The list of unbeaten teams has narrowed to three, and it does not include the New England Patriots. As the NFL prepares to welcome back Tom Brady, the Vikings, the Broncos and the Eagles want to remind everyone that nobody has figured out a way to beat them. Here is a look at Sunday’s matchups and who we think will win them:
Texans (3-1) at Vikings (4-0)
1 p.m. Line: Vikings by 6 ½
To say the Vikings are playing without their stars would be to declare that you are not paying attention to defense. Minnesota is without quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson on offense, but as long as Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman are in the secondary, the Vikings will be tough to beat.
Minnesota’s defensive backs may not have the résumés or reputations of Denver’s and Seattle’s, but in terms of production this season, they are not far behind. In the Vikings’ undefeated start, they have limited opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 67.7 and intercepted six passes, compared with three passing touchdowns allowed.
It was no coincidence that less than 24 hours after getting a taste of the Minnesota defense, the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. declared he was “not having fun anymore.”
In that game, which was nationally televised, the Giants threw at Beckham, their All-Pro wide receiver, nine times. But Rhodes covered him so effectively that Beckham came away with only three receptions for 23 yards. Rhodes might have gotten away with a late hit on the sideline, and that might have set the emotional Beckham off, but the dominant defensive effort resulted in Beckham’s worst game statistically in two-plus years in the league.
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With a front seven that has generated 15 sacks, which trails Arizona (18 in five games) and Denver (17) for the N.F.L. lead, Minnesota has allowed only 50 points, which is the lowest among teams that have yet to have a bye week.
Bridgewater’s replacement at quarterback, Sam Bradford, has understandably drawn a lot of attention for being sufficiently competent, with numbers that will qualify as the most efficient of his career, if they hold up. But any conversation about the reason that teams fear Minnesota starts and ends with the defense. That Bradford has made the offense watchable is icing on the cake.
Points could be scarce this week. Houston’s secondary has been just as capable as Minnesota’s, and Stefon Diggs, the Vikings’ emerging wide receiver, may be unable to play because of a groin injury that has kept him out of practice.
The difference in the game could be turnovers, and with Brock Osweiler throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, that could spell doom for Houston.
Patriots (3-1) at Browns (0-4)
1 p.m. Line: Patriots by 10 ½
The return of a key player from suspension can be every bit as effective as a trade in terms of reshuffling a team’s depth chart and compensating for its weaknesses.
The Patriots should benefit as defensive end Rob Ninkovich returns from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy.
New England’s defense has held opponents to 15.2 points a game, but it has been a bumpy road, with the Patriots ranked 19th in the N.F.L. with 365.8 total yards allowed per game.
A major part of the problem has been the lack of a pass rush. The Patriots, who traded Chandler Jones to Arizona and then also had to play without Ninkovich, have managed only seven sacks this season. (Jones has had a sack in each game he has played for the Cardinals.) Ninkovich, who has 42 career sacks and was third on the team last year with six and a half, will help if he can pressure Cody Kessler, Cleveland’s rookie quarterback.
The Patriots will also have an offensive player back from suspension: Tom Brady is expected to be the team’s third starting quarterback of the young season, displacing Jacoby Brissett.
Falcons (3-1) at Broncos (4-0)
4:05 p.m. Line: Broncos by 5 ½
There is often talk of N.F.L. teams’ being allergic to distractions, and some have claimed that a recent emphasis on character is cleaning up the game. But for better or worse, talent still beats everything else. For evidence, look to Aqib Talib, the star cornerback of the Broncos.
In a nine-season career, Talib has had issues, including fighting at the N.F.L.’s rookie symposium in 2008; being accused of assaulting a cabdriver in 2009; being accused of firing a gun at his sister’s boyfriend in 2011; and being shot in the leg last off-season. Last week, a news report by WFAA-TV in Dallas indicated that the police had determined Talib actually accidentally shot himself in the leg, then falsified a report.
