Aaron Rodgers

Week 8 of the NFL season presents us with some tremendous storylines. It’s officially the middle part of the year for those squads yet to enjoy a bye. It will also tell us a lot of about where specific teams are at heading into the second half of the campaign.

Are the Miami Dolphins for real after two blowout wins against pretty bad football teams? That question will be answered against the defending champs on Thursday night.

Can Arizona Cardinals running back Chris Johnson continue his surprising season against the league’s worst run defense? Is Sunday’s game against the two-time defending NFC champions a must win for the Dallas Cowboys?

Who will remain undefeated in a battle between two squads currently with unblemished records?

These are among the top storylines for Week 8 around the National Football League.

Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots: biggest test of Dan Campbell’s young coaching career

Miami has outscored its first two opponents 82-36 since Campbell took over for Joe Philbin as the team’s head coach. It has also gained 937 total yards during that span. While people in South Beach are excited about this new version of the Dolphins, it’s important to take a step back.

These two games came against teams — the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans — with a combined 3-10 record.

Taking on an undefeated Patriots squad on the road on short rest is a completely different ball game. With Tom Brady under center, the defending champs are averaging nearly 39 points per game at home over their past nine outings. In no way, do the Titans and Texans compare to this in terms of level of competition.

There are a lot of things to look at in this game. But mainly, the Dolphins need to continue their ball-hawking defensive performance from the past two games if they are going to find a way to win a third consecutive game.

That’s going to be a difficult task against a Patriots squad that has turned the ball over a total of three times in six games and boasts a plus-five turnover margin this year.

Detroit Lions at Kansas City Chiefs: change in Lions offensive scheme under new coordinator Jim Bob Cooter?

Outside of the obvious jokes pertaining to one of the best names in professional sports, Cooter is likely going to change up the Lions’ entire offensive philosophy moving forward. Though, it’s going to be rather difficult doing that just six days after obtaining the offensive coordinator position. In reality, this will likely be more evident following Detroit’s Week 9 bye.

As it is, the Lions have a whole bunch they need to work on offensively. Matthew Stafford was sacked a whopping seven times and hit a total of 13 times in Detroit’s Week 7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. What’s so disturbing about that is that Minnesota came into the game with 10 sacks in five games.

Say what you want about the hapless Kansas City Chiefs, but they still have a nice amount of talent in the defensive front — talent that could make Detroit’s offensive line look as vulnerable as we saw last week.

It’s rather clear that Lions head coach Jim Caldwell was looking for people to blame after firing a great deal of the team’s offensive staff. If Cooter is unable to see any real improvement from last week, the blame will continue to fall on Caldwell — a coach that remains firmly on the hot seat.

San Diego Chargers at Baltimore Ravens: How to play through a lost season

It has to be difficult for members of the Chargers and Ravens to get up and play at a high level heading into the midway point of the season. The inspiration may come from a certain sense of pride and actually working hard for your paycheck. Outside of that, this appears to be lost season for both teams.

Coming off a 2014 season that saw it earn a playoff spot with 10 wins and actually win a postseason game, Baltimore finds itself at 1-6 on the season — all six losses coming by one score. Overall, the Ravens’ losses have come by a total of 30 points. Maybe that’s reason enough to believe this team can run off some ridiculous winning streak, but six losses heading into Week 8 means you are done from a playoff perspective.

It’s a bit different for the Chargers. They are also pretty much out of the playoff race at 2-5. Though, this team has a pretty favorable upcoming schedule. It takes on Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City and Jacksonville prior to a Week 13 battle with the Denver Broncos.

If San Diego is able to run off a four-game winning streak, it will enter that game over .500 and with a shot at the playoffs. It has to start this week against what is quickly becoming a bad Ravens squad. If not, the second half of the year will be all about draft positioning.

Arizona Cardinals at Cleveland Browns: Chris Johnson vs league’s last-ranked run defense

saints cardinals

For some reason unknown to mankind, Johnson is the league’s second-leading rusher entering Week 8. The level of ridiculous there is real. What’s even more ridiculous is the fact that he stands a decent chance to add to those numbers in a big way for the first-place Cardinals on Sunday.

Heading into the season, Cleveland’s defense was considered one of the top units in the NFL. And after adding massive defensive tackle Danny Shelton in the first round of the 2015 draft, many expected this side of the ball to take off big time.

That simply hasn’t been the case. Cleveland ranks dead last in the NFL against the run at 151 yards per game. It’s giving up an average of 5.1 yards per attempt and has yielded 150-plus rushing yards in six of the team’s first seven games.

