What we learned in NFL Week 8: A.J. Brown making history; the Falcons’ QB quandary

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By Samantha Rose

What have we learned thus far in Week 7? FOX Sports’ staff of NFL writers joined forces to deliver insight and analysis from around the league. 

In this weekly story, we’ll tell you what we noticed, what we heard and what to keep an eye on next.

A.J. Brown’s historic production merits inclusion in packed MVP race

Miami’s Tyreek Hill is having a season for the ages — so impressive that there’s some talk he could become the first receiver in NFL history to be named the league’s MVP.

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But if Hill really is in the MVP conversation, doesn’t Philadelphia’s A.J. Brown have to be included, too?

If the 26-year-old keeps playing like he is, it’s soon going to be hard to keep him out of it. On Sunday in Washington, he caught eight passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns in the Eagles’ 38-31 win over the Commanders. It was his seventh straight game with at least 125 yards receiving, making him the first receiver in NFL history to do that.

He now has 60 catches for 939 yards and five touchdowns on the season. Hill, who had 8-112-1 in the Dolphins’ 31-17 win over the Patriots, now has 61 catches for 1,014 yards and eight touchdowns for the year. That puts them in a close race with nine games each remaining. But Brown might have momentum on his side because of his special connection with his close friend and quarterback Jalen Hurts.

“I mean he’s doing really impressive things, you know?” Hurts said. “He’s playing a very high level and consistent. And as a friend, I know what his mentality is and where it’s coming from. It’s no surprise.”

Jalen Hurts, Eagles edge out Sam Howell, Commanders

Jalen Hurts, Eagles edge out Sam Howell, Commanders

It would be surprising if Brown or Hill or any receiver ended up winning the MVP since no receiver has won it since the Associated Press started handing it out in 1957. A quarterback has won it in each of the past 10 seasons. The last non-QB to win it was Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2012.

That means the race between Hill and Brown is more likely for the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year Award, not the Most Valuable Player. But if Brown keeps going at the pace he’s going at, MVP voters may find him hard to ignore. —Ralph Vacchiano

A QB change in Atlanta — but wait, there’s more

One small consolation for Falcons fans in a disappointing 28-23 loss to the Titans on Sunday was the way a struggling Atlanta offense found a spark in the second half with backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke. 

In the first half with starter Desmond Ridder, the Falcons managed only three points and 89 yards of total offense, their only points in seven possessions coming off a short field after a turnover.

In Heinicke’s first action with the Falcons, the offense came alive, scoring on four of six possessions, piling up 20 points and 253 yards — and nearly rallying from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit.

But Falcons coach Arthur Smith was adamant after the game that Ridder wasn’t benched for anything performance-related, but as a precaution after he was evaluated for a potential concussion — and was almost immediately cleared to return to the game.

Smith was noncommittal about whether Ridder is still the starter, saying it was a medical decision Sunday and would be moving forward.

“I mean, those are obvious questions you’ve got to ask,” Smith said. “We just finished this game. We’ve got a lot of confidence in Des. We didn’t take him out for performance issues. That’s why Taylor is here, to be able to come in as a backup and give us a shot to win.”

Weirder still, Ridder said he didn’t feel off and couldn’t point to a play that led to him being evaluated for a concussion, saying the coaches just felt he was off.

“These coaches know what it’s like, sort of like parents, because we’re with them so much and so much time, and they just felt I was a little off,” he explained.

Pressed if there could be more than a medical decision, Smith sidestepped the issue. Ridder lost a fumble on a sack, giving him 12 turnovers this season and seven in the past three games.

“Obviously, we’ve got a lot of confidence in him as our starter,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to go back. You can ask me 100 times. You can ask me 500 more. We just lost a game. We’ve got a lot we’ve got to figure out tomorrow and the next day.”

Last year, the Falcons stuck with starter Marcus Mariota way too long — he lost four of his last five starts, totaling five touchdowns and not going over 200 passing yards in any of the five. Could Smith be making the same mistake again this season? —Greg Auman

Packers’ ineptitude is mounting

Packers fans are very uncomfortable right now. They’re experiencing something they haven’t gone through in at least 15 years: a young team with a young quarterback making a lot of mistakes. 

Everything we wrote about last week rings true. It’s still too small of a sample size to draw any sweeping conclusions about quarterback Jordan Love and an offense riddled with first- and second-year players. It’s too soon to draw conclusions about head coach Matt LaFleur as he gets used to his new quarterback and offense, in general. This is an offense adapting to a lack of input from a future Hall of Famer. 

But it doesn’t look good so far. Sunday’s loss to the Vikings was just the latest iteration of “what went wrong this week?” for Green Bay. It’d be easier, or at least shorter, to write out what went right, quite honestly. The issues are myriad and seem to be ever-changing. Running back Aaron Jones was finally back in the lineup but only got 10 total touches. Love’s completion rate was again below 60%. The Packers scored just three points in the first half, bringing their season total up to 29 in the first two quarters. 

Green Bay also had 11 penalties for 99 yards, which LaFleur pointed to after the game as a big reason why the team couldn’t get anything going. It’s yet another mark of an inexperienced team and it’s probably not going to change any time soon. These are the growing pains the Packers will have to endure and just hope that they can see enough out of Love to know whether he’s truly the future in Green Bay before the season’s end. —Carmen Vitali 

Kirk Cousins records two TDs and 274 yards in Vikings win vs. Packers before leaving with an injury

Kirk Cousins records two TDs and 274 yards in Vikings win vs. Packers before leaving with an injury

Jordan Addison excelling in expanded role 

Coming into Week 8, the Vikings’ 2023 first-round pick was tied for the second-most receiving touchdowns in the league with six. Not among rookie receivers; across the entire league. Jordan Addison proceeded to catch yet another touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins in Sunday’s win over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau and finished with six other catches for a total of 82 yards. He has 36 receptions for 482 yards, but what’s most impressive is how quickly quarterback Kirk Cousins and the rest of the Vikings’ offense trusted Addison to become an integral part of the offense.

This became especially evident when reigning Offensive Player of the Year Justin Jefferson was put on IR. The team needed someone to step up and fill Jefferson’s massive role. At the time, even head coach Kevin O’Connell publicly said veterans like K.J. Osborn and T.J. Hockenson would be leaned on. But in actuality, the Vikings fed the ball more to Addison. He had 10 targets in the Vikings’ surprising win over the San Francisco 49ers last Monday night. 

Addison was then rewarded with eight more in Green Bay before Cousins sustained an Achilles injury. How much more quality work Addison will get this season is a huge question mark with Minnesota’s uncertainty under center, but they should be already sold. Addison can be every bit the complement to Jefferson the Vikings want him to be with the amount of alignments and routes Addison has already shown he can excel at. —Vitali

Will Levis shows promise in his NFL debut

The Tennessee Titans might have found their franchise quarterback in their second-round pick out of Kentucky. Will Levis put on an impressive exhibition of playmaking in a 28-23 win over the Atlanta Falcons. The rookie completed 19-of-29 passes for 238 yards with four touchdowns and no turnovers. The efficient performance from the first-time starter keyed an offensive effort that featured a balanced attack bolstered by a vertical passing game.

Levis unleashed deep balls to DeAndre Hopkins on two of his four touchdowns, showcasing his superior arm strength. In addition, he peppered the Falcons’ defense with an assortment of bootlegs and movement-based passes that enabled him to find easy completions on high-percentage passes. 

With the Titans’ passing game perfectly meshing with the run concepts featured for Derrick Henry, the coaching staff set the rookie up for success with a strong game plan that accentuated his strengths. If the Titans can encourage their young QB1 to take check-downs and dump-offs when the coverage blankets his primary targets, the offense will continue to improve while the team chalks up a few more wins behind their quarterback of the future. —Bucky Brooks

Is Titans’ Will Levis the real deal?

Is Titans' Will Levis the real deal?

“I really do think we have something here”: Howell emerging as a player, leader

The Washington Commanders’ 38-31 loss to the Eagles on Sunday could have huge implications for their future. It’s possible now that they’re 3-5, they might be sellers between now and the trading deadline at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday. And if that happens, there’s a chance the season could fall apart and eventually cost Ron Rivera his job.

But amid all that dark uncertainty, there was a burst of bright lights on Sunday, too. Second-year quarterback Sam Howell had a spectacular day, completing 39 of 52 passes for 397 yards and four touchdowns, albeit with one killer interception. Progression is not linear, but he seems to be improving, showing the Commanders they might have finally found their franchise quarterback.

Said Rivera: “I really do think we’ve got something here with this guy.”

It wasn’t just his play that had the Commanders feeling that way. The 23-year-old Howell sensed the Commanders’ frustration after their ugly 14-7 loss to the Giants the previous week. He knew that veteran defensive tackle Jonathan Allen went on a rant after that game. And new co-owner Magic Johnson voiced his frustrations, too.

So Howell did what a leader is supposed to do. He gathered his team on Wednesday morning before the regularly scheduled team meeting and addressed all the frustrations head-on.

