Former rivals square off
Former division rivals Pittsburgh and Tennessee meet in Week 4's biggest matchup.
Editor's note: ESPN senior NFL writer John Clayton's weekly "First And 10" column takes you around the league with a look at the best game of the week followed by primers for 10 other games. Here's his look at Week 4.
First ... Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers: For years, the Steelers and Titans were friendly division rivals in the old AFC Central. Though realignment pulled the teams apart, it didn't defuse the rivalry.
In fact, the games between the Steelers and Titans may have grown in the process. Both are playoff-caliber teams, so their regular-season battles will preview what to expect in the playoffs.
Last year, the Titans won the regular-season game in Nashville 31-23. In that game, Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox suffered temporary paralysis on a play and had to spend a night in a Nashville hospital. He rebounded and finished the season as the Steelers starter.
The Steelers know that they need to win this game Sunday to assure that a future playoff meeting with the Titans will be at Heinz Field. Regardless, Steelers-Titans matchups are always special.
For one, their stadiums are designed by the same companies and have similar characteristics. Their fans are great and loud.
Perhaps the most interesting part of these matchups is how the teams have changed. Four or five years ago, the Titans and Steelers were running football teams. Eddie George and Jerome Bettis were two of the league's most physical backs. The mission on offense was to wear down defenses.
Now, they are passing teams. Steve McNair scrambles to make plays for the Titans and remains the NFL's toughest player. Currently, he's fighting a dislocated ring finger. That finger, by the way, is the one he uses to guide the football. No big deal. He puts on a plastic protector and completes 65 percent of his passes.
Because George continues to struggle running the football, McNair uses the pass to set up the run. George is coming off his first 100-yard game, but he needed 29 carries to reach that number. He's averaging only 2.9 yards a carry.
Bettis is trying to make a push to regain his starting job. He got in the Bengals game last week and pounded the ball in the second half. For now, Amos Zereoue remains the starter and is averaging 4.1 yards a carry. But Bettis is trying to restart The Bus. He has 80 yards on 24 carries in three games.
The Steelers-Titans games are always physical. They are always well-played. And the results have playoff significance.
And 10. Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens: Who's better? Priest Holmes or Jamal Lewis? Holmes is the league's new Marshall Faulk, the back who can beat you on passing plays or on running plays. Lewis is the league's best power back this season. Play "Cover 2" against the Ravens and Lewis will overpower secondaries with big running plays. What's interesting about this matchup is that Holmes is the backup the Ravens let go to Kansas City because they drafted Lewis. While Lewis helped win a Super Bowl ring for the Ravens, Holmes is coming to Baltimore trying to make a Super Bowl run for the Chiefs. Holmes is the more valuable of the two backs. He gets his 25 touches a game, and he is the difference maker. But the Chiefs need him to be successful on the road, and he doesn't want to be upstaged by Lewis. Holmes doesn't look back negatively at his Baltimore experience. The Ravens gave him his start as an undrafted player. He had a 1,000-yard season for them, but they went a different direction in drafting Lewis. Holmes likes his new home in Kansas City.
9. Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: When Michael Vick went down in the preseason with a broken leg, this game looked like a potential upset in the making for Carolina. Give the Panthers defensive line and coach John Fox three game tapes and a bye week to prepare for the immobility of Falcons quarterback Doug Johnson, and you could predict bad things for the Falcons. Well, Johnson isn't getting it done at quarterback, and the Panthers are favored by six points in this one. The season is slipping away rapidly for the Falcons. A loss would leave them at 1-3 and they are still three or four weeks from Vick returning. The matchup favors the Panthers. Johnson couldn't escape the pressure applied last week by the Bucs, and the Panthers will come at him with a defensive line that is almost as talented. On offense, the Panthers will try to pound the ball with halfback Stephen Davis, who is averaging 126.5 yards rushing a game. The Falcons can't stop the run, allowing 135.3 yards a game. Now wonder why the Panthers are favored by six?
7. Philadelphia Eagles at Buffalo Bills: Everyone in Buffalo was looking for a rookie being in the backfield this season, but who would have thought the first rookie to potentially start would be Joe Burns, an undrafted rookie. Willis McGahee isn't an option until sometime in November, and current starter Travis Henry has badly bruised ribs. Henry is questionable, so Gregg Williams may have to go with Burns. Drew Bledsoe needs to bounce back from a bad game against the Dolphins on Sunday night, but he has a much easier task than Donovan McNabb. McNabb has been horrible, and a bye week hasn't slowed down the criticism. He's completing only 45 percent of his passes, and he's averaging an embarrassing four yards an attempt. The Eagles defense is thin at defensive end and cornerback. If Henry can't play, the Bills may try to attack the Eagles with more three-receiver sets and rely on their pass-blocking more than run-blocking. The team has been better pass-blocking than run-blocking even before Henry's rib injury last Sunday.
