NFL Perfect Starts
A 17-week season consisting of 16 games each means that Week 8 is pretty much the midway point for most teams. Only two teams have an unbeaten record going into the weekend, will there still be two standing going into week 9?
San Francisco has had their bye week and now stands at 6-0 while the Patriots have been relentless on their way to a 7-0 record. The Patriots stand atop of the entire NFL defensively and have looked peerless so far, allowing just 48 points against them. The 49ers have allowed 64 points and stand just below New England in the defensive rankings.
Perhaps the Patriots being in such a position isn’t surprising. The surprise is that the 49ers have found themselves leading the NFC considering their roster, coach Bill Belichick and an AFC that hasn’t provided the same challenges as those in the NFC are facing. But the 49ers are in a habit of winning and after finding a way to win an ugly game in Washington last weekend, they're confident to find a way past Carolina on Sunday.
After losing starting quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers have managed to guide themselves to a 4-2 record, largely due to the heroics of running back Christian McCaffrey. For Carolina, McCaffrey might be the best shot they have at handing San Francisco their first loss. The 49ers have shown they are more than a match for their opposition running games so far this year.
Likewise for New England who demolished the Jets on Monday night. They face a Cleveland Browns also coming off a bye week. The chances of the misfiring Browns disrupting the stifling Patriots defense seem slim but then, at the very back of your mind you remember than Odell Beckham Jr, Jarvis Landry and Myles Garrett will all be in brown & orange next Sunday. It hasn’t worked for them so far this year but could they finally click? Probably not but the Browns need to start something before their season ends in a bust.
No Panic in Philly
Head-coach Doug Pedersen stated after their 37-10 loss to Dallas that his Philadelphia Eagles won’t be pushing any panic buttons in response to the loss that leaves them behind the Cowboys in the NFC East. In a division that sees them sit 3-4, just one game behind the 4-3 Cowboys, Pedersen is probably right not to panic. But the manner of that defeat, the way the Cowboys carved the Eagles defense open, and the way quarterback Carson Wentz had trouble moving the offense will be a cause for concern.
Facing them this weekend is the 5-1 Buffalo Bills. The Bills didn’t look overly convincing in their 31-21 defeat of the hapless Miami Dolphins but their record has been built largely on stifling their opponents and hard running.
Despite both teams having a different level of comfort in their quest to play in January, both face a battle on Sunday - not just against each other but against themselves. The Bills have a simple game plan based on quarterback, Josh Allen making plays when things crumble around him while his running backs bulldoze their way through a defensive line. But, if they are to continue into Winter as successful as they have made it this Fall, they will need to find their way back to the defensive solidity they showed in the first few weeks.
The Eagles need to find a way to use Wentz's abilities. Tight-end Zach Ertz, last year a favorite target for Wentz, just can’t seem to get open and the rest of the receivers are not able to convert.
In many ways, the Bills are what the Eagles may have reasonably expected themselves to be - a leading contender in their conference with some issues still to iron out. Though it is expected that a play-off spot awaits. For the Bills, they could have been worse off if it wasn’t for their schedule having gifted them the Dolphins, the Jets, the Eli Manning edition of the Giants, the Bengals and Titans.
If ever there was a crossroads game at the halfway point to a season, this could be it. A win should see the Bills with enough in the bank and a more difficult schedule in the next part of their season. A loss could see them tumble out of contention. For the Eagles, a win could be the catalyst to rescuing a disaster of a season. Many people had predicted a return to the Super Bowl. A loss? Panic buttons.
Driving the Jaguars
It made sense when Jacksonville went in for Super Bowl-winning quarterback Nick Foles in pre-season. Foles wanted his moment in the spotlight. The Jags wanted a quarterback who they could hang their hat on and one who wasn’t going to break the bank.
Then Foles broke his left clavicle in the season opener and was helped off the field.
His replacement was sixth-round draft pick Gardner Minshew who, despite losing 40-26 to the Kansas City Chiefs in that opening game, completed 22 of 25 passes and threw 2 touchdowns, just moments into his NFL career.
Cue what became Minshew-mania with hoards of fans donning fake handlebar mustaches and bandanas in tribute to their newfound hero. As it was confirmed that Foles would be placed on injured reserve at least for the first half of the season, Minshew continued where he left off against the Chiefs as fans wondered whether Foles would ever get a look in once healthy.
