In The First Read, Jeffri Chadiha provides a snapshot of the hottest stories and trends heading into Week 9 of the 2022 NFL season, including:
But first, a closer look at the surprising performance of a presumed cellar dweller ...
SEATTLE -- New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh apparently isn't the only franchise leader keeping receipts these days. Seattle's Pete Carroll hasn't forgotten the critics circling around his own team -- or how to savor redemption, for that matter. The Seahawks were predicted to be a squad heading nowhere, both because of an uninspiring quarterback situation and a dearth of established playmakers, outside of perhaps the receivers room. Instead, they currently sit atop the NFC West while steadily reminding folks how looks really can be deceiving.
The best thing about Carroll's current team -- which just scored a 27-13 win over the New York Giants in a contest nobody imagined would be so pivotal when this year began -- is they're all business. They're going to pound the rock relentlessly. They're going to ask their quarterback Geno Smith to take care of the football and make some plays in the passing game when the opportunities arise. They're also learning how to play defense again after losing safety Jamal Adams to a season-ending quadriceps injury in Week 1 and being gashed repeatedly by opponents earlier in the year.
This is basically the same style of football that helped Carroll turn the Seahawks into champions roughly a decade ago, and he's more than happy to let people know he can still win with it. "I hate that we were crappy early in the year, and we weren't doing stuff right, but we held on to it," said Carroll, whose team has won three straight games to improve to 5-3, on Sunday. "We felt like we knew where we could go, and we're getting (it) going. All the people who doubted (and) said we run the ball too much, 'You don't understand football,' or, 'You can't stay up with the new game,' that's a bunch of crap. We're doing fine."
Carroll didn't have to remind anyone what most people thought about this team heading into this year: The trade that sent quarterback Russell Wilson to Denver was going to bury them in serious rebuild mode. That was before the Seahawks beat the Broncos in the season-opener. It was also before Wilson became the league's most disappointing offseason acquisition, as both he and the Broncos have floundered in that new marriage. Based on these divergent results, it seems clear now that Carroll must have given his former quarterback plenty to work with during their time together
The 32-year-old Smith is the beneficiary of that environment today, and he's easily the league's most improved player. He's operating primarily as a game manager, but Sunday proved he can spin it at a high level when it's necessary. Smith had a couple potential touchdown passes dropped by his receivers against New York before he hit Tyler Lockett on a perfectly thrown 33-yard toss that gave Seattle a 20-13 lead. Smith now is in the midst of his best pro season ever, as he's completed 72.7 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and three interceptions.
More importantly, Smith is helping this offense make the late plays that allow them to close out tight games. "Everyone is locked in and focused on finishing," Smith said. "It was the same thing last year, but things just didn't go our way. We just have to continue to stay locked in and focused in those moments. There are times in the game when you can go win the game for your team and that's what you want."
When asked about Smith, Carroll added, "He's the real deal. There's no mystery here or (the possibility) that he'll run out of gas. He knows exactly what he's doing, and he shows it week in and week out, throw after throw."
Smith actually embodies this entire team's identity. He played on three other teams in his nine-year career before arriving in Seattle in 2019 to be Wilson's backup. There wasn't any excitement about him taking over, even after he played well in place of an injured Wilson last year and then beat out Drew Lock in a training camp battle. That also never became an issue for Smith's confidence, as he kept believing he could offer this team more than most expected.
The same thing is true of Seattle's rookie class, which easily ranks with the Jets' first-year group as the best in the league. The Seahawks found two dependable offensive tackles in the draft (Charles Cross Abraham Lucas), a blossoming star running back (Kenneth Walker III) and a cornerback who should challenge for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors (Tariq Woolen). As Lockett said, "Our rookie class probably hasn't said 500 words since they've been here. They just put their heads down and work, literally. They listen, do what you want them to do and go out there and they shine each week."
