(Tom Brady photos courtesy of the New England Patriots)
GOLD JACKET GAME OF THE WEEK
NEW ENGLAND @ CLEVELAND, 1 p.m. (EDT)
The line: Patriots by 10-1/2
The weather: Mostly sunny, high of 60
The story: The game is not the story here. New England should win … and win big. Nope, this is all about Tom Brady. He returns for the first time from a four-game suspension, and pity the poor Browns. Not only are they 1-5 vs. Brady; they haven’t won this year, period, and now they have to suffer at the hands of America’s Greatest Quarterback. Life is not fair. Granted, there will be a rust factor with Brady. The guy’s been away from the game for a month, for crying out loud. But a wise man named Neil Young once said rust never sleeps. Look for Brady and the Patriots to drop the hammer.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Browns lead the league in yards rushing (597) and rushing average (5.74). They have a rushing touchdown in each of their first four games for the first time since 2012.
THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR HALL-OF-FRAMING
(Photo courtesy of Houston Texans)
HOUSTON @ MINNESOTA, 1 p.m. (EDT)
The line: Vikings by 6-1/2
The weather: (dome)
The story: Houston coach Bill O’Brien said he’s not concerned about Brock Osweiler’s interceptions, but he should be … especially here. Minnesota is relentless with its pressure on quarterbacks, and the numbers prove it. The Vikings are second in the league in takeaways (11), second in sacks (15) – including eight of defending MVP winner, Cam Newton – and tied for second with six interceptions. What’s more, they lead the league at plus-10 in the takeaway/turnover department. If I’m Bill O’Brien, I’m worried about the turnovers … and the road. The Vikings won their last seven at home.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Minnesota defense allowed 50 points through the first four games, the lowest total for the franchise since 1988 when it allowed 47 through the first four.
CINCINNATI @ DALLAS, 4:25 p.m. (EDT)
The line: Bengals by 2
The weather: Mostly sunny, high of 81 (retractable roof)
The story: Andy Dalton is putting up the best numbers of his career. In fact, he’s putting up the best numbers of any Bengals’ quarterback through the first four games. But this isn’t a game of numbers. It’s a game of wins and losses, and the Bengals have two of each because … well, because they have a tougher time finding the end zone than Dalton has finding targets. They score TDs on 30.77 percent of their Red Zone possessions … or less than half their 2015 figure (65 percent).
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Bengals are one of two teams (Detroit is the other) not to surrender a rushing touchdown this year. Dallas, on the other hand, leads the league with eight rushing TDs.
ATLANTA @ DENVER, 4:05 p.m. (EDT)
The line: Broncos by 5
The weather: Partly cloudy, high of 76
The story: It’s the league’s best offense vs. one of the league’s best defenses, and this just in, Matt Ryan: Defense usually wins these games. Ryan is having an MVP season, and wide receiver Julio Jones is off to a jack-rabbit start. But Jones is about to face Aqib Talib, and Ryan is about to tackle a pass defense that leads the league in sacks (17), allows an average of 169 yards passing per and holds opposing quarterbacks to a rating of league-low 61.3. Atlanta, on the other hand, has defensive problems, but so what? Denver doesn’t have Trevor Siemian … not for this game it doesn’t. Enter Paxton Lynch for his first pro start, and this, folks, is why we watch.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: With a victory, the Broncos become the fifth team in league history to start the season 5-0 with a quarterback who never previously started a game entering the season.
MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
(Photo courtesy of Mike Carlson/ Tampa Bay Bucs)
TAMPA BAY @ CAROLINA, 8:30 p.m.
The line: Panthers by 4-1/2
The weather: Sunny, high of 70
The story: Jameis Winston is floundering, and Cam Newton is concussed. So why watch this game? Good question. Carolina was supposed to run away with the NFC South, but it is stuck at the bottom … with Tampa Bay and New Orleans — all 1-3. Now the Panthers are without Newton and running back Jonathan Stewart, which is great for Tampa Bay, except … well, except that the Bucs most likely play without their top three defensive linemen, including Gerald McCoy, and running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims. So why do we watch? Not sure, other than to see if Derek Anderson, who replaces Newton, can run his streak to 3-0 vs. Tampa Bay. He beat them twice in 2014.
Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Panthers last week failed to rush for 100 yards for the first time in 31 games. The streak was the longest since Pittsburgh ran for 100 in 43 straight games 1974-77.
OUR BEST BETS
Ron Borges — Minnesota (–6-1/2). The Vikings will challenge Brock Osweiler in ways he will not react to.
Clark Judge — Minnesota (–6-1/2). Bill O’Brien has a What? Me Worry? look about Brock Osweiler. He might sing a different tune after the Vikes turn his quarterback into Purple Mache.
Rick Gosselin — Washington (+4). After a rocky start, Cousins and the Redskins have it going on offense.
THE WATCH LIST
(Photo courtesy of the N.Y. Giants)
N.Y. Giants QB Eli Manning. He looks for his 100th career win on Sunday night. He also looks to become the eight quarterback in league history to throw 300 career touchdown passes. He has 298.
Indianapolis RB Frank Gore. With 20 yards rushing Sunday, he passes Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown for ninth on the all-time rushing list.
Dallas QB Dak Prescott. His 131 passes without an interception are the most by a rookie quarterback to start his NFL career. With 32 more passes and no interceptions, he will pass Tom Brady for the most passes without a pickoff (162) by a quarterback to start a career. Brady did it in his second NFL season.
New England QB Tom Brady. With Sunday’s start, he becomes the longest tenured Patriot in franchise history. This will be Brady’s 17th season with the Patriots, breaking Steve Grogan’s record of 16. Brady’s 17 seasons with one team tie Dan Marino and John Brodie for the most in league history.
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. With his next win, Harbaugh passes Brian Billick for the most regular-season wins in franchise history. The two are currently tied at 80.
(Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens)
Baltimore WR Steve Smith. He has 10 catches for 184 yards and a touchdown in his last two games vs. Washington.
Detroit QB Matt Stafford. The last time he faced the Eagles he threw for five TDs and 337 yards for a 137.8 rating. Stafford has a 100-plus rating in three of his last four at home.
Indianapolis DE Robert Mathis. In four career games vs. Chicago (including the Super Bowl), he has four sacks, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger. He has a 103.9 rating in three games vs. the Jets and 18 touchdown passes in his last five home starts.
Denver LB Von Miller. He has 6.5 sacks in his last three games at home.
San Diego QB Philip Rivers. He won 14 of his last 20 starts vs. Oakland.
Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers. In three career games vs. the Giants he averages 330.7 yards and three TDs.
HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY
Since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990, 27 teams have rebounded from a losing record after four weeks to reach the playoffs.
Since the current playoff format was adopted, 117 of the 312 playoff teams (37.5 percent) started the season 2-2 or worse.
Ben Roethlisberger has five career games with five TD passes or more – tied for the fourth most in NFL history.
Baltimore’s four games have been decided by a total of 14 points, with the last two decided by 3.
In his career at Lambeau Field, Aaron Rodgers has 143 touchdown passes, 26 interceptions and a 110.2 passer rating – the highest home passer rating in NFL history.
The Eagles won their first three games by 15 or more points each for the second time in team history. The last time they did that over the first three games was 1934, their second year as an NFL franchise.
The Chargers’ Tyrell Williams leads all NFL receivers with 168 yards on third downs.
Philadelphia is the only team that has not allowed a passing touchdown.
Rookie Ezekiel Elliott leads the NFL in yards after contact (140) and 20-plus yard rushes (4).
The Dallas offense leads the league in first downs with 99, tied with the 1995 Cowboys for the highest total through four games in franchise history.
Baltimore’s defense has allowed the fewest (8) plays of 20 yards or more.