In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 8 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, zeroing in on the Packers' chance to prove they belong among the NFC's best ...
The Green Bay Packers have been one of the most compelling stories in the NFL this season. This week, they're about to show us just how real they actually are. This is a team that has overcome offseason drama with its star quarterback, a Week 1 blowout defeat and numerous injuries. The next challenge coming will be even more daunting: a road trip to face the undefeated Arizona Cardinals on Thursday Night Football.
The Packers have quietly handled their business since that 38-3 loss to New Orleans. They've ripped off six straight wins, including a couple that involved some late-game heroics by Aaron Rodgers. The problem is that Green Bay has faced only one team that is playing as impressively as the Cardinals right now. That team was the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Packers survived only because Cincinnati missed a pair of would-be game-winning field-goal tries in that 25-22 overtime victory.
The Cardinals will challenge the Packers on both sides of the football. They'll field a dynamic offense led by quarterback Kyler Murray and a defense known for its pass rush and play-making ability. "It's exciting," Rodgers told local reporters when asked about the matchup. "(It's a) real good football team on a short week on the road. It's gonna be a great test for us. I feel good about where we're at. 6-1. Not many people would've expected this, looking at our schedule starting the season. Definitely not after Week 1. So I'm proud of our guys and the way we're playing."
What sets this Packers team apart is its resolve. They've played without Pro Bowl left tackle David Bakhtiari all season (as he recovers from a torn ACL), and their defense has battled through its own injuries (including to star pass rusher Za'Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander, both of whom are injured reserve). That defense also had been struggling in the red zone. The Packers had allowed 15 consecutive touchdowns inside the 20-yard line until they stopped Washington four times in Sunday's 24-10 win.
Murray and his corps of receivers should create problems for a unit that will likely be without coordinator Joe Barry, who tested positive for COVID-19. The Cardinals have so many options in the passing game -- from DeAndre Hopkins to A.J. Green to newly added tight end Zach Ertz -- and it's hard to see how Green Bay matches that. Rodgers is still Rodgers, but the Packers' offense also hasn't been as explosive as it has been in seasons past. Green Bay has topped 400 total yards just once and was ranked 17th in the league in scoring (24 points per game) heading into Monday Night Football.
This is the type of contest where Rodgers will have to be ready to generate a lot of points -- and he might have to do it without star receiver Davante Adams, who has been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. There is now so much firepower among the top NFC teams, between Arizona, Dallas and Tampa Bay, that it's fair to question if Green Bay can keep pace with that bunch. They've been to the last two NFC title games because their defense elevated its game and Rodgers played at a sublime level. Those same factors haven't been as much a part of their current success.
Rodgers maintained that the offense is nearing the point where it meets his expectations. Sunday's defensive effort, albeit against a weaker Washington Football Team offense, was also encouraging. In fact, Packers outside linebacker Rashan Gary actually scoffed at the idea that the Packers' defense needed to prove something to the skeptics who wondered about the unit's quality prior to this latest win, saying "We're just out here trying to put together our best game. ... We're about to go into Week 8. We're just chipping away and getting better."
That's an important mindset to have going into the game with the Cardinals. The Packers have shown that they can fight through just about any obstacle set before them so far. By doing that, they've ended all discussions about how the feud between Rodgers and the organization would impact this team. A win in Arizona would say even more about where this squad might ultimately be heading.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) The Chiefs aren't making the playoffs: Kansas City has reached the point where it's creating new lows on a regular basis. It used to be unthinkable that somebody could blow the Chiefs out, as long as Patrick Mahomes was playing quarterback. Buffalo killed that myth two weeks ago. Then there was the notion that the Chiefs couldn't keep turning the ball over multiple times during their games, because they'd always been so efficient with Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid working together. That's been shot down over each passing week. Now, after Kansas City's 27-3 loss to Tennessee, we've learned something else: The Chiefs' offense really can be stifled when healthy. The excuse in last year's Super Bowl loss was that an injury-riddled offensive line sank Kansas City's hopes for a second straight championship. There are no more convenient explanations for what's happened to this team. We've pointed out the offensive sloppiness and the defensive deficiencies. Today, we'll get to the main reason why the Chiefs aren't going to be playing in January: Mahomes officially has become part of the problem. He had two more turnovers in that loss to the Titans (he has nine interceptions and two lost fumbles on the season), and it's apparent that he feels compelled to do everything possible to save this team from a complete implosion. The problem is that the Chiefs' issues are far beyond a resolution that is as simple as a huge day from their star signal-caller. Kansas City has played five of the best teams in the AFC so far. They've won once. They've been blown out twice. The remainder of their schedule isn't going to do them any favors, as they still have to see the Packers, Cowboys, Chargers, Bengals and Raiders (twice). That's at least four more losses coming for Kansas City. It's simply too hard to see a team this flawed -- one that now sits at 3-4 -- overcoming all these issues against so many quality contenders.
