What we learned (and didn’t) in Week 8: Divisional races heating up

I stayed home on a Sunday for the first time this year and watched every game I could. Although that obviously leads to a lot of football thoughts bouncing around the brain, one kept coming back at me all evening:

Could the Bills be for real?

This isn’t something we normally have to worry about. When we do our preseason predictions, we all know there are few reliables, but the Bills missing the playoffs is a straight-up given. Buffalo has played the past 17 full NFL seasons without reaching the postseason and in that time has had only two winning seasons. It’s death, taxes and the Bills not making the playoffs.

There they are, though: 5-2 after a 34-14 thumping of the Raiders. They sit a half-game behind the Patriots, and Buffalo’s was the more convincing home victory over a struggling AFC West opponent Sunday. The Bills have a short-week road game this Thursday, but it’s against the Jets, and a win would tie the Bills with New England at the top of the AFC East with two head-to-head games left.

Now, don’t read me wrong here. This isn’t to say the Bills are on the verge of some changing of the guard. The gulf between these two franchises is so huge that Niagara Falls could pour into it for the next 17 years and not fill it. During Buffalo’s 17-year playoff drought, New England has made the playoffs 14 times (including each of the past eight seasons), won five Super Bowls and gone 29-5 in head-to-head games against Buffalo. The Patriots are basically the opposite of the Bills.

But if those 6-2 Patriots, who put their best defensive player on injured reserve last week, are inclined to check their side-view mirror, they might find that the Bills are closer than they appear.

If nothing else, rookie head coach Sean McDermott knows that his bunch is resilient. The Bills played Sunday without three injured defensive starters and another — defensive tackle Marcell Dareus — who got traded on Friday. McDermott explained after the game that the players weren’t that shaken up by the Dareus deal because they all remember the team trading its best wide receiver, Sammy Watkins, before the season started, so they know the front office could make any roster move at any time, and it’s important to not let it mess them up. Message delivered. The battered Bills defense clamped down on a Raiders team that was working on nine days’ rest since dropping 505 yards on the Chiefs in Week 7.

Buffalo isn’t loaded with offensive weapons, but it isn’t making mistakes, either. The Bills have turned the ball over three times all season — fewer than any team but those Chiefs. They had an NFL-best plus-10 turnover differential heading into Sunday and improved it by four. Only Jacksonville and Pittsburgh have allowed fewer points per game. They might not be spectacular, but the Bills are pretty finely tuned. And you know what? The trades they’ve made in the past six months have landed them extra first-, second- and third-round picks in the 2018 draft. So if they wanted to augment their roster with a big-splash trade in advance of this afternoon’s deadline, they could.

Again, no one’s going to bet their retirement plan on the Bills’ making the playoffs. But one of these years, they will. The Buffalo team that breaks the drought will be one that doesn’t beat itself and knows how to overcome adversity. Halfway through the season, this year’s bunch fits the description. With two head-to-head games against the Patriots still on the docket, one thing they definitely have is an opportunity.

Some things we learned (and didn’t learn) about the other division races in Week 8:

The Steelers should be embarrassed if they don’t win the AFC North

A bunch of first-place teams are dealing with potentially crippling crises right now. New England’s injuries. Seattle’s run game. Kansas City’s defense. In Pittsburgh, all is not smooth, as the offense still seems forced and halting most of the time, Ben Roethlisberger is not in rhythm, and the Martavis Bryant situation has created an obviously annoying internal issue for coach Mike Tomlin to manage.

But the best teams are the ones that find ways to overcome their problems, and the Steelers are 6-2 with a two-game lead over a Ravens team they’ve already beaten in Baltimore. Now, I’m well aware of the score of the Ravens’ Thursday night victory over Miami. But 153 passing yards per game isn’t playoff-caliber in 2017, and it’s hard to see where Baltimore’s offensive spark will come from.

Tennessee, Green Bay and New England are the only teams left on Pittsburgh’s schedule that have winning records, and the Patriots game is in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s defense has looked legit all season, and keeping the Lions out of the end zone in goal-to-go situations all night Sunday was a big step for the one part of that unit that hadn’t looked great. If the Steelers can get things smoothed out on offense, they should be playing for the AFC’s top seed.

Reality check: The Texans still have two teams in front of them

The Deshaun Watson story is fantastic, and the young man is obviously the real deal. You don’t perform the way he did as a rookie in Seattle if you’re a mirage, and it isn’t Watson’s fault that Russell Wilson is playing better quarterback than anyone else west of the Liberty Bell right now.

