Week 4 sees the start of the bye weeks in the NFL, with big hitters like Dallas and Minnesota among those with a day off this Sunday. However, there remain some cracking matches on the docket, including the much-anticipated return of former Eagles lightning rod Donovan McNabb to Philadelphia.
Baltimore Ravens (2-1) at Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0)
Sunday 6pm, Sky Sports 3
One of the games of the season so far as the first leg of one of the NFL’s great rivalries takes place at Heinz Field. The Ravens began the season as one of the the trendy picks for Super Bowl after adding top class receivers Anquan Boldin and TJ Houshmanzadeh to their highly ranked running game. But the offence hasn’t fired on all cylinders yet and this week goes on the road to face the league’s top defence. The Steelers, for their part, are one of the surprises of the season’s first quarter, going 3-0 without two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Most thought that Big Ben’s absence would give the Ravens and AFC North champions the Cincinnati Bengals a window to put the Steelers in a big early hole, but instead the Steelers have toughened up on D and eked out victories with back-up QBs Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch calling the shots.
Keys to success:
Joe Flacco: The third-year quarterback has shown he can manage a game on his way to play-off appearances in his first two seasons in the league, but the pressure is on to show he can spark an offence with the additional weapons in his receiving corps and running backs Ray Rice and Willis McGahee providing balance on the ground. But with Rice not 100 per cent due to some severe leg bruising and facing Pittsburgh’s stout run defence, the Ravens will be reliant on Flacco seizing what few opportunities the Steelers give him.
Troy Polamalu: 35-year-old Batch, who started the season as Pittsburgh’s fourth-choice quarterback, exceeded expectations last week in Tampa and will have to have another mistake-free outing against the Ravens, but big-haired safety Polamalu is the heartbeat of a Steelers D which is top of the league in fewest points, yards and touchdowns allowed so far this season. Expect to see Polamalu all over the field, both stopping the run and dropping back in coverage to disrupt Flacco and co.
These games are always great adverts for old-school defensive football and this year should be no different with the No.1 and No.4 ranked defences in the league facing off. In many ways the game is more important to the Ravens, who can’t really afford to give Pittsburgh the momentum of a two-game lead before the return of Roethlisberger, but if Baltimore fails to establish the run against a tough front seven the Steelers are tipped to go 4-0.
Washington Redskins (1-2) at Philadelphia Eagles (2-1)
Sunday 9.15pm, Sky Sports 3
The build-up to this one is all about a tale of two quarterbacks. Philadelphia jettisoned their all-time touchdown leader Donovan McNabb this offseason after 11 successful years that included regular trips to the play-off and a losing Super Bowl appearance. Surprisingly, McNabb was traded within the NFC East to the Washington Redskins, indicating that the Eagles viewed him as no threat at all. Well, this is his first chance to prove them wrong as he leads the Skins into Philly, where the reception he receives from a notoriously hostile crowd in the City of Brotherly Love that never fully warmed to him will bear watching.
Eagles coach Andy Reid’s motivation for trading McNabb was to turn the keys over to understudy Kevin Kolb, a second-round pick in 2007 that earned a $12million contract extension this offseason. However, Kolb suffered a concussion in the Eagles’ first game, bringing former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick under centre. This is the same Vick that was booted out of the league in 2007 and served 21 months in prison for his role in an illegal dog-fighting ring. The Eagles, with the encouragement of McNabb, were the team to give him a chance after his reinstatement, and his play has been so good that he was named NFC Offensive Player of the Month and seen the fit-again Kolb be relegated to back-up.
Keys to success:
LeSean McCoy: Vick’s greatest strength has always been his ability to run with the football, and defences have been forced to respect that, leaving running back McCoy among the big beneficiaries of the quarterback switch. McCoy is averaging a healthy 6.1 yards per carry so far this season and has already matched his touchdown total for 2009 with four.
LaRon Landry: The Redskins safety leads the league in tackles with 34 through the first three weeks of the season, including 17 in the season-opening win in their last divisional game against the Dallas Cowboys.
