NFL Week 4 Preview

The Pressure’s Already On As Big Division Matchups, Old Rivalries Highlight Week 4 Action

“It’s a long way to go”…“We’re living on the edge”…“It’s going to be crazy all year”…“They don’t give out prizes for the first month of the season.” And these are quotes from the guys who are winning – (in order) Tennessee’s JEVON KEARSE, Denver’s JAY CUTLER, San Francisco’s FRANK GORE, and Baltimore’s BART SCOTT. In the NFL, whether it’s Week 4, like this week, or Week 14, the pressure is always on. Sure, you’d rather be undefeated – as six clubs are – or at least have a winning record as the last weekend of September looms.

But all those teams on the downside of the won-loss ledger should remind themselves of the 2007 San Diego Chargers, who began last season at 1-3, won their final six and took an 11-5 record into the playoffs, advancing all the way to the AFC Championship Game. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re the favorite now or the least favorite,” says quarterback TONY ROMO of the 3-0 Dallas Cowboys. “The reality of it is you’ve got to keep playing games. You’re not trying to be the favorite now, you’re trying to be the favorite at the end of the year.” You’re right on that, Tony. And as far as “playing games,” you’ve got a big one this week — a divisional game, one of seven on the Week 4 schedule that are intermixed with “rivalry” games packed with history. A rundown of some of these “the-pressure’s-already-on” games:

WASHINGTON REDSKINS (2-1) at DALLAS COWBOYS (3-0)

STORYLINE: Could be the QBs…or the RBs…or the WRs.

Who knows who will break open this game of NFC East rivals?

The young quarterbacks, Dallas’ TONY ROMO and Washington’s JASON CAMPBELL, look like they may have a healthy rivalry that will grow through the years. Romo loves the long ball and has thrown for the third-most yards in the league this season (892). Campbell has been more conservative in new Redskins head coach JIM ZORN’s West Coast offense, has yet to throw an interception, and completed 16 passes in a row at one point over Weeks 2-3.

Then there are the pounders – Washington’s CLINTON PORTIS, who led the league in carries last year, and Dallas’ MARION BARBER, who has 33 TDs in his last 35 games.

Finally, there are the wide receivers. Dallas’ TERRELL OWENS had four TD catches in the teams’ first meeting a year ago – and a pass knockdown on defense to end the game. And Washington’s SANTANA MOSS, always tacking on multiple yards after the catch, ties for the second-most ’08 TD receptions with three.

Rookie rockin’: Rookie FELIX JONES is the first Cowboys RB to score TDs in each of his first three career games.

ATLANTA FALCONS (2-1) at CAROLINA PANTHERS (2-1)

STORYLINE: An early-season I-85 battle!

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NFL HIGH SCHOOL FACTOID

NFL HIGH SCHOOLS: USA Football has announced its annual list of high schools with the most NFL players. Two schools have the most players with six each – Dillard HS in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Tustin HS in Tustin, California. Four of those players will face each other this week – Dillard CB CHRIS GAMBLE (Carolina) vs. Tustin T SAM BAKER (Atlanta), and Dillard DT PAT SIMS (Cincinnati) vs. TustinLB BEAU BELL (Cleveland).

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These two NFC South rivals always seem to play each other close. They have split the past two seasons with the last three being decided by seven points apiece.

There are a lot of new faces to add to the drama. The Falcons’ first-round draft choice, QB MATT RYAN, has won two of his first three games and is developing a relationship with WR RODDY WHITE. The two teamed up for 119 yards in Week 3, including a 70-yard TD after which White did his patented backflip.

And Atlanta now has MICHAEL TURNER igniting its running game. The former Charger leads the league in rushing with 366 yards and ties Miami’s RONNIE BROWN for the rush TD lead with five. The Falcons lead the league in rushing. “We have stressed since Day 1 that we want to be a physical team,” says new head coach MIKE SMITH.

The Panthers will look to negate Atlanta’s rush with RBs JONATHAN STEWART, one of the club’s 2008 first-round selections (three rush TDs so far), and veteran DE ANGELO WILLIAMS. This will be a necessity in preventing the league’s No. 1 sacker (6.0), DE JOHN ABRAHAM, from teeing off on Carolina QB JAKE DELHOMME.

GREEN BAY PACKERS (2-1) at TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (2-1)

STORYLINE: Favre vs. Sapp?

Nope, that was in the old NFC Central, when these two were hot rivals, so there will be plenty of excitement Sunday.

The Pack will have to figure out how to tone down rejuvenated veteran QB BRIAN GRIESE, who threw an amazing 67 times (and completed 38) for 407 yards in a 27-24 overtime victory in Week 3 over Chicago —without a sack! “Sixty-seven passes and no sacks?” says Bucs DE KEVIN CARTER. “That’s an incredible statement for our offensive line.”

