- Associated Press - Saturday, October 8, 2011

Aaron Rodgers should have fond memories of Atlanta. The last time he led the Packers into the Georgia Dome, they routed the Falcons in the second round of the playoffs. Rodgers was unstoppable then, and is playing even better in leading the defending Super Bowl champions to a 4-0 start.

The Falcons hardly have been so formidable, and their 2-2 start puts them third in what might be the NFL’s best division, the NFC South. Atlanta lost only three games in 2010, so if Mr. Rodgers and company continue lighting it up, the Falcons could find themselves in a huge hole.

“It’s fun playing teams like this on Sunday night. The atmosphere, we know what that’s going to be like,” Rodgers said. “We beat them last year pretty good down there. They’re upset about that, I’m sure. It’s going to be a tough game for us.”

Rodgers‘ counterpart with the Falcons, Matt Ryan, hasn’t forgotten that 48-21 pasting.

“It takes a little while to get over, but you have to move past it,” Ryan said. “You have to learn from it. Not only myself _ I know I used it as motivation throughout the offseason . … That’s part of playing in this league is you’re going to make some mistakes and you’re going to make some plays that don’t go the way you want. It’s how you respond to those type of things, and I think I’ve had the right response.”

Green Bay certainly has responded in style after its surge from wild card to champion.

“We think this is going to be a hot game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re excited to go down there and play on the big national stage. We’re fully aware probably of how they feel about us. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

The other unbeaten team, Detroit, hosts Chicago on Monday night.

Also Sunday, it’s Tampa Bay at San Francisco, the New York Jets at New England, Oakland at Houston, San Diego at Denver, Philadelphia at Buffalo, Tennessee at Pittsburgh, New Orleans at Carolina, Seattle at the New York Giants, Cincinnati at Jacksonville, Arizona at Minnesota, and Kansas City at Indianapolis.

Off this week are Baltimore (3-1), Cleveland (2-2), Dallas (2-2), Miami (0-4), St. Louis (0-4), and Washington (3-1).

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Chicago (2-2) at Detroit (4-0), Monday night

One day more than a decade ago, the Lions hosted a Monday nighter. They lost 35-0 to the Rams, and ABC/ESPN has pretty much avoided them since. With good reason, of course, because Detroit has been a pro football wasteland since Barry Sanders left.

No more, and the Lions are back in the prime-time spotlight against a division rival that has won six in a row in the series _ including Dec. 5, 2010, the last time the Lions lost _ but has the kind of problems (weak offensive line, spotty pass defense, inconsistent quarterback) that plagued Detroit all those years.

“We’ve always played on Thanksgiving because of tradition,” said kicker Jason Hanson, one of the few Lions who played in the franchise’s last Monday night game. “You have to get picked to play on Monday night, so that’s gratifying, but we’ve got to back up the buzz with a good game.”

Tampa Bay (3-1) at San Francisco (3-1)

The 49ers come off an impressive two-game eastern swing in which they won at Cincinnati, held what QB Alex Smith called a “mini-training camp” in Youngstown, Ohio, then headed to Philadelphia. They won there, rallying from 20 points down for a 24-23 victory.

Now they are back at Candlestick Park and it’s the Buccaneers who have the big road challenge, coming off a short week after Monday night’s win over Indianapolis, and traveling cross-country.

New York Jets (2-2) at New England (3-1)

No team has more incentive this week to pound its opponent than the Patriots. They can ignore questions about the fire burning within all they want, but Bill Belichick’s guys have been itching for the chance to avenge last January’s flop in the playoffs against their division rival. They also can’t wait to lay about 40 points on Rex Ryan’s defense and pummel QB Mark Sanchez the way Baltimore did last Sunday.

One caveat: When the Jets get angry and seem at their lowest point under Ryan, they tend to rally. They must solidify their offensive line and find a pass rush for that to happen.

“I think there needs to be a return to winning. Whatever that is, passing the ball, running the ball, I don’t care what it is,” said All-Pro center Nick Mangold, whose sprained right ankle forced him out of the two road losses and deeply damaged the blocking. “We need to get back to winning.”

Oakland (2-2) at Houston (3-1)

Set up the DVRs for this one.

Two explosive offenses, especially on the ground _ Oakland is first in rushing, Houston is fourth _ and two defenses that give up some big plays.

The Texans need Arian Foster and Ben Tate to produce in the run game with star receiver Andre Johnson sidelined by a right hamstring injury that required minor surgery. They also need Mario Williams to continue his improvement as a linebacker after five seasons as a defensive end.