6. New England Patriots at Washington Redskins: Can the Patriots lose any more defenders? An entire offseason of upgrading the defense has fallen apart with injuries to nose tackle Ted Washington and linebackers Rosevelt Colvin, Ted Johnson and Mike Vrabel. Throw in the team's decision to release safety Lawyer Milloy and all of a sudden, the Patriots defense may not be as talented as it was a year ago. It's a good thing the Patriots drafted well on defense because they will need big games from rookies Ty Warren, Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson. Redskins coach Steve Spurrier is trying to find ways to stop his team's sloppy play and tendency to draw penalty flags. He threatened to start fining players for penalties, but that can't be done in a city in which the players' union is based. Patriots coach Bill Belichick should have a unique game plan for second-year quarterback Patrick Ramsey, who has been one of the most exciting players this month. What Belichick does against Ramsey may be copied in weeks ahead if it works.
5. Indianapolis Colts at New Orleans Saints: The Saints are playing horribly. Home games seem to help, but the Saints looked bad in road games against the Seahawks and Titans. When the Saints get in trouble is when they get away from the running game. The Colts rank eighth on defense, but they can be overpowered against good running attacks. They rank 18th in run defense, giving up 101 yards a game. If the Saints don't get a 100-yard game out of Deuce McAllister, they may end up 1-3. This is a dangerous game for the Saints. Peyton Manning is due a breakout 300-yard game, and the Saints can't afford for this to be the week. The Saints secondary hasn't come together yet. Cornerback Ashley Ambrose, filling in for injured Dale Carter, had a bad game, and free safety Tebucky Jones hasn't come up with the big plays as expected.
4. San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders: Will they run or will they pass? That's the big question in Oakland. Following a Monday night loss to the Broncos, Raiders coach Bill Callahan said he was going to look to overhaul an offense everyone has figured out. His options are letting Rich Gannon go into a no-huddle passing mode or power the ball with a running attack. The talent may dictate going to the running game. The offensive line is banged up. Wide receiver Tim Brown, who has seven catches in three games, is having trouble getting open. Too often, Gannon is moving in the pocket waiting for receivers to get open, and they are all covered. The Chargers are having their own problems. Their biggest weakness is stopping the run. The Chargers are allowing 160 rushing yards a game. Callahan, being an old offensive line coach, may go simple and try to win the game on the ground.
3. Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears: Soldier Field is finally open for business, but the Bears look like they need a renovation. The bye week didn't hide the fact that the Bears played horribly in the first two losses. They rank last on offense, and nothing is going right. The offensive line is in bad shape. There is no running game. Kordell Stewart hasn't had a chance to show much in his first two games. He's too busy scrambling around trying not to be sacked. The Packers aren't exactly feeling good about life, either. They are 1-2. Brett Favre isn't getting many big pass plays. The defense hasn't played well. Favre knows the home crowd could turn on the Bears if the Packers can come with a good start. The Bears secondary better be prepared for an ambush.
2. Dallas Cowboys at New York Jets: As poor as the Jets have played, Bill Parcells could end up winning more games in the Meadowlands this season than the Jets. Herman Edwards is too good of a coach to lose four straight, but if the Jets lose this one, they could be faced with a five-win season. They have the league's toughest schedule and the Cowboys should be one of the easy games on their schedule. This will be an emotional game for Parcells. He brought Curtis Martin to New York and he's always liked Vinny Testaverde. Now, those players need a win against Parcells to salvage something positive in September.
1. Arizona Cardinals at St. Louis Rams: Mike Martz has scaled back his offense because of injuries. He has no choice. He can't call a fast-break passing offense when Marshall Faulk, Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis are hurt. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are great receivers, but they can't do everything. Expect Martz to run the ball with Lamar Gordon and mix in a short passing game with Marc Bulger. With an injury report that has as many as eight players out for this game, Martz is just trying to get to the bye week after Sunday with a 2-2 record and a chance to regroup. If the defense can contain the Cardinals and quarterback Jeff Blake, the Rams have a chance to get healthier.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Panthers officially cut ties with receiver Smith
- Sources: Pats' Wilfork asks team for release
- Eagles acquire Sproles for 5th-round pick
- Martin on 49ers: 'It's a blank slate for me'