In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 9 of the 2021 NFL season, including:
But first, examining a blockbuster trade that helps an NFC power build on a major strength...
The Los Angeles Rams are reading the NFC landscape accurately. It's not going to be enough to simply have an MVP-caliber quarterback, the two best defensive players at their respective positions and a creative head coach lording over an explosive offense. Anybody who wants to claim the conference crown this season had better, as they used to say back in the day, come correct. That is why Von Miller is landed on this roster Monday after spending a decade with the Denver Broncos.
It's hard to recall a blockbuster trade of quite this magnitude, with a player of Miller's stature and pedigree, happening at mid-season with such little advance warning. The Rams are sending a second- and third-round pick in next year's draft to Denver, with the agreement that the Broncos will pay the bulk of Miller's salary -- reportedly $9 million of the remaining $9.7 million he is owed. Just like that, a future Hall-of-Fame pass rusher was packing up and heading west. It still remains to be seen if he'll be the reason the Rams win that Super Bowl they've been chasing since head coach Sean McVay came to town four years ago.
There will be several explanations for this trade in the coming days. The one that will be the least surprising will be the Rams' desire to improve a defense that already featured Pro Bowl defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The Rams had the best defense in the league last year, but they've since lost some key pieces, including safety John Johnson III and cornerback Troy Hill (who departed in free agency) and linebacker Kenny Young (who was traded to Denver last month). They still have impressive numbers in 2021 -- they lead the league with 25 sacks and rank 10th in points allowed -- but Miller gives them the potential to be even more disruptive.
Miller has 110.5 career sacks. Play him alongside Donald and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, and chaos is likely to be a part of every series. The Rams understand that any road to a Super Bowl will involve dealing with brilliant quarterbacks like Tampa Bay's Tom Brady, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Dallas' Dak Prescott and Arizona's Kyler Murray. The only way to attack that type of star power is through relentless pressure (the Rams beat the Bucs earlier this year but lost by 17 to Murray's Cardinals).
The key here is Miller's health. He missed all of last season with an ankle injury that was diagnosed as a dislocated peroneal tendon, and he's been battling an ankle sprain for the past couple weeks. Miller actually was off to a fast start, as he had four sacks in the Broncos' first three games, all wins. He's only had a half-sack in his four games since, which also might explain Denver's willingness to part ways with him.
The Broncos could see the benefit in trading a 32-year-old franchise legend for a pair of Day 2 picks. They're a young team still trying to figure out how to take that step from looking good on paper to ultimately winning consistently on the field. It's been a long time since Miller won Super Bowl MVP honors in helping the Broncos win Super Bowl 50. The Rams are betting he still has enough left to aid their own aspirations of reaching that promised land.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Cowboys check another box: The transformation is now complete in Dallas. The questions about the way Dak Prescott would play coming off the severe ankle injury that prematurely ended his 2020 season were answered weeks ago. The doubts about whether the defense was legit have long since vanished. What was left was that lingering suspicion that focused on the notion that this team might implode because that's what we've been used to seeing from past Cowboys teams. That's out the window, as well. For all the exciting elements the Cowboys have revealed this season -- from a dynamic, diversified offense to an aggressive, play-making defense -- what they did in their 20-16 win over Minnesota said more about them than anything. It told us this team really does have heart, that it's not going to recoil when the pressure intensifies and it's wading through adversity. This is the second straight game where Dallas won a contest it would've lost in previous years, following a comeback overtime win in New England in Week 6. This latest victory was even more special, precisely because the Cowboys earned it with their starting quarterback, who is dealing with a calf injury, watching from the sidelines and Cooper Rush under center. We'll never know how this game would've turned out if Prescott had played. What is clear is that the Cowboys showed how much they've grown by not having him available. "You look at the New England game and games prior (and) every game we're getting stronger and stronger," Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons told local reporters after the game. "At this point in the season, we're all trusting each other. There's never a time where I come to the sideline and don't expect the offense to score, or they don't expect us to get a stop. That trust is there." The Cowboys improved to 6-1 with the win over Minnesota. More importantly, they confirmed that they have more than enough resolve to push past all other NFC contenders to reach the Super Bowl. When Dallas nearly beat the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, it made for a cute little story. Today, it's intriguing to wonder how that game would play out if the two squads have a repeat meeting in January.
2) Carson Wentz blew his big shot: For all the good Wentz has done this season, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback picked the worst possible time to revert back to being the erratic player who was run out of Philadelphia. He had quietly been one of the more impressive stories in football, having thrown only one interception entering Sunday's matchup with the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans. He then went full implosion late in the contest, tossing two picks -- one a horrible left-handed attempt while being tackled near his goal line that turned into a pick-six, and the other an errant pass that set up the Titans' game-winning field goal in overtime -- that killed his team. To be blunt: This was the kind of opportunity that was going to define Wentz's chances at returning to prominence. The Colts were two games behind Tennessee in the division, and they could've gained critical ground. Now they're left to wonder if Wentz really can be the quarterback they need him to be in such moments. He's shown he can be more efficient since his reunion with Colts head coach Frank Reich, who served as an assistant in Philly during Wentz's first two pro seasons (2016 and '17). What Wentz hasn't done is lead his team to the kind of signature win that would truly have people buzzing about a career turnaround for the former first-round pick. The stats look nice -- 14 touchdown passes and three interceptions. You know what would look better? A win over a playoff-caliber team. The Colts have gone 0-4 against such opponents. The Titans have especially bamboozled Wentz, who failed to complete more than 53 percent of his passes in either loss to Tennessee this year. We understand that it's a long season, and that plenty of twists and turns remain in the AFC playoff (especially now that Tennessee star running back Derrick Henry is out indefinitely with a fractured foot). However, the Colts are currently hunting for a wildcard spot. They'll need better play from their quarterback in clutch situations if they want to land one.
