Key North Game Doesn't Include Packers

Cutler (George Gojkovich - Getty)

Chicago and Detroit will battle for the early lead in the NFC North in the headliner of Sunday's games.

First place in the NFC North is at stake Sunday, and the Green Bay Packers will be nowhere in the vicinity.

Instead, it's the Bears, one of seven 3-0 teams, against the Lions at Ford Field. A victory for Chicago would give it a stranglehold on the division through one-fourth of the schedule.

The Bears have been impressive under new coach Marc Trestman, showing a knack for clutch plays on both sides of the ball. They have a league-high 11 takeaways, are making good decisions, and Devin Hester is averaging 38 yards a kickoff return.

But they also have some injuries, with defensive end Henry Melton (knee) gone for the season and star cornerback Charles Tillman hobbled but saying he will play. Tillman normally would match up with the Lions' top threat, receiver Calvin Johnson.

"He's a big, strong, physical corner," Johnson said of Tillman. "He's smart. He's seen a lot of football, so he understands some of the concepts probably that we do on offense, so we've got to throw different things at him to get him off balance."

Detroit (2-1) is winning the close ones — the Lions have outscored the opposition by only 13 points. Their passing attack is second in the league, but just lost a key piece when receiver Nate Burleson was injured in a car accident.

The Lions got some good news: Running back Reggie Bush has recovered from the left knee injury that sidelined him in last week's win over Washington.

"He's a very valuable part of our offense and he affects the way defenses play us," coach Jim Schwartz said. "If we can get him back on the field, that will be a big plus for us."

Week 4 began with San Francisco's 35-11 rout of St. Louis in which the 49ers (2-2) had five sacks, limited the Rams (1-3) to 18 yards on the ground and got 153 yards rushing and a touchdown from Frank Gore.

On Sunday, it's New England at Atlanta, Seattle at Houston, Pittsburgh vs. Minnesota in London, the New York Jets at Tennessee, Philadelphia at Denver, Dallas at San Diego, the New York Giants at Kansas City, Cincinnati at Cleveland, Baltimore at Buffalo, Indianapolis at Jacksonville, Washington at Oakland, and Arizona at Tampa Bay.

Monday night's matchup has Miami at New Orleans.

Off this week are Green Bay and Carolina, both 1-2.

Miami (3-0) at New Orleans (3-0), Monday night

Sean Payton's return to the sideline has made a world of difference in the Big Easy, and his hiring of Rob Ryan to run the defense so far has been a stroke of genius.

The Saints rank fourth in overall defense, almost unheard-of territory in New Orleans.

"Any time you go into a situation where it's a new defensive coordinator that's installing a new defense, you always have the question of how you're prepared," said outside linebacker Parys Haralson, acquired from San Francisco in late August. "Everybody was pretty confident in what they had, in what we have here. This is a defense full of talented players."

The Dolphins got the first comeback victory of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill's career last Sunday.

New England (3-0) at Atlanta (1-2)

A pretty strong Sunday nighter, even with Atlanta's early-season struggles. The Falcons need to get healthy as much as anything, and find ways to stop the pass.

That, of course, is essential against Tom Brady, whose receiving corps looked far more professional in the romp past Tampa Bay than in the first two wins.

Seattle (3-0) at Houston (2-1)

Under Pete Carroll, the Seahawks have been dominant at home, but mediocre on the road. They began turning that around late last season, and this would be a statement win.

Carroll brings the NFL's stingiest defense, particularly against the pass, into Reliant Stadium. Houston also has a rugged D, but the Texans got pushed around by Baltimore last week and have yet to make their own statement as a power.

Pittsburgh (0-3) vs. Minnesota (0-3) at London

Wembley Stadium has been sold out for months, and there will be three big stars on the field: Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, the leagues reigning MVP.

With the way both sides have performed so far, it might be a better idea to tour Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London. Pity the loser having to stew at 0-4 on the long plane ride back home, then stew some more with an upcoming bye week.

