NFL Week 8: Expert Takeaways from Sunday's Action
Unlike last week, when the prime-time tilt between the Denver Broncos and Indianapolis Colts was the talk of the town, the Week 8 slate in the NFL didn't really have a marquee matchup.
That doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of action. The undefeated Kansas City Chiefs won again. The winless Jacksonville Jaguars lost again. With a huge win over the New York Jets, the Cincinnati Bengals sent a message that they, too, are in the conversation as a Super Bowl contender.
As we do every week, we've asked each of the NFL National Lead Writers and Division Lead Writers here at Bleacher Report to offer their biggest takeaways from Week 8.
Here's what they had to say, beginning with a big game in the Motor City.
Calvin Johnson's Statement Game Leads to a Lions Victory
In case you were out Sunday and hadn't heard, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson had sort of a big game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Like, second-most receiving yards in a game ever big.
Fourteen catches, 329 yards, one touchdown...zero tantrums.
On and off the field, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson showed why he is the superior talent after an absurd week of comparisons with Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant. It was a conversation born and bred in the fantasy football-centric culture in which we live.
Can Bryant explode statistically like Johnson on occasion? Absolutely.
Is Bryant a phenomenal athlete like Johnson? Actually, no.
People forget that Johnson was one of the most singular athletes in draft prospect history just a few years ago. Like the scouts who made the absurd comparison to Miami Heat star LeBron James, onlookers see "Megatron" as a tall, fast guy and fail to realize that at 6'5", 236 pounds with a 4.35 40-yard dash and a 42.5-inch vertical, per NFLDraftScout.com, he's one of the tallest and fastest guys in history.
Dez Bryant is a fantastic athlete, but c'mon.
Moreover, Johnson has never had even a hint of a "diva" attitude in his time in Detroit. Even when the team was 0-16, he was a good soldier and played on with a pu pu platter of the NFL's worst quarterbacks throwing to him. These days, he has a great young franchise passer in Matthew Stafford, but even then he has to bail his QB out at times.
Johnson is a singular athlete and receiver in the NFL. Comparisons fall short because they are forced. After Sunday's head-to-head performance, the latest comparison just looks laughable.
You mad, Dez Bryant?
Dez Bryant Is Terrifying, in More Ways Than One
Of course, there was a flip side to Johnson's performance.
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, who compared himself to Johnson earlier this week, had a sideline meltdown during the Dallas loss.
As NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman points out, that tantrum and his two touchdown catches against the Lions are just the latest examples of the duality of Dez:
Dez Bryant is a terrific talent. Dez Bryant can be great. Dez Bryant is also a selfish jerk who can't be trusted.
This is the only way to explain Dez Bryant. He is both frighteningly talented and scarily immature. His multiple sideline blowups during the Lions game didn't just embarrass the Cowboys; they shamed the entire league. It seemed Bryant was more concerned about his stats—and how Calvin Johnson was setting records—than whether Dallas was winning or losing.
Guys get into heated arguments all the time, but this seemed different. Jason Witten is one of the true professionals in the sport. If you're arguing with him that ferociously, that's a you problem.
Before that, Bryant went after Tony Romo and the Dallas coaches.
He is scary good.
He is also a player who can't be trusted.
Both things can be true.
A Hurting Jimmy Graham Is Still a Top-Notch TE
As the New Orleans Saints prepared for their Week 8 tussle with the Buffalo Bills, the big storyline was the injured foot of superstar tight end Jimmy Graham.
A clearly hobbled Graham caught two scoring passes in a 35-17 New Orleans win. According to NFC South Lead Writer Knox Bardeen, that performance only serves to underscore Graham's greatness:
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham was targeted just three times on Sunday and played almost entirely in short-yardage and third-down situations. He still caught two touchdown passes and made a huge impact on the game.
Limited because of a partially torn plantar fascia—a foot injury that’s incredibly painful and nagging—Graham was a game-time decision after being listed as questionable on the Saints' injury report Friday. He got to the Superdome early Sunday for extra treatment, according to Fox Sports analyst Jay Glazer, and wasn't sure about being able to play through the pain until he tested his foot just before the game.
The pain didn't slow Graham's ability to score touchdowns.
There's a chance this injury will be something that lingers for some time, but Graham showed Sunday against the Buffalo Bills that he's going to be effective while playing through the pain.
As long as wide receiver Kenny Stills, who had 129 yards receiving and two touchdown catches Sunday, continues building his relationship with quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints can afford to give Graham all the time he needs to fully heal.
In this situation, a 60 percent Graham is far better than the alternative of sitting him—as long as it doesn't stunt his progress of returning to full health.
The 49ers Have Won Five Playing Physical Football
They traveled a long way to do it, but after thrashing the Jacksonville Jaguars 42-10 in London, the San Francisco 49ers have now won five games in a row.
