NFL Nation: audibles 5

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Cincinnati Bengals (0-4) at Dallas Cowboys (3-1), 4:15 p.m. ET

This should be the game that puts the Cowboys back on track following last Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Redskins.

Terrell Owens will have 100 yards and a couple of touchdowns by the time the first half ends. Then, the Cowboys can rediscover their running game with Marion Barber and Felix Jones in the second half. Tony Romo has been instructed to only check out of running plays if the Bengals put all 11 men on the line of scrimmage.

Chad Ocho Cinco said some outlandish things Wednesday in order to pump life into what looks like a dud of a game. The one thing the Cowboys have to fix is covering the deep ball. The Eagles, Packers and Redskins all hit on deep balls and Braylon Edwards dropped one that would've gone for a touchdown for the sadsack Browns.

The Cowboys will try to make life miserable for Carson Palmer, which won't be anything new for him. The Bengals did take the Giants to overtime in the Meadowlands two weeks ago, but they're about to run into an angry team. The Bengals don't have a running game, so they'll be one-dimensional from the start. The one thing the Bengals have in their favor is that defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer knows their personnel better than anyone. Cowboys get back in the winning column, and T.O. skips the "serious conversation" with Romo after the game.

Seattle Seahawks (1-2) at New York Giants (3-0), 1 p.m. ET

The Seahawks get starting receivers Bobby Engram and Deion Branch back for this game, but it won't matter. The Giants' defensive line will take quarterback Matt Hasselbeck out of rhythm early, and he'll hold the ball too long. He trusts Engram, but he won't click with Branch.

As Giants center Shaun O'Hara pointed out earlier this week, the Meadowlands crowd could play a big role in this one. A lot of fans remember that the Qwest Field crowd induced the Giants into 11 false starts three years ago. The Giants want their fans to be loud, in part, because Hasselbeck loves to audible at the line of scrimmage. He's been known to check into running plays on third-and-6, which has actually worked well against aggressive teams such as the Giants.

As Tom Coughlin pointed out Friday, the Seahawks have scored 31 points in the first quarter in the past two games. Mike Holmgren does a better job than anyone at scripting the first 15 plays. The only problem is that the Seahawks have only scored three points in the third quarter all season.

OK, I've done entirely too much research. Let's move on.

Washington Redskins (3-1) at Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) 1 p.m. ET
Can the Redskins do it two weeks in a row? I think it's possible -- especially if Brian Westbrook isn't at full speed. And I don't think he will be. He finally made it through a full practice Friday, but he's still a game-time decision. Eagles middle linebacker Stewart Bradley told me earlier Friday that the Eagles will have 15 different blitz packages out of their base defense and 11 more in their situational packages. Folks that's 26 blitzes in one game.

The average defensive coordinator might install five or six blitzes heading into a game. Wait, am I bogging down? The bottom line is that defensive coordinator Jim Johnson wants to bring pressure from all over the field against Jason Campbell. The Redskins quarterback has shown that he can burn you if you let him find any type of rhythm. The Eagles don't want to allow that. I'll be there for all the action.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Atlanta Falcons (2-2) at Green Bay Packers (2-2), 1 p.m. ET

With quarterback Aaron Rodgers banged up and defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins gone for the season, the Falcons could be catching the Packers at the right time.

A few weeks ago, you would have looked at this game and said there was no way the Falcons could go into Lambeau Field and win. Now, that's not out of the realm of possibility.

But it won't be easy. Atlanta hasn't played well on the road and 70,000 Cheeseheads aren't going to make life easy for rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. He's been just fine in the two home games, where Michael Turner was able to run wild against Detroit and Kansas City. But the Packers aren't the Lions or the Chiefs.

Atlanta's two losses came when Tampa Bay and Carolina took the ball out of Turner's hands and put it into Ryan's. Think the Packers might try to follow that route?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) at Denver Broncos (3-1), 4:05 p.m. ET

For a very long time, Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber has been one of the best and most dependable cornerbacks in the game. The last couple of weeks, however, Barber suddenly looks vulnerable.

He's had problems with slipping and there are questions about whether he's lost a step. We'll find out for sure Sunday as he goes against Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal.

The Tampa-2 defense is pretty good at covering over holes because the safeties give the corners plenty of help. But Denver's offense is clicking. If you thought Barber has been targeted the last couple of weeks, you haven't seen anything yet.

