Week 9 of the NFL season marks the halfway point for every team in the league, as every team has now played at least eight games in 2015. It’s, historically and presently, one of the biggest weekends of the season — one that sets the tone for the stretch run toward the postseason and, on the other hand, determines the teams that should probably start looking toward next season.
It’s also a weekend that can completely change what we thought we knew about the layout of the league’s best and worst teams. Whether it be because of injuries or surprising upsets, Week 9 once again proved to teach the world a lot about what to expect from the remainder of the campaign.
With all that said, here are out five biggest takeaways from the weekend’s action.
5. The Falcons aren’t that good
What has happened to the previously rolling Atlanta Falcons? After winning their first five games of the year, Atlanta has stumbled in their last 4 games to a 1-3 mark against some of the worst teams in the league. Week 9 was really the icing on the Falcons’ cake made of mediocrity, losing to the San Francisco 49ers and Blaine Gabbert.
In years past, when Atlanta was struggling it was thanks to an inept defense despite having a productive offense. Recently, it’s been exactly the opposite. During their 1-3 skid, the Falcons have only been averaging 16.8 points per game. This is due to several factors, starting with Devonta Freeman‘s production dipping after starting the season on fire. Further, and most importantly, the team is struggling mightily in the red zone and is having a tough time maintaining drives, settling for field goals instead of touchdowns.
In reality, the Falcons weren’t as good as their previously 5-0 record may have indicated. They have several inconsistencies, rely on Julio Jones far too much in the passing game, and are still learning how to win close games under new head coach Dan Quinn. Atlanta is probably still a playoff team, but saying they are more than that at this point is reaching for something that simply isn’t there.
4. Andrew Luck is still a great QB
It’s been a long season for the Indianapolis Colts. A Super Bowl favorite coming into the season has turned into a team that looks like it can’t get out of its own way. Andrew Luck has been a big part of the problem. That was before his performance on Sunday, however.
With the unbeaten Denver Broncos and former Colts’ great Peyton Manning coming into town, the 3-5 Colts needed a win badly. Luck delivered with what was easily his best performance of the season. The 4th year pro threw for 252 yards and 2 touchdowns, while keeping several drives alive with his arm and his legs (he also amassed 34 yards on the ground). Even better, he committed zero turnovers, something that had really hurt the team in previous games. It was the type of clutch performance we’ve become accustomed to seeing from the young QB.
Luck’s play against Denver was made even more impressive by the fact that the Broncos boast one of the best defenses in all of football. If it was in doubt (which it may have been) prior to this weekend, Luck proved he is still a great quarterback and is set up for a lengthy and successful NFL career. Week 9’s win for him and his team should propel Indianapolis in the second half of the year.
3. The Bills are ready to make a run
If only the Buffalo Bills could play the Miami Dolphins every week. In two meetings against their AFC East rivals this season, Buffalo outscored Miami by a score of 74 to 31. In their latest contest this past weekend, Buffalo showcased just how talented their offense is when everyone is healthy. Can that new found health lead the 4-4 Bills on a second half surge?
With how much of an improvement Tyrod Taylor is over EJ Manuel is, that could be the case. Taylor simply doesn’t commit turnovers and makes timely plays with his legs and his arm. Further, LeSean McCoy finally appears to be in a groove in Buffalo, rushing for 112 yards and a score on Sunday. Coupled with Karlos Williams in the backfield, Buffalo now has a pair of healthy dynamic runners to lean on. Out of everything that went well for the Bills in Week 9, they have to be most ecstatic about the play of Sammy Watkins, who went for 168 yards and a touchdown. Oh, and the defense played better this past weekend as well.
Buffalo has been an up and down team all season long, but their talent is more than capable of propelling them into the wild card picture down the stretch. A huge showdown with the New York Jets looms in Week 10 before a rematch with the New England Patriots. That stretch will ultimately determine how good this team truly is.
2. Sam Bradford can lead the Eagles to the playoffs
Maybe Week 9 was finally the turning point for the Philadelphia Eagles. Maybe getting past the Dallas Cowboys was what the team needed to propel themselves into true NFC East contention. Maybe, just maybe. What is no longer in question after Week 9 is that Sam Bradford is the man that can lead the Eagles to where they want to be.
Bradford had his best performance as an Eagle against Dallas on Sunday night, completing nearly 70% of his passes for 295 yards and no interceptions (a very rare occurrence this season). Bradford also connected with Jordan Matthews in overtime for the game winning touchdown, putting the Eagles record even at 4-4, just one game behind the New York Giants in the division.
With his great play in Week 9, Bradford told the world that he is ready to showcase his talent and be the leader of this playoff ready team. Philly’s defense has been solid, creating turnovers and causing havoc. Their offense, however, had been holding them back with Bradford near the top of their long list of issues. Clearly, if Bradford plays like he did against the Cowboys, this team is going to be tough to beat. As a bonus, DeMarco Murray also got it going this weekend. Look out for the Eagles.
1. The Panthers are the class of the NFC
For weeks, it feels like everyone has been saying the Carolina Panthers are going to lose. First, the Seattle Seahawks were supposed to knock them off. Then it was the Eagles and the Colts. Then this past weekend, it was the apparent class of the NFC in the Green Bay Packers. In each contest, the Panthers proved their doubters woefully wrong. Now, the question becomes not when this team will lose, but if?
Regardless of whether or not Carolina loses a game (they probably will), it is clear that this team is the class of the NFC. Cam Newton is playing great (while not always pretty) football and is the perfect QB for the personality of the Panthers. That defense is physical and mean, making clutch plays to clinch games on a week in and week out basis.
Nobody expected it coming into the season, but with a leg up (a big one) in the race for home-field advantage in the playoffs, it’s time to realize that the Panthers are the team to beat in the NFC.