First … San Diego Chargers at Baltimore Ravens.
Sunday's AFC showdown between the Chargers and Ravens looks like a heavyweight fight. It's the NFL version of "The Contender."
In two games, the Chargers' defense entered the ring looking like the new bullies in town. Linebacker Shawne Merriman has been unblockable and he's establishing himself as arguably the league's best defensive player even though he's in only his second year. Defensive end Luis Castillo has been called the best defensive end to come into the league in the past five years by former Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil. Castillo is equally unblockable.
The Chargers rank No. 1 on defense, but they venture into Ray Lewis' turf Sunday. For more than a decade, Lewis has been the man on defense. He's the leader of a defense that hits as hard and moves as well as some of the great defenses in the history of the league. After fighting injuries the past couple of years, Lewis has found the fountain of youth and so have the Ravens. They rank second on defense.
This is an intriguing early matchup of two teams that missed the playoffs last year but are back in contention this season. The only reason the Chargers didn't make the playoffs last year was their schedule. It was brutal. Many of their toughest games were on the road. They won five games against teams that finished with winning records. The only problem is they played 11 games against such teams.
Even though it's said defenses win championship, both teams made interesting moves at the most important position -- quarterback. The Ravens traded for Steve McNair and have been smiling ever since. Quarterback has been a problem for the Ravens even through their great years. Ever since they won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer in charge, Ravens defenders have been waiting for a quarterback to bring them hope.
McNair has done that. He's a great leader and a steady hand. So far, his numbers haven't been great. He's completed only 55.4 percent of his passes and his 5.8 yards per attempt is one of the lowest among starters. His quarterback rating is 78.3, but he's a leader and his teammates believe in him. Though the performances might not have been pretty, the Ravens are 3-0 and winning is all that counts.
This game will be a supreme challenge for San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. He took over for Drew Brees and many in the organization believe he could be better than the departed Pro Bowl quarterback. He's taller. He has a stronger arm. He's every bit as smart and he's a more vocal leader. Still, he's started only two games and this will be his toughest challenge -- on the road against a great defense.
This could be looked upon as a potential playoff preview, but there is a knockout aspect to this game. Neither the Chargers nor Ravens are a lock to win their division. The Broncos reign in the AFC West and the Bengals have stepped to the top of the AFC North, a division that still has the Steelers. If the Chargers and Ravens end up as wild-card contenders, this game could be the tiebreaker that could put one team down for the count.
And 10. Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears
NBC hit the jackpot with this game. Going into the season, virtually everyone picked the Seahawks and Bears to run away with their divisions and potentially end up with the conference's top two playoff seeds. So far, everything has gone to form. The Seahawks and Bears are each 3-0 but because both teams have among the league's easiest schedules, Seattle's Mike Holmgren and Chicago's Lovie Smith have the luxury of knowing this isn't a must-win game. Both know this game is important -- the winning team would hold a tiebreaker edge in playoff seeding --
but more than anything else this is a good test to see just how good these teams are. Eventually, they probably will meet again in the playoffs. The Seahawks have a lot of experimenting to do. MVP Shaun Alexander is out with a broken foot. Holmgren has been turning the team into a four-receiver offense because of tight end injuries and he will have to rely on those four-receiver sets and the running of backup Maurice Morris to generate offense.
That might be hard on the road against one of the league's fastest defenses. That said, it won't be easy for the Bears to move the ball either. The Seahawks' defense might be the least talked about in football, but it is becoming one of the elite and, much like the Bears' defense, is loaded with speed and playmakers. Even though it's only Week 4, it's fun to get an early playoff preview.
9. New England Patriots at Cincinnati Bengals September was supposed to be a scary month for the Bengals. Since January, the organization worried whether Carson Palmer's knee could recover in time for the start of the season. The opening schedule was tough. Now, the Bengals are 3-0 and Palmer is the league's eighth-ranked passer with a 92.9 rating. Even though the Patriots are 2-1, the opening to their season hasn't gone well. Deion Branch's holdout led to his trade to Seattle and Tom Brady displayed horrible body language and was obviously frustrated in losing to the Broncos Sunday night.
