Playoff time. OK, maybe not, but you can be darn sure a handful of games carry that kind of weight for several teams.
Take Vikings at Eagles, where Minnesota can ill afford a 1-3-1 start and yet another conference loss. If Philly falls at home -- with contests against Carolinaand Jacksonville on tap later this month -- the defending champs could end up 3-5 at the midway point. Pittsburgh hosts Atlanta in another desperation game. A Steelers loss would put them at 1-3-1; not good when the Ravens and Bengals both have serious potential to log double-digit wins. If the Falcons drop this game at Heinz Field, they could fall 3.5 games back of the Saints (because New Orleans beat them in Week 3).
The Packers and Lions square off in an important division game. If Detroit takes another L, that will be three losses in conference. The Lions' sole win thus far came against the Patriots. Wins against AFC teams won't help them -- or any other NFC wild-card hopeful -- when it's tiebreaker time. Then there's the Jaguars-Chiefs game, which could have postseason implications of a different sort: Who gets home-field come January?
Meanwhile, the Cowboys visit the Texans in a contest that is especially significant for the latter. Not to mention, when you get Dallas and Houston together, well, the matchup provides some juice:
Long story short: It might be early October, but these games carry quite a bit of significance in the NFL hierarchy. Speaking of which, you folks had some thoughts on this week's Power Rankings ...
Not true, Cainan. They'd be at least 14th.
Elliot Harrison went 10-5 on his predictions for Week 4, bringing his record for the season to 39-22-2. How will he fare in Week 5? His picks are below.
THURSDAY, OCT. 4
8:20 p.m. ET (FOX/NFL Network/Prime Video) | Gillette Stadium (Foxborough, Mass.)
Indy is simply too banged up to win in New England on a short week. Of the absences, T.Y. Hilton's -- he was ruled out Wednesday -- is probably the most significant. But don't simply assume the posture that Of course the Colts are going to lose. OK, they are, but do you realize what a tough out they've been thus far this year? They held the Bengals in check and had a chance to win on a two-minute drive late. They beat the Redskins in the latter team's home opener, then nearly stole a game at the home of the defending champion Eagles. Last week, it took overtime and a risky coaching decisionfor Indy to fall. Remember the, uh, questionable coaching decision last time these teams played each other in prime time? Rob Gronkowski's ankle injury won't be nearly as problematic for Tom Brady as it would have been without Julian Edelman returning from suspension.
SUNDAY, OCT. 7
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | New Era Field (Orchard Park, N.Y.)
Let's see ... The Titans can get after the quarterback and the Bills can't protect the quarterback. On paper, Tennessee should win this matchup going away. But if Marcus Mariota and the passing game regress from last week's trend-busting performance, then Buffalo has a chance. As always, turnovers are key with the Bills, particularly at home. Mike Vrabel's offense isn't built to take a lot of risks and, thus, shouldn't give the ball away all that often, though Mariota committed an egregious turnover against the Eagles last week. Both teams need to push their starting tailbacks out of the starting blocks. Tennessee's Derrick Henry has rushed for just 163 yards -- at a measly 3.0 yards per carry -- over the first four weeks of the season. Buffalo's LeSean McCoy doesn't even have 100 yards on the season yet. Oy.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | Heinz Field (Pittsburgh)
The Falcons (1-3) own a losing record, but they can move the football (ranked seventh on offense). The Steelers (30th in yards allowed) can't stop anybody. Their defense is reaching depths that, frankly, are unprecedented in franchise lore. Coordinator Keith Butler's unit is on pace to allow 464 point this year. Only twice in history has Pittsburgh ever allowed more than 400 points in a season: back 1969 -- Chuck Noll's first season, when the Steelers won all of one game -- and again in 1988. In '69, they allowed 28.9 points per game -- one-tenth of a point less than they're allowing now. It's gnarly. The Falcons are scoring exactly 29.0 points per game. However, Atlanta's offense is not the same on grass -- witness Week 1, when the Falcons limped to 12 points in Philadelphia. In 10 games away from the friendly (turf-covered) confines of their home stadium last year (including postseason), they only scored 209. And don't forget that they have problems on defense, too (28th overall, 30th in points allowed).
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | MetLife Stadium (East Rutherford, N.J.)