New York Jets (2-1) at Tennessee (2-1)

Rex Ryan and Mike Munchak entered the season with tenuous job security. As each team has gotten off to decent starts, the heat has subsided a bit, and this is a better matchup than previously expected.

Although the Jets got a gift win in the opener against Tampa, they came close in New England to upsetting the Patriots. They are far too sloppy, especially with penalties, but, as usual, Ryan has a solid, physical defense.

The Titans needed a long TD pass with 15 seconds remaining to rally past San Diego. But they have shown vast improvement on defense and have not turned over the ball.

Philadelphia (1-2) at Denver (3-0)

Don't believe Peyton Manning is losing any sleep over this one.

Manning runs an offense so potent it looks unstoppable, and the Eagles can't tackle in the open field and aren't much in pass coverage. The game is in the Mile High City, where the Eagles' fast-paced attack could run out of breath less than a half-mile in.

Philly's best hope is through the air; Denver ranks first in ground defense.

Dallas (2-1) at San Diego (1-2)

Two teams difficult to get a handle on.

Dallas looked excellent last week against St. Louis and has won both its home games. But it frittered away plenty of chances to win at Kansas City in Week 2. The Cowboys' defense, sparked by end DeMarcus Ware and linebacker Sean Lee, could decide this one.

San Diego has trouble closing out games. All three have been down-to-the-wire affairs, and the Chargers allowed Houston's big rally in the opener, then Jake Locker's late TD pass last week.

New York Giants (0-3) at Kansas City (3-0)

If Eli Manning thinks last Sunday's seven-sack barrage was ugly in Carolina, well, the Chiefs lead the league in taking down quarterbacks and have a better all-around defense than the Panthers. The Giants, whose offensive line is banged-up, must find a running game; might be time for coach Tom Coughlin to swallow hard and give mercurial (and fumble-prone) David Wilson the ball.

After Andy Reid's successful return to Philadelphia, the Chiefs lead the NFL with a plus-9 turnover differential. They have yet to have a giveaway.

Cincinnati (2-1) at Cleveland (1-2)

The Ohio faceoff got some added luster when the Bengals beat Green Bay and the Browns stunned Minnesota.

Still, Cincinnati is in far better shape and has the look of a contender. There's big-play capability on both sides of the ball, with playmakers like WR A.J. Green and rookie RB Gio Bernard on offense, Geno Atkins and Reggie Nelson on defense.

Cleveland came to life after the stunning trade of Trent Richardson. The Browns' defense is solid, and their offense was impressive at Minnesota behind journeyman QB Brian Hoyer and tight end Jordan Cameron.

Baltimore (2-1) at Buffalo (1-2)

After two weak showings, the Ravens looked much more like champions in manhandling Houston last week. There's hope Ray Rice can return to the backfield from his hip flexor. Baltimore could use a spark for its offense.

Buffalo is dealing with the growing pains of a rookie QB, EJ Manuel, and a defense that can't stop the run. It couldn't grab a victory last Sunday when the Jets seemed willing to hand one over.

Indianapolis (2-1) at Jacksonville (0-3)

Coming off their huge win at San Francisco, the Colts need to remain sharp — although a lesser performance still should be enough to beat the undermanned Jaguars. Indy will have RB Trent Richardson more indoctrinated in the offense after a full week of practice.

Jacksonville gets back starting QB Blaine Gabbert for an offense that has produced a mere three TDs.

Washington (0-3) at Oakland (1-2)

If the Redskins can't get off the schneid against the Raiders, some changes might be in order. It's difficult being patient waiting for Robert Griffin III to return to full fitness, or for the league's worst defense statistically to turn it around.

Oakland is dealing with QB Terrelle Pryor's concussion, and all the bruises physically and emotionally from that Monday night rout at the hands of the Broncos.

Arizona (1-2) at Tampa Bay (0-3)

Some members of the Cardinals must smirk about Tampa Bay's unstable QB situation given how Arizona went through four of them last year, none productive. Now, the Cardinals have a veteran passer with credentials in Carson Palmer, and the Bucs are going with rookie Mike Glennon over benched Josh Freeman.


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