NFL Nation: audibles 4

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

San Francisco 49ers (2-1) at New Orleans Saints (1-2), 1 p.m. ET

The 49ers have to like their chances of claiming their second road victory in as many chances this season.

Quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan proved he could fight through a slow start in Seattle and still rally the 49ers to an upset victory in a hostile environment. The Saints aren't as formidable as the Seahawks on defense, and they are also suffering from a long list of injuries. Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense will test the 49ers' defense even without receiver Marques Colston and tight end Jeremy Shockey. This could be a high-scoring game.

O'Sullivan and tight end Vernon Davis came close to connecting on a couple of big plays last week. Davis is averaging 17.0 yards per reception, up from 9.8 last season, and his speed could give the Saints problems down the middle of the field. His timing and overall rapport with O'Sullivan should improve as the season progresses.

Redskins tight end Chris Cooley caught five passes for 72 yards against the Saints in Week 2. Let's see if Davis can exploit a weak and injury-depleted Saints defense.

The 49ers have been very effective with two tight ends on the field and Frank Gore alone in the backfield. They averaged 6.1 yards on nine carries and 10.2 yards on five pass plays while operating from that personnel grouping against Detroit in Week 3.

Buffalo Bills (3-0) at St. Louis Rams (0-3), 4:05 p.m. ET

The Rams are facing a potential mutiny after benching quarterback Marc Bulger and releasing cornerback Fakhir Brown in response to their 0-3 start. Those moves seem unlikely to produce the type of emotional response needed for sustained success. This is an organization in panic mode and without effective leadership on any level.

Think about it. The Rams handed a six-year, $65 million deal to Bulger before the 2007 season. They brought in Al Saunders as offensive coordinator this year, then benched Bulger after three games in a new system. Only an organization in turmoil makes that type of move.

The way Rams running back Steven Jackson sees things, the Rams' switch to Trent Green at quarterback serves Saunders as much as it serves the Rams. It's fair to wonder if Saunders will suddenly open up the playbook now that his quarterback is under center. Saunders and Green enjoyed great success together in Kansas City, but they don't have Tony Gonzalez and a dominating offensive line on their side this time.

The Rams have the look of a badly injured animal. There's always a chance desperation will compel them to rise up and fight. Most likely, the Bills will have to overlook the Rams for St. Louis to succeed in this game.

I sense no emotional groundswell in response to the lineup changes. I do anticipate wide running lanes for Marshawn Lynch and more confusion in the Rams' secondary as Lee Evans works deep downfield.

Arizona Cardinals (2-1) at New York Jets (1-2), 1 p.m. ET

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is betting big on changing the organization's culture. He has convinced ownership to spend money on assistant coaches. This week, he convinced the organization to invest in a week-long experiment to see if the Cardinals are mature enough to handle life on the road in Washington, D.C.

We'll find out much about the Cardinals when they face the Jets at the Meadowlands. Arizona has the better team in this matchup. If that shows on the scoreboard, Whisenhunt wins big. If the Cardinals play sloppily and lose, they'll be 2-2 and no closer to demonstrating just how much things have changed in the desert.

Staying in the nation's capital after the 24-17 loss at Washington made sense in theory. While the Jets were playing a Monday night game on the West Coast, the Cardinals were secure in knowing they wouldn't have to travel this week. But the trip also risked turning the week into an extended frat party.

How did the Cardinals approach this trip? How far have they come under Whisenhunt? We'll have a better idea Sunday afternoon.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Denver Broncos (3-0) at Kansas City Chiefs (0-3), 1 p.m. ET

Last season, the Broncos started 2-0. Both of those wins came in the last seconds. Many around the league considered Denver more fortunate than fundamentally sound. Those perceptions turned out to be reality as Denver lost nine of its final 14 games. Those same concerns are swarming around the team now as the Broncos are one of the surprise teams with a 3-0 record.

Like last year, there's been some fortune involved. Denver has beaten San Diego and New Orleans in the last two weeks by a total of three points. Denver had luck on its side in the final moments of both games.

So are the Broncos another early-season fluke this year?

Overall, this doesn't have the feel of some fluky, lucky team. Denver has scored 114 points in three games. That's no fluke. This offense is as talented as any in the NFL. In last year's two early games, Denver was fortunate to win. But this year the Broncos have not been outplayed by anybody.

Heading into the game against the hapless Chiefs, the Broncos are riding a combination of fortune and talent. Can you think of a better winning combination if you're talking about an NFL team?

San Diego Chargers (1-2) at Oakland Raiders (1-2), 4:05 p.m. ET

After the Chargers dispatched the Jets Monday night, talk turned to the Oakland Raiders in the San Diego locker room. Chargers tight end Antonio Gates was asked about the turmoil in Oakland the last couple of weeks surrounding coach Lane Kiffin.