Outside of the fact that Johnson should be a must start in all fantasy football formats, it’s extremely likely that he will find a way to remain among the league’s top rushers while leading the Cardinals to a sixth win on the year.

Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears: opportunity for Vikings to cement status as team to watch

The Vikings have played nowhere near their best football this season. That’s worrisome for other NFC  Playoff contenders considering this squad is 4-2 heading into Week 8.

Last week saw the Vikings passing game finally get on track after struggling through the first third of the season. Second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater threw for over 300 yards with two touchdowns, connecting with rookie receiver Stefon Diggs six times for 108 yards.

If the Vikings are able to continue that success through the air, it’s only going to open up more rushing lanes for Adrian Peterson with defenses now having to focus on stopping the passing game.

This week against a two-win Bears team, the Vikings have a golden opportunity to strengthen their status among the top wild card contenders while actually keeping pace with an undefeated Green Bay Packers team in the NFC North. The biggest key here will be continuing the success we saw Minnesota’s passing game have last week.

Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers: home team’s last chance to get back in NFC North race

Courtesy of USA Today Images

At 4-3 on the season, Pittsburgh is pretty much in a must-win situation against an undefeated Bengals team that’s well rested following its bye week. A loss here for Mike Tomlin’s squad, and the Steelers would find themselves four games behind Cincinnati in the loss column heading into the second half of the year.

The good news for Pittsburgh is that it’s likely going to get Ben Roethlisberger back for this matchup after the quarterback missed the past four games with a knee injury. Having to rely on Michael Vick and Landry Jones to get the job done simply wasn’t sustainable for the defending division champs.

Unfortunately, any sign of rust from Big Ben could put Pittsburgh behind the proverbial eight-ball. Cincinnati entered its Week 7 bye as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Here’s a unit that ranks third in the league in scoring and total yards. Simply put, Pittsburgh’s offense will need to bring its a-game in order to come out on top in this one.

Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans: winner will remain the AFC South race entering season’s second half

It’s hard to believe that a one-win team is just as close to first place as it is to acquiring the top overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft. But that’s right where the Titans find themselves in an historically weak AFC South heading into Week 8.

Realistically, the Titans could find themselves one game out of first place by the time the second half of the season comes calling. With the Indianapolis Colts tasked with taking on an undefeated Carolina Panthers squad on the road and Tennessee taking on a free-falling Texans squad, that is very much a possibility.

For the Texans, the situation is simple. They were absolutely embarrassed by Miami last week in one of the worst performances we have seen from a team in recent league history. Heck, Miami had put up five touchdowns before the Texans tallied five yards. Another performance like that, and head coach Bill O’Brien may soon get his walking papers.

The interesting thing for Houston is that it’s just one game behind Indy in the division. If they win and the Colts lose, the Texans will have a share of first place heading into Week 9. Yeah, it’s pretty gross down south these days.

New York Giants at New Orleans Saints: chance for the Saints to get back to .500

No one really expects the Saints to compete for a playoff spot this season. After all, they still find themselves four games behind the Carolina Panthers in the loss column in the NFC South and on much shakier ground than other teams potentially set to battle for a wild card spot.

No matter the holes on this Saints squad, the results have been there recently. Sean Payton and Co. have come out on top in three of their past four outings after starting the season with a three-game losing streak. There really is no rhyme or reason for this either.

In the Saints’ only loss during that span, they turned the ball over four times, resulting in a 22-point loss to Philadelphia. The following week, New Orleans yielded 413 total yards and 23 first down to the then undefeated Falcons. And last week, the Saints relied on three Colts’ turnovers to pull off a surprising road win against a struggling opponent.

As we mentioned above, New Orleans’ ability to play for a .500 record this week makes no real sense. With that said, all that matters at the end of the day is putting up more points than your opponents. New Orleans has done that three of the past four times it has taken the field.

San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams: continued drama for the free-falling 49ers

The information coming directly from San Francisco’s locker room this week has been about as damning as it gets. A player’s only meeting that got heated after unnamed individual(s) questioned Colin Kaepernick. Two reported instances in which Joe Staley and Vernon Davis came to verbal blows. As if anything else could happen to this fledgling franchise, it’s quite possible the 49ers are about to hit a new kind of low.