But the standings show the Texans at 3-4, behind both Jacksonville and Tennessee in the AFC South. They’re 1-1 in the division, having lost to Jacksonville in Tom Savage‘s Week 1 start and beaten Tennessee a couple weeks later. While Houston’s offense is operating at a higher level than any other in the division, the Texans’ high-profile defensive injuries could continue to cause problems.

Jacksonville’s defense looks legit, and Marcus Mariota was Watson before Watson was, so it’s not as if the rest of the division is going to step aside and watch this guy’s coronation. The Texans and their young quarterback have plenty of work still to do, and those who would tout Watson for MVP should remember that MVPs almost always have winning records.

The Chiefs have made a mockery of what should have been the toughest division in the league

Whipping Denver on Monday night put 6-2 Kansas City 2.5 games in front of the rest of the division. No other team is even .500. Imagine what this would look like if the Raiders hadn’t gotten like 14 shots at the game-winning touchdown in that Week 7 Thursday night game.

The Chiefs have beaten the Patriots and Eagles outside the division and the Chargers and Broncos in it. Of their remaining eight opponents, only Buffalo, Miami and the now Zeke-less Cowboys have winning records. This is over, and while the Chargers, Broncos or Raiders might have chances to turn things around and make a wild-card run, all three have to be in the running for AFC’s most disappointing team of the season.

The Southern District Court might have decided the NFC East on Monday

Barring some sort of legal Hail Mary pass in the Second Circuit Court, Judge Katherine Failla’s ruling means Ezekiel Elliott has to start serving his six-game suspension now. Without Elliott for the next six games, the Cowboys probably won’t have enough to catch the Eagles. They might not as it stands, but because the two teams haven’t played head-to-head yet, they still had a chance to make up the ground. This is more than can be said for Washington, which sits 3.5 games out of first now and has lost to the Eagles twice already. (Washington is 0-3 in the division. For goodness’ sake, the only other teams that are 0-3 in their divisions are the Browns and 49ers.)

And at some point, that “road to victory” on which the song instructs the Eagles to “fly” is bound to encounter a pothole or two. The 49ers aren’t the kind of defense that takes advantage of the Jason Peters‘ absence. The Broncos, Cowboys, Bears and Seahawks just might be, and those are Philly’s next four opponents. The Eagles are absolutely in the driver’s seat in the NFC East, and while Dallas is a defending division champ with a monster offensive line, Elliott’s an MVP-caliber talent who’s going to be missed.

It might not matter who plays quarterback for the Vikings

Has there ever been a 6-2 team heading into its bye with three legitimate possibilities to start at quarterback the rest of the way? You could make the case that it’s crazy to take Case Keenum out while the Vikings are winning, but he’s 25th in the league in touchdown passes and 22nd in yards per attempt. If Teddy Bridgewater and/or Sam Bradford is ready in two weeks, is it crazy to try to elevate the team’s ceiling at the sport’s most important position?

Four of Minnesota’s next five games are on the road, including trips to Detroit, Atlanta and Carolina. There’s nothing that says Brett Hundley can’t get his act together in Green Bay, where the Packers are still just a game-and-a-half back. Vikings coaches have a lot to consider during the bye.

The NFC South race has yet to begin

Nothing has gone right for defending NFC champ Atlanta, but the Falcons are nonetheless 4-3 and haven’t played a single division opponent yet. That changes next week with their trip to Charlotte, but they don’t play the Buccaneers until after Thanksgiving, and they don’t play the first-place Saints until Dec. 7.

The Saints have won five in a row since their 0-2 start and need to go just 3-6 the rest of the way in order to surpass their win total of each of the past three seasons. They’re legit. But so is Carolina’s defense, and the Panthers have five home games left. Don’t forget the Falcons went 6-2 in the second half last season and rode that wave to the Super Bowl.

The NFC South could put three teams in the playoffs if they weren’t about to spend the second half of the season beating up on each other.

Russell Wilson should be in the MVP discussion

Sure, Wilson had 451 passing yards and four touchdown passes in the breathtaking comeback victory over Houston on Sunday. But he also had 30 of his team’s 33 rushing yards, and each of those four touchdown passes tied the game or turned a deficit into a lead. Seattle’s defense is the leakiest we’ve seen it in years, the Seahawks can’t run the ball a lick, and the offensive line is, as it is annually, a wreck.

Wilson won that game by himself, with everyone in the world marveling at the kid quarterback on the other team. At this point, Seattle’s most important win was a three-point victory over the Rams, without which the Seahawks would be 4-3 and trailing a 6-1 Rams team. Instead, they have the tiebreaker edge on the upstart in their own division.

Seattle is the New England of the NFC West. Even when so much seems to be going wrong, it has the coaching and the quarterback to figure it out.

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