NFL Week 4 Predictions: The Thinking Man's Guide to Week 4
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Week 3 was as wild and exciting as any NFL week in recent memory, which also meant it was a rough one for predicting games. After a 23-9 start to the season, when you go a lifetime-worst 4-12 at picking games like I did, it is no surprise the Thinking Man’s Guide was 0-5.
It is a crazy season; elite quarterbacks are all losing, and the Arizona Cardinals (3-0) are now ahead of the San Francisco 49ers (2-1) in the NFC West after Sunday’s surprising results.
How much of this madness was caused by the replacement officials is likely overstated, but it will be interesting to see if things start to normalize in Week 4.
This week we will take a look at an expected great game between teams who are a combined 1-5, if the 49ers will lose because of Jet lag (get it?) and a must-win weekend for this century’s two greatest quarterbacks before they meet again in Week 5.
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Packers vs. Saints: The Greatest 0-3 vs. 1-2 Game Ever
How often do you see a potential game of the week between teams who are 0-3 and 1-2? Well, that is what happens when the two quarterbacks who played the best in 2011, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, are off to lackluster starts after record-breaking seasons.
Last year, these teams were a combined 28-4, with Green Bay beating the Saints 42-34 on opening night. In that game, the Packers scored five offensive touchdowns.
Through three games in 2012, they have four touchdowns and have scored 44 points (offense only). They are not even producing many yards, as their 913 yards rank 25th in the league.
While apologizing for the NFL and referees this week, Aaron Rodgers maybe should have started with an apology for the substandard product that has been the Green Bay offense in recent outings. Rodgers has not played a strong game since Christmas night in 2011 over nine months ago.
It has been the greatest three-game scoring drought for Green Bay in the Aaron Rodgers era. That comes on the heels of the bad playoff loss to the Giants.
Teams who win at least 13 regular-season games regress by an average of 3.7 wins the following season. That number may be going up after this season.
The 2012 New Orleans Saints might be the most interesting 0-3 team since…well, since the 2007 Saints stumbled out of the gates following their NFC Championship appearance the previous season. That team went 0-4 with Brees playing much worse than he is now, and they finished 7-9.
If you need an example of a previous 0-3 vs. 1-2 game that was interesting, that also involves one of these franchises.
In 2005, the Green Bay Packers were 0-3 behind Brett Favre, while the Carolina Panthers were 1-2. Favre mounted a late comeback attempt on Monday Night Football, but Carolina got the win and would finish 11-5. Green Bay went 4-12, and Mike McCarthy was hired a year later.
Teams that start 0-3 are usually bad teams. A total of 56 teams have started 0-3 since 2002, and only 12 of them were a playoff team the previous year.
In some cases the regression made sense, whether it was an injury to Peyton Manning (2011 Colts) or Chad Pennington (2003 Jets, 2009 Dolphins); the self-destruction of Jake Delhomme (2009 Panthers); or simply deceitful playoff teams like the 2010 Chiefs and 2005 Buccaneers.
Watching a great quarterback start 0-3 is almost unheard of. The best examples since 2002 are Kurt Warner (2002 Rams), Trent Green (2004 Chiefs), Brett Favre (2005 Packers) and Drew Brees (2007 and 2012 Saints).
None of those teams did better than 7-9 in the end. Now you can see the unique situation here, as either the Saints will be 0-4 or the Packers will join them at 1-3 with the head-to-head loss in a rather crowded NFC.
On paper, the Saints may have a better offense (arguably more mistake-prone, however), but Green Bay has a much better defense. New Orleans became the first team ever to allow over 450 yards of offense in all three games to start a season. Through air or ground, they can be had.
Of course, the Packers historically ignore the running game, and their passing game has not produced the big plays we are used to seeing yet this season.
Maybe even more shocking is that the league’s best front-running team is scoreless in the first quarter in 2012. Green Bay has not done that since 1991, when it started 1-2 and finished 4-12.
If it is a close game late, which all three of New Orleans games have been, then you have to like its chances given the Packers’ horrific history in that regard.
It is also paramount for the Saints to avoid turning the ball over. Mike McCarthy is 0-11 when the Packers are unable to generate a takeaway, which has been the case in both losses this season.
How his team even reacts to the Monday night frenzy is a huge question mark, but at least they are home. With two teams that are pretty evenly matched, go with the home team here. Both quarterbacks are feeling extra heat this season, but the Packers have a better pass rush.
Rodgers will find more holes in the secondary of the Saints compared to those of San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. This may still be a high-scoring game, but it is a matchup that favors Green Bay.
Still, it is hard to believe these teams are going to combine for two wins a quarter of the way through the season, and one of them will be from playing each other.
Jets vs. 49ers: A Bit of the Old East Coast vs. West Coast Ultra-Violence
There were so many shockers in Week 3 that it is too difficult to pick any one as the biggest, but Minnesota stomping all over the 49ers, 24-13, is in the conversation.
It was the worst performance the 49ers have had in their 21 games (including playoffs) in the Jim Harbaugh era.
One of the great stats for Harbaugh is how competitive his 49ers have been. They had a fourth-quarter lead in 19 of their first 20 games, and a tie with Baltimore in the other.
On Sunday in Minnesota, the best the 49ers could do is trail 17-13 for just two plays into the fourth quarter before the Vikings added another touchdown.
It should be noted that the game was played in Minnesota (CDT), which means the 49ers had a body clock of 10 a.m. PST when the game started. I have done my own research on circadian rhythms and body clocks this year, and it is something worth noting for teams traveling from the West Coast.
