USA TODAY SPORTS- We are now at the halfway point of the NFL season. And it’s clear at this point that there are a handful of teams who are legitimate threats to compete for a trip to Super Bowl LIV.
Still, there are some upstarts who have made their cases and could be disruptive forces in the power structure of the league. But before we get ahead of ourselves, here are the winners and losers from Week 8.
Aaron Jones: The Packers running back is a winner here, though, perhaps, it should be his quarterback listed. Jones has become an invaluable asset in the passing game, and in Green Bay’s 31-24 victory on the road against the Chiefs, it seemed like any time Aaron Rodgers saw Jones facing man coverage against a linebacker, he flung the ball his way. Jones caught seven of eight targets for 159 yards and a pair of scores to help the Packers improve to 7-1 and tie them with the Saints for the second-best record in the NFC. With receiver Davante Adams still injured, Jones’ emergence in the passing game not only improves Rodgers’ resume as an MVP candidate, but it makes Green Bay so dangerous down the stretch.
Philadelphia Eagles: They avoided a three-game losing streak, and did it on the last leg of a three-game road trip. And they did it, 31-13, in dominant fashion against a Bills team that had entered the day 5-1. The most promising news for Philly was that it limited turnovers (one), converted three of four red zone trips into touchdowns, and converted on eight of 15 (53.3%) third-down attempts. Those were all strengths of Doug Pederson’s teams when the Eagles rolled through the playoffs and won the Super Bowl two years ago. And with the Eagles (4-4) now just a half game back of the Cowboys (4-3; bye week), their hopes to win the NFC East are very much alive.
Cam Newton: Yes, the Panthers lost. And they lost badly. A 51-13 beating against the 49ers is tough. But with Carolina’s offense struggling and with Kyle Allen completing just 19 of 37 passes for 158 yards and three picks, this can put to bed the budding debate that started to bubble about whether Newton should remain on the bench once he’s fully healthy from his Lisfranc injury to his foot. In fact, there was chatter that the Panthers should consider moving on from Newton altogether as the team’s franchise quarterback. Newton has been very supportive of Allen, helping him on the sidelines and in the weeks leading up to games. But even though Allen played well in relief of Newton, the Panthers are clearly a better team when Newton has the ball in his hands.
Drew Brees: Perhaps he was feeling some pressure seeing backup Teddy Bridgewater doing so well, but Brees shined in his return from a right thumb injury, completing 34 of 43 passes for 373 yards and three touchdowns with one interception in a 31-9 victory against the Arizona Cardinals. The one pick, it seemed, he knew was a bad throw from the moment it left his arm. Brees showed no ill-effects from his injury and clearly could grip the ball well. New Orleans also showed that when he’s under center, this offense can be lethal. Just wait until running back Alvin Kamara gets healthier after the bye, too.
Cleveland Browns: At this point, the Browns have to be considered one of the biggest disappointments in the NFL. After the offseason they had and after the talk about their expectations, Cleveland fell to 2-5 after another lifeless performance, this one a 27-13 loss against the Patriots. Cleveland turned the ball over on three consecutive offensive snaps. They committed 13 penalties. They converted just three of 12 third-down tries. They’re undisciplined, make so many mental mistakes, can’t protect their quarterback, and suffer through moments of inexplicably frustrating play calling. Their schedule lightens a bit now, but it’s not unfair to ask whether this Browns team is better than last year’s iteration.
Refs blowing plays dead: It happened, again, inexplicably. And, again, it directly impacted the outcome of a game. This season, officials have been quick with their whistles, often blowing plays dead and wiping points off the board. It happened Sunday, and might have cost the Buccaneers a victory. In a 27-23 loss against the Titans, Tennessee opted to run a fake field goal late in the fourth quarter. Linebacker Devin White tackled Titans punter Brett Kern short of the line of scrimmage. The crew blew the play dead. Problem was that broadcast replays showed the ball being jarred loose and safety Andrew Adams eventually scooped the ball and trotted off for what would’ve been a clear touchdown. It would’ve given Tampa a lead with fewer than four minutes to play. It has been a frequent issue, and officials need to swallow their whistles and let replay overturn plays, if needed.
Matt Nagy: Though he defended his decision and said there was “zero thought” to advance the ball to make a potential game-winning field goal a little easier for Eddy Pineiro, Nagy’s decision to kneel the ball even though there were still 53 seconds left on the clock and even though he still had a timeout might have cost Chicago the game. The Bears lost to the Chargers, 17-16, when Pineiro’s kick hooked wide left. Certainly, Pineiro needs to convert these kicks. But Nagy’s concession after the game in which he admitted he thought his team would “lose three, four yards” shows a lack of trust and faith in his offense. His play calling inside the red zone was uninspired. Turnovers, again, were a problem. But after winning the NFC North last season, the Bears are now 3-4 and might be fading in a tough NFC.
Sam Darnold: Ugh, what a week for Darnold. Coming off a game just six days ago in which he set career lows in passing yards (86), and QB rating (3.6), as well as a career-high in turnovers (five), Darnold perhaps wasn’t seeing ghosts, but it wasn’t much better. He tossed three more interceptions to make it seven over two weeks in a 29-15 loss against the Jaguars. Most concerning is that Darnold’s footwork and mechanics have broken down in the last two games. He has shuffled his feet and thrown off his back foot. Jacksonville scored touchdowns off of Darnold’s first two picks and the third came late in the game when it was all but over. Also, after Darnold had to have a toenail removed last week, at some point Sunday, he sprained his thumb of his left hand. He was sacked eight times. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Jaguars taunted him by playing the “Ghostbusters” theme after his final interception.