As NFL National Lead Writer Matt Bowen reports, the 49ers have done it by going back to what they do best:
No team in the NFL is going to throw a parade after beating up on the Jaguars. I get it. We all do. That's a bad football team.
And we should have expected the 49ers to whip the Jaguars over in London.
However, Jim Harbaugh's team has won five in a row. And I think it's done it quietly with execution on both sides of the ball and the most physical offense you will find in the NFL.
In terms of a game plan, there isn't a team in the league that utilizes its "big" personnel better than the 49ers. This offense will create matchups in the passing game with its tight ends and generate angles in the run game out of multiple formations to produce in downhill schemes.
And that doesn't include the production from both Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore in the read-option scheme that has come back into play for the 49ers the last two weeks.
Yes, the 49ers can use spread and empty looks with their Tank (one wide receiver, two tight ends, two running backs) or Heavy (one wide receiver, three tight ends, one running back) personnel on the field. But I love it when they tighten down the formation, tell you where they are going with the ball and dare you to stop it.
This is old-school football as I see it. Win up front, put a helmet on someone and move the sticks. Physically outplay your opponent and control the line of scrimmage.
I know we are stuck with the rhetoric of the NFL becoming a "passing league," but I'll take Harbaugh's offense right now if I'm going to win a football game.
There's No Doubt About It: Terrelle Pryor Is the Oakland Raiders' Future
The Oakland Raiders defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 21-18 in Week 8, due in large part to another big game on the ground from quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
Pryor rumbled for 106 yards on the day, including a 93-yard score that's the longest ever by a quarterback.
NFL National Lead Writer Ty Schalter has seen enough of Pryor to know that he's the future under center for the Silver and Black:
On the surface, it seemed like little was at stake as the Oakland Raiders hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game featured two teams hoping to take a step forward from 2012, but stuck in the basement of their respective divisions with the season nearly half over.
The loser of this game would be doomed to playing for the future—and, in all likelihood, the winner would be too.
The future, though, is exactly what the Raiders found.
Terrelle Pryor, who elevated his stock from "lucky to be on the roster" to "might have a shot to start" with his preseason performances, closed the gap from "starter for now" to "quarterback of the future" on the very first play against the Steelers.
We know Pryor has otherworldly physical potential, and he knows it too. Pryor told NFL.com's Albert Breer, "I know I can do things other people can't," and he certainly showed that Sunday.
Pryor also told Breer, "What I'm focused on is doing my job, getting better at being a quarterback." The Raiders leaned heavily on Darren McFadden and the running game after that, and Pryor threw a couple of interceptions that kept the Raiders from burying the Steelers early.
The important part: Neither was a bad decision or even a bad throw.
Pryor slightly overthrew Brice Butler after a brilliant scramble and deep throw, and Steelers safety Troy Polamalu just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The other was a Butler bobble that, again, was plucked out of the air by a fortunate Steelers defender.
Pryor has proven he can put the Raiders in the lead with great plays and keep the Raiders in the lead with safe plays. "I'm trying to live in the present, not the future," Pryor told Breer. And so should Raiders fans—because for the first time in a long time, their future at quarterback is secure.
Marvin Jones Is the Bengals' New Not-so-Secret Weapon
The most convincing win of Week 8 belongs to the Cincinnati Bengals, who destroyed the New York Jets 49-9.
As AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst writes, the blowout served as a coming-out party for Cincinnati wideout Marvin Jones:
Coming into Week 8, Cincinnati Bengals second-year wide receiver Marvin Jones had 16 receptions, 247 receiving yards and three touchdowns on the season. Often thought of as the next-best option to be the Bengals' No. 2 receiver behind Mohamed Sanu, Jones had played half or less of all Bengals offensive snaps in the first seven games of the season.
That is likely to change after what Jones accomplished in his team's 49-9 destruction of the New York Jets in Week 8. Of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's five touchdowns, Jones was responsible for four of them, including three in the first half. Jones caught all eight of the passes Dalton threw his way for 122 yards—nearly half of his production on the year prior to this week.
If the Bengals considered Jones a secret weapon, the secret is out after his impressive Week 8 performance.
The Bengals' goal on offense this year was to make Dalton's third season as smooth and consistent as possible. They drafted tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard in April to pair with Sanu and Jones, both drafted in 2012, and stellar wideout A.J. Green, taken in 2011. Of all of these young players, Jones is the most surprising breakout candidate, but the breakout is certainly welcome.
In the past three weeks, Dalton has thrown for over 300 yards, and Jones' production has increased in kind. His 71 and 57 receiving yards in Weeks 6 and 7 were his two highest totals of the year before Sunday, and he caught seven of 11 passes thrown to him in that span. A good game from Jones seemed in the cards, though no one could have predicted what came against the Jets.
