As we turn toward Week 8 of the 2019 NFL season, NFL.com's network of reporters provides the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
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BUFFALO BILLS: Dealing with doubters. Are the 5-1 Bills for real? That's the question being asked nationally, as many are picking through Buffalo's schedule and noting it hasn't been very challenging to this point (they have the third-lowest strength of schedule entering Week 8, behind the Patriots and 49ers).
"But they're not doing that with the Patriots or San Francisco, though. It's more about us, Buffalo, and it just is what it is," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander told me earlier this week. "If you've never been to Buffalo, played in Buffalo, been around this culture or this community, it's like, 'Buffalo?' I had it before I got here. You don't know. You're ignorant to what goes on up here."
Alexander, a 13th-year veteran who joined the Bills in 2016, realizes this past Sunday's victory over the winless Dolphins didn't do much to change people's minds, especially since the Bills had to come from behind for the win. But he noted previous years' Bills teams wouldn't have been able to settle down and make the adjustments to win a game like that. So to him, it's a testament to coach Sean McDermott moving things in the right direction.
"The change with Sean, people haven't been exposed to it just yet. They're used to the 17-year (playoff) drought and that's what everybody expects," Alexander said. "Until we create some consistency, people just aren't won over easily. I don't take offense to it and I don't worry about what they think, but I know in order to change that perception you have to put years together to change it."
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INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: The unlikely hero. Lost a bit in Jacoby Brissett's career day during Indy's 30-23 victory over the Texans last Sunday was the career day for another Colt: receiver Zach Pascal, who had six catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns.
Pascal went undrafted out of Old Dominion, was released after going through training camp by Washington, spent 2017 on Tennessee's practice squad and active roster before being released without seeing game action and was finally claimed in June 2018 by the Colts. He had 13 receptions last season and hung around largely on the strength of his run blocking and special teams play.
His roster spot looked even shakier this summer, after the Colts used a second-round draft pick on Parris Campbell, who was among the fastest players in the 2019 class, and used free agency to sign Devin Funchess -- all in pursuit of finally securing a No. 2 receiver to pair with T.Y. Hilton. With Campbell and Funchess hurt, Pascal has emerged as the WR2 after being completely ignored -- no targets at all -- in the first two games of the season. He has earned the respect of his coaches and teammates so successfully that offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni paid him an incredible compliment. He told Pascal he hopes his son plays football the way Pascal does.
Pascal's breakout has given the Colts a little breathing room as Funchess recovers from a broken collarbone. Coach Frank Reich announced Wednesday that Funchess is expected to return to practice next week. The team would then have 21 days to decide whether to return Funchess to the active roster, or put him on injured reserve for the rest of the season. The earliest he could return to the field would be in Week 11, when the Colts play the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The veteran Colts receiver has a history of big games against Houston (he told me last year that NRG Stadium is his second home). So to slow the prolific wideout down, Texans safety Justin Reid told me in the lead-up to last Sunday's big AFC South bout that they were going to try some coverages they had never used before against Hilton.
"Throughout the whole game, if I went inside, they'd just jam me at the line," Hilton said in the locker room after Indy's 30-23 win over Houston. "If I went outside, they tried to get in my face. That's pretty much it. I dropped a couple throws. I had a bad game. Nothing they did. I just had a bad game."
Apparently a bad game for Hilton against Houston is 74 yards and a score.
"Only thing they tried to do is wear me down," Hilton told me postgame. "But I get stronger as the game goes. If they play that same coverage they did today next time, it's going to be trouble."
After running the football so successfully throughout the season, Indianapolis proved it can be a team that can beat you a variety of ways. Colts players told me they knew Houston would be focused on stopping the run, so in turn, quarterback Jacoby Brissett threw for 326 yards and four touchdowns in the win, which also moved the Colts into first place in the division.
"Film," said wide receiver Zach Pascal when asked about the reason for their success in the passing game. "We are in that film room A LOT! We're in that film room more than we're on the field. And we're just going on it over and over. How are we going to run routes this week? This week we may run a route this way. And (OC) Nick (Sirianni) and (head coach) Frank (Reich) do an amazing job to help us succeed."
"Honestly, today I was more wide open," Pascal admitted. "Yeah. I was more wide open today than I was in practice. I just got to be honest, man."
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KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Defense up for Rodgers challenge. The Kansas City Chiefs know they're in for a huge defensive test on Sunday night. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is coming off one of the best games of his career -- he threw for 429 yards and accounted for six total touchdowns in a 42-24 win over Oakland -- and he's leading a balanced offense.
The Chiefs' defense had an impressive showing of its own in amassing nine sacks in a win over Denver last week, but the Kansas City defensive players realize Rodgers can create more issues.
"That's going to be a challenge for us," Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said. "The first phase of the route -- can we disrupt the timing -- and from there in the second phase, can we finish the play? He's going to extend some plays, he's going to make some plays Sunday night, he's Aaron Rodgers. The biggest thing is just limiting the explosive plays."
