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The NFL’s Seven Totems

In the midst of all this season’s unpredictability, there are a few things we still know are real

Getty Images/Casey Moore
Getty Images/Casey Moore

Through nine weeks, anywhere from 24 to 28 teams, depending on your generosity, are still in the playoff hunt. Outside of New England and Dallas, nobody has really separated themselves from the pack, and early-season standouts like the Vikings and Eagles have all fallen back to earth while slow starters in the Lions, Saints, and Chargers all suddenly look like contenders.

Nobody knows what the hell will happen in any given week, and if you’ve sucked at picking winners this season, you’re not alone. Per OddsShark.com’s Joe Osborne, the consensus straight-up pick on winners over the past three seasons has been correct almost 59 percent of the time. This year, that number has fallen to 49.6 percent. You may as well flip a coin when picking games.

Just when you think you’ve got a team or a player figured out, the Packers go out and lose to the Colts at home. This season has gotten weirder with each passing week, and it feels like we’ve seen bigger narrative swings this year than ever before.

So in a season in which unpredictability has been the norm, we need some stability in our lives. Here are seven things you can count on for the final eight weeks.

You won’t beat the Falcons unless you score a lot of points.

Atlanta’s defense is bad, as the Falcons have given up an average of 28.8 points (28th) and 381 yards per game (26th). But they’re still 6–3 and in control of the NFC South because like Kobe Bryant playing his farewell game they never stop shooting and they stay aggressive until the clock hits triple zero. Their lowest points output this season came in their win in Denver, when they posted 23 on the road, and on the season Atlanta is averaging 33.9 points per game, best in the NFL. That’s better than the Panthers’ league-best 31.3 points per game last year, and better than the Packers’ 30.4 points per game in 2014.

Atlanta’s offense is first in yards (3,863) and first in yards per play (6.8). Matt Ryan is first in passing yards (2,980), first in passing touchdowns (23), second in yards per pass attempt (9.5), and second in quarterback rating (119). And the running game of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is holding its own too: Atlanta currently ranks fifth in rushing yards (1,028), tied for eighth in rushing touchdowns (9), tied for ninth in rushing yards per attempt (4.4), and 10th in rushing yards per game (114).

Outscoring opponents in barn burners every week isn’t a surefire way to win, but with the way that Atlanta can consistently put points on the board (it’s best in the league with 3.11 points per drive), no one’s beating the Falcons without an offense that can keep pace.

The Cowboys’ unstoppable run game will carry them into January.

In a pass-heavy league, the Cowboys are zigging when most other teams are zagging. Their heavy reliance on the ground game has pushed them to a 7–1 record, and with so many defenses being built to counter the spread-out, pass-heavy offenses across the league, there may not be a team in the NFL that’s equipped to contain Dallas’s rushing attack.

Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott (Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott (Getty Images)

It took the Cowboys two games to get the train moving (after 101 yards against the Giants in Week 1 and 102 yards the next week against Washington), but they’re chugging along now at top speed and show no sign of slowing down. Their rushing totals per game since Week 3 are as follows: 199 yards, 194 yards, 180 yards, 191 yards, 187 yards, and 168 yards. Dallas is leading the league with 165 rushing yards per game and 14 total rushing touchdowns.

Ezekiel Elliott has run with a calm-yet-assertive efficiency and Dallas’s total dominance on the ground has pushed the Cowboys to second in points per drive (2.75) and second in scoring percentage per drive (49.4 percent). Despite running the fewest drives in the NFL through nine weeks (81), they’re averaging a league-high 3:36 per drive and a league-high 34:04 in time of possession per game. Although the defense is no better than league-average, Dallas is keeping that unit off the field and slowly grinding its opponents to dust.

The Patriots have the most matchup-proof offense in the league.

Tom Brady is back with a vengeance. From Week 5 to Week 8, no team scored more points than the Patriots (136), and in that four-game stretch, no quarterback passed for more yards (1,268), threw for more touchdowns (12), or had a better QB rating (132.9). What makes the Patriots offense so great, though, is that even if Brady has one of his rare off days, New England can still run the ball with authority. The Patriots are currently ranked eighth in the league in rushing yards per game (116) and tied for fourth with 10 touchdowns on the ground.

New England’s ability to change its game plan on the fly, week-to-week, isn’t a new concept; Bill Belichick’s been doing it for years. But with the addition of Martellus Bennett, who, like Rob Gronkowski, is a great run blocker in addition to being a great pass catcher, the in-game fluidity is more pronounced than normal. With a healthy Gronk and Bennett on the field at the same time, the Patriots can beat you no matter what type of defense you bring to the table.

Come out in your base, heavy look to stop the run? They’ll throw the ball 60 times and utilize their dual tight ends as receivers down the field. Bring in a nickel defense? They’ll block with their big tight ends and run the ball with their 250-pound running back.

It’s more than just their tight end duo, too. Their versatility and talent across the board means the Patriots can pick out one or two defenders and mercilessly attack them all game. Have great coverage linebackers that can match up with their tight ends but a lack of talent at corner? It’s Julian Edelman time. Struggle defending running backs out of the backfield? James White and the soon-to-return Dion Lewis can hurt you in the passing game.

The Raiders have the best receiver duo in the NFL.

With Derek Carr at the helm, Oakland is third in the NFL in passing yards (2,460) and seventh in passing touchdowns (17), while the deadly duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree has become the most unstoppable one-two receiver punch in the league. Cooper has 58 receptions (second) for 843 yards (third) and two touchdowns, and Crabtree has added 49 catches (tied for eighth) for 596 yards (13th) and six touchdowns (tied for third).

We’ll see how far the Raiders’ high-octane passing offense can take them this year, but one thing is clear: You better have two good corners if you have any hope of matching up with Oakland. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, it’s not like shutdown corners grow on trees. If one of Cooper or Crabtree gets taken out of the game, the other can step up, like we saw in Oakland’s 33–16 win over Jacksonville in Week 7. With talented rookie Jalen Ramsey blanketing Cooper all game (he caught a season-low four passes for 29 yards), Crabtree emerged, grabbing eight of his 11 targets for 96 yards and a touchdown.

Oakland’s 21st-ranked scoring defense (24.8 points per game) isn’t going to win the Raiders a lot of games, but with Cooper and Crabtree dominating defensive backs from both sides of the field, it might not matter.

If you want to beat the Broncos, you better run the ball.

Despite key losses of defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan in free agency over the offseason, the Broncos pass defense remains among the league’s elite. They still boast three top-tier cornerbacks in Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby, and have the second-best pass rush (28 sacks) in the NFL, with Von Miller at the vanguard. With that combination, the Broncos have given up a league-low 183 passing yards a game, in addition to just six touchdowns through the air (tied for second in the league).

Still, the loss of Jackson and Trevathan has impacted the Broncos rush defense, which was fourth in DVOA last season. Shockingly, only the 49ers (193 yards), Browns (146.4), and Dolphins (136.1) are surrendering more rushing yards per game than the Broncos in 2016. We saw the recipe for beating the Broncos last Sunday at Mile High: The Raiders rushed for 218 yards, and even though Cooper and Crabtree were held to a combined 83 yards, they still won, 30–20.

The Texans will go only as far as their defense can take them.

The Brock Osweiler experiment isn’t working. After signing for four years and $72 million over the offseason, the embattled Texans quarterback has been one of the worst players at the most important position in the league. He’s currently 27th in completion percentage (59.3), dead last in yards per pass attempt (5.8), and has thrown nine touchdowns and nine picks. Osweiler’s 73.1 quarterback rating on the season is better than only San Francisco’s Blaine Gabbert (who was benched four weeks ago) and New York’s Ryan Fitzpatrick (who was benched before a Geno Smith injury forced him back into action). Houston’s run game isn’t helping a whole lot either; despite rushing for 114 yards per game (11th), it’s produced just two scores (tied for 31st). All this has added up to the 5–3 Texans owning the worst offense per DVOA through eight weeks.

It’s going to be up to the Texans’ defense to hold off all comers in the AFC South. In past years, a very good defense was enough for Houston to make the playoffs, but that was with the team’s superstar defender. With J.J. Watt on the shelf for the rest of the year with a back injury, Jadeveon Clowney would be the next candidate for that role, but with just three sacks, he still hasn’t been the incredible once-in-a-generation talent that many expected him to be.

Through eight games, the Texans ranked 13th in defensive DVOA — seventh against the pass and just 28th against the run. They’re solid, but unspectacular. Will that be enough? Probably not, but there’s enough talent here for some improvement over the stretch run. As for the offense? Unless Osweiler magically transforms into a quarterback who can be more than very tall and charming, things won’t be getting any better.

Drew Brees is not human.

OK, fine. He’s probably primarily made of carbon just like the rest of us — but we’re not talking enough about what Drew Brees is doing this season.

At 37, Brees is on pace to lead the league in passing yards for the seventh time in his career; if he keeps up his current rate, he’d complete 69 percent of his passes for 5,378 yards, with 42 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, at 7.7 yards per attempt and for a 106.7 rating. In eight games, he’s thrown for more than 400 yards twice and more than 300 yards an additional three times. Brees remains one of the savviest pocket passers in the league, is still incredibly accurate down the field, and if he wasn’t always doing this almost every single year, it might be a bigger story. Despite New Orleans’s best efforts to give him the worst defense in the world and waste his brilliant twilight, the Saints are still 4–4 and just 2.5 games behind the first-place Falcons in the NFC South and only half a game out of the second wild-card spot.