Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 9 to Week 10.
The NFL is awash in winning streaks. The Rams' undefeated start to the season ended in New Orleans, giving way to the Saints' seven-game winning streak. It feels like that 1-2 start by the Patriots, which so many analysts insisted was finally sorta different this time, happened decades ago after New England came through another test Sunday night for its sixth straight win. The Steelers have similarly put their slow start into the rearview mirror with four straight wins.
The results of Week 9 only served to further stratify the NFL's haves and have-nots. In a league where nothing stays certain for long, it feels like at least half (if not more) of the league's playoff field is nearly set. The Chiefs, Patriots, Rams and Saints all have at least a 94 percent chance of making the tournament, according to FiveThirtyEight's playoff predictions, with the inside tracks to playoff byes.
The Chargers' 6-2 record and easy schedule make it exceedingly likely that Los Angeles will field two playoff teams this season. The Steelers are the sixth team to have playoff odds over 80 percent, while the Texans and the Panthers aren't far off, at or above 75 percent. Long winning streaks like Houston's tend to make seemingly wide-open divisions like the AFC South begin to look a lot more closed off to teams like the Jags and Colts.
Just over halfway through the season, there might only be four to five playoff spots still truly open. That's why each defeat at this time of year feels heavier, with the accumulated weight of the season bearing down. Before moving on to what we know and what we don't after Week 9, here's a quick look at the most humbling losses of the week:
Most humbling losses
1) Baltimore Ravens (lost to Steelers, 23-16): Did they peak too early? Five weeks after controlling the ball and the line of scrimmage in Pittsburgh, the opposite happened for the Ravens in Baltimore. Ben Roethlisberger helped the Steelers convert 10 of 16 third downs because he didn't have to worry about the Ravens' pass rush. Pittsburgh was far better in the red zone than Baltimore, because the Steelers have a more dynamic running back and offensive line.
Like a lot of defense-led outfits this year, the Ravens can't actually get stops against quality offenses when they need them. At 1-3 in the AFC North and 4-5 overall, Baltimore's chances of winning the division are all but nil. The Ravens have won the Super Bowl via the wild-card route before, though -- and they'll probably need to do it again to save coach John Harbaugh's job this time.
2) Green Bay Packers (lost to Patriots, 31-17): Forgive Packers fans for having this thought sometime around Julian Edelman's pass to James White on Sunday night: Why can't our coaching staff ever be the one to make the game-changing call? One week after Sean McVay and the Rams' coaches problem-solved against a feisty Packers defense, Green Bay made too many mental mistakes to win in Foxborough. The Packers have proven just good enough to lose to the best teams in an entertaining fashion, which describes a lot of the Mike McCarthy era.
3) Detroit Lions (lost to Vikings, 24-9): The NFC North is down to a three-team race after the Lions went down meekly in Minnesota, allowing Matthew Stafford to be sacked 10 times. Detroit has been a tough team to get a handle on all year, but the 3-5 record makes sense. They are just below average in a lot of areas.
4) Washington Redskins (lost to Falcons, 38-14): When the Redskins lose (as they have this season vs. the Colts, at the Saints and vs. the Falcons on Sunday), they lose hard. That's the sign of a limited team that was never as strong as a 5-2 start indicated. Washington's injuries on the offensive line contributed to a game where Atlanta was the more physical team on both lines -- and the Redskins' offensive issues are likely to get worse.
Coach Jay Gruden announced Monday that starting guards Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvaoare out for the season. So is wide receiver Paul Richardson. Scherff was a huge part of this team's identity, one of the toughest interior guards in football. Richardson was theoretically the best outside receiver on a team that can't make plays to the outside.
5) Seattle Seahawks (lost to Chargers, 25-17):Run-run-pass doesn't work when your defense doesn't get stops and your quarterback can't hit on shot plays. It was eye-opening to see the Chargers executing so many of the Seahawks' principles, flying to the ball on defense and pushing Seattle around on key running downs. Whereas the Seahawks ran on third-and-18 early in the second quarter, the Chargers completed a 54-yard pass on third-and-15. And then scored a 34-yard touchdown one play later. Whereas Philip Rivers was decisive and expert at avoiding sacks, Russell Wilson was too often hesitant, inviting pressure and Monday morning criticism from Pete Carroll. There is something soul-crushing about losing at home to a team that does what you do, only better.