At 2-5 on the season and with many reported issues within the organization, there’s a good chance San Francisco could be in the midst of a free-fall of epic proportions. The only thing that can be done here is to perform at a higher level on the field. Coming off an embarrassing 20-3 loss to Seattle last week, that’s exactly what San Francisco has to do in this one.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan’s recent struggles

After starting out the season throwing six touchdowns compared to two interceptions in his first four games, Ryan has tallied three touchdowns and four picks in the past four games. It’s not a coincidence that Atlanta has seen its scoring drop dramatically during that span. It averaged 34.3 points over the first month of the season, and just 18.7 over the past three games.

This could very well be a “get right” game for Ryan, who will be taking on a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense that is tied with Chicago for dead last in scoring and has yielded a 111.2 rating to opposing quarterbacks.

If Ryan isn’t able to pick his game up, the Falcons could be ripe for an upset — something that would dramatically impact the team’s hopes of contending with the Carolina Panthers moving forward this season.

New York Jets at Oakland Raiders: Week 8 playoff implications

Brandon Marshall

Don’t look now, but this game could have real wild card implications moving forward this season. While no one really expects the Raiders to finish above .500 on the season, they have been impressive through six games and are currently just one game behind the 4-2 Jets.

Meanwhile, the road team in this game won four of its first five outings before dropping a well-played game against the undefeated New England Patriots last week.

With the AFC Playoff picture still forming and a ton of teams likely in contention down the stretch, this one game could mean a whole heck of a lot.

For Oakland, it’s all going to be about finding a way to continue it stellar offensive performance against one of the league’s top defenses. Can Derek Carr find rookie phenom Amari Cooper on a consistent basis against Darrelle Revis? Can he do so without making the mistakes he’s avoided thus far in his young career? That will help determine who is riding high heading into the second half of the season.

Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys: home team looking to save its season

Losers of four consecutive games since Tony Romo went down with a collarbone injury, the Cowboys simply need to find a way to get back in the win column on Sunday. Unfortunately for the home team, it goes up against a Seahawks squad that is riding high after dismantling the hapless 49ers last week.

The key here for Dallas will be to find some balance on offense. If Matt Cassel is forced to put the ball up a ton against a secondary that’s out for blood, it could very well turn this one into a blowout in the road team’s favor.

On the other hand, Darren McFadden can help create the necessary balance for Dallas to have success on offense. The former top-five pick is coming off a 29-rush, 152-yard performance against the New York Giants. A similar performance here, and Dallas might be able to pull off the upset. If not, the team could be looking at a five-game losing streak.

Green Bay Packers at Denver Broncos: matchup of the undefeated

These two teams have gone about it a different way. Following their bye weeks, they will now have an opportunity to prove their worth among the league’s best heading into the second half of the season.

At 6-0 on the season, Denver’s been just as lucky as it has been good through Week 7. Denver’s average margin of victory thus far is six points with five of its six wins coming by one score. Relying on the second-best scoring defense and the best pass defense in the NFL, the Broncos have been able to mask what has been a horrendous early-season performance from Peyton Manning.

The issue here is that Manning is going to have to start becoming a reason why Denver wins if the team is going to be taken seriously as a title contender. That starts Sunday night against the NFL’s fifth-best scoring off and one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Simply put, the Broncos can’t afford to rely too much on their stout defense to pull off the win in this one.

For the Packers, the situation is two-fold. By his standards, Rodgers has struggled to an extent over the past three games, amassing a grand total of 720 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. Those are stats most quarterbacks would take. But considering Rodgers had put up 49 touchdowns and five picks in his previous 19 starts, it can be said he’s struggling a bit.

Green Bay may be a more well-rounded team than we have seen in the past. Though, it still relies a great deal on Rodgers under center. If the quarterback plays like we saw last season and through the first three games this year, there’s no reason to believe the Packers can’t win the Super Bowl. That run begins Sunday against an undefeated Broncos team in Denver.

Indianapolis Colts at Carolina Panthers: Andrew Luck vs one of the league’s top pass defenses

Carolina pretty much stepped into the national spotlight on Monday night and told the nation that it wasn’t a flash in the pan. Relying on the tremendous linebacker play of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis as well as the emergence of Josh Norman at corner, the Panthers’ stingy defense has this team dreaming Super Bowl.

The Panthers will be out for blood at home on national television for the second consecutive week. It’s going to take a huge game from a struggling Andrew Luck (11 touchdowns, nine interceptions) in five games for the Colts to find a way to avoid falling to two games under .500.

And while the Colts have a pretty huge margin for error in the disastrous AFC South, a 2-4 mark heading into a Week 8 matchup with the Denver Broncos could heighten rumors of some major shakeups in the organization.

Check out Vincent’s other work on eDraft.com and follow him on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL