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Late-game collapses haunting defending Super Bowl champs

  • By Pat Kirwan
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10 hot topics for Week 4

We'll be through one quarter of the season after this weekend, and this is the time when great teams prevail and average teams fall back. With more game tape available to evaluate what teams are doing, Week 4 represents the first bumpy road in what is always a tough season. Here are 10 things I'll be watching this week:

1. Where is the Steelers' pressure?

Last week, Carson Palmer and the Bengals got the ball with 5:14 left in the game and had a 16-play drive for the winning touchdown. Palmer wasn't touched by the Steelers' pass rush and there were 11 passes in the drive. The week before, Jay Cutler got the ball with 3:14 left and drove against the same Steelers defense for the winning score. The Bears QB only attempted three passes on the drive, but he was untouched. In total, that's 14 pass plays with the game on the line in the last two weeks and the Steelers couldn't put out the fire with their pass rush. This week, Philip Rivers and the San Diego passing game comes to town for a prime-time showdown.

Derek Anderson is one of five backup QBs pressed into action this week. Can he pass the Browns to their first win?

2. Quarterbacks off the bench

The most important position on the field is quarterback and rarely does a team go very far with the backup under center. It's only Week 4 and already five teams are asking the backup to save their seasons. Strong-armed Derek Anderson of the Browns will open up the passing game with the deep ball. The last time he was a backup pressed into duty, he actually made the offensive line look better and helped Cleveland finish 10-6. ... Chad Henne in Miami will also bring a deep-ball passing attack to the table and -- with injuries in the Bills' secondary -- he might just be what the doctor ordered. ... Seneca Wallace, replacing the injured Matt Hasselbeck, can escape and make plays with his feet. He has a career average of five yards per carry, and he connected with 10 different receivers last week. ... Josh Johnson wasn't even the third QB when I made my camp stop in Tampa this summer, which meant he was getting virtually no reps. He has thrown just 10 passes in his NFL career (completing four), and his first start is on the road. Good luck! ... Kyle Boller may go for Marc Bulger, and his mobility may give the Rams a better chance. I think three of the five backups make the team better, but only one gets a win.

3. 3-0 or 0-3

Last year, three teams that started 3-0 never made the playoffs. Buffalo, Dallas and Denver were riding high when October began, but everything came tumbling down for them. Buffalo rolled to 4-0 last year, but finished 7-9; Dallas and Denver lost in Week 4 and struggled the rest of the year. As for 0-3 teams, not one of them finished with a winning record. Falling to 0-4 this week would really seal a team's fate, but somehow, some way, I think Miami and/or Tennessee fight their way out of the mess they are in with a win.

4. Time to balance the offense

Getting teams to balance up their offense is important if they want to reduce their tendencies and be less predictable. Five teams that simply have to run the ball more than they pass are Tampa Bay (who pass 67 percent of the time), New England (64 percent), Houston (64 percent), San Diego (63 percent) and Pittsburgh (62 percent). The Buccaneers have to pass because they are chasing teams from behind, but the other four have good teams and need to force the run on opponents or they are headed for disappointing seasons.

Rex Ryan's Jets have allowed 33 points all season, while the Saints are averaging 40 points per game. Something's gotta give.

5. Starting fast vs. stopping fast

No team starts faster than the New Orleans Saints. They have three games under their belt and 21 points to show for their three opening drives. That's perfect. They play the New York Jets this week, and Rex Ryan's defense is equally perfect -- the Jets have not allowed any points in their opponents' opening drives. Something has to give. As for the slow starters, 10 teams have yet to put up any points in opening drives: Chicago, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, San Diego, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Washington. These teams better pick it up or get left behind.

6. Speaking of Jets-Saints ...

What a game this should be! Everyone knows about the Saints' passing attack, but they are also one of the best run offenses in the NFL with 48 runs over four yards in the first three games. Ryan's defense has to slow down the pass attack, but if it loses sight of that run game it will get burned.

7. O-line injuries + rookies = QB troubles

Offensive linemen usually don't get hurt at the same pace as other positions. It's not uncommon for a team to have its offensive line intact for a whole season. This year, the number of injuries to offensive linemen has been unusually high. Add to that the unusual number of rookies starting at the position (18) and it spells trouble for the quarterbacks. The NFL is averaging 60 sacks a weekend this year and at least 120 hits on quarterbacks. Between injuries and inexperience, there are probably eight starting offensive tackles, four guards and two centers in question right now and that puts the health of quarterbacks at risk. For example, Aaron Rodgers of the Packers has already been sacked 12 times and he faces the Vikings without his regular left tackle.

