The NFL game of the year so far came from about as unlikely a source—and unfolded in about as unlikely a fashion—as would have been imaginable before the season began. In August, a Week 8 clash between the Texans and Seahawks would have seemed likely to produce a low-scoring slugfest, featuring two of the league’s best defenses stifling offenses that have at times struggled to find the end zone in recent years. Instead, these teams combined to rack up 79 points in the Seahawks’ heart-pounding 41-38 win, providing a window into the landscape of the league in the process.
When the Texans traded the no. 25 pick in this year’s draft and their first-round pick in 2018 to Cleveland to move up and select Deshaun Watson 12th overall in April, they were betting big that a college football legend would be able to overcome his perceived shortcomings as a prospect and establish a similar level of success in the NFL. Seven games into Watson’s professional career, he has done that to a degree no one could have possibly imagined. By throwing four touchdown passes in Seattle, Watson has now upped his total to 19 on the season, passing Kurt Warner for the most ever through a player’s first seven starts. Houston came into Sunday ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA; it finished 30th in the same category last year and didn’t make any substantive personnel changes this offseason, other than adding Watson. His ability to conjure dazzling plays from nowhere has breathed life into an offense that was dormant before his arrival, with strikes like his 59-yard shot to Will Fuller in the game’s first series becoming the standard for the Texans.
The issue for Houston, now 3-4, is that for all Watson’s brilliance (he went 19-of-30 passing for a ridiculous 402 yards), it has problems that are impossible to ignore. Those were on full display in Seattle. Watson is still just a 22-year-old rookie who mixes in occasional head-scratching choices to go with his jaw-dropping moments, and given that the Texans’ injury-depleted defense has been unable to provide much resistance against decent offenses, he has little margin for error. His three interceptions against the Seahawks—including the second pick-six of Earl Thomas’s career—made the difference in the game.
Both Watson’s style and Houston’s 2017 playoff push have become a tightrope walk. J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus were both lost for the season after getting hurt against the Chiefs in Week 5; pass rusher Lamarr Houston, who signed with the Texans two days later, had to play more than half of the team’s defensive snaps in Seattle; Jadeveon Clowney looked like a man on fire Sunday (he recorded two tackles for loss, including one sack, and two quarterback hits), yet Houston’s otherwise thinning crop of talent in the front seven could be enough to torpedo its defense and limit the damage it can do in the AFC. Watson has staked a claim as the best show in football, but it’s possible that Houston will never go from being a hell of a lot of fun to a legitimate contender in 2017.
The same can’t be said for the Seahawks. Sunday’s thriller was more than just another statement game from Watson. It was also a reminder that, oh yeah, Russell Wilson and Co. are devastating when they’re right.
The 5-2 Seahawks are dealing with notable injuries on defense, too, as Cliff Avril is on the IR and the recently signed 37-year-old Dwight Freeney has taken over duties as a spot pass rusher. There’s little doubt, though, that the rest of Seattle’s personnel—from Michael Bennett to Bobby Wagner to Richard Sherman—still constitutes one of the league’s premier defenses. Allowing Watson to pile up eye-popping stats on Sunday figures to be more of an aberration than a sign of trouble to come. There are few more reliable entities in football than the Seahawks defense when its key pieces are all healthy; heading into the second half of the season, that group will almost certainly coalesce into the terrifying unit that it’s been in recent years.
That steadiness on defense, combined with the all-world version of Wilson who appeared in Week 8, is what makes the Seahawks such a threat in the NFC playoff hunt. With Aaron Rodgers sidelined with a broken collarbone, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan both cratering, and younger quarterbacks like Jameis Winston failing to make the jump into the position’s uppermost tier, the pool of top quarterbacks in the conference feels strikingly shallow. The ravages of time seem to have no effect on Drew Brees in New Orleans, and Carson Wentz continues to look like the real deal in Philadelphia. After that, though, the situation gets dire in a hurry.
Even playing behind a line that can sometimes resemble a practical joke, Wilson has managed to summon plenty of magic this season, and Sunday night was his best flourish of the year. Wilson remains a deep-ball virtuoso, and with wide receivers Paul Richardson and Tyler Lockett hauling in those heaves down the field, Seattle’s offense can get interesting in a hurry, despite its known deficiencies.
While the Saints and Eagles further cemented their status as NFC front-runners with wins in Week 8, the Seahawks reinforced that the formula that’s helped them become a perennial playoff fixture remains intact. Watson’s display in Seattle and continued breakout as the league’s must-see attraction was so mesmerizing that he’s likely to steal headlines from a powerhouse franchise that won while looking every bit like the Super Bowl challenger that it’s been in years past. Yet as people clamor to celebrate what’s new, Wilson and his fellow mainstays once again march toward the postseason. And now, they’re dealing with a collection of NFC teams that’s more flawed than any since Wilson arrived five years ago.
