With competitive balance being what it is these days in the NFL, these individual matchups we look at each week become more and more important in determining the outcome of games.
Last week, for example, we said that San Diego's corners would have to make plays when Brett Favre started throwing those patented slant patterns. Sure enough, they failed to make the play on a slant pass to Greg Jennings that went for the game-winning touchdown and pulled Favre even with Dan Marino for most career touchdown passes.
Here are some key matchups to follow when you're watching the Week 4 action in the NFL:
Patriots QB Tom Brady vs. Bengals QB Carson Palmer
It's a Monday night matchup of the two premier passers in the NFL so far this season. Brady leads the NFL in touchdown passes, Palmer is second. Palmer leads the AFC in yards, Brady is second.
Both players thrive under the lights. In six Monday night road games, Brady has thrown for a remarkable 1,527 yards and 13 TDs. In two Monday night home games, Palmer has 390 yards and three TDs.
Brady and Palmer both have star receivers to work with -- Chad Johnson leads the NFL in receiving yards and T.J. Houshmandzadeh leads in receptions; Randy Moss leads in TD catches and the Patriots as a team lead the NFL in total offense. Don't be surprised to see Palmer win the statistical battle here, because New England would be wise to run the ball often on Cincinnati.
One other piece of data that bodes well for Brady: His career record on non-grass fields is 24-1.
Eagles DE Trent Cole vs.
Giants LT David Diehl
This is a key matchup for the Giants, as they need to give Eli Manning time to throw the ball. Cole is a fast and speedy pass rusher who has five sacks in three games this season. Not only is Cole dangerous rushing the passer, but he had a 19-yard interception return for a TD last year that sealed a late-season win over the Giants. Diehl, meanwhile, is a steady performer who has started every game in his Giants career (67). He has played every line position except center, but this is his first full season as the starting left tackle, and he is playing well.
Packers QB Brett Favre vs. Vikings defense
Favre had a big game in Minnesota last year, but that has not been his history. Of his 15 career games in Minnesota, Favre has been held under 200 yards passing eight times -- including a 32-yard effort that stands as his worst yardage day ever. In four of the 15 games, he's finished with a passer rating under 50. His record in those 15 games: 5-10.
Minnesota has an excellent run defense and Green Bay has a subpar running attack -- in other words, the Vikings can gear up to stop Favre here without worrying too much about the ground game.
That said, Favre will likely throw the ball 40-50 times this week. Minnesota has allowed just three TD passes and has 11 sacks, but you can expect Favre to break two records in this game -- the career TD pass record and the mark for career attempts. Favre has 8,348 career attempts, 10 shy of Marino's mark.
Who will catch Favre's record TD pass? The guess here is that if it's not Donald Driver, it could be a running back.
Colts WR Reggie Wayne vs. Broncos CB Dre Bly
Marvin Harrison will be matched up most of this game with Denver's top cornerback, Cham Bailey. That most likely means that Bly will be covering Wayne. It's a very tough matchup for Bly. In last year's game, Wayne had 10 catches for 138 yards and 3 TDs, plus a 2-point conversion. Wayne should do well here, despite the fact that Denver's defense has allowed just 88 pasing yards a game this season and two TD passes.
Texans QB Matt Schaub vs. Falcons defense
This might be a rare time when the visiting QB receives a nice ovation when he enters the building, though he might not be cheered when he leaves. The key for Atlanta will be cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who had a poor outing last week in terms of penalties but essentially kept Steve Smith under wraps. He shouldn't have trouble with any of the healthy Houston receivers.
Bears QB Brian Griese/RB Cedric Benson vs. Lions defense
This is a very important game for the Bears -- as important as a Week 4 game could be. In their two games last year vs. Detroit, Chicago held the ball for 33 minutes in Chicago and 34-plus minutes in Detroit. That said, Griese will need help from Benson.
For the Bears to win, they cannot afford to turn over the football. Of course, that's why Griese is taking over for Rex Grossman. In his career, Griese has thrown 104 TDs and 80 interceptions. Conversely, Grossman had 28 TDs and 31 INTs. The big problem with Grossman was that he couldn't play from behind.
Rams defense vs. Cowboys offense
The Rams' defensive coaches seemingly need to pull a rabbit out of their hat with the 0-3 Rams facing the 3-0 Cowboys. Dallas leads the NFL in scoring and ranks second in total offense. That said, St. Louis is better on defense than most would think. They're pretty good against the pass, and they've allowed less than 300 per game of total offense -- the fewest yards allowed in the NFC, in fact.
Steelers P Daniel Sepulveda vs. Cardinals PR Steve Breaston
If you're going to beat the Steelers, you need to create field position. Don't expect the Cardinals to mount too many long drives on offense. For that reason, the special teams unit needs to give them good field position. However, Sepulveda has punted nine times this season and hasn't had one returned. Breaston is averaging 7.8 yards per return -- not great, but he is dangerous.
Chiefs RB Larry Johnson vs. Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson
Much has been made of how the top rushers from 2006 have struggled mightily early on this season. Statistically, Tomlinson should have the edge here. He rushed for 265 yards in the two games between these teams last season, while Johnson had 216. In both cases, the leading rusher was from the home team (and this one is in San Diego).
The Chiefs defense is ranked higher overall this season -- seventh -- compared to San Diego which is ranked 22nd. But San Diego is ninth against the run. Kansas City is 18th.
Both teams need to pass the ball to make the running game work, and that should favor San Diego. Expect Tomlinson to get his first 100-yard game of the season, while Johnson has closer to 80 yards.