Gates smiled and said, "There is always something going on in Oakland."

With the Chargers coming into town, the something going on in Oakland is usually running back LaDainian Tomlinson. He routinely crushes the Raiders.

Tomlinson has eight 100-plus yard games against Oakland, the most he has against any team. He averages 122 yards a game against the Raiders.

Tomlinson looks to duplicate his success against the Raiders after dealing with a nagging turf toe injury in the first three games of the season. LT's production has been hampered by the injury. He has 190 yards on 57 carries.

That is not Tomlinson-like numbers. Perhaps a trip to Oakland is the cure?

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Cleveland Browns (0-3) at Cincinnati Bengals (0-3), 1 p.m. ET

In the battle of winless teams from the state of Ohio, someone has to come out on top and someone will end up alone in the cellar of the AFC North. What's ironic is both of these teams have a lot of similarities in the way they have lost games this season.

Both teams are ranked at the bottom of the NFL in total offense, where Cincinnati is ranked No. 30 and Cleveland is dead last at No. 32. Poor quarterback play and a lack of a consistent running game also have hampered both squads offensively. The two defenses have been slightly better but not good enough to consistently win games.

For the Browns, Sunday could mark the final start for quarterback Derek Anderson, who is on the hot seat after playing poorly and garnering just a 43.5 quarterback rating in the first three games. Cleveland split first-team reps between Anderson and second-year backup Brady Quinn this week to have both signal-callers prepared to play.

For Cincinnati, it finally showed some life last week and enters this game a slightly more confident team after barely losing to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in overtime. Pro Bowl receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh had a breakout game with 12 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown.

Also, expect home-field advantage to play a factor in this game. The Browns have not won at Paul Brown Stadium since the final game of the 2003 season.

Baltimore Ravens (2-0) at Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1), 8:30 p.m. ET Monday

An expected AFC contender hosts one of the early surprise teams in the conference this season when the Steelers meet the Ravens at Heinz Field in a prime-time matchup on Monday Night Football.

Expect a hard-hitting affair as both teams are trash-talking and fired up for this game. The winner will have sole possession of first place in the AFC North.

The Ravens are winning with phenomenal defense and boasts the NFL's top-rated unit in that category. They are only allowing 161.5 total yards per game so far this season.

Expect Baltimore to come hard after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been sacked 12 times in three games and already has shoulder and hand ailments as a result. Last week he was sacked a season-high eight times in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Pittsburgh will be without starting tailback Willie Parker and stud nose tackle Casey Hampton. Rookie first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall will get his first start against a Ravens defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 21 straight games.

Last year these two teams split their season series, with each team winning at home.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Arizona Cardinals (2-1) at New York Jets (1-2), 1 p.m. ET

The Jets need a victory amid myriad concerns arising from Monday night's loss to the San Diego Chargers.

The Jets are coming off a wobbly all-around game. They opened up their offense for Brett Favre, who nearly threw what seemed like 13 interceptions and injured his ankle. The defense allowed 48 points and yielded a slew of critical plays, especially after nose tackle Kris Jenkins left with a back injury. Jets coach Eric Mangini also had a rough game, making a controversial onside kick attempt that backfired in the second quarter.

That's a lot to recover from with a short week of preparation. Thankfully for Jets fans, Favre and Jenkins are expected to play, and their opponents are coming off a defeat of their own.

Arizona presents a potentially high-flying attack, with Kurt Warner flinging the ball to powerful receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. New York's secondary absolutely will have a busy day and probably will determine the outcome.

Buffalo Bills (3-0) at St. Louis Rams (0-3), 4:05 p.m. ET

Good things happen to the Bills when they win their first three games. Over the past quarter-century it has happened four times. They reached the AFC title game each time and advanced to the Super Bowl twice.

The Rams are the perfect foil -- OK, the perfect NFC foil -- to help the Bills go 4-0 for the first time since 1992, their third Super Bowl season, and set them up for a possible 5-0 record (if they can beat the Cardinals on the road Oct. 5) heading into their bye week.

The Rams rank second-from-the-bottom in total offense and dead last in total defense. They're starting a quarterback known for throwing interceptions and getting concussed. The Bills, meanwhile, have one of the league's nastiest defenses.

Buffalo's defense ranks sixth in points allowed, fifth in yards allowed and first in third-down efficiency. The Bills might chase Green down I-70 and all the way back to the Chiefs.

Trent Edwards has been surgically efficient in the fourth quarter, and running back Marshawn Lynch has been strong like bull, but the Bills will give the Rams hope if their offense starts as slowly as it did last Sunday against the Oakland Raiders.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Green Bay Packers (2-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1), 1 p.m. ET

Buccaneers quarterback Brian Griese threw an unheard-of 67 times last week against Chicago. Yes, it was an overtime game, but it's safe to say the Bucs feel good about their passing game.

