By Danny Cox
With Week 8 in the NFL upon us, the contenders have yet to really separate themselves from the pretenders. Many teams across both the AFC and NFC still have a legitimate shot at the playoffs. But many also face serious questions. All the divisions are still in play.
On Thursday Night Football, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans are both looking to stay in striking distance of the Houston Texans in a bunched-up AFC South. Can underperforming young quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota keep their teams competitive? The New England Patriots, again leading the AFC East, head to Buffalo Sunday to try and fend off the surprising Bills. Can the Bills defense slow down Brady?
Steve Tasker, NFL On CBS analyst and former NFL wide receiver, knows a thing or two about playoff races. He broke down Thursday night’s matchup and other key games in Week 8.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tennessee Titans – Oct. 27, 8:25 p.m. ET – NFL Network
CBS Local Sports: Marcus Mariota appears to be a little more off this year than he was in his rookie season. What do you think is the biggest factor in his turnovers and just… not looking like himself?
Steve Tasker: Turnovers… no question, those are the biggest problem. One of the things about this season is that the Titans raised expectations in their own locker room. They thought they would be a much better football team and they are, but Marcus feels like he has to do more. He feels he has to make more throws. He has to make more plays.
Mariota is not taking what comes naturally to him and being a game manager. He’s forcing things this year, trying to make more happen than just what is there for him. The expectations are simply too high, and it is causing a lot of trouble for Mariota.
CBS Local Sports: On the other side of the field, Blake Bortles is struggling this season for the Jaguars, as he has just as many interceptions (9) as he does touchdowns. How much longer do you think the coaches give him before possibly turning to Chad Henne?
Tasker: I think Blake Bortles is going to be the quarterback until he can’t go anymore. I really don’t feel as if the Jaguars will make the switch. I could be wrong, but the Jaguars are going to let him work through this. He has good wide receivers, but they need more from their running game… Chris Ivory, Denard Robinson. The offensive line has to play better and protect him more.
All of these issues that are manifesting in Blake Bortles aren’t necessarily just because of him. I don’t think they are anywhere near making a quarterback change.
New England Patriots vs. Buffalo Bills – Oct. 30, 1:00 p.m. ET – CBS
CBS Local Sports: The Patriots showed on Sunday that even if Tom Brady is slowed down, other players like LeGarrette Blount step up their game. Do the Bills have enough defensive strength to stop all of the Patriots’ weapons?
Tasker: I don’t think so. Losing Aaron Williams this past week against the Dolphins really hurt the Bills. Getting Marcell Dareus back on the field will be a huge help in the run game. The problem in playing the Patriots is knowing how much to invest in stopping the run and stopping LeGarrette Blount. Putting too much focus there will allow Tom Brady to do as he pleases.
One thing you have to remember is that when the Patriots are healthy, they are going to score 27-35 points. The Bills offense has to play well enough to keep Brady on the sidelines, allow their defense to rest and beat them with complementary football. Keep Brady off the field and score a lot of touchdowns.
CBS Local Sports: Reggie Bush finally showed a little something against the Dolphins, but has he reached a point in his career where his effectiveness is coming to an end?
Tasker: Reggie Bush can still be effective, but in a limited role. He still has something to offer teams, but he’s not an every-down pack. As a third down back or on kick returns and special teams, he can still be productive. Father Time is undefeated, and as good as Reggie has been or can be at times, he can’t be all the time anymore.
Oakland Raiders vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Oct. 30, 1:00 p.m. ET – CBS
CBS Local Sports: The Oakland Raiders have looked like one of the best teams in the NFL so far this season. Aside from Derek Carr, who stands out as one of the key reasons?
Tasker: Michael Crabtree, without question. He has been a huge surprise and has been a gigantic help to Derek Carr. Crabtree has been the missing ingredient for these Raiders, and he’s played just as well as Amari Cooper on the other side of the field. Crabtree has made the tough catches, and Carr depends on him more and more as the year goes on.
When you have two legitimate threats like that at wide receiver, and Derek Carr is comfortable with both of them, it’s scary for anyone they play against.
CBS Local Sports: Tampa Bay seems to have found a groove as they have won two in a row. Has Jameis Winston proven himself, or do you feel he still has a lot more to demonstrate?
Tasker: Jameis Winston… so much has been said about him that has nothing to do with football. Those that focused on his game and his leadership saw that his guys in Tampa are rallying around him. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that he just works so hard to always get better. Winston has put in a lot of work to get better at this game, and it shows.
Yes, all of the pieces may not be in place around him as some holes remain on the roster, but he is working to make the players he has better. He’s also always working to make himself better, and that’s important.
Danny Cox has been covering the NFL for the past decade and has been watching it for two more. From injury reports to playoff races, he follows every single team and longs for the months of July to February.