A quick glance at items of interest as Week 8 rolls on in the NFL:
Who’s hot: Todd Gurley. With a potential for a shootout at the Coliseum looming, the best player on the NFL’s only undefeated team represents another layer of defense for the Rams (7-0) against the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers. Gurley, edged out by Tom Brady for MVP honors last year, leads the NFL with 686 rushing yards, 956 yards from scrimmage and 14 TDs – has even better numbers after seven games than at this point last year. Whether he winds up as the league’s MVP is TBD, with Patrick Mahomes and Drew Brees also in that mix. But Gurley epitomizes the beauty of Sean McVay’s offense with versatility that ranges from power running to explosive passing plays. He can demonstrate just how valuable he is for L.A., perhaps by propelling the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack to keep A-Rod on the sidelines for extended periods … or maybe with the quick-strike downfield catch that exposes a mismatch in coverage. Regardless, game on.
Pressure’s on Blake Bortles. Exactly why did the Jaguars sign their shaky quarterback to a $54 million extension? Bortles has committed eight of his 11 turnovers this season during the current three-game losing streak. That provides a clue as to why Jacksonville’s D is still ranked No. 2 in the NFL for yards allowed as a match against the Eagles looms in London. Lately, that vaunted D has been put in too many bad positions by Bortles turnovers. Jacksonville (3-4) may not want to admit that it has jeopardized championship visions by sticking with Bortles, but that’s rather apparent. Then again, maybe bolting from the USA will help. The Jags have won three consecutive London games (eight TDs, one INT) with Bortles at the helm.
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Key matchup: The Mad Hatter vs. T-Sizzle. Cam Newton carries a streak of five consecutive games with at least two TDs into Sunday’s tilt against Terrell Suggs and Baltimore’s No. 1-ranked defense. Yet the threat of Newton’s running might be the difference after the Ravens yielded a season-high 134 rushing yards to the Saints. No NFL quarterback has rushed for more yards than Newton (257, on 52 attempts), still as formidable a double-threat as ever. While Suggs (5 ½ sacks) brings the edge rush for a unit that leads the NFL with 27 sacks, it’s pretty much a given Baltimore will need to assign a spy (maybe C.J. Mosely) to keep tabs on Newton’s legs.
Rookie watch: Kerryon Johnson. Two 100-yard games within a month? That’s a big deal for the Lions, who had the NFL’s longest drought of games (70, dating to 2013, Reggie Bush) without a 100-yard rusher before the second-round pick from Auburn snapped the streak in Week 3. No wonder Johnson – who ripped off a 158-yard game at Miami last week – became the starter in Week 4. The big-picture effect is balance. The Lions have put too much pressure on Matthew Stafford’s arm for too long. As the Seahawks visit, it’s worth noting that in three wins, Johnson has averaged 16 carries and 109.7 rushing yards. In Detroit’s three losses: 7 carries, 38.3 yards.
If the playoffs were today … The Steelers would be AFC North champs. The who? Yes, with every other AFC North team falling in Week 7, Team Drama (3-2-1) has used a two-game winning streak to quietly complete an early-season rise from the cellar to first place. The clock still ticks on Le’Veon Bell’s franchise-tagged holdout, which will likely end in early November and make Pittsburgh stronger for the stretch run. But the L-Bell saga now has a different twist on the chemistry meter. When he returns, the challenge will include keeping James Conner in the mix. Conner has only averaged 118.3 yards from scrimmage as Bell’s fill-in and with seven rushing TDs matching a franchise marker (Franco Harris, 1976; Jerome Bettis, 2004) for the first six games.
Stomach for an upset: Washington at New York. The Giants (1-6) are in disarray, following up on issues surrounding Eli Manning and the offense by trading away two investments in the defense: tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison and cornerback Eli Apple. Still, despite throwing in the towel on the season, the G-Men can’t be viewed as pushovers by Washington, a slight favorite. Not given history. In Washington’s past 10 visits to face the Giants at MetLife, it is 2-8.
Did you notice? James White has started just one game, but the versatile third-down back leads the Patriots in three essential categories: receptions (45), yards from scrimmage (569) and touchdowns (7). White has stepped up for a unit that has been hard-pressed to establish a corps of wide receivers, given Julian Edelman’s early-season four-game suspension and the offseason departures of Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola; and now is challenged by injuries to tight end Rob Gronkowski and running back Sony Michel. With Michel out for Monday night at Buffalo, it’s not essential White make the “start” over Kenjon Barner. For White, it’s more about the finish. Despite largely coming off the bench, his 61 targets are 28 more than the next-highest targeted Patriot, and he’s been so reliable for TB12 in the red zone.
Stat’s the fact: Vikings receiver Adam Thielen’s rags-to-riches impact on the NFL has more milestones in sight as the Saints return on Sunday night to the site of the “Minneapolis Miracle.” The undrafted Thielen, who leads the NFL with 67 catches and 822 receiving yards, can surpass Charley Hennigan’s 1961 NFL record with his eighth consecutive 100-yard game to start a season. Hitting eight in a row would also match the single-season record set by Megatron, aka Calvin Johnson, in 2012.