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Potential playoff previews in AFC highlight Week 4

We've just about reached the quarterpole of the season, the time when you can really start to sift through the stats and begin to put credence in some trends. Usually through October, the cream starts to rise to the top and teams forge their identities. Remember, games here are rated as either a footlong, a six-inch, a pita or a finger sandwich.


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This could be another week in which the undefeated teams continue their runs -- none of the 3-0 teams are facing a premier opponent this week -- and the most meaningful games come in the AFC. Six of the winning teams in that conference go out of their division to face another team with strong playoff aspirations.

The six teams involved in those games -- Baltimore, New York Jets, New England, Oakland, Pittsburgh and Houston -- all have division title hopes. And, what do you know, we get one of the AFC heavyweight games at 1 p.m. ET, one at 4 p.m. ET, and the nightcap Sunday. Well played, NFL schedule makers, well played.

    • New York at Baltimore

      Sun 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Two teams who are no strangers to the AFC Championship Game meet, with two prideful defenses, two recent first-round picks at quarterback and a lot of pride at stake. Baltimore opened the 2010 season with a win over the Jets on Monday Night Football, and the Jets want revenge.
    • Inside slant:

      There are no secrets here. Jets coach Rex Ryan was a longtime, beloved defensive coordinator in Baltimore, but the Ravens opted to replace former coach Brian Billick with John Harbaugh. Ryan hasn't forgotten. Baltimore's players love Ryan, and love to beat him, and Ryan has brought no shortage of ex-Ravens to New York with him, Bart Scott and Derrick Mason among them.
    • Rating:

      Footlong
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • New England at Oakland

      Sun 4:15 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Tom Brady is human after all. The Patriots haven't been able to stop anyone on defense. The Raiders are running the ball down peoples' throats and ran all over an AFC East team at home last week. Oakland's massive front four will be a problem. This is an interesting matchup.
    • Inside slant:

      Richard Seymour was fairly distraught when he was dealt from New England to Oakland a few years back in a blockbuster trade, but he has become the heart and soul of the Raiders. He'll want to reunite with Tom Brady.
    • Rating:

      Footlong
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Pittsburgh at Houston

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Ben Roethlisberger has been something of a house of horrors this season, and a turnover machine. And the low-scoring Steelers could find themselves in something of a shootout here. Can anyone on Houston's defense account for Mike Wallace?
    • Inside slant:

      Who would have thought that through three weeks the Texans would be more physical than the Steelers, at least on offense? Houston has a power-running attack going and Pittsburgh is averaging just 3.3 yards per game. If Houston's offensive line can win in the trenches again this week, you have to like their chances. The Steelers are still searching for an offensive identity with a banged-up offensive line.
    • Rating:

      Footlong
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Detroit at Dallas

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      The two teams who annually host Thanksgiving Day games meet, with the Lions, usually the lesser appetizer, now the big story. Could the Lions open the season 4-0, and move to 3-0 on the road after all those years of road losses? The Cowboys, just trying to get healthy, are suddenly a little bit hot.
    • Inside slant:

      No one talks about Brandon Pettigrew on that Lions attack, but he is a force when Matthew Stafford is in the lineup, and he could create big issues for Dallas' linebackers. Pettigrew is coming off a 10-plus catch day and the Lions' road confidence has to be soaring after close wins at Minnesota and Tampa.
    • Rating:

      Six-inch
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • San Francisco at Philadelphia

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      So, San Francisco comes into this one with the better record, and more stability at quarterback. Another week with a Michael Vick injury saga (if he plays, can he finish the game?), and the possibility that Vince Young gets his first action with the Eagles if Vick is knocked out again. One of the most experienced NFL staffs in the league faces the 49ers' more novice staff, which might be a factor on the road.
    • Inside slant:

      The 49ers chose to spend the week after their win at Cincinnati in Youngstown, Ohio, rather than head back to California. There's no formula to handling that kind of travel, but I tend to believe it will be something of a factor either way. Frank Gore is a little beat up for the 49ers, and they're going to want to try to run the ball on the staggering Eagles.
    • Rating:

      Six-inch
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Carolina at Chicago

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Cam Newton gave one of the NFC North's top defenses some fits two weeks ago. Now he goes for his first road win. The Bears have to find a way to get more balanced offensively, so expect a heavy dose of Matt Forte early. Greg Olsen, once one of Jay Cutler's BFFs, returns to Chicago after being dealt to the Panthers in the offseason. The Bears are desperate for a win.
    • Inside slant:

      Soldier Field is one of the slowest, and most disliked surfaces in the league. But after last week's slop-fest with the Jaguars, played in a monsoon on a puddle-laden field at Bank of America Stadium, no team should be more prepared for it than the Panthers. And Matt Forte, fighting for a new contract, can't be too pleased about the lack of running plays in Chicago's offense.
    • Rating:

