Top 10 storylines for NFL Week 9

Even with some of the top teams on a bye, Week 9 presents us with a ton of stories to focus on. At the season’s midway point, games become increasingly more important. They also tend to be better played, especially when looking at potential playoff contenders.

While the Oakland Raiders’ home game against the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football definitely stands out, there’s stories to be had around the rest of the NFL world.

The Dallas Cowboys and their two amazing rookies head to Cleveland in an attempt to win a seventh consecutive game. Meanwhile, the Browns are just looking for that one single win to avoid history.

Over in the AFC, a northern division battle between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers represents a two-game swing. Who will come out on top in that one?

These are among the top-10 storylines for NFL Week 9.

1. Raiders look to show they’re among the AFC’s best

NFL Week 4, Michael Crabtree, Derek Carr

More than attempting to gain sole possession of first place in the AFC West, the Oakland Raiders are looking to prove to skeptics that they belong in the conversation with the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos of the world.

It’s been a mighty big climb for a Raiders organization that’s gone through so many lean years since its last playoff appearance back in 2002. Should Jack Del Rio and Co. find a way to defeat Denver at home on Sunday Night Football, it would be a season-defining win.

More than that, it would bring the Raiders from playoff contender to potential title conference contender. That’s not an overreaction. It’s the simple truth based on what this team did in the first half of the season.

A perfect 5-0 record on the road. An MVP candidate at quarterback. One of the top-three offenses in the NFL. That’s what the Raiders bring to the table in their huge inter-divisional matchup with the defending champion Broncos.

This one game could define where the Raiders’ season is headed down the stretch. Will they be battling for a top-two seed and a first-round playoff bye or are we looking at nothing more than a wild card contender here? Should Oakland take out the Broncos in front of a national audience, we will likely have our answer here.

2. A blip on the radar or major struggles for Russell Wilson?

We already know Wilson has been dealing with myriad of injuries thus far on the season. A pectoral injury following injuries to both the knee and ankle. No matter the cause, and it’s likely due to him being banged up, Wilson simply hasn’t been himself throughout the first half of the year.

After accounting for 35 total touchdowns a season ago, Wilson has tallied five total scores in seven starts this year. It’s not a coincidence that Seattle ranks 29th in scoring offense after finishing the 2015 campaign with the fourth-most points in the NFL.

Now, at just 4-2-1 on the season after going winless in their past two outings, the Seahawks desperately need to get back on track Monday night against the Buffalo Bills.

After all, Pete Carroll’s squad is just one game ahead of both the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams in the win column in the NFC West. That’s not exactly an ideal scenario for Seattle considering just how mediocre this division has been through eight weeks.

More bad news here. While Seattle’s home-field advantage is well known, it’s the Bills’ defense that’s performed extremely well away from Western New York recently. In Buffalo’s four road outings this season, it is yielding an average of just 15 points per game.

Couple that with Seattle’s recent struggles on offense, and we could be looking at a potential upset come Monday night. It’s going to be on Wilson to up his game in order for Seattle to avoid this possibility.

3. Winning streak for Cam and Co.? 

dual threat NFL quarterbacks, Cam Newton

It may seem a bit absurd considering the Carolina Panthers are 2-5 on the season, but they’re not completely out of the NFC South race heading into Week 9. By virtue of an absolutely huge win over Arizona last week, the defending conference champs are just two games behind Atlanta in the loss column.

We mentioned last week that Carolina would likely have to win nine of its final 10 games to be considered a serious playoff contender. After Atlanta upset the Green Bay Packers last week, this remains true. Though, that one win could potentially set off a long streak for Cam Newton and his previously struggling squad.

In order for this to even be mentioned as a possibility, Carolina has to go into Los Angeles and take care of business against the Rams.

Losers of three consecutive after a 3-1 start to the season, Jeff Fisher and the Rams are also in desperate need of a win here. They’re not completely out of the NFC West picture just yet and are looking to use last week’s bye as a way to calm the storm that’s led this team down mediocrities path over the past several seasons.

If Carolina anticipates this being a walk in the park, it’s most definitely going to be in for a rude awakening come Sunday afternoon in the city of angels.

