The halfway point of the NFL season is upon us and the hierarchy of where teams stand is starting to settle.
At the top are teams like the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles, who have an MVP candidate in their quarterback, Jalen Hurts. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Titans have won five games in a row after they dropped their first two of the season, allowing running back Derrick Henry to carry the team. Still, a tough test ahead may be a better indication of where Tennessee sits in the balance of power.
An interesting team that’s difficult to read is the Miami Dolphins, whose offense has been explosive but whose defense has been inconsistent, especially away from Miami.
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Here are the winners and losers from Week 8 in the NFL.
Are the Titans back? That depends …
After losing their first two games, the Titans have corrected course and appear closer to the team that was the No. 1 seed in the AFC last season. And after appearing to be rather disjointed, offensively, Tennessee, once again, is a dominant rushing team that excels in the red zone.
The Titans crafted a game plan in which rookie quarterback Malik Willis (6-of-10 for 55 yards with no touchdowns and one interception) was not asked to throw and Derrick Henry ran the ball 32 times for 219 yards with a pair of touchdowns. Still, Tennessee’s (5-2) rise to first place in the AFC South should be considered with something of a grain of salt; the opponents they have beaten during their winning streak — the Colts (twice), Commanders, Texans and Raiders — have a combined record of 13-22-3. Tennessee has the Chiefs (5-2), in Arrowhead, coming next. That’s a much better barometer of where the team stands.
The line play of the Buffalo Bills
This was not the vintage Green Bay Packers team the Bills toppled Sunday night, but the Bills showed just how complete a team they are this season. One area that’s not getting nearly enough attention is Buffalo’s play along both the offensive and defensive lines.
The Bills, after the offseason addition of Von Miller, can generate a pass rush with only four players. That has allowed defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier to drop more players in coverage to congest passing zones for opponents like Aaron Rodgers. On the other side, Buffalo committed to running the ball and posted a season-high 154 rushing yards And when the Bills ask quarterback Josh Allen to stand back in the pocket, they, by and large, have protected well; Allen released his passes in an average of 3.2 seconds, third-most in the NFL for Week 8.
The upstart Falcons
It may be the ugliest division in football, but the upstart Falcons, behind a versatile rushing attack, are at the top. But Atlanta is more than Marcus Mariota in the read-option game. In a wild, back-and-forth victory against the Panthers in which the Falcons (4-4) took sole control of first place of the division, Mariota led the Falcons through an offensive explosion through the fourth quarter.
While Atlanta may not be a team that appears to be threatening the top-tier squads in the NFC, the Falcons have managed to keep games close. Six of Atlanta’s eight games have been decided by one score. The defense is still a weakness, but Mariota has targeted tight end Kyle Pitts with more frequency in the red zone and is developing a rapport with other targets like Damiere Byrd. As the rest of the division flounders, that may be enough for Atlanta to be a darkhorse playoff team.
The Jalen Hurts MVP campaign
Not only are the Eagles (7-0) the NFL’s lone undefeated team, their quarterback, Jalen Hurts, has been playing pristine football. Philadelphia has taken care of the football, joining the 2017 Chiefs as the only team with two or fewer turnovers through their first seven games.
Philadelphia’s turnover margin of plus-14 is so good that the next closest teams are less than half as proficient, at plus-6. The star of the show, among others, has been Hurts. He has accounted for 16 of the team’s 25 touchdowns and 2,102 of Philadelphia’s total yards from scrimmage. His QB rating of 105.1 is fifth-best in the NFL. The Steelers aren’t the toughest opponent, but Hurts threw four touchdowns against them and the shortest one went for 27 yards. He has also shown that he can rush the ball when needed. And, this season, he might just be the most important player to his team.
The Rams are an average team
It’s time to start worrying about the Rams. The defending Super Bowl champions are a shell of themselves on offense and missing the playoffs altogether appears to be not just a narrative about a possible hangover, but a very real possibility.
The offensive line is a key issue. While the Rams (3-4) gave up only two sacks, the line’s inability to protect quarterback Matthew Stafford has disrupted the timing and structure of the offense. The second half against the 49ers was perfect proof of that. Stafford was under constant duress and went just 5-of-12 for 37 yards in the third and fourth quarters. The Rams failed to score a point in the second half and allowed San Francisco to score 24 unanswered to end the game. Los Angeles does not have a rushing game (ranked 31st with 68.4 yards per game) and, aside from Cooper Kupp, who left the game late with an ankle injury, the Rams don’t have another dangerous pass catcher.
The Dolphins D on the road
The Dolphins (5-3) are in the race in a crowded AFC East, but they have a flaw that could hinder them as the season wears on. Miami’s defense is wildly inconsistent, especially when playing on the road. The Dolphins erased a pair of 14-point deficits to beat the Lions but they let the Lions score on each of their first five possessions, all of which came in the first half.
The good news was the Dolphins corrected their issues — pre-snap penalties, tackling effort, blown coverages — in the second half and shut Detroit out after intermission. In Miami’s four home games this season, it’s allowing an average of 15 points per game and 335.8 yards per game. The Dolphins have also forced seven turnovers and 11 sacks. Contrast that to the defense’s performance in four games away from Hard Rock Stadium: 33 points per game allowed, 389.8 yards allowed per game, no turnovers forced and four sacks.
Zach Wilson’s presence in the pocket
Some of the better passers in the NFL who are active in the pocket — think Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow — often buy time and allow their receivers to get open with their footwork. But when they operate in the pocket, they’re measured and decisive. Zach Wilson (20-of-41 for 355 yards with two touchdowns versus three interceptions) is not. Far too often, he turns and spins and retreats; he throws off his back foot, into double coverages. He has five interceptions this season and his QB rating of 71 is second-to-last for qualifying players.
The Jets (5-3) are far better this season. Even with a tough torn ACL to running back Breece Hall last week, they have young, athletic talent at several key positions. Still, the Jets will remain in mediocrity as long as Wilson’s decision making and pocket presence remains chaotic, undisciplined and ineffective.
The Raiders march to irrelevance
For the first time since November 2014, the Raiders were shut out. This one was particularly difficult to take. The first play Las Vegas ran in New Orleans territory in the entire game came at the two-minute warning … at the end of the game.
This season, the Raiders (2-5) are quickly approaching irrelevance and the defense is the primary culprit. It entered Sunday as the only team to have allowed a touchdown on every single trip opponents have taken in goal-to-go scenarios. That didn’t change, as the Saints converted on their sole trip. Vegas entered 26th in third down defense; it let the Saints convert 7-of-12 attempts. But the offense, which entered Sunday as the league’s third-best scoring offense (27.2 points per game), completely let the team down. Davante Adams caught one pass on five targets for 3 yards. The Raiders were outgained 367-183. They’re already three games back in the AFC West.