Kansas City Chiefs (1-3) at Carolina Panthers (3-1), 1 p.m. ET

On the surface, this looks like an easy game for Carolina and a tune-up before next week's division showdown with Tampa Bay.

If this sounds like a classic "trap'' game that's only because it is. Throw in the fact that left tackle Jordan Gross (concussion) will miss the game and right tackle Jeff Otah (ankle) is doubtful and Carolina has to take this game very seriously.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme has looked great in his return from Tommy John elbow surgery. But the absence of the starting tackles could prompt the Panthers to be cautious and not have Delhomme take many deep drops. Third-down back Nick Goings has missed some blocks this season and the role of the running backs as blockers will take on added importance with the injuries up front.

The one player the Panthers have to keep healthy is Delhomme.

Minnesota Vikings (1-3) at New Orleans Saints (2-2), 8:30 p.m. ET Monday

The latest injury news for the banged-up Saints is that rookie defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis will be out at least a couple of weeks with a knee problem. That's the last thing you want to hear when Adrian Peterson is coming to town.

More than ever, that puts the pressure on the offense. Particularly quarterback Drew Brees, who has kept this team respectable through all the injuries. Brees keeps putting up huge numbers, no matter who is around him.

It looks like Brees will get some more consistent help from the running game now that Deuce McAllister has shown he's got something left. Even without suspended guard Jamar Nesbit, the Saints have done a good job protecting Brees.

But the quarterback will have to be sharper (and quicker) than usual because the Minnesota defensive front is the best he's seen this year. If Brees can lead the Saints to a win in this one, they'll have a chance at a 4-2 start because Oakland comes to the Superdome next.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Chicago Bears (2-2) at Detroit Lions (0-3), 1 p.m. ET

The Lions have had two weeks to prepare for a Bears team that could be without both starting cornerbacks Sunday at Ford Field.

Charles Tillman (shoulder) and Nate Vasher (hand) are nursing injuries and might not be available to defend Lions receivers Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson. Detroit spent the first three weeks of the season trying to establish their running game, but an 0-3 record suggests the Lions should re-focus around their two best players.

Offensive coordinator Jim Colletto, in fact, has said he expects to sprinkle more passes into the early part of the game. This could all be subterfuge for a team that truly plans to run Rudi Johnson at the Chicago defense all day, but it makes too much sense to think otherwise.

The Bears most definitely will point tailback Matt Forte north to attack a Lions run defense that is giving up an NFL-worst 207.7 yards per game, but we're guessing Detroit will work harder to maximize Williams and Johnson.

Green Bay Packers (2-2) vs. Atlanta Falcons (2-2), 1 p.m. ET

Whether Aaron Rodgers or rookie Matt Flynn starts at quarterback, you have to figure the Packers will rely more heavily on their running game Sunday against the Falcons. Rodgers hardly practiced during the week and at best will play with a sore right shoulder.

If Flynn starts, the Packers aren't likely to put him into more pressure situations than necessary. That means it's time for Green Bay tailback Ryan Grant and his offensive line to step up after averaging 93.5 rushing yards per game as a team during the first quarter of the season.

The Falcons haven't been competitive on the road, losing by 15 points at Tampa Bay and Carolina, and their run defense is ranked No. 23 overall in the NFL.

The Packers would be well-advised to limit their risks on offense, control the ball and keep their injury-depleted defense off the field.

Minnesota Vikings (1-3) at New Orleans (2-2), 8:30 p.m. ET Monday night

This game could provide a surprise two-way aerial show for viewers of ESPN's Monday Night Football.

We know all about the Saints' high-flying offense, which averages an NFL-high 327 yards passing per game. But the Vikings, coming off their best passing day of the Brad Childress era, are actually licking their chops as well.

The Saints have one of the league's worst pass defenses, having given up almost 250 yards per game. Gus Frerotte and Tarvaris Jackson combined for 272 passing yards last week at Tennessee, and receiver Bernard Berrian is predicting big things for Monday night's matchup.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Seattle Seahawks (1-2) at New York Giants (3-0), 1 p.m. ET

The Seahawks' reliance on changing plays at the line of scrimmage presents special challenges in hostile environments. The offense struggled badly in that aspect of Seattle's opening-season defeat at Buffalo. Progress must be made for the Seahawks to take full advantage of receivers Bobby Engram and Deion Branch, who are back from injuries.

The Seahawks might be wise to stick with the straight-ahead running game that has worked whenever tried this season, starting in the second half of the Buffalo game. Julius Jones and the offensive line seem well suited to that style of play. It's also a good way to attack an aggressive defense that figures to swarm plays on the perimeter.