The early thought is the Patriots are a playoff team only because they are in an easy division. Sunday will be a big test. It doesn't help Bill Belichick that he's going to Cincinnati with problems at cornerback. Randall Gay had to be placed on injured reserve, starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs is questionable with a wrist injury, safety Eugene Wilson is questionable with a hamstring and backup safety Artrell Hawkins has been nursing a thigh injury.
While the Bengals' receivers are banged up from a physical start to their season, they have gutted it out and played hurt. Belichick has come up with great schemes to counter the no-huddle offenses and has plenty of experience from his big games against the Colts. The key to his success against the Colts, though, is keeping the game close until the final possession. The problem facing the Belichick against the Bengals is whether the Pats have enough weapons at receiver and cornerback to make it a one-possession game in the final minutes. 8. New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers Are the Saints for real? Their Monday night dominance of the Falcons was impressive. They might be considered the least respected 3-0 team in recent memory, so Sunday's game is the testing ground. The victory over the Falcons was the perfect situation for them. A blocked punt recovered for a TD gave them a 7-0 lead and the crowd excitement from the return of football to New Orleans energized the players.
After Drew Brees led the Saints to a second touchdown, the Falcons were in a tough spot because their offense isn't geared to big comebacks on the road. After 25 divisional games in the first three weeks, this is the only division game of the weekend. New Orleans coach Sean Payton turned over more than half of the roster so the Panthers game really will test those moves.
The Panthers pulled out a hard-fought victory over the Bucs and are trying to gain some momentum in an effort to get back into the NFC South race. They pounded Bucs quarterback Chris Simms last week. Brees played with the lead the entire game, so this will be a much tougher challenge for him and the Saints.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars at Washington Redskins Having been rescued by the Houston Texans' defense -- the cure for struggling quarterbacks -- Mark Brunell heads into a game against a tough Jaguars defense playing with some confidence. The Redskins are still adjusting to the passing offense of new coordinator Al Saunders, so last week's near-perfect performance by Brunell was a breakthrough. Sunday's game will be tough because the Jaguars are good and they take away the run. Jack Del Rio's team played hard last week in a loss to the Colts but the schedule doesn't allow the team the chance to pout. The Jaguars should be kicking themselves for not controlling the Colts game better. They dominated the game in the first half by running the ball for 25 minutes and were getting 6 and 7 yards a run. Yet, they came out of the first half tied, 7-7, and let Peyton Manning take control of the game in the second half. This game will be more of a defensive showdown. The Jaguars are masters of stopping the run.
The Redskins are masters of pressuring the quarterback and stopping the run.
6. Tennessee Titans at Dallas Cowboys This game was just an afterthought until the Tuesday story emerged that police thought Terrell Owens tried to commit suicide. The intrigue is whether Owens plays Sunday with his fractured right ring finger. Owens is the only reason there is the slight bit of interest in this game. The Titans have been horrible. They are 0-3, their defense ranks 29th in the league and they're giving up 25.3 points a game.
Kerry Collins is starting to get the feel of the Titans' offense, but he'll be facing a well-rested Cowboys defense that ranks sixth in the league. Interest in this game will go by way of the injury report -- if Owens plays, people will care. If not, it will be Drew Bledsoe's game to throw to Terry Glenn, who cut his thumb this week. Until the Owens story popped up, things were pretty quiet with the Cowboys. The team was healthy. There were no controversies. Now, thanks to Owens, the Cowboys are leading all sportscasts and what was considered a nothing game has some buzz to it.
5. Indianapolis Colts at New York Jets Now that the Colts have beaten the Jaguars to take the AFC South lead, Tony Dungy is just trying to get his team to the Oct. 15 bye week to rest his walking wounded. This week, the Colts have 19 injured players. Last week, it was 24. Though they have put only one player on the injured reserve list, the Colts have about 10 to 12 players who have 7- to 10-day injuries that need a bye week. Dungy has to keep the team focused to beat the Jets on the road and the Titans at home next week.
