For most NFL campaigns, Week 4 of the preseason is a brutal assault on the senses, a monotonous parade of backups -- and their backups -- fighting for the 50th through 53rd spots on a roster ... or laying down the groundwork for a practice-squad invite. Simply put, it's a tough sell with the general public, even with fans shelling out regular-season prices for understudy performances. But alas, there are some intriguing angles to this year's August finales -- thanks to a few notable quarterback scrambles and the Colts' unwitting tussle with Super Bowl history, precedent-wise. FOX Sports South breaks down the weekend's seven most significant storylines. (Photos: Scott Rovak/Kirby Lee/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)
EJ Manuel's Path Of Some Resistance
RANKING: 7 ... MATCHUP: Lions @ Bills ...SKINNY: Among the projected seasonal starters, EJ Manuel stands as the NFL preseason leader in passing yards (461), while connecting on 63 percent of his throws. Now for the bad news: Through four August outings with Manuel under center, the Bills have generated just six scores -- four field goals and two touchdowns (one TD pass). And the two touchdowns occurred in the third quarter last week ... after Tampa Bay had rolled to a 24-0 halftime lead. As a rookie, Manuel (1,972 yards passing, 13 total TDs) flashed some high-ceiling potential in 10 starts; but the Buffalo fans still might not have much patience for a guy who was selected ahead of Geno Smith and Mike Glennon in 2013 ... and the impetus for the Bills passing on Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater in 2014.
Who Is Allen Hurns?
RANKING: 6 ... MATCHUP: Falcons @ Jaguars ...SKINNY: The rookie Hurns (NFL-leading 230 receiving yards for the preseason) posted rock-solid numbers at Miami last year, racking up 62 catches, 1,162 yards and six TDs as a senior. But he was a pedestrian asset for the Hurricanes in the first three seasons, leading some to wonder if he can be trusted as a real-life No. 3 or 4 wideout (behind Cecil Shorts, Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson) or fantasy-world option in deep leagues? For what it's worth, Hurns likely won't have to worry about Justin Blackmon (possible season-long suspension) to claim a spot in the Jacksonville WR rotation. Plus, his receptions, targets and receiving yards have improved in every preseason game -- culminating with the seven-catch, nine-target, 113-yard, one-TD explosion vs. the Lions last week.
The Ultimate Scheduling Quirk
RANKING: 5 ... MATCHUP: Cardinals @ Chargers ... SKINNY: Throughout NFL history, clubs have met during the preseason and regular season in the same year. But we might have stumbled on a new precedent here, with the Cardinals and Chargers locking horns in the preseason finale ... and then meeting 11 days later for the season opener. Quirkiness aside, what's the NFL's motivation for scheduling back-to-back clashes of Arizona and San Diego? It devalues the first matchup, since neither team will show any formation wrinkles nor risk injury to Andre Ellington (left) and Ryan Mathews (right). In case you're wondering, the Eagles and Browns met in preseason Week 3 and Week 1 of the 2012 regular season. The results: Philly first cruised to a 27-10 rout ... and then squeaked out a road win over Cleveland. (Photos: Joe Nicholson/Jake Roth)
The Shaky Status Of Stevan Ridley
RANKING: 4 ... MATCHUP: Patriots @ Giants ... SKINNY: At LSU in 2010, Stevan Ridley rumbled through SEC competition for 1,200-plus yards and 15 touchdowns; and in the pros, he has accounted for 19 TDs over the last two seasons with New England. And yet, there are reports the Patriots might outright release Ridley sometime next week, a likely nod to veteran back Shane Vereen (635 total yards, four TDs last year) and rookie James White. Which brings us to this: We realize the NFL has gone to great pains, in recent years, to devalue running backs in the draft, and subsequently undercut their leverage in free agency. But come on, does Ridley really deserve a second-tier fate within a league that's always in the market for dynamic rushers? If that's the case, hopefully he'll get an extended audition on Thursday.
Manziel Has The Floor -- For A Day
RANKING: 3 ... MATCHUP: Bears @ Browns ... SKINNY: Here's the downside of Brian Hoyer already claiming the Browns' opening-day job at quarterback: Current backup and Round 1 draftee Johnny Manziel (above) has an opportunity to log two-plus quarters of work in the preseason finale, as a means of preserving Hoyer and readying himself for any relief roles in September. In essence, it's a Catch-22 scenario for Hoyer, who wants to stay healthy for Browns-Steelers in Week 1 (brutal assignment) ... but also knows that every live-action snap puts Manziel that much closer to becoming Cleveland's permanent starter.
The Colts' Must-Win Scenario, Sort Of
RANKING: 2 ... MATCHUP: Colts @ Bengals ...SKINNY: These playoff teams essentially have nothing to prove in August, especially since they play again in Week 7. However, Indy has some motivation in this regard: Since the NFL upgraded to 16 regular-season games in 1978 (while, in turn, reducing the exhibition slate), only one club has gone 0-4 during the preseason and rallied for a Super Bowl title that year -- and John Riggins (left) and the 1982 Redskins accomplished that feat during a strike-shortened campaign. In other words, in the 36-year span of 16 regular-season games ... no club has ever followed up a winless preseason with a Lombardi Trophy in a full or complete season. For 2014, the Browns, Cowboys and Andrew Luck-led Colts (right) have yet to claim a preseason victory. (Photos: Assorted Images/Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)
The Rams' Plan B At Quarterback
RANKING: 1 ... MATCHUP: Rams @ Dolphins ... SKINNY: The Rams might have been a dark-horse pick in July for the postseason, but their odds of reaching the playoffs are substantially lower without Sam Bradford (torn ACL) and with journeyman Shaun Hill logging 16 games at quarterback. And that's no disrespect to Hill (right -- 26 career starts). OK, maybe it is. Bottom line: If the organization harbors serious hopes of an NFC West title or wild-card berth, they must take a creative approach to filling the QB slot. That could entail starting developmental option Austin Davis (left -- 198 yards passing, two TDs last week), or trading for a name-brand backup like Mark Sanchez (Eagles), Kirk Cousins (Redskins), Michael Vick (Jets) or Ryan Mallett (Patriots -- center). (Photos: Ron Schwane/Geoff Burke/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)