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.