McNabb has a point to prove after the Eagles effectively put him on the scrap-heap and, along with new coach Mike Shanahan, he has given some life to a Redskins offence that was utterly lifeless last season. He would not have expected to face Vick, however, and the Eagles offence is now ironically looking just as explosive as it did in McNabb’s early years. Philly should win, but don’t bet against McNabb putting on a show in defeat.
Chicago Bears (3-0) at New York Giants (1-2)
Sunday/Monday 1.20am, Channel 4
The Bears are on our screens for the third week in a row and are looking to maintain their surprising start to the season at the new Meadowlands Stadium. Chicago are a hard team to pin down though, as even though they are 3-0 only one of their wins, the 27-20 victory in Dallas, was really that impressive. Against Detroit in Week 1 they were lucky to escape when the Lions were denied a last-gasp TD on a technicality, while last week Monday night at home to Green Bay a team-record penalty count for the Packers proved to be the difference. Maybe I’m not giving them enough credit, but I’d like to see them impress me again before buying into them as contenders. And surely the Giants are ripe for the plucking, with the team seemingly in disarray amid claims that head coach Tom Coughlin has lost the dressing room. An opening day win against the Panthers has looked less and less impressive as subsequent defeats have marked Carolina out to be rubbish, and last Sunday’s loss to Tennessee was riddled with the sort of errors and indiscipline typical of a team that has lost its way.
Keys to success:
Devin Hester: Hester was once the most feared return man in the game, breaking the league record for kicks returned for touchdowns in a season with six in 2007. However, his role as a returner lessened as he focused on improving as a wide receiver, a decision which robbed the Bears of one of their top offensive weapons. This year, though, it appears he is back to receive kicks, and scored his first return TD since ’07 last week against the Packers. The Bears would be wise to continue to play to Hester’s strengths.
Giants mistakes: Last week the Giants outgained Tennessee 471-271 in yardage yet lost by 19 points, mainly due to turnovers and penalties. Tom Coughlin led the Giants to a championship, but if he is to prove wrong those who say his days in New York are numbered than he’ll have to coax a disciplined and efficient performance from his team.
The pressure is on in New York, and a home win is a must if they are to avoid seeing the season go up in smoke amid a haze of rows and recriminations. Look for them to go all out to hit Bears QB Jay Cutler early and often and sneak a win to ease the strain in the Big Apple.
New England Patriots (2-1) at Miami Dolphins (2-1)
Monday/Tuesday 1.30pm, ESPN
The results from last week may show that New England picked up a win while the Dolphins lost, but in reality there was much more to like in Miami’s display. The Fins lost a tough divisional battle to the New York Jets, but there were finally signs of life from quarterback Chad Henne, who threw for 363 yards and 2 TDs against a superior Jets defence, albeit one that was missing superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Pats, meanwhile, were less than convincing in victory, letting the lowly Buffalo Bills put up 30 points at their Foxboro home.
Keys to success:
Patriots secondary: All is not well in New England, where one of the league’s best offences is paired with one of its worst defences, particularly against the pass. In one corner is rookie Devin McCourty, while the other sideline has been marshalled by second-year man Darius Butler, whose performance has been so bad he has been losing time to undrafted free agent Kyle Arrington. If they were shredded by the Bills’ mediocre receivers, what will the likes of Miami star Brandon Marshall do?
Patriots tight ends: Instead of focusing on exclusively on their defence in the draft the Pats brought in more weapons for future Hall of Fame QB Tom Brady in the shape of rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Florida product Hernandez appears to be the quicker and more athletic of the two and currently leads the team in receiving yards, but Gronkowski seems to be Brady’s choice in the red zone, with two touchdowns in his first three games.
The Patriots will hope they can muzzle the Dolphins just enough to allow their offence win them the game, but Miami’s defence is far stronger than Buffalo’s and is good enough to question whether the Pats can simply turn up and put up 3o-plus points. Indeed, they spluttered badly against the Jets two weeks ago. The Dolphins are coming off a home loss within the AFC East and it’s hard to see them give another divisional clash away without a fight.
Picks: Steelers, Eagles, Giants, Dolphins
Last week: 3-1
Season so far: 6-2