That confidence should make for an interesting matchup Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, where the Packers will bring an injury-depleted secondary. At least two starters, cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby, are expected to miss the game -- and two other safeties were nursing injuries as the weekend began.

If neither Nick Collins nor Aaron Rouse are available, the Packers will be down to their third-string safeties (Charlie Peprah and Jarrett Bush). The changes don't have to be game-breakers, but rest assured: Griese will test the Packers secondary from the outset.

Minnesota Vikings (1-2) at Tennessee Titans (3-0), 1 p.m. ET

The defensive tackle tandem of Kevin and Pat Williams receive plenty of due credit for the Vikings' strong run defense. But no less important is the play of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, whose sideline-to-sideline ferocity will be just as critical Sunday against a Titans rushing offense that is averaging 157 yards per game.

Vikings coaches already have credited Henderson with four tackles behind the line of scrimmage, one sack, one forced fumble and 31 tackles overall this season. He isn't the NFL's fastest linebacker, but his sure-footed instincts will make him a good match against Titans tailbacks LenDale White and Chris Johnson.

Henderson's intensity this season recently prompted defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to make a pretty strong comparison. "He reminds me a little bit of [Mike] Singletary," said Frazier, a teammate of Singletary's when both played for the Chicago Bears.

The Williamses will get plenty of attention from the Tennessee offensive line, but the Titans would be well-advised to keep close tabs on Henderson as well.

Philadelphia Eagles (2-1) at Chicago Bears (1-2), 8:15 p.m. ET

We've hashed through the Bears' defensive problems pretty thoroughly here this week. Suffice it to say, there's some concern in Chicago about the damage Donovan McNabb -- chest injury or otherwise -- could inflict along with his 10 closest friends Sunday night.

Yet that's not the only issue the Bears are facing. Through three weeks, the Eagles have the NFL's best run defense, allowing 45.7 rushing yards per game. If that performance holds true at Soldier Field, the Bears will lose the production of their best and most consistent offensive player: Tailback Matt Forte.

Forte has touched the ball on 43 percent of Chicago's offensive plays and has 73 carries through three games. Do the Bears trust their passing game to carry the offense? Do you?

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

San Francisco 49ers (2-1) at New Orleans Saints (1-2), 1 p.m. ET

There's no such thing as a must-win game in Week 4, except for when you're talking about the Saints' situation.

They're battered with injuries and a suspension (guard Jamar Nesbit) and they're 1-2. Before the season, you would have looked at this game and automatically penciled in a win for the Saints. Now, nothing is automatic.

But the Saints have to win this game. It's the first of three straight home games (Minnesota and Oakland follow San Francisco into the Superdome) and the Saints have to come out of that stretch with at least two wins or their season is over. After the homestand, they won't play in Louisiana again until Nov. 24.

They have an upcoming stretch where they go to Carolina and London for a game with the Chargers. Things get a little easier after that with a bye and road trips to Atlanta and Kansas City. But that might not help if the Saints are buried in a hole.

Atlanta Falcons (2-1) at Carolina Panthers (2-1), 1 p.m. ET

Both teams are trying to establish identities and this game should make everything a lot more clear. Atlanta's two victories have come against the lowly Lions and Chiefs, but the Falcons have to win an NFC South game before they truly can contend in the NFC South.

In their wins, the Falcons have run the ball and taken the pressure off rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. In their lone loss, Ryan looked like a rookie quarterback because Tampa Bay took the running game away.

Think the Panthers might have seen the film of that game?

Carolina's defense has played well, but the offense hit a snag in Minnesota. Quarterback Jake Delhomme suddenly is taking a lot of criticism for being too emotional when he gets sacked or the offense is penalized. That's nothing new. Delhomme always has been emotional. The gestures just look different when the Panthers are playing smart football.

Green Bay Packers (2-1) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1), 1 p.m. ET

What will Jon Gruden come up with this week? Anything's possible. With top receiver Joey Galloway out last week, the Bucs threw a team-record 67 times against the Bears and, almost a decade too late, Brian Griese finally looked like John Elway.

But you can't ask Griese to do anything close to that every week. The Bucs need to be able to run the ball. They've got Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn, who each showed some flashes in the first two games. There's been a lot of talk about how this might be the best offensive line in franchise history (then again, think about the history of this franchise) and that may be true.

It's tremendous to throw the ball 67 times and not give up a sack -- even if most of the passes were thrown on short drops. But this offensive line needs to show it can block for the run before it can be considered anything special.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Washington Redskins (2-1) at Dallas Cowboys (3-0), 4:15 p.m. ET

Another early-season division showdown. The Cowboys are heavily favored, but I don't see a blowout coming. After a dismal showing against the Giants on opening night, the Redskins have bounced back with wins against the Saints and Cardinals. Quarterback Jason Campbell seems to have found a rhythm within coach Jim Zorn's West Coast offense.