      Six-inch
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Washington at St. Louis

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      St. Louis has played a tough schedule and all, and had some bad breaks, but they've been on the wrong end of too many lopsided losses already, while the Redskins need to regroup and continue that could-be-a-very-good-year mojo they had going on.
    • Inside slant:

      The Redskins came this close to hiring Steve Spagnuolo in 2009, be he turned down interest in the job and the ill-fated Jim Zorn era began. Spagnuolo knows Washington's personnel pretty well from his years in the NFC East, and needs to have his spiraling defense make a statement here.
    • Rating:

      Pita
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Tennessee at Cleveland

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      These teams have more wins than losses, but man, it's been tough sledding. No style points here. There's been some unsightly football, but Colt McCoy is flashing more late-game heroics and Matt Hasselbeck is off to a resurgent start.
    • Inside slant:

      Kenny Britt had emerged as Hasselbeck's top target but now he's gone. Nate Washington quickly became the top target, but can he sustain that over time? And, when will Chris Johnson get his legs and form back? The Titans have been winning without their best player.
    • Rating:

      Pita (because of their records, but man, this could be hard to watch)
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Indianapolis at Tampa Bay

      Mon 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Might Curtis Painter take the reins of the Colts' offense? If so, it's hard to think he would be any worse than what they were getting out of the position previously. I never, ever get tired of watching ageless corner Ronde Barber feast on inexperienced passers, and he got Matt Ryan last week like I thought he would.
    • Inside slant:

      Keep watching the Buccaneers' young defensive line. Guys like Brian Price are starting to make their mark. That's one more thing to like about that team and could be a problem for the Colts in this one. Also, typical September muggy Florida conditions are another reason to like the Bucs as a second-half team against the Colts.
    • Rating:

      Pita
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Atlanta at Seattle

      Sun 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Hard to call a Week 4 game a must-win, but if the Falcons somehow fell to 1-3 in that division, it could be a long climb back. And say what you want, but the "12th Man" in Seattle is no joke. Matt Ryan is off to a shaky start, particularly on the road, and he's been getting hit more than usual.
    • Inside slant:

      The Falcons know they need to rediscover the power-run game. Michael Turner averaged 21 rushes per game in his three prior seasons in Atlanta; he's averaging just 14 per game this season, and half of those 42 attempts came against the Eagles, in the Falcons' only win. Problem is, one of the few things the Seahawks do well right now is stuff the run.
    • Rating:

      Finger sandwich
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Miami at San Diego

      Sun 4:15 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Don't look now, but Ryan Mathews is showing the signs of becoming the feature back the Chargers drafted in the first round. He's been getting a lot of the load in the pass and run games, and also running with more conviction.
    • Inside slant:

      Calls for Tony Sparano's job would only intensify if this one goes as some expect. And a middling Chargers offense could be in line for a breakout with Miami's defense in disarray. The Dolphins are beat up at corner and Philip Rivers has yet to find his peak form.
    • Rating:

      Finger sandwich
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • New Orleans at Jacksonville

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Blaine Gabbert makes his home debut as the Jaguars' starter. The Saints' defense must be licking its chops. If you have a bunch of Saints players on your fantasy team, this could make for entertaining viewing.
    • Inside slant:

      Gregg Williams needs his Saints D to step it up and there's no time better than now, with the Jaguars' offense fairly inept. Williams spent one year on Jack Del Rio's staff in Jacksonville before heading to New Orleans. He has strong ties to the Missouri staff where Gabbert played college ball as well, and will have no lack of tricks up his sleeves for the youngster.
    • Rating:

      Finger sandwich
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • New York at Arizona

      Sun 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Every game the Cardinals have been in this season has been close, with some sort of intriguing final play. Not saying this has been riveting football, but interesting finishes, nonetheless.
    • Inside slant:

      The Giants seem to be hitting a stride. Getting both running backs involved, Eli Manning is making plays downfield. Players such as Victor Cruz are making big plays in the passing game with the team a little short now at receiver. Osi Umenyiora could be back for this one, too.
    • Rating:

      Finger sandwich
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Minnesota at Kansas City

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Somebody has to win this game, right? I mean, they won't tie, will they? Do the 2008 Lions pop corks anytime an awful team wins its first game?
    • Inside slant:

      Kerry Collins is the only QB in the NFL with a lower yards-per-attempt average than Matt Cassel. This dude could throw the ball 40 times and not break 200 yards. Couple that with losing your franchise back for the year, and you'd better hope the defense and special teams score some points.
    • Rating:

      Finger sandwich
    • Watch: Game Preview

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.

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