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Your Week 4 Matchup Guide: The Patriots Get Their First Test in … the Bills?

That’s right, Buffalo and New England will play on Sunday for first place in the AFC East. Plus, the point spreads, injuries, story lines, and everything else you need to know for every Week 4 game.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We are almost a quarter of the way through the regular season. Small sample sizes won’t be small for much longer, and early-season oddities are about to become trends. Some September tendencies have already been reversed (like a record number of holding penalties), some are here to stay (like Air Raid coaches, quarterbacks, and concepts), and some we will find out about this week: The Steelers have no wins, the Broncos have no sacks, and Eagles fans have no shame. Let’s look at the last games of September.

Crucial Divisional Matchups

New England Patriots (3-0) @ Buffalo Bills (3-0)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn (sideline reporter)
Opening line: New England -6
Over/under: 44
Key Patriots injuries and absences: Left tackle Isaiah Wynn (toe), offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse (illness), center David Andrews (blood clots), fullback James Develin (neck)
Key Bills injuries and absences: Running back Devin Singletary (hamstring)
What to watch: Whether the Bills can take the AFC East lead

The Buffalo Bills might be the best team in the AFC East if you open your heart, mind, and soul. The Bills defense has been elite through three games, ranking in the top five in points allowed, yards allowed, and opposing time of possession per drive. Unfortunately for the Bills, the Patriots defense ranks first in all of those categories. New England’s defense has not given up a touchdown since the AFC championship game (the Jets scored 14 points last week on a pick-six and a muffed punt) and have allowed just five successful third-down conversions in three games, by far the best mark in the league.

Yet the teams New England has beat this season (the Steelers, Dolphins, and Jets) are a combined 0-9. Believe it or not, the first test of the season for the Patriots is Josh Allen and the Bills offense. But they’re in good position for the matchup: The Pats are tied for the league lead in sacks along with the Jags, while Allen is tied for the lead in fumbles.

Cleveland Browns (1-2) @ Baltimore Ravens (2-1)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green, Melanie Collins (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Baltimore -5
Over/under: 46.5
Key Browns injuries and absences: Tight end David Njoku (concussion/wrist), cornerback Denzel Ward (hamstring), cornerback Greedy Williams (hamstring), safety Morgan Burnett (quad), linebacker Christian Kirksey (chest), offensive tackle Kendall Lamm (knee)
Key Ravens injuries and absences: Tight end Mark Andrews (foot), cornerback Jimmy Smith (knee)
What to watch: The fate of the AFC North

Despite the Browns’ slow start, if they win on Sunday, they will be in first place in the AFC North. If the Ravens win, they’ll remain in first place and may not let go. Considering Baltimore’s next two opponents are winless division rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the Ravens could effectively wrap the division by Week 6 if they win their next three contests.

The key to a Ravens win on Sunday will be coaching. Head coach John Harbaugh is at the forefront of data-informed decision-making, but his main job in this contest will be to manage a far less scientific stat: turnovers. Lamar Jackson has not had any interceptions thus far, but there have been plenty of close calls. He easily could have been picked on either of his two downfield prayers against Kansas City last week.

Whether that prayer was answered by Ravens receiver Willie Snead or God is up to you, but you can’t make a habit of expecting either to do so every Sunday.

Meanwhile, Cleveland head coach Freddie Kitchens has looked overwhelmed in both the macro sense (he has neutered the creativity in Cleveland’s offense) and the micro sense (he called a run on fourth-and-9 last week). Kitchens needs to return to the pre-snap motion and quick passing that was so effective last year. The former is on Kitchens’s play-calling, but Baker Mayfield has been holding on to the ball far too long and has not trusted his offensive line’s protection enough to step up in the pocket.

The Ravens have not had a stellar pass rush this year and will struggle to pressure Mayfield if he is throwing quick passes. Mayfield can’t wait any longer to take a step forward, and neither can the Browns.

Minnesota Vikings (2-1) @ Chicago Bears (2-1)

Kickoff time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo (with Boomer Esiason as the backup, more on that in a moment), Tracy Wolfson (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Chicago -3
Over/under: 39
Key Vikings injuries and absences: Guard Josh Kline (concussion), receiver Chad Beebe (ankle)
Key Bears injuries and absences: Kicker Eddy Piñeiro (knee), receiver Taylor Gabriel (concussion), defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (knee), lineman Kyle Long (hip)
What to watch: Kirk Cousins’s play-action

The NFC North is the most competitive division in football. It has a combined record of 9-3-1 and is the only group in which all four teams have scored more points than they’ve allowed. But that will not console the loser of this game, which will fall to last place at 2-2.