This is a huge game for a so-far-underwhelming Seattle defense. Injuries have slowed middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu. Seattle needs his best in this game. Slowing Brandon Jacobs is the best way for the Seahawks to force Eli Manning into mistakes.

Buffalo Bills (4-0) at Arizona Cardinals (2-2), 4:15 p.m. ET

The Cardinals went from 2-2 to 3-6 last season, one reason they couldn't catch Seattle in the division race. A loss to the Bills wouldn't necessarily hurt much in the short term because the Seahawks and 49ers also face tough matchups this week.

This is still a game the Cardinals need to win. They've lost two in a row. They've got the Cowboys coming to the desert in Week 6, a scary thought for the Arizona defense if it doesn't right itself against the Bills this week. A trip to Carolina follows a bye in Week 7. The possibility of a five-game losing streak looms if the Cardinals can't beat the Bills.

The Bills are better on both lines. They have the better running back. They are playing with greater confidence after four consecutive victories. But they don't need this game as badly as the Cardinals need it. Emotions and home-field advantage should serve as equalizers for the Cardinals in this game. I like their chances from that standpoint but wonder if they have the depth to overcome injuries to Adrian Wilson, Bert Berry and Anquan Boldin.

Big-play note: Buffalo's Lee Evans (six) and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald (four) have combined for 10 pass receptions of at least 30 yards. Green Bay's Greg Jennings (four) is the only other player in the league with more than three.

New England Patriots (2-1) at San Francisco 49ers (2-2), 4:15 p.m. ET

The pressure is on the 49ers in more ways than one. The schedule is getting tougher and the offense is having a hard time protecting quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan.

I see a pattern developing. Last week, the Saints had six sacks against the 49ers after collecting only four in three previous games. This week, the Patriots come to Candlestick with only six sacks in three games. I see that number swelling.

The 49ers' offensive line will have a hard time dealing with Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas. Don't forget about Tedy Bruschi, either. The 49ers' blitz pickup could have problems dealing with the combinations New England figures to send toward O'Sullivan.

Look for the 49ers to hit on some big plays on third down. But will it be enough?

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Buffalo Bills (4-0) at Arizona Cardinals (2-2), 4:15 p.m. ET

Bills fans are worked up about their team's unblemished start, but the opposition so far couldn't be described as sensational. The Cardinals will be their biggest test yet.

The Cardinals rank fifth in total offense and ninth in total defense even though they're coming off a wild 56-35 loss to the New York Jets, who were set up by a bazillion turnovers in Cardinals territory.

The Bills have executed complete performances in the sense all three phases have made significant contributions. But they haven't given a 60-minute performance since the season opener.

In three straight games Buffalo has trailed in the fourth quarter. Buffalo has been magnificent late, but the slows starts are a dangerous trend.

Bills cornerback Terrence McGee is out with a knee injury, which means rookie Leodis McKelvin could be vulnerable against Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald. But if the Bills can escape the desert with another win, they'll be 5-0 heading into their bye and firmly in command of the division.

New England Patriots (2-1) at San Francisco 49ers (2-2), 4:15 p.m. ET

We'll learn whether the Patriots are spiraling out of control after their humbling loss to the Dolphins in Week 3. The Patriots are headed to the West Coast for a pair of games. They visit the Chargers next, and they're not coming home in between.

Many believe the Patriots sans Tom Brady were exposed as closer to pedestrian than stupendous. But they did have a week off, and they're 6-2 under Bill Belichick after byes.

The Patriots must find a way to win to preserve some of their mojo. Another loss to a team considered among the bottom half in the NFL could have a rippling effect on a team and fuel an identity crisis.

Or the Patriots can snuff any smoldering angst with a convincing road victory.

San Diego Chargers (2-2) at Miami Dolphins (1-2), 1 p.m. ET

Only one AFC East-related game features two clubs coming off victories. The Chargers are trying to reassert themselves as a conference power, while the Dolphins are trying to win two straight for the first time since November 2006.

A game that looked like a probable blowout a few weeks ago looks like it could be a doozy. The Dolphins two weeks ago posted 38 points on the mighty Patriots defense and had an extra week to prepare for the Chargers, who rank 28th in total defense and dead last against the pass.

The Dolphins will find out if their dominance over the Patriots was an anomaly or if their offense really has figured out how to combine running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams with quarterback Chad Pennington's high-percentage passing.

