The Top Week 9 NFL Storylines: Justin Fields, Matthew Judon and Malik Willis
Plus, where will star WR Odell Beckham Jr. sign once he's cleared to return?
With the final whistle blown on the ninth week of Monday Night Football, the NFL’s regular season has officially crossed the halfway point. While we can’t get to everything — like Travis Kelce’s favorite BBQ spots in Kansas City — here are four of the top Week 9 NFL storylines and whether we’re buying or selling on ’em. (ICYMI, here’s what went down last week along with a clip of Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins celebrating on the team plane after the Vikings won in Washington to move to 7-1 on the season.)
Buy: Justin Fields may finally have found his footing
Selected No. 11 overall by the Bears in last April’s draft, quarterback Justin Fields had a disappointing rookie season and did not get off to a good start this season as Chicago’s coaching staff kept the training wheels on and limited him to fewer than 20 passing attempts in each of the first three games of the season.
Following a two-interception game against the putrid Houston Texans in Week 3, the “bust” label was circling for the 23-year-old as other members of his quarterback draft class appeared to have passed him by. Now, following a Week 9 performance that saw dual-threat Fields dominate as both a rusher and a passer in a tough loss to the Dolphins, it looks as if the former Ohio State QB has surged to the head of his class.
Though it came in defeat, Fields was masterful against Miami as he set a new NFL record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 178, surpassing the previous high set by former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick (173) in 2002. As good as he was on the ground, Fields was equally as deadly through the air as he completed 17 of 28 passes for 123 yards with three touchdowns to finish with the third-highest passer rating of his career (106.7). Fields also added a rushing touchdown for good measure.
Since Chicago’s staff loosened the restrictions on the second-year player against the Patriots on Monday Night Football two weeks ago, Fields has completed 65% of his passes while throwing for 452 yards and just one interception. He has also rushed for 320 yards and three touchdowns while posting a passer rating of 103.9. If Fields can keep it up, the Bears have found their franchise quarterback — after literally decades of searching. Outside of the Jacksonville Jaguars with Trevor Lawrence, that’s not something any of the rest of the teams, including the Patriots (Mac Jones), 49ers (Trey Lance) or Jets (Zach Wilson), that took a quarterback last year can claim.
“I think it’s special,” Chicago coach Matt Eberflus said Sunday. “I think we are building our football team. And the centerpiece of that is the quarterback. That’s the way it is in the NFL. Talk about toughness and grit and the ability to persevere through a lot of different things…The last three games he’s really taken off. And we are excited about that as a group and we are excited about that for the Chicago Bears and the franchise.”
Sell: Matthew Judon will set the new sack record
One of six different Patriots players who were credited for being in on a sack Sunday as New England recorded nine total sacks and 12 QB hits against Indianapolis quarterback Sam Ehlinger during a beatdown of the Colts, Matthew Judon solidified his title as the NFL’s sack leader with 11.5 on the season, while no one else has more than 8.5.
Now just one sack shy of matching his total from last year with eight games left to play in the regular season, Judon is only seven sacks away from matching Andre Tippett’s single-season record for the Patriots (18.5) and is pacing to match the NFL’s single-season record of 22.5, which is shared by Michael Strahan and T.J. Watt.
But he won’t.
Last season, Judon got off to a similarly hot start for the Patriots and had nine sacks through New England’s first nine games. Then, possibly due to his conditioning or a change in the way opposing offenses game-planned for him, Judon faded down the stretch and notched just 3.5 sacks over the final eight games of last season. That stretch included a sack-less game against the Dolphins and two against the Bills, a situation that could potentially repeat itself as the Patriots have two games against Buffalo and one against Miami remaining on the schedule.
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“My teammates go out there, put me in great situations to execute,” Judon said on Sunday. “My coaches call good calls. I’m just willing to do whatever I need to do for our defense to have success. Whatever that is, however it looks and however I need to play, I’m willing to do it. Today it was just one of those games.”
Don’t expect Judon to catch Strahan and T.J. Watt.
Sell: Malik Willis is a viable starting QB for the Titans
Facing the difficult task of taking on Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football at Arrowhead Stadium, rookie quarterback Malik Willis did his best to fill in for injured starter Ryan Tannehill. Unfortunately for Willis, what he was able to accomplish in his second career start wasn’t enough for the Titans to get a win as Tennessee’s offense sputtered and stalled in the second half of Sunday night’s overtime loss to the Chiefs.