If that happens, the Colts will have a 5-0 record before entering a tough stretch of the schedule that includes trips to Denver and New England. The biggest concern for Jets coach Eric Mangini is trying to stop the Peyton Manning passing machine with a banged-up secondary. Cornerbacks David Barrett (thigh) and Derrick Strait (thigh) and safety Kerry Rhodes (thigh) are questionable. The matchup isn't very good for the Jets, who are 2-1 thanks to the great play of Chad Pennington.
Because of the injuries, the Colts have struggled to stop the run but the Jets have failed to establish the run in any game and might try to use Leon Washington a little more this week. Derrick Blaylock and Kevan Barlow have tried to get the running game going but the Jets are averaging only 72 yards rushing a game.
4. Detroit Lions at St. Louis Rams Mike Martz returns to St. Louis as the Lions' offensive coordinator. For Rams fans and players, this game has been circled on the calendar for awhile. The Martz years were some of the most exciting in franchise history. Martz is an offensive genius and whether it was Kurt Warner or Marc Bulger, Martz had the Rams at the forefront of excitement on offense.
Scott Linehan has replaced Martz as head coach, and the Rams are still trying to find their way on offense. Now, Martz is trying to figure out whether the Lions have an offense. Everything is in the experimental stage. On Wednesday, the Lions made the surprising move of cutting Corey Bradford, who was given a four-year, $7.4 million contract to be an insurance starter.
Let's see, the Lions have cut Charles Rogers, who's so talented he hasn't found a new job in a league in desperate need of receivers. Former first-round pick Mike Williams is either inactive or on the active roster doing nothing. Other than Roy Williams, Kevin Jones and Jon Kitna, Martz doesn't have a lot to work within heading into this game.
3. Cleveland Browns at Oakland Raiders Well, if the Raiders can't win this game, it's going to be a long, long, long season for Art Shell. First, the Raiders had a bye week to get Andrew Walter ready to start. The extra time off gave the offensive line a chance to get healthy. Shell has had more time to work on fundamentals with the team. The next two weeks are critical. Even though 3-4 defenses are designed to be good run-stopping units, the Browns are giving up 134 yards a game on the ground.
Next week, the Raiders go across the Bay to play the 49ers, a 3-4 team that is giving up 117 yards a game. Shell would love to go into the Raiders Oct. 15 game against the Broncos with a 2-2 record and some hopes for the season. To do so, the Raiders need to show they can run the ball. LaMont Jordan is a $5.5 million running back. The offensive line is big.
The Raiders faced arguably the NFL's two best defenses (Ravens and Chargers) in the first two weeks, so it's not that surprising that they struggled. But if the Raiders can't generate offense against the Browns and 49ers, the finger will point only at them.
2. Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons The Falcons have to recover from their bad showing in New Orleans. Once they fell behind in the first quarter, the team was helpless. The early success of the Falcons is based on how Michael Vick works the running game. Down 10 points or more, it's hard to come back with just a running game. Vick has three former first-round receivers in his three-receiver set, but that's not what wins games for the Falcons.
It will be interesting to see whether the Cardinals' defense needs its exotic blitzing packages to handle Vick. In many ways, safety blitzes will only help Vick, because fewer defenders would be downfield if he breaks containment. Kurt Warner will remain the Cardinals' starting quarterback, but he needs to cut down on the mistakes. He's had eight fumbles and four interceptions in three games. Warner needs to play close to a mistake-free game or Matt Leinart will be warming up in the bullpen.
1. Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles Anytime Brett Favre is on "Monday Night Football" it has a chance to be a magical moment. As he showed against the Lions on Sunday, Favre can still get hot, and when he does, he's one of the best shows in football. Against the Lions he was excited and having fun. If he gets confidence early against the Eagles, it could be a high-scoring game. One thing we know for sure is that Donovan McNabb should put up big numbers. McNabb has been on fire this year.
Out of the no-huddle, he has been unstoppable. Plus, the Packers' defense hasn't been able to stop anybody. If the Eagles' defense plays to its potential, this could be a lopsided game, because the Eagles are going to score.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.