That it is, but that OL performance will definitely be taken as a challenge by Green Bay ends AARON KAMPMAN (tied for the second-most sacks in the league with 4.0) and CULLEN JENKINS (2.5).

Meanwhile, new Packers QB AARON RODGERS – who did not at all have a bad game in the team’s 27-16 loss to Dallas Sunday night (22 of 39 for 290 yards) – is aiming to rebound from his first NFL defeat.

“You’d like to win them all,” says Rodgers. “We’re going to have to watch film, be critical of ourselves and get better.”

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (2-1) at CHICAGO BEARS (1-2) (Sunday night, NBC, 8:15 PM ET)

STORYLINE: Welcome home, Donovannow go home!

It’s not that the Bears have anything against the Eagles’ Chicago-born quarterback DONOVAN MC NABB – it’s just that

the hometown hero has basically dominated the hometown team. McNabb has lost to the Bears only once in six meetings, with one of the wins coming in the playoffs. And he is 4-0 in Chicago.

With that as the backdrop Sunday night, it’s the defenses of these two teams that could prove to be the telling point. The Eagles – No. 1 in the NFL against the rush – come off a blitz-happy attack on Pittsburghthat resulted in nine sacks, three takeaways and 180 total yards allowed. Meanwhile, in a loss to Tampa Bay, the Bears’ rush “D” (No. 4 in the league) was tough, limiting the Bucs to 47 yards on the ground.

Prime-time Forté: Bears rookie RB MATT FORTÉ rushed for 123 yards in his first Sunday night game (Week 1 vs. Indianapolis). Already a Soldier Field favorite, a fan held up the following sign last week: “Running the Ball is his Forté.”

BALTIMORE RAVENS (2-0) at PITTSBURGH STEELERS (2-1) (Monday night, ESPN, 8:30 PM ET)

STORYLINE: Ben and Joe better be ready!

The game’s quarterbacks in this AFC North matchup — Pittsburgh’s BEN ROETHLISBERGER and Baltimore’s JOE FLACCO – face the league’s top two defenses, respectively.

“Baltimore, without a doubt, is the most confusing defense there is in the NFL,” says Cincinnati G ANDREW WHITWORTH. Coordinator REX RYAN sends people from every angle.

That kind of pressure is a big part of the Ravens not allowing a 100-yard rusher in 21 consecutive games, the best such mark in the league. They will test the Steelers’ first-round draft choice of this year, RB RASHARD MENDENHALL, who will get his first start in place of the injured WILLIE PARKER.

The Ravens know that shutting down the rush game is not all that is needed against Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger threw a franchise-record five touchdowns against Baltimore last November 5.

Steel-tough: Pittsburgh – this year is the 250th anniversary of the city — has won a record 13 consecutive MNF games.

LAST WEEK’S NFL RESULTS (SEPTEMBER 21-22)

(Home team in CAPS)

Sunday, September 21

Sunday, September 21, Cont.’d.

ATLANTA 38, Kansas City 14

SAN FRANCISCO 31, Detroit 13

BUFFALO 24, Oakland 23

SEATTLE 37, St. Louis 13

Tampa Bay 27, CHICAGO 24 (OT)

BALTIMORE 28, Cleveland 10

MINNESOTA 20, Carolina 10

Jacksonville 23, INDIANAPOLIS 21

Miami 38, NEW ENGLAND 13

PHILADELPHIA 15, Pittsburgh 6

N.Y. GIANTS 26, Cincinnati 23 (OT)

Dallas 27, GREEN BAY 16

TENNESSEE 31, Houston 12

WASHINGTON 24, Arizona 17

Monday, September 22

DENVER 34, New Orleans 32

SAN DIEGO 48, N.Y. Jets 29

WEEK 4 SCHEDULE – SEPTEMBER 28-29

(All times local)

Byes: Detroit, Indianapolis, Miami, New England, N.Y. Giants, Seattle

Sunday, September 28

Sunday, September 28, Cont.’d.

Atlanta at Carolina, 1:00 PM

San Diego at Oakland, 1:05 PM

Cleveland at Cincinnati, 1:00 PM

Buffalo at St. Louis, 3:05 PM

Houston at Jacksonville, 1:00 PM

Washington at Dallas, 3:15 PM

Denver at Kansas City, 12:00 PM

Philadelphia at Chicago, 7:15 PM (NBC)

San Francisco at New Orleans, 12:00 PM

Arizona at N.Y. Jets, 1:00 PM

Monday, September 29

Green Bay at Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM

Baltimore at Pittsburgh, 8:30 PM (ESPN)

Minnesota at Tennessee, 12:00 PM