GAME OF THE WEEK
Detroit Lions (3-0) at Dallas Cowboys (2-1)
Sunday: 1:00 ET, FOX, Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver
Last meeting: Jon Kitna guided Dallas to a 35-19 win with three touchdown passes and a 29-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter on Nov. 21, 2010.
Costa business: A first-year starter, C Phil Costa took heat for multiple bad snaps in Monday's squeaker over the Redskins, but he has bigger concerns in Week 4. DTs Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams can blow up plays before they begin, and the Cowboys plan to utilize plenty of shotgun formation to ease the torque on QB Tony Romo dropping from center with a fractured rib. Romo has a 111.9 passer rating and has made due with a patchwork receiving corps. CB Eric Wright gives the Lions a solid cover man to check Dez Bryant. Romo hasn't been afraid to work the ball to secondary options while leaning on TE Jason Witten to move the chains.
Megatron meets JumboTron: The Lions' weak links are secondary play and the lack of blue-chip blockers on the edges. Dallas might be in position to capitalize only on the latter. LOLB Anthony Spencer has a winnable matchup with the Lions rotating Gosder Cherilus and Corey Hilliard and ROLB DeMarcus Ware has multiple sacks in two of the first three games this season. The Lions counter with a seven-man line; TEs Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew are good blockers and better receivers. QB Matthew Stafford can put the ball on a receiver's numbers with ease, and given time to set up, looks for WR Calvin Johnson (six touchdowns in three games) even against bracket coverage. The Cowboys watched Stafford flee the pocket regularly against the Vikings in Week 3, and he was sacked five times. That's the green light for coordinator Rob Ryan to unleash his all-angles pressure packages to keep Stafford and his shaken line guessing.
Need to know: The Lions have eight receivers averaging at least 11.0 yards per catch. ... Witten had 15 catches vs. Detroit in 2007.
Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1) at Houston Texans (2-1)
Sunday: 1:00 ET, CBS, Greg Gumbel, Dan Dierdorf
Game plan: The Saints beat the Texans with a pass-first approach behind a patchwork offensive line. That's good news for the wounded Steelers, who continue juggling their own banged-up front five. The quickest way to draw blood against Houston's 3-4 is spreading the field to invite nickel and dime personnel. The Texans' goal: keep RB Rashard Mendenhall (3.0 yards per carry) penned in early and get after QB Ben Roethlisberger. The return of RB Arian Foster (hamstring) should alleviate Houston's shortcomings in the red zone. QB Matt Schaub has to be willing to stand in the pocket against the blitz. If he is, the payoff is ideal one-on-one matchups on the perimeter.
Need to know: The Steelers have won eight of their past 10 road games. ... Texans WR Andre Johnson has only five catches for 60 yards in the second half through three games.
Minnesota Vikings (0-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (0-3)
Sunday: 1:00 ET, FOX, Gus Johnson, Charles Davis, Tim Brewster
Game plan: The Vikings have to solve the second half. They've blown leads of 10, 17 and 20 at intermission and last week forgot about Adrian Peterson, who ran just four times in the third and fourth quarter in the overtime loss to the Lions. The Chiefs have lost their last three home games, including playoffs, by a total count of 102-24. Failing to create the big plays in the running game that defined the offense in 2010 has become a growing hindrance on QB Matt Cassel, who figures to throw into the teeth of a penetrating front four all game.
Need to know: Vikings DE Jared Allen has an NFL-best 87.5 sacks since entering the NFL in 2004, including three last week. ... Cassel is 7-2 at home.
Carolina Panthers (1-2) at Chicago Bears (1-2)
Sunday: 1:00 ET, FOX, Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin
Game plan: The Bears' bend-don't-break defense has been uncharacteristically pliable the past two weeks. Part of the problem: a consistently stalling offense that too often has faced third-and-long situations. The Panthers are utilizing backup personnel in many starting roles and the linebacking corps could be exposed if the Bears are content taking what the defense gives. QB Jay Cutler (14 sacks) can expect the Panthers to blitz regularly; they don't fear the Bears' outside receivers. Cutler, drifting in his drops behind his struggling offensive line, has converted only five third-down tries in the past two games.
Need to know: The Bears have 10 second-half points since Week 1. ... Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams has averaged 46.8 rushing yards per game since the start of '10.
Buffalo Bills (3-0) at Cincinnati Bengals (1-2)
Sunday: 1:00 ET, CBS, Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker
Game plan: The Bills' high-scoring offense (37.7 ppg) tries to shake its one ill -- slow starts -- to give the defense a chance to play with a lead. The Buffalo secondary leads the NFL with six interceptions and could prey on rookie Andy Dalton, who experienced growing pains against the 49ers last week. Dalton and WR A.J. Green give the Bengals a puncher's chance in a close game. To keep it tight, expect a lunch-pail effort from RB Cedric Benson. Cincinnati has the NFL's top run defense (2.9 yards per carry), and Buffalo's offense is most efficient when RB Fred Jackson sets the table.