The Seahawks took the Texans’ best shot and managed to come out the other side. In doing so, they again put everyone on notice that they’ll be around until the end.
The Starting 11
A look at 11 big story lines, key developments, and interesting tidbits from this week in the NFL.
1. The Texans’ response to owner Bob McNair’s comment that likened the league’s players to “inmates running the prison” was powerful—and a sign of things to come. Houston’s players have had a tumultuous past few days. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins skipped Friday’s practice in response to McNair’s awful remark, and veteran tackle Duane Brown—who played his first game of the season this weekend after ending a lengthy holdout—told reporters that a meeting between players and the owner “didn’t go too well.” More than 40 Texans players took a knee during the national anthem before Sunday’s game, and, when asked about it later, many struck a tone of rightful defiance.
NFL players have long harbored suspicions about the way ownership views their protests and efforts to draw attention to the social inequalities in the United States; McNair’s comment served as confirmation for some about the way that he and at least a handful of other owners view the league’s power dynamics. The solidarity shown by Houston’s players—and their clear indication that this response isn’t over—was a concerted effort to demonstrate how that dynamic can shift when players act collectively.
2. Tampa Bay and Oakland continued their race to determine who has been the league’s most disappointing team in 2017. With Sunday’s 34-14 loss to the Bills, the Raiders dropped to 3-5 and showed that their Week 7 offensive outburst against the Chiefs may have been more of a blip on the radar than a precursor to better days ahead. While quarterback Derek Carr finished with 313 passing yards, he accumulated those mostly through a steady diet of dink-and-dunk throws that never stressed the Buffalo secondary. The version of Oakland’s offense on display Sunday lacked a dynamic downfield threat. The array of talent in this unit’s huddle should be enough to manufacture points against any defense, but the Raiders have struggled to find any sense of offensive identity.
Not to be outdone, the Buccaneers failed to muster offensive consistency in a 17-3 defeat to Carolina. Tampa Bay’s chronic issue entering this weekend was its inability to generate stops on defense; that made its offensive no-show against the Panthers all the more frustrating. Winston, who went 21-of-38 passing for 210 yards, felt the heat all game against a defense that brought plenty of pressure. He threw two interceptions, both of which came on blitzes, and took three sacks and seven quarterback hits. The Bucs were a trendy NFC playoff pick in the preseason. Now they sit at 2-5.
3. Several teams have finally started to break away from the pack and solidify their status as contenders. Even if some of the results weren’t pretty, the NFL’s best teams all took care of business Sunday. The Patriots and Steelers both won ugly contests to improve to 6-2; the Eagles hammered the 49ers 33-10 to remain the NFL’s only one-loss team; the Saints squeaked by the Bears 20-12 to extend their winning streak to five; the Vikings blew out the Browns 33-16 in London; and the Cowboys ran all over Washington in a 33-19 victory. For the first seven weeks of this season, parity ruled the league, and there was a feeling that no team was safe, no matter its opponent. Now the playoff picture appears to be coming into focus, and it includes a lot of familiar faces: The Patriots, Seahawks, and Steelers aren’t going away any time soon.
4. Saints coach Sean Payton often saves his best play designs for the red zone. The league’s top offensive minds distinguish themselves by figuring out how to manipulate defenses and create space to exploit as the field shrinks. Payton proved why he’s long been part of that group with a couple of the gems he unleashed in Sunday’s win over the Bears. After calling for a quick zip motion to freeze Chicago’s defense before running back Alvin Kamara bolted to the perimeter for New Orleans’s first score of the game, Payton dialed up this beauty for tight end Josh Hill:
By faking a screen pass to each side, Brees was able to influence the Bears linebackers (and particularly no. 59 Danny Trevathan) into moving outside the numbers and vacating the middle of the field. That allowed Hill—whose delayed release made this play so effective—to slip untouched into a huge patch of grass and rumble 19 yards toward the goal line.
5. The Bears continue to present rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with a conservative game plan, but that safe approach may not be the best one. Trubisky threw 32 passes in Sunday’s loss to the Saints, a significant departure from his bizarre stat lines in the team’s previous two games. Even with more opportunities to sling it, though, he wasn’t put in the best possible position to succeed. Chicago is steadfast in establishing the run on early downs, which usually means tough sledding for Jordan Howard. Coming into Sunday’s game, only four backs in the league faced eight or more defenders on a higher percentage of their 2017 carries (46.9). With Howard trying to trudge through a brick wall on most first downs, the Bears have fallen into obvious down-and-distance situations, making Trubisky’s passing attempts easily predictable.