The star for the Vikings this season has been running back Dalvin Cook, who leads the league in rushing yards (125.0 per game) and yards per attempt (6.6). As ESPN’s Courtney Cronin pointed out, Cook is the first Vikings running back to have three consecutive 100-yard rushing games to start a season, and the Vikings are the only team in the league averaging more rushing yards per game (193.7) than passing yards (164.7). But the Bears are grizzly on defense, and Minnesota will be leaning on Kirk Cousins to make plays on play-action, the foundation of their passing game. The Vikings gave Cousins a three-year, $84 million guaranteed contract in 2018 hoping he would be the rising tide to lift all of the Vikings’ boats, but instead he has ebbed and flowed in everyone else’s wake. This is a great opportunity for Cousins to change his game-manager reputation. But Cousins is tied for the league lead in fumbles with Josh Allen (four), and Khalil Mack is tied for the league lead in forced fumbles (three), so Cousins could also become the scapegoat if he coughs up the ball.

Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is in a similar bind with his fan base. He had an excellent stat line against Washington last week but struggles to produce unless Mack and Co. can hand him turnovers and short field position. Whether the Bears or Vikings lose, the blame may rest on the defeated quarterback’s shoulders.

The real star to watch in this game is Tony Romo. The CBS commentator is scheduled to work this game but may miss it if he makes the cut at the Safeway Open in Napa, California. Boomer Esiason is the next man up.

Potential Shootouts

Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) @ Detroit Lions (2-0-1)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, Charles Davis, Pam Oliver (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Kansas City -6
Over/under: 53
Key Chiefs injuries and absences: Receiver Tyreek Hill (shoulder), running back Damien Williams (knee), left tackle Eric Fisher (groin)
Key Lions injuries and absences: Receiver Danny Amendola (chest), defensive tackle Mike Daniels (foot)
What to watch: Patrick Mahomes (duh)

Technically, this is a matchup of undefeated teams, the first time the Lions have been in such a game after Week 3 since 1962, according to ESPN Stats & Info. In reality, the Lions tied the Cardinals in Week 1. This is the highest over/under total of the week, perhaps because it is the first regular-season indoor game of Patrick Mahomes’s career.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-2) @ Los Angeles Rams (3-0)

Kickoff time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Chris Myers, Daryl Johnston, Laura Okmin (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Rams -9
Over/under: 50
Key Rams injuries and absences: Defensive tackle Michael Brockers (illness)
Key Buccaneers injuries and absences: Receiver Chris Godwin (hip), center Ryan Jensen (back), linebacker Devin White (knee)
What to watch: Shaq Barrett chasing Jared Goff

The Rams offensive line has allowed 49 quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus, tied for the most with the Dolphins. Unsurprisingly, Jared Goff and the Rams offense has suffered, falling from 6.4 yards per play in 2018 (second in the league) to 5.4 this season (22nd).

Across from the Rams’ struggling line will be Buccaneers pass rusher Shaquil Barrett, who tied an NFL record with eight sacks through three games. Barrett’s 18 quarterback pressures this year is tied for seventh along with Los Angeles’s Dante Fowler Jr. and Houston’s J.J. Watt. Not bad for someone who signed a one-year, $4 million contract this offseason.

Carolina Panthers (1-2) @ Houston Texans (2-1)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Kenny Albert, Ronde Barber, Lindsay Czarniak (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Houston -4
Over/under: 46
Key Panthers injuries and absences: Quarterback Cam Newton (foot), guard Trai Turner (ankle), defensive tackle Kawann Short (shoulder), defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (knee)
Key Texans injuries and absences: Tackle Seantrel Henderson (illness)
What to watch: Kyle Allen vs. Deshaun Watson

Here are the all-time top-five quarterbacks by passer rating in their first 25 career starts (minimum 100 pass attempts).

  1. Patrick Mahomes (115.3)
  2. Kurt Warner (106.2)
  3. Dan Marino (105.1)
  4. Deshaun Watson (105.0)
  5. Dak Prescott (101.6)

Here is what happens when we lower that threshold to a minimum of 50 pass attempts.

  1. Kyle Allen (133.3)
  2. Patrick Mahomes (115.3)
  3. Kurt Warner (106.2)
  4. Dan Marino (105.1)
  5. Deshaun Watson (105.0)

Does this mean anything? Yes. It means that even though this game would be sexier with Cam Newton vs. Deshaun Watson, it could still be fun with Kyle Allen. Watson, who has been sacked 12 times this year (third most among quarterbacks), goes up against Carolina’s defense, which has the same number (second most among defenses).