8. Keep an eye on Benson

Cedric Benson is reinventing his career. He never got it right in Chicago, but things have been looking up for the former first-round pick since he joined the Bengals. Dating back to last season when he signed with Cincinnati, the team is 5-1-1 when he gets 20-plus carries. In his last six games with the Bengals, he has 160 touches for 792 yards (132 yards per game). I wouldn't be surprised if he's on his way to a 1,300-yard season.

9. Can Pats take a long drive?

This week, the New England Patriots face the Baltimore Ravens at home. The Patriots lead the NFL with 11 drives of 10 plays or more. That's more than a third of the 30 possessions they've had. The Ravens have only permitted one 10-play drive in the 34 drives their defense has faced. A great offensive force meets a great defensive force.

10. Breast Cancer Awareness Month

It's football season and we are all excited about the Week 4 games. But it's also the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. My mom died of breast cancer and I will not let football stand in the way of my responsibility to help find a cure for this disease. Wear something pink when you're watching your favorite game. Let your mother, wife, girlfriend, or daughter know you care!

Playbook analyst Joe Theismann discusses if Tom Brady's confidence in his receivers is becoming an issue to keep an eye on in New England. Patriots identity change?

More from Playbook:

Seahawks vs. Colts
Is a red-hot Peyton Manning going to be too much for the Seahawks?

Titans vs. Jaguars
Playbook examines if the Titans will finally get their first win.

Raiders vs. Texans
Find out how Andre Johnson matches up against Nnamdi Asomugha.

Bengals vs. Browns
How have the Bengals have found their groove en route to a 3-1 start?

Russell's struggles
Why does JaMarcus Russell continue to struggle? Let Playbook explain.

Playbook video blogs
A look ahead to Week 4
Alas, the first week of teams on a bye is here, but that doesn't mean Week 4 will have less fun that the previous three action-packed weeks. Football fans have at least five blue-ribbon games on tap this weekend, including a battle of undefeated teams.

In his game-by-game look at all the Week 4 games, Jason La Canfora says that the intriguing Jets- Saints matchup in New Orleans is must-see TV.
More from's blog
Matchups to watch
Gil Brandt breaks down some interesting matchups to watch in Week 4:

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers vs. Vikings QB Brett Favre: Rodgers is a quiet, team-oriented guy, who will be a good player for a long time. This certainly will be the biggest game he's played in the NFL. Meanwhile, if Favre can beat his former team Monday night, he will become the only quarterback in the NFL to have notched a win against all 32 teams.

Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha vs. Texans WR Andre Johnson: Asomugha is at his best when he plays press coverage. He can be very effective when he gets his hands on you. He's a very smart player and maybe the best cover corner in the NFL.

Jets QB Mark Sanchez vs. Saints QB Drew Brees: You can be sure Sanchez will see every type of blitz possible from Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Brees has been a success at every level -- from a state championship in high school to the Rose Bowl with Purdue.
More matchups to watch
Start 'Em & Sit 'Em
Start of the week: Cedric Benson -- The veteran back has been reborn with the Bengals and his string of success should continue in Cleveland. The Browns field one of the league's worst run defenses, allowing an average of close to 185 rushing yards per game.

QB to start: Jay Cutler -- Cutler has put together two strong fantasy stat lines in wins over the Steelers and Seahawks after a bad Week 1 performance against the Packers. He should extend that run of success to three weeks against the Lions' 30th-ranked defense which has allowed a league-high 10 touchdown passes.

QB to sit: Matt Cassel -- Cassel might have thrown for two scores last week in a blowout loss to the Eagles, but he finished the contest with a mere 90 passing yards. Things won't get much better for him this week.
More Start 'Em & Sit 'Em
Injury Report
Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seahawks: Rib, did not practice

Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts: Quadricep, did not practice

Vince Wilfork, DT, Patriots: Ankle, did not practice

Derrick Ward, RB, Buccaneers: Knee, did not practice

Albert Haynesworth, DT, Redskins: Glute, did not practice
More Injuries
Feeling photogenic?

Not all the action in football takes place within the white lines. Check out the NFL's sizzling sideline attractions, the cheerleaders.
More galleries
Week 4 games (all times ET)
Sunday, Oct. 4
Detroit at Chicago, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Cincinnati at Cleveland, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Oakland at Houston, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Seattle at Indianapolis, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Tennessee at Jacksonville, 1 p.m. (CBS)
N.Y. Giants at Kansas City, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Baltimore at New England, 1 p.m. (CBS)
Tampa Bay at Washington, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Buffalo at Miami, 4:05 p.m. (CBS)
N.Y. Jets at New Orleans, 4:05 p.m. (CBS)
Dallas at Denver, 4:15 p.m. (FOX)
St. Louis at San Francisco, 4:15 p.m. (FOX)
San Diego at Pittsburgh, 8:20 p.m. (NBC)
Monday, Oct. 5
Green Bay at Minnesota, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)

» Complete schedule


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