Oakland has the NFL’s top rusher, Darren McFadden, who already has 468 yards, is averaging 6.2 per carry and has three TDs rushing, one receiving.

San Diego (3-1) at Denver (1-3)

San Diego has emphasized the need for a fast start to solidify itself, and a win here gives the Chargers just that as they head into a bye week. The matchups favor them, particularly against a Denver team that struggles to cover anybody. The Broncos also lead the league with 11 giveaways.

The Chargers never have gotten going this quickly under coach Norv Turner.

“Winning football games, I think, obviously, gives you momentum, excitement, energy, concentration,” Turner said. “You don’t have to deal with some of the distractions you have when you’re not.”

Denver knows all about those distractions as fans clamor for third-string QB Tim Tebow to get behind center.

Philadelphia (1-3) at Buffalo (3-1)

Michael Vick says to can the “Dream Team” nickname Vince Young placed on the Eagles. OK, done.

Now, it’s time for all those supposed standout acquisitions to play like stars, particularly on defense. Buffalo has scored the fourth-most points in the league (133) and is especially dangerous at home, where it beat Oakland 38-35 and New England 34-31.

The Bills also stumbled last week at Cincinnati and need to show it was a misstep, not the beginning of a slide.

“Every week is gut-check for us, being a Buffalo Bill,” receiver Stevie Johnson said. “We got to prove ourselves every Sunday. It’s how everybody in the league should be feeling. I don’t think it’s any pressure as far as we have to win this or else we’re going to be considered losers or whatever. We have to win every game. That’s how you should feel as a player.”

Tennessee (3-1) at Pittsburgh (2-2)

The Titans are surging and the Steelers are suffering. With injuries to James Harrison (right eye) and Ben Roethlisberger (left foot), Pittsburgh limps into a meeting with one of the league’s hottest teams.

Chris Johnson is approaching peak form after his holdout, and opponents have been uncharacteristically successful on the ground against the Steelers. Pittsburgh is second in the league in yards allowed, but 22nd against the run, giving up 4.8 yards per carry compared to 3.0 per attempt in 2010.

“There’s a fine line between performing well and substandard,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Some of the mistakes are mental, some of them are physical. They’re not centrally located in one person or position, but when you add those things over the course of a football game you get eight to 10 snaps where somebody is letting you down either mentally or physically, and you have an opportunity to give up some big yards.”

And Johnson has the opportunity to gain them.

New Orleans (3-1) at Carolina (1-3)

Newcomers Cam Newton and Ron Rivera _ plus a revitalized Steve Smith _ have brought a breath of fresh air to Carolina, which has been in every game thus far. This, though, is a huge test for the Panthers because the Saints can pass anyone silly.

Drew Brees has at least 20 completions in 24 consecutive games, an NFL record, and he might surpass that number by halftime. Still, the dynamic Newton and Smith won’t back off.

Seattle (1-3) at New York Giants (3-1)

No, the Giants have not been switched to the NFC West, it only seems that way as they head into a third meeting in five weeks with the league’s worst division. New York’s easy early schedule has helped it get through a slew of injuries in, uh, good shape.

Seattle has only two takeaways, fewest in the NFC and six below what the Giants have managed. It’s also allowed 14 sacks, and the Giants have a strong pass rush.

Cincinnati (2-2) at Jacksonville (1-3)

A meeting of two rookie quarterbacks, first-rounder Blaine Gabbert for the Jaguars, second-rounder Andy Dalton for the Bengals. Right now, Dalton has the edge with his two victories; Gabbert is 0-2 as a starter.

The Bengals like what they’ve seen from their former TCU star.

“It’s not about whether he’s got Superman talent or all this,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “He knows how to get you in and out of the huddle and put you in the good situations, and he’s going to play with his heart. And that’s going to help you win football games.”

Kansas City (1-3) at Indianapolis (0-4)

A pair of division winners in 2010 who have been ravaged by injuries in ‘11. The Chiefs played much better the last two weeks and beat the Vikings with their running game finally clicking, even without top RB Jamaal Charles, who is gone for the season.

Indy looked decent in a Monday night loss at Tampa Bay marred by a gruesome injury to DT Eric Foster. Still, the looks on Peyton Manning’s face as he watched from the coaches’ box were the epitome of frustration.

Arizona (1-3) at Minnesota (0-4)

Minnesota is sticking with Donovan McNabb at quarterback for now, but the key to winning for the Vikings is Adrian Peterson rushing well and the defense covering people.

One of those the Vikes must cover this week is Larry Fitzgerald, a matchup problem for everyone in the Minnesota secondary.