2) The Bengals are more than an upstart now: This writer will admit it -- it was impossible to see Cincinnati coming so far so quickly. Some of that had to do with the AFC North, which the Bengals share with three teams that made the playoffs last season. There also was the lack of success for that franchise in recent years, as Cincinnati won only six games in the previous two seasons. Even the quarterback situation was shaky. Joe Burrow showed some positive signs in his rookie campaign, but he also was returning from major knee surgery. So much for logic. The Bengals are no longer a cute, feel-good story. They're long past the point where we need to be scanning the schedule to anticipate the eventual onset of reality. If you go into Baltimore and beat up on the Ravens like Cincinnati just did on Sunday, you are very much somebody who should be feared. Burrow threw for 416 yards in that 41-17 victory, exploiting a Ravens secondary that is becoming increasingly problematic. Ja'Marr Chase had 201 receiving yards, revealing once again why he's going to be this year's NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. And that defense? It clamped down on quarterback Lamar Jackson and the vaunted Baltimore run game. It still feels a little strange saying it, but you can't argue with the results. The Bengals are 5-2 and one missed field-goal try away (against Green Bay) from being 6-1. They're also the best team in the AFC North.
3) Tom Brady continues to make the extraordinary look ordinary: Brady has played so brilliantly this season that it's easy to make the mistake of normalizing what he's doing. But the man is 44 freaking years old -- and he's still performing like a quarterback a decade younger. After throwing four more touchdown passes in a 38-3 win over Chicago, Brady leads the league in both that category (21) and passing yards (2,275). He's only thrown three interceptions, two of which came in Tampa Bay's season-opening win over Dallas. Let's also not forget that he extended his NFL career record for touchdown passes to 602 on Sunday. As much as we talk about the younger generation of quarterbacks – and it's a group that has the opportunity to revolutionize the position – Brady has become so extraordinary that he's making us forget the realistic limitations of his job. Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger is five years younger than Brady, and he seems to be declining by the week. Peyton Manning is a year older, and he just entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Brady isn't altering our view of quarterbacks with the howitzer arm of Patrick Mahomes or the improvisational magic of Kyler Murray. He's doing it with the aspects of quarterback play that often get minimized by the general public: vision, anticipation and intelligence. It used to be a comical when he talked about playing until he was 45. Today, it's worth wondering if he might try to stick around until he's 50. Whatever he decides, you can't deny the beauty in what we're seeing. The Bucs are dealing with a beat-up secondary and the reality that every opponent they face will give them their best shot. Brady is playing like a man more than ready to handle those challenges, all while showing us something we surely will never see again.
Bowen couldn't have picked a better time to produce his best game plan. It would've been one thing if the Titans had done what everyone else has done to the Chiefs this season, which is force turnovers. Bowen's unit -- a group that had been ravaged by injuries in the secondary -- held Kansas City to three points in a 24-point win. Talk about a game-changer. The Titans have gone from being a middling team capable of losing to the lowly New York Jets to a squad riding a three-game winning streak. This isn't just about Derrick Henry anymore. The Titans are rounding into form, and that suddenly reinvigorated defense will be a big part of what they do moving forward.
