For one, the Green Bay Packers, a popular preseason Super Bowl pick, have completely derailed to such a degree that it may soon be time to assess what the team has in Jordan Love. Yet, while the Packers look broken, the G.O.A.T. Tom Brady, who became the first player to surpass 100,000 career passing yards, is keeping the Tampa Bay Buccaneers afloat, though it’s only barely.
Meanwhile, in the division he left a few seasons ago, the New York Jets have shown they have an elite defense that can topple even the most potent of offenses.
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Here are the winners and losers from Week 9's Sunday slate.
Vintage Brady keeps the Bucs season alive
Despite the ugly record and moments of offensive stagnancy, Tom Brady has the Buccaneers (4-5) in position to scrape out of NFC South. Brady, at 45 – remarkably – leads the NFL in passing with 2,547 yards. Though his touchdown numbers (10) are rather pedestrian, he is protecting the ball and has thrown only one interception.
The touchdown numbers, in part, can be attributed to drops and an offensive line that has yielded far too much pressure, but the Bucs may be working toward a solution. Brady already had the quickest release in the NFL, but he threw the ball in an average of 2.25 seconds, eliminating the Rams’ pass rush and leading to a season-low 8.5% pressure rate. Could Tampa make noise in a potential postseason run? It would need to show much more. First things first, the Buccaneers need to correct a red zone efficiency that’s 31st in the league (44.4%).
Forget receipts, this D-E-F-E-N-S-E is elite
The New York Jets are more than a surprise at the midway point; they can play spoiler against just about anybody. New York (6-3) can generate intense pressure on opposing quarterbacks while rushing four players. And on the back end, Sauce Gardner is a star and the rest of the secondary can clamp down. The Jets blitzed Josh Allen and the Bills just twice, per NextGen Stats. After Buffalo raced out to an 11-point lead midway through the second, New York limited the Bills to three points the rest of the game.
This all comes with a caveat. The Jets need quarterback Zach Wilson to do exactly what he did against the Bills: stay efficient in the pocket, protect the ball, find open players. He doesn’t need to be the hero because – with this defense – the Jets showed they can stifle even the most imposing offenses in the NFL.
The soon-to-be NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings will win the NFC North. While their performances have often been uneven and are statistically deficient in certain areas (namely defensive red zone efficiency) they have been – at the very least – consistently competitive. And in this division, that will be enough.
After their three-point victory against the Commanders, Minnesota (7-1) has built a 4.5-game lead in the NFC North. Justin Jefferson remains one of the best receivers in football, Kirk Cousins has been serviceable and Dalvin Cook offers versatility with his ability to catch out of the backfield. The next stretch will be the tough test; the Vikings travel to face the Bills (6-2), and then face the Cowboys (6-2), Patriots (5-4) and Jets (6-3) at home over the next month. It becomes more favorable after that. But with Green Bay (3-6) in a tailspin, there’s simply no real contender for Minnesota right now.
Dual-threat Justin Fields: activated
The Bears lost their comeback try against the Dolphins, but have finally put quarterback Justin Fields in a system that makes him a franchise quarterback. Fields completed 17-of-28 passes for 123 yards with three touchdowns and rushed 15 times for 178 with another score.
Over the past couple weeks, Chicago (3-6) has called plays that ask Fields to throw while moving like on rollouts and play-action boots. And when paired with designed rushes, his mobility forces the defense to defend every player on the field. While Miami’s defense misses too many tackles and isn’t a dominant unit, Fields’ rushing yards were most by a quarterback in a regular-season game since at least 1940, passing Michael Vick’s 173 from December 2002. The Bears will still need to give Field more help and the trade for Chase Claypool was a start. But this is a glimpse of how good he can be when put in position to shine.
It's time to assess the future on Lombardi Ave.
For Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, rock bottom worsens by the week. Detroit entered Sunday dead last in points allowed, yards allowed, yards per play allowed, first downs per game allowed and defensive third down efficiency.
This was not young receivers being out of position or dropping passes; this was Rodgers, 38, misplacing throws – sometimes egregiously – in his fifth-career three-pick game. He threw two red zone interceptions, the first time he has ever done that in a game. The Packers (3-6) failed to convert any of their four red zone trips. They have injuries and holes all over the roster. They’ve lost five straight and are on the brink of a lost season. We’re not yet at the play Jordan Love stage, but that should, stunningly, be given strong consideration. Because with a draft that’s projected to be rich in dynamic quarterbacks, Green Bay – currently projected No. 8 overall – simply cannot miscalculate at the position without seriously compromising its future.
Open the playbook, Tennessee
The Chiefs are not a team you can play conservatively and expect to win, even with a backup quarterback starting. Yet, that’s exactly what the Titans did after they took an eight-point lead in the middle of third quarter.
In the six possessions Tennessee (5-3) had after it took that lead, offensive coordinator Todd Downing called plays in which the intent was to not make mistakes. The Titans ran only 21 plays over those six series for minus-8 yards. Four of the six drives were three-and-outs. Several penalties often prevented drives from ever developing. Malik Willis posted minus-2 passing yards in the second half after he had 82 in the first. Derrick Henry, the team’s closer, inexplicably ran the ball just seven times for 22 yards after halftime. They are banged up at receiver, yes, but the scheme was predictable, many of the calls being straight-line go routes. Willis, Henry and the rest of the offense deserved better.
No, Indy, Sam Ehlinger isn't the savior
Historically, a rookie quarterback going against a Bill Belichick-coached defense has been a nightmare for the young passer. Sam Ehlinger of the Colts was not spared.
His first completion of the game came with 7:41 to play … in the second quarter. At the half, he was 5-of-12 for 52 yards. The reason coach Frank Reich said he opted to start Ehlinger – his mobility – didn’t pay off either. The rookie had three carries for 16 yards at intermission, at which point Indy was already in a 13-point hole. He finished the day 15-of-29 for 103 yards with one interception. To be fair, the Colts' (3-5-1) offensive line, after being one of the top units in football over the past several years, has been abysmal and gave up nine sacks. Some of them were on Ehlinger, who was overwhelmed and held onto the ball too long at times.
One-and-done Josh McDaniels?
Firing head coaches after their first seasons should be avoided and only sets franchises further back. It also indicates to prospective candidates that there’s instability in the organization. Raiders coach Josh McDaniels shouldn’t be on the hot seat yet, but there’s already reason to wonder if his job is safe.
A common sign of poorly coached teams is blown leads and Las Vegas (2-6) has been historically bad. After racing out to a 17-0 lead, the Jaguars outscored Las Vegas by a margin of 27-3 the rest of the way. In particular, the defense has been incapable of making game-swinging plays, ranking dead last in the NFL with only five takeaways. Over the past three games, the Raiders have generated just a single sack. And in second halves, as leads have evaporated, both those problems have been particularly devastating.
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