Seattle Seahawks (2-1) @ Arizona Cardinals (0-2-1)

Kickoff time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Dick Stockton, Mark Schlereth, Jennifer Hale (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Seattle -3
Over/under: 46
Key Seahawks injuries and absences: Running back Rashaad Penny (hamstring), tackle Duane Brown (biceps), defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson (hip), defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (back)
Key Cardinals injuries and absences: Cornerback Patrick Peterson (suspended), cornerback Robert Alford (leg), receiver Damiere Byrd (hamstring), punter Andy Lee (hip),
What to watch: Outfielder Kyler Murray vs. shortstop Russell Wilson

This game features Kyler Murray, who was drafted to play outfield for the Oakland Athletics but opted to play football, against Russell Wilson, whose favorite offseason activity is cosplaying as a New York Yankee. Considering Murray was the no. 1 pick this year and the 30-year-old Wilson has said he wants to play until he is 45, this could be the first of many meetings between these NFC West rivals. Enjoy the baseball comparisons while they are still fresh, because we’ll be hearing them for a long time.

Games That Would Be More Hyped With a Different Starting Quarterback

Dallas Cowboys (3-0) @ New Orleans Saints (2-1)

Kickoff time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Dallas -1.5
Over/under: 45
Key Cowboys injuries and absences: Receiver Michael Gallup (knee), guard Zack Martin (back), defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (hip)
Key Saints injuries and absences: Quarterback Drew Brees (thumb), punter Thomas Morstead (illness)
What to watch: Dak Prescott’s breakout

When these teams met last season, Dallas won 13-10 and held Drew Brees to 127 passing yards in Week 13. That game was the night Dallas’s defense arrived, and this contest could be the breakout for a Dallas offense that has quietly been on par with that of Kansas City, Baltimore, and New England through three weeks. The Cowboys are in the top four in points, yards, yards per play, first downs, third-down conversion percentage, red zone touchdown percentage, and scoring drive rate. The surprise has been Dak Prescott putting up Patrick Mahomes–level efficiency. Prescott is in the top two in almost every advanced metric, including ESPN’s total QBR, completion percentage above expectation (which accounts for degree of difficulty on every throw), and adjusted net yards per pass attempt (which includes sacks, touchdowns, and interceptions). Prescott, not running back Ezekiel Elliott, is the straw stirring Dallas’s drink.

Having said that, the Cowboys have played the Giants, Washington, and Dolphins, who are a combined 1-8 and are the three worst teams by points allowed this year. New Orleans’s defense is not significantly better by the advanced metrics, but it is significantly more talented and has looked better to the naked eye. If Prescott can shred the Saints on Sunday Night Football the way he did lesser competitors the first few weeks of the season, the Cowboys become the top dog in the NFC and Prescott will send Jerry Jones a big Venmo request.

Washington (0-3) @ New York Giants (1-2)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Thom Brennaman, Chris Spielman, Shannon Spake (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Giants -2.5
Over/under: 46
Key Washington injuries and absences: Quarterback Case Keenum (foot), tight end Jordan Reed (concussion), guard Brandon Scherff (ankle)
Key Giants injuries and absences: Running back Saquon Barkley (ankle), linebacker Alec Ogletree (hamstring), receiver Russell Shepard (foot), receiver Bennie Fowler (hamstring)
What to watch: Daniel Jones (but not Dwayne Haskins)

The Giants passed on Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, a New Jersey–born Giants fan, to take Duke’s Daniel Jones in the draft this April. Haskins landed in division rival Washington instead. His first start being in the Meadowlands against Jones and the Giants would be something out of a movie, but Washington head coach Jay Gruden plans to stick with his current quarterback for now. A foot injury to Case Keenum has complicated the decision, but Keenum practiced fully on Thursday, after sitting out Wednesday.

We likely won’t be getting Haskins vs. Jones, so we’ll have to make due with the fumes from Jones’s debut against Tampa Bay and the bad blood between Washington’s secondary and Giants GM Dave Gettleman. When Gettleman was running the Panthers in 2016, he shockingly rescinded cornerback Josh Norman’s franchise tag after Norman had been named a first-team All-Pro. Gettleman didn’t even bother franchise-tagging Giants safety Landon Collins earlier this year and reportedly didn’t even make him a contract offer. Both players took each of their situations personally. Gettleman may be the one person with whom Josh Norman has a bigger beef with than Odell Beckham Jr. Don’t be shocked if either he or Collins “accidentally” bumps into Gettleman on the sideline in pregame warmups.

