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Midseason storylines: Le'Veon Bell, Steve Smith injuries hurt

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Drew Brees threw for seven touchdowns in a thrilling victory over the Giants. The Lions continued to embarrass themselves. Running back Todd Gurley and wide receiver Amari Cooper might have some company in the category of standout offensive rookies.

And maybe, just maybe, we had better recognize that, at the midpoint of the season, the Raiders are just winning, baby.

However, injuries were the devastating trend of Week 8. The NFL is a league of attrition, and over the past few days, some teams -- and the game itself -- suffered some major losses.

The worst way to go out

In 2008, as he tried to bounce back from ACL surgery, 15-year NFL vet and Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Wayne Gandy told me something that has stuck with me since -- and really hit home Sunday:

"No player wants his career to end getting carted off the field," he said.

Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith tore his Achilles in Baltimore's second victory of the year Sunday, ending his season -- and possibly his career.

This 15th NFL season was supposed to be the 36-year-old's final run. Nobody knows if Smith will try to come back from this. He is one of the toughest, most courageous and most controversial players to ever compete on Sundays.

Smith's temper occasionally got him in trouble, but the perpetual chip on his supposedly undersized shoulders made the 5-foot-9, 195-pounder one of the most productive players we have seen.

Smith gave so much to this game. Hopefully, we all understand and appreciate that.

Bum luck burns some would-be AFC contenders

The undefeated Bengals rallied to beat the Steelers in Ben Roethlisberger's return from a knee injury. But the most impactful development was the torn MCL sustained by Pittsburgh running back Le'Veon Bell.

Bell is expected to miss the rest of the season -- a crushing blow to Pittsburgh's hopes of challenging AFC North-leading Cincinnati or reaching the playoffs. (UPDATE: The Steelers announced Monday that they'd placed Bell on injured reserve.)

Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, didn't even last through New York's first possession in Sunday's blowout loss to Oakland, suffering ligament damage in his left (non-throwing) thumb on the sixth offensive play of the game. Geno Smith played OK in Fitzpatrick's stead, though he dealt with his own injury issues in the fourth quarter, necessitating that Fitzpatrick take the field for two plays. Also, veteran Jets offensive tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson told me before Fitzpatrick was hurt that the veteran QB boasts the right skill set and temperament for this particular team.

So if Fitzpatrick -- who, at the time this was published, was set to undergo an MRI on Monday -- spends significant time on the shelf, the Jets might not make it to second place behind the Patriots in the AFC East or contend for a wild-card spot. (UPDATE: Jets coach Todd Bowles said Monday that Fitzpatrick will need surgery, but the quarterback could still play Sunday and is considered day-to-day for now.)

The Dolphins are in somewhat similar territory after losing their best defensive player, pass rusher Cameron Wake, to a torn Achilles on Thursday. With Wake out for the season, teams will be better able to double- and triple-team tackle Ndamukong Suh -- and opposing quarterbacks will be able to breathe easier.

Miami is a team in flux, and this injury weakened what was a talented defense. The undefeated Patriots' bid to get homefield advantage throughout the playoffs looks even stronger now.

And while Chicago and San Francisco aren't headed anywhere on the NFC side, potentially losing running backs Matt Forte (who suffered a knee injury of an undetermined nature) and Reggie Bush (who is believed to have a torn ACL) just makes things worse for the Bears and 49ers, respectively. (UPDATE: NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that Forte has a knee sprain that is not considered a long-term injury.)

Drew Brees' Saints among teams trending up

Brees' seven touchdown passes against the Giants -- tying the NFL single-game record -- came in an incredible, defenseless matchup , which featured Eli Manning throwing six touchdown passes in defeat. The more important matter for the Saints: They recorded their third straight victory to move to 4-4. Though they still have a lot of work to do to threaten 6-0 Carolina atop the NFC South, with Brees at quarterback, the Saints can't be discounted as a playoff threat.

On the issue of teams trending in the right way, the Oakland Raiders defeated the Jets to move to 4-3 and into, yes, wild-card contention in the AFC. Oakland is far more talented and disciplined in Jack Del Rio's first year as coach there, and if the team learns it can consistently compete, it could find itself in the playoffs.

Yep. You read that. Believe it.

It's also about time the Vikings showed up on the national radar. Minnesota has won three straight to move to 5-2 and stay in the shadow of the Packers in the NFC North.

Todd Gurley's not the only big-time newbie

Rams rookie running back Todd Gurley has been sensational, posting four straight games with at least 128 rushing yards. As a result, the Rams' offense has awakened, putting St. Louis above .500 (4-3) and just a game back in the loss column of the NFC West-leading Cardinals.

Pro Bowl ballot

Gurley could finish this season as the most accomplished rookie in the NFL, but the aforementioned Vikings are surging in part because of rookie wide receiver Stefon Diggs, a fifth-round selection from Maryland whose entry to the starting lineup kicked off Minnesota's three-game winning streak, with Diggs averaging six catches and 110.6 yards over that span. And Oakland wide receiver Amari Cooper (38 catches, 565 yards, three touchdowns) continues to help lead his team's revival.

But let's also not forget about another rookie who seems to be finding his way: No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston. In leading the Buccaneers to two victories in their last three games, including Sunday's win at Atlanta, the quarterback has thrown four touchdown passes and no interceptions in his last 12 quarters.

He also showed great poise in overtime against the Falcons after Tampa Bay blew another fourth-quarter lead (just like the Bucs did a week earlier, when they allowed Washington to rally from a 24-point deficit).

Assistants, prepare your résumés ...

The way things are headed, there could be a lot of head-coaching changes coming, and this is a perfect time for hot assistant coaches to strengthen their value.

Right now, offensive coordinators Kyle Shanahan (Atlanta) and Hue Jackson (Cincinnati) seemingly would be on some short lists as head-coaching candidates, but there could be a lot more vacancies than viable replacements.

That could be the dilemma anxious owners face: Is there anyone better than what their teams currently have at the top?

Coaches who are presumably already on the trap door: Chuck Pagano (Indianapolis), Jim Caldwell (Detroit), Jim Tomsula (San Francisco) and Dan Campbell (Miami).

Jay Gruden (Washington), Bill O'Brien (Houston), Ken Whisenhunt (Tennessee), Mike Pettine (Cleveland), Gus Bradley (Jacksonville), Chip Kelly (Philadelphia) and Andy Reid (Kansas City) are wild cards who probably need to finish the season a lot stronger than they started.

All will be revealed

Over the back half of the season, a lot of answers will become clear -- as always happens.

Will the AFC South be won by a team with a losing record? Will Tony Romo's return to health be all Dallas needs to win an NFC East that no other team seemingly wants to secure? Who, if anyone, will beat the Patriots?

And when, if ever, will 39-year-old Raiders safety Charles Woodson, who leads the NFL in picks after notching his fifth of the season Sunday, show any sign of slowing down?

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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