The NFL season has hit its halfway point, and there still isn’t much clarity when it comes to the playoff race.
The Chiefs, Broncos, Seahawks, Saints and probably the Bengals seem like pretty safe locks for the postseason, but outside of those five things are pretty hazy. The Patriots head into Week 9 at 6-2, but Tom Brady’s accuracy troubles and a rash of injuries have their season very much unstable. The Colts seemed ready to break through after taking down Peyton Manning and the Broncos two weeks ago, but now Andrew Luck will have to deal without Reggie Wayne. The Packers finally seem to have found their way, winning four in a row, but their defense still remains a question mark.
Moving away from those eight teams, it seems like anything can happen. Exactly half of the 32 NFL teams are at or above .500, and there are another four teams creeping just below that line. The Cowboys lead the NFC East despite a 4-4 record, and all four teams, including the once 0-6 Giants, remain in contention for the division crown. The NFC North is equally as competitive, with the Packers clinging tightly to the top spot as the Lions and Bears nip at their heels.
The Panthers and Raiders still have playoff hopes despite being castoffs before the season began, while five playoff teams from last season (Falcons, Ravens, Redskins, Texans and Vikings) are barely hanging on. It seems the NFL’s parity party will continue for at least another week. So, let’s dive into the parity pool and see what sorts of things emerged in Week 8.
**Editor’s Note: Each week, I’ll break down 10 thoughts from around the NFL in the NESN.com “First and 10.” That being said, here are 10 more thoughts from around the NFL after another week of football.
1. Gronk not helping Brady much — The return of Rob Gronkowski was a major point of emphasis for the Patriots’ offense this season, but he hasn’t done as much to help Tom Brady as you might assume. Through two games with Gronkowski, Brady’s completion percentage is actually lower (51.5 percent) than in the six games played without the tight end (56.9 percent). Brady has also thrown just one touchdown and two interceptions — both on passes intended for Gronkowski — since Gronk’s return in comparison to the eight touchdowns and four picks before.
The biggest difference in Brady’s play since Gronkowski’s return, though, has been his effectiveness on passes targeting the tight end. In the 43 games that the two played in together before this season, Brady completed 71.4 percent of his passes intended for Gronkowski (187 of 262) to go along with 38 touchdowns and just two interceptions. This season, though, Brady has completed just 43.4 percent of those targets (10 of 23) with two interceptions and not a single touchdown.
More time spent together on the field should help alter these numbers, but those struggles are at least a concern for the passing game right now.
2. Dalton did something Brady never has — Speaking of Brady and the abnormal, Andy Dalton did something on Sunday that Brady never has. The Bengals quarterback threw five touchdown passes against the Jets’ defense on Sunday, marking something that Brady hasn’t been able to do in 24 regular-season meetings. In fact, Brady’s thrown four touchdowns against the Jets just once in his career — that 45-3 spanking in Foxboro in 2010.
Dalton’s accomplishment isn’t as much an indictment of Brady as praise for the Bengals quarterback. Dalton has been the better quarterback this season, completing 65.6 percent (eighth in the NFL) of his passes, throwing for 2,249 yards (fourth) and hitting on 16 touchdowns (fourth) to just seven interceptions. He’s also thrown 11 touchdowns over the last three games, which just so happens to be a record for Cincinnati quarterbacks. None of those numbers mean he’s better than Brady in the slightest, but he has been damn good.
3. Learn the name — Robert Quinn‘s rookie season wasn’t anything to write home about (five sacks in 15 games), causing some to question whether he was worth the Rams’ 14th overall selection in the 2011 draft. Less than two seasons later, Quinn has established himself as one of the NFL’s best pass rushers. He’s racked up 20 1/2 sacks in the Rams’ last 24 games, and his 10 this season rank in the NFL through Week 8. If he wasn’t on the league’s radar before Monday night, his three-sack performance against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks should elevate him into that category among the league’s best pass rushers.
