Normally we could say we are halfway through the NFL regular season, but the still-baffling addition of a 17th game to each season of America’s most brutal sport has erased these familiar benchmarks. So, here we are at the season’s 47% mark, with eight things to know after Week 8.
1. The Chiefs still don’t look quite right. The best way to describe what happened on Monday night is that the Chiefs avoided adding another loss to their record. But their 20–17 win against the Giants was again marked by their early-season ailments: Two more turnovers to bring their league-worst tally to 19, Daniel Sorenson being an easy mark in coverage and an offense that has suddenly become almost as hard to watch as the Giants’. The Chiefs are back to .500, and still very much in contention in both the AFC West and a murky AFC, but they barely resemble the dominant team they were just 11 months ago. Ever since the Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay, Mahomes has looked like a quarterback who does not trust his protection, and understandably so. But while he made the extraordinary look ordinary over the last three seasons, the jaw-dropping plays he made using his physical gifts aren’t actually ordinary and can’t be relied upon to make the offense work. The Chiefs couldn’t connect on any of their deep shots against the Giants, and their longest pass play of the night was Mahomes’s touch pass that traveled a matter of inches in the air to Mecole Hardman, who ran it for 24 yards to help set up the game-winning field goal. Mahomes was also off-target on some shorter throws in which he placed the ball behind his receivers, neutralizing their speed and in one case nearly resulting in another pick. “I think we’ll snap out of it,” Mahomes said, but their upcoming schedule won’t give them any breaks: Packers, Raiders, Cowboys.
2. The conferences are totally lopsided. The NFC has already stratified with a handful of very good teams at the top, while we are not entirely sure who the best teams in the AFC are. We’ve been watching this happen the past few weeks, but the standings on Tuesday morning underscore just how uneven things are. The AFC has 11 teams with four or more wins, including six teams with four wins (Steelers, Chargers, Patriots, Chiefs, Browns, Broncos). The 6–2 Titans, who now must overcome the potentially season-ending loss of Derrick Henry, are alone at the top. The NFC, meanwhile, has only seven teams at 4–4 or better, and five of those teams have six or more wins. With such a top-heavy situation in the NFC, the final playoff spot will likely go to a team hovering around .500. We have a feeling the outrage often reserved for the NFC East winner will this year be redirected to the NFC’s No. 7 seed—which right now would be the 4–4 Panthers.
3. The Rams’ answer to the uncertainty of the draft is fewer picks. After sending two Day 2 picks to Denver for Von Miller on Monday, the Rams are left with just four 2022 draft picks. This may not be so fun for the team’s college scouting staff, but this is nothing new for the Rams: They haven’t picked in the first round since they sent a pick haul to the Titans in 2016 in order to draft Jared Goff No. 1 overall … only to trade him five years later for a different QB. The Rams’ approach has more in common with the polar opposite practice of hoarding draft picks than you might think. Both roster-building philosophies are rooted in the belief that draft picks are a crapshoot for even the best personnel departments. The difference is that the pick-hoarders try to solve this with more bites at the apple, while the Rams prefer to turn in their draft capital for proven veteran players. The price is of course higher for these players, but you also know that it’s worth it, unlike the 50–50 odds of hitting on a player drafted in the first round.
4. The Saints still have everything in front of them. Sean Payton deserves a lot of credit for, the season after future Hall of Famer Drew Brees retired, getting his team off to a 5–2 start that includes wins against the Packers and the defending champ Bucs. Generating wins no matter who is under center, though, is nothing new: The Saints were 8–1 over the past two seasons in games Brees missed while injured. Payton’s ability to run a version of his offense with whichever QB he has, along with the talent they have stocked on defense, better positions New Orleans to handle the news of Jameis Winston’s season-ending ACL injury. That may have been why Payton waved off the idea of signing another QB, telling reporters on Monday he’s satisfied with his trio of Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill and Ian Book. That doesn’t mean he won’t make any calls, but the options are limited anyway, now hours before the trade deadline and with Brees saying during his new broadcast job on NBC that he’s staying retired. Getting the Saints to this point has affirmed Payton’s coaching prowess, which is why we shouldn’t count them out the rest of the way.
