Finally, some close football games! We had a week or two where all the NFL and college football games were too cut and dry. Week 8 injected some renewed excitement into the season. Only one of the eight division leaders changed (Baltimore jumped Cincinnati despite being on a bye), but we learned plenty about the league’s true Super Bowl contenders.
I’m sure there’s a joke out there for the frontrunners for the league’s other title, the first overall pick in 2022. Don’t worry Jags and Lions fans. Your race will get some coverage too.
1. Derrick Henry is mortal, but the Titans are for real (for now)
Indianapolis clamped down on Henry this past weekend, holding the MVP candidate to 68 yards on 28 carries (2.4 yards per attempt). It’s the second consecutive week where Henry averaged under three yards per carry. However, Tennessee won both games and had no trouble finding the endzone in either contest.
Ryan Tannehill has seven interceptions this year, but Tennessee’s passing game is an underrated part of this team’s success. Tannehill found A.J. Brown ten times for 155 yards and a touchdown even with Julio Jones sidelined against the Colts. There’s simply no way to handle big-play receivers while locking down a specimen like Henry.
Unfortunately, Henry suffered a potentially season-ending foot injury in Week 8. The superstar back went for an MRI on Monday per ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Tennessee’s offense could change drastically when Henry lands on injured reserve (IR). It’ll be much easier for defenses to focus on Brown and Jones, but the Titans look like legitimate contenders for now.
The Packers are 7-0 after getting their doors blown off in Week 1 by the New Orleans Saints. Aaron Rodgers and company held on for dear life against the previously undefeated Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night. Rodgers had a solid outing despite playing without his three top receivers.
Green Bay hasn’t gotten David Bakhtiari back from an injury he suffered last season. All-Pros Jaire Alexander and Za'Darius Smith aren’t ready to return yet either after suffering significant injuries early in the year. However, if the Packers can halt a surging Arizona team with such a shorthanded squad, imagine what they’ll do when everyone is healthy.
The Packers belong among the NFC’s elite title contenders.
3. Injuries threaten to derail Cleveland
Cleveland’s medical staff walked All-Pro right tackle Jack Conklin off the field on Sunday, and we later learned he suffered a dislocated elbow. Conklin had already missed two weeks as part of a massive injury wave that threatens to sink Cleveland’s Titanic of a roster.
For my money, the Browns had the NFL’s best roster entering the 2021 season. They had current or former All-Pros at almost every position and a handful of key contributors on rookie contracts. However, Odell Beckham Jr., Nick Chubb, Jadeveon Clowney, Conklin, Kareem Hunt, Jarvis Landry, Greg Newsome II, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Denzel Ward, and Jedrick Wills Jr. missing time while Baker Mayfield deals with an injury to his non-throwing shoulder has gutted the team.
At 4-4, the Browns are far from out of the AFC North race, but they’re in last place with losses to at least three playoff-caliber teams. This isn’t the start Kevin Stefanski envisioned for his team entering the year.
4. Detroit is the worst
I feel bad for Dan Campbell. It’s hard not to root for a man responsible for so many hilarious soundbites. Unfortunately, his gutsy game plan that had Detroit leading the Rams 19-17 entering the fourth quarter a week ago didn’t translate to their matchup with Philadelphia. The Eagles stunned Detroit in a 44-6 rout.
The Eagles buckled down and ran for 236 yards while sparingly airing it out. No Philadelphia pass catcher had a long of over 20 yards, but the running game and Detroit’s crumbling offense fed Nick Sirianni’s team a buffet of scoring opportunities. Jared Goff took six sacks, and Darius Slay took a D'Andre Swift fumble 33 yards to the house.
Maybe the Lions had enough energy to get up for a game against Los Angeles, but they seem dead in the water at 0-8.