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NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Rookie earning more looks in the passing game. Receivers have come and gone since the start of Patriots training camp back in late July. From Dontrelle Inman to Maurice Harris to Antonio Brown to now Josh Gordon. Through it all, an underrated undrafted rookie, Jakobi Meyers, has opened eyes at every turn and it's finally paying dividends for the Pats. Meyers has caught nine balls (on nine targets) over the last two games from Tom Brady, building trust with a quarterback who's notoriously slow to embrace unknown pass catchers.
"It kind of goes along with the comfortability," Meyers told me. "When I first got here, it obviously wasn't there. I didn't know him as a man, as a person, as a teammate, but every day I'm learning him more and more, he's getting a chance to learn me more and more and it's just growing."
"Look, he's earned opportunities, and when he's had the opportunity to make some plays, he's produced," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "So, Jakobi deserves the credit for that."
Meyers' role may be altered once again as the Patriots have added another established vet to their receiver room, Mohamed Sanu. But, as Bill Belichick noted, the former N.C. State product has benefited from being surrounded by more notable players.
"I mean, look, when he's on the field, I don't think he's the player that other teams are saying, 'We've got to double-cover this guy,' " Belichick said. "So, some of the matchups are competitive matchups that he's done a good job with. As he has more production, then those matchups may change a little bit. But, he's done a good job of taking advantage of his opportunities. He's caught the ball well, he's shown quickness to separate and get open."
Just as Meyers did in college, through OTAs, training camp, preseason games and now, in regular season games as the stakes rise.
"When I first got here, my whole thing was just learn the basics and then from the basics I can build on to where I can do exactly what he wants me to do or just watch other guys and see how they do it and then bring it over to what I already established as the baseline," Meyers said. "It just helps me grow within the playbook, it helps me maneuver my own certain way and add my own flavor to it once I learn exactly how they want everything."
So far, so good.
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NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Bridgewater spilling QB secrets to Saints defenders. Teddy Bridgewater has gone 5-0 in place of an injured Drew Brees and is a highly popular player among his teammates. His on-field productivity (nine touchdowns, two interceptions) and leadership are unquestioned among players in helping New Orleans remain one of the NFL's best teams.
Here's an interesting twist on his impact: His offensive success as the Saints' starting quarterback isn't the only way Bridgewater's made a difference.
Safety Vonn Bell said that for more than a year, but especially this training camp and during the season, Bridgewater -- when he served as the scout team quarterback -- offered advice to defensive players in practice and in meetings on what QBs are trying to achieve on each play. Bridgewater would explain how their defensive alignment might tip them off or how the way they play certain routes might force quarterbacks to change reads.
"We really listened to him about how he [reads progressions on] the field, if we are in one-high safety, two-high, and he'd really break down the game to us," Bell said. "He did this every week. If we give him a certain look he'd say, 'I'm going here.' We'd say, 'Why?' and he'd break it down. He was very useful and helpful."
Added Bridgewater: "I wanted to help them daily. Help them understand the routes and how other quarterbacks think. Show them that if they played a route this way, this is how the quarterback or receiver might adjust."
Bell said those lessons helped him and other defensive players understand the game better and prepare at a level to where they're rarely surprised.
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OAKLAND RAIDERS: Jacobs to tough it out on Sunday? The Raiders head to Houston this weekend with a big question mark around standout RB Josh Jacobs. Oakland's leader in rushing yards hurt his shoulder last week vs. the Packers and has not participated in practice thus far this week. Coach Jon Gruden says Jacobs will be listed as questionable for Sunday's game. However, it wouldn't be a shock if Jacobs is still able to go on Sunday. In fact, he told me on Thursday that he believes he could play even after not participating in practice all week. Indeed, the toughness I've seen from the rookie all season long, and the way he mentally approaches each game, makes me think there's still a chance he'll suit up at NRG Stadium.
There is more promising news for WR Tyrell Williams, who returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday after resting for three weeks with a foot injury. Before his injury, Williams was able to score in each of the four games he played this season. QB Derek Carr said "it was good to have No. 16 out there, a familiar face." Pair Williams' return with the momentum TE Darren Waller has built this season, and we could see more from the Raiders' aerial attack in Houston in Week 8.
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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: The potential fatal flaw against Carolina. Much of the focus this week has been on how Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen will fare against the 49ers' stingy defense, which has allowed a total of just 10 points over the last three games. But an equally important question is: How will San Francisco QB Jimmy Garoppolo hold up against a Carolina defense that is tied for second in takeaways with 15.
Speed off the edge has been a key factor to the Panthers' success on defense. Already blessed with Mario Addison, they added end Bruce Irvin in free agency and linebacker Brian Burns in the first round of the draft. Those three have combined for 12.5 sacks and 20 QB hits.
"When you have team speed on defense, it makes the field smaller because guys can cover more ground," middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "And you couple that with guys who are smart and understand stuff, and it makes things a lot easier."
If there's a blemish on the 49ers' perfect start, it's been their lack of ball security. They have had a giveaway in every game but one, and their 11 turnovers overall are tied for 12th-most in the league. And unlike the Panthers' Allen, who has yet to throw an interception in four starts, Garoppolo has tossed at least one in every game but a Week 4 drubbing of the Browns.