Los Angeles has held Seattle and Arizona to a combined 16 points in two games this season. Its defense is more than capable of going up against talented offenses and coming out on top.

Considering just how poor Carolina has been in terms of pass protection, that has to be a major concern for Ron Rivera. And in reality, it could doom the team’s season just one week after what appeared to be a major win.

4. Continued drama in San Francisco

Losers of six consecutive following a season-opening win, the San Francisco 49ers come out of their bye to host a potent New Orleans Saints attack. It’s also a Saints team that’s won three of its past four after an 0-3 start to the season.

Simply put, Chip Kelly’s squad needs to find a way to get back on track. It’s not about playoff contention. That’s pretty much done with. Heck, it was done with after three weeks. Instead, it’s all bout quieting the speculation that changes could be coming for what has quickly become one of the worst franchises in professional football.

Outscored by a combined 103 points over the past six games, San Francisco is the least competitive team in football right now. This speaks to issues in terms of coaching. But more than that, it speaks to talent issues. That’s the primary problem here.

People might want to call for Chip Kelly’s head after just one season. Heck, he might want to get out of dodge after one year. But expecting him to work a miracle with one of the least-talented rosters in the NFL is absurd. And in reality, that speaks to the poor job Trent Baalke has done as the team’s general manager.

Add in the continued issues surrounding the public perception of CEO Jed York, and it’s possible we could be in for another drama-filled late-season stretch in Santa Clara. Defeating New Orleans at home wouldn’t change this. It, however, would stop the bleeding.

5. Titans looking to play their way into playoff conversation

At 4-4 on the season, the Tennessee Titans find themselves just one game behind Houston in the AFC South. This has been made possible by wins in three of their past four games, including blowout victories over Miami and Jacksonville.

Now heading to Southern California to take on the San Diego Chargers, Tennessee has an opportunity to find itself over .500 to start the season’s second half. And while playoff contention itself might seem absurd, second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota has made sure to prove skeptics wrong during the Titans’ recent stretch of success.

It’s not a coincidence that Tennessee is averaging 30 points per game during this span. With a win over San Diego on Sunday, the Titans will be on a streak of four wins in their past five games. To put that into perspective, this team went 6-30 in its previous 36 games. Yeah, we wouldn’t sleep on Super Mario and his boys here.

6. Two-game swing at play in AFC North

This division could be an utter cluster mess heading down the stretch. Pittsburgh leads the AFC North with a 4-3 record. Meanwhile, Cincinnati comes in second at 4-3-1 with the Ravens boasting a 3-4 mark in third place.

Sunday’s game between the Steelers and Ravens doesn’t only represent a two-game swing in the division, it could set into motion a scenario where all three of these squads boast four losses heading into Week 10.

Ben Roethlisberger likely returns to action in this one. He does so at the most-important time in Pittsburgh’s season. After starting the season with four wins in their first five games, the Steelers have lost two consecutive and are scoring an average of 15.5 points during that span. In fact, Mike Tomlin’s squad has been outscored by 26 points in these two games.

In the same vein, Baltimore has also struggled after starting the season with three consecutive wins. It is in the midst of a four-game losing streak, having lost those four games by a combined 19 points. Maybe it’s the Ravens margin for error showing itself, but this is the same squad that won its first three games by a combined 13 points.

What is the story to be told here? Well, it’s rather obvious we should expect a close game between these two division rivals. And in reality, the outcome in Baltimore on Sunday could shape the AFC North race for the remainder of the season.

7. Cowboys rodeo heads to Ohio

Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott

Winners of six consecutive, the Dallas Cowboys are currently the talk of the league. Led by an all-rookie backfield, Dallas owns the best record in the NFC and is just a half game behind New England for the best mark in the entire NFL.

It’s primarily been due to the play of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott that has Dallas on the cusp of being mentioned as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Prescott has the Cowboys ranked fourth in the NFL in scoring and boasts the eighth-best quarterback rating in the league. Meanwhile, Elliott ranks first in the NFL in rushing and is averaging five yards per tote. Heck, Elliott could potentially warrant a conversation as the league’s MVP heading into the second half of the season.

Despite this, there has to be some concern of a letdown in Cleveland on Sunday. Sure the Browns are 0-8 on the year. That’s well documented. They’ve also lost four of those games by a combined 16 points.

