- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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On Wednesday night, Goodell settled the lockout of NFL officials. Unfortunately, the settlement came two days too late for the Packers, who believe they are 1-2 instead of 2-1 because of replacement officials. What some are calling the Inaccurate Reception has created a sense of urgency for a team expected to be the top seed in the NFC.
Then you have the Saints, whose season has turned into a disaster because of Goodell's penalties on the team's alleged bounty system. Gone are Sean Payton and Joe Vitt, two valuable coaches. Jonathan Vilma and three other players are still fighting the commissioner in court.
The two prospective top teams meet on Sunday, but they will come in with a combined record of 1-5. Last season, these two teams lost four games combined. The Packers could come out of this game 1-3, or the Saints could be all but out of the playoff race with an 0-4 start.
The NFC has more quality quarterbacks than the AFC and has become the better conference. But decisions coming from the league office have damaged four of the top teams in the NFC. Three of those teams could say that their wounds are self-inflicted. If the Saints didn't have a bounty system, they did have a pay-per-performance pool that violated league rules. The Washington Redskins are missing $36 million in cap room, and the Dallas Cowboys are missing $10 million over the next two years.
The cap crush forced the Redskins and Cowboys to limit their free-agent acquisitions. The big hit on the Redskins' cap negatively affected the rebuilding of the roster around Robert Griffin III. For two years, the Redskins are operating at 85 percent of their cap budget.
The Packers were innocent victims, but they can't afford to lose Sunday to the Saints.
Here are the top 10 trends for NFL Week 4.
1. A huge challenge for Tom Coughlin: Although New York has won two Super Bowls with Coughlin as head coach, the Giants have had major problems with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles have won six of their past seven regular-season games against the Giants. Despite winning the Super Bowl last year, the Giants lost to the Eagles on Nov. 20 with Vince Young as the Eagles' starting quarterback.
The Eagles need a game in which they can restore confidence. Michael Vick is getting hit too many times. Not only are critics wondering how long he can last taking this many hits, but some are wondering whether coach Andy Reid will stick with him at quarterback. Vick is averaging three turnovers per game when you combine interceptions and fumbles and is clearly pressing. His completion percentage has dropped to 55.2.
For this game, the Giants' defense probably won't blitz much. Against four-man rushes, Vick has thrown six interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
2. Living outside of Revis Island: With cornerback Darrelle Revis out for the season with a torn ACL, Jets coach Rex Ryan has to see whether his defense can survive. Over the last two seasons, quarterbacks have completed 62.5 percent of their passes on the 126 plays Revis wasn't on the field. Quarterbacks average 7.9 yards per attempt and have no interceptions when Revis is off the island. With Revis on the field, they complete only 54.1 percent of his passes and have a puny 5.4 yards per attempt average.
It probably won't help that the Jets' first game without Revis is against the San Francisco 49ers. It's not that the conservative 49ers have a great offense, but they are efficient. Alex Smith has been trained by 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to avoid turnovers. Without Revis, the Jets might have to play more zone defense. The other problem is having to rely on their pass rush, which is virtually nonexistent. The Jets have only three sacks in three games.
3. Losing the defensive gunfights against the NFC West: The NFC West has developed three top defenses. The Seahawks have shut down Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers. Tom Brady and Michael Vick managed only 24 points combined in two games against the Arizona Cardinals. Rodgers, Christian Ponder and Matthew Stafford averaged only 6.51 yards per throw against the 49ers. Don't expect those trends to change against these defenses this week. The Cardinals draw Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The Seahawks visit Sam Bradford and the St. Louis Rams. And who's going to make plays against the 49ers: Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow?
4. Sorting out the AFC West: The San Diego Chargers have a one-game lead over three other teams in the AFC West, but Sunday should give us some idea of where the division is heading. The Chargers have a critical game at the Kansas City Chiefs. The Oakland Raiders travel to the Denver Broncos. The real test will be whether the Raiders and Chiefs can stay in the AFC West race. The Chiefs played two horrible games to open the season, then squeezed out a win over the Saints. The Raiders, who also started poorly, came from behind to beat the Steelers last week. The bigger challenge confronts the Raiders, who are troubled at cornerback and face Peyton Manning's no-huddle offense.