Need to know: The Bengals have lost 10 straight to Buffalo. ... The Bills beat Oakland and New England to become the first team to win consecutive games after trailing by 18 or more points in the first half.
Tennessee Titans (2-1) at Cleveland Browns (2-1)
Sunday: 1:00 ET, CBS, Marv Albert, Rich Gannon
Game plan: Titans RB Chris Johnson hasn't been a threat and Tennessee ranks 32nd in rushing, but he'll get the ball consistently with injured WR Kenny Britt out. Johnson, averaging 2.1 yards per carry, has been a down-the-dial option as QB Matt Hasselbeck chops through opposing defenses with uncanny accuracy (69.6 completion percentage). The Titans' cornerbacks manhandle receivers at the line and can control most running backs with base personnel. Browns QB Colt McCoy has to find shifty playmaker Josh Cribbs and TEs Ben Watson and Evan Moore to peel the safeties away from the line. A slow start for McCoy means power back Peyton Hillis won't get out of first gear.
Need to know: Hasselbeck has never had three straight 300-yard passing games. ... McCoy has a 97.2 passer rating in the first half, 64.6 in the second this season.
San Francisco 49ers (2-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (1-2)
Sunday: 1:00 ET, FOX, Ron Pitts, Jim Mora
Game plan: Eagles QB Michael Vick expects to play despite a contusion on his right non-throwing hand. He primarily carries the ball in his left hand, but it does place extra emphasis on his ball-handling - Vick has lost three of seven fumbles already. The biggest culprit is poor pass protection, but RB LeSean McCoy could find it difficult to provide help against a defense allowing 2.9 yards per carry. 49ers QB Alex Smith has been managing the game, but his protection has been poor and getting after the quarterback is Philadelphia's defensive strength. With RB Frank Gore battling a sprained ankle, Kendall Hunter again figures to receive significant carries.
Need to know: Smith has a 127.9 passer rating inside the opponent's 30-yard line. ... McCoy is averaging 7.1 yards per carry on first down.
Washington Redskins (2-1) at St. Louis Rams (0-3)
Sunday: 1:00 ET, FOX, Chris Myers, Tim Ryan
Game plan: The Rams are allowing 5.4 yards per carry, and the Redskins will test that run defense until St. Louis proves its front seven can hold up. Redskins QB Rex Grossman lacks dynamic playmakers downfield and QB Rex Grossman is still proving to leave a handful of passes up for grabs every game. The Rams hope RB Steven Jackson is ready to assume a bigger workload this week. He's the catalyst with QB Sam Bradford lacking consistent weapons downfield and Washington boasting a vastly improved defensive line.
Need to know: The Redskins have botched a field-goal attempt in every game this season. ... Rams WR Danario Alexander is averaging 30 yards on his five receptions.
New Orleans Saints (2-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2)
Sunday: 1:00 ET, FOX, Sam Rosen, Chad Pennington
Game plan: The Jaguars have a typically toothless pass rush with three sacks in three games. With Saints QB Drew Brees spreading the field and getting help from a trio of running backs, he should be able to keep Jacksonville sufficiently off-balance. With the defense under constant attack, the Jaguars can't ask rookie QB Blaine Gabbert to match score-for-score in his second career start. RB Maurice Jones-Drew is going to face eight- and nine-man fronts and he must be productive against them. The Saints have struggled against the run at times, although they're allowing a respectable 4.3 yards per carry.
Need to know: Saints S Roman Harper has 2.5 sacks this season and 12 since 2006, the most by a safety in the NFL in that span. ... Jones-Drew is averaging 102.3 rushing yards per game this season.
Atlanta Falcons (1-2) at Seattle Seahawks (1-2)
Sunday: 4:05 ET, FOX, Craig Bolerjack, John Lynch
Game plan: The Falcons upgraded their passing attack during the offseason, but the ground game is suddenly a concern after gaining just 30 yards on 15 carries at Tampa Bay. Atlanta wants to attack Seattle's subpar group of cornerbacks, but play-action could prove difficult to establish against a defense allowing 3.1 yards per carry. Seattle's offensive line continues to struggle and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has been conservative. But Atlanta has allowed two 300-yard passing games already and the Seahawks have to take advantage of that secondary.
Need to know: The Falcons had a league-low 58 penalties last season. With 23 through three games, they are on pace for 121.6 this season. ... Seahawks WR Sidney Rice had eight catches for 109 yards in his season debut last week.
N.Y. Giants (2-1) at Arizona Cardinals (1-2)
Sunday: 4:05 ET, FOX, Kenny Albert, Daryl Johnston, Tony Siragusa
Game plan: The Cardinals have allowed 825 passing in three games - and that's including just 139 against Seattle last week. The secondary is a prime target, and Giants QB Eli Manning is coming off a four-touchdown game as he welcomes WR Mario Manningham (concussion) back to the mix. Arizona has to hope RB Beanie Wells is over his hamstring issue and ready to be the workhorse to protect its defense. QB Kevin Kolb has been effective in the no-huddle offense, but the passing game has been inconsistent out of its base set. Still, the Giants' vulnerability lies in their injury-depleted secondary, provided Kolb's protection holds up.
