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Neil Reynolds' Week 8 Wrap

Next man up.

It's not just a catchy mantra posted on locker room walls across the NFL, it's an absolute belief system instilled in players from the moment they enter the league. If somebody goes down, we replace them and we move on. There is no time for tears.

It's an admirable train of thought, for sure, and one that is easier to adopt and get on board with if you're replacing a guard, or a tight end, or a linebacker. It becomes a little tougher to buy in when your starting quarterback goes down.

That was not the case for the New York Jets, the New Orleans Saints or the Dallas Cowboys in a crazy and memorable Week 8 Sunday in the NFL. I'm sure the head coaches of those teams – Robert Saleh, Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy – used the 'Next man up' phrase at some point on Sunday.

But few outside of their respective buildings expected Mike White to be an instant star for the Jets, for Trevor Siemian to go toe to toe with Tom Brady or for Cooper Rush to deliver a victory for Dallas on the road on Sunday Night Football.

These three men served as a reminder that we should never say never when it comes to the NFL and that we should expect the unexpected.

There was no sign of nerves for White as he started New York's game against Cincinnati with 11 straight completions. The former fifth round pick of the Dallas Cowboys who spent the 2019 and 2020 seasons on the Jets' practice squad then got hot… really hot. He ended the day as just the second quarterback since 1950 with more than 400 passing yards in his first career start (the other being Cam Newton in 2011).

I thought White's high point had come with the 13-yard touchdown strike to Tyler Kroft that gave New York a 32-31 lead with 3:45 remaining. But then he went and dived to catch a 'Philly Special' two-point conversion pass from Jamison Crowder. It was an incredible debut and an even more stunning result given how the high-flying Bengals had beaten up on the Baltimore Ravens just seven days earlier.

Siemian had not thrown a pass since 2019 (with the Jets) or started a game since 2017 (Denver) when he was called off the bench to replace the seriously-injured Jameis Winston. At that point of the afternoon, a tense divisional game was tied at 7-7.

I wouldn't go as far as to say that Siemian out-duelled Brady, but he was solid in throwing for 159 yards and one touchdown. And he avoided the costly mistakes with no interceptions thrown in a 36-27 win, while Brady tossed up a pair of picks.

Hopes of a decent Sunday Night Football game between the Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings faded, in my mind, about an hour before the kick-off when I was told Cooper Rush would be starting in place of the red-hot but injured Dak Prescott.

You cannot blame me for having that sinking feeling. First up, Dak has been nothing short of sensational this season. But my worries also centred on Rush having thrown for a grand total of two yards since entering the NFL with the Cowboys in 2017.

I don't care who tries to spin me a yarn and say they knew he would be good. Not one of us saw Rush throwing for 325 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-16 win that moves the Cowboys to 6-1.

Rush likely heads back to the bench with a warm, fuzzy feeling in his bones. White and Siemian will get to go again and prove they are not one-game wonders. Even if they are, no one can take Week 8 of the 2021 NFL season away from them!

Who's Hot…

Matthew Stafford… The Los Angeles Rams are 7-1 following Sunday's 38-22 demolition of the Houston Texans. And don't let that final score fool you. This was 38-0 midway through the final period when the Rams pulled their starters, including Stafford. I've seen enough to know that Stafford is no fluke and is a genuine superstar under Sean McVay and an MVP contender. The Rams can win it all based on how Stafford is playing right now. He has 22 touchdown passes which is the second-most through eight games in franchise history (Kurt Warner threw 24 in 1999). Stafford is everything we thought he could be in Detroit… and way, way more.

The Green Bay Packers… With no Davante Adams or Allen Lazard at wide receiver, and wafer thin at cornerback, the Packers went into the Arizona desert last Thursday night and recorded a 24-21 win over the previously-unbeaten Cardinals. That's now seven in a row for the Packers since losing on opening weekend to the New Orleans Saints. What is most impressive is that Green Bay have racked up win after win without really wowing us. They have been very business-like and are now in pole position as the number one seed in the NFC.

Deebo Samuel… While there are many ups and downs at the quarterback position in San Francisco, one passing game constant for the 49ers has been the form of Deebo Samuel, who was a key part of Sunday's 33-22 win in Chicago. Samuel caught six passes for 171 yards, giving him a total of 819 receiving yards on the season. That is the most through the first seven games in team history, breaking the mark of 781 set by the great Jerry Rice in 1986. As I said on Sky Sports on Sunday evening, it doesn't matter what stat comes at the end of a sentence that includes the words 'breaking a record previously held by Jerry Rice.' That's some very impressive company for one of the most dynamic run-after-catch receiving threats in the game today.

