Week 9 is the NFL at its best: the perfect mixture of highbrow and lowbrow. There are matchups between good teams with superstar players and absolute disaster scenarios playing out elsewhere. Two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, will face each other on Sunday, and another all-time great, Drew Brees, will play the last remaining undefeated team, the Los Angeles Rams. At the same time, we are blessed with the return of Nathan Peterman to the ranks of starting quarterbacks, despite his 11 percent career interception rate, and Gregg Williams—he of Bountygate, a 17-31 career record, and so many coaching offers—to the ranks of head coaches. The Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers just played a prime-time Thursday night game. Matt Patricia is inexplicably criticizing a reporter’s posture. It’s the absolute perfect blend of high-level, high-stakes football and complete farce. We are in a good place. Here’s what I will be watching in Week 9:
The Enduring Greatness of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers
The NFL will never see a generation of quarterbacks like the one led by Brady and Rodgers again. This is not to say they are the best ever, or that their records will never fall. In fact, they probably will: Matthew Stafford and Andrew Luck have more average yards per game than Peyton Manning; Kirk Cousins and Jameis Winston are within 10 yards per game of Manning and rising.
But no generation of quarterbacks will have had to adapt and reinvent themselves so often in a changing league while remaining at the top of their game. Just as not every silent film star made the transition to talking films, not every quarterback who starred in the mid-2000s was able to adapt to the passing boom. When Brady (41 years old) and Rodgers (34) entered the league, no team had ever used the shotgun offense for the majority of their plays. Brady was the first quarterback to do so, and now it’s the default formation for nearly every NFL franchise. In 2008, Rodgers’s first year as a starter, the Packers used a fullback on 481 snaps. This year they don’t have a fullback on the active roster. In Brady’s first season as a starter, Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan called him a “game manager” and specifically said he was not Dan Marino, a laughable notion today, even if it made sense at the time.
Rodgers and Brady have reinvented the way the position is played and, out of necessity, have at times reinvented themselves. Brady thinks Rodgers has perhaps the best mechanics in the history of the game. Rodgers thinks Brady is a unicorn. They are both right. It’s a shame there is no rivalry between these two. If I could make one tweak to the current schedule, it would be to add a 17th game that exists completely outside the NFL’s schedule grid so that quirks like Brady and Rodgers facing each other just twice do not happen. Matching up marquee teams or cross-conference rivals for one game a year wouldn’t hurt competitive balance any more than making first-place teams from the year prior play each other, which the NFL already does. Bad luck and bad timing have contributed to the lack of Brady-Rodgers matchups. But it’s also because the league’s schedule rotation means you have to get very lucky with cross-conference matchups, which come along only once every few years, and you have to hope the relevant superstars are playing and on decent teams. It’s the same system that prevented Brady from ever starting a game at Candlestick Park, the stadium he grew up watching games in.
But let’s not complain: We have two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time facing each other. They’ve each consistently found ways to solve the NFL game and on Sunday, they get to try to solve each other. That’s cool.
The Browns Imagine a Hopeful Future, One That Looks Like the Present-Day Chiefs
The Chiefs vs. the Browns is not an interesting game from a football perspective. The last time Patrick Mahomes II and Baker Mayfield played each other was in 2016, while they were in college, and they combined for 125 points. That will not happen when they meet on Sunday because (a) the Chiefs cannot score 100 points (yet); and (b) the Browns defense isn’t bad. Instead, we’ll see a fairly routine blowout. What is interesting is that the Chiefs are a model for what the Browns should strive to become: a futuristic, well-run offense that puts their play-making quarterback in a perfect position to succeed. Gregg Williams has replaced the fired Hue Jackson. Whether or not Williams has time to be a head coach when he’s so busy turning down job offers remains to be seen. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is also gone, and while we don’t know what Freddie Kitchens’s offense will look like, he’s already scored some points by making fun of Williams’s numerous, very real job offers.
