With the NFL heading into the midway point of the season, individual games promise to take on more importance. Within those games, specific matchups could help dictate where the season goes from here on.
Week 8 is no different.
How will Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz perform in the first of what promises to be dozens of head-to-head matchups between the division rivals? That will let us know a lot about where the NFC East is at heading into November.
The same can be said in the AFC East where the Buffalo Bills host the New England Patriots with an opportunity to sweep their division rivals. How will Rob Gronkowski impact that game against a Bills defense that’s been tremendous covering tight ends?
These are among the top-10 matchups for Week 8 of the NFL season.
1. Dak Prescott vs Carson Wentz
Rookie going up against rookie. Two potential Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates. Two teams with playoff aspirations. Division rivals that will likely be going up against one another for the next decade-plus. Could we ask for more?
At 5-1 on the season and coming off a bye, Prescott has his Dallas Cowboys playing tremendous football. They have won five consecutive and are averaging four touchdowns per game during that span. For his part, Prescott has been dazzling during this five-game stretch.
Dak Prescott during five-game winning streak: 73.0 comp %, 1,259 yards, 10 TDs, 1 INT, 115.2 rating pic.twitter.com/J6v6OXdfSS
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 25, 2016
The interesting thing to look at here is that Prescott is coming off a bye. His counterpart in Philadelphia, Carson Wentz, was historically good in the Eagles’ first three games prior to their Week 4 bye. Since then, Wentz has put up three touchdowns compared to three picks while leading his team to a 1-2 record.
We have no idea if that will translate over to Prescott and the Cowboys, but it’s something to definitely watch come Sunday night.
At 5-1 on the season, Dallas has an opportunity to open up a two-game lead over Philadelphia. Should the Eagles come out on top, they’ll head into Week 9 tied for first place. That’s how big this game is, and both quarterbacks will play huge roles.
2. T.Y. Hilton vs Marcus Peters
Hilton has been on an absolute tear for the Indianapolis Colts over the past five games. During this span, Andrew Luck’s top pass catcher has hauled in 35-of-53 passes for 569 yards and four touchdowns. Heck, he single-handily saved the Colts’ season against the San Diego Chargers back in Week 3.
With Indy having somewhat righted the ship following a slow start to the year, it is going to need Hilton to continue playing at this All-Pro level.
Unfortunately, that’s going to be a mighty difficult task against a Kansas City Chiefs corner that’s been historically good forcing turnovers early in his career. Peters has put up 13 interceptions in his first 22 NFL games. Yes folks, that’s a record.
More than this, he’s shown plus-level consistency in coverage as a second-year player. Peters has surrendered a 50.9 quarterback rating when targeted on the year. That’s really good. That’s elite-level good.
Kansas City heads into Week 8 with a 4-2 record and currently holding down the final playoff spot in the AFC. Meanwhile, the Colts are looking to hit .500 after an 0-2 start to the season. This is a big matchup within the confines of a larger inter-conference game between two playoff contenders.
3. A.J. Green vs Josh Norman
If Norman is forced to sit this one out with a concussion, the conversation then turns to just how dominant Green is going to be against what is otherwise a lackluster Washington Redskins secondary. If Norman does play, it’s all about two of the best players at their positions taking on one another in front of an international audience (literally).
Green and his Cincinnati Bengals shattered the collective souls of the Cleveland Browns last week, tallying an absurd 579 total yards in 31-17 victory. For his part, Green put up amazing catch after amazing catch en route to hauling in all eight of the balls thrown in his direction for 169 yards and a score.
It was a much-needed performance for a Bengals squad that headed into last week losers of four out of five. Now set to take on a Redskins squad that’s coming off a disheartening late-game meltdown against the Detroit Lions, Cincinnati is looking to continue last week’s momentum. Should Green repeat what we saw against Cleveland, the Bengals will surely be in a good spot.
4. Nate Solder vs Lorenzo Alexander
Lorenzo Alexander is on pace to have a year so big, it would be as good as the previous 7 combined pic.twitter.com/Pw4X6UkhgL
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 25, 2016
What Alexander has done for the Buffalo Bills thus far this season is nothing short of amazing. He leads the NFL in sacks, has consistently put pressure on the quarterback and is doing all this playing a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker role. It’s a position Alexander has never played in his career.
In his last matchup against Solder and the New England Patriots, Alexander racked up a sack and three more pressures of rookie Jacoby Brissett.
Though, it’s most definitely going to be a different story with Tom Brady under center for the Patriots. First off, no one can expect Buffalo to shutout its division rival like we saw back in Week 4. Secondly, Brady himself is a stud in terms of getting rid of the ball in a timely manner.
He’s been sacked four times in three games compared to the eight times Patriots quarterbacks went down in the first four games. That’s a mighty nice dip right there, and it’s one of the primary reasons New England is averaging nearly 32 points per game with Brady under center.
Solder will have to perform better than we saw earlier in the season against Buffalo. That’s the first key here. That’s also something we must keep an eye on come Sunday in Western New York. It could definitely be the difference in the Bills finding a way to pull within one game of New England or the Patriots breaking the AFC East wide open.
5. Drew Brees vs Legion of Boom
Despite a 2-4 record, it’s pretty darn amazing what Brees has been able to accomplish this season. In reality, he could be in the midst of a historical season, one that cements his status as one of the best statistical quarterbacks in the history of the game.