Who's Not…

Carson Wentz… The Colts played hard for almost all of Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans, but their quarterback buried them with two late interceptions. The first one out of his own end zone was another bone-headed example of how Wentz is often too frantic and all too often tries to do too much. But that pick six can also be blamed on pressure. Wentz couldn't take the sack as a safety likely ends the game and he couldn't throw it away as that would have resulted in two points for the Titans. But he could have fired it at the feet of Nyhiem Hines, who was just in front of him. Instead, Wentz lofted a left-hander back into the pack and Elijah Molden scored. The overtime pick was unforgivable. He had an open man in the flat on first and 10 yet fired into triple coverage only for Kevin Byard to pounce for the interception. That set up the winning kick for the Titans and left me wondering if Wentz can ever rid the mistakes from his game.

A.J. Green… He never turned around! Arizona's wide receiver just never expected Kyler Murray's pass to be thrown to him at the end of Green Bay's Thursday Night Football win over the Cardinals. Only Green and Murray know whose fault this was, but it sure looked like Green should have turned for the back-shoulder throw. At least if he had turned around, he could have knocked away Rasul Douglas' interception. A stunning mistake was made here. We'll just never know the full details. And what is it about that end zone at that stadium when it comes to stunning late-game interceptions. That was the same end of State Farm Stadium where Malcolm Butler pounced to intercept Russell Wilson in the most stunning play in Super Bowl history.

The Detroit Lions… Sunday is what it looks like when the Detroit Lions finally stop trying and playing hard for head coach Dan Campbell. The Lions are now 0-8 and the Philadelphia Eagles took their manhood in a 44-6 win. Running all over a team is a way to take their will and to impose your authority. The Eagles – a middle of the pack rushing outfit heading into Sunday – gained 236 yards and scored four touchdowns on the ground. They also held the Lions to just 57 rushing yards. Jared Goff was, once again, so uninspiring that fans were calling for David Blough. That has to go down as a career low for the former number one overall pick.

The Fast Five…

  1. Monday's news was gloomy as I heard that Derrick Henry's foot injury suffered on Sunday could be season-ending. If that is the case, it will be season altering for the Tennessee Titans. It's rare that a running back takes on a franchise quarterback-like level of importance, but that is Henry and the Titans. It all starts with Henry and their whole offense runs through him. He is every bit as important to Tennessee as Aaron Rodgers is to Green Bay or Patrick Mahomes to the Chiefs.
  2. I was very impressed with the New England Patriots on Sunday as they recorded a 27-24 win over the Chargers in Foxboro… sorry, that was actually Los Angeles. The pro-Patriots crowd cheered time and again as Bill Belichick's defense confounded Justin Herbert, intercepting him twice; including a pick six from Adrian Phillips that turned the tide in New England's direction. This was a no-nonsense, Patriots-like performance. The defense was stout, the running game produced 141 yards and a touchdown and rookie quarterback Mac Jones was steady after probably being instructed simply to not mess things up.
  3. The Patriots are a pretty positive 4-4 on the year, given that few gave them much chance of making noise in 2021. By contrast, I could not be more disappointed with Cleveland's 4-4 record following Sunday's 15-10 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. There is too much individual talent on this team for them to be hovering at .500. Hopefully, a healthier ball club down the stretch will help Cleveland catch fire again. But I'm not a big believer in Baker Mayfield when he has to shoulder the load for these Browns. They need the line back at full strength and the running game operating at 100 percent.
  4. Sunday was a good day for NFL players when it came to being open and honest about mental health issues. In recent conversations I have had with players, I'm finding a refreshing new attitude. I was once told by an NFL player, "We're taught not to cry from a young age and to get up when we fall down." That approach is changing and I'm glad players such as Dak Prescott and Hayden Hurst are speaking out on these vital issues. No one should suffer alone or soldier on if things are getting them down. Calvin Ridley is stepping away from his duties as a wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons for that very reason and I applaud his decision and wish him all the best. Kudos to Eagles tackle Lane Johnson, who also spoke openly about his mental health issues on Sunday, admitting that he originally felt "ashamed" as an NFL player suffering with anxiety. We need more of that brutal honesty and a willingness for players to put themselves first as human beings. A lot more.
  5. The Miami Dolphins get a direct and obvious reminder of what they are missing at quarterback every time they take on the Buffalo Bills. Both Tua Tagovailoa and Josh Allen faced feisty defenses on what was, at times, a tough Sunday. Both rushed for a touchdown but that is where the comparison ends. Tua posted forgettable numbers in a 26-11 loss as he threw for 215 yards, no touchdowns and an interception for a rating of 58.2. Allen was far from his best. In fact, it felt like a pretty average day at the office yet he threw for 304 yards, two touchdowns, no picks and posted a QB rating of 100.2. The Bills and Dolphins are great examples of the haves and have-nots when it comes to established franchise quarterbacks.