Seattle hasn't been this excited about a group of young players since Carroll loaded up in the draft in the early portion of his Seahawks tenure, which started back in 2010. Back then, he found numerous future stars -- players like Wilson, Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Bobby Wagner -- who all became foundational members of an eventual Super Bowl champion. The popular thinking among some fans and observers was that Carroll, whose first NFL coaching job came in 1984, had long since moved past the days when he could create that kind of magic again. Seattle's 7-10 finish last season only generated more skepticism in that realm.
Carroll is clearly using all those doubts as motivation for this year. He realizes that's not the kind of energy that can propel a team through an entire season, but it doesn't hurt to tap into it when necessary. The head coach is feeling a different vibe around Lumen Field these days, the kind of electricity that was so prominent during this team's glory years. Carroll said he even talked with some of his former players from those squads on Sunday, guys like Chancellor and Cliff Avril, about how the stadium is starting to rock like it used to back in the day.
There aren't many Seahawks players left who were around from those years. Lockett, who came on as a third-round pick in 2015, is the longest-tenured player, and he was reminding his teammates on Sunday of how important it is to remember what people thought of them back in August. "It's amazing what you can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit," Lockett said. "We just have a bunch of guys who really want to buy in."
That environment says a lot about their head coach and his own ability to persevere. When a local reporter asked Carroll how coaching this team compares to his winning a Super Bowl and a couple national championships at USC, Carroll said, "This is a very special opportunity right now. And it's been that way because of all the hype and the circumstances and the challenge and the doubting and all that kind of stuff. I like this challenge. I've liked it from the start, or I wouldn't be here. But the fact that the guys are coming through because of the way they've worked and how much they care about it, it's a coach's thrill."
You didn't have to hear Carroll speak those words to know he's having fun. Late in Sunday's game, he drew a penalty for bumping into an official who was running down the Seahawks' sideline. Carroll was so immersed in the action that he'd wandered too far into the field of play and ultimately drew the yellow flag. He laughed at himself a few seconds after the call and joked about it a little more in his post-game press conference.
This was a man who wasn't supposed to be so gleeful by this point in this season. He certainly wasn't expected to be playing meaningful football games, or to be looking down at the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals -- all of whom made the playoffs last season -- in the division standings. That's also why Carroll is enjoying this run so much. Success always feels much sweeter when people think you no longer have it in you.
Quick-hitting thoughts on storylines to track around the NFL.
1) Tua time again: After so much uncertainty surrounded Tua Tagovailoa in the wake of his concussion earlier this season, the Dolphins quarterback is back on the field at a time when Miami can make some noise in the AFC playoff race. You don't want to make too much of the way Tagovailoa torched the Detroit Lions on Sunday in a 31-27 win, when he completed 29 of 36 passes for 382 yards and 3 touchdowns against the league's worst defense. What is worth discussing is how ready this offense is to take off in the coming weeks. The Dolphins are about to face the Bears, Browns and Texans over their next three games, and each one of those teams has had trouble stopping opponents. Simply put, Miami must dominate these games to put itself in position for a tough second-half slate that includes matchups with the 49ers and Chargers as well as games against division opponents Buffalo, New England and the New York Jets. The loss of Tagovailoa for two games -- as well as half of a Week 4 defeat to Cincinnati -- made it easy to forget how fast the Dolphins started, how much they looked like a team that could be dangerous once everything came together. It feels like they're getting back to that place with Tagovailoa having played two games since his return. It's a challenge for opponents to match up with speedy receivers Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill, and head coach Mike McDaniel is becoming more aggressive in his play-calling. So don't be surprised if Miami, currently 5-3, is riding a five-game win streak once it runs into the 49ers on Dec. 4. The Dolphins quarterback is back to playing at a high level, and the offense is explosive enough to make the team a real contender.
