1. Most likely to be analyzed ad nauseum on ESPN
They may be a combined 17-1, but no two teams will be questioned as much this week as the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs.
The two teams escaped Week 9 with wins, but the key word there is "escaped." Seattle was down 21-0 at one point to the winless Buccaneers at home; the Chiefs needed their defense to save the day against undrafted rookie free-agent quarterback Jeff Tuel in Buffalo. It was a concerning performance for both squads, raising questions of whether these division leaders have what it takes to advance deep into the postseason.
It was a bizarrely sloppy effort from Seattle, which turned the ball over twice in the red zone, gave up 150-plus yards rushing to a rookie running back, and needed overtime to squeak past a team that has won one game in its last 14 contests. And that's coming off the heels of the Seahawks' narrow win over St. Louis in Week 8 — where Seattle needed a goal-line stand against career backup quarterback Kellen Clemens to seal the game — and less-than-ideal performances in Weeks 5 and 6 against Indianapolis and Tennessee, respectively.
Kansas City's win over the Bills was practically a repeat of Week 8's win over Cleveland: Good defense, timely turnovers, and inefficient offense. Once again, the Chiefs were unable to create distance despite facing a mediocre offense, as Alex Smith struggled to put together drives. Smith finished 19-of-29 for 124 yards, with the Chiefs' longest drive of the day going just 42 yards. Kansas City turned the ball over only once and protected Smith well, surrendering just two sacks. But the offensive production has been hit or miss; in the last five weeks, the Chiefs are averaging only 17 points and 274 yards per game, well under the NFL average of 23.1 and 348.8 through Week 8.
As it stands now, at 9-0 and 8-1, respectively, a lot more would have to go wrong for the Chiefs and Seahawks to miss the playoffs, and there are plenty of weeks to improve offensively. At least, fans in Kansas City and Seattle have to hope that's the case.
2. Carolina goes from frisky to [insert cat pun here]
When the Panthers came out of Week 5 at 1-3, it was easy to write them off. They had an unimaginative head coach, a mediocre defense, and not enough on offense to complement a quarterback in Cam Newton who seemed to be going backwards. But what a difference a month can make. After a 34-10 pummeling of Atlanta on Sunday, Carolina is now 5-3, just one game back of New Orleans in the NFC South and looking like a legitimate contender.
It's been an across-the-board turnaround for the Panthers during their four-game winning streak. Newton, whose completion percentage was a mere 57 percent in Carolina's first four games, has connected on 81 of his 102 pass attempts since, a sterling 79 percent rate. His offensive line, which surrendered 15 sacks through Week 5, has allowed only eight since. On that win streak, the Panthers have committed just two turnovers, both in Sunday's game.
But the biggest change for the Panthers has been for the man coaching the team. Ron Rivera, ridiculed last year for being as conservative as can be in playcalling, has opened up the Panthers' offense. His most drastic decision: Regularly trying to convert short fourth downs. In Carolina's last six games, the Panthers have faced 15 fourth downs with five or fewer yards required to pick up the first down. They've gone for it five times and converted four of them, three of them for touchdowns, and the only miss was a dropped pass against Minnesota. Against Atlanta, Rivera faced 4th-and-1 at the Atlanta 14 in a 7-3 game but decided to go for it. The result: Cam Newton hitting a wide-open Greg Olson for a 14-yard touchdown to widen the gap considerably.
There's been a large debate in the NFL's statistics community over the value of going for it on fourth down, particularly in short yardage situations or on the opponent's side of the field. The raw numbers would suggest that coaches should, in fact, try to pick up the first down: Of the 240 fourth-down conversion attempts in 2012, 55 percent of them resulted in a first down. That number shot up to 72 percent last season on 4th-and-1, and 70 percent when it's 4th-and-1 inside the opponent's 50-yard-line. Through Week 8 of the 2013 season, teams had gone 95-of-208 on fourth downs, a 46 percent conversion rate. And that's without separating out long fourth-down attempts by losing teams. The math is clear: Teams facing fourth-and-short situations would be better served going for it than punting or, situation depending, attempting a field goal.
That's particularly true for Rivera's Panthers, who boast arguably the strongest and most mobile quarterback in the NFL in Newton. His ability to pick up yards on the ground gives Rivera an advantage in going for fourth downs, and even when the Panthers don't go with a designed run play for Newton, the threat of his legs opens up the field, as it did for Olsen on Carolina's touchdown in Week 9.