Since 2007, the 49ers are now 9-19 (.321) in road games which start with their body clock at 10 a.m. PST. They are 6-8 (.429) in road games with a later start time more in their comfort zone.
However, good teams still overcome such things, and Harbaugh had his team at a perfect 5-0 in these early games last season. In Minnesota, the 49ers did look at their worst early in the game, as the Vikings went 82 yards on 16 plays for a touchdown on the opening drive.
It was 14-3 in the second quarter and 17-3 at halftime. The 49ers started to mount a second-half rally, but the Vikings shut the door by forcing turnovers.
Now the 49ers are faced with the difficult task of playing yet another early game, and this one even further east in New Jersey against the Jets on Sunday.
The loss of Darrelle Revis is obviously big, but you have to figure the Jets offer just about as much of a challenge as the Vikings did. San Francisco will be tested in this battle of 2-1 teams.
The good news for the 49ers is that the Jets are historically slow starters as well, so do not expect any knockout punches in the first half this time.
While the Jets are a decent team in the fourth quarter in close games, the 49ers will already be well adjusted to the time difference by that point, and they'll closer to peak athletic performance.
Expect a low-scoring affair and a San Francisco victory, unless this is the week Tebow Time emerges to further throw off the circadian rhythms (and the nearest receiver).
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Tom Brady and Peyton Manning: Remembering an AFC That Once Was
Peyton Manning’s neck surgeries and absence in the 2011 season put an end to the great rivalry with the Colts and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots. Now the two are just trying to recover from 1-2 starts in 2012.
From 2003 to 2010, the AFC was largely dominated by Manning and Brady. Sure, the Pittsburgh Steelers were right in the mix most of the time, but they are on a bye week and in their own world of struggles. This quarterback rivalry dominated the conference, and the two started five of the Super Bowls in that eight-season span.
This season, we have not seen them at their best, but maybe that is to be expected with the changes in circumstances. Also, the fact is they are another year older and closer to retirement.
Every era has to end at some point, and a third consecutive loss (each is playing a division game, so it counts even more) could really put a dagger into their chances of one last shot at glory.
New England has the tougher task with a game at Buffalo after a physical, emotional battle with Baltimore. The Bills beat the Pats, 34-31, last year after falling behind 21-0 early. Buffalo took a 21-0 lead in New England in Week 17, but the Patriots stormed back to finish the game on a 48-0 run.
The Patriots have not had a three-game losing streak since losing four straight in 2002 (Games 4-7).
Ryan Fitzpatrick has been shaky for the Bills; they have been putting up points, but that was when C.J. Spiller was dominating. We'll have to see which healthy running backs Buffalo roll out for this matchup.
However, Buffalo’s wins are only against Kansas City and Cleveland, so this is a substantial step up in class. The Bills did show last year they can hang with and even beat New England, so this should be a great game, but the Patriots are still the better team.
While Brady was on that four-game losing streak in 2002, Peyton Manning was in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Since then, that has only happened one other time, and it was in 2010 when Manning threw those 11 interceptions against New England, Dallas and San Diego, which we looked at in last week's preview.
With a home game against an Oakland team that shocked Pittsburgh, this is a critical game for the Broncos. They have fallen behind by 20 points the last two weeks and nearly pulled off the late comeback, but they have to start playing better earlier in the game.
Oakland was shredded by Ben Roethlisberger, who was under little pressure, so expect Manning to have decent time to throw and pick apart a banged-up secondary.
The Denver defense needs to play much better, and Carson Palmer is a step down from the quarterbacks they have faced so far. Still, Palmer can get into a rhythm; he led five consecutive scoring drives against Pittsburgh.
Roll with Manning and Brady this weekend to end this madness with the future Hall of Fame quarterbacks going on losing streaks. Quarterbacks aside, Denver and New England are better teams (talent and coaching) than Oakland and Buffalo.
Consider the fact that the looming, critical Week 5 matchup is Denver at New England. That makes this week’s game even more important. Any slip-up this weekend, and one of these teams could end up 1-4 after that one.
It would be an unfortunate sight after a decade of AFC dominance, but these things must happen eventually.
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While offenses hurry up to win games late, the Thinking Man hurries up with his nuggets to meet a deadline.
Browns (0-3) at Ravens (2-1)
Since a Cleveland sweep in 2007, the Ravens are 8-0 under John Harbaugh against the franchise from which they emerged. The average margin of victory has been 14 points. Joe Flacco has 10 touchdowns, four interceptions, 7.72 yards per attempt and a 94.4 passer rating against the Browns. Baltimore has won their last 13 home games.
Good luck, Brandon Weeden. No Thursday night upset here.
Seahawks (2-1) at Rams (1-2)
Similar to the 49ers/Jets, be careful about going with Seattle after their emotionally draining victory on Monday Night Football. They travel to the Rams for a game with a start time of 10 a.m. PST, and Jeff Fisher’s team has been very competitive this year.
Yes, Seattle is 13-1 vs. St. Louis since 2005, but these teams are now more evenly matched than most think.
Giants (2-1) at Eagles (2-1)
Is Michael Vick’s job actually on the line after nine turnovers in three games? This is a key NFC East game in prime time. The Eagles are 7-1 in their last eight against the Giants, including playoffs. New York is an odd team in how it revels at playing on the road, and their defense does have eight takeaways so far.
Speaking of the NFC East, the Eagles and Dallas Cowboys are dead last in points scored (47) through three games. However, that is the highest point total through three games for the last-ranked team (“maxmin,” you could say) since the 1970 merger.
An unusual season indeed.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.
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