Quarterbacks are often only as good as their receivers. They must have receivers who are able to make plays, run accurate routes, be where the quarterback anticipates them to be and, most importantly, produce touchdowns. Dalton is greatly aided by performances like Jones'. Now, opposing defenses have more to plan for than the dangerous Green and the Bengals’ two-tight end offense.
Jones is a clear weapon, though he may no longer slide under teams' radars after this week.
The AFC West Is the Best Division in Football
OK, so maybe AFC West Lead Writer Christopher Hansen is a bit biased. After all, the AFC West is his beat, and he follows the teams in it closely.
However, you can't deny that Hansen has a point when he calls the AFC West the NFL's top division in 2013:
One division has the top two teams in football based on record. That same division is 19-5 in non-division games and has scored 219 more points than its opponents. It's..wait for it...the AFC West.
Coming into the season, the AFC West looked like the worst division in football. The division had the talent-depleted Oakland Raiders and the transitioning Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers. About the only thing predictable has been the Denver Broncos.
The Raiders lack talent but have been anything but pushovers, dominating the Steelers in the first half to hang on for a 21-18 win in Week 8. The 8-0 Chiefs were coming off a terrible season just hoping to be respectable, but their defense has been amazing, and they won on Sunday.
The AFC West was 3-0 on Sunday, proving that midway through the season, it's the best division in football. Maybe the division has played a soft schedule, but it has no control over who it plays. The AFC West is just winning—a lot.
The Chargers might be doing more with less than any team in the league.
The worst team in the AFC West is the 3-4 Raiders, who have allowed no more than 18 points on defense for four weeks in a row. It wouldn't be hard to make a case that the Raiders are the best fourth-place team in football. Of the teams in last place in their division, the Raiders have the best point differential (minus-24).
The Broncos have the best offense in the league, and the Chiefs the best defense. That’s a lot of bests for one division. Maybe things change in the second half of the season, but right now, the AFC West is dominating.
The Washington Redskins Aren't a Playoff-Caliber Team
Things may be going well for the AFC West, but the same can't be said of its brethren in the NFC East.
One thing's for sure, according to NFC East Lead Writer Brad Gagnon.
There's going to be a new division champ in 2013, as the Washington Redskins aren't going anywhere this year:
Few expected the Washington Redskins to beat the Denver Broncos on the road Sunday. After all, Denver had won 10 straight home games coming into this one, and that matchup between Peyton Manning and Washington’s weak secondary was daunting.
But it was the way in which Washington lost.
Right when the 'Skins were finally looking like the team that won the NFC East a season ago, everything went up in smoke. They choked in epic fashion on a 21-7 second-half lead, giving up 38 unanswered points in a performance that saw them turn the ball over five times.
It was further proof that this Redskins team just lacks the ability to get back to the playoffs this year. At 2-5, it's only still in contention because the rest of the division is also terrible, but this is a team that has been relatively healthy and has already had its bye week. But it still doesn't look right.
Robert Griffin III lost all of the momentum he had been building. Even before suffering what appears to be a minor knee injury, per Redskins beat writer Grant Paulsen, Griffin had completed just 15 of his 30 passes for 132 yards and two interceptions, and he had run for just seven yards on five carries.
That performance came against a defense that was ranked dead last in the league against the pass and 30th overall. Yeah, the Broncos had Von Miller back and he looked a bit better Sunday, but the 'Skins still scored only 14 points offensively while surrendering 40 or more for the second straight week.
That first-place schedule still has Washington matching up with San Francisco, Kansas City and Atlanta between now and Week 15. Unless things change dramatically between now and then, expect the 'Skins to fall out of contention before that stretch has concluded. This just doesn't appear to be their year.
Andre Ellington's Career Day Pushes the Cardinals Back into Playoff Contention
Believe it or not, as they head into their bye week, the Arizona Cardinals are in the thick of the NFC playoff race.
The Red Birds moved to 4-4 with a convincing 27-13 win over the Atlanta Falcons, and NFC West Lead Writer Tyson Langland thinks the Cardinals may have discovered something very important during the win:
With eight games complete, the Arizona Cardinals have turned the corner thanks in large part to rookie running back Andre Ellington. After weeks of mismanagement and misuse, head coach Bruce Arians had no choice but to set Ellington free when Rashard Mendenhall was ruled out due to a nagging toe injury.
In the first start of his pro career, Ellington put on an absolute display. He rushed 15 times to the tune of 154 yards and one touchdown. His most impressive play came midway through the second quarter. On a first-down handoff, the 199-pound speedster took the carry up the middle for an 80-yard gain.
That resulted in a touchdown, and it helped give Arizona a 14-6 lead. From that point on, the Cardinals never looked back. The defense went on to intercept quarterback Matt Ryan four times while holding the Falcons to 27 yards rushing on the ground.