5. Can the Houston Texans effectively clinch the AFC South this week? The New England Patriots' loss to the Cardinals last week left the Texans atop the AFC with a perfect 3-0 record. They already have a two-game lead in the AFC South. A home win over the Tennessee Titans could give them a chance to open a three-game lead over the Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars, especially with the Jaguars hosting a tough game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Colts are 1-2 but are on a bye. The Texans are the AFC's version of the 49ers. They have a stifling defense and run the ball well, and quarterback Matt Schaub is efficient. Opening up this much of a lead this early could make the season pretty easy for the Texans.
6. Will the real Bills please stand up? The Buffalo Bills know the odds are against them when they play the Patriots. The Pats have won 21 of their past 23 games against the Bills. No one expects the Bills to challenge the Patriots for the AFC East, but they still can make a legitimate case to finish second in the AFC East and possibly get a wild card.
As you know, divisional teams have the same schedules for 14 games. There are two noncommon games that favor the Bills in relationship to the Jets. For example, the Bills have beaten the Cleveland Browns, while the Jets lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in their noncommon AFC North game. The Bills already have beaten the Chiefs in their noncommon AFC West game, while the Jets have to play the Chargers in December. The Bills must win a division home game against the Jets later in the season to have a scheduling edge on the Jets. A win against the Patriots would be really nice, too.
7. More divisional battles: With 96 divisional games to spread over 17 weeks, some weeks are void of rivalries. Not this week. Nine divisional games are on the line.
Like the Texans, the Atlanta Falcons can gain early control of their division, the NFC South, if they can beat the Carolina Panthers. The Falcons already have a two-game lead in the division. The Panthers have to figure out which team will arrive. They basically didn't show up for losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1 and the New York Giants in Week 3. Wide receiver Steve Smith wants more leadership from Cam Newton.
The Detroit Lions-Minnesota Vikings game could be high-scoring. First, though, the Lions have to make sure Matthew Stafford is healthy enough to start. Then they've got to find a way to slow Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, who is completing better than 70 percent of his passes and is also running well. Also this week, St. Louis Rams will play their first NFC West game to see how they measure up to the Seahawks, who are 2-1.
8. The Monday night stage: Tony Romo and Jay Cutler are two of the most debated quarterbacks in football. Both have strong arms and have trouble winning big games. They'll face each other Monday night. Cutler is still trying to downplay his slight pushing incident with tackle J'Marcus Webb. Romo can't live down the fact he's won only one playoff game. Both teams are talented enough to meet each other in the playoffs later in the season.
9. Tale of two offenses: Mike Shanahan realizes after three games that he has put too much of the offense on quarterback Robert Griffin III. He needs to get more out of the surrounding cast of offensive skill players. On Sunday, the Redskins will play a Buccaneers team that is probably having Josh Freeman do too little.
Freeman has been asked to throw only 80 passes in three games. He has completed only 51.3 percent of those throws. Bucs coach Greg Schiano loves to be conservative on early downs. On first-and-10 situations, Schiano calls running plays 63.6 percent of the time. But the Bucs average only 3.4 yards a carry. That means Freeman is stuck with second-and-7 or longer 64 percent of the time or third-and-7 or longer 59 percent of the times. Those are tough downs for any quarterback to conquer, and it seems to be making Freeman less efficient.
10. Sophomore success or sophomore slump? Last week, Andy Dalton showed against Washington he's every bit the Pro Bowl player he was as a rookie. He executed Jay Gruden's offense effectively. The Bengals had seven 22-plus-yard plays on offense.
On the flip side, Blaine Gabbert of the Jaguars is trying to get better. He opened the season with a strong 260-yard game against the Vikings. Since then, he's thrown for 208 yards and completed only 17 of 40 passes. Ouch.
11hEric D. Williams
12hSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo