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Thirty-six things we learned from Week 8

Sunday effectively marked the end of Pittsburgh's chances to win the AFC North. The Raiders and Rams are both over .500 together for the first time in a very long time. And the Saints have rallied for three straight wins after their disastrous start to the year.

And yet all of those results feel secondary to the injury avalanche that buried the NFL in Week 8.

Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell left is expected to miss the rest of the season with a badly torn MCL, according to NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport. Meanwhile, Steve Smith's swan song season is over because of a torn Achilles tendon. Smith had far more than double the amount of receiving yards as any other Raven, so he won't easily be replaced. One of the best players -- and personalities -- of this era appears to be done with pro football.

It's also worth wondering if another big name -- Reggie Bush -- took his last NFL snap. Rapoport reported it's believed that the 49ers running back suffered a torn ACL Sunday in St. Louis. It was a rough day for running backs around the league. The Bears also lost Matt Forte to a knee injury. The Chargers lost half their roster.

Bell's injury should have a bigger impact on the playoff race than any other suffered Sunday. The Steelers are now without their starting left tackle, center, and the best running back in football. But other wild card hopefuls were disrupted. The Jets are suddenly unsure about starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick after he tore ligaments in his thumb on his non-throwing hand. Geno Smith played most of the Jets' loss in Oakland.

Add it all up, and the playoff race looks more confusing than ever. And the NFL looks less interesting without Steve Smith playing every Sunday.

Here's what else we learned during a wild Sunday:

  1. For the first time this season, the Bengals' stalwart offensive line lost the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers' speedy young defense gave Dalton fits, sacking him three times, forcing the two interceptions and adding seven tackles for loss. To Dalton's credit, he kept his composure, highlighted by a improvised third-down shovel pass to Giovani Bernard en route to the game-winning touchdown. The Bengals are 7-0 for the first time in franchise history, cruising to a 3.5-game lead over the Steelers. The AFC North could be the first division to declare a winner this season.
  1. The Steelers seemed to be in control of the game until the air went out of the stadium when star running back Le'Veon Bellwent down with a knee injury in the middle of the second quarter. Bell left the premises for further testing, and is expected to miss the rest of the season with a badly torn MCL. The offseason investment in DeAngelo Williams looms ever larger. The former PanthersPro Bowler has averaged 5.5 yards on 50 carries with Bell sidelined by suspension or injury.
  1. Our first look at a post-injury Ben Roethlisberger was a mixed bag. He was impressive in leading the Steelers on a methodical opening-drive touchdown, turning Antonio Brown back into an unstoppable force for a few minutes. Once Bell left the game, though, Pittsburgh's offense went in the tank. Roethlisberger lacked his usual pocket agility -- as one would expect in his first game back from a knee sprain -- and thwarted the Steelers' chances with a fourth-quarter performance that featured a pair of interceptions, two drives that ended in punts and a pass thrown out of the back of the end zone as time expired.

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. I have seen the future of running backs and his name is Todd Gurley. The Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite had a 71-yard touchdown run and finished with 133 yards on 20 carries, his fourth-straight game with at least 120 yards on the ground. All the comparisons to a young Adrian Peterson are apt: You get the feeling a big play is coming every time Gurley touches the ball.
  1. Colin Kaepernick avoided the killer turnovers that have defined his lost season, but he continues to look like one of the worst quarterbacks in football. Operating without any semblance of a running game, Kaepernick threw 41 passes and completed less than half of them with a yards per attempt average of 4.1. That's life in the dreaded Gabbert Zone. Speaking of Blaine Gabbert, how much longer can Jim Tomsula wait before giving his backup a shot?
  1. Tavon Austin might be in the midst of his long-awaited breakout season. The third-year wide receiver scored two touchdowns on the day -- his fifth and sixth of the year -- and continues to look like the fastest human on any field he inhabits. One of the few players in football who can make the bubble screen exciting.

-- Dan Hanzus

  1. We'll get this out of the way first: For more on the epic quarterbacking duel, click here. This was too fantastic of a performance, especially by Drew Brees, to be contained in What We Learned. Moving on, this does absolutely nothing to clear up the train wreck that is the NFC East. The Giants had a chance to gain some breathing room this afternoon in a game they theoretically should have won. Instead, they drop into the sand pit alongside Philadelphia, Dallas and Washington. Though the division is as bad as it is hyper-competitive, we're in for a treat if Dallas turns things around this year.
  1. Odell Beckham, Jr. turned in another star-worthy performance. It's getting to the point where, even with a stable of backs like Rashad Jennings, Shane Vereen and Andre Williams, the highest percentage play is a 2-yard combo route to Beckham, which the Giants ran on two of his three touchdowns on Sunday. But more than that, he's a dangerous chess piece; a player that coordinator Ben McAdoo has grown with and a receiver who is forcing some pretty epic double teams.
  1. Though many will call for the heads of defensive coordinators Rob Ryan and Steve Spagnuolo, there are times when play transcends coaching. These are two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, both of whom were in a zone that we haven't seen since some of the early renditions of Brady-Peyton Manning or Peyton Manning-Aaron Rodgers. Seeing Rob Ryan pump his fist after a crucial defensive stop was almost comical but completely understood. There are days when scheme is almost completely useless.

-- Conor Orr

  1. Brian Hoyer came into the game having thrown a trio of touchdowns in back-to-back games. He added two more against the Titans defense on Sunday. Hoyer completed 10 straight passes at one stretch, although much of that was check-down material. While the Texans still need to find their quarterback of the future in the draft, Hoyer now has 13 touchdowns to just three picks on the year. He's a placeholder under center, but it's shocking that Houston's coaching staff repeatedly opted for the recently dumped Ryan Mallett.
  1. Titans quarterbacks have lost 16 of their last 17 starts. With Zach Mettenberger filling in again for the banged-up Marcus Mariota, the shaky Tennessee passer threw for just 33 first-half yards. It went south from there, with Mettenberger committing two critical turnovers and crumbling against Houston's active pass rush. This game should help Titans fans feel good about Mariota: Tennessee is worlds more intriguing with the No. 2 overall pick under center.
  1. After Texans end Jadeveon Clowney limped off the field with a back injury, Whitney Mercilus stepped up to post 3.5 sacks and cause constant headaches for Tennessee. J.J. Watt also put on a show with another 2.5 takedowns, eight quarterback hits and a momentum-swinging forced fumble of Mettenberger. Watt has multiple sacks against the Titans in six of their last seven meetings. After giving up an average of 34.8 points per game over their past four outings, Houston's defense responded well to last week's Dolphins wipeout with its best performance of the year.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. Facing Arizona's active pass rush, Browns quarterback Josh McCown played through pain to throw for 211 yards and three scores. A painful shot to the chest had an obvious effect on McCown's ability to run an offense that collaped in the second half. He still holds the ball too long against the rush -- and pays for it -- but McCown is the best Browns quarterback since Derek Anderson's early season work in 2007. That's a terrifying thought. 
  1. Chris Johnson cut through one of the worst run defenses in the NFL for 109 yards off 30 carries. The Arizona runner, though, also kept the Browns in the game with two lost fumbles. The first was scooped by pass rusher Armonty Bryant and returned deep into Cardinals territory to set up McCown's first touchdown strike. It was a sloppy day for Arizona's offense, but they're too talented to be held down by a team like Cleveland.

-- Marc Sessler

  1. This quarterback matchup couldn't compare to the 13-touchdown scoring bonanza in New Orleans, but the Philip Rivers-Joe Flacco dual was plenty impressive considering the litany of injuries on both sidelines. As is the case nearly every week now, Rivers lost half of his offensive line and several key receivers early in the game. With Keenan Allen (muscle spasms), Ladarius Green (ankle) and Steve Johnson (shoulder) all forced out, Rivers had to connect with Malcom Floyd on a pair of scores.

Flacco was left with former special teamer Kamar Aiken and recent acquisitions Chris Givens and Jeremy Ross as his top threats after Steve Smith went down with a torn Achilles late in the third quarter. Both teams are desperately in need of the ameliorative powers of the bye. While the Ravens welcome theirs this week, the Chargers host the Bears prior to their Week 10 bye.

  1. Baltimore's victory turned pyrrhic when coach John Harbaugh confirmed after the game that Smith's injury is a season-ending Achilles' tendon tear. Fourth in the NFL in receiving yards per game entering the week, Smith was not just Flacco's go-to target but also the heart and soul of a speed-challenged offense. Just minutes before the injury, Smith had bypassed Hall of Famer Cris Carter for 10th place on the all-time receiving yards list. Here's hoping he rehabilitates with that trademark chip on his shoulder, reconsidering the possibility of a 16th NFL season in 2016.
  1. We're going to have to start tracking Rivers vs. Tom Brady in the race to break Peyton Manning's single-season record of 5,477 passing yards. Brady is on pace for 5,506 yards and a 46:2 TD-to-INT ratio compared to Rivers' pace of 5,508 yards and a 36:14 TD-to-INT ratio. While Brady has the superior supporting cast, Rivers is propelled by the shootout factor, as San Diego has surrendered at least 24 points in all eight games.

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. Teddy Bridgewater struggled mightily for most of the day, but drove the Vikings for 10 points in the final five minutes to earn the win. It was Two-Minute Teddy's fifth career fourth-quarter or overtime comeback (trailing or tied). For much of the day, Bridgewater was wildly off target, often throwing high off his back foot. His terrible pre-half interception completely swung momentum toward Chicago. Give the young quarterback credit for keeping his head on straight to engineer the comeback with big help from his receivers.
  1. You can only contain Stefon Diggs for so long. After Vic Fangio's defense held the spectacular rookie in check most of the game, the receiver busted loose to change the outcome of the game. Diggs deked a defender out of his shoes on a beautifully run route, then took it to pay dirt for the game-tying score late in the fourth quarter. Diggs runs routes like a five-year vet. The 40-yard TD gave him six catches for 95 yards, the fourth straight game with six-plus catches and 80-plus yards to start his career.
  1. Alshon Jeffery was dominant again for the Bears. His touchdown at the end of the half displayed his spectacular ability to contort his body while high-pointing the ball. The Bears' offense is 30 times more dangerous when he's healthy. Jeffery killed Terence Newman on comeback routes all day as the Bears dinked-and-dunked their way down the field. Stats: 10 catches (15 targets), 116 yards, TD.

-- Kevin Patra

  1. This game was the Full Jameis Winston Experience as a rookie. There was a lot to like, including some big third down throws in overtime. He showed composure and pocket presence throughout the game. There was also a lot to shake your head at. He was not consistently accurate. On the go-ahead drive in overtime, he short-armed a potential game-winning score and threw one pass right at the Falcons (they dropped it). Overall, Winston again gave Bucs fans plenty of reasons to be excited about the future. Now 3-4, they are exciting to watch again.
  1. All of the Falcons' luck from the first seven weeks slipped away in this game. They dominated the first half, yet trailed 13-3 at halftime because of unforced errors. The Falcons fumbled three times in regulation, losing them all three times. One was on a bad snap and another was on a bad exchange between Matt Ryan and Devonta Freeman. Ryan was also picked off. The Bucs scored 20 points off four Falcons turnovers. The Falcons looked like the better team, out-gaining Tampa, 496-290. 
  1. The 6-2 Falcons have won a lot in some mediocre performances by Matt Ryan. Sunday they lost on a day when he was excellent. He threw for 397 yards and two scores. Other than one ugly pick, he was very sharp throughout the day. At one point, he completed 19 of 20 passes in a flawless second half, 17-point comeback. Give the Bucs' defense credit for pressuring Ryan in overtime to win the game.

-- Gregg Rosenthal

  1. Alex Smith did his best Steve Young impersonation for the London crowd. The Chiefs' quarterback burned Detroit with his feet early Sunday. Smith's 49-yard first half run set up his 12-yard TD run to put the Chiefs up 14-3. The game felt over at that point. Smith compiled 78 rushing yards and 145 passing yards and two TD passes. It was the ideal game for dink-and-dunk Smith who was nearly flawless. The Chiefs finally punched the ball into the end zone after weeks of settling for field goals.
  1. The move to Jim Bob Cooter as offensive coordinator made zero difference for Detroit. The Lions' offensive line is a group of human turnstiles and Cooter didn't drop the "throwing short on third-and-long" calls from the playbook. Unless Jim Bob can block, little will change for the Detroit offense.
  1. The Chiefs are 3-5, but their defense is playoff-caliber. Getting big corner Sean Smith back opposite rookie Marcus Peters solidified the secondary. Tamba Hali rounding back into form opposite Justin Houston makes the K.C. front devastating. Hali clown-suited Riley Reiff multiple times. Kansas City earned six sacks of a turtling Matthew Stafford.

-- Kevin Patra

  1. If the Cowboys had the benefit of any quarterback remotely resembling a legitimate option, the Seahawks' ongoing late-game woes would have come back to haunt. The final 16 minutes included a Greg Hardy interception, a blocked Steven Hauschka field goal, a holding call that negated a long Tyler Lockett punt return, Marshawn Lynch's failure to stay inbounds to milk the clock and an ill-timed roughing the passer penalty on Michael Bennett. Confident that the defense could stop Matt Cassel in a one-minute field-goal drill, the Seahawks' staff opted for a Wilson rollout to set up the go-ahead field goal rather than throwing for the end zone and leaving more time on the clock. Miscues aside, Seattle is 4-4 entering the bye week, with a clash of the NFC West titans on the horizon in a Week 10 matchup with the first-place Cardinals.
  1. Continuing a trend, All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman "traveled" throughout the game, following Dez Bryant in coverage. Sherman was the decisive winner, generating a pair of pass deflections, a tackle for loss and an offensive pass interference penalty. To be fair, Bryant was at less than peak form in first game back from injury and spent the afternoon tracking ducks from Cassel.
  1. The Cowboys defense deserves credit for carrying a futile offense that managed just four net yards in the fourth quarter. Shaking off a second-quarter ankle injury, Hardy gave the offense prime field position and an eventual 12-10 lead with an athletic pass deflection-turned-interception late in the third quarter. It was Dallas' first forced turnover in five games since losing Tony Romo to a fractured clavicle in late September. Although the Cowboys are winless without Romo, they are only two games back in the NFC East win column thanks to the Giants' wild-and-wacky loss at New Orleans. Romo is due back in Week 11 versus the Dolphins.

-- Chris Wesseling

  1. Derek Carr continues to look like the guy who will finally lead the Raiders back to respectability -- if they're not there already. He picked apart a Jets defense that entered the game ranked second in the NFL, averaging a healthy 9.2 yards per attempt without a turnover. With Amari Cooper tied up with Darrelle Revis, Carr keyed on Michael Crabtree (7/102/1), who picked on safety Marcus Williams all day.
  1. The Jets suddenly have a ton of uncertainty at quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick tore ligaments in his left thumb on a first-quarter scramble, costing him most of the game. He will undergo an MRI on Monday. Geno Smith replaced Fitzpatrick and offered a CliffsNotes guide to life on the GenoCoaster: Some nice play mixed with the usual head-scratching assortment of physical and mental errors. Could the Jets be in the market for a quarterback with the trade deadline days away?
  1. Many predicted Latavius Murray would struggle to make plays against the Jets' fearsome front line. But Murray (20 carries, 113 yards) found running lanes all day long and made defenders miss with ease. Murray might have had an even bigger day if the Raiders fed him the ball in the fourth quarter. Some suspect play-calling by both teams in this one.

-- Dan Hanzus

  1. Welcome back, old Peyton Manning. We missed you. After weeks of criticism from numerous media outlets, including this one, the Broncos gunslinger had his best game of the season -- by far. Manning finished with 340 yards, a 72.4 completion percentage and just one interception. He wasn't afraid to go deep and found Demaryius Thomas (8 rec for 168 yards) time and time again in space between a hampered Packers secondary. Manning also added a new wrinkle to his game, tossing six passes to his tight ends -- Owen Daniels and Virgil Green -- for 105 yards. For reference, Denver tight ends had caught 17 balls for just 123 yards in the team's first six games. Here's a scary thought for your Halloween hangover: a undefeated Peyton-led offense is still improving. Boo!
  1. In case you didn't already know, the Broncos' stifling of Rodgers and company proved it: this Denver defense is legit, and potentially legendary. The Broncos secondary locked down the Packers' receivers to the tune of 37 yards, and a long reception of 17 yards. In total, Denver held the Packers to 140 total yards, by far their lowest total this season and their lowest since Week 13 of 2013 (126), when Matt Flynn was quarterback. They sacked Rodgers three times and forced an embarrassing safety in the fourth quarter. Against what was previously perceived as one of the best offenses in the league, the Broncos were beyond dominant, as they have been week in and week out.
  1. This Aaron Rodgers-led Packers offense just ain't what it used to be. The quarterback struggled mightily through the air all night, finishing with just 77 yards passing, and the two-headed ground game -- Eddie Lacy and James Starks -- was ineffectual, per usual (47 yards on 16 carries). On the Packers' two-scoring drives, Rodgers completed just four passes, all the while being harassed by the Denver front in an ever-collapsing pocket. Other quarterbacks would have faltered and committed stupid turnovers, so to Rodgers' credit, his pocket presence kept the Packers in the game for longer than they should have been. Still, when Rodgers is throwing half of his passes off his back leg and overthrowing open receivers, then something is wrong.

-- Jeremy Bergman

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