2-1)
Surprisingly, a marquee matchup because the Rams have found an offence. QB Jared Goff, the top overall draft choice in 2016, is showing maturity and accuracy. He had a career-best 145.8 passer rating against the 49ers with 292 yards and three TDs. He’s fourth in the NFL with a 118.2 rating and the Rams come off a lengthy break following their win against San Francisco.
Dallas, on the other hand, played at Arizona last Monday night. Its defence has developed a pass rush led by DeMarcus Lawrence, who tops the NFL with 6 1/2 sacks, including three against the Cardinals.
New Orleans (1-2) vs. Miami (1-1) at London
The Dolphins slept through their meeting in the Meadowlands with the Jets, and now they head to Wembley, where they lost the very first regular-season NFL match staged there. It’s already been a difficult season for them, from losing their starting quarterback to Hurricane Irma to a seemingly endless string of road trips.
For New Orleans, last week was an awakening at Carolina, with its defence stymieing Cam Newton and grabbing three interceptions.
One player to watch: Miami RB Jay Ajayi, who is from London.
Indianapolis (1-2) at Seattle (1-2)
Looks as if struggling Seattle has found its running back in rookie Chris Carson, a seventh-rounder who has 37 carries; no other Seahawks RB has more than eight. But a franchise that prides itself on a powerhouse running game has not scored a TD on the ground.
Indy’s Frank Gore needs 50 yards rushing to pass Eric Dickerson for seventh on the all-time list. Gore’s next 100-yard rushing game will tie O.J. Simpson for 16th most in NFL history at 42. Gore has five 100-yard games, but just one rushing touchdown in 19 matchups with the Seahawks.
Jacksonville (2-1) at New York Jets (1-2)
If the Jags are in the midst of a turnaround, they must win this game.
Yes, the Jets are coming off a strong knockout of Miami, but who really believes they are going anywhere after trashing the roster?
But Jacksonville’s beat-down of Baltimore — the Jaguars did the same at Houston in their opener — and the emergence of CB Jalen Ramsey and rookie RB Leonard Fournette — indicates new/old team boss Tom Coughlin is making progress.
“It’s a huge opportunity,” linebacker Paul Posluszny said. “When was the last time we were 3-1? The fact that we’ve played well, didn’t play well and then played well, we’ve been up and down. If we want to get to the playoffs, we have to be consistent throughout. This is an opportunity to prove that.”
New York Giants (0-3) at Tampa Bay (1-1)
Desperate times for the Giants, who at this point likely were contemplating the opposite record than what they have.
But with a hobbled Odell Beckham Jr., and a harried offensive line, their strong defence has been overworked.
Tampa Bay fell flat at Minnesota last week in a surprisingly inept display for a team supposedly on the rise.
Of most interest here is the presence of Beckham and the Bucs’ Mike Evans, two of the premier wideouts in football.
Philadelphia (2-1) at Los Angeles Chargers (0-3)
This is the Eagles’ first visit to the Los Angeles area since beating the Raiders in 1992. They don’t have former Chargers standout running back Darren Sproles, who last week tore up his knee and broke his forearm.
Coming with them, though is offensive co-ordinator Frank Reich, who was the Chargers quarterbacks coach in 2013 and has been credited by many with helping Philip Rivers bounce back from a shaky few seasons.
Not much has gone right for the Chargers and Rivers in 2017. He threw three interceptions in the most recent loss, to Kansas City.
San Francisco (0-3) at Arizona (1-2)
The Cardinals must believe the 49ers know something about personnel. There are six former 49ers on the Arizona roster: K Phil Dawson, P Andy Lee, G Alex Boone, QB Blaine Gabbert, G Mike Iupati, and S Antoine Bethea. Maybe they can keep Arizona’s mastery over the Niners going: the Cardinals swept all four meetings in the past two years.
Keep an eye on Cardinals star WR Larry Fitzgerald. He has 16 TD catches vs. San Francisco.
Cincinnati (0-3) at Cleveland (0-3)
Once dubbed the “Battle of Ohio” that soon disintegrated into a pillow fight, now this seems nothing more than a thumb war.
The Browns are rebuilding — yeah, seems like it’s that way all the time — but the Bengals allegedly were not. Lose here and they might admit to needing an overhaul.