Whenever a young team heads on the road in the NFL, there’s always a worry that struggles will follow. This happened for a half of football against the one-win 49ers back in October. Dallas was actually down 14-0 in that game at Levi’s Stadium before mounting a second-half comeback. Similar early struggles here could dim the good mood currently taking hold in Big D right now.

8. Eagles and Giants battling to remain relevant in NFC East

By virtue of their late-game meltdown against Dallas last Sunday night, the Eagles are two games behind their counterparts in the NFC East. They are also practically in a tie with the New York Giants and Washington Redskins for second place in the division. Heck, the half-glass-empty skeptic in us could say all three are tied for last place.

What we do know, especially with Dallas taking on the winless Browns, is that the loser of this game will likely be three games back in the NFC East heading into Week 10. Equally as important, said team will boast a 4-4 mark in a conference that will require nine or 10 wins to make the playoffs.

Philadelphia is coming off a disastrous loss to the aforementioned Cowboys. It somehow needs to right the ship with a rookie quarterback starting and while in the midst of three losses in its past four games. Unfortunately, Carson Wentz has been anything but good over that four-game stretch.

It goes without saying that Philadelphia’s point-per-game average has dropped from over 30 per game in those first three outings to 24.3 over the past month. With all three of their losses coming by one score, that could be the difference between 4-3 and 6-1 for the Eagles.

On the other hand, New York headed into its bye with two consecutive wins after dropping three in a row. That streak came on the heels of the team dropping its first two to open the season. Yeah, that Ravens-like inconsistency right there.

For the Giants it’s all about improving on offense. This unit seemed prepared to take the next step in Ben McAdoo’s first season as its head coach.

That obviously hasn’t happened with regression taking hold across the board. New York is down to 26th in the NFL in scoring after finishing in the top six last season. New York simply needs to find a way to come out of its bye clicking on all cylinders. Should that not happen, its mini two-game winning streak will be a thing of the past, much like the team’s already fading division title hopes.

9. Righting the ship in Minnesota

The Vikings’ 5-0 start to the season seemed a tad watered down. Sure Sam Bradford was playing lights out at quarterback. The team’s defense was also standing on its head throughout the first quarter of the season.

But most had to expect some sort of regression moving forward with the Vikings’ starting quarterback, running back and left tackle lost to serious injuries. The margin for error simply wasn’t there.

It took until Week 7 for this to come to fruition, but it’s been pretty darn ugly over the past two games. Minnesota still ranks first in the NFL in total defense and points allowed. It has also forced four turnovers (all against Philadelphia) during this two-game slide.

Unfortunately, Bradford and the Vikings’ offense isn’t holding up their end of the bargain. They’ve scored just 20 points and have tallied less than 600 total yards in the two games (both losses) since the team’s bye. This needs to change in a hurry, starting Sunday against the Detroit Lions in Minnesota.

It also comes at a time of tremendous change in Minnesota. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner shocked the NFL world by resigning on Wednesday, leaving Pat Shurmur to run the team’s offense moving forward on the season.

The good news here is that Bradford and Co. are primed to break out of their funk against an incredibly weak Lions pass defense.

Should their struggles continue against this horrendous unit, it will be a sign of major problems for the NFC North-leading Vikings moving forward into the second half of the season.

10. Chuck Pagano finally coaching for his job?

This has to be it for Pagano, right? Win or go home, as the folks would say. With Indianapolis at 3-5 on the season and heading into a bye Week 10, it’s put up or shut up time for the team’s embattled head coach.

No amount of support from the owner or general manager can sway the opinion that the Colts have to move on from Pagano should they hit that bye with a 3-6 record and pretty much out of the AFC Playoff picture.

There’s nothing else that can really be said here. Andrew Luck’s prime is rotting away as a member of a talent-stricken squad. The coaching staff appears overmatched on a weekly basis.

And a loss in Green Bay against a struggling Packers team would pretty much put a nail in the coffin of the Colts’ season. Unless Jim Irsay plans on hanging on to Pagano beyond the 2016 season, there’s no way he can keep the coach employed into Week 10 with a loss Sunday afternoon. Right?