For Fantasy Purposes Only

Tennessee Titans (1-2) @ Atlanta Falcons (1-2)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Spero Dedes, Adam Archuleta, A.J. Ross (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Atlanta -3.5
Over/under: 46.5
Key Titans injuries and absences: Left tackle Taylor Lewan (suspension), tight end Delanie Walker (knee)
Key Falcons injuries and absences: Safety Keanu Neal (Achilles), Guard Chris Lindstrom (foot)
What to watch: Who loses their job

This is an important matchup for each of these 1-2 squads. Since the NFL went to a 16-game season in 1978, 12 percent of 1-3 teams have made the playoffs, while 39 percent of 2-2 teams make the playoffs. The winner will be back in the thick of their divisional race while the loser will likely start the clock on replacing a key organizational figure. An Atlanta loss would put head coach Dan Quinn on the shortest of short lists for being fired before the season ends. A Tennessee loss may lead to Ryan Tannehill starting sooner rather than later while Marcus Mariota, who is in a contract year, heads to the bench.

Oakland Raiders (1-2) @ Indianapolis Colts (2-1)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Rich Gannon (former Raider), John Schriffen (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Indianapolis -6.5
Over/under: 44
Key Raiders injuries and absences: Guard Gabe Jackson (knee)
Key Colts injuries and absences: Receiver T.Y. Hilton (quad), linebacker Darius Leonard (concussion), safety Malik Hooker (knee)
What to watch: Short passing

Your gut is correct that this game does not seem exciting. Jacoby Brissett’s passes travel an average length of 5.6 yards, which is tied for 35th among 37 qualified passers. Oakland’s Derek Carr ranks 32nd, though even that number hides the Raiders’ conservatism. Two of the passers behind Carr—New York’s Luke Falk and New Orleans’s Teddy Bridgewater—were not practicing as the team’s starter in August, and Pittsburgh’s Mason Rudolph and Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew II rank ahead of him. Those teams retreated to quick passing out of necessity, while the Raiders don’t take deep shots by choice. Oakland hasn’t caught too many breaks this year, but they are catching Indianapolis without their best receiver and with two of their best defenders hobbled and at risk of missing the game.

Los Angeles Chargers (1-2) @ Miami Dolphins (0-3)

Kickoff time: 1 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Tom McCarthy, Jay Feely
Opening line: Chargers -16
Over/under: 45
Key Chargers injuries and absences: Tight end Hunter Henry (knee fracture), tight end Virgil Green (groin), receiver Mike Williams (back), receiver Travis Benjamin (hip), left tackle Russell Okung (blood clots), safety Derwin James (foot), cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. (back), kicker Michael Badgley (groin)
Key Dolphins injuries and absences: Receiver Albert Wilson (hip/calf)
What to watch: Austin Ekeler’s last solo ride

Chargers starting running back Melvin Gordon announced he’s returning to the team, which could end Ekeler’s time as the primary back. But Gordon won’t play this week, giving Ekeler one last dance against the league’s most depleted defense.

Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2) @ Denver Broncos (0-3)

Kickoff time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, James Lofton (analyst)
Opening line: Denver -3.5
Over/under: 38
Key Jaguars injuries and absences: Cornerback Jalen Ramsey (trade request/back/hamstring/the flu/witnessing his child’s birth)
Key Broncos injuries and absences: Tackle Ja’Wuan James (knee), cornerback Bryce Callahan (foot), cornerback Kareem Jackson (hamstring)
What to watch: Denver’s historically bad pass rush

The Broncos are the first team to not have a sack or a takeaway through three weeks since sacks became a statistic in 1982. It’s not a fluke, either. Denver is also dead last in quarterback hits (three)—one-eighth of Jacksonville’s total (24), which is tied for third most in the league. That’s abysmal for any team, but mind-boggling for a squad that includes former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller and last year’s no. 5 pick, Bradley Chubb, at defensive end and is coached by Vic Fangio. If the Broncos don’t register a sack this week against the Jaguars, they’d be the first team to ever have zero sacks through four games.

Monday Night Football

Cincinnati Bengals (0-3) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (0-3)

Kickoff time: 8:15 p.m. ET Monday
Channel: ESPN
Announcers: Joe Tessitore, Booger McFarland, Lisa Salters (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Pittsburgh -4.5
Over/under: 43.5
Key Bengals injuries and absences: Receiver A.J. Green (ankle), tight end Tyler Eifert (not injury related), tackle Cordy Glenn (concussion), Jonah Williams (shoulder), tackle Andre Smith (hamstring), defensive end Carl Lawson (hamstring), defensive end Carlos Dunlap (hamstring), defensive end Kerry Wynn (concussion), defensive end Sam Hubbard (ankle)
Key Steelers injuries and absences: Tight end Vance McDonald (shoulder), cornerback Joe Haden (shoulder), linebacker Vince Williams (hamstring)
What to watch: One of these teams win

The Bengals were expected to be bad. The Steelers were not. But as bad as things are in Cincinnati, it pales in comparison to the crisis Steelers fans will feel if they lose this game, drop to dead last in the AFC North, and start 0-4 for just the second time in 50 years.

Bye teams: San Francisco 49ers (3-0), New York Jets (0-3)