Top storylines for NFL Week 9

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The second half of the NFL season kicks off this weekend with a ton of very intersting stories to follow. After what was an extremely active trade deadline, how will players perform in debuts with their new teams? Might the winless 49ers attempt to play their shiny new quarterback?

In terms of teams that are in contention, we’re intrigued to see if the red-hot New Orleans Saints can keep it rolling against a struggling Buccaneers squad. And in the AFC, the Houston Texans now have to roll without the injured Deshaun Watson under center. How will that work out Sunday?

These are among the top storylines for NFL Week 9.

Saints look to keep it rolling against struggling Bucs

New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore

Winners of five consecutive games, New Orleans is clearly in position to challenge for a division title and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Though, if the team wants to prove itself as one of the best, it will have to take care of business against lesser squads.

Sunday, that comes against a Buccaneers team that is mired in a four-game losing streak and just scored a grand total of three points in a loss to the Carolina Panthers. It’s time for New Orleans to go from darling to legit contender as the season’s second half starts.

Any sort of balance in Seattle?

The Seahawks will now turn to Eddie Lacy as their primary ball carrier. This comes after running backs combined for five yards on 16 attempts in a comeback win against the Houston Texans last week. The very same game saw Russell Wilson put up nearly 500 yards of offense.

Pete Carroll has let it be known that he wants a run-first offense in Seattle. Thus far this season, that has not come close to happening. In fact, the Seahawks are averaging just 3.7 yards per rush. Taking on a Redskins team that ranks in the bottom third of the NFL against the run, Carroll and Co. have an opportunity to stem this tide.

Quick hook for quarterbacks in Santa Clara

49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo

With Carson Palmer now out for the season, the Arizona Cardinals will turn to Drew Stanton as the team’s starter. And at 3-4 on the season, his performance will dictate whether Arizona gets back in the NFC Playoff race. If that doesn’t happen Sunday, maybe Bruce Arians turns to Blaine Gabbert.

The situation is a tad different in San Francisco. The 49ers acquired prized young quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from New England this week. He’s the long-term solution at quarterback. But head coach Kyle Shanahan indicated after the trade that there’s no guarantee Garoppolo will play this season.

With that said, he will be active and backing up rookie C.J. Beathard, who has struggled mightily in his two starts. Could San Francisco turn to Garoppolo in an attempt to earn its first win of the season? Time will tell.

Stronger out of the bye in Nashville

The Tennessee Titans have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the NFL this season. They sit at 4-3 and are tied with Jacksonville for first in the AFC South. They’ve also dropped games to the Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins on the season. Heck, Tennessee scored just 12 points in a narrow win over a hapless Colts squad back in Week 7.

In order for Tennesse to be taken more seriously in the AFC, it has to simply show more consistency. That starts with getting Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray more involved on offense. It also starts with Marcus Mariota, now seemingly healthy, performing at a higher level under center.

How this squad performs against another wildcard contender in the form of the Baltimore Ravens and their elite defense on Sunday will tell us a lot about Tennessee moving forward on the season.

Have the Falcons righted the ship?

Atlanta got a bye at the exact perfect time. It enters Week 9 having lost three of four and barely inching out a win against the New York Jets in the team’s last outing. Matt Ryan is having a disastrous season after earning the NFL MVP last year. Julio Jones is on pace for the worst statistical output of his career. This has all led to a 4-3 record and questions about Atlanta’s ability to even make the playoffs.

Did Steve Sarkisian make any adjustments on offense during the bye? If so, how will that show up Sunday against the Carolina Panthers? It’s certainly an important game given that both Atlanta and Carolina are directly behind New Orleans in the NFC South.

Jameis Winston’s struggles

Tampa Bay is coming off a three-point performance in a disastrous loss to the Carolina Panthers last week. It’s a game that saw Winston throw two interceptions. Some of Winston’s recent struggles can be attributed to a sprain in his throwing shoulder. After all, he’s now thrown just four touchdowns over the past four games. That’s not franchise quarterback stats right there.

This is going to have to change if the Buccaneers want to end their four-game losing streak Sunday. Unfortunately, it will have to come against a Saints team that’s won five consecutive games and is playing tremendous defensive football. Should that not happen, questions will continue to be raised about whether Winston is suited to be a franchise signal caller.

Playing without EzekielĀ 

At this point, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Ezekiel Elliott will have to sit at least this week’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Sure the running back has a motion filed with the courts to overturn his six-game ban, but a ruling earlier in the week pretty much means he’ll have to sit over the short term. From an on-field perspective, this is absolutely huge news for a Cowboys squad that has to take on the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday.

Young quarterback Dak Prescott has not had to play without the dominating Elliott in the backfield with him throughout his career. What happens when Prescott, not Elliott, becomes the focal point of opposing defenses? We should find out Sunday against a Chiefs defense that ranks in the bottom five of the NFL in stopping the pass.

What surprises do the Rams have after the bye?