Need to know: Of Manningham's 14 career touchdowns, 12 have gone for 20-plus yards. ... Arizona is averaging an NFC-best 7.3 yards on first down.
Miami Dolphins (0-3) at San Diego Chargers (2-1)
Sunday: 4:15 ET, CBS, Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts
Game plan: The Chargers would love to run the ball and protect QB Philip Rivers, who has taken a couple of big hits to his chest in the early going. But the Dolphins travel cross-country with a secondary that he been repeatedly burned as Miami allows 311 passing yards per game. The Dolphins have just four sacks and if they don't get to Rivers, he will have a field day. It's been a tumultuous week for Miami with coach Tony Sparano facing criticism from all angles. Bottom line: the Dolphins must run the ball against the Chargers' injury-ravaged defensive line and keep this a low-scoring game they can drag late into the fourth quarter.
Need to know: Dolphins WR Brandon Marshall has dropped a pass in the end zone in all three games this season. ... All 17 of Chargers WR Vincent Jackson's receptions this season have gone for first downs.
New England Patriots (2-1) at Oakland Raiders (2-1)
Sunday: 4:15 ET, CBS, Kevin Harlan, Solomon Wilcots
Game plan: The Raiders have one of the league's most physical interior defensive lines led by Richard Seymour and Tommie Kelly, and they'll rotate the group to continue attacking backup center Dan Connolly in an effort to get in QB Tom Brady's face. Oakland is allowing 289.7 passing yards per game with a banged-up secondary, so allowing Brady time to survey his options would be a fatal approach. The Raiders will attempt to protect that defense by establishing their physical running game out of the chute. If RB Darren McFadden can dictate the tempo early on, it will set the table for QB Jason Campbell to attack New England's equally-shaky pass defense.
Need to know: The only loss for each team has been to Buffalo. ... The Patriots have scored 30-plus points in 11 straight games.
Denver Broncos (1-2) at Green Bay Packers (3-0)
Sunday: 4:15 ET, CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
Game plan: If the Broncos have a prayer at Lambeau, it rides on the health of injured DE Elvis Dumervil and CB Champ Bailey; neither has played since Week 1. Without the guts of their defense, the Broncos would face an even steeper uphill battle against QB Aaron Rodgers' multitude of weapons. With lightning-fast rookie Von Miller and Dumervil to rush Rodgers, the Broncos can cover for a suspect secondary, which allowed two 300-yard passing games with Bailey out. That puts the game on QB Kyle Orton to pick apart a defense that has been stingy against the run but allows 359.3 passing yards per game. To sustain drives, Orton must get all of his receivers involved and make quick decisions behind an overmatched offensive line.
Need to know: The Packers have won four of the past five meetings and all three games in Green Bay. ... The Broncos allowed seven pass plays of 22 yards or more in the past two games.
New York Jets (2-1) at Baltimore Ravens (2-1)
Sunday: 8:20 ET, NBC, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya
Game plan: Neither team was strained to simulate its opponent this week. The offensive and defensive schemes are near mirror images, and individual matchups worth watching are in abundance. The Jets were steamrolled by RB Darren McFadden last week. They can't zero in on RB Ray Rice after Joe Flacco had his second three-touchdown game of 2011 in Week 3. The Jets must set the edge this week, as Rice's receiving skills warrant extra focus on the perimeter. Jets QB Mark Sanchez has carried the offense with RB Shonn Greene sputtering. The Ravens, who have nine sacks but are dinged up in the secondary, held two of their first three opponents to less than 75 rushing yards.
Need to know: The Ravens haven't allowed a first-quarter touchdown in nine of their last 11 games. ... The Jets haven't had a 100-yard rusher in their last 15 games.
Indianapolis Colts (0-3) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)
Monday: 8:30 ET, ESPN, Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, Suzy Kolber
Game plan: Whether QB Kerry Collins (concussion) lines up under center or Curtis Painter gets the call, the Colts must establish the run early. Tampa Bay held Atlanta to 30 yards on 15 carries last week, but the run defense was vulnerable the first two weeks and the Bucs lost S Cody Grimm to a season-ending knee injury. The Colts are also dealing with a pair of season-ending injuries to LB Gary Brackett and S Melvin Bullitt. It's vital that DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis bring the same relentless motors they showed against Pittsburgh and rattle Bucs QB Josh Freeman, whose three interceptions are already half of his total from all of last season.
Need to know: Four members of the Colts' staff, including coach Jim Caldwell, served under former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy while he was in Tampa Bay. ... Bucs DT Gerald McCoy has nine quarterback pressures the past two games.
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