By WILL GRAVES, JOE REEDY, ROB MAADDI, JOSH DUBOW, KRISTIE RIEKEN AND TIM BOOTH
Saturday, October 6, 2018
PITTSBURGH CARSON, CALIF. PHILADELPHIA SANTA CLARA, CALIF. HOUSTON SEATTLE -- 'America's Team,' the Dallas Cowboys saunter down to Houston in the first matchup between the two Texas squads since 2014; the Rams look to keep up their impression of the Kurt Warner-led 'Greatest Show on Turf' offence of yesteryear in Seattle; and the Chargers' matchup with the Raiders could all come down to the ground game, The Associated Press reports FALCONS AT STEELERS When the 2018 NFL schedule was released in the spring, Atlanta's trip to Pittsburgh on the first Sunday in October looked to be a potential Super Bowl preview. Then September happened and the lofty preseason expectations evaporated, replaced by an unruly and unpredictable reality.
Pittsburgh All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell extended his franchise-tag-induced sabbatical indefinitely, wide receiver Antonio Brown couldn't stop making headlines for things that had little to do with football and the overhauled Steelers secondary spent far too much time chasing opponents to the end zone. Atlanta, meanwhile, couldn't stop sending defensive starters to the trainer's room or finding excruciating ways to drop close games.
The Steelers (1-2-1) and the Falcons (1-3) both stress that panicking with three-quarters of the season to go is unwise. "[We] don't want to look down the road about things that are two or three weeks away," Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. "The mindset of just own now man, own this week."
Maybe Quinn should settle for his team owning the final minutes. Atlanta has led in the fourth quarter in all of its three losses. But at least the Falcons have been close; the Steelers, not so much. Pittsburgh has not held the lead at any point in each of its past three games at Heinz Field.
"Last year, we kind of started a little sloppy, too, so you know you guys can look at records all you want, we're not," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We're looking at this next week and trying to get a win because that's all that really matters."
Roethlisberger is right. Sort of.
The Steelers have been sluggish in September under coach Mike Tomlin, who is also 30-13 in October in his career. A year ago, Pittsburgh was a tepid 3-2 before ripping off eight straight wins on its way to a second straight AFC North title.
Not that Tomlin's players are looking for comfort in the idea that they've been here before and gotten it together in time to reach the postseason.
"I want to be great all the way around," Steelers centre Maurkice Pouncey said. "I don't even like assumptions like that." RAIDERS AT CHARGERS Oakland and the Los Angeles Chargers both come into Sunday's game ranked in the top 10 in total offence. The matchup between AFC West rivals is likely to come down to who has the greatest success running the ball.
Both teams had a 100-yard rusher in their wins last week. The Raiders' Marshawn Lynch had 130 yards in a 45-42 overtime victory over Cleveland, while the Chargers' Melvin Gordon gained 104 yards on the ground in a 29-27 win over San Francisco.
Lynch and Gordon are both ranked in the top 10 in rushing. Lynch is fourth with 300 yards and has shown flashes of being back to the level he displayed in Seattle from 2011-14, when he had four straight 1,000-yard seasons. Gordon is seventh with 276 yards.
Both players are showing they are physical runners in different ways. Lynch has generated 77.3 per cent of his yards after contact according to SportRadar, the highest percentage among the top 24 backs. Gordon is tied for third in broken tackles with 12. "There's not a lot of backs that can say they run the football like he does. He still has elusiveness and speed," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said about Lynch.
"This guy likes the physical grind and I think he feeds off of it."
Gordon is also making an impact in the passing game, as he is tied for the Chargers' lead in receptions with 17. That has allowed him to lead the AFC in yards from scrimmage with 475.
"He's really done a great job as a receiver and really been a factor to make huge plays for us," Chargers offensive co-ordinator Ken Whisenhunt said. "I think he has been driven to get his game to another level, and I think we're seeing the benefit to that.
He's worked hard. He's studied it."
Both teams are looking for a win to avoid falling to 0-2 in division games. Quarterback Philip Rivers said the Chargers need to start stringing together wins to avoid falling further behind unbeaten Kansas City.
VIKINGS AT EAGLES This time, it's Kirk Cousins versus Carson Wentz.
The quarterbacks and the stakes will be different when the Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) play host to the Minnesota Vikings (1-2-1) in a rematch of the NFC championship game on Sunday.
Last January, Nick Foles led the Eagles to a 38-7 win over Case Keenum and the Vikings. Now the Super Bowl MVP is back on the bench since Wentz returned from knee surgery in Week 3. Keenum, meanwhile, ended up with Denver because the Vikings gave Cousins a fully guaranteed US$84-million contract to be the face of their franchise.
Neither team is playing at a championship level right now and both are desperate for a win.
"They're a great team, record aside," Wentz said.
"We know we'll get their best, obviously with the way it ended last year."
Cousins had been successful against the Eagles in seven starts for Washington. He had thrown for 2,122 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions while going 4-3 in those games.
"It's a great environment, a great place to play an NFL football game on a Sunday afternoon. Great crowd," Cousins said. "I've had my fair share of battles there. Some have come out victorious, some have come out as the loser. It will be a great test for us."
