High-Flying Adventures In The Research Notes: Week 9

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Every Wednesday, Dan Hanzus combs through the expert findings of the NFL Media Research Department to share nuggets (also known as "nugs") that fascinate, frighten or change him on a fundamental level. This is the Week 9 edition of High-Flying Adventures In The Research Notes.

JUST THROW [HIM] THE DAMN BALL

On Sunday at the Meadowlands, Falcons All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones spent most of the first half engaged with Morris Claiborne, the Jets' top cornerback. Claiborne kept Jones contained for two quarters before being forced to the sideline with a foot injury for the duration of the contest.

Once Claiborne departed, Jets fans waited for the other shoe to drop. The Jets have no depth in their cornerback group, which made it seem like a foregone conclusion that Jones and Matt Ryan would take over the game. But other than a 54-yard reception in which Jones easily toasted some guy named Darryl Roberts, Jones played a bit role in Atlanta's victory. The Falcons did the Jets a major favor.

First-year Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has received a substantial amount of criticism this season, and the inability to better showcase a generational talent like Julio Jones is, like Jones himself, impossible to defend.

In fairness, it would have been a titanic challenge to match the efficiency of last year's offense even if Kyle Shanahan was still in the building. But sometimes you don't need to be a football genius to identify the root cause of a problem. Julio Jones is the best player on the Falcons. If they make a greater effort to get the ball in his hands, positive things will probably happen.

It ain't too late to flip the script, but time is running out.

THE CEILING IS THE ROOF FOR DESHAUN WATSON

Last week in this space, we wrote about the Seahawks' extreme success against rookie quarterbacks at CenturyLink Field. Deshaun Watson was supposed to struggle in that environment ... and all he did was account for almost 500 total yards of offense and four touchdowns in a near upset of a perennial NFC powerhouse.

Yep. It's time to stop doubting Watson in any capacity. Also, stop benching him on your fantasy team even when statistical data suggests this is an understandable thing to do. (Confession: I'm chastising myself for that last one. Idiot.)

The Texans are kind of a funny team to get a handle on right now. They traded their disgruntled franchise left tackle this week, and the season-ending injuries to J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and most recently, Christian Covington, robbed a pretty good defense of any chance of reaching its potential. The 3-4 Texans seem sunk as a 2017 title contender because of this, but Watson has kept the whole enterprise afloat, making Houston a compelling watch week after week.

And given the particularly unsettled state of the AFC this year, it's unwise to rule out any team led by a rookie who's this special.

THE SAINTS ARE WEIRD AND DIFFERENT AND WAY BETTER

Hey, remember when the Saints were 0-2 and the defense was wretched and Adrian Peterson was scowling at Sean Payton and New Orleans seemed destined for yet another 7-9 finish in a best-case scenario? Yeah, that seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?

The Saints haven't lost since then and enter the season's midway point a surprise leader in the NFC South. They've turned around their entire operation by leaning on the two things the organization had seemingly forgotten about in the years since their Super Bowl XLV victory: They play defense and they run the football.

And while the immediate impacts of rookies like cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara can't be overstated, the whole game plan ultimately works because Drew Brees is still Drew Brees. New Orleans' shift in strategy on offense would've been predictable if Brees were showing serious signs of slippage, ala Peyton Manning in his final year with the Broncos. But Brees remains elite, which makes this type of philosophical change all the more effective.

In an Aaron Rodgers-less NFC, we can't rule out any team as a Super Bowl contender right now. The Saints are emerging as a possible favorite -- imagine someone told you that after Week 2?

YOUR WEEKLY REMINDER THE JETS ARE STILL LOOKING FOR A JOE NAMATH REPLACEMENT

Let's start out here with a shoutout to Josh McCown, who has been way better than could have been reasonably expected. Remember all the preseason chatter from anonymous talent evaluators pegging the Jets as possibly the worst offense ever? After a slow start in Buffalo -- a loss that doesn't look bad at all, anymore -- the Jets have consistently put up points and McCown, 38 years young, is at the heart of it.

The bigger story to take out the above research, however, is just how incredibly sad it is that we have to go back 50 years to find a Jets passer who threw for at least two touchdown passes in five straight games. Like, that's not even that impressive an achievement! It hasn't been done in four consecutive games since Ray Lucas in 1999? Ray Lucas?!?

In the last 30 years, the Jets had exactly three seasons in which they had legitimate above-average play at the game's most important position. Vinny Testaverde in 1998, Chad Pennington in 2002, and Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015. If you want to be charitable, you can throw in Brett Favre in 2008, but he played through an arm injury in the final month that ruined their season, and besides, it seems like the football cognoscenti all quietly decided to strike Favre's one-year pitstop in Jersey from the history books. Fine with me.

Besides those individual one-year blips, it's been total chaos and destruction for decades. McCown hasn't been brilliant this season, but he has been OK-to-good -- and this makes him an outlier for this star-crossed franchise. The irony, of course, is that McCown's OK-to-good play is what may keep the Jets out of the top three of next April's draft, which will, in turn, likely keep them for at long last securing a young franchise passer who can act as a true successor to Joe Namath -- who, not for nothing -- last threw a pass for the team when Gerald Ford was in office.

No God.

Until next week ...

Follow the NFL Media Research Group on Twitter at @NFLResearch. Follow Dan Hanzus, too.

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