As the 2013 NFL season unfolds, each week presents us with a few more pieces of the puzzle. The muddled landscape clears as each team logs more playing time, slowly separating the whimsical pretenders from the sturdy elite.
Week 3 showed us that the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts are to be taken seriously while the New York Giants are just all sorts of terrible. This new slate of action will challenge what we think we know, but it will also shed some light on uncertain squads.
Can the Seattle Seahawks continue to dominate away from their friendly confines? Can the New England Patriots keep up with a potent offense? Are the Houston Texans and Atlanta Falcons slipping? Which 3-0 team will end September undefeated after Monday night?
So many questions remain unanswered during the season's first month, but these games can help us step closer to attaining enlightenment.
Seattle Seahawks at Houston Texans
Just how much does the 12th Man mean to Seattle?
Although it wasn't surprising to see the Seahawks defeat the 49ers, their 26-point pounding of the reigning NFC champs was downright stunning. They ran down the throats of a team that prides itself on its ferocity while forcing Colin Kaepernick into a trio of turnovers.
That victory helped solidify Seattle as the NFL's strongest 3-0 squad, but what happens when it must leave its famed home-field advantage behind to take on the Texans?
Last year the Seahawks posted a 3-5 record on the road despite their home perfection. A top team can't choose when it wants to show up, so that trend can't continue for them to be viewed seriously as a Super Bowl contender.
Seattle has at least done its part so far, sporting the league's top defense in terms of yards and points allowed. Houston, on the other hand, has been outscored by 12 points this season despite holding a 2-1 record.
Before panicking, consider that the Texans defense trails only the Seahawks in yards surrendered yet somehow has allowed triple the points per contest. The offense also ranks in the top 10 in yards but is tied for 15th in points scored.
This defensive battle will be closer than people think, but Seattle gets the edge since Matt Schaub and Co. caught their first whiff of a decent defense last week at Baltimore. With superstar wide receiver Andre Johnson banged up and Arian Foster not his usual, dominant self thus far, the Seahawks will hold off Schaub and the Texans offense.
Prediction: Seahawks 16, Texans 13
New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons
The scheduling gods have smiled brightly on New England so far, awarding them three games against light-scoring opponents as Rob Gronkowski works his way back to the field.
Hardly the finely tuned juggernaut fans have grown accustomed to at Foxborough, the Patriots have scored 19.7 points per game, which sandwiches them between the Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams on the leaderboard. However, it's been enough to propel them to 3-0 against lackluster offenses.
Tom Brady's offense has gotten away with missing plays, but what happens when they are forced to compile some points to keep up with Matt Ryan and the Falcons?
While Atlanta is on thin ice at 1-2, Ryan is still rolling with 909 passing yards and a 68.1 completion percentage. Still, because Steven Jackson is out with hamstring troubles and Roddy White hasn't been 100 percent due to an ankle injury, the Falcons are a bit vulnerable and need to be better as a team. The defense has also stumbled, allowing 296 passing yards per game.
The Patriots can't afford another dull showing, but luckily Brady's young receivers showed something last Sunday. Kenbrell Thompkins caught two touchdowns while Aaron Dobson reeled in seven receptions. Their offense is meshing just in time to handle the meat of their schedule, and they'll do just enough to squeak by Atlanta in prime time.
Prediction: Patriots 27, Falcons 20
Miami Dolphins at New Orleans Saints
Talk about a chance for the Dolphins to arrive.
Not only do they have the opportunity to commence the season at 4-0, but they can also achieve that feat against another undefeated team. In the Superdome. On Monday Night Football.
Those obstructing factors make Miami an underdog, but a victory forces everyone to take the team seriously. It's not all about the Dolphins, though. After getting shackled by Bountygate last season, Sean Payton's Saints can put the league on notice with a forceful performance.
These teams have both bolstered their weaknesses on opposing sides of the field. An improving young passer is illuminating Miami's offense while New Orleans' once-horrid defense is now a great unit.
Although the Sun Sentinel's Chris Perkins pointed out that Ryan Tannehill could set the new single-season fumbles record at his current rate, the sophomore quarterback has flourished in every other aspect of the game.
Tannehill has completed 66.4 percent of his passes for 827 yards and 7.73 yards per attempt. He led the Dolphins on a game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter to top the Falcons last week.
A year after prompting opposing offenses with a perfect chance to pad their stats, the Saints rank fourth in points allowed and fifth in points permitted. Cameron Jordan has notched three sacks in the last two games while the unit as a whole has garnered six takeaways.
The Saints still have Drew Brees directing the offense and Dolphins star pass-rusher Cameron Wake's status is unclear as he deals with knee issues, so they will be too much to handle under the bright lights in New Orleans.
Prediction: Saints 27, Dolphins 17