There’s very little reason to believe that first-year head coach Sean McVay did not add more wrinkles to an already improved Rams offense during the team’s Week 8 bye. Maybe it comes in the form of getting Sammy Watkins more involved in the passing game. Heck, Sunday’s game against a Giants squad that will be without the suspended Janoris Jenkins might be a good opportunity to open up the offense a bit more.

What we do know here is that Jared Goff has improved leaps and bounds from his rookie season. Third-year running back Todd Gurley has also improved off what was a disastrous sophomore campaign. With a 5-2 record and the second-best scoring offense in the NFL, it’s quite possible the Rams could improve even more. Sunday’s game against New York will be telling.

Jaguars looking for consistency

This is pretty much all on Blake Bortles. When the quarterback fails to avoid the mistakes that have plagued him throughout his career, Jacksonville loses. When he plays relatively mistake-free football, the best defense in the NFL helps lead the team to wins. Thus far this season, Jacksonville is 3-0 when Bortles doesn’t throw a pick. It is 1-3 when he does. There’s definitely a direct correlation here.

The good news for the first-place Jaguars is that rookie running back Leonard Fournette will be back in the mix after missing Week 7’s shutout win over Indianapolis. The bad news? Bortles will be facing a Bengals defense that ranks fourth in the NFL against the pass.

Hot seat alert

There’s a ton of coaches currently on the hot seat heading into the season’s second half. That starts with the state of Ohio, where both Hue Jackson (Browns) and Marvin Lewis (Bengals) could be given their walking papers before the end of the season.

While the winless Browns are on a bye, their AFC North counterparts will be taking on a first-place Jacksonville Jaguars team on Sunday. It’s an important game for a Bengals squad that is 3-4 and coming off a less-than-inspiring win over the Indianapolis Colts last week. Should this team fall completely out of playoff contention, Lewis will likely get canned.

To a lesser extent, Chuck Pagano (Colts), Jack Del Rio (Raiders) and Jay Gruden (Redskins) are also seeing their seats hotter than they’d like. Week 9 offers these coaches and their teams an opportunity to start the second half of the season strong.

Deshaun Watson’s injury

Deshaun Watson

This dynamic rookie quarterback suffered a torn ACL in practice on Thursday, ending what was likely going to be a record-breaking campaign. To say that this is a devastating injury would be an understatement. Heck, check out how other NFL players responded to the news.

Houston, now one game back in the AFC South, will be forced to play the second half of the season without Watson. Instead, Tom Savage will take over the starting job. We know how that went in his brief stints in that role last year and for the first half of Week 1 this season. It’s not good.

Set to take on a last-place Colts team on Sunday, it will be interesting to see how Savage performs out of the gate. If it’s not good, maybe the recently signed Matt McGloin takes over under center.

Continuing the run in Philly

Philadelphia has the benefit of playing a struggling Denver Broncos squad and recently named starter Brock Osweiler at home on Sunday. It should be a game the team wins going away, but that’s why they actually play the game on the field.

Sunday will also represent Jay Ajayi’s first action with the Eagles after he was acquired from Miami during the trade deadline. It will be interesting to see how Philly splits the duties between Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount behind MVP candidate Carson Wentz in the backfield.

Redskins: Lost in translation

Losers of three of their past four games, the Redskins are in desperate need of a win this week against the Seahawks in Seattle. Obviously, that won’t come easy given that Seattle boasts a top-seven scoring defense and has limited opposing quarterbacks to nine touchdowns compared to eight picks.

The onus is really going to be on Kirk Cousins to continue stepping up his game. With 13 scores and a 103.3 passer rating through seven games, Cousins has been one of the few bright spots in D.C. But he simply has not been able to do it all himself. At this point, that has to be expected if the Skins hope to make a run at the playoffs in the second half of the season.

Brock’s story

Brock Osweiler will make his first start as a member of the Denver Broncos since their Super Bowl-winning 2015 campaign. It comes with his team mired in a major slump that has seen it lose three consecutive games while scoring a grand total of 29 points in the process.

Is Osweiler going to be a savior in Denver? No. But he’s going to have to actually manage the game, something we didn’t see during his one-year stint in Houston. This Sunday, it comes against a surprisingly good Eagles defense that ranks in the top 10 in points allowed on the season. The game is also in Philadelphia. Welcome back to a starting role, Brock.

The tale of two struggling teams

Green Bay and Detroit will take on one another Monday night in a game that will likely end one teams’ playoff aspirations. Green Bay heads into Week 9 with backup Brett Hundley forced into action after the season-ending injury to Aaron Rodgers. It is also coming off a disastrous Week 7 home showing against the New Orleans Saints.

Meanwhile, the Lions have lost four of five since a 2-0 start to the season. Three of those losses have come by a combined 12 points with Detroit’s defense struggling to do anything of substance. Green Bay may sit at 4-3 on the season, but there’s no real margin for error with Rodgers sidelined. And for the Lions, a loss here would move the team to an unrecognizable 3-5 on the season.