2) Titans turning it on: The smartest move anybody can make is to never discount the Tennessee Titans as long as Mike Vrabel is coaching them. This was supposed to be the year when it all came crumbling down -- the grind-it-out offense, the blue-collar personality, the utter lack of star power. This is the stuff that defined the Titans for the last couple years, but it seemed that they'd taken enough roster hits (the trading of wide receiver A.J. Brown, the season-ending knee injury to Pro Bowl pass rusher Harold Landry) to open the door for somebody else to rule the AFC South. So much for that thinking. The Titans have ripped off five straight wins since starting 0-2. The concerns that followed a season-opening loss to the Giants and a 41-7 blowout defeat at Buffalo have been replaced with more familiar sights around Nashville. Derrick Henry has rounded back into form, as he's had four straight 100-yard games, including Sunday's 32-carry, 219-yard effort in a win over Houston. The defense has only allowed 15.2 points per game during that win streak, while forcing nine turnovers. Tennessee even won Sunday with rookie Malik Willis attempting just 10 passes while filling in for an injured Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Of course, the true test comes this week when the Titans travel to Kansas City for Sunday Night Football. It's fair to say the Titans have been fattening up on soft opponents, since not one of their wins came against a team that currently has a winning record. However, they've also been an irritant to the Chiefs in regular-season play in recent years, including a 27-3 win last season. It's clear that the Titans are back to reminding everyone who they are. After next weekend, we'll have a firmer grasp on how far they can actually go.
3) Tony Pollard needs more touches: It's impossible to watch the Dallas Cowboys these days and think that the offseason debates about Tony Pollard -- the ones focusing on whether he deserves to handle the football more -- aren't gaining more momentum. With Ezekiel Elliott nursing a knee injury, Pollard assumed lead-back duties on Sunday, running for 131 yards and three touchdowns in the Cowboys' 49-29 win over Chicago. Pollard leads the team with 506 rushing yards on 6.2 yards per carry. He's doing all this while averaging only about 10 rushing attempts per game. It's really nice to see Dallas be so loyal to Elliott, whom owner Jerry Jones praised profusely on Sunday, saying the Cowboys "go as Zeke goes." But even Jerry must know Pollard has to be more involved going forward. The Cowboys went 4-1 without Dak Prescott earlier this season for two reasons: 1) They play great defense; and 2) They learned how to maximize the talents of backup Cooper Rush by running a more conservative, run-based offense. They need to recognize the possibilities another backup can provide, especially with Elliott banged up. The Cowboys are very much a Super Bowl contender again because they opened their minds to what they could be without their star quarterback. The nice thing here is they'll get their star rusher back sooner than later. But even when he does return, the Cowboys have to embrace the idea that this offense is more explosive when Pollard is getting more opportunities.
You’re going to land on this list when you produce three first-half touchdowns and 156 receiving yards overall. Brown doesn’t have to be a monster every time the Eagles take the field. However, there are days, like in Sunday's 35-13 win over Pittsburgh, when he provides ample evidence of why Philadelphia was so eager to trade for him this offseason and give him a huge extension. Brown is the kind of receiver that makes life easier on quarterback Jalen Hurts and everyone else on that offense. There’s surely more where this kind of production came from.
The Saints have a lot of flaws these days. Their star running back isn’t one of them. New Orleans has been giving Kamara a ton of touches ever since he returned from a rib injury four weeks ago, and he's given the team plenty of production in return. On Sunday, he had 158 yards from scrimmage (18 carries for 62 yards; 9 catches for 96 yards) and three total touchdowns. If the Saints are going to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot -- they’re only one game out of first place in the NFC south -- they’ll have to lean on Kamara even more.
The Vikings were hoping they were getting the best of Smith after signing him in free agency (a back injury sidelined him for most of the 2021 season with Green Bay), and the two-time Pro Bowler has been delivering big lately. Smith had three sacks in Minnesota’s 34-26 win over Arizona. That gives him 5.5 sacks in his last three games and 8.5 overall. The Vikings believed Smith could help re-energize their new-look 3-4 defense if he stayed healthy. So far, he’s giving them exactly what they paid for.