Fact of the Week

With one game remaining in Week 8, road teams have won 63 of 121 games this season. That is a winning percentage of 52.1. That is the highest road winning percentage in NFL history ahead of 51.6 in 1968. There have only been two NFL seasons in history in which road teams have enjoyed an overall winning record. Road teams went 9-5 in Week 8.

Finish That Sentence

Each week in this spot I ask readers - via Twitter - to randomly send me the start of a sentence and, as we so often did on our NFL UK Live stage show tours, I will finish the sentence with the first thought that comes into my head. Here we go…

From Aaron Brooke Martin (@AaronBrooke01) Even without Dak Prescott the Dallas Cowboys… showed me that they are a Super Bowl contender loaded with weaponry and playmakers on both sides of the ball. On a night when we expected the running game to take centre stage, Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard were quiet. But there are too many weapons to keep everybody quiet and the Cooper Rush-led passing attack shone. It was not just Rush, either. Cedric Wilson had an impressive 35-yard pass to CeeDee Lamb and Lamb went for 112 yards on six catches. Amari Cooper was also strong with eight catches for 122 yards and a score. Add in another stellar effort from Micah Parsons on defense and it feels like the Cowboys are built for the long run, which is why we didn't see Dak playing on Sunday night. They have a feeling he will be needed in January and likely as deep as mid-February. Yes, that is when the Super Bowl is being played.

From Matthew Rider (@MattRider199) The best team in the AFC is… the Buffalo Bills. It is something of a log-jam at the top and all the leading contenders have at least two losses. We're not going to see a dominant team going wire to wire in that conference. The Chargers started the year red hot and have now lost back to back games, Baltimore hammered the Chargers, got stunned by the Bengals who got upset by the Jets! I just trust Josh Allen to get the job done in a big spot and I remain convinced that the Bills have the most talented roster in the AFC. But it will be a real fight for supremacy. There are many contenders but the one who emerges to represent this conference in the Super Bowl will be the one that found consistency in December, January and beyond.

From The Dynasty Grill (@FFDynastyGrill) The 2021 New England Patriots are… 4-4 and just two games out of being the top team in the AFC. Okay, that would be a stretch to picture them that way. But Sunday's win over the Los Angeles Chargers, as well as taking the Dallas Cowboys all the way to overtime a couple of weeks ago, shows me that this is a dangerous team on their day. All Bill Belichick will ask is for the offense to avoid costly mistakes and control the clock with the ground game. He will do the rest on defense. I could see Belichick dialing up a couple of game plans that could take down a big team or two, possibly even one in the opening round of the playoffs. But this team is not yet talented enough to put together the likely-required run of postseason wins to make serious noise. But they will be dangerous.

Final Thought…

I'm currently putting the finishing touches to my article for the Official Super Bowl Game Program. And it strikes me that the international picture for the NFL might never have looked rosier. We're coming off two successful, sold-out London games with the promise of many more to come. Games in Germany are looming in the not-too-distant future, there is more television coverage than ever before on Sky Sports, BBC and Channel 5, as well as radio propositions on TalkSport and BBC Radio 5Live. The NFL Academy is playing games and has already sent key players to North America to play college football and the NFL Foundation is committing £1 million to tackle inequality among young people in London. Add in the players and coaches at the top end of the sport like Efe Obada, Christian Wade, Jack Crawford, Jakob Johnson and Aden Durde and the international arm of the NFL is in rude health. I cannot wait to see what the next decade brings in terms of the international growth of this game we all love to bits.