Schedule quirk creates mismatches
If it seems strange to have six teams on byes in Week 8, that's because it is unusual.
Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Indianapolis, San Diego and Tennessee are sitting out this week. Arizona, Denver, Detroit, Jacksonville, San Francisco and the New York Giants have byes next week.
Normally, the NFL schedules four bye-week teams through most of October and the early part of November. Why the change? The reason is the calendar. Thanksgiving falls a week later this year, so the NFL had to make adjustments.
Historically, the league schedules its byes from Week 4 through Week 11. The late Thanksgiving, which falls during Week 13 this season, stretched the bye week schedules through Week 12.
To do that, the NFL had three weeks in late September and mid-October in which only two teams had Sundays off. In other words, the change isn't a trendsetter for the future, just an adjustment to a year in which Thanksgiving was a week later than usual.
As a result, there are only six early games this week and next.
With so many teams sitting out, a few more mismatches are at hand. The San Francisco 49ers are 17-point favorites over Jacksonville in London. Buffalo is a 12-point underdog in New Orleans. The Denver Broncos are favored by 13 over Washington. The loss of quarterback Sam Bradford has the St. Louis Rams as 12-point underdogs to the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night.
Here are the 10 trends for NFL Week 8.
1. Not For Long League: Even though Christian Ponder will get a necessity start for the Minnesota Vikings because Josh Freeman has concussion symptoms, the franchise has basically given up on him after 29 starts. He's 12-17. The Cleveland Browns benched Brandon Weeden after only 19 starts. His 0-4 record this season puts him at 5-14, and it's pretty clear the Browns are going to draft a quarterback next year. They'll start Jason Campbell against the Kansas City Chiefs. Blaine Gabbert is getting healthier, but the Jaguars are sticking with Chad Henne for Sunday's game in London against San Francisco. Gabbert is 5-22 as a starter, and the timetable basically points to the organization's giving up on him after this season. What's interesting about these numbers is how they relate to the new collective bargaining agreement. Although teams hate to admit first-round choices are busts or bad moves, the lower cost of these picks gives franchises a chance to move on more quickly. Eleven quarterbacks were taken in the first two rounds of the 2011 and 2012 drafts, the first two years of the current CBA. Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III established themselves as stars in their rookie seasons. Cam Newton appears to be finding a comfort zone in Carolina. The 49ers' Colin Kaepernick went to the Super Bowl. The Bengals' Andy Dalton has his critics, but he's 24-15. The jury is still out on Jake Locker (7-9), Ryan Tannehill (10-12) and Brock Osweiler (no starts). The benching of Weeden shows how little time quarterbacks have to establish themselves.
2. The return of Shanahan: Mike Shanahan's return to Denver isn't getting the attention Peyton Manning had last Sunday night in Indianapolis, but it should. Shanahan established an incredible legacy leading the Broncos. He was 138-86, had seven trips to the playoffs and won two Super Bowls. Sure, it was John Elway's franchise, but Shanahan was the perfect caretaker. For Shanahan, facing the Broncos will bring back plenty of great memories and one bad one -- his firing. He didn't expect it. After being let go after the 2008 season, Shanahan sat for a year and then accepted Dan Snyder's invitation to coach the Redskins. Unfortunately for Shanahan, the Redskins aren't equal to the Broncos at the moment. Washington is 2-4 while the Broncos are 6-1. Manning is thinking Super Bowl. Shanahan is just trying to squeeze as much out of a cap-strapped roster as he can. Nevertheless, it should be an interesting scene.
3. The recovery of RG III: Because of their 2-4 start, fewer fans might be following the Redskins, but each week Griffin is getting better. Coming off a knee reconstruction, he looked as though he was playing at about 75 percent efficiency in the first few weeks of the season. Last Sunday's 45-41 victory over the Chicago Bears illustrated his improvements. He threw for 298 yards and ran for 84. Since the Week 5 bye, Griffin has run the ball 20 times for 161 yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Griffin is now starting to keep the ball on read-option plays. He kept the ball on only two read-options in the first two games. In the past three, he's kept it 14 times for 100 yards. With no preseason and coming off a major knee injury, Griffin was expected to have a slow start. He's close to being back to where he was before the injury.
4. Another great receiver matchup: Last week, I had the pleasure of watching A.J. Green go against Calvin Johnson during Cincinnati's 27-24 victory over Detroit. Both pass-catchers played at a high level. This week, I'm back in the Motor City for another great matchup. Dez Bryant is becoming one of the best receivers in football. He and the Cowboys think he's ready to pass Detroit's Johnson as the game's best. We'll see, but Bryant is a rising star. He's played 50 games and has more yards, receptions and touchdowns than Johnson had during his first 50 games. This is an important game for both teams. Both are playoff contenders with 4-3 records. The Lions can't afford to lose a home game after losing to the Bengals last Sunday.
5. Should the Patriots trade for a veteran WR? The Browns say they aren't trading Josh Gordon, but good offers are there. Kenny Britt could possibly be acquired from the Tennessee Titans. It's debatable whether the Giants would surrender Hakeem Nicks, who is a free agent after the season. Tuesday is the trade deadline, but are the Patriots in the market? Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins could determine that. Although Rob Gronkowski returned to the field last week, Tom Brady is struggling with his young receiving group. He should get Danny Amendola back this week, but Amendola has a long history of injuries. Brady runs a fast-paced offense in which plays are run every 25 seconds. His young receivers are struggling to keep up. In two of the past three games, Brady has completed less than 48 percent of his passes. For the season, he's at 55.4 percent, down from his career average of 63.4 percent.
6. Home not so sweet: The Philadelphia Eagles have some of the most rabid fans in sports, and they've witnessed nine consecutive home losses. They might not forgive first-year coach Chip Kelly if he loses to the New York Giants on Sunday. The Giants have an eight-game road losing streak and are 1-6 for the season. Michael Vick returns to the Eagles' starting lineup after missing two games with a hamstring injury. His return should allow LeSean McCoy to explode. McCoy is at the top of the league's rushing list, in part because of Vick's ability to run. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Vick averages 5.7 yards on read-option plays compared to Nick Foles' 4-yard clip. Vick runs the read-option 36.3 percent of the time. When he does, McCoy explodes. For Foles, McCoy averaged 3.3 yards per run.
7. Steelers making strides: Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley is winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger over on one topic -- the value of the running game. Now that Le'Veon Bell is healthy, the Steelers' running game is coming back. The team's 141 rushing yards in Week 7 broke an 11-game streak of sub-100-yard games. Roethlisberger and Haley aren't on the same page on everything, though. Roethlisberger is not a big fan of the Wildcat, where he has to line up as a wide receiver and run a route. Roethlisberger admits that tires him out and leaves him open to be hit, something the Steelers need to watch. The Steelers travel to Oakland, which is coming off a bye, this week. Against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6, Terrelle Pryor kept the Raiders in the game with his feet until the O-line finally broke down. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will need to generate the same kind of pressure he did in last week's win over Baltimore.
8. Reunion I: The Green Bay Packers let Greg Jennings walk this offseason, knowing they couldn't pay him the $9 million a year he received from the Minnesota Vikings. Even though the Packers couldn't afford him, they could use him for the Sunday night game against the Vikings. Randall Cobb is on the injured reserve list, James Jones may not play because of a knee injury and Jermichael Finley's playing future is in question because of a spinal-cord injury. Aaron Rodgers' remaining receiving corps is as young as New England's, and you've seen what's happened to Brady. With all the quarterback drama in Minnesota, Jennings hasn't had the opportunity to provide the impact management envisioned. He has 24 catches for 327 yards and two touchdowns in six games.
9. Reunion II: The Atlanta Falcons made a calculated decision in letting John Abraham go, and the pass rush has suffered without him. The Falcons rank 20th on defense, allowing 366.3 yards a game. They have only 14 sacks in six games. Opposing quarterbacks have had time to throw against the Falcons. Abraham, the Falcons' all-time sack leader, signed with the Arizona Cardinals, who host the Falcons on Sunday. Abraham has two sacks as an outside linebacker and will try to do his best to pressure Matt Ryan, who has his own problems. Roddy White might not play because of a hamstring injury and Julio Jones is on injured reserve. The only good news is that RB Steven Jackson should return from a hamstring injury.
10. The rest of the stories: The New Orleans Saints return from a bye fresh, and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has to love the fact he faces a young quarterback, the Bills' Thad Lewis, before a loud Superdome crowd. A victory would put the Saints at 6-1. The New York Jets-Cincinnati game brings back some memories. Jets coach Rex Ryan got his first playoff victory over the Bengals in Cincinnati after the 2009 season. The Jets advanced to the AFC title game. Rookie QB Geno Smith has been bailing out the Jets with fourth-quarter comebacks, but the Bengals are loaded on offense. The Jets can't get into a shootout and expect to win. Finally, the Jaguars committed to three years of trips to London to try to build a brand overseas. They are 0-7 this season, have lost each game by a double-digit margin and face a team, the 49ers, that should embarrass them.