Campbell has great respect for Wade Phillips' defense, but he also knows he torched it last November in a 28-23 loss at Texas Stadium. Win or lose, we'll know a lot more about the Redskins after Sunday's game. Tight end Chris Cooley and wide receiver Santana Moss have both had huge games against the the Cowboys over the past three seasons. Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart wants to make sure Moss doesn't catch any deep balls.

The Redskins have a strong running game with Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts, but their only hope against the Cowboys is through the air. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is hoping to cut down on some of his mistakes. He has turned the ball over in the end zone three times, and he can't do that against an opportunistic Redskins defense. Look for Redskins rookie safety Chris Horton to receive a lot of snaps this week. Washington loves what he brings to its defense.

Philadelphia Eagles (2-1) at Chicago Bears (1-2), 8:15 p.m. ET

There's a good chance the Eagles will be playing without three key starters on offense. Brian Westbrook (ankle) is questionable, but the fact that he didn't practice at all this week leads me to believe he'll sit this one out. Westbrook's backups, Correll Buckhalter and Lorenzo Booker, have to be ready to go.

The Eagles could also be without tight end L.J. Smith (back) and right guard Shawn Andrews (back). At even strength, this is a game the Eagles should win, but in my book, it's a pick'em if Westbrook doesn't play. Donovan McNabb (chest) will have plenty of weapons at receiver, but the line has to do a good job of protecting him for the Eagles to win.

Remember the defensive game plan against the Steelers? I'd do the same thing. Try to slow down running back Matt Forte early, and then put the game in Kyle Orton's hands. I don't think they'll sack him eight times as they did Ben Roethlisberger, but he'll go down four or five times. This is a game that Jim Johnson's defense needs to win, and I think they'll be up to the task.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans (0-2) at Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2), 1 p.m. ET

The Jaguars have to find a pass rush against Matt Schaub. If they don't, he can be a completely different guy than he's been in the first two games. If he has time and is going against a secondary minus free safety Reggie Nelson (knee), Schaub could break out.

Houston has given the Jaguars fits in recent years, and Jack Del Rio points to lack of pass pressure as the primary reason why his teams are 4-6 against the Texans.

Jacksonville needs to cover kicks better. Andre Davis took five kicks 234 yards the last time he played against the Jags, including 104-yard TD. Houston needs to get to Maurice Jones-Drew better. In his last game against Jacksonville he gained 125 yards and scored twice.

Andre Johnson needs 55 receiving yards to become the second member of the 2003 draft class to get to 5,000. Arizona's Anquan Boldin is already at 5,705. Drayton Florence could spend more time tracking him than Rashean Mathis and should be tested by Johnson, who's going to be eager for redemption after a poor game last week in Nashville.

But it sounds like the Jaguars are confident they'll produce some big pass plays themselves. Jerry Porter is expected to make his debut, and the team viewed him as a big play solution when it grabbed him as a free agent. He could do a great deal to energize the offense and help gain a little extra space for Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor.

Two external factors: Florida State and Colorado play at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium Saturday. Back-to-back games are rare, so the condition of the turf may be in question. And the forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-80s with high humidity.

Minnesota Vikings (1-2) at Tennessee Titans (3-0), 1 p.m. ET

Here's one that's hard to believe: With the Patriots loss to Miami last week and the end of their 21-game winning streak in the regular season, the longest such streak in the league now belongs to ... Tennessee. In six consecutive wins the Titans are first in points allowed per game (10.3), first in total defense (252.8 yards per game), second in rushing yards per game (78.3), tied for second in sacks (19) and second in sacks allowed (seven).

Whether any of that translates to their first game against the Vikings at LP Field remains to be seen. The best way to beat Minnesota has often been not to even try to run and just sling it. While Kerry Collins is capable of executing such a plan, the Titans tend to be stubborn when it comes to establishing the run. Jeff Fisher will also want to limit the time the Vikings have the ball and opportunities to give it to Adrian Peterson, so he'll want to run it enough to chop into time of possession.

Defensively, the Titans generally have a sound tackling team and secondary that didn't do its best work in the first half last week against Houston's Steve Slaton. I feel like the Titans will be able to contain him enough to win, but building an early lead would certainly help as they would much rather the Vikings have to rely on Gus Frerotte to win. Another reason to try to play this game from ahead: The Vikings have lost 38 consecutive road games when trailing after three quarters, the longest such streak in the NFL since the 1989 Buccaneers. (Thanks to ESPN's crack research department.)

Two other tidbits worth noting: LenDale White is the first Titan with a rushing touchdown in the first three games of a season since Allen Pinkett did so for the Houston Oilers in 1991.

And since 2006, the Titans are 16-4 when scoring 20 or more points.

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