The Broncos have been a decidedly different team away from home, losing 10 of their last 11 road games. In theory, they are superior to the Jets at most of the key positions. But New York is bound to recover at some point, probably around the same time that rookie QB Sam Darnold takes a step forward. He has completed a subpar percentage of his passes (57.5) and hasn't been able to connect downfield since Week 1. The Jets' offense must involve Robby Anderson. Take a page out of the old Bruce Arians playbook and throw deep at least once per half, if not once per quarter. Make Denver play the whole field. Broncos QB Case Keenum: no TD passes in his last three games.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Arrowhead Stadium (Kansas City, Mo.)
How do the Jaguars defend Patrick Mahomes? Do they rush the front four only and play coverage on the back end with numbers? If so, they will need to account for Kareem Hunt (who was fantastic in the win on "Monday Night Football") by playing a safety close to the line or using all three linebackers. They can blitz or try to confuse Mahomes, but I'm not sure that will work ... especially with crowd noise not being a factor for the Chiefs' offense. My guess is that Jacksonville DC Todd Wash generally rushes four -- a tactic that has won games for this team -- but makes sure his DEs don't get washed up in the pocket. Mahomes is deadly on the run with that rubber-band arm of his. The challenge for Jacksonville offensively will be generating a run game behind T.J. Yeldon and Corey Grant (Leonard Fournetteis out) with which to limit Kansas City's possessions. That's how the Jags will win Sunday.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | Ford Field (Detroit)
The Packers win, narrowly. Every time you think Detroit is going to lose, they win. If the Lions are to prevail over their division rivals, they must run the football. Why make a defense that struggles to stop opposing passers stay on the field for 10 possessions or more? Shorten the game and play to your strengths. I also harped on this in the Power Rankings this week. Let me just support this argument by pointing out that, though Detroit does have the second-ranked passing defense in terms of yards, the Lions have allowed quarterbacks a 104.2 passer rating. That's awful. They succeeded in making Cowboys QB Dak Prescottlook good, and that's hard to do. With Packers defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkersonout for the year, Detroit should test that Green Bay front. I think Aaron Rodgers bounces back this week.
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | FirstEnergy Stadium (Cleveland)
The Ravens have a habit of laying eggs after impressive showings; see the Week 2 debacle in Cincinnati following the Week 1 rout of Buffalo. So, while Baltimore is a quality team with a legit chance to win the AFC North, the Ravens could definitely falter in Cleveland after topping the Steelers in prime time. Baker Mayfield will rebound from the Browns' excruciating overtime loss in Oakland -- although unlike in that scoring bonanza, I don't anticipate these teams combining for even 60 points. Joe Flacco was on point last Sunday night, but he'll encounter a much better pass rush and secondary than what he faced in Pittsburgh. This could come down to the kicking game, which certainly favors John Harbaugh's team. Ravens at Brownssettled by a field goal attempt ... ruh roh.
1 p.m. ET (FOX) | Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
There are so many reasons not to like the Giants in this contest. Let me see if I can enumerate a few:
1) New York's offense has been nothing short of fugly.
2) Big Blue can't protect the quarterback (they've allowed 15 sacks, fifth-most in the NFL).
3) The Panthers are rested off the bye.
4) Carolina is at home.
If the Giants are to take this uber-important (at least, for them) game on the road, they must feed Saquon Barkley the ball on running plays. He's caught a ton of dump-offs. Run the football, and slow down a Panthers pass rush that has gotten after the quarterback quite successfully in two home dates thus far (eight sacks.)
1 p.m. ET (CBS) | Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati)
Is this the week the Dolphins prove that they aren't the same ol' Dolphins and are actually worthy of our consideration as a playoff contender? No. The Bengals own a more talented roster and are at home. The potential shortcoming for them this week is the chanceJoe Mixon won't be fully ready to roll. There's also the underwhelming performance from Cincinnati's defense thus far. Bengals fans were the first to admonish your friendly writer not to discount the ability on that side of the ball -- and yet, through four games, they've allowed 28.3 points per game. That's OK, though; Miami (20.5 points per game) can't score that many.
4:05 p.m. ET (CBS) | Rokit Field at StubHub Center (Carson, Calif.)
