As the season rolls along to the half-way point, the strongest teams in their conferences have begun to separate themselves from the pack. Coming into Week 8, 18 of the 32 teams have five or more wins or five or more losses. Dallas, Denver and Indianapolis seem to be inching closer to postseason berths as they drift away from their division rivals. Houston, Chicago, and Seattle seem to need only a few minor adjustments to catapult them back into their division races. The weeks become more important as the NFL season rolls on, and the pressure will continue to mount on teams that need to make adjustments before it is too late.
One such team desperate to return to better times earlier this season is the Cincinnati Bengals (3-2-1) who host the Ravens on Sunday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. After starting 3-0 on the strength of their defense, the team has lost two and tied one game. The problem has been a complete reversal of their defensive successes, allowing 37 points per game in their last three. Part of the issue has been an inability to stop the run. In their first three games, the team held opposing offenses to 113 yards on the ground, but in their last three have given up 179 yards per game.
Meanwhile, the Ravens have cruised to a 5-2 record on the strength of their offensive balance. Sometimes elite quarterback Joe Flacco has found a new favorite target, Steve Smith Sr., and they have connected for 640 yards and 4 touchdowns so far this season. Smith, who the Panthers let walk in the off-season, has been a revelation after last season when he accounted for only 745 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. Despite his excellent start, Smith felt uncomfortable at first in Baltimore and confessed to BaltimoreRaverns.com that Flacco helped to ease his transition.
"I struggled early on because this West Coast offense was so different from what I knew from my 13 years in a different system. And he just told me, 'Just listen. Relax. I’m going to need you down the stretch, I'm going to need you to make a play, and I can’t have you overthink it and unconfident.'"
Life after Ray Rice has also been no problem for the Ravens, who have used the combination of Justin Forsett, Bernard Pierce, and Lorenzo Taliaferro to put up 898 yards rushing on 4.8 yards per carry. The Ravens, who lost their first game of the year to the Bengals, will be looking for revenge in what always ends up being a hard-fought divisional matchup.
Following the AFC North showdown, two of the hottest teams in the NFC face off as the Eagles (5-1) travel to Arizona to take on the Cardinals (5-1) at 4:15 p.m. Eastern time Sunday. The Cardinals sit atop the NFL's most competitive division, the NFC West, a game and a half ahead of San Francisco in what has been one of the most unlikely storylines of the young season.
Arizona has found success by balancing a game plan which makes stopping the run and holding the ball on offense paramount. The team has limited opposing rush attacks to only 72.2 yards per game, first in all of football. On offense, running back Andre Ellington shoulders a heavy load, averaging 23 touches per game, while Carson Palmer, recently returned from injury, plays consistently from the quarterback position, averaging 250 yards and two touchdowns in his first two games back. Palmer, who seems to be relishing his role as signal-caller for Arizona, told the AZ Central, "I’m just getting started here. We lost some games that we shouldn't have last year that kept us out of the playoffs. This year we've won those games."
The Eagles have been anything but consistent this year offensively, struggling at times to run and at other times to pass. Last year's leading back, LeSean McCoy, has managed only 3.6 yards per carry, while quarterback Nick Foles, who threw only two interceptions last season, has thrown seven in his first six games this year. Head coach Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense has helped to smooth out some of the issues, and the team’s very good special teams has helped to create points.
The special teams, which has been responsible for a blocked punt for a touchdown, and both kickoff and punt return touchdowns, is rated number one in the league by Football Outsiders in situation-specific special teams. Additionally, Football Outsiders measures the amount of hidden luck a team encounters, and bases the stat on how opponents’ special teams perform against a team, and has found the Eagles have come across the most favorable special teams situations. The Eagles will hope this luck continues and that they can get both parts of their offense running smoothly to take down a Cardinals team that has quietly established itself as one of the NFC’s strongest.
Sunday's action closes out with the Green Bay Packers (5-2) traveling to New Orleans to take on the Saints (2-4) on Sunday Night Football at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. The Saints, who are not used to struggling in the early part of the season, find themselves with four losses, three of which have come by a combined six total points. Inopportune turnovers and defensive lapses have cost the team games which they hope will not come back to haunt them later in the season.
However, the Saints only find themselves a game out of first in the weak NFC South and know that it is still too early to panic. Drew Brees and the offense are still working towards a finished product as they look to better involved first round draft pick Brandin Cooks into the pass game and reestablish Jimmy Graham, who looks to return from injury. Brees spoke to reporters at the Washington Post, reiterating that his team was close to putting it all together. "If you can play a little bit better each week, then eventually the wins will come," Brees said. "And with wins comes a lot of confidence."
The Saints may not have the time they need this week to build up their confidence steadily as they try to match points with the in-form Packers offense. Led by Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have averaged 36.2 points per game during their four-game win streak and Rodgers has been tremendous in that time, throwing 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Rodgers is coming off one of his most efficient performances ever, throwing for three touchdowns and completing 86.4% of his passes against the Panthers.
Only a month ago media and pundits were panicking as the Packers started the season 1-2, but they might have wanted to listen to Rodgers when he told them to "relax." This week, the Packers will feel they can exploit the porous New Orleans pass defense and put up points, so the Saints and Drew Brees will have to counter with their own offensive outburst. Look for a shootout in the Big Easy to cap off your Sunday night.