Rex Ryan on The Patriots: “This Is The Team We Have To Beat”

The first quarter of the NFL season is over and 20 teams are currently either in first place or within a game of the top spot in the division. But there’s a lot of season left to be played.

“It’s just four games,” says wide receiver WES WELKER of the 3-1 New England Patriots. “There’s still a long way to go.”

All 32 teams know there’s room for improvement. And, while not every club has gotten off to a hot start, nothing is a given in the NFL. Since 1990, when the current 12-team playoff format was adopted, 90 teams (35.7 percent of the 252 playoff clubs) have advanced to the postseason after starting the season 2-2 or worse. There were three such teams – Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Seattle – last season and all three won their divisions.

“We wanted to be sitting at 2-2 after this game and finish the first quarter of the season on a high note,” says Chicago Bears head coach LOVIE SMITH, whose club defeated Carolina in Week 4. “We were able to do that.”

In five of the past 10 seasons, a team that has started 2-2 or worse has advanced to the Super Bowl. Three of those clubs – 2001 Patriots (1-3), 2003 Patriots (2-2) and 2007 Giants (2-2) – went on to win the Super Bowl.

So entering Week 5, while it certainly helps to be near the top of the standings, don’t count anyone out.

The Detroit Lions, who are one of only two unbeaten teams (Green Bay Packers), became the fifth club since 1990 to start a season 4-0 after opening the previous year at 0-4. After a 20-point comeback win over Minnesota in Week 3, the Lions erased a 24-point deficit to defeat Dallas last week to become the first team in NFL history to win consecutive games in which it trailed by at least 20 points in each contest.

“That’s big for us to start off 4-0,” says Lions wide receiver CALVIN JOHNSON, who is the first player in NFL history to record at least two receiving touchdowns in each of a team’s first four games. “To come out clean in the first quarter of the season is huge.”

In addition to the Lions’ comeback in Week 4, the San Francisco 49ers rallied from a 23-3 deficit to defeat Philadelphia. This is the second week in a row that two teams overcame 20+ point deficits (Week 3: Buffalo, 21 points; Detroit, 20 points). It marks the first time in NFL history that two teams have overcome 20+ point deficits in consecutive weeks.

This season, there have been four games in which a team trailing by at least 20 points rallied to win. That is already tied for the most such games in any season in NFL history.

Close games have been a trademark of the 2011 season so far as 19 games have been decided by three points or fewer, the most all-time in a season’s first four weeks. Additionally, 35 games have been decided by seven points or fewer, the most such games ever through Week 4. And, over the past two weeks, 22 games have been decided by seven points or fewer; the highest total over any two-week span in NFL history.

“You can never have enough points on the board in the National Football League,” says Atlanta Falcons head coach MIKE SMITH. “Any lead can turn back at any time.”

With an exciting four weeks down, the NFL now heads into the second quarter. Some of the key games this weekend:

NEW YORK JETS (2-2) at NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (3-1) (Sunday, CBS, 4:15 PM ET)

It will be a rematch of last year’s AFC Divisional Playoff – won 28-21 by New York – when the Patriots host the Jets. New York has won two of the past three overall meetings and the Jets are 4-2 in their past six against New England. New York quarterback MARK SANCHEZ threw three touchdown passes in the Divisional victory and running back SHONN GREENE rushed for one score.

“This is the team we have to beat,” says Jets head coach REX RYAN about the defending AFC East champions.

Led by quarterback TOM BRADY, the Patriots have the NFL’s top passing (384.8 yards per game) and overall (507.5) offense. Brady leads the league in passing yards (1,553; the second-most by a player in his team’s first four games in NFL history) and 13 touchdowns. Last week, he threw two TD passes in New England’s win at Oakland and tied PEYTON MANNING for the longest streak with multiple touchdown passes in NFL history (13 games). Brady’s two TD passes give him 274 in his career and he passed Pro Football Hall of Famer JOE MONTANA (273) to move into ninth-place all-time.

“Every one of those touchdowns was important (in Week 4),” says Brady, “so it was fun.”

Brady connected with wide receiver WES WELKER nine times for 158 yards and a score against the Raiders. Welker ranks first in the NFL in receptions (40), receiving yards (616) and scrimmage yards (635).

“We came on the road into a hostile environment and got a win,” says Welker. “It’s a big win for us.”

GREEN BAY PACKERS (4-0) at ATLANTA FALCONS (2-2) (Sunday, NBC, 8:20 PM ET)

The Packers and Falcons will meet for the first time since Green Bay’s 48-21 win at Atlanta in last year’s Divisional Playoff.

The defending Super Bowl champion Packers are one of only two unbeaten teams (Detroit, 4-0) and look to continue their winning ways. Including the playoffs, Green Bay has won 10 games in a row.

Last week, quarterback AARON RODGERS became the first player in NFL history with at least 400 passing yards (408), four passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns in a game as he led the Packers to a 49-23 win over Denver. In last year’s Divisional matchup, Rodgers completed 31 of 36 passes (86.1 percent) for 366 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 136.8 passer rating against the Falcons.

“Aaron is a special player,” says Green Bay head coach MIKE MC CARTHY. “Our offense starts with Aaron Rodgers. He’s consistent, he’s done a great job managing the offense, getting in and out of personnel groups and playing fast. Aaron is obviously playing extremely well. I can’t say enough. He’s a special player.”

Atlanta improved to 2-2 with a 30-28 win at Seattle in Week 4. Falcons running back MICHAEL TURNER rushed for two touchdowns, quarterback MATT RYAN passed for 291 yards and rookie wide receiver JULIO JONES had a career-high 11 catches and 127 yards.

“Julio is a big, strong, physical guy that can get open,” says Ryan about Jones, who leads NFL rookies with 24 catches and 342 receiving yards. “He’s done a great job for us.”

CHICAGO BEARS (2-2) at DETROIT LIONS (4-0) (Monday, ESPN, 8:30 PM ET)

The Lions will host a game on Monday night for the first time since October 8, 2001 when the NFC North rival Bears come to town. Detroit is 4-0 for the first time since 1980 and have overcome 20+ point deficits in each of the past two games. Last week, the Lions trailed 27-3 in the second half before roaring back for a 34-30 victory at Dallas.

“There was no question in our heads that we were going to win this,” says Detroit wide receiver NATE BURLESON. “I’m proud to be on this team.”

Lions wide receiver CALVIN JOHNSON leads the NFL with eight touchdowns and joined CRIS CARTER as the only players in NFL history to record at least two receiving touchdowns in four consecutive games.

“I don’t see anyone doing what he does,” says Detroit quarterback MATTHEW STAFFORD, who ranks third in the NFL with 11 touchdown passes, about Johnson. “He’s the total package. He’s the total receiver. There’s nobody with the physical tools that he has and still the drive to be great like he does.”

The defending NFC North champion Bears evened their record at 2-2 with a 34-29 win over Carolina. Running back MATT FORTÉ, who leads the NFC with 634 scrimmage yards (324 rushing, 310 receiving), rushed for a career-high 205 yards and joined Pro Football Hall of Famers WALTER PAYTON and GALE SAYERS as the only players in franchise history to rush for 200 yards in a game.

“All the credit goes to the offensive line,” says Forté. “The holes were huge. The offensive line wore the defense out.”

Chicago’s DEVIN HESTER had a 69-yard punt-return touchdown against the Panthers, the 11th punt-return touchdown of his career, the most in NFL history.

“It feels great to get the record,” says Hester. “I need to thank my teammates. At the end of the day, I know that without those guys, I wouldn’t have had all the success.”