That was a few weeks ago and whilst Minshew has held things together for the Jaguars going into Week 8 with a respectable 3-4 record, just a game behind divisional rivals Houston, it hasn’t been perfect. Yet, for a 6th round pick, thrust into the spotlight, Minshew has been a revelation. Now the Jaguars have a difficult decision to make.
Reports in Florida claim that Foles is making his return to practice this week and coming off IR in Week 11. Do the Jaguars stick or twist? Do they hand the keys to Minshew and build their future around him or do they go back to Foles who has proven himself a winner before? If the former, what do they do with Foles? He didn’t come to Jacksonville to find himself in the shadow of another starter.
The New York Jets are next up this weekend for Jacksonville before huge divisional clashes with the Texans and Colts before Foles is cleared for return. We get the impression Minshew has three games to stake his claim to be the long-term man for the Jags. If he is going to keep Foles on the sideline, they simply must win this weekend.
A Glimmer of Hope in the West
It looked like the game of the weekend in until Kansas City confirmed that 2018’s MVP Patrick Mahomes would be sitting out for the next few weeks after dislocating a kneecap last week. The thought of Mahomes going toe-to-toe with Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers on Sunday evening was a tantalizing one but sadly one we won’t get to see unless they meet in a Super Bowl.
With the Packers coming together both defensively and offensively, the Chiefs will need to be at their best to see them off. The Chiefs have excelled with Mahomes driving them forward but in his absence, they will need to be stronger in a defense that only ranks 25th in the league to stand a chance.
Watching on will be the Oakland Raiders who might be in a good place to capitalize on a month of the Chiefs playing without their signal-caller. They were on the end of an Aaron Rodgers masterclass on Sunday losing 42-24 but they have beaten both the Bears and the Colts this season and will be hopeful of taking something from their game with Houston this weekend.
At 5-2 for the year, the Chiefs are pretty comfortable ahead of the 3-3 Raiders in the AFC West but things could change over the weeks without Mahomes. The Raiders' schedule doesn’t look overly frightening with games against the Lions, Jets, Chargers, and Bengals. The Chiefs will play the Raiders on December 1st.
The West could be tied up by then but if it falls apart for the Chiefs without Mahomes against Green Bay this weekend, a glimmer of hope can beam in on Oakland.
More Tanks than an Army
As every self-respecting team is positioning themselves to force their way into the post-season, there are always some with other priorities. The Miami Dolphins are chief among them having signaled their intent to lose their way to the top of next year's draft. Now they are no longer alone.
The Dolphins might be doing things more spectacularly, calling fake field goals and other trick plays that get swallowed up by hungry defenses instead of taking points that could see them actually win, but the Cincinnati Bengals are quietly going about their business of a perfect 0-7 losing record.
Despite not quite having achieved the perfection of 0-7, the Atlanta Falcons are just ahead of them with a bafflingly terrible 1-6 record. They now face the possibility of star man Matt Ryan missing out with an ankle injury. Washington is also at 1-6. Rounding out the rogue's gallery of bad teams this year is the Jets who have played only six games due to a bye week, though they have still only registered one win.
As we head towards the second half of the season, big decisions are going to have to be made for the future of these teams. Tanking should not be encouraged but at some stage, it gives fans an air of hope. There is the possibility of a savior coming out of a high draft pick.
When you look at the schedule, only the Jets have a game that looks anywhere close to winnable as they visit Jacksonville. The Dolphins round out the weekend on Monday night against the Steelers. You would expect them to find a way to lose if Pittsburgh can’t find their way to win. The Bengals visit the Rams who may be too strong for them in Los Angeles. The Falcons welcome the Seahawks to Arizona for whom Russell Wilson will hopefully get back into form after the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson stole his thunder on Sunday. Kicking off the weekend, Washington travels to Minnesota to play in a stadium that has slowly started to resemble a fortress for the Vikings.
The Falcons and the Jets would never have expected themselves to be lurking in these depths this year but for whatever reason, they are here. The question for them if they lose will be: do they join the race for high picks in the draft or float aimlessly into another season?
Contributing Author - Rees Dale