Wentz’s challenge, emerging divisional favorites and more

North Korean soldiers at the border

Taking a spin around the NFL to get you ready for Week 8:

The big questions

Can Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz continue his MVP push without Jason Peters?

Wentz was already having a terrific 2017 season, but those who slept through the first six weeks sat up and took notice last week when Wentz and the Eagles put on a show against the Redskins. In the process, he pushed the Eagles to the top of the list of Super Bowl contenders and put himself squarely in the MVP conversation.

But if history is any indication, Wentz’s job just got more difficult after losing left tackle Jason Peters to a season-ending knee injury. Through his first season and a half, Wentz has been far more effective with both Peters and right tackle Lane Johnson available.

On 404 dropbacks with his bookend tackles, Wentz has 21 touchdown passes and six interceptions for a total QBR of 67.5. On 525 dropbacks without at least one of Peters or Johnson, Wentz has 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a total QBR of 52.4.

One thing that could bode well for Wentz’s continued success is his mobility. If he finds himself on the run more often without Peters, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Wentz has scrambled for 153 yards this season, second most among quarterbacks and 13 more yards than he had rushing all last season.

Are we getting closer to some clarity on NFL parity?

Last week in this space, we discussed the glut of NFL teams all bunched together in the land of mediocrity and wondered when we would get a better idea of which teams were for real.

Week 7 mostly left that conversation as clear as mud. Heading into Sunday, there are 25 teams with three, four or five wins, which is the most through Week 7 in the Super Bowl era. The previous high was 24, which happened last season. From 2002 to 2016, there was an average of 19.3 teams per season with three to five wins through seven weeks. In 2015, there were only 14 such teams through the first seven weeks.

All of that said, it does seem as if order is starting to be restored when it comes to the race for division crowns. While five of eight NFL divisions have only two games separating first place from last place, four of those leagues have a clear favorite, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

Kansas City (89 percent), New England (85 percent), Minnesota (73 percent) and New Orleans (64 percent) have all emerged as favorites despite holding narrow margins over the rest of the teams in their divisions.

Those numbers don’t guarantee anything, especially in a league in which crazy results have been a weekly occurrence, but if the division winners do turn out to be that predictable, expect the wild-card chase to be wilder than ever.

Can Texans QB Deshaun Watson lower the boom on the Seahawks?

Watson has been nothing short of electrifying in his first six games, throwing for 15 touchdowns, the same amount the Texans had all of last season. If Watson throws three more this week, he’ll tie Kurt Warner for most touchdown passes in a player’s first seven NFL games.

That won’t be easy considering Watson is set to face the toughest test of his young career. Watson and the Texans travel to Seattle to face the famed “Legion of Boom” on Sunday.

Through the first six games, Watson faced four teams ranked 19th or lower in opponent QBR allowed. Matchups against Jacksonville (first) and Cincinnati (seventh) were better barometers and Watson struggled, throwing for a combined 227 yards with one touchdown and one interceptions in those contests.

Seattle sits fourth in opponent QBR but has made life particularly rough on rookie quarterbacks in recent years. The last rookie to win a start in Seattle was Andy Dalton in 2011. The four rookies to start there since are 0-4 with a completion percentage of 58, an average of 179 passing yards per game and a total QBR of 42.

Watson already has proven he can alter games with his playmaking ability, but if he can do it against the Seahawks, it will send an even stronger message that he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.

Numbers that matter

0: That’s how many interceptions the Raiders’ defense has through the first seven games, the first team in NFL history to hold that dubious distinction.

1.2: Looking for a reason why the Saints are one of the league’s hottest teams? Look no further than their oft-maligned defense. Since Week 3, New Orleans is giving up 1.2 points per drive. Only Jacksonville has been better in that span.

3 for 30: Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell is putting the Bell in bell cow with his workload in the early part of the season. Bell already has three games this season in which he has had 30-plus carries. Only one other player — Chicago’s Jordan Howard — has reached the 30-carry mark, and he has done it just once. If Bell gets 25 carries against Detroit on Sunday, he will pass Earnest Byner’s 141 rushes for the most all time by a player in a calendar month.

5: Speaking of dramatic turnarounds, the Los Angeles Chargers are in the midst of an impressive resurrection after a miserable start. If the Bolts beat New England this week, they’ll be the fifth team in the Super Bowl era to get back to .500 after losing their first four games. What’s more, it would be the second time the Chargers’ franchise has done it. They also did it in 1992 and went on to an 11-5 finish, the only team in that group to make the playoffs.

6,000: Drew Brees needs 12 completions to become the third quarterback in NFL history to have 6,000 for his career. He would join Brett Favre and Peyton Manning if he gets there against Chicago on Sunday in his 240th career game, which would also make him the fastest to reach that mark.

What we’ll be talking about after Week 8

A Chargers’ run or the Patriots’ annual hot streak

The Chargers have been one of the league’s hottest teams, winning three in a row, their longest streak since early in 2014. Two of those wins have been on the road. A win here would match their total road victories of the past two seasons combined and serve notice that the Chargers’ resurgence should be taken seriously.

That’s easier said than done, especially considering that New England looks to once again be poised to rip off plenty of wins over the season’s final half. Since Tom Brady took over as the starter in Week 3 of 2001, the Patriots are 162-46 after the calendar turns to October. That’s a .779 winning percentage that is almost 10 percentage points higher than the next-best team (Pittsburgh) in that time.

Brady also boasts a 6-0 all-time record in games he starts against Philip Rivers and 7-2 in his career against the Chargers.

Something has to give here, but the numbers favor the Patriots continuing to trend toward their expected run of success.

Falcons grounded in the AFC East

Atlanta started the season 3-0 and again looked set to make a deep postseason run. Then the AFC East happened. The Falcons have lost three straight, all to members of the AFC East. This week, they complete the tour of that division against the Jets.

It’s important for the Falcons to get back on track, but this game could also serve as a harbinger of what’s to come for their playoff chances. If they lose, they’ll finish their tour of the AFC East 0-4. Since the new division alignment began in 2002, 89 teams have gone 0-4 against a division other than their own. Only two have made the playoffs.

There’s no such thing as a must-win game in Week 8, but this one has plenty of meaning for the defending NFC champions.

The ‘battle’ for the first pick of the 2018 NFL draft

For the second consecutive year, the winless Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers have given their fans reason to begin looking toward the next NFL draft before Halloween. Another thing the teams have done recently is completely ruin the idea of Sunday Funday.

According to Elias Sports Bureau research, the Browns and the Niners are riding the second- and third-longest Sunday losing streaks in NFL history. Cleveland has lost 24 straight and San Francisco has lost 19 straight in games played on Sunday. A loss against Minnesota this week would put the Browns in a tie with the 1976-77 Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the most ever.

Stranger things have happened but with the Eagles entering Sunday’s game against the 49ers as 91.3 percent FPI favorites and the Vikings as 83.7 percent FPI favorites, there’s a strong chance for yet another Sunday Bloody Sunday for the Niners and Browns.

Leave a Response