“Yeah, I just thought after last week’s game it was a crucial point in our season,” Howell said after the game on Sunday. “It’s up to us to dictate where we’re going to go moving forward. I just tried to tell everybody that we’re right there and everything we want to accomplish is still in front of us. We can still win enough games to make the playoffs. We still have nine games left, and a lot can happen in nine games, so why can’t we win nine games in a row?

“[I was] just trying to tell people those things and trying to keep people positive. I believe in this team, and I believe in the men we have in that room.”

All quarterbacks have to step up and be leaders at some point, though it’s not easy for someone that young, heading into only his ninth career start. But Howell isn’t just showing maturity on the field, he’s showing it in the locker room as well.

And each week it looks more and more like Rivera is right: In Howell, it sure seems like the Commanders have something. —Vacchiano 

Panthers QB Bryce Young makes strides in OC Thomas Brown’s play-calling debut

In the NFL play-calling debut for Panthers offensive coordinator Thomas Brown, we saw the best version of No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young to this point: a 70.9% completion rate (22-of-31) for 235 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions and a 103.6 passer rating.

Carolina scored only 15 points in the gritty win over Houston — its first victory of the season — but the offense seemed to integrate more of the off-schedule throws and playmaking opportunities that played a key role in Young’s success at Alabama. He got out of the pocket to create with his legs (a season-high four runs for 11 yards, including a seven-yarder that helped set up Eddy Pineiro’s game-winning field goal) and to throw. In the second quarter, he had his best play of the season — spinning out of a would-be sack, rolling to his left and firing an off-balance, 31-yard pass down the sideline to wide receiver Adam Thielen that put the Panthers in scoring position.

Young threw the ball in an average of 2.56 seconds, according to Next Gen Stats — his second-fastest rate of the season, speaking to his decisiveness. Coach Frank Reich also acknowledged how play-action enabled the Panthers to push the ball downfield. Young completed 3 of 4 passes for 81 yards, 20.3 yards per attempt and a terrific 116.7 passer rating on play-action, per NGS. Across all passes, Young’s 7.6 yards per attempt marked a season high.

Reich said Brown, who was an assistant with the Rams the previous three seasons, called a “great game.”

“It was his game and I resisted any temptation to get involved,” Reich said. “We talked on the sideline a couple times about a few things, but I thought he did a fantastic job and I thought he did a fantastic job getting the guys ready during the week as well.”

Robert Smith and Brandon Gaudin break down C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young’s days in Texans vs. Panthers

Robert Smith and Brandon Gaudin break down C.J. Stroud and Bryce Young's days in Texans vs. Panthers

Young echoed Reich’s sentiment of Brown.

“For that being his first game calling plays, great play calling,” Young said. “Put us in great positions. We had had some stuff, some circumstances early, two backed up drives. As a play-caller, especially first time, those are not easy to be thrust in that position. … Throughout that, [he was] super even keel, calm. He’s himself and cares a lot and is always fired up, but he did a great job just being that leader for us.” —Ben Arthur 

Jaguars embracing a gritty approach while becoming an AFC heavyweight

It is hard to adjust preseason expectations to regular-season realities as a coach, but Doug Pederson and his staff have transformed the Jacksonville Jaguars into a rugged, blue-collar squad built on physicality, toughness, and tenacity. The old-school approach is a drastic departure from the aerial circus and gadgetry expected to spark a team built to play fast-break football with Trevor Lawrence throwing the ball to a spectacular collection of pass catchers on the perimeter. 

After stumbling out of the gate to a 1-2 start, the Jaguars altered their approach to support an opportunistic defense that specialized in producing turnovers. The drastic shift required the Jaguars to abandon some of their high-risk tactics in favor of a more conservative approach that placed a greater emphasis on complementary football, with the offense, defense, and special teams working together to squeak out wins.

Since Week 4, the Jaguars have reeled off five straight wins, with the defense’s physicality and edgy demeanor overpowering opponents. The Jaguars have outworked and outhit each of their opponents throughout the streak, and their physicality stands out when evaluating the game tape.

Perhaps the Jaguars have always strapped it up and played the game with a relentless effort from snap to whistle, but the team’s recent success bullying their opponents will only reinforce their commitment to playing an old-school brand of football that prioritizes physicality over everything.  —Brooks

Is it possible that Zach Wilson is growing up?

I don’t want to lavish undue praise on Zach Wilson. He and the New York Jets labored to beat the New York Giants, who are a pesky but largely incompetent football team. But Wilson is getting better at getting out of his team’s way, he is stepping up as a leader and he is occasionally converting opportunities.