5. Before his injury, Derrick Henry was a legitimate MVP candidate. It’s anachronistic to say this about a running back in 2021, but in the first eight games Henry accrued over 40% more yards than the next closest rusher, and had as many rushing TDs as his quarterback had passing TDs (10). Henry’s foot injury, which will require surgery and may be season-ending, doesn’t mean that the Titans won’t make the playoffs—they already have a commanding lead in the AFC South, and Mike Vrabel has proven himself to be an excellent coach. But Henry is the rare RB in today’s NFL that is both the foundation of an offense and also its home-run hitter. Replacing him will be just as hard as replacing a QB.
6. The Patriots are game-plan specific on both sides of the ball. It’s not always easy to be a chameleon week to week but it is effective, as was proved in New England’s 27–24 road win against the Chargers. Justin Herbert had been making things look easy, but he recorded his worst passer rating of the season with just 223 passing yards and two interceptions to his two touchdowns. “We saw a lot of Cover-2,” Herbert told reporters after the loss. “That was just one of those things that they did not show all year.” The goal of this zone coverage was to take away the Chargers’ potent deep passing game with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. It worked: L.A. had just two pass plays of more than 20 yards, one of which came in desperation time in the game’s final minute. Over time, it’s been easier to observe New England’s shifting game plans on offense, such as a week when the run game is emphasized or a specific WR’s matchup against a vulnerable defender is featured. But some of New England’s signature wins have come just like they did on Sunday, with a defensive game plan that breaks its own tendencies. Another recent example: Super Bowl LIII, when the Patriots deviated from their identity as a heavy man coverage team to use a cover-4 match-up zone coverage against the Rams, countering L.A.’s preference for shifts, motions and in-breaking routes off play-action.
Watch NFL games online all season long with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!
7. Things just got a little more interesting in Florham Park. Mike White, obviously, will be starting for the Jets on Thursday Night Football after his incredible 400-yard passing debut in the upset win against the Bengals. Zach Wilson is still sidelined with his knee injury, but the No. 2 overall pick should be able to practice next week and may be ready to return for Week 10 against Buffalo, Robert Saleh told reporters Monday. But if White plays well in a second start, then what? Saleh said, “We’ll address it when we cross that bridge,” when asked if Wilson will return as the starter when healthy. The Jets coach doesn’t need to make that decision now, and he’ll get a lot more information on Thursday against the Colts, so he’s taking care not to lock himself into anything. (As coaches like to say, he’s not dealing in hypotheticals.) The truth is, if White plays again like he did on Sunday, the Jets can’t take him off the field. But what will that mean for the No. 2 draft pick? For the rest of the season, the Jets may have a weekly quarterback decision to make.
8. Team owners need to be more publicly accountable. This isn’t only about Daniel Snyder and the toxic workplace he oversaw, or Tanya Snyder’s “tone-deaf” remarks at the owners’ meeting, according to our Albert Breer. The people with the most job security, and who control the direction of a franchise, shouldn’t be the people the public hears from the least. Just look at the way Dolphins owner Stephen Ross stiff-armed (with a distasteful laugh) members of the media last week before they could ask the very-legitimate and important questions about the team’s reported pursuit of Deshaun Watson, who is the subject of 22 civil suits and 10 criminal complaints by women alleging sexual harassment or misconduct. Ross shirking the subject means that Brian Flores has fielded all the questions about a potential decision that he would not have final authority on, and Tua Tagovailoa has answered for an organization that might not even want him. There was also Woody Johnson evading questions about the league not making the findings of the Washington Football Team investigation public by saying, “We’re here for football.” The mere existence of billionaires shows that society is neither fair nor good, but at the very least the team owners who demand leadership from their coaches and players should show a modicum of it themselves.
More NFL Coverage:
• Week 8 Takeaways: Wide-Open AFC and the Mike White Show
• Winners and Losers of the Von Miller Trade
• Derrick Henry Injury Will Test the Running Back Hypothesis
• MAQB: Rams Go All-In at a Few Key Positions
• MMQB: Saints Beat Brady Again
Sports Illustrated may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.