Vikings offensive co-ordinator John DeFilippo was Philadelphia's quarterbacks coach the past two seasons. He's quite familiar with Wentz and coach Doug Pederson's system. The Eagles already beat former offensive co-ordinator Frank Reich and the Colts in Week 3.
"The same as going against Frank, some of the terminology, some of the calls, maybe hand signals, whatever it may be that he knows," Pederson said.
"Listen, he's a smart guy, but he's also preparing his team to get ready to play. I think that's where his focus is right now this week.
CARDINALS AT 49ERS San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan took only a cursory look at Josh Rosen in his draft preparation last spring because the 49ers already had franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in place.
Shanahan studied Rosen a lot more closely this week after the rookie made his first career start in the NFL. Now he has to face him when the Arizona Cardinals (0-4) visit the 49ers (1-3). Shanahan came away impressed, even though Rosen threw for only 180 yards and one touchdown in a 20-17 loss to Seattle.
"He's a very good thrower. He made some very good throws in that game," Shanahan said. "They definitely, I believe, should have won that game.
They had two big ones that were dropped, I think two touchdowns. It was impressive. So, as similar to college, we know we're going against a good player.
He definitely helps them."
Arizona needs plenty of help as the NFL's only winless team. The Cardinals are 0-4 for the first time since 1986 - two years before they moved from St.
Louis to the desert.
The Cardinals' 37 points are their fewest after four games since 1945 and the fewest in the league since Jacksonville had 31 in 2013. Arizona has gained only 834 yards with Sam Bradford and Rosen at quarterback, tied for the fewest in the NFL after four games since the expansion Texans had 774 in 2002.
The lack of early success hasn't shaken the confidence Rosen gained in college at UCLA when he played well enough to become the 10th pick over all in this year's draft.
"I'm a very confident person," he said. "Even if I have no reason to, I'll find a way to fool myself into going out there with full confidence that we're going to win every single game we play.
"Every time I step on the field, I expect to throw a touchdown or hand off a touchdown or lead the team to the end zone in some way. In my head, if I don't, it's a surprise and something's wrong and we've got to fix it so that we do next time." COWBOYS AT TEXANS Houston star J.J. Watt knows how important Sunday night's game against the Dallas Cowboys is to fans of both teams.
But the way the Texans' season has gone so far, Watt isn't concerned about the significance of this intrastate rivalry, and is simply worried about helping his guys turn things around.
"I'm sure there's definitely something there for the fans on both sides, but ... they could be lining up anybody over there," Watt said. "We need to win this game."
The Texans (1-3) got their first victory last week in overtime against the Colts after opening the season with three straight losses. The Cowboys (2-2) haven't fared much better, and picked up their second win on Sunday against the Lions.
This game tends to be hyped more because these teams meet so rarely. Sunday will be the fifth Texas derby and the first since 2014. The Cowboys have won the past three, with Houston's only win coming in the franchise's first game in 2002.
While Watt really didn't want to get into the rivalry aspect of this game, quarterback Deshaun Watson talked about what a win over Dallas would mean to the city.
"This is pretty much the battle of Texas," Watson said. "Two Texas teams and Houston wants to beat Dallas and have the bragging rights. So, we have to go out there and do our job and try to get those bragging rights so the whole city of Houston can hold that weight for a year."
To do that the Texans will have to slow down running back Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the NFL with 426 yards rushing. He had a season-high 29 touches for a career-high 240 yards from scrimmage in the win over Detroit.
The 25 carries were by far the most this season and it's what he expects every week - not the 16carry average from the first three weeks when the Dallas offence was spotty at best.
"I am young," the 23-year-old said. "I got fresh legs. I'm going to get the ball as much as I can." RAMS AT SEAHAWKS The previous time the Los Angeles Rams visited Seattle, they were announcing themselves as the new powerhouse in the NFC West by handing the Seahawks a drubbing unlike any they had experienced in Pete Carroll's tenure.
As much as the Seahawks would like to forget that day last December, a 42-7 loss to a division rival lingers.
Less than a year later, the Rams are more than just the favourites of their division. A quarter through the season, they may be the prohibitive Super Bowl favourites. The Rams (4-0) make their annual trip to Seattle on Sunday looking to take control of the division just five weeks into the season.
"I think there's definitely a lot of confidence that comes with playing well and definitely can get some momentum going, but I think we're just executing," Rams quarterback Jared Goff said. "We've done a pretty good job executing."
And there is little reason not to believe Los Angeles will be leaving town with a three-game lead in the division.
The Rams are scoring an absurd amount of points, having scored at least 33 points in all four games. Goff is coming off a career-high 465 yards passing and five TDs, carving up a Minnesota defence that was regarded as among the best in the NFL and posting a perfect passer rating in the process. Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks each had 100 yards receiving against the Vikings.
Oh, and there's still Todd Gurley, who the last time he saw the Seahawks rushed for 152 yards and scored a career-high four total touchdowns. And this time, they'll be facing a Seahawks defence without safety Earl Thomas, who suffered a season-ending lower leg fracture last week against Arizona.
The Seahawks (2-2) have recovered from a 0-2 start by knocking off Dallas and Arizona in consecutive weeks. The Seahawks have rediscovered their run game with consecutive 100-yard rushers and their defence has held three straight opponents to under 305 total yards of offence.
But they know the Rams are a different challenge.
Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn
Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz
San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan
Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff