There are a ton of pretty important stories to follow as the NFL season inches towards its midway point. Games in both the AFC and NFC East will have wide-ranging ramifications in terms of what transpires in those divisions moving forward.
Can the Dallas Cowboys continue their winning ways against what promises to be a game Philadelphia Eagles squad? In the AFC, the Buffalo Bills look to complete a season sweep of the New England Patriots. Can Buffalo buck a two-decade long trend and come out on top here?
Meanwhile, both the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers are pretty much facing do-or-die games in the NFC South. Carolina is doing so after a much-needed bye. In New Orleans, Drew Brees looks to continue his statistical dominance and lead the Saints to a win over the Seattle Seahawks.
These are among the top-10 storylines heading into Week 8 of the NFL season.
1. Season-defining game for the Eagles
Following a dominating 21-10 win over the previously undefeated Minnesota Vikings last week, Philadelphia can pull even in the NFC East with a win over the Dallas Cowboys at home on Sunday night.
After dropping road games to the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions prior to last week’s win, most figured the Eagles were set for a disappointing stretch. That surely didn’t happen, as its defense racked up six sacks of Sam Bradford and forced four Vikings turnovers in the aforementioned 11-point win.
Sunday night’s game is key in that it offers a two-game swing. Barring a tie, Philadelphia will either find itself in a dead heat with Dallas or two games back. With the New York Giants and Redskins just a half game behind them, this game takes on even more importance.
It’s the difference between contending for a division title heading into the midway point of the season and potentially landing in last place.
2. Do or die for Cam Newton and the Panthers
Coming off a bye, the Carolina Panthers need to get the ship righted immediately. Here’s a team that’s lost five of six to open the season and boasts as many wins as the dreadful San Francisco 49ers. That’s a shocking realization considering Carolina lost one regular season game last year.
In order for Cam Newton and Co. to have a legitimate shot at actually earning a playoff spot, they will likely have to win nine of 10 from here on out. Taking on the Arizona Cardinals at home on Sunday, this is most definitely going to be a difficult task.
First off, Arizona itself wants to revenge its humiliating loss to the Panthers in the NFC Championship game this past January. Following an unexpected tie against the Seattle Seahawks last week and taking on a downtrodden last-place team, we can expect Bruce Arians and Co. to attempt a takedown of Cam and his boys. That’s the first thing we must note here.
Secondly, Carolina simply doesn’t match up too well with this year’s version of the Cardinals. It relied on an elite-level defense in forcing seven turnovers back in January. No one expects a repeat peformance there.
Also important to note, the Panthers’ top two receiving weapons, Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin, face extremely difficult matchups in this one.
Olsen will be taking on one of the premier defenses when it comes to stopping tight ends. Led by Tyrann Mathieu, the Cardinals have allowed a 50 percent catch rate to this position on the year. Add in Benjamin taking on Patrick Peterson, and there should be real a concern for Ron Rivera’s squad.
If the Panthers can’t find a way to take out Arizona here, they’ll simply be playing out the stretch of a lost season. This, after the team headed into the campaign with Super Bowl aspirations. And in reality, Arizona would like nothing more than to make this a reality.
3. Bills attempt to complete season sweep of Pats
Even if the Buffalo Bills were able to defeat the New England Patriots on Sunday, a season sweep of their division rivals would come with an asterisk. Buffalo defeated New England 16-0 back in Week 4.
That’s the very same game that saw Rob Gronkowski play at about 50 percent and rookie mid-round pick Jacoby Brissett start under center.
That narrative of completing a season sweep of the Patriots aside, this is an absolutely huge mid-season game in the AFC East. If Tom Brady and Co. are able to come out on top in Western New York, they will boast a three-game lead in the division. Should Buffalo continue its recent strong play, Rex Ryan and Co. will pull to within one game.
History tells us something here. It’s a history that’s unfavorable to the Bills. Every time this organization seems to be turning the corner, it finds a way to kick itself in the back end. This has been the case in the 17 years since Buffalo last earned a playoff spot.
Meanwhile, the Patriots themselves have found a way to always get up for these season-defining games. It will be interesting to see if the Bills can buck this trend come Sunday.
4. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott
We’ve covered this to an extent in the past. What Prescott and Elliott have done as rookies for the Dallas Cowboys thus far this season is nothing short of amazing. It’s given hope to an organization that seemed to be kicking around in mediocrity with an aging core.
Now coming off a Week 7 bye, Dallas has an opportunity to take a stranglehold in the division. It will come at home against the second-place Philadelphia Eagles with a two-game swing in the NFC East on the line. It will also come against an Eagles team that buried the previously undefeated Minnesota Vikings at home last week.
The backdrop here, at least when looking at Prescott, is the return to football activities for Cowboys franchise signal caller Tony Romo. That might ramp up the pressure on the suddenly dynamic young signal caller. In this, there’s no telling how he’ll respond.
It’s a bit different when we look at Elliott. The rookie has tallied 569 rushing yards and three touchdowns over the past four games. He’s now on pace to put up over 2,000 total yards. Not only does this make Elliott a potential rookie of the year candidate, it puts him in the MVP conversation.
The interesting thing to look at here is that Elliott hasn’t had to perform with Prescott struggling in the passing game. Should that come to fruition Sunday night in Dallas, we’re going to want to see how the rookie running back performs.
5. Have the Chargers finally turned the corner?
It was ripe for the losing. Right there for the San Diego Chargers to blow again. It took pretty much the entire game, but Mike McCoy’s squad pulled even against the Atlanta Falcons after trailing 27-10 in the first half. It came on a 33-yard Josh Lambo field goal with just 18 seconds left.
San Diego had come all the way back to force overtime. At this point, most expected the team’s tendency of melting down late in games to come rearing its ugly head again.
This did not happen. Instead, the Chargers forced a 58-yard missed field goal from Matt Bryant before kicking their own field goal to win the game in overtime. On the hot seat for seemingly the past two seasons, McCoy showed some relief on the sideline as the Chargers won their second consecutive one-score game after opening the season 1-4.
Now, set to take on the very same Denver Broncos team they defeated earlier this month, the Chargers have an opportunity to actually find itself in the playoff conversation.
A win here would even San Diego’s record and pull it within one game of the Broncos. A loss, and the Chargers would remain alone in last place three games behind Denver. Yeah, it’s a pretty big game for Philip Rivers’ crew.
6. Can the Cleveland Browns finally net a win?
We’re getting dangerously close to legitimately looking at the possibility that Cleveland might go 0-16 this season. Losers of their first seven games, the Browns have five more outings against squads that are currently over .500. Of those other four games remaining on their schedule, two are on the road.
Set to take on another cellar-dwelling team in the New York Jets at home on Sunday, this might be Cleveland’s best opportunity to actually win a game. The Jets themselves are facing a ton of uncertainty. Todd Bowles benched Ryan Fitzpatrick in favor of Geno Smith last week, only to see Smith himself go down for the season to a torn ACL (more on that here).
All the while, Bowles now won’t commit to Fitzpatrick for the remainder of the year. That sounds eerily similar to the Browns’ quarterback situations for the better part of the past two decades.
Wait, never mind. No one can compare to what the Browns have been through at quarterback this season. All said, six different quarterbacks have taken snaps under center in seven games. That’s impressively disastrous right there.
This really can’t be the way Hue Jackson envisioned his first season in Cleveland going. And in reality, it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better. Maybe Sunday can act as a reprieve for Browns fans that have to be feeling like they’ve pissed off the football gods. If not, an historically bad season could be on the horizon.
7. Drew Brees’ historical passing numbers
We really do have to sit back in awe and take in what Brees has done from a statistical standpoint throughout his career with the Saints. It’s unprecedented. And it likely won’t be matched for a long time in the NFL.