The Dolphins, though, rank 26th against the pass, and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has ripped up defenses with 10 touchdowns and a 109.8 passer rating.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Indianapolis Colts (1-2) at Houston Texans (0-3), 1 p.m. ET

It's tempting to say the Texans can spring an upset here. The team and the city will be fired up for the home opener, with the Texans hoping to give the city something to celebrate amid all the time, energy, effort and emotion spent on Hurricane Ike recovery.

Rookie running back Steve Slaton has shown he can hurt defenses as a runner and a receiver, and while a quick guy may not be as good as a big back against the Colts, their run defense looks like it might yield yards to anyone.

The trouble is the Texans secondary is beat up. They're already rotating three corners through the two starting spots and now they may do the same at safety. Peyton Manning's line could be back to what was envisioned for the start of the season, minus only guard Ryan Lilja, and if Manning can find his rhythm, he'll find room to throw. Houston has allowed at least 30 points in all three of its games this season.

I sense a shootout, and it's hard to lean against the Colts in one. Which means it'll probably be a 10-7 game.

Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2), 8:15 p.m. ET

Pittsburgh has lost four in a row to the Jaguars, including last year's wild-card round playoff game. The Steelers are thinned out at running back and have had trouble protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They are going to need to throw it to move it. How complete will the Jaguars' banged-up secondary be? Jacksonville has had pass rush trouble, but not against the Steelers -- 11 sacks in two games last season.

The game is only the fifth in NFL history featuring two teams coming off overtime wins. The Steelers defeated Baltimore Monday night 23-20 on a 46-yard field goal by Jeff Reed while the Jaguars topped Houston 30-27 on a 37-yard Josh Scobee field goal.

Courtesy of the Jaguars PR staff, here are the five games in history featuring teams coming off overtime victories:

Dec. 8, 1975: Denver 10 at Oakland 17
Oct. 15, 1995: Philadelphia 17 at N.Y. Giants 14
Sept. 23, 2001: St. Louis 30 at San Francisco 26
Sept. 15, 2002: Green Bay 20 at New Orleans 35
Oct. 5, 2008: Pittsburgh at Jacksonville

Tennessee Titans (4-0) at Baltimore Ravens (2-1), 1 p.m. ET

Once upon a time these AFC Central rivals played games that ended with scores like 14-11, 14-6, 16-10 and 13-12.

Now they're both back to where they rate as solid defensive teams with run-centered offenses. We could see a return to those awkward sorts of numbers.

The Titans have held everybody they've played under 20, and the Ravens put the clamps on Cleveland and Cincinnati, holding them to 10.

The easy presumption is that the veteran Kerry Collins will fare better against Baltimore's ever-shifting defense than rookie Joe Flacco will fare against the pressure from the Titans' front.

But I have a feeling Collins will struggle and the offense will miss Justin Gage, probably out with a knee injury. Even if Collins does have a hard time, that doesn't mean Tennessee suffers its first loss. I don't believe the Titans will win this one by 14, which is what they've averaged. They might not score 14.

Look for the Ravens to go heavy on screens and passes to the flat to try to use the Titans' aggressiveness against them.

I'm not ready to compare this Titans defense to the 2000 Ravens, a Super Bowl winner that is the modern measuring stick for great defenses.

But here's food for thought from the Elias Sports Bureau:


'00 Ravens'08 Titans
Points per game20.825.5
Opponents' ppg10.311.5
Turnovers per game1.62.0
Takeaways per game3.13.0

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Tennessee Titans (4-0) at Baltimore Ravens (2-1), 1 p.m.

The physical slugfests continue for the Baltimore Ravens.

Just six days after knocking heads for four quarters and overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens should be in for another physical battle against the undefeated Tennessee Titans.

These two teams staged a lot of high-quality battles when both clubs were division rivals in the old AFC Central. This game is shaping up to be another battle as the Ravens and Titans still win games with the same formula of running the football and playing tough defense. Baltimore has the NFL's No. 1-rated defense and Tennessee is No. 5.

But watch closely the performance of the two quarterbacks.

Aging veteran Kerry Collins has played very well in relief of Vince Young and will share the field with young upstart Joe Flacco, who is 2-1 in his three career starts. The signal-caller that makes the fewest mistakes and handles these defenses better likely will win the game.

Cincinnati Bengals (0-4) at Dallas Cowboys (3-1), 4:15 p.m.