5. Jacksonville isn’t far behind
The Jaguars and Trevor Lawrence looked like they were building some momentum before nearly getting shut out by a Geno Smith-led Seahawks squad. Seattle only gained 229 yards on offense throughout the afternoon but still racked up 31 points in the lopsided home win. Jacksonville led in time of possession, had more first downs, ran 22 more plays than Seattle, and still lost by 24 points.
Detroit feels like a lock for the first overall pick eight weeks into the season, but we saw the Jaguars sneak away with the top selection in 2021. Perhaps the franchise can go back-to-back.
6. New Orleans is an X-factor
Jameis Winston’s Saints are somehow 5-2. Excuse me, Trevor Siemian’s Saints are somehow 5-2. Sean Payton described the knee injury Winston suffered in New Orleans’ divisional win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as “significant.” Reports later revealed that Winston tore his ACL and damaged his MCL. He’s done for the year.
Luckily for the Saints, they face Atlanta and Philadelphia in two of their next three weeks. That’s a soft way for the franchise to lean into Siemian’s sudden promotion.
I’m not ready to count New Orleans as a playoff contender with Siemian at the helm, considering he has two appearances since the start of 2018. Don’t ask me about Taysom Hill. Things could get interesting if he’s able to settle in and act as a game manager.
New Orleans has blowout wins over Green Bay and New England and claimed a game-winning lead against the Bucs in the final two minutes this week.
7. The AFC North is up for grabs
Ah yes, Baltimore atop the standings, followed by Cincinnati, with Cleveland in last place. Exactly how we thought the AFC North would look halfway through the year. Seriously though, this is a pretty weird season and a pretty significant time for the division. The Bengals finding their stride with Joe Burrow and Zac Taylor has turned this into a four-team race.
Perhaps calling the division a four-team race is a bit bold. Pittsburgh is still strong defensively but can barely muster an offense. I reserve the right to criticize Pittsburgh as a Steelers fan, but I could see this team putting up a good fight against any divisional opponent. Every other AFC North team has a young quarterback, but no one is trending in a straight line.
The Bengals have losses to the Bears and Jets on their schedule, and they barely beat the Jaguars. We already talked about Cleveland’s downward trend because of injuries. Baltimore barely escaped Detroit on a record-setting field goal, crushed the Chargers, and then got run over by Cincinnati. Meanwhile, the Steelers are on a three-game winning streak and taking advantage of playing injured teams.
Unfortunately, I don’t see the Steelers winning the division. However, I could see all four teams at least getting to 7-10 this year.
8. Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow are still a year away
No unbiased fan can claim Herbert is a one-year wonder. Almost everyone recognizes him as one of the game’s brightest young quarterbacks. He’s further along in his second season than Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray were in recent years. Burrow is arguably right there with Herbert, but both second-year quarterbacks commit poorly timed turnovers.
Herbert tossed two interceptions in Week 8 as the Chargers lost to New England by three points. The Patriots capitalized, turning the first pick into a field goal. The second was a pick-six that ended in a successful Mac Jones two-point conversion. That’s eleven points given away in a three-point game. Herbert’s turnovers also cost Los Angeles a three-point game against Dallas in Week 2.
The Chargers as a whole have their own issues that have culminated in back-to-back losses despite a bye in Week 7. Brandon Staley’s team is talented but still growing into its identity.
Burrow doesn’t have the same caliber of coaching staff around him as Herbert, but he arguably has better weapons. The former Heisman Trophy winner is tied for the league-lead with nine interceptions. Three of those picks came in a three-point loss to Chicago, while two more came in the overtime field goal catastrophe against Green Bay.
The Bears scored ten points off Burrow’s turnovers in Week 2, and Mason Crosby knocked in a field goal off the LSU product’s first pick in Week 5.
Burrow only threw one interception against New York in Week 8. Shaq Lawson made a great play on the ball to set up New York for the eventual game-winning touchdown and two-point conversion.
Murray suffered from similar turnovers last year, and he’s still battling them this season. Burrow and Herbert can follow the Cardinal as future MVP candidates, but they must cut down on the costly interceptions.