I know, I know — that’s tepid as compliments go. But Wilson’s expected points added were minus-16.8 with minus-.37 EPA per play. That’s right, he created a 17-point spread between what the Jets scored and what they should have scored. That’s not a sign of good quarterback play. It’s just the opposite. His completion percentage (51.5%) was 15.5% lower than expected, per RBSDM.com. Worst of all, he took a sack on fourth down with 1:33 left in the game — just mind-numbingly bad play.

But … but!!! 

Is it still possible the third-year QB is growing up? 

Even after an empirically subpar — and maybe even objectively bad — performance against the Giants, Wilson figured out how to play a part in the team’s improbable 13-10 win in overtime. And, wow, was it improbable.

After the Giants missed a field goal with 24 seconds left in regulation, Wilson was down three points with one more chance to tie or win.

“When I saw our defense got a stop, I thought: 24 seconds? No problem,” Wilson said postgame.

Without any timeouts left, Wilson played with fire on the drive, completing a pair of passes over the middle for 58 yards. He nearly didn’t get his final snap spiked, but managed to preserve one second, which was all kicker Greg Zuerlein needed. Zuerlein nailed a 35-yard field goal, which set up overtime.

And that’s when Wilson engineered another scoring drive.

His best throw of the night might have been an incompletion. On third-and-5, Wilson was dealing with a fast-collapsing pocket. And rather than take the sack, which he’d done exasperatingly often in gotta-have-it downs, he showed situational awareness. He threw the ball in the direction of a receiver and in a place where it wouldn’t get picked off. 

If his receiver made a play, great. If not, the Jets might get a DPI. And that’s what happened. The Jets picked up 30 yards and were instantly in field-goal range to win the game. Zuerlein hit the 33-yard attempt. 

New York beat New York in New Jersey.

Zach Wilson’s Jets defeat Giants in clutch OT performance

Zach Wilson's Jets defeat Giants in clutch OT performance

Wilson led the breakdown in the locker room after the game. He was mentoring and supporting third-string center Xavier Newman during the game, with words of encouragement — even when the exchange resulted in a lost fumble, the QB’s second of the night.

“X and I had never even taken a snap together,” Wilson said. “So it was, ‘Let’s lock in and get this right.’ He asked me on the fumble, ‘Was that me or you?’ [I said,] ‘Dude, that’s me. We just haven’t practiced these. I’m out there trying to figure out where to put my hands to be comfortable for you. We just have to move on, next play. Screw it. That kind of stuff is going to happen in a game like this. Keep your head up.'”

That’s leadership. Wilson took the blame. He helped a younger player get over a mistake. And Newman ended up playing a crucial role in the game. In order to get that penultimate snap off at the end of regulation, Newman showed veteran savvy, checking with the umpire before putting the ball down, which accelerated the process of snapping the football. It’s the little things.

As a staunch critic of Wilson, I feel the need to note when he’s making progress. Fair is fair.

The Jets have wrestled wins away from their quarterback, who has gotten his team into more trouble than they can handle. That’s why Aaron Rodgers is in town. While Wilson might not have a future as an NFL starter, he is doing a better job of avoiding the types of mistakes that kill their chances of winning. That has been enough for the Jets (4-3) to have a winning record. —Henry McKenna

Three historic targets

Not many aspects of the Saints offense have exceeded expectations this season, but second-year receiver Rashid Shaheed certainly has — and never more so than in Sunday’s win over the Colts. 

Chris Olave and Michael Thomas get the headlines, but Shaheed is suddenly on pace for a 1,000-yard season, and he’s the only New Orleans player with more than one touchdown catch.

Shaheed had three huge plays for New Orleans on Sunday. His 58-yard touchdown catch from Derek Carr in the second quarter gave the Saints a 21-17 lead, and his 44-yard bomb set up another touchdown. Clinging to a one-score lead with three minutes to go and facing a third-and-13, the Saints put the game away with a 51-yard throw from Carr to Shaheed to set up a field goal for the final margin.

That’s 153 receiving yards on just three targets — the most receiving yards in any game with three targets or fewer since the 2000 season, when Torry Holt had three for 189 (touchdowns of 85 and 80 yards) in a Rams win against the Falcons.

Shaheed has three receiving touchdowns and also has one of just three punt-return touchdowns in the NFL this season. He now has 23 catches for 479 yards, good for a 20.8-yard average. In the past three NFL seasons, only two players have averaged 20-plus yards with at least 20 catches: DeSean Jackson in 2021 and Marquez Valdes-Scantling in 2020. —Auman

Seahawks take over NFC West in throwback uniforms

Winners of five of their past six games, the Seattle Seahawks passed the struggling San Francisco 49ers with a come-from-behind victory at Lumen Field over the Cleveland Browns.

