Go ahead. Try to stick a fork in them. There are plenty of “thems” to go around – teams fighting for survival already as we only reach the quarter pole in the race.
Check out those winless teams. Their odds at making the playoffs after a 0-3 start is already down to counting teams on an impaired butcher’s hand that have made the playoffs after that kind of start in the last 20 years. It’s not impossible, but lose this week and it’s likely curtains for the currently winless teams in the NFL – yes, we’re looking at you Chicago Bears (hosting the Oakland Raiders), New Orleans Saints (hosting the Dallas Cowboys) and Detroit Lions (traveling to the Seattle Seahawks).
There are also plenty of one-win teams looking to get themselves back in contention for their division. Four teams entered NFL Week 4 winless and a whopping 15 teams had 1-2 records – not insurmountable by any stretch, but falling to 1-3 would certainly require a winning streak far beyond what they’ve mustered at this early stage.
In fact, many of those 1-2 teams were considered contenders, or at least had plenty of hype and high hopes, entering the season, including the Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams. Certainly, a few of their seasons will be revived with wins this weekend (a few even play each other), but it better start now to keep them relevant into the midpoint of the season.
We start our three-and-out matchups to watch with one of those teams in the Sunday afternoon early session.
Kansas City Chiefs (1-2) at Cincinnati Bengals (3-0)
The Chiefs are in a tough AFC West and can’t afford to lose any more ground, but the Bengals have won the last game between the two, 28-6 in 2012, and the last game in Cincinnati, 17-10 in 2009, but these are different teams now. Alex Smith is now with the Chiefs after having beaten the Bengals in 2011 while he was with the San Francisco 49ers.
But if the Chiefs are going to win, they will need to improve on their minus-3 turnover ratio because the Bengals are plus-2. Playing a ball-control game with Jamaal Charles would be a good place to start after he rushed for three touchdowns last week against the Green Bay Packers, and the Chiefs finally ended their 18-game drought of no wide receiver catching a touchdown pass when Jeremy Maclin had eight catches for 141 yards and a touchdown last week. Still, TE Travis Kelce remains the Chiefs’ biggest threat in the passing game with 39 receptions for 528 yards and three touchdowns in his past seven games.
The Chiefs are built on defense and have plenty of stars there, from pass-rushing terror Justin Houston with 18 sacks and four forced fumbles in his last 13 games to Tamba Hali, one of only three Chiefs with 80 career sacks.
The Bengals will counter with the efficient Andy Dalton, who is on a roll with a career-high 383 yards and four touchdowns last week and four straight games with a 115 passer rating or better. Last week, WR A.J. Green became the second player in NFL history with 10 catches, 225 receiving yards or more and two touchdowns in a single game, and that included the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (2-1) AT DENVER BRONCOS (3-0)
Are the Vikings legitimate? They’ll have a chance to show that Sunday afternoon in a late afternoon game at Denver.
Neither Teddy Bridgewater nor Peyton Manning is playing at their peak to start the season. Bridgewater has 505 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions and an 80.1 rating. Manning has 755 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and an 83.3 rating and won all three of his career matchups against the Vikings with 862 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions in those meetings.
The Vikings have a running game with Adrian Peterson back in the familiar saddle as the NFL’s rushing leader – 291 yards, including 260 yards in the last two games. The Broncos, despite trying to focus on it in the offseason, don’t have much of a running game, with Ronnie Hillman their leading rusher with only 88 yards. Neither offense is averaging more than 300 yards a game.
The Broncos easily have the better passing game with Demaryius Thomas leading the way with 268 yards and an 11.2-yard average per catch and Emmanuel Sanders has four touchdown catches in the last five games.
Each team has some formidable pass rushers, however. The Broncos are led by DeMarcus Ware with 3½ sacks and Von Miller with nine sacks in the last eight games. Everson Griffen leads the Vikings with three sacks this season.
DALLAS COWBOYS (2-1) AT NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (0-3)
The Saints are on life support with a quarterback hoping a bum shoulder is ready to go. The Cowboys are without their gunslinger, at least they have two wins in hand and an eighth-ranked defense hopeful it can keep them in the divisional race, and maybe in front, until Tony Romo and Dez Bryant return.
For now, however, most of the drama leading up to Sunday night’s game is whether Drew Brees will play and, if so, how effective he can be. Two years ago, it wasn’t even close, as the Cowboys and since-departed DeMarco Murray ripped through the Saints defense in a 38-17 win as Murray ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns and Romo threw three touchdowns for a 137.4 rating.
In Romo’s absence, Brandon Weeden has 305 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 102.7 rating. For the Saints, neither Brees nor his backup generator, Luke McCown, have a rating over 90, and both teams have an ugly minus-3 turnover differential.
Last week, Joseph Randle had a career-high 87 yards and became the first Cowboy to rush for three touchdowns since Emmitt Smith in 1998, but it’s still largely a running-back-by-committee approach in Big D as they look to replace Big DeMarco.
It could come down to defense without healthy signal-calling starters for each team, and that puts the advantage in the eighth-ranked Cowboys’ laps. LB Sean Lee leads the NFC with 33 tackles and has 12 interceptions since 2010, the most by a linebacker. The Saints, meanwhile have the 29th-ranked defense.