The Top NFL Storylines of Week 8: Diontae Johnson, Will Levis and Sam Howell

Plus, Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce have to get their heads back in the game

October 31, 2023 5:40 am
Washington quarterback Sam Howell throws the ball against the Eagles.
Sam Howell was a bright spot for Washington against the Eagles.
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty

With the NFL season’s eighth installment of Monday Night Football in the books and this bye-less week’s 16 games complete, Week 8 is finished. While we can’t get to everything — like the battalion of backup quarterbacks who are taking over the NFL — here are four of the top storylines to emerge from the NFL’s eighth week of games.

Diontae Johnson’s wallet will be a bit lighter very soon

Out the majority of the season with a hamstring injury, speedy wide receiver Diontae Johnson played for the Steelers for the second straight week on Sunday, but was unable to help Pittsburgh avoid falling to 4-3 on the season thanks to a 20-10 loss to the Jaguars. Following the defeat, Johnson didn’t give Jacksonville credit for the win or rip into his own team for the loss but instead used his postgame availability to tear into the NFL’s officiating crew.

Upset by what he perceived to be a bad offside call on Pittsburgh guard Isaac Seumalo that wiped a 55-yard Chris Boswell field goal off the board and a non-call for roughing the passer, Johnson said the referees were “killing us the whole game” and that they “must have gotten paid good today or something.”

“They were calling some stupid stuff,” Johnson said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They should get fined for making terrible calls. That’s how pissed I am. They cost us the game. I don’t care what anybody says. They cost us the game. They wanted them to win. They were calling everything in their favor. They were getting every little call.”

Whether the officials blew the game for the Steelers or not, the league is not going to be happy at all about the implication that its referees are on the take, especially with all of the sensitivity about the NFL’s ever-increasing ties with legalized sports gambling.

Johnson, who finished the game catching passes from backup Mitch Trubisky after Pickett left the game with a rib injury in the second half, may have had a point about the refs making bad calls, but hinting that they were getting paid off to do so is going to end up costing him, not them, money. Fined by the NFL for taunting last week in Pittsburgh’s game against the Rams, Johnson should expect to receive another bill in his locker from the league this week and chances are he’s going to owe substantially more cash.

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Will Levis just made Ryan Tannehill totally expendable

Selected out of Kentucky with the second pick of the second round in April’s draft, Will Levis became the seventh rookie quarterback to start in the first eight weeks of this season when he took the field on Sunday against the Falcons after Tennessee ruled out No. 1 QB Ryan Tannehill on Friday with a sprained right ankle.

Known for putting mayonnaise in his coffee as a superstition, Levis made Tannehill’s potential return somewhat of an afterthought as he carved up the Falcons for four touchdowns as the Titans rolled to a 28-23 win over Atlanta. Just the third NFL player in history with four passing touchdowns in his first career game, Levis completed 19 of 29 passes for 238 yards in the win. With four touchdowns in one game, Levis already has thrown for two more scores than Tannehill threw for in Tennesee’s first six games. Levis also has six fewer interceptions than his veteran colleague.

With the Titans scheduled to play Thursday Night Football this week against the Steelers, Tannehill’s ankle sprain will almost certainly keep him sidelined against Pittsburgh as Tennesee has no incentive to rush him back on a short week in his age-35 season if he’s at anything less than 100%. Even if Tannehill were healthy, the Titans would have to think long and hard about letting Levis start again as he may be their future at the quarterback position — and there’s only one way to find out.

Tannehill, who has largely exceeded expectations during his time in Tennesee, is almost certainly not going to be back with the Titans, regardless of what happens this season as the franchise appears headed for a rebuild with star running back Derrick Henry about to turn 30 and head coach Mike Vrabel in the midst of his sixth season with the team.

Obviously drafted as a candidate to replace Tannehill in 2024, he would be better served being able to develop during the second half of the season starting games for a team that is not really expected to contend for a playoff spot. If they do and Levis is one of the reasons for it, all the better. And if the Titans can deal Tannehill for future assets before the trade deadline tomorrow afternoon — Minnesota could certainly be in the market for a veteran QB after losing Kirk Cousins — that’d be even more icing on the cake.