The New York Jets quarterback probably doesn’t want to see Patriots head coach Bill Belichick for a while. (Too bad Wilson will him again in just a few weeks). The second-year passer is now 0-3 overall against New England, following Sunday’s 22-17 loss. What’s worse is the way he’s performed in those games. Wilson threw three interceptions this weekend, giving him seven for his career against the Patriots. He’s also only tossed two total touchdown passes against Belichick's group in that time. The Jets are plenty good enough on defense to make a run at a playoff spot. But this latest defeat to New England was one more deflating sign of how much their young quarterback still needs to grow.
We’ve already mentioned what A.J. Brown did this weekend. It’s time to talk about how inept he made the once-proud Steelers defense look in compiling those numbers. Brown was able to abuse the Pittsburgh secondary even when it had two defenders near him on each of those touchdowns. The Steelers also didn’t have any answers for Jalen Hurts (four touchdown passes) or the Eagles run game (averaged 5.5 yards per carry). This unit came into the weekend ranked 22nd in scoring defense. It’s now allowed at least 29 points three times in eight games.
We’ve all seen it by now. Moore hauled in a 62-yard touchdown reception that tied the Carolina-Atlanta game at 34 with 12 seconds remaining. He then ripped off his helmet, drew a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and created a 48-yard extra-point attempt that Panthers kicker Eddy Pineiro missed in what eventually became a 37-34 overtime loss. Yeah, yeah -- Pineiro should’ve made that kick, and the one he missed in overtime. But Moore’s play was the bonehead move that created everything else that followed.
One question answered by an unnamed front office source.
AFC PERSONNEL DIRECTOR: "The overriding question really comes down to how close is he going to be to what he was in the Super Bowl before that knee injury (Beckham tore his ACL in the Rams' win over Cincinnati in Super Bowl LVI). I read one report that said he might not be ready until December. And even then, you don't know if that means he'll be in game shape. Then you have to wonder about how quickly you can get him up to speed with the playbook and what kind of chemistry he'll have with the quarterback. I suspect he lands with a team that really needs him because of injuries to other players or they see him as the kind of talent who would put them over the top. The Rams obviously make the most sense because he knows the team, they don't have to worry about him learning the offense and he likes that big stage. I've heard that he has a lot of reverence for Tom Brady, so Tampa Bay wouldn't surprise me. That group has underperformed and been banged up. You could see the Packers and the Chiefs being intrigued because of their quarterbacks. But you really have to trust your medical team and the information they receive during the physical. I think people understand what OBJ was at his peak and that he's not that kind of talent anymore. He's basically a hired gun for a title run. He may not be what he was, but if he makes a key catch for you in the playoffs or the Super Bowl, then he's probably worth the investment, even if he does nothing else."
A simple ranking of the top five candidates as I see them, which will be updated weekly, depending on performance. Here is how it stands heading into Week 9 (odds courtesy of FanDuel are current as of 4:30 p.m. ET on Oct. 31):
Weeks in Top 5: 8
Next game: at Jets | Sunday, Nov. 6
Weeks in Top 5: 8
Next game: vs. Titans | Sunday, Nov. 6
Weeks in Top 5: 6
Next game: at Texans | Thursday, Nov. 3
Weeks in Top 5: 2
Next game: at Browns | Monday, Oct. 31
Weeks in Top 5: 1
Next game: at Chiefs | Sunday, Nov. 6
My slowly evolving Super Bowl pick, which also will be updated each week, depending on performances: Bills over Eagles.
Previous picks ...
- Week 8: Bills over Eagles
- Week 7: Bills over Eagles
- Week 6: Bills over Eagles
- Week 5: Bills over Eagles
- Week 4: Bills over Eagles
- Week 3: Bills over 49ers
- Week 2: Bills over Buccaneers
- Week 1: Bills over Packers