Joe Montana can’t claim to these absurd stats. They were just pipe dreams for both Dan Fouts and Dan Marino. Sure the difference in eras play a role here, as do the offense-friendly NFL rules. That’s fine and dandy. But in no way should it discredit what Brees has accomplished.
Drew Brees' average season in 10 years with the Saints.
67.3 comp %, 4,855 passing yards, 35 TDs 15 INTs pic.twitter.com/LMPQMWEvZg
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 27, 2016
To put this into perspective, Montana never put up as much as 4,000 yards or 35 touchdowns in a single season. In fact, and when looking at this specific era, Tom Brady has matched Brees’ averages just once in his career.
Not to say that this has had a real impact on the Saints in 2016. They stand at 2-4 on the year and are on the verge of being forced to play out the string without any hope of making the playoffs.
Though, Sunday’s game against an elite Seattle Seahawks defense gives Brees an opportunity to prove he can have success against the best of the best. It also gives New Orleans an opportunity to remain somewhat alive in the NFC Playoff race.
8. Matthew Stafford looks to continue absurd season
It took Calvin Johnson, potentially the greatest player in Detroit Lions history outside of Barry Sanders, to retire. It took absolutely no running game at all. It didn’t happen until the masses wrote him off as an over-glorified fantasy football player and someone that will never live up to expectations.
Through the first seven games of the season, Stafford is completing 68 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions for a 105.7 quarterback rating.
He also has the Lions in the midst of a three-game winning streak leading up to Sunday’s contest with an elite Houston Texans defense on Sunday.
This all comes with Detroit’s defense putting up a disastrous performance itself through seven weeks, yielding an absurd 117.3 rating to opposing quarterbacks.
This could be Stafford’s coming out party. If he’s able to continue what we’ve seen thus far this season against the league’s second-best pass defense, people will take note . If not, those naysayers will find more fodder for their criticism.
9. Oakland Raiders perfect road record on the line
There’s something interesting and genuinely awesome going on in Oakland right now. At 5-2 on the season, the Raiders are tied for the second-best record in the AFC. They are also undefeated away from home. It’s hard to win one road game in the NFL. Extrapolate that through a half of season, and what Oakland is doing on the road is quite amazing.
And in reality, it’s not like the Raiders are going into venues with soft home atmospheres. They’ve already come out victorious in Baltimore, New Orleans and Tennessee on the season. Not great teams, but home-field advantages nonetheless.
Now set to take on a streaking Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad on the road this upcoming weekend, the Raiders have an opportunity to hit the midway point of the season with an astonishing 6-2 record. To put this into perspective, Oakland has won as many as six games just three times in the past 13 years.
Sunday’s matchup is intriguing for a number of reasons. Despite their success, the Raiders’ defense ranks dead last in the NFL against the pass. It is also taking on a Buccaneers passing offense that ranks fifth in the league in pass attempts per game. Needless to say, Jameis Winston will be throwing the ball all over the schoolyard.
Also important to note, Tampa Bay boasts a 3-8 record at home since the start of last season. It’s 6-5 on the road during that very same span. If history repeats itself, the Raiders will definitely find a way to have a successful Sunday afternoon in sunny Florida.
10. Important early-morning London game
The Cincinnati Bengals are coming off a season-saving blowout win over the hapless Cleveland Browns. It’s a game that saw Andy Dalton and Co. put up 559 total yards. It also pulled Cincinnati to just one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North. That came on the heels of the team losing four of its previous five games.
On the other hand, the Washington Redskins blew an incredible opportunity on the road against the Detroit Lions last week. Their defense yielded a game-winning touchdown-scoring drive by Matthew Stafford with just over a minute remaining and up by four points.
That’s unacceptable, and it pushed Washington into a tie for last place in the ultra-competitive NFC East. If Washington had found a way to close out that game, it would have entered Week 8 a half game behind Dallas in the division and in sole possession of second place. Talk about a major difference.
So while most of the games we’ve seen played in London since the inception of the international series have been pointless, this one offers us an ability to watch two playoff contenders potentially heading in different directions. Get your Starbucks ready, this promises to be fun.