What Drew Brees is on pace for this season is absolutely astonishing. 5,600 passing yards and 45 touchdowns pic.twitter.com/l7MGi3tZFQ
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 25, 2016
Though, Brees himself has one heck of a difficult matchup come Sunday. He’s taking on a Seattle Seahawks defense that held the Arizona Cardinals to six points in nearly five quarters of action last weekend. That’s six points after racking up 90 plays and holding on to the ball for over 46 minutes of game action.
Needless to say, Seattle is playing some of the best defensive football we have seen from this team during the Pete Carroll era. And while it might start upfront with putting pressure on the quarterback, both Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas are playing the best football of their careers.
For Brees and the Saints, it’s all about pulling and upset and potentially remaining in the NFC Playoff race. A loss here would drop the team to 2-5 on the year and pretty much out of contention. It’s in this that Brees needs to be on top of his game.
6. Bryan Bulaga vs Vic Beasley
With 5.5 sacks over the past three games, Beasley is definitely proving his worth to the Atlanta Falcons. It’s been a long time coming for the former first-round pick, especially after the Clemson product failed to provide much in that category as a rookie last season.
The key here more than anything else has been Atlanta’s willingness to let Beasley pin his ears back and get after the quarterback. Dan Quinn and Co. were just too cute with him in 2015. That hasn’t been the case thus far this season.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, Beasley’s emergence comes as the team has struggled its way through two consecutive losses after starting the season 4-1.
It’s going to be incredibly important for Beasley to put consistent pressure on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is coming off one of the most insane games in recent NFL history. Rodgers completed 39-of-56 passes for 326 yards and three scores in last week’s win against the Chicago Bears.
Thus far on the season, Rodgers has seen himself sacked just 11 times in six games. This comes on the heels of him being thrown to the turf 46 times a season ago. One of the primary reasons for this is the emergence of David Bakhtiari as a dominating pass-protecting left tackle.
Packers have the leading OT in pass blocking efficiency with David Bakhtiari at 98.4. Also leading G in T.J. Lang at 99.3.
— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) October 17, 2016
With Bakhtiari likely being able to contain Dwight Freeney on the other side, it’s going to be key for Beasley to take advantage of right tackle Bryan Bulaga. If this doesn’t happen, the likes of Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery will have field days in the passing game.
7. Kelvin Benjamin vs Patrick Peterson
If the Panthers have any hope of breaking through with a win, it’s going to be up to Cam Newton and Kelvin Benjamin. The two just have not found a way to connect thus far this season. And with a less-than-stellar defense, it’s definitely played a major role in Carolina’s 1-5 start to the season.
Overall on the year, Benjamin has caught just 56 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. While the third-year receiver is on pace for nearly 80 receptions and 1,000-plus yards, there’s really no efficiency in what he’s done in the first six games.
Now set to take on potentially the best cover corner in the NFL, Benjamin has a mighty tall task ahead of him himself. Through the Arizona Cardinals’ first seven games, Peterson has allowed a 34.7 quarterback rating when targeted. Though, there could be some reason for optimism here. The Pro Bowler did allow all four passes thrown in his direction to be completed last week against Seattle.
8. Rob Gronkowski vs Preston Brown
It’s not fair to judge Gronkowski based on the last time these two played. He was still nowhere near 100 percent with a hamstring injury and the Pats were forced to start Jacoby Brissett under center in what ended up being a shutout loss.
Now looking fully healthy and with Tom Brady under center, Gronkowski is a much different player than the last time these two division rivals took on one another. Over the course of his past three games (Brady’s first three starts), Gronk has caught 16-of-20 targets for 364 yards and two scores.
On the other hand, Brown is one of the primary reasons the Buffalo Bills continue to dominate when it comes to covering tight ends. Overall, the Bills have given up just 17 receptions for 228 yards to tight ends in seven games. That’s an absolutely absurd number right there.
As we mentioned before, this is a huge mid-season game between these two division rivals. It’s the difference between a one-game spread and a three-game differential heading into Week 9. How the Bills handle Gronkowski will be one of the deciding factors.
9. Jimmy Graham vs New Orleans Saints
Graham going up against his former team. The tight end is doing so while attempting to pretty much put the final nail in the coffin of the Saints’ playoff hopes. All the while, Seattle is looking to get back on track after last week’s tie against the Arizona Cardinals.
In terms of the specific matchup, Graham should be able to absolutely eat against the squad that traded him away prior to last season. The former Pro Bowler has caught on big time with the Seahawks recently, tallying 23 receptions for 355 yards over the past four games.
Meanwhile, the Saints have been horribly bad covering tight ends, yielding a 70 percent catch rate to that position in six games this season. Should Graham have a field day here, the Seahawks will win going away. You can bank on that.
10. Tyron Smith vs Brandon Graham
Brandon Graham recorded eight QB pressures in Eagles’ win over Minnesota.
— PFF (@PFF) October 24, 2016
Smith looks to be fully recovered from the back injury that forced him from two games earlier this year. That’s absolutely huge for the Cowboys’ rookie quarterback and the team’s ability to protect him.
In the two games since Smith has returned, Prescott has been sacked three times. Once Smith himself gets more comfortable dealing with a new quarterback under center, this promises to be shored up a great deal.
However, it’s definitely going to be a tall task against a Philadelphia Eagles defense that recorded six sacks of Sam Bradford last week. Among the most scintillating matchups of the week, Eagles’ defensive end Brandon Graham will look to take advantage off Smith’s rust and provide consistent pressure to Prescott’s blindside. Should that happen, a ball-hawking Eagles defense could give Prescott a rude awakening following Dallas’ Week 7 bye.