Up to this point in the season, the NFL has been a nice blend of familiarity and disbelief.
Not many people had the Texans and Redskins leading their divisions. Even less probably had Adrian Peterson and James Connor in the top-five of rushing. And how about that Patrick Mahomes guy?
But still, there’s been several storylines that haven’t changed. Tom Brady and the Patriots are still a major threat for the Super Bowl. The Steelers, Rams, and Saints, strong teams from last year, are once again making cases for deep playoff runs.
And this blend of surprises and the expected is what litters itself throughout this week’s headlines. Everyone could predict a knock-out, drag-out race for the NFC North and a circled matchup on people’s calendars for New Orleans vs the Los Angeles Rams.
But on the other side of the coin, there were plenty of surprisingly good and bad teams over the first half to discuss. And how about the many movers and shakers of the trade deadline?
Winners and Losers from the Trade Deadline
The experts promised an extremely active NFL trade deadline, and boy did the league ever get just that. It was even more hectic than some of the more recent MLB trade deadlines.
You could tell everyone in the NFC East except the Giants knew they were in contention in this wide-open division. That’s even though the Cowboys and Eagles are in danger of falling far behind Washington.
Dallas already made their big splash with WR Amari Cooper, who will spread the field and offer a downfield passing threat for Dak Prescott.
The Eagles improved their wide receiver corps with Golden Tate. And honestly, trading a third-round pick isn’t all that bad considering Tate is on pace to have his third consecutive 1,000-yard season. He is 30 but getting a guy with 90-plus receptions the last three years does them wonders.
The Redskins plucked S HaHa Clinton-Dix away from Green Bay. That tandem between him and D.J. Swearinger will be one of the best in the league. Clinton-Dix has been an absolute ball-hawk over the last few seasons.
And the team Swearinger started out with, the Houston Texans, got a big name at the deadline as well. That was Demaryius Thomas, a former top-five receiver who has dipped down the rankings a bit over the past two years.
He’s also 30 and won’t be an All-Pro-type ever again, but he’s one heck of a No. 2 behind DeAndre Hopkins. DeSean Watson is one lucky guy after this week.
As for the undefeated Rams, if you were to tell me a year ago that Dante Fowler Jr. would be on the Rams, I’d buy stock in them for the Super Bowl right now, even if they are the favorites.
But his production has been noticeably down, so it’ll be interesting to see if the change of scenery can turn his game around.
The NFC’s Best Meet in New Orleans
The Saints and the Rams, the best two teams in the NFC, are ready to tangle in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this Sunday.
There will be so much talent on the field, it will make football fans drool. You have a young star at quarterback versus a hall-of-fame veteran, the best pair of three-down running backs currently playing, and two offensive-minded gurus at head coach.
Pro Bowlers will be everywhere, and I can’t wait to preview this contest for the Game of the Week. It may be the best matchup fans have had to look forward to all year. And that’s even considering the Chiefs-Pats game from a couple weeks ago.
How will Brees handle the newly-revamped Rams defensive front? How does Brandin Cooks size up against Marshon Lattimore? And who will have the more explosive performance, Todd Gurley or Alvin Kamara?
There are so many phases of this game to discuss.
The NFC North is Quite the Cluster
There were so many crazy moments at the end of last Sunday’s games.
The Vikings should be the class of this division. But they played to a tie in Green Bay, lost a shootout to the undefeated Rams, and got outlasted at home by Drew Brees and the Saints.
Honestly, you can’t blame them for any of those losses, but you have to win some of these big games. And laying an egg playing Buffalo in your own house is absolutely uncalled for on so many levels. But I think in a division with such inconsistency, they’re still the best-equipped team.
And speaking of teams well-equipped, the Packers are not one of them. But they have a demi-god at quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who is desperately trying to save their season.
He still has a chance to, but it was clear against a game like they had against the 49ers that Rodgers has very little help. They can only ride him for so long and the relationship between him and coach Mike McCarthy is clearly strained.
Then there are the Bears, who whether people want to believe yet or not, are the division leaders. Will they be when the season ends? I don’t think so. But they only play two teams over .500 the rest of the way, so it’s not even close to out of the question.
Lastly, there are the Lions, who have made improvements on the defensive front but are still disappointing me with their inconsistency.
One week I’m ready to raise this team above my head with wins over the Patriots and Packers. And then I see their losses to the Jets, 49ers, and a 14-point home loss to Seattle, and am befuddled.
How good is this team? Probably right in the middle of where I think they are week-to-week. With Golden Tate now gone, I don’t know if they’ll be any better than 8-8. But they got a nice draft pick in return.
The Overachievers and Underachievers of the First Half
After one half of the season, it’s pretty easy to tell who will for sure disappoint and who has made me take a second glance where I least expected to.
In the AFC, the Chiefs are a team that most had as a borderline playoff team. But many pundits put not only the LA Chargers but also the Denver Broncos, over the Chiefs.
But Kansas City QB Patrick Mahomes wiped away that narrative right off the bat and has continued to play larger than life over the first eight games of their season. He’s a legit MVP candidate as merely a first-year starter.
Also surprising in the conference is the 5-3 records of the Texans and Bengals. I’m not sure either is consistent enough to win a playoff game, but guessing they’d have those records at this point seemed like a pipedream. Especially for Cinci, who has to play in a division with Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
As for the real disappointment in the AFC, it must be Jacksonville. The wheels have completely come off of this team and now they’re trading a player (Fowler) they never would’ve dreamed of shipping off a year ago.
If it was only Blake Bortles and the ill-skilled offense, that’d be one thing. But having the defense struggling too now is the nail in their coffin if they don’t do something drastic fast.
That’s about it for the AFC. Unless you really thought the Raiders would be at .500 right now. I’m more surprised the Broncos couldn’t figure things out, but their coaching is weighing them down.
Moving on to the NFC, where the Redskins are clearly the surprise team of 2018.
Sure, it’s partially because of the below-average NFC East. But the resurgence of Adrian Peterson has been crazy to watch. And as much as people—including myself—keep thinking the defense is going to eventually collapse, it just keeps on delivering.
Carolina might be another team that’s a little better than most expected. Cam Newton is finally coming back around, not to his MVP numbers but clearly to one’s superior to last year’s.
But there’s clear disappointment in the NFC as well, starting with the 49ers. This is a team most thought would contend for a playoff spot with Arizona and Seattle presumed to be weak by most experts.
They were half-right because of Arizona. Still, San Francisco didn’t have a chance once Jimmy Garoppolo went down. Still, with a great chance at the No. 1 pick and the future with Matt Breida and Jimmy G, this team could be in a lot worse shape.
The Falcons were crushed with injuries in the secondary, but that’s not enough to justify being 3-4, even in a pass-happy league. I still think they’ll contend for a playoff spot and finish 10-6 or 9-7 though.
As for the Eagles, who knows. Their addition at wideout and a division that’s still for the taking gives me hope for them. But Carson Wentz is clearly not himself right now.
With that said, if the defense doesn’t give up a random 17 points again late as they did against Carolina, Wentz is good enough to get them deep into the playoffs.
I mean, everyone saw what Nick Foles did with them.
Things aren’t looking so swell for the Patriots.
TE Rob Gronkowski (back/ankle), RB Sony Michel (knee), and WR Josh Gordon (hamstring) are among the offensive threats limited in Wednesday’s practice. But the biggest concern might be Julian Edelman (ankle) sitting out practice entirely.
A place below them in the standings are the Miami Dolphins, who aren’t sure on the status of CB Xavien Howard right now. And even worse, they had to put DT Vincent Taylor on IR with a foot injury.
New York is another team with some injury issues in their secondary, as S Marcus Maye and CB Trumaine Johnson (quad), who didn’t practice Wednesday, are listed as questionable.
Big news came out of Houston to start the week, with WR Will Fuller V (knee) being put on IR.
They have a slew of injuries to deal with, including those to CB Johnathan Joseph (knee), DeAndre Hopkins (foot), and Keke Coutee (hamstring), who are all limited.
CB A.J. Bouye (calf) and RB Leonard Fournette (hamstring) would both be awful losses for the Jaguars if they continue to sit out. Bouye is much more likely to come back for their next game a week-and-a-half from now than Fournette is.
Ben Roethlisberger has played through a lot of pain in his career. But the QB did sit out Wednesday’s Steelers practice with a fractured index finger on his non-throwing hand.
The rival Ravens have plenty of defensive bruises to heal from. LBs Tim Williams (foot) and C.J. Mosely (thigh), secondary members Tony Jefferson and Marlon Humphrey, and Alex Collins (foot) are all hampered one way or another.
Williams was seen in a boot on Wednesday.
A.J. Green’s toe was still swelling up Wednesday. The thought of him and John Ross possibly not going along with TE Tyler Kroft (listed as “Out”) would be a lot of damage for the Bengals.
Melvin Gordon only went through a few drills on Wednesday. He should play at Seattle, but hamstring injuries are pretty unpredictable.
An RB who may have gotten better news is the Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch. Though a groin injury put him on the IR, Jon Gruden was confident he’d return this season, according to ESPN.
The Broncos, meanwhile, are dealing with issues at linebacker. Shane Ray has missed time and is questionable, Von Miller didn’t practice Wednesday (knee), and Brandon Marshall (knee) is unlikely to play Sunday.
Among the many questionable players the Redskins have listed, TE Jordan Reed’s neck, Jamison Crowder’s ankle, and Paul Richardson’s shoulder and knee could affect their passing game a lot.
The latter of the two didn’t practice at all Wednesday.
For the Eagles, the secondary is where they’ve been banged up. This is certainly the case for Jalen Mills, who is now listed as doubtful for this next weekend with a foot sprain. That status could change by next week though.
For Dallas, they must be giddy having Amari Cooper (concussion) at practice. He should be healthy and ready to go for Monday Night Football.
Both sides of the ball are monitoring important injuries this week for the Vikings. CB Xavier Rhodes was limited with a foot injury Wednesday and Dalvin Cook has continued to be hampered by hamstring issues.
Chicago is looking for some good news on LB Khalil Mack (ankle). But he was held out of practice Wednesday, as was WR Allen Robinson (groin).
This is also a team who suffered a big loss along the offensive line when guard Kyle Long went down with a foot injury that could keep him out for a couple months.
The Saints DT Marcus Davenport could be out for nearly a month due to a toe injury. Another big name, WR Michael Thomas, also didn’t practice Wednesday. But he should go in the big matchup with the Rams on Sunday.
Carolina is once again taking it easy on TE Greg Olsen (foot), as he and Cam Newton (shoulder) were both limited participants in practice.
For this week’s opponent, the Bucs, they have No. 1 WR Mike Evans out of practice with a knee injury. He’s listed as questionable.
LB Reuben Foster will not play tonight on Thursday Night Football for the 49ers. He’s recovering from a hamstring injury.
CB Richard Sherman may suit up despite his calf issues. RB Matt Breida (ankle) will be another game-time decision.
Lastly, the Rams are happy to have WR Cooper Kupp back at practice. He had been dealing with a banged-up knee but should be back Sunday against the Saints.