Every week in the NFL has felt weird, but Week 9 felt weird and also unremarkable. The Eagles and Rams scored 51 points each, but there was no one game that really stood out like we’ve had over in past weeks. Not every week is going to feature Seahawks-Texans, and while games were decided by one score, most of those didn’t feel that competitive. Now that we’ve gotten past the halfway point of the season, there’s some trends we can both look back on and examine for the rest of the season.
A still too early look at MVP candidates
Once we get into the second half of the season, the MVP discussion really starts to kick in. Every week there’s a new favorite for who should be the league’s most valuable player and it could continue to change each proceeding week until the end of the season. Some will plant their flags in a candidate and ride through the end of the season, but really there’s still a lot of football left to be played. As a bit of a primer, let’s just run through a few quick pros and cons in the case of some of the names regularly being discussed.
Pro: He’s the quarterback on the team with the best record in the league. That alone is going to garner a decent amount of consideration. But Wentz has also played well enough and shown a massive improvement, not just from his rookie year, but even the start of this season. He leads the league in touchdown passes (23) and his 7.3 percent touchdown rate leads all healthy quarterbacks.
Con: The touchdowns slightly exaggerate how well Wentz has played. Despite leading the league in touchdowns, he’s only eighth among quarterbacks in yards per attempt (7.8) and was just ninth among quarterbacks in DVOA heading into Week 9. Those are really good quarterback numbers, but not necessarily MVP quarterbacks numbers.
Pro: Brady is doing all the things you would imagine Tom Brady would do, except he’s doing it in his age-40 season. Brady is fourth among quarterbacks in yards per attempt (8.2), was first in DVOA heading into the week, and has a 0.6 percent interception rate. The degree of difficulty for Brady has also been raised because the play of his defense has been so poor. Because of that Brady leads the league in passing attempts (309), yet still has great efficiency numbers. If Brady had been merely a good quarterback through the first half of the season, the New England Patriots would be looking at a record much worse than 6-2.
Con: Brady is going to get dinged by some for the “disappointing” season the Patriots are having despite sky-high expectations. Brady, though, had little to do with how poor the defense has been on the other side of the ball. Outside of the team’s defense, it’s hard to make a case Brady hasn’t been the best player in the league.
Pro: The reality is, Brees should really be in this discussion every year, but his team’s defense stops him from being on a playoff contender and that disqualifies him in many eyes. This year, though, the defense is finally playing well and Brees is still Brees. He leads the league in completion percentage and is still fifth in yards per attempt.
Con: Brees has yet to really have a signature game. That might sound dumb, but it also could be an argument you’ll hear later in the year if Brees keeps playing really well but doesn’t have one game where he completely takes over.
Pro: Smith, the frontrunner for the first few weeks of the season, still leads the league in yards per attempt (8.3). He’s second in passing yards behind Brady and just threw his first interception of the year on Sunday against the Cowboys.
Con: After a 5-0 start, the Kansas City Chiefs are now 6-3 and a lot of that will be put on the quarterback, regardless of the fact the rushing offense has produced less than 100 yards in each game over that 1-3 stretch and that the defense has given up at least 350 yards of total offense in each game this season. Smith, even with the increased deep throws, has been a product of a great offense and he’ll get less individual credit for that the less the team wins.
One more, slightly out of the box...
Pro: He’s just wrecking offenses. Anyone watching the Giants game saw that firsthand on Sunday. Donald leads the league in defensive pressures despite sitting out the first game of the season. He had a strip sack of Eli Manning on Sunday and had a second one negated because of a defensive hold in the secondary. As much as Sean McVay and the offense have gotten credit for the Rams’ success, the defense has been the better unit this year.
Con: The offense probably will continue to get the credit and if there’s an MVP candidate from the group, it will likely be either Jared Goff (8.3 yards per attempt) or Todd Gurley, who leads the league in rushing + receiving touchdowns. If there’s a defensive player considered, voters might shift to someone like Jacksonville’s Calais Campbell who has the sacks (league-leading 11) to show for his efforts.
Can the Cowboys keep it up without Ezekiel Elliott?
The Dallas Cowboys pulled off a rather surprising win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday afternoon. This was on the heels of Ezekiel Elliott getting another temporary stay on his suspension just days after it appeared the suspension would be upheld. The dance goes on for another week and no one knows if Elliott will suit up against the Atlanta Falcons.
Dallas has won three games in a row following their Week 6 bye. The Cowboys are currently the sixth-seed in the NFC, just ahead of the Seattle Seahawks due to a tiebreaker. This is a team that has put itself back into contention after a 2-3 start, but the question remains which games the Cowboys might have to play without their top running back. If Elliott’s suspension starts this coming week, he would miss games against the Falcons, Eagles, Chargers, Redskins, Giants, and Raiders, but he’d be back for a game against the Seahawks and the season finale against the Eagles. Those could be meaningful games if Dallas is able to stay in Wild Card contention through that stretch without Elliott.
The Saints are dangerous
New Orleans has won six games in a row after an 0-2 and they have looked legitimately good while doing it. The old pieces like Brees and Cameron Jordan have played up to their usual standard, but the newcomers have helped the Saints take their leap to the top of the NFC South.
Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore came into the week ranked ninth among qualified cornerbacks in yards allowed per pass. The Saints defense as a whole has come alive, allowing just 19.4 points per game after allowing 28.4, 29.8, and 26.5 over the past three seasons. New Orleans was just 16th in defensive DVOA heading into the week, but that comes from a 26th-ranked rush defense while the pass defense ranked fourth. After holding the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to just 200 total yards in a 30-10 victory, those ranks are likely to improve.
The Saints now hold the fourth-best point differential in the league and would be the No.2 seed in the NFC behind the Eagles. There’s little to suggest this type of play can’t hold up and the Saints could be one of the most dangerous teams through the second half of the season and into the playoffs as the defense continues to develop and the offense keeps being the typical Saints offense we’ve seen throughout the years.
Two of the top-five defenses by DVOA heading into the week have been brought down by ineffective offenses. The Denver Broncos showed they might have some more holes on defense than originally thought after giving up 51 points to the Eagles on Sunday, but they also moved to start Brock Osweiler at quarterback after a lackluster first half of the season from Trevor Siemian.
The waste of the Baltimore Ravens defense, though, might be the bigger upset. Denver should have upgraded at quarterback in the offseason, but at least doesn’t have an exorbitant amount of money tied to the position. That’s what the Ravens have in Joe Flacco and his $24.6 million cap hit this season. Flacco is getting paid to be one of the league’s top quarterbacks and he’s played as one of the worst. He’s thrown more interceptions than touchdowns (10-8) and he now has the league’s lowest yards per attempt figure (5.2) after Week 9.
Flacco’s play has being wasting a defense that ranked third in DVOA prior to Week 9 and has allowed just 19 points per game. With even an average offense, the Ravens could be one of the best teams in a weak AFC, but now they have the same record (4-5) as the Jets and Raiders and sit below the Jaguars, Bills, and Dolphins in a race for the Wild Card spots.