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The Four Must-See NFL Matchups for Week 8

Can Aaron Rodgers and the Packers hand the Rams their first loss? Can Drew Brees continue the Saints’ winning streak? We’ll learn that and more this weekend.

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Even though it seems like there’s going to be a flood of activity ahead of Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline, it’s nearly impossible to figure out which teams are buying and which are selling. There’s far too much mediocrity in the league for too many teams to consider themselves definitively out of the playoff picture. The Oakland Raiders and the New York Giants are selling. The Buffalo Bills probably should as well, but they’ve yet to enter the market. Who else does that leave? If the Indianapolis Colts beat the Raiders on Sunday, they’ll improve to 3-5 in a pretty pedestrian AFC South. Are they out of it? There are 13 teams with three wins, so we have very little idea which are good or bad yet outside of a few outliers. Two games this weekend will help us better understand good teams—the New Orleans Saints vs. the Minnesota Vikings and the Los Angeles Rams vs. the Green Bay Packers. Others will help us decide which average teams will remain in contention—the Philadelphia Eagles vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars, for instance. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but here’s hoping the season will start to reveal itself Sunday and we’ll have a clearer sense of what the playoff picture looks like heading toward the midway point.

(Spoiler alert: We won’t).

The Saints and Vikings vs. the Salary Cap

Kirk Cousins is not stealing money. In fact, both quarterbacks in this game are examples of how a team can contend with an expensive quarterback in a league where it is becoming increasingly common to build a contender with a young quarterback on a cost-effective contract.

Drew Brees has made $221.7 million in his career, and Cousins, who is not as good as Brees, will make $130.6 million after his fully guaranteed contract expires in 2020. The Vikings and the Saints have the lowest cap space in the league—the Vikings with $1.2 million and the Saints with an astounding $924,000 in space. For comparison’s sake, the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans, both featuring former first-round QBs still on rookie deals, each have around $25 million in space. Brees and Cousins are both showing it’s possible to have a deep roster and an expensive quarterback. You’ve just got to find bargains elsewhere. For the Vikings, that includes Adam Thielen’s $6.1 million deal; for the Saints, it’s Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara—both of whom will make less than $1.4 million this year. Both quarterbacks have exerted their considerable leverage, and it worked out for player and team—I detailed Cousins’s journey to that contract earlier this season.

Brees’s quarterback rating is 132 when targeting Michael Thomas. I found this incredible, but as I dug deeper into the Saints’ matchup against the Vikings, I realized that figure is only 10 points higher than his regular passer rating.

Brees is on track to complete at least 70 percent of his passes and 8 yards per attempt in a season for the fourth time in his career. That feat has been achieved just four other times in the history of the sport. The Saints have won five straight since getting run over by the FitzMagic train and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Week 1. They’re in the midst of a grueling portion of their schedule—the Washington Redskins and Baltimore Ravens the last two weeks, with the Vikings and Rams up next—but at the moment I would consider them alongside the Kansas City Chiefs, Rams, and New England Patriots as the league’s elite teams.

Sunday’s game offers some nice matchups that will probably be relevant in January: Can the Saints’ secondary stop Thielen and Stefon Diggs? Can the Vikings’ struggling linebacker crew stop Kamara? Can a Minnesota secondary that just lost Mike Hughes slow down Brees? Are the Saints super pissed off about the Minneapolis Miracle? As with most teams this season, I have more questions than answers. Hopefully a few are answered Sunday night.

Tom Brady vs. the Bills’ Quarterback Situation

In a television interview a few months ago, the boxer Anthony Joshua said he thinks the sign of an elite athlete is to be so good that you make a professional look like an amateur. This is easier to do in a one-on-one matchup in a fighting sport than it is in a team sport. Bad cornerbacks can get safety help. A worthless basketball player can silently set screens and never call for the ball. It’s especially difficult when two people are not on the field at the same time. But if it is possible for a professional to make his counterpart look completely helpless in comparison, it will happen when Tom Brady takes the field against the Bills. Buffalo has three of the 10 worst quarterbacks in football according to Football Outsiders, including the worst (Josh Allen) and the third worst (Nathan Peterman). The ninth worst is nursing an injury:

The Bills, who have thus far produced the worst offense through seven weeks in the history of the NFL, will share a field with probably the greatest passer ever, a player who bends the league to his will. The Bills cannot manage even barely adequate quarterback play, yet Tom Brady seems to have solved … behind-the-back quarterback passes?

Also, I doubt Bills quarterbacks would be good at whatever this is:

Blake Bortles Against the Eagles Defense

Bortles is just part of a multitude of problems facing the Jaguars. Last weekend, their defensive line managed to sack Texans QB Deshaun Watson, who has taken so many hits he couldn’t fly to the game, only once. Star cornerback Jalen Ramsey is graded by Pro Football Focus no. 53 at his position. Former no. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette, whose career rushing average is below 4 yards per carry, has yet to return from a hamstring injury. A.J. Bouye’s injury means they’ll be starting three undrafted rookies in the secondary alongside Ramsey.

The Jaguars defense is not bad—even after giving up 60 points in the last two games, it is still the ninth-best unit by points allowed and second best by yards. But the problem is that the Jaguars are designed for their defense to be an elite unit. It’s the only way a bad or mediocre Bortles can be acceptable at quarterback. Given their cap situation for this year and the next, two things have to happen if the Jaguars are to improve: The defense must become elite once more and Bortles must become average once more.

Bortles is branding himself the “scapegoat” for the team’s struggles, and he’s got a case. He told NFL.com’s Michael Silver:

”I totally understand that I’m like the scapegoat for this team. When we play good, ‘The defense played well, the running back did good, the receivers made great plays.’ And when we play bad, ‘Blake Bortles is the worst quarterback on the face of the planet.’”

Bortles is not the worst quarterback on the face of the planet, not with the Bills on earth. But against Philadelphia he simply needs to not be terrible, which is easier said than done. The Eagles, like the Jaguars, are trying to save their season. They aren’t forcing turnovers as much and Derek Barnett’s injury is a massive blow to their pressure rate. But they’ll have a lot of cheerful visiting support in London:

The Rams’ Well-Oiled Offensive Machine vs. Aaron Rodgers’s Individual Excellence

The Rams vs. the Packers is the ultimate clash of styles: The Rams utilize a system that gives it Aaron Rodgers–style firepower and the Packers utilize a system that tries to limit its firepower despite actually employing Aaron Rodgers.

We are running out of things to say about the Rams offense, but here’s a new one that blows my mind. Per Rotoworld, 51.5 percent of the Rams’ possessions end inside the red zone. Outside of the Rams, the league average is 27 percent.

My colleague Robert Mays has detailed the problems with Mike McCarthy’s offense. Rodgers makes the offense go for the Packers, and everything makes the offense go for the Rams. Under Sean McVay’s tutelage, Jared Goff went from throwing 26 percent of his passes into tight windows in 2016 to 14 percent in 2017, according to NFL Next Gen stats. Rodgers needs a similar transformation within his own offense. He doesn’t need much help on tight throws—he does pretty damn well on those—but he has not had a coach who can make things easy for him, and that may look more obvious than ever against the Rams.