4. Cincy’s found a complement to A.J. Green — The Bengals’ receiving corps still begins and ends with A.J. Green, but Dalton may finally have a worthy complement to his No. 1 target. Marvin Jones burst onto the scene on Sunday, catching eight passes for 122 yards, including four touchdowns, as the Bengals torched the Jets. Jones has quietly emerged as the Bengals’ No. 2 wideout in recent weeks, catching 24 passes and now a team-high seven touchdowns on the season. His presence should help take some pressure off Green on the outside and give Dalton more options in tight spots.
5. The Vikings are bumbling idiots — Leslie Frazier doesn’t know who’s starting at quarterback for him week to week, yet he continues to let the quarterbacks’ equivalent of The Walking Dead — Josh Freeman and Christian Ponder — sling it like they’re Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers.
Adrian Peterson had just 13 carries on Sunday, marking the third straight week that AP has rushed 13 times or fewer — the first such streak in his career. Peterson, who, mind you, gained over 2,000 yards and won the MVP last season, is averaging 4.5 yards per carry on the year and has accounted for more touchdowns than Freeman and Ponder combined this year.
6. Chiefs are lost without Charles — Aside from Peyton Manning, no one has been more valuable to their team than Jamaal Charles this season. The Chiefs are 8-0 following a dismal 2-14 campaign a season ago, and it’s due in no small part to Charles’ emergence. Through half the season, Charles leads the Chiefs’ offense in rushing yards (635), receiving yards (383) and receptions (41). The last time any player did that for his team for an entire season was in 1998, when Marshall Faulk still donned a Colts jersey every Sunday. What Charles is doing is unprecedented, so it’s no surprise he’s hot on Peyton’s trail for the MVP.
7. Josh Gordon is a top-10 wide receiver already — This is the second straight week that I’m praising a young Browns player, but Josh Gordon deserves it. Gordon is 15th in the NFL in receiving yards this season with 583, which is even more impressive considering he missed the first two games of this season while serving a suspension. Between his solid rookie season (50 catches, 960 yards and five touchdowns) and his current campaign (32 catches and three touchdowns), Gordon is already asserting himself among the 10 best receivers in the league — not to mention he’s doing it with some putrid Browns quarterbacks. At this point, only Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Julio Jones (IR), Wes Welker, Larry Fitzgerald and maybe Brandon Marshall are worth more for my money.
8. Cam has the Panthers looking like a playoff team — The Panthers have a three-game winning streak going, and it’s due in large part to Cam Newton. The former No. 1 overall pick is finally living up to the billing, and his impressive numbers don’t even tell the full story. Newton is completing better than 77 percent of his passes during the winning streak, and he’s accounted for eight touchdowns (six passing, two rushing) compared to no turnovers during that span. His leadership both in the huddle and on the sidelines has been the biggest change, though. He’s taken a noticeably more active role in the offense and finally seems confident in the players around him. With Cam in high gear, the Panthers look like a playoff team, and one that teams will want to avoid come January. Heck, he might even save Ron Rivera‘s job if he keeps it up.
9. Lacy makes the Packers’ offense even more dangerous — Aaron Rodgers does plenty to instill fear in defenses. Eddie Lacy is doing his part to make the Packers’ offense that much more fearsome. Since returning from his concussion, Lacy has averaged just under 100 yards per game (98.7), not to mention he’s helped balance out what has historically been a pass-heavy offense with Rodgers at the helm. In the four games since his return, the Packers have a perfect 50-50 split between run and pass plays (134 and 134), with Lacy taking 73 percent of those carries. He’s also been clutch on third downs, rushing for first downs on six of his eight third-down carries this season. Rodgers will continue to be the focal point of the offense, but for the first time in recent memory, the Packers also have a running back to rely on.
10. It might surprise you who leads rookies in sacks — There were 48 defensive lineman selected in this year’s NFL draft, and this season’s rookie sack leader was taken 38th among them. Patriots defensive tackle Chris Jones went through two teams within the first six months of his NFL career, and it turns out that the third time was the charm for him. Since joining the Patriots in Week 3, Jones has recorded 4 1/2 sacks in just five games. Of the 37 chosen before him, only the Browns’ Barkevious Mingo has even four sacks halfway through the season. Jones is likely benefiting from a much-improved Patriots pass rush, but seeing him atop the rookie sack standings is at the very least a shock.
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