With Week 8 all but in the books, we’re at the midway point of the NFL season, which means now is when the games really start to count.
Playoff races are starting to come into focus, individual player award races are tightening up, and here are winners and losers from this weekend.
New Orleans Saints: Some might say this was revenge for the Minnesota Miracle, but the Saints, more importantly, kept a one-game cushion in the NFC South with a 30-20 victory against the Vikings. New Orleans looks like one of the top teams in the NFL right now, and it’s so much more than Drew Brees. The two-headed tandem of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram at running back can wear opponents out, but improved defensive efficiency might be the most dangerous development. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and defensive end Marcus Davenport each had two sacks, and the secondary is limiting explosive plays. And with the Saints (6-1) hosting the Rams (8-0) in Week 9, a victory could even be a deciding factor in home-field advantage.
Carolina Panthers: They were facing a Ravens team that entered Sunday ranked first in the NFL in scoring defense (14.4 points a game), sacks (27) and total defense (280.6 yards a game). All the Panthers did was hang 36 points, hold the Baltimore pass rush without a sack, and rack up 386 yards in a convincing victory to improve to 5-2. It was a complete performance from Carolina, which did not commit a turnover and forced three. And, to improve an already great day, the Panthers had a nice gesture to honor special guest Chancellor Lee Adams, the son of the pregnant woman former receiver Rae Carruth was convicted of trying to kill, before the game.
Byron Leftwich: The Cardinals fired offensive coordinator Mike McCoy so former quarterback and rising star in the coaching ranks Byron Leftwich became Arizona’s interim offensive coordinator and play caller. He had quite the debut, helping erase a 12-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the 49ers, 18-15. Eventually in the fourth, the new wrinkles Leftwich incorporated started to pay off. In particular, he focused on getting running back David Johnson and receiver Larry Fitzgerald more involved. Johnson had his best receiving game of the season and compiled 100 all-purpose yards. Fitz caught eight passes for 102 yards and a score. It did come against the one-win Niners, but it was a positive step, nonetheless.
Washington Redskins: Let’s be clear. Washington’s 20-13 victory against the Giants was far from pretty. But Washington is now 5-2, remains in first place in the NFC East, and has some pieces that could keep them in contention in a wide open division. Namely, it’s a rushing defense that has smothered. Washington's rushing D has limited Saquon Barkley, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey to combine for only 91 yards on 36 carries. And 27 touches for 156 yards from scrimmage and two total scores – including a 64-yard touchdown scamper to seal the game – shows that adding Adrian Peterson weeks before the season was an inspired move.
Hue Jackson: In what has become a seemingly weekly occurrence, Browns head coach Hue Jackson continues to face questions about his team’s offense and his future in Cleveland. In a 33-18 loss against the Steelers, the Browns posted just 237 yards. Jackson has said he wanted more of a role in game planning for the offense, which many have speculated as a sign of trouble for offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Jackson is now 3-36-1 in two and a half seasons, and though the team wasn’t expected to compete for playoff spots right away, some progress is necessary. Otherwise, Jackson might be the one whose job might really be on the line.
Jameis Winston: As big a hole as the Buccaneers defense put them in early in a 37-34 loss against the Bengals, that wasn’t even close to the worst part of the day for Tampa. Winston was benched midway through the third quarter after he threw a pick six — his fourth interception of the day. Winston now has committed 70 turnovers in 49 career games. Ryan Fitzpatrick came in and played excellently (11 for 15 for 194 yards and two touchdowns), almost bringing Tampa Bay back from an 18-point deficit. Though Fitzpatrick clearly isn’t a reliable, long-term answer for the Bucs, it’s becoming apparent with each week that Winston isn’t either, especially with his history of off-field issues.
Le’Veon Bell: Sure, he’s still healthy and fresh, now into the start of the Week 9 season. But Bell, who still hasn’t signed the franchise tag tender Pittsburgh placed on him in March, is looking more and more like a replaceable player for the Steelers. The emergence of running back James Conner, who totaled 212 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns against the Browns, only diminishes Bell’s value. Conner became the first Steeler in franchise history to rush for two or more touchdowns in a three-week span. Even when Bell (eventually) gets back, don’t expect Pittsburgh to just put Conner – who is affordably under contract through 2020 – on the pine.
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