  

Chad Ocho Cinco is back to his talkative ways, but will it spark the winless Cincinnati Bengals? Time will tell when Cincinnati travels to Texas Stadium to play the Dallas Cowboys.

The Bengals are disappointed in their performance thus far but the Cowboys are upset, too. Dallas is coming off its first loss of the season at home to the Washington Redskins.

Here is an interesting stat: Dallas hasn't lost two games in a row during the regular season since 2006. The Cowboys are 7-1 in the regular season coming off defeats in the past two-plus seasons.

For the Bengals, quarterback Carson Palmer is questionable as of Friday and likely will be a game-time decision. Without Palmer, Cincinnati has very little chance. With Palmer, the Bengals believe they can play the Cowboys tough, similar to what they did on the road earlier this year against the New York Giants.

Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1) at Jacksonville Jaguars (2-2), 8:15 p.m.

Seeking revenge, the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to Jacksonville this week as an angry team. But they are also an ailing team following Monday's overtime win against Baltimore.

The Steelers lost tailback Rashard Mendenhall (shoulder) for the season, and with Willie Parker (knee) out for this game, Pittsburgh is down to its third and fourth tailbacks in Mewelde Moore and recent pickup Najeh Davenport. The Steelers had just 69 rushing yards total without Parker last week.

Jacksonville has had the Steelers number, winning four straight, including two last season. But the Jaguars have major health concerns along the offensive line and that should play right into the hands of Pittsburgh's No. 2-rated defense.

Expect Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to air it out more and perhaps go to the no-huddle offense in an effort to jump-start their struggling offense. That strategy, in part, led to Pittsburgh's come-from-behind win over Baltimore.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

San Diego Chargers (2-2) at Miami Dolphins (1-2), 1 p.m. ET

LaDainian Tomlinson has said that he shouldn't be judged on his first quarter of the NFL season but for the entire 2008 season.

But Tomlinson does have a disclaimer. He is getting into his groove after being hampered by a turf toe injury since Week 1. So he is going to be back to himself very soon. Tomlinson, who practiced on a Wednesday this week for the first time since being injured, said he is feeling much better and his 106-yard performance at Oakland is evidence he is on his way.

Tomlinson is for sure on his way to another milestone. Tomlinson, in his eighth NFL season, has 10,946 rushing yards in 115 games. If he gets 54 yards against the Dolphins, he will become the player to reach 11,000 career yards in the fourth fewest games. Eric Dickerson did it the quickest, in 103 games.

Not only is Tomlinson about to make history, he has vowed to continue to be relevant in the present.

"I am very close to being back where I belong," Tomlinson said.

Kansas City Chiefs (1-3) at Carolina Panthers (3-1), 1 p.m. ET

It's all about Tony Gonzalez this week.

Gonzalez is 3 yards from becoming the NFL's all-time leader in receiving yards for a tight end. Three yards.

Yes, this will be Gonzalez's day. And he deserves it.

Gonzalez has been in the spotlight the past couple of weeks because of his comments. Before the Denver game, he answered a question about his future by saying he would consider leaving Kansas City for a contender if the team doesn't make progress in its youth movement.

After the Chiefs' upset win over Denver on Sunday, which snapped a 12-game losing streak, Gonzalez expressed disappointment that he wasn't allowed to break the yardage record at home. Kansas City coach Herman Edwards defended his decision, saying that he didn't want to risk losing the game to get the ball to Gonzalez.

Despite the somewhat sticky situation the past 10 days, Gonzalez is sure to break a major record on Sunday and it will be a great thing for him, the Chiefs and all of their fans.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) at Denver Broncos (3-1), 4:05 p.m. ET

To listen to Jon Gruden, he is lucky he only has to face the Denver Broncos every four years.

It doesn't seem like Gruden could handle dealing with Brandon Marshall on a yearly basis. Gruden thinks the Denver wide receiver is one bad man.

"I see too much of Marshall to be honest with you," Gruden said earlier this week in a news conference. "Jumping up over people, running through people, one-handed catches. He is a machine, and the guy is a great receiver. I saw him catch 20 passes in a game, or something like that against San Diego. High balls, low balls, he catches everything and he punishes you after the catch. He is a dynamic football player. He is one of the top guys that I have seen in the league this year."

Here's a warning, coach: Marshall is even scarier in person than he is on film. He has 31 catches, which is tied for the NFL reception lead -- and he has missed one game this season.
Marshall is, indeed, a beast and Gruden gets to see for himself Sunday for the first time.

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