Chicago’s staff has done a nice job to this point of giving Trubisky designed rollouts and play-action throws, but making life simple for young passers is just as much about timing as it is play design. Right now, the Bears are following the same script far too often.
6. The Patriots have stockpiled pass catchers to beat every type of defense; in Week 8, that meant a healthy dose of James White and Rex Burkhead. The pair of running backs combined for 12 catches in the Pats’ 21-13 win over the Chargers and accounted for 153 of Tom Brady’s 333 passing yards. New England’s win was fueled in part by some stupefying Los Angeles miscues, but with Burkhead back in the fold and this unit’s cache of weapons healthier than it’s been all season, the Patriots showed how they can chip away at defenses even when things aren’t clicking. There’s a reason this team can regularly summon victories when it isn’t at its best. That’s because no other offense has as many playmaking options.
7. Washington’s offensive line injuries were its undoing against the Cowboys—and a reminder of just how good that group can be in pass protection. With stellar right guard Brandon Scherff (sprained MCL) and mainstay left tackle Trent Williams (patella) both on the shelf against Dallas, Washington rode with undrafted free agent Tyler Catalina and former Vikings backup T.J. Clemmings up front. The results were … less than favorable. The Cowboys’ DeMarcus Lawrence has been a terror when facing starting offensive linemen this year, and he feasted against a piecemeal Washington group. Lawrence basically set up shop next to Kirk Cousins before increasing his league-leading sack total to 10.5, and David Irving registered two sacks while playing in only his third game of 2017 since returning from a suspension for performance-enhancing drug use.
Lawrence and Irving have ability to swing drives in a single play, giving Dallas a high-upside defensive element that could pair well with its seemingly revitalized offense. That combination could make the Cowboys exceedingly tough to beat throughout the season’s second half.
8. The Vikings continue to pile up wins thanks to the resilient production of their skill-position talent. The loss of Dalvin Cook to a torn ACL in Week 4 looked like a potential disaster for Minnesota’s offense. Jerick McKinnon has proved to be more than capable in his stead, though; the fourth-year back racked up 122 yards from scrimmage and made six catches on 10 targets in Sunday’s rout of the Browns. This was the third time in four starts that McKinnon has had at least 99 yards from scrimmage. He’s become an invaluable part of Minnesota’s approach.
McKinnon pairs with wide receiver Adam Thielen—who made five catches for 98 yards against Cleveland, marking his eighth straight game with at least five receptions—to give the Vikings a pair of ridiculously consistent options on offense, and that’s before mentioning the presence of Stefon Diggs and Kyle Rudolph to round out the group. With that collection of guys, this team should be able to score no matter who plays quarterback.
9. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Julius Peppers is from another planet.
The above clips shows Peppers casually hitting Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith with a perfect long-arm move, sacking Winston, and creating a turnover. The long arm is a devastating counter to an effective speed rush, and Peppers can still pull off both in his 16th NFL season. Peppers now has 7.5 sacks on in 2017. It’s the 15th time that he has topped seven sacks in a season. With his sack Sunday, Peppers now has 151 in his career—the fourth-highest total in NFL history.
It’s undeniable that Peppers’s body of work should earn him a spot in Canton one day, but I’m not sure if we’re appreciating enough how absurd it is that he’s on pace for 15 sacks at age 37. Peppers came into the league in 2002. I was in eighth grade. Friends was still on. None of it computes. He’s one of the most ridiculous athletes to ever play the game, and he’s proving that now as much he ever has.
10. This week in tales of the tape: The design of Austin Hooper’s 21-yard reception to set up Atlanta’s first touchdown in a 25-20 win over the Jets used a perfect marriage of route combinations, giving Matt Ryan a simple throw against a defense that had no chance.
By sending running back Devonta Freeman into the flat to pull New York’s cornerback forward, Julio Jones to the back corner of the end zone to hold the deep safety in place, and Hooper into the area underneath, the Falcons were able to attack every level of the Jets defense and ensure that at least one of those three options would run free in the secondary. This is the sort of play that wins before the ball is even snapped—and that Atlanta’s offense has noticeably lacked at times this season.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: DeAndre Hopkins bends the universe to his will.
Few wide receivers in the league have the body control that Nuk does, and watching him excel with Watson at quarterback has been an utter delight. Last year Hopkins had to catch passes from Brock Osweiler; this is better.