The Browns' backup quarterback told the world he was ready to fill in for injured starter Baker Mayfield last week, then led Cleveland to a Thursday night win over Denver. Now we're left to wonder how this plays out the remainder of the year. Mayfield's left-shoulder issues -- a torn labrum and fractured humerus bone -- are severe enough that he could be sidelined for a while. By the way, he also hadn't been playing well lately. That means the Browns will be leaning on Keenum, a player who really is well-prepared for this responsibility. He was the same man who stepped in as a backup for the Minnesota Vikings in 2017 and led them to the NFC title game. Keenum is now playing in the same offense with a head coach (Kevin Stefanski) who was his quarterbacks coach during that magical year in Minnesota. Don't be surprised if the Browns go on a similar run over the next couple months.
You have to put the New York Giants quarterback on this list when: 1) he's playing with a beat-up offense and 2) he makes the best catch of the game for his team. There are still plenty of reasons to wonder if Jones is destined to be a legitimate franchise quarterback. However, he delivered a strong showing in a 25-3 win over Carolina on Sunday. He was missing an assortment of weapons -- including running back Saquon Barkley and wide receivers Kadarius Toney, Sterling Shepard and Kenny Golladay -- and somehow, he produced one of his most efficient performances. We'll learn more about Jones in his next three games, as he'll face the Chiefs, Raiders and Buccaneers. But real leaders find a way to succeed in less-than-optimal conditions. Jones gets credit for that.
So much for the notion that Miami was on the cusp of great things. All the good vibes Flores created in leading the Dolphins to 10 wins last season appear to have completely evaporated. What's left is a head coach helming a 1-6 team that continually finds ways to disappoint. On Sunday, one week after watching Jacksonville collect its first win of the season, Miami fell to a mediocre Falcons squad. Next up are the Buffalo Bills, the same group that blasted them 35-0 earlier this year. The Dolphins are horrible on offense (they rank 29th in scoring) and defense (31st in scoring), and there are few encouraging signs that Tua Tagovailoa is the long-term answer at quarterback. This has the hallmarks of a complete train wreck.
The New York Jets head coach isn't on this list because the New England Patriots blasted his team, 54-13, this weekend. He's on it because the Jets were decimated as they were coming off a bye week. There's also this eye-opening stat: The Jets haven't scored in the first quarter of any game this year. The issue we're getting at here is preparation. There's been ample amounts of misfortune for the Jets when it comes to injuries (and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson is now sidelined with a knee injury sustained on Sunday). However, starting slow every week isn't solely related to talent. That also has plenty to do with the coaching.
San Francisco was supposed to have an embarrassment of riches on offense this season, including a veteran quarterback who's played in a Super Bowl (Jimmy Garoppolo) and a promising rookie signal-caller who's supposed to be the future of this franchise (Trey Lance). Instead, the 49ers are wallowing in a four-game losing streak that has left them in a precarious position. Two-time Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle is on injured reserve. Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams missed Sunday's loss to Indianapolis with an ankle injury. They've been banged up at running back all year, and Garoppolo's play has become such a problem -- he hasn't thrown for more than 200 yards in either of his last two games after returning from a calf strain -- that it's fair to wonder of Lance takes over once he returns from his own knee injury. This team isn't catching the Cardinals or Rams in the NFC West. The 49ers need to start wondering if they have enough firepower to even make the playoffs.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
GENERAL MANAGER OF AN NFC TEAM: "Anyone who watched his college tape saw the was a Heisman Trophy winner for a reason. Yes, he was athletic, could run with the ball and extend plays, but he had phenomenal accuracy. People questioned his height and his body of work -- because he'd only been a one-year starter -- but he's proven those aren't issues. What I've seen this year is more improvement against zone coverages. He's really trusting what he's seeing. He's feeding on the short and intermediate routes, and he's getting the ball out. He's been solid over the middle, which is where people always question if shorter quarterbacks can accurately throw the football, due to defenders being in their face. They've also done a nice job of adding weapons for him, and he has a head coach/play caller who understands his strengths and weaknesses. The other big thing I see is he's not running nearly as much as he used to. Lamar Jackson is in an offense that is set up for him to run. Kyler is in an offense that is now throw first, and use your legs when necessary."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 7 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Buffalo over Arizona.