3) The Saints' defense will carry this team to the playoffs: There aren't many silver linings that come out of a team losing its starting quarterback to a season-ending knee injury. For the Saints -- who learned that Jameis Winston tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in Sunday's 36-27 win over Tampa -- it's the knowledge that Winston wasn't the biggest reason why they're now 5-2. Don't misunderstand; he's been a nice story this year, a player who was reinventing himself as a game manager instead of a turnover-prone gunslinger. However, these Saints have been grounding and pounding all season, and that isn't about to change now that somebody new is going under center. That stifling defense, one that ranks fourth in the NFL in points allowed, has been the major factor in this team's success so far. It showed up again Sunday, forcing three turnovers, including a game-clinching interception return for a touchdown by safety P.J. Williams in the final minutes. That typically is sacred ground for Tom Brady, who was all set to lead the Bucs on a winning drive. Instead, the Saints decided this was going to be their time, as has been the case at several junctures of this season. This defense really has had only one brutal performance -- when the New York Giants overcame an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter of a 27-21 overtime loss. Aside from that, it's been exactly what head coach Sean Payton needs it to be: suffocating and opportunistic. The Saints clearly have to figure out their quarterback situation, as Taysom Hill was sidelined on Sunday and Trevor Siemian has his limitations. What they don't have to worry about is that defense. It's more than capable of keeping New Orleans moving in the right direction.
The Packers have ripped off seven straight wins since a season-opening blowout loss to New Orleans. They've done it while dealing with significant injuries (to stars like linebacker Za'Darius Smith, cornerback Jaire Alexander and left tackle David Bakhtiari), and they just beat the previously undefeated Arizona Cardinals despite missing their top three wide receivers, including Pro Bowler Davante Adams. Aaron Rodgers has so dominated the conversation in Green Bay that it's been easy to overlook the job LaFleur has been doing. This man has found answers to every predicament the Packers have faced thus far this season.
The Jets looked clueless in a blowout loss to New England a week ago. White made them look like a completely different team in his first career start on Sunday against the Bengals. It wasn't merely that he threw for 405 yards and three touchdowns. It's that he did it in a win over one of the most impressive teams in the league. The Jets clearly traded for Joe Flacco with the idea that they needed a reliable option, with rookie Zach Wilson sidelined by a knee injury. The Jets now have a nice problem on their hands, especially if White can repeat his play for a second straight week.
It's likely not a coincidence that the Steelers are riding a three-game winning streak at the same time Harris has seen a dramatic shift in his production. The only way this team is going to climb back into the AFC North conversation is by running the ball and playing good defense. Harris has done his part so far, behind an offensive line that has faced its share of criticism. He's had 73 carries for 294 yards over the last three contests (and 11 more catches). That's an average of 28 touches a game. Look, it isn't pretty, but that blue-collar approach has made the Steelers relevant again, especially after Sunday's 15-10 win at Cleveland.
The one person the Tennessee Titans couldn't afford to lose is suddenly staring at the potential end of his season. Henry, the All-Pro running back who once seemed indestructible, will need surgery to repair a fractured foot, a procedure that could sideline him for six to 10 weeks. The Titans already have signed 36-year-old Adrian Peterson, but let's face facts: This is a crushing blow. No back in the league provides the type of workhorse dimension that fuels this offense. Everything stems from his physical presence: the play-action passing, the support for a limited defense. It's hard to imagine how this team will look without him.
Chicago's strength is supposed to be its defense. That unit now has surrendered 71 points over its last two games. The worst part is that Chicago couldn't contain a San Francisco offense that had been struggling for most of the preceding several weeks. The 49ers secured a 33-22 win, which marked the first time San Francisco had scored more than 28 points in a game since Week 1. The Bears should be excited about the progress rookie quarterback Justin Fields is making. Instead, they're wasting his growth with a defense that is suddenly going in the wrong direction.
The Arizona Cardinals' defense took a huge hit when Watt learned that he'd need shoulder surgery that is likely to be season-ending. If his year is indeed over, this will mark the fourth time in the last six seasons that he couldn't finish a campaign. He'd also been playing at a high level, serving as one of the most active disrupters on a front that had been consistently pressuring quarterbacks. And he was the best run defender on a unit that struggles in that area. Watt went to Arizona to be a difference-maker on a team trying to become a contender. The Cardinals are still one of the best teams in the league, but his absence surely will be felt.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
Why has Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp become one of the best players at his position this season?
GENERAL MANAGER OF AN NFC TEAM: "First, he's in a great system. (Rams head coach) Sean McVay has proven that he's as imaginative as they come, and having (quarterback) Matthew Stafford there helps. But I've always liked Kupp. He wins with this brain. He knows how to set up routes and create separation based on smarts, intelligence, feel and instincts -- at an extremely high level. McVay is a great play caller, but he also understands Kupp's strengths and weaknesses and how they can fit in that offense. Kupp has ordinary size and speed. But he's the classic overachiever -- smart, tough and consistent."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 9 (arrows reflect movement from last week's edition):
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Dallas over Buffalo.