By David McDonnell
Buffalo Bills @ Baltimore Ravens
This is a game I am really looking forward to as the two best teams on form in the NFL this season clash in Week 4.
Interestingly what these sides have in common is that they both lost epic battles to the Miami Dolphins in the last fortnight
Although still early, this will also be a battle for a lead in the race for post-season home-field advantage as I expect, barring injury, both teams will still be playing football in January and this fixture potentially the AFC Championship match-up later in this season.
They say a week is a long time in politics and that is certainly the case in the NFL. Tua Tagovailoa’s concussion on Thursday Night Football shows how a team’s plight can change in one play and both the Ravens and Bills chances of Superbowl success would go up in smoke if either of their quarterbacks were to pick up a significant injury. Then again, that would be true for every Superbowl contender, so let’s not dwell on such hypotheticals.
There has been some fun in the run-up to this game.
Bills quarterback Josh Allen began the week buttering up his opponents, while also highlighting the potential mine in the Ravens’ building. As has been widely reported, Lamar Jackson has yet to come to an agreement with the Baltimore franchise over a long-term contract extension that has been parked by both sides until the off-season.
Allen said that Jackson “should be the highest paid player in the league” with the way he is currently playing, and this was then put to Jackson in a televised interview.
I’m not sure those holding the purse strings in Baltimore would have appreciated it, but the sentiments are hard to argue with. Jackson has been amazing this season.
That he has done most of his damage on the field with his arms rather than his legs has shown the progression he has made as a quarterback and the less punishment his body takes throughout the regular season could pay dividends in the postseason, as he is the most electric QB running with the ball the game has ever seen.
He is now in the prime of his career and is a better quarterback than when he won the league MVP in 2019.
His opponent on Sunday, Allen is also a leading candidate for Super Bowl and MVP honours this season and the Bills are currently the bookies favourites for the title. They are not without their faults, as their secondary was exposed by Jaylen Waddle at times last weekend and surprisingly their offensive line had their hands full when Miami rushed four men throughout the second half last week and routinely got the Bills attack off the field on third down.
I expect last week’s defeat to the Dolphins to be a blessing in disguise as it gives Buffalo lessons to learn from, while also helping them get their feet back on the ground, after expectations were threatening to get out of hand in upstate New York after their impressive start to the season.
I expect the Bills offence to get back to themselves this week against a Baltimore defence that has looked porous at times. On the back of that observation, I expect the Bills to emerge victorious on Sunday.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Arguably, the best match-up of the weekend is the late one on Sunday night when the Chiefs go head-to-head with the Buccaneers in a repeat of Super Bowl 55 in February, 2021.
That game too was in Raymond James stadium so let’s reminisce about that old battle before this next episode. On that night Tom Brady led his then new team convincingly to the title, after the Bucs defence made bits of the Chiefs offensive line and put quarterback Patrick Mahommes under the pump all night.
This time Mahommes returns with a much stronger offensive line, an All-Star cast including Pro-Bowlers Orlando Brown Jr, Joe Thuney and Creed Humphery. This group is up there with the best in the league and sets up a battle in the trenches that will be worth the entrance fee alone.
Whichever group emerges as dominant in this key battle should be a signpost of a team with serious credentials of competing for the Superbowl in Glendale, Arizona on the second Sunday in February.
The Bucs defensive line has been outstanding this season and they are, in my opinion, the best side in football at defending against the run, led by the man-mountain that is Vita Vea and teammates Akiem Hicks and William Gholston. They also possess the pass-rushing talent of Shaq Barrett.
What makes the Bucs defence particularly formidable is the supporting cast with linebackers Levontae David and Devin White, the latter of whom is catching the eye in every game and will likely be in the conversation as the best defensive player when the honours are handed out near the end of the season. Their secondary also is very strong and full of experience with Antonie Winfield Jr now one of the premier safeties in the game.
Last week when the need was greatest they managed to stifle Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offence on multiple drives throughout the second half, which gave Tom Brady a chance to bring the game to overtime.
Where the Bucs have struggled so far this season has been on offence.
Brady has the talent in the locker room but they have been plagued with injuries and suspensions to their best starting receiving core. Chris Godwin has yet to feature through injury and Julio Jones is also doubtful for Sunday. Mike Evans, however, will be back after serving his one game suspension for his altercation with Marshon Lattimore after the whistle in Week 2. Once fully fit, they will be a frightful proposition for anyone.
The Chiefs have also had their own struggles on offence, which only became apparent to me last week during their surprise loss against the Colts.
Of course everyone knew they would miss the speed of Tyreek Hill but his loss has had a few knock-on effects. For one, it has narrowed the playing field somewhat for Mahomes with less options farther down the field. Also it has resulted in his favourite target Travis Kelce getting effectively double-teamed on almost every play of the game.
It means that they will need to find a different way to win.
It is no wonder that Mahomes is getting frustrated in the pocket as was seen with his sideline argument with offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy at halftime last week.