And Seattle did it wearing throwback uniforms from its days playing in the Kingdome from 1976 to 1999.

“To celebrate the throwbacks and all of that, it was fun for us,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “It was a beautiful image throughout the stadium. It was really cool to see that.”

Down three points with just over two minutes left, the Seahawks capitalized on an interception by safety Julian Love on a deep ball from Browns quarterback P.J. Walker intended for Amari Cooper.

Quarterback Geno Smith promptly marched his offense 57 yards on five plays, ending in a 9-yard touchdown to rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba with 38 seconds left for a 24-20 victory.

Seattle’s recent surge up the standings has been led by the defense. Since the bye week, the Seahawks have held opponents to 15.7 points per contest over a three-game stretch. Seattle has 10 sacks during that time and has held opposing quarterbacks to a 73.5 passer rating.

Geno Smith, Seahawks mount comeback against PJ Walker, Browns

Geno Smith, Seahawks mount comeback against PJ Walker, Browns

Second-year pro Boye Mafe has emerged as a presence for the Seahawks coming off the edge. He finished with eight combined tackles, a sack, four quarterback hits and a fumble recovery in Seattle’s win over the weekend. Mafe has a sack in five consecutive games, tied for the second-longest streak in franchise history.

“Definitely the biggest thing for me is being comfortable when I’m on the field,” Mafe told reporters after the game. “All of sudden you hit an inside move, and then boom, you’re there at the quarterback.” —Eric D. Williams

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Bill Belichick is even less likely to sell at the trade deadline after Week 8

The New England Patriots will not go gentle into the good night. Bill Belichick won’t quit.

The Patriots are not expected to sell at the trade deadline, according to a team source. And even if Belichick wanted to scrap a few parts, the team is running out of tradeable assets. New England’s most valuable players are hurt. Edge Josh Uche, who logged 11.5 sacks last year, is dealing with toe and ankle injuries that will likely make it difficult to trade him, according to a source close to the situation. Receiver Kendrick Bourne, who was on a resurgent run after the team gave him more playing time, suffered an ACL injury on Sunday.

Who else might be on the market? Well, the Patriots could dangle QB Mac Jones. But what would that say to the locker room? He might not have the full support of the team, but it seems pretty clear that everyone knows he’s better than the other options (Bailey Zappe and Will Grier). 

If New England traded Jones to a team like the Vikings, Belichick would have to answer to his players and explain why — for the very first time — the team seems to be tanking. And I don’t think he’d want to do that for a third-round pick (at the very best).

Tight end Mike Gesicki? Maybe the Steelers would call, given they haven’t been able to replace Pat Friermuth during his IR stint. 

The team might trade JuJu Smith-Schuster. He has not expressed discontent with his role, but he didn’t play against the Miami Dolphins Sunday until the fourth quarter, when the Patriots suffered a pair of injuries (Bourne and DeVante Parker) at the receiver position. Clearly, they aren’t seeing Smith-Schuster live up to his contract, and perhaps they’d be willing to bail early if they can adjust the financials.

The last receiver I’ll mention is Tyquan Thornton, the team’s 2021 second-rounder. He was a healthy scratch on Sunday after being a complete disappointment in his first two seasons. The Patriots wouldn’t get much for Thronton, but maybe they’re OK with giving him a fresh start.

And what about offensive lineman Michael Onwenu, who has demonstrated guard and tackle versatility? I think the Patriots should try to extend him, rather than letting him go. But he’d carry substantial value on the trade market. He could someday make a Pro Bowl.

In that same vein, Belichick said he “absolutely” hopes safety Kyle Dugger stays a Patriot “for a long time” on Monday. That’s a no-fly zone, apparently, for all interested parties.

You can see that the Patriots, one of the NFL’s worst teams, lack leverage. And that’s probably why they can’t sell any of their players — not even Uche or Bourne. It’s awkward too, because the players that Belichick buys, sells, cuts or extends are a part of his vision. And we don’t know if that’ll be the organization’s vision in mid-January. —McKenna

This story was compiled by:

AFC South reporter Ben Arthur (@benyarthur)
NFC South reporter Greg Auman (@gregauman)
AFC East reporter Henry McKenna (@McKennAnalysis)
NFC West reporter Eric D. Williams (@eric_d_williams)
NFC East reporter Ralph Vacchiano (@RalphVacchiano)
NFC North reporter Carmen Vitali (@CarmieV)



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