“We owe it to the team to make sure we listen diligently to anyone that would call on any of our players regardless of player, person or position just to make sure we’re doing right by the team,” Vrabel said of Tennessee’s deadline strategy.

Traded or not, Tannehill is the past. Levis might not be the future in Tennesee, but the Titans should do their best to find out by starting him for the rest of the season starting with Thursday night’s game against the Steelers.

Sam Howell is flying under the radar in Washington

Losers of five of their last six games after dropping a tough one to the Eagles on Sunday afternoon in Maryland, the Commanders are expected to be sellers at the trade deadline and could move on from impending free-agent defensive ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young, either of whom could fetch a substantial return for Washington’s football team.

The possibility of a fire sale in D.C. has diverted some of the attention that second-year quarterback Sam Howell should be receiving after completing 39 of 52 passes for a career-high 397 yards and four TDs against a Philadelphia defense that is regarded as one of the best in the NFL. Howell, who did have an interception in the loss, spread the ball around to nine different targets against the Eagles, connecting with targets including Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, Logan Thomas and Jamison Crowder.

A 2022 fifth-round pick, Howell appeared in only one game as a rookie, but performed well enough that the Commanders felt comfortable enough with his ceiling to let him compete to be Washington’s starting QB during the preseason. Considered somewhat of an NFL longshot, Howell was able to beat out veteran Jacoby Brissett for the gig. The Commanders should be glad he did as Howell is quietly having himself a very nice season and is actually putting up numbers that are fairly similar to what Patrick Mahomes is doing to start the season in Kansas City.

No one is saying Howell is the next Mahomes or even that he’s a can’t-miss quarterback at this point in his career, but the North Carolina product does deserve some credit and props for what he’s doing so far in Washington. If Howell was doing what he’s doing in New York instead of D.C., he’d be a sensation. As is, he’s a side story. For now.

“Sam is in the process where he’s having an opportunity to start on a weekly basis,” Washington offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said before Week 8. “We [are] evaluating everything that he’s doing, still seeing him making some improvements, certain things he’s not improving upon, but we’re going to keep assessing everything as we continue moving forward.” Based on Howell’s performance in Week 8, that assessment should be a positive one.

Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce need to get serious

Winners of six in a row after dropping their season opener to the Lions, the Chiefs headed to Denver to take on the one-win Broncos, a team they hadn’t lost to since 2015. With Patrick Mahomes, who was undefeated in six previous starts in Denver, unable to brush off the effects of what were deemed to be flu-like symptoms, Kansas City suffered a 24-9 loss to the Broncos on Sunday to fall to 6-2 on the season, tied with Dolphins and Ravens for the best record in the AFC.

With the defending champion Chiefs off to somewhat of a shaky start given the high standards they’ve set for themselves, it’s fair to question whether Mahomes might have had a better chance of shaking off his flu-like symptoms on Sunday had he not been at the opening game of the World Series with Taylor Swift’s buddy Travis Kelce on Friday night.

There’s no way to know for sure if the symptoms Mahomes, who showed up to the stadium feeling ill and out of sorts before Sunday’s loss, was experiencing in Denver had anything to do with where and how he spent his Friday night, but it’s hard not to think all the extra travel and lack of downtime didn’t have at least some negative effect on him.

Unfortunately for Mahomes and the Chiefs, there’s plenty of extra travel on the way as Kansas City will be heading to Germany in Week 9 to take on the Miami Dolphins in a game that will give the winner the inside track to locking up the top seed in the conference. Kansas City will go on their bye week following Sunday morning’s game vs. the Dolphins, at which point Kelce is reportedly set to attend Switf’s “Eras Tour” in Argentina once she gets back on the road in November. For those keeping score at home, that’d be three continents in just over 15 days for Kelce before the Chiefs take on the Eagles, who are 7-1 and eager to avenge their Super Bowl loss, in Kansas City if everything goes as planned.

Given how successful Mahomes and Kelce have been during their time together in Kansas City, it’s difficult to be too critical of their training and preparation methods during game weeks. But, if the Chiefs lose on the road in Germany and then drop a home game to the Eagles, expect those training and preparation methods to come under a lot more scrutiny because KC’s offense looked under the weather with Mahomes sick. Hopefully Mahomes will have plenty of time to recover from his bug while watching the World Series on the team’s international flight to Frankfurt.

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