The Browns have shown flashes of understanding how to utilize Mayfield’s skill set, but this game will serve as a reminder that the scheme world is wide open for them. Hopefully, a blowout at the hands of Andy Reid’s near-flawless offense will give them some pointers to use in the future. Or, even better, it will convince Jimmy Haslam and John Dorsey to fly to Oklahoma and give Lincoln Riley a blank check to reunite with Mayfield.
Mahomes vs. Mayfield reinforces how remarkable Brady and Rodgers continue to be. The aforementioned passers would have to look as dynamic in 2031 as they do now in order to play a game of the same magnitude, with the same teams. Brady and Rodgers lucked out with relatively good health, stable franchises, and favorable rule changes. Mahomes clearly has the franchise stability; Mayfield, at this point, does not.
The Rams and the Saints Vie for NFC Supremacy
I’ll let you in on a secret: The Patriots vs. the Packers is really fun but it will not mean anything in the larger picture. If you’re looking for a game with real consequence, it’s the Rams vs. the Saints. Home-field advantage in the NFC title game might be decided by the result of Sunday’s game. It will simply be interesting to see which of these teams is better. Rodgers floated the idea that if the Rams are the best team, the Packers are “not far off” after last week’s close loss. What about the Saints? Can their improving-but-still-not-great defense stop the Rams? Can the Rams defense, which hasn’t allowed a 300-yard passing performance since Week 4 (a mighty accomplishment in 2018), stop Drew Brees, who has had his lowest yardage output in more than a decade the past two weeks?
A Rams loss wouldn’t exactly be a backbreaker. They’re in the midst of one of the toughest stretches that any team will have this year: the Packers last week, now the Saints, followed by the Seahawks and Chiefs. If they are, say, 10-1 in a few weeks, that’s a great outcome, but home-field advantage is important—the home team has won the past five NFC title games.
This is a matchup you can expect to see again in January, so watch accordingly.
One final note on Brees: On a weekend in which we’ll spend a lot of time talking about who the “GOAT” is, this chart regarding Brees’s accuracy compared to his contemporaries blew me away:
Off-target pass% and ranking since 2006. Drew Brees is on a different level. pic.twitter.com/KAWuhJdz7J— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) November 1, 2018
Looking for Clarity in the AFC North, Via the Ravens and Steelers
I am not sure what the opposite of bulletin board material is, and I don’t know if that is what Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale intended by this response:
Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale on absent Steelers RB Le'Veon Bell: "There are a lot of stats [since 2015] that the Steelers are actually better without him. That might be why he’s riding a jet ski down in Miami right now."— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) November 1, 2018
So the Ravens don’t think Le’Veon Bell is very good, and the Steelers have previously voiced their displeasure with Bell, so Martindale is basically in agreement with his opponent. We do know that James Conner, Bell’s replacement, is really, genuinely good:
For the crowd that claims defenses aren’t committing to stop #Steelers’ James Conner like other RBs... no one in @NFL has more rushing attempts against a stacked box (8+ defenders) than his 46, and no one has more yards (217) or TDs (6) against a stacked box.— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) November 1, 2018
This is an intriguing game, one that is to the AFC North what Rams-Saints is to the NFC: a nice check-in to see the status of the contenders. The Steelers are in first place in the division, as is their default, and the Bengals and Ravens are somewhere between “not bad” and “pretty good.” The only thing we know for certain is that Baltimore’s defense, despite two losses in a row, is still very good:
Ravens' defense has been stupid good this year.— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) November 1, 2018
Comp % (T-1st)
Pass TD (T-5th)
QB Rating (2nd)
3rd Down (2nd)
Pass 40+ (T-1st)
Combine that with Ben Roethlisberger’s bad play in Baltimore …
Steelers must overcome past offensive struggles at M&T Bank Stadium to beat Ravens:— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) November 1, 2018
Ben Roethlisberger: 2 TDs, 5 INTs last four games in BAL, where he's never thrown for 300 yards
Steelers avg 16.1 ppg in BAL since 2011, losing four of last five
… and you’ve got an intriguing matchup. Plus, extra intrigue: Will Bell ever get off his Jet Ski?