It was a complete team effort for Arians' ballclub. It executed in all three phases and notched its fourth win of the season. The win not only moved them into third place in the NFC West, but it also put them right back into playoff contention.
Arizona is only one game back for the sixth and final playoff spot in the NFC. If this team continues to ride Ellington and play top-notch defense, there's no question it will be able to squeak into the playoffs as a wild-card selection.
The Cardinals only play three teams that have a winning record to finish out the season, which means there is an opportunity to be had in the desert.
The Cleveland Browns Need to Hire a Quarterback Whisperer
The Cleveland Browns dropped their third straight game in falling to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 8. Jason Campbell was the team's third different starter under center this year.
According to NFL National Lead Writer Matt Miller, nothing is going to change by the shores of Lake Erie until the Browns do something about their dismal quarterback situation:
Last week, news came out that some NFL teams are hiring scouts who solely focus on evaluating and researching quarterbacks in the upcoming NFL draft class. Hopefully the Cleveland Browns are leading the charge in hiring outside help.
No matter who the general manager has been, since the Browns came back to the NFL in 1999, they've struggled to find a quarterback.
Tim Couch, Ty Detmer, Doug Pederson, Spergon Wynn, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Colt McCoy, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brandon Weeden, Thaddeus Lewis, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell.
That's 20 quarterbacks, and not one of them has been worthwhile long-term. Cleveland, it's time to find a quarterback. A real quarterback. You can bring Brian Hoyer back and let him compete for a starting job, but he'd better be competing with a legitimate first-round pick. Like Teddy Bridgewater or Marcus Mariota legit. Not Brandon Weeden legit (if that's even possible).
General manager Michael Lombardi has one job this offseason: find a franchise quarterback.
For Struggles of Dolphins Offense, Put It on the Line
After winning their first three games, the Miami Dolphins have lost four in a row, the latest being a 27-17 setback at the hands of the New England Patriots.
AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz thinks the blame for that skid falls squarely in the trenches:
Few things offer as little protection as the Miami Dolphins offensive line. Miami might be better off enlisting the protection of The Black Knight.
The Dolphins are on pace to give up 73 sacks of quarterback Ryan Tannehill this season, but that only tells part of the story. Their protection has been good at times, but never for a full 60 minutes—and never when it absolutely needs to be good. Tannehill was not sacked once in the first half against the Patriots, where the Dolphins scored 17 points and Tannehill went 11-of-18.
It was the second half, when Tannehill was decked six times, that the Dolphins offense lost its mojo. It's no surprise, then, that the momentum-changing second half was kicked into high gear by a sack-fumble on a corner blitz.
That's just the problem for the Dolphins. The positive work they're doing is so dramatically undone by the negative plays. The polar opposites were even more obvious last week against the Buffalo Bills, when the Dolphins protected Tannehill well but gave up two sacks on him in the final quarter, including a sack-fumble that gave the Bills new life.
Noticing a trend?
Perhaps another trend is developing in the other direction. Up until the past two weeks, the Dolphins offense had also struggled to run the ball, churning out 69.6 yards per game and 3.7 yards per carry, which both ranked in the bottom 10 in the league. It has over 120 yards and is averaging 4.9 per carry in the last two games.
Nothing like a rush attack to keep a pass rush from pinning its ears back, and thus, what ails the passing game may be fixed by the running game. The Dolphins have to try; they are running out of alternatives.
Josh Freeman Represents Vikings' Last Option at QB
After falling to 1-6 with a 44-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, it's a pretty safe bet to call the Minnesota Vikings' season toast.
With that being the case, NFC North Lead Writer Zach Kruse thinks the Vikings need to spend the rest of 2013 figuring out what they have in Josh Freeman:
All week, Christian Ponder and the Minnesota Vikings spun the narrative that a newfound perspective would help the former first-round pick grasp his latest opportunity as Minnesota's starting quarterback.
Yet by the time the Green Bay Packers were done steamrolling the Vikings Sunday night, the following had become clear: Ponder is done in Minnesota, and Josh Freeman remains this team's last option at the quarterback position in 2013.
Starting in place of Freeman (concussion), Ponder completed just 14 of his 21 passes for 145 yards and no touchdowns. The Packers, captained by Aaron Rodgers and a dominating run game, scored 44 points and held the football for over 40 of the 60 minutes.
Ponder did little with his limited time on the field. He missed open receivers and appeared hesitant against the rush. Forget playing loose—Ponder looked tighter against the Packers than at any other time this season.
Garbage time eventually presented an opportunity to lead two late scoring drives—including one capped off by his 19-yard touchdown run—but by that time, Ponder had already let an opportunity to prove he was worth a longer look slip away.
The 1-6 Vikings should now go full steam ahead with Freeman over the final nine games. For all intents and purposes, the Ponder era officially ended Sunday night.