This weekend, they are unlikely to get much change from their rushing attack out of a mammoth Bucs defensive line. Also the Kansas’ running game lacks the type of bruising running back that will get you that first down through force and strength of will. I am a fan of running-back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and his versatility but his quick-stepping and good hands sees him play in a ‘third-down back’ role on all three downs. In my opinion, they could do with some brute force in their running game to make them less predictable.
It is not all doom and gloom. The arrival of Juju Smith-Schuster in the slot gives him another strong option on third down and in the endzone and certainly, when Mahommes gets time in the pocket he has the skill-set and ability to disact any defence. For me, he is the best quarterback plying his trade in the NFL.
A few days ago, it was looking like this game was going to be moved to Minnesota due to the storms in Miami. Luckily for gridiron fans across the globe, Hurricane Ian managed to bypass the stadium in Tampa Bay and we can expect it to be full on Sunday night with what promises to be an enthralling contest.
This game is so close, many of the bookies don’t even have a favourite for this contest, which doesn’t happen often in sports.The Bucs defence swings it for me and I’ll swing for a home win.
Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints
I’ll move quickly through the first match-up of the year in London.
The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium looks an excellent venue for American Football and provides an atmosphere that you don’t get at Wembley as the fans are that bit closer to the action.
The London games are historically difficult to predict, but I’m going to side with Kirk Cousins and the Minnesota Vikings in this one. They are coming off a late win against Detroit last week and Kirk Cousins should be comfortable in London. He has been over to the UK many times and he has the weapons to put on a show for a crowd that will get behind the team that can make big plays. The Vikings have a good defence and look to have one of the more balanced rosters in football.
However, the main reason why I’m picking the Vikings is the uncertainty at quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. Just when he seemed to have turned the corners, quarterback Jameis Winston has turned back around again into a turnover machine, throwing five interceptions the last two weeks, which proved costly to the Saints in both games.
He is doubtful coming for this game with back and ankle injuries, with Andy Dalton a safer pair of hands, waiting for his chance on the sideline. Even if Winston starts and he continues to turn the ball over, it won’t be long until we see Dalton on the field anyways.
Additionally, their offensive line is missing the presence at left tackle of Terron Armstead, since he left for Miami Dolphins in the off-season and I think this also impacted on the productivity of their ground game with Alvin Kamara playing banged-up through the first three weeks.
All indicators point to a Vikings win but as i said before, London games have a history of taking on a mind of their own.
New England Patriots v Green Bay Packers
Historically, this is a match-up that would usually take top-billing match-up as Aaron Rodgers and the Packer faithful welcome the Patriots to Lambeau Field.
If the opening three weeks is anything to go by, it is likely to be a borefest or let’s say, one of the purists. These are two excellent defences coming up against two sides who again are struggling on offence.
Green Bay is still feeling the loss of wide-out Devontae Adams and Rodgers has not gelled yet with his new receiving core. There were some green shoots in the first half last week when he started to build up a repore with rookie Romeo Dobbs but in the second half in Tampa Bay, the Packers could not extend drives which nearly cost them the game.
This week, these struggles could continue as they face the greatest defensive mind in the history of the game in Bill Belichick. He is likely to frustrate the Packer offence once again and it will be interesting if Rodgers and head-coach Matt LeFleur can game plan their way around this.
If they can, it could be a turning point in their season as their defence has been very impressive in the opening few weeks.
I expect the Green Bay defence to stifle what will be a Brian Hoyer led offence after Mac Jones was ruled out yesterday. The Patriots will put the ball in the hands of Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris and try to wear this Packer defence down. The Pats have become very one-dimensional on offence this season since the loss of offensive guru Josh McDaniels and are badly crying out for a blue-chip playmaker on the outside.
With Green Bay having the huge advantage at quarterback, it should be three wins in a row for the Cheeseheads but it will be the manner of their victory that will be more telling of what the season could hold in store for them.
Denver Broncos v Las Vegas Raiders
An AFC West division match-up between two sides that have looked better on paper than they have on the field.
Russell Wilson has yet to click with what should be a high-powered offence but he is coming off two wins in a row. Rome wasn’t built in a day and there were bound to be growing pains for a quarterback in a new scheme with new teammates. I will not overreact to my concerns over this team just yet and give the Broncos the benefit of the doubt for now.
They face a Raiders side that is in danger of starting the season 0-4 and a loss on Sunday will see them soon to be preparing for next season. Maxx Crosby has lived up to the hype on defence but he needs a few of his teammates to step up and help him out. While on offence Derek Carr needs to start balling out and get the pigskin into the hands of the highly talented play-makers at his disposal.
Head coach Josh McDaniels must be disappointed with their run game in particular. They are putting the ball in the hands of their running backs but their rushing attack has been limited so far leaving Carr with more third and long opportunities than he would like. It is also stifling their play-action attack.
When the need is greatest, a team will either come together or crumble. The need is very great in Las Vegas right now. Desperation might be their biggest asset on Sunday, but I wouldn’t be anyway confident the Raiders will get the job done. It should be a good game to watch with the Broncos for me taking the win.