On Fridays during each week of the NFL season, Tiebreaker.com will take a look at what we believe to be the five most interesting storylines for that weekend’s games.
It could be about a player, a team, maybe a trend that’s developed over time that might impact a matchup. In other words, we’ll be fluid, reacting to what has happened in the league and what might be coming next.
Mahomes back sooner than expected
Football coaches are famous for keeping certain pieces information to themselves. Most of it relates to the availability of injured players. Why would a coach allow an opponent to game plan by publicly announcing a player whose availability is questioned would play.
Those kinds of games had been played in Kansas City this week about the status of quarterback Pat Mahomes, who injured his kneecap three weeks ago and has missed the Chiefs last two games.
Even though Mahomes returned to practice on Thursday and showed great freedom of movement, the Chiefs would not say if their leader would return on Sunday against the Titans.
“I think it does give us a competitive edge because (the opponent) has no idea who’s playing and we’re still waiting to see exactly what’s going to take place this week,” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy told The Athletic on Thursday.
But the charade finally ended on Friday when Chiefs coach Andy Reid announced Mahomes will start on Sunday against the Titans.
“We knew how we’ve kind of been doing the whole process of the injury in general is just seeing how I felt every single day,” Mahomes told reporters on Friday. “I knew I had a chance once I kind of talked to those doctors and they said that as long as I was functioning well, moving well, that I could play this week. Coach Reid still wanted me to take it day by day. So I went out here and practiced, and took the reps and I haven’t had any pains or any setbacks.
“And so, as long as we keep going with that, I’m glad to be back out there.”
Mahomes hadn’t spoken about his progress since the injury, but if you saw him jumping around after Harrison Butker’s game-winning field goal last week you’d say he looked just fine.
“That was a pretty good jump there at the end of the game,” Titans coach Mike Vrabel. “He’s got a pretty good vertical.”
Next up for the 49ers – Russell Wilson
It seems a lot of people around the NFL are waiting for the 49ers to fail, wondering when their carriage turns back into a pumpkin after their first 8-0 start since the 1990.
Most assume their first loss is imminent as they prepare to play their division rival, the Seahawks, at home on Monday night.
To this point, the 49ers defense has responded to every challenge. Their 20-7 win over the defending NFC champion Rams on Oct. 13, was their clarion call. But this week, San Francisco looks across the line of scrimmage at perhaps the most on-point quarterback in the league this season, the indomitable Russell Wilson.
Talk about the league’s MVP this season has pretty much centered of Wilson and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey. Different strokes for different folks. But it’s clear no offensive player has had more of profound impact than Wilson.
He has the league’s best passer rating (118.2) thanks to his ridiculously cool touchdown-interception ratio – 22 to 1. And to this point, Wilson has produced 76 percent of his team’s 3,555 total yards.
It’s going to be up to Wilson because Seattle’s defense has been porous. It’s ranked 25th and has not been able to generate much quarterback pressure (15 sacks). And remember, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is coming off a game against Arizona during which he had four touchdown passes.
“Playing against him for three years, you sometimes feel like you know his escape routes and stuff like that and he’ll still end up making you miss,” Seahawk DeForest Buckner told The Athletic. “I missed a couple last year on him. I still think about that. I was watching film on him last night; some of those you wish you’d get back.”
Browns ready to welcome Hunt
While not as bad as the 0-16 and 1-15 seasons that once defined them, this season has not been very satisfying for the Cleveland Browns. Aside from the penalties and off-the-field antics that point to their lack of discipline, the biggest problem they’ve had is getting their offense moving.
On Sunday against the Bills, the Browns will certainly welcome the return of halfback Kareem Hunt, who just completed serving an six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
“I’ve been able to stay on top of things, thinking before you act, and not reacting to little things and just keep your emotions to yourself. … Kinda settled down a little bit more,” Hunt said this week. “I’m under a microscope. I’m not trying to put anything in jeopardy. I had a lot of time to think about ‘If I get in this situation, how am I going to handle this? If I get in this situation, how am I going to handle that? This happened, how am I going to handle that?'”
Hunt hasn’t played since the Kansas City Chiefs released him last November after video surfaced showing him kicking a woman in a dispute at a Cleveland hotel. Hunt was the 2017 NFL rushing champ with the Chiefs. Now he’ll join forces with the Browns talented halfback Nick Chubb to fortify a running game ranked second in the NFL (100.4 yards per game.
Jackson and Ravens on the run
Coming off his spectacular game in the Ravens win over the Patriots last week, during which he rushed for 61 yards and two touchdowns, quarterback Lamar Jackson is one of the big reasons his team leads the NFL with an average of 204.9 yards a game.
Mark Ingram, signed as a free agent during the offseason, added another 150 yards on the ground as the Ravens amassed 210 yards, their seventh game this season with at least 150 yards rushing.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s 637 rushing yards are the most by a quarterback through the first eight games of a season in league history.
If Baltimore rushes for a least 150 again on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, they will become the first team since the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers – and just the sixth overall – to rush for at least 150 in eight of a team’s since the merger in 1970.
Overall, Baltimore has rushed for 1,639 yards – the most rushing yards through a team’s first eight games since the 2006 Atlanta Falcons and the sixth-most through a team’s first eight games of a season since 1970.
Keep in mind that when the Ravens first played the Bengals in Week 6, they gained 269 yards on the ground.
Murray and McCaffrey soaring
Arizona’ Kyler Murray leads all NFC rookies in passing yards (2,229) and passer rating (89.2) while ranking second among all league quarterbacks with 313 rushing yards. Earlier in the season, he became just the second quarterback in league history to pass for at least 300 yards in each of his first two career games.
Murray needs 271 yards passing Sunday at Tampa Bay to join Deshaun Watson, Cam Newton and Daunte Culpepper as the only quarterbacks in league history with at least 2,500 yards passing and 250 rushing yards in their first 10 starts.
McCaffrey leads the league with 1,244 scrimmage yards through eight games with the Panthers. Only McCaffrey and legendary Hall of Famer Jim Brown have ever gained at least 150 yards from scrimmage and scored at least one touchdown in six of their team’s first eight games.
If McCaffrey can get another 156 scrimmage yards on Sunday in Green Bay, he’ll join Brown, O.J. Simpson and Larry Brown as the only rushers in league history with at least 1,400 in the first nine games of the season.