So add it all together: A more efficient Newton, a sturdier offensive line, better ball protection, and more inventive offensive calls, and you have a team now in the thick of the NFC playoff hunt. Granted, Carolina's last four wins have come against three of the league's worst teams and a Falcons squad that might as well put up a "Closed for business" sign on its offense. Carolina's next three games will be a better test: The 49ers, Patriots, and Dolphins. Plus, there are still two games left against NFC South leader New Orleans. But you have to feel better about Carolina's chances of actually doing something with their season than you did after Week 5.
3. Trouble in the AFC North
Well, trouble at least for the traditional AFC North powers. The defending Super Bowl champion Ravens now sit at 3-5 after falling to Cleveland. The Steelers are in even worse shape: After getting blown out by the Patriots, 55-31, they are 2-6 and facing a completely lost season.
It's easy to see how Pittsburgh ended up where it is: An injury-ravaged offensive line and a defense that's aged in dog years. Against New England, the Steelers' offensive linemen could only sit and watch as the Patriots' depleted defense blew past them time and again to put pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, sacking him five times. The defense, meanwhile, gave up a franchise-record 55 points and an amazing 610 yards of total offense to go with four touchdowns and no interceptions from Tom Brady. An 0-4 start put Pittsburgh in a huge hole; at this point, it would take a borderline miracle for them to get into the playoffs.
Baltimore is in a slightly less desperate position, but the offense seems ill-positioned to get them back on track. In the offseason, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome rewarded Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco with a $120.6 million max contract. Flacco has rewarded him with nine interceptions through eight games. Worse is what's happened to Ray Rice. Baltimore's franchise back churned out a puny 17 yards on 11 carries, and is now sitting at 2.77 yards per carry, the worst mark of his career by almost two yards. With top tight end Dennis Pitta sidelined due to a hip injury, Flacco has few options on offense to help him out.
Pittsburgh's season is more or less done. But Baltimore faces a make-or-break situation in Week 10. The Ravens trail the Bengals by two-and-a-half games in the AFC North, and their Week 10 matchup features … yep, Cincinnati. Funny how that works out. A loss there all but eliminates Baltimore from division consideration, and with the tight state of the AFC wild card, it could be a death blow to its playoff hopes. Either Kansas City or Denver will likely have the first AFC wild-card slot locked up. That would leave the Ravens competing with the Jets, Dolphins, Browns, Titans, and Chargers for one playoff spot. Not exactly where the world champions expected to find themselves at the start of the season.
4. Sometimes you get what you need
A couple of days ahead of Philadelphia's Week 9 tilt with Oakland, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie told reporters what was plainly obvious to anyone who'd watched his team play recently: The Eagles desperately needed a top-flight quarterback.
"We need someone to step up, whether it's an existing young quarterback or somebody we go out and acquire," Lurie told CSNPhilly.com. "We know … quarterback is the ultimate position and the most important difference maker."
That's been the case for Philly all season. With a healthy and effective quarterback running the show, Chip Kelly's offense has been a lethal attack. But when forced to start an injured Michael Vick or a wholly unprepared Matt Barkley, things have ground to a halt almost instantly.
Enter Nick Foles. The backup quarterback entering the season, Foles managed decent albeit not-particularly-impressive numbers as the Eagles' starter for six games in 2012 when Vick was hurt. Foles again stepped in for a hurt Vick this season, only to suffer a concussion during a brutal start against Dallas. With Vick still ailing and Barkley showing himself completely unable to do anything competently, Foles had a chance to show Lurie that his franchise quarterback was right there on the roster.
His effort against Oakland will certainly help. In just three-and-a-half quarters against the Raiders, Foles tied an NFL record for touchdown passes with seven and lit up Oakland's defense to the tune of 406 yards and 49 points. The record-setting day comes with a caveat — the Raiders are one of the NFL's worst units at stopping the pass — but Foles' performance earned him some rope in the competition for Philadelphia's quarterback of the future.
Foles certainly has the upper hand on the rest of Philly's options. Vick, who is sidelined indefinitely with a hamstring injury, is set to be a free agent after the season. Barkley has shown no reason to trust him as a starter. There will be a bevy of attractive options in the 2014 NFL Draft, including Kelly's former quarterback at Oregon, Marcus Mariota. But at 4-5, the Eagles find themselves unexpectedly in the NFC East playoff chase, and a record above 8-8 likely puts them out of the top tier of college quarterbacks.
So for Foles, the best thing he can do for his future is win. If he can pull that off, Lurie may not end up doing any outside searching at all.
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