Things we know after Week 9
Bill Belichick's forays into big-ticket free agency have produced mixed results over the years, but it's safe to say he's happy with his 2017 investment in cornerback Stephon Gilmore (more than $14 million per year). While former Patriots CB Malcolm Butler, who signed a five-year, $61 million pact with the Titans this offseason, struggles in Tennessee, Gilmore is ranked as the top cornerback in football, according to Pro Football Focus. His performance Sunday night against Packers receiver Davante Adams was perhaps his best of a half-season marked by consistent toughness. Even when Gilmore gives up grabs, he rarely lets a wideout get behind him. He provides a physical presence at the position not unlike what Darrelle Revis gave the Patriots for one season, and what Ty Law gave them back in the day.
Minnesota's offense has yet to self-actualize, but the ferocious Vikings front seven everyone expected to see early in the season now appears here to stay because of Griffen's return to the field. After a quiet outing in his first game back, Griffen had three QB hits and 1.5 sacks against Matthew Stafford. That was nothing compared to Danielle Hunter's outrageous afternoon -- 3.5 sacks and a touchdown -- but there's no denying that Griffen's presence makes all his formidable linemates better.
For the first time since Jared Allen was on the team, Griffen is the Vikings' second-best pass rusher. With Hunter playing at a first-team All-Pro level, the Vikings' front has the potential to take over games like they did against Detroit, when 10 sacks had Matthew Stafford out of sorts by the fourth quarter.
Seventy catches and 880 yards halfway through the season is wildly impressive. Seventy catches and 880 yards on only 79 targets is outrageous for an outside receiver. It's not like Thomas is just catching bubble screens and short slants over the middle. He's bodying cornerbacks on the outside and fighting for contested catches, rarely letting the ball hit the ground.
To put Thomas' catch rate in perspective, the rest of the top-five receivers in terms of yardage have, on average, 28.75 incompletions on balls thrown in their direction this year. Thomas has nine.
Le'Veon Bell's tweet bidding farewell to Miami only increased confusion Monday regarding his murky status. This much we know: Even if the running back returns to the Steelers this week, they can't get much better in the red zone. Pittsburgh is scoring touchdowns on 75 percent of its trips to the red zone this season, good for second-best in the NFL. They hit their average in Baltimore on four trips in large part due to the play of an offensive line performing better than any other O-line in the AFC and the presence of running back James Conner. Conner's ability to break tackles and create mismatches as a receiver gives coordinator Randy Fichtner a ton of options. Of course the Steelers would be even better with Bell and Conner on the roster, but it's not like they've been struggling without Bell, especially when they get in position to score.
Things we don't know
There are a lot of reasons why, but it starts with Kamara's versatility near the goal line. No running back gives defenses more to worry about, because he can expertly power through tackles, get to the outside, line up as a receiver or create space for other players. Watch Kamara every week and try to find the negative plays, the ones where he makes the wrong decision or reads a play incorrectly. They don't exist. He appears preternaturally smart, the player who could keep Sean Payton and Drew Brees from ever retiring.
Jackson has seen an uptick over the last two weeks in overall snaps, especially in high-leverage situations. The results have been mixed at best, which describes the Ravens' offense as a whole. Now 4-5 entering their Week 10 bye, the Ravens have yet to develop any consistent running game, and Joe Flacco is coming off his worst two-game stretch of the season (59 percent completion rate, 398 yards, one touchdown and two picks). Will the Ravens' coaching staff respond by using the rookie quarterback more -- or less?
The metrics at Football Outsiders indicate that the Bills' offense was the worst they've measured through eight weeks, and that was before Buffalo scored nine points with four turnovers against Chicago. It takes a historically bad team to lose 41-9 while allowing just 11 first downs and 190 total yards.
The Falcons' defense doesn't need to be great. It just needs to be passable, to allow the team's top-five offense do the rest. It's possible that Atlanta coach Dan Quinn self-scouted well during the team's bye week and came up with some solutions to mitigate the defensive damage, which translated to just 14 points allowed in Washington. It's also possible Atlanta simply ran into an anemic Redskins offense at precisely the right time, when the group was short three starters on the offensive line.
Now 4-4 with middle linebacker Deion Jones eligible to return later in the season, the Falcons are back to being realistic playoff contenders in the NFC. Fielding a "good enough" defense with an explosive offense is basically the recipe for success powering the top teams the NFL this year, so why can't a team with Grady Jarrett, Desmond Trufant and Takk McKinley follow that model?