Can the Jared Cook Express make the Chargers pay? The Raiders tight end was unstoppable against the Browns. Jared. Cook. Through four games, he's become Derek Carr's most reliable target, hauling in 26 balls for 370 yards and two touchdowns. Oakland wouldn't have won last weekend without him. That's scary for a Bolts defense that allowed 49ers TE George Kittle to go nuts last weekend (six catches for 125 yards and a touchdown). Maybe Chargers rookie safety Derwin James will blitz less and cover the tight end more this weekend. Oakland won't be able to take its second AFC match in a row if it can't pressure Philip Rivers a lick. The Raiders have secured all of five sacks in four games. That ain't enough.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) | Levi's Stadium (Santa Clara, Calif.)
The Cardinals should get David Johnson involved early and let that offensive line hit people. Otherwise, it will be on Josh Rosen to put Arizona on his back in his first road start. All eyes on this game -- OK, admittedly, this might be the least-watched game this weekend -- will be on the rookie QB, but don't forget about San Francisco signal-caller C.J. Beathard, who played his tail off last weekend in Los Angeles. Arizona's defense has performed admirably, given the dearth of offense the Cards have generated, but that unit can be had. Look for Niners coach Kyle Shanahan to find creative ways to utilize running backs Matt Breida and Alfred Morris, as well as Beathard's mobility. The guy is far from a statue back there. Although if the kid is gonna move out of the pocket, he might want to duck.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) | Lincoln Financial Field (Philadelphia)
The two combatants from the 2017 NFC title game aren't off to the kind of start everyone expected in 2018. The Vikings' once-vaunted defense has allowed Leif Erikson and everyone else to go from coast to coast. After Jared Goff torched the Vikes on "Thursday Night Football," they face the man who went one spot behind Goff in the 2016 NFL Draft. Key for Carson Wentz will be to get Alshon Jeffery going early. That might fall as much on Philly coach Doug Pederson as his quarterback. If Kirk Cousins heats up for Minnesota, look out -- the Eagles' secondary has been woeful thus far. I'm seeing Philadelphia rebound in front of the home crowd, but this NFC matchup could go either way. If the Vikings fall to 1-3-1, they had better hope the Packers drop to 2-2-1 in Detroit. Otherwise, Mike Zimmer's group will be in a sizable hole in the NFC North.
4:25 p.m. ET (FOX) | CenturyLink Field (Seattle)
Can the Seahawks slow down Jared Goff without Earl Thomas? They slowed Goff and the aerial circus last year in Seattle (with Thomas), mostly because the Rams were up five scores and didn't have to throw. Goff only dropped back 23 times in that game while watching Todd Gurley, Malcolm Brown and Co. carry the ball 43 times for 244 yards and three touchdowns. With Thomas out for the Seahawks, there is no reason for Rams coach Sean McVay to pump the brakes on the most lethal passing attack in pro football. Noise could play a role -- if it does, turn around and hand the ball to No. 30. Seattle's run defense has stunk thus far (27th in the NFL). As for the other side, Russell Wilson isn't taking off much these days, averaging a scant 2.8 carries per game. He might need to triple that figure for the Seahawks to stay in this one.
8:20 p.m. ET (NBC) | NRG Stadium (Houston)
The Cowboys' offense finally got out of its own way last week, while the Texansfinally put a W on the board. Let's talk about Dallas first. The formula is Plain Jane at this point: Run Ezekiel Elliott 25 times and aim to have the offensive line jump to a fast start (not a false start) by hitting people. Dak Prescott will see single coverage all day, like he did against the Lions, because neither he nor the Cowboys receiving corps scare defensive coordinators the way Elliott does. As for Houston, Bill O'Brien must plan to use Deshaun Watson out of the pocket. Mitigate the Dallas pass rush while making Cowboys LBs Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch try to run Watson down. The Texans' ground game is not enough to keep the Cowboys honest.
MONDAY, OCT. 8
8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN) | Mercedes-Benz Superdome (New Orleans)
The Redskins come off the bye with fresh legs. Last year, they nearly upended the Saints at the same venue, in one of Kirk Cousins' better games. Can Alex Smith keep up if this year's bout morphs into another 34-31 affair? He hasn't shown that ability yet in Washington. On the other sideline, Drew Brees is coming off a so-so outing, statistically speaking; nevertheless, he made key plays when New Orleans had to have them. The future Hall of Fame quarterback shows no signs of slowing down, boasting the highest completion percentage in the league (75.8), with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. The Redskins must force takeaways to leave town with a win. But the Saints have made no such mistakes in their last two contests.