Given those matters along with accusations of dirty play on the field, it may strain credulity that Talib is able to continue playing, but he and Chris Harris Jr. make up one of the best cornerback duos in the league. This week, Talib is likely to be in man-to-man coverage on Julio Jones, who tore up Carolina for 300 receiving yards last week. The players who could be asked to take on such an assignment are so rare that Talib essentially creates his own leniency.
Giants (2-2) at Packers (2-1)
8:30 p.m. Line: Packers by 7 ½
Green Bay’s offense finally seemed to find its comfort level in the first half of its Week 3 win over Detroit. Then the team had a week off to rest and watch film of what went right. That could be very bad news for the Giants’ defense, which has not intercepted a pass this season.
Eagles (3-0) at Lions (1-3)
1 p.m. Line: Eagles by 3
There is plenty of drama in Detroit, where receiver Golden Tate’s numbers have fallen off a cliff. The emergence of Marvin Jones has been part of the problem, but even last week, as Jones played through a hamstring injury, it was as if Tate barely existed, posting one catch for 1 yard. After consecutive 90-plus reception seasons as Detroit’s No. 2 receiver behind Calvin Johnson, Tate has to find some way to get himself back into the swing of things, or the Lions’ offense will be awfully predictable.
Bengals (2-2) at Cowboys (3-1)
4:25 p.m. Line: Bengals by 1
The return of tight end Tyler Eifert is huge for the Bengals: He is Cincinnati’s best red zone target, and he opens up the offense everywhere on the field because of the mismatches that his size and speed create. The Bengals will need all the help they can get, because Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott are proving that talent is greater than experience, provided the talent is big enough.
Redskins (2-2) at Ravens (3-1)
1 p.m. Line: Ravens by 4
Baltimore’s defense is probably not as good as the numbers have shown, but the team got a big lift when linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs returned from injury. Shutting down Washington’s passing attack would do a lot to convince people that the Ravens are no mirage.
Jets (1-3) at Steelers (3-1)
1 p.m. Line: Steelers by 7
There was some talk that Pittsburgh’s offense was struggling after the Steelers were pummeled, 34-3, by Philadelphia in Week 3. In Week 4, Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes against Kansas City, and Le’Veon Bell came back from suspension playing as if he had never left, rushing for 144 yards on 18 carries. No one is talking about Pittsburgh struggling anymore.
Are the Rams good? They have three wins in four tries, which certainly seems good. And Aaron Donald, the team’s star defensive lineman, is an absolute force of nature, which makes them no fun to play against. But despite the team’s stellar record, it has seemingly survived rather than thrived.
The Bills are coming off convincing wins against Arizona and New England, and the defense seems to have figured things out in a big way. The offense just has to keep quarterback Tyrod Taylor on his feet, which is no small task with Donald in pursuit.
Chargers (1-3) at Raiders (3-1)
4:25 p.m. Line: Raiders by 3 ½
A game that was going to be heavy on offense and light on defense became more so when it was announced that Jason Verrett, San Diego’s top cornerback, would miss the rest of the season with a partial tear of an anterior cruciate ligament. The Chargers’ secondary is also likely to be without Brandon Flowers, who missed Week 4 because of a concussion. The Chargers will have little chance of stopping Oakland receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, although the Raiders may lose some ground in the running game because of the potential absence of Latavius Murray.
Bears (1-3) at Colts (1-3)
1 p.m. Line: Colts by 4½
“I think there’s a human tendency to change, change, change,” Colts quarterback Andrew Luck told reporters last week in the wake of his team’s loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London. “We know you can’t afford to do that in the N.F.L. There’s no cutting everything and throwing it out. It’s double down on fundamentals, technique and execution.”
It is true you cannot cut everything, but the Colts did cut the defensive starters Antonio Cromartie and Sio Moore after the loss.
The good news for Indianapolis is that the Bears are in even more disarray.
Titans (1-3) at Dolphins (1-3)
1 p.m. Line: Dolphins by 3 ½
This game could be affected, and potentially forced to relocate, by Hurricane Matthew. If the teams play, there is little reason to believe they will be worth watching.