While it’s tough to put the blame on Willis, who finished 5-for-16 passing for 80 yards and rushed eight times for 40 yards, the Titans (5-3) are going to be in deep trouble if they continue to rely on him against quality opponents like the Chiefs (6-2) as he is clearly not ready for primetime.
The Titans, who have the Denver Broncos on tap for Week 10 and may be able to get by with Willis for one more week if Tannehill is unable to return thanks to the dominance of star running back Derrick Henry, were terrible on offense with the game in the balance and were basically unable to move the ball against a suspect Kansas City defense.
Realizing that Willis was not really a threat to throw the ball down the field, the Chiefs were able to load up to stop Henry and held him to 23 rushing yards on eight carries over the course of the second half and overtime after allowing King Henry rushed for 92 yards and two touchdowns in the game’s first two quarters. Thanks in large part to Willis, who was 2-of-9 for minus-2 yards through the air down the stretch, the Titans had 38 yards of total offense and one first down over the final 30 minutes of regulation in a game they had a real chance to win.
Equally ineffective in his first start, when he accounted for 67 total yards on 15 touches with a turnover against the horrible Houston Texans, Willis looked completely overwhelmed in overtime as he took two sacks while trying to make plays with his feet as the Titans went four-and-out to end the game with a whimper.
“I miss throws sometimes. I can’t be mad if someone doesn’t make a play. We’re not perfect. We’re human beings,” Willis said. “We all make plays and we all miss plays. It’s just the way the game goes. I can’t be mad at them. We’re one team. If I do that, it’s more than disrespectful. It’s just arrogant because I make mistakes as well.”
The Titans will be making one if they stick with Willis as he is simply not an NFL-caliber QB at this time.
Sell: Odell Beckham Jr. is going back to the Rams
Out since tearing his ACL in the Super Bowl after snagging two receptions on three targets for 53 yards and one touchdown while helping the Los Angeles Rams defeat the Cincinnati Bengals, Odell Beckham Jr. is expected to be fully cleared by the end of this week and is free to sign with a team of his choosing.
Beckham, who just turned 30, has previously said he wants to sign with a contender, and reports over the weekend linked him to teams including the Bills, 49ers, Bucs and Cowboys. The Rams, who have held a space in their locker room open for Beckham all season, were also mentioned as one of the teams that will be in contention for the three-time Pro Bowler’s services. But after Sunday’s performance, it’s probably time to take the Rams out of the running as the defending Super Bowl champs do not appear to be in any danger of possibly defending their title in February.
Playing on the road in Tampa Bay in a matchup of the past two NFL champions, the Rams allowed 45-year-old Tom Brady to march down the field with 44 seconds left and hit rookie Cade Otton with a 1-yard touchdown pass to give the home team a sloppy 16-13 victory that may have saved the season for the Bucs (4-5) and doomed Los Angeles (3-5) to a mediocre campaign. The victory for Brady, which came after his NFL-record 55th comeback, was his first in four tries against LA since joining the Bucs two seasons ago.
The Rams, who scored on a 69-yard reception by Cooper Kupp and are almost entirely reliant on the 29-year-old receiver on offense even though he is playing on a sore ankle, could badly use a pass-catcher like Beckham on the roster as their offense ranks near the bottom of the league despite having Matthew Stafford at quarterback and offensive guru Sean McVay on the sideline. The problem for the Rams is that Beckham will look elsewhere if he truly wants to contend in what is shaping up to be a wide-open NFC.
Sunday’s loss was the seventh time in eight games this season the Rams have been held to 24 points or fewer and the fifth time they couldn’t even score at least 15 points. A mess on the offensive line with no running game to speak of, the Rams have been outscored 71-10 in the fourth quarter in 2022 and have an NFL-worst -61 point differential in the final frame. It may get better for the Rams, but Beckham would have a much better shot at contending for another ring if he goes to a team like the Cowboys, 49ers or maybe even the Buccaneers.
“I don’t necessarily think that it’s the panic button, but changes have to be made, adjustments have to be made, we can’t continue to go on like this,” McVay said after Sunday’s loss. “We’re going to stay connected throughout this but we do have to be able to look inward and figure out what are some of the solutions, changes, adjustments, different things that we have to do to be able to get different results and different production from our offense.”
Don’t expect Beckham to be a part of it.
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