USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell breaks down the NFL MVP race so far this season. USA TODAY
A quick rundown on items of interest as Week 7 rolls on in the NFL:
Who’s hot: Russell Wilson. Maybe this will be the year that the Seahawks star quarterback finally gets at least one vote for MVP. Better yet, perhaps Wilson will get most of the votes. Through six games, Wilson has emerged as the front-runner in the MVP race – Westgate Las Vegas installed him this week as a 2/1 favorite – while also proving that he can still get better. He heads into the game against Baltimore on Sunday leading the NFL with a sizzling 124.7 passer rating, yet to throw a pick this season while tossing 14 TDs. Consistency is the ticket.
He’s had a rating of 100 or better in each game, to go with his typical Houdini escape acts to create plays and the unflappable demeanor demonstrated during the big comeback at Cleveland on Sunday. And surely, there’s no buyer’s remorse in Seattle after Wilson, 30, signed a 4-year, $140 million extension last spring that made him the NFL’s highest-paid player with $35 million per year in new money. Shoot, the way he’s sparked the Seahawks to a 5-1 start, Wilson also makes the case that he’s underpaid.
Pressure’s on: Jason Garrett. Remember the last time the heat was this hot for the Cowboys coach? Go back to last November, when Dallas sank to 3-5 after an uninspiring home loss to the Titans. Then the Cowboys beat Philadelphia to ignite a five-game winning streak that led to the NFC East crown. The moral of that for rabid Cowboys Nation: They rebounded from situations that look worse than the current three-game losing streak. And here comes Philly for a prime-time showdown. Sure, Garrett’s in the final year of his contract. But if Jerry Jones didn’t dump him last November, he certainly won’t pull the plug now. But check back in December or January if this thing totally collapses.
Key matchup: Lions vs. Zebras. Matt Patricia knows. He’s no longer in New England. The second-year Detroit coach heads into another NFC North showdown against the Vikings feeling the full effects of the “Bobby Layne Curse” after multiple bogus calls cost the Leos a possible victory at Green Bay.
Add the phantom hands-to-the-face penalties against Trey Flowers on Monday night to the litany of other “C’mon, man” moments from close losses over the years: the batted ball fiasco in Seattle (2015); the DPI flag picked up in crunch time of a playoff game at Dallas (2015) despite a flagrant mugging of Brandon Pettigrew by Anthony Hitchens; the Megatron touchdown catch reversed in Chicago (2010). Why are the Lions so often victimized by horrendous officiating? This begs for an investigation … or the Ghostbusters.
Next man up: Ryan Tannehill. It was Marcus Mariota’s job to lose, as suggestions that Mike Vrabel would make a QB switch have been there since the exhibition season. Maybe the spark is coming. Tannehill, an eighth-year pro, was never threatened as the starter during his healthy years as the Dolphins’ franchise quarterback. Now he one-ups Mariota, who seems destined to challenge another quarterback elsewhere. It’s striking that the QBs taken 1-2 in 2015, Jameis Winston and Mariota, have both underwhelmed in what seemingly shape up as prove-it-or-move-it seasons. Tannehill can relate, but now he’s positioned for a second chance to blossom.
Rookie watch: Kyler Murray. The Cardinals’ emerging star has passed for 593 yards with zero picks in back-to-back victories, reflecting another layer of growth during his transition as the No. 1 pick overall. He’s protected the football well. And he’s still a dual threat, as advertised, running for 93 yards in Week 5 against the Bengals, then throwing for 340 last weekend against the Falcons.
Week 7 picks: Do Cowboys or Eagles claim first place in NFC East?
Sunday’s matchup against the Giants presents a neat subplot as Murray will be opposite the second quarterback drafted, Daniel Jones, picked 6th overall. Jones (5 TDs, 6 INTs) has had more uneven performances since replacing Eli Manning in Week 3. But he’s also had a few moments. Maybe this will be the first in yet another “NFL future” QB rivalry.
Stomach for an upset:Saints at Bears. Suggestions that Chase Daniel might be better for Chicago than injured starting quarterback Mitchell Trubisky kind of dissipated after the backup threw two ugly interceptions in the upset loss to the Raiders in London. The buzz in the Windy City this week is whether the starter can make it back from his shoulder injury. Bears coach Matt Nagy says it’s possible … perhaps as a bit of gamesmanship.
One thing’s for sure: Drew Brees won’t be back this week, leaving Teddy Bridgewater at the helm again. Brees’ backup hasn’t lost and he hasn’t made big-time blunders while the New Orleans defense has raised its game. The Saints are 3-point underdogs, having won each of Teddy B’s four starts by 7 points or less. Winning the tight games says something about their grit, but facing a Bears D that was embarrassed in London will mark Bridgewater’s toughest test yet.
If the playoffs started today … the Raiders would be in. It wasn’t too long ago that Jon Gruden was a punchline. Not now. Coach Chucky’s team heads to Green Bay with a chance to spring a third consecutive upset away from home, following the quality wins at Indianapolis and against Khalil Mack & Co. in London. At the moment, Oakland (3-2) would be the second AFC wild card team, with the win over the Colts working as a tiebreaker.
Yet with Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes battling injury issues, they are clearly in the race to contend for the AFC West crown. Four things working for Gruden’s crew: 1. Derek Carr, more comfortable in Year 2 of the offense; 2. Rookie running back Josh Jacobs; 3. Emerging tight end Darren Waller; 4. A defense revamped with speed. A potential problem looms, however, with left tackle Trent Brown, accused of domestic assault in a civil suit.
Did you notice? Buffalo’s defense has gone from good to great in the third year under D-coordinator Leslie Frazier. The Bills bring the NFL’s third-ranked unit for yards and fourth-ranked in scoring (14 points per game), which explains how a team that barely scores two touchdowns a game is 4-1. Last year, Buffalo’s D ranked second in the league.
The improvement this season, so far, is effectiveness in the red zone. Without the type of star defenders who have toiled in Orchard Park in previous years (hello, Bruce Smith, Cornelius “Biscuit” Bennett and Bryce Paup), the results are a credit to what’s been built by Frazier – who should be considered for another crack at a head coaching job when the next hiring cycle comes around.